Comments and feedback are greatly appreciated.
COMMENTS: This is a story I wrote for Kathy B., who wanted some Chris hurtin'. Yes, folks, my sweet boo-boo baby Ezra's takin' a back seat on this one (course he's still in it!) in favor of our favorite black-clad gunslinger. So this is a Chris h/c fic-hope y'all enjoy it! Thanks to Kathy for inspiring me to write it!
The morning was fast waning into afternoon, but Chris Larabee was in no hurry to move from his spot in front of the Four Corners prison. Horses and riders galloped past him, townsfolk bustled by on their daily errands, yet none of their hurried pace affected the lean, black-garbed gunslinger as he sat, tilted back in his chair, feet propped up on a nearby post as he observed the town's daily routine from under the wide brim of his black hat. He had hardly moved since taking over the chair from fellow lawkeeper and ladies' man Buck Wilmington earlier that day, but this did not mean he had been inactive.
Chris' ability to sit perfectly still even while carrying out the most watchful vigilance had amazed many of his peers, and cost more than one unwary gunman his life; he appeared to be dozing, or inattentive, when in fact he was keenly aware of his surroundings. And up until now, the surroundings had been pretty boring, he mused as he chewed on the softly smoking cheroot in his mouth.
Some of the men he had been hired with to keep the peace were out of town; former preacher Josiah Sanchez had gone to the nearby reservation to ask the resident holy man some urgent religious questions. Nathan Jackson, the town's healer, and JD Dunne, their young Eastern comrade, had been asked to escort a widow and her small children to the train depot in Ridge City. Buck was getting a haircut for what he hoped would be a successful evening out with the newest young lady in town. Bounty hunter and tracker Vin Tanner was out on patrol, keeping an eye on the town's boundaries. And the Southern gambler and con artist Ezra Standish was adhering to his principle of never rising before noon.
The silence of the day only made Chris more nervous, however. As his green eyes traveled the length of the street, he could feel his gut tighten. The hot months had just started, which was when tempers tended to run high, and it bothered him to think that if anything got started, he would have only Buck for backup. Maybe it was time to go toss Ezra downstairs... The sound of running feet attracted his attention, and Chris looked up the street to see Buck headed his way.
"Buck," he greeted in a calm voice, as soon as his friend was close enough. "Miss Blossom's husband back in town?"
"Hey, Chris," was the hurried, serious reply, as Buck ran one nervous hand through his freshly trimmed black hair. "We might have a problem."
Chris eyed him without moving and waited.
"You remember Jules Chaco?"
Chris thought for a moment, then scowled. "That rustler from El Paso?"
"Yeah," Buck nodded. "You remember, we faced em down couple of years back an' you shot his father for drawin' on you?"
Chris glanced at him from beneath his hat. "Kinda hot for guessin' games, Buck."
"Yeah, well, it's like to get a whole lot hotter," Buck replied. "Just saw Jules ridin' into the north side of town, all in black an' lookin' mad as a thundercloud. Got some men with im too."
His companion looked away and sighed. "Oh, hell," he moaned wearily as he set the legs of the chair back on the porch with a resigned thunk. He stood up slowly and faced his friend. "Look, try to get these people off the street. I'll-"
He paused as he saw a group of men rounding the corner and riding towards him, led by a young, grim-faced dark-haired man dressed in black. Buck turned and saw them too, then nodded wordlessly and moved off as casually as possible towards the townspeople gathered nearby.
Chris sat back down, leaning back once more and trying to appear unafraid. He wasn't going to start a gunfight by catering to Chaco's anger. Maybe they were just riding through. The riders slowed down, then stopped.
Damn! Chris casually turned his head to face the man addressing him, easily recognizing the ugly face and angry eyes of an opponent he'd stood down before. He sat still, making no moves towards his guns, as he regarded Jules Chaco with cold green eyes.
"Mornin', Chaco," he said softly, his voice icy. "Nice day for you to keep on ridin', wouldn't you say?"
"You can cut the crap, Larabee," the young man spat back, his blue eyes deadly. "My pa's dead now cause of that bullet you put in him two years ago. I'm here to pay you back."
Out of the corner of his eye, Chris could see Buck shooing the curious townspeople out of harm's way. He stood up very slowly, trying not to make any aggressive moves.
"I'm sorry you lost your father," Chris said, fixing his opponent with a warning glare.
Chaco laughed. "Hell, I ain't. The man was a drunk an' a bastard an' I'm hopin' he's burnin' in Hell for the way he treated Ma. But the way I see it, I can't just let you go round thinkin' you can gun down old men. I got to set an example to my men, y'see."
A dry chuckle escaped Chris's lips. "Yeah, I see. You're in charge now an' you want to make your name by killin' me."
The young man licked his lips, a deadly flicker in his eyes. Chris shook his head. "Take my advice an' ride on, Chaco. Unless you want to make your name by havin' it carved on a gravestone."
But the rider laughed again and dismounted. "You don't scare me, Larabee. I'm callin' you out for killin' my pa, an' this time it won't be a broken-down ol' drunk you're facin'."
Chris faced Chaco and stepped off of the porch, hands spread wide. "I wasn't about to let your father gun me down," he said in a sharp voice, "an' I ain't gonna let you do it, either. But I'll warn you like I warned him. Don't do this."
A sharp click of a rifle being primed caught the boy's attention, and he turned to see Vin approaching, a sawed-off rifle cradled in his hands and a deadly look in his light blue eyes. He and Buck came up to stand behind Chris, their eyes never leaving the armed men before them. Chris said nothing more, but he gritted his teeth a bit. Chaco grinned as he saw Vin and Buck take their places behind Chris.
"Your men against mine? Fine with me, Larabee. I got more than you."
Chris shook his head; God no, not a full-scale gunfight. "Just you an' me, if you insist, Chaco. Outside of town. I'll agree to that." Chaco's smile grew wider.
"That's damned nice, Larabee. But I won't."
With that he whipped his gun out and fired.
Chris barely heard the shrieks of the unprepared townspeople as the gunfire erupted; he was too busy keeping tabs on all of Chaco's men while diving for cover. As he fired off a few rounds, he at least realized that they were shrieks of fear and surprise, not pain. That was fine; fear they could recover from, as long as they got safely out of harm's way.
Chaco's men quickly hopped off of their horses, their guns out, ready to defend their boss. Their shots splintered the wood of the pillars outside of the jail and raised small puffs of dust as they imploded on the street. Chris returned fire as he ducked behind a carpet vendor's wagon. Chaco ran towards Chris, intent on his revenge; a few shots sprayed at his feet convinced him otherwise and he backed off, taking shelter behind a horse trough to wait while his men softened Chris up enough to finish off.
As the bullets flew, Chris considered the odds; there were four of them, counting Chaco, against three of the lawmen. Judging by the amount of gunfire, Vin and Buck were holding their own. Another round of gunfire joined the fray, and Chris looked up to see Ezra firing from his saloon room window. The odds were now even.
A shape caught Chris's attention; one of Chaco's men was sneaking up on his left. Whirling, Chris squeezed off a shot, and the man went down, howling as he clutched his leg, the blood blackening the desert dust. Chris pursed his lips in joyless satisfaction; that put the odds in their favor, anyway. The sound of shots seemed deafening; Chris noticed they were firing at his men as often as Chris, probably to get rid of any cover before going after the main prize. A bullet whizzed past, close enough that Chris could feel the warm air of its trail as it sped past. He ducked down again, snapping open his gun to reload it, looking around to locate his men. There was Buck, stooping as he darted down the sidewalk, firing away as he ran from cover to cover. Ezra was still at his window, firing at the enemy from above. Chris looked around and noticed he couldn't see Vin anywhere.
Chaco grinned to himself when he saw the tracker fall; he knew enough about Larabee's gang to know the damn bounty hunter was his enemy's right-hand man, and it would be so much fun to blow his brains out in front of the man he so despised.
"Cover me, Joe," he hissed to the man next to him. "I'm goin' after the buckskin."
The reply was a wordless nod, and the other man smiled as he deduced what his boss was up to. Stooping, Chaco slipped out towards the alleyway where he had seen the tracker drag himself. With luck, none of the Larabee gang would notice him until Tanner's guts were splattered across the boardwalk.
Chris's green eyes searched the street quickly; there was still no sign of Vin, and he counted only two other guns firing at Chaco's men. A bullet nicked his sleeve, and he drew back with a curse; concentrate, you damn fool, he told himself, you'll get killed if you don't. He fingered the bleeding gash then quickly returned to his task, trying not to think about what might have happened to Vin.
Then he noticed a flash of dark color moving between the boxes and barrels which lined the street. He lifted his gun, but was instantly showered with gunfire. Chris drew back swiftly, his mind working as he stared at the figure; it was Chaco, they were giving him cover. But he wasn't trying to get away.
Vin, he realized. Shit.
Vin pushed himself as low behind the rain barrel as he could, ignoring the bleeding wound in his shoulder as he tried to reload his rifle. The pain made it almost impossible to focus; but the fight was still heavy, and it was still theirs to win or lose. Chaco wasn't going to get Chris while Vin still had one arm to shoot with.
He shoved the bullets into the gun with blood-smeared fingers, swearing as they slipped in his grasp. Sweat stung his eyes; he shook it away with a scowl. Almost done- A shadow fell across him, and Vin looked up quickly to see Chaco standing in front of him, his gun aimed at the tracker's head.
"Howdy," Chaco smiled, and went to pull the trigger.
Vin braced himself, but before he could react a heavy darkly-clad form plowed into Chaco from the side, knocking the rustler to the ground. Vin gasped. "Chris!" he cried, trying to force his legs to obey his command to stand.
The gunfire in the street increased, and one of Chaco's men burst into the mouth of the alleyway, firing at the figures furiously wrestling in the hot dust. Vin snapped his rifle shut and fired; Chaco's man fell dead, and Vin spared him little more than a glance as he fell.
Chris felt the bullet slam into his side, knew he'd been shot, but nothing would release his hold on Chaco as the two men battled.
"Give it up, Chaco!" Chris snarled, paying no attention to the hot blood soaking his shirt.
Chaco laughed. "Surrender to you? I'll join Pa in hell first!" he spat, and shoved his fist into Chris's gut for emphasis.
Chris grappled for his gun, maintaining his grip despite the furious waves of agony which assailed him. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Vin pulling himself up, aiming his rifle at Chaco's twisting form. He looked again at Chaco with a piercing gaze.
"Last chance!" he cried.
"Never!" was the furious reply.
A rifle report exploded in the alleyway like a clap of thunder. Chaco gagged and lurched, his fist tightening around Chris's collar as he stared at him in complete surprise. Chris watched impassively, apathetic to the man's dying gasps. Then he saw a different expression float across Chaco's failing eyes. A small smile creased his bloody mouth, and he coughed once.
"See ya in Hell, Larabee," he whispered.
Chris scowled, puzzled. Chaco drew a final rattling breath and made one last violent motion, using up all of his remaining strength. Chris's puzzlement vanished in a sheet of red-hued agony as something tore through his gut. The world began to lurch and spin; he could hear footsteps, shouts, someone was pulling him off of Chaco and swearing forcefully. Warm blood flooded over his chest; he could feel it washing over him as they laid him gently down on the rough, dusty ground. He could see faces swirling above him; they looked concerned but they were all rapidly dissolving into shadow and he couldn't see who they were.
"Chris! Oh Goddammit-"
"Ezra, get on the road-try an' catch Nathan!"
"You all right, Vin?"
"Hell yes! Leave me alone! Chris?"
Their voices faded into incoherent, echoing nonsense, swallowed up by the anguish consuming his entire being. He felt as if he had been disemboweled, but as he groped weakly at his stomach all he could feel was a pool of his own warm, sticky blood. Then it all spun together, making no sense at all any more, and Chris had no choice but to follow it into the deep, unyielding darkness.
JD and Nathan rode slowly back towards Four Corners, enjoying the warm weather and uncharacteristic calm. JD was shaking his head. "Sure was glad t'get that widow an' her kid onto that train, Doc."
"Oh, I dunno, JD," Nathan replied with a laugh. "I think she was kinda sweet on you."
"That's what I mean!" the young man insisted in exasperation. "If Casey ever saw that she'd kill me."
The healer considered this with a smile. "I think she'd kill the widow first."
JD laughed. "Yeah, w-" He broke off as he looked up the road, his handsome features turning puzzled. "Hey-isn't that Ezra?"
Nathan followed JD's gaze to where a lone rider was tearing up the road towards them, his red jacket plainly visible despite the distance.
"Yeah," Nathan said slowly, frowning as he gathered up his reins in anticipation of bad news. "C'mon."
They spurred their horses forward, and met Ezra in a matter of a few minutes. Alarm rose in both men as they studied the normally fastidious gambler's disheveled condition; he was covered with dirt and sweat, flecks of blood streaking his shirt and vest.
"What's wrong?" JD called as soon as they were within speaking distance.
"Nathan, you must hurry," Ezra replied breathlessly, sawing his horse to a stop. "There's been a gunfight in town. Chris has been seriously wounded."
JD's eyes widened. "Aw, shit!"
"He been shot?" Nathan asked as he prepared to ride on.
Ezra nodded, a grim light in his light green eyes. "And stabbed in the stomach."
Nathan muttered something fiercely under his breath, and with a jab of the spur his horse leapt forward, racing back to Four Corners. JD and Ezra followed him, JD's heart pounding as he contemplated the ugly truth apparent in Ezra's gray, anxious expression.
The small room which served as Nathan's living quarters and clinic stood hot and crowded in the dry, bright light of the desert afternoon. Steam rose from the battered iron stove as the old pot boiled bandages and the sharp knives which were the only medical instruments the healer possessed. Piled in one forgotten corner was a heap of bloodied clothing, the stains on it growing stiff and brown with the deadly passing of time. People filed in and out, seeking news, offering to help, and passing on any information which might be helpful to the three tight-lipped men trying to save the life of the pale, motionless figure lying on Nathan's iron bed.
Chris had not moved or spoken since Buck had carried his limp form up the two flights of stairs to the clinic. They had stripped off his jacket and shirt, exposing the wounds to the full scrutiny of the merciless light. His flesh was growing whiter by the minute and glistened with feverish sweat. Blood continued to seep from the horrific gash in his abdomen and the bullet wound in his side, and it seemed every clean rag in the place was being used to staunch its flow.
"Where the hell is Nathan?" Vin said for the twentieth time as he pressed one of the last rags against Chris's side.
"Should be here any minute," Josiah assured him as he stirred the boiling pot and wiped sweat from his brow. "They couldn't have gone very far-"
A sharp groan of anguish pierced the air as Chris suddenly began to twist against the painful pressing of the rag.
"Easy there, buddy," Buck said quickly, grabbing Chris's arm and fighting his alarm at the skin's clamminess.
"He comin' around?" Vin whispered, keeping up the pressure on the rag as he eyed Chris's contortions.
Chris groaned again and continued to writhe weakly against his pain, the thin bedclothes rustling with the slight movement.
"Not sure yet," Buck replied, concern shining in his blue eyes. he leaned in closer to Chris. "Can you hear me, pard? Hey! Chris?"
A labored grunt escaped Chris's clenched teeth as his green eyes struggled open to stare into Buck's face. The gunslinger's breath came in shallow gasps, and he still said nothing.
"Hey, that's better," Buck said with false cheerfulness as he tightened his grip on Chris's arm. "Least you got them eyes of yours open."
Chris choked a bit. "Hard-to sleep-with that mouth of yours-goin'," he gasped out, the agony thick in his voice. His body trembled with the effort to keep the pain under control as he looked around. "What the hell-"
"You just let me do the talkin'," Buck said quickly. "We took care of Chaco an' his men, but he left you a little souvenir. Don't you worry, Nathan'll be here in a hurry an' git you all stitched back together nice an' pretty, you're gonna be just fine."
Chris grinned a bit despite his anguish and eyed Buck with amusement. "You're-a hell of a lousy liar-Buck," he whispered before closing his eyes and clenching his teeth against another wave of agony. Buck and Vin anxiously leaned forward, Buck gripping his arm while Vin tended his wounds.
"Don't you go an' die just yet, cowboy," Vin said quietly, easing his pressure on the blood-stained cloth in his hand. "I gotta buy you a thank-you whiskey for savin' my hide."
The wave passed, leaving Chris half-conscious and struggling to breathe. His eyes fluttered open again, and he looked at Vin for a moment before they drifted shut again.
The door flew open, and Nathan flew into the room, followed closely by JD and Ezra. Nathan was pulling his jacket off, finally tossing the garment into the corner while rolling up his sleeves.
"He still alive?" the healer said quickly as he knelt by the bed.
Buck nodded as he pulled away to give Nathan room. "Yeah, an' he just started talkin' some, but I think he's out again."
Chris cried out as Nathan gently placed his hands around the bullet wound. The healer pursed his lips, anxiety in his brown eyes. "Gonna have t'see if there's an exit wound," he muttered. "Buck, help me turn 'im over a bit."
Buck rose and placed his hands beneath Chris's shoulders. "Sorry, ol' pard," he murmured as he lifted Chris up a few inches and tried top ignore the gunslinger's choked protest. Nathan peered beneath Chris's back, quickly sliding his hand carefully in the area where the bullet might have come out.
He sighed and looked at Buck. "Okay, put 'im down," he said softly, sitting up. "There ain't no exit wound, the bullet's still in there. Josiah, got my probe?"
"Right here," was the swift reply, as Josiah fished a dripping instrument from the boiling pot. Nathan looked around as he took the probe in hand. "Vin, you best back off with that hurt arm. Ezra, can you help Buck hold Chris down while I see about that bullet?"
"Certainly." Ezra pulled off his red jacket, tossing the costly article aside with as much carelessness as Nathan had discarded his own cheap garment earlier. Vin stepped aside as the gambler took his place.
"What do you want me to do?" JD asked from the doorway.
Nathan wiped the instrument and glanced at the young man. "Go get some whiskey, JD, a whole bottle if you can."
The rapid receding of JD's thumping footsteps on the worn wooden stairway announced his departure, and the men inside the room turned their full attention to their suffering friend.
"Now hold 'im still," Nathan warned as he leaned forward and gripped the probe tightly, "This might take a few minutes."
"We got 'im," Buck said firmly as he placed one hand on Chris's shoulder and another on his arm. Ezra had positioned himself in a similar manner, deep concern evident in his ice-green eyes, his normally guarded expression one of clear uneasiness. Josiah stood by Chris's feet, ready to offer assistance there if needed.
Nathan took a deep breath and began his work, slowly working the metal probe into the wound and hoping the search would be quick. Chris moaned and began to fight against the agonizing intrusion.
"Easy there," Buck soothed, grasping Chris's arm and shoulder, his hands slipping on the sweat-soaked skin. Gasps broke from Chris's taut lips and he opened his eyes to glare at Buck.
"Easy-for you-to say," he sputtered as he valiantly fought against the urge to struggle against the agonizing procedure. He said nothing else, trying to stay as still as possible and letting Nathan do his work. But nothing could stifle the muffled groans and choked gasps which escaped his throat, or the involuntary jerks of his arms as his body tried to escape the anguish.
Suddenly Chris bit off a sharp cry.
"Got it," Nathan said shortly as he paused to shake the sweat from his eyes. "How you holdin' up, Chris?"
"Better-when the whiskey comes," was the taut reply.
"As JD seems to have been delayed," Ezra said, letting go of Chris's shoulder long enough to quickly reach into his hip pocket, "I believe the contents of my hip flask will be suitable for the occasion?"
Chris gave him a flat stare. "Hell-long as it ain't turpentine-I'll take it."
"I assure you it's not," was the reassuring reply, as Ezra opened the flask and gave Chris a few swallows from the gleaming container.
"Not-bad," Chris acquiesced, after Ezra pulled the flask away and replaced it into his pocket. "Beats rotgut-anyway."
"At fifteen dollars a bottle I should hope so," Ezra assured him as he repositioned himself and gave Nathan an expectant glance.
"Just hold on a little longer," Nathan encouraged him as he peered into the wound. "I can just about see it. Ezra, Buck, get ready."
Both men obeyed, and Chris steeled himself. It had to be done, he knew, to save his life, but that knowledge did not prevent the blinding sheets of agony from nearly plunging him back into oblivion as Nathan went to retrieve the bullet. His body bucked and thrashed against the pain, and his cries stirred the hot, steamy air of the small room. Ezra and Buck kept their grips firm on him as Nathan worked, the face of each man reflecting their friend's pain as well as their own fears about his survival.
Finally Nathan positioned himself and in one smooth motion drew out a small, smashed bullet from Chris's side. Chris uttered a strangled curse and went limp, gasping for breath as he stared mutely at the bloody piece of metal.
"There ya go," Buck muttered with a tired smile as they all relaxed a bit.
Ezra sat back for a moment and wiped his brow with a fine linen handkerchief. As Nathan dropped the bullet into a nearby bucket, where it landed with a hollow clang, JD burst into the room with two bottles of whiskey.
"How is he?" he asked breathlessly as he handed the bottles to Nathan.
"Thanks JD. Just got the bullet out, this should help stop it from gettin' infected."
"Good," JD muttered, although his expression as he studied Chris's white, sweat-streaked complexion hardly seemed optimistic.
While Nathan soaked a cloth with some of the whiskey, Buck picked up a nearby tin of water and leaned in. "Hey Chris-got some water here."
Chris lay with his head to the side, his breath now coming easier. After a moment his eyes flickered open and he looked at his old friend with an expression of perfect weariness.
"It'll do you even more good than Ezra's fancy brandy, now drink 'er down," Buck ordered gently, cradling Chris's head in his hand as he lifted him up to drink it. Chris didn't argue, slurping eagerly at the water as he drained the cup. By the time Buck took the cup away and gently settled Chris back onto the pillow, Nathan was ready to bind the gunshot wound.
The healer poured a little of the brandy onto one of the boiled cloths. "Chris, I'm gonna bandage up that hole in your side now. This might smart some."
His patient grunted, a grim humor in his eyes. "I hate it-when you say that. Always-hurts like hell."
Nathan smiled and carefully placed the bandage over the wound. Chris hissed at the sharp pain, his body tensing as it fought to escape the burning sensation which coursed along his side. Vin gripped his friend's shoulder, his expression tight with sympathy.
"Just hold on," Nathan muttered as he wound some more bandages across Chris's side to keep the first one in place. Chris gasped for air as the ache subsided and blinked at the sweat trickling into his half-closed eyes.
"Damn," he whispered, licking his lips.
"One down," the healer sighed as he leaned forward and gently began to examine the knife wound. Chris tried to lay still, but his body still twitched and protested as Nathan's skilled hands gently brushed the injured flesh.
"Looks like your lucky day," Nathan said softly as he sat back up and leaned over to take some thread and a needle off of the table. "I think he missed the important stuff an' just got you in the muscle."
The other men in the room exhaled in relief. Chris, however, simply eyed the instruments in Nathan's hands with resignation.
"If you're-gonna stitch me up-like an old sock-I'd like another drink," he rasped sternly. Vin grinned and put the bottle of whiskey to Chris's lips while Ezra lifted his head so he could take a few swallows.
"There you are," Ezra announced lightly as Chris lay back on the bed, "I believe that will sustain you through our good doctor's ministrations."
"Got more kick-than the brandy anyway," was Chris's reply as he steeled himself.
The small room became quiet as Nathan carefully sewed up Chris's wound, but the air was full of oppressive anxiety. The room was stifling hot; JD opened the doors and windows to let in whatever breaths of air were stirring the dust outside. Chris's body was soon soaked with sweat and trembling slightly beneath the insidious rhythm of the sharp needle. He made only a few strangled grunts through his clenched teeth, and his green eyes were clear as he watched the healer work. On either side, Vin and Ezra gripped his arms and sat in vigilant silence.
"All done," came the welcome announcement, as Nathan broke off the end of the thread.
Chris exhaled violently. "Shit, Nathan, that-never gets easy to take."
"Easier than dyin'," Nathan replied as he rose and wiped his hands. "You better rest here for a day or two, then we'll get you back to your room. If we can keep them wounds clean, you should be all right."
There was a muffled rustling as the other men rose and stretched their muscles, which had become cramped and sore from tension. Ezra brushed at his sweat-soaked shirt in disgust while Buck leaned over Chris and patted his shoulder.
"Get yourself some rest, pard, we'll see ya later," he said. Chris nodded, his eyes already drifting closed.
"Oh, I ain't lettin' him off easy," Nathan assured them as he shooed them out. "Vin, lemme look at that arm now."
"Can y'do it outside, doc? Let Chris get his rest." Vin said as he absently rubbed the bloody gash in his sleeve.
"Sure," Nathan said with a nod, picking up some of his supplies. They were almost all out now, marking their departure with various waves and good-byes to Chris. Chris watched them go, managed a very small wave back. Nathan was the last to go, looking back at Chris as he went to pull the door shut.
"Yep, long as things stay quiet, you'll be fine," he assured him, and closed the door.
Chris went to sleep with a frown; he had an uneasy feeling the quiet would not last for long.
Four Corners lay quietly beneath the midnight moon, the streets long deserted in favor of home, room or campsite. The air still bore a touch of the daytime heat as it drifted on the nighttime breeze, disturbed only by the occasional barking dog or drunken shout. The street fires had long since gone out, their smoke curling lazily on the wind in a graceful dance witnessed by no one.
Except for Chris.
He hadn't been able to sleep. Even though Nathan had finally allowed him to move back to his rented room, he had found no comfort in the stark but familiar surroundings. The wounds were healing nicely, and the medicine he'd been given worked wonders in relieving the pain which twinged from the stitches and bullet wound. But even so, sleep had been elusive, so Chris propped himself up next to the window to look out on the town and think over his situation.
The town looked so peaceful in the gentle moonlight, he mused as he let the cooling breeze caress his shirtless chest. Yet less than a week ago, he had almost died in those peaceful streets; somewhere in those silent alleyways, his own blood mingled with the dusty soil. He had almost lost his life here, as he had in countless other towns before. It had become a regular occurrence in Chris's life: he'd find somewhere to settle, get comfortable, then someone would come along. I'm callin' you out, Chris Larabee. Then there'd be a gunfight, a dead body, usually a bloody wound or two. Followed by a ride out of town, to see if there was somewhere else he could stay.
The bullet wound twinged. Chris grit his teeth a bit and rubbed it gently, wishing it wouldn't itch so damn much. He'd been shot in Four Corners before, of course, but the very frequency was beginning to bother him. They knew he was here now. How many other Jules Chacos were out there, wanting to find and kill Chris Larabee to settle an old score or make a name? He'd left quite a trail behind him during those hell-raising years, and now it seemed it was leading back to him. He'd made a lot of men very angry, men who would think nothing of hurting innocent people to get their revenge or reputation.
Maybe it was time to move on, he thought as he reached for the cup of medicinal tea made from Nathan's herbs. They'd understand, hell they'd all stayed here much longer than any of them had planned on. Maybe they should start nudging Travis to find a real marshal and let them go back to their lives.
Chris smiled to himself as he downed a few sips of the bitter brew and gazed out of the window. Did he even have a life to get back to? All he'd been doing was drifting and drinking, letting his grief eat him from the inside out. But now that he thought on it, that existence no longer seemed quite so appealing. He'd actually enjoyed working with these men, fulfilling a duty, and he knew he'd miss it if it was taken away.
And miss them, too, damn it, he thought with a wry grin. Somehow, in coping with all of their fights and brawls and keeping the group together and alive, Chris had truly come to respect these men. There had been some very rough times in the past year that would have been impossible to survive had it not been for their friendship, even if it took the form of a rough punch to the head.
But that made it all the harder to stay, he thought as he rubbed his side. Their luck wouldn't hold out forever. Did he really want to face the inevitable day when one of them wouldn't make it? He'd managed to save Vin's life, almost losing his own in the process. It was a risk he took without hesitation, but the day might come when he wouldn't be able to help Vin. Or Buck, or JD, or any of them. The camaraderie would end in the silence of the graveyard, buried in the hard clay.
Chris knew his men, knew that they all accepted the dangers when they took up their duties. They had all seen men die, had all lost comrades and learned the grim, brutal reality which lay behind the trigger. But this knowledge did not make Chris's mind rest any easier. He did not like the image of what his future held should he have to face another silent graveyard, bearing the pain of another wound in his soul which no healer's art could repair.
The sound of hoofbeats gently crunching on the hard soil disturbed Chris from his reverie. Instinctively he ducked back into his room, puzzled as he made out the sound of several horsemen rising next to his boardinghouse. His green eyes glinted in the darkness; when anyone was out this late, it usually meant trouble.
"This the place?" one deep male voice hissed.
"Yep," whispered another one.
A third man grunted and said in a louder tone. "Larabee's in this two-bit hole? You're kiddin'."
Chris tensed and waited quietly.
"Telegram said so," the second voice replied angrily. "But if I'm gonna pick up Jules' body, I'm takin' Larabee's with it. He ain't gonna kill my blood an' get away with it."
As several voices murmured assent, Chris felt himself go cold. Jules' brother, dammit, he'd forgotten how big that family was. Of course the coroner would notify him to pick up his brother's body, and he must've figured out how Jules died. Well, if it was a fight they wanted-
"Now you know what to do?" the second voice continued.
"You bet, Mike," the first voice said softly. "We each take care of Larabee's gang, then get Larabee."
"An' we done our jobs, so we know where each one is," exulted a fourth voice. Chris clenched his teeth; they'd been scouting them out all day and none of them had been aware of it.
"Okay," Mike said. "Go to it. Larabee's still wounded so he'll be easy enough to deal with, but he's gonna go last. I want to be able to tell him to his face that his entire God-damned gang is dead."
More mutterings, and the sound of hoofbeats scuffling off into the night. Chris's heart was racing. By now all the others would be asleep; even Ezra usually turned in at this time of night. He would have to warn them. For an instant, logic sent up a stubborn protest. Chris was still weak and in a great deal of pain; his wounds were only just beginning to heal. He had little hope of being able to drag himself to help, and even less of surviving the journey. He could barely walk as it was-what he was thinking was madness.
Chris listened to these protests for all of two seconds. He pulled himself to his feet, gritting his teeth against the wrenching pain that erupted through his weakened body. He could feel the tender skin pulling against the stitches, but ignored it; Nathan could sew him up again later, provided he survived. He moved towards the door, buckling on his gunbelt along the way. The guns felt much heavier than he remembered, but he soon grew accustomed to their weight. Buck and JD were in the boardinghouse next door; if he could make it there, they could rouse the others.
Suddenly he froze; there were footsteps approaching his room, quiet and cautious but definitely there. Chris stopped and smoothly slid his gun out of the holster and stepped behind the door. The steps came closer, paused, then came to stop in front of the door. There was a tiny metallic sound; the lock was being expertly picked. After a few moments there was a loud click, and the door began to swing open very slowly, the dim light of the lamp in the hallway flooding across the rough dusty boards of the floor.
Chris stood perfectly still as he watched a gun barrel, then a gun, and finally the bearded man holding it, enter the room. The man was peering at Chris's bed, apparently trying to figure out if it was occupied or not. With catlike quiet Chris slid behind the intruder and with one swift motion slugged him across the back of the head with the butt of his revolver. The man collapsed to the floor with a heavy thump, the gun clattering uselessly from his hand.
Chris stepped into the dim light, his body now covered with sweat from the exertion. A slight dizziness assailed him which he angrily shook it off. There was a length of rope hanging on the wall; he removed it and quickly trussed up the unconscious gunman, ignoring the protests sent up by his injured body with every movement. Once his enemy was secured, Chris stood and set his steps towards the boardinghouse next door. The dizziness returned, much more severe than before; Chris gripped the handrail tightly as he struggled to walk down the stairs. He could tell he'd ripped out some of the stitches, and it felt as if the bullet wound was bleeding again. If they all survived this, Nathan was going to kill him.
Chris steeled himself against the agony as he carefully descended step by step. They were all going to survive this, no two-bit outlaw was going to get away with threatening his men. Not if Chris died in preventing it. Finally his feet touched the ground. He gasped for air and looked around; the pain was worse now, slicing into his side like a rusted razor. he stood still for a moment, trying to steady the swirling room. he was standing five feet from the front door; it seemed like five miles. The world stopped swaying, and he slowly walked forward and opened the door. The streets were still deserted, but Chris knew Mike's men were out there, getting ready to strike. He turned his bleary eyes to the boarding house next door.
The hitching posts stood empty, but around the corner he could make out the bobbing head of a dark horse. Chris took a deep breath; Mike's man was in there, probably already at Buck's door, or JD's. He had to move. Forcing himself to walk, Chris lurched towards the front door of the building. Every nerve was on fire now, and his head throbbed with unbearable pressure. He made it to the porch and grabbed hold of one of the posts, using them to hoist himself along the floor to the front door. He shivered as he felt the breeze cooling and drying the sweat which now soaked his body. Each movement brought new torture from his injuries; he clenched his teeth tighter and concentrated, allowing himself only the luxury of muttering several obscenities under his breath. He reached the front door, and felt himself go numb. It was open a few inches, the front lock having recently been partially pried off.
DAMN it, Chris thought, and drew his gun. It felt like it weighed ten pounds; with effort he cocked it and slowly stepped through the door. The plainly furnished parlor was empty, but Chris could hear the distinct thumping of boots ascending the wooden stairs. He peered through the darkness, swiping the sweat out his eyes as he crept across the parlor floor, trying to stay hidden.
Buck and JD had rooms at the far end of the second floor, and it sounded like the assassin was almost there. Chris steeled himself and went as quickly and quietly as he could towards the stairs, trying with every ounce of strength not to stumble or groan. His head was swimming constantly now, and he felt himself in real danger of blacking out. He battled the darkness and grasped the banister of the stairway with one trembling hand. Each step felt like a mountain as he urged his exhausted legs to lift themselves up, one at a time. He could still hear the gunman's footsteps; they sounded like gunshots in the silence of the night. Everything had a strange, detached quality to it now, and Chris had to focus with all of his strength to avoid losing his balance.
Both bandages were now soaked with blood, the wounds stinging as sweat seeped into them. But he had to move. Something deep and primal was driving him, more urgent than the pain. He could sense that he was in imminent danger of losing something intangible but fiercely real. He could not let his men be killed. Every urge to stop, to rest, was met with the image of them all lying dead, and the urge vanished in a swell of resolve. It might happen someday, and probably would, but he was not ready to face the silent graveyard just yet. Without stopping to think about it, he was pushing himself to the limits of endurance for the sake of preserving something he could only begin to define. He only knew that it was in desperate, mortal danger.
He reached the top of the stairs, soundlessly gulping for air. The hallway turned to the left, then went around a corner; it was down that corridor that the doors to the rooms stood. Chris steadied himself as much as possible; he really didn't want to let go of the handrail, but keeping hold of it was not an option if he wanted to warn Buck and JD. He leaned against the wall and let go, tottering for a second before everything balanced once more. He slid along the wall, gun at the ready, his heart hammering in his ears as he neared the corner. Carefully he peered around it; if only it wasn't so dark and his vision wasn't so foggy- The hallway was illuminated by a single gas light; in the uncertain glare, Chris could see a dark shape crouched at the end of the hallway, apparently intent on its task. He heard a thump, and saw the shape silently push open the door and draw its gun.
Everything seemed to slow down, and Chris felt eerily separated from what his body was doing. It was an odd sensation; he could see himself running down the hallway with every last ounce of strength, paying no heed to the waves of anguish erupting from his side and churning throughout his entire being.
He felt himself hurl his pain-wracked body on top of the killer before he had a chance to fire, knocking him to the ground. There was a gunshot, the report exploding like a cannon blast to Chris's ears, and a shower of exploding plaster and bits of wallpaper. He and the intruder struggled, but Chris had nothing left to fight with, and the world seemed to be spinning away now, lost in a whirlpool of darkness and pain. Then another figure appeared, hauling Chris's opponent off of him with a loud stream of yells. There was a loud thud, then another, and finally a grunt. Chris realized he was lying on the floor, staring at the cracked plaster of the hallway ceiling and only vaguely aware of what was going on. Suddenly a familiar face hovered into view, then another. They were bending over him, grabbing his shoulders gently.
"Chris, what n'hell's goin' on here?" It was Buck. Chris gasped and tried to sit up.
"Jules' brother," he grunted as JD helped him to sit up. "Came-to get revenge-on all of us."
Buck sighed quickly. "Dang, that family just don't give up! JD, go see to Vin an' then you both check on the others. I'll be along after I see to Chris."
"Right," was the hurried reply, and Chris could hear the staccato rhythm of JD's boots pounding down the hall.
"C'mon, buddy," Buck grunted as he rose and began to lift Chris to his feet. Chris tried to protest, to tell him to go with JD and make sure Mike's men were stopped, but before he could speak the world began spinning again, much faster this time, until it was swallowed up in the jaws of oblivion.
"Hold still, Vin, an' lemme look at that."
"Ow! Dangit, Nathan, I told you it's just a scratch."
"Uh huh. I seen men die from scratches like that. Ezra, gimme that whiskey there."
"Certainly, but I'd suggest saving some for our illustrious leader. He will likely be quite sore when he comes to his senses."
"Hey, guys, I think he's comin' out of it!"
They were disjointed sounds at first, meaningless noises in which Chris could fine no coherent meaning. Very slowly he waded out of the clinging darkness, finding his bearings by degrees. he was in a bed; not his own, by the feel of it, probably Nathan's again. He was in awful pain, but it had eased since last night, and he could tell his wounds had been cleansed and rebandaged. An overwhelming weariness consumed him, and he felt barely able to move.
His mind beat through the fog surrounding it; last night-what happened? He could tell it was morning-was it over? He took quick assessment of the faces around him. There was Vin, Nathan, Ezra, JD-they didn't sound as if any of them had been killed or wounded. But damn it, what happened?
"I think you're right there, kid. Hey pard? You awake?"
Chris groaned; if Buck thought he was awake he wouldn't leave off until he knew for sure. Taking a deep breath, Chris forced his eyes open a crack, wincing at the bright morning glow which now assaulted him. In that glow he could see several forms around his bed, all staring at him.
"Unngh," was all he could say.
Nathan stepped over to him. "Chris, if you hadn't just saved my life, I'd be givin' you the chewin' out of a lifetime," he said sternly, though with a smile in his eyes.
"Yes, your heroic actions have even caused me to put aside my anger at being awakened at such an ungodly hour," Ezra added, standing behind Nathan as the healer poured something into a cup.
Chris coughed and let his head sink into the thin pillow. "What happened?" he croaked.
"You just saved our necks is all," Vin grinned as he watched Nathan help Chris drink a cup of water. "Buck an' JD managed t'buffalo the varmint who was comin' after me, an' then we went an' rounded up the rest of 'em."
Chris finished the cup, swallowing as Nathan helped him back down. he looked at them with half-open eyes. "Anyone hurt?"
Buck shrugged. "Couple of busted heads, nothin' major. Josiah's tuckin' em away now down at the jail."
Nathan was shaking his head. "I hope you know you just 'bout killed yourself."
Chris winced and reached slowly up to rub his side. "I'm hearin' it loud an' clear, believe me."
"Yeah, well, you better remember..." Nathan's angry eyes softened and he smiled, "you did a damn brave thing. When you're up to it, we'll be buyin' you a round of the best."
"I believe I can provide the proper refreshment," Ezra said with a grateful smile.
JD's eyes were wide as he stood at the bottom of the bed. "That was really somethin', Chris. I'll never forget it, that's for sure!"
Buck lightly slapped Chris's leg. "Ya done good, that's for sure. Now you rest up so's we can get you good an' drunk soon."
"Sounds good to me," Chris muttered.
Buck gave him a grin, then whapped JD on the shoulder and motioned him outside. Ezra nodded to him to, dipping his hat a bit before following the others out.
Chris watched them all leave, enjoying the relatively painless drowsiness now settling over him. They'd beaten the odds again, it seemed, and he found himself smiling with satisfaction at the thought. It was a small and doubtless temporary triumph, but one which he felt deeply grateful for. As the others filed out, Chris's mind returned to the days before, when they had all been with him while Nathan fixed him up. There had been an expression in their eyes then, and it was here again today; whatever Chris had been afraid of losing last night, they had feared losing as well. They were as relieved as he was that fate had favored them again, that the curious bond which held them all together would hold for a little while longer. The inevitable day would come, certainly, but until then it would be one hell of a ride. That at least was worth staying and fighting for.
Vin looked back at Chris and chuckled. "Guess that's two I owe ya now, huh?"
Chris sighed as he tried to get comfortable. "Don't worry, I'm sure we'll be gettin' shot at again. You can pay me back then."
"Yeah." Vin nodded slowly, a distant expression in his blue eyes. "Reckon we didn't pick the safest life, did we?"
Nathan urged him towards the door, and Vin gave his friend a quick nod before making his way out into the bright summer sunlight. Nathan gave Chris one more studious glance, then left as well, closing the door gently behind him.
No, Chris thought as he drifted back off to sleep, it wasn't the safest life. But for him, for now, it was the best.