Warning: This is a deathfic! Although there is nothing disturbing or awful in it (and since it's an afterdeath fic you know everything's going to be all right) you need to know that Chris does indeed die here. So if you don't enjoy reading deathfics (which is definitely OK!!) you're better off skipping this story.
This fic is NOT intended to endorse or promote any particular religious viewpoint. It's strictly for fun and to relieve the stress of working on my graduate degree! :) I should also point out that many of the basic plot ideas for the last ride of the Seven came from my sister Sarah's story 'Legacies' (linked with the other 'Divide' fics at the Blackraptor page), although my ideas as to what eventually happened to Vin may differ from what she has in mind. :)
Many thanks to my beta readers NotTasha, Kim, Carla, Sam, and my sister Sarah-I really apreciate all of your support and suggestions!!
Feedback as always is tremendously appreciated!!! Enjoy!
There was no pain.
As Chris slowly drifted back from the darkness which had mercifully clouded his mind only moments before, the first thing he noticed was the complete absence of pain. Bewilderment soon followed consciousness; he knew he had been shot several times, yet he felt nothing. As he continued to draw out of oblivion, he took stock of the situation and tried to figure it out. If he and JD were still in danger, he had to know now.
Part of him fought the urge to awaken, and for a few moments the conflicting ideas twisted against each other. His long search for the killer of his beloved wife Sarah and their young boy Adam had left him so weary; there had been rest in the darkness, at least, and he felt somehow that Sarah had been there in his dreams, comforting him with her soft words and gentle touch. As alluring as the idea was to slip back to that haven, Chris did his best to fight it. He couldn't abandon JD now, after the hell they had all been through. He had to know what had happened; then he could slip away.
He was not yet awake enough to tell where he was, but vivid memories flashed through his mind that told him where he should be. He and the six men with whom he had spent the last three years safeguarding the small frontier town of Four Corners had ridden out after Cletus Fowler, the vicious dandy who had been behind the murder of Chris' family. After chasing Fowler and his gang for several weeks, they had finally found him, and faced down Fowler and his henchmen in the dusty, rocky ruins of a Mexican-American border town.
Only the vultures and desert predators had witnessed that bloody shootout beneath the scorching sun. Chris could still see Fowler standing arrogantly before him, taunting him and JD to come out and fight, to finish it all at last.
Chris took a deep breath, fighting the sadness as rushing visions reminded him just how much this fight had already cost him during the long weeks of the hunt. Ezra, the dapper Southern gambler, was the first of their number lost after warning them of a deadly ambush by Fowler's men. His old friend Buck, cut down while rescuing JD's wife Casey and her unborn child from their burning home after Fowler's men had set it afire. And Vin-
A burning gasp choked Chris's throat. The long-haired tracker had saved their lives after shooting open the locked gates of Purgatorio as the bandit town was consumed by flames around them. The fire had been set by Fowler's men to trap them, but Chris and his men had rode free. All but Vin-
Sorrow far worse than any wound seared his heart; if only they'd been able to find the tracker, if only Chris knew what had happened to him. Vin had become like a brother to the solitary gunslinger, a quiet and dependable shadow, closer to Chris than anyone else after the slaughter of his family. They'd searched the smoking rubble, looked everywhere for days, but it seemed as if Vin had vanished. He could barely recall those days after the fire, filled as they were with wild, savage grief; if they had found Fowler then, Chris would have torn him apart with his bare hands. The rage had nearly consumed Chris, driving him irresistibly until it had led them here.
He stirred, still trying to tell what had happened, but unable yet to open his eyes. JD! he suddenly thought, his stomach clenching. He knew JD had been shot in the last battle with Fowler, had seen the kid go down even as Fowler hit the ground with Chris's last bullet in his heart. He remembered staring in horror at the blood on JD's shirt, and falling beside him as his own wounds soaked his clothing. His last sight had been JD's pale face, his last thought a desperate prayer: Dear God, not JD too.
The kid had been so brave, too brave to go out in a fight that wasn't even his own. The preacher, Josiah, had been wounded earlier; Nathan, their healer who had gained his skill as a runaway slave working in the field hospitals during the war, had stayed behind at the mission to care for his convalescing friend. So JD and Chris had set out side by side to face whatever came, and make sure that Fowler would never hurt anyone else again.
What had Chris said to JD, right before the final shootout? The gunslinger strained, trying to recall. They were sitting behind the broken wall, covered with scrapes and dust, loading their last bullets into their guns. JD had been so strong and determined, so cool, so different from the untested kid who had ridden into town on the stagecoach three years earlier, that Chris had to let him know.
The words came back to him now, and he could see his young friend's proud face as they sounded once more in his mind: "Remember when I said you weren't the type? Well, I was wrong, and I'm proud to die with you."
But JD shouldn't have to die, Chris cried out inside. He was young, his whole life ahead of him, a wife and coming child who loved and needed him. Chris would not let him die-but if he was going to prevent it, he had to wake up.
He moved some more, trying to tell if they were still in the deserted border village. As his senses fully stirred, he focused on his surroundings, looking for clues. He was sitting up against something-a wall, probably; it felt more like a tree but that was impossible, as the land around the town was barren of such things. He could feel the sun on him, as before, but instead of the blazing heat he was used to, he felt only a pleasant warmth. The air had been dusty and full of the acrid smell of gunpowder; that was absent. They'd been lying on hard, rough ground, full of dust and rocks. One hand reached out and felt the surface he was lying on. His inquisitive fingers felt only soft grass. He frowned; there was no grass within a hundred miles of there.
And still, he noticed again, there was no pain. He had been shot several times by Fowler; surely he should feel something. As he drew more towards full awareness, he noted with confusion that he felt just fine. Perhaps he was delirious.
There was only one way to find out.
He opened his eyes.
Before him stretched a wide prairie vista, huge expanses of tall waving grass and wildflowers extending far into the distance, where they melted into the foothills of the snowcapped mountains. Above him waved the branches of a tall tree, their emerald leaves aglow as the summer sunshine passed through their translucent skin. Sounds wafted through the soft air, the nickering of horses and the gentle splashing of a nearby stream. Joining the tranquil noises were familiar scents, a subtle mixture of hay, manure and smoke.
Chris's eyes widened in astonishment, and he sat up, forgetting to blink as he stared around. A gentle trembling seized his body. The view before him-it was just like the one outside his ranch, where he and Sarah and Adam had spent their lives together. He had never forgotten it, even after years of grief and darkness. It had been the most beautiful place on earth to him, the only heaven he needed, until...
He wasn't sure how he got to his feet. The next thing he knew, he was standing, his green eyes drinking in the sights around him with amazement. He whirled; behind him was the simple ranch house, just as it had been, smoke curling lazily from the chimney, small pots of flowers hanging from the posts. White lace curtains, the ones Sarah loved so much, fluttered from the open windows. He could even smell a delicious meal cooking inside.
Turning, he saw the wooden paddock next to the large barn, with horses running about inside, large beautiful beasts who seemed to look at him with mute recognition as they trotted about.
Chris took a step backwards, dumbfounded. It couldn't be what it looked like, he had fallen miles and years away from this place. It didn't even exist anymore, not like this. The last time he had seen it, it was nothing but a burned-out hole in the ground, a scorched physical manifestation of the never-healing wound in Chris's soul. There had been no life there, only-
He felt his breath stop in his throat as he remembered. Was that here, too? His eyes quickly sought out the spot, a small fenced-in graveyard by the side of the house's remains, where Sarah and Adam had been buried. He knew exactly where it would be; the heartbreaking memory of laying them to rest had never left him.
He took a few steps towards the spot, searching. There was the small hill, just as he remembered, but the graves were gone. There was only a blanket of lush green grass, blowing gently in the warm wind.
Chris swallowed, completely confused now. Was this a dream? If it was, it was the most vivid one he'd ever had. He looked down at his chest, rubbing it with one hand. No wounds, not the slightest scratch. His shirt was spotless; even the dust which had covered it was gone. Lifting his eyes, he let his gaze travel over the beloved land once more, as if the answer might lie out there. This wasn't real, it couldn't be, no matter how real it felt.
Why wasn't he afraid, he wondered, standing in the midst of this unexpected and inexplicable miracle? He should be frightened, there was no way this could be happening. But he wasn't. Terribly confused, yes, but for some reason unafraid.
Okay, Larabee, he said to himself as he took slow, even breaths to calm the pounding of his heart. This can't be what it looks like. It's a dream or a trick or something. I've gone out of my head from getting shot. That has to be it...
He heard a door open behind him, and the sound of light footsteps on the porch. He froze, stunned; he knew that footfall, as dearly as he knew his own soul. But that was crazy. He knew he should turn and look, but almost dreaded doing so, because he knew that if he saw what he expected to see, it would be his undoing.
A scent wafted around him on the light summer air. He recognized it immediately: the gentle smell of lavender. Sarah had loved lavender, and though Chris had never much cared for it, he soon learned to love it because it reminded him of her. As the scent enveloped him now, the old feeling which had always accompanied it stole around him as well. A feeling of love and home, one he had not experienced to its well-remembered depths for many years.
Chris stood motionless, allowing the nostalgic sensation to wash over him. Still he did not trust himself to turn around.
His heart leapt to his throat as the gently spoken words brushed his ears, and he began to tremble violently. This just had to be a dream, some wild hallucination he was having as he lay dying in the hot dust of the border town. Maybe that was it-these were his last thoughts, before the endless plunge into oblivion. That had to be it. The memories of his long-dead wife had come to say goodbye.
The old familiar longing clutched at his heart, compelling him to move. If he was on the way to eternity, should he jilt the last chance to be in the arms of the woman he had loved above everything on earth? Even if it was just a dying dream, it was better than nothing. At least they would be together, if only as shadows.
Very, very slowly, he turned to the porch.
A woman was standing there, tall and beautiful, watching him with brown eyes full of love. She gasped a little as his eyes fell on her, a wide smile lighting up her round face. She was fully ten feet away from him, but even at that distance he could see that she was trembling too, and that tears were sparkling in the corners of her eyes.
He long auburn hair blew gently in the wind as she slowly descended the wooden stairs of the porch, walking towards him with measured steps. He stood rooted to the spot, disbelieving yet convinced. It couldn't be real, but it was, more real than anything he had ever experienced. He stared at her through swimming eyes, drinking in her long-missed loveliness as avidly as a drowning man would draw in air. He dared not move, for fear of breaking the spell, and stood motionless as she drew up to him, the smile still on her face.
She stared up into his eyes, her gaze full of quiet joy. Tears spilled down her cheeks as she reached up one slender hand to his face. He almost flinched, thinking wildly that as soon as she touched him, the dream would be over and he would die.
Warm fingertips as soft as rose petals brushed his skin. Chris gasped, still unable to take his eyes from hers; it was her touch, no doubt about it, and he did not die. A sob rose from his chest as he stared, blinking at the hot tears brimming in his eyes.
"Sarah?" His lips formed the words but nothing more than a whisper could be forced around the tightness in his throat.
She laughed through her tears, a short laugh bursting with happiness. "Aye, Chris," she said in sweet but tremulous Irish tones. "It's about time ye came home!"
For several moments, Chris simply couldn't move, could do nothing but stare into her beautiful eyes. This was a dream, he kept repeating to himself, it *had* to be, no matter how warm her hand felt against his cheek, or how his entire soul seemed to thrill with joy at her touch. He was trembling, unsure what to do, overwhelmed at the vision before him.
She stood still, smiling at him, complete understanding in her eyes. Chris swallowed, unable to breathe, and very slowly reached one shaking hand up, never letting his gaze stray from her face. If this was a dream, he wanted to remember it forever, assuming that its loss would not drive him mad.
His hand touched her neck softly, sliding up slowly into the silken hair behind her ear, his thumb caressing her tear-dewed cheek. God, she was real, and Chris abandoned all hope of trying to figure this out, content only to revel in the miracle while it was still in his grasp.
"Sarah," he said, but no sound issued from his trembling lips as his green eyes drank her in. Only the form of the name hung there, as if even the barest whisper would profane the moment. He was weeping now, so transported by the emotions filling his heart that he scarcely noticed the tears. Slowly, still disbelieving, he leaned forward and tenderly brought his lips to hers, almost unable to stand for the weakness in his knees. Their lips touched and pressed together, and Chris felt a wondrous warmth surge through him, a feeling of love and joy so strong it swept away all thoughts of doubt. His arms wrapped around her slender form, hesitantly at first, then with surprising strength, as if he could never be close enough. Slowly their lips parted, and he bent his head down to bury his face in her soft hair as he fiercely embraced her, his whole being shuddering with the force of his joyful sobs.
He felt her hold him just as tightly, felt her gentle hand stroking his hair as he wept on her shoulder. He didn't understand how this was possible, had no idea what was happening to him. He only knew that he was holding Sarah in his arms again, and whether it was real or not mattered not at all. To see her again, to smell the lavender in her hair and feel her touch, was more than enough to sustain him through even the fires of hell.
They had both slipped to their knees, Sarah holding her husband as his wrenching sobs purged the grief and anguish from his heart. She was still stroking his hair, murmuring comforting words in his ear, her own voice thick with tears.
Chris had no way of knowing how long he wept in Sarah's arms; it felt like an eternity, the tears cleansing the darkest recesses of his wounded soul. He could have laid there forever in her embrace, marveling at how peaceful he felt now that the overwhelming surge of emotion had passed. He opened his eyes and slowly sat up, still amazed to see her lovely face smiling down at him.
He kneeled in the grass, as she did, taking her hands as he shook his head. "Sarah," he said, aloud this time, still unable to believe it even though there was no doubt in him now that it was not a dream.
She smiled at him, her green eyes shining. "I've missed you so, Chris Larabee," she whispered softly as she squeezed his hands. "It's felt like forever, waitin'."
All he could do was gaze at her dumbfounded. "Sarah," he said again, still unable to believe that he was actually looking at her, "I...this..." He stopped and looked around, bewildered. "How...*how* can this be happening?"
Sarah dropped her eyes for a moment, as if trying to frame her explanation, but before she could begin another voice cut through the air.
Chris's head whipped around as his heart once more leapt into his throat. Running across the grass towards him from the woods behind the house was a small boy no more than five years old, his brown hair shining in the sun, his round face alight with excitement.
Dumbfounded, Chris stared at the child as he got unsteadily to his feet and took a few steps towards him, still unbelieving. He only got a short way before falling back to his knees, the powerful emotions overcoming all of his strength. The boy continued to run to him as fast as his little legs could carry him, and Chris was content to simply hold his open arms out to him, totally unable to do anything else.
The little boy emitted a squeal of childish joy as he jumped into his father's embrace, his grip tight as he wrapped his small arms around Chris's neck. Chris bent his head over the boy, feeling as if his body would break in two from the sobs now coursing through him as he held his son to him.
"Adam," he choked, his voice muffled. He felt as if he could not hold the boy long enough, or close enough. His son, alive again-this had to be impossible.
He felt Adam stir a bit. "Are you all right, Papa?"
Chris sniffed, the heavy tide of emotion receding. "Yeah, son," he said in a very rough voice, amazed at being able to say those words again. He patted the boy once on the back and sat up as he and Adam parted. God, he looked just the same, Chris marveled as he looked at the child, young and bright and more full of life than ever. Another sob threatened, but Chris fought it down as he wiped at his eyes. "Papa's just...really glad to see you. That's all."
Adam frowned a little as he looked just past Chris. "Why is Mama cryin'?"
"Because Mama's glad to see Papa," Sarah explained gently, walking over to kneel next to Chris and put a soft hand on his shoulder. "Sometimes grownups cry when they're happy, Adam, and we're both very happy right now."
Adam seemed to study them both for a moment, then accepted the explanation without any further questions.
"Wait here, Papa!" he said brightly as a new thought seemed to strike him, and he jumped up and ran into the woods.
Chris watched him go, a little puzzled.
"Don't worry, Chris, he'll be right back," Sarah assured him as she squeezed his shoulder.
Her husband took a deep breath. "I know," he whispered, amazed at the words even as they came out of his mouth. He *did* know that Adam would be perfectly safe, and return soon, even though he could find no source for the knowledge.
He looked at Sarah again, his green eyes full of questions as he took her hand. A strangled, tearful cough escaped his throat as he fought to collect himself; it was quite a few moments before he was able to speak.
"Sarah, I don't understand all of this," he managed at last, his voice still trembling. "You, Adam, the ranch-I know it can't be real..." The words trailed off.
She grasped his hand, her lovely face serious as she met his gaze. "Chris, darlin'," she said in a very soft voice full of love and sympathy, "it was a brave thing you did, facin' those men who'd done harm to so many. You did what you had to, to make sure their evil was stopped. But..." her voice dropped to a sad whisper as she stroked his cheek, "but you were sorely hurt, Chris my love. Your friends, they did all they could, but it was more than even your strong heart could bear."
Understanding came to Chris's eyes at her words. He clearly remembered the gunfight, and going down with several bullets piercing his body. There had been pain, very briefly, but then darkness. Nothing at all what he'd figured it would be like. He'd suffered more from lesser wounds.
But...Chris looked around, still confused. Losing his life he could understand, but this was hardly what he expected to find once a gunfight had finally claimed him. At the best he had anticipated oblivion, at the worst, Hell, if there was such a place. He didn't feel as if he truly belonged here, surrounded by such peace and beauty, after all of the dark things he'd done.
"I know it'll take some gettin' used to," Sarah continued, still grasping his hand.
"Just a little," Chris agreed, his voice still choked. Although when he thought about it, he didn't feel at all unusual.
The sound of rustling leaves in the woods, mingled with Adam's excited voice, drew Chris from his reverie. As he lifted his eyes to the edge of the forest, he saw his son emerging from the leafy shadows, his eyes full of excitement as he bounded across the grass. Then he noticed a larger shadow moving slowly from the depths of the greenery, bearing the distinct form of a man on horseback. In a few moments the shape moved into the warm sunlight. He was a tall man with thick black hair and a neatly trimmed mustache, clad in comfortable-looking clothes, his blue eyes staring at Chris with profound emotion as he guided his chestnut-colored mount along.
"See, Buck!" the little boy crowed as he looked back at the man with a wide smile. "I told you Pa would be here soon!"
Chris stared back as he stood slowly, amazed, while Adam ran to his mother's arms. Sarah lifted him gently, an understanding smile on her lovely face as she got to her feet and stepped back a bit, not wanting to intrude on the reunion.
There was nothing Chris could think of to say as he watched Buck ease his horse to a halt and slowly dismount, his gaze locked on Chris. He had never expected to see his old friend again, the man who had seen Chris through the best and worst days of his life, and the grief with which he had laid Buck to rest had never fully faded from his heart. But now, as he gazed again at his old friend who had so valiantly given his life for the sake of others-now, finally, Chris felt that grief lift away, replaced with wondering joy. There was no reason to sorrow for a man who was so obviously still alive.
Buck coughed and slowly walked forward, gently guiding his horse behind him by the reins, ducking his head with slight embarrassment as he looked at Chris. As Buck drew closer, Chris saw that his friend was wrestling with strong emotion that he wasn't quite sure how to deal with.
They were close now, less than two feet apart. Buck stopped, looked at Chris, his blue eyes wide and shining with tears. He'd apparently been anticipating this meeting enough to be overwhelmed by it; Chris, for his part, was too amazed to weep.
Buck roughly cleared his throat. "Hey, Chris," he said in a hoarse, trembling whisper, shifting a bit.
It was a few moments before Chris could find his voice to talk. "Buck?"
The other man let out an awkward chuckle and spread out his arms, shaking his head once. "In the flesh," he replied, then coughed again and sobered a bit. "Sort of." He sighed and gave his friend a level look. "Can't say I ain't mighty glad to see you, pard, but...I was kinda hopin' it wouldn't be s'dang soon."
Buck reached out and gently placed one hand on Chris's shoulder. Chris blinked and looked into Buck's face, marveling at how fit and young Buck appeared, all traces of guilt erased from his handsome features. He still seemed to be the same old Buck, but Chris could see a new light glimmering in his old friend's deep blue eyes. The restlessness which had always driven him to keep moving was gone, replaced with something more secure.
He shook his head quickly, still unable to quite believe this wasn't all a dream. "Buck," he repeated, a smile tugging at his lips as he reached up and grasped his friend's arm. "How..."
Buck smiled a little and leaned closer. "Take my advice, stud, an' stop tryin' to figure it out," he muttered. "Won't do you a lick of good. Best to just take it for what it is an' accept it."
Chris laughed, looking at his friend with great fondness as he realized just how much he'd missed having him around. Good old Buck, never questioned a good time, just enjoyed it. Just like he had never thought too much about trouble, but simply fought his way through it with no worry save solving the problem and making sure those he loved were safe.
It had grieved Chris to see that loyalty repaid with a fatal bullet from the gun of Fowler's hired henchmen; it only seemed to prove to him the hardness of life, how unfair it all was. Chris couldn't begin to understand how it was that Buck now stood before him, as full of life as ever, and it was not a dream. Best to leave understanding for another time, he decided; he didn't need to know how this was possible to enjoy the happiness of it.
"Buck," he finally exclaimed, laughing through his tears as he tightened his grip on his friend's arm, "I-I guess I'll just take your advice."
"Smart fella," Buck replied with a grin, his own eyes moist, and with a small laugh he threw his arms around his friend and gave him a hearty welcoming embrace. Chris returned the gesture with a wide smile, laughing himself at the joyful impossibility of it all.
After a moment they parted, Chris's head shaking as he looked Buck up and down. "You look fitter'n a prize stallion," he observed with a chuckle, stepping back. "If JD could see you now, he'd-"
His voice broke off in a choked gasp as his head snapped up, his green eyes urgent as they met Buck's. An image flashed through his mind: the memory of JD falling at the broken wall, felled by so many bullets, so much blood. "JD!"
Buck's face turned serious as he placed a steadying hand on Chris's arm. "Now hold on there, Chris-"
Chris shook his head sharply as he pulled away, his face twisted in worry. "Buck-I have to go back-JD-those bastards-"
He looked around for Sarah. She was gone, probably back into the house.
He felt Buck's hand settle firmly onto his shoulder. "I know what that boy's goin' through, Chris," Buck said in a low, cautioning tone. "Been right by his side every minute."
Confusion swept over Chris as he stopped and drew his hand through his hair, gazing at Buck. "How long-?"
"Hardly any time at all, Chris," was the calm reply. "Time don't move along here the way you're used to. JD's still alive, you know what a stubborn cuss that kid can be. An' you know Josiah an' Nathan ain't gonna let him go without a fight."
Chris nodded; that was true enough, certainly. At least JD had someone caring for him, and he wouldn't be facing his trials alone.
Suddenly Chris's eyes went wide as another thought struck him with even more ferocity, wrenching a gasp from his throat. Buck eyed him silently, complete understanding in his expression.
"Vin," Chris whispered in a tone heavy with horrified remembrance, as once more he saw Vin running across the burning rooftops of Purgatorio, buying their freedom with his skill, then disappearing in a roar of smoke and flame. He locked eyes with Buck, his face contorted with anxiety as his questions flew rapidly from his lips. "Where's Vin? Have you seen him? Is he alive?"
Buck's eyes looked away for just a moment, but it was long enough for Chris to know that he didn't like the dark shadow on his old friend's face.
Chris paused, then asked softly, "Bad?"
The other man sighed sadly and turned his eyes back to Chris. "Well, Chris, it ain't good. But you don't got to worry about Vin, he's hangin' tough, just like he always did, an' bein' looked after by folks who're tryin' to help. Neither of 'em have been alone."
Silence fell as Chris stared at his old friend. Buck seemed so sure, so tranquil, as if he *knew*. As Chris thought about it, he realized that he knew too, knew somehow that JD and Vin were alive and well cared for, somewhere.
But still... "I gotta see for myself, Buck," he said, his voice tinged with concern. "I told Casey that JD would come back to her alive, and Vin..." Words failed him, and he blinked and looked away before continuing. "There won't be no rest for me 'til I know."
Buck eyed him for a moment with sympathy, then nodded. "Sure thing, Chris. C'mon." His gaze shifted to Chris's right, looking over his shoulder. "I'm takin' Chris for a while, Sarah, we'll be back soon."
Chris's head turned to see Sarah and Adam standing on the porch; she was watching him closely, her beautiful eyes full of love and concern. *I'll never get used to this* flashed through his mind as he drank in the sight of them, of her, there before him as normal and natural as if nothing had ever happened to separate them. Before he knew it, Chris found himself at the base of the porch steps, holding his wife's hands and gazing into her eyes. How could he leave her again so soon?
He took a deep, uncertain breath as their gazes met, feeling his eyes go moist. Would he even be able to say goodbye? "I'll..." His voice caught and he stopped.
Sarah's soft hands gently squeezed his fingers, and he saw perfect understanding in her gentle expression. "I know what you have to do, Chris," she said in a compassionate whisper. "We'll be waitin' for you when you come back. I'm not goin' to lose my husband again, Chris Larabee!"
There was a slight smile on her lips as she said this, a mild air of jauntiness in her tone, but Chris caught the underlying truth of her statement, and the gravity of it robbed him of any power to respond. They really would be here when he returned, he realized, the wonder of that simple fact washing over him in a warm, irresistible tide. Without another word, Chris mounted the top step and embraced his wife, gripping her tightly, marveling at the miracle in his arms. Perhaps it was better to simply accept the joy, and not wonder too much for the moment; there would be plenty of time for questions later on.
Finally, mindful that Buck was waiting for him, he released her, gave Adam an embrace as well, then stepped down and joined Buck, who had been patiently waiting, his blue eyes serious. As they walked towards the woods, Chris could not help turning every few steps and looking back at his wife and son, expecting the scene to vanish like the dream it still seemed to be. But no, they stayed on the porch, watching them go, bathed in the glorious sunshine, until the leaves and trees of the woods obscured his view of them. He sighed and turned forward, still overwhelmed.
Buck glanced at him, a sympathetic smile on his face. "Don't you fret, Chris, they ain't goin' nowhere."
The other man frowned, puzzled. "Yeah, I know," he replied softly. "Not sure *how* I know..." His voice faltered and he shook his head, a chuckle forcing its way out of his throat.
His friend laughed a little, too. "Awful lot t'take in, isn't it? Don't feel bad, I'm still gettin' a hold of it, myself."
The path stretched before them, the warm sunlight slanting through the emerald leaves and coloring the forest floor in a brilliant patchwork of golden light and rich shadows. Chris found himself recognizing every rock and tree; he had taken Adam hunting in these woods several times, but after the fire had never set foot in them again. Seeing the familiar forest one more time brought back a flood of pleasant memories, and he suddenly found himself longing to go back and take Adam in his arms once more, just to prove to himself that it really was all true.
Chris sighed. "What're we doin' here, Buck?" he asked quietly as their boots crunched gently on the dirt path beneath them.
His friend glanced at him, his face somber, but said nothing.
"My life wasn't perfect," Chris went on in a contemplative voice, his eyes fixed on the road ahead. "Did a lot of things I wish I hadn't. Never thought much on what came after, an' when I did..." He paused and looked around.
Buck smiled a little. "Didn't figure it'd be like this, right?"
The other man contemplated the beautiful scene before him, the profound emotions surging through his heart, and nodded. "Don't think even the finest preacher I ever heard could've imagined this. An' it's sure not where I thought I'd wind up."
His old friend put his hands in his pockets and leaned his head back, casually observing the sun-dappled trees as they walked on. "Chris, all I can tell you is, we musta done somethin' right. I'm still puzzlin' it all out myself, but the fact is, I been too busy lately to do much thinkin' on it. Between keepin' an eye on you, an' Vin, an' that dang fool kid, my halo's been spinnin' like a top since I got here. Good thing I had some help, else I'd be one tuckered angel!"
Chris frowned. "Help?" A new question sprang into his mind, and he felt ashamed of himself for not thinking of it sooner. He stopped in his tracks. "Buck?"
Buck halted and looked back at Chris expectantly.
For a moment Chris hesitated, unsure if he wanted to ask a question whose answer might not be the one he wanted to hear. But surely-surely, if he and Buck were here...
Chris peered at his friend. "Buck, if *we're* here-then..."
His friend smiled and held up his hand, halting further inquiry. "I know what you're askin', Chris," he said, a happy light dancing in his eyes as if he had some good news he simply couldn't wait to impart, "and I think you'll be findin' the answer ridin' right around that bend up ahead."
It was then that Chris heard the soft sounds of hoofbeats thudding dully on the dirt path. Looking ahead, he saw a turn in the road some twenty feet ahead lit by a wide patch of sunlight, but the identity of the approaching rider was hidden by a thick stand of trees and bushes. The hoofbeats drew closer, and finally horse and rider moved into the sunshine, their forms glowing in the brilliant light.
Chris's eyes grew wide, but he instantly chided himself. He shouldn't be surprised, really, to see the man who sat on the dapple gray horse watching him with glad green eyes and a bright, gold-toothed smile. Then he realized it wasn't surprise surging through him, but relief.
The man on the gray horse reined in his mount and leaned forward a little, crossing his hands casually on the horn of his saddle, the sunlight blazing off of his red coat and smooth brown hair. "Well, Mr. Larabee," he said, his soft Southern drawl dancing through the warm summer air, "I see you simply could not wait to join us. I am sure Mr. Wilmington has already admonished you for your undue haste."
Chris laughed a bit, taking a few steps forward and staring with amazement at his comrade. "I see you're still spoutin' those fancy words of yours, Ezra." He paused, then said in a softer voice, "I've missed hearin' 'em. It's sure good to see you."
The other man climbed gracefully from his saddle, and in a few moments was standing before them both, reins in hand. The gunslinger studied Ezra, astounded, unable to believe that the last time he had seen this man, the gambler had been dying from several bullet wounds courtesy of Fowler's hired guns. The thugs had caught Ezra and were about to ambush the rest of the seven, and their fatal mission would have succeeded had Ezra not found the guts to shout out a warning, despite the several rifle barrels pointed at him. Alerted, Chris and the others had dispatched the henchmen, but there had been nothing they could do for Ezra.
The warm admiration and gratitude which Chris had felt for the gambler that hot, awful day returned; he never would have guessed, from their first meeting, that one day he and the other men in their group would owe their lives to Ezra's final, selfless act, and he was pretty sure Ezra would never have believed it either. Part of his anger over the incident had come from the thought of how cruelly Ezra had been rewarded for his courage-dying in the hot dust of a lonely desert canyon hardly seemed fitting, but it was how things often worked out in the West.
That bitterness melted away now as Chris stared at Ezra. The young, healthy man before him could not have looked more different than the Ezra he had last seen lying pale and bloodied on the desert cliff. Also gone without a trace were the ravages of the tuberculosis that had plagued his health in the months before their final ride, and it endlessly gratified Chris to see how completely the gambler had been healed. There was no doubt in the gunslinger's heart that his comrade deserved it.
Ezra had been regarding Chris with a somewhat uncertain expression, a mixture of joy and regret. "I'm delighted to see you as well, Chris," he said slowly, his tone serious, "however...I confess I had rather hoped your arrival would be postponed for a few more years."
Chris managed a faint shrug, still overwhelmed to think that he was actually talking to Ezra again. "Guess Fowler had other ideas."
A slight grin crossed Ezra's face. "Well, we can rest assured that his present situation is perhaps not quite so agreeable as yours," he replied, and put out his hand.
Chris gripped Ezra's hand firmly, placing his other hand on Ezra's shoulder as he met the Southerner's gaze. "Can't say I'm sorry to hear that," he mused as he shook Ezra's hand. "Sure am glad you're here, Ezra-you earned it after saving all our lives in the canyon. That took a lot of grit, and I never forgot it. Thank you."
The gambler looked embarrassed, but grateful. "Merely acting on my desire to rid the desert of a few more vermin," he drawled. "I was most pleased to know that your quest was finally successful, although the cost was higher than I would have wished for."
Sadness echoed in Ezra's last few words, and Chris felt it grip his heart as he sighed and released the gambler's hand. "Yeah," he sighed, looking away, wondering how he could feel so melancholy surrounded by such peace and beauty. "None of that should have happened. This wasn't your fight."
Buck stepped forward and placed a hand on Chris's shoulder. "Now you know that wasn't ever true, Chris," he said somberly, as his friend turned back to look at him. "I reckon you recollect pretty well how I felt about it, an' the others felt the same. We all made our choice, you didn't force nobody into it, an' we're not gonna let you take any blame for somethin' that wasn't your fault. Can't say I was happy with what happened to me, but I didn't regret ridin' with you after Fowler for one dang second."
Ezra nodded. "I must say I echo Buck's sentiments," he added. "And I am sure JD and Vin would as well."
Something jolted through Chris's soul, and he blinked. "JD!" he muttered, taking a step back. "Buck, you said there was some way...I have to know how he's doin', and Vin..."
Buck threw a quick glance at Ezra, the nodded. "Sure, Chris, now that we're all met up, we can go."
Chris braced himself, apprehension filling his heart. "How much farther do we have to walk?"
A sad sigh escaped Buck's lips. "Not far at all, Chris. Fact is, we're already there."
Puzzled, Chris blinked, but before he could form a question he realized that the forest had completely vanished. Surrounding them now were the four walls of a small, plain adobe room, rough and unpainted, decorated with primitive artworks in unfinished wooden frames and awash in the golden glow of twilight. Chris recognized it immediately; it was the border mission where they had left Josiah and Nathan.
They were standing at the foot of a bed, and Chris felt his gut tighten as he focused on the pale, still figure lying there. It was JD, his chest swathed in tight bandages, his face white except for the purplish circles beneath his closed eyes. A choked sound escaped from Chris's throat as he studied his young friend; the kid-though he couldn't really call him a kid any more, not after the courage JD had displayed at their last fight- looked awful, and the bitter sting of remorse surged through the gunslinger's soul. It should never have come to this. If only Fowler had listened to him and surrendered...
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