Warning: This story contains sensitive subject matter - racism and prejudice - and consequently contains some strong and derogatory language that is no longer socially acceptable, but is an integral part of the story.
This story was moved to blackraptor in March 2022.
Josiah Sanchez entered the saloon, blinking momentarily to adjust to the darkness. He approached the table where five of the seven sat intently playing cards. "Anybody seen Nathan?"
"Think he's at the McCleary ranch tendin' to one of their boys, why?" J.D. Dunne responded.
"Just got word from the village, Rain's missing. Not like her to just wander off like that and not tell anyone."
"Not like who to wander off?" Nathan entered the saloon, looking weary.
"Josiah says Rain's gone missing Nathan, " the young sheriff blurted out.
"What?" The healer's eyes widened as the news sank in.
Josiah rubbed his jaw. "Seems she was supposed to come here to collect some supplies for the village. When she didn't show up when she should, the elders got worried."
"We've gotta go find her, now!" Nathan's face reflected both urgency and fear. He headed toward the doors that still swung lazily from his entrance.
"I concur with Mr. Jackson. We depart this location immediately and ride out to locate and, if necessary, rescue his paramour should she require such intervention on our behalf." the gambler chimed in.
"Oh…yeah we'll go find her," Buck deciphered the grifter's flowery speech and lifted himself out of his chair. "I was down to m' last five dollars here anyway".
"Ah, Mr. Wilmington you have been holding out on me. We can't let that five dollars burn a hole in your pocket."
"Later boys, let's go. Vin, see if you can pick up some sign of her." Larabee threw his cards on the table, rose and headed to the livery. The other men quickly followed him from the saloon.
+ + + + + + +
The seven commenced their search and, true to form Vin was quickly able to pick up the trail, finding the tracks of five riders. "Seems one of 'm's ridin' double. Could be Rain's with 'm."
"Well, what the hell we waitin' for?" Nathan was becoming more anxious.
"Now Mr. Jackson, we will not do ourselves any good riding off like avenging angels. We must bide our time, and, as Mr. Larabee will no doubt agree, we need a plan," the Southerner said evenly.
"Ezra has a point Nathan, we do need a plan," Josiah added.
All eyes then turned to Chris. If there was one thing they could rely on, it was that Larabee had an endless supply of well thought out plans.
Today would be no different.
+ + + + + + +
Tanner signaled for the men to stop. "They should be just over that rise. Don't think they'll be expectin' us. I'll go check it out."
"I'll go with you, the rest of you get everythin' ready, we'll go in after we've checked out the camp." Chris quickly checked his gun and followed closely behind the tracker. Staying low and walking lightly through the thick prairie grass, they reached the edge of the camp. Once there they found that there was no movement and an eerie quietness throughout the little clearig.
"Somethin' ain't right," the tracker said in a whisper.
Nodding, Chris said, "I got that feeling too."
"Okay, I just……."
"Well hello boys, been expectin' y'." Chris and Vin turned to see a large man standing above them. "Put down the guns real easy like. No-one has to die………well, not yet anyways." The man's face broke into an ugly smile. "Your lady friend said you boys would come lookin' for her. Now lets go get the rest of your scurvy bunch."
Buck was the first to see Chris and Vin return. He was also the first to see that they were not alone, and it appeared they were the ones caught.
"Now you boys put down your guns and your friends here won't end up with any holes in 'em." The obvious leader, one smalltime rustler named Joe Barton, seemed very pleased with himself.
As the five threw down their guns, the rest of the gang surrounded them. Tying them up by the wrists the men forced the seven to walk to their camp.
"Mr. Tanner I do believe you are losing your touch. I find it quite difficult to reconcile our current predicament with your reputation."
"Well Ezra I'd be mighty happy to change your thinkin' when I get my hands free."
"No , No, that will not be necessary. I do believe every person is allowed one mistake and as such I'm willing to let this one pass."
They were thrown together between a group of trees at the back of the camp.
J.D. leaned over to Buck hoping for some sort of positive banter. "So what do you reckon they want, Buck?"
"Well kid, I ain't no mind reader am I?" Seeing the dejected look on J.D.'s face, Buck offered albeit not very convincingly, "Look kid, I reckon they're just out for some fun. Probably give us a hard time for a while then let us go."
"Hope you're right Buck." Even though he had matured beyond his years in the months he had been part of "The Seven" he was still just a kid and it was times like these that made this was even more evident.
Their captors settled in and were soon passing a jug around. When it emptied one of their number produced a second. They were getting louder, rowdier and more unpredictable as time went by. Trouble was coming, and the seven knew it was not going to be easy to get out of this in one piece.
Charlie Carson, a particularly ugly and violent thug, led Rain across the camp and threw her on the ground in front of their captives. "Hey Joe, let's entertain ourselves with the girl. Even let them watch if y' like."
Luckily, apart from a few scratches to her face, she seemed otherwise unharmed. She cried out as the two men clawed at her.
"NO!……leave her alone." Nathan struggled against the heavy rope that bound him.
Joe came towards the tall, black healer and back handed him across the face.
"He said leave her alone." There was no denying the threat from Larabee, although he never raised his voice. If they hurt Rain they were going to pay and pay dearly in blood and pain.
"Well, Well Mr. Larabee, what would you suggest to keep us entertained then?"
Henry Barton, Joe's brother, wandered up to Joe and whispered in his ear. A crooked smile spread across the man's face. "Good idea. Charlie untie the darkie. Henry, tie Mr. Larabee up over there……on that branch," he indicated a nearby tree. " and get rid of his shirt. Now darkie, Henry here reckons that you might be able to entertain us, and if you do real good we might just leave your whore here alone for awhile." The villains laughed.
"Here, boy, now don't let us down." Charlie approached Nathan again and handed him a whip.
Nathan looked at the object placed in his hands. Memories of another time surfaced and shone in his dark eyes. Pain…fear….hate. No they couldn't be wanting him to……..to whip another human being.
"We're waiting darkie…" Joe let his words trail off, but his eyes finished the thought. The outlaws began to grow impatient after a few minutes, murmured threats a clear indication that they weren't going to wait much longer. Still Nathan did not move, his eyes transfixed on the object in his hands.
"Ah well, looks like we go back to the whore," the leader said pointedly.
Chris knew that Nathan wouldn't be able to bring himself to do this, but he had to and there was only one way to make him. He knew he was going to hate saying the words…….hate Nathan hearing them, but he had no choice. "We should've left you to be lynched."
Nathan turned, startled at the quiet outburst from Larabee.
"We shouldn't have wasted our time. You're a coward; worthless."
Josiah and Ezra exchanged knowing looks. Chris Larabee would sacrifice himself willingly if it meant the others would have a better chance of freedom.
"It's all you're fault we're here." Chris knew…. hoped… that Nathan would understand later, but for now he had to make Jackson hate him. "You pretend to be a doctor…. ain't no darkie doctors…..never wanted you along in the first place."
Nathan was stunned. This was Chris Larabee. This was a man he truly admired. Why was he saying these things?
"Niggers are just animals, you're not fit to ride with us…..you black bastard!"
A tear fell from Nathan's eye. Somewhere deep down he knew what Chris was doing, but that knowledge disappeared as something he had kept locked away for so long began to surface. He blinked, but he no longer saw the man…the man he considered a friend… who was yelling at him. It was no longer Chris Larabee's back that he saw; not his voice he heard. Before him was the body of every white man who had ever hurt him…..hurt his family. He saw the faces of his mother before she died and his father as he was taken away. He saw the pain of every black man and woman he had known who was brutalized by the cursed whip. He felt his own back being torn……his dignity being stripped away. Nathan once again stared at the weapon in his hand then as if in a trance, he brought up the whip and cracked it across Larabee's back.
Chris let out a strangled cry and then gritted his teeth. "Good" he thought. "Good Nathan….do it……you've got to do this." Chris could feel the rest of his group collectively hold their breath, he only hoped that this would cause enough of a distraction to allow the other the chance to work themselves free. He felt as though he was outside his body watching a nightmare. A nightmare that he fought to control in the only way he knew how.
Nathan continued. …….. 8, 9, 10……. His rage was taking over all rationale, tears flowing freely.
There was laughter from the men surrounding the seven. "You were right Joe, this is a lot more entertainin' than the girl," one of the others crowed.
"Yeah, wish I'd thought of it earlier," Barton answered as the laughter continued.
Buck let out a low growl, his gaze sending daggers through the men causing this. He pulled at his ropes, straining to get loose so that he could put a stop to what was happening.
Suddenly the anger evaporated and Jackson came back to his senses. "Oh my God, what have I done?" He could see the shocked faces of his friends. Ezra, Vin, Buck, J.D. Josiah…..Oh Josiah, what have I done? He slowly looked down at the whip in his hand then looked up to see the bloodied back of Larabee. Chris hung limply, blood dripping down his torn torso.
"Chris……Chris……Nooooo!" The healer's deep voice broke as the shock of what he had done overwhelmed him.
"Now now, darkie, we's just startin' t' get into this," Charlie complained. "Reckon we'll just have t' go fetch the girl again" "
NOOOOOOOO!" Nathan screamed and launched himself at the men. Before any of the outlaws could respond, he grabbed Charlie and, with a sickening crack, effortlessly snapped his arm. His next target was Joe, plunging his fists into the man's face until it was unrecognizable. He attacked them like a man possessed. The quiet healer had unleashed demons even he was unaware he possessed. Nothing and no-one would be able to console him now. His hatred took over. Hatred towards these men, toward the things Chris had said, and toward the whole human race. Most of all he unleashed the hatred he felt toward himself for allowing ignorance and prejudice to control his actions.
Rain, aware that she was no longer being watched had crept over to untie Buck. One by one they freed one another. J.D. slipped behind the others and retrieved their weapons. He handed out the gunbelts to the others and they quickly rounded up the rest of the trouble-makers.
Vin stepped protectively over to where Larabee still remained, motionless. He gingerly wrapped an arm around the blond's chest and quickly cut Chris's bonds. As he lowered the injured man, face first, to the ground, he heard a single cry of pain.
The others took up positions surrounding the brawl, guns drawn. The tall preacher could see the tortured look from his friend. "Nathan…..NATHAN! enough" The healer slowly turned to face Josiah Jackson's wide eyes slowly looked from one man to the next, not really focusing on any of them, stopping at last at the prone figure of his leader on the ground.
"He needs you Mr. Jackson," Ezra's soft drawl reached him as he placed a gentle hand on the healer's back.
"No, I can't…. I, I did that."
"Nathan, he needs you."
"Ezra, no. I won't. I can't" Nathan brushed away the gambler's touch and stood silently staring at Larabee and then back at his own bruised and bloodied hands. "No…no…no, I can't," he whispered slowly inching away from the group then, without another word, turned and ran. Rain followed him calling his name as she went.
Vin's voice broke the silence. " Buck, J.D. take care a what's left of those men. Ezra, Josiah help me with Chris, he's bad hurt."
"What about Nathan?" Sanchez asked.
"Chris needs us first, we'll find him later. Rain will be with him; probably needs time to himself anyway." The tracker whispered almost to himself "just wish he was here helpin' Chris though."
A short time later found all the outlaws tied and gagged. Josiah was quietly saying a short prayer near a blanket covering the bloodied pulp that had once been Joe Barton.
Ezra had boiled some water and he and Vin were carefully tending, as best they could, to Larabee's wounds. He had been moved to a shaded area just beyond the center of camp and made as comfortable as possible on a pallet made of several of the bedrolls. Standish was unusually quiet, working intently on the task at hand. Slowly but surely he and Tanner managed to stem the bleeding and cleaned all the wounds with the whiskey that the gambler kept on hand. When they were finished, Vin suggested that one of Ezra's clean shirts should be placed across Larabee's back. Without any hesitation the gambler retrieved the garment from his saddle bag and carefully placed it over the gunslinger's upper body. Almost immediately Chris began to stir, his body shivering against the pain.
"Hey cowboy, 'bout time you woke up." Tanner knelt beside his injured friend.
"Vin?" Pain was clear in the trembling voice.
"Yeah, it's me pard, you best lie still for now."
"Mr. Larabee," the Southerner added, " might I suggest you partake of some of my whiskey?"
"In the flesh. Here, let me help you." The gambler gently lifted Chris' head enough to allow him to sip from his silver flask.
"Where's Nathan?" Larabee managed, thoughts of what he had forced the former slave to do.
"Dunno, now you're awake we'll go see if we can find 'im. Think he just needed time to 'imself," Taner replied. Larrabee tried to rise, but a gentle hand on the back of his shoulder pressed him back to the blankets.
"Vin, tell…….him……… I'm …….sorry."
"Yeah, for what I…….." Chris offered, his voice full of pain, "I said, I didn't mean……"
"He knows, Chris, he knows."
"No Vin, I need…….. to be……… sure." With that Larabee's eyes closed, finding it too difficult to fight the pain and exhaustion he felt.
+ + + + + + +
With the camp secure and Chris resting, it was decided that Josiah and J.D. would look for Nathan and Rain, while Buck, Vin and Ezra would divide their time between guarding their prisoners and tending to Chris.
As they searched the surrounding area, Josiah could feel J.D.'s eyes on him.
"Josiah, can I ask you somethin'? "
The big preacher nodded, knowing what was coming.
"What would make Nathan act like that? You know, I never seen him do anythin' like that before. He's always so calm 'n' quiet"
"Well J.D. I expect he's been workin' a long time to keep the demons from his past in his past and Chris brought them crashing back in on him. In a way, his words provided a key."
"Yep, a key that unlocked the demons Nathan's kept bottled up inside."
"But he must have known Chris didn't mean that stuff he said. Shoot, Chris ain't that kind of man, he only did it to help Rain."
Josiah sighed, "I'm not certain that Nathan even saw Chris anymore. Anger and hate can do that, it can blind a decent man and turn him into somethin' he ain't. We can only imagine what Nathan went through back when he was growing up. Something like that never goes away, it stays with you all you're life; the best you can hope for is to keep it under control best you can."
J.D. hesitated, then sadly looked up at the preacher and offered, "You think Nathan will ever be the old Nathan again?"
"We can only pray for that brother."
The two continued their search in silence, each wondering what or who they would find when they reached Nathan Jackson.
- - - - - -
The healer had made his way to a stream about a mile east of the camp. Rain slowly walked up behind him placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Nathan, are you alright?" There was no answer. "Nathan….no-one blames you"
"NO! leave me……GO ON!" His reply was no more than a tortured whisper. Rain's eyes filled with tears as she stepped away, not knowing how to reach him. She didn't know what to say. There were no words that could console the gentle healer. As she turned, Josiah reached out to her, turning her to face him.
In a deep reassuring tone the big man offered, "We'll look after him, you go back."
She hesitated, then with a nod and a final look back at Jackson, she slowly left to return to the camp.
"Nathan, we need to go back now." Sanchez said softly.
"I know," the answer came in a hushed tone. The healer looked at Josiah then J.D. and asked "how's Chris doin'?"
"Should be able to ride in the mornin, would really help if you could take a look at him."
"No. I'm no healer…never been one and I never will be again."
J.D. and Josiah looked sadly at each other. They saw clearly that there was still a long road for the healer to travel before they would have him back.
The morning light found the seven regulators ready to ride. Although Chris had had a restless night, he insisted he was strong enough to travel, and Four Corners was only a day's ride. If they took it easy, it was decided that their best option was to get the injured man back to town.
Nathan had no contact with Chris, and barely acknowledged any of the others after returning to their midst. He returned to town riding behind the rest of the group. He could not look at the injured gunfighter; he felt unable to acknowledge the blond in any way. Any attempts by the others to engage him in conversation was greeted with silence. Nathan Jackson was there in body only, his spirit had been lost in that little clearing.
They had to stop a number of times during the ride home. They used the excuse of watering their horses and attending to their prisoners, but mainly they stopped to allow Chris some time to rest. Although he would not acknowledge it, their leader was weaker than he let on, and was quietly thankful for the short rest periods on their way back to town. While many of his wounds were superficial, there were a number of cuts that were quite deep. One in particular was much worse than the rest, a wide gash of bloody flesh. Every time they stopped, the tracker insisted on checking the wound despite Larabee's mumbled complaints.
"Damn it Vin, I'm fine. You keep fussing over me like this I'm going to have to shoot you," Chris threatened.
"If that's what it takes, go 'head," Vin responded evenly as he gingerly eased the duster off the gunfighter's shoulders. They had settled for draping the black coat over him rather than putting a shirt on. Tanner checked the bandages, grumbling at the fact that there was fresh blood on several of them. "Pard, you need t' take it easier."
"How much easier can I take it?" Chris bit out. "I can barely take a piss without someone trying to hold me up."
Chuckling, the tracker replied, "well, just be glad that we're just tryin' t' hold you, and not –"
"How're you feelin' stud?" Buck interrupted.
"Fine. How's Nathan?"
Looking over his shoulder toward where Nathan sat, away from the others, he said, "well, he's still with us. Can't tell much more'n that."
"He still standing off?"
"Yep. Won't even talk t' Rain. Poor girl's about t' fall apart. Think she's blamin' herself for all a this."
Vin shot the bigger man a hard look, trying to let him know he was saying too much. As usual, Wilmington spoke without thinking, unheeding of the fact that his words were cutting through the blond. They gave him as much pain as the whip had the day before.
"Damn it!" Larabee growled. "Someone needs to talk some sense into both of them!"
"Chris," Vin tried to soothe, "pard, they'll sort it out. Right now they're hurtin', but give 'm some time."
"Vin, this is my fault."
"Ah hell, you too? Y'all need t' sort it out an' realize that th' only ones t' blame 'r th' bastards we either buried or got tied up. Y'all done what y' had t' do," Vin said sternly.
"No," the blond said miserably, "what I did…what I said to Nathan…it's my fault."
Feeling the man tense under his touch, Tanner said, "Chris, give 'm time. He'll understand once he's had time t' sort it out."
Larabee only shook his head. Vin exchanged a look with Buck. They were becoming more and more concerned that Chris was not going to be able to sort it out anytime soon…if at all.
+ + + + + + +
Night threatened to leave them on the range for another night. Vin, riding next to his friend, resisted the urge to climb onto Pony's back behind Chris and spur the big black forward to a gallop. Instead, he kept Peso slowed to a walk, pacing Larabee.
For his part, Chris seemed barely aware of the world around him. He rode with his chin resting on his chest, eyes closed, trusting his friends and his horse to return him to the little town. His hands gripped the saddle horn, knuckles white as he fought to push back the pain. Twice he nearly fell from the saddle. Tanner caught him each time, easing him back on the broad black back.
Once back in Four Corners, the prisoners were secured in the jail and Chris was helped to his room. While he seemed little worse than he had at the beginning of the trip, his temperature had risen. He felt unusually unsteady on his feet as well, a fact he did his best not to share with the others. After Vin and Ezra had settled him in his room, they met up with Buck and Josiah in the saloon while J.D. was left to look after the jail. Nathan had secreted himself in his room and the others decided to leave him alone so they could settle on the best course of action to take.
After a long silence Vin decided to ask the question that was on all their minds, "well, what happens now?"
"Don't rightly know Vin, brother Nathan's not doing so good, mentally I mean," Josiah was deeply concerned for his friend.
"I know. Reckon it's a good thing that Chris ain't so bad off we can't handle it ourselves," Buck added.
"Yeah, one small blessing, I suppose," sighed Josiah.
Ezra was unusually quiet, absently shuffling his ever present deck of cards. The gambler was more affected by the recent happenings than anyone realized. He had been born and raised in the deep south and had seen more than one brutal beating of slaves in his time there, a fact he preferred not to share with the others at the present time. The images from his past seemed to be constantly colliding with the present, only the color of the skin different this time. Unbeknownst to him, Nathan was having similar images visit him in his room. The scars from both men's past were quietly forming an unacknowledged bond.
+ + + + + + +
Morning found Chris still in his room. He couldn't seem to manage to lift his head from the pillow. Opening his eyes wearily, the room suddenly began to spin and he let out a soft groan as his torn back began to ache. A soft knock at the door pulled him from his misery.
"Vin?" Chris answered tiredly.
"Chris……. yeah it's Vin. Came to see how you're doin'." Vin opened the door and was surprised to see Chris still lying awkwardly in bed.
"You don't look it," came the concerned reply.
"I said I'm fine." Larabee tried to sound more convincing. By this time he had managed to swing his legs over the edge of the bed, trying not to let on exactly how terrible he was actually feeling.
Vin entered the tiny room and leaned against the door frame. He watched intently as Chris slowly, stiffly, attempted to straighten his back. "The boys and me were wonderin' what we're gonna do about Nathan."
"Where is he?"
"Still in his room far as we can tell, ain't talkin' t' no-one."
"Maybe its time I spoke to him."
"Reckon. Can't do any harm." Vin was beginning to become concerned as he watched his friend's face crease against the obvious physical and emotional pain. "I wanna check your back, change the dressings."
"Look dammit, enough's enough. You either shut up and let me check them bandages, or I'm gonna get Buck and Josiah t' hold y' down so I can check 'm."
With an angry sigh, the blond said, "fine." He said nothing while Tanner eased the soiled bandages away from the wounds on his back. He bit back a cry as Vin cleaned the cuts out with carbolic and gingerly spread a salve over them. Finally fresh bandages were wrapped over the wounds and he sighed as he realized that the ordeal was over.
"You're warm, Chris."
"I'm fine, it's just hot in here."
Tanner knew better, but knew it would do no good to argue with the stubborn man. He busied himself with gathering up the medical supplies. Larabee watched him without a word, sitting stiffly on the narrow bed.
"Wanna hand getting' dressed cowboy?" Vin asked as Chris started to ease himself from the bed. The tracker already knew the answer, but asked anyway.
"You wanna get shot this morning?" A shadow of a smile crossed Chris's face as he glanced at his friend.
"I'll take that as a no then". Vin smiled, tipped his hat and turned and left the room. He knew that the gunslinger was trying to hide the pain he was feeling. The physical pain at any rate; the emotional pain was clearly visible. Still, he knew that until he admitted that he was in pain, or fell over, there wouldn't be a lot they could do.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee spent most of the day in his rented room. He considered going to talk to Nathan, but couldn't seem to find the words any more than he could find the energy to walk from his room to the clinic. The blond was growing more tired and listless as the day dragged on; a fine film of sweat covered his body and his back ached endlessly. Gingerly slipping on a shirt, he gathered his hat and made his way from his room to the livery. Once there, he slowly walked to the stall where Pony was housed. Holding out a trembling hand toward the black gelding, he let his head lean against the horse as it nuzzled against him.
"Yosemite. Think you could saddle Pony for me?"
"Sure thing Mr. Larabee, I'll be as quick as I can. Uh… Mr. Larabee, you wanna sit down, you don't look so good."
"I'm fine…fine." Chris answered as he waved his hand wanly in the air. "Just need to be on my way out of town."
"O.K. Mr. Larabee." The big blacksmith didn't look convinced, but, as did most people in town, he didn't question the gunslinger.
Yosemite finished saddling Pony and handed the reins to Chris to lead outside. "How long you gonna be gone, Mr. Larabee?"
"Yeah Chris, how long you plannin' on bein' out there on your own?"
The gunslinger was surprised to hear the voice of Vin Tanner. Looking up he saw the tracker leaning against the upright outside the livery. He hadn't heard him approach, but that was not unusual for Tanner, he had a way of getting around without too many people noticing.
"A few days." Offered the man in black as he arranged his saddlebags on the back of his horse.
"Just a few days?"
"Sure you're up t' bein' on your own?"
Using all his remaining strength, Chris put his foot in the stirrup of his saddle and managed to mount his horse. "I'll be fine Vin, keep an eye on Nathan, alright?"
"Chris, you're –"
"I said I was fine, Vin. Take care of things, I'll be back in a few days."
"Sure thing," replied Tanner, trying unsuccessfully to hide his growing frustration.
With a tip of his hat Chris Larabee turned his horse and headed out of town.
+ + + + + + +
The healer sat on the worn bed in his little clinic, listening to the young woman outside. Rain had been standing there for some time, knocking on his door and calling his name. He didn't move, didn't say a word. He had no desire to listen to her, or anyone else, telling him that he wasn't at fault. It didn't matter what they said, he knew better. He had allowed the ugliness and brutality of his past to effect him, to turn him into the thing he hated most of all. He had become nothing more than an animal, unleashing his anger on someone who didn't deserve it.
Once he had calmed down, Jackson knew what the gunslinger had been doing, and why. He had quickly forgiven him, although the words still stung. The ugliness they brought to the surface remained though, and that he couldn't let go of.
"Nathan, please, I only want to talk to you."
No. He couldn't talk to her. Not like this. He wasn't fit for human companionship. Drawing his legs up, he wrapped his arms around them and dropped his head to his knees. A deep, trembling sigh escaped from his lips.
"Please Nathan. Do not turn me away."
Hot tears escaped his dark eyes, coursing down his handsome face. For once in his life he felt that he could believe the ugly names his masters and so many other white men had called him. He had used one of their instruments to torture one of the men who had saved his life; a man whom he had learned to respect. A friend. For once in his life he felt less than human; he had allowed words to turn him into a monster.
He hugged his knees tighter, making himself as small as possible. He wanted to disappear, remove himself from anyone that had ever meant anything to him. He deserved none of it. Nothing. He was nothing. A single sob escaped his lips.
He heard the dejection in her voice; the raw hurt. But he only listened as the sound of soft retreating footsteps told him that she had finally given up and walked slowly away. He allowed full rein to his emotions then, sobs racking his body.
+ + + + + + +
"Hey Vin, " Buck Wilmington greeted the young tracker as he entered the saloon. "Where you been?"
"Liv'ry," Tanner's tone was clipped and angry.
"Chris rode out."
"WHAT?!" Wilmington yelled as he bolted from the chair, knocking it several feet behind him. "What th' hell do you mean 'rode out'?"
"Went to his shack. Rode out 'bout ten minutes ago."
"And you let him go? What th' hell were you thinkin' ?"
"I didn't let him do nothin'. He walked to th' liv'ry on his own, got on th' horse on his own, an' rode out."
"He ain't fit t' be on his own."
"Y'ain't tellin' me nothin' I don't know!" Tanner was yelling as well now. "Ain't me y' gotta convince an' y' know it. What th' hell was I s'posed t' do, tie him up? Maybe I should'a col'-cocked 'm? Maybe I syhould'a just shot 'im in th' leg?"
"Well y' sure's hell could'a done somethin'! I thought you were takin' care of him!" Buck stood over the younger man, his fists clinching and unclinching.
"Who th' hell made me his nursemaid?" Vin stood now, unheeding of the fact that he had to look up into the other man's face. "Seems t' me I was th' only one t' look in on 'm since we got back yesterday. You too busy beddin' th' ladies t' give a damn 'bout your friend?"
Without warning the big man drew back and delivered a punch that sent Vin skidding across the floor on his back. Before Tanner could re-gain his feet, Wilmington was standing over him, dark blue eyes flashing with anger.
"Ah, hell," Ezra said from where he sat at another table. Throwing down the cards he had just dealt himself, he rose from his chair and strode quickly across to where the other two men were. "Gentlemen!" He stepped toward Wilmington, placing a hand on the bigger man's arm.
Turning toward the gambler, Buck growled, "get your damn hands off'a me Standish!"
"Mr. Wilmington, I fail to see how fisticuffs will remedy the current situation."
"Brothers," Josiah Standish hurried into the room, having been summoned by on of the townspeople that something was happening in the saloon. "Ezra's right. We can't bring peace to either Nathan or Chris if we turn on one another."
"What th' hell does he care," Buck indicated Tanner. "He stood by an' let Chris ride off to his shack."
"I told y' I didn't let him do a damn thing!" Vin's voice rose angrily. "Th' man did what he done on his own!" He pushed himself to his feet, only Josiah's hand on his shoulder stopping the tracker from resuming the fight.
"Ain't like you couldn'a stopped him –"
"Enough!" Josiah's deep voice bellowed. "Now, you two sit down…now! You're not listening, either of you, not to reason or one another."
"He ain't got nothin' t' say I wanna hear," Wilmington continued.
"I said sit down!" Sanchez bellowed.
"Josiah," Standish said sternly. "I believe that perhaps you should take your own…advice was it? I suggest we all take a seat." Before the others could resume their bickering, the smaller man began straightening up the area, and pointed his companions toward the table.
Begrudgingly sitting down, the irate trio glared at one another. Hurrying to the bar, Ezra whispered something to Inez and returned to the table. Taking a seat himself, the conman was quickly followed by the pretty young woman. She sat a bottle of the gambler's private stock on the table before him, along with three beer mugs and a shot glass. Filling the three mugs with equal amounts of amber liquid, Standish emptied the last into his shot glass.
"Now," he said in deceptively calm tones, "here are the ground rules gentlemen. No one will say a word until those glasses are emptied."
"Who th' hell do you think you are?" The big ex-lawman yelled.
At that time," Ezra continued.
"Look, you fancy-pants…" Vin growled.
"The four of us are going to calmly and rationally discuss –"
"Ezra Standish…" Josiah chimed in.
"The most recent events that have transpired –"
"You ain't gonna tell us what we –"
"And attempt to find a resolution." The Southerner finished as if he had not been interrupted.
"Look Brother," Josiah said in attempted appeasing tones, "I appreciate that you're trying to smooth things out –"
With a barely detectable movement, the smooth-talking man released his hold-out derringer. Pointing it at no one in particular, he continued. "Now, I realize that you may have forgotten the rules, gentlemen, so I will repeat them with a bit more force. No one is to speak until the glasses have been emptied. Am I clear this time?"
As usual Buck forged ahead without thinking. He picked up his glass and started to dump the contents to the floor. "Let me tell you – "
"Mister Wilmington, I am quite certain that you would be much less attractive to the ladies with only one ear." His gun was aimed toward the other man's head. His dimples showing as he smiled, he watched while Buck returned his mug to the table. Standish nodded, "thank you."
"Look, Era –" Vin began.
Redirecting the gun, he retorted, "and I fear your expertise with the gun would suffer if you were to lose the use of your right hand, Mister Tanner."
"Brother, while I commend – "
Heaving a deep sigh, Standish once again changed the aim of his weapon, "as for you, Brother, I would happily oblige you with a new angle on cutting off your nose to spite your face."
Three sets of blue eyes, of different shade and hue, glared at the gambler intensely. For his part, the young man picked up his shot glass, downed it's contents, and leaned back in his chair. Three sets of eyes moved back to the glasses still sitting on the table. As a man, they lifted them reluctantly to their mouths.
Chris raised his head groggily, realizing that he was no longer moving. Groaning he straightened in the saddle and looked around to find that he had arrived at his little shack. Slipping from the back of the black gelding, he nearly fell to the ground. Grasping the saddlehorn, he held on tightly, leaning against the saddle. Panting harshly for several minutes, he finally managed to stand away from Pony, then with an apologetic pat, the injured man released the horse into the corral. He hadn't the energy to remove anything but the saddlebags; those he dragged behind him as he stumbled on quivering legs toward his home. Groaning, the man in black managed to open the door and cross the darkened room to his bed.
Dropping to the thin mattress, Larabee fought unconsciousness and unbuttoned his sweat-soaked shirt. The blond could no longer hold back the pain as he peeled the clothing from his bleeding back, the bandages pulling away from his torn flesh as he did.
Anguish. Blinding white lights flared and died before his tear-filled hazel eyes.
Agony. He screamed with every ounce of strength he had left.
Oblivion. He dropped bonelessly to the narrow bed.
+ + + + + + +
"Now gentlemen, are you all sufficiently calmed down so that we may discuss matters at hand?" Standish asked as soon as the last emptied mug hit the wooden table. The only answer he received was the cool glare of three pairs of eyes. "I will take this as an affirmative as long as you give me no reason to re-evaluate my conclusion."
"We've gotta figure out how we make things right," Buck said, doing his best to ignore the Southerner.
"Well, I reckon that's obvious Buck," Tanner said with only a hint of his earlier anger.
"If only the answer were as obvious," Sanchez added. "Brothers, I believe that what has occurred may very well be irreparable. The things that Chris said to Nathan back there have opened long-festering wounds for him. The guilt that Chris feels for having to say those things to him is almost as damaging. If we aren't able to get the two of them together long enough to talk --"
"Yeah, well Tanner helped take care of that," Wilmington growled. "Lettin' Chris leave town –"
"I told you Wilmington – "
"Stop it!" Sanchez growled. "If the two of you don't stop your bickering, I'm going to bang your heads together."
"Ah, hell," Ezra grumbled. Waving the other three off, he stood and strode from the saloon. "I suppose I shall have to do what I can to rectify the situation on my own." He stopped outside the batwing doors, contemplating his next move. Finally he made a decision and made his way purposefully toward the little clinic. Reaching the bottom of the wooden stairway, he looked upward, sighing as he considered the upcoming encounter. How would he, a Southerner, face Nathan Jackson and ask to discuss this issue? How could he look Nathan in the eye and ask him to forgive the ugliness that he had experienced for so many years?
"Well Ezra," he sighed, "it would seem that you have your work cut out for you. Asking a former slave to ignore the years of intolerance, bigotry, prejudice and ignorance in a Southern accent. I feel that I may do more harm than good. How do I ask him to forgive the nightmare that I helped to create for him…for all slaves? How do I ask him to forgive what I can no longer accept within myself?"
The gambler hung his head, a sound that mixed sigh and groan escaping his lips. Memories were called up by the current situation that he had only recently come to find repulsive. Visions crossed his mind's eye that made his flesh crawl. It was a sensation that, some months ago, he would have never known. Guilt, a conscience, compassion. "Damned inconvenient for a purveyor of the confidence game. I really must make a visit to Mother soon…I feel that I am losing my edge."
Despite his jest, he continued to see the ugliness of his past, like so many gruesome portraits. Men and women, different from him only in the ethnic heritage, subjected to tortures too vile to imagine. He saw them being flogged, beaten, maimed, raped. He saw families torn asunder, forced into a separation as if they were dogs in a litter. Memories of pushing slaves from the walkway into the mud when they failed to step aside quickly enough; hitting them when they failed to satisfy his orders. While Ezra could take some comfort in the knowledge that he had done nothing worse than strike slaves with his hand, it was cold comfort. They had been punished because he had been unable to see them for who and what they were; human. It was only when he met Nathan and come to know him that he was willing and able to recognize the humanity of the race. Pressed into a relationship that he had been unwilling to accept for some time, he learned that invaluable lesson.
Then perhaps it was time to re-pay that lesson. Taking a deep breath and straightening his jacket, the gambler moved slowly up the stairway.
Above the ruminating man, Nathan Jackson had yet to move from where he had set since returning to the little town. He looked up as he heard footsteps on the wooden landing outside, coming toward the door he faced. The footsteps came closer, stopping only at the closed entrance to the little clinic he had once been so proud of. The books, the herbs and other medicinal paraphernalia mocked him now. He would never look at these things the same way again, their meaning had changed.
"Go away." He said tiredly in response to the rapid and heavy knock at the door.
"It's Ezra, I wish to speak to you," came the answer.
"Ain't in th' mood for any of your fancy speeches right now, Ezra. Just leave me alone." He glared angrily when the smaller man easily managed the door's lock and entered the clinic. "Damn you Standish, get the hell out of here."
"I fear I cannot oblige you right now, Nathan. Someone needs to speak to you and I seem to have been elected, if only by default." He didn't elaborate, but continued. "It would appear that someone must ask you to do the impossible."
"And what would that be?"
"To put aside the pain and bitterness of years spent being treated as less than human."
"Ezra, that ain't what's going on here."
"Are you certain?"
Tortured dark eyes flared with both anguish and anger. "You're a fine one to question me 'bout this. How do you expect to understand what I'm feeling right now?"
"Perhaps I am the perfect one to discuss this with you Nathan," Standish said softly. "Who has a better understanding of what a victim has gone through than the perpetrator of that crime?"
"Now look, Ezra, I can't say I figure you're blameless. Reckon I know you well enough now, though, that I know that you weren't bad as most."
"You place too much faith in me, Mister Jackson," the smaller man hung his head. "I am guilty of every crime visited on your race…by passive acceptance in nothing else."
Surprise crossed the handsome face of their healer. Nathan Jackson could barely believe the admission he was hearing. Ezra Standish, sounding regretful for being a member of the race that had enslaved his own? He wondered when that had happened, and why he hadn't recognized it before now. Perhaps his own prejudices had blinded him to the fact that the conman had changed in the months that they had been together. Could he really have been so oblivious to who Ezra had become?
"Look Ezra, I appreciate what you're saying here, but this ain't about those times. This is about the fact that…" his voice broke and he continued in a tremulous whisper. "I picked up a whip, and I beat Chris Larabee with it. A man who waded in and saved my live before he even knew who – or what – I was. A man who's been responsible for more good things in this town than anyone could have thought possible. I did the same sort of things that…that I've hated other men for doing. The things that were done to me…to my family…I did those things. Don't you understand? I did those things…how do I live with that?" He broke down then, sobbing softly as he covered his face with his hands.
Standish sat down on the edge of the bed. He wanted to reach out to the other man, but was not certain that Jackson would tolerate the touch right now. He settled for reaching out to him with words. "Nathan, as inadequate as this sounds, no one blames you. Not even Chris. If anything, our Mr. Larabee blames himself for the things he said to force your hand. He was cognizant of what he was doing. Nathan, Chris said those things to help you do what had to be done. He did those things to protect the life of your young woman."
"Ezra, I know that. I understand that he did those things for Rain, to protect her. Believe me, I don't hold any of it against Chris. What is tearing me apart is that I allowed myself to sink to the level of those… of those monsters, of all the 'masters' who destroyed so many lives simply because of the difference of color."
"You thought yourself above that sort of evil," Ezra stated.
"Well yeah," Nathan said with surprise in his voice. "I never thought I could do something so vile."
"You thought that you were better than those other men…your masters."
His eyes snapped as Jackson glared toward the other man. He expected to here some sort of discriminatory retort. But when he heard the next comment, he felt embarrassment for his assumption.
"You are better than those men, Nathan. Far, far better than any of them. There is no question in anyone's mind, with the possible exception of yourself." Tentatively he reached out and touched the other man's hand. "Nathan Jackson, you are more worthy of life than 100 of those despicable creatures. My lord, man, don't you understand the good you've done for the people of this town…this territory…me? Just your ability to open my eyes to the ugliness that I once accepted as natural is an amazing feat." He grinned at the dark man.
A short laugh escaped the former slave. "Yeah, reckon if I never did another thing in my life, that ought'a secure me a place in heaven," he quipped.
Laughing, his dimples deepening, Standish said, "that it should Sir, that it should." Then sobering, he said, "What you did out there, was an awful thing Nathan, and no one expects you to be able to simply forget it. You would not be the compassionate man you are if you could put it aside so quickly. However, we also do not expect you to throw away the rest of your life because of a single…forced…act of violence. We expect you to depend upon your friends to assist you in going forward."
His head dropping back to his knees, Jackson said, "don't know if I've got it in me to do that."
Ezra squeezed his friend's shoulder now. "I know you do, Nathan. I know. You are a strong man, but for now you need to be strong enough to lean on those around you…those who care about you."
+ + + + + + +
He felt the heat surrounding him, but couldn't see the fire. He wanted to go in search of the heat's source, but found himself without the energy to move. He wanted to call out, but wasn't for certain that he had the strength for that, either. There was pain…so much pain. At times he thought that pain was the source of the heat; it seemed to emanate from within. At other times he felt it surround him, wrapping him in heat and flame. None of it made any sense.
"Papa!" The word was filled with panic. "Papa, help!"
"Adam?" He whispered.
"Chris! Help us, please!"
"God, help us…Chris, please! Where are you? Why won't you help us?"
"No! Sarah…I…" he stopped. What did he say? He hadn't been there when they had needed him. He had failed his wife and son, left them alone to burn to death. "I'm…sorry, Sarah…I'm sorry." He felt tears rolling from beneath closed lids as the pain of the past and the present melded together in his fevered mind. "So…sorry."
"Chris." The voice was different now, there was no hint of fear. There was only the sound of love in his wife's voice. The sound he had longed to hear for three years.
"Sarah?" He struggled to open his eyes, to look for his beloved wife, but could only lay there, his mind trapped by a failing body.
"Yes, darlin'," she whispered softly. He felt her touch on his cheek. "It's time to stop feeling this guilt Chris. You're not to blame for what happened, and neither Adam nor I have ever blamed you. That blame has always been in your mind, and your mind alone. The only thing your son and I feel for you is love, Chris Larabee."
The shadow of a smile touched the handsome face at the words. Hearing his wife speak to him of love was something he had longed to hear for three years, knowing it was hopeless. "I love you to, Sarah Larabee…I love you and Adam so much… I miss you…"
"We're always near, darlin', and we always will be. You've never been alone, no matter how lonely you've felt. But now you've got other folks to consider, other lives depending on you. You've got to stay alive for them…don't give up. There's one life in particular that's depending on you right now. One friend who's life might very well end if you die."
"Yes darlin'. You've got to hang on, for Nathan."
"But…so tired…I don't know if…I can."
"You've got to Chris. I know it's hard, but you've got to fight to stay alive. Can you do that for me sweet man? Can you hold on to life? You're doing so much good, darlin', please don't give up now. Don't give up." Her voice grew fainter, becoming more and more difficult to hear.
"SARAH!" Chris cried out, his body arching off the bed. Then he collapsed, falling into the darkness as he crumpled to the mattress.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra leaned against the wall as he watched Nathan shuffle around the room, seeming to be sorting out his feelings as he touched books, herbs, and other medicinal elements of the clinic. The conman watched as the healer seemed to contemplate each item, as if sorting out its significance to his life.
After nearly an hour, he said quietly, "don't reckon these feelings are gonna go away anytime soon, but you're right Ezra…hard as it is for me to admit to that. I've gotta find a way to get past this, and I can't shut out those close to me either." He looked with something akin to amazement in his face as he said, "thank you Ezra Standish."
His dimples making another appearance on the handsome, boyish face, Standish said simply, "you're welcome, Nathan Jackson." Then his face grew somber. "However, I must address something that must take precedence over anything else at this time."
"In a word, yes."
"I'll go over to his room as soon as I can gather up some stuff –"
"He is not in his room, Nathan."
The former slave grew pale, afraid of that those words might mean. "What are you saying?" He whispered.
"He's gone out to his cabin, bent on recuperating there in the wilderness." Standish shook his head, obviously finding the gunslinger's actions incomprehensible.
The fear lessened but did not leave the handsome face. Chris was alive, but there was no way he was strong enough to be on his own as yet. "What were y'all thinking, lettin' him go off alone? Damn it Ezra, he ain't well enough to be alone."
"You know our morose leader, Mr. Jackson. He asked no man's permission, but did exactly what he wished to do. I will not lie to you, his departure did play a part in my visiting you so quickly. If the circumstances had been different – "
"Ezra, explain later," Nathan said shaking his head. "Right now I've gotta get out there as quick as I can. Can you go down and ask Yosemite to saddle my horse for me while I get things gathered up?"
With a nod, the southerner said, "it would be my pleasure, Mister Jackson."
+ + + + + + +
"Nathan!" The young woman who had stolen his heart ran toward the healer as he reached the bottom of the stairs. She stopped tentatively a few paces from him, uncertain as to his disposition. With a quick smile, the big man wrapped his arms around her.
"I'm sorry girl, I… I just couldn't… "
Placing a finger on his lips, she said, "no, do not apologize. I understand, truly I do. I only wanted to be certain that you understood as well."
With a quick kiss on her finger, he took her hand clutching it against his chest. Looking over her head, he saw Ezra leading Able from the stable. "I do understand, Rain, thanks to what a good friend told me."
Looking behind her, she saw the gambler approach; recognized the horse. "Where are you going?"
"Chris took off to his cabin alone. Reckon I'd better do my job and go tend his wounds." Gazing into her beautiful face, he continued, "can you stay until I get back? I'd like to escort you back to your village."
She glowed as she said, "I will be here when you return."
Kissing her on the forehead, the big man said, "I'm glad you're okay girl." With that he turned, taking the reins from Standish. "Thanks Ezra."
With a tip of his hat, the southerner said, "you're welcome. And if you will permit me, I shall escort Miss Rain to the restaurant for dinner."
Trying to look stern, the former slave said, "you gonna be on your best behavior?"
Laughing heartily, Standish replied, "I shall be a perfect gentleman, Sir." Offering his arm to the young woman, he looked up at his friend. "Do you trust me, Mr. Jackson?"
Smiling, his eyes betraying his gratitude for the other man's earlier show of compassion, Nathan said, "of course I trust you." He made a formal gesture, handing the young woman over to the gambler. As he watched the two start off, he couldn't help but add, "'course Rain's pretty good at handlin' herself with a knife, y'know."
Laughter followed the man and woman down the street.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan rode as quickly as possible from the little town to the man in black's little shack. He had managed to keep the thoughts of what he might find to a minimum; trying not to dwell on the possibilities, or the feelings of guilt that threatened to overwhelm him. If he had been stronger, none of this would have happened. He should have been able to find a way to keep those men from hurting either Rain or Chris. He had failed them both; had not been strong enough to protect them.
Pushing Able faster, he finished his trip with the horse at a dead run. Chris had suffered enough because he had not been available, he would not allow him to suffer any longer. He reached the little house, reining in at the corral. Spotting Pony, he saw that the horse still wore it's saddle and tack; not a good sign. Releasing his own horse into the corral as well, he grabbed his saddlebags and rushed toward the house. The door stood open, yet another sign that something was very wrong.
"Chris?" He called out. There was no answer, and he tried again. "Chris!"
"Na-Na…than…I…oh…I," the voice was strangled, filled with pain and tinged with fear.
He entered the little house, the darkness hiding his friend from him until his eyes adjusted. "Chris?" he knew the one room home well enough to be at the bed before he could see the blond in the darkness. Kneeling, he gently touched the man's fevered brow.
Larabee replied with a soft moan. "Nathan…hurts…hot," he whispered.
Flinching at the heat he felt emanating from Larabee's face and neck, he said softly, "I know it does, Chris. Just hang on an' let me get some light in here, then I'm gonna get those wounds tended to. Alright? You hear me?"
"Y-yeah," the answer came.
Stroking the fevered brow, he said, "Alright then, you lay still and I'll be right back." With that he stepped quickly to the table and lit the lantern he knew Larabee kept there. Once the room was bathed in soft lantern light, he grabbed the bucket sitting nearby, and literally ran to the nearby creek. Once the container was filled with cold water, he returned to the shack, and the injured man. He moved the table closer to the bed, then lay his supplies out before turning back to his friend.
Still lying on his stomach, it was easy to see that Chris had been bleeding, the stains soaking through the roughly bound bandages. Dry blood was mingled with fresh, until there was barely a hairsbreadth of cloth untouched. He was drenched in sweat, his face flushed. Nathan took this as a promising sign; at least the infection hadn't had time to take a serious toll. If he could get enough fluids into the gunslinger, and clean the wounds well enough, Chris would have a good chance of making a full recovery. Taking up a cloth, he dampened it and bathed the other man's face. "Take it easy Chris, it's gonna be fine. Just lay still and let me take care of everything. I'm going to give you something for the pain now, then I'll tend your wounds. It's gonna hurt Chris, I ain't gonna lie to you. I'm sorry…reckon I'm gonna have to put you through even more pain than I already have. I'm sorry Chris…I – "
A trembling hand reached up and touched the healer's hand as it continued to stroke the cloth across his face. "No…N-Nathan…my…f-fault…not…y-yours," he whispered the words, the pain still raw in his voice. The effort taking its toll, he sighed then, drifting into unconsciousness.
Lifting the man's head, Jackson fed him a liberal dose of Laudanum. Easing him back to the sweat-soaked pillow, he mixed the ingredients to make a poultice while he waited for the opiate to take effect. Several minutes had passed before he continued his work on the injured man. Taking his sharpest knife, he began cutting away the sodden strips of cloth. Even unconscious the removal of the bandages elicited deep and heart-rending moans from the blond.
"I'm sorry Chris, I'm sorry," the former slave said softly. He wasn't certain that Larabee could hear him, but he felt the need to say the words. "None of this should have ever happened. If I could'a figured out something sooner, I could'a kept you safe…kept Rain safe. Neither one of you should'a been hurt by…by me."
Words failed him then, and he worked in silence and with speed. Removing the bandages, he gently probed the other man's wounds. The others had done a good job at cleaning the wounds, but infection had set in. Carefully prodding the wounds, he cleared the infection as well as he could. Then, wishing he had help, he applied carbolic acid to the wounds.
The moans escalated toward a scream, Chris bucked then went rigid as the pain coursed through him. Remaining as steady as possible, Nathan continued, knowing that he had to finish once he had started. As the shock wore off, the injured man once again succumbed to the darkness, making Jackson's job somewhat easier.
+ + + + + + +
"May I inquire as to where the two of you are absconding at this late hour?" Ezra asked drolly from the open doorway of the livery.
"Reckon that's our business," Buck said curtly.
"It is not that difficult to ascertain that you and Mr. Tanner are preparing to leave for our Mr. Larabee's little home. Do you think it wise for the two of you to travel unescorted?"
Vin walked into a nearby lantern's light, turning toward the gambler. Ezra could see a burgeoning black eye on the youthful face. "Reckon we'll be fine," he said quietly.
Coming closer to the gambler, Buck displayed a swollen lip and a blood-crusted nose. "Me an' Vin worked it all out, Ezra. Ain't nothin' t' worry 'bout now." With that, he mounted General and started out the door. Vin was quick behind him, astride Peso.
+ + + + + + +
By the time he had managed to re-bandage the cleaned wounds, the healer was exhausted. Settling Chris back onto the bed, he sat back on his heels, leaning forward against the bed. Folding his hands as if in prayer, he watched the bandaged back rise and fall slowly. Another good sign perhaps, he was no longer panting with pain and fever. Jackson felt a twinge of frustration at his inability to be sure. He felt the heavy burden of his ignorance weigh on his shoulders once again.
Rubbing a hand over his face, the dark man shut away his own pain and the doubts that accompanied it. Time enough for that later, after he managed to get Chris back on his feet and on the road to recovery. Then he would sit down and consider his place in the town; in their little brotherhood; in the world. He would make a decision as to what he wanted to do next. For now, he would concentrate solely on helping the man regain his strength. It was the least he could do, considering he had been the one to injure him.
A knock on the door drew Jackson from his musing. Walking softly across the room in just a few steps, he eased open the door; two familiar silhouettes stood outside. "Wondered when y'all would be showin' up. Could'a used extra hands 'bout 20 minutes ago." He motioned the men back out, following them and closing the door. "He's sleepin' right now, but restless. I'd rather not have him disturbed by us talkin'."
Grinning, Buck yelped and held his kerchief to his mouth. The movement had re-opened the split he had received in his fight with the rangy tracker.
"You walk into a wall, or an angry husband?" Nathan asked.
"Try a stubborn tracker," Wilmington said ruefully.
"Yeah, well you ain't 'xactly one t' listen t' reason without a few knocks on th' head, Bucklin," Vin responded.
"Alright you two, don't get started again, I've got a sleepin' man in there, and I'd just as soon keep him that way. I'd appreciate it if you'd both stay out til mornin'."
Looking first at Wilmington, then at Jackson, Tanner replied with a nod, "reckon we can oblige y' there Nathan. Reckon I'll just go sleep under th' stars…if y' need me sing out."
"Yeah, me too," Buck agreed. He walked with the smaller man back to the corral where they had left their gear, along with the saddles and tack they had removed from both Pony and Able. Ever mindful of how well an animal was treated, Vin rubbed down each animal in turn, while Buck saw to the feed and water. Both men were anxious to see their friend; to confirm his health with their own eyes. But they also knew that Nathan didn't request their absence lightly. If Chris needed sleep more than he needed his friends, than they would stay out of the way for now. It was enough that they were nearby, ready to lend assistance as soon as it was requested.
Nathan watched the other two for a few minutes, then returned to his charge. Chris lay as still as he had for some time, only the occasional soft moan escaping his lips. Pulling one of the straightback chairs near the bed, he sat down, watching the other man sleep.
Outside, the other two men finished caring for the horses in the bright moonlight. The sun would be rising in just a few hours; it would be a very long few hours however. Although they expressed it differently, neither man was long on patience, especially when it came to their friend. By silent agreement they spread their bedrolls out just beyond the house. They could be inside within seconds if Nathan should need their help. Neither man expected to sleep, but the slipped under the blankets in the hope that they could catch a few minutes sleep to make the night pass a little faster.
+ + + + + + +
The sun was just beginning to hint at its appearance on the horizon when Nathan Jackson stepped out onto the small porch. Chris had slept quietly through the dark hours, giving the healer even more hope that the ordeal would be short-lived. Finally he gave into the long hours of sitting on the hard chair seat and decided to stretch his legs. As he stood watching the sun's ascent he heard a soft rustling nearby.
"I smell coffee," Vin said quietly.
"Just made a pot, if you're interested."
"I know I am, 'specially if this 'n didn't make it," Buck chimed in. Both he and Tanner appeared around the corner of the house to join Jackson, the younger man smacking the older on the shoulder.
"Least when I make it, a person can drink th' damn stuff," he groused. He stepped past the other men and went to retrieve the coffee, leaving the other two men to talk. He had more interest in seeing Chris right now.
Entering the dimly lit room, he walked quietly, stopping at the bed only long enough to reassure himself that Chris Larabee still breathed. Allowing himself a small smile of relief, he gathered up the coffee pot and two mugs, returning to the porch. Buck had slumped to one of the chairs, talking quietly with Nathan, who leaned against one of the uprights. Tossing one of the mugs to Wilmington, Tanner filled the other and then sat the pot on the table.
Turning to Nathan, he said quietly, "he looks peaceful, is that a good sign?"
Smiling, Jackson said, "yeah, seems to be mostly just sleeping now. His fever broke 'bout an hour ago – "
"Thank God for that," Vin said with a relieved grin.
"Thank Nathan for that," Buck disagreed.
"NO!" Jackson's voice shook with the pain and guilt he continued to feel. "Don't nobody go thankin' me for none a this. If I'd done right by Chris…by anyone…he wouldn't have had to go through any of this."
"Nathan, you're blaming the wrong person here, " Buck said. "You didn't have a hell of a lot a choice here. Those crazy bastards forced your hand… they forced Chris' hand. Neither of y' had any other options in this pard. If y' hadn't done what y' did, Rain'd be dead, or hurt a lot worse 'n what happened t' Chris."
"Yeah, well the difference there is that I did that to Chris. Not those other men – "
"They made it all happen, Nathan, all of it," Vin added. "They gave y' no choice… none. Rain's life was at stake. Chris understood that; he did the only thing he could to keep her alive."
"I know all that," Nathan said with a sigh. "All of it. I think part of me knew it even when it was happening. But… I don't know, I just – "
"Y' know it in your head," Vin said, looking into the pain-filled dark eyes. "But y' haven't accepted it in your heart yet. When y' do, you'll be able to forgive yourself."
"No…won-der…you're a…p-poet…" a breathless voice greeted them all. As one they turned to find Chris Larabee, dressed only in his familiar black jeans, his upper body swathed in bandages, standing in the doorway. More precisely, he was weaving dangerously in the doorway, each movement threatening to pitch him to the ground.
Reaching him first, Nathan grabbed his friend just as his knees buckled. "What the hell do you think you're doing Chris Larabee?" He reprimanded. "You get back in that bed, y'hear?" The three men managed to get the man in black to one of the chairs and Jackson quickly stripped and changed the bed while Vin and Buck supported the injured Larabee. While Wilmington stood next to him, Tanner squatted before him, giving the blond someone to lean on.
"Gotta say you're lookin' a bit better pard," the tracker said as he looked up into the other man's face.
"Must look…better'n I…feel," Chris jibbed in a trembling voice.
Vin smiled; he felt the older man squeeze his shoulder. "Don't reckon it'd take much," he replied.
"Okay, let's get him to bed," Jackson had cleaned the bed up as best he could given the gunslinger's limited supplies. Together, they managed to get Chris back into the bed without causing more than a minimum of pain. At Nathan's request, Buck brought the bedrolls in and, using the blankets, they packed them in front of the injured man, leaning him forward against them. "How's that feel Chris?" the healer asked.
"'kay," Larabee breathed the word, his voice still trembling with pain.
"This oughta be more comfortable than layin' on your belly. You get uncomfortable, you let me know. I'll roll y' over. Don't you go tryin' t' move 'round on your own. Hear me?"
"Uunh," Chris mumbled, nearly unconscious now.
Turning toward the other men, Nathan said, "reckon he'll sleep for awhile. Why don't you fellas go back into town, ain't no reason for you to sit around here watchin' starin' at him."
"Reckon I just see t' th' horses and such," Vin said. "Chris'll need some help 'round here for awhile anyway, I'll just get a head start." Before the others could answer or argue, the buckskin-clad man left the little house.
With a shake of his head, Wilmington said, "man's 'bout as easy t' see through as a whore's petticoat. Reckon I'll let him hang 'round here an' bother y'. I'll head back int' town an' let th' others know what's goin' on." He tipped his hat, gave a final glance at his long-time friend, and left.
As he watched the big man retreat, Jackson quipped, "thanks. Havin' these two around's gonna be about as lively as watchin' paint dry."
With a chuckle, Buck waved over his shoulder and continued on.
+ + + + + + +
The day had passed uneventfully. Vin had stayed outside most of the time, doing odd jobs that he deemed necessary. He checked in from time to time, helping Nathan when needed, but mostly simply watching his friend for a minute, making certain he was still alright. After they had managed to get Chris to take a bit of broth and ate their own dinner, Tanner convinced Nathan to catch some sleep. The healer had made him promise to wake him at midnight, but Tanner had no intention of doing so. He knew that the past several days had taken a toll on the former slave and he needed rest as much as Chris did. Shooing the big man out to sleep in the bed of Chris' wagon, he sat up watch over the blond. Larabee lay almost too still, but Vin was rewarded by easy rise and fall of the bandaged chest.
A new day was dawning when the former buffalo hunter heard footsteps approaching the door. He turned to find a still-groggy Jackson shuffling into the shack. "Mornin'," Tanner said with a smile. He poured the former stretcher bearer a cup of coffee.
Looking at the mug suspiciously, Jackson said, "you make this?"
Nodding, his blue eyes shining brightly, Vin replied, "ain't nothin'll wake y' up as good 's m' coffee."
Unconvinced, Jackson continued, "thought you were gonna wake me up last night."
"Wasn't sleepy, figured you could use the rest." Vin answered with a shrug.
"Thanks," the healer answered, making a face as he swallowed some of the bitter brew Vin Tanner claimed was coffee. He couldn't understand how the tracker could complain about his medicinal teas; they didn't taste nearly as bad as the tracker's coffee.
"He slept real well most a th' night," the tracker reported. "Got restless a time or two, but calmed down as soon 's I gave him a drink a water or washed off his face."
"Good news," Jackson replied. "Look, I'll get some breakfast going. After we eat, why don't you go catch some sleep. You're not lookin' too spry yourself right now."
Any reply was cut off by a yawn. "Yeah, I reckon I could use a couple hours sleep. I'll go check on th' horses while you fix breakfast, okay?"
"Anything to keep you from cooking," Nathan joked.
Feigning a hurt look, the smaller man left the little house.
"Good…move," a hoarse voice whispered from the bed.
"Mornin' Chris," Nathan said, kneeling down next to the gunman. "How are you feelin'?"
"Better…I th-think," the blond replied. "H-how…are you?"
Jackson started to pretend ignorance, but one soul-reading look of those hazel eyes left him unable to do anything but tell the truth. "I've been better, Chris, I won't lie to you. What I did to you…" he shook his head, the words failing him.
"What you had…to do, Na…than," he said softly. "I forced…your hand. Those b-bastards…forced mine. Reckon we both…did what we…had to."
Dark eyes searching the pain-lined face, the ex-slave said, "Chris, I am so sorry…I don't know how you can ever even look at me after what I did to you."
"Y-you're as stubborn…'s Buck is Nathan. I don't blame…you for…this. You o-only…did what you…had to. D-don't blame…y'self." The blond's strength was waning.
Dropping his head to the mattress, the healer heaved a deep sigh. When he raised his head once more, he was almost smiling. "Tell you what, Chris Larabee. I'll try forgivin' myself as long as you forgive yourself. We got a deal?"
With a smile, his eyes drooping closed, Chris nodded. "Deal," he agreed.
* Author is deceased