Disclaimer: I don't own the Mag 7 characters and I make no profit from writing about them.
Author Note: This is my first longer story, after two short ones I wrote this year. Writing Mag 7 stories sure is growing on me! I own a lot of thanks to Tracey, who did a superb job beta-ing this story. And also to Mary, whose comments made me change some things for the better. So any typos etc. that remain are mine, and no one else! Ladies, you both made this story a lot better than it otherwise would have been, thank you very much for that!!
Oh Chris, look at them! JD spread his arms wide and tried to see how far he could encircle one of the giant trees that grew at the foot of Bear Pass. It was a secluded place, with a lightly meandering, murmuring creek running through it and he and Chris had decided to stop here and give the horses a rest. JD was totally taken in by the giant trees that grew to one side of the small creek.
Chris sighed and looked at the youngest member of the peacekeepers of Four Corners. He was glad that JD was his own exuberant self again. The kid had gone through hell after he had accidentally killed a young woman while stopping some bank robbers. On the other hand it did leave him with a headache. He never met anyone before who could chatter as much as JD!
Except for his son Adam, but that had been different
He looked at the giant trees himself. Every time he saw them, he was impressed as well, he had to admit. He had thought of this place after he and JD had delivered some papers for Judge Travis to the sheriff in Glasstown. He had felt the need to stand in the presence of something breath-taking, something awesome, something that would take his mind off human troubles for a moment, so he had suggested the little detour. JD had been enthusiastic. He'd been enthusiastic the whole trip, right from the beginning when Chris had told him he wouldn't mind coming with him.
Buck had been up and ready to go with the kid, but the look in JD's eyes when he'd offered to go told him he'd done the right thing. Everybody had agreed it would be good for JD to deliver the papers and be out of town after all that had happened. The death of Annie, not much older than JD and recently married, had hit the young, well meaning sheriff hard. To top it all off, the townspeople had been very judgmental, which hadn't made things any easier. Saving the stage coach and everyone in it a few days later did help JD to get some of his self confidence back and the good opinion of the townspeople, but the pain of what had happened was still there. A bit of distraction seemed like just the thing.
After everything that had happened, Chris really needed to be out of town for a while as well. So he had offered to go with JD. JD had been jubilant while Buck had looked a bit chagrined. Chris didn't care. He knew Buck had found him too indifferent to what the young man had been going through, but what the hell should he have done about it? Buck and Josiah had talked with the kid, something they were a lot better at than him any day. Buck had wanted him to defend JD against Hiram, Annie's husband, when the man was telling everybody that JD was a danger and should be forbidden to wear his guns. It was just that he understood the feelings of the man after losing his young wife. God, he understood those feelings and that pain all too well. He hadn't had it in him to go against the man for letting some of those emotions out, didn't matter how mad that made Buck. Chris rubbed the bridge of his nose. Yep, he had definitely needed to get out of town.
JD had been exited that he'd wanted to come with him. It had made him uncomfortable and reminded him of the way JD looked up to him. That had almost made him change his mind. He didn't want that hero worship, didn't want it at all. Last thing he wanted was to be some God damn hero, some fucking legend, no matter what that idiot Jock Steele put in his dime novels. He still felt a white hot anger come up every time he saw the book, thought about it, or heard it being mentioned. The little man had taken something from him that was very private and painful and had made it into a cheap story. He'd almost gotten on the first train east to go and shoot the little bastard. Vin had stopped him though. Helped him get past that first blinding, red hot rage.
Vin. He'd had more peace and quiet if he'd stayed in town with Vin! Warily he looked at JD again, the kid babbling on and on about trees he'd seen in the east, standing there gawking, looking up and up and up at the giants. He was a good kid though and Chris was glad he'd stayed. It wouldn't have been the same in Four Corners without his keen, lively presence and his many attempts to help everyone. The kid had a way of reminding him occasionally of what was important in life. He needed that reminder from time to time. Like right now he needed a reminder that there was more to life then all the mess humans made.
Chris looked up as well. Even JD's constant chatter couldn't really diminish the overwhelming sense of age the trees had. Age and beauty. The beauty of forests filled with wonders that held the real world at bay for a precious moment, bringing almost a sense of peace and accepting with them. Almost...
The giant crowns towering over him and the kid were swaying a bit in the wind, the leaves shining where the sun hit them, dark and mysterious where it didn't. These trees were older than anything he knew. It was downright daunting just thinking about everything that had happened and changed in the world while these grew and grew until they had become the monuments of time they now were.
Then he heard it, a loud cracking noise, followed by a screeching. Right in front of him one of the giants was slowly starting to topple and JD Chris was acting before the thought had finished, running like mad.
JD! Get away! JD!
JD turned around, his eyes growing wide when he saw Chris barrelling down on him in lightning speed, waving at him to move.
Chris, what ?
It all happened so fast. Chris bore into him, took him up and threw him. That was the moment he heard it, an enormous racket like wood snapping and timber splitting. He saw Chris desperately trying to roll away while above him the whole forest seemed to come down towards the spot he had been standing rooted mere seconds before, like some stupid kid. The spot Chris was still so close too, no way in hell even he could get away in time! Then he couldn't see anything anymore but branches and leaves and and
The ground heaved under the heavy crash.
It broke through JD's stupor. The young man picked himself up from where he had been thrown and dashed towards the tree, past the crown and to where the trunk was lying. Oh my God, right across Chris' legs. Oh God, oh God, oh God, now what did he do? What could he do? The damn tree was so God awful God damn BIG! Even laying down it was way higher than his head!
To his immense relief Chris opened his eyes.
JD? You alright?
Yeah, yeah I am. Chris, you saved my life! That tree, it would've squashed me! I'm so sorry
Sorry, for what? You made that tree topple over? Suddenly Chris' face turned white as a sheet. FUCK, that hurts!
Oh Chris! Your legs! They must've . They must've He couldn't help it, sobs started to escape thinking about what such a heavy tree would have done to Chris' legs. They must've been smashed, destroyed forever. He just couldn't look at it properly, he couldn't! He didn't want to see it.
Chris saw the stricken look in the hazel brown eyes and got scared himself. He worked himself up on his elbows, looking down at his body towards the tree and his legs. Goddamn, that had been close! If that tree had fallen down on his legs nothing could have saved them, ever. Luckily he was caught under a side branch. The fucking thing was as big as a tree in its own right, but not THAT big. Relieved he laid down again.
s Alright JD. Ain't the trunk on my legs.
Nope, got stuck under a side branch.
Stuck. Suddenly reality hit Chris. He was really, totally stuck. One look at that tree told him he wasn't going anywhere.
JD on the other hand looked at that side branch as if it was an angel.
Oh Chris, thank God you didn't get caught under that trunk! Oh oh! Chris, I've gotta get that tree off of you!
That would be nice. Don't think it's gonna happen though. That's an awful big tree.
I can do it, Chris, I can do it! With the horses! A rope! I eh I need a rope
In my saddlebag. SHIT!
Chris? Please, please hold on! I'll get you out, just you wait and see. Just you wait
JD tore off at a breakneck pace towards the horses. Both animals were snorting and still hadn't decided if staying was such a wise thing after the toppling of the tree. They were clearly spooked and it took JD quite some time to calm them. He took the rope from Chris' saddlebags and led Pony and Milagro towards the tree.
I'm gonna tie the rope around the tree now, Chris, and than the horses will drag it away.
Chris just closed his eyes. He didn't have it in his heart to tell JD it wouldn't work. Not only was the tree immense, the many branches it had were stuck everywhere. He knew JD needed to try. He needed to try every possibility before he could be persuaded to do the one thing that could be done: leave. Leave and get help. He wasn't going to die here slowly and in agony under JD's nose. The kid had lived through something like that once already, with his mom. No way in Hell was he gonna put the kid through the same kind of misery.
JD would have to come to terms with the fact that he would have to leave him. It was the only way.
+ + + + + + +
JD tried and tried, and tried again. He put the rope around a huge portion of the tree and made the horses pull. First one, then both of them, but the tree wouldn't budge, not even an inch. He tried again with the rope around another part. He walked around the tree, looking for the problem and saw the many branches the thing had, all those branches stuck every way you could think of. In the ground, behind boulders, behind the other trees, name it and those branches had worked themselves in, under, between and around it. He made an effort to pry them loose, but they were too big. Like the one pinning Chris most of them were as big as trees themselves.
At one point he also attempted to heft the side branch up, but a lot of trees he'd seen were smaller than that branch and as he had expected, he couldn't move it. He went at it using a big branch as a lever, but it was more because he wanted to have tried everything he could think of than that he really thought he would get anywhere. Which he didn't.
Frustrated he searched for a rope in his own saddlebags, remembering that he had had one once. He found it beneath his spare set of clothing. So the next thing he tried was roping Pony at one end of the tree and Milagro at the other.
For a moment he thought that did the trick. He saw some movement and was ready to cheer and whoop, but all that the huge, enormous piece of wood did was shudder. Then his old rope broke.
By now JD had started to thoroughly hate and despise the fallen giant. He kicked it and cursed at it. If he didn't, he would start to cry like a baby. He wouldn't cry or sob again, he just wouldn't. After all, he wasn't a kid anymore.
In defeat he slumped back towards the gunslinger, after hurriedly having wiped his tears away. Chris was lying with one arm over his eyes. Throughout all of JD's efforts he'd been quiet, saying nothing, hardly moving. JD had resented him for that, but now he knew the truth. Chris had seen immediately that no way he could get him free.
Ya could'a told me it wasn't gonna work, he said reproachfully. Chris took his arm away and looked at the young man.
You wouldn't have believed me, JD. B'sides, ya had to try. Had to know y'd done everything possible.
Whadda ya mean? Why? What ya saying?
JD, there's only one thing that can be done. Ya gotta get help.
L leave you here? Chris, I can't do that! It's at least a day to Four Corners and then another day back! There's no place closer! You'd be here all night, and tomorrow and probably another night. I can't leave y' alone!
Guess I'm gonna die then.
No! No! I'll take care of ya. I can hunt, there's water here. Sooner or later they notice we're gone too long and come looking fer us!
JD, this ain't the direct route to Glasstown. It'll take them a few days more before they get worried enough to come looking. And then they won't know where we are, where to look. It'll take 'm too long. He didn't voice it, but this time the kid did hear the unsaid words he missed most of the time. 'I don't have that long.' He couldn't accept what Chris asked of him though.
Ya can't stay here like this. I can't leave ya like this!
JD! Look at me! Look at me.
Desperate brown eyes found steely green ones. Chris' glare softened when he saw how torn the young man was over this.
I'll be alright JD. You've gotta put my rifle and bullets close by, a canteen of water, blanket would be nice too. Nights are getting chilly. And I'd like to have something under my head, I hate laying this flat on my back.
Chris, I'm sorry! I'm sorry. I was so busy finding a way to get the tree off I didn't even think that you might need something! I d didn't The kid's voice broke.
It's alright JD. If I'd needed something I'd hollered. Now, the sooner ya go, the sooner ya can come back, right?
If only I'd paid attention, I should a seen it, or heard, or
Shit, JD! You did nothing wrong. Now, get things ready to go. Take Pony as well, you can make better time with two horses.
Chris, I can't!
Yes, you can. JD, you can, you have to. It's the only way. Now, get me my bedroll and other stuff. I'd like to be as comfortable as possible. Gonna be here for some time.
But you'll be all alone!
Nothing new 'bout that, JD. I've been alone ever since my family died. So don't you worry 'bout that. Now, you've got work to do and do it fast. That way you have a good portion of the day left to travel by. Don't wanna be here longer than necessary.
I could stay tonight, hunt some food, leave tomorrow at first light?
Food? No way, don't leave me food! Trust me, I don't need it. I'm trying not to puke as it is. JD, I think I'm bleeding. The longer you wait, the less chance for me to survive. You understand? JD?
It was a cheap shot, but it finally got JD moving. With a part of his bedroll as far under his body as they could get it and the rest rolled up so his head was propped up and he wasn't lying totally flat, his blanket and JD's spare close at hand to use when he got cold, the canteen filled with water, the book he was currently reading and gun, rifle and bullets near at hand, Chris was ready. All that now was needed were the right parting words. Words that the young man could take with him and that would give him the feeling he was doing the right thing, instead of leaving a comrade.
Thanks JD. Don't like putting you in danger by sending y'out there on your own, not at all, but it's the only way to save my life and... He looked into the brown eyes of his young, way too young friend with a piercing look. I think you c'n do it, can survive out there and be in Four Corners in record time. Hell, you're a great rider, kid, don't listen to Buck when he tells you otherwise, you hear? I know. Worked with horses most of my life. If anyone has a chance to get help here on time, it'll be you. Alright? Alright?
I need you to remember that you're going to try and save me! Chris hissed. You did everything you could here! And now you're going to do even more. You're going out there on your own to get help. Don't matter how this ends, that's what you're doing!
JD suddenly turned white as a sheet. You planning on getting me away and then doing yourself in Chris?
Chris glared at him. I'll forget you said that JD. Then, softly, not caring if JD heard him or not, didn't put a bullet in myself after Sarah and Adam died. Sure as hell won't do it over some damn tree.
JD did hear and started to bluster. Aw Chris, I'm sorry, I didn't mean I Shit, Chris, I know you ain't no quitter, but when you said don't matter how this ends
JD, just don't assume something like that ever again! I think I've shown I'm not giving up easily.
Y Yeah, sorry. JD thought about all the things he had seen Chris do, all the things he heard about his hero and yes, Chris was always fighting on. If it was alone in a street facing a gang running down on him, or in a prison just outside Jericho, Chris was impossible to put down. He would never forget what had been done to Chris in that prison, had felt nauseated when he heard the stories of the other inmates. Still Chris had walked out alive, had even taken the warden and sheriff who'd done it to him out himself. JD had been impressed seeing Chris ride out of there after it all like nothing had happened and he knew he hadn't been the only one who felt in awe, so had the other peace keepers and even the other inmates. He'd started for himself to refer to their ragtag group as the Larabee gang ever since.
The fleeting memories brought him some peace to do what he knew was the only thing he could do. Yeah, yeah, I'm sorry Chris. If you say you'll be here when I can get back with help, you'll be here.
Oh, shit! Chris saw the light kindle up in the kid's eyes, saw the hero worship come to full bloom in the way JD looked at him.
That's a promise, ain't it Chris?
Fuck! The last thing he had wanted to see in those trusting brown eyes was that stupid hero worship flaring up again. He was no God damn hero, Lord knows his slate was too black for that and the way he stood in life was just Hell, he just wasn't a damn dime novel hero no matter what drivel Jock Steele wrote down!
Chris? Chris, you will be here, won't you? You will.
Ain't going anywhere kid.
Not funny Chris. Just, just promise you won't die!
Now Chris turned very serious. JD, you know I can't promise that. I don't know what lives out there and might decide to pay a visit. Hell, I don't even know how bad I'm hurt under that branch, just know it hurts. All I can promise is that I'll do my damnedest to still be around when you get the help here.
The youth looked at him and Chris saw the tears in his eyes. Yeah, guess that's fair. Guess your damnedest will do the trick though. It did in that prison camp, didn't it? He bolted on Milagro, Pony's rein fastened to his saddle. His eyes looked back at the blond gunslinger one last time.
I really need you to be here when we come back for you, Chris, I really do. Don't know if I can live knowing that I'm the one who's done you in.
JD, you didn't. JD! But the kid was already gone, moving his horse in a break neck gallop.
Finally Chris felt he could give in to the pain. He moaned and at last let the tears freely stream from his eyes, now that he was alone. All alone.
Didn't matter, as he'd told JD, he'd been alone ever since his family died, was nothing new. Blue eyes suddenly filled his vision, blue eyes in a handsome Texan face surrounded by long brown curls. Well, maybe not that alone lately, but still, being alone and on his own was at the core of his being. Even as the leader of this group of six rag tag peace keepers.
JD had been coping while racing the horses through the land. He loved riding, loved it with a passion. It kept his mind off Chris, and of what had happened. Chris jumping in to save his life, only to get pinned under the tree himself. The too white face resting against the bedroll.
JD felt as if nothing would ever be alright again. If Chris was dead when he came back with help No, don't think it, don't think it! He would beat the odds and get to Four Corners in record time. And Chris, Chris was Chris and would beat the odds as well. He had to!
Riding, taking care of the horses, it all filled his mind for as long as there was light to see by and to travel by. Then it became dark, and something else penetrated JD's thoughts.
He was alone. Except for the two horses he was completely, utterly alone in the Wild West for the first time since he had gotten there. The journey from back east had been made part by train and mostly by stage coach, both filled with people. He may not have known those people and had felt a bit alone even surrounded by them, but they were there to talk to, to make jokes with, to answer his many questions.
After he had gotten off the stage coach in Four Corners, he had immediately focused on the black clad gunslinger. Chris Larabee's name was known even in the east and he had been so busy with following him, consumed with the wish to ride with him, that he hadn't had time to feel lonely. In a way he hadn't been, he had constantly kept the gunslinger and the five men that rode with him in his sight till he had been plucked up and deposited in their midst by Buck Wilmington.
Buck! Oh my God, Buck! Buck can't stand to lose Chris, I know he can't stand that. And I left him, I left him. Buck would never have left him. Buck would've known what to do!
He hadn't been alone ever since joining the Larabee gang. Not unless he wanted to be, and that had always been with the others close by and there to go back to. That wasn't being alone at all. Not like he was alone at this moment, so utterly on his own it caught in his throat.
After he had shot Annie, he had felt really lonely as well. He now realized he hadn't been though, the others had still been there for him, especially Buck. God, he missed Buck, he would give a lot if only Buck was here with him in this big, empty space of land he had never ever before travelled all by himself. He shivered. There was no one else, just him and the crushing responsibility on his shoulders to do what was necessary.
It didn't begin to compare with the other things he'd done to help someone, like saving the stage coach and everyone in it when it was attacked by Achilles' gang. Then he hadn't had time to think about what he was doing, he just had to DO it. It was fighting and he'd given his best in that fight. As usual it had been exhilarating too.
Now he just kept seeing Chris before his eyes, how he had quietly laid there, unable to do anything else but lay there and hurt. He'd seen Chris was in pain despite the attempts of the gunslinger to hide it from him. It all depended on him now; on his ride, and there was no one coming to the rescue, to take this horrible responsibility away from him.
How did Chris live with the responsibility of a whole town full of lives every day? Or Nathan? Oh my God, how did Nathan do it, taking the responsibility for all those people sick or hurt that came to him? He always tried to heal everyone, even knowing they could die How did he do that?
How did he live with those times that he wasn't able to save someone?
JD shivered, he wouldn't go there, he wouldn't! He would save Chris, he just had to! He would get help there on time.
If only Four Corners wasn't that far away, or there was someone living close by. But no one lived in this stretch of wild country. A countryside he saw less and less of; it was very fast getting much too dark to keep travelling. That would mean he had to stop and camp.
Camping was the last thing he wanted, laying there all alone in the dark. He had no choice though, so he went to a copse of trees he saw, took care of the horses in the last of the fading light, managed to make a small fire and rolled himself in his bedroll. He was too worn out and too nauseated to eat, so he didn't bother trying to find or shoot something. The few trail rations they'd still had, he had left with Chris. Chris had told him to take them, that he needed them to keep up enough strength to travel, but he could do without food till he reached Four Corners tomorrow. Chris needed it more, he just knew that. So he had left it all there, for Chris to find after he'd been gone.
JD thought he would never be able to sleep, but he was wrong. The utter exhaustion he was feeling, both physically and emotionally, took a toll and his young body wasn't going to let it be denied what it needed.
When he was almost dragged under into a restless sleep an image suddenly flashed before his eyes. He didn't know why or where it came from, only that all of a sudden he was seeing the moment when he was getting on the stage coach to go back east, after the accident with Annie had shattered him. His friends had all been there to see him off, even Chris. At first he'd thought the black clad leader hadn't come, but he had, he just stood a bit apart from the others. Chris hadn't talked to him about what happened like Buck and Josiah. Hell, the man hardly ever talked so he hadn't expected him too. What mattered was that at that moment, before the stage coach would take off, Chris had told him he could stay. Had offered it solemnly and to the point: 'JD? Change your mind if you want to'. No fancy words, no elaborate reasoning with him, just that one point: that it was his choice and he could change that choice. With the implied meaning while all his friends were standing around, that when he did change his mind and stayed, they were all still there for him.
With that image came others from the months the seven had been together and gradually JD realized how distant Chris had always kept himself. How most of the time he sat by himself in the saloon, in a chair on the boardwalk around town, on a bench somewhere. Disappearing to his cabin or to God knows where. Where he and the others had always sought each other, wanted to be with each other, except for Ezra when he was in a game or Josiah when he wanted to do penance, Chris had stayed alone. Vin was the only one he actively sought out now and then, but the rest of the time it was them who went to Chris. Whenever anyone of their group went to sit by Chris or hang around him he was welcome and Chris would look and listen and even sometimes offer a comment.
Alright, maybe not always...
Left on his own though, Chris stayed by himself.
JD just couldn't comprehend it, couldn't comprehend why anyone would choose to stay away from others as much as Chris did.
Perhaps Chris hadn't lied when he had said he didn't mind being alone. JD clung to that while at last falling asleep.
The last rays of the sun fell through the enormous trees surrounding the one that had gone down. They stood there, like sentries around their fallen comrade. Leaves clung everywhere and some of the trees had been severely damaged by the passing of the giant who had plunged through them.
The golden rays fell on the trunks, the leaves, the soft green mosses growing up and around them, the little clumps of grass scattered everywhere. They travelled along the fallen trunk and fell on something black laying there, a dark clad, lean but muscled body, a shock of blond hair shining golden in the rays of sun. Suddenly green eyes flew open and blinked when they got caught in those last rays.
Chris shot erect, crying out in pain when the movement played hell with his wounded legs. He couldn't manage to get fully up in a sitting position with the branch pinning him almost as high as his hips. He did get up enough to see the tree and the branch holding him down, and with a groan he fell back again. Waking up with the last of the sun in his eyes, he'd forgotten for a moment where he was.
Closing his eyes again he tried not to think about JD, out there alone in this wide land that could be so harsh for the people trying to cross it, or live in it. He tried to estimate how long it had been since JD had left. Looking up he saw that the last of the sun had disappeared as well and the sky was darkening. Thinking back he tried to remember at what moment of the day JD had left.
Chris didn't use a watch. The only time he ever had one was in the war, but not before and not since. Like a lot of people, he had a sense of time that could be made more accurate during the day by using the sun. That sun was now telling him it was the start of the evening and darkness was approaching fast.
It was good that he'd slept some. If there were animals out here big enough to decide they'd like to try and take a taste of him, chances were that they'd come at night. He'd better stay awake. He'd promised the kid, somehow, that he'd do his damnedest to stay alive. That meant being ready and alert. It meant keeping his ears out for the sounds coming towards him.
Chris stared around, taking in the darkening trees around him, the tufts of grass, dotted with small yellow and white flowers that were fast losing color, the wall of wood rising before and above him. He took his book and tried reading for a while in the fast fading light, but truth be told, he didn't feel so good. And he had to take a leak
Life was just full of shit, had been ever since he lost Sarah and Adam. He looked at his canteen, but no chance in Hell he was going to throw that water away. He would need it, all of it, before anyone could come to get him out of here. Besides, he had that branch laying partly over his hips. Aw Hell, there just was no help for it God, he hated this!
If he only didn't hurt so much Wildlife be damned, but he preferred to sleep after all.
He looked up at the stars that started to appear. It wasn't till he met Vin that he began to notice things like that again. A beautiful sunrise or sunset, the striking light in the sky after a thunderstorm, the soaring of an eagle, the earthy smell after a shower of rain. The twinkling of the stars
The twinkling of the stars, seen through the branches of the trees while he was lying on his back on a blanket on the ground, staring up at them. Like he used to look up at them with Sarah
Don't go there, Larabee!
He closed his eyes. He had loved the wide open land that he had made his home, had chosen the beautiful valley where he and Sarah had built their house on purpose and had enjoyed living there, far from other people. Just the three of them and the horses, and from time to time Buck as well, it had been all he ever needed. Being with his family was so much better than hanging in a bar, like that bar in Mexico. He hadn't needed anything else but Sarah and Adam, horses to work with and that beautiful piece of land to live on.
After their deaths, it had been too hard to be there or anywhere else out in the country, surrounded by beauty and tranquility and knowing he could never ever share it again with his family. So he had stuck to the towns and the saloons. Enough things happened in saloons to divert him when his memories started to hurt too much and his loss threatened to consume him. He could get drunk, get into fights and get distracted enough that he didn't have time to think.
Now he could sit with Vin and quietly watch a sunset or sunrise again, enjoy seeing a group of wild horses, ride along a trail and take in the beauty of the desert. The silent camaraderie kept memories at bay and formed an anchor that kept him in the here and now.
Vin wasn't here though. There was nothing to keep his memories in line at the moment and he didn't know if he could take them. On the other hand, he needed to remember, needed it bad. He wanted to see Sarah's sparkling eyes again, hear Adam's voice calling for him.
No, he couldn't take it, not now. He would want to be with them so much and he'd promised JD to try and stay alive. God, he needed a drink. He needed something, anything. He sure as hell could use a distraction about now.
Chris started to hum, a silly song Adam had liked. Adam had loved it when he sang for him. Loved it even more when he just hummed close to a tiny ear or with his mouth on a small tummy, accompanied with lots of giggles.
He drew one of the blankets toward him, needing cover to keep him from shivering so much. Some things fell out of it. Chris reached for them and came up with JD's canteen, also filled with water and the trail jerky. What the ? When had JD left those? That stupid kid, he needed water for himself on his trip, and he'd told him not to leave the food. The meat would attract predators even more then the smell of his blood would.
How did this happen anyway? And why wasn't his bottle of whiskey here, or for that matter his saddle bags? Hadn't he told JD to leave his stuff with him?
JD had been so panicked. It was clear that the kid had thought about the obvious and had left with the rest. Chris chuckled bitterly. The young man had probably automatically thrown the saddle bags over Pony's back, figuring he'd left Chris all he needed and never thinking about leaving the rest as well. The kid was too inexperienced. He himself was the one who should have paid better attention! Only at that time, it took all of his strength and concentration to keep the pain at bay and look relatively okay, so JD would find the strength to leave.
He didn't want to think about anything anymore. If only he could sleep again. Sleep would be good, but at the moment he hurt too much for that.
+ + + + + + +
Look at those stars. Chris, they look so close at the moment, so clear. It's beautiful here, isn't it?
It sure is, Sarah. Chris lifted his arm lazily, making a grabbing motion.
Giggles. What ARE you doing, Chris Larabee?
Trying to pluck a star for you, Sarah Larabee. They look close enough and it would look so good on you. You deserve a star, a real live star, Sarah. One should glitter in that beautiful hair of yours. He looked away from the night sky and locked eyes with Sarah's striking, deep blue ones. You are the best thing that ever happened to me.
Chris, you are the best thing that ever happened to me. Come here! She reached over to kiss him and he leaned into it. But nothing was there.
Fuck! His eyes flew open. Yes, he was alone, all alone. God, he missed her. He missed her so much. It still hurt like the first day after he had buried them.
Those horribly burned bodies of the two people that were everything to him had haunted his nightmares for a long time. The knowledge that they probably had been burned alive in their house had been too much to bear and he had tried to find some evidence that they had been killed before the fire started. Gun wounds, or a dent in the scull maybe.
But nothing had been there and there were still nights that he could hear them scream for him.
Chris hastily took one of the canteens and took a long draught of water. It didn't help to quell the nausea that had risen along with those very unwanted memories. He tried to move some and pain erupted like a fiery river through his legs.
That did distract him from the memories, but now he had to actively swallow the rising bile back down. It made him gag, but it was better than having it all over him.
The pain didn't lessen and he started to drift in and out of consciousness. He looked up again at the stars. Those stars were there long before he was born and would still be there even if there wasn't a human left on earth. They would keep on shining, indifferent to everything that happened far beneath them.
He wasn't comforted by that, actually it made him angry. The indifference of all nature's beauty to the death of two such wonderful people, one only a small boy so full of life and promise, was wrong, it was wrong!
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Daddy, daddy, look how many stars there are! Much more than at home!
No Adam, not much more, it only looks that way because we are higher up here.
Higher Oh yeah! When we're higher we're closer and then we can see them better!
The boy had jumped up, trying to reach for them with his hands. He plopped down again and Chris pulled his enthusiastic son against his chest, letting the head full of dark hair rest there. Together they looked up again, a fire crackling merrily next to them. The small tent was still packed. Adam had pleaded with his father and he had won. They slept right in the open. Under the stars.
Daddy, do you know what stars are?
Hmm. Giant fireballs in the sky, just like our sun. Only these are so far away from Earth that we only see them as small points of light.
What's so funny, son?
You! You're funny! Balls of fire, how can that be? Wouldn't they fall down or burn up? Fires burn up, don't they? And they are no suns. They don't look like the sun!
Yeah? He had affectionately ruffled the unruly hair of this treasure in his arms. What do you reckon stars are?
But that didn't take long. It had only been because Adam had been thinking real hard, while studying the riddle above him.
Daddy, God lives up in the sky, don't he? And he loves us all? I guess he wouldn't want us to get lost and bump against a lot of things in the dark when the sun is gone, so he decided to give us light. I think it's lots of lamps he hangs in the sky at dark, all for us.
And the moon too?
The moon too. Don't think the moon's a lamp, though, do you? More like a a night sun!
He held his son close to him. God, but he felt so blessed at that moment. They kept looking up at the sky and his heart lifted when a shooting star went by. He made his wish, the only wish he had.
Keep my family healthy and happy.
Daddy, daddy, a shooting star! Did you see it, did you see it?
Yep, I did.
Did you make a wish? The boy threw himself on his stomach, on top of his father who couldn't help it but had to let out a little 'ouch' at that action.
Easy! Yeah, you imp, I made a wish. Did you?
Yeah! Oh yeah! I wished for a real horse for myself. I'm way too big for Bubbles. Bubbles is a little kid's pony!
But what would poor Bubbles do then?
Oh, we'll still be friends! He can be in the pasture all the time and I'll go visit him. Just like Pony. Pony is my best friend ever, but you never let me ride him alone.
He IS a bit big for you, imp.
The boy swatted him. Don't call me imp! I'm no imp! There was no real resentment against the nickname though. And you? What did you wish?
Oh no! Telling it means that it won't happen!
It does? Oh, but daddy, I told you mine! Does that mean I won't get a real horse for myself? Even if it's only a small one?
Don't worry son. I'm your father. I'm sure that it doesn't apply to telling your father or mother. After all, you're not supposed to have secrets from your parents.
That's true! Relieved the tireless boy flopped over on his backside again. Perhaps we'll see another one! Oh! Oh! He flew up and sat next to his father, his eyes shining. I just thought about that shooting star! I know what it is! I know!
Really? What is it?
That must have been an angel who had to hang a lantern in the right place! That's why it's so fast, that angel was late and had to fly in a real hurry! That's it, isn't it?
You know, Adam, I think you're right. I think you found the answer.
Even the dark couldn't hide the pride shining out of the beautiful eyes, eyes that were green and that everyone told Chris were like his own, but he didn't see that. He only ever saw them as distinctly, unmistakably Adam's eyes.
The eyes clouded over. I didn't see the angel. Daddy, why couldn't we see the angel, not even a little bit? Aren't they supposed to wear those really white dresses? And it had a lantern.
But it's also very, very far away. Like when the horses are in the far meadow against the hills and we can't see them from the house. We see the hill, even the meadow, but not the horses because it's so far away.
That's true! Adam came back into his arms and Chris tucked a blanket around his little boy. He felt him become calmer, felt the breathing become deeper and more relaxed. Not long now and Adam would fall asleep.
Wish I could see an angel one time. I really want to see one, daddy. It would've been my next wish
Chris tightened his empty arms around himself. The memory had been so vivid, so clear. He wanted to hold his little boy one more time so badly.
I really need a drink. God, I'd kill for a bottle of whiskey!
Or a distraction. Some distraction would be welcome as well.
Another memory came up again. He later found out why Adam had wanted to see an angel so badly. The boy told his mother right after they came back from the camping trip, the last one he ever had with his sonAdam ran up to his mother and started telling everything they had done, ending with an earnest question. Mommy, how can I get to see an angel?
An angel? Why do you want to see an angel, Adam?
I want to see if they really look like daddy!
Angels? Look like your daddy? Why would you think that?
Because that's what the ladies were saying in the saloon. They said daddy survived every gunfight he ever had not because he was so fast, but because the bad guy would look at him and see an angel standing there and then forgot to get his gun out on time. And then they sighed and made strange noises and said they missed him in the saloon. Oh! Mommy! I think daddy's choking! He sounds so funny and he's getting all red!
Choking? I'll teach him choking! WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING TAKING ADAM INTO A SALOON?
I didn't, Sarah, honest! I never took him to the saloon, ever!
Oh no, daddy wasn't there. Uncle Buck took me. I was thirsty and we bought something to drink there.
Buck? That no good, worthless, idiot BUCK! BUCK YOU GET IN HERE RIGHT NOW! She stalked off, really angry this time at the rogue who shared so many moments of their lives.
Mommy's pissed, isn't she, daddy? We only bought something to drink there. Uncle Buck said that's what saloons are for. You okay daddy? You still look red. How come you look like an angel? Do I too?
I don't look like an angel Adam, that's nonsense. You and mommy though, that's what angels have to look like.
Oh no, we don't have golden hair. They kept going on about that your hair was golden, like an angel's, and about your face and how your body
A hand over his mouth made the boy finally stop. Adam, those ladies were talking nonsense. I can tell you what angels look like, I've seen them. The first one I saw was when I met your ma for the first time, and the second the moment you were born. That's the truth and they didn't look one inch like me. Got that?
Silent nodding behind the hand.
You stop talking 'bout this?
Vigorous nodding. Chris let go of his son and rumpled his hair. Now, let's not talk about it anymore. He knew he'd made a mistake when he saw the mischievous twinkle in his son's eyes and the crossed fingers that came from behind his back. But they said it was because you're so d darn beautiful! Chris had grabbed for him and missed grandiosely, since Adam had already bolted, squealing in delight. The next minutes were filled with screams, laughter and lots of chases. Buck hadn't joined them though.
Chris chuckled at the memory. Buck had been in real trouble that time. He had been around so Sarah wasn't alone while Chris and Adam were on their camping trip to retrieve some wandering horses Chris wanted to take with him for the sale in Mexico. Normally it would be something he'd do with Buck, but it had been too long since he'd had time alone with his son and the few strays had been a perfect opportunity.
He'd be forever grateful that he'd given in to his need for some time with Adam alone. The next nights before the trip to Mexico had been filled with Sarah. It had been happy days, very happy
When they came back from Mexico, it wasn't only with the money from the sale but also with a beautiful grey mare, build every way like a horse but small enough for Adam to handle. Chris had fallen in love at first sight when he saw her and immediately knew she was the horse for his son, no matter what Sarah would say.
He had turned the mare loose after he had buried his family.
He had never prayed again or gone into a church.
He had never, ever made a wish again on a shooting star.
Chris ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. God, he really needed some diversion, anything. This way he was never going to survive the night, never.
Then he heard it, a soft growl. His hands flew from his eyes and his gun was up in a flash. He looked around.
Shining eyes with slit pupils were staring at him from between the trees. The night was nearing its end and Chris could vaguely see the shape.
Figured. A cougar. Of course it had to be a cougar. He'd seen the signs that had marked this area as cougar territory when they travelled towards the creek. Well, there it was. Seemed he'd gotten his wish fulfilled for a change.
Some distraction this was going to be!
JD's sleep was restless and he woke after only a few hours. It was still dark, but not as dark as it had been. There was a glorious starry sky above him and a half moon shed just enough light to make travelling doable, provided he would go slow. He could go slowly. It would be better than not moving at all. He just had to get to Four Corners as quickly as he could.
JD moved. He just couldn't stay still if there was a possibility for moving. He broke camp, got the horses and started saddling them. He knew it wasn't just for Chris that he wanted to be on his way again, and he hated himself for that. His only concern right now should be his friend, his hero, but he so desperately needed to be with someone. Someone, anyone he could talk to about what had happened and who would talk back, maybe give him a pat on the shoulder. He wouldn't even mind being called 'kid' at the moment.
It's just that it's so lonely without the guys, Milagro. Don't get me wrong, I love you and I'm glad you're with me, but it's just not the same. It isn't. I wouldn't even mind Ezra around right now. He sure talks strange and I don't always understand him. Heck, I just don't understand him at all. I mean, I understand most of what he says. I just don't understand why he is like he is, but he would know what to do and he would talk to me! I never thought it would be so hard to be out here by myself. I thought it would be fun, you know, I know how to hunt and how to cook on a fire. Shoot, I thought it was a bit lonely with Chris on the trail. He hardly says anything, but it wasn't, not really, I mean, he was still there, and now only you are here and and Pony, and there is no one else to talk to. Here, you're all done boy, don't fret, we'll be going soon. I have to take care of Pony first, saddle him too so I can switch between you two real fast. Hope he's not giving me an attitude again like yesterday, because we really, really need to be as fast as we can. You wait here!
JD took Chris' more heavy saddle and his saddle bags and went to Pony. The black gelding with the white star on his head eyed him suspiciously. Pony was a beautiful horse and not mean tempered at all, like Vin's horse Peso, but he had a deep loyalty to Chris and didn't like it when someone else handled him. He liked it even less when someone else climbed on his back.
JD was good with horses though and had been able to manage him well the day before. He didn't expect any trouble. He put the blanket on Pony's back and then the saddle and saddlebags. When everything was in order, he took Pony's bridle and took the rope halter off that had held Pony tied during the night.
Pony decided he'd had enough. He shook his head, pulled away from the reins with a sharp tug, turned around and went back to the one man he really knew, the man who had trained him and had taken care of him for as long as he knew.
No, Pony, no! Come back, please come back! Milagro! Whoa, boy, whoa, come to me, come to me, whoa
He managed to get the reins from his own horse. Milagro had almost followed Pony, who was after all a horse he knew and had been with for a couple of days now. JD managed to intercept him though.
Whoaaa Milagro, easy!
The always a bit skittish horse settled down again and JD breathed a sigh in relief. If Milagro had gone as well No, he couldn't think about what that would have meant for Chris, he just couldn't! He looked the way Pony had taken off but knew he had no choice. He had no time to chase the horse. He had to get to Four Corners as soon as possible. That was still what he had to do.
JD bolted into the saddle and started on the road to Four Corners, carefully finding his way in the dark.
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In Four Corners, Vin was saddling Peso. It was still dark, hell, it was still night, but he just couldn't wait any longer. He had felt restless, on edge, ever since the day before. He didn't know why. There was no reason for it, no reason at all, just a tightening in his gut whenever he thought about Chris and JD. The two weren't even late. They weren't supposed to get back until the end of the day and that was when they were fast. It could as easily be tomorrow before they were here.
The unease had started yesterday by the end of the morning and he'd been uneasy since then. In the evening, he'd finally announced to the others that he didn't care one damn bit how they wanted to divide the rest of the patrols, but he was going to take the dawn one. Without waiting for an argument he had stalked out of the saloon to his wagon. No protests were hurled after him. He hadn't expected one. He did think he heard Ezra's sigh in relief, or maybe Buck's. Both weren't very partial to dawn patrols.
Now it wasn't even getting light yet, but with the glorious starry sky he would be able to see enough to travel at a light trot. Actually, he wouldn't need to see. Peso was way better with his footing than he could ever guide him and he always trusted his horse to find the way. Now would be no different. He would do a sweep around town, than head up towards Glasstown. He might as well meet Chris and JD on their way in. It would be good to ride with Chris again. He had missed that silent presence.
When he left the livery with Peso, he suddenly felt his gut cramp and for a moment he thought he was going to puke. A deep fear hit him for a moment. Chris?
Patrol be damned! He got up on Peso and hit the trail toward Glasstown as fast as possible with the meagre light.
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Chris had lost sight of the cougar. He didn't like that, didn't like that one bit. The growls were there and he knew the big cat was prowling around. If it would decide to come straight from behind him, he was in trouble. It was the one direction he couldn't really cover.
A sound from above and in front made him look up that damn fallen tree. A shadow moved on it, two glistening eyes looked down on him. Chris immediately took aim, but even as fast as he was, the cougar was faster and already coming down. Chris shot, shot again, the cougar was right there on his chest, claws raking through his shirt and skin. The mouth, filled with razor sharp teeth, descended on him. Chris reacted at once and slammed his gun into the head. The big cat growled and shook his head, but there the teeth came again, eyes glowing above him. Chris' left arm flew up to protect his throat, his right now took the time to aim the gun and shoot the cougar.
The big cat screeched and reared up. The next moment it was gone.
Chris cried out when he moved his left arm from his throat. The cougar had had a good grip on it when he shot it. He tried to look around to see if the animal was still there. He wanted to know how bad he had hurt it, how dangerous it still was.
It was gone. Chris sighed in relief and his whole body went slack. He put his right arm, gun still in his hand, over his eyes and just lay there while he started to shake all over. Finally he felt he would be able to get a canteen and drink some water.
His chest and left arm were on fire. Oh Hell! he thought, looking at the wounds the claws and teeth had left. How was he going to fix that? Had JD left the med kit that Nathan had forced on all of them? Another thing he hadn't thought to ask for. He looked to his left where everything was. The dried meat, his book, the bullets, the two canteens, two blankets in an untidy heap.
Shit, no medical kit. Kid probably didn't know he had one. That meant he only had water to try and clean the wounds a bit.
Again he wished for whiskey, but now for a whole other reason. He had to do something about the wounds. Claws and teeth were real bad, because they were full of dirt. First he needed to sit a bit more, so he had a better grip on what he was doing. He forced his left arm to move. It made him choke and gasp, but he managed to grab one of the blankets and drag it towards him without passing out.
God, that hurt!
The gun stayed close, he didn't feel comfortable letting it go with that damn cougar still somewhere, but he had no choice. He tried to fold the blanket with one arm. He was forced to use his left anyway and managed to lean over just in time when the pain got so much he couldn't stop the bile coming up, not this time.
Worse though was the feeling of bones sliding along each other in his right leg when he jerked to that side so suddenly.
Oh no .
For a moment he just laid back, trying to breathe and keep conscious.
JD please, please hurry. Don't get them here so late it would mean things start to grow back in that leg all crooked. Please...
Because that would mean Nathan would have to rebreak them. Or worse, that there was no help for it anymore and they would stay deformed. No, he wouldn't think about that. To hell with any promises, if it took too long, one of his bullets would be for himself! He would only fight on for as long as he thought he could still live as he had.
He thought about gangrene. The fear of it had started the minute he had felt the wounds in his arm. You can't amputate a chest, but you can an arm and he wasn't going for it.
Lying against his partially rolled bedroll, he let despair wash over him. Not for long though. He had work to do and he'd told the kid he was no quitter. Well, he wasn't! As long as he didn't smell gangrene, he would go on fighting. Right. That meant he'd better finish what he had started and get the rolled up blanket under him as well, so he could sit a bit straighter.
Chris closed his eyes for a moment, then took a deep breath and took his weight on the injured left arm, so that he could shove the blanket behind him with his right. It took some time and a lot of sweat, but finally he had done it and could sit a bit straighter.
He'd managed not to scream and he'd been able to swallow the bile rising up this time.
So far, so good.
It took longer than he felt comfortable with before the pain and nausea were finally back to a level he could handle. It would be better to get this done as quickly as possible and he knew it. It was also the reason he did wait, because he couldn't afford to pass out, not now, not with the wounds uncleaned and with the cougar still somewhere around, wounded and extra dangerous.
Next step was getting his arm out of his coat and shirt. He looked ruefully at the ruined clothing. The shirt he didn't mind, but he had had that duster for a long time now. Vowing he would get a new one, he finally decided to cut the sleeves off. It would be less painful and would keep the rest of his body better clothed against the chill.
Cutting the sleeves wasn't a big problem. Getting the cloth eased off his arm turned out to be one hell of a painful experience, but he got it done. After that followed an inner debate. Clean the arm first or get his chest wounds free of his shirt and then clean it all one after the other? He decided to go for the latter and unbuttoned his shirt. Getting the shirt material out of the wounds almost undid him. Finally he soaked the textile with water, which did the trick. He didn't take a break after that. Just took his bandana and started cleaning it all, first his chest, then his arm. He was rough on the wounds, as rough as he could handle to make them bleed again. The more they would bleed clean blood, the better it would be.
He was left trembling after it was all done as good as he was able to. Still, no rest, not yet. Chris took his small pocket knife and took off a part of the underside of his shirt. Hoping it would be clean enough, knowing it probably wasn't after days on the trail but it was always cleaner then the ground his arm would be laying on, he managed to get it around his arm and even, with the help of his teeth, get a little knot in it.
It was done. Now all he could do again was wait. Wait for who would get to him first, his friends, the cougar or something else entirely.
All was pain, his arm, his chest, his legs. He couldn't keep from shaking and with an effort used his left arm one last time to pull the second blanket towards him. He got it around him as tight as he could, taking his gun in as well and keeping it close to his right hand.
God, he wished he was dead