He was dead.
That was it.
They'd all died.
What other explanation was there?
They'd all died and gone to Heaven.
That was the only explanation. Why else would Chris Larabee be standing next to him with Ezra and Josiah?
But, why would he have died? He only had a flesh wound.
This couldn't be right. Buck Wilmington had his eyes open, but he wasn't quite awake. He forced himself to lucidity.
And saw his friends.
Soaking wet, filthy, bruised, scratched, and dog tired
"Nathan . . ."
Chris nodded toward JD's bed where the healer was making a careful assessment of the boy's injuries.
Buck's face clouded. "He's been so sick . . ." he explained and his gaze lingered there for a moment, then he reached up and grabbed Chris' sleeve. "Are you all right?"
"Couple of busted ribs." Chris' drone comforted his old friend. "I'll be fine."
"And the others . . ."
"Really tired, and really hungry, but everyone's in one piece. How's your leg?"
A low voice spoke from the doorway. "I didn't think we'd all be in the same room again." Vin Tanner smiled at his war-weary friends.
Ezra Standish turned to the bounty hunter. "How do you feel, Mr.
Vin sighed. "Sore . . . but I'm better."
Ezra tentatively put a hand on Vin's shoulder. He was not given to much physical display of emotion, but his perspective had changed during the last week, and he had been overcome with the realization of how fragile life could be. His jaw tightened. "I'm glad." Then recognizing that he was feeling more emotion than he could control, he shifted back to humor."Besides, better is the only direction you could go without actually meeting your Maker."
"I reckon we all came pretty close to it."
Josiah made his way around to the other side of Buck's bed, speaking in low tones. Ezra watched the little scene and felt another rush of emotion. He ran his hand down his face, not really knowing how to handle this . . . feeling. He'd never really known family.
Yet here he was surrounded by family. Vin must have picked up on it somehow, because he laid an easy hand on the gambler's shoulder. Ezra looked at him a moment, then blinked back the burning in his eyes.
Nathan looked up and interrupted the quiet conversations around the room. "His fever broke," he announced, his voice hitching. "His fever broke," he repeated, almost to himself. He turned back to the boy. "It's all right, son. You're gonna be all right."
The healer pushed the sweat-soaked hair out of JD's eyes and the men were sobered by the battered face. The kid's eyes opened slowly. His lip quivered when he saw Nathan, and he reached up to take his friend's hand. Nathan smiled broadly and held JD's hand in both of his.
The dark eyes studied the hazel ones, now brimming with tears. And the former slave recognized something he hadn't seen in long years. Something he should never have to see in any soul - certainly not in one so young. He would not be able to describe it to the others - they'd have to see it themselves. But it touched him deeply, and he wished he could spare the boy the trauma that awaited him.
Instinctively, Nathan reached up and stroked the young man's brow, trying to communicate an understanding.
He knew what this was like.
"You got friends here, son." Nathan said and he gently set JD's hand back on the bed. Wordlessly, he stood up. For a moment, JD's eyes met Buck's, and for the first time, Buck couldn't read his young friend.
There was something there beyond bewilderment, beyond fear, beyond questioning . . .
A black shirt eclipsed his field of vision. He'd have to figure it out later.
Chris Larabee knelt beside JD's bed and for a moment he studied the kid's face. Every bruise and every bandage was evidence of this boy's sacrifice . . .
And of Chris Larabee's failings . . .
Why hadn't he protected him? Why had he let this naive kid ride into Hell with them? JD should be fumbling over his words trying to ask some pretty girl to go out with him, not lying here like this.
Chris couldn't look him in the eye at first. And JD picked up on this.
A thin voice. "You couldn1t have stopped them, Mr. Larabee."
It was a little thing. But the respect JD still afforded the great gunfighter was the young man's way of absolving him.
Chris lowered his head, and when he looked up, a smile pulled at his lips and his eyes were full. He took the initiative and held JD's hand. It seemed like forever before he could speak.
"You saved my life, JD." Chris took a ragged breath. "I'd have died in the street that first night if you hadn't warned me." He reached up and touched the kid's face just below the bandaged broken cheek, seeing, in his mind's eye, the rifle slam into his face in retaliation. JD watched him closely, remembering as well. Chris' voice waivered, "I'm . . . so sorry." JD blinked back a tear. Remembering was so hard. But he couldn't let his idol see him cry. He had to turn his face away - into the pillow, now damp with sweat.
Chris stood and leaned close to the boy's ear. His hand gently touched his wet hair, and he spoke in a voice thick with emotion.
"I have never known a braver man."
She didn't hear him come in. The heavy rain had lulled her to sleep - a much needed sleep. She was exhausted. A week of not-knowing, of doing what little she could to help, of tending to a very sick young man . . .
She would never have deliberately taken a nap,
But she'd put the paper to bed.
And she couldn't sit on the porch, watching, because the rain was torrential, blowing a cold mist under the overhang.
She'd just sit by the window, pulling her shawl around her shoulders, watching, listening to the rain.
The rain lullabye
"Mary . . ."
The low voice - a voice she knew in her dreams . . .
But she wasn't dreaming. She opened her eyes. And
There he stood. His duster did nothing to hide the evidence of his ordeal.
But he was alive.
Mary's jaw dropped in shock.
Then she ran to him.
He held her. Forever.
He hadn't known he needed her. But right now she was the only living soul who could afford him comfort. She was the first beauty he1d seen in a torturous week. And he would hold on to that beauty.
A beautiful heart.
No words. Why words? Everything was so complete in this moment. Chris Larabee kissed the top of her head. The soft scent of her golden hair was intoxicating to him and he wrapped his arms around her more tightly.
She clung to him.
He1d come back. She had feared so for him. And she had relived a time when someone she'd loved hadn't come home. At first it had surprised her. Oh, she cared about these men - all of them. But it was Chris that kept invading her thoughts. Chris whose brooding eyes haunted her restless dreams.
And Chris who had brought something back to life in her. Something she thought she had buried with her husband.
She took the hurt face in her soft hands and studied it. Chris didn't fight it. His eyes searched hers and, in this unguarded moment, he recognized the man he had once been reflected there. The man who had loved a wife and child. The man who could live robustly and enjoy his friends. The man who hadn't yet been burdened with unrelenting guilt. For a moment, he found himself.
And he could hope.
Buck Wilmington wasn1t good with crutches. He'd forget to use them and when he did use them, his arms hurt. Damn his ankle. He took a couple of faulty steps across the porch in front of the boarding house. And nearly toppled when he stepped off the porch to the street.
A hand caught him, but instead of thanking the helper, he spun on his heel and snapped, "I can do it!!!!!" Vin Tanner didn't let go of his friend's elbow. The bounty hunter didn't react to his friend1s outburst. Buck had kept a vigil at JD's bedside for two weeks now, and the boy seemed to be drifting farther and farther away from them. His body was healing - slowly. But his spirit was broken. And nobody seemed to be able to help him. This frustrated Buck to no end, and that frustration erupted in little outbursts of anger.
But his friends let it roll off. They shared his concern for JD, and were concerned for him as well. Vin had taken it upon himself to stay close to the gunslinger. Josiah had buried himself in working on the church. Nathan was at JD's bedside every day. Ezra, uncharacteristically, was quiet, and running on a short fuse himself.
And Chris, Chris stayed clear of his old friend. It was strange. He cared about him, loved him like a brother, truth be told. But he also knew he was more likely to antagonize Buck, and they would inevitably start sparring, if for no other reason than to burn off excess stress.
So Vin was the one who would make sure Buck was all right.
Like he was doing now.
"Come on," he said, waiting until Buck had steadied himself to release his hold on his arm. "I could use a drink."
Buck nodded. "Me too."
They slowly made their way to their only haven.
JD saw him - plain as day.
A face that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
The face returned more vividly when he was alone. When his friends were nearby, he had to tune out their pity. That energy pushed the face back into the recesses of his mind.
But he was alone now, and he saw it.
Those blue eyes, staring at
A blonde head he tried to cradle in his arms. The body of a soldier wearing a tattered gray uniform.
The boy had apologized to him. Or had he imagined it. Apologized for hitting him that morning.
The poor guy didn't even know the War was over. He was just trying to do his job.
And they killed him for it.
And when JD was staring down the barrel of a shotgun, knowing he was
going to die,
A blur of gray flew in front of him.
And he heard the shot. Then saw him fall. And JD held him as the life flickered out.
Why had the boy smiled at him? Smiled while he was dying. Why?
He shouldn't have died. Not for him. He probably had a mama who would cry over him. Someone who needed him. He didn't deserve what he got.
If only those eyes would leave him alone. Maybe he could find some peace.
But he knew somehow they would stay with him forever.
How could he live with that horrible image in his mind?
Then it occurred to him. . .
So simple . . .
Sanctuary. That's what they called it, wasn't it? A blessed place - sacred space where he could find respite.
And Nathan Jackson needed respite, if only to have a quiet lunch away from everyone. It was chicken and dumpling day at the cafe, and Nathan brought two plates to the dark unfinished hull of a church. He heard the soft grinding of a saw, and knew Josiah hadn't left all morning.
"Josiah!!" he called. "Lunch!!"
The grinding sped up, then stopped. And then Nathan heard the big man grunt as he thudded to the ground from his perch in what would be the baptistry. "Coming. . ."
Nathan set the two big plates on a work bench and Josiah sat with him, the tired bench groaning beneath his weight.
"How is he?" the preacher asked.
Nathan finished a bite of chicken, swallowing, thinking.
"His body's healing. His soul ain't." Nathan picked up a roll and still lost in deepening thought, set it back down. "I'm not sure it's gonna heal." He searched Josiah for some understanding and found instead a willing listener. "I've seen too much of this. You know, I was born on that land where you found me. I was born . . . already belonging to somebody else. As early as I can remember, I saw beatings. Some would rather die than give Greeley the satisfaction of hearing them scream. But there were grown men, strong men who screamed for . . . mercy. Sometimes I would fall asleep hearing the screaming." The former slave squeezed his eyes closed tightly. Josiah never even started eating his lunch. Somehow it seemed more appropriate to wait.
"I thought I'd never have to hear that again." The friends sat in silence for a long moment before Nathan opened his eyes. "JD hasn't ever seen anyone tortured before. Except for what he's seen with us, everything he knows is from them dime-store novels. The good guys always win." Nathan shook his head. "He's only a boy. How is he supposed to get over something like this?"
Josiah had been listening, thoughtfully. He tilted his head slightly and challenged the healer. "How did you?"
Nathan bit his lip. He'd have to remember - after so many years of trying to forget. "Lemme work on that," he said.
Josiah nodded and picked up Nathan's roll and handed it to him. Then he took a bite of his own and they shared a silent meal together.
Ezra Standish pulled out his pocket watch and glanced at it. Two o'clock in the afternoon. He was so restless. Everything was different now. Things mattered to him that never had before. People mattered to him. More than that, he cared about what kind of man he was. And because of these things, the evils of the world infuriated him. He was perpetually angry. And there seemed to be no relief from it. None of his former diversions interested him. Cardplay reminded him of Emil Devereaux. Drinking didn't seem worth it. And he didn't care to talk to anyone.
And seeing JD only fueled his anger and strengthened his resolve to find Jacob Chiles and bring him to justice.
His own version of justice. The "eye for an eye" kind.
But he would go see JD.
He stepped into the boarding house and heard . . . a struggle?
In JD's room.
Silently, Ezra drew his pistol crept up to the door. Cautiously, he peered in, only to find JD struggling to get up.
"Careful, son!" Ezra called, holstering his weapon.
JD had crawled back onto his heels. He'd been lying on his stomach for so long and now was kneeling in bed, teetering a bit. "Do you want me to find Nathan?" Ezra asked as he took hold of his elbow to steady him.
JD was winded from the effort.
"No, please," JD interrupted. "Just, let me . . . catch my breath."
The boy's breath came in shallow gasps, and Ezra could hear the slight wheezing. And he remembered the rifle connecting with JD's ribs.
And he felt a rush of anger.
But he set it aside for the moment. The gambler almost asked him why he hadn't waited for someone to help him. Then, he thought better of it. Somehow Ezra knew that JD needed to try to do things for himself. He had to know he could.
JD's hair had gotten so long, and it completely covered his face when his head was hanging as it was now. "Wanna . . . sit up . . ." he said.
"Well, judging from your current position, you may find it simplest to . . . lay on your side . . . and swing your legs out. Then you can pull yourself up."
JD nodded. He took a couple of breaths, then slid back down to the bed onto his side. But the effort not only robbed him of his breath, it also hurt. JD squeezed his eyes against it. Ezra stood beside him, resisting the strong temptation to help him.