This Balance of Time
OW, All Seven
Disclaimers: Ten years later - and I think we can all agree that we do own the boys by now. After all, we're the ones keeping them alive, right?
Comments: Written for the anniversary challenge. All seven are here, but the main emphasis is on a slightly broken Vin, a heartbroken Buck, and their good friend Chris.
Warnings: Deaths of several minor characters. Some cursing.
"We have to go back, Vin. You know it."
"I ain't ever goin' back. And you know that."
"It's been long enough. It's time to let it go."
"Let it go? You think he's let it go?"
"Yeah, I do. Buck's not the kind of man to hold a grudge."
"Hold a grudge? That what you call it? You think he just woke up one mornin' and decided t' forget what happened? Forget her?"
"No. No, of course not. But . . . time goes on. Perspectives change."
"Yeah? That how you feel about Sarah, Chris? Your perspective changed much?"
Chris didn't answer. He just stood up and tossed what remained of his coffee into the fire. Sarah's name didn't stir him to anger like it once did, and he knew Vin was just kicking up a fight to mask his own pain. But he also knew nothing good would come out of any further conversation they might have that night.
"I'm going inside," he said. "I'll be leaving come morning. You can come along - or not."
Vin didn't reply, but Chris didn't expect him to. His stubborn friend would have to ponder long and hard all night long before he came to a decision. And Chris had no illusions about what that decision would probably be.
He couldn't say he blamed Vin; it would take a hell of a lot of courage for Tanner to show his face in Four Corners after six long years. But even after all that time, Chris couldn't turn his back on that town anymore than he could turn his back on Vin.
And he was damn tired of being torn in half. When the incident first happened, he'd been forced to choose between Buck and Vin. He'd stayed with Buck at first, but he quickly determined that the entire town would take care of his old friend. Vin, on the other hand, was on his own. Vin needed him, and that hadn't changed over the years. Even so, the pull of that backwater town was strong, and when JD's telegram arrived earlier that day, he just couldn't ignore it any longer.
Chris left the door open a crack as he went inside in case Vin decided to come to bed later. Vin had a hard time managing the heavy wooden door to their cabin while balancing the ever present rifle and his cane. Add in the extra whiskey he had consumed that night, and Tanner was likely to end up flat on his ass before he made it over the threshold. True to his character, Vin made out like he never had a problem with anything, but Chris knew otherwise, and that was why he never had left him, he never had gone back.
It worked out for both of them. Chris started up that horse ranch he'd always dreamed of, and most of the time, Vin was content to be his hired hand. Vin's injury frustrated him, but it never stopped the man from giving an honest day's work. Chris figured he could hire three younger, healthier men and not get the results he got from Vin.
And there was their enduring friendship, as well. He and Vin had become instant friends ten years ago when they met on that dusty street in that dirty town, and that hadn't changed as the decade passed. Vin still knew exactly what he was thinking - sometimes before he'd even gotten around to thinking it - and he was still the man he wanted at his back, whether they were fighting off horse thieves, dealing for a new stud, or fixing a fence.
But no matter how pleased Chris was with his life, the secret he'd kept weighed heavy on his shoulders. He'd done it to protect Buck's heart and Vin's pride, but maybe it was time to get it all out in the open and put the past behind them. JD's plea for help provided the perfect excuse to go back - if only he could get Vin to agree.
Buck's voice was calm, quiet - and deadly. JD knew when he'd crossed a line and this was a damn big one.
"Because we need their help, Buck."
"So that's how it is now? You go makin' decisions like this without even asking me how I feel about it?"
JD took a breath and said it all in one long string of words, "It's been six years now and it's time to put it behind us and you know as well as I do that we're in over our heads and I got a family to think about." He paused a moment before adding, "And besides, I miss 'em, Buck. I think about 'em every damn day."
Buck sighed. "Alright. Who'd you hear back from?"
"Well, Nathan, of course. He's still working at the reservation. He and Rain got two little ones, now. Guess you knew that."
"Considerin' Nathan comes to town at least once a month, yeah, JD, I reckon I knew that."
JD ignored the sarcasm and moved on. "Josiah and Ezra are both comin' from Phoenix. I can't believe Ezra's leavin' his ritzy hotel in Maude's hands."
"I reckon now that she and Josiah are married, he figures she'll behave."
That brought a grin to JD's still youthful features. "Kind of funny, ain't it? How that all worked out? Never thought she'd fall for Josiah, but I guess she couldn't resist that silver tongue forever."
"I guess if you could get Casey t' marry you, Kid, anything can happen," Buck teased.
Heartened by the good humor in Buck's voice, JD went on. "And I sent Chris a telegram. I ain't heard back, but I know he'll come."
"Might," Buck answered shortly, his spine stiff at just the mention of Chris's name.
"Don't know where Vin is," JD added then under his breath, though he knew Buck heard.
"Chris knows," Buck whispered. He turned and headed for the door, but he added one last thought before he left. "We're partners here, JD. I expect you to remember that from here on out."
JD merely nodded, though he knew Buck had his back to him. Well, it hadn't gone as badly as he thought it might. At least Buck was sort of receptive to the idea. Although his partner might just kill him when he found out that the situation had been exaggerated a little. Sure, Stuart James was making loud noises about taking him and Buck down once and for all, but after ten years of dealing with the arrogant old fool, JD wasn't exactly shivering in his boots. And he knew the only reason Buck was taking the threat seriously was because of the four beautiful, young women that just happened to be bounding through the jailhouse door at that very minute.
"Daddy!" two-year old Christine cried as she rushed to JD and demanded to be swept up in his arms. He obliged, of course, and repeated the same with his older daughter, three year-old Josephine. The newest addition to the family, Nettie Ann, was fast asleep in her mother's arms. JD took a moment to kiss her on the cheek before offering the same to Casey. He was still in shock that he'd somehow managed to spawn all girls, but he guessed he and Casey had plenty of time to even the score.
"Will you be home for dinner, JD?" Casey asked him then.
With four sets of big brown eyes looking at him, how could he say no? At least he had a home and a wife to go to, unlike Buck. JD shook his head sadly. It was amazing how quickly things could change; all it took was one stray bullet.
After loading up on medical supplies, Nathan kissed his family good-bye. If he and his friends were going into battle again, someone was bound to get hurt. But it would be good to see the boys again, even if he had to patch a few holes when all was said and done.
Rain had tears in her eyes, and the mournful look on his two young sons' faces just about stopped him in his tracks. What was he thinking? He was a family man now and a respected healer among the tribe. He had no business getting involved in a gunfight after all of these years. But if this brought his friends together again, it would be well worth the sacrifice. He never had quite forgiven himself for what happened that day. He should have done more - for Inez, for Buck, for Vin.
It had been so good for so long, that they had all but forgotten how dangerous their profession was. For over four years they guarded Four Corners together; four damn good years of brotherly bickering, playing, drinking, laughing, and loving - with a few tears and a fair share of blood mixed in. And it all came to a halt one terrible day.
Nathan didn't see it happen, but he heard it. He had been standing just outside the saloon when the shot was fired. Buck, Vin and Ezra were already inside, and the other men quickly came running. The first thing Nathan saw was a dead man lying in front of the bar, but he barely had time to register that fact when Buck began shouting for him at the top of his lungs. He'd never forget what happened after that, though he'd prayed a thousand times over that he would.
Inez was lying on the floor behind the bar, shot in the head. Nathan later learned that the dead man had pulled his gun on Vin, and Vin had returned fire. Ezra had quickly pulled Inez down behind the bar, easily out of firing range, but the bullet had passed straight through the man and ricocheted off the cash register behind him.
Nathan knew the moment he saw her that Inez was gone. But maybe her unborn child had a chance.
Pulling back on the reins, Nathan sucked in a breath as the memories of those horrible moments came back to him. Buck was completely out of control as he screamed for his wife. Reaching for his knife, Nathan instructed Ezra to get the hysterical man out from behind the bar. Josiah had arrived by then, so he and Ezra together managed to pull Buck away. Nathan remembered how his hands shook as he made the cut across Inez's broad belly, and how he blocked the thought from his mind that he was gutting a woman, his friend, in what would probably be a futile effort to save her child.
He was so focused that he paid no mind to Buck's ranting and the crash of furniture that followed. It wasn't until hours later that he learned Buck had picked Vin up and tossed him across the room. Vin had been hurt, too, pretty badly by all accounts. But Nathan never knew for sure, because he never saw Vin again.
Chris had hung around until Inez and her infant son were buried, but then he took off. Looking for Vin, they surmised, though no one said as much around Buck. Yosemite had finally come forward and confessed that he'd helped Vin saddle and mount his horse that night, but he had no idea where the man had gone. Tanner would be nearly impossible to find, so no one was surprised when Chris didn't come back to town until a month later. He said he'd found Vin, but he refused to offer anything more.
Nathan had hoped that Vin would eventually come back, but he never did. And within a few days of returning to town, Chris sold his place and moved on. Nathan himself permanently settled at the reservation that following year, soon after a "real" doctor arrived in town. Of course, Rain's acceptance of his proposal was added incentive.
Ezra was next, moving to Phoenix when he won a hotel there in a poker game. And when Josiah went there to visit him the following year, he didn't come back.
JD stayed on as the town's sheriff, Buck as his deputy, though it was a long time before Buck recovered enough to earn the title or the paycheck. No one minded, though. In fact, the entire town embraced their heartbroken peacemaker - all the good Buck so casually did for others over the years coming back to him tenfold.
Nathan spent the remainder of his trip to town lost in memories. He didn't see Buck or JD when he arrived, so he immediately went to the hotel and got a room. He had just unpacked his bag when he peered out the window and saw two horses riding into town. His heart leapt when he recognized the long black duster and easy slouch. Some things didn't change, after all, he thought with a soft chuckle.
Bounding down the stairs of the hotel, he was taken back for a moment when he didn't meet the two men out front. But a second glance revealed them heading directly for the livery. It seemed odd that they wouldn't dismount in town, but maybe they weren't ready to be noticed just yet.
Nathan, however, couldn't wait. He rounded the corner of the livery, just in time to see Chris help Vin off his horse. His first thought was that Vin had gotten hurt on the trip, but he quickly realized that wasn't the case. Chris eased Vin to the ground with graceful, well-practiced movements, as if he'd repeated the action often. And two thoughts quickly came to his mind: Vin had never fully recovered from that night, and the two friends had been together all this time.
He couldn't decide whether he was happy that at least the men were looking out for each other, or disgruntled that Chris had chosen to hide that fact. He'd gotten a letter every year from Larabee on his birthday, and never once had he mentioned Vin.
Vin was breathing hard, stooped at the waist with his hands on his knees, and Nathan was tempted to leap forward and assist him, but he was quickly engrossed in the ensuing conversation.
"Told you we should have taken another day. All that hard riding - it's too much for you," Chris huffed, obviously frustrated.
"Well maybe I should've stayed home if I'm too much damn trouble."
"I didn't say that, Vin."
"Just give me a minute. I'll be fine."
"Yeah, I know," Chris agreed as he reached up and untied something from the saddle.
Nathan was saddened to see what it was - a vision of Vin leaping from rooftops flitting through his mind.
"I don't need that," Vin snapped when he saw what Chris held in his hands.
"Just take it, Vin."
"No one will think anything of it. It's just a cane. Men get hurt all the time out here. It's not unusual."
"Easy fer you t' say. I don't want it. I'll be fine without it."
"You think they're not gonna notice when you fall flat on your face?"
"Please, Chris. I came like you asked. Don't make it . . . harder."
Chris backed down easily, which told Nathan a whole lot about the two men's continuing friendship. Give and take, but Vin had made the far greater sacrifice just stepping foot in town, and Chris knew it.
Sensing this was as good a time as any to break in, Nathan made a deliberately noisy entrance. "Well look what we have here! I thought I saw you two ride in."
"Nathan!" Chris greeted him with a genuine grin. He held his hand out, and Nathan gave it a vigorous shake.
"Sure is good to see you two," Nathan said, turning his gaze to Vin.
Vin seemed more interested in his feet, but Nathan wasn't going to give the man a chance to shy away. "I sure have missed you, Vin," he said softly, gently gripping the other man's shoulder.
"Missed you, too, Nathan," Vin rasped, finally raising his head to meet Nathan's eyes.
Taking a moment to drink in the sight of his long lost friends, Nathan noted that - unlike him and Buck who had developed a bit of a paunch - both men remained wiry and thin. Lines around their eyes marked the passing of time, but they looked remarkably the same with Vin still wearing his hair long and Chris still wearing black.
"Damn good to see you boys," Nathan said again.
"How about we find JD and Buck and do some catching up at the saloon?" Chris suggested. He aimed the question at Nathan, but his eyes slid to Vin, gauging his reaction.
Vin nodded slightly, and that was good enough. They left the livery with Vin between them, Nathan biting his tongue hard not to ask about the limp. Vin had been born with a deformity of his spine, but he couldn't help thinking that if only he'd known where Vin was after the accident, he might have been able to do something for him.
But then again, he'd been no help at all to Buck's family.
Buck knew the moment they hit the edge of town. It was like someone had reached inside him and wrapped a fist around his heart. He didn't blame Vin, he really didn't. But there was just so much stuff to work through, and now that Chris and Vin were in town, he didn't know if he had it in him. He stood at the window of the jailhouse watching their every move, but he couldn't seem to move himself.
It took the two men an awful long time to exit the livery, but then he noticed they'd joined up with Nathan, which probably explained the delay. Nathan and Chris were flanked on each side of Vin as they crossed the street, and Buck had to smile when he saw how small Tanner looked sandwiched between his much taller friends. The smile quickly faded, however, when he saw Vin stumble. Chris held on just long enough for Vin to right himself, and Vin never even flinched. It was like it . . . happened all the time.
"Buck? What are you staring at?"
"Chris and Vin are here," he answered, his throat dry as tinder.
"What? Really? Hot damn!" JD exclaimed as he rushed to the window. But his face fell when he watched the three men's progress. "Why are they walkin' so slow? Is Vin . . .? What's wrong with him?"
Buck couldn't have formulated an answer, even if he had one. He'd imagined this moment many times over the years, but now that it had come, he had no idea how to react. But if he needed more time to think it over, he wasn't going to get it. Chris, Vin, and Nathan stepped through the door at that moment, and JD let loose a whoop of joy.
As Buck expected, the first person JD went to was Vin. In fact, JD nearly knocked the man over as he wrapped his arm around his shoulders and gushed, "Damn, Vin! I didn't think you'd come! You sure are a sight for sore eyes! You, too, Chris," he added, grinning from ear to ear.
Chris nodded and smiled back, but then he turned his full attention to Buck. "Good to see you, Buck," he said in that low, steady tone he had.
It was far different than their reunion ten years before, but a lot had changed. Still, Buck never could stay mad at Chris, even when he had reason to. He smiled and shook Chris's outstretched hand. "You, too, Chris."
"Feels good bein' together again. Don't it, boys?" Nathan was almost giddy, and the feeling was contagious.
Buck laughed and said, "Yeah, it does." Knowing it would be up to him to take the first step with Vin, he looked straight at him and asked, "Don't it, Vin?"
Stillness settled swiftly over the small group as all the men waited for Vin's response.
There might have been tears in Vin's eyes, but he blinked them away rapidly and choked, "Yeah."
Funny how all this time, Buck thought he had so much to say to Vin., but it turned out that it was really simple after all. "It wasn't your fault, Vin," he said firmly, never taking his eyes off the younger man. "We're good."
Now he was sure Vin was fighting tears, but their former tracker was spared by JD. "Yeah, that's right. We're all good. What've you been doin' all this time, Vin? Where you been?"
"Uh . . . been working at a . . . at a ranch about a hundred miles north of here."
"My ranch," Chris cut in, making sure Buck understood.
"No kidding," Nathan said, acting surprised, though Buck suspected he wasn't at all. "Why don't we all get a drink and talk about it?"
"You three go on. Buck and I'll join you in a minute," Chris said.
JD and Nathan were pretty much talking over each other as they led Vin out the door. Chris casually moved towards the window; still looking out for Vin, worrying that his friend might not make it down the street, and suddenly Buck was gripped with the horrible realization that he just might be responsible for that.
Before he could ask, Chris quietly stated, "Thank you, Buck, for what you said to Vin. The size of your heart never ceases to amaze me."
"My heart ain't got nothin' to do with it, Chris. My head knows it was an accident. If I know Vin, he's been eatin' himself up over it for years now. It's time for both of us to move on."
Still looking out the window, Chris replied, "You're right on all accounts. But I reckon you're the only one who can make Vin believe it."
"Did I do that to him?"
Chris's silence was answer enough.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Buck gasped; sickened at the thought that he could permanently mar anyone, let alone a friend.
"You had enough to handle at the time." Chris finally turned from the window and met his eyes. "Besides, what happened that day was no more your fault than it was his."
"But . . . my God, I'm so sorry."
"He's always had problems with his back - might've happened anyway. Let it go, Buck. For his sake, as well as yours."
"I didn't even know," Buck replied. "Didn't remember doing it until JD let it slip a few months later. By then, you were long gone."
He couldn't keep the hurt out of his voice at that. He'd stuck by Chris when Sarah and Adam were lost; put up with Larabee's drunken fits of rage time and again. Buck wasn't even angry after Inez and his boy were buried, he just cried all the time. And it would have been nice to have his old friend there with him. He thought Chris - of all people - would understand.
Chris moved in front of him and put it all in place without even being asked. "I couldn't leave him, Buck. When I first found him, he'd run out of water and he couldn't even crawl to get more. All he'd say was how he should have let that bastard shoot him. Was a month before I felt safe leaving him alone with his gun. Took a few more months for him to get back on his feet and I-"
"You couldn't leave him. I get it."
"No, you don't," Chris said, gripping his forearm and forcing him to meet his eyes. "I thought about you every day. Ezra kept in touch, let me know how you were doing. He said the folks in town took real good care of you. Vin had . . . no one."
"He had you," Buck replied. "And it's alright, Chris. I mean that. It's alright."
His voice hoarse with emotion, Chris asked, "So we're good, too?"
"Yeah. We're good." Buck was tempted to wrap Chris in a bear hug to prove it, but just then he caught sight of two more riders heading into town. "But apparently we're not as good as those two yahoos."
Turning his head, Chris quickly agreed. "And I thought Ezra was overdressed before. What the hell is he wearing? And what the hell did he do to Josiah?"
"Looks like Brother Josiah got himself a real suit," Buck quipped, and he couldn't resist adding, "You and Vin come in eatin' dust and those two come in ridin' like kings."
Chris shook his head. "Well then, I guess we'd better give our former partners a royal welcome."
The greetings were warm and heartfelt as all seven men were reunited in front of the saloon. It didn't take long before they'd migrated to their old table. They passed around a bottle of whiskey while JD gave them a quick run-down on their former friends and acquaintances.
Mary Travis had moved two years earlier to care for Judge Travis after he suffered a stroke. JD heard she'd married some lawyer and was expecting a child. Mrs. Potter had packed up her family and moved back east, and old man Conklin died after he got drunk one night and fell off his horse. JD told them about Nettie's death a year prior, and Buck stole a quick glance at Vin. Up until a few months before she died, the old woman had asked about Vin, but considering the sorrow in Tanner's eyes, he decided to wait until a better time to share that with him.
"So the only people we actually know here anymore are you two?" Josiah's voice was shaded with disappointment.
Looking around the table, Buck got the feeing Sanchez wasn't the only one feeling a bit lost at the changes in town.
Apparently JD didn't like the downturn in the conversation because he immediately got a case of what Buck referred to as 'diarrhea of the mouth'. "But I got me three kids now - and I named 'em after you all - well, I mean, except Nettie Ann because - well, I guess you can figure that one out. But Josephine's named after you, Josiah, and Christine - well, I guess you can figure that one out, too. I promised Buck my first son would be named after him and besides, I couldn't figure out how to turn Bucklin into a girl name. But the rest will be named after the rest of you."
"Yes, well, I shall wait breathlessly to see how you manage to transform Ezra into a feminine moniker," Ezra sighed.
"I ain't havin' no more girls," JD said, wiping a hand across his mouth after another swallow of whiskey.
Buck figured he'd be carrying the kid home to Casey tonight, but he wasn't going to spoil his fun. JD had earned it after all. The kid worked hard and he was a damn good father to those kids, not to mention looking after his tired old friend all these years. Buck often wondered if he'd had made it through without JD.
JD's remark about only having boys in the future brought about a long round of teasing, and Buck couldn't remember the last time he'd laughed so hard or felt so good.
It was Chris who finally brought up the reason they were there. "So what's the plan, boys?" he asked. "We going after James tomorrow?"
"Aw, there's no hurry, is there?" JD protested.
"JD, we asked them here to help us, remember? They've got lives of their own to get back to," Buck gently reminded him.
"Yeah, I guess so," JD muttered.
"How about we meet up in the morning, come up with a plan," Josiah suggested.
"Define 'morning'," Ezra grumbled, which set off another round of teasing and storytelling, this time at Ezra's expense.
It was just after midnight when Vin quietly excused himself and headed out the door. All of the men tensed as they watched him hobble, knowing the man would be mortified if he fell in front of them. Chris's jaw was pinched so tight, Buck wondered if he was breathing at all. Less than an hour after that, Chris said good-night as well, and Josiah followed him out.
"Come on, JD, let me take you home," Nathan offered then, apparently sensing that the younger man was about to fall out of his chair.
Buck and Ezra only smiled as JD continued to babble on while Nathan led him out of the saloon. It was silent for a few moments, then Ezra cleared his throat and said, "I have something for you, Buck."
"A letter? From who?"
"Louisa Perkins. She's in Phoenix. She has a good job working for the mayor. And she'd love to see you."
Buck's smile was genuine. "Really? I always wondered what happened to her. She's in Phoenix, huh?"
"And she wants t' see me?"
Ezra grinned. "It's all in the letter, Buck."
Buck took the letter from Ezra's outstretched hand and tucked it in his shirt to read in private. His legs were weak and his head was spinning from too much whiskey, but as he headed for his room, his heart felt lighter than it had in years. He'd made peace with Chris, and as bad as he felt about Vin, he knew Chris was right - neither one of them were really to blame for the terrible chain of events that happened that day.
No, it was far better to focus on all the good memories between them, and they'd spent the last several hours doing just that. And somehow reliving the past had given him renewed strength to face the future.
Josiah found Chris leaning against a post on the boardwalk, smoking a cheroot. He sidled up beside him, taking Chris's subtle nod as an indication that his company was welcome.
"So have you and Vin been together all this time?"
"Yeah. Although it didn't seem that long until you put it like that," Chris replied with a slow grin.
"Just the two of you? No women?" Josiah asked, knowing how it sounded but not particularly of a mind to care.
"Oh, we've had plenty of women - both of us," Chris answered, the smile spreading. "Just none that were . . . permanent."
"Why not, Chris?" Josiah's voice went soft with concern. He hated to think Chris was still pining for his lost family after all these years. "You still ain't made peace with it?"
"I have." Chris emphasized his statement with a nod. "But . . . I don't know. It just doesn't seem fair for any woman to be second choice."
"You'll have to ask Vin."
The reply wasn't unexpected, knowing how closely the two friends had always guarded their privacy. But Josiah noted the way Chris's mouth went tight at the question. Something he wasn't saying, and Josiah was just too damn nosey to let it rest.
"How long has he been . . .?"
"I can see that."
Chris quickly defended his friend. "He gets more work done than JD and Buck put together. Triple what Ezra could accomplish."
"I don't doubt it. But?"
"I don't know. You tell me. What aren't you saying?"
"Winters are hard on him," Chris sighed. "Seems like he gets . . . things get a little harder for him with each passing year."
Josiah figured that simple fact probably hurt Chris as much as it did Vin, maybe more.
Biting his lip, Chris added hesitantly, "Look, Josiah-"
"Don't worry about it, Chris. I won't let him know we talked."
With a grateful nod, Chris pushed away from the post and moved off into the shadows.
Josiah stood for a moment, drinking in the sounds of the night, the sounds of his past. The small town had grown some, but the saloon was still the only sign of life at the end of the day. He'd forgotten what that was like; the streets of Phoenix seemed to constantly swarm with motion, people, and sound. Although he enjoyed the activity, he often missed the relative solitude he'd left behind.
But Maude was worth it. A big, toothy smile lit up his face when he thought just how worth it the woman was. He had to be the luckiest man on earth. The thought conjured up a sudden fierce sadness for his friends. Buck had lost Inez far too soon, Chris had said he wasn't looking to love again, and apparently Vin never had found anyone to share his life with - other than Chris. The price on Vin's head held him back from seeking out a serious relationship for years. But Tanner was granted a pardon just a few short months before he'd left town. Josiah suspected there was more to Vin's reluctance to settle down with a woman now.
He wondered then where Vin had taken off to. The man had hardly said two words to anyone, but at least he'd come. Out of habit, Josiah tipped his head towards the rooftops, half expecting Vin to be sitting up there, keeping watch.
He wasn't. But Josiah had a hunch where he might have gone.
Vin had taken his customary spot in the last pew, and he didn't look up when Josiah entered the old church. There was a new preacher there now, and he kept a candle lit at all times for those who might seek guidance at any time, day or night. Vin's face was shadowed in the glimmer of that single flame, but Josiah still detected a trace of moisture on his cheek.
"Time to let it go, Brother," he said softly, his large frame filling the space next to Vin.
"Can't never let it go, Josiah. Wish I could."
"It was an accident, Vin. We all know it. Even Buck."
Vin shook his head. "Don't matter. Inez still died by my hand. Her unborn child - Buck's child - God, Josiah, how can I ever let that go?"
"I don't know, but you need to find a way," Josiah answered honestly. He added, "You're a good man, Vin, no matter what happened that terrible day. I wish there was something I could say to ease this burden for you, my friend."
With a shrug, Vin answered, "Less you can bring 'em back, I don't know what it would be."
Josiah gave up on that topic for a moment and moved onto something that was bound to be equally touchy. "What happened? Is it your back?"
Encouraged that Vin didn't immediately shut him out, he continued, "Did it happen that day?"
"Mostly. Gotten worse over the years."
"Is that why you've never found anyone?"
Vin smirked as he eased a glance from the corner of his eye. "You mean like a woman?"
"Yeah. I mean like a woman."
"You worried about me and Larabee?"
Amusement there, and Josiah had to grin in return. At least Vin had retained his sense of humor. "You might say I'm worried, but not for the reason you think. I spent a good deal of my life as a single man, Vin, and I gotta tell you, being married has its distinct advantages."
"Ain't the life for me, Josiah. But maybe when I'm gone, maybe Chris will find it again."
"You planning on goin' somewhere?"
Vin looked away, but his voice was steady with conviction. "Ain't gonna be a burden to no one."
"Chris know this?"
It was an absurd question, and the roll of Vin's eyes let him know that he thought so, too. As if Vin could keep something like that from his best friend. Chris knew, and that explained the sorrow in Larabee's voice that Josiah had caught earlier.
"Chris thinks you do the work of three men, specifically Buck, JD, and Ezra. Don't sound like you're a burden t' me."
"That ain't sayin' much is it?" Vin asked with a soft chuckle. But he grew serious and added, "Sometimes Chris don't see the forest for the trees. He still thinks there ain't no call t' shoot a man in the back. You know how many times I've saved his sorry hide by doin' just that?"
"Sounds like he needs you around."
Shaking his head, Vin slapped Josiah on the knee and said, "You're a good man, Josiah. I've missed you."
"Same here, Vin."
Josiah watched Vin awkwardly pull himself to his feet, and it occurred to him that his friend would have difficulty tackling the stairs at the hotel. "New preacher still keeps a bed back here in the spare room, Vin. Why don't you use it tonight?"
Eyes cast at the floor, Vin slowly responded, "I reckon I might."
Thirty minutes later, Josiah was settled comfortably on a pew when he heard the squeak of the door. He wasn't surprised to see Chris standing in the doorway, peering into the shadows. Rising up from the pew, he quickly asked, "You need something, Chris?"
"No. Just . . . have you seen Vin?"
"I have. He's sleepin' in the back room tonight."
"Oh," Chris replied, his brows furrowed.
"Uh-huh. And I don't suppose you're checkin' up on him?"
Even in the dim light, he could see Chris blush furiously at being caught caring. He turned then like he was about to leave, but he spoke again when he noted the pillow and blanket on the pew. "You spending the night here, Josiah? On a hard bench?"
"Best sleepin' I ever got was on this hard bench. My back ain't felt as good since."
Chris looked at him for a long moment before stating softly, "Thank you."
No thanks were necessary, but Chris was gone before he could say it. Lying back with a deep groan of contentment, Josiah pondered on one of the things he'd missed most in his new life: being needed by a friend. He had no complaints about working for Ezra during the day and spending those heavenly nights with Maude, but it felt good knowing Chris would sleep well tonight because he was watching Vin's back for him.
Ezra wasn't sure he could come back to Four Corners, but Josiah had nearly throttled him when he said as much. And his mother had narrowed her eyes and went into tirade about that fact that she hadn't raised a coward. Ezra didn't know where that had come from, but he was laying the blame squarely at the feet of his new "step-father". Good Lord, the title alone made him shiver; applying it to Josiah was still too much to contemplate.
Not that he was sorry about it. He wasn't. In truth, he was secretly quite delighted about the arrangement. Josiah wore that irritating, goofy grin on his face all day long, and his mother had never been happier.
And Ezra himself was more content than he could ever recall being in his life. His hotel was booming - so much so that he badly needed to hire more help - and he had an interesting arrangement with a lovely woman who visited Phoenix periodically. The part-time relationship suited them both; he was never more certain of that than when he'd met JD's growing brood. Children were lovely - as long as they belonged to someone else.
So he was content . . . dare he even say happy? And he couldn't think of a single reason to tempt fate by revisiting the past.
That's what he'd told himself, at any rate, though the truth was that his stomach had churned at just the thought of entering the saloon again. He was certain he would see Inez' lifeless eyes the moment he walked through the door, and once again he would be plagued with doubt. The questions and the nightmares had unsettled him for far too long. Would she still be alive had he not pulled her to the floor when the miscreant pulled his gun on Vin? In attempting to protect her life, had he only contributed to her death?
And what of Buck's son? He'd never forget Nathan slicing the poor mother open, reaching inside her womb to deliver the frail, unborn child. He was too small, Nathan lamented, the trauma too great. Ezra had never seen anything more horrific - or courageous - in his life.
He was wrong, however, about returning to town. Since the moment he'd stepped foot on that old dusty trail, he'd felt at home. And spending the evening with his six friends brought back only good memories. Refilling his glass one last time, Ezra thought again on how much his life and the lives of his friends had changed - and yet somehow they all still fit together like a perfect hand of poker.
He was about to get up when Chris came through the door and immediately made his way over to the table. Chris didn't say anything; just poured himself a half glass of whiskey and eased back in his chair like he was there for the duration.
"He's quiet," Ezra stated then, knowing Chris would understand who he was talking about.
"He's Vin. You were expecting something different?"
"How is he? The truth, please."
"I ain't talkin' about him behind his back."
"Is that different than writing about him behind his back?"
Flustered now, Chris sputtered, "I just needed someone to know, that's all. In case something happened to me."
Ezra nodded. "And I am flattered that you chose to confide in me, Chris." That was true. He'd been shocked when the first letter arrived from Chris, with many more to follow. In fact, over the years, he and Chris had communicated regularly. But Chris always made it clear that only Ezra was to know about Vin.
And the question of why had always bothered him. "Why didn't you tell the others? They all care, you know that."
"I do know, and it wasn't an easy secret to keep. But you know Vin, he couldn't bear the thought of anyone feeling sorry for him. Besides, Buck didn't need to know how badly he'd hurt Vin. He had enough to think about, and JD would never have been able to keep it from him." He paused and took a drink before continuing on, "Nathan would have poked and prodded - hauled Vin off to an endless stream of doctors when that was the last thing he wanted. Nothin' they could do anyway. I thought about telling Josiah - but he doesn't have the poker face you do."
With a smirk, Ezra replied, "In other words, I am the best liar."
Chris shrugged. "That's one way to put it."
Ezra paused a moment, thinking carefully how to phrase his next words. "Phoenix is booming. New faces, new opportunities arrive almost daily. In fact, a physician recently took up residence there - a surgeon." He met Chris's eyes and added softly, "He specializes in back problems."
Chris swallowed another drink of whiskey and looked away, but Ezra caught the brief flame of hope before it was quickly doused. "Vin won't go."
A simple statement of fact, but Ezra wasn't convinced. "On the contrary, I believe Mr. Tanner would go wherever you asked him to."
With a shake of his head, Chris repeated, "Ain't talkin' about Vin behind his back."
Knowing he'd likely pushed the matter as far he could for the moment, Ezra changed the subject. "Who is looking after your spread?"
"Couple of men we know. Good fellows - although I don't think they'll be using separate beds, if you catch my meaning."
Ezra had to suppress a snicker as he wondered how many others thought the same of Chris and Vin, but he let that sleeping dog lie. "Since you have matters in hand, why don't you and Vin come to Phoenix when this over? My treat."
"Appreciate that, Ezra, but we couldn't take advantage of you like that."
"I don't believe you understand how well my business is doing, Chris. Truly, a small vacation for you and Mr. Tanner is nothing to me."
"Oh, I believe you, Ezra. But we don't need your money. The ranch has been making a sizable profit for some time now."
Intrigued, Ezra leaned forward and asked in a low voice, "How much of a profit?"
Chris grinned. "Tell you what, you write down what you made last year, and I'll write down what the ranch made."
"Deal," Ezra quickly agreed, rather liking this little game. He was certain no isolated horse ranch could come close to competing with his lucrative venture, but it would be fun to have the upper hand with Chris Larabee for a change.
The slips of paper were exchanged, and Ezra blew out a low whistle when he saw the amount written on the paper before him. It didn't top his number, of course, but it was far closer than he'd imagined possible.
"Well, well, Chris, I do believe I've underestimated you. You are quite the businessman it seems."
"I can't take all the credit. My partner's pretty sharp."
"But I was under the impression that he works for you."
Chris raised his brow as he lowered his voice. "Yeah. He thinks that, too. Mind if we keep it that way?"
"I don't understand. Why would you make Vin a partner in your business and not tell him?"
"I tried. But he didn't have as much to throw in at the start as I did, so he wouldn't hear of it. Plus, he seems to think if his name is on a piece of paper, it's like a weight tying him down."
Ezra looked at their former leader thoughtfully. "You're a good friend, Chris. Vin is fortunate."
"It's only fair. I couldn't have done it without him." He stood then and said, "Better hit the sack. Tomorrow could be a long day."
Ezra agreed that it could be - but it wasn't. In fact, the entire incident was over before it had begun.
The seven of them made imposing figures indeed as they entered the gates of the James' ranch, though apparently the rancher's men weren't impressed since they hardly gave them a second glance.
They hadn't even dismounted when a young man stepped out onto the porch. "Can I help you, Gentlemen?"
"I'm Chris Larabee. We're here to see Stuart James."
"He's resting right now. I'm his grandson, maybe I can help."
The seven men exchanged wary glances, then Chris spoke again. "Your grandfather has been threatening the law in Four Corners. We're here to see that he understands he is to go nowhere near the Sheriff or the town."
The young man smiled and shook his head. "Look Mr. Larabee, my grandfather is quite forgetful. Half the time he thinks he's living ten years ago."
"So you're saying his threats against Sheriff Dunne and Deputy Wilmington are . . .?"
"Meaningless. I assure you, Gentlemen, my grandfather and his rapidly dwindling band of men are of no threat to anyone. Half of them can't even get up on their horses anymore. Your men are safe. But if it makes you feel better, I'll let him know you stopped by."
"Alright," Chris said as he tipped his hat.
They rode out in silence, and it wasn't until they'd cleared the property that Nathan finally said something. "Hold on. Is that it? It's over?" he asked, apparently disappointed that he wasn't going to have the chance to patch any holes.
Ezra noted JD shifting nervously on his mount, and he began to suspect that he and his friends had been the victims of a rather pathetic con.
"Looks that way," Chris replied.
"Are you saying Josiah and I traveled hundreds of miles for . . . for nothing?" Ezra asked as the full implication of what had just transpired hit him.
Josiah laughed. "Look beside you, Ezra. You call this nothing?"
Of course, Josiah was absolutely right. The seven of them were together again, and suddenly Ezra knew that as happy as he was in Phoenix, one very important piece of his life had been missing - friendship.
It was later that evening when JD confessed that he'd basically made up the threat to get his friends together again. Ezra continued to put up his disgruntled act, but no one believed it.
They were all back in the saloon again, and Vin tried to relax as he listened to the voices of his friends.
"I still think the best one was when Vin made Ezra dress up like a woman!" JD exclaimed.
"Now just a minute, no one makes me do anything," Ezra argued indignantly.
"Vin always had the best ideas," Buck joined in. "Why do you think that horse ranch is so successful? Ain't Chris's brains behind that operation."
"Hold on Buck, Chris Larabee is the smartest man I know," JD gushed, obviously still carrying a bad case of hero worship.
"That's cause you don't know him like we do, right Vin?" Buck asked with a wide grin.
And it was like it never happened . . . for Buck anyway.
But Vin couldn't forget. He'd seen Nathan pick up his knife that night and he knew what he was going to do with it and it made him sick - but before he could take it in, he was flying through the air. He didn't know how he made it to the livery after that, didn't remember much of anything except Chris caring for him when he was too broken to care for himself.
Vin felt the pull of Chris's gaze, and he knew he'd given himself away. He wished he could make his melancholy thoughts disappear - for his friends if not for himself - but it just wasn't that easy. Damn knife in his back and the fire down his leg reminded him every day of how one bullet could ruin so many lives.
The extra whiskey he'd consumed over the last few days suddenly made him nauseous, and he quickly told the others he needed some air. But he wasn't sure he could make it out the door, and for the first time since they'd arrived, he wished he'd swallowed his pride and taken the damn cane.
"I'll go with you, Vin," Buck said softly, taking him by the elbow.
Once they hit the cool night air, Vin felt measurably better. Buck made sure he had his balance as he leaned against the hitching post, then stepped back and looked him in the eye.
"I'm sorry, Vin. I swear I never meant to hurt you." Buck's solemn voice seemed out of place after the joviality they'd just walked away from.
Vin couldn't believe what he was hearing - Buck was apologizing to him? He shook his head as if to clear it and stuttered, "But . . . but . . . you had every right. I'm the one who should be apologizing, Buck. I'm so sorry. I -"
"Let it go, Vin. I have. I miss her and I always will, but this ain't what she would want for either of us."
Buck patted him on the back then and went back inside.
Much to Vin's surprise, it took Chris a full fifteen minutes to come out and check on him.
"Vin? You alright?"
Vin thought about giving his customary answer, "fine", but he couldn't force the simple word from his lips. "I just don't get it, Chris. How could he just act like it never happened?"
"I told you Buck doesn't hold a grudge. And besides, he knows - as does everyone else, I might add for the hundredth time - that it was one of those stupid, senseless, freak accidents that happen for no damn good reason."
"I know it in my head, Chris, but . . ."
"You always told me Buck was the one who counted in this. You always ignored your own pain because you said over and over that Buck was the victim."
"Yeah. That's true."
"Alright. Then give Buck what he wants. He wants to heal, Vin. He wants us all to be friends again. Quit thinking about yourself and think about Buck."
Harsh but true, and Vin couldn't think of a suitable argument.
Which obviously worked to Chris's advantage, because he went right into what he'd really come out there to talk about. "Ezra offered us all jobs providing security at his hotel in Phoenix. JD and Buck plan to take him up on it, once they hire a sheriff to replace them. Nathan's considering it. Offer stands for me and you, too."
With a snort, Vin replied, "You tell him what he could do with his offer?"
"I told him he was a brave man if he was willing to allow the two of us into his fine establishment."
Vin laughed at the very notion of him and Chris all gussied up in some fancy hotel. "So why are you out here talkin' t' me? What's goin' on?"
"Josiah says it's warm there. Pretty much all year round."
"So I think we should move the ranch there. I think we should move there."
"We're doin' fine where we are."
"I don't wanna lose you over something stupid like cold weather, Vin."
"Better not say stuff like that in front of Josiah - he's already got ideas about us."
"It's not funny."
"I know. I'm sorry," Vin sighed. "You've been so good t' me, Chris, I reckon I'd go 'bout anywhere you asked."
"Well then I'm askin' you to go to Phoenix."
It wasn't just warm weather driving his friend, Vin was certain of that, but he figured it didn't matter all that much - he'd find out what else Chris had up his sleeve eventually. In the meantime, he trusted him enough to agree to most anything. Besides, he owed Chris his life, and he knew being around the boys again would be good for Larabee. Might be good for him, too. "Well then I guess I'm goin'."
Chris's smile lit up his face as he seemed to pull the very words from Vin's mind. "I think this will be good for all of us."
"Might be. But I ain't promisin' I'll stay. You know I ain't the kind t' plant my feet anywhere for long."
"You've mentioned that."
Vin knew it was a testament to their friendship that Chris refrained from reminding him that in the last ten years, he'd planted his feet in only two places.
"Maybe we'll get this balance of time right," Chris mumbled, more to himself than to Vin it seemed.
"What did you say?"
"Oh, it was something Josiah was going on about. He said after we split up, we all made lives for ourselves, but something was missing - the balance was off. But now we've got another chance to get it right. Something like that," he muttered absently, "you get the idea."
"Not exactly." Vin frowned; he never had understood Josiah's obsession with balance.
"Oh hell, ask Josiah. He's the one with the silver tongue, remember? I'm the one that says three words in a day."
"Yeah, but them three words have always been good enough for me, Chris," Vin said softly, expressing his gratitude the only way he knew how.
Chris gave him a lopsided smile before taking his arm and leading him back towards the saloon. "I think we should build a bigger house in Phoenix," he said.
"What the hell for?"
"In case you decide to get married and have a house full of girls like JD."
"What the hell you been drinkin', Larabee?"
"You never know, Vin. It could happen."
"Like hell. And I sure ain't havin' no girls."
"I can see it now: little Ezerita followed by-"
"You think you're real funny, don't ya?"
"I think I'm lookin' forward to the next ten years, Pard."
And for the first time in a long time, Vin agreed. He didn't used to believe he had ten years left in him, but now that they were all starting a new decade together, he had a feeling his six friends wouldn't let anything tear them apart again. He wasn't sure what Chris meant about the balance of time, but he understood the important thing - this time, they'd get it right.