Author's notes here.
Prologue: Mine Eyes Have Seen
Mary Travis stared down at the pad of paper on the desk before her, her quill pen poised to write. Stephen had taught her always to write out everything before she set the type, no matter how simple the story might be. It was easier, he said, to buy more scratch paper than to reprint an entire edition of The Clarion. She'd spent more hours than she could remember sitting here, the words flowing as she tried to reconstruct the events that she was recording.
Today, her pen refused to connect with the paper, refused to write the headline that should have been so different. The unfairness of it mingled with her grief and all but immobilized her, leaving her trapped as the memories assaulted her again.
It had started when they got back from the prison outside Jericho. She had seen that something was wrong when they rode into town. She'd known them long enough--and watched them often enough--to know that Chris never rode at the back of the group unless they were being chased. Yet there he was, trailing along behind the other men by a few yards, his unnaturally dark, unshaven, gaunt face a cold mask. Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington, looking like mismatched bookends, rode just ahead of him. Their frequent, worried glances were cast backward with the ease of much practice.
Chris had dismounted at the saloon and walked straight past her through the batwing doors without even a glance in her direction. As near as she could tell, he had crawled in a bottle and stayed there, firmly shutting out everyone who tried to approach him. He'd erected a cold, impenetrable wall around himself, and it didn't shrink at all as time went on. If anything, it got worse. The bleakness in his eyes was replaced finally by a distance that was frightening to see, and slowly, they all stopped trying to breach it.
Vin was the first to leave. As if it had only been Chris's will holding the tracker in Four Corners, Vin just quietly drifted away when it became obvious that Chris wouldn't--or couldn't--reconnect with them. Mary had been angry with him, disappointed that he hadn't tried harder to bring Chris back.
As time went on, though, she came to understand why he'd left. It wasn't that Vin didn't want to help. Chris had slipped so far away from them that no one, not even the man he'd most connected with, could help him until he was ready to return.
That had become obvious the day Buck, his concern finally overcoming both his patience and his good sense, had taken matters into his own hands and tried to get Chris to talk, to leave the saloon, to eat something--anything that showed signs of life. Chris had endured him for only a few minutes before he exploded, jerking out his gun and pointing it, hammer cocked, in Buck's face. Mary only knew what the bartender had seen, so she had no idea what Chris had said to his old friend, but whatever it was had, in the words of Billy, "left ole Buck with the options of killing him or getting the hell out've town."
The next day, Buck had ridden out with, strangely enough, Ezra Standish. She could still remember the scene: it had been early morning, still quiet and fairly cool. Buck had stomped out of the jail, his expression tighter than it had been when he'd left the saloon the night before. Ezra had been waiting for him, holding his horse, his fancy red jacket a direct contrast to Buck's simple, dusty denims and cotton shirt. They'd exchanged a few words as Buck mounted, then turned rather abruptly and headed toward the town limits. Buck's back had been rigid, but Ezra had turned and looked one last time at Four Corners with an expression that Mary, pausing to watch on her morning rounds to drop off a handful of papers at the Potter's store, couldn't help but think of as disappointment.
Thinking back, Mary couldn't remember if Chris or Josiah was the next to leave. The ex-preacher hadn't gone far. His church in town almost finished, for some reason he'd felt the call to go back out to the mission he'd been rebuilding before he'd met Chris. He still came into town from time to time, but he no more stayed than did Nathan, who'd taken to spending more time at the nearby Seminole village.
Chris had disappeared at some point, although Mary wasn't totally sure when. One night he'd been at his usual spot in the saloon, staring at nothing and casting a pall over the customers. The next day, he'd been gone.
Only JD was left, his determination to stick to his duty as sheriff as touching as it was foolish. With only the occasional support of Nathan and Josiah when they were in town, JD couldn't handle the rougher of the bad element who'd started to wander back into Four Corners. He'd tried, Mary thought with a sad smile, he'd tried as hard and as bravely as he knew how. He just wasn't old enough, wise enough, or big enough to take on four or five men at a time whose main source of pleasure was seeing how much trouble they could create.
It wasn't that either of the older men wouldn't have helped him, not if they'd known how bad things were getting. JD's pride had been his undoing. He'd refused to admit the problems he was facing, so no one knew he was in over his head until it was too late.
With a sigh that was suspiciously close to a sob, Mary closed her eyes briefly. She didn't know if she could write the necessary words, but that was all she had left to honor someone who deserved it more than anyone she'd ever known. It wasn't a headline she should ever have had to write. She should be writing "Peacekeepers Continue to Bring Law to Four Corners" or something similar. Instead . . .
With a rapid blink and another shaky sigh, she blotted her pen and wrote in a clear, firm hand, "Sheriff Shot; Murderers Unknown."