Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
The sun hung brightly in the sky, but did not bring any discomfort to the lone rider dressed all in black as he rode across the open prairie, heading towards the distant overlapping hills. His mind was elsewhere, riding towards a past he desperately wanted back. Chris Larabee still struggled to absorb the loss of his beloved wife and child. He was heading for the place where they were buried, where his soul was also buried. This was something he had done every year for the past three years. His mind already started to fill with their images, making his heart heavy. He replayed that unreal morning over and over in his mind, memories as sharp and painful as a blade's edge.
Buck Wilmington had done all he could to bring his desolate friend back from the brink of despair. He had pulled the gunslinger out of the dark depths of his sorrow, but a part of him had not survived. That part would sometimes look at him, only to be reminded of all he had lost.
Chris knew how much it had cost his friend. Sarah and Adam had been Buck's family too, the only family he had. Now the two men shared that common bond, only Chris refused to validate Buck's right to feel the same pain of loss as himself.
Buck had started living his life again. The comraderie of five other men, and especially one young easterner, having made it somewhat easier. Larabee hated to admit to himself that the other men, who made up his little coterie, had in fact, helped eased the pain of his loss. He felt as if he violated Sarah and Adam's memory everytime he laughed at Buck and JD's lively antics, or worried when one of them was late coming back from rounds. Were they replacing Sarah and Adam in his heart? For some reason it felt wrong to replace one family for another.
Wilmington had wanted to go with him this year, or better yet, wished that he wouldn't go at all. Telling him he needed to let go of the past and start living in the present. 'How the hell was he suppose to do that?' He had asked his long time friend, turning on his heel not waiting for an answer.
Sarah and Adam had been his past, they were suppose to be his present and future; he had planned on it. He knew Buck meant well, knew the gregarious cowboy missed them almost as much as he did. But, he needed to go, the years were taking away the reality. Parts of his life with Sarah and Adam were beginning to take on a dream cast. It was getting harder and harder to hold
on to details. It scared him. His heart still felt them. It still ached, maybe just not as intensely. 'Time heals all wounds,' so they say. He tried to remember how Sarah would smell when he came home at night, the smell of her cooking, which would fill the house. He tried to remember what kind of fish Adam had caught on their last fishing trip together and the sound of his laugh. He couldn't remember what Adam's laugh sounded like.
His mind, being full of thoughts of his long dead wife and son, didn't warn him of the two drifters who were furtively paralleling him just inside the distant tree line. He caught something out of the corner of his eye. He turned and was knocked from his horse, the bullet having grazed deep across his temple. Chris' last thought was of his wife.
The drifters moved cautiously towards the fallen man, one of them grabbing his skittish horse. They were no one special. They didn't even know the blond-haired man they had just ambushed. They took Chris' gun belt and duster. Then quickly searched him, only to find ten dollars in cash. Larabee never made a sound, which probably saved his life. The drifters thought he was dead. Both men mounted Chris' black horse and rode away with not so much as a glance back.
"Hey ma, what's that?" The sandy-haired boy shouted from the back of the wagon, pointing over his mother's shoulder. Marie Martin squinted over to her left, seeing a dark lump out on the wind-swept prairie. She steered the two-team wagon over to it. As they neared the indiscernible lump she realized it was a man.
"Matt, stay in the wagon." Marie jumped down from the wagon and cautiously walked over. She knelt down beside the injured man, seeing the blood that covered half his face. She gently turned him over, causing him to stir.
"Mister, can you hear me?" she softly called to him. "I'll help you, but you have to help me get you into the wagon." From some unconscious depth Chris seemed to understand, and when he felt the woman getting under his arm, he tried to get his feet under him. His legs shook with the strain. He tried to open his eyes only to have the bright sun force them close and a sharp bolt of pain go through his head. Marie was able to get him to the wagon where he collapsed.
"Ma, who is he?" The eight year old boy asked. His large green eyes peered nervously down at the darkly dressed man, who now laid in the wagon beside him.
"I don't know Matt." Marie climbed back up into the wagon. She looked down at the handsome cowboy who laid on his back in the wagon. His head rolled to the side as she turned the team around to head for home.
They had managed to get the blond-haired stranger into the house and into bed. Marie placed a cool rag on his brow. She had sewn up the cut on his head, but was worried about the fever that was growing within him. He had remained unconscious since they had returned home early that afternoon. The sun was now sliding down towards the distant mountains and flooding the room with gold. She had sent her son out to chop firewood and now sat and stared at the chiseled features of the stranger who laid in her bed. She ran a finger down his face, outlining his strong jaw then across his bare chest, which caused her to gasp as a shiver of excitement went through her. He was a handsome man and it had been such a long time. Her body craved his warmth, his strength. She wondered who he was?
Marie had lost her husband almost six months ago and was now about to loose her ranch. Her son Matt was all she had left of a life she once loved. She was a strong, beautiful woman with long, dark curly hair that framed her oval face and cascaded down her shoulders. She was too young to have been made a widow. She was still angry at her husband for getting himself killed trying to save a couple scraggy head of cattle.
The blond-haired man stirred and she jerked her hand away as if burned. She quickly went to wring out a fresh rag, then gently mopped his face.
"Sarah. Adam," he murmured, his head rolling side to side caught in the throes of fever induced dreams. Marie didn't know what the names meant, but they seem to disturb the man a great deal. She pulled the blankets up to his chest and went and sat in the nearby rocking chair, wrapping herself in a quilt and listening to the sound of the coming storm.
The next morning Marie stood in the doorway of the bedroom to find the stranger awake. His blue eyes stared blankly at the ceiling. She watched as he raised his hand and gingerly touched the wound on the side of his head. His forehead creased in confusion as he took in his surroundings, his blue eyes finally finding their way over to her.
"Are you alright?" she quietly asked not wanting to alarm him. "Would you like something to eat?"
Chris blinked slowly as if trying to remove something stuck in his eyes. His icy, blue stare threatened to melt her where she stood. She couldn't keep her heart from racing and felt as though it would burst forth from her breast. She wondered if he could also hear it. She saw the bewilderment flash across his face. "Sarah?" he simply asked, his voice coming out dry and rough.
Chris wanted to see his family again so bad, that his befuddled mind granted his wish and gave him his heart's desire. He rubbed at his eyes, trying to force back the pain, which threatened to split his head in two. He forced his eyes to focus and gaze upon Marie's soft face. The morning sun streaked her hair with golden strands of light. A wave of nausea caused him to grimace and shut his eyes. He opened them to see Sarah standing before him.
A slight tremor of fear ran through Marie, not the kind that made you run for your life, but the kind that was exciting with just a hint of danger. She didn't know who this man was, and if anyone was to ask her why she had done what she was about to do, she would of pleaded insanity. She didn't know what possessed her, maybe it was loneliness, or looking into those deep, blue somber eyes. But the words spilled out before she could stop them. "Yes dear, it's Sarah." A somewhat relieved smile appeared on his lips, lighting up his eyes and taking away some of the darkness on his face, making him even more handsome. Marie returned the smile and went and sat on the edge of the bed placing her hand over his. He fell into a dreamless sleep, the smile not leaving his face.
Marie quietly left the room, her arms wrapped around herself as she paced the living area. What had she done? Apparently, the head wound had made this man believe that she was someone called Sarah. She remembered the name Adam that he had mumbled in his sleep earlier and hoped that referred to a son. She was going to have to talk to Matt and make him understand. She was being given a second chance, a chance to retrieve the life she had loved and lost, at least that was what she told herself. She needed and wanted a man to take care of her. Her husband had been a good man, not overly loving, but he kept a roof over their heads and food on the table and that was good enough for her. But there were times when she wondered what she might be missing, was there something more? She returned to the room, sitting back in the rocking chair. She watched the steady rise and fall of his chest. She could see the scars of past bullet wounds and wondered what kind of man he was? His face showed a long life of sorrow and pain, but also one of compassion. Maybe he was wanted, then she could give him a new life too. Could she pull this off? She believed it was worth a try.
Two scruffy cowboys, sharing a horse, rode down the main street of Four Corners. They noticed the strange looks from several townsfolk as they stopped in front of the saloon and dismounted, one pushing the black hat back on his head. They were just about to enter the saloon when three men came out, blocking their entrance. The two men smiled nervously and backed away only to have their progress halted by three more men behind them.
Wilmington looked over their shoulders at Chris' horse, which was tied to the hitching post, then his dark eyes turned to the man who was wearing Chris' black duster. Tanner was standing next to the ladies' man and raised his mare's leg, pointing it directly at the other man who was wearing Chris' guns.
"Okay brothers, you're going to tell us where you got that horse, coat and guns?" The ex-preacher asked, trying to keep his growing anger in check. He stepped forward, bringing his intimidating size closer to the two drifters.
The two men regarded each other, then the one wearing Chris' duster spoke. "Ah...we found them out on the prairie," he replied, seeming to test his answer.
All six gunslingers drew their guns and aimed them at the two men.
"Try again!" Buck snarled.
"It was all Dave's idea," the one wearing Chris' colts blurted out, fear taking hold and tearing the words from his throat.
"What? You're the one who shot 'em!" Dave rebuked.
That was all it took. Vin grabbed the smaller man and threw him against the saloon wall, pulling his knife and placing it across the man's throat.
Standish sauntered up to the man's side and whispered menacingly into his ear. "I suggest that you start talking or Mr. Tanner here will show you what Indians do to uncooperative captives."
It didn't take long for the two men to start talking, telling how they had ambushed a darkly dressed cowboy out on the plains. They weren't sure if he was alive or dead. They told the six gunslingers where to find him then JD and Buck took them over to the jail and threw them into adjoining cells.
"If he's dead, you two better pray you die of natural causes before we get back," Buck sneered then walked out of the jail.
The six lawmen met outside the saloon ready to ride. "Okay, we'll go as far as the prairie, if we don't find him we'll split up," Vin explained, as he took the lead the rest falling in behind.
The flames rose higher stopping him from getting any closer. He kept trying, but everytime he was forced back. He screamed out her name, his heart becoming as black as the now charred cabin that stood before him. Then out of the ashes seven riders appeared; he couldn't make out their faces. One darkly dressed rider came forward then stopped, offering his hand.
Chris jerked awake a scream catching between his lungs and throat as he sat up in bed gasping, ignoring the pain coming from his head. His heart pounded wildly within his chest. He tried to hold on to the dream as it began to fade, but he still felt the fear as the darkly dressed rider stood in front of him. Chris brought his hand to his face feeling the wetness on his cheeks.
He looked around the cozy bedroom, noticing the pitcher of water and basin on the dresser. Tentatively, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and tried to stand. His head pounded in retaliation to this movement, but he slowly made his way over to the dresser. He poured some water into the basin then cupped his hands to splash some up into his face.
Marie entered the room, startled to see the stranger standing. She quickly composed herself, before she said, "Do you think you should be doing that?"
Larabee turned a little too quickly and had to grab the dresser to steady himself. Marie darted to his side. placing herself under his arm and helping him back to bed. Chris stared at her. She seemed to be standing at the end of a long tunnel and he narrowed his eyes trying to bring her closer. He tentatively reached up and touched her soft hair. She fought back the reflex to pull away. "How are you feeling?" She hoped he didn't hear the shakiness of her voice.
"Yes, love." Marie helped him to sit back down on the bed, then turned and started busying herself by folding a blanket. "I bet you're hungry," she said as naturally as possible.
His vision was fuzzy around the edges and his head pounded to the beat of some unknown tune. He was unable to hold onto a cohesive thought and raised his hand to his head and touched the bandaged. "Wha..What happened?"
Marie continued busying herself around the room, anything to keep from looking into his questioning eyes. She was afraid he would see the deceit in her green eyes. "I don't really know. I think you might of been ambushed. I found you out on the south range. I thought you were dead." Her voice caught in her throat. "I was so worried about you. You've been unconscious for over a day now."
She took a deep breath and forced herself sit on the edge of the bed next to him. She examined his head wound and couldn't stop herself from flinching slightly when he brought his callous hand up to her cheek. She kissed his palm as a single tear ran down her cheek, which Chris gently wiped away.
Chris lowered his hand then looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings of the small homestead. "I don't remember any of this, this place...," he said worriedly.
"Well, that blow to your head was real bad and you've been away for awhile. It's quite understandable," she lied.
Marie stood up and went to the dresser to retrieve a shirt, grateful that the stranger was the same size as her late husband.
Chris remained seated on the bed, trying to pull anything from his hazy memory. "I can't remember a thing except you and..."
A small, sandy-haired boy stuck his head in. His mother had explained things to him and what she expected him to do. He didn't like the idea of lying to this man, but if it would make his mother happy again he would play along. The stranger had scared him at first, but now looking at him, he saw a gentleness that eased some of his fears.
"Pa?" The boy reluctantly said.
Chris' eyes went wide as he looked at the small sandy-haired boy. He swallowed hard as the boy came up to him. He placed his hands on the boy's shoulders feeling them tense. His blue eyes roved over the young boy's face, searchingly. Something flickered in the back of his mind, sort of an itch that couldn't be scratched. "Adam," he whispered, drawing the boy close. Matt looked over Chris' shoulder at his mother, who had a faint smile on her face.
They reached the spot where Chris was ambushed. Tanner had spent the past ten minutes trying to find tracks, but yesterday's thunderstorm had washed away any evidence. He looked up at the five men who now seem to be looking to him for direction. He only wanted to find his friend. A man he'd only known a short time, but felt a life time connection. He couldn't stop the morbid thought from crossing his mind. What if Chris was dead, what would happen to him? To all of them? The dark-clad gunslinger was the center stone of their eclectic group. Vin feared the mantle of leadership would fall on him. He didn't want it, but especially this way. He knew Chris would want him to keep everyone together, but he wasn't sure he could hold himself together.
Buck was barely holding his churning emotions and fears in check. Chris and him had parted on less than amiable terms. The two cowboys had been through a lot together. Good and bad, they had always come out of it together. Wilmington turned brown eyes to the young gunslinger who sat on his horse next to him. He could see the dread on his boyish face. JD was like a little brother to him and his anchor in a torrent of fear and confusion. He knew Chris would want him to stay together for the kid, everything for the kid.
Tanner put his hat back on and looked off to the west. The blue sky was brushed lightly with white strokes of clouds creating an overwhelming vastness. How would they ever find Chris? "Okay, I think we need to split up. Me and Ezra will go west. JD, Buck, you head south. Nathan, Josiah, go north. We'll meet back here in two days." The four gunslingers nodded and rode off as Vin mounted his horse and turned to see Ezra gaping at him.
"What?" he asked, confused by the incredulous look on the southerner's face. Ezra rarely showed any emotion on his handsome visage, although that seemed to be slowly changing.
"Just surprised that you would request my company is all, Mr. Tanner." The first thing that had crossed the suave conman's mind was, 'what was the tracker's angle, what did he want?' This was a normal train of thought for the cynical gambler. Then he remembered, this was Vin Tanner, the man didn't carry a dishonest bone in his body. Ezra knew the loss of Chris would exact a heavy toll on everyone, but none more than Vin. Buck had JD now, but the young tracker, like himself, had a hard time letting anyone close. The cultured cardsharp made a promise to himself and to Chris, that he would not allow Vin Tanner to go through life alone.
The sharpshooter looked at his friend. "Ezra, I truly enjoy your company," he quietly drawled, reining his horse around. He looked over his shoulder at the skeptical lawman and casually added, trying to lighten the somber mood that had befallen both of them. "And anyway, Buck and the others paid me to take you." Ezra smirked, vowing revenge as he urged his horse into a canter to catch up with his droll friend. The man may not have a malicious bone in his body, but he did carry a couple of funny ones.
Larabee slept through the next morning and part of the afternoon. His mind had accepted the present reality--he woke feeling very content. He smelled the aroma of cooking wafting from the kitchen and took a deep breath of it. He remained in bed listening to the sounds of his wife in the other room and what he assumed was his son playing outside his window. For some reason it felt as if he'd been away from them for a long time. The smells and sounds flowed over him in lapping waves, bringing a gentle comfort to his soul.
He tentatively swung his legs over the bed and slowly stood, letting the dizziness past before taking a step. He made his way to the doorway and stopped. He gazed at the woman moving with confidence within the small kitchen. He could hear her humming a tune and it brought a smile to his handsome face.
Marie tensed slightly when the strong arms encircled her waist from behind. The lips that nibbled at her ear sent a fire of desire throughout her body. She turned in his arms and looked up into his handsome face. "Do you really think you should be out of bed, dear?"
"I feel wonderful," he breathed into her neck. He went to kiss her, then stopped. "Is something wrong?"
"No, of course not," she stammered. "It's just that I have to get dinner on the table and I don't want you to excite yourself to soon."
Chris smiled and released his hold on the beautiful woman. A wave of dizziness flooded through him and he staggered back slightly. "Whoa, you might be right." He felt Marie's arm around his waist as she helped him to a nearby chair.
"Now, you just sit until dinner is ready," she gently chided him.
Matt had come in from outside and stopped just inside the doorway, seeing the stranger sitting in his father's chair. He was uncomfortable with the situation so had been making himself scarce. When he stepped up to the table Chris looked up at him. He knew the boy was nervous, he just couldn't fathom the reason behind it. "Hey son, how about we go fishin' soon?"
Matt's green eyes lit up with excitement. His father never had time to take him fishing. "Really?" Suddenly the stranger didn't seem as scary or intimidating as before. Matt looked into the man's blue eyes and saw an affection he never saw in his own father's eyes. His eyes grew pensive as he realized this feeling was not for him, but for a boy named Adam. His mother caught the sadness that fell on her son's face and threw a warning glance. He quickly shook off the dismal thoughts. Maybe, in time this man would come to love him as much as he had loved the boy called Adam.
"Sure, if you know where a good fishin' hole is? I can't seem to remember that either." A scowl deepen the lines on Chris' forehead as he tried to hold on to a flittering thought.
"I sure do, pa." The word 'pa' brought a warmth to Chris' heart that he felt he hadn't had in a long time. His brow furrowed and he brought his hand to his head to rub his temple. A worried frown came to Matt's young face as he saw the distress on the stranger's suddenly weary visage. Larabee looked up to see the concern he was causing the boy and immediately forced a reassuring smile to appear on his face.
"How about a game of checkers after dinner, son?" he asked, trying to distract the boy, but this seemed to distress him further.
Matt looked over at his mother, not sure what to say or do. Marie stepped up to the table, wringing her hands. "Ah, dear we don't have any checkers."
The reassuring smile disappeared. He looked up at his wife then back to his son. Why had he thought they played checkers? "Well I guess we'll just have to rectify that, won't we?" he said, taking his hand and rubbing Matt's sandy-brown hair, bringing a grin back to his face.
Marie released the nervous breath she had been holding and went back to preparing dinner. This was going to be more difficult than she had thought. A few moments later she looked over from the cooking stove to see Chris helping Matt with his homework. She studied his ruggedly, handsome profile. She sensed a dangerous side to him, just below the surface, but this only made him more exciting to her. Her hand went to her throat as her heart fluttered like a schoolgirl.
Chris leaned back in his chair wiping his mouth with his napkin, putting his hand on his stomach. "That was wonderful, Sarah," he exclaimed.
Marie began clearing the table and Chris stood to help until he felt her hand on his shoulder. "Why don't you and Ma..Adam go and sit by the fire and relax, this will only take a moment to clean up." Half an hour later Marie walked over to the fireplace to find Chris on the floor leaned up against the large over stuffed chair. Matt was asleep with his head in his lap, a book sitting on the floor next to them. Chris looked up as she knelt down beside them, pushing her son's hair away from his face. "He looks so peaceful laying there. I'll put him to bed now."
Chris stopped her hand. "I'll do it." He raised the boy's head and got to his knees then put his other arm under Matt's knees lifting him effortlessly up.
Marie smiled as she watched how the blond stranger cradled her son and carried him to his room, like he had been doing it all his life. 'This was going to work,' she thought. The big test was yet to come. Could she sleep with a man she hardly knew? She hoped to be able to put him off a couple more days. While he was unconscious she had been sleeping out on the sofa, but she knew eventually she would have to play the part of his wife to the fullest. Chris returned a few moments later and stood by the nearby chair. He had a slight headache, but thought he never felt better in his life than right at this moment. He started at the dying fire in the stone fireplace, watching the reds and yellows dance across the remaining wood.
"So do you think we'll be able to sell some of the cattle this year?" Marie asked, breaking him from his reverie.
Chris scratched his head. "Well I'm not sure, I guess I'm going to have to go and take a look," he replied. His brow furrowed, he brought his hand to his eyes and grabbed hold of a chair. The world seemed to waver slightly. He raised his eyes to meet Marie's concern gaze.
"Are you okay? Maybe it's too soon. You should take it easy," she said, worry etched on her pale face.
Chris straightened and a faint smile creased his lips. "No, I'm just a little dizzy." He paused a moment as if trying to decide how to ask this. "Sarah, did we ever have horses?"
Marie bit her bottom lip. "No, but it's all you ever talk about wanting." She chuckled. "We haven't been able to afford any yet. You hoped with this year's stock sale that we might be able to buy a couple head to start a herd." This seemed to satisfy the blond gunslinger's curiosity. Chris moved around the chair to stand in front of his wife. He reached down, taking her by the shoulders and gently raising her up. He looked into her green eyes and nothing else seemed important.
"Well I guess we should go to bed now," she breathed, looking up into his sparkling blue eyes. They walked towards the bedroom, his arm never leaving her waist. She was grateful that neither of them had thought to turn the lamp up. She hurriedly dressed into her nightclothes, trying not to appear to be obviously embarrassed. They both climbed into the soft bed. Chris' arm was across her pillow forcing her to lay her head down upon it. He pulled her close and kissed her head. She melted in his arms, it felt so good, so safe. She tensed slightly when he moved then relaxed as she heard the steady breathing of sleep. She let out a sigh of relief, his head wound still caused him to tire easily. She was given another night's reprieve. She placed her hand on his bare chest and fell asleep, safe in his arms.
It was early, too early for the nocturnal gambler, who hadn't stopped complaining for the past hour. Tanner had stopped at the top of a rise to look at another small homestead. They had been to five ranches in the area looking for any sign of their wayward leader. Ezra came up alongside, looking down at what had the lean tracker's interest. It was not what the conman expected. There below sat a small cabin and barn, but what really grabbed both of the lawmen's attention were the two people out front by the well. One being the missing Chris Larabee. He had his arm around a beautiful auburn-haired woman. A young boy raced out of the barn and right into Chris' outstretched arms. He threw the boy over his shoulder, bringing forth a squeal of laughter as he spun the boy around. He then put the youth down and picked up a pail of water and the three entered the small cabin.
Ezra and Vin regarded each other, too astonished to speak, not sure what they had just witnessed.
Standish pushed back his black hat. "It would appear that Mr. Larabee has been concealing a dual life?"
Vin ran his hand through his long brown hair; he couldn't even begin to come up with an explanation to what had just taken place. The bewildered tracker pressed his heels against his horse and started towards the homestead. Ezra followed, a slight grin on his face in anticipation of a very interesting explanation.
Standish knocked on the door and was rewarded with Chris' imposing form filling the doorway.
The tall gunslinger stared at the two strangers standing on his porch. "Yeah, what 'cha want?" This wasn't quite the greeting they had expected and both men didn't hide their surprise. Ezra procured a faint smile on his handsome face. "Mr. Larabee, I congratulate you on keeping some measure of privacy, something I've always tried to accomplish for my..."
Vin elbowed the smooth-talking southerner, who shot him an annoyed glare. "But don't you think you could of showed us the courtesy of telling us about this dual life?"
Chris glared at the two men, momentarily taken aback by the southerner's speech. "Do I know you? And what in the hell are you talking about?"
Ezra and Vin's face fell at exactly the same time. The look in Chris' face told them this was not a joke, and anyway Larabee was not known for his sense of humor.
"It's us, Chris. Ezra and Vin," the tracker warily answered, his eyes narrowing as he took in his friend.
Standish noticed the gash on the side of Chris' head. He ran his finger along his own skull and Vin nodded in understanding. "Ah, it looks like you got quite a nasty head wound there, cowboy," Vin commented. Chris snapped his head up and stared at the buckskin-clad tracker, the word 'cowboy' having triggered some sort of image to flash within his mind. He thought the long-haired man would have been the sort of person he would of rode with during his wild days. But the fancy dressed southerner was definitely someone he wouldn't trust; he had a devious manner about him.
Chris turned his head over his shoulder and shouted into the cabin.
Vin and Ezra's mouths both dropped and their hearts skipped a beat at the name. A dark hair woman came forward, squeezing under Chris' arm, which he then draped over her shoulders.
"Do you know these men, hon?" He asked her, keeping his eyes on the two men.
Marie stared at the two confused individuals and with a faint smile replied. "I've never seen them before love."
"Chris, you know us," Vin blurted out. This was too much; he had ridden with this man for the past six months now it was like he never existed. "You're Chris Larabee. I'm Vin Tanner and this is Ezra Standish." Chris' brow deepened as he frowned and shook his head.
Marie kept the excitement from showing; she had finally learned the stranger's name. She had been afraid that eventually the blond stranger would realize that she had never once called him by his given name.
The boy, appeared at Chris' leg. "What's going on, Pa?" Matt asked. Chris placed a protective hand on the boy's shoulder moving him back.
Ezra and Vin couldn't believe what they were seeing or hearing. "Listen gentlemen, I believe you're mistaken," Chris exclaimed.
"You are Chris Larabee, are you not?" Ezra asked, trying to make sense of this whole bizarre situation.
"Yeah, but I've never laid eyes on you two before." He stared at Ezra's flashy clothes. "And you, I'd never forget. Now get off my property." He closed the door leaving the two bewildered lawmen standing alone trying to figure out what had just happened.
They walked back to their horses. Vin grabbed the gambler by the shoulder, stopping him before he mounted.
"What do you think is going on, Ez?"
"It appears Mr. Larabee has selective amnesia and this woman has taken advantage of it."
"He thinks she's Sarah," Vin replied in disbelief. "How could he believe she's his dead wife?"
"I do not know, Mr. Tanner, but as we both know, Sarah and Adam were the most important people in his life." The two men mounted and slowly rode back the way they had come. "You need to go and retrieve Mr. Jackson and Mr. Wilmington."
"Because Mr. Wilmington was the only one of us that Chris knew at this time in his life and maybe he can straighten him out," Ezra explained.
"What are you goin' to do?" Vin asked.
"I'm going to stay and watch and make sure our poor befuddled leader doesn't decide to leave."
Vin nodded and took off.
Standish had borrowed Vin's spyglass and watched as Chris, Marie and the little boy did chores around the house and barn. He looked at the face of a man he thought he knew. The hardness and solemn fa?ade was gone, replaced with a calm and peaceful serenity. He watched as Chris laughed, warming up his normally cold blue eyes. He watched as the blond gunslinger took the woman he believed to be his long dead wife into his arms and hold her tight, nuzzling his face into her long curly hair. Ezra dropped the spyglass, suddenly feeling very intrusive. He now realized what Chris had lost and what the six men were trying to replace in his heart.
The egotistic gambler saw his stoic leader in a whole new light. Would it be so wrong to allow Larabee to stay in this fantasy his mind had somehow created? Ezra shook the thought away. It would be living a lie and Ezra knew all about living a lie. The truth always came out in the end.
He turned his thoughts to the woman. What was she after? She obviously didn't know who Larabee was. She did seem to genuinely care about him though, but was this the true Chris Larabee, or just a lost memory of him from years ago. Everyone had an angle as far as he was concerned and he wouldn't be surprised to discover that this woman had ulterior motives as well.
Marie was worried about the two men who had stopped by. Obviously Chris had a past with these men and she didn't think they would give up too easily. Well, she cared about him too, and wasn't possession nine tenths of the law? She would have to try and talk him into moving on.
Another night presented itself, but this time Marie had no reservations. She wanted to be with him. Maybe now knowing his name solidified the charade. She felt his hand on her hip; she rolled over to face him. The moonlight from the window cast his face in a pale glow. His hand came up and caressed her cheek, then moved down her arm, sending tingles up and down her spine. He brought his lips searchingly up to hers, at first softly, then as his passion grew so did his hunger. "Oh Sarah, I love you," he whispered into her ear causing her to tense slightly and a sadness come to her eyes. She drove her tongue deeper into his beckoning mouth. She kissed his neck and worked her way down and across his chest, igniting a fire in him, which caused his blood to boil. He gracefully rolled out from under her. She looked up into his handsome visage, noticing his watery gaze, but afraid to know the reason behind it. He froze and his icy blue eyes narrowed. He didn't understand the emotions that suddenly past through him. He was happy, why was he also feeling guilty? His vision blurred momentarily and he squeezed his eyes shut. He felt her hand behind his neck drawing him close. Their lips melded together, wiping everything away like a cleansing spring rain. She felt his hardness against her and arched her hips up invitingly. He entered her and together their passion exploded. It had never been so good, not even with her late husband.
Chris fell asleep on his side, his face peaceful. Marie laid still, running her fingers through his blond hair. She sighed as she relived every second of their lovemaking. She knew when he looked at her he saw someone else, wanted her to be someone else. She convinced herself that she could make him fall in love with her. She already knew she was in love with him.
The next morning, Ezra woke with the sun, not having much choice since it shined in his face as he laid on his bedroll. He watched as the woman exited the cabin and followed her light-hearted steps to the barn. He decided to try and get some answers. He stealthily made his way around the back of the barn and slipped in through a window. He heard her talking softly to the cow she was milking and slipped up behind her, placing his hand over her mouth. "Shhhh, I'm not going to hurt you," he whispered into her ear, then slowly released his hold.
Marie stepped back from the handsome gambler. "Now Miss, I need to know what's going on. Why does Mr. Larabee believe you are Sarah?" Marie bit the inside of her cheek. She hoped if she explained things to this man he would understand and leave them alone.
"My son and I found him hurt on the trail and brought him home. When he came too, he thought I was someone called Sarah and that Matt was his son Adam." Marie paused trying to think of a plan. She was not going to let this man spoil everything. "I lost my husband six months ago. I needed a man," she explained.
Ezra could hear the heart-felt desperation in her voice. He didn't think the woman meant any harm, but she didn't realize what she was doing. She didn't know how much Sarah and Adam had meant to Chris. It had almost destroyed him when they had died, what would happen when he found out it was now a lie? Would it be like killing them all over again?
"Ma'am, I'm sorry for your loss, but you are forcing him to live a lie. Sarah and Adam were Mr. Larabee's beloved wife and son who were killed in a fire three years ago. You can not continue this charade," the smooth-talking gambler explained.
Marie's eyes widen at this. She had hoped that maybe his wife had run off with another man or something, or that maybe he had left them for some reason. This story broke her heart. Now she understood the pain she sometimes thought she saw in his eyes.
"I can make him happy," she pleaded. "I can make him forget all about her. Please give me the chance, give him the chance. What right do you have to interfere?"
"What right do you have?" Ezra countered. He felt sorry for the woman. He could tell she had developed feelings for the dark-clad gunslinger. Marie stared at the fancy dressed conman, not sure what to do.
"What if he remembers someday?" Ezra finally asked.
"He won't! I won't let him and anyway I'll make him so happy he won't want to remember the truth." Her anxiety was growing and so was her fear of losing another chance at happiness.
"You would let him live a lie, for what purpose?"
"For my son!" Her face twisted in desperation.
"I'm sorry, but there are people who are concerned about him. My friends will be here soon and we will be taking him back with us."
Fear and a primal emotion of protecting what was hers engulfed her. Who was this man to destroy what she was building? She stepped back from the fancy-dressed conman. A rueful smile came to her lips, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to prickle. He watched as the woman reached up and grabbed the shoulder of her dress. She pulled, ripping the sleeve, then turned and screamed, "CHRIS!"
"Awww hell," Ezra murmured, realizing to late what she had in mind.
Chris crashed out the cabin door as Marie ran into his open arms. He pulled her tight against him. He looked down seeing the ripped dress and tears streaming down her face. He was about to ask what happened when Ezra stepped out of the barn. Chris' blue eyes turned the color of storm clouds and he raised his gun at the fancy dressed gambler.
"Chris, don't," Ezra pleaded, keeping his hands away from his own guns. He knew he couldn't shoot his confused friend. He was not looking at the same man who he had rode with for the past six months. This was not the same dark, intimidating gunslinger that made most people think twice about even crossing his path, a man that Ezra took great pleasure at antagonizing. No, this was a man that even Ezra was scared of, a man obsessed with protecting his family.
"Shoot him," Marie encouraged. She knew this was the only way they could be together. Chris stared down into Marie's wide, doleful eyes then back at Ezra, who had stopped several feet away. Something in the back of his mind wouldn't let him pull the trigger. Marie saw his indecision and reluctance. She grabbed the gun forcing it to the right slightly as she reached the trigger. Ezra felt the bullet rip into his shoulder spinning him around. He crumbled to the ground unmoving. Chris stared at the motionless gambler. This man was a stranger, why did it feel like he had just shot a friend? He distantly felt Marie grab his arm and pull him towards the house.
"Come on Chris, we need to leave," she yelled, trying to break him out of his trance.
Vin, Nathan and Buck heard the shot and raced over the hill. Marie looked up to see three men approaching. "Chris, there's more of them," she yelled.
Larabee forced Marie ahead of him, pushing her into the house. "Sarah, Adam stay down," he ordered as he grabbed his rifle and pointed it out the window at the three approaching riders.
A shot kicked dirt up in front of Buck's horse, causing all three men to pull up. They jumped from their mounts and took cover. Nathan could see Ezra's motionless form just outside the barn door. He kept looking hoping for some sign of life. He sighed with relief when he was rewarded with Ezra rolling to his side and grabbing his injured arm.
"Get off my property!" Chris yelled out. His head had begun to hurt and his vision blurred for a second. He rubbed at his eyes, seeing flashes of faces, but unable to recognize who they were.
"We have to get to Ezra," Nathan said.
"Okay, I'm going out there," Buck exclaimed.
Vin put a hand on his arm. "What if he doesn't recognize you either?"
"That's a chance I'll have to take." Buck had known Chris for over twelve years, he owed him his life. There was nothing he wouldn't do for him. Vin had explained to them what they thought might of happened. Buck was scared for Chris, scared at what this might do to him. It took over a year for Chris to pull himself out of his despair after the death of his wife and child, and at times Buck was sure that despair still called to him.
Wilmington holstered his gun and stood up. He held up his hands and shouted, "Chris, it's me, Buck."
"Buck?" Chris repeated to himself. He snapped his eyes shut as a piercing pain shot through his head. He laid his head against the window frame until the pain subsided. What was Buck doing with these men? Who were these men and why did they seem familiar?
Marie's heart sank as she realized her ruse was about to end. She hugged her son close, her cheeks wet with tears. She saw the lies fighting with the truth upon Chris' visage.
He suddenly straightened and walked towards the door. He laid the rifle aside and grabbed the pistol from the table. "Stop right there, Buck." He leaned against the doorframe, his gun hanging loosely in his hand. The pounding in his head was increasing, making him unsteady.
"Chris, it's me, Buck," the younger man repeated.
"I know who you are, Buck. What are you doing with those men?" Chris asked in woozy annoyance.
Buck looked behind him at Nathan and Vin, then returned his eyes to his long-time friend. "They're your men, Chris."
Vin and Nathan slowly stood, but stayed where they were.
"I don't understand. What do you mean my men?" Chris asked, looking at the man in buckskins and the black man who stood behind Buck.
"You, me, Ezra, Vin, Nathan, Josiah and JD, we're lawmen in the town of Four Corners, have been for the past six months."
"That's not possible. I run a ranch my wife and..." he began, then stopped, suddenly unsure.
Buck took a deep breath, reluctant to say what had to be said. "She's not your wife, Chris." Marie and Matt stepped out onto the porch, her arms wrapped protectively around her son. She didn't know what would happen, but was prepared to protect Matt no matter what happened to her.
"Chris, Sarah and Adam died in a fire three years ago. I helped you bury them, remember?" Buck slowly explained.
Larabee looked over at Marie and saw the truth. Sarah no longer stood before him and neither did Adam. His mind could no longer keep up the deception. Memories, emotions, the gut tearing agony of seeing his family dead, it all came rushing back, overwhelming his mind with the same pain he had endured three years hence.
Chris looked at his long time friend. He couldn't go through it again. His heart felt like a rock in his chest. He felt the gun in his hand. After his wife and child had died, he had wanted his life to end, and over the years had taken numerous chances to try and facilitate that end. The thought of killing himself had never crossed his mind until now. It was different this time; he knew what he was going to go through. Knew the nightmares that were going to plague his every sleeping moment. He was going to feel the gut-wrenching anguish and feelings of loneliness and solitude all over again. Then he would become totally numb. It was as if three years of healing had been taken away. He would have to start all over again, go through it all over again.
Buck saw the same anguished face he had seen three years ago. He took a step closer. He couldn't explain how he knew, but as he looked into Chris' face he knew what he wanted to do. "No Chris, don't!" Even as he said it Chris slowly raised the gun to his head. Vin's eyes went wide and he leaped at his friend at the same time that Buck did. All three men fell to the ground, Chris still trying to bring the gun up to his head, not making a sound. Buck grabbed his hand and wrenched the gun from his grasp.
Vin felt the gunslinger go limp under him and he slowly got up. He watched as Chris pulled himself up by the porch railing. His icy blue eyes staring down at the ground. His heart racing and causing his whole body to shake.
Chris' face slowly came up and his eyes swept over Vin, then narrowed as they looked at Buck. His hand gripped the railing so tight his knuckles turned white. Buck saw the pain in his friend's face, a pain that needed to be released. To see Chris Larabee cry was as noteworthy as it was incongruous. It started in his gut, a cry that simply could not be suppressed. Buck grabbed him as he slumped to the porch.
Jackson quickly rushed over to Ezra who was already sitting up. He had witnessed the torment that was now tearing at Chris' very soul. "I'm fine, Nathan, go help Chris," he hissed actually feeling the pain, the gut wrenching loss that the blond gunslinger was now going through.
The dark healer looked over at his friend and leader. Buck was sitting on the porch holding his friend's convulsing shoulders. Vin stood over them his blue eyes turning to seas as he tried to hold back his own flood of grief for his friend. Nat bowed his head and returned his attention to someone he could help. "Buck can do more for him than I can."
The sudden rush of emotion finally took its toll and sent the tormented man into blissful oblivion. Wilmington continued to gently rock his limp body, tears streaming down his own suffering countenance. He couldn't believe that his old friend and confidant had every intention of killing himself. Buck knew in the beginning, Chris took a lot of unnecessary chances with his life, never fearing death in the hopes of being reunited with his family. He had hoped all that was behind him. He had a new family with the six other lawmen he worked with. People who cared about him and who he cared about. Buck looked down into the face that seemed to have aged ten years. He wasn't sure he could go through it again.
Marie stood off to the side watching in horror the scene that had unfolded before her--of a life unraveling. What had she done? She had never meant for this to happen. She had only wanted to build a new life, was that so wrong? Her heart broke as she looked at the shell of a man she had grown to love. Marie took a step towards them, stopping when Buck's head snapped around, trapping her in his deadly gaze.
"Get away from him!" he spat. Never in his life did he hate a woman so much as he did right now.
Tanner took the woman by the arm and led her back inside, his eyes refusing to meet hers. The boy quietly followed, his own eyes glistened with tears. He felt like he was losing a father all over again.
It was several hours before Larabee finally woke to find himself on the sofa, still at the homestead. He groaned slightly as his head throbbed. His whole body felt drained and it was a struggle just to raise a hand. He felt someone place a cool compress on his forehead. His eyes opened to see Buck hovering over him. Chris diverted his eyes, unable to maintain contact with the distraught brown eyes of his friend.
"How you feel, cowboy?" Buck asked.
"Terrible," he replied, rubbing his forehead. Then a sudden memory came to the forefront of his mind, one of Ezra being shot and slumping to the ground. Chris tried to rise. "Ezra?"
Buck put a hand on his chest to stop him. Buck knew then that the old Chris was back. Especially if he actually cared what happened to the smug cardshark. The two men hadn't always been on the best of terms. A cautious smile came to the gregarious cowboy's face.
"He's in the other room resting, Nathan's taking care of him."
Larabee threw an arm across his eyes. He had hoped everything was just a dream, but which part he wasn't sure. "Gawd, I thought I'd killed him."
Jackson suddenly appeared, placing a hand on Chris' brow. "Well, he still has a slight fever, but it's better. Is he back to his old self?" Nathan asked Buck.
"Yes Nathan, I am," Chris answered for him, bringing a wide smile to the dark man's face. "How's Ezra?"
"He lost a lot of blood, but I got the bullet out. He kept mumbling something about getting even with you so I guess he'll be alright. He'll probably be able to travel in a day or so."
Tanner had materialized beside Nathan and looked down at his leader and friend. He hadn't been able to deal with the sight of Chris trying to kill himself, but then he didn't understand the depth of his torment like Buck did. Chris looked at the three men that stood over him, seeing the fear and concern in their eyes.
"Don't worry, I don't feel the need to end it anymore." He saw Vin become visibly relieved. He looked at Buck who wanted more. "I was overwhelmed, didn't want to go through it again. Just wanted a quick escape from the pain." His voice lowered and his eyes closed for a moment. He felt numb, which he figured wasn't such a bad thing right now.
Marie suddenly appeared and Buck stood, prepared to forcefully remove the woman from Chris' sight.
"Wait Buck, let her talk," Chris said from behind closed eyes.
Buck glared at Marie as he headed for the back room to check on Ezra. Vin and Nathan also followed Buck out, giving Chris and Marie some privacy.
Marie sat down in Buck's vacated seat, smoothing out her skirt. She had left Matt in his room, not wanting to subject him to anymore pain. It would take her a long time to make this up to him.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Larabee." She swallowed the lump that had lodged in her throat. "I didn't mean to hurt anyone, I just wanted..." Marie bowed her head as tears streamed down her face. "I was only trying to give my son back a father and me the life I had lost," she continued, keeping her head down.
Chris could only stare at the woman before him. He didn't see his beloved wife, only a desperately, lonely woman and child. He was sorry for them, but he couldn't forgive her for what she had done. She had taken his cherished memories and used them for her own gain, bringing back the pain he had been trying to erase for the last three years. Not to mention, she had tried to trick him into murdering one of his own men, one of his family. He turned away and closed his eyes, hearing her stand up and leave.
The five lawmen prepared to leave early the next morning to the sound of Nathan telling Ezra to take it easy.
Tanner came up to Chris who was finishing packing his saddlebags. He hadn't known what to say to his best friend. He knew he would never understand what he was going through.
"Are you okay Chris?" Vin looked over at the woman and boy who stood on the porch. "You did brighten up a little boy's life for awhile."
A faint smile came to Chris' somber face. "Yeah, and she did give me three days of a life I thought I'd never have again." He looked at them and for a moment seeing Sarah and Adam smiling out at him. He quickly turned and mounted his horse.
Josiah and JD greeted the five gunslingers as they entered the town. Chris had barely said two words on the long ride home, lost in his own thoughts and memories. He caught Buck's worried glances and tried to reassure his long time friend that he was okay. But he wasn't sure if he really was, or just fooling himself.
"Chris reined in his horse in the middle of the street. The others eased a bit past until they noticed their leader had stopped. They looked back wordlessly, just waiting. Chris met their eyes. There was no recrimination in them, only uncertainty. But there wasn't anything Chris could say to ease their minds. He turned his horse and headed back out of town. He had unfinished business to attend to."
Where's he goin' Buck?" JD asked as he watched the dark-clad gunman ride out. Wilmington knew where Chris' was going, back to his past and to the place where Sarah and Adam were.
This time Buck followed. Larabee knew that his concerned friend had followed him, but for some reason he didn't seem to mind and actually relished the company.
Chris stood over the graves of his wife and son. The lettering on the crude wooden crosses already fading, showing the passage of time. He knelt down pulling out some weeds and brushing away the dead leaves. Guilt was tearing him apart. He had made love to a woman, thinking she was Sarah and treated another boy like his own son. He felt as if he had betrayed them.
Buck watched from a distance, he knew that Chris was aware of his presence, but he was going to give the man time to come to terms with what had happened. He knew Chris needed time and he wanted to make sure that he gave himself that time. Buck had been surprised when Chris had wanted to take his own life, and he still wasn't sure he wouldn't try again.
Chris placed his hand on the grassy mound where his wife lay. Tears fell unabated to the ground.
As the sun started its downward journey, Wilmington emerged from the trees and walked over to stand beside his dark-clad friend. He didn't say a word, just stared down at the graves, both men feeling the same sense of loss for a moment. "For a little while I was happy, to bad it was only an illusion." Chris quietly said.
Buck placed a hand on Chris' shoulder. "She would of understood,Chris."
Chris turned to his partner, not sure what he meant.
"Sarah would of understood," he repeated, seeing the confusing in Chris' blue eyes. "She would be happy that for three days you were happy and were back to your old self."
Chris shook his head. "I made love to a woman I believed was her, how could she understand that."
Buck took a deep breath. "Chris, Sarah would want you to go on with life. Now I'm not saying what Marie did was right. But sometimes I think you believe that Sarah would not want you to be happy again and I know for a fact that's not true."
Chris looked down at the solemn graves. He knew Buck was right, but he just had a hard time convincing the demons inside. He felt guilty, it should be him lying in a cold grave not his innocent wife and son. He felt he should atone for that fact in some way.
"Maybe you could send some men out to help Ms. Martin with the ranch," Chris abruptly suggested. "I could maybe show the boy where some good fishin' holes are."
"That would be good." Buck smiled. "You comin' back to town?"
"Yeah, later. I need to stay here awhile." He turned to meet Buck's brown eyes. "Thanks, Buck, for being there again."
"Anytime, pard." Buck squeezed his shoulder and turned and walked away.
Chris didn't return until later the next day. He headed straight to the saloon to find all six of his men sitting and waiting for his return. He went to the table where Buck and Vin sat and grabbed a nearby chair. He nodded towards Ezra whose arm was now in a sling. Standish raised a shot glass to him, bringing a half smile to his face. It was good to be home. He needed to be with these men; he needed to be with family.