"How is he doing?" Buck leaned against the door and looked at the room's two occupants; Manolito Montoya, his lover, lying still as death under a white linen sheet, and Victoria Cannon, née Montoya, Mano's sister and Buck's sister-in-law.
"He is sleeping." Victoria smiled tiredly. "His fever is not so bad now."
Buck walked over to stand behind her shoulder, feeling every minute of his years, and bone weary after what had seemed like the longest ride of his life this afternoon. Manolito looked peaceful enough, but his face was sheened with sweat and his brows furrowed with pain.
As Victoria leaned over her brother to replace the damp cloth on his forehead, Buck took the fresh cloth from her hand. "Get some rest Victoria. I'll watch him for a while."
"But you carried him all that way..." Victoria looked up at him and her protest died on her lips.
"I've had some rest since then. Mano might need you tomorrow. Go to bed."
There was no one, not John, not Mano, and certainly not Buck, who could tell Victoria what to do if she chose to decide otherwise, but after a moment's consideration she nodded and rose, gathering her skirts away from Buck's feet. "You will take good care of my brother." It was a command, not a statement of trust.
"Just returning the favour." Buck grinned. Big John wouldn't care to hear that, but Victoria merely smiled again and turned towards the door.
Buck sat in the vacated chair and studied his charge. It was unusual to see Mano so still. Even in his sleep he was often restless, but now he lay unmoving, sweat dampened hair clinging to his face, his aquiline nose sharply defined against drawn cheeks. He stroked back a few strands and laid the damp cloth over Mano's forehead.
It was going to be a long night. What rest Buck had managed tonight consisted of lying on his bed, restless and unsleeping, counting the hours until he could come to Mano's room to relieve Victoria. Until today he had assumed that he would be the one to die first; he could give Mano twenty years, and this land was not kind to a man's body, or forgiving of mistakes. He'd forgotten what danger a brave and arrogant young man could bring on himself in a fit of gallantry.
Of course if Buck hadn't made that rash promise, and then felt honour bound to carry it through… and if Mano hadn't followed him… he should have known that Mano would follow him. He would never have allowed Mano to go into danger alone. It was too late now for regrets and second guessing, but Buck knew that he would carry the memory of this day for the rest of his life.
Buck leaned back in the chair, his body aching almost as much as his heart. Buck had never felt prouder of Mano than he had today. His courage and determination had been the slender thread by which both their lives, and the life of an innocent girl, had hung; he'd faced torture and a gruelling ride without flinching, struggling to stay on horseback; he who rode as though he'd been born in the saddle. Only after help had arrived to save them all had Mano allowed his injuries to overcome him.
It had been a small price for Buck to pay, to carry Mano before him on his horse, no matter how badly his arms and shoulders had complained. Slim as he was, Mano was no lightweight, but Buck would not have relinquished his care to anyone else for any reason. His only comfort had been the continued beating of Mano's heart against his chest, and the gasping breaths that confirmed that Mano was still alive. When they arrived at last at the High Chaparral, Buck had had to force himself to hand Mano over to the women against every instinct that screamed that he should be the one to tend to his lover's wounds.
There was a quiet rustling sound from the bed and Buck's eyes snapped open. He hadn't been aware of sleeping, but a sour taste in his mouth and the blurriness of his vision told him otherwise. Mano was still sleeping, but close to the surface, perhaps from the pain of his wounds. The cloth that covered them was spotted with pink and nearly dry. Buck peeled it gently off and caught his breath at the angry weals crisscrossing the once smooth chest. Some of the deeper ones were still oozing blood and would leave scars. Holding back a curse with difficulty, Buck dipped the cloth into the basin of water and wrung it out, then laid it over the wounds again.
A quiet hiss told him that Mano was awake and Buck looked up quickly into heavy lidded eyes that were darker than usual with pain. He poured water from the jug onto a fresh cloth and wiped it across Mano's dry lips, then down his cheeks.
Mano's right hand came up and caught at his wrist. His throat worked a little. "Water."
"I'll get you some." Buck eased the clawing grip away and lowered Mano's arm to his side. "Lie still." He poured a couple of inches into a small glass and lifted Mano's head slightly. "Take it slow, compadre."
Two sips seemed to satisfy him and Mano smiled drowsily. "We are safe?"
"We're home. Olive's fine. All you have to do is get better." Buck stroked Mano's hair back, then bent over to kiss the parted lips.
Mano grinned. "I feel better already."
"Yeah?" They kissed again slow and easy, though Buck's heart had begun to pummel the inside of his ribs. He pulled away long enough to take a sip of water and trickle it between Mano's lips during their next kiss. "Why don't you get some sleep?"
Mano's hand came up again and Buck caught it between his own. "Buck… mì corazon… you know how I hate to sleep alone."
Buck ignored the plaintive tone. He'd heard it too many times before. It was a tone that had led him to spend many a night in Mano's room… which all too often resulted in his having to sneak perilously down no longer deserted hallways, after sleeping too long. But… mì corazon… 'my heart'… his heart was pounding in earnest now.
Mano had used a lot of endearments in his own language over the last six months, most of them in that teasing tone he used with beautiful women. He'd never used that particular one to anybody that Buck knew of. In fact, since they'd become lovers he'd hardly been near a woman. They'd ridden into Tucson a few times; it would have been noticed if they hadn't, but the women they'd taken upstairs in the saloon had been little more than decoys. Most of the time spent there, they'd been together, and alone. Buck hadn't allowed himself to think about what this meant to a young man who'd never been faithful to a woman for more than a few days, yet had been faithful to him for the last six months.
"Mano…" Buck wet lips gone suddenly dry. "You need to rest."
"So do you, compadre." Mano's eyes glinted devilishly, but he sighed. "And, alas, I am too weak to take advantage of you as I would wish to."
Buck could resist the pleading, but he couldn't resist the exhausted neediness that showed through the teasing words. He shrugged off his shirt and, at the expectant look in Mano's eyes, his pants and underwear, and slid into the bed, settling gingerly at his lover's side. The sensual lips trembled into a smile and the hooded eyelids drooped. Buck rolled onto his side and took a gentle hold on Mano's hand. The fingers tightened around his momentarily and relaxed again.
Three days could change a lot of things. Mano healed, faster than Buck would have imagined possible. The army sent a detachment to the High Chaparral and the tension between them and the Apache began to ease a little. The men were able to return, warily, to their proper work, and the two little girls, cosseted by Victoria and her women, were made ready for their trip to their relatives in the East.
After the girls had left, Buck looked down at Mano, sitting on the porch railing, and thought about what Mano had said just a few minutes before. 'The Apache have a saying ... when you ride the savage land, you are a part of it, and it is a part of you.' And when you love a savage heart, he thought, it becomes a part of your heart.