It had been several hours since Chris had left for his place outside of town. Josiah watched Ben Coates sleeping fitfully in his cell. He had just settled in to reading his Bible he had started from the beginning again not too long ago and was still in Genesis, reading about the twelve tribes when gun fire shattered the night. He grabbed his gun and raced out to the streets.
"Saloon!" shouted Buck as he ran by and Josiah followed him, meeting J.D. at the saloon doors.
Inside was a melee of soldiers engaged in a fistfight with one grizzled and drunken corporal sitting on the floor in the corner, firing his pistol into the air.
Josiah, Buck and J.D. entered with guns drawn, trying to sort out the opposing sides in whatever argument had begun the ruckus.
"Again?" wondered a bleary-eyed Ezra as he made his way down the steps. He had just called it a night when he was awakened by the noise from below, and now descended, gun in hand.
"Ill be glad when theyre outta here," J.D. said as he saw Josiah lift one particularly quarrelsome soldier off the ground in a bear hug.
"Amen to that brother," Josiah said, as the man struggled.
"At least this time Vin wasnt in the middle of it," Buck said, turning one man face down on the floor with his boot heel in his back, holding another at gunpoint. "Wheres Chris?"
"Out at his place. He was comin in tomorrow mornin," Josiah answered, tossing a pair of handcuffs to Ezra.
More shots rang out and the four heard the thunder of horses racing through town.
"Now what?" asked Buck as he nodded towards J.D. and Ezra to cover the men he had subdued, then ran back out into the street. He saw the flash of powder as an explosion ripped through the jailhouse and dove for cover back into the saloon.
"What was that?" cried J.D.
"Jail break!" Buck shouted. He began to run back down the street to the jail when cavalry soldiers cut him off. The soldiers on the horses had their guns drawn, firing in the direction of the jail.
The soldiers continued to fire as Vin came running from his wagon. He felt hot fear grip his stomach as he approached a body lying in the street. Vin dropped to his knees. Nathan appeared beside him out of nowhere.
"J.D.?" the healer asked anxiously, catching sight only of the young face over Vins shoulder as he began to open his bag.
"No," Vin answered. He reached to the side and put a hand on Nathans arm as he began pulling out bandages. "Hes gone."
"Who?" Nathan asked, still gathering supplies, unwilling to give up until he had seen the wound for himself.
"Ben," Vin said, defeated.
"Damn. Whyd he make a break for it? I was sure he was innocent," Buck said, dropping to a knee beside Vin as Nathan confirmed the diagnosis.
Vin looked down at the still, small face of the young boy. He wiped bloody hands on his pants leg, staring at the stain they left. His eyes filled with tears and his throat burned.
"Vin?" Nathan asked, seeing the overwhelming despair in the trackers eyes. "Vin, he just got scared. That gang he was ridin with mustve come back and tried to bust him out."
"Lord, no," said Josiah as he joined the scene. He took one of Bens hands in his own. "I shouldnt have left him alone."
"Where were you?" asked Vin, accusingly.
"Vin, there was trouble in the saloon. A fight broke out. Josiah had to come " Buck explained quickly.
"He trusted us," said Vin, "trusted me."
"I dont understand," Josiah said, shaking his head. "He was ready to go to Missouri. He wanted to see his sister. He, he believed in you Vin."
The men looked up as they heard horses returning. Vin stood to face them as the soldiers dismounted and approached the body of Benjamin Coates. Wil Larabee faced him.
"Didnt get the others," he said shaking his head. "Too bad about the boy. Dont know why he woulda run if he was innocent."
"Dont know how he couldve run with a busted leg," said Vin, glaring at the sergeant.
"Be surprised what a man can do when his lifes at stake," said Wil.
"Shot straight through the back. Didnt even have a weapon."
"The boy was tryin to escape," the sergeant protested.
"Damn convenient. There bein a fight in the saloon at the same time," Vin said.
"Whatre you tryin to say, boy," Wil asked.
"Vin " Buck warned, putting a hand on the trackers shoulder.
Vin shrugged it off, his eyes never leaving the sergeant.
"Where are the others?" Vin asked, looking behind the sergeant at the small group of soldiers remaining on their mounts. "Didnt any of you army sharpshooters get a single one of the men who tried to break him out?"
"I guess were just not as handy with a gun as you, Tanner," Wil said icily.
"Handy enough for this, though," Vin answered, gesturing towards the body of Ben Coates.
"Just got lucky I guess," Larabee sneered.
Vin drew his arm back, curled his fist.
Buck grabbed the arm in flight and swung the tracker around, pining his arm behind his back.
"You wanna take a swing at me Tanner?" Wil challenged him.
"Let me go, Buck," Vin shouted, struggling.
"Let him go, Wilmington. Lets see what the Rebs got!"
"No, Vin, you dont wanna do this," Buck said, trying to catch Vins wild eyes with his own.
"Calm down, Vin, please," said Nathan.
"Sergeant!" came Capt. Evans voice, cutting the night like a knife. He rode up at full gallop as the men about him snapped to attention.
"Report!" he growled as he dismounted and stood between Vin and Wil Larabee.
"Jail break, sir," Larabee said. "Prisoner was shot while trying to escape."
"Jail break?" asked the captain incredulously. "How?"
"Mustve been some of the men he rode with," Larabee shrugged. "We didnt get a good look at em."
"Got a good enough look at Ben, though, didnt you?" snarled Vin.
"Have you got something to say about this Mr. Tanner?" the captain asked.
Vins eyes glared hotly at Wil Larabee, then at the captain. Evans saw that the jaw had begun to swell and there was still a stain of blood across the mans forehead. His eyes were wild, yet calculating, and he could tell Vin was trying hard to control himself while he thought out his next words.
"Not yet," Vin said finally, fighting his emotions.
"Not yet?" asked the captain impatiently. "Either you saw something, Mr. Tanner, or you didnt. Which is it? I recommend you not withhold evidence from the federal government."
"I gotta get it clear in my head," said Vin. "I promise Ill talk to you tomorrow."
Captain Evans weighed the situation. There was too much going on here too much information missing. He looked at the faces of the soldiers with Larabee. They were hard men. Friends of Wil Larabees. A shudder went through him and he felt with dread that he did not want to hear any more explanations right now. Not in front of Vin Tanner and the others.
"Alright. Ill want to see you at daybreak, Mr. Tanner," the captain agreed.
"Ill be there," Vin promised.
Capt. Evans watched as Josiah carefully picked up the body of Benjamin Coates, cradling him in his strong arms.
"That boy is in the custody of the United States Army," he said.
"Not anymore, captain," said Buck evenly.
The captain looked away, unable to face the men as they followed Josiah to the church at the end of the street. "You men, get back to camp," he said to the others.
"Vin?" Nathan asked as the tracker split off from the rest of the group, heading towards the livery.
"I gotta talk to Chris," he answered.
Nathan watched with concern as Vin walked away, then turned to look at Josiah who had stopped in the street, his burden suddenly appearing too great for him to bear. The preacher knelt down, cradling the head of the boy against his chest, silent tears falling on the pale face.
"Josiah, you alright?" asked Buck.
The big man nodded. Then caressed the boys cheek.
"His name was Benjamin," Josiah said. He looked up at the confused faces of his friends. "Its Hebrew for son of the south."
+ + + + + + +
Vin saddled Peso and led him back towards his wagon at the end of town. His mind was reeling with the events of the past few hours. He needed to talk to Chris. Needed to tell him, to explain what he was about to do. Wil Larabee had murdered Ben Coates. Vin had been in his wagon when the horses had run through town, while the others were in the saloon, and he had seen Wil Larabee drag the lifeless body of the boy out into the middle of the street as army soldiers sped by. One slowed and held the reins of a riderless horse as Wil swung into the saddle. Another man had thrown the dynamite into the jailhouse as the small band of soldiers raced off into the night, pretending to chase more of Quantrills men.
He had not wanted to believe it, for Chris sake, but he had seen it. And now his hands were stained with the blood of Ben Coates. Blood that screamed to him for vengeance. For Ben, for Spence, for the innocent that Vin Tanner once was.
The shot came as such a surprise to him that he continued to walk towards the wagon until he became aware of the hot lead burning into his shoulder. He fell to his knees, held his hand to his shoulder and felt the wet blood pulsing through his fingers. He heard a horse racing off into the night but couldnt bring himself to turn towards the sound. Instead he fell face down into the street as he heard Ezra shouting his name from a distance.
+ + + + + + +
"Where is he?" Nathan asked anxiously as he met Ezra at the doors of the saloon.
"In the back room, for now," Ezra answered, leading him behind the bar. He had sent Inez to get the healer while he carried Vin into the saloon. Nathan had stopped by earlier to fill J.D. and Ezra in on what had happened while they had been sorting out the after effects of the drunken brawl. J.D. had gone to see Buck and Josiah at the church while Ezra finished cleaning up the mess.
Now Ezra watched as Nathan made a cursory examination of the wound while Vin lay unconscious.
"Bullet went through," he said. "Hit him high."
"How fortunate," Ezra said sarcastically.
"You see who did it?"
"If I were a gambling man Id put my money on a certain army sergeant," said Ezra.
Nathan looked up at him grimly.
"Did you see him?" he asked again.
Ezra sighed. "No."
"It aint that I dont believe he coulda, Ezra," Nathan assured him as he performed the litany of healing he had become all too familiar with. "But if were gonna charge an army sergeant with attempted murder we gotta have an eye witness."
"Dont you think Im aware of that, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra spat.
Nathan looked back to his work and Ezra cursed himself for the outburst.
"Im sorry, Nathan," he apologized. "I am this business with Vin, with the army has "
"Its alright, Ezra," Nathan said.
Vin stirred, his eyes blinking open in confusion. He tried to get up but Nathans strong but gentle hands held him in place.
"Easy, Vin. You aint goin anywhere for a while," said Nathan.
"I gotta see Chris," Vin protested, trying to rise again.
"Mr. Tanner, please," said Ezra. "Allow Mr. Jackson to finish his ministrations."
"Larabee it was murder " Vin said. "I saw him I have to tell Chris first "
"Youre not ridin out to see Chris now," said Nathan. "You got a bullet hole in you, Vin. And the man who tried to kill you is still out there."
"Hes right, Mr. Tanner. We need to see you to a place of refuge until we can ascertain the identity of the coward who assaulted you." Ezra looked to Nathan. "If I take him in a wagon to Miss Netties?"
"I aint puttin her in danger," Vin protested.
"Well we cant keep you here," Ezra argued. "Once the intended assassin finds he has missed his mark he will surely attempt a search of these premises."
"Capt. Evans is expectin to see Vin tomorrow," Nathan said. "When he doesnt show up "
"I aim to show up and talk to him," Vin said with determination. "But I gotta talk to Chris first."
"I assure you I will find Mr. Larabee at first light," said Ezra. He listened as the church bell tolled the hour. "And until then, I do believe we shall take refuge in the Lord." He looked meaningfully at Nathan who smiled and nodded in agreement.
+ + + + + + +
At first light, a grim and exhausted Capt. Evans appeared at the Four Corners jail. J.D. and Buck stopped their work of cleaning up the broken and smoldering debris when he entered.
"Gentlemen," the Capt. greeted them.
"Capt. Evans," said Buck, nodding. "We seem to be plumb out of prisoners this mornin." He gestured about him at the effects of the previous night. "Why do I have such a sick feelin we have some of your men to thank for all this?"
The captain sat down heavily, rubbing his eyes.
"Ive been up all night trying to sort this situation out," the captain began.
"Situation? Buck sneered. "Where I come from its called murder, captain, not a situation."
"Im not sure any of my men were involved " Capt. Evans began.
"Youre not sure?" Buck interrupted. "We aint seen hide nor hair of any of these other Quantrill men. But we are sure there were a hell of a lot of your men around town last night and were also sure we got one dead prisoner who was supposed to be under our protection."
"If youd let me finish, Mr. Wilmington," the captain glared. "I was going to say I am not sure any of my men were involved " he sighed deeply, "but I am afraid I do suspect it. However, no one is talking. I was up half the night interrogating them. Well, most of them."
Capt. Evans looked at Buck and J.D., then could not face them as he said, "Sgt. Larabee has yet to be found. I wanted to speak with his brother get directions to his place?"
Buck and J.D. looked at each other nervously. J.D. took a deep breath and faced the captain.
"Chrisll be comin in soon. You can talk to him here," he said. "I got no intention "
J.D. was interrupted as Josiah walked grim-faced into the jail.
"Mornin brothers," he said nodding. His manner was calm, but his eyes were fierce. He glared at Capt. Evans, working his jaw to suppress his anger. "Capt. Evans," he said bitterly.
"Mr. Sanchez, I " began the captain.
"Im sorry, captain, but I have some official business to discuss with my brothers here. If you wouldnt mind?" he asked.
"Hes waitin here for Chris," Buck explained.
"Im sure you wouldnt mind waiting on Brother Larabee outside, would you, captain?" Josiah asked pointedly.
The captain nodded, rose, and walked stiffly out the door to the porch.
Josiah looked with disgust at the ruined jail cell, the burned and battered furniture about it, then into the eyes of his concerned friends.
"Our dear Brother Vin has been injured," he said quietly.
"What? When?" demanded Buck.
Josiah silenced him, nodding in the direction of the captain outside.
"He was shot late last night," he continued. "Nathan is with him at the church. Hell be alright the bullet went clean through."
"Damn it!" Buck hissed. "It was the same soldiers who killed the kid and blew up the jail. I swear, Josiah, Ill kill the bastard " he stopped cold. The three looked at each other, realizing at the same time that all their hatred, their thirst for vengeance, was directed at one man the brother of their friend. "Does Chris know?" Buck asked in a hushed whisper.
"Brother Standish is meeting him at the town limits. Hell bring him to Vin first, then send him here."
"I dont envy Ezra that meeting," J.D. said shaking his head.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was thinking the exact same thing as he sat on his horse at the edge of town. He saw the dark rider in the distance, and his stomach drew taught at the impending confrontation.
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee," he practiced. "Theres been an incident. Perhaps you would care to "
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee," he began again. "Ive come to take you to Mr. Tanner who has been "
"Mr. Larabee, as the bearer of unfortunate news I "
Ezra shook his head in disgust.
"Hey Chris, our prisoner is dead, Vins been shot and your brother is a murdering son-of-a-bitch." He looked to the heavens, taking the hat from his head.
"Although our association has been tenuous at best," he said to the skies, "and most usually relegated to assistance in filling an inside straight, I might request the visitation of a guardian angel or two who may not be otherwise engaged at the moment." He replaced his hat on his head and waited.
"Ezra," Chris said, pulling his horse to stop. "Whats goin on?"
"Ben Coates is dead," Ezra replied simply.
"That seems to be a matter of opinion," Ezra answered. "The most popular being that he was murdered, the army attempting to cover it by means of a jail break." He cleared his throat. "The army, of course, holds a different view."
"Shit," said Chris as he prepared to start forward again.
"Im afraid theres more," Ezra said quickly. Chris stopped and looked back.
"Mr. Tanner has been injured."
Chris tensed and waited for Ezra to continue.
"He is recovering from a bullet wound under Mr. Jacksons care. Said wound also being currently attributable to the army, in my humble opinion."
"Where is he?" Chris asked.
"Mr. Jackson and I deemed it necessary to conceal his whereabouts for the time being."
"Where?" Chris asked again.
"I presume your current sympathies will not jeopardize our efforts to protect Mr. Tanner from further bodily harm?" Ezra asked pointedly. He knew he was riding a thin line, but he wanted Chris to understand where the six stood. And they stood solidly behind Vin.
"Damn you Standish, where is he?" Chris demanded, seething.
+ + + + + + +
"Where?" Chris growled as he entered the darkened church. Nathan looked up startled as the man in black strode in with Ezra following.
"Upstairs in the attic," Nathan answered.
"The attic?" Chris glared. "What the hell is he doing up there?"
"We thought it best to keep Mr. Tanners presence concealed from the rest of the township who may enter the sanctuary," Ezra explained. "The attic was the most "
But Larabee was already climbing the stairs.
"I see hes taking it well," Nathan said to Ezra as the two regulators paused at the steps to the attic.
"Indubitably, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said, wiping the sweat from his brow with a linen kerchief.
Chris stood looking out the small attic window which Nathan had propped open to welcome any breeze which may ease the cramped quarters. Vin lay behind him propped into a sitting position, his eyes riveted on the back of his friend.
"Im sorry, Chris," he said for the second time since telling Larabee of his brothers involvement in the murder of Benjamin Coates.
"You didnt see Wil shoot him," Chris said slowly.
"No," Vin affirmed. He heard in Chris voice the desperate attempt to find an alibi for his brother, but Vin wasnt willing to fuel his hopes. He would gladly take a bullet for this friend, but he could not, would not ignore the death of an innocent man. A man he had given his word to protect.
"Chris, I saw him drag him out of the jail. He was already dead."
"But you dont know that it was murder."
"It was murder, Chris," Vin said, taking a deep breath. "It was murder last night just as much as it was four years ago in a confederate prison camp in Missouri."
Chris turned to Vin slowly. He looked at the blue eyes briefly, but could not hold their gaze. His eyes took in the bruised jaw, the healing cut along the scalp, and the bright white of the bandage that lay across the dark skin of the tracker. In the back of his mind he could not escape the thought that gnawed at him this is all my fault.
"I never told any of you," Vin said quietly, looking away from Chris, out the small square of window, "but I was a prisoner during the war. A hell-hole in Missouri."
Chris tensed but said nothing.
"I aint sayin it was just the Yanks. I know there was just as many of em in the South where you boys were treated bad too. But unless you been on the dirty end of that stick " he stopped and swallowed hard.
"I had a friend. Name of Spence. We was took up together at the Battle of Fort Davidson. Thats where I fought against Ewing " he stopped again, shooting a glance back at Chris, then continued, " and lost. Lost bad that day. I caught one in the leg liked to take it off. Spence wasnt hurt bad, but he was so scared in that prison. He werent real smart kinda simple I guess - and I kinda looked out for him. He just seemed to get himself in trouble all the time. Like in the prison. And the guards, they knew it, and they picked him out. I tried to help him, but " Vin was breathing heavy now, a sheen of sweat covered his face and his eyes stared into the darkness of the past, wide with the fear of remembering.
"There was one guard, he kept beatin on Spence. He saw some bad shit in Lawrence. I know Quantrill was wrong I never met him, Chris, honest and I know what happened in Kansas was bad, but it werent me that done that. Werent Spence either. But this guard, he couldnt he just saw us as Rebs and he just and Spence couldnt fight back, not there, and I couldnt help, and one day the guard, he he just laughed Chris, the whole time he was beatin him, just laughed I tried to forget him all these years, but he he "
"I know," Chris answered. He sat heavily on the bed beside Vin. "I know about Spence."
Vin looked at him, startled.
"Back in Correyville. You were out of your head with fever, said some things " he looked at Vin, "Ezra was there. We never told any of the others. It was understood."
Vin nodded slightly and Chris winced at the haunted look in the young mans eyes.
"That guard, Chris "
"Was Wil," Larabee finished. He stood again, unable to face his friend, unable to face the thought of his brother committing such a heinous act of revenge.
Vin was exhausted. He knew this was tearing Chris apart, but he knew he would see the dead faces of Spence and Benjamin in his dreams for the rest of his life and for that alone, he needed to see justice done. He thought quickly of what he could say to ease Chris burden, help him come to terms with this terrible knowledge, and was caught speechless by his friends words.
"But you dont know for sure about Ben," Chris said, trying to hold onto the one thread of hope that tied him to his brother.
"Chris " Vin said shaking his head.
"You didnt see it Vin. You dont know that Ben wasnt tryin to escape."
"My God, Chris! Aint that prison camp enough proof for you of what he is?"
"That was war," Chris argued.
"The hell it was, Chris! That was guard duty. And Wil Larabee turned it into his own private huntin ground for Rebs."
"You tryin to tell me just because he took out his revenge against the enemy in a prison camp he could just walk into a jailhouse and shoot that boy in cold blood?"
"Thats exactly what Im tellin you."
"You dont know him like I do Vin. You didnt grow up with him. He gave up everything to take care of me. Hes a soldier doin his job."
Chris was pacing now, the heat of the room was stifling. Vin sat bolt upright in bed, unable to believe what Chris was saying. That he still believed in Wils innocence.
"I dont know what he was, Chris, but I know what hes become," Vin insisted.
"You dont know anything, Vin! You dont know what its like to have a brother."
Vin looked up into the gunfighters eyes.
"I thought I did," he said quietly.
The silence in the room was deafening.
"Vin, I " Chris began slowly. He saw the bowed head and downcast eyes of the younger man and cursed his quick temper. All the ground he had gained with this man, all the painful memories of the past they had worked to ease together, the delicate framework of friendship they had struggled to build shattered.
"No, youre right," Vin mumbled. "Its wrong for me to make you choose "
"No, Vin," Chris apologized quickly. He couldnt bear the defeated look on Vins face, the hurt, lost, lonely boy that lay behind the bruised and battered body of the man. But he couldnt find the words to take back what he had said. He didnt think they existed.
Both men were rigid, sweating in the heat of the attic, their eyes locked on each other, unaware of the third presence in the room until he spoke.
"Mr. Larabee," said Ezra quietly, "I feel it necessary at this time to inform you that according to Sheriff Dunne, Sgt. Wil Larabee is missing. Capt. Evans has requested an audience with you to discuss his whereabouts."
+ + + + + + +
"Now what?" asked Nathan as he watched Chris storm out of the church, Ezra following at a safe distance.
"I relayed Sheriff Dunnes message," Ezra replied. "Has he returned to the jail?"
"Left with Buck a few minutes ago," Nathan answered. "Whatre you gonna do?"
Ezra went to the door of the church and watched Chris as he walked to his horse. He held up a hand to Nathan who awaited his answer. Chris mounted his horse, looked towards the center of town, then turned his horse, heading out the way he had come.
"Damn," Ezra swore. Nathan looked at him questioningly.
"Wheres Chris?" came a tired voice from the top of the stairs.
"Whatre you doin outta bed?" Nathan demanded as Vin made his way carefully down the steps. "Just stop right there and turn around, Vin," he said.
"Whered Chris go?" Vin asked stubbornly, pushing Nathan away with strength the healer had not thought he possessed, then grabbing the side of a pew to regain his balance.
"I believe hes headed back to his homestead," Ezra said, pretending not to notice as Vin closed his eyes in a wave of nausea. "No doubt he anticipates locating Sgt. Larabee there."
"Wheres my gun, Nathan?" Vin asked, pulling on the bloody clothes he had discarded the night before.
Nathan shook his head in disbelief.
"Where in the hell do you think youre goin?" asked Nathan. "And why in Gods name do you think Id give you your gun?"
"He doesnt know what Wil is anymore," Vin answered as Ezra appeared with his gun. "Help me get it on," he said to the gambler.
"Ezra " Nathan warned as the gambler began strapping the gun to Vins leg.
"Ezra!" Nathan shouted, putting a hand on Ezras arm. "It dont make any sense!"
Standish looked at Nathan.
"Little has occurred here within the past 48 hours that does," said Ezra. "Do you really believe either one of us would be able to stop him?"
"Youll get yourself killed," Nathan warned as Vin drew open the church door.
"Hes worth dyin for, aint he Nathan?" Vin asked, stepping out the door.
"Mr. Jackson? Please apprise Sheriff Dunne and Mr. Wilmington of the situation," Ezra said as he headed out the door as well.
"Where are you goin?" Nathan called after him.
"I dont believe any man is worth dying for Mr. Jackson."
+ + + + + + +
"Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Jackson," said Capt. Evans as the two regulators approached the jail together. "Perhaps one of you will be able to tell me where to find Mr. Larabee. I believe Ive been more than patient."
J.D. and Buck joined them on the front porch of the jail.
"We told him Chrisd be here eventually," said J.D. to Nathan and Josiah.
"It seems Ive got all of the famous regulators here except the two Im looking for," said the captain. "Are you gentlemen going to try to convince me thats just a coincidence?"
"Why dont you just worry about findin your strays captain and well take care of ours. At least Chris and Vin arent out there shootin innocent boys," Buck sneered.
Evans turned furiously on Buck, his face inches away, seething in anger.
"Damn you Wilmington do you think Im enjoying any of this?" he hissed. "Ive hated this assignment from the start. Every god-damned day of it. I joined this army to fight for cause and country not to find myself in the middle of nowhere sorting out murderers and renegades from starving farmers and orphans. I am a captain in the army of the United States of America and Im forced to deal with gamblers, gun fighters and wanted men to conduct federal business. Youve got the gall to sit there in judgement over me, to prevent me from conducting an official army investigation? A bunch of self-righteous law men carrying out frontier justice as they see fit."
"Captain, you " Buck interrupted.
"Im not finished Wilmington," Evans shouted. "You figure youve got me and every one of my men pegged in a neat little hole. All for one, and one for all, is that it? Yes, I want to see justice done, and I pray God Sgt. Larabee is innocent. But damn it, Wilmington, if Wil Larabee is guilty of murdering that boy I want to see him hang for it. I want to see him hang for it more than you do. Because in that one reckless, self-avenging act he has sullied the name of every man under my command. And my own as well. And mister, Ive fought too long, too hard, and seen entirely too much to have my name dragged down into the dirt with the likes of him."
"Theyve gone out to Chris place," said Nathan quietly.
Buck glared at him, but Nathan faced him down.
"I dont want to see no one else get hurt," he said. "And I dont know that Chris is thinkin straight enough to keep that from happenin do you?"
Wilmington looked at Josiah and J.D., then back to the captain.
"Ill take you there."
+ + + + + + +
"I figured you find me here," said Wil as he saw Chris approach. "Saw you head off toward town this mornin. Knew theyd tell you I was gone."
Chris dropped the reins to his horse and walked slowly toward Wil. His heart was pounding, his stomach churned.
"What happened, Wil?" he asked.
"Lets ride out of here together, Chris," Wil said. "You and me. Brothers ridin the West together. What do you say?"
"I want you to tell me you didnt have anything to do with all this."
"Is it goin to make that much difference to you?" Wil asked.
Chris looked confused, shook his head.
"Will it make any difference? Wil were talkin about murder here."
"You still dont see it, do you?" Wil asked. "It aint murder to rid the earth of vermin. Since when do you hang a man for steppin on a rat?"
Chris choked back the bile that rose in his throat. He saw his brothers eyes calm, questioning and insane.
"I am sorry about that friend of yours, Chris," he said.
"No " Chris whispered, backing away.
"Now, I aint takin all the blame for it, though. If you wouldnt go around befriendin em like that "
"Oh God," Chris prayed.
"Hes a Reb, Chris, dontcha see that? They kill and maim look at this," he said, pointing to the eye patch. "They done that, Chris. And see they gotta pay for that, right? All those murderin sons a bitches gotta pay "
"Chris. Step aside."
Vin was suddenly there, walking slowly out of the woods. Blood soaked his shoulder, the wound having reopened from the trackers frantic ride. Chris saw the harsh sunlight reflecting off the barrel of his gun. The gun pointed at Wil.
"Wil. The army wants you. You come in quiet, youll get a fair trial," said Vin.
Wil tensed. Chris saw his eyes go cold dead. His mouth spread into an awful, lurid grin.
"God damn you rebel bastard," Wil said quietly. He turned, his gun swinging to face Vin as the shot rang out.
Wil Larabee turned slowly back to face his brother. Chris ran forward to catch him as he fell to the ground. The gunslinger looked up at Vin who stood staring at Ezra as the gambler lowered his smoking gun.
+ + + + + + +
The army arrived minutes after Ezra had pulled the trigger. Now they stood at a distance as Chris knelt beside the blanketed form of his brother. Josiah had said his halting words of comfort to Chris, then went to join J.D. and Buck who spoke in hushed tones with Capt. Evans. Nathan had tended to Vins shoulder, applied a fresh bandage to his wound, then watched in frustration as Vin mounted Peso and rode away before he could say a word.
Chris heard the footsteps behind him but did not move when the gambler spoke.
"I do not apologize for my lineage as a son of the South," Ezra began. "Nor do I make a secret of the fact that in my heart of hearts there shall burn an eternal flame of remembrance for the Confederacy and its gentleman general. While I could never defend the insidious institution of slavery any more than I could raise a hand against Mr. Jackson, there was a romance to the South that shall remain forever trampled under the feet of Shermans rebels. A portion of my soul may be stained with that remembrance as long as I draw breath, yet I would have sold it in its entirety to have not pulled that trigger. I assure you, Chris, I took no pleasure in it."
Chris turned to face him. Ezras eyes were full of an emotion Larabee had never seen, had never thought to see. The gambler was searching for any trace of forgiveness in the man before him.
"To my deepest dismay, I harbor now an almost tangible fear that this action has placed a wedge between us, destroyed a friendship I have come to cherish beyond all expectations. It is, I find, an almost unbearable thought."
Chris looked down at the body before him.
"I dont know if Vin couldve pulled that trigger. And Wil wouldve killed Vin for sure," he said quietly, then looked up at the gambler. "I wont forget you saved Vins life today."
"Still, he was your brother," said Ezra.
Chris stood and turned to walk away.
"My brother died in Kansas."
+ + + + + + +
The old woman opened the door and saw him standing before her. Silent, wounded, defeated. When he could not raise his eyes to meet hers, she knew. There was no need for details the bloody shirt and bandaged arm told her he had done all he could and also that it hadnt been enough. She took his chin in her hand and raised it.
"I thought " he started, but she put her hand across his mouth, then slid it behind his neck to bring his head to rest upon on her shoulder, her eyes brimming with unshed tears. When she heard the shuddering sigh escape his lips, felt the slight tremor in his shoulders, she put her arm around him, led him inside, and closed the door behind them.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee sat outside the saloon. He watched silently as Buck and J.D. talked briefly with Capt. Evans. His company was mounted, ready to leave. They had left the body of Wil Larabee behind, buried in the same soil as Sarah and Adam. It had been a difficult decision, but in the end Chris had decided to keep the memories of the past, of the brother that once was.
He sensed the quiet presence of the tracker and waited as Vin settled easily into the chair beside him. They had not spoken since the death of Wil Larabee, both fully aware of the tension that existed among the others while words remained to be spoken between them, and by silent agreement they had chosen this time.
"Im glad you decided to keep him here," said Vin. "Nothin that happened here changes the fact that he was there when you needed him."
"I was wrong about him, Vin," Chris answered. "Almost cost you your life."
"It was a price I was willin to pay."
Chris turned finally to look at Vin.
"It wouldve been too high a price for me," Chris said. He noticed that the bruising was still vivid on Vins jaw and had caught the tracker on more than one occasion rubbing his sore shoulder. The sling was gone, but he had taken to hooking the thumb of his left hand in his gun belt to take some of the weight off the healing wound.
"You know, I dont know if I ever even gave your fightin for the Confederacy more than a single thought. I guess I just couldnt believe my own brother wouldnt be able to see past it."
"I dont know, Chris. I think sometimes a man like Wil, he sees somethin, somethin happens to him, he just gets mad. Wants someone to pay for it. In Wils case it just happened to be convenient to blame an old enemy."
Chris watched as Ezra Standish walked down the street, paused when he caught Chris eye, and tipped his hat. Chris nodded back and watched the gambler as he strode into the saloon. Larabee looked back to Vin and caught the trackers eyes.
"About what I said before, at the church " he began.
Vin looked away, raising a hand to stop him.
"No, Vin," Chris insisted. "I want you to know youre the best of what he was, back then. The best of what any brother could ever be."
Vin nodded, his heart full and heavy in his chest. He looked away from Chris and raked his hair back with his hand.
"Hell, Chris," he said finally, "dont it hurt to think of all the fellas like us that mighta been friends back in 63 but ended up killin each other instead?"
Chris nodded silently. "Maybe thats what makes us bein friends so important. Feels like maybe we owe em a debt. Maybe what we got here can make some sense of it all."
"620,000 dead. That aint never gonna make any sense." He looked up at his friend. "But if it is my debt, Im damned glad to be payin it with Chris Larabee."
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