Ezra had seen Vin turn from Mary and Billy and head into an alley. Worry for his friend tore at him and he decided that he had to find out if Vin was all right. He approached Mary. "Mrs. Travis? Is everything all right?"
She sighed, wearily. "Billy and I were on our way to see Chris. Vin couldn't tell us anything."
Ezra gently placed a hand on her arm. "You go on and see Chris. I'll take care of Vin."
She smiled up at the gambler and nodded. "Thank you, Mister Standish."
When Mary and Billy continued down the street, Ezra turned to the alley. "Now, if I were Mister Tanner, where would I hide?"
Chris watched as Ezra followed after Vin. Curious, he fell into step beside the gambler. "Don't know if you can talk to him, Ezra," Chris said with a shake of his head. "Nothing anyone says seems to be doing any good."
Ezra stopped, looking around him. He shivered. Chris noticed this and gazed at his southern friend with wide eyes. "You? You can sense me?"
Ezra let out a nervous chuckle. "I must say that is one unusual feeling," he muttered to himself. Shaking it off, Ezra continued into the darkened alley. "Mister Tanner, I know you're back here. I must ask that you show yourself."
He listened and heard the sound of shuffling feet. He went to behind the building on his left and saw Vin standing there, leaning back against the wall. "Mister Tanner? Are you all right?"
Vin lowered his head.
"I know you must feel the need to be alone right now, Mister Tanner, but I must insist on you explaining yourself."
Vin lifted his gaze and in the light of the full moon, Ezra saw the glisten of tears. The gambler felt compassion and he took a place beside his friend. "It seems I must once again fill the air with conversation when speaking to you. If you wish to depart my presence I will adhere to your wishes and leave you alone with your torment, but I sincerely hope you will not do that."
Vin said nothing, but he did not move either. Ezra nodded with satisfaction. "Excellent, sir. I feel the need to discuss the current situation with you. I understand that Mister Wilmington and Mister Sanchez have both tried to converse with you about this horrible ordeal. I would be presumptuous in thinking I can assist you, but being that we are compatriots, I would be dishonoring the meaning of the word by not offering you some support at this time."
Vin kept his gaze in front of him, staring out at the desert that stretched out before him. Ezra saw the look and cleared his throat. "Am I correct in assuming you wish to depart from here?"
Vin did not respond.
"I understand the desire to flee, Mister Tanner. It has often been my source of comfort in the midst of trial, to flee and never look back. I must ask why you have not given in to that desire? You are still here, even though you wish to leave. One can only assume it's because you also do not wish to dishonor Mister Larabee, by leaving him behind."
Chris watched this exchange with interest. He could see where Ezra was heading with this and he silently urged the gambler to continue.
Ezra sighed as he gazed out over the desert that stretched out behind the town. "Yes, that would be a correct assumption if I do say so myself. What you fear Mister Larabee doing to you is what you fear you will do to him if you leave."
Vin, this time, turned to the gambler, looking at him with recognition. Ezra saw the look and nodded. "How do I know this? I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage there. I'm not one who allows people inside. I believe that the others are more readily able to do that, with the exception of you and Mister Larabee. It is quite interesting to see the interaction played out between the seven of us. I fancy myself to be a person who studies people. I watch the gambler across the table from me, am able to read his body language, the look in his face...not the eyes, mind you, but his face, and I am able to know instinctively what move he will make. It is not a talent I was born with, not like you with your sharpshooting skills, but it is something I am quiet proud of learning. In dealing with you gentlemen I find myself studying the same things. The mannerisms, the stances, and yes, even the eyes. Mister Larabee has offered me that look of his so many times I feel as if I've been shredded to within an inch of my life." He chuckled and he could see a hint of a smile on Vin's face.
Chris stood off and smiled, shaking his head. "Damn, Ezra. You got him to smile. Whatever it is you're doing, keep at it."
Ezra took in a breath and let it out. "Why do I stay here, Mister Tanner? Have you ever wondered that question regarding me?"
Vin just looked at him.
"I suppose for the same reason you're still here at this moment. I've never truly belonged anywhere, not even with my mother, for reasons I will not divulge to you, being as though those reasons are a moot point at this time. I stay here because for the first time I am discovering things about myself. The Bible says 'As iron sharpens iron'. That is what we, the seven, are to each other, Mister Tanner. We are as iron sharpens iron. We cause the sparks when we rub each other the wrong way, but in the sharpening we become focused. Mister Larabee may not trust me and I can completely understand why that is. I find it hard to trust myself sometimes. But, there is one person among the seven of us that I trust entirely and implicitly. That is you, sir."
Vin tilted his head, questioningly. "You are like me in that you can read people. You have the talent to know what a person is going to do simply by their actions or gaze. You are able to look into Mister Larabee's soul and see beyond the mask he wears. With you a man knows where he stands. You keep nothing hidden, Mister Tanner, even through your mask, you are quite possibly the most honest person I have ever met. You call it as you see it, with whomever it is you are contemplating. Perhaps you cannot trust me, either, but you also see beyond me, Mister Tanner. You see and accept me for what I am. There are not many men who I can describe in such a manner. Your presence in my life has taught me many things. Mister Larabee is not the only one who can see the purity of your soul. I do not mean to embarrass you by saying that, Mister Tanner. I do, however, mean what I say. You, too, have found a place among us. I ask you...do not let what happened today shake that undying faith you have in us...or in yourself. Your debating whether to leave or stay is the proof that is needed for me to know you will make the right decision."
Ezra turned his attention back to the desert. "Mister Larabee needs you, Vin." The gambler tipped his hat to the tracker and started heading off when Vin took his arm. Ezra looked at him and the look in Vin's eyes told him his words had been received. He inclined his head in acknowledgment and walked off.
Chris stood there and gazed after the gambler with a smile on his face. 'Not a silver spoon, Ezra...a silver tongue,' he thought.
Vin stepped away from the building and took one last look at the desert. Chris watched the sullen expression and waited. Vin lowered his head and turned to walk back through the alley. If Chris could have sighed in relief...he would have.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah sat by Chris' bed. He was the first to volunteer in the efforts to reach the unconscious man in some way. His request to be the first had not been argued with and so Nathan ushered the others out of the clinic in order to maintain order in the town. When Josiah's watch was over another would take his place.
The large man gazed down at Chris and took comfort in the rise and fall of the wounded chest. "It seems you are trying to reach out in some way, Chris," Josiah spoke softly.
Chris stood in the shadows by the window gazing out over the street as he listened to the man.
"I'm not exactly sure if what I witnessed earlier is what I really saw or if it was just my wishful thinking manifesting, but I do know the Almighty works in mysterious ways. I believe I saw you, Chris. But it is not me that will reach into your mind and bring you back to the world. None of us would dare presume that we mean as much to you as Vin does. Even Buck has resigned himself to the fact that Vin has replaced him in your life. Buck will always be a good friend to you because he is loyal and unwavering, but the connection you share with him is not the same as what you have with our tracker. Both are your best friends, but the friendship is of different levels. With Buck you share a history...with Vin you share a soul. And then there are the rest of us. With JD you feel the need to guide and nurture as only a leader can. With JD he holds respect and concern for you, wanting to help, but inexperienced yet in the actual performance of reaching out. He would rather die than to lose your trust in him."
Chris smiled, but it was a sad smile, more of wonder, than mirth. "JD expects too much from me, Josiah. I wish he could know beyond doubt that I'm just a man...a man who makes mistakes." He shook his head. 'Perhaps then he would be more comfortable and stop trying to prove himself worthy of my respect,' he thought. 'He all ready has it.'
Josiah continued. "Nathan holds a place in his heart for you because you and Vin saved his life that day. A stranger you were to him as the noose went to his neck, but you saw a life to be saved and you risked your life in saving his. His loyalty to you is warranted. He worked so hard to mend the wound you received. But he also worked that tirelessly in order to save Vin's life as well."
Chris turned to Josiah at those words. "I trust Nathan with my life, Josiah. I've never told him that. Maybe I should."
Josiah went on. "Ezra is someone you have taught. As intelligent as he is, he still has much to learn about the truth of one's ugliness. He hides, as we all do, from the many things that make up who he is. But you, Chris, you have taught him to face what he hides. He, of course, will never admit to being taught those hard lessons, but believe me when I say he has listened to you. And he still does. His respect for you runs deep."
Chris thought back to just a while ago in the alley with Vin. How Ezra spoke to his friend with a true desire to help. He chuckled. "I can see it, Josiah. I'll probably never tell him that I do, but I know it's there."
Josiah sighed heavily as he continued to speak. "Myself? I see in you a hardened soul that is learning once again to trust others and to allow six men to encircle you. I see a man I hold nothing but respect for. And I will stand by your side to the death in any battle you feel needs to be fought. I am hoping to do that now as your body and will fight to hold on. I am here, my Brother. When I move from this chair to allow another to voice his thoughts to you, I will still be here. I remember when I was under suspicion of murder. I know you had your doubts regarding my innocence. What was it that swayed your thinking to give me the benefit of the doubt? What was it that helped you to grasp onto the hope that I was innocent? I would like to think it was your faith in me, but at that time that faith was shaken. I didn't do much to firm up the foundation, I admit. No, it wasn't your faith in me...it was Vin's faith in me...wasn't it? You saw that loyal fire in his eyes, you heard it in his voice and you felt that if Vin believed in me, then there must be something to that belief. I could be wrong, but it is how I saw the situation."
Chris smiled. "You'd be right, my friend."
Josiah rubbed his eyes and leaned forward, resting a hand on Chris' arm. "I understand your anger with God, Chris. I understand it only too well. I have things in my life I'm not proud of. Things I regret having to live through. Pain I probably will never tell another soul. Being angry with God is an emotion I know in the deepest depths of my soul. But I still believe in His might. I still hold fast to my faith that there are reasons for all things. I am praying for you, Chris. Whether you wish me to or not, it is not something I can ignore. It is something I feel strongly about."
Chris lowered his head. "I won't begrudge you the action, Preacher. Perhaps I need those prayers because I can't pray for myself."
He lifted his gaze and looked at Josiah to see the man's head bowed over clasped hands. The prayers he spoke were silent, but Chris could hear them...even without the words being uttered. He turned his head up and closed his eyes. It was a strange sensation...this...not being alone anymore.
JD took the chair vacated by Josiah. The larger man nodded once to him in acknowledgment and put his hat on, leaving the clinic.
Chris stood to JD's side and watched the young man with a fondness. He could see the 'Kid' was trying hard to form his words and to speak them without allowing his voice to break.
JD swallowed. "Hi, Chris. It's me. I don't know if you can hear me, but Nathan said you might be able to, so I've come to talk to you for a spell." He rested his bowler hat on the table next to where Chris lied and then he clasped his hands between his knees. "What can I say to you?" he asked with a whisper. "What can I say that you won't be uncomfortable with?"
Chris stood behind JD and lowered his head. "Speak your heart, Kid. That's all that ever really needs to be said."
JD cleared his throat. "I think you should know, Buck is keeping it together, but I can tell this is ripping him apart. I know you two have a history, long before Vin or I came along. I can't help but wonder if his friendship to me came about because he knew you and Vin were becoming so close. Maybe he just needed someone to take your place. I don't know. I just know I'm grateful that Buck took me under his wing. I look at you and Vin and I wonder.did you take Vin under your wing...or did he take you under his?"
Chris arched an eyebrow at that. He had never really thought about it before. "Maybe both, JD," he said.
"I just want you to know...I'll take care of Buck for you, Chris. I know I'm young and I don't have near the experience of living that you two have, but that's why I came out west. I wanted to experience life. I have...here...with you and the others. But...you know I'd crawl over broken glass if it meant it would save Buck's life. I suppose even if I leave here and head on to become a Texas Ranger, that maybe Buck will join with me. And to tell you the truth, nothing would please me more. I know plans change and dreams change when we meet people and connect with them. I suppose you never thought you'd be staying in one town for as long as you've stayed in Four Corners. You and Vin have to get his name cleared, Chris. Vin planned on doing it without you, but now that you and he have joined up, I can't imagine you letting him try to clear his name without you there to watch his back. He'd never make it. With you, though, he has a fighting chance to stay alive."
Chris shut his eyes. The Kid's heart was speaking to him loud and clear. 'Keep talking, JD. I'm listening.'
"I reckon I could tell you what meeting you has done for me. I admire you, Chris. I said it that day in the Seminole Village. That a man would be proud to work with you. I meant it. I am proud to work with you. I remember the day I decided to leave after I accidentally killed Annie. Your words to me I carry inside me still. 'JD? There's still time to change your mind.' Well, I'm telling you that now, Chris. If you feel you have to leave, please know...there's still time to change your mind. There's still so much you need to teach me. I know what Vin will go through if he loses you. It would be what I would feel if I lost Buck. Well, Vin isn't the only one who will lose a piece of himself should you decide to leave us. Buck will go through hell, too. Hell, Chris. That's what will wait for them. I don't want to see either of them go through that. And..." JD choked. He swallowed hard, but Chris opened his eyes to see the tears stream down the young man's face. "I'll miss you, too, Chris." He quickly ran a hand over his eyes and tried to chuckle. "You'd probably tell me to stand tall. And I would, to honor your memory, but damn if it wouldn't be painful. I guess what I want you to hear most of all...is that you're needed. And not just by Vin. Please, if you've heard nothing else I've said, please hear that."
Chris' shoulders sagged. "I heard you, Kid," he softly said. "I heard everything."
+ + + + + + +
"Well, Chris, I guess it's my turn," Nathan said as he took his place at Chris' side. "I know Josiah and JD have said things to you that you probably never would have heard if this hadn't happened. No telling if you've heard them now. Maybe it's not the voice that reaches a person when they're in a coma. Maybe it's the soul of the person talking. You've got six souls here, Chris. Six souls that are reaching out to you. A man is lucky in his life to have one soul he can call friend. To have six," Nathan shook his head and a smile crossed his lips. "My father would say that a man with one true friend is truly rich. I'm rich, Chris. And I'm alive today because of you and Vin. I never thanked you for saving my life that day. For giving me all this wealth I now possess. Josiah is a good friend to me as well and I know he would have fought at your side that day if he had known what was going on. I suppose that's why he wasn't there that day...so I could meet you and Vin, so that my life would take on a new direction."
Chris stood across from where Nathan was sitting and smiled. "We all had our lives changed that day, Nathan. Lord knows I didn't go into that town expecting to find a family."
Nathan shook his head. "I remember how easy it was to talk to you during that day when we were trying to find the real killer, to clear Josiah's name. I told you about Rain and me, remember that?"
Chris chuckled and nodded. "I remember."
"You gave me some words of wisdom that day, Chris, and I could tell they came from the heart, 'cause you lived those words. 'Just because you lose them, are you sorry you ever had them?' Well, Chris, I'm not sorry I ever met you. That don't mean I want you to give up and leave us, now. So, don't go thinking that I'm gonna understand if that happens. I won't. I reckon you've got more years on this earth and I don't want you cheated out of them. So, you hear me good, now. You've got to hold on. You've got to make it through this. I just can't accept that it's your time to go. I already told you that Vin needs you. We all do, Chris, but Vin needs you most of all. And really, what more needs to be said, other than we still need you around? Isn't that enough for you to want to fight? I sure as hell hope so, cause the Seven can't be the Seven when we're only six."
Chris smiled and turned to the window. He went to look out the pane at the bonfires lighting the streets. He could see across the way the shadowy silhouetted figure of Vin, leaning against the corner of the hotel building, gazing up at the clinic. And as much as he wanted to believe that he would make it through whatever this entire thing was...he simply wasn't sure. He turned to Nathan. "It may not be my call, Doc," he said. "But for what it's worth, you all are keeping me here for some reason."
+ + + + + + +
The next one to sit was Ezra.
Chris stood by the window, curious to hear what the gambler would say or do. 'Probably steal me blind,' he thought with a smile. 'Wouldn't put it passed him...at least I wouldn't have six months ago. Now...now I'm not so sure.'
Ezra took a seat by Chris' side and waited for Nathan to close the door behind him. "Well, well, well, Mister Larabee. It seems you are the lucky recipient of my ever eloquent conversation," the gambler tried to chuckle, but it turned into a pitiful smile and he shook his head, the smile fading. "Just what is it I can say to you, however...at this point in time I am bereft of conversational abilities."
"Speechless, Ezra? You? I find that hard to believe," Chris said, chuckling. Then he saw the look in the gambler's face and the grin faded from his lips. Ezra was indeed finding it difficult to put his words together. What would he say when he did? "The curtain has fallen, con-man," Chris urged. "No more need for acting. Just say what you have to say."
"It seems I am to try and communicate with you, but what I have to say I've never told another soul...except to the one who forced the words to come out of my mouth the last time she was here. The woman who made me feel and say what I'd been wanting to say to her for most all my depraved existence."
Chris furrowed a brow at Ezra. "Your mother?" he asked.
As if hearing the question, Ezra nodded. "Oh, I know many of you think my mother is some sort of classy woman, but, frankly, sir, I have only a limited fondness for her. And would you believe me if I told you, Mister Larabee, that it's because of you that I saw how limited my fondness is for her? I understand Mister Tanner's past. Living from place to place, dropped off here and there, abandoned for most his young childhood. I went through similar occurences during my childhood as well. I'm not exactly sure what's worse, Mister Larabee, not having a mother who loved you enough until death took her, or having one that didn't give a damn about you enough to keep you at her side? And, like Mister Tanner, I don't have any recollections regarding my father. Is he alive? If so, does he even know of my existence? Would he care if he did? I realize this must sound somewhat like I am feeling sorry for myself, but I ask that you bear with me until I finish. I have a reason I state these things regarding my private history. Of course you realize, I have no faith whatsoever that you are able to hear any of this, which is why I am even bothering to confide in you at all. And if, by some off chance you are able to hear me...I could only ask that your private ways will horde these confessions to yourself, and not reveal them to anyone else." Chris squatted down and rested his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands together and putting them to his lips. "Go on, Ez. I promise none of what you tell me will leave this room." He gazed at the gambler curiously, but there was a hint of sorrow in his voice. He always suspected Ezra was wearing a great many masks to hide his true self, but many times he had seen those masks crack, revealing a truly caring heart underneath.
Ezra's eyes looked off to the side and down as if not wanting to see Chris' face on that bed. "Mister Larabee, coming to this town has made an acute change in the way I view things. Like you, I hardened my heart to others, to ward off being too close to anyone. I look back over the reasons as to why that is something I now must come to terms with and I can see it so clearly. Each one of you men have touched me in some way, helping me to see what's inside of me. JD with his exuberance, Buck with his flagrancy, Nathan with his...his conscience." Ezra smiled slightly at the mention of the healer. "Josiah with his wisdom. And Vin...Vin with his faith...his ability to see beyond the obvious to what's really there." He chuckled again. "The title 'tracker' fits him very well. In more ways than jus
following tracks on the ground. A tracker of the soul is what I like to think of him as."
Chris smiled fondly. Ezra had just described Vin perfectly.
"And you, Mister Larabee...you with your forthrightness and fortitude. That day at the Seminole village, when I had abandoned you all to the whims of that Captain Anderson. Such is the ways of one who has been abandoned. To leave others before they leave him. I make no excuses for my actions that day. I did return, yes, but only because..." Ezra stopped. He shook his head. "Now if that isn't the most peculiar thing. I honestly cannot tell you why I returned. Guilt, perhaps, but then I've never allowed myself to feel guilt before. Why was that day so different? Why suddenly did I realize that I, too, held a conscience? Can I be so analytical that I believe it was that day in the saloon when we first spoke? After I conned that man out of his money and he tried to kill me? You recognized that I used blanks in my gun during that shooting contest. But something happened before that encounter with you, sir. I saw out of the corner of my eye, when that man began to threaten me with his knife...I saw Mister Tanner prepare to pull his gun out of his holster. I witnessed him draw his coat back to obtain an easier reach, as if he would assist me should the circumstances turn dire. A total stranger he was to me and yet, he was willing to cover my back. Honor or foolhardiness, at the time I simply could not differentiate between the two. What I did learn was that no one, especially a total stranger, had ever even once considered my life, willing to put their's on the line for me. And then I saw how all of you were willing to do that for an entire village. I was curious to learn more about why strangers would ban together to help other strangers. And then Nathan helping me with my arm even after the horrible way I treated him because of his skin color. How he was willing to ease my pain, knowing how I felt about him. Something changed inside of me. Oh, I know it wasn't a huge change. It wasn't something I could pin-point and declare, 'yes, that's when it all became real to me'. No, sir. It was a slow change, but it was happening. And then I saw the cannon fire, heard the explosions, and when I was attempting to retreat, I felt I simply could not do that to any of you. I had to return, perhaps because I knew you all would return for me. And when I did return, when I did all I could to free you, and when you looked at me with that glare of yours," Ezra chuckled. " 'Don't ever run out on me again', you said. You could have shot me then and there, but instead you offered me another chance. Mister Larabee, it was then that I realized what I had been missing in my life. Someone to hold me accountable to my actions. My mother never had the decency to teach me anything other than how to con people, to rob them, to cheat them. You and the others, Mister Larabee, you all have taught me to...to care. Earlier tonight I asked Mister Tanner why I stay in this town? It's because of the six of you. I realize we will all go our separate ways when the time comes, but for now...for now...I am content in the knowledge that someone gave a damn about me enough to teach me that I did have some honor inside me. When I felt I had none. This is what you and the others have done for me, Mister Larabee. And I simply would hate to think that there is nothing left to learn."
Chris gazed at Ezra and shook his head, smiling. "Hell, Ezra, I swear. You truly are something else." The blond man stood and turned to look out the window again. "I reckon we all knew you had it in you. You just didn't realize it at the time."
Ezra sighed and Chris turned to him once more. "As for the ability to trust me, sir," he continued. "That is something we will have to work on, still. I do have my temptations, I won't deny that, but with each temptation that comes along, lately I've begun to see more of a desire to turn and walk away from them. I do wonder what my life would have ended up being like had not you and the others crossed my path."
Chris chuckled. "Probably be tarred and feathered by now."
"As our illustrious Mister Tanner would say, I would probably be tarred and feathered by now."
Chris arched an eyebrow and chuckled. "Damn, Ezra, even in a coma you all still can tell when Vin and I think alike."
Buck paced the room. He had been left alone for only a minute before he began to walk a path in the clinic floor. "Can't do this, Chris."
"What, Buck? You can't, or I can't?" Chris watched his friend from the corner of the room.
"This is not how I want it to end. Not for you. I know you did this to save Vin's life, but damn it, Chris! That kid ain't gonna live if you check out on him."
Chris flinched back. "Ooooh, don't go calling Vin a kid to his face now, Buck, lessen of course you want to get measured for a pine box."
Buck stopped pacing and ran a hand through his scruffy hair which look like it hadn't seen a comb in days. "Need a haircut," the scoundrel muttered.
Chris chuckled. "Won't deny that, Buck. But why don't you get to the real reason you're in here now?"
Buck stopped pacing at the foot of the bed and looked down at his friend. "All right, here it is, Chris. Just you and me and these four walls." Buck nervously rocked on his feet, his hands on his hips. "Hell, Chris. I ain't got nothing I can say to you. I'm used to you talking back at me. I just wish to God you'd open those eyes and glare at me or something!"
Chris grinned. "Wish I could, too, Pard. Trouble is...this is the way it is."
Buck sighed and turned to look out the window. He walked over to it and leaned a hand against the sill. "Sun's about ready to rise, Chris. Vin's still out there."
Chris walked over to the window and saw Vin still standing by the hotel corner, just the same as he had been standing a few hours before. He was looking up at the clinic, but Chris could see the face now, in the oncoming daylight. "He ain't spoken a word to anyone, Chris. It's like he's got a hole in his throat or something. Naw, that ain't it. I know that. It's more like a hole in his soul. He's bowed out of coming up here all night. Letting all of us have our say first. I know he's wanting to come up here, though." Buck turned back to the still form on the bed. "Chris, I know you blame me for not being there that night when the fire took Sarah and Adam. I know we've hashed this out time and time again." Buck walked over to the side of the bed and took the chair. He sat down. "Blame," he snickered. "Just blame goin' on all around. You tell me you don't hold me at fault, that no one twisted your arm. But I didn't have to keep trying to talk you into it. I know you know how sorry I am about it all. I know you've forgiven me as much as you can. I just wanted you to know...that I know that. I guess that's what I really wanted to tell you, flat out."
Chris turned to Buck and smiled knowingly. He then turned to Vin once more. "No blame," he spoke out. "No blame at all."
Buck sighed again and stood. He began pacing. "I know the others have probably told you what you leavin us would do to Vin. To all of us, really. So I don't need to go over that part of this with you." He continued to pace. "I guess I'm more worried about Vin not getting to say what he wants to say to ya'. Hell, not like you need him to. We all know what he means to ya'. But...if you don't make it this time, Pard, you know he's gonna blame himself for it. He's gonna look at your sacrifice as his shooting that gun at you himself. It ain't something I'm lookin' forward to facing. None of us are. And...to be honest with you..." he stopped...both talking and pacing and turned to Chris' body. "Don't do this, Pard. Shit, Chris, it's like you and me, we've had this journey we've walked for eleven years. Ain't had no friend in my life as long as I've had you. But, Vin...he ain't never had any friend in his life like you, not for eleven years or eleven months, for that matter. But then, being that it's you and him, what difference does the amount of time make? I could tell right from the start that you two didn't have to form a friendship over time. From the moment you both met it was like you both had known each other all your lives. I know what that's like now. I have the same thing with JD. Dang Kid is gonna probably make me turn gray long before my time, but I wouldn't have him any other way." Buck chuckled. "Kid's gotten into my heart somehow. Like Vin's gotten into yours. We joke around all the time, you and Vin just joke without using words. Can't even pretend I understand that, but then when I look at JD, maybe I can. What is it about these young guns, Chris? What makes it so difficult for us to turn away and pretend we don't care? Is it because we see a little bit of ourselves in them? I for sure can see a bit of you in Vin and a bit of me in JD. To be honest Chris, I think I'm closer to JD than I've ever been with you. Maybe because I don't want him to make the same mistakes I've made. I do see a lot of me in him, Chris. I don't want him to go through any more pain than he has to. Maybe that's why we can't turn away and pretend we don't care. Both of them just tend to remind us of ourselves when we were younger. Like lookin' into a mirror over a span of years. You see Vin and you see his quiet nature, his talent with that rifle. You want to protect him, watch over him, knowing damn well he'd fuss and holler at being hovered over. Sounds like a certain gunslinger I know." Buck smiled down at Chris.
Chris couldn't help but grin. "I suppose you're right about that, Buck. Never bothered to think of it that way."
"And then JD...dear Lord, JD Dunne...that love of life, his love of women. Shit, and that hell fire determination to be the center of attention." Buck chuckled.
Chris had to chuckle with him. "You noticed that, too, did you?" he asked out loud, but there was a genuine fondness in his tone.
Buck's chuckle died and he sobered up a bit. He looked down at Chris and his face drew down to a frown. "You gotta live to see JD grow up, Chris. And you gotta live to see Vin grow older. All the rest of us, we can survive, hell, we've been through loss, we've survived before, but JD and Vin..." he let the thought trail off. Buck shut his eyes and put his thumb and forefinger to them, rubbing the sting of tears away. "It's too soon for them. To hell with the rest of us, Chris. Think about them. I'd miss the hell out of you, Pard, but those two...they need us...all of us...together." In anger, forcing the tears back, Buck slammed his palm onto the foot board of the bed. "Damn it, Chris! Just you think about those two! That's all I'm askin' ya'."
Chris gazed at Buck with a furrowed brow. He saw the larger man's shaking shoulders and knew his oldest friend was on the verge of losing it. He walked up to his side and lowered his head. "I hear ya, Pard," he said. "I hear ya'."
Nathan came in. "Buck? You all right?"
Buck quickly wiped his hand over his face and squared his shoulders. "Fine, Nate. Just...never mind." He hurriedly put on his hat and stormed off past Nathan. "Gotta get Vin up here if it's the last thing I do."
Chris knew the tone of voice and the determination in Buck's step. "Damn it, Buck! Stop!" He ran after him.
+ + + + + + +
"Vin!" Buck yelled as he stormed over to where the tracker stood.
Vin lifted his head and saw the mustached man approach and knew what was coming. He didn't make a move to run or approach. The others were outside and watched the scene with concern. Buck grabbed Vin by his jacket and hauled him forward. "You're going up there right now! You gotta tell Chris! You gotta reach him!"
Chris watched in anger as his oldest friend began to pull Vin behind him like a child. "Stop it, Buck! Leave him alone! He ain't ready for this and you know it!"
Vin struggled against the dragging and he pulled himself away from Buck. He shook his head vehemently.
"Don't you shake your head at me, Tanner! I've had about as much of this as I can take! Chris needs you and you're running scared! You're going up there if I have to drag you every inch of the way!" He grabbed for Vin's arm again, when Vin dodged the grab and instead turned and walked away. Buck, in a furious move, pulled Vin around and slugged him against the jaw. Vin fell to the ground, but he didn't move to get up. "Get up, Tanner! Get your scrawny butt up into that clinic, now!"
"Mister Wilmington, what in Heaven's name do you think you're doing?" Ezra asked as he and the others surrounded them.
Chris stood off to the side, watching only Buck and Vin. Vin was on his hands and knees, his hat lying on the ground next to him. He was shaking his head, dazed.
"Stay out of this! All of you!" Buck roared. "I know what I'm doing!"
"Buck," JD came up to him to try and stop what was going down. "Don't do this," he begged.
"I have to, JD," Buck turned to him, his eyes full of sorrow. "It's for both their sakes, don't you see? Trust me, Kid," he whispered. "Just trust me."
JD could see the pain in Buck's eyes and he knew what he was doing was for Vin's benefit as well as Chris'. He backed off and Josiah approached the youth. "What is going on with Buck, JD?"
"He's trying to save two of his friends, Josiah. It's best we stay out of this."
Nothing more needed to be said and the rest of the seven backed off. Chris understood now what Buck was trying to do and though he hated like hell to see it happening, he had no way of stopping it. "Get up, Vin! Get up before he takes another swing at you!"
Buck went up to Vin and pulled him to his feet. "Selfish, pig-headed, runt!" Buck yelled and he threw another punch which caused Vin to land on his back. The tracker rolled onto his side, still not saying anything, not fighting back.
Chris could see the tears streaming down Buck's face. "Get up and fight me, Tanner! You're making this so damn easy! Selfish coward! Chris is dying, you bastard! And you don't give a shit! What kind of a friend are you anyway!"
Vin struggled to his feet, when Buck hauled him up once more, grabbing his jacket. "Get the fuck up there and reach him for us, Tanner!"
Vin just stared off to the ground, his body unresisting. Buck pushed him down and Vin rolled, his body lax. "Get up, you selfish bastard!" Buck yelled at him. "Get the fuck up and fight!"
Vin pulled himself to his feet, swaying as he did so. He looked down, blood and tears mixing together on his bruised and bleeding face. Buck punched him again. "Runt! What kind of a man are you? Never took you for a coward, Vin! Never once did I take you for someone who would run away with his tail between his legs! If Chris dies...you'll have to live with the fact that you weren't there for him!"
Chris backed up against the wall of the clinic. "Vin, come on!" he urged. "Don't let him humiliate you like that! Do something! Fight, damn it! Fight back!"
Buck walked up to Vin who stared back at him with a blank expression. "Vin!" Buck grabbed his jacket again and shook him. He dragged him over to the wall and pushed him against it. Chris turned his head to look at Vin. In a reflex action he reached out and put his hand into Vin's shoulder again. Vin hissed and turned...and saw Chris standing there. "Fight him, Vin! Don't give up on me!" With that Chris disappeared from his sight. Vin blinked.
Buck was seething into his face. "Selfish, Tanner! You are the sorriest excuse for a best friend I've ever run across." He backed up and threw another punch at Vin. Vin flew to the ground, like a rag doll.
"Damn it! Vin!" Chris yelled.
Then suddenly the tables turned. Vin pushed himself to his feet and he turned on Buck, snarling rage filling his eyes and he charged Buck, his shoulders making contact with the larger man's mid-section. In that moment of response, Vin yelled and the anger that fueled his voice carried enough force to send Buck to the ground with Vin toppling on top of him. Vin straddled the man and began to slug him. "No coward! Aint' no coward! Ain't no runt!" He yelled out with each slug.
Chris watched this scene with pride as Vin came back to himself. Then just as suddenly he felt a strange sensation. The scene before him was vanishing and...and he was beginning to feel pain in his chest. He disappeared from the ground below the clinic and found himself back in the room. What happened next he would never be able to explain. He was no longer outside his body, but he was falling back into himself. The next instant his eyes popped open and he gasped in pain. "VIN!" he shouted.
Vin heard the cry and in mid swing he stopped slugging. Josiah and Nathan ran to pull Vin off of Buck. The mustached man was helped to his feet by Ezra and JD. "Buck, you all right?"
"Vin spoke, JD!" Buck said with a grin. "Hell, it was worth a few slugs to the face just to hear that raspy voice of his again."
Vin struggled out of Josiah and Nathan's hold. "Chris," he spoke out and ran to the clinic stairs. Mid way up he stopped to see Chris standing there at the top of the stairs gazing down at him, pale as a sheet but very much awake.
"Chris?" Vin asked almost as if to verify it was in fact his friend he was seeing.
Chris smiled down at him. "Knew you could do it, cowboy," Chris said. Before his knees buckled out from under him, Vin was at his side, holding him up. "Nathan!" he called down.
Chris had to smile as Vin kept him from falling. "Good to hear your voice, Vin. Was starting to think you'd never talk again."
Vin looked down at him, confused. "Chris?"
Nathan was at his side and the two of them helped Chris back into the clinic.
Buck and the others stood at the foot of the stairs watching this scene with grins and chuckles. "Damn if that don't beat all. The moment Vin started speaking again, that's when Chris snapped out of it," Buck said.
"How did you know that would happen, Buck?" JD asked.
"Hell, JD, I wasn't expecting Chris to come out of it. I was doing all that to snap Vin out of it."
Josiah turned Buck's face to him. "You're gonna have some nasty bruises there, Brother Buck."
"Like I said, Josiah. It was worth a few slugs."
JD started up the stairs. "Let's go see Chris!" he said, when he was stopped by Buck pulling his arm. "We've had our time with him, Kid. It's Vin's turn now. Let's leave them be for awhile."
JD's shoulders slumped. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
"May I suggest a trip to the saloon to celebrate our fearless leader's return?"
"Hell, Ez," Josiah said. "It ain't even seven in the morning."
"Breakfast, Gentlemen. And I do feel a might generous this morning. The meals are on me."
Buck didn't need to hear it twice. "Let's go before he realizes what he just said!"
The four men headed off to the saloon. Nathan was coming out of the clinic, closing the door behind him when he saw them leave. "Heading somewhere boys?"
"Breakfast!" JD replied with jubilation. "On Ezra!"
Nathan's eyes widened. "Ezra's buying? This I gotta see!" He hurried down the steps after his compatriots.
Chris rested back on the pillow as Vin sat at his side. The tracker was looking down and yet Chris could see the swelling in his left cheek. "Damn, Buck packs a wollup don't he?" he said with a grin.
Vin lifted his gaze to the blond man and his eyes showed curiosity. "I saw ya', Chris. Down below just now. How..."
Chris raised his hand, stopping him. "Don't matter, Vin. I can't explain it all myself."
Vin nodded, then looked down again. "I...couldn't..."
"I know," Chris said. "But you were here, Vin, or I was there. I saw you...in the livery. Like I said, it don't matter and I can't explain it. I heard you, though."
Vin lifted his eyes to him again. "Heard me?"
"Yeah. I heard all of you."
"But...I didn't say anything...wait...the livery? What do ya' mean ya' saw me in the livery?"
Chris smiled. "Jonathan and David."
Vin's gaze narrowed, uncertain what he had just heard. "You...were there?"
Chris nodded. "Josiah is a wise man, Vin. And you...are no coward, in spite of what Buck had to say to get you to come back to yourself."
"But...I couldn't come up here. I couldn't watch you..."
Chris reached out and grabbed Vin's wrist. "Stop it. I understand. Like I said...you were here."
Vin nodded once then Chris released him and leaned further back into the pillows. "Been enough talking. I'm gonna get some sleep."
"Mind if I stay?" Vin asked.
Chris closed his eyes. "Even if you leave, Vin, I'll know you're here."
Vin watched his friend as Chris started to fall back into sleep and he leaned back in his chair. He crossed his arms over his stomach and placed his feet on the side of the bed, crossing them at the ankles. He lowered his head and closed his eyes. "Won't leave," he muttered. "Wild Bucks couldn't drag me away."
Chris heard this and a grin spread over his face. 'Thanks, Buck,' he thought as he drifted off into a deep sleep. He never realized how much talking could take out of a man.
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