7. THE INVISIBLE BARRIER
It was too dark to keep up a gallop, so, much to everyone's frustration, the six peace keepers soon were forced back to a trot. Adam stayed in front of them at the same distance, sometimes looking back, but mostly just hurrying along.
"I don't like it," Nathan complained. "What if this is just some wild goose chase? We don't see a boy, so who's to say what Vin and Buck are runnin' after? What if it's some kind of trap to lure us away from Chris?"
"Have a little faith, brother Nathan. With a little faith you can move mountains."
"This is weird, this is real weird," JD said for maybe the thousandths of times. "Hey? Isn't this the road to Bridget's Grove?" he added, looking around him in the silvery light of the moon with some uncertainty.
"Oh Lord, it is," Josiah breathed. "Dear, dear Lord. This does go to the haunted grove. I don't like this, I don't like this at all!" Hastily he spurred on his horse to catch up with Vin and Buck.
"Vin! Buck! Listen up!"
"What?" Buck yelled, not slowing down his horse. Neither did Vin. Both were determined to go as fast as they could.
"Don't you see where we're going? Where this road leads to?"
"Sure we do," Vin stated. "Bridget's Grove." Then he blanched and this time he did hold back his horse. "Oh hell, the Reaper of Souls. Is that what yer thinkin', J'siah?"
"NO!" Buck said harshly. "He's not! That's just a tale! Damn, there is the grove right now and it's looking real peaceful, so stop trying to frighten us with nursery tales, Josiah!"
"Buck, you are following an invisible dead boy," Josiah mildly pointed out.
"Damn you, priest," Buck started to yell angrily, when all hell broke lose. Suddenly, from out of no where, lightning struck in the middle of the six riders. And then the earth moved.
"Get back, get back," Josiah shouted. "Get back now!" He was trying to wrestle his horse around. Nathan and Ezra were already backing up and JD was fighting to turn his horse as well. Only Buck and Vin didn't comply. Buck was fighting to keep his big grey under control, while Vin let out one long "NOOOO!" and then spurred his black gelding onwards.
"CHRIS!" he screamed, kicking Peso into a full breakneck gallop towards the grove in the distance.
That's when the others saw a frightening sight.
"VIN!" five voices shouted when the earth opened up right before the tracker. Vin seemed oblivious to anything, his eyes on the grove. With a yell Buck spurred his grey after the young tracker and soon Josiah was following.
"VIN, LOOK OUT!" Buck yelled, "STOP! YOU GOTTA STOP!"
If Vin had seen the danger, it didn't slow him down. If anything he spurred his horse on to an even greater speed and suddenly Peso flew.
He flew right over the bottomless chasm.
The other five peace keepers held their breath, some cursing, others praying. All they could do was stare... and then Peso had cleared the gaping black maw in the earth, landing surefooted on the other side. The feisty and stubborn gelding gave an ear shattering challenge to whatever powers were trying to thwart his owner and galloped wildly on, barely managing to avoid another lightning bolt.
Then, with an angry cry, Buck and his grey horse were flying over the chasm as well. It was clear from the start that the big grey had no trouble making that jump, but when he landed he almost stumbled and fell. They all heard Buck's curses. Luckily the horse managed to stay upright and immediately Buck went after Peso and Vin in a breakneck pace.
Josiah had managed to turn his horse on time and now he was riding along the chasm to where it stopped and he could manage to work himself around it. After that he raced for the grove as well.
"Damn!" JD called out. He was all ready to jump the chasm, when suddenly the lightning stopped and the earth settled itself back to what it was.
"For the love of... no one will ever believe this," Ezra whispered, looking at the abyss. It was closing itself up as if it had never been there.
"I see it and I ain't believin' it" Nathan confirmed. "Come on, let's go!"
The last two of the peacekeepers hastily followed JD and their other comrades, Nathan making the sign of the cross.
That was when the bats attacked. They came from nowhere and everywhere, swarming around the six and their horses, their small talons extended to rake through flesh, their sharp little teeth ready to bite. Cursing the men tried to fight them off. Nathan and Vin soon were slashing at them with their knives, while the others were waving their hands around their heads, desperately trying to keep them away.
The horses had had enough. They tried to simply turn around and run, but faced with the determination of their owners to go the other way, they succumbed to the trick of their not so well mannered wild family members and bucked. Soon most of the six peace keepers were on the ground, cursing a blue streak and still fighting off the bats. Only Vin was still sitting on Peso, since Peso had decided not to buck, but to go for the bats themselves with all his teeth bared.
Both managed to keep proceeding towards the grove, Vin slashing with his knife at every bat stupid enough to come too close, while Peso bit at them left and right. Then, suddenly, they were finally there, right at the edge of the grove and just as suddenly the bats disappeared.
Vin felt a surge of triumph. He was there and what was more, he was convinced Chris was there as well, right in that dreary grove. Hastily he rode the last few yards, only to be stopped by a heart rendering sight. Adam was right at the edge of the grove, his small fists seemingly striking at the empty air in front of him. The little boy was crying and screaming.
"Mommy! Daddy! Let me in, let me in! Mommy, Daddyyyyyyy!"
The tracker hurried over towards him and slid out of the saddle fast. No matter how desperate he was to get to Chris and see how he was doing, he couldn't leave Chris' son standing there in such obvious distress.
"Hey," he whispered, kneeling down beside the boy. "Hey little soldier. If Chris is in here, we'll git 'm out, don't you worry 'bout a thing. It's alright, I promise." He tried to grab the boy's fists that kept pounding in the air, only to discover he couldn't do it. He couldn't touch the boy no matter how hard he tried.
It was spookier than the lightning and the bats had been.
Finally, when it was clear he really couldn't touch the boy, he extended his hand towards the grove and said softly, "Come on in, we'll find 'm together, how does that sound?"
Two green eyes looked at him with distrust. "Name's Vin Tanner," Tanner told him gravely. "Friend of yer father's. Come on, let's go to him."
Tears formed in the huge, dark eyes. "Can't," Adam whispered.
"Hey, 'course we can. Come on, we'll jist walk in." Slowly Vin rose to his feet and looking back at the little boy with a smile, he stepped forward.
He didn't get far.
When the other five peace keepers finally reached him and the boy, they were sure the bats had driven Vin crazy. He was pacing up and down, up and down, blood pouring from a cut in his forehead. A string of very colorful curses could be heard from under the brown hair and the blood. From time to time he kicked at the air, only to hop back in apparent pain.
Only Buck saw the little boy pounding his fists in the air and crying out for his mommy and daddy. It tore at his heart and hastily he ran towards him.
Nathan also picked up the pace of his running, only his goal was Tanner. "VIN! Whadda ya do now? Let me see that!" he hollered, stopping the tracker from another kick in the air.
"Nothing Nate, I didn't do nothing, just bumped 'm head on some kinda invisible wall over there."
"An invisible wall?" Buck huffed. "Ain't gonna let anyone or anything interfere with my getting to Chris." With those words he confidently marched forward into the grove. Only to find himself on the ground, with a lump already forming on his head.
"Damn," he hissed. "There really IS an invisible wall or something. God, my head...."
"Yeah," Vin hissed. "And I can guarantee that Chris is inside."
Buck jumped up and approached the invisible wall more carefully now. Soon he was hitting on it with the same vigor as Adam was.
"GOD DAMN IT ALL TO HELL!" he suddenly yelled, kicking as well. "LET HIM OUT! LET HIM OUT NOW OR YOU LET ME IN!"
Everyone quit doing what they were doing, except for Nathan who was winding a strip of his shirt around Vin's forehead.
"WHAT?" Buck yelled at them, shaking his hands and blowing at them to stop the pain of his pounding. "What you all staring at? Don't tell me you don't believe Chris is in there."
"The trouble is I do believe it," Josiah said solemnly. "And the phenomenon we encountered on our way to this place, coupled with this invisible barrier make me think dark forces are at work here, very mighty dark forces. I wouldn't be so ready to curse, brother Buck."
"What the hell do you mean?"
"I mean it looks like we can use all the divine powers there are and making them angry by cursing them doesn't seem like a good idea at the time."
"Oh fuck!" Buck exclaimed, throwing up his hands in the air. "Now I gotta start praying my way into that grove? I don't know what's going on here, Josiah, but...."
A snuffling noise made him look down. Adam was gazing up at him with tears in his eyes. The immense pain of losing the boy, his mother and also in a way his best friend in one night flared up and hastily the big hearted ladies man moved a sleeve over his eyes for the second time that night.
"Yeah, Adam?" he whispered.
"Pl... please Uncle Buck, I wanna go to my mommy and daddy."
"I... I know, munchkin, but I don't know how. I just don't know how, I can't get through." Hastily he sat down and tried to gather the boy in his arms.
"Damn, Adam, I can't even hold you!"
"'s Okay, Uncle Buck. Mommy says one day you can again. One day we'll all be together like we used to, you, daddy, mommy 'n me. If'n you don't curse so much anymore, she says. She's always prayin' for you to m... mend your ways? Uncle Buck, can we go to them now? I don't wanna wait any longer."
"We'll find a way, Adam, we'll find a way," Buck swore, once more trying to gather the boy in his arms. It was so frustrating to see him and not being able to touch him.
Vin knelt down beside them, looking intently at the boy. "We will, Adam," he gave the boy his own pledge. "We will get through."
"Ah gather you two are talking to this invisible boy none of us has the pleasure to see?" Ezra asked, trying in vain to slap some of the dirt from his beautiful jacket. "Josiah, if Adam is one of the dead roaming this god forsaken night, why is it that only Buck and Vin can see him? Why not all of us?"
"I was wondering that myself," Josiah mused. "I could have understood it if it was only Buck. He and the boy have a tie after all. But Adam has never seen Vin or Vin Adam, so that to me is the big mystery."
"What... what are they talking 'bout?" Adam asked Buck and Vin with quivering lips, moving a bit closer to his uncle.
"They're wonderin' why they can't see ya," Vin answered. "Jist me 'n Buck. They understand you showin' yerself to Buck, you know him, but why can I see ya too, Adam?"
"They can't see me? NEAT!" The boy stared at the other four peace keepers and then suddenly stuck his tongue out at them.
"Eh... Adam, that wasn't very nice, was it," Buck told the boy, unable to contain a big grin. Oh, he had missed this! "Just answer Vin, alright."
"Right," the boy said, grinning back without repentance. It was clear he knew his uncle too well to take the reprimand serious. "'Course you c'n see me, Uncle Buck, you're fam'ly." He looked solemnly at Vin. "And he is too, I guess. He belongs with daddy now." There was a sniffle after that statement and the little boy hastily turned away.
Vin looked at Buck uncomfortably, while Buck was biting his lip, staring at the shaking little shoulders. "Hey cowboy," he said softly, "You do know your daddy still remembers you, don't you? Ain't a day he don't think 'bout you and yer Mama."
"I'd never take yer place with yer daddy, ever," Vin said solemnly. "I think Chris would hit me real good if I tried, 'cause no one can."
"So... so he'll come back to mommy and me one day 'stead of stayin' with you?"
"Y... yeah." Vin had to swallow saying that.
"Even better," Buck told the worried little boy. "How 'bout Vin 'll come and stay with us too, later? And JD? That's that young fella over there, can he come too? I kinda like him."
The boys eyes widened and a smile played on his lips. "You mean, you would all come to be with mommy and me? All of you? I think that's neat. I think you are all big fun! Mommy, she's got some things to say about you all now and then, but I think you are all great!" Raising his hand and making it into a gun, one finger pointing forward, he enthusiastically shouted "BAM BAM BAMBAMBAM! BAM BAM, DIE YOU DEVIL, YOU AIN'T GONNA HAVE MY DADDY! BAM BAM BAMBAM!"
"Eh... do you see what I see?" JD asked, in a hushed voice.
"Oh my God!" Ezra called out.
Josiah and Nathan just stared.
After an awkward silence, Josiah cleared his throat and asked the puzzled Buck and Vin, "That's Adam, I presume?"
"You can see him now?" Buck raised an eyebrow at the four men, who were nodding in various degrees of enthusiasm. "Hey, Adam, I'm afraid no sticking out tongues anymore, they can see you now!"
"Oh bummer!" the little boy said, his face crestfallen. Then he brightened up once more. "Guess that means you're right, Uncle Buck. That means they're all family now, doesn't it? And we'll all be together one day, I mean really together. That's great!"
"But first we're gonna get yer daddy out of trouble," Vin stated. "Alright, all of you, we're gonna circle this blasted grove and find a way in!"
Five heads nodded in determination. "Let's do it!"
At that moment a part of the invisible barrier in front of them started to shimmer and glow.
8. THE ROAD ON THE OTHER SIDE
"How many... does that make?" Chris asked, holding his uninjured arm tight around his ribs. He was breathing hard and was bleeding out of various wounds now.
"Eight. Chris, you can't fight him anymore! He's getting through to you every time now!" Sarah's specter was hovering over him and the fear was clear in her eyes. "Just get out of here please, out of the grove!"
"They're just kids, Sarah," he whispered, looking at the group of hunched over souls standing not far from him. "I wanna get them out of here."
"You can't fight him again! And if you lose, he's got all of them back in his power as well!"
"Oh, shit! Let's at least get them out, then I could... could come back in I guess."
"Y... yes, you could."
He grinned at his wife. "Don't think I didn't hear the 'but I won't let you', lady!"
"I love you Chris, I want us to be back together one day."
"We will. He ain't gonna win." Straightening himself up, Chris started limping forward once more, leaning very heavily on his branch by now. Hastily the group of eight kids, six boys and two girls, followed him.
"Are you going to get us out?" the youngest of them, the small boy of about fourteen asked hesitantly. "Really?"
The answering smile that suddenly transformed the worried, pinched face of the boy and the hope in the other seven pairs of eyes made him vow that yes, he would!
"We're almost there," Sarah told them. "Look, you can see the edge of the grove, the place where you can see more light, that's the edge. You remember that."
"Yeah!" The kids started running, screaming in delight this time, instead of fear. At the edge of the grove they suddenly stopped.
"I still can't get out," the second girl he'd saved said fearfully. She looked at Chris. "You said we might... we might... get out, but I still can't!"
"Chris can, you'll have to follow Chris. Come on, just follow him," Sarah smiled. They all waited full of anticipation, while Chris, a bit self-consciously, limped forward. He passed the little group and was prepared to leave the grove, when he ran smack into something hard.
"FUCK! Now what!" Gingerly he touched his nose. Then he pushed one hand forward, frowning. There was nothing there, so what had hit him? Taking a tentative limp forward, his hand came into contact with something smooth and hard.
He didn't see it, but he definitely felt it.
"Chris?" Sarah asked. "What is it? Why did you stop?"
"There's something here, Sarah. I don't see anything, but it's there. Feels like a wall or something." Keeping his hand on it, he started to walk sideways, trying to feel where this invisible wall would end.
"I don't believe it!" Sarah exclaimed. "Why, that lying, cheating, double crossing son of a bitch! If ever I see him again I'll do more then slap him in the face!"
"Slap him? You've slapped the devil in the face?"
"He can be very rude, why?" his wife asked, eyeing him suspiciously. "Are you snickering? Chris Larabee! Are you?"
"Oh no, I wouldn't dare! You might eh... slap me."
"Chris, sarcasm doesn't become you! You've been spending too much time in the company of that gambler!"
"Ezra? You know about him?"
"I told you Chris, I'm always with you, always. Me and Adam both, we are always there to try and look out for you."
Chris hastily looked away and went back to exploring the barrier he was feeling.
"We are, Chris."
"It... it just ain't the same, Sarah, it ain't. I can't talk to you, hold you or Adam, t... tickle my boy...."
A scream stopped him. "Number nine," he sighed. "Guess I better get back to work." Keeping the branch in front of him, he situated himself with his back against the barrier, glad for the support. This time two frightened youngsters, a boy and a girl, came running out of the mist, holding hands and of course screaming like banshees. When they saw the little group standing huddled to the side of the road, they stopped uncertainly, looking from one person to the other.
"Oh, just come over here!" the girl Chris had rescued first and who somehow had become the unofficial leader of the group of ghosts snapped. "Don't stand there like some dolts! Or do you like being brained with that axe!"
The two swallowed and looked at Chris, who was standing alert and ready. He smiled at them. "Better stand aside, kids," he said softly. "I've got a bastard to punch and then we're gonna work on getting you all out of here."
Heavy footsteps stopped any argument the two could have thought up. Hastily they jumped away when the Reaper came running out of the mist. This time the man didn't stop, he just charged head on. Maybe he did it because he was afraid they were all leaving his grove, but whatever the reason was, it wasn't a smart move. He ran at Chris like a bull and all Chris had to do was jump aside. The Reaper plowed right into the wall and this time Chris didn't even have to smash the axe out of his hands, it flew away all by itself when the big man encountered a solid resistance he hadn't expected.
For the first time in the long night the Reaper cried out. Then he was on the floor, lifeless again until whatever fueled him would make him disappear and start it all anew.
"That went well," Chris mumbled, picking himself up. "Should be that easy every time!" He looked around for Sarah and saw her standing at the barrier, biting her lower lip. Trying not to wince with every step he limped over to her. "Figured it out already?" he asked softly.
"Yes Chris and I don't like it. I can open it and keep it open for a brief period, but that's all. It is after all made by the devil and he is much more powerful than me. All I have been given is the power to keep him from getting you and with that I can make a hole in this long enough for you to get through."
"Me and those kid souls, right?"
"N... no. I can never hold it open long enough!"
"But you'll try, won't you?"
"You know I will! Chris? What are you thinking here?"
"I'm thinking you should open it and we'll get as many out as we can."
"Chris... you go first, alright?"
He looked at her adamantly. Then he waved the kids over. "Guys, oh stop glaring, girls too, Sarah is going to open this wall. As soon as she gets it opened get through, don't stop, just get through as fast as you can! Alright? Now, be ready to move."
Ten anxious faces looked at him. "Out?" the new girl asked hesitantly. "Really out? You mean we can go home?"
What could you say to that? Luckily Sarah took over. "Yes dear," she said softly, smiling. "You can go home, to your true home. Alright Chris, I will open this up, but you had better be ready to follow me as well."
He grinned at her. "Hey, I ain't keen on staying here at all! Just go for it, Lady."
She gave him a hard look and then she sighed, shook her head and placed herself before the barrier. Carefully she put her hands on it and started to whisper softly. Chris tried to understand what she was saying. Listening hard, he suddenly realized she was praying. It made him feel humble, especially when a soft glowing light began to spread from her hands into the barrier, making it visible all of a sudden. Within that glow an opening started to appear, a gap that grew more and more. Finally it was big enough to let an adult step through it. Sarah stepped into it and spread her arms to keep it open.
"Go!" Chris barked to the shivering kids. "Go now!"
There was a moment of hesitation and then the fourteen year old boy suddenly jumped to the opening. "I can't!" he whaled. "I can't get through!"
"Sarah!" Chris called out. "Sarah, help him!"
"Chris, no, what about you?"
Chris didn't answer, he pushed the other kids to the gap as well and gave Sarah no choice but to step through, grabbing their outstretched arms and helping the kids to the other side. When the last one, the young man, stepped up a wail could be heard. Another lost soul came running out of the mist and Chris didn't think about it, he ran to the young kid, the youngest so far, grabbed him up and pushed him through the opening as well. Something seemed to ignite and with a cry he felt himself being hurled backwards. The last thing he saw was what looked like his friends on the other side of the opening.
His friends, what were they doing out there?
The last thing he heard was Sarah crying out his name and then he knew only darkness.
9. THE GATE
The six peace keepers looked in awe at the glowing light in front of them. Suddenly an opening seemed to appear in the middle of that soft glow. Through that opening they thought they saw movement and then a woman stepped through, a beautiful woman with auburn curls that flamed in the light shining out of her.
"MOMMY!" Adam yelled, jumping towards her.
"Sarah...," Buck whispered.
The woman smiled at her son and the tall man behind him before she turned back to the gap, holding out her hands. Something reached for her through the opening and the movements on the other side of it became frantic. Startled the peace keepers jumped away as one after another white apparitions came flying out of the gap. As soon as they were on the other side they floated around uncertainly.
"Oh my Gawd," Ezra whispered. "Tell me that I am not seeing this! Are those... ghosts? The true white floating ghosts out of many a tale? No, I refuse to believe this!"
"I ain't seein' this neither," Nathan stated stubbornly.
"AWESOME," JD breathed. "Oh, this is so great! Wait 'til I tell Casey!"
Josiah shook his head at the young man's enthusiasm. "You might want to think that over, JD. You have a good chance she won't believe a word you say."
"Oh, damn, I guess you're right. But you can all tell her you saw it too!"
"Eh... she might think we are just in league with you, JD. That we are all trying to make a fool of her. No, I think it is best if we never, ever mention this to anyone, ever."
"Aw, come on Ezra, you can't mean that! Look at them! This is... it's... well, it's the most awesome thing I've ever seen! Hey, what's Vin doing? And Buck? BUCK!"
JD's scream came right after a loud explosion seemed to reverberate through the earth itself. The blast made them all topple over and when they picked themselves up again it was to find the wall firmly back in place. Buck, who with Vin had been the closest to it, was laying bleeding and unconscious on the ground, the beautiful woman leaning over him. The men ran towards their friend, shouting anxiously. Hastily the beautiful woman stood up and backed away. The group of ghosts immediately hovered around her, looking in trepidation at the men.
"Where's... where's our savior?" one of them asked with a trembling voice. The voice had a strange, eerie quality to it.
"He... he didn't make it through," the woman said softly, sadly. "He is still on the other side."
"NOOOO," the ghost wailed and the peace keepers shuddered.
"A real wailing ghost," JD whispered in awe where he was kneeling beside Buck, holding tight onto one hand of his big friend.
"Will someone make JD shut up!" Ezra hissed angrily. "My nerves are shattered enough as it is, thank you very much!"
JD paid him no mind. "I think it's a girl ghost," he stated, staring at the group intently. "Yes, a girl with very long hair. Most are boys though. Hey, I think they're all kids!"
"Does he have to keep on talking?" Ezra asked, throwing his hands up in disgust. "And if this is Sarah Larabee, then where is Chris? Why did he not come out of that... that hole in nothing? What's more, where is Mister Tanner?"
"Damn, yer right Ez, Vin's gone!" Nathan said, looking up from a still unconscious Buck. "That ain't good, that ain't good at all! He was even closer to that opening than Buck!"
"You think that hole blew up?" JD asked. "Nathan, how is he? He's... he's gonna be alright, isn't he?"
"I think so, JD. Bumps 'n bruises and a serious wound on his arm, but his breathing 's strong. So don't you worry none, he'll be okay."
"Good," JD sighed in relief, then his eyes focused back on the fascinating ghosts. "You think they know what happened to Chris and Vin? And where's little Adam? Did he get invisible again? Josiah, what do you think. You're a bit the... eh... the expert, ain't you?"
Josiah didn't pay any attention to JD. He was staring at the woman with the cluster of ghosts around her. "Sarah Larabee, I presume?" he asked her when she finally looked up from staring at the grove. "I gather you are responsible for opening that gate."
The eyes turning to him were full of tears. "I am, but it did no good. He didn't... he didn't come through. He wanted these lost souls to come out first, so they could finally be set free, but now he's trapped in there again, without me."
"Are you saying Chris is still in that grove?"
"Yes," she whispered softly, "he is. He shouldn't be, but he is. Satan never did play fair." She turned back to the grove, one hand outstretched to feel for the once again invisible barrier.
"I'm not going to give up though," she said, very determined. "I'm going to get him out of there!" She placed both hands against the barrier and softly started to speak.
"What... what's she doing J'siah?" JD asked, mesmerized.
"Please Mister Sanchez, whatever it is, I am very certain I do not want to know about it! Just pretend JD never said anything!"
"I think she...."
"NO, please do not answer that!"
"... she is praying."
"Praying?" JD asked, stunned. "Why would she pray?"
"Praying? I can live with that. Yes, I can definitely live with someone praying on this god forsaken night."
"Praying," Josiah affirmed. "What else can one do at a night like this, a night full of hell and doom?"
"D... doom? What doom?" a very groggy voice asked.
"Oh hell, JD, not so l... loud! P... please!"
"Look who's back in the land of the livin'!" Nathan grinned.
Things immediately looked brighter.
10. THE TWO BROTHERS
Chris groaned. He really was getting tired of being battered down into the ground, it was happening way too often this night. It sure wasn't fair bullets didn't work. Not fair at all.
Carefully he opened his eyes and he was immediately immensely glad for the cool darkness under the stunted trees of Bridget's Grove. His head was hurting enough as it was after that blast.
Whatever had happened? The blast, something heavy crashing into him, and then he hit his head when he went down....
What had it been that had knocked him down even more than that strange blast had done? And why did he have this heavy feeling on his chest? He was pinned down under something. Something heavy, something... soft?
With a groan he tried to free himself, only to be rewarded by a groan back.
Oh God, that was a person laying right on top of him. Surreptitiously he placed a hand on the body. A warm body. Not the ice cold of the ghosts and the Reaper, but warm... real. This was someone real!
"HEY!" he yelled, grabbing a part of the body and shaking it. "Hey, wake up! Wake up and get off!"
"AAH! Don't... don't yell, 'm head ain't up to it!"
That drawl... that definite Texan drawl... "Vin?" he asked incredulously. "Vin, pard? What are you doing here?"
"Lookin' fer you, of course. Of all the dumb questions...." The voice trailed off again and Chris hastily shook the Texan some more.
"Vin, no, wake up! I need you to get off me, Vin. Can't... can't do it myself."
"No? Jist have ta shove me. I'll fall anywhere ya want, don't care, just lemme sleep...."
"I can't Vin, I... I ain't exactly up to par here."
That got Vin's attention and with a groan he raised his head. "So what's wrong? Oh shit, yer bleedin'! Knew I should've dragged Nate along, but he was to far from the hole!"
"The hole? Oh, the opening in that invisible wall, the one Sarah made? Did she get through?"
"Don't know, was too busy fighting my way through those ghosts to get to this side. Damn, but they were cold...," Vin mumbled, voice trailing away.
"Vin, get OFF! NOW, before he gets back!"
"Who?" But the alarm in Chris' voice roused him sufficiently to make him roll away. The movement woke him up further, enough to remember they were in trouble, nope, Chris was in trouble. Oh hell, what else was new?
"So wadda ya do this time Lar'bee? With them ghosts and all? Who you piss off now?"
"The devil, it seems," Chris groaned, working himself up until he was sitting. Gingerly he touched a lump at the back of his head. "Damn, but did you have to fall right on top of me?"
"Yer welcome fer risking m' hide comin'here, Lar'bee. Damn, but sometimes I wonder if yer worth all the trouble you cause. The devil, huh? The devil hisself?" Vin worked himself up as well and looked at his friend. Then he heaved a deep sigh. "Why ain't I surprised? You don't look too good, Cowboy."
"Don't feel too good either. Think you can help me to my feet?"
"Why ya wanna get on yer feet for? Seems to me someone losing that much blood oughta lay down and let his friend look after his wounds. I better start rippin' m' shirt, ain't nothing left of yours to use."
"Can't, he'll be back soon."
"So? Whoever he is he can wait 'til we're done."
"Wish we could, Vin. But he's got that big axe and he ain't using it for chopping wood."
"Oh. Wouldn't be the Reaper of Souls J'siah 's been tellin' us about? Someone who's been killin' people in this grove fer years now, even though he's dead?"
"Josiah knew about him?"
"Yep. Spun us a right nice Halloween tale 'bout him."
"Damn! Nobody tells me anything! Uh oh... you hear that?"
"Shit! Someone's in danger. Sure knows how to scream though."
"They all do. Help me up, now!"
Reacting to the anxiety in the blond's voice Vin grabbed Chris' hand and helped him up carefully. As soon as he was standing, Chris limped up to the path and once more placed his back against the invisible barrier, branch up and ready. It was again a boy who came running out of the mist. When he saw the two men, he looked at them apprehensively.
"Think you scare him, pard," Vin grinned. "Hell, you'd scare me too if'n I didn't know ya better. What with all the blood and yer clothes in tatters to make them bandages."
Chris didn't answer, he looked steadily at the boy. "You better get out of the way," he said softly. "Let me fight him. That's what he wants anyway."
"You... you ain't gonna hit me?"
"I'm only gonna hit him, alright?"
The boy nodded, still unsure of what to do. That changed the moment heavy footsteps came thundering out of the mist. Immediately the boy decided that whatever was in front of him, it couldn't be as bad as what was behind him and he hurried over to the two men.
"Jesus," Vin breathed when he saw the big, muscled man, oozing blood everywhere and with his skull caved half in. The brute still walked towards them menacingly, wielding a huge, blood dripping axe. "That him?"
Chris didn't answer. He was hurting so much he thought he might collapse. The only thing keeping him up and ready to do battle again was sheer stubbornness. That, and his immense wish to piss the devil off. That guy had really irritated him.
Vin in the mean time was staring at the Reaper in fascination. The horrifying menace was huge, really huge. Not to mention ugly as sin. Then the ugly mugger charged and he charged right at Chris.
"MY SOULS!" he was screaming. "YOU STOLE MY SOULS! NOW I'LL HAVE YOURS AND I'LL TORMENT IT FOREVER AND EVER!"
Yep, Chris sure knew how to pick 'm, Vin thought in frustration. Hastily he pulled his mare's leg and shot the idiot, already thinking about the scathing things he was going to say to his friend about fighting an idiot like this with only a branch against an axe, instead of just shooting the mother fucker. He didn't care if the guy was armed or not. Hell, he WAS armed with that axe!
The guy ran on as if nothing had happened. Shit, of all the times to miss! He couldn't have missed! It just wasn't possible! Cursing he pulled up his weapon again and sighted along the barrel, this time making sure the bullet would find it's target.
The bastard kept running as if nothing existed but Chris. The axe was raised and then arched down towards Chris. Vin saw Chris duck, a grimace of pain on his face and swipe at the hands holding the axe with his branch.
Stupid move, the guy had his belly wide open, why hadn't Chris hit him there? Then Vin was on top of them, plowing his fist into the bastards head with all his might. With a huff of surprise the giant toppled over. Immediately Chris was there, kicking the axe away. He was panting heavily and even worse, he was dripping blood from numerous places.
"Aw Chris! Ya need ta sit down, fast! HEY!" Only a swift grab kept Chris from tumbling over right then and there. Carefully Vin led him away from the body and helped his friend sit down beneath a tree. "Hate ta break it to ya, Cowboy, but ya been healthier. I better check if the bastard's really down."
"He's dead Vin, nothing much you can do with him."
"He is? Still, I better make sure."
"Vin, he's been dead for decades."
Vin sighed and shook his head. "More ghosts, jist what I need. In that case I'd better tie 'm up, see what a corpse can do with a length of rope around him."
"Just... just never touch the axe. Thing is dangerous, evil...."
A chuckle stopped Chris. Turning around Vin saw a man with hair as black as the night and eyes like dark bottomless pits looking at him. The stranger was entirely dressed in black, in clothing that somehow, despite the lack of color, reminded Vin of Ezra. The man instantly bugged the hell out of him.
"I see you have found yourself another champion, Mister Larabee? Only this time it's a mortal champion without divine powers. Hardly a worthy opponent for me."
"Who's he?" Vin asked, dumbfounded by the strangeness of this guy.
"Claims he's the devil." Chris was struggling to stand and Vin hastily helped him up. He understood his friend's need to face this new threat upright instead of sprawled on the ground.
"Really? Don't look like much. And why's he dressed all in black? Wouldn't red suit him better? You know, the guy of fire and all...."
Suddenly Vin was flying through the air, slamming into the invisible wall, smoke coming from his buckskin jacket.
"VIN!" Chris cried out, limping to the still and crumpled form. "Vin, say something!"
With a groan Vin sat up, rubbing his head with one hand, while holding his ribs with the other. He glared at the apparition.
"Still want to discuss my attire, Mister Tanner? Or can I get down to business with Mister Larabee, without you interfering anymore?"
Vin grinned at the apparition, the grin never reaching his bright blue eyes. Those stayed focused and cold, very cold.
"Yeah, I got more to say 'bout yer attire. Whadda ya think Chris, he tryin' to make a statement by dressing in your color?"
"Stupid move," the tracker said, maliciously looking the black haired man up and down. Then he turned towards Chris and told him, "You see, YOU make that stupid color look GOOD! He, he just looks like some corpse in it." He grinned coldly at the man confronting them.
The man in black growled, low and menacingly. His hand went up again, but this time Chris hastily stepped between that hand and its goal. The hand lowered and a cold smile tucked at the stranger's lips.
"Just say your piece," Chris said in his soft, lethal voice.
"I've already said it. Your soul is mine, Larabee and I will take it now, thank you."
"You can't, Sarah told me you don't have that power over me."
"True, true, that's why I sent the Reaper after you. He would've prepared your soul for me though and I would have enjoyed seeing your misery. Very much!" The last two words were hissed vehemently.
Chris looked aside to where the body of the Reaper had been laying. It didn't surprise him that it was gone once more. A gasp of surprise beside him told him Vin had seen it too. "So you're sending your reaper again."
"No, I've decided I'd rather torment your soul myself."
"Yeah? Too bad you can't take it!"
"You are right, I can't. That's why you are going to give it to me."
Chris started to laugh, but that laugh was cut short when he saw what the stranger pulled out of the dark shadow behind him.
"Adam," he breathed. Immediately he launched himself at the apparition. "LET HIM GO! LET HIM GO NOW!" Vin managed to get himself back on his feet and was right at his friend's heels. The yellow bastard simply vanished where he had been standing and now his laughter was sounding at the left of them. Turning, they saw he still had Adam. The little boy was squirming in his grip.
"How about it, Chris? You give me your soul, or do I take this little brat instead?"
"Aw hell, he must've dived right through the opening Sarah made as well," Vin lamented. "Damn, why didn't I see that? I would've stopped him."
"Through the opening? Vin, what was Adam doing here at the grove, even if it was on the outside?"
"Me and the others, we met 'm on the road, he led us right to ya. Only we couldn't get past that invisible barrier."
"So," the Devil said nastily, shaking Adam now. "It wasn't just your mom who was interfering with my business, you were too." His eyes were glowing red now, the anger unmistakable.
"Don't you touch him," Chris threatened, taking a step closer. "You can't have him and you know it! He's not yours, he's already in heaven, with his mother!"
"Ah, but this is All Hallows Eve and this one left the Heavens, which means now I can get to him, as you see." He shook the boy again.
"NO, please!" Chris all but begged.
"So? What will it be? You or him?"
"Me dammit, me of course! Let him get back to his mother!"
"OH NO!" Vin shouted, getting himself between Chris and the dark man in front of them. "Ya can't have Chris, I won't let ya!"
"Well, well, Mister Tanner. Are you offering your own soul in his place?"
"No, he's not!" Chris retorted.
"If I have to, I am Chris! That little boy is waitin' fer you to come live with them again one day and I ain't gonna have him disappointed. Ya know ya can't be with them if that egomaniac's got ya!"
"I'm still not letting you take my place!"
"Ain't fer you to decide, I guess. It's fer him."
"Yes, and I have to say, I like that offer. A lot." A slow smile was visible on the white face. "You see, way I figure it, if I take him you'll be so lost in grief again, knowing it's because of you, you'll follow him right into hell, won't you? And that way I will have you both. I have to say I like it, I like it a lot."
"You won't, will ya Chris?" Tanner hissed over his shoulder, alarmed now.
"I'm not leaving you on your own in his hands," Chris bit back.
"So I can jist as well take back my offer! Damn it, Chris, ya ain't gonna do no such thing!"
"Why you.... And you think I wouldn't do the 'xact same thing if he managed ta git your soul? I'd be divin' right after it into hell and you know it!"
"You better not, or I'll shoot you where you stand!"
"Eh... gentlemen, GENTLEMEN! I'm still here, remember? HEY!"
A flash of lighting abruptly struck between the two friends, making them jump back from each other with a startled yelp.
"NOW do I have your attention? OUCH!"
A little fury was kicking and screaming at his side. "You tried to hurt my daddy, you tried to hurt him! Keep away from him, he's gonna live with us one day, not with you! And Vin too, Vin's gonna live with us too, with us and daddy! Let me go!"
Then the devil let out a shriek and suddenly the little boy was free, running up to his father and throwing himself in his arms. Chris went down, holding on tight, whispering his son's name over and over.
"He bit me!" the Devil screamed, waving around one hand.
"That's peanuts compared to what I'm going to do with you," an angry female voice could be heard from behind them. An apparition all in light strode forward firmly and slapped the black clad stranger right in the face. "How DARE you use my son? How dare you use him to get his father? Of all the low, vile things...."
"Well, eh, he IS the devil, madam. Isn't he?" a voice sounding suspiciously like Josiah asked from where she had come. Chris and Vin turned and there were all their friends. A very serious and solemn looking Josiah, a green and slightly sick looking Ezra, a dumbfounded Nathan, a staggering Buck with a big strip of cloth wound around one arm, mumbling "Yeah, that's Sarah, you tell him girl" and a very excited JD.
"Did you see that? Did you see that? She suddenly got very angry and very white and then she melted that wall away like... poof!"
Holding Adam tight to himself, not wanting to let go, Chris smiled at his friends. It was good to see them, very, very good. It was even better to see them together with his family. Picking Adam up in his arms he turned to where his wife was still scolding the devil.
"I told you you shouldn't play dirty on this! He didn't like it one bit when you interfered again, so He gave me some extra possibilities to deal with you. Some very interesting ones, I might add!" She started to glow even more, white fire flashing from her eyes.
"Damn Him!" the stranger shouted angrily at her. "Larabee's mine! He knows Larabee should be mine!"
"I don't think so!" She raised her arms.
The Devil shot one last, murderous look at Chris, hissed "I'll get you someday, Larabee!" and disappeared.
"That's what you get for trying to cheat!" Sarah yelled after his vanishing form. Muttering she lowered her arms and seemed to shake out all the blindingly white light until she was like she had been before, a beautiful woman with an inner light shining softly through. Happily she turned towards her husband and son.
"He's gone, Chris, he won't bother you again tonight. It's only about an hour until sunrise, so he won't have enough time to come up with another plan!"
"You sure you ain't no angel?" he asked, feasting his eyes on her and his arms on the feeling of his son in them. "Definitely looked like one to me."
"That? Oh, that was only temporarily, given to me for the sole purpose of stopping Satan, who was way out of line here. He doesn't like it when Satan tries to mess with free will or with his personal warriors. That's what you all are, you know, His personal warriors. You guys do know that, don't you?"
"Ma'am, please, let's stay real," Nathan asked pleadingly, holding up his hands as if he was trying to fend something off. In a way he probably was. Sarah's smile only grew wider.
"Why, Nathan, you do know seven is the holy number, don't you?"
"I'm going to be sick," Ezra stated, wiping one hand over his brow. "And to think that this evening started out so pleasantly, with a nice game of cards and some nice midnight snacks. Some stupid stories as well," he added, glaring at the ex priest as if everything was his fault.
Sarah had already forgotten them and was hurrying over to her husband and son. "Thank you," she breathed to Vin and then she was with the two men she had loved more than anything else in life.
"I can hold him," Chris whispered. "God, I wanna hold you too, Sarah. Hold you just one more time."
"I think we're granted that somehow, Chris." Hesitantly she moved her hand and touched his cheek. On both their faces a radiant smile lighted up when she made contact and then Chris was holding his wife as well as his son, the three locked in a fierce embrace. Their lips found each other in a passionate kiss that somehow seemed to include the little boy between them as well. The love radiating from the three made the other peace keepers look away. Buck was weeping openly and even Ezra seemed to have tears in his eyes.
A piercing scream ended the peaceful scene. "Shit," Chris mumbled, looking up but still holding onto his family. "Three more to go."
"Three what, Chris?" JD asked.
"Three more souls, JD. That bastard has got three more souls captured in this grove."
"Who? The devil? I thought Sarah just send the devil packing?" Buck asked, confused.
"Nah, the other fella, with the axe," Vin told them. "That Reaper guy you were tellin' us about, Josiah."
"He's for real?" Nathan exclaimed.
"Yep. Chris has been fighting him all night, haven't ya, Cowboy?"
A young woman of about twenty years ran out of the grove, shrieking at the top of her lungs and looking behind her in fear. Chris closed his eyes for a second. "I sure wish they didn't all have such penetrating voices," he sighed.
"Why not? They're ghosts, ain't they? Ain't ghosts supposed to scream and wail, J'siah? Moan too, I haven't heard them moan yet."
"Shut up, JD!"
"But... but, hey! This one don't look like a ghost, like the other ones did. This one looks like a real girl. You think she's a real girl?"
"Nope, she's a ghost, trust me," Chris told him. With a sigh he moved as if to put Adam down and leave Sarah's arms, ready to fight again. Immediately Vin was beside him, taking up the branch that was laying at Chris' feet.
"Oh no ya don't. You enjoy yer family while ya can, we'll take care of this baby. Alright y'all, it's a bummer, but ya can't jist shoot him. Only thing that helps is knocking the bastard down and then knock the axe out of his hands, ain't that right, Chris?"
"Just knocking the axe out of his hands is enough, Vin."
Vin grinned. "Yeah, but that ain't half as much fun, Cowboy. Gotta get some revenge fer what he put ya through and those poor kids as well."
"Vin...," Sarah said sternly. "I don't think you are giving a good example here for Adam."
"Aw Sarah, a little fun...."
"NO BUCK! Don't you start as well! I know you. And stay out of it, you're hurt!"
"Well now, I don't think...."
"Just come here, you big oaf," she smiled and tried to take him in her arms as well. "I missed you too Buck, thanks for being there for Chris, even if he was a pain in the ass."
"Sarah!" Chris pleaded.
"Still is," Buck smiled. His eyes were a little wild, but there was happiness in them for seeing his friend with his family once again.
"Sorry we can't touch you Buck," Sarah said softly, when she couldn't get him in the tight circle. "I guess we were only granted reprieve for Chris."
"That's alright Sarah. Seeing you and Adam again is a blessing in itself. You two are still the best people I've ever known."
"Don't make me blush, Buck Wilmington!"
"Me? I wouldn't dream of it, Sarah Larabee. Now, you go and enjoy the moments you three have together, while I give those fools over there some pointers." Hastily turning away to give the little family the privacy they so deserved after all these years he went to where the others were standing over a huge corpse.
"Don't worry, Buck! We already got him! Wham, whack and as soon as we knocked his axe out of his hands he just fell down, dead! Look at that axe!"
"JD, keep your hands off it! It is clear to see that the power of evil resides in that axe. Touching it would taint you, young man, don't even think about it."
"Taint me, J'siah? How? With... with evil?"
"Chris didn't want me touchin' that thing either. He didn't have ta tell me though, it feels like pure evil."
"Well then, since it seems we are quite ready here, how about we try and get home? This night has been eventful enough for my taste. Not to mention my tender nerves."
"Sorry Ez, two more ta go, don't we, Chris?"
They all grinned at each other. Then Sarah called back. "Yes, two more, stop disturbing us!"
"What a woman," Josiah sighed. They looked on happily until the two forms in Chris' arms shimmered and disappeared, leaving the gunslinger once more alone and bereft.
"NOOO!" he screamed, falling to his knees, trying to grasp for the vanishing figures. "NO, PLEASE!"
Then he toppled over, unconscious.
11. ALL SOUL'S DAY
"Chris? Chris, are ya with us again?"
With a groan Chris opened his eyes. God, he felt like he had the hangover from hell. Looking around with bleary eyes, he saw Nathan and Vin hovering over him. "Ungh?" he managed to croak.
"Here, Chris. You drink this. Easy now, easy." The secure hands of Nathan held his head up with practiced ease and helped him drink cool water from a cup. It felt good, very good in his parched and hurting throat.
"M... more," he whispered when the cup was taken away.
"Sorry, later on. I know ya need it, but I don't wanna have you get sick, so we go slow, alright?"
"Al... alright." He looked around him in confusion. "Clinic? How... what?"
Vin and Nathan looked at each other, worry evident in their faces. Then their eyes settled back on him. "Chris, what's the last thing you remember?"
He frowned. What WAS the last thing he remembered? Fighting, fighting again and again, an axe, Sarah, Adam.... He gasped and tried to get up. Deft hands immediately stopped him. "Sarah," he moaned. "Adam! They... they went away again! Oh God, they're gone again! THEY'RE GONE AGAIN!"
Suddenly they were all there, all his friends. Buck and Vin were holding him down, talking to him, trying to get him to calm down. Nathan and Josiah were hovering right behind them and Ezra and JD looked on apprehensively.
"Chris, please, don't do this to yourself, please," Buck pleaded, tears in his eyes. "I know, I know it's hard they're gone again, but at least you got them back for just a little while. At least you got to h... hold them one more time!"
"Chris, Chris, they ain't gone, not really! Ya gotta know that pard. Ya gotta sense that now!"
He didn't want to listen to them, didn't want to hear their efforts to make him feel better. He could never, ever feel better, only devastated. But he couldn't ignore the pleading in his friends' eyes, couldn't ignore their worry. So he settled down, the ache of his loss burning in his chest, as always.
This time it was Vin who held him up and fed him some water. He drank, but he felt too listless to really enjoy it at the moment. His friends were all around him, smiling at him, glad he seemed calmer.
"What... what happened after... they left?"
"You were eh... passed out I'm afraid, Chris, but I can assure you, we did free those last souls as well. With all of us it was easy enough to have the axe knocked out of this Reaper person's hands. The last time he gave a very satisfying wail of despair, didn't he, gentlemen?"
"He sure did, Ezra," Josiah boomed happily.
"Ya should've seen what happened next, Chris! There was this enormous light shining down from heaven and all those poor ghosts went into the light and were just whisked away! Poof, gone!"
"You sure are starting to like that stupid word, poof, kid," Buck told him reproachfully.
"Geez, Buck! That's how it was! Poof, gone! Well, not after they first seemed to mill around you. And that one girl ghost, she seemed not to wanna leave y' at all, she kept trying to touch you. Nathan got real angry 'bout that, said she was feeling way too cold and that weren't good for you."
"That's right Stud, she sure seemed besotted with you," Buck grinned a bit maliciously. He wasn't going to let his friend live that one down any day soon, that was for sure. "Josiah had to talk quite earnestly with her before she finally followed the others."
"Then Vin had to get a wagon and some horses from the Sutters, 'cause Peso was the only horse left and you know how that horse is with others."
"Nathan didn't like it, on account that Vin was hurt as well. But we did get the means to transport you back to our municipality and give you, Vin and Buck the care you needed."
"Yes, you... you were hurt too. How... how bad?"
"I'll live," Buck said ruefully. "Some headaches and I got a broken arm. No more patrols for a while, I'm afraid."
"Yeah, like you care!" JD snorted.
"Hey, I'm alright. Weren't hurt bad at all."
"Yeah, sure," Nathan snorted. "You got a real bad concussion, pal. In case you forgot, you passed out on our way back to Four Corners! And I don't know what ya did with them ribs, but they sure as hell are cracked. And that burn on yer chest ain't nothing either. I still don't understand how ya got those wounds."
"Told ya, I jist fell...."
"That's w... what you get from arguing with the... the devil," Chris whispered, locking eyes with his friend.
"Like you weren't arguin' with 'm," Vin shot back.
"Chris, Chris, you know what Josiah did once we brought you all back? He got himself a lot of men and he took them to the grove to dig up the Reaper's grave! I went with them as well. It was as if Josiah knew exactly where to go. It was in some dark hollow right in the middle of the grove, beside the path going through it. He made them dig in there and sure there it was, a real ugly carcass, with all the bones... Ehw, it was gross! Even the axe was there! He had them make a big fire and had them burn it all. A real hot fire, hot enough to even melt the axe blade. Then he had us shovel dirt over it and he blessed that earth and threw holy water on it. You think that'll help? Make the grove safe?"
Chris shrugged. Now that he knew Vin and Buck would be alright, he didn't care about anything else. He only wanted to be left alone.
"Chris?" Vin asked softly.
"Need to... to be alone for awhile, Vin. Please," he asked them all.
"No, Nathan," Josiah said softly. "You took good care of him and he has drunk some water. You can give him a moment to himself so he can try and make his peace. Come, I'll get you some dinner. You need your strength back after taking care of all these fools."
"Chris, are ya sure?"
"Yes Nathan, I... I just need some time alone."
Buck placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed softly. "Say hello from me too, pard," he whispered. Then he herded everyone out of the room, leaving only Vin.
"Alright. I'll be jist outside if'n ya need anything. All ya gotta do is holler."
Finally they were all gone and he was alone, blessedly alone.
He let go of his feelings then, let the tears fall and the anguish wash over him. To have seen them, have held them, have had them with him again for that brief night, only to see them disappear, leave him once more, it hurt too much. He knew he should be grateful for those blessed extra moments, but still it hurt so very much.
A light flickered at his bedside. Hastily he wiped his tears away to look at the two shimmering forms inside it.
"You came back," he whispered. "Sarah, Adam, don't go away again."
"We won't, Chris. We're always with you, don't you understand that? And one day we will be really together again, like we were last night. I just know we will."
"You're here now," he whispered.
"This is All Soul's Day, Chris and the boundary between the living and the dead isn't completely set yet. We shouldn't... we shouldn't have come, but you were so sad. I had hoped that seeing each other once more, that being able to tell you we're always there for you would... would help you, not make your grief worse."
The little form beside her let go of his mother's hand and suddenly Adam was there, right in front of him, trying to touch him. "Please Daddy, don't cry! Love ya!"
"Love you too, angel. Love you both so much."
The little boy smiled, a radiant smile. "Mommy and me, we'll protect you. And then you can get all the bad guys and when you come to truly live with us, Uncle Buck and Uncle Vin and all the others can come too. It will be great!"
"Yeah, Cowboy, it will," he smiled at his son. Then he looked enquiringly at his wife.
She laughed, that soft, musical laugh he loved so much. "One of the great things about last night was getting to meet your friends, really getting to meet them, my love. It was a privilege, especially meeting Vin. I'm so very grateful you found him, Chris. You treasure that friendship and all the others, you hear? And don't forget, we are with you as well, always."
The two shimmered and were gone, just when the door into the clinic banged open and Vin reappeared, a bit flushed.
"Chris, I... I'm sorry and I'll leave right away after I said my piece, but I jist had ta tell ya somethin' first. I understand it must hurt having seen yer family again and then having them leave, but me, I'm real glad I got ta see them two. They are real special people and I feel privileged I got to meet them, damn privileged. Hope ya don't mind, pard, jist wanted ya to know."
"That's funny, Sarah was just telling me the same about you. That she felt privileged to have met you in reality."
Vin suddenly blushed. "She... she did? Aw, come on, yer pulling 'm leg here. OH! They were here? I... I didn't chase 'm off, did I? Damn, I'm sorry...."
"No, no, they had to go anyway."
Vin couldn't stay away from the sad man, his best friend, so he closed the door behind him and came back into the clinic, making his way slowly towards the bed. Immediately Chris felt bad. "Damn, Vin, you need to lay down! And I chased you all out! I'm sorry...."
"Oh, will ya cut that out? I ain't laying down 'cause some ribs hurt. But Chris, does that mean ya can see 'm from now on?"
"N... no." Chris looked away for a moment, swallowing. "Only today, because it's All Soul's Day, she said. They...."
"Chris, they're always with ya, ya know that, don't ya? I heard her say so herself, back in the grove, 'fore they disappeared."
"I know, that's what she said now too. Adam... Adam said the same, he said they would protect me so I could get the bad guys." It made Chris grin despite the still lingering sadness.
"I don't care what's official or not, Chris. To me those two are angels, got no other word for it. Protectin' ya, huh?Good, you need a lot of looking after! Hey, ya know what that makes them, don't ya?"
"Yer guardian angels, that's what," Vin smiled, settling back in the chair beside his best friend. "I thought everyone only had one guardian angel, but you... you got two of 'm. Which is just as well with all them friends you manage to make," he grinned.
"Fuck you too, Tanner!"
After some time in comfortable silence, Vin asked softly, "Better?"
"Yeah, I guess. Still hurts, but... but is was a gift to have them back for just a moment. And you know Vin? I'm glad you got to see them. You and the others."
"Yeah, me too, pard. Seems like we're all family now."
"Yes...." Chris tried to keep his eyes open, but he couldn't. Slowly he drifted off to a deep sleep, the comfortable presence of his friend making him feel safe enough. His friend and two presences that were only felt, not seen.
"You sleep now, I got yer back," Vin whispered. "And I ain't the only one."
+ + + + + + +
A few miles away at a small grove made up of stunted and twisted trees, a fresh mound of earth seemed to stir. A long, sturdy branch laying close by immediately started to glow with a soft, golden light. The light hit the mound and the moving stopped. The light slowly faded away, but not before it had spread over the whole mound, emphasizing the blood that seemed to leak out of the soil.