Debts & Decisions

by Firefox

Disclaimer: I do not own the characters of the Magnificent 7, they belong to John Watson / Trilogy / Mirisch / MGM and others who don’t value them as much as we all do.

Thank you to so many of you great fic writers out there whose work is so inspirational and creative (if I win the lottery I’ll buy ‘em for ya girls!), and to Paula for her invaluable beta work (we’ll make a fan of you yet!)

This is for Nancy, with my appreciation for all the guidance, encouragement and advice, and for answering all my incredibly dumb questions … and it’s not a Mary Sue – promise!

Author’s Notes: This is my first attempt at OW fic, so don’t be too hard on the girl …feedback welcome, but please be gentle – I’m a sensitive soul. Apologies for any lapses in my American voice (the Brit does her best, pards), and for the scandalous liberties taken – but this idea sort of settled in my head and just would not go away…

The weather had definitely taken a turn for the worse. Over the past few days, the mornings were noticeably colder, the sky a shade darker blue, the dry, cold winds blowing restlessly down from the mountains bringing a promise of a turn in the seasons. Today, the chill in the gusting breezes sent a ripple of something like foreboding through the town of Watsonville. None of which affected Chris Larabee in the least, save to remind him to button up the long black duster he wore a little more securely. At the moment, the garment in question was completely unbuttoned, as Mr Larabee leaned on the wooden bar of the Royale Hotel, a shot glass of whiskey held easily in his long fingers.

His green-eyed gaze automatically swept around the faded refinement of Royale’s bar – his cat-like senses able to pick up the slightest nuance of anything amiss. There was nothing. It was mid-afternoon, and the place was almost deserted. An air of drowsy nonchalance hung over the large room, sluggish and listless. Two slightly inebriated patrons of the lunch-time clientele were playing cards at a table in the corner, one customer dozed quietly in a chair by the door, his stained grey plainsman tipped forward on his head, completely obscuring his face. The only other person in sight was the bartender, idly polishing glasses and replacing them on the mirror-backed shelves behind the bar.

Chris raised his eyes to the reflections in the slightly clouded mirrors. The Royale had seen better days, no doubt about that. The red drapes were faded and drooping, the furniture mismatched and, for the most part, unpolished. Dust collected in the corners of the floor and cobwebs shrouded the space between the red velvet pelmets and the damp-blotted ceiling. The well-worn bar top, scarred by countless customers, shone with a dull lustre that owed more to the pressure and movement of uncountable elbows and sleeves than any application of polish. The place reminded Chris of an old soldier, decaying yet defiant, perhaps that was why he felt less ill at ease here than in some of the other, grander establishments that the large town had to offer. He had booked a room here for the night, and tomorrow, at first light, he would start the two-day journey back to Four Corners.

His trip had been successful – the papers and the prisoner delivered safely into the hands of the Federal Marshal here in the town without incident. Normally, Vin or one of the other peacekeepers would have accompanied him, especially when escorting a prisoner, but Edward Pendle, forger extraordinaire, 63 years old and blind as a bat without his glasses, did not seem a particularly threatening undertaking. Edward had been docile and compliant; indeed his impending incarceration seemed to hold no dread for him at all – having spent a large proportion of three quarters of his life behind bars, he accepted the inevitable with good grace. Their journey here had been punctuated by conversations about the expanding nature of the townships in the territory, the pros and cons of cattle ranching versus homesteaders, even a few jokes between the two men, and had made the rather onerous task almost pleasant. Would that all prisoners were as biddable.

Chris’s mind wandered when he thought about Four Corners. Who would have believed that a ‘notorious gunslinger’ would have settled (the word still sent a vague shiver of unease through him) in such a place? The little town was growing steadily, and he and the other six peacekeepers were as much a part of the fabric of the place as the buildings themselves. With personalities as seemingly mismatched as the Royale's furnishings, somehow they had settled into a cohesive and united whole. Disagreements were frequent, opinions varied, but beneath all that was an abiding sense of trust and loyalty - and there was no firmer foundation on which to build something lasting.

He motioned for the bartender to refill his glass. As he lifted it to his lips he heard two rapid gunshots from the street outside and the sound of his name being shouted.

+ + + + + + +

The hand holding the pen froze half way to the paper on the desk before her. Then she heard it again. The same two words. "Chris Larabee." Her heart seemed to clench in her chest. No! Impossible. Here? She reached out a slim hand to raise the heavy French lace curtain and looked down into the street. She could see two men standing outside the doors to the Royale Hotel opposite, one brandishing a revolver, the other seemingly unarmed. Then she noticed another man, above the entrance to the building, concealed behind the large painted name-board of the Royale.

From her vantage point, two floors up, she could see the layout of the ambush clearly. She rose swiftly from the writing desk in a swirl of skirts, the pen dropping unseen to the floor, and ran out of the room and down the stairs as fast as she dared, calling out in a voice sharp-edged with panic for assistance and her gun.

+ + + + + + +

At the sound of the shots, Chris had turned, instinctively lowering himself into a half-crouch, his hand on the butt of his gun, his senses instantly alert, adrenalin pounding through his body. The batwing doors to the bar remained closed. Moving swiftly and stealthily, he edged towards one of the windows that gave a good view of the street outside. He could see two men, one armed with a revolver. He didn't recognise either of them. A swift frown crossed his features. Who the hell were they? What the hell was this all about?

"Chris Larabee!" The voice shouted his name again.

Chris's gaze swept the street through the window. He could see no-one else. Not that that guaranteed anything. You didn't get to be his age by taking any situation at face value. He stood up, carefully positioning the long flap of the black duster behind the holster on his hip, and walked slowly to the doors.

"Come on out here Larabee! Or ain't you got the guts for it?" the voice shouted again.

Chris pushed the doors open, his peripheral vision establishing that he wasn't about to get jumped from anyone concealed alongside the doors. He took two steps forward.

He looked at the man holding the gun. He was young. Very young. No more than JD's age. He was trembling slightly, but seemed hyped rather than angry. Sweat beaded his forehead and his dark eyes were alight with a maniacal gleam. Chris's heart sank. What was this? Another rash kid trying to make a name for himself? Go one-on-one with the notorious Chris Larabee and become a legend. Egged on by eager friends and fuelled by too much whiskey, armoured by the self-deception of the invincibility of youth. How many tombstones had Chris seen that were such a sad testament to such young men? Too many to count.

"Who are you and what do you want?" Chris asked slowly, his eyes never leaving the young man's gaze, his hand steady above his holster. Two more steps, this time to the edge of the boardwalk.

The gun did not move. It remained clasped in the young man's right hand, pointing downwards, almost as if he had forgotten he was holding it.

"I'm Franky Spikes."

"And that’s supposed to mean somethin’ to me?" Chris said levelly. Another step, this one into the street.

"First you blinded my father in one eye – then you beat him senseless, then you got him arrested and sent to jail, and you ask if that’s supposed to mean somethin’ to ya?" The voice was a rasping hiss, escaping through clenched teeth.

Realisation flashed through Chris’s mind. "You’re Top Hat Bob Spikes’s son."

The young man nodded slowly. "You were real brave Mr Chris Larabee - beating an exhausted, half-blind man who could give you 15 years, to a bloody pulp in front of his own men… let’s just see if you’re man enough to take on somebody who can fight back…"

In a flash, the young man had thrown his gun to the ground and launched himself at Chris with a yell of blind rage. Chris had been expecting a tense stare-down, giving him the opportunity to gain a psychological advantage over the young man, and was taken unawares by the speed and rage of the physical onslaught. A lucky punch landed and Franky caught Chris with a savage right hook in the centre of his face, feeling the crunch of splintering cartilage, snapping the gunslinger’s head backwards. Blood began to pour down Chris’s face from his broken nose. Then all hell broke loose. The man concealed above the hotel entrance raised a rifle, aimed carefully at the struggling figures in the street, and fired, hitting the gunslinger and sending him sprawling, face-down in the dirt.

Chris’s assailants did not stop, even when their victim was unconscious. Like coyotes on a stricken rabbit, Franky and his partner rained blows and boots into Chris with total reckless abandon.

The sharp ratchet click of a rifle being cocked was heard above the noise and instantly froze the action.

"The next person who touches him dies."

It was not a threat. It was a statement of fact. The two young men found themselves facing a woman aiming a Winchester at them with a rock steady hand and a voice to match. She was flanked by two large men, both armed, one of whom had a bead on the man above the sign, the other a clear shot at Franky’s partner. Her clear blue eyes showed no hint of fear.

For a few seconds no-one moved, then Franky, seeing the certainty in her eyes and reading it with accuracy, began to back away, his eyes never leaving hers. His anger began to seep away at the same rate as his courage as her eyes bored steadily into his. Realisation filled his guts like cold water. This woman would have no hesitation in killing him. His courage and bravado fled and he turned, running away from his victim, followed closely by his partner in crime. The man above the sign flung the rifle into the street and raised both arms above his head.

"Joseph," the woman said to the man on her right. "Go and get him down from there and take him to the Sheriff."

"Yes Ma’am."

She lowered the rifle and ran into the street, falling to her knees beside the still form of the gunslinger. A widening pool of blood, like a macabre blossom, spread out from beneath the twisted form, staining the hard earth. Her fingers sought his neck, feeling for a pulse. It was there. Fluttering and thready, but she could feel it. He was still alive. Tears shimmered in her eyes as relief pounded through her.

"Robert!" she shouted to the other man. "Get him upstairs to my rooms…NOW!" Her voice was tight with fear as she rose from her position and ran back into the building, flinging the door back on its hinges. "Cotton! COTTON!" A small boy, with coffee coloured skin and eyes like jet, came running along the polished floor of the wooden hallway, his shiny shoes squeaking on the waxed wood. She smiled quickly and bent down to him. "Cotton – run and get Doc Lawrence – as quickly as you can – tell him it’s an emergency."

"Yes’m." In a flash he was gone, pelting out of a side door as if the hounds of hell were after him.

+ + + + + + +

It was dark. The room was very quiet, just the muted sounds of voices and faint piano music drifting up from somewhere below, creating a soothing murmur in the background. Two ornate oil lamps and a single candle in a silver holder on the edge of the writing desk illuminated the room with soft circles of amber light, a faint draught flickering the candle flame, making the shadows dance on the walls. She looked across from where she sat at the desk to the unconscious form in her bed, swathed in white bandages. His face was swollen and badly bruised, his nose broken from Franky’s vicious first punch. He had cracked ribs, a broken arm and more bruises than could be counted. The rifle bullet had passed right through his shoulder, miraculously not shattering his shoulder blade or collar bone, but the muscle tearing was severe, the wound was large and he had lost a lot of blood. Doctor Lawrence had treated him swiftly and with skill, and was confident that, with adequate rest and care, the gunslinger would recover, although he had not regained consciousness since the attack, and a heavy sedative would keep him asleep for at least the next 12 hours. She had some serious decisions to make before then.

She finished the note she was writing, then carefully folded the paper in a triple gatefold. Holding the rod of sealing wax in the candle flame for a few seconds, she let several drops fall on to the folded edge of the letter, then pressed a wooden handled seal into the wax, leaving the impression of a scrolled circle with an ornate "L" in the centre. Waiting a few moments for the wax to harden, she turned the note over and wrote "For the attention of The Seven" in neat, flowing script. Quietly, she rose from the desk and went to the door, where Joseph stood waiting for her, his hat clutched in his hands. She spoke very quietly. "Take this to Four Corners as fast as you can. Go to the saloon or the church and ask for one of the peacekeepers. If you can’t find them, ask Mrs Travis at the Clarion newspaper office." Joseph nodded. "You are looking for Vin, Buck, Ezra, Nathan, Josiah or JD, and this note is to be placed directly into their hands – no-one else. This is very important. Do you understand Joseph?"

The tall fair-haired man nodded emphatically, smiling at her. "Yes Ma’am. I’ll deliver it safely I promise you." She patted his arm.

"Thank you Joseph. This is real important to me."

"Don’t worry Ma’am, you can count on me." He carefully placed the note in the inside pocket of his jacket and pushed his hat down squarely on his head. "I’ll be back afore you know it Ma’am." With that, he turned and headed off down the stairs, his heavy limp making familiar dragging footsteps as he descended.

+ + + + + + +

Rain lashed the town of Four Corners, driving the townsfolk indoors, turning the streets to mud and the flooded potholes into a treacherous obstacle course. Vin Tanner pushed open the batwing doors of the saloon, water dripping from the brim of his hat, his boots muddy and his buckskin jacket sodden.

"Jeesh! S’rainin’ like the devil!" He wrenched his hat from his long curls and shook it, sending a light shower of droplets over the two figures seated at one of the tables.

"Careful Vin! I don’ want my beer any more watered down than it already is!" Buck Wilmington grinned at Inez behind the bar, who pulled a face at him, knowing he was joking.

Ezra Standish flicked a few imaginary stray drops from the sleeve of his trademark red jacket. "The weather is indeed, most inclement – but at least it has a detrimental effect on the more troublesome members of this community, making our lives slightly less demanding than usual."

Vin strode to the bar, where Inez was already pouring his whiskey into a glass. He took it from her with a smile, tossing the warming liquid into his throat in a single movement and replacing the glass on the bar, where she instantly refilled it, before placing the stopper back into the bottle. This one, she knew, he would take with him to the table.

"Town’s peaceful as a prayer meetin’, Vin said, settling himself into a chair. "Ain’t seen’ a livin’ soul on patrol."

"No sign of Chris then?" Buck asked.

Vin shook his head. "Nah… he’s probably waitin’ for a break in the weather."

"I do not think there is sufficient cause for you to be unduly concerned Mr Wilmington," Ezra said as he idly riffled the pack of cards in his hands. "It’s a two-day ride to Watsonville and Mr Larabee is not yet overdue."

Buck shrugged. "Yeah. I guess it’s just this damn rain – makes me feel kinda edgy."

Ezra snorted. "For ‘edgy’ I would read ‘bored’ which, I would wager, has more to do with the fairer members of this community choosing to remain safe indoors in this awful weather and restricting Mr Wilmington’s normal activities, than it has to do with concern over Mr Larabee."

"I’m with you, Ez." Vin grinned.

Ezra smiled, his green eyes glittering across the table. "Well gentlemen, as it appears we will not be unduly troubled by miscreants or evil-doers this afternoon… can I interest you in a game of chance?"

They were on their third hand of poker when the sound of hooves clattering through the puddles and stopping outside the saloon caught their attention. Dragging footsteps echoed across the boardwalk and the doors of the saloon swung inwards, revealing a tall man, his light tan duster soaked to a dark brown, his hat sodden, an exhaustion-etched frown on his face. He entered the room with a heavy limp, his eyes scanning the dim interior.

"May I help you Señor?" Inez asked politely. The three peacekeepers were alert, although their hands still held their cards, all eyes were on the stranger.

The man dragged his soaked hat from his equally soaked fair hair and bobbed his head quickly in an effort to be polite to the beautiful barmaid.

"I don’t rightly know ma’am. I’m lookin’ for the peacekeepers of this town. I got an important message for ‘em," he replied clearly.

Vin’s hand edged closer to the mare’s leg strapped to his thigh, his blue eyes sweeping over the new arrival.

Inez’s gaze never flickered to the three men at the card table. They would, she knew, assess the situation and make themselves known when appropriate.

Buck looked steadily at Vin and the unspoken communication that was so much a part of the seven’s understanding of each other, told the tall gunman all he needed to know. I’ve got your back, pard. He don’ look dangerous, but I’m watching him. The words were as clear as if the tracker had spoken them out loud. Buck stood up.

"Can I help you with somethin’ stranger?" His voice was calm, his dark blue eyes searching the man’s face for any sign of deceit. He saw only a vague sense of uncertainty.

The tall man faced Buck with a slight tilt of his head. "I’m lookin’ for the peacekeepers. I have a message for them. Do you know where I could find them?"

"And you are…?" Buck asked.

"Joseph. Joseph Fryer at your service."

Buck could see nothing dangerous in the man’s countenance.

"I’m Buck Wilmington."

Joseph’s grey eyes suddenly sparked alight and he smiled. "Buck? You’re Buck?" His hand reached for the letter safely concealed in his coat, but froze halfway to its destination at the sound of guns being cocked. He raised his eyes to find two guns aimed squarely at him from the two men still seated at the table. Ezra’s green eyes stared along the line of sight of his arm to the derringer; Vin’s eyes, as blue as Ezra’s were green, gazed steadily along the barrel of the mare’s leg and into Joseph’s face.

"Easy there Joseph." Buck’s voice was calm.

Joseph swallowed and took a deep breath, his hand still frozen in mid-air. "I have a letter in my pocket for the peacekeepers," he said again, and very slowly opened the flap of the soaked duster to show he was not concealing a weapon, then slid his hand inside his jacket, emerging with the note. "I am under instructions to hand this directly to one of you gentlemen."

Buck took the note from Joseph’s outstretched hand. "Then you have carried out your instructions perfectly sir," Ezra said, snapping the derringer smartly back into his sleeve.

Breaking the wax seal, Buck opened the sheet of thick paper and began to read the words aloud:

The peacekeepers of Four Corners,

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you the news that Mr Larabee has been injured whilst in Watsonville.

His wounds are serious but not life-threatening and he is being well cared for. A doctor has seen him and has assured me that he will be able to travel in a few days, but I know he will need Mr Jackson, and the guardianship of his friends, to return home safely.

I promise you all that this is not a deception or an attempt to lure you away from your duties. I know how much you value Mr Larabee’s leadership, and how strong the bond is that binds you all. I would do nothing to place that in peril – I owe you all too much.

I have entrusted the delivery of this note to Joseph, who is a loyal and trustworthy employee of mine, and in whom you may have complete faith. Please come as soon as you can. In the meantime, I will ensure he continues to be properly cared for and await your arrival.


An old friend

Buck frowned. Whoever had written this note knew them, that much was obvious from the words. The letter was interesting as much for what was left unsaid as for the words themselves.

"A rather cryptic missive," Ezra observed, raising an eyebrow.

Buck looked steadily at Joseph; "Just who is it, exactly, that you work for, stranger?"

+ + + + + + +

The sounds registered first. Not clearly, just muffled, indistinct echoes, reverberating around his head like far-off thunder. Then the pain. Wave after wave of it, as his body tried to drag itself back into consciousness. He tried to inhale, but it felt as if knives were sticking in his ribs. A pounding throb filled his head and his shoulder felt like it was on fire. He tried to open his eyes – hell, even his eyelids hurt. A few shallow grunts escaped his lips at the effort of dragging himself back into the land of the living. Before his eyes were properly open, he felt something damp and cool being wiped across his face, and the mumbled noises began to make sense.

"Gently now… you’re safe. Try not to struggle… just take it easy." It was a female voice. That, at least registered somewhere in his brain, bringing with it an unconscious sense of safety.

Daylight assaulted him, impossibly bright even though his eyes were only half-open. He closed them again against the glare, trying to gather his reeling senses into some semblance of order.

"Ssshh… slowly now. It’s all right, just take your time."

Agonisingly slowly, his brain began to recapture reality. The last thing he remembered clearly was the look in Franky Spikes’s eyes. Franky Spikes! The memory caused a rush of adrenalin and he tried to move, causing a white-hot shaft of pain across his chest. His breath froze in his throat.

"Stay still!" the voice commanded. "You’re safe now, but you need to wake up slowly…"

He tried to open his eyes again. The glare was still there, but at least this time he could see something. Vague, blurred outlines that slowly began to settle into solid forms. When his breathing instinctively found a pattern that caused the least pain and his vision began to clear, he found himself staring at a familiar face.

She saw the confusion in his green eyes as he recognised her, and a tiny smile lifted her mouth. "Hello Mr Larabee," she said gently, waiting for his bewildered senses to reorient themselves.

If his face hadn’t hurt so much he would have been frowning. As it was, his consternation registered in his eyes. He tried to speak. The single word came out of his mouth in a rasping whisper.


She smiled and nodded. "Yes, it’s me." Catching the look of bafflement on his face she spoke again, placing her hand on his arm. "Don’t worry. We’ll explain everythin’ when you’re properly awake. You were hurt, but you’re goin’ to be okay. You need to take it slowly. You’re quite safe, jus’ take it easy." She rose from the chair by the bed, smiling down at him. "Right, I’ll go and get you somethin’ to drink – and there’s someone who is gonna want to know that you’re back with us again!"

Chris tried to take stock of his surroundings. He was propped up on a mound of pillows in a large bed, covered with a colourful patchwork quilt. All things considered, he was fairly comfortable and the large room he found himself looking at was a good deal more luxurious than Nathan’s clinic, which was where he normally came around from similar experiences. Windows shielded by heavy lace curtains with rose patterned drapes, a mahogany writing desk and chair positioned alongside one of them. A large wardrobe, a washstand and several small, decorative tables – all in mahogany. A full-length cheval mirror and a small dressing table, cluttered with an assortment of bottles and boxes. A rocking chair by the door. Framed pictures on the walls. The room was domestic, cosy, decidedly feminine. Nora’s room, perhaps? And what on earth was Nora doing here? The young woman who had just spoken to him was a very different creature from the terrified and abused young working girl that he, Buck and JD had rescued from Wickes Town. The Nora who had smiled at him a moment ago looked happy and healthy, dressed in fine clothes, a far cry from the pathetic, beaten woman Buck had gathered up in his arms from the dust of the tented village. There were a lot of questions he wanted to ask her when she returned.

His musings were interrupted by the door opening. A tray appeared first, carried by Nora, who was accompanied by another familiar figure. Chris stared. Nora had changed, but nowhere near as much as the older woman who stood with her. She wore a close-fitting dress of heavy, emerald velvet, expensive and tasteful, edged in lace, a world away from the tattered, gaudy finery she had been wearing the last time he had seen her. Rich auburn hair, shining with health, was wound in a stylish, neat chignon on top of her head, in place of the straggled curls that Chris had seen many times surround that proud, haunted face. Clear blue eyes regarded him, sparkling still with that edge of defiance that had cost her so dearly in the past, set in a face that looked, if it were possible, younger than Chris remembered. A face from the past.

"Lydia?" he asked.

She nodded, a faint smile spreading across her face at his obvious surprise. "Hello Chris. You look a lot better."

He grimaced. "Wish I could say I felt it," he said wryly.

Between them, the two women repositioned him carefully until he was almost sitting up in the bed, plumping the pillows behind him and easing his protesting body gently back into them. Nora set the tray on the bed across his legs. There was a small china bowl full of delicious smelling broth, two slices of bread, a large glass of water and a smaller glass of what looked like whiskey. Despite his sore facial muscles, he smiled.

"Good hotel, this."

Nora laughed lightly. "Can you manage Mr Larabee?" Her brown eyes regarded him as he reached for the whiskey glass, and Lydia smiled to herself. Some things never change. Given a choice between nourishing broth, refreshing water and plain hard whiskey, she would have successfully bet her life on what Chris Larabee would have picked up first. The first sip caught in his throat, then the fiery liquid burned a warming path through his limbs, making him feel as if he were definitely alive again.

"So… mind telling me where I am and what you’re doin’ here?" he asked, the alcohol lubricating his voice back to something approaching its normal tone.

"You know me Mr Larabee," Nora smiled as she turned towards the door, indicating Lydia with a nod of her head. "Wherever I am, the mother cat is never far away." With a brief wave, she left the room, closing the door quietly behind her. Chris knew she had been referring to what Wickes had always called Lydia, because of her concern and care for the other girls who had worked for him, particularly the very young and vulnerable Nora. More than once Lydia had taken abuse and violence to save Nora from it, and even when she had the opportunity to escape, she would not leave the injured Nora behind. Her protection, loyalty and courage had earned her Wickes’s wrath and the Seven’s respect.

Lydia sat down in the chair that Nora had vacated earlier. "You’re in my room, in my… house," she said carefully.

Chris may have been a little groggy, but his senses were still operational. "House?"

She smiled, shaking her head slightly. "This is my place of business," she caught the glint of amusement in his eyes, "…and before you ask, no, I don’t work here – at least not in the way you’re thinkin’. I run this place - I own this place."

"Does ‘this place’ have a name?"

Lydia grinned. "Dove’s Palace."

Chris caught the irony of the words instantly and grinned back. He had heard working girls referred to as ‘soiled doves’ on more than one occasion, and it was so typical of Lydia to choose a title for her enterprise that would amuse and infuriate in equal measure. As she had told Chris in the bathhouse back in Four Corners once, shyness was something she had never suffered from.

"What happened to San Francisco?" he asked, still smiling.

Lydia laughed. The last time she had seen Chris Larabee, he had been standing on the boardwalk in Four Corners, tipping his hat to her as she drove the wagon out of town, headed for San Francisco.

"We never quite made it that far. Well, Nora and I didn’t. We stopped off here for supplies and rest and… well, Nora and I decided to stay. Emily and the others headed off for Frisco."

Chris remembered the young, spirited Emily with the riot of blonde curls, but probably not as well as JD did. She had grabbed the blushing young sheriff and kissed him, very thoroughly and with great gusto, in front of the assembled townsfolk of Four Corners. JD still talked about it, whenever he could find anyone to listen.

"Why here?" he asked.

She shrugged. "Watsonville was growing fast. New buildings, new businesses, new clients. It was a golden opportunity, so we took it. Oh, it was tough at first, but Nora and I soon got a little place of our own… the little place was very profitable, and soon became a bigger place, which soon became," she waved her arm in an arc, "..this!"

"You did good," Chris said, and meant it.

"Yeah, well, when you been as close to Hell as me and Nora were in Wickes Town, and someone gets you out of it, you make damn sure you never go back." There was a slight tremor in her voice. She had seen and done more than any woman should ever have to and had grabbed her second chance with both hands. Her quick brain, sound common sense and the edge her hard life had given her, had all paid off handsomely. And none of it would have happened without the man who now lay in her bed. Without him, she had realised on countless occasions, she would have probably been dead by now. A very large debt, which this act of rescue and care did not begin to balance out.

"I sent word to the others… no doubt they’ll be here in a couple of days," she said, changing the subject.

"Thanks. Buck’ll think he’s died and gone to heaven!" Chris smiled.

Lydia picked up the spoon from the tray and handed it to Chris. "And if you don’t eat up this wonderful broth that I had to bully my cook into makin’, you ain’t gonna be strong enough to go back with ‘em, so eat!"


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