As had become his custom, Chris Larabee sat out of doors while the sun began its descent toward the horizon. Whether reading a book, engaged in a card game, or alone with his own thoughts, he found afternoon to be the one time of day when he was able to relax. Today he kept his own company, studying the townfolk who went about their business, occasionally nodding a greeting to those who acknowledged his presence.
Since his arrival in Four Corners, and his subsequent hiring as one of the seven men who protected the town, Chris had noticed an increasing number of citizens went out of their way to greet him. He didn't know if it was out of fear, respect, or gratitude, but he found it amusing.
The stage to Ridge City, and thus the train station, was in the process of boarding passengers. Always curious as to who was arriving in, or departing from, town, Chris mentally noted the waiting passengers. Old Man Roberts--bound for God only knew where, since he had no kin or home to visit. A nervous Digger Jensen was likely headed to Denver, with aspirations of turning his meager mining riches into great wealth at the gambling tables. Ezra had tried to interest him in a local game, but Digger wasn't quite the fool he appeared to be. Chris suspected he'd return to town, fortune intact.
The last passenger was a woman. Chris couldn't see her face, but there was something familiar about her. He watched as she turned to speak to the driver, and felt his gut tighten--Julia. Julia Crawford had been his wife Sarah's closest friend, and Chris hadn't seen her since before Sarah and Adam, their son, had died.
Perhaps Chris' hard stare became tangible, for Julia suddenly turned to look directly into his eyes. The shock of recognition crossed her features and she called out his name. "Chris? My God, Chris?" She began to walk toward him.
Meeting her halfway, just beyond the boardwalk's edge, Chris accepted her embrace. The memories Julia triggered threatened to engulf him, and he marveled how a part of him was behaving as if their meeting were perfectly normal, just two old friends. The larger part was drowning in renewed pain.
"Hello Julia. How are you?"
"Oh Chris, it's so good to see you! I'm afraid Edward and I are returning east--after ten years, he has finally decided that he isn't quite the westerner he thought he'd be, so it's back to Philadelphia." Her expression changed, growing sorrowful, "We never had the chance to talk after...before you left. I wanted to say how sorry I was about Sarah, Adam, and the baby."
Time froze, as her words echoed in his mind. For three years Chris Larabee had been waging a war for his sanity. He'd lost some of the battles, but had thought he was winning the war--until now.
Julia read his expression. "You didn't know. Oh Chris, I'm so sorry! Sarah said she was waiting for the right time to tell you, but I thought you knew." Tears had begun streaming down her cheeks, as she placed a hand on his too still chest. "I'm sorry." In the distance Chris heard his voice telling Julia that it was all right, that he would be fine. Asking her to say hello to Edward and their children for him. Wishing her a safe journey. He dimly was aware of the stage pulling away, and her concerned face at the window. Realizing he still stood in the street, Chris turned and headed for the only respite he knew of--the saloon.
Vin Tanner knocked yet again on his friend's door. "Buck. Need to talk to you."
Amid giggles and the occasional curse, Vin thought he could hear Buck Wilmington getting dressed. Ordinarily the sounds would have brought a smile to the former bounty hunters face, but not today.
"All right. What's so damned important," Buck paused as he yanked open the door, "that you have to come..." His voice trailed off as he took in Vin's expression. "What's happened?"
"It's Chris. Don't know what's set him off, but he's in a bad way. An' he won't talk about it."
"Hell, Vin. If he's going to talk to anyone, it'll be you." Buck stated it as a fact, without resentment, but Vin could see the slight twinge of pain that accompanied the words. Chris and Buck had been close as brothers for a great many years, up until the death of Chris' family. After Sarah and Adam were murdered, a barrier had formed between the men, and neither one seemed able to tear it down.
"Not this time, pard. He was askin' where you were." Vin leaned against the doorframe, watching the girl inside finish dressing. "Take it slow, Buck. He's lookin' like he wants to kill someone." Vin tugged thoughtfully on his hat's stampede string. "J.D. says he seen 'im talkin' to a lady gettin' on the stage. Old friend or somethin'. Then Chris just started drinkin'. He's still at it, and he's not quittin' any time soon."
"Damnation." Buck went back inside to fetch his gunbelt, hat, and one last kiss. His eyes losing focus as he recalled the look on Chris' face, Vin muttered under his breath. "You got that right."
J.D. Dunne paced the boardwalk, in front of the Saloon, in an effort to ease his tension. He didn't know why Chris was upset, but he did know how Chris could get when the mood struck. It always worried the young Sheriff. He worried it might get someone dead--maybe even Chris himself. He worried that he might have to place Chris under arrest, and be unable to. He worried that Chris might take it into his head to leave Four Corners and J.D. behind. Shaking his head in frustration, J.D. continued to pace.
As he and Vin approached the Saloon, Buck could see J.D. anxious strides. A part of him approved--the boy had the good sense to avoid Chris at times like this. Of course, most people avoided Chris Larabee when he was on a tear. Survival insticts were triggered just by the look on the gunman's face. Even his friends feared him--and feared for him.. Buck nodded reassuringly to J.D. as he passed. The younger man slumped against a railing, visibly relieved.
Pausing at the saloon's batwing doors, only halfway inside, Buck surveyed the interior. Ezra Standish was dealing poker, and darting quick glances toward the corner table where Larabee sat in a dark pool of isolation. As Buck entered, Ezra met his gaze with eyes filled with concern. Months ago Buck would've laid odds the concern was for Ezra's own welfare, but time had proved the gambler to be a surprisingly loyal friend. No doubt, especially surprising to Ezra himself.
Standing beside Buck, Vin nodded in the direction of a table further along the same wall as Chris'. Josiah and Nathan were sharing a drink, watching over their leader in worried silence. Vin turned to leave, sharing a long look with Buck before exiting. Taking in a deep breath, Buck passed the rest of the way through the swinging doors. There were only a few occupied tables in the room, most clientele had opted for the safety of their homes or one of the other drinking establishments in town. There were a few locals who had grown used to the dark gunslingers moodiness, and concluded the odds of getting shot were much less than the odds of getting "a" shot, or two.
Chris never looked up as Buck entered, but Buck knew he was aware of his presence. Walking slowly to his friend's table, he stopped an arm's length away. He hadn't seen Chris this drunk in a long while, not since the business with Fowler a few months back. Buck didn't know what to say, or how to say it.
"Did you know, Buck?" Chris still didn't look up, he stared at his whiskey, his words soft. "Did you?" His hand tightened around the shotglass until his knuckles whitened. "Did you know Sarah was pregnant?"
Buck felt as if he'd been struck. 'Christ Almighty…'
"Did. You. Know?" Chris ground out the words. Buck's silence was answer enough. "You didn't tell me?"
"You were hurt enough, I didn't see the sense in it." Buck realized his answer wasn't going to help, that no answer would. "I'm sorry, Chris."
"Sorry." Buck braced himself as Chris finally raised red-rimmed eyes, but there was no hatred in them, no contempt. Chris' eyes only held pain and loss. Buck eased himself into a chair opposite his friend.
"Sarah wanted a little girl, did she tell you that? She loved Adam more than life itself, but she always wanted a little girl." Draining his glass, Chris poured another shot. Buck remained silent. He watched as the pain in Chris' eyes turned to anger, and finally into rage. He'd seen the change before, and he'd likely see it again.
"I'm goin' to find the bastard, you know that, don't you?" The rage faded, exposing the pain once again. Chris refilled his glass, shoved it toward Buck, and raised the nearly empty bottle in a toast. "To Sarah...and my children."
Buck drank the toast, watching as Chris finished off the bottle and threw it angrily against the wall, sending shards of glass flying. The tide had turned. Chris would be all right. "You 'bout ready to leave, Pard?"
"Is J.D. still wearin' out the boardwalk outside?" Chris asked.
Buck chuckled. "He is."
"Then I guess I'm ready. Wouldn't want the kid to stay out there all night." Chris stood, fairly steadily, all things considered. He locked eyes with his old friend. "I miss her, Buck."
"I know, Chris." Buck's voice grew husky. "I know."