by KETanner

Disclaimer: Don’t own ‘em but would take ‘em in a heartbeat if’n I could have ‘em. Apologies to those who do but you *ssholes blew it!

Warning: Probably considered a death fic even though it takes place after the fact. There are, however, no graphic scenes or descriptions. I actually consider this a posthumous love story told through the eyes and memories of JD Dunne. If this ain’t your kind of story, then feel free to hit the DELETE button now! Heaven knows, it sure ain’t my kind of story but what the heck was I supposed to do with JD yammerin’ in my ear???

Feedback: To addy above would be nice and I’d love to hear about your "hankie titer" if you do!

Note: Judy, if you like this story, then please consider it to be your belated birthday fic. If you hate it, then please accept my apologies and blame JD! It’s all his fault!

Chapter 1
Chris Larabee’s coming home today. He’s sure been gone a long time. Not exactly sure how long it’s been but I know it’s been awhile, somewhere ‘round about twelve years or so, I think.


Now there’s a word I’d have never associated with this place when I first got here an’ yet that’s exactly what it’s become. For all of us, including Chris. Oh, I reckon he tried to fight it, to fight against puttin’ down roots here but in the end, he just couldn’t help himself. Too many things and places and people to get attached to.

Or maybe it was just one person in particular…

I’m here waitin’ on him at the train station just out past the edge of town. Telegram said he’d be in on the noon train. Casey came with me to meet him. Practically insisted on it once I told her what the wire said. Didn’t matter none that Nate told her she should stay home and rest. A woman in her condition ain’t supposed to be out runnin’ around and riskin’ her health.

But Casey’s a damn stubborn female and high-spirited too. Knew that before I married her and not a day goes by that I don’t thank God for that and the even bigger blessing that landed me here in the first place.

I was all full of piss an’ vinegar back then, a greenhorn headed west to make a name for myself. Been readin’ dime store novels and fillin’ my head full of dreams and ideas. Oh, I could ride and shoot with the best of ‘em… or so I thought. But if it hadn’t been for Buck and Chris and the others takin’ me under their wing, I’d have ended up six feet under before my next birthday.

Got a lot to be grateful for… to Chris, to Vin… Buck… all of them. They were my teachers, my heroes, my protectors… but most of all, they were my friends and my brothers. It’s only cuz of what they taught me that I got elected Sheriff several years back. Otherwise, I’d be out farming that plot of land Chris gave me and Casey as a wedding present. And I gotta say, I ain’t much of a farmer. Never did like the idea of pushin’ no plow.

And it’s strange how things have changed here since Chris left. Some good, some not so good, some bad… all in the name of ‘progress.’ Guess Chris got to feelin’ outta place… or more’n likely, he was just plumb lonely. That sorta thing happens to a man when he loses his sole reason for living. Always did find it funny how none of us suspected nothin’ for the longest time… ‘cept for maybe Buck. But then, he probably knew Chris better than anyone… ‘cept for Vin.

Yeah, Vin always did know Chris best. From the instant they met, them two had this strange way of ‘not talking’ that just… well, it got downright scary at times. And the more the seven of us rode together, the spookier it got. We all joked about it but you couldn’t help envying that easy silence they shared. Not like me and Buck… hell, if Buck wasn’t hollerin’ at me ‘bout somethin’ then I got to feelin’ kinda neglected.

But years pass and things change. Guess I’m more ‘reflective’ now that I’ve gotten older and got serious responsibilities. I can tell I’ve changed. They changed me. Casey changed me too.

The people here are different. Gloria Potter’s passed on. Her kids sold the general store. Mr. Conklin died off long ago. Good riddance, I say. Mary Travis remarried and moved out to San Francisco. Nettie and Judge Travis are both gone. Stowbridge, the undertaker, retired and left the business to his son. Not sure who owns the livery. Saw a ‘For Sale’ sign on the door last week but it ain’t there now. Reckon somebody must have bought it. Gonna have to investigate. That’s part of my job, to know who and what’s going on around town and to keep it peaceful-like. Just like I did all those years ago, only the pay’s better now.

The other fellas have changed too. Gotten older… quieter…

Ezra now owns the saloon and two hotels. Just last spring, he got himself elected Mayor. Reckon that makes him my boss but when I look at him, I still see Ezra Standish, southern gambler… slick con artist… friend. Hell, for all his education and respectability and charm, Ezra can still sell an old lady a blind horse in under two minutes flat. He don’t miss a trick, not even now when his hair’s all shot through with gray and he’s got two youngun’s tugging on his coattails. Amelia’s good for him, helped settle him down some… just like Casey done for me.

We always expected Nathan and Rain to get hitched but damned if she didn’t make him work for it. ‘Bout near drove Nate crazy! Some days he didn’t know if he was comin’ or going. Then when Rain told him she was expecting… never seen a smile the likes of the one on Nathan’s face that day. Didn’t last long though. Can’t blame the man for gettin’ angry when she turned him down flat. Said she wouldn’t marry no man just to give her baby a name. Said she’d rather raise a bastard than hitch herself to a fella who didn’t love her.

But of course, Nate loved her. He just had to prove it. Don’t know as that I’d have the patience to wait like he did until after the baby was born before putting his foot down and demanding she marry him. They live outside of town now, just at the edge of the reservation so Rain can be near her family. Nate don’t have any more since Obediah passed on.

Josiah helped out around town and kept up the church. Said he never knew when some traveling preacher might come through and need a place to call upon the Lord. He never figured on a Baptist bible-thumper come to town and take up permanent residence. All in all, I suppose Matthews ain’t a bad sort but he don’t hold with a ‘man of the cloth’ drinkin’ whiskey and totin’ a gun. Was afraid Josiah might move on but the Good Lord sent some ‘divine intervention.’ Josiah fell off the roof of the church while fixin’ some shingles for Mr. Matthews. Busted up his leg pretty bad. Nate said he had to stay off it or it wouldn’t heal right. Josiah needed a place to stay so me an’ Casey took him home with us… to what was Chris’s place outside of town. Worked out real good. Josiah needed a home. I needed somebody to see after chores and keep an eye on Casey. So he stayed.

I can hear the train whistle from far off as it comes around Eagle Pass. Won’t be too much longer now. I look beside me and Casey’s standing there with her head held high, her eyes sparkling with the tears she’s gonna shed. She’s prettier now than the day we got married. Nate says it’s something ‘bout a woman who’s carrying and how there’s this inner light that shines from her soul and the creation of new life. Now, I don’t know ‘bout stuff like that. But I do know that my heart feels like bursting every time I look at her and see the proof of our love.

It also makes me sad for Chris and for what I know he lost. Don’t see how he survived it. And I can’t help but be glad that he found some measure of comfort and happiness afterward with Vin. Always thought something like that would be awkward and embarrassing. But there weren’t none of that with Chris and Vin. The two of them just seemed to go together as natural as peas and carrots. It just felt… right… to see them together, sharing a love that made them both happy… even if it didn’t last long.

Not that there weren’t those who had problems with it cuz there were. Always surprised me that Buck was one of ‘em. Seems to me that a man brought up in a whorehouse might be just a bit more ‘tolerant’ in his thinking. But at least he didn’t come right out and blast ‘em for it. I guess once he saw how good Vin was for Chris, how much he loved Chris… and vice versa… Buck decided it might be best if he just kept his mouth shut for once.

Not that it didn’t change things between Chris and Buck because it did. They’d been friends for an awful long time and Lord knows it’s never been easy for Buck to keep his opinion to himself. Things were just… strained… between the two of them. Like they was keeping their distance from the other, afraid of starting something only to wind up going someplace they didn’t really want to go. But even Buck had to finally see that Chris and Vin loved each other.

I can see the puffs of smoke coming from the train’s engine. They look like black clouds leaving a trail along the edge of the far hills. Probably take about another twenty minutes, give or take a few, ‘fore she’ll be pullin’ in to the station. I hear the rattling of a buckboard and look up to see Nate pullin’ his wagon team to a halt. Rain is beside him and she smiles at me and Casey. I lift my hand in greeting and tip my hat. Ezra taught me that manners are important and it’s good to see them again. Been about two months since they come in to town. I reckon they musta left the kids with Rain’s sister. That’s okay. This station ain’t no place for little children.

Nate’s come to see Chris.

Casey tugs on my sleeve and I turn to see Ezra and Amelia climbing the steps to the platform. Somehow seems right that they should be here too. Not that Chris ever met Amelia but she’s sure heard all about him. Heard how he changed Ezra’s life by giving him a second chance, lettin’ him prove there was more to the man beneath the fancy clothes than just a shiftless gambler. Kinda took Ezra by surprise, finding out that he hadn’t been foolin’ anyone… ‘cept maybe himself. I just figured he spent too many years listenin’ to that mother of his and needed someone to give him a swift kick in the pants. And believe me, that’s one thing Chris Larabee knew how to do.

Ezra’s come to see Chris too.

I can hear the chugging of the engine, pulling hard against its load, see the long line of railroad cars following it like a brown snake winding its way across the desert. Looks like freight cars followed on behind by some passenger cars. Must be bringing more folks west now that we ain’t a territory, although I gotta say that statehood ain’t all that different. Took some gettin’ used to though and not everybody’s happy ‘bout it. But there’s some things you can change and some things you can’t. Like I said, guess I’ve gotten more… ‘reflective’… as I’ve grown up.

Somebody’s opening the door and coming out of the depot behind me. I hear him softly clear his throat. It’s Josiah and I ain’t surprised that he’s here too. Wasn’t real sure he’d come at first seeing as how he didn’t want to ride in on the wagon with Casey and me. Reckon he must’ve saddled that old swayback of his and followed along after. I turn and look at him, smiling cuz I’m grateful he’s there. I have a feelin’ I’m gonna need him. And it’s funny how I can’t seem to remember a time when I didn’t

Josiah’s shoulders are a bit hunched now, his body no longer quite as tall and strong as it used to be, and he moves stiffly and slowly these days. I can’t help but wonder if that’s what I have to look forward to when I’m his age. But then again, I ain’t been rode nearly as hard as Josiah so I reckon it might take me a few more years to get there than him. But his eyes ain’t lost none of their sparkle; his mind’s still sharp and quick. He still watches… and listens.

Josiah’s here to see Chris too.

It ain’t too much longer before the train’s pullin’ into the station, the brakes squealing and screeching, steam hissing and blowing. The cars are banging and shifting together as the whole thing slowly comes to a shuddering stop. There’s the noise of doors being thrown open and people hollerin’ and then a final blast from the train’s whistle. Seems a might loud after all that silence before. Casey covers her ears and makes a face at me.

And then there’s folks swarming all over the platform. I take a step back and pull Casey with me. Don’t want her gettin’ jostled by any of these ‘yahoos’ who come out west lookin’ for excitement. Not that there ain’t any out here but this ain’t the time or place for it. And I can’t help but run an eye over the collection of faces. It’s a habit from years ago when I used to memorize the wanted posters. Back then, I was just a kid myself looking for a little excitement. Now, I do it cuz it’s my job.

It don’t take long for the folks to clear and I notice a strange ache in my guts that’s tying ‘em up into knots. Casey senses my nervousness and reaches down to take hold of my hand. I squeeze hers lightly in return, thankful to have her here beside me. I’m hesitant about approaching the train. I don’t know where Chris is and I ain’t exactly sure I want to go poking my head around anywhere. So I decide to wait a bit longer.

Things get real quiet again, a hush so loud you can almost hear it ‘cept for the soft breathing of that big steam engine. I glance around at the others, not sure how to proceed. Ezra nods his head encouragingly and I take a deep breath, nod my head in return and steel myself for the task of searching the train.

But then suddenly, a door to one of the freight cars opens and I don’t have to.

The inside is dark, no light coming through the walls to show me what’s in there. I step closer, wishing I could see inside and then stiffen as a pair of black boots moves forward. For an instant, I’m filled with hope, a hope born of a brother’s love and I let my eyes travel up the tall lean figure dressed in black. I catch my breath at the sight of dark blond hair, chiseled jaw and narrowed eyes. But those eyes are blue… not green.

It’s not Chris.

It could never be Chris.

It’ll never be Chris again.

Chapter 2

"Excuse me. I’m looking for Sheriff John Dunne?"

"That’d be me," I say as I move forward, curious cuz I don’t know who this guy is. "What can I do for ya?"

I can feel Josiah, Nathan and Ezra watching me, watchin’ my back like always, not sure who this guy is either. This fella’s dressed in black but he’s wearing a fancy suit like bankers and other important people do. Danged if he ain’t got something white and frilly at his throat, sorta like them fancy ties Ezra likes. He steps down on to the platform and we shake hands before he holds out some papers to me.

"Edward Sterling, Esquire. Attorney-At-Law. If you will sign here, please?"

I ain’t signing nothin’ ‘til I know what it is.

"What is that?"

"Release forms for Mr. Larabee’s estate and for the disposition of the body."

The body?

"I… don’t understand."

That ain’t just a body in there. That’s Chris Larabee, former ‘notorious’ gunslinger and a damned fine man. Proud to know ‘im. Callin’ him a ‘body’ sounds like some nameless, faceless… friendless… that ain’t Chris. He’s got friends. Casey steps up beside me and lays a hand on my arm. She always knows when my temper’s gettin’ riled.

"Government regulations, Sheriff. As the executor of Mr. Larabee’s will, I cannot release the body or the contents of his estate to you until the proper forms are signed."

Estate? Now, what the hell’s he talkin’ about? I musta looked real confused because all of a sudden, he turns the papers around and holds them up in his hand. Settling his spectacles on his nose with the other, he begins to read out loud.

"In brief, sir, proceeds from the sale of Mr. Larabee’s property south of Eagle Bend, minus a small retainer’s fee for myself, are to be placed into a discretionary trust fund in keeping for any and all offspring of John and Casey Dunne in perpetuem. For Nathan Jackson, profit from the sale of equipment located on said property is to be used to purchase medical supplies and other items necessary for the health and well being of the Native-American peoples under his care. And just prior to his death, Mr. Larabee sold his horse and saddle. That money is to be given to one Josiah Sanchez for establishment of a permanent church repair fund."

The lawyer fella looks up at me and all I can do is stand there with my mouth hanging open, a look of stunned amazement on my face. I can hear his words. I understand what he’s sayin’ but it all seems so unreal, so… cold-blooded… that I have a hard time making myself believe it.

"There are also a few personal items that my client requested be distributed as follows. One silver whiskey flask and a gold pocket watch are to be given to His Honor, Mayor Ezra Standish. Mr. Larabee’s gun belt, Colt .45 Peacemaker and silver spurs are to be held in keeping for a Mr. Buck Wilmington until such time as he sees fit to claim them. All other items of a personal nature are to be disposed of or buried with the deceased at your discretion. And that is all. Any questions, Sheriff?"

‘That is all?’ Hell, no! That ain’t all. There was more to Chris Larabee than some earthly possessions that he left to be divided amongst his friends. You can’t just reduce a man’s worth down to how much money you can squeeze outta him after he’s gone. Casey’s gripping my arm hard, her fingernails digging in and like to cut me if I’m not careful. But I don’t care. I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna let this… this… this pompous bastard… cheat Chris Larabee out of the dignity that his passing deserves!

"Sign here, please. The train is pulling out shortly and I am anxious to complete my journey."

I take a deep breath in and draw myself up to my full height but I’m still a head shorter than this fella is. Don’t matter none. I learned how to face a man down from the best of ‘em! Chris Larabee himself. I watched, listened and learned. I saw how Chris could cut a man down to size with just one glare from those cool green eyes of his. I’m using what he taught me now and it’s working.

"Mister, I don’t know who the hell you think you are but that’s not just some corpse in there. That’s a good man… a good friend… Chris Larabee, and I ain’t gonna let you cheapen his memory by reducing everything he was to a piece of paper and a wad of money. You want them papers signed, you’ll just have to wait. I got more important things to do right now… like welcoming my friend home."

Shrugging off Casey’s hand, I turn and walk past him, my steps angry and quick. I can hear three other sets of boots coming up behind me. Ain’t hard to figure out who it is. I step up into the freight car, pausing a moment as my eyes adjust to the dark, glancing around until I spy a long pine box sitting all alone in a corner. My anger suddenly drains from me and a great sense of sadness and loss fills my heart. My eyes blur from the tears burning the back of my eyelids but I blink them away. Can’t take the time to cry right now. There’s work to be done.

I gotta take Chris home.

I step over to the coffin, reach out to touch it, feel the smooth wood beneath my fingertips. My hand’s trembling. I can’t believe this is real, that this has really happened. It’s like a bad dream that I wanna wake up from but I’m trapped and can’t break free. I’m suffocating.

And then the others are there. Josiah places a hand on my shoulder, offering sympathy, comfort and support. Nathan wipes at his eyes with one shirtsleeve and even Ezra sniffs kinda suspiciously. Without speaking, we move in to position, taking our places along each side of the box and lift it up by the handles. The weight ain’t much… it’s almost too light… not what I was expecting at all. Not like that day when we pretended to bury Judge Travis to keep him safe from Lucas James’s men.

"It’s a coffin full of rocks, JD!"

No… this is too light. Maybe it’s empty…

My heart starts beating frantically inside my chest, a small ray of hope almost blinding me to what I know to be the truth. It’s wishful thinking on my part but I can’t help but admit that I wish it weren’t. You see, I’ve always had a certain sense of security just knowin’ that Chris is out there… somewhere… maybe near, maybe far. And that if serious trouble ever came calling, all I had to do was holler and he’d come running.

But it ain’t like that no more… cuz Chris is gone now.

The four of us carry him off the train, across the platform and then carefully down the steps. Casey and Amelia follow. Rain moves to open the back of Nate’s wagon and we place the box on top of the wooden boards, sliding it forward to secure it in place. Josiah climbs up to take the reins. He clucks softly to the horses, heading them slowly up the street towards the undertaker. Me, Nate and Ezra fall into step behind, our eyes fixed on the wagon bed, ignoring the whispered voices and curious eyes of those who’re watching.

It’s a solemn group as we move out, our own small funeral procession parading through the main street of town. Reckon we must look like an honor guard or somethin’ since our steps are slow and even. It’s the very least that Chris deserves, this measure of quiet dignity and respect. And that’s what today’s for anyways. Paying our respects and bringing home one of our own.

I glance over my shoulder, smiling a bit as I see Rain and Amelia walkin’ alongside Casey. They’re keeping a close eye on her for me, followin’ us up the street. I can tell Casey’s upset, but she’s keepin’ her distance. It’s like she knows that the four of us need this time with Chris… need to be there for him… need to be near him. Amelia and Rain know it too. They’ll wait.

But that damned vulture in black is scowling at us as he follows along too. Guess I must’ve ‘inconvenienced’ him by not signin’ those papers… messin’ up his schedule.

Well, that’s just too damned bad.

We reach the undertaker’s and Josiah pulls the wagon to a halt. Buddy Stowbridge opens the door. He’s been expectin’ us. The four of us carry Chris inside and Buddy points us in the direction of the front parlor. He’s got the room all decorated up nice with soft candles and large bows and black wreaths… don’t change nothin’. It’s still a funeral parlor and it smells of death.

We set Chris down on a pair of sawhorses in one corner of the room, then quietly step back. The womenfolk decide to wait outside. And I hate this next part cuz I know what’s coming. Buddy’s gotta open the casket, find out who’s inside, confirm the identity in front of witnesses before he’ll assume legal responsibility for the body.

There’s that damned word again!


I’m really gonna hate that before this day is over.

"You have the papers, sir?"

Buddy glances behind me and I know he’s lookin’ at that shyster Chris hired. It just don’t seem right that Sterling’s still here. He don’t belong here. He didn’t know Chris Larabee, not the real Chris Larabee. He ain’t the one mournin’ a man’s passing. Hell, he’s makin’ a profit offa it.

I’m mad again. Just mad enough to save Stowbridge the trouble. Just mad enough to grab them fuckin’ papers outta Sterling’s hand and sign ‘em.

So I do. Just to get him outta the same room with a man as honorable as Chris Larabee. This bastard don’t even deserve to… I’d like to give ‘im a swift kick in the ass on his way out the door but Josiah’s hand on my shoulder holds me back. I look around and see Nathan hiding a smile and Ezra’s eyes twinkling with amusement. Seems they all knew just what I was thinking.

It’s good to have friends.

And then I turn around as Stowbridge opens the casket. This is what I hate. Disturbin’ a man’s rest, havin’ to look at his face, see the changes… waitin’… hopin’… prayin’ to see him draw his next breath, open his eyes… knowin’ that he won’t… not ever again. Makes me feel sick deep down in my gut and for an instant, I can’t breathe.

But I force myself to look. I make myself do it as much for me as for Chris.

Because I need to know.

I look inside the coffin, see a pale figure lyin’ there, stretched out lengthwise… not moving. I see black pants, a plain blue shirt, slender hands layin’ folded across a thin chest… too thin… too fragile… too still. My eyes move upward, my heart pounding in my throat, and I look at his face.

This can’t be Chris.

No, this isn’t Chris.

The skin is pale and gray, the face lined and wrinkled by time and grief. The hair is thinner, the color white instead of blond, the length of it reaching down to touch the blue shirt collar. The features are gaunt and drawn, the waxy flesh pulled tight over the sharp line of high cheek bones. Bloodless lips are almost invisible against the white of his face but it’s the eyes that seem to now haunt me the most.

The intense green light is gone… extinguished forever… eyelids closed. Bottomless dark hollows leave a sad emptiness in their place, the eyes sunken deep within the round sockets. I can’t help but shudder at the sightless face that greets me… stares back at me… that blurs before my eyes as I fight to hold back tears.

This isn’t Chris… not the Chris Larabee that I knew.

My hero is gone.

My friend is gone.

My brother is gone.

He looks old and worn… frail… words I never thought would describe him. The telegram said he died of consumption but I know better. A man who survives bullets and knife wounds and broken bones… a man strong enough to survive things like that, he just don’t die from some lung disease.

No, sir.

Chris Larabee died of a broken heart.

"Gentlemen, I’ll arrange visitation hours for those wishing to pay their last respects to the deceased from six until nine this evening."

If Stowbridge thinks I’m leavin’ Chris here alone, he’s got another think coming. Chris has been alone too long as it is. I ain’t gonna let him be alone no more.

"I’m staying."

"Sheriff, I…"

"I ain’t leaving." I give ‘im a hard look, one that I know would make Chris proud.

"I… see. Well then, what time tomorrow would you like me to conduct the service?"

Now he’s got four of us staring at ‘im like he’s grown another head. He finally takes the hint and leaves and there’s just us. I look at that face again and I want to turn away. But Josiah is there beside me, offering his support… his sympathy… his shoulder to cry on if I need it. Nathan and Ezra move closer too.

"JD? I’m gonna go check on Casey. Make sure she gits settled inna room over at the hotel an’ gits somethin’ ta eat. Rain said she’d be happy ta stay with her."

I nod my head. "Thanks, Nate."

"JD, I would be honored to return just before dinnertime and assume watch over our dear friend and brother."

"Thanks, Ez. Reckon Chris would be grateful."

"I’ll be back around ten to relieve you, Ezra. You got a couple of youngun’s will want their daddy to tuck ‘em in bed."

"Just so, Mr. Sanchez."

And then I’m alone in the room with Chris. I barely hear the door closing after the other fellas take their leave. Funny how they know I need this time with him to myself and I’m grateful they’re keepin’ an eye on things for me… keepin’ an eye on the town… on Casey… watchin’ my back just like always.

I walk across the room and sit down in a chair next to the casket. I feel tired… and old. My eyes wander around the room, lookin’ but not really seein’ until they finally settle on Chris’s face.

I can’t help but thinkin’… Buck should be here.

Buck should be the one doin’ this… not me…

Goddammit, Buck! Where the hell are you?

Chapter 3

Been sittin’ here awhile thinking… remembering. So many memories.

That first day how Vin and Chris saved Nathan from hanging. My first real lesson when Chris kept me from shootin’ that guy in the back. And then after, how I practically begged Chris to let me ride with him. Those cool green eyes of his lookin’ me up and down, tellin’ me quietly to go home… that I wasn’t the type. I proved myself by savin’ Buck… or at least that’s what I thought at the time. That first gun battle against Anderson and his men…

My first kill.

There were others that followed but there’s always somethin’ different about that first one. Didn’t figure on seein’ their eyes. Nearly drowned myself in a bottle of whiskey afterwards tryin’ to get that sight outta my mind. Chris and Buck understood… helped me through it.

Helped me through other times as well. Times when I was ready to quit. Like when I shot that woman by accident. Didn’t think I’d ever be able to live with myself again after that. But the fellas were there, helpin’ me, watchin’ out for me… showin’ me how to learn from my mistakes.

So many memories…

I glance across the room and for the first time, I notice a pair of saddlebags sittin’ by the door. They look familiar. Takes me a minute before I realize they’re Chris’s. That lawyer fella must’ve left them there. They look full. Wonder what’s inside them? Probably all of Chris’s personal things, his gun, an extra shirt, that picture of Vin…

My curiosity gets the better of me but I reckon that stuff wouldn’t be there if Chris hadn’t wanted us to have it. Getting up from my chair, I retrieve it from beside the door before returning to my seat. I hold it in my hands for a moment, stroking the soft leather while I decide whether or not to open it. Maybe I should wait for the others?

But Ezra won’t be back for another coupla hours. I reckon I shouldn’t wait that long.

I open them and sure enough, Chris’s personal effects are inside. I pull out his gun belt, the shiny Colt .45 still in its holster, and set it aside for Buck. There’s the whiskey flask and the gold pocket watch, the silver spurs and Vin’s medicine bag. I recognize the tarnished gold locket that holds a picture of Chris’s wife, Sarah, but the one of Adam is long since gone. After the fire, Chris didn’t have anything left of his son but memories.

Digging down deeper, I find a pocketbook, the tooled leather carved in fancy details with his name written into it. Vin made it for him by hand, a special gift for Chris’s birthday. Chris loved it. He kept all his most important memories there. It’s almost like I’m trespassing as I open it up and look inside.

There’s the picture of Vin, taken at Chris’s urging when a photographer came to town. Vin is smiling but he weren’t none too comfortable having it done. Too bad it ain’t in color. Vin had the bluest eyes of anybody I’d ever seen. But it didn’t matter none to Chris. He loved this picture… and he loved Vin.

Something falls out and I lean over to pick it up. It’s a lock of Vin’s hair, tied together with a red ribbon. I don’t remember seein’ this before. Chris must’ve cut a piece of it as a keepsake, a symbol of his love for Vin. Didn’t realize he was so sentimental but it makes sense that Chris would wanna keep a part of Vin with him for always. It makes sense when you love someone that much.

I’m puttin’ it back inside when my fingers touch a piece of worn paper. Puzzled, I pull it out and open it carefully. It’s faded and yellow but the writin’ is still visible. Funny how after all these years, I recognize that scribing. Chris helped Vin learn how to read n’ write, and in return, Vin wrote a poem for him.

I start to read the words he put down but I’ve only gotten past a few lines when I realize that it’s a love poem Vin wrote for Chris. I stop and fold the paper, putting it back inside the pocketbook. I can’t read it. It’s too private. The words were meant for Chris and for Chris alone. This was something special shared between the two of them and not meant for anyone else’s eyes or ears.

It stays private.

I search the rest of his saddlebags and find an extra shirt, his shaving kit and Vin’s hunting knife. Seems to me that’s not much left to show for a man’s life. But then again, Chris didn’t figure his life was worth much after Vin passed on anyhow. I always wondered if we didn’t bury Chris alongside him that day cuz Vin took Chris’s heart and soul with him when he left. All that remained was a shell of a man who went through the motions of living when we all knew he was slowly dying inside.

That’s how I know Chris died of a broken heart.

It gets even sadder when you think on how it didn’t have to be this way. It was just an accident. A goddamned stupid accident… Vin gettin’ hurt like that. I saw it happen. I was standing right there. I still see it sometimes, just like it happened yesterday. Sure wish I didn’t. I wake up covered in sweat, my heart pounding like it’s gonna burst inside my chest, fear gnawing at my insides. Casey just holds me until I stop shaking.

It was Saturday night. We were in the saloon. Nothing special going on. Chris and Vin were eatin’ supper. Ezra and me was playin’ poker. Buck was off somewhere with a lady. Things had been quiet… almost too quiet. Some rowdies decided they wanted to liven it up a bit so Inez asked them to leave. She thought they’d had enough. Chris eased his way over to the bar, asked for another bottle of whiskey and then stood there glaring at ‘em when they didn’t move out fast enough.

One of ‘em made the mistake of tryin’ to start a dust up and we were in the process of corralling the rest when a woman upstairs screamed. Vin drew his mare’s leg and raced up the steps, Chris hollerin’ at ‘im to be careful. We heard Vin kick open a door and then the sound of breaking glass. One of the drunks, a real big fella, had snuck up the stairs and was roughin’ up one of the girls. Next thing I know, you hear wood crackin’ and Vin comes flyin’ through the broken railing from the floor above.

He landed hard across the edge of the bar… right on his back.

To this day, I swear I heard his bones break. God, I don’t never want to hear that again! Makes me feel sick just thinkin’ ‘bout it.

Cuz Vin never walked after that.

His back was broke.

Oh, Chris took ‘im back east for a while to see some specialist… some surgeon. They was gone maybe ‘bout six months or so but we all knew it was no use.

Vin especially knew it.

But he had to let Chris try. Knew it was somethin’ Chris needed to do if’n he was goin’ to accept what’d happened. If’n he was goin’ to be able to let him go… cuz Vin didn’t wanna live like that.

Not even for Chris.

I heard him talkin’ to Josiah once, goin’ on ‘bout how he was probably bein’ selfish by not wantin’ to stay. Askin’ for forgiveness… and understanding. But he didn’t want to be a burden to no one… especially to Chris. And if he couldn’t have his legs back, then Vin said he was ready to go on to a place where he could. He was only stayin’ long enough to see that Chris was gonna be okay and then he was ready to go. He’d already made his peace with the spirits.

I remember askin’ Josiah how a man could will himself to die like that. How’s it possible? And if he was so set on doin’ it, weren’t there other ways that would be faster, quicker… less painful?

But it weren’t that easy. Not between Chris and Vin.

You see, the way Josiah explained it, Vin couldn’t ask Chris to help him die… wouldn’t ask Chris to help him die. He loved him too much to put that kind of burden on Chris’s soul. At the same time, there wasn’t anything Vin could do to make it happen sooner because he needed to be sure Chris was ready and wouldn’t feel guilty over Vin’s passing.

As for Chris, he couldn’t bring himself to be responsible for Vin’s death, even if it meant ending Vin’s pain and suffering. But he also couldn’t ask Vin to stay, knowing and loving Vin as deeply as he did… knowing that he couldn’t ask Vin to be anything less than who and what he was.

I think Vin must’ve known when death was coming cuz he’d been askin’ for me not too long before. Said he had somethin’ he wanted to talk with me about. Made me promise that no matter what happened, that me and Casey wouldn’t postpone our wedding. Said it was real important to him to know that. Made me swear a solemn oath.

And then he asked me to watch over Chris. Said he would rest easier knowin’ I was lookin’ out for him.

Yeah, I did a damned good job of it, didn’t I?

Vin died two weeks before me and Casey was to be married. Quietly, with dignity, held fast in Chris’s arms. He’d asked Chris to take him ridin’ one last time, up to the ridge where they used to go and watch the sunset. He’d been refusin’ to take Nathan’s pain medicines for a coupla days. Said he wanted to watch the sun through his own eyes and not ones made dull by drugs. Wanted to see Chris’s face so he’d have him with him for always.

We found the two of ‘em there the followin’ morning. Chris holdin’ onto Vin so tight, his face lined with tears… grief and pain… more pain than a man ought have to bear.

We buried Vin the next day… high up on that ridge… where he could see the sun.

Then three days before our wedding, Chris up and disappeared. Didn’t say a word to no one. Just rode out… gone as if he’d never even been there. Casey was heartbroken cuz she’d asked Chris to give her away. Buck was busted up too but he managed to hide it well. Ezra stepped up to fill the void, tellin’ Casey he’d be honored if she’d consider him as a stand-in for Chris since Buck was already my best man.

We couldn’t call off the wedding. I’d given Vin my word. That day I waited at the front of the church, Buck by my side, Josiah behind the altar. Nathan and Rain were in the front row. Casey stood at the back waiting to come down the aisle on Ezra’s arm. And then suddenly, Chris was there and Ezra politely stepped aside. I watched as Casey smiled up at him through her tears before they walked down the aisle together… towards me… towards me and Casey’s future.

Chris placed Casey’s hand in mine, nodded at Josiah, then turned and left without a word. I found the deed to his place later, in the pile of wedding gifts on the table at the reception. I never saw or heard from him again… not ‘til the telegram came. Not ‘til he returned home today.

Buck left about three months after Chris did. We’d hear from him every now and then, a letter or a card. Sometimes he’d show up for a short visit, stay for a few days before drifting on again. He never talked much about where he’d been or where he was going and I got the impression that he’d never really found another place to call home.

Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him… but I understand why Buck couldn’t stay.

I miss Chris and Vin too.

The day’s gettin’ on in to late afternoon and I know Ezra will be back soon to relieve me. Guess I’d best put these things of Chris’s back into his saddlebags. I’ll decide what to do with ‘em later. I pick up the shirt and start to put it back in when I notice somethin’ unusual ‘bout the way it feels. I run my hand over it then reach into the pocket. I pull out five envelopes… five letters, one addressed to each of us. I recognize Chris’ handwriting, realizing that these must be his final words to us… his brothers.

I lay four of them down but take the one with my name on it into my hands. I turn it over slowly before opening it. I take out the letter, unfolding it and holding it up to the light, tears blurring my eyes for a moment before I can read what Chris has written to me.


Vin always said you were the best of us. He was right. You’ve made us proud.

Tell Buck—

I missed him.


I can’t stop the tears now. Couldn’t stop them even if I tried. They flow down my face and I’m not ashamed to let them fall. I hear myself crying but make no attempt to be quiet. My throat aches from the force of my grief and I can’t swallow against the pain. Leave it to Chris to tear my heart apart with just a few simple words.

God, I hate this! I haven’t felt this way since…

… since Vin died.

There’s a noise at the door and I look up as it slowly swings open. I start to wipe at the tears on my face but somehow can’t bring myself to care who sees them. The figure standing in the doorway is blurred and I can’t see his face. The sun is at his back and his features are hidden by the shadows. But it’s too tall to be Ezra, too slender to be Josiah, too light to be Nathan. He wears a slouch hat and stands with an easy grace, the figure lean and lanky. He has a gun strapped low on his hip and I wonder suddenly if it’s someone who’s come gunning for Chris.

If it is, he’s too late. Chris’s already gone.

I set down the letters and the saddlebags, rising to my feet to challenge whoever this intruder might be. I take a step forward, my hands unconsciously going to rest on the butt of my guns. But somethin’ stops me just short of demanding to know who he is and what he’s doin’ here. There’s somethin’ about him… somethin’ familiar…

He steps forward, out of the sun and in to the dim light of the parlor and now I know why I stopped.

It’s Buck.

He’s here.

But how did he know? How did he get here so fast? And where has he been?

I see his eyes now and I know my questions can wait. Buck needs to see Chris. To say his goodbyes and whatever else he left unsaid between them. I don’t want to intrude. Maybe I should go. But as I start for the door, Buck reaches out and takes hold of my arm. We look at each other and then he gently brushes the tears from my face. A simple nod from him asks me to stay. I nod in return and step back, letting him pass by me to where Chris lies waiting.

Buck stands there for a long moment, looking down into the coffin, his back turned to me. I can’t see his face but his tall frame is shaking with emotion. He reaches out with one hand and does something I don’t think I could bring myself to do.

He touches Chris’s face.

Then he leans over and places a gentle kiss on Chris’s forehead. His hand lingers for just a moment longer and I hear Buck whisper softly, "Hey, stud. Been a long time."

It’s almost as if he expects Chris to answer him and I feel my tears starting to fall all over again. Buck is silent for a few moments, as if he’s not sure what to do, but I can tell he’s strugglin’ to hold himself together. He’s got to do this. There are things he needs to say to Chris… and nobody can help him with it.

"Reckon you were right, Chris. And I was wrong," he admits softly. "I know I ain’t got the right ta ask it, but I’m hopin’ ya might could find it in ya ta forgive me. I need ta let ya know… I’m sorry, pard."

I hear Buck crying now, see those big shoulders shaking with grief. I can’t stand to hear the sound of his pain. I’d give anything to take it away.

"Buck," I call softly. "He left you a letter."

There’ll be time to tell him about the other things later. Right now, I think it might be best for him to read what Chris had to say to him. To know that even though time and distance separated them, that Chris was thinkin’ of him too.

I walk over and hand Buck his letter, stayin’ close by but givin’ him the space to read it in private. It don’t take long. I gotta figure his letter is probably ‘bout as short as mine. But whatever it was that Chris had to say to him, I can see the change that comes over Buck’s face.

He looks… relieved… forgiven… his blue eyes sparklin’ even through the new flood of his tears. His face is still lined with sorrow and grief, pain and loss… just like I know mine is. But there’s a peacefulness about his features that’s been missin’ for the longest time. Whatever it was that Chris said, he gave Buck’s soul back to him. Maybe someday Buck’ll tell me what Chris wrote.

I watch as he carefully folds his letter, puts it in the envelope and then tucks it into his shirt pocket. He holds his hand over it a moment, a small smile crossing his face as he looks down at his oldest friend. He knows I’m watching, waiting for him to say something. Buck turns to look at me.

"Let’s take ‘im home, JD."

That’s not exactly what I wanted to hear Buck say. Not exactly where I reckon Chris would want to go. How am I supposed to tell Buck that the ranch outside of Eagle Bend, the place where Sarah and Adam are buried, is being sold? That it ain’t Chris’s home no more and hasn’t been for the longest time? Only Buck was too blind to see it… to stubborn to admit it.

But then Buck surprises me again.

"Vin’s been waitin’ for ’im long enough."

I know then that Chris is truly home, goin’ back to the place that holds his heart and his soul. We’ll bury him beside Vin, the two of them reunited in death and sleeping beside each other for all eternity… the way they were meant to be.

The way they would want to be. Together… for always.

That thought makes me smile. And it seems fittin’ and right somehow that we shouldn’t be sad cuz I reckon I was wrong. This ain’t a funeral.

It’s a homecoming… for Chris… for all of us.


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