Title: Retribution

By: Liz

Rating: K

Spoilers: Not really, insofar as it doesn't specifically reference any episodes in particular

Disclaimers: I own no one and nothing Magnificent 7

Paring: Chris and Mary. There will be a touch of sap. You have been warned.

Author's Notes: I was doing some cleaning up and I found this story on an old disk. It's seriously about 8-9 years old at this point but I've been rewatching the Mag 7 episodes lately and I just kinda thought well, why not? It's probably not very good and I know some of the characters are a bit OOC but I hope y'all enjoy it :)

Retribution

Buck Wilmington picked up his hand of cards from the table and grimaced in frustration. "Forget it," he grumbled, laying down his cards and leaning back against the porch railing. "Can't do anything with these cards."

"Now now, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra Standish drawled, glancing at his own cards. "Such a defeatist attitude will get you nowhere in life."

"Neither will losing all my money playing cards with you," Buck shot back good-naturedly. "Besides, you can still take all of J.D.'s money."

"Hey, I don't always lose my money!" J.D. Dunne protested, looking up from his own cards.

"Yeah, only when you play," Buck ribbed. "Maybe it's that damn stupid hat," he suggested, taking a swipe a J.D.'s bowler.

"Hey, watch it, Buck," J.D. complained. "You're wrecking my concentration."

"Forget it, kid," Vin Tanner drawled from behind the trio. "You need more than concentration to beat Ezra."

They all turned to face the Texan as he climbed the steps to the porch. "I thought you and Chris were riding out to check out that trouble on the Hill farm," J.D. said. "What are you doing back so soon?"

Vin leaned casually against the porch railing and hooked his thumbs in his belt loops. "Nah, everything seemed okay out there. The brothers were just having a little disagreement over the livestock. Got that settled pretty quickly."

"Besides," Buck added with a grin. "Looks like Chris had some more important business to attend to."

The others followed Buck's gaze across the street and saw Chris Larabee walking down the boardwalk with Mary Travis. The gunslinger and the young widow were walking together and appeared to be deep in conversation as she passed out the latest edition of her newspaper, The Clarion.

"Careful, Buck," J.D. warned, only half teasingly. "You know Chris wouldn't like it if he knew you were talking about his personal life."

"Then it is fortuitous for Mr. Wilmington that Mr. Larabee cannot hear this particular conversation," Ezra said.

"Huh?" Both Buck and J.D. said in confusion.

Ezra sighed. "You're lucky," he translated, displaying his cards.

"Exactly," Buck said with a grin. "What Chris don't know, won't hurt me."

"Oh man!" J.D. looked at Ezra's cards, then dropped his inferior cards on the table and pushed his chair back. "I give up, Ezra. I can't afford to play you anymore."

"Well hell, kid, I coulda told you that before we started playing," Buck teased, bursting into laughter.

Across the street, Mary and Chris were still carrying on their conversation. "I'm going to miss him so much," Mary was telling Chris. "I mean, I do already, and I only put him on the stage this morning with Orin, but he missed his grandparents and his friends out there, so I thought a visit might be good for him."

"Understandable," Chris said. "He did live with them for awhile and he hasn't seen them in some time. Don't worry, I'm sure he'll have a great time, but he'll still be glad to come back to his mama."

"And his hero," Mary said, looking up at Chris with a smile.

Chris smiled at Mary's words, which meant more to him than he was even comfortable admitting to himself. "I'm going to miss him, too," he replied. He was about to say more, but something caught his attention and he cut himself off and looked into the street. Six men had just ridden into town. Each of the men rode a black horse, and Chris did not recognize any of them. He watched through narrowed eyes as the men dismounted and entered the saloon. Buck caught his eye from the saloon porch, and Chris motioned with his head. Buck nodded and turned to the other men. He spoke to them as he rose to his feet, and the other three nodded and followed him into the saloon.

Mary watched all this and then turned to Chris. "Do you think they're trouble?" she asked quietly.

Chris turned and looked down into the beautiful face that now wore an expression of concern. "Don't know," he said, trying to keep his tone neutral. "That's why they're going to keep an eye on them. It's probably nothing, but I don't recognize any of those men, so I think it's best to be cautious at least."

Mary nodded. "Of course," she said, trying not to worry. Chris was right, it was probably nothing. And if those six men turned out to be trouble, she was sure Four Corners' seven resident peacekeepers could handle it. She and Chris began their conversation again and headed down the boardwalk while Mary passed out the remaining copies of The Clarion.

After Chris had seen Mary home he headed across the street to the saloon to see what the others had found out about the new arrivals. He hadn't wanted to admit it to Mary, but there was something very unsettling about those men. They were almost familiar, but for the life of him, he couldn't place where he'd ever seen them before.

When he entered the saloon he saw that Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez had joined the other four men at a table near the back of the saloon. The two men had been working on the interior of Josiah's church earlier and were finally taking a well-deserved break.

As Chris made his way across the saloon towards their table, Buck rose and walked to the bar. He shook his head slightly as he passed Chris and continued on to the bar. The men turned to Chris as he sat down in the empty chair at the table. Vin shook his head slightly at Chris's unspoken question. "They told everyone they talked to that they were just passing through on their way to California."

Chris pursed his lips. He could have sworn that those men had spelled trouble, but maybe he had been wrong. Buck made his way back to the table with a bottle of whiskey and sat next to Chris. Chris took the bottle, poured himself a glass, and turned to Buck.

"Ben said one of them was asking about you," Buck said, gesturing to the man behind the bar. Chris raised an eyebrow and gave Buck his full attention. "He said the odd thing was that he didn't want to know who you were, or if Chris Larabee lived here. He said the guy kinda acted like he knew who you were and was just confirming it."

"What exactly did he say?" Chris asked.

"Ben said the guy came up to the bar, got a drink, and said, 'That tall man outside, the blond dressed all in black standing with the pretty blonde lady, I think I know him. That's Chris Larabee, isn't it?' Ben said yeah, that was you, why did he want to know. The guy told him he had heard of you and just wanted to put a name with the face. He also asked if Mary was your wife," Buck added, trying to conceal a grin. A hard glare from Chris made him wipe the smile off of his face quickly.

"And?" Chris asked impatiently.

"And Ben told him no, but Harry Lowry was sitting next to him, drunk as a skunk, and he said something about it being a possibility." Chris's scowl kept the other men silent, and Buck hurried to continue. "Then the guy told Ben thanks for the refreshment, but they had to head on out if they wanted to get to California anytime soon."

"They left?" Chris asked. Buck nodded. "When was this?"

"Almost an hour ago," Buck said. "They said they were just passing through quick and couldn't afford to get a room in town, so they were just gonna keep riding 'til dark."

Chris nodded and settled back with his drink. Then that was it, he told himself. They're gone, they weren't trouble, stop thinking about it. Even so, there was still a nagging sense of doubt at the back of his mind that he just couldn't shake.

That evening, Chris, Vin, Buck, Ezra, J.D., Nathan, and Josiah joined Mary and Nettie and Casey Wells in the hotel for dinner. The two women had come into town from their farm to get supplies, and at Mary's urging had agreed to stay for supper. Knowing Casey and J.D. were sweet on each other and that Nettie and Vin had a relationship like mother and son, Mary had suggested that they invite the seven men to join them for dinner. The men had all accepted, and enjoyed a pleasant and peaceful meal together. Even Chris had been able to finally put aside thoughts of the men that had ridden into town together and enjoy the company of the others.

When they had finished dinner and everyone had said their good-byes, Vin and J.D. escorted Nettie and Casey to their wagon while Chris walked Mary back to The Clarion. As they approached her door, Mary brought up the six men who had ridden into town earlier. "What did you find out about those men that rode into town earlier, Chris? Are they going to cause trouble?"

Chris shook his head. "They were apparently just passing through on their way to California. They left this afternoon."

Mary nodded and unlocked her door. As she pushed the door open, her shawl began to slip from her shoulders. Chris instinctively reached forward to grab it, and caught the ends of it. Mary's hands had gone up to grab her shawl as well and now her hands rested on top of Chris's.

Chris was acutely aware of the fact that he was practically embracing Mary and that her lips were mere inches away from his own. He drew a ragged breath as he reached a tentative hand up to gently stroke her cheek. Mary was also having a hard time catching her breath as she felt herself moving closer to Chris as if pulled by an invisible force.

Chris dipped his head down and leaned in towards Mary. Their lips were only a hair's breadth apart when a loud voice from the street boomed, "Chris Larabee!"

The couple turned and found themselves facing six men, all of whom were pointing guns at them. Chris dove forwards and rolled himself and Mary off of the porch and behind a trough as bullets cut through the space they had occupied only seconds earlier.

Chris pulled out his gun as he peered over the trough at the men. "Dammit," he hissed under his breath. He silently berated himself for letting himself believe that those six men were harmless. "Mary, stay here," he told her.

"Wait, where are you going?" she asked, grabbing his arm. "You can't go out there! They'll kill you!"

"Don't worry about me," he told her. "Just stay here and keep your head down."

He ran out from behind the trough, keeping along the posts and other troughs in front of the porch, trying to draw their fire away from Mary. He dove down behind another trough as a bullet nearly hit his arm and prayed that the other men would come soon.

Mary watched in horror as the men started to follow Chris. He would be killed for sure! She couldn't just sit here and do nothing. She glanced at the open door to The Clarion, thinking of the rifle she kept behind her desk. If she could just get inside, she would at least be able to help Chris's odds a little.

She watched as four of the men closed in on Chris and decided it was now or never. She took a deep breath and crawled over to the edge of the trough, getting as close to her door as she could get without leaving the protection of the trough. Closing her eyes for a second, she took another breath, opened her eyes, and raced for her door.

She never made it.

Over behind the other trough Chris had an eerie sense of déjà vu as the men on their horses closed in on him behind the trough. Suddenly, he heard gunfire coming from across the street. One of the men jerked as he was hit in the arm, but he managed to stay on his horse. Another one of the men who was further down the street called out to the others. "Come on! Let's go! Now!"

Firing their guns, the six men thundered down the road and out of the town. Chris got up and dusted himself off as Buck, J.D., Vin, Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra approached him. "Is everyone all right?" Chris asked. The men nodded, and Chris turned to walk back to the trough by The Clarion. "It's okay," he said, as he approached. "They're gone." He got no reply. "Mary?" Then he looked up at the boardwalk in front of The Clarion and he froze. He saw her lying facedown, halfway over the threshold to her office, blood already beginning to pool underneath her.

"Mary!" The other men came running at Chris's anguished cry as he dropped to his knees beside her body. He carefully rolled her body over and drew in a sharp breath at what he saw. She had been shot twice. There was one wound in her upper left arm that didn't look too serious, but the one in her side terrified him. It was bleeding profusely, and Chris knew she was in serious danger.

"Oh God, Oh God," he said, cradling her in his arms. "Nathan!" He yelled down the street for the healer, but turned to find the man right next to him.

Nathan took her wrist in his hand and checked for a pulse. He breathed a silent sigh of relief when he felt it. "Her pulse is weak, but she's alive," he said. Chris closed his eyes and swallowed as Nathan made a quick check of Mary's wounds. "All right, she's in real bad shape. We need to get her to my room, now."

Buck and Vin moved forward to help carry Mary to Nathan's. Before they could reach her, however, Chris rose to his feet, gently carrying Mary in his arms, and hurried to Nathan's. As the other men followed Nathan and Chris across to Nathan's room, Chris murmured a desperate prayer to whoever was listening to spare Mary's life.

"Put her on the bed and help me get her clothes off," Nathan instructed when they entered the room.

Chris gently placed her on the bed and he and Nathan carefully removed her dress. "What can we do?" J.D. asked worriedly from the door.

"Go get Mrs. Potter and get some rags and warm water," Nathan told them. J.D. nodded and he and Ezra hurried off to carry out Nathan's instructions. Nathan examined the wounds closely, and Chris heard his sharply drawn breath when he checked her arm.

"What?" Chris demanded.

"Bullet's still in her arm," Nathan said soberly. "Gonna have to pull it out." He turned his attention to the wound in her side. "But first, I'm gonna have to stop this bleeding."

As if on cue, J.D. ran in with a basin of water and a stack of rags. Buck followed with another basin and a roll of bandages. Gloria Potter followed closely behind the men. She took one look at the scene before her and immediately took the bowl and rags from J.D., wet one, and handed it to Nathan, who began to carefully clean Mary's wound.

"All right, I need everybody outta here," Nathan said. Buck and J.D. turned to leave, but Chris remained at the side of Mary's bed opposite from Nathan, never taking his eyes off of her face. "Chris, that means you, too," Nathan said.

"I'm not moving," Chris said firmly.

"Chris-" Buck began.

"I said I ain't leaving!" Chris yelled.

Nathan looked up, but before he opened his mouth, he saw the murderous look in Chris's eyes. Knowing he would bear the brunt of that aggression if he tried to make him leave, he shook his head at Buck and J.D. when they made a move toward Chris. If the man was gonna be that adamant about it, he wasn't going to waste time fighting with him while he tried to save Mary's life.

Buck and J.D. made their way out to the hall where the rest of the men stood waiting. The other men looked up at them expectantly, but Buck only shrugged. "I don't know," he told them. "Nathan hasn't said anything. It's bad, though, that much I can tell. Looks like she's lost a lotta blood."

"What does Chris want us to do?" Vin asked quietly.

Buck shook his head. "Didn't say." The expression on his face and the tone of his voice said more than his words could, and the other men didn't push him on the topic.

J.D. sat down heavily in a chair. "We gotta find these guys!" he said angrily. "They can't just do this and get away with it."

"We will, J.D.," Vin told him. "Can't do much now in the dark, but I'm heading out of here tomorrow at first light."

"Would you care for some company, brother?" Josiah asked from his spot in the corner.

Vin nodded in his direction. "Appreciate it."

"I'll go, too," J.D. spoke up. Ezra nodded, indicating that he would join them as well.

"I'm gonna stay here," Buck said. He didn't say it out loud, but the men knew he wanted to be there for Chris in case Mary's condition worsened, and they nodded understandingly.

After what felt like hours to the men waiting outside of the room, Nathan and Mrs. Potter came out, closing the door quietly behind them. Nathan thanked Mrs. Potter for her help. "I'll be back in the morning," she told him. "But please come and get me if anything changes before then."

"I will. Thank you, Mrs. Potter."

"Gentlemen." She left and the men turned expectantly towards Nathan.

"She was shot twice," he told them. "I had to pull the bullet out of her left arm before I could stitch it up. It was pretty deeply embedded in there, so we're going to have to watch for infection over the next day or so."

"What about the other one?" J.D. asked anxiously.

"She was also shot on the left side of her body. The good news is that that bullet passed through cleanly. But it bled pretty badly, and it wasn't easy to stop the bleeding. She lost a lot of blood." He sighed and ran his hands over his hair. "I really don't know what to say at this point," he admitted. "But I'm not going to lie to you. Her condition is extremely serious. She may not make it."

Josiah dropped his head and began to pray. J.D.'s young face displayed both shock and fear at the news. Ezra swallowed and rested his head in his hands while Vin walked away from the rest of the men to stare unseeingly out of the window.

"Have you told Chris this?" Buck asked softly.

Nathan shook his head. "I didn't say those exact words to him, but I know he knows. He hasn't moved from her side since he brought her in there."

Buck nodded and, while Nathan continued to talk to the other men about Mary's condition, he walked over to the door to the room and gently eased the door open. The scene that met his gaze nearly brought tears to his eyes. Chris sat by Mary's bedside, unmoving, holding on to her hand like it was a lifeline. He didn't seem to hear the door open as his eyes never left the face of the woman lying on the bed before him. His haunted eyes were filled with pain, his shirt and jacket stained with Mary's blood, a vivid reminder of the evening's tragedy.

Buck felt his stomach clench as he remembered the last time he had seen Chris look like this - when they had returned from Mexico to find Adam and Sarah dead. Buck had hoped he would never again see his friend looking so hopeless and desolate, but he could almost feel Chris's grief emanating from the small room as he sat with Mary.

Buck quietly closed the door and turned to the rest of the men. Vin looked over at him, silently questioning Buck on Chris's condition. Buck just shook his head sadly. He didn't know what to do for his old friend at this point. The only thing that mattered to Chris right now was Mary recovering. If she didn't, well, Buck just didn't want to think about what might happen then.

"You men better go get some rest if you're going to track those men tomorrow," Nathan said finally, looking at the somber assembly in the hall. "I'll stay here in case Miz Travis's condition changes at all."

"I'll stay with you," Buck volunteered.

Nathan shook his head. "I may need you to relieve me later, Buck. Right now, you need to get some rest, too, so you can help Chris when he realizes he needs it."

Buck reluctantly agreed and left with the rest of the men as Nathan turned back towards the sick room. He took a deep breath, preparing himself for another confrontation with Chris.

He found Chris where he had left him, sitting motionlessly by Mary's side, her small hand encompassed by his larger one. "Chris." Chris didn't look up. "Chris, you should get some rest," Nathan told him. "You need to change your clothing, get cleaned up, and get some rest."

Chris seemed not to have heard him when he spoke, his eyes never leaving Mary's face. "How could I have let this happen, Nathan?" he murmured quietly. "How could I have just left her unprotected and helpless? I left her there, alone, with no weapon, at the mercy of those bastards. Look at what I've done. She doesn't deserve this. It's all my fault. How could I have let this happen?" he repeated, his voice breaking. He swallowed hard and passed his free hand over his eyes quickly to conceal his tears.

Nathan felt a deep pang of sympathy for this proud, complex man before him. Chris Larabee had faced down mobs, notorious gunslingers, and wanted men without wavering, but in the face of Mary's injuries, for which he could do nothing, he seemed to have met his match.

"Chris." Nathan placed a gentle hand on Chris's shoulder. "This ain't your fault. You were trying to draw their attention away from Mary. There were just too many of them. It ain't your fault."

Chris shook his head. "I should have been there. I should never have left her."

Nathan sighed, unable to think of anything to say that would ease Chris's guilt. He checked Mary over once more, checking for fever and to make sure her heart rate and breathing hadn't changed since he'd checked her last. "Chris, I really think you should go and get some rest." Nathan tried one last time.

Chris's head shook. "No, Nathan, I can't. I won't leave 'til I'm sure she's all right."

Nathan just stared at him a moment, then seemed to come to a decision in his mind. "All right, you can stay with her for now. I'm going to wait right outside and I'm gonna come in to check on her periodically. And you better come and get me the second you notice any change, got it?" Chris nodded, still not looking up, and Nathan left.

When he was alone, Chris began to speak to Mary. "Mary, I'm so sorry," he whispered. "I shouldn't have left you. This is all my fault. But you're strong, I know you are. You can fight this. Please don't leave us. Don't leave me." He lifted the hand he held in his own to his lips and softly kissed it. Then, still holding her hand, he settled in to keep watch over her through the long night.

The gray dawn was just beginning to show traces of the early morning sunlight when the four men assembled at the livery the next day. "Which way?" J.D. asked Vin.

"They headed north outta here last night," Vin replied. "Figure we'll go on that way and hope we can pick up the trail." The rest of the men nodded and, clucking to their horses, followed Vin out of Four Corners.

Vin picked up the trail a few miles out of town, and while he led them along, the rest of the men hung back in silence. Finally, J.D. could not stand the quiet anymore, and he spoke up. "I just don't understand," he said. "Why would these men shoot Mrs. Travis in the back? She didn't do anything to them. She was just an innocent bystander."

"Yes, but a bystander in what?" Josiah's deep voice rumbled. "We don't even know what these men were after, or why they were attacking Chris in the first place."

"I am of the opinion that their shooting Mrs. Travis was not an accident," Ezra spoke up.

"What do you mean, Ezra?" J.D. asked. "Do you think they were after her?"

"I am not entirely sure of their exact target, but I find it very difficult to believe that she was accidentally shot while they were going after Mr. Larabee. When she was shot, she was not in the immediate vicinity of Mr. Larabee."

"So you think they went after Mary on purpose?" Josiah asked quietly.

"I think it is a distinct possibility," Ezra replied.

Josiah nodded. "It makes sense. I just wish we knew who these men were and why they went after Chris and Mary."

The men were silent for a few moments, until J.D. once again spoke up. "Do you think Mrs. Travis is going to be all right?" he asked quietly.

Ezra and Josiah exchanged a look before Josiah spoke. "I don't know, brother. I honestly don't know. All we can do now is pray for her, and pray that the Lord will see fit to guide us to her attackers."

"But what if she dies?" J.D. asked in a small voice. "What will happen to Billy? And what about Chris? I think he cares for her a lot more than he says he does. What's he gonna do if she dies?"

Josiah and Ezra again exchanged a look, surprised that J.D. had even picked up on the feelings between Chris and Mary. "I imagine Billy will go to live with his grandparents again. And as for Chris, well..." Ezra hesitated, trailing off.

"There's no use in worrying on something that hasn't even happened yet," Josiah reminded them. "Right now we just have to concentrate on finding these men and believe that Mary will be all right."

The men fell back into their silence while up ahead Vin's thoughts turned to the conversation he had just heard between them. J.D. had raised a good point, he thought to himself. What would happen to Chris if Mary didn't survive her injuries?

Briefly, he wished he had been able to stay behind in Four Corners with Chris. He was worried about Mary's injuries, of course, but he was also worried about Chris. He knew that even though it wasn't Chris's fault, his friend was probably torturing himself right now for what had happened to Mary. Chris had been there for him when he needed help, and he wanted to be able to return the favor. If anything happened to Mary, Vin knew that even though Chris would never admit it, he would need his friends more than ever. Vin wished he could be there for Chris now, but he knew that it was probably better that Buck was with him. Buck had been there with him when he had lost his family, he would know better than anyone how to help Chris right now. Besides, Vin thought to himself, he was helping Chris the best way he could right now by tracking down these scum who had hurt Mary and making them face justice for their crime.

Vin thought about his relationship with Chris. From the first moment they had met, the two men had seemed to form an almost instant bond. They had a friendship based on mutual respect, each knowing not to pry too much into the other's past, knowing that the other would come to them for help if they needed it. Vin knew little about Chris's past, but he knew about how he had lost his wife and son and how, according to Buck, he had never been the same. He had cut people out of his life, keeping others at a distance while he sought refuge in a whiskey bottle or a working girl. But now, Vin reflected, now Chris had friends again. He had started to let in the six men that surrounded him and respected him. He had started to form friendships again, and to care about people.

Vin knew Mary Travis was one of these people that Chris cared about now, perhaps more deeply than he was willing to admit to himself, and he knew that the loss of Mary would be a crippling blow. One Chris may never recover from. Vin shook his head at these thoughts. This just couldn't happen. Mary would be okay. She had to be. For Chris's sake, and everyone else's who cared about her.

While Mary had not been their biggest fan when the men had first assembled in Four Corners, she had come to respect and care for the men. She had stood up for them against criticisms raised by the townsfolk and treated the men like friends, and the men viewed her as a friend also. He knew it would not be easy for any of them to lose Mary. Gritting his teeth, he once again silently scolded himself. It wouldn't happen. They would find the men who had hurt her and make them pay, and Nathan would take care of her and lead her to recovery. Fiercely trying to make himself believe these thoughts, he returned his sole focus to the trail in front of him and urged his horse on faster, feeling a renewed sense of urgency in finding the men who had torn apart the life of his closest friend and all those around him.

While the four men were out searching for Mary's attackers, Buck was climbing the stairs to Nathan's room. He found Nathan asleep, sitting in the chair outside of his room, hands folded in his lap, his head leaning forward and resting on his chest. Buck was trying to decide whether or not he should wake Nathan when he saw the healer's eyes begin to open and his body to shift as he woke up. Nathan stretched and looked up. "Morning, Buck," he said, yawning.

"Morning, Nathan. There been any change?" Buck asked anxiously.

Nathan shook his head. "Mary hasn't woken up, but at least she hasn't shown any signs of fever yet. I'm worried about both of them, though. I did manage to get Chris to leave for a few minutes to change his clothes by convincing him his clothes were dirty enough to risk an infection in Mary. But he wasn't gone for more than 20 minutes and he hasn't left her side since."

Buck sighed. "He's taking this so hard. That's understandable, but I know he's also blaming himself for what happened, just like he did with Sarah and Adam. And just like that, this isn't his fault, but he can't see that." Buck glanced toward the door. "Can I go in and talk to him before you check on Mary again?"

Nathan nodded. "Think that might be a good idea. I'm thinking you got a better chance than anybody at getting through to him. I'm gonna go see about getting some breakfast. You eaten yet?"

Buck shook his head. "I came right over."

Nathan nodded understandingly. "I'll get some for all of us."

"Thanks." The healer nodded and left and Buck turned toward the door again. "Here goes nothing," he muttered to himself. He opened the door and his heart sank as he found the scene to be almost identical to the way it had been last night. Mary still lay pale and unmoving in the bed and Chris was by her side as he had been last night, holding on to her hand, his pain almost a separate presence in the room. The only difference that Buck could see was that Chris had exchanged his bloodstained shirt for a clean gray one.

"Chris." Buck spoke quietly, not wanting to startle his friend. But Chris showed no sign of being disturbed as he continued to watch Mary's shallow breathing. Buck tried again. "Chris, you eaten anything today?" Still no response. "You slept at all? Chris?" Chris's motionless state was beginning to frighten Buck and Buck approached him and touched his arm gently.

Only then did Chris look up, with eyes so anguished he didn't need to speak for Buck to know what kind of pain he was feeling. "Look, Buck," he choked out, looking back at Mary's still form. "I've done it again. Why didn't I learn my lesson? Who do I think I am, letting myself forget how dangerous it is to be around me, letting myself forget that people who are near me only end up hurt or dead? But no, I got selfish and thought maybe I could let people in, allow myself that luxury. But I can't. Why am I so damn stupid, Buck?" he asked quietly, looking up at his old friend again. "This is my fault. I did this to her. Those men were trying to kill me, and instead Mary paid the price just because she was with me."

Buck ran his hands through his hair in frustration. He had heard much the same thing when they had buried Sarah and Adam and he didn't believe it any more now than he did four years ago. "Chris, you know that ain't true. There were six of them men and only one of you. What else could you do besides what you did? You drew 'em away from Mary."

"I left her there alone behind that trough," Chris said. "I put her in danger by leaving her."

"No, you tried to draw the danger away from her," Buck argued. "'Sides, you left her behind the trough, but we found her up by The Clarion. I bet you anything that woman was going to get her own gun," he said with a fond smile. "She's not the kind to just sit back and watch things happen."

"No, she's not," Chris agreed, smiling sadly as he thought back to the day over a year ago when he had first laid eyes on Mary Travis. She had been facing down drunken cowboys all alone, standing in the middle of the street with a gun, determined they were not going to hang Nathan. At the time he had thought she was a damn fool to be doing that, but as he watched her and listened to her asking others to help stop the hanging, he had also felt a grudging respect and admiration for this woman. He looked up at Buck with pure grief in his eyes. "I promised myself after I lost Sarah and Adam that I would never let anyone be hurt because of me again. I tried not to let it happen, but it happened just the same."

"She's gonna be okay, Chris," Buck told his friend. "Nathan knows what to do, and you know she ain't just gonna give up on life. Mary's a fighter, and you know she's gonna fight this thing with all her strength." He put his hand on his friend's shoulder and spoke quietly. "But you gotta stop beating yourself up for what happened and let her know she's got something worth fighting for here."

Chris bowed his head and clutched Mary's hand tighter. "She does."

"Good," Buck said, satisfied that he'd gotten through, if only a little. Then he patted Chris's shoulder and left the room, quietly shutting the door behind him.

Out in the hall he found that Nathan had returned with breakfast. The healer took some food in to Chris and examined Mary once more. When he came out, he and Buck ate their breakfast on the floor of the hallway. "Did you talk to him?" Nathan asked finally. Buck nodded. "Think it helped?"

Buck shrugged. "I think so, at least a little bit. But Chris has a hard head and he's pretty hard to convince sometimes. I just hope some of what I said got through to him."

Nathan was about to say something when they heard someone climbing the stairs. Buck drew his gun and waited, poised to shoot if there was trouble. He breathed a sigh of relief and reholstered his gun when he saw it was only Ben from the saloon. "Mrs. Potter told me I could find you up here," he explained. "I have a message for Mr. Larabee."

Buck and Nathan exchanged a look. "Mr. Larabee is a little busy right now," Buck said. "We'll give him the message."

Ben nodded and handed the paper to Buck. Buck quickly read over it and looked sharply at Ben. "Where did you get this?" he demanded. "Who left this for him and when?"

"Last night," Ben said, backing away at the menacing tone of Buck's voice. "That man who acted like the boss of those six men that rode into town yesterday left it at the saloon. Said to make sure it got to Larabee, he'd know who it was from."

"He say anything else?" Buck asked in a low growl.

"No, I swear!" Ben said, swallowing hard. "Just make sure Mr. Larabee got it. That was all he said. Then he left."

Buck nodded and Ben gratefully made a hasty departure. "What's it say?" Nathan asked Buck curiously as soon as Ben was gone.

Buck looked at the letter again and read aloud, "Larabee, I been waiting almost ten years for this. If you ain't dead, you're gonna know how it feels to lose your woman, just like you made me lose mine. I hope it kills you, but if it don't, I'll be glad to finish the job."

Nathan's forehead creased into thoughtful lines. "Do you know what it means?"

Buck nodded. "Yeah, I do. About ten years ago Chris and I were in a saloon in one of the Texas territories. He left me there with a woman while he went to see about lodgings. While he was out he walked over to the livery to check on his horse. He walked in there and saw this young man dragging this girl into a stall by her hair. She was terrified, whimpering and begging him to let her go, but he just hit her and tried to push her skirt up. Chris stopped him from raping that girl and turned him into the sheriff. They think the kid, Frank Andrews, was responsible for brutally raping three other girls in the territory, but the girls were all too scared to testify. It was Chris's testimony that put him in prison. He must have escaped."

"But what does that have to do with Chris making him lose his woman?" Nathan asked, still confused as to the note's exact meaning.

"Well, at the time this occurred Andrews was engaged to this pretty young thing, Maryanne Larson. Her family was pretty well off and it was a lucky man who was going to marry her. But when Maryanne and her family heard about this, they packed up right quick and moved back east. Last I had heard, she'd married some rich railroad man from Boston."

Nathan nodded. "So Andrews blames Chris for putting him in jail and taking away his fiancée, and now he wants Chris to go through the same thing he went through."

"Right," Buck agreed, nodding. "And when he had one of his boys asking about Chris and Mary at the saloon yesterday, he got the idea from what Harry Lowry said that they were engaged or at least courting."

"So do you think he was after Mary the whole time?" Nathan asked.

"I don't know," Buck said. "When they took Andrews away, he was plenty enraged. Kept cussing at Chris, spitting, swearing he'd get out and kill Chris one day. Maybe they were trying to get to Chris last night, but when Mary broke her cover the opportunity presented itself and the damn coward went after her instead." He rubbed his hands over his eyes. "Question now is, do we tell Chris?"

It was late afternoon and Vin, Josiah, Ezra, and J.D. were still riding, still trying to find a sign of the six attackers. Vin had lost the trail for awhile when their quarry's tracks had led right into a stream, but with Vin's tracking skills they had been able to pick the trail up further down the stream where the men had exited the water to move to higher ground. They had been travelling for hours, and J.D. finally broke the men's weary silence. "We've been searching for hours. I mean, how far could these guys have got-"

He was cut off by a bullet whizzing by his head. "Get down!" Vin yelled as the men turned their horses and headed for a clump of boulders.

"Can you see where it's coming from?" Ezra yelled, as the men pulled their weapons.

"Up there, by those trees!" Josiah yelled, taking aim and firing off several quick shots.

"Does this answer your question, J.D?" Ezra asked as he picked off the man standing furthest to the left. J.D. didn't answer as he dove sideways, firing off three shots in rapid succession and managing to take down another opponent.

Only moments after it had started, the gun battle was over, Vin and Josiah having shot the three other men firing at them. "Everyone all right?" Josiah asked, looking around at the other men. They had all escaped injury and cautiously made their way up the hill to the bodies of the five men.

When they reached them, they found that one of the men was still alive. He had been shot in the right shoulder and was bleeding badly. "Help me, please," he begged from the ground.

The men exchanged a look and Josiah stepped forward to see to the man's wound. Ezra, J.D., and Vin checked on the status of the other men. When they had confirmed that there were no other survivors, Vin approached the injured man. "You're the same men who were in Four Corners last night, shooting at two friends of mine," Vin said. It was a statement, not a question, and the man on the ground nodded weakly. "Now, as I recall, there were six of you then. Where's the other man?"

The man looked at the ground. "I, uh, I dunno," he mumbled. "He took off in a different direction after last night."

"All right, Josiah, don't bother bringing him with us," Vin said. "He'll be fine out here all alone. Animals shouldn't pick up his scent for a few hours at least."

Josiah stood and the man grabbed at him with his right arm. "Wait, please! Ya can't just leave me out here to die!"

Vin dropped to his knees in front of the man and got right in his face. "Why not?" he growled softly. "You shot a friend of ours last night and left her to die. Gimme one good reason we should treat you any better."

The man bit his lip and seemed to come to a very quick decision. "All right, I'll tell you everything," he said. "Just don't leave me out here with the wild animals!"

Vin nodded and stood up. "Talk," he ordered.

The man looked at the ground. "The other guy, name's Frank Andrews, he's the one who hired us. Well, some of us anyway. Andrews broke outta prison a little while back and he brought him," he gestured to one of the dead men a few feet away, "with him when he left. He hired us to get revenge on a fella by the name of Chris Larabee. Said Larabee had taken his woman away from him and sent him to prison ten years ago and he'd pay us good if we helped him make Larabee pay." He broke off a moment, grimacing in pain.

"Yeah, and?" J.D. asked impatiently.

The man glanced at him a moment before continuing. "The pay was good and we agreed. Rode into town yesterday, he thought he saw Larabee right away. Confirmed it with the bartender, then we left, went to some falling down shack outside of town to wait 'til night fall when we were gonna come back and shoot Larabee. Saw him and that blonde lady on the porch and started going after him while he moved down the street away from her. I thought we were supposed to just kill him, but then Andrews shot the lady and pulled us all outta there." He looked into the faces of each of the men. "I didn't know he was gonna do that, I swear."

"Where's Andrews?" Vin asked quietly.

The man started to shrug, but one look at the intense look on Vin's face changed his mind. "I think he went back to Four Corners. Said something about enjoying Larabee's pain for a bit, then finishing him off himself."

"We gotta get back to town," Vin said, turning to his horse. The other men agreed and, after Ezra had checked the man for weapons, Josiah hefted the injured man onto his horse then mounted his own, holding the wounded man's reins. Vin turned back to the rest of the men. "J.D. and Josiah, you two be okay with him? We're gonna ride ahead, try to get back to town before all hell breaks loose."

Josiah nodded. "Godspeed, my friends," he said. The two men nodded, then took off, riding their horses as fast as they dared, praying they could get back before Andrews got to Chris.

While Vin and Ezra were heading back to town, Buck and Nathan were discussing the right time to show Chris the letter. "You know he's liable to go running off and try to find Andrews himself," Buck said.

"I think we just gotta tell him, though," Nathan said. "It ain't right to keep something like this from him, and you know he'll be real angry if he finds out you knew and didn't tell him."

Buck sighed. "I know, I know, I just don't know when it's a good time to tell him."

"Now," Nathan said. "Mrs. Potter said she's gonna be coming by very soon and I really need to get in there and change Mary's bandages. This is probably the best time. Get him outta here, take him to the saloon or the hotel or something and tell him."

Buck rose to his feet. "All right, let's give it a shot." The two men walked cautiously into the sick room, each silently hoping to find some change, but both Mary and Chris were in the same positions they had been in when either man had seen them last.

"Chris," Nathan said, putting his hand on the gunslinger's shoulder, "I need you to give me some room here. Mrs. Potter's gonna be here in a few minutes and we're going to change Mary's bandages. I think it'd be best if you got out of here for awhile. I know you don't want to leave her," he said, when he saw Chris was about to protest, "but it's not a good idea for you to stay here constantly. There's more of a chance of spreading germs and a risk of infection if you stay here without rest or food, getting rundown and sick yourself, and then passing it onto her. Just go with Buck for a little while. Doesn't have to be a real long time, but just go for a little while at least. It's really what's best for Mary."

That seemed to decide it for Chris. "All right," he said finally. He looked down at Mary's still form. "But you had better come and get me the second there is the slightest change in her condition."

"Of course," Nathan said.

Chris squeezed Mary's hand. "Stay with us, Mary," he said softly. "Please." Then, without looking at anyone else, he got up and left the room.

"Wish me luck," Buck said to Nathan. Then he turned to Mary. "You heard Chris, Mary. Hang on. We know you're strong enough to beat this." He turned to Nathan. "You gonna come join us when Mrs. Potter gets here?"

"After I finish changing Mary's bandages and if Mrs. Potter will stay with her, I'll come over and join you. Hopefully between the two of us we can keep Chris calm."

Buck grimaced. "Don't count on it." Then he turned and quickly went to catch up with Chris in the hallway.

A few moments later, Buck was sitting with Chris at a table in the saloon, an untouched glass of whiskey in front of Chris. Buck took a long swallow of his own beer before he cleared his throat and looked across the table at Chris. "Um, Chris, I got something I think I need to tell you."

Chris didn't look up. "Chris," Buck said patiently. "I'm trying to tell you something important here." Still no response. "It's about Mary and what happened last night," Buck added quietly.

Chris straightened up and looked at him, silently telling Buck to continue. "I, ah, um..." Buck looked down at the letter in his hands uncomfortably.

"What is it, Buck?" Chris asked. "Tell me. Do you know who hurt Mary?" There was a dangerous edge to his voice and Buck reluctantly handed the letter over to him. Chris's eyes scanned the letter quickly.

Buck saw a flash of recognition in his eyes and saw Chris's face set into hard lines. "Frank Andrews," Chris said quietly. "I should have recognized him. I knew one of those guys looked familiar, why didn't I put it together?"

"Chris, it's been ten years," Buck said reasonably. "He's been through ten years of prison labor. I mean, you can't be expected to remember every criminal you've come across in your entire life."

"No, but I should remember enough to keep the people around me safe," Chris said, crumpling up the letter and shoving it into the pocket of his duster as he stood.

"Chris, where you going?" Buck asked worriedly.

"I need to be alone right now, Buck," Chris said. "Don't worry, I'm not going to take off after Andrews right now. Not while Mary's still in danger. I just need to walk and clear my head."

Buck nodded uncertainly. "Okay, well you know where to find me when you need me," he said.

Chris nodded and walked out of the saloon. A few moments later Nathan walked in. "Any change?" Buck asked immediately.

Nathan shook his head. "Mrs. Potter's with her now. Where's Chris? Did you tell him?"

Buck nodded. "Said he needed to walk around alone for a little while. I don't know how much of that to believe. I mean, I do believe he probably wouldn't leave Mary like this, but I know he's furious and wants to find Andrews. Let's give him a little time alone, and if he's not back soon, we'll go look for him."

As twilight descended on Four Corners, Chris walked aimlessly around, his mind whirling with thoughts of the events of the past 24 hours. Frank Andrews. He couldn't believe the man had broken out of jail and come to find him, driven by his revenge for an event that had occurred ten years ago. And now Mary was lying on a bed, fighting for her life. Chris swore silently to himself. If he ever got his hands on that man...

"Looking for something, Larabee?" he heard a voice hiss, right before he felt something hard connect with the back of his head.

Chris flew forward to his knees and the only thing that saved him from a bullet in the back was instinct telling him to roll to the side. A bullet hit the ground to his left and Chris quickly rolled behind a barrel outside of the livery, trying to ignore the throbbing in his head. He peered around the barrel with his gun drawn and saw Frank Andrews standing only a few feet away, his gun pointed directly at Chris.

"Come on, Larabee," he snarled. "I've been waiting ten years for this. Before I kill you, tell me how it feels. How do you like having your woman taken away from you while you sit there, helpless? Huh? How does it feel? Tell me how much it hurts!"

Andrews was becoming agitated now, waving his gun around, and Chris took this opportunity to pop up from behind the barrel and fire off one quick shot, winging the gun from Andrews' hand. He cried out in a mixture of pain and rage as he clutched his hand. Chris flew out from behind the barrel and tackled Andrews, a mixture of adrenaline and fury coursing through his veins. "You lousy, worthless son of a bitch," Chris growled as he pounded on Andrews' face. "You coward! You had a problem with me, so you shot an innocent woman in the back! I'm gonna kill you! I'll rip your filthy head off!" He dragged Andrews to his feet, rage making him blind to anything but the man whose throat his hands were wrapped around.

"Make you feel big, huh?" he growled, slamming Andrews' head into the side of the livery. "Think you're a tough guy for shooting her in the back?" He drove Andrews into the wall again, head first. "You wanna see me suffer?" Again Andrews' head connected with the wall. "Well I swear it's nothing compared to what I'm going to do to you!"

"Chris!" Through the haze of rage in his brain, Chris could vaguely hear Buck and Nathan yelling at him to stop. He ignored them. Right now, the only thing that mattered was making this bastard suffer as much as possible for daring to hurt Mary. Two sets of powerful hands gripped Chris and finally managed to pull him off of Andrews' limp body.

"Chris. Chris!" Buck said, turning his friend to look at him. "What are you doing?"

"I'm going to kill him," Chris stated calmly. "He's the piece of garbage that hurt Mary. He doesn't deserve to live."

"No," Buck agreed. "He doesn't. But you've gotta do this the right way. Bring him to the jail and we'll wire the judge. You know he won't let him go free. Especially after what he did to Mary."

Chris was about to answer when his ears picked up a sound behind him. "Get down," he told Buck and Nathan, shoving them aside and drawing his gun.

"You go to hell, Larabee!" Chris heard as he whirled around. Andrews had apparently been faking his unconscious state, waiting for the moment when he thought he could get the drop on Chris.

Chris fired off two quick shots directly into Andrews' chest as he rolled to the side, avoiding the one shot Andrews had managed to get off before being struck by Chris's shots. He crumpled to the ground, lifeless. "You first," Chris said quietly.

Chris turned to Buck and Nathan. "Are you all right?" They nodded.

Nathan went over to check on Andrews. "He's dead," he told the men solemnly.

Just then the three men heard the sound of approaching horses. They turned to see Vin and Ezra riding up. "Chris, we found out who was behind the attack last night," Vin told him as he dismounted. Nathan stepped to the side, revealing Andrews' body. "I sure hope that that's Frank Andrews," Vin said.

Chris nodded shortly. "It would appear that our efforts were for naught, then," Ezra remarked. "We were hoping to return in time to warn you of this lout, but it would appear that he beat us to it."

"Did you find anything?" Buck asked. "Where are J.D. and Josiah?"

"We were attacked by five of Andrews' goons," Vin told them. "Killed four of them, injured a fifth pretty badly. He told us how they were hired by a man named Andrews who wanted revenge against Chris and that Andrews had come back here after they split up. Josiah and J.D. are bringing the injured man back now. We came ahead so we could warn you, but I guess that wasn't necessary."

Chris nodded shortly, then turned and walked away from the men without a word, heading back to Nathan's room and Mary. The men exchanged a glance then moved together to remove Andrews' body to the undertaker.

Chris jerked his head upward for what felt like the hundredth time that night. Or, more accurately, that morning. It was sometime after three o'clock and Chris had been sitting in the chair by Mary's bed since he'd returned after his confrontation with Andrews hours ago. He sternly told himself to stay awake, but only a few moments later he dozed off again.

Mary's whole body ached and she fought back the urge to groan as she struggled to open her eyes. In the weak light of the lantern she made out the form of Chris Larabee dozing in a chair at the side of her bed. She forced her sore right arm to move closer to Chris's body and her right hand reached out weakly to barely brush his arm. "Chris," she said in a voice barely above a whisper.

He was awake immediately and as he blinked his eyes he looked quickly around the room. Then he looked down at the bed and his eyes brightened when he saw Mary's eyes open. "Mary?" he said softly, barely daring to believe his eyes.

"Chris."

In an instant Chris had moved to the side of the bed and carefully helped Mary into a sitting position, careful to avoid her wounds. He kept his arm wrapped around her shoulder for support. "How do you feel?" he asked gently.

"Very sore," she answered honestly. "What happened? The last thing I remember is those men shooting at us." She shivered. "I thought they were going to kill you." She looked at him anxiously, reaching up a hand to his cheek. "Are you all right? Did they hurt you?"

He laughed gently as his hand reached up to cover hers. "No, sweetheart, I'm fine. Not even a scratch." His face hardened. "But you were shot in the back when you were trying to get into The Clarion. I'm so sorry."

"You're sorry? Surely you didn't shoot me," Mary said with a gentle smile as she settled back against her pillows.

Chris shook his head. "I might as well have pulled the trigger for all I did. I left you there, defenseless, and you were hurt because you were with me. It was all my fault."

"No," Mary said, her voice weak but her tone firm. "You listen to me, Chris Larabee, and you listen good. This was not your fault. You were not the one who shot me and you were only trying to protect me when you left me behind that trough. If I hadn't tried to get to the gun behind my desk, I wouldn't have been shot. I am the one who put myself in danger."

"No," he told her, shaking his head. "That man who shot you, Andrews, shot you because you were with me. Because he wanted retribution for my sending him to prison and his fiancée marrying another man ten years ago. He blamed me for everything and decided the best way to get revenge was by hurting the woman I care about."

Mary felt like throwing her hands up in frustration even as her heart skipped a beat at Chris's words. "This wasn't your fault, Chris. You did the right thing years ago by sending a criminal to prison. He's the one who allowed his bitterness and need for revenge to take over his life. How were you to know he would come after you after ten years still bent on revenge?" Mary reached out and covered Chris's hand with her own. "You did the right thing," she said softly. "It's not your fault I was hurt, it was his."

Chris gently stroked the side of her face. "I was so afraid," he admitted softly. "I came back to where I'd left you and you were lying there so still. I didn't know what I'd do if I'd lost you."

Mary's eyes filled with tears. "But you didn't," she told him softly. "I'm still here and I'm going to be fine."

Chris tenderly cupped her chin in his hand and tilted her face up, gently brushing the tears from her cheeks. "I swear to you that as long as I am around, I will never let anything hurt you again," he promised. And then, to seal his vow, he brought his lips down to meet hers in a tender kiss, filled with love and promises for the future.

THE END