Mary Travis finished running off the last of the newspapers, carefully folded them and by ten o'clock was out on the street.
She looked like hell, and she knew it. The previous twenty-four hours were still tangled in her half-combed hair that had been shoved into a rough bun at eight-thirty; they were visible in the dark circles underneath her eyes; she hadn't gotten nearly enough sleep. And they were easily discernible in her pallid, worried face, a face that tried to look cheerful, or at least professional, for the town's sake. She knew as she smoothed out her dress and picked up her stack of papers that they were all looking to her for guidance until her father-in-law, Orin Travis, arrived. They were counting on her, and she had to come through. Even though she really just wanted to run and hide.
She stood on the sidewalk for a moment in the chill early morning sunshine and glanced at the headline on the front page: SHERIFF ASSAULTED, TOWN IN CONFUSION. She bit her lip, thought of Chris. She'd tried to be as factual as she could, had written and rewritten the article a hundred times, and still it came down to the same awful, irrefutable, damnable conclusion:
Chris Larabee was responsible for JD Dunne's injuries. And he was gone.
Her mind went back to the previous evening, her talk with Ezra Standish. Best if Chris goes away until the judge arrives, Ezra had said, but there was no concern for Chris in that lazy Southern drawl, only a barely contained rage, and Mary knew that if Chris had shown up in that office, at that moment, Ezra would have killed him.
But Chris hadn't come to her. She had hoped he would, he owed her that much. After all, his act was a betrayal to her faith in him, a slap in the face to the standard Orin was holding Chris to. Chris had to know, wherever he was, that the town would never forgive him for being so - so violent, when it had trusted him to keep his head. So she deserved an explanation, or at the very least an apology.
But no - what she really wanted was for Chris to come and beg her forgiveness, to say he was sorry, to look at her the way he had once when she'd been kidnapped by a savage pimp named Wickes and held as bait in his tent. She'd been terrified, helpless, and Chris had come to her rescue, his normally taut, blank face aching with concern as he leaned close to her to untie her wrists and ask, are you all right?
His eyes were sky blue and deep as the open sea...
Mary blinked, came back to herself. That was the only time she'd ever seen Chris so anxious, so caring, so sorry for what was happening. Then it had closed over, and maybe she'd never see it again. Or him.
She turned around to see Mr. Conklin striding toward her on the sidewalk.
Oh, Lord. She smiled tightly. "Good morning, Mr. Conklin. Newspaper?"
"What? Oh - " Mr. Conklin blinked at the paper Mary was holding out to him, took it noncommittally and immediately shoved it under one arm, not folded but in a bunch. Then he looked at Mary through his oval spectacles and hissed, "Did you hear?"
"Hear what?" Mary began to walk into the street, passing out papers to whoever held out a hand for one.
"Larabee's run off!" Mr. Conklin said triumphantly. "His gang helped him escape. You wire the judge?"
So Chris was really gone... another newspaper handed out. "Yes, Mr. Conklin. He'll be here just as soon as he - "
"Well, he'd better come right quick," Mr. Conklin bleated, looking around fearfully. "I wouldn't give two cents for what this town's going to turn into once those bushwhackers ride out of town."
A hand held out, here you go. "Mr. Conklin, I spoke to one of Mr. Larabee's men last night. They're not going anywhere."
"Unless we run 'em out on a rail!" Mr. Conklin spat, trotting next to Mary like an anxious terrier. "The rest of that bunch is no better than Larabee. When the outlaws start comin' back, they'll probably hold the door open!"
Mary rolled her eyes, then tried to ignore Mr. Conklin and peered down the street. She could see Vin Tanner walking down the street some distance ahead of them, his pale coat with its unique shoulder flaps making him easily discernible. He was walking with Josiah, slowly, and they were talking, their heads down and together, as if the discussion were serious and private. She wondered what they were talking about.
Conklin had said something. Sighing in exasperation, Mary turned his way. "I'm sorry, Mr. Conklin, what were you saying?"
Conklin blinked, scowled, looked down the street and scowled deeper. Wagging his finger at her he said, "Now you just watch yourself around those men, Mrs. Travis. You're too fine a lady to get hypnotized with their smooth talk, and they'll go after you first. They already got the judge fooled - "
The load of newspapers in Mary's hands was becoming very heavy; shifting it to one arm she said, "Yes, Mr. Conklin, thank you for your concern. I'll be very careful."
Conklin's scowl turned insulted. "You didn't hear what I said, did you?"
Mary's eyes fluttered. Yes?
Conklin let out a disgusted snort and said slowly, "You tell the judge. If Mr. Dunne don't make it, we're gonna need some law around here. Some *real* law. Now, I don't have no experience, but I know how to hold a gun - "
Mary stopped walking; she was shocked. "You, Mr. Conklin? You want to be sheriff?"
"Don't want to be - have to be!" Conklin insisted. "Somebody's got to keep these roughnecks from tearing up our town!"
Mary tried to hide a smile as she walked the street with her papers. Tried, but failed. "Well, I doubt it will come to that. Things have been pretty quiet here - "
Conklin stopped, a smug grin on his hangdog face. "Oh, you don't know, do you?"
"The hotel was robbed last night!"
It was said in the most annoying I-told-you-so voice, and if Mary had had her hands free she thought she would have slapped him. But her hands were occupied, so she just let her mouth drop open. "Really?"
Conklin nodded firmly. "And it's only the beginning! It's worse than before, Mrs. Travis. And it's not going to get any better."
Mary nodded, hoping he was wrong. Vin and Josiah were still walking, and as she watched she saw Buck come out of the saloon. He looked ragged and unkempt, as if he'd slept in his clothes. Even from this distance she could see he still hadn't shaved. She watched him walk up to the other two men, no lively Buck spring in his step, none of the jaunty hey-how-you-doing that she'd come to associate with the affable gunslinger. Instead, there were drooping shoulders, worried fiddling with his moustache, a quiet nod in greeting. She saw Josiah put his hand on Buck's shoulder, and her heart went out to him. JD was like Buck's little brother; what would Buck do if he died?
"Hmph." She heard next to her, and turned to see Conklin eyeing the three men ahead of them as one would a drunken man in a gutter. His loathing was almost palpable.
And suddenly Mary knew she had to get away from it. Turning to the other man she said, "If you'll excuse me, Mr. Conklin." and walked away from him as fast as she could, not caring how it looked, because she felt like she was suffocating.
Conklin watched her go, toward those men, and shook his head in disgust. He wanted them gone, and he wasn't alone.
All he needed was time.
The saloon was lively, for the middle of the morning. The place was full of travelers, working girls, and bar patrons, and it was noisy and bright with the activity of the day. Bets were made; deals were exchanged; money was passed; and everybody seemed to be having a great time, and many of them were too drunk to even realize it.
And in the middle of this whirlpool of colorful mayhem, four businessmen were playing poker and smiling to themselves.
"I can't believe we got away with it," Tims said in a low whisper to Durning as they leaned toward each other.
Durning grinned back, and winked. "It was fun, wasn't it?"
Sherson seemed the most smug of them all; he could barely hide his excitement as his eyes scanned the other people in the bar.
"Look at these hicks," he said in his low bass voice, shaking his head in scorn. "We robbed them blind and they don't even care."
"Shh!" Tims hissed, looking around fearfully. "Not so loud. Somebody might turn us in, and I don't know how I'd explain getting arrested to Bertha."
"Like the risk ain't worth it?" Sherson asked archly. "Come on, Tims. Our little 'enterprise' made you more than you get in six months selling anvils."
Tims tilted his head. "That's true."
"Well," Childers offered, "We'd better get while the getting's good. The rain's stopped, so there'll be a stage this afternoon. I say we scram before we get caught."
Tims was still looking around anxiously, but Durning and Sherson traded chuckles of greedy mirth.
"Relax." Durning fanned his hand, threw in a card. "These sheep don't suspect a thing."
"He might," Childers said nervously, tipping his head toward the corner of the bar.
Durning followed his gaze. Through the hazy sunlit smoke they all saw Ezra Standish sitting at a felt covered table, all by himself. He'd been there all morning; he was there early, when they'd all been eating breakfast, but he hadn't come over to say hello. In fact, he hadn't acknowledged their presence at all, just sat there playing with that deck of cards, ignoring the world and everyone in it.
Well, that wasn't entirely true. Ezra had looked up once, some time earlier when that dark-haired fella with the moustache and the hermit came in. The dark-haired fella just walked right to the bar and leaned into it, like he was meaning to do some serious drinking. He had a look on his face like he wanted to break something in half. Ezra had watched the guys for a few minutes with this strange look on his face, then gotten up and gone over to them. They talked, but it didn't look to any of the salesmen like the black-haired fella was up to much conversation, so after exchanging some quiet words with the long-haired lawman Ezra had returned to his table and gone back to doing tricks with his cards. He never took his eyes off the bar, though.
Then he'd gone back to flipping his cards, over and over, and every once in a while he'd look out the saloon doors, then he'd turn the cards again, with this funny look on his face, like he was worried about something.
"You know," Durning muttered as he regarded his companions, "When we were playing poker together, Standish had a face you couldn't read with a microscope. And now look at him - it's like he's turned inside out. You can read him like a circus poster."
They all looked.
Durning shook his head at his cards. "It doesn't make sense."
"He might suspect something," Tims was saying, his thin voice quivering. "After all, he knows we sell safes and things."
"And that's all he knows," Sherson said confidently, taking another swig of beer and setting the mug down with a satisfied sigh.
"Well, so, now what?" Childers asked as he looked at his cards. "I mean, do we leave?"
"Leave!" Durning chuckled. "I'm having the time of my life here!"
"Me, too," Tims said with a childish smirk. "I never get to have this much fun back home."
"Yeah, but - " Childers looked around, lowered his voice, "We broke the law. If we hang around, we just might get caught. " He cast a significant look at Ezra, who was still sitting by himself, shuffling his cards in a preoccupied, melancholy way.
"Never mind him," Sherson sneered. "He's nothing. I say we hang around and find out what else this little town-without-a-sheriff has to offer. We might get to take the rest of the year off."
The other men smiled.
"Yes, gentlemen," Sherson leaned back and put a smug smile on his large face, "Admit it. Our luck is changing, and we are riding high." Sherson laughed, and the others laughed with him, too wrapped up in themselves to notice that, a few feet away, a shadowy figure lost among the drunken souls watched them, and smiled.
And made plans.
+ + + + + + +
Vin acknowledged Mary's approach with a touch of his hat, and the other men gave her tired smiles in greeting. Fumbling with her newspapers, Mary stammered, "Gentlemen, I'm sorry to interrupt you, I was just wondering how Mr. Dunne is doing?"
"We're on our way back to Nathan's now," Josiah said, "if you'd like to come along."
"Oh - no." Mary looked down at her papers, suddenly felt like she was intruding. She still wasn't sure she could look at those awful wounds again. "I - I've got work to do..."
Vin looked at her with steady, penetrating eyes that seemed to say, whatever you decide. His eyes flicked to where Conklin was standing, some distance away, glaring at all of them. He asked, "Trouble?"
"No. Well, yes," Mary amended. "I've been told the hotel was robbed last night."
The men seemed to sag collectively. One more worry to add to their already unbearable load.
"I'll see to it," Vin drawled apathetically. Then he added, "Later."
Mary nodded, sorry she'd mentioned it. She looked up and locked eyes with Buck, for a moment, but he was becoming hollow, his eyes remote and fatigued, and she glanced away, suddenly embarrassed at seeing so much of him laid out nakedly in those blue eyes.
The group began to move silently away, and after glancing around quickly, Mary said in a low voice, "Have you -"
The men stopped, turned.
"Have any of you men seen Chris?"
Looks exchanged. Josiah leaned close to her and spoke, his voice so low only Mary could hear it. "I rode out with him last night. He's safe, at least from these good folk, till the judge gets back."
Mary nodded. At least someone had seen him. She backed away a step, tried to pull herself away from the serious group, felt she didn't belong. "Well - give JD my best."
Buck nodded absently. Josiah said, "We will, thank you, Mrs. Travis."
And they moved away then, like ghosts, hardly making a noise. Mary's heart lurched. She remembered other times she'd seen these men together, and this was so odd. They were still the same, but it was as if they were moving in another time, so weighted down were they from the recent events. And it won't ever be the same, Mary realized with a sickening finality. Even if JD recovers. Even if Chris does time. Even if the townspeople forgive him. No matter how it comes out, it will never be the same.
She blinked tears out of her eyes, and went about selling her newspapers.Dreaming.
Faces. Voices, unfamiliar, knew them once, don't now. Hurts...
Sea salt, fresh air, breezes through open windows. JD, don't play with the clean sheets. Cuddles and laughter, holding close.
Separation. He's ready, strong lad, put him in the stables. Manure and sore muscles, they're a bunch of bullies, but I can ride better than them.
I miss her.
Learning, getting better, nights get longer. Turn the lamp down, JD. Not so strong now. Mama, you okay? Time to be a man now, not sure I want that. But still the cool salt air breezes through open summer windows.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan finished wringing the damp cloth out in the washbasin and gently laid it on JD's forehead. As soon as he did so, he saw the long black eyelashes flutter, and after a moment JD's eyes opened. He looked at Nathan with drowsy resignation, his pupils widely dilated, didn't move. Nathan felt relief; the herbal mixture he'd given JD was still working.
There was no flighty panic this time, only a sleepy sigh. JD took a deep breath, made hard with the bandages. "Where am I?"
He still doesn't remember. Damn. "You're in my room, in Four Corners."
Black eyebrows came together in bewilderment. "Four Corners?"
Nathan nodded, saw JD's confusion. "You been hit on the head, so you might be confused for a while. But you're safe."
JD nodded, accepting it. He looked around the room, and his eyes widened.
"It's like in my books about the west," he said with a kind of wonder. Then his eyes went back to Nathan. "Did a horse kick me?"
Nathan shook his head. "You took a nasty spill."
"Oh." JD stared at the ceiling a moment. "My mama's going to be sore. She's always worried I'm going to hurt myself riding."
Nathan worked the cloth around JD's face, minding the stitches, the bruised and swollen flesh. "Well, you gonna be all right. You just need to take it easy for a while."
JD nodded again, complete acquiescence. His eyes went to Nathan, searching. "I've never seen a Negro doctor before."
Nathan smiled gently. "I ain't a doctor. I'm just helping you out, like your mama asked me to."
JD nodded, and blinked sleepily, closed his eyes. Suddenly he opened them again. "Oh!"
Nathan stopped working the cloth, looked at JD in concern. "What is it?"
"My mama would kill me," JD stammered, blinking at Nathan in mortification. "I've been rude. I don't know what your name is."
Nathan smiled again. "I'm Nathan, son. Nathan Jackson."
"Oh." JD relaxed, closed his eyes again. "Gosh, she would have killed me."
A few moments later JD's breathing became deep and regular, and Nathan knew he was asleep again. Thank God. JD didn't remember how he'd tried to walk, and fell. Thank God, he didn't ask about it, because if he had Nathan didn't know what he would have said. Sometimes, in the war he'd seen men injured that way, but most of them never recovered, ended up in wheelchairs, useless from that day on. That thought sent shivers up Nathan's spine, sent a rage coursing through him he didn't think he was capable of.
It was a good thing for Chris that he wasn't in town. Nathan looked at JD's battered, sleeping face. And fought his anger.
There was a gentle tap at the door, and Nathan went to answer it.
The first thing he saw when he swung open the wooden door was Vin's face, drawn and tired-looking, his broad frame filling the doorway. Behind him, Nathan saw Buck and Josiah, looking as haggard as he felt.
Vin didn't waste time on a greeting. "How is he?"
Nathan glanced backward, saw JD was still asleep, stepped outside a little and half-closed the door. The other men formed a ring around him, and in the morning sun Nathan saw nothing but worry, worry he hated himself for for not being able to make go away.
He pursed his lips, then said, "He's been awake a few times. I gave him something for the pain, so he's kind of groggy. That's not bad for him, though."
"He remember what happened?" Buck asked anxiously.
Nathan shook his head. "He thinks he's back in Boston with his mama." At Buck's crestfallen expression he hastened to add, "But that could change. I seen lots of folks hit in the head, just be confused for a few days. He just needs time."
Buck didn't seem reassured. The unspoken possibility that this might not change, that JD might never remember the past six months of his life, hung unspoken in the air like a venomous insect.
"And I'm thinkin'," Nathan continued, "that it's best if we let him remember on his own. I don't want nobody bringin' up what happened to him before he's ready to handle it. Things gonna be rough enough on him, without having to deal with that it was Chris that done this thing. Y'all with me?"
Nods. Buck glared at the wooden planks beneath their feet.
Josiah peered closely at Nathan's exhausted face. "You look like shit, Nathan. You get any sleep at all?"
"Yeah, some," Nathan said somewhat defensively. As if sleep was a priority to him at the moment. "How much sleep do I usually get when one of y'all gets hurt?"
Vin tilted his head a bit, gazed into the darkened room. What he was seeing Nathan couldn't guess, but his blue eyes looked haunted and sad. "Chris ain't sleepin' much either, I reckon."
"Good." Buck said savagely.
Josiah gave him a curious look, but Vin ignored the remark and said, "You go get some rest, doc. We can watch over JD."
Nathan rubbed his neck. Sleep sounded so good, but...
Buck saw it first, saw something race through Nathan's eyes. Nathan saw his whole body tense, and his expression was suspicious and fearful. "There something else?"
Nathan paused, but there was no help for it. "JD can't walk."
The other men froze for a moment. Buck seemed to go white. After a moment Josiah dipped his head and scratched one eye, a nervous gesture Nathan had seen before. "I ain't sure yet, but it might pass," Nathan said, "Could be that bump he got on the back of his head messed his walkin' up some. I seen that before, but..."
Nathan stopped. Any explanation he could give felt stupid, useless. His eyes met the others', and he almost felt ashamed. Up until the previous evening, there was the possibility that JD could get better soon, get over his broken bones and bruises, and things would be better in about a month. After last night, it would be maybe a few months, to give his faltering memory a chance to improve. Then things would return to normal, more or less, at least for JD.
With Nathan's words of this morning, though, things weren't going to get better.
Things were over.
Buck locked his arms around the back of his neck, walked to the narrow wooden railing of the balcony and stared at the street below, his entire being humming with anguish.
Josiah took a step toward him, then seemed to reconsider and turned back to Nathan, his kind eyes solemn and serious. "Go to the church and get some sleep, doc. We'll take care of things here."
It was a tone that wouldn't be argued with, and Nathan nodded, suddenly too drained to protest. "If JD wakes up and he's restless, give him some of those herbs I got steepin' on the table. He won't need much."
Vin's eyes dipped, indicating understanding. He was watching Buck.
As Nathan's retreating footsteps echoed down the long stairway below them, Josiah moved next to Buck, stood close. He looked into the gunslinger's face, saw the open wound of fright there.
"JD's strong," Josiah said firmly, trying to reach through the caul of dread that he could feel surrounding Buck like a shroud. "He's stubborn too. Don't give up on him yet."
"God damn him." Buck said in a strained, vicious voice. He wasn't talking about JD, Josiah knew, and wondered at the depth of hatred in his friend's words. Josiah glanced at Vin; the former buffalo hunter was staring at the ground, his handsome face a blend of despair and resolution; he wasn't giving up yet, on any of them.
But Buck was, it seemed. Josiah tried again. "Buck, we best keep our minds on the here and now. Chris has got his own - "
"Don't say that name to me," Buck seethed, and when he turned toward Josiah there was white-hot fury in those blue eyes.
Josiah opened his mouth again. One last try...
The rage in Buck's eyes slammed into Josiah like a physical force as the gunslinger took a half-step forward and shook his head menacingly. "Don't . "
Josiah sighed, backed down. Buck looked at him, then Vin, then said in a low voice aching with unhappiness, "When the boy wakes up again, come and get me. I'll be in the saloon."
He walked past Josiah, down the stairs, and Josiah and Vin traded doubtful looks as together they listened to his boots stomping down the wooden planks, one by one.
Things were over.
Then Vin hunched his shoulders, and together they opened the door to Nathan's room and went inside.
+ + + + + + +
Mary finally set her pen down after spending hours going over her books, and decided it was time to lock up and go get some supper.
She sighed tiredly and rose to her feet, groaning at muscles made sore by two days of solid worrying. She walked wearily toward the door to lock it. I really must stop this. I only wish I knew how.
Chris was gone. Maybe he wouldn't come back. If he didn't, the others would form a posse and go after him, and Mary knew that if it came to that Chris would be better off if they didn't find him. Josiah and Nathan might work hard at forgiving Chris for hurting JD; Vin seemed to be trying to avoid taking sides; Buck and Ezra had made no secret of their enmity toward Chris. And as for herself...
The sun was fading in the streets now, glowing crimson and gold, and Mary leaned against the inside of the door as one hand fumbled to lock it. What did she think? What would she say to Chris when he did come back to face his accusers? Chris was dangerous, on edge, didn't seem to mind that some people thought he was a little deranged. But, at least before this, people seemed to respect him, maybe even like him a little bit for helping out the town.
But then the awful events of the other night had occurred, and it was like a lightning bolt had gone through the town, severing it from the way things had been. Of course, the official story was that Chris had gone to look for JD's attackers, but everyone seemed to know that was a lie. And suddenly, the men she and her father-in- law had looked to for help in ridding the town of the outlaw element had become suspect themselves, and Chris was the most hated man of them all. Even if he came back, Orin would have a hell of a time keeping him alive long enough for a trial, or to pass sentence if Chris pleaded guilty.
Pass sentence...plead guilty...trial...Mary winced as the words marched across her mind, those words didn't belong with Chris. He was wild, but he had a decent heart, and Mary's heart ached to think of what he was going through, wherever he was. JD was badly hurt, but he had his friends, and the townspeople, to help him through whatever ordeals he had to face. Chris was alone, alone with the grief and guilt and self-recrimination that she was sure he was feeling. Ezra had said he wanted Chris to suffer; maybe Chris was supposed to suffer, to atone for what he did. Maybe there was a purpose to everything that had happened, but that possibility didn't ease the twinge in Mary's stomach, didn't make the knot between her shoulders go away. And she knew that, wherever Chris was, it was no comfort to him either.
If only she could get some good news about JD, but there was no solace there either, no possibility that JD's injuries would turn out to be a mere inconvenience, for a while. She'd seen Buck on the street earlier that day, wanted to ask, but the look on his face froze the words on her tongue. She had never seen him so angry, so upset, so...so helpless-looking, like a little boy whose dog had been killed in the street and he didn't know where the anger should go. It frightened her to see that look on Buck. So she had let him walk by, and felt the cold air in his wake.
But she had needed to know, so she had gone to pay JD a visit. He'd been asleep, with Vin and Josiah keeping vigil in that still, silent room. Mary winced as she recalled how her heart had broken at the sight of JD, still so pale and bruised and broken, and at Chris' hands. Vin had hardly spoke a word, merely stood at the window and gazed at the street, so it was Josiah she had asked, how is he? And it was Josiah who had taken her arm and led her out of that dark room, and back outside, and said in his low, gentle rumble, it's not good, Mrs. Travis, and had told her. And her heart had broken more.
Mary was just about finished pulling down the last shade when she heard a soft knock on her door. Curious, she peeked out the drawn shade and recognized Mrs. Potter standing outside.
"Oh," Mary said almost unconsciously, and unbolted the door.
Mrs. Potter's broad face was grave as she slipped inside the door. "Mary."
"Gloria," Mary said, hoping she didn't look too confused. "I'm sorry, I was just closing up to go to supper."
"I know, and I'm sorry," Mrs. Potter said in a low voice, "But I thought I should tell you, Mr. Conklin is stirring up some trouble."
"Trouble?" Mary's eyes went a little wide. "What sort of trouble?"
"Oh, he's upset." Mrs. Potter took a few steps into the office, clearly peeved. "He's been running around since yesterday, saying how the town's going to go to hell now that Mr. Larabee's run off."
"Yes." Mary rubbed her arm and looked at the floor. "He bent my ear about that too."
"Only now he's gone farther," Mrs. Potter said in a worried voice. "He's been telling some of the other men that the hired guns can't be trusted. That he should take over as sheriff until your father-in-law arrives."
"He mentioned that to me too," Mary admitted. "But they'd never - "
"Oh, yes they would." Mrs. Potter's face was set as she stared at Mary. "They're seriously considering it. He called a town meeting this afternoon that you're not supposed to know about."
"But - " Mary sputtered for a moment. "But he has no experience! And the other men haven't done anything wrong. They're still working to protect this town!"
"I know that." Mrs. Potter nodded, "But he's got the town fathers mighty riled up with his talk. They're ready to run Mr. Tanner and the others out on a rail."
Mary gasped and leaned against her desk.
"I'm sorry, Mary," Mrs. Potter said in a curious monotone. "But there's more."
Mary looked up. More?
"He's been talking against you, too. Sayin' that you let them men influence you too much. That you're not fit to make town decisions anymore."
"What! Why, that -"
"It's bad, Mary." Mrs. Potter shook her head, her small eyes deep with concern. "You and I both know, with Mr. Larabee gone the outlaws are going to come back. And if Mr. Conklin is sheriff, he'll be dead inside of two minutes."
Mary nodded wildly. Inside of one!
"I'm trying to think of what to do," Mrs. Potter said anxiously. "I owe those men a lot, Mary. I don't like what Mr. Larabee done, but I don't want to see them go. And I don't want to see what's going to happen to this town if we lose the only law we got."
The room seemed to be spinning. Mary put her hands on the desk, to make it stop.
"Mr. Watson agrees with me," Mrs. Potter said in a slightly more hopeful tone. "And some of the others too. They're not all falling for Conklin's hotheaded talk, but a lot are. Too many. I'm - I'm worried, Mary. For my children, and for you. And Mr. Dunne, if they make his friends go."
Mary ran a hand over her forehead. This can't be happening.
"We've got to think, Mary." Mrs. Potter made a fist, her eyes a bit desperate. "It might end up being just you and me and a few others, but we've got to be ready. And think of what we're gonna do after Conklin runs off the others and gets himself killed."
Mary nodded, suddenly wishing with all her soul that Stephen was still alive. He'd know what to do.
Mrs. Potter looked down, tugged at her dress self- consciously. "I'm very sorry, Mary, I know this isn't good news. But you've always been a friend to me, and I don't think what Conklin is doing is right. If for no other reason than that if he gets his way, by the time Orin arrives Mr. Dunne is going to be missing half his friends, and he'll as like never see them again. And I know..." Her eyes met Mary's then, two widows talking in the setting golden sunlight. "I know what it's like to miss someone. Mr. Dunne doesn't deserve that. None of us do."
Mary gazed at Mrs. Potter for a moment, couldn't think of a thing to say. Finally, she put out one hand and placed it on her friend's arm and said, "Don't worry, Gloria. Orin will be here soon, and everything will be all right."
Mrs. Potter looked down at the floor again, sighed, looked out the window as she moved to the door. "I hope so, Mary. Because I'm frightened by the way our menfolk are thinking. I truly am."
Mary gave Mrs. Potter a half-smile as the other woman stepped out the door, then closed the door again and locked it.
No, they wouldn't make Conklin sheriff. They're not that -
A secret town meeting? Not include her? How could they do -
Vin and Buck gone. Ezra gone. They'd let Nathan stay, and Josiah maybe. But JD would blame himself, and what could she do to comfort him? What could anyone do?
Oh, Chris. Mary pulled down the last shade and watched the sunlight disappear. I wonder where you are. I wonder if you know what you've done.
+ + + + + + +
The cantina was noisy, garish, the strung-up paper lanterns waving back and forth in the light desert breeze. Their bright paper colors were a stark, almost ugly contrast to the real beauty of the last rays of the setting sun, their brilliant bobbing lights a pale imitation of the twinkling stars that sat fixed in the dark blue sky above.
The desert sky was beautiful, but Chris did not see it.
It was nighttime, and the little roadside stop was bustling with travelers eager to get off the dusty, hot road and do some serious drinking and whoring. Spanish and English flowed together, mixed and soared into the warm night over the brightly-lit hostel, and somewhere behind him Chris could hear a drunken voice yelling for more tequila, then a feminine squeal of delight, a response to a kiss. Or a slap.
He kept walking.
This inn sat near a bluff, a scrubby knob of land that was not high but afforded a nice enough view of the rocky, shrub-filled valley below. It was an impressive sight in the daylight, but now the darkness made a featureless pit of the land below the bluff, a great black stretch of land that yawned in front of Chris, a rocky sea of cold dirt and nameless bones.
Chris walked up to the edge of the bluff, stared into the valley without seeing it. The cantina was half a mile behind him, and when the wind blew in the right direction he could hear snatches of song, shouting, cursing, the sounds of a busy western night.
Sarah. See the stars? We used to look at those stars together, didn't we? Every night. I'd be so tired, and think I just wanted to go to bed, but you'd pull me out onto the porch after you put Adam to bed and we'd end up looking at the stars until we fell asleep together. And then I'd wake up just before dawn, all damp with dew and sore as hell from sleeping on the porch.
God, I love you, Sarah.
It's been so long, three years. Is there time where you are? Do you miss me, or even remember me? Are you watching me, Sarah?
Were you watching me that night?
Oh, God, Sarah, I hurt him. He was just trying to help me, and I hurt him so badly, I think he might die. I'm so ashamed of myself, I never thought it would go that far, but I was drunk. I thought he was going after you and Adam, and so I hurt him, and I kept hurting him. He probably begged me to stop, probably he tried to get away from me, but I just grabbed him again and hit and hit and hit -
Jesus God. Why didn't I die instead?
Everything hurts now. Buck's eyes. I saw them before he left. He hates me now. He should hate me. And Josiah, he tried to be kind, but he's worried, worried about the others, what will happen now that I've finally snapped and blown all their loyalty and trust straight to hell. When I lost you and Adam, my life ended.
Now it's ending again. I don't think I can take this anymore.
I used to be just mad. After the fire, I was mad at everything. I became a lawman, maybe I was a good one. No worse than anybody else. But it felt good, because I could get mad and shoot people and beat them, all in the name of the law. Nobody complained.
Then one day I wandered into Four Corners.
Did you know, Sarah? Were you watching me that day, when I was drinking rotgut whiskey out of a broken bottle? Did you look down the street with me, and see Vin standing there? Sometimes I think you were trying to help me, you probably wanted me to get back into the world again. Vin helped some, and Buck tried, but it's not the same with him.
And the others, they didn't seem to mind hanging around this crazy-looking stranger who dressed in black all the time. Josiah and Nathan, they just seemed to accept it, I guess they've seen worse. Ezra didn't like me, but I didn't like him either, not at first. I still don't trust him all the time, but...
And JD. Oh, Jesus Christ, JD.
He just wanted to be like me, he said so himself. He respected me, looked up to me. Just wanted to have someone to look at and say, isn't he something? It bothered me sometimes, but in a way it reminded me of Adam, how he used to turn those shining eyes up to me, and they just glowed, and it touched me, Sarah. It touched me when I didn't think anything could anymore.
JD looked up to me like that. And I broke his ribs.
I can't go back, Sarah. I know I'm a coward. I know the man you married would never run, but I'm not that man anymore. I've changed. Something went hard inside, something you used to make soft, but you're gone and Adam's gone and there's nothing left anymore. I used to think maybe there was, but...
I can't stand it. Not another minute.
My demons are legion, Josiah said. I'm not sure what he meant, but it sounds right. They're inside me, all around, and they all want me dead, and the ones who care about me, they want them dead too. It's got to stop.
It's got to.
The barrel of the gun was smooth in Chris' hand, smooth and cold and hard, and for a moment he stared at it, a streak of silver in the pale light of the stars. He'd looked at that gun a million times, and now Chris gazed at it as if hypnotized, and for a long time he didn't move, thought of nothing, just stared at the gun as the light desert breeze blew his hair away from his face.
A round disc of freezing steel, pressed against the temple.
I'm so sorry, Sarah -
"Hold it, Larabee."
Chris started, so close was the gravelly voice to his ear. He looked around, but didn't see anyone.
"Drop the gun."
Chris lowered his gun, his instincts starting to prickle.
Suddenly a barrel was thrust into his back. "I said drop it."
Chris dropped his gun, as if in a dream.
A low, throaty chuckle. "Thought I recognized you, Larabee. Back in the cantina, you thought you'd blend right in, but I spotted you. Put your hands on your head and turn around."
Chris turned slowly, tiredly, and when he faced the other man all he saw was a shaggy outline in the dark, the smell of old whiskey and unchanged clothes. And the glint of starlight off a gun barrel.
The figure chuckled, a rattling sound. "Heard about you, Larabee. Heard you got run out of town. I was hopin' I'd find you first, pay you back for shuttin' me down when you came."
Chris felt tired, exhausted. He barely had the strength to blink at his attacker. "You gonna keep talkin' or you fixin' to shoot that thing?"
"Shuttup!" the man commanded, and whipping up his gun hand struck Chris in the side of the head. Chris fell, the landscape turning into a sea of painful stars around him.
Somewhere above him he heard the sound of a hammer being cocked. "They'll all thank me for this."
Chris sighed, felt sick and dizzy, slumped against the cooling sand.
Nothing left to fight with. Let him finish you off.
A gunshot. Two.
Chris groaned, but an instant later realized that he wasn't feeling any pain. Looking up, he saw silhouetted against the night sky his attacker, holding his gun hand and speechless with agony.
What the hell -
Footsteps. Another voice. "Leave him alone, ye yella bastard, or me next shot'll take yer worthless head off."
Good God. The Irishman.
The other man growled something, went for his gun.
The other man cursed, grabbed his arm.
The footsteps were very close now, the Irish lilt almost in Chris' ear. "Now see what you've brought yerself to. I'm a reasonable man, but tempt me further an' I'll be losin' my patience in a minute."
Another curse, but the threatening shadow backed off. Farther, farther, then running sounds through the bushes, back to the cantina.
Chris heard a sigh next to him, a release of held breath. He could just barely make out the other man kneeling next to him, holstering his gun. "Are ye all right?"
Chris nodded, immediately felt stupid since the Irishman couldn't see him. The nod made his head explode in agony, however, and he let out a sharp groan.
"Hm," the Irishman responded. "I thought I heard the blackguard strike ye. On your head is it?"
"Leave me alone," Chris growled. He sat up and backed away a few inches.
The other man sat on his haunches, and in the dark Chris could swear he saw him shake his head. "Leave you alone. A man risks his hide t' save yer life, and you haven't a farthing's worth of gratitude for him. Well, that' s a fine way yer mother raised you then."
Chris sat all the way up, felt the bump on his head gingerly. "I didn't ask you to help me."
"Of course not." The other replied, a little indignant it seemed to Chris. There was a pause, and in the dark the other man said, "I heard that scoundrel call you Larabee. Would that be Chris Larabee?"
"Yeah," Chris answered in a husky whisper, past caring about what happened to him. "Don't tell you know me too."
"Heard of ye." The other admitted. Another pause. "M'name's Darcy. Darcy Thomas."
Chris didn't know why the other man was irritating him so much; he wished he'd go away. Still feeling the bump through his blond hair, Chris tried to get up.
And sat back down again, quick.
Darcy heaved a sigh, stood up. "All right then, Chris Larabee, since you won't take my help I'm hopin' you'll at least take a hand up."
Chris knew Darcy's hand was in front of him, even in the dark. He hesitated, wanted to be left alone.
"Well, come on now," Darcy said impatiently. "Them rocks aren't going to get more comfortable, and I don't much fancy carryin' on a conversation in the dark."
A conversation? Chris' stomach fell with dread. "I told you to leave me alone, mister. I'm all right."
Another sigh, more exasperated. "Now you listen to me, Chris Larabee. This happens to be one of me favorite stops in this area. I leave ye here and it's sure you'll be fallin' right off this bluff, and once you hit the valley floor won't nobody go down there to fetch ye. Now call me selfish, but I refuse to let yer rottin' carcass spoil me view for the next six months. Be as stubborn as you like. I'm not leavin' ye."
Chris sat in the dark for a long moment and thought. His head was spinning, but mostly he was regretting not killing himself before all this happened. Whoever this Irish fellow was, he wasn't leaving Chris alone, and Chris was starting to hate him.
Well, it looked like the world wasn't going to be rid of him tonight. Maybe tomorrow...
With another groan from his aching head, Chris tried once more to get up. Almost immediately he felt a strong hand on his arm, guiding him as he got to his feet.
"Now, here's an improvement," Darcy said approvingly.
Chris tried to see the other man in the dark, but he could barely make out an outline. He felt somewhat cheated that the night prevented him from glaring at Darcy - maybe that would chase him away. But failing sufficient light, Chris just ignored Darcy and started walking slowly toward the distant lights of the cantina, his shoes crunching the little stones into the rocky soil.
"All right, so it's not much of an improvement," Darcy said to Chris' back, "But it's an improvement, nonetheless."
Chris made a face. Stubborn Irishman. And walked reluctantly up the stony path, and back into the light.
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