Page 1 |
Page 2 | Page 3 |
Page 4 | Page 5 |
Page 6 | Page 7 |
Page 9 | Page 10 | Page 11 | Page 12 | Page 13 | Page 14 | Page 15 | Page 16
Chris wasn't sure what he'd heard, but he knew he had to do something. Someone was hurting...someone he knew...someone he cared about...but who? Why? Where was this person and how could he help? How could he help anyone?
The sound came again and this time Chris opened his eyes and turned his head. His gaze fell on the familiar figure, lying so still and pale, in the next bed. He slid his legs over the edge and sat up, staring at the still figure lying in the next bed and Chris grabbed the back of the chair that sat between the two beds. He fought the trembling that began in his legs and managed to keep from falling on his face. He rested for several agonizing minutes before he reached for the blanket that covered the unconscious tracker.
"Vin...I'm s...sorry..." Larabee muttered, dull green eyes filled with guilt when he saw the red stain that marred the white bandage that concealed the raw wound.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah stepped into the dim interior and stood still. Something was wrong and his heart skipped a beat when he heard a sound from the other room. The big man strode across the floor and into the room just as Larabee's strength seemed to leave him. He moved quickly, catching the man before he slid from the chair and eased him back to his own bed. He heard Tucker come into the room and turned to him.
"Carl would you get Chris some water?"
"Sure, I'll be right back."
Sanchez felt the man lean against him and tried to ease him back on the bed, but Larabee remained seated beside him, his gaze resting on the sharpshooter. "Chris, he's gonna be all right."
"He looks like he...hell," the blond stammered.
"Y...yer one t...ta talk...seen paler f...faces on corpses..."
"Vin?" Larabee said, a small smile forming as he heard the softly spoken words.
"Well, hallelujah!" Sanchez said, grinning from ear to ear as the Texan turned his head slightly.
"Figured I'd need two," Tucker said from the doorway.
"Thanks, Carl," Sanchez said, taking one and placing it in Larabee's trembling hands.
"Think you can hold that?"
"Think so," Larabee said, but his eyes were still locked on the soft blue orbs that stared at him from the next bed. He held tightly to the cup and watched as Sanchez and Tucker helped Vin drink. The Texan drank several mouthfuls before his eyes closed and he seemed to be sleeping again. Sanchez eased him back to the bed before straightening the blankets and moving to sit beside Larabee once more. Tucker left them alone, but he could hear the man moving around in the other room.
"Chris, you need to drink that...all of it," the older man ordered and watched the blond take several small sips before groaning softly and holding his arm tight against his body.
"Side bothering you?' Sanchez asked.
"Burning," Larabee answered softly.
"Why don't you finish that and let me take a look at it?" the ex-preacher suggested.
"Nathan took him into town."
"Is he okay?" Larabee asked, genuine concern in his tone.
"He'll be fine, just wasn't enough beds to keep you all here," Sanchez said, removing the empty cup from Larabee's hand before easing him back on the pillows. He saw the blond frown and touch the bandages on his chest. "Something wrong, Chris?"
"Itches," Larabee answered, eyes growing heavy even as he fought the need for sleep.
"That's a good sign, it means it's healing. Best just leave it alone and I'll put some salve on it for you," Sanchez said and covered the man with the blankets, smiling when he realized the blond hadn't seemed to notice his lack of clothing. He looked up when a shadow loomed in the doorway and wasn't surprised to see Tucker with fresh bandages and a basin of warm water.
"Figured ya'd need this."
"Thanks, Carl, not just for this, but for putting the laudanum in the water."
"Jest tryin' ta help out," Tucker said. He stood watching Josiah Sanchez tend to first the gunman and then the tracker. There was something tender about the big man's ministrations and Tucker knew the ex-preacher was a man of the cloth, whether he believed it or not.
+ + + + + + +
JD woke earlier than usual and slowly made his rounds of the town. This was the second day since they'd returned to Four Corners. The town slept under a blanket of peacefulness that belied the horror of the last few weeks. Most of the town were unaware of the events that took place in the northeast area of the Bisti Badlands. Events that led up to the fearsome storm that had nearly obliterated everything in its path, but JD knew...and so did the other members of the seven. There were three men that had nearly paid the ultimate price in the war that saw good overcome evil in a battle for two souls in particular.
He stood outside the jail and looked toward the end of town, before sighing heavily and striding toward the church Josiah had been restoring and hurried inside. His mother had instilled a sense of right and wrong in him and told him there was one person he could always count on to listen. JD was hoping she was right when he walked to the front of the church and sat down heavily. He reached into his pocket and was amazed to find Sanchez's bible was somehow still there. Pulling it out, Dunne smiled at the sense of strength and peace the small book symbolized and began to speak.
"I know I've done some things I shouldn't have, but Josiah says that's what penance is for. Think maybe we've all done enough penance to last a lifetime, but if we haven't then I don't mind doing it for the others, God. See Chris and Vin are out at Chris' place with Josiah and I know he's doing everything he can for them...so that leaves the rest of us to look out for Buck. He's in real bad shape and he's burning up with fever and Nate's been working all night to keep him alive, but I figure me and you needed to have us a talk. See, the way I figure it is they've done your fighting for you...now I don't mean that to be disrespectful because I know you were there guiding us all and without you we'd probably be in hell already. I just can't see you helping us out there and then just letting them die."
The youth fingered the pages of the small book and blinked back the moisture from his eyes before standing and looking at the small crucifix at the front of the church. "Just thought I'd let you know how I felt...This world needs people like Chris and Vin and Buck...even if it's just to let people know there's still hope for us all."
Dunne turned and walked out of the church, nodding to Gloria Potter before heading for the clinic and taking the stairs two at a time. He quietly opened the door and stepped inside when Nathan signalled that he was awake.
"How is he, Nate?"
"No change, JD. He's still with us though so guess we've got somethin' to be thankful for this morning."
"You been cooped up in here all night, Nathan. Why don't you stretch your legs and I'll stay with Buck."
"All right, Son, but if he wakes up see if he'll take something to drink...there's Willow bark tea and a little broth Mrs. Potter sent over."
"I will," the young easterner said and sat next to the bed. Buck's face was drawn and haggard even in sleep and JD wondered if they'd ever see the rambunctious ladies man back to his true form. Buck often teased about his so called animal magnetism, but the truth was the ladies' man really did attract women without hardly trying.
"Hey, Buck, talked to Miss Blossom last night and she said to tell you she's got a whole new game she wants to show you. Miss Karen down at the hotel says she's gonna make you a new shirt so she can come see you without people talking. Mrs. Potter is making them cookies you like and well, hell, Buck, everyone's pulling for you and you need to wake up. That's all...just wake up and tell me you're okay...okay?"
"L...look like hell, Kid."
JD wasn't sure he'd heard the softly spoken words, but the thin smile on the other man's face as he forced his eyes open brought a teasing light to his own eyes. "Still look better'n you on a bad day, Buck."
"Everyone's fine, Buck. You're the one worrying us," Dunne said and poured some of the tea in a cup and helped the older man drink it.
"Where is everybody?"
"Nathan's stretching his legs. Ezra's sleeping..."
Buck frowned and tried to remember what had happened to land him in Jackson's clinic and why the youngest member of the peacekeepers looked like he'd been rode hard and put away wet. He frowned when the kid tried to get him to drink more and brushed his hand away.
"Where are the others?"
"No, you told me Nathan's stretching his legs and Ezra's sleeping. Where are Chris, Vin, and Josiah?" Wilmington asked, his strength waning as he tried to sit further up in the bed, sending shock waves of rippling agony through his leg.
"Easy, Buck, just lie still and it'll get better," Dunne soothed and sat back when the gentle rogue slumped on the pillows. JD reached out fearfully, drawing a ragged breath when he felt the flutter of a breath that told him Wilmington was still alive and fighting to stay that way.
+ + + + + + +
At the same time Four Corners was coming to life, Josiah was waking from a night of dreams and the aches and pains that went with sleeping on the floor between the two beds. Larabee hadn't budged since he'd found him sitting and watching Tanner. The Texan was finally showing signs of coming out of whatever hell had been keeping him under, but still hadn't opened his eyes. He'd drink small amounts of water if Josiah brushed his hands against his throat, but until he was fully awake there wasn't much more the older man could do.
Josiah heard Carl moving around in the other room and was grateful for the man's company during the long hours of the night when fevers burned through both men. Where tucker got his energy, Josiah had no idea, but the elderly curmudgeon seemed to have reserves that the rest of them could only dream of. The smell of coffee reached him and Josiah stood up to look at the men and found them both sleeping, whether from fatigue or the laudanum he didn't know, but he suspected it was a combination of the two. He slipped quietly from the room and sat at the table where a steaming cup of coffee waited for him.
"Yer welcome, Josiah. Did ya manage ta get some sleep?"
"A little," Sanchez answered.
"Been thinkin it'll be time fer me ta be headin' home soon," Tucker told him.
"You've been a great help, Carl...not just with Chris and Vin, but with JD too. Seems to me you helped him lay a few demons to rest."
"Just told him what I seen out there. The Badlands are jest that and they can kill a man if'n he's not real careful like. That Inn you fellas destroyed..."
"What about it?" Sanchez asked when the other man grew quiet.
"Ain't a good place...heard stories 'bout places like that and how they appear ever' so often ta tempt a sane man ta hell."
"The gates of hell," the ex-preacher supplied.
"Yep...that 'bout sums it up and ya boys closed it down...fer a spell anyways," Carter said and sat opposite the big man.
"What makes you think it isn't closed down for good?"
"It's jest a feeling...it's like a bad seed that keeps right on growin' even after ya pull up its roots. The inn's doors are closed, but they's gonna open again in the future and all we can hope is there'll be another seven good men ta defeat the devil at his own game."
"There'll always be someone willing to fight the devil's ways, Carl, otherwise we'd be living in hell all ready. Since the very beginning of time man has persevered with God's help and I doubt he's ever gonna turn his back on his children," Sanchez said and the two men grew quiet.
+ + + + + + +
Vin heard voices, and reached out for them, but his voice was weak and he wasn't sure if he'd spoken aloud or if he'd only dreamed it. He shifted on the bed, moaning deep in his throat when the movement tugged on the wound in his chest. He tried to remember why he hurt so much, but his memories were foggy and seemed to blur even more when he tried to latch on to them. The voices were stronger now and he forced heavy lids to open and stared at the unfamiliar ceiling over his head. Where was he? That question and several others flashed through his mind, but there seemed to be no answer. He turned his head and frowned when he noticed the other man and a name eased past his lips.
"....rrrriiiisss..." Was that his voice? Why did it sound so bad? His tongue slipped through his lips, but there was no moisture and he tried to sit up, but movement in the doorway caught his attention.
"Easy now, Son, no point in trying to move right now."
"Hold on, Vin, I got some water for you." He paused, lifting the weak man's shoulders and taking a cup from Tucker. "Easy now..." He found a small smile at the moan that followed the slow drain of the cup. "Went down real easy."
"...sick..." Vin wondered of the awful state he was buried in.
"Yeah, but you're on the road to recovery. You just rest easy now."
He saw the blue slits moving and the pale brows furrowed in thought. The head was moving weakly, trying to absorb the surroundings. Vin Tanner was a smart man; even the weakened state couldn't keep his mind from working. He knew the tracker was scoping his surroundings and what was on his mind. Just as he was about to reassure the troubled body, a weak voice sounded.
"Chris is right over there, Vin. He's gonna be fine...you both are." Sanchez replied of the worried and confused eyes.
Vin managed to turn his head until he found the other occupant of the room. It felt as if a weight was lifted from his heart just before his eyes closed and he slept.
Josiah took a deep breath and let it out slowly before leaning back in the chair. He looked at the sleeping men and wondered how long it would be for them to heal. Not just from the physical wounds, but also from the psychological wounds Columber had managed to inflict. He looked at Vin and sighed, even in sleep the Texan seemed to be inundated with nightmares. They probably all would have dreams about the horrifying events they'd witnessed, but none so much as Larabee and Tanner. Josiah turned to the second man and knew there would be many dreams filled with what his father called night terrors.
Night terrors were brought on by a feeling of helplessness or of guilt. Chris had experienced plenty of both since leaving Farmington and it would take a lot to make him whole once more. One of the things that would ensure his recovery would be seeing Vin back on his feet. Time was a big part of the healing too and right now it seemed time was on their side. Josiah stood and walked out of the room, leaving the two men to their rest while he went to check the supplies. Now that Chris and Vin were showing signs of coming to he needed to make something they could all eat.
+ + + + + + +
Chris awoke to the silence that usually signalled late night or early morning and licked his lips. The room was dark, but he could hear the soft breathing from across the room. He moved slowly, sitting up and sliding his legs over the edge of the bed and looked at the other man. The moonlight shone through the window, framing the pale face in white light and he sat watching the Texan. Chris pressed his arm against his side and used his other hand to pick up the cup off the small table. He drank slowly, trying to make sense of why he hurt so much and why Vin was so pale.
Pictures flashed across his mind, images that frightened the gunslinger far more than he would admit. He closed his eyes and relived the sickening seconds when he raised the knife and brought it down into his best friend's chest. He gasped, his breath catching in his throat as he tried to shake off the images and his gaze once more returned to the present.
Vin seemed to be sleeping, but even his breathing seemed to have stopped and Chris reached out to touch him. Relieved when he felt the slow rise and fall of the lean chest, but terrified by the heat emanating from the man he'd called brother...the same one he'd tried to kill. Sitting alone in the dark brought demons to mind, ones that Chris thought he'd put to rest, but they seemed determined to invade his mind.
The last time demons had interfered in his life he'd taken to the bottle. An empty life that kept him waking day and night to the same loneliness that he'd grown used to. He'd pushed Buck away and drowned his demons, or tried to in whiskey, but more often than he cared to remember those same evils had revisited him. For three long years he'd traveled alone, choosing his fights with reckless abandon, and not giving a damn whether he lived or died. One bottle emptied and a full one took its place. One bullet found its mark and another was placed in the cylinder. His life was nothing but a dark hole with no way out as if to give a damn about anyone or anything would be another hostage to fortune that he just couldn't afford. That had all changed the day a bullet had taken the top off a whiskey bottle and sent him into the street of a dusty, dirty burg called Four Corners.
Fate or desperation on his part had opened his eyes to another soul whose existence he'd never felt before and yet, he was drawn to him. It was as if he'd found something he'd been missing since Sarah and Adam were taken from him. A small part, yet it was the difference between night and day and suddenly his life got turned around. He was fighting for people again instead of fighting for where the next bottle came from or the next gunfight that could put an end to his life.
Chris eased his aching body from the bed and sank tiredly onto the chair. Vin was and always would be a tender soul, one that cared about people in a quiet, somber way. He could say more with a nod of his head or the shrug of his shoulders or even the tip of his hat than most people could with a thousand words. Vin lived his life, he didn't just exist, and he'd nearly killed him, still could...Tanner was still burning up with fever. Chris kept his arm pressed against his side and stood watch over the man who had the heart of a poet and the soul of a warrior
+ + + + + + +
Josiah had heard Chris get up, but he'd left him alone with his thoughts for nearly an hour. Chris needed to come to terms with what had happened to them and only then could he truly forgive himself for almost taking the Texan's life. Without a word, Sanchez got up and poured a small amount of coffee and whiskey into a cup. He moved to the door and stood watchin as Larabee reached out to touch the other man's chest.
Josiah didn't want to intrude on the moment, yet he knew Larabee could not spend the night in the chair. It was bad enough he'd left him there for as long as he had. He could see Vin's pale face bathed in the moonlight streaming in through the partially open window. Josiah willed the blue eyes to open and wash away the guilt so easily seen in the set of the other man's body. Chris' shoulders were slumped; his right arm held tightly against his side, and his left hand inched out as if to assure himself the Texan still breathed.
Josiah's heart ached for the gunman who'd suffered so many losses in his life and still managed to live through it. He knew what real grief was, had experienced it more than once, but never on depth that Chris Larabee had. Would he have dealt with such a devastating blow in the same way? Was it the norm when a man lost the people he cared for more than his own life? He hoped and prayed he'd never find out.
Seeing the pain on the weary face, Josiah moved into the room and spoke softly. "Chris, none of this is your fault."
"Don't try to walk in my shoes, Preacher," Larabee said, sighing tiredly when the older man never said a word, but handed him a cup of tepid coffee. Chris sipped the strong brew and nodded gratefully when he tasted the whiskey. The fiery alcohol cut through the chill that nearly overwhelmed him every time he looked at the bandage peeking up at the edge of the blanket covering the lean tracker.
"He woke up a while ago...worried about you," Sanchez explained, sitting on the edge of Larabee's bed.
"Got no reason to worry about me," Larabee said and downed the whiskey-laced coffee. His head was beginning to swim and he knew he needed to lie down, but could not tear his gaze from the too still Texan. "Did he drink anything?"
"Drank some water...called you cowboy," the ex-preacher explained. "He's doing better, Chris, and with God's will you'll both be on your feet in no time."
"God?" the blond head came up wearing a scowl and the pale eyes were mocking. "Don't tell me about your God."
"He's not 'my' God, Chris and if you look in your heart you'll see that. God never turns his back on his children no matter how many times we turn our backs on him."
Chris shook his head and stood up, only to find his legs didn't have the strength to hold him up. Without knowing how it happened, he was on his bed with the older man pulling the blankets up over his trembling body.
"God hasn't forsaken me, Chris, and I doubt you've done near as much to piss him off as I have. Rest, Son...tomorrow is another day and God willing we'll all be here to see it," Sanchez said and smiled when the blond head bobbed once and the sea green eyes closed in sleep.
+ + + + + + +
"You're gonna get a crick in the neck sitting like that, Kid."
"Buck!" Dunne nearly fell off his chair when the voice reached his ears. He'd been sitting with the older man through the long night and feared that Wilmington wouldn't have the strength left to fight much longer.
"Wa...water, JD," the gentle rogue rasped and accepted the cup the younger man held. Wilmington drank slowly, his stomach slightly nauseous, but he managed to finish the cup. He handed the empty vessel back to the Bostonian and noticed the slight tremble in his hands. "You all right, JD?"
"I'm not the one who tangled with a tree from hell's half acre, Buck?" Dunne answered.
"Maybe not, but you were the one who pulled me out," the ladies' man said and held out his right hand to the Easterner. "You saved my life...gates of hell, Kid."
"Gates of hell, Buck," Dunne returned with a smile and a newfound lightness in his heart. The door opened and Nathan and Ezra stepped inside.
Jackson noticed the resident rogue was awake and hurried over to the bed. He placed and hand on the man's forehead and looked into the eyes before standing and grinning with relief. "Fever's broke. How do you feel, Buck?"
"Feel like shit, Nate, but I'm thinkin' that's not such a bad thing. You boys don't look much better," Wilmington observed.
"Comes from watchin' your back," Dunne said.
"Feel like you can sit up for a spell, Buck?" Jackson asked.
"Think so," Wilmington said and levered himself up on his elbows, dropping back to the pillows when the room seemed to spin and blur.
"Not so fast, Buck," Jackson said. "Just hold on and we'll get you settled on a chair...maybe get ya something ta eat."
"Inez could bring it over...I'm an invalid here," Wilmington said with a weak grin.
"Mr. Wilmington, I was preparing a wagering pool, but you've managed to put a damper on this opportunity," Standish said and reached inside his coat for the small ledger he kept there. He hadn't planned a bet on this, but felt the need to keep the tension light.
"Maybe you could take bets on who's the first woman to come see Buck," Dunne suggested while Nathan set up a chair for the injured man.
"Not bad," Standish said with a smile. "Since there has not been a single female through this door since we returned it could be a very feasible wager. Perhaps our resident rogue is losing his touch."
"Never thought of it that way," Dunne said. "You think maybe cooling him down with all that water got rid of his animal maggotism?"
"Don't mind them two, Buck," Jackson said.
"I don't...anyone can see they're jealous," the injured man said.
"All right, Buck, We'll get ya on that chair, change the sheets and get you comfortable. Ezra, go see if Inez has something light and easy on the stomach," the former slave ordered. "JD, help me get him into the chair."
"Sure," Dunne said, pulling back the blankets and helping get the older man on his feet. It took Wilmington a minute or so to become attuned to standing before they helped him to the chair. He sat with his eyes closed, leaning on the table while the two men quickly changed the bed sheets and then helped him into a new nightshirt. By the time they were done he gratefully returned to the bed, tiny beads of sweat evident on his brow.
"Just keep your eyes closed for a few minutes, Buck," Jackson warned.
"I bet it feels that way," the former stretcher bearer agreed.
"Nate...Chris and Vin okay?" Wilmington asked.
"They're fine, Buck," Jackson said and prayed it was true. "Josiah's staying with them and he's got Carl to help him. JD's gonna get some rest and then he'll take a ride out and see if they need any supplies."
"You should go, Nate...might need you," Wilmington said.
"Josiah'll send for me if either one of 'em needs me, Buck. Right now it's you I'm worried about. As soon as Ezra gets back I want you to eat and rest."
"Sounds like a plan," the gentle rogue agreed.
"I need to take a look at your leg," Jackson said, reaching for the laudanum he kept on the table. He measured out the dose and held it for the ladies' man, glad when Wilmington didn't argue the need for it. He lifted the bandages and was glad to see the red lines he'd feared were fading and there was none of the putrid gore present. Cleaning the wounds with water laced with carbolic, Nathan re-bandaged it and sat back.
"How is it, Nate?" Dunne asked. He'd been with Jackson during the last two days when the healer had confided his fears that the leg could easily become gangrenous. Now he hoped there was a light at the end of the tunnel when Jackson smiled at the rogue.
"It's looking better...the infection's gone and as long as you don't do anything stupid it's only a matter of time before you're chasing the ladies again," Jackson said.
"The ladies chase me, Nate," Wilmington whispered and closed his eyes, opening them again when Ezra and Inez entered the clinic. He turned to Jackson and winked as he said. "See, told you."
"Senor Standish told me you were awake," Recillos said and carried the tray over to the bed. "How are you feeling?"
"Inez , darlin? Is that you?" Buck rasped 'weakly', "I can barely make you out. It's awful bein' this weak and helpless."
"I'll..." Dunne was going to interrupt, but a stern look quickly shot his way made him clam up.
"Mr. Wilmington is full of..."
"Nathan, could you ask them to leave...I'm fading fast," Wilmington said.
"Oh, Buck, what can I do to help?"
"Well, there is one thing..."
"Name it," Recillos whispered against his lips.
"Oh what a crock of..."
"A kiss, that's all I need," Wilmington said, ignoring JD's comment as he looked into the wondrous eyes set in a beautiful face.
"Just one?" Inez asked.
"That's all I need," the rogue whispered.
"I have just one word," the Mexican woman said, smiling sweetly before speaking. "Nunca!"
"Nunca! You'd deny a sick man a simple kiss?"
"No," Inez said with a grin. She loved flirting with this man and her eyes shone mischievously. "You are not so 'sick' if you are using that silver tongue to flirt."
Buck watched her leave with a sparkle in his own eyes as he looked at the others with a grin. "She's under my spell."
"Yeah right," Dunne said, glad the injured man seemed to be feeling better. He knew Wilmington still had a ways to go, but if he could work up the energy to flirt, then he really was on the mend. He stood watching the older man eat the soup and removed the tray when the blue eyes closed.
"Think maybe he's turned the corner," Jackson said and covered the man with the blankets. He looked at Standish and knew his ankle was also healing, now if only they had some good news where the other men were concerned.
+ + + + + + +
Vin heard the weak cries from somewhere in the room, but wasn't sure he had the strength to find out who was making them. His eyes refused to open completely and his head pounded with each beat of his heart. He slowly drifted toward sleep, but the next half sob had him fighting to stay awake.
"C...Chris," the Texan's eyes opened wide, confusion and pain on his face at the agonized cry. He forced his body upward until he was seated on the edge of the bed. His chest sprang to life and he gasped for air, while holding his left hand tight against the burning fire there. His eyes and teeth clenched tightly and he tried to will the room to stop spinning, but it took longer than he ever thought possible just to breathe. When his heartbeat returned to a semblance of normal, he forced his eyes open again and looked at the man in the next bed.
The lean gunman was caught in the throes of a nightmare, but Vin's own body seemed unable to move the short distance between the beds. He worked to get enough moisture to speak, but there just didn't seem to be enough air to form the name he needed to say. Slipping his tongue past dry lips he managed to speak, but again it was a rasping whisper, a tortured sound that was harsh to his own ears.
"C...Chris," he leaned forward and would have fallen, but for the strong arms that caught him and eased him back to his bed. His eyes blinked rapidly and he tried to speak, but a cup was placed against his mouth and he drank greedily, gasping for air when the water was taken away.
"Easy, Son, I got you," the ex-preacher smiled at the younger man and placed an extra pillow behind him before easing him back down. "How do you feel?"
"Like I got stomped on by a buff..." Tanner said and turned his head to the side. "H...heard Chris, he o...okay?"
"V...Vin?" Larabee's voice sounded as bad as his own did, but it brought a smile to the Texan's face. Chris held his arm tight against his side, bit his lip in pain but sat up. He kept the light-headed sensation at bay and focused on his friend.
"Hey, cowboy," Vin rasped softly.
"Chris, hold on a minute!" Sanchez moved to place extra padding behind the gunslinger's back so he could lean against the bed frame. "Better?"
"Yeah...thanks..." Larabee whispered and swallowed several times in an effort to keep his emotions in check. If eyes were the windows of the soul, then his were wide open as they focused on the marred body across from him.
"Ain't yer fault," Tanner read the guilt ridden gaze easily.
"I damn near killed you, Vin," Chris replied, raking a shaky hand through his damp hair.
"Ya didn't, that bastard Columber used ya, it's done, leave it be." The Texan's gaze darted around the room as if searching for something before retuning to Larabee. He kept his eyes trained on the wise preacher. "No...crows here?"
"Not a black bird in sight," Sanchez assured both men and looked up to see Carl Tucker standing in the doorway, a tray held in his hands.
"Thought I heard voices...figured they could use somethin',' the elderly man explained.
"Thanks, Carl," Sanchez said. He reached for one cup of soup and watched the other man move to help Larabee. He held the cup for the Texan and was glad when the younger man made no protest and sipped at the savory fish broth. Out of the corner he watched as Chris ate every bit of the bowl of soup.
"Careful, Son, it's a mite hot," Tucker told the injured man. He sat on the edge of the bed, ready should he be needed. He'd been packed and ready to go home early this morning, but was glad he'd stayed around long enough to see the two peacekeepers awake. Least now he would be bringing home a little good news.
+ + + + + + +
JD rode up to the corral and dismounted. He quickly looped the reins over the top rail and reached for his saddlebags. Nathan had given him a list of things to bring out and had also made sure he had carbolic, bandages, and laudanum in case Sanchez was running low. He carried them to the house, listening to the eerie quiet and praying it was not a bad omen. He pushed open the door and found the small kitchen area empty, but there was the sound of voices from the other room. He felt a smile forming and hurried forward; surprised to see both men awake, although they still looked worse than death warmed over.
"Nate's gonna be glad to hear you two are awake," Dunne said, dropping the saddle bags next to the door and grinning form ear to ear. "Last time I was here...thought you know..."
"Thanks...JD," Vin saw the worry in the hazel eyes and it warmed his heart; his strength waning as he pushed the cup away.
"Buck?" the name was whispered, but there was no doubt what Larabee was asking.
"He's doing better," Dunne answered and smiled when he remembered the rogue's devilish grin this morning. "He's already flirting with Inez."
"Must be feeling a lot better," Sanchez said, standing and straightening the blankets over the now sleeping Texan.
"Josiah, he okay?" Larabee asked, watching the older man touch his hand to the sharpshooter's cheek and forehead.
"Feels like the fever's come down some. He's sleeping easier too," the ex-preacher said "Fever wears on a man, Chris you know that. Plus he lost a lot of blood, it'll take a while for him to get over this." He then moved to check on Larabee, but stopped himself before he touched the blond. Larabee was trying his best to sit up, but didn't seem to have the strength he needed and Sanchez knew it would be some time before the man was back on his feet. The blood loss and pain had taken their toll on both men and until they were eating and drinking properly neither one would be up to much more than eating and sleeping.
"Josiah, I'm all packed and ready ta leave...lessen ya need me ta stick 'round and help ya with them two?"
"Thanks, Carl, but if you plan on being at the stage depot before nightfall you'd best get moving. I can handle these two," Sanchez said.
"Mr. Larabee, try not ta let them demons in," Tucker said and leaned in close. "Not unless yer willin' ta let these fellas help ya battle em...ya ain't strong 'nough ta fight 'em on yer own and ya'll be a better man fer it! Mark my words on that cause I've lived what yer livin'!" Without waiting for an answer, Tucker stood up shook hands with Sanchez and Dunne and walked out of the house.
Josiah saw the strange look on Larabee's face just before the blond seemed to drop off to sleep. He looked from one man to the other and knew they would find the strength in each other to weather this storm and whatever other ones came their way. Clapping Dunne on the back he led him out of the room and went through the supplies the Bostonian had brought with him.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah sat outside as the last of the fading daylight eased from the sky, leaving in its wake a beautiful array of stars surrounding a full-bodied moon. It had been two full days since Carl Tucker had left him alone with the two men and although the work was tiring, he cared for the injured men with a tenderness that defied his gruff exterior.
Nathan had been out earlier in the day and was pleased with the progress of the two men. The wounds were healing and the fevers had all but burned themselves out, leaving two bone weary men behind. Jackson had cleaned the wounds and left instructions on what he wanted Sanchez to do. The healer had stayed long enough to help make a thick stew for dinner and informed them all that Buck was limping around town on crutches and had every body of the female persuasion clamoring to take care of him. Josiah was glad the gentle rogue was up and around, but felt sorry for Jackson because he had to chase Buck down to tend his wounds.
Josiah sighed heavily as the sounds of the night reached him and he leaned back in his chair rubbing at tired eyes. An owl hooted in the trees to the right, crickets chirped in the grass, and a coyote howled in the distance. Each sound felt right, felt normal, and he knew hell had indeed been defeated and the devil no longer walked the earth in search of unwary souls. Now all that was needed was the time to heal and forget. A sound from behind him had him turning to watch the man shuffle slowly toward him. He didn't offer to help, but he was ready should he be needed. Without a sound he stood and let the injured man have his chair and went inside to grab a blanket.
Chris took the chair without a word and looked out over his land. This was a new start for him, a home, and a haven away from the hell his life had become for a while. Wincing he ran his hand over the bandage that encircled his waist and nodded his thanks when Sanchez draped a blanket over his shoulders.
"Got anything to drink?" Larabee asked, smiling when a glass was placed in his hand. He downed the fiery liquid and grimaced as it burned a trail down the back of his throat. Staring into the empty glass Chris let his shoulders slump before speaking. "Damn, Josiah, how the hell do we live with it?" He rolled the glass between his thumb and finger, frowning as the weight of the situation settled in again.
Sanchez knew Larabee was not referring to the wounds on their bodies, but more to the wounds on their hearts and the truth of what they had lived. He'd seen many things during his travels, had killed people and healed people, but never had he known the devil truly existed in mortal form until they'd seen him face to face at the Inn. Oh he'd heard stories of demons and possession and fought for God's touch, but he'd never come face to face with the creature that was now more than a myth. Taking a deep breath he reached out and placed his hand on Larabee's shoulder and waited for the blond head to come up.
"You've lived in the devil's shadow, Chris, we all have, but I don't think any of us was prepared to meet him face to face. Evil is something we've all seen and lived with, but most times we think the evil is the man who's gunning for us...or the person who beats a child or rapes a woman, but they are only an arm...an extension of the true evil. The devil takes many forms and I don't think we'll ever see his true form..."
"Are you telling me what we saw...what we lived wasn't evil...wasn't the devil?" Larabee asked incredulously.
"No, I'm saying that we've only seen a piece of the devil...he showed himself to us because he wanted to test God...to test our strength because he saw us as God's warriors. He chose you because you've already lived through the worst kind of evil a man can live with. He saw you as..."
"Maybe, but you proved him wrong..."
"Did I?" Larabee asked, searching for answers he couldn't find on his own. "I nearly killed Vin, Josiah."
"But you didn't and that alone should prove that you're stronger than most men. You fought the devil, Chris, and you won..."
"We fought the devil, Josiah. All of us...without you boys there's no way in hell I would have survived."
"You don't give yourself, credit, Chris. It was your own hand that deflected the blow that would have killed Vin."
"Wish I could believe that, Josiah..."
"B'lieve 'im, Chris...wouldn't be here now if'n the devil had ya." Tanner said and sank wearily onto the top step. He'd woken to find the other bed empty and heard his friends talking softly. It took all his strength to get on his feet and wrap the blanket around his body before making his way outside. He saw Sanchez stand and move inside and knew the ex-preacher was giving him and Larabee time alone.
"You should be in bed," Larabee said.
"Yer one ta talk...stiff breeze'd knock ya flat. Scrawny assed..."
"Scrawny?" Larabee said, eyebrows rising at the Texan's words. Something about the soft voice and the clear blue eyes was like a soothing balm on his troubled senses and he felt the walls begin to crumble. He'd lived in hell after his family's death and had been willing to go to hell if that's what it took, but something had changed when he'd met this makeshift family and it had started with just a cursory glance across a dusty street.
"Fuckin' gambler's been sellin' his five dollar words cheap," Larabee grinned. He saw the smile form on Tanner's face and felt a heavy weight lift from his shoulders. They could hear Sanchez moving around inside, but neither man was ready to return to the dreams that reminded them too much of the hell they'd already lived.
Josiah moved around inside the house, listening to the familiar silence that fell between the two men. It never ceased to amaze him how Larabee and Tanner could say more with silence than other men could in a hard paced battle of vocal wits. He glanced at the duo several times while he warmed the rabbit stew he'd made earlier and hoped his friends could manage to eat it. Taking a deep breath he carried the two bowls outside and handed one to each man.
"Thanks, Josiah," Larabee said.
"Smells good," Tanner said.
"There's more where that came from," the older man told his two charges and stood looking out over the land.
The silence of the night surrounded them, but the three men knew there was nothing to fear in the darkness. The fear that was real could appear at any time, in any shape, but somehow they understood they'd beaten it back, and now was the time to heal. Their lives were changed by what they'd seen and experienced in the Inn, and even now it felt unreal. It could have been a nightmare; only their wounds were all to real and the weakness that goaded them came from within. Their bodies bore the raw testament to the beating they'd taken, but the deepest wounds were the ones done to their souls, yet, Josiah knew this was their strongest weapon.
Seven souls had been locked in a battle waged between good and evil. The fact that good had won out did not mean the war was over. This was a war that transcended time and barriers that man was never meant to see; yet here they were, weakened in body, but not in spirit. Down, but not out, and that was something very few people could deny. The strength of the Seven was very real and one that he hoped would see them through the years ahead and the battle scars they would bear.
Josiah stood watching the two men while they picked at the stew and knew they bore the worst of the pain, both physical and emotional. He would be there, as would the other, any time Chris or Vin felt like talking, but he would not force the issue. A man's soul was his own, a man's life worth more than gold, but his memories were what held him together. Chris Larabee had lived through the hell of his family's death and now he had lived through another horror. This one was equally hard, but again he had people around him to help keep the bottled up demons from breaking through.
"Josiah, could ya gimme a hand here?" Tanner whispered, his energy depleted with the simple fete of sitting and eating.
Josiah reached for the bowl and handed it to Larabee before helping the tracker to his feet and taking most of his weight on his shoulders. He could feel the slight tremble coursing through the lean body and knew it would be some time before he regained his full strength. He settled the Texan on his bed and eased him down.
"Need anything just holler, Vin." The slight nod told him the other man had heard him and Josiah hurried back to the porch to find Larabee staring at sky.
"He's just worn out, Chris," Sanchez answered and looked at the two bowls. Very little was gone from either, but at least it was something. The two men needed to eat in order to gain back their strength and he'd make damn sure there was always food on hand for them.
"Imagine he is," Larabee said and turned away from the darkness he'd felt trying to encroach on his heart. How many times had he stood alone in the darkness, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders? The long months of walking alone through what could only be described as hell on earth. The lonely life of a gunslinger for hire who was afraid to put down roots. Afraid to open his heart and feel as if he was living and not just surviving. Then something had changed and that something started on a dusty morning in a little town that had grown into something they could all be proud of. A place they could call home and the seven men that made up their family. Was that what he wanted? What he needed? Could he really learn to live again? He leaned wearily against the wall and knew it was time to get back to the bed, but there just didn't seem to be enough energy.
"Chris," Sanchez's voice broke through the weary daze and Larabee swallowed past the lump in his throat.
His legs shook and he felt the world spinning, but was held upright by a pair of strong arms. He stumbled along beside the older man and was soon settled in his own bed. His eyes closed of their own volition and he whispered his thanks just before he gave in to the siren call of darkness.
Josiah covered both men and walked outside to retrieve the dishes. He cast his gaze skywards and smiled as a shooting star made a fiery trail across the sky. He took it as a good sign that things were going to be okay and walked back into the house. It wasn't long before he was lying on his side near the open door and took heart in the twin souls sleeping a healing sleep in the next room.
"Thank you, Lord," he whispered before surrendering to his own weariness.
+ + + + + + +
Buck sat outside on the landing and watched as the town slowly came to life. His leg, resting on a makeshift footstool, was healing and the deep burning had finally subsided. He could hear Nathan inside the clinic as he changed the bedclothes and aired out the clinic. Nearly a week had passed since he'd woke to find they were back in Four Corners and he was getting antsy about being cooped up. JD and Yosemite had both been out to Larabee's little spread and returned saying that both men were awake, but still didn't have their strength back. He looked toward the Clarion and spotted Mary Travis just stepping outside. He knew she was also worried about Chris and Vin, but she could only wait for news from those who checked on them.
"Buck, you get tired ya let me know."
"I will, Nate," Wilmington said. He watched as Katie Morgan and Janet Robertson hurried toward the clinic and couldn't help but smile and wave to the two women. Katie and Janet were friends of Blossom's and he'd enjoyed their company on more than one occasion. Both held a covered tray and Buck knew his breakfast was being brought to him. There'd be more than enough for him to share with Nathan and he smiled when the healer joined him just as footsteps sounded on the stairs below.
"Jesus, Buck, thought today was Blossom's turn?"
"Nope, Blossom's busy and well Katie and Janet both wanted to bring...good morning, Ladies."
"Hi, Buck, I brought you..."
"You look kind of pale, Buck," Katie gently pushed Janet aside and showed the gentle rogue what was on the tray. "I thought you could use something a little more satisfying than Janet's mush!"
"It's not much! I brought..."
"Ladies, I'm sure you both worked hard to make this for me and I surely do appreciate it," Wilmington said and smiled when the women kissed his cheek. "Makes a man downright humble to know two such fine..."
"Oh, Buck, you're so pale," Janet said and brushed the hair back from his forehead.
"And so tense," Katie told him. "I could help get rid of the tightness..."
"Ladies, he's in no shape for anything more strenuous than lifting a fork ta his mouth!" Jackson warned and saw the twin pouts being born. "Buck, eat and then maybe ya'll be able ta get that bath..."
"Bath, oh Darlin', can I help you..."
"No, let me do it," Katie interrupted with a saucy smile.
Jackson shook his head and turned to take the trays inside while he women fawned over Buck Wilmington. The man had more charm in his little finger than most men had in their whole bodies and Buck knew how to use it for maximum effect. He placed the trays on the table and listened to the soft, whispery laughter from the trio outside and knew he'd have to rescue Wilmington before long.
Nathan picked up his saddlebags and checked the supplies he'd placed there earlier. As soon as Wilmington was settled back in bed with clean bandages on his leg, Nathan would leave him in Dunne's capable hands while he went to check the other injured peacekeepers. Ezra would join him on the ride out and they'd do a patrol of the area before returning to town. It both shocked and amazed him that there had been little or no trouble in town while they were down on their numbers. Somehow it felt like they were being given time to heal.
+ + + + + + +
Chris unconsciously rubbed the bandage that covered his upper body and realized he still hadn't seen the mark on his chest. All he knew was that it was in the shape of an inverted cross, a devil's mark. He wondered what the citizens of Four Corners would think if they saw the evil sign that marred his flesh. Somehow Josiah's assurances that the wound was rapidly fading did nothing to ease the torment he faced when the wound burned as if a fire raged underneath the skin.
Chris shook off the feelings that chilled him to the core and caught movement in the tree a short distance from his house. There'd always been a family of birds nesting there, but it seemed late in the year for what he was now seeing. He heard footsteps beside him and grinned when the Texan eased his body down on the top step.
"See that?" Larabee asked.
"What?" the Texan asked of the wonder he heard in the softly spoken words.
"In the trees. Don't remember ever seeing robins teaching their young this late in the year," the blond said when Josiah joined them.
"It's unusual but not unheard of," Sanchez said.
"Maybe it's a sign," Tanner said.
"A sign of what?" Larabee asked.
"Rebirth. Figure after ever'thin' we saw maybe it's God's way of lettin' us know we did what we's supposed ta," the sharpshooter said.
Chris watched the birds teaching the younger ones to fly and smiled when the last one spread its wings and took flight. Maybe Vin was right and that it really was a sign the God approved of what they'd done...of what they did. He knew the taking of another man's life did not set well with any of them, but there were times when they didn't have a choice.
"You could be right, Vin," Larabee said and watched two riders enter his yard. "Morning, Boys."
"Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner, might I say you appear far better than the last time I saw you," the gambler observed.
"Thanks, Ez," the tracker said with a grin while the two men dismounted and Sanchez took control of Jackson's horse.
"How's Buck?" Larabee asked.
"Buck's fine, in fact..."
"Mr. Wilmington was in the company of several ladies who were enamored of his feeble appearance and pale discoloration," Standish finished for Jackson and smiled when the others chuckled at his disclosure.
"Vin, let me take a look at you," Jackson said and led the man inside the house.
"Everything okay in town?" Larabee asked.
"Everything is fine. It is bizarre, but it seems like the outlaws have decided to take a holiday," Standish explained and took the seat Tanner had vacated.
"Stranger things have happened," Sanchez told them.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan was pleased with the way the Texan's wound was healing. He'd removed the stitches the last time he'd been out and was glad to see the pinkish scar held no sign of infection. "Vin, no need to cover this any more, but that doesn't mean ya can go overdoing things!"
"I hear ya, Nate," the Texan said and reached for his shirt. His body was healing, but his muscles and joints were stiff from being inactive for so long. "Okay to go ridin'?"
"Can't see why not as long as ya don't stay in the saddle too long and don't go on one of your hunting trips until I tell ya. Tell Chris I'm ready for him now," Jackson said when the tracker stood up to leave.
"How's he doin' Nate?" Tanner asked softly.
"He's doin' better'n he was, Vin. Seems like he's finally realizin' he wasn't at fault for what happened out there," the healer told him. He set out new items, quickly changed the water in the basin, and was in Larabee's back room when the patient walked in. "Have a seat, Chris."
Chris sat down on the edge of his bed, eased out of his shirt and waited for Jackson to turn around. The bandages showed no sign of new blood and he hoped Jackson would give him the all clear.
"How are you feeling, Chris?" Jackson asked. His expert hands quickly cut through the bandages on Larabee's chest and his eyebrows rose in bewildered surprise.
"Better," Larabee answered and wondered how many times he'd said that word since their ordeal had begun. Something about Jackson's face made him look down at his chest and his own eyes widened in surprise and he touched the skin that should have been wrinkled with the healing burn. There was no sign of the burn that had ravaged his chest and he looked up into the soft brown eyes that mirrored his own astonishment. "How?"
"I don't know, Chris, but my daddy used ta say don't look a gift horse in the mouth," Jackson said, his fingers gently prodding the area. "Amazing...there's no sign that anything...it should be..."
Chris smiled at the healer and hoped the wound to his side was also healed, but when the healer removed the bandaging he winced and tried not to show how much pain he was in. "Guess it was too much to hope that'd be gone too."
"Looks that way. I'm gonna take out the stitches, Chris, but you still need to take it easy. Don't go tryin' ta ride Pony until I tell ya, okay?"
"All right," Larabee said and tried to relax while Nathan removed the stitches.
"What is it?"
"Laudanum. Go on take it...make it a little easier for both of us," Jackson said with a grin. He waited for Larabee to take it and gave him a few minutes to let the opiate take affect. "You ready for this?"
"Hell no, but get it done," the blond told him. He felt the healer's hands on his skin, but felt very little else as the laudanum eased the ache from his body. By the time Jackson wrapped a new bandage around his waist he was nearly asleep and Jackson eased the blanket up over his body. "Thanks...mom," Larabee whispered smiling when he heard Jackson chuckle.
"Go ta sleep," the healer said and left the man to rest. Once outside he stretched his neck and rotated his shoulders before answering the question he knew was on their minds. "He's doing better. Gave him some laudanum before I took the stitches out of his side, but he's still a little tender there. He's sleepin'."
"What about the burn?" Sanchez asked.
"It's gone," Jackson told them.
"Gone?" Tanner asked.
"Yep. There's no sign of it. I got no idea what happened, but Chris' chest shows no sign of that damned sign they burned on him."
"God's hand," Sanchez said.
"What?" Jackson asked.
"God's hand has touched him and taken away the devil's mark," the ex-preacher explained.
"I ain't arguin' with ya, Josiah," Jackson said and smiled when the man handed him a cup of coffee. "God's hand has been with us through all of this."
"Yes, it has, Brother, and I don't think he's likely to forsake us in the future." Sanchez took a deep breath and silently sent a prayer of thanks. The healing had truly begun and his heart felt lighter than it had in a long time.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah stood watching the two men ride away from Larabee's little piece of heaven and smiled. Since the disappearance of the inverted cross, Larabee and Tanner seemed to have rallied. Jackson's visit that morning had put a smile on both faces when he gave his approval for the duo to go off on their own. The healer had also given them a stern warning that if they showed the slightest sign of fever or problems with their wounds, they would high tail it for town.
Jackson assured them that Wilmington was also doing well and was actually up and around with the aid of a cane and several young ladies who vied for his attention. Now, with the sun starting its final lap across the sky, the two men were saddled up and ready to leave.
"Any trouble ya know head for town," Jackson said.
Chris and Vin simply nodded, shook hands with the ex-preacher and the healer and mounted up. With a simple tip of their hats they rode across the small clearing.
Sanchez and Jackson watched until the horses were out of sight. Sanchez watched as the former slave slumped onto the top step and moved to join him. Nathan looked wearier than he'd ever seen him and Josiah knew he needed time to refresh his depleted energy stores. The last few months had been both physically and emotionally draining on all of them, but none so much as the giant sitting beside him. The others were healing and it was time Nathan took the time to let himself heal, and Josiah knew just where and with who he could do it.
"Looks like them two are gonna get the peace and quiet they need. Nothing better than a quiet ride..."
"Quiet? The silence alone will be deafening," the older man observed of the penchant Larabee and Tanner had for speaking without saying a word.
"That's for damn sure," Jackson said.
"You planning on riding back to town?" Sanchez asked, again noting the lines of strain on his friend's face.
"Yeah, got a few things need fixin'"
"They need to be done today?"
"Not really. Just gotta mend a couple of stairs and make sure Buck don't undo everything we've worked so damn hard ta fix by climbing in windows..."
"Or falling out of them?" Sanchez said, grinning from ear to ear.
"That too," the healer said and rotated his shoulders.
"So there's nothing pressing in town?"
"No," the former stretcher-bearer answered.
"Then why don't you head on out to the Seminole Village? Might be you could find a little 'peace' of your own," the big man grinned and saw the change come over his friend.
"Might just do that." Jackson said and smiled at the thought of seeing the Rain. He didn't realize how much he missed her until now. Josiah was probably right; she was the best medicine for his aching spirit.
"Why don't you get moving?"
"Think I'll do just that," Jackson said and moved to the corral. It didn't take long to saddle the big animal and Nathan mounted up. "I'll see ya in a few days."
"Take your time, Brother, take your time," the ex-preacher stood and watched his friend leave, glad the man had taken his advice. Of them all, Jackson bore the brunt when it came to caring for the injured, and it was time he had someone care for him. He knew Rain would be happy to see Nathan and the two would have plenty to talk about. Looking around Josiah felt the peace that surrounded Larabee's little piece of heaven and took solace in the knowledge that his 'brothers' were whole in number once more.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Vin rode slowly away from the house and into the surrounding hills. There was no need for conversation, just the welcome silence that was interrupted solely by the sounds of nature and the animals that crossed their paths. They'd been riding for over a couple of hours, in no hurry to get anywhere, when the Texan turned to his companion. Neither man spoke, but a smile formed on both faces as they gave the horses their leads.
Peso and Pony clipped along, side-by-side, their hooves tearing up the ground and causing a cloud of sand to billow up behind them. To anyone watching they looked like two men trying to escape the demons of hell, yet that was far from the truth. For Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner this was a ride to freedom, a symbol of their flight forward, and a cry for freedom that went beyond friendship.
The wind tore the hats from their heads, but the straps kept them from being blown away. Laughter joined the thunder of hooves as they sparked against rocks, a sound that to some would signal madness, but for these two friends who had endured so much, it was the sound of relief. The pace began to slow and Larabee and Tanner knew the animals needed to rest. Their was a sense of peace about the two men who drew the horses to a stop next to a small creek that flowed into small pool cradled up against a sheer cliff.
It didn't take long to set up a camp and start a small fire. Supper consisted of Josiah's biscuits, leftover fried chicken, and coffee. As darkness fell the sounds of the night descended on them, the lonesome cry of a coyote echoed across the land. It was soon joined by the soft hoot of an owl as the heavy bodied moon lifted above the horizon and joined the blanket of twinkling stars high overhead.
"Nice and quiet ," Tanner said, watching his friend closely.
"Sounds good," Larabee stated of the silence of the night. He leaned back against the rock and looked into the fire. He lit a cheroot from the stick he lifted from the flames and reached into his saddlebag for the flask he'd placed there. Removing the cap he took a long pull and grimaced as the fiery liquid hit his throat.
"Gonna share?" the lanky Texan asked and held out his empty coffee cup
"Thinkin' about it," Larabee replied with a cocky grin.
"Cheap fuckin' bastard..."
"Not the way to talk to the man who holds Ezra's ambrosia," the blond said and poured a good stiff belt into the cup.
"Ya stole it?"
"Won it off him," Larabee said.
"Didn't have to," the blond chuckled softly. "I let him cheat himself out of it."
"Best way ta cheat a cheater," the Texan said and downed what was in his cup.
"Really...thought it was lacking in taste."
"Tha's a relief. Where's yer stash?"
Larabee grinned and pulled out a bottle of red eye and poured equal amounts into his and Tanner's cups.
"This stuff'll peel the paint offa the walls," Tanner said appreciatively. The two lapsed into silence, listening to the night sounds, sipping the whiskey, and listening to the wood sparks crackling in the fire.
Chris shifted on the ground and added a couple of pieces of wood to the flames, before looking at his friend. "Do you believe in hell, Vin?"
"If ya'd asked me that a month ago I'da said no."
"Can't deny it after ever'thin' we've seen, Chris. What about ya?"
"Hell is real...lived it when I...when I..."
"Wasn't ya that stabbed me, Chris."
"Wasn't it? My hand held the fucking blade, Vin. My hand brought it down to your chest!" Larabee said, his voice dripping in loathing.
"Yer wrong," Vin countered softly, his eyes warm. "That heart o'yers come through, stopped the knife from killin' me. Don't ever doubt that, Cowboy." Tanner said and stared into the green eyes and sent his faith through the contact. "'Cause I don't."
That was all Chris needed as he felt the last of his fears lifted with the depth of emotion in the sky blue eyes. He filled their cups once more and settled back to enjoy the quiet and solitude of this man's special friendship.
During the long days that followed Chris and Vin enjoyed the time and the renewed strength that flowed through their bodies. They rode quietly during the day, stopping when they found a place that promised water and shelter if needed. The two men said more with a glance than most people could say in a lifetime. It seemed like the time flew by and without a word the duo headed for Four Corners, a renewed sense of life flowing through the twin souls.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan, Josiah, Buck, Ezra, and JD watched the two figures riding toward the livery. Two weeks had passed since Jackson had given Larabee and Tanner the go ahead to ride again. The two men had saddled Pony and Peso and rode off with orders to take it easy and return to town if there were any problems. The duo sported heavy beards and a twinkle in their eyes that spoke of true healing.
"Howdy, Boys," Tanner said and quickly dismounted.
"Hey, Vin, Chris, where ya been?" Dunne asked.
"Away," Larabee answered simply.
"You two okay?" Jackson asked simply. He wanted to check the duo over, but didn't feel like pushing them for now. Neither man looked as if they'd fall over in spite of the growth of beard and the fact that they looked like they'd both lost weight.
"Feel fine, Nate," Tanner said.
"Could use a bath," Larabee told the healer, rubbing at the beard on his chin before tossing Pony's reins to Yosemite.
"That, Mr. Larabee, is an understatement," Standish said, staying slightly downwind form the two lawmen.
"Need a shave," Tanner said. He looked at Larabee, handed Peso's reins to the liveryman before nodding his head slightly to the blond. Without a word, the two men stepped out into the street, leaving five men to stare after them.
"Where are you going?" Dunne asked.
"Saloon," Larabee and Tanner answered in unison
+ + + + + + +
Jackson looked at the two peacekeepers and shook his head. Larabee and Tanner looked like totally different men than the two that had rode back into town the day before. Both were bathed and clean-shaven and looked as if they'd slept well.
"All right, Vin, let me take a look," Jackson ordered. He waited for the tracker to removed the buckskin jacket and shirt before gently prodding the pink scar that was the only reminder of the wound that had nearly cost him his life.
"Shit, Nate, yer hands been in ice?"
"It's damn near a hundred degrees out there, Vin," Jackson said and smiled at the Texan. "Where the hell would I get ice water?"
"Must be ice flowin' through yer veins!" the Texan said and moved out of the way so Larabee could sit down.
"Hands don't feel cold to me," Larabee said when Jackson touched his side.
"Tha's 'cause he warmed 'em on me and jest 'bout stopped my heart," Tanner snapped.
"Quit yer gripin' Tanner," Jackson said. "Chris, this looks fine. Glad the two of ya didn't do nothin' to undo my work."
"Nathan, we owe ya a drink," the Texan said.
"Or two," Larabee said, buttoning up his shirt.
"What's goin' on?" Tanner asked when he looked down on the street.
"Town's plannin' a celebration," Jackson said with a grin.
"What're they celebrating?" Larabee asked.
"The return of "The Magnificent Seven," Jackson said and handed the man the Clarion paper from the day before. He smiled at the look on Larabee's face when he read the story aloud.
"Four Corners citizens thankful for the return of the men who saved their town. Join us as we welcome back 'The Magnificent Seven!'," Larabee read.
"Don't that beat all?" Tanner said with a grin.
"Mary's been organizin' everything. She sent riders out to the farms and told them you boys were back and to come to town and help celebrate," Jackson explained. "It's their way of sayin' thanks."
"Damn," Larabee said around the lump in his throat.
"Feels good ta be home," Tanner agreed and sat at the table while Jackson served up a plate of bacon and flapjacks for both of them.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah smiled at the scene before him and couldn't help feeling as if things had finally come full circle. The seven were whole, not totally healed, but they were together again and it seemed as if the whole town had come out to celebrate. Nettie Wells worked alongside Gloria Potter, setting out tables of food that went from roast beef, mashed potatoes and peas to fine desserts that could rival those made in the fanciest restaurants the world over. He smiled and waved when the Wilson family arrived, Tom and Martha called to their two boys before they had a chance to join the Potter children. Sanchez couldn't help laughing when the two boys turned back with the usual 'Ah, Ma!'
"Hey, Josiah, did you see all that food? There's enough there to feed an army!" Dunne said upon joining the older man outside the saloon.
"There certainly is," Sanchez agreed. "Where's Buck?"
"He's with Miss Katie," the easterner said in undisguised disgust. "Sometimes I wonder if Buck's really got that magnetism crap he's always spouting about."
"Uhoh, what happened?" the older man asked and straightened the hat on his head.
"Damn it, Josiah. I was gonna ask Miss Katie to the dance next week, but Buck got to her first!"
"There are plenty of lovely young ladies who would be honored to have you accompany them, JD."
"I seem to recall you being smitten by Miss Casey Wells."
"She's just a girl, Josiah. It's time for me to start...what?" Dunne asked and turned to see what or who had the preacher smiling and dipping his hat. A young woman walked toward him wearing a flowery dress with matching bonnet. She held a parasol in one hand and kept twirling it in front of her face. "Couldn't be!"
"JD, best tuck your tongue back in your mouth," Sanchez said.
"Casey, is that really you?"
"Course it's me. Why are you looking at me like that?"
"You...you. How? Why you look...look...like a...a"
"Like a what?" Casey asked with a teasing smile.
"Like a woman...a princess."
"Yes, Miss Wells, you certainly do," Sanchez said with a toothy grin, chuckling softly when JD seemed at a loss for words. "I believe JD has something to ask you."
"I do?" Dunne asked and shook away the cobwebs surrounding his brain. "Yes, yes I do. Casey, would you do me the honor of going with me to the dance next week?"
"Why, I'd love to, JD, but..."
"But?" Dunne was floored by the sound of that one word.
"But I was hoping a man would ask me...someone like..."
"Don't you say it, Casey. Buck ain't taking you! You're supposed to be my girl!"
"I am?" the young woman teased.
"Yes, you are!" Dunne said and saw the smile on Casey's face.
"JD, the lady knows how to rile you," Sanchez said.
"Casey, will you go to the dance with me?" the Bostonian asked.
"Yes, JD," Casey said and smiled when Dunne through his hat in the air and let out a resounding whoop.
"What's the noise about, Kid?" Wilmington asked, leaning on the cane when he stepped out of the saloon.
"I got me a date with the pretties..."
"Whoa, who's this gorgeous lady?" the gentle rogue said, reaching for Casey's hand and placing a chaste kiss there. "Charmed."
"Get your hands off my date, Buck." Dunne said, smiling from ear to ear when he linked his arm through Casey's and walked her toward the table where her aunt was setting out more dishes.
"That boy's finally smartening up," Wilmington said.
"And growing up fast. You should have seen the look on his face when he saw Casey. The boy's tongue nearly hit the ground."
"She's a beautiful young lady and JD is a lucky young man," the ladies' man said and pulled a chair up beside Sanchez.
"Where's the lovely Miss Katie?"
"She's goin' away for a week. Her and Janet were invited to some kind of celebration over near Eagle Bend."
"So with Blossom out of town you're a lonely man."
"Sure looks that way...sorry thing for a man of my prowess."
"You're full of shit, Buck," Sanchez said and looked at the cane beside the other man. "How's the leg?"
"Getting' there. Chris and Vin back yet?" Wilmington asked. Larabee and Tanner had gone on a morning ride that had stretched into the afternoon.
"Yes," Sanchez said and slid the bottle of whiskey and a glass across the small table to the other man.
"What do you think the Inn was, Josiah?" Wilmington asked.
"I don't think we'll ever know for sure, Buck, but I believe we were witness to the closing of the gates to hell. I know a lot of what happened out there is fading..."
"Like a dream?"
"Exactly and maybe that's not such a bad thing especially where Chris is concerned. Less he remembers about it the better."
"Is he still having nightmares?"
"Not as often and when he wakes up he doesn't talk about them. Not sure if that's by choice or if like the Inn they're gone before he's fully awake. What about you?"
"What about me?" Wilmington asked, not really wanting to talk about his own experiences. How could he explain the feeling that came over him every time he looked at the healing wounds on his leg? The horrific burning twisted along his nerves when ever he woke up covered in sweat and desperately searching for memories of his dreams.
"Are you okay?"
"No...maybe. I don't know, Josiah. Sometimes I wonder if what happened out there was worth it. I don't mean saving Chris and Vin, but what we saw and what we did. Does it really make a difference or will that cursed gate open again?"
"That's not for us to know, Brother, but if it does, I have faith in the Lord and that He'll see it's closed again. There's no point in letting it change our lives, Buck. We lived through something most people only see in their worst nightmares. We can let it make us stronger or we can let it drive us crazy. I choose the former."
"So do I," Wilmington said and clinked glasses with the older man. He watched Tanner and Larabee stride toward them and smiled when a child's excited voice called to the gunslinger.
Larabee smiled and plucked the child up in his arms even as Mary hurried toward him.
"Billy, I told you to be careful."
"Ah, Mom, Chris' ain't hurt no more...are ya Chris?" the boys asked, frowning when he looked at his hero.
"No, I'm not hurting anymore, Billy, but you mind your ma," Larabee said, but eased the boy back to the ground.
"Ma made cherry pie, Chris. She told Mrs. Wilson it was special for you 'cause you could use some meat on your..."
"Billy! You're not supposed to repeat things that were not meant for little ears!" the newspaperwoman scolded, a hint of a blush creeping into her face.
"Guess I'll have to have a big piece," Larabee said.
"Not until after you eat a proper meal," Mary lightly scolded and looked at Tanner. "That goes for you too."
"Yes, Ma'am," the Texan agreed with a grin before following Larabee toward the saloon. "She sure turns a purty shade of red. Man'd be blind not ta notice."
"I sure as hell ain't blind, Vin," Larabee said.
"Ya plannin' on sparkin' her?"
"Might be," the blond said.
"Might be what?" Jackson asked upon joining the two men.
"Nothing," Larabee stated and glared at the tracker before he could speak.
"I must say the air smells a lot more pleasant this afternoon," Standish said when he stepped out of the saloon. He looked down the dusty street and saw JD tip his hat to Casey Wells before joining them.
"Hey, Kid, Casey's growin' up real quick," Tanner said.
"She's a mighty fine lookin' filly," Wilmington said. "Should have seen him moonin' over her."
"Shut up, Buck," Dunne said.
"Easy, JD, Buck's just jealous. Seems Miss Katie and Miss Janet turned him down flat," Sanchez said.
"Damn, Josiah, hit a man while he's down why don't ya?" Wilmington said.
"Perhaps young master Dunne would agree to giving you lessons on the finesse of charming the lovely weaker sex," Standish offered.
"Weaker? You ain't been frog giggin' with Casey. She ain't weak," Dunne said.
"My apologies...perhaps, fairer sex would have been more appropriate," the gambler said.
"I don't need any lesson on how to woo the ladies," Wilmington told them. "They were fawning all over me..."
"Were being the operative word, Buck," Larabee teased.
"Are they still fallin' fer the cane, Bucklin?" Tanner asked.
"Told him he could throw the damn thing away couple of days ago," Jackson said.
"Look like we got company," Tanner said. The seven turned to see the crowd gathering around them.
"Gentlemen," Virgil Watson's voice rose above the shuffling of feet and he stood before the men Travis had hired to protect their town. He'd grown to respect them and no longer thought of Chris Larabee as just a notorious gun. "The people of Four Corners and the farms in the area wanted to show you just how much we appreciate what you've done for our town. There was a time when we thought you were nothing but the bad element. I'm glad to say that's changed...if it wasn't for the seven of you our town would've been burned to the ground."
"Get on with it, Virgil," Tom Wilson called.
"Food's getting' cold or hot or..." a second voice interrupted.
"Okay, I'm getting there," Watson said and smiled when he turned back to the group. "This is just our way of saying thank you."
"Wir essen!" Heidegger shouted from the back.
"What did he say?" Dunne asked.
"Ain't got a clue, but might be tellin' us ta eat," Tanner said.
"Well, hell, why didn't he say so?" Wilmington said and made his way toward the table, holding his cane and smiling at the ladies who asked about his injury.
Chris heard the others leave, but stood still for several minutes.
The whispery soft voice seemed to come from inside his mind and Chris felt none of the fear he once had. The voice he'd heard callin to him so long ago had a name now. It belonged to the young woman whose journal Josiah had found and he had no doubt that her soul was finally at rest.
"You're welcome, Anahita," Larabee smiled as the gentle voice brought a peace inside of him.
"Did ya say somethin', Cowboy?" Tanner asked from beside him.
"Just putting some spirit to rest, Vin," Larabee answered.
"Amen to that," Sanchez said and clapped the two friends on the back before joining the others at the smorgasbord set out in their honor.
+ + + + + + +
A black bird hovered over the sands that had once been home to a stately Inn. Now there was nothing, but the silent black soil that sometimes reached out for anyone or anything that happened to be in striking distance. The sands shifted and a splinter, stained red with blood shivered in the open air before being dragged back into the remnants of The Inn of Lost Souls!!!!!!!