Even half drunk, Larabee knew someone was watching him.
As the minutes ticked slowly by, the blond searched his memories. He
couldnt conceive of anybody stupid enough to get near him when he was
in this kind of mood. No one that knew him anyway
That only left one logical conclusion something that his gut had been warning him of for some time now Danger lurked. Some unknown was watching and waiting theyd surely take advantage of any chance to catch him off guard.
Chris continued to chop the firewood as he had been doing for almost an hour. Two more big pieces of wood fell into kindling as sweat beaded from the mans bare chest. His rage had waned gradually, yet it didnt seem that there would ever be enough lumber to quell all of his anger completely. Still mindful of prying eyes, he gathered some of the pieces together and carried them into his home. Forcing the door open, he kicked it closed behind him.
Several minutes later, the door swung open quickly. Larabees gun was drawn at the ready and his adversary simply stood and stared.
Athenas hands were outstretched, well away from her pistols.
The gunslinger sneered. What the hell are you doing here? How dare ya trespass on my land? His voice was menacing as he spoke. "If you know whats good for ya, youll get the hell out a here, right now," he commanded. Holstering his gun, he shoved his way past her roughly and moved back to the woodpile. Chris went back to chopping his firewood. He ignored her presence, hoping desperately to avoid any further confrontations.
More than ten minutes passed before he finally heard a horse gallop away. Maybe she aint as stupid as I thought!
He didnt look back.
Continuing the laborious task for another half-hour, the man finally gathered the remaining wood and stacked it beside his home. He grabbed the water bucket and drank sparingly, then dumped the rest over his head.
Only slightly refreshed, he looked out at the wide-open country around him. Pursing his lips, he cussed at all the emotions that ran freely through his mind. Why did he get like this? If he didnt let people into his life, things like this wouldnt happen. First his family he wiped his face again and now his fellow peacekeepers. And Tanner Two nights ago, Larabee had sensed the tracker watching him as he piled belongings into his saddlebags. Hed felt the knowing glare as he added several bottles of whiskey to his horses load.
The gunslinger felt a familiar craving. His blood was running low on alcohol and he needed more. Turning for his shack, he marched off and slammed open the door. Intent on drowning out his memories, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness within. His gaze narrowed ominously as his vision cleared. A low growl escaped his lips as he realized the woman had not left.
Athena could do little more than watch the whirlwind as he threw the bucket and stormed across the room.
With his arm across her chest, Larabee pushed her back hard against the wall and forced his body firmly against hers. He growled at her like a rabid dog. "I told you tah get the hell out a here!"
Suppressing the sudden fear that arose deep within, she looked at him boldly, all the while trying to maintain her usual calm manner. "I cannot leave here without "
The gunslinger heard the word cannot and reacted. Nobody defies me! Grabbing the woman by the collar, he spun her around, throwing her towards the door.
Athena fought to keep her balance and then turned to face him once more. Rearranging her clothing, she looked him in the eye. On the outside, she appeared calm and collected but inside, she was terrified. Yet, she could not give up "I cannot leave," she said again. Slowly, she closed the door.
Semidarkness enveloped the room
Hearing him move closer, she took a sudden breath. "I cannot leave "
The gunslinger was seething below the surface and the anger was quickly becoming too much for him to contain. A rage that centered on her
All relevant details had become a blur Chris had twisted all of the facts in his mind... A dozen days had passed since a dark stranger rode into Four Corners. Shed come in disguise, spinning yarns of unbelievable tales and the blond had watched his control slowly slip away. Fighting her, and her hold on his men, the leader had been forced away to find some clear direction in which to move. And then, when his back was turned, shed brought more bad element to his town. The consequences of which, they were all still reeling from Larabee had thought over all the details. It was all true Everything that had happened over the past twelve days was her fault. Everything that he blamed himself for ultimately, it was all her fault. His rage wouldnt let him get beyond that point.
And NOW! To top it all off, THIS this woman was refusing to back down from him Anybody with good sense knew when to stay away from the gunslinger. But, here she was, in HIS home, refusing to leave
Nearly two weeks of pent-up frustration and anger drove the blond beyond his normal limits. He balled his fist to strike but remembering, if only briefly, that she was still a woman, he backhanded her instead.
Athena jerked with the motion of his hand and was forced to step back to keep her balance. After a moment, she turned to face him again. She regained her lost step, looked at him defiantly and straightened her shoulders.
How dare you! Larabee struck her again, this time adding a little more force to his blow.
The woman completely lost her footing this time, ending up on the ground in front of the door. Tasting the blood in her mouth, she tried to regain her feet and licked at the gash that had appeared on her lip.
"Stay down!" he yelled at her. Something inside him almost begged Athena to comply. Why doesnt she understand?
She stumbled but managed to reclaimed her place in front of him. Licking her lip again, she sucked the deepening cut.
Anger pushed Chris harder. He was beyond feeling any pain or remorse yet; something was nagging at him He didnt want to hit her again. "Leave me alone," he pleaded.
Her eyes solicited his understanding. "I cannot "
Larabee was a gunman. Everything he had learned over the years had kept him alive. His ears had learned to detect fear, and for the first time, Chris was hearing it in her voice. Yet, her words were his focus not her tone. The constant repetition of her insistence told him she was determined to stay and that just made him mad. The blond growled and backhanded her again and again she fell to the floor. "Stay down, damn you!" he cussed as she tried to stand.
After a second try, Athena managed to regain her feet. She took a deep breath and fought back her fear. Trying desperately to concentrate on her task, she stuttered the words. "I I cannot leave here without your assurance that you will return to your rightful place."
Hed let her finish her sentence this time but the words made his blood boil. Larabee snapped. "No!" he yelled before hitting her squarely in the jaw with a clenched first.
The strength of all his anger had been behind the blow and the woman crumpled to the floor unconscious.
In that brief moment in time, Athena had ceased to become a woman. In Larabees eyes, she was nothing more than an enemy, who needed to be gotten rid of. Breathing heavily, he gazed upon her body like a wild beast moving in for the kill.
Fighting her way back from unconsciousness, Athena slowly
became aware of her surroundings
and his presence. She was still on
the floor in the same position she had landed in. It was dark outside and
he hadnt lit the lantern. She could only see the flickering of the
fire as it danced about. She heard the shuffling of his feet and straightened
out to gauge his position. Her body ached, her face burned but her injured
shoulder hurt more.
Suddenly, there was a foot in the middle of her back pushing her against the cold floor. "You ready tah leave yet?" a menacing voice cut through the air. The heel of his boot pressed her for an answer.
Through all the turmoil that plagued her thoughts, Athena forced her task to the forefront. She replied with the only answer she had. "I cannot." Her voice was shaky but she was determined to stay. "I cannot" She forced out the words painfully, as he pushed harder.
Athena felt like she was being crushed as he leaned more weight on her back. The fire in her blood instinctively drove her to reach for her colts but her gun belt had been removed while she was unconscious.
As the woman ran different options through her mind, Larabee suddenly removed his foot from her back.
For a brief second, Athena thought she sensed his doubt.
"Stay down," he growled before moving back to the fire.
The woman heard a chair squeak and then a spoon scraping along a plate. She sucked her badly split lip, picturing him eating by the fire Curling her shoulders to warm herself, she naturally assumed he had no intention sharing any food. Closing her eyes painfully, she tried to get more comfortable on the floor. Five minutes passed before she heard his plate hit the table and then what sounded like guzzling. It wasnt until the bottle smashed into the fireplace that she understood
He was consuming more whiskey...
Again, Athena tried desperately tried to refocus her thoughts on the mission, rather than the man himself. She knew she needed to cleanse his soul, so that he could resume his fate, but she still hadnt been able to gather any information from his musings. Never before had she tried to guide someone without having a direction to lead them in. And, she had experienced anger before but not like this. She felt blind and defenseless yet, she was being driven she could not fail him. If she lost just one she would lose them all.
Finding no other option available to her, Athena again tried to concentrate on her objective, instead of the man. She sucked back her dread and spoke calmly. "Are you that afraid of me, that you would refuse to listen?" As soon as shed spoken the words, she realized it was a mistake.
The table no longer separated Athena from the gunslinger as he came crashing towards her. He dragged the woman to her feet. Using hair and clothing for leverage, he slammed her against the door. Growling something about liking her better when she was out cold, he dragged her to the kitchen area, shoved some sort of cloth in her mouth and tied another around her face to stop her from talking. Happy with her situation, he threw her back hard against the wall and sat back in his chair.
Visibly shaken by her treatment, Athena slowly lowered herself to the floor and stared at her captor.
His eyes were unwavering in their attention to the flames. His body unmoving, except for the slow rise and fall of his arm as he drank.
The woman watched ominously as the blond slipped further and further into the bottle he drank from. She had no clue what she was supposed to do next... Blind, defenseless and stupid!
Hugging the corner for warmth, Athena waited an eternity before Larabee fell asleep. Drained of her determination and aching all over, she gave in to her bodys demand to rest. The woman finally succumbed to the darkness. For the first time in her life, she was truly lost and afraid.
The morning sun was high on the horizon when he finally
stirred and realized hed fallen asleep in a chair. Groaning loudly,
he tried to stand. His stiff body complained loudly but his head hurt even
more. He grunted under his breath then rubbed his eyes and slowly opened
What Chris saw in front of him made him sick .
The woman he knew as Athena slept huddled in the corner by his fireplace. Her face told him shed been beaten and her mouth was tied securely with a rag. Staring at the unbelievable sight, shadows of recollection crept slowly into his consciousness. He scowled then his eyes widened in disbelief. Like so many horrible stories, he had heard Larabee realized that he had created this appalling picture. His heart sank. Oh, god! Damn it! What have I done?
Easing from his chair, the gunslinger moved cautiously towards the woman.
She immediately sat up and gazed at him defiantly.
The trained eyes of the gunslinger saw fear in hers for just a fleeting second before her bravado shone through. Clearly, she was challenging him as he moved towards her. "Easy," Chris said calmly.
She flinched away.
His gut was twisting in knots as he moved a little closer. "I just want to help," he tried to reassure her.
Trying to stand, Athena glared at him angrily. Shed been curled up in the corner for some time and her muscles were sore. Slowly, she was able to push herself up against the wall. She stared, trying to adjust her mouth around the gag.
He could see her fighting the restraint. "Let me take it off," he moved a little closer.
Athena continued to glare at the gunslinger as she tried to reach the knot in the cloth that gagged her. Yet, each attempt to raise her hands over her head was met with pain. Her shoulder protested the movement vigorously. Her head swooned uncontrollably.
Chris could see that she was having problems and offered to help again. "Let me " he tried to move closer.
The woman backed away from him once more. She was still trying to reach the knot. But again, she was unsuccessful in her attempts. Athena felt as though she might collapse and panic welled from deep within. Desperation forced her hand. She needed help. Gazing at the man, she studied his body language. He seemed different this morning. Almost like a man instead of the cold, angry drunk that had attacked her last night.
Larabee knew he was being dissected and he welcomed the cold hard stare. Chris felt he deserved nothing more
For an instant, the woman thought perhaps she could sense emotion empathy but then it was gone.
Closing her eyes in frustration, Athena decided she would have to trust him. Glaring into his eyes, she slowly turned her back so that he could reach to the knot.
The gunslinger understood her warning all too clearly, but he did not intend to put her through anything else. He just wanted to see her on her way and get back to his own life. He moved closer, untied the knot and then backed away.
Slowly removing the rags from her mouth, Athena shook her head to clear the cloudy thoughts. Being only partially successful, she turned back to face her assailant.
For the first time, the blond could see clearly, what he had done to the young woman. Her lip was split badly and her face was swollen and bruised. Chris felt physically ill. He was ashamed of himself and he turned from her gaze.
Athena took a deep breath in an attempt to steady herself. She didnt feel right yet, that didnt explain why this man was confusing her. His thoughts were a complex jumble of conflicting information. She couldnt clear her mind to understand the change. The creature that had attacked her seemed to be gone. In its place was a man... a gentle caring man. She had been right before she could feel his compassion in her mind She shook her head again. She felt disorientated dizzy. Taking her eyes off Larabee, she looked around the room. Spotting the water bucket, she licked her lips and took a step towards it. Being gagged all night had left her parched. She needed some water but her legs wouldnt cooperate. She stumbled against the upturned table.
Suddenly, there were arms helping her. They guided Athena safely to a chair and then poured water for her to drink. The water stung as she drank but it felt so refreshing.
Chris picked up the table and then brought some warm water from the fire. He wet a cloth and tried to give it to the woman but she pulled away when he got close again. He could see that her lip was bleeding and the bruises and abrasions on her face were turning color. He knew she needed to be cleaned up but how were they supposed to accomplish that task when she wouldnt let him near. He tried to offer the cloth again and once more, she pulled away. Forcing a smile, he tried to tell her everything was all right but he couldnt convince her. The gunslinger stepped back and turned his face. He stood in silence. He had no idea what else to do.
Athenas mind wandered as she watched the man I dont understand! Incoherent, almost fleeting images, flashed through her mind. Her eyes fluttered closed as she tried to regain her bearings.
A soft voice whispered in the darkness. "Im sorry."
Through her confusion, Athena realized that the words came from the gunslingers mouth. She opened her eyes and stared She understood his words but couldnt comprehend why he might speak them. She knew he was voicing his regret but How it possible for one man to have two spirits? All along, she had assumed that Larabees conscience was dark. He was comfortable that way. Thats what had kept him alive. But, this darkness consumed the light that was so obviously here right now a good side and a bad that constantly fought for control. Could it be that simple?
Comprehension, unlike knowledge is sometimes only gained in the hardest of battles.
Remembering the elders wise words, Athena was struck by her circumstances... She understood that she could have gained this insight in no other way. The harsh reality waned and a small smile appeared on her lips. She might be able to help this man after all. If his consciousness was truly divided if she could bring out the light then she might be able to make him listen. Her eyes softened with compassion and she slowly reached for him.
Her cry of pain ended Larabees self-loathing. He turned quickly and his eyes came to rest on the shoulder she held. His couldnt help but notice the color of her shirt beneath her vest. Blood! Reaching out, Chris pulled her coat collar back.
Athena followed his hand with her eyes and saw the crimson stain clearly. Sudden panic took over briefly as she tried to remove her coat. She didnt succeed. The movement was too painful.
Larabee could see the pain on her face. He understood her panic and moved closer, helping her remove the coat. Guiding her with his arms, he directed her to the bed.
Somewhere in the urgency of the moment, they had trust. It was clear to them both, that her shoulder wound had been bleeding throughout the night. This much blood loss explained why she felt so light-headed.
"Sit!" he directed her. Moving back to the kitchen, the blond gathered fresh bandages and warm water.
Athena did as he instructed with little hesitation. She was still unsure of him but sensed that his concern was real. Besides, she didnt have much choice.
Laying the fresh bandages on the bed, Chris motioned to her clothing, "I need to take a look." He set the water on the side table as she unbuttoned the vest and managed to get it off.
The gunslinger pulled a small blanket up from the bottom of the bed and looked at the girl again. "I need to get the bandages off," he said, handing her the blanket.
Athena knew what he was asking as she watched him turn his back. She hesitated.
A soft voice whispered, "Its okay."
Her head swooned and she took another deep breath, before slowly unbuttoning her shirt. Removing it, she covered herself with the blanket.
Larabee needed to be sure of himself. He, too, took a deep reassuring breath and waited until she had stopped moving around and then he waited a few seconds more. He couldnt remember ever treating a woman with a pistol wound before. He turned and looked at his patient. The softness of her curves distracted him for just a moment before he began his work. He tossed her soiled shirt aside and slowly removed the bloodied bandages. He cleaned away some dried blood and assessed the wound. Nathans gonna kill me!
Chris knew that the healer had been forced to go deep for this bullet. Obviously, hed needed to stitch her injury afterwards. Some of the sutures had torn free during the assault Larabee had inflicted. Damn!
As she watched him tend her wound, Athena sensed true concern. She became aware of his gentler side. She had not seen nor sensed this part of the man she dubbed the dark one. It was clear that her initial judgment of him had been wrong yet there was something else The only way she would know would be to forgive his actions and move on. She couldnt give up. Taking a deep breath, the woman spoke softly. "Can I speak to you now?" she asked as he worked.
A fleeting twinge of anger reared itself in the blonds head but he beat it back down quickly. It was obvious that she meant to say her piece to him no matter what the cost. Finishing up washing away the dried blood, Chris took another deep breath and nodded.
She smiled at his acceptance and relaxed a little. "You must not leave your village. You must return. History must know The Seven."
He pressed hard against her shoulder, trying to stop the bleeding. I cant go back!
She flinched from the pain but tried to ignore it. Seeing his eyes avoiding her, Athena tried again. "You must remember your kinship and return to these men,"
For the first time since shed come to town, Chris looked long and hard into her eyes. It was like looking into a mirror and it made him uncomfortable. He was just as uneasy with the few words she had spoken. He pursed his lips and motioned her to keep pressure on her wound.
Frowning slightly, Athena took the padding from his hands and held it in place.
Getting to his feet, the blond ran his hands through his hair. "You dont understand I cant." He moved to the kitchen and search for a distraction. He decided to warm some biscuits, remembering that she hadnt eaten anything since shed been there. Besides keeping the womans strength up, the task diverted his attentions away from her relentless pursuit.
Athena closed her eyes. She felt his inner struggle, although he appeared calm. She could talk to him rationally if he was thinking instead of reacting. But, that still didnt mean he would understand her message. The woman fought back the doubt that crept into her mind. The gunslinger did not possess the language skills of her green-eyed gentleman. He didnt share the passions that drove his oldest friend. She needed to find a way to communicate with this man.
Larabee watched her for some time. She swayed a little but looked so peaceful. "Athena," he called softly.
This was the first time he had used her name and she opened her eyes slowly to look at him. A vision flashed through her mind so quickly, she couldnt tell what it was. Blinking in recognition of her surroundings, she tried to focus.
He could see her confusion again. He knew she needed rest and nourishment and he offered her a biscuit. He wanted her to relax to trust him, yet her eyes told him something was not right. He was ashamed of the way he had treated her. No one deserved to witness this kind of rage. Chris couldnt fathom the extent of his anger. What demon possessed him, that he could do such a thing? He closed his eyes briefly before calling her again. "Athena," he whispered quietly. "I I know it doesnt help but Im sorry so sorry." Laying the other biscuits in her hand, he walked silently out of the shack.
Watching the door close, she licked her swollen lips. "I do not need your regret " she whispered. "I am not the one who is in need of help." Athena closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "But... thank you "
Chris walked around for an hour before sitting on his
porch for another. He was angry... so very angry with himself
could I have done this?
Yet, no matter how much he chastised and cussed it didnt help. He still had to go inside and face Athena. Forcing his eyes shut tight, Larabee breathed deeply and made a silent covenant. He was going to listen to her no matter what she said. Satisfied with his decision, the gunslinger picked up the saddlebags hed found in the corral and got to his feet. He edged the door open and stepped inside.
The sight before him stopped Chris in his tracks. Setting the bags down quietly by the door, he looked solemnly at the scene. Athena lay face down across the bed, apparently asleep. The gunslingers eyes slowly traced her long braid down her back. Her bare skin revealed, so completely, the curves that only women possess.
Larabee couldnt help but smile at her peacefulness
Suddenly aware of his thoughts, the blond retrieved a blanket from a chair and moved closer to cover her. As he did, he noticed the bandage he had left her, wasnt pressing tightly against her shoulder. The wound was still bleeding and that worried him. Chris sat down gently and took hold of the compress. He glanced briefly at the image of the red wolf on the womans back. He prayed the creature would give her strength. Reaching out to touch her shoulder, Larabee adjusted the cloth and soaked up the blood.
Athena was startled by a touch but her head would not clear enough for her to understand what was happening.
Recognizing her confusion, he whispered, "Everythings going to be all right."
Sensing no imminent danger, she relaxed and set her head back to the bed.
Chris took a small amount of satisfaction from her trust and reached under her shoulder to press the bandage hard over her wound. With her shoulder sandwiched between his strong arms, he laid down beside her. He couldnt tell if shed lost consciousness or simply went back to sleep but the gunslinger took comfort in her relaxation. He closed his eyes and drifted away.
Larabee was resting in his own bed with a soft, beautiful woman lying on his chest. As he lay there with his eyes closed, he played with her hair... Wait! What! Its too long! Sarahs hair isnt this long. He shook his head. Not Sarah My beautiful wife is dead Mary it must be Wait! Weve never and Mary doesnt wear her hair braided.
He knew he was in his home, in his bed and he remembered
the woman was not Sarah or even Mary. The gunslingers eyes opened quickly
and he looked at the warm body beside him. His gaze never left Athena as
she lay quietly sleeping.
The images of her battered face flashed in his heart and again as he thought about the terrible things, he had done to her last night. Chris carefully sat up. He hadnt treated her like a woman. He traced the curves of her bare back with his eyes. Shes definitely a woman... Again, the gunslingers eyes came to rest on the tattoo. Its detail was as stunning as the red wolf itself. He knew that the animal was a rare find these days. They picked the right creature to mark her with.
Cautiously, the blond got off the bed and busied himself preparing a meal. The woman needed to get her strength back. He owed her that much, at least. And besides the quicker she got better, the quicker she could get out of his hair.
As she listened to him fixing the meal, a single tear rolled down Athenas cheek. With his dark side obscured by the light, his touch had finally shown her some of what was hidden so well within his heart. She was slowly beginning to understand why this man was, the way he was. Every time he had allowed someone close to him, something would happen. He had been driven to the breaking point and survived only because he had mastered the ability to block out the world. The womans comprehension of how to help Chris was slowly becoming clearer. With a gentle smile on her lips, she closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep.
He sat on the bed and gently nudged her back. "Athena,"
he called, urging her to consciousness.
Slowly, she opened her eyes and blinked to clear the haze of an incomplete sleep. Instantly, she pulled away from the man towering above her, pulling the blanket to shield herself as she moved.
"Its all right " he moved away quickly. "Its alright." He hadnt been prepared for her impulsive reaction and he hope it wouldnt take long for her to remember that they had made peace at least he hoped they had...
Athenas mind cleared and she remembered the change she had witnessed. Bowing her head regretfully, she glanced back and offered him a small, reassuring smile.
Larabee nodded, still unsure. He bit his lip, forcing his regret away, and returned her gesture. "Here," he stepped closer and handed her one of his shirts. "I figured if you buttoned it around your self," he glanced away. "Then I could still get to your shoulder." Refocusing on the woman, he continued. "Least that way youd have your hands free to eat a little supper." He indicated the food hed set out and then headed back over to the table to give the lady a little privacy.
Athena looked at the shirt he had given her and then at her shoulder. It was still weeping. What he was suggesting made sense and she was definitely hungry. She turned her back, lowered the blankets and replaced them with the mans shirt. Satisfied that the garment would remain in place, she buttoned it around herself and then shifted to the edge of the bed.
Chris saw her movement and relocated to assist her in standing. Thinking that she might still be a little lightheaded, he held out his arm to offer assistance and smiled.
Athena considered the gesture and then looked up at the handsome man. She couldnt help but noticed how his eyes sparkled when happiness shone from his lips. He should do it more often. Slowly, she took his arm.
Together they moved to the table to enjoy the meal Larabee had prepared.
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