The clink of glasses became discernable, as Chris Larabee's mind regained its ability to focus. He knew from the sound that he'd, once again, spent the night beneath his favorite table, inside his favorite saloon. Fortunately, he was still drunk--the pain from a hangover was hours away yet.
"Mornin', Larabee. I was gettin' ready to haul your sorry carcass to the undertaker, I was." Jack Olmstead--owner, operator, and sole employee of the Land's End Saloon--helped Chris to his feet.
"Not that lucky." Larabee mumbled, shuffling outside, into the chill of the morning. Jack stared at the swinging bat-wing doors, trying to decide which of them Chris had been referring to, with his remark
It had been nine weeks since Sarah and Adam Larabee's deaths. Chris' wife and child had been murdered, but he'd been unsuccessful in discovering who had killed them, and why. With each passing day, Larabee grew more withdrawn and angry. Angry at the unknown slayer; angry at himself for, not protecting his family; angry at God for allowing such things happen. His grief and anger fed off one another, turning his love into hate, and his hope into despair.
The one person who'd stood by him through his personal descent into hell, had finally parted company the night before. Buck Wilmington had been his friend and partner for the better part of ten years, and even he had given up on Chris, in the end. Chris couldn't blame him. He'd treated Buck as if the man were part responsible for what had happened, but he hadn't been. They'd run a string of horses down to Mexico and stayed over an extra night, largely because Buck had been reluctant to abandon his newest conquest. Chris hadn't protested much at the time, but it had been an ill-fated decision. That had been the night riders had burned Chris Larabee's home to the ground, with his family still inside.
Chris had started to drink more, and more, as his search for the killer grew more futile. Buck had tried to keep his friend from falling, but he couldn't provide the one thing Chris needed most—his family, alive and well. Larabee had told him to mind his own business, and last night he'd told him at gunpoint. Buck had lit out without another word, only a pained expression that haunted Chris, adding to his burden of guilt.
"Hey you--Cowboy! I'm talkin' ta ya." The fresh-faced youngster harangued Chris, as the older man staggered down the boardwalk.
Chris wanted to lay down in a bed, before the hangover claimed him.
"Go 'way, boy." Chris turned to glare at the young man.
"You got yourself a lotta sand for a no-good drunken sod of a cowboy. A friend o' mine says you whupped him somethin' awful. O'ver nuthin'." His name was Aaron, and he was two days shy of his nineteenth birthday. He jabbed a finger against Larabee's chest.
Chris dropped him with one punch. "Prob'ly." He concurred. Deciding breakfast looked infinitely better in a glass, Chris returned to the saloon.
Jack had just given up on his half-hearted attempt to keep Larabee from a bottle, when Aaron, blood oozing from a still-swelling lip, barged into the room with his gun drawn and cocked.
"I'm gonna kill ya, you sonofabitch."
Chris turned from the bar, walked up to the boy and wrested the six-shooter away with one hand, while striking him in the face with the other. Aaron fell to one knee, hate filling his eyes as Chris calmly removed all the cartridges from the gun's cylinder and returned the firearm to its owner.
"No. You're not." Chris paused, considering. "An' I ain't no damn cowboy."
The next day found Larabee at his table once more, trying to find some scrap of memory which could point him to his family's killer. He closed his eyes, and the images came unbeckoned. Sarah cooking dumplings. Adam running in from the field, excited at some new discovery. Sarah sleeping in his arms...
Olmstead shook his head sadly. He knew if the man didn't surface soon, he'd drown in that bottle. He glanced beyond Chris, to the doors sudden movement. "Larabee!"
Jack's warning and the sound a pistol being cocked brought Chris back to the present. He threw himself sideways onto the floor, as Aaron's shot rang out, barely missing him. Drawing his own gun as he fell, Chris shot the boy through the heart.
Aaron stared in disbelief at the hole in his shirt, staying standing for long seconds before crumpling to the floor. His eyes filled with fear as he realized he was dying.
He tried to stand, but the curtain of death descended before he could do more than sit
Larabee rose and watched the young man slump back to the floor, dead at last. He stared for what seemed an eternity, before raising his eyes to meet those of a man seated against the far wall. The man's face was white with either shock or fear. Chris turned and left the saloon.
During the walk back to his room, Chris began to shake. Some part of his mind, working free of the whiskey, had looked around and realized the path was dark, and that he walked it alone.
Stephen Travis continued to stare at the place where Chris Larabee had stood for a very long time. He'd never witnessed an actual shooting before, in self-defense or otherwise. The scene replayed itself over in his mind. His ears still rang from the shots.
He could smell burnt gunpowder, and he could smell death.
Finally lowering his gaze to the body on the floorboards, Travis knew he'd just witnessed the actions of one of the breed of men labeled "gunslinger," cold as steel, and unflinchingly deadly.
He would reach his home in Four Corners tomorrow, and the love and security of his wife and son. As he watched the Sheriff questioning the barman, Stephen reflected that the public should be warned about the likes of Larabee. With a last look at the boy's body, he grabbed his hat and left for the hotel. Travis reasoned he had more than enough time to write an editorial for the next issue of the Four Corners Clarion, and he now had the subject matter.