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- M7 -
The day was spent in morbid work. They had stacked the dead bodies of the cult members far enough away to tempt any carrion away from their camp. They had used the canvas of one of the smaller tents to wrap the young woman and her baby in, unable to include her in the pile of men.
Now they split their tasks; Buck and Ezra setting fire to the grotesque pile, while Josiah and JD buried the mother and child. The wayward preacher spoke passionately over the grave, now marked by a pair of simple makers, baring the words "Mother" and "Daughter". Only then did he offer up a prayer at the funeral pyre that enveloped the cultists. This second prayer was not one of salvation, but of condemnation as he asked God to bring peace to their victims and their families.
Nathan and Mary stayed in and around the tent, caring for the two injured men. They rolled up the canvas sides as the sun heated the air, welcoming the gentle breeze that caressed the two, supine forms.
Vin stirred from time to time, a slight smile gracing his handsome face as he registered the fresh air and sunshine that bathed his pain-wracked body. Opening his eyes, he would search his surroundings slowly, finally settling on his friend. His first question was always the same. "How's he doin'?"
Mary and Nathan took turns answering him, since that answer was always the same. "He's holding his own." They were thankful that his own injuries seemed to have taken his memory, since he, too, responded in the same manner. A nod, and a quiet, "We'll git 'im back," followed by a few minutes of quiet as he gathered his strength. He took the pungent teas without argument, allowed himself to be fussed over and tended to, and then drifted back to sleep.
On the other cot, Chris lay. . . too quiet. . . too still. . . it was difficult at best to tend to him. His eyes were opened most of the time, staring into nothing; not seeing the things and people around him. They both spoke to him as long as his eyes were opened, their voices gentle but commanding, begging, instructing and finally ordering him to wake. Nothing seemed to work though, and he remained oblivious.
- M7 -
He found that ahead of him, the absolute darkness was lifting now, and found himself being drawn in that direction. His movements were slow, sluggish, and he continued to feel as if he was moving through tar. A sense of need. . . of urgency. . . kept him moving toward the dimness, the lightening of the void.
He recognized that voice and pushed himself to move more quickly toward it. But, suddenly, the darkness consumed the light once more, and there was nothing. He staggered, nearly fell, crying out in a rage. Slowly he righted himself, turning slowly; searching for the light to appear once more. It did, finally, once again in the distance.
He staggered toward it once more, trying to call out, although he couldn't make a sound. This time another voice called to him, beckoning to him. And once more he found himself thrown back into the darkness, the familiar voice silenced.
Frustration, anger, rage. All of them burned through him, boiling his blood and leaving him to silently howl into the darkness over and over again. Over and over again the darkness began to lift. Over and over again he was drawn toward it, hearing familiar voice after familiar voice beckoning him.
And over and over again he was thrown back into the darkness.
- M7 -
"Nathan, why don't you go into one of the other tents and get some sleep? I'll stay here with them." Josiah saw the faint tremble in the big hands and knew that his friend was well past his limit.
Jackson wanted to argue the point; to assure the former preacher that he was fine. But he couldn't make the words come, because he wasn't fine. He was tired and frustrated. He had done everything he could, but wasn't certain it would be enough. Wasn't certain he could do enough. Wasn't certain he knew enough.
"Nathan?" Sanchez laid a big hand on one slumped shoulder. "Come on, brother, go get some rest before we have three patients in here."
Nodding, the dark skinned man stood, stiffly, rolling his shoulders to ease their ache. He let his red-rimmed eyes search out each of the injured men and then turned toward the gray-haired man. "Call me if ya need me."
With a smile, Josiah promised and nudged the man toward the exit. Watching Nathan shuffle from the tent, he sent up a brief prayer of restoration and peace for his friend. Then he turned toward the cots. Vin was quiet at the moment, sleeping thanks to more of the medicinal tea. Chris, lying on the other cot, was quiet as well, but it was an uncomfortable quiet. Tension hummed through his slender body, emanating from his very soul.
Sanchez knelt beside Larabee's cot, reaching out to lay a hand over the man's heart. "I know you're in there, my friend. I pray we can help you return to us. . . before it's too late."
- M7 -
He placed his hand on his heart, feeling a faint warmth that hadn't been there before. His pale brows furrowed as he tried to figure out where it came from. He continued to walk, aimlessly now, having lost all hope and expectation of finding a way to free himself.
The warmth spread, bringing with it a sense of peace and contentment. He didn't understand why or where it came from. He simply held onto it for as long as he could. When it slowly dissipated, he felt the loneliness return in force. He silently begged that warmth to return, only to find himself feeling even more alone than before.
Despondent now, he crumpled to his knees, head dropping into hands. Bitter tears fell into the cup of his palms, filling them. He continued to weep, while the tears continued to collect, washing over his hands and falling away into the darkness. He felt his pants grow wet as the tears soaked into them, but still he cried.
Then he felt a hand gently squeeze his shoulder.
- M7 -
"Hey, ol' son." Buck knelt beside the cot, one hand resting on an exposed shoulder. Tears filled his deep blue eyes as he stared into the vacant hazel ones that stared beyond him. He struggled to keep the distress out of his voice, not wanting it to scare his old friend away. "Ain't it about time you came outta there? About time you came back to us? Gotta say, you've got us all worried here, stud. . . we'd like to have ya back with us."
Wilmington looked at his old friend hopefully but then realized the call had come from elsewhere. Turning his head, he found Vin looking at him. "Hey, didn't mean to wake ya up."
"'S okay. . . sleepin' too much. . . any. . . anyway." He tried to push himself up on the cot, only to find he didn't have the strength. The big brunet came over and eased him up gently, straightening the blankets over him once again. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. And you're not sleepin' too much. You need your rest, pard, so you can get back on your feet."
"Reckon. How's. . . " Tanner couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence; couldn't bear to hear the answer.
Knowing what the younger man was asking, Wilmington answered anyway. "He's holdin' his own, Vin. That's about all we can say."
Staring into the bigger man's face, Tanner said, "He ain't gonna. . . die."
Managing a smile, the ladies man simply nodded.
"Ya don't b'lieve. . . me," Vin observed.
Heaving a sigh, the bigger man sat back on his knees. "To be real honest, Vin, I ain't sure what I believe right now. What those bastards did. . ."
"They cain't do 't. . . any more. Cain't hurt. . . Chris any. . . more."
Turning his gaze to where the blond lay so quiet, Wilmington said, "I wish I could believe that."
"Gotta. . . ya gotta b'lieve. . . Buck. . . lin," Tanner murmured. He reached out a trembling hand, grasping the man's arm. "Ya. . . gotta."
Reaching up, Wilmington squeezed the hand gently. "Wish I had the strength, son. . . I truly do. But after all that's happened. . ."
Gripping the bigger man's arm more intently, the Texan frowned. In a growl, he asked, "Ya givin' up. . . on 'im?"
Shock registered on the big man's face. "What?! No. . . hell no, boy! I've never given up on Chris Larabee and damned if I'll give up now."
The frown melting into a smile, Vin said, "Good. Now, go let 'im know. . . yer here. . . make 'im. . . understand. . . he. . . he ain't alone. . . that we ain't givin' up on 'im. None. . . none of us."
Watching as Tanner drifted back to sleep, Wilmington loosened the younger man's hand from his shirt. Slipping it back beneath the blankets, he gently patted the man's shoulder once more. "All right, son, I'll do that."
- M7 -
He heard another voice, more familiar than most of those he had been listening to in the darkness. He lifted his head from his hands, finding himself chest deep in the salt water of his tears. He couldn't remember how long he had knelt there, but it seemed a lifetime at least. Pulling his mind from that train of thought, he realized that this time the voice had a direction. He could locate the origin and pin a direction to it. He struggled to his feet, the sea of his grief making it difficult. Finally he stood and began the trek toward the voice.
Slowly he found himself wading out of the salty sea, his journey becoming somewhat easier now. He still struggled, forcing each foot ahead a few inches at a time until he felt he couldn't move another muscle. But then, just as he prepared to give in, the voice would beckon again and he would find the energy to continue forward. And then. . .
The voice stopped.
- M7 -
Six figures sat, slumped and exhausted around the evening fire. Reddened eyes stared into the fire as if it held answers to whatever questions they silently asked. None of them seemed to have the energy to eat the plates of beans before them. None of them spoke, couldn't even look at one another. The stress of the last three days had taken its toll, leaving them physically and emotionally numb.
"We're runnin' out of supplies. . . everything," Buck broke the silence, splashing a bit of the too-weak coffee out of his mug to make the point. Turning his attention to the healer, he asked without saying anything. "Nathan?"
Jackson simply stared into the fire, having heard the question far too often. "Chris' fever's gone. . . for good I think. His body's healin' good. Vin. . ." he sighed, "I just don't know for sure. He's still in bad shape."
Huffing a frustrated breath, Wilmington said, "You've been sayin' that for the last three days."
"You think I don't know that?!" Jackson growled, tossing his coffee into the fire and his plate and mug to the ground. Leaping to his feet, he stormed off toward the trees, cursing with every step.
"Good goin', Buck," JD snapped. "Why not - "
"Shut up, boy. . . just shut up!" The big brunet, too, leapt to his feet and stomped off in the opposite direction from where Nathan had disappeared, leaving his own plate and mug upended on the ground.
JD heaved a sigh and started to go after his friend, but Josiah's deep voice stopped him. "Let him be, son. He needs to work off some of that frustration. We all do, I think."
"What we all need, is to return to town. . . to find ourselves home, where we can find some semblance of. . . normalcy." Ezra observed.
"I don't think we're ever going to feel normal again," Mary Travis replied.
"Normal is what we make of it," Josiah added to the conversation. "And I believe you're both right. We do need to return to whatever comfort we can find. And, no, we can't return to what was 'normal' before. Not after this, or any other major event. We need to realize that."
The other three simply looked at him, telling him quite eloquently that his philosophizing was not welcome. Acknowledging that with silence, Sanchez returned to staring into the fire.
- M7 -
Vin looked around him, shocked and surprised to find no one in the tent but him and Chris. It was the first time in days he'd been without at least one 'mother hen' fussing over him. Mostly it was Nathan, but the others took turns, too. The hardest to cope with was having Mary there when he needed to relieve himself. Since he wasn't allowed up, he had been resigned to using a jug they'd found somewhere. If the young woman was there, he'd fight the urge as long as he could, hoping that one of the men would spell her soon. Sometimes it worked, other times. . . well, he'd just as soon not think about it.
Easing himself up, he looked over at the other cot. Chris lay there, staring as he had been since they'd rescued him. Taking a deep breath in an effort to gather his strength, he dragged himself up and took the half dozen steps it took to get to the other cot. Another deep breath allowed him to shift himself downward to perch on the edge of the canvas bed. Reaching out tentatively, he laid a hand on his friend's shoulder and gently squeezed. "Hey, Cowboy. . . where th' hell are ya?"
- M7 -
There was a voice again. . . something to hold onto. . . to move toward. He forced himself to move in that direction, finding himself so exhausted that it took a monumental effort to move each foot forward. Still, he plodded on, focusing on that voice. There was nothing in his mind, no thought other than that voice. It filled his mind, giving him he had thought long gone.
"Cowboy. . . c'mon back. . . c'mon outta there. . . c'mon Cowboy. . . we're here. . . waitin' fer ya. . . c'mon. . . c'mon back now. . ."
He continued to move toward the sound, only making out some of the words. It didn't really matter what the words said, he just needed to hear them.
"C'mon. . . Cowboy. . ."
Cowboy. He never liked that name.
"Cowboy. . . right here. . . I'm right here. . ."
Right here. Who? It didn't matter. He knew the voice.
But then. . .
"Cowboy. . ."
He stopped hearing it.
And he was alone again.
- M7 -
Vin sagged down, nearly falling from the cot. Then he felt a pair of hands holding him up. He couldn't even manage to look up; his head suddenly felt like it weighed a ton. But then the voice came and he didn't need to look.
"Vin Tanner, what in the hell were you thinkin', gettin' up? I told you. . . "
He didn't need to hear any more, he knew the rest by heart. Lord knew he'd heard it often enough. "Sorry."
Jackson huffed out a breath and rolled his eyes as he lifted the trembling man from the cot, guided him to his own bed, and settled him beneath the blankets once more. As the man's eyes began to close, he coaxed him to drink more tea. Getting most of the mug into his patient, he allowed the younger man to drift back to sleep.
Turning then to his other patient, he was shocked to find that the blond's head was turned, and he was staring right at Tanner. "Chris? Chris, you awake?"
Larabee continued to stare, his gaze locked on the now sleeping Texan.
- M7 -
The sun had already heated the tent up when Vin began his journey toward consciousness. He almost hated to move in that direction, all it offered these days was pain and disappointment. And looming largest in that second category was the fact that Chris was still lost to them.
He finally came awake to a quiet ruckus. Nathan, Buck, Ezra, JD, Josiah and Mary were all gathered around Chris' cot, whispering to one another. At first he'd been afraid that the blond had succumbed to his injuries, but there was no sense of mourning. Instead, there was an electric current of expectation buzzing through the tent. Struggling to pull himself upright, Tanner managed to drop his feet to the ground before anyone noticed him. Of course it would be Nathan.
"Vin Tanner, don't you dare get up off that bed!" The bigger man crossed to his cot in two strides. Gently, but firmly, he guided Tanner back to the canvas cot.
"What. . . what's goin' on, Nathan?" He asked, breathlessly.
Jackson filled him in, explaining that Larabee had been awake a little earlier, or at least seemed to be. While he would stare at whoever was talking, he didn't respond in any other way. Nathan had his doubts about the meaning behind it all, but the others seemed certain that the gunslinger was coming out of wherever he had gone.
Vin watched as the others talked to Chris, trying to get some sort of response. As the day wore on, and he drifted in and out, they took turns talking to the supine form, refusing to give up hope. He couldn't help but feel that sense of hope, too. It was impossible not to hold out hope that the gunman would return to them.
He found himself drifting out of a dream, actually more of a memory, he and Chris sitting on that overlook at the Seminole village. Just as he called Larabee friend, he found that the blond had disappeared.
Eyes still closed, Vin tried to decide what was different. Finally it came to him. . . no one was talking. Slowly opening his eyes, he looked around him in the pre-dawn darkness. He found that he and Chris were once again alone. Then, with a shock, he realized that Larabee was nowhere to be found.
Heart pounding, the Texan managed to pull himself up off the cot. He staggered a few steps before he managed to find his balance. Reaching the slightly parted tent flap, he peered outside. Dawn was just laying claim to the landscape, announcing yet another day. There was a single form, huddled near the fire, chin tucked against chest. Josiah. The others must be tucked away in the other tents. There was nothing to tell him where Chris was, however.
Tanner padded from the tent, wrapping his arms around himself as the chilled air hit him. As he did, he spotted movement at the edge of the trees. More from instinct than anything else, he knew it was Chris. He didn't know how the man had managed it, but he was moving on his own.
Frowning, he made his way across the camp, eyes never leaving the shadowy figure of his friend. He trailed Larabee through the narrow band of trees that surrounded the clearing. He nearly lost sight of his quarry a time or two, but managed to locate him again quickly. When he finally managed to catch up with the blond, he was shocked and amazed at where they were.
They were standing near the smoldering, grotesque pile of bones that constituted the remains of the sick bastards who had done such horrific things to not only Chris Larabee, but to who knew how many others.
But how had the man known where to come, to find the gruesome end of the trail for his tormentors? They had been brought to this side of the camp, to keep the stench at a minimum.
Deciding that was an answer he would have to seek later, Tanner moved in closer toward the other man. Chris stood there, shivering in nothing but his underwear, staring at the pile of bodies. Stopping as near to the other man as he dared, Vin said softly, "They can't hurt ya no more, Chris. The boys made damn sure of that." Tentatively, he placed a hand on one, bowed shoulder. "Yer safe now."
The blond head turned; a lot of pain and fear on his face that quickly disappeared, to be replaced by that same, blank look he had worn for so long.
Vin was shocked. Perhaps Chris Larabee wasn't buried that deep in his mind, after all. At the same time, that look told him very clearly that the blond would not feel safe for a long time to come.
Giving the man's shoulder a squeeze, Tanner continued softly. "C'mon, Pard, let's go back to the camp. Ain't neither of us up ta hikin' through the woods right now."
Larabee meekly moved back toward where the others were. By the time they reached the clearing, neither man was very steady on their feet. Vin had hold of Chris's elbow, helping to guide him. At times, though, he wasn't certain who was holding whom up.
The Texan groaned, closing his eyes as he came to a stop. Chris stopped beside him as the healer stormed over to where the two men stood.
"What in the hell were you thinkin', Vin Tanner, takin' him out for a. . . what. . . a walk?!"
Nathan sputtered on for a few more seconds before he took a breath. Jumping into the brief silence, Vin gathered up what little strength he could find and said, "Now, jist hold on! He took me fer a walk. . . and neither one of us is feelin' real spry at the moment."
As if on cue, Larabee's entire body shook violently, then his legs buckled. Tanner tried to grab him, which only resulted in both of them landing ungracefully on the ground. With another curse, the former slave hurried the few steps to where the two men lay in a tangle of limbs. Alerted by the noise, the others were there just a few seconds later.
Buck and Josiah picked Chris up between them, carrying the once more insensate man back to the tent. Meanwhile, Nathan and Ezra helped Vin up and supported him back to the tent as well.
Vin allowed the other two men to settle him back on the cot, too exhausted to protest. Before Nathan could move away, he snagged the man's sleeve. "Nathan, he. . . I don't know how, but he found them. . . bodies. Don't know how but he was standin' there. . . starin' at 'em."
Looking down at the tracker, Jackson related to the puzzled expression on the weary face. "I don't know what to tell you, Vin. We'll think about it later, though, all right? I need you to get some rest right now."
"Seems like all I do is rest," Tanner said with a sigh.
A compassionate smile on his face, the bigger man said, "Well, you're gonna need it if you want to get up on that four-legged rattlesnake any time soon."
"Y'all don't give 'im no credit," Tanner complained, a hurt expression on his face. "He's a good ol' mule. . ." he drifted off, quickly settling into a deep sleep.
Chuckling and shaking his head, the former slave laid the back of his hand on the sleeping man's forehead. Vin was a little warm to the touch, but not overly so. Tucking the blanket around the lean frame, he turned to his other patient.
Chris was still awake. . . at least his eyes were open. The healer watched the scene before him, studying the interaction. Or the lack thereof. Buck was talking to him, but Larabee was simply staring. There didn't seem to be any comprehension in his eyes. Then Buck stopped and Josiah began to talk. The blond head turned slightly, but still there was no sign that the gunman was listening.
Standing at the foot of the cot, the healer watched as Larabee continued to stare, he broke in, speaking loud enough to drown out the others. "Four score and seven years ago. . ." ignoring the looks the others gave him, he continued his recitation until the others seemed to that Chris wasn't really listening.
"Nathan, what are you doin'?" Buck asked.
"I needed y'all to see something."
"What, whether or not he knows that speech?"
"Chris ain't listenin'."
The big brunet glared. "What are you talkin' about? He's layin' right there, listenin'."
"Did he respond in any way?"
"I don't. . . what do you mean? What are you talking about?"
Buck, look at him," Jackson spoke softly. He could tell that the others already understood but Chris' oldest friend would need more convincing. "Buck, look at him. . . really look at him."
Wilmington did, frowning when he realized that his old friend was staring off into space. "Chris?"
- M7 -
He could hear voices. Not the ones that had tortured him for so long, but voices he knew. He couldn't understand the words, everything seemed so far away, but he knew the tones.
His friends were somewhere nearby.
He had no idea, though, just where to look for them.
- M7 -
"What's goin' on, Nathan? What's wrong with him? He looks to be awake, but. . . it's like he ain't really there." Wilmington gestured vaguely; feeling very lost himself, suddenly.
"Not certain, but I saw it sometimes, during the War. Some men just sort of disappeared, even though they were there, right in front of ya."
"They. . . do they get better?" JD asked.
Shrugging, the black man said, "Not certain. Some do, but some. . ."
"Some don't," Josiah guessed.
The healer's only response was a short nod.
"Well, Chris ain't gonna stay this way forever," Buck said with conviction.
"You don't know that, Buck," JD said in a voiced made soft and rough at the same time, with emotion. "I mean, just look at him -"
Wilmington rounded on the younger, smaller man, anger flaring in blue eyes. "I know, because I know Chris, boy. I know him a helluva lot better than any of you! I know what this man's capable of!"
The others watched as the ex-lawman stormed outside, a string of curses left behind in his wake. Then eyes turned to the young sheriff, watching as embarrassment colored his pale features.
Josiah laid a fatherly hand on JD's shoulder. "Don't take it to heart, John Dunne. That was fear and hurt talking."
Taking a deep, trembling breath, the Easterner said, "I know, I. . . I just wasn't thinking."
"Yes, you were, JD," Nathan disagreed gently. "He's just thinking with his heart. Hopefully he'll come around, if things. . . well, if they don't turn out the way he hopes."
"It's not that I don't hope Chris comes out of this, but I. . ."
When it seemed that JD wasn't going to finish, Sanchez said, "A wise man once said, 'hope for the best, while preparing for the worst'." The big man left then, going after Wilmington.
With a shake of his head, the youngest of them pondered, "Wonder who said that?"
Chuckling, Jackson said, "Knowing him, he said it himself."
JD looked puzzled for a few seconds before a smile spread across his face. Laughing, he said, "You're probably right."
- M7 -
Josiah searched for the mercurial brunet, finally locating him on the far side of the camp. He had settled beneath a tree, leaning back against the trunk. The former preacher chose a second tree nearby, lowering himself to the ground. He didn't say anything, just sat quietly, waiting. His patience was rewarded some time later, when the other man finally spoke.
"He won't stay like. . . like that, Josiah. There ain't nothing or nobody that's gonna convince me otherwise."
"You're scared," Sanchez observed.
"I'm pissed," Buck argued. "Seems like y'all are awful damn quick to give up on 'im."
"Is that what we're doing?"
"Sure as hell seems like it!" Wilmington shoved to his feet and stalked away a few steps, then moved back toward the other man. Josiah never moved, he simply sat there, watching as the agitated man continued to pace, his stride stiff and choppy. He continued his tirade. "Y'all are so damned quick to accept Chris layin' there, starin' like it ain't a big deal. Well, it is a big deal. That's my friend in there!"
"He's our friend, too, Buck. Haven't we shown that these last few weeks at least?"
"Y'all talk a good game, preacher, but now. . . now. . ." He dropped to a squat in front of the silver-haired man, running his fingers through his own thick, black hair. Taking a deep breath he finished in a harsh whisper. "Now, damn it. . . after all we've been through, we can't lose him. Not now."
Looking at the haggard, desolate features, the slumped shoulders, and the overall appearance of despair, Sanchez repeated, "You're afraid. You're afraid that, after all we've done; everything Chris has been put through, that we're going to lose. That we'll lose Chris. . . that he'll lose his fight."
Buck pushed back to his feet and resumed his pacing. "We can't lose. . . not now. We can't lose Chris. . . can't lose. . . this. Damn it, not after everything that's happened. After. . . after. . ."
"After Chris reclaimed his soul the first time?" Josiah guessed.
Nodding, the lanky gunman said, "Yes. Damn it, yes. I've seen him regain something I never thought he'd be able to find again. After he fought back. . . well, I just can't believe that he'll just. . . just end up like. . . like that."
Standing, Josiah came to stand in front of Buck, blocking his path. When the other man looked at him, he said softly, "Are you angry because you think we've given up, my friend. . . or are you afraid that you won't have the strength not to give up, yourself?"
Buck regarded the older man for a moment, fire growing in his eyes. Then, without a word, he hit Josiah in the mouth, hard enough to drop the man, stunned, to the ground. Without a word, he turned and stalked off.
- M7 -
Nathan looked up at the sound of someone entering the tent. Seeing Sanchez standing there, he frowned at the sight of blood on the older man's mouth. "Josiah, what happened?"
Waving the concerned man off, the former preacher said, "I'm fine, Nathan. It's nothing more than a split lip."
Handing over a damp cloth, Jackson repeated, "What happened?"
"Buck needed to blow off some steam, my face happened to be handy."
The former stretcher bearer shook his head. "We need to get out of here, there's no way to get away from. . ." He waved his arm around them, "all this."
"Are our fallen brothers strong enough for the journey?"
"Long as we take things slow, they should be."
"Then I'd suggest we make ready to head home in the morning."
- M7 -
It was a solemn group that entered the dusty little town just before sundown a few days later. They received more than a few odd looks as they moved slowly down the street. Gloria Potter hurried from her store, calling out to Mary. The young blonde, as worn out as the rest, waved to her friend. When Gloria hurried alongside the wagon, she reached up, taking Mary's hand.
"Oh, thank the Good Lord, Mary! I'm so happy you're safe. Is everyone. . .?"
"Everyone's alive," the newspaper woman assured her. Turning to Buck, who was driving the wagon, she asked, "Would you mind letting me off here?"
Drawing back on the reins, Wilmington nodded, setting the brake, before helping the woman from the wagon. Without a word, he left the two of them behind and continued on toward the clinic. He had been like that since his tirade back at the camp. He only said what he absolutely had to, and kept his distance from the others as much as possible.
The trip had been trying for all of them. Even though they had traveled slowly, stopping often to give Vin and Chris time to rest and recover. While the hours of being bounced and jostled quickly took their toll on Tanner, they scarcely seemed to affect Larabee. Whether his eyes were open or closed, it was the same. He lay as still as stone, unresponsive to the world around him. He took food or water when it was offered, but he did so automatically. Cold water or hot broth; neither caused him to so much as blink.
Arriving at the bottom of the stairs that led to Nathan's clinic, Buck once more set the brake. JD, Ezra and Josiah, on horseback reined in as well. Jackson, in the wagon with his patients, directed the others as they carefully moved Vin and Chris from the wagon. While Josiah helped Tanner walk up the stairs, the others carried Larabee up on a stretcher.
The townspeople gathered at the bottom of the staircase, watched the seven men disappear into the clinic.
- M7 -
Vin stared out across the rooftops of the town, seeking out the hills beyond. He was feeling more and more hemmed in every day and could scarcely believe that two weeks had passed since their return.
Sorrowful, blue eyes turned from the horizon to the man beside him. Chris Larabee sat on the pillow padded chair, wrapped in a quilt. His eyes were open, and he was staring into the distance. As far as Tanner could tell, however, his friend wasn't looking at anything.
Once again, their days were filled with caring for their friend; the undisputed leader of their brotherhood. It wasn't as if any of them begrudged Chris that care. But, feeding him, bathing him, shaving him, they had all looked into those vacant eyes. Each time they did, it was harder and harder to hold onto hope.
"Gonna be a nice day, " Vin turned his gaze back to the landscape. "Reckon it'll warm up in a couple hours. Then we can take that quilt off ya."
It didn't really matter what they said. Nathan had encouraged them all to talk to Chris, so they talked. JD told jokes; Ezra shared tales of his travels. Buck regaled him with stories of his feminine conquests and Josiah pontificated - a word he'd never heard of until he'd met the older man. Nathan talked about what he hoped for in the future and touched on what he had experienced in the past.
They all had lots of things to talk to Chris about. He and the gunslinger, though, had never needed to talk that much. Their relationship needed no words, until now. And now, he felt woefully inadequate. He found himself struggling to find something to talk about; some way to communicate with his friend.
Sometimes, all he could think too talk about was the weather.
- M7 -
He continued to hear the voices; the ones that were friendly. The other voices were still there, but no longer dominated his attention. Fear had given way to confusion; a feeling of loss; of being lost. But he was no longer accepting that; he was determined to fight back against those feelings.
Slowly he found himself moving toward those voices. He was even able to identify them at times. Like now.
Those were words that came to mind; the words that conjured up visions of the man who was talking to him.
If only he could understand the words that were being spoken. When that happened, he would be able to return from. . .
Wherever he was. . .
- M7 -
Tanner turned, nodding when he saw Buck stepping onto the landing. "Hey, Bucklin. Ain't seen much of ya lately."
"Yeah," The bigger man acknowledged, but didn't elaborate. "Thought I'd see if you'd be interested in goin' on a little ride."
"Where to?" Tanner asked hesitantly, with a frown.
Nodding toward their silent friend, he said, "Chris' shack."
Frown deepening, Vin asked, "What you got goin' on in that head 'a yers, Buck?"
Staring out toward the horizon he replied, "It helped once, Vin. Thought we ought ta give it a chance to work again."
- M7 -
Transporting Chris out to his 'shack in the hills' as they referred to it, was less covert than the first time. The six men were in agreement this time, although Jackson was reluctant. But, even he couldn't offer an alternative. Physically Chris was as well as he had been for weeks, and there was nothing the healer could offer in the way of healing his mind.
Larabee was loaded into the bed of a wagon early the next morning, before the townspeople were out about their business. Vin climbed up onto the wagon seat, his still healing body not quite ready to make the trip on horseback. Buck rode beside the wagon, leading both Pony and Peso. The wagon was also well stocked with supplies; the two men deciding that they would stay with the blond until something happened. . . or it became evident that nothing was ever going to happen.
No one voiced that though; nor did they voice what they would do if Chris never returned from wherever he had hidden inside his mind.
- M7 -
The days and nights fell into a routine; each day depressingly the same as the one before. They ate breakfast before getting Chris out of bed. Sometimes the blond's eyes were open; sometimes they needed to draw him toward what passed as consciousness. Sometimes he refused to respond even that much, eyes staying closed until almost noon.
They alternated, one cooking while the other fed the comatose man. Then they would assist him in taking care of nature's call, although neither of them was comfortable with that level of intimacy. After that, they cleaned him up and got him into his clothes, taking him out to the front porch to sit in the deep-seated, upholstered chair they'd brought out with them.
Several times during the day, one or the other of them would coax Larabee to his feet, guiding him around his property for a walk. They talked during the trip, just as they for what seemed forever. Partially they talked in hopes that something would draw Chris back. Partially they talked to stave off the silence that grew more depressing each day. Even Vin, who could spend a week with Chris; each of them uttering no more than a word a day, could barely tolerate this silence.
Often, after they'd given up trying to get the too-silent man to respond for the day, they'd situate him in bed. Then, the two of them would take a bottle of whiskey and settle on the narrow little porch.
"How long we been out here, ya reckon?"
"Hell, I don't even wanna think about it."
"Yer gitten edgy; bein' away from the ladies back in town."
"Well, can't say I like leavin' there with Ezra. Ya know he don't play cards all the time. Reckon there's a filly or two missin' you, too, although for the life of me I don't know why."
"Of a scrawny, mangy, fella like you? Hell, not sure I want ta be around any lady that prefers your company."
"That's jist 'cause ya don't wanna git yer feelin's hurt when they slap that ugly mug 'a yers."
The conversation was the same every evening, with only a slight variation here and there. Then they would start passing the bottle. Some evenings Vin would share a story or two about his days as a buffalo or a bounty hunter. Some evenings Buck would spin a tale about one lady or another.
Eventually the talk would turn to Chris. They didn't focus on the man that lay on the bed behind them. Instead, they told and retold tales from before. Buck often shared stories about his old friend from long ago. There were tales about two single, wild and woolly cowboys and tales about the family man. Vin was certain that every one of them was embellished as only Wilmington could, but they passed the time and gave them both a chance to do something they rarely did during the day. It gave them the chance to relax and to smile.
- M7 -
Another evening. Vin brought the bottle of whiskey out to the porch, followed a few minutes later by Buck, who'd put Chris to bed. Wilmington settled on one of the chairs, accepting the bottle from the other man with a nod. He frowned when he noticed the younger man was focused on the evening sky. "What're you lookin' at?"
With a sigh, Tanner said, "Gonna be the Harvest moon tonight. Can't believe it's been more 'n two months since all this started."
Taking a long draw from the bottle, Buck handed it back to his companion. "Sometimes it feels like it's been this way a lot longer."
Vin nodded and took a drink himself before passing the bottle back to the other man. Nothing was said for some time as the two men sat staring into the gathering darkness. Then the horizon began to grow brighter again, as the full moon made its appearance.
"Ya ever stop to think about all the things that come about during the full moon?" Buck was settled back in his chair, long legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles.
"Reckon you'd know more about it than me, bein' so much older an' all," Vin teased softly.
Ignoring the jibe, Wilmington said, "I ever tell you about the time I met the Morrison twins at the fishing hole under the full moon?"
"Only 'bout a dozen times or so," Tanner replied, with a shake of his head.
"Ah, but it's a tale that bears repeatin'. See, me and Margaret Morrison had been sort of flirtin' back and forth, but nothin' had come of it. Finally, she told me that she'd only meet me if she could bring her sister, Matilda, along. It only took me about half a second to agree to that, believe you me! So, we made plans to meet out at the fishin' hole, since it was about halfway between town and their daddy's place. Now, as soon as I got there, I knew it was gonna be an interestin' evening. Them girls rode up in a buggy, dressed in nothin' but their bloomers and shawls. So I did the only thing I could. . ."
As Wilmington rambled on about that night, Vin's mind wandered. About the time the moon was balanced on the horizon, and Buck had recounted how the twins got him out of his clothes, he heard something behind them. Turning, he caught sight of movement inside the little cabin. "Chris?"
"No, I told ya, it was Josiah -"
"Buck, shut up a minute."
About to deliver a retort, the former lawman realized that Vin was looking inside the shack. Turning, he searched the shadows and, like Tanner, quickly focused on the figure moving inside. He started to rise, but stopped when the other man grabbed his arm.
"Hang on a minute. Let's see what he does."
After a few seconds of hesitation, the brunet nodded. They watched as the blond managed to push himself off the bed. With slow, wooden movements, he walked toward them, continuing out onto the porch and then into the yard without acknowledging his friends.
Both men stood, walking softly as they followed Larabee. Chris moved into the middle of the yard, coming to stop beside the corral. His attention was focused wholly and completely on the bright orb above them. Vin and Buck flanked him, waiting to see what would happen next.
"It's full." Larabee's voice was soft and raspy from weeks of silence.
"Sure is, Pard," Vin offered in a whisper.
"They'll come." Fear filled his voice now.
Risking a touch, Buck placed his hand on one, trembling shoulder. "No they won't, Stud. They'll never hurt another living soul. We made damned sure of that."
"They want. . . they'll hurt. . . hurt me."
Vin placed his hand on the man's other shoulder. "No, Chris, they can't. They're dead. Every last one of 'em. I swear to ya."
Larabee turned his head, looking from one to the other. "De-Dead?"
"Dead," Buck assured.
"Dead," Vin repeated.
Chris continued to stare, first at Buck, then at Vin, then at the moon. After nearly half an hour, he said in a hushed whisper, "Dead." That single word seemed to open up a floodgate, releasing emotions long locked away. With his friends on either side of him, he began to sob. Buck supported his old fiend as he slumped toward the ground, while Vin hurried into the cabin. The Texan returned with a blanket, which they wrapped around the trembling man. Then the two of them settled in beside their friend, supporting him as all of the emotions locked away for so long poured forth.
The heavy moon shone down on the trio, as oblivious to the miracle taking place as it had been to the evil wrought by its rising.
Vin looked up at the sound of a horse moving up the street. Staring out into the early evening, he saw a familiar shape coming closer. Chris reined his horse in at the hitching post. The gunman dismounted, tied off his black's reins, and stepped up onto the boardwalk.
Sky blue locked with green-hazel as an entire conversation passed between them without a word. With a short nod, the blond continued on, entering the saloon.
With a sigh, the tracker stood, going to unhitch Pony. Loosening the reins, he moved toward the livery. As he walked down the street, he noted that both Buck and Josiah were heading toward the saloon. Ezra was already there, JD and Nathan were out of town. It would be up to them to make certain that, once he was drunk enough, he made it to his room. There, one or two of them would stay the night, sentinels watching over their friend. It had been the same for several months now. Although the members of the cult were nothing but dust on the wind, the fear and pain remained.
In many ways things had returned to normal. They did what they had to, to protect the little town. They had dealt with a variety of things, none of them nearly as bizarre as the vile and violent men who had killed so many, and nearly killed Chris.
As for Larabee, he seemed almost back to normal. The gunman had returned to his place as their leader; guiding and ordering them through anything and everything that came their way. He drank a whiskey or two with the rest of them, smiling and even laughing at their jokes and stories. He had never been one to talk a lot, and that hadn't changed.
But, everything did change once every month or so. He became more quiet and reflective. His keen eyes seemed even more on the alert than normal. He became distracted and distant, at the same time nervous and craving the company of his friends.
They all understood, and they all accepted this change, providing the blond with the support he needed.
Tonight the moon would be full.
October 15, 2006