Disclaimers: I do not own any part of M7 nor do I profit from this fic.
Comments: This is in response to a challenge (sort of) on the B&B list to write a fic with an anniversary theme. In the midst of a tragedy (because it's the B&B list, where hurting Vin and/or Chris is required J), the others contemplate the anniversary of their meeting. The time frame might be off a tad in relation to the series, but can we just go with it?
Warnings: A few bad words. Excessive amount of angst and h/c and why is no one surprised?
Nathan watched with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation as the hands of the clock met on the twelve. Midnight, the beginning of a new day; a day he had looked forward to for weeks now, though he'd expected, hoped he be spending it somewhere else doing something else. He should have known better.
The others would probably laugh at how sentimental he'd become. It wasn't like him; he was the practical one. His six partners would take off on some wild chase and he'd be the one tagging along behind, carting the extra blankets and rations and bandages . . . never leave home without extra bandages.
He sighed and moved away from the clock on the wall towards the bed where his latest patient lay. Vin was still, as he had been for going on the second day now. Even several feet away from his injured friend, Nathan could hear the ominous rattle in Vin's chest as he tried to draw breath.
Not much Nathan could do for it, though. Hot, black smoke had more than likely damaged Vin's lungs, but Nathan couldn't get him alert enough to cough up the residue. He could hardly get him awake to drink, either, or to figure out where all he was hurt. He and Chris had patched up what they could; set the obvious broken limbs and bound the ribs. Vin had fallen on his left side, so at least his back had been spared. He thought so, anyway.
It wasn't right for Vin to be lying there like that, not on this day. Not any day, but especially not this day.
Although, he supposed it was Vin's turn, in a way. Buck had been sliced up twice in the past year. JD had been stabbed and shot. Chris and Josiah and Ezra had all taken bullets. So maybe it was Vin's turn, but it still didn't make it right.
Of course, Vin had been hurt a few times. He'd broken a few ribs when that horse ran him down, but it didn't hold him back much. He was all but strangled by Chanu, too, but that didn't slow him up either. Then there was the time he was blown up by dynamite and took a pretty spectacular roll down a hill. But he got right up like nothing at all had happened. Now that Nathan thought on it, Vin had been real lucky the past year.
Until now. This time, Vin's luck had run out and there was no pretending he was fine. And the worst of it was that it was for no good reason.
Nathan peered at the clock again, disappointed to see that only minutes had passed since he'd last checked. It would be another long night, with another long day to follow, like so many others he'd experienced since he hooked up with his six friends. He'd never once complained about the hours he spent in this room, patching up bloody and broken bodies, because he'd never regretted a single moment.
But this morning should have been different. This day should have been filled with quiet reminiscing and boisterous celebration. There should have been bad jokes and loud laughter and way too much whiskey. But it wouldn't happen that way--couldn't happen that way--and for the first time, Nathan was resentful and angry about what he had to do in this room and why.
Did the others even realize the significance of the day? He doubted it. And it was silly of him to be so emotional about it. Or maybe not . . . after all, this day was almost the anniversary of his death. If it weren't for the man in the bed, it would be.
He could still remember the feel of the rope as it tightened around his neck, cutting off his air and crushing his windpipe. He'd struggled futilely to find some sort of purchase for his feet, only vaguely aware of the shootout going on around him. It wasn't until he hit the ground that he realized he'd been cut down by a well placed bullet. That was the first time, but it sure wasn't the last, that he'd witnessed Vin do more than his fair share of shooting.
Of course, the same could be said for Chris. Larabee looked like the wrath of God, standing in the dust with his black coat flapping around him, and Nathan was real glad that Larabee had chosen to see his side of things that day.
Nathan never knew why he did, though. He'd asked Chris and Vin many times why they'd risked their lives for a man they didn't know, a black man no less, but he never got an answer. Chris would just shrug and turn up his lips like it was an inside joke. Vin would mumble something like, "Felt right," and that would be it. As if that was all there was to it, and it probably was for Vin. What's right is right, and Vin pretty much just lived his life trying his best to see that things turned out that way.
Except it didn't turn out that way this time, and Nathan found himself wishing that just this once, Vin had turned the other way. But no, Vin had stubbornly tried to beat the odds, and once again it fell to Nathan to make it come out right and keep them whole.
A low moan turned his attention back to his patient. Cloudy blue eyes met his as Vin made a feeble attempt to cough. Nathan encouraged him, "That's it now, cough it up. Come on, Vin." But when the dazed eyes slid closed again, he knew he'd asked too much. Vin was just too weak and growing weaker with every sweep of the long hand on the clock.
The familiar creak of the clinic door had Nathan shifting off the bed to turn and greet the new arrival. He wasn't surprised to see that it was Chris. The man had been stopping in every few hours, but he never stayed long. This time he didn't even look at Nathan, he just stood at the foot of the bed and stared at Vin.
Nathan cleared his throat and, suddenly feeling awkward, he offered, "No change. Don't know how much longer he can go on . . ."
His words hung heavy in the air, and he wished that he could snatch them back; that he could take the words and change them or rearrange them and it would sound different, feel different.
But Chris hardly seemed to notice. He just nodded and walked closer to the bed. Wordlessly, he reached down and gripped Vin's shoulder before walking back out the door.
It was a painful interaction to witness, even more so after all that had happened over the past month. Chris had been laid up himself, after taking a bullet from Ella Gaines. Nathan shivered a bit at that memory. The woman was purely evil, and she'd come close to destroying all they'd become over the past year.
And the unfortunate fact was that she had managed to drive a wedge between Chris and Vin. No one knew exactly why or how, but even though Vin had come back to help them in the gunfight at the woman's ranch, and even though he'd gone after her later, things still weren't quite right between the two men.
They might have worked it out, if Vin hadn't gotten hurt before Chris was totally healed himself. Chris had just been too sick; physically ill at first, but then mostly sick at heart. He couldn't see past what she'd done and how she'd done it to see that Vin was hurting, too.
It was a rough time for all of them, but they'd weathered bad times before. With a small smile, Nathan remembered that the past year brought more good times than bad though, a whole lot more.
Unfortunately, this wasn't one of them. He pulled his chair close to Vin's side and checked his bandages before feeling his forehead. He wasn't any hotter, but the fever wasn't the worst of it anyway. He hadn't believed Vin would live through that first night, or the long day that followed. But he damn well was not dying on this day.
This day was special, even if no one else knew it.
Buck took another swig of whiskey and checked his pocket watch. Two in the morning, and he really should find his bed. There had been too many long hours of hard work and even harder worry, and he was dead tired.
Ezra sat across from him, wearing down his own bottle, and Buck knew it had to be even tougher for him. He should talk to Ezra about it, but what was there to say? It wasn't Ezra's fault, but he probably felt like it was.
It wasn't anybody's fault, to Buck's way of thinking, but then, he didn't always think the same as others. He pretty much tried to see the good side of things, although there wasn't much good to be seen right now. Most of the past month had been pretty damn bad, now that he thought on it. But even that didn't change how he felt about the rest of the year.
It was the best damn year of his life. And it all started exactly one year ago to the day with a knock on his door. Well, not his door, it was . . . what was her name again? It didn't matter. What did matter was that Vin came knocking and Buck went flying straight out the window into Chris's waiting arms.
That didn't sound right, but that was exactly how it happened. He smiled when he remembered wrapping his arms around Chris and Chris's gentle admonishment that "people would talk". He'd met Vin just minutes after that.
It worried him at first, the way Chris and Vin had just hit it off right from the start. It wasn't like Chris at all, and Buck had to admit that he kept a close eye on Tanner, just to be sure he was who he said he was. It turned out that Vin was just exactly who he appeared to be, no bones about it.
Buck had figured he'd be stuck reining Chris in when they got back together, looking out for him when that black anger swallowed him whole. But it didn't happen that way. Maybe it was riding with the other men or maybe it was protecting the town, but something gave Chris a reason to start living again.
Or maybe it was Vin. There was something about him . . . and Buck mentally shook himself for thinking of the man in the past tense. Vin wasn't dead and he sure wasn't dying on this night. Hell, he wasn't dying at all. After all that had happened with Ella Gaines, losing Vin would just drive Chris right on over the edge and this time, there would be no reining him in or bringing him back.
Well shit, he just wasn't going to think like that and that was all there was to it. Buck took another drink and stole another glance at Ezra. It was worth a shot . . . "Ain't your fault."
Standish smirked. "Of course not."
It might have been believable if Ezra hadn't picked up the bottle of cheap whiskey and tipped it straight to his mouth. Buck had never seen the man drink straight from the bottle--other than his own expensive brand--and that action alone said more than all of Ezra's fancy words ever could.
Did Ezra have any idea what day it was? Probably not. The others weren't half so sentimental as Buck had gotten lately. Hell, he'd really wanted to plan a party and invite the entire town. Wasn't every day, after all, that a man's entire life changed, let alone seven men's lives.
A day like that should be noticed.
And it would have been, if old Lester hadn't gotten drunk and set the hotel on fire.
He didn't want to think about that either, and he really should just get on up and find that bed. He was about to give in and bid Ezra goodnight when the saloon doors swung open. It didn't surprise him when Chris ambled in. Buck almost called out to him, but the set of Larabee's jaw and the look in his eyes made him decide otherwise.
Chris walked up to the bar as Inez poured him a drink, and Buck was thinking maybe he'd best stick around after all. Chris could be a mean drunk, and neither Ezra nor Inez needed that tonight.
Except Chris didn't take a single swallow; he picked the glass up in his hand and swirled it around a bit, then sat it back down on the bar and walked out. It was the damnedest thing Buck had ever seen, and even though he knew it wasn't his business, he got up and followed him out.
It was dark, even with the half moon hanging overhead, but the glow from a lit cheroot marked Chris's path through the streets. Buck stood just outside the batwing doors on the boardwalk and watched as his old friend made a straight line for the clinic. No surprise there, even when Chris just stood for long moments at the base of the steps.
He didn't want to go in; he couldn't stand to be there with Vin, but he couldn't stand not to, either. Buck understood that feeling all too well. He'd felt exactly the same when JD was shot - couldn't stand to be with him and couldn't stand not to.
It seemed like hours that Chris remained there, unmoving, but finally he climbed up three or four stairs before slowly easing himself down on the steps. Buck could still see the glow of the cheroot, and it brought him back to a different night, a different glow, a different staircase.
The flames were shooting high in the sky by the time Buck had made it to the scene of the hotel fire. Vin was already inside, trying his best to get to Ezra. The only thing was - Ezra wasn't there. Of course, if he was there, they'd be worrying about losing two men right now. But it just made it all the more unfair . . .Vin getting hurt for no reason at all. Tanner could have just stayed in the street and watched the flaming old timber tumble down like everybody else.
But he didn't. Vin raced inside and up the stairs before anybody could stop him because that's just how it was with them now. Any one of them would risk his life for the other.
That was what a difference a year could make.
And it was still the best damn year of Buck's life.
Ezra had purchased the most engaging calendar. It had actual photographs of the country's more scenic cities, one for every month. He'd hung it in his room and looked at it every morning when he got up . . . or in the afternoon when he got up, depending on how successful the previous evening had been.
He'd circled today's date. Silly and sentimental and utterly ridiculous that he'd even think of it, but he did. Lord, wouldn't the others get a laugh out of that? Astonishing that he remembered, let alone cared.
He'd never see it again, of course - the calendar. It had gone up in smoke, along with most of his other possessions. Fortunately he carried the more important items on his person: pocket watch, cuff links, weaponry . . . cash.
With a slight groan, he pulled the watch out and tried to focus on the time. His movements were slightly disjointed and his vision a bit blurry, but he managed to make out that it was approaching four in the morning. Perhaps that might explain why he couldn't seem to coordinate his actions with his thoughts. It might also lend some insight into this maudlin, melodramatic mood that had overtaken him.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. This day was marked on his calendar . . . his calendar that he would never see again. Lost . . . destroyed . . . burnt to a crisp . . . and what on earth possessed Vin to go to such foolish extremes?
Well, there was no point in speculation. No point in worrying himself sick either, or drinking himself into oblivion. Nothing would change what would happen or what had happened. Vin would live or die with or without his concern . . . or his regret.
Ezra picked up the bottle again, disappointed when it turned up empty. Inez had given up and gone to bed an hour ago, leaving him to fend for himself. Smart woman.
Buck had finally retired to the room he was sharing with JD. Wilmington had temporarily given his room to Ezra, explaining with far too much enthusiasm that the evenings he spent in his own bed were few and far between anyway.
Ezra was the only one of the seven who had chosen to reside in the older hotel. Buck and JD each had rooms in the more modern, though considerably less tasteful--in Ezra's estimation--version across the street. Josiah lived in the church and Nathan in the clinic, while Chris normally stayed at his place or in the boarding house. And of course Vin insisted on keeping that dilapidated habitat on wheels, when he wasn't sleeping on the ground, "under the stars".
Vin should have been under the stars, on the ground, in the wilds he loved so well on that night. But he wasn't where he was supposed to be, any more than Ezra was. And where Ezra was, was . . . something that he preferred not to discuss and thank goodness, no one had thought to ask.
He was just returning from . . . where he was . . . when he heard the shouting and saw the flames. By the time he arrived at the scene, JD was screaming for Vin and, oddly enough, for Ezra, as he raced towards the burning structure. Casey, in turn, screamed for JD and followed him. Buck and Ezra, having arrived at nearly the same moment, went after both of them, their shouts, "JD!" and "Casey!" lost amidst the noise and confusion of the disaster. Buck latched onto a struggling JD, while Ezra caught the hysterical Casey, and they dragged them both back from the flames.
And that was when JD started shouting that Vin and Ezra were inside. Ezra did not believe he would ever forget the moment. Townspeople were shouting out commands and furiously, futilely slapping buckets of water on the raging fire, and there was JD making even less sense than usual . . . "Vin and Ezra are inside! We have to help them! Let me go, Buck!"
While Buck struggled to maintain his grip on JD, Ezra fought to keep hold of the equally distraught Casey. "No, JD! You can't go in there!" she'd cried repeatedly.
It took Ezra several tries to get it through young Dunne's head that he was, in fact, standing right behind him, holding on to the wildcat that was his girlfriend.
"But . . . but Vin . . . he's in there . . . he thinks you're there, too," a panicked JD spouted when his brain finally caught up with his eyes.
Ezra felt his heart drop to his stomach as he mumbled, "Oh Lord."
And just when he'd recovered from the shock of that revelation, Chris charged past him into the burning building, followed by Josiah.
It should have been him, of course. Ezra knew he should have released his tenuous grip on young Casey and simply charged ahead. It was precisely what Vin would have done - what Vin had done. It was precisely what any of the others would have done - what Chris and Josiah did do.
And in actuality, he had tried. He and Buck and JD all ran to the entrance just in time to see the stairway and landing collapse, with Vin . . .
No point in thinking about that, in dwelling on it. Another bottle should do the trick. One more and he could retire and sleep until this day was over.
His mind would not cooperate, however, and his body had become basically useless as well. So since the bottle would not make its way to him, he supposed he'd have to go without. Better not to close his eyes anyway, and see it all again.
Chris and Josiah reached Vin just minutes after he fell, and thank goodness for that small favor. Nathan said it made the difference between minor burns and . . . not. Although Ezra tended to think it was the buckskin coat that made the difference. Really, what was the man thinking? Wearing rawhide in summer? Sleeping in wagons? Plunging into roaring infernos to save a man who wasn't there . . . who quite possibly didn't deserve to be saved if he were there?
Lord, he was well beyond maudlin and he really needed another drink . . . another bottle, preferably.
And apparently Chris felt the same because once again he entered the establishment. It was dark, the glow from a single lantern the only light in the room, but it didn't take long for the gunman to find the gambler.
"Go to bed, Ezra," Chris said . . . insisted . . . ordered.
Ezra must have been drunker than he thought, because several suitable responses came to mind: 'I'm not a child' . . . 'I have no bed; mine was destroyed in the very same fire that consumed your best friend' . . . 'Go to hell, Mr. Larabee'. He was not so far gone to go with the last one however, although it remained on the tip of his tongue.
Perhaps it would be better if he were to remain silent.
He could feel Chris staring at him through the shadows, but he didn't return his gaze. Maybe if he just ignored the gunman, he'd go away. But of course, he didn't. Ezra had been experiencing a run of bad luck lately, so didn't it just figure that Chris would grab a bottle and head his direction? Although, it could be argued that not getting banged up, busted up, and burned up in a fire hardly qualified as bad luck. No, Vin had definitely earned the dubious distinction of having the worst luck of the week . . . possibly of the year.
And that was a hard feat to accomplish, because it had been one hell of a year. He almost said as much when Chris slid the bottle across the table and took a seat adjacent to him. Larabee's face, always a difficult read for Ezra, was obscured in the dim light. But something told the gambler that this was not the time for a stroll down memory lane.
Silence was most definitely the wisest choice, or so he thought until Chris spoke up. "Not your fault," he said.
And how many times had the others felt it necessary to remind him of that? Of course it wasn't his fault. He did not blame himself for Vin's injuries. He couldn't help it that he wasn't where Vin thought he was. And yes, had he been in the vicinity, he could have prevented Vin from making such a foolhardy mistake, but honestly, he knew it was not his fault.
Unfortunately, he could not command his mouth to respond with a convincing argument to that effect.
"Just wanted to make sure you knew that no one blames you. I don't blame you."
Chris was still talking? What on earth had gotten in to him? Well, Ezra should thank him, he supposed. After all, he and Chris had had more than their share of misunderstandings and miscommunication over the past twelve months. He should at the very least acknowledge the effort that Mr. Larabee was making.
But he still couldn't find the words, so he merely took a long swallow of whiskey and passed the bottle to his tablemate.
Chris didn't drink it, though. Instead he whispered, "Not tonight. Nathan might need me."
Ezra was fairly certain that Chris was talking to himself . . . and that it wasn't Nathan he feared might need him.
It had surprised Ezra to find out that Chris and Vin had just met shortly before he'd joined up with them. It seemed like the two men had ridden together for years; the phrase 'joined at the hip' springing to mind. From the beginning, they had the most irritating habit of communicating without words, something Ezra found both amusing and disturbing.
He'd never been that close to one person in his life and there was good reason for it. The recollection of Chris's face as he and Josiah carried their injured comrade out of the burning building reminded him daily, hourly, that it just did not pay to care too much. That could only lead to things like sorrow and disappointment and marking dates on calendars.
Ezra had no plan to actually acknowledge the date anyway. And if by some remote chance one of the others had remembered, he would have feigned surprise and disinterest. He had a reputation to maintain, after all. Better not to let on how much it mattered; how much his life had changed because he'd made a rash decision one year ago to join these men on their misguided adventures.
Chris was standing now, looking at him and waiting for a response of some kind and it only then occurred to him that he still hadn't spoken a single word.
This time he at least managed to tip his head in the gunman's direction and mumble a mostly incoherent, "Yes?"
"Go to bed," Chris repeated. But this time he upped the ante by adding, "We might need you."
Ezra nodded, but he still hadn't moved by the time Chris's footsteps had faded into the silence of the dark morning.
They might need him. Chris had said something similar a year ago, or implied it. And Ezra told them he was in it for the laughs. That was true initially because the money certainly wasn't enough to consider. But when it came down to it, it wasn't humor that kept him there. No, something else had sucked him and held him fast for a year . . . one hell of a year, at that.
But it really was just another day on the calendar.
And it really wasn't his fault.
The sun always peeked through his bedroom window at first light, and Josiah was grateful that apparently the original builder of the church shared his affinity for rising with the dawn. It was the only window in the entire structure that faced east, and Josiah took it for a sign, or maybe a gift.
Each new day was a gift, when it came down to it. This day, especially, though he doubted the others realized there was anything significant about it. He'd made big plans for this day, however. He was going to spend it in quiet meditation and deep contemplation. It was to be a private anniversary celebration; a time to review and reflect and rejoice.
The other men were his brothers in every sense of the word, but they rarely understood his spiritual quests. Undoubtedly, they would view this sentimental journey with typical bewilderment and barely disguised amusement. Which was all well and good, but this day, this gift would not go unnoticed or unappreciated by him.
Or at least, that was the plan. But as Josiah sat on the edge of his bed and took in the soft glow of the new day, his heart felt so heavy that he had to turn away from the light. Even after all that had happened, after all he'd grown and learned, he still so easily succumbed to the darkness within him.
Only this time, he had every right to be angry. It was unfair and wrong and it hurt. And for the first time, he wondered if he'd done the right thing when he agreed to ride with Chris Larabee. It would have been far easier to remain a solitary man.
He'd said 'no' at first; had turned Nathan down when he came asking. But the next day, as the men rode out, something made him change his mind and come along. Vin had held out his hand and said they needed another good man, and there was no looking back after that.
Vin had stuck by him ever since, whether he was being a drunken fool or a love struck idiot. No matter what he said or what he did, Vin stubbornly and sometimes foolishly believed in him.
So that night, when Josiah came upon the burning hotel and he heard JD's words, there was no hesitation, no second guessing, no real choice about what he needed to do. Vin was inside and he was in trouble.
Chris was already ahead of him, but they both made it to the doorway in time to see the stairway and the landing collapse. Through the smoke and the flames, Josiah had glimpsed Vin, throwing his weight against Ezra's door in an effort to force it open. But within seconds, the floor collapsed beneath him and he was buried in the burning rubble.
Josiah groaned at the memory and lowered his head into his hands, flinching when tender flesh rubbed against coarse hair. He'd burned his hands as he'd hoisted the hot timbers from his friend's body. Chris was right there, pulling Vin free, but he had trouble getting his footing and maintaining his grip on the injured man. It took both of them to haul Vin up and over the burning debris that littered their path, and what had been a short sprint in, suddenly became an impossibly long trek out. The smoke was suffocating, the heat searing, and Josiah could hear the timbers of the ceiling groaning as they threatened to collapse.
He would never know exactly how the three of them made it out of the building that night. It was a miracle . . . a gift. There had been so many of those over the past year; so many times when one of them should have been dead. Nathan was a miracle worker, to be sure, but even he acknowledged that most of the time, their lives were not in his hands.
He'd sat with Nathan and Vin all through that first long night after the fire, when it became clear that Chris couldn't manage it. Chris had stayed long enough to help patch Vin up as best they could, but then he'd left the clinic, without allowing Nathan to so much as look at his own cuts and scrapes and burns. Nathan had mumbled something when Larabee left that night; something about stubborn gunfighters and how Chris wasn't healed enough himself to handle more problems.
That was probably truer than Nathan knew, because Josiah wasn't sure the other men had caught on how strained the relationship between Vin and Chris had become and how deeply it affected them both. It wasn't really Chris's fault; he had enough to deal with, and Vin didn't exactly push to be first on that list. In fact, Vin deliberately downplayed the situation; keeping busy with trying to find the evil Mrs. Gaines and when that failed, taking on extra patrols.
Vin had come to Josiah after he and Buck had gotten back from their unsuccessful hunt for the woman. Characteristically laid back and understated, he'd propped himself on the steps of the church and said, "Couldn't find her. Told Chris . . ."
It would have been left at that, if Josiah didn't know Vin so well. Tanner's chin was down and his eyes shaded by his hat, but Josiah could read hurt and disappointment in the slump of his shoulders, the tilt of his head.
"You did your best, Vin. All the way around, you did your best."
Vin shrugged. "Wasn't good enough. She . . . what she did t' Chris . . . I wish I'd been able t' take care of her for 'im."
There was more to it than that, but Josiah knew Vin wouldn't talk about it. He and Chris would have to work it out on their own, and he had faith that they would. Or anyway, they would if they got the chance. Now, with Vin hurt . . .
The familiar groan of the old church door as it swung open interrupted his thoughts. Josiah stood to pull on his pants and quietly made his way through his bedroom door. He wasn't surprised to see Chris there, seating himself in the last pew. The blond took off his hat and ran his hand through his hair, but he didn't bow his head. He shifted a bit on the wooden bench, wincing as he moved, and Josiah was reminded that Chris had been seriously injured only weeks before. And no one knew what additional injuries he'd incurred the other night.
It wasn't physical pain that brought the man to this place, however. Josiah hesitated, uncertain whether Chris needed to be alone, or needed an ear. But he could have gone anywhere to be alone.
He settled in the pew directly in front of Chris, encouraged when the gunman didn't ask him to leave or get up to leave himself.
Minutes passed before Chris cleared his throat and said, "I wanted to thank you, Josiah, for going in with me to get Vin."
Twisting his body around on the bench, Josiah met Chris's eyes and replied, "No need for that. Vin is my brother, too."
Chris looked down and fingered his hat, before speaking again. "I'm not always good at saying what needs to be said. I'm trying to rectify that."
Josiah sighed, hearing the underlying despair in that simple statement. The man Chris most needed to rectify things with couldn't hear him right now. But Josiah at least could accept his offering. "Alright then, you're welcome. And I thank you for the same."
Chris nodded as he stood and pulled his hat back on, shading eyes that undoubtedly revealed more than he was willing to share at the moment. He left then, without further comment.
Josiah remained where he was and, unlike Chris, bowed his head. He hadn't asked for this past year; hadn't prayed for it or expected it or even hoped for it. But it had been given to him anyway, given to them . . . a gift.
And even the God he barely knew could not be so cruel as to take it all away from them on this day.
They'd think he was stupid if he brought it up. They'd tease him mercilessly and make jokes and call him "Kid" for another year, at least. JD was not going to let on that he knew what today was and he would never, ever let on how much it meant to him. But he wasn't going to let it go by without doing anything, either. It would just be subtle, which wasn't exactly in his nature but he figured he could accomplish it if he tried.
He'd been planning it for weeks now; special little things he could do for his friends as a way of saying "thank you" without actually saying the words. He could hear Buck now, going on about how silly and sentimental he was acting over a little thing like an anniversary.
Was it an anniversary anyway? It wasn't like a wedding or a birthday, or even a death . . . oh Lord, he wasn't going to think about death. No, it was just a day, but it was the day when his whole life changed.
He'd come out west on the stage and the minute he hit town--the second he hit town--he just knew it was where he belonged. Of course, it took awhile to convince the others that he belonged with them, but once he did, they'd accepted him like he was their kid brother. Even when he'd accidentally shot Annie and left town, they'd made him feel wanted and needed . . . like he was one of them because he'd screwed up, rather than in spite of it.
So he'd planned a few things for his friends to mark this day, but now everything was ruined. Now he wasn't sure what he should or shouldn't do and it made him pretty damn mad.
God, he really was stupid. Vin was fighting for his life and he was mad because this day was spoiled. "Shit," he muttered under his breath, glancing over at his sleeping roommate and hoping his little tantrum hadn't awakened him.
Buck had asked JD to get him up at eight, and it was a little after that now, but the man looked so exhausted that he didn't have the heart to do it. So he finished dressing in silence, before heading out for the livery.
It took some thinking to plan for this day. Buck was the easiest, of course. All he'd had to do was arrange a romantic dinner for him and Inez. The hard part was convincing her to go along with it, and JD wasn't sure if that was because she had feelings for Buck or because she didn't. Sometimes he thought she liked Ezra, and sometimes it was Vin, but it was definite that Buck wouldn't mind spending some time alone with her.
JD had carved a cross for Josiah. It didn't sound like much, but he was kind of proud of how it turned out. He'd modeled it after one he'd seen in Boston, though it was a pretty rough imitation. Josiah probably wouldn't know the difference, though.
The plan was to bring Nathan breakfast in his room. Nathan was always doing things like that for them, sometimes even when they weren't sick. He was just naturally thoughtful that way, and JD figured it was time somebody thought about Nathan for a change.
He'd bought Ezra a deck of cards when he and Buck had last gone to Eagle Bend. They had a unique design on the front and they were real shiny, and JD was amazed by that. He doubted Ezra would be so impressed, but it was the thought that mattered. Of course now Ezra needed a whole lot more than another deck of cards. Standish pretty much had to start over since the fire, although JD hadn't heard him complain even once about it.
Chris and Vin were hardest. He'd made a couple of poles and thought about inviting them to his favorite fishing hole. Hell, just spending time with the two men was about the best thing he could wish for. He wasn't sure they'd appreciate him tagging along, but maybe they wouldn't mind. He pictured the three of them just sitting around, talking--well, he would probably be doing most of the talking--and enjoying some peaceful time together.
That wouldn't happen now, and maybe never again. Maybe this first anniversary would mark the last day they all had together.
"Shit," he mumbled again. It didn't help matters to think like that. And right now, there was one thing he could do for Vin.
No one was at the livery when he got there, and he was just as glad. He'd rather be alone with his thoughts, and Peso would be better behaved without the added company. Vin might seem like the practical type, but he spoiled his horse, and JD knew just exactly what the ornery animal needed and wanted.
He rubbed Peso's nose, grateful when the horse accepted the affection without complaint, and reached for his brush.
"Damn shame," he muttered softly as he began to work the bristles over Peso's soft hide. "Vin gettin' hurt for no reason at all. He thought Ezra was inside. Everybody else had come running out, but no one had seen Ezra. And then Mrs. Potter said that she'd seen Ezra earlier, and he was looking a little under the weather and maybe he'd went to lay down, and you know how Vin is . . . he just went right in after him."
He paused and sighed, rubbing the horse's nose once again. "Wish she'd never said that. Vin might not have gone in if she hadn't said that."
Peso looked at him right then, like he understood every word, and for some reason JD's voice broke when he added, "I'm sorry, boy, I tried to go after him . . . but I . . ."
"You did all you could, JD."
Chris's voice startled him, but he struggled to maintain his composure. He swallowed and kept his eyes on Peso, not trusting himself to meet Chris's gaze. The only thing worse than picturing Vin as he'd rushed into that fire, was remembering Chris's expression as he'd dragged him back out.
"I appreciate you lookin' after Vin's horse for him," Chris added, his voice soft and sad, and JD had to blink away tears at just the sound of it.
Afraid to speak, knowing the emotion would come through in every syllable, JD merely nodded and resumed his vigorous brushing of Peso's coat.
As Chris turned and left the livery, it came to JD that he'd already done the best thing he could for Chris on this day, by simply doing something for Vin.
Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out a lump of sugar and Peso eagerly devoured it from his outstretched hand.
"Yeah, boy, it's a big day," he told the horse. "And nothin' bad is gonna happen today. Vin's gonna be just fine, don't you worry."
Maybe it wouldn't last, but right then, at that moment, JD believed it, too. The last year was full of amazing and impossible moments, and it wasn't going to end with Vin dying on the anniversary of the best day of his life.
Timing was everything.
Chris had learned that early on in life, but it had been forever etched in his brain with the death of his family.
Of course, timing could be good as well as bad. If he'd come to town only one day later, the entire last year would have been completely different. If he'd stayed in the saloon on that day and stepped out into the street minutes later . . . if he hadn't looked over at just the right moment and caught Vin's eye . . . if Vin had been even a minute later making the shot that cut Nathan loose . . . it all would have been different.
If Ezra had showed up at the scene of the fire ten minutes earlier . . .
He was never one to deal with 'ifs' however. It didn't pay and it didn't change how life played out. Timing may be everything, but a man couldn't foresee the future, so it didn't matter much. Sometimes things just happened and you got lucky . . . or you didn't.
Chris entered his small room at the boarding house and dropped his gun belt on the bed. It was ten o'clock in the morning, a ridiculous time to attempt to sleep, but he doubted that would happen anyway. He couldn't remember the last time he'd really slept, but he had a feeling it was before Ella had come back into his life.
He pulled the shades and stretched out on the bed, rightly assuming that shutting out the light would do little to quiet the turmoil in his mind. He wasn't really tired anyway; he just needed to be alone. It was easier to walk the streets at night, away from prying eyes and probing questions. And hell, Vin didn't know if he was there at midnight or noon.
Vin didn't know if he was there at all.
It was exactly one year since he'd first laid eyes on the cocky buffalo hunter. Chris wouldn't admit to having a sentimental bone in his body, but he'd never forget what day it was. He hadn't planned on saying anything about it unless Vin did. Even then, he suspected the remembrance would have consisted of nothing more than a quiet drink.
This day was about more than just him and Vin, though; it was about all of them. But it all started with just the two of them . . . a shared look, a shared knowledge that sometimes a man just had to step up and do what was right. A shared trust that was immediate and beyond understanding, and if he believed in God or fate, he'd have to think that he was meant to be in this town on that day and to catch Vin's eyes at that moment.
He'd betrayed that trust, though. After eleven months of riding with the man, watching each other's backs, he'd turned his back when Vin told him something he didn't want to hear. He didn't go after him, either. He didn't say a single word to Vin that night at Ella's party, and he didn't try to stop him from leaving the next morning. It was far easier to ignore Vin's warning and believe that he could find happiness again.
Chris didn't know why Vin came back to the ranch that day. He'd never asked him what made him turn around and come back and help out with the gunfight. He'd never asked him to go after Ella, either. But he knew that Vin would. He expected it, he counted on it, as he laid there bleeding on the ground. How fair was that? How unfair was that? Treat a friend like shit, and then expect him to fight your battles for you?
Well, that was Vin's way, wasn't it? Always fighting battles for everybody else. And then when his time came--when Vin finally got his chance to set his life right--his best friend blew his only hope of freedom right off the goddamn roof.
He'd do it again. Chris knew without a doubt that he would put that bullet in Eli Joe a thousand times over if that's what it took to spare Vin's life. He'd walk into a thousand burning buildings, too . . . and maybe he did understand why Vin came back to Ella's ranch that day.
The bed was too soft and he couldn't get comfortable. Everything ached, but he'd rather deal with the pain in his body than the pain in his heart. He should have just gone out to his place, got away for awhile. He couldn't look out a window or step out a door without seeing the burnt remnants of the hotel. Smoke still filled the air, too, or maybe it was just him. The smell lingered on his skin, his clothes, in his hair.
It would be insanely stupid if he were to lose another person he cared about to a fire. That was the thought that went through his mind that night when he heard JD tell Buck and Ezra that Vin was inside the hotel. Even with his tough luck, defiant attitude, and "bad element" lifestyle, something like that couldn't happen twice. But one glimpse into that flaming hell and he knew that it was happening, this time right before his eyes. Except this time, he had a fighting chance to turn things around. Timing was everything, after all.
It wasn't until he felt Josiah's strong arms moving the beam pinning Vin, that he realized the preacher had followed him in. Chris never felt such gratitude in his life as he did for Josiah at that moment. Neither he nor Vin would have made it out without the big man's help, because he wasn't leaving that building without Vin.
By the time they'd made it safely away from the building and set Vin on the ground, Nathan was there. Chris was coughing and his eyes were burning something fierce, but he heard every word Nathan said and none of them were good. That was the exact moment when he realized that he'd been so preoccupied with his own agony, that he hadn't taken time to set things right with Vin - and he may never get the chance.
He didn't want to think about that. What he wanted--what he'd been wanting for days now--was a good, stiff drink. And he didn't care what time it was. He kept a bottle in his room for just that purpose. But as tempted as he was, he knew he couldn't give in to it yet. He had to keep a clear head for a little longer. Nathan might need him. Vin was a terrible patient and once he really came to, a few broken bones and burns wouldn't keep him down.
He almost believed that, and with just a few swallows of whiskey, he would believe it.
He groaned as he forced his aching body up off the bed and headed for the bottle; one drink wouldn't hurt. Vin's gun lay on the surface of the pine cabinet where he stored the whiskey, and he grimaced at the sight of it. He'd forgotten that he'd brought the mare's leg back to his room and set it there.
He could picture the weapon in Vin's rock steady hands, could envision Vin as he took aim: the set of his shoulders, the tension in his jaw, and the grim determination in his eyes. No matter how good he was, or how right the shooting was, Tanner didn't take killing lightly.
Chris picked up the gun and ran his hands along the barrel; felt the weight of it--felt Vin--and he shivered as he abruptly laid it back down.
Once more, he moved back to the bed and sat on the edge. He'd make his peace with Vin with a clear head. He could no longer ignore feelings and avoid words that he couldn't figure out how to say. Knowing how it was with him and Vin, he might not have to say anything at all. But one way or another, with or without words, he'd set things right.
So the bottle would keep until Vin was out of the woods and they were clear with each other . . . or until he died.
Timing was everything.
Nathan considered himself a peace loving man, but if Mrs. Potter showed her face in his clinic, he couldn't be held accountable for his actions. The busybody should have kept her mouth shut and maybe Vin wouldn't be in such bad shape . . . and Nathan wouldn't be afraid to look at the clock.
He looked anyway, and once again those two hands were lined up one on top of the other. It was only noon, and he wasn't at all sure that he could keep Vin alive for another twelve hours. He didn't want to think about how wrong it sounded that his entire goal was to keep Vin with them for this one day . . . as if it would somehow be easier or kinder or less traumatic to lose him tomorrow.
Well he was not going to lose him at all, not without one hell of a fight, he thought as he poured a little water into a cup and approached the bedside. Vin was propped up, but the wheezing was more audible, every breath sapping strength that he just didn't have to spare. He was shivering, too, and that pretty much put Nathan in a damned if he did, damned if he didn't situation because even the slight pressure of a soft quilt was painful for the injured man.
Nathan hadn't lied to the others when he said that they were fortunate they'd gotten to Vin when they did, but Tanner still had burns on his arms, hands, and across his chest from where that beam had fallen. Added to that was the misery of cracked ribs, a broken arm and leg from the fall . . . and God only knew what damage had been done that Nathan couldn't see.
Vin had taken a good knock on the head, too, but his face had been spared. That was a marvel in and of itself. That perfect face barely had a mark on it, and if the skin wasn't flushed and the eyes sunken, a person would never guess that Vin had been hurt in a fire by looking at him from the neck up.
That was one of the things Nathan first noticed about Vin, his face. Not that he was particularly interested in men's faces, but even with the scruff and long hair, it was impossible to miss that Vin was a good looking man. He never used it to his advantage, though, a fact that drove Buck half crazy. The only woman Vin had shown a real interest in was the married one, and Nathan suspected that was more out of a misguided sense of chivalry than true love. It didn't change the fact that women were interested in him, though.
His mind was drifting, but a hitch in Vin's breathing brought him back with a lurch. "It's alright now, just take it easy," he said as leaned close and placed a hand on the sick man's chest, willing the action to somehow help his friend breathe easier.
Vin turned half-open eyes towards him and mumbled something Nathan couldn't make out.
He had that look, Vin did; that one-foot-in-the-grave look that Nathan had seen too many times, and he instinctively latched on to Vin's wrist to feel for a pulse. Weak and thready, and Lord, he would not let this happen.
"Try t' drink a bit, Vin. Here you go."
Vin was having trouble swallowing and most of the water dribbled on his chin, but he apparently took in enough to make a difference, because this time when he met Nathan's gaze, his eyes were clear. He mumbled something again, and Nathan leaned forward to hear.
"Ez . . .?"
If it weren't for the distinctive 'z' in Ezra's name, Nathan never would have caught it. But of course the gambler would be Tanner's first concern since he still didn't know that Ezra was no where near the fire that night.
"He's alright, Vin."
And he left it at that. Maybe he should have said that Vin had given his life for no reason at all, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. If Vin was going to die, he was going out believing he'd done something good and worthy.
Relief briefly replaced the lines of pain that had etched Vin's face for two long days now, and Nathan was humbled by Vin's trust that he would tell him the truth. He could have lied about Ezra--he had lied about Ezra in a way--but Vin took his word, like always.
A hard shiver gripped the injured man once again, and he closed his eyes with a broken groan. Nathan pulled the quilt up higher; deciding the comfort of warmth took precedence at the moment, and sat back with a groan of his own.
Good Lord, he just might kill Mrs. Potter.
There was a tapping on the door and he groaned again. It had to be one of the nosy townspeople, since none of his partners bothered knocking anymore. All of the men had made their way in to see Vin and offer their help, but they didn't stay long. Nathan understood that and he didn't mind. It was easier to deal with his feelings without seeing his despair mirrored in the faces of his friends.
The rapping continued along with a soft plea, "Mr. Jackson? Nathan? May I come in?"
Speak of the devil . . .
Nathan closed his eyes and bit his lip as he mentally prepared himself to open the door. It wouldn't help matters if his anger and frustration showed on his face, but he wasn't sure he could hide it.
And apparently he didn't, judging by the hesitation in Mrs. Potter's voice when Nathan finally let her in.
"I just stopped by to see how . . . to see if there was a change . . . and if there was anything I could do," Mrs. Potter said. She kept her eyes on Nathan, and he sensed her discomfort and her regret. She couldn't even look at Vin.
"No. No change and nothing you can do," he answered tersely.
Her eyes filled with tears as she turned back to the door, and Nathan suddenly realized how wrong it was to blame this woman for a terrible accident. She hadn't set the fire and she certainly hadn't sent Vin in to rescue anyone. He just needed to be angry with someone and it wasn't going to be Vin . . . not on this day, anyway.
But damn it, Vin had saved his life one year ago and what if he couldn't return the favor? So maybe he shouldn't be angry with Mrs. Potter and maybe he couldn't be angry with Vin . . . and maybe the person he was most angry with was himself.
Mrs. Potter was halfway down the stairs by the time he hurriedly stepped out the door, nearly colliding with Chris on the landing. Chris followed Nathan's gaze down the stairs, before turning back to Jackson and saying quietly, "This ain't her fault."
Nathan nodded but he didn't speak. His heart knew that, but it took some time for his head to catch up. He stood on the landing a few minutes, trying to decide if he should go speak to the woman or head back inside. In the end, it wasn't such a hard choice because he was convinced that Vin would just stop breathing if he wasn't there to press the issue.
By the time he'd reentered the clinic, Chris had pulled up a chair and settled in. Larabee was there for the long haul this time, and the only surprise was that it had taken as long as it had for the man to make that commitment.
"He woke up some. Asked about Ezra," Nathan offered in what had quickly become, to him at least, a suffocating silence.
That sparked Chris's interest. He tilted his head towards Nathan and raised a brow. "When?"
"A few minutes ago."
A look of something like hope flitted across the blond's features as he leaned in close to his sick friend. "Vin? Vin?"
There was no mistaking disappointment for hope, though, when Vin failed to rouse at the sound of Chris's voice. It was too bad Chris hadn't come in just a few minutes earlier.
It crossed Nathan's mind that maybe Chris had figured out what day it was, but he quickly vetoed that idea. No one would accuse the tough gunfighter of being the sentimental type. But sentimental or not, Chris cared deeply for his friends, this friend in particular, and Nathan welcomed his company. It felt right, him and Chris and Vin being together. After all, it had all started with just the three of them.
And besides, as determinedly as Nathan was holding on to Vin, he knew he paled in comparison to Chris.
Chris had already joined up with Vin and Nathan by the time Buck got on board. It had never really bothered him that he was fourth on the list, although he wished he'd seen the action that day. Spunky little Mary toting a shotgun in an effort to save Nathan; Chris and Vin shooting up the cemetery and every live person in it - probably a few dead ones, too; Vin making that miraculous shot; and JD trying to get in on it all. Lord, that must have been good and he grinned just thinking about it.
The smile turned upside down when he noted the time, though. He'd told JD to get him up and here it was midway through the afternoon. Buck never stayed in bed this late in the day - alone, anyway.
Hastily sliding on his pants and buttoning up his shirt, he moved to the window and looked outside. It was quiet enough; too quiet for his liking, but he wouldn't complain. His eyes were immediately drawn to the blackened shell of the old hotel and at that moment, he decided the best thing he could do to commemorate this day was to tear the damn thing all the way down to the ground. JD would help him. Josiah, too, and maybe he could convince Ezra to get his hands dirty, considering how guilty Standish was feeling.
He exited the hotel and headed for the saloon, intent on getting a bite to eat and something to chase it down with before gathering up his friends and getting to work. Maybe the physical activity of tearing down the charred reminders of the tragedy would help ease the tension and frustration they were all feeling. Give them something else to think about anyway and make it easier to walk down the street or look out the window. There didn't seem to be a single spot in the whole damn town that didn't sport an eye view of the old hotel, or rather what was left of it.
He never made it, though. Buck took four steps into the street and before he knew it, he was turning the other way. Breakfast or lunch or whatever the hell it was at this time of day could wait. Destroying the old hotel could wait, too. But something told him that maybe Vin couldn't, and maybe the best way, the only way, to spend this day was with a dying friend.
No, not dying, and he stopped short at the base of the clinic stairs to realign his thinking. Someone needed to remain positive and since that was normally his assignment in the group, he was not going to let the others get downhearted when the going got rough. No sir.
Besides, Vin was probably a whole lot better by now. Nathan hadn't come and got any of them and he would have, if he thought Vin was going out at any minute. Well, he would, wouldn't he? He knew how much they'd all come to mean to each other, didn't he? And on this day especially, there was no way that Nathan would let Vin die alone.
Of course, Nathan might not realize what day it was. And he might think it'd be easier on them all to not be there. Or he might not know Vin was dying. Sometimes it happened that way - a man seemed to get better and then just up and died.
Buck took the steps two at a time, and in that short journey from bottom to top, he convinced himself that Vin was about to draw his very last breath . . . and why the hell didn't JD get him up? And what the hell was Nathan thinking not gathering them together in time?
He rushed through the door forcefully; the momentum carrying him farther than the small room could accommodate, and he nearly ended up in Chris's lap. Larabee hardly batted an eyelash, though, as if Buck routinely bolted through doors with no warning and for no good reason.
Even Nathan barely registered surprise at his abrupt entrance. He merely turned away from the window and raised one puzzled brow in Buck's direction.
"I thought . . . Vin might be . . . how is he?" Buck stammered, his eyes roving from Chris to Nathan, before finally resting on Vin.
No one answered, but there was no need to. Buck could see for himself that his negative thoughts were closer to the truth than he wanted to believe. Vin grunted softly with each tortured breath. His body trembled beneath the heavy quilt that was drawn up to his neck, the colorful patchwork design emphasizing the stark whiteness of his face and the black circles beneath his eyes. The only hint of color was a pale slit of blue that showed through the narrow lids of his eyes. But there was no real awareness in those eyes, only pain and misery, and why the hell wasn't Nathan doing something?
"God Nathan, can't you give him something?" he asked. He knew his tone held more accusation than suggestion, but he didn't much care.
If Nathan took it personally, he didn't show it. He shook his head and muttered, "Just did. Tried to anyway. He's havin' trouble swallowing . . . I think the heat and smoke damaged his throat."
Buck couldn't think of any way to color that statement a shade brighter, so he didn't even try. Nathan turned back to the window, and Buck turned his gaze towards Chris. Chris met his eyes for seconds only, maybe even less, but it was long enough.
And for the first time since it happened, Buck was glad that Chris hadn't been there to watch Sarah and Adam die. All this time he'd ate himself up over that fact that they'd arrived too late to save Chris's family, and he always would. But if they had to die, thank God it was quick - not like this.
"Somebody should tear it down," Nathan spoke quietly from where he still stood, staring out the window of his clinic. "Can see the damn thing from every window in town."
"Yeah," Buck answered with a sigh. "We will. Tomorrow."
Nathan nodded but he didn't add anything more.
Buck pulled up a chair on the opposite side of the bed as Chris, deciding just then that he was there for the duration. It felt right, being there with Chris and Vin and Nathan. It had started with the four of them, after all, and they'd see this through together.
Vin moaned and Chris reached over to lay a gentle hand on his head. "Easy, Vin," he said, but his eyes said a whole lot more, and after years of knowing the man, Buck caught on quick.
"He knows, Chris."
Chris raised his head and narrowed his eyes at his old friend, but he said nothing.
"Don't worry on it. You're good, you and Vin." And that was the truth. Buck couldn't exactly say how he knew it, but he did.
"I didn't listen to him . . . I . . . should have said . . ."
"Hell, Chris, he knows you better than anybody - 'cept me, of course. You think he don't know what was goin' on in that hard head of yours?"
Chris swallowed and turned his attention back to Vin. "I'm not sure what he knows . . ."
"He knows. He knows you're here and he knows you pulled his butt out of that fire and trust me, Chris, in his mind I'm sure you're more than even."
"Ain't about keeping score."
"Damn right it's not. Otherwise you'd be cleanin' my boots till I couldn't bend over to pull 'em up anymore."
That brought a ghost of a smile to the weary gunman and a sigh of what could have been relief, but it didn't last long. Vin was moaning again, long and low and endless, but it was the emotion in Chris's eyes that nearly did Buck in. Chris was hanging on to Vin for all he was worth.
So okay, Buck got it now. He hadn't planned to spend this day this way, but that was fine. He knew what he had to do. While Chris was holding on to Vin, he'd be there to hold on to Chris.
And when it came down to it, wasn't that what this day, this year, was all about? The seven of them coming together . . . being there for each other . . . holding on to each other when the going got rough?
Damn right it was. And it wasn't going to end in this room on this day if Buck had any say in it.