Chapter 1 - 10 | Chapter 11 - 22 | Chapter 23 - 30 | Chapter 31 - 39
It was late afternoon when Inez began to climb the steps to Nathan's clinic. It was almost three days since she had last seen Vin and she was no longer satisfied with second-hand news of his progress. She wanted to see him for herself.
The door above her opened and Nettie Wells stepped out, closing it softly behind her.
Inez swallowed nervously. She had a great deal of respect for Nettie, seeing a lot of herself in the independent, ornery old lady. What she did not know was what Nettie thought of her or if she was aware of Inez's feelings for Vin. She knew that the old lady loved Vin Tanner as if he were her own son, and Inez had the feeling that no one would be good enough for him, especially not a Mexican saloon manager.
She continued determinedly up the steps, refusing to allow Nettie's possible disapproval to deter her from her quest.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Wells," she said politely as they met on the landing.
Nettie smiled, and the kindly expression on her face encouraged the younger woman.
"Good morning, Inez. Come to see the patient?"
Inez nodded. "I just came to ask if he was any better."
"He's doing a bit better today. Fever broke this morning, I'm sure you heard, which has to be a good sign. He's still in a lot of pain, though that stubborn, ornery boy would never admit it."
Inez was relieved to hear good news for a change. For the past few days she had heard nothing but, 'no improvement' from those caring for Vin. Suddenly shy to ask if she could see him, she turned to leave. "Thank you, Nettie. I'll be getting back now "
"Would you like to sit with him for a while?" Nettie interrupted in her blunt way. "He's dozing, so I popped out for a breath of air, but if you could sit with him for a time I can go and check that Casey's managed to get all the errands done."
Inez looked into Nettie's eyes and saw understanding and compassion.
"I would like that," she whispered. "If you're sure "
"Of course I'm sure. I reckon it'll do the boy good to wake up and see your pretty face instead of my old wrinkly one."
Inez had to smile at that. "Mrs. Wells, you know how Vin feels about you. I'm sure there are few people he would rather have beside him than you."
Nettie's expression softened into fondness. "There's something very special about that boy; not everyone seems to see it, but I do. You see it too, don't you?"
Inez looked Nettie straight in the eye. "Yes, I see it."
Nettie smiled, and patted her arm. "Then go in and spend some time with him. I'll be back in half an hour."
She made her way down the steps from the clinic and Inez softly pushed open the door.
She paused in the doorway, eyes fixed on the form laying still in the bed. Vin's eyes were closed and he appeared to be dozing, but as she moved further into the room, a quiet voice said, "Ya'll don't need ta keep me company every minute of the day. I'm still here and I ain't died yet."
"That's good to hear," she replied. His eyes popped open, an expression of embarrassment crossing his face.
"I can go, if you need to rest "
"No! All I'm doin' is restin'. Please, stay."
Encouraged, she sat down in the chair next to the bed, studying him carefully. The first time she had seen him, she had been shocked; his left arm and torso swathed in bandages, right arm bare but covered in vicious yellow and blue bruises that left her under no illusions about the extent of his injuries. Now, she could see that Nettie was right; he looked a lot better. The flush of fever was almost gone and, although the pallor of his face accentuated the livid bruises on his cheek and jaw, he was obviously aware of his surroundings. She pretended not to notice as he tugged the blanket up to his neck, presumably uncomfortable that he was wearing very little under the covering.
Tearing her thoughts firmly away from that vision, she asked, "How are you feeling?"
"Not so bad, thank ya kindly. Reckon it's good ta know what's goin' on around me. They tell me I ain't really been in my right mind the past few days."
She nodded. "You are looking a lot better than when I last saw you."
He frowned. "You've bin in before?"
She couldn't resist it. "Who do you think has been giving you bed-baths for the past few days?"
She was rewarded with a look of absolute horror and a flush that crept up from his neck to his hairline.
"You you "
Laughing, she took pity on him. "I am only joking. I sat with you for a while, on Monday. Nathan did not want to leave you alone while you were delirious with the fever."
His look of relief was almost as funny as the previous horror.
"Ya know, it ain't right ta laugh at a sick man!" he said, a grin pulling at the corner of his mouth.
Inez smiled, knowing he wasn't really upset at her comment.
"It was real good of you to sit with me," he went on shyly. "Weren't no need for you ta put yerself out."
"I was happy to," she said simply.
There was an awkward silence for a moment, then he said hesitantly, "Inez, that morning I rode out with Josh - there was something I wanted ta ask ya. I guess it don't matter much now "
"You may still ask me. What is it?"
He flushed. "Well, it don't really matter any more, with me bein' stuck in this bed and all, but, well I was gonna ask you if you wanted to go to the dance with me. If you hadn't already made plans. I mean, I know you've had lots of offers, but I just kinda thought that maybe "
He began to flounder, so she answered quickly. "I would love to go to the dance with you."
"You would?" he sounded stunned.
"Yes, I would," she repeated firmly.
His face fell. "It don't matter none now. Ain't no way Nathan's gonna let me out of ma bed this side'a next year."
Inez laughed. "I hope you will escape before then! It does not matter. I am glad you asked me. There will be other dances."
She looked into his eyes, trying to see what he was thinking and hoping he would say something more, but when he did speak, it was to divert the subject away from himself.
"So, who's the lucky man'll get ta take ya?"
She thought she caught a tone of disappointment in his voice.
"If I cannot go with you, I do not want to go with anyone," she said honestly.
She nodded. He was blushing again, so she turned away, examining a book on the table.
"What is this?" she asked, holding up a slim paperback book.
"It's a dime novel JD gave me. He's started readin' it out loud I ain't really up ta tryin' ta read it myself."
'Buckskin Billy to the Rescue.' Inez laughed. "He looks like a real hero."
Vin grinned. "He sure is. There ain't nothin' that man can't do. It ain't meant ta be, but it's real funny. Reckon whoever wrote it never stepped a foot west of the Mississippi."
"Would you like me to read you some now?"
He smiled; that shy smile she loved so much. "Sure, if you have time. I mean, you must have better things to do "
She smiled back. "I have nothing better to do. I think you have talked too much; you are looking tired. Why don't you close your eyes and I will read you a few pages."
She began reading and after a few paragraphs Vin remarked, "You read real well, Inez."
It was her turn to blush. "Don Paulo's father was a good man. Everyone who worked for him was encouraged to practice their reading and writing, in both Spanish and English."
She noticed that he seemed a little uncomfortable. "What is wrong?"
"Nothin'. It's just my readin' ain't so good."
"A little bird told me that you are learning very quickly and will be reading as well as anyone before very long," she said.
He raised an eyebrow. "Mary said that?"
"Yes, she did. Now, you are tiring yourself again. Close your eyes and I will read a few more pages."
He closed his eyes obediently and Inez continued to read until the regular rise and fall of his chest told her that he was asleep. She put the book down and sat watching him for a while, enjoying the rare luxury of being close to him. She could not deny the warmth that spread through her as she thought about his invitation to take her to the dance. He really did want to take her! Perhaps, just perhaps, he did have feelings for her. Unable to resist, she reached out a hand and softly brushed back a stubborn lock of hair that had fallen over his face, wishing she could take him in her arms and hold him and soothe away the pain.
"He looks real young and innocent laying there like that, don't he?"
Inez jumped and removed her hand hastily. She had not heard Nettie come into the room.
"He is still in a lot of pain - is he not? - even though he tries not to show it."
Nettie nodded, sitting down at the other side of the bed and taking Vin's uninjured hand in her own. "It doesn't sit comfortably with him when people fuss over him. Reckon he lived so long without people to love him that it's still sometimes hard for him to believe that now there are folks who do. And there are, ain't there?"
Their eyes met across the bed. "Yes," Inez replied. "There are."
The following morning, Chris and Buck arrived at the clinic to find Nathan hovering anxiously at Vin's bedside. Since his fever broke the previous day, Vin had shown a slight improvement, so Chris was alarmed at Nathan's worried expression.
"His knee's hurting him real bad damned fool shoulda woken me earlier," Nathan explained quietly, pulling back the blanket to expose the injured leg.
"You're a stubborn cuss, Tanner," Chris said lightly, noting with concern that the Texan was virtually writhing in pain.
"Yeah, I learned from the best," Vin ground out. "Aaarghh! Nathan! That hurts!"
"Sorry, Vin, I need to find out what the problem is."
"What's wrong?" Chris asked, chewing on his bottom lip and exchanging a glance with an equally worried-looking Buck.
The swelling hasn't gone down any; I think there might be an infection that's causing fluid to collect in the knee. Fever's back up, too."
"Can you do something?" Buck asked.
Nathan frowned. "I'll have to make an incision, drain the fluid out and hope that will stop the infection spreading. I don't see any other way."
Chris's eyes rested on Vin's face, now creased with pain. His hand was clutching the blanket so hard that his knuckles were white and his breathing was ragged. Chris put a comforting hand on his friend's arm and looked up at the healer.
"Can it wait? I don't think he's up to it."
Nathan shook his head.
"I gotta do it now. If I don't there's every chance the leg won't heal. I'll be as quick as I can."
Buck looked stricken. "Can't you at least give him some more laudanum, or some morphine, something to knock him out?"
Nathan shook his head again and drew Chris and Buck to one side.
"I've given him all the laudanum I can and there's no time to wait," he said quietly. "If I can't get the swelling down and the infection takes a real hold, he might lose the leg. I have to do this now. Trust me."
Chris nodded silently. It wasn't a question of trusting Nathan; the man had proven himself time and again.
"Go and talk to him," Nathan went on, "while I go and get ready."
Chris turned back to his friend who gazed up at him blearily. The last dose of laudanum was beginning to take effect, but the set of his jaw told Chris that he was aware of what was about to happen.
Chris tried to smile. "It's going to be all right, pard," he said reassuringly, "It'll be over real quickly and your leg won't hurt so much afterwards."
"Couldn't hurt any more than it already does," Vin gasped.
Nathan returned with a long, thin knife, a cloth and a basin. Chris watched Vin, seeing his momentary fear and his inner struggle to compose himself as he anticipated more intense pain. Shit. Hadn't he suffered enough already?
"Buck, can you hold the leg in position for me," Nathan said. "I can't have him moving while I'm making the incision."
Buck squeezed Vin' arm reassuringly before taking a firm hold on his leg, above and below the knee. Chris took up a position at the head of the bed, ready to hold Vin down if he tried to move.
"Look at me, Vin. Don't look at Nathan. Keep your eyes on me."
Vin swallowed and nodded slightly. He raised a slightly shaking hand and Chris grasped it firmly. Chris held Vin's eyes steadily, watched them widen in shock as the knife cut into the swollen flesh around the damaged knee. Vin screamed, back arching in agony, fingers tightening in a vise-like grip around Chris's hand.
"Look at me, Vin!" Chris ordered, biting back an exclamation of his own as his fingers were crushed. Dull blue eyes fought to hold his and he had to force himself to keep his eyes fixed on Vin's, unable to bear the anguish reflected in their depths.
For Chris, it seemed an eternity but in reality the procedure could only have taken a few minutes. Finally, Nathan straightened up, wiping the knife on a cloth.
"It's done. I think I caught the infection before it had time to spread. I'll clean the wound and pack it with some herbs now, and we just have to hope it don't get infected again."
Vin's hand had gone limp in Chris's as the sharpshooter struggled to hold on to consciousness. As Chris looked at the pallid, pain-lined face, the anger he had been fighting to hold back for several days burst forth. There was one person who was responsible for this and it was time she paid.
He squeezed Vin's hand quickly and withdrew his own. Vin's eyes opened, and widened as they met Chris's. Somehow the intention must have been evident on his face, for as he tore his hand away and strode to the door, he heard Vin's weak voice calling after him. He ignored it and swept out of the room, focused on nothing but his need to finish this, once and for all.
Buck leapt forward to help Nathan restrain Vin, who was struggling to sit up.
"Vin! You just lie back down, I need to finish with that knee."
"No, you don't understand! Chris is gonna kill Ella!"
"Buck!" Vin's tone was desperate.
"Just lie back Vin, and tell me what you mean."
Finally Vin lay back reluctantly. "I could see it in his eyes he wants it over. Go after him, Buck, you can't let him do it."
Buck hesitated, considering Vin's words. Maybe Chris was right; maybe it would be better this way.
Vin gripped his arm fiercely. "Buck! You have to stop him. If he kills her in cold blood they're gonna hang him for it, and there won't be nothin' Judge Travis can do to stop it."
Vin was right. What was Chris thinking?
"Don't worry Vin, I'll stop him."
He patted Vin's arm reassuringly then ran out of the room, took the wooden steps two at a time and raced across to the jailhouse. JD was sitting outside.
"JD? You seen Chris?"
JD frowned. "He's inside. Said he wanted a few private words with Mrs. "
Buck didn't allow him to finish, but charged through the door.
The door of Ella's cell was open. Chris had her pinned against a wall, his hands around her throat.
"Chris!" Buck bellowed. Chris looked around, his eyes wild, but didn't loosen his grip.
"Get out of here, Buck, this isn't your business."
"The hell it isn't. This ain't justice, Chris, it's vengeance and no judge is going to let you get away with it."
"I'll take my chances!" Chris spat out.
Knowing from experience that there was no reasoning with Chris in this mood, Buck bowled into the cell and grabbed his friend, trying to pry his hands from Ella's neck.
"JD!" he shouted. "Get in here and help me!"
Chris fought him off, but he had to let go of Ella to do so and she collapsed to the floor, hands to her throat, gasping for air.
Chris shoved Buck out of the way and lunged for Ella, but Buck came right back at him, tackling him and bringing him down, trapping him against the back wall of the cell. Chris struggled wildly, but JD arrived and threw in his weight and between them they managed to subdue the struggling, cursing gunfighter.
"Right," Buck panted. "You ready to listen to me now?"
"Let me up, Buck!"
"Chris, this ain't the way. I know how you feel, I'd love to get my own hands 'round her scrawny neck, but it ain't the way. You kill her, you'll get arrested for it - you'll throw your life away. Do you think that's what Sarah would have wanted? It sure as hell ain't what Vin wants!"
Chris was silent, but his tense body suddenly relaxed and Buck almost felt it himself as the fight drained out of him.
"Let me up, Buck."
"Buck, let me up. I'm good."
Buck nodded to JD and the two of them let go of Chris, who quickly jumped to his feet.
In the heat of the moment, Buck had not thought beyond stopping Chris from making a hideous mistake. Now he could see she was gone.
"Mrs. Gaines is right here," a southern voice drawled. Buck looked around and saw Ella standing very still beside the sheriff's desk, Ezra's gun pointed at her heart.
"It would have been justifiable, she was after all attempting to escape, but I tend to think that a swift end would be too soft an option for a criminal of Mrs. Gaines' magnitude."
He gestured with the gun. "Perhaps, ma'am, you would care to return to your cell?"
Buck stood back as Ella complied, shooting him a venomous look as she passed.
"Just go, Chris," Buck said. "We'll take care of things here."
Chris hesitated, then nodded briefly and walked out without another glance in Ella's direction.
Buck turned his attention back to the prisoner as he locked the cell door.
Ella came up to the bars, rubbing her throat. Strangely, there was a smile on her face.
"You see, that's just proof he still has strong feelings for me why else could I ignite so much passion in him?"
Buck stared at her incredulously. The woman's ability for self-deception was remarkable.
"He has strong feelings toward you all right," he agreed. "Just not the ones you think."
Without a backward glance, he left the room.
Chris headed for the livery, saddled and mounted his horse and rode flat out to a small lookout promontory just outside town. It was a favorite spot of Vin's; he often came here when things were crowding in on him, saying that seeing the majesty of creation around him helped put his own problems into perspective.
Chris dismounted, tethered his horse, and climbed up to the top of the outcrop. He settled himself on a flat rock and closed his eyes, trying to relax and allow some of the tension to leave his body.
The incident with Ella had shaken him badly. He had lost control totally, could still feel his hands around her neck and remember how close he had come to squeezing until the life drained out of her. He wasn't sure what would have happened if Buck had not intervened. Sure, he had already been hesitating; maybe if he really had intended to kill her she'd be dead by now. But he wasn't sure and that unsettled him.
Chris had killed his fair share of men, but always in a fair fight. He had never committed cold-blooded murder and, until now, had been sure that he never could.
He was tired: tired of living with the tense ball of anger that had taken up permanent residence in his gut, tired of waking each morning and wondering if Vin was going to make it through another day. Nathan had assured him that the sharpshooter was out of danger, but Chris knew only too well that in this country there were no guarantees, as the incident this morning had shown. If Nathan hadn't caught the infection in time, Vin could still lose his leg and Chris knew with certainty that the sharpshooter would not want to live if it came to that.
All of this was his fault. He was the one Ella had developed an obsession with, yet it was always the people he cared about who ended up suffering. He had never forgiven himself for being away from home on the night his ranch house had gone up in flames. He knew now that there was nothing he could have done to prevent it; Ella was resourceful and determined and if it hadn't been that night it would have been another time. It didn't make the guilt or the pain any easier to bear.
Now it was Vin's turn to suffer. Why hadn't he been more vigilant? He had known in his heart that Ella would be back so how could he have allowed himself to relax, to begin to think that his life had taken a turn for the better? The Texan wasn't the only one who had been waking at night, caught in the throes of a nightmare. Every time he closed his eyes, Chris had a recurring nightmare of Vin tied to that tree, suffering through the long hours of the night in pain both physically and emotionally, knowing that he was going to die, knowing that Ella was going to kill his friends one by one and that he could do nothing about it.
He knew Vin wouldn't blame him. Hell, Vin wouldn't blame anyone. Chris had never known a man with such a capacity for accepting the shit that life handed out. Maybe it was because he'd had so much shit dealt out to him in his time that it was the only way he could survive. Conversely, he was the first to jump in if someone else was hurt or if he felt an injustice was being done. He had driven himself to exhaustion and further tracking Ella after the debacle at the Gaines ranch and Chris knew Vin would go to hell and back again for him or for any of his friends. Not for himself, though. Never for himself. Maybe, Chris mused, that was why he often found himself acting so defensively of his friend; if the man wouldn't look out for himself, someone had to do it for him.
He sat for over an hour, simply allowing his thoughts and feelings to have their voice, and surprisingly felt much calmer as a result, but with nothing resolved in his mind. He reluctantly climbed to his feet and made his way slowly back down to his horse. He had already been away from town for too long.
On his return, he found his steps taking him not to the clinic or the sheriff's office but to the church. He had never been a religious man; he had seen too many bad things in his life to believe in a God who allowed innocent people to suffer. But there were times when he wondered, and times when his steps took him into the church in search of a little peace.
Chris hesitated on the steps. He wasn't sure he wanted company, but somehow felt that perhaps he needed it, so he continued on, pushing open the heavy door.
Josiah was sitting in a pew at the front of the church, gazing up at a cross high on the wall before him. He turned when Chris came in and patted the space beside him in invitation.
Chris sat down, feeling uncomfortable. "Looking for inspiration, Josiah?"
Josiah gave him a half-smile. "There are always answers for those who seek them, Chris, just sometimes they're not the ones they want to hear."
"Guess you heard about what happened in the jail."
"Buck mentioned it, yes."
"I wanted to kill her, Josiah. I had my hands around her neck one squeeze and she'd have been gone."
"But you didn't," Josiah said, looking straight at him.
Chris held his gaze steadily. "No, I didn't. Thing is, I'm not sure why. Was it because Buck stopped me? Would I have done it if he hadn't come in when he did? I can't figure it out."
"It worries you then, that you think you had it in you to take her life in cold blood?" Josiah asked gently.
"I think we all have the capacity to do the most hideous things. It's the good in us, our humanity, that holds us back. If it's worth anything, I don't think you would have gone through with it, but you might never know for sure and you'll have to live with that and learn from it."
Chris rubbed a hand over heavy-feeling, gritty eyes, wishing that the anger and the fear and the tension would just go away.
Josiah went on, "I talked with Josh a while back about revenge and justice. I understand now why he was so troubled. Josh believed Ella wanted justice. He thought he was helping her capture an evil man and bring him in. I think I inadvertently convinced him that he was doing the right thing when he was having doubts, and that's something I'll have to live with.
"But revenge can never be right; it destroys you and everyone you touch. What Ella wanted was revenge, pure and simple. It consumed her, Chris, just like her warped obsession with you consumes her, and there's only one way a single-minded emotion like that can end.
"Let it go, Chris. What she did to you was unforgivable, but nothing you do now will bring Sarah and Adam back. You'll get justice and Ella will get what she deserves for her crimes, but you have to let go of the anger. It will eat you up and destroy you and all those around you. Is that what you want?"
"No." Chris shook his head. "But I don't know how to let it go."
Josiah put a hand on his shoulder. "You will. Give it time, Chris. Just give it time. Now, don't you think you should be heading over to the clinic to check on Vin? Buck says he was mighty worried when you took off earlier he knew what you were planning to do."
Vin knew and he had sent Buck to stop him. Chris stood abruptly. "Reckon you're right Josiah." He walked back up the aisle and turned, one hand on the doorknob. "Thanks."
Josiah gave him a mock-salute. "Any time, brother. Any time."
Chris pushed open the clinic door and walked in quietly. Vin looked to be dozing, but opened his eyes when he heard the door creak and Chris didn't miss the look of relief that crossed his face.
Nathan was sitting beside the bed, reading.
"Nathan, could we have a few minutes?" Chris asked quietly.
"Sure, but don't wear him out, he's supposed to be resting."
Nathan left and Chris took the chair he'd vacated, scanning the patient's face carefully. Vin was still pale, but obviously in less pain that he had been earlier.
"How's that knee doing?"
"Better. Just achin' a bit now."
"That's good. Fever?"
Amused eyes regarded him. "Down."
Chris didn't know what to say, where to begin, so he just sat there, unable to meet Vin's eyes, absent-mindedly fiddling with an edge of the blanket.
"You gonna tell me what happened earlier?" Vin prompted.
Chris scrubbed a hand over his face and looked up. Vin was looking at him expectantly and he knew he owed his friend an explanation. "Guess I just lost it. I I thought you were getting better, then seeing you in so much pain again something snapped. I wanted to make her pay."
"You didn't care that you'd been put away for it, mebbe even hanged?" Vin asked quietly.
Chris shrugged. "Didn't seem important at the time."
"Well, it's important to me. It's important to Mary and the boys. Of all the stupid, half-cocked things to do!"
Vin's eyes widened; he had obviously been expecting an argument. "You agree with me?"
Chris found a grin. "Might be the first time but, yeah, I agree. It was stupid. I just I just want it to be over. I want Ella out of our lives."
"She will be soon, Chris. But you gotta let Judge Travis deal with it."
"Ya worried me half to death, rushing off like that."
"Yeah. I'm sorry, you don't need to be worrying about me right now."
"Let it go, Chris."
People kept telling him that. Chris didn't answer. He wasn't sure he could.
Vin shook his head in resignation, lay back and closed his eyes. Even this short conversation seemed to have tired him. He looked weak and frailer than Chris had ever seen him.
"I'll get out of here, let you sleep," Chris said, starting to get up.
Vin opened his eyes again, a restraining hand taking hold of Chris's sleeve.
"Ain't no need ta go. I've bin sleeping all day."
"Nathan says you need the rest."
Vin's eyes pleaded with him and Chris relented. After all, it must be darned boring and frustrating for a usually active man to be imprisoned in bed as Vin was.
"Listen, Chris, I need ta talk to you about somethin'."
Chris raised an eyebrow and waited.
"Josh came by earlier "
"He did what!" Chris's anger rose immediately. "I told him he wasn't to come here "
"Yeah, well, it's a good job we don't all listen ta what you tell us," Vin said calmly. "'Cause ya don't always talk sense."
"How would you know when you never listen anyway!" The flash of anger dissipated in the face of Vin's calm response.
Vin chuckled. "Anyway, Josiah brought him and he told me the whole story. Ya gotta stop blamin' him, Chris. He thought he was doin' the right thing."
Chris frowned. "I've heard the story. I just don't understand how you can forgive him so easily. Shit, Vin, just look at you he was responsible for this!"
"He thought he was doing the right thing," Vin repeated. "He made a mistake and he's real sorry."
Chris sighed. "I just can't look at him and not see you lying there more dead than alive."
"Ya gotta get past that, Chris. Don't ya think what he did in the end makes up for his mistakes?"
"Chris, the main thing he's guilty of is being young and green."
"He can't have been that stupid that he wasn't suspicious of her!"
Vin just looked at him and the unsaid words seemed to echo in Chris's head. Josh wasn't the only one who was well and truly duped by Ella Gaines.
Chris sighed. "Hell, Vin, anyone else said that to me, I'd shoot 'em dead."
Vin grinned. "Didn't say anything now, did I, Larabee? Just givin' ya a nudge ta think fer yerself. Give him a chance, Chris, that's all I'm askin'."
"All right. I'll try."
Vin settled back, seeming content with the answer.
"How's Mary's plans fer the dance comin' on?" he asked presently.
Chris shrugged. "I've hardly seen her since we got back. She's decided to go ahead with it."
Vin frowned. "Was she thinkin' of calling it off?"
Chris hesitated. "When we brought you back to town, Nathan wasn't sure you were going to make it. Mary didn't think people would have the heart to go ahead with the dance if " he tailed off, unable to voice the unthinkable.
Vin's jaw dropped. "Ya mean she'd have canceled the dance because of me?"
"That so hard to believe?" Chris knew that Vin had very little idea of the regard in which many of the town's folks had come to hold him.
"Shouldn't be. This is your home, people around here respect you for what you do for the town."
"Ya know, it's even kinda startin' ta feel like home. Never thought I'd be able to say that about anywhere."
"Shame you won't be able to go to the dance. Who were you gonna take?"
He was prepared for the flush that spread across Vin's cheeks. "I... um... I kinda asked Inez."
"You did? Good for you, pard."
"Sure, why not? She's real pretty and you know she likes you."
Vin looked down and Chris could tell there was something on his mind. "What's the problem?" he asked.
Vin finally looked up at him. "Do ya really think a lady like Inez would want ta take up with a man who has a bounty on his head?"
So that was it. Chris had been pretty sure that the bounty was one of the main things holding Vin back.
"I guess it would depend if he was guilty or innocent of the charges," he said.
"Yeah, but even if he was innocent, how could she be sure?"
Chris saw in Vin's eyes all the insecurities he usually kept so well hidden. He had no proof of his innocence; nothing but his word and so many times in the past he'd found that his word counted for nothing. He'd had a hard time over the past few years coming to terms with the fact that he now had friends who trusted him implicitly.
"You think I'm sure? And the rest of the boys?"
Chris raised an eyebrow. Vin grinned reluctantly. "Yeah, I know you are."
"Why?" Chris asked.
"Why? I guess I guess you learned to trust me "
"Damn right. Inez is a good judge of character; has to be, to deal with all that she does in the saloon all day. She's been around you long enough to know like the rest of us the kind of man you are a man who would never kill another in cold blood."
"Yes, I reckon." Chris stood up. "I'm getting out of here before Nathan comes and kicks me out. You need to rest, Vin, you look like hell. I'll come back in the morning."
Vin settled back with a contented smile. "Thanks."
JD pushed open the batwing doors of the Standish saloon and walked into the dim interior. Spotting Buck sitting at a table on his own in the corner, he went to join him, flopping down into a chair across the table from the ladies' man.
"You look like you bin drug through the brush, JD," Buck remarked.
"Don't start on me, Buck," JD warned.
"Nothin' a comb and a razor wouldn't cure." Buck continued his teasing, either oblivious to JD's bad mood or unwilling to acknowledge it.
The previous evening, Josiah had brought Josh to the saloon where JD, Buck and, Ezra were playing poker. At first, Josh's appearance had provoked a hostile silence; not just from the peacekeepers, but from others in the saloon as well. Vin Tanner had earned the respect of a lot of people in town and word had gotten around about Josh's part in his capture.
JD listened as Josiah spoke up for Josh and Josh himself had earnestly explained what had happened, without once trying to deny his guilt. Buck had thawed towards him quickly and surprisingly it was Ezra who was most resistant. The gambler had been uncharacteristically quiet for the past few days and JD could tell that he was more concerned for Vin than he chose to show. Finally, however, he agreed that Josh was not the real villain in this story. At this point, JD had left the saloon. He wasn't yet ready to exonerate Josh from blame.
JD spent the night tossing and turning, Casey's words burning in his mind. When he finally gave up on sleep, he lay there, trying to be honest with himself about his feelings, but only succeeding in getting more confused than ever.
"Can I get you something, JD?" Inez appeared at his shoulder, startling him out of his reverie.
"Just coffee, Inez, thank you."
Buck raised an eyebrow. "Now I know there's something wrong, kid. Or have you already had breakfast?"
"Just not real hungry."
Buck sat forward, resting his elbows on the table, expression suddenly serious. "You want to talk about it?"
JD shrugged and kept his eyes on the table.
"This about Josh?" Buck persisted.
"You need to talk about it, kid." Buck wasn't about to let it go.
"I'm not sure how to."
Buck sat back and folded his arms. "Let me see if I can guess what's bugging you. You're angry with Josh because you think he pretended to be your friend just to get to Vin."
JD looked up, startled. "How did you know?" he blurted out.
Buck grinned. "Hell, kid, it weren't too hard to work out. You haven't been able to look him in the eye all week."
"Reckon it makes me a real selfish person, Buck?"
Buck raised an eyebrow. "Someone say that to you?"
JD didn't reply and Buck obviously took his silence as confirmation.
"Do you care about what Josh did to Vin?" Buck asked.
"Of course I do!"
"Then it ain't selfish, JD. It's just natural. You're angry for Vin and for yourself. Question is, what are you going to do about it?"
"I don't know, Buck. I mean, everyone keeps telling me that Josh thought he was doing the right thing "
"But it still hurts?"
"You ever wanted to do something right, but found yourself doing something bad to make it happen?"
"There was this one time when I was a kid," Buck went on, "I found a runaway on the street, 'bout my age. I found him a safe corner in the stable and stole food from the kitchen to feed him. Lied to my ma, lied to lots of people for a week until they found out about him. Didn't like havin' to lie, but I figured it was better than letting a kid starve to death."
"It isn't the same thing."
"I know, but what I'm getting at is that Josh did the wrong thing because he was trying to do what he thought was right. He believed Vin was a killer, a man who'd abused women, but to catch him he had to tell a few lies, deceive the people he was growing to like. I don't reckon it was easy for him, he ain't that kind of kid, but he did it because he felt he had to. Just try to put yourself in his shoes, JD, that's all I'm saying."
JD pondering his words in silence for a while, until Josiah's bulky frame appeared in the doorway.
"They've come for Ella Gaines."
JD followed Buck outside. Down the street, there was a prison wagon outside the jail. Ezra and Nathan were standing beside it and JD spotted Josh hovering outside Potter's store. As the three crossed the street to join their fellow peacekeepers, the door of the sheriff's office opened and Chris walked out, followed by two men flanking Ella Gaines.
Unconsciously the six peacekeepers drew together and as Ella walked past, her eyes moved slowly from one to another. JD found himself growing uncomfortable under her intense scrutiny. Her eyes flicked past him to Josh, who flushed and looked away. A contemptuous smile formed on Ella's lips and at that moment JD was surprised at the anger he felt towards her for the cruel way she'd used Josh. Finally, her eyes alighted on Chris and lingered there. JD watched as the gunfighter held her gaze steadily for a long moment.
Buck gestured towards the wagon. "Your funeral wagon awaits, Mrs. Gaines." His voice was cold and his usually open, cheerful face was set hard as granite.
Ella allowed herself to be guided to the wagon but, as she turned to climb in, she looked back and addressed the group.
"Don't think this is over. You'll pay for this, all of you; you and that long-haired Indian lover."
JD had to force himself not to physically recoil from the venom in her tone.
No one acknowledged her. The guard slammed the black doors of the prison wagon behind her and bolted them firmly.
The six men watched until the wagon was nothing more than a cloud of dust in the distance.
Ezra flicked an imaginary speck of dust off his waistcoat. "I for one have a very bad taste in my mouth. It may yet be early, but I do believe the occasion calls for a stiff drink."
As the others crossed the street to the saloon, JD paused, seeing Josh standing hesitantly nearby. Witnessing Ella's contempt for Josh and the young man's obvious embarrassment and pain, he realized that Buck was right. In some ways, Josh was as much of a victim in all of this as Vin. Ella had fooled him, won his love, and then used him to carry out her evil plans. What Josh needed now was a friend, not another enemy.
He walked up to the young man. "Josh."
"Listen," JD began, unsure now how to put his feelings into words. "I just want you to know maybe I was too harsh before. I know she fooled you and you thought you were doing right. I just want you to know you were a good friend to me."
"That means a lot, JD," Josh answered and the genuine pleasure on his face convinced JD to go a step further.
"Friends?" JD stuck his hand out and Josh shook it, smiling.
JD felt an arm link in his and looked around into Casey's smiling face. The last time he had seen her she had looked at him with disgust; a smile was a vast and welcome improvement.
Casey smiled at Josh. "Josh, JD's taking me to the dance tonight. Would you like to come along? Would that be all right, JD?"
"Sure," JD agreed readily. He was so relieved that she still wanted to go with him after their argument, he was willing to be generous.
"That's real nice of you, Miss Casey, but I don't reckon I'm really in the mood for a dance."
"You sure, Josh?" JD said. "It might be fun."
Josh shook his head. "Thanks all the same. You two enjoy yourselves. I'd best be getting along, I promised Mrs. Potter I'd re-arrange the store room for her today."
Casey smiled as Josh headed for Potter's store. "It was real nice of Josiah to persuade Mrs. Potter to give Josh his job back." She squeezed JD's arm. "And it was real nice of you not to be mad when I invited him to the dance!"
JD smiled at her. "I'd have been happy for him to come, but I'll much prefer it to be just the two of us."
"Really?" Casey blushed.
His heart lighter than it had been for several days, he said, "Really. Now, ma'am, is there somewhere I can escort you?"
Vin Tanner lay back against the plumped-up pillows and closed his eyes. He was tired as usual. He was beginning to forget what it felt like not to be permanently weak and tired. For that matter, it was hard to remember life before the constant pain.
It was a week since he'd set off on that fateful ride with Josh. He couldn't remember much about the first few days after they'd brought him back, but once the fever had broken and he'd been aware of what was going on, all he'd wanted was to curl up and die anything to make the intolerable pain go away. There might have been a time in his past when he'd been hurt as badly as this, but for the life of him he couldn't think of it. Couldn't think of anything that could be worse than the incessant throbbing, stabbing, burning; he'd given up trying to work out which part of his body was generating which sensation, it had all merged into one unbearable whole. Strangely, for a man who enjoyed his privacy and solitude, having his friends around had helped take his mind off the agony. He wasn't sure if he'd thanked them for that, but he knew he should.
The fever-filled hours might be hazy, but the memory of his time as Ella Gaines' captive was clear as a mountain stream. So clear that he was still waking from every nap in a cold sweat, panting and breathless, fear coursing through his veins. Ella and Jake loomed larger than life in his dreams and although he knew Jake was dead and Ella safely locked away, there was a small nagging voice inside him that said he wasn't safe, that they would come for him again. And it scared him because he knew he would not be able to go through that again. Feeling such fear frightened him if that made any sense because he wasn't sure that he had the courage to match it.
He was tired of hurting every time he tried to move, tired of being stuck in this bed unable to even attend to his own physical needs and desperate to get out into the fresh air. But most of all, he was worried sick about Chris Larabee.
Although his own world had shrunk to the size of this room, he'd built up a pretty good picture of what was happening in the world outside through talking to different peacekeepers as they took turns sitting with him. JD's anger at Josh he understood, though he had not been surprised to hear that the young man had made peace with Kelly. Chris's rage was a different thing altogether.
Vin may not have been around Chris back in the dark days after Sarah and Adam's deaths, but he knew the gunfighter, and had heard enough from Buck to form a picture in his head. He knew Chris still carried demons with him; had seen him close to slipping back into the pit when he discovered Ella's betrayal. Then, Vin had been dealing with his own demons and had almost let Chris slip away: he wasn't prepared to let that happen again. It grieved him that his own injuries had fueled Chris's anger and desire for vengeance he wasn't worth what Chris was putting himself through. But much as he desperately wanted to help his friend, he knew that this was something Chris had to work through himself.
Vin sighed, shifting slightly onto his right side to relieve the pain from a particularly nasty, bone-deep bruise on his left hip. Now that his various aches and pains had receded to a manageable level, he was getting restless, although he wasn't stupid. He knew that he wasn't in a fit state to get up yet, but it didn't stop the frustration.
Nathan had left a few minutes ago to escort Raine to the dance and Vin was alone in the clinic probably for the first time in six days. Not that he minded; he'd likely just drop off to sleep as usual. Anyway, he had a right to be tired after what Nathan had put him through this afternoon. For some reason the healer had decided that today was the day for a thorough bed-bath and had given him just that, with Chris's help. Even his hair hadn't escaped Nathan's undivided attention. Not that he didn't appreciate being clean, but it had been an exhausting and utterly embarrassing experience. Then, to cap it all, they'd brought Lewis the barber in to give him a shave, 'though he'd drawn the line at allowing Lewis to trim his hair.
All that had taken more out of him than he was prepared to admit and, although he'd then slept for three hours straight, he was still feeling tired.
From the open window he could hear the sound of the band starting up and thought wistfully of Inez, wondering who she had chosen to escort her to the dance. Sure, she had said she didn't want to go with anyone else, but he couldn't expect her to sit at home when all the other ladies in the town were out enjoying themselves. He sighed, trying to get out of his mind a disturbing image of Inez dancing close to the likes of Frank Willard. Maybe he'd tackle a few pages of the dime novel. He smiled to himself as he though about Inez reading it to him. He'd thought he'd been in heaven, listening to her beautiful voice reading the words.
The door opened, accompanied by a loud rap and Ezra, resplendent in his best suit, poked his head in.
"Mr. Tanner. I just wanted to check that you are, shall we say 'decent', and I am pleased to see that you are."
"That's real nice of you, Ez," Vin quipped, frowning at the strange statement. "Any partic'lar reason?"
"Why, yes indeed." Ezra was positively beaming. "You have a visitor." He exited with a flourish. "Enjoy the dance, Mr. Tanner."
Vin was still trying to puzzle out just what Ezra's words meant, when Inez Recillos walked into the room.
She was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. Her hair was caught up in a comb and she wore a dark purple dress with a wide skirt and a daringly low neckline that revealed more than a hint of rounded breast. His heart started beating wildly at the mere sight of her. He was aware that he must look like an idiot, with his jaw down somewhere near his feet, and managed to stammer out, "Inez! What what are you doing here?"
She put her head on one side and regarded him solemnly. "Are you not pleased to see me?"
"I yes, of course I'm pleased to see you. It's real nice of you to come by on your way."
Inez frowned. "On my way where?"
He looked at her stupidly. "To the dance, of course."
She walked closer and sat down in the chair beside the bed.
"I am not going to the dance."
"You're not going to the dance? But the dress?"
She leaned in towards him a little, one finger reaching out to push back a stray lock of hair and lingering to trace the outline of his jaw lightly. "I told you before. I don't want to go to the dance with anyone else. I wore the dress for you."
Vin gulped as warmth spread through him. She smelt wonderfully of some kind of flowery scent and her touch sent shivers of excitement through him. If he had ever doubted her feelings for him, he had no more reservations.
"You look beautiful," he said finally, silently cursing himself for not saying it sooner, but it must have been the right thing because she favored him with a dazzling smile. He knew, then, that he couldn't, and shouldn't, hold back from her any longer.
"Inez," he began hesitantly, "I was thinking, I can't take you to the dance, so maybe when I'm on my feet, you'd like to go on a picnic with me. Or a ride or anything," he finished lamely, wishing for the first time in his life that he had Buck's eloquence when it came to the opposite sex. His inarticulate speech didn't seem to faze Inez.
"Yes," she said quickly, "I would like that. A picnic, or a ride. I do not mind what we do, so long as we do it together."
Vin took a deep breath, taking courage from Chris's words of encouragement, and asked her the all-important question. "I you ya know about the bounty on my head. Don't it bother ya none?"
She studied him thoughtfully for a moment, seeming to understand how important this was to him.
"It bothers me that you have to live your life looking over your shoulder," she said finally. "But you are innocent of the crime, so no, I am not concerned about being seen with a wanted man, if that is what you are asking."
"But how can you be sure I'm innocent?"
She rolled her eyes and her response was immediate. "Anyone who knows you would know that you are. You do not have it in you to kill a man like that."
He made to interrupt and she held up a hand to stop him. "I do not need any proof. I would like you to be able to clear your name because it is important to you, but it would not change the way I feel about you."
"And just how exactly do you feel about me?" he asked softly, never taking his eyes from hers.
She leaned in closer still and whispered, "When you are well again, I will show you how I feel."
Her words hung between them for a long moment until she smiled and pulled back. He thought he saw reluctance in her face and hoped that his own didn't reflect too strongly the affect her closeness was having on him.
"Now," Inez said, "Shall I read you some more about our great hero?"
Josh Kelly ambled along the boardwalk, listening with some envy to the lively music still spilling out from the Standish Tavern where the dance was being held.
Josh had spent the evening in the town's alternative drinking establishment, Digger Dan's, where the relative quiet had better suited his mood.
He couldn't say that he was happy, but his spirit certainly felt lighter than it had for many days. Although Ella's betrayal still hurt badly, he was in some ways relieved that it was all over and the intensity of the affair was behind him. He had loved her, but looking back, he was beginning to see that his feelings had more of a sense of infatuation than real love. Vin was out of danger, JD had forgiven him, and even Vin himself said he didn't hold Josh's actions against him - in fact, it was only Chris Larabee who continued to treat him as if he was dirt. Not that he didn't deserve it. He was bitterly ashamed of what he had done and had vowed never to be taken in like that again. He had resolved to go back home as soon as he could earn enough money for the stage. He was done with excitement and exploring the country for a time.
He was taking a stroll to clear his head before turning in no point in trying to sleep while the music continued. His steps took him towards the livery and he glanced up at the clinic as he passed. He was surprised to see a person he didn't recognize standing on the landing. He frowned. There was something stealthy about the way the figure was moving.
"Hey, you!" he shouted without thinking, and started to climb the steps.
The figure turned. Josh couldn't see the man's face in the shadows, and he continued climbing until he reached the landing.
"What are you doing up here?"
The figure turned to look at him. "Hello, Josh."
No! It couldn't be! Shocked, Josh was totally unprepared to defend himself as the figure charged towards him.
+ + + + + + +
Chris escorted Mary to her front door.
"I had a wonderful evening, Chris. Thank you."
"I enjoyed it too."
Mary laughed. "You sound surprised."
Chris shrugged. "Yeah, well, I haven't really been in the party mood for the past few days."
"I noticed. You've had good reason, Chris. I'm glad you felt able to come tonight."
"I wanted to come. You put so much work into it. I'm just sorry I was a bit preoccupied."
Mary leaned in and kissed him softly. "I understand, I do. Now that Ella is finally facing justice, perhaps you can begin to put this all behind you."
She studied his face in the moonlight for a moment and seemed about to say something else, but instead changed the subject. "Well, I'd best be getting in and you'll be wanting to go and check on Vin."
"Am I that obvious?"
She smiled. "I think 'single-minded' is a better description. But that's one of the things I like about you. Give my love to Vin."
She slipped inside, closing the door quickly before he had chance to ask about any of the other things she liked about him.
Chris walked slowly down the street towards the clinic. He really hadn't wanted to go to the dance, but he had felt it was unfair to Mary to pull out and leave her, the organizer, without an escort. He tried hard to give her all his attention and partly succeeded; she looked so beautiful in that blue dress that he had difficulty tearing his eyes away from her for more than a minute at a time. Things between them had been very rocky for a while, after his ill-conceived affair with Ella, but she had forgiven him and given him a second chance. For that he was grateful. He was thankful, too, for her current understanding and her empathy, but he was afraid that if he couldn't shake this black mood even Mary would lose patience. With the music fading and no beautiful woman to take his attention, he could feel himself tensing up once more.
As he neared the clinic, he looked up. As expected, there was a light shining from the window. What was unexpected was the sight of two men standing on the landing outside. He broke into a run just as one of the figures charged into the other, pushing him violently backwards to lose his balance and tumble down the steps. The first figure disappeared through the door of the clinic.
The fallen man was trying unsuccessfully to get to his feet when Chris reached him. It was Josh Kelly.
"I'm all right! Go - it's Ella," Josh panted, face screwed up in pain. "She's gonna kill Vin!"
Chris took the steps two at a time, charging through the door with no thought for what he would do when he got in but with plenty of thoughts as to what he might find.
Josh was right. Close up, the figure was clearly Ella, dressed in a man's clothing with her hair pulled back tightly from her face. She was crouched beside the bed, one hand holding a fistful of Vin's hair, forcing his head back. The other hand held a large hunting knife against his exposed throat.
She looked at Chris wildly as he bowled into the room and skidding to a halt, gun trained on her.
"Chris. I was hoping you wouldn't have to see this, but maybe it's for the best."
Chris willed himself to remain calm, though the pumping of his heart sounded so loud to his ears he was sure she must be able to hear it across the room.
"Ella, you don't have to do this."
"Yes, I do, Chris, it's the only way. You don't understand. He's trying to keep us apart, can't you see that? He's telling you lies about me it's all lies!"
As she was speaking Chris saw her knuckles whiten as her grip on the knife tightened. Crimson welled up around the blade and began to trickle down Vin's neck. He caught Vin's eye and the expression there told him to shoot, to finish it. But he was afraid to risk it. If he fired he'd kill Ella, but the knife could so easily slip and cut Vin's throat. So he waited and listened to the words of a madwoman.
"I have to kill him, Chris, you must understand. I have to do what's best for us, so we can be together."
Chris shook his head slowly. "You don't have to kill him, Ella. I realize now that everything you've done has been for us for me. But we can be together without anyone else being hurt. Just put the knife down and we can walk out of here together."
Ella looked at him sharply, then at the helpless man on the bed. For one moment he thought she was going to accept his words, but Ella Gaines was an intelligent woman. Obsessed she might be, but she was not easily taken in.
"I know you think you mean what you're saying Chris. But he has you so much under his spell, that if I let him go he'll only cause problems for us again. We will be together, my darling, and one day you'll understand why I have to make sure that happens."
Going along with her fantasy hadn't worked, so Chris changed tactics. "Ella if you hurt him, I'll never come with you."
Ella shook her head violently. The knife jerked and more blood trickled down Vin's neck.
"I love you, Chris, I love you so much. And you love me, too, I know you do. You just don't see the truth. This is it, Chris. You have to choose. You have to choose him or me."
Chris suddenly found himself calm. His finger began to close on the trigger as he spoke. "Then I choose Vin, Ella."
"No!" Ella was shaking her head now, her eyes wild. "No! I love you, Chris, you can't do this!"
Chris took a step forward. "There's no choice to make. You're a murdering, lying, bitch. Vin is the best friend I've ever had. I choose him."
"No! Chris, no!" Ella was visibly shaking now. She leaned towards him and the knife moved an inch away from Vin's throat. In that split second Chris saw his chance. He fired, the shot taking her between the eyes. The knife fell harmlessly onto the bed and Ella dropped like a stone, her eyes still locked in an expression of disbelief.
Chris kept his gun trained on her, though there was no need. She would have been dead before she even hit the floor.
"Vin? You all right?" he asked tersely, eyes firmly fixed on the crumpled body on the floor beside the bed.
Vin put a hand to his throat, grimacing as it came away bloody, but he said, "Yeah, I'm fine." There was a pause. "You can put the gun down now, Chris, less'n you're aimin' ta shoot me, too."
Chris became aware that his hand was still curled round the butt of the gun and holding on with a vise-like grip. With an effort of will, he relaxed his grip and re-holstered the gun with a hand that was suddenly shaking. All at once he felt his strength desert him and he sank to his knees, legs no longer able to hold him up. He gripped the end of the bed to prevent himself falling to the ground as his whole body began to shake.
As he closed his eyes against a wave of dizziness, he was vaguely aware of sounds around him. The bed creaked, accompanied by a few grunts and curses, then Vin was on the floor beside him, good arm round his shoulders, gripping as tightly as he could with his bandaged hand.
"It's all right, pard, it's over."
Chris looked up at his best friend, grasping hold of the arm that held him, needing the contact with the man he had so very nearly lost. A violent shudder rippled through him and Vin seemed to understand what he was thinking, for he tightened his grip.
"It's over, pard," he repeated firmly. "Ya did what ya had to do. We gotta put it all behind us now."
"You coulda died." Even his voice was shaking.
"But I didn't, and I ain't gonna any time soon. Look at me, Chris."
Chris looked into dark blue eyes, reading there a profound concern, and knew that it was for him, that Vin was afraid he was slipping back down into the darkness. After all he had been through, Vin's concern was for him. In that moment something broke down inside him and he felt the tension of the past few days seep out of him; all the pent-up fury, the frustration and helplessness, the debilitating fear none of it mattered any more. All that mattered was sitting on the floor beside him, supporting him in the way he had grown to expect. Vin was alive, Ella Gaines was finally out of their lives and, as far as he was concerned, justice had been served.
His thoughts and emotions must have been playing across his face, for Vin's expression suddenly lightened and changed to one of relief.
"Ya had me worried there for a minute," he said softly. He shifted position slightly and Chris caught the choked-back groan and the pain that shone briefly in his eyes. Abruptly, Chris became aware of just exactly what Vin had just done.
"Tanner, what the hell do you think you're doing out of bed?"
Vin gave him a lopsided grin. "Don't rightly know," he admitted. "Seemed like a good idea at the time." He grimaced. "Reckon I'm stuck here now, though. Don't rightly think I kin get back up any time soon."
Chris held his gaze, seeing sudden amusement flicker in his eyes, and all at once the humor of the situation struck him. Two tough-as-nails gunfighters huddled together on the floor, neither with the strength to pull himself to his feet. Heaven knew what Nathan would say when he walked in. He began to chuckle and after a moment Vin joined in. Chris knew that their mirth was a direct reaction to the situation they had just been faced with, but hell, it felt good to laugh again.
A week later, seven men stood together on the boardwalk, watching as Josh Kelly handed a large bag to the driver of the weekly stagecoach.
The morning after Ella Gaines' death, a wire had come from the sheriff at Eagle Bend. Both of the guards traveling with the prison wagon had been found dead, shot with one of their own guns. There were no tracks to indicate outside involvement in Ella's escape; now, no one would ever know how she had overcome and killed two armed men. Travis had returned to Four Corners and formally declared the shooting self-defense, leaving Chris in the clear.
Fortunately, Josh's tumble down the clinic steps had resulted in nothing more serious than some painful bruises. Despite Mrs. Potter's offer of a permanent job at the store, the young man had decided to return home. He needed time to think about all that had happened. Miraculously, he had won the money for the fare from Ezra in a poker game, and Chris had been amused at the gambler's indignant protests that he had not deliberately allowed Josh to win. The cracks in Standish's selfish veneer were becoming more and more obvious.
Now, Chris stood close to Vin, trying not to appear too protective, but senses on the alert for any sign that his friend was weakening. This was the first time since his injuries that Nathan had allowed the Texan to walk further than the landing of the clinic, and Chris was aware that simply getting down the steps had taken its toll on the still-healing man. Vin had stood firm in his insistence on being there to see Josh off, and Chris had backed him; after all he had been through, it was his right.
Chris watched as Josh gave JD a bear hug, then turned to each of the others, solemnly shaking hands. When it came to his turn, Chris gripped the boy's arm firmly. "Take care of yourself, Josh," he said quietly, and meant it.
In his attempt to prevent Ella from reaching Vin, Josh had finally broken through the wall Chris had put up against him and convinced the gunfighter that he was guilty only of being misguided and gullible.
Josh held out his hand to Vin and the tracker took it with a firm grip. Chris observed that while Josh had plenty to say to the others, now he seemed lost for words. Finally, he began, "Vin, I " and floundered to a halt again.
Vin smiled, released they boy's hand and clapped him on the shoulder. "You've already said all ya need ta say, Josh. You'll keep in touch, right?"
Josh nodded, his jaw working as he tried to hold back his emotions. Then the driver called, "All aboard!" and Josh reluctantly turned away to take the final seat in the coach, pulling the door shut behind him. He turned and waved as the coach pulled away and seven hands rose in response.
"Well," Buck said, after a moment of reflective silence, "Reckon the occasion deserves a drink."
"Amen to that, brother," Josiah agreed, and the two headed off in the direction of the saloon.
JD stared after the stagecoach for a few moments longer, then looked after the departing men. "Hey, wait for me!"
Chris and Nathan both turned to Vin, who was now leaning against a post even more heavily than usual.
"How you holdin' up, Vin?" Nathan asked.
"I'm fine," Vin stated firmly, but he swayed slightly and reflexively Chris reached out an arm to steady him. Vin shot him a look of thanks mixed with irritation and Chris had to hold back a grin. Vin wasn't the world's best patient and he could see that Nathan was going to have his hands full ensuring the tracker didn't do too much too fast.
"You've done enough for one day, best come back to the clinic and take a nap," Nathan said predictably.
Vin shot Chris a look of despair and, although Chris privately agreed with Nathan, he understood how his friend was feeling.
"Reckon you could do with sitting down, pard," he said, ignoring the venomous look Vin shot at him. "Think you can make it to the saloon?"
Vin's expression lightened immediately and he cocked his head. "That depends on whether yer buyin'."
Chris smiled. "I'm buying."
"Reckon I can make it then."
"It amazes me to say it, "Ezra interjected, "knowing his penchant for beer purchased by anyone other than himself, but I do believe that our Mr. Tanner now has an even more compelling reason to frequent that fair establishment."
"Really, Ez?" Nathan inquired with a grin, obviously deciding that his patient could be allowed his liberty for a little longer. "Now what might that be?"
Ezra took Nathan's arm, drawing him ahead. "Well," he said in a loud stage whisper, "I have it on good authority "
Chris glanced at Vin who was, surprisingly, showing only slight signs of embarrassment.
"Best get used to it, pard," Chris remarked with feeling. "They'll only get worse."
Vin shrugged. "Reckon she's worth any amount'a teasin', Chris."
"Reckon you're right."
Vin looked back at the now distant cloud of dust from the stagecoach. "It's finally over, ain't it?"
Chris followed Vin's gaze. Most of his anger and bitterness had died with Ella Gaines. Now, with Josh's departure, the only physical reminder of the past few weeks was the new collection of scars that Vin would carry for the rest of his life. Nothing could change what had happened, but it was finally time to move on and, surprisingly, Chris felt that this time he was ready.
"Yeah, it's over, Vin," he said, meeting his friend's eyes and finding there understanding and hope. "It's over, for both of us."
"So," Vin said after a moment, "You did say yer buyin'?"