"Next time..." Chris Larabee confirmed eyeing the elusive, deserted horizon. He turned and cast a discerning eye at Vin Tanner. The dusty tracker was leaning heavily against the porch rail. He saw the erosion on the younger man, the aftereffects of his grueling trip. Chris knew that Vin pushed himself far beyond the normal endurance levels. Fatigue scored every feature, the bloodshot racoonish eyes spoke clearly. He winced inwardly, recalling their last painful conversation.
Ella Gaines was a woman who'd hired the Seven to protect her ranch against a greedy landgrubber, named Handsome Jack Averell. Chris shared a history with the lusty widow and had slipped effortlessly back into her bed. He'd decided to stay on after their job was through. During the party Ella threw that night, Vin arrived late and announced that his investigation had turned up a glaring discovery. Ella was the owner of the Culpepper Mining Co, of which Jack was the foreman. She'd been using Chris all along. Instead of confronting the evil temptress, he'd turned on his best friend, who absorbed the invisible blow and disappeared into the night. Chris discovered later that Ella was obsessed with him, and had a macabre shrine set up in his honor. His pain exploded violently when he saw Sarah and Adam's possessions among the artifacts and was stabbed in the heart with the truth. His subsequent wound during the shootout the next day, due to his inability to shoot the murderess, had led up to this moment.
"We gotta talk..." He squinted sideways, as the tired tracker turned to leave.
Vin froze and sucked air in through his clenched teeth. He gripped both fists, ramrodded to his sides. He'd thought about this meeting for the last week. The whole time he was on her trail, it gnawed at him. He reasoned over the bitter coffee under the stars every night, that maybe he could try to understand and put it behind him. He thought of the pain of betrayal he felt when Chris took his stand that night, choosing to bed the bitch, even after he knew she was using him. That loss of faith, that bitter betrayal, had wounded the tracker deeply. He thought he knew Chris Labaree. Chris was the first man he'd entrusted his life to without question. After years of riding solo and placing his trust in himself, he'd dropped his guard...gone soft. What a fool he was. He tried hard to put the difference behind them, but it wouldn't die.
When he rode in this morning, his heart ached more than his weary bones. It had worked overtime weighing and measuring the events eight days past. Chris was more than a friend, which is why it hurt so bad. He walked up the street, desperate to bury the pain. He'd paused, eyeing the bandaged chest and took a deep breath. As he updated Chris on the elusive widow, he felt the simmering in his gut. Even as the words slid by his tense lips, he thought he could quell the pain, but he was wrong. It hurt now more than ever, like salt rubbing a raw wound. What happened to the man who backed him without question against the whole town, while he defended an innocent Indian named Chanu for kidnapping a white woman? Chris had believed him on his word only; he'd never felt a force so powerful. It gave him the courage to face himself, his doubts and Chanu on that trail. Who was the real Chris Larabee? The brother whose penetrating green eyes gave him the courage to face a lynch mob? Or was it the tuxedoed stranger whose icy gaze didn't hide the fire within, and burned a hole in him in Ella's house.
"Ain't nothin' left t' say," Vin issued tersely, "I heard ya real clear in that whore's dinin' room."
"Vin, you don't understand what..."
"I understand just fine." He interrupted, not wanting to be anywhere near the gunslinger at this moment. On top of the fact he ached from too many days in the saddle and too little food, the betrayal twisted his gut into sharp knots. Again that one garish moment flared, when Chris had stabbed him right in the heart. He'd chosen that she-devil over him, despite the evidence. It still hurt that a man he cared for deeper than any other human being, threw away his trust and sided with a psychotic bitch.
Chris never moved a muscle. In a slow cool glance, he took in the rigid body and clenched fists, he paused at the heaving chest, fighting for air. But the eyes caused the stone face to flinch. Twin cobalt balls of fire, which housed anger, fury and hate. But that isn't what made him turn away. He saw right past the blue fire down deep...and wished he hadn't. The unspeakable faith that he'd never questioned, not since the day he first locked eyes with the lean Texan on that fateful afternoon they'd saved Nathan Jackson's life, was shaken. The steadfast and sure soul he'd come to accept as a brother, had torn his heart in half. He felt the tension building and almost sensed the boards under him rippling. He cocked his head and saw the livid face leering at him.
"She musta been quite a fuck..." Vin spat, not hiding his fury.
Chris's face screwed up in a mask of revulsion. He'd expected the sharpshooter to rebel, he'd seen the birth of the storm when he lacerated Vin at Ella's. It was the first time he hadn't stood by his best friend. When he realized his mistake, it was too late. Since the dusty afternoon when they met, he'd come to understand what lurked beneath the Texan. But he'd never seen this side of Vin, and was stunned at the open vulgarity. Maybe Vin wasn't the man Chris thought he was. His youth was in years only, the wild and wooly warrior, orphaned too young and alone too long, lurked deep inside still. Vin's eyes were deadly blue and the gunslinger felt the rage oozing from the younger man. He stared hard and saw something else, something so painful he turned away. Vin's raw soul was showing through those emotive blue pools. The ragged slashes were his doing and it gave him a deep ache inside. He stared straight ahead, as if oblivious to the irate traveler. But Vin could read him too easily, a dangerous talent.
"Shock ya?" Vin gloated, eyeing the repellant face. "She might have been the one ya took t'bed, but I'm the one that got screwed."
"Hold on a minute," Chris jerked his head angrily and stood up, dropping his blanket and grabbing for Vin's arm. "Now you're gonna listen..."
"Listen? Ya got balls usin' that word," Vin snarled. "Yer selective hearin' nearly got us all killed. Ya had the chance t'nail her when I told ya...Ya sold us all out fer that bitch." His mouth was a grim line, the eyes bulging. "Get offa me," Vin violently pulled his arm free, causing the blond to stagger. "I've been eatin' dust and sleepin' on rocks fer over a week. I'm gettin' a hot bath, somethin' t' eat and hittin' the sack."
"Go t' hell." He launched, shoving the gunslinger hard, sending him sprawling backwards into Mary. The widow had been only a few feet away, in the shadows of the Clarion and heard every word. Worse, she'd seen the hurt in Vin's eyes and felt his pain. She hurt too, for the man with green eyes who disappointed her.
"Jesus, Vin. Take it easy," Buck reprimanded, jogging over from across the street. "Hell, he's only out of the clinic two days. You want him to pop them stitches? He can't afford to lose anymore blood."
"I don't give a flyin' rat's ass, Buck." Vin ranted, drilling the older man with a deadly stare that silenced him. "Ya seem right happy t' play his fool all these years...the bastard's all yers...help yerself."
Buck stood in stunned silence in the center of the street. He watched Vin stalking to his wagon in the alley. A few seconds later, the ex-bounty hunter headed for the bathhouse. He suspected trouble when Ezra returned five days after departing to chase Ella. Buck and J.D. had covered the trails east; Vin and Ezra headed west. The Conman alluded to Vin's decisive change of attitude. He'd put up with the caustic behavior until they reached the river. Then he called it quits, which was what the Texan wanted.
Mary's voice snapped him out of his puzzlement. He quickly covered the ground to where she knelt. She had gotten the fighting Larabee into a sitting position on the boardwalk. Buck immediately began examining the bandages, despite Chris's colorful protest.
"Get me off this damn sidewalk..." He growled, eyeing the street.
"You afraid the folks in town will find out you're human after all?" Buck asked, then sighed in relief, eyeing the clean, dry bandages. "No leaks..." He proclaimed, pulling Chris to his feet. The leader turned without a word, heading for the saloon. His halting, uneven steps said what the gunslinger would never admit to.
"Chris, you're askin' for trouble." Buck walked beside him, "You'll end up with a relapse and have hell to pay from Nate. You're already late." He noted of the deal the man in black struck with the healer. Mornings sitting in the sun, and afternoons in his room, resting.
Chris let the batwing doors slap into Buck's chest. His green eyes sought one thing and he smacked the top of the bar.
"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra Standish squinted, tilting his handsome face slightly. "To what to we owe this unexpected pleasure?" He eyed the sour face, pale and wet with perspiration. He saw the lean legs shaking a bit and the white knuckles that gripped the bar. "Might I make a suggestion..."
"Might I make a suggestion..." Chris parroted, turning his icy stare to the shifty gambler, "Shut the fuck up, Ezra."
"Charming..." Ezra hissed, spotting Buck approaching. "You must have a death wish, Mr. Wilmington."
"WHISKEY!" Chris growled, smacking a coin onto the bar. He grabbed the bottle Inez set in front of him and staggered to the deepest corner of the room. "You not invited." He tossed backwards to Buck, without looking. He slid into the chair and uncorked the bottle. It was halfway to his lips, when a hand grabbed it. Chris's hand immediately went to his empty hip. "You're lucky."
"And you're still a stubborn jackass." Buck repeated, trying to wrestle the bottle free. "That's the last thing you need."
"I'll be the judge of that."
"Fine, have it your way. Drink yourself into a stupor. That's what you do best when you get your balls to the wall."
"Leave it alone, Buck." Chris warned, his tone menacing. He took a long swig and sat the bottle in front on him. "You're not my conscience."
"No," Buck agreed, dropping his hat on the table and running a hand through his dark hair. "He's up the street, drowning himself in a tub."
Chris's slight flinch and hooded eyes gave the mustached cowboy his reply. He motioned for Inez to bring a beer. He took a long sip and wiped the foam off of his lips. "What the hell happened out there?" He jerked his head towards the door.
"Vin lost her." Chris replied, knowing that wasn't the answer Buck sought. He downed a shot and poured a second. His face was set in stone, but Buck knew trouble was brewing.
"That's not what's got a bug up your ass." he pushed, eyeing the intense green gaze. "What's Vin so fired up about?"
"Go away Buck." Chris's tone turned disinterested, and Buck knew no more information would pass the tense lips. Vin would most likely shoot first, if he approached the bathhouse. He eyed Ezra's shuffling the cards. The red-coated gambler had ridden off after Vin when that day. He returned five days later, surlier than usual.
"One day you're gonna say that and regret it." Buck predicted as he slid his chair back. "Don't screw this up, Chris, don't let it fester. Don't lose him over that bitch. You think you're in pain now..."
Buck left the threat open, and saw Chris's eyes narrow. He left the brooding gunslinger and slumped on a chair next to Ezra. Josiah ambled over, with J.D. in tow. They had witnessed the exchange from the doorway to the sheriff's office.
"I take it this isn't a social call." Ezra noted, spotting the frustration in the tall man.
"You got any idea what's eatin' at Vin?" The rogue drilled the sea green eyes. Vin and Ezra seemed to be able to read each other. Their diverse backgrounds in education, wealth and breeding seemed to matter naught. Of all of them, Vin could disarm Ezra with a raised eyebrow, hooded glance or cocky smirk. The conversations they shared were priceless. For every six or seven sentences Ezra spouted, sprinkled heavily with five-dollar words, Vin's short drawled response would often silence the Gambler. Vin accepted Ezra readily, too readily maybe.
"It was about as unpleasant a journey as I've ever undertaken." Ezra continued shuffling the cards. "More likely than not, the wound inside has been festering since."
"Wound..." Buck mused, "I don't get it. Vin left out as soon as Chris went down. He only just now got back. When did he have time to get wounded?"
"Do you recall the party at the Merry Widow's home?" He waited for the dark head to bob, "and Mr. Tanner's late arrival?"
Buck frowned, sipping his beer and tilted his head. "Yeah...He didn't stay long. He was talkin' to Chris ...That's the wound?" Buck guessed and saw Ezra nod.
"Mr. Tanner said very little during our expedition." Ezra offered, "Most of his commentary was limited to the business at hand."
"But you read between the lines..." Josiah guessed, knowing how slick Ezra was.
"It wouldn't take a genius to recognize pain. Mr. Tanner's eyes were as clear as a summer sky. A more effective and eloquent wordless speaker I have not yet encountered. He rode away in pain, but that quickly changed. But the time we reached the river he was seething in anger. It is by sheer luck that I did not required the talents of Mr. Jackson."
Buck took a long draw from his beer and wiped the foam from his lip. He studied Chris Larabee from across the room and frowned. He let his mind journey back to the night of the party. Vin had been gone all day, having rode fast and hard to Red Fork to ensure that Handsome Jack and his gang were gone. Vin had been suspicious of her all along. Ella Gaines was bad news. They later found out that she was the owner of the mine and setting them all up. Vin's late return and the brief exchange had piqued the curiosity of the others. They saw the twin stubborn faces, which spoke more vocally than the few words issued. With one punishing gaze, Vin spun and departed.
"I suspect Mr. Tanner's trip to Red Fork had more to do with confirming his suspicions, then ascertaining the whereabouts of Handsome Jack and his honcho's." Ezra drawled, seeing Buck's wheel's spinning.
"I think that boy is smarter than all of us," Buck admitted, recalling Vin's cool behavior when Ella offered them the money to protect the ranch. "He knew..."
"From the moment he laid eyes on that serpent." Ezra agreed, flipping over a queen of diamonds. "Mr. Tanner has an uncanny ability to read people. He's a most astute judge of character."
"Why did he even go then?" J.D. frowned, straddling a chair.
"You've been around him enough," Josiah eyed the young sheriff. "Where is Vin at his best?"
"Protecting our back..." J.D. blurted then his eyes widened in recognition. "Oh...he's was looking out for us...worried about Chris..."
"He was doing his job." Josiah sighed. "That's why he came back."
"Came back?" Buck hedged, eyeing the gray-haired ex-preacher. "Chris tell you what happened 'tween them?"
"Not in so many words." Josiah helped himself to Ezra's whiskey. "A few things slipped out while Nate and me patched him up. Sometimes what Chris doesn't say, speaks volumes."
"I'd hazard a guess that Mr. Tanner confronted our esteemed leader with the truth." Ezra continued flipping cards, pausing at the Ace of Spades. "and that is when the arrow was unsheathed."
"Damn..." Buck sighed, toying with the glass beer mug. "No wonder Vin's pissed."
"What?" J.D. blinked, eyeing the others. "What did I miss?"
"Despite Vin's testimony about Ella owning the mine...and what her ulterior motives might have been, Chris stayed." Josiah replied, "I'm guessing that hit Vin pretty hard."
Buck had the mug halfway to his lips and placed it back down on the table. His dark blue eyes were full of worry as he cast a fast glance to the far corner of the room. It was as if he could see through the bandaged chest. Unlike his comrades, he'd seen Chris go down this road before. What if Vin did ride out? Was Chris strong enough to withstand the internal hurricane that would follow? Would he lose himself in a bottle again? Or worse?
Josiah and Ezra exchanged a knowing glance as the watched the rogue's face change expressions. Both knew how deeply Buck cared for Chris Larabee and how protective he was of the man in black. He'd seen Chris through hell and back before and that was working on him.
"Perhaps one of us should have a word with Mr. Tanner." The green-eyed Gambler suggested.
"I'll go." Josiah rose, "J.D. run over and get Nathan's instruments to boiling. Vin's likely to shoot first..."
"No, I'll go." Buck said quietly, rising and patting Josiah's back. "If I go down, you'll comfort Miss Lily and Miss Ruby, won't you Big Guy?" He teased, with a wicked grin.
"I'll make the supreme sacrifice, Brother." Josiah said solemnly, tapping his chest.
Bert Thomas looked up from behind his copy of the Clarion as the door slammed. He ignored the dirt-covered traveler and went back to his paper. The smoke from his cigar floated in a blue haze above his head.
"Best ya git movin' along,"
"Excuse me?" Bert said, looking annoyed over the paper at Vin Tanner, who shucked his coat and hat off. "I'm not finished yet."
"Ya are now." Vin leveled, watching as a quintet of Chinese boys brought in several buckets of steaming water and poured them into the vacant tub.
"Look, you don't have the right to order me around. I..."
"I ain't in a negotiatin' mood." Vin spat, his hostile eyes making his intent airborne. "I'm tired and hungry and I don't want yer bad breath and that stinkin' cigar anywhere near me. So git movin'." Vin ordered, hand resting on his holster. "Or I'm likely t'move ya."
"No account gunslinger..." the voice died off as the slushing water slapped against the tub as he departed.
Vin waited until the room was silent and vacant. He opened a window on the wall behind him, sending fresh air in the stagnant room. He laid his gun on a small stool at his right hand, near the tub. He shucked off his clothes and eased his worn-out frame into the tub. He scrubbed his lean body with the strong soap and dunked his head under water, wetting his mangled hair. He lathered the scalp and scrubbed it hard, the tension shooting out of his fingers. He dunked under again and rinsed, grabbing his gun and flinging his head up in one fluid motion.
"Jesus Christ Vin!" Buck backed up, hands in the air.
"Good way t'get killed." Vin snarled, placing the gun back on the bench. "Git out."
"Sorry, Pard, I can't do that." Buck said, remaining a good six feet away. He spun his hat around his fingers and eyed the irate Texan. The body, although clean, was clearly exhausted. "I ain't gonna ask what went down between you and Chris."
"That'd be right smart." Vin replied, easing his head back and shutting his eyes.
"He's hurtin' too, Vin. He's been through a whole lot these last ten days. What with the anniversary of Sarah and Adam...then meeting Ella again." "My heart's bleedin' " Vin retorted sarcastically, tapping his wet chest.
"He's only human Vin." Buck defended, "He made a mistake..."
"A mistake?" Vin sat up, blue eyes blazing fury. "Is that what ya call it? A Goddamn mistake?" He snarled, pounding the side of the tub and sending water sloshing onto the floor.
"Yeah, Vin." Buck returned angrily, "That's what I call it. A mistake...something us mere mortals stumble on occasionally. We all ain't all so fortunate to be perfect like you."
"Fuck off." Vin snapped. "He made his choice in that crazy bitch's house...and it damn near got him killed. I laid it out for 'im Buck. I told 'im she owned the mine, that she's settin' him up. He didn't give a damn about anybody but himself. He thinks real clear with his pants."
"You don't think he knows that?" Buck rallied, "I can tell you firsthand, nobody punishes Chris harder than he punishes himself."
"Yer mistakin' me for somebody who gives a shit." Vin teethed and settled back closing his eyes.
"I think we both know who gives a shit." Buck answered, "The guy who rode back and saved his best friend's life." He saw Vin's brows furrow, but no words came. "You can run Vin and take to the hills, but it's too late to ride solo again. He's a part of you now, the best part. You're only foolin' yourself if you think different." He planted the seed and waited for a moment and studied the wet curls plastered to Vin's head. Despite how young he looked, Vin Tanner had been robbed of his youth. Like Chris, he carried a lot of pain inside and Buck sensed since meeting Larabee, the child trapped in Vin was starting to emerge. The dry humor, practical jokes and just sitting next to the team leader on the boardwalk and relaxing, were due to their kinship. Sighing, he hoped somewhere deep inside, Vin knew that too, and would make the right decision. He left without looking back.
Vin never opened his eyes, but he thought on Buck's words. Could he leave Chris behind? Would the green-eyed gunslinger haunt him forever? Would the deep, dull throbbing ever go away? He had ridden back to save Chris...without fully understanding the compelling force. His weary mind couldn't separate his muddled thoughts and feelings. Were the aches in his bones from physical or emotional trauma? He dozed for a bit until the water cooled. He left the water, dried off, dressed and headed to the Saloon. He stopped in the middle of the street and turned back. The boarding house up the street had decent food and he wasn't in the mood for another lecture.
+ + + + + + +
"Sheriff..." A voice beckoned from the street.
"Somebody's calling you, Son." Josiah tapped J.D. who had just lost his last two dollars to Ezra in a game of five-card stud.
"Always a pleasure, my young lawman." Ezra smiled, raking the coins in.
"I'll figure your system out one day, Ezra." J.D. warned, rising as Bert Thomas, complete with wet hair clinging to his head, burst through the batwing doors.
"There you are." He shouted, "What are you doing lounging around the Saloon? You should out there earning your keep, protecting honest people from that bastard":
"Something wrong, Bert?" Josiah asked, leaning lazily on the bar.
"If you call damn near getting killed something." He sputtered, "I want him arrested."
"Who?" J.D. asked, trying not to laugh at the suds clinging to the irate bather's hair.
"That miserable bounty-hunting cur."
"Vin?" J.D. answered, biting back a grin.
"What has our feisty comrade done now?" Ezra asked, noting the first movement from Chris since he'd sat down an hour before. At the mention of 'bounty-hunting cur' the blond head moved to the right, straining to hear.
"He damn near blew my head off in the tub. Man can't even take a bath...Somebody needs to teach that half-breed some manners."
"That's enough, Bert." Josiah warned, knowing Thomas and his pal Conklin gossiped openly and lewdly about Vin. More than once the pair or some of their friends had found themselves on the receiving end of a Larabee fist due to their distasteful remarks about the tracker.
J.D. started to approach Thomas, when the sound of a chair scraping the floor caused the accuser to rescind his remarks. He face paled as he glanced past J.D. and Ezra. "I'll forget it this time, but next time, I'm shootin' first." He warned, turning on his heel.
J.D. turned around to see Chris Larabee standing on unsteady legs, his narrow eyes flicking on all of them. Josiah didn't say a word, just ambled over and stood with hands on hips, in front of the bleary-eyed blond.
"Might as well make it easy on yourself, Chris." He offered. "You're about ready to keel over. I'd end up carrying you anyway. Come on, I'll walk you over to the hotel. You best get in bed before Nathan finds out."
Chris didn't say a word. He brushed past Josiah and the rest of them. The ex-preacher walked a few feet behind the staggering man, just in case he was needed. He waited until Chris sank into the bed and he heard the heavy, regular breathing, before leaving. Satisfied, he closed the door and went to seek out Buck, hoping to find him in one piece.
+ + + + + + +
Mary was setting the type for the next edition of the Clarion. She'd been housing mixed feelings all morning. She felt the air crackle when Ella slid by her and knowingly predicted Chris wouldn't be returned from the ranch. She'd felt hurt and when the others returned and she found out what transpired, she turned cold. The lingering loss that hung on her name as is sauntered off his lips this very morning, ate at her. She turned icy, leaving him to his black mood. But did she have that right? He was wonderfully understanding and honest when she'd met Gerard. Maybe his smug acceptance had been because he'd known she wouldn't go through with the marriage. He knew she'd tasted freedom and her independent spirit would settle for nothing less than passion.
Chris Larabee wasn't like any man she'd ever known. The dark, brooding figure in black stirred something inside her. The cool, green eyes seemed to penetrate every defense she cold muster up, and cause her knees to weaken. She wasn't a starry-eyed schoolgirl or a shivering virgin, she was woman with wants and needs. Since her husband's death, she thrown herself into raising their six-year old son Billy and running the newspaper they'd founded. But it wasn't enough to quell the fire inside. The bed that she and Stephen shared was a lusty playground, which had turned into an Arctic oasis. Long, restless nights were spent tossing and turning, yearning for his hands to re-awaken the dormant passion. It wasn't Stephen's face she saw at night, while dreams escaped, it wasn't his gentle hands she sought to caress her. It was a handsome, rugged blond with sinewy muscles and piercing green eyes that haunted her. It was his lips she wanted, no, needed to feel. It was his hands that she dreamed about, leaving her quaking and sweating, shivering in anticipation. She closed her eyes and leaned against the table in front of her. Wrapping her arms around her waist, she began imagining...
"Mary, Got a minute?"
She jumped, startled at the male voice behind her. Her flushed face didn't help the question in the mustached man's curious gaze.
"You alright, Mary? You looked a mite flushed."
"I've been running around all morning," She offered shakily, wiping a strand of hair off her forehead, "I guess it's catching up to me. Something wrong Buck?"
"No...Yes...Hell, I'm in a fix." He sighed, nodding to a chair.
"I'm sorry, Buck," She moved forward and removed the stacks of books from the chair. "Please sit down. You want some coffee?"
"No, just some advice." He said softly, "I don't mean to pry, Mary, but...it's about Chris and Vin. I know you heard what when on between them this morning. I tried talking to both of them..."
"And you're still here...no bullet holes?" She teased gently, rubbing Buck's arm and getting a woeful smile.
"Yeah, how 'bout that?" He whispered. "I've never seen Vin so hurt. He fussin' and cussin' up a storm, but he didn't fool me one bit. He's scared and hurt...Chris really wounded him. And Chris," He sighed and shook his head. "I'm afraid he's gonna drop back into that black hole he lived in after Sarah and Adam died, if Vin leaves."
"You think he will?" She asked of the quiet tracker.
"I hope to God I'm wrong...but...I got a bad feeling. You see, I know how hard it was for Vin to plant himself here. Boy's been on his own since he was younger that Billy. He ain't never had a real home...friends...people to care for him. He was startin' to relax and get comfortable with it...till last week. What if Chris shattered that for good? What if Vin slammed that door shut inside? I don't know what to do Mary."
"I hope you're wrong Buck." She nodded, shivering as she remembered Vin's haunted eyes. "Did you ever look in Vin's eyes, Buck. Really look? For all his wild ways, rough background and toughness, he's painfully sensitive. I've never seen such emotion as he can convey."
"Yeah...I hear ya." Buck agreed, reflecting on the tell tale eyes he'd come to understand. "Them eyes of his cut me worse than a knife."
"That's what I saw this morning Buck, when he first stepped onto the boardwalk. Chris was turned away and I was in the shadows. He let his guard down and I saw such anguish and fear it cut me to the bone. For a split second, it was a small boy, lost and alone, his face painted with longing. Then, he spoke and I saw the change coming. Anger, hostility and rage poured out. It caught Chris off guard too, and despite his arrogance, he's scared. I think you have every right to be worried, if Vin leaves, a part of Chris will die, maybe the best part."
"Well, then, I guess I got my work cut out for me." Buck said crestfallen as he rose. "Thanks Mary."
"Hey, handsome, how about one of those world famous Wilmington smiles?" She teased, giving him a saucy grin. It was a weak Wilmington smile that was trying to be born, one that needed some help. "I'll try not to swoon too hard..."
"You don't strike me as the swoonin' type, Mary." He grinned, giving her a reward. "Stephen Travis was a damn lucky man " He offered, kissing her hand, "and Chris Larabee is a blind one." He shook his head, watching her cheeks color. "Your secret's safe with me, Mary. That hard-headed fool will come to senses one day and he better do right by you or I'll teach him some manners."
"Chivalrous and handsome," She hugged him and kissed his cheek. "One day, you're gonna make some lucky girl touch the sun, Buck. I hope I'm here to see it." She soothed, and got one more broad smile, "Partners?" She offered her hand, and help in solving the feud.
"Am I the pretty one or the smart one?" Buck laughed, shaking the extended hand. "I'll see you later. Thanks again, Mary."
"Why'd you do it, Chris?" Buck implored, "That night at Ella's...How could you sleep with her, knowing what she was?"
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