Magnificent Seven Old West
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The Narrow Margin between Love and War

by Scribe

Summary: When Mary Travis decides to make a trip to Sweetwater alone, Chris's suspicions about why, results in a violent confrontation of how they really feel about each other.

Fifth story in the "Seven Scrolls" series. Follows Mary Travis and the Cult of the Staring Eyes.


Mary Travis was restless.

With the weekly edition of the Clarion News published and distributed for the week, and her son Billy back with his grandparents in Eagle Bend for the start of the school semester, Mary found herself with time on her hands. Perusing the work on her desk, she realized with surprising speed it was an endless paper trail that would cease only after she was dead or insane, whichever came first.

At this moment, the odds favored insanity.

She started work that morning with the best of intentions. There was the bookkeeping to be done, advertisements to be written and orders to fill. Not to mention the advertisement she'd been charged to write for a new doctor. Even with Nathan Jackson's expertise practicing frontier medicine, Four Corners was becoming too large for the healer to service on his own. Especially when he was also required to play lawman. Then there was editing Mrs. Potter's apricot chicken recipe for publication. Hardly inspiring.

After forcing herself to do the work for almost half the day, Mary's mind began to wander. Why did she need to be here? It was a beautiful July day outside. Through the window, she could see the sun shining luxuriously across the town. People were moving up and down the street. Horses and buggies would pass by the window of her office at random intervals. In the distance, she could hear children laughing somewhere. In the sunlight, the harsh, rugged frontier appearance of Four Corners seemed to evaporate and took on a vista that would give poets and writers, much reason to prose.

And she was in here, trying to make apricot chicken sound exciting.

Was it her or was there something truly amiss in her life? In truth, Mary knew she had a better time of it than most widows. She was a talented, well-educated businesswoman who was young enough to put all these qualities to use. Yet today, she felt trapped inside these four walls and escape was not simply a matter of walking out of the room and doing something else.

She had to get out of here.

She felt trapped in her own skin, trapped in the persona of Mrs. Travis, community leader and all-round pillar of Four Corners. Today, that title felt like an ever-tightening noose around her neck. She wanted out. Not forever because there was something in her that welcomed the challenge of Four Corners. However, in being Mrs. Travis, she felt as if Mary had become lost in the mixture and she needed to breathe once in a while. Even if it was for a day.

Setting down the pen she was about to dip into an inkwell, Mary stood up from her desk to stretch. How long it had been since plain Mary Travis had a day to herself. She couldn't remember.

What was stopping her? The idea came to her like an epiphany. Studying the sun's position in the sky, Mary realized dusk was several hours away. If she packed a bag and started riding within the hour, she could be in Sweetwater by nightfall. The town of Sweetwater, with its enormous hotel and excellent room service, was walking distance from the local theatre she never chanced to visit. It was just what she needed. She could spend the night, enjoy a show and do some shopping in the morning and be back before tomorrow night.

The idea was tantalizing to say the least. Still, there was just enough reservation left in her to question the impulsiveness of the act. Perhaps it was not wise for her to just up and leave. There could be an urgent crisis requiring her presence in town. Yet even as the thought crossed through her mind, she knew that she was just making excuses. She doubted there would be a newspaper emergency that couldn't wait until tomorrow.

With the seven men who acted as the law in the town of Four Corners, there was rarely a crisis that they could not handle without her assistance. Besides, she was only going to be gone for a day. What could possibly happen in that time? It was a pity Inez wasn't in town. If the sultry bartender were about, Mary was certain she would enjoy the trip as well.

Sadly, Inez was on a trip of her own. Since it was impossible for Inez to return to her hometown due to the bad blood between herself and the local Don, she rarely had the opportunity to visit her family. Thus, Inez and her family met in a town near the US-Mexican border so they could visit without causing further enmity with Don Paulo's father, who still blamed Inez for his son's death.

Making up her mind, Mary left the office and headed home. It took her half an hour of packing and unpacking her bag, trying to decide what she was going to take on this trip. Finally, Mary put on her travelling clothes and walked out the door towards the livery, carrying a small valise with the essentials for an overnight stay out of town.

No one questioned the pretty blond widow as she made her way down the street. People knew she made trips to Eagle Bend and Bitter Creek to visit Billy and get printing supplies. Mary was glad for the indifference. At the moment she was not in the mood to explain her actions and even less inclined to justify her impulsiveness to anyone else. Not that she understood it herself.

"Hey there Homer." Mary said affectionately to the beautiful roan horse she had stabled at the livery. The animal was more than pleased to see her as Mary ran her fingers against the smooth skin of its elongated nose. The horse nudged closer to her, rubbing its head against her shoulder in a gesture of welcome.

"Are you ready for a little trip?" She asked as she prepared the animal for riding. She did so hope the theatre was performing a play tonight. She was in the mood for some make believe.

As she harnessed Homer, Mary made a mental checklist of what she was going to do this evening. A nice hot bath in one of those fancy tubs with the claw legs and running hot water flashed into her mind. She had not decided that she would order room service or whether she would go down for dinner. With these possibilities running through her head, Mary unconsciously hastened her preparation to leave.

She decided against taking her buggy because it would take too much time to harness and Mary wanted to be in Sweetwater as quickly as she could. Preferably before saner instincts took hold and she changed her mind. Finally, Homer was saddled and ready to go when Mary fastened her bag securely onto the back of the saddle.

She was so intent on working she did not notice someone else arriving in the livery. "Hello Mrs. Travis."

Mary looked over her shoulder and saw JD Dunne, the young sheriff, leading his own mount into its stable for the day. She flashed him a smile as she greeted him politely in return.

"Hello Mr. Dunne,” she greeted him as she tightened the straps on the underside of Homer's graceful body. “Been out at the Wells's place?”

“Yeah,” JD nodded, “I was out riding with Casey.”

It was hard to imagine JD as sheriff sometimes and she knew many people who felt disconcerted seeing him wear that Silver Star so proudly. However, Mary knew once JD had a few more years' experience underneath his belt, she suspected he would grow into the role. As one of the seven, JD had the instruction of experienced mentors who ensured his safety while honing his skills for the future he chose for himself.

"How is Casey today?"

"She's okay," he said, finding it difficult to speak about the young woman who was his first real love, judging by the effort he went to impress her. "We had a picnic by the river."

"It's a good day for it," Mary commented and turned back to what she was doing.

It was at this point JD noticed the valise she had strapped to her horse Homer and her travelling clothes. "You're going somewhere, Mrs. Travis?"

"Yes." Mary replied shortly. She knew if she told him where she was going, it would be around town by the time the sun set. No doubt, JD would bring news of her departure to the seven and where it went after that, was anyone's guess. She led the horse out of its stall and proceeded towards the door, showing JD she was unprepared to answer any more questions.

"Where?" JD pressed, not recognizing a silent 'none of your business' even if it came up and bit him on the rear.

"Out of town." Mary said trying not to become annoyed by his prying.

"Where out of town?"

She took a deep breath and knew he would not rest until he got an answer. Perhaps, it was prudent telling him where she was going. After all if anything happened to her during her ride to Sweetwater, it would be good if someone knew where she had been headed.

"Okay, Sweetwater." She finally conceded, turning around to face him. "I'm going there on some private business and I prefer if the entire town was not privy to that, Mr. Dunne."

"Sure Mrs. Travis." JD said cautiously, his curiosity was burning now but recognized the fiery glare in her eyes enough to know it was unwise to pursue his interrogation. Mrs. Travis was a formidable woman at the least of times. JD did not wish to be present to see how she would react when fully provoked. "Did you let Chris know?"

It was possibly the worst thing he could have said.

Mary glared at him with enough venom for JD to swallow thickly and thank God he was armed. Fearfully, he glanced at his side and felt relief when he saw his gun in his holster.

"This is none of Mr. Larabee's concern." She said coolly, her back straightening in irritation. "He is not my lord and master and I am not required to check in my whereabouts with him or anyone else. I am an adult woman who can go where I please, when I please, without the permission of Mr. Chris Larabee. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes ma'am." JD nodded quickly, deciding he was not prepared to argue with her on this point.

"Good." Mary cleared her throat, realizing she might have over reacted slightly. She could feel the blood rushing to her cheeks but then Chris Larabee tended to affect her that way. "Now, if anyone wants me, I will be in Sweetwater until tomorrow afternoon. Pending a crisis of biblical proportions, I do not want to be bothered."

With that, Mary Travis turned on her heels and stormed out of the stable, trailing a wave of gold hair behind her.

"Gentlemen," Ezra Standish announced to his friends from behind the counter of his saloon. "One of the drunks who had the misfortune to be ejected from this establishment a short time ago, imparted to me the Davis gang may be in the vicinity."

"The Davis gang?" Nathan Jackson, the local healer, looked up at the southern gentlemen in question. "Who are they?"

"Bank robbers." Buck Wilmington said from across the table.

"That's pretty sketchy from a drunk." Chris Larabee remarked. The gunslinger did not look up from the book he was reading as he spoke. He was enjoying the relative quiet from the half-empty saloon on this sunny day. Most of the regular patrons were enjoying the sunshine and the seven were taking advantage of the peace for some well-deserved recreation.

"I thought it was worth noting." Ezra replied. With Inez visiting her family, the gambler had taken point behind the counter for the duration of her trip. She had not wanted to leave the saloon in his hands, but Ezra managed to convince his partner she need not worry about finding the place burnt to the ground when she returned. Ezra had the sneaking suspicion Inez believed he was incapable of running the place without her.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it." Chris replied smoothly and went back to his book. He seriously doubted the validity of that information. Last he heard during a visit to Purgatory, the Davis gang were heading down to Mexico after a substantial bank heist. Still, nothing was ever set in stone and stories tended to change when passed by the word of mouth. Nevertheless, Chris filed the information away for the moment.

Only four of the seven were currently present in Ezra's saloon. Josiah was working on his church and Vin was at the Indian reservation, visiting Chanu and Kojay. Buck Wilmington who would normally be chasing every skirt in the area was remarkably sedate today. No one wanted to say it out loud, but they knew he was missing Inez.

Ever since her arrival, Inez had become Buck's Holy Grail. She was one of the few women who had not fallen for Buck Wilmington's charm and that fact alone was driving the poor man to distraction. His determination to win the lady was beyond stubborn, although Inez made it perfectly clear she was not at all interested. With Inez out of town, Buck was moping around the place with such gloominess his friends were starting to believe his feelings for Inez were more intense than he led them to believe.

"Hi guys." JD's voice announced his arrival.

A chorus of greeting rippled through the room as the young man went to the counter to get himself a drink.

"How is the lovely Miss Wells?" Ezra asked politely.

"She's fine." JD said somewhat distracted. He was still thinking about his exchange with Mrs. Travis and he wondered whether he ought to tell Chris about it or not. Mrs. Travis had been adamant about not being bothered but JD was torn between his loyalty to Chris Larabee and his instructions from the lady.

"You seem distracted, young man." Ezra pointed out, seeing the slight confusion on his face. "I assume everything is alright?"

"It's fine." He replied as Ezra slid him a shot glass of whisky.

By now, the others had looked up from their card game at him. In some ways, they all felt protective towards JD who was the youngest in their group. The boy was raised by his mother alone and often showed the lack of male influence in his life by his naiveté.

"JD? Come on now, inquiring minds want to know, what is it?" Buck prompted.

JD shrugged, his eyes involuntarily moving in Chris' direction. Although the gunslinger did not look up, JD was sure he was listening. "It's nothing really."

"It doesn't sound like it." Nathan remarked.

"Well, it's Mrs. Travis."

Everyone glanced in the direction of Chris who was still reading his book, seemingly unconcerned. "What about Mrs. Travis." Chris asked, his voice indifferent as always.

"She's gone."

"Gone?" Nathan exclaimed. His voice was certainly more animated than Chris. Of all the men in the room, it was Nathan who knew Mary Travis the longest. He considered her a fine woman and an even better friend. When he had first arrived in Four Corners, it was Mary Travis's friendship that paved the way for his acceptance in the town. "What do you mean gone?"

"She said she was going to Sweetwater." JD replied. "She had a bag packed. I think she was planning on staying there."

Chris looked up from his book, but he did not meet the eyes of his friends. His gaze seemed fixed on the doorway instead. By now, they were aware JD had his undivided attention.

"Did she say why she was making this journey?" Ezra asked, knowing that Chris wanted to know even if he was unwilling to sound excessively concerned about the good widow.

"Private business she said, and she didn't want the whole town knowing about it." JD offered, remembering the look in her eyes when she told him to keep her trip to himself. The young man was not only unhappy at breaking his word to her, but he did not like facing her when she returned. "She said that unless there was...." He tried to recall her exact words. "A crisis of biblical proportions, she did not want to be bothered."

"When did she leave?" Buck inquired. This was unusual behavior from Mary Travis. Under normal circumstances, it was a habit of hers to inform the seven she was leaving town. He could not understand why she would feel it necessary to depart without telling them. It was very unlike her.

"Just a while ago." JD replied, feeling more uncomfortable the further he betrayed her confidence.

"Hell," Buck grumbled. "It's late in the day to make a run to Sweetwater on a buggy. She wouldn't get there until well after dark."

"She didn't take the buggy." JD informed Buck dutifully. "She was riding side saddle."

"She might make it to Sweetwater before dark then." Nathan remarked digesting that information. "Horseback cuts the trip down a couple of hours." He said as a matter-of-factly, to which the rest of them agreed.

"It appears that the lady is on a mission." Ezra replied. "Perhaps we should allow her to maintain her privacy, since she made it clear she did not require interference."

JD nodded in agreement. He wished he had not brought it up at all but if Chris were to find her gone and then discovered JD had known about it, he would have been in worse trouble. It was indeed an unenviable position to become caught in between Chris Larabee and Mary Travis.

"She's a grown woman." Chris said quietly. "She can do what she wants."

"That's exactly what she said." JD attempting to lend support to Chris's reasoning. "She said Chris was not her lord and master and didn't need his permission to go anywhere."

"JD." Buck grimaced as the words tumbled out of the young man's mouth before anyone could stop him. Talk about waving a red flag at a bull.

JD's eyes widened realizing what he inadvertently blurted out. When he saw Buck wince, JD was mortified that he had been so loose lipped.

Chris put his book down and stood up from his chair.

Buck knew the man in black well enough to know what he was about to do. "Now Chris, think about this."

"The Davis gang." Chris said simply. "They're out there."

"You said it was a rumor." Buck reminded.

"That was before that damn woman was riding out there alone. It's not safe for her."

"Mrs. Travis can handle herself." Buck insisted. "You go out there and she will not appreciate it."

"I'm not going to get her to be popular."

"You shouldn't be going out there to get her at all!" Buck exclaimed, getting out of his chair and striding towards Chris.

Chris was a master all right, a master at self-denial. He would go out there and retrieve Mary Travis, causing serious danger to whatever semblance of relationship the two possessed. He would do so simply because he believed he was doing the right thing and not because he had any deeper feelings for the woman.

"Chris, I'm your friend and I'm telling you, don't go after her." Buck spoke with more force than any one of them had ever seen him display. More than anyone, he wanted to see the relationship between Chris and Mary grow. Of all the seven, it was Buck who first realized the feelings Chris Larabee harbored for Mary Travis.

Women tended to shy away from Chris's dark persona. However, Mary showed no fear nor would she be intimidated by his brooding manner. She was without doubt the most determined woman Buck ever encountered and certainly one of the most beautiful. It was almost inevitable that Chris would fall for her. Chris had a weakness for strong women and Mary was as independent as they came. Their battle of wills was almost a thing of legend in this town.

Chris and Buck held each other's gaze for a long uncomfortable moment before Chris broke away first. "You're right." He said conceding the point. "She can take care of herself."

"Sure." Buck declared, still a little surprised Chris had given in so easily. Normally, Buck would be the one to break first.

"I'm going home." Chris let out a sigh of resignation. He picked up his book and slipped on the black duster draped across the chair near his table. "If anything turns up, you know where to find me."

"Sure." Buck repeated, still unsure of the game Chris was playing. Buck was still staring after Chris had disappeared through the front door.

It was about a full minute after the entire scene when Ezra spoke up. "I will wager $1 that Mrs. Travis will be returning to Four Corners prematurely."

JD looked at Ezra in confusion. "But he said..."

"I'm in for that bet." Nathan grinned.

"I'll raise you another." Buck said gloomily.

Almost an hour of riding and Mary felt better than she had in a long time.

It was truly a beautiful day and as the sun moved across the horizon, preparing to disappear beneath the mountain ranges in the distance, she knew it was going to be an equally beautiful night. Mary loved this country. Before Steven died and when Billy was visiting his grandparents, they would take evening rides like this to enjoy the sunset. It saddened her deeply he would never enjoy an amber sunset ever again nor would he ever know how she kept their dream of the paper very much alive.

The more distance she put between herself and Four Corners, the farther away Mrs. Travis seemed. Out here, in the rolling plains of the Territory, where man had yet to conquer or tame this rugged land, it was easy to find oneself. Homer moved at a lethargic pace and Mary saw no reason to hasten him forward. She was enjoying the time too much to force it along quickly.

Mary rode on into the evening, her mind lost in images of faraway places and a time long before her arrival at Four Corners. Memories of Boston flashed in her mind, interrupted occasionally when she needed to concentrate on riding, instead of daydreaming. She recalled sunny days like the one where the heat was not so merciless and there were tall elm trees overhead and carpets of lush green grass beneath her feet. It was sometimes difficult to acquaint herself with that fresh young girl with her parasol and fine linen, who dreamed of a more challenging existence. The irony of it brought a smile to Mary's face.

Mary could not deny she craved the excitement that came from living in Four Corners, despite its harsh realities. She was always at her best when there was a challenge to overcome and she was proud of what she accomplished in Four Corners. Mary had come to the West with her late husband out of mutual love of adventure. Life in Boston suited neither of them and they came to the Territory to build something they could be proud.

It would have been simpler to give in after his death and admit defeat, however Mary enjoyed her newfound independence once she stopped mourning for Steven. Still there were times, it was necessary for her to shed the responsibility she assumed to remember who she was. It was easy to become so lost in one's grand ambitions to forget the person dreaming it.

Suddenly, she heard the distant sound of hooves galloping over the hill. She pulled the reins and brought Homer to a halt, knowing that it was probably just another rider. Mary's curiosity got the better of her as she waited as the hoof beats came closer and closer. The rider at this point was just another speck in the distance and it was not until she saw the horse to be a black gelding did Mary start to have ugly suspicions.

No, it couldn't be.

With his black duster trailing behind him, Chris Larabee spotted the woman on horseback and immediately headed in her direction. As he neared, Mary seemed to be staring at him with a blank expression on her face. Her eyes were wide as she recognized him but narrowed the closer, he approached.

She did not say anything as his horse came towards her because she knew it would be jumping to conclusions if she naturally assumed, he came out here because of her. Chris often took trips out of town and there was no reason to think this was not one of those occasions. He said nothing until his horse had ambled next to hers and there were within touching distance of one another.

"Mr. Larabee." Mary said with a calm and measured voice, forcing herself to remember the advice she had just given herself about jumping to conclusions. "What brings you out here?"

"I heard you left town."

"Yes," she nodded. "I was going to Sweetwater for the evening."

She saw curiosity flash in his eyes, but it vanished almost instantly. "The Davis gang has been spotted in the area. I came to bring you back. You can go to Sweetwater tomorrow morning with an escort." His voice indicated he was not asking her permission.

Remember, benefit of the doubt, Mary told herself as the ire bubbled inside her. Perhaps he truly believed that there was some danger to her life. "I see." She responded struggling to maintain her composure. "I thought the Davis gang was in Mexico. The last letter I received from the Judge indicated that the gang was hiding out since a posse of federal men got on their trail."

"Better safe than sorry." He reached for the reins of her horse.

Mary did not stop him. "Could you tell me where you got this information?"

Chris did not meet her eyes and that told Mary a great deal. "Someone in the saloon."

"One of the men?" He knew she was referring to the seven, most likely Vin.

"No," he shook his head, wondering where she was going with this. She was unusually calm. In fact, he expected her to be furious, but she was quite pleasant. "Someone else."

"Who?" She asked sweetly.

"Just someone in the saloon." He replied, starting to see the storm that was bearing down on him from behind her eyes.

"In the saloon," she nodded. "He would not have been inebriated at the time, would he?" Her voice remained as smooth as silk, rivalling his own for intensity.

"A touch." Chris realized the storm was about to break. He kept a firm grip of the reins because he sensed the tone of the conversation was going to take a decidedly volatile turn. "We should get going."

"Let me understand this," she exhaled as she began speaking, her voice rising with each word she uttered. "You rode all the way out here to take me back on the word of a drunk?"

"We don't have time for this." He said abruptly. "It's going to be nightfall soon."

"WE'LL MAKE TIME." She fairly snarled and took the reins back again. This entire situation was unacceptable as it is, without him treating her like a child.

He almost jumped from the intensity of her anger. "No we won't. We're going back to town." With that he snatched the reins out of her hands and started leading Homer in the direction of Four Corners.

"I am going to Sweetwater, Mr. Larabee." She grabbed the reins with fire in her eyes. "I will see you when I get back."

"And I say you're not going." Chris insisted with just as much determination. "It ain't safe."

"The only one who is in any danger is YOU!" Mary shouted. With that, she dug her heels into Homer and sent the horse bolting forward at top speed.

Chris looked at her widening the distance between them and swore under his breath, before digging his spurs into his own horse and going after her in pursuit.

Chris was a much better rider than she was, and he was able to catch up with Mary in a matter of minutes. Sidling up next to Homer, Chris wrestled the reins away from Mary and forced the horse to follow his own animal as it changed direction away from Sweetwater to Four Corners.

"Chris, this isn't funny." She protested barely containing her fury as they continued back towards Four Corners.

"We're still going back."

"Who do you think you are treating me like this?" She demanded. "I'm a grown woman, capable of making my own decisions and taking care of myself. I have business in Sweetwater."

"I'm sure you have but it's nothing that can't wait until tomorrow morning, when it's safer for a woman to travel."

Mary felt her cheeks flush with indignation but with Chris firmly holding Homer's reins, there was little she could do. "Whether it is safe to travel or not is none of your business. For your information, I have plans in Sweetwater that cannot wait until tomorrow."

"With who?" He demanded with far more interest than he ought to be displaying.

"It's not your concern." She hissed vehemently. Suddenly, she had an inkling of what this was all about and knowing that just made his behavior more reprehensible. "Suffice to say, I cannot be late so if you don't mind, you'll let me get on my way."

His features hardened by the thought of letting her go to Sweetwater now. When had she been there in the last few weeks to meet anyone? As Chris stared at her intently, he racked his memory for some instance when someone could have appeared out of nowhere to justify a secret meeting in another town? The thought of Mary being with someone else created such a sick feeling in his stomach he could hardly breathe. How could she go off with someone else? Did she have no idea about how he felt? Logically however, Chris knew he had no right to expect any kind of consideration from her since he never actually told her how he felt.

But she ought to know!

"Who is he?" Chris asked quietly.

"No one you know." She bit back. It was not exactly a lie.

"If he were any kind of man, he wouldn't be expecting you at this hour."

"I think I am the one best to decide that." She said sharply. "Now will you please let me go?" Mary hoped the illusion of a phantom suitor would force Chris to let her be on her way. More than ever she needed the promise of room service and an evening to herself. After this, she was beyond angry. Her mind was actually turning numb from being so enraged.

Chris ignored the request. If he had lost her to another man, so be it but there was no way Chris was going to make it easy for his rival. "You can go to Sweetwater tomorrow. I'll have someone escort you."

"I do not want an escort!" Mary exclaimed, blood rushing to her cheeks until her face was almost crimson. "I want to go now!"

He said nothing and allowed her to rant at him for another few minutes. They had progressed far enough towards Four Corners for the town's lights to become myriad speckles in the distant dark. The sun had well and truly set now and with bitter disappointment, Mary knew he had won. Even if she rode at full gallop right this moment, she would not make it to Sweetwater to enjoy any of her plans. She was so angry at him she was almost to the point of tears, but stubbornness refused to give him that power over her. A thousand frustrated emotions stabbed at her and his flagrant violation of her personal liberties was beyond her ability to tolerate.

Why did he feel it so necessary to protect her? Even when she did not wish it? On some level, Mary knew he cared. She could see it in his eyes, and she would be lying to say she was not attracted to him. She was not blind, and he was terribly handsome, not to mention the fact he had the uncanny ability to say the right things when she needed to hear it.

Mary heard the rumors whispered about her relationship with Chris and for most part, she ignored it. On rare occasions, she could feel the fire of his shouldering passion looking straight through her with those impossibly blue-green eyes of his. During those moments, she would have been ready to fall into his arms if he would promise her anything.

But that did not give Chris the right to behave as he had now.

Nothing did.

The journey back to town was quiet. Mary had given up the idea of going to Sweetwater once the sun had set on the day. The cold silence between them after this point made even Chris uncomfortable. There was the dawning realization perhaps he had gone too far. As they reached the livery, Chris wished she would say something but each time he looked in her direction, she would give him an icy glare that made any apology seem pointless.

Besides her anger, Chris was engaged in thoughts about who her mysterious suitor had been. Judging from the small bag she had carried, she had not planned to stay long. Only one night. He wondered if she had intended to spend that night with the man. Images of soft caresses and her breath against someone else's skin chilled his blood. He glanced at her and saw her looking into the night, her eyes glistening with the barest hint of moisture and immediately felt it penetrate his heart more accurately than any bullet. Her disappointment only reinforced his belief there was someone else and she was heartbroken at not being able to meet with him in Sweetwater.

Once they reached the stables, Mary dismounted first and gave him a glare that would freeze water. She said nothing as she unpacked her bag and dropped it onto the dirt ground.

"I'll take care of the horses." He offered and was rewarded by a venomous look of fury before Mary picked up her bag and disappeared out the stable doors. He stared after her, telling himself he had done the right thing. It was too dangerous for her to go traipsing to Sweetwater so late in the day. She could have been hurt. This country was known for its violence, particularly to women. Chris knew he had been right to go after her and bring her back to Four Corners.

Yeah right.

She'd be mad at him for a few days and then get over it. She was too warm a person to be angry at anyone for too long. Besides, he remembered the number of times they'd argued, and she always seemed to be okay after a day or so. The wisest course of action at this moment would be to stay away from her until her anger had subsided.

He returned to the saloon in time to see money changing hands from Buck to Ezra. When he walked into the saloon, he noticed a number of guffaws being hastily stifled at his presence. None of the regulars met his gaze but there seemed to be something funny going on. Walking towards Buck and the others, he saw people turning away, unable to meet his gaze. While he was accustomed to people looking at him in fear, something about their manner now indicated this was an entirely different situation.

"You did it didn't you?" Buck looked at him critically. He seemed to be the only one of the seven who did not find something enormously funny. Even Vin and Josiah were attempting to control their amusement.

"What?" Chris said evasively and went to the bar. Automatically, Ezra handed him a bottle.

"You went and got her, didn't you?"

“It isn't safe for her to be out there on her own, after dark.”

Chris defended before pouring himself a shot glass of whisky and downed it with one toss of his head.

"I told you." Ezra grinned.

"Told him what?" Chris straightened up with a menacing gleam to his eyes.

"That you would be inclined to retrieve Mrs. Travis." Ezra replied. "Buck here didn't think you would."

Chris did not meet Buck's gaze, but he did feel somewhat foolish at being so predictable and his oldest friend appeared to be the only one who'd kept the faith.

"Uh oh." Vin said suddenly and the room felt silent. Chris looked over his shoulder and saw Mary standing at the door. She didn't normally come into the saloon but the look in her eyes spoke volumes regarding her state of mind. Chris decided if he was going to get yelled at, it was best to get it over and done with. Through the mirror on the back wall, Chris watched her march up to him, no doubt to begin her tirade of indignant rage.

"Mary...." he started to turn around to face her.

Without warning, she pulled back her fist and struck him square across the jaw. It was almost a road house swing, with enough force behind it for Chris to lose his footing and fall backwards, hitting the back of his head on the bar counter as he went down.

"Bastard." She swore in a most un-Mary tone he'd ever heard, before turning on her heels, satisfied she'd humiliated him enough to compensate for the embarrassment of being dragged back to town like an errant child.

Chris stared after her, so overcome with astonishment that he did not react for a few seconds. The rest of the seven and the patrons of the saloon were also gawking in similar shock. They seemed to be frozen in place, their eyes wide and their jaws agape. When he recovered, Chris jumped to his feet and hurried out the saloon, determined to have Mary explain herself.

Mary was half way across the street when he caught up with her.

"Mary!"

She stopped long enough to flash him a cold stare before continuing towards the Clarion.

"Look I know you're angry...."

"Angry!" She whirled around. Her eyes blazed in nothing less than pure outrage at his estimation of the situation. "I'm not angry, you SON OF A BITCH! I'm furious!"

Chris could only stare as she let out a string of words that embarrassed even him. The suspicion he perhaps crossed the line returned to him in the face of Mary's extreme reaction.

"Let's take this inside." He took her arm and started ushering her towards the Clarion.

"Don't touch me!" She yanked her arm out of his grip and slapped him across the face. "I can get there without you touching me!"

His cheek stung from the sharp blow and Chris started to feel his own controlled emotions beginning to erode as she stormed across the street and disappeared through the Clarion's front doors. Everyone on the street was watching the commotion with fascination. Chris glanced over his shoulder to see his ‘so-called friends' had emerged from the saloon to watch the spectacle.

"I don't think she wants to talk to you, Chris." Buck pointed out smugly.

He loved Chris like a brother, but the man had been way out of line today and it was time he took his medicine. Buck just never believed Mary Travis could administer it so well.

Chris gave Buck an icy glare before striding after Mary.

"Do you think we should step in?" Nathan asked slightly concerned about Mary's well-being. In all the years he had known Mary, he had never seen the respectable widow so enraged or passionate for that matter about any subject. Although she was magnificent in her fury, Nathan would not want to be on the receiving end of all that animosity.

"Not a chance." Vin said automatically. "I ain't getting in the crosshairs of that mess."

"Agreed," Ezra replied with a bemused smile. "Besides, Mr. Larabee is quite capable of taking care of himself and if not," he added with a widening smile. "Nathan has plenty of bandages."

Chris walked into the Clarion and barely missed being hit by a bottle of ink. It shattered on the wall next to him, creating an ugly blue stain as thick rivulets ran down the floor.

"Are you crazy?" He shouted, seeing a flounce of skirt disappearing up the hallway. "You could have taken out my eye!"

"I was aiming for your head!" Came the distancing cry of response.

Chris slammed the door loudly before following her into the parlor. When he got there, she had a fresh selection of projectiles to hurl at him. A plate came gliding towards him forcing Chris to drop to his knees to avoid it, before it crashed somewhere behind him. Cups, plates, and figurines followed it and just about anything Mary could get her hands on was flung at him.

Grasping the full measure of her fury, Chris weaved and dodged, feeling like the painted duck in a shooting gallery as she hurled so many objects at him, the sound of crashing clashed into one endless din. The floor became covered with the debris of broken objects and Chris wondered if it was all possible to reason with her. He started to think maybe he ought to leave and let her calm down.

"You're being childish!" He hollered and then winced, realizing it was the absolute worst thing to say to her at this moment.

"I am being childish?" She spat. "Me? I am not the one who behaved like an insufferable, thick-headed, arrogant, boorish...." She sputtered out words and decided throwing something else at him was definitely in order.

Her parlor was an unholy mess of broken porcelain and sharp fragments across the wooden floor. She turned around to pick up something else when Chris crossed the room before she was able to throw it. He grabbed her in a full body tackle, knocking them both onto the divan before she could hurl the delicate porcelain figure at him. Instead, it fell out of her hands and smashed against the floor.

"Get off me!" She shouted as he pinned her down with his weight against the cushioned upholstery.

"Not until you calm down!"

She dug her nails into his hair and yanked a fist full of blond strands, knocking his hat to the floor. Chris hissed in pain, grabbing her wrists to make her stop. Mary struggled harder and brought up her knee. She missed his groin by a fraction, but it caused enough pain for him to roll off her. She stood up shakily and started moving away from him.

Chris who was doubled over from her most recent blow, gripped her ankle and pulled back with more strength than he intended. Losing her balance, Mary hit the floor with a loud whack that made her see stars. Warm blood ran down her nose as she lay on her stomach.

"Mary?" Chris called out, suddenly afraid he might have hurt her. She was still on the floor looking dazed when Chris scrambled towards her. Her blond hair was completely freed over her shoulders and he winced at the thin line of red, oozing out her nose. When she saw him approach, Mary rolled onto her back and let him get close before she kicked out her foot and connected with his ankle, bringing him down with a heavy thud.

When she saw him hit the space beside her, Mary got on her hands and knees and started crawling away. Now angry, Chris didn't intend to let her escape and he lunged forward, ignoring his throbbing foot. Catching her by the waist, he yanked her back and pushed her to the floor. Pinning her down with her back against the wood, Chris straddled Mary and tried to make her listen to him.

"Take it easy!"

Somehow, she squirmed a hand free and struck him across the jaw but this time, Chris was ready for it. He shook it off easily and recovered enough to regain control of the hand before she could strike again, forcing her wrist against the wooden floor. Not to be defeated, Mary, seeing he was inches from her face, craned her neck enough to sink her teeth into the soft flesh of his throat.

"Bitch!" He swore, feeling blood but not letting go of her. She was squirming beneath him, furiously struggling to get free. The fury in her eyes was white hot as she used every ounce of strength in her body to dislodge him. Equally, Chris was using all his strength to keep her in place, trying to comprehend how the fuck they'd gotten here,

"Get off me." She demanded finally, frustrated at being forced to ask, like she'd needed permission to go to Sweetwater.

"No."

Staring into her face, watching the fury in her eyes, Chris thought Mary never looked more beautiful. Even though her golden hair was a tangled mess and there was blood running down her nose, he found her utterly mesmerizing. Her blue-grey eyes were fixed on him and her cheeks were flushed pink. Poised over her, he raked his eyes over the length of her body and felt a surge of hunger rush through him.

Mary started to feel anxious beneath his high-powered gaze, especially when the sensations generated by their close contact produced an unexpected sensation. Licking her lips nervously, the pleasant weight of him against her body didn't correspond with the anger she felt at this moment.

"Mr. Larabee." She tried to regain control of the situation. The dissipation of her rage returned some sense of propriety to her. Mary could not deny he was affecting her. She was still angry at what he had done but the fire of her rage had all but disappeared, replaced by an even more volatile and perilous mix.

They'd crossed swords for the last year, danced around each other, even exchanged a kiss and it was plain to everyone, even him, there was something between them. Chris knew it. He'd fought it hard because acceptance meant letting go of Sarah. But Sarah was years gone and clinging to her when Mary was so close, had become painful. When he thought she'd gone to Sweetwater to meet someone else, the possibility he'd let her slip through his fingers, sent real fear through him for the first time.

Refusing to let fear dictate his actions any further, Chris shook off his doubts and covered Mary's lips with a hard, bruising kiss. He felt her struggle briefly, mostly out of surprise before the need to break free waned and with a breathless sigh into his mouth, she parted her lips for him, inviting him in. With a growl, he dove in once permission was given. Chris forced his tongue past her inviting lips, exploring her mouth with animal intensity.

Mary could hardly breathe. She felt his lips over hers and knew in an instant she had always wanted him. Her body reacted with far more efficiency than her astonished mind was capable. Without being remotely conscious of it, Mary arched against him, needing to feel the taut muscle against her. When he let go of her wrists, Mary wrapped her arms across his strong back, and drew him closer.

God, he never thought, never imagined for one moment, she could feel so good.

There were nights when his dreams were plagued with what it would be like to make love to her. Sometimes, he'd lain awake in his bed, imagining how she would feel beneath him. Chris had fallen asleep on fantasies of how breathlessly Mary would call out his name the first time they came together. Until now, Chris hadn't realized how shallow those visions had been in comparison to reality.

God, the pleasure of it.

It had been so long, so very long since he felt anything while making love to a woman. All those times spent with working girls where he felt little more than a need satisfied or hunger satiated. Nothing more nothing less. He had not given himself over to anyone since Sarah died and when he did it always felt obligatory. All that time wasted on meaningless paid encounters, searching to feel something when here was Mary. Mary who touched him from the moment he saw her facing those Texans alone.

Since that day, she aimed sunshine into his despairing soul with no idea of the salvation she brought with her breezy smile.

Now they were meeting in the flesh and the mutual surrender took them each of them farther and farther away from all the sorrows of the past. He was not a sentimental man by any means, but he knew without doubt, he loved her. It had taken time to be fully realized but it was here now, and he could not deny it.

When it was over, Chris relished Mary's satisfied sigh and wanted to hold her close forever. He wanted to look into her eyes and empty his head of every thought he held back from her since the day they met. As he took in the sight of her, her skin flushed and her golden hair disheveled, he thought she never looked lovelier. Yet in all that, he also saw her anxiety.

What had taken place between them was overwhelming and he wanted her to know he understood. This thing between them was no fleeting dalliance and Chris was determined to make sure she never regretted the decision to be with him in this way.

"Mary…." Chris tried to speak, wondering what words could adequately express how he felt. In all his fantasies, he never imagined their first time together would resemble anything like this. He only regretted it wasn't done with a little more finesse.

"Chris! Mrs. Travis? Are you alright?" They heard the familiar voice of Buck Wilmington call out from the front of the building.

Chris and Mary shot each other a panicked look, both of them struck with the same thought. In the mad scramble that followed, what transpired between them was shunted aside in the desperate attempt to conceal it. Mary brushed down her skirt and hastily buttoned her dress, hoping she did not appear as guilty as she looked. Although guilty was rather a strong word. She had no regrets over what happened between them, but she had no wish to explain it to Buck Wilmington.

By the time they heard Buck stepping through the front door to investigate, Chris and Mary were properly attired. As much as two people who just spent the last half hour raising hell and then coming to peace in a most novel approach could be.

"We're in here Mr. Wilmington." Mary replied with as much poise as she could muster. She could still smell Chris' scent on her skin and her legs still ached from their delicious interlude. For most part she conducted herself quite convincingly as the prim and proper community pillar they all knew.

In the meantime, Chris had fastened his gun belt in its proper position, and the middle buttons of his duster were done up to cover his untucked shirt. With the brim pulled down low, the shadows cast by the hat on his head hid much of his face.

Buck walked in gingerly, seeing the damage leading to the parlor. Behind him, Nathan followed just as quietly, taking note of the destruction with less calm than Buck. Consciously he knew Chris would never hurt Mary but then again Mary had been pretty ornery herself. Rage like that had a tendency to bring out the worst in people.

Buck surveyed the parlor upon entry, seeing Mary's face tinged with... was it embarrassment? However, that observation gave way to the smear of blood running down her nose and the bloody marks on Chris's neck. Hell, it was a good thing he arrived or else they would have torn each other a part. The room looked as if someone had picked it up and shaken it like a rattle. There were broken pieces of porcelain and glass everywhere.

"Mrs. Travis," Nathan said alarmed at the sight of blood. "Are you okay? You're bleeding."

Instinctively, Mary reached for her nose and wiped the dried blood away. "I'm fine. I lost my footing."

It was mostly true.

Nathan didn't seem satisfied with that answer and he turned a critical look at Chris. "What about you?" He asked, taking note of the blood on Chris's neck.

"Just a scratch," Chris replied giving Mary a look. Something past between their eyes at that moment and Buck could have sworn he saw the faintest hint of a smile on Chris's face. Mary too appeared just as determined to hide the upturned corner of her lips.

"Is everything okay now?" Buck was completely puzzled. He was somewhat taken back by how civilized the room had suddenly become. Judging by the way they were looking at each other, they must have come to some kind of apology but the dynamics of it were beyond his understanding. Then again, Chris Larabee and Mary Travis were a strange pair. It was probably why they seemed so right for each other.

"Certainly Mr. Wilmington," Mary said pleasantly. "Whatever gave you the idea that it wasn't?"

Buck let out an exasperated sigh and gestured to the room. "Well ma'am, if you don't mind me saying, I've seen bar room brawls that turned out better than this place."

"Mr. Larabee and I were having an altercation." She confessed, struggling to keep this explanation somewhere in the realm of possibility. She really hated that Chris was not helping. He merely stood leaning against the wall, letting her deal with his inquisitive friends. "Which has now been resolved. I thank you for your concern but if you don't mind, I have some cleaning up to do.”

"You sure Mrs. Travis?" Nathan inquired further, feeling as if they had walked in on the last act of a play and had no idea what was going on.

"Absolutely," Mary smiled. "Gentlemen?" She walked forward, careful not to step on any broken pieces as she navigated the room to usher Buck and Nathan out.

"Chris, you coming?" Buck looked at Chris.

Mary turned to see Chris faltering for the first time. She could tell he wanted to remain because she remembered the look in his eyes after their lovemaking. Chris was ready to tell her something when Buck had made his unexpected arrival. She looked at him, facing away from the others so that only he could see her eyes. Mary gave him a warm smile and her eyes told him she understood. It could wait until tomorrow.

Chris gave her a long look before that indifferent expression on his face fell into place once more. "Yeah," he said quietly. "I'm coming."

"Damn Chris," Buck said as they left the Clarion behind them. "What the hell happened? Did you hit her?" Judging from the dark expression on Buck's face, it seemed as if he really believed Chris might have caused the injury to Mary's nose.

"No," Chris said feeling a hint of annoyance Buck could even suggest such a thing. "She slipped on some of the stuff she was throwing at me. She was pretty mad, remember?"

Buck did in fact and shed the thought completely at that point. Considering the temper Mary Travis displayed so spectacularly tonight, had Chris raised a hand to her, Buck had no doubt she would have shot him with that huge double barrel she kept in the office.

"So you apologized." Nathan ventured a guess.

"Something like that." He answered vaguely, appearing even more impassive than ever. “I wonder if the restaurant is still open,” he mused as they approached the saloon doors. “I could use something to eat.”

Buck and Nathan froze in their steps as they stared at Chris who rarely liked to mix alcohol with food. Both men looked after their friend as he disappeared through the doors of the saloon and then glanced over their shoulders to the light in the Clarion's window. They looked at each other for a moment and then pulled back dismissing the thought completely.

Buck and Nathan stared at each other and declared in unison. "Nah....."

Mary slipped into the tub, enjoying the luxuriant feel of soapy water against her skin. She let the warm water caress her body and felt strangely contented. As she replayed the events of the day, she wondered what tomorrow would bring.

Strangely enough, leaving the mess downstairs would have normally been impossible for Mary Travis. She was too ordered and meticulous to leave anything undone. However after what happened with Chris downstairs, everything seemed inconsequential, the wreckage, the argument and even what everyone would think if she and Chris were found out. No, the only thing that really mattered was the moment of communion they'd shared when they'd finally surrendered to each other.

That was perfect.

Tomorrow, she would deal with their relationship and the future of it. It had taken her a long time to accept Steven's death and to build a future for herself. It had even taken longer to realize she could go on without him and Mary had become used to being independent. At this moment, she was not entirely sure she was ready to give it all up for Chris Larabee just yet.

Still, she thought with a smile belonging to the cat who ate the canary; he sure beats room service.

Mary Travis woke up that morning and felt strangely refreshed.

Without even remembering why, she padded down the stairs, looking forward to the day, the events of last night still an obscured fog in her head not yet put into proper place by her memories. Dressed in nothing but a sheer nightgown, she made her way to the kitchen, feeling ravenous but extremely invigorated. It was only when she happened past her parlor, Mary froze, and it came tumbling back to her with every delicious detail intact.

Oh that.

Mary paused at the entry to the room, staring in silent contemplation at the destruction wrought within its confines the night before. The floor was still covered in broken pieces of porcelain and some furniture had been knocked over. The room was a frightful sight indeed and she wondered how many irreplaceable pieces had been shattered during the rage of last night's events. Nevertheless, she felt no mortification at the damage, not when she looked at the place where she and Chris had made love.

Mary leaned against the doorway, twisting a lock of gold hair in her fingers as the images flashed through her mind, bringing a smile to her lips. She glided to the kitchen, going through the motions of breakfast, savouring the sensual memories he left her with the night before. Although Chris had departed early, she didn't really blame him since he hadn't much a choice with the unexpected arrival of Buck Wilmington and Nathan Jackson. How could he explain why he wanted to remain?

No, Mary wasn't angry with him. Disappointed perhaps, but not angry.

It was a big step for him; she understood that much. For three years, he lived with the grief of a family lost and the guilt that came with not dying with them. Mary had seen him crawl inside a bottle from the sheer ache of that loss and for a man used to being in complete control of everything, it was a hard thing to overcome. Mary, who was not given that advantage until after Steven died, could empathize with his pain even if she could not fully understand it.

Strangely enough, things were clearer this morning than they'd ever been. Suddenly, the future had taken an unexpected turn and nothing in her life was a certainty any more. For once, there was no set path to follow. What happened from here on would be a surprise and Mary felt quite comfortable with that.

Nursing a brisk cup of tea over a breakfast of hot cakes, Mary was in no particular mood to get the day started. Her workload had not changed since yesterday, and she'd taken care of all pending matters just before she made her decision to go to Sweetwater.

She peered out the window and saw that it was still early. Mary was an early riser and the sun was not long in the sky. Four Corners had yet to emerge from its slumber as the streets outside were unstirred and quiet. Mary wondered if Chris stayed in town or had he gone home to his shack. It was hard to imagine Chris Larabee liking any town long enough to settle down, let alone buy property.

Buying property in Four Corners was a tremendous step for him. Mary knew that.

Last night's activities might have been more of a watershed for him than it was for her. Women were more resilient about such things while men tended to hide their confusion under a veil of masculine self-assurance. She had seen men who braved bullets and fought bare-knuckled with little fear of injury or death. However put a situation before them where they might have to confront their emotional side and you never saw a bigger bunch of cowards. She wondered if Chris felt that kind of fear.

While she felt no fear or reservation about her feelings for him, Mary wondered if it would be wise to pull back a little. After all, here was a man who had difficulty expressing his feelings unless the woman in his life was willing to punch his lights out first and demolish her parlor in the process. Mary wanted him in her life, but she didn't wish to overwhelm him with too much too soon. Besides, Mary had grown accustomed to her independence and Chris's future in her life was vague at this point.

Perhaps, she needed some time herself as well.

Maybe she would take that trip to Sweetwater after all. A little shopping, maybe a new dress and some quality time alone would not go astray at the moment. While she no longer felt the pressing need for room service, Mary did not mind losing herself in trivial pursuits. At least, this time she would make it half way to Sweetwater without Chris dragging her back to town like an errant schoolgirl. Shaking her head, Mary couldn't imagine what the gossips would do with their exchange in the saloon last night.

Let them talk, Mary thought rebelliously as she went to get dressed.

She was going shopping.

Chris Larabee slept in.

This was hardly unusual for him since most days he rarely woke before noon. For once however, his reason for sleeping in had nothing to do with being completely smashed on bottles of whiskey the night before. Despite the fact it was habit for him to crawl to bed in a drunken stupor, Chris remained sober when he entered the room he rented above the saloon for the night. Unfortunately, sleep did not come easily to a man preoccupied with thoughts of creamy skin and white gold hair.

As the night progressed, sleep refused to come. Chris found himself spending most of the time tossing and turning in his bed, trying to get some control over the emotions that were threatening to drive him insane. It was just impossible to sleep when his mind was filled with Mary.

Her touch was still vivid in his mind and each memory of their love making only made it harder for Chris to sleep. The more he tried not to think of her, the more he could taste her on his lips and hear her soft cries as he touched her. By the time Chris buried his head under a mountain of pillows, he was so aroused he could barely think. He had not felt this ridiculous since he was sixteen and he didn't intend to satisfy himself as he'd done back then.

The indignity of that was even too much for him.

At one point, he had been tempted to go over to the Clarion and pound on her door until she let him in. He imagined Mary standing by the door in a sheer nightdress with her golden hair splayed against her bare skin and found himself in an even worse state than before. It was approximately three o'clock in the morning when he decided to get a bath. A cold one.

Fortunately, by that time, the saloon was empty and the seven had disbanded for the evening. A bath, as much as he wanted one, was impossible at this time of night so he had to settle for standing underneath the water pump behind the saloon. He let the cold water rinse over his skin already wet with perspiration, all the while telling himself he was not going to the Clarion to wake Mary up at this hour. As much as he wanted her, he was not going to be so presumptuous as to think that she would appreciate the intrusion just because he could not control his baser instincts.

He returned to his room and was once again plagued with the same desires once he lay down on the pillow. Chris still had difficulty coming to grips with the fact the moment of complete surrender between them had taken place on the floor of her parlor, on top of broken porcelain and shattered figurines. How they had not cut themselves to pieces was a minor miracle.

Who would have imagined under that prim and proper exterior of high-buttoned dresses and conservatively worn hair was such an exciting creature? Chris had suspected it. He had seen sparks of it surface occasionally in her blue-grey eyes but never realized it existed with such intensity behind that seemingly modest facade. In every sense of the word, Mary Travis was a lady, but she was also a beautiful, sensuous woman who was willing to love him when the moment was right.

When Chris finally slept, he was grateful for the black sleep devoid of dreams. After the night, he simply did not have the energy to cope with his feelings for Mary inside the dreamscape as well. It would have been simpler if he had just returned home and spent the night there. However, when Buck and Nathan had unwittingly walked in on them, they had been forced to leave a great many things unsaid. Part of his insomnia could be contributed to his guilt at knowing he had made love to this woman and then left her without so much as a word about his feelings.

Women like Mary Travis did not give their affections easily and they certainly did not share their bed with anyone who was not their husband. That she had allowed him to make love to her was a testament of her trust in him and Chris did not intend to betray that faith. He wanted her to know this was not just another meaningless encounter, although he suspected Mary was aware of this already.

Still, telling her was the proper thing to do.

When Chris awoke and learnt what time it was, he cursed himself. He had not meant to leave speaking to Mary so late. The restless night's sleep taunted him with aching joints and lethargic limbs. He staggered out of bed and got dressed quickly, hoping she would not be too upset with him. After seeing just how spectacular her temper was when she was properly infuriated, Chris had no wish to be on the receiving end of any further hostility.

The saloon was relatively empty at this time of morning. Most of the drinking crowd would not arrive until late afternoon. For the majority of Four Corners residents, today was a working day and drinking could wait until the sun started to set slightly.

As always, Ezra was holding court at one of the tables, hustling those fool enough to play poker with him out of what money they had. Buck and Vin were present, staring at the breakfast they had been forced to prepare themselves with apprehension while Inez was away. By the looks on their faces, it appeared they were missing the culinary expertise of the Senorita very much about now.

"Hey Chris." Buck greeted, teasing the burned egg on the plate with obvious reluctance to eat it.

"Morning Buck, Vin." Although he did not greet Ezra, Chris nodded in the man's direction. He could smell hot coffee brewing and noticed the pot on the counter. As Chris made for it, he hoped it was in better shape than their breakfast. Pouring himself a cup, he was pleased to see that it was still hot although as coffee went, he had tasted better. Nevertheless, the beverage did its job in dispelling any lingering effects of his bad night.

"You recovered from last night?" Buck could not resist teasing.

Chris's dispute with Mary Travis was the subject of much discussion following the event, particularly among the seven. No one had ever seen the widow so angry and there were not many people who could take a shot at Chris Larabee without ending up dead or worse. If anything, Mary had proved to most of Four Corners last night, she was capable of giving as good as she got.

Chris gave him a dirty look, but Buck was not to be deterred. Vin said nothing as always, but Chris detected the faintest trace of a smile on the tracker's lips. Ezra ever the consummate actor, remained completely focused on his card game without raising an eyelid in response.

"She was calm when you left?" Vin remarked having heard the story from Buck and Nathan.

"Pretty much," Chris said quietly, having no intention of letting any of them in on what truly happened between him and Mary.

"I never seen her that angry." Buck sighed, pushing the plate away and turning to face his companions. "Didn't know she was that much of a spitfire.”

"That's one way of putting it." Chris remarked with a little smile. Instinctively, he reached for his jaw even though the effects of her blow disappeared long ago. What he remembered most about the evening was not a tale he would be relating to his friends.

"Whatever you said must have smoothed her feathers," Buck replied reaching for the coffee pot instead. "I saw her riding out of town this morning, looking as pretty as a picture."

Chris turned to him sharply. "Out of town?"

"Yeah." Buck nodded, immediately detecting the sudden surge of tension in Chris's voice. "She was on that buggy of hers."

Although the others did not notice his fingers tightening around the cup with such force that his knuckles were white, they did notice the menacing gleam that suddenly appeared in his eyes.

"She's gone to Sweetwater." His voice was as neutral as always but that didn't mean anything when it came to Chris Larabee.

"I think she was heading in that direction." Buck replied, becoming more confused by Chris's stormy expression. Even Vin was puzzled, wondering what on earth Buck could have said to warrant the dark mood suddenly appearing on the gunslinger's face.

"I see." Chris said barely managing to control his anger. "Fine." He rose from the bar stool. "She wants to go to Sweetwater, I can live with that. I don't got no claim on Mrs. Travis." With that he strode out the saloon without saying another word.

Buck, Vin and Ezra looked at each other. It took them another second before Buck let out a weary sigh. It was almost like a sixth sense he had about Chris. The gunslinger could be so damn predictable at times. He started rubbing the ridge of his nose before looking at Vin.

"You feel like going to Sweetwater?"

Vin who was almost as unreadable as Chris sometimes, nodded in response. He had seen the look in Chris's eyes as well and like Buck had the same notion about what Chris was about to do. "Maybe we can get a decent breakfast up there."

"Breakfast hell," Buck shook his head as he jumped off his stool and strode out of the saloon. "She only hit him last time. This time she'll kill him!"

"Good luck gentlemen," Ezra bid them adieu as Vin followed Buck out of the bar. The gambler had no intention of becoming embroiled in this affair. He doubted Chris would appreciate the interference.

Besides if things went as badly as Ezra suspected they would, someone had to deliver the eulogy.

He could not believe it.

Chris made his way to the livery hardly aware of anything other than the fact that despite everything they shared last night, Mary had still gone to Sweetwater. Undoubtedly to keep the meeting she had missed because of him. Chris was tempted to get on his horse and ride out of Four Corners forever without looking back.

What need did he have of Mary Travis anyway? He required no one and had been doing quite well on his own for the past three years. What need did he have of some headstrong, independent, stubborn woman who did not have an ounce of loyalty in her entire body! As he thought that, his mind involuntarily added, her soft, sensual body.

Stop it! Chris told himself forcefully and focused on the issue at hand. Why was he opening himself to fresh pain by allowing Mary into his system? He had been reasonably content without her presence in his life. If anything, she had only served to complicate his existence not simplify it. Last night, Chris was ready to believe there was one person in the world who could ease the empty ache inside his soul where Sarah and Adam had been.

Now, the hurt was even worse.

As he stood there in the livery, preparing his horse to leave Four Corners, perhaps forever, Chris noticed his fingers fumbled as he handled the straps of the saddle. It almost felt as if they were resisting his will for a purpose of their own and invariably his mind drifted to Mary, who was no doubt in Sweetwater now, with someone else.

The realization made his stomach hollow as if someone had put a bullet through him. After being trapped for so long in an emotional void, the pain she wrought with her betrayal was unbelievable. He could barely think of anything except this sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach she might be with someone else. Chris paused a moment, allowing himself to catch his breath, crushing the images of her from his mind with ruthless efficiency.

It could have almost worked if Chris could deny the extent of his feelings for her. Inwardly, he had always known if he and Mary became involved, it was a relationship from which he could never turn away. It was part of the reason why he stayed away from her for so long. After losing Sarah and Adam, the fear of exposing himself to that kind of hurt was almost as terrifying as feeling it. Chris fought how he felt. For a time he refused to even acknowledge it, but it was a losing battle almost from the beginning.

With a sudden start, Chris realized he could not let her go, not even now. He was unprepared to be hounded by dreams of her the rest of his life. He was not going to live his life trying to replace Mary with an endless string of working girls as he had done when the wounds of Sarah's loss were still fresh. What they had shared the night before was real, he refused to believe anything else.

Whoever this person was in Sweetwater, he had no right to Mary. If Chris had to go to Sweetwater to prove it, then he was going.

"Chris." He looked up to see Vin and Buck approaching through the livery doors.

"Buck?" Chris greeted, somewhat puzzled by their presence. For some reason, Buck seemed worried and although Vin did not show it, Chris sensed he was concerned as well. "What's happened?"

"We can't let you go to Sweetwater." Buck dispelled any illusions as to their intention in Chris's mind.

"You know how Mrs. Travis was last night. I know you feel for her but if you go riding in there after her, she'll horsewhip you for sure."

"To say the least." Vin added with uncharacteristic solidarity at Buck's side.

"This ain't none of your business." Chris turned away from both of them, reminding himself they were only trying to be helpful and ignoring the annoyance that was creeping into his disposition.

"You're my friend and that makes it my business." Buck said following him. Buck Wilmington did not like to interfere with Chris Larabee's business since he tended to react with extreme prejudice. In fact, it was rather like poking a stick at a rattlesnake. Then again, Buck did not want a repeat of that ugly scene between Chris and Mrs. Travis either.

"I am going to Sweetwater," Chris said firmly with enough menace in his voice to send lesser men scurrying except neither Vin nor Buck could be considered that.

"Then we'll go with you," Buck stated.

"No, you won't," Chris warned, wondering what the hell was running through Buck's head. Usually, his friend's interest did not extend beyond the next good-looking woman that caught his eye. What had made him Buck Wilmington's favorite charity all of a sudden?

"Don't argue with me on this," Buck said with enough determination in his voice to ensure Chris did not doubt for a moment he was absolutely serious. "You go alone, and we'll follow you."

Chris let out an impatient sigh of frustration. He did not have time to deal with this. He had to get to Sweetwater fast before Mary did something, they would both regrets. "I don't have time to deal with you two. Now you are not following me to Sweetwater. This ain't none of your business."

"You ain't going by yourself." Buck said holding firm. He tried not to be swayed by Chris's nearly murderous glare, but this was too important. "Damn it Chris, do you want a repeat of what happened yesterday?"

"Of course not." Chris returned sharply. "But this time it's different, we…" Chris caught himself before he said anymore.

His relationship with Mary was no one's business but his own nor did he have time to waste arguing with them. Time was becoming short. He needed to have this out with Mary, or he was going to go crazy or shoot someone first.

"Fine. Do what you want."

Completely unaware of the storm that was coming in her direction, Mary enjoyed her day in Sweetwater. She browsed the shops of the large town, becoming lost in the throng of women shoppers. Being one of the largest settlements in the Territory, it drew a lot of commerce to its locality. Although Eagle Bend was closer and Mary knew the town from her frequent trips to replenish paper supplies and other printing materials for the Clarion, Sweetwater offered more variety.

There were rows of shops selling all manner of things from haberdashery to fine linen. Mary knew of a few dress shops that actually imported European fashions but the prices for these were so out of her league, she decided not to torture herself. In truth, Mary preferred cotton to taffeta anyway. It was one thing to be well dressed in the city but an entirely different matter to be so in a small town. Besides, the local climate made taffeta insufferable and Mary rather liked the cool of cotton and silk against her skin.

The time to herself was exactly what she needed. Although some would not believe anyone could clear their head being bombarded by shop assistants and dressers, Mary managed to come to several conclusions about her relationship with Chris. She valued her independence, like being able to up and go to Sweetwater at a moment's notice like this, something she did not want to lose. While Chris was somewhat overprotective, she couldn't imagine he'd tried imposing restrictions on her lifestyle if they should form any attachment.

Still, a part of her had felt a little flattered he'd ridden out all the way from Four Corners to find her because he was so worried about her. Mary made a mental note to tell him why she was making the trip yesterday since she knew she'd teased him with the possibility she was meeting some man here. His expression had been priceless, and Mary wondered what was in his head to even consider such a thing.

Perhaps she would buy him something to make up for the ruse. A new shirt came to mind, preferably something not black.

Oh good lord woman, you're picking out his clothes?

Mary shook the thought out of her head when she stopped at Sweetwater's hotel for lunch. The restaurant was all fine tablecloth and polished cutlery. Seeing the extravagance of the hotel's decor and furnishings around her made her yearn for that big bathtub with the claw legs, not to mention the excellent room service the hotel was known to have. However, Mary brushed all these considerations aside because she knew she had to get back to Four Corners.

She and Chris had unfinished business.

After lunch, Mary went to the local Emporium where she treated herself to a new dress and some linen. The dress was sapphire blue with an elegant scoop neck. It had taken some convincing by the shop assistant for Mary to buy the thing because she could not even imagine what occasion would warrant a dress like this. It was the dress for courting, the shop assistant had claimed, and Mary almost laughed out loud at the image of Chris presenting her with flowers, with the intention of wooing her.

By mid-afternoon Mary decided that it was time to head home. She certainly did not want to travel in the dark, even if it seemed unlikely that the Davis gang was at large in the area. Generally, she had enjoyed her day in Sweetwater. She had bought the dress she intended, a new nightgown and some perfume. Carrying an armful of parcels tied with string, Mary made her way to the livery where Homer was stabled for the day.

"Mary?" She heard a voice call her name.

Mary peered over the parcels she was carrying and immediately recognized a familiar face standing before her. The sight of the young man immediately plunged her into memories of her life when Steven was still very much a part of it. Although he looked different from when she remembered him, Mary was still able to recognize the man through his dark tweed suit and bowler hat. The hat reminded her of the one worn by JD Dunne. He stared at her through a pair of steel-rimmed glasses that hid his hazel eyes.

"John?" Mary said with a smile of genuine happiness. "I didn't know you lived in Sweetwater."

"We moved from Eagle Bend a few years ago." He replied just as happily. He noticed the packages she was carrying and immediately stepped forward to assist. "Let me help you with those." He offered and took some of the boxes from her. At least she could now speak to him without being forced to talk over her parcels. Once he had nestled the packages comfortably in his arms, Mary's old acquaintance fell into stride with her as she continued through town towards the livery.

"Thank you," Mary said gratefully. "As you can see, I've been busy today."

"Sweetwater's good for that." John agreed. "Beth always says this town is an oasis in the wilderness."

Perhaps a little grandiose for Mary's own taste but Beth often leaned towards flowery language.

"How is Beth?"

"Beth is terrific. Moving out of Four Corners really agreed with her."

"I'm glad," Mary remembered Beth's fragile constitution. She had never really been accustomed to the harsh frontier existence and viewed Four Corners to be a little more than a notch above the wilderness.

"Mary," John said suddenly serious. "I was terribly sorry to hear about Steven. He was a good man." His face showed his sympathy.

"Thank you,” she said gratefully, the momentary wave of sadness that overtook her during these occasions was dispelled quickly, proving to Mary she had recovered nicely from Steven's passing.

"Do you still have the paper?" John asked, choosing to move past what seemed to be an awkward moment of silence.

"Yes, I decided to keep it. It didn't seem right letting it go to someone else. The Clarion always meant so much to Steven and I wasn't ready to give it up."

"If anyone can make it work, I'm sure it was you. I learnt everything I knew about the paper business from you and Steven. I work at the Sweetwater Times now." John announced proudly.

John Wentworth and his family had been residents of Four Corners when Steven and Mary Travis first arrived in the frontier. The Wentworth's owned a small parcel of land outside town. Had they remained, they would now have been neighbors with Chris Larabee. John's father was a man of the land for most of his life, but John was ill-suited to follow in his footsteps. Possessing a love for books, John wanted to write and Steven who was never one to discourage anyone from following their dreams, offered the young man a job at the paper.

Although never happy at his son's choices, Jason Wentworth did nothing to stop John from learning the newspaper business. When the old man passed away, there seemed little reason to keep the farm and eventually, John Wentworth moved on.

"Well John," Mary said genuinely happy that he had not wasted the opportunity Steven had provided him. "I'm proud of you."

The younger man smiled, trying not to show her remark had affected him. "How is Billy? I'll bet he's growing like a weed."

"You have no idea," Mary laughed, picturing her son the last time she saw him. Billy looked more like Steven than ever. In the wake of all the events changing her life in the past 24 hours, Mary had almost forgotten how her relationship with Chris would affect her son. She made a mental note to write Billy a letter when she got home tonight.

Suddenly out of nowhere, Mary found Chris standing right in front of her.

"Chris!" Mary exclaimed. Although surprised to see him, she could not deny the pleasant flutter in her chest at his presence.

Unfortunately, before she could say a word, he threw his fist into John's face.

The trip to Sweetwater was anything but pleasant.

Chris made it extremely obvious that he did not wish either man's company as he said virtually nothing throughout the entire journey. The silence among the three normally close comrades was almost stifling and further convinced Buck, he and Vin made the correct decision in following Chris to Sweetwater.

Something was making Chris crazy, this much Buck deduced. Although he showed no outwards signs that anything was wrong, Buck Wilmington knew better. Very few people could see through the wall Chris built around his emotions, even before Sarah died. She was perhaps the only other person besides Buck and Vin who could read Chris's moods.

And perhaps Mary Travis.

There was no doubt in Buck's mind that Chris was in love with Mary. There were not many women who were attracted to Chris's brooding and somber nature. Women tended to view him with a mixture of apprehension and outright fear. However, Mary was neither afraid nor intimidated by Chris. She stood up to him the way no one did, even members of the seven.

"Chris," Buck said as they reached the outskirts of Sweetwater some hours later. "What is this all about?" Buck's patience was a well run dry by this point. He was amazed Vin was able to handle the silence. Then again, getting a conversation out of the young tracker was almost as laborious as getting Chris to talk when he was in one of his black moods.

"None of your damn business." Chris said not bothering to hide the annoyance in his voice. He did not appreciate Buck and Vin forcing their company on him like this. His business with Mary was private and he had not wished to conduct it in front of an audience.

"Come on Chris!" Buck shouted with uncharacteristic vehemence. Chris turned to him with mild surprise and even Vin was looking at him with a raised brow. "You can't go after her and drag her off like you own her! You ain't got the right to treat her that way."

"That is not your concern." Chris glared at him. "Mary and I have things to discuss."

"Like you did last night?" Buck turned an accusing eye at him. "You spilled blood! I am surprised you two didn't kill each other! Now you're charging to Sweetwater, carrying on like you're fixing for a fight!"

"I am not fixing for a fight," Chris growled. "Mary and I are just going to talk."

"Like hell you are!" Buck declared, not fooled for a minute. "This is Buck, Chris. I know you and I know what you're like when you got something in your head! She's my friend too and I won't have you treat her the way you've been. You were way out of line yesterday and you are way out of line now!"

"Stick your nose out of my business Buck," Chris warned with enough of an edge in his voice to make it a threat. "I warned you before about that."

That just about did it for Vin Tanner.

"All right cut it out the both of you!” Vin cut through their bickering with a tone of command making both of them fall silent immediately.

It was not often Vin cared enough to voice his opinion on anything, but things had deteriorated so badly he actually feared irreparable damage to the long-standing friendship between Buck and Chris. Obviously, something had transpired between Chris and the widow that was making the normally level-headed leader of the seven insane. However, that was his own business.

"Okay," Vin said firmly, now that he had their undivided attention. "Chris, you go find Mary and do what you gotta, just remember she ain't your wife and you don't got no right to intrude on her. Right?”

Chris made a non-committal grunt.

"Buck," Vin turned to the big man. "You and I are gonna find the nearest saloon and get something to eat and that is all."

“Yeah alright,” Buck grumbled conceding defeat.

Vin looked at Chris. "Is that okay with you?"

"Yeah," Chris let out a sigh. "That will do fine."

Actually, Chris wished neither Buck nor Vin were anywhere in the vicinity of Sweetwater but at this point, he had to take what concessions he could get. Chris would have enough difficulty dealing with his rival for Mary's hand, whoever he might be. However both Vin and Buck were right in fearing his temper in this situation. His feelings for Mary were so potent Chris's normally sound judgement was all but discarded.

As they approached Sweetwater, Chris promised himself that when he saw her, he would talk and nothing else.

Just talk.

"CHRIS LARABEE! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" Mary exclaimed as she saw blood gushing out of John's nose.

Chris did not answer her. Instead, he strode past the scattered packages and dragged the confused man to his feet. John was dazed and uncertain of what was happening, his glasses had fallen from his face and he had difficulty seeing anything in front of him. People started to gather around at the commotion as Mary stared mutely at the proceedings, unable to fathom what was occurring before her. However the moment she saw John's blood smeared across his face, Mary was prompted into action. Dropping the parcels, Mary ran forward to grab Chris's arm to force him to let John go.

"This is the man you're meeting?" Chris turned an accusatory eye at her. "He's just a kid!"

For a moment, Mary was at a loss to understand what he was talking about until the realization dawned on her. For a moment, she could only stare at him in astonishment because he really wasn't joking. Caught between anger and exasperation, she forced away both when she saw the menacing gleam in Chris's eyes as he turned his attention back to John. Knowing what the man was capable of when he was on a tear, Mary stepped in before he did anything worse.

"LET HIM GO!" Mary demanded with barely concealed fury.

Chris turned to her and Mary saw the flash of pain in his eyes. It vanished almost immediately before that detached wall over his emotions descended. Mary was dismayed by its appearance because she knew he was hurt but he was so terribly wrong it was hard to care.

"Fine," Chris said coldly and released John, who fell backwards into the dirt. The former Clarion apprentice landed on his rear and held his bleeding nose as rivulets of red ran down his fingers from his shattered nose.

"You want him, you can have him." She heard Chris say as he walked past her. Mary did not respond as she dropped to her knees by John's side. Mary wanted to go after Chris, but she was not going to leave John bleeding in confusion.

"Oh John," Mary stammered as she scrambled for her purse for a handkerchief or anything that would stem the blood. She could see the ugly contusion of a broken bone across the bridge of his nose and felt awful she inspired such violence. "I am so sorry."

"Tho wath thap?" John managed to ask.

"Who was that?" Mary sighed wondering how to best answer that particular question. "Just a friend."

"A fwend?" He looked at her with eyes wide. Mary noticed his glasses nearby and reached for it. She placed it on his face and immediately saw John beginning to focus.

"It's a long story. Let me get you home." Mary offered helping him to his feet.

John did not seem eager to accept her help. She could hardly blame him of course, considering her lover had just punched him silly. The man stood up shakily, reassuring her that he was all right to get home on his own.

"But John..." Mary stammered. "You really shouldn't be on your own."

"It's okay." He answered, wanting to be away from her and her ominous friend in black.

As John Wentworth hurried away, looking badly shaken and holding her soiled handkerchief to his bloody nose, Mary could only watch helplessly as he disappeared into the crowd. With his departure, she no longer held the interest of Sweetwater's residents and began collecting the packages strewn over the ground. Mary was almost in tears as she gathered her belongings and started back to the livery. As she noticed the eyes of the dissolving crowd around her, Mary could not remember feeling so humiliated in her life.

She turned away from the scene carrying her parcels in as much of a daze as John Wentworth had done a few minutes earlier. Her mind was unable to register the sheer stupidity of what she had just witnessed.

What on earth was running through Chris' mind?

Despite her rage at his behavior, Mary could not completely disown herself of any responsibility in this whole affair. To some extent, she knew some of this was her fault. When she inferred to Chris, she might have been meeting someone in Sweetwater during their ride back to Four Corners yesterday, she had done so to lash out at him. He behaved like such a possessive juvenile, Mary had wanted to teach him a lesson.

It never occurred to her he'd take her seriously.

After all, this was a man who could spot a lie from a mile away. How many enemies had he killed because of his uncanny ability to weigh the odds of their deceit? How many times had he saved Four Corners because he was always two steps ahead of the people who would endanger it? Whatever reasoning she used, Mary still came to an unhappy conclusion.

Chris Larabee thought so little of her, he would believe her capable of running to the arms of another man after what they had shared the night before.

"Mrs. Travis!" She heard Buck calling after her. Buck's booming voice snapped her out of her thoughts and returned Mary to the present. She gazed over her shoulder and saw Vin and Buck approaching her.

Mary groaned upon seeing the two men.

She continued onward until they caught up with her. Neither Buck nor Vin missed the cold glare she had given them as they called out her name. Obviously, Chris had already put in an appearance.

"Mrs. Travis." Buck tipped his hat and Vin followed in a similar gesture. “Have you seen Chris?" Buck asked the pretty widow even though it seemed to be a moot point.

Mary swore under her breath at the sound of Chris's name and whirled around to face them. A package flew out of her grasp as she did so. Vin dodged in time to catch the flying parcel, but Mary seemed hardly concerned at its loss. Judging by the crimson flush of her cheeks and her tightened jaw, Vin estimated she had larger concerns on her mind.

"Of course I saw Mr. Larabee. He just assaulted an old friend of mine not more than ten minutes ago."

"Oh." Buck winced, able to visualize the entire episode without hearing any details from Mary. "I'm sorry ma'am," Buck said sincerely. "I tried to stop him from coming after you. He just got it in his head and wouldn't let it go. Man's more stubborn than a mule." His voice trailed into an incoherent mumble. His moustache seemed to droop with regret and Mary felt a little of her annoyance fade.

"This friend of yours," Vin ventured a guess as he liberated her of some packages. "A man?"

"Yes!" Mary retorted with frustration. "He's an old friend of my husband. John Wentworth used to work at the Clarion, I just happened to meet him while I was doing some shopping today."

"Shopping?" Vin and Buck exchanged glances as if some truth had suddenly shown its light upon them. Had her reasons for coming to Sweetwater been that simple? This whole mess was because the lady had decided to take a day to shop? The absurdity of the situation was not lost on the two lawmen.

Mary did not miss the look they were giving each other.

"Yes, shopping!" She exclaimed with frustration. Suddenly, a thought occurred to her and she looked at them. "What did you think I was doing here?"

Both men shifted nervously. They knew what Chris suspected, that Mary had come to Sweetwater to meet someone in particular. Judging by the way he behaved, they could see no other reason why their leader would become so threatened with Mary taking a trip out of town. She left Four Corners on her own numerous occasions with Chris barely batting an eye at her departure.

Mary did not need to hear their answer because she could see it in their eyes and because Chris's behavior had more or less confirmed the fact. Her jaw dropped open in outrage. "You think I came here on a secret rendezvous with some man?"

Buck knew better than to answer that question but Mary required a response and so he replied with something that would not upset her too much. He hoped.

"I know that's what Chris thinks," Buck admitted feeling terribly embarrassed at what was apparently turning to be a misunderstanding. It would almost be funny if Mary was not so angry and Chris did not genuinely believe there was another man in the equation. "Did he hurt your friend badly?" He asked sheepishly.

"Chris broke John's nose!"

"That's not too bad," Vin said trying to pacify the furious woman. After all, Chris could have just shot the guy.

"Not too bad?" Mary rolled her eyes, unable to believe that all that blood could be considered minor. An image of John's bloody face returned to her. With a loud sigh, Mary faced front once more. "Now I'm going to have to go home and write a letter to Beth." She grumbled as they reached the livery.

"Beth?" Buck asked starting to become terribly amused by this whole debacle. Privately, Buck was not going to let Chris live this down for the next six months at least.

"John's wife!"

"Oh this just gets better." Buck started to chuckle, succumbing finally to the whole absurdity of the situation. "So let me get this straight. You were shopping all day in Sweetwater and you meet this friend of yours at the exact moment Chris finds you?" He couldn't keep the grin from stealing across his face.

"I see nothing amusing about this Mr. Wilmington."

"Of course not," Buck said trying to put on a sober face but was not quite able to manage it. The urge to laugh was overwhelming. "It's tragic."

They found Chris in the stable, preparing his black gelding for the ride home. Man and woman regarded each other like opposing armies on the battlefield. Their eyes held for only a moment before Chris turned his attention back to his horse and Mary strode past him with her parcels. She went towards Homer, who was outside being hitched to her buggy by a stable hand. Her head held high in proud dignity.

Vin exchanged knowing looks with Buck and then let out a low whistle. "This is going to be a long trip home."

If the trip to Sweetwater had been silent then the journey home was positively glacial.

Although they rode side by side, neither Chris nor Mary had spoken a word to each other. The few attempts Buck and Vin tried to make conversation were met with cold silence or plain indifference. After a while, the two lawmen decided to give up all together. They allowed a sizeable gap to form between themselves and the sparring duo. The tension between Chris and Mary was so thick it could have deflected bullets.

Chris said nothing even though he took up position next to her buggy. He did not look at her, but he suspected she was angry. Chris had learnt over the last year, Mary Travis had varying degrees of mad. There was the slightly annoyed which she displayed often, usually when they were in the midst of an argument. The furious Mary Travis which he had seen last night and then there was this, the 'so angry she could not speak' Mary.

Despite the silent treatment, Chris felt no guilt at what had taken place. He had every right to be angry although he did wonder why she was here and not with that stranger. Chris dispelled the obvious answer because he was certain of what he had seen. Adding further to his belief of her infidelity was how she defended the man after Chris hit him. It stung him to the core Mary had gone to the stranger's side and not his. Perhaps, it was best that he knew how she felt about him now rather than later.

"You are coming with me to Sweetwater next week." Mary broke the silence first. Her voice was a thin line of focused calm. She did not look at him when she spoke.

"Why?" Chris snapped bitterly. "You've made your choice. If that kid is what you want, you're welcome to him."

He saw her back straighten as if she was about to say something in response and then decided better against it. After a moment, she spoke again.

"No. You are coming with me to apologize to John."

The tone of her voice indicated this statement was not open for negotiation.

Chris opened his mouth to tell her what she could do with that idea when Mary finished her sentence.

"... and his wife Beth."

Chris blinked.

“Wife?" His voice was barely a whisper. It suddenly dawned on him what was coming. Oh hell.

"Yes," Mary turned her head slowly as she cast her gaze on him for the first time. Her blue-grey eyes were shouldering with white heat. "Beth Wentworth who used to be Beth Danvers when she lived in Four Corners."

"You mean his wife is a friend of yours?" Chris's voice almost quivered. He suddenly had a terrible feeling furious Mary was about to make a belated appearance.

"Exactly Mr. Larabee," Mary glared at him. "I came to Sweetwater today for the same reason I did yesterday, to shop and take some time for myself. I woke up this morning feeling happier than I have felt in a long time and wanted to do a little something for myself, like a new dress or perhaps a little something for the bedroom. It was just an unlucky coincidence, for John anyway, I just happened to meet him on the street!"

Oh hell.

Those two words seemed to be in a constant loop in his head. Chris did not know what else to say. How could he have been so wrong and more importantly, how the hell could he get out of this with some dignity intact?

"So you didn't go there to see him." He said after a moment and then grimaced at the stupidity of that statement.

"I am not even going to dignify that with a response." Mary stared at him with merciless eyes. "However, I have to ask you one minor thing." She pulled the reins gently and Homer came to a stop. Alongside her, Chris's horse did the same. Mary knew she was not making this easy for him and she had no intention of doing so either. He should be crawling under her boot for his presumption.

What were you thinking Larabee? Chris asked himself silently. How could he even imagine Mary capable of such an act of deception? She had always been honest with him and when it counted the most, Chris had believed the absolute worst of her. Now she was staring at him with those killer eyes, probably wondering if he could be gutted alive. His insensitivity horrified Chris. He should have known better than to think Mary would consciously hurt him. Chris wondered if he still remembered how to grovel.

"Yeah?"

"What kind of woman do you think I am?" She stood up on the buckboard and grabbed Chris's hat from his head before swatting him with it several times. "Do you think it's easy for me to just reach out to you? You're about as receptive as a brick wall and have about as much sense after what you did today! I am a respectable woman Mr. Larabee, I do not throw my affections about in all directions to anyone! I care for you and only you! Would you please get it into your thick head that there has not been anyone since Steven? Nothing even remotely resembling what I feel for you!"

"Mary, I'm sorry..." Chris stammered, trying to let himself be heard while she yelled.

"Oh, you're sorry now!" Mary shouted, barely registering the apology. Birds had flown out of the trees from the loud clarity of her voice. Chris looked up in the air and saw a flock departing quickly. He almost wished he was with them.

Mary was not done with him, however. "I love you, you mental pygmy!" She exclaimed with little difficulty now that she had the force of so much anger behind her words. "I have always loved you! Do you think for a moment I would have allowed you to make love to me if I did not feel that way?"

In the distance, Buck Wilmington's voice was heard over the wind. “Goddamn!”

It was followed by another equally loud voice. "Shut up Buck!"

Mary stopped short, remembering they were not alone. Her cheeks flushed red with embarrassment as she lowered herself back on the seat of the buggy.

When she turned back to Chris, she saw him regarding her with the barest hint of a smile. "You love me?"

"Of course I love you!" She shouted in exasperation before falling down on her seat again. "Exactly what do I have to do to prove it you?"

Chris thought a moment and then replied. "Can I have my hat back?"

She paused and looked at the hat in her hand and found her anger dissipating. Mary shoved it back at him, shaking her head in disbelief. In light of her revelation, everything else seemed unimportant. Chris was smiling at her. It was not one of those ghost smiles which looked more like a sneer, but a real one.

“You're such an idiot.” Mary shook her head.

"So I've been told." Chris agreed, his blue eyes showing her his affection. “A couple of times today.”

Without uttering another word, Chris climbed off his horse and got into the seat next to her on the buggy, tethering the reins of his horse to the rail. Before she could speak, he leaned over and kissed her. He would never be able to say what he wanted to with as much meaning or depth. Not giving a damn if Buck or Vin were back there watching, he kissed her like he had done the night before when she'd turned his world upside down and made him let go of the past. Once again, the raw desire of the night before returned like a bullet to the brain, reminding him what they shared last night was more than lust. It was everything.

"I love you." He said suddenly.

Mary smiled radiantly at him. She knew in her heart he felt that way, but it was damn nice to hear it.

"I guess you know I love you." She replied, resting her head against his shoulder.

"Marry me." He said kissing the top of her head.

“No,” she lifted her head so she could look at him. What she thought earlier about this thing being so new they both needed to catch up still rang true, even now they'd expressed how they really felt about each other. As long as they were discreet, there was no reason they couldn't continue as they were for a while. Besides, the town had already been gossiping about her relationship with Chris for some time now. What difference would it make if this time it was true?

Chris raised a brow and looked at her critically. "No?"

"Not yet." She smiled meeting his eyes with a meaningful gaze. "This is still pretty new to both of us and I think we should go on as we are for a while anyway. You're not planning on leaving Four Corners in a hurry, are you?"

Not that I'm aware of." Chris answered, guessing he could accept those terms for now. He knew he would never leave her again. Not while there was breath in his body.

"Good." Mary beamed at him. "How about some dinner when we get back to town?"

"I could eat.”

"Then maybe a little dessert after." She winked.

"Mrs. Travis," Chris said with a bemused smile. "I am wise to your ways."

Mary laughed as Chris took the reins from her hands. She rested her head against his shoulder and marveled at the sunset in the distance. It never seemed more beautiful than at that moment. Suddenly, Mary remembered something. She reached into the back of the buggy and searched for the particular parcel.

"Here, I got this for you." She produced a small package wrapped in brown paper and secured with hessian twine.

Chris took the parcel from her, exchanging it with the reins to Homer. "What is it?" He inquired as he started untangling the knot around the brown paper.

"Don't you want to be surprised?" She replied as she got Homer moving again.

"Never been good with surprises." He looked at her as if it was something, she should have known about him after all this time.

"It's a shirt," Mary answered.

Chris met her gaze sharply as if there were something distasteful about the whole situation. "You buying me clothes?"

Mary rolled her eyes in resignation. "Just drive the buggy, Chris."

THE END

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