Disclaimer: Dont own em but would take em in a heartbeat ifn 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 aint your kind of story, then feel free to hit the DELETE button now! Heaven knows, it sure aint 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 Id 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! Its all his fault!
Chris Larabees coming home today. Hes sure been gone a long time. Not exactly sure how long its been but I know its been awhile, somewhere round about twelve years or so, I think.
Now theres a word Id have never associated with this place when I first got here an yet thats exactly what its 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 couldnt help himself. Too many things and places and people to get attached to.
Or maybe it was just one person in particular
Im here waitin on him at the train station just out past the edge of town. Telegram said hed 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. Didnt matter none that Nate told her she should stay home and rest. A woman in her condition aint supposed to be out runnin around and riskin her health.
But Caseys a damn stubborn female and high-spirited too. Knew that before I married her and not a day goes by that I dont 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 hadnt been for Buck and Chris and the others takin me under their wing, Id 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. Its only cuz of what they taught me that I got elected Sheriff several years back. Otherwise, Id be out farming that plot of land Chris gave me and Casey as a wedding present. And I gotta say, I aint much of a farmer. Never did like the idea of pushin no plow.
And its 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 moren 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 couldnt help envying that easy silence they shared. Not like me and Buck hell, if Buck wasnt hollerin at me bout somethin then I got to feelin kinda neglected.
But years pass and things change. Guess Im more reflective now that Ive gotten older and got serious responsibilities. I can tell Ive changed. They changed me. Casey changed me too.
The people here are different. Gloria Potters 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 aint there now. Reckon somebody must have bought it. Gonna have to investigate. Thats part of my job, to know who and whats going on around town and to keep it peaceful-like. Just like I did all those years ago, only the pays 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 dont miss a trick, not even now when his hairs all shot through with gray and hes got two younguns tugging on his coattails. Amelias 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 didnt make him work for it. Bout near drove Nate crazy! Some days he didnt 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 Nathans face that day. Didnt last long though. Cant blame the man for gettin angry when she turned him down flat. Said she wouldnt marry no man just to give her baby a name. Said shed rather raise a bastard than hitch herself to a fella who didnt love her.
But of course, Nate loved her. He just had to prove it. Dont know as that Id 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 dont 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 aint a bad sort but he dont 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 wouldnt heal right. Josiah needed a place to stay so me an Casey took him home with us to what was Chriss 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. Wont be too much longer now. I look beside me and Caseys standing there with her head held high, her eyes sparkling with the tears shes gonna shed. Shes prettier now than the day we got married. Nate says its something bout a woman whos carrying and how theres this inner light that shines from her soul and the creation of new life. Now, I dont 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. Dont see how he survived it. And I cant 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 werent 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 didnt last long.
Not that there werent 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 didnt 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 didnt change things between Chris and Buck because it did. Theyd been friends for an awful long time and Lord knows its 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 didnt 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 trains 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 shell 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 its good to see them again. Been about two months since they come in to town. I reckon they musta left the kids with Rains sister. Thats okay. This station aint no place for little children.
Nates 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 shes sure heard all about him. Heard how he changed Ezras 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 hadnt 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, thats one thing Chris Larabee knew how to do.
Ezras 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 aint a territory, although I gotta say that statehood aint all that different. Took some gettin used to though and not everybodys happy bout it. But theres some things you can change and some things you cant. Like I said, guess Ive gotten more reflective as Ive grown up.
Somebodys opening the door and coming out of the depot behind me. I hear him softly clear his throat. Its Josiah and I aint surprised that hes here too. Wasnt real sure hed come at first seeing as how he didnt want to ride in on the wagon with Casey and me. Reckon he mustve saddled that old swayback of his and followed along after. I turn and look at him, smiling cuz Im grateful hes there. I have a feelin Im gonna need him. And its funny how I cant seem to remember a time when I didnt
Josiahs 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 cant help but wonder if thats what I have to look forward to when Im his age. But then again, I aint 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 aint lost none of their sparkle; his minds still sharp and quick. He still watches and listens.
Josiahs here to see Chris too.
It aint too much longer before the trains 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. Theres the noise of doors being thrown open and people hollerin and then a final blast from the trains whistle. Seems a might loud after all that silence before. Casey covers her ears and makes a face at me.
And then theres folks swarming all over the platform. I take a step back and pull Casey with me. Dont want her gettin jostled by any of these yahoos who come out west lookin for excitement. Not that there aint any out here but this aint the time or place for it. And I cant help but run an eye over the collection of faces. Its 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 its my job.
It dont take long for the folks to clear and I notice a strange ache in my guts thats 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. Im hesitant about approaching the train. I dont know where Chris is and I aint 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 dont have to.
The inside is dark, no light coming through the walls to show me whats in there. I step closer, wishing I could see inside and then stiffen as a pair of black boots moves forward. For an instant, Im filled with hope, a hope born of a brothers 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.
Its not Chris.
It could never be Chris.
Itll never be Chris again.
"Excuse me. Im looking for Sheriff John Dunne?"
"Thatd be me," I say as I move forward, curious cuz I dont 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 fellas dressed in black but hes wearing a fancy suit like bankers and other important people do. Danged if he aint 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 aint signing nothin til I know what it is.
"What is that?"
"Release forms for Mr. Larabees estate and for the disposition of the body."
"I dont understand."
That aint just a body in there. Thats 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 aint Chris. Hes got friends. Casey steps up beside me and lays a hand on my arm. She always knows when my tempers gettin riled.
"Government regulations, Sheriff. As the executor of Mr. Larabees will, I cannot release the body or the contents of his estate to you until the proper forms are signed."
Estate? Now, what the hells 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. Larabees property south of Eagle Bend, minus a small retainers 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 hes 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. Larabees 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 aint all. There was more to Chris Larabee than some earthly possessions that he left to be divided amongst his friends. You cant just reduce a mans worth down to how much money you can squeeze outta him after hes gone. Caseys gripping my arm hard, her fingernails digging in and like to cut me if Im not careful. But I dont care. Im mad as hell and Im 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 Im still a head shorter than this fella is. Dont 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. Im using what he taught me now and its working.
"Mister, I dont know who the hell you think you are but thats not just some corpse in there. Thats a good man a good friend Chris Larabee, and I aint 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, youll just have to wait. I got more important things to do right now like welcoming my friend home."
Shrugging off Caseys hand, I turn and walk past him, my steps angry and quick. I can hear three other sets of boots coming up behind me. Aint 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. Cant take the time to cry right now. Theres 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 hands trembling. I cant believe this is real, that this has really happened. Its like a bad dream that I wanna wake up from but Im trapped and cant break free. Im 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 aint much its 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 Jamess men.
"Its a coffin full of rocks, JD!"
No this is too light. Maybe its 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. Its wishful thinking on my part but I cant help but admit that I wish it werent. You see, Ive 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 hed come running.
But it aint 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 Nates 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 whore watching.
Its 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. Its the very least that Chris deserves, this measure of quiet dignity and respect. And thats what todays 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. Theyre keeping a close eye on her for me, followin us up the street. I can tell Caseys upset, but shes keepin her distance. Its 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. Theyll wait.
But that damned vulture in black is scowling at us as he follows along too. Guess I mustve inconvenienced him by not signin those papers messin up his schedule.
Well, thats just too damned bad.
We reach the undertakers and Josiah pulls the wagon to a halt. Buddy Stowbridge opens the door. Hes been expectin us. The four of us carry Chris inside and Buddy points us in the direction of the front parlor. Hes got the room all decorated up nice with soft candles and large bows and black wreaths dont change nothin. Its 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 whats coming. Buddys gotta open the casket, find out whos inside, confirm the identity in front of witnesses before hell assume legal responsibility for the body.
Theres that damned word again!
Im really gonna hate that before this day is over.
"You have the papers, sir?"
Buddy glances behind me and I know hes lookin at that shyster Chris hired. It just dont seem right that Sterlings still here. He dont belong here. He didnt know Chris Larabee, not the real Chris Larabee. He aint the one mournin a mans passing. Hell, hes makin a profit offa it.
Im mad again. Just mad enough to save Stowbridge the trouble. Just mad enough to grab them fuckin papers outta Sterlings 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 dont even deserve to Id like to give im a swift kick in the ass on his way out the door but Josiahs hand on my shoulder holds me back. I look around and see Nathan hiding a smile and Ezras eyes twinkling with amusement. Seems they all knew just what I was thinking.
Its good to have friends.
And then I turn around as Stowbridge opens the casket. This is what I hate. Disturbin a mans 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 wont not ever again. Makes me feel sick deep down in my gut and for an instant, I cant 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 cant be Chris.
No, this isnt 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 its 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 cant 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 isnt 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 dont die from some lung disease.
Chris Larabee died of a broken heart.
"Gentlemen, Ill arrange visitation hours for those wishing to pay their last respects to the deceased from six until nine this evening."
If Stowbridge thinks Im leavin Chris here alone, hes got another think coming. Chris has been alone too long as it is. I aint gonna let him be alone no more.
"Sheriff, I "
"I aint 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 hes got four of us staring at im like hes grown another head. He finally takes the hint and leaves and theres 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? Im gonna go check on Casey. Make sure she gits settled inna room over at the hotel an gits somethin ta eat. Rain said shed 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."
"Ill be back around ten to relieve you, Ezra. You got a couple of younguns will want their daddy to tuck em in bed."
"Just so, Mr. Sanchez."
And then Im 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 Im grateful theyre 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 Chriss face.
I cant help but thinkin Buck should be here.
Buck should be the one doin this not me
Goddammit, Buck! Where the hell are you?
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 wasnt the type. I proved myself by savin Buck or at least thats what I thought at the time. That first gun battle against Anderson and his men
My first kill.
There were others that followed but theres always somethin different about that first one. Didnt 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. Didnt think Id 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 theyre Chriss. That lawyer fella mustve left them there. They look full. Wonder whats inside them? Probably all of Chriss personal things, his gun, an extra shirt, that picture of Vin
My curiosity gets the better of me but I reckon that stuff wouldnt be there if Chris hadnt 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 wont be back for another coupla hours. I reckon I shouldnt wait that long.
I open them and sure enough, Chriss personal effects are inside. I pull out his gun belt, the shiny Colt .45 still in its holster, and set it aside for Buck. Theres the whiskey flask and the gold pocket watch, the silver spurs and Vins medicine bag. I recognize the tarnished gold locket that holds a picture of Chriss wife, Sarah, but the one of Adam is long since gone. After the fire, Chris didnt 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 Chriss birthday. Chris loved it. He kept all his most important memories there. Its almost like Im trespassing as I open it up and look inside.
Theres the picture of Vin, taken at Chriss urging when a photographer came to town. Vin is smiling but he werent none too comfortable having it done. Too bad it aint in color. Vin had the bluest eyes of anybody Id ever seen. But it didnt matter none to Chris. He loved this picture and he loved Vin.
Something falls out and I lean over to pick it up. Its a lock of Vins hair, tied together with a red ribbon. I dont remember seein this before. Chris mustve cut a piece of it as a keepsake, a symbol of his love for Vin. Didnt 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.
Im puttin it back inside when my fingers touch a piece of worn paper. Puzzled, I pull it out and open it carefully. Its 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 Ive only gotten past a few lines when I realize that its a love poem Vin wrote for Chris. I stop and fold the paper, putting it back inside the pocketbook. I cant read it. Its 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 elses eyes or ears.
It stays private.
I search the rest of his saddlebags and find an extra shirt, his shaving kit and Vins hunting knife. Seems to me thats not much left to show for a mans life. But then again, Chris didnt figure his life was worth much after Vin passed on anyhow. I always wondered if we didnt bury Chris alongside him that day cuz Vin took Chriss 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.
Thats how I know Chris died of a broken heart.
It gets even sadder when you think on how it didnt 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 didnt. I wake up covered in sweat, my heart pounding like its 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 theyd 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 didnt 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 mares 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 dont 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 ifn he was goin to accept whatd happened. Ifn he was goin to be able to let him go cuz Vin didnt 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 didnt want to be a burden to no one especially to Chris. And if he couldnt 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. Hed already made his peace with the spirits.
I remember askin Josiah how a man could will himself to die like that. Hows it possible? And if he was so set on doin it, werent there other ways that would be faster, quicker less painful?
But it werent that easy. Not between Chris and Vin.
You see, the way Josiah explained it, Vin couldnt ask Chris to help him die wouldnt ask Chris to help him die. He loved him too much to put that kind of burden on Chriss soul. At the same time, there wasnt anything Vin could do to make it happen sooner because he needed to be sure Chris was ready and wouldnt feel guilty over Vins passing.
As for Chris, he couldnt bring himself to be responsible for Vins death, even if it meant ending Vins pain and suffering. But he also couldnt ask Vin to stay, knowing and loving Vin as deeply as he did knowing that he couldnt ask Vin to be anything less than who and what he was.
I think Vin mustve known when death was coming cuz hed 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 wouldnt 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, didnt I?
Vin died two weeks before me and Casey was to be married. Quietly, with dignity, held fast in Chriss arms. Hed asked Chris to take him ridin one last time, up to the ridge where they used to go and watch the sunset. Hed been refusin to take Nathans 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 Chriss face so hed 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. Didnt say a word to no one. Just rode out gone as if hed never even been there. Casey was heartbroken cuz shed 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 hed be honored if shed consider him as a stand-in for Chris since Buck was already my best man.
We couldnt call off the wedding. Id 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 Ezras 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 Caseys future.
Chris placed Caseys 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. Wed hear from him every now and then, a letter or a card. Sometimes hed show up for a short visit, stay for a few days before drifting on again. He never talked much about where hed been or where he was going and I got the impression that hed never really found another place to call home.
Not a day goes by that I dont miss him but I understand why Buck couldnt stay.
I miss Chris and Vin too.
The days gettin on in to late afternoon and I know Ezra will be back soon to relieve me. Guess Id best put these things of Chriss back into his saddlebags. Ill 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. Youve made us proud.
I missed him.
I cant stop the tears now. Couldnt stop them even if I tried. They flow down my face and Im 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 cant swallow against the pain. Leave it to Chris to tear my heart apart with just a few simple words.
God, I hate this! I havent felt this way since
since Vin died.
Theres 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 cant bring myself to care who sees them. The figure standing in the doorway is blurred and I cant see his face. The sun is at his back and his features are hidden by the shadows. But its 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 its someone whos come gunning for Chris.
If it is, hes too late. Chriss 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 hes doin here. Theres 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.
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 dont 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 cant see his face but his tall frame is shaking with emotion. He reaches out with one hand and does something I dont think I could bring myself to do.
He touches Chriss face.
Then he leans over and places a gentle kiss on Chriss forehead. His hand lingers for just a moment longer and I hear Buck whisper softly, "Hey, stud. Been a long time."
Its 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 hes not sure what to do, but I can tell hes strugglin to hold himself together. Hes 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 aint got the right ta ask it, but Im hopin ya might could find it in ya ta forgive me. I need ta let ya know Im sorry, pard."
I hear Buck crying now, see those big shoulders shaking with grief. I cant stand to hear the sound of his pain. Id give anything to take it away.
"Buck," I call softly. "He left you a letter."
Therell 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 dont 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 Bucks 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 theres a peacefulness about his features thats been missin for the longest time. Whatever it was that Chris said, he gave Bucks soul back to him. Maybe someday Buckll 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 Im watching, waiting for him to say something. Buck turns to look at me.
"Lets take im home, JD."
Thats 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 aint Chriss home no more and hasnt been for the longest time? Only Buck was too blind to see it to stubborn to admit it.
But then Buck surprises me again.
"Vins 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. Well 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 shouldnt be sad cuz I reckon I was wrong. This aint a funeral.
Its a homecoming for Chris for all of us.
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