They rode, and rode, and rode out under the twilight sky. In the deepening night, Vin rode, felt the wind in his hair and the tearing pain in his shoulder, and all he could hear was the thunder of his horse's hooves against the hard desert floor as he leaned over the animal's neck, and rode.
They pounded on for what seemed like forever, until they finally slowed their horses down in the shadow of a large group of rocks a couple of miles outside of Four Corners. Hornet's Rock.
Nathan trotted his horse over, slid down and walked over to where Josiah was wincing in the saddle.
"Either of you get shot anywhere else?" he asked as he helped the big man get down.
Vin eased himself off his horse, came over with the bridle dangling in his fingers and his hand clamped against his shoulder.
"I think I'm all right," he said laconically, peering at Nathan in the dusky darkness.
Josiah leaned against the rocks, a dim outline to the other men. "Just got this ball in my leg. Reckon that's enough."
"Hm." Nathan said. "Well, both of you set yourselves down and get comfortable. I'm gonna make us up a fire, and get you taken care of."
Nathan walked off to the horses, and Vin and Josiah sat down in the cool dirt. There was silence for a few moments. Then Vin looked up, saw a flash in the distance, then soft thunder. He watched it, not moving, saw the lightning again. "Josiah?"
"Hm?" A rustling movement in the darkness.
"How's Mrs. Travis?"
"Oh, she's all right." A grunt as Josiah sat up. "She was awful scared, but not too bad hurt. More riled than anything else."
Vin heard a smile in that voice, and believed it. "And JD?"
"Last I saw, he was holdin' his own."
Vin's hand went to his shoulder. "Hope he's okay."
"Ezra's lookin' after him," Josiah said reassuringly. "And now Buck is too, and I'd just like to see somebody try to get past Buck to hurt JD. He'll be all right."
There was another pause, longer. Vin shook his head. "Sure has been a lifetime these past few days."
"That it has." Josiah agreed, gingerly rolling up his pants leg.
Another pause, long and quiet. Vin heard the gentle rustle of twigs and brush being set up for kindling, listened to it for a moment before saying, "Reckon we'll all be goin' our separate ways."
A small sigh from Josiah. "If it's meant to be that way."
Vin looked in Josiah's direction, even though the preacher was now only a dim outline against the darkening sky. "You thinkin' it ain't?"
There was another pause, and Vin could just barely make out Josiah leaning back against the cool rock, and tilting his head back to study the clouded sky before answering.
"I honestly don't know, Vin," he said quietly. "But there's a lot of things need doin' before we say our goodbyes, and I got the feelin' what happened tonight was a second chance."
"Or the last nail in our coffin," Vin said wryly, feeling in his pocket for some jerky.
"They need us," Josiah said in a quiet, firm voice. "Those scared, misguided people, they need us to keep 'em from the dangers of this world, at least until some real, permanent law shows up. Conklin tried, but we know what happened with that. We aren't pretty, but we do the job."
Vin nodded agreement, found the jerky and pulled it out of his pocket. "Yeah, we scare the devils away, all right. Like a, a, what do you call it when you take a demon outta someone?"
A pause. Vin could almost feel Josiah looking at him. "An exorcism?"
"Yeah, that 's it." Vin tore off a piece of jerky, chewed on it thoughtfully for a minute before sighing, "I don't think we got 'em all, though. Gonna have some more exorcism come mornin'."
"I think we can count on it," Josiah commented, leaning back against the rock.
Vin looked at the scudding clouds overhead. "Wonder where Chris is at."
"On his way back," Josiah answered, crossing his arms. "If he knows what's good for him."
Vin shook his head. "Even if we go back and clear out those outlaws, gonna be a whole 'nother problem when he shows up."
"Mm-hmm." Josiah agreed. There was a few moments silence, then Josiah said, "Vin, you been closer to Chris than most of us 'cept Buck."
Vin ducked his head down and look at his hands.
"You ain't said much," Josiah observed, his voice full of concern. "You handlin' all this okay?"
Vin took another bite of jerky, chewed it. "We all got ghosts," he said slowly, quietly, "And Chris, his are eatin' at him something fierce. But he had no call to do what he did."
He paused. There was the rumble of more thunder in the distance.
"Now I ain't known Chris as long as Buck," Vin continued, still in his soft, unhurried speech, "But I seen that inside that leather hide is a good man. Ain't perfect, but worth knowin'. And until this, he ain't done nothin' I'd walk away from him for."
Josiah waited a moment before asking quietly, "And now?"
Another sigh, long and regretful.
"I know what it's like to have to live with things you done," Vin said, "Chris comes back, he's pretty much admitting he's got to live with this the rest of his days. I can respect that in a man."
Vin heard the sharp crack of flint and tinder. A few sparks, some yards distant.
"If he don't come back..." Vin's voice carried the same quiet lilt it always did, but he shifted his weight before saying, "If he don't come back, he ain't ready to face it yet. And I could understand that."
The last rays of light were dying out now. Vin looked at his friend in the dimmest of light. "But I couldn't respect it."
The thunder rumbled closer, the clouds passed overhead.
The light was gone.
+ + + + + + +
The light was gone...
Chris stared into the little fire he'd built in the stone fireplace, the only part of his home still standing. It was dark now; the last glimmer of light, filtered through thick storm clouds, had faded away. Chris had watched in fascination as the world got darker, inch by inch. He could see everything, then the outlying trees disappeared, then the shattered remains of the old barn. A few more minutes, and the darkness swallowed the corral and the windmill beyond it. Then, finally, there was nothing left but this tiny fire, the cold stones around it, and Chris, sitting in front of the half-demolished stone structure with his eyes glaring sullenly at the fire, at the charred timbers that spiked upward around, at nothing at all. Chris, alone and miserable. And drunk.
It had been hard, taking that first swallow. It had burned, seared his throat, and Chris almost threw it up, but didn't. It hurt like hell, but it hurt less than remembering, less than being in this world he'd hated, that hated him, that he'd screwed up so badly. It hurt a little less. Then he took another swallow, and another, and soon it hurt a lot less.
And now...now it was like an old friend had come back, one he thought he'd never see again. It didn't feel good to be drunk, but it felt familiar. I don't have any real friends left. Chris wrapped his hand around the half-empty second bottle. But I've got this. And when I don't have this anymore...
The gun was close, not in his hand but lying on the soot-covered planking nearby. Chris had been wavering all day about his decision. He knew he couldn't go back, but didn't know where to go if he didn't. Back to Indiana? But there was nothing there, no family, no one who would be even accepting of him. Mexico, maybe. Maybe he could be a lawman again...
But no. Tears stung Chris' eyes as he grasped the bottle and leaned the neck against his face. No, everything reminded him of what he'd done, what he'd ruined. The law reminded him of JD. Mexico made him think of Purgatorio, and Vin. There was nowhere he could go where the ghosts of what he'd done wouldn't find him. Nowhere he could hide that the sight of JD, sitting dejected and broken in a wheelchair in some lonely room, wouldn't haunt his soul. He didn't deserve forgetfulness, or escape, and he knew it. He deserved to die.
But, a drink first. Chris held the bottle up in front of the dancing flames, watched the light refract through the liquid. He thought of the poker game they'd all been in on the week before, and his gut wrenched at the memory. Oh, Jesus. This time he didn't try to stop the tears that welled in his eyes, Jesus, it's gone. They're all gone, I did what Fowler and his men and Wickes and the warden couldn't do if they all tried together for a thousand years. I split us up.
Well - Chris took a swig out of the bottle, here's to you, Vin. You tried, harder than you should have. Wanted to help you with Tascosa. Jesus, don't get hung. Maybe you'll find my body, God, I hope you don't. But if there was anybody on earth I would trust to take that note in my pocket and do what it says, it's you.
Chris took another swallow. Buck, I guess I let you down worst of all. You really wanted it to be like the old days, like nothing ever happened. Even right after Sarah died, you couldn't stand it that I wasn't moving on. I'm sorry, but sometimes you just can't. You'll probably hate me for the rest of your life, but at least I got one comfort: as long as you're there, JD won't be alone, and I know he'll have somebody looking after him. You were always a good friend, Buck.
The whiskey swirled in the bottle for a moment before Chris took another drink, and thought of Nathan. God, Nathan, you had the hardest life out of any of us. People whipped you and used you and chained you up, but you didn't resent it. I won't ever understand that, but whenever one of us was hurt, there you were. Even if it was someone we didn't know, you never asked questions or made conditions, you just wanted to help. You saved Buck's life, rode with Vin after the Indian Chanu tried to kill him, stitched JD up. You helped us all out. If it weren't for you, we'd all probably be dead. And you brought us together, but you probably don't like to think on that. Guess we all owe you.
Ezra. Chris took another drink. Ezra, I don't know you. You don't want to be known, and I can understand how life can drill on a man till he wants to hide, but don't stay in that place. You turn inward after a while, eat at yourself like an animal caught in a trap, and it kills you. Kills your soul. Slowly, if you're strong. It's a nightmare life, Ezra, but you don't have to be the man I turned into, cut off and alone. You got friends, even if it don't seem that way. I don't know you, Ezra, but somebody should, sometime, just so there's more to your death than a handful of dirt tossed into a grave. You got a second chance, Ezra. Take it.
There was a soft rumble in the distance, and Chris glanced up at the sky before taking another swallow. Josiah, I got to hand it to you. Probably nobody else in the town would have talked to me that night, a few would have shot me on sight, but you didn't. I think - I don't remember, but I think you tried to help me, tried to tell me it could be all right. But that was before you knew how bad JD was hurt, before the town turned on all of you. After everything we've been through, all the rottenness of humanity - after seeing the absolute worst in me, you still wanted to lend a hand. You said my demons were legion, and I know you wanted them to go away as badly as I did. Maybe you thought they could go away, but they didn't. I'm sorry they won. I'm sorry they took the town away from you, and your church you were working so hard on. But there's other towns that need you, that will listen and be kinder to you. And I know you'll pray for me, not that it will do any good. But it's a comfort, to know that someone's making the effort.
One more left. One swallow in the bottle.
JD. Chris winced as the tears came. Christ, JD...
Don't give up. I know I hurt you, I know you're crippled, I know this world doesn't offer much to you right now, but please don't give up. You looked up to me, and I nearly killed you, and I can see your eyes now, they're cold and hard and bitter, and that scares me so bad. We teased you about your starry-eyed worship, thought it was funny that you came all the way west just to be a gunfighter and follow your dreams. I tried to chase you off at first. Of course, that didn't work, and you thought I was just brushing you aside, but that wasn't it. Deep inside I was afraid for you, afraid because I knew that someday, somehow, those dreams would be taken from you. I knew that one day, you would realize that dreams can be useless, that there is nothing to strive for, that life is pain and suffering, and nothing happens after. I knew you'd find those things out someday, and I didn't want to be around, because it hurt when it happened to me. It hurt so much, and all I had to do was look at you and I knew that when it happened to you, it would damn near kill you.
And now it has. And I'm responsible.
Find some hope, JD. Don't fold in on yourself like I did after I lost Sarah and Adam. Don't be like me. I know you always said you wanted to, but I'm empty inside. You don't know, but it's cold and dark where I am, and I'm afraid now you might follow me where I'm going, and there's no hope here. I can leave everything else, but I can't leave this world with the thought that in twenty years, you're going to be sitting hollow-eyed in some dusty room and decide to blow your brains out because it hurts too much to go on. I need you to live, JD. If you do that, you'll be a better man than I ever was.
One swallow left. Chris lifted the bottle. For JD. As the firelight glowed around the glass bottle, he tipped the container over and let the last of the whiskey run onto the floorboards, and out of sight.
+ + + + + + +
Buck took the stairs up to Nathan's two at a time, his heart pounding at the sight of the dead outlaws scattered on the cold earth around the alley. His sudden panic was relieved when he reached the wide balcony, and saw Ezra talking to some man he didn't recognize. They were standing on the narrow stretch in front of Nathan's door, which was slightly open, allowing a thin shaft of golden light to split the darkness of the walkway in two.
"Evenin', boys," Buck said, glancing around. "Everything all right here?"
Ezra glanced toward the door, and at that moment Buck realized that Mary was standing outside too, on the other side of the door in the shadows. He could hardly see her, but she had her arms crossed and Buck knew that meant something was bothering her, very much.
"Well," Ezra said, looking back toward Buck. "None of us is injured, if that's what you're asking - "
"You sure?" Buck gave an incredulous smile and nodded toward the cuts and red marks on Ezra's face, and his eyes widened when he saw the bloody spots on his shirt. "You look like you caught the wrong end of a bull."
"Oh - " Ezra glanced down, brushed at the spots even though they'd long since dried. "These are courtesy of one of those miscreants, but Mr. Alderman here was of great assistance."
"Is that right?" Buck looked Tims up and down appraisingly.
"There's more," Ezra said mysteriously, and looked at Buck intently. "But right now there is another matter that requires your attention."
Buck's eyebrows went up, and he looked at Mary in concern. "There is?"
Mary beckoned him to the doorway. Frowning, Buck walked over. Mary put her hand on his arm just in front of the door, and when Buck's eyes met hers he saw concern there, and a helplessness he wasn't used to seeing in the steel-willed lady. She nodded toward the open doorway, and Buck looked. And understood.
The solitary lamp by JD's bedside was turned down very low, so low it almost wasn't burning anymore. By that dim light, Buck saw JD hunkered down in the bed, his knees drawn up, his battered face staring ahead at nothing. His face had a strange, knotted look to it, and he wore a brooding frown that seemed focused on some small world just in front of him, to the excusion of all else.
Buck took a step forward. JD didn't move.
Mary kept her hand on Buck's arm, drew him back. "He's been like that since the gunfight," she whispered. "He won't talk to anybody. I was hoping maybe you..."
"What happened?" Buck asked tightly, his eyes riveted on the inexpressibly sad look on JD's face.
Mary let out a regretful sigh. "He was trying to protect me, we had a chair braced against the door and it fell off. He tried to put it back, but...well, he still can't..."
Buck's breath went in ragged, and his eyes widened slightly as he nodded. "All right."
Mary glanced from JD to Buck, from the lonely figure in the darkened room to the hardened gunslinger limned by a single shaft of struggling light. "Mr. Wilmington, if there's - "
"No," Buck said softly but urgently, waving Mary away. Ezra and Tims glanced over, and he shook his heads at them too. "Ezra, you get Mrs. Travis to the church and stay with her. She shouldn't be outdoors on a night like this."
Ezra nodded, his face soft and unusually vulnerable-looking in the dim light. He put one ruffled-sleeved hand out, and Mary gave Buck a final encouraging squeeze on the shoulder before she took it, and Ezra and Tims led her carefully down the stairs.
After they left, Buck stood there for a moment, staring into the room. JD's head was down, he almost looked asleep, but Buck knew better. He'd seen it before, that half-crying face, the defeated slope of those bandaged shoulders, the dispirited air that seemed to permeate the room, to spill beyond it out into the darkness to engulf whatever it touched. He'd seen all of that before, and had hated it. And he hated it even more now.
Dammit, Chris. I thought I was through with all this.
Then he quietly stepped inside.
+ + + + + + +
JD didn't look up when Buck entered, kept staring ahead in the low light, his huge hazel eyes staring at his knees in sullen obsession. Buck kept his silence, walked as quietly as he could to the side of the bed and sat down in the chair. Still JD didn't move, seemed complelety oblivious, totally still except for the slight rise and fall of his chest and, every once in a while, a slow blink of his long-lashed eyelids.
Buckwinced when he saw JD up close. God, he looks terrible. The youth seemed to have aged ten years since the previous night; his skin looked drawn, tight, and there were circles under his eyes, which looked red and bleary. There was no color to his face at all, except for the dark maroon of the healing bruise and two small spots of color on his cheeks. His hair hang limp and unheeded in his eyes, half-hiding the incredible sorrow Buck saw there. His good hand sat unmoving in his lap, and every inch of him signalled depression and surrender as he sat slumped in the tiny light from the oil lamp, cut off from the world and struggling alone.
Buck wanted to speak, but was irrationally afraid that if he did JD might shatter, the boy looked so strained. So he sat, and waited.
After what seemed like an eternity, JD's eyes moved, just a little bit, toward Buck. Buck gave a small smile, but they moved back to where they were.
"Leave me alone, Buck," JD said quietly in thick, discouraged tones.
Buck shifted in his seat a little, tilted his head toward his young friend, but didn't rise.
There was a long pause, then JD murmured, "I said, leave me alone."
"Can't do that," Buck said gently, without making any sudden moves. "Wanted to talk to you about San Francisco."
"I'm not going to San Francisco," JD replied in the same choked voice, low and depressed. "I don't want to go anywhere."
Buck brought his chin up, looked at JD. Oh Christ, don't do this.
The youth glanced at Buck again, then winced as he looked at his hand, the color in his cheeks rising. "I'm useless, Buck. You can go if you want, just - leave me here, okay?"
"No," Buck answered in a soft voice, shaking his head and leaning toward JD. "No, it's not okay, and I sure ain't leavin' you here."
"Why?" JD asked in a slightly louder voice, and now his head came up and Buck was met with glaring, angry eyes. "Buck, what's the difference? I'm crippled here or I'm crippled there. It doesn't matter where I go." His voice trailed off, and he went back to staring at his lap.
"Yeah, but there might be people who can help you in San Francisco," Buck urged, praying that he could find some way through the shell of isolation that JD had thrown up around himself. "There's doctors there, Nathan said so himself. They - "
"They what?" JD suddenly asked, and when he looked up Buck saw tears in JD's eyes. "What, they can show me a better way to use a wheelchair? Or a way to lie in bed so I don't get sores? Or how about new ways to get into the outhouse, since I can't walk in there anymore?"
Buck started back, alarmed by the acid self-hatred he saw in JD's eyes.
"Or I've got some new ones for them," JD snarled, the tears spilling over his lashes and drawing bright trails down both battered cheeks. "How about they show me how to pass the time when all I've got to do is stare at the walls all day? Or how to forget what it used to feel like when I went out riding? Or maybe - " He took a great, hitching breath. "Maybe they can show me how I'm supposed to find a girl who don't care that I'm a cripple, when there's a million men out there that can walk just fine. Can they do that, Buck? Cause that's what I need."
Buck blinked at JD, astonished. The youth stared at him with huge, welling eyes, his face red with anguish as he cried, "I need to know why this happened to me, Buck. I need to know what I'm supposed to do now that I ain't no use to anybody."
Buck couldn't take it anymore. "JD - "
"I'm not!" JD yelled with a sob, bringing his hand up to rake it through his hair. "Mrs. Travis needed me to protect her, and I couldn't. The chair fell off the door, and I couldn't even crawl, Buck! It had to go back under the - the - and I couldn't even get to it! She could have been killed, and I...I..."
"Now you just hush about that," Buck suggested, moving a little closer. "Mrs. Travis don't blame you for that. You're still gettin' better, it's not your fault- "
"No I'm not!" JD shouted hoarsely, making a fist and slamming it onto the bed fiercely. "I'm gonna stay this way forever, Buck, face it. And it is my fault, all of this is. If I'd just left Chris alone, none of this would have happened."
Buck felt himself bristling at JD's self- incrimination. "JD, there ain't no way you asked for what happened to you. Chris was - "
"He wanted to be left alone," JD said firmly, wiping the tears from his eyes and shaking his head. "He just wanted me to leave him alone, and I wouldn't. I didn't, and now he's gone, and we're all split up, and the town's in a mess, and Mrs. Travis got beat up, and it all started because I was too stupid to know when to mind my own damn business."
"No, JD," Buck said, and a weird feeling coursed through him, that he'd had this conversation before. Chris. After Sarah and Adam were killed, and before Chris ran off, that's what they'd been arguing about. Chris had said, it's my fault they're dead, and Buck had argued with him. And Chris had broken his ribs. "No, son, you got it all wrong."
But JD was folding inward again, shaking his head forlornly at the bedsheets, his eyes full of guilt and loss, his breath coming in heaving gasps.
"I don't even know what I did," JD said in a floundering way as his hand went back up to brush against his hair. "I must have made him mad, I mean I didn't think that he would - I tried to get away, but he just kept grabbing me, and I just kept thinking - " JD paused again, drew in a shaking breath, "Stop it, Chris. Stop it, it's me. It's me. But he didn't stop."
Buck saw the dazed look in JD's eyes, could almost see the boy slipping back into that nightmare. Alarmed, he reached forward and pressed his hand on JD's arm.
JD flinched away and bent forward, his good hand raking again and again through his hair as he spoke, and his voice sounded faint and far away. "He didn't stop, Buck. I asked him to, why didn't he hear me? I know he was drunk but he still should have known it was me. I mean, he - " JD started rocking slowly, back and forth, and his voice became flat and stunned. "He hit me and he kicked me and I was screaming at him, but he just, just picked me up and threw me and I couldn't stop him, I couldn't stop him, Buck, and he was laughing, he was - he was laughing like he thought it was great and I wanted him to know it was me, but he just laughed and grabbed my shoulder and - he just - "
Something happened at that moment, something inside JD where Buck couldn't see it, but there was a moment where JD took in a huge breath and held it, just held it as if it were his last defense; then JD broke down and cried, four days of harrowing strain finally breaking through the infant walls of manliness he'd been so carefully erecting. They splintered like dry kindling, and JD bent his head into his good hand and wept as if his heart would break.
"Aw, shit," Buck muttered, unsure for a moment what to do. His heart ached to see JD suffering so much, but dim memories of Chris' reaction to any type of comfort held him back. For ten whole seconds.
Then he moved forward, carefully, and sat on the bed next to where JD was huddled, his slight frame wracked with grating sobs. Putting his arm around JD's shoulder, Buck gently leaned him over, so JD was setting against his side. Then Buck rested his hand on JD's good shoulder, lightly but definitely there, and waited for the tears to subside.
Unlike Chris, JD didn't fight him, didn't argue or shout or try to hit him. You ain't got the strength, Buck thought sadly as he watched JD rail against the world. You poor kid, none of us could have handled all of this any better, and I'd have given the rest of my life if it had been me that got this instead of you. You go on and cry, kid, ain't nothing unmanly about what you got to get rid of. Just let ol' Buck be here for ya.
It seemed like an eternity, but eventually the sobs turned quieter, quieter, stopped. JD brought his head up in embarrassment as Buck took his arm away from the boys' shoulder and eased his way back onto the chair.
"Sorry," JD mumbled, and sniffed.
Buck scratched his moustache and eyed JD carefully. "Nothin' to say sorry for, son. Got it all out?"
JD looked at the floor, and shrugged. "I don't know. It just...it hurts, Buck. All of it hurts."
"I know, kid," Buck said sympathetically, leaning forward again and looking into those wounded hazel eyes.
JD's eyes darted to the door, and a little fear crept into his eyes. "You won't tell anybody I was cryin'?"
"Were you cryin'?" Buck asked with a conspiratorial smile. "Didn't notice."
JD smiled back, a little, then his shoulders slumped again and he shook his head. "I just don't know what to do, Buck. It's like everything's been turned inside out."
Buck tilted his head.
"I mean - " JD looked at Buck with a kind of bewilderment. "I used to look up to Chris, but now...I don't think I'm ever gonna be able to look at him the same way again. It's like he's this whole other person."
Buck felt an old, familiar twinge in his stomach, thought of how he'd felt when he realized that the man that he'd been denying was capable of beating JD to a bloody pulp was, in fact, very capable of such an act. You knew it for three years. You just didn't want to admit it.
"And this whole thing with the town," JD continued, raising his head and looking out the window at the darkness. "Even if they clear Vin's name and we all get together again, it ain't gonna be the same. I don't think a lot of people want us here, Buck. So maybe we shouldn't stay anyway."
Buck looked at JD inquisitively. "You sayin' you want to go to San Francisco?"
JD looked down and shrugged. After a pause he looked back up again and said, "I don't want to go. But - don't want to stay here neither. Not with things the way they are."
Buck nodded. He knew exactly what his young friend meant.
"I guess - I don't know what I want." JD muttered, then coughed, wincing as his broken ribs bothered him. He stared at the floor for a few moments, then said, "Hey, Buck?"
Buck took a small breath. "Yeah?"
"Think Chris'll come back?"
Buck sat a moment, and thought. "I hope he does, son. He's got a lot to answer for."
JD didn't move for a moment, then said bleakly, "Wonder if he's sorry."
"Josiah said he was," Buck commented, crossing his legs and trying not to think about the arrogance on Chris' face that morning, his angry, denying words, who else's fault is it, Buck?
JD's eyes came up, to gaze at the wall. "I guess it don't matter. Not to me, anyways."
There was a quiet bitterness to those words, so softly said they might have come out of a dream. Buck looked at JD's face, and while the tautness was gone, there was still a shadow there. Buck knew what he was seeing; the baby fat of innocence was gone from his young friend's face, leaving only the harsh, brick-hard features of one who would never worship heroes again. JD's heart had been broken, and even if he could jump out of bed and dance a jig right there, that wouldn't change the emnity in his soul. Buck knew that was there forever.
And felt his own heart break also.
+ + + + + + +
Chris felt his mind slipping, drifting backwards as he sat among the weed-choked remains of his home and cradled his hands around the neck of the unopened whiskey bottle. He was drunk, but he wanted to be drunker. The fire in front of him was blurry now, a brilliant dance of light and color that was almost hypnotic. Soon. Soon nothing will hurt anymore. Soon this will all be past.
Funny, how his life ended. Started out all right, typical young man, hot-headed and wanting adventure. Saw plenty of it, but it didn't hurt him. Came out west, met Sarah, started a family, those were the best times. Him and Sarah and Buck, and then Adam came along. Right here. Chris looked around in the darkness. There was nothing left of the room he remembered so well, nothing but a few charred timbers that loomed around him in the firelight. Don't look like much, but right here I knew laughter and love. Right here life meant something to me. Now I kind of wish it all hadn't happened.
Would he have gotten so drunk that night, if he hadn't been reminded of Sarah and Adam? What would he have done, if he hadn't bumped into Buck that morning and decided to go out for a ride? Most likely he would have gotten that haircut, gone over to the saloon, maybe played some cards with Vin. Probably it would have been back to the saloon that night, but he'd have had maybe one bottle, then turned in. And the next day would have dawned just fine.
Chris closed his eyes, felt his stomach lurch as he bent his head over the bottle. The next day would have been just like any other, he'd have gotten up, gone out, maybe seen JD sitting bored in front of the jail. Hey Chris, he heard the youthful tones ring in his head, you goin' somewhere? Want some company, it's kind of dull around here. Hang on, I'll get my hat...
Chris shook his head, stared at the fire, ignoring its searing brilliance. His eye fell to the gun, gleaming just out of arm's reach. Not ready yet. But soon.
His life was over. He had thought it was over after Sarah and Adam died, then decided that while their killers went free, he couldn't rest. His anger drove him, sometimes to the brink of madness, but Chris never minded. Then he met the others, found Buck again, and for a while - just for a while - he began to think maybe life didn't have to stink.
Sometimes it did; Chris grimaced as his mind once more went back to his hellish incarceration, the sadistic Warden, the horrible, unjust cruelty that he'd been forced to witness while in that prison. But he'd talked to Josiah about it once, and Chris remembered that Josiah had pointed out that maybe Chris' purpose for enduring that was to help people. You gave those men back some of their self-respect, Josiah had said. If it hadn't been for you, maybe nobody would have ever known that some of those men were being falsely held. And that one man, inmate forty-six, you saved his life when the warden wanted to kill him. God does nothing randomly. You were meant to be there.
Chris grunted and gripped the bottle tighter, wondering at his own stupidity. At the time, what Josiah said had made sense, but now...it was all random, all of it, the good and the bad. JD was an okay kid, and now he was crippled for the rest of his life. Fowler was evil incarnate, and he got away with killing a woman and an innocentchild for three years. And whoever hired him was still free, and in his depression Chris knew he'd never find him.
So it's all random, Chris decided, setting down the bottle. Darcy was right, probably. If he didn't go back the men would hate him, but so what? If he did go back, they'd hate him. Or maybe they wouldn't, maybe they'd forgive him someday, but again, so what? They'd all drift apart eventually, or maybe they'd all get killed doing some stupid brave deed. Then people would talk about their courage and gallantry - maybe - for a week. Then it would be forgotten forever. And everything that was wrong with the world would still go on, and on, and on.
Oh, what the hell. Chris glanced with red eyes at the gun at his feet. Just do it now and get it over with.
Chris set the bottle to the side, leaned forward to grab the gun. At that moment he saw someone moving toward him in the shadows, just behind the fireplace. His body registered alarm, but too slowly for Chris to do much else besides make a sloppy lunge for the gun, which he missed the first time, but the second time caught in scrabbling fingers. He blinked blearily and sat up, almost falling over.
Then the figure walked closer, and his fear turned to anger. It was Darcy Thomas.
Chris lurched to his feet, kicking over the whiskey bottle as he stood. "What the hell are you doing here?" he growled in disbelieving fury. The son of a bitch had followed him.
Darcy walked calmly around to the steps, slowly came up them to stand on the charred floorboards with Chris. He stared at him, but didn't say anything.
"God dammit," Chris seethed, the alcohol bringing his temper to the surface at lightning speed, "You saw my note. You heard what that sheriff said. Get to Four Corners and leave me the hell alone."
He turned around with a slight stagger, his eyes searching for the whiskey bottle he'd knocked over. Behind him he heard Darcy say quietly, "I'll not go to Four Corners without you, Chris Larabee."
"Oh, Jesus Christ!" Chris spat, whirling at Darcy and stabbing him with a vicious glare, "Can't you take a fucking hint?" He lifted up the gun, brought it down to puncuate his words. "I - can't - go - back."
Darcy just looked at him, glowing red and orange in the light of the fire.
Chris sneered at him as he wavered on the floorboards. "So you can forget your Irish words of wisdom and your 'everything's gonna be all right', because it won't. Not for me, not for JD, not for anybody. You got my ring, and you know what I want. Just leave me alone. I got things to do here."
Darcy held his hand up, and glittering there Chris saw his wedding ring. Darcy shook his head. "I can't let you do this, Chris. I've been down your roads, even this one. I can't force you to go, but I can beg you to reconsider."
Chris cocked his head, looked at Darcy as though he were insane. "You don't let up, do you? I don't want to be saved. What I done there ain't no comin' back from."
"Yes, there is," Darcy argued gently, lowering his hand. "It isn't easy. But it can be done."
"No, it can't," Chris replied miserably, his eyes on the fire, thinking of another time, another fire. "Things happen in a man's life he can't get over, no matter how hard he tries. I can't help JD, but I can make sure it don't happen to nobody else."
"By killin' yerself?" Darcy nodded toward the gun. "You already know what I think of that route."
"Yeah, I know." Chris swaggered around, hoisted the gun. "I just don't care anymore. Now get out of here, mister, or so help me, I'll make you sorry you stayed."
Darcy's eyes glittered. "Ye want to fight me, do ye?"
"I want you to get lost," Chris grumbled, then kicked something, heard a familiar glassy thud. The whiskey bottle.
Darcy set his feet firmly on the floorboards. "Well, I won't. Ye're out of yer head with drink and fear, so it looks like it's up to me to make sure the memories of yer wife and son don't die here with ye. I'm doin' this for them ye know, and for Reddie and Kate. Just so's ye know, me mind's made up."
Chris' breath started coming in heaving gulps, and when he wrapped his hand around the neck of the whiskey bottle he suddenly brought it up and flung it at the fireplace, shattering the bottle with a loud crash and causing the fire to flare up as the alcohol dripped into the flames.
"Damn it!" Chris shouted in drunken rage, his tortured face lit to glowing brilliance by the growing flames. "Will you stop wasting time on me and get the hell out of here! You can't save me! I've been dead for three fucking years! There's nothing left to save in me! Can't you get that through your thick skull?"
Darcy took a step closer, until he was only a foot away, his face a flickering mask of anguish. "My skull isn't half as thick as yers. But I'm at least twice as stubborn."
Chris gave Darcy a forceful shove, leaned forward and shouted, "God damn you! For the last fucking time, leave - me - ALONE!"
Darcy straightened himself up, squared his broad shoulders. And shook his head.
There was a hair's - breadth pause, then with a loud roar, Chris charged into Darcy and knocked them both off the foundation, and together they sailed into the cold dirt below.
Darcy grunted as he slammed into the earth, struggling against Chris, who had him by the throat. Chris sat up, reared back one fist and bashed Darcy across the jaw.
Darcy shook his head, then smiled. "All right, me bucko. I think it's time we got down to business." With that, he grabbed Chris' shirt and flung him off. Chris rolled over, and came to his feet with a feral growl.
"Ah, ye do have some fight left in ye," Darcy commented as the two men crouched at each other. "I kind of thought so."
"You bastard," Chris hissed, and swung at Darcy with all his strength.
Darcy ducked the blow, socked Chris in the gut. Chris doubled over, backed up and cracked Darcy with his right fist, then backed up a step.
"Ye call that a swing?" Darcy taunted. "Come now, if I was one of those demons ye live with ye wouldn't be so kind. Come on, when ye struck yer friend ye weren't thinkin' it was him! Were ye?"
Chris let out a drunken howl and bashed Darcy with a left hook that set the Irishman spinning. Still growling, Chris grabbed his shoulder and threw him to the ground, and flung himself at him.
Darcy caught Chris by the collar, tossed him onto his back and sprang to his feet.
"That's what I thought," he said, shaking his head. "It's yer anger, Chris Larabee, that's what's makin' ye give up. Yer enemies, they're still inside ye, and they're the ones sayin' there's nothin' in there to save. But I know different."
Chris staggered to his feet and swung again, jabbing Darcy in the stomach, but Darcy grabbed his arm and swung him around onto the ground. Snarling, Chris jumped back up and circled Darcy, both fists raised.
The Irishman followed suit, shaking his head as he dabbed at some blood on his mouth. "It's not you I'm fightin', is it, Chris? Who is it?"
"Go to hell!" Chris cried, swinging at Darcy with all his strength.
Darcy ducked, kept talking, his words low and fierce, his face a kaliedoscopic blaze against the nearby fire. "One of the men who killed yer family? That's who I'm seein' when I look in yer eyes. They're usin' ye, Chris, like they used me. They're the ones who want ye dead - "
"Shut up!" A two-fisted swing caught Darcy in the jaw, and he stumbled over.
He stood back up, shook his head to clear it, and still glaring at Chris cried, "Fight it, man! Fight the bastards that used yer body to beat up that young man! Ye're stronger than they are, ye know ye are! Fight it, Chris Larabee, ye stupid stubborn son of a bitch!"
Chris rushed Darcy then, threw him to the ground and pummelled on him, yelling until his voice was hoarse. Darcy fended off the blows with only a little difficulty, then swung up his leg and caught Chris in the side, flinging him off and getting to his feet.
Chris jumped to his feet as well, and for a moment they stood and stared at each other, the only sound theirhoarse, rasping breathing and the crackle of the fire some yards distant.
Chris' face was bloodied, his hair hung unchecked in his eyes. He glared at Darcy like a wild man and gasped in a rough voice, "I can't go back. You don't understand."
Darcy's fists hovered in front of his face. "Is that what ye think? Ye think I wasn't such a man, years ago? Ye think I didn't leave folks in Ireland who wonder to this day where I've gone?"
Chris' fists came down a little bit. Then back up. "Doesn't matter. This is different."
"Aye, it is." Darcy's eyes were still dangerous. "I can't go back. But I'll be damned if I let you make the same mistakes I did, and suffer as I have because of them."
The fists dropped a little further, but Chris was resolutely shaking his head. "I can't mend the mistakes I made, you know that. Jail term won't make JD walk again."
"That's true," Darcy admitted, still keeping his hands up as well. "But it's not yer Yankee pride we're talkin' about. We're fightin' over yer soul here, Chris Larabee. The one you keep sayin' isn't worth the time of day. But it is. It is, I know."
Chris jabbed forward, but not all the way, and Darcy easily stepped backwards and avoided it. Chris paused, stared at Darcy in angry frustration for a moment. Then, slowly, his hands came down and he sighed, and slumped in exhaustion to the ground. "How do you know?"
"How do I know?" Darcy repeated in mild surprise, slouching down next to Chris in the firelit darkness. "I hear the stories, everywhere I go. Do ye not know what they're sayin' about ye in the small towns, in the taverns and the hills? Chris Larabee's a hero, they say."
Chris shook his head, stared at the ground. "Those are just stories."
"But they're true. How ye saved a group of lasses from a pimp who was usin' them ill. How ye risked yer own life to bring an escaped felon to justice. How ye rescued a host of men from a wrongful imprisonment."
"My men did all that," Chris muttered, running one hand through his blond hair.
"Well, aye, but who led them? Who did they look to? Those people need yer strength, Chris, they need yer drive and yer sharp mind. And don't ye think they're aware that ye have mountains to climb? Probably they're settin' somewhere right now, wonderin' if they'll ever see ye again."
"They hate me." Chris said with certainty, feeling his gut wrench.
But Darcy was shaking his head. "They hate yer anger. They hate yer demons. If ye came back without them, and showed all the people there what ye were willin' to do to make up for losin' yer self-control, they'll dance in the streets for ye, Chris. They will, I swear it."
Chris seemed to consider this, then his shoulders slumped, and he shook his head dejectedly. "You might be right, but...I'll never be able to look JD in the face again. He's lost the rest of his life because of me. I'm still not sure I could face that."
Darcy gave a small smile and said softly, "This Mr. Dunne is special to ye, is he?"
Chris thought about, gave a small nod. "He had a lot of spirit. Spirit I lost a long time ago."
Darcy sighed, brushed off his clothes. "After I left Ireland, I travelled around Europe for three years. They have ideas there, ways of taking care of people with Mr. Dunne's problem. I learned quite a bit, from visiting the spas and hospitals over there. Some people learned to get along quite well, even walked again."
Chris' eyes darted to him, surprised and hopeful. "Are you saying you can help him?"
Darcy cocked his head. "Well, it depends on his injury, and how much he wants to get better, but I'll do my best. I was plannin' on tellin' you this last night, but ye kind of took off on me. "
Chris felt suddenly numb. My God. He can help JD. Maybe he doesn't have to be crippled forever. Maybe he'll walk, and ride, and be happy. Maybe he won't turn into me. He'll have hope, a future.
Chris seemed in a daze, got up to his knees and gazed at Darcy earnestly. "Mr. Thomas, if you can help JD you can hogtie me to your horse if you want."
"Ah, well, that won't be necessary I'm sure," Darcy said lightly, standing up and straightening his jacket. "Besides, if that sheriff is correct about the town bein' overrun, I'll be wantin' ye to have both yer hands free. We may have to shoot our way in."
Chris stood up too, and suddenly his mind was racing. They'd have to ride hard to reach Four Corners by sunrise, but...the town was probably being overrun, and if the townspeople had run the others out, they'd need all the help they could get. Mary was probably right in the middle of it... "All right." Chris said quietly, tentatively, his stomach feeling unaccountably queasy. God, this was hard, harder than most anything he'd ever done, probably he'd get spit on, but...but the only way Darcy was going to get into Four Corners alive was if Chris made sure he got there. And then maybe, just maybe, Darcy knew something that would help JD walk again. For that, Chris decided anything he went through was worth it.
"All right," Chris said, louder and more sure. He looked at Darcy, his face serious and set and determined. "We're wasting time here. Let's go."
Darcy's smile was gentle and happy, and as they walked toward the house to put out the fire in the fireplace he put a hand on Chris' shoulder and said, "Ah, Mr. Larabee. Now yer young friend will see what a hero truly is."
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