Chris rode alone near the river, his mood matching the grey of the skies. It had been a busy few weeks, with the Colt brothers out there somewhere and the territorial governor visiting Four Corners for Mary to interview him about possible statehood....
Everyone had breathed a collective sigh of relief when the miserable man had left.
Now all that remained was the Colt Gang. Vin was out on patrol, scouting them and checking in periodically with both Chris and Ezra -- though Chris suspected he did a little more checking in with Ezra.
Sometimes he wished that damnable Merge had never happened.
Chris had needed some time alone after having to play diplomat with the territorial governor.
Shit, he hated playing diplomat... he always got testy and his trigger finger itched. It was all he could do not to blow a hole in the smug son-of-a.... He'd found himself having to rely on the smooth conning skills Ezra had fed him through their link more often than not.
Midnight walked up to the river and bent his head for a drink. Chris sighed and looked around. Nice, flat area with a few trees around....largish rocks... perfect site for a camp. All he had to do was clear a place for his bedroll....
Thus decided, he slid from Midnight's saddle and began to do so, squinting in the rapidly fading light. Odd...it wasn't time for night yet....
A tingle ran down Chris's spine and he stood up. Something felt off....
Vin? Ez? Everything all ri--
A bolt of lightning struck a mere five feet behind him, the explosion of thunder that immediately followed louder than a hundred cannons. The force of the strike threw Chris off his feet and forward. As he struck the ground, the right side of his head -- just above his ear -- struck one of the large rocks.
Chris went still, unconscious from the double trauma.
He didn't notice the rain washing away the blood that trickled from his ear.
Vin had found the Colt Gang's hideaway and was en route to report his find to the others, when his hands flew to his head and he let out a groan that echoed off the canyon walls.
Peso immediately stopped, wondering what had gotten into his rider. This was not like him at all...
"....Chris...." Vin suddenly grabbed the reins, wheeled Peso about, and with a "HYAH!" got him pointed toward the river and into a gallop.
Hang on, Cowboy, we're comin'!
But there was only the 'buzz' of Ezra's link with him. Chris's end of it was silent.
Ezra came flying out of his room above the saloon, hair still damp from the bath he'd just completed. He tore down the stairs, his shirttail flapping around his waist and his suspenders hugging his hips. His rigging and holsters were in one hand, his tan jacket over his shoulder, and his boots in the other hand. He didn't bother with the last two steps, just vaulted over the railing and hopped to the doorway of the saloon, trying to pull on his boots as he went and bellowing for Nathan at the top of his lungs.
Josiah met him at the saloon door, just in time to catch him as his half-on boot slipped and rescue him from an ignomious landing. "Whoa, son, where you goin' in such a rush?"
Ezra glared at him, strange turquoise eyes narrowing as he jerked on his boots at last and tucked his shirt in. He seemed full of nervous energy, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he looked around Josiah, still calling for Nathan.
"Nathan's in the clinic," Josiah said, past amused and now genuinely concerned. "Ezra, what--?"
The turquoise eyes -- symbol of the Merge that had yet to be undone -- raised to him and clicked all the way over into cerulean blue. "Found the Colt Gang -- camped out on Marsh Flats. Need Buck an' you t'get 'em."
Josiah nodded slowly. He still had to fight the urge to cross himself whenever he saw Vin communicating through Ezra this way. "I'll pass the word along, brother Vin -- but what's the urgency?"
Blue eyes narrowed again, and one word summed it up. "Chris." Then the eyes clicked to turquoise again and Ezra resumed his run toward the clinic, hauling up his suspenders and fitting the derringer rigging on his forearm as he ran.
Nathan opened the clinic door to find an oddly rumpled Ezra there. The sight made him blink. "....Ezra, what--"
"Nathan.... Chris needs you... by the river!" Having delivered his message, he whirled and ran down the stairs. His feet pelted toward the livery the second they hit the ground.
The townspeople murmured, seeing a hatless Ezra spur Chaucer out of town at a dead run. Curiosity turned to concern and alarm when Nathan raced after him less than five minutes later, his saddlebags bulging with supplies.
Vin thundered up on Peso just as Chris was regaining consciousness. "Chris?" he called, dismounting and running to his side.
He noted with some amusement that fractious Peso began to camper with Midnight, distracting the hovering horse.
"Chris?" he asked again, sliding to his knees beside him. Oh, Spirits....
What? rang in his head. How is he?
Nate with you?
Yeah, what do you see?
His head's bloody and he's just now comin' to -- Cowboy? Can ya hear me?
A groan and a soft, "...lemme...s'eep...."
You try, Ez.
Laughter. At least the link is intact!
Yeah, not like last time, Vin agreed, slowly lifting Chris to a sitting position. "There we go -- come on," he cajoled.
Chris gave an exaggerated wince as both hands flew to his head. "Ooohhh hell!" he moaned. "Gotta have a talk with Ezra.... those drummers have gotta be fired...."
Vin chuckled, squeezing Chris's shoulder. "You're gonna be fine. Ez and Nate are on the way, they'll check you out." He sat back, waiting for the verbal volley Chris was sure to let fly at him.
But it didn't come. Instead, Chris groaned again and pressed the heels of both hands into his ears. "Gaaaahhh," he moaned. "Who the hell filled my ears with sand?"
Frowning, Vin asked, "Sand?"
Sand? Vin repeated via the link. What d'you mean?
"Feels like someone poured a fistful of sand in my ears ... everything's real muffled -- can't even hear my own voice!"
Muffled? Vin stood and walked completely behind Chris. "Chris?" he asked aloud, closing all but the 'buzz' of his presence from Chris's mind. "Chris?" he asked again, a little louder.
Chris swiped at his ear, trying to dislodge the blockage.
"Chris?" Vin all but shouted. Then he took a deep breath and screamed at the top of his lungs, "CHRIS LARABEE, YOU'RE A YELLOW-BELLIED COWARD! I'M CALLIN' YOU OUT!"
"Vin," Chris called, only slight irritation in his voice, "get me on my feet... I gotta find Midnight...."
"Omig-d," Vin whispered. His eyes clicked turquoise as he sank into the Merge, communicating solely with Ezra. Bro, I don't think the cowboy can hear.
Silence, then Ezra sent back, Nathan wants to know if you're sure.
Chris climbed slowly to his hands and knees.
Moving back a few steps, still out of Chris's sight, Vin drew his mare's-leg. Pointing it behind himself and to the side, Vin fired a round into the dirt with its distinctive roar.
Chris didn't react at all.
More silence, then Ezra's tight mental voice. We'll be there within the hour. Nathan says to keep him calm and quiet till we get there.
Sure, Vin groused as he holstered the mare's-leg. Give me the hard jobs....
Within the hour, Ezra and Nathan rode up. Vin and Chris were sitting by a fire, Vin turning a spit.
Chris was leaning against his saddle, his eyes closed and his face ashen.
"How is he?" Nathan asked, walking over to Vin.
"Deaf," Vin sighed. "And he knows." He looked at Chris and sent, They're here, cowboy.
Chris's eyes opened and he looked over at Nathan. "Hey, Nate, Ez," he said, his voice slightly louder than it should be.
They both nodded to him, and then Nathan ordered, "Ask him what happened."
Chris's eyes flicked blue for a second, and then he sighed and told the story as best he could remember.
Ezra looked at Nathan and whispered, "Lightning-struck?"
"Not struck, he ain't dead," Nathan amended, using a lantern to look in Chris's ears. "But I'd bet it struck close enough he felt the force and it was so loud...."
"Will I/he get my/his hearing back?" the three asked at the exact same time.
Nathan shuddered. "That gives me the heebies when you do that!"
"NATHAN..." Chris tried to sound stern, but with his inability to hear and modulate his own voice, it came out a frightened squeak.
Nathan sighed. "Chris, there's no way of telling."
Vin's eyes flickered hazel, and Chris's eyes closed.
What am I gonna do? he thought to the other two. I'm deaf... a deaf gunslinger might as well--
Do NOT go there! Ezra chided.
Chris turned to him, frowning, and Vin picked up, He's right, cowboy. You got NO business going in that direction right now.
At Chris's headshake, Vin glared over at Ezra, who returned the look.
"Uh-oh," Nathan whispered, seeing two sets of eyes click turquoise.
Chris would never be able to tell which of them growled at him, but he would always remember Ezra's popping him in the back of the head. Now you look here, you son of a bitch. We are gonna get through this, but only if YOU don't give up on us!
"Yeah, well, how're we gonna do that?" Chris snarled. "I. Can't. hear!"
Chris blinked and looked at both of them. He began to smile. "Why don't you tell me what's on your minds?"
Nathan threw up his hands. "Look, if you three are cookin' up some cockamamie plan...."
Ezra turned to him and opened his mouth, but Nathan held up his hand. "Nathan--"
"No, Ez. For my sanity, I do not want to know." He stood up. "I'm gonna check Midnight over while you three crazymen talk."
As Nathan walked off, Chris frowned. Was it something I said?
The four spent the night at the campsite, three of them alternating guard duties. By unspoken agreement, they let the stricken gunfighter sleep.
Chris was none too happy about that, either. "Should'a woke me," he growled.
Needed your sleep, from Vin.
"Needed to do my part."
Vin shot him a scowl. Dammit, cowboy! You've been HIT by LIGHTNING! It's time to put that bear-sized pride away and let us HELP!
Chris stood up, threw the plate he was eating off of to the ground, and snarled at Vin, "I DON'T NEED YOUR HELP!"
Well, you've GOT it! Vin sent, standing as well. You're our FRIEND, Chris, Hell, we're practically BROTHERS! You think we're gonna let you deal with this alone?
"Brothers, huh?" Chris snorted. "I haven't claimed Ezra yet...."
Even Nathan -- who had been left out of Vin's side of the conversation -- laughed at that.
Ezra snorted. "Fine, just lovely. Try to help someone, and this is the thanks I get...."
Chris started laughing.
Vin grinned at Ezra. "Extremely loquacious there, bro. "
Ezra's eloquent reply was a universal one-fingered salute that sent everyone to howling.
Nathan checked Chris's ears one more time, repeated what he'd said the night before, and they headed back toward Four Corners.
The skies mirrored their mood in an almost poetic display of solidarity.
Halfway to Four Corners, it began to rain.
Buck and Josiah rode into town, the surviving members of the Colt gang between them. "Any word?" Josiah called to JD.
"None," the sheriff sighed. "Since Ez and Nathan tore out of here last night, there's been no word from any of them."
Buck marched the survivors off to jail and returned just in time to see four horses ride up. "Bout time!"
The riders looked very tired. Nathan was keeping an eye on Chris, who looked even more haunted than usual. Vin shifted position in the saddle wearily, and Ezra....
The three chuckled at Ezra. He was drooped over Chaucer's neck, more than half-asleep.
"Nice t'see some things never change," Buck chuckled.
Vin looked over at Ezra. His eyes flashed emerald, and Ezra sat up, yawning. "We've arrived, then?"
"We're here," Vin swung out of Peso's saddle and tapped Chris on the leg. Chris looked down and nodded in reply to something Vin said mentally, as he slid off of Midnight.
"Long night, huh, Chris?" Buck teased. When there was no answer, he called a bit louder, "Chris? Hey, Chris!"
Nathan glared at him. "He can't hear ya, Buck."
Chris turned, saw their expressions, and let out a sigh. "Buck, 'Siah, JD -- I got lightnin' struck."
Josiah frowned. He stepped forward, caught Chris's eye, and pointed to his own ear. When Chris shook his head, Josiah breathed a curse. "Deaf," he gasped.
Chris walked to the boarding house and vanished into it. Vin followed a couple of steps behind.
"You gonna join them?" Nathan asked Ezra as he slid from Chaucer's back.
Ezra nodded, yawning his way toward the bath house. "After I wake up, yes."
JD turned huge eyes to Buck. "What're we gonna do now?"
Buck just shook his head. "I don't know, kid. I just don't know."
A few doors down the street, the man who had been watching in silence withdrew from the doorway, grinning to himself. So the gunslinger was deaf as a post, huh?
This was going to be fun.
Vin stood outside Chris's door for a second before he sent, Hey. Can I come in?
A moment passed, and then the door opened.
Vin walked in, an eyebrow cocking as he looked at the debris that littered the room. Redecoratin'?
I got a little upset.
No shit. He turned to face Chris. How you doin'?
Chris's sigh was eloquent answer.
Here. He threw a cloth-wrapped bundle to Chris. Thought you could use this.
He opened it and his eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed. Why?
Vin scuffed his foot slightly. We got a feeling. I saw a guy watchin' us a bit too close when we got back into town.
Chris nodded grimly. But this --?
Chris. Turquoise eyes bored into his. Trust us.
Chris opened the door of his room again a bit later. He was hungry and wanted to go eat.
He jumped back, startled, as he saw Buck standing there. Part of him took perverse pleasure in seeing that he'd badly startled Buck, too.
"Didn't expect to see you here," he said in what he hoped was a light, airy tone. "What's up?"
Buck opened his mouth, and then spread his hands helplessly.
Chris sighed. "You knocked, didn't you? You forgot."
A large hand rubbed the back of his neck as Buck shrugged.
Chris smiled to see the familiar 'd'ya-have-to-rub-it-in?' body language. "So what did you want?"
Buck's face brightened. He tapped Chris's chest, then his own, and pantomimed eating.
A slight, strained smile and a nod was Chris's reply. The silence wasn't very easy between them as they moved toward the restaurant.
They never made it there. Chris felt a hand land on his shoulder. He began to turn toward the person behind him, only to freeze as the distinctive pressure of a pistol barrel pressed into the flesh under his ear.
He saw Ezra walk out the door of the saloon and sent, WHAT in the HELL!
Ezra looked past him and let Chris hear what he heard. "...right, the bastard's deaf as a post! Got the drop of him easy! "
Chris's eyes closed. Aw, shit.
Vin's voice rang in his head. Buck's got a sawed-off in his back, you're bein' held with a Peacemaker. I'm on the high ground, and so's Josiah. Others are convergin'. Hang in there.
The man who had been watching from the alleyway stepped into the open, smiling as the men who were covering Chris and Buck removed the two Regulator's pistols from their holsters. "Well done!" he called to them, and Vin filtered it to Chris.
Chris's eyes opened, and they were blazing. "Who the hell are you?" he demanded, "and what the hell do you want?"
The man stepped toward him, and then laughed. One of Chris's mental brothers -- there was no time to figure out which -- transmitted his words.
"Why am I talking to you, you can't hear me!" He pointed toward Vin, up on the roof. "You there! I want a wire sent to Eagle Bend!"
"Why should we do that?" Vin called back.
"Easy," he laughed. "Either Orrin Travis comes here -- or I kill the deaf man and his friend. Then I'll wipe out this town."
"What do you want with Travis?" Ezra demanded.
"His death," the man growled. "And yours, if you hamper me."
"Why Travis?" Chris growled, and Buck saw his fingers twitch as if he wanted to draw his missing gun.
The man turned and laughed. "So you can hear a bit!" He nodded past Chris, and the man behind him used Chris's own gun to fire into the street.
Chris didn't flinch.
"Or not," the man growled. "No matter. Travis ordered my boy hung. I'm going to avenge him."
Get ready, Cowboy.
"And how will you do that by killing us?" Chris asked coldly.
"With you gone, the town has no law. With no law, I can destroy Travis's family!"
"Like hell you will," Ezra growled, and the man turned to face him.
Suddenly Chris's right wrist snapped around and a derringer appeared in his hand. He threw himself forward, turning as he did and firing off one shot.
The man behind him didn't even have time to blink. He went down without a sound, a third eye blossoming on his forehead.
There was a moment of stunned silence -- and then all hell broke loose. Buck grabbed Chris and hauled him out of the way of fast-flying bullets.
It was over in moments. Four men lay dead, three wounded. None of the Seven were among either.
The man who led the attack looked around at his decimated men. As Chris emerged, he gasped, "But...b-but... you're..."
"Looks like you'll get to see Travis after all," Chris snarled as JD grabbed the man's arm. "Take him to the jail."
"Wait, please!" the man gasped, looking at Chris. "I thought y-you were deaf!"
Chris smiled humourlessly. "I am."
The stunned, sputtering man was led away to wait trial. Nobody had any doubt he would be joining his dead son.
Chris's smile turned warm and amused. "But I won't be for long."
Five heads snapped to face him. "You can hear some?" Nathan asked and Vin 'translated'.
Chris nodded. "Not very much -- and it's real muffled -- but it's a damn sight better'n it was!"
Their celebration was long and boisterous.
Five days later, Chris and Vin rode in from patrol. Eyes flashing colours as they talked silently, they dismounted and Vin headed for the livery, guiding both horses.
Buck watched them, hidden in the shadows. He waited till Chris passed by and spoke to his back. "Chris, you old wardog -- buy you a drink?"
Chris stopped and turned to face him, grinning broadly. "Careful, Buck," he said lightly. "Folks'll talk."
Buck's warm laughter echoed up the streets at the familiar jibe.
It was sweet music to Chris's ears.
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