Mary closed the door to the Clarion office, turned the lock as she prepared to go to supper. The sunset was beautiful. It washed the streets with a saffron glow, and she closed her eyes for a moment and breathed in its warmth.
"Evening, Mrs. Travis."
She opened her eyes, saw Darcy Thomas standing in the street, a small smile on his face. She returned it and stepped into the dusty road. "Good evening, Mr. Thomas. How did it go?"
"Oh, wonderfully," Darcy replied as they walked together. "He's a strong lad, and very determined."
"Good." Mary smiled again, grateful as she would always be for this mysterious man, who was saving JD's life.
"I'm off to have a word with Mr. Larabee," Darcy said conversationally, indicating the jail. "Would ye care to join me?"
Mary's eyebrows went up, and she stopped in her tracks. She'd thought about talking to Chris, of course, dreamed about it even, but...what would she say? No, she wasn't ready, not yet. Maybe another day, or week...
"I - I'm not sure," she stammered, looking around, suddenly aware of the other people on the street.
"Mrs. Travis," Darcy said softly, facing her in the setting sun. "I'll not press ye, but the fact of the matter is, Mr. Larabee needs every friendly face he can find right now. His men, some of them, may never forgive him at all, and he needs some assurance that all is not lost for him here. He cares for ye, he told me so himself."
Mary blinked, felt her heart bang against something hard, and fall over.
Darcy backed away, looking toward the jail. "Well, when ye're ready, please go talk to him as soon as ye can. It would give him something pleasant to reflect upon, until this is over. Now if you'll excuse me, ma'am."
Mary watched him turn and walk toward the jail. Her heart came to itself, tried to clamber over the high walls of her fear, her uncertainty. Chris cares for you. And he needs a friend...
Such a high wall. But gaining footholds, picking up strength.
And you know what you saw when you looked into those eyes.
He needs your forgiveness. He cares for you. The eyes, above the bed in Wickestown, those eyes, that concern, is everything all right?
Mary raised her skirts, and cleared her throat. "Mr. Thomas? Could you wait please?"
+ + + + + + +
The inside of the jail was dim in the twilight, Vin a hazily sunlit shadow as Mary entered the office and saw him sitting in the sheriff's chair, his feet propped up, quietly whittling. He drew his legs off the desk at the sight of Mary, touched the brimof his hat. "Ma'am."
Darcy took off his hat, looked toward the cell and saw Chris standing, coming quickly to the bars. Before Darcy could even open his mouth, Chris asked, "How's JD?"
"He's fine, Chris," Darcy said as he approached the bars, hoping to alleviate some of the anxiety in Ch
is' eyes as the other man gripped the iron rods in his hands. "He made his first movements today. He's worn out and sore, but he'll be fine."
Chris nodded a little, a bit of worry fading from those blue eyes. A bit. He stared at Darcy almost frantically, whispered in a tight voice, "Thank you."
Darcy nodded, gave Chris a friendly smile. "Not at all. My pleasure. I've gotten meself settled in here, nice little town ye have. People seem very...curious."
"That's polite," Vin observed laconically, from the desk.
Darcy tilted his head. "Well, it's the way I was raised."
His eyes slid to Chris, who was staring at the floor, and he said, "Now, Chris, there's someone with me who wants to see ye."
Chris looked up, past Darcy, saw Mary, silhouetted in the fading sun. Stared.
"If ye'd rather not - " Darcy said softly.
Chris blinked, terror and wonder in his weary eyes. Then he said, very quietly, "Mrs. Travis?"
Mary walked forward, a few small steps, hesitant. What was she going to say? Her heart pounded in her chest, so hard it hurt, but when she came closer she looked into his eyes, so big and blue and overflowing with pained remorse that it reminded her of her son, Billy, whenever he'd committed some childish transgression. They were just like that, huge and terrified that the world he knew was over, that he'd broken it and it was beyond repair. And she would take him in her arms, hold him close and say, it's all right, sweetheart, I know you're sorry, we can fix it. You'll see. It'll be better than new...
Chris looked like that, just now. His eyes, tougher and older than Billy's but full of the same fear, the same sorrowful realization. I broke my world, and I can't fix it alone. Help me.
Mary came to the bars, unaware that Darcy had backed away, that he and Vin were slipping quietly out the front door. She couldn't embrace Chris like she could her son, but maybe there was something she could do...
And then she was there, standing a foot away from the man she'd been thinking about for over a month. Longer, really. And she was amazed - there was none of the danger, none of the barely- constrained fury she associated with Chris Larabee. When his eyes met hers, so close now, she saw so clearly the regret, the sadness, the shame of his wounded soul.
She couldn't embrace him. She touched his hand.
And, surprisingly, he took it, held it, strong, trembling, leaned his forehead against the bars and let his blond hair fall into those tormented eyes, shaded against the golden light.
"I am so sorry." he whispered, and it was not the Chris she knew at all. There was anger, but at himself, not at the world or anyone else. He was sorry, she realized, not I-got-caught sorry or if-I-apologize-my-life-will-get-back-to-normal sorry, but sorry in a way that permeated his being, that flowed desperately between their hands as they touched, that saturated the air around him and made tears form in Mary's eyes. She ached to comfort him, and knew she could never comfort him enough.
The jail fell silent for a moment, and Chris didn't move. Mary put her hand on top of his, leaned forward so their foreheads were almost touching, and said softly, "Thank you for coming back."
Chris sighed, a sound between a gasp and a sob, and he said, "I caused so much pain. JD - "
"Shh," Mary said, in the same quiet tones she used to comfort her son. "It's all right now. Mr. Dunne's getting better, he's going to be all right. Bringing Mr. Thomas here has helped him, so much."
Chris closed his eyes a moment. "Josiah told me - they hurt you."
Mary's stomach lurched, she didn't know Chris knew. Sudden nightmare images came back, Domino's leering face, his rough hands on her wrists, a painful slap. But-
Another sigh from Chris, closer to a cry than before. "I should have been here. They wouldn't have come near you if I'd been here. God, Mary - "
Mary inched her way closer, tightened her grip on Chris' scarred hand. "It's all right, we got through it. Mr. Standish and the others protected me. Mr. Dunne did as well."
Chris looked at her, a swift, fleeting look of astonishment, then he leaned his head against the bars again in exhausted regret and moaned, "I can't make up for it, Mary. I'll try, the rest of my life. Maybe you don't believe me, but, God. I am so sorry."
Mary's eyes met his again then, and she saw tears standing there, and hurriedly leaned forward and without thinking placed her cheek against his, through the bars, reaching through them to put her hand on the back of his head, and press it to her gently. It felt natural, the right thing to do, just like she had done with her son. She felt him shudder, felt also a tear run between his cheek and hers, and she knew the danger was out of him, for the moment, and she was holding not an arrogant, drunken maniac, but a frightened, penitent child.
"I know you're sorry," Mary whispered against Chris' cheek, and blinked away the tears in her eyes, "And I forgive you."
Chris did let out a sob then, a stifled, choking cough, and he pulled back a little, out of Mary's reach. He slid his hand from hers and stood back from the bars, the blond hair still in his eyes, his lined face stark in the last rays of the setting sun, and streaked with tears. He looked at her with eyes that were naked and opened straight into his soul. Mary stared at him, too awestruck to look away.
Chris struggled for a moment to retain his composure, then cleared his throat and said in a whisper, "Thank you, Mrs. Tr - " He cleared his throat again, looked at the floor. "Thank you, Mary. It means a lot."
Mary kept her hands on the bars for a few moments, nodded even though Chris wasn't looking at her. She didn't know how long she remained standing there, looking at Chris' face as he stared at the floor, but before long she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder, and turned to see Vin standing there, Darcy behind him.
"You should go now, ma'am," Vin said softly, guiding Mary away from the bars. Mary nodded, felt suddenly numb and like she wanted to sit down somewhere. Was the sun down already? She hadn't even eaten...
As Vin helped Mary out the door, Darcy stepped up to the bars and tilted his head. "Chris?"
Chris looked up, started a bit, peered at Darcy in the darkness.
The Irishman smiled at him. "I just wanted to say, courage. Ye're on the road to making amends. Yer wife and son are cryin' with pride for ye."
Chris sighed hugely, ran his hands over his face, and sat down on the cot.
"It's all I have, Darcy," he said, the weariness of a thousand years in his voice. "It's all I have."
+ + + + + + +
More time passed, and JD continued his slow, painful climb up the unscalable mountain of his infirmities. Every day Darcy would wake him early and make sure he had a good breakfast in him, then it was off to the room to resume his exercises. Darcy allowed one of the other men in the room at that time, and only one. Usually it was Buck, but the others wanted to be there too, so sometimes it was Josiah, or Nathan, or Ezra. Vin came too, but he spent more time in the jail, talking to Chris, and he remarked to Darcy once that Chris' first question when he saw his friend was always the same: how is JD? And he always seemed grateful when Vin answered him.
Vin and Josiah saw Chris often, and while they spoke about it among themselves, as agreed the subject never came up when they were with the others unless Buck, Nathan, or Ezra mentioned it first, and they almost never did. Josiah noticed the nightly poker games were becoming more terse and cross, and that he was keeping company with Vin more and more often, while Buck and Ezra went off by themselves, to brood in the saloon or go riding in the hills. Their group was splintering, and Josiah noticed this. Theonly times they came together was when they were around JD, and when the town needed them. And then they responded as if nothing had ever happened.
Some days the therapy would be interrupted by gunfire, or JD would hear the thunder of horses' hooves as Darcy put him through his therapy; then the youth would stop whatever he was doing and turn his head toward the window in breathless recognition. Darcy remarked to Buck that when he saw JD's face at those moments, he could see them all riding together in the boy's eyes, as if it were a lantern show. Buck would sigh, and nod. They all missed JD, but it was the youth's heart that broke when he heard the hoofbeats fading, and knew he couldn't go along. And those were the days, Darcy noticed, when he would push himself to the brink of collapse. And still lie awake long past a reasonable hour, to hear the day's adventures when his friends came home.
Darcy elected to sit in sometimes, and listen to JD's comrades relate the villains they'd faced, the deeds they'd done, the near-misses they'd had in his absence. As sad as JD's face was when he heard the mens' shouts and knew they were leaving again, it would light up at the sight of Vin coming in, all dusty and smiling, or Buck, wiping soot or, sometimes, blood from his person as he slung himself into a chair and in a loud voice asked the kid how the hell he was doing.
These were embellished stories, Darcy knew they had to be, but still it was thrilling to hear about how Nathan and Ezra chased a bank robber clean to Eagle Bend, or how Josiah stared down a band of Concho's followers, who hadn't heard of their leader's demise and decided to take over the saloon. Ezra in particular was an excellent storyteller, and always in his versions he was charming, or conning, or romancing somebody. And always, as the others told their tales, JD's face would light up, and he'd laugh and ask questions, and Darcy could see him straining to get out of that bed, frantic with the will to walk, and ride, and be with his friends again. The hours passed pleasantly this way until JD yawned and fought to keep his eyes open, and Darcy would notice and shoo everyone out of the room. JD would give him a sleepy glare and say he didn't need a babysitter, but usually by the time Darcy had closed the door and turned to dim the lamp, JD would be curled up and asleep. And dreaming his own stories.
Those were good days, the days when there seemed to be hope that perhaps JD's dream of them all riding together didn't seem so far-fetched. It felt comfortable and balming to have the stories to share, the eager audience, all of them gathered around JD's bed as if he was just laid up with a sprained ankle or some such irritating but small malady. Those days he would laugh, and smile, and look at his friends with an expression of flushed impatience, as if he could push time faster, heal faster, just to get out of bed and be back in the world again. Josiah would watch the others on those days, and nights, and think about how it seemed that Chris was just out of the room, or out somewhere taking the head off whoever had injured JD, and would be back, sharing a quiet in-joke with Buck or giving Nathan the praise he deserved for taking care of their youngest member so well. Chris was just gone for a while; soon he would return, and then everything would be right and complete. Those were good days.
Then there would be bad days, and Josiah knew it might never be right again.
Darcy had always said JD's recovery would be slow, that there would be times when he would not seem to improve, that the exhaustion brought on by his relentless drive to get better might bring on the occasional fever, or cold, or other illness that would hamper him for a few days. Everyone knew this, and accepted it. But when it happened, it still troubled them. And it hurt.
JD would insist on trying even when he was exhausted or sick, pressing himself beyond his limit. They all found he was skillful at hiding a painfully sore joint or splitting headache, until he healingbody couldn't take the strain anymore and he collapsed halfway through the day, in terrible pain and unable to continue. Buck was often there on those days, as if, Darcy once noted to Nathan, he could sense when the boy was going to push himself too far, and was determined to be there to catch him when the time came. And he caught him every time.
On those days there was no laughter, no stories of daring, no sparkling hazel eyes full of anticipation of a long-awaited recovery. Instead, the brotherly embrace, the worn out body carried gently back to bed with the struggling spirit still trapped inside, discouraged and mute. And then, a silent filing from the room, the men going to sit in the saloon or on the wide porch outside Nathan's room, and wait until Darcy came to tell them that JD was asleep, and needed to take it easy for a few days. Then Josiah, who was there more often than not, would read his friend's faces and begin to lose hope.
Vin would look sad, preoccupied, often slipping away to see if anyone needed help, or seek the restoration of the mountains. Ezra and Buck would glower at each other, Buck never sitting but pacing or leaning against a wall with his arms folded, as if every step backward that JD took sent him back to that first, awful day, and that day's anger; Josiah knew how he felt, knew also the burning dread he felt in his own gut when he saw how downcast JD was on those bleak and sunless days. On those days, Chris' absence was a reminder that he was responsible, that he wasn't out on an errand but sitting in the jail, and he had hurt JD, who was sick and failing and losing ground. Josiah could see the rift between them on those days, and watched it widen with a troubled heart.
Nathan usually stayed behind on the bad days, helping Darcy settle JD down and mixing tonics for him while the doctor checked the youth over for injuries he was trying desperately to hide. And it was Nathan's face that troubled Josiah the most on those days, because when he did eventually show up, sometimes with Darcy and sometimes later, his expression would be tense and furious, his dark eyes full of a rage Josiah knew was being kept barely contained. On those days Josiah would quietly move to a table by himself, and Nathan would join him, not saying anything but staring into his beer with smoldering fury. The fury of the former slave witnessing the scars of brutality, and in the air the unasked question Josiah knew Nathan burned to ask, and hadn't yet: How could you, Chris. How could you.
But the question went unasked, the beer was drunk in silence, and Josiah watched his friend with the scarred back and the unasked questions and worried about him, wondering when the dam would break.
And then, one day, it broke...
+ + + + + + +
It had been raining all day, and the air was laden with a heavy misery. The lamps were burning brightly in the therapy room, but despite their forced cheerfulness and Nathan and Buck's helpful presence, Darcy was frowning at JD as the boy struggled his way toward where the doctor was kneeling in front of him. Nathan shifted against the wall and looked at Buck, not liking the concerned expression on the physician's face, or the creeping anger in his own heart as he watched JD fight to gain another slow, agonizing inch, grunting and straining with the exertion. Nathan sighed and ducked his head. It shouldn't be like this.
Finally JD paused, breathing heavily. Darcy leaned forward and put a hand on the youth's shoulder.
JD, whose eyes had been glazed over in concentration, blinked and shook the sweat-covered hair out of his eyes, looking at Darcy in fatigued irritation. "What?"
"Would ye like to take a few minutes, JD?" Darcy asked gently. "Ye've been taking it rather strongly today."
JD shook his head, his expression set and determined in spite of his labored breathing. "No, I'm fine. I'm not tired."
"Well, I am," Darcy said quietly, and patted the boy gently on the shoulder. "So if ye don't mind, we'll take about five minutes. Is that all right?"
JD paused, swallowed hard. Then he nodded and folded his hands, setting his head on them and closing his eyes. "Sure, I guess. If you want."
"Thank ye," Darcy said lightly, standing up as Buck left Nathan's side and brought over a blanket, draping it over JD so he wouldn't catch a chill. The men's eyes met, and each held the same expression of tired concern. Buck's eyes held thanks. Darcy received them with a nod, and looked down at the half-asleep youth lying on his stomach on the floor.
Nathan came over with a glass of water. Bending down in front of JD he said quietly, "Son? You want some water?"
JD shook his head lazily, not even looking up.
Nathan sighed, felt his insides wrench with a too- familiar helplessness. He stood up and regarded the two other men as they walked carefully away from JD, toward the window.
Once there, Darcy folded his arms and stared out at the pouring rain. "Gentlemen, if ye don't mind I'd say today's exercises are over. The poor boy's exhausted, he'll not make any progress today."
Nathan and Buck both nodded. Buck asked, "He's not sick again, is he? I mean, didn't he just get over that cold he had last week?"
Darcy shook his head, peered at JD's dozing form in frustration. "No, it's no fever he has, but then it could be any of a number of other things. And I'll be damned if he'll give me a clue."
Nathan's eyes clouded as he watched JD clutch a bit at the blanket, and pull it tighter around himself. "I bet his shoulder's botherin' him again. He's always pretendin' it don't hurt, but I saw him wincin' this morning, when he was pullin' on it. Prob'ly he'll have to leave it alone for a little while."
"Good luck," Buck muttered.
Darcy nodded in agreement, regarded the small dark- haired figure some feet away with compassion. "He'll crawl over burning coals to get better, and kill himself doin' it. Stubborn Irish pride."
Buck shrugged a bit, and a fond smile crossed his face. "That's JD, doc. You oughta know by now."
"Yes." Darcy's half-smile matched Buck's, and he looked out the window onto the wind-swept street.
"He shouldn't be goin' through that," Nathan said sullenly as he watched the falling raindrops slither down the window glass. He tried to fight the fury that was making its way up his spine, knew this wasn't the time or place for his opinions. But he couldn't help it. As Darcy met his eyes, Nathan's anger bubbled over, and he decided it was time to let it out.
"It ain't right," Nathan muttered with a scowl, his eyes traveling to the jail house some distance away. In the thick silence that followed he said, "I know you're friendly with Chris and all that, but what that boy's goin' through should be happenin' to Chris, not him. That's the way it should be."
Buck's head was down, looking at his boots. Darcy didn't argue. In fact, to Nathan's surprise he didn't say anything, simply looked out the window wistfully and listened to the rain.
Nathan glared at the misting air, felt himself sinking a little deeper into the now-familiar discontent and didn't try to stop it. "Man comes back and says he's sorry, makes some fancy show of sittin' in a jail, what does that prove?"
He knew his voice was rising, looked over and saw a curious look in Darcy's eyes, waited for the argument.
But when Darcy opened his mouth, it was only to say, "I see ye still have yer questions for Mr. Larabee."
Nathan paused a moment, then nodded firmly. "You're damn right I do."
Darcy's calm eyes studied the rain. "When is he going to know them, then?"
Not for a while, Nathan was about to say, not until JD's better and I've got the time and the energy to be furious at the world. But he didn't say it, because at that instant all three men heard a loud groan behind them, and turned as one.
Buck was first to JD's side, where the boy was coiled up on his left side in the blanket, his eyes shut and his head shaking rapidly, as if trying to clear away some unwanted vision. Without hesitation, Buck knelt down by JD's side and said softly, "Hey, JD? Wake up, buddy, you're havin' a nightmare."
JD twitched and moaned again, covering his face with one hand while he snatched at the blanket with the other. He didn't wake up.
Darcy knelt on JD's other side, his expression openly worried. "Has he had these often?"
Buck shrugged, too involved with JD to answer. The boy was muttering broken sentences, unintelligible except for a word here and there, pausing only to softly cry out and try to hide his face.
"He had a couple, early on," Nathan answered instead, feeling his anger knot up and lay in his stomach as he watched JD's struggles. "But we thought they were over with. Guess we was wrong."
JD let out a gasping whimper, then thrashed over onto his other side so quickly Darcy and Nathan had to jump backward to avoid being hit by his rolling form.
Alarmed, Buck leaned forward and grabbed at JD's left shoulder. "JD, wake - "
The instant Buck's hand closed around JD's shoulder, the boy's eyes flew open and in a strangled voice he screamed, "Chris, DON'T!"
Everything stopped, froze. Nathan felt a cold chill rage through him. Darcy stared as Buck's face went white, and he released the grip on JD's shoulder as if it had suddenly caught fire. JD blinked once, twice, shook his head a little and looked around for a moment before shrinking back onto the floor, where he ran his hand over his face and groaned.
"Oh, shit," he muttered in a small, shaky voice. "Oh, shit, it was - I thought I was - " He lifted his head, saw Buck over his shoulder, the stunned look on the man's face.
"Buck - " JD gasped in a tear-filled voice. "I didn't...did I say anything? I thought you...you were..."
Buck tried to smile, tried valiantly, and put a reassuring hand on the youth's head, slowly and carefully. "I know, kid, it's okay. Don't worry about it."
JD shivered, coiled himself up tighter in the blanket. Darcy bent down, tugged the blanket more snugly around the boy's collar.
"Let's get you to a softer bed, lad," he said in the gentlest of tones. "Ye'll be stronger tomorrow, I promise."
JD buried his face in his hands, didn't look up. "I thought he was Chris," he whispered miserably.
"It's all right, son," Darcy soothed as he stroked JD's hair to calm him down. "Mr. Wilmington knows ye meant him no harm."
As Darcy said this, Nathan stood up, very slowly, and Buck stood up with him. Nathan stared at his friend, knew that the knots of anger were coming undone within him, unknotting and stretching and growing to knot again, like a hangman's noose, and he was sick of it. Sick of standing by and watching while his friends suffered, sick of being helpless and sick of waiting for the right time. Sick of seeing life being torn apart, over and over.
Sick of it.
Buck saw the fire in Nathan's eyes, didn't turn away from it, and when JD let out a little cry of pain, Nathan saw Buck's eyes flare too, and he knew.
It was past time for questions. It was time for answers.
Without another word, Nathan stepped away from Darcy and JD, fetched his hat, and walked out of the room, down the hall, and into the pouring rain.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah was sitting at the sheriff's desk with his arms crossed, half-dozing and watching the rain outside, when suddenly the outside door opened with such a loud bang that he jumped out of the chair and drew his gun even before his bleary eyes had found their target.
After a few blinks, the preacher saw Nathan's eyes glaring back at him from underneath a broad-brimmed hat dripping with rain. His eyes were hot and full of accusation, enough to make Josiah search his friend's face as he put up his gun, his own eyes asking, are you all right?
Nathan stared at Josiah a moment, his jaw setting firmer as his eyes answered, ask me in ten minutes. Then he turned and stormed toward the cell.
The jailhouse was dark, gloomy. The air in it suffocated Nathan, or was it his own rage? He couldn't tell. Maybe it was being in the same room with this man, this monster who was becoming the focus of all injustice to Nathan, all that was wrong in the world. He'd put up with that injustice too long, bound its wounds and lived its nightmares until he knew it had to stop, had to. And now was the time.
Chris was just barely visible in the darkness at the back of the jail, a hunched-over figure sitting on the edge of his cot, his dark clothes blending into the shadows until he was a mere mosaic against the blackness. He had heard Nathan's footsteps, he had to, but Nathan wasn't satisfied with the slow way Chris was turning his head at the sound, saw insolence and apathy in the shadows of that dingy cell. No, you're going to listen to me. So as soon as he reached the bars, Nathan grabbed the iron bars of the door and rattled them loudly, until the whole frame shook.
"Get up, Chris," he said, feeling his anger wrap itself around his words until they didn't sound like his at all. "Get up, dammit. You and me is gonna have some words."
God, did I just say that? I never talked to Chris like that in all the time I've known him...but Chris did get up, a slow shimmer in the black-and-white dimness. Nathan stared at him, into a face made gray and ghostly by the low light, and gripped the iron bars as a wave of outrage swept over him. Images veered through his mind, JD bleeding and unconscious in the alley, the hitching whimper and wide-open eyes huge with shock; a pale, unmoving face dark with bruises, broken ribs and a bloody scar; a crumpled-up figure cowering and crying under a desk, desperate with pain and fear, and despair, soul- numbing despair, never going to walk again, never going to ride again, and even now, Chris don't, maybe nightmares for the rest of his life, just like me.
Just like me. You bastard.
Nathan still held the bars, feeling the rough, rusted iron beneath his hands as Chris made his slow way forward. They feel like chains, like manacles, and an old anger rose in him then, mingled with the new until the two were united and indistinguishable, and Nathan seethed with rage. Keep your head. Don't lose it now. Josiah's right behind you and you know he won't hesitate if you try anything he won't shoot but he knows how to knock somebody out...
Chris came close enough for Nathan to see his face clearly, and Nathan breathed in, deep and slow, looked into the eyes he could hardly face those weeks ago when Chris first came home. At first it was hard to see Chris' eyes, the rainy darkness was so deep and there was no light. But gradually they appeared, and Nathan tightened his jaw, fought against himself, for suddenly he saw not Chris the monster, not Chris the embodiment of all of his anger, but Chris the man who had saved his life, Chris the man who had fought by his side and whose word he'd followed as a leader and a friend. Don't look at his eyes. They'll lie to you. But it took a moment to look away from them, because Nathan saw something there, something he had not expected to see, and it had shocked the anger out of him, for a moment.
Tears. Chris Larabee had been crying.
No, those ain't real. He thought about his past, his own masters, about the men who bemoaned the sorry state of the slave even as they beat theirs into soulless submission. The images of JD resurfaced, and Nathan concentrated on them, relived those horrific first days, the blood and the anguish and the youthful gasps of pain, heard them until his anger came back. Then he looked at Chris again and felt only wrath. His compassion had been carefully roped off, and was no longer reachable.
Nathan took another deep breath, glowered at Chris, was surprised at the huskiness of his own voice, the rancor in it as his hatred poured out of him like boiling water. "Just came from seein' JD. You messed him up real good, Chris, but he's fightin' back, thought you should know that."
Chris' head was down, and Nathan couldn't see his eyes anymore. He's hiding. And it infuriated him more. Shaking the bars of the cell he yelled, "You look at me, God damn it!"
Chris looked up, jumped a little bit, stared, almost looked frightened.
Frightened. Nathan looked into that haggard face. Chris, frightened. Huh. Don't be fooled...
"You see these hands?" Nathan asked, releasing the bars and holding them in front of himself. "They had JD's blood all over them, thanks to you. He's got a scar, he's gonna have that the rest of his life to remind him of how his biggest hero beat him half to death."
A flicker of something across Chris' face then, but he didn't look away. Nathan saw his lips go pale, and hesitated. He had seen men under strain before, and when he'd mentioned JD, Nathan saw something break behind Chris' eyes, and thought he had perhaps gone too far.
But no, not yet. Chris may be repenting, he may be doing his time, but Nathan wanted answers, dammit, and he wasn't leaving without them. To hell with feeling sorry for Chris. No one felt sorry for him.
Nathan opened his mouth, looked into Chris' eyes, saw an unmistakable anguish there and checked himself. The man looked somehow fragile all of a sudden, and against his own reason Nathan pulled his fury back and in a quieter voice said, "You hurt that boy pretty bad, Chris, and you know it was because you was drunk. You could have stopped it, Chris, and you didn't, and we all been through hell because of that. I came here because I got to know why."
Chris looked down at the floor again, quickly, then back at Nathan, and it was a calmer look, Nathan realized, calmer but no less tortured. The healer waited for his onetime friend to say something, to defend himself, to try to come clean. Just try, Nathan found himself thinking, the anger returning, dull and hot. I dare you.
But Chris said nothing. He simply stared at Nathan, stared so intently that Nathan began to feel as if Chris was trying to exchange souls, trying to climb into Nathan's eyes so they could trade places. It was unsettling, a look Nathan had never seen before, but it angered him as well, because no one had ever wanted to be him, be a slave, ever. What the hell was going on?
Chris blinked, shook his head. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, looked at the floor and sighed. Nathan was puzzled, couldn't believe that Chris hadn't at least put on the belligerence he was so full of, hadn't said I'm sorry or I'm trying to pay my debt, can't you see that, leave me alone. Instead, he looked like he was going to cry, like he did when they went to his ranch that one time and he was standing at Sarah and Adam's graves. And Nathan could see, it wasn't an act.
Finally, Chris looked up again, and his eyelids stammered open and closed as he looked at Nathan. When he spoke, his words were so soft Nathan at first thought he must be sick. But he wasn't.
"You got wounds on your back, Nathan," Chris said in a low moan. "I know what those are and I know how you got them, and I know there's nothing a man can say that's gonna take 'em away. I wish there was."
Nathan blinked, frowned. Waited.
"JD's got scars now," Chris whispered, blinked again, rapidly. "Nothing I say will take them away, no excuse I give or deed I do is gonna help them. If there was, I'd do it. If there was a way for me to take his wounds, I'd let you in here right now so you could give them to me. You stitched him up, you...you know where he was hurt, how deep and how bad. And if you wanted to hurt me in kind - "
Nathan felt a chill suddenly go through him, stared as Chris brought his eyes up, his expression was almost desperate with grief.
Chris paused, then said, "If you wanted to hurt me, like I hurt JD, if I thought it would help...I'd let you do it."
Nathan took an involuntary step back. That wasn't what he wanted, he wasn't into revenge, not like Buck was or Ezra. He just wanted...
He licked his lips, found his voice, it was thinner than before, and huskier still. "Ain't no cause for that. Just - didn't know how you could do it, Chris. Don't understand it."
"I know." Chris ducked his head back down again. "You wouldn't, Nathan, and I hope you never do. You're angry, but you don't hurt folks who care about you. I do...I did. I ain't got what you have. Wish I did."
What I have? What do I have, except a back full of marks and resentment I can't get rid of?
"You're a better man than me," Chris murmured, as if Nathan had asked him his thoughts out loud. The rain was loud outside, the room so dark and quiet it sounded like a battle outside. And still Nathan could hear Chris' quiet words as if he were shouting. "You ask how I could be so violent, so stupid. There are good men on this earth, men like you, and I don't learn from 'em. I'm blind, like too many people in this godforsaken country."
Chris paused, wiped at his face, and Nathan saw him wince, as if a painful thought struck him.
"I ain't had your life, Nathan. Nobody ever tied me up and whipped me. Nobody ever made me work a day I didn't get paid for it, 'cept once."
Nathan shivered again, knew Chris was thinking about the time he was unjustly incarcerated, beaten and locked up and forced to bear the anonymous name of Inmate Seventy-Eight.
The bitterness of that time was in Chris' words as he repeated, "'Cept once, and it nearly made me lose my mind. Nearly made me an animal, and you lived that way half your life. I don't know how you could do it, Nathan. They beat you and chained you and gave you every reason to hate the world's guts and get drunk every night. But you turned out better than me, a pampered white boy from rural Indiana. How could you do that, Nathan? I don't understand. Maybe I can't. If I did...I don't think JD would have those scars."
Nathan felt a shock, looked into Chris' eyes and saw a desperate longing for knowledge, coupled with a self-loathing so acute Nathan realized he'd never seen it in a white man's eyes before.
A few moments passed in utter silence, as the two men regarded each other. Nathan's mind worked, worked some more. He had come to the jail fully expecting a sullen, combative man lurking behind these iron bars. He did not expect someone to look at him as if they wanted to die and say, I wish I was like you. No, Nathan wasn't expecting that, and it disturbed him that that was what he had gotten.
I better go. As Chris lowered his head, Nathan backed away from the bars a step.
He stopped, eyed Chris uncertainly.
The other man lifted his head, said softly, "You deserve answers to your questions. I don't have 'em I guess, just...don't stop askin' till you know. Don't give up. That's where I went wrong, and I'll be spendin' the rest of my life payin' for it."
Nathan looked Chris up and down, judged the aching sincerity of his words, and slowly nodded. He still didn't understand, didn't know why Chris wasn't fighting him. The man seemed to have no walls left, and Nathan had the uncomfortable feeling he was looking at a naked soul.
The rain continued, rattling and beating against the jailhouse windows, and Nathan listened to it for a moment, watched as the shimmering daylight cascaded over the floor, to dimly illuminate the small patch of oak boarding where he stood. He felt like the falling rain, like a thousand small pieces of confusion, his anger and betrayal and hurt battling with the knowledge that, if he decided to take Chris apart for his sins, the other man wouldn't fight him, accepted his guilt with a grace Nathan had seldom seen before. He didn't know what to do with it.
Josiah was still behind him, still standing by the desk, gun out and eyes wary. Nathan turned and looked at him for a moment, wanted to ask, do you know what's going on? Is this really Chris?
But instead he shrugged his jacket tighter around his shoulders, and without saying another word abruptly turned away from the cell and walked quickly past Josiah, and out the door into the rain.
Nathan got as far as the porch, put a hand onto the slick wet wood of a nearby post to steady himself when he felt Josiah's hand on his arm. Turning, he looked into those infinitely compassionate eyes and winced.
"He's a changed man, Nathan," Josiah said, his words mingling with the falling rain. "I wanted you to know, it's not an act."
"I know that," Nathan responded almost defensively. He glanced across the street, at the churned-up mud of the narrow street. "I guess I didn't before, but - " He paused, shrugged. "I don't know what to say, Josiah. He just ain't what I expected."
The preacher nodded, turned to lean against another post as he took off his hat. "Not the old Chris Larabee, that's for sure."
Nathan nodded, thought, the naked soul. Eyeing Josiah keenly he asked, "How come he lost so much weight? Prison food really that bad?"
It was a joke, but Josiah wasn't even smiling as he shook his head.
"He knows JD is havin' a bad day," he said, and his tone was somber. "When that happens, Chris won't eat."
Nathan looked over sharply, didn't believe it. "He won't eat?"
Josiah looked down at the grey mud, shook his head. "Loses his appetite, he says. Vin and me both got on his back about it, but it doesn't do any good."
Nathan stared out at the rainy day, suddenly felt desolate. JD was likely in bed by now, exhausted and heartsick, and Chris was in the darkness of the jail and wouldn't eat.
Josiah lifted his head, squinted into the half-lit sky. "Never liked rain much. Good for the plants I suppose, but it always weighs the day down, makes you feel like there should be a funeral goin' on."
Nathan sniffed, pulled his jacket tighter around himself.
Josiah glanced at him before leaning away from the pillar, toward the jailhouse door. "Tell JD I hope he -"
Josiah stopped, looked back at Nathan, who straightened himself up to stand next to the pillar he'd been leaning against. He regarded Josiah with uncertain eyes, bleak as the drizzling rain but struggling to become warm.
There was a pause, and in that pause the rain pattered, a wagon went by, a horse whinnied somewhere. A universe lived in that silence, and Josiah heard it all, saw it all in the eyes of the former slave that stood before him. Rage and anger, understanding and - not forgiveness, not yet, but...something. Something. Josiah waited.
Then Nathan gestured vaguely toward the jail and said softly, "Tell that man to get some food in him before he starves to death."
The quiet splatter of rain running into the water barrels, the screech of a wagon reluctantly braking. And somewhere across the street, voices laughing and talking in the dreary afternoon.
Josiah stared at Nathan, then realized he was waiting for a reply, and slowly nodded his head.
And watched as Nathan nodded back, turned, and walked away into the drizzling grey afternoon.
Comments to: email@example.com