"I'll be back in a week, maybe less," Chris Larabee stated from atop his big black.
"As long as you're back in time for Christmas," JD Dunne spoke up with a grin that told Chris the boy had something planned.
"Don't matter if I am or not," Chris said off-handedly. "It's just another day."
JD's smile faltered and he seemed embarrassed by his youthful enthusiasm. For a moment, Chris almost apologized and promised to be back in time, then thought better of it. Every Christmas since Sarah and Adam had been murdered, Chris's only companions over the holiday had been a couple whiskey bottles, sometimes more. He didn't see any reason to change tradition now.
Vin Tanner peered at him intently and Chris had the distinct impression the ex-bounty hunter could read his thoughts. And maybe he could.
"You want some company?" Vin asked.
Chris shook his head. "The judge said one man could handle it. I figure with me gone it'll take all six of you to take care of the town."
Vin grinned lazily and pulled a piece of straw from between his lips. "Well, at least me and JD. Buck's been curryin' the favor of the new gal at the saloon, Ezra's busy fleecin' those fellahs that showed up a couple days ago, and Nathan and Josiah's convinced they can get the church finished by Christmas eve."
Chris glanced around at the nearly deserted town. "With half the townsfolk gone to celebrate Christmas with relatives, you should have a fairly quiet time."
"I'm surprised Miz Travis left for a whole month," JD commented.
"She misses Billy and wanted to spend Christmas with him. You can't blame her," Chris said, understanding too well the ache of loneliness. His horse snorted and tugged at the reins. He touched the brim of his hat in farewell, then tapped his heels against his black's flanks.
Five days later, Chris, cold, dusty and tired, rode back into Four Corners. He'd felt guilty about how he'd treated JD, and decided to get back in plenty of time for Christmas - four days early. He glanced at his bulging saddlebags and his face warmed with embarrassment. Hell, he'd done some pretty stupid things before, but this one ranked right up there.
He entered town, and the absence of sound and activity sent the back of his neck to tingling. No buggies or wagons greeted his eyes, and there were only a couple horses tied to a hitching post across the street from the church, in front of the building where he and Nathan rented upstairs rooms.
As he drew nearer, he recognized Buck's gray and JD's mare. His heart thudded in his chest and his palms grew moist. He studied the street more closely, and noticed drying patches of dark brown in the soil and on the boardwalk. New bullet holes scarred wood posts and a window in the jailhouse had been broken.
His apprehension ballooned, and he urged his horse over to the hitching post where Buck and JD's mounts stood. He glanced at the saddles, didn't see any blood on them, and sighed in relief. Taking two steps at a time, he went up the stairs, knowing if someone had been hurt - and that seemed pretty obvious - they'd be gathered in Nathan's room. He wouldn't let himself consider that one of the men might have been killed.
He knocked lightly and a moment later, a pale-faced Ezra opened the door. Inside, the scene was all too familiar: Nathan bent over a figure on the bed with Josiah on the other side, assisting him. Buck and JD, whose left arm was in a sling, leaned against the far wall, their expressions twins of concern and anger.
That left Vin as the still figure on the bed.
"What the hell happened?" Chris demanded in a low voice.
All but Nathan looked over at him, but nobody answered. Viscous silence seeped across the room.
"What happened to Vin?" he reiterated, impatience ringing in his rich timbre.
Buck pushed away from the wall and strode over to Chris, laying a hand on his arm. "C'mon, let's go outside."
Chris reluctantly allowed Buck to steer him on to the landing outside Nathan's room. He closed the door behind them and Chris noticed in the full light of day that Buck's eyes were sunken, without the devil-may-care gleam they normally carried.
"How bad?" Chris asked in a deceptively soft tone.
"It's bad, Chris," Buck replied soberly. He jerked his weather-worn hat off his head and raked his fingers through his tangled hair. "He caught one in the back, close to the spine."
Chris turned away and gripped the railing. His knuckles grew white as helpless rage burned through his veins. "How?"
"A dozen men rode into town early this morning." Buck paused to swallow hard. "They were looking for you."
Buck shook his head. "They never said. Only that they wanted you. Vin tried to tell'em we didn't know where you were. That's when things got ugly."
Chris spun around to face his oldest friend. "Where the hell were you?"
Buck's ruddy cheeks deepened to scarlet. "I ain't gonna make any excuses. I was makin' time with Sally, the new gal at the saloon."
Chris's face planed into harsh angles and sharp curves. Black rage coupled with visceral fear as he fought to control his outward calm. "What about the others?"
"Ezra was still sleepin' from an all night poker game. JD, Nathan, and Josiah got there first. They took down half of the men before one of 'em got Vin. By the time me and Ezra made it down there, the other six had hightailed it out of here."
Surrendering to the maelstrom of emotions, Chris slammed his fist against the railing. "Sonuvabitch! When's it gonna end, Buck? How many more are gonna be killed because of me?"
Buck took a step toward Chris, but refrained from laying a soothing hand on his shoulder. The man would probably slug him out of frustration. "This ain't your fault, Chris. Hell, if it's anyone's, it's mine. I should've been keepin' an eye out instead of, well, you know."
Chris stared unseeingly across the empty town. Buck was a good man to ride the river with as long as there weren't any women around. He couldn't help it; for him it was as natural as breathing. The only problem was Vin was paying the price for Buck's nature.
He took a deep soothing breath although nothing could quench the red hot flames in his gut. "What happened to JD? He okay?"
Buck nodded curtly. "Bullet grazed the top of his shoulder. Fool kid was right there in the middle of it. Coulda got himself killed."
"I suppose he would've been better off in an upstairs saloon bedroom like you." Chris saw Buck flinch from his cruel jab, but he was too angry to apologize.
Chris whirled around, his duster dancing about his legs, and headed for the stairs.
Buck grabbed his arm. "Where the hell do you think you're goin'?"
"I'm goin' to get the bastards who started this whole thing." Chris's voice was deadly serious.
Something flashed in Buck's dark eyes. Anger? Disappointment? Fear?
"Damnit, Chris, what about Vin? Ain't you gonna find out if he's goin' to make it?"
Fury gave in to anguish and Chris averted his gaze. "I can't do anything here."
"The hell you can't. You're closer to Vin than me and the other boys. It's you who should stay by him if--" Buck broke off and his gaze skittered all around Chris, then settled on his fierce-looking friend, "--when he wakes up."
Buck's rock steady gaze penetrated Chris's curtain of vengeance, but before Chris could say anything, the door opened and the other four men came out, their expressions grim.
"Is he -- " Chris couldn't say the word.
Nathan shook his head as he wiped his hands on a towel, leaving behind a red stain. "He's alive and I got the bleedin' stopped."
"That's good, ain't it?" Buck demanded.
Nathan licked his dry lips. "For the moment, but the bullet's still in him."
"Then get it out," Chris ordered.
"I can't." Nathan's dark eyes revealed his helplessness. "It's up against the backbone. I don't think a regular doctor can even dig it out."
"What're you sayin', that Vin is a dead man?" Chris asked savagely.
Ezra dared to lay a hand on Chris's tense arm, and spoke in a controlled, even voice, "What Nathan is attempting to say is that Vin needs a specialist, a doctor trained most specifically in surgery of the spinal cord."
"And if he doesn't get it?"
Josiah and Nathan exchanged glances, and it was Josiah who answered. "Then Vin will either die or he might never walk again."
Thick silence permeated the air between the six men.
"In either case he's a dead man," Chris said.
Nobody bothered to argue.
"Then we have to get him to a specialist," Buck exclaimed, fervor blazing in his eyes. He turned to Nathan. "Where's the nearest one?"
"That's over five hundred miles away," Ezra said.
"If we can get Vin to Ridge City, the train can get us there in a couple of days," Josiah interjected.
"Nathan, go send a message to the hospital in Denver and ask them if they've got one of them specialists. Then send a message to Ridge City and find out when the next train leaves," Chris ordered.
"Ben is out of town," JD said.
Chris swore. Geezus, even the telegraph operator had left town for the damned holiday.
"But I think I can send one," JD volunteered. "I been spendin' time at the office with him. I sent a couple with him watchin'."
Chris motioned with his head to accompany Nathan, and the two men hurried away to carry out their task.
"Buck, see if you can find a wagon. Josiah, help him make it comfortable enough for Vin to travel in."
Buck and Josiah left.
"And what can I do?" Ezra asked.
"Give us a loan," Chris replied grimly.
"I know you been makin' some good money at the poker table. We're goin' to need it to get Vin to Denver."
Ezra studied Chris for a long moment, his expression unreadable. Then he nodded. "I can think of no better use for it." He descended the stairs, following in the other men's wake.
Alone, Chris entered Nathan's dim room and, with hesitant steps, approached Vin's unusually still body. He pulled a chair close to the bedside, sat down, then removed his hat and twirled it nervously between his hands. Almost reluctantly, he lifted his gaze to Vin and watched the shallow rise and fall of his chest which was swathed with white bandages. He looked into his frighteningly pale face, so different from his usual weathered features.
"Geezus, Vin, I leave you alone for a few days and you get yourself shot," Chris said, his throat raw. "What the hell am I gonna do about you?"
"Let me go next time," came Vin's hoarse voice.
Chris set his hat aside and braced his forearms on his thighs as he leaned forward to look into Vin's pain-hollowed eyes.
"Welcome back, pard," Chris greeted with a quiet smile.
"Thanks, I think. What the hell happened?"
"You were shot."
"Yeah, I figgered that." He frowned. "Why can't I move?"
"What do you mean?" Chris asked, stalling the inevitable.
"My legs, I can't even feel'em."
"The bullet's lodged in your back, Vin, near your spine," Chris explained as gently as he could.
Panic darkened Vin's eyes. "Am I goin' to walk again?"
"Hell yes. You'll be up and around in no time." Chris's words sounded false even to his own ears.
"Damnit, Chris. I thought you were my friend."
"I am," Chris said sharper than he'd intended. The betrayal in Vin's expression sent a wave of shame washing through him, and he said in a somber tone, "Okay, I'll give it to you square. Nathan can't get the bullet out and if it doesn't come out, you're either gonna bleed to death or stay like this the rest of your life."
"Which ain't gonna be long," Vin said flatly. He stared at the ceiling. "You gotta swear to me that if I can't ever walk again, you'll give me my gun and walk away."
Chris felt the blood drain from his face, but hadn't he expected that reaction? If he was the one lying in bed, he'd be asking Vin for the same vow.
Vin intense gaze stabbed Chris as he grabbed his wrist. "Promise me, Chris!"
Chris nodded stiffly, meeting Vin's feverish eyes. "I promise."
Vin released him and his hand fell back to the mattress beside his useless body as if he'd exhausted what little strength remained.
Nathan came in, and smiled at seeing Vin had regained consciousness. Chris moved away so Nathan could check his patient.
"How're you feelin'?" the healer asked.
"Fair to middlin'," Vin replied, keeping his gaze on Chris as if drawing energy from the invisible bond between them.
Nathan glanced at Chris. "You tell him?"
Chris nodded curtly. "You send the message?"
"JD did. He's stayin' at the telegraph office until he gets word back."
"What're you two talkin' about?" Vin asked, his words slurred.
"There's supposed to be a doctor in Denver who can get that bullet out of ya," Nathan replied. "We're checkin' to make sure, then we're gonna take you there."
Vin seemed to have trouble concentrating. "What d'ya mean?"
Chris leaned over Vin and laid a soothing hand on his shoulder - his skin was hot beneath his palm. "It means we're gonna do all we can to make sure you live and walk again."
Vin's eyelids fluttered closed, but a slight smile curved his lips upward. "Never had friends..." His sentence ended with a soft snore.
Nathan looked at Chris who hadn't moved from his protective position over Vin. "Even if there's a specialist there, I ain't so sure Vin'll survive the trip. The bullet could move, make him bleed to death inside."
Slowly, reluctant to lose the physical contact with Vin, Chris straightened. He squeezed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. God, he was tired, but it didn't look like he'd be getting any rest soon.
"Why don't you go get some sleep?" Nathan suggested kindly. "There's nothin' you can do until we hear back from Denver."
"I'll be back in a little while," Chris said.
"Rest'll do you good," Nathan approved.
Chris strode out and headed for the stairs down to the street. He didn't mean to mislead Nathan, but he knew the healer would argue with him if he knew what Chris planned to do. Chris wasn't about to lay around when there were men out there who had come hunting him. And instead had gunned down Vin.
Ice cold rage sharpened his senses and he mounted his horse with the cadence of vengeance drumming through his head. The sons-of-bitches were going to pay for what they did if it was the last thing Chris did on this earth.
With so little traffic around Four Corners, it was easy to spot the six sets of prints the gunmen had left behind. As he followed their trail at a steady gait, he considered the promise he'd made to Vin. Could he let Vin kill himself if there was no chance he'd walk again? He shook his head; that choice had been taken out of his hands when he'd given his word.
This was going to be a helluva Christmas.
He followed the trail due north for over an hour before deciding he'd best head back to town and see if the others had learned anything. And to see how Vin was faring. By the time he arrived back in Four Corners, the sun's rays were slanting between the western horizon and a bank of dark clouds.
He was surprised to see five horses saddled and ready, and a buckboard backed up to the boardwalk with the others gathered around it. Chris urged his horse down the street at a fast clip and drew to a halt beside the men. From atop his horse's back, he could see Vin had already been loaded into the wagon which had been filled with hay and had a mattress with a few blankets piled on top of it. A quilt covered Vin up to his chin, and Chris was struck by the boyish vulnerability in his sleep-slackened features. He'd always assumed he and Vin were about the same age, but looking at him this way, Chris figured he was close to ten years younger than himself.
"There's a Dr. Latimer in Denver, says he's a specialist and if we can get Vin there, he'll operate on him," Nathan explained to Chris.
"And the train leaves early in the mornin' so we figgered we'd best get going as soon as we could," JD added.
"Good," Chris stated in a low, sandstone-rough voice. "Since my horse could use a rest, I'll take a turn at driving first."
He dismounted and tied his black's reins to the back of the wagon. As he got ready to step up into the wagon's box, Nathan grabbed his arm.
"Go slow and easy-like, and keep a sharp eye out for holes and rocks. We don't want that bullet to be movin'," Nathan said.
Chris nodded. "He sleepin' or out?"
"I gave him some laudanum when he woke up after you left. He was callin' for you, but no one could find you." Nathan's eyes glinted faintly with accusation. "The only way I could get him to settle down was to make him drink some of that stuff."
Chris clenched his jaw. Buck was right; he should've stayed close to Vin. Chris jerked out of Nathan's hold and climbed into the wagon. He picked up the reins, but glanced back at Vin before starting. Seeing the deathly pallor of Vin's face, he wished he hadn't.
Swallowing hard, Chris slapped the leather against the horse's rumps and the wagon rolled forward. The other five men rode encircling the wagon like the cavalry guarding a gold shipment.
Half an hour after they'd left town, Buck drew his horse up alongside Chris and rode silently for a few minutes.
"Spit it out, Buck," Chris said with more resignation than force.
"Spit what out? The fact that you couldn't keep from goin' after those men by yourself?" Buck began. "That you're lookin' to get yourself killed? Or maybe that you're a coward for not bein' able to face Vin?"
"Shut up," Chris ordered, steel thrumming through his clipped words.
"I ain't even started." Buck glared at him. "Damnit, Chris, not everything that happens in the world is your fault, and I get downright sick to my stomach watching you pile everything on your shoulders like you're some goddamned martyr."
"It's better'n you who won't take responsibility for anything. You never have!"
Buck's face deepened to scarlet and his lips thinned in a grim line.
Ezra rode up beside Buck. "Excuse me, gentlemen, but your rather violent discussion is disturbing our patient." Although the words were smooth, his tone held a sharp warning. "Kindly keep your voices down. Vin doesn't need to be hearing such barrages."
Buck glared at Ezra who returned the stare evenly. Buck swore under his breath, and sent Chris a look that told him this wasn't done yet. Then he fell back to ride beside JD and keep an eye on Vin.
Ezra moved to take Buck's place, but didn't attempt to talk to Chris.
"He's wrong," Chris stated in a low voice.
Chris nodded. "It is my fault that Vin's lyin' back there right now. If I had stayed away, listened to my head instead of my -- " He broke off, embarrassed to speak it aloud. "I would've been long gone. Instead, I decide to be some damn do-gooder and pretend that everything's going to be work out fine, just like in JD's dime novels." His lips twisted in self-derision. "Instead, men who want a reputation at the expense of my life come gunnin' for me and friends get hurt, maybe die."
Ezra studied the older man, his ability to read faces telling him that Chris Larabee was in a world of hurt right now. But that ability couldn't tell him how to help him. "If you had not delayed in Four Corners, where would you have absconded to?"
Chris shrugged, keeping his brim-shaded eyes aimed ahead. "Any place where I didn't know anyone, where people are only faces."
"I have traveled that road myself, my friend, and it is infinitely more desolate than the path you have chosen," Ezra relayed softly.
"Maybe, but it'd be a helluva lot safer for you and Buck, JD, Nathan, Josiah." He paused a moment, his jaw clenching. "And Vin."
"Perhaps, but that road is forever closed. You mean a great deal to the people of Four Corners and to Mary and Billy Travis." He paused a moment, a rare emotion tightening his chest. "And even more to the six men who choose to ride beside you. We all make decisions in our life and we must live with them no matter the consequences. It is like Pandora's box which can never be closed again."
Chris remained silent, but Ezra could tell he was considering his words. Ezra shifted uncomfortably in the saddle as he wondered if maybe he'd revealed too many of his cards. He knew the others still puzzled over why he he'd remained in the dirty one-horse town, and if he had to give them an answer, Ezra had no idea what he'd say.
As the men traveled through the arid land, coyotes yipped a welcome to the rising moon that played hide and seek with the gathering clouds. The air had grown downright cold, and Chris could smell a hint of snow in the air. He hoped it would hold off long enough that they'd make it to Ridge City and be on the train before the first snowflakes fell.
Chris tucked his chin in his jacket. He turned to look at Vin and leaned back to pull up the heavy quilt that had slipped off his shoulders. The right front wagon wheel thumped over a rock and Vin groaned through his laudanum-induced sleep. Chris muttered a few curses and took a tighter hold on the reins.
A horse drew up beside him. "I'll take a turn at drivin' for a while," Nathan said quietly.
"I'm okay," Chris growled, not wanting to relinquish Vin's safety to anyone, not even the healer of the group.
"I ain't askin'," Nathan stated, his tone commanding without being loud. "You're only goin' to hurt Vin if you get so tired you don't miss the bumps."
Chris turned to glare at him, but Nathan's stubborn expression told Chris he wasn't going to win the argument. Especially since a part of Chris realized he was right. The long ride to make it back to Four Corners, then the shock of finding Vin seriously hurt by hired guns looking for him was catching up to the ex-shootist, making him less alert.
He nodded wearily and drew the horses to a gentle stop. Jumping down from the seat, he noticed Nathan climb into the back of the wagon.
"Something wrong?" Chris demanded, coming around the back of the buckboard. The clouds had overtaken the night sky, and Chris could barely see Nathan.
"Just checkin' to make sure he didn't start bleedin' again," Nathan replied.
Chris shifted his weight from one booted foot to the other impatiently. "Well?"
"There's some fresh blood, but it ain't much."
Chris turned away, and his gaze collided with JD's dim features. The boy appeared sick.
"Your shoulder botherin' you, JD?"
"I'm okay." His young voice held a slight quaver. He looked like he was going to say something more, then thought better of it and clamped his lips shut.
With a last measuring glance at JD, Chris untied his horse's reins from the back of the wagon and mounted up. His thigh muscles protested, but Chris ignored their complaints. This wasn't the first time he'd spent nearly twenty hours of a day in the saddle.
Nathan urged the team of horses into motion and the men on horseback closed in around the wagon protectively. Chris found himself riding beside Josiah directly behind the wagon. The ex-preacher was content to remain silent, which suited Chris just fine. For a time.
"You recognize any of the gunmen?" Chris asked in a low voice after they'd been riding side-by-side for nearly an hour.
Josiah shook his head, his expression somber. "Sorry, Chris. They looked to be the bottom of the barrel, though. Except for the man who lead them."
"He one of them that got away?"
Josiah nodded. "He wore a fancy cross rig with pearl-handled revolvers. And had a mean streak in him that would've done the devil proud."
"What do you mean?"
"He raked his horse hard enough to draw blood." Josiah's deep voice revealed his enmity for a man who would treat a creature so cruelly.
"Ran into a fellah who wore a rig like that and was mean enough to have a place in hell waitin' for him," Chris said thoughtfully. "That was down in Tombstone. Name was Chavez, part Indian, part Mexican, and all bastard."
"You ever cross him?"
Chris shrugged. "Not that I can recall, but that doesn't mean he wasn't hired by someone."
"The same man who hired Cletus Fowler?" Josiah dared to ask softly.
Chris's chest tightened with the familiar helpless rage. If Fowler hadn't chosen a fiery death, Chris would've learned the identity of the person responsible for Sarah and Adam's murders. "Could be," he managed to say in an even voice. "If you're right, I've got another chance at getting the son-of-a-bitch."
"'Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord,'" Josiah quoted.
"I ain't got time to wait for the Lord's vengeance. Once we get to Ridge City and get Vin on the train, I'm going after them."
"No, you aren't," Josiah stated mildly.
Startled, Chris stared at Josiah's profile. "The hell I'm not. This is the chance I been waiting for, to finally lay my family to rest."
Josiah turned to look into Chris's eyes. "Your wife and son are at rest. It's your own spirit that refuses to disburden. If you go after them by yourself, you won't survive."
"Do you think I care about that?"
"Maybe not, but the rest of us do, especially the man lying in that wagon."
"Damnit, Josiah, I never asked any of you to care."
The ex-preacher smiled sadly. "No, you didn't, but that doesn't change the fact that we do." He paused a moment. "You can go after those men by yourself if you want, but before you go, you have to tell me what to tell Vin when he wakes up and asks where you are."
Chris bit the inside of his cheek and tasted the saltiness of blood. Life was easier when it was just him alone. He didn't have to worry how his actions would affect anyone else because he didn't give a damn. And now, because he'd allowed himself to grow close to these six men, he had a responsibility to each of them.
He gazed at Vin's barely discernible form in the back of the wagon, and examined the pain that soured his gut. That was one of the reasons he'd wanted to remain solitary, so he could be spared the anguish of someone else he cared about being hurt or killed. He recalled the evenings in the saloon in Four Corners, the drinks and conversations he'd shared with his companions and especially Vin. He remembered the gunfights where they'd covered each other's backs in spite of the differences between them. Somewhere in the past six months, Chris had lost his lone wolf facade and had come to care for people again. It wasn't anywhere near the soul deep love he'd held for Sarah and Adam, but the friendships had unlocked a part of himself that he'd closed off since his family's murders.
And Chris found he didn't want to revert back to that man who'd been driven only by whiskey and revenge. For the first time in nearly four years, he'd allowed himself to dream a little; to experience the closeness of people again. His thoughts took him to Mary and Billy Travis, and though he knew nothing could come of their acquaintance, he'd given himself permission to enjoy their company.
Just as he'd given himself permission to allow these six men to share his life. Just as he shared theirs. He couldn't abandon Vin.
"If I don't go after them, they'll come gunning for me again," Chris said softly.
"Then we'll face them together," Josiah said, conviction running through his words. He flashed Chris a smile. "And send them straight into the Lord's arms of vengeance."
In spite of himself, Chris's lips curved upward. "I do like your Old Testament, Josiah."
They covered the miles between Four Corners and Ridge City slowly, with the tired men trying to remain vigilant for any sign of the hired guns who might be looking to finish the job they started. They stopped a few times, and Ezra, Buck, and Josiah each took a turn at driving the buckboard. Each time the driver was changed, Nathan would check on Vin, and coax some more laudanum down his throat if it appeared he was awakening. And each time Chris would breathe a sigh of relief that Vin was still with them.
By Buck's reckoning they were almost to Ridge City when the eastern horizon began to glow with sunrise's coral prequel. Gun-metal gray clouds, however, obliterated much of the sky so Buck knew there'd be little sunlight in the day ahead.
Buck glanced at JD who rode beside him. Contrasted against his dark whisker growth, the boy's face appeared especially pallid. He swayed in his saddle and Buck lent a steadying hand to keep the kid from taking a header off his horse.
JD's eyes snapped open and he said wearily, "Thanks."
Buck merely tipped his head slightly.
"We almost there?" JD asked.
"Should be around the next bend."
JD looked over at Vin who had begun to stir. "You think that doctor can help him?"
"I sure as hell hope so, JD, or we're gonna lose not only Vin, but Chris, too."
"What do you mean?"
Buck tucked his hand in his waistband as he leaned back in the saddle. "Chris has lost too many people he's cared about. Losing Vin may be the last blow that man's soul can take."
JD nodded in understanding. "It don't seem fair, Buck."
"Life ain't fair, kid."
"No, I mean it's almost Christmas, a time when folks are stringin' popcorn and decoratin' trees and buyin' presents and gettin' ready for the birth of Christ. It ain't supposed to be like this, wonderin' if our friend's gonna die and hopin' that those men don't come back to kill the rest of us."
Sadness lodged in Buck's throat, catching him off-guard. "I ain't strung popcorn or decorated a tree since I was in knee pants. And I don't know if I ever believed that stuff about Jesus bein' born in a stable."
JD stared at Buck as if he'd just renounced women. "Me and Ma never had much, but like Ma always said, we have each other." He turned his gaze forward, but not before Buck caught the shimmer of moisture in his eyes. "This year I ain't even got her."
For one of the few times in Buck's life, he didn't know what to say. He spotted the town just ahead and was relieved for the distraction. The train was already sitting by the depot, smoke pluming from the steam engine's stack.
"Ezra, go on ahead and get the tickets," Chris called out.
The gambler nodded curtly and urged his horse into a gallop. The wagon lumbered behind with the remaining men staying close to it. Josiah steered the team of horses on to the town's main street which was three times as long as Four Corners', then over to the depot, parking the buckboard close to the train platform.
Ezra exited the ticket office, a triumphant grin on his face. "I'll show you to your accommodations, gentlemen."
Nathan and Chris followed Ezra into the second to the last train car, directly in front of the caboose. Instead of crowded rows of seats, a parlor type room greeted them. Two velvet wing chairs and a matching love seat were strategically placed at one end of the long narrow area. A round table with four chairs at the other. In between, two couches were set against opposite walls facing each other.
Chris whistled low. "I didn't know poker was that profitable."
"It's as profitable as you make it, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said.
Nathan held up his hands. "I don't want to hear no more." He moved over to one of the sofas and nodded. "The couch'll be a lot more comfortable for Vin than one of those hard seats."
The train whistle blew once to announce it would be pulling out in fifteen minutes.
"Let's get Vin settled in and the horses stabled at the livery," Chris said.
Nathan nodded and hurried out. Ezra turned to the door, but Chris grabbed his arm. "Thanks, Ezra."
The gambler appeared nonplussed, not accustomed to words of gratitude from Chris Larabee. Or anyone else for that matter. "Thank Fate," he said flippantly to hide his discomfiture. "This was to be occupied by the railroad owner but at the last minute he chose to make other plans."
"How'd you talk them into lettin' us get it?" Chris asked curiously.
"That, Mr. Larabee, is a long story. Suffice to say, Mr. Tanner has been adopted by a railroad magnate." Ezra winked, then followed after Nathan.
Chris stood alone in the plush car for a moment, finally smiled and shook his head tolerantly. Leave it to Ezra to come up with an outlandish story and convince everyone it was true. He moved off to join the others by the wagon. As he approached, he could hear Nathan arguing.
"Look, if you don't drink some more of this, you're gonna be hurtin' bad," he said.
"It's better'n not feelin' anything."
Chris recognized Vin's voice even though it was huskier than normal. He rested his forearms on the wagon's sides and looked down at Vin. "If you're arguin' with Nathan, you must be feelin' better."
Vin's gaze found Chris immediately and he relaxed, even managing a slight smile, which quickly disappeared. "Tell Nathan I ain't takin' any more of that laudanum. I don't want to go like Anderson did, not even feelin' his own death."
Chris shuddered inwardly. "If Vin says he don't want any, he don't want any."
Although Nathan didn't like it, he slid the bottle back in his saddlebag.
"Buck, JD, get the horses over to the livery then hurry back here and get aboard," Chris ordered.
Each man gave the reins of his horse to Buck or JD and the two men rode across the street to the nearest stable.
"Chris, Josiah, Ezra, get up here. We're gonna have to be just as careful as we was gettin' him into the wagon," Nathan said.
Working under Nathan's orders, the four men lifted Vin out of the wagon. Chris who was on Vin's left side blanched at the wounded man's pale, grim visage. Vin's lips were almost white as he compressed them together, and sweat rolled down the side of his face to disappear in his long hair. Moving slowly but uniformly, they carried Vin to the private train car and laid him belly down on the sofa. Vin's eyes remained closed and his back moved slightly with each breath he drew.
While Nathan stayed with Vin, Chris, Josiah, and Ezra went back out to retrieve the blankets and saddlebags. When they returned, Nathan took the blankets and tucked them around Vin's motionless figure.
"He okay?" Chris asked Nathan.
"He musta passed out from the pain."
Chris clenched his teeth and his fingers rolled into his palms. Maybe he shouldn't have interfered, and let Nathan give Vin the laudanum.
Vin opened his eyes and a shadow of his usual twinkle flickered in them. "Actually the pain feels kinda good - tells me that some of my body still works right." He blinked, and raised his head awkwardly to survey his surroundings. "Where the hell are we?"
"A private car, courtesy of Ezra and his poker winnings," Chris answered.
Vin's teasing gaze found Ezra. "I guess the sanctified dead rose from their graves."
Ezra's face reddened but he smiled at the ex-bounty hunter. "Nothing but the best, Mr. Tanner."
Vin studied him a long moment.. "Thanks, Ezra."
Ezra's green eyes lost their opaque curtains for a moment, and affection glimmered in their depths. "You're welcome, Vin."
The door opened and Buck entered, supporting a white-faced JD. Josiah hurried over to the other side of the boy.
"What happened?" Chris demanded.
"JD's tryin' to play hero," Buck growled.
"I ain't either," JD refuted, his voice weak. "I just didn't want to slow us down."
"Set him down over here," Nathan said, pointing to the other sofa.
Buck and Josiah lowered JD to the cushion, then stepped back so Nathan could examine his shoulder.
JD glanced across the narrow aisle to see Vin watching him with clear eyes, and the boy grinned. "Vin. You're awake."
"Hey, JD," Vin greeted. "What happened to you?"
"It's nothin', just a scratch."
"Just a scratch!" Buck interjected. "Why a couple inches lower and you woulda been pushin' up daisies."
JD kept his gaze on Vin, and shook his head. "It ain't that bad," he said in a low voice.
"It's bad enough that blood soaked through the bandages. No wonder you're whiter'n a sheet with all this blood leaking out of you," Nathan said. "I'll clean it up and put a fresh dressin' on it. Then I'll do the same for Vin."
With JD and Vin in Nathan's capable hands, Chris stepped on to the small platform between the caboose and their car. The rising north wind tugged at his hat, and he lowered the brim against the bitter cold breeze. He searched the depot, wondering if the hired guns had also boarded the train.
The door opened and Buck joined him. Narrowing his gaze, he, too, checked out the area around them. "You think they're on the train?" he asked, knowing Chris well enough to know what he was thinking.
Chris shrugged. "I doubt it. If they'd wanted to hit us, they would've done it on the road to Ridge City."
"I reckon you're right. They've got a helluva lot to answer for."
"When we get back from Denver, I'm goin' after them, Buck," Chris stated.
"I'll be ridin' right beside you, pard." Snowflakes began to drift down from the bloated clouds like goose feathers from a pillow. "You were right, Chris."
"Me takin' responsibility. Whenever I seen it comin', I got on my horse and rode as fast as I could in the opposite direction." Buck hooked his thumbs in his gunbelt. "That's why I never married like you done. Just seemed like too damned many obligations."
Chris remained silent, surprised by Buck's confession.
"I guess that's why I was so much against lettin' JD join up with us," Buck continued. "Didn't want the responsibility of a green kid who didn't much seem like he was goin' to last more'n a day or two out here."
"He proved us both wrong," Chris interjected quietly.
"Yeah, he did. And you want to hear something stupid?" Buck laughed a self-deprecating laugh. "I went and got to care about that boy just like I promised myself I wouldn't."
"You ain't the only one who done something stupid." Chris smiled thinly. "If Vin dies, I'm leavin' Four Corners, Buck. I ain't goin' to take the chance of the same thing happenin' to you or the others."
"Vin got shot while you were gone," Buck reminded gently.
Chris clenched his jaw and wished Buck hadn't pointed that out. Even if he did leave, the men who hunted him wouldn't know until they showed up in Four Corners, and who knew how many people they'd hurt or kill trying to find out where he went to? He should never have stayed as long as he had.
The train whistle blasted three times in preparation of leaving Ridge City. Chris and Buck stood in companionable silence as the wheels began to rotate, jerking the couplings between the cars. Chris thought of Vin lying helpless inside, and hoped the movement of the train didn't jar him too badly.
"What if that doctor can't get the bullet out?" Buck asked quietly.
"Then he doesn't," Chris replied shortly.
"What's gonna happen to Vin?"
Chris stared at Buck silently, and Buck read the answer in his friend's haunted eyes. He swallowed hard, his throat tightening. "If you need my help, let me know. Vin's a good man."
"Too good to have somethin' like this take him down," Chris said with a husky voice.
Outside of town, the train began to pick up speed, and the two men moved back into the warmth of the private car.