“You left ‘em?” Buck fussed with disapproval after JD came walking into the café across from the Inn.
“Well sure, Buck. Chris is still asleep, but Ezra was complainin’ he was hungry, said he needed to eat to get better and that I should get ‘im some food. He promised to watch after Chris ‘til I got back.”
“Damn that Ezra, he could charm a rattlesnake.”
JD heard the disappointment in Buck’s voice. “I knew I shouldn’t have left ‘em alone.”
“It’s alright, kid. I just finished up and you look like you’re done in. I’ll go see if I can sweet talk the cook into making something Ezra will actually be able to keep down. If he’s feelin’ well enough to eat then it’s best I keep an eye on him myself.”
“Yeah, go on now before I have to haul your hungry carcass off the floor.” Buck shook his head, watched JD take a seat next to Josiah then headed for the kitchen.
The moment Chris entered the hall the urge to run became overwhelming, but it didn’t feel aimless this time. There was someplace he needed to go; someplace he needed to be. He looked up and down the corridor, spotted a stairwell to his left and hurried to the stairs. Using the wall for support and summoning every ounce of strength he possessed to remain upright, he began a plodding descent.
Ezra caught sight of him in the dim light of the hall lantern and tried to catch up. The pain in his shoulder was intense but his desire to stop his friend from disappearing was even more powerful. In Chris’ state of mind, who knew the amount of damage he could do to himself. He staggered clumsily to the top of the stairs and pushed out a pained plea to stop.
At the sound of his name, the gunfighter stilled, terrified to turn, but more frightened not to. Slowly he twisted around and searched the darkness until his eyes fell upon a shadowy silhouette. “Please, don’t follow me. I’m askin’ ya.”
“Where are you going?”
Chris stepped on the landing below and stumbled away, beginning his climb down the next flight of stairs. Every step the silhouette took to follow tightened the knot in his stomach and sent him further and further into retreat. “I have to go back.”
“Back?” Ezra moved quickly, closing the distance between them by several feet.
Chris startled at the nearness but the question momentarily waylaid his desire to flee. A sorrowful groan clung to his throat as his confusion and agitation grew.
“Look at me, Chris.” Ezra said softly, gently, aware his friend was ready to bolt.
“Go on home now, don’t be followin’ me.” He turned as if to leave.
“We’re a long way from home, my friend.”
“It’s not that far; you can make it back on your own.”
“You have got to snap out it, Chris. Look at me.”
“Go home,” he ordered with a voice which brooked no argument.
“Damn it, would you look at me? I am not Adam.”
“Adam’s gone now.”
“Yes,” Ezra insisted.
“I sent him back.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“I told him to go home,” he answered pitifully into the darkness.
Ezra moved nearer. “Chris, Adam is dead. Remember?”
“I sent him home.”
“Adam is dead,” the gambler repeated.
Glistening green eyes grew dark. His mind was reeling; feeding him distorted images of demons, vivid echoes of screams and devastating feelings of loss. “Dead… you want me dead.” He leaned against the wall and began the familiar rhythmic pounding of his fists. “You want me dead.” Then the air fell silent, save the heavy footsteps of death. “Wait… be quiet, he’ll hear.”
“Oh God,” Ezra said when he realized Chris had slipped back into the nightmare.
“Please, just let me go. Let me out of here. I don’t want to be down here.”
“Stay away from me! Just leave me alone and I’ll go.”
“I’m not leaving, Chris, and neither are you. Wherever you think you’re going, you’re not well enough to get there.” He watched the lawman pound the wall harder and knew exactly where the nightmare was heading. “Oh, no you don’t. You are not going after that damn bear again.”
“I have to go!”
Ezra closed the gap between them. “You’re not going anywhere.” The instant he wrapped his fingers around his friend’s arm, Chris swung wildly and caught him on the jaw. Before he knew what was happening, he was forced to the ground with the full weight of the gunfighter atop him.
“I said leave me alone!” he screamed. “You aren’t going to do this to me! Not again! You hear me, you son-of-a-bitch? Not again!”
“Chris!” Ezra howled as the man looming above him drew back and pounded him in the face.
Chris grabbed his shirt and roughly jerked him to his feet. “No more!” he screamed despite the hitch in his breathing. “No…more…no…”The air in his lungs grew thin and the images crowding his mind began to blur. He stumbled awkwardly to the wall, taking the terrified gambler with him.
“Why are you doing this?” Ezra wheezed as he stared into the crazed features of his friend. He was propped against the wall; Chris’ body and hands the only things holding him up.
The blind rage that had driven Larabee to attack slowly subsided, leaving behind a strangled fear and a deep-rooted desire to vanish from the face of the planet. Memories were returning, piece by terrifying piece, and what they told his conscious mind was more than he could understand, more than he could accept. “I can’t,” he said to the man pinned beneath him. “I can’t do this.”
Ezra didn’t speak, too afraid that if he did the barrage of punches would begin again.
Chris fought for breath and took a long look at the face near his. “Oh my God.”
Still Ezra remained silent, his bloody face twitching from the blows it had taken and his single unbound hand shaking uncontrollably.
Panic drew Chris’ hands to either side of the battered face. “Ezra?”
Unshed tears spilled from the gambler’s eyes as they closed with relief.
“W-what have I done?” Chris slipped his arms around the smaller man and lowered him to sit on the stairs. “Damn it to hell, what have I done?”
“Not your fault,” Ezra blurted out.
“I could’ve killed you. I could’ve…”
“It’s not your fault. Can you understand,” he sucked in a deep breath, “none of this is your fault?”
“Like hell! I just beat the shit outta you! My God… for a second there I… I’ve lost my damned mind!”
Ezra’s heart nearly stopped when he saw the defeated look on Chris’ face. “You’ve survived nearly every atrocity a man can suffer,” he answered with a shaky voice. “Drugs, beatings, humiliation, fever… even a twisted resurrection of your own past.”
“What are you talking about? What has my past got to do with me trying to…” he answered, finishing with a wave to Ezra’s face. He just couldn’t get his head around what he’d done. The feelings of anger and frustration still lingered in his chest, but he had absolutely no idea why they were there. He shuddered when the memory of his fists smashing the gambler’s face flashed through his brain. Then other images, terrifying images, began to layer themselves until he thought he would smother beneath them. Someone was beckoning him. Some… thing was chasing him. “I’m losin’ it,” he mumbled.
“No, you’re not. You’re as sane a man as I’ve ever met, but there is something from your past haunting you.”
He looked up, turning a look of skepticism on the man at his side.
“Something happened to you a long time ago.” Ezra thought about the scars on the gunfighter’s hip and leg. “Something perhaps you haven’t dealt with.”
“You’re talking crazy. Things happened to me; things happen to every man; doesn’t mean he’s got the right to do harm to a friend.” Another wash of confusion and anger flooded over him, sparking images of blood, bone and darkness.
Ezra would have smiled at the address had he not felt a hard tremor run the length of Chris’ body. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” Chris replied, obviously distracted. The darkness grew around him and with it came a cold, damp dread. His breathing changed and his eyes lost focus. He felt as if he’d been dropped into a pit and would soon be buried alive if he didn’t find the light. The bitter smell of death clung to the moist air just as it clung to his skin and he knew he had to get out now or die.
“Tell me,” Ezra pushed.
“I can’t do this.” He announced and climbed the wall behind him. “I can’t let anyone else die because of me.”
“I have to go.”
“You need to stay here, let us help you.”
He growled softly to himself. “I have to get out. I need to get back.”
“Back where?” Ezra asked in a tone that suggested support rather than obstruction.
“Up high. Where there’s light,” he muttered.
“High? Like a cliff?”
“Rocks. There were rocks. We were there. I don’t know how I know. I just…”
“I do. I know the place you’re looking for.”
He raised his head and forced his attention on the gambler’s weary face.
Ezra steeled himself and raised a bandaged hand. “If you’ll assist me, I’m sure we can borrow a couple of horses and ride out before sunset.”
“You’re in no shape to ride. Just tell me where.”
“If you want to find the light, we’d better move quickly. It’ll be dark before you’re able to find it on your own. I assure you I can manage.”
“You need my help—that’s an uncommon occurrence where we’re concerned. I think I’ll just follow through if you don’t mind.”
He took the Southerner’s arm and hoisted him to his feet. “Uncommon? My brain may be messed up right now, but I get the feelin’ I’ve been needin’ your help pretty regular lately. I'm grateful.”
Ezra didn’t answer; he simply leaned on the gunfighter and allowed him to maneuver him into the street. If they survived this night, he was going to have to take a serious look at these new concepts that seemed to be working their way into his life -- concepts like friendship and gratitude.
They borrowed Vin and JD’s horses from the livery and rode towards the same cliff they had been found just days before. Ezra’s own recollection of the cave and the outcrop rising above it were sketchy. Chris’ memories of the cliff were practically nonexistent, but there was something about it that ignited a fire in his brain. Images began to coalesce in his mind -- some pleasant, some appalling, all overpowering. He hadn’t said a word since leaving the Inn, he couldn’t. His mind had reached a point it was so saturated with the past it couldn’t maintain its balance with the present. So he moved on without trying to understand and make sense of it.
He dismounted Vin’s horse and started the climb up the rise. Each step he took brought him closer to his own ghostly memories. Up high, he insisted. We had to get up high.
Ezra climbed down from his mount and watched as Chris drove his tired body to lumber up the incline. He stumbled a time or two but seemed oblivious to his own physical need to rest. Whatever demons possessed him, they weren’t about to leave him now, and that knowledge made Ezra very afraid. Not for himself, but for his friend. The selflessness of that thought surprised him, but it was true nonetheless. I expect this is where I’m supposed to learn about undying loyalty and being there to the end. Well, at least I hope it’s undying and I certainly pray it’s not the end. He pushed himself away from the horse and followed his friend up the hill. It took him a little longer to reach the top than Chris but he made it, and when he arrived, winded and dizzy, he found the gunfighter staring into the fading glimmer of sunset. He stood rigid as the last delicate fingers of sunlight warmed the curve of his battered cheeks and the last breath of day breezed in lazy swirls at his feet. Ezra watched him take a long, lazy breath of his own as his eyes glistened with memories. “Why are we here?” he asked.
Chris shook his head and continued to stare into the dwindling sunlight. “We had to make it to higher ground. There was nowhere else to go.”
“Talk to me. Tell me what happened with you, Adam and the bear.”
The blond turned to glance over his shoulder and stare at the ground near the gambler’s feet. “I never told anyone about the bear… except Sarah, she knew.”
Ezra frowned. “If it concerned Adam, I’m sure she did.”
“The nightmares were bad even then, but she…” He bit down on his words and wrapped his arms around himself, then turned away. “I had to get away for a while, there was just too much goin’ on. He followed me. I knew he would, but I sent him back. I shouldn’t have let him come; I shouldn’t have sent him away…”
“Why was it a mistake to do either?”
“It separated us, gave that monster a chance to get between us. We lost time getting back to each other, but we did. Then we ran.”
“That’s when the bear came after you.”
Chris’ reached a hand to rub at the ache crawling up his neck. His breathing took on a whole new rhythm as a barrage of memories was unleashed into his conscious mind. Terrifying pictures of torn flesh, shredded muscle, gushing streams of blood and unseeing dead eyes situated themselves firmly within his mind. He began to walk, hoping the movement would somehow physically separate him from the sight. A minute later, the walk became a hobble. “I can’t do this.”
Ezra made note of the change in Chris’ gait. “You don’t have a choice. The memories you’ve kept locked away are going to keep coming out, one by one. You won’t be able to control them. What the warden did to you was wrong, unforgivable, but it’s done. You have to deal with it and deal with what you’re remembering.”
“I told you… I can’t think.” The hobbling worsened as he paced back and forth.
Seeing the gunfighter oblivious to his own affliction, Ezra decided to chance pointing it out. “How’s your leg, Chris?”
“I… my leg hurts.”
“It hurts when you remember, right? It’s hurting now.” He approached and carefully touched Chris’ arm. “Don’t run from this... You and Adam were chased by a bear. You said you were trying to get to higher ground.” He could see the moment Chris’ mind moved closer to the past. “Tell me what you see,” he asked and waited for what was playing through the lawman’s mind to settle enough to grab hold of.
“We’re climbing the rocks. There’s a ledge. If we can reach the right spot, we might be able to jump across to the other side. I’m not sure though, it might be too far for us to make. Damn, he’s coming.”
The change in the gunfighter’s verbal tense was unnerving but Ezra pushed ahead. “Are you going to try?”
“Adam, you have to stay on your feet. We gotta climb fast or…” he stopped and looked over his shoulder.
The sudden turn make Ezra look as well. “What is it?”
“The bear isn’t here now,” he replied, keeping the memory on track. “You’re climbing…”
“We found it… the ledge.”
“Can you cross; get where you need to be?”
“It’s too far. We can’t get across, but the drop isn’t too bad. The hillside angles some.” Another sound caught the gunfighter’s attention and he stumbled closer to the edge of the outcrop.
Ezra followed, becoming more and more aware his friend was being swept away by an ever-increasing flow of memory. “Stay with me, Chris. If the hill angles at the ledge, can you climb down?”
“He’s coming,” the blond stated just above a whisper. “Adam, stay close.”
Ezra watched and listened. “Chris?”
“I can hear him. Son-of-a-bitch, how’d he track us so fast?”
“I don’t hear anything,” Ezra lied. Oddly enough, he did think he heard a sound coming from the rocks nearby.
“Listen. We don’t have time to find another way over. You’re gonna have to slide down over the edge and stay put. I don’t think he’ll be able to reach you there.” Chris’ pace was growing more desperate, moving him closer and closer to the edge of the cliff.
It was then Ezra placed himself between the dangerous drop and his disconcerted friend. This cliff was a lot more deadly than the one looming in Chris’ mind. “What about you? What will you do?”
“Don’t you worry none about me, you just listen out. When you hear him leave, head on back to the house.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Ezra said before he thought and silently chastised himself for getting carried away. He knew Chris’ plan in the past had been to lead the bear away from Adam, to sacrifice himself, but that was years ago. Here, now, the man was in more danger from himself than that animal.
“Don’t be arguing. There’s no time. You have to go over the edge and hang on.” The gunfighter suddenly spun around and came face to face with the beast. “Oh God,” he exhaled.
Ezra watched his eyes grow large with fear; leaving no doubt in his mind Chris was seeing the same bear that had attacked him so long ago. The same huge mountain of fur, teeth and claws that had torn at his body in the past had come again, this time to seemingly finish what it had started.
The gunfighter moved nearer Ezra and shouted, “Go, Adam, move!”
“Chris, listen to me! There’s nothing out there. We’re safe! You’re safe! Look around you, look at me.”
“You can’t stay here! Just go! Move!”
Ezra was so startled by Chris’ intensity he stumbled backward, and with his left arm bound to his chest, he was thrown off balance and dropped to one knee. The sudden jar was like a hammer slamming into him, sending a hard, excruciating pain into his shoulder, and before he could stop it, a harsh cry of agony was ripped from his lungs.
Chris heard the horror in that cry and responded with the same ferocious desire to protect that had driven him years before. “Adam, I said move!” he shouted, and with incredible swiftness, reached down for the body huddled on the ground, pulled it upright and pushed it over the precipice.
Ezra screamed in terror as he realized what was happening and in a last-ditch effort to save his life, grabbed for the sleeve of Chris’ jacket and held on. He didn’t have time to consider the possibility he may drag his only lifeline over the edge with him – he simply snatched at the only hold available and clung to it with every bit of strength he possessed. His own shirt, which was too big to begin with and only on one arm, slid instantly across his back, enhancing the sensation of falling. The sleeve he wore fell towards him, bunching awkwardly against his shoulder.
Chris fell hard with the weight of Ezra’s body and instinctively groped at the hand gripping his arm. The crash to the ground was so abrupt he nearly lost consciousness, but he and his burden both held fast.
“Chris, for the love of God, pull me up! Don’t let me fall!” Ezra screamed as he glanced down into the shadowy maw beneath him. The sun’s last sprinkle of light may have softened the appearance of the deadly rocks below, but he knew all too well what a painful death it would be to crash into their unforgiving, razor-like embrace. He had to draw his only hope for survival back into the present and he had to do it now. “Damn it, I don’t want to die! Pull me up!”
The plea came to Chris’ ears as garbled nonsense, but the desperation rang through loud and clear. He reacted as quickly as before and shifted his body until he could reach down and grasp the limb clinging to his arm. His eyes sought the dusky dark until his heart found Adam and when he gripped a bare forearm between his fingers, the memory sent a shiver down his spine. It was the last hold he ever had on Adam. The last time he ever touched him when there was life still pulsing through his veins. That meant there was hope, a chance to stop the unthinkable from happening. If he held on, he could save him. It wasn’t too late. It couldn’t be. All he had to do was hang on. He dug in with his fingers and squeezed so tightly they sunk into the tender skin of Adam’s arm. Blood began to ooze until large red droplets cascaded off white flesh and fell into the darkness below. He imagined their descent and let his eyes wander to the spectacle just beyond the boy's kicking feet. “No. N-no,” he muttered.
The bear had found them; had changed his direction of attack and was now pawing at the base of the cliff. His large head twisted with a vicious snarl, then he clawed at the dirt and rock, angry, no, hungry, for his prey and slowly inched his way towards the legs suspended just a few feet away.
Hurry, he had to hurry, Chris thought but time seemed to fold in on itself. The harder he tried to grab for Adam, the slower his movements became. He willed his fingers to tighten, commanded his muscles to pull, but his body remained defiant. Then time was ripped open.
He made ready to use both hands to raise his burden topside when he felt the flesh of his hip being sliced open. White-hot pain seared through his mind and body, threatening to send him into oblivion. He fought to stay conscious, to maintain his grip on Adam, but he had to surrender one hand to grab at the sudden agony tearing into this body.
Ezra tried to swallow the horror clinging to his throat as he dangled precariously off the cliff's edge. He was at the mercy of a man who no longer had a grip on reality. His very life depended on the memories that filled his friend’s tortured and drug-ravaged mind. By all rights, there should have been little reason to hope for a good outcome, but then he remembered who his friend was. Chris was a man passionate about family; if he believed a loved one in danger, he would move heaven and earth to save him. Right now Ezra was Adam Larabee to the man who held his arm and it would be that delusion, he prayed, that would return him to the safety of the ledge above. There was no time to consider the danger of playing into his friend's hallucinations. He screamed, “Pa! Pa, help me! Please, Pa!”
The urgent cry rang in Chris’ ears and resonated in his mind. Pa? Pa, noooo…I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
Larabee looked down his arm and saw the same ghostly blue eyes he’d seen years before -- eyes overflowing with trust and love. He tightened his grip and nailed the face below him with a look. “Pa ain’t here, Adam, he doesn’t know where we are. But I swear I’ll get you up. I won’t let go.”
Ezra was stunned by Chris' reply and frightened thoughts rapidly became terrified screams. What the hell does he mean, ‘Pa ain’t here?’ Pa who? He’s pa, and I’m Adam and I’m going to be one dead son-of-a-bitch “if you don’t GET ME OUT OF HERE!”
“Adam, hold on to me! And stop kickin’ your feet, use ‘em to climb!” Chris looked below and again saw the bear gaining ground. “You’re always tellin’ me you’re as grown as me. Prove it, Adam! Fight! Climb!”
The grip he had on the gambler's arm was so strong his fingertips actually dug grooves into his flesh, which in turn sent blood trickling down Ezra's bicep and onto his neck. That in its self didn’t frighten Ezra -- it was the blood flowing onto his forearm from Chris’ rope-torn wrist that put the fear of God into him. The slick liquid began to well up against his rescuer’s palm and the tenuous grip holding him began to slip.
“Chris…” Ezra choked in warning as he felt strong fingers sink deeper into his skin. Long furrows were being cut into the soft underside of his arm as he slowly slid away from the man above. Chris leaned further over the edge, but couldn’t better his hold. The move instead caused the ledge to crumble bit by bit beneath him and sent a spray of dirt showering down into the gambler’s face.
“We’re both going to fall.” Ezra spat the dirt from his mouth. He realized in an instant that saving his life might cost Chris his. He wasn’t about to let that happen. “You have to let go.”
“I won’t let him have you!”
Before he could say another word in argument, Ezra's arm was ripped elbow to wrist and the only hold Chris had left was the bandage wrapped around the Southerner’s injured hand.
Ezra glanced up to see the blond look in turn over his shoulder.
“No! Get off! You can’t have him!” Chris hollered, just before his head slapped the ground.
“The hell I can’t,” a second voice growled.
When Ezra looked up again, he saw Buck Wilmington lying on top of Chris, snaking an arm along his friend’s so he too could grab onto him. “You just hang tight, Ezra. I’ve gotcha,” he said as he took hold of the smaller man’s upper arm and slowly hauled him upwards.
Ezra toed the ground with his feet, but both of his arms were now completely useless. When he reached the top, he fell in a heap and didn’t move again until his heart stopped racing. He simply laid back and watched as the tall cowboy picked Chris up, moved him away from the cliff’s edge and leaned him against a huge rock several feet away. “I have no idea… how you found us… but t-thank you,” he gasped.
“I followed you two when you left town,” Buck replied. He too breathed heavily from the excitement. “I’ve been hanging back to give you some time with Chris. I figured maybe you knew how to help him.”
Ezra twisted on the ground in an effort to sit up. Wilmington bent down to help him. “I’m afraid I haven’t been of much help,” he said in disappointment. “I seem to have done little more than push him to the point of collapse.”
He and Buck both eyed Chris as he pressed himself closer to the rock and hid his head with bloody hands. He hadn’t stopped mumbling since he’d been put where he sat. “My fault, my fault. Should've tried. I should've tried.”
“I saw him push you. What the hell was he doing?” Buck asked excitedly, never taking his eyes off Chris.
“He thought he was saving my life.”
“Saving your life?”
“He was remembering when he and Adam were attacked by that bear. He thought I was Adam,” the Southerner answered carefully.
“I told you, Ezra, Adam was never attacked by a bear. I know that for a fact.”
“Those scars on his leg…”
Buck interrupted. “Are on Chris, yes, I can’t explain those. But his son, Adam Larabee, was never mauled or killed by a bear. That little boy never even saw a bear.”
“That little boy,” Ezra repeated to himself. “That little boy. How could I have been so stupid?”
Buck saw a spark flash in the gambler’s eyes. “What? You know what’s going on?”
Ezra reached out. “If you’ll assist me, we need to check on Chris.”
Buck pulled him to his feet and held him upright. Chris caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and lowered one of his hands from his head. He looked sideways at the tall shadow and pushed himself nearer the rock.
“No, no, no,” The blond muttered in a tone
laced with fear.
When he looked up at Wilmington with a look of panic and fright on his face, Buck felt both shock and hurt. Why should Chris be afraid of him? He gently sat Ezra down near his friend before he himself took a kneeling position in front of the gunslinger.
Chris had no more room for exit. He was as close to the rock as he could possibly get. “Please, don’t. I’m sorry,” he mumbled. Buck raised a hand to touch him but quickly pulled it back when Chris begged, “No, don’t! Not again! Please!”
“He ain’t seein’ me, is he, Ezra?” Buck asked over his shoulder. “And he ain’t seein’ that damned bear either.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Has he lost his mind?”
“No,” Ezra answered instantly. “He’s just trying to make sense of more information than his mind can handle. Have you ever had a nightmare from which you couldn’t wake up? I can tell you I have.”
“Nightmare? He ain’t sleepin’! And this is more than some bad dream.”
“Exactly. This is his past playing itself out.”
“Buck, you saw those scars on his body. At some point in his life, he was mauled by a bear.”
“Yeah, I’ll give you that, but what about Adam? He thinks Adam was killed by a bear.”
“He was,” the gambler said with finality that sent a shiver up Buck's spine.
“Damn it, Ezra. I’m tellin’ ya, that little boy…”
“He told us back at the Inn. When you talked with him about Adam, he told us ‘not him, not my son,’ remember?”
“Not my son?” Buck echoed the phrase.
Chris heard the words come from the cowboy’s mouth, “Oh God, it’s my fault.”
Buck caught the anguish in his friend’s voice and tried to move closer. Chris withdrew, nearly hugging the rock behind him. “What’s he saying?” he asked.
Ezra didn’t answer, instead he moved in front of the retreating gunfighter to get him to look up. “Chris? Chris, I need you to listen to me.”
“He ain’t hearin’ ya, Ezra,” Buck stated.
“I’m sorry, Adam. I should've tried,” Chris said, trapped by the gambler's persistent stare.
“You did try.”
“I let you die.”
“This is gettin’ out o’ hand,” Buck said nervously. “We need to get him back to town.”
“Not yet. He’s just beginning to reach the memories he’s buried.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
“It very well could be. He can’t go on like this. The warden started something with his abuse, and trust me I will personally make that bastard pay, but right now Chris needs to remember everything he’s kept locked away. Not just bits and pieces, everything.”
“Ezra, this is not the place to do this.”
“This is exactly the place.”
“What the devil do you want to do,” Buck's voice grew louder, “push him into something that'll really drive him off the deep end? Let’s take him back to town and let Nathan help him.”
“So everyone can bear witness to his demons? I won’t do that to him. Now either help me or leave,” Ezra shouted with as much strength as he could muster. The cry took too much breath; he gasped and swayed.
When Wilmington closed large hands around his shoulders to steady him, a small voice came from behind.
“Don’t,” Chris said. “Leave him. You’re not hurtin’ him again.”
Buck turned around.
“Leave him be, Pa.”
The look on his face was the oddest Wilmington had ever seen. “What the hell?” he asked, glancing back and forth from Chris to Ezra.
“No more. Pa, no more.”
“Why’s he calling me that?”
“Talk to him, Buck,” Ezra suggested.
“But listen to him, he thinks I’m his pa.”
“I know, talk to him.” Before the mustached man could object, Ezra added, “Just do it.”
“What the hell do I say?”
“Talk to him about Adam, about his death.”
“Are you outta your mind? I ain’t goin’ there.”
“Ask him about the cliff.”
Buck was appalled.
“Don't you see? He thinks I’m Adam. He put me over that cliff trying to save my life, although it was a much different cliff than the one he was remembering, but that doesn’t matter…”
Frowning, Buck tried his best to understand.
Ezra saw his frustration and slowed down. “You say Adam didn’t die from a bear attack and Chris claims he did. Just ask him who he put over that cliff. Find out why he thinks he’s to blame for Adam’s death.”
“You know already, don’t you.”
Ezra didn’t answer if he did. “He has to know. I have a feeling a lot more has been placed at his doorstep than is rightfully his, but we won't know if we can't get him to tell us what happened. Now please, ask him.”
Buck wrung his hands, took a deep breath and turned his attention to his old friend. “Chris, son,” he said softly, awkwardly, "I need to talk to you."
“Yes son, I need you to tell me what happened here.” Buck looked over at the outcrop. “I need you to tell me who you sent over that ledge.”
“I had to. The bear was behind us. I had to get him to safety,” Chris replied anxiously.
“Who, Chris, who did you get away from the bear?”
“I want you to tell me. I want you to say it.”
“I don't understand...” Fearful green eyes risked a quick glance into his father's face before they returned to the ground.
“Say it, Chris,” Buck insisted. “Who did you put over the ledge?”
“Son, answer me,” he said firmly.
Buck didn’t give in. “Who was it?” He looked back to see Ezra motion for him to push harder.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Who was it? Tell me!”
“I know it’s my fault, I know he died because of me! You know it too.”
“I don't know, Chris. Who died because of you? Say it! Who?”
"Say it, damn you," he yelled cruelly. "Who did you put over that ledge?"
“My brother,” Chris blurted out in anguish, his eyes flowing freely with the tears he'd kept pent for too many years. “Oh God, I killed my brother!”
The answer was so unexpected Buck was rocked from his knees to the ground. Ezra looked skyward for fear his own tears would fall, his theory confirmed.
“I’m sorry, Adam,” Chris sobbed. “I didn’t save you. I should've tried.”
“Chris had a brother?” Buck whispered to himself. “Adam was his brother? But why didn’t he tell me?”
“My guess is he’d chosen to forget about him.” Ezra replied sadly.
“He wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t forget family.”
“Not intentionally, but listen to him. He’s claiming responsibility for his own brother’s death. Burying the memory was probably the only way to survive it," he said, slowly regaining his composure. "Tell me, how long have you known Chris?”
“Known him? Years, since we were both old enough to be on our own.”
“Then what happened to his brother must have occurred when he was not much more than a boy himself. You saw the hell he went through when his wife and child were murdered. Can you imagine being little more than a child yourself and believing you let your brother die? He evidently learned very early in life how to take on and survive enormous guilt.”
“But this doesn’t make sense. If Chris, just now, was reliving what happened when that bear attacked him and his brother, then how could he believe it was his fault? I saw him trying to pull you away from the bear. Damn, what am I saying? There was no bear,” Buck said clenching his fists.
“To him that animal was as real as the day it killed his brother. He began remembering more details just before we left the Inn. I’m afraid when the drugs the warden gave him wore off, he couldn’t suppress the thoughts any longer. They drove him here, the place most like the actual cliff he lost his brother.”
“Okay, so Chris believed it was happening all over again. I still don’t see how he could believe he was responsible for anything. He keeps sayin’ he should've tried. He did try. He nearly killed himself trying to save you. I saw him. He was halfway over the ledge, hanging on to your arm.”
“I don’t understand that myself. He did push me over the edge, but he kept telling me it was to get me away from the bear. He told me the ledge sloped enough for me to hide myself. But something happened, something changed. He began trying to pull me back up.” Ezra slowly began to relive his own terrifying memory. “He was using both hands in the beginning, but then he cried out and moved one hand back across his body.”
“To his leg,” Buck added as a sickening feeling washed over him. “That must have been when he was clawed. Oh, Sweet Jesus, he must've felt it happen all over again.” A great nausea washed over him. Just the thought of that kind of agony...
“There’s a lot more to this, I'm afraid. We only have pieces. I think Chris only has pieces – tiny fragments from a boy’s terrified mind. That’s why he’s feeling guilty. I don’t think he knows what really happened, but if my suspicions are correct, I think I know how he came to remember everything wrong,” Ezra said in a voice flush with disgust.
Buck hesitated but new better than to argue. He returned to his knees, cleared his throat and lowered his voice. “Chris? Son, we need to talk about what happened to Adam.”
“We don’t have to. I know it was my fault.” Chris shrank away.
“Why? Why is it your fault?” he questioned softly. “How could you even think that you just stood by and let your brother die?”
Chris' eyes darted around distrustfully.
“Son, tell me what happened after the bear chased you up here.”
“I-I put Adam over the edge of the cliff. He should've been able to hang on,” Chris swallowed, “until the bear went away.”
“But you didn’t go over with him,” Buck prompted. “You stayed up top.”
“I thought I could lead the bear away,” he looked away from his father’s shadow, “but there wasn’t time.”
Buck and Ezra watched in amazement and regret as the tormented man began to frown and rub at his left leg. The frown soon turned into a painful grimace and the rubbing intensified until Chris’ fingers were digging into his own flesh. Buck reached out to stop the hand from clawing, but Chris kicked out with his feet and scooted along the boulder.
“Hurts… it hurts,” he mumbled.
“What, Chris? What hurts? What happened after you got Adam out of the way?”
“The bear, I couldn’t get him away so I tried to go with Adam… but he caught me…” He nearly gagged on the words. “He pulled me down! I tried to go over the ledge, but he was on top of me! I didn’t realize at first that he had me, my leg was just kind've numb. Then I felt his breath on my neck. I tried to roll over, but I couldn’t. Oh God, it hurts!”
“Chris, the bear’s gone. It’s all over, son! Listen to me, it’s all over!” Buck's felt his heart might break.
“He’s not gone! He fell!”
“Who fell? Was it Adam, did Adam fall?”
“No. The bear. The ground crumbled beside me. He was so heavy the ledge gave way.” He wrapped his arms around himself and watched the shocking memories rush back.
“That’s good, the bear can’t hurt you now.”
“No, Pa, he’s after Adam!”
“The bear didn’t die! He’s coming again, up the side of the cliff. He’s coming after Adam! Adam, hold on!” He screamed and grabbed at his leg. “Pa, you were right… I put him there, I let him die!”
Ezra decided to intercede and moved quickly to
grab Chris’ right forearm. “You didn’t let me die, Chris! You tried to get
me back. You tried!”
Chris reluctantly glanced at the ghost before him, his voice thick with grief. “I let you fall,” he cried.
“No you didn’t. Look at my arm. Look at what you did trying to save my life.”
Ezra offered Chris his arm, remembering the care he'd taken to tend it back in the cave. Now he understood. Adam’s arm had been injured, torn open by Chris’ attempt to pull him to safety. It had been the man’s last hold on the brother he loved. He shuddered at the thought of how that last tug must have felt in Chris’ hand; that last sudden jerk when the bear snatched him away and killed his prey, leaving Chris to watch the whole gory scene.
Chris eyes wandered down to the hand that held his. He felt its warmth before he actually saw the blood oozing from his brother's flesh.
"You tried to hold on to me," Ezra said softly.
He stared at the long grooves seeping blood on the inside of Ezra's forearm for several seconds before he raised his own hand to examine the red smears across his fingertips and the gooey thickness trapped beneath his nails. The realization came slowly as it struggled to pierce the layers of guilt that had grown around his heart, but when it came it did so with great intensity. There was an overwhelming rush from his gut to his head. Had he tried to save his little brother? The rush slammed into him again. Oh Dear God, had he? He gripped the hand in his and stared purposefully into his brother's eyes. “Adam,” he said with sorrow, “forgive me.”
Ezra pulled his hand from Chris’ and placed it on the peacekeeper’s neck. Then he looked into his friend’s tear-filled eyes and whispered, “There’s nothing to forgive. You did all a man could do and that makes me very proud you’re my brother.”
It took a moment for absolution to seep into his heart, but when the truth reached his brain, he fell into his brother’s embrace and cried.