Disclaimer: The following work of fan fiction is not intended to infringe on any copyright or to make a profit. I don't own the characters, concept, or setting (all of which belong in varying degrees to Mirisch, MGM, CBS, and--I'm sure--others), but I do claim the story. Please don't copy, archive, or sue without permission from the author.
Rating: PG-13 (language, mild violence)
Author's notes: As I was finishing this story and working on the archive, it occurred to me that parts of "Last Stand" are similar to Greenwoman's "Pacing the Cage." The similarities are unintentional and a testament to how much her story affected me. (Besides, she *said* it was okay! <G>) Thanks to Carolyn and Larie for beta help, and to all the people at SL who read bits of this and *didn't* run away and hide <G>. It was great seeing you all again/for the first time!!!
The night air blew cold through the town, whistling off the edges of the wooden buildings. JD huddled against the planks that made up the wall of the hardware store, pulling his coat closer around him. It'd been colder in Boston in the winter, but he usually didn't sit out in it. This wind felt like it cut through to his bones, and he had to clench his teeth to keep them from chattering.
He leaned his head back against the wall wearily. He thought longingly of his room in the boardinghouse and the quilt over his bed, and sighed. Waiting wasn't something he was very good at anyway; this dark, uncertain vigil wore at his nerves.
Shifting, JD peered across the street, trying to pick out which of the shadows against the jail wall was Buck. He couldn't distinguish one that looked like his friend, although there was one that looked far too much like Buck's description of One-Arm Smith, the Loco Bandit, for JD's comfort. He knew Buck was over there, though. Buck wouldn't run out on them, and the plan called for him to be over by the jail, so that's where he was. JD couldn't help but wish he could see the older man, though.
Most of the watchfires were out, and the streets were silent other than the soft whistle of the wind. The townsfolk knew trouble was coming, and they had all hidden themselves away behind closed shutters and locked doors. Even the saloons were dark, their lights muted behind the shutters and their patrons safe inside. JD had never seen the town so dead . . . the thought sent a shiver down his spine that wasn't from the cold.
He stood, shifting from one foot to the other to get the feeling back. The rifle Josiah had lent him was leaning against the wall next to him, in easy reach. He touched it absently, reassured by the solid feeling of the chilled metal. He liked his own guns better, but it was good to have the rifle if he needed it.
He just wished Cobert and his gang would show up. This waiting was driving him crazy. It had been a full day since Eastridge's sheriff had sent a telegraph warning them Cobert's gang was headed this way.
"We'll catch them in an ambush," Chris had said, outlining his plan with one finger in the spilled whiskey on the saloon table. "If they stick to the way they done it before, it'll be night when they ride in. They'll be thinking the town is easy pickings, but they'll be planning to shoot it up and take whatever they can get their hands on, so they'll be ready for anything. Once they ride in, we'll have them. We'll make a box, one man up and one down at each of the corners. We let them get all the way in the box, then we take them out."
"Assuming we don't assassinate one another in the crossfire," Ezra threw in dryly. He raised an amused eyebrow at Chris's sharp look.
Chris shook his head, his own flash of humor almost hidden in the cold green of his eyes. "Make sure you don't."
"I will endeavor to avoid such an . . . unfortunate occurrence."
"Wouldn't it make more sense to stop them before they get to town?" Buck asked, drawing his own swirls on the plan. As far as JD could tell, they added nothing but decoration.
"Too easy for them to avoid us," Vin answered. "'Sides, can't very well go starting a fight when we ain't got no cause."
"We'll make our stand here." Chris pointed to the whiskey outline. "If they come after us, we destroy them. If they ride around, we let them go."
"Sounds fair." Josiah gulped down his whiskey and sighed in satisfaction. "Should be an interesting night, gentlemen."
So far, though, Josiah hadn't been proven right. The town had been as silent as a convent. JD was beginning to doubt that Cobert and his gang would ever come. Might be just as well if they didn't. Then he and his friends could head over to the saloon for a couple of drinks before bed. Buck would gripe about wasting an evening he could have spent courting, Ezra would complain about missing his poker game, and Nathan and Josiah would find some way to pick at both of them. Vin would watch, not quite smiling, and talk over with Chris whether or not they'd ride out after Cobert in the morning. It would be a good way to unwind.
JD rubbed his hands on his arms and then blew on his fingers, trying to warm them up. If he stayed out here much longer, he'd be too numb to pull the trigger if Cobert did show up. Somehow the waiting was worse than the actual fighting. At least in the middle of a battle, he didn't have time to worry about what was going to happen. He just kept going till it was over and did his best not to get shot or let anyone shoot his friends.
The first hint that the night was going to be interesting came with the sound of a jangling bridle. Moments later, they rode down the street. JD, counting silently, came up with fifteen, and shook his head worriedly. Chris had been expecting eight to ten, enough to pick off easily if they refused to ride away peacefully.
Not too many to handle, though. JD had seen his friends in action too many times to discount their skills. They could handle fifteen with only a little more difficulty than they would have handled ten.
Cobert and his gang had passed by JD, Buck, and Josiah's end of the trap and were approaching Chris and the others down by the hotel. JD cautiously peeked around the corner of the store, wanting to see what happened. With only the moon and the faint traces of light slipping from the edges of various shutters, it was hard to make out what was going on, but he could see the mounted men pull up, their horses milling a bit.
"Who the hell are you?" one of the outlaws asked.
"Chris Larabee. This is my town. You'd best be leaving."
Some of the outlaws laughed. "You going to make us?"
Above him, JD heard the sizzle of a struck match, and then a lit torch came flying down into the street. Three others came from the other corners of the trap, throwing light on the men at the center of the trap. One of them swore, and the words hung in the silence for a long moment.
Then all hell broke loose.
Fifteen men armed with carbines and sixshooters make a formidable enemy. Nothing Chris had heard about Cobert's gang had led him to believe that they would be so many or so well armed.
I'm sorry, he thought helplessly. I should have planned for this. I'm sorry.
And then he didn't have time to think anymore, because a huge Mexican with a .44 was riding down on him. He brought his own gun up to squeeze off a shot. The Mexican swayed in his saddle, then just grinned and kept coming.
Chris fired again. This time, the Mexican didn't even blink. Then he was on Chris, his gun booming, and Chris dove out of the way. Chris felt something thud into his leg. He threw himself behind the old wagon in the alley he'd used as cover when they were waiting for the gang to arrive, turned, and just had time to bring up his gun and fire. The Mexican dropped, his body close enough that Chris could have touched him without stepping forward.
Chris looked down at his leg and swore softly. A hole pierced his thigh, and blood was already soaking his jeans. It didn't hurt yet, but it was going to feel like hell in a few minutes. He didn't have time to do more than pull a bandana out of his back pocket and tie it around the wound, though. He could still hear the sharp reports of the rifles and handguns coming fast and furious out on the street.
Cautiously coming out from behind the wagon, he moved back to the mouth of the alley and peered around the corner. His men were following the plan, staying out of sight as much as possible and keeping the outlaws boxed in. Chris could just see Nathan on the walkway across the street, but the only signs of Ezra on the street below the healer were the flashes as he fired his gun. Chris could hear the periodic boom of Vin's mare's leg coming from the balcony above him. He couldn't see Josiah, JD, or Buck, who formed the other corners of the trap, but he thought he could pick out the crack of Buck's pistol, and he trusted them all to be where they should . . . if nothing had happened to them.
Shaking his head to clear the gloomy thoughts, he focused on the outlaws inside the trap. Most of them had found cover of one sort or another, although a few were still milling around on their horses, using the battle as cover to try to attempt to get closer to their attackers. It seemed like there were a lot more of them than he'd expected from the Eastridge sheriff's telegram. He had counted at least fifteen when they'd ridden in, and those were the ones he had seen in the dim light of the torches Vin, Nathan, and Josiah had thrown into the street. Too many to end this quickly--another thing he hadn't planned for.
None of the outlaws were in a position he could aim for without changing his own location. As he was scouting out a place to move to that would give him a better angle, he heard a sharp cry--a familiar voice in pain. Chris's eyes frantically flew from one of his men's hiding places to another, trying to see which one had been hit. His earlier thought--one of them was going to die--came back to him, and he shook his head in mute denial even as he finally located his fallen comrade.
The bodies of two of the outlaws, both shot by Buck in the initial attack, lay crumpled in the street. JD had hit another one--didn't kill him, as far as JD could tell, but the outlaw was hurt bad enough to be out of the fight. Josiah, up on the walkway above the hardware store, had two or three more pinned down behind some barrels on the sidewalk across the street.
JD couldn't see any more of Cobert's gang from his hiding place. He could hear the ones trapped across the street, but he didn't think there were any others on his end of the trap. JD couldn't tell from where he was how the others were doing, but from the sound of the gunfire, most of the outlaws were concentrated at the other end of the trap.
He cautiously poked his head around the corner of the store, squinting against the gun smoke and dust that filled the air. He heard someone--Vin, he thought--yelling, "Nathan, on your right," and then there was a terrible scream.
He shouldn't have been able to recognize a scream with all the rifles and guns going off, but somehow he knew the voice. Frightened, he stepped forward so that he could see down the street.
The pain exploded so suddenly in his head that it took him a long moment to comprehend what it was. The one at the front of his head was burning and sharp, the one at the back dull and sickening, and then they met with a roar like the cracking of an ice-bound river. Light, white and red and white again, blinded him, and he tried to get away from it. He stumbled forward, trying to remember what direction he'd heard the scream come from. One of his friends was hurt. He had to help. If only the world would stop tilting.
All hell had broken loose, and Chris had lost his grip on the gate.
Someone had hit Nathan. He'd fallen to the ground from the walkway, and he wasn't moving. Chris started for the healer, knowing that with his wounded leg he didn't stand a chance of moving fast enough and knowing he had to try anyway. Suddenly Ezra darted out, crouching beside Nathan and turning him over. Chris couldn't tell from the distance whether Nathan was still alive or not, but the fact that Ezra seemed to be trying to move him behind the water trough eased his mind.
"Coming down," Vin called. A second later, he clattered down the stairs and came up behind Chris. "Ezra got the one that hit Nathan. How bad's the leg?"
Chris looked down at it. "I'll live."
"Yeah." Vin peered out at the street. "Shit, we got to get Nathan out of there."
Chris nodded. "You can run better than I can. I'll cover you; you go help Ezra."
Vin bolted across the street, shooting as he ran. Chris stepped out from behind the corner and took aim, managing to drop one of the bandits.
It was as he crouched, trying to get below the line of fire, that he saw something which made his heart go cold.
JD staggered out from his hiding place, holding his head in both hands. He went down to one knee and managed to get back up, only to fall down again a few steps later. Chris heard someone yell the kid's name and shoved himself to his feet, looking frantically between JD and the three men by the water trough.
They all needed him, but Vin, Ezra, and Nathan were on the opposite end of the street from JD. Chris couldn't help them all. He had to decide which one needed him most.
There was no way he could choose.
And then Josiah was there somehow, running down from his post on the balcony above the hardware store and out into the street. He bent down and grabbed the kid, pulling him up to sling him over one shoulder. The big man ran for the other side of the street, veering back and forth to avoid the flying lead. Chris let out a sigh of relief--that was one man safer than he had been--and glanced back to check Vin's progress.
Vin and Ezra had pulled Nathan behind the water trough, giving the three of them a little cover, but the outlaws had obviously decided that they were an easy target. Chris could see at least five outlaws advancing toward them, and Vin and Ezra were hard pressed to keep them away. They needed him more than JD did right now.
Chris started toward the trough, risking a glance back at Josiah and JD. The preacher was almost across the street to the jail, where Buck was laying covering fire. JD would be safe. Josiah and Buck would see to that; now he had to help get Nathan to safety.
Running back toward the water trough, Chris fired off a shot at one of the outlaws . . . Cobert, maybe, but he didn't really have time to look. Another outlaw was riding toward the three behind the trough. Chris shot at him without much hope of hitting him, knowing he was too far away and the outlaw was moving too fast. Chris needed time to reload, but his men would be dead by then. He ran faster, yelling, "Vin."
Both Vin and Ezra looked toward him, catching sight of the outlaw at the same time. Ezra, crouched beside Nathan, spun on his heel and took aim. Then the horse was between Chris and the others, and Chris couldn't see what was happening. A shot rang out, somehow clear even in the midst of the battle, and then, slowly, the outlaw crumpled off his horse. The horse bolted forward, letting Chris see Ezra slump back onto his heels, lowering his smoking gun. Their eyes met, and for a second, Chris could see naked relief in Ezra's. Then Ezra looked beyond Chris and his eyes widened with horror.
Chris spun around, his gaze landing on Josiah and JD. The preacher had almost made it to the jail with JD, but he was staggering now, a dark blotch on the back of his shirt. He only had a few more steps to go before he was at the alley, but Chris didn't know if he could make it that far. Josiah stumbled, another dark spot staining the back of his shirt, and Buck stepped out from the shadows of the alley to catch the preacher and half carried him and the kid back into the alley. Then Buck appeared again, the light from the torches giving his face an almost demonic cast, and with uncanny precision picked off the two outlaws who had been firing on Josiah and JD. Buck was a good shot under any circumstances, but when he was furious, he was deadly.
Chris closed his eyes for the briefest of seconds. It was a nightmare. Nathan, JD, and now Josiah down, and Chris was out of bullets. He couldn't help any of them.
Cobert stepped out from behind the railing he'd been hiding behind, and held his gun up in the air.
"What do you want?" Chris called back. He could see Vin approaching out of the corner of his eye and could hear the gunfire dying down as the outlaws and his own men waited to see what Cobert was doing.
"A truce," Cobert yelled. "I've got men down, and so do you. What do you say I take my men and ride out, and we call it even?"
Chris risked taking his eyes off Cobert for a quick glance up and down the street. As near as he could tell, two of Cobert's men were still on Buck's end of the street, and Cobert and two others were on Chris's end. Five of them, and Chris only had four on their feet, himself included. Chris would trust his three against all the minions of Hell, but he also had men who needed their wounds tended to.
"Agreed." Chris lowered his useless gun, wondering briefly if he could get it loaded while Cobert and his men were distracted. "I'll give you five minutes to catch your horses and pick up your wounded, then you get out of town and make damn sure you never come back."
Cobert yelled out orders to his men. The outlaws emerged cautiously from their hiding places, guns raised. Buck stepped out from the shadows again, his rifle ready. Ezra rose, stepping back so that he could cover all three of the men on his end of the street. Vin moved up behind Chris, his mare's-leg trained on Cobert.
Chris felt something press against his free hand and automatically grasped it, feeling the familiar shape of a pistol grip. How Vin had known he needed a gun was beyond Chris, but he wasn't going to question it. He slipped his own gun into his holster and transferred Vin's to his gun hand.
The street had grown still, the only sounds coming from the nervous mounts the outlaws were rounding up. Chris heard one of the outlaws mutter something about not liking the situation. Cobert told him harshly to shut up and go get the men down street.
Vin shifted impatiently next to Chris. The gunslinger had no doubt that Vin was thinking the same thing he was--every second spend waiting on the outlaws could mean life or death for Nathan, Josiah, or JD.
"I'm going to give Buck a hand," the tracker said suddenly.
Chris nodded without looking at him. Vin was normally the most patient of men, but when his friends were hurt, he got antsy if he couldn't be doing something.
Finally, what was left of the gang had loaded their dead and wounded on their horses and were ready to go. Cobert rode up to Chris and touched the brim of his hat sardonically.
"'Til next time, Larabee."
"I see you again, I'll kill you." Chris gestured toward the edge of town with his gun. "Now get the hell out."
Cobert laughed. He wheeled his horse around and started down the street, his men falling in place behind him.
Chris didn't see what happened. He heard one of the outlaws yell, heard Buck's rifle boom, and almost reflexively fired off a shot after the fleeing gang. When the dust from the horses cleared, Buck was bending over Vin's prone body.
JD could hear voices. In order to listen, though, he'd have to let himself feel the pain again, and he really didn't want to do that. The darkness wasn't far away. He courted it, wanting to disappear into it again. The voices were too familiar and too desperate to ignore, though, so he struggled toward them, a soft moan escaping his lips before he even knew he could make a sound.
"Damn it, son, don't wake up now." The voice was frantic. Frightened, he tried to reach for it. Something was holding him down. He fought it. "No, JD, take it easy, son. Go back to sleep. Everything's all right now. Go back to sleep."
He forced his eyes open, almost sobbing at the sharp stab of pain that shot through his head. Clenching his eyes shut again, he tried to turn away from it. The pain exploded to a higher level. Something caught him, holding his head still, and he forced a shallow breath through his teeth.
"I said take it easy, son. It's all right. We just don't got time for this right now, hear?"
The voice was gentle and exasperated at the same time. "Buck?" he mumbled, or tried to, but it didn't come out sounding like a word to him. He swallowed hard, which only felt like someone smacking a rock into his head, then tried again. "Can't see," he thought he said.
Buck somehow understood him. "Open your eyes, then."
He'd tried that once already. "Can't."
"Then go back to sleep. Nathan . . . " Buck trailed off, but JD had a sudden flash
::Nathan sprawled awkwardly by the water trough, Ezra kneeling beside him, firing upward at the outlaw galloping toward them::
and tried to force his eyes open again in spite of the agony. "Nathan?" He was frightened. He could feel the blood pounding into his head where it lay against the pillow, and he tried to sit up as much to get away from that as to see where Nathan was, because he still couldn't open his eyes.
"No, JD, don't do that . . ."
He was going to be sick any second now, but he pushed against the hands trying to hold him down with a blind stubbornness. He had to know.
"Buck, I need you." Ezra, his words clipped and tense.
"Give me a second here. JD, I don't got time for this. Lie down."
"I got him." More hands, Chris's voice, breathless and hurting but alive. "Go help Ezra."
"You ain't supposed to be up on that leg."
Buck's voice was getting more distant, but Chris's was still loud enough to send spikes through JD's skull. "Nothing wrong with my arms. I can take care of him, you two deal with Nathan."
JD might have been sobbing. He thought the hard lump in his throat felt like a sob, but it might also have been whatever was in his stomach trying to come up. Or maybe one of the coals in his head had fallen down into his throat and was going to choke him. It didn't matter. He pushed against the arms holding him still, but couldn't break free, and then he was lying on something that didn't feel like the bed, and he could hear Chris's voice, barely a whisper, in his ear.
"Calm down, son. Nathan's hurt pretty bad, but Ezra and Buck are taking care of him. He'll be fine. We're all going to be fine after we get some rest. Just calm down, all right? You ain't doing yourself no good this way."
He could trust Chris. He had to trust Chris, because he couldn't fight anymore. The pain had turned into a raging river in his head, rushing in his ears until he couldn't hear Chris's voice anymore. He tried to reach out again. He thought he caught hold of something just before he fell into blackness.
Chris felt JD's hand slide limply off his arm as the boy passed out, but his eyes were glued on the battle across the room. Nathan had been bleeding off and on since he'd been shot. He had three bullet holes in his chest, each one enough to kill a weaker man by itself. Ezra had fought all night just to keep clean bandages on the healer, and the strain was showing in his eyes and in his voice as he gave Buck terse directions.
"Press down on that one as hard as you can." Ezra gestured toward one of the pads he'd made from an old blanket. "I'm going to attempt to wrap the bandages tighter."
"Will that make bleeding stop?" Buck asked worriedly.
"How the hell should I know? I'm not a doctor."
Buck didn't answer. He was holding the pad with one hand and had the other resting on Nathan's forehead. Nathan wasn't struggling as much as he had earlier, but his fever was still giving him nightmares. It had been all Ezra and Buck could do a few times to keep him on the cot.
Chris had helped to hold Nathan down during the worst of it, nearly breaking open his own wound in the process.
He didn't dare go to help Ezra and Buck now, though; JD was still restless and Chris was afraid to let go of him in case he woke up again as confused as he was before. The boy had periods of unconsciousness so deep he hadn't made a sound even when he was being carried up the stairs into Nathan's room or shifted from a pallet on the floor to a cot obtained from Mrs. Potter's store. But then there were times when he thrashed about as if he were still fighting something, and he didn't seem to understand when they tried to calm him down. Chris had wondered more than once during the long night if JD would be in his right mind when he finally woke up completely. . . if he woke up completely.
Chris glanced over at Vin, smiling slightly when he saw that the tracker looked awake and aware.
"Hey, how you feeling?"
Vin ignored the question, his worried eyes going from Ezra, Buck, and Nathan to Chris and JD, then searching the room almost frantically until he finally spotted Josiah. "What the hell happened?"
The tracker's voice was barely even a whisper. He all but collapsed after he finished speaking, gasping as if he'd just run a race. Chris didn't think he was suffering from more than broken ribs and a badly bruised chest, but the injuries were enough to make talking or sitting up difficult.
"One of Cobert's men ran over you with his horse on his way out of town."
"Nice of him." Vin tried to push himself into a sitting position, winced, and gave up. "Nathan?"
"Been better," Buck answered briefly. He straightened up from the cot, looking distractedly at his bloody hands. "We can't get the bleeding to stop."
"Yeah." Chris tightened his grip as JD muttered something and moved his legs fitfully.
"Kid's been awake once or twice. Don't really know what's going on, but he gets a little better each time he wakes up. Josiah's been out since Buck poured a bottle of whiskey down him to get the bullets out of him."
Buck grinned humorlessly. "Man as big as Josiah, you don't want him awake when you're digging lead out of his back."
JD shifted again, his eyes drifting open without really focusing on anything. "Josiah said he saw the crows," he murmured absently, then his eyes closed again.
The four men who were awake all looked at him uneasily. Ezra finally broke the silence, saying almost to himself, "I pray you are mistaken, my young friend. I truly pray you are mistaken."
Buck gave a strained laugh. "Only ones seeing crows is Cobert and his gang."
"We get them all?" Vin asked hoarsely.
"Not quite, but the rest ain't coming back here any time soon." Buck finally grabbed one of the clothes they'd torn for bandages and wiped his hands on it.
Vin managed a wry grin. "Glad to know all that work was worth something."
But Chris, looking around the room at his friends, wasn't so sure.
Hurt. Street moving, tilting, spinning. Can't see. Someone--Josiah?--bending close, saying "I got you, kid."
Running. Josiah staggered.
A sound, horrible, like a kicked puppy. Josiah staggered.
Buck. "Damn it, Josiah . . . "
Gasping, JD surfaced from the darkness. He could hear low voices somewhere close by, but they seemed calm. He had a vague memory of waking to frightened voices once before. That might have been a dream, though. He was having a little trouble remembering what was real and what wasn't.
"I think the kid's awake."
JD felt a hand on his shoulder. Cautiously, he opened his eyes, squinting against the dim light. Buck was leaning over the cot, a huge grin not enough to hide the worry and exhaustion in his eyes.
"Buck?" JD whispered hoarsely. His throat felt like someone had sanded it.
"Hey, son, how you feeling?"
"Like . . . hell." JD wasn't sure what he'd said that was funny enough to make Buck laugh, but he had more important things on his mind. "Josiah. . . was hurt?"
Buck's grin faded. "Yeah. Not too bad, though. Got a couple of bullets in the back, but they both got him around the ribs. He'll be fine."
"Good." JD swallowed dryly. "Can I . . . have a drink?"
"Sure, kid." Buck sat down on the edge of the cot and picked up a metal cup from the floor. "Just don't throw it up on me this time, all right?"
JD blinked at him, confused, but didn't want to waste the energy asking him what the hell he was talking about. Buck slid an arm under his shoulders and helped him sit up. JD swallowed frantically, suddenly understanding why Buck was worried about him getting sick, but Buck seemed to know what was going on and held him steady until his stomach stopped churning.
"Just a sip, now," Buck said, holding the cup to JD's lips.
JD swallowed, gave the water a few seconds to see if it would stay, then took another sip. His eyes started to close, and he thought dreamily that it would be a silly thing to fall asleep sitting up, even if Buck's arm was around him. He could hear Buck's voice rambling on, but something in his friend's tone told him that what Buck was saying wasn't all that important, that it was all right to rest.
He had almost reached the darkness again when a stray thought hit him, bringing him awake with a jerk.
"Nathan?" he gasped, eyes flying open to search Buck's frantically.
Buck sighed. "He's better than he was, kid, but it's hard to say . .. "
"Don't frighten the boy, Buck. Nathan will recover." Ezra spoke with a quiet confidence as he walked over to join them.
"I ain't a boy, Ezra. You don't have to lie to make me feel better," JD said a bit peevishly.
Ezra raised an eyebrow as he handed Buck a bowl he'd carried over. "I assure you, Mr. Dunne, I have no intention of making you feel better. Buck, if you will be so kind as to make sure our young friend consumes enough of that broth to prevent him from wasting away any time soon . . ."
JD's stomach started churning again as the scent of the broth hit him. He closed his eyes, swallowing hard. "Ezra, I didn't mean . . . I just wanted the truth." He suddenly realized his voice sounded shaky and trailed off, not wanting to appear any more childish than he already had.
JD opened his eyes, surprised at the gambler's tone. Ezra looked at him, green eyes strangely compassionate.
"I said Nathan would recover because it is the truth."
Biting his lip, JD studied him carefully, but he couldn't see anything in Ezra's expression that belied his words. With a sigh, JD let his eyes shut. He was asleep before Buck could finish saying, "Hey, JD, you're supposed to drink . . ."
Chris sat with his leg propped on JD's cot, one hand resting on the kid's shoulder in an attempt to keep him still. JD had awakened a few times, once coherent enough to carry on a conversation. The other time, though, he'd been out of his head again, and Chris didn't want to take the chance of him falling off the cot if he got too restless.
On Chris's other side, Josiah was sleeping peacefully on his stomach, the bandages a stark white against his tanned skin. Chris had roused him enough to pour some water and broth down him a few times, in part to stave off the hangover the preacher was sure to end up with after Buck poured an entire bottle of whiskey down him. Josiah was a strong man. Chris had no doubt he'd be back on his feet in a few days. Over on the other wall, Vin was sleeping, the willowbark tea Mary Travis had brewed and sent up doing its work. The tracker was still having some trouble breathing, but he'd made it out of bed and down to the outhouse with Buck's help early that morning. He'd collapsed back onto the cot and slept the rest of the day afterward, but it was progress.
Resting his head back against the wall, Chris watched through half-closed eyes as Ezra once again worked at changing Nathan's bandages. There'd been a time when Chris would have placed all his worldly possessions on the bet that Ezra wouldn't be caught dead tending anyone else's wounds, let alone nursing an ex-slave with the tenderness of a brother. Nathan and Ezra had had more hard words than kind ones between them, but somewhere in the past two years, they'd reached an understanding. Now, Ezra seemed to take the idea of Nathan dying as a personal affront and fought against it with the same determination he employed when trying to defeat another card shark at the poker table.
Chris shook his head, absently patting JD's shoulder as the boy murmured in his sleep. The world was a strange place, no doubt about it.
The door opened softly and Buck walked in, carefully balancing a kettle in one hand and the bucket of water he'd gone out after in the other. "Mrs. Travis sent another kettle of soup," he announced gloomily. "Woman seems to think we're all laid up."
Chris grinned. "What are you expecting, steaks?"
"A man needs something he can sink his teeth into. This stuff runs right through you without sticking to your bones."
"Maybe you can lose that pot belly you're getting there." Chris ignored Buck's wounded look with the ease of long practice. "Sit down, Buck. We need to talk."
Buck settled next to Ezra, reaching out without thinking to hold the loose end of the bandage that the gambler was tightening. The two had done it so often in the past couple of days that they no longer had any need to talk about it.
"What's on your mind?" Buck asked.
Chris took a deep breath before answering, knowing they weren't going to like what he had to say. "I'm sending a telegraph to the judge tomorrow. I'm telling him he needs to find someone else to keep the peace around here."
Buck stared at him in complete shock, his mouth working soundlessly as he tried to think of what to say. Ezra raised an eyebrow and asked calmly, "And why, dare I ask, have you come to that decision?"
"Because it was too damn close this time." Chris could hear the anger in his own voice and forced himself to lower it, not wanting to wake the sleeping men. "Because it ain't worth losing our lives."
"You can't say that." Buck shook his head, standing abruptly. The cots made the room too crowded to pace, so he ran his hands nervously up and down his jeans. "Ain't none of us been killed yet, have we? Sure, it was close, but this ain't the first time we was in a tight spot. Just because we got banged up doesn't mean we need to quit."
"Would you rather wait till after you're dead?" Chris asked dryly.
Buck lowered his voice to its most soothing. "You're just all wound up 'cause you're tired and worried about the boys. We all are. But you can't make this kind of decision when you're not thinking straight."
Chris shook his head. "I'm thinking as straight as I ever have. Maybe straighter. It ain't a decision I made in a second, Buck. I been thinking about it for two days now, and I keep coming up with the same thing. There ain't nothing in this town worth all of us getting killed for."
"We ain't going to get killed, Chris," Buck snapped. His voice softened as JD shifted. "Those were pretty bad odds we faced the other night, but we saved the people of this town and we all came out of it. What more do you want?"
"We did?" Chris's throat tightened, and he had to swallow hard before he could continue. "Look at JD, Buck. How many head wounds you seen where the man came out blind, or not able to walk, or with his mind gone? And Nathan? He could still die, Buck. Do you call that 'coming out of it'?"
Buck's face went almost white with anger. "Damn it, don't tell me about Nathan. I know damn well how bad Nathan is, but I ain't gave up on him. . ."
Ezra had been silent throughout the conversation. One hand was still resting on the bandage on Nathan's chest, keeping pressure on the wound. The other rested on his own knee. He didn't really seem to be aware that both were covered in blood and were staining his clothes. Tired green eyes had shifted from Chris to Buck as their argument grew more intense.
"Gentlemen," he interrupted quietly, waiting till he had their attention before he continued, "I believe you know I'm not a gambler at heart, and I leave nothing more to chance than Lady Luck insists. Which is why I trust you will not take it lightly when I say that I would place my, dare I say, considerable fortune on Mr. Jackson's recovery."
Buck and Chris both looked at him blankly. Buck drawled, "That's nice, Ezra, but . . . "
Ezra raised a hand, silently asking their forbearance. "I believe he will recover because he is a strong man, one of the strongest I have ever had the . . . the honor to encounter. However, there is a more important factor that provides me with certainty of his future recovery." Nathan made a sound, more of a sigh than a moan, and Ezra reached over out of habit to blot the sweat off his forehead. After a moment's silence, in which Buck fidgeted and Chris eased his leg out straighter, Ezra looked up and continued softly, "He will live because he has something to live for, something to fight for. We have created something in this town in the past two years, gentlemen. Something," he glanced at Josiah's still form, then at the lump of blankets next to Chris that just barely revealed JD's dark hair, "we can believe in, something we can be proud of, if you will pardon my dramatics." Ezra gave them a wry smile, his voice dropping almost to a whisper as he finished, "It is certainly worth living for, and I, for one, am not willing to give up yet."
Chris's gaze followed Ezra's, from Josiah to JD, then over to where Vin lay propped up so that he could breathe, his harsh gasps so familiar now that they barely even heard them, and finally to Nathan, who might. . . might live till morning. Then finally, he looked at Buck and Ezra, both of them red-eyed and exhausted from two days of tending their friends, their eyes focused on him almost hopefully. Neither wanted to give up yet, but it was his decision. He had no doubt of that. He was the leader, whether he wanted it or not, and it was his decision to make.
He looked down at JD once more, at his hand resting on the boy's shoulder ready to hold him still if he started thrashing around again. "Is it worth this?"
Buck leaned forward, his voice husky with emotion and weariness. "If you asked any of them, you know they'd say yes. Not 'cause they got a lot of good sense, maybe, but if any of us had any good sense, we'd never have rode out to that Seminole village, much less took a job like this with low pay and no thanks likely. If we give up now, Cobert wins. Hell, everyone we fought since that loco colonel wins. And if," he stopped, swallowed hard, his eyes following the trail Ezra's and Chris's had left around the room, "if every one of them dies tomorrow, we . . . we owe them more than to lose now. And if they make it, we damn sure ain't going to take the very thing that's giving them a reason to live and yank it out from under them."
Chris looked away from their expectant gazes. They wanted him to say it was all right, that the good they were doing was worth the pain. Maybe it was. Maybe if he was just making the decision for himself, he could say the same thing. But when it came to his friends . . . he couldn't be responsible for their deaths.
Cautiously, JD turned his head on the pillow. There were a few less explosions inside his skull than the last time he'd tried to move, and he decided to take that as a good sign. He was tired of not feeling good. Hell, he was tired of being so tired. He'd barely been able to keep his eyes open ever since he'd been hurt, however long ago that was. Somehow he'd lost track of time.
He was guessing it was night now. The room--Nathan's room, he was pretty sure--was dark, only dimly lit by a lantern on the other side of the room. If he was careful, he could sit up a little and look around, but a few seconds of that made his stomach start turning flips again. The one brief look he'd gotten, though, had shown him that all six of his friends were there and asleep. That was a relief. He'd been afraid that he'd wake up at some point and find some of them gone.
Buck and Ezra had told him that everything would be all right, though. They'd said Josiah and Nathan were getting better, and those two were the only ones who'd been hurt, as far as JD knew. JD closed his eyes, trying to relax back into sleep. All his friends would be all right, so he should be able to stop worrying.
So why did he still have this nagging, anxious feeling in the back of his mind? Something still wasn't right, but he couldn't remember what, or even if it was something real or something he'd dreamed. He wished someone was awake so he could ask about it, find out if there was a reason to be worried. He'd thought about waking Buck up and making him talk about it, but Buck was clear across the room, and JD could barely make himself sit up.
It was funny. He'd hardly been able to keep his eyes open for ten minutes since he'd been hurt, and now he was so worked up over something he wasn't even sure existed that he couldn't sleep. If he could just get rid of the feeling that something bad was threatening them, or at least figure out what the bad thing was, he'd be able to relax.
Not sleeping wasn't helping his head, though. The pain that had started to go away was coming back with a vengeance, making him sick with its intensity. It was hard to lie still when he hurt that bad. He twisted around, trying to find some way to lie where it didn't hurt so much, but that just made his stomach do bigger flips.
The whisper came from the cot next to JD. He felt a flash of shame. That was a whole lot of gratitude he was showing Josiah for saving his life, waking the man up when he needed rest to recover.
"Sorry," JD whispered. He turned gingerly to face the preacher. "Didn't mean to wake you up."
"You all right, son?" Josiah's voice was strong, even in a whisper, and he didn't look like he was hurting too much.
"Fine. My head just hurts a little. How about you?"
Josiah smiled faintly. "My hide's too tough to let a couple of little bullets get me down."
JD sighed, a tension he hadn't been aware of leaving him suddenly. "Thanks. For pulling me out of the street, I mean."
Josiah's smile widened. "My pleasure." He moved on the cot, wincing. "Could have done without getting shot again, though."
"You and me both." JD shifted position again. He felt like someone was inside his head with a hammer, pounding on his skull with a faster and faster rhythm.
"JD? You need me to wake up Buck, see if he can give you something for your head?"
JD blinked. It would help if things would stay in focus. "No, I'm all right. He needs his sleep."
"So do you, son."
"What would you do if we all split up?"
The preacher was quiet for a long moment. "I don't know. The church still needs some work, and there's some places I been meaning to visit. Why?"
"I just got this bad feeling." JD closed his eyes, wishing the pounding would ease up so he could think. "I ain't never thought beyond this. It's all I ever wanted." He sighed. "I don't want it to end."
"I don't think that's something you need to worry about right now, JD. I don't think any of us is planning on going anywhere."
"Yeah, I guess not." JD shivered. He could feel sleep getting closer, and he couldn't help but wonder if all his friends would be there when he woke up.
Chris glanced up from the gun he was cleaning. "Hey, kid, how you feeling?"
"Like the wrong end of a three day drunk."
Chris smiled. "Better than you were, huh?"
A faint smile flickered across JD's face. "Yeah."
"Good to hear. You had us worried."
JD blinked as if the thought surprised him. "I did? How's Nathan?"
"Better. Bleeding finally stopped."
"Good." JD let his eyes close for a second, then they flew open again. "Chris?"
"I had a dream last night . . ."
Chris waited for him to finish, but he didn't say anything more. "Yeah? Was she pretty?"
A slight flush colored JD's cheeks. "Not that kind of dream. I dreamed you were going to tell Judge Travis to get someone else to protect the town."
Chris sighed. He'd wanted to wait a few days to tell the kid, at least until he was a little stronger. "That wasn't a dream."
JD frowned at him. "You want to quit?"
Chris looked away, his eyes falling on the gun in his hands. "I was thinking about it."
Chris snorted. "You have to ask?"
JD pushed himself up on his elbows. His face grew paler, but his mouth tightened stubbornly. "What about the town? Who's going to be the law if we're not here?"
"They'll find someone. Hire a sheriff." Chris grinned. "Hell, kid, maybe you could get the job."
"Funny," JD said shortly. He leaned back against the wall, being careful of the bump on the back of his head, and closed his eyes. "I don't get it, Chris. We won. We beat Cobert's gang."
"You took a good look at Nathan lately? You take a good look at yourself?" Chris gave the barrel of the gun a hard rub. "We've been pretty damn lucky, but that can't last forever. One of these times, one of us is going to end up dead."
"So? One of us could fall off our horse and break our neck on the way out of town."
Chris grinned. "Anyone tell you you're sounding more like Buck every day?"
A faint smile curved JD's lips. "You trying to make me feel worse?"
"If I wanted to do that, I'd say you'd started looking like him."
JD laughed, wincing painfully. "Ow."
Chris smiled. It seemed like it had been a long time since any of them had laughed.
JD grew silent, his smile slowly drooping into the slight frown of pain he'd worn for days. Chris sat quietly, thinking the boy was drifting off to sleep again. He'd been doing a lot of that, but each time he woke up a little better than the time before. He'd recover eventually. They all would, even Nathan, although Chris hadn't been too sure of that until last night when the healer finally woke up and talked to them for a few minutes.
So much for being asleep. "Yeah, kid?"
"Remember when we rode into town that day and Judge Travis was facing down Lucas James?"
"Yeah, what about it?"
"Why'd you go back up the judge?"
Chris looked over sharply. The kid's eyes were still closed, his voice soft and drowsy. More than half-sure JD was dreaming, Chris answered in the same soft voice, "He couldn't take on James and his men all by himself. They'd've killed him."
"Yeah, but you didn't have to help him."
Frowning, Chris looked back down at the gun in hands. JD was right. He could've let the judge sink or swim on his own. At the time, he hadn't had anything invested in this town, hadn't known the judge, hadn't even known for sure if five of the six men he was riding with would back him up or ride away . . . although he hadn't really doubted any of them, even then. Why had he gone to back up that lone old man who was facing down three armed men with a coach gun and a hell of a lot of pride?
Chris knew the answer to the question, but he didn't like it much. It was the same reason he'd taken on the job in the Seminole village. He'd been looking for a good way to die.
He couldn't very well say that to the kid, though. How do you explain to a starry-eyed boy who thinks you're a hero that you were sick of living and scared to death of dying for nothing? That you wanted to die, but you were too proud not to die for a good reason? That you wanted to go out like the hero he thought you were and you knew you never could be? Hell, he could hardly understand it himself now.
"It was the right thing to do," he said finally, the best he could come up with.
JD opened his eyes to look at him searchingly. "Ain't it still the right thing to do?"
Trapped, Chris tried to look away and found that he couldn't. When had the kid learned to look straight into his soul? "Just go to sleep, kid."
It wasn't an answer, but JD didn't seem to be listening anyway. His eyes held Chris's for a long moment, then he nodded, apparently having found what he needed to see. Letting his eyes drift shut, he murmured drowsily, "We ain't done here yet, Chris. Still got a lot . . . to do . . ."
Chris sighed as he slid the gun back into its holster. "I wish I had your faith, kid."
His only answer was a soft murmur as JD sank deeper into sleep. Shaking his head, Chris stood and limped over to the window. The town was quiet, still, the grey sky casting a pall over it that fit Chris's mood. He all but ached with tiredness, but it wasn't an exhaustion that went away when he slept. It was bone-deep and so strong he almost felt like he couldn't force his body to move.
The whisper of his friends' breath, the low creak of a cot as one of them shifted in his sleep, was reassuring. They'd all survived. He hadn't led them straight to their deaths, but he couldn't take any credit for their survival. Luck or God or Fate had smiled on them when he'd failed them all.
But no more. He'd led them on a wild ride, but these men were too good to die because he couldn't keep them safe. It wasn't a responsibility he'd wanted in the first place, this duty to make sure they survived all the situations they got into. He hadn't much wanted to survive himself when they'd all met up, and sure as hell hadn't cared one way or the other about the other men. Not that he'd have let them die right in front of him if he could help them, but he hadn't had any intention of getting close to any of them.
It had scared the hell out of him when he realized how important they'd become to him. When he'd been in that prison outside of Jericho, he'd known that all he had to do was hang on until they came. It had never occurred to him that they wouldn't. Then, even when he'd thought he'd given it all up and moved on, all it took was the word that one of them was in trouble to have him running back.
He'd tried to pull back, tried to tell himself that he didn't know these men all that well and didn't have to feel responsible for them, but it hadn't worked. They were his friends, his responsibility, and no amount of telling himself otherwise would change that. But accepting it meant that he had to make some hard decisions, ones that they didn't like. Ones that meant they would no longer be in danger.
The raspy voice sounded weaker and more hoarse than usual, but the fact that he was able to talk was an improvement. Chris turned to look at Vin, frowning as he saw the tracker on his feet. "You ain't supposed to be up."
Vin shrugged with one shoulder, careful of his injury. "Been sitting too long." He joined Chris at the window, leaning against the sill with a grateful sigh. Chris shook his head, but didn't say anything. There was no arguing with Vin when his mind was set on something.
"Heard you talking to the kid," Vin said finally, glancing at Chris apologetically. "Kind of hard not to hear things when you're this close."
Chris shrugged. "Wasn't exactly a secret."
Vin made a soft, noncommittal sound. Chris waited, but the younger man didn't say anything further.
"You going to tell me I'm wrong too?"
Vin shook his head. "I ain't going to tell you how to live your life."
"I appreciate it," Chris said dryly. Vin shot him a look, but didn't answer. "So you think we should quit, too?"
"Didn't say that."
"You think I'm wrong?"
Vin shifted his weight, his eyes on the street. "I think it's your decision to make."
"That's right. It is."
The silence between them stretched, but it was an easy one. There had always been something between them that let them communicate without words. Chris found himself wondering if he'd miss it. The thought unsettled him.
Vin turned, clapping Chris on the shoulder as he walked back toward his cot. "There's a hell of a lot of bad in the world, Chris. Not a whole lot of good."
"You're getting as bad as Josiah."
Vin lowered himself onto the cot, wincing. "Seems like, if we're doing something good, there ain't really room for us to stop."
"What's good about getting yourself killed?" Chris took a deep breath, lowering his voice as Nathan stirred restlessly. "I ain't saying some sort of law ain't needed around here. I'm just saying it ain't going to be us."
Vin started to shrug, then winced again. "Like I said, your decision to make."
"But you'd make a different one."
"Maybe." Gingerly, Vin swung his feet onto the cot and lay back, closing his eyes with a sigh. "Truth is, there's been a few times when I thought about taking off."
"Why didn't you?" Chris turned to face him.
"I figured watching out for this town was as good a thing to do as any. It sure as hell needs it, anyway." Vin grinned wryly. "'Sides, I figured you all'd get in too much trouble if I left."
In the silence after the bullets stopped, he stepped out into the street. He knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he needed to be careful, but he left his gun in its holster and for some reason couldn't make his hand move to pull it out.
A hazy mixture of dust and smoke drifted past, stinging his eyes. He rubbed at them, squinting at a blurry figure lying prone in the dirt. He stepped forward . . . and suddenly couldn't breathe.
It was Josiah.
The big preacher's eyes were open and staring, his mouth gaping slightly. His chest was a bloody mess of red, and one hand clutched at the dirt in a silent testimony to his final agony.
Heart pounding, JD turned away, searching frantically for his other friends.
He'd only taken one step before he saw Ezra. The gambler was sitting, leaning against a water trough. His eyes, too, were open, and if it weren't for the pool of blood around him, he could have just been taking a rest.
"No." JD shook his head, as if he could make things right by denying what he was seeing. "Chris? Buck?"
He took a step forward as the haze cleared slightly, his eyes traveling inexorably upward to the balcony of the building he was facing. A slender form hung from it by one leg, a slow trail of red dripping down to the ground.
"No . . ." Helplessly, JD stepped forward again, even though he wanted to turn and run. "Vin, no . . ."
JD squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep from seeing the next body. He knew it was there, though, just like he knew that there were two others not far away.
"JD, take it easy. You're dreaming, kid."
No. He was looking right at the bodies . . .
"Just a dream. Come on, open your eyes."
Cautiously, JD obeyed. He blinked, meeting Vin's concerned gaze with a sudden rush of embarrassment.
"Not too surprising, a man having nightmares after what we been through," Vin remarked casually, easing himself down on Josiah's empty cot.
JD didn't really feel like talking about it. "Where is everybody?"
Vin gave him a steady look, but went along with the change in subject. "Ezra's finally getting some sleep. So's Nathan. Buck and Josiah went down to the bathhouse. Chris is walking the stiffness out of his leg."
"Nathan still getting better?"
JD sighed, relieved. "Any chance there's still some of that broth?"
"Hell, kid, if you're nice I'll let you have some porridge." Vin grinned.
"What do I get if I'm mean?"
"I'll tell Buck you was the one that put the sand in his boots last week."
JD smiled, but he couldn't make it last. He hadn't forgotten about his conversation with Chris the last time he woke up. He couldn't help but wonder if the days of playing practical jokes on Buck were gone.
"What is it, kid?"
Vin was looking worried again. JD tried to wipe whatever expression had alarmed the tracker off his face, but he didn't think he was too successful.
Vin studied him for a long moment. "You worried about Chris telling the judge we're hanging it up?"
JD frowned. "How'd you know?"
Vin started to shrug and obviously thought better of it. "I ain't too happy about it either, to tell the truth."
JD sighed, turning away. "I don't like it, Vin. It seems like Chris got spooked by all of us getting hurt. I don't think he's thinking straight."
"Maybe, maybe not. It's his decision, though."
"Just because he don't want to be the law in town anymore doesn't mean the rest of us can't."
Vin sighed. "You really think that would work, kid?"
JD blinked back a sudden burning in his eyes. No, he didn't think it would work. Chris was their leader, plain and simple. "I just . . . I already lost one family before I came out here, Vin."
"I know, kid."
JD felt Vin's hand pat his shoulder, then rest there a long time before the tracker stood up and moved away.
The morning was still and cool, with just enough bite in the air to show it was still winter. Chris sat in a chair he'd dragged out into the walkway, enjoying the solitude. This was the first truly private moment he'd had since the night the Cobert gang rode into town. He found it hard to think with so many people around all the time, and he had a lot of thinking to do.
The night he'd stood helplessly in the middle of the street while four of his men were almost killed, knowing that his bad planning had led them to this point, he'd decided it was time to quit. They'd all been lucky, but in each battle, the odds grew that one of them wouldn't come out alive. The logical course had seemed to be to get out while the getting was good.
None of his friends saw it that way. Buck had somehow got the notion that Chris was giving up on them, not on the job. Ezra frowned at him constantly, as if trying to figure out a way to make him change his mind. Neither Vin nor Josiah had tried to argue him out of it, that wasn't their way, but Vin had as good as said he thought Chris was wrong, and Josiah had simply sighed and said, "A man lives as much by faith as by bread, Brother Larabee."
Chris shook his head. Maybe one day he'd figure out what the preacher meant by those crazy sayings he was always coming up with. At least they were easier to deal with than JD looking like he'd lost his best friend. Nathan was the only one who hadn't shown he was unhappy about Chris's decision, and that was only because they'd all had a silent agreement not to discuss it with him until he was stronger.
The low creak of Nathan's door broke the stillness, and he bit back the urge to snap at the person disturbing his peace. Ezra still looked too worn out to be much of a nuisance, anyway.
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee."
Chris gave a slight nod that Ezra didn't see as the gambler walked over to the rail. "Ezra."
"Lovely morning, isn't it?" The gambler spoke without conviction, his molasses drawl strangely lifeless.
Chris looked at him sharply, noting the dark circles under his eyes and the fine lines of tension around his mouth. "Something bothering you?"
Ezra shrugged, his hands gripping the railing tightly enough to make his knuckles stand out. "Our colleagues are all recovering nicely. Soon they'll be well enough go their separate ways."
Chris sighed. "Just go on and say it, Ezra."
Ezra looked over his shoulder at Chris, nothing but weariness in his eyes. "What is there to say?"
"That never stopped you before."
The corner of Ezra's mouth twitched, but he didn't seem to have the energy to produce a grin. "I am occasionally known for my loquacity."
"Occasionally," Chris agreed dryly.
Ezra sighed and turned to face the gunslinger, his back against the railing. He was silent for a long time. Chris had begun to wonder if he truly didn't have anything to say when he finally broke the quiet between them. "When you first made my acquaintance, what would you have said the odds were that one day I would be found endeavoring to sustain the life of an ex-slave?"
Chris stared at him for a second, startled at how close to his own thoughts Ezra's words were. After a moment, he shook his head. "Didn't seem too likely."
Ezra nodded. "And what would you have said the odds were that you would be comfortable placing your life, and the lives of others in your care, into the hands of young Mr. Dunne? Or that Josiah would make an effort not to be killed in a gun battle?"
Chris frowned. "You got a point?"
Ezra met his eyes directly for the first time since the gambler had stepped outside. "I would venture to say, Mr. Larabee, that none of us are the same men who rode into Four Corners alone two years ago." One hand rubbed nervously at the rail behind him; realizing what he was doing, Ezra clenched the hand into a fist. "You know I'm not a crusader or a believer in miracles. But we've accomplished some good here, Chris. We've helped people, and somehow we've become better men for it."
Chris looked away. Ezra rarely dropped the front of fancy words that he hid behind, and Chris wasn't sure how to deal with it. "You're getting as starry-eyed as JD."
Ezra's voice hardened slightly. "Is that such a bad thing? At least he has retained the power to believe in his fellow man." Ezra sighed. "The boy is terrified of losing the only family he has left, Chris. Your decision is going to have ramifications for everyone involved. I truly hope you make it wisely."
The gambler turned and walked back into Nathan's room, leaving Chris behind to stare at him, wondering if maybe he'd got hit in the head when no one was looking. That wasn't the Ezra Standish he'd thought he knew. That had been a man . . . fighting for something he believed in. Fighting for his friends.
Standing abruptly, Chris limped over to the stairs, the thought of a drink strong on his mind. Why the hell did he have to make all the decisions? Why was it up to him to decide the things that would determine whether his friends survived or not? He'd never asked for this.
But as he put his foot gingerly on the first step, another memory hit him: Nathan struggling against a bunch of liquored-up trailhands on these same stairs. Chris hadn't asked for trouble then, but he'd made a decision not to let Nathan die . . . at least, not without a fight. It had been, as he'd told JD about the judge, the right thing to do.
Ain't it still the right thing to do?
Wasn't protecting his men the right thing to do?
We created something in this town, gentlemen. Something we can believe in.
Belief didn't count for much when the lead was flying, though.
A man lives as much by faith as by bread, Brother Larabee.
A man lived by not making stupid decisions, too. A man could believe in the power of good all he wanted, and it won't keep him alive half as well as a decent plan and a loaded gun.
We owe it to them . . .
Chris owed it to his friends not to get them killed. Didn't he?
He looked uncertainly at the door to Nathan's room. They were all in there, all depending on him to make the right decision, and every single one of them seemed to think the right decision was to keep on fighting.
There's a hell of a lot of bad in the world, Chris. Not a whole lot of good.
Except right here. Ezra was right; they'd done some good in this town. More than that, they'd done some good for each other.
Ain't it still the right thing to do?
Yeah, kid. Yeah, it is.
"It tastes like paste."
"Hell, kid, it probably is paste. But it's still good for you. Eat up."
JD hadn't been forced to eat porridge since he'd grown taller than his mama. It hadn't grown any more appetizing in the time he'd been avoiding it. He eyed the bowl gloomily, wondering why it was Buck and Josiah had decided to gang up on him. He didn't see them eating any of the stuff.
"Don't believe . . . a word . . . he says," a weak voice whispered.
JD looked up quickly, the sudden stab of pain behind his eyes forgotten when he saw who'd spoken. "Nathan!"
A wide grin brightened Buck's face. "He's delirious, JD. You still got to eat it."
Nathan's answering grin was closer to a grimace, but there was a definite trace of spirit in his voice as he answered, "Stuff's . . . bad for . .. you . . . as it looks."
"See?" JD set the bowl on the floor and crossed his arms triumphantly. "Even Nathan says I don't have to eat it."
"Going to be a long time 'til you're steady enough to walk down to the saloon for real food," Josiah remarked. "I think I'd make do, son." With a philosophical one-shouldered shrug, he picked up the bowl and took a bite of the porridge.
Before JD could respond, the door opened. Chris stepped through, his spurs jangling in the sudden silence as all the men turned to look at him. Vin, by the window, smiled faintly and nodded to himself, and JD wondered what it was that had made him so happy.
Chris's eyes traveled the room, pausing on each of the men and stopping completely on Nathan for a long moment as the closest thing to a real smile JD had ever seen on him tugged at the corners of his mouth. Then Chris's eyes slid up, catching Ezra's as the gambler slowly fanned the cards he'd been shuffling. If JD hadn't known the two men so well, he would have thought they were facing off for a duel. As it was, he was left with the impression he'd missed something important as Chris nodded slightly and walked the rest of the way into the room.
"I was thinking," he said as he settled down into the chair between JD and Josiah and eased his leg out. "The judge is a hard man to find. Likely couldn't get a telegraph to him for weeks."
"Hardly seems worth the effort," Josiah agreed blandly. "JD, you're right. This stuff does taste like paste."
"Better eat it anyway." Chris grinned. "Never know when you'll need your strength for hunting down the bad guys."