by Rhiannon

Chapter Sixteen

Chris reached the summit of the small mesa as the first tendrils of color were beginning to light the dawn sky. Ahead and below, the desert stretched out as far as the eye could see in a mysterious patchwork of black and grey shadows. When the sun was completely up the land would be revealed as mile after mile of unrelenting scrub, punctuated by small copses of cacti, a death trap for the unwary traveler unprepared for the intense heat.

Chris spotted a familiar buckskin-clad figure seated on a ledge on the very edge of the cliff. Vin was leaning against the rock behind him, lean legs stretched out in front. Chris allowed himself a sigh of relief that he had made the right call.

He walked towards his friend, making enough noise for Vin to be aware of his approach. The tracker didn’t even look around, but as Chris got closer he drawled, “Ya followin’ me ‘round now?”

Chris allowed a small smile to touch his lips. He didn’t need to ask how Vin knew it was him. He’d long ago become accustomed to the tracker’s uncanny ability to identify people by the length and sound of their stride.

“Didn’t need to follow you. Knew where you’d be.”

He stopped a few feet away and waited. Vin didn’t look around, but after a few moments he scooted over a bit and made room for Chris to sit beside him. It was as close to an invitation as Chris was likely to get or felt he deserved, so he took it gratefully.

Chris sat down carefully, drawing his legs up and resting his arms on his knees. He followed Vin’s gaze over the vista before them. “Sure is pretty,” he remarked.

“Yeah. Nathan know you’re riding?”

“Not when I left. Prob’ly givin’ Buck hell right about now, though.”

Vin snorted and the corner of his mouth twitched, encouraging Chris to continue.

“Scared the hell outta me, when you didn’t come back last night. Thought you might have gone for good.”

Vin ducked his head, refusing to meet Chris’ eyes. “Wouldn’t jus’ walk out on ya, Larabee. Was a time I though ya knew that.”

Chris knew that this was his opening, but he didn’t know where to start. He’d had a sleepless night then spent the whole ride up to the mesa trying to find the right words to say to let Vin know how sorry he was, how desperately he wanted – no, needed - to set things straight between them, to regain the easy friendship he’d come to take for granted. He started off tentatively.

“Reckon there are some things need settin’ straight between us, Vin,”

“Reckon you’re right,” Vin replied simply.

Relieved, Chris watched the brilliant display of golden light spreading over the landscape for a few moments, searching for the right way to begin. He was surprised when Vin took the initiative.

“Shoulda told you before, Chris, but I couldn’t find the right words, couldn’t get my head sorted ‘bout all that happened. I need ya ta know I’m sorry - sorry for everything. Sorry for all that happened with Ella. I wouldn’ta wished that on you for all the world. And I’m real sorry I let you down so bad. I allus said I’d be there to watch yer back, an’ I broke my word. I understan’ why you cain’t trust me no more and I’d give anythin’ to go back and do it all again, Chris, but there ain’t no goin’ back.”

Although he had heard Buck’s words the night before, Chris hadn’t been sure what to believe and when Vin began speaking he had braced himself for an accusation not an apology. After he’d gotten over the fact that Vin had said more in one go than he’d said in the last couple of weeks put together, it took a few moments for the meaning of his words to sink in. When he searched his friend’s face he finally identified that elusive emotion that he’d noticed and puzzled at several times over the past weeks. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it before. It was shame – and guilt.

He said, “Vin, what are you talking about? Why would ya think I don’t trust you?”

Vin’s face was still in shadows, but Chris could see the anguish shining out of the emotive eyes. “Like ya said, I had no right to go checkin’ on Ella like I did. Weren’t none’a my business. And then,” he faltered, but held Chris’ gaze, “when ya wouldn’t hear me out…”


Vin raised a hand to stop him. “Let me finish, Chris, I gotta get this out. I was gonna ride out on ya. I was so damned mad I was gonna ride out of there and leave ya when ya needed me most. And I did ride - I only came back when I heard the sounda gunfire. If I’d left any earlier, I wouldn’ta been there when they came. It mighta been the difference ‘tween you and the boys living or dyin’. That’s why I cain’t blame you fer the way ya feel.”

Chris ran suddenly shaking hands through his hair. It was true; Vin wasn’t angry with him, the tracker had been eaten up with guilt all this time.

“Is that why you’ve been keepin’ out of my way?” Chris asked. “Because you’ve been blaming yerself?”

“Shouldn’ta ridden out,” Vin stated flatly. “I turned my back, Chris, betrayed the trust ya had in me, and you’n the boys almost paid the price.”

Larabee shook his head. “You’ve got it all backwards, Vin. You ain’t done nothing wrong. If you had ridden out, I wouldn’t have blamed you. Not after the way I treated you. And anyway, if you had gone, you’d’ve come back.”

Vin looked sharply at his friend. “How kin ya know that?”

“Because I know you, Vin. Sure, you were angry, and you had every right to be. But you can’t stay angry for long; you ain’t got it in you. You’re not one to hold things against folk for long, you can let things go. You’d have ridden out of there and when you’d calmed down you’d have ridden right back in.” He risked a smile. ‘’Sides, you’re too damned ornery to give up on me that easy.”

Vin turned puzzled eyes on him. “But… yesterday, when ya said about me ridin’ out on ya – I thought ya meant that’s what you’d expect…”

“Oh, hell, Vin,” Chris interrupted. “I wasn’t angry with you, I’ve never been angry with you. I was angry with myself that I’d let things get so bad between us that you’d be thinkin’ of leaving. I know you’d never run out on me. I trust you with my life, don’t ya know that?”

“But… it weren’t only that, Chris,” Vin whispered. “I kept on lettin’ ya down. I missed when I took that shot at Ella, and then I couldn’t even pick up her trail – I’m supposed to be the best damned tracker in the territory, and I couldn’t pick up even a sniff of her trail.”

“At least you took a shot at her – I just stood there, didn’t even try to fire, you even think about that?” Chris said gently. “I can’t explain even now why I didn’t shoot. Do you blame me for that?”

Vin’s slow shake of the head gave him his answer and he went on, “I know you did your best, Vin, if there’d been a trail to follow you’d have found it. Why would I blame ya for doing your best?”

“It was the way you looked at me – I thought ya blamed me, that I’d let you down again. I tried, Chris, you gotta believe me. She disappeared into thin air.”

“Shit, Vin, it wasn’t that I was blaming you. I thought you were still angry with me for not trusting you, for choosing to believe Ella instead of you. I didn’t know what to say to put things right. I’ve bin needin’ to talk to you, to settle things between us, but I was afraid to – afraid that you wouldn’t forgive me, that I couldn’t make thing right between us again. I’m the one who should be apologizing, Vin, not you.”

Chris watched Vin take a shaking breath and was relieved to see in his eyes that Chris’s words had finally hit home.

Encouraged, he continued, “I told ya that you had no right to go digging around into Ella’ affairs. Well, I was wrong. You had every right – you were looking’ out for me. I damn near accused you of being a liar, and I’m not proud of that, Vin. It ain’t even that I didn’t believe you – I know you’d never lie to me. I just didn’t want to hear it, couldn’t hear it.”

“I was real angry with ya, Chris, for a while,” Vin admitted. “But then I got to thinkin’ about it, and I understan’ why you didn’t listen. It’s like it was with me an’ Charlotte.”

Vin hadn’t spoken of Charlotte since they’d returned to Four Corners after the incident with the wagon train. It surprised and puzzled Chris that the tracker would mention her now, in this conversation.

“It ain’t nothing like it was with Charlotte,” he said. “She was a right proper lady, not a bitch who’d killed your family and was plannin’ to finish off your friends too!”

Vin shook his head. “That’s not what I meant. The way I was thinkin’ and actin’ back then – I weren’t myself, I weren’t making right decisions, couldn’t think of anything past her and goin’ away with her. Ya called me on it, but I didn’t listen.”

Chris looked at him intently for a moment. “You did the right thing in the end.”

Vin ducked his head again. “Yeah, I did, but it was ‘cause of you, what you said. Your words kept eatin’ at me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about them ‘til I started seeing things as they really were. But the point is, you were the same way about Ella, you weren’t thinkin’ straight and I was wrong to be mad with you. It’s jus’…” he looked up then, directly into Chris’s eyes. “It’s jus’ that I never figured I’d hear you call me a liar.”

Chris flinched at the pain reflected in his friend’s eyes, but held his gaze steadily. “I never figured I would, either,” he said. “You won’t ever hear me say it again.”

Vin smiled for the first time in weeks. “I guess that’s good enough for me.”

Chris was overcome with relief at those words. It had been so simple. All this time, he’d been worried that Vin was angry with him, that he’d lost his friend’s respect. It hurt him to think that Buck had read his friend better than he had. Vin wasn’t a man to hold a grudge and he’d accepted Chris’s apology without question. But Chris wasn’t so sure that Vin was as ready to forgive himself for his supposed failing, and that fear was borne out with the tracker’s next words.

“Not sure I kin ask ya to forgive me for running out on ya. Not sure I kin forgive myself. I promised to watch yer back, Larabee, and I broke my promise.”

“You listen to me, Tanner,” Chris said sharply. “You didn’t run out on me, and you didn’t break any promises. Vin, you ain’t never run out on me!”

Vin’s eyes snapped shut against a painful memory of another time. “Almost did once before, with Charlotte.”

“And you came back the moment you knew the train was in trouble. A day later you saved that wagon train from bein’ blown to pieces an’ almost got yerself killed, so don’t tell me you let us down!” Chris leaned forward and gripped his friend’s shoulder. “I ain’t never doubted that I could trust you, Vin! I’ve always known you’d be at my back, right since that first time when we saved Nathan from hangin’. I ain’t gonna forgive you, ‘cause there’s nothing to forgive. But you gotta promise me you’re gonna let this go and stop beatin’ yourself up over it.”

“Not sure I kin do that, Chris,” Vin said after a moment, in a small voice.

Chris tried a different tack. “Tell me, Vin, do you think runnin’ out on a friend is worse than calling him a liar?”

Vin considered that seriously for a moment, knowing that Chris was leading him into a trap, but he knew he had to be honest in his answer. “Guess them’s both pretty bad.”

Chris nodded. “You were pretty quick to forgive me for what I did to you.”

“That’s different, Chris. You weren’t thinking straight.”

“And you were?” Chris shot back.

Vin was silent. After a moment, Chris went on, “I still feel bad about what happened, even though you say you’ve put it behind you. I’ll say I forgive you if that’s what you want, but you need to let it go, Vin. It ain’t gonna work out if you’re worried all the time that you’re gonna let me down. We both made mistakes – let’s leave it at that and move on.”

He held his hand out and after a moment Vin nodded and reached out, grasping Chris’s arm round the wrist. Chris closed his hand round the tracker’s forearm and squeezed tightly for a long moment. Chris wasn’t sure he’d heard the last of this - he knew how hard Vin was on himself when he thought he was in the wrong, but this was a start and at this moment Chris would take what he could get.

He grinned suddenly. “That’s good, ‘cause I reckon I missed havin’ your scrawny butt sittin’ next to me of a mornin’. Kinda got used to it.”

Vin smiled back. “My butt ain’t scrawny, and anyways, reckon you’re jus’ jealous. You’ve lost so much weight ya ain’t got more flesh on ya than one’a Nettie’s scrawny chickens!”

Chris’s grin widened. He couldn’t begin to describe how good it was to be sitting here exchanging banter with his friend again.

They sat in silence for a while, each watching as the sun began to raise, a watery orb of yellow in a gray-and-gold sky. Then Chris said softly, so low that he could see Vin straining to catch his words, “Thought we knew each other better’n to let things get so twisted up between us.”

Vin sighed. “Reckon it’s down to Ella: she got us both thinking crooked. I am real sorry it didn’t work out for ya, Chris. You deserved another chance at your dream.”

Chris shook his head slowly. “Reckon that’s what it was – nothing but a dream. If I’d stopped to really think about it, used my brain instead of… Buck tried to remind me why I left Ella in the first place. I know people can change, but there was always somethin’ about Ella. It wasn’t only that she was wild, there was a kinda’ ruthless streak to her even back then. That’s what made me leave her.”

Another thought occurred to him. “What made you think of checkin’ her out anyhow?”

Vin shrugged. “Don’t rightly know. Weren’t plannin’ on it, but I gotta tell ya Chris, I never did take to Miss Ella. Guess she was a bit… overpowerin’… for my taste. And there was somethin’ about the whole set-up didn’t sit right with me, cain’t rightly tell ya why. So when I got to Red Fork I thought there weren’t no harm in askin’ a few questions.”

Chris pondered on that. Vin’s instincts about people were usually right. If he’d used his head instead of another part of his anatomy, if he’d talked to Vin, asked him what he thought about Ella, maybe things would have worked out differently. But there was no point in going there now, and it certainly didn’t bring his family back. It was over and they had to put it behind them… for now.

The sun was laying claim to the landscape now, chasing away the remaining shadows and bathing it in golden glory. Vin leaned back, closed his eyes and turned his face hungrily into the first tentative tendrils of warmth.

“Never git tired a watching that,” he whispered. “When life’s kinda closin’ in ‘round me, sittin’ here helps me see how I kinda fit into everythin’. Makes what I’m feelin’ not seem so important, in the whole scheme of things.”

“What are ya feelin’, Vin?” Chris asked.

”Like my soul’s had a few pieces knocked out of it, and now it’s whole again.”

The words were softly spoken but they touched Chris deeply. He whispered, “Yeah, me too.”

He let a few minutes pass in companionable silence, while trying to find the words to tell Vin the rest of the story. Finally, he took a deep breath and began, “There’s something else I should tell you.”

Vin raised a questioning eyebrow.

“When you rode in with the news that you couldn’t find Ella… a few minutes before Mary’d given me a letter. It was from her - from Ella.”

Vin’s eyes widened in surprise.

Reckon that’s why I was lookin’ madder than a rattlesnake,” Chris admitted sheepishly, pulling the letter out of a pocket. It was getting worn now, he’d read it so many times. “I’d like you to read it.”

“Ya sure, Chris? Must be kinda personal.”

Chris nodded. “I’m sure. I don’t want to keep any secrets from ya, Vin.”

Vin took the crumpled letter, smoothed it out and squinted at the words written there. He handed it back to Chris with small grin. “Ya read it to me Chris, I still ain’t too good at makin’ out someone’s scribin’.”

Chris read the letter out loud and Vin was silent for a moment. “Reckon the woman’s a few apples short of a hamper. Don’t sound like she’s gonna give up on ya any time soon, does it?”

Chris shook his head slowly. “I didn’t see it. I know she was comin’ on heavy, moving things too fast, but I never thought… it was my decision to split the first time, and I knew she hadn’t taken it well, but I never thought she was so… obsessed with me. If I’d only seen it…”

“No way you coulda known, Chris,” Vin said firmly. “She weren’t actin’ mad, jus’ seemed like she was crazy for ya.”

“When she found me in that room, and she started to tell me what she’d done…” Chris found his voice rising as the familiar anger rose in his heart. “She said it like I’d understand and agree that she’d had no choice – like killin’ Sarah and Adam made perfect sense.”

“I guess it did, ta her,” Vin said softly. But it won’t do no good dwelling on it, pard. Ya cain’t guess what’s goin’ on in her head. It weren’t your fault, what she did to your family, and it weren’t your fault what she tried to do to us.”

“Yeah, I know that in my head; it ain’t so easy to feel it. But you know it means you and probably the rest of the boys are still in danger. She tried to kill you all once – who’s to say she ain’t gonna to try again? Reckon you’re her main target, too. She knows you were the one put the doubt in my mind, caused me to go sniffin’ around and find that room.”

Vin shrugged. “No point worryin’ ‘bout that. We’ll handle it when the time comes.”

“You ain’t bothered that I’m putting you in danger?”

“I keep tellin’ ya, it ain’t your fault she’s so obsessed with you, an’ all. She’s got something wrong up here.” Vin tapped his head with two fingers. “Gotta tell ya, though,” he went on, lips twitching into a smile, “cain’t rightly see what she sees in ya myself…”

Chris looked at him sharply. How could Vin joke about something that could end up costing him his life?

Vin returned the gaze, serious now. “It ain’t your fault, Chris. Hell, we don’t exactly lead safe, quiet lives anyhow. One more threat ain’t gonna make no difference. An’ now we know she’s maybe plannin’ on coming back, we can be ready for her.”

Chris nodded, still uneasy at the thought that he was putting his friends in danger. But Vin was right, there was nothing they could do and truth to tell, even if Chris left Four Corners Ella would likely still want revenge on his friends.

The somber atmosphere was broken when Vin suddenly yawned widely.

Chris grinned. “Tryin’ to catch some flies for breakfast?”

“Might’s well – ain’t got anythin’ else fer breakfast, unless…” Vin looked across at Chris hopefully.

The gunfighter shrugged apologetically. “Sorry. Breakfast wasn’t too big a priority when I rode out.”

“Don’t matter none,” Vin murmured. “Ain’t really hungry. Feelin’ kinda tired, though.”

Chris narrowed his eyes as he studied his friend properly for the first time. The tracker did look tired. There were dark circles under his eyes and his face was drawn, as if in pain. Suddenly concerned, Chris nevertheless managed to bite back the question he was about to ask, knowing the answer would be “I’m fine.”

Instead, he said casually, “Take a nap, then, we ain’t in a hurry.”

“Well, maybe a few minutes…” Vin agreed readily, shuffling back on the ledge until he could lie down in the shade of an overhang. His eyes drifted shut almost immediately and within seconds Chris was grinning at the sound of gentle snoring. He had to admit he was feeling a mite sleepy himself. The sun was getting stronger now, so he maneuvered himself until he was shaded by an overhanging rock and leaned back, tipping his hat down over his face. It wouldn’t hurt to rest his eyes for a few minutes while Vin slept. Then they really needed to head back to town.

Chapter Seventeen

Chris woke with a jump, feeling something moving on his hand, and opened one eye to see a small lizard looking back at him. A flick of the hand sent the creature flying through the air to land gracefully and scuttle away into a crevice.

Chris stretched carefully, feeling the stiffness in his body. From the height of the sun, he had been asleep for a couple of hours.

He glanced across at Vin. The usually vigilant tracker was still dead to the world. Chris studied his friend’s face, letting his eyes wander over the familiar features, frowning as he noted the slightly hollow cheeks and cheekbones that seemed a little more prominent than usual. Vin carried so little spare flesh on his lean frame that it was immediately noticeable any time he lost weight. Chris felt a stab of shame as he realised that he’d been too locked up in his own misery that he hadn’t noticed that Vin had been suffering too. He promised himself that all that was going to change now that he had a second chance.

Chris couldn’t help smiling. In sleep, Vin was relaxed as he never was awake and looked so young and innocent, his long hair spread out beneath him like a halo. Chris found himself laughing out loud as his mind grappled with a sudden and bizarre image of Vin as an angel, dressed in white with golden wings spread out behind him. There were many word that came to mind when he thought of the scruffy, unkempt tracker, but angelic wasn’t usually one of them.

“What’re ya lookin’ at, Larabee?”

One eye had opened in a blue slit and was peering at him through sleep-dazed fog.

“Nothin’. Just thinkin’ that much as you need all the beauty sleep as you can get, we’d best be getting back. Must be well past noon by now and I reckon the boys’ll be gettin’ a mite concerned.”

Vin reluctantly opened both eyes and yawned. “Ya mean, they’ll think we’ve prob’ly gone and killed each other.”

“Somethin’ like that.”

Vin sat up slowly. “Reckon I’m getting’ a mite hungry now, anyways. Ya buyin’, cowboy?”

Vin was the only person who could call Chris ‘cowboy’ and get away with his life. Chris hadn’t heard him use the term for several weeks and Vin’s casual use of it now reassured Chris that the rift between them really had been mended. He gave his customary reply automatically.

“It’s your turn to buy, and don’t call me cowboy.”

He saw Vin’s mouth twitch into a grin and knew that Vin shared the feeling.

Chris got up slowly, swallowing a hiss of pain as the still healing wound pulled and smarted. He leaned against a rock and watched in concern as Vin carefully levered himself to his feet, not missing the wince and grimace of pain as the battered body protested the action.

Vin frowned at him. “I’m fine, Larabee, take that look off a yer face. A few bruises ain’t gonna kill me.” His eyes narrowed. “Anyways, you’re a fine one ta talk – saw yer face all screwed up when ya got up, so don’ try to tell me you ain’t hurtin’!”

“I’m not hurtin’!” Chris declared through gritted teeth, pushing away from the rock and straightening slowly. “I’m little stiff from sittin’ so long, that’s all.”

Vin laughed out loud at that. “That’s ‘cause you’re gettin’ old, cowboy!” he said, dodging as Chris reached out a hand for his throat and letting out a groan as his body resisted the sharp movement.

Laughing, they slowly made their way down the hill to the waiting horses.

Chapter Eighteen

An hour’s easy ride brought the two men to the landmark rise that gave way to the first glimpse of the still-distant town of Four Corners. Vin reined Peso to a standstill.

“Something wrong?” Chris asked, pulling up beside him.

Vin sat back in his saddle, hooked the reins round the saddle horn and looked across at his friend.

”Whatever it is, Chris, ya better spit it out ‘afore it chokes ya.”

Chris scowled at him and Vin bit back a grin as he waited patiently for a response. He had always been able to read Larabee’s thoughts.

Chris shrugged. “Never did get around to saying thanks for saving my life the other day.”

“Well, pard,” Vin drawled, “Ya know you don’t need ta say it, but you’re welcome. But that ain’t what’s bin eatin’ on ya like a vulture at a carcass ever since we left the butte.”

He could almost see the wheels turning in Chris’s head, before a look of resignation spread over the gunfighter’s face and Vin knew that he was going to get the truth.

“Was wonderin’ if you’re still figurin’ on heading out?”

The question was asked casually but Vin sensed that the need to ask it was anything but casual. He looked searchingly into his friend’s face and was shocked to see there an emotion he had never associated with Chris Larabee. Fear. Pure, naked fear that Vin was going to leave. He couldn’t recall ever meaning so much to someone that they would care that much and it confirmed in his heart that the relationship between the two of them had been restored.

“I’ll be stayin’,” he said quickly, anxious to put to rest his friend’s fear, but there must have been a note of uncertainly in his voice, because Chris asked softly, “Ya sure, Vin? If you’ve got your heart set on Tascosa…” His voice trailed off.

Vin nodded. He needed Chris to understand that what he was feeling was nothing to do with him, with wanting to stay on in Four Corners. “Yeah, I’m sure. Ain’t nowhere I’d rather be. It’s that bounty on my head – it’s been weighing more and more heavy, Chris. I keep havin’ this dream about hangin’…”

“That ain’t gonna happen, Vin. I told you I won’t ever let that happen!” Chris said fiercely.

”I know you’d do everything you could, Chris, but let’s face it – one day a real marshal might come for me, and we know already that you won’t have no choice but to give me up.” He shook his head as Chris began to protest. “You know you cain’t mess with a federal marshal, Chris. They’d hang you too, and I cain’t let you do that for me.”

“All right, then.” The words were quietly spoken but in a voice of steel. “Soon as the time is right, we’ll decide once and for all what we’re going to do about Tascosa. We’ll work it out, and we’ll do it together. You give me your word that you won’t pull any fool thing like taking out on your own. We do it together, Vin, like we always said we would.”

Vin nodded, not trusting himself to speak past the lump in his throat. He had always vowed that he wouldn’t allow his friends to get involved in this - it was too dangerous. But the truth was, of all the situations he’d faced up to in his life, this was the one that he couldn’t even think of facing alone. Josiah’s words came back to him. “What do you reckon friends are for if not to look out for each other, be there when they’re needed?” That reminded him of something else that terrified him.

“I’ll give you my word if you give me your word on somethin’ in return.”

“What, Vin?”

“Give me your word that if we get news of Ella Gaines, you won’t go riding out alone to find her. We do that together too.”

Chris didn’t answer for a long moment. Vin knew that he was asking a lot. This was Chris’s fight and his alone and Vin knew that he wouldn’t want to get his friends involved in it, least of all Vin, who was most in danger from Ella. He also knew that he wanted nothing more than to be at Chris’s back if and when the time came – needed to be there because Chris was too emotionally involved in this and would need someone to help him think straight. Vin held his breath, waiting for the answer that would say more about the trust between them than anything else.

“Agreed.” Chris said finally. He leaned over and the two men grasped forearms, sealing the promise between them. At that moment as Vin locked eyes with his friend he realized that they were both aware that the bond between them was now fully restored and he swore silently to himself that he would never allow it to be severed again.

Chapter Nineteen

It was mid afternoon. Mary Travis stood in the doorway of the Clarion office, her expression one of amusement tinged with worry as she pinpointed each of the five men who had been skulking around the main street since morning. Buck and JD were sitting on chairs outside the jail. Ezra was leaning against the wall outside the saloon and Josiah and Nathan were pretending to fix a broken window frame in Mrs. Potter’s shop. It was taking them a mighty long time to finish the job. She had wheedled out of JD the fact that Chris had ridden out to find Vin and it was obvious that the five were all concerned about the outcome of that meeting. She wasn’t sure if the lateness of the hour was a good sign or not.

As she looked down the street she saw two riders approaching. The others had seen them as well and each of them stopped to follow her gaze.

As the riders got closer, she could see that it was indeed Chris and Vin. They trotted into town side by side, slowing their mounts as they approached. The other five tried to look unconcerned, but it was obvious that the two were aware that they were awaited by the way they looked around carefully, picking out each man in his hiding place. Mary’s heart lifted as Vin grinned and leaned across to whisper something to Chris, whose face broke into a wide smile. The others observed this too and she noted how five tense bodies suddenly relaxed.

The two horses came to a halt beside her and the riders dismounted. Vin tipped his hat to her.

“Afternoon, Mary.”

She smiled. “Hello, Vin.”

He shuffled his feet a bit, and then favored her with that slow, half-shy smile that had set hearts fluttering in the breasts of many of the town’s ladies. It was weeks since she’d witnessed that smile and it warmed her heart.

“I was wonderin’, Mary,” he began hesitantly. “I’ve bin doin’ some thinkin’ about them readin’ lessons, and I think I’d like to start again as soon as we can, if’n ya still have a mind to teach me.”

Nothing he could have said would have delighted her more. “I’d love to, Vin, you know that. You’re a pleasure to teach, you pick things up so quickly.”

She felt almost guilty when she saw the blush that rose from his neck right up to his hairline, having deliberately chosen the words in the hope of provoking exactly that response. He was so adorable when he blushed like that. “Why don’t you come along later and we’ll make a start?”

“That’d be fine, Mary, thank you.” Vin turned to Chris, who was hovering silently behind him. “I’ll head over to the saloon, see if I kin charm Inez into scarin’ us up some food.” He tipped his hat to Mary once more and sauntered off towards the Standish Tavern, leaving Mary and Chris facing each other alone.

Mary could see from the way he was shuffling his feet and looking anywhere but at her that Chris was uncomfortable, yet she wasn’t ready to make the first move. She waited patiently until finally Chris removed his hat and raised his eyes to meet hers. She saw immediately that his face no longer wore that cold, haunted look that had been his mask for the past three weeks. He even looked younger, as if a weight had been lifted from him. She found herself moved by the oddly vulnerable way he stood clutching his hat tightly to his chest.

“So, Mary, how’s Billy?”

“He’s well, thank you. He’s even enjoying school.”

“Good, that’s good.” There was an awkward silence, and then she heard him clear his throat in what seemed like a nervous gesture.

“Look, Mary, I know I haven’t had much time for the boy lately, what with this injury and… Well, anyway, I was wonderin’ if tomorrow, it being Saturday and all, maybe he’d like to go fishing with me.”

“I think he’d enjoy that very much Chris,” she replied evenly. “He’s missed you.”

He looked straight into her eyes and her heart began to beat a little faster as that clear green gaze held hers and begged her to see that he was trying to convey so much more than his words betrayed.

“I’ve missed him too,” he said. “Maybe this is a way to start making up for lost time, maybe to make a fresh start.”

“He’d like that,” Mary said, her voice a little unsteady now, despite her determination to remaining control. His next words took her by surprise.

“Maybe – if you’re not too busy – you might like to come with us? We could take a picnic, make a day of it.”

She knew that she shouldn’t give in so easily. He had hurt her deeply over the Ella Gaines affair and had yet to say one word to her about it. Yet, she was also aware of the deep pain he himself had suffered. Maybe they could work this thing out together. She knew then that she wanted more than anything to take that chance. So she smiled a little wider. “I’d love to, Chris.”

His own face broke into a smile. “Well, that’s fine then. I’ll borrow a wagon, come by for you about ten.”

She watched as he headed off towards the saloon, thanking God for Vin Tanner, because whatever words had been exchanged between the two men that morning, they had a profound affect on Chris Larabee. Perhaps more than one relationship was on the way to healing that day.


The following morning Buck Wilmington sauntered along the boardwalk, hearing the sound of familiar voices ahead. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were seated in their usual place outside the Clarion office.

A slight grin touched Vin’s face as he said something to Chris in a low voice. There was a flash of white teeth as the gunfighter’s lips curled back as he laughed aloud and Vin’s grin widened until it threatened to split his face.

Buck felt a peace come into his heart at the sight. It had been obvious the previous day when the two had ridden back into town together that all was now well between them. The remaining five peacekeepers had all been present when Vin had entered the saloon and persuaded Inez to rustle up some dinner, had watched as he and Chris had put away the biggest bowls of chili any of them had ever seen. The conspicuous lack of tension in the atmosphere motivated the men to join Chris and Vin one by one, until all seven were sitting around the table discussing the relative merits of other chili meals they had eaten. Buck had even witness something he had despaired of ever seeing – Vin Tanner flirting openly with Inez Recillos, who had responded with obvious if ill-concealed delight. No one had commented on the change and neither man had spoken of what had passed between them, but for the first time in weeks Buck had truly felt that things were getting back to normal again.

He knew that this didn’t mean that Chris had come to terms with what Ella Gaines had done, but he was now as sure as could be that the gunfighter would get through it and come out the other side a stronger man.

As he passed he tipped his hat and called, “Mornin’ pards,” but continued walking. Let them have their time together. They looked happy, and they deserved it.

Suddenly all was well with the world. Buck marched in through the batwing doors of the tavern, wrapped his arms round a passing Inez, and steered her into a dance.

“Mornin’, Inez, you’re lookin’ mighty beautiful this morning,” he boomed happily. “You’re like an exotic flower in full bloom…”

He waltzed her around the room a few times, until she grabbed a broom and fended him off, then settled down contentedly at the table where Josiah and Ezra were already seated. The two exchanged glances.

“Perhaps we were a little premature in wishing for a restoration of amiability amongst our friends,” Ezra remarked. “If this is what it’s done to Buck, what on earth can we expect from Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner?”

Buck cocked his head towards the batwing doors as the two men in question entered.

“I did not compare ya to a prairie chicken, Larabee,” Vin was protesting. “I only said ya was all skin’n bones and could do with a good feedin’.”

Chris’s hand came up and swiped the hat off his head. “But, now ya mention it,” Vin went on, eyes dancing, “with them scrawny legs and that…” his words were cut off as Chris wrapped a bandana round his mouth.

“Reckon you’ve got your answer, Ezra.” Buck grinned broadly.

Ezra sighed in resignation.

Josiah folded his arms and studied the scene before him. “Always be careful what you wish for, brother Ezra.” He smiled then and turned his eyes heavenward. “Thank you, Lord,” he whispered reverently.

“Amen to that,” Buck said under his breath.

The End