JD finished reading the note, paused. Then frowned, and read the note again. It didn't make sense. It was Chris' handwriting all right, but it sounded like something Chris would write if he was sick, or wounded, and thought he might die. But he was fine when he came back...JD scanned the note a third time, read the last line out loud. He should have had a better hero than me.
That didn't sound like Chris at all. Or if it was, he was pretty depressed. Really depressed, almost like he wanted to -
JD's eyes popped open and he read the note again. It's a suicide note. His confusion deepened, along with a queasy fear. JD blinked at the words, felt the despair in them, and looked at the ring in his fingers. Chris' ring. His wedding ring. Sell it, sell everything, for me?
No, it didn't make sense, because JD knew that if Chris was determined enough to kill himself, he'd have done it. Nobody messed with Chris when his mind was made up.
But Chris was still alive...
JD turned the ring over in his fingers, gazed at the gleaming golden band, felt the sorrow in it. It was a heavy ring, even in JD's inexperienced opinion it was worth a lot of money. But Chris wanted it sold. Wanted everything sold, for him.
He was injured through my carelessness and stupidity...
He should have had a better hero than me...
JD grunted, felt a strange pain in his heart. It was too much, to think that Chris had been so upset at what he'd done that he would want to die. He'd laughed as he beat JD, he'd slung him against a wall and left him to die, and he didn't care, he didn't care at all -
A heavy gold ring, a carefully penned note, last instructions. He was injured through my stupidity...he should have everything he needs or wants...he should have had a better hero than me...
JD moaned, let his head bang against the side of the bed. He didn't want this, didn't want to think that Chris had been so sad over what he'd done that he felt like dying. It felt wrong, out of place. The Chris he'd been hating wouldn't feel that way, and the gilded hero of before would never have hurt him like Chris did, so what was left? It doesn't make sense, if Chris felt that bad, was sorry and torn up and felt like he wanted to die, it would mean that he felt... ...felt like me.
For a few moments JD sat in the dark and shook, thought he could feel the anguish and pain he'd known in those black months course through him and shoot through the ring he held, suffuse it, joining Chris' pain and his. Oh, God, I'm losing my mind. But it felt right, to think that Chris had felt the way he'd felt, that night he'd cried against Buck. It felt right, to believe that in that kind of despair Chris had written that letter. I would have written a letter that night, JD thought, if I was alone and thought nobody was going to come. I would have wanted somebody to know...
JD squeezed the ring in his fist for a moment, scrunched his face up. God, he hurt like me? He was alone, I wasn't, why didn't he kill himself? Living when you wanted to die hurt, continuing on when you wanted everything to stop hurt, and for a moment JD didn't understand how Chris could feel bad enough to want to die, like he had, bad enough to plan it, and not do it. I would have done it, that night, he thought with a shiver. I would have...it would have been such a relief, such an easy peace after so much pain, I would have been with my mama again....
But it wouldn't have been right.
JD's head snapped up, and he looked around. That thought had been so clear, so real he thought maybe Darcy had come back, or Buck was there. Or maybe even his mama. But he was alone.
He slumped over again, looked at the golden wedding ring in his palm, peered at it as he thought. It wouldn't have been right...no, it wouldn't have. JD was glad now he hadn't been in a situation where he could have killed himself, because then he never would have found out he could walk again, that he would be okay. It had been hard, terribly hard, but he'd gone through with it, and in the end it had been right. It was what he was supposed to do.
It's not your time yet, JD, he heard his mother's voice say. Someday.
And Chris...why hadn't Chris killed himself? Did he hear voices too? He'd come back instead, he had to know they all hated him. JD's mind flew back to that day in the jail. It seemed so long ago, Chris standing there ramrod straight and the others facing him, Ezra as mad as JD had ever seen him, Nathan shooting daggers with his eyes. Buck wouldn't even look at him, he was so angry. If I'd been Chris, and I knew how much they hated me, that would have hurt worse than anything. Maybe worse than he'd felt that night even, but Chris didn't run from it, didn't make excuses or beg for a second chance. He just stood there, and took it. God...
And Chris' words, so loud and strong they rang in the tiny room, I attacked JD Dunne in the alleyway outside this jail. He was badly hurt, and I'm responsible. I'm here to turn myself in.
I'm here to turn myself in.
That was why Chris had come back. JD realized that he had never really listened to those words before. Chris had come to make things right, stood in front of six men who hated him so much JD could feel it, because that was the right thing to do. And then walked over to that cell and shut himself in, and was still there, four months later, and JD remembered the last words he'd heard Chris say, when JD walks through that door you can let me out. And then he'd sat down, and waited.
Waited, maybe forever.
He's sorry, JD. He wishes this whole thing had never happened.
And still waited.
What he did tore him up inside. Made him want to die. He wanted ye to know that.
He could have been with his wife and son, right now. But he's not. He's here, waiting.
He should have had a better hero than me.
A minute later, JD closed the door to Darcy's room with a loud click, leaving it empty and dark once again. A moment after that, the silence in the hall was broken only by the sound of his faltering footsteps as he made his way toward the stairs as fast as he possibly could.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was reading on his cot, hunched over to better read the words by the light of an oil lamp Josiah had placed in his cell. He heard the door open, glanced up from his book but for a moment couldn't place the footsteps. Too light for Buck, too unsure for Josiah -
- then he heard the thud of a cane, and Chris Larabee froze in sudden witless fear.
The footsteps came closer, slow but determined. Face him, dammit. But for a moment Chris couldn't do anything but stare at the flickering flame of the lamp, his mind blanking except for the dreadful thought: this is it.
They had all forgiven him, more or less, except for JD. His world had recovered, except in the one place where he was sure it would never be right again. He had single-handedly destroyed JD's existence, and now the time had come to live or perish by it.
This is it.
The footsteps continued, horribly loud in that sepulcherial quiet, and Chris suddenly found as he turned on the small cot that every muscle, every bone in his body ached horribly. He fought it, tried to quiet the furious pounding of his heart, and willing himself to stand, turned around, and faced the front of his cell.
He couldn't look at JD's face at first, looked at the ground instead, saw the uncertain feet, the bottom of the elegant cane. He felt a lump in his throat, said to himself, it's only temporary, Darcy said he wouldn't need it forever, just for a while. Oh, Christ...
JD came closer, his form outlined by the amber glow of the lamp that sat on the desk behind him. He's walking so slow, Chris thought miserably, remembering the boy's giddiness, the scrambling gait of youth. Gone now, maybe forever, and I took it away from him. I'll live with it forever. Does he know that?
Silence; the footsteps stopped. Chris' eyes flickered up, saw that JD was standing directly in front of him now. Chris knew he couldn't avoid looking in those eyes forever, could not for one more second delay the meeting that he had been dreading for four months. It was time. Gripping the iron bars so he couldn't turn away, and mustering every ounce of strength he possessed, Chris Larabee lifted his head and looked into JD's eyes.
And what did he see there? In those hazel depths that once shone when they spoke his name, what remained? For a brief instant Chris saw nothing, only the fire-red wall of his own fears, the flung-up wall of shock to prevent knowing a feared thing too quickly. In that first, breathless instant Chris saw nothing; then he blinked, and looked again.
JD was looking at him steadily, his long-lashed eyes never wavering, holding Chris' soul with an iron grip. Chris flinched from its intensity, but there was no punishment there. There was knowing, and the timeless maturity of one who has survived a great ordeal, and finds in it new strength. Chris searched those eyes, tried to find the hatred he was sure had to be there, but there was none. Only a wisdom borne of tragedy, and the stubborn soul of a boy determined to be a man. And becoming one.
Chris stared in awe, felt he should say something and opened his mouth. He was stopped when JD took a sharp breath and held out his hand. Startled, Chris looked down and saw in the youth's trembling palm his wedding ring, and the note he'd written.
Oh, God. Chris stared at the ring and the note. JD, you weren't supposed to see these. You weren't - He looked up at JD's face again, ashamed that the boy had been witness to his darkest hour, and was amazed to see tears in those huge hazel eyes. Not for me....But JD's whole heart was in his eyes, and it was impossible to mistake what was there.
My God. Chris felt himself shivering as if he were very cold. I don't deserve this, I don't, you should hate me forever. How can you forgive me? But it was true, it was there, in those large green eyes flecked with gentlest brown, an understanding and a forgiveness that was so powerful Chris almost cried out. But he didn't, only stood there, and stared. And silently reached forward and took the ring and note from JD's outstretched palm.
JD stared at Chris, felt himself shaking all over from what he had seen when he looked into his eyes. They were the eyes of a man who had beaten him and left him for dead, whom he had once worshipped and then hated with a ferocity that would have alarmed men twice his age. It had been hard, so hard to look at Chris, but JD had to know if what the note said was true, if what Buck and the others believed was so. JD had heard that Chris was sorry, didn't believe it, and then believed with a keenness that pierced his young soul, burned it, and drew a phoenix from its ashes. And now he was looking at Chris, and what he saw went beyond his experience, beyond everything he knew. It was a revelation.
He looked into Chris' eyes, saw at first only the gauntness there, the lines around the eyes he didn't remember being there before. Then JD looked, really looked, and was surprised to see that Chris was scared. He'd never seen Chris scared, not even when he was being shot at, but there was such fear and anxiety in those blue eyes, and JD suddenly realized, he's scared of me. He's afraid of me, why? Chris, you were willing to give up everything you had for me. Hurting me made you so upset you were going to kill yourself. You gave away your wedding ring so I could get better. I thought your jail time was just show, but it wasn't. I'm looking in your eyes, you look so sad and scared, like you're going to start crying, but you don't understand, I don't hate you anymore. What you did was pretty awful, but you came back. You made sure I got better. You set things right, Chris, like Josiah's always telling us to do, and you sure didn't have to. And now...now you're not running away from me, even though I can tell you want to, that I remind you of that night and it scares you. It scares me too Chris, I have nightmares. I'll bet you do too. But it's going to be all right, Chris. I guess I'll never be able to think of you as some dime-novel hero, but you know what, you're a lot braver than any of them ever were. I guess I can't worship you any more; but can I respect you? Would that be okay? Because I think I do, Chris. I think I do.
You're sorry, Chris. I know it. And I think...that's going to help a lot of things.
Chris swallowed, finally broke away from JD's powerful gaze. He looked at the rough planking beneath his feet, gripped the bars as if they were the only things that kept him standing. He blinked, felt a tear fall, blinked again. Then he looked up at JD, and saw that the boy had moved.
The youth was reaching into his pocket, having tucked his walking stick under one arm. He pulled something out, was fiddling with it, and when he drew his hands away Chris saw what he was doing and gasped.
His sheriff's star. JD had pinned on his sheriff's star, as carefully and as perfectly as if he had done it with a ruler. He tugged at it a moment, then looked up at Chris with a gaze that was completely serious, his hazel eyes those of a man now, no longer a youth. The eyes of the law.
Chris almost started at that gaze, so different was it from the JD he had known. The youth seemed to dissolve before his eyes, shift and change into the young man that would ride, and shoot, and be the final and best part of them all. Chris shook his head a bit, felt as if he was seeing a vision; but JD remained, his face solemn, his posture straight and set.
And, never taking those grown-up eyes off Chris' face, JD reached behind him, took the keys off their wooden peg, and in one swift motion unlocked the cell door and opened it wide. And Chris Larabee walked out of the iron cage, a free man.
+ + + + + + +
The brightly-lit church was becoming very warm, and finally Darcy decided to walk to the open doors and enjoy the light breeze, quietly puffing on his pipe and staring at the stars as he did so. He had been there a few moments when he heard footsteps behind him and a Southern voice say, "Mr. Thomas?"
He turned. Ezra Standish was standing there. After glancing around for a moment, the gambler said, "I wonder, sir, if I may have a word with you?"
"Certainly." Darcy replied, stepping out onto the narrow front stoop of the church steps. As Ezra joined him, he said, "What can I do for ye?"
The gambler paused, cleared his throat; did it again; then said, "You'll have to pardon me, sir, I am not used to relaying words of appreciation in such a ..." He paused, stopped, started over. "Your services to Mr. Dunne were in my opinion extraordinary, and I would be the coarsest villian if I left my gratitude towards you unexpressed. You have an astonishing talent."
"Thank ye for yer kind words, Mr. Standish," Darcy replied humbly. "But my talent is useless without a patient determined to recover. And friends to help him as he does."
Ezra coughed, looked at the ground as if that word embarrassed him. But when he looked back up, his green eyes glowed with admiration.
"The value of my friendship I cannot attest to," he admitted with a self-deprecating smile. "But yours to that boy is priceless. Thank you, sir. And if you're ever in St. Louis - "
"Stop in and play a few rounds with yer mother," Darcy finished as he took Ezra's offered hand. "Mr. Wilmington told me about her. Sounds like a charming woman."
"Well, she is," Ezra said with a trace of confusion. "But I was actually going to warn you not to play cards with her."
"Ah," Darcy replied with a knowing smile as they shook hands. "Well, then I'll consider meself warned."
Ezra smiled in reply, but said nothing further because at that moment there was the sound of stomping footsteps, and an instant later Buck appeared at the door of the church, looking peeved and upset.
"That does it," he fumed as he stopped next to Darcy and Ezra and stuffed his pocket watch back into his pants. "I gave that boy every last possible second to stall."
Ezra shot the gunslinger a look and rolled his eyes. "Now, Mr. Wilmington, don't undo months of Mr. Thomas' hard work by provoking the youth. If he's dawdling, perhaps he's simply not ready for public - "
"Aw, 'course he is," Buck snapped as he looked at the dark street and paused, hands on his hips. A moment later he heard movement behind him, turned his head a little to see the others gathering at his shoulder, Josiah and Nathan looking particularly amused. He kept fuming anyway.
"So ye've detached yerself from the fair lasses long enough to shake my hand, Mr. Wilmington?" Darcy asked around his pipe.
"Hm? Oh, sure." Buck turned quickly, with a smile plastered hurriedly on his face. "Don't worry, Mr. Thomas, you'll get a proper sendoff, but first I got to go get that lazy rascal outta bed, so if you'll pardon me - "
He started down a step, but someone grabbed the shoulder of his jacket with such force that Buck not only couldn't reach the stair, he just about yelled out loud. Whipping his head around, he saw Ezra just above him, his fair face white with surprise.
"Dang, Ezra," Buck groused as he turned to see what his friend was looking at. "You don't got to pull a - man's - "
Buck faltered, stopped. Stared.
They were far down the street, walking away from the church, not towards it. Two figures, barely visible in the dark, starlit night.
A tall, blond-haired man dressed in midnight black. And a slight, shirtsleeved youth with too-long raven hair, walking with a limp and the aid of an elegant cane, walking slowly, but surely, away, by the blond man's side.
"God damn," Buck whispered, forgetting where he was as he stared. "God damn. Anybody see what I'm seein'?"
"Uh-huh," Nathan said softly.
"I do," Josiah added.
A soft voice at Buck's shoulder. "I see it, Mr. Wilmington."
Darcy was there too, in the back behind Josiah, but at this sight he stepped forward and came down the stairs, slowly, and paused at the bottom as the group watched the two men continue on down the street.
Then Darcy felt a hand on his shoulder, looked up and saw Buck with tears in his eyes, unashamed.
"You were right, Mr. Thomas," he said simply, his voice catching in the warm night air. "Thank you."
Darcy nodded, knew there were tears in his own eyes and didn't care.
"I do believe I have now seen a miracle," Ezra said, in a voice that had not a hint of sarcasm in it.
"You did." Josiah replied.
They all gazed at the sight, together, quiet and contemplative as the evening swung on behind them. Then, without another word, they all turned and went back inside, and gave Darcy a proper sendoff.
It was much later that night, after the last of the guests had gone and the others had finally agreed to call it a night - or early morning - when Josiah made his slow way through the church, straightening a little bit and blowing out the last of the candles before heading off to bed.
What a day it had been. He picked up an errant scrap of paper off the floor. What an unbelievable day.
He straightened, winced as his old muscles protested. There were only a few candles left, just two by the door and the seven on the altar. Josiah smiled to himself: guess we don't need those anymore. He took a few steps toward the altar, to blow them out.
Josiah stopped, felt a shiver up his spine, turned around.
It was Chris.
Josiah held his breath, then released it. His mind went back to that awful first night, the rain, the thunder, the guilt-stricken man with the bloody knuckles who was half-wild with grief and remorse. It was the same scene now, the same man, the same church. That had not changed.
But when Chris stepped into the quiet sanctuary he had a smile on his face, and his dark eyes held a quietness and serenity Josiah hadn't seen before. It wouldn't last, probably; tomorrow they'd all find something to get mad about, some new evil to fight, and the Larabee temper would be back in full force.
But not as wild, Josiah hoped, maybe a little better focused. God help the evildoers.
"I know it's late," Chris said quietly as his footsteps echoed in the silent room. "Just wanted to come by and say thank you for all you done."
Josiah played with the scrap in his hand, shrugged. "I didn't do anything, Chris. You knew what you had to do, and you did it. Now everything's right again."
But the gunslinger was shaking his head. "You saw it even when I didn't. You said I had a legion of demons in me, and you were right. I even found where you got that, in the Bible you left in my cell."
"Is that right," Josiah muttered.
"That's right," Chris answered with a small nod. "I know what happened to that man too, the one who had the legion of demons in him."
Josiah tilted his head back and smiled. "And what was that, Chris?"
Chris' grin was just as wide. "They got driven out, into a herd of swine. Think that's where mine are headin'?"
Josiah felt the humor in his friend's voice, looked at the floor so Chris wouldn't see the tears in his eyes. He'd missed all of this. "Don't know, Chris. Sure hope so."
There was a pause, and then Chris said quietly, "You spoke up for me."
Josiah looked up.
"You gave me a chance, and I won't forget it. Thank you."
Josiah nodded. "I'm glad it worked out, Chris. We all are."
Chris' head ducked, his long blond hair falling in front of tired blue eyes.
"So," Josiah asked with a small grin, "you goin' out lookin' for swine tomorrow?"
Chris sighed, shrugged, looked at him in a weary but determined way.
"The way I see it, Josiah," he said, "if we hang around here long enough, I reckon they'll come lookin' for us."
Josiah felt so happy at seeing Chris smile he would have shouted if he hadn't been so damned tired. Instead, he simply smiled and said, "Go get some sleep, Chris."
Chris tilted his head, nodded assent. "Good night, Josiah."
And as his friend's footsteps faded toward the door and into the night, Josiah once again turned toward the altar, and its seven burning candles. He approached them, regarded the flames for a moment, thought; then left them burning brightly, and went to bed.
+ + + + + + +
The morning sun had just risen, bringing with it all the golden, rosy hues of a new day, when Darcy Thomas walked out of his rented room for the last time and quietly clicked the door closed.
It was quiet in the hallway, which he expected. He'd said all of his goodbyes the night before, well most of them, and did not expect any kind of a dramatic farewell. Darcy set the key at the base of the door, pulled his coat down, and glanced toward the room down the hall from his. All of his goodbyes, but one...
JD's door was slightly ajar as Darcy passed it, and he paused at it for a long time, staring into the darkness that lay beyond that tiny crack. Then he sighed, accepted that JD did not want an emotional, overwrought farewell, and walked on.
The morning street was still and silent; few people were about on this bright day. Darcy pulled on his gloves, looked around for the man he'd hoped to see, who he'd thought perhaps would ride with him, one final time. But Chris was not on the street.
Darcy paused, stepped off the boardwalk and decided it was time, finally time. A short walk to the livery, and then for home.
He heard footsteps beside him, from the alley, soft hoofbeats, and a muffled snort.
Darcy looked up.
JD held the reins of the horse firmly in one hand, his cane in the other. He stood there in the gray early morning light, beside the proud animal, his eyes gleaming as he looked at Darcy and gave him a crooked smile.
"Morning, Mr. Thomas," he said, almost shyly, as if he didn't want to talk too loud. Glancing toward Darcy's mount he said, "I got her ready for ya, got everything on and cinched up just right."
Darcy swallowed the lump in his throat, walked forward and looked at the youth, at how straight and strong he had become, all in a few months. "Thank you, JD."
"I'm sorry I didn't make the party last night," The youth mumbled, clearing his throat and looking down at his cane as he idly stabbed the dirt. "I kind of - I talked to Chris."
Darcy paused, didn't say anything.
"You were right," JD said softly, his voice choking, "He was sorry, he - I guess it really did almost kill him, what he did to me. I didn't think it did, but..." He paused, heaved a big sigh, then said, "I let him out. He's around here, somewhere, but he ain't in the jail no more. So that's over."
"And how does that make ye feel?" Darcy asked softly.
JD shrugged. "Relieved, I guess, but kind of...empty, like something 's supposed to happen now, but I don't know what it is."
Darcy nodded. "It'll come, JD, don't worry. It'll be all right. "
JD's head came up quickly, and when his eyes met Darcy's there was a kind of surprise there, a youthful wonder that permeated the boy's being and spilled out of him.
"Yeah, it will," he said in a low voice. "I didn't used to think so, but...yeah, I think it will be all right. It really will."
Darcy smiled at JD, put a hand on his shoulder. "Believe that, JD. No matter what, keep that spirit in ye, that star of hope, and ye'll live forever, and never be beaten down."
JD looked up at him for a moment, his hazel eyes struggling to maintain a manly stoicism, but it was no use. In one swift motion he wrapped his arms around Darcy, and gave him a tight, grateful hug.
Darcy returned the embrace, patted JD on the back and affectionately ruffled his hair before letting the youth go and gathering up the reins of his horse.
"You're about the best there is, Mr. Thomas," JD said in a husky whisper as he took as step backwards with his cane and regarded the Irishman with damp eyes. "I already told my mama to put in a good word for you, where she is. I'm sure she'll do it."
"She's never far away, lad," Darcy said as he stood beside his horse, just a few moments longer. "Remember that, and know you always have a safe port in a storm."
"Yours aren't either," JD said, firmly but self- conciously. Cocking his head he added, "Your loved ones, I mean. Your mama, and your wife and baby. I think...they're close." He shrugged aimlessly, looked at the ground.
When JD looked back up, he noticed Darcy had a very peculiar look on his face, kind of like surprise, but more than that. But JD didn't know what.
With that, Darcy swung himself onto the saddle and JD led him out into the street, leaning on his cane. The sun had come up just a little bit more, and as the they made their way onto the dusty thouroughfare Darcy looked up the street, and smiled.
A dark horse waited at the end of it, with a dark- clad rider sitting on it, turned golden by the rising sun.
JD saw it too, said, "Looks like you got an escort, Mr. Thomas."
Darcy nodded, looked down. "Would ye like to make it two?"
JD shook his head. "Sorry, but I got something else I gotta do." He reached up for Darcy's hand. "Have a safe trip."
"And ye as well, Mr. Dunne," Darcy returned, and as the youth stepped back he spurred his horse forward, down the morning street and out of the town.
And JD watched him, watched Darcy reach the end of the street and join the dark-clad rider, watched them ride off together, a short way only. And then the rider would come back, alone.
The morning sun shone through the faraway cloud of dust, made it shimmer as it settled, and JD watched it, thought, and knew.
Knew what was supposed to happen.
And turned and made his way back up the boarding- room stairs, as fast as he could.
+ + + + + + +
The early morning sun was brilliant, its golden hues touching and blessing everything it shone on as dawn broke the next day. It glowed warmly on Chris' face as he rode the wide prairie, with Darcy Thomas at his side. The light was new and fresh, like everything around them. It was going to be a beautiful day.
"Ah, Chris," Darcy sighed contentedly as both men let their horses slow to a walk. "I'm glad everything worked out for ye, and ye were able to come with me for part of me journey. It'll give me somethin' to sing about, the rest of the way home. And farther."
Chris leaned over the horn of his saddle, gave the Irishman a knowing look. "You thinking of going back to Ireland?"
Darcy looked down at his hands, then nodded and peered at the morning sky. "This whole adventure has reminded me, it's time to mend some fences of me own. There's some people back home who've missed me, and it's been too long. Far too long."
"Well, I'm glad we had a chance to ride out here," Chris said firmly, and when he looked at Darcy his eyes were serious. "Because I got something to tell you."
Darcy swung his head over, waited.
Chris took a deep breath. "When you met me, I was set to kill myself. If it hadn't been for you I'd be dead, the town would be taken over by Concho Charles, my friends would be scattered or dead and JD would be sittin' in a wheelchair. I owe you a lot, Darcy. I owe you my life."
Darcy didn't shrug the compliment off, or try to make light of it. Instead, he reached out his hand and said, "It was my honor to do so, Chris Larabee. Truly."
Chris took his hand, shook it warmly, but frowned and shook his head as he drew his hand back. "I still don't get it."
Darcy leaned back into his saddle with a placid smile.
Chris' eyes were piercing with scrutiny as he continued. "You saved my life, more than once. You stayed in this godforsaken town for four months, to take care of someone who matters to me. You did all this, and you don't even know me. Why?"
"Ah, now that's a very good question," Darcy said in a soft voice,and he studied the rosy hues of the coming dawn for a moment before he continued. When he did, his voice was low and full of emotion. "Ye ask why I do these things, Chris. I do them in the memory of one as dear to me as your friends are to you. A friend, who like your friends are with you, knew me, understood me - and put up with me anyway."
Chris thought, remembered. "The friend whose ribs you broke? You ended up doing his laundry for three weeks?"
"The very one." Darcy's eyes grew misty as he rubbed his chin and scanned the distant mountains, now glimmering like pearls. "It's very rare, that kind of friendship, you know. He introduced me to Reddie, he was Katie's godfather. And when I lost it all, he came to my rescue. He was a true friend. In fact - " Darcy's smile grew a little. "Ye remind me of him quite a bit."
Chris began to feel the melancholy in Darcy's voice, the sadness in the quiet lilt. "What happened to him?"
"He disappeared some time ago." Darcy sighed, leaning back in his saddle again. "We came to America together, and he was a hot one for the adventure. We always kept track of each other, and when I didn't hear from him I went looking. And found nothing."
Chris nodded, felt a familiar pang in his gut. Lost friends...
But when Darcy cocked his head toward Chris, there was something else in his eyes, and a smile on his lips when he said in brighter tones, "And then one day he came back. Came back, you see, from out of nowhere, singin' the praises of one Chris Larabee. It seems, accordin' to him, that ye saved his life."
Chris was shocked. "I did?"
Darcy laughed. "Ye see, ye didn't even realize it. To you he was just one more soul ye rescued from the pits of evil, I'm sure, but he was my dearest friend. 'Ye keep an eye out for Chris Larabee', he told me, 'and if ye ever run into him, give him all the help ye can. He's a good man, Darcy, for all his glaring and bluster. He helped me when he didn't have to, and we shouldn't forget it.' Of course," Darcy said, scratching his ear, "I don't think he had any idea I'd be four months helping ye out. But it'll make a fine evening at the pub, discussing it."
"Wait a minute." Chris shook his head in bewilderment. "I helped out a friend of yours? When? What's his name?"
"His name's not important," Darcy said, the full flush of the morning sun in his face as he turned proud, triumphant eyes to his friend. "But the fact that ye helped him is. Ye have demons, Chris Larabee, but the goodness of yer soul and the lion's strength of yer heart can conquer them, I know. I've seen it, and I promise ye in my house yer name will be held as sacred till the last candle dies."
"My soul's not that good," Chris said quietly, the memories of JD's attack sneaking in through Darcy's revelation.
"Ah, but there you're mistaken," Darcy said in soft, certain tones. "And ye'll never convince me otherwise, so you'd best give up tryin'."
Chris sighed. Stubborn Irishman. Giving his friend an irritated look he said, "All right, you saved my life, healed JD, did all that because I helped out a friend of yours - and you're not even going to tell me what his name is?"
Darcy shrugged. "His name would mean nothing to ye. Ye only knew him as Inmate Forty-Six."
Chris sat bolt upright, stunned.
"Ah, so ye do remember," Darcy said dryly, noting the amazed look on Chris' face.
Chris nodded. It was all he could do.
"Then ye must also remember what ye did," Darcy continued, his voice bright and proud and full of respect. "How, while ye were unjustly imprisoned, ye saw a man lyin' in the prison yard one day, ill and forsaken; how ye saw that pig of a warden beatin' him, and stepped in, and almost got killed yerself. Ye were beat down, again and again, but ye wouldn't abandon the fight, and finally the warden left that man alone."
"I remember," Chris whispered, still not believing. But it had to be true.
"Now d'ye understand?" Darcy smiled as the sun edged its way higher, and made glowing the land around them. "It was not me kind and generous heart that saved yer friends, but yers, that damnable day. Ye stood up for what ye knew was right, against pain and reason and the laws of common sense. Ye were a hero that day, not just to me friend but to the others watchin', who took yer example not to remain beaten down, but to stand up for themselves like men. Like you."
Chris looked down at his saddle, too overcome for a moment to speak.
"Now there's something ye should know about those men, Chris," Darcy said in a hushed voice, leaning over so Chris could hear him. "The ones ye set free are telling yer story, and the story of yer brave friends. They're tellin' their children, who will tell their children. Remember that, Chris Larabee, the next time yer demons are beatin' ye, and ye think there's no reason fer livin'. The reason is this: people need yer strength and yer stories, for when they have none of their own. "
Chris brought his head back, felt his throat tighten up. He looked at Darcy and shook his head with a scowl, fighting the tears in his eyes. "You Irish are all such goddamn poets."
Darcy leaned back in his saddle with a laugh and slapped Chris on the arm. "Too much fer yer Yankee heart is it? Then it's farewell I'm biddin' ye, Chris Larabee, until I find me way here again." He held out his hand, and Chris took it. "May ye have warm words on a cold evening, a full moon on a dark night, and the road downhill all the way to yer door."
Chris paused, let go of Darcy's hand, felt the sorrow of parting. He struggled with his words for more than a few moments. He was astonished by all that had taken place, thought about everything that had happened, and how it could have ended, except for the man sitting in front of him, and he was the best friend of the man Chris knew only as Inmate Forty-Six. Incredible.
Finally, Chris pressed his emotions to the side long enough to cough and say roughly, "So long, Darcy. Gonna miss you."
Darcy picked up his reins, smiled in a melancholy way as he set his hat more firmly on his head. "Goodbye, Chris. And don't worry. Yer demons may be legion, but so are the strengths of yer heart." He glanced past Chris for a moment, and his smile grew brighter. "And if ye ever doubt it, look over yer shoulder."
Chris frowned, puzzled, turned in his saddle and looked.
There, on the top of a small rise behind them, a horse and rider stood waiting in the rosy early morning sun, the horse stamping its hooves impatiently and twitching its ears. The rider stared straight at Chris, not moving. It was JD.
As Chris stared, another horse and rider appeared. Buck. Then Vin.
"Look over yer shoulder, Chris Larabee," Darcy repeated softly as Chris watched the line on the hill grow as Ezra appeared. Then Josiah, Nathan.
"Yer friends know yer heart. And they are legion also."
+ + + + + + +
Chris didn't turn around as he heard the hoofbeats of Darcy's horse retreated behind him. He knew where his eyes had to stay, and he turned his horse to face the six men riding down the gentle slope to meet him in the warm, luminous morning. And as he spurred his horse towards them, his heart swelled until he thought it would burst out of his chest. They were all there, JD's mount bouncing him along as if it was as eager to play as JD looked to be. He was smiling, whole, happy. They all looked happy, and as he met them a short distance away Chris realized with a shock that they were riding together. They would all ride home, together.
Vin reached him first, that small grin as always, his hat low, almost covering his eyes. He nodded to Chris. "Mornin', cowboy."
Could he talk? Chris cleared his throat, blinked a few times. Damn poets. He looked at Vin, looked at Buck, who was tugging his hat down and smiling, at Ezra, whose face seemed bland, but whose eyes betrayed the emotion that Chris knew - now - was there; at Josiah, whose open face smiled gentle encouragement; at Nathan, as the healer leaned forward in his saddle and nodded soberly in Chris' direction.
And finally, Chris' eyes rested on JD, who was smiling in the morning sun, his face flushed and excited, his black hair gleaming beneath that incongruous bowler hat. The eyes had changed some, looked at Chris now with quiet respect and acceptance, no longer starry-eyed idol worship. God help us. JD is growing up.
Then JD's smile spread, broke into the enthusiastic grin Chris thought he'd never see again. Growing up, but not too fast. Thank God.
Vin still sat facing Chris, patiently waiting...for what? Chris' eyes scanned the group again, he cleared his throat once more, and looked each man square in the eye before resting his gaze on Vin. He locked his eyes on the former bounty hunter and asked in a low, raspy voice, "Mind if I join you?"
Vin glanced at the rest of the men, who all looked at Chris, at each other, at Vin. Then, without saying a word, Vin turned his horse back toward Four Corners, and the others around him did the same, Chris squarely in the middle of the group.
Then, with the gentlest of nudges, the men urged their horses forward, to the small rise where Chris had first seen them. As soon as they topped it, JD suddenly reined his horse in, and in response Chris stopped his also, and the other men paused their mounts.
"JD?" Buck asked in concern, turning his eyes to his young friend.
JD was staring ahead, his eyes bright and glistening in the rose-colored air. He was breathing deeply, and when he turned his head, first to Buck, then to Chris, both men saw tears spilling down his cheeks. And he was not ashamed.
We're together again, JD's eyes said, and for a second Chris stared at them, not believing how palpable and deep JD's joy was. It enveloped him, enveloped them all, sheer, unbridled, let-loose-and-yell joy, and as Chris looked at his friends he saw it on their faces too, the same familiar joy, on that beautiful hill, in the glory of the rising sun: we're riding together again, united and unassailable. Things are set right at last.
Then JD urged his horse forward, and Chris followed him, and the others rode after, the thunder of their horses' hooves blending into the morning air, solid and strong and so right that Chris felt a catch in his breath, felt so free and unshackled he thought for a moment he might break into song. He almost laughed at the thought, but then he heard, over the hills behind them, a strong Irish voice lifted to the top of the mountains, singing to the robust sky. The others heard it too, and smiled, but Chris alone caught the words that were sung, and carried them in his heart:The minstrel boy shall return again,
When we hear the news we will cheer it.
The minstrel boy shall return again,
Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit.
And then may he play his harp in peace,
In a world as heaven has intended
When all the works of war shall cease
And every battle must be ended.
And rode with his friends, all the way to his door.
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