Part 1Stooped over, he sat on the front pew, his elbows resting on his knees as he rotated his hat continually in his trembling hands. He wondered why had he come here. Was he looking for redemption? Looking for the forgiveness that may never come? The silence of the church was an accusing voice, damning him for his carelessness; cursing his stupidity.
His breath caught in his throat as the series of events that continued to be played out in his mind.
The robbery that had gone wrong.
The chase that had ended at the burning stable.
The smoke searing his lungs, stinging his eyes so badly that they were weeping.
It was at the moment, as he rubbed at his eyes in an attempt to clear his vision that the figure appeared through the thickening cloud of smoke. The intent was obvious as a lethal object was raised toward him and without words, both weapons fired.
One bullet missed its target.
As the smoke intensified and he strained to see through his blurred sight, another shadow rushed into view. Choking back the smoke, he again reacted; this time only one weapon fired.
It had happened all so quickly.
A blink of an eye for his finger to press the trigger.
A breath for the bullet to leave the gun.
A heartbeat to see a friend fall under your own hand.
The figured staggered, stepping closer, before falling to his knees.
"Chris?" a familiar voice weakly questioned.
"Chris!" Another voice echoed him back from the past. "Nathan needs ya." JD called urgently from the church doorway, before disappearing back the way he had come.
Standing up, Chris took one last look at the altar. "It was my mistake--mine-- don't let him pay for something I did." his guilt-hued voice whispered its plea.
Once he left the confines of the church steps, Chris's legs fell into a fast pace. As his fears beat painfully at his chest, his limbs quickened their speed. With his heartbeat echoing in his ears, he cleared the street in seconds and made his way up the stairs to Nathan's room. Out of breath and still gripped in a seemingly endless nightmare, the emotionally weary man came to a stop as he found his four friends standing outside the door. They had all, in their own ways, tried to ease Chris guilt, but he had refused to release it; it was deserved pain; a well-worn coat he now wore in penance.
"Chris--" Buck started to say something then changed his mind. "He's been askin' for you."
Chris's throat constricted, as he struggled to control the hatred he felt for himself. He wanted to be anywhere else but here, but he also wanted to see him; needed to see him.
Not daring himself to speak, Chris nodded as commanded his legs to move. Hesitating at the door, he felt strong hands attempting to reassure them with their touch, but he found no comfort in them.
With a deep breath he pushed open the wooden door.
Nathan gently dabbed at the fevered brow with a damp cloth. He had done the best he could, but now it was between his friend and God.
"Let me do that."
Pushing himself up from the chair, Nathan walked over to the gunfighter. "I'm glad you came. He has been askin' for you." Glancing back to his patient, the healer turned to Chris, pressing the now warm cloth into Larabee's hand. "He needs you."
Chris's lips pursed as his fist clenched around the cloth in his hand. "Why, so I can shoot him again?"
Nathan glared at the gunfighter. "This isn't about you Larabee! It's about Vin," the healer nodded to the bed. "Whatever accident put him here, it don't matter anymore-- if in fact it ever did." He said as he walked to the door and opened it.
"It mattered to me, Nathan."
The healer stopped and looked back at his friends. "But did it matter to him Chris? As I said, this was never about you." Nathan said quietly behind him, leaving the two men alone.
Part 2This isn't about you Larabee! It's about him. Whatever accident put him here, it don't matter anymore-- if in fact it ever did. Were they right? Had he been so consumed by his own guilt and pain, that he had traded places with the victim in all this?
Stepping to the bed, Chris looked down at the pale features that came close to blending with the white cloth of the pillow. He didn't need to be a tracker to be able to trace the pain on the young man's face; for even in sleep, the multiple facial contortions gave voice to his torturous rest.
He was growing tired of the second-guessing. Collapsing in the chair by the bed, he dropped the cloth he still holding into a bowl of water. Wringing it out, he began to wipe at the sweat-beaded brow.
Gently touching the cool cloth to the tracker's face, it suddenly struck Chris how young Vin really was. He missed those clear blue eyes that projected the tracker's thoughts in a way his lack of words couldn't. His life was all there for the world to see, if people just took the time to look and understand the quiet man. Ever since that day on the street, when their eyes had spoken to each other, there had been unspoken understanding that they would be there for each other; but would it still be there if he survived?
Refreshing the cloth, Chris stared into the tracker's face before letting his head fall into his hands. "God, Vin, What have I done?"
"My-- fault." the hoarse voice croaked.
Jolted by the voice, Chris lifted his head and reluctantly made eye contact. His own voice choked as he tried to speak. "How did you come to that conclusion?"
"Smoke--fire--shadows--I shoulda called out. Let ya know it was me. Twas my fault," Vin explained.
Exhaling a faltering breath, Chris shook his head in disbelief. "God, Vin, when I saw it was you," his voice quavered, "I have only felt that pain once before in my life, but this time I was the cause."
"And ya have been beatin'-- yerself up over it ever since, right? Hell, Cowboy," Vin stopped for a moment, grimacing as a wave of pain past over him, "if ya ain't --the sorriest gunslinger I've ever seen." He managed a breathless smile.
"I'm pretty good, when I'm not shooting my friends, pard." Chris forced himself to return the smile.
"Aw hell, Cowboy, think-- of the reward money-- Ya coulda been rich, iffin yer aim had been better." Vin chuckled and regretted it as another wave of pain joined with the last.
Chris could see that it was taking every ounce of the tracker's strength to keep himself from voicing the pain that was surging through his body. Grabbing the cloth, he again put it to Vin's skin. He could swear the tracker was getting hotter. "I should get Nathan," he said anxiously.
Vin's hand suddenly darted out and grabbed at Chris's arm. "Want--ya here with--me." the tracker pleaded. "I need--to know somethin'."
Chris was more worried than ever, but the urgency in Vin's voice made him stay. "What, Vin, what do you need to know?"
Closing his eyes, Vin took two deep breaths before, opening them again and staring intently into the gunslinger's face. "Ya understand--my fault--tell me ya know." he appealed.
Shaking his head, Chris answered. "No."
"D-damn it to H-hell, Larabee!" Vin growled as he strength gave way and his arm fell to the bed.
Picking up the limp arm, Chris clasped Vin's hand in his and he focused on the blue eyes. "Our fault."
A smile creased Vin's mouth, "G--good enough. -- Cowboy?" his voice exhaled with his breath and then there was silence.
Part 3Vin's silence suddenly registered, chilling the gunslinger to the bone. No, this wasn't happening.
"Nathan." Chris's voice was a faint whisper, as he grabbed at the tracker's still body. "DAMN IT, DON'T YA DARE DO THIS TO ME," the gunslinger's voice exploded into a rage of pain, as he shook the silent tracker. "I WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOU FOR GIVIN' UP ON ME, YA HEAR ME? NEVER!!"
The door burst open and five fellow members of the infamous seven rushed in, all with matching masks of horror at the sounds that emanated from the room.
"BREATHE DAMN YOU!!" Chris yelled at the limp tracker as he continued to shake him. "BREATHE!!"
Nathan rushed over to the bed, trying to pry the tracker's body from the gunslingers fingers. "CHRIS! Let me look at him." he begged.
"NO!" Chris growled, as he elbowed Nathan away. "YOU'RE GONNA BREATHE, YOU HEAR ME VIN?"
Josiah and Buck, watched as Chris pushed away the only person that could help their friend, and rushed to tear Larabee away from Vin.
JD stood stunned near the door, a tear running down his cheek as he watched the desperate tragedy before him. Ezra did not enter. Instead he turned away from the spectacle and gazed silently skyward.
Chris didn't feel the hands grabbing at his arms, trying to get him to release his vice-like grip on his friend, nor did he hear their pleas for him to let go. All he could see was his friend's lifeless body in his hands.
As the hopelessness of the situation assailed them all, a gasp of air broke from Vin's body. Six sets of eyes blinked in amazement; seven hearts started beating again.
Nathan quickly moved forward gently taking Vin from Chris's grasp. "It's all right Chris, you can let go. Don't ask me how, but you did it." He smiled.
Gently laying the coughing tracker back down, Nathan began to check Vin out.
Buck and Josiah manoeuvred the dazed gunslinger back out of the healer's way.
"I don't believe it!" Buck whooped. "I just don't believe what I just saw."
Josiah looked heavenward grateful the God had been listening. "I do brother, I do." he sighed, a grin spreading on his face.
"What do you think kid? Is Chris a miracle worker what?" Buck exuberantly called to JD.
The young man was busy wiping the tears from his face with the back of his sleeve. "Never seen anything like that Buck, never." he said as he tried to cover his embarrassment at his tears.
Buck's eyes were moist himself and as he watched Nathan examining the young tracker. "And never will again I bet."
"Indeed, Mr. Wilmington. We have been witness to a miracle and even I would not wager on seeing its like again." Ezra said as he draped his arm over JD's shoulders. "And as soon as Mr. Tanner is up to it, I would like to buy this miraculous group a round of drinks."
"Gentlemen, I have a patient here," Nathan interrupted their good humor, "he still needs peace and quiet and frankly so do I."
Chris had been the only not to speak, he was too afraid to. Afraid that he would wake up and he would still be holding is unbreathing friend in his hands. "Nathan? Is he--?"
"Goin' to be all right?" Nathan finished the gunfighter's sentence for him. "I don't make any promises but after the tongue whippin' you just gave him, I don't think he'd dare not be." Noting Chris's pale features, Nathan smiled. "Betta get Chris a chair. I believe pulling off miracles has sort of worn him out."
+ + + + + + +
Vin was past irritable, he was now unbearable. He needed to get out of the room. He needed to feel the wind and sun again, but he was finding hard to find someone who agreed with him. He had tried sneaking out, bribing Ezra, intimidating JD; nothing worked. The last thing he heard was his so called friends laughing at his promise that he would make them pay when he got out, as they disappeared down the stairway of Nathans clinic.
"I don't know if ya know it, Vin, but thanks to you Buck is not a happy man. It seems that he bet Ezra a round of drinks that you'd be out of the bed by now." Chris chuckled as he entered and made himself comfortable on the edge of the tracker's bed.
Vin scowled at being the base for a wager. "Well Ez would have won, if ya hadn't been sittin' outside my door all the time. Ya just don't play fair." he whined.
"And you do? Givin' Billy a dime to head me off, so ya could try and get away. What am I goin' to do with you?" he lightly chastised.
"So how did ya--?"
"A quarter." Chris laughed.
Vin smiled as he shook his head, before he became pensive. "I owe you one, Chris."
"What, for the quarter or shootin' ya?" He tried to joke, but his chest still tightened when he though of how close he came to loosing Vin.
"We're even on that one remember," Vin said, reminding the gunslinger of the conversation they had already had. "No, Nathan, told me what ya did--how ya wouldn't let me go."
Uncomfortable with the praise, when it was his bullet that caused the situation the first place, Chris nervously stood and began to pace the room. "You'd have done the same."
"Yeah, I would've." It was more a promise than an agreement.
Realizing the subject was still a painful one for Chris, Vin decided to change the subject. Grinning, he glanced at his clothes that lay draped over a chair in the corner and quickly hatched a plan. "Hey Cowboy, how about you go and get me somethin' to eat. I'm feelin' a might underfed."
"Underfed?" Chris asked as his eyes questioned the tracker's motives. "You're hungry?" Smiling, Chris walked over to the chair where Vin's pants and boots lay ready for when he could get out of bed. Picking them up, Chris walked to the door, smiling. "Don't worry I'll have Josiah up here in no time with enough food to choke a horse and pardyoull eat every bite, or have me to deal with."
"Aw hell Chris!" Vin groaned, as he quickly set about working on a new plan. Now if I can just get Nettie to---