"Nathan?" Buck called across the room as Jackson and the physician entered. Nodding, the healer went first to the bar. Speaking to Inez, he accepted two mugs of beer and handed one to the other man. Leading him over to the table, he said, "well, you fellas look a bit more relaxed than you did earlier."
"Who's with Chris?" Wilmington asked.
"Vin," he held up a hand when the big man started to protest. "It's only for a little while, til me an' Wil get a bite t' eat. Chris' sleepin' and Vin's calmed down."
"He pulls another stunt like he did earlier - "
"He won't Buck," Jackson said in a tone of finality.
"Yeah, well he better not," the gunman promised.
"So, doctor," Josiah said in a bid to distract the gunman before he became too angry. "How did you come to arrive in our little town at gunpoint?"
The older man chuckled and shook his head at the memory. "Well, I was just leaving my office late last evening, when this very deranged looking man approached me. He had rather wild looking eyes, he was covered in dirt and dust, and brought to mind nothing so much as a member of the criminal element."
Even Buck had to chuckle at the thought of the natty Southerner being mistaken for a common criminal.
"Yes, well," the physician continued. "He was quite a sight. He greeted me by asking if I was the doctor. When I told him yes, he said that he had need of my services immediately. I must say that I feared for my life even before he pulled the gun on me. I made several excuses trying to extricate myself, but he was having none of it. Then I made the mistake of trying to simply walk away. The next thing I knew there was a very small, very deadly looking weapon pressed against my chest. One look at this wild-eyed young man told me that he was quite willing to use it.
"He escorted me back into my office for my medical bag, and then to the livery for my horse. Before I knew it we were on the road. He said nothing for some time, but finally filled me in on the particulars of the situation. I was still uncertain as to his honesty, thinking that I might be forced to deliver aid to a wanted criminal. I can see now that he was only concerned for his friend's life."
"Or his own," Wilmington said softly.
"Well, we do apologize for your less-than-congenial introduction to our little town Doctor Collins," Josiah said, "but we're certainly happy that you're here. I reckon you know what we were about to do when you arrived."
"Yes, well we cannot lose fight of the fact that your friend isn't out of the woods just yet."
"But Chris has a much better chance than he did, sir," Dunne said with open admiration.
Slapping the young man congenially on the back, Sanchez said "I do believe it's time for another drink."
Leaving the physician in the company of the others, Nathan returned to his clinic as soon as he had eaten. He carried a covered tray with him, delivering some food to Tanner. He didn't have a lot of hope that the younger man would eat without being threatened however. Sometimes he wondered which of the two friends had the broader stubborn streak, Vin or Chris.
Opening the door quietly, Jackson had to shake his head at the sight that greeted him. The tracker was slumped over against the bed, sitting on the floor with his back against the wall and his head resting on the mattress. His eyes were closed, his chest rising and falling gently as he slept. Moving quietly across the room, he sat the tray down and squatted before the sleeping man. Shaking him gently, the healer said, "Vin?"
Pale eyes struggled open and he looked owlishly at the dark man before him. "Nathan?"
"Reckon you'd be a mite more comfortable in a chair...or your bed."
Shaking his head to clear the fog of sleep, he said "naw, I'm fine...reckon I did doze off a bit." He stopped, looking toward the bed, "Chris okay?"
"He's still sleepin'. At least come on an' eat some dinner." The former slave pulled the tray over toward him.
"Ain't hungry right now, Nathan."
"Y'ain't hardly eat since Chris got hurt, Vin Tanner. Y'ain't gonna do him any good gettin' sick on us."
"In a bit," he continued to argue.
"It's warm now," the healer pulled a chair over and pointed to it.
Giving the other man a suspicious look as he settled into the chair, Tanner said, "you put any a them ground up weeds a yours in this?"
With a deep chuckle Jackson said, "heavy as you were sleepin' just now, don't think I need to. Figure you're gonna fall back t' sleep just as quick without any help." He placed the tray on the man's lap.
With a slight smile, the younger man began picking at the food on the tray.
"Now, Inez made that special for you. Reckon she'll take offense if you don't eat it."
"Reckon. Just can't seem t' get an' appetite. Think we could keep it from 'r?"
"I'll make a deal with you. Eat half of it and I won't say a word, " the big man wore a poker face.
"Ah, Nathan, maybe later."
"Eat..." The whispered word caught both men off-guard. Looking toward the bed, they saw a pair of pain-glazed eyes squinting up at them.
"Chris! How y' feelin'?" Nathan asked.
"Lousy..." The blond admitted, grimacing in pain. Then he repeated, "eat."
With a relieved chuckled, the tracker comically shoved a biscuit in his mouth.
Larabee wasn't satisfied. "More..." he coaxed.
"Yes...Pa..." Tanner said around a mouthful of meat.
With a weak nod the gunman drifted back to sleep.
Rolling his eyes, the ex-slave threw up his hands in surrender. "You two..." He let the words drift off as he bent to check over his patient. When he had finished and straightened up he found Vin watching him intently. Nodding he said, "things still look good. Ain't no sign of infection, fever's still up, but that's normal after surgery. If we can get some liquids down 'm reckon it'd help."
"Reckon Inez'd have somethin' t' make a broth...or y' gonna force some a that skunk juice a yours on 'm whilst he's helpless?"
"How 'bout you go see about the broth while I get some 'skunk juice' down him. That way you won't have to feel like an accomplice."
For the first time in days he laughed, a strong, relieved laugh. Vin pushed himself out of the chair and headed quickly for the door, now-empty tray in hand.
By the following day's dawn the other men returned to the clinic. They found Tanner asleep in a bedroll in a corner and Nathan dosing in a chair next to the bed. Chris lay much as he had since the accident.
The healer stirred as the men entered, looking sleepily at them. "What are you boys doin' back here already?"
"It's dawn brother. We thought perhaps there would be some news as to Chris' health," Josiah said.
The healer related the events of the evening before, bringing laughter to the men at the tale of Chris scolding Vin to eat.
"That's Chris," Buck grinned, " he's always gotta be right, and tellin' everyone what t' do."
"Am...right..." a weak but familiar voice retorted from the bed.
"Hey stud," Wilmington said softly as he strode across the room. "How long you been awake?"
"Not long..." he answered. He looked around, taking in the faces of his friends, each one lit with a smile at the sight of their friend and leader awake. Then he frowned, asking, "where's Vin...Ezra?"
"I'm here pard," a sleepy voice said from the corner. Vin shuffled over to join the others. "Just takin' a nap."
"Good..." he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, gathering his strength before he continued. Opening them once more he asked again, "Ez...ra?"
The men looked at one another, but Nathan said quickly, "reckon he's still asleep. You know he don't keep hours like th' rest of us. You need t' go on back t' sleep, too. Now," he turned to the other men, "I want y'all outta here an' let my patient sleep."
"Nathan," Vin said softly.
"You too Vin. I'm tired a trippin' over y' an' y'ain't been outta this room hardly for days. Now if I've got to I'll have Buck an' Josiah carry y' outta here."
"Go...cow...boy..." Larabee ordered.
Vin looked rady to argue, but after a few seconds he nodded. "I'll be back later on pard."
"I'll...be here..." Chris promised with a wan smile.
"I'm holdin' y' to that," Tanner said as he went with the others out the door.
Following the others to the balcony, Nathan closed the door with a final look in on his patient. Turning to the others he said, "I don't want any of you tellin' Chris about Ezra yet."
"He'll find ut sooner or later Nathan," Josiah replied.
"Then we'll make it later. He don't need nothin' vexin' him right now."
"Alright," Buck said.
Looking from one man to another, Vin said, "what are y'all talkin' about?"
Josiah quickly filled the tracker in on the situation. When he finished Tanner dropped his head. "Ah hell," he sighed. "What'd he run off like that for?"
"What'd y' mean?" Buck cried. "He damn near got Chris killed...we ain't even totally sure it ain't gonna happen yet. That fool knew he'd best disappear for his own good. An' y'all know he's gonna look out for hisself first of all."
"It wasn't Ezra's fault," Vin argued. "Not all of it anyway. He should'na run off like that."
"Vin, I can't say I'm real happy with you neither, after th' stunt y' pulled yesterday. Don't think this 's a good time t' be arguin'."
"Buck, y' don't understand," Tanner said sadly. Without a second look backward, the young Texan hurried away from the others.
"Vin? Where you goin'?" Sanchez called after him.
"Let 'm go for now, Josiah," Nathan said quietly. "I think he needs some time t' wrestle whatever demons been after 'm since th' accident."
The young sharpshooter walked determinedly down the stairs and up the boardwalk and up the boardwalk toward the saloon. Pushing through the batwing doors, he walked directly to the bar, nodding to the pretty young saloon manager who was cleaning up the debris of the night before. Tipping his hat to her he said, "Miss Inez, just heard that Ezra left town."
"Si," she said, smiling compassionately at the tired looking man. She poured a shot of whiskey and sat it before him, shaking her head 'no' when he reached for a coin.
Nodding his thanks, Vin continued, "y'all got any idea where he might'a gone?"
"No, he said nothing."
"Y' see where he went...which way?"
Staring out the door as if trying to see back in time to fix the memory, she answered, "he turned his horse in that direction," she pointed down the street, "but I don't know anything more. I'm sorry."
At least it was something, no matter how faint the hope it held. Nodding once more, he said "thank you ma'am." Tipping his hat, he left the way he had come.
Standing outside on the walk, he leaned against a support beam and pulled out his harmonica. Blowing tunelessly, he appeared outwardly calm. No one could tell the inner storm that was pulling him in two directions. Looking in one direction he thought of Ezra, the turmoil he was certain the gambler was in. Vin knew that he was the only one who would have a chance at getting the other man to return to town; the only one who understood what had happened and might be able to make peace between the gambler and the other men possible. Then, looking in the other direction, he thought of Chris. Larabee was the closest thing he had to a brother; hell, even closer. Chris would need him here, an he needed to be here for the man. If the unthinkable happened...no, he cut himself off. He couldn't afford to let those thoughts take over. Chris would be fine, he would not allow anything else to come to mind.
No, he decided, Ezra would have to wait for now. He couldn't bring himself to leave Chris yet. Dropping the harmonica back into his pocket, Tanner moved back up the street toward the clinic.
By that evening the mood among the peacekeepers had dropped, a response to Chris Larabee's once again worsening condition. They had managed to get him to eat breakfast, but by lunch he was listless and unable to stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time. With Vin's help, Nathan managed to feed the blond a little of the broth Inez had sent up, but not enough to satisfy the healer. By evening Chris was caught in the throes of a fever once more.
Dr. Collins had spent most of the day with Nathan, tending to the gunman. They nearly depleted the town's alcohol supply, while the other men formed something of a bucket brigade, carrying cool water from the well. All of it was used trying to break the fever that raged within the gunman's lean body. By midnight they were bringing ice form the ice house.
Throughout the night, either Vin or Buck would sit next to their friend, talking gently to him and bathing his too-pale face. Their voices managed to break through the fever-induced madness and Chris would lay quietly, seeming to be listening to their voices if not their words.
The two healers kept a constant watch on the gunman's injured leg. The limb swelled, the torn flesh reddening while all around it was ghastly pale. Dr. Collins drained the infection from the wound several times, eliciting moans and weak cries from Larabee as the physician was forced to prod and massage the already tortured limb. It was during those times that his friends presence meant the most to Chris. He lay limply, some part of him knowing they were there with him. Some part of him knew that they were talking to him, giving him a hand to grip against the pain and bathing his face with blessedly cool water. He tried, from time to time, to respond. The most he could manage was a weak squeeze of his hand around theirs.
Finally, as the sun once more brightened the little room, the man in black's fever broke. Chris Larabee once again proved just how strong - and strong-willed - he could be. With a sigh, he settled into a sleep that frightened the others for a few seconds until Nathan announced that he was still with them. It took the healer a while longer to convince the other men to leave the clinic.
Not surprisingly, Vin Tanner was the last to leave. It was approaching noon before the hunter would agree to leave the clinic. He briefly considered a trip to the saloon, but the exhaustion that had become his constant companion won out over his need for a drink. Stumbling into his wagon, he fell into a deep dreamless sleep almost before his head met the mattress.
The next two days seemed almost routine. The men divided their time between their regular duties and visiting the clinic. While still unconscious, except for a few minutes here and there, Chris gave every sign of beginning the long trip back toward health. His recovery looked so certain that Dr. Collins felt secure enough to leave them for his own home and practice. With a promise to return should they need his services again, and a staunch refusal for any sort of payment from the men, he declared Nathan Jackson one of the best natural-born healers he had ever had the good fortune to know, waved good-bye to the little rag-tag family of brothers, and left the clinic.
Despite the good news it still came as something of a surprise to Wilmington to come in the door and find his old friend awake, propped up on several pillows. Vin, sitting next to the bed, had just finished giving the blond a shave. "Well, good mornin' stud, " Buck said cheerfully. "You're lookin' right handsome this mornin'. Got a date 'r somethin'?"
Chris smiled but said nothing in reply. Instead his eyes focused on the covered tray the big man carried. In a voice weak and scratchy from disuse, Chris said, "mush...or broth?"
Smiling, the gunman said, "mush. Inez doctored it up with molasses, thought it might help."
"Nothing...can help that...stuff..." he said with a sad shake of his head.
"Well, reckon y'oughta just be happy it ain't that skunk juice a Nathan's," Tanner said with a companionable pat on the other man's shoulder.
"I...am..." he replied, "be-lieve...me, I...am."
Carefully propping the tray on the man's lap, Buck pulled the cloth from it, smiling at the face Larabee pulled. Then with a wink, he pulled a cloth napkin from his pocket and dropped it on the tray. With a conspiratorial look over his shoulder toward the door, he opened the napkin saying, "don't you dare say a word 'bout this t' Nathan."
Chris grinned broadly at the sight of a strip of bacon and a biscuit. He ate the bacon first, a sigh of contentment escaping him as he swallowed the final bite. As the other two laughed heartily he began to eat the rest of the food. By the time he had finished, it was clear that Chris was running out of energy. Dropping the spoon into the bowl, he lay back against the pillows, eyes dropping shut. He registered the fact that the tray was taken away, his face washed, and all but one pillow eased from beneath him. He didn't have the energy to protest the attention, though. As if from a distance he heard the other two men talking.
"He's got better color this mornin'." Buck said.
"Yep. Reckon he's finally turned th' corner," was Tanner's reply.
"Reckon so...he ask after Ezra any more?"
"Not yet. Don't think he's missed 'm any more. Ain't certain what t' say when he does."
"Good riddance 's good 's anything," Buck's tone turned cold.
Chris tried to hold onto the last tenuous strands of consciousness. What was going on? Where was Standish? The darkness claimed him before he could find out anymore.
It was the next day before Chris could think clearly enough to ask the question. He woke to find that five of the six other men had congregated in the clinic. J.D., Buck and Josiah were playing cards at the table. Vin was badgering Nathan about something, he couldn't quite make out the word. The big healer was trying to maintain his calm, but it was clear his patience was coming to an end.
"Vin, best watch out," Larabee said softly. "I don't cotton...to sharing the bed...after he lays you...out..."
"Welcome back brother," Josiah's deep voice came from the other side of the room.
Nodding, the gunman struggled to lift his head from the bed. Nathan was next to him in two quick strides, gently propping their leader up on a stack of pillows.
Smiling his thanks, Chris looked around the room. He found that it felt very good to find himself surrounded by his makeshift family of brothers. Almost. "Where's Ezra?"
"Down at the saloon most likely," Nathan said, but the answer came too quickly.
Larabee looked from one man to another, watching them avoid his look; eyes dropping, heads turning. His gaze finally settled on Vin. "Where's Ezra?" He repeated.
"Like Nathan said - "
"You never did lie...real well," the gunman interrupted him.
"Chris," Jackson said, "you need to worry about gettin' better right now, not where that reb is."
"Where...is...Ezra..." Chris said in a tone that told them all quite clearly that he would brook no more delays.
"Chris," Tanner said,, avoiding the looks of the other men, "he lit out right after y' got hurt."
"Don't know for certain. He's s'posed t' let Inez know."
"Why?" He asked.
"Don't know for certain why, neither. He brung th' doctor in an' that's th' last we seen of 'm."
Chris ran a trembling hand over his face. Looking up into the blue eyes, he said, "find him."
"Chris, he's gone...lit out like we always figured he would," Buck said, anger seeping into his voice. "I say good riddance."
"Why?'' he turned to fin once again. "The truth..."
With a heavy sigh, Tanner said, "figger he's feelin' guilty 'bout what happened, takin' on th' blame a th' whole thing."
"Well, least he's right on that count," Buck muttered.
"No...he's not..." Larabee said adamantly.
"Chris, now c'mon pard - "
"Buck," he spit the name out, "you don't under...stand..."
"Alright," Nathan entered the argument. "That's enough. Now, I told y'all, I didn't want nothin' vexin' my patient. Y'all clear outta here. Now."
"Nathan..." Buck and Vin started in unison.
"No. I ain't arguin' with you fellas. Out."
"Let...Vin st-stay..." the gunman wheezed breathlessly.
With a sigh of exasperation the former slave said, "for a couple a minutes, then I want you gettin' some rest."
Nodding, Chris lay back against the pillows. Vin came over and sat down next to him on the edge of the bed. He looked intently into the other man's blue eyes. "Find him Vin...bring him...back here..."
"Don't know where t' start pard. Figured on waitin' for 'm t' get hold a Inez."
Larabee shook his head. "Gotta make him come...back, it ain't...ain't his fault..."
Putting a hand on his friend's shoulder, Tanner said, "calm down, 'r Nathan's gonna skin us both. Y' gotta let me take care a this pard, stop worryin about 'm. I swear I'll bring 'm back, even if I gotta knock 'm out, tie 'm up, an' throw his ass over his horse. Alright?"
With a tired smile, Chris nodded. "Al...alright..."
The next day Inez informed the tracker that she had received a message from Ezra, delivered on the morning stage. He asked her to send the rest of his belongings to a town just thirty miles north, called Carson's Crossing. Going to the clinic, Tanner let Chris know that he would be leaving as soon as he could, to make good on his promise to bring the other man back. Leaving behind a much relieved gunfighter, the rangy hunter left the clinic; a man on a mission.
Buck entered through the same door a short time later, coming to sit next to the bed. "Saw Vin headin' outta town just now."
Chris nodded, but offered nothing in explanation.
"He goin' after Ezra?"
With a sigh, Larabee said "because I asked him to."
"We're well shed 'a him, stud. Man ain't never been one we could trust if there's money t' be had."
"In know, and I've been the first to point that out more than once," Chris acknowledged in a voice that was sounding more and more normal. "But he's not solely to blame for this Buck."
"Look, I know y'ain't been to yourself much this past week ol' son, but -"
"Ain't out of my head, Buck. Ezra aint' the only one at fault. Yeah, he went into that old mind and wasted our time. But I'd been spoiling for a fight the whole trip. I pushed him too far and this," he nodded toward his injured leg, "is what happened."
Wilmington was still angry at the young Southerner, but he was listening to his old friend as Chris continued his explanation.
"Me and Ezra had a long spell to ourselves while we were waiting. I don't remember all of it, but I remember enough." He paused, looking intently at the other man. "Buck, what did growing up the way you did teach you? A lot more about women than most men will ever know I reckon?"
Buck chuckled, "yeah, it did that," he said softly.
"And even though you didn't always have things easy, you knew your mama cared about you, right?"
"Well, I learned some things about Ezra out there that I think all of us would have figured out a long time ago if we'd opened our eyes. The one thing Ezra Standish learned growing up with Maude as a mother was that the only way he has any value to others is if he has money, or can help them make some."
"Yeah, I know that, and so do you. And I reckon that some part of Ezra knows it too. But the things that happened when you were a boy are always there in the back of your mind. No matter what you learn later on, you still have those things in the back of your mind. Well, the things 'back there' for Ezra say that money's everything and he's worthless without it."
Buck took in the other man's words. He wished he knew the specifics of what Chris had learned about Ezra. He knew, though, that the gunman would not divulge those details out of respect for the other man's privacy. And, too, he knew that it was rare for Chris Larabee to change his mind once it was set. Whatever had gone on between the two men had to have been pretty important. Looking at the sincere hazel eyes, he finally said, "alright. I'll take your word for it, Chris. Can't say I'm gonna be jumpin' for joy t' see 'm back here, but I do promise not to make trouble."
"That's all I can ask, old friend, thank you."
Vin could hear him before he even got inside the saloon. Ezra was bellowing, challenging someone with something or other; half of it was in a language he didn't recognize and the rest of it was delivered in an accent so thick that even those words were difficult to understand. Tanner was reminded of the first time they had seen the gambler back in Four Corners. But this time he wasn't pretending to be drunk, of that Vin was certain. Checking out the room from just inside the door, the bounty hunter was quickly satisfied that it was safe. Locating the gambler, he walked toward the table.
Ezra looked in his direction once, but didn't seem to see him. The man was too busy conniving and conning the other men a the table. He padded across the sawdust covered floor and stopped next to the drunken cowboy. The seated man slowly registered a new presence and visibly cranked his head to the side and upward. Focusing his eyes very slowly, it finally registered that he was staring at a familiar figure. "Ah, Mistah Tanner," he slurred, "you have come to thrash me...am I correct?"
"Ezra, we need t' talk...alone," the tracker said softly.
"Ahlone? Ah would prafer not to leave mah associates," his accent was the thickest Vin had ever heard it.
"Ezra," he said with a tired sigh, "Chris asked me t' bring y' back. He wants t' talk t' y'."
"Yes...well, ah can only imagine the wunderful conversaaaation we would have. Perhaps Mistah Larabee would follah said conversation with a bullit b'tween mah eyes?"
"He just wants t' talk, pard."
"Well, Ahm sorry, but Ah am othahwise engaged."
"Standish," one of the other players inserted, "are you playin' 'r not?"
"Ah most certainly -"
"He folds," Vin said, pulling the cards from Ezra's hand and tossing them in the middle of the table. The response was quick and volatile.
Lurching to his feet, the Southerner sent his chair flying backwards. Eyes flashing like emerald lightening, he glared at the other man. "Suh, you have wronged me, and -"
Before the drunken man could finish his sentence, Vin delivered a right to the square jaw. The smaller man immediately began to crumble to the ground, stopped only when Tanner grabbed his shirt front. Maneuvering the unconscious man over his shoulder, he picked up the money that still sat at Ezra's seat. He was amazed at how small the cache was; another sigh as to how off his game Standish was. Retrieving the gambler's hat and jacket from the back of the chair, he nodded to the other players and retraced his steps back out the saloon door.
Ezra peeled open his eyes slowly, one by one, groaning miserably as the scenery spun out of control around him. After some consideration he realized what was wrong; some catastrophe had conspired to turn the world upside down. Cautiously closing his eyes once more, he bit back a pain-racked groan.
"Howdy Ezra," a familiar voice came from somewhere nearby.
"Vin?" He asked cautiously.
"How y' feelin'?"
"Compared to what?"
A chuckle was his only reply.
"May I inquire as to the reason for my being in this position?" His question was punctuated by a variety of sounds caused by a combination of far too much alcohol, far too little sleep, and the fact that he was draped head down over his saddle.
"Y'alright Ezra?" The humor was evident in the soft Texas drawl.
"No, I am most assuredly not alright. Could you please answer my query?"
"What? Oh...well, I had t' knock y' out 'fore I could get y' outta that saloon. Couldn't get y' t' sit your horse, so I had t' tie y' down t' keep y' from fallin' off your horse."
"Well, as you can see, I am no longer unconscious. Could we perhaps stop long enough to release me from these bonds?"
"Reckon I'll hold off on that for now."
"Mister Tanner," his voice grew cool, his drawl becoming more evident by the syllable. "This is by far one of the most uncomfortable positions possible. I would appreciate it if you would release me at once."
"Well, let me think 'bout it. Were I t' let y' go, whattaya figurin' on doin'?"
"Doing? I fully intend to return to my new residence with all due haste. There is no longer anything for me in the direction I surmise we are traveling."
"Reckon y' might as well get comfortable then, cause you're gonna be stayin' right where y' are."
"TANNAH! You have no right! I insist that you release me this instant!" He waited for several minutes, but received no reply from the laconic tracker. Becoming more irritated by the moment he swallowed hard and said again, "Mr. Tanner," but still no reply. Repeating himself more forcefully he nearly yelled, "MISTAH TANNAH!"
"Don't gotta holler Ezra, I'm right here."
"I know where you are, now please answer me!"
"Already did. Ain't lettin' y' go 'til y' can promise me honest that y' ain't gonna haul ass back t' Carson's. Not til y' talk t' Chris. If y' talk t' Chris 'n still wanna leave, I won't stand in your way."
"Mister Tanner, I..." Suddenly he could no longer tolerate the situation. Riding as he was, across his saddle, combined with several long days consisting of too much alcohol, little food, and even less sleep conspired against him.
Vin grimaced at the sound of retching coming from the other side of Ches'. Sighing sympathetically he stopped the horses for a few minutes until things grew quiet, then lead them slowly toward a small stand of trees. Untying the rope that bound his hands and feet to the horse, he pulled the gambler off the saddle and dragged him to the nearest tree. Resting Ezra carefully against the trunk, he moved back to the horses and returned with a canteen and one of the bedrolls. Placing the bedroll behind Standish's head, he gave him the canteen.
Sipping the water cautiously, not yet trusting his ability to keep anything down, the gambler eyed the young Texan. "You're being truthful, aren't you?" he asked in sudden realization, "you have no intention of releasing me."
Sighing and shaking his head, Vin said, "Ezra, for th' last time, I promised Chris I'd bring y' back t' town so he could talk t' you. If y'ain't gonna agree t' come back, then I'm takin' y' back th' best way I can."
"You can't really intend to parade me into town, trussed up on my horse like some rigoring carcass!"
Shrugging, Tanner said simply, "made a promise."
"But that's ridiculous! You cannot think that I will stand still for such barbaric treatment!"
"Don't reckon you'll have t' stand for it, pard," the tracker grinned. "Reckon you'll just have t' hang 'round for it."
"Ah yes..." he said sarcastically, "there's that arbitrary wit of yours once more."
Tanner did not answer but simply went to the horses, checking Ezra's chestnut for irritation from the way he was carrying his rider. Walking both horses to a tiny spring nearby he re-filled the canteen still with their mounts, and then let the animals drink. When he had finished he returned to the bound man and traded canteens. Leaving Standish to continue sulking, he filled the second canteen. Returning with the horses, he said simply, "ready?"
If at that moment in time there existed the possibility of pitting Ezra's glare against that of Chris Larabee, it would end in a tie. Just as he did with the blond, Vin ignored the look. The gambler refused to dignify the question with any further answer. He simply sat beneath the tree, sipping from the canteen and staring into the distance.
"Horses 'r ready, Ezra, so'm I. You wanna make me that promise yet?"
"No," green eyes flared with growing rage.
"Alright then, reckon y' go back 'cross th' saddle." Stepping forward, the Texan was caught short when bound legs flashed upwards, catching him across the calf. Stumbling, he barely caught himself before he went sprawling on the hard ground.
"Goddammit, Standish!" The slender man yelped. "Fine, y' wanna play it that way, we can do it." He advanced, fist balled, ready to deliver a second knock-out blow. He found himself dodging a nearly full canteen, as the other man threw it as hard as he could. Before he could recover, the Southerner was rolling awkwardly across the ground. With a few quick strides, the younger man leapt toward him with a growl of anger. Landing hard on top of the conman, Tanner wrapped an arm around his neck, trying to choke him into submission.
They fought for several minutes, Ezra holding his own amazingly well given his bound limbs. For the second time in little over a week, he was fighting one of the men he had come to consider a brother. Some part of his mind raged at the idea, demanding a cessation to the violence. His pride was stronger, however, and he continued fighting until both men lay breathless on the ground, a dust covered tangle of limbs and rope.
"You done?" Vin asked breathlessly.
"I will...not return to that...town...you will have...to shoot me..."
"Alright, if that's th' way y' want it." Tanner calmly pulled his hogleg, still tethered against his leg, and pointed it toward Standish's head.
For once, his poker face betrayed him. Ezra's eyes bulged in fear at the sight of the sawed off shotgun mere inches from his head. "My God! You can't...you wouldn't..." he cried in shock.
"Made a promise," Vin said evenly. "You ready t' make me one yet?"
"NO!" He screamed the word so loudly that his horse wickered a reaction. "You cannot force me to return. If you intend to shoot me, then get it over with! I would prefer to die rather than face what you're asking me to!"
His eyes slanting in question, Vin said, "damn Ezra, what's got y' so spooked that you'd rather die 'n face Chris?"
"It is simply that," he said, his voice hollow with surrender now. "Facing Mister Larabee. Vin, you cannot ask me to agree to return to face the man I am responsible for maiming. If that makes me a coward in the eyes of the six of you...hell, of the town...then so be it. I will not walk in on two good legs and face the man who has only one."
"Ain't permanent Ezra," Tanner said softly. "That doctor y' brung stayed til a couple a days ago and helped pull him through some rough times. Chris might limp when all's said 'n done, but he's got his leg."
Standish stared long and hard, uncertain as to whether the other man was telling him the truth or not. Finally deciding that it was Vin Tanner after all, he relaxed and said, "he's alright?"
"Yep," Vin said with a smile. "Had a few rough days of it, but he was comin' along real good 'bout th' time I left t' look for y'."
"He's alright..." Ezra repeated with a relieved sigh. "He's alright." He turned away as tears welled up in his eyes.
Seeing the other man's reaction becoming more and more emotional, Vin extricated himself from where he lay across him. Taking out his knife, he cut the ropes without a word. Waking away a few yards, he pretended to examine the landscape for several minutes. Standish needed some time to pull himself together, as well as time to make a decision. He turned at the sound of horses coming up behind him. Looking up he saw the gambler astride his mount, leading Peso. His face still flushed, streaked with dirt and tears, the smaller man held out the reins to him.
"I would suggest that we leave for town, Mister Tanner. I would like to see Mister Larabee's recovery for myself."
"Sure thing pard," the Texan said with a smile as he stepped into his saddle. Together, they rode toward home.
They rode together through the day, setting up camp at dusk. While Ezra saw to the fire, Vin prepared the brace of rabbits that had been unlucky enough to cross his line of fire earlier. As they had most of the day, they shared a companionable silence, Ezra trying to overcome the effects of his week-long binge.
While they ate, Standish seemed pensive. Finally he spoke, his words so soft they were difficult to hear over the sounds of the evening. "Vin...please tell me...is Chris angry at me? I would prefer to know what sort of situation I will be walking into."
Looking thoughtfully at the other man, Tanner replied, "pard, if Chris' angry at anyone I think he's angry at hisself. Now, I can't promise y' on Buck..." he smiled at the other man, "but that's ol' Bucklin. Th' rest a th' fellas though, reckon they'll be happy 'nuff t' see y'."
"But...why is Chris angry at himself? That makes no sense."
"Reckon he's th' only one t' answer that Ezra."
"And Mr. Wilmington?"
"Ah hell, you know him. Th' breeze just has t' blow th' wrong direction t' set ol' Buck off."
The Southerner could not help but laugh. It felt very good to be in the company of a friend and to laugh once again. The week had been an unbearably lonely time without the other six men he had grown to regard as more than the associates he claimed them to be. Looking across the fire, he said sincerely, "thank you Vin."
Looking puzzled, the sharpshooter said, "fer what?"
"For coming in search of me. For caring enough to bring me back to town. For not allowing me to...to slink away into the night."
"Well shoot Ezra, ain't that what friends 'r for?"
"Mornin' Stud!" Buck called cheerfully as he entered the clinic. "And 'fore y' ask, no, there ain't no sign a Vin or that damned gambler."
Almost, but not quite smiling, the gunman said, "it's been three days."
"Well, they oughta be here sometime t'day then, less Vin's had t' drag Standish th' whole way."
"That very well could be," a deep baritone voice came from the doorway.
"Mornin' Josiah," Wilmington greeted the older man.
"Good morning brothers," the former preacher said as he came farther into the room. Carrying a try, he walked to the bed. "Brought you some breakfast Chris."
Looking with disdain at the object being carefully placed on his lap, the blond said, "ain't hungry...not for mush."
"Perhaps not, but what about this?" Removing the cloth with a fourish, Sanchez grinned as Chris eyed a plate of flapjacks, eggs and ham, accompanied by has browns, toast and coffee.
Unable to help himself, Chris Larabee laughed heartily. "Reckon that's a different story," he said happily. Picking up the little pitcher of molasses, he smothered the flapjacks, then began wolfing down the food.
"I don't suppose it would do any good to tell you that Nathan said to go slow." It wasn't a question, he already knew the answer.
"Nope," Chris said around a mouth full of eggs.
"Yeah, didn't think so. What if I told you he aid that if you make yourself sick, he's not going to let you out of bed today?"
Pausing with a fork full of hash browns half way to his mouth, the gunman's hazel eyes filled with excitement. "Out? Of bed? I can get out of this damned bed today?"
The other two laughed at the sight of their usually stone-faced leader, his face shining with happiness, his eyes dancing with uncensored joy.
"As long as you do as you're told and don't push to over-do it. Nathan said you could sit on the balcony for awhile after you eat."
"Can I finish breakfast out there?"
With a deep chuckle, Sanchez answered, "he figured you'd say something like that." Lifting the tray, he sat it aside. With Buck's help, they got the slender blond from the bed to the balcony. They had already fixed a place for him, and gently lowered him to the pillow-lined chair. Propping the still restrained leg up on the railing, Josiah went back inside for the tray while Buck fussed over their friend. Wrapping the blankets around the other man, the big man noticed that Chris had yet to make any sort of protest about the treatment. Looking up, he saw that Larabee's eyes were closed and he had broken out in a sweat.
"Take it easy there pard. Just take some real slow, deep breaths." Taking out a 'kerchief, he dried the man's face. He was happy to see the color slowly returning to the handsome face.
Finally Chris opened his eyes, whispering only, "damn."
Nodding, Wilmington said, "it's been near two weeks son. Long time t' be on your back, then get up. Reckon it'll take a bit a time t' get your bearin's back."
Nodding in answer, Chris was afraid to try to speak quite yet. He heard footsteps and knew that Josiah had re-joined them. Taking the tray, Buck sat it on the bench next to him. Retreating footsteps told the gunman that the former preacher had returned to the clinic.
"You let me know when y' feel up t' finishin' your breakfast," Wilmington said softly.
"Josiah?" Larabee whispered.
"Went t' fluff your pillows," his friend teased. Then, seeing the irritated expression on the gunslinger's face, he said "changin' your bedclothes stud. Figured we'd freshen things up in there while y' get some air."
"Please tell me I don't have to go back in there," Chris said.
"Sorry pard, y'ain't well 'nuff t' be on your own quite yet. But, soon's y' can managed, Nathan'll let y' go. Now, I know patience ain't your strong suit, but you're gonna have t' try for awhile."
"Rather be out at my shack."
"When you're stronger."
"How 'bout my room?"
"Chris, you're wastin' valu'ble time son. Soon's you're well enough I reckon Nathan'll be glad t' get rid of y'," Buck admonished with a sigh.
Sulking for only a minute, too relieved to be out of the tiny little clinic that had begun to feel no bigger than the 'hole' he had survived in Jericho's prison camp, Chris quickly cheered up. Motioning to the other man, he said, "well, at least I can enjoy my breakfast out here."
Retrieving the tray, Wilmington positioned it on his friend's lap. The two men spent the next hour talking about the town, as Buck brought the other man up on the happenings of the townspeople they had sworn to protect over a year before. Finishing up his housekeeping duties inside, Josiah joined them, his deep voice ringing out with tales of every day life that Buck had missed.
"Damn, sounds like a chicken coop full a ol' hens up here," a familiar Texas drawl drew their attention to the stairway. Three pairs of eyes fastened on the sight of two dusty figures.
"Welcome home brothers!" Josiah smiled.
Buck's eyes narrowed at the sight of Ezra standing just behind the tracker. Turning to Larabee, he said coolly, "Chris, you're lookin' a bit peaked. Think we oughta get you back in t' bed."
"I'm fine Buck," Larabee said, not taking his eyes from the sight of the Southern gentleman. "Why don't you and Josiah take Vin down to the saloon...fill him in on what's going on in town. I'd like to talk to Ezra alone."
"Reckon it can wait - " Buck started.
"Reckon it can't..." fixing his old friend with a stare, he said There was no question that Chris expected the argument to end then. The man in black typically got his way, and rarely had to discuss things with the others.
For once Wilmington thought about challenging this, but a big hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Come on Buck, let's stand Vin to a drink."
"Josiah..." the humor had disappeared from the big man's voice.
"Bye Buck," Chris said evenly.
"Fine," the gunman said with a heavy sigh of frustration. "I'm checkin' on y' in fifteen minutes and no more."
"Or no less," Sanchez promised as he ushered the two younger men from the balcony.
As he passed the conman he said, "welcome home brother."
The smile Ezra gave in return quickly faded as he found himself alone with Chris Larabee. He could barely bring himself to face the other man, afraid of what he would find there. After what seemed an eternity, however, he managed to look into the handsome face of the gunslinger. And what he saw was relief. Standish could barely believe it, didn't believe it. There had to be something wrong with his perception. Why would Chris favor him with anything more than a glare of contempt or raw anger? Why would the other man look at him as if he were the prodigal son?
"Welcome home," the man in black said evenly.
"I...uh...thank you..." he stumbled through the words. "Chris, I feel -"
Raising a hand to stop the other man, Larabee said, "Ezra, you know I ain't one to apologize for anything I do. Reckon you should know I don't mean it lightly when I say I'm sorry."
"Chris...you have nothing to apologize for, I -"
"I had no right to treat you like I did. Ain't for me to decide when and where you go, or why you go there."
"Chris - "
"I was in a bad mood and spoiling for a fight. I don't even know why, but I do know that I had no right to take that mood out on you."
"But, if I had only -" Standish tried once more to make his voice heard.
"Ezra...shut up," the blond said simply. "Are you going to make me say it again, or are you going to accept the apology?"
Standish stared into the hazel eyes that were nearly boring a hole into his soul. And, while he could never put a name to it, the thing he saw there made him say, "yes. Of course, I accept your apology."
"Good. Now, you've been slacking long enough. Reckon J.D. could use a break from the jail. They had to lock up a couple of cowboys and from what I hear they're about to drive him crazy. Feel up to taking his duty for a few hours?"
And with that, it was over, an anticlimactic end to the days of anxiety and self-recrimination for what had happened. The gambler couldn't help himself, with a hearty laugh he snapped to with a smart salute. "Yes sir, Mister Larabee, SIR!" Turning on his heel with a wink, he fairly flew down the stairs. For once, sitting in the dark little jail seemed like the most desirable job in the world.
Settling back against the pillows, Chris watched the younger man hurry away. With a relieved chuckle, he said softly, "welcome back, Ezra Standish."
The trio had found Nathan enjoying one of the few peaceful moments he had had in the past two weeks. He and Josiah took the lead on filling in the tracker on what had happened in the days since his departure. Buck was still angry, slouched down in his chair, staring with a frown at nothing in particular. For their part the other men ignored the angry man, knowing that his mercurial nature would bring him back round sooner or later. There had been few events worth mentioning since Tanner had left and they soon turned to gossiping about unimportant events. Finally they sat quietly, each man disappearing into his own thoughts.
After a few minutes Vin caught their attention, simply clearing his throat. The tracker looked decidedly uncomfortable as three pairs of eyes focused on him. "Reckon I owe y'all an apology," he said simply.
"For what brother?" Josiah asked.
"For th' way I acted t'other day. Shouldn't a threatened y'all like that. Wasn't thinkin' straight I reckon."
Sanchez started to answer, but Buck beat him to it. "Reckon you were thinkin' straightest of all, Vin. "If y' hadn't kept us away...well, Chris' be crippled for life by now." He looked directly at the younger man. "Ain't sayin' I appreciate th' way y' done it, but you were right. Chris would a died a little at a time if he'd lost that leg. If anyone's owed an apology it's you."
The other two men nodded in agreement. Vin shook his head. "Man ought not hold a gun on his friends...ain't th' way t' solve things. I'm sorry."
"Well on that count," Wilmington said with a grin, "reckon y' do owe us an apology!" Laughter rang out from all around the table.
"So what's the joke?" J.D. Dunne's voice took them by surprise. The young sheriff had come into the saloon, joining them at the table.
"Boy, ain't you s'posed t' be sittin' with them two yahoos from last night?" Buck said in his best 'big brother' voice.
"Chris told Ezra to come spell me for a while. He's over there now." The young man paused, shaking his head in disbelief. "I've never seen him so happy to pull guard duty before."
"If Ezra's at the jail - " Wilmington began.
"Then Chris is by himself at my place," Nathan finished. The two men leapt from their chairs and sprinted out the door, the healer only a pace behind the other man.
Chris Larabee sat dozing in the chair, enjoying the feel of the breeze and the sun on his face. His eyes opened quickly at the sound of hurried footsteps on the stairway nearby. Instinctively his hand dropped to a gun that hadn't been on his hip for days. "Damn," he said softly. Then he relaxed as he saw Buck Wilmington and Nathan Jackson appear on the landing. "Man could have a heart attack with you two bustin' in on him like that."
Skidding to a stop, Buck nearly fell forward as Nathan ran into him. "Son, if y' wanna discuss havin' a heart attack...what were you thinkin', sendin' Standish off like that?"
Frowning, Larabee said, "thought I was doing my job."
"Chris, you could have at least had him tell us you were up here on your own," Nathan admonished.
"Seems like you found out anyway."
"What if you'd fallin' or something? You could have easily undone the last two weeks of healin'."
"Well, I didn't, and I'm fine," the man in black said, sounding every bit like the Chris Larabee they had known. "Now, quit fussing over me."
With a chuckle, Buck slouched down near his old friend and said, "yes sir." Trying to look sternly at the healer, who continued to glare at his patient, he continued, "y'all heard th' man, Nathan. Quit fussin' over him."
Throwing his hands up in irritation and defeat, Jackson said, "fine. You stay here with him. I've got some other folks t' look in on. Folks that appreciate my fussin'." He turned and strode back down the stairs.
Chris looked at Buck, "reckon I hurt his feelings."
"Reckon there's been quite a bit a that 'round here lately," the gunman agreed.
"You kill Vin or Ezra?"
"Nope...not yet. Reckon me an' Vin's said our peace."
"I'm workin' on it," it was clear that Wilmington was still angry with the Southerner.
Chris knew the other man well enough not to push the point. Not yet at any rate. Instead he lay back against the pillows and nodded at his friend. They settled into a peaceful silence.
A few days after Ezra's return to their midst, Nathan had given in to Larabee's haranguing and allowed him to move out of the clinic. Unable to negotiate stairs or even manage more than a few yards on a pair of crutches, they secured a room at ground level that allowed him to feel part of the town once more. A series of thumps and scuffs announced that the gunslinger was on the move every few hours day and night. Once his strength began to return, it became more and more difficult to keep him quiet. The stronger he felt, the more his tightly bound leg felt like an anchor. The clearer his mind, the more frustrated he became...and the more frustrating. Never one to enjoy any type of confinement, Chris Larabee became harder to deal with by the moment. At least in a room where he could interact with the town his frustration was relieved a bit...as was that of the others.
It took another six weeks before Nathan would give in to his other demands. Only when he felt certain that the bones had healed would he replace the heavy wooden and canvas contraption with a lighter splint, and the crutches with a cane, the latter which Chris conveniently 'forgot' every chance he could.
Less encumbered and stronger, Chris began patrolling more and more of the town. He also began to frequent the saloon once more. He put up with Jackson's insistence that he not drink too much or alone, bowing to the man's concern that he could re-injure the still weakened limb.
Finally, after two very long and tiring months, things began to return to normal. For the most part the peacekeepers had returned to the business of being a cohesive unit protecting the town. But there were two who could not seem to regain the friendship they had forged before. Buck could not forget what Ezra had done, nor could he forgive the conman. He still blamed the man for the entire incident, and could barely stay in the same room with the Southerner without flying off the handle. It finally came to a head one night at the saloon.
Vin Josiah and Buck had joined Chris at his table for a drink. Ezra entered the room and, seeing Wilmington at the table, went instead directly to another table, idly shuffling his cards and settling in for a game of solitaire. The other men managed to ignore the snide remarks the gunman made under his breath concerning the gambler for some time. But, the more they ignored him, the louder the man became.
"Man's got no conscience...no morals, ner no soul, " Buck groused.
"You don't like him. You're pissed off at him. We got it." Chris said in clipped sentences, although his tone was calm and even. "If you can't let it go, at least shut up about it. The rest of us are sick of listening to you."
Glowering at his long time friend, Wilmington said, "well gawddamn it, Chris, it's 'cause a what he done t' you - "
"It's over Buck, let it go."
Leaping from his seat, knocking his chair over as he did, the big man stormed to where Standish sat. The others watched, unable to make out the words, the tone of their voices was unmistakable.
As the voices of the two men began to escalate in volume, Chris sighed. "Ah, hell." Pushing himself out of his seat, Larabee said, "come on." With Josiah and Vin beside him, the gunslinger limped across the floor. As he approached the arguing men, he pulled his sidearm. "Buck, Ezra...hand over your guns."
Both men stopped, mouths still opened, staring at the gunman with looks of confusion.
"Hand over your guns...now," Chris repeated.
"Pard, what'r y' talkin' about?" Wilmington asked.
"Now," he emphasized his words with the gun.
"Mister Larabee - "
"The hide-out, too," Chris interrupted the conman. His tone did not change, but it was clear that he meant every word he said. Slowly the other two men disarmed themselves, placing the weapons carefully on the table.
Motioning toward the door, the gunslinger said, "let's go."
"And exactly where are we going?" Ezra asked quietly.
"To jail, for disturbing the peace."
"What!? Chris, that's crazy - "
With their three friends behind them, Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish found themselves leading the way to the jail.
J.D. stared as the small troupe came through the door. "Buck...Ezra...what's going on ?"
"J.D., anyone in the cells?"
"No. Chris - "
"Good. Put these two in one of them."
"What? Chris - "
"Mister Larabee - "
Ignoring their protests, the man in black said, "go on J.D."
"I...uh...okay..." taking the key from where it hung on a nail, the young sheriff opened one of the cells. With more than a hint of nervousness, he motioned toward the barren cubicle and muttered, "fellas..."
The two men glared back at the blond with angry indignity, but begrudgingly complied. Chris made his way slowly across the floor, closing and locking the barred door behind the two men.
Standing closer to one another than they had for some time, Standish and Wilmington glowered and glared from the other side of the bars at the small group of men. Then they focused on their leader...and jailer.
"Now, like I said," Chris' voice hinted of both anger and amusement, "we're all tired of the way you two have been acting. Reckon it's time you worked it all out."
"You do not mean to stand there and say you expect us to agree to this!" Ezra cried out.
"Don't give a damn whether you agree to it or not," the gunslinger turned to Dunne, "J.D., you make certain they get their dinner and whatever else they need, then you take the rest of the night off."
"I...okay..." The young man stared from his hero to his friends...both in and out of the cell...in confusion. The fact that both Vin and Josiah were trying very hard not to laugh out loud did little to clarify the situation for the young man.
"J.D., " Larabee's voice brought Dunne's focus back to him. "Go on son."
"Yeah, okay," deciding that what he wanted more than anything at the moment was to be someplace else, the brunet grabbed his hat and made a hasty retreat.
"Josiah," Chris continued with his instructions, "you stay here and make sure they don't talk the Kid into letting them out."
"Al...rig...ht..." Sanchez said as he gasped for air, no longer able to hold back. Both he and Vin were nearly doubled over with laughter.
Managing to keep a nearly straight face, Chris nodded to them and limped toward the door.
Watching him leave, Vin could tell that his friend was in pain, having perhaps pushed himself farther than he should have. Still wiping tears of laughter from his finely chiseled face, the tracker slapped the bigger man on the shoulder and followed Larabee out the door.
Outside on the boardwalk Chris leaned heavily against the nearest post, trying to ease the pain in his leg. At the same time, he was trying vainly to stifle a laugh.
"Hey Cowboy," Vin managed having calmed himself to an occasional chuckle, "you certain we ain't gonna come back 'n find two bloody spots on th' floor?"
"Ain't certain," Chris said with a smile. "But I do know it's time to try something drastic. Tell the others to lock the place up and stay out til tomorrow. I'll check on them then...and either let them out or clean up the mess." With a wink he moved away from the post...and nearly fell as his protesting leg threatened to give way.
Vin started to grab his friend, but backed off when Larabee managed to catch and right himself. The blond started slowly across the street toward the saloon, his limp even more pronounced. Tanner wondered, as he had every day since the accident, if his friend would ever walk without that uneven gait. And, as he had every day, he reminded himself that at least the man still had his life and his leg. Trying to look as if he were only tarrying on the boardwalk, he leaned against the post Larabee had just vacated and watched until the man had disappeared beyond the batwing doors. Rising voices drew his attention back toward the jail. His grin returning, the young tracker went back inside. It sounded like Josiah could use some reinforcement.
They had been left with food, water, and a single lantern burning dimly on the desk. There was also an empty bucket placed in the corner, which both men eyed with contempt and vowed silently not to utilize. Buck sat at one end of the single cot, Ezra at the other. They had been sitting there, like twin statues, almost since the others had left. According to Standish's time piece, that had been over four hours ago.
Each man stared at the door, as if expecting someone to walk into the jail at any second. It had yet to happen. The conman had spent some time looking out the window, in hope of seeing one of the townsfolk passing by. His hopes were dashed when he spotted a familiar figure. Vin Tanner was standing guard at the ally's entrance. Dejectedly, the gambler dropped to the thin mattress and had not moved since.
By midnight Buck finally admitted to himself that Chris had not been bluffing as he had hoped. They were going to be left alone in the cell. "He ain't bluffin," he said in sad amazement, speaking his thoughts.
"So it would appear," Ezra replied.
"Damned if he ain't th' most stubborn man I ever met in m' life."
"I believe that I may know at least one rival for that ordination."
"What're y' tryin' t' say?" Buck growled, although he knew the answer.
Letting his silence answer the question for him, Standish said instead, "I believe that it may be in our best interest to at least attempt to comply with Mister Larabee's orders."
"He can't leave us in here forever," Wilmington was not yet ready to give in.
A single look from Ezra argued that point.
"Yeah, well sooner 'r later one a th' others'll set 'm straight."
"Mister Tanner is at this moment assuring our isolation. I believe that if the others disagreed with Mister Larabee's methods, they would have done so before now."
"Damn it t' hell!" The bigger man rumbled under his breath. "That ungrateful son of a - "
"I do not feel that berating the man's parentage will accomplish anything constructive."
"Alright...you got all th' answers, you tell me what we do then," the gunman's voice dripped with sarcasm.
"If I may reiterate my earlier allusion, perhaps our best course of action may be to comply with his directive."
"Comply..." He spit the word out. "You mean give in t' 'm."
"Essentially, yes," Ezra nodded.
"Only one thing wrong with your little idea there, Standish."
"And that would be?"
"Ain't forgivin' y'."
"I ask for no forgiveness...I have little hope of forgiving myself for what happened."
Buck looked at his cell mate in surprise, but recovered as quickly as possible. It had not occurred to him that Standish blamed himself, but looking at the haunted expression on the handsome face, he begrudgingly realized that it was true.
"What I propose," the conman continued, "is that we forge a truce."
"An' how d'you propose we do that?"
"By finding a way to live in this town, do our job, and not make life miserable for either one another or our associates."
"Ain't certain I can do that yet," Buck said, anger rising in his voice once more.
"Perhaps if you were to tell me to my face what exactly disturbs you about me so intensly, it might be a beginning."
"Everything!" Wilmington countered. "Th' way y' walk...talk...dress...you name it an' it bothers me."
"These attributes have not changed since the beginning of our association. I must surmise, then, that there is something underlying what you're feeling."
"What's underlyin' it all, you fancy pants gambler, is th' fact that 'cause a you, my oldest friend damn near died. He was damn near crippled for life. An' whatta you do? Y' run off. Just like y' done b'fore, y' left us in the lurch an' y' rode away."
"Yes, and I would have remained absent had it not been for Mister Larabee sending Mister Tanner to retrieve me."
"An' if I'd had a say, you'd still be gone."
"It would seem to me, Mister Wilmington, that you have had a say. A very vocal, very frequent say."
"Yeah, well seems t' me you're th' only one that's hearin' me."
"Perhaps it is, as they say, that you protest too much. The others have heard and, having heard your words frequently, they have chosen to stop listening."
"Or, puttin' it in reg'lar words, y'all think I'm a blow hard an' eve'one's ignorin' me." Glaring at the smaller man, Buck said sarcastically, "well thank you very much."
"Mister Wilmington, I only made a suggestion...stated a possibility. I meant to make no judgement as to your character."
"Well, mean it 'r not, that's exactly what y' done."
"Yes, well perhaps you are being so defensive because you hear at least a shred of truth in my words."
"Now look you fancy dressin', fancy talkin' snake oil salesman!" Buck leapt to his feet, hands balled into fists at his sides.
Ezra mirrored his movements, although inside he was sick. He was preparing to fight yet a third friend in a matter of weeks. His poker face remained intact, however, as he returned the bigger man's glare with a look of seeming indifference.
The fight escalated quickly to the physical arena, and the men began speaking with their fists. They traded blows, the frustration that had been building up since the accident found a sudden and violent release in the battering; flesh and bone on flesh and bone. Bodies bounced from stone wall to metal bar, the sound of contact ringing through the little room.
After several long moments, they finally separated, falling apart to lay panting and groaning on the stone floor. Some time later they began to move. Wiping a big hand across his face, Wilmington cursed softly as he came away with bloody fingers. A few feet away, Standish grimaced as he gingerly rolled over and pushed to his hands and knees.
"Figger anything's broke?" Vin's raspy voice came from outside the high window. Looking up, they say his silhouette. He had been watching them from outside the jail.
"Just bruised an' bloody, not broke," Buck said.
"I believe that I shall recover," Ezra added.
"Alrighty then. If y' get t' feelin' like y' mite need Nathan, sing out." With that the young man disappeared.
"Nice a him t' check on us," the gunman said as he rolled slowly to his feet and staggered to where Ezra was sitting back on his knees. Putting his hand out, he offered to help the smaller man up.
Looking at the proffered hand for several seconds, he reached out and allowed Wilmington to pull him to his feet. They both staggered over to the narrow bunk. Ezra yelped and Buck cursed once again as both men jarred their already protesting bodies.
"You pack a pretty good punch there pard," the gunman said as he wiped the blood from his face with his 'kerchief.
"I must say that your pugilistic expertise is quite impressive as well." Ezra was dabbing gently at his bleeding nose with a linen handkerchief.
Rolling dark blue eyes, Buck said, "reckon that was s'posed t' be a compliment."
Chuckling, Standish said, "yes it was." Looking first at the other man and then at the floor, he continued, "if you will tell me what I can do to make amends Mister Wilmington, I will mist assuredly do everything in my power to undertake it with all haste."
Buck said nothing for so long that the gambler began to feel that they were no to return to their previous silence. When he did speak, the big man's voice was hollow with emotion. "Hell Ezra, I don't know what t' tell y'. I can't even say anymore why I'm mad. Think it's th' situation more'n anything, 'cept you got in th' way."
Smiling, the younger man said, "if remaining angry at yours truly allows you to contend with the situation, then - "
"No...don't think anything can really do that. It's just that....well..."
"Perhaps you found difficult to stand by so helplessly during Chris' illness. You are a an of action, with great passions. Being able to do nothing more than holding his hand, both figuratively and literally, was difficult for you to manage. You needed something... some target...at which to vent those strong feelings. I clearly made the easiest target. I am, after all, to blame for this entire incident."
Another long silence stretched on around them. The evening sounds of the little town offered little distraction from their thoughts. Finally the gunman spoke once again. "Reckon at least some a that's right, pard. When it looked like Chris was gonna die, and then y' took off...reckon I got t' thinkin' bad of y' an' never stopped. But Ezra, y'ain't deserved all I been dishin' out."
"Only some of it," Standish smiled.
Laughing, Wilmington said, "yeah, just some of it." Sobering he added, "y' didn't go in that mine with th' intention a gettin' Chris hurt, I know that. If y' hadn't a gone in there he might not a been hurt...or he could a fell off his horse or got shot. I can't say for certain what would a happened. No one can say for certain.
"Th' hardest thing t' deal with was that I had a feelin' all that day that there was somethin' wrong."
"What do you mean?"
Shrugging, Buck said, "ain't certain a what it was, but I kept feelin' like somethin' was wrong. Couldn't figure out what it was, and couldn't figure out what I oughta do."
"That's why you and the others were already on the road."
"Yeah. Since I couldn't put a finger on nothin' solid, I just took off, figured I'd at least ride off th' feelin's. Th' others come along after me."
"And acting on those feelings allowed Nathan to reach Chris much earlier than he would have."
"Yeah, I reckon."
"So, even though you had no solid evidence, your actions may very well have saved Chris' life."
Buck gave the other man a look of surprise, "maybe. I never thought of it that way."
"Might I suggest that you do so? It may assist you in recovering your usual exuberant disposition." He flashed a gold-studded grin at the former sheriff.
Laughing once again, Buck said, "it has been playin' havoc with m' bein' able t' pay attention t' th' ladies."
"Good heavens!" Standish said in mock horror, "I wondered why so many of the young women in this town have been looking so...unhappy!"
Through the night the two men made their peace. Outside, Tanner relaxed with a smile at the sound of frequent laughter ringing from the little cell window. It appeared that their little family of brothers would soon be whole once more.
Just after the sun appeared on the horizon, Chris emerged from his temporary residence. Leaning heavily on the cane so that he could manage the distance, he limped toward the jail. As he neared, the figure slumped in a chair at the corner of the building looked up from beneath a lowered hat. Pale blue eyes watched him carefully as he made his way to the boardwalk. Chris asked, "you been here all night?"
"I need a mop and bucket?"
"Reckon not. Seems you were right...for once," Vin winked as the blond smiled at his words. "Think they might need a stitch or two, but they worked it out. Been real quiet in there for the past couple a hours."
"Sure they ain't dead?"
"Pretty sure. Want me t' check just in case?"
Laughing now, Larabee shook his head. "Nope, reckon I brought this all on myself. If there's a mess, I'll take care of it."
"Alrighty then," Vin slouched back down in his seat, dropping his head to his chest.
Still chuckling, Chris entered the jail. Limping as quietly as possible, he made his way across the little office to the cell. With a smile, he watched his tow friends for a minute. They had fallen asleep propped against the wall behind the bunk, legs stretched out before them. Tanner was right, they did look quite a bit the worse for wear, but nothing appeared to be permanent or life threatening. Unlocking the cell door, he eased it open and left.
Chris looked out the window, enjoying the sight of his corral and the landscape beyond. He had finally been able to convince Nathan that he had not suddenly become a porcelain doll as the healer seemed to think ever since the accident. He had tried to escape town three times; each time one of the others would betray him and put Jackson wise to his plans. By the time he would get to the livery, get Pony ready to ride, manage to pull himself up into the saddle and aim the horse out of the stable, there would be Nathan.
Arms crossed and a stern look on his face, he would begin dressing Chris down, recounting the hell they had gone through, keeping him alive and in one piece. Whether it made Larabee re-think his actions, or simply give in to get him to shut up, Jackson really didn't care; the result was the same. The blond would ease himself from the saddle, throw the reins to him...or at him...and limp heavily toward the saloon.
But finally the time came. The risk of the town being torn asunder by a marauding Chris Larabee began to look more likely than the gunman re-injuring his leg. With a list of precautions that the healer had only faint hope the gunman would follow, and a final demand that someone accompany him on his first ride in weeks, Nathan released Chris from his care. As the blond prepared to go home he found himself with Vin and Ezra flanking him. They both promised Jackson that they would tie him up if he didn't follow orders. Chris refused to respond to that until they were beyond the edge of town.
"Either of you so much as look at me with a rope in your hands - "
With a chuckle, Vin interrupted him. "Hell, Cowboy, weren't even considerin' it."
"Believe me, Mister Larabee, " Standish added, "I would sooner attempt to milk a rattlesnake than attempt such a feat."
"Milk a rattlesnake?" Vin repeated in an astonished tone, "Ezra, you been hangin' 'round Buck too much lately."
Al three men laughed, a tone of relief in the sound. Since their night of captivity, the two men had forged an understanding. While Chris had yet to send them on a job together, fearing a break in their truce, they had returned to the easy banter that had marked their previous relationship.
But then, all seven of the men seemed more relaxed than they had for much too long a time. While he still walked with a noticeable limp that became more pronounced as the day wore on, Chris was recovering faster than anyone could have predicted. He pursued the exercised that Dr. Collins prescribed via telegram with a vengeance. In true Chris Larabee fashion, he pushed himself farther each day. At times the healer resorted to threats to keep the gunman from stressing the leg too much.
The night that Nathan announced he wouldn't stop him if Chris wanted to get away from town for awhile sent the gunman into an uncustomarily cheerful mood. He insisted on buying drinks for the others until none of them would see morning without bloodshot eyes and hang-overs. Finally they had all parted company, shuffling and stumbling to their beds.
The trip to his home passed quickly, despite Larabee's almost child-like sense of anticipation. Both his companions could not help but smile at the audible sigh the blond released upon coming into sight of the roughhewn, little, one room house Chris had built.
He barely heard Vin when the younger man offered to take care of the big black gelding for him. As soon as he dropped to the ground from the saddle he made a beeline for the front door. The others gave him his privacy, but could t help but hear the exclamations and chuckles that came from inside.
They had made several trips to the little homestead, making certain that things were all right. When Nathan shared with the other five that he would give Chris the okay to leave town, they had mobilized quickly. By the end of the next day, they had cleaned, scrubbed and stocked the little house. The man in black would be able to manage on his own with little effort for some time.
The tracker and the gambler had stayed until they were certain their leader would be alright on his own. Chris had begun to wish that they had promised to stay away. He had been home for just barely a week now, busying himself with his regimen of exercises and taking care of many of the lighter jobs around the homestead. But as regular as clockwork, either Vin or Ezra...if not both...would be there before lunch. The others had come to visit from time to time, and Nathan insisted on checking his progress every day or so, but his two self-appointed guardians would stay through the afternoon, insisting on doing some of the heavier jobs that needed doing. They would only admit to wanting to make certain that the convalescent did not over-extend himself. They would listen to his promises not to do anything foolhardy, but seemed to give his words little credence.
Chris knew there was something beyond what they would tell him, however. On some level the two younger men felt a sense of responsibility toward him that had not been there before. Being there when he had been injured, being a part of the near-tragic incident, had led them to repay a debt that, to Larabee, they never owed.
The handsome blond sighed as he caught movement in the fields beyond the homestead. His 'shadows' were approaching at a canter. He considered hiding out until they had come and gone, but knew it would never work. By the time he had gotten to the corral, saddled Pony, mounted and headed out, the tracker's keen vision would be able to pick out his departure. And even if he simply took the horse out bareback, Vin would track him. There was no escape. His shoulders slumping in surrender, the gunfighter returned to the little cookstove to add more beans to the chilli he had fixed for lunch.
A short time later he watched from a seat on his little front porch as the two men rode up. As usual, Ches' and Peso were taunting one another whenever they were close enough to do so. He noticed that, as usual, Ezra was dressed in what he considered work clothes - his dun colored plainsman and an older shirt and pants. Even dressed down for an afternoon of menial labor, the natty conman's style was much more sophisticated than the younger hunter, who wore pretty much the same thing for any occasion. The two men greeted him as they reined in the horses at the corral.
"You two ever do anything back in town these days?" Chris asked as way of greeting.
"Not much t' do right now. Seein' as you're out here, th' town's pretty quiet, " Vin teased.
"There are certainly enough hands available there to keep the peace," Ezra added. "In fact, it has been so blessedly quiet that the six of us have grown weary of one another. Vin and I only seek refuge out here to spare ourselves from certain death by boredom."
"Yeah...right," Larabee said in a tone that clearly said he didn't believe a word of it.
"Hell Chris, I stay 'round there any longer, I'm likely t' get civilized 'r somethin', " Vin said in a mock tone of disgust and sadness.
"Good lord!" Ezra exclaimed, "We cannot have that!"
"Damn, it's good I got my boots on," Chris said, shaking his head.
Laughing, the two men dismounted. Handing Ezra the reins and ignoring the put upon expression on the other man's face, Vin strode over and perched on the edge of the table near where Chris sat. "Reckon we'll start on gettin' y' a well dug today."
"Vin, I've got a spring not forty yards away," Chris protested.
"Yeah, but a well twenty yards away'll come in handy, 'specially when weather's bad."
"Don't know that I've ever needed water bad enough to go out in bad weather for it, " Chris countered.
Shaking his head, the tracker said, "never heard a man argue so much against someone tryin' t' help 'm out."
"Ain't that I don't appreciate it, " Chris replied, "but I know that the two of you have other things to do than come out here every day."
"Told y', it's deader'n a beaver hat in town, pard. Figured we'd come out 'n do somethin' t' pass th' time."
"And make sure that I wasn't doing anything I shouldn't be doing."
"Well, it ain't like you ain't had a bad time of it, Chris. Figured it wouldn't hurt t' help y' out a bit longer. I know you an' that stubborn streak a yours, an' you'll like as not take on more'n you can handle if me 'n Ezra don't get to it first."
Larabee just sighed and shook his head. The tracker wasn't listening now any more than he had listened for the last week. Sullenly the blond watched as the two men took up shovels and started toward a spot that Vin had marked off the day before. Slouching down in the wooden chair, he tried to enjoy the day, but a pair of voices kept intruding on his thoughts. Finally he gave up and returned to the house, busying himself by cleaning the single room. It didn't need it, but at least he could stay busy for a little while. He was beginning to feel more hemmed in out here at his homestead than he had in town. At least there the others had other things to keep them occupied. Out here, he was the main attraction, and it was wearing thin.
A few hours later, having grown tired of hiding from his two friends, Chris brought the chilli out to the little table he kept on the porch. Before returning to get bowls and utensils, he looked out to see that the two men had dug the new well to almost six feet, only the top of Vin's head visible to him. Ezra was nearby, in charge of carrying off the buckets full of dirt. The gambler had stripped off to the waist, and was dirtier than Larabee had ever seen him. Giving a sharp whistle to get their attention, he called out "if you ain't hit water yet, get yourselves down to the creek and get cleaned up. I've got chilli and cornbread waiting up here."
Vin vaulted out of the hole with a grin. The hunter was always hungry, they had learned that some time ago. Looking at that almost too lean body, also naked to the waist, Chris wondered where the man put it all. Slapping Ezra on the shoulder and laughing at the reaction as he left a dirty hand print, Tanner led the way to the creek. A short time later they came back into view, dripping cold water and looking closer to human. First to the little house, Vin swung a leg over the back of the nearest chair and plopped to the seat. Grabbing up a slab of cornbread, he crumbled it into a bowl, ladling chili on top of it. Chris shook his head at the sight, the cornbread was less than clean by the time the tracker was through mauling it. Standish watched the younger man as well, grimacing at the barbaric display. He adopted a much more sedate manner, taking so long to prepare his own meal that Vin was nudging him out of the way for a second bowl by the time he was ready to eat.
"Y'all take so long t' get t' eatin' it's a wonder y'ever eat anything hot," Tanner said around a mouthful of beans and bread.
"Yes, well at least we have some idea as to what our meal tastes like," Ezra retorted.
Chris grinned at the exchange, but didn't enter into it. He sat quietly, listening to the two men banter throughout the rest of the meal. By the time they had finished, the pot nearly shown, it was so clean.
Sitting back with a satisfied belch, Tanner grinned at the other men. "Damn fine chili Chris," he complimented.
"If your table manners were only as fine," Standish commented wryly.
"Ah hell, Ezra, lots a folks show they liked a meal by belchin'," Vin effected a hurt expression.
"Yes, well there are tribes in other lands, as I understand it, who eat the flesh of their enemies. I would prefer not to dine with them, either."
"Well, no one said y' had t' sit here. If your too good t' eat with common folk, then -"
"Alright you two," Chris interrupted. His tone was like that of a father scolding his sons. He was beginning to feel like that at any rate.
Vin mumbled something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like "he started it," but Larabee ignored him.
"Look, I think you both could use a break from here, and each other. Ezra, seems to me that there must be some folks back in town that you ain't fleeced yet. And Vin, if I remember right, you promised Nettie you'd come out and help her with some chores at her place. Why don't you both go take care of your own business."
"Nettie said it weren't nothin' that couldn't be done later," Vin protested.
"I fear that the local populace has grown weary of participating in games of chance with me, and there have been very few visitors who have seemed likely adversaries," Ezra remarked.
"Well, then I'm sure there's something for you to do that doesn't involved coming out here every day," he emphasized the last two words.
Vin and Ezra looked at one another, then turned to Chris. Both men wore hangdog expressions.
"Sounds t' me like you're tryin' t' get rid of us," Vin said.
"Ain't trying to get rid of you..." Chris began, then he stopped. "No, that's not the truth. Look, it's not that I don't appreciate everything you've done for me, but..."
"But, you'd rather we left," Vin said.
"Damn it all, yes," Chris admitted. "Look, you're driving me crazy. I came out here to get some peace and quiet. I don't mind your company...but I could do with a lot less of it."
"Mister Larabee, I sympathize with your need for seclusion; we are all aware that you are indeed a private man, however..."
"The however of it is that I'm starting to regret shoving you out of that mine," Chris said a little more sternly than he intended. Shaking his head to recant when he saw the pained expression on the conman's face, he said, "look, both of you. I appreciate it, I really do. But if I don't get some peace and quiet...some true peace and quiet...well...hell, I might just snap. Might just go crazy and shoot you both. You did just dig me a nice hole to toss your bodies into after all."
The other two couldn't help but laugh, even if they were being rebuffed. Inwardly each was amazed that Chris could put it that nicely. With words of apology and promises to refrain from coming out for the next 48 hours, they gathered up their things, saddled their horses, and started back toward town.
Larabee stood at the edge of the porch, watching them. Both of his friends turned before leaving, tipping their hats to the leader of their little brotherhood. With a slight smile on his handsome face, one that grew as he watched their retreat, Chris Larabee listened to the sounds of silence that surrounded him. With a happy sigh, he slowly stretched his leg to ease the seemingly constant ache, and surveyed his little kingdom. He was home, he was healing, and he was at peace.