"I'm getting worried about him," Josiah Sanchez confided to Chris Larabee.
The blond man dressed all in black toyed with his shot glass of whiskey and studied the long-haired ex-bounty hunter. Vin Tanner laughed too loud at something Buck Wilmington said as they played poker with JD Dunne and Ezra Standish. Chris, however, noticed his laughter didn't touch his lusterless blue eyes. Unwanted concern pierced him and he tried to shake off the feeling, but it refused to leave. Josiah had only verbalized what had been eating at Chris for the last few days.
"You got any idea what's wrong with him?" he asked Josiah and Nathan Jackson, the healer of the group, in a low voice.
Josiah shook his head. "It started after that little boy's funeral."
Chris thought about the young boy Vin had found in the woods four days ago. The kid had been wearing threadbare clothing and had been whipped, though a furious Nathan figured the cold was what had ultimately killed him. Vin had tried to backtrack the boy's trail, but the early spring rains had wiped any sign away, so they'd been left with the mystery of who he'd been and who had inflicted such injuries to him.
The waif, who'd been a few years older than Adam, Chris's murdered son, had been buried in a grave with a single wooden cross marking his final resting place. Josiah had said some words over his body, and Mary Travis, Mrs. Potter, Nathan, JD, Buck, and Ezra had attended the sparse funeral. Nobody had questioned Chris's absence - they all understood how painful the awakened memories were for him. Vin, however, hadn't offered a reason for his absence. Instead, he'd disappeared on Sire for the day and returned late in the evening to the saloon where he'd sat alone, more reticent than usual and giving a whiskey bottle his undivided attention.
Nathan removed a cigar from between his lips. "He ain't been sleepin' much."
Chris frowned. "How do you know?"
"Night before last when I come home from deliverin' the Turners' baby, I seen him sittin' on the boardwalk. Musta been near two in the mornin'."
"Just sitting?" Chris's puzzled scowl grew.
"Playin' that mouth organ of his." Nathan took a puff of his cigar, then let out a stream of bluish smoke as he studied Vin, his dark countenance troubled. "You look at his eyes and you'll see it there, too."
Chris nodded. He'd already seen the loss of the familiar twinkle in Vin's blue eyes and the new lines in his brow that hadn't been there a week ago. "Maybe I'd best have a talk with him, find out what's botherin' him."
"If he'll tell anyone, it'll be you," Josiah said in agreement.
Chris poured himself another shot of whiskey and swirled the amber liquid around in the glass. Though Josiah was more than likely right, Chris didn't relish the impending conversation - Vin wasn't a man to spill his guts, even to his friends. The only time he'd seen his friend lose his usual self-assurance was when Vin thought he'd never walk again. Hell, that would've been enough to frighten the bravest man. And if Vin was anything, it was courageous. Chris only wished he had some inkling of what might be eating at him.
Vin's hoot of triumph startled Chris and drew his narrowed gaze. He watched Vin rake in the pile of coins in the center of the table.
"Your luck seems to be extraordinary tonight, Mr. Tanner," Ezra commented dryly.
Vin's smile disappeared, replaced by a hiked eyebrow. "And what d'ya mean by that?"
Ezra shrugged. "Only what I said. Lady Luck is riding your shoulder."
Ugly derision twisted Vin's lips into a sardonic grin. "Maybe I'm just on to your tricks, Ezra."
"Easy, Vin," Buck said, his voice low and soothing, as if he were calming a green horse.
"Don't tell me you're takin' his side," Vin drawled, his words slurred. Drunken. Unlike the Vin Tanner all of them knew and respected.
"Nobody's takin' any sides, Vin," JD said, confused.
"What do you know, kid?"
JD's young face seemed to crumple under Vin's uncharacteristic caustic tone, and Buck's expression turned stormy. "You got no call to be jumpin' on JD like that."
Vin shoved his chair back, sending it crashing to the floor, and he swayed on his feet. "To hell with ya. I don't have to take this shit."
Chris rose and in two steps was beside Vin. He laid a hand on the man's arm and felt the tense muscles beneath his hide coat. "Come on, Vin. I'll walk you back to your room."
Vin shook off his grasp and glared at Chris. "I don't need your help. I don't need anyone's help."
He stumbled out the batwing doors, leaving stunned silence in his wake.
"What's wrong with him?" JD asked plaintively.
"I have a feeling Vin has been visited by some demons from his past," Josiah said softly.
Chris shot the preacher a sharp glance. "What do you mean?"
"What do we know about his life before he showed up in Four Corners?" Josiah asked. "Other than he's wanted for a murder he says he was framed for."
"Vin ain't a murderer," Buck stated, his dark eyes sparking. "You know that, Josiah."
Buck's vehement defense of Vin surprised Chris - because of his own and Buck's history, Chris had thought Buck held a guarded wariness around Vin. Maybe that had been so in the beginning, but it appeared his old friend had come to the same conclusion as Chris - that Vin was a good man to have beside you. Or at least he used to be.
Chris tossed off the gloomy thought - Vin would be all right once he worked through whatever was bothering him.
Josiah shrugged. "I believe a man is capable of many things, some of them as black as the devil's soul."
"Whatever it is, I'd best find out before he does something stupid," Chris said. He whirled around, his duster swinging around his long legs, and followed Vin into the evening's darkness. The flickering street fires lent some light to the pitch black of the night and woodsmoke swirled around him. A breeze sifted across his face, cooling his warm cheeks and bringing the faint scent of another spring shower.
He searched the town for a sign of Vin and spotted his less-than-steady figure crossing the street down by the Clarion. It looked like he was headed for Maggie's Boardinghouse where he rented a room. Maybe he should just let Vin sleep off his drunk and try to talk to him in the morning. Sobriety might make him more receptive to his words.
Ah, hell, he was just putting it off because he hoped Vin would work out whatever was bothering him. But it didn't look like that was likely to happen. Vin was a powderkeg, ready to ignite with the smallest spark. He shook his head again in bewilderment - what had turned the usual steady and soft-spoken man into someone as unpredictable as a rattler and twice as dangerous?
What was it about that little boy that had unearthed something dark and violent in Vin?
Chris hurried across the main street to cut off Vin before the younger man entered the boardinghouse. Chris met him at the front door and leaned against the doorjamb, crossing his arms in an attempt to appear casual and unthreatening. "You want to talk about it?"
Vin stumbled to a halt and squinted at Chris with bloodshot eyes. "You follow me here?"
Chris shrugged. "Figured this was as good a place as any to have a little talk."
"Hope you enjoy your own company `cause I ain't gonna stand out here jawin' with you."
"You ain't got any place to go."
"I aim to go to my bed." He took an unsteady step forward and Chris tensed. Vin raised flashing eyes to him, the first fire Chris had seen in their depths for too long. "And I aim to go through anything in my way."
"You're not in any shape to take on anybody."
"Wanna bet?" Suddenly Vin swung his arm. Though unprepared for that violent of a reaction, Chris was able to duck back far enough that the blow only grazed his jaw. Vin, however, lost his balance and Chris caught him around the waist before the tracker fell against the building. Supporting his friend, Chris staggered under his weight.
"Hey, take it easy, pard," Chris soothed, holding him up.
"Damn legs still ain't right," Vin muttered.
Chris had thought liquor was the sole cause of Vin's unsteadiness, but he should've realized there was more to it than that. Only three months ago it had been uncertain if Vin would ever walk again. The doctor had warned them it might take up to a year until Vin was back to normal. Everyone had thought Vin had recovered remarkably fast, but as usual, he had merely been hiding his discomfort, forcing himself to rebuild his leg strength alone.
"C'mon, I'll help you," Chris stated.
"Don't want anyone's help." Vin sounded suspiciously like an obstinate child, something Chris wouldn't have been able to imagine a few days ago.
Chris ignored his bullheaded mutterings, and kept an arm hooked around his waist while forcing Vin's arm over his shoulder. They stumbled down the hall of the boardinghouse and Chris hoped Maggie wouldn't catch them - she wasn't too keen on the devil's brew, as she'd often preached to Chris in no uncertain terms. Arriving in Vin's room without being detected, Chris breathed a sigh of relief. Dealing with Vin's odd behavior was trial enough without one of Maggie's lectures.
Chris lowered his friend to the bed and removed his coat, then pushed him back until he was lying down. He removed Vin's boots with only a modicum of objections, then covered him with a blanket.
"Why ya doin' this?" Vin slurred.
Chris's lips curled into a crooked grin. "Damned if I know."
Vin smiled slightly, revealing the man Chris called a friend, then he closed his eyes and his soft snores told Chris he'd either passed out or fallen asleep. Either way, he'd get some needed rest. The dark circles beneath Vin's eyes attested to Nathan's comment.
"Get some sleep, Vin," Chris said quietly to his still figure. "We'll talk in the mornin'."
Chris left the room, closing the door softly behind him, though he doubted if a cannon would wake Vin. He tiptoed out of the dark house and stopped on the boardwalk. Though Vin hadn't managed to catch him with a full blow, Chris's jaw throbbed. Even drunk, Vin had a vicious right hook - Chris would do well to remember that.
Rubbing his grizzled jaw, Chris walked back to the saloon.
"I take it Vin didn't feel much like talkin'," Nathan commented.
Chris lowered himself into the chair he'd vacated earlier. "Nope." He poured himself a shot of whiskey and felt a steady gaze on him. Glancing up, his eyes collided with Buck's curtained ones.
"Don't feel too good, does it?" Buck asked softly from the nearby table.
Impatience flared in Chris - Buck had no right comparing him to Vin. Chris had lost his wife, son, and unborn child. What had Vin lost? He frowned to himself - yes, what had Vin lost? Chris knew enough about soul-deep pain that he could recognize it in another man, and that look had crept into Vin's eyes the last few days. What had set Vin off? Something in his past? Something he needed to get out of his system before it tore him apart from the inside out?
Chris tossed a whiskey back - hell, the only thing talking about the past did was re-awaken the grief and helplessness, as well as intensify his taste for liquor.
He concentrated on the burn of the whiskey in his gut, and the aching in his jaw that reminded him again of Vin's surliness. Seemed Chris wasn't the only one who used whiskey to deaden the pain - something about that poor kid had opened a door to Vin's past, something he refused to acknowledge.
"Whatever is troubling our characteristically unflappable Mr. Tanner is obviously not any of our business, and I for one respect the man's wishes," Ezra said as he shuffled a deck of worn cards in his slender hands.
"Maybe he really wants our help but don't know how to ask for it," JD said plaintively.
"Out of the mouths of babes," Josiah said quietly, then spoke in his normal rumbling tone. "JD might have a point - Vin isn't a man to go looking for help. He's more than likely to tackle the dark spirits himself. Even if the outcome isn't favorable."
Chris listened to the conversation thoughtfully. Maybe getting Vin out of town for a little while would get the meanness out of his system. Chris didn't hold much hope that by getting Vin away from Four Corners, he would suddenly let loose the dam of emotions and tell Chris what was going on. But Vin might be able to work things out before someone, including himself, got hurt.
"You ever figure out who took Jacobson's ten head of cattle?" Chris asked JD.
The young sheriff shook his head. "Me and Buck went out there and trailed them until we lost their tracks."
"Where was that?"
"Out by Beacon Rock," Buck replied. His brow furrowed. "You thinkin' what I think you're thinkin'?"
A smile tempted Chris's lips. "Depends."
"It might work," Josiah said thoughtfully.
Nathan shrugged. "Might not. He's got an awful hard head. A lot like some other men I know."
"Have you considered Mr. Tanner may not wish to partake in such obvious chicanery?" Ezra asked.
JD glanced around at the five men, his dark eyes puzzled. "What're you talkin' about?"
Buck grinned at the young man. "Chris figures if he can get Vin's mind on something else, like trackin' some missin' cattle, he might forget what's botherin' him."
"And it might backfire, too," Nathan said, continuing to play devil's advocate. "Vin ain't stupid. He might help you find them cows, but that don't mean he's gonna lose the demon that's ridin' his back."
Chris tipped his head and speared the healer with an icy glare. "You got a better idea?"
Nathan didn't shrink from Chris's scowl. "No, but don't get too disappointed if it don't work."
Chris relinquished his stare and shook his head. Much as he hated to admit it, Nathan had a point. But he couldn't allow Vin to continue on his self-destructive course without trying to help him. They'd been through too much together in the past ten months. After going through hell to save him this past Christmas, Chris didn't want to lose him this way.
The silence was broken only by glass chinking glass and the low monotone of the other patrons' voices. A chair's legs scraped back on the sawdust-covered floor, and a man missed the spittoon then cursed in a guttural tone.
"You want us to go with?" Buck asked in a low voice.
Chris shook his head. "It'd be better if just him and me went."
"Providin' you can get him to go at all," Nathan added softly.
Chris didn't reply, but poured himself another whiskey and tried not to think about that possibility.
"I ain't goin' to chase across the country for some stupid cows," Vin said as he took another pull from a brown whiskey bottle. He tipped his chair back to balance on two legs and sent Chris a mocking smile. "Hell, I can have me more fun sittin' here and watchin' the dust settle."
Chris motioned to the liquor. "A little early, ain't it?"
Vin laughed, though it was a mean, unnatural sound that came from the soft-spoken man. "Look who's talkin'."
Chris's fingers curled into tight fists and he fought to hold his temper in check. He reminded himself Vin wasn't acting like his normal self, but that didn't stop the hurt his words wrought. "We ain't talkin' about me. Look at you, sittin' on the boardwalk at nine in the morning nearly finished with one bottle of whiskey. Damnit, Vin, this ain't like you, and we're all gettin' worried."
Vin's expression lost its drunken languor, and his eyes glittered like blue diamonds - rock-hard and unyielding. "Don't you or nobody else worry `bout me. Just let me be." Vin stared at him a long moment, and his features eased slightly. "Just let it be, pard." Still holding Chris's gaze, he tipped the bottle to his lips again and drained it, as if challenging Chris to stop him.
Chris narrowed his eyes as another wave of apprehension crashed through him. What the hell was he doing? If Vin wanted to be left alone, who was he to try to get through to him? Buck was right - it didn't feel good, not a damn bit. Vin would work his way through this - just as Chris had worked through his demons. Chris refused to acknowledge that it had taken him three years to get through a day without whiskey and that he still wrestled with his ghosts. Chris had to believe Vin was made of sterner stuff, that he would pull himself out of his conscience's quagmire faster than Chris himself had.
Chris inclined his head and touched the brim of his hat with two fingers, then stepped off the boardwalk. He could feel Vin's stare between his shoulderblades and a chill shimmied down his spine. He shook aside the disturbing uneasiness. Everything would work out.
As long as the seven men stayed together, nothing could destroy them.
Two nights later, Chris sat at his usual table with Buck and JD. There'd been few visitors to the town, leaving Ezra with little opportunity to advance his poker earnings. Merely to keep his fingers limber, Ezra played a half-hearted game with Nathan, Josiah, and Vin.
"He ain't gettin' any better," Buck said softly, watching Vin swear vehemently when Ezra raked in the winning pot for the second time in a row.
"He ain't even taken Sire out for nearly a week," JD added. "That ain't like him at all."
"I know," Chris said quietly, his gaze on Vin's ashen complexion and the dark smudges beneath his eyes. "I don't think he's slept more'n a few hours in that time either."
Buck raked his fingers through his dark hair. "We got to do somethin', Chris. This has gone on too damn long."
"And what do you suggest we do?" Chris's tone was sharp enough to draw blood.
JD leaned back in his chair, trying to escape the line of fire. He'd seen the two old friends go at it too often in the past to get in the middle of one of their "discussions."
"We can tie him up and get him sober, then make him tell us what the hell's goin' on," Buck replied, equally as cutting.
"And we'll be lucky if he doesn't carve out our hearts before he leaves town," Chris said dryly.
"Vin wouldn't do that," JD blurted, forgetting his resolve to remain out of their verbal conflict.
Chris turned his visual assault on JD, and his icy glare sent shivers scurrying down JD's back. "We don't know what Vin's capable of. Who would've figured him to be actin' the way he's been?"
JD shored up his courage against the older, more experienced man he admired and respected. "Maybe so, but I do know he's our friend, and he wouldn't hurt us."
Chris looked away and his gaze turned inward. "I hope to God you're right, JD."
The fervency of Chris's tone sent dread shooting through JD's veins. He glanced at Buck whose uncharacteristic somberness did nothing to alleviate his growing fear.
The cessation of sound made Chris look up to see Mary Travis framed in the saloon door. Her gaze found him and she hurried to his side. He noted the concern in her bluish-gray eyes when she glanced at Vin, but when her attention returned to Chris, she appeared more embarrassed than worried.
"What is it, Mary?" Chris asked.
She looked at him, then JD. "There's a Mr. And Mrs. Woods over at the sheriff's office looking for their son."
JD frowned. "That boy."
Mary nodded as her lips drew together in a grim line. "I think so."
JD stood and adjusted his derby hat with a nervous gesture. "I suppose I'd best go talk to them." He glanced at Chris, but the gunman merely pulled a cheroot from his breastpocket and lit it.
"I'll go with you," Buck volunteered.
JD appeared relieved to have the company.
"Maybe Vin should also come since he was the one who found the boy's body," Mary suggested.
A string of epithets spilled from Vin as Ezra won another hand, and Mary's narrowed gaze told Chris she, too, was aware of Vin's behavior change.
"I don't think that's such a good idea," Chris said, not unkindly.
Mary appeared disappointed, but she nodded in agreement.
JD, Buck, and Mary left the saloon, leaving Chris sitting alone with only a bottle of whiskey for company. But he didn't feel much like drinking and instead, watched Vin warily through a cloud of tobacco smoke. The man was near the boiling point.
Ezra, Nathan, Josiah, and Vin played another hand. The healer and preacher threw their cards in, leaving Ezra and Vin to raise the bids, until Ezra called. Vin, with a smug grin, turned over a full house, queens over nines. He started to sweep in his winnings.
"Not so fast, my friend," Ezra said. He laid down his fanned cards, four kings. "I believe four of a kind beats a full house."
"You've been too damn lucky tonight, my friend." Vin's last two words dripped with venom.
Ezra's expression stilled and his eyes became shards of green glass glittering in the lantern light. "I will excuse your impertinence, Mr. Tanner, only because I realize you are burdened by some quandary. However, my patience only allows so much vindication. Therefore, it would be in your best interests to take your leave and go sleep off your intemperance."
Chris tensed, expecting Vin to make some move. The tracker seemed to be trying to sort out Ezra's two bit words, then the confusion disappeared from his wan features. He sneered and contempt dripped from his words. "You think `cause you got a little schoolin' that you can talk down to me." Vin pushed himself up from his chair, and Chris noticed his slight shuffle to shift the weight on his still-healing legs. "I might not be book smart like you, but that don't give you the right to treat me like dirt."
Ezra rose and held his hands out, trying to placate the unreasonable man. "I have the utmost respect for you, Vin, and if you weren't so besotted by the liquor and your own malaise, you would know that."
Chris saw it coming, but was too late to stop the blow that sent Ezra reeling backward onto a table. In spite of the man's slight stature, the table broke beneath his weight. Josiah and Nathan each grabbed one of Vin's arms to keep him from going after the gambler.
Chris hurried to Ezra's side and helped him up. Blood flowed from Ezra's nose to stain his white shirt. Ezra pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it against his nose, grimacing as he did.
"What's wrong with you?" Nathan hissed close to Vin's ear. "Ezra's your friend."
"I ain't got any friends," Vin replied, his voice more vicious than anyone had ever heard.
Chris stepped up to Vin, his face only a couple inches from Vin's. "Damnit, Vin, you keep pushin' us away and you're gonna end up that way."
Vin struggled ineffectually against Josiah and Nathan's grips. The feral gleam in his eyes made Chris's stomach muscles lurch with uncertainty and a touch of fear.
"Go to hell!" Vin growled.
Chris stared at the stranger in front of him. This had gone past sane and into madness. Maybe Buck's suggestion wasn't so far from the only solution. "Take him to jail and let him sleep it off there."
Vin's lips twisted with mockery. "All that stuff about bein' my friend was nothin' but a load of crap, wasn't it?"
Chris stared at him, keeping his expression bland in spite of the tempest in his chest. Beneath the biting fury, Vin was hurting, but Chris couldn't help him unless the tracker let him in. And it didn't appear he was going to do that.
"You're a helluva friend - all of ya. Nothin' but backstabbers. You don't give a damn --" Vin's rantings faded as Josiah and Nathan hauled him out of the saloon.
Chris shoved the bitter pain aside and turned to Ezra, then scrutinized his face. "You all right?"
"I shall live. It's our friend I'm not so certain about." Ezra pulled the handkerchief from his nose, saw the scarlet stain, grimaced and placed it against his injury again. "What in God's name has come over him?"
Chris sighed heavily and shook his head. "I wish I knew, Ezra. Maybe you'd best get Nathan to look at your nose, make sure it's not broken."
Ezra smiled half-heartedly. "I can assure you it isn't since I am aware of what a broken nose feels like. If Vin had been sober, I have no doubt the blow would have done much more damage."
"If he was sober, he wouldn't have hit you," Chris said grimly.
Ezra tipped his head in acknowledgment.
Chris went to the bar and retrieved a clean towel from the bartender, and handed it to Ezra. "You'll need this."
Startled, Ezra accepted it with a nod of thanks.
Hurried footsteps on the boardwalk sent their attention to the saloon's door, and Chris was surprised to see Mary again. She remained in the doorway as she called, "Come quickly!"
"What is it?" Chris demanded.
"Vin. He attacked Mr. Woods."
"Who pray tell is Mr. Woods?" Ezra asked.
"The father of the dead boy," Mary replied breathlessly. "Please, hurry."
Chris and Ezra followed the blond woman into the night and ran over to the jailhouse. Inside, Chris found a tense tableau set out before him: Josiah and Nathan again held Vin who glared at a well-dressed heavyset man who Chris figured was Mr. Woods. A younger woman, closer to Mary's age, stood off to the side, her eyes wide with fear. Buck and JD stood between Vin and Woods.
Chris stepped forward. "What the hell's goin' on?"
Nobody spoke for a moment, then it was Woods who answered as he rubbed his throat above his starched white collar. "That madman tried to kill me." He motioned to Vin with a lift of his chin.
Chris's gaze flickered to Vin, then Buck. "That right?"
Buck grunted. "Ask Vin."
Chris planted himself in front of Vin. "You try to kill him?"
Vin continued to stare at Woods, hatred etched in his grizzled face.
"Damnit, Vin, did you?" Chris demanded.
A silence so thick it threatened to suffocate the room's occupants filled the air. Finally, Vin drew his malevolent gaze to Chris, and an eerie chill slid down Chris's spine like an icy raindrop.
"It ain't any of your concern."
Chris's tenuous control snapped and he grabbed Vin's shirt front, yanking him forward as Nathan and Josiah released their hold on him. "It's everybody's concern if you aim to kill a man with no reason."
"I got more'n enough reason." Vin's whiskey-stale breath almost made Chris gag.
"Tell us what it is!"
Vin's visage distorted into something malignant - almost deranged. "Go to hell."
Chris was vaguely aware of Mary's astonished gasp and JD's sharp intake of breath. A dull roar filled Chris's ears and he released Vin, shoving him away. Vin stumbled, almost falling to his knees, and Chris's conscience cringed, knowing the reason for his near collapse. He forced his voice to remain cool and flat. "Put him in a cell, JD."
For a moment, no one moved, then JD took Vin's arm. Every man stood rigidly, not knowing what to expect from this stranger in their midst, but Vin allowed JD to lead him to a cell. Vin tensed as he passed Woods, and the older man met his gaze with a steady look. The young sheriff locked the door behind the tracker, and JD's agonized expression told the others how difficult it had been to put their friend in jail.
Vin put his arms through the bars and rested them on the cross support, his body deceptively relaxed. It was his eyes, however, that seared Chris. "Thanks a lot, `friend'."
Chris flinched as if he'd been hit by a .45 slug, but he didn't try to escape Vin's poisonous glare. Instead, Chris ignored the venomous look and concentrated on the middle-aged man who wore a blue brocade vest and expensive suit. "Was that your boy Vin found dead?"
Woods nodded, and the scorn in his eyes disappeared. "My wife and I have been looking for him for over a week. He disappeared one night. We've been checking every town we've come through."
Chris looked at the woman whose hazel eyes filled with moisture. "I'm sorry, ma'am," he said awkwardly.
Josiah stepped forward. "We gave him a Christian burial but didn't know what name to put on the marker. I'll take you down there in the morning so you can give him a proper farewell."
Mrs. Woods placed a smooth hand on Josiah's arm. "Thank you. It's a comfort to know you folks spoke some words over Daniel's body." A tear slipped down her cheek.
Uncomfortable with a woman's tears, Chris turned away and his gaze clashed with Vin's cruel eyes. He never thought he'd see the day when Vin could be so cold toward another's misery. Vin was always the one with too much compassion, too much feeling for others' misfortunes.
"Why don't we all get a good night's sleep, and work things out tomorrow?" Buck suggested.
"You folks have a place to stay tonight?" Josiah asked the couple.
"Our wagon is just outside of town with our other children. We'll just go back there," Mrs. Woods replied.
"If there's anything we can do, please let us know," Mary added.
"Thank you, but after we've seen Daniel's grave, we'll be moving on," Mr. Woods said.
Josiah escorted the bereaved couple out of the jailhouse, leaving awkward silence behind.
Nathan moved over to Ezra to examine his bleeding nose, but Ezra shrugged aside his help. "It's not broken." The gambler's gaze drifted to Vin. "Thank you for that much, Mr. Tanner."
Chris was surprised to see Vin cringe slightly at Ezra's brittle sarcasm, but the tracker didn't offer an apology. Instead, he turned away and flopped on the thin mattress, curling up with his back to the men. Vin's dismissal of them couldn't have been more obvious. Or disturbing.
"You want me to hang out here tonight?" Buck asked the young sheriff.
JD shook his head. "That's okay. It don't look like Vin'll give us any more trouble." He turned to Chris. "Should I release him in the morning?"
"Not until I've talked to him," Chris replied, eyeing the tracker with a narrowed gaze. "I want to make sure he ain't gonna go after Woods again."
Buck, Nathan, and Ezra said their goodnights and left the office.
"I'll be here first thing in the morning," Chris said to JD, then glanced at Mary. "I'll walk you home."
Chris guided Mary out of the jailhouse with a proper palm against her back, leaving JD to take his place behind the desk and keep an eye on the sullen Vin.
Mary snugged her shawl about her shoulders to ward off the chill, but it didn't stop the shiver inside of her. She had come to respect the seven men in the months they'd been in Four Corners, and even considered them friends. Vin Tanner, though a taciturn man, had always been unfailingly polite to her. Mary also knew Chris spent more time with Vin than any of the others, and the two men shared a friendship she had trouble comprehending. Still, the long-haired man had had a stabilizing effect on Chris, but now it appeared the opposite was happening.
"What's come over him, Chris? I've never seen Vin act this way before," she said.
The blond man shook his head, but his expression was hidden by the moonlit shadows. "I wish I knew."
Mary frowned, puzzled that even Chris didn't know what was bothering Vin. The two men seemed so close. "He hasn't said anything?"
After months of acquaintance with Chris Larabee, Mary could read the enigmatic man only somewhat better than she had when she first met him. But she did recognize that his curt answers were his way of hiding his concern. Her reporter's instincts kicked in as she contemplated Vin's changes and his mysterious and violent reaction to Mr. Woods. "Vin obviously knows Mr. Woods from somewhere."
Chris glanced at her, his eyes boring into her soul as if he could read her thoughts. "And when did Vin start to act different?"
Mary thought for a moment. "After he found the little boy - Daniel Woods." Her mind clicked, drawing logical conclusions from the facts. "Do you think he knew the boy?"
Chris shook his head. "I don't think so. But he does know the boy's father, though he ain't gonna let us in on how he knows him."
"So we have Mr. Woods and his son who was beaten to death." Frustration brought a frown to her lips. "What is the connection - why would Vin try to kill Woods? What was it about that little boy that made Vin start drinking?" They stopped outside the newspaper office where Mary had a living area in the back. She pressed her forefinger to her chin, deep in thought. "Wasn't Vin orphaned at a young age?"
"That's right." Chris's eyes narrowed. "What're you gettin' at, Mary?"
Her musings dead-ended. "I'm not sure, Chris. There's one piece of the puzzle we're still missing."
"The piece that Vin won't give us."
The helpless frustration in his tone made her want to give him a hug like she did Billy when her son had a nightmare. Having his closest friend turn into a stranger was like a nightmare for Chris. She knew about the battle the six men had waged to save Vin's life when he'd been shot in the back and how they'd been fortunate enough that he'd regained the feeling in his legs. Though no one had ever told her, she suspected the emotional battle had been more draining than the physical one to save Vin.
And it was that emotional toll that was beginning to wear on the men again. She'd seen the seven men in many different circumstances in the months they'd been in Four Corners, from humorous to deadly, and everything in between. She'd also noticed tensions between some of the men at times, like Chris and Buck, and Ezra and Nathan, although they seemed to have worked out their differences fairly well. Through it all, Vin had always remained the calming influence among them, and now that steadfastness had disappeared. How much longer would the others hold together?
She sent a sidelong glance at Chris. He was the one she was concerned with most since he and Vin were the closest. Vin's aberrant behavior was already bringing lines to Chris's features and making him moodier, more like he was when he first came to town.
Impulsively, she took hold of Chris's hand and gave his fingers a reassuring squeeze. "Everything will work out, Chris." As he stared down at her intently, she self-consciously drew her hand away from his.
"Maybe, but we have to be prepared if it doesn't," Chris said softly. He looked past her, over her shoulder. "Maybe it's time to move on anyhow."
Mary's knees trembled and she put out a hand to steady herself against the solid door to the newspaper office. "B-but the town still needs you."
"We'll see." He opened her door and she stepped inside. "Good night, Mary."
"Good night, Chris," she said softly as he strode down the boardwalk, his boot heels thunking hollowly on the wood.
Closing the door behind her, Mary leaned her back against it and closed her eyes. What would Four Corners do without the seven men?
What would her days be like without the anticipation of seeing Chris walk across the street or hear the jingle of his spurs on the boardwalk? Or watching him and Vin or Buck or JD engage in a game of checkers in front of the jailhouse. Or see Chris's rare smile which never failed to bring butterfly wings to her belly.
She took a deep, shaky breath and squared her shoulders. If she could continue living after Stephen had been murdered, she could survive quite easily without Chris Larabee. Then why did she almost feel as if she were losing Stephen all over again?