The chicken and dumplings, cold cider and apple fritters with fresh cream went down easy. Draining his mug of cider, he nodded to the hostess, left a generous tip and made his way outside. His frazzled bones were on a quick mission to the soft bed in his room. He stumbled as he stepped onto the boardwalk, and used his hands to break his fall.
"Shit..." He winced, seeing two large splinters embedded in the palm of his hand.
"You alright Vin?" A deep voice inquired from above.
"Huh?" Vin blinked, his weary-eyes squinting at Josiah Sanchez who was repairing the door of the church.
"Hand me that hammer?" Josiah reached down and waited. "You seemed preoccupied."
Vin picked up the hammer and hesitated, before handing the tool up to the Carpenter. "Ya plannin' on fishin', Preacher?" He gave warning.
"Only thing I'm interested in now is getting this door fixed. It'll be open later if you want to stop by." He extended the invite and watched the tired eyes working. He spotted Vin picking at his palm. "Splinter?" He asked and saw a small nod. "I got the keys to Nate's." He said of the absent healer. "He's got tweezers in there. Only take a minute to get it out."
"Suit yourself, but if that gets infected, you're gonna be in an even worse mood." Josiah advised, banging the last nail in place. "Come on." He tossed back, without looking. He heard the shuffling and continued, knowing the reluctant tracker was following. By the time Vin arrived in Nate's clinic, Josiah had water heating. He poured the steaming liquid and some soap into a basin. "Soak it a minute, it'll soften the skin up. Makes it easier to pluck."
Vin sat on the bench by Josiah's sink and leaned back against the wall. He sank his hand into the hot water and closed his heavy eyes. He was dozing when he felt his hand lifted.
"I can do it..." He snapped, grabbing his wrist.
"Fine by me. Kinda hard for you to do left-handed. It'll only take me a minute." He paused and felt the hand relax and the curled up fingers open. It took less than a minute for the stubborn wood shards to pull free.
"Thanks. Didn't mean t'bite at ya. Reckon I'm in a mood." Vin tossed, sliding off the bench.
"To say the least," Josiah grinned and rested a beefy hand on Vin's slumped shoulders and glanced past the bloodshot eyes. "Sleep on it Son, don't do anything you'll later regret. He was the victim Vin, not the enemy. You remember that. I'm guessing a part of you is mad at Chris, but there's also a part that's angry at himself."
"Yer crazy!" Vin shot back, snarling.
"Am I?" Josiah tossed back, seeing the nerve he'd struck. "You're exhausted Vin...get some sleep. Things will look better tomorrow."
Vin didn't reply, but picked up his pace and headed out the door. He crossed the street and approached the hotel. His legs were aching by the time he climbed the stairs to his room. He tossed his coat and boots on the chair and pulled the curtains down, shutting out the harsh afternoon light and leaving the room in shadows. He slipped into the bed, with Josiah's words in his head as he fell asleep.
+ + + + + + +
While Vin fell into an easy slumber, the body in the room next to him wasn't as fortunate. A cruel face interrupted his restless sleep, her lips taunting him, with flashes of Vin's eyes. Sweat poured freely down his face. His thrashing grew louder; his arm lashing out to strike Ella Gaines, whose evil laugh was trapped in his head. She was in that obscene shrine, laughing while she burned Sarah's things. She looked at Chris and laughed, his eye caught a glint of silver in her claws. A mouth organ...Vin's...with blood on it.
The sudden movement caused a painful reminder of the wound in his side. He felt strong arms pulling at him. She disappeared and he relaxed. His eyes shot open and his jerked his head, sensing movement. He thought he saw a figure nearby, but hissed in pain and clenched his eyes shut, rolling to get more comfortable. Finally the waves of pain subsided and his frantic labored breathing slowed. He took several deep breaths and forced his eyes open. He saw the image of the water basin nearby. His green eyes flicked to the window, which was dark.
"Dammit..." He growled, annoyed for having slept through the day.
He eased himself off the bed and made a slow path to the water pitcher. He doused his face and neck liberally. He took two long drinks of the cool beverage and threw his shirt on. He'd left his boots on; knowing the motion of pulling them on would be impossible. He went out in the hall and paused, seeing the closed door of the room next store. Vin's room. Sooner or later, Vin would have to come out. His insides were an emotional whirlpool; he wanted closure. He didn't want Buck's prophecy to come true. He needed Vin Tanner...but on Vin's terms. He wouldn't force the tracker to stay, but didn't want him to leave under the winds of bad words. He padded painfully over to the saloon, seeking liquid comfort.
Vin relaxed, slumping as he leaned against the back of the door. The loud thumping sounds and cries roused him. Half-asleep, he stumbled into Chris's room and caught the blond as he was about to fall out of bed, still riding the violent nightmare. He'd waited just long enough for the breathing to calm down and slipped out. He heard Chris walking away and went to the window. The black figure disappeared into the Saloon.
Vin sighed and ran a hand through his tangled hair. He sat on the chair near the window and frowned. His insides were all churned up, hot pokers of anger still slashed at him, stoked by Larabee demons. But yet he still moved instinctively to save the blond, without realizing it. Hell, it woke him up out of a sound sleep. Was Josiah right? Was this intense swing of emotions due to a combination of being angry at Chris, but also at himself for putting the innate ahead of the tangible?
Chris was in the back of the saloon, with his back to the door. He nursed a beer and pondered on his problem. Ezra was bamboozling money out of two salesmen; his oozing charm was giving the blond a sour stomach. Buck and J.D. were nearby, discussing the bank robbery in nearby Eagle's Bend. Buck caught his eye when he entered, Chris nodded back and Buck relaxed. He knew the mustached gunslinger would be arriving eventually. He took a long draw on the amber liquid and tried to push the blue eyes out of his head. Maybe he should have pounded on Vin's door, settled this business in private. His head jerked as Ezra's voice announced the new arrival.
"Mr. Tanner you look almost human again."
"Whiskey..." Vin rasped, eyeing the tense muscles on the black and white shirt several feet away. He took the bottle and felt the uneasy stillness settle on the room. He nodded to Buck and J.D. and skirted past some strangers, before reaching his best friend. He planted the bottle down in front of an empty chair and followed it. As he dropped into the chair, he felt every eye on him. His cockles rose, as the room grew icy and quiet. He raised his head and scowled.
"Y'all got a problem?" He growled, shooting a blue laser across the room. Slowly the denizens returned to their business and the noisy atmosphere resumed. He slammed down two shots and had a third to his lips, when his companion spoke.
"Youre tossing them back pretty fast."
"Reckon that's none of yer business."
"You'd be wrong." Chris commented finally, raising his eyes and looking at Vin Tanner. Tension lines creased the younger man's forehead. He looked better, the long rest and food had done him good. "If you weren't so fired up about that nonsense at Ella's place, you wouldn't be pushing hard to get drunk."
Vin didn't answer, he drained the third shot and poured a forth. Chris's hand clamped down on his arm. He jerked free, sending the shot glass rolling off the table.
"I ain't yer child, back off."
"Then quit actin' like one. You gonna have another temper tantrum or can we talk?"
"So talk, ain't nobody stoppin' ya."
"You gonna listen?"
Vin didn't reply. He leaned forward on the table and crossed his arms in front of him. He heard Chris's deep expulsion of breath. He felt the pain emanating from the other man and was glad. He wanted him to suffer.
"I made a mistake." the quiet offer came.
Vin waited for the rest, but no more words were issued. He felt his anger resurfacing. It wasn't enough, it still hurt. Chris had looked him in the eye and challenged his word, something the lean Texan thought would never happen. He waited...and glanced up, seeing the face set in stone.
."Hah." Vin snorted, shaking his head in disgust.
"Spit it out." Chris demanded, seeing the mask of anger.
Vin's chest heaved for several seconds, his fists curled up, needed to strike. He turned and leveled a cold stare at the gunslinger. "Ya arrogant son-of-a-bitch. That's it? That's all I git? Four stinkin' words...couldn't ya spare a few more?"
"What do you want from me?" Chris snarled, his own anger rising. He'd admitted the mistake, and put it behind them. What was Vin's problem? Why was he so full of fury?
"I want some fuckin' answers." Vin hissed, rising and lifting a fist.
"Go to hell." Chris retorted shoving past Vin.
"Don't walk away from me." Vin said in a slow, low voice, through clenched teeth. The feral tone took the man in black by surprise and he stopped, leaving his back to the irate sharpshooter.
It wasn't the volume or the decibel; rather the deadly intent hanging on each word that stunned the room into silence. Buck saw Chris's hands shoot for his hip, trembling over the pearl handled revolver. Any other man would be dead already. There was only one man who held that power, and his blue-eyed glare was cutting a hole right through Chris Larabee's back.
"Leave it alone, Vin. It's done." Chris said, without turning. He started to walk away, but the deadly voice stopped him.
Josiah stood in the doorway, the only one having the angle of seeing the twin faces of hostility.
Identical glaring eyes...clenched jaws...tense bodies...tingling fists.
"Cut from the same cloth..." He muttered, shaking his head. He saw Buck stand to come behind Vin.
"Easy Pard, don't let this get out of hand."
"Back off, Buck." Vin shoved the large hand off his shoulder. He raised his arm and pointed at the blond's back. "It ain't finished...that bastard owes me an answer. He walks around here like his shit don't stink...doin' whatever the hell he pleases...don't matter none who he hurts."
"Vin..." Buck warned, seeing the muscles on Chris's neck bulge.
Josiah saw the red cloud appear in Chris's eyes. Logic and self-control flew past him as Chris bared his teeth and turned around.
"Chris, this ain't the place." He entered the saloon and laid a hand on the gunslinger's shoulder; an effort that sent him back through the batwing doors and into the hitching post.
"Alright Vin, you want an answer?" Chris hissed, striding forward and meeting the furious Texan's glare with jagged wrath. They stood only inches apart, eyes dueling fire. Buck remained behind Vin. Ezra stood and made his way to Chris's side.
"Gentlemen, might I remind you our resident physician is out of town." "SHUT UP, EZRA!" Both heads spun and hollered at the same time.
"Very well. Bash your collective brains in...what little there is." The Gambler retorted, returning to his game.
"I wanted her, Vin...I wanted her bad." He leered, eyes narrowing. "I didn't need you sticking you nose in my business. You had no right going behind my back. It was my damn decision...my choice...not yours. I don't need no fuckin' blue-eyed watchdog." He paused and stabbed an index finger into the heaving ex-bounty hunters chest. "If you're gonna be so damn sensitive, stay the hell out of my life." He growled, watching the dangerous light in the blue eyes flicker and fade.
Chris turned away before that hurt reappeared. His shoulder was grabbed and a fist sent him to the floor in a heap. He saw stars and blinked hard. Just as Vin stepped over him to leave, the gold and red stars parted and he saw confusion. Twin blue pools shimmering in pain and bewilderment. A myriad of thoughts assaulted him before he passed out. The strongest of these was that he'd won. Vin would leave and he wouldn't feel the pain anymore. The intense emotions that had gripped him since Vin's eyes met his, saving Nate from a lynch mob, would go away. Who cared if Vin rode out? He didn't the wry-humored Texan. He decided when he buried Adam and Sarah not to open his heart again. He was doing fine until that damn blue-eyed sharpshooter entered his life, breaking through all his defenses without trying. He didn't need to wrestle with emotions again. It complicated things, caring about somebody; giving him a deep seeded throbbing. Who needed that?
You do, you damn fool..." His subconscious answered as he lost consciousness.
"Go after Vin, Ezra." Buck ordered, and he and J.D. picked up the fallen gunslinger.
"I most certainly will not." Ezra shot back. "I make the grievous error of trying to reason with those two jackasses before. I believe they vocalized their gratitude quite clearly." He finished, going back to his card game.
"He's right, Buck." J.D. agreed, "Vin's in a mood now, he won't listen to anyone. Let's get Chris over to his room. Josiah okay?" He asked as they stepped outside and past the groggy preacher.
"You okay, Big Guy?" Buck asked.
"I won't be eating steak for awhile." Josiah replied, rubbing his aching jaw. "Vin?" He nodded at the damage done on the body they carried.
"Yeah...but Chris goaded him." Buck grunted, as they went towards the hotel. "He ran off...he's hurtin'."
Josiah stood in the middle of the empty street wondering how to solve this problem. He headed for the stables, but Diablo was in his stall, so Vin hadn't ridden out. Yosemite was reading the paper in the back.
"You seen Vin?"
"Let me know if he rides out?"
"Sure thing Josiah."
The ex-minister made his way up the dark street and back to the saloon. He saw J.D. ambling over. The sheriff shook his head, indicating that the wayward tracker was not in his room.
"Horse is still here. He's like a wild thing, hidin' out, licking his wounds. He'll turn up."
"I hope so, Josiah." J.D. sighed, running a hand over his face. "Chris shouldn't have pushed him away like that. He knew that would hurt Vin."
"That's why he did it." Josiah replied. "Vin's gotten too close...snuck right into his heart. Chris's been riding behind that black iron wall for three years. He don't know how to handle the rebirth of those feelings." "Well then somebody should tell him." J.D. scowled. "If Vin leaves, they're won't be any living with him. He'll be a stompin', cussin', out-of-control menace."
"From the mouths of babes..." Josiah muttered, grabbing Vin's discarded bottle of whiskey and settling in to do some pondering.
Dawn appeared, painting her face with brilliant shades of rose, blue and yellow. Vin rolled over and stretched, wincing at the after effects of choosing a rocky bed. He glanced around at he familiar terrain. He was just outside town, and only had a brief recollection of his flight of fury. He left the saloon and felt the street grow smaller. The buildings seem to be closing in on him. His lean legs carried him swiftly past the mocking architecture and he dropped down when his legs gave in. Exhaustion finally overcame the pain inside. He fell into a fitful sleep with Chris's words slamming into his very core.
Stay out of my life...Stay out of my life...Stay out of my life.
"Shut up!" He hissed, leaping off the ground and rubbing his pounding temples. He picked up his jacket, which had been a poor substitute for a blanket. He was cold, chilled to the bone and sought relief in the form of hot coffee and some pancakes. As the outskirts of town came into view, he wondered what road to take. He paused and looked behind him, to where the free, open plains beckoned. No cares...nobody to worry after...no green eyes to haunt him. He looked ahead to town. The rocker that he rested in every morning, watching the town awaken...Mrs. Potter's store where a smile and a piece of chocolate were always waiting...Mary's place, where he'd learned to read and write...J.D. proudly strutting with that stupid badge on. What to do? He sighed and crossed into town, so intent on his thoughts he didn't hear his name being called.
"Huh..." Vin jerked, when a hand slapped his back. "Danny? What's wrong?" He asked of the telegraph operator.
"You know if Nathan's back from the Seminole Village yet?"
"I got an important message for him. Some doctor over in Ridgedale's dying and asking for him."
"Lemme see." Vin took the message and read it. "Doctor Gibson...that's the feller who taught Nate in the war. Gonna be hard on 'im. I'll see he gets it, thanks Danny."
"Sure thing, Vin. Tell him I'm sorry."
Vin went to the church first, seeking Josiah. The ex-minister was sipping coffee and searching his toolbox for something. He didn't hear Vin slip inside. The silent tracker worked his way forward and stood just behind the busy man.
"'siah...Got a minute?"
"Vin? You alright? You let out last night in a hurry."
"Walls was closin' in...m'head got t'hurtin'" Vin mumbled, shifting uncomfortably.
"Sleeping under the stars sometimes solves problems." The wise older man quipped, "I'm glad you found the road back."
"I ain't rightly sure what road I'm takin' yet." Vin drilled, causing Josiah to take pause. "I ain't here t' talk about me. A wire come fer Nate. That doctor fella who taught him in the war is dyin'. He's askin' fer Nate. He back yet?"
"Damn..." Josiah slumped, feeling Nate's expressive eyes. "Nate was sure fond of him. Said the old guy treated him like a son. This is gonna rock him."
"So's he here?" Vin repeated. "I figured ya might want t'be with 'im...when he finds out."
"He's not here. He should be back by nightfall." he offered, shoulders slumped.
"That's wastin' time." Vin argued, "From the village, with a shortcut I know, Ridgedale's only a day's ride. If I leave out now, I might be able t' get 'im there in time."
"That's an awful hard push Vin, through some rough territory." Josiah warned.
"He's worth it." Vin stated firmly. "That man's saved my life on more than one occasion. I owe 'im. Even if it's only five minutes...he deserves that chance. Somethin' he's likely to keep with 'im ferever."
"Youre a good man, Vin Tanner." Josiah said simply, but Vin felt the admiration behind the words and shuffled. "Alright, get going. I'll update the others." He said, patting the buckskinned back.
They made their way to the door and parted ways. Vin was headed for the stable and Josiah to the saloon. "Vin?" he called out and saw the shaggy head turn and cock, hands hitched in his belt, "Watch your back, Son."
With a half smile and nod, Vin was gone. Josiah entered the saloon and made his way to the table where Ezra, Buck and J.D. were eating breakfast. He signaled Inez who knew the preacher's favorite morning meal was a fritata. He sank in a chair, interrupting Buck's advice on women to J.D.; a subject the older man never grew tired of.
"You gotta romance a woman, Kid. Sweet talk under a full moon, poetry, some wine and..." Buck frowned as Ezra was apparently choking. "Some caught in your craw, Ez?"
"Not at all, my good Romeo," The gambler coughed, "I'm chastising myself for not having the foresight to take notes."
J.D. snickered and Buck shot the green-eyed man a mischievous grin. "Okay, Ace, how about a contest? I bet I can woo more women over say...a week, than you can."
"That would depend on what your definition of a 'woman' is. Your usual stable of scantily clad young lovelies does not count."
"Aw, hell..." Buck grimaced, then noticed Josiah. "You'd back me, wouldn't you Josiah?"
"I stay away from bets involving women, religion or politics."
"A wise decision, my good man-of-the-cloth." Ezra imparted, finishing the last of his eggs.
"Vin's headed out to the Seminole Village. Nate got a wire with some bad news. Doctor Gibson is dying."
"Damn..." Buck sighed, "Nate sure thinks a lot of that guy."
"Vin knows a shortcut from the village to Ridgedale, claims he can get Nate there in a day. Hopefully, in time for Nate to visit with him one last time."
"A day?" J.D. frowned, shaking his head. "Ridgedale...can't be done."
"Can't is not a word that our fearless tracker recognizes." Ezra added, "I daresay if he has to move a mountain to get Mr. Jackson there in time, he'll do it."
"Maybe...but that's one helluva ride." Buck paused, "Why didn't you go with him?"
"Thought about it...but not with five bank robbers on the loose. Odds are that bunch is headed our way. We can't spare anybody else, especially with Chris down."
Buck was about to reply when Chris Larabee's brooding face appeared over the batwing doors. He entered and nodded to Inez.
"Follow my lead." Buck whispered to the others, as the solemn gunslinger approached. "Mornin' Chris." Buck greeted as the blond slid into the end chair at the table. He glanced up and nodded, as Inez appeared with two cups of coffee. She placed one in front of him and the other in front of Josiah.
"Thanks." Chris nodded, "Hotcakes and sausage." he answered the dark-eyes that waited for his order. He sipped his coffee, his eyes unconsciously sliding around the room.
"He's gone." Buck said, reading the tell-tall eyes and getting the knee-jerk reaction he'd wanted.
They watched as Chris flinched and placed the hot cup on the table. His eyes furrowed and he looked at Buck harshly. "Gone?"
"Aw, hell, Chris, you can't be that surprised." Buck drilled, laying the guilt on thick. "You practically road him out on a rail. What was that sorry-assed phrase you used..." He paused and scrached his morning stubble. "Help me out here, Ezra."
"I believe the exact words were 'Stay the hell out of my life'" Ezra added, catching on to Buck's game. "Which is what Mr. Tanner has chosen to do. He and his fine steed have departed our fair city."
"I'm sure gonna miss him" J.D. lamented. "I never seen anybody shoot like Vin. And track...he could find an ant in a snowstorm."
"A what?" Buck choked, wiping coffee off his shirt. "That some kind of fancy expression from back East?"
"You know what I mean...Vin was the best. He could do it all. It ain't gonna be the same." He shoved away and left the group.
Buck raised his eyebrows in appreciation of the young man's acting abilities. Ezra caught the look and nodded in agreement. Chris's facade began to crack. Buck knew the small signs. Green eyes burning a hole in the table, fists clenched and his mouth in grim line. Josiah sought Buck's eyes over Chris's shoulder. Buck shook his head negatively. He wanted Chris to feel the full impact of what he'd done.
Inez set Josiah's and Chris's breakfast down. Josiah took a hefty forkful of the Mexican egg dish, laced with peppers and onions. Buck and Ezra began their debate over the rules of their upcoming bet.
Chris sat numb, not believing what his ears heard. What the hell had he done? He felt his stomach muscles clench and a coldness fill him. No, not coldness...emptiness. A hollow void that ached unmercifully.
"Well, you got what you wanted, Pard." Buck said coldly, "How's it feel? That ice block you use for a heart still pumping?"
"Shut up Buck." Chris hissed, shoving the full plate away and rising.
"Not this time, Chris." Buck stood his ground. "What the hell's wrong with you? Do you have any idea how fuckin' lucky you were? What you and Vin had...it don't happen that often. You were handed a God given gift and threw it away. I hope you choke on that arrogance you cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch."
"What do want from me?" Chris growled. "I made a goddamn mistake. He should have been able to get over it. He's grown...he's not a kid. He had no right going behind my back."
"He knew before we left she was no good." Buck drilled, "He didn't take her money...wouldn't touch it; he had a bad feeling about it. He only went to protect us...you from her. You're still breathin' because he got in your business, you ungrateful bastard. Jesus, Chris, how could you sleep with her...after you knew? You might as well just have stabbed Vin in the heart." Buck growled, seeing the fist rising. "Go on...that's what you do best. Beatin' me to a pulp ain't gonna bring him back."
Chris stared long and hard at his oldest friend, the dark blue eyes were murky. Buck was right, of course and he had no answer. Why had he turned on his best friend? He not only stayed with Ella, but the nearly animalistic romp they shared that night had set his blood to boiling. He shoved Buck hard and stormed out of the saloon. The hell with all of them.
"Well that went well." Ezra drolled.
"He needed to hear it, Ezra." Josiah said. "Just as much as Vin needs some space to think. If that wire hadn't come in, I believe Vin would have gone. Maybe he'll find his peace on that road."
"That's all fine and good," Ezra warned. "I'll be sure to stand behind you when our fearless leader drinks his pain away and starts shooting."
"Okay by me, I'm standing behind Buck." Josiah said straightfaced, giving Ezra a small grin.
+ + + + + + +
Chris had a full head of steam and pent up fury when he stalked past the Clarion. Mary was standing on a stool, reaching dangerously over her head for a heavy reference book. He saw the stool tottering and cursed, flinging the door open.
"Damn fool woman...gonna break your neck." He muttered, his lean legs moving just fast enough to catch her as she fell.
The impact sent them both to the floor. He landed on top of her, his full weight pinning her to the ground. His legs straddled her and her firm breasts pressed against him, her lips inches from his. His head was pounding and the pent up fury inside him raced through his taut frame. He felt himself stirring and eyed her hungrily. He flinched as her knee jerked forward, surprising him. This was followed by a sharp slap to the face. The force of the blow caused his head to snap and a tooth to rip a tear in his mouth.
"Get out!" She screamed, raking her nails across his neck "Get your filthy hands off of me you animal"
He pinned her arms to the ground over her head with one strong hand and knelt over her, blood dripping from his torn lip. He grinned ferally, his green eyes full of lust. His husky laugh preceded the icy tone. "You want it...I know you do...I've seen the way you look at me, Mary."
His hot breath lingered on her neck as one hand traced a path down her face. "It's been awhile since you've had a real man..."
"You're no man." She hissed, squirming against his groping hand. "Chris Larabee is a real man. I don't know who the hell you are." She spat back, gaining strength. "But I'm no Ella Gaines. I'm a decent woman, a real woman." She paused, seeing him flinch. "So was Sarah Larabee..." She held her fear in check as he rolled off of her, stunned, his face painted in shame. He got up and stumbled to the work table, gripping the edges and dropping his head. He couldn't meet her eye.
"Get out." She snarled, making her way to the door. "Get out and don't come back" She ordered, turning her face away as he staggered outside. She slammed the door and ran to the back of the building, where her home was. She dropped to the floor sobbing and shaking. She wrapped her arms around her trembling frame and cried. She was angry...at Chris...at Vin...at mostly at Ella Gaines. Chris Larabee was more than she could handle. Complex...unbelievably so. She thought on the gentle hands that guided her young son, teaching him fishing, riding and so much more. The handsome smile she drank in every morning as he tipped his hat on his way to the saloon. The quiet talks they'd shared. She had hoped that friendship would turn into more. She could still feel his body pressed against hers.
"Damn you Chris Larabee." She sobbed, "Damn you to hell."
Buck saw Chris storm out of the Clarion and saw the blood running down his face. He ran to the door and jiggled it, alarmed at the usually open entry being locked.
"Mary? Mary, you alright?" He called, peering in the glass. He ran around to the back door and saw her huddled on the kitchen floor. The tear streaked face and trembling body gave him a horrid picture. "Son of a bitch..." he swore, opening the door. She jerked, startled, the wide eyes resembling a doe caught in crosshairs.
"Mary...did he...he didn't..." Buck stammered, anguished that his idea could have caused this violence.
"No...he just got a little carried away." She stammered, reaching a hand out.
"I'm sorry, Mary..." He pulled her up and enfolded her in a tender embrace. He waited under the shuddering breathing ended and pulled her back. He sat her down and got a wet towel, gently wiping her tears away. He scanned the immaculate kitchen and spotted a brandy decanter on a shelf by the door. He poured a small amount in a glass and waited until she finished it.
"I'm okay now, Buck." She managed, closing her eyes, remembering.
"It stays here, Mary. Nobody will find out. I'll be back to check on you later. Right now, I'm gonna tar and feather that son-of-a-bitch." Buck growled, in a tone that scared the newswoman.
"Buck...he's not...himself. It wasn't him...I can't explain it. His eyes were...empty...like his soul was missing. It was animal instinct...devoid of feeling." She shuddered.
"You're some kind of Lady, Mary." He said brushing the stray hair off her face, hearing the forgiveness in her voice. "He don't deserve something as fine as you. You get some rest. The news can wait today."
"Time waits for no man...or newswoman..." She smiled, "I'm fine Buck and I've got a paper to get out." She reassured seeing the pain in his eyes. She squeezed both his hands and smiled. "Thanks Buck...I mean that."
Chris was in the saloon when Buck entered. Ezra dropped his winning hand, upon seeing the mustached-wearing tornado fly by.
"You fuckin' animal." He growled, as he plucked Chris out of the chair and nailed him with all the power he could muster. He threw the stuperous gunslinger over his shoulder and left the tavern, leaving a stunned Standish in his wake.
He deposited Chris in the nearest water trough, and waited for the sputtered fool to emerge. He braced himself, prepared for a fight, but got none. Chris remained in the trough, water dripping down his face. Buck's chest was heaving in anger, when the suffering green eyes looked up and disarmed him. The voice was barely audible, but Buck didn't need to hear the words. He saw Chris's hope escape, floating in the shimmering water beneath him. The hollow voice was full of despair.
"What's wrong with me, Buck?"
"Come on, Pard," Buck pulled him up. "Let's go to your room. We gotta talk."
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