Acknowledgements: Thanks to Tex and Pam for excellent beta'ing and to Pam for suggesting the title.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. I don't own the rights to the Magnificent Seven and I don't make any money from this work.
Wednesday 20th September
It will soon be Fall. I can feel it in the air; the early evening breeze is tainted with a bite of chill that causes me to pull my shawl more tightly around my shoulders.
I sit in the now familiar spot on the riverbank, my eyes trained on the distant horizon as if the sheer intensity of my gaze can make him appear. When I see nothing but the hills rolling gently into the distance I close my eyes and immediately hear the sound of a horse's hooves splashing through shallow water. A soft thud as he dismounts and then his hand caresses my face and his lips find mine
I reluctantly force my eyes open and once more all I see are the distant hills and the river, with my own dejected face reflected back from its murky depths. I sit here alone because he's gone and he isn't coming back.
I refuse to dwell on my situation, to allow myself to think about the harsh reality of my life and instead choose to stubbornly block it from my mind and pursue my dreams instead. Maybe it's wrong to hide from life, but for now this is the only way I know to get through the day. So I retreat inside my mind and allow my thoughts to drift back to him.
My world was turned upside down the day I met Vin Tanner. I still feel an almost physical shiver of excitement every time I think of the moment I first set eyes on him. I can remember every second of every minute of that encounter with the utmost clarity. I was struggling to carry a heavy box to our wagon when a raspy, Texas-accented voice behind me said, "Help you with that, ma'am?" I turned and found myself looking into the most extraordinary blue eyes I'd ever seen on a man.
Before I took up my pen to write in this book I promised myself that I'd be honest, so I won't try to deny that something special passed between us in that one moment; something that set the foundation for what was to come. At the time I was shocked by the intensity of the feeling; it was the first time I had felt such an immediate attraction to a man other than my husband and it confused and frightened me. I made a point of informing him that I was a married woman and turned away, trying to dismiss the sudden dryness of my mouth and the quickening of my pulse.
It didn't work - it couldn't; that spark between us was real and I felt it rekindle every time I caught sight of him. You have to understand that Vin Tanner isn't just any man. He's special. He might give the impression that he's rough and a little wild, a drifter with no inclination to settle down. All those things are true - he said himself that he's 'woolly to the bone'. But there is so much more to this man. He's gentle and considerate, he seems to have an innate understanding of human nature and he cares deeply about the things and people that matter to him
"You're thinking about him again, aren't you?"
Charlotte started and her head shot up as Will Richmond's voice cut into her solitude, grating like a piece of chalk drawn across a blackboard. She hurriedly closed the diary and pushed it behind her, standing up to face him silently.
"Answer me, woman!"
Charlotte observed her husband impassively. "All I have left are my dreams, Will. Are you going to take them away from me too?"
"Dreams!" He spat the words at her but she stood her ground, refusing to recoil from the venom in his voice.
"That bastard isn't worthy of your dreams!" he went on. "He's a two-bit gunslinger with just one thing on his mind. You're too good for him!"
She rounded on him then, the fragile hold on her temper finally snapping.
"You have no right to speak about him like that! You know nothing, nothing. He's a good man and he loved me, Will. He loved me!"
"I have every right to speak about him any way I like. You're mine, Charlotte. You're my wife!"
"Yes, I'm your wife," she replied bitterly, the words sticking in her throat. "But in name only, Will. In name only."
The words were intended to hurt and she knew she'd succeeded when he visibly flinched. She held his eyes, head held high in defiance, challenging him to deny the truth. They stood facing each other like combatants for several moments, her words hanging in the air between them. He was the first to break the contact and lower his eyes. He turned his back on her and stalked away as quickly as his still healing body would allow.
Wednesday 20th September
I've just had another argument with Will - I can barely hold the pen steady to write, I'm trembling so from our bitter exchange of words. I hurt him this time, I know I did, but I can't find it within me to be sorry. This is how it has been, in the two weeks since Vin rode out of my life; Will and I have done nothing but snipe at each other, have barely exchanged a civil word.
I have been married to Will Richmond for eight years. No one at the new homestead would have recognised him if they'd met him on our wedding day. He has always been quiet and undemonstrative, but then he was also strong of character, quick witted and possessed a good deal of charm. We met and fell in love almost at once and for a long while we were blissfully happy together. All he wanted back then was to make a comfortable home for me and our children.
Children. We were married for three years before Allison was born and somehow the long wait made her all the more precious to us. I know all mothers must say this, but she was a genuinely beautiful baby. She had my eyes and Will's nose and she was a happy child, laughing all the time. I can still see her smiling face when I concentrate, though the image isn't as clear as it once was and I worry that one day I might not be able to see her face at all.
She was born just over five years ago and at the age of three a fever took her from us. At the time I wanted to die too, so overwhelming was my grief. Each morning I would wake and reach for her, only to have the truth hit me again as if anew, and the burning ache in my heart would flare into life once more.
I didn't blame God for our loss. For a while I wondered if I'd done something wrong to deserve this pain, but after a while I realised that it was no one's fault. The Lord gives life and He takes it away - that's what my mamma taught me and I don't presume to question Him. I began to pray then for help to bear the loss and my prayers were answered. The months went by and the agony faded to a dull ache. The pain didn't go away; it is with me still and always will be, but I found within me the strength to go on with life.
For Will, it was different. He withdrew into himself, becoming morose and silent, barely speaking a word to me or to anyone. I can't say if he blamed God for taking our little girl. He wasn't a particularly religious man; he'd attend church with me of a Sunday, but he just couldn't see how God might have a part in the rest of his life. I could see how unhappy he was, but was helpless to do anything to aid him; rather than seeking solace in me he seemed to deliberately turn away from me. He began to drink heavily and where he had once been even-tempered, he became irritable and quick to anger.
Months passed in this way. I still remember with vivid clarity waking one morning and realizing that the gentle man with the big heart and great plans for our future was gone. I was still sharing his bed, but I was living with a stranger.
When the opportunity arose to start a new life out West I saw it as a ray of hope for us both and tried to persuade Will to take it. To my surprise, he agreed. I thought he had finally decided to put the past behind him and I began to look ahead to our new life with excitement.
When we started out from St Louis I believed that once we were on the trail Will would begin to see the possibilities of life in this new land. It became obvious very quickly, though, that nothing had changed and I finally found myself accepting that our exciting future together was nothing more than a dream. Leading the wagon train was simply another task for him to put his energies into so that he didn't have to think, to remember. Oh, we were heading for a new part of the country all right, but once there our lives would be as empty as ever. I think it was at that moment that I finally gave in to the feeling of hopelessness that had long ago begun to dog my days.
Then I met Vin Tanner. I've heard some of the other women in the settlement whispering together about me. I know Alice for one has been telling anyone who would listen that I cold-bloodedly used Vin in an attempt to make Will jealous.
I can't really blame them - I know that was likely the way it seemed. I'm usually a sensible, steady person, but even I could see that my behavior was erratic; pushing Vin away one minute, seeking him out the next. And if truth were told, there were moments when my actions were deliberate. Take that makeshift dance around the campfire. I so much wanted to have some fun, but when Will, as usual, refused to join in I deliberately went to Vin to provoke my husband. I know it was wrong. It was wrong because I did it to punish Will, but equally it was wrong because by then I could sense that Vin wanted me and I shouldn't have done anything to encourage him. It was dangerous and it was unfair. I never meant to hurt him; I just wanted to be happy, if only for a little while.
I believe in the sacrament of marriage, as a God-ordained union between a man and a woman. When I said my wedding vows I meant them wholeheartedly - 'In sickness and in health, 'til death do us part.' But those vows don't say anything about what happens when your child dies and your husband's love for you dies right along with her. They say nothing about what you do when the man you married becomes a stranger. Do the vows still apply then? I suppose they do - there's no mistaking the meaning of, 'til death do us part', but so help me, I struggled to hold to them for two long years. When I met Vin I found myself wondering if it could be possible to leave my husband and start a new life with another man; a man who was offering me everything my husband couldn't.
I think I made my decision that night after Vin had rescued me from O'Shea and his men. The night when he told me that if I was his, he'd never let me go. I looked into his eyes and I cleared my mind of everything except the love and the need I saw there. I kissed him first - I'm sure he wouldn't have touched me if I hadn't made the first move - but I could tell he wanted to and perhaps that night we both simply took what we needed. I know that his kiss was the best thing that had happened to me for so long. Will used to kiss me like that once, passionately and with abandon and without a thought for the consequences. To my shame I wanted more, I wanted him to take me and make love to me, but he held back. Even then he knew in his heart that what we were doing wasn't right.
I was confused and I had no one to share my heart with. I could tell that the other women on the wagon train were shocked by my behavior and that it would be pointless trying to talk to any of them. The only person who was kind to me was that newspaperwoman, Mary Travis. She said that she didn't judge me and that I should grab any chance at happiness, because you never know when it may come around again. I've thought a lot about what she said. At the time I took her words and held on to them, believing that I had as much right as the next person to be happy. Now, I'm not so sure. Is it ever right to put your own happiness first when doing so hurts others?
As for Vin's friends, I don't know what most of them thought about us, but it was very clear that they would back Vin whether or not they agreed with his actions. I'm quite sure, though, that their leader, Chris Larabee, disapproved of me. I could tell that he and Vin were close friends and that Mr. Larabee thought that Vin was making a big mistake. I was sorely afraid at the time that he'd be able to talk Vin around to his way of thinking, but looking back, I don't think he even tried; he simply made his position clear and allowed Vin to make up his own mind. I do believe that Mr. Larabee's opinion is very important to Vin and was partly responsible for his final decision.
Will thinks that Vin persuaded me to leave with him. He won't accept - doesn't want to believe - that it was actually my decision. Vin would have ridden back to Four Corners alone if I hadn't practically thrown myself at him and asked him to take me away.
I would have gone through with it, too, if circumstances hadn't intervened. I'd have gone with him to Brazil to begin a new life. Those gossips are wrong about me, so wrong. This wasn't all part of some big plan to get Will to notice me again. At that moment in time I truly believed that I was in love with Vin and that he loved me. I can see now that it wasn't love, not really. I'd like to think it was more than simple lust, though I can't deny that this was a large part of it; my body betrayed me in this regard even if I wasn't ready to admit it aloud. Vin Tanner is quite simply the most handsome man I've ever met and I wouldn't be human if I hadn't found myself physically attracted to him. Perhaps, though, what I really loved was the idea of him and what he represented; the qualities I saw in him that I no longer saw in my husband. I know the physical attraction went both ways, but I'm sure our relationship meant more to him too, that I was what he needed at the time - someone to protect and to cherish. We might have made a go of it but more likely we were riding into disaster. There's no way of knowing, not now, because Vin did the noble thing.
When we rode back to warn the wagon train of the attack, it was Vin's decision, not mine. God help me, I was ready to go on, to leave the wagon train to its fate. That's perhaps the thing I'm most ashamed of in this whole business. I was so desperate, so afraid that if we went back I wouldn't have the courage to leave again, that I was prepared to let them take their chances. Sometimes I wake in the night from a nightmare of what could have been if they had been attacked without warning. No one knows about this except Vin, but it's something I'll have to live with for the rest of my life.
Then Will was shot and my heart was split in two. Seeing him lying there, wondering if he was going to die, brought back all the old feelings of love for the man he had once been. Another part of my heart was still with Vin and my thoughts were focussed on the future we had planned together.
It was Vin who had the courage to do what had to be done. I think I know what made him change his mind. I'd seen him watching me as I tended to Will, and somehow he knew what I didn't even know myself; that if I had left I'd never have forgiven myself and that one day I'd have begun to blame him for it. He told me he'd changed his mind about us. I knew he was lying - I could see the passion still burning in his eyes - but I could see too that he'd made his decision and that he would stand by it.
So here I sit, staring listlessly across the river, dreaming of a man I know I will never see again. Most of my waking and sleeping moments are filled with images of him because even though it hurts, it is better than turning my thought to the bleak future ahead of me. I know I should be trying to make a go of life with Will; I know I should, for Vin's sake as much as mine. He gave me up because he thinks that a new life in this place will make me happy. He doesn't understand. No one understands that unless I can get Will to choose life over a living death, our lives will continue on this inevitable path to destruction.
Charlotte paused in her writing as she heard his footsteps once more and inwardly braced herself for another cruel exchange of words. She was tired; so tired of the constant fighting. But he surprised her by walking up and sitting down beside her. motionless, staring out over the water. Then he turned to look at her searchingly.
"Did you mean what you said?" he asked. "Do you really believe you are my wife in name only?"
Charlotte searched for the words to make him understand.
"When we lost Allison," she began, noticing the way he flinched at the mention of their daughter's name, but continuing resolutely, "I thought I was going to die. Every morning I woke up wanting a big, dark hole to appear and swallow me. But I prayed, Will, and after a while God gave me the grace to live with my loss and I found a way to go on with my life. You didn't. Your way of coping was to cut yourself off from everyone - from your family, your friends, and mostly from me."
"I loved her so much," he whispered.
"I loved her too, Will."
She turned to him then, placing her hand tentatively on his arm, suddenly moved by his desolate demeanor. "I loved her too. But I loved you as well, needed you more than ever, and you weren't there. You haven't been there since the day she died. You've changed so much that I don't know you any more. We live together as man and wife, but I feel like I'm living with a stranger. I just don't think I can do that any more."
"So you found someone better." The words were harsh and bitter.
She refused to rise to his angry words and said softly, "No, Will. This isn't about Vin."
He snorted his disbelief.
"This is not about Vin," she insisted. "It's about you and me. I wasn't in love with him, not really; I know that now. But I could have loved him, if we'd gone away together. I know what I did was wrong, but he was offering me everything you couldn't, Will. You think I fell for him because he was handsome and I had romantic notions about the life he leads. I didn't. I was attracted to him because he's a good man; he showed me respect, and gentleness and affection - all the things I used to have with you. I've waited to see those things again, I've tried to be patient with you, but I can't do it any more. I can't be married to a man who's no more than a shell, who no longer shows me any love."
He looked at her for a long moment. "I do love you, Charlotte," he said finally.
"Then why can't you show it?"
He took a long, wavering breath and Charlotte was shocked to see tears in his eyes. She hadn't seen him cry once in the last two years.
"I've tried, Charlotte. I've tried so hard. God knows I'm aware of what I've become. It's just every time I look at you, I see her, I see Allison, and I just can't bear it."
That was it, then. She'd always suspected it, but never before had he spoken of his struggle, of his pain.
"So what are we going to do, Will?" she asked softly.
He shook his head, wiping his eyes on the arm of his jacket.
"I don't know. I'm so sorry, Charlotte. I love you so very much and I don't want to lose you. I can't lose you - you're my life. But I can't give you what you need anymore. I know it isn't fair; you deserve more; you deserve to be happy. Maybe I was wrong - maybe you would be better off with him."
Hearing those words was like seeing the sun come out from behind a persistent cloud. For the first time in two years Will was finally thinking of her, of what she needed. She reached out a hand to him and he grasped it, holding on tightly. She felt his hand shaking in hers.
"We can still make it work, Will, if you're willing to face your demons instead of running away. We can do it together; all I need is for you to say you're willing to try."
After a while, he nodded. She tightened her grip on his hand and leaned her head against his shoulder and they sat there, together for the first time since their daughter's death, watching the sun as it began to sink below the distant hills.
Wednesday 20th September
I said I was going to be honest, so maybe I should have started today's entry with this. When I woke this morning I decided that I was going to leave. I didn't know where I would go; not back to Four Corners, to Vin - that wouldn't be right, wouldn't be fair to him. I hadn't thought past the need to leave, to go anywhere that wasn't with Will. I knew it was wrong and I prayed that God would give me the strength to make one last attempt to break through to him, and now my prayer has been answered. Will has finally begun to talk to me and told me why he has built this wall between us. Now that I can see the wall I can help him knock it down, I know I can. One day he'll look at me and see Allison and his mind will be filled with happy memories instead of pain.
Will went back inside a little while ago and I sit here now watching as day fades slowly into twilight, allowing my thoughts to wander to Vin one more time. I see his shy smile as he tells me that I should smile more often because it lights up my face; I see the emotion in his eyes as he tells me that if I was his, he'd never let me go; I see the passion in their depths as he kisses me tenderly. Vin Tanner is an extraordinary man and one day he'll find a woman who is worthy of his love. I don't regret those few short days we had together and I'll never forget him, but I need now to lock those memories away somewhere safe in the back of my mind.
Vin was right; my place is here with my husband. Seeing a glimpse of the man Will once was, and maybe still can be, was enough to give me hope. Maybe only a sliver, but it is enough. The Bible says that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. I pray that a sliver of hope can do the same.