Main character: Buck
The papers said that Roscoe Hollis was 19, but looked younger. They said he was a farm boy, known for his good looks and charm, and had not been seen frequenting the saloon to excess. He arrived in Rock Creek with his handsome face bruised and his hands in cuffs. It was hard to believe that anyone would think him younger than he was, but then the papers tended to exaggerate. After three months on the run, his charm seemed to have worn thin, and he was sullen and angry. He breathlessly told Teaspoon he wasn't Hollis, spitting accusations at the Deputy who accompanied him. Teaspoon saw no reason to believe him.
Especially not with Deputy Marshal Mike Green, a black eye, a loose tooth, and the yarn spinning talents of Cody, telling them all about Hollis' escape attempt. Mike had a letter from San in his pocket and a shiny badge on his chest. He laughed easily and Teaspoon understood instantly why Sam would trust him with such a tricky job. It was in his eyes, which were steady and bright; this was a man to be trusted.
"Do you have to sing?" After half a day in the saddle, Buck had grown tired of Mike's jovial disposition.
"You're either gonna have to listen to me singin' or that yahoo mumbling," the young deputy leaned back in his saddle as though they were on a leisurely Sunday drive, "Or you could talk some yourself. You're what they call close-mouthed, Mr. Cross." Buck did not reply and Mike lit a cigarette, eyeing the temporary deputy with curiosity, "It's a good three days to Laramie, Chief, a little conversation might make the time pass faster."
"Don't call me that," Buck said icily. Mike began to sing again. Buck looked at their prisoner warily. Hollis rode between them, his mount's lead tied to Mike's saddle. So far he hadn't given much of a fight, but Mike had barely gotten him to Rock Creek and both men were a little worse for the experience.
Abruptly Mike stopped singing, "Do you ever smile, Mr. Cross?"
Buck scowled at him, "You could just call me Buck."
"That ain't answerin' the question."
Buck spurred his horse a little ahead and did not respond. Mike ran out of songs a few hours later.
They camped in some cottonwoods near a spring that ran fast and cool. Hollis had been quiet for most of the afternoon, which Buck took as a bad sign. The outlaw stared at him across the fire, a look without hostility but steady and powerful, as though he could communicate by his gaze alone.
"What exactly did you do to end up like this, Hollis?" Buck finally asked.
Hollis answered without taking his eyes off Buck. "Better ask him," he said with a nod of his head in Mike's direction.
Mike sputtered through the coffee he was drinking; the question had caught him off guard. "He killed a man."
Buck sighed in frustration, "That's usually the case when they hang a man for murder. Who'd he kill?"
"Well," Mike looked down at his coffee and spoke a little nervously, "I can't say I blame him none. He did the world a service if you ask me. Kurt Taylor ain't worth gettin' hung over."
"Kurt Taylor, the gunfighter?" Buck had seen the man once in Blue Creek, and he doubted anyone could have brought him down in a fair fight.
"Yup," Mike answered, his tone solemn, "Shot him in cold blood; while the man was gettin' a shave."
Buck looked back at Hollis, who shook his head and chuckled bitterly. "But why?" Buck asked.
"I don't know exactly," Mike snapped back.
"You'd know better'n me," growled Hollis.
Mike grabbed Hollis collar roughly, "You just keep your mouth shut, son, or I'll see you don't make it to Laramie." Hollis responded with the same chuckle, and he looked to Buck with eyes that lacked the fierceness of a cold-blooded killer.
"Leave him alone, Mike," Buck said, pulling the deputy away.
"I don't like his mouth," Mike spat, rubbing at his jaw, the two-day bruise there still purple and black.
"Well, I'm not too fond of yours either," Buck answered, locking eyes with Mike until the other deputy started to chuckle.
Mike laughed and sat down again, lit still another cigarette, "Y'know, Chief, you ain't a bad sort." The fire burned down in silence, and Buck raked the coals before lying back on his bed roll. Hollis was snoring, and in the dark night Buck could still see the orange glow of Mike's cigarette. The cigarette was still lit when Buck finally fell asleep.
"I'm not Roscoe Hollis," a voice hissed into Buck's ear, shattering his sleep and he awoke to a rough hand clamped over his mouth.
Buck struggled to shout and then to sit up. Hollis slammed his shoulders back to the earth and Buck let out a grunt as the wind was knocked out of him. Mike sprang up and jumped over what remained of the fire. "Listen to me, dammit!" the prisoner shouted. Mike's colt came crashing down and Hollis fell to the dirt. They got an early start that morning.
"Do you have to sing?" Buck muttered.
Deputy Green sighed and lapsed into silence. They rode into the mouth of a box canyon and the horse's hooves echoed against the stony walls. A songbird was singing, its voice piercing and shrill. Buck stayed quiet, lost in thought; Deputy Green watched him and Roscoe Hollis watched Green with a wary eye. The trail was wide but the scrub and pine on either side was thick and Buck pulled up short at the sight of movement within it.
"Can't go on without my musical accompaniment, eh?" chuckled Mike before Buck silenced him with a glare and a gesture towards an ill-defined shape in the thicket. Buck reached slowly for his gun. The shot echoed in the canyon at a deafening volume and Buck felt himself slip from the saddle.
Through a funnel of dark pines the blue sky spun dizzily and seemed to shatter when he hit the ground. Buck closed his eyes. He was dimly aware of a searing pain in his chest, of a sticky warmth puddling there. He heard bird song and a voice saying, "Why'd you shoot that one? He never did anything to me. That other one knocked a tooth loose!"
Buck woke with a gasp, harsh pain radiating through his body from his sudden breath. His hand went instinctively to the pain in his chest and he felt a bandage tightly wound round him. The kaleidoscope images he'd last seen came rushing back to him and fit together like pieces in a puzzle. The trees were gone, the sky, and bird song; he was inside, it was warm and dim and he did not recognize the room.
"Have a good sleep, Chief?"
"Don't call me that," Buck glared at the barely visible outline of Deputy Marshal Mike Green, where he sat in a chair near the bed.
"Suit yourself, Hoss," said Mike with a shrug and lit a cigarette, the match flame lighting his face and briefly casting shadows on the wall.
Buck forced himself to sit up. "Where are we?" he asked with a groan.
"Whoa, there, you best stay still for awhile; that ain't just a nick you got there," Mike leaned over to fluff the pillows behind Buck's back, blowing smoke in his face.
Buck choked, causing even more pain. "How long have we been here?"
"A few days."
"A few days? Where's Hollis? He should've been in Laramie by now," Buck made as if to get up but both pain and Mike's hands on his shoulders stopped him.
"Don't worry 'bout Hollis; he's alright."
"I don't care if he's alright," Buck grumbled, "last I knew a friend of his was picking us off in that canyon. Would you mind telling me what's happened since then?"
Mike hemmed and hawed but gave no answer. A door opened and lantern light flooded in. A huge silhouette stood in the doorway. "Hey, Roscoe, spare a couple dollars for some dinner?" a rough voice asked.
Buck looked at Mike, "Roscoe?" Blurry images from the canyon played across his mind. The shooter stepping out of the trees and recognizing the other deputy and not the prisoner they had with them.
"You're awake?" the rough voice said as the figure stepped further into the room.
"Well, yeah, he's pretty delirious though, probably won't remember much," Mike said nervously.
"Let the injun speak for himself, Roscoe."
"Roscoe?" Buck's eyes narrowed at the deputy, "You're Roscoe Hollis?"
The huge figure came all the way into the room, shutting the door behind him. "Doesn't sound delusional. This plan's shot; should've let him die." The man reached down for his gun and meticulously checked to see it was loaded. "Sorry, injun, sure hate to shoot a man more than once," he leveled the gun at Buck and winked, "waste of lead."
"No, now Joe, don't be so trigger happy," Mike, or was it Roscoe, stood between the two men. "I told you he knows Marshal Cain and Marshal Hunter. I don't want that sort of heat on our tail, do you?"
Joe grunted and re-holstered his gun, "Well, what in the hell are we goin' to do with him? Don't sound like he still buys your story 'bout bein' a deputy."
"Not anymore," muttered Roscoe, sitting back down.
"If you're Hollis, where's Deputy Green?" Buck felt confused and dizzy, his chest ached and he knew he could put up no fight against them if they chose to do him harm.
"He's fine," Roscoe said with a sigh, "He's on his way to Laramie with Jake Coulter."
"Coulter!" Buck closed his eyes and concentrated on making the last few minutes make sense.
"'Course, Jake still thinks he's Roscoe Hollis, but that situation'll right itself before anyone hangs," Roscoe puffed on his cigarette and looked at Buck anxiously, "Won't it?"
Joe spoke up again, "Look, Roscoe, we can't just wait around here 'till that Sheriff gets even nosier; we got to deal with the current situation." He nodded at Buck ominously.
"Joe, ye're s'posed to be keepin' an eye on things," Roscoe said wearily. "We'll be movin' on just as soon as I think we can, alright?" The larger man nodded slowly, and left the room. "You are causing me a lot of trouble, here, Mr. Cross," Roscoe grumbled as he stubbed his cigarette out on the floor. Buck said nothing in response. "Don't guess you have any brilliant ideas as to how we can solve our current problem?"
"What problem is that?" Buck growled.
"Now, don't be gettin' cranky now. I didn't think it right to just leave you out on the trail bleeding like that, so Joe and I brought you into town here and told them that Roscoe Hollis had gotten away along with some friends of his that had shot you. Sheriff ain't wanted Joe or I to leave until they track down the fellas that done it, so we've been stuck here or else we raise suspicion. Now you know who I am, if we lit outta town, you'd go blabbing to every man Jack and likely try to follow yourself. So we're stuck, see. And any day now word's gonna come back from Laramie that Deputy Mike Green got brought in as the outlaw Roscoe Hollis and everything'll be shot straight to hell." Buck grunted in pain as he moved to get up. "Hey, now, Chief, don't be moving so much. How you feelin' anyway? You look like hell."
"Well, I don't feel much different," Buck groaned. He stared at the ceiling. He didn't know where his gun was. If he made a run for it, he'd have to get by Roscoe and probably Joe, and from the feel of things he wouldn't be moving very fast. The odds weren't good. He sighed, resigned to staying under Hollis' watchful eye. For now.
When he woke again, the room was dark but for the familiar orange spark at the end of Roscoe's cigarette. "You been here the whole time?" Buck asked with irritation.
"Can't rightly trust Joe with you," Roscoe answered with a shrug, "He's gettin' antsy."
"I don't blame him. It doesn't make much sense to stay here." Buck said, sitting up in painful increments.
"There's somethin' my uncle once told me," Roscoe said, "when he was teaching me and my brother to cheat at cards, 'You don't have to run if nobody's chasin' you.' Right now, Joe and I are sittin' pretty. The minute we leave this town, with you still outta commission, and the sheriff his very own self asking us to stay, we got trouble on our heels." Roscoe rolled his cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, watching the lit tip twirl in the air. "I been on the run for three months now. Joe's been helpin' me out, but we're 'bout at the end of our rope."
"Maybe you should turn yourself in, then," Buck offered.
Roscoe laughed, "Then I'll be at the end of my rope literally." He paused and ran a hand across his brow, the worry and exhaustion evident in the gesture. "I ain't much of an outlaw, Deputy Cross. I was born on a farm, and I expected to die on it too. I don't know much about this dodgin' the law business."
"You shot a man in cold blood; what did you expect?" Buck muttered.
"Kurt Taylor deserved what he got," Roscoe spat bitterly, "He killed my brother."
"Was it a fair fight?"
Roscoe laughed and the sound was harsh and cold. "Well, there's fair and then there's fair, isn't there Chief?" He stubbed out his cigarette with vicious intensity. "Jarred was fourteen. Just cause he had a gun out don't make it a fair fight to my mind. And the law wouldn't do nothin' to Taylor. Said he'd acted within his rights, never even put him before a judge." He stood up and stalked toward the room's one tiny window. The moonlight outside filtered in and caught his face in its gray light. Roscoe pounded against the window frame, his jaw clenched to keep his voice from catching. "You know what it's like to play by the rules and then find out there ain't any rules after all? To have to make your own justice 'cause there's no one who gives a damn -" His voice halted raggedly, and he turned his head, hit the window frame again to hide the way his shoulders were shaking. He turned his back on Buck, "You wouldn't understand."
"I might," Buck whispered, not caring that his own voice broke on the lump in his throat. His hand rested on his chest, remembering a similar bandage on a different wound and the blind fury that had filled his heart when another heart had stopped beating. "It didn't make you feel any different though, did it?" he asked, the question posed with wonderment as though the idea were a difficult to believe truth.
"No," Buck agreed. He knew his chest was hollow; the bullet a few days ago had passed through nothing but air, for there was nothing left there. His physical pain diminished and he rolled onto his side, ignoring the protests of his body.
In the morning, Buck's breathing was generally untroubled by his injury. He woke up late, feeling a hint of his old strength running through his blood. Roscoe was asleep in his chair, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lip. He looked very young. Buck pulled back the covers, suppressing a groan as he swung his legs off of the bed. His clothes were nicely piled atop a dresser beside the bed, his boots were propped against the wall and his knife and gun were missing. In silence he pulled on his pants and reached for his boots standing sentinel against the wall. He pulled on one and started on the other, when he heard the metallic click of a gun being cocked. He turned around slowly to look at Roscoe. The unlit cigarette still hanging from his lip, Roscoe stared at him unblinking, his gun leveled at Buck's heart.
"You ain't well enough to be up and about, Chief."
"Don't call me that," Buck muttered through gritted teeth.
"Where was you thinkin' of going?" Roscoe asked, his eyes and gun unwavering.
Buck sighed and sat back against the headboard, one boot off and one on. "How long are you going to keep me prisoner, Hollis? Sooner or later somebody's going to come lookin' for me, or they'll realize it wasn't you that ended up in Laramie. Wouldn't it be easier to just let me walk you to the sheriff's office and take your chances in court than to wait for them to come after you shooting?"
Roscoe stood up and with his free hand struck a match against the sole of Buck's boot. He lit his cigarette, and took several drags looking at Buck with incomprehensible eyes. "I'm surprised you'd say that after our little heart to heart last night." Buck grimaced in pain, but only he knew if it came from his physical wound or something deeper. "I don't get the feeling, Deputy Cross, that you've seen your day in court for your own mistakes," Roscoe smiled good naturedly and stared at Buck.
Buck could not meet his eyes nor say anything in his own defense. Roscoe holstered his gun and sat back in his chair. The two men sat in wary silence, neither certain how much the other could be trusted.
"They're here!" a voice shouted. Heavy footsteps came from outside the door and Roscoe jumped up again, grabbing for his gun and leveling it at the door.
The door burst open and Joe's huge frame came bounding into the room. "Marshal Hunter and Marshal Cain are at the Sheriff's. Cain knows his deputy was turned in in Laramie as Roscoe Hollis, Hunter knows the injun's here hurt, and they're addin' two and two together awful fast."
"Get the horses," Roscoe ordered. Joe went bounding back out the office. "Well, Chief, this is the end of the road. You're a surprisin' fella, Deputy Cross. I'm glad to have known ya." He stuck out his hand towards Buck.
At first Buck only shook Roscoe's hand. It wasn't until he tried to pull away that Buck gave a sharp tug and jerked the outlaw towards him. Buck grabbed Roscoe's gun from his holster with his free hand. Roscoe stared at him in shock, his mouth opening and closing, for once speechless.
From the front of the doctor's office came a commotion of footsteps and raised voices. Buck was distracted enough for Roscoe to dash out the door. Buck pulled on his second boot in a moment and followed him, just in time to see Roscoe run like hell out the back door and Teaspoon come charging down the hall from the front.
Buck ignored the burning in his chest as he ran after Roscoe. The outlaw was always two steps ahead, slipping through doorways and turning down alleys. Teaspoon quickly fell behind, and Buck kept chasing Roscoe through to the bad end of town where glassy-eyed drunks looked out of grimy windows.
He caught up with Roscoe Hollis in a narrow alley between a brothel and an undertaker. He cocked Hollis' gun and shouted, "Stop right there." Buck gasped for air, his chest shuddering with effort.
Roscoe looked at him, his arms raised in surrender, but his eyes still smiling. Buck inhaled deeply to shout for Teaspoon and a dozen rusty nails seemed to pierce his chest as he did. He let the point of his pistol drop, "Get out of here, Roscoe."
Roscoe stared at him, his eyes wide, and his face breaking into a grin. "You sure?"
"Go on, get. Go, before I change my mind." Buck leaned back against the wall, his free hand self consciously over his wound.
Roscoe started toward him with a look of concern, "You gonna be alright?" A clatter of hooves and Joe rode up at the other end of the alley, leading Roscoe's horse.
"I'm fine, now go!" Buck whispered urgently and Roscoe ran to the horses. Yelling could be heard from the alleys they'd just passed through and Buck knew they'd be found within minutes. He waited until Joe and Roscoe were well on their way before shouting, "Teaspoon! Over here!"
Sam and the Sheriff pursued Roscoe and Joe to a river bed south of town, but darkness fell quickly and with the scrub cover and rocky ground they lost them. Buck felt well enough to track the next afternoon but by then the trail, he said, had gone cold. It was clear to Teaspoon that his injury was slowing him down, for he had seen Buck pick up a trail far colder than Hollis' and concern for the rider had him and Sam calling off the posse early and conceding defeat.
Some years later, a handsome and charming hand signed on at the Little I ranch outside of Rock Creek. The other hands, who were somewhat in awe of the ranch's owner, a quiet and usually solemn fellow, were flabbergasted with the new arrival's habit of referring to the boss as "Chief", more so that Mr. Cross didn't seem to mind. They vaguely understood that the new man and the boss had met before, and occasional mentions were made of one saving the other's life, though no one knew for certain who had done the saving and who had been saved. No one would ask the boss for the details, for he was a man who kept to himself. In the bunkhouse, over card games and whiskey bottles, the question would invariably come up. The new man, Hollis, would shrug them off, until worn down by their persistence he said cryptically, "When I was 18 my little brother was killed; when I was 19 I got an older one to replace him."