Main character: Chris
Note: This story originally appeared in the Let's Ride 1 fanzine (2001 Neon Rainbow Press)
The Nichols family had left Four Corners, and the seven men guarding it, a real mess.
Nathan Jackson shook his head as he surveyed the damage hours later. He'd been working steadily ever since, removing bullets out of Josiah and Buck, cleaning up a battered JD, even bandaging two of the townspeople who'd injured themselves trying to flee the shootout between the vindictive Nichols brothers and the seven of them. Considering three of the brothers and Hank Conley, Chris' father-in-law, lay dead after the fight, it was probably a miracle more people hadn't gotten hurt or killed. Especially none of the seven. Nathan shook his head again. It had been too darn close this time.
Speaking of Hank, Nathan hadn't seen Chris much since the shooting ended. He presumed their leader had gone off to arrange for Hank's burial, but Larrabee usually tracked down Nathan for a report after any of his men were injured, and the healer would have expected a visit from an edgy Larrabee by then. Well, he was probably busy. God knew there was a lot of fixing up to do after the Nichols' visit. Nathan forgot about the matter as he turned into the room they'd set up for Josiah while the man healed.
And found Chris already there.
Nathan immediately pulled back, not wanting to interrupt. Though, come to think of it, whatever Chris was just finishing saying would have no audience--Josiah was still out like a snuffed candle after Nathan's makeshift surgery, and most likely would sleep at least until morning now.
It didn't seem to deter Chris. He sat in a chair beside the bed, studying the sleeping patient as if making sure he was all right and would stay that way. Collecting his own report, with his own two eyes. Nathan couldn't really blame him for that, not after the bloodbath that day. Probably none of them would really settle down, not for another day or two. And the whole thing wouldn't be forgotten until the last of their numbers was back on his feet and had returned among them.
Larrabee finally stood, stretching what looked like an aching back for a moment before glancing at the door and with the barest of smiles saying, "You can come in now, Nathan."
Feeling as abashed as if he'd been caught snooping, Nathan stepped inside and stopped near the door. "Everything okay, Chris?"
"Yeah. Just wanted to see for myself." Another glance at the bed and Josiah's prone figure, and he turned back to Jackson. "How's he doing?"
"Should be limping for a week or two, but bullet came out nicely. Clean shot, shouldn't be any complications."
Chris nodded. "That's good." He moved toward the door, inviting Nathan with a look to join him. "How 'bout Buck an' JD?"
"Buck's shoulder's in a little worse shape--he's gonna have to work with it for a while before it's back up to snuff, but it should heal okay. An' JD's mostly bruises, some sore ribs. I'm keepin' an eye on him t'make sure he didn't hurt anything inside, but it don't look like it."
Chris just nodded, stepping unerringly toward Dunne's room. Nathan hadn't even realized their leader knew where each of them was staying, but then, there was a lot he didn't know about the man in black who led their odd little group.
Then again, Chris had been in that room before, when JD had been stabbed by Hill's men. Nathan never caught the man at it, but he saw Larrabee leaving the room several times during those next few days while JD mended.
Chris went in first, and Nathan again hung back at the door to give them some privacy. And was surprised to realize that JD already had a visitor.
Chris didn't seem to be. He only stepped around the chair Buck sat in and hitched one foot onto the nightstand to lean with both arms on his upraised knee. He looked first at the occupant of the bed, black and blue but oblivious to the world. Apparently satisfied by the sight, he turned to Wilmington.
"Aren't you supposed to be in bed, Bucklin?" he asked softly.
He was, Nathan could have told him that, the way Buck was bent around his slinged arm a clear sign of how much he was hurting. Even the laudanum before surgery would have worn off by now. But it wouldn't kill him to sit up a while, and Nathan had an idea why he was there.
Buck seemed a little embarrassed by Chris' question, a sight which Nathan was thoroughly enjoying. "Ah, well, Chris, you know, Nathan said we'd better keep an eye on him for a while, make sure nothing's messed up inside. Just followin' the doc's orders."
Boy, was he an awful liar. Jackson shook his head to himself with a roll of the eyes.
Chris had known the man a lot longer, and was hardly fooled, either. "I think he meant he was gonna keep an eye on the kid. You've still got mending of your own to do."
"I'm okay," Buck protested even as he rubbed gingerly at his arm with a wince.
Larrabee's voice went even softer, friend-to-friend. "He's gonna be okay, Buck--Nathan says so. Why don't you go get some sleep so you can keep up with him when he's back on his feet?"
Buck's mustache twitched in a clear battle with himself. "I know he's gonna be fine, it's just...I can't help rememberin' seein' him fall over like that in the bar, all bloody, y'know? I mean," he abruptly slapped his leg with his hat, "why'd they have to beat him up like that, Chris? He's just a kid!"
"Bullies always look for the weakest one to beat up on," Larrabee answered calmly.
That just seemed to fire Wilmington up more. "He ain't weak," Buck shot back. "You see how he joined in the fight from upstairs? The boy's got more pluck than most gunslingers I've met." Nathan smothered a smile; for all the grief the older man gave JD, he was prouder of the kid than any strutting papa Jackson had ever seen.
"Now, I didn't say he was weak, just the one they saw that way, youngest an' least experienced," Chris soothed.
Buck nodded unhappily, as quickly contrite as he'd been angry.
"How're you doin'?" Larrabee shifted the subject, probably wisely.
His face was pale with blood loss and pain, but Buck gave his old friend an undiminished, cocky grin. "Just winged--can't keep me down for long, you know that. Be as good as new in a few days."
Chris' eyes met Nathan's over Buck's head for the first time since the conversation started, trading a look of disbelief with him. Nathan just gave him an exasperated look and a shake of the head.
Larrabee probably didn't need it for his own diagnosis, but he nodded. "How 'bout I promise somebody's gonna stay with JD overnight to make sure he's okay? Would you go to bed then and sleep?"
"If I don't, you're probably gonna tie me down and make me rest." Buck grimaced at him.
A smile played at Chris' lips. "Prob'ly," he allowed.
The big man stared again at the too-still form of JD Dunne, chewing on his mustache for a minute. "All right, but I'm comin' back in the morning."
"I'm sure JD'll be countin' on it," Chris said, really smiling this time, if briefly.
As soon as Buck's back was to him, Chris gave Nathan a pointed look. The message was clear: make sure he got settled and was doing okay. Nathan stepped into Buck's view in response, and while Wilmington frowned at him, knowing exactly why he was there, he didn't protest.
Almost at the door, however, he did turn back. "I'm sorry about Hank, Chris. 'Twasn't his fault, his mind just couldn't handle it."
They really hadn't given much consideration to Chris' loss, Nathan realized guiltily. Out in the street, it had looked like the man really mourned his father-in-law's passing, even if they hadn't seemed on the best of terms. Figured Buck would pick up on and remember that, but he was also offering absolution for Hank having shot him. It never would have occurred to Nathan that Chris would take that responsibility on himself, but as the black-clad shoulders slumped a little at the words, the healer realized Buck had known what he was doing.
"Yeah," was all Larrabee said in answer, but it was apparently enough for Buck, at least for the moment. He nodded and finally let Nathan lead him out of the room.
His own room was actually just next door to JD's, probably by design, and he shrugged off the black man's help at his door. "No offense, Nathan, but I been gettin' myself ready for bed now for a long time. I promise I'll go right to sleep, okay? Just, uh, keep an eye on Chris, would ya?" And with that cryptic comment, delivered in a whisper and with eyes averted, he disappeared into his room.
Chris--sure. Why not? He was already keeping an eye on everyone else, it seemed, and Nathan wasn't passing up an unusual look into the private Chris Larrabee he seemed to be glimpsing that night.
Buck taken care of, Nathan slipped back to JD's room, silent this time and hidden by the shadows.
Chris had claimed Buck's vacated seat by the bed and was studying JD's battered and swollen face. He'd been the only one to notice earlier that day that something was wrong with JD; with hindsight, the young man's slow, almost staggering walk into the saloon that day should have caught Nathan's attention, too. But it was Chris that Nathan remembered watching the kid with a frown, and being the first to jump forward to catch him as he suddenly collapsed. For a hard-bitten man who seemed to take everything in stride, something about JD Dunne had softened Larrabee. Maybe it was his youth, or that limitless enthusiasm, or his lingering innocence even in their line of work. Maybe the kid reminded Chris of his own lost son. But it was with no great surprise that Nathan watched now as Chris leaned forward and brushed a few strands of that long, unruly hair off Dunne's puffy eye and cheek, then rested his hand on the dark head. The expression on his face was almost gentle, a look Jackson had rarely seen on him but that made him look considerably more human.
Nathan pulled back, suddenly feeling an intruder. A few creeping steps in reverse and then he clomped back to JD's door with all the stealth of a cow wearing boots, making sure his arrival was heard. Sure enough, as he stepped into the doorway, Chris was on his feet, giving the sleeping kid one last glance before he looked up at Nathan. His face was once again the hard, expressionless one the ex-slave was used to, nothing of his earlier tenderness visible. The man guarded his feelings better than just about anyone Nathan had ever met, but at least he knew now they were there.
Chris had already joined him at the door. "Where's Ezra?"
The question wasn't one he expected, but Nathan's mind quickly jumped tracks. "Uh, I think he went to his room, too. Never thought to check on him--he's okay, isn't he?" After those acrobatics Standish had pulled earlier that day, Nathan would have been surprised if he didn't have at least some injury to show for it, but then, Ezra often seemed lucky that way. Still, he should have at least asked, and the thought gnawed him enough to follow Chris down the hall, their leader once more going unerringly to the right door. It was, as befitting Ezra, at the far end of the hall, removed from them all and right next to the stairs, perhaps for a quick getaway.
The knock was followed by a long hesitation, then an unusually strained, "Come in." Maybe Ezra had been injured after all. Nathan shook his head. The Southerner was probably the one he was least close to in the group--probably the one they all were least close to--but Ezra was still a member of their team and Nathan should have checked on him.
One glance at the gambler as they entered the room, however, and Nathan's worries subsided. The problem was physical, all right, but nothing he could treat. Ezra was pacing the room, almost wearing a hole in the carpet, and even his clasped hands couldn't hide the fact that they were shaking. Delayed reaction. Nathan couldn't blame him for it--he'd seen it in the best of men, and after the stunt Ezra had pulled earlier that day some reaction was definitely called for.
"You all right?" Chris went right to the point.
Ezra wasn't quite looking at them, which didn't surprise Nathan much. Even as long as they'd been together, the Southerner still didn't seem to like to show weakness before the rest of them. "I am...unharmed," he finally said in a measured voice.
Uh-huh. Nathan would have voiced his skepticism aloud if this wasn't Chris' ground. "Mind tellin' me what you did out there today?" the older man asked in those same dangerously even tones.
Ezra stopped his pacing, glancing briefly now at the both of them. Assembling his poker face, Jackson realized. And suddenly wondered how often Ezra had had to do that in the past in self-defense. "I was attempting to put an end to the battle by forcing our enemies out into the open," he said just as evenly as Chris.
It often came down to a battle of will between the two, and Nathan watched with interest to see who would win.
"It was suicide. I'd expect that kind of thing from JD, not you. I don't want to make a fight shorter or easier at the cost of one of my men, got that?"
Still there was no anger, but Nathan could see the sparks in Ezra's eyes...until the phrase, "one of my men." Then the green eyes were just bewildered. Nathan smiled to himself. Ezra was slowly thawing by degrees, but he still wasn't quite used to the idea that he wasn't riding alone anymore.
"I shall endeavor to remember that," he answered stiffly.
"You do that." Chris' mouth unexpectedly quirked. "It was some idea, though. Probably saved some of our lives, Ezra. Good job."
The poor gambler really looked confused now. But even as Nathan watched, a delighted smile stole across his face and he touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgment. His hand trembled only a little as he did.
It seemed to be the result Chris had been looking for, for he nodded back easily and left, Nathan just preceding him out of the room. Like any good leader, he knew when to chastise for stupid risks, but also rewarded bravery. And not just bravery, but the willingness to risk himself for others. It was not something that came easily to Ezra's nature, and no doubt the man in there was at that very moment trying to figure out himself why he'd done what he'd done. But Chris had picked up on that potential from the very beginning, when he'd invited Standish to join their group, then given him a second chance upon Ezra's initially running out on them. Nathan had just taken a little while longer to see the gambler's merits. He still didn't trust anything the Southerner said, but he was perfectly secure with Ezra at his back in battle. If nothing else, today had proved that in spades.
Chris' rounds seemed done, the only member of the group still unaccounted for being Vin Tanner, but Nathan had seen the tracker since the battle and knew him to be all right. Of course, maybe that was the point, Jackson realized as he saw Chris turn toward the stairway leading down to the saloon and almost bump into Vin waiting for him at its head. They didn't say a word to each other, Larrabee merely swept his hand out in a "you first" invitation. Vin placidly turned and headed down before him. So, it was finally time for the caretaker to shuck the responsibility for a little bit and let somebody else help him just as he'd been there for everybody else that evening.
But first, he seemed to remember Nathan was still standing in the hallway, and he turned back to the younger man. "You mind sittin' with JD for a while? I'll come relieve you in a while, but I promised Buck somebody would stay with him tonight."
"Already taken care of," Nathan said with a smile. He'd planned to head back there, anyway.
"And look in on Buck once, too, would you? Gets a little hard-headed about gettin' some rest sometimes."
Something he well knew from experience. "I will, Chris."
Larrabee hesitated. "Thanks for taking care of 'em, Nathan. That was good work."
Chris Larrabee didn't hand out praise often, and the words meant something to Nathan. He nodded once seriously.
Chris nodded back, a glimmer in his eyes of the man he no doubt once was, the man who still lay hidden underneath and who cared more about his men than he let on. Then he disappeared downstairs to go talk to Tanner, another side Nathan didn't know he'd ever see.
Chris Larrabee had become their leader almost by default, from the very first day he'd decided to step in and stop Nathan's lynching. He took the mantle automatically, a born leader in Jackson's opinion, yet a responsibility he didn't bear easily. For a man who'd lost everything once, it had to be difficult to suddenly be accountable for six men under him. But Nathan didn't know he'd follow anyone like he was willing to follow Chris into hell itself, or at least into Purgatory. The way Chris had looked after his men that evening, even after the battle was over and the dust had cleared, was a good demonstration of why.
Yessir, they'd been mighty lucky all the way around, both that afternoon and the day months before when the seven of them had somehow ended up together. Chris might have been the last to admit it--well, or maybe Ezra--but he knew it as well as Nathan did, the healer had no doubt of that.
But now he had a charge to fill. With the contentment of one whose world was in order, Nathan headed back toward JD's room to keep an eye on the youngest member of their little group.