Disclaimer: This is a work of amateur fiction. I claim no rights to the series Magnificent Seven, or its characters. I receive no financial compensation for this story.
Notes: This is one of my earlier works, written soon after I became involved in the series.
Warnings: Lots of anger between the Seven, quite a few curse words. This was written back when I thought of Chris and Ezra more as foes than compatriots, and Chris as more of a drinker than he actually was in the series.
Dedication: As always, to my Cyber-sister, the Muse.
Chris Larabee squinted into the afternoon sun, hoping for some sign of clouds. He, Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish were a day outside of the little town of Four Corners. They had been on an errand for Judge Travis, delivering a quartet of outlaws whose days of robbery and violence were now, hopefully, all behind them. Spending the previous night in the town of Willow Creek the trio had relaxed in the village's single saloon. While Ezra had managed to fleece a few of the residents and Vin had relaxed, or at least seemed to, in a corner, Chris had watched the room's activity over a shot glass. He had awakened with only a vague recollection of falling into bed the night before, and a fervent desire to ride home under a heavy cloud cover that would keep the sun from increasing the headache that had ushered in his hangover.
"Chris, you look like someone pissed in your coffee. Vin commented with a smile that didn't fade even when faced with a Chris Larabee glare.
"Yeah, and grinning like that, Tanner, I've got to wonder if it wasn't you."
With a soft chuckle the young hunter reined in his horse and put some space between himself and the surly man in black.
"Mister Tanner, I believe you may very well have a death wish, goading Mister Larabee so mercilessly when he is suffering the ill-effects of a night in the company of Lord Bacchus,"
"Ezra it was just me 'n Chris all night, and I watched im empty three bottles a red-eye. Man knew we's headin' out at first light...he can just deal with the 'ill-effects'," Tanner said with a wicked grin.
"Most assuredly sir, you have a death wish," the Southerner said with a shake of his head. Then Ezra nodded toward a line of hills and changed the subject. "What pray is that?"
Glancing in the same direction Vin replied "Them's called hills Ezra."
"Did you perhaps swallow glass in your morning repast?" Standish said in a voice heavy with sarcasm, "your wit seems exceedingly sharp today. I was referring, Sir, to that rather dilapidated structure at the foot of that particular hill," he pointed at a specific location.
"Played out mine. Reckon it's been abandoned three, four years."
"Mine?" True to his nature as ever, the gambler focused on the single word.
"Played out mine," Tanner said with emphasis.
"Yes...yes of course," Ezra replied in a distracted tone. A few yards farther on he said, "Mister Tanner, I fear that nature is beckoning to me. Will you be continuing along the current heading?"
"We're goin' home th' same way we come," Vin answered.
"Then I shall leave your company to answer said call and rejoin you shortly."
"Yeah, okay," Tanner asked no questions; he was anxious for a brief respite himself...from the Southerner's flowery speech. At this rate he'd have a headache worse than Chris'. He tipped his hat as the other man diverted his course and aimed for the hills. And, of course, the abandoned mine.
"Went t' take care a some personal business," Vin answered.
"Personal business?" Chris sighed. "Went to check out that damned mine, didn't he?"
"Reckon," Vin agreed.
"He's on his own as far as I'm concerned."
"Reckon he always was," the tracker said.
They rode on, stopping some time later at a narrow stream. Letting the horses graze and drink to their hearts content, the two men relaxed in the deep shade of a large tree. Chris pulled out one of his cheroots, offering another to Vin. Shaking his head, the younger man pulled a weed and began chewing the end.
"How long we waitin'?" His voice was serious, but there was a twinkle in his eye.
"Y'know, he could'a run int' trouble in that ol' mine."
"Ain't no ones fault but his own if he does."
"Reckon...but it'd save a bit a time if we's t' check on 'm now, rather than ridin' back out here from town t' c'llect th' body."
"Where's it say we have to come claim the body?" Larabee was being obstinate now, and Tanner knew it.
"Well, I ain't facin' Maude Standish next time she comes t' town, and reckon Nathan'd be a mite put out if we left 'm t' rot."
Taking a long draw on the cigar, Chris unfolded his lean body, stood, and walked back toward the horses. Hiding a smile, Vin followed close behind. Without a word the gunslinger come peacekeeper turned his horse back the way they had just come. The men rode together in silence, not a single word between them until they approached the mine entrance. The gambler's chestnut wickered a greeting to the other horses. There was no sign of Standish, however.
With an angry sigh the man in black dismounted. Vin started to follow, but Chris stopped him. "You stay out here. Ain't certain I want witnesses to what I'll do when I find the fool."
Chuckling, the sharpshooter reclaimed his saddle, hooking one leg around the horn. Pulling his harmonica from the pocket of his hide coat, Tanner began blowing tuneless notes as he watched his friend disappear into the cave.
Chris stood just inside the entrance, allowing his eyes time to adjust to the dim light. He listened for any tell-tale signs of the gambler's whereabouts. "Standish!" The quiet continued, adding to the gunman's already dark mood. Twice more he yelled the name; each time the tone of his voice grew sharper. He moved farther into the cave. Finally a voice sounded, very near.
"May I be of service, Mister Larabee?"
"Why the hell didn't you answer me?"
"I was...preoccupied. My apologies. I hope that my inattentiveness has not caused any undue -"
"Ezra, shut up and get your damned ass outta here and on your damn horse."
"Mistah Larahbee, " his accent deepened as his anger grew. Ezra drew himself to his full height stiffly, his green eyes snapping. "I find your attitude uncalled for and your demands beyond your appointed duties."
"Fine, you stay here, you're on your own. Stay here and rot for all I care. We're going back to town...now." He turned on his heel and stomped away.
"Mistah Larabee, I will not be spoken to in such a way. How dare you sir!" He stormed after the gunslinger. Catching up with the other man at the mine entrance he reached out and grabbed the black-clad arm.
The response was immediate. Chris spun around, glaring at the smaller man. "Get your damn hand off me," the words were delivered in a sharp hiss.
Standish was too angry to heed the words, leaving him to sputter, "I will release my grimp as soon as you deliver an apology for your abhorrent treatment of me. Sir -" ezra did not see the left hook that propelled him backwards, crashing against one of the aged support beams. He launched himself forward, plowing into Larabee. The momentum of his charge sent both men into the opposite wall.
Outside, Vin saw movement, but the cave was too dark to allow even his keen vision to ascertain what was going on. He could imagine it however. Chris had been in a mood for days and the gambler could rub him wrong quicker than anyone. As he watched for more signs of life, Vin had to wonder why the gunslinger hadn't chosen one of the others to accompany them. Instead he and Ezra had argued half a dozen times since leaving town.
The fight continued in the ancient mine. For his part, the smaller man was holding his own against the dark force that was Chris Larabee in a bad mood. He countered several blows with those of his own, bloodying Larabee's nose in return for his own split lip. Again Chris threw him back against the support beam, Standish coughing as loose dirt and rock peppered him as he fought to regain his feet. Larabee shoved him back, Standish falling to his knees as the air was forced out of his lungs, leaving him gasping and wheezing. Still seeing only stars, the gambler felt himself yanked to his feet roughly, his arms held in twin vices. Something very dark and angry had taken over the gunman; Ezra began to wonder after his own safety.
Chris wasn't certain when he had relinquished control over his actions but something had triggered an animalistic rage that had surfaced less and less over the past months. Some part of his mind tried to bring him back to reason, but he ignored it; it felt too good to release some of the pain and anger that he still felt. Then something overrode his warring emotions. There was a sound beyond Standish's panting and his own growls. Suddenly he looked upward, only to get a face full of falling debris. Looking at the man still held in his grasp, he realized that the gambler was oblivious to anything around him. All of this took only a split second, then Chris changed his leverage on the smaller man and tossed him toward the mine opening a few feet away. Just as he did a terrible cracking sound echoed through the small space.
Outside, Vin had leapt from his horse and was sprinting toward the mine, heedless of his own danger. "Chris! Ezra!" He fairly screamed the words over the sound of falling rock and cracking timber. The younger man cried out again wordlessly as the mine spewed forth rock and dust as part of the entrance disappeared. "NO!" He screamed, stumbling to a halt and trying to get his bearings. Where were they? What had happened to his two friends? "Chris!" He listened through the final death throes of the cave-in. Nothing. "Ezra!" He walked forward, keen eyes trying to pierce the miniature dust storm before him. "Chris? Ezra?" His voice became more and more concerned.
"Here...Vin...here," it was Standish's voice, the words punctuated by a violent coughing.
"Ezra? Where are you?"
Zeroing in on the voice he finally found the gambler. Ezra was doubled over on the ground, shaking in his effort to draw a breath of air that wasn't saturated by the fine powder still airborne. Tanner knelt beside him. "Ezra, you hurtin' anywhere?"
Shaking his head, the Southerner allowed the Texan to help him to his feet. Leaning heavily against the other man, Ezra limped away from the cave-in. Vin lead him far enough away to allow him to draw a clean breath, then eased him to the ground once more. Sprinting to the horses, he returned with Standish's canteen, knelt and helped the man take a drink.
Spitting the first mouthful out to wash out his mouth, the cardsharp nodded and took the canteen. Looking around he said in a hoarse voice, "wh-where is...Chris?"
Vin shook his head. "You stay here." He hurried back toward the cave, again calling his best friend's name. Reaching what was left of the mine entrance, he called out the name once more. A soft groan came to him, but he wasn't certain whether it was human or simply the settling of more broken lumber. "Chris?" He stepped gingerly past the threshold into the darkness. "Chris, can y' hear me?"
"V-viiiiinnnn," it was more of a moan than a word.
"Chris, where are y' pard?" There was no answer. He moved carefully through the rubble, his eyes taking in every inch of the scene around him. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he saw a slight movement. Moving closer, he saw his friend, and let out a deep groan. "Oh, damn..."
Larabee was laying in a crumpled heap to one side of the little space. Vin dropped to his knees next to the man, trying to see how badly he was injured. The gunslinger was nearly covered in dirt and dust from the cave-in, making it difficult to make out much of anything. Pulling his kerchief free, the tracker began wiping the grime from the other man's face. Pain-filled hazel eyes fluttered open, slammed shut, and opened once again as Chris responded to the touch. "Chris? Can y' hear me?"
"Yeah," came the reply.
"Can y' tell me where y' hurt?"
"Ev-ev-ry....wh-where..." he stuttered.
"'Magine so, but anywhere in p'tic'lar?"
Again he nodded but his eyes drifted shut before he could answer the question.
"Chris," Vin called gently, lightly tapping the handsome face. "Chris, y'gotta stay with me a little longer pard. C'mon now, talk t' me. Where y'hurtin' worst?"
"L-l-leeeggg..." he responded, then lapsed into unconsciousness.
"Vin? How is he?"
Tanner turned to find the gambler standing nearby, a stricken look on his face. "I ain't for certain, Ezra, " he said evenly. "Bring that canteen over here, would y'?"
Nodding, Standish came nearer, holding out the container for the other man.
"Hell, Ezra, I ain't gonna bite, and don't reckon Chris is gonna either right now. I need y' t' pull yourself t'gether pard."
Nodding, the Southerner looked up and around. His eyes falling on something a little farther inside the cave, he disappeared into the shadows. Returning a few seconds later, he had a torch in one hand, seeking to find matches in his coat pocket. Successful after some shuffling through the coat pockets, he retrieved a pack of matches. Lighting the torch, he returned to the other two men, kneeling down next to the tracker and shone the light toward the gunslinger's still form. Tanner guided him toward Chris' legs.
"Oh, damn..." Vin said softly when the worst problem was illuminated. One of the broad support beams had trapped Larabee's right leg beneath it's weight. Tanner moved around the card player, trying to get a better look at the damage. "Get the light on it Ezra...no, there," his voice had a sharp edge to it now, concern fraying his usually placid demeanor. As the torch threw it's light on the man's leg, the other two men both muttered curses at the sight.
Chris's leg was bearing almost the entire weight of the heavy beam. Blood had already pooling beneath it, staining the loose soil beneath the injured leg. The appendage was bent at an impossible angle, turned at an angle below the knee. Vin got as close as he could, his nose nearly touching both the blood soaked ground, and the mangled limb as he surveyed the situation. When he straightened back up, his face was pale, his voice strained. "It's busted up damn bad. I ain't certain..." he broke off, afraid to finish the thought. He didn't need to, the gambler could read it in his face. They were in serious trouble. Chris Larabee was in serious trouble...life and death trouble.
"We can't move 'm," Tanner said. "He's been bleedin', but I think the weight a the beam's keepin' him from bleedin' bad. Reckon we best leave 'm right where he's at til Nathan can get out here."
"Nathan? Vin that will take hours!"
Nodding, he said, "six 'r seven at least, and that's even if he's in town." Looking at the other man, he continued, "I'll go...you stay here with Chris."
"You," his voice turned cold and the gambler saw that there would be no arguing with the young hunter. "I know some shortcuts back t' town from here...should be able t' cut off a little time. You stay here 'n keep him 's comfortable as y' can. And Ezra," he glared at the smaller man, eyes like blue ice. "You stay right here with 'm in case he needs anything. You hear me?"
"Mister Tanner, I- "
"Ain't interested in hearin' none an your crap Ezra. You stay put. I'm gonna go get th' blankets, canteens, whatever you might need." With that he stood and hurried from the mine.
Ezra watched the other man leave, then cursed softly to himself.
"Ez....ra...?" Chris' voice was a mere shadow on the air.
"I'm right here Chris," Standish laid a hand gently on the man's shoulder. "Rest easy, Vin's going for help. Would you like a drink?" As the man nodding slowly, Ezra carefully lifted his head and pressed the canteen's mouth against his lips. Larabee managed a few sips before he groaned and folded back against the other man's arm. Lowering him gently back to the ground, Ezra took out his own handkerchief, wet it, and began bathing the pale face.
A few minutes later Tanner returned, loaded down with bedrolls, saddle bags, and canteens. He also carried a rifle, handing it directly to the conman. Dumping the other things to the ground, he began to cover the lean body that lay prone on the ground, trying to make the man comfortable. He barely realized that Standish disappeared until he returned. A few minutes later he smelled the pungent smell of burning pine. Turning, he found that Standish was building up a fire near the entrance of the mine. Slowly the flames grew, lighting up the little cave; illuminating the mangled body trapped beneath the rubble. Beneath the fine layer of dust that still covered the man's face, they could see how pale he was; deathly pale. His chest rose and fell in shudders and trembles as he struggled to breath and his head tossed listlessly from one side to the other in response to the tremendous pain.
In a voice filled with concern, the youngest of the trio said, "I'll be back soon's I can get here Ezra. You keep him 's comfortable as y' can, y'hear?"
"Hurry back, " Standish said in a strangled voice as he watched the man he had only minutes ago fighting for his life. The face he turned toward the tracker was filled with an emotional pain that rivaled the physical pain the gunslinger was enduring. "Please." With a nod and a tip of his hat, the lean tracker turned and slipped from the cave in an instant. Watching him leave, Ezra suddenly felt very alone.
Buck stood on the boardwalk, staring up the street. He couldn't put a finger on it, but the big gunman has an uneasy feeling that something wasn't right. He only wished that he could say what was wrong or who it affected.
"You look perplexed brother. " A deep voice rumbled nearby, causing Wilmington to jump.
"Gees-uuuus! Josiah, you could scare a fella t' death like that."
Chuckling the former preacher said, "sorry, but you looked like you had something pretty serious on your mind. Anything you want to talk about?"
Shaking his head Buck answered, "nothin' t' talk 'bout, really. It's just..."
"Just?" Sanchez prompted when the other man trailed off.
"Y'ever get th' feelin' somethin's wrong, but y'ain't got the slightest idea as t' what it is?"
"Like a premonition?" He wasn't chiding the other man. Josiah had long ago stopped believing the narrow views of his youth. He believed that nearly anything was possible.
"Like a what?"
"A premonition... knowing what will happen in the future."
"Oh..." Wilmington turned the explanation over in his mind as he considered it's link to his feeling. "Naw, ain't nothin' that fancy. Hell, I don't know...maybe I'm just gettin' itchy for somethin' t' happen. Been too quiet 'round here for th' past few days, an' with Chris an' Ezra gone there ain't even a chance a no good arguments." He smiled.
Returning the smile, the other man said, "well, if it would help, I could pick a fight with Nathan."
With a hearty laugh Buck slapped Josiah on the arm and replied, "'preciate th' offer, but I don't reckon it'd be th' same. C'mon, I'll buy y' a drink." Clapping a hand on the older man's shoulder, he lead the way toward the saloon.
Chris had grown increasingly uncomfortable lying flat on his back. His breathing had grown harsher, his fitful moans and thrashing movements became at the same time sharper and weaker. Ezra gently lifted the blond's head and shoulders, sliding beneath and resting the man's head in his lap. The gunslinger grew quieter, although it was clear that he was still in a lot of pain. Standish reached into a pocket and retrieved his flask. Opening the container, he coaxed the other man to take a few sips. It would not take away the pain but it would at least take the edge off it.
"Th-thanks..." The gunman whispered.
"Certainly. May I do anything more to take your mind away from the current situation?"
"Talk...t-talk t' me..." he managed to gasp out.
"Well, I do seem to have a gift for that," he grinned, trying to lighten the dismal mood. "Shall I perhaps begin with an abject apology concerning my foolish actions earlier?"
Chuckling dryly, the gambler said, "that will eliminate much of the recent past...since our first meeting I dare say."
A faint smile tugged at the gunman's mouth. "Be...fore..." was all he could manage.
"Before? Ah, before we met? Alright...I suppose that I could regale you with some of my many adventures as a rogue and grifter if the finest quality. Why not have another drink, lie back and relax first?" Carefully lifting the man's head once more, he allowed him a few swallows of the fiery liquid. Dropping back once more, the glassy hazel gaze held his for a moment. In that moment the gambler read something he had never expected to see in those eyes. Trust. Chris Larabee was trusting him, literally, with his life. Ezra knew then and there that he could not let the other man down. For if he did, neither of them would survive the consequences.
Vin drove the big black as hard as he could, given the rough terrain they traversed. He knew shortcuts that would shave some time off the trip into town and help, but it was treacherous going that he wouldn't risk for anything less than the current emergency. But even faced with the possibility of Chris Larabee's death the young sharpshooter kept his head and did not push Peso full speed. It would serve no purpose for them to fall to their death down the steep ridge, or for the big horse to pull up lame, leaving the young man on foot. He had to keep his head in order to get to town and the others.
"Hey Buck, Josiah," J.D. fairly chirped the words, as usual more energetic than his compatriots. "Anyone wanna go fishin' or out for a ride?"
"Not right now, Kid," Buck said softly. Despite the preacher's reassuring presence and his calming words, the big gunman couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that something was wrong.
"What's wrong Buck?" J.D. asked, growing serious now.
"Don't know for sure J.D. Just got a weird feelin' that somethin 's wrong."
"Don't know that either." He was even too distracted to become angry at the boys questions. That fact was not lost on the young man. He turned to Josiah. The older man shook his head. He wasn't certain as to what was going on with their friend, either.
"When's Chris an' th' others due back?" Wilmington asked suddenly.
"Sometime this evening I believe, " Josiah said evenly. "Why?"
Shaking his head, the dark-haired ladies man said, "hell, I don't know that neither. Maybe I'll just take a ride out that way an' meet up with 'm. Give me somethin' t' do, and maybe I'll quit havin' this feelin."
"Buck," J.D.'s tone was serious.
"This feeling... is it anything like that animal mag-a-tism you had before?"
Rolling his eyes when he saw that the boy was being serious, he reached out and tipped the bowler down over Dunne's eyes. "That's animal magnetism boy!"
Ezra took a sip from his flask, knowing he could not afford to take much of it if he were to keep Chris comfortable. He had talked almost incessantly to the other man, often not even certain that Larabee was conscious enough to hear him. But then from time to time a smile, a frown or a faint shake of the head would tell him that the other man was with him. But what now? He had no other stories of his days as a gambler. He had been quiet for only a few minutes, but Chris registered the fact. Several pain-filled groans escaped the tightly pressed lips, and he began to toss feverishly once more.
"Chris, you must lie still. You don't want to aggravate your injuries any farther...please Chris, lie still." Unconsciously he stroked the sweat-soaked blond hair in an effort to get through to the injured man. What could he tell him now? He considered making things up...embellishing the stories of former friends and associates, making them stories from his past, but it seemed wrong. Chris Larabee was trusting him to help him hold onto the fraying lifeline he clung to while they waited for Vin and the others to arrive. How could he lie to a man who was doing such a thing? There was only one recourse left to him now.
"Have I ever told you that my mother has provided several paternal figures in my life?" A short shake of the head answered him. "Yes indeed. She has been married five times so far, although she swears she has no intention of ever traveling down that road again. Shall I enumerate those poor unfortunate souls who had the bad judgement to carry my mother across the threshold?"
A shadowed smile pulled at the stiffly pressed lips and he nodded once more.
"Alright. I suppose I should list them chronologically, otherwise I may forget someone, the list seems so long," he chuckled. Inwardly he was amazed at how normal his tone seemed, considering the fact that he wanted nothing so much as the chance to run from the man who lay in his lap; the cave; the situation. "The first hapless fellow was Ezra Conway...my father. As you may have noticed, I share his first but not last name. Mother had tired of him prior to becoming aware of her...maternal state, and had left for greener pastures. Conway was a simple man, rather like our Mr. Tanner. Not simple in the sense of his being ignorant; like Vin he was a very capable, even wise man...and if you ever relay that comment, I will indubitably deny it's veracity with my final breath."
One pain-filled eye slanted open and then closed; a meager imitation of a wink.
"Conway was a business man... more precisely my mother has always referred to him as a small businessman with a small business mind in a small business town. He wooed and won the heart of mother when she was quite young but already quite aware of the world around her. She managed to remain faithful to this quiet, hard-working young man for approximately six months. Long enough for her to sap him of much of his working capital, as well as much of his dignity if her stories are to be believed, and run away with her next conquest; Ambrose Standish, III. I fear that this is the sum total of the knowledge I have been able to ascertain concerning the man who was responsible for my birth. Mother swears that he died a few years later, a broken shell of a man...penniless and alone." Bitterness colored the Southerner's words as he thought of his less than resplendent entrance into the world.
"Ambrose Standish was a man of breeding and culture, his money had been made for him some generations earlier and he never lost sight of that fact. He considered himself to be part of an aristocracy that I fear only existed in his mind. Ambrose was charming and witty, handsome and gentile. He and Mother met while she was on a visit to relatives and he managed to sweep her off her feet within a few hours. They were inseparable for the remainder of her visit, and then he accompanied her back to her husband. They went for a single reason, so that Mother could manipulate the poor man and acquire a bill of divorcement. Once that had been attained... well, actually prior to it's finality, she and Ambrose were living the good life on his estate.
It was at that time that Mother surmised her condition. If I am to believe her, she was ecstatic at the thought of impending motherhood. My dear step-father was beside himself. You see, it was not that he thought himself responsible for Mother's condition, he knew better than that." He paused with a sigh. "How shall I put this? Perhaps I will only say that Ambrose Standish preferred the company of men to women, and leave it at that. I feel certain that you are cognizant of my meaning."
Chris nodded slightly, acknowledging that he did indeed understand what the gambler was saying without actually voicing the words.
Ezra smiled, even though he didn't expect Larabee would take notice of the gesture. "At any rate, he and Mother were together during my first six years of life. This was a record for dearest Maude, by quite a margin. I have always felt that it was perhaps due to the understanding they had. Neither expected fidelity from the other, and neither was disappointed. At the same time they shared many interests...most of them surrounding what we might call the 'high life'. They began traveling before I said my first word and remained abroad most of the time until I was approaching the beginning of my formal education. In the meantime I was left in the charge of a nurse; my needs seen to by a large house staff.
"Anna...that was my nurse...was the one who nurtured me during those long years without the solace of a parent. It was she to whom I took my first steps, her bosom that I sought to cleave to when the world seemed a harsh place. Anna was my world for those first years..." he trailed off, suddenly self-conscious. "At any rate, we were very close. Mother and Ambrose would visit once or twice a year; they seemed like visitors rather than my parents. I have been told that at their first visit Mother took me in her arms and I screamed like a banshee. I don't believe that I ever greeted her visits with a great deal of warmth, quite frankly she scared me; this loud, blustering woman who smelled of exotic places and wore far too much make-up and far too many petticoats.
"Ambrose was just as frightening. He was a tall, reedy man, who appeared frail enough to be blown over by the first stiff wind that assailed him. But despite his demeanor, and the normal stereotypes of men of his ilk, he was mercurial and demanding. One of my earliest memories of the man is of his knocking my dearest Anna backward over a settee simply because she sought to comfort me. I have no memory of what the incident entailed, but I remember his standing over me, ranting and raving until I, a small child, wailed in remorse. Anna sought to intercede on my behalf, and Ambrose took the aggression he could not turn on me due to Mother's decree, and turned it against the person I loved most in the world. I ran to her as she lay foundered upon the floor, blood already staining her flesh from a torn lip. I can remember throwing myself across her, screaming in a rage I had never felt before. I sought to protect her from the man.
"Oh, I do make myself sound noble, " he said in a self-deprecating voice. "That is not my aim, but only to adduce the man that was my first step-father. Such were the visits the Standish's made home during those first years. The happiest of those visits was the last. Ambrose entered the house in something akin to a rage, Mother quick behind him, her voice raised in an unaccustomed manner. Behind her strode a stranger, another man. I did not know at the time, but this was to be my second step-father, Aaron Billings.
"Billings was a rouge, a gambler, and a charmingly evil man. He and Mother had met while she had been visiting friends, and had fallen madly in love with him. He was a big man, both in physique and in nature; everything was larger than life as far as Aaron was concerned. He had hair the color of ebony, eyes the color of the sky and fists the size of hams." Unconsciously the gambler rubbed a cheek as if feeling the sting of a blow. "It was he who taught Mother the fine art of the confidence game; and she was an apt student. They had returned only because Mother was bent on claiming as much of the Standish fortune as she could. I would like to believe that she also returned to claim her only child, but I have never been certain. At any rate, the walls range with arguments for hours; long into the night and began again with the morning light. Anna sat by my bed, cooing reassuring words to me so that I would not be fearful of the cacophony within those familiar walls.
"When morning arrived, Mother came to my room to collect my things, and we were quickly packed and ready to go. I stood, my hand tucked firmly in her's, looking for my Anna. As Mother began to drag me away from the only home I had ever known, I began to cry for her. It made no sense to me, and I was more frightened than ever. Finally, as we boarded the coach, I chanced to look up and see Anna in the tiny window of her room. She was leaning against the glass, tears streaming down her loving face, one hand splayed against the window. She was saying good-bye, in the only way they had allowed her. Mother admitted to me many years later, in a fit of remorse, that she had tricked my dear Anna into going into her room, and then had locked her away. She said that she had feared that if my nurse were to be in the same room that I would choose to stay with her rather than to go with my own Mother." He sighed, the sound full of the pain he still felt. "I dare say she was a great deal more insightful than I would have given her credit for. I would most assuredly have remained with the only mother I had ever known rather than to go into the unknown with a woman I barely recognized."
Chris forced his eyes open and looked up into the face of the other man. Ezra was far away, his mind in another place and time. He had seen the look on the handsome face before, one of remorse, regret, and grief. He saw it when he looked into the mirror most mornings. The gunslinger knew then that he was not alone in knowing pain in the loss of someone held dear. The power of speech beyond him at the moment, Chris lifted a shaking hand and touched the other man's sleeve.
Standish looked down at the touch. He was surprised to see the hand there, trembling against his arm. He was even more surprised to see the hazel eyes looking up at him, a look of understanding and sympathy in them. Taken aback, he could only smile slightly and wrap his own had around the one at his sleeve. Nodding his thanks, the conman lowered his friend's hand back to it's resting place on the dusty black shirt. He did not release it, though.
Buck Wilmington rode at a steady pace, watching the road before him for signs of his three friends. He felt foolish; it was only an uneasy feeling, why was he taking it so seriously? But something answered that this was different; there was something more than just a feeling. Something was wrong. The sound of hoof beats came to him from behind. Turning, the big man saw three familiar figures on horseback, riding to join him. As the men drew abreast of him, he smiled, "you boys out for a ride too?"
"Reckon," Josiah said with a broad smile.
"Always did say a nice ride in the countryside from time to time does a body good," Nathan added.
"'Sides, if there is trouble, we didn't wanna miss it," J.D. said matter-of-factly. He looked confused at the chorus of groans his comment elicited.
A short time later they all caught sight of a lone rider coming toward them. "Reckon that's Vin," Buck said softly. "But where's th' others?" As one the men spurred their horses forward at a gallop, racing to meet the other man. As they neared the bounty hunter drew Peso to a halt, sitting in the middle of the road watching them approach.
"How'd you fellas know?" He said in amazement.
"Vin, what's happened? Where are Ezra and Chris?" Nathan asked.
"Been an accident," the worried young man said quickly. "Chris got caught in a mine cave-in. His leg's been busted up real bad, Nathan. I's comin' t' fetch y'."
Nodding the big ex-slave said, "Josiah, could you and J.D. go back to the Anderson farm, see if you can borrow their wagon?"
"Of course," Josiah said, stopping the youngest member of their group from arguing with a stern look. "We'll get blankets and whatever we might need, too. Where will we need to bring it Vin?"
"'Bout ten miles back, 'long them hills, " he pointed toward the horizon where they could just make out a low ridge. "There's a mine 'bout midway. Just follow th' hills west an' you'll find it." That said he turned the big black and started back toward the hills, taking the safer route.
"We'll be there as soon as we can," Josiah said as he motioned the boy next to him to follow, and sent Apostle into a gallop. Giving a final look toward the others, J.D. spurred his horse after the older man.
Ezra fed Chris more of the whiskey and stole a sip for himself. He wouldn't have thought it possible, but Larabee was even paler than he had been, the dark circles that had appeared beneath his eyes stood out starkly against the nearly translucent flesh. His blond hair was matted with perspiration against his forehead, and his breathing was shallow and rapid. It suddenly reminded Ezra of a baby bird he had found beneath a tree once. The poor thing had trembled beneath his touch and he could feel it's fleeting heartbeat and hear it's quivering breath. Before he could even find the nest from whence it had fallen, the little thing had died there in his hands. Died. No, he would not even entertain the similarity. Chris Larabee was not dying.
"Ez...ra..." Chris whispered.
Looking down, he could see the pain was overwhelming the other man. Amazed that his prattling was helping to keep the trauma of the other man's injuries at bay, he picked up the thread of his story.
We left my world behind and I was forced into one that was dark and dangerous. I spent the next few months being shifted from one hotel to another as Mother learned the grifter's trade. Aaron was an able teacher, and she was soon fleecing the best opponent. I spent most of my time locked away in the hotel room where they left me most of the night while they plied their trade. When they returned to the room it was to push me out of the bed so that they could retire and recuperate from their long hours of gambling. I learned my own skills as well; after they had fallen asleep I would go through Aaron's pockets and retrieve enough cash to procure the day's meals and, if he seemed to have done well, a candy or two. I would wander into the nearest restaurant seeking sustenance, and then I would spend the remainder of the day exploring whatever municipality we were in. Often I had no idea as to the town's name, nor did it really matter. They were all only too similar in appearance, the townspeople a faceless mass that hardly noticed me at all and, if they did, dismissed me as only another waif sentenced to walk the streets unattended, unwanted and unloved..." He stopped, snorting, "oh, Ezra, stop the melodrama." The pain was only too easy to hear in his voice though.
"At any rate, I did not endure this life for long. As soon as she was able to locate one of her siblings, Mother made arrangements for me to 'visit' them for a time. Meaning of course I would be at the mercy of one relative or another while she and Billings were free to live the good life. She would return from time to time, just as she had while married to Ambrose, to reclaim her 'baby boy'. That was Maude's way of saying that she had need of me. A small child was quite effective for some of the cons they ran. I learned very early on to cry on cue, to feign one sort of infirmity or another. Why by the time I was eight I could appear lame or blind to the most critical audience. I made my dear Mother very proud." The sarcasm fairly dripped through his accent as he spoke.
"And by the time I was eight, we were in the company of step-father number three; one Anton DeLuca. Anton was actually a very nice man, and I look back with fondness on our association to this day. He was the only one of my step-fathers who did not look on me as either a commodity or a liability. Anton would often take me to breakfast before he and Mother retired for the morning. We would talk...actually talk." Standish's voice held a tone of amazement as he recalled this happier chapter of his childhood. "It was often inconsequential, but from time to time we spoke of important topics. And even more astounding was the fact that Anton insisted Mother not deposit me with any of her relatives; that I be allowed to remain with them. Maude was not happy with this prospect, as she was quite unprepared to take on the day to day role of a mother. She could not fathom the appeal that many of her contemporaries found in raising children on a consistent basis. Her remedy for most of the childhood crises that befell me was to hand me a handful of bills or, if there were none to distribute, to teach me another card trick or slight of hand.
"I am quite convinced that Anton would have left her company quite quickly had it not been for my presence. I truly believe that he looked on me as a true son rather than the child of his wife, as the others tended to do. I know that my life would have been much different if Anton had been able to remain with us. Unfortunately that was not to be. When I was ten, he and Mother were running a con in a rather rough little border town. I was awaiting their return to the hotel, reading a novel, when I heard a great commotion outside..." The gambler's voice filled with emotion, and his words trembled. "I looked out the window to see them dragging poor Anton down the street. I knew, of course, that something was very wrong and hurried from my room. By the time I caught up with the crowd, they had bound him hand and foot, and were lowering a noose over his head.
"I screamed, begging them to stop, but one of the men nearby cuffed me across the face and sent me sprawling in the dust. Above the ranting of the crowd I heard a voice...his voice. I looked up to see Anton berating them. Not for what they were about to do to him, but for their treatment of me. I shall never forget his words that day...'It is only the most cowardly of men who would harm a child. Sir, you have delivered a blow to my one and only son, and for that I curse you to hell.' Then he turned to me and said, 'Ezra, you must go back son. I do not wish you to remember me hanging from the end of a rope, but as someone who loves you very much. Now, go son...please.' I looked into those dark eyes and saw something I had only seen in one other pair...love. Anton DeLuca loved me as a father loved a son. It was an emotion I had not known since the day I watched Anna cry for me from her window. I stood looking at him, begging him to let me stay, but he would hear none of it. 'You must go and make certain that your mother is alright. Take care of her son, and remember that no matter what, she does love you. Now, go, and do not look back'. And that is exactly what I did; I ran back along that dirty street and did not look back." There was anger in his voice now, warring with the pain. It was anger directed toward himself, and what he saw as a betrayal.
'It's not your fault, Ezra,' Chris thought, wishing he could voice the words. 'You were a child and you did exactly what Anton wanted. Don't blame yourself.' He could only squeeze the hand that held his though, adding faint comfort to the man who's own pain was allowing him to cope with his own.
Not understanding the weak pressure on his fingers, the gambler said, "I'm sorry, I fear I was lost in thought." He cleared his throat and resumed his tale. "I...I ran all the way back to the hotel. My Mother was there in our room, packing our belongings. I was incensed at her callous behavior. I railed at her, using words I had not realized I knew. She continued packing and did not even stop to look at me. When she finished and did finally acknowledge my presence, I saw the tears streaming down her face. Maude Standish did indeed have a heart...and it was breaking. I understood then that she was only being pragmatic, we were in danger and needed to evacuate the area. I gathered up as many of our belongings as I could and we fled. Mother acquired a horse and buggy, and we rode away as quickly as possible.
"I spent the following two years with an aunt and uncle. While Mother went away to...sort things out as she put it. She returned to find a son who would barely speak to her; she returned with yet another husband. Malcolm Smith was her last husband. He was a vile and violent man. He delighted in bilking people of their money but even more, he delighted in causing my Mother...and myself during those thankfully infrequent times we were forced to endure one another's company...both physical pain and emotional misery.
"If you will forgive me, I shall not relate the memories of my association with Mister Smith. Although infrequent, my time with him was something I prefer not to dwell on or examine too closely. Each time he and my Mother made an appearance, she seemed more and more despondent. Then, after an absence of nearly two years with scarcely a word, she arrived alone and spirited me away. To this day I have never been able to ascertain his fate. I must admit, however, that I have not pursued the question very thoroughly. He is out of our lives, and that is the only thing that I have ever needed to know. Mother returned to using the surname Standish; she said that it held a ring of quality in it's sound, something she craved more and more. Maude and I - " the young man stopped in mid-sentence, listening. A faint but familiar sound came to him. "Mister Larabee...I am uncertain, but I believe that help may be arriving even as I speak."
"He...he...help..." Chris repeated.
"Yes, I do believe that I hear horses approaching at a rather rapid rate of speed."
Within minutes the sounds became softer, the sound of men nearing the mine entrance. The blond struggled to lift his head, but found himself without the strength. Seeing his struggle, Standish gently lifted the man's head and shoulders, allowing him to watch as their fellow peacekeepers entered the cave.
Vin was the first inside; he strode over and dropped down beside the other two men. Seeing that Larabee's eyes were opened, he smiled and said softly, "hey pard, how y' doin?"
A faint smile and the ghost of a nod were the only answers. The man in black slumped back against the gambler and closed his eyes. With a worried expression, Tanner turned from Chris to Ezra. The gambler pasted on a cavalier smile and said, "he is only resting Mister Tanner." Turning to look at the other men he continued, "he has remained relatively conscious throughout this ordeal. I believe that he is dealing with the pain in his usual stoic manner."
Nodding, Vin retrieved the torch and lit it, placing it so that they could get the best look at the injury. As the man's lower body was illuminated Buck drew in a startled breath and released it in a groan. "Sweet Jesus, Nathan, whatta we gonna do?"
"Were gonna put a tourniquet on above th' injury, then get him free of the debris. We're gonna have t' immobilize that leg 's well 's we can 'fore we try t' move 'm." Nathan squelched his feelings and became strictly a healer. "But, 'fore we do anything, we gotta get Chris ready t' take all we're gonna have t' do." That said, he pulled an amber bottle from his pocket, uncorked it, and pressed the opening to the gunman's lips. "Chris, you need t' drink this."
Ezra lifted the man's head once more and coaxed him as well. "Mister Larabee, I fear that we cannot stay in such a position as this for much longer. While you are without a doubt one of the strongest men it has ever been my pleasure to know, not even Hercules himself could withstand this ordeal without some assistance."
Chris opened his mouth and allowed the liquid to run down his throat. Nathan served up a liberal dose, intent on making certain he was buffeted against the coming pain by the opiate.
"Hell," Buck whispered to the tracker standing beside him, "he's prob'ly drinkin' it just t' get Ezra t' shut up!" He was answered by a brief smile.
Watching as the gunslinger slowly relaxed into oblivion in the gambler's arms, Jackson nodded. "Alright, let's get to it." He began securing a tourniquet around the injured leg. Then, with Vin and Buck beside him, they carefully lifted the heavy wooden beam and the other rubble, moving it away from the unconscious man. Once that was done, they were able to get their first good look at the full extent of Chris' injuries. Buck turned his head with a strangled oath, while Ezra's grip on Larabee's hand tightened.
Vin knelt next to Nathan, perusing the mangled limb. "He gonna make it?"
Shaking his head, Jackson said, "t' be honest, it don't look good, Vin. Don't know that I've seen a leg this bad that didn't have to be amputated."
"Amputated? You mean cut off?" Vin's voice didn't raise, but his temper soared. "No...huh-uh. Y'ain't takin' Chris' leg." His hand wrapped around the stock of his sawed-off.
"Vin, I ain't gonna do nothin' that drastic 'less there's no other choice. Now settle down 'n help me brace the leg."
Taking a deep breath to calm down, the sharpshooter nodded. He did just that, assisting Jackson in wrapping the leg and then binding it in a brace of wood, leather and cloth. As they did, Ezra watched for any sign that the injured man was regaining consciousness. Other than an occasional moan, he remained thankfully oblivious to the pain.
Just as they were finishing, Buck called out, "think I see Josiah 'n J.D. comin' this way." he had appointed himself look-out, moving away from the gruesome sight of his horribly injured best friend.
A short time later, their two compatriots arrived outside the mine. Nathan went to the wagon and with J.D.'s help, made it ready to transport the injured man back to town. Finally satisfied with the work, he directed them to their next step; getting Chris into the wagon bed. Taking Nathan's instruction, Buck, Josiah and Vin very carefully lifted the man and carried him from the cave. Outside, they gently placed him into the wagon and stood back to allow Nathan the chance to arrange Chris in the best position for the ride home. Using two of the planks from the dilapidated structure, they elevated the heavily immobilized leg, securing it to the boards. Wrapping the still slumbering man in borrowed quilts, Nathan announced that they were ready to go.
Looking around, Buck realized that Ezra was not with them, and commented on that fact. Vin shot an angry look toward the entrance but did not speak. The big man shrugged and entered the cave once again. Once there he was surprised to find the conman sitting where they had left him, rubbing his legs. "Ezra, what're y' doin'?"
"Alas, Mister Wilmington, I fear that the lack of movement during the course of our detainment in this dreary place has left my lower extremities somewhat blunted in their ability to feel. "
"What?" J.D. had come up behind his friend and was attempting to reduced the gambler's excessive verbage into something he could understand.
"His leg's 'r asleep," buck said with a soft chuckle. He stepped over and, without warning, lifted the smaller man over his shoulder and moved toward the opening. Grinning, Dunne followed his friend, and the grumbling Southerner, from the darkness.
The trip back to Four Corners was slow and tense for six of the seven peacekeepers. Only Chris, wrapped in the warm effects of the morphine, rode in relative comfort. Nathan sat beside the unconscious man, monitoring any response to the pain. J.D., at the reins, turned in the wagon seat from time to time, far quieter than he would have normally been. The older men had tried to keep him from seeing the worst of the injuries, but it was clear from the look in the young man's clear hazel eyes that he was terrified.
The other four men surrounded the wagon on horseback, stealing frequent looks at their leader. None of the men spoke, but their faces relayed their feelings clearly. Each feared for the life of the man who had brought them together, the man who had become their leader so naturally, the man who was their friend.
They rode far into the night, only stopping when they had no choice. The darkness hid their faces from one another; hid Chris from all but Nathan. The distant sight of the street fires seemed like a signal, each man coming to life. Even the horses sensed the nearness of home; food, water and rest. Unbidden, they began to pick up their pace. It still seemed to take too long, but finally they reached the edge of town. Pulling the wagon ups as closely as possible to the stairs of Nathan's clinic, they quietly dismounted. Once more under the healer's direction, they carried the slumbering blond upstairs, placing him carefully on the bed there.
Jackson hurried around the room, making ready to tend Chris' injuries properly. The others became extra hands, additional legs, as he fought against time to save the man's life and, if possible, his leg.
The good citizens of Four Corners were up and about their business by the time an exhausted Nathan and his equally worn out assistants emerged from the clinic to prop themselves up against walls and rails to breath in the relatively fresh air outside.
"Reckon I'll go let Mary now what happened," Vin said tiredly as he pushed away from the rail.
"She ain't here," Buck replied with a yawn. "Left day 'fore yesterday t' see th' Judge for a few days."
Nodding, Vin resumed his position on the wooden rail. Like the others, he watched the door and thought of little but Chris Larabee's well-being.
Nathan spent only a few minutes with the others, then returned to his duties inside. He half-heartedly suggested the others go get some rest, but knew his words would fall on deaf ears. The five men who remained on the balcony had no desire to leave. Not yet. They all felt the need to stay where they were until there came a change...whatever that change might be.
"I just don't understand how this all happened, " Buck said quietly. "How'd y'all end up in that ol' mine anyway?"
Ezra looked quickly toward Vin. He had assumed the tracker had already informed the others of the circumstances that had led to the gunman's current predicament. The look that the younger man gave him in return told him quite clearly that Tanner expected him to make the explanation himself. And to his surprise, he did.
By the time he finished, Josiah was restraining Buck; the big man uttering unintelligible oaths and struggling against the older man's iron-like grip. J.D. would not look at him, while Josiah was staring at him closely. He wished that the preacher wasn't; he could barely speak in the face of the expression on Sanchez's face. The vibrant blue of his eyes had gone gray with a mixture of sadness and anger. He chanced to look at the other men. What he saw there gave him little solace. All of them looked at him much as he had been looked at throughout his life; they looked at him as if he were the lowest form of life on the planet. Hanging his head, Standish mumbled only the words, "I'm sorry," then hurried across the balcony and onto the stairway. The other men watched his retreat. No one made a move to stop him.
The forty-eight hours that followed passed with the tension of a nightmare for the five peacekeepers. They spent much of their time in the clinic or on it's porch, only leaving long enough to make their rounds or take care of other business. Vin and Buck had barely moved from where they sat on either side of the clinic's single bed. They watched with growing fear as Chris fought hard against his injuries. During the first hours he had developed a fever and it had grown quickly to a dangerous level. As it burned through his body he soaked the bedding with perspiration to such an extent that they were forced not only to change the sheets and blankets, but the mattress itself. They could accomplish this only by Buck, Josiah and Nathan carefully lifting the unconscious man, while Vin and J.D. quickly pulled the tic mattress from the frame and replaced it with another one. Then the fever raged so that he stopped perspiring at all. He lay panting on the bed, restless even medicated with the morphine that Jackson fed him. In the beginning his delirious cries rang through the little room as the internal heat tormented him with visions of his wife and son dying over and over again in their burning home. Then, as the fever progressed he grew still, his protests replaced by faint moans. The worst was when he grew quiet, lying on the bed unmoving, only the rapid pulsation of his chest as he fought to breathe gave any indication that he was still among the living.
And after two days he still fought, although the battle was turning more and more against him. They took turns feeding him water and broth, trying to keep him from becoming too dehydrated. Even that became more and more difficult as he grew even too weak to swallow the liquid sustenance. Around him five men watched and prayed, fearing for the life of their leader.
"C'mon Chris, just a little more," Vin coaxed as he tried to get the blond to swallow. While Buck held the cup to the slack mouth, Tanner kept his head propped up, stroking the man's throat as Nathan had shown them. They smiled at one another in triumph as, after nearly half an hour, they managed to get nearly a quarter of a cup of broth into their friend. "Okay, reckon that's good 'nuff," the young tracker said softly as he motioned to Wilmington to move the cup while he lowered the other man's head back to the pillow. Wringing a cloth out in the bowl next to him, Vin gently bathed the too-pale face.
Noticing the tremor in the thin hands as the tracker ministered to their friend, Buck said, "why'n't you go stretch out for a spell Vin? I'll look after 'm. You look 'bout done in."
With a wan smile the man said, "reckon y'ain't looked in th' mirror lately Bucklin. Y'ain't lookin' none too good yourself."
"Tell y' what then. I'll make y' a deal. You go crawl int' that bedroll," he motioned toward the blankets Nathan had spread out earlier in hopes that one of the men would collapse into them, "an' get a couple hours sleep, then we'll trade off."
"I'll make you a deal," the Texan said stubbornly, "you go get some sleep first. Y'know, age 'fore beauty," he smiled briefly.
"You're both pitiful," came a deep voice from behind them. Turning they found Nathan had entered the room. "I swear, if I thought it'd do any good, I'd kick y' both outta here for a good 8 hours."
"'Cept y' know it won't do any good," Wilmington said in a soft, even tone.
"Reckon I do." He came over to the bed, moving around Vin to check out his patient.
Tanner slipped away, going out to the balcony for a few minutes while the healer tended to Chris. Footsteps came both from behind and before him, and the sharpshooter watched as Josiah plodded up the stairs while Buck came through the doorway. The three men greeted one another with silent nods. Not even the usually exuberant gunman felt like speaking right now. Finally they talked in soft monotones, barely glancing at one another as they did.
"Ezra's gone," Josiah announced. "Bed ain't been slept in, no one's seen him at the gamin' table, Ches' gone from the livery. No one's seen him since he left here."
"Run off," Tanner said with a tone of vehemence. "Like some mangy dog."
"Good thing," Wilmington growled. "I won't have t' kill 'm this way. Best he stays gone...for good."
"Brothers," Sanchez interjected, "I know that we all feel the same way; what Ezra done was wrong...stupid, foolish, and wrong. But we need to remember that he's proven himself time and again to be a member of our little group."
"Ain't no more," Buck said with finality.
Nathan looked sadly down at his friend; one of two men who had faced down an angry mob to save his life before they even knew his name. The healer felt helpless... useless... angry. He was failing the man; too unskilled and unschooled to give him much of a chance at living. There was no choice anymore if they wanted to keep him alive. His leg was growing ever closer to putrification, the limb swollen and discolored. Jackson had allowed the other men to sit with Larabee while he himself poured over his medical journals in an attempt to find some faint glimmer of hope that he could save both the man and the leg. He had found little comfort in the heavy texts, they all told him the same thing. Taking one final look at Chris Larabee, he squared his shoulders and went to the door. Looking outside he saw that Josiah had joined Buck and Vin.
Stepping out the door he said, "y'all know where J.D. and Ezra are?"
"J.D.'s in the sheriff's office," Sanchez told him. "We don't know where Ezra's - "
"Don't matter where that sonofabitch is," Buck said coldly. "Whattaya need Nathan?"
"Someone go fetch J.D.," he said tiredly, "and see if you can find Ezra. We've got a decision to make and I'd rather we were all in on it." that said he retreated back inside.
The trio on the balcony looked at one another solemnly. There was little question in their minds as to what decision was to be made, and it terrified them all. The preacher, still near the stairway, said, "I'll go get J.D." His voice was like a distant rumble of thunder. The other two men simply nodded as he started down the stairs.
When Josiah returned a short time later, Dunne in tow, the men were still standing outside the clinic. Both men were staring at the door, as if it were the mouth of hell. With a determined look, Sanchez entered the little room first, leading the others toward what they all knew was going to be bad news. Inside they found Nathan slumped in one of the chairs next to the bed, his head nearly touching his knees. The sight brought them all up short.
"Nathan?" Buck spoke softly, as if afraid anything above a whisper would shatter their very existence.
Looking up, the former slave said, "he's still with us Buck...for now. But we gotta face facts about the situation, and face 'm now."
Vin stole around the others quietly as Nathan spoke, coming to stand on the other side of the bed, looking down at his friend. He turned haunted blue eyes toward the other men, as if he were begging them to stop right now. He slid into the chair he had only vacated a short time earlier, his eyes now focused on the unconscious blond.
"What are you saying brother?" Josiah asked.
"It ain't hard t' see that Chris ain't gettin' better. Fact is, he's gettin' worse by the minute. Now, I've looked for help in every place I could think of, and ain't found nothin' promising. We gotta face it; it's come down t' either Chris or his leg."
"No," Vin said quietly. The others looked at him, but did not comment.
"We're gonna have to work fast," Jackson continued. "Josiah, I want you -"
"I said, no," Tanner repeated with more conviction.
"Vin," the healer said calmly, turning toward the younger man. "I know this is a hard thing t' face, but -"
"NO!" He fairly yelled the words now, standing so quickly that he knocked over his chair. "Y'ain't gonna take Chris' leg off Nathan, you promised!"
"I promised I wouldn't do anything this drastic unless there wasn't any other way around it. We're at that place now, Vin. Chris is dyin', and the only hope we got of savin' him is t' amputate his leg."
"Gotta be another way...there's just gotta," he was pleading now, begging them not to maim his best friend.
"Vin, be reasonable," Josiah tried now. "You know as well as I do that Nathan would never do this unless it was absolutely necessary. We have to face facts, if we want to keep Chris alive, we have to do this thing."
Suddenly the tracker drew his mares leg, pointing it at the others. He had positioned himself so that he could cover all four of them. Shaking his head, he repeated, "there's gotta be another way. Y'ain't taking his leg." To emphasize his point, Tanner fired the shotgun into the air, the shell whistling past the other men, barely missing them. Startled, the others jumped, sounds of exclamation mingling with the echo of the shot. Even Chris reacted with a soft moan, his eyes fluttering open for an instant.
"Now damn it, Vin," Buck bellowed, stepping toward the armed man. He hesitated as the sawed off was pointed at him, but he didn't back down. "I know you're worried for Chris, we all are. Ain't no one happy with th' idea a leavin' him crippled, but we gotta do what's best. If he's awake, he'd tell y' that himself."
"No he wouldn't," Tanner said assuredly, "he wouldn't want t' go th' rest a his life maimed an' crippled. What sorta chance would he have like that? What'd hppen th' frist time some damn punk kid out to make a name for himself called Chris out? He ain't gonna be able t' take care a himself if he loses a leg."
"He'll do fine, Vin, and we'll always be there t' back 'm up," J.D. said hopefully.
"We gonna babysit 'm for th' rest a his life, Kid?"
"If we have to! Damn it Vin, I thought he was your friend. How can you stand there and watch him die?"
"Cause I know that's what he'd want if he could tell us," Vin said the words quietly, with resignation. "I know if J.D."
"Tanner, he's been my friend longer'n anyone's," Wilmington growled. "And I ain't gonna stand here 'n let you decide what happens to 'm. Now put that damn shotgun back on your leg, 'n let Nathan do what he's gotta do."
"I SAID NO!!!" He screamed the words now, all sense of control lost in a flood of panic, fear and grief. Deep down the young man knew that what they were saying made sense for the most part. If he continued on this course, Chris Larabee would be dead soon, and that terrified him. But something was driving him, and he knew beyond doubt that he was right. Chris would not want to live a cripple, dependent on others to protect him against those who would come to claim a name for themselves by shooting the great Chris Larabee down. He shook his head, tears flowing freely down his handsome face. "No...I ain't gonna let no one cripple him. Now, y'all get outta here...now."
"Now look Vin," Nathan spoke up. "I ain't about t' let you do this. Put away the gun, and if y' can't handle bein' here, then go on down t' th' saloon. We'll come get y' when it's over."
In answer the tracker pointed the gun directly at the black man. The others froze, afraid that any movement would set him off again, with deadly results. Finally Josiah found his voice.
"Buck, Nathan, J.D....let's go."
"What!?! You gonna side with this damn fool preacher?" Buck yelled.
"Let's go outside so that everyone can cool down," Sanchez's voice didn't rise, but his tone grew firmer. "We'll accomplish nothing like this." Turning to Tanner, he finished, "we're going outside for a little while Vin, but we're going to come back in when everyone's cooled down. Do you hear men?"
"Go'n," Tanner said softly. "But y'all ain't changin' m' mind."
With a nod the older man pushed the gunman toward the door, motioning the others to follow him. Buck continued to complain, but did not fight against the preacher's grip. They went to the balcony, playing a waiting game.
Back inside the room, Vin picked up the overturned chair and slumped down onto the seat. He held his sawed-off in his lap, unwilling to holster it yet. Looking at the too-pale, too-still figure in the bed, he whispered in a broken voice, "I'm sorry Chris." The tears still flowing freely, he slumped forward, his head resting on the mattress next to his dying best friend.
Outside the healer's little clinic Buck Wilmington paced and raged, venting his frustration and anger on the three other peacekeepers. "What th' hell 'r we doin', standin' out here when Chris need us inside? Damn it t' hell, there's four a us an' one a him. Don't make no sense, us lettin' that damn mangy tracker call th' shots !"
"I'd say that sawed-off shotgun he's holding is a pretty convincing argument that Vin's in charge," Josiah said evenly.
"Hell Josiah, y' can't really b'lieve he'd shoot one a us."
"Maybe not, but right now Vin has the upper hand. He's scared and upset and confused. We just need to give him a few minutes to calm down." He looked directly at Wilmington. "We all need to calm down."
"Josiah," Nathan interjected, "Chris may not have a few minutes."
"I don't disagree with you brother," the big man said, "but trading one life for another will solve nothing, and Chris would be the first to agree in this case. We need to do this so that no one gets hurt. I'm asking you to give me enough time on this so that no one loses their life. Will you do that?"
J.D. looked at the other two men, confused as to what the right thing to do might be. Buck was beating his fists against his legs, but was listening to the preacher. Nathan looked evenly at his friend. "What have you got in mind Josiah?"
Back inside, Vin raised a tear-streaked and pain-filled face, looking at his unconscious friend. Chris was pale, paler than he had ever seen a living human before. His eyes were circled by a darkness that seemed cavernous. The blond's skin was dry to the point of cracking, any moisture burned out from the inside. His lips were parted only slightly, the only indication he still breathed a faint hiss as the air exited through the tiny space. There was no movement beneath the blankets, no rise and fall of the muscular chest to indicate he still lived.
Tanner scrubbed a rough hand across his face and choked back a sob. He had never known such pain before; watching the man who had become closer than any brother could, slipping ever closer toward death. The pain he felt was nearly overwhelming, threatening to suffocate him. He wished that it would; he knew he would never be able to live with what he was doing. He only hoped that someday the others would understand. This was not what he wanted, but he knew without an doubt that it was what he had to do.
A soft noise pulled the tracker from his thoughts. He looked up to see Josiah Sanchez standing in the doorway. The big man stood perfectly still, his hands held out and away from his body to show the other man that they were empty. Vin straightened, his hand closing on his weapon.
"Easy Vin," the preacher said, "I'm not armed. I only want to talk to you."
"What for? I ain't changin' m' mind Josiah."
"I'm not asking you to son. I only want to talk to you." He paused and then added, "can I come in?"
Nodding tiredly, Tanner said, "c'mon in then if you've a mind."
Padding into the room, the big man gently closed the door. He moved closer to the bed, stopping when he could see the tracker becoming edgy. "How is he?"
"Alive," the hunter whispered.
"How are you doin' son?"
"How do you think I'm doin'?" Vin growled. "Think I'm enjoyin' this?"
"No, of course not," Josiah said in a soft, even voice. "This is one of the most difficult things you've ever had to do in your life, isn't it?"
Slumping back into the chair, the young man nodded. He could feel hot tears welling up in his eyes, the taste of bile in the back of his throat.
"Chris is like a brother to you...no, he is a brother. You want to do what's best for him." He moved a little closer.
"He wouldn't wanna live crippled, Josiah...he wouldn't..."
"I understand your concern, son. A maimed gunman doesn't stand much of a chance out here. If someone comes along looking to make a name for himself, they would find an easy target in a man with only one leg." By this time the preacher had moved to the foot of the bed. Tanner didn't seem to notice.
"Y' do understand Josiah, it'd kill 'm slow, livin' like that. He'd be needin' us t' help protect 'm, an' y' know he'd never stand for it."
"Chris Larabee is a proud, strong man. Living like that might break him if it didn't kill him." Josiah was standing next to the tired man now. "It's a good friend who understands that."
Tanner chuckled dryly. "If I's a good friend, we wouldn't be goin' through this a'tall."
"How could you have stopped it? You weren't even in the mine."
"No, but I's there. I should'a stopped that damned fool, Ezra, 'fore he started all a this mess."
"In his own way Ezra's a strong man, too, as strong-willed as Chris. You couldn't have stopped him if his mind was set on going into that mine." He continued to maneuver himself into position. "You're no more to blame than Chris...or even Ezra. What happened was an accident..." as he spoke in that quiet, gentle voice, like a mother whispering to a sleeping child, he watched for an opening. Seizing it when it came, he reached down and lifted the sawed-off shotgun from Tanner's lap. He backed away out of reach.
"Damn you!" Vin screamed at the top of his lungs. "Damn you! Y'all ain't doin' this t' Chris!"
"Yeah, we are," Buck said as he entered the room in front of Nathan and J.D. "We've got to Vin. I've known Chris longer'n any a y', and I say that gives me final say on this."
"NO!" Tanner tried to place himself between the others and Larabee, but found himself quickly overtaken by the bigger men. While Josiah and Buck held the smaller tracker, Nathan went to his patient. "DAMN IT NATHAN, YOU CAN'T DO THIS!!!" Vin was struggling in the grip of his two friends, fighting to preserve the dignity of a third. "NATHAN PLEASE!!!" He was weeping openly now.
"Gentlemen," a calm voice came to them during a quiet interlude. "If I may interrupt this altercation..."
They turned to see Ezra Standish standing in the doorway. He was disheveled, unkempt, and it was clear to see that he had not slept since this had begun. He had his handgun drawn, but it was angled to the side, beyond the visibility of the open door. "If you will allow me, I may have an answer to the current crisis that would seem to have you at one another's throats."
"Standish, you got about two seconds t' get outta here, or I'm lettin' Vin go, an' I'm comin' after you!" Buck growled menacingly.
A look of intense pain crossed the handsome but careworn face, but he hid it quickly behind his gambler's mask. "Mister Wilmington I had no intention of remaining here any longer than it will take me to deliver some assistance and pack my belongings...provided you haven't destroyed them."
"Ezra," Josiah said with only a hint of anger, "what assistance are you talking about?"
Motioning to someone beyond the doorway, he escorted an older gentleman into the room. He was rather portly, well-dressed, and openly terrified of the man who had him at gunpoint.
"Gentlemen, may I introduce Doctor Wilbur Collins. He is one of the leading surgeons in the area and, with a bit of persuasion, has agreed to lend his expertise to attending Mister Larabee's injuries."
"You're a doctor?" J.D. asked hopefully.
"Y-y-yes-s, I am," the man stuttered, his eyes flitting to each of the men in the room.
"You know 'bout bad injuries like this?" Buck asked.
"I-I will n-n-need to ex....examine the p-p-patient before I kn-know for c-c-certain."
Even Vin had calmed down now. Buck and Josiah tentatively released their holds, although they continued to watch him. The others looked at the frightened stranger hopefully now. Josiah stepped a bit closer, stopping when he saw the man blanche and nearly swoon with fear. "Don't worry brother, we'll not harm you. If you bring us any chance of healing our friend, you'll be welcomed with opened arms and joyous hearts."
Still not convinced, the physician nodded slowly, then took a tentative step toward the bed. When the others moved away, he hurried past them and bent to examine Larabee's injury. No one seemed to breathe as they watched him gently poke and prod at the mangled leg. Nathan assisted him, answering the questions he raised during the examination. After what seemed a lifetime he looked up into the expectant faces. "Gentlemen, I cannot promise anything, but I am willing to do my best to keep your friend alive and in one piece. However, I must insist that you allow me to do it without being held at gunpoint, and if things do not work out, I would prefer to leave this little burg in one piece."
"You've got our word, doc," Josiah said with a smile. He looked around the room, reading looks of agreement from the other men. Then a look of concern crossed his face. "Where's Ezra?"
They sat, not speaking, on the balcony. Buck stared out across the little town, watching the townspeople moving along the street without really seeing them. Josiah stared at the clinic door as if he expected to be able to see through it into the room beyond. J.D. looked from one man to the other, tear-filled eyes begging them wordlessly to end the nightmare.
Inside the clinic, Vin stood pressed into the corner of the room, his arms wrapped tightly around his chest. His eyes had not left the bed where Chris lay; he had not spoken or even moved for hours, since the surgery had begun.
Nathan was the only one of the men who was lucky enough to be busy. He was assisting the physician in attempting to save Larabee's life, as well as his leg. Collins had recovered his composure and quickly began organizing things to his liking. Under his direction Nathan gave his assistance, moving quickly to fetch and carry, cut and clean, whatever was needed. When it came to the life of another, especially one of his friends, he worked with zeal under the direction of a more experienced healer, he was the first - and sometimes the only - person to recognize his lack of medical knowledge; he did not allow any sense of pride to get in the way of someone's health.
"How long's it been, Josiah?" Dunne asked quietly.
"I'd say about four hours."
"Four hours! Why's it taking so long?"
"J.D.," Buck said, "shut up kid, okay? Just shut up." He wasn't angry, he was just too tired to listen to the young man's chatter.
Seeing the boy's hurt look, Josiah said, "J.D., could you go and ask Inez to bring us some sandwiches, and bring us a bottle?"
"I..." he was torn between the need to remain close to Chris and the feeling of helplessness. If he could do something for his friends, perhaps he would feel a little less like screaming in frustration. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
Nodding, Sanchez watched the youngest member of their group hurry away from them. As J.D. disappeared down the stairs, he turned his attention to Buck. "How're you holding up?"
"Just great," the gunman said sarcastically. "Damn Josiah, how'd things get so messed up? I'm ready t' kill Vin an' Ezra both, and Chris' dyin' on us - "
"We don't know that Buck," Sanchez interrupted. "The doctor might yet save his life. The last thing he needs from us is our giving up on him."
"You're soundin' about as crazy as Tanner now! We've gotta be realistic 'bout all this."
"I am brother. There are those who believe that the thoughts of those around an injured person can make a difference. If that's true then we should focus on thoughts of our fallen brother recovering."
Buck grumbled something under his breath, but said nothing more on the subject.
"Brother, I know you're feeling a lot of anger toward both Vin and Ezra," Josiah continued. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't have some of those same feelings. But I believe that they're both suffering much more by their own hand than from any pain we could inflict on them."
"Damn, now you sound like that fancy talkin' peacock. Well, I'm tellin' y' this right here an' now; if Chris dies, there ain't gonna be enough pain 'n mis'ry in this wide world t' punish Ezra Standish like he oughta be."
Any further discussion was delayed as J.D. returned, a bottle and glasses in hand. "Inez's gonna bring th' sandwiches up soon's she gets 'm finished."
Nodding, the two men accepted a glass each. Dunne uncorked the bottle and filled the glasses. Filling his own glass last of all, the young man shuddered as he tossed back the strong drink. Swallowing hard, he re-filled all three glasses.
They were half-finished with the bottle when the beautiful young saloon manager brought a tray filled with sandwiches to the balcony. She had fed the men often enough that she provided a variety that would entice each of them.
With a smile and nod, Josiah accepted the tray and sat it nearby. Each of the men took a sandwich, quickly devouring it and reaching for another.
"How is Senor Chris?" The dark-eyed young woman asked quietly.
"We aren't sure yet," Josiah said. "We're waiting to hear from Nathan and Dr. Collins."
"Looking at your faces I do not think you expect good news," she said softly.
The preacher smiled. "It's been a long couple of days, Miss Inez."
She nodded. "Si, I could see that when Ezra came into the saloon earlier."
"Ezra," Buck spit the name out. "That lousy, good-for-nothin' - "
"As I said, Miss Inez, it's been a long couple of days, " Sanchez interrupted the tirade before it could begin.
They settled back into silence. Inez remained on the balcony with the men, quietly lending support to the despondent trio. Finishing the bottle, as well as beginning a second one that she pulled from the pocket of her apron, they continued to wait. Josiah and J.D. sat next to one another, leaning against the clinic wall. Buck sat on the bench nearby, still staring out across the town. The young brunette stood next to him, her heart aching at the intense pain she saw etched on the man's handsome face. Instinctively she reached out a hand and stroked his head. Wordlessly the gunman leaned against her hip. They usual banter and flirtation was forgotten in the face of adversity.
When the clinic door opened some time later, the sound echoed loudly in the silence. Four faces turned expectantly to see Nathan Jackson exit the room. The man's shoulders were slumped, his hands, arms and clothing splattered with blood. Bloodshot dark eyes took in each of them before he spoke. "It's early, but the doctor thinks there's a good chance Chris is gonna pull through." He held up a trembling hand to stay their comments. "Now, there's still a chance he's gonna lose the leg, and a bigger chance that he'll never regain full use of it. Whatever happens, we've got a long road ahead of us yet."
The others nodded in understanding, but the air of despondency began to lift, hope taking it's place.
"Can we go see 'm?" Buck asked.
"The doctor's still finishin' up, and Chris' gonna sleep for a time yet. Why don't y'all go get some rest an' come back in th' mornin'?"
Wilmington started to argue, but Inez whispered something in his ear and he broke into a wolfish grin. Josiah stretched and slowly climbed to his feet, pulling a yawning J.D. behind him. "Want us t' drag Vin off with us?" The preacher asked.
Shaking his head, Jackson said, "don't reckon anything's gonna pull him outta there and, "he nodded toward Buck, who had begun glaring at the mere mention of the tracker, "reckon it'd be safer for everyone if he was t' stay here."
Nodding in agreement, Sanchez aimed the young sheriff toward the stairway. Looking back, he watched as Inez coaxed Buck away from the clinic and toward the stairs.
Nathan Jackson stood watching the quartet walk away. He leaned against the wall tiredly, wanting nothing so much as the chance to go with them; to collapse into bed and sleep for days; to put all of this behind him. Taking a deep breath, he walked back inside.
"Inez darlin'," buck said, "I'd just's soon not go in there." He motioned toward the saloon. "I'm in a fair mood at th' moment, an' th' last person I wanna deal with's Ezra Standish. I will shoot that sone of -"
"Senor Ezra is not there," Inez said with some surprise. "I thought you all would know this."
"Know what, Inez?" Josiah asked.
"He left some hours ago."
"Where'd he go?"
She shrugged. "I do not know. He packed a valise and asked me to send the rest of his things when he let me know where he...relocated," she paused, deciding that she had used the correct word. "Si, relocated. He did not even stay long enough to clean up or change his clothes."
The men looked at one another, expressions of dismay on their faces. Wilmington recovered first, saying only, "reckon it's best. Don't cotton t' killin' someone that used t' be a friend..." Without further conversation they entered the saloon.
"Vin?" Jackson stood next to the sharpshooter, speaking quietly. The young man seemed almost to be in shock. He had not moved in all the long hours since the surgery had begun. He had unnerved the physician at first, but when it became clear that the young man posed no threat, the doctor quickly forgot he was there. The two healers, one schooled by books and experience, the other by the battlefield, soon found a comfortable rhythm and set to work. It was a harrowing few hours and, for a time it seemed almost certain that amputation would be the only recourse. But then a glimmer of hope broke through the darkness and they picked up the pace, racing even harder against time.
Chris had begun to wake at one point, his soft groans bringing Vin out of his trance. "Nathan?" He called across the room worriedly.
"It's okay Vin," the healer said as he dripped either into a cloth over Larabee's mouth and nose. As the blond settled back into unconsciousness he continued, "he's fine. Just started wakin' up." Nodding, Tanner settled back against the wall, his eyes riveted on the scene before him.
When they had finally done all that they could the doctor, now at complete ease, shooed the handsome young healer away with the admonishment that he needed a break. Jackson had steeped first to Tanner's side, trying to get through to him. When the younger man made no response he left him alone, hoping his words of promise would manage to sink in. No he returned, trying to get the tracker to focus on him. "Vin? You hear me?" He spoke the words three times before getting a response. Finally the pale blue eyes seemed to clear and actually see him.
"Yeah," he said softly.
"Vin, you oughta go get some rest. At least go get a drink and somethin' t' eat."
"No, you ain't, you're wore out. Chris' gonna be sleeping for awhile, and ain't nothin' you can do about it right now."
"Don't need t' be doin' nothin' right now. Just need t' be here's all."
With a sigh, Jackson said, "alright, I'm gonna take Doc Collins to get cleaned up and get 'm somethin' t' eat. If Chris starts t' wake up or seems t' be havin' trouble, you come for us quick's y' can."
"Alright," Vin said softly.
Jackson returned to the bed where Laabee lay. The doctor had cleaned things up, making the blond as comfortable as possible. They had returned the injured leg to the elevated board it had been on since they had rescued him from the cave. The physician had commended the former slave on his ingenuity, declaring that his quick thinking had been the only reason that there was any chance of saving the limb. In his usual, self-effacing way, the man declared it blind luck alone. Looking into the blond's pale face, he spoke to the doctor, "how long y' tink it'll be before we know anything sir?"
"Nathan, my name is Wil. Colleagues should not refer to one another as 'sir'." There was a twinkle in the man's eye. His introduction into the little community and it's oddball group of peacekeepers had been less than auspicious, but now that he had recovered and knew the situation, he was now more at ease and had taken a genuine liking to the soft-spoken young healer. The fact that the mercurial Southerner who had accosted him and forced him to travel to the town at gunpoint was gone made it even more relaxing.
"Wil," Nathan said, trying the name out. "If you'd like, I'll take you to the bathhouse so you can clean up, then to the saloon for some dinner and a few drinks."
"We shouldn't leave your friend alone."
"Vin'll stay with him, and come for us if we're needed. He's got a good sense of such things, 'specially when it comes to Chris."
Collins looked with a start toward the statue-like young man in the corner. When he had been forced into the room the unkempt, wild looking fellow had been red-faced with rage. Once he had calmed down he had appeared almost comatose, watching their every move without expression. The doctor had soon forgotten that the one they called Vin was even there. "Do you think that's wise?"
Smiling at the concerned man, Nathan said, "Vin ain't as crazy as he seems. We've had a rough time of it since the accident and it's got everyone on edge. Reckon Vin took it the worst, him and Chris are awful close. Think he's feelin' a mite responsible."
"No, but that's Vin," his grin broadened, lighting his face up for the first time in days. "Now, let's get you cleaned up and fed, show you that folks here ain't as uncivilized as you might think."
With a hearty chuckle Collins agreed. As they passed the corner where Tanner still stood, Jackson said, "Vin, we'll be back in a bit. Come for us if you need us for anything, alright? We'll be at the bathhouse -"
"Then the saloon," the tracker said evenly. "I remember." He offered a smile to the other man, watching as the two healers exited the clinic. As the door closed he pushed himself away from the wall and shuffled toward his friend. The chairs had been moved and, too tired to even consider the idea of looking for a seat, he simply dropped to his knees next to the bed. Leaning against the mattress he watched the more gentle rise and fall of his friend's chest; not only was Chris breathing easier, but he even seemed to have a hint of color in the now-peaceful face.
"Chris," he said softly, not certain that Larabee could hear him, "It's gonna be okay now. The doctor said things look real good." Pausing, he said, "I'm sorry Chris. Reckon I let y' down. I knew y' were mad. Should'a never let y' go in there after Ezra alone. Should'a went in there m'self, or stopped th' blame fool from goin' off t' that damned mine in th' first palce. I was just tired a his prattlin', an' glad t' see Ches' hindquarters ridin' away. I should'na goaded y' int' goin' back after 'm. Y's right, he was on his own. If we'd a left 'm there, th' place'd stayed put an' y'd be fine." He was quiet then, knowing he would have to repeat the words later, when Chris was awake, for his own peace of mind. He had been thinking of little else since they had returned from the mine. It finally became clear that he had at least a share of the blame in the accident that had nearly cost his friend his life. At least a share.