by Stan Lee
For April 2009: This iconic photo of Hernandez, New Mexico was shot in 1941, but it could equally belong in the Old West, or in ATF and post-apocolyptic AUs. When did the guys arrive in this tiny town? Where are the inhabitants? Who is buried in all those graves?
On their last day in Four Corners, Chris and Buck walked out of the boarding house together and stepped off the wooden walkway, their lately rekindled intimacy strong and palpable between them. The rising sun had just cleared the rooftops, and the dusty street was silent and empty so only those two heard the shot that rang out, the bullet thudding into Chris's chest just above his heart and dropping him where he stood.
Buck defied a lifetime of conditioning and spun towards his friend in horror. When they found him later, face down in the dirt with a gaping hole in his back, hand stretching towards Chris's lifeless body, his pistol was still holstered.
They awoke in muted moonlight in a deserted border town, within the shadow of a great white church, under a vast and empty sky.
They awoke together, side-by-side, washed clean of pain and shame and sorrow.
Vin was the first to arrive, drifting in across the scrubby mesa, pale and mud-spattered, looking around in confusion.
Chris and Buck waited silently on the outskirts of the pueblo to greet him, sheltered beneath the branches of a tall bur oak. Chris shook his hand firmly when he came to a halt; Buck gathered him up into a hug. It was a measure of how uneasy Buck was that he held on so long, a measure of how bewildered Vin was that he allowed it.
"You come across any of the others?" Buck asked, unable to subdue his anxiety.
"I'd have said so," Vin said sharply.
Buck looked away, abashed. "Sorry. I just " he trailed off and Vin relented.
"Me too," he said softly. "I thought maybe Nathan ?" he ventured.
Buck shook his head.
"They were stringing him up," Vin explained. "Last I saw, they were stringing Nathan up."
Silence descended until Chris cleared his throat. "Guess we'll have to wait and see. You know who they were?"
Vin shrugged. "Didn't get a real good look," he said. His hand came up almost involuntarily and his fingers brushed against the powder burns on Chris's waistcoat. "I didn't know you two " he stopped and looked away, "would be here," he finished lamely. "I thought they were just after Nathan."
"Think they wanted all of us," Chris said. "Seems like they were lying in wait."
Vin looked around again, taking in the desolate landscape, his eyes flickering uneasily over the white crosses scattered throughout the untended graveyard. "What happens now?" he asked.
"We haven't figured that out yet," Chris said. "I reckon we get to see if anybody else comes in."
But he was wrong.
Before they'd had the chance to rail or reminisce, to speculate or bid farewell, Vin had simply vanished.
Ezra and Nathan arrived together, although they came from different directions, Ezra strolling in from the east and Nathan all but limping in from the west.
Chris and Buck were standing in the cool, dark shadow of the abandoned livery, heads swiveling from one end of the deserted street to the other, tracking the men's cautious progress.
Ezra's head and feet were bare, his shirt wide open and drenched in blood, and he looked about him with a small frown creasing his forehead. "What are we doing in this God-forsaken spot?" he asked.
Buck flinched and Chris's eyes widened in shock.
"Merely a figure of speech," Ezra hastily amended.
"Reckon I must have chosen it," Chris said. "Seeing I was the first to " he stopped as the other men glanced away. "Buck and I passed this way once a while ago," he continued, his voice barely shaking. He was aware of Buck's hand pressing briefly against the small of his back; the vestiges of sympathy or support he supposed. He'd recognized the place immediately and could tell that Buck had too. The last stop on their meandering return journey from Mexico so many years ago; the last completely carefree time. He'd been surprised to find himself here again, hadn't thought he was that sentimental. "It was a mite more lively back then," he added dryly.
"Nothing but a ghost town now," Nathan said.
"How appropriate," Ezra murmured.
"Vin's been through," Buck said quickly.
Nathan sighed deeply. "Yeah, I reckoned."
"You saw what happened?" Chris asked.
"He scarcely had time to raise his rifle before they cut him down," Nathan replied. "He was trying to help me." His fingers stroked the rope burn carving a furious furrow around his neck.
"Ezra?" Chris asked.
The man merely shrugged.
"You were in bed?" Buck asked, sounding amused.
"Gentlemen, it was practically the crack of dawn," Ezra protested. "I heard an almighty ruckus outside my window. When I looked out " he swallowed hard, "Mr. Tanner was already on the ground and the noose was around Nathan's neck. I pulled on what clothes I could, but it was too late, they were already kicking my door down."
"A regular ambush," Buck breathed. "We must have provoked somebody mighty important to go to all that bother."
"It does appear to have been very well orchestrated," Ezra agreed.
"And the others?" Chris asked, hardly wanting to hear the answer.
"I think Josiah was in the church. I have no notion where the boy was," Ezra added.
"What happens now?" Nathan asked.
Chris and Buck exchanged glances. "You cross," Buck said simply.
"How?" Nathan pressed.
"We're not exactly sure," Chris said.
"What are we crossing to?" Ezra asked.
"We don't know that either," Chris admitted. "We just know wherever it is, Vin's gone on before."
They tried to hold on this time, to burn the last moments into their hearts. But the end came just the same; Nathan was there, then he was gone, and their awareness of Ezra gradually diminished until he too disappeared.
They were beginning to think that they'd seen the last, when Josiah came stumbling out of the whitewashed chapel, shading his eyes against the moonlight.
Chris wasn't sure how much time had elapsed; it could have been a day, it could have been a month. He didn't know where he'd been while time was passing or whether Buck had been with him. He had a vague memory of wandering through the graveyard, fingers trailing over the worn wooden crosses, but he didn't know if that was real or just imagined.
Josiah's skin was tinged blue and almost translucent and his clothes hung off his wasted frame.
"You too," Buck sighed. "We thought you'd made it."
Josiah grimaced. "Me too, brother," he said quietly. "I lasted five days, but I was gut shot. Fever took hold and wouldn't let go."
"JD?" Buck asked, renewed hope in his voice.
"We won't be seeing him," Josiah reassured. "Didn't get so much as a scratch."
"How was that possible?" Chris demanded, as Buck breathed out a noisy sigh of relief.
"The townsfolk came through for us, Chris," Josiah said. "When they saw what had happened to you," he nodded to include them both, "then Vin and Nathan. Ezra " he paused for a moment, then shook his head as though to clear the images lodged there. "They took up arms and drove that gang of cut-throats right out of town before they had a chance to take down JD."
"Did you find out who did this?" Chris asked, though even as he spoke he realized it no longer mattered and that he no longer cared.
"Nope," Josiah said. "JD was with me at the end, I think I heard him say he'd strung somebody up, but I don't know who or why." He looked around, and frowned. "Where are the others?" he asked.
Buck shook his head. "They've already gone on their way."
"Why are you two still here?" Josiah asked.
But neither Buck nor Chris could answer that question.
Josiah's frown deepened. "They got you first, Chris," he said slowly, as though thinking out loud. "I'd venture a guess that you get to stay until the last of us comes through."
"And why am I still here?" Buck asked.
Josiah glanced around, taking in the surroundings. "Does this place have some meaning for you?" he asked.
They both nodded but didn't elaborate.
Josiah looked at them closely, his expression softening. "I think your lives were entwined more tightly than any of us knew. Maybe more than you appreciated yourselves," he ventured. "I don't think you two were ready to part company," he added gently.
Chris caught Buck's eye, held his tender gaze for a long moment, and nodded again. He'd never examined too closely the bond between himself and Buck that had thrived and matured through all the tests of time, transforming his life in ways he'd never truly measured. He understood now, with profound clarity, the extraordinary soul-deep friendship he'd been gifted with.
"I wonder if we'll get to stay together," Buck said, the longing in his voice tearing unexpectedly at Chris's heart.
"I'm scared," Josiah suddenly blurted. "I spent my whole life trying to find God in a Godless world. Now that I have to face the truth, I don't know if I'm ready."
"I'm afraid we can't give any comfort on that score," Buck said quietly. "We don't know one way or another."
Josiah eventually disappeared, as the rest of them had. But this time they felt his comforting presence long after he'd left, like the fragrance carried on a summer breeze, or the first rays of sunshine after a long, cold winter. And they both believed they recognized the moment when his questions were answered and he found his peace.
"I'm next," Buck said, and Chris accepted the truth of it.
He stepped closer and tilted his head, looking into Buck's eyes. "Do you think they'll be waiting for us?" he asked, knowing he didn't have to give name to the two they'd both loved and lost.
Buck's arms wrapped around him and held tight. "I'm sure of it," he murmured.
Chris allowed himself to be gathered closer. "I'm glad we went together," Buck whispered. "Don't think I could have carried on without you."
Chris closed his eyes, and kept them closed long after Buck's solid mass had melted away and the warmth of his skin faded. When he opened them again he was alone in muted moonlight in the deserted border town, within the shadow of the great white church, under a vast and empty sky.
And when his own time came, he turned his face heavenwards and braced himself, ready for either the beginning or the end.
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