The End of All Things
Authors Note: When I set out to write this story, I had no end in mind. I figured it would become an incomplete story that would gather dust inside my computer. Instead, the ending seemed to write itself and I was very surprised. Ive never written a true deathfic before and can only offer my apologies to those who dislike them. Id love feedback if you liked the story. Thanks to Anita for the marvellous beta-read and there will be a follow up story, if youre interested. Enjoy.
Run! Get your ass outta there, Buck!
Another bullet slammed into the abode wall Chris Larabee was crouched behind. Snatching a brief glimpse over the crumbling bricks, Chris returned fire steadily, providing Buck cover while he ran towards the ruined cantina. Sporadic gunfire from the direction that JD had last been seen, added to the bedlam.
Spraying Larabee with a shower of dirt and dust, Buck scrambled over the wall and hunkered down next to his friend. Shit, that was close!
Shaking the dust from his face with an impatient nod, Chris shoved cartridges into his rifle and thrust the loaded gun at Wilmington. Drawing his six-shooters, Larabee began to return fire again, ignoring the occasional bullet that zinged past his head.
Sighting along the rifle, Buck hissed, Feed store, left corner. Immediately one of Chris shots thudded into the hole in the left corner of the feed store and a startled shooter flung himself from the exposed corner, straight into Bucks sights.
Barely registering the mans fall, his chest a mess of blood and bone, Buck sought out his next opportunity. Eyes trained for the slightest hint of an enemy, Wilmington growled, You heard Vin yet?
Larabee, once again hunched against the wall, reloading his pistols, grunted. Slamming the last bullet in place and cursing that it was indeed his last bullet, Chris shouted, JD! Get Ezra out. Well cover you!
Turning to Buck, Chris snarled, Get behind the bar, see if theres any whiskey left. With a swift nod, the ladies man scuttled over to the bullet-ridden bar and shouted back, Got a whole case, pard!
By the time Wilmington had managed to push the crate to Larabee, he collected a few splinters and a minor bullet graze on his leg. Chris was shirtless, his dust-covered jacket lying in a heap next to him as he shredded his shirt. Start stuffing.
Ducking another bullet that whistled over his head, Buck grabbed a few bottles and said, Nate back?
At Chris terse nod, Wilmington smiled, Bout damn time.
There was a sudden lull in the gunfire, as both sides paused to reload. A distant voice shouted, Ez says hes gonna charge you for ruining his jacket, Mr Larabee. Said it cost 15 bucks!
Damn, 15 bullets aint much. Whadda we got? Buck hissed.
JD, you tell that worthless piece of slime that he aint worth the 6 bits I paid to get his butt outa jail! Chris yelled, methodically shoving material into bottle necks.
6! Hellfire, this had better work, Chris, the tall ladies man growled, his large frame folded awkwardly against the abode wall, I got maybe two shots left!
Ignoring both Buck and the long slash on his arm, Larabee pulled his jacket on and picked up two bottles and lit the material dangling from the necks. Wilmington nodded and Chris shouted, Now, Kid! He stood and tossed the bottles towards the enemy gunmen and Wilmington rose on one knee and just as the bottles began their return to earth, fired, twice.
A rain of liquid fire pelted down on hidden gunmen, two of which broke cover, slapping at their clothes trying to put small fires out. Both died as Larabees bullets unerringly found them. Just before ducking back behind cover, Chris watched as JD dragged the semi-inert form of Ezra P. Standish behind the church.
Holstering his pistols, Larabee picked up two more bottles and said, Theyre behind the church. Nate will cover us from the bank.
Picking up his own whiskey bottles, Wilmington sighed, I dont know how much longer we can do this! Every time we move, they pick one of us off. Siah, Ez, whose next?
Chris offered an open bottle of whiskey to Buck and growled sharply, Well get out. Lets go!
Tossing the half empty bottle behind him, Wilmington followed Larabee, both men scuttling from cover to cover like a pair of deformed crabs. They reached the east side of the cantina and hunkered down near the doorway. Larabee signalled Nathan on the other side of the street and the black Regulator began to lay down covering fire. Lighting one of the fuses on the whiskey bottles, Chris barked, Go!
Buck ran from the doorway, and sprinted across the street, expecting at any moment to feel the bite of a bullet. Chris kept a wary eye on the enemy firing from the cluster of homes opposite the cantina, and began his own run. There was no flicker of movement from the other side as each man had to stay under cover due to Nathans fire. Knowing his friend would be short of ammunition soon, Chris picked up the pace, and hurled his flaming whiskey bottle for good measure.
The resulting explosion did not deter a lone gunmen from drawing aim on Larabees black figure as Nathan stopped to reload. Buck, safely behind protective cover, saw the danger and screamed, Larabee, get down!
Unable to shoot because Chris was in the way, Wilmington felt a smile break across his face as a piece of the roof seemed to come alive and a distinct rifle ended the threat with a single shot.
Larabees spurs thudded dully on the wooden promenade as he joined Buck. Another couple of shots from the roof allowed Nathan to withdraw and soon the healer was sitting beside them, loading another pistol.
Im almost out. You?
Chris scowled at Nathan, his only answer a grunt of agreement. Hell, Nate, there must be a damn army over there. Every time we hit one of them boys, two spring up instead. Buck grimaced as Jackson briefly checked his graze, but the ex-slave spared no time to do a more thorough job.
Turning to Chris, Jackson said I got Josiah stashed in that stage coach depot just on the outskirts of town. If we can all get there, there are a few horses we can borrow.
The sound of gunfire had subsided and once again there was no sign of Vin. Ez?
Shaking his head, Nathan sighed, I couldnt get to them but I told JD to head for the depot as soon as he could. The kid seemed to think Ezra was alright.
Buck snuck a quick look down the street to see if he could spot JD behind the church. Pleased that the kid had managed to stay alive this far, Wilmington said, One problem. How in the hell are we supposed to get down that street without getting our asses shot off?
Larabee eyed his last whiskey bottle and Bucks two. With Dekes men scattered in the south of the village, they had no way of knowing if any of the outlaws had been able to sneak through the few side streets and surround them. They could run straight into an ambush. Only Tanner, positioned as he was on the roofs above them, would be able to warn them. But actually communicating with the lone Texan was proving difficult. Every time they tried to a get a message across, Dekes men would fire on the exposed sharpshooter and Vin would have to retreat.
Dust began to drift down from the old roof above them, highlighted in tiny spirals and Larabee looked up to see a moving shadow above. Shit.
Glancing across the street to Vins last position, Larabee debated on whether or not to shoot at the possible enemy above. Tanner couldnt have got across the street so fast, could he?
In the end, it didnt matter, as Vin made his decision for him. Rising as if from nowhere, Tanners crouched silhouette broke on the rooftop across the street and a simultaneous thud from above coincided with Vins shot. Certain that Chris would be watching, Tanner signalled with his free hand.
And suddenly his friend was gone, as bullets peppered the place where hed been sitting. Buck and Nathan had noticed the signal too. What the he wants us to what?
Before Chris could reply, Tanner was on his feet and three shots rang out. Instantly three explosions answered and smoke began to billow across the rooftops. Another shot and another explosion and soon the air was grey with smoke.
Coughing and spluttering came from the enemys position, and Chris gestured for Buck to hand him the bottles. Within seconds three smaller explosions added further chaos. From the amount of smoke, it seemed like the entire abandoned village was on fire. Straining to catch a glimpse of Vin, Chris waited.
They could all hear Tanner firing and Dekes men returning fire, but they couldnt see a thing due to the billows of black smoke.
Damnit, Larabee. Get your ass outa here! NOW!
The irate Texan drawl echoed through the street and Larabee growled, Come on, lets move!
The three men raced towards the church and only a couple of shots came their way, all very wide off the mark. JD added his own fire as additional cover, but Chris did not pause for long. Nathan and Buck slung Ezra across their shoulders and the five men were soon running towards safety.
Chris ran in front, his pistols at the ready, so when a lone gunmen stepped out to shoot, the man died without firing a shot. Leaving the enemies behind to Tanner, Larabee concentrated on any threat in front.
Down here! Nathan called and pulled Buck and Ezra toward a side road which offered more cover. Without coming under fire again, the five dusty regulators arrived at the small stage depot, coughing and fighting for breath.
Hell, Ezra. If I didnt know better, Id think you had gold bars in your pockets! Buck exclaimed as he gently laid the semi-conscious gambler on the wooden floor.
At the mention of his favourite word, Ezra stirred, .. gold did someone say gold?
Shaking his head in dismay, Nathan set about cleaning the mask of blood from Standishs face, courtesy of the Southerner trying to catch a bullet with his head.
Josiah lay prone, deeply asleep in the corner of the small room, his chest and leg already wrapped in torn bandages. JD was reloading his gun, cursing that he only had five bullets left.
Finished, he cried, Come on, Chris, lets go get Vin!
Larabee shook his head, We go back into that, and Tannerll have to start worrying if hes shooting at friends. Right now, hes picking off anything that moves. We stay here.
Dunne found himself nose to nose with Larabee, the mans intense gaze boring straight through him. We stay here!
Chris slammed the door as he left the room, his dark figure looming on the porch as he waited. Waited for Vin Tanner to come back.
The sound of gunfire was only sporadic now, and Chris hoped to hell that Vin had sufficient ammunition. Be alright, please be alright.
Eventually the sounds of battle died down completely, and an eerie silence filled the air. Smoke continued to billow through the village but it was only coming from the western section of the village. Since the fire had not spread to engulf the entire village, Larabee guessed that Tanner had fired something that would provide a lot of smoke and little actual fire.
Expecting at any moment to see the lean shape of his friend running towards him, Larabee cursed as every minute brought nothing. Smoke and dust billowed across the road and despite all his hopes, no friendly figure ran through the smoke towards them.
He heard Buck join him on the porch and soon the tall scoundrel sighed, He aint coming, Chris.
Then were going back for him.
+ + + + + + +
The man standing before Deke Sanders shook his head. Nah, boss. Aint said a word.
Stubborn cuss. Deke sighed, bring him in.
Moments later, the bloodied figure of Larabees tracker was kneeling at his feet. Bound hand and foot, beaten, wounded and captured, you would think the man had sense enough to accept defeat. Unfortunately for both Sanders and Tanner, the lean Texan remained defiant.
Sighing again, Deke Sanders tried reason where violence had failed, I dont think you fully understand my position, boy. I need those guns. Need em enough to kill you to get them. In fact Ill wipe out Larabees entire gang to find them. Im not one of those two-bit bandits you boys deal with. I need those guns!
The man who had wrecked such devastation on his men remained silent. Trying again, Sanders implored, My men sure as hell dont need much motivation to beat the snot outa you, Tanner. You killed a lot of their friends today. Just tell me where Larabee hid my damn Gatlin Guns and Ill spare you a whole lot of pain.
Tanners only reply was to spit the accumulated blood from his mouth and to stare balefully at Deke.
Shaking his head at the foolishness of youth, Sanders growled, Youve got a long night ahead of you, bucko. Well be talking again, I promise you.
Motioning his men to take the tracker away, Deke said to his second-in-command, Tom, dont mess him up so much that he caint talk.
Sure thing, boss.
As the men and their prisoner left, Sanders slid down into his chair, tired beyond belief. Certain that enough of Larabees gang had survived that theyd be seeing some sort of attack in the morning, Deke Sanders knew he had to sleep. But the lands of slumber were distant, as too many thoughts and emotions flooded the outlaws head.
Damn you, Chris Larabee, damn you to hell!
+ + + + + + +
And when that misbegotten son of a mouldy monkey finally has enough guts to come in here and face me, then Ill
Ezras voice faded to an indistinct roar as Buck closed the front door. He could barely make out the dark form of his oldest friend and if it wasnt for the bright red flare from his cheroot, Larabee would be all but invisible in the moonless night.
He still mad?
Wilmington nodded and said, Yip. Bout as riled up as cat in a barn-dance. What I cant figure is how he can stand all that shouting with the hell of a headache Im sure hes got.
The cheroots end flared red again as Chris inhaled another lungfull of aromatic smoke. Undeterred by the silence, Wilmington stepped forward so he could see the star-filled sky.
Beautiful night. Seems kinda odd after a day like the one we had.
Larabee made no move, his profile fixed as he gazed intently towards the silent village. Pulling out Ezras hip flask, Buck sipped for a moment or two before continuing. Ezll calm down, once he realises you dont aim to just throw away our lives. But should we really be depending on the fact that Vin aint dead, because he might be.
Grinding the stud of his cheroot into the post he was leaning on, Larabee said softly, He aint dead. But he might be wishing that he was.
Wilmington nodded at the truth of that. Deke is pretty damn desperate to get those guns back.
Thats what Im counting on. Chris relieved Buck of the flask and took a sip and spluttered. Holding up the sliver flask he glared at an inanely grinning Wilmington. Its water?
Nothing else to drink, pard.
Tossing the flask back, Larabee growled, Wise-ass.
Buck pulled the only chair on the porch over and settled himself in for a long watch. Soon Chris would turn in to sleep the dreamless sleep of necessity. Larabee simply bided his time until Standish had worn himself out with complaining, unwilling to endure another argument with the gambler.
Ezras points were valid, his reasoning sound, but the slick con-man did not know Deke Sanders as well as Larabee did and Chris was basing his entire plan on a hunch. A hunch Standish found unacceptable.
The sounds from the interior of the depot were dying down, and just as it seemed that Ezra may have given up his quest to harangue Larabee into changing his mind, a loud, clearly audible shout was heard.
Mr Larabee! You, sir, are the viperous worm that gnaws at the very bowels of Satan himself and I swear that if this half-baked scam you have concocted goes awry, I shall follow you into the very depths of Hell itself and take great delight in saying I told you so!
Struggling to smother his laughter, Buck chuckled, Viperous worm. Gotta remember that one.
Looking up to see if Chris shared his amusement, Buck saw that he was gone, and a distant jingle of spurs could be heard as Larabee stalked the night. Shaking his head and tipping his flask to the stary sky, Buck sighed, To the dawn.
+ + + + + + +
Methodically, almost without thought, Deke Sanders cleaned his stripped down pistol. There were only two lamps in the room with him, but the large bonfire outside spilled sufficient light inside.
The soft rag removed accumulated dirt, gunpowder and blood, slowly transforming the metal into a beautiful sheen. Sanders was humming to himself, lost in the simple task. Outside, a cacophony of jeers, shouts and catcalls echoed in the night as the remnants of his gang let loose their anger and frustration. After days of conflict with the Regulators from Four Corners, each of the outlaws leapt at the chance to finally inflict tangible damage on a group of men who seemed nigh-invincible. Sanders hoped that Tom was able to keep the more vicious element restrained, Tanner had to survive the night long enough to talk.
Idly inspecting the barrel for spots he may have missed, Deke found himself wincing in sympathy at some of the sounds coming from outside.
Shaking his head at Tanners stupidity, Deke said to himself, The man asked for it. I warned him. And just like me when I didnt pay attention to my Pas advice, Tanner is going to regret it for the rest of his short life.
Still humming a little, Sanders continued to talk to his gun, Pa warned me. Told me not to cross Larabee. Said Id regret it for the rest of my very short life. And he was right. Finished polishing, he began to assemble the pistol. Dont even try to con him, son, he said, dont even try. That man can spot a lie from miles away. Hell kill you, Deke. Kill you dead.
His favourite gun once again whole, Sanders whispered to it, I dont plan on dying just yet though. Larabees gotta pay. Hes gotta understand that no one beats me. No one.
+ + + + + + +
The sun had risen with the promise of a scorching day. It kept its word.
By ten the air was already shimmering in the heat, and sensible creatures were finding shade and hiding from the sun. Four men, defying common sense, walked slowly down the wide main street of a long forgotten village. Their steps were unhurried, their pace resolute and the shadows that trailed behind them at a jagged angle swept over all obstacles without pause.
Keen eyes spotted the furtive movement of men taking up positions on rooftops and in doorways. Hands remained steady, hovering above loaded guns. Uncaring of the snare that the gathering enemy drew around them, they walked on.
Rifles were cocked, pistols primed, and targets sighted. And still they walked on, Larabees spurs jingling in the dust. Fingers, a hairsbreadth away from triggers tightened involuntarily as the four men strode past, exposing their backs to cowardly attack.
Slouched in a doorway, his lean frame apparently at ease, Deke Sanders watched the four men approach. They stopped about ten feet from him, and Sanders could see two of his men step into the street behind them. His snare was set.
Straightening up, Sanders smirked at the Regulators and said, And what are you four supposed to be? The Four Horsemen? Laughing, Deke cried aloud, Boys, this here is our Apocalypse!
He stepped out of the doorway and flung his arms up, still laughing, They seemed to have lost their horses, but dont you worry boys, they still made it.
Like some dramatic actor on stage, Sanders pointed at JD, We got Famine here, a stunted, worthless piece of shit. Turning to Nathan, he hissed, Pestilence, a plague on our nation, bringing despair and hate! Strutting forward, Deke shouted at Buck, And War, armed to the teeth and ready to rape and pillage at a moments notice!
Finally standing before Chris, whose dead green gaze was riveted to Sanders, Deke said in a mock-fearful voice, garnering a few sniggers from his men, And Death, clad in the black ashes of a thousand fires, driven insane by the screams of the damned.
Inching closer to Larabee, Deke whispered soft enough that only Chris could hear, Or is it just the screams of your bitch and brat as they burned?
Deke remained close and waited for a reaction from Larabee. The blonde gunslinger stared at Deke, impassively. Nothing.
And then, Wheres Tanner?
Sanders drew back in feigned confusion. Tanner? Tanner? Looking up at his gang that outnumbered the Regulators three to one he cried, Do you boys know a Tanner?
Laughter and a few rude gestures answered him, and Deke turned back to Chris and drawled insolently, If youre talking about that piece of half-dead buckskin you left behind when you ran outta here with your tail between your legs? Then yes, hes around here .. somewhere.
Bring him out. Larabees voice was flat, emotionless but underscored by a threat of imminent violence.
Pretending that the question was one that troubled him, Sanders pulled a rickety chair over and sat in it, as if to think deeply. Well, I dont know if I can do that, Chris. I mean, Tanners been an excellent guest and the boys in particular enjoyed his company last night. Id hate to deprive them of their entertainment, particularly in a dead little burg like this.
A gun was in Larabees hand before anybody realised it, with JD, Nathan and Buck following a heartbeat later. Bring him out, now.
Scowling, Deke snarled, Not until I see my property!
At Larabees nod, JD holstered his guns and ran back down the street. Sanders hooked a leg over the arm of the chair and sighed, You know, Larabee, youve been every rude. Here Ive been chasing you for days and youve never stopped to ask how my father is. I mean, the man gave you a job, clothed you, fed you, became like a father to you and nothing. Not a word.
Without giving Chris a chance to respond, Sanders continued, Hes dead, you know. Killed by those damn McKenzies.
Buck snorted, Still feuding I see.
I aint talking to you, Wilmington! So shut it! Deke glared at Buck, and said to Chris, They killed just about everyone. Stole our water rights, rustled our cows and poisoned our well!
Larabee shrugged, his manner indifferent, Only after you did it to them first, I bet.
No! Sanders exclaimed and several of his men, loyal ranch hands to the core, got ready to shoot at their bosses word. You never understood, Larabee, never! It dont matter who did what first, just that it got done. And hell, they won, Larabee, they won! They bribed the law onto their side, murdered my Pa and put a price on my head. But theyre gonna pay. Ole Deke is gonna teach them all.
Chris smiled then, a smile of pure delight, Til we came along.
Sanders grimaced, Yeah, til you interfered, Larabee. But thats about to end too
By now everyone could hear JDs arrival. The young man arrived, pulling three mules along, each carrying two boxes. Smirking at Larabee, Deke cried, There my beauties are. My lovely guns.
Standing up, Sanders chuckled, The McKenzies think were finished. But the war aint over. Its time to bring in the big guns. Laughing Deke attempted to walk towards the large green boxes but the sound of Larabee cocking his gun, stopped him. Looking towards the gunslinger, Deke said peevishly, Knock it off, Larabee.
But Sanders made no further move, and the silence drew out as both men waited for the other to back down. In the end, the outlaw boss shouted, Tom! Go fetch Larabees pet.
His second-in-command ducked into the building behind them and soon emerged with Vin Tanner.
Larabees knuckles turned white as he strangled his hold on his gun. JD couldnt stop a small gasp from escaping him. Tanner looked terrible.
Send him over and well give you the guns. Chris voice was unshaken but Deke seemed to find something in his reaction amusing.
Sure thing At his bosses nod, Tom shoved Vin towards his friends. Barely managing to stand upright, Tanner stumbled onward to relative safety. When he staggered over an imaginary half-way mark, Deke stepped forward and snagged the reins from JD.
The moment Vin was within reaching distance, Jackson caught him and helped him to stand upright. Deke dragged the braying mules over to his men and two of them started opening the first wooden box.
Ive got what I want. Youve got what you want. Were leaving.
And just as Chris knew he would, Deke Sanders barked, I dont believe that you will, Larabee.
His men had rapidly assembled one of the Gatlin guns and were now pointing it at the Regulators. Jackson in the interim had managed to untie Tanners hands and was supporting the injured tracker. Deke grinned maniacally, No one beats me, Chris Larabee. No one!
Oh I would beg to differ, my good sir.
The southern tinged voice echoed from the rooftops and everyone looked up to see Ezra Standish and Josiah Sanchez, with their own Gatlin Gun pointed straight at Deke Sanders. Beneath the smudged bandages on his head, Standish yelled jovially, Thank you for providing us with this incredible piece of mechanical violence!
Dekes face was red with rage. He screamed almost incoherently, spittle flying from his mouth, The second you fire, your friends will die in the crossfire!
Buck sighed dramatically, Im afraid that last shot to his head may have scrambled what little brains he had left. Standish may be happy killing us all, just so long as your dont get your paws on those guns.
Sanders roared in anger, his control of his temper slipping, I dont believe that for a second! None of you would die simply to deny me some damn guns!
JD shrugged, I figure that stopping a massacre is a good enough reason to die.
Idiots! Deke shrieked, startling a few of his men with his wild antics, You really think Im going to fall for this stupid ploy! You are not walking away from this village alive!
Seems were dead either way, may as well be on our terms and taking you with us. Chris voice was flat, betraying no fear or concern over their plight. Deke was trembling with rage, caught between his desire to pummel Larabee into the ground and to survive long enough to exact his revenge on the McKenzies.
Spitting the words out, as if they burned his mouth, Deke growled, So what do you suggest?
We walk away. Standish and Sanchez cover us and then leave. You stay put. Keep the damn guns.
Trying very hard not to picture what Larabee would look like riddled with bullets, Deke snarled, I got your word those morons up there wont fire on us? At Chris nod, Sanders seemed to regain some of his earlier joviality. Agreed then. You turn tail and run. I get my property back.
The Regulators didnt move until Sanders had indicated to his men behind the Gatlin gun to stand down. Only then did Jackson and Dunne begin to retreat, helping Vin along. Deke smiled at how painfully Tanner was moving and he called out to him, Be sure and come back now, bucko. We need to finish what we started last night.
Turning to Larabee, Sanders said almost nonchalantly, This aint over Larabee. Once those McKenzies are dead, Ill be coming for you.
A flicker of a smile crossed Chris face, Ill be waiting. Buck and Chris began to fall back, covering Dunne and Jackson. On the roof, Ezra kept a careful eye on the proceedings below, muttering to himself. Once his friends had moved beyond firing range and were well on their way to safety, he signalled Josiah and the pair limped off, leaving the gun behind.
Deke counted to twenty slowly, until he was certain the Regulators were gone. Then he turned to his men and hissed, Get after them. Now. Kill them all.
Hesitantly his men moved, wary eyes watching the skyline in case the two men from Four Corners lingered. NOW! Deke screamed, and his men scattered, following the retreat of the Regulators. Sanders shouted at the men with the Gatlin gun, Bring it. Larabee aint getting away.
Taking the initiative, two men, once cowhands on the Sanders Ranch scrambled up to the roof tops and made their way to the abandoned gun. Cautiously the remainder of the gang made their way through the hot streets, anticipating at any moment an ambush from their wily prey.
Despite expecting and even planning for it, the majority of the group walked straight into Larabees ambush. At the very same crossroads, between cantina, bank and feedstore, where previously the Seven had been trapped, they now sprung their own trap.
Gunfire came from all directions, mowing the exposed outlaws down. Those that could, scrambled for cover, only to find themselves pinned down in the crossfire.
Those outlaws not caught out in the open, scurried back towards safety. The men lugging the heavy Gatlin gun immediately started setting it again, and Sanders shouted encouragement from the sidelines, adding his own gunfire as cover.
The outlaws on the roof turned Standishs gun around and tried to load the weapon. In almost no time at all, each of the gun crews had loaded and primed their guns and were ready to fire. Deke grinned like a lunatic and at his signal, they each opened fire on the Regulators.
As the first couple of bullets entered the long chambers of the gun, a sullen misfire was heard and in a ball of fire, each gun exploded. Sanders stared in shock at the smoking ruins of his precious weapons, his mouth hanging open like a fish.
Once again, a Southern drawl called out to Sanders. Oh heavens! Dont tell me we carelessly forgot to remove our dynamite from inside the guns? That would be disastrous!
A few guffaws of laughter reached Deke who fumed silently, unable to fully process this sudden turn of events. None of the men near the guns had survived the explosions. Deke took stock of his men and came to the disheartening conclusion that he only had five able men in positions to fire on Larabee. Undeterred he shrieked loudly, Ive still got one more gun and
Like a piece of midnight, Larabee stepped forward in the near-noon sun. Unerringly his gaze found Deke cowering behind an upturned barrel and Chris said, You mean this gun?
Drawn like a magnet, Sanders looked where the gunslinger pointed and felt his last hope shatter. There stood Standish, once again in control of one of his guns. A gun pointed straight at him. Again.
Already he could see a few of his men holding up their hands in surrender. A sudden shift in the wind brought the acrid smell of burnt metal to his nose as the destroyed guns continued to smoulder. His plans, his hopes, his dreams of revenge, all lay broken, shattered, destroyed beyond all hope of recovery.
For a long couple of minutes, Deke stared at the black-clad figure of Larabee, both men standing stock still. Dekes men, nervous at the drawn out standoff, fidgeted, uncertain at how this would all end. There was no movement from the Regulators.
The wind turned again, this time whipping the long black duster around Larabees feet and stirring up a small dust devil. Almost mechanically Deke raised his pistol and lurched forward. A warbling, desperate scream emerged from his open mouth as he fired repeatedly, emptying his gun at the shadowy figure before him.
Instantly on the move, Chris returned fire and as if they were all caught up in Sanders last desperate move to snatch victory from defeat, Sanders gang fired on Larabee as well. The gun battle was short and sharp as the Gatlin gun barked a few times, and Buck, JD, Josiah and Nathan returned fire.
Silence fell over the scene, and the wind picked up, blowing a steady stream of dust towards the east. Slowly the Seven emerged, dusty, dirty, bloodied but victorious. Standish slid down the nearest wall, his head pounding under the fierce throbs of a killer headache. Sanchez limped towards the bodies of their enemies, searching for any still alive. Larabee remained were he stood, staring at the body of Deke Sanders. Buck joined his old friend and said softly, He get ya?
Chris nodded and plucked at his coat sleeve, fingering the small hole. JD walked over to them and said, Hell, Im tired. I think I could sleep for a week!
Wilmington nodded in agreement and gently prodded Chris in the direction of the cantina. Come on, stud. Lets get you to Nate and maybe JD can find you a shirt. Absently acknowledging that beneath his duster he was still barechested, Chris sighed, I never liked that kid, but he sure had a lot of guts.
Who? Dunne asked, even as he followed the pair towards the cantina where Nathan was tending to Tanner.
Sanders, kid. Buck replied, He was as loco as a sun-crazed rattler, but you couldnt fault him for nerve.
JD shrugged noncommittally and said instead, Ill go get Ezra and Josiah. They look like theyre gonna fall on top of each other. The young man trotted over to where his injured friends were trying to help each other to stand, Standish grumbling all the while.
Wilmington maintained a firm grip on Larabee as they stepped over rubble and bodies. Damn glad your plan worked, pard.
Chris looked behind him at the carnage that they had left behind. Thirsty sand sucked up lifeblood and the wind danced over smouldering corpses and shattered dreams.
Not too sure it did.
+ + + + + + +
JD had to help Buck and Chris clear the bodies before he could get his much desired rest. And just as he had contemplated using his hat as a pillow, Nathan had needed his help in getting a fire started, and tending to the multiple injuries of his friends.
And now, with the streets clear, the fire made and his friends resting comfortably, JD lay wide awake. He lay flat on his back staring up at the scarred roof of the cantina and listened to the distressing sounds of Vin Tanner struggling to breathe, fighting to live.
Certain that if he had truly seen the extent of Vins injuries before removing the bodies, he would have found it extremely difficult to treat the dead with any sort of respect. As it was, JD Dunne wished he could go back outside and kick a few of them for good measure.
The air inside the make-shift camp was filled with tension. This was in part due to Vins struggle to live and Nathans determination to help him but it was mostly due to the argument between Ezra and Chris. The slick Southerner lay on his own sick bed and JD knew that Ezra did not sleep. In fact, no one was sleeping lest by some ill turn of fate Vin slipped away while they were not looking.
Larabee wasnt even pretending to sleep, his watchful presence loomed over them all. Chris hadnt spoken a word to anyone since the argument, the angry words lingering in the air still. Unbidden, they recalled themselves to JD.
It was only due to dumb luck that we survived today, Mr Larabee!
Chris had glared at Ezra, who apparently was becoming immune to that infamous glare, as the gambler had forged on regardless.
You damn well walked in there as you were impervious to danger, knowing full well that at any moment it all could have gone horribly wrong. What if they had opened the wrong box and found no gun? What if Sanders had ordered them to fire while you were still in range? Or if he started to wonder why in the hell we hadnt just started shooting the moment we were in place? So many variables, so much that could have gone wrong and yet you insisted this was the only way!
The up and til now silent gunslinger had replied softly. You think we should have just left Vin to die?
No, dammnit, Mr Larabee! But there could have been a better, more safe plan than just charging in and trusting your hunch! And if there was, you never gave us a chance to come up with one.
JD remembered the closed look on Chris face, his eyes flat and expressionless. Afraid that Ezra was pushing a limit already breached, he had opened his mouth to try and avert trouble. Larabee beat him to it.
Nothing is ever fool proof, Standish. It doesnt matter if we nearly died because we didnt. And if we had, we wouldnt be around to care.
Ezra had laughed in derision. Not everyone embraces your do or die philosophy, Mr Larabee. And I for one dont know if I care to follow blindly in your wake anymore.
Chris had shrugged as if Standish was of no matter and had walked away, leaving Ezra silently fuming. They had exchanged no words since.
JD didnt really understand Ezras anger. Sure, it had been touch and go there for awhile, but it had all worked out, with everyone and God willing, even Vin surviving to return home. Why debate the merits of the plan after the event?
A hoarse, wet cough broke his train of thought and JD involuntarily looked over at Nathan and Vin. Jackson feared that their friend had been damaged too much inside, and that beneath broken ribs and bruised muscles lay an inward enemy he had no hope of fighting. Another pain-wracked cough, followed by Jacksons soothing murmur and Dunne turned his back on the disheartening scene.
Buck and Josiah had each made an attempt to soothe the throbbing tension between their leader and resident gambler, but it was to no avail. It seemed to JD that everything, everything that was of importance in his life, now hung in the balance. He didnt know if his friends felt the same but perhaps they did, being older and wiser. A crossroads had been reached. Decisions had been made and questioned. Perhaps if Vin survived the night, it would all disappear beneath the relief. Perhaps not.
JD sighed, wishing wholeheartedly that the last few weeks had never occurred. He wasnt too sure why this argument in particular had set all their hackles up, or why this particular adventure had suddenly exposed cracks no one was willing to acknowledge. But it had and now everything was just off.
Another wracking cough broke his train of thought and the kid fought the urge to sigh. Acting before he even realised it, JD stood up quietly, picked up his pillow and blanket and used a gaping hole in the cantina wall to exit. He wasnt going to lay there and listen to a friend die. And caught mid-step, the kids heart sank. Vin was going to die. Nathan knew it. Chris and Ezra knew it. And he knew it.
Grasping his hat in a tight fist, JD Dunne walked out into the night.
+ + + + + + +
The noon day air was hot and still. No gentle breeze stirred the air, and no cloud offered relief from the unrelenting sun. No one stirred within the confines of the small town, everybody was waiting out the heat in the cooler confines of their homes.
Chris Larabee, dressed in solid black stood unflinching in the harsh sunlight. They had buried Vin today and he stood alone in cemetery, thinking. It was strange and somehow fitting that he had stood side by side with Tanner all those years ago in this very spot. Their association had begun in the cemetery, a place of death and only death had separated them. Larabee had long believed that he lived only long enough to die, and faced that fact with anticipation. He met each challenge with the expectation, almost hope of death and despite that, each time he walked away. One day he would not, just as Vin had not.
A friendship begun in the last resting place of men, between a wanted man and a hired gunhand was perforce marked by the grim sceptre of death. Chris had understood this, as had Vin. And now the grave had claimed his friend, and Larabee found he was not particularly surprised and only wondered how it had not happened sooner. Vin had been living on borrowed time with a warrant on his head, while Chris impatiently ticked off each moment until he shuffled off this mortal coil. He almost envied his friend.
What had surprised Chris was the sense of things coming to a head, an end. Why Vins death and the whole debacle with Sanders had brought it about, he didnt know. Nevertheless, something else had died with Tanner. Something vital had changed with the Seven and no matter how much a person might want to deny it, it was different. The entire day felt like a turning point, where irrevocably a path was placed beneath your feet and everything was forever changed.
Ezra was leaving. The smooth gambler was in his room packing and no one could dissuade him. By the end of the week, the town would have lost two regulators and Chris found himself thinking that maybe it would be three. Buck, JD, Nathan and Josiah seemed content to stay, and the town hadnt needed seven regulators for a long time now. And more and more Larabee caught himself staring towards the horizon.
Dragging his gaze from the freshly upturned earth of Vins grave, Chris lit a cheroot and inhaled deeply. Thoughts of a quiet cabin in the mountains, away from people, his past and his nightmares crowded his head often, and with increasing frequency since Vin passed. It wasnt quite a burning need just yet, but soon it would be and it was one he longed to fill.
Suddenly unable to be standing still anymore, Chris ground his half-finished cheroot out and strode out of the cemetery, silently promising his friend that hed say goodbye before he left. Realising his decision was made and that he felt better for it, Larabee started thinking on everything hed need to do before he left. And at the top of his list was making things right with Standish.
Feeling a surge of energy, and an almost giddy sense of anticipation, Chris turned back to look at the cemetery and out across the horizon beyond. Something settled inside of him, a sense of rightness growing. Life seemed good and it wasnt despite Vins death or his imminent departure, it was because he felt free. Free from ghosts, free from despair. And with his characteristic acceptance of emotions, Chris embraced it. Hed never been able to move on before, his former life trailing behind him like chains. Those chains had disappeared and it was with lightened limbs that he made his way to the boardwalk.
When Ezra answered the knock on his door, the smile of Chris Larabees face was genuine. And free.
Home is behind, the world ahead.
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadow, to the edge of the night
Until the stars are all alight.
Mist and shadow, Cloud and shade
All shall fade, all shall fade.
Adapted from JRR Tolkien
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