DISCLAIMER: These Characters do not belong to the author or me (but if it were our sandbox, we'd let YOU play in it. . .) That said, this story was written purely for self entertainment (and the possible entertainment of me, thanks BMP!) and no money is being made, has changed hands, or has been paid out for the contents therein. Special thanks to GSister for Beta-ing, encouraging, and all around nagging. Without her patience and insistence, these stories would never have been. Much more thanks to Van for poking and prodding until this was finished.
This is a Missing Scene and Addendum to the episode Obsession. It is a companion, of sorts, to Blood Money, by BMP, but you need not have read the one to enjoy the other.
~Constructive Criticism will be passed on to the author
~Flames will be used to toast marshmallows
"Come sunrise, I'll be going then. . ."
Vin's voice and those words in his head had been the first coherent thought Chris Larabee could catch hold of in. . . he wasn't sure how long. So he caught it, and held it. And refused to let it throw him until it dragged him upward into a world of pain. And too bright light and too many voices. Hard hands holding him down under an onslaught of knives, the sharp tang of blood filling his nostrils. Too much heat. A wall of darkness threatened to close down his vision.
He struggled against it, tried to hold and pin down the muddled, disjointed pieces of memory that flashed and floated and burned across his eyes.
He forced them into some kind of order, the images, the faces. Dust and heat and gunsmoke. Fire and ash and a locket. Gunshots and shouting. Ruined photos. A gunfight. . .
Then he remembered how he had got where he was, immobilized at hip and ankle and shoulder, pressed down onto a table by his so-called friends, while Nathan, god damn him, dug around in his side. The face of a beautiful woman rose disjointedly into his memory like a mirage. Then he remembered what she had done.
Everything inside him stuttered and froze. He went utterly still.
Then he remembered why she did it.
And in one violent upheaval against the hands and the knives, he jolted upward and spewed out everything inside of him, water, blood, potions, and who knew what all.
There was a whole lot of very loud cursing.
And then a whole lot of nothing.
Nothing but darkness and quiet.
He was yanked out of it by a lurching, hellish, interminable, unrelenting wagon ride back to Four Corners. He had no memory of it ending. He had no memory of how he got up to Nathan's clinic.
But here he was. And he was awake. He could tell by the sunlight coming in the window and a knifing headache that threatened to split his skull right open and made it hard to think.
He tried to sit up. And failed. He tried again and discovered that there were hot coals in his right side, stuffed inside him and secured there by Nathan's steady hand, scalding him from hip to chest, burning the air from his lungs. But he kept on going.
Josiah's massive shadow loomed suddenly over him, all but unnoticed over the roaring in his ears. The room grayed out and threatened to dissolve all together but, then, just as suddenly, he was leaning back against a pile of pillows.
"Do that again, an' Nathan'll have both our heads," Sanchez's voice rumbled above him.
Chris didn't look at him. His eyes had found the door. The goddamn far away door. He was asleep again before he even made a plan to escape.
He awakened again to sunlight coming through that same window. And this time his head was clear enough to recognize the color of it. Early morning. Not long after sunrise. Not too late, then.
He looked for the door, more determined than ever to get up and get out. It was hard to think with his head all filled with fog from Nathan's medicines and the smell of blood and whiskey and sweat in his nose. And the memory of smoke. The smoke was the worst.
He needed air.
He needed to think.
Then he remembered what it was he needed to think about.
I can't stay here. The words appeared suddenly, unvoiced, but he recognized the truth in them immediately, felt it deep down in his gut where hard truths lived.
It spurred him forward and up. Moving on instinct, he pulled himself painfully, determinedly into the empty chair beside the bed.
It took him a damn long time just to get that far, so long, in fact that the voice startled him. He had thought he was alone.
"You might not want to do that just yet."
It was a sensible enough piece of advice, but it didn't fit into his plans.
Chris paused in the chair, gripping the bedsheets that had come with him, tangled around him the way they were, and waited for the nausea to pass. Sweat beaded on his forehead. Keeping his head carefully still, he looked up just far enough to see Josiah watching him, leaning beside the stove and sipping a cup of something that smelled like burnt coffee. Chris turned his attention back to figuring out how to get to the door.
He heard Josiah shove off from his leaning post and come across the floor. Chris glowered at him. Josiah shrugged and tossed a folded wad of black cloth at him. Pants. Chris's pants. Then he made himself comfortable in a rickety chair beside the tiny table where Nathan ate and read, where a partially-played chess game was in evidence. Josiah gestured once as if to say "There's the door, brother," and settled in, sipping his hot coffee.
Chris pressed the heel of his left hand into the bandages on his right side, clamping his jaw tight to keep from groaning out loud. Sweating bullets and cursing through his gritted teeth, he managed to get both legs into the pants, while Josiah calmly watched.
Chris paused with the pants around his knees, trying to catch his breath, trying not to gasp too hard, trying like hell to ignore the hot coals in his side and Josiah's steady gaze both, but most especially ignoring the way his stomach flipped and threatened to hurtle up anything that was still inside it.
Josiah spoke. "Assuming you can get those on. . ."
That was a big assumption.
Chris did not raise his head, but he cast his eyes up and regarded Josiah stonily through his sweat-matted bangs.
Josiah took a long sip. ". . .I'm kinda curious where you think you're gonna go."
Leave it to Josiah, Chris thought, returning his attention to his pants and the tangled sheets and the far away door.
He did not answer. He did not answer because somehow he knew that Josiah would know that "Outside" was not the real answer.
Trouble was he didn't have the real answer. Where was he going to go?
"Outside" would have to suffice.
He huffed out the word in a breath, more of a grunt really, and heaved himself upright, yanking the pants up with him. The world tilted sharply. He grabbed for the chair and found his arm in a hard, rock-steady grasp. Another hand snaked around his waist. He leaned on the support despite himself and wondered at how Josiah could even move that fast. Or maybe it was just because he'd figured out what was going to happen before Chris did.
The clinic door opened.
Nathan stood in the doorway. Intelligent brown eyes flicked from Chris to Josiah, registering a moment of clear surprise before his brow furrowed into an expression of acute displeasure.
"You ain't supposed to be out of that bed," Nathan stated, dropping a brown paper package on top of the chessboard and pointing a finger at Chris. A clear undercurrent of anger rippled through his deep voice. The finger and the glare leveled themselves at Josiah. "And you ain't supposed to be helpin'."
Chris was too busy breathing to answer. Or maybe just too stubborn.
Josiah never loosened his grip. "I'm just keeping him off the floor," he said calmly.
Nathan's eyes narrowed another fraction. "Then where'd he get the pants?"
Chris took a deep breath.
"Just get me to the landing," he grunted out.
"What's out on the landing worth busting those stitches open for?" Nathan demanded. His tall frame filled the doorway from top to bottom, feet set wide, and he looked like he wasn't about to budge unless someone moved him.
Chris didn't think he had the strength to argue with the stubborn former stretcher bearer and get to the landing, but he dug down deep, pushing himself up a little straighter, away from Josiah, and onto his own two unsteady feet. Josiah's hands stayed right where they were. Smart man, Sanchez, Chris realized grudgingly, although he was not feeling particularly grateful.
He met Nathan's gaze head on. "They should be back by now," Chris answered from between his gritted teeth. He wasn't sure how much time had passed, since that lurching hell of a wagon ride had brought him back here, how long since he had been fully aware of what was going on around him, but he knew that if he was here, they should be, too. Here. Not out there somewhere, looking for her.
Pieces of memory fell into place.
He glared at Nathan and Josiah both.
Nathan's stance wavered.
"Today, tomorrow, maybe the next day," Nathan replied testily. "That ain't no reason to get all busted up again. They know where to come lookin' if they need you."
Chris was already two steps closer to the door, towing Josiah reluctantly with him. Nathan gave his own full-on glower to the big former preacher.
Pain and motion combined to drive clarity further into his brain. A half-heard conversation, somewhere between long drafts of sleep floated suddenly across his mind. The edges of it sharpened, focused, and he remembered what he had heard them discussing over his bed, when he had been in far too much agony to be listening. But he was.
"You told them I'm not dead," Chris said flatly.
He kept his eyes on the floor in front of him, concentrating on his path to the door. Now that he was on his feet, he needed to keep moving.
From behind his right shoulder Josiah gave a sort of affirmative grunt. But Chris did not need his confirmation. He remembered it fine.
Josiah had sent a telegram to the rest of the boys, the boys that were out there somewhere hunting Ella Gaines, finishing Chris's unfinished business, cleaning up Chris's mess. There was a need, apparently, for them to know that Chris was not dead.
"What's that got--" Nathan started, but he stopped short when Chris raised his head.
"Then I'm damn well gonna look 'not dead' when they get here," Chris snarled. He lurched forward two more steps. And when they did get back, he swore to himself, he was damn well going to take whatever news the boys had to report upright.
Nathan muttered a string of frustrated syllables that Chris couldn't catch and didn't much care to. Then in two long-legged strides, Nathan was inside the doorway and in their space. Glaring at Josiah, Nathan inhaled for what looked like it was about to be a good long piece of his mind, but it didn't come. Instead, he exhaled again, shoved one long brown arm underneath Chris's other shoulder, and just like that they were all three on the landing.
Chris didn't get to say another word even if he had had either breath or desire to do so. Josiah and Nathan shared a conversation over top of his head as he all but hung between them. A chair appeared from nowhere and he was more than glad to let himself be lowered right into it. But he'd be damned before he let it show.
Nathan tucked a blanket around him, hands gentle despite the scowl on his face. He slid a cushion of folded cloth behind Chris's head.
"You're going to need to eat something," Nathan said. "And drink this." A cup of something warm and medicinal appeared in front of him. "I'll be right back."
Broth was set down beside him with a stern order to drink it all and drink it slow.
Nathan waited a moment, hovering above him as if there were something he wanted to say, lips pressed narrowly together as if to keep the words from falling out. In the end he went back inside, choosing to keep whatever he had to say to himself. Chris spared a thought for Josiah because Chris knew Nathan's self restraint only went so far and the conversation Sanchez was about to have with the healer would likely be unpleasant.
Heap that up onto the pile of his sins that other people paid for, Chris reflected, swallowing Nathan's bitter brew.
He was not here to drown in self-recrimination, he reminded himself. He hadn't any right to it. He was out here to figure out what the hell to do about this unholy mess he'd got himself into. Himself and his friends.
Chris breathed the relatively fresher air in as deeply as he dared, as deeply as those hot coals in his side would allow, and turned his gaze up the street toward the end of town. They were out there somewhere. Buck and Vin and Ezra and J.D. They were out there looking for her, that murdering demon with the beautiful face. They were out there doing the job Chris left undone. It didn't sit comfortably with him. They should not be wrapped up in this.
Oh, Buck would disagree. Of them all, he had the most at stake here, now that he knew what Ella had done. Now that he knew the truth. All of it.
Maybe it was a good ending for Buck. As good as it could get. Maybe now that Buck knew the truth, he could absolve himself of needing to stay that one more night down in Mexico. Maybe now he could let go of the memory of where he was and what he was doing the night that Sarah and Adam burned and died. Maybe now that he knew exactly why two people he named as family were gone--and whose fault it was--maybe now he could let it go.
But Chris couldn't. And he didn't have the right.
The irony that Sarah's father was right all along burned him more than the bullet hole in his side. Chris had rankled at Hank's objections that Chris was no good, that he didn't deserve Sarah, that Chris was too hot headed, too wild, and too heedless, that Chris's recklessness and past deeds would only hurt Hank's beautiful prairie flower.
It wasn't true, he had said. And he had believed it, too.
He had changed. He had had goals and priorities. He had wanted to build a life. And he wanted to build it with Sarah. How could Hank think that Chris would ever want to hurt Sarah? That he could ever hurt her? For any reason?
But he did, didn't he? In the end, the old man was right.
Chris had tried every which way to deny it, fight against it, refuse it until it was staring him right in the face upstairs in that room, when he had wrapped his hands around Ella's throat, three years too late. Too late to save them. Too late to save himself. Then the truth came home.
He got them killed.
Sarah had taught him the pleasures of home and family. She taught him how to be happy. And he paid her back by bringing death down on their door. He paid her in death and ashes.
Killed his beautiful wife and their beautiful child both.
Vin and J.D. and Ezra shouldn't be out hunting the murdering bitch. And Buck shouldn't either. It was his blood that was called for. His blood debt that was owed. He and Ella, an eye for an eye.
For three years Chris had flirted with finding a bullet. For three years he all but dared death to come for him. But when the dust settled, here he was, alive and mostly in one piece. The continued irony of his existence. He lived. People he cared about died.
No more. It was time to pay his tab.
He was clear on that part.
Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple.
His damn friends complicated things. Buck and Vin and the others wouldn't let him just ride off--even if he could sit a horse. They would come after him. They had proved that riding into that jail at Jericho.
He closed his eyes against the sun.
Not that he was likely to get very far at the moment. Maybe in another few days. Maybe tomorrow.
"Come sunrise, I'll be going..."
Was it better to make an announcement or just to ride off? He wasn't sure.
He stared off into the distance.
Maybe he couldn't sit a horse, but the town had a regular stage. He could get on it with his saddle, same way J.D. arrived.
J.D. . . He almost smiled at the memory. Greenest kid Chris could remember seeing, a head full of cheap stories about the West, old enough to be too sure of himself and too young to know better than to brag about it. It was a sure-fire recipe for trouble and Chris saw it coming all right. He did his best to get shot of the boy, too. First a public rebuke. Then the cold shoulder. Then they outright made fun of him. And finally, when push came to shove, he flat out told the kid to go home.
Trouble with J.D. was he came with a solid streak of stubborn. He could have flat out shot the boy and it wouldn't have made any difference. Let him be Buck's problem. That was Chris's solution. It worked, sort of. Except J.D. was still hanging around. He'd gone and made himself useful. And thanks to that damned idiotic greenhorn enthusiasm, he had come a long way since getting off that stage. Now that he was handy enough to be useful, he was just that much more dangerous to himself--because he was still too young to know better and still too headstrong for his own good.
Chris shifted uncomfortably in the chair. The sun fell warm on his face and he tilted his head back and closed his eyes again for a moment. He thought about J.D. out there somewhere with Buck and Vin and Ezra.
Ella had tried to kill them all. All of them. She hired men to shoot them in their beds at dawn. What kind of men hire out for a job like that?
A cold chill shot through him.
Same kind of men who hire out to murder a woman and child in their own house.
His jaw clenched together hard.
J.D. had no business hunting down Ella Gaines. She was a killer way out of his league. He had no part in this, and Buck, at least, should have had the sense to send him home. Maybe he had. Maybe he had tried. Seems like when someone tries to murder a man, he ought to maybe take it personal.
Maybe they all did. He couldn't see Ezra riding out on a hard trail after anyone unless he had some kind of stake in it.
He opened his eyes again.
Not money. There was no easy money in capturing Ella. Much as he tried to hide it, money was not the only driving force behind the choices Ezra Standish made. Damned if Chris could figure out what they were sometimes. But then again, actions speak louder than all of Ezra's fancy two dollar words. And Ezra sometimes decided to take a stand for the damndest things. What exactly was at stake here for Ezra?
Vin, well, that was easy. He had made Vin a promise. He would go with him to Tascosa. He would help him clear his name and if the worst happened, he'd fight shoulder to shoulder with him as far as they could. That meant something to Vin.
Yet even so, Vin had left that morning. Rode off. Said his piece at the party. And when Chris hadn't listened, washed his hands of it. There was more sting in Chris's words than he had meant.
His head fell back against the chair.
Vin and Buck had both warned him. He just didn't want to hear it. That was the plain and simple truth. And both his friends knew it. Buck chose to stay. Vin chose to leave. Chris wondered which choice he would have made. Stick it out to pick up the pieces when his stubborn friend finally figured it out himself? Or realize that if his friend was going to prove himself a damn fool, then he didn't need to stick around to watch it?
He hadn't ever figured that before either of those two things happened, Ella would try to kill all of them.
If she had succeeded. . . He faltered at the thought, then forced himself to think it through. If she had succeeded, what was she going to do after that? Surely she had to know he would ride after the bastards. Did she think her money could buy men's silence? Was she counting on Chris's wrath and his gun to silence them before they ever had a chance to speak? Or did she think they were more afraid of her than death?
His hands tightened on the crude pottery mug in his hands, his knuckles standing out white.
Cletus Fowler had thrown himself into that flaming barn to burn to death rather than betray her confidence, disappearing into that orange hell and taking with him Chris's last shred of hope of avenging his family. Had he only known. . .
He shook his head to clear the memory, refusing to smell again the imagined stench of scorched flesh.
A shiver ran right through him that had nothing to do with the breeze.
He would have found out, eventually, wouldn't he? He couldn't possibly be that stupid, could he?
His lips curled up in a bitter smile of irony. Oh, he'd been that stupid, all right. That stupid and more. But she had to have known he'd figure it out eventually. He supposed he'd figured it out before Ella had thought he would, by the way her eyes widened and the way the words fell from her lips, fast and almost pleading. He'd figured it out just a little too fast for her plans.
Not fast enough, though, to prevent the first hail of bullets from piercing the bunkhouse walls, before he finally, finally got his stupefied brain to understand.
She had them killed. She had his family killed.
And an instant later--that she was having his friends killed, too.
Sarah's locket, the one she never took off, the one Fowler brought from the ashes of Chris's home, slipped right through his fingers, as he went for his guns.
Already, daylight was poking through the holes in the bunkhouse walls. For a dread instant he feared that he had failed again. That his friends were dead inside those walls. Dead from his own stupidity. Dead from his failure. He got a hold of himself a second later. Buck was with them. Buck and Josiah. And Nathan. And cagey Ezra. The four of them knew a hell of a lot about surviving. And they'd surely protect J.D.
It took him another second to realize he was not fighting alone. Vin was there, too.
He must have come back when he heard the shots. Vin might not be one to stick around and watch a friend make an ass of himself. He might have left Chris to his deserved fate, but he was not one to let the rest of his friends get ambushed in their beds.
And Chris was grateful of that.
When he was down in the dirt, bleeding from that big hole in his side, he was damn grateful for it.
But he would have been more damn grateful if Vin had made that shot. He missed her. How the hell had he missed her?
Of course, Chris hadn't taken the shot at all. When everything inside of him wanted her dead, still he wavered just that one second too long. He still didn't know what kept him from pulling that trigger.
If he had just killed her, the rest of them wouldn't be out there now--finishing what his weakness and stupidity had left unfinished. Sins of omission, that's what Josiah would call it.
Stupid. That's what Buck would call it.
And he'd be right.
If Wilmington had any smarts at all, he'd be out there right now telling J.D. just how stupid Chris was, just what a worthless bastard he could be. And when J.D. got back, he'd stop looking at Chris like he did, like he still believed those cheap novels about heroes and glory and life on the rugged frontier, like the kid goddamn expected something from him. Maybe now he'd know better.
Chris shifted in his chair. Broken bone and torn and violated muscles protested the sudden movement, lancing fire through him from hip to shoulder. He sucked in a sharp gasp, but he did not complain. Pain was good. Pain got his attention, focused him again, got him out of the shallow grave of misery and blame he was digging himself and forced his thinking back to the right track.
He had a problem. And his stupidity wasn't the problem. Granted, being blind and deaf as well as stupid hadn't helped the situation any. But wallowing in self pity and recriminations wasn't going to fix the fact that he had a stone cold killer on his trail.
He thought it would have been a lot simpler, easier to handle if she only wanted to kill him. But she didn't want to kill him. She had other plans for him.
He thought about the big white house her now-dead husband had built for her and the beautiful horses she was raising. It was just as she had said. It was the place they had dreamed of when they were young and he had yet to understand her particular twisted brand of love.
She had woven a silken web more skillfully than any spider. Chris had to wonder if her husband had ever realized that she had seduced him into building another man's dream.
She had a way of getting what she wanted. That was for sure. Jack Averill and his hired guns lined up to help her, and all seven of Four Corners' vaunted peacekeepers fell all over themselves to sign on.
But Chris, of all people, should have known better. He should have remembered what she was. He should have remembered what Buck had remembered, Chris's own words coming back to him. Being with Ella was like walking the edge of a knife--sooner or later you're bound to bleed.
And he'd bled plenty.
Just not enough to be dead--which would have been the simple solution, of course.
Unfortunately, his life was seldom that simple. And it was for sure and certain that he wouldn't be the only one bleeding if he didn't come up with a way to fix this soon.
"I'll kill anyone who comes between us," she had said. And he knew now that those were not just words. It was the cold, stark truth. The proof of it hung from the delicate silver chain, tarnished black by fire. The locket he had dropped in Ella's upstairs hall. Sarah's locket. Buck brought it back to him, after Nathan had stitched him up, after they cleaned up the bodies and the mess and buried the dead, while he lay useless on a straw tick in the bunkhouse. Buck handed it to him without explanation, without a word.
No words were needed between them. Not for this. And no explanation was possible.
He dug it now, one determined finger at a time, from his pocket, where he had hidden it, sheltered it a bare instant before Nathan and Buck and Josiah loaded him into the wagon, mattress and all. Before the world went dark for a while again.
He fingered the blackened metal. One tiny oval frame held a picture of him. The other had once held a picture of Sarah and a tiny curled lock of Adam's baby hair. Now it gaped open and burnt and empty, like that place inside him where his family had been.
There was a time that he had thought he had nothing left. And so nothing to lose. Lately it had come to him in sharp relief how that had changed, that there were reasons--and people--worth dying for. And harder still, he had found people and reasons worth living for.
Ella would, without a doubt, kill anyone who got between her and her designs on Chris. And right now, Chris knew, that meant the men he called his friends.
He noticed for the first time that the sun had gotten hot. Too hot. He was too hot all over.
Too hot. Too stiff.
That's what he got for sitting too long in one place.
That's for damn sure, he thought.
He found himself staring down through the vertical wooden slats at the large white letters over the livery. It wasn't far from here to his horse. Just down those two long flights to the ground and then a few dozen steps more. It wasn't far.
He let the cup, whatever was left inside it long gone cold, dangle off his fingers down onto the crude board floor of the landing. Then he pressed both hands hard against the seat of the chair, and struggled to get up. Flames roared up in his side.
One foot in front of the other, he told himself.
Where the hell did he think he could ride to? He didn't even know where Buck and the others were. Worse yet, he didn't know where Ella was either.
He swore out loud.
If he was going to fix any part of this mess he made, if he was going to get his friends out of the middle of it, he needed a plan. Not to go rushing headlong into some unconsidered action. He needed a strategy.
And right now he couldn't even get onto his own two feet.
He swore again in frustration. He was getting nowhere fast.
He skipped Nathan's next dose of herbs and tinctures and tisanes and gritted his teeth and clenched his hands on the chair until his knuckles turned white, while Nathan pressed and prodded the big hole in his side. He looked the other way while Nathan drained it of foul-looking fluids. He hissed in a hard breath but didn't cry out when the healer took another round of scalding fiery alcohol to it. And he didn't breathe easy again until the nice new bandage was in place, white, except for a few darkening spots just beginning to blossom from beneath.
When it was all over, Nathan pursed his lips and looked at him hard. "You ain't gotta make it hurt quite that much," he said. "Ain't no shame in takin' somethin' to dull the pain."
Chris nodded to show that he had heard, but he didn't reply.
He didn't want to muddle his thinking any further with medications and teas and herbs and whatever all Nathan had squirreled away in tins and brown wrappers or hanging in bunches from the low, dark ceiling. And he didn't want to make the pain go away. Pain helped him focus. He had plans for the pain.
Nathan's long look told Chris that the healer already knew that Chris wasn't about to give in. He knew it. He didn't agree with it, and he probably didn't understand it, but he didn't argue the point, and he didn't try to convince Chris to see it his way. He had said his piece and wouldn't see the point of wasting more of his breath, which was one of the reasons Chris liked Nathan.
"There are none so blind as those who will not see," Josiah said, perfectly reasonably.
Chris ignored him, too.
Nathan shrugged. "You can't get blood from a stone," he quoted, with something that sounded almost like a sigh. He turned away to clean his hands in a nearby basin.
Chris didn't reply to that either. But it sure as hell wasn't a stone that he planned to make bleed.
He aimed to get up again, to get himself back out to the landing, where he could see the street, where he could watch for his men to come riding back, where he could think freely. But Nathan's ministrations had taken too much out of him. He let his body rest back against the pillows for a moment. It was too close in the tiny clinic, and he was hot. Almost without his even noticing, his eyes drifted shut.
Someone, probably Nathan, pressed a cool wet cloth against his forehead.
"Back in a moment," Josiah's voice rumbled from somewhere Chris judged to be near the door. "You need anythin' else?"
Nathan didn't answer aloud.
"Whiskey," Chris wanted to say. His throat was dry. But the moment passed and he didn't speak--not that it was likely Josiah would bring him back a bottle anyway. A moment later he wasn't even sure he wanted any. Damn he was tired.
He wasn't sure how long he drifted.
Instinct and the quality of light on his closed lids told him that some time had passed. He kept his eyes closed, ignoring the sounds of Nathan moving around the room, working at this or that. His attention narrowed to concentrate past the throbbing in his side, past the sounds of the street far below, past the sounds of Nathan, feet now sounding beside the bed, now clumping across the floorboards on the other side of the room, past everything around him or inside of him, finally finding focus.
He opened his eyes to the light of late afternoon. Nathan had already lit a lamp by the door.
The sun was leaking out of the sky. Time was moving on. So should he.
It was time to decide.
Time to examine the options.
Time to choose a path.
It was time to play the cards he had, win or lose.
He'd let Fate deal him out one more card before he laid the hand down.
Come sunrise, he had pulled himself out of bed alone, without help, and was halfway across the floor before Nathan's long legs appeared from the door to his private room and, with hurried strides, caught up to him.
"If you'd wait just a damn minute," the healer said irritably, planting his tall frame directly in Chris's path and still tucking in his shirttails. "You know, you ain't got to do everythin' on your own."
Somewhere behind Chris and to his other side, Josiah's booted feet thudded to the floor, awakened by the noise. Squinting blearily, Josiah heaved himself up, giving a long, loud yawn. He stretched his arms up to the ceiling and gave his neck a satisfactory pop.
"Landing?" Josiah asked benignly, sizing up the situation in front of him.
Neither man answered him, which didn't matter much to Josiah. Scrubbing one hand through salt and pepper hair that was already standing on end, he used the other hand to lift a nearby cane-bottomed chair up over his shoulder. He stopped scratching his head long enough to grab for the door handle. He swung the door wide and gestured magnanimously through it. Nathan gave an exasperated sigh but stepped out of the way, pausing only to scoop up an old blanket before he followed at Chris's back
This time Chris refused to stop at the landing, to Nathan's displeasure and Josiah's amusement. One deliberate step at a time, he went down the stairs. And they let him, right behind him step for step, Nathan clenching the folded blanket beneath one arm, Josiah balancing the chair, one-handed, over one broad shoulder through the entire slow, three-man march down the stairs.
When they reached the boardwalk, Chris fixed his eyes on the end of the street and continued on with stubborn determination.
Of the meager number of people on the street at this time of morning, only a few paused to stare at the odd procession. Whether it was because of Chris's deadly glower or those of the men at his back Chris didn't know, but those who did stop to stare, turned quickly away again, hurriedly finding other things to occupy their attention.
Behind him, Chris could hear Nathan and Josiah keeping pace right with him step for step, but he did not look back.
When you're up too high, never look down.
When you take a fall, never look up.
And when you've gone too far, never ever look back.
It was too late to turn back now anyway, too late to go back up those stairs, too late to refuse Ella's artful pleas for help she didn't need, too late to undo all that she had done, too late to change his choices that had led him to this point. Too late for Sarah and Adam. But not too late for his friends. Not yet.
Chris continued stubbornly putting one foot in front of the other, ignoring the stabbing pain that shot through him with every step. He didn't pause, afraid that if he did, they'd put him in the chair and he'd never get out. They had nearly run out of boardwalk when he finally gave in. He had gone as far as he could get for now, at least. It wasn't as far as he had wanted, but it was far enough, far from the clinic, far away from townsfolk on regular business, far away from prying eyes and whispering tongues, far from well meaning sympathy, from sincere wishes, far away from all of them.
Josiah put down the chair and watched Chris struggle with it for a minute before helping him turn it so he could see both ends of the street. Nathan's hand hovered there to steady him as he lowered himself in the chair. It hovered, but it did not touch him, and he did not grab onto it for help.
Nathan pulled the woven blanket tight around Chris's shoulders, and Josiah found a broken and discarded crate in a nearby alley. He set it down at the foot of Chris's chair. A broken footrest for a decrepit gunfighter.
Nathan fussed for a few moments, and Chris let him.
The man could consider it a parting gift, of sorts.
"You gonna be all right out here?" Nathan asked, concern clear in his voice and etched into brown eyes too old for the youth of his face.
Chris managed a small smile of reassurance for the healer.
And Nathan nodded, as if convincing himself. "All right then," he said, nodding his head one more time and looking over at Josiah.
He ran down a list of the places they would be if Chris found he needed something. Anything at all. They wouldn't be far. Just at the jail and the mercantile and then the hotel, and then the saloon to get. . .. It was a long list, the words fading in his attention like water droplets on a hot griddle.
He wasn't going to need them--and wasn't going to call them even if he did.
Wrapped as tightly in his silence as in the faded blanket from the clinic, Chris watched the street, and people knew damn well enough to leave him alone.
The morning promised to bring a bright, clear day. A bright yellow sun was carving its arc across a clear blue sky, but even it couldn't offer enough warmth to seep into that cold place inside Chris. Sober, silent, and resolved he watched the end of the street.
Nathan and Josiah had come back and gone again, dissatisfied with his monosyllabic answers to their reasonable overtures. He would not admit to the throbbing pain in his side or the growing ache in his head, yet he knew they were not stupid. They knew he was in pain. Nathan was for taking him back to the clinic. Josiah pointed out that they would just end up back here. And it was probably better not to make that trip too many times.
Neither one of them advocated simply picking him up and taking him back. He had his gun with him today. That thought almost got a sardonic grin out of him. But it was clear that neither man knew just what to do with the stubborn gunslinger under their care, and in the end, as he had counted on, they went away again, choosing the path of least resistance and leaving him alone under the sagging eave of the building behind him.
Chris watched the men and women going about their business, hurriedly passing by on the opposite side, not looking in his direction. The townsfolk avoided him. They didn't even attempt to hide the wide berth they gave his position. They had good reason, Chris knew. After all, it was only a matter of time before someone came hunting for him.
Buck would give him hell for that. For sitting out here in the open, wrapped up in his blanket and looking like a prime opportunity for whatever was left of Handsome Jack's men to come finish the job. Come shoot him down like a dog.
Not hardly a chance of that.
No one had shot and killed him in the three years he was ready for it. Three years he spent half looking for it to happen. Three years living by the gun in expectation of dying by it, too.
But here he was still. Too fast. Too stubborn. Too lucky. Too unlucky.
It was never him who got killed.
Josiah was convinced of God's sense of humor. Chris thought it was a cruel one.
Buck would have him hunkered down inside somewhere, waiting for someone to come tell him it was safe to come out now. But Buck wasn't here. And Chris refused to go back inside and hide and lick his wounds. That wasn't his way, and Buck knew it.
So Chris toted his gun with him today. How he knew, he didn't know, but he had a feeling deep down in his gut, that they would be back today. For Buck's benefit, the gun sat smooth and heavy on his thigh under the blanket, although he wouldn't admit to the offering, nor would Buck admit to understanding it.
Buck hadn't spoken more'n three damn words to him since they put him in Ella Gaines's bunkhouse, since before Nathan started digging around in his side with those knives of his, since those sharp words Chris had spoken with Vin, probably since Vin had announced to the others that he'd be leaving--days long, in fact. That was a record for Buck. And as clear a message as Buck knew how to give without using his fists or his gun.
Chris continued his steady watch along the street. Sooner or later, they would come back, all four of them riding together. He refused to contemplate any other possibility. Fate would finally deal him that last card then, and he would know which way to play the hand.
If they brought her with them, dead or alive, it would be over.
But if they came empty handed, he would take up her trail as soon as he could get out of town.
It was the only choice that made any sense. She would kill anyone who stood in her way. If he rode out to meet her, there would be no one in her way. No one who would stand between him and Ella, and no one to witness which of the two of them would remain standing in the end. There was no turning back. No leaving her while both of them still had breath in their bodies. No giving up the trail until one of them was dead.
If they came back empty handed, he would fold his hand here and leave the table.
Come sunrise, I'll be leaving. He turned the words over in his mind, feeling how strangely they sat on his tongue, their unexpected heaviness.
The sun was getting high by the time his vigilance was rewarded. They rode back into town alone, four familiar figures looking dusty and trailworn even from this distance. Three of them went straight from the livery to the nearest saloon, casting only one long, joint glance in his direction before two of them herded the smallest one through the batwing doors. The fourth one slapped his dusty cavalry hat against his dusty buckskin coat and started toward him, something almost weary in his step.
He knew then that the news would not be good.
There was precious little about any of this that could be good.
His thoughts were interrupted by the approach of light footsteps from the other direction. He heard them hesitate, pause and then come resolutely toward him. He could guess just by the tone of them who it was who didn't have the good sense to avoid him. But he couldn't ignore her when she stretched out her arm and handed him a letter. It had come for him care of the Clarion Newspaper.
He took it from Mary's hand, glancing up, but saying nothing. He expected her to walk away once her errand was completed, but she waited. For what, he did not know, neither what she expected nor what he was supposed to offer, so he turned his attention to tearing open the envelope as if she were not still standing there at all. From the torn paper a single photograph fluttered down onto his lap. A picture of himself in that damn starched suit for bankers and carnival barkers, standing beside her. He stared at it, something cold sinking into his gut. The two of them. Looking like. . . He knew god damn well what it looked like.
A sudden, not quite hidden sound from Mary had him looking up. And this time the wide sea-green eyes held an expression of hurt that she could not disguise. Chris stared, uncomprehending at the hurt in those eyes. The expression turned to one of disgust as she turned away, just as Chris finally found his voice.
Just one word. He called her name, his voice still rough with disuse. He wasn't even sure why he did it, why he didn't just let her walk away. That would have been easier, but the sudden unaccountable desire to wipe away that hurt in her eyes had taken him by surprise.
When she didn't turn at first, he thought for a moment that she might just keep walking after all. But then she did turn, and whatever he might have said evaporated.
What was he supposed to say? He had no earthly idea where in all this unholy mess she had the right to look hurt. The letter was none of her damn business. What was between him and Ella, either long ago, or right now was none of her damn business. And his life with Sarah and Adam or what happened to them was none of her god damn business.
None of that was likely to sit right with the newspaper woman, and truth be told, he didn't have the stomach to tell her that either, not when she was already walking away. There was no point in hurting her further just because she had seen a fair glimpse of just how stupid he had been these past few days. So he said nothing and wasn't sure whether what he felt was relief or regret as she walked away.
He read Ella's letter instead. He had to whisper the words to himself in order to comprehend what his eyes told him. How she forgave him for not appreciating all she had done for him. That their love was destined to be and they would be together again, let the world be damned. She closed it "faithfully", "lovingly" and signed it with his last name appended to hers and enclosed the photo from a marriage that never happened.
Hot, cold, dizzy, sick, all flashed over him in an instant, dispelled by the sudden clear realization that she had known he would come back to Four Corners. She knew where he was right now. And she had sent the letter to the Clarion News, wrapping Mary up in her twisted plot now, too. His gaze traveled along the street and out into the distance, weighing up the possibility that she was somewhere just outside of town, that she was biding her time until his four missing men returned. It wouldn't be the first time he had gone hunting only to find himself the hunted.
She was a dangerous enemy to have, ruthless and stone cold, willing to kill anyone who stood in her way--and the boys had put themselves squarely in her way.
He nearly startled at the shadow that loomed up in front of him until he realized it was Vin. He ground his teeth together and tried not to let the pain of the sudden movement show on his face.
"We checked every town from here to Red Fork. It's like she leached right out of the landscape, Chris," Vin said."
They had lost her. The best tracker Chris had ever met lost the one trail that had consumed him for three years. Three years. Until then, Ella Gaines had been no more than a memory from his past, a wild ride, a good time. The hot taste of lust and freedom, and youth and stupidity washing wild through his veins. He could not have foreseen that she would call it love. He had not even had an inkling of what love was. That would come later. When first Sarah, beautiful laughing Sarah, wise and warm, and then Adam, child of their love, would teach him what those words really meant.
Three years since she took from him the first, last, and only truly happy years of his life. Three years and he would never know if they died screaming his name or cursing it.
He felt his insides seize up again. He breathed through the pain.
God damn it. He damned Vin Tanner, too.
Damned him first for missing that shot that he, himself, never even took. And then damned him again for not being able to track that murdering bitch. Her footsteps ought to leave flames on the surface of the earth.
They lost her. But Chris would never lose her. She would never let that happen. Of that he was certain.
"Sorry you didn't shoot her when you had the chance," Vin said grimly. Chris didn't know whether that was a question or just a statement of fact.
He turned his gaze up the street again. She was out there. "Next time," was Chris's answer.
Come sunrise the next morning, he left the clinic for good. He told Josiah he didn't need the goddamn chair or the blanket. He took the packet Nathan shoved into his hand with hardly a grunt. Fully dressed, gun strapped on and tied down, he removed himself for the boarding house.
He was nearly dizzy with the effort by the time he got inside his own door, sparing only two words for the matron who ran the place and that was to request hot water. He sat on the bed and gathered his thoughts and his reserves.
The hot water came. He scrubbed his face, and ran the water back through his hair. He'd have gone to the bath house but he didn't think he'd have the strength to get out of the tub once he'd got in it. He shaved carefully.
Then he took his saddlebags from the corner of the room and emptied them onto the bed, gathering the items one by one and carefully repacking them into the leather pouches.
He had more now than when he'd arrived at Four Corners. Sitting too long in one place did that for a man. He had more clothes than the two shirts he rode in with. To the long black duster he had added a short black coat and the striped poncho, a gift from Josiah. He'd nearly lost that duster in Jericho, when they stripped him of everything he owned and threw him in that hell hole of a prison. The boys had got it back for him before the crooked shopkeeper had sold it off, like he'd tried to sell Chris's Colt. He had a couple of books and some other items that took up too much space to take along.
Anything that couldn't fit into his bedroll and saddlebags would have to stay behind. He could store it temporarily at his place out of town. At least for now. That was something else to be considered, he thought with something close to a sigh. How to dispose of his property if need be? There was his cabin, a shack, Vin and Buck liked to call it. It was small, all right, but well built with an economy and efficiency that suited him. It was easily warmed by the cast iron stove that served as his hearth and cookstove. And it was wind proof, except for the holes the Nichols boys had shot into it, but even those had been patched up since then. There was even a pair of chairs out under the eaves that sheltered the small strip of earth he liked to call his front porch.
It was a pretty patch of land. He remembered the surprise on the boys' faces when he bought it, and Buck's outright astonishment that he'd had money enough, and later on, the big grin that split Buck's face when Chris, warmed by whiskey and good company after too long without it, had offered up that he thought he'd like to raise horses again. He regretted mentioning it the moment Lucius Stutz turned up dead in town with ten thousand dollars pre-paid blood money in his room and Ezra started reminding him how far Chris's potential "share" of that ten thousand dollars could go to make that dream come true.
Ella had handed him the same dream. He should have refused her as hard as he'd refused Ezra.
He shook the thought away.
The mare he had purchased would have to be sold. Maybe the land would have to be sold before it became another piece of land he owned and no longer lived on. He'd never had the heart to sell his burned out homestead. One day a squatter would move in. There was good water and good grazing there, and last he had seen, the windmill was still pretty well intact. Chris thought he could live with that, with someone else making a life on that land, so long as Sarah and Adam continued to rest there in peace.
The saddlebags were packed.
He folded Ella's letter around the photo and slid it into his hip pocket. The side opposite Sarah's locket. He could almost feel the letter burning a hole right into his hip, stoking up his anger, fueling his resolve.
He found a bottle of whiskey he'd left between the bureau and the washstand. He took a long swig and felt it burn all the way down. His head spun lightly. He'd had no breakfast and nothing but Nathan's broth last night.
If he could make it to the livery--and he would--he would find out whether he could heave his saddle up onto his horse yet. And if he succeeded in that, whether he could climb up after it.
He put the cork back in the whiskey bottle. He wanted to dull the pain but not his thinking.
Someone's fist pounded against the door. Fingers twitching toward his gun, Chris didn't have time to either guess or ask who it was before Buck, in typical fashion, threw the door wide and let himself in.
Thumbs hooked in the waistband of his pants, the bigger man inhaled to launch into some tale that would no doubt prove to be the source of the smug look on his face. This was evidently how Chris was to know that Buck was speaking to him again. That he was forgiven.
He did not want to be forgiven. He did not deserve to be forgiven.
He needn't have worried.
Whatever Buck had planned to say died right there when he laid eyes on the saddlebags.
Chris offered no explanation, not a word.
Buck was silent long enough that Chris thought maybe the man would resume not speaking to him, would just turn and leave. Chris almost hoped he would because that would give him the freedom to leave them all behind without the need of an excuse or explanation, without having to face them at all.
But Buck found his voice, low, deep, and laced with something raw that wasn't quite the anger or contempt Chris expected. He could not quite place it except to know that it raised warning hairs all along the back of his neck. "You think you're ready to ride?"
Chris kept his head and his tone even. "Don't rightly know." He pushed himself up off the bed. "But I aim to find out."
He drew himself up to his full height as if there were no raw wound in his side. Thumbs in his gun belt, he mirrored the challenge in Buck's own stance.
"Where you gonna go, Chris?" A brittle edge ripped through his old friend's smooth tone and echoed somewhere inside Chris. He recognized it.
"To finish it," Chris bit out, the words unwilling and his only answer, a refusal to give in to the sudden thunderous shift in the air as Buck's hands slid suddenly, smoothly out of his gunbelt and twitched in the air a fraction of a second before clenching themselves white-knuckled on Buck's hips. A substitute, Chris knew, for clenching themselves in the front of Chris's shirt and throwing him up against a wall.
Buck's eyes drilled him, sizing him up, and Chris remembered that fear and anger was a deadly combination in Buck Wilmington. The bigger man turned his eyes to the floor, reining in the impulse toward violence, gathering his next words, planning his next move.
Chris said nothing. But he watched Buck the way he watched an adversary in the street, the way he watched an opponent in a draw down, his vision and focus narrowed down to spot the tell-tale twitch, the tiny movement, the shift in balance that would tell him which way to move. There wouldn't be gunplay, but that didn't mean this wasn't about to become a draw down of its own kind.
He saw the twitch. Buck raised his head. Blue eyes that twinkled so merrily, that warmed so easily to a friendly face, bored into him hard and sharp as a pair of flint arrows.
"You want to run, you run," Buck said, his voice laced with contempt and cold as the blued steel of Chris's Colt. "But you'll have to prove you can get by me, first."
Chris was ready for him. He dodged the bullet easily, ignoring the taunt and the challenge both. Buck would not get a rise out of him by calling him a coward. And he wouldn't give Buck the excuse to hit him. If Buck wanted to let his fists do the talking, they both knew there was no way Chris would come out the winner. Not in this condition. Buck might well land him back in the clinic, but it would be only a delay. It would not keep him from leaving.
For that to happen, Buck would have to kill him.
He couldn't push Buck far enough for that. That much he knew already.
But he could push Buck far enough to let him go, to tell Chris that he could ride right on out and into hell and then let him make good on the promise. He could push Buck that far.
He knew that too.
He aimed the shot, words loaded in their chambers. He cocked back the hammer and prepared to let fly the fatal barrage, to lay the blame for losing the trail on his friends, to remind Buck that this all started because he'd wanted to spend one more night in Mexico.
But he stuttered on the inhale.
Never once had he said those words to Buck. Not once. Not even when Buck had said it himself. Each time Buck had laid that blame squarely on his own big shoulders, Chris had told him flatly to let it go. Let it go. I didn't have to stay. I could have come back on my own. He'd said it hard. He'd said it soft. He'd said it drunk and sober, wrapped in pain and dying inside. He'd said it until he believed it himself. He'd said it because he refused to believe anything else.
And now, when it made sense, when saying it would be the one way to get Buck out of his way, off his back trail, and out of Ella's sights, when Buck would surely tell the others to let him go, too, that it wasn't worth their lives to ride after him, when those words alone would be enough to divert Ella's prairie-fire madness from consuming all of them to get to Chris, now when it mattered most, when saying those words could finally do more good than harm, now he faltered.
He could not pull the trigger. He could not lay that blame on Buck.
The hesitation damned him.
"Come sunrise," his own voice said, as if from a distance, "I'll be leaving." The bullet whistled harmlessly through empty air.
Buck glared, not even grazed. The tenor of his gaze had changed.
"Then I'll be going with you," Buck said flatly, and Chris knew he should have taken the shot.
"No you won't," Chris answered, his head snapping backward, both hands tightening on his gunbelt.
Too late. The determination in Buck's face told him he'd lost this fight.
He wasn't done yet, though. He might have lost this battle, but he aimed to win the war. Next time. His reply to Vin rolled through his mind.
If Chris couldn't convince Buck to stay behind, he knew who could. He would use J.D.'s inexperience as leverage for that. It was too soon for Buck to leave the boy behind. And too dangerous to drag him along. J.D. was the perfect weapon. And this time, when he fired the shot, he would not hesitate.
Chris kept silent, determined to show nothing on his face, while Buck, smelling victory, advanced toward the bed, determined to win the war, too. He hefted the saddlebags in one fist, as if testing their weight. Then he turned a cold hard eye on Chris.
Chris barely had time to prepare before Buck let the strap fall. It landed heavily on Chris's shoulder, forcing Chris to step back to balance the sudden weight. His injuries protested the movement and the weight, but he didn't buckle, and he didn't make a sound.
Buck's smile was not pleasant. "Let's see if you can get all the way to the livery," he said stonily and gestured pointedly toward the door.
Chris felt the barest twitch of a smirk beginning but refused to let his lips betray him until he was safely ahead of Buck. He would win the war. It was a foregone conclusion. The proof of it banged against his chest and shoulder. If Buck had really wanted to make sure Chris couldn't make it, he would have dropped the saddlebag strap onto Chris's other shoulder, on his injured side, and made damn sure to let the pouch bang hard against the bullet hole. That was exactly what Chris would have done in Buck's place. But Buck didn't have it in him to be ruthless. His soft heart would undo all his determination.
Of course, assurance of victory didn't mean the fight was over. By the time they both reached the bottom of the boarding house stairs, Chris had broken into a sweat. He kept his back straight and continued his forced march, refusing to give any sign of discomfort, pain or fatigue.
They had got as far as the restaurant when Chris stumbled, just once, just a boot sole dragged too low over an uneven board. He regained his balance but sucked in a hard breath as he twisted instinctively to catch the sliding saddlebags and couldn't stop his free hand from clenching hard against his injured side. Buck cursed loudly enough to shock a woman walking by, and he startled Chris by reaching out suddenly to pluck the saddlebag from his shoulder, heaving it onto a nearby table with a thump that made Chris wince.
Still cursing, Buck pulled two chairs out from under the eaves and shoved one of them in Chris's direction, hard enough for it to knock against his shins. It teetered a moment and then stood on its four legs in front of him. Buck dropped heavily into the second chair.
He stared off into the opposite direction for a moment, right hand agitatedly stroking his mustache before turning his gaze up at Chris.
"Sit," Buck ordered when Chris only stood and stared back at him.
"I've been sitting for a week," Chris retorted.
"Well I haven't," Buck shot back, sticking his legs straight out and crossing them stubbornly at the ankles, his gun hand falling across the saddlebag strap carelessly, as if daring Chris to try and take it.
The bell on the restaurant door rang behind them, but Buck didn't look up.
"I've been riding through every town between here and Red Fork," he snapped, his hand still on the strap, "eating trail dust, and trying to figure out where in hell that murdering bitch could have disappeared to."
The man exiting the restaurant paused a moment in the doorway. Chris leveled a glare at him that had him moving suddenly and swiftly on his way.
"Maybe you don't need a rest," Buck said, his voice heavy with derision. "But I do."
He glared at Chris, then just as suddenly scrubbed his hand down over his face, dragging the ends of his mustache down, and Chris saw for the first time how much more than just trail weariness lined his friend's face.
Still Chris stood, afraid that if he sat down in that chair he would not get up again. Afraid he'd stay right through sunrise. And through the next sunrise after that. Afraid he's lose the chance to find her. Afraid she'd come for all of them before he found the resolve again.
"I need a rest," Buck repeated obstinately, but when he looked up at Chris, his eyes were no longer resolute. They were asking.
"I need a drink," Chris answered despite himself, feeling something inside him relent just a little. Far too much.
He swore and looked away and tried to regroup his defenses.
Buck kicked the chair another inch toward him.
Chris swore again, slip-sliding down the slope toward defeat, and lowering himself into the chair.
Buck didn't give him time to regroup or reconsider the wisdom of that decision but craned his head around and regarded the restaurant door. "This here's a restaurant," he said grimly, as if that weren't patently obvious. He looked at Chris, a shrewd gleam shining faintly in the back of his gaze. "What we need is a saloon."
Chris sank farther into the chair, sticking his legs out and crossing his feet. He was done for, and he knew it. Raise the white flag. "Saloon's too damn far," he grumbled.
He refused to look at the way Buck's face lit to hear him say it.
Buck grinned at him. The grin turned sly. "Stay right here," he said. It was an order.
Chris wasn't much in the habit of taking orders. At least not very well.
"You hurry up," he answered, "an' I might still be here when you get back." No sense making surrender unconditional.
He owed it to himself to at least think about it, but a realistic assessment of his reserves told him he probably couldn't make it down to the livery and saddle up before Buck got back even if he tried. And it felt too damn good to just sit here a minute.
Buck did hurry. He must have. He was back faster than Chris would have thought possible for the man. But here he was, holding with two glasses and a bottle of amber liquid that sloshed merrily against the glass container. Chris could hardly imagine that there was no one in the saloon or wandering about on the streets for Buck to stop and talk to, either on his way there or on his way back, but he could find no other explanation for the speed of Buck's return.
As it was, swift return or not, Chris had to crack open one eye to squint at the label Buck held out toward him. A fairly passable Kentucky bred mash at that.
Buck slid into the chair opposite Chris and poured two shots that disappeared simultaneously. They threw back the second pair of shots with equal swiftness, neither man saying a word. Chris twirled the third shot slowly back and forth in his hand. Across the small table, Buck rotated his empty glass against the wooden tabletop.
Buck broke the silence reluctantly. "Were you going to tell anyone? Or just ride on out?" There was no rebuke in his voice. The whiskey had mellowed the fire of his anger.
Chris looked at his whiskey. He didn't really know the answer.
Buck didn't appear to be waiting for one, either. He looked up at Chris and Chris could read flashing across his face any number of thoughts Buck wanted to say but never would.
The whiskey had mellowed Chris's resolve, too. He let his voice soften just a bit, and he grinned a smart-ass grin around his whiskey glass. "Thought maybe I'd just put an ad in Mary's paper."
Buck snorted at that. "Good thinkin'." He nodded his approval. "Then everyone in the territory'll know."
The glass halted against Chris's lips, stopped mid-tilt and reversed itself to land on the tabletop with a slight clunk.
Something in Buck's words jangled suddenly like a broken fiddle string in the back of Chris's head. He ran the words slowly back through his mind.
Chris knew what Buck had meant in making the joke. It was a jibe at Chris's barely controlled fury at Mary Travis's utter stupidity for naming him a notorious gunslinger, her newspaper all but calling him out in the street.
It was a dig, too, at Chris's prickly regard for the privacy of his own business. He had held a razor to Buck's throat in punishment for telling Mary what had happened to his family. My past is my own, Buck. He regretted the action now, even more so when Buck could make jokes about it.
He knew what Buck meant. Chris was the last man on earth who would advertise his personal business in a newspaper.
But he'd heard what Buck said.
Everyone in the territory. . .
He realized Buck was still talking. He had to force himself to listen.
"Getting revenge won't bring them back, Chris," Buck was saying. His head was low, and his voice was lower still.
He looked up at Chris, blue eyes sober. "You said it yourself."
Chris put his whiskey glass down on the table and glowered across the tabletop at Buck
Buck didn't flinch. "If Sarah was here, she'd tell you the same."
It was Chris who flinched.
Buck was right.
For the first time in months he saw his Sarah again with clarity. And for a moment he could even hear her voice.
Sarah wouldn't have wanted revenge.
She had taught him better than that.
For Sarah he had made himself better than that. And he could do better for her now. He could hold hard to what he believed in, what he'd found that was worth dying for, what he'd found that was worth living for. He could bring them justice.
Justice wouldn't bring them back either. He knew that, too. But he could bring them justice with his head held high. And he could face her in the hereafter, if heaven had enough pity to let him see them just one more time.
The plan resolved itself in his head, beautiful in its simplicity and so obvious it was a wonder he hadn't seen it before.
He realized Buck was staring at him, curiosity and suspicion performing a comic dance across his face. Chris nearly laughed out loud to wonder what was written across his own face to make Buck look at him like that.
He did not explain his thoughts. Instead, he leaned forward and fished the folded paper out of his hip pocket, laying it against the tabletop under his palm. With his left hand, he unbuttoned the pouch on his belt and pulled out his knife.
"How many different towns across the territory you think Mary trades papers with?" he asked slowly, setting the knife down on the table and carefully unfolding the letter.
"I dunno," Buck answered, eyes on the knife. He clearly hadn't given it much thought. But he scratched his chin and thought about it now.
When the hired assassin had come to town during the governor's rally, Mary had pulled a large number of newspapers from her file, papers from all across the territory and from farther than that. And each of those papers sent out their papers across the territory and beyond.
Chris splayed the photograph under his left hand and carefully began cutting, slowly, precisely, dragging the blade along the thick paper.
Buck watched him, curiosity written plainly on his face, his glass and the bottle shoved, forgotten, off to the side.
Ella was a beautiful woman, beautiful and charming with a cold and empty heart. It was hard not to notice a woman like that. Someone would notice her.
The knife cut through the bottom edge of the photograph and he pulled the cut edges apart, carefully separating his own likeness from hers. He slid the half that bore her image across the table toward Buck and put his knife away.
Then he dug into his other hip pocket.
He closed his fist around the locket and held it for a moment before releasing it into Buck's upturned palm. Buck schooled his surprise as the blackened chain poured into his hand. He waited for Chris to speak.
"Wire the judge," Chris said, his voice gathering certainty. "Ask him to swear out a warrant."
Buck's eyes narrowed but he asked no questions. He simply nodded, one time, short and sharp.
He would have left the table with just that, but Chris knew he owed him more than that. For all that Sarah and Adam had been like family to the man, for all that he now knew that Ella had done, Buck deserved more than that.
Chris explained but only just barely. "Once we have the warrant," he said, "we'll ask Mary to send this picture out to all the territorial papers."
Buck caught on fast. He always did. "Someone will see her," he said confidently.
Buck's mustache twitched upward but only for a moment. The hand holding the locket opened again and Buck looked at him questioningly.
Chris hesitated only a moment. "Give that to the Judge for evidence," he said.
Justice, Chris thought.
This time, Buck's eyes warmed when he smiled. And he nodded his agreement as if he had heard the thought.
Buck pushed himself up out of his chair. "I'll be back faster'n a mountain cat with its tail on fire," he said with a grin.
Chris watched him go, headed for the telegraph office, his stride both determined and swift. Miss Elaine, the new milliner, smiled as she crossed his path, and Buck tipped his hat toward her but never broke his stride.
Chris smiled at that.
Justice, he thought again, the smile fading.
It wouldn't be enough, he knew.
It would never be enough.
But maybe it could be an ending.
Something inside him unclenched for the first time in days. For the first time maybe in years.
Maybe more than an ending, he thought.
Come sunrise. . . The words rolled into his mind again, and he looked out at the busy street, at J.D. swinging purposefully off the boardwalk down by the jail. At Vin, leaning one shoulder against a boardwalk pole watching the stage come in. At Ezra, standing opposite Vin and checking his pocketwatch. The stage was never on time. At Josiah on the roof of the church, still pounding away at his repairs. At Nathan, hanging blankets over the landing to air out. At Mrs. Potter, sweeping in front of her store. At Mary, stretching her back outside the newspaper office door.
Maybe it was a beginning.
Sarah would approve, he thought with sudden certainty. His lips pulled into a tiny smile at the thought, and this time, he let it stay.
Maneuvering into a more comfortable position, he settled back in his chair to watch the street and wait for Buck's return.