After a moment he realized Casey was there too, sitting by JD's bedside, holding his hand and watching him sleep, an exhausted, anxious look on her young face. Chris eyed her closely, amazed at how much like a woman she seemed now. He'd always thought of her as just a kid, even after she and JD were married and she became pregnant, but now...He saw the determined strength behind those large brown eyes, the line of pure will which marked every inch of her face as she gazed at her husband with a fierce expression of love, fear and hope. Admiration stirred in Chris's heart; he had seen such a light blaze in Sarah's eyes as well, and felt a little better about JD's chances.
Behind Casey stood Nathan, exhaustion marking every inch of his face. Josiah was next to him, still pale from his wound, his blue eyes riveted to JD's still form, his lips moving in silent prayer.
Chris felt a hand grip his shoulder, and knew that it was Buck.
"Don't you worry, Chris," he heard his old friend whisper. "He'll make it. He's got a lot to come back for."
Chris nodded slowly, once, still unable to take his eyes from the bed. That JD was still alive at all was a miracle, but he looked so weak, so thin. He swallowed and took a step forward, his gaze riveted to JD's bruised, slack face.
"Does he know we're here?" he whispered.
"Can't say for sure," Buck replied quietly after a moment, coming to Chris's side. "Been talkin' to him, but I don't know if he's heard me. Don't suppose there's any harm in tryin'."
Ezra joined them, his green eyes somber as he studied JD's wounded form.
There was silence for a few minutes, then Chris slowly walked forward and knelt down by the other side of the bed, one hand grasping JD's arm.
"You're too tough to let this beat you down, kid," he murmured in a low, tight voice, hoping JD could somehow hear him. "I'm countin' on you just like I did at the wall, and you came through for me then. Casey's countin' on you too, and that baby. You let them down and I'll kick your butt all over heaven."
There was a pause, then Buck patted his friend's shoulder. "You'll have to get in line behind me, Chris, but I reckon he gets your point."
Chris studied JD sharply, suddenly aware that somehow he knew that JD had heard his words. 'He's going to be all right', he thought to himself, marveling at how certain he was of that fact. He looked at Casey, and Josiah and Nathan. 'They'll be all right, too,' he realized, the fear in his heart melting away. How could he be so sure of that? It didn't make sense. But still he knew somehow that his friends would recover, and the providence which had brought them together would continue to protect the remnants of their group in the days and years ahead.
He gripped JD's arm gently one last time and stood, pushing the questions away for now. He'd find the answers soon enough, and even if he didn't, it wouldn't matter. He knew all he needed to.
He steeled himself and looked at Buck, grim expectation clutching his heart. His friend seemed to know immediately what Chris wanted; without a word between them, the mission walls melted away as quickly as they had appeared.
Apprehension filled Chris's mind; he wasn't sure if he could bear what might come next, but he had to know.
Chris blinked and looked around; they were in an Indian tent somewhere, its comfortably large interior aglow with the light of the setting sun outside. Scattered around the perimeter of the space were assorted pots, clothing bundles, tools, and other materials essential to the daily lives of its inhabitants. But Chris took no notice of such details; his full attention was drawn instead to the center of the floor, and he could not stop himself from taking an anxious step forward in surprise.
Stretched before them on the ground lay the motionless form of a young man, resting on a well-stuffed mat of soft animal skin and covered with a warm hide blanket. The man's handsome face was slack and pale, marred with several dark bruises and healing wounds; his eyes were closed and surrounded by dark circles. His long golden-brown curls spread beneath his head and spilled onto his shoulders; his arms and chest were muscular and seemed to possess a good deal of strength even in repose. The figure was sadly spoiled, however, by the bandages which seemed to cover every inch of skin below his neck. As strong as the young man appeared to be, it was apparent that some terrible accident had befallen him, and that strength was now fast running out.
Chris could say nothing as he stared at the slumbering figure. Sadness overwhelmed him, and without even realizing it he sank to his knees by its side. 'Vin', he thought, too stricken to utter a sound. His mind whirled; he had spent the last days of his life in constant agonized suspense, wondering what had happened to the tracker after the fires of Purgatorio, and had resigned himself to the searing fact that he would probably never know the answer. It was strange to finally know, to lay eyes again on the dear friend he had believed lost to him forever. But this was not the answer he had wanted to find.
One hand moved to touch him; for a moment he hesitated. Would Vin even know he was here? Or would he feel the touch and be frightened? The last thing Chris wanted to do was add to his friend's suffering, which must already be immense. Then somehow-somehow, he knew that it would be all right, that anything he did or said would only bring Vin comfort, even though it appeared that the injured man was aware of nothing.
Gently, he grasped Vin's hand.
He didn't really know what he'd been expecting, but as his fingers encircled Vin's hand he let out a gasp of surprise. It felt perfectly normal, as if he were as much alive as Vin. But God, Vin's hand was so cold...
Suddenly he could see it all, Vin tumbling through the burning rooftops after Chris and the others had ridden away, and lying in the smoking rubble until his rescue the next day by a group of passing Indians. Anguish seared Chris's heart as he saw Vin's bloodied, wounded body carefully lifted from the ruins; what a price their freedom had demanded! Fowler's men had pursued them into the desert, along with a large band of hired thugs, and it was only after a day of riding and fighting that they were able to beat them off and come back to search for Vin. But, it seemed, by the time Chris and the others returned to the shattered remains of Purgatorio, Vin was gone.
More scenes spilled into his mind, of Vin being tended by the natives; they had recognized him as a friend, it appeared, and tenderly cared for his wounds as if he were one of their own. A little of Chris's sorrow melted away as he saw how well-tended the tracker was, but it was soon replaced by anger as it became obvious how badly Vin had been injured. If he had ever had any regrets for killing Fowler, they vanished like a mist before flame as he saw the result of the criminal's handiwork. There did not seem to be a spot on Vin's body which had escaped unhurt. And now-
It struck him suddenly, yet he felt as if he'd known it all along. Vin was dying. Somehow Chris simply knew this fact, could almost feel the life flickering within his friend's body with increasing weakness.
Chris bowed his head over his brother's still body, overcome with crushing sadness. He never would have asked Vin to give so much, and yet the tracker had, without a moment's hesitation. Even an eternity would not be enough time to repay such friendship, and there seemed to be frustratingly little he could do now in compensation for Vin's sacrifice.
"I'm sorry, Chris." Buck's voice startled him; he'd forgotten anyone else was there.
Chris took a very deep breath as he shook his head. "Nothin' you have to apologize for, Buck," he whispered in a rough voice. "Only ones who should be sorry is Fowler and his men."
He heard Ezra give a sigh. "I believe we may rest assured, sir, that right now they are feeling very contrite indeed."
That idea gave Chris a great deal of grim comfort. He lifted his eyes, gazing at Vin's pale, thin face. "If only we could have found him..." he said in a rough tone, the words trailing off in bitter remorse.
There was a rustle and scraping of boot soles on hard dirt as Buck crouched down beside him, placing one hand on his friend's shoulder. "Well, now, Chris, I guess maybe we weren't meant to find him," he said softly. "Wouldn't have been much we coulda done for him anyhow, a hundred miles from anywhere an' Fowler's men chasin' after us. Least this way he's got some proper care and a soft place to sleep."
There was a pause, then Chris shook his head, never taking his worried green eyes from Vin. "That still don't make this right, Buck," he murmured in a tight, remorseful voice. "He should've been able to live out his life as a free man, not die over someone else's fight."
"Even if that someone happened to be a man he held dearer than any other on the earth?" Ezra inquired gently as he came to stand behind Buck. "You must remember, Chris, that our friend was not coerced into his decision by anything other than the dictates of his own heart. You must not allow yourself to feel any guilt over his fate, any more than you should over mine or Buck's. We each made our choice because we believed in the justice you sought, and were willing to give all to see it done. Mr. Tanner saw fit to use his freedom to ride with us; it may have shortened his time of liberation, but I believe he would be the first to say that it was worth the price. He would not be Vin if he had made any other decision."
Silence fell in the tent as Chris contemplated Ezra's words, his face somber as he stared at Vin. Night was falling fast now; it was becoming hard to see in the gathering darkness.
At length Chris stirred a bit and sighed. "I see you still like to talk, Ezra," he said softly, blinking, his eyes still locked on Vin.
"Well, now he don't got to worry about runnin' out of breath," Buck pointed out in a quiet voice tinged with amusement. "But every word he said is true, Chris. Vin just did what he had to, that's all, and it's no use feelin' bad for it. What we got to do now is be here for him, an' JD, when they need us."
Chris sat still for a moment, then lifted his head. Tears glimmered in his eyes, sparkling in the darkness like forlorn stars. "How long?"
Buck shrugged a little, a serious expression on his face. "No way to tell, pard. Reckon we'll know, somehow."
There was a rustle outside, and the low murmur of Indian voices. The flap of the tent entrance was pulled up, and two women entered carrying jars and bundles of skins, talking to each other in hushed tones as they quietly slipped inside. One of them bore a flickering gourd lamp, its flame filling the tent with a dancing yellow-orange glow. Neither of them took any notice of the spirits.
"These are the ladies who've been takin' care of Vin," Buck explained. He instinctively stood and stepped back, even though there was no reason for him to do so.
Chris sat motionless, watching as the older of the pair leaned over Vin, gently touching his bruised face and smoothing his hair with a touch as tender as a mother's. She said something to the younger woman, who only nodded, her dark eyes growing sad as she set down the gourd lamp.
Reluctantly, Chris carefully released Vin's hand and stood, moving away as the two women began to tend Vin's numerous injuries. He felt completely drained, a tumultuous sorrow swirling through him. Even if Vin had chosen this path, it was still damn hard to bear.
"Perhaps we should leave these good women to their task," Ezra suggested as the women gently began to unwind the long bandages covering Vin's wounds.
Chris nodded once, still staring at Vin. He needed to see Sarah very badly, to hold her and feel the healing peace once more. The tent around them began to fade away, but Chris barely noticed this as his eyes remained on Vin. Even if he had noticed, it would not have mattered much to him; he knew he would be returning soon enough.
Twilight was falling softly around the small Larabee ranch house. Overhead the blue of the summer sky was gently fading into purple, dotted with the first flickering stars of the night. The soft still warmth of the day still lingered in the air, gathering all around it in its embrace. Here and there fireflies danced and blinked among the tall grass and wildflowers just beyond the house's yard.
Buck and Adam were playing a lighthearted game of tag in the meadow, chasing each other through the waving grass, Buck's teasing voice and Adam's squealing laughter drifting easily through the evening air. Occasionally Buck would catch the child in his arms, swinging him around playfully while they both laughed, before setting him down so the game could begin again. Every once in a while Buck's eyes strayed to the porch of the house, his blue eyes tinged with concern for its two quiet occupants. Then the chase would resume, as it would as long as Buck felt his two friends needed the time alone together.
Ezra had excused himself shortly after their return from visiting JD and Vin. At approximately that time, it seemed, he realized that his mother Maude was receiving the news of his death, and he had hastened to be with her, his expression sad and pained. Although she would not be able to see or hear him, he was hoping that there might be something he could do to comfort her, some way to let her know that he was all right. They had all wished him luck, and he was gone.
On the porch, all was still. Chris sat watching the night gather, his face somber and thoughtful; Sarah sat beside him on the armrest of the wooden chair, her arms draped tenderly around her husband's shoulder, her face leaning against his soft blonde hair as she followed his gaze into the meadow. Their hands were intertwined in Chris's lap, the husband and wife enfolded in each other in a casual, loving manner. They had sat that way for quite a while, saying little, reveling in the miracle of their reunion with joy too profound for words.
Finally, Sarah's lilting voice broke the silence. "It's not as you imagined, is it?" Not an inch of her moved as she spoke, her eyes remaining fixed on her son and Buck playing in the meadow.
Chris blinked a bit, stirring slightly as he took in the tranquil beauty before him. The sky was now a deep blue, streaked with purple and violet; the stars were numerous, and what seemed like hundreds of fireflies had emerged from the meadow, their tiny glowing forms darting in among the flowers and around Buck and Adam, as if trying to join in their play. It was a beautiful, peaceful scene, and when Chris felt Sarah's arm around his neck once more, and her hand softly holding his own, and thought once more on how impossible it was-and yet so undeniably real-the whole of the experience threatened to overwhelm him. He had only the power to quietly whisper, "No."
He couldn't see Sarah smile, but somehow he knew that she had done so, and he felt her give him a very gentle hug.
A few more minutes passed in silence.
Chris hesitated; something had been on his mind for a while now. "Not sure how to ask this," he muttered, keeping his eyes on the meadow.
He felt Sarah squeeze his hand again, just a little. "I think I know, Chris," she said softly. "You're wonderin' if my father's here."
A mild sorrow twinged Chris's heart. Sarah's father Hank Connelly had died insane, the grief over his daughter's death having driven him to murder at least two innocent men in the demented belief that they had been Sarah's killers. Chris had been at his side when he died, witnessed the pain his derangement had caused, yet still had felt some sympathy for the old man's mental agony. He had been gripped by a similar grief himself, and might have followed the same path had fate not set things differently. He could not help but wonder if Hank had found any measure of peace or healing, as Chris had.
"I'm so thankful to you for tryin' to help my poor father, Chris," Sarah went on, her lilting voice low and sad. "I've been thinkin' on him too, but...I don't think he's ready to be with us yet. He has so much to deal with, you know-so much to learn. But...I don't feel he's sufferin' any more, somehow. I know that much, and it gives me hope that someday we may see him again, whole and at peace."
Chris pondered this answer, and then nodded, satisfied. It didn't seem right that Hank's crimes should go unanswered, but he also didn't like the idea of him being separated forever from the daughter he loved so much. It felt better to hope that one day the separation would be over; how soon that might be, he assumed, was mostly up to Hank.
He settled back into her arms once more and continued to watch the night descend. The air was pleasantly cooler now, the stars and fireflies lighting the fields in their mystic glow. Adam's delighted laughter rang over the waving grass as Buck caught him again, and Chris smiled at the sound, sweeter to his ears than the sweetest music. He gripped Sarah's hand a little tighter, momentarily flooded with emotion at the thought that the sound of his son's laughter, and the touch of his wife's arm, would never be torn from him again. She seemed to understand, and he felt her kiss him lightly on his forehead, her slender fingers returning the embrace.
As they watched Buck swing Adam onto his shoulder and carry him over to the paddock to pet the horses there, Chris's thoughts turned-as they had all night-to Vin. If anything could hinder Chris's bewildered awe at the beauty of his new home, it was his ever-present concern for his brother's fate. As splendid as this all was, it was impossible for him to enjoy it, knowing that somewhere, Vin was suffering, dying, alone. He somehow could tell that it was not right for him to be with him yet; had it not been for that intuition, not even the legions of heaven could have kept Chris from Vin's bedside. It was a gentle agony, to wait, but it was an agony he had to endure.
There was a rustling in the grass nearby, and Chris looked up to see Ezra walking slowly towards the house, his head down, his hands in his pockets. As he stepped closer into the warm glow of the lamps on the porch, the Southerner lifted his head, and Chris could see that his expression was somber, his eyes moist.
"Good evening," Ezra murmured softly, taking off his hat and bowing slightly to Sarah before taking a seat on the top step of the short staircase leading up to the porch. He dangled the hat in his hands, looking silently out into the now-quiet meadow.
Chris took a deep breath, knowing that Ezra would not have joined them if he wanted to be quiet, or alone. The gambler needed to talk. "How's Maude?"
Ezra dropped his gaze to his hands, clearing his throat a little. "My mother, thank the good Lord, is possessed of the strongest, most stubborn constitution west of the Mississippi," he replied quietly. "But...I am afraid that constitution is being sorely tested at the moment." By the end of the sentence his voice dropped to a bare, catching whisper.
There was no sound save the soft chatter of Buck and Adam and the crickets hidden within the flowers and grass.
"She's a mighty strong woman, Ezra," Chris said firmly, remembering the times he had witnessed the con woman's tenacity. "I know she'll miss you something awful, but she'll survive."
Sarah tilted her head a little, her green e
es full of sympathy as she looked at the gambler. "She loved you very much, Ezra," she said gently.
Ezra juggled the black hat a little, waiting a moment before nodding fiercely, his eyes still staring at his hands. "I know," he whispered, lifting his eyes to look up at the brilliant night sky overhead. Tears glistened on his cheeks in the starlight. "She's, um...she's sleeping now, finally. I did my best to tell her I was fine, but...I am not sure I was successful. She can be a hard woman to reach, even in her dreams."
A slight smile played on Chris's lips. "I seem to recall you can be pretty stubborn too, Ezra," he noted. "I'm betting you can make her hear you."
Several minutes passed as Ezra stared thoughtfully into the beautiful summer evening. Finally the gambler wiped the tears from his eyes, looking back at Chris with a grin of gratitude. "Well, sir," he announced in a lighter tone as he rose with a sniff and put his hat on, "since money is of no use here, I will have to accept that wager purely for the purpose of personal satisfaction." He tapped the brim of his hat towards Sarah, his expression becoming sober once again. "I fear Mother will need a good deal of solace in the days ahead. You...may not see me for a while, so I will say, Au revoir, until we meet again."
They nodded their goodbyes to him, and watched as Ezra walked down the steps and over to the paddock for a brief visit with Buck and Adam.
Sarah tilted her head as she studied her husband's face. "You'll be goin' too, now," she stated, recognizing the expression in Chris's eyes.
Chris ducked his head a little, impressed as he had always been by his gentle wife's keen intuition. Somehow she had noticed that the time had come. He took a deep breath and raised his head, still bewildered at the miracle before him. Only the powerful ties of blood and brotherhood could have ever taken him from her side again, and that urging was pulling at him now in a manner too strong to express in words.
Sarah simply smiled and gently caressed his cheek, her expression full of deep love and understanding. He gazed at her for a moment, infinitely grateful for her compassion. He leaned toward her; they embraced, kissed, held each other for a few moments in the warm, silent summer night, finding comfort and strength in each other's arms. As Chris stood holding his wife, his gaze strayed out into the moonlit meadow, the pensive expression in his green eyes indicating that his thoughts lay far from the peaceful scene around him.
+ + + + + + +
All was dark and still inside the Indian tent. The only illumination came from the moonlight sifting in through the translucent hide wall, bathing the interior in a soft, almost mystical glow. To one side of the circular structure, the two kind Indian women were quietly sleeping, weary from the day's work and the task of caring for their mysterious patient. Either of the women would have awakened at a moment's notice, had they felt that Vin was in need of attention. No such need seemed apparent, however, and so they rested, firmly convinced that all was well and completely unaware of the unseen visitor who had been at Vin's side for several hours.
Since his arrival, Chris had not moved from the place where he sat, hands loosely clasped around his knees as he watched Vin sleep. In the gentle radiance of the filtered moonlight, the tracker's injuries seemed less severe, the deep bruises and pale skin barely discernible. But Chris had never been a man who was easily swayed by appearance; there was a gaunt look to Vin's face, and a weakness in his breath, that no trick of the light could disguise.
Vin had not moved, had not shown the slightest hint of awareness in all the hours of Chris's vigil, and it was some small comfort to Chris that at least his friend showed no signs of suffering. But still, still Chris could sense the hidden struggle, could feel Vin's soul fighting for the life it had always prized so much, leaping and falling in its battle against the encroaching enemy like a candle flame against a desert storm, growing more weary with every passing moment.
Rarely had Chris felt so helpless.
He sighed, looking down into his friend's tranquil face, the now-familiar surge of sadness, frustration and anger sweeping over him once more. This seemed a damn poor reward for Vin's bravery, and Chris had no understanding as to how it had been allowed to happen. Vin had been given so little time to enjoy his hard-won freedom, had stayed by the side of his friends when it would have be so easy to simply gather up his life and ride away. None of them would have blamed him, after he had been wronged for so long. Instead, when they left town to track down Fowler, Vin had risked his new life to come with them, and while Chris was glad for it, he hated the cost of that selfless act.
Chris ducked his head, blinking at the moisture in his eyes, trying to tamper down his anger. Ezra had been right; it was Vin's choice, and he would not disrespect his friend's sacrifice by even thinking that Vin had acted without knowing exactly what he had been riding into. Even if Vin had known that his heroic act at Purgatorio would result in his death, Chris felt sure that he would have carried it out anyway, without hesitation, as he had always faced every difficult but necessary task in his life. It was simply the way Vin was, accepting the harshness of the world in his quiet manner and doing what he could to soften its touch for those he cared about. If Vin had been aware of his predicament, he doubtless would have simply shrugged and told Chris, "Reckon it was worth it."
But Chris hated the situation anyway.
Painful memories returned of the horrible days following their escape from Purgatorio. They seemed a jumbled blur, so enraged had Chris been at the time. Consumed with rage and grief, he would have gone after Fowler single-handed if the others had allowed it. No loss, save that of his family, had ever cut him so deep. For many nights afterwards he had shunned the company of the rest of their group, sitting by himself beneath the cold stars, mourning his friend and calculating the torturous ways in which Fowler and his men would pay.
He shivered, remembering the black anger in his heart then, the furious sorrow which had blotted out all else. Even when they had resumed their journey, the pain rode with them. In every passing moment, Chris missed Vin's quiet companionship; he'd lost count of the times he'd turned to ask Vin something, only to remember with a shock that the tracker was no longer there. Their partnership had been so natural, so complete, that its absence was as agonizing as the sudden, violent amputation of a limb.
More memories danced across his mind, the innumerable times Vin had saved them with his skill and perseverance, his silent strength and devotion to their duty which spoke so loud. It was ironic that a man so wronged by justice was so tenacious in the pursuit of it for others; but then, who else would understand how precious true justice was?
Even when things were quiet, Vin's presence seemed to provide a sense of stability to the gunslinger's often restless soul. They were both experienced men of the frontier, had both seen the darker sides of the desert region; they knew life was not something to complain about or shrink from, but something to be faced and dealt with, sometimes in an ugly but effective fashion. Their mutual kinship was something neither of them bothered to try and explain; it simply was there, another aspect of life to be accepted. Chris could recall them sitting for hours together, in the saloon or out by the street, watching the townsfolk swirl by without a word being spoken between them, enjoying the peace while it lasted. It never lasted long enough.
Chris sighed to himself, lost in the reverie. Those solitary nights after Vin's disappearance flashed before his mind's eye, the sharp recollection of loneliness arched across his heart. He had been so sure, then, that he would never see Vin again; certainly anything like his present situation seemed an impossibility. Death was an acknowledged part of Western life; a man had to cope with that fact without sentimentality. Vin understood that, as they all did, and faced that harshness with grim fortitude. Lost loved ones lived on in hearts and memories; men such as themselves could hope for more but did not count on it.
And now...Chris heaved a sigh, studying his dying friend's slumbering face. It seemed scarcely believable, that he would soon be able to talk to Vin again, to clasp his arm and ride at his side once more. Chris had firmly believed that was all past and gone, as irretrievably lost as Sarah and Adam. A deep swell of profound gratitude surged through his soul to whatever had granted him this miracle; if only he could understand how he came to deserve it. It had seemed beyond belief that he would once more hold Sarah in his arms, and hear Adam call him Pa again; the idea that he would also be granted the privilege of seeing Vin again, whole and strong and more free than any jury on earth could make him - it was almost too much to bear.
He took a deep breath and glanced through the sliver of open space between the tent-flap and the skin wall. How long had he been here? It was still black outside, save for the silver moonlight, but he felt that morning had to be coming soon. He must have been by Vin's side for hours, but it didn't feel like it at all, and for a moment Chris wondered at the strange sensation of not being able to feel time pass any more. Then he turned his eyes back to Vin, and forgot everything else.
He was weakening; Chris could sense it somehow, could feel it like sand slowly run out of a broken hourglass. Sorrow replaced the anger in his heart, along with an awkward sensation of futility. If only Nathan or Josiah could be here, he thought; they knew how to ease pain, and comfort those who needed it. Vin was in such terrible shape, and he had no idea how to reach him. Before, the two men had needed little more than a glance, a few words, a clasp of the arms, to convey their feelings, or get the other through a rough patch. But now Vin was slipping away; he had no way to hear or speak to Chris, yet still badly needed to know that a friend was there, that he would not be dying among strangers, as kind-hearted as they were.
He sighed, pressing his lips together, thinking, then reached out and gently placed one hand on Vin's forehead. As before, the touch did not feel unusual at all, flesh touching flesh. Vin's skin was hot now, his wracked body trying to fight off the ravages of its many injuries. Chris pursed his lips in concern but did not remove his hand; he knew his touch would not hurt his friend, and hoped it might help in some small way. It seemed to still the anguish in his own heart, at any rate.
"Buck says he thinks you can hear me," he said in a soft, sad voice, even though there was no need for him to whisper. "Not sure if I believe that, but so much unbelievable has happened lately I'm willin' to take the chance."
He sighed, a hot swell of emotion rising in his chest. God, this wasn't easy. "Few things I think you ought to know," he whispered, his voice growing rough as the hand on Vin's forehead moved a little. "We got 'em, Vin. Thanks to you, we got 'em. Fowler an' his gang finally paid for what they did to my family, an' I think they'll be payin' for it for a long, long time."
He paused, took a deep breath, ignoring the tears forming in his eyes. "I owe that to you, Vin, and I hope somehow you know that." He paused, lifting his eyes to the sky for a moment. "Can't tell you what it meant, to finally find justice after all those years of hell. Didn't think the darkness would ever go away, but it did the minute I saw Fowler go down, and it's because of you that I lived through Purgatorio to see it." He choked suddenly, and quickly brought his head down, trying to hold back the heavy emotion coursing through him.
"Vin, I hope you can hear me," he muttered, his voice hoarse. "You got a right to know. You earned it."
He took another breath, steadying himself before looking back at Vin. The tracker still appeared deeply unconscious, but Chris continued anyway, his hand still moving slightly across Vin's fevered brow. It didn't seem to be hurting Vin, at least, and it made Chris feel not quite so angry and helpless.
"Josiah an' Nathan made it," Chris went on in a low tone. "A bit banged up, but they'll be fine. JD..." His expression hardened at the painful memory of JD lying so still and pale in the mission. "JD, well, you should have seen him at the wall. Stood right up to Fowler's bunch, even when I told him to get the hell out of there." He swallowed, recalling what happened next. "Got shot up pretty bad, but he went down fighting. You would've been so proud to see him. Never looked less like a kid in his life. Buck's with him now. Says JD's got a long road, but he'll make it." A small smile appeared on Chris's lips. "He better, 'cause I think Buck'll be mighty sore at him if he don't."
After a few moments the smile faded and he fell silent, keeping his hand on Vin's forehead and staring into the night, his expression somber and pensive. He was startled when Vin stirred suddenly, just a little, his head turning a bit as a soft, broken sound escaped his throat. Chris drew closer in an instant, instinctively gripping his friend's hand, stroking his brow, wishing there was some way to ease the tracker's pain.
The fit quickly passed, and once he had settled into a new position Vin sighed in his sleep and became still once more. Chris frowned, still anxious, watching for any sign of discomfort. If only there was some way to know if he was helping at all, if Vin even knew he was there. The younger man seemed more calm now, the shadow of pain gone from his thin face; Chris had no way of telling if his touch had accomplished this, but it helped to think that it had. It was all he could do, for now.
He glanced over at the Indian women; one of them had lifted her head at the sound of Vin's groan. She rose swiftly and went to his side, completely ignorant of Chris as she examined her patient. After assuring herself that Vin had returned to his slumber, she tenderly patted the bruised cheek, muttered a few gentle words Chris couldn't understand, and went back to her bed.
Chris watched her as she settled back down, grateful that Vin had at least been rescued by people who would care for him, even if that care would ultimately prove futile. His eye flickered to the tent opening; the black sky had brightened a bit. Morning would be coming soon. He blinked, astonished; it felt as if no time had passed at all.
He turned back to Vin, still gripping his hand.
"I know you're fightin' to stay alive, Vin," he said. "You always hated backin' down, even when it was the right thing to do. But you don't have to fight any more. You've done more'n your share, for all of us." He paused, a tiny grin tugging at one corner of his mouth. "But you ain't gonna listen to me, are you? You'll keep on fightin' to the end, no matter how hopeless it is, an' I don't suppose I've got any right to tell you not to. It's part of being a Tanner, after all. Part of why we were all proud to ride with you."
The sky outside grew brighter. Chris ignored the growing light, focusing his attention completely on Vin, his hand still moving slightly across his friend's hair.
"So you go on an' fight just as hard as you want, Vin," he muttered, heedless of the growing roughness in his voice. "Make that reaper think twice about comin' for any more of us for a good long time. An' after that..." He paused, pursing his lips to steady himself before going on. "After that, Vin, you won't ever have to fight again. You'll be able to rest and heal, an' get to enjoy that freedom in ways you can't even dream of."
Words failed him, and he faltered and stopped. How could he tell his friend about the life that awaited him? He sighed, frustrated; he didn't have Vin's poetic gift, or Ezra's eloquence, and even those would be inadequate anyway. Images and feelings flashed through his mind-the open landscape full of indescribable beauty, the impossible joy of his reunion with his family, the incredible sensation of having years of pain and darkness lifted from his soul, leaving only profound peace and healing behind. How could he put *that* into words?
He dropped his eyes for a moment, lost in thought, then lifted his head and looked into Vin's tranquil face. "I don't have a way to tell you what's waitin' for you, pard," he whispered. "Haven't seen too much of it myself just yet, but I'm guessin' you'll like it. Miles of open space, mountains tall as the sky. Don't think you'll ever run out of things to write about in that poetry of yours."
The dark blue sky outside turned purple; in the distance came the sounds of the rest of the settlement beginning to stir.
Chris frowned a bit; it would be difficult to talk to Vin when others were tending to him. He leaned closer, anxious to say as much as he could.
"I'm with Sarah and Adam again, Vin," he said softly, feeling the joy swell in his heart once more at the thought. "Can hardly believe it, but it's true. Can't wait for you to meet them. And Ezra's there too, and Buck, fit as ever. Wish I could tell you more, but..." He shook his head. "Just don't guess I'm able. Not sure anyone is. But you'll know what I'm talkin' about when you see it, an' I guess that's enough for now."
The sky was becoming ever brighter; the Indian women were stirring in their beds, just on the edge of wakefulness. Chris watched them, but didn't move; he would stay where he was as long as possible.
His expression grew thoughtful as he turned his eyes back to Vin; he could tell that his friend was growing weaker. A matter of days, perhaps, no more. A brief flicker of anger reappeared, but after a brief struggle Chris brushed it aside; now was not the time for such thoughts, and he had learned from long experience that it never paid to dwell on a bad situation. It was best to simply deal with it, and move on.
And Vin would be moving on from this, no matter how bad things appeared. How he knew that Vin would be joining them, he could not honestly say; after all, such things weren't up to Chris. But after all Vin had done, after all he had suffered in the name of duty and justice, it seemed impossible to think that the tracker would be served with any other fate. Even if the unthinkable did occur, Chris was fully prepared to go fight the legions of Hell for his brother's soul, without the slightest hesitation. He had, after all, beaten the devil many times. What would one more contest be, especially for a cause so fiercely dear to him?
But Chris knew this would not be necessary. Some unknown mercy had seen fit to grant him the peace of knowing that Vin's righteous struggles would be properly rewarded. Chris felt his spirits lift a little as he imagined Vin, fully healed and strong as ever, riding joyfully through those green mountains beneath that azure sky. He could still feel the bitterness of his grief when he had believed Vin lost for good, how fiercely he had missed the tracker's company, but that seemed as nothing compared to the prospect of them riding together once more, never again to be parted. The idea of having his brother returned to his side overwhelmed Chris with unspeakable emotion; he blinked back the threatening tears, grateful that no one could see him.
He bowed his head, wiping his eyes with one hand as another thought, even more powerful, crossed his mind. They would all be together again one day; he could see them clearly, seven men riding across the sunlit plain, their bond of blood and brotherhood irrevocably restored. He had believed the Seven lost forever, destroyed by the machinations of Fowler and his men, and mourned deeply for its loss, but now he could see the folly of such an idea. Destiny had forged their bond, and nothing as sordid as bullets or death could sever it. His men, his friends - the Seven - would ride again.
Chris marveled at the vision, then took a deep breath as he rubbed his face; as marvelous as the notion was, it was still in the future, and Vin needed him now. He returned his hand to Vin's brow and bent over his brother's still form.
"You just rest easy an' let these good people take care of you," he muttered in a quiet tone. "Fight if you feel you got to; there's a good rest waitin' for you when it's all through. An' you know I'm not goin' anywhere without you; we rode together this far, might as well keep goin' on together. Wouldn't be a proper heaven for me any other way."
The first pale rays of the morning sun spilled through the gap in the tent opening, falling across the dying man's face. In that light, Chris could have sworn he saw Vin smile in his sleep, a small, tranquil smile free of pain. Perhaps he had heard Chris after all, even if he thought it was just a dream.
Grateful for this small miracle, Chris sat back to watch and wait, and anticipate with somber happiness the larger miracles still to come.
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