It certainly wasn't the first hangover Ezra had ever experienced, but it was clearly leading the competition for the worst. He'd tried to climb out of bed at least three times--a bed he had no recollection of ever entering--and he'd yet to successfully get to his feet. It was a good thing he wasn't needed. Or at least, he didn't think he was, although he wasn't sure he would have noticed if the entire town had gone up in smoke. Momentary panic set in at that thought, but it was short lived. The streets were as eerily silent as the foreign room in which he slept.
He let his eyes drift lazily over the unfamiliar walls and stifled the sudden, sharp pang of homesickness. Homesickness? Now there was a frightening thought. He'd actually allowed himself to become attached to the small, shabbily decorated room in the old, cheap hotel. The furnishings were tawdry, the mattress lumpy, the lighting inadequate . . . the accommodations barely met the basic necessities. And yet the room--his room--had become home.
Just like this town and its people had gotten under his skin . . . and what was he thinking? He should never have joined up with Chris Larabee and his band of merry misfits a year ago. Surely they were to blame for the sorry predicament he now found himself in: hung-over, homesick, and guilt ridden. Not to mention the fact that he was in serious need of clothing, toiletries, and every other item he did not have on his person that night of the fire.
A daunting task, starting over, but it was that depressing thought that finally motivated him to sit up. He briefly noted by the clock on the wall that it was a little after four in the afternoon, and he couldn't decide if that was good or bad. The day was nearly over with no notice and no celebration, but no one came knocking with bad news either, which was all that he could ask for.
Actually achieving the vertical position took more coordination than he apparently possessed at that moment, but he managed to stagger in an embarrassingly awkward fashion to the window . . . only to wish he hadn't bothered. His gaze was riveted to the blackened remains of his former home, and no matter how he tried to avert his eyes, he couldn't look away. He was going to tear down the charred structure with his bare hands, the very minute he reestablished a connection between his mind and his muscles.
Apparently drowning in two or three bottles of whiskey wasn't enough to kill his brain entirely, however, because he'd dreamt about Vin. But strangely enough, it wasn't the fire that haunted his sleep. It was that moment when Vin came to him, asking for help with his poem. Ezra had laughed at him, and he'd never so much as apologized for his loutish behavior. Neither of them had ever made mention of it, and apparently it hadn't bothered Vin too much because nothing really changed between them. Obviously Vin still thought enough of him to sacrifice his life for him in a deadly fire.
Those were Vin's precise words in his dreams when Ezra laughed in his face about the fact that he'd written a poem. The dream Vin just looked at him and drawled, "That's okay, Ezra. I'd still give my life for y'."
He was making too much of it all, of course. He doubted Vin even remembered the poem debacle, let alone cared about it. In fact, up until two nights ago, he was quite certain Vin cared very little about him at all . . . but the black timbers staring back at him would forever remind him otherwise.
New clothes could wait. He would gather up his comrades and together they would have the ugly reminder dismantled and disbursed by dawn.
His hands shook as he fastened buttons and pulled on boots - apparently a new side effect of overindulgence. Maybe a bite of food would help, but his sour stomach quickly quelled that idea. He'd keep his hands shoved in his pockets to hide the weakness; at least until the physical labor started and then it wouldn't be noticeable anyway. There was truly something wrong with him that he could not wait to soil his hands and work up a sweat. Wouldn't Vin be amused?
He made it relatively steadily out the door and across the street before it occurred to him that none of his partners were anywhere in sight. He didn't want to contemplate what that could mean. Was Vin's fate already decided and no one had thought to tell him? Had they attempted to tell him and he was too incapacitated to understand or remember?
Now his hands shook so badly that he was certain his entire body must be trembling with the aftershocks. He really needed to get a hold of himself and stop jumping to such ridiculous conclusions. Alright then, a quick visit to the clinic to see for himself that Vin was indeed fine and then he would cart away the burnt lumber by himself if need be.
The streets were nearly deserted for such an early hour; as if the entire town had simply closed down for the day, and that seemed oddly appropriate, considering. Ezra concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, grateful to have that small task to focus on, rather than on what he might find at Nathan's clinic. Too soon he was there, though, up the stairs and through the door without even knocking, and he wondered where he'd misplaced his manners along the way. No doubt he could blame that on his six friends as well and . . .
And it was no wonder he'd not seen any of the men in town, the majority of them were in this room. Buck sat on one side of Vin, Chris on the other, and Nathan stood guard at the foot of the bed. This couldn't be good. Three grim faces turned in his direction, and Ezra paled at the despair he saw there. He wasn't prepared for this; he didn't do well with emotions and sentiments and good-byes.
He didn't belong there and he'd just turned to leave when someone said his name.
It was Nathan, and as Ezra turned back to face him, the black man repeated, "Ezra." Only this time he added, "Stay."
The word so softly spoken, yet it resonated throughout the room, and how could he leave?
Ironic that it would be Nathan asking him to stay. Nathan, the one man he'd rudely refused to be associated with when this all began. It had taken months for them to form an uneasy alliance, a begrudging mutual respect. Or Ezra thought it was mutual - hoped it was.
Nathan was looking him in the eye, practically daring him to turn away, and he never could resist a challenge. But his hands still shook and he'd yet to really look at Vin and he wanted to be anywhere else at that moment.
"Take my seat, Ezra," Buck offered. "I'll go round up a few more chairs."
He felt his eyes go wide as he watched Buck rise from his seat - his seat right next to Vin. This wasn't a good idea. He was half-sick and shaky already, and dramatic death scenes were not his forte. He mumbled, "No . . . I'll just . . . there's really no need . . ."
But Buck already had an arm around his shoulder and was propelling him towards the vacant chair. From the corner of his eye, he noted Nathan shaking his head--in disgust, more than likely--so perhaps he'd exaggerated that part about mutual respect.
Hands in his pockets . . . but he forgot for a moment and pulled a few trembling fingers through his hair as he stumbled to the chair and sat with a graceless thump. He could feel Chris's glare, but he kept his eyes on his feet, even when the gunman said, "Bring some coffee, too, Buck."
Vin made a horrid sound just then; a moaning, groaning, gasping sort of sound . . . and dear God, this was not his strong suit. Fortunately, he was not required to act because Chris was surprisingly adept at the role of comforter. Or maybe not so surprising, when one considered the relationship between the two men . . . and yet the soothing tone, the calming words, the gentle touch seemed so out of place for the tough gunfighter that the world knew.
Ezra was drawn to it; as much as he'd wanted to avoid this, he couldn't tear his eyes away from the scene before him. Vin's eyes were barely open, but he was trying hard to focus on his friend. Chris tenderly stroked the damp head, mumbling words that Ezra couldn't make out, and it was mesmerizing, hypnotic almost, and he let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding.
Buck broke the moment, bumbling through the door with a chair slung over each arm and coffee in his hands. He sat down next to Ezra, while Nathan placed a fourth chair next to Chris. Ezra had to shake his head at how pathetic they must look, all lined up along their friend's sick bed as if they could hold onto him by sheer number alone - and maybe they could.
He'd never have believed that before. He'd always been a loner, by choice. But he had to admit that the seven of them together had accomplished much over the last year - far more than seven times what one man alone could do. It was more like seventy times seven . . . and good Lord, now he was quoting scripture. No doubt Josiah would be amused.
"Ezra?" Nathan got his attention as he handed him a cup of coffee. He met the dark eyes and, to his dismay, there was no disgust or disappointment there, but rather sympathy and compassion. Equally astonishing was the fact that his hands no longer shook as he reached out to accept the mug.
It felt right, being there with Chris and Buck and Nathan and Vin. He'd joined up with these four men a year ago for all the wrong reasons. But he'd stayed for all of the right ones.
Perhaps he was right where he belonged.
Josiah took patrol for the day. There weren't a lot of men left to choose from, and he'd been hoping to get away anyway . . . do a little of that contemplating he'd been looking forward to. But after a full day in the saddle, he'd done about all the speculating, deliberating, and meditating he could stand.
Besides, Vin was calling to him. It was time to get back and check on his friend. He broke into a loose gallop as he got closer to town; a new sense of urgency unsettling him. He went straight for the livery, hoping Yosemite would be there to take care of his horse for him, but JD was there instead. JD had been there when he'd left that morning, in fact.
"You get a new job, JD?" Josiah teased as he dismounted.
JD shook his head. "No. Just felt like being here."
The kid had his head down, black bangs covering his eyes, as he vigorously rubbed oil on Chris's saddle. All of their saddles looked shiny and new, now that Josiah took a good look.
"You clean everyone's saddles today?" Josiah asked incredulously.
"Except yours," JD answered, still not looking up. He added, "But I can do it after I get back from patrol if you want."
Something going on here, but Josiah wasn't sure what. Maybe the thought of losing Vin, or maybe JD knew it was a special day . . .
Josiah moved closer to JD and gently probed, "What's going on, JD?"
Anger flashed in the dark eyes. "What? Can't a man do something nice for his friends?"
Josiah held the gaze for a moment before nodding slowly and saying, "Yeah. He sure can."
He waited a few more minutes to see if JD was going to offer more, but apparently the kid wasn't ready yet. "I'm going to check on Vin," Sanchez offered. "Why don't you come with me?"
Fear briefly replaced the anger before JD lowered his head again and mumbled. "No thanks. I have next watch."
"Don't go, JD. Come with me."
It was important, though he wasn't sure why and he wasn't sure how much to press the issue. Sometimes they all forgot that JD could be like any other young person - the harder he was pushed, the more determined he was to go the other way.
"I just . . . just want to get away for awhile . . . check things out. That's what they'd want me to do . . . Chris and Vin. Somebody's gotta do it."
No. Nobody had to do it. The town had gotten along just fine for years before the seven of them came along. Alright, so maybe not - but for one night, they could get by.
But JD had that look that said he was going one way or the other, so Josiah just sighed and headed for the door, but he added on his way out, "Don't stay out long, JD. We might need you here."
JD winced as he turned away, and Josiah knew that that was exactly what the kid was afraid of.
Josiah passed the old hotel on his way to the clinic. It was impossible to go anywhere in town and not pass it, and he knew right then that it had to go. First thing in the morning, he'd get Buck and JD and they'd tear it down; might even talk Ezra into helping.
He didn't know what he expected to find when he climbed the stairs and entered the small room of Nathan's clinic, but it sure wasn't four men circling Vin's bed. He felt like he was late to the dance.
"You all been here all day?" he asked the men.
"Yeah", "Almost", and "No" were the responses he received simultaneously. Chris, of course, said nothing at all.
"How is he?"
"How the hell does he look?" Chris snapped, and there should have been an accompanying glare, but there wasn't. In fact, it wasn't irritation Josiah saw in the man's eyes, but more like desperation; a drowning man reaching for a line. And damn if Chris wasn't looking at him like he could provide it.
"He looks like he's holding on," Josiah said evenly, holding Chris's gaze and hoping that was good enough.
Silence ensued, broken only by the harsh, wet sound of Vin fighting for air. Josiah didn't think he could stand it for five minutes, let alone a day, and he didn't blame Chris when the blond stood and motioned for Josiah to take his seat.
"I need to stretch my legs," Chris said as he moved to the window, pausing to take a long look at Vin, but not so much as glancing at anyone else.
There was more silence as Josiah took the vacant chair, before Buck finally turned to him and asked, "Seen JD?"
"Yeah. He was in the livery. Looked like he had been there all day, working. I tried to get him to come here with me, but he wanted to take patrol."
Buck nodded. "Not surprised. It's hard for him . . . things like this."
"Hard for all of us," Nathan said as he glanced at the clock, while Buck shook his head and Ezra shifted uncomfortably.
"No excuse," Josiah stated, aware that he might just raise Buck's ire with the comment, and he did.
"He's hardly more than a kid, Josiah. Give him a break."
"I just think he needs to be here. We all need to be here, no matter how difficult it is," Josiah argued.
Ezra turned towards Vin, wincing when the injured man moaned softly. "And you believe it will make a difference? Vin hardly knows we are here. Do you honestly feel we can in any way change the course of his fate?"
"There's a story in the Bible," Josiah said, ignoring the unanimous rolling of eyes, "about a group of men who took their sick friend to Jesus to be healed."
"What was wrong with him? Did he have leprosy? That was common in those days," Nathan interrupted.
"Actually, I believe he was paralyzed," Josiah responded.
"How? What happened to him?" Buck asked.
"I don't know, Buck. That's not the point of the story."
"Could we perhaps take the short route to the point? Or is this destined to be a long journey?" Ezra inquired.
Unfazed, Josiah continued, "The crowds surrounding Jesus were so thick that the men couldn't get to him. But they were determined that the Lord could heal their friend, so they raised their friend up to the roof on a mat, and dug through the roof to . . ."
"Dug through the roof? What kind of roof do you dig through? And how'd they get him up there?" Buck asked, clearly puzzled.
He really should have been used to this after a year with these men, but Josiah still had to sigh. "It doesn't matter, Buck. The point is that they did get him up on the roof, and then they dug a hole through it and lowered their friend down to Jesus on the mat."
He paused, sure there would be more comments, but when none were forthcoming he continued on, "Jesus was amazed at their faith and in response, he forgave the man's sins."
"Not quite the outcome they were hoping for, I'm sure," Ezra responded sarcastically.
"Perhaps not. But because some of the teachers there doubted him, Jesus proved his authority to forgive sins by healing the man. He told him to get up and walk, and he did."
It was a great story; one Josiah had thought of often over the past year, and it was never more appropriate than right at that moment. His partners did not appear to be as impressed however.
Well, he'd often been accused of walking around the point, so this time he went right to it. "The man was saved by the faith of his friends."
There were five full minutes of silence and complete stillness, with the exception of the slight tilting of Chris's head as he peered out the window. Thinking it over, all of them, but they were smart men and they caught on quick. It was the believing that could prove difficult.
Clearing his throat, Buck made the first move. "Reckon I'll go track down JD," he said.
"Reckon I'll try and get some tea down Vin," Nathan added, with renewed determination.
"I'll assist you," Ezra offered and for some inexplicable reason, no one was even surprised.
Josiah took the moment to move over to the window, standing shoulder to shoulder with Chris.
The sun was setting; the subtle pink and purple hues providing a serene backdrop for the black timbers of the old hotel. A study in contrast, like the entire day had been: celebration and tragedy, hope and despair, faith and doubt. Seven men bonded together tighter than ever before, teetering on the edge of being torn apart.
Josiah figured Chris wasn't seeing the peaceful ending of the day as he stared through the glass; the gunfighter was probably only focused on the charred ruins. "We'll tear it down tomorrow, Chris," he said, because it seemed like something Larabee needed to hear.
But apparently he was wrong, because Chris only sighed softly and said, "Beautiful sunset, ain't it? Vin would appreciate that."
It was a strangely sentimental thing to say, but it was a strangely sentimental day . . . and maybe Chris knew exactly what had happened a year ago. Josiah almost said as much, but Chris continued before he got the chance.
"It was a good story, Josiah," he said. His gaze was still focused on some far off point when he added, "But it was just a story."
Nathan's soft voice drifted from the bedside, "Come on, Vin, try and swallow just a bit for me."
Josiah turned to watch Nathan and Ezra struggle with their injured friend. Vin was coughing weakly, gagging more than actually swallowing the tepid liquid that Nathan patiently spooned down his throat.
Ezra's discomfort was palpable as he slipped an arm behind Vin's shoulders and tried to raise the weak man up a bit. "He seems to be having considerable difficulty, Nathan. Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"No. I ain't sure at all. But he needs water and he needs to bring up that crud in his lungs and this is the only way I know t' do that."
In spite of the grievous circumstances, it did Josiah's heart good to see Nathan and Ezra working together. A year ago, it would have been impossible to even imagine.
Chris was watching, as well. From the corner of his eye, Josiah glimpsed Larabee turn just enough to set his gaze on the two men at the bedside. He felt him stiffen; tension radiating from the tight jaw as the gunman observed his sick friend choking on just the miniscule amount of liquid that Nathan tried to push past the blistered throat.
Vin's eyes widened with confusion and panic as he struggled harder to breathe, and it made Josiah's stomach roll. Hard to watch, harder to turn away when it felt like Vin would just up and quit if every one of them wasn't there willing him to keep on. Tanner's face was gray, his lips blue-tinged, before he finally coughed hard enough to bring up black phlegm and green tea. Once started, the spasms tore through his chest relentlessly, and tears streamed from his eyes. Between the busted ribs and burns, it had to hurt like hell, and Josiah winced in sympathy while beside him, Chris simmered with anger.
More multi-colored gunk spewed from Vin's mouth, prompting Ezra's face to turn a nearly identical shade of green as the tea. Josiah moved to take over, but he wasn't fast enough. Before he even grasped what had happened, Chris had taken the gambler's place. He supported Vin's back with one arm, and his chest with the other, while Nathan muttered things that made little sense to Josiah and undoubtedly no sense at all to Vin, but it seemed to have a calming effect on all of them anyway. A gift--Nathan's voice and his touch--and even if Vin died, he was lucky to have the healer at his side.
The spell finally passed and Vin whimpered softly before growing limp in Chris's arms. Larabee's face was as pasty white as Tanner's as he gently eased his friend back down to the pillow. Vin's respirations were rapid and shallow, but maybe less congested, and Josiah looked to see if Nathan found that good or bad. But Nathan eyes were on the clock again, and what was that all about?
Maybe he'd ask him later, but for now, he had questions of his own. Was Chris right? Was it really just a story? What if Vin suffered for no reason and died for no reason, and what if there really was no significance to this day at all? Maybe they were all just victims of fate and timing and maybe faith had nothing to do with anything.
Chris lifted his head just a fraction, the fading light from the window catching the creases of exhaustion and despair that lined his face. Looking for that lifeline again, and wasn't that Josiah's role in this outfit after all? To provide the hope?
Putting aside his doubts for the moment, he moved to the chair next to Chris. He offered nothing more than his presence; Larabee was too world-weary to buy empty promises anyway. What really mattered on this day, more than anything else, was that they were together, and he had a hunch that Chris knew that as well.
And if Chris was as smart as Josiah thought he was, he also realized that whether the story was just a story--or true Gospel--this past year had proven that the faith of friends could produce miracles.
JD figured he might as well have stayed home, for all the good he was. Hell, a gang of outlaws could have ridden right past him and he probably wouldn't have noticed. He couldn't concentrate; couldn't think past what had happened and what might be happening right now in that clinic.
Throughout the day, he'd watched his friends make their way, one by one, up the stairs to that small room. And with the exception of a short trip or two to the privy, they never came back out. First Chris and then Buck, followed by Ezra, and finally Josiah . . . they were all there and that could only mean that he was wrong. Vin was dying after all.
He should be there, too. After all the fussing and fighting he'd done to become one of them, he couldn't take it when the going got rough. He couldn't sit back and watch it come to an end. He couldn't say goodbye to a good man and a good friend. He really was a coward, when it was all said and done.
They were his heroes, every single one of them. He was closest to Buck, of course, and he spent a lot of time with Ezra. Josiah was like a father to him, and Nathan was the kindest, most compassionate man he'd ever known. But the only man on this earth he respected as much as Chris Larabee was Vin Tanner.
Vin didn't pay him much mind at first, but he accepted JD and stood by him. And he taught him a lot, not so much with actual words, but more by example. JD couldn't even begin to count how many things he'd learned just by watching Vin . . . shooting and tracking and general life stuff, like not judging people on appearance or making quick assumptions. He couldn't really imagine life without his unassuming friend--didn't want to imagine it--and maybe if he stayed out long enough the crisis would pass and he wouldn't have to think about it.
Or maybe Vin would die and he'd be the only one not there.
The sudden shouting of his name in the darkness nearly caused him to fall off his mount. For a moment, he had the incredulous thought that it was God, taking him to task for his irresponsibility and cowardice.
But no, just Buck . . . and why would Buck be out here tracking him down?
Oh God. He knew why and maybe if he kept quiet, Buck would ride on past him and he wouldn't have to think about it all for a few more hours.
"Come on, JD. I know you're out here."
Well shit, there wasn't much point in trying to hide. Sooner or later, Buck would find him and what the hell was wrong with him anyway? Hiding from Buck? He'd been hiding all day, when it came down to it.
"What is it, Buck?" he called out as he trotted towards Wilmington.
Light from the moon spilled over the brim of Buck's hat, but JD could only see shadows on his face. No clue from the easy way he sat in the saddle, either, but Buck wouldn't have come looking for him to say Vin was feeling better.
"Want you t' come back with me, JD."
That was all he said, and anything JD thought to answer back just stuck in his throat.
JD pulled up next to Buck, but his friend still didn't move. He just stayed there for long minutes, peering up at the night sky before finally setting his sights on JD. "He's still alive," he said. "But it's gonna take all of us t' keep him that way."
"Nothin' I can do, Buck. I'll just . . . be in the way."
"Not true, JD," Buck argued as he started off at a slow trot, checking to be sure JD followed along. "There's this story about these fellas in the Bible. And they had this sick friend . . . paralyzed I think, but no one seems t' know how or why that happened. So anyway, they dug a hole through this roof, his friends I mean, and they lowered him down on a mat so he could see Jesus."
"That makes no sense at all Buck. What kind of roof do you dig through? And how'd they lower him on a mat? And why'd they have to do that anyway?"
"The details ain't important, JD. What is important is that Jesus healed the man."
"Yeah, well he did a lot of that from what I've heard, but I don't see what that has to do with me helpin' Vin."
"I have t' spell it out for y'?"
"Been a long couple of days, Buck."
"Well alright then. It's about friendship and faith. The man's friends believed he'd be healed and he was."
"Josiah tell you that story?"
"Why? You think I've never opened the Good Book?"
"I think most of the time you're full of shit, Buck."
Buck pulled back on the reins and tilted his head just right so JD could finally make out his face in the soft moonlight. "Most of the time I am. But not this time. We need t' be together tonight."
He didn't say another word as he rode off. JD followed along behind, and he didn't say anything, either. It was odd, him and Buck riding all the way back to town without speaking, but he didn't feel much like talking and he figured Buck didn't, either.
It was going on ten o'clock by the time they made it back to the livery. A few more hours and the day would be over. Funny how it had seemed so important that this day be set apart, that it be noted in some way, and now all JD wanted was for Vin to live through it. That would be good enough for him, for all of them. Buck was right; all that mattered was them being together at the end of the day, and all of the sudden, JD wasn't so scared anymore.
Of course, he almost changed his mind when he finally made it to the clinic and got his first look at Vin. Maybe it was the shadows from the lamps or maybe it was the heaviness in the air, but it looked like Vin was hardly breathing at all, and JD had to force himself not to turn around and head back out.
They were all looking at him from where they sat, surrounding Vin's bed. It looked kind of funny in a way, or maybe peculiar was a better word. Chris sat on one side of the bed, with Josiah next to him, and Ezra next to Josiah. Nathan sat on the other, and right off, JD knew that wasn't right - Nathan just sitting there doing nothing. Normally he'd be up fussing about and giving orders, but he just sat there and looked up at the clock when JD came in. Maybe he was just tuckered out though; they all looked that way.
Two chairs sat next to Nathan, his and Buck's, he guessed. So when Buck said they were going to be together, he meant it literally. They were circling Vin's bed like guardian angels, or maybe avenging angels, if it came to that. Yeah, JD liked that thought better. The six of them fighting off death and if they couldn't do it, nobody could.
"Sit down, JD," Chris said softly, and it startled him for a minute. He hadn't expected Chris to be the one to break the silence.
It wasn't unusual for Chris to render him speechless, but for some reason he hadn't been able to squeak out a single word to the man since this had all begun. Something in Chris's voice just grabbed him in the gut, and God, it was going to be so hard if Vin died. He couldn't think about it, couldn't imagine it, even though he knew death was close by. He'd seen death before, and it looked and sounded exactly how Vin looked and sounded. Sunken cheeks and shallow breath and that quiet, unnatural stillness . . . and it seemed to him that their friend was mostly gone already.
JD had waited too long, and he could add his name to the guilt list going around: Ezra for not being there that night, and Chris for not setting things right, and his own name for just being too damn chicken to deal with it all.
He took his seat awkwardly, cringing at how loud it sounded when the chair skittered an inch or so across the wood floor. He was glad he had the foot of the bed so he wouldn't have to look too closely at Vin's face. The quilt lay unevenly over Vin's legs; the broken leg undoubtedly propped up on pillows and JD wondered why nobody had even mentioned the leg and if it would heal alright. Probably didn't matter, when it came down to it, but he wondered anyway.
He thought about asking, but that would just be stupid, and besides, it looked like no one was going to be doing much talking on this night. The quiet was suffocating and the tension in the air so thick that he was having almost as much trouble breathing as Vin. He shifted restlessly in his chair as he thought about Vin lying there surrounded by silence . . . and God, it was almost like he was alone, for all the company they were.
"I think we should talk to him," JD blurted out, and he felt red heat flush his neck and face as they all stared at him.
He couldn't look a single one of them in the eye, and he wanted to just melt in a puddle to the floor, but then the damnedest thing happened. Chris turned back to Vin and he leaned in close and he said real quietly, "Happy anniversary, Pard."
And JD couldn't hold it in one more second. He felt tears slide down his cheeks as he whispered softly, "It's about damn time."
It was the last thing Chris expected to come out of his mouth--and it sounded silly saying it--but it had been on his mind for so long that he couldn't have stopped himself from acknowledging it if someone held a gun to his head.
"Happy anniversary, Pard," he'd said, even though there was nothing happy about it. Ridiculous and sentimental and downright foolish, yet he wanted Vin to know and somehow Chris believed he did know.
He heard JD mumble, "It's about damn time," while Josiah added an "Amen, brother."
And then it was like the floodgates opened. Nathan quickly replied, "I didn't think you all knew."
"Didn't know? Hell, I was planning a party for the whole damn town!" Buck exclaimed.
"I circled the date on my calendar," Ezra offered awkwardly, and they all looked at him in shock--not because he'd remembered, but because he'd admitted it.
"Well friends, obviously this day has special meaning for all of us," Josiah said.
"Yeah. That's why . . ." Nathan's voice trailed off as he glanced at the clock one more time.
"That's why you keep checking the time, Nathan. You can't bear the thought of Vin dying today," Josiah gently clarified.
"I don't want Vin to die at all, but . . . especially not today. Just wouldn't be right and I can't let that happen. I won't let it happen."
Chris bit his tongue. If only conviction were enough. If only it were that simple. If only Josiah was right and all they had to do was believe. They'd dig through a mountain, lower Vin from the Grand Canyon, step over a hundred men or more to get Vin where he needed to be and who he needed to be with so that he could be healed. If only . . .
"None of us are gonna let it happen," Buck spoke up forcefully.
"None of this would be necessary, if only I'd been where I was expected."
Ezra still didn't get it, but Chris could hardly blame him. He'd tortured himself for years because he wasn't where he should have been when his family died.
"Not so, Ezra," Josiah answered. "And if you were there, it's possible we'd be keeping vigil over two men right now."
"I would have made it out. I could have stopped him . . ."
"Maybe. Maybe not. You know better than anyone that life is a gamble. Every day we make decisions; turn this way instead of that way and it can all go wrong."
"That sounds oddly fatalistic for a man of faith, Josiah."
"More like a man of doubt. But even though the choice is ours, I have to believe someone or something greater than us has a hand in which direction we turn sometimes. There's a reason you weren't in the hotel that night. There's a reason you said 'yes' to Chris a year ago - same as the rest of us."
"What was the reason, Ezra? I mean that night of the fire . . . where were you?" JD asked.
Now there was a question that piqued Chris's interest, especially when Ezra squirmed in his seat and lowered his gaze to the floor.
"I was . . . uh, I was . . . caring for several . . . small . . . children."
"Babysitting? You were babysitting?" Nathan asked, only because he was the first to get the word out.
Ezra blushed and stammered. "Yes. If you must know, the Hendersons were celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary, and with our impending event, I suppose I was in an unusually sentimental mood and I offered to . . . to watch their children . . . for the evening . . . while they enjoyed a romantic moonlit picnic."
"You babysat the Hendersons? All six of 'em? I never thought I'd say this, Ezra, but you're a better man than me!" Buck roared as his laughter filled the room.
It was contagious, all of the men chuckling softly now and sharing barbs with Ezra about his new profession as a nanny. Chris couldn't stop the corners of his mouth from turning up just a bit and when he looked over at Vin, he could have sworn he saw something change in his expression.
But it was probably nothing more than a shadow. With the exception of an occasional moan, Vin had remained unresponsive and oblivious since the earlier coughing spell. And Chris still hadn't been able to tell him what he really wanted to say.
"He understood about Ella." Josiah's warm voice cut through the light banter continuing on at the foot of the bed.
Chris looked away from Vin to meet the preacher's eyes but he couldn't find the words.
"He said as much to me, when he came back from hunting for her. He understood, and he felt bad that he couldn't take care of her for you. So whatever else is weighing you down, you can let that part go," Josiah continued.
If only it were that simple . . .
"You and Vin never needed words, Chris. Why would you think this would be any different?"
Maybe Josiah had a point. Maybe being here was good enough. He reached out, searching for a place to settle his hand, but even Vin's good arm was bandaged from hand to elbow. He settled for resting his hand on Vin's shoulder, and shifted his gaze to his pale face.
Memories of the past year flooded through him; from that moment on the street when he'd first laid eyes on Vin, to Vin holding him in his arms as he lay bleeding from Ella's bullet. So many times Vin knew what he was thinking or planning without a word passing between them, and Josiah was so right. Vin didn't need words, he needed his friends at his side. The miracle of faith or the miracle of friendship . . . maybe they were one and the same. Maybe that's what the last 365 days were all about; what this day especially was all about.
"So what was the reason we all said 'yes' to Chris Larabee?" Josiah asked the group when a lull in the conversation occurred.
"Hell, who'd say 'no' to Chris Larabee?" JD asked, hero worship still plainly written all over his face.
"I say 'no' to him all the time!" Buck replied. "But the truth is--now don't let this go to your head, Chris--he's a good man and I know if he asks me t' do somethin', it's worth doin'."
Chris shook his head and smiled. "You're full of shit, Buck."
"So I've been told," Buck responded with a wide grin.
"Well, I didn't really join up for Chris. I did it for the Seminoles, or at least, that's what I told myself. But after what Chris and Vin did for me, I couldn't hardly let 'em go off and get killed," Nathan said. He paused and met Chris's eyes before adding softly, "I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for you and Vin, and I reckon I'll never be able to repay you."
"You've repaid that debt a thousand times over, Nathan. And if Vin . . ." Chris choked on the words and unconsciously tightened his grip on Vin's shoulder.
"What about you, Ezra?" Josiah asked, effectively shifting the spotlight away from Chris and allowing the gunman an opportunity to pull together his emotions.
"I had nothing better to occupy my time at the moment, and the promise of amusement was too tempting to forego."
"Now who's full of shit?" Buck chided.
Ezra grinned, but then he grew serious. "I don't know why I came. And there have been numerous times that I have questioned what on earth possessed me to stay. I can only state with certainty that this last year has changed my life . . . and I am grateful for it."
Suspiciously moist eyes surrounded the bedside as mumbled replies intermingled . . . "Yeah," "Me, too," "Same here."
"And what about you, Josiah? What were your reasons for joining our merry band?" Ezra asked the preacher.
Josiah shrugged. "Something told me to turn that way, take that path. So I did." Sanchez stopped long enough to look each man in the eye, before finally resting his gaze on Vin and adding, "And I've never looked back."
No looking back. Chris realized that up until a year ago, his entire existence revolved around looking back; bitterness at what was and what might have been. There were times when he still succumbed to that dead-end mind set, but those times were less and less. And the six men in that room had everything to do with that.
"Hey, it's midnight," Nathan said, a mixture of relief and sadness underlying his words.
It was silent then, several long minutes passing as each man contemplated the passing of the day, the significance of the year.
It was Buck who broke that silence by offering a suggestion. "Gentlemen, I propose a toast - to us and to the best damn year ever." He added softly, "I don't think Vin would mind."
Nathan moved to his cabinet and produced six glasses and a bottle of whiskey, much to the others' surprise. "Always pays t' be prepared," he said with a shrug.
The men stood as Nathan filled their glasses, and it was a quiet, solemn toast. Chris joined in, but he couldn't help but think about the glass, or rather the hand to raise that glass, that was missing. The long awaited drink burned as it went down, and he closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the heat.
It was Nathan's voice; disbelieving yet hopeful, and Chris opened his eyes to see what had caused him to say Vin's name in that way.
Clear, blue eyes met his, and he caught his breath. It seemed like a dream, or maybe one of Josiah's stories, Vin waking up at just that moment. There was that timing thing again, and Tanner's always had been impeccable.
Vin's gaze lingered from one man to the next, before finally drifting back to the green eyes of his best friend, and Chris held his breath. Was Vin taking in the fact that they were all there? Was he saying good-bye?
Chris got his answer when four breathless words escaped from Vin's parched throat . . . "Next year . . . we party."
They didn't wait for next year. They waited two weeks, and only because Vin refused to attend if he couldn't make it there on crutches. He damn well was not going in a wheel chair and that was all there was to it.
They were the two most miserable weeks of his life, too. It would have made a better story if--like the man in Josiah's Bible story--he'd just gotten up and walked after that night. He would have happily lived that miracle. But it didn't happen that way. Vin was still in and out of it days later, and mostly all he remembered was pain and confusion and coughing his lungs clean out of his chest.
He didn't remember much about that night, either, except knowing they were all there, and that was enough. The center of attention topped his list of least favorite things to be, but he needed it that day. He'd be dead if it had happened any other way.
He'd come too close to dying as it was. He knew that by the way Nathan still hovered and Chris . . . well, he couldn't describe how Chris looked at him. Made his chest start aching all over again when he thought on it. Even when he was so sick, there were a few times when he was lucid enough to latch onto his friend's face, catch the look in his eyes, and it tore him up to see it. Vin didn't know what he'd done to earn that kind of concern, that gut-eating worry he saw there, but he sure knew he'd never had it before in his life.
It didn't seem quite right in a way. A month ago, Chris had been willing to leave him behind--leave them behind--for Ella, and now Larabee was looking at him like he wasn't sure he could live without him. Of course, Vin had no room to talk. He'd almost done the same thing with Charlotte and damn, he and Chris had no head at all when it came to women.
Well, he expected they'd both learned something over the last year, although apparently neither one of them was smart enough to stay out of burning buildings. JD was the one to tell him that Ezra wasn't even there that night, and that Chris and Josiah had gone in after him. The others seemed to be tiptoeing around the subject, like maybe he'd be mad or upset that he'd almost died for nothing. But hell, he'd pretty much always jumped in when it seemed like somebody needed to do something, and that night wasn't any different. If Ezra was inside, he needed help getting out and that's all there was to it. As far as Vin was concerned, it was far better that Ezra wasn't there.
He was mad at Chris and Josiah for risking their necks to bring him back out for all of five seconds; he could hardly fuss at the two men for doing the same thing he'd done. That's just how it was with all of them now; putting their lives on the line for each other was as natural as breathing.
Vin tried to stretch out on the bed in the clinic, propping his still aching leg up on a few pillows. Chris would be there soon to escort him to the celebration. He felt like a child, needing someone to get him there, but at least he wasn't totally helpless anymore. The burns on his arms and chest had healed up pretty well, though his hands were still tender. Nathan had said the broken bones were doing fine, too, the breaks being miraculously simple, considering the circumstances. It was the ribs and the nagging cough that gave him the most grief. He couldn't sit up for five minutes without falling asleep, either, and that had him worried. It would be embarrassing if he fell asleep in the middle of the party.
With a heavy sigh, Vin laid his head down on the pillow. Maybe he should rest up a spell. Buck had supposedly put this shindig together so it was bound to be boisterous and overdone and exhausting. He was tired just thinking about it.
Vin might have been the tracker in the group, but he wasn't one for tracking dates, although he had known their so-called anniversary was coming up. He'd pondered it for some time; all that had happened over the past year and how to mark and measure the meaning of it. If he'd had it his way, they'd all have headed out of town and camped under the stars; built a campfire and passed around a bottle, along with a good tale or two. Ezra wouldn't have liked that plan much but he'd have gone along with it, grousing and groaning the whole way, and hell, that would have been part of the fun.
He was sure he'd just closed his eyes when he heard the door creak open. He knew it was Chris, though the man hadn't announced his presence in any way. Even the air felt different when Larabee was around, and it gripped Vin hard how dependent he'd become on him. Riled him up some, too, if he was honest; it wasn't his way to get attached to people, especially people who weren't likely to live much longer than he was. He shivered at the memory of how close he'd come to losing Chris to Ella. She'd cut Larabee off from them emotionally at first, and when that didn't work, she'd used a bullet. He'd never forget holding Chris in his arms and screaming for Nathan.
Yeah, he'd definitely gotten too attached, and all in all, it wasn't one of the smarter things he'd done - hooking up with Chris and the boys. Yet it was still the best damn decision he'd ever made and the best damn year he'd ever lived.
He opened his eyes to find Chris staring at him in that way again, and he apparently he wasn't the only one who'd gotten too attached.
"You ready, or you need to sleep some more?" Chris asked as he took his place at the side of the bed.
"Wasn't sleepin'. Just restin' my eyes," Vin muttered with a poorly disguised yawn.
"Sure," Chris replied with a grin. "You got some suspenders around here? Cause those britches aren't gonna stay up without 'em, and I know how much you like to be the center of attention."
"Somewhere around here," he answered with a grimace. The suspenders irritated the scabbed burns on his chest, but he'd lost a good bit weight, thanks in part to the sore throat he couldn't seem to shake, either. Maybe Nathan would give in and let him have a shot of whiskey to numb it . . . now there was an idea.
Larabee helped him get on the suspenders and they headed out, Chris supporting the injured left side while Vin used a crutch on the right. The stairs were the most daunting part of the journey, of course, and Chris looked Vin in the eye when he asked, "You sure you want to do this?"
Vin snorted. "No. Whose bright idea was this party thing, anyway?"
Chris gripped him tighter around his waist and guided him down the first step as he answered, "Yours."
They'd made it down one step, and already Vin was out of breath.
"What? What are you talking about?"
"You woke up that night and you said you wanted a party."
Two steps . . . and why wasn't Nathan's clinic on the ground? How much sense did it make to put sick and hurt people up a flight of stairs? How many times had they had to carry one of their men up and down these damn stairs? And what the hell was Chris talking about?
"I said that?"
He needed to rest a minute, and he used the conversation as an excuse to stop and look his friend in the eye. "And you believed me? I was dyin' . . . out of my head."
Chris's eyes damn near twinkled when he responded, "You seemed pretty clear to us."
"Aw hell," Vin mumbled as he tackled another step.
He wasn't going to make it. His injured leg was throbbing mercilessly. His broken left arm was held tight against his cracked ribs in a sling, the aches meshing together into one giant, pulsing pain. And he was holding in a cough because if he let go and let it out, he'd be completely out of air and flat on his face at the bottom of the stairs in no time.
"Hold on. Take your time. We'll get there," Chris said softly in his ear as he strengthened his grip on Vin's waist.
Vin leaned into the support, more grateful than he could say, and it hit him how many times and in how many ways he'd learned to lean on Chris over the past twelve months. And maybe that wasn't such a bad thing after all.
"Glad you're here," he said, meeting Chris's eyes as he spoke.
Chris nodded. "Me, too . . . and I'm sorry that I almost wasn't. I'm sorry about Ella."
Chris had wanted to say that for a long time, Vin knew that, though there was no need.
"Reckon we both got our heads turned backwards by a woman," Vin replied with a crooked grin.
Chris returned the smile. "You reckon we've wised up some?"
"Considerin' you're haulin' me down a thousand stairs t' go t' some damn party I don't want t' be at, I'd say, not much."
"Aw hell," Vin repeated.
He was completely done in by the time he stumbled down the last step. Strangely enough, Ezra showed up out of the blue with the hated wheel chair just as Vin was about to lay right down on the dusty street, not even caring who saw him.
Of course he sat in it, because he was coughing by then--which left him out of breath and light-headed, not to mention sick to his stomach--and he wondered how much he'd have to pay Ezra to get the gambler to just wheel him straight to his wagon.
"You got him, Ezra?" Chris asked.
"Yes. I shall see that our injured comrade makes it to the final destination safely, if not comfortably."
No, comfort was definitely out of the picture for the foreseeable future . . . and why were they talking about him like he wasn't there and where was Chris off to? He wanted to say something about that, but he knew he may as well save his breath.
"So Vin, I've wanted to thank you for your courageous effort on my behalf."
Vin knew Ezra had been waiting to say that, too, but again, there was no need.
"Forget it, Ezra. You weren't even there."
"I might have been, and irregardless, you risked your life for me."
His head was pounding now and he really wasn't up to conversation. Besides, talking with Ezra took concentration on his good days, there was no way he could manage it when it took all he had just to breathe.
"Yeah. Okay. You're welcome."
"Considering how rudely I treated you when you requested my assistance with the poem . . ."
What was Ezra going on about now? The poem? Oh, right.
"You were drunk and frustrated. I didn't pay y' no mind."
"I suspected as much, but still . . ."
"Ezra? Y' mind if we don't talk for a spell?"
Where the hell was this party anyway? They'd practically walked through the entire town and Vin didn't see any sign of any big gathering.
"No. Of course not. You just sit back and relax."
Relax? It was nearly dark, and Ezra must have hit every rut in the road. Vin groaned when he was jostled unexpectedly, and he heard Ezra hiss behind him.
"I'm so sorry, Vin. We are almost there and all will be well."
Doubtful, but what choice did he have? Apparently he'd asked for this.
They finally approached Josiah's church, but still Vin saw no signs of an impending celebration. Something didn't sit right, but he really was too tired to even try to reason it out. It wasn't until Ezra took him around behind the church that he understood what was happening.
All of the men were there, sitting around a small fire. They'd made a place for him; piled up what looked like a dozen bedrolls and brought along a dozen pillows, and he didn't complain when Josiah practically carried him to his spot and settled him in.
"Hey fellas, this your idea of a party?" Vin asked with a relieved grin.
"Hell, no," Buck answered. "But we figured it was yours."
It was a good night. There were drinks and tales and laughter and a few tears, too, though no one would admit to it. Vin found himself dozing off a time or two, but he always woke to the soft voices of friends, and it comforted him in a way he figured he'd never find the words for.
He was especially grateful when Buck proposed a toast, and Nathan gave in and let him have a drink. It would burn going down, but some things were worth the pain.
"To us," Buck said simply, "and another year of bein' together."
It was more than a toast; it was the promise of a future. Vin looked from man to man, and he saw in their eyes what he knew was in his own - a commitment to each other and to the family they'd become. Any one of them would die for the other; dig through a roof, climb a mountain, rush a burning building . . . some things really were worth the pain.
And to think it all started with a shared look on a dusty street. That day was the best day of his life . . . except for maybe this one.