by MMW

Part of The Friendship Collection

Notes: Many thanks to Phyllis for her help with this.

“Stay” is a charming word in a friend’s vocabulary –

- Louisa May Alcott

Buck slipped off of his horse and swallowed. Things were not looking good.

Chris never dealt well with this time of year; his rampage in Purgatorio last year had proven that fact. The whole situation with Ella made it even worse. Buck had no idea how his oldest friend would deal with the added grief caused by those events, by that discovery. He was especially worried because the Gaines woman had just slipped away from them a second time about a month ago.

Scanning the small yard, Buck took in the slight air of neglect, the low level of water in the water trough and the door to the shack standing partially open. “Oh, Chris,” he whispered, his compassion for his oldest friend adding to the weight of his own grief.

Tending both his horse and Chris’, he slowly gathered his courage to open the door and face his grieving friend. It was not with fondness that he recalled other such occasions. All had ended the same way, with Larabee drawing a gun and threatening to shoot Buck if he failed to leave immediately.

Since the day after the two of them arrived back from Mexico, Buck had wanted only one thing, to be there for Chris. They had gotten back to Eagle Bend just after lunch. Though Chris had invited him to return to his house, Wilmington had seen his latest lady friend and begged off, spending the night happy in her arms while his friend, his best friend, his brother in all but blood had ridden out to his happy home and found nothing but ashes and charred remains.

By the time Buck had gotten out to the ranch the following morning, the graves had been dug, the crosses set and all trace of the man he had known as Chris Larabee was gone. He had failed to be there for his friend when he was needed, and Chris had made sure to let Buck know about that failure every chance he got.

Over the years, Wilmington became convinced that if he had just been there when Chris rode up to the house rather than in town, the devastating loss would not have had the same effect on the blond. If he had just been there, Larabee would not have had an entire night to let grief and vengeance feast on his heart and soul. And now, if he could be there, just once, for the anniversary of that terrible day, he could offer his friend the support he knew the gunslinger needed, the support and friendship that would help heal the gaping wound in Larabee’s soul.

Allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimness inside, Buck took in the interior of the room. The furniture was all either broken or overturned. There was shattered glass at the base of several walls and empty bottles in the middle of the floor. Spilled coffee pooled before the stove and a smear down the sidewall showed what happened to Larabee’s last attempt to eat.

It was the sight of the unconscious gunslinger himself, collapsed on the floor, with one arm resting on the top of the bed and the other resting in his lap still clutching a half-full bottle that drew forth an anguished, “Oh, Chris” from the depth of Buck's soul.

Cautiously crossing the room, Wilmington stopped before the blond. Reaching out a tentative hand, he brushed aside a stray lock of hair from Chris’ forehead and felt tears prickle the back of his eyes as he realized how far his friend had fallen into the well of grief. “What would Sarah say if she saw you like this?”

“Sarah,” the blond whispered, shifting slightly.

The hushed word was spoken with such tender love, Buck had to drop his head and take several breaths to regain his composure. How could fate have been so cruel as to separate this man from his wife? “No, pard,” he replied softly. “Just an old friend here to watch your back.” Like I should have done back then, he added silently to himself.

Reaching out, he removed the bottle from the lax hand and set it aside. Then, slipping his arm underneath Chris’, Buck lifted his friend enough to sit him on the bed. Changing his hold on the blond, Wilmington turned Chris and gently eased him down.

Satisfied his friend was safely resting on his side, the mustached man then moved to the foot of the bed and removed Larabee’s boots, thankful the man’s gun was already hanging off the post at the head of the bed.

Leaving Chris to sleep, Buck then turned his attention to the small room and what needed to be done.

It was several hours later when he placed the freshly washed coffee pot on the clean stove. Glancing around the room, Wilmington knew it was nowhere near Sarah’s standard of clean, but the floor was now clear of debris, the walls had been washed, the furniture righted or set aside for repair and freshly chopped wood and fresh water left inside.

Taking a tin mug and dipping it into the water, he walked back to the bed. The sight of Chris sleeping caught his eye once more. He knew the blond would kick him out as soon as he was awake and Wilmington knew better than to try to stay. He still has some scars from where he ended up going through a window to prove that.

In the quiet of the room, however, he was unable to keep silent about the things overwhelming his heart. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you that night, Chris,” he began. “If I’d had any idea, you know I would never have let you go home without me, never have let you face that on your own. “ Swallowing hard, he continued, his voice even softer, quivering with long-suppressed emotion, “Not a day goes by, hell, not an hour goes by I don’t regret failing you like I did. I…” Looking away toward the door, the ladies’ man took several deep breaths to regain his control. “I miss them, Chris,” he admitted. “I miss them so much I don’t know what to do. They were my family, too. I know my hurt’s nothing like yours, but I can’t help thinking that if I’d been there… if I could be here now, then maybe… maybe somehow I could take some of your pain away, and that helping you would take some of my pain as well.”

Taking another breath and letting it out in a huff, Buck shook his head. “Don’t reckon that makes much sense. It’s just some fool notion that got stuck in my head. I just… I just wish I could be there for you, Chris, the way I wasn’t back then.”

His eyes seeking the open door once more, Buck felt a gentle breeze ruffle the ends of his hair and caress his face. At that moment he would have sworn he smelled Sarah’s perfume and heard her and Adam’s laughter, but a second later he shook off that idea as nothing more than a fancy. Blinking away the maudlin feeling that had nearly overwhelmed him, he turned and set the mug of water on the small table next to the bed.

He nearly screamed in fear as a hand clamped around his wrist. Eyes flying from the hand up the length of the arm, he found himself staring into the bloodshot eyes of his oldest friend. “Chris,” he said, shifting nervously from foot to foot, unsure of his welcome. “I just… uh… I… well… I… uh… I’ll just be going then,” he finished, not knowing what else to say.

Silence reigned in the room for two heartbeats before the hand that held Buck’s wrist released its iron grip. The blond uttered one soft word, “Stay.”

Buck stilled instantly and stared into the eyes of his friend, reading there a soul he thought had been lost forever. Not trusting his voice with all the emotions coursing through him, the ladies’ man simply nodded his head and offered a tight smile before heading to the table to take a seat.

Before he reached the table, he heard the sound of his friend rising from the bed and the soft shuffle of his feet crossing the floor to join him.