The same sun that shone on the hills surrounding Four Corners also found Buck fidgeting in the lobby of the town hotel, pacing back and forth through its rays as it shone through the dusty windows and among the genially tatty furniture. It did nothing to warm his mood, however. He was scowling, and muttering darkly as he walked. Presently footsteps were heard echoing on the slightly warped floorboards, and Darcy appeared, pulling his jacket on and smoothing his hair. As soon as he saw Buck, Darcy gave him a genial smile and said, "Good morning, Mr. Wilmington, how are you today?"
"Um, fine," Buck said roughly, and standing in front of Darcy he cleared his throat nervously. "Mr. Thomas, can I ask you somethin'?"
Darcy paused as he put the watch away, took a step closer and really looked at Buck's face. "Here, I thought you were in for an early bedtime last night. Ye look like ye didn't sleep a wink."
"Yeah, well..." Buck hemmed.
"Are ye all right?" Darcy asked, genuinely concerned. "Ye've been under a terrible strain these past few months, you know."
Buck nodded, looked at the faded carpeting under their feet.
Darcy gave Buck a scrutinizing look. "Well, I have some time before we get started with Mr. Dunne this morning. Please, sit down and tell me what's on yer mind."
Buck sat somewhat uncomfortably in one of the lobby's genially fading upholstered chairs, eyeing Darcy uncertainly as the physician sat opposite him. Then he asked, "I was just wonderin' if there was anything you could give JD for his sleepin'."
"His sleeping?" Darcy repeated, peering at Buck. "He's been sleeping fine, from what I've seen. I'd hesitate to prescribe any sleeping aids unless he's in some kind of pain."
Buck nodded in a way that suggested he understood, but didn't agree. Darcy cocked his head and said, "Mr. Wilmington, is something - "
"He's been having nightmares again," Buck said suddenly, with the shamed face of one divulging a secret. To Darcy's alert expression, Buck added swiftly, "He don't know I know. But I hear 'em, through the walls."
Darcy leaned back in the chair, his face as worried as Buck's now. "Tell me more."
Buck's face flushed. "Like I said, he don't know nothin' about it, but the last week or so I wake up and hear him moanin', like he's hurtin' real bad."
"But he isn't in pain?"
Buck shook his head. "First time I heard it, I went to check on him, he was still asleep. I went to wake him up, and he about knocked me out the window. But he didn't remember nothin' after he woke up, and he was feelin' fine."
Darcy fished out his pipe, his eyes solemn. "Ye said the first time? How many times has this happened?"
Buck's eyes grew more anxious. "Every night for the past week, two or three times a night. I can tell when he's havin' one, he hollers out and - and..." Buck looked around and lowered his voice, his face hardening into a look of pure anger. "He's been callin' out to Chris, to stop beatin' him. I gave up tryin' to wake him, it don't do no good. He goes back to sleep and it starts right back up again."
Darcy took out his tobacco pouch, his face tense with thought. "Is there anything else?"
Buck shook his head, then quickly ducked it down and muttered, "A few times he kind of...well, he..." Buck paused, rubbed the back of his neck.
Darcy looked up from his pipe, waited for Buck to find words.
"He's been kind of hidin' in his sleep," Buck finally blurted, then paused and continued, "I don't know how else to put it. One night I checked on him, he was curled up in the corner. Another night I found him asleep in the closet. I even found him under his bed once, stone asleep and whimperin' to break your heart."
Darcy winced. "Ah, Jesus Christ."
Buck turned pleading eyes to Darcy. "So I was wonderin', could you maybe give him somethin', like that tonic, so's he don't have these things no more? Maybe he can sleep through 'em?"
Darcy found a match, struck it against his thumb and said softly, "I can give him something, Mr. Wilmington, but that won't solve his problem. The boy's sufferin' in his soul, and drugging him will only cover the hurt up, not make it go away."
"Well, can't you do nothin?" Buck said beseechingly. "I mean, I know you already done more than I can ask for JD, but - isn't there somethin', maybe some kind of European thing? He's hurtin' awful bad."
Darcy took a puff on his pipe, regarded Buck closely through the curling smoke. "This Mr. Dunne means a great deal to ye, doesn't he, Mr. Wilmington?"
Buck grimaced as if caught at something, leaned back in the winged chair. "He's an awful pain in the butt sometimes, and he don't have two licks of common sense to rub together, but - but he don't deserve this, Mr. Thomas. He don't."
Darcy's gaze grew sympathetic and sad. "Ye're right, Mr. Wilmington. Mr. Dunne only deserves to get well again, to ride and run and live the full life God intended. But his mind has to work out what happened to him, and he has to face the source of his fears and confront them, or they'll haunt him for the rest of his life. "
Buck's face fell. "You mean there ain't nothin' we can do?"
"No," Darcy said evenly. "I didn't say that."
Buck blinked, leaned forward again.
Darcy looked at him for a long moment, puffing on the pipe until there seemed to be a haze between him and Buck. Then he said quietly, "I've been here four months now, Mr. Wilmington, and I've seen the way ye and yer friends are around one another. I've seen how this whole business with Chris has divided ye, and it breaks me heart, for the tales of yer fellowship is legend where I come from."
Buck's frown was puzzled. "Are we still talkin' about JD?"
"Aye," Darcy said, with a twinge of impatience. "We are. For as much as I've seen yer disagreement over whether to forgive Chris drive that wedge among ye, Mr. Dunne has seen it too. The man was his hero, and he doesn't know what to think about him now. So he follows the example you set."
Buck began to draw himself up, his face changing from concern to confusion to anger. "Now just a - "
"I'm not finished," Darcy said, sharper now, his eyes glittering as he stared at Buck. "The boy looks up to ye, as if ye were blood kin. The bitterness ye carry in yer heart toward Chris, he'll carry too, even if he doesn't understand it. Because he'll figure ye must know somethin' he doesn't."
"Don't you lay this on me," Buck said defensively, his begging attitude being replaced with indignant pique. "Josiah and Nathan, they're okay with Chris, and so is Vin."
"But the lad didn't latch onto them," Darcy pointed out. "That honor went to you, and it's an honor ye're betrayin' if ye poison him with yer own resentments."
"I got every reason to resent that man," Buck bristled, his face growing dark as his whole body tensed. "JD was just a kid, half his size, and he about beat him to death."
"And then he ran off," Darcy continued evenly, "and was set to put an end to himself when I came along."
Buck looked at him, unsure how to respond, didn't say anything.
"It was a dark road I walked with yer friend," Darcy said, his eyes piercing Buck's as he spoke. "And I pulled him from the fire more than once. But he did the honorable thing, he returned to this town, he set me to looking after Mr. Dunne. And he turned himself over to the law."
"That don't make it all right," Buck said miserably, looking down at his folded hands.
Darcy puffed the pipe for a moment longer, regarded Buck in a melancholy way. "No, Mr. Wilmington, ye're right, it doesn't. I don't know what would make it right for ye, and I'm not arrogant enough to pretend that I do. But ye came here today to tell me that Mr. Dunne has a problem, and he does. The way I see it, his problem is this: he needs to find it in his heart, somewhere, someday, to forgive Chris Larabee for the wrongs done against him, and find his own path with the stranger who's sitting the jail, for I don't believe they're the same man. I don't know where that path will go, but I know this much."
He paused, waited until Buck raised his head and looked at him.
Darcy paused, then said softly, "He'll not forgive Chris Larabee until you do."
The weight of those words was visible on Buck's face, pressed it into sickened, confused lines. For a moment Buck simply sat there, then at length he looked at Darcy with eyes that were gazing at JD four months ago, then at himself three years ago, two men broken and hurting, and the same arrogance and denial from Chris, nothing had changed. Buck felt a huge ache in his gut as he thought of all this, and finally he whispered, "I'm not sure I can do it." Darcy studied his pipe for a moment, then said in kind but knowing tones, "Well then, the only thing to do is to keep the boy away from ye, and hope he finds friendship with one of the others. Then he'll follow their example, instead of yers."
It was not said in any mean-spirited or sarcastic way, but Buck felt as if Darcy had punched him in the stomach. He swallowed hard, and didn't move.
Darcy took a few more puffs on the pipe, then sighed and stood. "I'm sorry, Mr. Wilmington, I know it's not the answer ye were looking for, but it's the truth. And now if ye'll excuse me, it's time Mr. Dunne was beginning his day."
With that, Darcy left the hotel lobby, but Buck sat there for a long time in that incongruous wingchair, a silent object in the busy morning traffic, and thought.
+ + + + + + +
That day, and the next few that followed, found JD getting stronger and more confident with every step he took. The pace hadn't picked up - walking was still a tortuous, slow endeavor, with every movement evident in the JD's face as he struggled to concentrate, concentrate, to walk without falling or leaning too much on the pews for support. But the attitude was changing, and everyone saw it. With every tottering, carefully planned step, JD's impatience to get completely well grew, until it was practically another presence in the room, and the others' grew with it. JD wanted his life back, and now. Right now.
Finally, after running the boy through his exercises seemingly hundreds of times and teaching him the exceptionally tricky maneuver of negotiating stairs, Darcy presented JD with an elegant walking stick and announced that - if the youth thought he was really ready - he was healed enough for a short walk about the town. As long as he stayed off the uneven boardwalks, and watched that the walking stick didn't land in any holes or puddles.
Buck, who was with JD and Darcy that morning, gave JD a huge grin and met the boy's eyes with unabashed pride. JD was standing, unassisted. He was walking, slow and unsteady, but that would change, given time, and pretty soon he'd be ready to ride again, to balance himself in the saddle and shoot and do all those fancy tricks he'd tried so hard to impress everybody with. It was so close. The day was almost here.
JD tried the walking stick, but it was scary at first, to try walking without the friendly support of the pews on either side of him, and his friends in front and behind. Darcy instructed him on how to place his weight on it, how to lean on it like another leg, and after a while JD was comfortable enough with it that he was ready.
So, that bright warm morning, JD put on his cleaned and mended three-piece suit, carefully combed his black hair and placed his bowler hat so the scar wouldn't show, then looked in the mirror and sighed nervously.
Buck watched all this, his arms folded and a look of fond amusement on his handsome face. "So, you about ready, son?"
"Gosh, Buck," JD muttered as he fiddled with his collar. "I don't know why, but I'm about scared to death."
"You'll be all right, kid," Buck said as he approached the mirror and gave a firm nod. "I'll be close, in case anything happens."
"Not too close," JD cautioned as he picked up the walking stick. "I ain't no baby, and I don't want to be treated like one."
"Understood," Buck said quietly, hoping JD didn't see how overwhelmed he felt by this whole experience. That first morning, when they'd found JD bleeding and shattered in the alley, seemed like another lifetime now, but the fear and horror still haunted Buck - and JD too, but Buck was still working that out - and to see the youth they all thought would die maybe, and then would never walk again, standing in front of his bureau fussing with his suit and getting ready to step out...well, it was a goddamn miracle. There was no other word for it.
Buck blinked, shook his head a little and said, "Hm?"
"Nothin', you were just lookin' at me funny. Is my fly open or something?"
Buck coughed, tugged at his hat distractedly. "No, kid, you're fine. You're just fine. Let's get goin'."
+ + + + + + +
It was another beautiful day, perfect, in Ezra's opinion, for lounging outside of the saloon and sizing up possible marks from the men that passed through the swinging double doors. He sat comfortably leaned back in the wooden chair, idly shuffling cards and listening to the distant sounds of Nathan and Josiah repairing the church roof down the street. Beside him, Vin sat quietly as he always did, tying a new chinstrap onto his favorite hat.
Since JD's first faltering steps, Darcy Thomas had said the entire group's involvement in the boy's recovery was no longer necessary, so they had dispersed, looking for other ways to make themselves useful. But it had been a damnably peaceful day, and Ezra was bored out of his mind.
Perhaps a little fortune telling with the cards. He flipped a card over; Jack of diamonds. An outgoing, enthusiastic person - JD, obviously. Back in the pack. Shuffle, shuffle. Flipped another one. Ace of spades. Smiled a bit - his signature card. Back in the pack. Shuffle. Drew out another. Six of spades.
Not seven; probably never be seven, not ever again.
Ezra sighed and studied the card a moment, considered Josiah's words of a few mornings ago. He frowned, not liking the way the preacher had turned his words against him, had dared to compare Chris' act of brutality to his act of...what had Josiah called it? Desertion? Perhaps, but Chris had almost killed JD, and Ezra knew he wasn't as bad because his act hadn't resulted in any...
Ezra paused, backtracked a bit. Well, admittedly his fleeing in the face of that Confederate cannon had resulted in some...loss of life. And, true, the others did end up shackled in front of that same cannon and would have been executed, but... but that still did not put him in Mr. Larabee's deplorable class because at least Ezra was not drunk when he committed his sin. Chris had been, horribly, menacingly drunk, completely out of control, letting his vices rule his actions. I would never do that, Ezra sniffed to himself, never put others in danger through my own weaknesses - - greed -
The word flitted through Ezra's brain so quickly he blinked, thought perhaps Vin had said the word, though he knew that was unlikely. Then he brought the word back, laid it out and studied it as he stared dumbly at the card in his hand.
Greed? Well, all right, it was a strong word, but Ezra had to admit that when he heard that there was a gold mine near the village he had been...temporarily...blinded by the prospects of an easy fortune, but...but after all, he'd gone back, hadn't he? Saved all of them, you'd think Josiah would be grateful, and not bring the subject up. It was simply rude. Even if Ezra did admit that what he'd done caused a lot of suffering and could have destroyed the village...and he almost had to...well, he'd made his amends, hadn't he? And it couldn't have been that bad, they did let him back in. Not too kindly, of course - Ezra shuddered, remembering Chris' steely gaze, his low growl, Don't ever run out on me again. And Ezra had been struck speechless, not only by those ice-blue eyes that drilled into his guilty soul but at the fact that Chris hadn't just pulled out his gun and shot him. No, what Ezra did couldn't have been that bad, because Chris let him back in.
- Chris let him back in.
Suddenly the parallel between their courses became so apparent that Ezra almost gasped, and his eyes shot to the jail. Chris had forgiven him, given him a second chance.
No. No, I can't, can't give that man the satisfaction of my pardon after what he did. He's a brute, a cretin, an out-of-control beast-
You turned yourself in, Ezra? You locked yourself up for four solid months, no liquor, no women, no card games? When?
Ezra grimaced against the knowledge that was gnawing at his brain, paining him. Chris was a drunken lout who -
- who still was punishing himself for what he'd done, far more than he'd ever punished Ezra for his crime. And who had given Ezra a second chance. Which Ezra had taken, and never given back.
Ezra blinked at the card he held, slipped it back in the pack slowly, as if it would awaken and bite him. Forgive Chris? Forget the broken face, the cruel injuries, the destruction of the town? Just...let it go? Move on?
Ezra set the cards low on his lap, began to shuffle them again. He felt unsettled, odd, was unsure what the cards were telling him, but he believed in their power, had believed in it all his life. Show me something unmistakable, dammit, he thought, cutting the cards and shoving them together angrily. Show me something I don't have to think about. Pulled out another -
Suddenly somebody punched Ezra's arm, hard enough for him to wince and drop the card he'd just pulled out. Ezra glanced up, saw Vin withdrawing a hastily made fist. He sighed tensely and snapped, "Mr. Tanner, do you mind - "
"Hush, Ezra," Vin said in amazed tones, and pointed. "Look."
Ezra looked. And very quickly got to his feet.
The morning sun in the street revealed two people walking down its dusty length, slowly. One of them was Buck, strolling in a casual way that seemed the most wound-up casual Ezra had ever seen. And the other -
JD's walk was unsteady, limping even. He had a walking stick, but was looking down every time he used it, carefully pausing and placing it before he took another hesitant step. And the gait was slow, deliberate and slow, like an old man's, but there was a determination to his wavering stride, a deathless resolve inherent in it that would have betrayed the youth's identity to Ezra if he'd had a bag over his head. The stick came down, and JD looked up, glanced at Buck and then saw Ezra and Vin across the street, and gave them a triumphant grin full of hope and vitality.
Vin made a small noise, something between a hiccough and a laugh, and whispered, "Now there's a sight I been waitin' to see for a long time."
Ezra nodded mutely, had no words. He walked to the front of the porch, looked over to see if Josiah and Nathan were seeing this wonderful sight. Both men were sitting up on the roof, tools in hand, but their postures told the gambler what he wanted to know. They saw.
+ + + + + + +
Out in the street, JD glanced around, saw the curious looks on the townspeople around him.
"They're all staring at me, Buck," he muttered, looking down to make sure he wasn't putting the walking stick into a hole or something. Step, carefully now...
"I know, JD," Buck answered, trying to look and not look at JD at the same time. "Don't give it no mind. They're just happy to see you is all."
"Well, I wish they'd stop," JD groused quietly. "I keep thinking I should check my fly."
Buck laughed, a happy laugh in the warm sunshine, him and JD walking together down the streets of Four Corners, just like old times. Well, almost. But - getting there. "Where do you want to go?"
"Let's go see Mrs. Travis," JD suggested. "It ain't far, and I want to see if she can make us another one of those pies. The last one was great."
"You got it," Buck replied happily, then said, "Hey, there's Josiah and Nathan, up there on the church roof. See 'em?"
JD looked up, squinted into the bright sky. "Yeah, I see 'em." And he waved, then looked down and shook his head. "Dammit, I feel like some slow, stupid turtle. I want to go faster."
"You will, son," Buck assured him, putting his hands behind him and greeting the curious stares with a cheerful smile and a steely-eyed suggestion to look elsewhere. "Just takes practice, but you're doin' fine. Keep it up."
JD nodded in a half-there kind of way, and Buck could tell he was far too intent on his walking to listen to his friend's prattling. So Buck kept silent, and tried to keep his distance.
As they made their way down the dusty street, Buck looked up and saw a woman coming toward them. When she saw JD, she tilted her head, then brought it back as if shocked. It took Buck a moment to place her, but as she came forward he recognized her as the owner of the general store he and Nathan had been in, the afternoon before Vin's arrest. He remembered she didn't seem to like him much, and tensed as she reached them, and JD looked up.
"Well, good afternoon, Mr. Dunne," the woman said, with an overly-bright smile. "And how are you today?"
Her voice had a singsong aspect to it, as if she was talking to a child. JD gave her a quizzical look and said, "Fine, ma'am, thank you."
"Oh, that's splendid," the woman replied, glancing at Buck with disdainful eyes before turning them back to JD. "Now you know, we've all just been hoping you'd get all better. Are you all better?"
"Uh - yeah, I guess," JD responded uncertainly, glancing down at his cane self-consciously. "I mean, I'm getting there."
"Good for you," the woman simpered, and reached out and put a hand on JD's arm. "You're so brave, after the terrible thing that happened to you, and now you've got that limp. Some people are just so mean, but you know it wasn't your fault, don't you? Sometimes bad things just happen."
Buck bristled at the way this woman was treating JD, like he was an idiot. He knew the kid didn't want him fighting his battles, but Jesus -
JD shook his head a little, to get the hair out of his eyes and said, "Um, ma'am?"
The woman's smile grew even more patronizing, if that were possible. "Yes, JD sweetie, what is it?"
JD tilted his head and looked at her. "Are you okay? You're talkin' like somebody hit you in the head."
Buck laughed; he couldn't help it even though it was very rude and certainly didn't win him any favor with the woman from the general store. She snapped her hand back, blinked for a second, then, giving Buck a stabbing glare, threw one last half-hearted smile at JD before picking up her skirt and walking away.
JD watched her go, shook his head. "Geez, Buck, that was that one lady from the general store, wasn't it? What was her problem?"
"Dunno, kid," Buck chuckled. "But I think you took care of it."
JD sighed, rolled his shoulders and shook his black bangs out of his eyes, and they walked on. His steps were getting a little more fluid, Buck noticed as they walked together, a little easier, wouldn't be any time at all -
Buck slowed down too, then stopped and looked at his young friend. JD was staring anxiously ahead of them, his lips pursed as if he was thinking very hard. Buck followed his gaze, then thought, of course.
Buck heard JD gulp, stroked his moustache and said, "Uh, JD, you okay? Cause we can - "
"No, I'm okay, Buck," the youth replied, but he was looking at the jail door in an odd way that took Buck a moment to place. It wasn't so much an emotion as a set of them, all rolled together, fear and regret and a bitter resentment that looked out of place on one so young.
JD coughed, reached up and pulled his bowler hat down. "Come on." He said, and continued to make his stuttering way down the street.
Buck scowled as he accompanied JD past the jail, walking so he was between the boy and the jailhouse door. Damn. Damn, that Darcy fellow is right. JD's stuck with this, he ain't gonna forget, but what the hell can I do? I can't forget either. Naw, never mind. That doctor can't be right about everything. Just gonna take time, that's all. I hope...
+ + + + + + +
Ezra and Vin watched the scene unfold from their seats in front of the saloon. They both held their breath when JD stopped outside the jail, but whenthe youth walked on Vin shook his head and backed up, toward the deep shade of the low-slung porch.
"Let's not stare," Vin said to Ezra, still in low tones. "We'll make him self-conscious."
Ezra cleared his throat and sat down, risking one more glance at Buck and JD as they worked their laborious way down the street. It felt gratifying, having the boy among them again, even if he was as yet not completely well. It made Ezra's heart feel curiously lighter, seeing JD in the sunlight again, walking. Moving. Moving on...
"You dropped one of your cards," Vin pointed out as he leaned his back against the saloon wall and went back to lacing his chinstrap.
Ezra glanced over at Vin, then down at the dirty wooden planks. There it was, face down, the playing card he'd drawn when Vin punched his arm.
"My thanks, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, bending down with a grunt to retrieve the card. "Of course, I had already felt that the deck was a card lighter than it - "
Ezra stopped talking, eyed the dropped card in his hand for a moment. He knew Vin was looking at him in curiousity, wondering why he'd halted in mid-sentence. Ezra looked up, saw Vin's questioning eyes and gave a shrug, tucked the card back in the pack and leaned his chair against the wall, as if nothing mattered to him in the world at that moment. But something mattered. That card did, the one he'd just picked up, it mattered to him a great deal, because he'd drawn it as a card of fortune, asked it for an unmistakable sign. And the cards had answered him.
It was the seven of spades.
+ + + + + + +
Inside the jail, Chris sat up on his cot and noticed the deputy, Matthew Dwight, standing at the grimy front window and staring out of it curiously, craning his head to see down the street. Frowning, Chris stood, cocked his head as he approached the rusting iron bars and lazily wrapped his hands around them. What -
At that moment the jailhouse door opened, and Ezra walked in.
Dwight just stared at him, glancing up and down to make sure the gambler didn't have a gun. Ezra ignored him, stared at Chris with eyes that were wide with - something. Chris almost flinched under their intensity, and turned away from the bars to sit back down on his cot, felt a deep fear inside. He knew Ezra hated him. He supposed he was about to find out how much.
Chris heard Ezra's footsteps approaching the cell, even, deliberate. He kept his eyes on the floor as he heard Ezra take a deep breath. There was a slight pause, then Ezra said, "Mr. Larabee, you will do me the kindness of facing me, please."
Chris winced visibly, knew there was no escaping Ezra's anger now. He turned, slowly, looked up at Ezra and waited.
Ezra's eyes were burning with emotion as he said,"What you did to that boy was wretched and inexcusable. And there is a part of me that I suspect will forever condemn and hate you for it."
Chris' heart sank; he knew he deserved every spite- filled word, knew also that he was witnessing the passions Ezra kept so neatly tucked away. Witnessing, and being engulfed by them.
"You may wonder, Mr. Larabee," Ezra continued, and as Chris looked at the gambler's face he saw a tremendous struggle going on, for what he wasn't sure, "How it is that I can even bring myself to speak to you."
Ezra shook his head a little bit. "Even I cannot answer that question. What you did is abhorrent to me, yet I cannot in good conscience condemn you eternally because of it. Because ... I have done the same."
Chris' eyebrows went up, and he opened his mouth to protest.
Ezra cut him off. "Believe me, it is no small comfort to discover that I am as loathsome a personage as you were when you attacked Mr. Dunne. But upon examination, I cannot find a defense against what I did that day six months past, when I ran out on you, that does not ring hollow and false. I am left with the unsettling certainty that we are more alike than different, after all, with one exception. Until this moment."
Chris blinked, looked at Ezra and tried to decipher what he was saying.
"When I deserted you," Ezra continued, his face growing crimson with effort, "I placed you and the others in mortal danger, and yet you forgave me, even though part of you did - and I suspect still does - harbor a great deal of resentment towards my actions. So I now find myself in the same position, and in order to not bring shame to my mother and my name, I know I must do the same. And..." He swallowed, and his lips wavered for an instant, recovered. "Forgive you."
Chris drew in a long breath, let it back out again. Ezra was forgiving him. He felt as if a band had been let loose from his heart, one that had been choking it painfully. He looked at Ezra, saw a little confusion and fear in those carefully masked eyes, and wondered if the gambler knew what it meant to him, to have that forgiveness. Maybe he did. Chris figured he'd never know.
"I must confess," Ezra said with a sigh, looking down at his hands, "that I am unsure how the rest of our time will go, whether Mr. Wilmington, and of course Mr. Dunne himself, will deal with this whole affair..."
Chris folded his hands, leaned forward on the cot and shrugged in despair. "I've done my best. All I can do."
"That you have, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said with a note of admiration in his voice. "And if you had been on the street a few minutes ago, you would have seen the fruits of your labors. Mr. Dunne was walking down them with only a cane for assistance."
Chris looked up, startled. He stood up quickly, approached the bars and looked at Ezra hopefully. "He was? Was he - was anybody with him?"
"Mr. Wilmington, as always," Ezra replied with a small smile, then said, "You see, Mr. Larabee, when I have been witness to miracles such as the one I've seen today, making amends with you seems a small price to pay for the hope that we shall all find ourselves riding together again. And if you can put up with the likes of me - "
Chris gave him a look, which Ezra knowingly returned. And added a smile wide enough to show his gold tooth.
"Then surely the miracles are not ended yet."
+ + + + + + +
That night JD made it to the saloon for the first time in four months, determined despite an overwhelming lethargy to make the most of his hard-won freedom. The other patrons stared at him as he came in, for a moment; then Buck swept the room with a glint that dared them to continue making his friend uncomfortable, and the curious drunks suddenly found their whiskey bottles endlessly fascinating. And stopped staring.
The game was lively and, for JD, short lived. For as much as he enjoyed being among his friends again, as happy and satisfied as Darcy Thomas seemed as he toasted the youth's health with a bottle of fine Irish whiskey - one of only two in the whole saloon! - and as much as he wanted to stay up all night and get back into the poker game, he was just too tired. So, after he'd nearly fallen asleep waiting for Nathan to decide whether to fold or call, Buck made the strong suggestion that it was time for JD to get some shut-eye, and Darcy agreed. JD was outnumbered, so wisely allowed Buck to help him out of the saloon and back up to his room. Ten minutes later he was in bed and asleep.
Buck returned to the saloon, trying to convince himself the entire way back that things would change, now that JD was walking. Those nightmares he had been having would surely go away, now that he could see Chris whenever he wanted. Hell, the last couple of nights JD hadn't made a noise, and Buck wrapped himself in that soothing thought as he put on his best let's-get-down-to-business grin and kissed the pretty new barmaid before sitting back down to the game. JD was fine, and Buck didn't have to worry about forgiving Chris before he was damn good and ready. What did Darcy Thomas know, anyway?
+ + + + + + +
The game ended four hours later, and Buck checked his pocket watch as he slowly climbed the stairs to his room, yawning and wincing at his sore muscles. Two o'clock; damn, he used to be able to go all night. Must be gettin' old...
His room was dark and quiet, and Buck fumbled a bit before turning on the light and starting to get undressed. He was tired enough to consider just flopping into bed with his clothes on, and was just about to turn off the light and do so when he heard something that made his stomach clench in dismay.
A whimper. Then another one. Muffled and low, through the walls.
Oh, no. Buck turned toward the source of the sound. JD, it had to be. Another nightmare? Buck's shoulders sagged, and he sighed as he buttoned his shirt back up and wondered what to do. Damn, he ain't better after all. Well, that Darcy still don't know everything. I'll talk to Nathan tomorrow, that's what I'll do. He'll give JD somethin' so he'll sleep through the night.
There was another whimper, followed by a soft banging noise. Buck frowned. Did the kid put himself in the closet again? Better check this out..softly opening the door to his room, Buck stuck his head out into the hallway, then padded over to JD's door and gently opened it, and went inside.
It was dark in the room, so Buck felt around for a moment, found a box of matches and the oil lamp that set on the table by the door, and lit it, keeping the flame low. The room was as still as a tomb. Buck's eyes scanned the bed, but JD wasn't in it. The closet. Or under the bed maybe. Then he heard the noise again - a whimper, confused and terrified, like a small animal caught in a trap. His eyes shot to where he'd heard the sound, and against his will Buck let out a tiny moan.
Under the desk. JD was in the small legspace under his desk, his cotton longjohns shining ghostly white in the dim room. He was half-sitting, half-laying in that tiny space, his legs drawn up, his face buried in his arms, just like he had been in Nathan's room that awful night, when he'd crawled under his desk hysterical and in terrific pain. And whimpering, just as he was now. Except JD was fast asleep.
Buck stood there a long moment, unsure what to do. Then JD made another small noise, and Buck stopped thinking, and hurriedly went over to the desk, got down on the floor, and took a closer look.
JD was trembling, hugging himself as if in some kind of shock. He muttered broken words, half-formed and unintelligible, and in the glowing light Buck saw the scar, vividly etched in the fair skin that lay exposed as JD's head fell forward and his black hair fell in all directions. An awful thrill ran through the gunslinger as he witnessed JD's nightmare. God damn it, how much is this boy going to have to go through? JD moaned again, and instinctively Buck reached out and touched him lightly on the arm, one thought racing through his mind, enough. Enough -
JD didn't wake up. Instead, he flinched away from Buck's touch, pressed himself deeper into the small space, and it was so much like that first night that Buck felt a terrible burning in his gut, an awareness that this wasn't going to end without him having to do something that would really hurt, but Christ, wake up, JD. Don't run from me, dammit, I'm trying to help you. I'm trying -
...He needs to forgive Chris. And he'll not do it before you do...
Darcy's words stabbed Buck, injured him as he sat there in the dim light, trying to think of something to do. Forgive Chris? Impossible, Chris was the one that did this to JD. Chris was responsible for the boy walking in his sleep, hiding and crying like his heart was breaking. Chris hurt JD, and for that he should never be forgiven.
...I don't know what it would take to make things right with ye...
Buck sniffed a little, looked at JD's troubled face twitching in the half-darkness. Suppose talking to Chris would help solve JD's problem. Does it have to be right with me? I could say the words, don't have to mean 'em. Maybe...something. I gotta do something. And maybe I've learned enough from Ezra to make a show, without meaning it. Don't matter anyway, Chris and me is through, but JD - this has got to stop. I'm sick of it. I'll go see Chris tonight.
He looked back under the desk. JD had stopped whimpering, and had laid his head against the rough wooden side of the legspace, his face more relaxed and calm. Maybe he's past his nightmare. Buck watched closely as JD breathed, deep, even breaths that showed no hint of fright or trouble. Buck wavered, wondered whether to wake JD before he left. Then JD shifted in the cramped space, sighed and muttered a few words in his sleep, but not in fright or pain. Buck caught one of the words, and in spite of his frayed nerves gave a small smile. Then JD said it again, small and low: "...mama..."
Okay, I don't understand it. But at least I know he's in good hands till I get back. Shifting himself forward a bit, the gunslinger whispered, "You just stay where you're comfortable, kid. I'll be right back."
JD almost nodded. But that was silly. He did smile a bit in his sleep, though, and that gave Buck some peace as he stood up, squared his shoulders against the greatest bit of chicanery he was ever about to pull off, and quietly left the room, dimming the lamp to blackness on his way out the door.
The jail was almost dark, as Buck expected it would be. As he made his way to the front door, Buck looked in through the grimy window and saw Josiah slumbering in the big chair, his feet propped up on the desk. He reached out for the doorknob, stopped, took a deep breath.
You're doin' it for JD, Buck reminded himself. You don't have to mean it, just do it. Get it over with, so's the boy gets some peace. All right.
The handle of the door had never felt colder in Buck's grasp, had never turned so reluctantly or loudly. He pushed it open as if it was made of iron, winced at the horrible screeching noise the rusty hinges made. Except, funny - Josiah barely looked up, as if the hinges weren't that loud to him at all. Funny.
"Evenin', Buck," Josiah said quietly, and if he was surprised he didn't show it.
Buck nodded, stuffed his hands in his pants pockets to hide his nervousness, cleared his throat. "Evenin', Josiah. Wondered if I - if I could talk to Chris."
Josiah nodded, stretched and stood. "I'll be outside if you need me," he said, and slid out from behind the desk and, before Buck knew it, was outside and sitting on one of the barrels. He was alone with Chris.
Buck stood there for a second, confused. Jesus, what was he gonna say? A thousand thoughts went through his mind, but nothing stuck. Shit, maybe this was a bad idea. Naw, it was definitely a bad idea. Is Josiah still out there - ?
The gunslinger started. He hadn't yet looked over to see that Chris had woken up. He dropped his gaze, waiting for the surge of anger and fear he'd just experienced to die down a little before he went to talk to his onetime friend. Chris sure didn't sound like himself, he sounded - hollow, like an empty room. Buck scratched his head, stared at the front of the sheriff's desk. The hell with it. Let's get it over with.
Buck walked the seemingly endless distance to Chris' cell, heard the squeaks of the cot's frame as Chris moved on it. Finally, calling on every ounce of self-control he had, Buck glanced up at Chris, just for a moment. He was sitting on the cot, in black like always, and his eyes searched Buck's in bleary confusion.
Like they did that morning, Buck remembered. Before he got all mad, and denied everything, and said JD deserved it.
Go on, say something. Then get the hell out of here. Buck cleared his throat. "Hey, there, Chris, I - I was just settin' up in my room, and nothin' was goin' on, thought I'd drop down here and see how..."
No, that wasn't right, dammit. Buck paused, frustrated. That sounded completely stupid and wrong, but oh well, it was out now. Just finish it.
Buck sighed roughly, hating this, hating Chris, hating everything. Why the hell was life so hard? "I - thought you should know, you know, that I ain't got - that there ain't - "
Damn it! He couldn't say it. Couldn't say he didn't have hard feelings, because he did. Couldn't say there wasn't any bad blood between them, because there was. Buck was amazed that he was such a lousy liar. How did Ezra make it look so easy?
Okay, one more time, and then that's it. That's it and I'm seeing Nathan in the morning so he can give something to JD, and screw this shit. Buck took a deep breath, one more try -
"Buck, I'm sorry."
Buck stopped, blinked. He hadn't expected Chris to say anything, kind of hoped he wouldn't. But that was his voice just now, wasn't it? But that wasn't Chris, it was this low, quiet voice with so much - Buck didn't even know what was in it, but it was different. He looked at Chris in shock.
Jesus, he's lost weight. And look at his eyes. What - what -
As he stared, Chris stood up and approached the bars, his eyes never wavering from Buck's. Buck was amazed at how sallow and haunted that face was, as bad as when Sarah and Adam died. But there was a light there too, and for some reason Buck wanted to turn away from it, because it was completely outside his understanding. It was not what he expected at all.
But he didn't turn away, and so was more stunned when Chris looked him square in the eye and said in quiet, measured tones, "I've been sitting in here four months thinking about what I'd say to you." Chris paused then, ducked his head down and swallowed hard before looking up and continuing. "I'm sorry I hurt JD. You were right to hate me after what I said to you about it being JD's fault. You were right, and I didn't listen. I'm sorry."
Naw, this wasn't Chris. Chris was never this contrite, never - but - Buck had no idea how to respond, so he just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Chris, I - "
"No, let me finish," Chris said quickly, still holding Buck with that vehement gaze, his face full of urgency, his voice tinged with tears. "Please. I'm sorry I pushed you away after Sarah and Adam died. I'm sorry I beat on you when you were only trying to help me."
Buck's jaw dropped, and he felt numb all over.
"I was an idiot," Chris said softly, and Buck noticed he was trembling with emotion, as if something buried deep inside him was only now getting out. "You tried to bring me back after the fire, tried to make things all right for me, and I punished you for it. A true friend never would have done that. If you never forgave me you'd have every right, but just so's you know... I wish I was JD right now. Because he's got the truest friend a man could ever have."
Buck closed his mouth, felt himself shaking almost as bad as Chris. He'd never expected sorry, never thought to look into those blue eyes and see anything but bitterness and a soul that had been dead for three years, but - but - there was sorry there. Not show sorry; real sorry, and for things Buck had decided would stay wounded inside himself forever. Damn it if that Darcy wasn't right all along. This definitely wasn't the same Chris that left. And Buck stood there, flabbergasted.
Chris stared at Buck for a long moment, then dropped his gaze to the floor and turned away.
Buck gazed after him, still too dumbstruck to form words. Finally he let out an exasperated sigh and said, "Dammit, Chris."
Chris turned back, his drawn face puzzled.
Buck blinked and shook his head. "Dammit, here I am all set to hate you, and you go and pull this on me. That just ain' t fair."
Chris walked back up to the bars, the faintest smile on his face.
"And - and look at you," Buck continued in a husky voice, putting his hands on his hips. "You look like one of them scarecrows on your daddy's farm. The food here that bad?"
Chris gave a tiny nod. "It's pretty bad."
"Well, shit," Buck said with a sniff, feeling his face flush with some emotion - he wasn't sure which, there was a whole jumble of them in there. "Shit, Chris, you didn't have to starve yourself. That ain't - "
The smile remained, but the eyes went somber. "Buck."
Buck stopped, looked at Chris, his expression one of tremulous confusion.
"I'm gonna be all right," Chris said in low, even tones. "Don't worry about me. Just take care of JD."
Buck felt a rush of indignation, brought his head back. "Oh, like I can't handle both at the same time. Like I ain't been doing that practically since the beginning."
Chris nodded as he gazed at Buck - gazed in an odd way, like he'd only just discovered him standing there. Chris smiled again, that little half-smile Buck knew like the back of his hand, and said softly, "You do pretty good, Buck. Thanks."
"Oh, never mind," Buck said gruffly, bewilderment still in his voice but being layered over now with gruff embarrassment. "Just - just stop it Chris, now I got to go, but in the mornin' I'll have a talk with that old cook at the restaurant, see if we can get you so's you don't disappear when you turn sideways, okay?"
The smile widened a little, the eyes relaxed and turned soft and fond. "Okay, Buck."
Buck nodded, more vigorously than he needed to, and began backing away from the cell. "All right, then." He paused, didn't know how to leave it, finally shrugged and tugged on his hat, nodded to Chris.
Chris nodded, his expression tired but happy. Buck turned then, slow and steady, and walked out, almost bumping into Josiah on the way off the porch.
The preacher eyed Buck, looked back through the smudged window into the jail. "Didn't kill him, I hope?"
"Huh? Naw," Buck said in a raspy voice, stroking his moustache and wandering to the edge of the porch. He stood there a moment, looking up at the sky and leaning against one of the narrow posts.
Josiah stood up, noticed Buck's pensive stance. "You all right?"
"Damnedest thing, Josiah," Buck muttered, putting one hand on his hip and shaking his head as he looked at the ground. He paused, then said it again, "It's the damnedest thing."
He didn't say anything else, and Josiah didn't ask; somehow, he didn't have to. After a moment, Buck stepped off the porch and went down the street, back toward the boarding house.
Josiah watched him go, felt the air around him soften and regain its familiar texture in the man's wake. He smiled softly to himself, thought, another demon gone. And went back inside.
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