by Rhiannon

Chapter Ten

The building was over three stories high. Vin was falling way too fast and with nothing to break his fall: Chris closed his eyes, unable to watch the inevitable. He heard the sickening thud as the Texan hit the ground and forced himself to open his eyes and witness the broken body sprawled over the boardwalk, neck bent at an unnatural angle. Vin’s head was covered in blood that seeped down into tangled brown curls and his sightless eyes, their deep blue dulled in death, stared accusingly up at Chris as he dropped to the boardwalk and pulled his friend into his arms…

Chris came awake with a start, staggering up and out of his chair, hissing in pain as he jarred the still healing wound. He sank back down as he realised that he’d been dreaming. He ran shaking hands over his face, the vision of Vin’s broken body still a vivid picture in his mind. He’d been having too many bad dreams lately and now he had another to add to the collection.

He straightened and hid his hands under the desk as he heard the door open. Josiah entered the jail, Nathan close behind him.

Josiah nodded in Chris’s direction. “Chris.” Then he frowned. “You all right? You look like hell.”

“Thanks,” Chris responded dryly, trying to keep his voice steady. “You got some news for me?”

“Just got a telegram back from Burnt Meadows. They’re real anxious to get their hands on these four – want us to meet us this afternoon at Horse Canyon Junction. It’s only a two hour ride; we could be there and back by nightfall.”

Chris nodded. “All right. Sooner we get them off our hands the better. You, JD and I will go. Tell JD we’ll ride in an hour.”

“No ya don’t, Chris,” Nathan said immediately. “What are you thinking? You already done too much today, put too much strain on that wound. You ain’t ridden your horse since the shooting, and now you’re plannin’ on a four hour ride!”

“I’ll be fine.”

“No, you won’t,” Nathan said firmly. “You’re still weak and the ride’ll be too much for you.”

“Best listen to the boss, Chris,” Josiah said mildly. “There’s no reason for you to go.”

Chris knew they were right – at this moment he felt as weak as a new born cub and he knew full well that the ride would be too much. He was about to protest anyway, when a soft voice drawled, “I’ll go.”

Chris swung around. Vin was standing in the doorway, one hip cocked, hat pulled down low with the brim shading his eyes as usual.

“Reckon Josiah’s right, Chris, and this job’ll need three of us. I’ll go.”

“You ain’t goin’ either, Vin!” Nathan protested. “You took a hard fall this mornin’. You should be restin’, not ridin’ all over the country!”

Nathan’s protest was ignored and Chris looked intently at Vin who raised his head slowly, straightening his shoulders in obvious preparation for an explosion from the gunfighter. The Texan’s expression was unreadable and Chris felt a sudden pang of loss. He’d gotten so used to being able to communicate with Vin without the need for words that it came as a shock to find now that he didn’t have the first idea what was going on in the sharpshooter’s head.

A single question burned in Chris’s mind. “If you go, will you come back?” He didn’t ask it because he was afraid of the answer; afraid to admit to himself and to Vin how much he had come to value the man’s friendship and the hole it would leave in his life if Vin left.

He did nothing. What right did he have to ask Vin to stay after treating him so badly? Anyhow, from what Vin had said back in the general store, he obviously felt that Chris didn’t want or need him at his side anymore. It suddenly hit Chris that maybe Vin was right. He didn’t, shouldn’t, rely so much on one man. It was a weakness he could ill afford in this country where life was so cheap. He had learned that lesson after his family were killed: it was his own mistake to let down his guard and let allow someone else to get under his skin.

Confused by these thoughts and frustrated by his own pathetic shortcomings, he did what seemed to come naturally of late – he lashed out.

“Fine, do what you like. You usually do,” he growled. “You ride in one hour.”

He pushed past Tanner; shrugged off Nathan’s hand and protest; and, refusing to acknowledge the brief shadow of pain that crossed Vin’s face, walked out of the jail.

Chapter Eleven

Mary Travis stood in the doorway of Gloria Potter’s general store, chatting with its owner who was vigorously sweeping dust from the doorway. They both looked up as the jailhouse door flew open and Chris Larabee stormed out, slamming the door behind him and striding off down the boardwalk, barely acknowledging the two women as he passed.

Mary felt her heart sink. Ever since Chris had returned injured from the Gaines ranch her relationship with him had been strained to say the least. He no longer sought her out at the Clarion Office, seeming to find it difficult to find anything to say to her. For her part, she wasn’t sure she even wanted him to.

When Chris Larabee had first come to Four Corners she had thought him simply one more wild, gun-toting troublemaker – just the kind of man the town didn’t need. Gradually she had come to realize that she had misjudged him badly and that there was far more to this man than she had at first thought. Yes, he was a tough man with a reputation. He was also a man of integrity and honesty and a natural leader who had won the confidence of most of the townspeople who now looked to Chris and his men for protection. She was grateful for the friendship he had quickly developed with her young son Billy and for his steadying and responsible influence on the boy since then. She knew about his past and the tragic deaths of his wife and child and understood the reason for the darkness he carried within him. Despite that part of his character, she had seen him gradually change over the past two years to reveal more and more of a gentle and humorous side to his nature that attracted her greatly.

She heard Gloria Potter ‘tut-tutting’ disapprovingly and turned her attention to the older woman.

“I know Mr. Larabee is a friend of yours, Mary,” Gloria said, “but really, his rudeness is becoming intolerable.”

Mary was inclined to agree, but, despite everything, felt a need to defend Chris. “You know he’s going through a difficult time, Gloria. We have to be understanding.”

“I know that, Mary. I’m just saying that the man is trying my understanding to the limit, that’s all.”

Mary was silent. She could think of little to say without revealing something of her own feelings, which ran along the same lines. She had known when Chris left town with Ella Gaines that the woman was trouble. She had had the gall to all but warn Mary off – she had obviously set her sights on Chris and would do anything to have him. That the two of them had a history together was also obvious. Mary’s instant and profound jealousy as she’d watched Chris drive off with Ella in the confounded woman’s carriage, laughing at some shared joke, had driven her to finally admit to herself that she was hopelessly in love with the man.

Her rejection of Gerard Whitman’s offer of marriage more than six months ago had been partly due to her feelings for Chris, and she had felt sure that Chris realised this too, although neither of them had acknowledged the fact. Since then the two of them had grown closer and she had begun to think that maybe, just maybe, a relationship could develop between them.

Since the affair with Ella Gaines everything had changed. Ella’s turning out to be a monster could not change the fact of Chris, as Mary had later discovered, impulsively deciding to stay on with Ella at her ranch. Mary had been deeply hurt and confused by his actions. Since his return he had barely been able to look Mary in the eye and she hadn’t made any attempt to reach him. On the one hand, she couldn’t help but feel compassion for him and his obvious pain at discovering that Ella had been responsible for the death of his family. On the other, she was desperately hurt and angry.

Now, three weeks later, her anger had abated somewhat. His rejection of her still hurt, but she couldn’t deny her feelings for him and was beginning to wonder if she at least owed him the chance to explain. After all, Ella was a conniving witch and Mary could - in some ways - understand how an unsuspecting Chris had fallen under her spell. But since his return Chris had been lost in this black depression and Mary had no idea how to begin to try to reach him.

The sound of hammering could be heard from across the street and both women looked over to where Buck and Ezra were busy mending the roof of Virgil Watson’s Hardware Store. To be more accurate, Buck was busy mending the roof. Ezra appeared to be directing operations from the ground and Virgil was hovering anxiously behind him. Some kind of argument was underway and Mary was unable to hold back a smile as Buck hit his finger with the hammer, shouted something that he would have been embarrassed to know she’d heard, and threw the hammer at Ezra in frustration. Ezra neatly sidestepped the projectile and calmly continued to issue instructions.

Mary’s smile faded as she recalled the reason for the repair. Mrs. Potter’s mind was obviously moving in a similar direction, for her expression softened.

“And that Mr. Tanner, he’s another problem,” she said. “He’s been drifting around with his face down to his boots for weeks. Why, only yesterday the boy came into the store and didn’t even try to wheedle a cookie out of me!”

Mary tried to hide another smile. Gloria Potter, like most of the older women of the town, had a real soft spot for Vin Tanner. Initially many of the townspeople had been suspicious of the long-haired, scruffily dressed young man, but it had taken Vin very little time to win over the ladies with his good looks, polite manner, and shy smile. There was something about Vin that brought out the motherly instincts in women like Mrs. Potter, and his total obliviousness to this just served to add to his charms.

Gloria shook her head sadly. “There’s something very wrong there. It’s a shame Nettie Wells is out of town – she’d get to the bottom of what’s bothering that boy, make no mistake.”

Mary had no doubt that Nettie Wells was more than capable of getting to the bottom of anything that concerned Vin Tanner. The unlikely pair had formed a close relationship from the first time they had met and Vin tolerated a degree of fussing and concern from Nettie that no one else could ever hope to get away with.

“You know Vin’s a very private person, Gloria,” Mary said quickly. “Whatever’s bothering him is his own business.”

Mary said this automatically, knowing that Vin would be uncomfortable to think that they were discussing him, but she couldn’t deny that she shared Gloria’s concern. She hadn’t missed the fact that Chris and Vin seemed to be very much at odds with each other and it worried her because right now Vin was probably the only person who could reach Chris in his dark place. She was aware that many of the positive changes she had seen in Chris Larabee over the past two years could be attributed to the influence and friendship of the sharpshooter.

She had quickly discovered that Chris was, by nature, a somewhat reserved person who didn’t give his trust easily. In Tanner, it was quite obvious that he’d found a kindred spirit who understood and accepted him for who he was. Chris trusted Vin’s judgment and always welcomed his company. Mary had witnessed first hand Vin’s ability to pull Chris out of the occasional dark depression. Whatever was amiss between them was undoubtedly contributing to Chris’s pain and holding back his recovery from the recent emotional trauma. She wished there was something she could do to help mend the rift between them. Maybe then she could begin to tackle her own problems with Chris.

At that moment the object of their conversation came out of the jail.

“Why, there he is now!” Gloria cried. “Mr. Tanner! Mr. Tanner, do you have a minute?”

Vin turned as he heard his name, somewhat reluctantly Mary thought, and walked slowly back towards them. Gloria hurried into the shop and returned a moment later with a large package in a red and white checked cloth.

“I heard about your fall this morning, Mr. Tanner, I do hope you’re all right.”

Vin tipped his hat to her. “Mrs. Potter. Mary. I’m fine, thank you. Just a few bruises, is all.”

“You really should be more careful, you know, I hate to see the way you climb around on those high roofs. I’ve got a little treat for you here – just a few cookies. You deserve them.”

“Well, thank you ma’am, but…” Vin began, but Gloria interrupted, pushing the package firmly into his hands.

“Now, young man, I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. You look like you need feeding up and nothing’s too much for one of the brave young men who risk their lives to protect this town.”

Mary could see that Vin was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the attention, and interrupted smoothly.

“Vin, you came by at just the right moment. I’m having trouble with the press – one of the valves has seized again and I need someone stronger than I am to shift it. If you have a moment?” She took Vin’s arm before he had chance to answer and began to lead him away. “Good day, Gloria.”

Vin remembered to tip his hat to Mrs. Potter and thank her for the cookies, leaving her smiling happily as she resumed her vigorous brushing. Once they were out of earshot, Vin glanced at Mary, grimacing a little.


“For what?” Mary asked, faking innocence. Then she grinned. “She can be a little overwhelming, but her heart’s in the right place. She worries about you, that’s all. Anyway, I am having trouble with the press, though nothing I can’t fix myself. But maybe you’d better come and take a look anyway, in case Mrs. Potter thinks I’ve kidnapped you under false pretences!”

Once at the Clarion office Vin fixed the faulty valve with little effort, though Mary was concerned when she noticed him wince as he put pressure on the valve to turn it.

“Vin? Were you telling the truth back there? Are you hurt worse than you’re admitting?”

Vin shook his head. “I’m fine, really, Mary. Feel a bit like a mule rolled on me, but it’s just bruises, no need to concern yourself.”

“In that case, why don’t you come by later this afternoon for a reading lesson? You haven’t been by since… for quite a while.”

She watched him carefully as he shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. Since he’d asked her to teach him to read and write, he’d been anxious to fit in as many lessons as possible. She’d found him a pleasure to teach – he had a quick mind and picked things up easily, making excellent progress. But it had been three weeks since he’d asked her for a lesson and she was sure he’d been going out of his way to avoid her. It saddened her to think that he might give up at this stage and she was determined not to let him off the hook.

“Sorry about that, Mary. It’s been busy. I can’t come this afternoon – I’m riding to Horse Canyon Junction to take those outlaws to the law from Burnt Meadows.”

“Tomorrow, then?” she persisted.

“Sure, I’ll think about it.” He began to edge his way to the door. “Sorry, Mary, I have to go. We’ll be ridin’ soon.”

Mary decided not to push him – for now. Instead, she asked another question that she’d been burning to ask since she’d met him.

“Vin… I haven’t seen a lot of Chris lately. How is he?”

Vin hesitated for a moment. Then he said, “He’s doin’ fine; the wound’s almost healed.”

“That’s good to hear,” Mary answered carefully, “but it wasn’t really what I was asking.”

Vin looked her in the eye then. “I know that, Mary. Fact is, Chris and me – we ain’t talked much in the past few weeks. I reckon I can’t rightly tell you how he’s doing.”

“If you can’t, Vin, who can?”

Vin looked down at his feet for a long moment and when he looked up again she saw understanding in the clear blue eyes.

“I’m sorry, Mary,” he said softly. “I know this’s been hard on you, too. Chris is in a real dark place right now, but he’ll come through. We – you – need to give him some time.”

She knew what he was trying to say. “Give him time and he’ll come back to you.”

She was saved from replying when Vin tipped his hat to her and walked out of the office without another word.

Mary sank down in the chair at the desk. Did she want Chris to come back to her? Was he ever hers in the first place, or had she been imagining more to the relationship than there had really been? She sighed. She couldn’t deny to herself that Chris still filled most of her waking and sleeping thoughts. Men! Love them, hate them, they did nothing but disrupt your life. Resolving firmly to put Chris Larabee out of her mind, at least for a while, she took a blank piece of paper and began to draft an editorial on the gunfight with Murdoch’s gang.

Chapter Twelve

Vin kicked Peso into a trot, calling over his shoulder, “I’ll ride ahead a spell.”

The ride to Horse Canyon Junction had passed without incident and the outlaws peaceably handed over to the deputies from Burnt Meadows. After a short break the three peacekeepers turned for home, hoping to complete the journey before dark.

Vin was feeling decidedly miserable. Despite his assurances to Nathan that he was fit to travel, he had known that he was going to suffer from taking this ride and now every inch of his body was throbbing. He shifted in the saddle, trying unsuccessfully to ease the pain in his back, cursing himself for a stubborn fool.

He had volunteered to ride because he needed space to think and that wasn’t possible in Four Corners. He was confused by the events of the day. When Chris had come into Watson’s store, Vin had had no trouble reading the emotion on his face – blind fear followed by undisguised relief. In that moment he had known for certain that Chris’s fear was for him. Then the relief had turned to anger and since then Chris had retreated behind the familiar harsh mask he had been wearing for several weeks.

Vin wasn’t sure what to make of it, but was holding on to what he had seen. Chris still cared and that meant that maybe their friendship did have a chance after all.

He had also been pondering what Nathan had told him about love being blind and had come to the conclusion that maybe he had been too hard on Chris for his words at the party. After all, Vin knew from personal experience how love could cloud anyone’s judgment. Who was he to condemn Chris when he’d been guilty of the same thing himself? He was still chewing over the significance of this when he heard another rider coming up behind him. Recognizing the signature of the hoof beats, he didn’t need to look up as Josiah pulled his horse alongside.

“How you holding up, Vin?”

Vin glanced over and shrugged. “I’ll live. Them bruises are botherin’ me some, but a mite of pain ain’t gonna kill me.”

“Nathan was real angry about you coming with us,” Josiah went on after a short pause. “Reckons you should’ve been in your bed resting up. He doesn’t like to see you hurting.”

“Reckon I’d be hurtin’ as much in my bed, ‘siah. Anyhow, I needed to get out of town for a while.”

“Want to tell me why, Vin? We all know something’s been eating at you, maybe it’d help some to talk about it.”


“Why not?”

“Guess it’s between me and Chris. Ain’t right to get y’all involved in my problems.”

“We’re your friends, Vin. What do you reckon friends are for if not to look out for each other, be there when they’re needed?”

Vin considered those words. He had known very few people in his life that he could brand as a friend, had been unused to having people watch his back and care about him enough to want to be there for him when he was in trouble. He still needed to remind himself at times that his life was different now.

“If you can’t talk to me about it, why don’t you talk to Chris?”

Vin looked away. “Not sure I can, ‘siah. He don’t’ trust me no more, and I cain’t see any way to make things right again.”

“What makes you think he doesn’t trust you? He said that?”

The words were eerily familiar – he’d heard the same words from Buck that morning. “Ain’t it obvious?” he snapped. “I done him wrong, I know that, and there’s no way to put things right.”

“So,” Josiah said slowly, “all this is about guilt?”

Vin looked at him for a long moment. The ex-preacher was right – when it all boiled down, it was about guilt – his guilt.

“I guess so.”

Josiah was silent for what seemed like a long time. Then he looked Vin straight in the eye. ”Do you believe in forgiveness, Vin?”

Vin frowned. “Reckon so.”

“Forgiveness is a strange thing, hard to ask for and sometimes hard to give. But if you don’t do it, if you let bad feeling fester, it becomes bitterness and it destroys two lives. If you think you’ve wronged Chris, tell him and ask for his forgiveness.

“What if he can’t give it?” Vin whispered.

“Chris is a good man and your friendship means more to him than you seem to think. I reckon there’s not much you could do that he couldn’t forgive. Though I got to tell you, Vin - I don’t know the rights and wrongs of this, but I’m not sure Chris is mad at you for something you’ve done. I think he’s mad because of something he’s done.”

“That don’t make sense.”

Josiah shrugged. “Maybe not, but none of this makes sense. You and Chris understand each other – so well, I know that you often don’t need words to communicate. But this time something’s gone wrong between you. You think you know what he’s thinking, but can you be sure? You need to talk to him, Vin, straighten things out.”

Vin shook his head again. He couldn’t do it. “I cain’t,” he said quietly.

“Because you’re mad at him?”

”I ain’t mad at him, not now.” Vin was surprised that this was the truth – since he’d put himself in Chris’s shoes and tried to understand, he’d found that he really wasn’t angry any more.

“But you were before?”

“Yeah,” Vin answered reluctantly, after a pause. “I was real mad at him.”

“So what’s changed? You forgive him?”

“Weren’t a matter of forgivin’. Jus’ come to see why he acted the way he did.”

Josiah looked at him for a long moment. “Have you considered that maybe that can work two ways?”

Vin shook his head. “Ain’t no explaining away what I did, Josiah. “I let him down, no two ways about it.”

They rode in silence for a while, Vin pondering on Josiah’s words. The Josiah spoke again in a harsh tone.

“There’s only one explanation, then. You’re afraid.”

Vin snapped his head up, stung. “I ain’t afraid!”

Josiah cocked an eyebrow. “No? Then give me one good reason why you won’t go to Chris and sort this thing out. You’re not mad at him, so what’s left? I think you’re afraid he won’t forgive you for whatever it is you think you’ve done, and you can’t face hearing him say the words. Instead you’re letting it eat you up inside. It’ll destroy you Vin, the guilt and the shame.”

Vin looked down, heart pounding, suddenly ashamed. He knew in his heart that the ex-preacher was right. He was afraid – afraid if he heard Chris actually say the words then they’d be true and his life here would be over.

“Talk to him, Vin,” Josiah said more gently now. “Maybe he’s afraid too. Maybe it’s up to you to make the first move. You’re about the bravest man I know, Vin Tanner, in every way that matters. I’ve never known you back away from anything – don’t back away from this now.

Vin couldn’t trust himself to speak and Josiah seemed to sense that he had said enough. He reached over and squeezed Vin’s shoulder.

“Why don’t you chew on that a spell, Vin.”

The tracker barely noticed when Josiah reined in his horse, allowing him to ride ahead alone with his thoughts.

Chapter Thirteen

Inez Recillos stood behind the bar, absently drying some glasses. Her eyes were fixed on the three peacekeepers sitting in desultory fashion at a nearby table. They appeared to be playing poker, but Nathan and Buck were hardly looking at their cards and even Ezra was behaving as if his heart wasn’t in it. Fortunately, Chris Larabee wasn’t with them. He’d been in earlier, snapped at everyone who had spoken to him, and then left abruptly. The tension he had left in the room had been palpable, but at least they were spared his brooding presence.

Inez would be glad when this day was over. It was only late afternoon, but it felt like days since the morning’s drama. She shuddered as she thought back to that gunfight. She had watched cautiously from a window in the saloon, heart in her mouth as always when the peacekeepers placed themselves in a dangerous situation, praying that none of them would be injured and her thoughts, as always, with one in particular. When she had seen Vin fall through the roof of the hardware store her heart had almost stopped and only began to beat again when she witnessed him walking out with Nathan, seemingly unhurt.

She was fairly sure that she had managed to conceal her attraction to Vin Tanner from most of the town, except perhaps Buck Wilmington, who gave himself away by the occasional suggestive look or comment that never failed to bring a flush to her cheeks. Anyway, there was no shame in watching Vin – she couldn’t see how any woman could fail to be attracted to the man. In her opinion, he was the handsomest of the peacekeepers with that strong jaw, straight nose, and expressive eyes the color of a deep mountain stream. He was also the kindest and most gentle man she had ever known, and those were qualities she had come across seldom in this wild country. Even so, it was the dangerous edge to him that perhaps appealed to her most. Vin always seemed so placid, so in control, but the signs she had seen of a passionate nature lurking beneath the calm exterior excited her.

Sometimes she imagined that he returned her affection. He was ever polite, making a point of speaking to her whenever he came into the saloon and had helped her with numerous small jobs around the place. Often she had caught him looking at her when he thought she was unaware. But he had never made a move and she was beginning to wonder if she had imagined these things.

Recently, a distant, surly stranger who hardly seemed to notice her, or anyone else for that matter, had replaced the real Vin Tanner. From snippets she had picked up and personally observed, she knew that there was something wrong between him and Larabee and she was sure that the two issues were related.

Through various eyewitnesses she had pieced together the events at the Gaines ranch. Knowing the closeness of their friendship, she would have expected Vin to be the rock on which Chris was leaning at this time, but for some reason the opposite was the case. She missed the Vin she knew and had had enough of Larabee’s recent unpredictable temper and rudeness, understandable as that might be under the circumstances. She was becoming increasingly angry with the remainder of the peacekeepers, who seemed to be ignoring the problem. With Vin and Chris both absent, now seemed as good a time as any to broach the subject.

She stalked over to their table and stood there, hands on hips, until all three men looked up.

“I would like to know when you are going to do something to fix the problem between Vin and Chris.”

“Oh, you would, huh?” Buck drawled, obviously amused at her forthrightness. “Maybe it ain’t none of our business, Inez, have you thought of that?”

“Don’t give me that!” Inez snapped angrily. “I know you are as worried as I am and it is time you did something. They are behaving like typical, pig-headed men – keeping their feelings inside, refusing to deal with the problems that causes. I say it is up to you to make them see reason, for everyone’s sake.”

The three men exchanged glances.

“She’s right, you know,” Ezra remarked finally. “I, for one, am thoroughly tired of the tension that follows our illustrious companions everywhere they go. Perhaps it is time we attempted to intervene.”

“Thank you, Senor Standish!” Inez said, warmly, pleased and mildly surprised that it should be the Southerner who saw her point of view.

“Actually, I tried talking to Vin this morning,” Buck admitted. “Didn’t get far.”

“Vin talked to me a little while I was patching him up earlier,” Nathan said. “Then I had a word with Josiah, suggested he had a talk with Vin on the way back from Horse Canyon Junction. He said JD had nagged him to do the same thing.”

“Our Mr. Sanchez is a braver man than I,” Ezra remarked. Let us hope that he does not return from this journey in pieces.”

All three grinned at the thought, obviously glad that Josiah had drawn the short straw.

Inez stamped her foot to get their attention again. “That still leaves Senor Larabee.”

All eyes turned towards Buck, who put his hands up in mock alarm. “Hey, why are you all looking at me!”

Inez bent down and put her arm around his shoulders. “Because,” she said in her sweetest and most seductive voice, “you are the best person for this job. All you have to do is talk to him, try to find out what the problem is.”

“Is that all? Be easier talkin’ to a rattler about its bite.” Buck groaned, but his expression was serious for once and Inez suspected that he had already decided to talk to Chris. She gave him a quick kiss, grinning at his look of surprise. “You deserve that, for the way you are about to risk your life!”

Buck grinned. “Ah, old Chris is a pussy cat really. You need to know how to handle him, that’s all. Won’t be nothin’ to it.” Then he whispered in a loud aside to Nathan, “Reckon you can dig me up some protective clothing, just in case?”

Inez smiled and returned to the bar. It seemed that these men were not as oblivious to the problem as she had thought. Maybe among them all they could get those two stubborn mules to see some sense.

Chapter Fourteen

The sun had set, although the full moon lit the street almost as brightly as daylight. Except that in daylight there was color and now there were only degrees of grey and black, which, Larabee noted wryly, matched his mood completely.

He knew his behavior today had reached a new low. He reckoned there wasn’t a single person in town he hadn’t snapped at except those who’d had the sense to avoid him. Now he was sitting in a chair outside the jail, a cheroot hanging from his lips. His body was tense and his wound was throbbing.

Since the three peacekeepers had ridden out to deliver the outlaws to Horse Canyon Junction, Chris had been regretting that he had allowed Vin to go. It had been obvious that the tracker wasn’t up to it – he’d tried hard to cover it up, but Chris could tell by the way he was holding himself that he was in considerable pain. But Chris had been too confused and angry to care.

He’d been trying all afternoon to convince himself that his conclusions at the jail had been correct, that it was dangerous to put so much faith in one man and that if Vin did ride out it would be for the best. It made sense in his head, but he was having trouble convincing his heart. If he believed it, he shouldn’t be sitting here, eyes trained on the horizon, hoping that when the riders returned Vin would be with them.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Buck stroll up and lean against the hitching rail beside him.

“They should be riding in any time now,” Wilmington remarked.

Chris grunted in response. He heard Buck sigh as the big man turned around to look at his friend. Buck’s next words weren’t entirely unexpected.

“You keep this up, Chris, you’re gonna lose a friend.”

Chris didn’t need to ask whom he was referring to. “Ain’t none’a your business, Buck.”

“Well, now, reckon it is my business to do what I can to help out my friends, especially when they don’t seem to be doing much to help themselves right now.”

“You heard him, Buck. He’s gonna ride,” Chris said.

“Not if you set things straight with him.”

“Keep out of it, Buck.” Chris kept his voice low and hard, a warning to Buck that he was treading on dangerous ground, but Buck never had been one to take the safe option.

“You tellin’ me you’re gonna let him ride out, leave behind the one place he’s ever been able to call home, just because you don’t have the guts to talk to him?”

Chris shot to his feet, hand straying automatically to the butt of his gun, lips curling in a snarl of anger. Buck stood his ground.

“Are you?”

Leave behind the one place he’s ever been able to call home. The words slammed into Chris hard. Vin talked little about his early years, but from the small snippets of information he’d let drop about his years hunting first buffalo and then men Chris had built up a picture of a solitary existence. Since Vin had been on the run from the bounty on his head, he’d been even more alone, never knowing who he could trust and finally settling for trusting no one at all. Then he had found his way to Four Corners and met Chris Larabee.

The two men had formed an instant bond of friendship. Chris had trusted Vin Tanner with his life from the first time he laid eyes on him and had known that his trust was reciprocated when Tanner had openly told him about the bounty a very short time later. Since then, slowly but surely, Vin had made a place for himself in this town. He had friends and people who cared about him. Chris knew that Vin didn’t want to leave Four Corners and that if he did so now, it would be because of Chris and the bad blood between them. Who was he to let Vin give up everything he had without at least attempting to set things straight?

He relaxed his stance and saw Buck sigh in relief. “Hell, Buck. How did I let things come to this?”

“Don’t be too hard on yerself, pard,” Buck said. “You’ve been through hell over the past few weeks.”

Chris sat down again, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. “I… I don’t want to lose him, Buck, but I don’t know how to find my way through.”

Buck sat down beside him. “Who are you angry at, Chris?”

Chris swung to face him. “What kind of fool question is that?”

“You tell me. Who are you angry at?”

Chris sighed. “Ella. Myself.”


Chris looked across at him, startled. “Hell, no. Why should I be angry with Vin? He ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”

Buck shrugged his shoulders. “You might want to tell him that, ‘cause he sure thinks he has. I reckon he’s carrying around a whole weight of guilt ‘cause he thinks he’s let you down. And you sure ain’t doin’ much to make him think any different.”

Chris took a moment to ponder Buck’s words. “I ain’t angry with him, Buck. I figured he’s been avoidin’ me ‘cause he’s angry at me.”

“So,” Buck said mildly, “you reckon he has good cause to be angry with you, and you’re punishing him for it?”

“I didn’t say that!” Chris retorted angrily, then ran his hands through his hair in frustration as the truth of Buck’s words hit home. “Guess maybe that’s the way I’ve been acting, huh?”

“You could say that. I ain’t gonna ask what you two said to each other, ‘cause I know you ain’t gonna tell me, any more than Vin would. But I know you’re both hurtin’ and you need talk it out. You changed into a different man after Sarah and Adam died, Chris, a man I didn’t want to know. Things are different now, and I reckon we both know who helped you find your way again.”

Yes, Chris did know. He owed Vin Tanner everything and he’d repaid his friend by betraying Vin’s faith in him. Now, as if that wasn’t enough, he was driving him out of town, and all because Chris didn’t have the guts to face him.

Chris was silent, chewing on the end of his cheroot. The taste was suddenly bitter in his mouth and he spat it out, grinding the butt beneath his foot.

“You shouldn’t beat yourself up, Chris,” Buck went on, more gently now. “Wouldn’t be natural if you weren’t feeling angry about things. What Ella did to you was about the worst thing a woman could do to a man. And it ain’t like this thing with Vin is all your doing. He’s been avoidin’ you, refusing to talk it through. We both know that Vin can be stubborn as a mule, ‘specially when he’s determined to take all the blame on his shoulders. You gotta talk to him.”

“Not sure I can ask him to forgive me.”

“Well, why the hell not? Is that your pride talking or are you afraid? Chris, maybe this ain’t about you. Maybe it’s about him and the way he’s feeling. He believes he let you down and is too ashamed to even say he’s sorry.”

Chris looked out over the street, eyes idly scanning the empty boardwalk while he considered Buck’s words. Maybe Buck was right. He was being selfish. For Vin’s sake as well as his own he needed to talk this out.

Buck’s next words hit him like a hammer.

“You know what I think? You and Vin got as close as brothers – you care about him and that terrifies you. It’s been three years since you’ve let someone in, since you’ve allowed yourself to trust someone the way you trust Vin, and you can’t handle it. This is a perfect opportunity for you to push him away. But it ain’t workin’, is it? You can’t stop caring.”

Chris was silent, so Buck went on, “You think putting distance between you is going to stop you caring about him? It won’t, Chris. You’ll only make yourself miserable worrying about him whether he’s here or not. Don’t you understand? Keep this up and you are going to lose him for sure, and then it’ll be too late.”

“Buck, you…” Chris tried to interrupt, but the big man wasn’t finished.

“Do you regret knowing him?”

“Hell, no!” The answer came automatically, without need for conscious thought.

“Then set things straight with him; start looking forward to the next ten years and don’t worry about what might happen. Take it a day at a time.”

Chris stared his long-time friend, a further protest frozen on his lips as he sensed the truth in Buck’s words. Chris had never been a man to give in to fear, yet here he was driving Vin away because his own fear was overwhelming him.

“You’re right, Buck. I’ll talk to him as soon as he gets back, find a way to settle things between us.”

Buck grinned into the darkness. “It’ll come right, Chris, you’ll see. You two need each other. I cain’t see either of you surviving without the other, not now.”

Chris looked at him in surprise for a moment, realizing that Buck had spoken nothing but the truth. The thought of living without Vin Tanner in his life was something he didn’t want to contemplate.

The sound of hoof beats cut through the still night air.

“Here they come,” Buck said.

They turned and watched as two riders galloped into town, slowing to a trot as they hit Main Street. Two! Chris and Buck exchanged concerned glances. As the horses approached Chris recognized Josiah’s chestnut and JD’s black and his mouth went dry. Where was Vin? Different scenarios rushed through his mind. Vin was dead. Vin was somewhere on the trail, hurt, and the others had come for help. That theory was belied by the lack of urgency in the way the two men slowed their horses to an easy walk as they approached. Only one other possibility, then. Chris felt an almost physical pain shoot through him. Vin had gone. He was too late.

Josiah and JD pulled up outside the jail and dismounted. JD, showing no signs of tiredness even after a long ride, fairly bounced up to the two men.

“Chris, Buck,” he greeted them heartily. “Easy trip, no problems, though Vin almost shot one of the outlaws on the way down, the man was mouthing off so much. Sure is wild down there, though, did you know they’ve got…”

Chris cut him off with one growled question. “Where’s Vin?”

JD must have noticed the sudden coldness in the atmosphere, for his next words were more subdued. “He… er… he decided not to come back to town.”

Chris’s fear must have shown plainly on his face, for Josiah put in hastily, “It’s all right, Chris. He hasn’t gone for good. He said he needed some space, so he’s ridden out a spell to camp for the night. He’ll be back in town tomorrow.”

The relief that spread through Chris left him feeling weak. For a moment there… If Vin had left and hadn’t wanted anyone to follow him, there was no way Chris or any of the others would have had the skill to pick up his trail.

“Was he all right?” he asked quietly.

Josiah smiled. “Hurting more than he’d admit, but he’ll live.”

Chris looked at Buck and saw his friend read his intent.

“Ain’t no point in going after him now, Chris,” Buck said. “He could be camped in any number of places. If you take out afore dawn, reckon we’ve both got a pretty good idea where he’ll be.”

After a moment Chris nodded reluctantly. There was a place less than an hour’s ride where the view from the mesa down over the plains was spectacular. It was a place Vin often went to watch the dawn.

“Chris, you going to put things right with Vin?” JD asked, obviously sensing from Chris’s reactions that something had happened to change the gunfighter’s attitude.

“Gonna try, JD,” Chris answered quietly. Then he nodded to Buck, trying in that small gesture to convey his gratitude. Buck grinned and tipped his hat in acknowledgement as Chris walked off down the street

+ + + + + + +

Josiah clapped Buck heartily on the shoulder.

“Seems Chris has done a little soul searching since we’ve been away. You have anything to do with this, brother Buck?”

Buck grinned. “Guess I ain’t completely lost my touch after all!”

“Amen to that. I think we’ll find that brother Vin is doing a little soul searching of his own. Perhaps we should head for the saloon and take, as Ezra would so eloquently put it, a small libation to celebrate the occasion?”

“You really have a way with words, preacher!” Buck grinned. Maybe we can engage Ezra in a game of chance to decide who’s gonna tell Nathan that Chris is ridin’ tomorrow without his permission! Comin’, JD?”

JD nodded and followed the laughing men, his heart filled with hope. It seemed that Buck and Josiah had succeeded in getting through to their friends. Now there was nothing more they could do - the rest was up to Chris and Vin.

Chapter Fifteen

It was dusk by the time Vin reached the place he’d chosen to camp - a pretty spot where the river widened to form a small lake. It was a popular spot for the townspeople to come for picnics. He and Chris had often come here fishing with young Billy Travis and he knew that it was a favorite with JD and Casey.

Vin dismounted wearily, grimacing as pain from his various bruises made its presence felt, and began unpacking his saddlebag. The air was still warm from the day’s heat and the lake was clear and calm, the surface broken only by tiny ripples and the occasional splash as a fish broke the surface. He was stiff and dirty from the journey and that lake looked mighty tempting. Stripping off quickly, he waded into the sun-warmed water and sighed in sweet relief as he submerged his body, allowing the water to wash away the grime and dust and soothe the throbbing pain. He lay in the water for a long time, watching the sky until the moon began to rise and shine down on the lake, causing the ripples to take on a silvery hue.

Eventually, the water cooled and he waded out reluctantly. He dried himself off with a spare blanket from his pack and dressed quickly, before the night air could chill him too much. He built a small fire for warmth, but was too tired to think of hunting for game for his supper and made do with a handful of jerky from the store he kept in his saddlebag. Then he unrolled his bedroll and sat back against his saddle, idly watching the small flames leap and flicker before him.

During his solitary ride to the lake he had realized that Josiah had been right. Leaving would be nothing short of running from his fear and a Tanner didn’t run. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to forgive himself for what he’d done, but he knew that he valued his friendship with Larabee above everything else in his life and if he wanted to get it back, he was going to have to fight for it. He was afraid – afraid that when he talked to Chris he would have to hear Chris telling him that their friendship was over and that there was no going back. But even this would be better than the hell he’d been living in for the past few weeks. At least when he knew the truth he could make some real decisions on his next step.

His heart was still heavy as he settled down in his blankets to try to get a few hours sleep. Tomorrow could change his life forever and he wasn’t ready to think about that, for if he left Four Corners there was only one place he could go – back to Tascosa, to clear his name. Tascosa, the place that so often filled his dreams and wrested him from sleep, heart beating wildly, bathed in sweat, still feeling the hangman’s noose around his neck

Tomorrow he would get up before dawn and go to his favorite spot. He would watch the sun rise and calm his spirit before returning to town to set things straight with Chris Larabee.