The jail was dark and quiet when Josiah quietly turned the handle of the door and went inside. There was a single oil lamp glowing on Orin's desk as he sat reading some papers. The older man looked up at Josiah as he came in, nodded to him in greeting. Josiah glanced back at Chris' cell, but it was too dim to see very much; a dark shadow against a darker wall. That was all.
"Evening, Mr. Sanchez," Orin said in a quiet voice. "Can I help you?"
Josiah peered into the darkness again, tried hard to see Chris, but it was very hard..."Was wonderin' if I might have a word with the prisoner."
"You might," Orin said, glancing toward the dim little cell. "But he hasn't said much since this morning. If you'd like, I can step outside and get some air."
Josiah smiled a little. "You trustin' a renegade gunslinger, judge? Not very bright, in some people's opinions."
"Well, if I listened to some people's opinions," Orin said as he stood and picked up his hat, "a whole lot of people would be dead right now. I'll be back in an hour."
Josiah nodded his head, and the only sound in the jail was the quiet click of the door. In the heavy silence it thundered like a cannon, and then there was only silence again, silence and a melancholy darkness that Josiah fought as he walked the distance between the desk and the shadowed cell. He thought a moment, went back, and picked up the oil lamp. And walked toward the cell again.
Chris was sitting on the cot, elbows on his knees, hands folded together under his chin, staring into space. The low light of the oil lamp made him look ghostly, like a waxwork, and Josiah thought of the last time he'd really seen Chris, that terrible night after JD's beating. Then, Chris had been haggard, wild with remorse, soaking wet from the rain. And now -
- now he still looked haggard and remorseful, but quiet, almost eerily so. Josiah was used to Chris Larabee, the tightly wound watchspring. This man looked almost...relaxed.
Josiah quietly set the lamp on the floor, picked up the keyring that hung on a peg nearby. He looked at Chris, who hadn't yet turned his head, and cleared his throat.
A long pause, deep breaths. Then a quiet voice, sad and resigned. "Yeah."
Josiah knew Chris well enough to know what that single word meant, opened the jail door and stepped inside. He sat down next to Chris, leaned forward so they could see each other's faces. And waited.
There was another long pause, and Chris didn't move to look in Josiah's direction as he asked, "How's JD?"
"Better," Josiah answered, shivering as he recalled their last conversation, almost the same question,but a far less welcome answer. "Mr. Thomas looked him over, figures he can get him walking again. Just a matter of time. But he thinks JD's going to be all right." After a pause he added, "Vin's all right too, just lost a lot of blood. Thought you'd want to know."
Chris sighed deeply, leaned forward and ran his hands through his hair, and Josiah saw him shudder. But he didn't say anything.
Josiah looked down at Chris' hands, still scabbed and scarred but healing now, just like they all were. Very quietly he said, "Mary told us you brought Mr. Thomas here, for JD. That's going to make a big difference, Chris. Might buy you some charity among folks who otherwise wouldn't be so likely to give it."
"You mean Buck," Chris said, a raspy whisper. His eyes came halfway to Josiah's then, gaunt and haunted.
The preacher met them, and nodded. "And some others."
"Josiah, what's been happening?" Chris asked in the same soft whisper, regarding his friend with an imploring expression. "Tell me. I want to know what happened, after I left."
Josiah cocked his head, thought a moment before saying, "Some of it isn't pretty. Downright monstrous, in fact."
"Doesn't matter," Chris replied, and Josiah saw sincerity in that drawn face. "I want to know."
Josiah waited a beat, then said, "I'll make you a deal. I'll tell you what's been happening here, if you tell me what you've been up to these last four days."
Chris winced, looked at the floor.
"Because," Josiah said in his deep, even tones, "I don't think the Chris Larabee that left is the Chris Larabee that came back."
Chris brought his head up, peered at the oil lamp for a moment, heartbroken blue eyes framed by drooping fringes of dark blond hair. Then he slowly shook his head and said softly, "I'm not sure. But you might be right."
"You meet your demons?" Josiah asked in a low, soft rumble.
Chris stared at the oil lamp, nodded slowly. "Yeah. Some."
Another look at the floor, and Chris bit his lower lip before saying in a voice that was thick with regrets and tears, "Don't think they'll ever be gone."
Josiah sighed and sat back against the brick wall, regarded the eclipsed form of Chris, outlined in the lantern's glow next to him. There was a halo around him, framing the drooping shoulders, the unkempt hair, the sorrowful profile over folded, torn hands. Maybe the demons would never be gone. In the name of God, do not torment me...
Then Chris turned to Josiah, and in the reflected light the preacher saw him give a grim smile, saw his eyes light with a new determination as he said, "But I think I got 'em runnin'."
Josiah looked at Chris and smiled, slowly, felt a grim pride and didn't try to hide it.
Chris returned the smile and said in a quiet voice, "You first."
+ + + + + + +
JD stirred in the warm blankets, snuggled into them for a moment before the dull ache in his collarbone pulled him away from the heavy arms of sleep and rolled him into consciousness, and pain. With a small, muffled groan he opened his eyes a little, and looked around his room.
His room. He was finally back, sleeping in his own bed, just like before...for a brief, drowsy moment JD pretended that the attack had never happened, that it had all been some horrible dream and that in a moment Buck was going to come bouncing through the door and yell at him for dropping off when there was a kickass poker game going on at the saloon. A dream...it had all been a dream...
Then JD tried to move his left arm, and the dream shattered into sharp, jagged slivers of reality. He gasped before he could stop himself, and opened his eyes as wide as they would go.
The room was dim, so dim JD could hardly see it, but someone was moving in that gloom and for an instant JD was afraid. Then he heard a soft Irish lilt that he recognized say, "It's just me, JD, it's Darcy Thomas. Are ye hurtin'?"
JD looked up, squinted at the tall, dark form that was bending over him, and for some reason he thought of his mama, relived vague memories of nighttime scares, soft noises, someone bending close. JD thought for an instant of a few days before, when he had been convinced his mother was still alive, and suddenly he felt like crying that she wasn't, he hurt so much. Hurt -
Stop it. Grow up for heaven's sake. JD looked up at Darcy's anxious face and shook his head, mentally kicking himself for being such a big baby.
"Ye sure?" Darcy asked again, backing off a little but still hovering.
JD nodded, pushing himself up in the bed a little to show this doctor how fit he really was. "I'm all right." he said sleepily, and really tried not to wince as the pain tore his collarbone and set it on fire. He wanted to be better, really wanted it, and thought in his half-dreaming state that pretending would make it so. If only this Darcy didn't notice he was really hurting...
Darcy stood up, backed off a few more feet, but JD could see that he was still looking at him. "All right, then. Mr. Jackson's gone out for a bit, and he left me to watch over ye, if ye don't mind."
Nathan went out? Where? JD's eyes opened, really opened now, and he struggled to sit up in the bed as Darcy reached over and turned up the oil lamp.
"I don't mind." JD yawned, rubbing his eyes as they adjusted to the slightly higher light. "Did he go get something to eat?"
"'Fraid not," Darcy replied in a low voice, sitting back down in one of the wooden chairs. "They're havin' a meetin' over at the church, and he had to go. He'll be back before too long."
JD nodded a little, touched his bruised face tentatively. He hated to be so helpless in front of this man, who was a doctor and had been to Europe and probably lived the kind of life JD had only read about. He wanted to show off, strut like Buck did when he tried to impress women, but he couldn't. He was stuck in this stupid bed, and he hated it. And all because of...
JD touched his face again, frowned. "Are they talking about Chris?"
Darcy sighed, nodded. "D'ye want me to take ye over?"
A quick flush of fear overtook JD, and he thought taken over, that means carried around like a bag of flour. That would be so ... he shook his head and said, "No, that's okay. I...I don't know what I'd say anyway."
His collarbone felt like someone was taking it off with a saw. Swallowing the pain, he looked around the room to distract himself, noticed a small box on the table next to Darcy. It was hinged, and JD recognized it as a dageurreotype case. Peering at it curiously he asked, "Who's that?"
Darcy glanced down at the case, picked it up and handed it to JD. "That's me wife, Reddie, and me little daughter, Katie."
"Oh." JD took the case, tilted the images in the low light to see them better. He smiled at the likenesses. "She's pretty."
Darcy's own smile was sad as he pulled at his coat. "She was, Mr. Dunne, very pretty. And a wonderful woman."
JD realized Darcy was speaking of the woman in the picture in the past tense, and thought, she must be dead. A sadness came over him, slight at first, sympathy for another's loss. Then he glanced at Darcy, saw the faraway melancholy in the man's eyes as he looked at the plastic case in JD's hand, and suddenly JD found himself fighting back tears. His mother's face once again came to his mind, and JD realized that this woman had the same look about her, someone who made things all better just by being around, and Darcy had lost her. Lost her, and would never get her back, and JD took a deep breath to stem the tears and the mounting pain in his shoulder because Jesus, what if this Darcy saw him crying, for pete's sake. But he missed his mother, dammit, and he was sure Darcy missed his wife, and it was awful to be alone in the world and hurting and have no one to look after you and her eyes reminded JD of his mother's, a look that said come here and let me hold you, it'll be all right, but she couldn't hold him, couldn't make it all right, no one could, and it was so unfair and it hurt hurt HURT -
When JD blinked again, Darcy was bending over him and he found that he had slid halfway down the bed. Startled, he asked, "What happened?"
"Ye passed out, Mr. Dunne," Darcy said matter-of- factly. "And nearly broke me dageurreotype case in the process."
"Oh - " JD noticed Darcy had the case in his hand, and swallowed sheepishly. "Sorry."
"No cause for apologies, son," Darcy said, deftly pocketing the case and standing up. "But when a member of the medical profession asks ye if ye're in pain, an honest answer is usually the best one. Saves one from embarrassin' episodes, you know."
"Uh, right," JD muttered, chagrined. "Thanks."
Darcy smiled a little, and turning around, came back with a glass of something JD instantly recognized. "Now, I don't want ye movin' a muscle until ye've had some of this tonic. It'll ease the pain and help ye get back to sleep."
JD nodded, felt the fiery burn of his mending collarbone and decided not to argue. Darcy lifted his head a little, and JD obediently swallowed what he could of the bitter tonic before Darcy tilted the glass back and set it down on the table.
"Now," the Irishman said, standing over JD, "can ye get yerself back in all right, or do ye need a hand? And don't be handin' me a wagonload about it either."
"Ah - " JD sized Darcy up, surrendered. "I guess, if you want."
Darcy nodded in satisfaction, and helped JD use his one good arm to right himself in the bed again.
"I feel so stupid," JD groused as he pulled the covers back over himself. "I hate being so damn helpless."
"But it will pass, Mr. Dunne," Darcy assured him as he pushed the pillows so the boy could lean against them comfortably. "We'll make sure of that."
JD sighed and lay back against the pillows, eyeing Darcy as the man sat back down. "You really think I'm going to walk again?"
"Oh, I'm countin' on it," Darcy said with a smile. "I'm stakin' me life on it, ye see."
JD was puzzled. "You are?"
Darcy chuckled darkly. "Mr. Dunne, I've met yer friends. If I fail t' set ye walkin' I doubt the vultures'll find me remains."
JD smiled. "They can be kind of scary, but they're all right."
"They're a damn sight better than all right." Darcy commented.
There was a few moments of silence, and JD blinked slowly. He was starting to feel drowsy, and the awful fire in his collarbone was dimming to a mere smoulder. Sighing sleepily, he stared at the wall and said, "They were the best friends I ever had."
"Ye still have them, Mr. Dunne," Darcy said softly, leaning forward.
JD felt like he should shake his head, and did. "Not like before. When Chris was still here, I mean when - before - " JD paused, pursed his lips. Finally he sighed, gave up and closed his eyes. "We had a lot of fun."
Darcy's voice came from a long way away. "Chris told me ye did." That's right, you came back with him, JD thought but didn't say it, that was too much work. Instead he found himself saying the simplest utterance of his heart, the first thing he thought of.
"I wanna ride again."
"Ye will, JD," Darcy said reassuringly, from still farther away. But - but he didn't understand.
"No." JD fought through the fog of the tonic to shake his head, but he kept his eyes closed. "No, like before. All of us. Not just me."
A pause, the quiet getting softer, big puffy billows of it settling over him like a fountain of cotton. Then, Darcy again: "That's what ye want, is it?"
JD felt himself nod, the cotton was getting heavier. "More than anything."
The silence continued to grow, become thicker and heavier, and JD began to drift into it, felt the pain in his shoulder dissolving, easing, evaporating. It was getting hard to care about anything, but in his sleepiness JD remembered a question he had, and it didn't bother him now as much as he thought it should but he asked it anyway, licked his lips and whispered to the cottony darkness, "Did Chris ever say anything about me?"
At least, that's what JD thought he asked. He wasn't quite sure, but it must have been close, because Darcy said something that sounded like, "All the time, son. What he did tore him up inside, he wanted ye to know that. Made him want to die, until I helped him back here."
Someone tore Chris up? No , wait a minute...damn, that tonic was really working on him. The pain in his collarbone was tiny now, a tiny little blue dot somewhere in the corner of the ceiling, and JD felt himself floating away, beyond pain and care. Was Darcy saying Chris was sorry? Was Chris sorry? Why did Chris want to die? Not because of me...I don't matter that much to Chris...do I?...Too complicated to think about...just sleep now, JD, ask your questions in the morning...
Okay, mama, good night, JD heard some childish part of him say, and the soft darkness wrapped around him, welcome and comforting, a mother's arms. JD burrowed into it gratefully and went to sleep, leaving behind only the quiet nighttime darkness and a man sitting within it, holding a small photograph, thinking about the future, his and his new friends'. And remembering.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah was prepared for the expressions on his friends' faces long before he walked up the front steps of the church and pushed open one of the double doors to go inside. He knew what he'd find in the eyes of the comrades he'd come to know so well, knew also the fight that would be on his hands before the night was over. Knew, and was ready for it.
But that didn't make it any easier.
They were all there, he saw right away, lounging around the sanctuary waiting for him to come back from seeing Chris. All except JD, of course. Josiah breathed a sigh of relief that the boy was not there, for he'd had a nightmarish thought that maybe JD would insist on being present, and Josiah knew that the youth was just not ready for the strife that might erupt that night. Perhaps none of them were.
But they were all present, nonetheless, even Vin, who was sitting on a large box next to one of the windows. Damn, he still looks pale. He ought to be resting. But no, of course Vin wouldn't be resting, not now - this was too important to him. Buck was nearby, leaning against a wall with his arms folded and an uncertain scowl on his face. On a pew next to him, Ezra sat comfortably, shuffling his deck of cards, his eyes distant and icy. And on the other side of the door Nathan stood, looking out the window as if he didn't want to be there at all.
Vin spoke first, his voice low and tired and a little worried. "You talk to him?"
Josiah slowly looked around the room, saw every eye on him and alert. Finally he nodded, meeting their eyes almost in a dare. "Yeah. Yeah, I talked to him."
"And what did the illustrious Mr. Larabee have to say for himself?" Ezra asked, his normally languid tones dripping with acid.
Josiah sighed, walked into the sanctuary and took his hat off, brushed his hand through his hair wearily. Finally stopping in the middle of the room he looked around once again and said, "A whole lot of things, none of them good. Never seen a man lower in my life."
"How heartbreaking," Ezra said in a sarcastic voice, his eyes never leaving his cards.
Josiah ignored him, focused on the rest of the group. "Now I called you all here because we need to talk about what it means, Chris being back. I know some of us aren't feeling too kindly toward him, but we're the law and now that we gotmost of the town on our side it'd be a damn shame to lose 'em again because we're at each other's throats."
Nathan looked away from the window, at Buck. The gunslinger was staring at the floor, his arms still folded, his face as dark as midnight on Halloween. Nathan then looked at Josiah and said, "So what'd Chris say?"
Josiah glanced at Buck, at Ezra and Vin, then finally back to Nathan and said softly, "Mostly that he was sorry."
"And he asked about JD," Josiah continued, as if Buck hadn't said anything, "Wanted to know how he was, what he could do for him. Then he wanted to know how we were getting along here."
"And did you entertain him with lively tales about our adventures with the outlaws?" Ezra asked lightly, flipping the cards through his fingers as he spoke, "Or perhaps he was more interested in hearing about Mr. Dunne's struggles for a normal life - "
"That's enough, Ezra," Vin said, in a voice that was weary, but sharper than Josiah had ever heard from the tracker before. They all paused to look at him
Josiah saw Vin blink slowly, shake his head. He's frustrated from feeling so weak from his wound. His fuse is shorter...
Ezra glanced up from his pack of cards, and his eyes gleamed hard as jade as he spoke. "Mr. Tanner, I was not being facetious, I assure you. But since Mr. Larabee wishes to know the story of what we've endured in his absence, he may as well know the whole story, and the more painful to him, in my opinion, the better. Why should he be spared when Mr. Dunne was not?"
Vins' head came back, his eyes snapping blue fire. "Man came back, locked himself in the jail, deserves better than to stabbed in the back."
"Excuse me?" Ezra asked with a sneer, sitting up and giving Vin an incredulous look. "My fri
nd, Mr. Larabee deserves nothing from me but contempt. Unlike..." He looked around coolly. "Some people, I am not swayed by a show of sorrow that is as transient as the morning dew. Mr. Larabee's contrition is borne by his deep desire to not be lynched for the murderer he is."
"And how do you know that, Ezra?" Josiah asked evenly.
The gambler lazed back against the pew, threw one arm over it casually. "Mr. Sanchez, you are talking to an old hand at the conning game. There is no one more penitent than the captured thief, no more tearful words than those spoken by one knowing he faces the hangman's gallows. Mr. Larabee knows that to keep the town - or any of us, for that matter - from stringing him up, he must profess deepest sorrow over his actions, and make a show of repenting them. And he has done so."
Josiah nodded. Vin was glaring at Ezra with a painfully impatient expression.
"However," Ezra continued conversationally, "give this charade a week or two, and I wager we see a different Chris Larabee. Let the army pull out, let judge Travis leave the jail, let enough time go by so that people forget. God willing, let us see Mr. Dunne restored to health. Before then our penitent thief will know the eyes of the judges are no longer on him, and he will cry to be let free like a thousand banshees."
Vin's look was uncharacteristically ominous as he stood. "You've seen men that do that."
Ezra's look was even more ominous. "I've BEEN men that do that."
"Oh, stop it, you two," Nathan said crossly, walking away from the window and stepping closer to Josiah. He looked at his friend earnestly. "So what are you sayin', Josiah? What do you want us to do?"
Josiah walked around in a small circle for a moment, gathering his thoughts. Finally he stopped and said, "This past week has been rough on all of us. Now, things are starting to look up, and folks'll be looking to us to make sure it keeps going that way. What's more, JD's gonna need all of us pullin' together for him, and that ain't gonna work if we're at odds. So...I'm proposing that we put our differences aside, before they cause us more troubles than Concho Charles and a million like him."
"You mean forget," Buck said in a harsh, savage whisper, scarcely moving from where he stood except to raise his head and drill his eyes into Josiah's soul.
"No," Josiah said, shaking his head as if to ward off Buck's scathing anger. "Not forget. To hear Chris tell it, he don't want us to forget. And forgivin's gonna be tough for all of us, but...the way I see it, it's the only way we're gonna come out of this whole thing in one piece."
Vin was nodding in a small, uncertain way, his eyes trying to focus on the floor, but Nathan was back to staring out the window and Ezra and Buck both had thunderously brooding looks on their faces. Josiah tensed. If a storm was going to come, it was going to come now.
Nathan spoke first, shaking his head as he looked away from the window. "I don't see how, Josiah. What he did, it wasn't right. It wasn't, and you know it."
"I do," Josiah admitted. "But I also know the lengths to which Chris is going to redeem himself. I've seen his eyes. There's another man behind them."
"Well, he'd have to have the Lord Himself in there to convince me," Ezra said archly, glaring at his cards as he spoke. "And even then I would ask for a signed document to attest to his righteousness."
There was an almost audible crackle in the air. Josiah glanced at Vin, but the former bounty hunter was keeping his silence, despite his lips turning white from pressing them together. But his body was coiled, tight as an overwound clock even in his weakened condition, or maybe because of it. He would not hold still for long.
Buck was shaking his head, anger flying off him like drops of water. "I can't believe you'd even suggest such a thing, Josiah." he said in a low, dangerous voice. "You saw what he did, dammit. How can you just walk away from something like that?"
"Didn't say it was easy," Josiah said softly, shaking his head. "Just said it's the only way."
Nathan shook his head again, went back to staring out the window.
"Of course, there is one small detail you are overlooking here, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra said mildly, regarding various cards he pulled out of his deck, "And that is the citizens of this fair town. Even if we put on a show of pardon, I doubt Mr. Larabee will escape their wrath for long."
"I know," Josiah rumbled, walking around the room slowly. "But they won't do anything as long as the judge is here. And if we present a united front, they'll see us standing between them and Chris. Most likely they'll back off."
"Or take us all down," Ezra muttered to the queen he'd just pulled from his deck.
Vin turned and looked at him, and Josiah noticed it. Careful Ezra, Jesus, look at Vin's eyes. Wild, like a wounded bear's.
Nathan saw it too, stepped forward with a hand stretched toward his friend. "Hey, Vin, you're still gettin' over bein' shot. Let's get you - "
"I'm fine, dammit." Vin growled, giving Nathan a combative glare that made the healer stop in his tracks. The wounded bear was still fighting, for Chris.
Ezra met the Vin's gaze evenly, unafraid, and said in a low voice, "Come now, Mr. Tanner, if you were a citizen of this town what would you do? A man gets himself intoxicated, nearly kills someone, and then seeks refuge behind steel bars? Would you not seek swifter justice?"
"He's doin' his time," Vin said in a voice as brittle as spun glass. "Leave him alone."
Ezra's eyes narrowed, rising to the challenge he saw in Vin's eyes. "But what if it were Mr. Larabee who had been injured, Mr. Tanner, would you be so quick to coddle his attacker? If it had been him you'd found unconscious and bleeding in an alleyway, would forgiveness come so easily?"
Josiah felt his skin tighten, and his hand went instinctively to his belt, even though he wasn't wearing his gun. Buck was watching Vin and Ezra too, his eyes round and glassed, remembering. He almost looked sick.
Vin's head lowered like a bull about to charge, and he glared at Ezra, but didn't speak.
The gambler shook his head. "You see, Mr. Tanner, it makes a difference whose ox is gored, doesn't it? Picture your dearest friend lying half-dead in the cold street while his assailant staggers off to collapse somewhere in a drunken heap. Now picture him bruised and broken, unable to remember who his friends are and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his long, miserable, tortured life."
Nathan was watching Vin's face, watching it become paler and wilder; his eyes flicked to Josiah's nervously.
"Now, Mr. Tanner," Ezra drawled in lazy, arrogant tones. "Say I did the deed. Say I bashed the side of Mr. Larabee's head in, and just walked away with his blood on my hands. Would you let me simply say 'I'm sorry'? Or - " His eyes became venomous slits. "Would you like to see me dead?"
Vin took a step toward Ezra, and Josiah and Nathan both came forward, their hands ready to drag the two men apart if it came to that. Buck didn't move, but stared at the men in front of him, shocked.
Vin stopped, looked around as if stunned at what he was doing. Then his body visibly relaxed, and he let out a loud breath and ran his hands over his face. When he took them away his face was calmer, although his eyes popped and snapped like a January fire. He was back to himself, but still infuriated. Josiah felt his heart crumple, closed his eyes for a moment against what he was seeing. The group was coming apart, their friendships were coming apart, and he didn't know what to do. Vin collected himself for a moment longer, then raised his eyes and glared at Ezra, said in a low voice, "Don't think you should be puttin' yourself in Chris' place, Ezra. You been there once before, and as I recall we didn't even get a sorry out of you."
Josiah opened his eyes again, frowned. Something was out of place...
Ezra scowled, his face turning maroon with indignation. "You would compare my - my momentary lapse of judgment to that man's act of attempted murder? How dare you - "
It was at that moment that Josiah suddenly asked, "Where's Buck?"
Ezra stopped, blinked, turned around.
Buck wasn't standing at the wall anymore.
"He walked out while y'all were arguing," Nathan commented as he walked to Vin's side and put a hand on his friend's arm. "Guess every man has his limits."
Vin looked at Ezra as Nathan pulled him back to the box by the window, but his look was one of chagrin and embarrassment at his bickering, and he said nothing else.
Josiah shook his head and glared at Vin and Ezra as he walked to the door.
"You two girls don't go anywhere," he muttered disgustedly. "I'll be right back."
+ + + + + + +
Buck hadn't gone far. In fact, he was at the side of the church, leaning against it and bending far forward, his head in his hands. He started at the sound of Josiah's footsteps coming around the corner, and quickly brought himself up and grunted.
"Had to catch some air, there," he muttered in embarrassment. "Gettin' mighty close, you know what I mean."
Josiah cocked his head. "You all right, Buck?"
"Who, me?" Buck's mask went up in a flash, and he shrugged hugely and waved his hands. "Course, I'm right as the mail, why wouldn't I be? Ain't everything lookin' up, I mean, JD, he's gonna be okay, that's - that's - "
"It's a miracle, all right," Josiah said cautiously, walking toward Buck slowly. "But you've had some mighty big changes all of a sudden, and now Chris comes back. Am I right in assuming you don't know quite how to deal with that?"
"Deal?" Buck barked the word. "Hell, Josiah, I'm a tumblin' tumbleweed, ain't no dealin' about it, you know, it just sorta happened. Just go with the flow, he's back, you know, that's..." Buck's head wavered, and he blinked, looked across the street. "He's just right over there, not even too far away, you think he can hear what we're sayin'?"
Another step closer. "Buck - "
"You know, I wonder if he can," Buck said curiously, putting his hands on his hips, his breathing getting deeper. "Because if I thought he could, you know what I'd do? I'd holler out what I got to say to him from here, just so I'd never have to get closer. Men like him, they kill you if you get too close, and I found that out the hard way, and so did JD. Now maybe that boy's gonna be fine and - and you know, maybe he ain't, cause he's had nightmares, times when he thinks he's back when Chris beat him up? You know?"
"I know, Buck," Josiah said softly, seeing the increasingly desperate look in Buck's eyes. He stopped coming closer, waited.
"And I thought," Buck nattered on, as if Josiah hadn't said anything. "I thought he's gonna be okay, he'll get past this just like I did, I had nightmares too, after Sarah and Adam died and Chris cut me off. He will, he'll get past all this, and he's gonna walk again, and we're gonna ride just like we did before, cause that's all that boy wants right now, more than walking even. He wants things to go back the way they were."
Josiah nodded. "We all want that."
Buck was nodding, but said, "Cept it ain't gonna happen. You know why?"
Josiah shook his head, getting more worried with every syllable his friend uttered. Why did his eyes look so black?
Buck paused, blinked again, and his speech became fast and high and almost desperately thin. "Because - because when Ezra was talkin' in there about Chris gettin' beat up, and lyin' in the alley? I saw it, in my mind, just like JD, Chris covered in blood and half-dead, he was my best friend once, and now - " He paused, and his face went blank, as if he'd forgotten how to form words. But then he took a deep breath and said, "I just realized I wish he was dead. I saw him, dead, clear as day and - and I was happy about it. Thinkin' about Chris dyin' the way he almost made JD die, it - it - made me glad, now what kind of man thinks things like that?"
Josiah shook his head slowly, keeping his eye on Buck even as he heard the door of the church open. The others were coming to check on Buck. He couldn't stop them.
"You're angry, Buck," Josiah said reassuringly, trying to be soothing because Buck had a childishly bewildered look on his face. "And you should be. But that anger won't help JD now, you got to let it go."
"It's like..." Buck paused, blinked rapidly, ran one hand over his mouth. "It's like where Chris used to be there's just this big black hole, and there ain't enough hate to fill it. He was my best friend, Josiah, and I want him dead."
Josiah heard footsteps behind him, didn't turn around. Didn't say anything.
Buck glanced at the faces behind Josiah, cleared his throat and looked at the ground, hands once more on his hips. When he looked back up, his face no longer looked bewildered, or frightened. It looked set, and bitter. Very bitter.
"Well, Josiah, I reckon you got us here together to figure out what we all think about Chris," he said in low, carefully controlled tones. "And now you know. And you're right, it would tear a hole in JD's heart if he thought we'd part company over this, when the only thing he's got going for him right now is the thought that we're gonna ride together again. So I suppose I can put on an act as well as the next man. But I ain't never forgivin'. Never."
Josiah groaned inside; this wasn't what he wanted. "Buck - "
The gunslinger shook his head. "Don't, Josiah. You ain't got the right."
Josiah sighed, knew Buck was right. He slowly turned, saw the rest of his friends gathered in a small knot by the corner of the church, their faces a mixture of concern and deep, sweltering anger that Josiah knew could not be dissuaded, or convinced.
And Josiah hurt deeply that it was so.
Buck walked around Josiah, to where the others stood. He gave him a sad look, sad and infinitely tired. Josiah noticed that Buck had walked past Vin, was standing closest to Ezra, who was standing apart from Vin. Nathan was standing a few feet away from the former buffalo hunter, obviously concerned for his friend. But his face was a map of confusion, and it was clear his primary concern was Vin, not Chris. But Vin was standing apart from Nathan, seemingly oblivious to how chalky and unsteady he still looked. He stared at Josiah, and Josiah saw in those blue eyes what Vin knew: he and Josiah may forgive Chris, but they were alone in that. Alone and apart.
"I'm sorry, Josiah," Buck said softly, and there was real sorrow in his voice. "But what you want ain't possible. We can make a show that Chris bein' back don't bother any of us, for JD. But it does, it bothers some of us a lot, and that's just the way it is. And when he's better again, we'll ride, but it can't be like it was before, and pretendin' it can is a waste of time. I know, 'cause I done too much of it already."
A gentle night breeze blew. From below, in the church basement, Josiah heard one of the wounded groan in pain. He closed his eyes and bowed his head.
When he looked back up, Buck had retreated a few paces, was looking at him resignedly. Then he turned, slowly, defeatedly, and walked quietly up the street, towards his room. Ezra scratched his lip, gave Josiah a look that was half-sorry, half I-told-you-so, and followed Buck. Nathan paused a moment, sighed and shook his head, and walked to Vin's side, gave his arm a gently insistent tug.
"No," Vin growled in a low voice, and shook Nathan off, as if to say, not yet. Josiah peered at him, a pale shadow in the paler moonlight. Vin regarded his friend with eyes that brimmed with sympathy, and loss.
Josiah stared back, felt the bond that had joined them all, gotten them through the week's terrible crises disintegrating, dissolving in his hands. There was nothing he could do.
The demons were winning.
Vin paused, tilted his head and regarded Josiah for a moment.
"You tried, Josiah," he said appreciatively, softly. Josiah felt a great weight in the pit of his stomach, fought it.
Vin smiled, a little, blinked against his fatigue. "Thank you."
Josiah nodded, watched as Vin turned toward Nathan. The healer took his arm, and Josiah saw the tracker lean into him as the two slowly walked away. Fighting for Chris, but it might be a losing battle. Josiah suddenly felt like he was a hundred years old.
The church was echoing, eerie when he reentered it to extinguish the candles and go to bed. He sighed and blew out the lights one by one, picking the most burned-down candles out of their holders to throw away. Then he looked toward the altar and stopped.
Two votive holders sat on the altar, scraped blue glass. Josiah had transferred the two candles he'd lit for Chris and JD to them, years ago it seemed, when they had burned down too far and were only buttons of wax. There was barely enough strength to them to stay lit then...
And now, they'd gone out.
Josiah fought the horrid, ominous dread he felt as he walked around the church, blowing out the candles, but it came back, stronger.
The candles were out. They were doomed.
Chris was back, but as good as dead despite his sincerest attempts to reform. JD was back, would walk again, but his friends were divided, perhaps for good, and that would kill his spirit. Josiah extinguished another candle, then almost the last, thought of the Bible passage he'd read, the man tormented by demons, chained and driven out, no hope left. For how long? Two candles left. How long can the heart live with only the bitter herb of anger to sustain it? One...
Forever, perhaps. But it wasn't life.
Josiah sighed and blew the last candle out. The church was dark now, and there was nothing to do but walk back to his narrow cot and try to sleep. A long day, and longer days to come.
Josiah locked the door, walked the hollow room toward the back, glanced at the two darkened votive holders on his way past and sighed again.
Then paused, stopped, peered closer.
In the darkness, barely there. Two tiny blue flames.
Almost drowned in the sea of wax surrounding them, almost out. But not quite. Still struggling, but in the gloom they shone like the brightest stars.
Josiah stared at the sight a moment, tried to understand it. You old fool. You want to see meaning in everything. You saw those men's faces, there's no hope there. They'll never forgive Chris, and you'll never ride together again.
It seemed true, it was undeniable, but still Josiah saw the two candles burning in front of him, small and frail and about to go out perhaps, but not out yet. And he had to be in the darkness to see them.
A sign, Lord? Maybe, maybe not. But I need every shred of good news I can get, to keep my heart from sinking. So I'll be an old fool, and hope.
For Chris. And for JD.
Josiah took a step away from the altar, then paused, and stepped back, placed five of the burned-down stubs on the altar. Then, taking a taper from the altar,he carefully tipped JD's candle and lit the taper from it. Some of the drowning wax dripped out, and when he set the candle down again, JD's flame was burning brighter. Josiah smiled, picked up Chris' candle and drained the wax, then touched the flaming tip of the taper to the other five waxy stubs.
Seven small stars, shining on the altar, combining their light. None of them perfect, but still strong and true. It was almost too bright to look at.
Josiah gazed at the tiny dots of light, and smiled a little. For all of us.
And went to bed.
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