Alphabets 2: Round for Seven Voices, Chapter 6, by DarkBeta

(In this story Chris and Sarah "meet cute". I may have overdone the "cute" though.)

"Look at Chris."

Ezra and Josiah both swung around, like they'd forgotten anyone else was there. Josiah's eyes were wet. Buck could hardly believe it. Josiah was a force of nature, drinking, fighting or testifying. Didn't seem like the old man could hurt like that, after all he'd been through.

He'd been a man in the wide-horizoned world that fell apart while Buck was a toddler. He'd seen more of the world than anyone younger ever would, and he'd seen the best and worst of humans caught in the whirlwind. Ezra still managed to tie him up in knots. Dang, but guides were scary!

Sarah had been the same. She kept to the background mostly – and there'd been good reason for that, and no need inviting the neighbors in to pry – but once she set her mind on something a smart man got out of her way.

"Open your purblind eyes and look. You think Chris wants a guide he has to drag behind him like a suitcase? You think he likes the guppy-dupping pizzles poking in his business? You listen to me!"

Chris didn't shift expression, but Josiah came back from whatever grim place he'd been and almost smiled.

". . . if only for the fascination of your vocabulary," Ezra agreed.

J.D. began, "What's a guppy-dupping . . . ?" but Buck spoke over him.

"The summer we came back North Chris and I got ranch work, trying to put some cash together. He had his eye on land up toward the hills. We'd ridden that way a couple times, and Chris could smell water there. As for me, well, there's always something worth spending money on."

He'd met a girl in town, a journalism major. He'd thought about marriage for the first time ever. He hadn't said anything to her about it, which might've been a mistake, or might've been some rag of good sense.

"We hadn't seen much of Sarah before. She didn't come into town much. Her father watched out for her like she was spun sugar."

"We agreed," Chris said. "You don't talk about her."

Felt like an icicle on the spine, that did, and he wasn't even looking Buck's way. But you just couldn't watch a friend ram his head into a brick wall forever.

"Once we were out at the ranch, seemed like every time we got anywhere near the main house she turned up. Chris couldn't look anywhere else. He damn near took my head off if I mentioned her name though. Don't know how much her father saw, but he sent the two of us out to ride fence.

"When she came through the door of the line cabin, out a half day's ride from the main house, well, I hoped it was my animal magnetism . . . but I was ready to spend a cold night keeping an eye on the horses, all the same. You don't catch old Buck playing dog in the manger!"

"Not unless you think you've got a hope," J.D. muttered. "And you always think you've got a hope!"

He said it under his breath, so only Buck and the sentinels could hear it, and this was no time to be arguing. Buck didn't bother to smack him. Chris was still glaring at Ezra like the conman had walked off with his cufflinks. Only Vin grinned.

"The first words out of her mouth are, 'Dad thinks you'll take me. When you get back he's told the hands to give you both a beating and run you off . . . and if you can't run nowhere after, he won't mind.'

"'Your dad's a smart man,' Chris tells her. I'm just about slapping my knee that he's in the cross-hairs this time, when Sarah steps in the door . . . and Chris takes a step back."

He looked around the room, wondering if anyone knew what a startlement that had been. Ezra had a hard twist to his smile, like he was hearing gossip on someone he loathed. Vin looked almost sappy.

"I don't get it," J.D. muttered.

"She shakes her head – she had the prettiest red hair and she still wore it down back then – and says, 'He's wrong. You're too smart to claim a guide if she doesn't want you. I'm not scared of you.'"

Ezra smiled like a shiny new bear trap.

"A woman unique among mankind, then."

Next to Buck J.D. twitched at that. Maybe going on like this was a bad idea, but Chris was being an idiot – worse than Ezra, even – and he deserved it. Buck had been silent about Sarah so many years, all for Chris's sake, that he wasn't sure he could stop reminiscing now if he tried.

"Maybe that's not what a boy just making a name for himself wants to hear, when he doesn't understand women at all. Chris puts on a squinty-eyed look like he needs the can, and growls, 'You should be. You think we always get to choose? Either of us?'

"Now remember Sarah's only a couple years older than the kid here, and didn't really know she was a guide until Chris showed up. And she says, 'I scare you twice as much as you scare me. Four times as much!'"

She'd faced Chris like one of those little bristly dogs warning off a panther. Buck couldn't help laughing, even with everything that came after. Ezra looked like he'd gotten creosote on his fancy clothes.

"How . . . appealingly kittenish."

Chris stood up so fast his chair rolled back against the wall and the heavy desk rocked. His weapon slid toward the edge. He slapped a hand down on it. The privacy device rocked and slid too, until Josiah caught the toppling desk one-handed and set it back.

"I guess you had to be there. She was right though. She had him boxed in. The longer she talked the less he said, just standing there listening and looking and breathing . . . . They bonded for the first time that night."

Saying it like that left out everything important. The nest of saddlebags, two bedrolls, and the handsewn quilt Sarah brought with her. Fire on the ramshackle hearth. Water heated at Sarah's half-laughing request. The heartbreaking wonder Chris found in Sarah's words and body. Her awed satisfaction. The man Buck loved and the woman he'd learn to love, beautiful as lilies in the firelight.

Buck had been their guardian. He kept the fire going, filled the kettle when it was emptied, and watched at the door for any sign of the hunt Sarah's father might send after her. The shack hadn't been so big he could stay distant. And Chris, wordless and running on instinct, hadn't warned him away.

What empathy the tests found in Buck let him please the women he bedded as much as they pleased him. He'd never be a guide, any more than he was a sentinel. He couldn't understand their bond even enough to envy it, but that night changed him as profoundly as the pair of them. He had lovers and friends before; one friend in particular. Afterwards, he had a family.

They decided the next morning that the best way to keep Sarah safe was for her and Chris to marry. They'd ridden to town, dodging the search parties her father sent out. The preacher hadn't liked the look of them at first, but Chris glared and Sarah sweet-talked him until marrying them must have seemed the only way to get them out of his parlor.

Hadn't taken more than an hour or two of Sarah and her dad yelling back and forth, before her dad gave up. Didn't mean he liked Chris or ever would, but Sarah got her way. They'd worked like dogs to get the horsefarm running. Maybe they'd been tired sometimes, or sick, or discouraged, but Buck didn't remember it.

Sarah wanted children. They'd had Adam, who had to be the smartest little boy that ever existed, and then there was another baby on the way . . . . As always, Buck shut his memories off there.

No guide could block out all the emotions around him, not alone. Ezra looked half-dazed, and not so much older than J.D. He'd understand now, when Buck explained how much he could look forward to. Chris would be safe. He'd learn to live again. As they rode away from the horsefarm, Sarah had made Buck promise to watch out for him.

Still half lost in the past, Buck looked past Ezra. He thought he'd see the old Chris again, smiling. Sarah's Chris.

"I warned you," Chris said, and brought his weapon up.

He saw what dead men had seen before him, the black eye of the gun less frightening than the black purpose behind it. And then that idiot Ezra stepped in front of him.

Chris didn't bluff. He didn't aim unless he meant to fire. There was no good end to this, only another shot on a workday afternoon, a body staining the office floor.

Between a friend and a guide though, the sentinel needed only one. Buck swung Ezra sideways into J.D. and stepped forward.

"Chris."

"You've done enough, cowboy. Can't go scaring the whole office twice."

How had Vin gotten across the room without Buck noticing? He'd a hand on Chris's arm. The gun dropped easily into his other hand, and Chris flinched as if winged.

He swung, a short jab that shouldn't have had enough force to toss Vin against the wall. The slighter man fell back, the double thunk of his shoulders and skull loud in the small room, and Chris looked at Buck again.

"Stop it. Stop lying to him!"