by Jenn

Disclaimer: All the standard ones. Plus: The "poem" Vin gives Chris is edited together from the lyrics of two songs, "Miracle" and "Billy, Get Your Guns" from Bon Jovi’s wonderful album "Blaze of Glory". No infringement on that copyright is intended.

Authors note: THANKS!!! (again) to Lacey and Tammy for their encouragement and ideas on this story. Lara is a OFC from my previous story but you don’t need to read it first to read this one(she only has a couple lines). She helps Inez in the Saloon and is friends with the guys, nuff said.

Thinking the two men sitting on the board walk had fallen asleep in the morning sun would be an easy mistake to make. It could also be a deadly mistake. One wore all black, the other shades of tan. Both had their hats pulled low over their eyes. Both were aware of the stranger approaching. Neither gave any outward sign of that awareness.

The man in black begins to worry it might be a bounty hunter looking for his young friend. The younger man considers the same possibility but feels no fear. Not with his self appointed big brother at his side. Instead he observes and takes stock of the stranger. Clothes that are good quality but not fancy, showing signs of a long ride on the trail. Well used guns that had been cared for. Average height, solid build. Dark brown eyes that glance at him then focus on the man seated next to him.

"Chris Larabee. I’m calling you out."

Chris looks up from under his hat and meets the strangers glare with his own. "Who are you?"

"Your conscience."

"You’re stupid," Vin informs the stranger in a matter-of-fact tone.

Chris hides a smile. Vin’s smart alec mouth tended to show at odd times, a fact the older man enjoys but would never admit.

Now the strangers eyes do focus on Vin; who notices they look many degrees colder but doesn’t realize that his own eyes, which had been the warm blue of a summer sky are now the frozen ice blue of a glacier. "My business isn’t with you."

"That’s where you’re wrong. If you want Chris you have to deal with me." Vin doesn’t consider himself to be giving a warning or making a threat, just stating an obvious truth.

"And me." All three men look over to see Buck standing nearby. Though a large man, he is able to move silently when he chooses and had not been noticed as he walked up.

JD steps out of the Saloon. "My good friend, Colt, thinks you’re in over your head." His hands resting on the distinctive ivory handled Colt Lighnings at his waist make his meaning clear.

"The odds are most definitely not in your favor," notes the gambler in a southern drawl, as he follows JD out of the Saloon.

The stranger looks back to his target."So this is how you do it now Larabee? Five to one? That’s against the code."

"So’s callin’ a man out without givin’ him your name." Chris reminds him before asking again his earlier question. "Who are you?"

"My name is Jacob Kirkland. Son of Marcus Kirkland. Brother of Samantha Kirkland."

Chris’ body tenses as if the names are physical blows hitting him and his tanned face drains of color . The others are so intent on Chris and Jacob that they don’t notice Bucks face also going pale while his blue eyes darken with pain.

Jacob sees Chris’ reaction and is pleased by it. "So, you do remember. I’ll see you tomorrow at noon. You’ll find me a more worthy opponent than my sister. I’ve spent the last five years getting ready for this and am going to enjoy watching you bleed."

"So you’re here for revenge?" Despite his still pale face Chris soft voice is laced with steel.

"I’m here for your soul."

"Can’t give you what I don’t have." His casual tone makes the statement all the more chilling, especially to his friends.

"So you admit you’re a soulless killer. At least you’re an honest man. See you tomorrow."

The five friends are silent as they watch Jacob Kirkland walk to the hotel. Their leader is first to break the silence. "Get Josiah and Nathan. We’ll meet in the jail."

By unspoken agreement JD heads to the Church, Ezra to the Clinic, leaving Chris to walk to the jail flanked by his two closest friends. While his body unerringly travels the familiar path, his mind is lost in the past. Remembering a time he would have sacrificed a great deal to be able to forget.

Once the Seven are together Chris begins his tale. "You all know that after I. . .lost Sara and Adam I made some bad choices, did things I’m not proud of. The worst was killing Samantha Kirkland. Marcus Kirkland and I had a history, from during the war. We ran into each other again a few months after the fire, we were both drunk. He called me out, he lost. As I was about to walk away I heard the sound of a gun cocking behind me. I turned and fired without looking first." The regret in his voice turns to self loathing. "I’m so damned good that even drunk and shooting unsighted I hit the person. The gun I heard was being held by Marcus’ 10 year old daughter Samantha. I killed an innocent girl who was trying to help her father."

When Buck speaks his voice has none of it’s usual good humor and his eyes are still dark. "Chris, she was gonna shoot you in the back. It was self defense."

"You don’t know she was going to shoot me."

Buck disagrees with his best friend. "Yea, I do. I was there, remember?"

Knowing Buck would rather not remember being there that night, and that this isn’t the time to deal with the issue, Chris let’s it go for now and answers indirectly. "She was 10 years old. I could have easily stopped her without killing her. I could have shot her in the arm. I could have grabbed the gun from her hand. There are a dozen things I could have done and not killed a child."

Ezra decides to bring the discussion forward in time to the immediate problem."Mr. Larabee, . . . Chris, you cannot change the past, or what happened to the girl. Right now we need to decide how to handle the brother." He looks at Josiah and Nathan. "One Jacob Kirkland, Samantha’s brother, showed up this morning and called Chris out. Tomorrow at noon."

"What’s to decide? Tomorrow at noon Chris goes out and deals with this guy. The guy ends up dead or leaves town and everything’s fine." Even as he says this, part of JD, the part that’s grown up since he arrived in Four Corners, knows it won’t be that simple.

As usual, Buck is the one to explain, and confirm JD’s worst fears. "He won’t just leave JD. Jacob’s not going to end this ‘til he kills Chris or Chris kills him."

"I already killed his father and sister, how can I kill him too?" Chris asks this of himself more than to the men around him. No one has an answer.

Vin’s quiet voice breaks the uneasy silence. "Where was Jacob when this happened? Why’d he wait ‘til now ta show up?"

"I heard he was back east at some college," supplies Buck.

Ezra’s southern drawl answers the second question. "He said that he has been "getting ready for this". I would imagine that he refers to being ready to shoot against Chris Larabee. He knew he’d have to be very, very fast if he wanted any chance of beating Mr. Larabee. Developing that kind of speed usually takes years of practice."

JD isn’t satisfied with that. "Most guys that good are well known, they get talked about, written about. If he’s so fast now, why haven’t we heard of him before?"

Nathan speaks for the first time. "He wouldn’t want Chris to know he was coming. And he wouldn’t want to risk gettin’ killed by someone else before he could face Chris."

Josiah looks over at their gambler. "Ezra, do you think he’s bluffing? Counting on Chris’ guilt to keep him from fighting. Then he’d have his revenge by calling Chris a coward."

Ezra answers without needing to think it over, having asked himself the same question. "No. His look and manner are those of a man who can back his play. He means to fight Mr. Larabee. He may be aware of the guilt Mr. Larabee feels and intend to use that as his . . .Ace up his sleeve." He makes eye contact with Chris before continuing. "It is a winning card, but he can only play that card if you allow him to. What happened to that girl five years ago was a tragic accident, letting her brother kill you will not bring her back."

"You think I don’t know that, Ezra?" Chris snarls.

Nathan takes on the, for him unusual, role of defending Ezra. "Calm down, that’s not what he was sayin’."

After a deep, calming breath Chris speaks again. "I know. I’m sorry, Ez. OK, you all know what’s goin’ on now. I don’t think sitting here talkin’ will solve the problem. Anyone got anything else to add right now?" Silence is his answer. "Let’s keep an eye on things, and him, in case there’s more to this or he has friends. We can meet at the Saloon tonight or early tomorrow to talk, when we’ve had time to think things over." This gets nods and murmurs of approval as the men move to leave.

JD stays behind and signals Buck to stay also. After watching Chris head toward the Church with Josiah, Vin trailing behind them, watching over them, Buck sits back down. "What’s up, JD?"

"That was going to be my question. What’s going on with you? What happened to you that night?"

"Nothing happened to me that night. I . . .didn’t get involved." Buck hopes this anser will satisfy JD since this is one story he really doesn’t want to share with his young friend.

"Well, ya couldn’t. They had to be one on one. That’s the rule. So why are you hurting now?"

"You aren’t gonna let this go, are ya?" Buck asks in a resigned tone. He doesn’t bother asking how JD knew he was hurting. The boy was perceptive naturally and learning to be observant. Not in the league of Vin or Ezra yet, he didn’t have their experience, but with two such expert teachers he was learning fast.

JD grins at him, eyes flashing in victory. "Nope. So you might as well talk to me."

"I was there that night. I was supposed to watch Chis’ back. I’m his best friend, that’s what friends do, right? Well, I didn’t, I froze. I saw the girl aim the gun at his back and I froze, did nothin’. I would have let her shoot him. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A girl aiming a gun and ready to fire. A girl."

JD tries to reason with his older friend. "What could you have done, Buck? You couldn’t kill her."

"Like Chris said, a grown man against a girl. I could have stopped her without killin’ her. But I didn’t do anything. I didn’t even warn Chris she was there, it’s lucky he heard the gun. I wasn’t drunk, I don’t have that excuse. It’s a damn good thing being drunk doesn’t slow Chris down or hurt his aim. If he was any other man he would have died that night, and it would have been my fault."

"But he isn’t any other man, and he didn’t die. You can’t beat yourself up over something that didn’t happen." JD hates seeing the man he thinks of as a big brother in this much pain.

"But if I’d done something, stopped her, Chris wouldn’t have had to shoot her. He woudn’t have the guilt or the brother out for his blood"

"You heard what Ezra said, you can’t change what happened."

"No, but I can do what I’m supposed to and watch Chis’ back this time."

"And this time you have 5 other men to help."

Buck is happier at the thought but still unsure. "Hope that’ll be enough. Chris has a habit of walking in front of gun barrels."

"He also has a habit of walking away alive." JD reminds his older friend.

"Come on. Let’s go check around town." Felling a bit better Buck figures JD deserves some teasing for getting him to talk. "Maybe you’ll even get to see Casey. I think she and Miss Nettie were coming inta town today." He’s rewarded by seeing JD blush as he hurries for the door.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Ezra corners his quarry in the Hotel lobby. "Mr. Kirkland. Allow me to introduce myself. Mr. Ezra P. Standish. I am afraid we got off to a poor start earlier."

Jacob nods in acknowlegement but refuses to shake the outstretched hand. "You’re Larabee’s friend. That’s all I need to know about you."

Ezra lowers his hand with a tight smile in recognition of the insult. "Yes, I am his friend. And as his friend I’m asking you to leave, and I’m willing to make it worth your while."

"You think you can buy me off? Bribe me?" Jacob looks almost amused by the thought.

"No," admits the gambler, "I did not really think so, not with cash, but it never hurts to try. They say every man has his price. What’s yours?"

Jacob thinks for a moment then smirks. "A blood price, Chris Larabee’s blood. That’s my price."

"Is it his blood you want, or his pain? Consider this, the worst thing you can do to Mr. Larabee is to let him live. He is tortured by his guilt. If you kill him you end that suffering."

"I’ll send him to hell. How is that ending his suffering?"

"Mr. Larabee has already lived his hell in this life. He will NOT be seeing it in the next. That I can promise you with great confidence."

Jacob is stunned with disbelief. "You can’t believe a man who murders innocent girls is going to heaven?"

"As I understand it, that innocent girl was about to shoot a man in the back. You see, I know the details, but more importantly, I know the man. Mr. Larabee has saved at least two lives for every one he has taken."

"Maybe you’re right. Maybe that will earn him God’s forgiveness, but it won’t earn him mine."

Having expected that answer Ezra continues. "Understood. But I would ask you to think about what I have said. The worst thing you could do to Mr. Larabee is leave him to his own guilt."

"Didn’t you hear him admit earlier that he didn’t have a soul?" Jacobs asks in a mocking voice.

"Yes, but unlike you I know what he meant. His wife and young son were killed in a fire not long before he met up with your father. As far as Mr. Larabee is concerned they were his soul and he lost them."

"So that gives him the right to kill others? It excuses his actions?" Jacob demands.

"No, it most definitely does not excuse them. But it does explain them. One last thing before I leave you. This conversation has been speaking as if it is certain that you will win, but that is not a certainty, far from it. Going against Chis Larabee is suicide. I realize you may be anxious to see your sister again, but I’m sure she would be willing to wait for a reunion. Good day to you, Sir." Having learned what he had wanted to know Ezra walks out of the Hotel.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Josiah says nothing as Chris falls into step beside him, knowing he needs to talk, but not in public. He sees Vin following them and knows he’ll make sure they aren’t disturbed or overheard. Once they are seated in cool dimness of the old church Chris speaks.

"You didn’t say much back in the jail."

"You learn more by listening than talking. And you’re one to talk about not sayin’ much."

Despite his mood Chis grins slightly. "I’m listening."

Josiah’s instinct tells him that his friend needs to talk about what happened; that he has never talked about that night before, not even with Buck or Vin, his usual confidantes. "Anything can be taken to extremes, you need to talk sometimes. It can help put things in perspective."

"I’ve spent the last two years trying to forget most of the three years before. Not to hard considering how much of that time I’d spent drunk But that night stays clear. You believe in Hell, right?"Josiah answers with a silent nod. "I think Hell is going to be us reliving the evil things we did in our lives. And maybe seeing the ways we could have done them right."

The ex-preacher decides he’s heard enough. "Hold it there, Chris. What you did wasn’t evil. What you did was wrong but it wasn’t evil. A bear kills a man, or a child, is the bear evil? No. It was acting on instinct. That’s what you were doing. Acting on instinct. A sense of self preservation. You were in the middle of a gun fight, you heard a gun, you reacted."

"I’m not an animal, I’m a man. And I didn’t have to kill her to save myself."

"You just said it. You’re a man. Men make mistakes. A lesser man would blame it on being drunk, or on the other man for having his daughter there. You’re not, you haven’t even tried to. You’re taking responsibility for what you did."

"What I did was. . ."

Josiah interrupts, "What if it had been me, or Vin? What if Buck had shot her before you did? Would you hold any of us to the standard you’re holding yourself to? No, you’d understand and forgive. Just like you understood and forgave JD when he shot Annie."

"JD wasn’t trying to shoot Annie. And he’s a kid, I’m not."

"You weren’t "trying" to shoot Samantha. Annie was unarmed. Samantha had a gun aimed at your back. She was trying to shoot you."

"The girl had just watched me kill her father."

"You didn’t know she was there watching that. Her father did and he fought you, that makes that his responsibility not yours. It’s good to take responsibility for your actions, but not another’s. They need to do that themselves. Your burden is heavy enough as it is, don’t add anyone else’s on top of it. What would you have done if you had known she was there?"

"Told him to get her out of there. Postponed the challenge. I don’t know, something."

"To bad her father didn’t do something. If he had she would have lived."

The black clad man can’t believe what he’s hearing. "So you’re saying it’s his fault?"

"I’m saying there’s plenty of blame to go around. A lot of things were done wrong that night. It was a chain of events, any one thing being changed, by anyone, could have saved the girl. Have you ever heard of "trial by combat"?"

Having a feeling he knows where is question is leading, Chris answers. "Two men fight, whoever wins is right in the eyes of the law."

"Basically. It was back when Church and Law were more connected than they are now. They believed that God decided the outcome, gave strength to the one in the right. The innocent man could not lose. God would not allow it."

"So you’re saying I should think of this as my trial? If I win I’m innocent, absolved?" Chris asks in a somewhat cynical voice.

"Something like that."

Chris is quiet for a long time; thinking about what Josiah had said and wishing he could forgive himself for his past, for what he had become. Josiah sits silently, glad to know that his friend listened to what was said. Wondering what else he could say to help him more, but wise enough to know that in the end it is up to Chris.

"How can I ask him to forgive me when I can’t forgive myself?"

"You can’t, and even if you could it wouldn’t change things. He isn’t here to forgive you, he’s here to fight you. Buck was right, this is going to end with one of you dead, it’s up to you who that will be. Like Ezra said, if you let him play on your guilt he will win. If you don’t there’s no way he can out draw you."

"I thought you said it was up to God?"

"No, I said they believed it was. I believe you’re a good man and a fast draw. I believe innocent men can be killed, but I also believe that God protects good men."

"Thanks, Josiah. Right now I think I’m gonna go for a ride. Clear my head."

"Not a bad idea," approves Josiah. "I’d suggest takin’ Vin with ya."

"I was plannin’ to. Don’t think he’d let me leave town without him right now, anyway."

"No, I don’t think he would either. He’s almost as protective of you as you are of him." Josiah smiles as he teases his friend. He puts a comforting hand on Chris shoulder as they walk towards the door.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Seeing Chris and Vin walk into the Saloon Ezra excuses himself from the poker game he’s involved in and takes a seat at the Seven’s table. When Lara brings the usual bottle of Whiskey and glasses Vin motions her to wait. He pours two generous drinks then hands her the bottle. "Thanks, Lara. That’s all for tonight unless Ezra wants something." Chris glares at Vin but says nothing, unwilling to force Lara into choosing between their instructions, Vin’s smirk tells him Vin was counting on that reaction.

Ezra looks at Lara before answering. "Nothing for now, Lara. Thank you." She nods and leaves, curious about their behavior, but knowing the men well enough to understand that prying would be a bad idea. She’d heard enough rumors earlier in the day to have a good idea as to what is going on.

"Viiiinnn." The drawn out name is both a warning and a demand for an explanation.

Ezra speaks first. "Mr. Tanner is correct in his actions. Now is not the time for you to dive into a bottle. When I first met you I was reminded of a line from Shakespeare. "The ruins of the noblest man that ever lived," the Bard spoke of you Chris; but over the last two years you’ve rebuilt your life, your soul. Letting Jacob Kirkland undo that would be worse than letting him kill you."

Vin reminds the older man of something he already knows, "Being drunk got ya into this mess. It will not get ya out."

Chris downs his drink in one gulp then concedes the point. "All right. That’s it for tonight. But after this is over. . ."

The other two share a pleased look, knowing they’ve won. After taking a sip of his drink Vin looks at Ezra. "Saw ya follow Jacob into the Hotel this mornin’. Did ya find out anything that could help?"

Ezra is silent, feeling both amazed and pleased. Vin’s belief that he had been trying to get information to help them instead of looking out for himself is still surprising to him, even after two years and he is touched by his friends trust. "No, unfortunately. I simply confirmed that he is not bluffing and that he cannot be bribed."

"You tried to bribe him?" Chris isn’t sure whether to be amused or angry at the idea.

"It was the quickest way to ascertain his sincerity. Every man has their price. I needed to know his. Unfortunately his price is your blood. It is true that the only thing worse than a scoundrel is a man of principle."

"We may have to discuss that concept sometime, Brother Ezra," comments Josiah as he takes his seat. Buck and JD are right behind him.

Ezra nods slightly in Josiah’s direction. "I look forward to it Mr. Sanchez."

Vin isn’t sure he correctly followed the conversation. "What are you talking about, Ez?"

"If he were a scoundrel he would have accepted money and left. Problem solved. Instead he is a man of principles and Chris, uh, we, still have to deal with him tomorrow."

"No, Ezra, you were right. I have to deal with him tomorrow." Chris holds up his hand to quiet the protests he knows are coming. "I know you men want to help and I’m grateful. But I caused this problem and I have to deal with it. Jacob was right when he said the code is one on one not Seven to one."

"That code could get you killed." Observes Nathan. He pulls an empty chair from the next table and sits with the others.

"It hasn’t yet. It’s saved my life many times."

Nathan wants an explanation. "What do ya mean?"

"There are a lot of men who want to fight me. Most of ‘em are afraid to. But if they could get together and challenge me as a group . . ."

"I see your point. Earlier you were cursing your skill but that skill might just get you out of this mess. I had an idea. Most men wouldn’t be able to pull this off, not for sure, but you can." Nathan’s instincts as a healer are to heal the wound in his friends mind and heart. He knows that won’t be easy after it being allowed to fester for five years, but is determined to try. He also knows it could be dangerous for Chris to start despising his own strengths out of guilt.

JD is impatient as ever. "What is it, Nate?"

"Chris can shoot him in the arm so he can’t shoot back. Then I fix up his arm and nobody gets killed. Like I said, most men are either to slow or not accurate ‘nuff to pull something like that in the middle of a gun duel, but you could, Chris."

"Good plan Nathan, but what happens when he heals up and comes back? And I think he will come back, if he will even leave."

Buck is upset with his best friends unwillingness to look for a good ending. "So, what, you let him kill you? Are we back to that?"

"Buck, you should know better than anyone, I died five years ago, this would just be a formality."

"Like Hell I know that. Maybe three or four years ago you could have gotten away with that, but not any more. You’ve started to live again. I can’t believe you’re willin’ to give that up."

Ezra takes his turn next. "I’ll tell you the same thing I told Mr. Kirkland. I know you want to see your family again but they are, I’m confident, willing to wait for the reunion."

Buck sees the opening Ezra gave him and uses it. "He’s right ya know. You just give up and let that boy kill you and Sara will give you a piece of her mind instead of a kiss when you see her."

Josiah adds his voice to his friends. "There is also what letting Jacob kill you will do to him. He may have learned to shoot but I doubt he’s ever shot, much less killed, a man. He doesn’t know what that does to a man, you do. Do you really want to be the one to teach him that lesson? I know it’s his choice, but you have the ability to make that choice for him."

"So I kill him to keep him from being a killer?"

"Sometimes life doesn’t give you good choices, only hard ones."

Buck decides to change the subject slightly. "There is one good thing we learned today. Jacob stayed in his room a lot and kept to himself when he was out. That means he is alone and that he isn’t a distraction for an attack on the town or something else like that."

Nathan agrees with Buck’s conclusion but isn’t so sure it’s a good thing. "So we don’t have to worry about the town, just Chris. Only problem with that is it’s usually less work keeping the town in one piece than keeping you six in one piece."

Josiah is in complete agreement. "Amen to that, Brother Nathan."

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Chris Larabee wakes as his body jerks upright. The only sound in the room is his own heavy breathing. The echos of his scream have already died. Moments later a fist pounding on the door breaks the silence. "Chris?" The door creaks open and he meets the worried gaze of his best friend.

Buck’s eyes instinctively scan the room. "You OK, Pard? What happened?"

"Nightmare." Comes the terse answer. Between the two men it is all the answer needed.

Buck walks the rest of the way into the room and closes the door. He slept in his own room, an unusual occurrence, for fear this would happen. He’d originally chosen his room so he could be near his best friend if he was needed, though Chris would never admit it Buck knows the nightmares take a heavy toll on him. Buck is thankful Chris nightmares are mostly a thing of the past, unless something happens to trigger them.

"Oh. Which one?" With Jacob here he knows which one, but asks anyway.

"Kirkland. When I turned around it wasn’t Samantha I’d shot. It was Adam. I’d killed Adam. I shot without looking and Adam died." As he speaks he watches the scene replay itself in his minds eye and is caught back in the nightmare vision. Shooting Marcus. Hearing a gun cocking behind him. Shooting as he turns. Finally seeing the face of the person he shot, the face of his own son. Dead before he hit the ground, dead at his hand. When his wife and son died he had thought nothing could be worse. The first time he had this dream he’d learned his mistake. The thought of Adam dying at his hand was worse, much, much worse.

"NO!" Bucks near shout brings Chris back to reality, as intended. "Chris, it was a nightmare. You did not shoot Adam. You know that."

"But I could have. You know how he loved to sneak up on me."

"And I know you never carried a gun around him. You have enough to deal with thinking about Samantha and Jacob. Don’t torture yourself about Adam. You can’t afford that right now."

Chris knows his friend is right, but is still shaken by the nightmare. "What am I gonna do, Buck?"

"Right now, try to get some more sleep. At noon, what you have to do. You might want ta try Nate’s idea. I know I said he won’t stop ‘til one of ya is dead, but I’ve been wrong before. Maybe if you wound him, he’ll figure out he can’t beat you and leave. Nathan was right that you’re one of the few men accurate enough and fast enough to pull that off. Even if he doesn’t leave you’ll have bought us some more time to come up with somethin’ better."

"Earlier you asked if I remembered you being there. I do. I remember you getting me off the street and up to my room. I remember you dealing with the Sheriff, and the townfolk. I remember you never giving up on me, even after what I did."

"You shouldn’t have had to do it, if I had . . ."

"No, Buck. It was my fight. You were right not to get involved. It was a little girl. I know you. There is no way you could do anything to hurt a child. You’re better than that, Better than-"

"DON"T SAY IT! Don’t even THINK it. You are a good man, one I’ve been proud to call my friend. And you know damn well I’m no saint."

"Buck, if I lose,"

Buck interrupts, "Don’t talk like that. You ain’t gonna lose."

"Buck, listen to me, I need you to promise me something. If I lose you take care of the others. ‘Specially Vin and JD. Josiah can take care of their souls, and Nathan can heal their bodies, but only if you stay together. You have to be the leader, keep ‘em together. Don’t let this break the rest of you up. Promise me?"

"OK, I promise. But you have to promise me something. You have to try to stay alive. You promise me you won’t just walk out there and let him shoot you."

"I promise. Now go back to bed. You need all the beauty sleep you can get." He smiles slightly to let his friend know he’s teasing him, then turns serious. "And Buck, thanks."

"Any time, Pard, anytime." The dark haired man assures his friend before leaving.

Knowing from experience it will be a while before he can sleep again Chris makes himself comfortable. Then starts wishing for a drink. He considers going to the Saloon to try and get a drink but stays in his room. No matter how bad he wants the Whiskey he knows his friends are right. Getting drunk won’t solve his problem. But at least he could forget it for a while, he thinks sourly. He starts running different possibilities for what could happen tomorrow in his mind to distract himself from reliving the past.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

As the sun rises Vin gets out of his wagon to see Chris coming out of the Saloon with two cups of coffee. He sits beside his friend and reaches for the extended cup. When the cups are empty the young tracker decides he’s waited long enough. "Would you let me turn myself in at Tascosa if I didn’t have a way to clear my name?"

The older man answers immediately. "Of course not. You know that."

"Why not?"

Chis isn’t sure where Vin is taking this conversation, but gives the obvious answer. "Because you’d get yourself killed."

"So what makes you think I’ll let you get yourself killed?"

"What are you sayin’?"

"You wouldn’t let me go to Tascosa without a way to clear my name and I won’t let you fight Jacob if you won’t try to stay alive."

Chris voice takes on an edge. "Not your decision, Vin."

Vin corrects his older friend. "I can make it mine if I have to. Shoot him soon as he walks out of the hotel, before either of ya have a chance to draw. If it’s the only way to keep ya alive I’ll do it. But I hope I won’t have to. I don’t want to lose your friendship, but if that’s the price of keepin’ you alive I’ll pay it."

"You’re my friend, my brother, nothing you could do will change that. But you have to let me do this my way. I’m asking as a friend, but if I have to I’ll make it an order from your leader. I don’t want to do that."

The younger man relents. "Alright. But if you go out there and let him shoot you I’ll go ta Tascosa and turn myself in. Since you’ll be dead ya won’t be able to stop me. You may not be able to fight him to save yourself, but how ‘bout to save me?"

"That’s not fair, Vin," accuses Chris.

"I’m not trying to be fair, I’m trying to keep you alive," Vin informs the older man with a smirk. He then reaches into his pocket and pulls out a carefully folder piece of paper. He hesitates for a full minute. Looking down at the paper then at Chris, but refusing to make eye contact and allow his big brother to read his thoughts, which worries Chris.

"Vin?" asks Chris in a tone he had often used with Adam. Gentle, but still demanding attention. Blue eyes meet hazel.Vin’s full of uncertainty. Chris’ asking for trust.

The tracker slowly extends his hand. "Wrote this for you last night."

Chris takes the offered paper and opens it. Feeling proud of Vin’s progress in learning to read and write as he sees the neat script he reads. . .

Looks like the weight of the world's
On your shoulders

And every night a bullet wears your name
I don't envy you but I want to say
You better get your guns

I know you think you're going crazy
Just when it seems everything's
Gonna work itself out
They drive you right back down

They christened you with whiskey
Now there's fire running through your veins

And there's trouble blowing like a hurricane

Gonna need a miracle
'Cause it's all on the line
But I won't let you down
(No I won't let you down)
If you need me I'll come running
I won't let you down... no, no

You're looking for salvation
You thought that it'd be shining
Like an angel's light
Well, the angels left this nation
And salvation caught the last train
Out tonight
He lost one hell of a fight

Gonna need a miracle
'Cause your heart's on the line
And your heartbeat is slowing downYour feet are grounded still
You're reaching for the sky
You can’t let 'em clip your wings
'Cause I believe that you can fly

Gonna need a miracle
'Cause your heart's doing time
And your conscience is calling you out

You could walk away
But I know you were born to fight
So, better get your guns*

"Thank you. I’m not sure what to say."

"Say you won’t leave me." His voice is a mixture of demand and plea.

"Not if I can help it." Chris assures him.

Before Chris can say more JD’s voice grabs their attention."Hey guys." He is relieved to see them sitting there, talking and having coffee as they did almost every morning. Even knowing what’s coming later it’s reassuring to see them acting as if were a normal day. Both men greet him as he joins them. Chris carefully refolds and pockets the poem.

Vin looks at his unofficial boss. "I’m going to take a patrol around outside town, just ta be safe. See ya in a couple hours." At Chris’ nod he turns toward the livery, then looks back. "Think about what I said, Cowboy." He catches the mock glare directed at him as he again turns to leave, and this time keeps going; content that the friendship is still strong, and that he is the only man who can safely turn his back to Chris Larabee after calling him a cowboy.

Instead of going inside JD sits in the now empty chair beside Chris. While not unheard of it’s unusual enough to get the older mans attention, so he asks, "What’s on your mind JD? Noon?"

"Sort of. I know you can beat him. You’ll do what you have to, whatever that ends up being. Mostly I’m thinking about what you said to me after Annie died. You told me that if I was perfect I wouldn’t be one of you. You don’t expect the rest of us to be perfect, but you expect yourself to. You’re one of us. That means you make mistakes like the rest of us. When I first got here I idolized you so much it was hard to see that, but now I do. After I came back you said that I couldn’t let one thing, no matter how bad, ruin my life, like you almost had. That I needed to make sure I never did the same thing wrong again and to do all the good things I could to make up for what I’d done, to balance it out, good for bad."

"You remember all that?"

"Yea. Did you mean it or were you just trying to make me feel better?"

Chris is quiet for a long time. He knows JD has him. No way he can say he didn’t mean what he told JD. But if he admits he meant it JD can use the "advise" on him. He almost smiles but suppresses it, the kid was learning fast and he’s proud of him. "I wasn’t sain’ it just to make you feel better."

Their conversation is cut short by the appearance of Jacob. They watch in silence as he heads to the livery stables. Chris is glad to see Vin already saddled and riding away from the stables. JD quickly stands. "I’ll keep an eye on him from the jail."At Chris’ nod he heads off down the street.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

At midday Four Corners would usually be bustling with activity, but today it is very quiet. Even Jacob, a stranger to the town, can sense the difference as he steps out of the hotel. The seven friends standing together outside the Saloon notice him and there leader steps forward a few paces.

Jacob looks into eyes that seem bruised from the pain in them. Not the eyes of a man who kills without thought or remorse. What he sees makes him, for a moment, reconsider his new plan; then the moment is gone. "I withdraw my challenge."

Hope flares in Chris heart, and eyes. "Why?"

Knowing he doesn’t have to answer, but wanting to taunt Chris, Jacob replies. "Something your fancy Southern friend said. Asked if I wanted you dead, or in pain. Said that killing you would end your pain. And I do want you in pain, so you live. He also said you wouldn’t go to Hell when you died so I’m going to make your life Hell. I’m going to do to you what you did to me. An eye for an eye. Isn’t that right Preacher Man?" As he says this his gaze moves to Josiah, then returns to Chris before he continues, "I’m going to kill the ones you love. The only question left is who to start with." He pointedly focuses on Vin, having sensed the bond between them the day before. By threatening Chris’ friends he had stepped over the line and signed his own death warrant; but he is blissfully naive of that fact, the other men present are not.

"Not so fast. I’m calling you out." Chris speaks quickly, before Jacob can challenge Vin. He’s impressed with the young sharpshooters near perfect accuracy over unbelievable distances; but knows that’s what Vin is, a sharp shooter, not a gunfighter. Hazel eyes capture blue and look for understanding through their unique bond. As usual Vin knows what Chris is thinking and lets that show in his gaze for Chris to read. Satisfied with their silent communication Chris returns his attention to Jacob.

When Jacob sees Chris eyes again he is stunned, and not a little scared, by the change. Gone is the pain, replaced by an anger so intensely cold it seems to burn; and below those eyes is a feral smile that looks almost as benign as a hunting tigers. He gets the uneasy feeling that he is the prey.

As Chris walks into the street Buck takes a step to stand beside Vin. "Like you said yesterday, he’s an idiot."

"Sure is."

"Least it solves our problems," Buck notes, the usual humor finally back in his voice.

"Sure does," agrees Vin.

Both break into relieved smiles, but keep their eyes glued to the men in the street.

"How does him being an idiot solve our problems?" Comes JD’s curious question.

Buck explains, "Now he’s threatened us, ‘specially Vin, we don’t have to worry about Chris being willing to shoot him. Or about him feeling guilty after."

JD’s only response is a smile to match theirs.

Out on the street Jacob is feeling like an idiot for not considering that even if he withdrew his challenge Chris could reverse that and challenge him. Something else the gambler had told him the day before echoes in his mind. "Going against Chris Larabee is suicide." His hand goes for his gun.

Chris sees the movement and draws. His bullet rips through Jacob’s arm tearing nerves and muscle. The reflexive tightening of his finger sends his bullet harmlessly into the ground a good distance in front of his opponent. The small explosion is followed by a thud as his gun falls from his deadened hand.

Nathan picks up his bag and hurries to the injured man. After wrapping a bandage tightly around the wound to stop the bleeding he stands. "Let’s get to the Clinic so I can treat it proper, ‘fore you lose more blood or it gets infected."

"One minute Nate." Requests a quiet, deadly calm voice. At the healer’s OK Chris speaks to Jacob. "You’re leaving. Wether it’s on your horse or in a pine box is up ta you. After Nathan patches you up, I see you near one of my men I kill you."

"You could have killed me just now."

"No, I couldn’t. I owed you. Now were even. Now I can."

Jacob starts to sway from a combination of blood loss and the beginnings of shock; JD reaches out to help the healer steady the injured man then guide him to the Clinic. Seeing that the danger is past the towns people come out to the street. The first to reach the Seven is a small blonde whirlwind that launches itself at Chris. Fortunately he’d already holstered his gun and easily catches the young boy.

"Mama said you might not be able to take me fishing tomorrow like you promised. Does this mean you can?" Billy Travis asks in an excited voice.

Chris smiles affectionately at the boy. "Yea, it does. Think we can talk your Ma into packing us a lunch to eat?"

Billy turns slightly in the strong arms holding him to see his mother nearby. The relieved look still on her face changes to a smile before she answers. "I think I can manage that. If you eat your vegetables tonight at dinner."

"Maaa." Groans Billy.

Chris winks at Mary over Billy’s head. "Sounds fair to me."

The lovely blonde takes her son as others crowd around. Chris and the four remaining peace keepers retreat to the Saloon; none of them wanting to deal with a crowd at the moment. The town people let them go, content to know the Seven are all safe. Half an hour later Nathan and JD appear.

Nathan answers the questions he knows are coming before they’re voiced. "He’s gonna be fine. Used some carbolic to stop any infection and sewed ‘im up."

"He agreed to spend the rest of the day in his room recovering and leave first thing in the morning. I asked Mr. McKay over at the hotel to keep an eye open and let us know if he leaves the building."

"Good thinkin’, JD," praises Chris.

Though more confident than when he’d arrived in Four Corners two years ago the young man beams with pride at the compliment from the man he still thinks of as a hero, even if a flawed, human hero. In some ways he likes that better, since it means he can also have him as a friend, instead of just a distant, unapproachable hero figure.

Inez and Lara approach the Seven’s table carrieng trays. The pair sport matching ear to ear grins as they set out the food. Lara’s tray also holds a bottle of wine. Ezra picks it up and checks the label.

"Well, well, this is extravagant," drawls the gambler.

"It’s on the house. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion and this feels right." Lara explains to the men.

"Wherever did you acquire it, my dear?"

"Back east. Brought it with me. Thought I could sell it if I ever needed a little quick money on the trip west," answers Lara as she takes the wine in question from Ezra to pour the drinks. Once that’s done Inez and Lara leave the men to enjoy their meal.

Before the others can begin Josiah picks up his glass and speaks. "I would like to propose a toast. It’s from one of my favorite stories. All for one. . ."

"And one for all," chorus Seven voices.


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* "Get Your Guns/Miracle" - J. Bon Jovi