The next day Ezra was fortunate enough to secure the private car again for the ride back to Ridge City. While Ezra, Buck, JD, and Josiah took advantage of their last day to explore Denver, Nathan was given instructions by Dr. Latimer on how to care for Vin's wound, as well as what to watch for in case of complications. Chris avoided the saloons and spent most of his time in Vin's room where the two men sat in quiet companionship as they read the newspapers Chris had scrounged up.
It was early evening when a quiet knock sounded on the door, and Chris and Vin exchanged curious glances. Chris stood and eased his revolver out of his holster. "Who is it?'
"Reverend Stockton," came the reply.
Chris tucked his Colt back in its place, and opened the door. The preacher stepped inside, a friendly smile on his face. "Hello again, Mr. Larabee."
"Reverend," Chris said with a nod, then introduced Vin. "I met the reverend yesterday when I was walkin' back to the hospital."
"Nice to meet you, Reverend." Vin shook his hand as he studied the man closely. His brows drew together. "You been a preacher long?"
"About five years." Stockton assessed the look in Vin's eyes, and added candidly, "Before that I was a man of questionable ethics." He turned to Chris. "I see a lot of who I used to be in you, Mr. Larabee. That's why I came over and introduced myself."
Chris studied him, wariness making his muscles stiffen. "That so?"
"I killed a lot of men. More than I care to recall," Stockton said in a low voice. "One day it hit me how many lives I'd actually taken, and I threw away my guns. I haven't touched one since. Dan Leggett died that day."
Vin whistled low. "I know a lot of bounty hunters who would give their eyeteeth to bring in Leggett." He glanced at Chris. "I was one of 'em."
"Well, here I am," Stockton, aka Leggett, said with his arms outspread.
A smile danced on Vin's lips. "Good thing I ain't a bounty hunter anymore."
Stockton appeared relieved. "Can I ask what happened that brought you all the way to Denver?"
"A bullet in the back," Vin replied reluctantly.
Stockton's gaze flickered to his legs and back. "I guess things haven't changed much out on the frontier."
"If you mean there's still men who'll kill for a dollar, you're right," Chris said grimly. "Man by the name of Florentine Chavez did this."
The reverend's face lost its benign expression and his eyes turned cold. "I know him."
"Too personally. He raped a young girl - the child gave up, died in my arms." He took a deep shaky breath. "That was the day I hung up my guns. When I became a minister, I tried to forgive, but he's one man I could never find it in my heart to absolve." Stockton's hard gaze fell on Chris. "I know this may not sound very Christian, but if you run into him, spare no mercy."
Chris looked over at Vin who sat silently, his blue eyes curtained. Fiery vengeance burned in Chris's gut. "If you had put a hole in him back then, Vin wouldn't be lying here now."
"Don't you think I have nightmares about that very thing?" Stockton closed his eyes momentarily and when he re-opened them, Chris saw the same phantoms that chased him. A shiver shimmied down Chris's spine and settled in his belly.
Stockton continued, "I see people dead and dying hideous deaths at Chavez's hand and I pray to God that I didn't make a mistake by letting him live. Maybe it was because I wanted to kill him so badly that it frightened me like nothing else ever had and I chose that moment to become Daniel Stockton."
"If I'd been you I woulda hung up my guns after I killed the son-of-a-bitch," Chris stated, his jaw clenched.
"But you weren't me, Mr. Larabee. Maybe someday you'll understand, but there's still too much hate inside you. I don't claim to know what caused your hatred, but I will tell you all the hate will do is destroy you in the end. If you let it."
Vin glanced at Chris, noting the fury blazing in his eyes. "I think it'd be best if you left, Reverend."
Stockton nodded and opened the door, but paused a moment. "Here I came to bring you comfort and all I do is fan the flames of hatred." He shook his head. "Even when a man thinks he's left his past behind, it's still there, buried within him. What we are deep down is what determines the course we take in our lives and how we deal with the tragedies that beset each of us. I don't presume to understand either of you, but I do know there's more to life than living by your gun."
He turned to leave, but Chris's voice stilled him. "Chavez is gonna pay for what he done to Vin and that little girl if it's the last thing I do."
Stockton nodded, then left without another word.
Vin stared at the door. "Leggett's killed more men than you and me together." He looked back at Chris. "Makes a man wonder what made him change so much."
"He more'n likely just got tired of it all."
Vin's lips lifted in a crooked smile. "Ain't we all."
Chris stared at Vin a moment, noting the understanding in his eyes. Stockton had found his peace; it would be some time before Chris and Vin would find theirs.
If they ever did.
Chris hunkered down beside Vin. "You doin' okay?"
Vin shifted slightly on the mattress in the back of the wagon, and tugged at the three blankets covering him. "If a person don't mind bein' bundled up like a sack of grain."
Chris smiled, his teeth flashing white in the pre-dawn darkness. "Consider yourself lucky that you don't have Buck or Josiah's hangover."
Vin managed a grin, and Chris hopped out of the back of the wagon to face Dr. Latimer who'd shown up to see them off. He stuck out his hand. "Thanks for all your help, Doctor."
Latimer shook his hand. "I still feel that because the rest of his paralysis disappeared so quickly, he will also regain the use of his legs in time."
Chris glanced away, remembering how he'd awakened that morning, hoping that very thing had happened. And the disappointment in Vin's eyes when it hadn't. "You have any idea how long it might take?"
"Could be a day or two, maybe a week or more. The spinal cord is still largely an unknown area in the medical field. I hope you'll keep me apprised of your brother's condition."
"I'll let you know if he gets the feelin' back or not," Chris promised. "Thanks again." He glanced over to see everyone had piled in the back of the wagon with Vin and they spoke in low voices. Probably moreso because of their pounding heads rather than worry about disturbing Vin.
He strode to the front of the wagon and climbed into the spring seat. After a glance back at the six men to make sure everyone was accounted for, he urged the horses down the street. Forty-five minutes later they arrived at the depot and Chris, Josiah, Buck and Nathan carried Vin into the parlor car near the back of the locomotive. After he was situated on a couch and Nathan made certain his wound hadn't re-opened, everyone but Chris found a place to sack out.
Chris pulled a chair over by Vin and straddled it as the train pulled out of the depot.
"You need anything?" he asked.
Vin shook his head, his expression somber. "I'm just wonderin' what'll happen when we get back. I don't want to burden Nathan, but I can't see as how I can stay at my own place alone."
"Let us worry about that," Chris said.
"I don't want anyone to worry about me," Vin said, impatience slipping into his voice.
Chris could tell Vin's initial excitement at the return of feeling in his arms had worn off. They were back to square one, waiting to see if the operation had been successful or not. And Chris knew Vin well enough to recognize his optimism was plummeting quickly, replaced by the abject memory of his friend whom he'd saved during the war.
"That ain't your choice." Chris met Vin's glare calmly. "We all decided we'd take turns stayin' with you until you were up and about again."
"If that happens," Vin said sourly. "The longer this goes on, the more I'm thinkin' it ain't gonna happen."
"Dr. Latimer's the specialist and he said it could be a week or more."
"Yeah, I know." Vin slapped the sofa with his palm. "I just hate lyin' here like this, Chris. I feel about as useless as tits on a boar."
"Well, you don't look like a boar, so I wouldn't worry if I was you." Chris winked.
Vin couldn't help but smile. "Thanks a lot, pard." He glanced around and caught sight of JD already asleep in a chair. His arm still lay cradled in a sling. "JD gonna be okay?"
"If you're talkin' about his wound, he'll be fine."
"And the other?" Vin asked tentatively.
Chris glanced at Ezra who snored softly on the other couch. He could still see the gash on his forehead, and remembered Ezra's complaint that it would leave a scar. Chris smiled slightly at what Buck's reply had been to that. //Women love scars, Ezra. Thinks it makes us more manly.//
He sobered as he answered Vin's question. "Ain't a one of us who's gonna be okay with that, but everybody respects your decision."
"You still think I'm wrong?"
Chris shrugged. "That ain't for me to say."
"I'm askin' you.'
Chris met Vin's sharp gaze. "If I was in your place, I don't know what I'd do. And that's the honest truth. But let me ask you this: what would you say if it was me lyin' there instead, making the same decision you made?"
Vin stacked his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling of the train car. "I'd respect your decision." He turned his head to look at Chris. "After I did everything I could to talk you out of it."
Chris smiled. "Fair enough." He removed his hat and hung it from the back of his chair. "It's gonna be a long ride back to Ridge City. You might want to get some rest"
"Ah hell, Chris, all I been doin' for the past five days is restin'. I'm tired of restin'." He reached into his jacket pocket, which hung over the back of the couch, and lifted out his harmonica. "I think I'll play me some music."
Chris scrubbed a hand through his blond hair as he grinned, bringing a rare twinkle to his green eyes. "Do me a favor and play more'n two notes, would ya?"
Chris watched Vin play poker with Ezra, Buck, JD, and Josiah. They'd pulled a table over to the sofa where Vin could sit up and join in to pass the long hours gambling and drinking. They'd already gone through one bottle of whiskey and were halfway through the next.
The previous day had passed quickly with the men sleeping off and on to Vin's harmonica lullaby. This morning they'd all been wide awake which presented its own set of problems, mainly boredom.
"I'm out," Vin said in disgust, slapping his cards facedown on the table. He tossed back a shot of whiskey, and Buck refilled his glass.
Chris frowned, not liking how much whiskey Vin was drinking. Usually the taciturn man nursed a couple shots a night, but he'd already had six and the glassy look in his eyes concerned Chris. It was ironic - usually it was Vin who watched Chris with concern when a whiskey bottle sat in front of them.
JD grinned and laid down a full house, aces over jacks.
"My, my, when did you attain such skill in poker, Mr. Dunne?" Ezra asked with an arched eyebrow.
"I been watchin' you, Ezra, and I think I figgered it out," JD said with a somewhat slurred voice.
Buck elbowed JD. "You gonna let your pard in on his little secret?"
"Sorry, Buck, but some things ain't meant to be shared."
Buck grinned, a devilish sparkle lighting his dark blue eyes. "The only thing that comes to mind is a woman, and some of them don't even mind to be shared."
JD's mouth dropped open. "You mean-"
"That's right," Buck said, winking at Josiah.
"Don't worry, JD, I've found most women prefer one man at a time," Josiah remarked.
"Hell, I ain't talkin' about sharin' that way," Buck said. "I'm talkin' about two wo-"
"We all get the picture quite distinctly, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra broke in dryly.
JD glanced at Ezra. "I ain't so sure-"
"Don't go there, kid," Vin warned, his eyes twinkling.
Chris and Nathan exchanged smiles, glad to see Vin acting more like his normal self. Vin hadn't slept well, so both Chris and Nathan hadn't either. Nathan had wanted to give him laudanum, but Vin wouldn't even consider it. Nathan had checked his wound, but it had completely closed and no blood oozed from the incision. Chris knew the lack of progress was drawing Vin's spirits lower and lower, though for the most part, he kept his it hidden from the others. It was only because Chris knew him so well that he could see his growing frustration.
"How long 'til we get to Ridge City?" JD asked.
"A few more hours," Buck replied.
Suddenly the locomotive's brakes squealed, and Chris reflexively leaned forward to grab Vin's arm to keep him from falling off the sofa. Buck, even with more than his share of whiskey, managed to do the same on Vin's other side. They kept him from tumbling to the floor, but his low moan told them he hadn't escaped all the pain.
Once the train came to a full stop, Nathan picked himself up and went to Vin's side.
JD and Ezra gathered up the cards that scattered all over the car at the abrupt stop.
"Another snowdrift?" Buck asked no one in particular.
Chris tightened his hat's stampede string beneath his chin. "I'm goin' to find out. The rest of you stay here."
Without waiting to see if anyone was going to argue, Chris slipped out of the car into the brittle cold which damn near took his breath away. Uneasiness tugged at him, telling him something wasn't right. There wasn't a cloud in the sky so he doubted if snow was the culprit this time. Almost by instinct, he thumbed the safety loop off his Colt's hammer.
He hurried through the train cars toward the engine. When he got there, he found the engineer and the other railroad men standing in front of the train staring at a pile of rocks on the tracks.
"What happened?" Chris called out.
"Looks like a rock slide," the conductor replied. "It's a good thing we weren't right here when it happened."
"How long until we're movin' again?"
"It'll take a couple hours to clear it."
Chris cursed silently and his gut should've settled down, but it didn't. It seemed damned coincidental to have this happen so close to Ridge City. He swallowed hard and his gaze searched the terrain for a sign of Chavez and his hired killers. Not seeing anything, Chris began to move back to the parlor car.
"Looks like everythin's still all right back there," Nathan announced as he tied off the bandage that wrapped around Vin's back and chest.
"Hell, Nathan, it ain't gonna be all right until I can stand up on my own," Vin growled. His mood had disintegrated quickly with the pain that cut through the whiskey's effects.
Nathan squeezed his shoulder. "You will, Vin. You will."
Empty reassurances. That's all anyone gave him and Vin was damned sick of it. It was tough enough to keep his hopes up with each hour that went by, but if someone else promised him he'd be walking again in no time, he was going to slug him.
Vin looked around for Chris and didn't see him. "Where's Chris?"
"Went out to see what was goin' on," Buck replied.
Suddenly, the door burst open and six men entered, their faces stony and their weapons drawn.
"Look what we found boys," a dark, swarthy man said with a sneer.
Vin's blood froze as he stared into the black eyes of the man who'd shot him in the back.
Buck went for his gun, but one of the outlaws clipped him on the side of the head with his revolver. Buck slumped forward and JD caught him around his chest. He slowed Buck's collapse to the floor as he grit his teeth against the awakened pain in his wounded shoulder..
"Anybody else want to play hero?" the leader asked.
"That's more like it. Get their guns."
Two of the hired guns plucked their revolvers from their holsters.
"Don't forget the sleeve gun the gambler fellah has, and the knife the colored keeps hanging down his back."
Ezra and Nathan were relieved of their hidden weapons.
"You must be Chavez," Josiah commented.
The dark man glanced sharply at Josiah. "Do I know you?"
Josiah shook his head. "Chris Larabee does."
Chavez frowned. "How'd he know?"
"Wasn't hard to figure after I described you."
Chavez didn't look too happy by the news. Vin's brows drew together - between what Chris and Stockton had told him about Chavez, the outlaw was like an unpredictable animal. And that bothered Vin - he liked to know his prey.
"Where is he?" Chavez demanded.
"Who?" Josiah asked innocently.
"He left. Caught an earlier train to Four Corners," Vin replied with a poker face Ezra would've been proud of.
Chavez stepped over to the couch and held the barrel of his Colt against Vin's temple. "You lied to me last time. Why should I believe you this time?"
Vin smiled, keeping his fear behind a curtain of indifference. "Maybe because I learned my lesson."
Chavez's gaze flickered across Vin's legs and back up to his face. "So it's true what that train man told me - you're nothin' but a cripple. Bet you wish my bullet woulda killed you."
Vin cringed inwardly, thinking how he had thought that very thing more than once. But he hid his thoughts from the killer and shrugged as if he didn't care.
Chavez barked a harsh laugh. "Seems to me you ain't no good anymore neither. Maybe I should just put you out of your misery." He clicked the hammer back on his revolver.
Ezra stepped forward, his pale green eyes flashing. "Don't!"
Chavez's withering gaze flickered over Ezra. "Give me a reason why not, fancy man."
Ezra swallowed hard. "Because, my dear man, if you shoot him, you will make enough noise to bring everyone on this train to this car. And that will obliterate your plans to get Mr. Larabee."
"Huh?" Chavez grunted.
"If you shoot Mr. Tanner, you will alert Mr. Larabee of your presence and you won't get him."
Chavez studied Ezra for a long moment, then eased the hammer back and withdrew the gun from Vin's head. "All right. You got a point, fancy man. At least for now. Once I got Larabee, it won't matter to me how much noise we make." He grinned, revealing tobacco-stained teeth. "Besides, you just told me what I need to know - that Larabee is on this train."
Vin couldn't blame Ezra - he'd saved his life, though Vin wished Ezra wouldn't have tipped their hand quite so fast.
"So what're you goin' to do?" Vin asked Chavez.
"We'll sit down and wait for him. I figure he's bound to come back sooner or later," Chavez replied. "All of you, move over there, in that corner."
Nathan helped JD drag Buck over to the area Chavez pointed to, then Nathan examined the blood-matted lump on Buck's head. The outlaws brought ropes around and began to tie them up.
"He gonna be okay, Nathan?" JD asked in concern as his wrists were lashed together.
The healer nodded. "Old Buck's got a hard head. He'll be out for a little while longer and when he wakes up he'll have a helluva headache. But he'll be fine - don't you be frettin'."
Vin breathed a sigh of relief at Nathan's pronouncement, then he glanced around at the armed men guarding him and his bound friends. Helplessness clawed at his gut. He was the only one Chavez didn't have his men tie up, but then a man who couldn't walk wouldn't be able to give them any trouble. Bitterness rose in Vin's throat - despite being a 'cripple', he'd have to come up with something.
Because Vin knew the son-of-a-bitch was going to gun down Chris the moment he stepped into the train car.
As Chris walked back through the cars he spotted Reverend Stockton among the passengers who were looking out their windows toward the back of the train. Chris frowned and stopped behind the man. As if sensing his presence, Stockton swiveled around.
"Reverend," Chris greeted coolly, touching the brim of his hat. "Surprised to see you here."
Reverend Stockton smiled weakly. "Not nearly as relieved as I am to see you."
"What is it?" Chris demanded.
"Six men just went into the parlor car where your friends are. Chavez was leading them."
Chris's insides went taut, and his hands balled into tight fists. "Sonuvabitch. So they decided not to wait until we got back. You hear any gunshots?"
Stockton shook his head.
"At least nobody's been killed yet, but with Chavez that ain't gonna last long. I'd be willin' to bet he's waitin' for me to get back since I'm the one he wants." Helpless rage and frustration welled within him. "He'll kill them all if I don't."
"He'll kill them all if you do," Stockton stated flatly. "We have to come up with a plan."
Chris blinked. "What the hell are you doin' here anyhow?"
The ex-gunfighter's eyes narrowed. "Unfinished business. What you said about Chavez and if I'd killed him instead of letting him live. It's time to atone for that mistake, so if you have a spare gun --"
"No offense, Reverend, but I need someone who won't be shy about killing some bastards."
Stockton squared his shoulders beneath his broadcloth suit. "If I have it in my power to save other lives, I can do this."
Chris wasn't certain the killer-turned-minister would be able to take a life when it came right down to it. He looked around at the other train passengers, but there were only farmers, women, and children; nobody who looked like they knew how to handle a situation like this. It appeared he was stuck with the reverend.
"Okay," Chris said reluctantly, "but you'll have to borrow someone else's gun - I'm going to need both of mine."
After scrounging up a Navy Colt that had seen better days, Stockton turned to Chris. "What's the plan?"
"We can't just barge in and expect them to let us take 'em down." Chris glanced at the angle of the sun. "Another hour and the sun'll be gone. Darkness'll give us cover."
"You think Chavez will wait that long?"
"If we hear a shot before that, we go in. Don't matter if we're ready or not." He paused a moment. "If you can help it, don't kill Chavez right away. I got a question to ask him."
"I've got a couple myself," Stockton said grimly.
"Okay, after dark this is what we're gonna do...."
Vin shifted positions on the couch, using his arms to draw himself up to lean against the sofa's arm. A spasm shot through his right leg and he managed to stifle his grimace of pain. He stared down at the limb - this was the first sensation he'd had in it since he'd been shot.
He glanced at the outlaws who appeared drowsy in dusk's light. Nobody appeared to have noticed his reaction. Hope buoyed him and he concentrated on forcing his legs to move at his command. Nothing happened, and his initial excitement faded a bit. Of course, the feeling in his hands and arms hadn't come back immediately either. It had taken a few hours and a lot of JD's jokes that Chris had tortured him with in the hospital.
He thought of the sacrifice Chris had been willing to make if Vin hadn't gotten the use of his arms and hands back. Not many men would make such a promise - it only proved to Vin how honorable his friend was. And how seriously he took the responsibility of friendship in spite of his claim that he couldn't afford to get close to anyone again.
Hadn't Vin chosen that same road? Maybe he hadn't lost a family, but he had lost something almost as valuable. The scars on his back were testament to that. But he, too, had found a bond with Chris and the five other men he hadn't expected. And now it was up to him to save their lives - forfeit his own if he had to, but that was the price of friendship. A price he was willing to pay.
An arrow of pain shot up the left leg this time, and it jerked slightly beneath the covers. Elation poured through his veins - and he couldn't even let the others know. His greatest weapon against Chavez was what the killer didn't suspect.
Vin crossed his arms and buried his fisted hands in his armpits to hide their clenching as more spasms ripped through his leg muscles. He'd been trying for so long to force his legs to move, and now when they were stirring on their own, he had to hide the miracle.
The sun sank into the western horizon, casting the train car in muted orange with tobacco smoke tendriling through it. One of Chavez's men stood to light the hanging lamps and the yellow glow chased the gathering darkness into the corners.
"Where the hell is Larabee?" Chavez suddenly exclaimed. He got to his feet from where he'd been sitting in one of the chairs. He strode over to Ezra and kicked him viciously in the side. "I thought you said Larabee was on the train."
Ezra curled up on the hard floor, but his eyes glittered like green diamonds as he stared at Chavez. "And I thought you had as many brains as a jackass. I guess we were both mistaken."
Chavez drew back his boot and landed another painful blow to Ezra's midsection. The gambler closed his eyes tightly and wrapped his arms around his stomach.
Vin sat up straight, anger thinning his lips. //Damnit, Ezra, be quiet, or he's liable to kill you.//
Buck stirred. "What the hell?"
"So, you're not dead," Chavez said with a dangerous smile. He lifted his revolver out of its holster and aimed it at Buck. "I can take care of that."
JD scooted around so he was between the barrel of Chavez's gun and Buck. "Leave him be!"
"Get out of the way, JD," Buck hissed, "or you're gonna get your fool head blowed off."
Chavez laughed and he glanced around at his hired killers. "You can take a lesson from these men. Look how they'd die for each another. That's something none of you would understand, eh, Pike?"
One of the outlaws glared at Chavez. "I ain't paid enough to die for anyone."
"Ah, but you see, that's the difference. Larabee doesn't pay them, but requires something more precious - loyalty." Chavez sighed. "Maybe someday I'll know that kind of loyalty."
"I wouldn't hold my breath," Buck said, his features carved in stone. "Men like you don't even know what it means."
"Ah, si, maybe you're right." Chavez slid his weapon back in its holster. "But then I'll live a helluva lot longer than you or Larabee."
A knock on the door facing the front of the train sounded, and the twelve men inside the parlor car froze. Chavez motioned for one of his men to open it, while he and the four others gathered in a semi-circle around the entrance.
Chavez and his hired killers had their backs to Vin, and he grit his teeth as he tried to voluntarily move his legs. He was able to shift his right one slightly so it rested on the edge of the sofa. All he could do with the left was wiggle his toes which wasn't going help Chris a whole helluva lot.
Vin twisted his head around to see the door being opened. Shock filled him when he saw the preacher, Stockton, standing alone framed in the doorway except for a Bible in his hands.
"Good evening," he said with a smile. "I thought since we were stuck here, I would come and perhaps do a reading from the Good Book."
The surprise in the outlaws' faces was a sight to behold, and Vin would've laughed if he didn't figure Chris would be coming in through the back door any moment. Just as Vin turned, the back door crashed open and Chris threw himself inside, blazing away with both Colts. In the dimness, Vin saw fire glow from Chris's guns and the curl of cordite filled the air.
Hollers from the hired killers told Vin Chris was being as efficient as usual. He glanced over at Ezra, Buck, Nathan, Josiah, and JD, and noted they'd been smart enough to duck low out of the path of the flying lead. Vin did the same on the sofa...until an arm snaked around his neck and a gun barrel pressed against his head.
"Hold it, Larabee, unless you want me to blow his brains out," Chavez shouted, his mouth close to Vin's ear.
The abrupt silence was deafening in the aftermath of the closely confined gunfight.
"Let him go, Chavez. You're all alone," Chris stated in a cold voice, his revolver not wavering an inch.
Chavez's hold tightened around Vin's neck, and the ex-bounty hunter found himself unable to breathe. "I mean it, Larabee. Drop your gun or he's dead."
Vin tried not to let his panic show, but his body demanded oxygen and he couldn't stop his desperate movements to pry Chavez's arm from around his throat.
Chris's weapons fell to the wood floor with muffled thuds. "All right, let him go. You have me."
The killer released him, and Vin gasped for air. Chavez straightened from his crouched position behind the sofa's arm, and smiled coldly. "You've been a tough one, Larabee, but you're finally mine."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that, Charlie," Stockton said from behind Vin.
Chavez's backbone stiffened, and turned ninety degrees, keeping his back to the train's window, so he could keep an eye on Chris and see Stockton. "Leggett - you look a lot different than the man I used to know."
"I'm not the same man. My only regret is I didn't kill you when I had the chance," Stockton stated, holding the revolver with an unsteady hand.
"That's one thing I don't have, amigo, and that's regrets. I take what I want and do what I damn well please," Chavez said. Without warning, he swung his weapon around and shot Stockton, then brought his gun back to bear on Chris before the minister hit the floor.
"You son-of-a-bitch," Chris growled.
Chavez shrugged. "I didn't want to talk to him anymore. All I want to do is collect my money for killing you."
"Who thinks I'm so valuable?" Chris asked with narrowed eyes.
"Sorry, Larabee, but a professional doesn't name his employer. Surely you must understand that since you're in the same business."
Chris shook his head savagely. "Don't even try to compare you and me, Chavez. You kill for sport; I kill if I don't have a choice."
"You have no choice now but to die." Chavez curled his finger around the trigger.
Using every ounce of strength, Vin launched himself upward on hollow legs. For a couple tottering seconds, his legs worked and he was able to propel his body into Chavez's back, knocking the murderer to the floor. Chavez scrambled out from under Vin, and lifted his gun, aiming it at Vin's head. Vin's legs were numb once more, and he knew he couldn't escape Chavez. A shot thundered through the car, and Vin flinched. For a moment, he thought he'd been shot, then Chavez fell facedown, a blossom of red staining his back.
Chris hurried to Vin's side, and helped him to a sitting position. "That was a damn fool stunt," he growled.
Vin grinned. "No more foolish than you comin' in with guns blazin'. Couldn't you come up with a better plan than that?"
Chris shrugged. "Best I could do on short notice." He stared at Vin a moment, then realization struck him like a two-by-four. "You were standing!"
Vin nodded, barely restraining his relieved happiness. "I guess I did, didn't I?"
Chris grasped Vin's shoulders and he smiled the biggest smile Vin had seen on his face. "Son-of-a-bitch, it's finally gonna be all right."
Vin lifted a hand and laid it on Chris's arm. "Yeah, this time it is," he said with a husky voice.
Chris blinked a few times, and Vin recognized the same emotion he felt. He gripped Chris's arm firmly and the two men exchanged understanding nods that made words unnecessary.
Chris settled Vin against the sofa, and went to check on Stockton. A bullet had gone through the fleshy part of his arm, but he was bleeding a lot. "He's still alive."
"You gonna untie us one of these days?" Buck demanded impatiently.
Chris cut Nathan free first and the healer quickly went to Stockton's side. "He'll be all right," Nathan announced.
"Who is he?" Josiah asked as Chris freed him.
"Somebody you have a lot in common with," Chris replied mysteriously.
Josiah arched an eyebrow and went to help Nathan with his doctoring. Once Buck and JD were freed, they moved around to check the hired killers to see if any of them were still alive. Chris cut Ezra free last, and the gambler moved stiffly, his face pale.
"You okay?" Chris asked.
"I shall survive, Mr. Larabee, however I may not enjoy it for a few days," Ezra reassured.
"I merely spoke the truth, which Mr. Chavez did not seem to sufficiently appreciate."
"He called him a jackass," Vin said with a smile.
Chris chuckled. "One of these days, Ezra, you're gonna learn when to lie when you should." He arched a sandy colored eyebrow. "And when you shouldn't."
Ezra's expression didn't change, but his eyes twinkled with humor. He started to rise, but Nathan's voice stopped him. "Don't you move until I check your ribs, Ezra. You mighta got a cracked one which could puncture a lung."
"Yes, Dr. Jackson," Ezra said obediently, and remained seated on the floor.
Chris shook his head, then rejoined Vin. "You wanna stay down there, too, or get back on the couch?"
"I reckon the couch is a bit more comfortable," Vin replied.
Chris wrapped an arm around Vin's waist and helped him on to the sofa. Vin glanced at Chavez's body. "I'm sorry you had to kill him, Chris. I know you wanted to find out who hired him."
"There wasn't a choice, Vin," Chris said softly. "He was going to kill you." He smiled a bittersweet smile. "Someday I'll learn the truth, but it won't be at the expense of your life or any of theirs." He looked over at their friends, then his steady gaze returned to Vin. "That would be too high of price."
Vin nodded in silent acknowledgment.
The stress of the showdown caught up with Vin, and exhaustion tugged at him.
"Go ahead and sleep. Everything's gonna be all right now." Chris's voice sounded far away, but it soothed Vin and he allowed sleep to claim him.
JD tried to contain his excitement, but as Buck had said, he never could keep a secret. Although he'd managed to hang on to this one longer than most. He'd told Chris about it last week on that train ride to Denver, but nobody else knew. And maybe Chris had forgotten. They thought they were all going to Nettie Wells just for supper. JD couldn't wait to see their faces - although it was the first of the new year, they were going to celebrate Christmas just as JD, Casey, and Nettie had planned.
He looked around to see Buck, Ezra, and Josiah also seated on their horses. Vin stood beside a buggy with Nathan and Chris on either side of him, his arm around Chris's shoulders for support.
"Come on, Vin, you can't be riding your horse yet. You know that," Nathan was saying.
Vin scowled. "Damnit, Nathan, a buggy's for old women and older men. I ain't either."
"You're just gonna get older if you keep arguin' with us, Vin," Chris said patiently. "You've only been walking a couple days."
Vin glared at Chris, but JD saw the familiar twinkle in his eyes. "All right, but next time I'm ridin' Sire. Hell, he's probably forgotten what I look like."
Chris rolled his eyes and shook his head, then he and Nathan helped Vin into the buggy seat.
"Kinda nice to see Vin actin' like his own stubborn self again, ain't it?" Buck asked with a wink as he brought his gray closer to JD's mare.
JD smiled back at his brotherly tormentor, but sobered as he said, "Never thought I'd see him walk again, Buck."
"Don't figger any of us did," Buck said, uncharacteristically somber. "But we got more than Vin back. We got a little more of the old Chris, too."
"You've only known Chris since he lost his family, but I knowed him for years before that. The Chris Larabee I remember used to laugh and play as hard as any man. Hell, he told his share of bad jokes, too. Afterwards, he turned mean, JD. Never seen a man who changed so much. But somehow, without even tryin', Vin has done somethin' I ain't been able to: he's bringin' back the Chris I used to know."
JD studied the blonde man, and noted a relaxed look in his expression JD hadn't seen before. Then he looked at Buck, at the bittersweetness in his gaze as he looked at Chris. And JD finally understood a little more about these men he'd chosen to ride with. "He ain't ever gonna be the same man he was back then, Buck. He might get close but everything that happens to a person changes them some. I'm not the same person I was before my ma died. And you aren't the same man you were five years ago."
Buck's shoulders rose and fell heavily, and he looked at JD with sad resignation. "I know that, kid, and I guess that's what maybe hurts so much. But, like you said, we all change. People and times change us, like Vin changin' Chris." He paused. "And you changin' me."
JD's throat clogged with emotion for a moment. "Be careful, Buck, you might give me a compliment by accident."
Buck drew a steady gaze on him. "It ain't an accident." His eyes began to twinkle. "'Course, I'd have to deny it if anyone ever asked. Hate to spoil my image."
"What image?" JD tossed back.
Chris sat beside Vin in the buggy, and slapped the reins lightly across the team. The five other men rode beside the wagon, reminding JD of the night they'd taken Vin to Ridge City in a buckboard. Only that time, ominous silence had surrounded the men; this evening the men laughed and joked among each other.
JD listened to Josiah as the ex-preacher rode beside Chris.
"Too bad Reverend Stockton couldn't stay longer. I would've enjoyed a few more theological debates," Josiah said.
"He did what he came to do," Chris responded.
"Do you think he would've killed Chavez?"
"Maybe. It's hard to know if Stockton's vengeance went deeper than his beliefs."
"I guess that's something every man has to learn in his own time," Josiah said softly. "That and forgiving himself."
JD saw Chris turn toward Josiah. "And believing in miracles again."
Josiah smiled in a way that told JD something had passed between him and Chris, though JD didn't have a clue as to what it could've been.
JD fell back to ride between Nathan and Ezra.
"Do you know of any method to which I can remove or fade this scar?" Ezra asked Nathan, pointing to the mark on his forehead he'd received when the train had run into the snowdrift.
Nathan shrugged. "A little castor oil might fade it some."
Ezra made a face. "If you think that I will partake of such vile concoction, you are sadly mistaken, Mr. Jackson."
A smile lit Nathan's expression. "You don't drink it. You rub a little on the scar a couple times a day."
"Oh," Ezra responded. "Well, perhaps that's conceivable."
"So, did you really win enough money at poker to pay for that parlor car back and forth to Denver, and that hospital bill?"
Ezra tugged at the frilly cuffs falling below his red jacket sleeves. "Shall we just say that had I not found a lucrative game in Denver, we would have ridden in far less comfort on the way back. And the hospital administrators would forever be hounding Mr. Tanner."
"Didn't I hear Vin offer to pay you back? With interest?" JD asked curiously.
Ezra nodded. "Yes, and a fascinating business transaction that would've been had I accepted."
"You turned him down?" JD asked in disbelief.
Ezra's lips quirked upward. "It must've been the spirit of Christmas that addled my brain so thoroughly."
"Must've been," Nathan said, his eyes warm and smile sincere.
JD shook his head. This Christmas had turned out to be an odd one: Vin was granted a miracle, Buck complimented JD, Ezra turned down money, Josiah had met a preacher much like himself, and Nathan acted as if he genuinely liked Ezra. And then there was Chris playing Santa Claus.
JD stuck his hand in his jacket pocket and pulled out his new knife, a gift from Chris. The ex-gunfighter hadn't forgotten anyone: Ezra received shirt garters, Buck a belt tooled with his name in the back, Josiah a colorful vest, Nathan a stethoscope, and Vin a bright red silk bandanna.
He slipped the knife back in his pocket, then took a deep breath and fell back behind the wagon to ride alone for a few minutes. He lifted his gaze to the stars that began to appear in the darkening sky and he picked out the brightest one. If he looked hard enough, he could make out his mother's face in the star's glowing light.
"I wish you could be here with us, Ma, but everything happens for a reason. I know that now." He paused to gather his thoughts. "You'd like them, Ma, especially Buck. Sometimes I wonder if you sent him to be my guardian angel. 'Course he was probably the only one left if you did since I don't think you'd approve of some of the things he's been teachin' me." He smiled in the gathering darkness. "Thank you for talkin' to God about Vin and lettin' us have a miracle. They're all good men, Ma. Maybe not the kind you would've chosen to be my friends, but I know they'll always be here for me when I need them. Just like you were always there for me."
JD rode silently for a couple moments, then looked upward once more. "Merry Christmas, Ma."
And JD went to join his friends to celebrate the true meaning of the holiday.
The Traveling Dimestore Novelist
(A sequel to this story)