M7FFA Entry


Yesterday's Shadows

by Susan Zell

NOTE: This story takes place shortly after "Witness."

It was a miserable, wet afternoon in the Four Corners saloon and Chris Larabee skulked in his dark corner near the back, a bottle of Red Eye whiskey atop the worn table. No one sat with him, no one dared today for a black mood enveloped the gunslinger.

The rest of the saloon continued to bustle about him. Since the day was overcast with occasional bursts of rain, it drove most everyone indoors. That irked Chris. It was hard to maintain a good brood with so many distractions. He cupped a hand around the shot glass and lifted the amber liquid to his lips. It slipped past, a slow, steady burn every inch of the way. He barely felt it and yet he wanted to. He was desperate to drown out one pain with another.

Buck Wilmington burst through the saloon's swinging doors, his buckskin coat dark with the remnants of a soaking. He had been caught in one the passing downpours. Exasperated, he removed his hat and shook off the excess water like a massive dog. The huge droplets struck the dirt and the sawdust on the floor and were immediately absorbed.

Out of habit, he glanced around taking in the establishment's patrons. He immediately spotted Chris. The man's dark garb stood out in the dim saloon like a shadowy specter in paradise. Buck immediately recognized the mood his old friend was in and cursed silently. Over the last three years, these moods developed steadily and Buck knew all too well what they meant. Regardless, he met Chris' ever observant gaze and grinned at him. The gunslinger merely responded with a curt nod, then leaned further back into the shadows away from curious scrutiny.

Buck frowned. He knew this wasn't good, not only for everyone in the town but for Chris himself. The man couldn't keep this up without destroying what was left of his soul. Chris had always been moody. It was his nature. But there was a time when Chris Larabee had been more inclined towards life, when he had enjoyed those things that life could offer. A home, a family. It was the loss of those things that had made Chris half the man he once was. It was such a steady, downward spiral and god help him when the man hit bottom. Again. It pained Buck to watch his friend slip further and further away from the light into the dark persona now before them. Chris never seemed able to claw his way free of his grief.

For a time, Buck had almost believed that Chris had a chance to recover. This jaunt in town almost seemed like it was helping Chris. Buck had even witnessed glimpses of the old Chris from long ago, and though Chris had a long way to travel before Buck called him even close to the same man, it had been a start, a sense of hope.

But something had suddenly catapulted the gunfighter back into his self destructive state. It wasn't hard to figure what. The Travis boy had become infatuated with the sullen gunfighter. After saving the boy's life, Chris had seemed to relax around him a bit. They even went fishing together a few days back and everything seemed fine. So what the hell had happened?

Just then JD Dunne rushed into the saloon. He quickly looked about the room and spied Chris in the back. A huge grin split his features and he made his way towards him. Suddenly Buck was in his way. "Hey Buck," the young man greeted in distraction trying to get around the scoundrel..

"How ya doin', kid?" Buck eased an arm around JD and coaxed him towards the bar.

JD tried to turn back around intent on his original reason for coming into the saloon. "I need to tell Chris somethin'."

Buck's arm remained firm. "Is it business?"

JD's grin faded and he looked in surprise at Buck. "Well, no. Not really. Just that Billy Travis is lookin' for him."

Buck drew in a tired breath. "It might be best if you just forgot you found Chris here." He released the young kid and nodded to the bartender who quickly slid a foaming beer towards him.

"But why?"

Buck rubbed a throbbing muscle above his eye. Sometimes JD was just a tad slow on the uptake. "Remember back in Wickestown when we found Chris and he was ... preoccupied." JD nodded. "Well, it's sort of like that, if you get my drift."

JD looked over at the gunslinger sitting alone at his table. Perplexed, JD said, "But there's no one with him."

Buck exhaled in exasperation. "Trust me on this, JD. He doesn't want to be disturbed. Not by you, not by me and not by Billy Travis."

"How can you tell?"

"Damn it, kid! Just listen to me for a change. I know. I've seen him this way before. He needs some space."

JD tried to study Chris, to see what Buck was talking about but he could barely see the gunfighter's face much less the rest of him. He seemed to blend into the shadows as if he belonged there. Now that Buck had said something, JD could sense the menace that practically exuded from the gunfighter. Even those whose tables and chairs were nearest had been pushed as far away from Chris Larabee as they could get.

JD turned back to Buck, resting his forearms on the oaken bar. "What's the matter with him?"

"You ask too many damn questions," Buck said softly.

Annoyed at Buck's usual vague quips, JD made to leave, pushing himself off the bar in frustration. "Fine," he conceded. "I never saw him in here. Okay?"

"You're learning."

JD shook his head angrily and headed back out only to find Vin Tanner's tall form appearing suddenly over the swinging doors. "Riders comin' in," he announced dryly and then walked slowly down the sidewalk with his long-legged stride. Excited, JD followed close behind him.

Buck stole a glance at Chris who didn't look as if he was gonna move regardless of the news. *It's worse than I thought,* Buck mentally noted, but he gave up and went outside. To Buck's amazement, ten, grimy men rode down the muddy street towards the saloon in a weary double line. He recognized US Cavalry horses when he saw them. Buck's jaw dropped the minute he spied the lead rider sitting tall and straight on a huge dun. "I don't believe it," he whispered.

Nathan Jackson walked up to stand beside him. "Believe what?" he asked catching Buck's quiet words. He was on his way back to his room with more medical supplies. The last few weeks had drained him of the necessities. He made a mental note to check Chris' arm one more time. The man had given up the sling far sooner than Nathan liked.

Suddenly Buck's face lit up like the sun. He ran forward leaving a puzzled Nathan in his wake. "Major Brickhaven!"

The major pulled up his horse sharply at Buck's approach and glanced down, the elderly man's eyes creased with curiosity. "Do I know you?" The major's voice was low and quiet.

Buck's smile almost faded. He stood up a tad straighter. "Buck Wilmington, sir," he announced. "Fort Sumner, 7th Regiment, B Company."

Recognition flared in the old major and he returned Buck's grin. "Sergeant Wilmington," he exclaimed. "This is a surprise!" The major looked momentarily towards his lieutenant. "Take care of the horses and set up camp. We'll billet a mile out of town. See to it, lieutenant"

A young lieutenant with dark hair and dark eyes glanced at Buck and then responded to his superior. "Yes sir." His voice was clipped and sharp. He signaled to the men as the major dismounted and handed his reins to the lieutenant. Brickhaven walked up to Buck offering his gloved hand.

Buck shook it warmly. "You could have brushed me over with a feather when I saw you riding down the street."

Major Brickhaven chuckled rubbing a hand over his silver, bearded chin. "I'm surprised you recognized me, sergeant."

Buck grinned at the major's use of his old rank. "I've been out of the army a long time, major. I'm just a civilian now."

The major nodded. "Of course, but in my book you'll always be the best damn sergeant I ever had. You saved my life time and again. A man doesn't forget that."

Nathan, though curious, continued on to his room with his armload of supplies. It didn't appear there was going to be trouble. Vin and JD walked up beside Buck. The major watched them warily and then relaxed when Buck made the introductions.

Vin, always curious, asked, "What brings you to Four Corners, major?" His eyes swept the officer up and down and then focused for a moment on the major's men behind him as they rode past. They were caked with mud and their uniforms' were worn thin.

The major observed the drifter for a moment, noticing the man's attention. "Business," he intoned. "Could you direct me to the Sheriff's office?"

JD's eyes widened. He stepped forward. After all, he was still Sheriff in a way until the Judge returned. "I guess that'd be..."

Vin cut him off. "Judge Travis is the circuit judge in town, but he's not here. We've been left in charge so to speak till he returns." JD frowned but stepped back. Vin had his reasons, he supposed.

The major's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Is that so?"

Buck laughed and tried to put the man at ease. "Actually, it is and we've go the documentation to prove it, too. The Judge signed it before he left. We're sort of cleaning up the place, expelling the undesirable element making sure none take up permanent residence till he returns."

The major took in the current state of the town. "I see." It didn't look like much to him.

"You should have seen Four Corners before we came," JD commented with a little pride.

The major glanced irritably at the kid and then back to Vin. "So which of you is officially in charge or do you do this democratically?"

Vin was about to answer but Buck interrupted. "I'll go get him. He's in the saloon." He turned back to his friends and winked. "Why don't you escort the major to the Sheriff's office. I'll be there directly." Out of sight of the major, he showed the rest a quieting finger to his lips then he just about ran for the saloon.

Puzzled, JD stared after him. "What the heck is that about?"

Vin was silent for a moment but then answered softly, "We'll see." The two men escorted the major to the Sheriff's office.

Buck reentered the dim saloon which quieted momentarily at the new arrival then resumed its business. The gunfighter was still where Buck had left him. For a minute, Buck balked. Maybe this surprise wasn't such a good idea. He was about to change his mind when Chris suddenly leaned into the light, concern creasing his face as he stood.

"Trouble?" Chris asked. Buck's breathless countenance might mean something was up.

Buck came to the table, rubbing the edge of his hand across his mouth, trying quickly to decide on a course of action. "No, no. No trouble." Chris frowned and sank back down in his chair which elicited a smile from Buck. Chris almost seemed to want some excitement. He was a man who liked to be kept busy. That's why ranching had always suited him. There had been plenty of work.

Buck's mirth slipped a little. He chastised himself for contemplating the past but he knew how to extract himself out of it easier than Chris. Still, it was a bad habit. "We need you over at the Sheriff's office. Some business came up."

"The new people in town?"

"Yeah, someone's at the office now." Buck's lean frame sidled from side to side as he shifted his weight nervously.

"Handle it, Buck," Chris ordered not wanting to be bothered with petty things today. He poured another shot of whiskey, his head already down and examining the cluttered table.

Buck bit his lip. His friend had been turning more and more to the bottle of late. He had hoped Chris had gotten beyond that crutch. He remembered that when Sarah and Adam had perished, Chris had gone insane and crawled into the bottle to escape his agony. When Buck had found his old friend in Four Corners again he was pleased to see a glimmer of the man he knew existed. Chris was harder, colder, and deadlier, but he seemed to be more stable. It couldn't have been an easy battle, but Chris had done it. He had gone on with life such as it was. Yet now suddenly Chris was trying to dull a new pain and Buck was saddened to see Chris fall so easily back into old habits.

Buck knew this wasn't the time to deal with it so he refrained from commenting. He tried a different tact. He leaned forward, intent on spiking Chris' curiosity instead. "Chris, you really have to see this to believe it. Trust me." He grinned deviously at the gunslinger.

Chris scowled, anger slowly seeping in, his voice tight. "Buck, I'm not in the mood for games."

"This needs your attention, Chris. I wouldn't bother you if it wasn't important. You know that."

Chris sighed and pushed the glass away as he stood. "You better be right."

Buck nodded still smiling though internally he was praying that he *was* right 'cause the sparks were gonna fly if he was wrong.

Minutes later, they walked together into the Sheriff's office. It took Chris only a second to recognize the man standing at the Sheriff's desk. Genuine surprise swept through Chris.

The major spotted the gunslinger instantly and had the same reaction. "Well this is a day of miracles," he murmured. He quickly stepped towards Chris. "I should have known," he said more loudly. "You and the sergeant were always inseparable, Captain Larabee."

They shook hands and Chris noted the old man's shoulder. The man had not risen in rank. He respectfully inclined his head. "Major Robert Brickhaven. It's been a long time."

"Yes it has," the old man stated. "What is it? Fifteen years?"

"Close enough, major."

Major Brickhaven took in Chris' outfit. Last he remembered, Chris Larabee had talked about starting a ranch. His old captain certainly wasn't dressed for such at present. He dismissed it for the time being. "I gather you're the man Judge Travis left in charge of this town?"

Chris slowly took in Buck and the others and then nodded slowly. "Close enough. The Judge was shot a few weeks back and he asked us to stay and take care of things till he mends. I expect him back within a week or so." Chris gestured for the major to take a seat as the others took up positions around them.

The major positioned his saber to one side and took a seat opposite Chris. "I don't expect to be in town that long. I'm here on business."

"What kind of business?" Chris noticed the major's hesitation. "I'll vouch for them, major," he reassured the man. "They work with me."

Major Brickhaven scrutinized the official paperwork from Judge Travis once more and then laid it carefully on the desk. He made his decision. "We're here to meet up with the army payroll wagon and escort it back to the fort."

That took Chris by surprise. "We haven't heard of any payroll wagon scheduled to stop at Four Corners."

The major leaned back in his chair. It creaked in protest at the redistributed weight. "It's a special payroll, not one of the usual. We've lost the last four regular payrolls. Lost the money and some good men. We're not taking a chance with this one. It hasn't been announced nor its route revealed. I'd like it to stay that way. The less that know the better."

"Only seven men here need know."

The major shifted uncomfortably. "To be honest, that's seven too many, captain."

Chris winced slightly at the use of his old rank. "I'm not a captain anymore, major."

Major Brickhaven smiled thinly. "No one ever really leaves the army. It's in the blood to stay no matter where you go or when you leave. Those habits die hard."

Chris glanced at Buck and the corner of his own mouth tugged upright. "Some less than others though," he commented remembering Buck's unencumbered individuality. It was something that never sat well with the rules and regulations of the army. Buck grinned back at him. The scoundrel knew exactly to what Chris was referring. Chris returned his attention back to Brickhaven. "The bottom line, major, if the payroll wagon comes through Four Corners, and if trouble's expected, then my men will be informed."

The major rubbed a gnarled hand across his silver beard contemplating the turn of events. His gaze traveled around the men in the room. Three of which were currently missing but the ones that were here he felt weren't the type of men, excluding Chris and Buck, that he would choose to leave in defense of a town, one was just a boy and the other an apparent buffalo hunter. Of course, even Chris and Buck had changed from when the major had last known them which was a sad fact of life. People changed sometimes not for the better. He had no way of knowing which way his old subordinates had gone but right now he had little choice in the matter. Besides, he knew Judge Travis to be a reputable man. If he trusted these men enough to put the entire town in their keeping who was he to argue. He nodded at Chris. "If you vouch for these men, then I'll accept that." He got down to business. "The wagon arrives the day after tomorrow, early in the morning. We shall meet up with it near here and escort it back to Fort Sumner."

That evening Chris sat at his usual table with Buck and the major. It was not something he relished for he knew eventually the conversation would turn to the past. That was someplace he was not willing to go. He knew Buck would not offer up any details concerning Chris' past. The two had come to an understanding about that.

A small part of Chris felt bad about what happened with Buck that day but Chris' anger had been all consuming after Mary Travis had confronted him in the mercantile. It had hit him like a knife in the heart. She had taken him unawares and struck him where he was the most vulnerable. He had been lucky it had been only her and not someone else. It gave his enemies a power over him that he hated and swore it would never happen again and that meant stopping it at its source. At least Buck understood now. It would not happen again. Regardless, it still was uncomfortable to even look into the distant past. His time with the major happened long before Sarah and Adam. With that thought Chris swallowed hard, his jaw clenching. Buck's sudden laughter was grating and Chris winced. This evening was going to be hell.

The scoundrel turned to Chris. "Remember Chris?"

Chris turned his attention back to the conversation. Thankfully, Buck continued on without expecting an answer.

"When Private Cooper and I tried to sneak Jenny Two Feathers back out of the post?"

Chris was almost tempted to smile. He did remember that incident. "I found you out behind the corral," he recalled quietly. "Cooper had gotten stuck crawling through the hole you dug under the wall."

Buck laughed heartily his breath coming in loud gulps. "Oh man, I thought we were done for. When you showed up, Jenny started insisting that she was being kidnapped by us."

The major snickered. "That's why her arms were full of army supplies."

This time Chris' frown did tug upwards though he was surprised that Brickhaven found the incident amusing for he sure hadn't at the time. Buck had spent two weeks in the brig for that and Chris had wound up pulling double duty. It was only Chris' quick thinking that saved Buck and Cooper from instant dismissal. The commander of the fort had a soft spot for the problems plaguing the Indians and agreed to allow Jenny Two Feathers to take the supplies to her people. Brickhaven, on the other hand, had been ready to execute the lot of them. He had been a man of bluster and regulations then, a man completely devoted to the rudimentary duties of a fort.

Brickhaven wiped the tears from his eyes. "I remember it as if it were yesterday."

"Well, major, you've certainly mellowed with age," Buck commented. "I thought I was done for back then."

"You were in the army, Buck. That makes all the difference in the world. You had to obey the regulations otherwise you couldn't become a good soldier."

"Well you and Chris certainly kept me in line. The man I am today, I owe to the two of you."

Chris cringed at Buck's blatant hero worship. Buck had always admired Brickhaven, he had been always willing to help the man out of whatever situation the major found himself, which was often. Brickhaven never had a head for strategy. He left that to Chris and Buck, his subordinates. Chris had found it annoying while Buck had taken pride in the major's trust. Chris sighed. That was all part of the past now. "Looks like you made the army a career, major," Chris noted.

Brickhaven's elation faded slightly and then recovered. "Yes, yes, I certainly did. The army has been like a mother to me."

Chris scrutinized the major for a second then nodded. "It's not an easy path but I'm sure it's had its rewards."

The major tossed back a shot of whiskey and hissed through his teeth. "Yes, she's been very rewarding."

Just then Brickhaven's young lieutenant arrived. His perpetual scowl only darkened his complexion even more. He snapped off an abrupt salute, never taking his eyes off Chris but as soon as the major turned towards him, the lieutenant regarded his superior. "The men are billeted and the horses cared for major."

"Excellent. Lieutenant Adam Silverstone, I'd like to introduce Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington. We served together back in Fort Sumner a long time ago."

Silverstone nodded curtly to each of them, his eyes lingering last on Chris who met the young man's cold gaze with one of his own. "Pleasure," the lieutenant offered gruffly.

Buck noticed where the brusque lieutenant's concentration was aimed and curiously attempted to distract him. "So, how long you been with the major, son?"

A furious fire swept through the lieutenant, a fire Chris had seen many times before on dusty streets in backwater towns from upstarts with something to prove. Buck was playing a dangerous game.

"I'm not your son," Silverstone retorted curtly.

Brickhaven quickly intervened. "The lieutenant's been with me for three years now. Been a godsend. Some days, I'm not sure if I even have my head on straight."

Buck grinned, lounging further back in his chair to show how little the man's bravado affected him. "He sounds like a mighty handy fellah to have around."

Silverstone continued to glare at Buck but was forced to address the major when he ordered the man to post two guards at either end of town. Silverstone snapped off a "Yes sir!" and turned to leave.

Chris caught him before he left. "Lieutenant! I have two men already on watch. Be sure your men are aware of them."

The major and Silverstone exchanged glances. The major pursed his lips. "Chris, this is army business. Perhaps it would be best to let my men take care of the town while we're here."

Chris' voice lost none of its edge. "Major, Four Corners is my responsibility. What happens in this town I'm accountable for. It stays that way whether or not the army is here. My men are more than capable of handling any situation that arises."

Silverstone sneered at Chris. "Larabee, your *men* are nothing more than children and drifters. Hired guns with no loyalty but to their own pockets. I wouldn't trust them with helping a old widow across the street much less an army payroll."

Buck winced in anticipation of Chris' reaction but Brickhaven moved in to defuse the matter, though in Buck's opinion, he did a damn poor job of it.

"Gentlemen," he interrupted putting his hand on Silverstone's arm. As soon as the lieutenant backed down, Brickhaven regarded Chris. "Pardon my bluntness, Chris but even I have to admit the men you've chosen are a rather-- diverse-- lot. A con-man, an ex-slave, a buffalo hunter, an ex-priest and a child. Hardly a group that instills confidence."

Chris blew out a slow steady breath to calm himself, straightening in his chair. "Regardless of what you think major, my judgment on this matter stands. You can take it up with the Judge when he returns. Until then my men have jurisdiction here. If you want to make this solely army business then I suggest you officially do so right now."

Brickhaven and Chris locked steel gazes. Chris had laid his challenge on the table and the major weighed his options carefully, watching the unflinching stare of a man he had once known and had respected.

Finally, Brickhaven gave in. "No, of course not. I was merely surprised at your choices but I'm sure your men are quite capable." He turned to Silverstone. "Lieutenant, you will comply and cooperate with Mr. Larabee's men whenever possible."

In Buck's opinion, Silverstone was not a happy man. In fact, he looked downright irate. The angry soldier drew a deep breath in as if to make a retort to his superior but with a Herculean effort refrained in time. He spun on his heel and left without so much as a "yes, sir." Buck cast a glance at Chris who raised an eyebrow at Silverstone's blatant insubordination, but what disturbed the gunfighter even more was the fact that Brickhaven didn't call his lieutenant on it. Fifteen years ago, he would have.

The major shrugged sheepishly, downing the rest of his whiskey. "You have to excuse the lieutenant. He lost a close friend in the last raid."

"Seems like he should be more angry at the raiders than at us," Buck noted.

Pouring himself another drink, Brickhaven remarked, "The man is a stickler to duty. He trusts no one and would rather do the job himself than delegate."

"Sounds like a man who shouldn't be in the army," Chris stated matter-of-factly. It hadn't taken Silverstone long to get under Chris' skin. The gunslinger's early impression of the man was already poor and Chris' hunches were rarely wrong.

Brickhaven raised his head and met Chris' intense scrutiny. "I've found him to be indispensable."

"That's what matters, I suppose," the gunfighter replied tightly.

With a nervous swallow, Brickhaven quickly, almost purposely, changed the subject. "So how did your ranching venture pan out? As I remember you and Buck had big plans."

Chris' face hardened abruptly into stone. Even though he knew it was coming, he found he was still horribly unprepared to discuss the past. The muscles in his jaw clenched till they ached. He couldn't bring himself to answer. Thankfully, Buck attracted the major's attention and Chris closed his eyes in relief.

"We gave it a try for a time and then moved on to other things," Buck explained cryptically then quietly deflected the conversation. "I was a lawman for a time."

"That suits you, Buck. It would give you a little bit more independence than the rules of the army."

"Oh, don't get me wrong, major. I enjoyed my time in the army. Steady meals, regular pay and the uniform. I always found that the women loved a man in uniform." Buck waggled his eyebrows.

Brickhaven laughed. "Ah yes, you and the ladies. You smuggled more women onto that fort than there were soldiers."

"You should be grateful they weren't all at one time, major."

With a shake of his head, Brickhaven leaned back. "I swear, I don't know how Chris kept you in line."

Buck smiled gently at his partner. Chris had regained his composure slightly though tension still oozed from the gunslinger. "Chris has his ways," he said. Chris shifted towards Buck and though there was no returning smile, Buck could see a glimmer of humor crease his old Captain's eyes.

Brickhaven stood tiredly. "Well, it's been a long day. I best be getting on to the camp and check on things. Goodnight Buck. Chris."

The two men offered their farewells and watched as the old man shuffled out the door. After he was gone, Buck clunked his boots down heavily on the table rattling the glasses and the almost empty bottle. "Damn, if that don't beat all, eh Chris? Major Brickhaven! Who would have thought to see him way out here after all this time?"

Chris frowned. "Yeah. What a surprise." His voice was toneless.

"Come on, Chris," Buck said, trying to lighten up the other man's mood. "This is old times back when we were young and stupid. The army wasn't so bad. As I remember it, you liked all those rules and regulations. You were practically made for the army. Now me on the other hand," Buck grinned wryly, "Brickhaven and me never saw eye to eye on anything."

"Then why are you so happy to see him?"

"Because ol' pard, I'm no longer a soldier. No more yielding to the brass for me. Besides, I liked old Brickhaven. He was fun to torment." Buck grew a tad melancholy. "Also, I owe him. He saved my bacon that time you got laid up after that Indian shot your horse out from under you."

That memory wasn't a particularly good one and it irritated Chris. "You shouldn't have followed that old fool out there. He was wrong and you knew it. You're lucky you both made it back alive."

Buck frowned. "You know, Chris, sometimes you're an old stick in the mud." He rose abruptly. "I think Brickhaven was an okay commander under very trying circumstances. Hell, we all made mistakes back then. Give the old man a break." Buck drained his glass and left, tired of lectures.

Chris shook his head wearily and poured himself another shot. "Yeah, Brickhaven's such a fine commander. That's why he's still just a major," the gunslinger mumbled.

Vin Tanner walked down the left side of the street, letting his eyes scan the alleys on one pass and then the windows around him on the next. There was no sign of movement, no form that shouldn't have been there since his last stroll. Ezra Standish was taking his stroll down the other street. Vin allowed a small chuckle. Ezra had not been happy to pull duty tonight. It was the coldest night of the year so far. The dandy had grumbled about the quiet state of the town, the complacent people, the presence of the army, and the horrible state of the weather in an effort to justify that no protection was necessary this evening. No one had listened.

The frigid air clutched at Vin tonight as he walked down the street. It was cold and damp and he felt it seep physically into his very being. He ignored it, concerning himself with other thoughts. He didn't like the soldiers in town, not merely because of the way they treated the Indians but mainly there was something about them that seemed odd. He couldn't place his finger on it. If it weren't for Buck and Chris' past association with Major Brickhaven, he would have made an issue out of it but for now he kept his thoughts only to himself. After all, it was only a gut feeling so far. He'd wait to find out something more solid before making accusations.

He paused, leaning against the nearest building. The moon was merely a dim blur within the clouds, so the only light emanating around him was the auroras of the few, muted lights from the curtained windows and the smoldering streetfires that struggled to remain lit. Vin preferred it that way, he liked the dark.

He eased further into the shadows, feeling more secure there. It wrapped around him making him the obscure person he had always been. The sky above him opened and the rains returned with a vengeance. Vin hunched his jacket collar closer to his neck and secured it. He was protected by a small overhang, the rain running down its surface in a near sheet. He remained where he was, angling a bit towards a small area where he could still see the street, the torrent deflected by something from above.

There wasn't anyone moving about, especially now that the rains arrived. No one would be fool enough to be out here now. Everything was still and the only sounds he could hear above the steady tattoo of the rain was the hissing from the dying fires in the street. Four Corners was finally serene and for the first time since his arrival, Vin actually liked the town.

He straightened from the wall about to step out onto the street when he froze. A figure walked down the opposite sidewalk. Army uniform, Vin observed. He relaxed but stayed where he was. He recognized the figure as Lieutenant Silverstone who paused, surveying his surroundings. His gaze swept past Vin but didn't see him.

Vin decided to wait until Silverstone resumed motion. Seconds later the figure moved on, but Vin never moved, his eyes now on the three other men in buckskin emerging from the night to move after the figure.

Vin paused a beat, letting them pass and then he blended into the shadows behind them. When the army man turned down an alley, Vin's eyebrow rose. If the lieutenant realized he was being followed, entering an alley was not a wise move on a night like this. The pursuers would definitely have the advantage within the narrow, dark alley which could easily conceal a dozen dangers.

Vin wished he had time to contact Ezra. Being out of visual range from the gambler made Vin's next move foolish. He followed the men into the alley.

Ezra Standish hid inside a doorway out of the elements. He despised this freakish weather and shivered despite the heavy green wool jacket he wore. How the temperature could drop so low, so fast was beyond him. He wished he had garnered a slicker prior to heading out on tonight's rounds. Actually, he had hoped that it would have been unnecessary now that the army was in town, but the seven's illustrious leader had determined that obviously wasn't enough protection. Ezra silently cursed Chris Larabee. The gunslinger truly expected far too much of him. He was a simple con-man and yet Larabee continually insisted he be something more. Ezra wasn't sure exactly what that was nor whether he was ready to change into something else, though there was a part of him that didn't mind a slight transformation so long as it didn't get himself killed and it proved profitable in the long run.

After his mother's visit everything became complicated. She had started him thinking of the real reasons he stayed in Four Corners, reasons that shocked the hell out of him, reasons he tried to deny. Everyone, Ezra included, assumed that it was for purely selfish reasons that he stayed in Four Corners, that he wanted Mary Travis and the rest of his new compatriots owing him a favor in some form or the other. One never knew when such people would be handy to have around in his line of business. Yet then there was that other side of him, the one that spoke in hushed whispers of his exploits being solely for altruistic reasons. Otherwise, why would he continue to be ordered around by Chris Larabee. The gunslinger constantly pushed him to his moral limits and then beyond. Ezra cursed the man at the start of every venture but by the venture's end the gambler felt a rise in his self worth which Ezra found surprisingly rewarding. Maybe Chris Larabee knew him better than he knew himself.

He glanced at his timepiece. Mr. Tanner should have made it back towards him by now. He strained to see movement down the street but there was nothing visible through the torrent of rain. Maybe Tanner had merely availed himself of some shelter much like Ezra.

The gambler frowned. No, that wasn't like Tanner. The man loved the outdoors. A simple thing like a downpour wouldn't bother the bounty hunter. Ezra waited a bit more. There was little that would force him to leave the dry shelter he had found. It would have to be a most valid reason to drive him out into the storm.

More time went by and still the bounty hunter did not appear. "Damn it, Mr. Tanner, show yourself!" But still nothing. Ezra sighed and hunched his collar up around his neck, preparing himself. "Mr. Tanner, if you are not in the most dire of predicaments, you are paying for a new jacket." Without another word the gambler darted into the maelstrom.

Vin followed the men into the alley, his darkened buckskin making him all but invisible in the shadows. The men he was following were huddled together talking. Vin studied them curiously. Silverstone didn't appear to be in any apparent danger from these men. However they didn't look like anyone from here in town but the distance and the elements made verification of that impossible.

Vin didn't like Silverstone much. His attitude through the day had done little to put Vin at ease. He respected Brickhaven out of consideration for Buck and Chris' past relation with the man but there was still something odd about the major and his company.

Suddenly, there was movement behind him and he spun to see Ezra Standish creeping up on him. Vin gestured for him to crouch lower and then glanced at Silverstone and his visitors who had thankfully not noticed Ezra's approach due to the driving rain.

"Are you in trouble, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin eyed him strangely. "No," he said quietly, wishing Ezra would lower his voice.

"Then perhaps you wouldn't mind offering a donation towards a new coat." He plucked at a sodden sleeve. "This one has seen its last day, I'm afraid."

Vin had no idea what the gambler was going on about but he dismissed him irately and bobbed his chin towards Silverstone. "I had assumed the lieutenant there was about to be robbed by those men but it appears I was wrong. They're a might too friendly." He brushed the excess water from his face. "Still, I'd like to know who they are."

Ezra sighed in disgust as much for his damp, cold body as for the current state of his wardrobe. "Well, let's just go ask them, shall we." Ezra stood abruptly and strode forward, shoving aside some debris. "Then perhaps we can withdraw out of this deluge."

Vin tried to stop the foolish con-man but it was too late. The party of men turned as one towards the sound. Vin cursed and stood to back up Ezra.

"Gentlemen, do you not think that this weather calls for you to conduct your little soiree indoors?"

All the men reached immediately for their weapons including Silverstone. The man on the lieutenant's left grabbed Silverstone's arm and then slammed a fist into his face. Silverstone fell back stunned.

The minute weapons came into play, a surprised Ezra dodged to the left and flexed his arm bringing his derringer into his hand. Then the darkness was split by gunfire.

Vin ducked behind some crates pulling his Mare's Leg from its holster. His shot brought a fellah down. The other two briefly returned fire and then fled. Vin gave chase but lost them in the darkness.

Ezra approached Silverstone who was groggily getting to his feet. The gambler stared down at him but offered no help. The water collecting within the brim of his hat poured down around Silverstone's boots.

"Thanks for the help," Silverstone said brusquely holding his jaw gingerly.

Ezra carefully scrutinized him then the dead man. "Who were they?" He glanced up as Vin returned. The bounty hunter eased up to the other side of the Silverstone.

"Don't know but they were planning on robbing me!"

"They sure took their time about it," Vin noted dryly.

Silverstone swung towards him, contemplating his tone. "I almost had them convinced to do otherwise till he showed up." He nodded at the gambler. "Nice town you have here."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Seems to me you've been named well, such a tongue of silver. What did you say that would sway them suddenly from their life of crime?"

Silverstone brushed past them. "That I had no money."

Ezra paused in genuine surprise and then laughed. "Well, I suppose that would do it."

"Ever see them before?" Vin asked following after Silverstone.

The lieutenant glanced briefly over his shoulder at the bounty hunter. "No. I'm new here in town. Why would I know them?"

Vin shrugged, his eyes still boring into the Lieutenant. "Just askin'."

Silverstone frowned and then headed for the saloon, Vin and Ezra right behind him.

Early the next morning the weather cleared a bit and a few brave people wandered through the town trying to avoid the sucking mud hole that the streets had become. It was nigh impossible. Nathan and Josiah made their way carefully across the slippery mess aiming for the mission, their pants coated in the filth above their ankles.

"Winter's last breath was mighty wet one," Josiah commented pulling himself up onto the landing of the sidewalk.

"You're tellin' me." Nathan joined him, shaking his mud covered boot off to the side. Large globs of the wet, bulky stuff joined the rest piling steadily on the drenched, wooden planks. His eyes scanned the still quiet street. "There's bound to be some wagons getting stuck this morning."

"Hopefully, residents will be wise enough to avoid it." Josiah stamped his feet hard trying to lessen the dragging weight of the mud. "I have alot of work left to do in the church. I do not want to spend my time wallowing in this hellish stuff."

Nathan tapped on the preacher's arm. "Too late." He gestured to an army wagon already trapped in the sucking mud. The horses struggled to keep their feet as the driver tried to urge them on. Josiah sighed and eased himself back down into the street. Nathan waded after him, smiling. The big preacher would never abandon a soul in need.

Josiah grabbed the side of the wagon. "Need some help?"

The army private looked down from the front seat. "Obliged. I need to bring these supplies out to the camp."

Nathan took up a position in the back. "Urge them on again," he said indicating the horses. The private snapped the reins and the horses strained against their traces. Josiah and Nathan placed their shoulders to the wood and heaved. The wagon rocked back and forth and then settled again in its wet hole.

"What's going on here?" A huge bear of man with sergeant stripes approached from behind them.

Nathan turned. "The obvious. Your wagon's stuck."

The army sergeant glared at Nathan. He didn't care much for the man's sense of humor but he took up position on the other side of him. "Try it again, Hudson!" he ordered sharply.

Nathan grinned wryly and shoved the wagon as hard as he could. The extra muscle did the job and the wagon rolled free, the horses straining against the slop. "Keep it moving. Don't stop till you hit something solid," he called after the private. Then he turned and regarded the back of the sergeant who was watching the wagon move slowly up the street. There was a hole in the army man's coat, high up on the left shoulder. A second before the sergeant turned to him, Nathan could have sworn there was some discoloration around it.

The sergeant's steel gray eyes swung on the healer as Josiah came to stand beside him. "Thanks for your assistance," the burly man offered to them both. He was nearly as massive as Josiah's own towering frame.

"Hate to see it tying up traffic," the preacher joked.

The beefy sergeant thought a moment and then laughed, offering a hand. "Sergeant Tom Mitchell." Nathan and Josiah shook the sergeant's hand warmly. "You're part of the seven gunfighters hired to protect this town, right?"

Nathan and Josiah exchanged amused glances. "We're not gunfighters," Josiah commented.

"In fact, he's a preacher and I'm interested in healing folk."

Mitchell nodded. "Let me ask you men, where the hell are all the women in this town? This place is about as barren as a church yard." He glanced at Josiah, "No offense."

Josiah shrugged dismissing the matter. "It's a rough town. Not exactly made for the gentler sex."

"Well, what about working women, if you know what I mean?" The man winked lecherously.

Nathan fought the frown that threatened to show. "Sorry, most of them left town for San Francisco. Better clientele, I suppose." That information did not please Mitchell. Nathan chewed on his lower lip, contemplating his next statement. "How's that wound?"

The sergeant looked confused. "What do you mean?"

"I thought I saw you favoring that left arm," Nathan lied.

The sergeant regarded the black man carefully before he answered. "No. My left arm's just fine." The man moved it around to demonstrate.

Josiah looked at his friend oddly but said nothing. Nathan smiled. "My mistake then."

Mitchell studied them both a minute more and then he stepped up onto the sidewalk. "Well, I guess I've got work to do. Good day."

When the man was gone, Josiah crossed his arms. "Now what was that about?"

Nathan's smile faded. "There was a bullet hole in that army coat."

Josiah raised an eyebrow. "Interesting. Maybe that wasn't his coat. Or maybe the army's saving money and the coat's merely seen better days."

"Maybe," Nathan mused. "Still, it's strange. Sloppiness ain't tolerated much in the army. You'd think he'd have had it fixed by now." He spotted Vin walking down the sidewalk towards the saloon. He glanced back towards Josiah. "I'll meet you at the church."

Josiah pursed his lips as Nathan crossed the street. "Your observant nature is gonna get you in trouble one of these days, my friend." Nathan waved a nonchalant hand in the preacher's direction and continued on. Josiah shook his head and returned his attention to the church.

It was almost noon when Vin entered the hotel restaurant and made his way towards Chris' table. The gunfighter sat there nursing a cup of coffee and a mild hangover. One thing Vin noticed about the man, he drank quietly and suffered in solitary silence, exorcising his own demons and though Vin didn't agree with his new friend's method he wouldn't begrudge Chris' desperate search for solace. The last thing the gunfighter needed was to be badgered. The man's clarity about what needed to be done in this town was solid enough. Chris held his demons in careful check. They never interfered, at least not yet.

Chris raised red rimmed eyes at Vin's approach. The bounty hunter was pleased to see that beyond that they were clear and lucid. "Mornin'." he offered.

Chris grunted and sipped his coffee. "If you say so." He had been up an hour or so and already regretted it. This day promised to be no better than the last, too many things left undone that he knew he would have to deal with eventually. His scowl deepened.

Vin snatched a chair from an empty table and spun it around to straddle it. Neither of them said anything more for a time. He scanned the room. There were a few other people in the place finishing their breakfast but none of them were of any concern. He glanced back at Chris. He had never seen the man eat breakfast, usually just a meal in the evenings. It was no wonder to Vin that the man remained so thin.

Vin ran a hand over his jaw unsure suddenly on how to begin voicing his concerns over last night. It wasn't as easy as he thought it would be. He didn't want to cause a rift with the accusations he was gonna start throwing about.

Chris observed the bounty hunter carefully. It was obvious something was bothering him. After the ruckus last night, Vin had seemed edgy. Chris hadn't broached the subject then, waiting instead until Vin was ready to come forth. It seemed like now was the time but whatever it was, it wasn't going to be good. Chris leaned back and made it easier. "Just come out and say it, Vin."

Vin grinned slightly. It had been like this ever since that first day when they had caught the other's eye from across the dusty street. Chris could read Vin as easily as if they had been friends forever and Vin was always able to see deeper inside Chris than he allowed most. Little was ever lost in their observations of life around them or of each other. It was probably what kept them alive and also what kept them as friends.

"How well do you know the major?" Vin began slowly.

Chris was not surprised at the direction of Vin's question. "I *knew* him." He made sure he emphasized the past. "It was a long time ago."

"Did he change much?"

Chris cupped his hand around the warm cup easing the cold, stiff ache in his fingers. The wound in his right arm ached abominably this morning. "In some ways."

Vin viewed the semi-empty room. He didn't want this to turn into an interrogation so he changed his tactics. "I don't think much of his lieutenant."

Chris let a small smile crease his lips. "I don't think much of him either. He's got a chip on his shoulder." He took a sip of his drink.

"You think he's itching for someone to knock it off?"

"Maybe." Chris shrugged. "I'm hoping Brickhaven can keep him in line." He took in Vin over the rim of his coffee cup. "You want to tell me what really happened last night."

Vin shifted uneasily in his chair. "It happened the way I said, only I don't believe Silverstone's story. From what I've seen of his manners, I don't believe he could sweet talk a possum out his meal much less three bandits outta robbing him."

Chris fought the grin that threatened. "I know what you mean."

"They stood around and gabbed for almost ten minutes before Ezra showed up." Vin's frustration and uneasiness grew. "I just can't shake the feeling there's something odd here, I just can't put my finger on it. I wasn't gonna say anything but then Nathan noticed something strange too." Chris' eyes narrowed and waited for Vin to continue. "Their clothes are a might too worn, hell some of them are even ill-fitting and then Nathan spots what he thinks is a bullet hole in one of them. If it weren't for you and Buck knowing Brickhaven, I'd swear those men weren't even Cavalry just a damn poor imitation."

Chris set his cup down. "Brickhaven always struck me as a lifer in the army but he was never any good out in the field. He was always more suited to the safety and complacency of a fort, at least in my opinion which doesn't count for much. As for the rest of his men, I can't vouch for them." He was silent for a moment, thinking, then he looked at Vin, his mind set. "Let me see what I can find out. I'll send a wire today to Fort Sumner. We'll learn the truth soon enough. Till then, keep your eyes open."

Vin nodded, relieved that Chris was willing to listen. The past was something Chris did not like to talk about and Vin had been concerned that that included Brickhaven as well. He stood pushing the chair back to its regular spot. Chris never had more than one chair at his table. Very few people were invited to sit with him. The six understood and only they were willing to encroach on Chris' territory and only when they gauged his mood amiable.

Chris stood with him and together they went outside not realizing they were under a watchful gaze. The shadow slipped back into the alley but stepped out the minute the two men separated following the man in black to the telegraph office.

The day seemed drier. Huge cumulus clouds swept overhead with amazing speed and occasionally allowed brief brilliant rays of the sun to stream forth before snatching them away once again. Chris lowered the brim of his hat against the glare of the momentary sun hitting the glass pane of the hotel window. Now that the telegraph was sent, he walked slowly down the sidewalk, his thoughts consumed with other things. He barely heard the footsteps coming up behind him and he mentally berated himself for being so lax. He swung around to see Nathan jogging towards him.

"Chris!" Nathan called out as the gunslinger paused. "How's that arm of yours?"

"It's fine." Scowling, Chris resumed his walking.

Nathan cursed the man silently and followed doggedly after. "I want to change the bandage and check the stitches."

"They're fine."

Nathan halted throwing up his arms in disgust. "Okay! Let it go gangrene and then I'll just lop it off or you can die slow like ol' man Fallon. He told me the same thing."

Chris paused again, his mind flashing back quickly to the first day they met. He took a deep breath and then nodded in defeat at the man.

Nathan knew better than to smile at his victory. He led the way to his room, Chris placidly trailing. Once Nathan had him there, he took his time in his examination. He doubted he'd get Chris here again so willingly. Chris discarded his shirt and laid it carefully across a nearby chair. Nathan frowned as he removed the bloodstained bandage. Some of the blood had leaked onto Chris' grey shirt but the black duster the man wore had neatly covered that fact. "You're using your arm too much. Some of the stitches have ripped, Chris. You've got to let it heal. You should be using that sling still."

"The sling's an annoyance," Chris stated matter-of-factly.

"Be that as it may, it'll keep your arm steady and the stitches in." He twisted Chris' arm slightly to look at them, making Chris wince. "Hell, the flesh's so torn now, I'm not sure if another set will hold." He took out a bottle and saturated a sterile cloth with it's contents. "This is gonna hurt some."

Chris steeled himself and gritted his teeth as Nathan cleaned the wound. He changed the topic of conversation to distract himself. "About what you told Vin this morning, how old do you think that bullet hole was?"

"Hard to say, but the discoloration looked recent enough, no less than a month maybe."

"And he wasn't wounded?"

Nathan smiled. "From the size of the hole in the coat and it's location, that man shouldn't have had full rotation of that arm. No one heals that fast." He eyed Chris purposely making a point that he doubted Chris caught or if he had the sullen gunfighter ignored it.

Chris considered this information then hissed sharply as Nathan tightened a new bandage around his arm. He glared at the young healer. "Have you seen Buck this morning?"

"Him and JD are out scouting with Brickhaven. They left early this morning and haven't come back yet. You think something's up?"

"Maybe." Chris slipped back into his shirt, easing his throbbing arm carefully into the sleeve. He didn't like where this was heading, not one bit and neither would Buck but for all the wrong reasons.

Buck reined in his horse, JD pulling up beside him. Ahead of them the road was awash, the banks of the local river overflowing. The brown, muddy water rushed swiftly past slamming against trees and brush most of which had been sheared off and swept downstream. Buck estimated that the water was just over five feet deep. Brickhaven came up scowling on his big dun. "Looks like you'll have to find another route for that wagon, major."

"Damn," Brickhaven cursed.

JD gazed skyward as huge dark thunderclouds moved into the area. "Vin said that it was gonna rain again later today. This road's not about to get any better."

"Damn it," Brickhaven cursed again, startling his mount which sidestepped briskly making the mud fly beneath its hooves.

His old commander's reaction struck Buck as odd. He quieted his own restless horse under him. "I wouldn't worry about it none. There's other ways around this river."

Brickhaven removed his hat and wiped a sweat covered brow. "Which road would that wagon have to take as an alternate?"

"There's a road or two they could take if they know the area."

"Why don't you just have one of your men meet up and escort them back here?" JD asked bluntly.

Brickhaven glared at him irately but directed his comment towards his old sergeant. "Show me the alternate routes, Buck."

Buck studied his old friend, puzzled by his recent behavior but then remembered the man had always had a stress problem when things didn't go exactly as planned. "No problem, major." He backed his horse up.

JD exchanged a sheepish shrug with Buck as the small troop moved off circling back around the swollen river. Buck hung back a bit allowing JD to take the lead and then sidled his steed next to Brickhaven's. "What's up, major? This whole thing has got you a tad worked up."

Brickhaven was silent but then turned towards his old sergeant. "I'll be honest with you Buck. This is my last chance to prove myself to my superiors. I'm too old to be doing this kind of shit. I deserve a cushy office not traipsing all around God's good earth."

"Never took you for a desk man, major."

"Age does things to a man, Buck. Someday you'll find that out. Every old wound that you've garnered over the years comes back to haunt you." Brickhaven eased his large frame around in his saddle. "There comes a time when you have to admit to yourself that you're too damn old and just accept your limitations with dignity."

Buck chuckled softly. "Hell, I feel that way now sometimes." He sobered a bit watching Brickhaven grimace against obvious pain. "Have you requested such a position?"

"More times than I can count. Unfortunately, my record lately hasn't left much to impress the brass with. I've made some grievous errors that they refuse to overlook." Brickhaven's tone turned bitter. "If I can pull this off without a hitch, it would prove to them that I'm not some has been, that I deserve to command a fort!"

Buck remained quiet. He had rarely heard his old friend talk with such venom. Brickhaven had a definite grudge against his superiors, not that he blamed the major. Buck decided that anything he could do to help Brickhaven secure a desk job, if that's what he truly wanted, Buck would do. He owed him that much.

JD glanced back, surprised at the loud voices. He had been listening as best he could but still missed too much of the conversation to know exactly what was going on. He shrugged. Buck would fill him in later, he was sure.

Chris entered the Clarion News to find its proprietor nestled behind the desk busily arranging the type for the next edition of her newspaper. She glanced up with much surprise at her visitor.

"Mr. Larabee." Mary wiped the excess ink from her hands and approached him. She looked towards the stairs half expecting a small blond form to come barreling down at any moment. "What can I do for you?"

Chris nodded a greeting, his face locked into a painful grimace of which he wasn't even aware. He too expected to see young Billy Travis, the last person he wanted to meet today. He regarded the boy's mother who had undergone a transformation in the last two weeks due in part to Billy's own progress. Now that the boy had faced his nightmares and brought to justice the men who had murdered his father, both mother and son were more relaxed. Their lives had been restored to a sense of normalcy thanks to Chris and the rest. In fact, Mary seemed almost to shine of late. It made Chris even more uncomfortable. He took a lengthy breath before he spoke. "I need a favor."

Mary never hesitated. "Of course."

Her impulsive willingness disturbed him. She had no idea what he was going to ask of her, heedless of the possible danger. "You don't have to do this," he reminded her.

Mary smiled benignly at him. "Yes, I do and I don't mind. I want to," she assured him. "How can I help you?"

He reconsidered his idea wondering if it was a mistake to involve her. Eventually though, he swallowed his apprehension, realizing he had little choice. "How current are your records?"

Chris left Mary's office fifteen minutes later, shutting the door behind him with relief. He had escaped without having to confront Billy Travis and thereby perhaps confront himself. For the first time since his arrival in Four Corners, Chris was suddenly a stranger to himself. There was a lightness in him just a few days ago that had frightened him and yet made him also feel like a complete person again. It had come upon him so suddenly and for a moment he was afraid he'd return to the dark man he naturally was. He knew he would, he had to. It was the only way for him to survive these days.

Yet Mary and Billy Travis continually reminded him of a life that should have been his. He had tasted serenity again and damn his soul for wanting more. Damn Mary for offering him the sweet wine of hope. Damn himself for making it bitter now.

He replayed the scene that haunted him this week, Billy so happily fishing while Chris rested quietly on the grass beside him. Billy had blurted out that Chris should marry his mother. The boy had practically begged him for a family and Chris had done nothing but stare at the boy, struck dumb by the boy's innocent wish. He finally just shook his head and harshly murmured, "No." The disappointment in Billy's eyes tore into Chris and the boy turned back to fishing, the silence between the two suddenly painful.

Outside the office, Chris rubbed his jaw line harshly. The stiff bristles of a day's growth bit into his cold, aching hand. Chris had control of his anger finally, not at Billy but at himself, anger for not explaining himself properly to the boy. To be with people who knew so much about him suddenly was disturbing to Chris. He felt exposed in ways that angered him. The pain of their comments and their looks shook him to the core and he hated that vulnerability. Hated it when JD had snapped at him in the Seminole village, hated it when Mary Travis had cornered him in the mercantile store. But Billy Travis had been innocent. Chris shouldn't have reacted that way. He should have been stronger than that.

He didn't know what to do now. Another first for Chris. Never was any decision so convoluted as the one that stood suddenly before him. The right action was to talk to the boy, but that thought only brought Chris pain. It was near irrational. Every time he thought he had made his decision, some inner voice managed to convince him otherwise.

A huge bolt of lightening split the sky above him. It took several seconds before the deafening crack of sound reached his ears. Chris watched the developing darkness in the clouds wishing that he could just vanish into its ebony folds. *Move on, Chris, before this town swallows you whole,* he warned himself. This was the trouble with remaining in one place too long. Such things weren't meant for Chris. He had tried it once and it had failed. It'd be pointless to try it again. His scowl intensified drawing deep creases around his mouth. He walked on half tempted to continue straight out of town. Instead with less effort than he thought it would take, he turned into the hotel.

Later that evening, the gunslinger haunted the saloon. Vin and Nathan sat with him. Ezra ran a poker game to their left. Josiah and JD were on duty tonight. The rain had begun again and the lamps flickered against the blowing wind that whipped about the room. Chris hunched his shoulders against the damp cold.

Nathan frowned nursing a cup of hot coffee and peering across the table at his reluctant patient. Chris had foregone the sling again but at least he was favoring the arm more. The gunslinger drank with his left. Nathan smirked slightly. He guess that counted as favoring.

Suddenly the doors swung open and a drenched Buck Wilmington entered. Anger so enveloped the man that he hardly noticed. Chris had been waiting for this, dreading it, but it was now Buck's move. Buck and Chris would never see eye to eye on this matter, regardless of how long they had been friends. He kept his eyes down on the age old scar cut deep into the wooden table.

Buck strode towards their table. "Chris!" Chris took his time looking up, saying nothing. "Damn it, Chris! I just heard about the telegraph you sent! I can't believe you! You're not even giving Brickhaven a chance."

Chris leaned back, his voice so quiet that the entire saloon dropped into silence so Buck and everyone else could hear. "I'm doing my job, Buck. Same as you should be."

Buck's fury intensified. He leaned over the table, his hands clenching the edges. "I *am* doing my job. I'm offering assistance to the US Army. You on the other hand are still acting as if it were fifteen years ago. There's no reason to bear old grudges. We're all different men now." Buck's mouth closed on his next statement. Chris knew damn well that included him too. "You never liked Brickhaven and you're doing everything you can to discredit him. You're attacking a man's reputation! He's an old war dog, same as us. Damn it, Chris, the man's a friend just like I thought you were!"

The only visible reaction which showed how much that remark stung was a twitch in the gunslinger's clenched jaw, but Chris' voice remained steady. "You know what's going on Buck. Are you telling me that what Vin and Nathan saw doesn't make you even slightly suspicious?"

"Have you even talked to Brickhaven about it?" Buck countered. "You're accusing him and his men without proof!"

Vin's low voice interrupted. "Nobody's accusing anyone of anything, Buck. We're just checking things out."

"Better safe than sorry," Nathan added hoping to calm the situation down. Surely Buck saw the logic in that.

Buck shoved himself off the table making it slide harshly across the floor towards Chris who caught it before it hit him. "You're wrong about the major, Chris," Buck insisted.

Buck pushed his way out of the saloon slamming into JD who was just entering. "Buck!" The scoundrel never even slowed. "Where you going?" JD called out. He glanced back towards the others. He had known Buck was going to be upset about the telegraph but he hadn't realized how much. JD stood in the doorway, torn between his best friend and his respect for the others. He wasn't sure exactly what was going on but one thing he did know, you stick by your friends, your best ones. With one final glance towards Chris he followed after Buck.

Chris shook his head in regret, his pain evident for the first time. He quickly masked it again as Vin meticulously sipped his whiskey watching the rare play of emotions across the gunslinger's face. "I hope we're right about this, Chris."

"I hope we're wrong," the gunslinger said remorsefully.

It was well past midnight as Chris took the last stroll around Four Corners as he was wont to do every evening. Sleep was never something he relished surrendering himself too. It left him too vulnerable to both things that were physical and things that were not so corporeal. He avoided them as long as possible. The rains had ceased again but the air remained icy and damp, his visible breath slipping quickly away from him by the chill breeze that coursed through town. He walked down the wooden sidewalk, the sodden boards muffling his footsteps.

The town was mercifully quiet though Chris had the nagging suspicion it wouldn't remain so for much longer. Something was going to bust and if it didn't turn out to be Brickhaven, it was going to be Buck. The gunslinger had rarely seen Buck so angry but Buck always had a blind spot for pretty women or old friends. He stuck by both regardless. Chris knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of that loyalty. It was a powerful thing. Yet, no matter how hard Chris tried to remain distant, to the point of chasing Buck off with a razor, the man kept coming back. Chris wondered briefly if perhaps this time he had finally succeeded in getting his wish. He wasn't prepared for the fierce stab of pain that struck him suddenly in his heart.

Chris paused, leaning up against a post. He hardly remembered a time when Buck and he hadn't been good friends. They had met in the Army, both joining when they were young men, full of spit and vinegar. Chris had risen swiftly in the ranks, due mainly to what Buck called "heroic acts of stupidity" yet Buck remained forever at his side. Chris and Buck had managed to stay in the same regiment and between the two of them there was little they couldn't handle. The army gave them every dirty job in the book and they had worked miracles. They were extensions of the other, more one man than two. You *could* always depend on Buck, Chris thought wryly.

Chris found himself smiling at the memories but then slowly grew more solemn. He missed that feeling. Now Chris spent much of his time alone, pushing everyone away, afraid of getting too close to anyone. He couldn't bear it if something happened, something horrible. It was better not to become involved, but how do you explain it to your best friend or to a little boy?

Chris brushed away the thoughts as if they were tangible things and moved on down the street. The glimmer of a lantern's glow caught his eye. Mary Travis was burning the midnight oil. Pausing by her window, he could see her slim form moving behind the drapes. He knocked gently on the door. A brief look through the curtain and a moment later she opened the door. "Mr. Larabee," she said in shock.

"I saw your light was on. I was wondering if you've found anything yet."

She inclined her head. "As a matter of fact, I did." She opened the door wider. "Please, come in." She returned to several bundles of papers upon the counter. Each bundle was fastidiously dated and labeled.

Chris looked them over carefully. "Your husband was a very thorough man."

"Yes, he was." Mary was staring at Chris but when he glanced towards her, she hurriedly dropped her gaze. "Um, you mentioned the 1860's. Fort Sumner was a busy place. There were numerous Indian uprisings."

"Anything about Brickhaven or Silverstone?"

"I couldn't find any mention of Silverstone, but the name Brickhaven figured very prominently in some of these reports." She laid out a spread of papers before Chris. "None of them very good, I'm afraid."

Chris eyes scanned the reports quickly. Nothing here surprised him. Brickhaven had always been a sloppy commander even before Chris had known him. The man was terrible out in the field. Chris and Buck had to continually extract their Company from numerous near disasters.

Mary continued breaking down what she knew from the research. "There were some incidents where the press criticized Major Brickhaven severely for his actions. The army didn't seem interested in covering for him."

"The army hates stupidity." Chris shook his head as he read incident after incident. It had gotten much worse after Chris and Buck had left.

"How did this man stay in the army?" Mary queried clearly perplexed.

Chris' eyes narrowed. The better question was why would the army send a man like Brickhaven to guard the payroll? Chris had a distinct sinking feeling and his mouth locked once again into his signature grimace. This didn't bode well for either Brickhaven or Buck.

Mary watched Chris. There was more going on in this town than Chris Larabee let on and whatever it was bothered him deeply. She wanted to reach out and reassure him in some way but she knew better. This was a man who would not accept comfort from a close friend much less an outside source like herself. Instead, she offered the next best thing to a man. "Coffee?"

Chris nodded in distraction as he pulled out another report, looking for something that would put his mind at ease. He barely noticed when Mary set a steaming cup down beside him. He pointed at the last bundle. "These records end a year ago. You don't have anything more current?"

Mary took a quick sip of her own drink before answering. "Unfortunately, no. I couldn't find anything recent at all. After being so prominent in the news all those years, Major Brickhaven suddenly just dropped out of sight. I thought it strange."

Chris' scowl deepened. "It is strange."

There was a quiet knock on the door. Mary jumped as Chris spun around. She took a deep, steady breath ashamed at herself for reacting so and answered the door. "Doesn't anyone sleep in this town anymore?" she mumbled.

Silas Atwater, the telegraph operator, stood before her. "I'm looking for Mr. Larabee. Mr. Tanner said he saw him come in here."

One corner of Chris' mouth jerked upwards. He should have known that Vin was still out and about as well. He stepped forward. "I'm right here, Silas."

Silas handed Mr. Larabee the telegraph. "It's from Fort Sumner. You said you wanted it right away." He nodded curtly at Mrs. Travis. "Mary." A frown creased his face as he looked at her and then at Mr. Larabee.

"Thank you, Silas. Goodnight." She closed the door, suddenly realizing how it must have looked to Silas. It was extremely late and Mr. Larabee wasn't the kind of man a woman should have visiting at such an hour. Her face reddened until she saw the expression on Chris' face. "What is it?" she asked in concern.

Chris continued to stare at the paper in his hand, his voice laced with bitterness and regret. "I was right." The telegraph crumpled in his grip.

She was puzzled. "About what?"

With an savage slam the back door burst open and Lieutenant Silverstone and Sergeant Mitchell entered, their guns drawn and pointed at the two of them.

"Too bad, Larabee," Silverstone remarked cruelly, nodding towards the telegraph. "You couldn't leave well enough alone. You had to go butting your nose into our business. I told Brickhaven that it was wrong to cater to you but he wouldn't listen. Thought your friendship would be enough to hide behind. He was a fool."

Chris moved to place himself between Mary and the two men but Mitchell grabbed Mary Travis who managed a small cry before the Sergeant's beefy hand clamped over her mouth.

"Finally, a woman," Mitchell purred. He ran his hand brazenly over her body. Mary bucked and tried to escape. Enraged, Chris rushed towards her only to have Silverstone slam the rifle butt down mercilessly onto his back. Chris collapsed to his hands and knees, his breath hissing painfully through his teeth. He glared up at Mitchell. "Leave her alone."

Silverstone, relishing his upper hand, smirked and leaned down until Chris could smell his fetid breath. "You brought her into this. Now we need some assurance."

"Take me instead," Chris snarled.

"She'll make a far better hostage for the moment. You're much too willing to die, Larabee. Don't worry, your time will come."

Chris' eyes turned cold and his mouth curled cruelly upwards. "Not before you." He forced his legs to support him and when that almost failed, he grabbed the counter. "You've wanted to prove yourself against me from the start. Here's your chance. Let's do it." He pushed himself off to stand upright, his hand hovering over his weapon.

Licking his lips, Silverstone's right hand dropped slowly towards his own holstered pistol, the temptation overwhelming, but before he could act Mitchell slammed his rifle butt across Chris' face. The gunfighter spun bonelessly to the floor and lay motionless on his side. Mary gave a muffled, horrified shout and struggled briefly against her bonds and gag but Mitchell had made them tight. There was nothing she could do but watch. She only prayed that Billy would remain asleep and not come downstairs.

Mitchell, disgusted by the turn of events, spun savagely on Silverstone. He would not let Silverstone's ego ruin months of planning. "Enough of this! We have more important things to do, lieutenant!"

"I'm not your goddamn lieutenant!" He grabbed Mitchell by the collar. "You robbed me of my chance to kill Larabee, to make my reputation..."

"A gunshot would bring the others down on us. Don't be stupid! We're leaving. The wagon arrives in just a few hours." He spat at the limp body on the floor. "You're not ruining my shot at the payroll." He shoved the man from him.

Silverstone released him furious at the other's logic. He grabbed Mary roughly and dragged her towards the back door. Mitchell followed him.

Vin came looking for Chris a couple of hours later only to find his friend unconscious. He shouted to Ezra who was with him to wake Nathan. A spider web of blood spread across Chris' face as Vin eased him over onto his back. A huge gash creased his temple surrounded by a growing bruise.

"Chris! Chris, can you hear me?" He slapped the unconscious man a few times on the cheek to rouse him but to no avail. Vin took a look around the empty office. He went upstairs to check on Billy Travis who was still soundly sleeping in the way only the innocent could sleep. He came back down to notice that the back door was ajar. He eased himself outside carefully, his weapon drawn. When he returned Nathan was there checking Chris.

Nathan clucked softly while Vin waited patiently. Finally, an anxious Ezra leaned down. "Well, is he dead?"

Nathan raised an exasperated eyebrow. "No. Thank the maker he's got a hard head though."

"He seems to be bleeding rather profusely," Ezra commented with a grimace. He always hated the sight of blood.

"Head wounds do tend to bleed more. He took a hell of a blow."

"He gonna be all right?" Vin asked quietly.

Nathan nodded. "Yeah, but he's gonna have a dilly of a headache when he comes to. It's not gonna improve his mood."

As if on cue, Chris groaned and shifted slightly under Nathan's hand who quickly squeezed Chris' shoulder. "Chris! Come on now, Chris, wake up!"

Chris' eyes fluttered open only to shut them once again as massive pain stabbed into his temples. He groaned again.

"Chris! Can you hear me?"

"Stop your damn yelling," the gunslinger murmured through clenched teeth.

Ezra glanced at Nathan. "I see what you mean."

Chris struggled to right himself but Nathan pressed him down. "Easy Chris. I wouldn't get up so fast." Chris shoved Nathan's hand aside and continued to get up. Nathan shook his head in distress as Vin reached to help Chris, practically lifting him into a sitting position with his back against the counter. Chris' left eye was filled with blood and was swelling shut. He eased a shaking hand to his throbbing head. Nathan tried to wipe the excess blood away.

"Where's Mary?" Chris mumbled. "Billy...." He tried to stand but Vin's hand held him firm.

"She's not here," Vin informed him. "There are tracks outside in the mud. Billy's okay though. He's upstairs."

"What happened here, Chris?" Nathan asked still working on the head wound.

Chris flinched at his ministrations. "Silverstone took her." He cast a bloodshot eye towards the drifter. "You were right, Vin. They weren't soldiers. I had Mary do some research. Brickhaven's a screw up. Fort Sumner wired that Brickhaven was dismissed in disgrace from the army six months ago." Chris shook his head till he couldn't stand the pain and then slumped forward moaning. "I shouldn't have involved her."

Nathan wrapped a bandage around Chris' head. He nodded at Ezra. "Help me get him to my clinic." Ezra came forward but Chris shoved them both away.

"No. I'm going after Mary."

Nathan almost laughed. "Chris, you ain't going nowhere. You're lucky your head is still attached to your body. Let us take care of this."

Chris grabbed the top of the counter and dragged himself to his feet swaying dangerously. "It's my fault she was taken. I'm bringing her back."

"You're talking foolishness now. You can barely stay on your feet. You're not going."

Chris glared at Nathan through his one good eye. "Don't try to stop me," he warned.

Nathan sighed and offered up his hands in resignation. Chris was a terrible patient. "I don't care anymore. Go ahead and kill yourself."

Chris staggered outside, one hand holding his head and the other the door frame as he looked for his horse. It stood at the hitching rail. He had intended to ride out to the army camp to find Buck. It seemed that was still the plan only the stakes were much higher suddenly.

Ezra turned to Nathan. "Are you just going to let him go?"

Nathan pursed his lips. "He won't get far. He'll pass out any second. Then we'll take him to my place and stitch up that gash."

Vin glanced at the two and then followed Chris outside. The gunfighter made it to his stallion and swayed as his vision darkened. He held onto the saddle horn and fought against unconsciousness. He shook himself and growled. As soon as the weakness passed, he used every ounce of strength to lift himself up into the saddle. He came down hard onto the seat and slumped over his horse's neck, his breath coming in desperate gulps. He raised himself carefully up and looked over at Vin who nodded and mounted his own steed. They rode off, Chris still clinging to the saddle and Vin sticking close beside him.

Ezra turned innocently to Nathan, his eyebrow raised. "Tell me again, when is he supposed to pass out?"

Nathan expelled a disgusted sigh. "That's a damn stubborn man. Come on. Let's get Josiah. We're going with him."

It didn't take long before they caught up to Chris and Vin. Luckily they were moving slowly, a testament to how bad Chris was hurting. Nathan rode up beside the hunched over gunfighter, handing him a flask. "Drink this," he ordered.

Chris regarded the healer suspiciously, his forehead pinched with obvious pain. "What is it?"

"Willow bark tea."

Chris scowled. "Tea?"

"The Indians use it to reduce pain."

"And that's all it does?" Chris asked, debating whether Nathan would be devious enough to slip him something more debilitating. He relaxed for a moment and had to pull himself together sharply as his dizziness returned.

"That's all," Nathan assured him.

Chris drank from the flask grimacing at the tea's taste then handed it back to Nathan. "Next time lace it with some whiskey," he groused.

Nathan shook his head. "Maybe next time you'll just listen to me." He sobered, wishing he could talk some sense into Chris. "At least the tea will give you a fighting chance when you go and do something stupid."

Josiah joined Nathan's crusade. "A frontal assault on an armed camp doesn't sound like a wise idea, Chris."

Chris pressed his fingers hard against his temples. "We're not all going in. Just me."

Josiah and Nathan exchanged dubious looks as Vin turned in the saddle towards Chris. "Can't say I like that idea much either," the bounty hunter said quietly.

"Silverstone wants a piece of me. I'll let him try for it." Chris flexed his right hand, testing the muscles. They were still stiff and aching but would have to do.

Ezra leaned close to Nathan. "Is this the 'something stupid' to which you were referring?"

Nathan became annoyed. "What is that going to accomplish, Chris?" The gunfighter was holding onto the saddle horn as if his life depended on it. There was no way Chris would be able to out draw Silverstone in this condition. The man was barely healed from his last injury.

Chris related the rest of his plan. "While I've got their attention, Josiah will find Mary and the rest of you will take up positions around the camp." The usually quiet Nathan began cursing and finding numerous faults with the situation, but Chris tuned them out. There wasn't any other way to handle this without risking Mary's life.

"Chris, are you sure you want to do this?" Vin asked quietly from the other side.

The gunslinger said nothing for a moment, his green eyes locked onto the darkness ahead of him. "I have to," he said finally, his own voice low, "I can't go back and face that boy without knowing Mary is all right. If something happens to her because of me...." He couldn't finish the thought.

Vin finally understood what was driving his friend. "I'll back you up whatever happens."

Chris grimaced. That used to be Buck's line. He knew Buck and JD were at Brickhaven's camp and they would be in trouble the minute they found out about Mary. Silverstone, or even Brickhaven for that matter, would not allow them to interfere with their plans. Despite the pain it caused, Chris spurred his horse faster, the rest following his lead.

Buck, JD and Brickhaven had just finished a quiet meal in the major's tent. They had moved on to whiskey and stories from the past. JD was in his glory. He loved hearing about Buck's exploits. They were fascinating. He had even found out a little about Chris though he'd carry it to his grave before he let anyone know, especially the gunfighter himself.

Suddenly, Silverstone burst into the tent, a dour expression on his face. He glowered at Buck and JD and then regarded Brickhaven. "Major, could I see you for a moment?"

"Can it wait, lieutenant? I'm busy." Brickhaven poured Buck another drink.

Silverstone stepped brusquely next to Brickhaven and whispered harshly in his ear. The major went deathly pale.

Buck's eyes narrowed. "Anything wrong?" He didn't much like Silverstone. There was something grating in his manner. The man had no respect for Brickhaven or anyone else. What surprised Buck was that Brickhaven tolerated it. That wasn't like the commander he remembered. He began to seriously consider that fact.

Brickhaven stood abruptly. "No, no. Nothing's wrong. Excuse me a moment." He exited the tent quickly with Silverstone.

JD leaned towards Buck. "What do you think it is, Buck? The major looked awful. You think the payroll wagon got hit?"

Buck's lips were a thin line as he shook his head in answer to JD's question. "Keep your eyes and ears open, JD. I've got a bad feeling." Buck stood and walked to the tent flap, slipping out quietly into the night. Within moments, he could hear Brickhaven's hushed voice and Silverstone's steady louder one carry back to him. They weren't quite out of hearing range.

"Damn it, Adam! This is exactly what I didn't want!"

"Too late, Robert. It's done. They'll be here any time now. You better make up your mind what you're gonna do about them. I'm gathering men to go meet up with the wagon. They're close enough. We'll just hit 'em straight out. Either way, the results are the same."

"The results are NOT the same, you fool. Now, we're going to have a posse of men after us."

"So what. I hated all this play acting anyway. Now you have to do something about them."

Brickhaven's next statement made Buck's blood run cold. "What did you do with the newspaper woman?"

"She's in the cook's tent."

"This is all wrong. There was no reason to bring her. It won't stop Chris Larabee from coming here. Trust me, I know."

Silverstone laughed, a cold chilling sound. "I know. She'll bring Larabee straight to me."

Buck had heard enough. He returned swiftly to JD, who jumped when Buck slipped back into the tent. The scoundrel's usually cheerful face was like stone. "Kid, I want you to slip out the back. Avoid any contact. I don't want them to know you're even breathing out there."

Shocked, JD stood abruptly. "What's going on, Buck?"

"I don't have time to explain it but I think I've made one hell of a mistake. They've kidnapped Mary Travis and have her in the cook tent. I'm going to help her. I want you to find the payroll wagon, tell them bandits dressed as the US Cavalry are planning on robbing them Have them take the mountain road up past Sutter's Mill."

"But that road's hardly ever used."

"Just do it, JD and do it now!"

JD crawled under the tent and disappeared into the darkness. Five minutes later Brickhaven returned. With a panicked start, he realized the kid was gone. "Where's the boy?"

Buck slipped into his usual relaxed mode, a huge grin spreading warmly across his face. "He had to relieve himself. Can't hold his liquor too well yet, if you know what I mean. He'll be back unless he passes out someplace."

Nervously glancing back towards Buck, Brickhaven toyed with the idea that his old friend was telling the truth. He wished there was some other way. Slowly, he lifted his gun from its holster and pointed it at Buck. "I'm sorry," he said tightly.

Buck stared at the weapon and then up at the Major. His smile faded. "I'm sorry too, Robert."

JD ran through the brush. He was going to need his horse but he doubted he'd get close enough. As soon as he had slipped through the sentries, the camp had come alive. He had just made the camp's edge when he heard shouting. He saw armed men rushing towards the major's tent. He heard a shot ring out and his mouth went dry. He stood to run back to offer Buck support when suddenly a hand grasped his shoulder. He spun reaching for his weapon and nearly passed out when he saw Josiah's huge frame over him.


The preacher released JD's arm and forced the kid to holster his weapon. "Where's Buck?"

"Down there." He pointed out the major's tent just in time to see Buck dragged out by two soldiers. "We got to help him."

"We will," he said softly in a calming voice. Now was not the time to be brash. Josiah studied the camp. Suddenly he realized something and he turned to the boy. "What are you doing out here?"

"Buck told me to get out. He said something was up and that I should go warn the army wagon that these men are gonna rob it. Josiah, they've got Mrs. Travis in the cook tent!" JD glanced back towards the camp worriedly. "Buck said he was gonna rescue her."

A grin crept onto Josiah's face, his own problem solved. He jerked a hand back behind him. "My horse is in that thicket over there. Get on him and do what Buck told you. I'll get Mrs. Travis."

"But what about Buck?" JD asked in desperation. "We can't leave Buck alone down there!"

Josiah nodded reassuringly and then gestured towards the north end of the camp where Chris Larabee was just riding in. "He's not alone, JD."

The moment Chris rode into the camp he could feel every weapon track his movements. Every nerve was tingling from the danger but with a controlled effort he quelled them. He couldn't afford to be distracted. He spotted Brickhaven with Buck beside him, a small trickle of blood was seeping through his sleeve where a bullet had grazed him. Chris could tell from Buck's face that he knew the truth now. Of course, the two men in the buckskin coats with the guns trained on his back was another giveaway.

Chris dismounted carefully. He tried to appear as though he were casually surveying the surroundings though in fact he was keeping precarious hold on his balance as spasms of dizziness assaulted him. He slowly approached Brickhaven whose demeanor had degenerated into near panic.

The major glanced around at his men almost worried that they would panic as well and open fire. Standing to Brickhaven's left, Buck's gaze settled on the gunslinger. The hurt and embarrassment showed clearly in Buck's eyes.

"Brickhaven!" Chris shouted. Brickhaven snapped to face the gunslinger.

"Chris," he implored his old Captain. "Let me explain."

Chris' voice was cold as ice and just as firm. "That time is past. Your masquerade is at an end." He looked for the man he knew to be in charge. "Where's Silverstone?"

An aggressive voice called out from the back. "Right here."

Chris eyed Silverstone as the man stepped out from the ranks of his men. Chris' left eye was still swollen, but he could see the confident stride of a hunter eager for his wounded prey. Chris had discarded the distracting bandage and thankfully the cut had ceased to bleed. "Let's finish what you started," he spat.

Silverstone smiled for he had waited a long time for this moment. This was all too easy. Larabee was barely on his feet though how the man had rode all the way to the camp was amazing. With that kind of endurance it meant at least the gunslinger would give a fairly good account of himself, yet it still left Silverstone with the advantage. He waved an arm at his opponent. "With pleasure," he purred.

"On one condition."

Silverstone angered. "There are no conditions!"

"There will be if you want to take me on. Otherwise, it's off and your reputation will only be for gunning down a half-conscious gunfighter who didn't fire back. Not really a crowning achievement for the history books, is it?"

Silverstone considered that. If he wanted the reputation of killing Larabee, he had the perfect audience to do it but it had to be for real. He relented. "All right. What's the condition?"

Chris turned to Brickhaven. "If I win, Mary Travis and Buck go free."

Silverstone grew furious that Larabee was asking Brickhaven. "I make the decisions here now!" he shouted. "Not that pathetic excuse for a major!"

Chris scowled at the fuming "lieutenant" then a slight curl of a sneer appeared. "If I win, you'll be dead, Silverstone." He returned his attention to Brickhaven. "It'll be your decision then, Brickhaven."

Brickhaven fidgeted unsure as to what to do. It was obvious Larabee was buying time for his other men to get here if they weren't already but he had lost control over Silverstone. A part of him hoped that Larabee would kill the man, but he had seen Silverstone shoot. Most healthy men didn't stand a chance against him much less one wounded ex-captain, but Brickhaven nodded. "I give my word. The woman and Buck go free, but afterwards I'm going for the wagon and you won't stop me, Chris. Not if you want Mary Travis alive. If you kill Silverstone you're free to leave with her, but not until I leave with some of my men and you won't follow me, agreed?"

Chris' grasp on his light-headedness was precarious enough without having to nod an agreement. "Yes," he said instead. "Take your men and leave. I won't follow you." In his mind, the payroll wagon was guarded by army men who had a better chance of survival than did Mary Travis. They were trained for this sort of thing. They would have to take their own chances for now.

Buck gauged his own position. Two men, most likely the men Vin had seen in the alley since they weren't wearing army uniforms, guarded Buck more to prevent his interference than anything else at the moment. There was no way to get to Mary. Buck could see that Chris was in terrible shape and his anger towards Silverstone intensified. This wasn't a fair fight at all. It was going to be a massacre and Mary would still be at Silverstone's mercy. To Chris' credit, the gunfighter seemed calm. Buck once again marveled at the man. Then suddenly it occurred to him that something else must be up. Buck quickly scanned the area in front of him but the inky blackness failed to offer up any hint of Chris' plan. He couldn't tell if the rest of the seven were present or not.

Chris brushed back the right flap of his duster, the sweating palm of his hand flattening painfully beside his holstered gun as his long, thin fingers struggled desperately to loosen. Silverstone did the same, his own fingers twitching.

Josiah snaked his way down toward the cook's tent. The moon crept out from behind the clouds bathing the earth in its eerie glow but luckily there was no one around. Chris' plan must have been working since most of the major's men had their attention drawn elsewhere. Chris had a reputation that was well known. Most of the men present would be eager to see Silverstone face the steely gunfighter. He only hoped Chris was up to the challenge.

The big preacher moved silently through the flaps of the tent, his weapon grasped tightly in his hand. He immediately saw Mary Travis bound and gagged to a chair beside some barrels. Her eyes filled with fear at the movement until she recognized who it was who had come to her rescue. Relief surged through her and then just as suddenly her eyes widened in terror at something just past him. Josiah quickly turned and slammed his body into whoever it was coming up behind him. Sergeant Mitchell fell to the floor, scrambling to get at his weapon. Josiah followed him down, knocking the gun away but one strike from Mitchell's fist sent the preacher's skittering after.

Mitchell scrambled to his feet and assumed a fighting position forcing Josiah to do the same. Mitchell sneered at the big man before him. It would be a worthy fight. They circled each other warily. Mitchell struck first, eager to begin. He stepped in and landed two quick fists. Josiah's cheek flushed hot at the impact but before the sergeant could step back out of the way the preacher grabbed him by his lapel and drove his right hand straight into the man's nose, breaking it. A flush of scarlet gushed forth as Mitchell back pedaled away ripping his shirt.

Josiah dropped the torn material and smiled at Mitchell who foolishly tried to attack again. This time the sergeant connected only once and it was but a glancing blow. His other hand missed completely and as it slipped past, the preacher stepped in again and landed a powerful huge fist on the side of the man's head.

Mitchell fell to one knee as more blood flowed down his face from his ear. Josiah moved in to finish the job but Mitchell slipped a bowie knife from its sheath and brandished it in his right hand. "First, I'll kill you and then the woman," he promised with a gleam in his eye that indicated he would derive much pleasure from both acts.

Josiah ducked under the first strike with the knife but he couldn't avoid the follow-up with Mitchell's left. It impacted against his mouth leaving behind the taste of blood and a multitude of stars before the preacher's eyes. He shook himself like a bear and rose up, a dull anger flooding him, of a kind he had not felt in many years. He had suppressed such anger for numerous reasons but suddenly he let it come forward.

He roared, his throat rubbed raw in its wake as he charged the sergeant. Mitchell tried to dodge out of the way at the last minute but failed and the two men collided. Mitchell went down hard in the process. Josiah fell with him, his arm reaching out for the knife.

Mitchell, not hurt by the fall, but disoriented, tried to avoid the preacher's grasping hand. Josiah's huge hand laid claim and Mitchell felt his right wrist twisted mercilessly. Mitchell screamed as the wrist bone snapped and then desperately kicked Josiah off him. They both rolled away from each other, Mitchell cradling his broken arm and Josiah his aching ribs where the sergeant had kneed him.

They circled each other warily now. Mitchell glanced fearfully for his gun lying on the ground near the cook's fire. The big preacher seemed almost crazed, almost as if he was enjoying this. Mitchell suddenly wasn't. He had lost the upper hand and now found himself fighting a mad man. He feinted opposite his goal and when Josiah moved with him, Mitchell jerked back the other way towards his weapon. Mary tried to scream when she realized what Mitchell was doing but she couldn't warn Josiah.

Mitchell felt the cool iron settle in his grip. He heard a muffled cry and when he turned his head to look up he saw a boot coming at his eye. Josiah kicked his face so hard that it seemed his head would fly off. Mary's eyes widened at the brutality of the fight. Dimly, she realized that Josiah was going to kill the sergeant.

Mitchell struggled to his feet but was immediately knocked down again and then his face was ground into the mud with a boot. He couldn't breath.

Mary's muted sob drew Josiah slowly back from the depths of his anger. He blinked as if waking from a deep slumber and turned towards her. Her shock and fear embarrassed him and he stumbled back from Mitchell who groaned one last time and then slumped into unconsciousness.

Josiah picked up Mitchell's knife and carefully freed Mary though he couldn't look her in the eyes. He dreaded seeing the disdain that he assumed would be present. No one had seen him like that for a long time. Not since.... He shook slightly and stood, wiping the trail of blood off his chin. He forcefully shoved those memories back. "I'm sorry you had to see that, ma'am," he mumbled.

Mary, shaking slightly herself, put a hand on his arm. "Josiah," she practically whispered. "Thank you." Josiah nodded and helped the slim woman to her feet. His hand was still on her arm when the sharp crack of pistol fire shattered the air. Mary spun in his grasp, choking back a small cry.

Chris' expression changed, his face relaxing for the first time all evening, yet his stance was rock-solid. The gunfighter never took his piercing eyes off Silverstone, watching, waiting for the slightest sign. Buck had seen this transformation before. Only the insane would think Chris unaware of all that was going on in front of him. Chris had disconnected from his pain, from outside stimulus. He merely waited for the battle to begin.

Silverstone swallowed hard, his own gaze barely steady. His fingers danced about his holster, anxious to fire but waiting for the right moment. The man in black looked almost half asleep, a trickle of dark blood running down the side of his face. There was no way a man in his condition would be able to out draw Silverstone. It was time.

Both men, seventy-yards apart, drew their guns and fired one shot each. To every man there, the reports blended into a single explosion, but as the gunsmoke drifted and cleared in the glaring moonlight, Chris Larabee stood tall and Silverstone had a bullet in his chest. The lieutenant wobbled a few steps forward, fighting to raise his pistol, willing his trembling fingers to close about the trigger and try again to slay Larabee. Instead, Silverstone collapsed and died within seconds.

Chris exhaled abruptly, more a gasp than anything else as the adrenaline in his system waned. He swayed as the world tilted suddenly then forcefully righted himself again.

The major's hands shook as he clenched the pommel of his saber. He had never seen anyone draw that fast. For a split second terror swept through him and he stepped abruptly closer to his men. Would Larabee keep his promise and let them ride away? Chris' eyes swung towards the movement. Brickhaven froze captured instantly in the stony gaze of the gunslinger but Larabee merely holstered his weapon. With a relieved breath, Brickhaven signaled to the rest of his company who backed off towards the horses, including the two watching Buck. The old major looked at Buck. "Come with us, sergeant," he implored. "I need a new lieutenant."

Buck's disappointment was evident on his face. Brickhaven just couldn't comprehend he was no longer in the army. He was nothing more than a sad, pathetic, old man. "No," Buck said simply. "What you're doing is not right, Robert and I think you know that. No matter what the army did, it doesn't give you the right to terrorize and steal from the innocent."

"Believe me, they're not all that innocent!" A tremor enveloped Brickhaven's lower lip until he clasped it between his teeth. "It wasn't supposed to happen this way, Buck." Then the old man's face grew firmer with resolve. "I'm sorry but the army will pay for the way they've treated me one way or another." With that Brickhaven mounted his big dun which another "soldier" stood ready with.

For a brief moment, Brickhaven resembled what Buck remembered from long past. He stood tall and straight in the saddle, a man who had once commanded Buck's respect. But no longer. Buck turned away from his old major and his past. A moment later he heard the disappearing sound of hoofbeats. He bit back hard on his remorse and guilt.

Nathan came running up to Chris and grasped his arm, intent on holding the man upright. How the gunslinger had managed what he had done was beyond the simple healer. It was nothing short of miraculous. "You hit?" he asked anxiously.

Chris numbly shook his head and then forced his legs moving. He had to find Mary. But then Josiah was there and beside the huge preacher was Mary. She ran forward. Her last image of Chris was the one in her office, sprawled bleeding on the floor. He didn't look much better now but at least he was alive.

Chris took her in his arms. "Are you all right?" He couldn't tell if the trembling in his arms was out of exhaustion or fear for her safety. He felt her nod her head against his chest and relief flooded him. They stayed locked in an embrace for just a moment more then Chris released her. He turned to Nathan. A quick glance around the camp only brought into view the five of them. "Where's Vin and Ezra?" he asked.

"They've gone after Brickhaven," Nathan told him.

"JD left before the major in order to warn the army," Josiah said, glancing at the man on the ground. "The real army," he added. He smiled, happy to relate this next bit of information. "Buck told him to."

Chris realized that there might still be a chance of saving the payroll wagon thanks to Buck's foresight. You *could* always count on Buck. That thought eased some of Chris' pain.

Buck came forward. "I told the kid to take the wagon past Sutter's Mill. I never told Brickhaven about that route."

Nathan pondered something a moment. "Wait, I thought you promised we wouldn't go after them."

Chris offered a tired, one-sided smile. "I said *I* wouldn't go after them," he corrected.

Buck laughed gently. "Well, if the kid made, it might buy us some time."

Chris nodded and instantly regretted it. His headache was so abominable that he had trouble focusing his eyes. "Take Nathan and Josiah and try to cut Brickhaven off. Maybe you can catch them in a cross fire."

Buck nodded and stepped closer to Chris, his voice dropping lower. "I'll stop Brickhaven. That I promise."

Chris was quiet a moment. There was no longer any animosity between the two. "I know you will, Buck."

Nathan studied Chris. If the gunslinger wasn't insisting on coming with them, he must be pretty bad off. Chris turned to find the healer watching him and he canted his head slightly. "I'm taking Mary home," he announced reading Nathan's concern.

Nathan was grateful. It fit his prescription and he didn't have to tie Chris to a horse like he had intended. He turned to Mary and gave her last minute instructions. "Keep him quiet but awake. I'll be back soon." She nodded as the three men mounted and rode off. She wasn't aware that Chris had kept a hand on hers the entire time.

The sun was just breaking over the horizon and spilling a rush of lavender in its wake as Nathan led Buck and Josiah through his shortcut. Buck had told Brickhaven yesterday which was the more likely route for the wagon and they rode recklessly through brush and scrub to get there before the major. Nathan estimated that they had a good chance of beating them though it would exhaust the horses. Hopefully, there would be no long chase upon arrival because their mounts would be too spent to comply. It was a risk they were all willing to take.

They burst out onto the road, their horses lathered and blowing hard. Buck swung down and studied the trail. "Doesn't look like they came through yet. I think we did it boys. We beat Brickhaven."

Josiah scanned the terrain around the road. "Let's get undercover. I'll take the high ground in case they decide to bypass the road." Josiah threw his reins to Nathan and then scrambled up the hill. The rest disappeared into the trees lining one sides.

It was less than fifteen minutes later when Josiah's soft whistle reached their ears. He motioned that something was coming. To Buck's horror, it was the payroll wagon. It rolled past nonchalantly as the three stupefied men watched it. A minute after that, JD rode by. Buck leaped out and grabbed him, startling the boy and his horse.

"What the hell are you doing, boy?! That wagon is supposed to be long gone from here."

JD practically fell off his horse and quickly struggled to his feet, his disappointment evident. "I tried Buck! Honest. But they didn't believe me. They thought *I* was gonna rob them."

Buck rolled his eyes. "Didn't you show them your damn Sheriff's badge?"

JD flipped his lapel over. "Sure I did. They all laughed." The kid's face fell and turned beet red. "They didn't believe someone my age could be Sheriff."

Buck cursed venomously and so colorfully that even JD hadn't heard some of them. Buck gestured wildly to the woods. "Get under cover! If those damn stupid soldiers want to get themselves killed, then the hell with 'em." He slapped JD on the back. "Don't worry about it, kid. You did your best."

"But the major..."

"We'll stop Brickhaven right here," Buck said tightly. Suddenly Josiah whistled again. The sound of thundering hoofbeats echoed through the hills. Ten riders approached, riding hard. Brickhaven was in the lead. Buck mounted his grey in one fluid motion and wheeled the horse out to stop them. JD grabbed hold of his reins.

"What are you doing, Buck?! You told me never to break cover!"

"This is personal, kid." Buck's face was set firm. He jerked the reins out of JD's grasp.

JD threw up his hands in exasperation. "How am I supposed to learn anything if you keep changing the rules?" he shouted as Buck raced for the road. But then he pulled his pistols and scrambled for cover praying that Buck wouldn't get himself killed.

Brickhaven reined in as the ghostly white form appeared in front of them. He immediately recognized his old sergeant's steed. Buck's rifle lay across his lap, it's barrel aiming for the major.

"Stop right there, major. That's far enough."

The Cavalry horses milled about, their riders yanking the bits deep into their mouths. Each man had his own weapon already drawn. Brickhaven kneed his horse forward. "Don't do this, Buck. Let us go. I had a deal with you."

"You made your deal with Larabee not me." Buck's fingers tightened on his rifle. "I can't let you do this, sir. Now drop your weapons."

Brickhaven glanced at his men. They were angry and determined to fight, they knew their prize was just ahead. There would be no way to stop them now. He turned back to Buck and said sadly, "That's not an option, son."

With a blur of motion, gunfire erupted all around as the violent battle commenced. Buck's horse remained steady allowing Buck to acquire a target. He tried first for Brickhaven but then abruptly switched targets taking out the man beside him. The man opposite the major drew a bead on Buck only to fly out of his saddle a second later as Josiah's shot hit him in the head.

Brickhaven turned his horse around and tried to flee only to find two more riders coming towards him. Tanner and the gambler were riding up from behind.

Vin stood in his stirrups and fired his rife. Another rider dropped. Ezra drew his pistol and fired several times into the pile of men and horses. The bullets caught two riders in the chest and knocked them off their mounts, both were the men Silverstone had met in the alley, the only two not wearing uniforms. Behind him another man fired at the gambler.

Ezra's shoulder twisted as he took a glancing blow. He almost fell out of the saddle but managed to grab hold of the horn and pull himself upright, a dark stain soaking his green jacket. The Cavalryman ran his horse at him.

Vin had just dropped another rider and was drawing a bead on Brickhaven when he saw Ezra's predicament. He switched targets but before he could squeeze the trigger the rider arched backwards his arms flung wide. He dropped like a stone from his horse and rolled away, a knife sticking out of his back. Nathan ran up from the draw and headed for Ezra.

The remaining members of the "Cavalry" wheeled their horses about trying to find an escape but soon followed their compatriots as three well-placed shots brought them down. Brickhaven, panicked now, swung back the other way and spurred his dun toward Buck. He was alone now. All his men were dead, his pockets were empty and his honor lost. Everything he had strived for all his life was gone in an instant. A slow disgust ate at him. He thought of the ridicule he would face when he was brought back to Fort Sumner, disgraced and a criminal. He couldn't bare that. He drew his pistol and aimed at Buck.

Buck's eyes widened in shock. He hadn't wanted it to end like this. "No!" he screamed hoarsely but Brickhaven came on. Buck lifted his rifle again and shot the major off his horse. Brickhaven fell to the muddy earth, his limbs going cold and his pistol tumbling out of reach.

Buck dismounted as the huge dun ran riderless past him. He walked towards Brickhaven whose eyes were locked onto the sun. The huge orb rose majestically over him until Buck stepped in front of it. Brickhaven blinked once or twice and then focused on his old sergeant. Buck's face threatened to twist with emotion and he clamped down on it. "Why major?" he hissed.

Brickhaven's face slackened. It was so simple really. He wanted Buck to understand. He struggled to speak. "Your past is never really gone, Buck. It's just a shadow that follows you around." He coughed and blood splattered onto his blue coat. "You can't hide from your shadow, sergeant. No matter how hard you try." He tried one last time to draw a breath and failed, his eyes locked on Buck though they no longer had the ability to see.

Mary helped Chris down off his horse, the tall gunfighter landing heavily onto the ground. Though he kept his feet, a minute groan escaped his thin, white lips. Guiding the hunched gunfighter by one arm she brought him into the newspaper office and then into the sitting room off to the side. He settled himself ponderously onto the sofa. The two of them had said little on the way back to town. He periodically asked if she was all right and she continued to assure him that she was. Then he would nod and say nothing more for a time.

She was glad to be back in town. The light from the dawn would soon envelop the entire sky and she realized with a start that Billy would be rising anytime now. She tried to smooth her dress. Her sleeves slid up a little revealing the harsh rope burns around her wrists. She stared in horror at them a moment and tried to tug the material back over them so her son would not see the injuries.

She glanced over at Chris, the weariness in both of them was evident but perhaps more so in the sullen gunfighter. His face was white as a sheet and his eyes kept trying to slip shut. She quickly moved to gather a basin of water and some clean linen. By the time she returned, his eyes were closed and his breathing regular. With distress at failing Nathan's instructions, she shook him violently. "Mr. Larabee?" When there was no answer, she shouted, "Chris!"

This time his eyelids shuttered and then his one good eye finally opened. She could tell by his rapid blinking that he wasn't fully aware of his surroundings. "Where...?"

"It's Mary. We're at my house. I need to clean that gash." She tilted his face towards her wincing with him as she caught sight of the jagged wound in the morning light. Dipping an end of the linen into the water, she raised it and slowly wiped aside some of the blood. It didn't look as deep as she had expected. His left eye was still swollen shut and she worked resolutely around it, cleaning him up as much as she could. He was stoic through it all, occasionally a sharp intake of breath or a hissing exhale as she probed deeper but little else.

"I think it will need some stitches," she remarked with a grimace.

"It can wait till Nathan returns."

"Good," she responded quietly not intending for him to hear her relief though he did. Chris smirked gently as Mary bent to drop the bloody linen in the bowl and pick up the fresh bandage. She sat closer to him, raising herself up onto her knees in an effort to reach him. Leaning over, she carefully wrapped it around his head and tied it off.

"Thank you," he mumbled growing suddenly uncomfortable at how near she was to him. He made to rise but she firmly held him down.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"To my room at the hotel."

"I don't think that's such a good idea. Nathan said to..."

"Nathan can find me when he returns. I'll be fine. Thank you again." He picked up his hat from the sofa and stood with every intention of walking out of there. Unfortunately, he hadn't counted on the dizziness. He swayed and would have fallen if Mary hadn't caught him.

She clucked at him softly. "Nathan can find you right here." She pushed him far too easily back onto the sofa then fixed him with a formidable stare until she strode into the kitchen.

Chris hated this feeling of helplessness especially in front of Mary. It didn't seem right. He was about to try again when the sound of scrambling feet cascaded down the stairs. The young, blond Billy rushed into the room then abruptly stopped at seeing the gunfighter. His face dramatically brightened. "Chris!"

Chris tried desperately to keep any grimace from crossing his features. He nodded to the boy even though the sharp, high-tone of the boy's voice cut into his headache with a vengeance. Mary appeared behind the boy.

"Keep your voice low, Billy. Mr. Larabee is injured."

Billy's eyes widened in surprise. "Again?"

It was enough to make Chris smile. *I do seem to be rather accident prone lately,* he thought.

Finally noticing the bandage around the gunfighter's head, Billy bounded to the sofa. "Does it hurt, Chris?"

Chris' smile continued even as he soothed the boy. "No, Billy. It doesn't hurt."

Mary's strict voice came sharply back at him. "Of course it hurts him, Billy. Mr. Larabee has taken a very hard blow to the head. Nathan says we are to keep him awake until he and the others return."

Billy's eyes widened even more if that were possible. "What would happen if you fall asleep?"

Chris scowled deeply at Mary as she entered the room. "Nothing would happen, Billy."

"I don't believe in patronizing my son, Mr. Larabee. I'm sure Nathan had a good reason for wanting you awake. I'm not going to question his motives nor do I want you fibbing to my son. If you're in pain, you should say that you're in pain."

It was Chris' turn for his eye to go wide. Then he blinked as even that movement caused pain. He gave in. "I apologize, Mrs. Travis." He turned to Billy. "Yes, my head hurts."

"Wow," Billy breathed, amazed that Chris would admit such a thing especially in front of a girl. But then again, the young boy mused, that girl was his mother. She could make just about anyone confess anything.

Chris glanced at the tray Mary had brought in with her. "What's that?"

"Coffee," she said. "I don't know of anything else that keeps a man awake more." She smiled as she glanced at her son. "Except perhaps for him."

Chris caught her look as she glanced back at him. Despite all that had happened to her just hours ago, she was dignified and humorous. She was a strong, determined woman. At times, he tended to forget that. He nodded to her and leaned back into the sofa, giving in to it's soft material and the warm homeliness of the room. Billy had found a book on the table next to him and began to read it softly aloud. The young boy knew of the man's love of books. Chris relaxed. It was a favorite story of his, "The Last of the Mohicans."

Four Corners was at peace again. People moved about their business, wagons made their way through town, and music played loudly in the saloon. All was as it should be. Nathan walked down the sidewalk and turned into the saloon, a medical book tucked under his arm. He spotted Vin dealing cards to Josiah, Buck and JD. He ambled over to them.

Buck glanced up. "How's Ezra?" His own wound was nothing but a bullet burn and he already barely felt it. Other wounds, more emotional ones were more difficult to heal but unfortunately Nathan had little that could cure those. Only time.

Nathan's mouth twisted in annoyance. "Oh, he's fine. The bullet just creased him but for the length of time he's willing to stay in bed and be waited on, I should start charging."

They all laughed picturing poor Ezra and an even more pathetic Nathan stuck in the same room together. Vin marveled at Nathan's good temperament. If it had been him, he would have dumped Ezra out in the mud by now.

Nathan scanned the saloon's patrons. "Has anyone seen Chris?"

Buck smiled and then quickly hid it. "Nope, can't say that I have."

JD shook his head briskly obviously covering for the gunslinger. "Haven't seen him all day."

Nathan fingered his book's binding worriedly. "Has he complained of any dizzy spells?" Eyes wide, JD indicated no. "How about any lapses in memory?"

Josiah chuckled. "Other than missing your appointments?"

Nathan frowned. "Is he in his room? He should be resting."

Vin drew two more cards from the pile, maneuvering a piece of straw to the other side of his mouth. "I'm sure he's resting just like you told him to, Nathan," he responded quietly. The healer had found a new medical book and lord help them all, Nathan seemed determined to re-diagnose Chris. No wonder the gunfighter had high-tailed it out of the saloon.

At that, Nathan's eyes narrowed suspiciously then he blew out a breath of disgust. "Hell, I don't know why I took this job. I've got one patient I can't get rid of and another who's hiding from me." He stomped back outside and the men at the table all laughed.

"God bless the literate," Buck remarked.

Down another street near the very edge of Four Corners, where life seemed to move a trifle slower, Chris Larabee leaned back in his chair, his hat pulled low over his brow. His headache still pounded, the main reason for abandoning his usual haunt at the saloon. He rarely napped during the day and all he wanted right now was some peace and quiet without someone lecturing to him or poking at him. He hoped Nathan wouldn't think of looking for him out this way. He heard a click of heels and from under his brow he saw a rush of indigo skirt. He peered up at Mrs. Travis.

"Good day, Mr. Larabee," she greeted him. He tipped his hat subtlety at her. She looked surprised at his location. She rarely saw him down this way and she said as much to him.

He regarded her. "It's quieter down here."

She smiled slightly understanding now. She looked up towards the main part of town where most of the traffic moved then looked at him once more. The man still seemed pale and drained to her. A huge dark purplish bruise crept out from beneath his hat surrounding a monstrous black eye but at least the swelling had gone down. She felt partially responsible. "Can I get you anything?"

He contemplated the offer. "You wouldn't happen to have any willow bark tea?"

A giggle burst out before she could stop it. That was the last thing she had expected this man to ask of her. Whiskey, yes. Coffee, probably. But tea? His eyebrow rose at her amusement. She shook her head. "I'm afraid not," she answered.

He shrugged. "Then perhaps I could take Billy fishing. The rains have stopped and the water's receded some. It should be a good day."

A warm glow enveloped her. Everything was as it should be. She smiled and nodded. "Of course. Billy would like that very much. I'll go get him." She walked back down the street towards the newspaper office.

Chris rose and headed for the stable. A quiet day of fishing was just what he needed. Nathan wouldn't think of looking for him there and besides he had some things he wanted to discuss with young Billy Travis. What was going to happen between Chris and Billy's mom was going to happen on its own accord. Time would tell if it was right. As of today, there was still too much baggage from the past for either of them. It was best just to work on friendship for now. He figured Billy would understand that. The boy was bright and he had an old soul thanks to what he had endured as a child. It would make things easier on all of them.

He heard an enthusiastic yell from up the street and the gunfighter grinned. *There would be no hiding from this new shadow at any rate,* thought Chris.

The End

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