Main Characters: Chris, Vin, Seven
Comments: For Becky, who asked me to hurt Vin for her.
Warnings: I suppose technically this is a death fic. Maybe. You decide . . .
PROLOGUE (Late 1800's):
The wind whipped the black duster around the ankles of the tall, blond man, but he paid it no mind. His eyes were glued to the solitary cross before him. Every letter of the name etched in wood seared his heart like the raw burning pain of a branding iron. It couldn't be true. Even though he'd held his friend in his arms as he took his last breath, he could not believe he was gone.
“You gotta stop doing this,” a low voice behind him pleaded. “He wouldn't want this. He wouldn't want you to grieve like this, to give up on – on everything.”
“Well, what he would want doesn't really matter any more, does it?” the man in black responded, still not turning away from the grave site.
His old friend cleared his throat and spoke again. “What about the ranch? What do you wanna do about that?”
“Let it go. Nothing good can happen here. Not now. Not ever.”
The voice moved closer, just inches behind his shoulder now. “You and him spent the better part of twenty years building this place up. You just gonna walk away? That the legacy you're gonna leave for him?”
He didn't answer because there were no words. The thought of spending another moment in that house, on this land, without his partner, was unbearable. Especially knowing, as he did know so surely and so terribly, that it was his fault. His friend was dead because of him.
How many times had the man teased him about his impatience? But on that day, on that awful day, his friend had not been teasing – he'd almost begged in fact. “Don't go t' town today – my back is achin' somethin' fierce,” he'd said. “Wait a few days, and I'll come along.”
But he was impatient, restless, so he'd gone anyway.
And he'd returned to find their prize mare stolen and his partner bleeding out behind a haystack in the barn.
The local healer, a kind, dark-skinned man they'd known for years, had done his best; had stayed with them for two days while the injured man fought like the devil to hang on. But in the end, the light had faded from the blue eyes, the hand that gripped his own grew limp, and there was nothing left except a bitter, gaping hole.
The voice dragged him back to the present. “He ain't never gonna rest in peace if you don't let this go, Pard.”
“Then he'll never rest in peace,” the blond answered. He added under his breath, “And neither will I.”
Nathan tried to swat away the irritating knocking noise in his head, but it refused to be silenced. So with a deep groan of resentment, he rolled over, opened his eyes and stared at the clock. Just past two in the morning, and now the bam, bam, bam was louder and more insistent. Alright then, apparently he wasn't dreaming after all. Apparently there really was some fool interrupting his much needed rest.
It had been a hell of a week. Three late nights of surveillance had yielded a lot of nothing, but they'd hit pay dirt on the fourth. Success didn't come without a cost, though. JD would be laid up for several weeks with broken ribs, Ezra suffered a mild concussion, and Josiah had taken a bullet in the shoulder. It had taken Nathan all of the previous night and most of the following day to get everyone settled to his satisfaction. Fortunately, Rain was off visiting her sister in Sacramento for the week, so he had been looking forward to coming home and sleeping for two days straight.
Or not. Desperation now in the banging on his front door, and he wondered how long it would take for his neighbors to call the police or for the door to come off the hinges. Either way, Rain wouldn't be happy.
“Damn it, Buck,” he muttered as he padded across the cold floor to the entrance of his home. “You better not've locked yourself out of the house again.”
But it wasn't Buck. It was Chris. “I need you, Nathan,” he said, his white breath billowing like smoke in the cold night air.
It wasn't the words so much as the look in his eyes that made Nathan's heart thump wildly in his chest. Only one man could put that desperation in Chris Larabee's eyes, though he doubted their leader had acknowledged that even to himself. As he turned back towards his bedroom, Nathan called over his shoulder, “Which hospital? Why didn't you call? What did the damn fool do n-”
But Chris gripped his arm. “No hospital. No doctor. Only you.” He added in a choked off whisper, “Hurry.”
He wanted to argue, but something in Chris's tone frightened him so badly, all he could do was nod dumbly. Something big going on - something big and bad. Real bad, considering the way Chris was running his hands through his hair and shifting from foot to foot impatiently.
Nathan pulled on his jeans and reached for his medical bag without asking if it was needed. As he moved towards the door, he noticed that Chris was suddenly standing stock still, his gaze fixed on some far off place.
The other man swallowed and finally met his eyes. “I'm scared, Nathan.”
There's a first for everything, or so the saying goes. But Nathan had never thought he'd hear those words from this man in his lifetime. Never wanted to because that would mean that everything he thought he knew and understood was just wrong. If someone had informed him that the world really was flat, he'd have felt less confused and unsettled than hearing Chris Larabee's quietly stated admission.
Reassurances remained unspoken; he wouldn't insult Chris like that. Any situation that put that kind of look on that kind of man could not easily be remedied or set right, so he wouldn't waste his breath promising as much. Instead, he said, “Take me to him.”
Chris nodded and seemed to pull himself together, for the moment at least. But he hesitated again after they got in the car. “I'm not sure,” he said, “that it's right to put you in the middle of this. You, of all of us . . . you have a wife to think of . . . and a child on the way . . .”
Nathan wasn't sure whether he was touched or irritated, but he suspected the later came through in his voice when he snapped, “Vin's hurt, ain't he?” Probably protecting those damn kids in his neighborhood again, he added in his head.
Rubbing his forehead, Chris answered on a sigh, “Yeah.” But he looked at Nathan as he turned the key in the ignition and added, “It's not what you think. I wish it was.”
They rode in silence then, though a thousand questions raced through Nathan's mind. How bad was Vin hurt? What was Chris worried about putting him in the middle of? And perhaps most importantly, what could possibly make Chris Larabee's hands shake so as he drove?
Nathan had almost decided he'd be better off remaining blissfully ignorant for as long as he could when he realized that they had passed the turnoff to Vin's apartment and the highway to the ranch. “Chris? Where is he?”
“You remember that old ranch-house we discovered last month?”
He remembered. They'd found the abandoned homestead while they were looking for a shipment of weapons that had supposedly been hidden in the area. They never did find the weapons, but he remembered JD saying the decaying structure had to be haunted. But surely Chris wasn't implying . . .?
“You don't mean – Vin's not – he's not there?”
“He didn't know where else to go,” Chis replied softly. He added in an even lower voice, “And I don't know where else to take him.”
“What the hell is going on?”
Once again, Chris lifted a shaking hand to run through his hair. “I don't know all of it. Gonna need Buck. Josiah and JD are out. Maybe in a few days, maybe Ezra can – if we haven't figured it out by then.” He was rambling to himself, as if Nathan wasn't even in the car.
“Chris,” Nathan said gently, “can you please just start at the beginning?”
“Might be best if you just take care of him tonight – give him what you can to hold him over for a few days. Might be best if you don't know anything at all. Yeah. Might be the best thing. Get you in and out. Vin can hold on,” Chris mumbled. “He can. He will.”
“Damn it, Chris!” Nathan hollered, angry now that he apparently wouldn't even be given a choice in the matter. “I'm part of this team, and whatever's got you worked up and Vin hurt is on my shoulders, too. Don't make a difference if I got a wife and seven kids, I'm part of this team. You got that?”
But Chris didn't respond as he pulled the car to an abrupt halt on the dirt road. “We'll walk the rest of the way,” was all he offered.
It was cold. Too damn cold to be walking down a country road in the black of night with a medical bag in one hand and his gun in the other. Nathan rarely carried his weapon when he wasn't on the job, but the way Chris had been acting, he wasn't taking any chances.
But they made it to the house without incident, Chris's long legs moving quicker now that they could see the structure. It was an eery sight, the way the tall chimney stood stark and proud against the full moon. Nathan shuddered; JD was right, the place looked haunted. Not a single light was on inside, prompting him to ask with a sinking heart, “No electricity?”
“Got some lanterns inside. Flashlights, blankets . . .” Chris's voice trailed off.
This wasn't going to work, Nathan said to himself. If Vin had lost any blood at all, if his lungs were the least bit compromised, if there was the slightest possibility of infection, he couldn't remain in a damp, dark, cold place for more than a couple of hours, let alone a couple of days. And he'd have to be the one to put a stop to it – whatever it was. Have to be the voice of reason, as usual.
Chris led them around to the back of the home, stopping at an old screen door set deep in an alcove. The slow squeak of rusty hinges seemed absurdly loud in the dark silence, until Chris called out in a low voice, “Chris coming in.”
There was no response to that, no indication at all that anyone was in the house, and Nathan sensed the barely constrained panic in the man just ahead of him. “Vin? Vin?” Chris called out in a loud whisper, as if they were in the middle of a crowded library rather than an empty house in an empty field perched on an empty mountain top.
A soft moan drifted from somewhere down the hall, followed by a weak hiss that might have been Chris's name, and Nathan's stomach dropped another notch. So Vin wasn't on his feet and barely able to speak, by the sound of it. Yeah, he'd put a stop to this and quick. What good was a safe haven if a man was near dead to start with?
But he tried to keep positive as they approached a small parlor-type area that was cloaked in the shadows of a single oil lamp. It felt odd, like he'd stepped back in time to someone's home, and he shook off a chill. He quickly made out Vin lying on the floor near an old stone fireplace, and he was about to call out his name, but Chris pushed him back into the shadows and whispered, “Let me talk to him first.”
“Hey Pard,” Chris said then, his voice calm and reassuring, though Nathan knew it for the lie that it was. “You holdin' on?”
Vin groaned, and it seemed to take a long time for him to answer. “Don't want you in this. Shouldn't have called you.”
Chris gripped his injured friend's forearm. “You did the right thing. We're gonna get you out of this, you hear me?”
Nathan was about to interrupt when Chris continued, “Now I know you don't want us involved. I know you think there's no way around this without someone else getting hurt, but I happen to have a plan. You trust me?”
“Yeah,” Vin grunted, like it hurt to even breathe, and Nathan nearly leaped from the shadows, Chris Larabee be damned.
“Alright. I brought Nathan to-”
“No! No!” Vin yelled on a sudden surge of strength.
“Vin! It's gonna be alright,” Chris said in a hurry, both hands on Vin's shoulders now. “Calm down and listen to me. He's -”
But Vin wasn't listening as he moaned repeatedly, “No, no, no.”
“Let me at him,” Nathan ordered. And this time it was he who pushed Chris away. “Vin? Vin look at me and listen to me. I don't know what you got into, but I ain't gonna ride away now and leave you lyin' here in pain. So you can let me get on with this, or I can stand here and wait for you t' pass out. Either way, I'm in it now, and I'm not leavin' til I take care of you.” Or get you out of here, he added in his head. He turned to Chris then and stated, “I need more light and we have got to get some heat in here.”
Their leader, who up until an hour ago Nathan had considered the most fearless man on earth, blew out a breath and ran his hands through his hair again. “We can't let anyone know we're here. The smoke from the chimney -”
“It's three am, Chris, and we didn't see a soul on our way here. Build a fire.” He added for good measure, “Now.” Then he sucked in a breath, knelt down next to their fallen teammate, and prayed that no one noticed the tremor in his voice or the trembling of his hands. Someone had to be strong here. But then he pulled back the blanket that covered Vin's shuddering torso, and he knew that it sure as hell wasn't going to be him.
Vin tried not to react when Nathan ran his practiced hands over the fiery knot that sat low on his left side, but he couldn't keep his back from arching off the icy cold floor. Couldn't hold in the cry of pain that rolled from his traitorous lips, either.
“Easy, Vin.” It was Chris, kneeling on the other side of him. The man's strong hand rested on the top of his head, and the agony eased long enough for him to catch his breath.
“There's a bullet in there,” Nathan said through clenched teeth. Vin could feel the anger in a man who was normally understanding to a fault, and that almost hurt more, felt worse than the chunk of lead currently taking up residence in his body.
It took all he had to keep his eyes open and his mind focused on the conversation, but he needed to be alert for this; needed to make sure Nathan got out of there as quick as he could. Somehow, he had to convince the medic that he wasn't all that bad off, even though he knew it wasn't so. He was a dead man, anyway, but his friends probably wouldn't accept that right off – and they sure as hell weren't going down with him. Not if he could help it.
“Can you get it out?” Chris asked, like he was talking about a splinter or a loose tooth.
Nathan jumped to his feet. “Are you insane?”
Now Chris got to his feet, as well, though unlike Nathan, his voice remained low and even. “Do you think I'd have brought you out here if there was another choice? Do you think I'd let my friend lie here with a bullet in his side if I knew another way?”
“My God, Chris, my God,” Nathan moaned as he turned away. But he quickly turned back and argued, “This ain't a simple knife wound that I can stitch up. Ain't a sprain that I can pack with ice or even a fracture that I can keep immobilized for a day or two. This is – this is life and death.”
“I know.” Chris's voice cracked in the middle of the two soft words, and Vin thought his own heart might break clean in two at the sound.
He had to put a stop to it before it got any worse, he didn't want to leave this world knowing he'd caused trouble between his brothers. “It's alright, Nate,” he said. “You don't gotta worry none. Chris can – can take me t' town tomorrow. Things should be settled by then.”
Chris turned to look at him, and now he was angry, too. “You know damn well nothing's gonna be taken care of by tomorrow, unless you're planning on dying by then. And if that's the case, you're gonna be disappointed, Tanner, because I won't let you. You hear me? I won't let you.”
Just like Chris to think he had control here. He should never have called him, never have involved him at all; should've just laid down and died and been done with it.
“Now look,” Nathan raised his voice again, “you all got a big advantage over me. If you want my help then you're gonna have to be straight with me. I don't know why you can't take Vin to the hospital where he belongs, I don't know why he's lying in this run-down shack, and I sure as hell don't know why he's got a bullet in him or who the hell put it there.”
“He's right, Chris. He's in it now, and he deserves t' know.”
Chris squatted down on his heels. “You sure, Vin? This how you want it to go?”
No, Vin thought, this wasn't how he wanted it to go at all. But Chris had taken the choice out of his hands, and his frustration with that simple fact gave him the energy to speak again. “You're the one that brought him here. You expect him t' – t' put his life on the line without knowin' why?”
He didn't know if it was what he'd said or how he'd said it, but Nathan visibly softened and sat back down on the floor next to him. “I trust you, Vin, and I know you'd never risk my life if you didn't have a good reason. But see, the thing is, I care for you. And I'm pretty sure you're gonna die here if we don't get you some help. So what I wanna know is why I'm about to lose my good friend – help me understand that.”
“I think I killed a man tonight, Nathan. A good man. One of - one of us,” Vin whispered, the words snagging in his throat. He still couldn't believe what he'd seen, what he'd done. He held his breath and closed his eyes, but he couldn't hold back the bitter memories any more than he could the white hot pain that lanced his side.
Just that quick, Chris was there again, one hand on his head, the other on his shoulder. With a gentle squeeze, he let Vin know that he'd take it from there. “You know that hotshot DA, Jack Nichols?” he asked Nathan.
“Yeah, of course I do. Man's in the paper most every day for one thing or another.”
“He's got a son named David, a rising star over in the 23rd precinct.”
“Yeah, I heard of him, too. Folks say he's on the fast track to Deputy Chief. Why? What have they got to do with this?”
“One of Vin's neighbors saw something going down a few blocks from his apartment last night, so he went to check it out.”
“Without back-up, of course,” Nathan muttered.
Vin thought he'd like to defend himself, like to point out that the kids in his neighborhood asked for his help for anything from finding a missing pup to breaking up a gang fight. But the ache was turning into something ugly and fierce, and there was no way he could keep it from his voice, so he let Chris continue.
“I don't think he had a clue what he was walking into. In fact, I'm sure he didn't expect to find David Nichols making a weapons deal with Lucas James.”
“Oh shit,” Nathan cursed quietly as he stood up and paced across the small room three times. After blowing out a long breath, he turned back to Chris and asked, “Whose dead?”
“Vin shot Nichols in self-defense, except he was a fraction too slow. Nichols' partner killed at least one of the James gang in the resulting fire storm. Vin's not sure about any others.”
Nathan shook his head. “I don't understand any of this. How could he just walk in on a deal like that? And what were they doing in Purgatorio?”
Vin had wondered the same thing. It could have been a set-up or he could have just gotten lucky – or more like unlucky. But either way, he'd made a rookie mistake and completely underestimated the situation. He figured he must have been spotted a block before he even entered the old theater, and by then, it was far too late.
“That's exactly what I'd like to know and I intend to find out. But in the meantime, both sides are likely to be after Vin. And I expect they'll shoot first and ask questions later.”
“Maybe David Nichols was undercover?” Nathan suggested hopefully. “Maybe there was a misunderstanding. Vin can't be held accountable for shooting a man in self-defense. Hell, he's got the bullet in him to prove it! We can explain this. We can – we can -”
But Chris stood up now and gripped his arm. “What do you think the DA's gonna do if Vin tries to claim that his son was a dirty cop? The man all but officially has his hat in the ring for the Senate. And what about the men that were with him? You think they're gonna let Vin live long enough to tell the law what he saw? Then there's Lucas, who works for his uncle, Stuart James – and he isn't exactly known for being smart or reasonable. Don't matter whether it was Vin's fault, the deal went bad because he was there. Both sides got a claim against him.”
“Listen, Chris,” Nathan lowered his voice, and Vin had to strain to hear him, “we can check him into Denver Memorial under an assumed name, get him the help he needs. Travis will help us, he'll have an idea.”
“The minute Vin sets foot in Denver, they'll kill him,” Chris said with conviction.
That was true enough. Although Vin figured he'd be dead soon anyway. The bullet must not have hit anything too vital or he'd be dead now, but he was fading fast. The long sprint he'd made to his jeep after the shooting and the subsequent ride out of town had taken every ounce of strength he'd possessed. He didn't even want to think about the amount of blood that probably stained the seat of his jeep. JD would never get the smell out, which was a damn shame because he'd left the jeep to the kid in his will.
He didn't know why he'd come to the deserted ranch. It just seemed like the right thing to do. When they'd searched the place the previous month, he'd had the odd feeling that he'd been there before, though he knew it wasn't possible. How he'd managed to find the place again, bleeding like he was, his head swimming, was another mystery that he had no energy to think on at the moment.
Biting his lip against pain that was rapidly blossoming into something deep and vital, he peered through the shadows at his two friends. They were facing off - hands on hips, lips drawn in tight lines.
It seemed to take a long time for Nathan to reply, but when he did, his voice was clear and equally certain. “He will die here, Chris.”
This time when Chris spoke, his voice was so thin it barely registered in the thick cloak of cold air and deep shadows. “Give me another idea. Anything.”
But Nathan had nothing. That was clear in the way he lowered his head and rubbed his eyes. “I don't know how to take out a bullet.”
“How long can he live with it in?” It was just like Chris to measure it out that way, to try to turn it into a black and white equation: 45 caliber slug plus hole in the left side equals ten hours and twenty-five minutes.
It didn't matter, Vin thought. This was a no-win situation. He couldn't defend himself without bringing down the wrath of the Nichols and James families. But good God, he hurt; felt like a boulder was sitting under his skin. And now that Nathan was here, he wanted to beg the man to just cut the damn thing out, and then he could go. Go back to his beautiful wife and soon-to-be-born son.
“I'm not God, Chris. I don't predict and I don't guarantee,” Nathan finally replied. “But I can tell you this, the longer that bullet's in there, the less time he has and the more pain he's in for.”
Chris gripped the dark forearm. “Then do it, Nathan. Cut it out, patch him up, leave us some pain killers and antibiotics, and go. When morning comes and all hell breaks loose, you don't know anything.”
Yes, Vin thought, yes – this was why Chris was the best friend he'd ever known.
“And then what? What happens to you and Vin while the rest of us are playing stupid?”
Vin turned his head towards Chris, waiting for his answer. Chris met his eyes and said slowly, “If we can't figure it out in the next day or two, Vin and I may have to disappear for awhile.”
He got it then. In spite of the unrelenting throbbing in his side and the increasing cloudiness in his brain, he understood exactly what Chris was proposing. They'd run. Together. Chris would essentially give up his life for him.
Well that wasn't gonna happen.
He'd best die quick.
Chris knew the moment that Nathan's mind was made up, though he couldn't take any credit for the man's change of heart. It was Vin, begging them both not to sacrifice their lives for him, that did it. Nathan dropped to his knees, gripped Vin's shoulder and said, “I can't leave you like this. God knows I may do more harm than good, but I gotta do something, I gotta try.”
It was clearly becoming harder for Vin to find the energy to speak, but he managed to argue weakly, “Don't let Larabee talk you into somethin' you don't wanna do. I don't want you blamin' yourself if it goes wrong. Hell, I got myself into this.”
Yes, he had, Chris thought in a moment of irrational anger. Damn the man for always sticking his noble nose where it didn't belong. But the emotion was short-lived. Vin was either set-up or incredibly unlucky. He was also in serious trouble. With Jack Nichols already planning a major political campaign, there was no way he'd let his son's death be anything other than heroic. And Stuart James had managed to elude the authorities for years, using his nephew, Lucas, to do the dirty work. How and why the two formidable forces had come together was something Chris just couldn't get a handle on. All he knew for certain was that if Vin lived long enough to testify – which was highly unlikely, even if he didn't have a bullet in his side – he'd be discredited, or worse, convicted.
No, he couldn't let anyone get near Vin until he figured it all out. And if he couldn't figure it out – well, between the two of them, they could find a way to disappear into the landscape for as long as it took. Leaving the boys would be hard, but he couldn't allow Vin to become a target or a scapegoat.
“Chris? Are you listening?” Nathan prodded. “I need you to get that fire goin'.”
“Yeah,” he mumbled, suddenly remembering where they were and what had to be done. None of it would matter if Vin died from his wound. He soon had the fire going, and even though the heat felt good on his face, the thought that he could be giving their hiding place away terrified him.
“I need you to swallow this, Vin – try t' keep it down, okay? It'll help some.” Nathan added under his breath, “This is barbaric. Like goin' back in time a hundred years.”
Vin gripped Nathan's hand. “Hurts some, Nate. I don't reckon you can make it much worse.”
Nathan's brow was deeply furrowed when he replied, “I don't have anything near strong enough to dull the pain while I'm cuttin' into you. And the fact is, I could very well kill you.”
“That's not true,” Chris cut in, “it's Nichols' bullet – not yours.”
Nathan didn't reply as he reached in his bag and removed the kit he'd only recently added to his collection. It contained a sharp scalpel – sharp enough to cut a man's throat if need be. Jackson had come back from a class completely enthralled with the idea that he could now perform an emergency tracheotomy if necessary. No one volunteered to be his first patient.
The scalpel would come in handy now, though. Nathan would need it to slice through Vin's skin, to cut into the lean muscle and dig out the lead, and suddenly, Chris felt sick. What the hell were they doing? Performing surgery on a friend in an old, abandoned ranch-house?
They had no choice, Chris reminded himself as he straddled Vin's legs and pinned both of his hands. Vin wouldn't have lived long enough to state the facts had he stuck around and faced the authorities. His best friend would have died for certain if he hadn't run for it, hadn't hidden here, hadn't called him for help.
They were doing the right thing, he repeated in his head when the injured man jerked violently beneath his hands as Nathan used the scalpel to slice the tender skin. They just needed a chance to weigh things out, to get to the bottom of it all. Time, they needed time, and the only way to get that time was for the bullet to come out. Had to. They were doing the right thing.
He tried to block out the sounds of Vin groaning in agony by recalling the words his friend had used when he'd called. When was that? Only hours ago? It felt like days. Vin had said, “Hey Cowboy, I think – I think I'm in some trouble.”
Some trouble didn't exactly cover it. Vin was hurt, that much was clear in the way his voice faded out with every other word, but Chris didn't realize how bad it all was until he got to the house.
Nathan was mumbling now as he worked, “It ain't too deep . . . if I can just get a hold of it. Nicked his liver, I think, but not too bad. Could be worse. He's lost a lot of blood, though.”
Chris tried to absorb what he was saying and offer up some encouragement, but he couldn't make his mouth work. There was a lot of blood, a lot more than there ever seemed to be on the old westerns he and Vin enjoyed so much. It smelled terrible, too - turned his stomach so bad that he wanted to throw up.
Barbaric. Yes. Vin's face was twisted and tortured, his limbs rigid, his neck corded, his skin wet and white. Barbaric was the perfect word.
“Stop it, Nathan,” Chris whispered. There had to be another way. He'd find another way.
But it was already over and done. “I got it,” Nathan said, excitement in his voice in spite of the dire circumstances.
Chris couldn't exactly blame the man for feeling good about what he'd accomplished, although having Nathan learn new skills on one of their friends was never a good plan.
Vin went limp beneath his hands, but his eyes were still open and he was panting for breath. Chris selfishly wished his friend would pass out and spare them both the misery, but he knew Tanner would hold on long after a sensible man would let go. Stubbornness was a trait they shared, and he reminded himself that it had served them well, more times than not.
“Gonna stitch him up - he can't afford t' lose anymore blood. Oral painkillers and antibiotics won't be enough, but it's all I got right now. But they might buy us some time - if he can keep 'em down. Twenty-four hours, maybe a little longer,” Nathan explained. He turned to Chris then and added, “You do realize that I'm not leaving him, right?”
“That wasn't the plan,” Chris replied, as the image of Rain and her rapidly expanding belly sprang to mind.
“It is now. You go on and do what you're best at, and leave me t' my job.” Something must have shown in his eyes, because Nathan softened and added, “You can't be in two places at once, Chris. And you can't get to the bottom of this if you're sitting out here with Vin.”
That was true. But he couldn't imagine walking out on these two men. He envisioned a bloody shootout - both of his friends' bodies riddled with bullets – and now he did gag as bile rose up and clogged his throat.
“You alright? We're not quite done yet,” Nathan reminded him unnecessarily.
“Yeah.” He swallowed and resumed his grip on the injured man.
But the fight had apparently finally left Vin because he barely moved a muscle as his sad gaze moved to Chris's face before his eyes rolled back in his head, and he passed out.
Chris closed his eyes, fighting the nausea by breathing deeply through his mouth, but the smell of blood permeated the air, and he couldn't forget that last look in Vin's eyes. Tanner would sooner die than endanger his friends, but it wasn't going to happen that way. Not this time, a voice whispered in his head, though he had no idea where it originated or what it meant.
Nathan spoke softly in his ear, “Okay, Chris, I got him now. Go get some air.”
Chris gratefully got up and stumbled down the hall and out the front door. It was strange how he seemed to know this house after only having been there one other time. They'd searched the house, the dilapidated barn, and the surrounding land for the hidden weapons, but Chris knew the moment he'd left his truck that they weren't there. The place may have been forgotten, its inhabitants long dead, but somehow he knew that that kind of thing would not be allowed there. Haunted maybe, but not by anything or anyone malevolent.
And in fact, it didn't seem all that strange when Vin called and said he'd chosen the old ranch as a hiding place. The idea was sound, it felt right.
His knees were weak by the time he opened the door and stepped out onto the porch, but the fresh air did it's job and his stomach stayed put. He pulled in several long, deep breaths of clean, cool air and turned his gaze to the surrounding countryside. Time had obviously passed more quickly than he'd realized as he and Nathan had tended to Vin, because the sun was beginning to peek through the night clouds in the eastern horizon. He was soon treated to a brilliant display of gold and pink and blue, and for a brief moment, he felt at peace.
And then, off in the distance, he saw a rider on a horse. The man slouched in the saddle, leaned in an all-too familiar way, but it couldn't be him – it couldn't be Vin. Chris could have sworn the man looked straight at him before tipping his hat and disappearing into the rising sun. Rubbing his eyes, he looked again, but there was no one there. It was the stress and the bone-weary fatigue that gripped him already; his mind was playing tricks on him.
Back inside, Nathan remained bent over Vin, but he rose to greet him and said, “Get Buck. And call Travis. He's a good man – you know you can trust him and you know he'll believe Vin.”
He would. But Chris was unconvinced that even Travis had enough power to ensure Vin's safety. “I don't know, Nathan. If anything happens – you and Vin – you'll be on your own out here.”
“Doesn't feel like it,” Nathan muttered with a slight frown.
“What? What did you say?”
But Nathan only replied, “You need t' go. Get this taken care of.”
“Alright,” he agreed reluctantly. “If you get into trouble, Vin hid the jeep in that old shed at the bottom of the ravine behind the barn.”
“What shed?” Nathan asked.
“You know, we saw it when we came last . . .” But they hadn't, Chris suddenly realized. Yet he'd never questioned how Vin knew about the shed because, somehow, he knew about it, too.
Nathan shook his head. “I never saw any shed, but I'll take your word for it. We won't be needin' the ride, though, because you're gonna be back in a few hours with an ambulance and an explanation.”
“Yeah,” Chris agreed with no confidence whatsoever. He knelt down next to Vin then and put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Wait for me, Tanner,” he said, though it seemed Vin was long past hearing him. His stomach cramped up again when he left the room, but he didn't look back. As he left the house and walked towards his truck, he thought again about the vision of the man on the horse, and he was gripped with an overpowering urge to head straight for his ranch, saddle up the horses, and ride off with Vin.
Nathan Jackson thought he'd surely lost his mind. Either that he'd been possessed by the spirit of one of the former inhabitants of that house. Whatever made him think he could dig into his friend's body and remove a bullet? How was he supposed to care for said friend without knowing his blood counts or his oxygen levels? What the hell was he thinking?
And yet, he'd done a fine job, if he said so himself. With a smug grin, he looked down at his patient. Vin was pale and breathing shallowly, but he was resting as comfortably as could be expected for man who'd run around for hours with a bullet in him before undergoing surgery on the floor of a haunted house with no heat, no light, and no anesthesia.
But why had he done it? And why had he felt so certain he could do it, once he got started? It was almost like another hand guided his, another voice sat low in his ear, coaxing him through it. It was almost like he'd done it a hundred times before . . .
He scoffed. It was JD's talk about ghosts and supernatural phenomena that had him thinking such ridiculous thoughts. Exhaustion probably played a role, too, and since he couldn't possibly risk closing his eyes for even a moment, he'd better get up and stretch his legs.
Curiosity got the best of him as he pulled himself to his feet, and he decided to explore the old ranch. After double-checking that Vin was asleep, he ambled into the hallway. There wasn't much to the stone structure; it was one story with a couple of small bedrooms. In addition to the small parlor where Vin lay, there was a larger living area and an ample kitchen, complete with a still sturdy wooden table with seven chairs. In fact, most of the original furniture appeared to have been left behind - whoever had owned the place had either left in hurry or maybe died suddenly.
Yes, he thought, there was a definite feeling of loss in the home – though there were other feelings, as well. He could imagine his teammates sitting at that table, sharing a beer and a hand of cards, and the image brought a smile to his face.
After checking again to ensure that Vin was still asleep, he headed outside. The view from the front porch was breath-taking, and he took a few minutes to soak in the rays of the early morning sun before turning and heading towards the barn. It might be good to check out exactly where Vin had hidden the jeep, he thought, just in case they needed to leave in a hurry. It wasn't hard to figure it out – Vin had left a trail of blood as he'd apparently climbed up the ravine behind the barn. And once again, Nathan had to shake his head at his friend's fortitude. He couldn't imagine getting in a car and driving a mile with a bullet in his side, let alone driving the hour it had to have taken Vin to get there.
The jeep was right where Chris had said it would be, Nathan quickly noted as he slid his way down the last few yards of the steep hillside and peered into the wide open doorway of the shed. His stomach rolled as he pressed closer and looked inside the jeep at the blood stained seat. Why hadn't he talked Chris out of this? How had he let himself get swept up in this craziness? He was right the first time, he had to have lost his mind – there was no other excuse for what he'd done. Vin would die from blood loss, from infection, from the damn stupidity of the man he'd trusted to keep him alive.
Well, it wasn't too late; he'd carry Vin to that jeep if he had to and he'd take him to the closet hospital and he'd put a bullet in any man who tried to stop him. But first he'd have to drive the jeep up to the house – and thank goodness Vin had left the keys in the ignition. Unfortunately, he quickly realized that the keys would be of no help what-so-ever because the worthless piece of junk refused to actually turn over for anyone but Vin.
Despair overwhelmed him as he laid his head on the steering wheel and blew out a long shaky breath. It took only a minute, however, to remind himself that Vin was still alive and waiting – alone - and only a few minutes more to race back up the hill and into the house.
But he came to an abrupt halt as he slammed through the back door into the kitchen.
Josiah was sitting at the table, calmly drinking a cup of coffee.
“Josiah? How did you get here?” He managed to spit out, though his heart was thumping so loud he could hardly hear himself speak.
Sanchez grinned. “Got my ways. How you holdin' up, Nathan?”
Nathan shook his head. This made no sense. And Josiah was sitting there without so much as a sling on that bad arm. “How am I holdin' up? It's Vin that's hurt. Just like you - and how many times do I have to tell you that you've got t' take better care of yourself? You can't be lettin' that arm hang down like that or you'll have tendon damage and -”
Josiah laughed; a deep, robust sound that always set things right in Nathan, no matter how bad they seemed.
But he was irritated now. “Glad you think this is funny,” he snapped.
“Can't help it. The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
“What? What the hell are you talkin' about? And why are you dressed like that?”
Josiah smiled again. “Always full of questions. Well, my friend, I just stopped by to ease your mind a bit. Ain't no crows nearby.”
“Crows? What do I care about crows? How's that supposed t' ease my mind?”
But he hadn't even finished the sentence when Josiah vanished. Leaning his back against the door frame, Nathan rubbed his eyes. Obviously he'd been sleep-walking. And apparently he was so desperate for company that he'd dreamed up the comforting presence of his oldest friend. But what the devil was Josiah talking about? Crows? Now how crazy was that? If he had enough imagination to dream up a phantom Josiah in a silly poncho, surely he could have given himself some better advice and encouragement. But oddly enough, as he started down the hallway, he did feel a little better.
It took Vin a few minutes to remember where he was. The crackle of the fire in the fireplace and long shadows in the dimly lit room felt familiar, even comfortable. But the hard wood floor under his back and hot anvil in his side quickly brought him back to the present situation. He shifted in an attempt to ease the pain, but only succeeded in sending a spike through his side and up his back. With a groan, he mumbled, “Done it good this time, Tanner. How could you be so stupid? Gonna get yourself killed.”
“I ain't gonna let that happen.”
The voice startled him and he pulled himself up to his elbows with a gasp. “Chris?”
His friend was sitting on his heels in the corner, long bangs covering his eyes. He was wearing a long, black coat that Vin couldn't remember seeing before. But it was too much effort to ask him about it, too much effort to even hold his head up, so he collapsed to the floor and muttered, “Got myself into this - got too wrapped up in those kids and that neighborhood. I let my guard down.”
“Pulled in all directions, tryin' t' set things right that can't hardly be made right. That's gotta wear on a man.”
Vin frowned. “That's no excuse.” He sighed and added, “Hell, Chris, you know I ain't afraid of dyin'. Just afraid of takin' you with me. Or Nathan or Buck or any of the boys.”
He expected Chris to argue with him, or at least to reply to what he'd said. But his friend merely stood and walked to the doorway, pausing a moment to toss over his shoulder in a low voice, “There are things worse than dyin', Vin. Rest now. The time is coming.”
The time is coming? What the hell did that mean?
“Chris? Larabee!” he called after his friend, but Chris didn't come back.
“Vin? Vin, what's wrong?” Nathan asked as he barged into the room.
“Nothin'. Just tell Larabee t' get back here and finish what he started.”
Nathan immediately dropped to his side and put a hand to his forehead. “You're a little warm, but not too bad – don't think you're delirious anyway.” Vin resisted the urge to shake off the hand and demanded instead, “Get Chris.”
“Vin, he's not here. He's on his way to talk to Buck and Travis. He left an hour ago.”
“No, he didn't,” Vin argued, “I just saw him! I just talked to him.”
Nathan shook his head. “No. No, you didn't. You must have been dreaming. Same as me.”
“What are you talkin' about?” Vin groaned. He wasn't dreaming, he knew he wasn't. Chris was right there, in that corner, as real as the moth-eaten lace curtains on the window.
“I could have sworn I had a conversation with Josiah a few minutes ago, but he's not here, either,” Nathan explained. “We're both just tired – sleepin' with our eyes open.”
Well, he couldn't argue with that; he was as tired as he could ever remember being. He'd been hurt plenty of times – shot even – but he'd never felt like this. And never again would he complain about the hospital. What he wouldn't give for a soft bed, a sweet-smelling nurse, and good drugs.
But it was more than that. What if he'd been wrong? What if he'd killed an innocent man? An officer, no less? One of their own. He'd turned it around in his head a hundred times, but he still couldn't make it come out right. Worst of all, Chris and Nathan might go down with him.
“Take me back t' town, Nathan,” he said softly. “I got t' face up t' what I've done.”
Nathan cocked his head and said very slowly, “What did you do, Vin?”
“I told you – I killed a man. And I know this ain't the first time. But this time – this time I don't know if he deserved it.”
With a sigh, Nathan sat down on the floor next to him. “He pull a gun on you?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Vin breathed through gritted teeth, determined to ignore the relentless pain in his side.
“He put that bullet in you?”
Vin groaned, “You already know he did.”
“You think you'd be alive right now if you hadn't fired back? If you hadn't run for it?”
“I don't know.” But he did know, and so he added in a whisper, “No.”
“Well then, I'm glad you did it.” Leaning in close, Nathan held his gaze and said, “I ain't gonna lie to you, Vin, you might still die. What we're doin' here, it's no substitute for the care you need. But at least you got a chance – I've had my doubts about all this, but I see that now. I could be sitting with a devastated Chris Larabee right now, planning your funeral. I have t' tell you that I don't think I could bear that. And I know damn well that he couldn't.”
Was that so? Surely not – surely Nathan was exaggerating. Yes, it would hit Chris hard if he died, but he would bear it. But then he remembered that vision of Chris, sitting in the corner. Even the poor lighting and the hair covering his face couldn't hide the sorrow in his eyes. And what was that he'd said? That there were things worse than dying? That was true enough for most men, but most certainly true for a man who'd already lost too much.
But Vin couldn't see a way out, couldn't visualize a happy ending. “Gonna take divine intervention t' get me out of this one, Nathan,” he sighed.
“I got a hunch Josiah is working on that. And if know the others, they're working on the rest. And there's something about this house . . .”
Nathan's voice trailed off, which was just as well. Vin couldn't keep up the train of thought any longer anyway. As the darkness that had lingered at the edge of his vision finally took hold, his last thought was that Chris really ought to wear that long coat more often – it looked good on him.
Chris peered longingly into the dirty glass windows of the run-down convenience store, but decided he couldn't risk it. Coffee would have to wait. With a still trembling hand, he dropped a coin into the slot and hunkered down a little lower in the phone booth.
To his relief, Buck answered on the first ring. “Wilmington.”
For a moment, he lost his voice, and when he did speak, the sound was tinny and odd to his ears. “Buck? What's happening?”
“Chris? Chris! Thank God! Where are you?”
“Phone booth. Tell me what's going on.”
“I'll tell you what I know, but you're not gonna like it. The story is that David Nichols and his partner busted up a gun deal between Vin and Lucas James. They got an APB out on Vin – and maybe on you and Nathan by now. Said they're gonna charge you with aiding and abetting.”
“Guess we're guilty as charged then,” Chris muttered. He wasn't surprised that they'd turned it around to be Vin in the wrong – he'd planned on it going down that way, in fact. But his gut cramped up again at the confirmation.
“Where are you holed up at, Chris?”
“Last month – we went on a search, remember?”
“Yeah. Good choice,” Buck responded immediately, without even thinking about it; as if he'd already known and Chris had just confirmed his suspicions. “I'm gonna send Ezra out with supplies and a disposable cell phone. You three stay put.”
It was ridiculous, the sense of relief he felt at having Buck give him permission to do exactly what his heart had been telling him all along. He needed to be at that ranch-house – not in town. “You sure you can handle this? I mean, Josiah and JD -”
“Are right here with me, doing their jobs. They're both sore, but there's no way they'd sit this one out. You know that.”
“And Ezra? He's able to make the trip out here without being tailed?”
Buck lowered his voice. “Travis thinks he can throw 'em off long enough for us to get some evidence together and for Ezra t' get to you. He thinks this was some sort of stupid publicity stunt for Nichols that went bad. But it's gonna take some time to work it out, and he said for you to stay put until you hear from me or him.”
Chris pinched the bridge of his nose. He'd have to trust three of his men – two of them injured – to put it together for him. And he'd have to trust Ezra to use his considerable skills of deception to get to them without being followed. But still, there was hope. Travis was on their side.
“Chris?” Buck interrupted his thoughts. “How's Vin? We heard he was shot. That so?”
“Yeah. He's holding on, though. Nathan got the bullet out.”
“What? Nathan did that? Out there?”
“Yeah,” Chris breathed. He was suddenly exhausted, and the pull to get back to Vin was stronger than ever. “I gotta go back, Buck. Thank you for – for -” The words stuck in his throat.
“Nothing to thank me for, Pard. We're gonna beat this. Vin's gonna be fine. And so are you.”
Apparently, Buck's confidence was contagious, because for the first time since Vin's call the previous night, Chris noticed that his hands didn't shake as he climbed into his truck and headed back up the mountain.
He was halfway there when he saw the man on the horse again, closer this time, and there was no mistaking his uncanny resemblance to Vin. Somehow, their eyes met and held across the distance, even with a layer of glass and the haze of an early morning fog between them. Chris tipped his head in the direction of the abandoned ranch, and the stranger gave him one short nod in return before vanishing once again.
It should have seemed strange to him, but it didn't. He had a feeling they were part of something bigger than they could possibly realize, and he wasn't just referring to the mess Vin had been caught up in. And if it took a helping hand from another world to get them through, so be it. But he laughed at himself for even thinking such a thing – one of Josiah's recent mystical dissertations must have taken root in his brain.
It didn't matter, he decided as he pulled the truck into a gully behind some overgrown shrub. All that mattered was getting Vin through this, whatever it took – whoever it took. His legs were rubbery as he started the long walk back to the house, and the thought that he'd kill for a cup of coffee crossed his mind. Since that wasn't an option, he settled for sitting on a boulder to catch his breath. The view was extraordinary; the former owners of this land had chosen well. His gaze swept the surrounding area, settling for a moment on a vine that seemed to grow straight up from the ground. His curiosity piqued, he got up and went for a closer look. From only yards away, he realized what his eyes had missed from the distance – the vine was tangled about a wooden cross.
It was odd the way his heart suddenly pounded in his chest, like he was about to uncover the resting place of someone he knew and loved. Or maybe, he told himself, it was just the image of the lonely grave, forever forgotten, that tugged so at his heart. No grave should go unmarked, unnoticed, uncared for – or at least, no decent man's grave. Hard as it was to make that journey to the cemetery every month, it would always be clear to anyone who cared to notice that Sarah and Adam Larabee were well-loved in their lifetimes.
His hand shook again as he leaned forward and gently pushed the gnarled vine away from the cross. The letters were worn by time and the elements, and to his disappointment, he couldn't make out the name. But oddly enough, he could make out the inscription underneath, “Friend, Partner, Brother.”
“Damn near killed the man who wrote those words t' leave him here,” a voice suddenly spoke behind him. It was a voice he recognized – Buck's voice.
Chris stood and rubbed his eyes, but he didn't turn around. Somehow he knew that if he did, the illusion would be gone. And he needed to hear Buck's voice right now, real or imagined. Even more, he needed to know the story behind the cross.
“They were close – like you and Vin, y' know?”
Chris swallowed and nodded.
“And he never could get past it. Blamed himself until the day he died – which wasn't more than a month later. Got himself killed in a bar fight in Mexico.” Buck's voice broke with the last sentence, and Chris heard him take a great gulp of air before continuing, “We couldn't even bring his body back here, couldn't lie him to rest where he belonged.”
“That ain't right,” Chris breathed.
“No, it sure ain't. And it ain't right that neither one of 'em have been at peace since.”
Chris shook his head and rolled his shoulders as an incredible weight seemed to settle on him.
“I'm hopin' you can change that,” Buck's disembodied voice continued.
Puzzled, Chris cocked his head, “How?”
“Make it come out right this time. Don't let Vin die here.”
“I don't intend to,” Chris snapped, finally turning to meet the voice face-to-face. But he saw nothing other than a swirl of dead, dry leaves caught up in the cold mountain breeze.
The story played in his mind as he moved towards the house, and an almost unbearable sadness filled his heart. He didn't know if it was true – couldn't know if his own fear of losing Vin had combined with stress and fatigue to conjure up a tragic tale of friendship, guilt, and death.
But the cross was real, and someone's beloved friend was buried beneath it. The chilly air stung his eyes as the words from the grave were permanently etched into his brain: friend, partner, brother.
It was quiet and dark inside the house, the brilliant sunlight carving only small blocks of light through the sparse windows. Vin was as he'd left him, asleep or maybe something deeper. Nathan had pulled an old arm chair in from the other room, and he looked up at him as he entered.
“Couldn't stand it, could y'?” Nathan said, a hint of teasing in his voice but not a trace of surprise.
“Buck said Travis said to stay put out here,” Chris replied, feeling a bit like a schoolboy making excuses to his father.
Nathan narrowed his eyes. “What else did Buck say?”
It took him all of five minutes to fill Nathan in, and five more to figure out that since they were settling in for a time, Vin might be more comfortable in one of the two bedrooms. There was a bed in each room, and although both mattresses were little more than moth-eaten cloth and worn fiber of some kind, they had to be softer than the floor, Chris reasoned.
“I don't know,” Nathan argued, “look at this old stain – I can't even image what kinds of bugs are growing in these things.”
Chris swallowed. This was where it had happened – where the man buried in the field had died. “The other bedroom,” he said, “we'll put him in the other room.”
Nathan wasn't much happier with that selection, but he begrudgingly agreed that getting Vin off the floor would be a good thing.
“Maybe Ezra will bring bedding with him,” Nathan offered hopefully.
Chris snorted. “Yeah, silk sheets, knowing Standish.”
They both chuckled at that, thinking of Ezra's reaction to putting top quality fabric on a century-old bag of cotton and dust. It felt good to smile, and Chris knew in the same way he'd known so much about that house all along, that at one time, this home held laughter and friends and good, good times. And right now, even without indoor plumbing and electricity, it would make a decent refuge - although he doubted Ezra would agree.
“Funny, ain't it,” Nathan asked, “how whoever lived here just up and left everything as it was?”
“He couldn't stand to stay here. And he died before he had a chance to heal,” Chris replied off-the-cuff.
“What? Who? You know who lived here?”
He wondered if Nathan would think he'd lost it completely if he admitted that he had heard the story near an old grave – and it was told to him in Buck's voice. “I – I found a grave. And I can't say why, but I know the man left behind couldn't bear it.”
“Okay,” Nathan said with a slow nod. “Guess we all been having feelings and visions we can't quite explain.”
At Chris's puzzled frown, Nathan told him about his conversation with an oddly dressed Josiah, and how certain Vin had been that Chris had never left.
“We're just tired,” Chris offered, though he didn't believe it. Of course, he didn't believe in ghosts, either.
But that voice kept ringing in his ear, reminding him that there was more at stake here than he could possibly understand . . . “Don't let Vin die here . . . make it come out right.”
Ezra's head was throbbing mercilessly, and his stomach rolled every time tire met rut on the mountain road. And yes, he was mildly concussed, courtesy of a rude and quite belligerent criminal from their last case. But honestly, he couldn't possibly be seeing what he thought he was. He nearly swerved off the rode when he noted the five cowboys lining the cliff ahead of him. They were dressed like something out of a bad western – with the exception of one man in an astonishingly tasteful red coat – and even from a distance, he could see that they all sported period hats and were armed to the teeth.
Blinking his eyes, he looked again. The five men tipped their hats in unison before disappearing into the glaring sunlight. With a sigh, he continued his journey, studiously ignoring the uncomfortable feeling that he was only beginning some wild and wacky adventure.
He'd been forced to call in a few favors to get out of town undetected; a few more to get a nondescript vehicle and a variety of supplies in record time. With a little luck, most of what he'd brought wouldn't be needed. A shiver coursed through him at just the thought of spending the night at the ancient ranch. They needed to have this resolved well before sunset. Not that he was the least bit concerned about JD's firm belief that the home was haunted; he didn't believe in ghosts or paranormal phenomena, after all. That would be ridiculous.
But there was work to be done, a larger battle to be fought, and four out of seven of them were already injured. That included Vin, the man at the center of the conflict and the man that – from all indications – most needed medical attention ASAP. Nathan's obvious skills aside, there were bound to be serious complications from removing a bullet under such crude conditions.
Ezra winced as he recalled that he'd actually suggested taking bets on which one of them their medic would try out his new scalpel on first. He would have laid odds on Vin or JD, but he took no pleasure in being right. Vin was in trouble, the deep and deadly kind, as evidenced by the fact that the bullet wound appeared to be the least of his problems.
Every mile seemed endless as he drove on, and the pain in his skull had escalated to new and excruciating levels by the time he actually viewed the forsaken ranch. To his relief, both Nathan and Chris practically bounded out the door at his arrival.
“Please tell me you brought coffee,” Chris asked in a tone that could only be described as desperate.
“Of course. And something I believe they call a camp stove to brew it on,” Ezra replied.
The vice in his head loosened a bit at Chris's answering grin.
Nathan pulled open the door of the old station wagon and nearly squealed in delight. “You were right, Chris – silk sheets!”
“Yes, well, camping in the wilderness is hardly my forte. A man deserves a few creature comforts, after all.”
“Hardly camping, Ezra,” Chris stated as he grabbed the sheets, sleeping bags, and a couple of pillows. “We have light, heat, and water – and now coffee. What more could you want?”
“Electricity would be a nice addition. And please don't tell me that – that – stack of rotting timber represents the facilities?”
“It's call an out house, Ezra, and it works just fine,” Nathan replied with a broad grin.
Chris added insult to injury. “Must've hurt bad for you to drive that hunk of junk all the way up this mountain.”
“You have no idea,” Ezra said as he followed the two men inside. “Mr. Tanner owes me. Speaking of Vin – how is he?”
Chris looked him in the eye and stated, “He's not gonna die,” before heading for the bedroom with the bedding in hand.
He turned to Nathan, whose expression had darkened considerably. “He's alive. That's about all I can say at the moment. We need t' get this done - and fast.”
“Agreed. By the way, have you noticed any cowboys in the vicinity, by chance?”
“Never mind. Can you gentlemen handle the unloading and unpacking? I have an excruciating headache, and I'd like to rest my head for a brief period of time.”
“Sure,” Nathan readily agreed. “Take the couch in the main living room – but you might wanna put a sleeping bag over it. Ain't sure who you might be sharin' it with.”
Ezra raised an eyebrow, not certain who Nathan was referring to. But after getting a look at the furniture, he caught on. In the end, comfort won out over the possible presence of dust mites and vermin, so he prepared a rather comfortable bed for himself on the surprisingly accommodating sofa.
He decided to check on Vin before resting, though it was a quick visit. The injured man was deeply asleep, already nestled on the silk sheets - courtesy of Chris Larabee, no doubt. Vin was well beyond pale, and Ezra's breath caught in his throat. Nathan might have removed the bullet, might have stitched Vin's side as finely and efficiently as humanly possible, but the man obviously needed his blood replenished, and that couldn't happen out there. How long, Ezra wondered, could Vin hold on, providing there were no other complications?
The answer came to him in a vision, the words floating across his brain as if he'd consciously written them there himself. Well, that was odd. He chalked it up to fatigue, took another lingering look at his injured friend, and went back to lie on the couch.
He'd barely closed his eyes when he heard a commotion at the entrance of the room.
“Damn it, Kid! Can't you stay on your feet for once?”
“Ain't my fault - you're the one that can't seem t' remember how t' walk.”
Ezra cracked open his eyes to see his two good friends, Buck and JD, engaged in a Three Stooges routine – minus one stooge, obviously.
“Good Lord,” he muttered to himself. He was obviously delusional. Or was this an illusion? An hallucination? He never could distinguish very well between the three possibilities.
And to top it off, the men were dressed as cowboys. Ezra wondered what he'd watched lately that had imprinted itself so firmly in his psyche. Westerns were hardly in his vocabulary, let alone his video collection, yet here he was – visited once again by cowboys. “Good Lord,” he repeated with a shake of his head.
By the time he pulled himself up straighter on the couch and rubbed a hand across his weary eyes, the two men were standing reasonably upright in front of him.
“Seriously, gentlemen, cowboys? Is that the best you – or I – could come up with?” Ezra asked, chastising himself for his lack of imagination.
“Cowboy? Did he just call me a cowboy, Kid?”
JD rolled his eyes. “You ain't him so don't even try t' steal his lines.”
“Yeah, well at least I ain't worn a damn sissy hat for a century!” Buck replied, swatting the black bowler off the kid's head. When JD leaned forward to pick it up, Buck gave him a swift kick in the rump, knocking the younger man to the floor.
“Damn it all!” JD huffed, plowing into Buck and knocking him against a wall.
“Gentlemen, please!” Ezra cut in, pinching the bridge of his nose. “As entertaining as this Laurel and Hardy routine is -”
“Who?” Buck asked at the same moment JD said, “Huh?”
“- I believe there must be some reason for this apparition,” Ezra continued. “So I'd appreciate it if you'd state your intentions expediently and return to your rightful place in the far recesses of my obviously disturbed and woefully unimaginative psyche.”
JD cocked his head and repeated, “Huh?”
“What do you want?” Ezra clarified.
JD poked Buck in the ribs and said in a disbelieving voice, “There's two of 'em. Can you believe it?”
“Nope. Thought sure they'd broke the mold the first time around,” Buck replied.
A “slight concussion”, Nathan had called it; he'd have a mild headache, maybe a bit of dizziness the medic had told him. Well, either Jackson had completely underestimated the damage done to his injured brain or he'd deliberately mislead him. Either way, the pounding in his head could not be ignored much longer. “Why are you here?” Ezra tried again, hoping to move this little delusion/illusion/hallucination along so he could get some rest.
JD sobered instantly, and Buck lowered his voice to speak. “The time's comin'. And you gotta play your part, Ezra. You gotta make sure Chris stays here. No matter what happens, he can't leave Vin. He's gotta be the one that saves him. You got that?”
Ezra scoffed. “That's my role? I assure you, my friends, Chris Larabee would sooner cut off his right arm than leave Vin at the moment.”
“Listen up, Pard,” Buck drawled, his tone rapidly changing from playful to deadly. “Chris has to save Vin this time. Has to. You got that?”
“Alright,” Ezra muttered, leaning back on the pillow and closing his eyes. “Fine. Whatever you say. Just please go away and -”
But he knew, without even opening his eyes to check, that he was alone once again. He thought for a moment on what the vision had ordered him to do, but quickly dismissed it. The very notion of Chris leaving Vin was so improbable, it wasn't worth considering.
What was worth thinking about however, was the odd statement by the imaginary Buck that Chris needed to save Vin this time. This inferred that there was another time when that had not been the case. Ezra scratched his head. As far as he knew, there was no time in the past when Chris had failed Vin in any way. Indeed, the two men were as close as brothers, and where one traveled, the other was sure to be close behind.
The whole thing was obviously nothing more than a silly dream, brought on by fatigue, stress, and his bruised brain. Cowboys? What next? Perhaps the Nichols family would show up in a souped up black carriage. Or the James gang would challenge them to an old Western style shoot-out. He supposed, the way things were going, either one of those things was possible.
But Chris leave Vin? Never.
The next time Vin woke, the sun was already drifting lower in the sky. A fire glowed in the hearth near him, but he was off the floor, and the bed he laid on was smooth, if not soft. He remembered then - he'd been carried into a different room, Chris's strong arms wrapped around his chest while Nathan supported his legs. The soft sounds that called to him dulled the pain of the movement, and even though he couldn't see their faces, he knew their voices: Buck, JD, Ezra, Josiah, and of course, Chris and Nathan. All six of them there, cradling him with their care and concern.
He'd never needed that focused attention before, not that he didn't appreciate every moment his friends spent with him when he was sick or injured. But Chris's warm hand on his arm was generally enough to get him through. This time, though, he felt spent in a way he never had; drained of every ounce of energy, hurting in ways deep and vital and wrong, and lacking the strength or the will to do anything about any of it.
So even though he didn't remember his friends' words, he felt their touch and their urgency, as if
his survival mattered more than he could possibly understand. That was something he couldn't quite wrap his brain around, even when he pulled his heavy eyelids open a bit further to find Nathan sitting slump-shouldered in an old rocking chair in the corner of the room.
“I ain't gonna lose you again,” the man mumbled softly.
Again? “You never lost me the first time, Nate,” he rasped.
“No, I guess not,” Nathan agreed, turning his dark head towards him. “Lost someone a lot like you, though. One of the best friends I ever had and there was nothin', not a damn thing I could do t' help him. Just sat here and watched him die. Lost two good friends that day.”
“I'm sorry,” Vin replied, though it didn't feel like nearly enough.
“I'll never forget it,” Nathan went on, a dreamy quality to his voice. “It was too late by the time I got here – he'd lost too much blood. He held on, though, the man fought to the bitter end.” Nathan paused and looked at him, “I expect you t' do the same.”
Vin swallowed and nodded. “But you said – you said you lost two friends?”
Nathan stood and walked to the fireplace, turning his back on him. “They rode together a long time . . . worked together, hell, they lived in the same house for almost twenty years. And the friend left behind, he blamed himself for what happened, even though we all told him it wasn't his fault. But I reckon when it came down to it, one just didn't know how t' go on without the other.”
“That's sad,” Vin said as a sudden ache filled his heart. “I bet – I bet that's why he fought so hard – the one that died. He didn't want t' leave his friend. He knew how hard it would be for him.”
“Yeah. Hard for him still. They need t' ride together again.”
“What? What do you mean? I thought he was dead?”
“There are things worse than dyin', Vin.”
That was the second time he'd been told that, and while he agreed with the sentiment, he still didn't get what his friends were alluding to. “I don't understand. What are you tryin' t' tell me?”
Nathan finally turned back towards him, and his eyes glittered in the firelight. “You gotta hang on. The time is comin' t' set things right.”
“I don't understand,” Vin said again.
“You will,” Nathan answered softly, before slipping away into the shadows of the receding sun.
He didn't think he'd gone back to sleep, but suddenly Chris was there, standing over him with a deep frown. “Vin?” he asked. “You awake?”
“I heard you talking . . .” Chris left the sentence unfinished, apparently waiting for Vin to fill in the ending, like there was some mystery involved.
Vin returned the frown. “Nate was tellin' me about his friends.”
Now Chris was clearly puzzled. “Nathan's been outside with Ezra for the last half hour – trying to figure out how to make a decent burger on a camp stove. You must have been dreaming.”
“Okay,” Vin agreed, because it was easier. They all seemed to think he'd gone soft in the head, imagining whole conversations with his friends, but he was too done-in to argue.
Chris changed the subject. “You hungry? Think you could eat something?”
The thought of food made his stomach roll, so much so that he turned away with a groan. He immediately felt the gentle touch of an open palm against his cheek.
“You're too warm,” Chris said. “I'll get Nathan.”
But Vin reached for him. “Don't. Let's talk a minute. Nothin' he can do anyhow.”
Chris sat down on the edge of the bed and nodded. “Alright.”
“What's happenin' with James and Nichols?”
“I'm not sure,” Chris admitted with a sigh. “Ezra said Buck and Travis are following up on some leads. But it could be that Jack and David Nichols aren't as squeaky clean as they've portrayed to the public. Travis was already suspicious – which is in our favor.”
“And Stuart James? He puttin' this on my head, too?”
Chris looked down. “I wouldn't put it past him. He's always had a powerful thirst for vengeance – deserved or not.”
“So it's a question of who finds us first, huh?” Vin asked, his throat dry as saw dust. They couldn't fight them all off, and he was afraid he'd be no help at all in a battle. Chris didn't answer, so he went on, “Need to clear my name. If I die here, you'll do that for me, right, Chris?”
“Clear your name?”
“Been ponderin' it, and I know now that I didn't have a choice. But I don't wanna die with folks thinkin' I'm a cold-blooded killer. It shouldn't matter all that much, but it does - my name's pretty much all I got.”
Vin was getting sick and tired of Chris repeating his words, so he huffed indignantly, “What the hell is wrong with you, Larabee? Am I speakin' in a foreign tongue or somethin'?”
“No. You just don't sound like yourself exactly,” Chris mumbled. But he met his eyes then and stated clearly, “First off, you're not gonna die here. And secondly, by the time this is over, no one will question your innocence or your name – I promise you that.”
Well, that was good enough, Chris Larabee's word was always good enough.
But Nathan's sad story sat like a rock in Vin's heart, and he had to say one more thing. “When I do die, though – if that day comes before – when you're still here – you gotta promise me you'll be okay. You won't do nothin' stupid like get yourself killed in a bar fight or somethin', right?”
“A bar fight?”
Chris had an odd look in his eyes, like he couldn't imagine why Vin would choose that kind of death for him, and to be honest, Vin wasn't sure himself why that had come to mind. He didn't recall Nathan mentioning how the second friend in his story had died, but a bar fight sounded like a good guess.
Maybe a really good guess, because Chris's face was white when he asked, “Why did you say that? Do you know the story?”
Now Vin was confused. “You mean about Nathan's friends? How one died and the other followed soon after?”
“Yes. Maybe. I don't know. Could it be the same . . .?” Chris turned away and stood near the fireplace. “What's going on?” he muttered, more to himself than to Vin, it seemed.
“I don't know,” Vin sighed. “But I need an answer, Chris.”
Chris stood still for a moment before turning back to him. “I won't get myself in killed in a bar fight.”
That didn't really answer the question, but Vin couldn't seem to find an ounce of breath to push any further.
“I'm getting Nathan,” Chris said then, escaping from the conversation as much as the room.
Nathan returned then, dressed differently than he'd been before, but Vin didn't ask why. Maybe it was the fever gaining a foothold, maybe he really was seeing and hearing things that weren't there. Maybe the story of the two friends separated by death was of his own imagination. Nathan had planted that seed – had said Chris couldn't bear his death – and it had sprouted into a sad tale of a grief lasting long after death.
“There are things worse than dyin',” his imaginary friends had said, and surely riding through eternity, separated from loved ones, would qualify as the absolute worst of those things.
“Need you to swallow these pills, Vin. They'll take the edge off the pain and keep the infection under control.”
It sounded forced, like Nathan was stacking up words to build a dam that he knew couldn't hold.
And Vin knew he'd never keep the pills in his stomach, though he took them anyway. When they came up a few minutes later, he assured Nathan that they must have had time to get into his system because he already felt better.
Nathan put a gentle hand to his head and said, “That's good.” But his eyes said the exact opposite.
“Don't go on the worry, Nathan. You ain't gonna lose me again,” Vin sighed as he closed his eyes.
He thought he heard Nathan mutter something about crows and crosses and silk sheets, but he couldn't track the words any longer. As he drifted off, he had the feeling that someone was holding him in their arms. Chris maybe, because it was his strong voice in his ear: “You gotta hold on. The time is coming.”
It was someone else's dream, though the man in it sounded like him and looked like him. It was like watching a movie, except the gut-wrenching pain of the main character was somehow his own. Chris was trapped in the peculiar space of being awake and being asleep, of dreaming and knowing it, but helpless to stop it.
He saw an image of himself riding hard to get home, and he shared the feeling that something was terribly wrong. Dogs, frantic and frenzied, greeted the rider from half a mile out, confirming that the anxiety was warranted.
The mare was gone, that much was certain the instant the man arrived at the now familiar ranch, but how much damage had been done to get her remained to be seen. Chris felt like an intruder as he observed the frantic search for the man's partner. And he didn't want to look when that search came to an end, for he knew that the missing man would be mortally wounded – and that his face would match Vin's. Yet he couldn't turn away when his twin found his dearest friend, stuffed behind a haystack and drenched in his own blood, and he couldn't block out the anguished cry of denial that followed.
The picture faded for a moment, and he prayed he'd wake up, but he now found himself in the bedroom. A man who looked like Nathan was speaking, solemn and low, “I got the bullet out of his side. Didn't do as much damage as it could have, but – it's too late. He's lost too much blood. I'm sorry. There's nothing more I can do.”
Chris knew that anger intimately – the denial, the bitter grief and desperate need to do something, anything to make it come out differently. He'd felt it before, as had the man in his dream. But not again, their hearts couldn't bear it again.
“It's my fault,” the man with his voice said. “He wasn't feeling well. If I'd been here . . .”
“You don't know that,” the healer said. “If you'd been here, you might both be dead.”
It might have been a good argument if it was true, but the two men had fought side by side for years and they could have handled the outlaws together. Chris knew it, as did his other self - knew it with a terrible, unforgivable certainty.
Surely he'd wake up now, Chris thought, surely he'd not be required to witness the actual death that he knew was imminent. He began to think it was so, that he'd be spared, as the light slowly drained from the room. Dark shadows enveloped the key players and the air grew strangely heavy. Chris fought to take a deeper breath, to propel himself forward and out from this place where he didn't belong and didn't want to be.
But his own face looked back at him and stated in his own voice, “You have to see. You have to understand.”
It was Vin's voice he heard then, weak and thready – already a ghostly imitation of it's former self. “Don't grieve for me, Pard – we'll ride together again.”
“No, no we won't.” The other Chris shook his head as he gathered his friend in his arms. “I won't be where you are. I have too much hate in me, too much anger – too much guilt.”
The dying man mouthed the word please, but he was drowned out by the loud voice of the healer, “Don't talk t' him like that! Tell him what he needs t' hear, damn it!”
“I've never lied to him and I'll not start now.”
Chris wanted to look away, didn't want to see the desolation in the dying Vin's eyes, didn't want to hear him struggle to pull in another breath and another after that; fighting like the devil to hold on, his eyes locked on his friend's, their hands clasped in a desperate grip.
But it wasn't meant to be. The light faded from the blue eyes, the next breath did not come, and the pain was so intense that Chris thought surely he had died himself.
He heard himself cry out then, felt the sound bubble up from his throat and spill into the darkness.
But the Chris in his dream was still and silent as he vanished into the night.
Chris sat up and scrubbed his eyes with his fists. He'd laid down on a sleeping bag in the small parlor, intent on closing his eyes for a few minutes. But he felt far from rested.
He understood now, or at least part of it. Who or how might always be a mystery, but he knew why. Shared pain held remarkable power, though he'd never expected it to reach beyond time and death.
At one time, a man had walked this very same spot of ground. A man who, like Chris himself, had lost everything, but found a purpose and a reason to live again in the gentle nature of an understanding friend. They'd built a life together, and when that life came to an end, the man had made a horrible mistake – he'd allowed his friend to die believing that the gulf between them could never be crossed.
Somehow, through their own trials, he and Vin were meant to lead two lost souls back to each other. Why those souls wore their own faces, he could only guess at.
He didn't believe in reincarnation. Even the God he could not forgive would not be so cruel as to recreate his beloved wife and child into another being that he could never know or recognize. He couldn't have witnessed the ghosts of their ancestors, for he and Vin and Nathan came from distant parts of the country. Perhaps the spirits had merely taken forms that he and his friends would not fear – or that they knew he could not turn his back on.
Or perhaps, he thought with a shake of his head, he was just overly tired and stressed to the point of near insanity.
“Chris?” Nathan whispered from the shadows of the doorway. “You awake? I thought I heard you.”
“Yeah,” Chris grumbled. It appeared he'd be going a second night without sleep. But his own discomfort was quickly forgotten when he got a good look at Nathan's face as the other man stepped into the room. “What is it? Is it Vin?”
Nathan plopped down wearily on the floor next to him. “Remember I told you that I could maybe hold him for twenty-four hours?”
Chris nodded warily.
“Well that time is about up, Chris. And I'm just gonna be straight up with you – he won't make it another twenty-four.”
“He was fine a few hours ago. He was a little feverish but – but -”
With a gentle grip of his wrist, Nathan caught his full attention. “He's lost too much blood. There's nothin' I can do for him out here. We've got t' take our chances and get him to a hospital. In the morning, at the latest – otherwise, it could be too late.”
A shiver coursed through him when Nathan's words echoed those of his dream, “There's nothin' I can do for him . . .” He'd never forget Vin's anguished face as he took his last breath. That couldn't happen again. Or a first time, he corrected himself.
“I need to talk to Buck.”
Nathan shook his head. “Ezra already tried. He can't get any reception up here.”
“Then I'll drive down the mountain until -”
“Let Ezra do that,” Nathan interrupted. “I wasn't gonna wake you if you were asleep, but Vin's been asking for you.”
“Why didn't you tell me that right off?” Chris snapped as he immediately rose to his feet and went to the bedroom.
He found Vin awake with clear eyes, though the fever showed plainly in the flush of color highlighting his pale cheeks. Chris sat on the edge of the bed and asked softly, “Do you need me, Pard?”
Vin gripped his arm and whispered insistently, “Get to the barn. He's waiting.”
“Who?” Chris asked as he reached forward to feel the warmth of Vin's face.
“Just go!” Vin grunted.
Chris knew better than to argue, not with all the strange things going on. Nathan raised his brow as he brushed by him on his way out, but neither man spoke. Another piece of the puzzle awaited in the barn, though who it would be delivered by was anyone's guess. He suspected it would be Buck – or rather, an image of Buck.
But he was wrong.
A slightly disheveled Vin, dressed in a buckskin coat, leaned against a post in the old barn, and he tipped his hat in greeting when Chris entered. It was night now, and the heavens were blotted by clouds, yet an odd light shone in the old structure, and Chris could make out the man clearly.
“Hope yer as stubborn as he was,” the man drawled. “Gonna need all that piss and vinegar t' get through this.”
Chris knew immediately that the ghost was speaking of his counterpart. He nodded. “I imagine my friends would say so.” Narrowing his eyes, he added, “Hopefully, I'm a whole lot smarter, though.”
The Vin-figure lifted his chin defiantly. “Ain't no call t' insult him like that. He couldn't help it. He didn't know what he'd done. Anger and grief can eat a man up inside – make him say things he don't mean. I reckon you know that better than most.”
There wasn't an argument for that, but Chris wasn't going to let the man off that easily. “Maybe so. But if we're bound for some kind of eternity, my friend won't be there alone.”
Moisture glittered in the blue eyes he knew so well. “You reckon you can change that for us?”
“I'm gonna do everything I can to keep Vin on this earth for as long as I can. You got my word on that. But how – or if – that will help you, I can't say.”
The man in buckskin nodded. “I think the time's finally come – this is what we been waitin' for. So you've seen him? Talked t' him?” The voice was so hopeful, Chris felt tears prick the back of his own eyes.
“Sort of. In dreams . . .”
“Can you tell him somethin' for me?”
“I don't know. I don't seem to have any control here,” Chris replied, realizing even as he spoke how true – and how annoying – that was. But he couldn't refuse this Vin anymore than he could his own. “I'll try.”
“It wasn't his fault that day. They come up on me in the barn – I didn't even have a chance t' pull my gun. They would've done the same t' him.”
“I don't know – it seems like he's heard that before and he ain't buyin' it.”
“He's got to or it won't matter.” There were definite tears in the blue eyes when the man spoke again, “Tell him – tell him I'm tired of waitin'.”
Before he could think to reply, the light dimmed, and Chris knew he was alone again. He sighed as he turned back towards the house. It wasn't enough that he didn't have a clue how to get Vin out of trouble, now he had the problems of two men who had died more than a century ago to worry about, too. If he was smart, he'd march back into that house, scoop Vin in his arms and run for the hills.
But the heaviness in his heart weighed him down so deep that he could barely pull in a breath, let alone plan a daring escape. Whatever was happening, whoever these spirits from the past were, he couldn't turn away now.
He'd only just left the barn when he heard a voice behind him. “You seen him? You talked t' him?”
“Yeah,” Chris replied without turning around. He didn't have to see the man in black's face to know his eyes held the same hope and longing as those of the man who had just disappeared into the night.
“So close,” the voice breathed.
“Yet so far,” Chris replied distinctly. “And you're the only one who can change that. Even if – when – we save Vin, you're gonna have to do your part.”
“You think I wouldn't have done it by now if I knew how?”
“Forgive yourself. That's all it takes. He doesn't blame you and he never did. He just wants to be at your side again. That's all. He said he's tired of waiting.”
The response was little more than a breath in the wind. “So am I.”
There was a reasonable explanation, Ezra told himself. It was a trick of the moon, an eerie play on light - five cowboys were not lined up on a cliff watching him drive down a country road at the ungodly hour of four am. He rubbed his eyes, but the strangers continued to follow him along the rim of the canyon.
“Fine,” he muttered to himself. “Escort me if you must.”
He'd already planned his lecture to both Nathan and his official physician regarding the true side effects of his so-called “minor” concussion when he recognized the distinct pattern of bars on the cell phone representing acceptable reception. Pulling off to the side of the road, he called Buck.
“Ezra! I've been worried sick. I can't reach any of you.”
“Yes, we are well aware. Which is why I've made my way down a treacherous mountain trail in the middle of the night accompanied by a roving band of spectral cowboys.”
“Huh? What did you just say? Cowboys?”
“Never mind. An update please.”
“Yeah, but first, how's Vin?”
“Does the expression one foot in the grave paint a picture for you?”
“Damn. That bad, huh? And Chris and Nathan?”
“Exhausted. We need to finish this, Buck. Nathan feels that we need to get Vin out as soon as possible or it won't matter.”
“Damn,” Buck repeated. “We're so close. I'm afraid if we bring him back now, we'll lose the progress we've made.”
“And what progress would that be?”
“I'm not sure where to start. That kid – the one that dragged Vin to the scene – he's got a lot of guts, I tell you. He came to the precinct and told those yahoos they had the wrong idea about what happened that night – that Vin had no idea what he was walking into.”
“Are they going to believe a common street rat?” Ezra said derisively. While he was grateful one of Vin's self-appointed charges had come to his defense, he held no illusions about their often warranted reputations.
“They have to now. David Nichols' partner finally backed him up. Seems Nichols had a plan to take down the James gang alone – chalk up some points for himself and his father. We think he panicked when he saw Vin – or maybe he didn't even recognize him.”
“Why didn't you tell us this sooner? We could have gotten Vin the medical care -”
“Not so fast, Ezra. There's more. Nichols' partner was wounded, too, and he died late last night, just after they picked up Lucas James. Which leaves Vin -”
“The only surviving witness against Lucas,” Ezra completed with a sigh. “But surely we can protect Vin? If the authorities are now on our side . . .”
“There's more. David Nichol's mother is also a big problem – she's a real nut case. She's screaming all this shit about retribution and vengeance belonging to the Lord. Josiah's been tryin' to talk her down, but I don't think it's workin'. She's out for Vin's blood, one way or another.”
“Buck, my head is killing me. And I am not yet convinced of the need to leave Vin in a haunted shack with roughly half the blood he needs to survive.”
“The word is that Ma Nichols has hired some big guns to join with several of Stuart James' men. With Vin dead, she gets her justice and Lucas James goes free. We're working as hard as we can to figure out the details, but in the meantime, the longer Vin stays missing, the better.”
“Yes, well, he will stay missing permanently if he doesn't receive medical attention by nightfall.”
“Nightfall? How can you be so sure of that?”
“I don't know. But it's true.”
“Alright, alright,” Buck said hurriedly. “I'll make arrangements. I'll come myself by noon, sooner if I can manage it.”
“Bring the others, as well,” Ezra ordered.
“Josiah and JD? Hell, Ez, they've been pushing themselves as hard as they possibly can considering their injuries.”
“I'm quite certain of that. But they'll need to push even harder. We need to do this together.”
He could hear hear the grin in Buck's voice when he teased, “Gee, Ezra, never figured you for the team cheerleader.”
“I'm serious, Buck.”
Buck sobered instantly. “Yeah, I know. We'll be there. High noon, no later.”
It wasn't soon enough, but Ezra had to acknowledge that formulating a plan to successfully transport Vin to a safe location would require a good deal of time, effort, and subterfuge. In the meantime, he could only return to their haven and pray that assistance arrived in time – and that the army of vigilantes apparently intent on doing Vin harm did not learn of their whereabouts.
Ezra slipped his cell phone back into his pocket just as a familiar voice rose up from the backseat. “You did good, Ezra – they all need t' come.”
“Still a cowboy, my friend?” Ezra sighed. He turned the key in the ignition and set off for the ranch, resolutely refusing to confront his illusion by turning around or looking in the rear view mirror.
“There he goes – callin' me a cowboy again,” Buck said, or rather, the delusion that sounded like Buck said.
“He hates that,” Josiah's voice intoned.
“No, he doesn't,” JD scoffed. “He just pretends he does.”
Great – three at once. Ezra sighed again. “Really gentlemen, isn't it bad enough that I am up at this unholy hour? Must you challenge my already over-taxed mental faculties?”
“Huh?” JD asked.
“I think he wants us to get to the point,” Josiah explained patiently.
“That would be helpful,” Ezra agreed. He added under his breath, “If there truly is a point.”
Josiah's voice grew quiet. “We lost our balance. We need our brothers back.”
“Five isn't enough?” Ezra quipped.
“No,” Buck replied, “it's not. And I reckon you know what I'm talkin' about.”
Well, oddly enough, he did. It just seemed natural now that a team was comprised of seven players – even a set of cowboys who didn't actually exist.
“What do you suggest?” Ezra asked, his eyes focused on the road ahead. He was certain if he looked behind him, his ghostly friends would disappear. And as much as he hated to admit it, he took comfort in their familiar voices. Besides, if they had some insight to offer on the current situation, who was he to turn them away?
“A house divided cannot stand,” Josiah stated.
Ezra rolled his eyes – so much for insight. Josiah's reasoning was unfathomable even in his hallucinations. “My friends and I are quite united in our purpose, I assure you.”
“Maybe you are, but we're not.” JD sounded sad, and Ezra was tempted to turn and see his face. What did the lad mean by that? Were these cowboys a separate entity from his own friends? A unique band of their own? How could that be?
“That's not exactly true,” Josiah's soft baritone argued gently. “It's not our purpose that divides us.”
“Then what?” Ezra asked.
“You gotta save Vin,” Buck replied, his voice fading into the night. “Ask Chris, he knows.”
Before Ezra could clarify further, they were gone. Alright, he thought as he drove back towards the ranch, something was definitely not right here. Perhaps there was more going on than he originally surmised, more than an odd little fantasy playing out in his bruised brain.
And perhaps Chris did know more than he'd let on so far, considering his increasingly unusual behavior. And then there was Nathan and Vin, both of whom had mysteriously begun dropping their 'g's and using 'ain't' like it was the word of the day.
Had they all lost their minds? Or were he and his friends being visited – and possibly influenced - by ghosts from the past who bore a striking resemblance to themselves? And what, exactly, were these spirits after?
He walked into the ranch a short time later, intent on getting some answers, but to his disappointment, Chris was sound asleep at Vin's bedside. Nathan followed him out into the hall for an update, but Ezra left out the part about the visitors from the old west.
“High noon, huh?” Nathan questioned with a shake of his head. “Well, if that's the best they can do, I guess we better get ready. You get some rest – I'll take watch. Gotta be up with Vin, anyways.”
Ezra agreed, but he didn't think he could actually sleep. The moment he closed his eyes, he knew he'd be haunted by the sad voices of the roving cowboys who were apparently riding through an afterlife two men short.
Vin tossed and turned restlessly as the fever climbed, and Nathan thought he'd never felt so helpless in his life. All of his training was worthless, his efforts futile, and he couldn't help thinking about what Chris had told him about the grave. Had someone sat at this same bedside a hundred years ago and struggled in vain to save a wounded friend?
“Chris? Where's Chris?” Vin's weak voice echoed in the stillness of the early morning.
“Easy now, it's alright,” Nathan soothed. “He's here – asleep in the chair next to you.”
“No, he's not! He's not there!” Vin argued as his pale eyes darted about the room frantically.
“Yes, he is, Vin. He's plumb wore out, that's all. He's been lookin' after you for goin' on two days now.”
Vin shook his head. “Somethin's wrong. There's a river 'tween us and I can't get across.”
Nathan slid his gaze to Chris' still form, and he had to wonder if Vin didn't have something there. Larabee hadn't so much as twitched since Vin called for him. And while some would chalk it up to exhaustion, he felt that Vin's perception might be closer to the truth: if Chris didn't move, it could only mean that he was too far away to hear him. The measured space between the two men might be only feet, but even to Nathan, it seemed more like miles – like something had slipped out of place while Chris slept and Vin fought for his life.
“You gotta get him back, Nathan!” Vin said as he clung desperately to Nathan's arm. “The time's comin'.”
“Vin! Vin, listen t' me. I promise you he's -”
But Vin was looking past him now at something in the far corner of the room that Nathan couldn't see.
“You stayin'?” Vin asked the empty space, his eyes wide and hopeful.
Several moments passed, and Nathan watched curiously as Vin nodded, then closed his eyes and muttered, “Alright, alright.”
Nathan stood and watched Vin for several more minutes, but the injured man appeared to be sleeping peacefully for the first time in hours, so he let himself relax a bit. He'd promised Ezra he would keep watch, but he was so very tired. Pulling a chair close to the wall, he sat down and leaned his head back, telling himself that he'd only close his eyes for a few minutes.
He wasn't asleep, not really, but he quickly felt himself being pulled through dark, heavy shadows to another place, another time. He saw a replica of himself leaning over a bed, caring for a man who looked like Vin, only with longer hair and deeper lines around his eyes. Buck was standing just behind him, peering anxiously over his shoulder.
“Well?” Buck asked. “He gonna make it?”
Nathan watched himself cast a glance across the room. It was only then that he noticed Chris leaning against the far wall, dressed entirely in black. Long bangs hid his eyes, and he didn't look up at Buck's question.
“Get the others,” the man who wore his face answered, though his gaze remained fixed on the man in the corner.
“What? Oh, no. You don't mean -”
Nothing more was said as Buck hurried away, but Nathan felt a cold chill settle in the room and suck the air from his lungs. He wanted out, wanted this nightmare to end, but he was stuck, forced to watch an act play out that he couldn't bear to see.
“I'm so sorry,” he heard himself say to the Chris in his dream. “I'd give anything if I could change this. I've done all I can think to do – and God knows he's fightin', too. But – but -”
“You believe in God?” Chris cut in, his eyes still turned to the floor. “Heaven? Hell? You think there's anything after this?”
Nathan's twin shook his head. “I don't know. Seen an awful lot of things that no merciful or just God would allow. This surely is one of 'em.”
“We used t' say we'd ride into hell together. But he deserves better than that.”
“So do you.”
A short, bitter laugh was the response. “I've already been there. Looks like I'm fixin' to go there again.”
Nathan felt the helplessness of his mirror image – the grief, the despair. He would lose two friends that night, and nothing he could do to stop it. The shadows shifted then, marking the passage of time, and now Nathan saw himself standing back while Josiah and Ezra took his place at Vin's bedside.
Ezra was silent and obviously shaken, but Josiah held Vin's hand in his own wide palm. “Always thought I'd be the first – but then you always were the one to lead us home,” Josiah said, his eyes bright with tears. “We'll be with you soon, my brother.”
Vin's face was gray, his eyes glassy, and Nathan knew as he watched from the distance, that this Vin had very little time left. But the dying man managed to nod at Josiah before tilting his chin towards the man in the corner and pleading softly, “Take care of him?”
“You know I will, don't worry now,” Josiah replied gently.
Ezra cleared his throat and added in barely more than a whisper, “We will all see that he is taken care of. We promise you.”
This isn't real, Nathan reminded himself, but as he watched the tears roll down the cheeks of his mirror image, he felt his own face grow damp. With a shudder, he shook himself awake, sitting upright in the chair with a gasp.
“So you see the problem?” Ezra asked from where he stood across the small bedroom.
“Huh? What?” Nathan scrubbed his hand over his eyes and muttered, “I thought you were restin'.”
“Well, I had certainly hoped as much, but you know the saying, 'No rest for the wicked'.”
“What are you talkin' about?” Nathan peeled his eyes open further and looked closer at Ezra. “And where did you get that red coat?”
“That, my friend, is a long story - one we have no time for at the present. Perhaps another time.”
“Yeah, okay,” Nathan said wearily as he sank back in the chair. “Had a terrible dream,” he confessed.
“Not a dream. I'm afraid for some of us it was quite real and quite – difficult.”
“I don't understand.”
“No, I'm sure you don't. Suffice it to say that we were unable to keep our promise to our friend, and he has been cut off from us ever since.” Ezra leaned forward and said very softly, “The time is coming to set things right. For all of us.”
“I don't know what you're talkin' about,” Nathan muttered with a quick shake of his head.
“Listen to me,” Ezra said, his voice more forceful now, “Vin doesn't have to die. This doesn't have to happen again.”
And just that quick, Nathan was back to that terrible, dark place where another Chris sat on the bed, holding another Vin in his arms . . .
“Don't grieve for me, Pard – we'll ride together again.”
“No, no we won't. I won't be where you are. I have too much hate in me, too much anger – too much guilt.”
Nathan watched himself chastise Chris for his harsh words, watched Chris refuse to take them back, watched Vin take those last, difficult breaths . . . watched two men die.
And then he was back where he belonged once again. Vin lay resting quietly - pale but not the sickly gray color of imminent death - while Chris remained asleep at his side. Ezra was nowhere in sight.
Nathan leaned back and tried to slow his thundering heart while he absorbed what he'd been shown. Like the Nathan in his dream, he hadn't made up his mind about the existence of God. And he was too busy trying to take care of his friends in this life to worry much on the next one. But something was going on here - something separate from him and his friends, yet somehow connected. He knew without understanding why or how, that the events that led them to where they were today were brought about by a tragedy that had occurred a century ago.
He knew this, too: the fates of the spirits he'd seen and the fates of his seven friends would be determined by the battle to save Vin's life.
The time was coming.
Chris woke up with an aching kink in his neck and a sick feeling in his stomach. Vin was out of reach. The man might lie inches from him, but it was like a glass wall had been erected between them that he couldn't penetrate.
“I'm sorry,” a voice he knew well spoke in his ear. “I didn't know it would happen like this. But I'll stay with him. He won't be alone.”
“He damn well better not be. Don't screw this up like you did the last time,” Chris snapped.
It felt like he was leaving his soul behind as he walked out of the bedroom, down the hall, and onto the front porch. God help him, he'd never forgive himself if Vin died, even though he knew he'd be repeating the same horrendous mistake he'd been forced to bear witness to in his dream. He didn't want to be separated from Vin by any distance of any kind, but he had no choice. Forces were at work that, two days ago, he'd have considered absurd. But he could no longer deny their existence - his heart wouldn't let him, even if his head disagreed.
“Chris? We need to talk.”
Ezra's voice broke his reverie, and he turned towards the man who had stepped out and joined him on the porch.
“Yeah, we do,” Chris agreed.
By unspoken agreement, they took a seat on the old porch steps. The mid-morning sun was shining brightly, warming the air for the first time in days. Sitting there, basking in the bright rays, ghosts and visions and death felt far removed from them, and for a moment, Chris doubted his own sanity.
But Ezra's words left no room for doubt. “I've seen them – or some of them,” he said. “What is it they want from us?”
“To keep Vin alive.”
“I gathered that. But how does that help their situation? What is their situation, exactly?”
“They made a promise they couldn't keep,” Nathan joined in as he stepped out of the door behind them.
Chris cocked his head at that, wondering what Nathan knew that he didn't. But any chance for clarification was lost when he caught sight of a cloud of dust rising up in the distance. “Someone's coming,” he stated, quickly getting to his feet.
Ezra looked at his watch. “I wasn't expecting Buck for a few hours yet.”
“It's not Buck,” Chris said ominously.
“Dear God,” Ezra breathed beside him as three black Hummers came in to view. “They've sent a regiment.”
“Ezra - try and call for back-up,” Chris ordered. “Nathan – stay with Vin.”
But Ezra grabbed his arm. “No, Chris, you need to be with Vin.”
Chris shook his head. “I have to go to the barn.”
“No!” Ezra cried. “You can't leave Vin. You have to be with him.”
Chris paused for a moment before turning back to face Ezra. “He's with him – the other Chris. I have to be in the barn – with his Vin. They can't be in the same place – not yet. Look, I know this sounds crazy but -”
“Actually, it makes perfect sense,” Ezra said softly. “Go on. Nathan and I will cover the house.”
Chris started towards the barn, but he turned back to face his men. “This could get bad,” he said. “Without any back-up . . .”
“Oh, we have back-up,” Nathan replied. “Just look up there.”
“I'm not sure how useful their weapons will be,” Ezra said as he peered up the hill and noted five cowboys lined up in formation. “But they can seriously mess with some heads.”
It was the first time Chris had seen the remaining spirits, other than Nathan, and he took a moment to study the five figures. Other than their dress and some slight differences in hair style, they were carbon copies of his friends. “Hell, even when you're dead, you gotta stand out in a crowd, don't you, Ezra?” he asked, narrowing his eyes at the bright red coat.
“Well, red is my color, but frankly, I'm more intrigued by the sideburns.”
“You two are real funny but I'm thinkin' we need t' get a move-on,” Nathan urged.
Chris nodded and moved away. But his nerves wound tighter with every step. He couldn't help feeling guilty that he'd dragged Nathan and Ezra into a battle with overwhelming odds against them. And instead of fighting at their sides, he was leaving them to fend for themselves. It seemed wrong, at least until he stepped into the barn and saw the man in the buckskin coat.
The dress was wrong, the hair longer, but they were Vin's eyes that looked at him, and they were filled with relief and gratitude. “The time's finally come,” the ghost whispered.
There was no time to respond as the first shots were fired from the vehicles that rolled to a stop in the dirt between the house and the barn. Chris slid behind the barn door and took aim, but it was like hitting an armored tank - his bullets barely cracked the windows.
Within moments, Chris heard the bark of a sawed-off shotgun. “Gonna have t' get 'em out of those steel carriages,” the phantom Vin muttered as he fired. “I can't hurt 'em none, but I can sure as hell give 'em somethin' t' think about.”
Chris smiled in return, his grin widening when the remaining cowboys moved closer. When he heard their weapons join in the fray, he laughed. “Oh yeah, that'll give 'em somethin' to think about, alright.”
“I can hear 'em,” Vin's voice sounded in a wistful tone. “I can hear their guns. Can you see 'em? Are they all there?”
“All five,” Chris returned. He couldn't imagine waiting a hundred years to be reunited with the men who were like family to him – couldn't begin to fathom how it would feel to hear the evidence of their continued existence after being kept apart from them for so very long.
“Can they see you or your friends?” Chris asked his partner then, tipping his head towards the men in the vehicles.
“Reckon you're gonna have enough problems explainin' this without them seein' us. But we'll do what we have to t' keep y'all safe. If we set things right for you, we set things right for ourselves. Don't know how exactly, but I know it's so.”
Chris agreed. “I know it, too.”
The windows of the Hummers were tinted, but the shooting had stopped momentarily, as if the men inside the trucks were trying to figure out where the hell all the fire power was coming from. Chris nearly laughed out loud as he pictured the men's expressions when they heard shots originating from seemingly thin air.
Beside Chris, the man in buckskin chuckled. “That's gotta be right disturbin'.”
The commotion was enough to distract the shooters for a few moments, but Chris knew it wouldn't last. Eventually, the men would have to get out and confront them, and he could only pray that he'd be able to pick them off before they got to Vin in the house. And sure enough, after several long minutes, one brave man cautiously opened a passenger door and slid to the dirt, firing wildly into the air around him. Another followed, and the battle was on. Chris tried as best he could to keep count, but there were too many bodies – flesh and not - and soon they were spreading out. He cursed under his breath when he realized that all he could really do was keep them from the barn, protect himself.
“Don't think like that,” his companion said, reading his mind. “The more of 'em you keep occupied out here, the fewer Nathan and Ezra will have t' keep away from the house.”
That was true enough, but there had to have been a dozen armed men, and the absurdity of that hit him like a blow to the head. Why send an army to take out one man? Unless . . .
“This isn't about Vin at all, is it?” Chris asked. “It's about you – it's all about you. We're just pawns in some desperate plan to get the seven of you back together!”
“You think we wouldn't have done this a hundred years ago if that was the case? If we had any say?”
“I think seven men who work together like we do don't come around all that often. You all saw your chance and you took it.”
“Hell, you might have somethin' there – but it wasn't us that put this together. I won't tell you I'm sorry it happened, though. I won't tell you that I wouldn't have lined things up just this way it if would mean gettin' us all back together. I'd do anything t' make that happen and not apologize for it. ”
“You got any clue what we've been through? You got any idea how my friend has suffered for the last two days?” Chris argued.
“Yeah. As a matter of fact, I remember it real well. Ain't nothin' worse than dyin' slow and watchin' someone you'd give your life for die along with you. Hell yes, I know.”
A barrage of gunfire hit the barn, ending the conversation, but there was nothing more to be said. Chris had to admit that if he were in the gunfighter's shoes, he'd do whatever it took to make his team whole again.
And speaking of his team – once again, Buck had come through in the nick of time. Chris saw the dust rising as Buck's truck barreled down the lane towards them. They'd still be outnumbered, but the odds had suddenly improved considerably.
He supposed it would have been comical under different circumstances, the looks on his teammates' faces when they exited the vehicle and saw the phantom cowboys circling the Hummers, firing their spectral weapons like they could do some real damage. But it only took moments for Buck, JD, and Josiah to gather their wits enough to join in the fight. Even that had to have been considered, Chris thought. Josiah and JD had already determined that the ranch was haunted by spirits from another world, and Buck always took a situation head-on – questioning the details later, if at all. If someone or something had orchestrated this event, they'd known that it was himself, Nathan, and Ezra that would need extra convincing before they'd buy in - hence their one-on-one interactions with the spirits in the hours before this battle began.
Vin was probably the only one among them who wouldn't bat an eyelash either way. And maybe that was why he was the chosen victim, the linchpin in this entire affair. But more likely, it was because his and Vin's relationship most closely resembled that of the main characters in the tragedy that had unfolded a century ago. He and Vin hadn't taken up ranching together – yet – but they were as close as kin. Friends, partners, brothers . . .
“Make it come out right this time,” the voice had whispered in his ear as he stood at the foot of the grave. That was really what was going on here - a second chance to join forces and save lives. And he realized that if Vin died here today, the destiny of not just seven men, but fourteen would be at stake.
“He's not gonna die here. Not again,” Chris said in a low whisper. But the man beside him turned towards him and nodded approvingly.
One of his bullets finally landed, taking down an assailant who had tried to make his way towards the porch; another man went down as a result of Ezra's steady hand. Chris noted that Josiah, one arm still in a sling, was pinned down at the side of the house, while JD remained crouched behind the truck. He'd lost sight of Buck, so he figured the man must have circled around to the back of the barn. That wasn't where he wanted him – he wanted Buck to watch Vin's back, but apparently that task was going to be up to a ghostly gunfighter. Chris took comfort in knowing that if the dead man hadn't given up on a friend in a hundred years, he wasn't likely to throw in the towel now.
Paired up in death as they often were in life, Chris noted that the phantom Buck stayed near JD, while the black healer had followed Josiah. JD's ghost had disappeared after Buck, while Josiah's and Ezra's counterparts continued to wreak havoc by circling the vehicles and firing their guns in the air.
Just then Buck burst through a broken window at the back of the barn. “Chris!” he hollered. But before Chris could respond, Buck spotted the ghost clad in buckskin. “Vin?” he sputtered, “is that -? Are you -? Wait a minute, am I really seeing -?” He turned then to the grinning ghost of JD who had appeared beside him. “Oh hell, you mean I gotta look out for two of you now? Can't hardly take care of the one I got!”
“Buck,” Chris said, turning towards his old friend, “Vin's in the house. I can't get to him.”
More said there then he'd planned on, that was clear by the look of sympathy in Buck's eyes when he responded in a steady voice, “There's a whole lot more going on here than I got a handle on right now, Chris. And I'm hopin' there's a damn good explanation for it – other than I got hit on the head one too many times. But one thing I'm sure of - you'll take care of Vin. Like always.”
“Got one comin' up the east side,” the Vin-spirit interrupted urgently.
“Another on the west!” JD's ghost added.
As he and Buck quickly spun and picked off the two assassins, Chris realized that the cowboys were able to do more than whip up some added noise and confusion – they were seven extra sets of eyes with no limitations or boundaries. And that asset might be just enough to get them through this.
“They would've got us for sure,” Buck said. Turning to the spirits, he added, “Thanks.”
A familiar grin lit up the young face, but the brown eyes flashed as he obviously noted the man in buckskin standing nearby. His voice ringing with excitement, he exclaimed, “I can see you!”
Beside him, Chris heard his own phantom partner gasp, “Kid?”
“It's working,” Chris whispered as he watched the two spirits pull each other into a quick, but warm, embrace.
“What? What's working? What the hell is going on?” Buck asked.
“Long story,” Chris said. He added, “But I got a good feeling that we're gonna have plenty of time to talk about it later.”
Yes, he thought with an inward smile, plenty of time. Maybe even an eternity.
It was the apocalypse, Vin thought. It seemed as though a firestorm was raining down from the heavens.
“Damn waste of ammunition for one man,” he muttered, bewildered. They'd sent an army after him, and they apparently didn't give a damn who they took down with him. “Where's Ezra?” he asked Nathan as he struggled to sit up in the bed. He didn't have to ask about Chris; he knew, somehow, where Larabee was and who he was with.
“He's coverin' the front.”
“Alright. Give me my gun and get the hell out of here,” Vin ordered. “I'll cover the back of the house.”
“You ain't shootin' no gun and where the hell do you think I'm gonna go?”
“There's a trap door in the kitchen floor – leads to a cellar. You can hide down there and they'll never find you.”
“How do you know about that?”
“Does it matter? It's there. So go.”
“You gotta a child on the way whose gonna need you,” Vin argued desperately.
“And I gotta a friend who needs me now.”
“We can handle it,” Vin said as he finally manged to pull himself up to the side of the bed. His head spun but he could feel the adrenalin flowing through his veins, giving him renewed strength.
“We? What 'we' would you be talkin' about if I'm hidin' like a yella dog in a cellar?” Nathan asked angrily.
Oh. So Nathan didn't know. “Chris is here. Well, he looks like Chris. I reckon he ain't our Chris – not exactly. But it don't matter. We can fight 'em off together.”
“He's right,” a new voice joined in.
Vin smiled at the man in the long black coat who'd apparently decided to make himself visible to Nathan.
Nathan didn't appear all that surprised. “Now look, I know there's a whole bunch of you cowboys that look like us roamin' around here givin' us advice and such, but I don't reckon those bullets in that gun of yours are gonna do us much good when it comes t' real life flesh and blood.”
“Cowboys?” the ghostly Chris responded with a wince. But he grinned wickedly when he added, “No, but we sure as hell can scare 'em to death.”
Vin laughed, and even though the action made his side burn something fierce, it felt good, felt right. This long dead gunman not only looked like Chris, he thought like him, too.
Nathan shook his head, but he handed Vin his gun. “Just stay down and let us handle this. If anyone comes through that door, shoot him.” He looked at the phantom Chris then and added, “See if you can keep this fool in bed where he belongs. Won't do any of us no good if he bleeds t' death before we get this finished.”
Once Nathan was safely out of the room, Vin looked at the man in black and stated, “I ain't stayin' in bed while my friends fight for my life.”
“Figured as much.”
Anything more that might have been said was lost when bullets shattered the window. Vin dredged up every ounce of energy he possessed and dragged himself to the window. He wouldn't make it long, but he'd fight with his very last breath.
“Can you handle this?” the gunman asked him.
“Like licken' butter off a knife,” Vin said, his lips quirking up in a small smile.
The spirit turned towards him, an expression of disbelief on his familiar face. “Vin?” he whispered.
It lasted only moments, a knowing passing between them, time and space transcended.
But then the bullets were flying again, fast and furious, and Vin turned back to the window.
He didn't know how long it lasted, and he lost track of who was where. He could hear furious gunfire coming from the front of the house, and he knew without seeing that his other teammates had arrived and joined in the fray.
But every pull of the trigger drained him, and his arms shook as he tried to keep a steady hold of his weapon. Long minutes later, when his vision began graying at the edges, he knew he was running out of time. As his gun fell limply to his side and he slowly slid to the floor, he turned his face towards that of the friend he knew so well and asked, “You got it figured out yet?”
The man met his eyes and nodded. “It wasn't my fault. I couldn't have saved him. But I wish I'd had the chance to try. I would have been happy to die just havin' that chance.”
“I reckon I understand that,” Vin replied weakly, thinking of his own friends and his inability to help them.
The blond spirit squatted next to him on the floor and said softly, “It's gonna be alright this time. No one you care about is gonna die here today. I promise you.”
Vin believed him; Chris had never lied to him, after all.
Even moments later, when an explosion rocked the house and heat and smoke filled the small bedroom, he believed. But darkness pulled at him, and there was nothing more he could do. His last conscious thought was that he'd soon be with those who mattered most – in this life, or the next.
“Chris! Chris, wait! Help's on the way. I was able to call for back-up as soon as we saw the Hummers. I can hear the sirens. Hold on – just -”
Buck's desperate pleas went unanswered as Chris ran from the barn straight for the house. It was like stampeding through a wall of gunfire, but he had no doubt that he'd be protected as he approached the burning ranch-house.
There was a roar as a great gust of wind caught the flames and spewed them high into the sky. The sound was deafening, drowning out the wail of sirens in the distance, the sporadic bark of guns, and the shouts of the living and the dead.
Chris entered through a back window that had been blown out by the explosion, heedless of the thick smoke and scorching heat. Vin would not burn up in that house, would not join their despondent mirror images in death. Let the ghostly man in black find his own partner – or not. This Vin – his Vin - would not be the alternate, the substitute.
Within seconds, he'd made it to the bedroom. Burning timbers fell around him, but somehow, he remained untouched. The relief at seeing Vin intact, though motionless, nearly stole what little breath remained in his lungs. It seemed impossible until the smoke cleared for a brief moment, and he understood. One black-clad ghost stood guard at Vin's head, while another in buckskin hovered over his feet. Each unable to see the other - unable to reach out in any way – yet they worked in tandem, with one mind and one mission: to protect Vin at all costs.
Words escaped him, he could only nod his thanks as he threw Vin over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. It wasn't possible to get out uninjured, not in any world that made any sense at all. But everything had changed, and the old rules no longer applied; they emerged from the burning rubble unscathed.
As Chris gently eased Vin to the ground, Nathan immediately rushed forward. “I got him, I got him,” Jackson said.
Suddenly, Buck was there, too, wrapping an arm around Chris' shoulders and muttering, “My God, Chris, I thought you were both dead for sure.”
The sounds of frantic commotion filled the air, but Chris only heard Ezra's soft voice behind him say, “Look.”
A few yards from him, the images of him and Vin stood near each other, forearms clasped. Tears shone in the men's eyes as they stared at each other for a long moment, and then the man in black pulled the other man to him in a fierce hug.
Chris swallowed the lump in his throat and looked away, but he turned back again when he felt the approach of one of the spirits.
His own eyes peered at him from beneath the brim of the black hat, and his own voice spoke to him, “Vin will be alright now.”
Chris wanted to say something, but before he could formulate the words, the two cowboys were swept up into the arms of five others. Chris watched the joyful reunion, unashamed of the tears that filled his own eyes. And he wasn't alone, he quickly surmised. All of his men remained motionless, entranced at the scene before them. It was as if time had stood still and no one existed outside their team and the seven cowboys who matched them in nearly every way.
Moments later, the seven spirits mounted their horses, tipped their hats, and rode off. Chris thought he heard the other Vin whoop for joy as the men disappeared into the sunlight.
Suddenly and swiftly, the real world came into focus again. As paramedics descended on Vin, Chris realized with vague surprise that the battle was over. In fact, several officers had already secured the scene and were beginning to load the uninjured assailants in their vehicles.
He was shocked when Orin Travis appeared out of nowhere and gently gripped his shoulder. “Chris? Are you alright?” the older man asked. “You look like you've just seen a ghost.”
Travis probably thought he'd lost his mind when he laughed outright. “You might say that,” he answered. “You didn't happen to notice any cowboys, did you?”
“Cowboys?” Travis asked with a frown.
“Never mind,” Chris replied, still grinning.
Ezra leaned against the wall in a long corridor of the Denver hospital, scrubbing a hand over his eyes. It had been two days since the shoot-out, but he still hadn't caught up on his rest. No matter how many ways he'd turned it around in his head, he couldn't make sense of what he'd seen and heard. His cynical nature didn't allow for “happily-ever-afters”, and he was uncomfortable with anything that went against the laws of probability, not to mention the laws of nature. He could only hope Josiah or JD had found something to help explain the mysterious events that had taken place.
Explanations had been short in coming, though. Ezra himself had to dig deep to bluff his way through the entire “shoot-out at the haunted ranch-house” report. By unspoken agreement, the cowboys never existed, therefore the unusually loud and seemingly excessive fire power had to be the mistaken impressions of the men in the armored vehicles. Other loose ends remained, including who had tipped off Stuart James of their whereabouts. There still wasn't a good explanation for how or why the Nichols and James gangs came together in the first place – and Ezra suspected there never would be. That wasn't the point, after all. Still, he wondered if the cowboys hadn't had a bone to pick with the two families' ancestors . . .
Sighing heavily, he pulled himself upright and entered the hospital room. His friends were all there. Buck was casually draped on the window ledge, while JD and Josiah, who were still recovering from their own injuries, took the chairs on each side of Vin's bed. Ezra was pleased to see that Vin had a little color in his face this morning and that the shadows under his eyes were beginning to lighten.
Chris, the only one standing, was deep in conversation with Vin, and Ezra paused a moment to study to the two men. It was uncanny how much they resembled their spirit-twins, including that indefinable 'something' between them. The eyes of his friends held relief, certainly, and affection, always, but there was something more – a sense of wholeness, of rightness. Just as he had seen in the eyes of two long dead cowboys who had finally found each other again. It was an incredible moment that he'd never forget, topped only by the moments that followed as all seven men were reunited.
It dawned on him then that his teammates were staring at him curiously, waiting for him to speak, so he cleared his throat and asked, “Well? Any news?”
JD shook his head. “The records regarding the ranch and the land were destroyed years ago in a fire. There's no way to know who lived there originally.”
Ezra frowned. “And no one has ever come forward to claim it?”
“No. The state took it over years ago, but it's been pretty much forgotten from what I can tell. Guess it's far enough away from everything that nobody ever gave it much thought.”
“Someone did,” Buck contradicted. “Someone sent us out there on a wild goose chase last month.”
“And I take it we still have no leads on who that anonymous someone might be?” Ezra questioned.
Chris shook his head, but it was Vin who replied, “Does it matter?”
“Probably not,” Josiah responded. “We were meant to find it; meant to make our stand there. We may never know how, and we can only guess why. But what we do know is this: seven spirits were reunited through our battle, and we were spared because of their assistance.”
“So . . . were we sent to help them? Or where they sent to help us?” JD asked.
“Both, I guess,” Josiah replied thoughtfully. “Apparently we're not the only seven men in history who share a common destiny.”
“I sure wish we could have found out who they were – what their story was. Man, I bet they had exciting lives,” JD said wistfully.
Buck moved behind JD and playfully smacked the back of the young man's head. “Like your life ain't exciting? You get in enough trouble in the here and now – I can't even imagine tryin' to keep you straight in the old west.”
Chris smiled. “I think Vin's right – it doesn't really matter who they were. Just matters that they're riding together again. Like they were meant to.”
Vin nodded and met Chris's eyes. “Reckon that was worth takin' a bullet for.”
“Still can't wrap my head around it,” Buck replied. “They sure seemed an awful lot like us. Hell, they were us in most every way.”
“Well, look at it this way,” Josiah said, “we learned a valuable lesson from our spiritual twins. When our time comes, we won't have to wait in agony for a hundred years to be together again.”
“Hold on – wait a minute. Are you saying -? Surely you're not implying -? Do you believe that the seven of us will be together for eternity?” Ezra choked.
Josiah grinned. “Stranger things have happened.”
Ezra blew out a long breath. “Yes, I suppose. At least I can take comfort in the fact that my good taste will survive my death – my counterpart did look rather dashing in that red coat, if I say so myself. You, on the other hand,” he said with a nod towards Vin, “had better start praying now, if that buckskin jacket is any indication.”
Vin and Chris walked together over the stony ground in silence until they came upon the grave.
“Nice spot,” Vin said. “You did good, Cowboy.”
Chris cocked his head. “I did good? What are you talking about, Vin? This grave is over a hundred years old. You know that.”
Vin tipped his chin towards the white marker. “Check out the name.”
“I already told you – it's gone. There's no way to know who was buried here.”
“I already looked. I can read the inscription underneath, but not the name.”
“Could be you weren't meant t' see it that day. Try again.”
Chris shook his head and muttered under his breath, but he stooped low to the ground and brushed away the tangled vine.
His breath caught in his throat. “What does this mean?” he asked softly. “We saw them ride off. They can't be us – we can't be them. Can we?”
Vin shrugged. “Don't know exactly. But I can tell you this - every time the time comes around for me t' ride with you, I'll be grateful for it.”
Brushing his thumb over the letter “V” that was carved into the white wooden cross, Chris whispered, “Me, too, Pard – me, too.”