It’s a Wonderful (Old West) Life

by Angie

I know it’s been done and done again but I had to do it my way. Thanks to Sylla and Kathy and Marian for their suggestions and for co-writing some of the parts, I couldn’t have come up with all of this angst without them.

Here he was again, facing the anniversary of Sarah and Adam’s deaths. Not even the bitter bite of the whiskey he’d consumed could take away the profound melancholy he was feeling. The ache had started as soon as he realized what day it was. The day had gone straight to hell after that, progressing faster and faster as the sun streaked across the sky. A third empty bottle joined the other two near the wall he was leaning against. The ache wouldn’t go away! He could almost hear the empty platitudes other people spat when they didn’t know what else to say to him.

“GOD DAMN IT ALL TO HELL! IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ME! WHY COULDN’T IT HAVE BEEN ME? NOT SARAH … NOT ADAM … ME! IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ME! SHE WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER OFF WITHOUT ME!” Chris raged and rallied against the unseen power that controlled the universe. Pushing off of the wall, he staggered outside and started walking, heedless of his direction. When he fell, something sharp struck the back of his head and darkness embraced him.

“Mr. Larabee … Chris, can you hear me?” an insistent voice called. Unwilling to return to a world of pain and loss, the blond moaned and tried to sweep away the hand that was shaking his arm and trying to rouse him. “Chris, wake up!”

“Hmm? Who are you?”

“Me? Oh, my name is Clarence,” the man said with a childlike smile.

“Clarence. Well Clarence, go away and leave me alone,” Chris growled as he glared his best Larabee glare. After a moment, it occurred to him that his head didn’t hurt anymore and it should. From the amount of whiskey he’d ingested, he should have the hangover of all time.

“I can’t just go off and leave you here, you’ll die!” Clarence insisted.

Chris pushed up from the ground, if only to convince the helpful stranger that he was alright and that he should move on. It had been nearly dusk when he stumbled outside, now it was coming near to dawn, the sun was just coming up over the horizon.

Coming to his feet, Chris looked around in confusion. He was sure he hadn’t walked too far from the little shack he’d been calling home but he couldn’t see any sign of it. The land contours were familiar, but the one room shack and corral were gone.

“Where am I?” Chris asked as he turned to face the man who had wakened him.

“Why, you’re just where you fell when you stumbled out of your home last night,” Clarence said in a tone that sounded slightly condescending to the blond.

“What do you mean? If I’m just where I fell, where’s my house? Where’s the corral? Where’s my horse?”

“Gone, all gone.”

“What do you mean gone? Where did they go?” Chris asked as he took hold of the man’s lapels.

“The little shack you bought was torn down when Guy Royal bought the land.”

“Royal? He can’t buy this land! It’s mine, I have a title.”

“Chris, you didn’t buy this land,” the strange little man said, oblivious to the cold stab of fear his words caused. “You said that she would have been better off without you. You never married, never had a son, never bought a little house and settled down. You’ve been given a wonderful gift, the chance to see what the world would be like if you had never had a wife and child.”

“Sarah?” Chris whispered, remembering that he had been raging at God about why it had been his family instead of him. “What kind of trick is this? My wife and son burned to death in a fire set by Cletus Fowler after he was hired by Ella Gaines.”

“No, you never met Sarah Connelly. After the war, you returned to Indiana and took over your father’s farm.

Turning angrily from the man, Chris started for town. His sharp eye took in every tree and shrub as he walked. There was a fence that he couldn’t remember ever seeing when he reached the road to the town. He turned and glared at Clarence. “You going to follow me all the way into town?”

“I have no place else to be,” he answered innocently.

What would have taken him less than an hour on horseback took him over two hours on foot. When he crested the ridge where he could see the town, he was shocked. He turned a questioning gaze on the stranger before starting for the town at a jog.

Walking along the main street, Chris couldn’t believe his eyes. The saloon and most of the building adjoining it were mere shells, having been consumed by fire. The few brick buildings had survived and stood empty. The boarding house roof had fallen in. Only the church looked as he remembered it. Quickening his stride, he ascended the steps and threw open one of the doors. The rotting wood let go of its moorings and toppled from the warped frame. Inside, a thick layer of dirt showed that the building had been empty for some time.

“Josiah!” Chris shouted as he strode for the door leading to the little room the former priest had lived in since moving to the town. Throwing that door open, he was relieved to see the graying man sitting on the bed with his back to the door. “Josiah!”

“He won’t know you,” Clarence warned.

“Huh? Who are you? Whaddaya want?” Josiah asked in a drunken slur.

“Josiah, what happened around here? Where are the others?”

“Others? Ain’t been anyone here in a long time, Mister.”

“Josiah, where are Buck and JD, Vin, Nathan and Ezra? Where is everyone? What happened?” Chris demanded, growing more scared and angry by the minute.

“I don’t know any of them folks. What’s it matter to you? I’m just an old man living out my last days. Go on now and leave me alone,” Josiah mumbled as he reached for a bottle of Red Eye by his foot.

“Josiah, answer me! Where are the others?” Chris demanded as he jerked the older man’s arm, preventing him from finishing the liquor in the bottle. Josiah flung his arm angrily, sending the bottle crashing against the wall.

“Now look at what you done!” Josiah shouted, coming unsteadily to his feet and glaring down on the blond gunslinger.

“Just tell me where Buck and Vin went!”

“I told you I don’t know anyone by those names! Go away and leave me alone!” Josiah yelled as he swung on Chris. Missing his target, he collapsed into the bed and lay deathly still, only the deep snoring giving signs that he lived.

“What kind of game is this?” Chris yelled at the stranger. “What’s wrong with him?”

“He’s been drinking heavily ever since he got the news.”

“What news?”

“That his sister died. He’d been working to keep her in a convent and she finally died last week from the influenza,” Clarence explained.

“He didn’t get any news like that last week! He just came from visiting her and he said she was just the same,” Chris replied. He leaned over and checked Josiah’s pulse, finding it strong under his fingertip. “You stay with him, I gotta go get Nathan.”

“You won’t find him,” the stranger called as the blond fled the tiny back room.

Chris ran to the livery and stared up at the staircase. There was no way that the healer was still living up there, he knew it but his heart refused to believe. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted, “Nathan! Nathan, where are you?”

“I tried to tell you, he’s not here,” Clarence said, as he seemed to just appear next to the blond.

“Then where is he? The reservation? Is that where he went?”

“The reservation is gone, the Indians left a long time ago. After Anderson didn’t get the gold he wanted, he killed a lot of them. The survivors fled.”

“Then where is he? Where is Nathan?” Chris demanded. Clarence turned and began to walk away. The angry blond followed him until they reached the cemetery. He almost objected until the stranger passed the fallen down picket fence and walked a little farther out. When he stopped, he pointed to a small pile of rocks holding up a battered wooden marker. Chris got closer and sank to his knees, gently taking hold of the rotting cross and pushing it upright so he could see the name carved there. His eyes widened as he read the unmistakable words, ‘Nathan Jackson.’

“What happened to him? When did he die?”

“He was hanged by a lynch mob after a man he was treating died of gangrene,” Clarence answered, his tone gentle.

“We stopped them from hanging him! Vin and I stopped them!” Chris said, shaking his head in disbelief as he stacked the rocks to hold the wooden cross upright again. “He can’t be dead!”

“You weren’t here to save him, Chris.”

The blond came to his feet, seething with rage. He grabbed the stranger again and jerked him close enough that he could feel his trembling breaths. “Where are Vin and Buck?”

“Which do you want to see first?”

“Buck, where is he? He’ll tell me where the others are. He’ll know what happened around here,” Chris said, confident of his words.

“We will need to ride a ways to find him,” Clarence said as Chris turned to see two horses walking toward them. He was comforted to see the familiar black gelding and caught hold of the bridle before running his hands over the animal to make sure he was alright. The other horse was unknown to him and he watched as Clarence wobbled unsteadily before getting his foot in the stirrup.

After the horses had settled into a ground-eating jog, Chris turned his active mind to trying to figure out what was happening. He toyed with the idea that he was hallucinating or dreaming but this felt too real. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched his riding companion. He was certain he hadn’t seen the man before but he seemed to know all of Chris’s friends.

“How far are we going?” he called toward Clarence.

“Red Fork, that’s where you’ll find your friend Buck. We need to hurry.”

The horses rode into Red Fork and stopped in front of the doctor’s office. Chris felt a whisper of fear brush across his skin as he swung down and wrapped his reins around the hitching post. He glared at the curious stares as he waited for the other man to reach his side. Clarence walked right up to the door and knocked. A woman opened the door hesitantly, peering out at the two men.

“What can I do for you?” she asked.

“We’re looking for a friend of mine, Buck Wilmington. Have you seen him?” Chris asked when Clarence said nothing.

“He’s here. How’d you find out about it?” the woman asked as she opened the door and stepped back to allow them to enter.

“About what?” Chris asked.

“He never mentioned any friends and there wasn’t anyone to send a wire to. Doc figured he didn’t have anyone.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was shot trying to rob the bank,” the woman answered, looking uneasy about having to tell.

“Why would Buck try to rob a bank?” Chris asked, feeling his stomach tighten.

“He was fooling around with Rachel Jamison. She talked him into helping her kill her husband Mark. I’d guess he was trying to get the money to run away with her.”

“Can I see him?”

The woman seemed torn for a moment before she turned and led them down a narrow hallway and into a room. There, on the bed, lay Buck. His skin glistened with sweat. A broad swath of bandage covered his abdomen. An older man looked up in surprise from where he was dozing in a rocking chair beside the bed.

“Who are you?” the man asked as he tossed a nervous glance at his patient.

“I’m a friend of his. How is he?” Chris asked as he moved up to the bed and brushed his palm across the sweaty brow.

“I’ve done all I can for him. I think the bullet nicked the intestine and the nearest surgeon is four days away,” the man answered, looking uneasily at the darkly clothed blond. “I’ll let you sit with him for a few minutes. I need to head for the outhouse.”

Once the door closed behind the pair, Chris gathered up one of Buck’s hands and sat on the side of the bed. On impulse, he reached for the basin of water and wrung out the cloth before bathing his friend. He shook his head as he thought of how many times he had warned his friend about messing with the married women. Buck shifted as if in pain and Chris spoke to him.

“Come on, Buck. Wake up and talk to me. Where is JD? Where’s Vin and Ezra? What happened? Tell me!”

“He can’t tell you, Chris, he doesn’t know,” Clarence prompted.

“What do you mean? He has to know where the others are!”

“He doesn’t know them. You weren’t there to save Nathan or the Seminole village. The Magnificent Seven never met.”

“That’s crazy! You’re crazy! I don’t know what’s happening to me but I’ll find the others,” Chris shouted angrily.

The doctor burst into the room and glared at Chris. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave now.”

“I’m not going anywhere until I can talk to my friend!”

“The sheriff is on his way here right now. Either you leave or I’ll have you arrested.”

Chris rose slowly and brushed his hand across his hip, realizing for the first time that he was unarmed. A moment later, a stout young man appeared behind the doctor, the wan light glinting off of the star on his chest. Somewhat deflated, Chris addressed Clarence.

“Do you know where the others are? Can you take me to them?”

“Yes, I can take you but they won’t know you either.”

With a massive sigh, Chris turned to Buck again. He brushed his palm across his brow again before turning abruptly toward the door. “I’ll be back to check on him,” he warned. The doctor nodded and moved quickly out of the way as the blond crossed to the door. The sheriff stepped back, his hand resting on the butt of his gun as he followed them out of the clinic. “What going to happen to him?” Chris asked when he reached the hitching post.

“He’ll stand trial. I imagine he’ll hang … if he lives.”

The ride out of Red Fork was made in silence. He was struggling to understand what Clarence had told him. If he wasn’t there to save Nathan and the Seminoles, did it really mean that the others wouldn’t have come together? Could he really have had that much of an impact? They rode until dark and stopped near a small stream. Clarence pulled a tin of stew from his saddlebag and set it near the fire to heat.

“You must have questions,” Clarence said to Chris as he dropped his saddle and sank to the ground near the fire.

“What did you mean about them not knowing each other? They were all there in town, they would have met even if I wasn’t there. Vin wouldn’t have let them hang Nathan.”

“Your friends are not the men they were. Buck drifted away after the war and never met JD or Vin. Without you and Sarah to provide an anchor, he eventually turned to a life of crime. Josiah drifted into town two days after the hanging and cut the body down. They wouldn’t let him bury a Negro in the cemetery, so he buried Nathan where you saw. Your life touched so many others that you haven’t even thought about yet,” Clarence said as he stirred the stew and dished it into two plates.

After they had eaten, Chris tried to sleep. His mind was filled with images. He saw vividly the sunset when Vin told him about the bounty on his head. He remembered when JD had fallen from that skittish little mare and landed in the horse trough. Anguish flooded his heart as he remembered the happy smile and warm hug Buck had given him after he fell from the porch roof in his long johns. One by one, his friend’s faces appeared in his mind and he wondered how he had influenced them, changed them, if what the stranger said was true.

The sky was just beginning to shift from darkest night to the first pale moments of dawn when Chris awoke and began to break camp. Clarence said nothing, he simply got up and rolled his blankets together. By the time there was enough light for the horses to safely be ridden, they were more than a mile from where they’d stopped. The area began to look familiar and Chris turned a questioning eye to his traveling companion.

“This is Guy Royal’s place, isn’t it?”

“Mr. Royal bought up a lot of land around here, including the former town.”

“So who’s here?”

“A few of your acquaintances found their way here,” Clarence cryptically replied.

Riding up on the sprawling house, Chris felt a little tense. He didn’t like it that he didn’t have his gun. To his surprise, Royal stepped out on the porch and greeted him with a smile.

“What can I do for you, Sir?” Mr. Royal asked as Chris swung down and gathered up his reins. No recognition lit the man’s face, certainly not the snarl he expected to see.

“I’m looking for a few friends of mine, Vin Tanner, JD Dunne and Ezra Standish. I was told that you might know where they were.”

“What’s your interest in Tanner?” Royal asked, raking Chris from head to toe.

“He’s a friend. I’ve been looking for him.”

“He hasn’t mentioned any friends.”

“Look, I know all about the bounty on him. I’m not interested in collecting on it. I just need to see him, to ask him a few questions.”

“I’m here, so ask,” a soft Texas drawl called from the corner of the house.

Chris felt his heart leap into his throat as he looked at the younger man. Vin had always exuded a calm, easygoing personality. The battered form before him now seemed on the verge of total collapse. A ragged scar ran from high on his forehead down along the outside of one eye, ending on the high cheekbone. That eye was cloudy and sightless. His shoulders were bowed and the lean that protected his curved spine was more pronounced.

“Vin,” Chris gasped softly. He started toward his friend only to stop when the tracker jerked back, fear shining in his remaining sighted eye. “What happened to you?” the blond asked in a gentle tone of voice.

“What do you mean?” Vin asked, shrinking against the wall at his side.

“Your … face,” Chris answered. He immediately regretted his words as Vin turned away in shame.

“Bounty hunters got hold of him,” Guy Royal answered as he stepped between Chris and Vin. “They had beaten him nearly to death before I caught the guy who framed him.”

“Eli Joe,” Chris remembered aloud.

“You know about it?”

“Eli Joe killed Jess Kincaid to get Vin off of his trail. I thought he was dead.”

“He is now. Some of my boys caught him and some others impersonating the marshals and turned them in. One of his men turned on him and told the judge how Eli Joe bragged on setting Tanner up for the murder. Vin was working for me before he was taken so I felt like I owed it to him to try to see him through,” Guy replied.

“How did you know about it, Mister?” Vin asked in his soft drawl.

“You … someone told me about it … a long time ago,” Chris lied.

“You said you knew him,” Royal said, fixing the blond man with a hard stare.

“I did … I do! Vin, I’m looking for JD and Ezra. Do you know where they are? Buck’s hurt real bad and laid up over in Red Fork and Josiah’s drinking himself stupid.”

A wary look filled Vin’s good eye as he looked from Clarence to Chris. “I don’t know about any of them other people.”

“Vin, take their horses on around to the stable and come back around. You’ll both stay to lunch, won’t you?” Guy asked as he started back onto his porch. “Come on in the house, he’ll be along in a little while.”

Following Royal into the house, Chris looked around curiously. The first time he’d had the misfortune of meeting up with the man, he was stealing things from the settlers and calling them ‘gifts.’ It appeared that he was still ‘collecting.’ The blond was roused from his musing by a familiar face.

“Mary?” he asked as she carried in a tray with a tea service on it. The pretty blonde woman looked scared as she set the tray down and shrank back from him.

“Do I know you?” she asked as she wrung her hands nervously.

“You used to run the Clarion News in town.”

“Yes, I did. But that doesn’t answer my question. Do I know you?” Mary asked as she moved to stand closer to Guy Royal.

“We met when I passed through the town,” Chris conceded, realizing that she didn’t know him any more than Vin or Josiah had.

Running footsteps came from the back of the house and Billy Travis raced into the room, shouting excitedly, “Ma! Ma! Where are you?” Royal turned and glared, freezing the child in the doorway.

“What have I told you about running and yelling in the house?” the rancher asked the boy.

“Sorry, Sir,” the contrite child mumbled. Vin stepped up behind the boy, distracting everyone for a moment.

“You wanted to talk to me some more?” he asked.

“Why don’t the two of you sit on the porch and discuss it while I see to Billy,” Royal said with a smile. Chris made note of the way Mary swallowed and her hands clenched in front of her while Billy’s lip trembled.

“That horse of yours is a real beauty!” Vin murmured as he waited for Chris to move. The blond looked long and hard at Royal before turning his attention to the young man who had been sheriff.

Taking a seat on the porch, Chris studied Vin. He could hardly reconcile his memory of the tracker with the beaten-down man seated before him who wouldn’t even meet his eye.

“Did you want to talk to me about something, Mister?”

“Do you know what happened to Buck?”

“I don’t know anyone named Buck,” Vin said, shaking his head.

“Buck Wilmington? Big guy with a mustache, always teased JD about his Bat Masterson hat, loves the ladies, you don’t remember him?”

“Sorry, I don’t know anyone by that name.”

“How did you come to be working here?”

“I stopped in that little town to give my horse a rest. Some fancy dressed riverboat gambler invited me to play cards with him and swindled me out of my cash. I didn’t have any choice but to take up working for Mr. Royal.”

“This gambler, he dressed in a red dove tail coat and have a gold tooth?” Chris asked.

“Yeah! You’ve seen him? Last I heard, he was doing five years at Yuma for some con that he and his Ma tried to pull in town. She lit out and left him holding the bag.”

Before he could ask any more questions, Mary opened the screen door and called to him, “Lunch is ready, if you’re hungry.”

“I’ll be right along, Mary,” Chris answered. “Vin, can I talk with you later this afternoon?”

“Sure, I have to finish in the stables and work Mr. Royal’s wagon team for a while but I can be around before supper,” he answered softly.

“I’ll come find you then,” Chris said as he watched the young man leave the porch and round the corner of the house.

At the table, Chris and Clarence sat opposite of Billy and Mary. When Guy dropped his chin to bless the meal, the blond took advantage of the moment to study the boy. Billy’s eyes were puffy and red from crying. He tried to hold his temper until he could figure out what was happening with them.

Conversation at the table turned to cattle ranching and Chris felt comfortable enough to broach the subject of what happened to the town. Guy informed him that the town wasn’t worth the wood and nails that went into building it. He and Stuart James had bought up all of the surrounding property and, after Mr. Potter was killed and his wife and children fled back east, the town had simply died a slow death.

“That must have been hard for you, Mary. I know how you wanted a nice, safe place to raise your son. Do you still keep in touch with Judge Travis?”

“Oh! Umm, my father in law … died … a couple of years ago,” she quickly explained.

“He got shot by the man that killed Mr. Potter,” Billy added, his voice awed.

“But he recovered from that,” Chris mumbled under his breath. He remembered how they had buried an empty coffin to fake the older man’s death.

“Billy, please don’t bring up things like that at the table,” Mary chided.

When the meal was finished, Guy invited Chris and Clarence to stay overnight since it looked like a storm was coming in from the south. Taking him up on his offer, Chris was shown to a room. Feeling suddenly exhausted, he lay down for a quick nap. When he awoke, it was to raised voices in the master bedroom across the hall.

“But he’s just a little boy!” Mary protested.

“I won’t have him behaving like a wild animal in my home!” Royal growled.

“Please, please don’t hurt him again!”

The door closed and then Mary’s sobs were covered by the heavy footfalls down the hall. Chris slipped his boots on and hurried to follow him. He reached the back porch just in time to see Royal dragging Billy toward the smokehouse. When he reached the small building, he heard the strap falling and the boy’s muffled cries. Starting around the corner, he ran into Vin, who was also quietly listening to the whipping.

“Don’t try to stop him, you’ll only make it harder on the kid,” Vin whispered before he shoved Chris toward the barn. The blond was too stunned by the action to resist. When they reached the inside of the tack room, Tanner stopped.

“How often does that happen?” Chris demanded to know.

“ ‘Bout once a week,” Vin replied.

“And Mary doesn’t stop it?”

“She tried one time. He beat her up so bad that she lost the baby she was carryin’ and almost died. She’s too afraid of him now.”

“Why doesn’t she take the boy and leave?”

“He told her that he’d hunt her down and kill Billy in front of her. She won’t even come out of the house without his permission any more.”

“Just answer me one question. Why didn’t you stop them from hanging Nathan?”

“I tried. Got myself dragged behind a horse for interfering. Woulda died if it hadn’t been for the Seminoles. They patched me up and took care of me for a few days. Then that crazy Colonel came and killed most of ‘em.”

With a heavy heart, Chris returned to the house. Finding himself alone in the living room with Clarence, he lashed out. “I can’t believe this is all my fault! I didn’t do anything special. How could so much change just because of me?”

“Each life touches so many others. Without you to bring them all together, they just never connected. You were the catalyst for their union,” the stranger answered gently.

“What about Ezra? Is he still in Yuma prison? You know, don’t you?”

“Yes, he’s still there. But he won’t live to finish his sentence.”

“What do you mean? What’s going to happen to him?” Chris asked, coming to his feet and towering over the seated man.

“He makes a losing gamble and is killed trying to escape.”


“In a few days,” Clarence answered.

“We gotta stop him,” Chris said. He saddled both horses as quickly as he could.

They were about half way to Yuma, nearing dusk, when they came upon the small posse of Texas Rangers. From the look of things, they had been attacked. A single tent was set up near the fire. Chris hailed them and rode in to see what had happened. Staring down the barrels of an assortment of weapons, he held out his hands to show that he was unarmed.

“Where are you headed?” a man wearing Captain’s bars called brusquely.

“Yuma prison, got a friend there I need to see,” Chris answered evenly. “What happened?”

“Bunch of renegade Indians attacked. Took our pack animals and most of our provisions. Got two of my men.”

“Anything we can do to help?”

“Not really. Miller will be alright and Dunne will be dead by morning, he’s bleeding inside.”

“Dunne? JD Dunne?” Chris asked, suddenly feeling weak in the knees.

“You know the kid?” the captain asked, seeing the stricken look on the blond man’s face.

“Can I see him?” Chris asked. He waited for the Ranger to nod before crossing the camp and entering the tent. JD was propped up against his saddle. A tell-tale wheeze and bluish tint to his pale skin told the story of his internal injuries. “Aw hell, JD,” he moaned as he knelt between the injured men. JD’s eyes opened and he looked up, pain etched deeply in his expression.

“Do I know you?” JD whispered breathlessly.

“JD, what happened?”

“Fanned my gun,” he answered.

“Buck told you not to do that, didn’t he?” Chris managed as his eyes filled with tears.

“Who?” JD asked before he began to cough, bringing up blood and crying out in pain. The blond pulled the kid up and cradled him until his breathing eased. When he settled JD against the saddle again, his eyes were closed. The light glinted dully off of the Ranger’s badge on his shirt.

Wandering out of the tent, in shock, Chris stumbled to his knees near the fire. “How in the hell did he end up riding with the Texas Rangers?”

“It was either take him in or shoot him,” the captain replied, pushing a small flask of warm whiskey into his hand. “Damned kid rode out from back east after his momma died. Rode into the fort on this little glue bait mare with a sissified English saddle and a bowler hat. Only had the one suit of clothes and a couple of changes of under clothes. Said we were too late to stop a lynching in some little town. Jones took a shine to the kid, he was teaching him the ropes. That’s him over there. He’s gonna take it real hard when the kid dies.”

Chris sat up all night beside JD, anguish eating him up inside. If Buck and JD had just gotten together, neither of them would be in such dire straights. Just as the sky was taking on the ambiguous gray of early morning, JD’s breathing became even more labored. Chris picked up the kid’s hand and squeezed it tightly. The brown eyes opened, looked around in confusion and then went unfocused as his last breath rattled away. Unashamed of the tears that streaked his face, Chris gently closed the unseeing eyes and drew the blanket over his face.

The Rangers dug a grave and gathered stones to cover it. Chris stood silently as the others walked away. Clarence wandered up and he glared at the man. “This is what he wanted to do with his life. How could he get killed like that?”

“It may have been what he wanted but it was not what was meant to be. He was meant to ride with six other men who would teach him to survive out here. If you intend to see Ezra before …” Clarence prompted.

They rode all day and into the night trying to get to the prison before Ezra made his ill fated escape attempt. Clarence seemed unperturbed about it but Chris was worried almost sick. He had come to like the southern gambler in the time they had been together. He was furious with him when he found out that Ezra had tried to slip out on them but he had more than made up for his transgression since then. Chris had always suspected that Maude would sell him out if she got in a pinch and he was glad that Ezra had decided to stay in town with them.

The walls of the prison were in sight and Chris slowed his horse to a stealthy walk. Clarence said that Ezra would try to come out on the southwest side of the prison, near the privy. Tying the horses in the woods, Chris crept up on the spot his odd companion had indicated and hunkered down to wait. It wasn’t long until he heard a board being pulled out and saw the outline of four or five men sneaking out. Just as the blond rose to call out to Ezra, they were surrounded by guards on horses. The prisoners made a break for it and shots rang out. Chris was tackled before he could get off a shot. A hard right to his jaw sent him into oblivion.

When he opened his eyes, he was lying on the ground with his hands tied behind his back. The sun had been up for a couple of hours from the look of it and he could see three men digging holes. Beyond the holes, he could just make out three shroud-covered bodies. His heart clenched as he realized that one of them was probably Ezra. He heard another group moving and struggled to turn over so he could see. To his surprise, the southerner was being led across the compound by his bound hands. Before he could appreciate his relief, Chris was horrified to see Ezra strung up by his hands and a man approaching him with a whip.

“No!” he screamed, struggling to his feet. A guard jogged over and struck him in the back of the leg, driving him to his knees as the first lash fell across Ezra’s back. The guard’s hand gripped the collar of Chris’s shirt, preventing him from rising and forcing him to watch. Ezra’s feet flailed uselessly. The man with the whip waited until he stopped struggling before laying a second lash across the first. Ezra’s scream rent the air and caused several birds to flee from the nearby trees. “Leave him alone!” Chris yelled. Another lash landed on the bound southerner and Chris managed to jerk free of the restraining hand. Before he regained his feet, a blow struck the back of his head, knocking him out again.

When he opened his eyes again, he was free. Clarence was holding his arm, steadying him as they stood outside of the prison gates. A fourth body had joined the other three and Chris gasped in agony as he realized that Ezra was dead.

“No! I can’t be responsible for this! Please Clarence, tell me this isn’t my fault!”

“You wished to trade places. You asked that it be you instead of Sarah and Adam. It’s really strange that your wish would be granted, two for one as it were,” the man said sadly.

“Sarah! She’s alive isn’t she? Where is she? I have to see her!”

“No, I’m afraid I can’t allow that. It would drive her mad to see you alive.”

“Please! Please let me see her! I won’t speak to her. I have to see her,” Chris begged. “And Adam? I need to see my son. Please Clarence!”

His chin dipped for a moment and a low rumble of thunder rang overhead. The stranger lifted his head and addressed the clouds overhead, “I know, I know!” Setting his foot in the stirrup, he pulled up into the saddle and motioned for Chris to follow. Taking one final look at the smaller shrouded body on the ground, the blond brushed away a tear.

When Clarence led him to the saloon in the nearest town, Chris thought that maybe he was being denied the chance to see Sarah.

“You may see your wife for a few minutes and then we must go. I have already overstepped my bounds in allowing you to contact the others.”

He saw her. Sarah placed a tray of empty drink glasses on the bar and turned to face him. A wan smile pulled across her face and she approached him.

“Can I get you something to drink, Honey?” she asked seductively.

It hit him like a fist. His beautiful Sarah was selling her body. When his jaw tightened and he didn’t say anything, she sighed and moved to another customer. The man grinned, his tobacco stained teeth making Chris’s stomach turn. When the man rose and pulled the lovely brunette toward the balcony steps he couldn’t take anymore.

“What have I done, Clarence? Sarah shouldn’t have to do this. She wouldn’t be doing this if I’d left things alone. What happened to her? What happened to Hank?”

“Hank Connelly was killed when he challenged a man in the street one day. Sarah had no money and no means of supporting herself. She never married, never had a child.”

“She’d be in Heaven now, wouldn’t she, with Adam? She wouldn’t be sad or hurting anymore.”

“In Heaven there is no pain or sadness, Chris,” Clarence said with a smile.

“I don’t want them to go through this. Can you undo it? Can you make it like it was before? Can you let her go … to Heaven? And bring Nathan, Ezra and JD back? Please?”

A rumble of thunder rolled across the sky and Chris flinched as fat, cold raindrops landed on his prone body. As soon as he moved, pain made him gasp and reach for his head. Making it to his knees, he held his stomach with one arm and his head with the other. A goose egg on the back of his head made him wince as his fingers brushed over it. The rain grew heavier and he stumbled to his feet. In the distance, he could see his shack. His vision blurred and he scrubbed at his eyes with his balled up hands. Before it could vanish again, he began to walk toward it. A dark horse appeared in the sheets of rain and he stopped to see who it was. Vin reached the porch and slid out of the saddle, tying Peso to the rail as he shook the water from his coat and hat.

His eyes hungrily took in every line of the tracker’s face as he slowly approached, heedless of the fact that he was soaked to the skin.

“Shoulda brought the soap out if you were planning on takin’ a shower, Cowboy,” Vin called. He smiled, that calm, easygoing smile.

Chris stumbled as he stepped up onto the tiny porch and Vin caught him. The blond reached out and swept the soaked slouch hat back and stared into the tracker’s eyes as his thumb brushed over the area where the scar had been.

“Are you alright, Chris? You look like you saw a ghost.”

Remembering all the things he’d seen, Chris shuddered. “We have to get to town!”

“It’s pouring rain! Can’t it wait ‘til the rain slows?”

“Vin, I have to get into town! I have to see Nathan! And JD and Ezra!” Chris called as he burst into the shack and scrounged around for his boots. He grabbed his guns and slung them around his waist and plucked his duster from the nail by the door. When he got outside, Vin had already saddled Pony and was waiting for him.

They reached the saloon just as the rain was letting up. Chris leapt down before the horse even stopped and splashed through the mud, nearly falling, as he ran for the boardwalk. Vin shook his head as he reached out and caught Pony and steered him to the livery. Yosemite took both horses and led them to their stalls while yelling for his helpers to bring rags to dry them off.

As soon as he entered the saloon, the knot of fear in his chest loosened. All five men looked up from where they sat around the table on the raised dais playing cards. Buck searched his friend’s face, surprised to see him. He had known when Chris rode out the night before that he wouldn’t be seeing him for a couple of days at best.

“Chris? Are you alright?” Buck asked as he hesitantly came to his feet. The blond swayed on his feet as he stood staring at them without answering. The ladies’ man stepped down and crossed to where Chris stood dripping a puddle on the floor. “Chris?”

It didn’t matter that folks would talk. Chris threw his arms around Buck and slapped him on the back. As the cold of the rain finally began to affect him, he shook uncontrollably.

“Nathan!” Buck called as Chris’s knees folded and he found himself supporting his friend. The healer leapt over the low railing and raced over as Buck eased Chris into a chair. Vin strolled in and immediately moved to see what had happened.

“Is he alright?” Vin asked as Nathan peered into closed hazel eyes.

“Don’t know just yet. What was he doing when you found him?”

“Walking in the rain. I tried to get him to stay at the shack until it stopped but he said he had to get to town to see you and Ezra about something.”

“Here, try this,” Ezra suggested as he held out a shot glass of his best whiskey. Nathan took the glass and passed it under the blond man’s nose. Surprisingly, Chris stirred and tried to sit up. “Never ceases to amaze me how he responds to alcohol,” the gambler said in a sarcastic tone.

“Ezra,” Chris called as his eyes struggled to focus and his teeth chattered with a life all their own. He pulled against Nathan and levered himself to his feet, only to teeter for a moment before grabbing Ezra and wrapping both arms around him.

“MR. LARABEE! I must protest in the strongest terms! This jacket is wool and you are soaking wet! I know that you don’t particularly care for your haberdashery, but I do not want mine ruined!”

“It’s good to see you too, Ezra,” Chris replied as he let go of the smaller man. His eyes searched for a moment before focusing on JD. “Come here, Kid,” he called. JD stepped closer and found himself being embraced by the very odd acting gunslinger. He expected this behavior from Buck but not from Chris, not ever.

After Chris had embraced each of them at least once, he allowed Nathan to lead him to the clinic. He submitted to an exam, hissing as the healer found the knot on his head. He gratefully drank the foul smelling tea and sank into a deep, dreamless sleep under three quilts warmed near the fire. Nathan was preparing to return to the saloon when he noticed a vague shadow in the corner of the room. Scrubbing at his eyes, he looked again and it was gone. Tucking the blanket under Chris’s chin, he got up and went to the door.

Clarence smiled as he watched the blond man sleep. He would be in trouble when he got back, certainly Saint Peter and Gabriel would scold him for what he had done. Crossing to the bedside, he touched his palm to Chris’s forehead and removed the memory of Sarah selling her body to support herself. The rest of the memories he left intact. Chris needed to see how important each of them was to the others.