March 3, 2001
Thanks to Mackie, Penny, Joan, Mary and Carolyn for the help and encouragement.
Shouting -- angry words and voiced fear hung heavy as mist in the air. Damn you and your premonition, Chris Larabee. Buck stretched with his arms thrown open wide. He heard Chris yell behind him, screaming in denial, then a tremendous force slammed into his side, folding him double. And damn you, Josiah, for puttin' the fool notion in his head. Numbness filled him up and deadened his limbs. He fell to his knees and slid slowly sideways to the ground. A roiling layer of gray closed around him, muffling noises, accentuating the heartbeat strumming in his head. He floated on an undulating surface of oblivion, disconnected from reality.
Snatches of words, echoes of memory pulsed in his head. Chris' worry over the last two days, his grudging confession about the source of his brooding, flared like a banner through Buck's fading conscience. His numb tongue refused to work and he groaned in despair.
A hand touched his shoulder and rolled him to his back. Pain burst fiery red through his body. He gasped and shut his eyes, struggling to burrow back into nothingness. Hardly aware of his actions, he groped blindly for the pain stabbing through his side. He tried to hold it in and keep it from tearing him in two. The grip on his arm squeezed. He thought he heard JD's anguished voice call his name. Buck clutched at JD's coat in sudden desperation, his last thought before oblivion sucked him under echoing in his head: but what if Josiah’s right?
The image of the dead man they'd found out at the old abandoned homestead two days ago flashed through Chris' head. Josiah's somber prophecy rang through his bones: Death comes in threes, and Chris roared, lunging forward into the fight. He fired both guns, enjoying the warm metal in his hands and the sharp kick as bullets left the chambers. The heady feeling of being untouchable blocked the shouted warnings behind him. A two-day liquor binge left him deadened inside. He welcomed the feeling. The moment teetered on edge, waiting for the inevitable to happen.
A familiar form cut across his path. He saw Buck lift his arms wide, drawing the enemy's attention. Everything slid back into place. Reality slammed into Chris instead of the bullet he'd been expecting. Buck's steady arguments, his compassion and his soft reassurances over the last couple of days rose to the surface of his memory. He reached out but his fingers clawed air. The need to speed up time and save Buck twisted something deep inside him and held up hope, fragile and fleeting. The moment shattered with a bullet, jerking Buck closed around himself. Chris watched him fall to his knees, then list slowly sideways and slump to the ground. JD reached him first, rolling him to his back. Buck gasped and grabbed his coat, then lay still. The darkness that had been eating at Chris for two days won.
No matter how many times he'd been through it, gunfights still brought out a fear he couldn't conquer. JD wondered if any of the other seven felt the same way, but quickly squelched the idea of asking. He kept his head low, his gaze flickering back and forth between the enemy and Chris. Why was the gunslinger out in the open like that? It was as if he wanted to be dangerous, was welcoming the threat of being shot. In the middle of centering on targets and keeping safely behind a crate, images of Buck and Chris together over the last several hours played through his mind. Chris' mood had been dark lately. He'd sat brooding in the saloon, his head bowed over a whiskey, his hat pulled low enough to keep his eyes hidden. Buck stuck to him like a shadow, offering a smile, his lips moving with whispered words that only Chris could hear. Knowing he wasn't privvy to the conversation or the past that the two shared caused a twinge of jealously in JD, but he smothered the ugly feeling and kept out of the way.
He watched now as Chris strode out of his hiding place, opening fire into the gang as the outlaws made a run out of town. One of them twisted around, raising a rifle to his shoulder, aiming for Chris. Fear shot through JD. His joints suddenly locked as he watched Buck leap boldly into the line of fire. His friend opened his arms wide, becoming a target in order to protect Chris. Chris screamed just as Buck folded over, then fell to the ground. JD scrambled from cover. A dust cloud bloomed as the criminals took flight, but JD's attention focused on the vulnerable form lying in the street. He slid to a stop and dropped beside Buck then carefully rolled him to his back. "Buck!" His call brought no response but Buck gave a little fearful hitch when JD moved him, and clutched fiercely at his coat. Desperate to help ease whatever brought on that moment of panic, JD reached for Buck’s hand, trying to keep him from falling into the abyss that had him so afraid.
Nathan appeared and began issuing orders. JD sat back on his heels and looked up at Chris. The gunslinger stood still while the wind whipped the ends of his long coat, billowing the material around his legs. His face was rigid, his eyes squinting down at Buck. His nostrils flared and one corner of his mouth twitched, then he turned and walked away. JD helped lift Buck and carry him to the clinic, his thoughts a confused mass in his head. Buck had just saved Chris' life -- and Chris didn't seem to care.
JD entered the saloon and headed straight for Chris. Larabee sat alone near the back of the room, surrounded by empty space as if no one wanted to be near him. Buck would be sitting with you now if he was here. The thought brought strong emotions with it. JD almost faltered in his resolve. Instead, he grabbed hold of his determination and held on tight. Worry over Buck twisted inside out, became anger that needed to be voiced.
Without asking he grabbed a chair and sat across from Chris. JD had noticed Josiah and Vin at another table but didn't acknowledge their greeting nods. He leaned forward, balancing his weight on his elbows. "Nathan's working on Buck. Bullet's in deep and he's losing a lot of blood, but Nate thinks he'll be okay." JD felt as if he was testing unknown waters, tentatively wading out, expecting to find himself over his head. He waited for a comment from Chris but none came. The smoldering core of anger he'd been nursing flared to life. He leaned closer, his voice hissing out. "Don't you care none, Chris? Buck got hurt trying to save you."
Chris' eyes flickered up to JD's face, the only movement he made.
JD's mouth dropped open under that silent glare. He lacked the experience to hide his feelings and was unable to keep his shock from showing. "What the hell's wrong with you? He's your friend for god's sake." From the corner of his eye he saw movement and sensed Josiah and Vin's presence.
Chris took a swallow of his whiskey, then spoke: "Buck's a grown man. If he wants to do something stupid like stepping in front of a bullet, that's his problem. I didn't ask for his help. Get outta here, JD."
JD stood quickly. The back of his knees hit his chair, sending it skittering across the floor. The loud rattling of wood on wood brought a sudden quiet in the saloon. JD felt eyes on him, knew his anger was being measured.
"You son of a bitch."
Chris struck a match. The flame flared brightly in the low-lit room. After touching the flame to the end of his cheroot, he lazily shook out the match and flicked it from his fingers. The smoldering bit of wood landed at JD's feet.
The young man bristled. He drew back his shoulders and lifted his chin, peering through squinted eyes at Chris. "Tell me you didn't mean it, Chris. Take back what you said." JD's lips barely parted with the whispered threat, but everyone heard it.
"JD." Josiah's calming voice shuttered the moment, easing the anger aside. "Go see if Nathan needs your help."
JD trembled with rage. The urge to grab his gun and shoot some sense into Chris was nearly unbearable, but he knew in a fair fight with Chris Larabee, he'd be tempting death. Honor demanded he finish this, but Josiah's order gave him a graceful way out now without making him appear stupid in front of the men. JD decided to take advantage of the offering. He'd have to wait and deal with Chris later.
"I'm not done with you yet." He turned on his heel and stomped out of the saloon, leaving unfinished business behind. The clinic had been drawing him like a magnet ever since he'd left it. Worry that something bad had happened to Buck in his absence hurried his steps. Thoughts of teaching Chris a lesson disappeared.
Vin looked at Josiah, hoping the preacher could read the silent request in his expression: Let me talk to him. Touching his hat brim with his fingers, Josiah mumbled an excuse and walked out, leaving the two men alone.
Vin grabbed the chair JD had left in such a hurry and pulled it upright. He sat down and placed the glass he'd brought onto the table with a thump. Leaning back, he stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles, then laced his fingers together over his belly and waited.
Several long minutes passed with nothing interesting in them. A couple of men, bored with waiting for something to happen, got up and left, while one or two more came in to take their place. Vin noted all the coming and going without moving. He'd learned long ago that patience sometimes won out over stubbornness.
"Kid's gonna mouth off to the wrong person one day," Chris said, "and get his fool head blown off. He's got no business comin' in here like that."
The words surprised him but Vin carefully kept his expression neutral. He didn't move, wary of jarring Chris back into sullen silence.
"Me and Buck got a understandin' that goes back way before either of us knew JD. We watch each other's backs and don't expect no 'thank you' for the favor." Chris reached for his bottle and brought it to his lips. He took a long gulping swallow before replacing it on the table. "No smart ass kid is gonna tell me what t'do."
Vin kept silent. He reached out with one arm and snagged his drink from the table. After taking a sip, he propped the glass on his leg, reluctant to move any closer and disturb the bubble of confession that encircled Chris.
Chris leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table. He slumped, his head hanging between his shoulders, and reached back to rub across the nape of his neck. He let his hand drop back to the table and lifted weary eyes to Vin. Comprehension stared back at him; the knowledge that anger wouldn't get him anything but drunk, and the pain of losing a friend was worse than a bullet in a man's own flesh. Guiltily, he shook his head. "Dammit, Vin. I'm an idiot."
Vin let one corner of his mouth twitch up in a smile. "That's the smartest thing I heard ya say yet, pard."
Chris shook his head again and looked down. "How'm I gonna pay him back? I went out there today knowing there was a bullet for me. I wasn't at peace with it but it was --" he took a deep breath and his hands tightened on the neck of his bottle. "I thought it was time." His voice lowered to a whisper. "Two days ago when we found that dead man out at the old Thompson's place and Josiah saw crows, he said death comes in threes, and I just knew. I had this feeling in my gut that it was my time."
Vin waited. When Chris didn't continue he shook his head and smiled sadly. "It ain't your time, Chris." He uncrossed his legs and leaned closer. Chris lifted his head. "You and Buck got a understandin'," Vin's voice wove between them, "you watch each other's backs and don't expect no 'thank you' for the favor." Vin waited until Chris nodded, his eyes averted. "Maybe it's time you go thank the man."
A slow smile spread across Chris' haggard face. "And while I'm there maybe get things straightened out with JD?"
Instead of answering, Vin leaned back in his chair. He knew Chris would do the right thing, now that he'd worked past his stubbornness. When Chris stood, Vin touched his hat brim. "See ya later, pard." He finished his drink when Chris left, wondering which would be harder: JD forgiving Chris, or Chris asking for forgiveness.
JD sat uneasy in the chair beside Buck's bed. Nathan had left to get something to eat, so JD was alone with his thoughts. He knew this scene had been reversed. Buck had sat beside him many times, waiting for him to wake up, waiting to see if he'd be all right. He wondered at the man's patience.
He glanced at Buck's face again then quickly looked away, unnerved by the stillness he saw there. The quilts had been folded down to Buck's waist, revealing the swath of bandages around his middle. Sympathy pangs twisted through JD's gut. He didn't remember much after that damn female bounty hunter shot him, didn't remember the frantic ride back to town, or Nathan working on him, but he did have hazy recollections of waking up and his eyes slitting open to find Buck sitting beside him. He realized now that he hadn't been the brave one; all he'd had to do was lie there and heal. Buck had the heavier burden of waiting.
JD drew in a deep breath and looked around the room. The lamps' dancing flames were becoming brighter as the day darkened into night. "I didn't know what the hell you were doing when I saw you jump out like that." His own voice startled him, as if he'd started speaking without first asking permission from his brain. But the words cleared his mind, helped him draw some sense out of the chaos of ragged emotions churning in him.
"I knew Chris was in trouble but there wasn't nothing I could do about it." JD turned to look at Buck, hoping the conversation had pulled his friend out of his sleep. Buck's chest rose and fell with regularity, but his eyes remained closed. "Dammit, Buck!"
JD stood quickly and moved across the room, his back to the bed. He propped one arm on a dresser and ran his hand through his hair, fisting and gently yanking at the strands in frustration. "You couldn't think of a easier way to be a hero?" The whispered question barely made it past his lips and certainly didn't travel across the room so that Buck could hear. "Maybe shoved him on his ass or something?" This demand was harsher, fighting its way out of JD's roughened throat. He turned to look back at his friend. The bedside lamp's glow haloed Buck, cocooning him with soft yellow light. Buck's dark hair lay ruffled against the pillow; his equally dark mustache appeared as a slash of midnight blue across his pale face.
Footsteps announced an arrival a moment before the door opened. Chris stepped in. With barely a glance in JD's direction, he moved to stand beside the bed.
"Come to pay your last respects?"
Chris' head snapped up at the snarled question. "He's --"
"No. He's not. But he might as well be to you." Bold in his anger, JD took long steps across the room. He reached out and poked Chris in the shoulder, jabbing his finger into the man with every word. "Why the hell did he do that for you if you don't even care?"
Chris' eyes narrowed. His lean form curved as he settled to one hip. The shadows in the corners of the room seemed to darken and reach out for him; he never looked more dangerous. JD saw the danger and read the warning, but worry had numbed his heart, created a sense of immortality disguised as bravery.
"I came to tell him I'm sorry." The soft admission seemed to take all the energy out of Chris. He pulled his hat from his head and slumped into the chair beside the bed. "I had a premonition, JD. I thought it was my time to die."
Stunned, JD could only stare at Chris.
"Told you … that wasn't true --" Buck's tremulous voice parted his lips. His eyes opened. "You believe … too much in -- old wives' tales."
"Buck!" JD's joyful shout brightened the room. He swallowed hard, his earlier anger forgotten in his elation. He leaned forward and inadvertently bumped into Chris' knee. His face closed and he drew back awkwardly.
Buck's half lidded eyes flickered between his two friends. "Am I … interruptin' somethin' here?"
"No," Chris mumbled. His shoulders moved as he drew in a deep breath, then stood. "I just came over to -- thank you -- for what you did, Buck." His words faltered as the usually confident man stumbled over unfamiliar ground.
JD stood silently watching his hero's repentant attitude. He noticed the effect it had on Buck. His friend's eyes glittered in the yellow-lit room and color began to soften his pale cheeks. Buck's eyes closed slowly, then opened again even more slowly. "No more than what -- you'd do for me, or what … any of us'd do …for the other." His stammering words were weak, but the trust behind them was strong enough to mend the rift between Chris and JD.
Chris smiled. "Yeah, but it don't hurt to thank a person for small favors now and then."
"Guess you was … wrong about that…feelin'."
Chris glanced sideways at JD, then replaced his hat on his head. "Guess so. You get some rest, Buck. Get back on your feet."
Buck's hand slid across his stomach over the bandages and pressed against his side. Dark eyebrows drew together over squinting blue eyes. "I'll be up and at 'em before you know it."
Chris grinned. "I'll warn the ladies." He left, closing the door quietly behind him.
The silence was warm as JD took the vacant chair. He watched Buck's head loll lazily to the side. Tired blue eyes appraised him. "You got somethin' to say, JD?"
JD smiled at him, the image of a drowsy Buck tickling his funny bone. "Nope. Guess you done said it all."
"Thought so." Shifting his head on the pillow, Buck closed his eyes and went back to sleep.