Chris and the others don't belong to me. MGM and a few others have that good fortune. Any other characters in this story do belong to me.

The gates of hell swing open wide

Invitin' me to step inside....

She's all I see

Between the Devil and me

--Alan Jackson

Between the Devil and Me

by

C7

"You're a stinkin' coward, Larabee."

Chris' jaw tightened as he heard the damning accusation, a hot anger coaxed to the surface by the disgusting word--coward. He felt his hand twitch at his side, but he wouldn't pull the gun, not if he could help it. "And you're drunk, Hawkins. Go sleep it off. I don't wanna fight you."

He studied the aging face of the man standing in front of him and flinched at the raw hatred reflected there. It had been over two years, but it appeared as though Jake Hawkins hadn't forgotten, and was nowhere near forgiveness. And why should he forgive? Fair or not, the man's boy had died by Chris' hand. A son's death was something a father never got over. He knew all too well. A familiar pain cut through the gunman's heart. God, how he knew.

"Go back home, Hawkins. I'm not gonna give you the chance to get yourself killed. Go back to your family. Leave it be." With that, Chris walked out of the saloon. Turning his back on the distraught old man probably wasn't one of the smartest things he'd ever done. Jake was carrying a Colt at his side, after all. But walking away was the safest thing Larabee could do. He had no wish to kill Hawkins. Besides, the grieving father was more than likely too drunk to do anything more than threaten.

As he stepped into the quiet street and pulled on his hat, Chris wondered how Jake had gotten into town without his knowing about it. Part of protecting the people of Four Corners was keeping an eye on the strangers that wandered into town. But this once small town was growing. Too fast, as far as he was concerned. Keeping a close watch over everyone was becoming more and more difficult.

And today... The gentlest of smiles tugged at Chris' mouth. Well, today had been somewhat of an unusual day. He'd been a little preoccupied, as had the rest of the seven men who guarded Four Corners. They'd spent the better part of the late morning and early afternoon moving furniture. Desks to be precise--school desks. Mary Travis was getting the new schoolhouse ready, and she'd asked for their help. The seven lawmen had been more than happy to oblige.

Chris' smile widened as he recalled the joy on Mary's face when the shiny, new desks had arrived from St. Louis. As soon as they had been unloaded, she'd wanted them put in the schoolhouse. It was early September, and the new teacher was due to arrive in another week. Everything had to be as perfect as possible for the first day of school.

The gunman knew it was a day Mary had dreamed about almost from the time of her husband's death. She desperately wanted to have Billy with her, but felt the town wasn't tame enough for her son to live in with any degree of safety. However, things had changed since the day of the seven peacekeepers' arrival. And now, with the building of the school and the acquisition of a teacher, the widow happily welcomed her child back into her life.

The sound of footsteps on the walkway garnered Chris' attention. He looked over his shoulder to see Mary and Billy walking towards him.

"Chris!" Billy broke his mother's grip on his hand and started running down the walk.

The easy grin was automatic when Chris heard the familiar shout of his name. It was a sound he would never tire of hearing. In fact, it was a sound he looked forward to hearing, the delight and excitement in the young voice making him feel about ten feet tall.

Turning just in time, he opened his arms to catch the small body that came hurling at him from the top of the stairs.

"Billy!" Mary scolded as she stopped at the spot where her son had launched himself into Chris' arms. "You be careful. You could hurt yourself and Mister Larabee."

"Ah, Ma." The boy put one arm around Chris' neck as he turned to look at his mother, a dejected frown pulling at his mouth. "Chris is strong." The frown dissolved into a confident smile. "He always catches me. He'll never let me get hurt."

"It's all right, Mary." Chris settled Billy in his arms as his attention fell on the woman standing in front of the saloon.

The sun was well on its way toward setting, and the evening fires had already been lit. The glow from a nearby flame danced over the widow's beautiful, smiling face, and Chris felt something tug at his gut as he gazed at her. It was a reaction he'd grown accustomed to over the last year or so, and had long since stopped cursing himself for. He could no more control it than he could the tender feelings she had fostered in his heart. Somewhere along the way, she'd broken through the barrier he'd erected and made herself right at home. And he'd seemed defenseless against the invasion. Larabee could no longer ignore Mary Travis' effect on him, and he had all but given up trying. Maybe letting himself feel again wasn't such a terrible thing?

Chris let his eyes roam over the golden hair hanging loosely about her face, the light from the fire giving the pale stands an almost ethereal radiance. He was certain the honey-colored locks would be silk under his touch, and he tried to squash the sudden need to find out for sure as his grip on the child in his arms tightened slightly.

"We've been at the new school." Billy's enthusiastic voice broke through Chris' silent yearning. "Ma was cleanin' the new desks."

"Cleanin' the new desks?" The gunman raised an amused eyebrow as he asked the rhetorical question.

That tightness in the pit of his stomach yanked again as a pretty shade of pink appeared on the widow's cheeks. Dropping her eyes to the ground, Mary chuckled softly before looking back into Chris' face. Self-consciously, she ran her hands down the sides of her skirt as she nodded. "I know. I know. But you know how dusty everything gets around here. I just wanted them to look nice."

Yeah, he knew. She was so excited, she was ready to burst. Her excitement was contagious, and Chris felt it rush through him. But the contentment came more from seeing Mary so happy than from the new desks sitting in the schoolhouse on the edge of town.

"So, where is everyone?" Mary's eyes traveled to the saloon as she appeared bent on changing the subject of conversation from her overzealous cleaning habits.

"Well," Chris decided not to push the embarrassing topic any further as he assumed she referred to his six cohorts, "after we finished helping you, they sorta scattered. I think JD's havin' dinner with Casey. Josiah said the church needed some more work, so he and Nathan headed that way. And Buck..." Chris smiled as he shook his head. "Well, you know Buck. I think he said somethin' about seein' a friend--female, of course. Vin an' Ezra were gonna meet me here after they had some supper."

"Supper," Billy repeated the word. "I'm hungry, Ma. When are we havin' supper?"

A guilt-tainted sympathy washed over Mary's features as she smiled sheepishly at her son. "I know, honey. I'm sorry we stayed so long at the school. We'll go right now. How does stew sound?"

"Stew? Great!" The boy's face lit up as he turned to Chris. "Ma makes the best stew in the whole world. Hey," he looked back to his mother. "Can Chris have supper with us, Ma? Please?"

The gunman's attention shifted to Mary, and he watched the surprise register on her face. "Well..." She hesitated a moment as she thought. "I think there should be plenty."

"Mary, you don't--" Chris started to excuse himself.

"Have you had dinner, Mister Larabee?" The widow smiled warmly as she interrupted him, a genuine invitation shining in her lovely eyes.

The longing pulled at Chris once again as he confronted the gentle kindness in Mary's gaze. He would like nothing better than to spend the evening in her and Billy's company, enjoying a good, home-cooked meal. Vin and Ezra wouldn't miss him. "Well, no, ma'am." He shook his head. "I haven't. And I don't think I could pass up 'the best stew in the whole world.'"

Mary's smile widened as the subtle crimson found its way back into her cheeks.

"I said you're a coward, Chris Larabee!" The slurred voice of Jake Hawkins suddenly blared from the saloon, the doors swinging open with a violent crash as the drunken man staggered onto the walkway, Colt in hand.

Chris' body tensed in alert response to the enraged words and the menacing presence staring down on him from the walkway.

Damn! the heated reproach echoed in the gunman's head. He'd forgotten about Hawkins, let his guard down. But worse than that, he'd gotten sloppy, and now he was paying for it. In his effort to defuse a situation, he'd allowed it to get out of control. Chris had let his sympathy for the heartbroken father get in the way of his judgement.

Hell, Larabee silently cursed again. He knew better. He should have taken Hawkins over to the jail to sober up when he had the chance.

Billy. Mary. A sharp urgency bit through Chris as the need to keep them safe consumed him. He tried to ignore the twinge of panic that pricked the back of his mind as he searched for an idea that would get mother and son out of harm's way. They couldn't be made to suffer for his stupidity.

Slowly, he slid Billy to the ground and pushed the boy behind him, his eyes darting to Mary as she stood beside Hawkins. A startled dismay blanketed her expression as she stared at the pistol in Jake's hand.

"I've been lookin' for you... for... for nearly two years... you bastard." Hawkins' unsteady voice grabbed Chris' attention. "You're gonna pay... for what you... for what you did to my son." The old man took another step forward as he raised the gun a little higher.

"Now, Jake, take it easy." Chris raised his hands chest high, palms facing outward in a gesture of surrender. "I told you, I don't want to fight you. Put the gun away. You don't wanna do this."

A bitter laugh erupted from Hawkins as he shook his head. "I don't?" The smile that curved his mouth was an extension of the laugh--harsh, cynical. "You don't know... how much I do want this, Larabee." The smile disappeared. "For... what you... did to my son. For all... the pain... you... put me through. For all the... the... pain you... put my wife through. You deserve to die."

"Jake?"

Chris felt that twinge of panic grow into a throbbing dread when he heard Mary cautiously address Hawkins. He watched in fearful amazement as she cast the old man a tentative smile.

No, Mary. No! Silently, he warned the widow away.

"Jake, please put the gun away. You're... tired. You need to rest. I know you really don't want to hurt anyone. Please." Mary took a step toward Hawkins, a hand extended in friendship.

Chris looked on, breathless, as the nerve-wrenching scene played out before his eyes, helpless to put a stop to it. For an instant, the caustic scowl on Hawkins' face vanished, the sound of Mary's soft, soothing voice seeming to draw some of the heated anger from him. Maybe she could stop this? But as she took another step closer to Jake, his eyes darted to Chris and then back to the widow, and a light of recognition dawned in the hazel depths. The gunslinger's guarded optimism came crashing down around him as he watched the harsh smile return to the older man's mouth.

A cold finger of fear slide along Chris' backbone, and he found it impossible to hold his tongue another minute. "Mary, no," he pleaded as he took one step forward, the words coming as little more than a gruff whisper.

"Ma?" Billy's small, anxious voice drifted from behind the gunman.

"Down, Billy. Lay down on the ground. Now." Chris quietly ordered, and was quickly obeyed.

"Does this belong to you, Larabee?" Hawkins snaked a hand around Mary's wrist and pulled her to him, his arm moving around her waist to hold her more securely. Even as drunk as he appeared to be, he still seemed to have fairly good control over his movements, unfortunately. "Hmm--" His bloodshot eyes swiftly traveled over his captive's profile. "Mighty pretty, ain't she?" He eased the end of the gun barrel across Mary's cheek before looking back at Chris, a cruel mischief lurking in the challenging stare. "How would you feel, Larabee? How would you feel if I took this pretty lady from you?"

The hushed gasp that left Mary jerked Chris' heart into his throat, as did the meaning behind Hawkins' venomous words. But the fear that welled up inside him was puny when compared to the fierce rage that suddenly moved through him. The fury formed a tight line along his mouth as his eyes narrowed, his low, steady voice brimming with malice. "If you so much as look like you're gonna hurt her, Hawkins, I'll kill you where you stand. So help me."

The deadly promise hovered between the two men like a smoldering stick of dynamite as Chris moved the right side of his black duster to rest behind the gun on his hip. He thought the attempt at intimidation had worked for a moment as a dull uncertainty entered Jake's eyes. But just as quickly as it had appeared, it vanished.

"So," the older man tightened his hold on Mary as an assured smile crept across his lips, "she does belong to you."

"No." Chris slowly moved his head from side to side, his tone becoming unknowingly wistful. "She doesn't belong to me." His eyes locked with Mary's as he hesitated. Fear still lingered in the beautiful, smoky-blue depths, but there was also a confidence gleaming there, a steadfast belief in him and his ability to get her out of this horrific situation, safely. He would do, say, anything not to disappoint her. Every corner of his mind screamed a silent denial when he continued. "She's no one special. She's just a citizen in this town. A town I'm paid to protect."

"Nice try, Larabee." Hawkins' brow knitted together in a dark frown. "You're not a very good liar. I can see it in your eyes. She means more to you than you're saying--a lot more. I wonder... How much pain would you suffer if I snatched her from your life?"

As Chris digested the nauseating question, he felt something in him snap. He wanted this man dead for what he'd just said. Taking another step forward, his incensed gaze moved back to Hawkins. "Damn you, let her go! Your quarrel is with me! Leave her out of this! I'll do whatever you want, just let her go!"

A movement inside the saloon suddenly captured Chris' attention. Holding his breath, he watched Ezra quietly make his way up to the swinging doors behind Hawkins. And out of the corner of his eye, Larabee saw Vin crouched low at the end of the walkway, his mare's leg trained on the man holding Mary hostage.

"You'll do whatever I want?" The old man's brow rose with the inquiry, a stain of guarded pleasure marking his tone. "Well, at first, I thought I wanted you to die, but--" The pleased note in Hawkins' voice now pulled at the corners of his mouth. "But now," he leveled the gun barrel at Mary's head, "now, I think knowing you suffer the same hell I suffer will be a lot more satisfying."

Chris heard the click of Hawkins' gun as the hammer was pulled back into position, and he felt his reawakened heart grow cold with a desperate misery he hadn't felt in over three years.

"I don't believe that would be a very prudent move, my friend." Ezra's calm, southern drawl was the next thing Chris heard as the gambler materialized behind Hawkins; his gun trained at the old man's head while the barrel rested on Jake's shoulder. "Now, would you be so kind as to drop the weapon so we can have a nice, quiet evening? All this unnecessary activity is playing havoc with my digestion."

When Hawkins didn't immediately comply with Ezra's request, the tension that had been somewhat eased by the southerner's timely appearance once again began to build. As the seconds ticked past, the startled look on Jake's face faded into one of frustrated rage, his poisonous gaze trained squarely on Chris. The old man had been caught, defeated. There would be no revenge, no suffering for his enemy. He would put the gun down and that would be the end of it.

But... Chris watched the intense fury sparkle in Jake's eyes, and somehow, he knew the old man wasn't finished, yet. Hawkins was well past the point of caring about what happened to himself, a state of mind Larabee knew very well. There would be no backing down now. Jake had come too far, gotten too close to his goal. The desire for vengeance was the only thing keeping the grieving father alive at this point, and even if it killed him, he would see it through to its conclusion.

As soon as he comprehended the older man's terrifying intention, Chris moved. In two lightening-quick strides, his hand was around Hawkins' wrist. Just as he pushed the gun barrel up in the air, the sound of the shot thundered in his ears.

With the deafening sound, Chris' gut-wrenching panic was lost in the white-hot anger that overwhelmed him, the desire to kill Hawkins moving over him with all the force of a desert wind storm. He felt as though he could rip the old man apart with his bare hands, but from somewhere inside himself, he found the control necessary to keep the murderous impulse in check.

Ripping the gun from Jake's grasp, he looked into the old man's face, capturing the surprised, hazel eyes with his own. "Let her go." Chris' voice was edged with steel as he bite out the quiet command, the menace thick as molasses as it dripped from the simple words.

A wolf's snarl couldn't have been more unnerving, and genuine fear flashed across Hawkins' features. This time, he didn't hesitate in obeying the demand, his arm quickly dropping from around Mary's waist.

"Get him outta here, Ezra, before I do somethin' I'm gonna regret." Chris indicated the jail with a jerk of his head.

"Come on, you." The sharp, uncharacteristically plain order shot from the gambler as he pushed Jake towards the steps, a disgusted frown hardening the lines of his face.

"Mary?" Chris' sights shifted from the man now being escorted across the street to the woman standing statue-still by his side. The beautiful, rosy blush that had touched her cheeks just a few moments ago was gone. In fact, all of the color had drained from her face, and in its absence, an ashen mask of fear had settled into place. The sight brought Chris' own fear surging back as he repeated her name, more urgently this time. "Mary?"

The sound of his troubled voice seemed to pull the widow from the haze into which she'd fallen. Blinking as if to help clear the fog, Mary looked up into Larabee's face. The fear in her expression shone brightly in her eyes as the telling sheen of tears sparkled there.

Without a word, and without a single thought for what was proper, Chris slid an arm around her waist and pulled her to him. He closed his eyes in a silent prayer when he felt her return the embrace, her arms moving around him tightly as her cheek came to rest on his chest. She was all right. Thank the Lord, she was all right.

"Ma? Chris?" Billy's small, frightened voice registered in the Chris' ears.

As the gunman opened his eyes, he felt Mary lift her head and release her hold on him. But before he could turn around, he heard the anxious trot of small feet as they climbed the few steps to the walkway. In the next instant, Mary had her son in her arms, hugging him closely.

"It's okay, honey," she whispered softly. "I'm okay."

Yeah, this time she's okay. The bitter condemnation rang in Chris' head. But what about the next one, and the next one?

An all-consuming guilt rose up in Chris as he stared at the mother and child whose lives had come so close to being destroyed because of their proximity to him.

Not again. A sick dread joined the unrelenting guilt as a stony determination began to harden his heart. This won't happen again.

"You okay?" Vin's concern interrupted the violent self-reproach of Chris' thoughts as the marksman walked up to the trio standing in front of the saloon. "Mary?"

The widow cast the sharpshooter a half-smile as she loosened her hold on her son and nodded. "Yes, Vin. I'm okay... a little shaky, but okay."

"Chris!"

Turning his head in the direction of the call, Larabee saw Buck Wilmington striding down the center of the street, revolver in hand. Within a few seconds, he was up on the walkway, confused eyes fixed on his long-time friend. "I heard a gunshot. Is everybody okay? What happened?"

Chris looked back at Mary and Billy as the blame and anger continued to have their way with his turbulent thoughts. What happened? It was a simple enough question, wasn't it? Yes, it was, and easy enough to answer--on the surface. But if he looked a little deeper, it got a hell of a lot harder, frightening... painful, the ominous brutality of the answer impossible to ignore. Mary had almost been killed, trembling in his arms with the horror of what had nearly befallen her. Billy scared out of his wits, teary-eyed and clinging to his mother with the violent death of his father no doubt running though his mind. What happened? Tragedy. Well, near tragedy.

A slightly unsteady hand tightened its grip around the gun he held as Chris contemplated Mary's pale, anxious features, the unyielding metal of the trigger guard biting into his callused palm. The run-in with Hawkins had been too close a call. So close, in fact, as to be intolerable. Once again, his reckless past had caught up with him, mercilessly threatening the new life he had begun to build, endangering the innocent people he'd allowed to get close. The scowl on his face deepened. He knew this wouldn't be the last time, either. His past was never really very far behind him. Cruelly, it hovered on the outskirts of his present existence with all the dark certainty of a vulture biding its time, waiting for the opportune moment to descend and rip his world apart.

"Pard?" Buck again halted the flow of self-incrimination as he placed a supportive hand on Chris' shoulder and repeated, "What happened?"

"A mistake." Chris glanced back at Buck as the gruff whisper left his lips. "Another old mistake catchin' up with me."

His attention once again drifted to Mary and Billy. The fear that lingered in their eyes sent another shard of guilt slicing through him. This was his fault, his fault.

No more! Please, God, no more! The violent prayer echoed through his heart. It had to stop. It had to stop here and now.

Without another word, he abruptly turned on his heel, walked down the stairs and started across the street. He had to step back... way back. There had to be some distance between Mary and himself, a lot of distance. He had to protect her... had to protect them both... keep them safe. Whatever it took. No matter how it hurt. She and Billy weren't going to suffer the same fate his beloved wife and son had suffered. Never.

The dirt road objected to his quick, purposeful strides, but Chris didn't notice the dust he left in his wake as he worked his way across the main street of Four Corners. He almost made it to the middle of the road when Billy's call stopped him in his tracks. "Chris? Where you goin'? Aren't you gonna have supper with us?"

Chris' jaw clenched tight with the bewildered disappointment he heard in the simple questions. He didn't want to turn around, didn't want to look into that innocent face, see the hurt in those trusting eyes. But it was a sight he was going to have to get used to if he was to protect the boy. He wanted nothing more than to make sure Billy and Mary were shielded from harm. Severing the growing ties he had with them was one sure way of doing just that. The process would begin now.

Slowly, he turned back to the small group standing in front of the saloon, while fiercely holding on to the cold frown that darkened his expression. "No."

The reply was a little more forceful than Chris would have liked, betraying too much of the powerful emotion that ran through him at the moment, but the chill of a false apathy also hit his ears, and he hoped it would help to further his purpose.

Larabee saw the begrudging hope realized in the matter of a second as he watched his short, stony answer register on the face of the young child he called friend, an eager expression suddenly dissolving into one of sharp dejection and disbelief.

The anguish of regret hit Chris with the impact of a speeding locomotive as he stared into the devastated features of Billy Travis. Lord help him, he didn't want to do this, but he didn't have a choice. His grip tightened on the gun in his hand as he tried to muster his wavering resolve. He couldn't allow his determination to be undermined so easily or so quickly. He was stronger than that. He had to be stronger than that.

Avoiding a look into Mary's face, he pivoted again, continuing his trip across the street.

He appeared to be enjoying the sleep of the innocent, his aging features relaxed in the peaceful oblivion of unconsciousness.

Innocent? Chris quietly balked at the idea. Well... His gut turned with subtle revulsion as he stared down on Jake Hawkins through the bars of the jail cell. Wasn't the old man innocent, an innocent victim of Chris' overwhelming anger? And if he were honest with himself, hadn't Jake's son become a victim of that same rage?

No. The speculation was immediately rejected. Daniel Hawkins had chosen to challenge him in an effort to gain a reputation, and he had failed, falling prey to youthful over-confidence. It was no more complicated than that.

However... As with the Pender boy, Chris had also made a choice. He'd chosen to shoot straight and true, hitting his mark hard and fast, his bullet finding its way into young Hawkins' heart, killing him instantly. It wasn't quite as simple as Chris wanted to believe. He had to defend himself, yes, but did the young man have to die? Although he knew he would never have received such consideration himself, he could have offered the boy clemency--wounded him, taught him a lesson. But at the time, he had been little more than a walking statue--cold, hard, uncaring. The idea of mercy had never entered his mind. There had been choices made on both sides that day, foolish choices, merciless choices. Time had changed how he would react to the situation if it were to arise again, but that change of heart couldn't alter the unforgiving past, a past that refused to leave him alone. How many more victims of his savage rage would come back to threaten those he had allowed himself to care about?

"It would appear as though the drink has finally caught up with him." Ezra's comment shattered the stillness in the room as he rose from the chair behind the desk and joined Larabee at the cell door.

When he'd first entered the sheriff's office, Chris hadn't noticed Standish. Now, he ventured a glance in the younger man's direction. "Not soon enough." The observation was tainted with the anger that had yet to release him, not all of which was directed at Jake Hawkins, his stupidity in the moments leading up to the confrontation gnawing at him.

"Yes, well..." Ezra looked away from Chris' stern expression to concentrate on the sleeping man in the cell. "We should be grateful that things didn't go too awry." He hesitated for a moment before pressing forward. "Mrs. Travis is all right? And the boy?"

With the last questions, Standish once again turned his pointed attention to Chris, who balked at their implication and the knowing suspicion on the gambler's face. Ezra knew that Mary and Billy were all right. Neither one had been hurt...physically. But there were other kinds of damage, and somehow, Chris knew that was exactly what Standish was referring to, a hard gleam of disapproval reflected in his unrelenting stare. And as Chris continued to scrutinize Ezra's stony expression, he stumbled upon a subtle accusation lurking amongst the discontent.

As with the rest of the seven men whose job it was to protect Four Corners, Larabee knew that Standish held a special concern for Mary and Billy Travis. Respect, and a fledgling friendship, had fostered that concern in all of the men. Any threat to the mother and son was not to be tolerated. And if the threat came from one of the seven lawmen? What then?

Chris could see the condemnation in Ezra's eyes. It was clear that, on this day at least, Standish saw him as a danger to Mary and Billy, and he seemed to have no inclination whatsoever toward hiding that belief.

Resentful anger was Chris' gut reaction to the unspoken indictment, his lips forming a tight line as the scowl deepened. However, it died very swiftly when he considered one inescapable fact. All Standish was doing was agreeing with his own view of the situation. How could he be angry at the man for agreeing with him?

How? Well... in point of fact, it was a confirmation he really had no wish to recognize. It was one thing to condemn yourself. It was quite another to have that condemnation so quickly and strongly seconded.

He was right. Ezra was right. Nevertheless, the knowledge did little else but stoke the intense flame of sad disappointment that burned the shame deep into his mind, branding him with the need to walk away. Or at the very least, shut himself off, rebuild the crumbling barriers. He could still have a hand in protecting Mary and Billy, but from now on, he would do it from afar.

A sliver of doubt pierced Chris' thoughts as he considered the reprieve he silently offered himself. Would a restricted distance be enough to keep them outside his dangerous influence? Probably not. And if he stayed, would he really be able to keep his distance? Would he be able to abandon the growing closeness he'd begun to share with the mother and son if they remained within a tempting proximity? He didn't know. He just didn't know. Mary had an uncanny talent for breaking down the stony facade he showed the world. She'd successfully wormed her way into his heart, and now he seemed nearly defenseless against any kind of persuasion she chose to use on him. He could try to stay in town yet stay away, but he wasn't sure it would work. Leaving altogether would be the best thing to do, but he wasn't certain he could bring himself to do that either. A frustrated anger suddenly joined the doubt. How had he allowed himself to get so tangled up in the lives of these people? When had they become so precious to him?

"Yeah." Chris' harsh tone splintered the thick silence. "They're all right. And they're gonna be all right, if I have anything to do about it."

A light of comprehension brightened Ezra's expression as he seemed to gather Chris' meaning. Raising a hand to the brim of his hat, he gave his head a subtle bow. "I have no doubt, Mister Larabee. No doubt whatsoever."

The quiet approval was immediately followed by the forceful opening of the jailhouse door as Buck pushed his way into the office, Vin right on his heels. The door was left open, and in the next few seconds, Josiah and Nathan joined the group.

His attention diverted by the arrival, Chris' focus moved to Buck, the hard line fixing his friend's brow telling him he was about to receive another healthy dose of disapproval.

With hands resting heavily on his hips, Buck stared daggers at Chris. "What the hell was that, you ornery son-of-a-bitch? It don't take much comin' from you, Chris. You all but broke that little boy's heart. You know that, don't ya?"

Hell yes, he knew it. How could he not know it? The pained shock and confusion on Billy's face wasn't something he was likely to forget any time soon. Knowing he was the deliberate cause of the hurt, even if it was for the boy's own good, left a bitter taste in his mouth, one that he knew he was going to have to life with no matter how much it sickened him.

"I know you're madder than a nest of hornets right now," Buck continued, "but Billy didn't deserve to have you take it out on him."

"He didn't deserve to almost get killed on account of me either! Neither did his mother!"

The self-condemnation was out before Chris could stop it, and he regretted his weakness the second after he'd allowed it. He'd had no intention of defending his actions to the others. He had his reasons for acting the way he did. He didn't see any need for an explanation. He knew he'd done the right thing. He really didn't give a damn about what the others thought. But the truth of Buck's words pulled the thinly-disguised defense from him nonetheless, the festering guilt getting the better of him as he stood confronted by the perplexed expressions of his fellow lawmen.

"On account of you?" Buck straightened as the angry scowl dissolved into an astonished frown. "Now wait a minute--"

"Like hell I will." With the abrupt objection, Chris pushed his way past the others and out of the office.

As he walked through the doorway, he heard Vin offer some advice. "Hold on, Buck. Now don't seem to be the time."

Outlaw turned his head and looked back at his owner as Chris threw a saddle over the blanket already covering the horse's back.

"Don't look at me like that," Larabee barked as he recognized the leer he was receiving from the animal. "I know it's gettin' dark, but I've... I've got to get the hell outta here. We're spendin' the night at the cabin."

With the saddle cinched snuggly around the gelding's barrel, Chris untied the reins. Turning, he started to lead Outlaw out of the livery, but was stopped short by the presence of Vin Tanner standing in the doorway, thumbs tucked lazily into his gunbelt as he leaned against the frame.

"Can't blame yourself, Chris." The younger man slowly shook his head as he unflinchingly met the stern rejection in Larabee's hard stare.

"You were right, Vin." Chris' voice coolly reflected his steady gaze. "This ain't the time."

"Maybe not for Buck's bulldoggin', but I figure you need to hear it from someone."

"Nope." The refusal came without hesitation as Chris flatly rejected Vin's subtle consolation. He wouldn't permit himself the luxury of forgiveness. "Don't need to hear it at all."

"Don't want to hear it, ya mean," the sharp shooter accurately countered.

The breath that left Chris came in the form of a short, impatient huff as he tried to calm the growing aggravation that simmered just below the surface. He knew what Vin was trying to do, and in an odd way he appreciated the effort, or at least, he wanted to appreciate the effort. But he couldn't see his way clear to agree with his friend's view of things. Plain and simple, Vin was wrong.

"My past came damn close to gettin' two people killed tonight." The impatience filtered into Chris' edgy response. "There ain't nobody else to blame but me."

"Jake Hawkins had a little somethin' to do with what happened here. It was his doin', his choice."

"It was a choice I compelled him to make."

Lifting his shoulder from the doorframe, Vin straightened as he confronted Chris' unrelenting anger, a little of his own peeking through in his usually even-tempered tone. "We've all done things in the past that could come back to threaten our lives here, the people we protect. Hell, even JD has to worry about Achilles' men comin' back lookin' for revenge. We just gotta be strong enough to stand up to the ghosts of our past as best we can and keep 'em from destroying our present. You did that tonight. Mary and Billy are all right. You did what you had to do."

Shaking his head, Chris walked to stand directly in front of Vin, emphasizing his intention to leave. It wasn't as simple as his friend made it sound, the uncertain future looming before him with all the darkness of a building storm cloud. "This time I was able to protect them, but what about the next one? We both know there's gonna be a next one." He closed his eyes against the terrifying possibility, Sarah and Adam's faces appearing before him. "I can't do that again. I won't do that again."

"There might be a next one. It's possible." A short, mirthless laugh left Vin. "Hell, anything's possible. Gettin' hit by lightning's possible. But you can't keep runnin' from possibilities, Chris. Not and have any kind of life--the kind of life I know you want. True happiness ain't easy to come by, but it's worth fightin' for. You haven't forgotten how to fight, have ya?"

Chris' eyes sprang open with the offensive question, his narrowed gaze colliding with the obvious challenge in the other man's expression. Vin hadn't used the word coward, but Hawkins had, and the unwelcome label flashed through Larabee's head as he contemplated what his friend had set before him.

Forgotten how to fight? A bitter revulsion gripped Chris as he considered the nauseating possibility. Hell no, he hadn't forgotten how to fight. But... he'd learned all too well that the price of failure was much too high, defeat too devastating to endure. It wasn't the fight that... frightened him, but the uncertainty of success. If he were the only one at risk, he'd fight with his last breath for the life he wanted, but there were other lives to consider, lives too precious to him to hazard the battle. He had no right to put them in harms' way, endanger them by pulling them closer to him. No matter how much he might want it, crave it, the happiness wasn't worth chancing the horrific consequence of his relentless past.

Cowardly? He shied away from the repulsive description, unable to place the harsh brand on his actions.

Merciful? It was a much more palatable word. And as far as he could see, keeping those he cared about at arm's length was a merciful act, providing them protection from his dangerous influence. Sparing someone a death sentence couldn't be seen as anything less than merciful, could it?

"Outta my way, Vin." The short command held a frosty edge as Chris continued to focus equally cold eyes on Tanner. The conversation was over.

With a slight nod, Vin took a step backward and slid the barn door open a few feet farther, allowing Chris and his horse room enough to exit.

"You comin' back?" Vin solemnly asked as Chris cleared the doorway.

It was a question the gunman couldn't answer.

Looking back into Vin's face, he no longer saw the rigid lines of challenge. In their place hovered a softer countenance, one shadowed by a deep concern. An answering sympathy rose in Chris as he recognized the change, but he quickly squelched it. He wanted to ease his friend's mind, but he couldn't--not and be honest with him.

"Don't know," was all he offered before mounting Outlaw. Without a backward glance, the gunslinger headed down the street.

The sun had completed its journey, lost beneath the horizon as a full moon assumed its duty, brightening the sky above the now quiet town. But as he made his way down the deserted thoroughfare, Chris didn't notice the silvery ball that silently observed his slow, steady pace. Rather, his attention centered on the building to which he was gradually drawing closer. No light shone through the window of The Clarion News. There was no evidence of occupation, of life, but he knew two lives thrived there, nonetheless, and he found momentary solace in the knowledge that they were safe and sound.

He pictured mother and son sitting down to supper, Mary's stew steaming from a couple of full plates, and a wish that he could be with them skirted through his heart. But it couldn't happen--not now. He cursed his defiant fancy, his jaw tightening as he worked to banish the unwelcome desire, anger with himself aiding in the effort. The wish was yet another slip into weakness, one more awkward stumble into tenderness that he couldn't afford. As his gaze fell back to the road in front of him, Chris desperately tried to wash the inviting picture from his mind's eye.

Fixing his attention on the silver-tinged night that loomed before him, he refused to give The Clarion a second look as he rode past its front door. It was almost safely out of his line of vision when that same door opened.

"Chris!" Billy Travis called as he hopped out onto the walkway.

All the muscles in the gunman's body reacted with swift, rigid awareness, the unexpected sound of the boy's thin voice giving him a start. Thwarting the instinct to look in Billy's direction, he kept his horse moving at the same steady pace, his sights stubbornly trained on what lay ahead of him.

"Hey, Chris!" The child called out again, a flicker of hesitation tainting the plea for recognition.

Every shred of Chris' conscience begged him to acknowledge the boy. Screamed at him, in fact, not to hurt Billy any more than he already had. But he found the strength to reject the dictates of his better self. He had to remember, in the end, his cruelty would save the child's life. Nothing was as important, except keeping his mother safe, too.

"Chris! Hey, Chris! Chris?!"

"Come on, Billy. Come inside." Mary's voice held a soothing note as she spoke to her son, but the anguish was also unmistakable. "Supper's ready."

"What's wrong, Ma? What did I do? Why don't Chris like me anymore?"

The puzzled desolation he heard echo in the questions shredded Chris' heart, his eyes closing against the biting pain as he fought to control the excess moisture that had started to pool. Dear Lord, how this was killing him.

With a hard kick to his horse's flank, Larabee spurred the animal into a lope, the need for escape all at once consuming him. He didn't want to hear any more. He couldn't hear any more. It hurt too damn much. Within a minute or two, he was on the outskirts of town. The cabin would provide him sanctuary from the consequence of his heartlessness. But for how long? Again, the necessity of departure pushed its way forward from where it hovered on the blurred edge of his thoughts. Would the cabin really be far enough?

The whiskey was anything but smooth as it ran down his throat, but he welcomed the relief it afforded him. Not too many more swallows of the fiery liquid and he wouldn't feel a thing--not one little thing. That was, after all, his goal--to stop thinking, to stop feeling.

Lowering the bottle from his lips, Chris looked up at the moon that watched him as he sat on the cabin's porch, quietly numbing the ache. It was an impressive sight, the large, bright orb hanging in the star-cluttered sky, subduing the blackness with its far-reaching, persistent glow. Thanks to that brilliance, he had found it easy to make his getaway despite the darkness, the trail through the hills easily visible. The sun-like moon had also served him well as he unsaddled Outlaw and turned him out into the corral, a broken plank next to the gate catching his eye. He'd have to fix that in the morning. In the morning.

The bottle again touched Chris' mouth. He didn't want to think about the morning. With the new day would come an even clearer view of the situation he'd created. And he wasn't at all sure he was going to like what he was going to see. With any luck, he'd still be too drunk or too hung over to consider the circumstances too closely. Anyway, he was doing what was best for everyone involved. He just had to keep reminding himself of that one forgiving truth. But...would anyone else recognize his good intentions? Would they understand? He already knew the answer to that question, didn't he?

"Why don't Chris like me anymore?"

The gunman squeezed his eyes shut tight as the hurt voice of Billy Travis found its way back into his head. The renewed pain forced another long swallow of whiskey. No, they didn't understand. Was deliberate cruelty ever really understood by those who suffered it?

"Damn it!" Chris bolted from the chair as he raged against the unwanted speculations. It didn't matter. None of it mattered. He was doing the right thing. Whether they understood or not, he was doing the right thing.

In the next instant, the whiskey bottle was empty. Turning on his heel, Chris started to go into the cabin, but a sudden dizziness stopped him. Before the unsteadiness sent him to the ground, his hands shot out to grab the doorframe, the bottle landing with a crash on the porch. He held on and allowed the fleeting disorientation to wash through his brain. As it did so, a cynical smile drew back his lips. He was almost there--almost. But oblivion was still a little beyond his reach.

Ignoring the shattered glass at his feet, Larabee opened the door and went in search of the one thing that would put that blessed void within his grasp. He found it on a shelf next to the stove. With the new bottle tucked under his arm, he stumbled to the bedroom. He didn't bother with a lantern, the moon's brightness spilling through the windows, continuing to aid him in his movement.

Heavily, he dropped to sit on the edge of the bed. After the first swig from his replenished source of relief, Chris sat the re-corked bottle on the floor. A sigh broke the silence as he went about the task of removing his boots. With more effort than should have been necessary, he finally got the stubborn footwear off his feet. He rewarded his success with another drink before giving into the weariness that suddenly seized him.

Allowing his body to fall back on the bed, Larabee's head missed the pillow by a good foot as he lay across the mattress, a hand clutching the neck of the closed bottle close to his side. An arm thrown across his eyes blocked the intense glow of the moon while the rest of his body relaxed against the welcome softness of the bed. For several minutes, he was aware of little but the inviting comfort. But his demons wouldn't let him bask in the reprieve for long, his mind unwillingly wandering back to the events of the day. Mary's face appeared before him, the terror of her ordeal etched along her lovely brow, shadowing her expressive eyes.

A low moan left Chris as he lowered his arm to his side, his eyes searching the luminous dark, looking for nothing in particular. He was merely trying to replace the painful vision with something, anything, less repulsive. But it wouldn't leave him, that torturous image. He could still see the gun barrel trained at Mary's head, the fear on her face. He could still see the hatred burning in Jake's eye as he held Chris' life, his sanity, in his vengeful hands.

The resounding gunshot pulled Chris back into a sitting position, the awful memory bringing back the rage and fear. As the deafening pulse continued to ring in his head he tried to drown it into silence, but the whiskey wasn't working as well or as quickly as he'd hoped. His frustrated anger manifested itself as he sent the bottle flying across the room. It crashed against the wall as he fell back onto the bed, his hands moving to cover his ears while he closed his eyes. "No. No. No," he whispered as his head slowly moved from side to side.

Now it was Sarah's face he saw before him--still, pale, marred by the soot that had blackened the remnants of their home. An unfettered tear slipped from the corner of his eye as the devastating picture taunted him. He would never forget his first sight of her as he searched the burned-out shell that had been their "perfect house". He had found them both underneath what remained of their bed. And although very little of the house was left standing, his wife and son had been spared the wrath of the flames, but not the horror of a brutal death. Another tear joined the first as the recollection tormented him, Sarah's lifeless face as clear to him now as it had been on that hellish day.

Soon, almost as quickly as it had appeared, the vision began to fade, to change. In the next instant, it was Mary's face that haunted him--still, pale, marred with soot.

"No!" Chris screamed the denial as he rolled over on his stomach, the tears coming steadily now. As if to somehow get away from the horrific image, he crawled toward the top of the bed and buried his face in the pillow, his prayer muffled by the downy cushion. "Please, God. It won't happen again. I promise. It won't happen again."

The determined declaration seemed to stem the overwhelming tide of grief holding Chris in its merciless eddy of pain and guilt, the tears drying as he turned over to lay on his back. In an effort to further calm the storm of sorrow, he purposefully reached up to wipe away the wetness staining his face as a deep sigh passed his lips. Quietly, he worked to temper the debilitating blame with a renewed pledge to prevent anymore tragedy, and as he did so, a profound fatigue began to blanket his mind, his weary eyes drooping shut, followed closely by the temporary rescue sleep provided.

His head hurt. It was his first thought as consciousness gradually returned, the pounding in his temples helping to pull him from the foggy void between sleep and wakefulness. He opened his eyes only to quickly close them again as the sunlight pouring through the window intensified the throbbing.

Bad move. A hand rose to cover his eyes as the condemnation invaded his thoughts. Too bold and too fast. He should have known better. He did know better.

It took a few seconds for his eyes to regain their equilibrium, and then, with his hand still providing protection, he opened them once again. It helped. Well, it helped a little. Even shielded from the painful light, the effort still hurt. His head wasn't ready for the new day, and it wouldn't be for a while yet. This was a situation with which he was all too familiar. He knew the pattern of recovery like the back of his hand. It would be a couple of hours before the effects of the previous night wore off.

Coffee. He needed some coffee.

Squinting against the bright rays, he lowered his hand. Slowly, he sat up and swung his feet over the side of the bed to settle on the floor. The ache in his head worsened with the movement, and he stopped to rest it in his hands while his elbows rested on his knees. As the throb died down, he ventured a glance out the window. It was going to be a beautiful day. He was going to be sick.

Coffee. He had to get some coffee.

The journey to the standing position wasn't too earth-shattering, nor were the first two steps toward the door, but as he prepared to grab the handle, the third sent a sharp sting shooting through his foot. "Damn." With the low explanation, he took a hop backward and looked down to see shards of glass scattered on the floor in front of the door. His eyes followed the glass to climb the wall next to the door where the stain of dried whiskey marked the wood. With the sight came the recollection--the vision of a precious face, the memory of a gunshot, the unbearable fear, the white-hot rage, his violent reaction. So much for being too hung over to remember.

But he wasn't going to remember--not now, not yet. Pushing the unforgiving reminiscence from his mind, he maneuvered carefully to open the door and walked into the main room of the cabin. Sitting at the kitchen table, he pulled the sock off his foot to assess the damage. Not bad. Through the cotton, the glass had barely nicked the skin. He'd live. A small, cynical smile tugged at his mouth. Yeah, he'd live.

With the favorable prognosis, Chris set about busying himself, and his mind, with the uncomplicated, painless routine of his life at the cabin.

First things first. The coffee was strong and black, and it helped to settle his queasy stomach. After two cups, he cleaned himself up and changed clothes.

The livestock came next. As he walked out onto the porch, the sound of crushed glass under his boots stopped his progress to the corral. He looked down to discover another broken whiskey bottle. The need to sweep it up was the only thing he let register in his thoughts, the agonizing reason for the mess effectively blocked from usurping his practical, emotionless observation. He had to keep himself under control. He didn't want to revisit the pain, although he knew it would only be a matter of time.

He resumed his walk to the corral and was greeted by an impatient whinny as Outlaw galloped up to the gate, coming to a sliding stop just as he reached the limits of his confinement. Dust billowed, and Chris waved at the air trying disperse the blinding cloud that he knew had been purposely directed his way.

"Why you cantankerous old..."

A defiant snort interrupted the unflattering observation, and even though it hurt like hell, Chris couldn't stop his bark of laughter as he received another indignant stare from the gelding. Sometimes he could almost hear the curse words running through the animal's head. Through all his years of breeding and breaking horses, he'd never run across one quite as smart as Outlaw, or quite as tough. He came by his name honestly. At the time, Chris hadn't thought he'd ever be able to keep a saddle on his back. But they'd eventually come to an understanding--eventually. A mutual respect made them friends.

"Just hold on a minute, mister." As he turned toward the shed standing next to the corral, Chris looked up at the sky. The sun's position told him he'd slept through the entire morning. He guessed it to be late afternoon. No wonder the old cuss is pissed. Breakfast should have come hours ago.

When he returned with the grain, he saw that Outlaw had been joined, but not too closely, mind you, by the other resident of the corral. The youngster was also more than ready to eat, but he stood back quietly and waited for his elder to be fed first. He knew better than to try to get ahead of the old man.

With the black gelding happily eating on one side of the pen, Chris was followed to the opposite side by the younger horse. Reaching through the planks of the fence, he poured the feed into a bucket tied to a post. As Chieftain began to eat, Chris stepped back and watched, satisfied for the moment. Bay, with a clean white blanket covering most of his hind quarters that was sparsely dotted with large black spots, the two-year-old was striking to the eye. And unlike most of the Indian ponies Chris had seen, this animal was nicely muscled--decent pastern, short canon, good forearm, wide hip. He was pretty correct, too. Quarter horses were Chris' mount of choice, but this youngster had all the right qualities, and he wasn't about to hold a few spots against him. He had an easy nature and was smart to boot. He'd learn quickly, if his owner ever got around to putting a saddle on his back.

Soon--he'd get him broke soon. Chris wanted to build another pen first. Something smaller than the one the horses occupied now, with less room to run and buck. He wanted to get a small barn built one of these days, too, but he'd have to get Chieftain saddle broke before that happened. He was running out of time. The horse wasn't getting any younger.

But would he be around long enough to see those things come to pass? Chris balked when the unwelcome question invaded his musings, his thoughts slipping back into unpleasant reality. Was all his work here for nothing? Would this place become an unfinished dream as his past shattered the hope for a settled existence?

Turning on his heel, the gunman walked with a determined stride to the gate, focusing his sights on the busted plank as he again refused to concentrate on the disturbing possibilities. He had work to do.

The bottom board on the left side of the gate was snapped in two, more than likely because a hoof had been pushed through it. Most of the time the occupants of the corral got along, but there were those occasions when they infringed on one another's territory, and sometimes, the feet flew. Funny he hadn't noticed the board before last night.

Retrieving a spare plank from a small pile behind the shed, Chris gathered the rest of the tools he would need and set about fixing the fence. As he hammered the last nail into the post, the sound of an approaching horse drew his attention from the job. He looked up expecting to see Buck or Vin, but was taken aback to find Mary Travis pulling her horse to a stop not far from the corral. She was the last person he thought he would see, and the realization that trouble in town was the only thing that would bring her out to the cabin had him dropping the hammer on the ground. With a stern frown pulling at his mouth, he moved quickly to meet her as she got down. "Mary, what's the matt--"

The blow was swift, catching him off guard, the sting of her palm against his cheek sharp as he was effectively forced into silence by the harsh, unexpected contact.

"You bastard." Her voice brimmed with a deliberate anger as she spat out the uncharacteristic reference. "How could you do it? How could you hurt him like that?"

The disillusioned pain coloring her insistent questions hurt Chris more than the slap ever could, and he felt himself wince as he heard it. Quietly, he stood absorbing the rage and sorrow radiating from Mary, muted by the unexpected attack and in awe of his attacker. He had hoped against hope she would understand, that she would somehow know and accept what he had done was for the best. But he'd known the desire was nothing more than unrealistic, wishful thinking. Even if she'd guessed his motive, he knew, in her eyes, there was no reason, no excuse good enough to justify his cruelty.

As the scathing accusation rang in Larabee's head, the surprise died away. Was it really so astonishing that she had lashed out at him? After all, she'd done it before to those who had threatened to hurt her child. Buck had told him of her violent reaction to Billy's would-be assassins. It certainly wasn't beyond her nature, not if she had good cause. And even he had to admit that, on this occasion, she had all the cause in the world. She stood before him every ounce the mother cougar protecting her cub--strong, fearless, intimidating. No one would harm her son, and if they did, no one would escape her wrath.

Chris wanted to be confused by her action, to feel that she had no excuse for the way she treated him, to know in his heart that he was right and she was wrong. He wanted to, but couldn't.

A grief-stricken fury burned in the unflinching eyes that glared at the gunman while the bite from Mary's assault faded from his skin. Chris supposed he should have experienced some sort of anger from the bitter attack, but it never came. All he could manage was a profound regret--regret for the pain he'd caused, for a life he could never re-capture.

As Larabee continued to study Mary's troubled expression, the regret was usurped by an impetuous need to console, a longing to comfort. His jaw tightened with frustration as the uninvited feeling moved over him. His weakness was showing again, undermining his determination. He couldn't allow it to gain a foothold, and with a resigned deep breath, stifled the tender desire as he slowly shook his head. "Go home, Mary."

Turning, the gunslinger started to walk back to the fence, but before he took one step, Mary grabbed his arm, forcing him to look at her again. "Don't you walk away from me."

The contact sent a warm awareness shooting through Chris, and the resilient need to ease her painful concerns resurfaced. Injecting a hard note into his voice, he once again squashed the pesky compulsion while he fought to push her away. "Leave it alone, Mary."

"No, I won't leave it alone. I can't leave it alone." The widow dropped her hand from his arm, the anger in her eyes suddenly mellowed by a timid uncertainty. "It... it's too important to Billy... to... me."

Under different circumstances, Mary's modest confession would have been greeted with a deep sense of relief and gratification that she might, in some small way, return his growing affection for her. As it was, Chris permitted himself to register the surprised contentment for only a brief second before his rigid purpose set itself before him, his tone harsher still, almost to the point of a yell. "Well, don't let it. Don't let it be important. Just walk away."

"Do you really think it's that easy, Chris?" The shadow of an incensed disbelief veiled Mary's face, its presence reflected in her urgent response. "Is it that easy for you?"

Larabee's mouth formed a hard line as he heard the query, his answer coming in an even, deliberate tone, concealing the fresh wave of anger her questions encouraged. "There isn't anything easy about this, Mary."

"No." The widow's brow rose slightly as she sighed. "I don't suppose there is, but it's easier, isn't it? Running away is always easier."

Mary might as well have slapped Chris in the face again, or better yet, given him a swift kick in the gut. Either one would have had the same effect. The hands at his sides rolled into tight balls as the dismay lost its grip on him. He wasn't running away. He was stepping back, offering a reprieve from the danger. Why couldn't she understand?

As the indictment sank in and the frustration swirled, Chris' eyes collided with Mary's. What he saw there cut him to the bone. The fiery skepticism had cooled, and in its place a sadness lingered, a disappointment so intense that it pulled every ounce of the infuriated impatience from him. Something inside him began to ache as a subtle shame started to bloom.

The gunman's hands relaxed as he quietly resigned himself to this newest consequence of his decision. She would continue to be disillusioned by him. She might even grow to hate him, if she didn't already. But she and her son would be safe. And, in the end, nothing else mattered. Did it?

"I'm doin' what's best for the boy." Chris' matter-of-fact voice broke the charged silence.

"Best?" The incredulous word shot from Mary, her anger returning. "You're ripping his young heart to shreds. How can that be what's best for him?"

"Damn it, Mary." Chris ran an uneasy hand through his hair as the offensive reminder proved too painful for him, and unable to meet the hurt staring back at him, he let his gaze fall to the ground. "I won't have his blood on my hands." A thick resolve filled his voice as he looked back up at her. "I won't have your blood on my hands."

Shocked fear flashed across Mary's face as Larabee alluded to the previous day, and although he hated seeing it, at the same time, he was glad. It somehow gave credence to his belief and made him feel justified as he watched her finally acknowledge the motive behind his harsh actions.

Closing her eyes, the widow took a deep breath, as though she were doing battle with the horrific memory. When she opened them again, it appeared as if she'd won, the fear lost somewhere in a wave of stubborn determination. "What happened yesterday wasn't your doing, Chris."

"I was the cause." His quick retort held a relatively large dose of staunchness of its own. "Jake Hawkins never would have done what he did if it wasn't for me. I know it, and you know it."

"But..." The objection died on Mary's lips as she seemed to realize the futility of the argument.

Maybe she didn't believe in it enough to pursue it?

"All right." With a sigh, she continued. "Even if it were true, that still doesn't make what you did right. I'm not blind, Chris. Nor am I deaf and dumb. Regardless of the hazards I know are there, Billy worships the ground you walk on. I knew from the start I couldn't change that, and I didn't try." She hesitated a moment, her expression softening a little as she considered her next words. "I don't think I ever really wanted to. Anyway, you can't tell a person how to feel. I accepted... his adoration of you, and found it in myself to allow for the risky possibilities having you in our lives brought with it. I've learned to live with them. And it's been worth it. Billy's happiness has made it worth it. I've never regretted my decision, not for one minute." She faltered again as a twinge of fear found its way back into her eyes. "Even after the threat by Jake Hawkins, there was no regret. You were there. You protected us. Only after seeing the total devastation in my son's eyes did I feel I made the wrong choice. And when it's all said and done, I guess that's the real point. Choice." She raised her chin in an obvious show of stubborn defiance, eyes steadfast and keen. "What gives you the right to take that choice away from me, from Billy?"

Chris stood mildly stunned by Mary's admission and her view of the situation. She'd made it sound so simple, so cut and dried. She'd boiled it down to an informed choice, a choice he was now denying them by walking away. She didn't blame him for the danger of yesterday, only for the cruelty of his reaction to it.

No. The subtle numbness began to fade. It wasn't that simple, not for him. Whether or not Mary accepted the gunman and the consequences that followed him made no difference. He couldn't accept them. The pain of failure, of loss, hovered over his mind like a dense, blinding fog, a constant reminder of how grave those consequences could be. No. Whether she liked it or not, this was a choice he made for all their sakes, and as far as he could see, it was the only one.

Squaring his shoulders, Chris worked to shore up his determination. "Like I said, Mary, I'm doin' what's best for you and the boy. That's my choice."

"And we have no say in the matter?" A renewed anger tainted the widow's voice, but the defeat was more noticeable.

All Chris could do was shake his head as he steeled himself against the sadness that abruptly threatened to snatch his resolve.

"Okay... but tell me one thing." Mary's expression portrayed a genuine confusion. "If Billy and I are willing to face the uncertain future, Chris, why aren't you?"

Coward. Once again, the ugly brand seared Larabee's brain, the implied meaning in the question rekindling the haunting shame. Like Vin, the widow hadn't actually used the word, but the implication couldn't have been more clear. At least, not to Chris. He didn't know if her intent was to accuse him, but he guessed no. More then likely, she was asking the question with no other thought than to try to understand. Larabee thought he saw the shimmer of tears in Mary's eyes, but before he could be sure, she turned on her heel and walked to her horse.

"Mary!" Chris called to her even though he had no idea what he wanted to say. It made no difference, however, as she ignored him, climbing into the saddle and pointing the animal towards town.

Larabee should have felt relieved that the widow was gone, that he'd gotten through the ordeal with his certitude intact, if not his pride. It had been a bitter test of his will, and he'd survived it. The relief, however, was nowhere to be found as it floundered in a sea of gloomy disgrace.

As the gunman watched Mary disappear from sight, the sound of clapping jerked his attention from the horizon. Spinning on his heel, Chris turned to see a man seated on the cabin porch, the thin applause continuing to drift through the calm air. He reached for a gun that wasn't there before he remembered he hadn't brought it out with him.

Slowly, he approached the cabin, stopping just off the porch in front of the still-clapping stranger. As he studied him, Chris was at a loss as to who he was or how he'd managed to sneak up on him so easily. Although seated, he guessed he and the stranger to be the same height. The man looked to be in his mid fifties, the hair at his temples steel gray against the black covering the rest of his head. His features were distinguished, if not quite handsome, blue eyes smiling at Chris as they made a lazy pass over his face. He wore no hat, but was otherwise dressed with a useful sort of elegance, the particular clothes reminding Chris of Ezra Standish. But the most important observation he made about his visitor was the fact he wasn't wearing a gun, at least, not one Chris could see.

"Very good, Mister Larabee. Very good, indeed." Leaning forward in the chair, his hands coming to rest on his knees, the man nearly bubbled with enthusiasm when he spoke. "I must congratulate you. You're doing a wonderful job."

"Who are you?" For the moment, Chris ignored the puzzling praise while taking a quick glance around. "How did you get here? I don't see a horse, and I sure as hell didn't hear one."

"Well, you were a little... preoccupied, Mister Larabee. And as you say, there was no horse to hear."

"Who are you?" Chris repeated. "What do you want? How do you know me?" He didn't like this. He didn't like it one bit.

"My name is Thaddeus P. Gilfedder." The stranger rose to his feet and extended a hand. When Chris refused to take it, choosing only to stare pointedly into the man's face, Thaddeus abandoned the friendly gesture, dropping his hand to his side before continuing. "Yes, well... you might say I'm here to celebrate your journey back into the fold. And as for knowing you--"

"Journey back? Fold?" Chris' already thin patience had worn through completely as he interrupted his unwanted guest. "What the hell are you talkin' about?"

"Precisely that, Mister Larabee. Hell."

As far as Chris was concerned, an explanation it wasn't, and his confusion only served to stoke a growing anger. He didn't like riddles much, and this fella, whoever he was, seemed bent on speaking around the point. Crossing his arms over his chest, Chris continued to glare his confused irritation.

"Hell? Now, mister, I don't know who you are, and I don't know what you're babblin' about. I don't much care on either count. I just want you gone. Now start walkin'."

"Come now, Chris, I'm here to compliment you on your success. You've cleared the path. There's no stopping you now." Pausing, Thaddeus flashed Chris another wide smile. "Like I said before, I just want to congratulate you on a job well done, nothing more."

"Yeah, that's what you keep sayin'. What job are you talkin' about?"

"Why, your alienation of Mary and Billy, of course. You've done splendidly. It's put you back on the road to darkness." Shoving his hands into the pockets of his pants, Thaddeus shook his head with slow relief. "I must say, you had Beelzebub worried there for a while. He thought he'd lost you again, with this white-knight routine and protector-of-the-realm stuff, but as it turns out, he had nothing at all to be concerned about, did he?"

"Beelzebub?" Chris' immediate concern over the stranger's mention of Mary and Billy was quickly overshadowed by the reference, the disbelief in his voice unmistakable as he repeated the one word that caught his ear and told him all he needed to know.

"Yes, the Devil, of course." Thaddeus confirmed the inquiry with a plain seriousness that left little doubt as to how earnest he was in his statement.

"Ah... of course." Although he wasn't certain why, Chris did his best not to give in to the bark of laughter he felt push its way to the surface. "And you're the Devil?"

"No, man." It was Thaddeus' turn to show a little irritation as Chris' logic seemed to offend him. "I'm a... messenger, if you will."

"But he sent you here?" Chris' eyebrows rose slightly as he boldly patronized the older man. "You're a... demon, right?"

"Well, something like that." Turning, the stranger sat back down, a confident smirk lighting his face.

Seriousness continued to permeate the man's words, and the startling conviction he heard gave Chris pause. That the stranger was crazy, there could be little doubt. So, what was he going to do now? Well.... With a quiet sigh, he thought. He'd have to take him into town and do a little investigating, maybe send some telegrams, try to find out if anyone was missing him. But he had to admit that the likelihood of finding someone was very slim. Other than the loco talk about the Devil and demons and such, Thaddeus appeared to be every inch the capable, independent man. Chris' gut told him his visitor was not someone who had been looked after, or needed looking after. Nonetheless, maybe it was about time. He couldn't allow him to go wandering around the countryside bothering people, or worse yet, getting himself shot.

"Okay, so you're something like a demon. Well, what do you say we head into town, and I'll buy you a ticket back to Hell? There's got to be a stage leavin' sometime this week." The rich sarcasm was out before Chris could stop it, and he cursed his temper. It certainly wasn't going to help him win the man's cooperation.

"Oh?" Thaddeus' smirk grew into an amused smile. "Well then, perhaps we could go together? It'll save you a little time."

Ignoring the barbed reply, Chris worked to gather his scattered civility. Taking a deep breath, he offered his... guest a forced smile. "All right, Mister... Gilfedder?" A subtle nod told him he'd remembered the name correctly. "All orneriness aside, I think I should take you into town... that is, if you don't have any family around here close."

The older man drew a heavy sigh, some of Chris' impatience finding its way into the slow, deliberate movement, the smile gone altogether. "No, Mister Larabee, you know perfectly well I don't have any family around here. And, contrary to what you're thinking, I am not crazy. I'm what I told you I am. So, you see, there's no need for a trip into town."

"A messenger." Another nod confirmed Chris' statement. "Well, mister," he lowered his arms to his sides as he locked eyes with his visitor, "seems you've already guessed what I'm thinkin'. No sane man would believe a word you've said, and I still consider myself sane. Sounds to me like you could use a little help."

"Oh, yes... the convincing." Thaddeus got up from the chair, his voice very quiet, almost as if he were talking to himself. "That is what comes next, isn't it? Hmm... let's see... what would be a fitting demonstration?" He scanned the area before his eyes settled back on his host. "Well, never mind. I think perhaps my words might be all that's needed in this case."

A slow smirk pulled at the corners of Chris' mouth. This could be amusing, if nothing else. "And just what is it that you think you can say to convince me you are what you say you are?"

"Hmm... for starters, I'd have to say that I disagree with you, Chris. You've come up with some very plausible excuses for your behavior, but the fact remains you are a coward."

There it was again, that word--that disgusting, sickening word. Hearing it made Chris' blood boil, but the fact that he was being christened with it by a complete stranger was a little more than he could handle at the moment. Just who in the hell did this man think he was? Thaddeus P. Gilfedder had no idea what prompted his actions. And the outsider sure as hell had no right to make a judgement. Crazy or not, the man had gone too far.

With the revived anger hot in his veins, Chris moved. In the next second, he rammed Thaddeus back against the cabin door, hands balled around the elegant fabric of the older man's shirt and tie, the scowl etched deep as he stared down his accuser, his voice tainted with a granite threat. "What did you just call me?"

"But that's good." Wide-eyed, Thaddeus choked out the attempted appeasement through the fist lodged up against his windpipe. "Being a coward is good. Cowards are always welcome in Hell. As a matter of fact, some of its most noted citizens are cowards. You'll be in rather distinguished company."

The hopeful smile Chris watched appear on Thaddeus' face did little to pacify the anger, nor did the explanation the older man offered. If anything, they fanned the rage. The fists at Gilfedder's throat tightened while Chris pushed a little more weight into them. "That supposed to make your situation better, mister? Well, let me set you straight... it ain't."

"Now, Larabee, I have nothing against a good temper. It's a very useful tool, and comes in quite handy on occasion. But I'd rather you not direct yours at me. If you would be so kind as to let me go?"

The surprise in Thaddeus' expression faded, only to be replaced by a defiant superiority as he waited for a response. Chris, on the other hand, felt more than a sliver of amazement move through him when he realized his action had done nothing to dissuade the stranger. The man's refusal to be intimidated kept Chris' anger high and prodded the mule in him to show its face as he continued to hold his visitor in an iron grip. He'd take back those detestable words.

"All right, if you won't let me go, I'll just have to do it myself."

And with that, Chris fell forward into the door, hard, his fists hitting the wood as Thaddeus' body was no longer there to offer him support.

"What the--?" The shock running through Chris' mind echoed in his voice as he pushed himself off the door and spun around, trying to get a bead on the man who had seemingly disappeared right out from under his nose. To his utter astonishment, he found the stranger standing right behind him, leaning lazily against a porch post, a smug grin lifting his mouth.

The disbelief continued to bombard Chris' mind as he gawked at his visitor. What just happened? It couldn't have been the way it seemed. No. Thaddeus pushed him out of the way, didn't he? Granted, it was a little hard to believe the older man could have bested him so easily, but it sure beat the hell out of the other explanation that swirled around in Chris' head. Men don't just disappear and reappear. No... men don't... but...

"That's right, Chris, men don't. Now you're beginning to understand. I told you I wasn't from around here." The grin widened into a playful smile. "Now can we stop all this hostility for just a few minutes? This is a friendly visit, remember?"

This wasn't happening. It wasn't. He was still drunk or still asleep. He was dreaming. That was it. He was still dreaming, and this was just another way for his conscience to punish him. He'd wake up in a few minutes, wouldn't he?

"No." Thaddeus shook his head. "You're not drunk or asleep. And you're not dreaming."

For the second time in almost as many minutes, Thaddeus seemed to get right inside Chris' head, hearing his every thought. The recognition sent another wave of shocked amazement shooting through the gunman. He was finding it more and more difficult to dismiss his visitor as nothing more than a crazy man who had escaped his keepers.

An unexpected question popped into Chris' head as he dared to let himself believe what he knew to be impossible. Did demons really exist? Well, according to his mother they did. The ghost of an out-of-place smile tugged at his mouth as the warmth of a fond remembrance invaded his mind and settled over his heart. Jessica Larabee had been a very religious woman and had seen to it that her sons went to church and prayed. As a result, Chris was not unfamiliar with the ways of the Lord and the Lord's enemies. It had been a very long time since he'd picked up a Bible, but he'd never forgotten his mother's lessons. Evil was always just around the corner waiting to burden your soul with its darkness. Yes, there were demons, and they worked against man. They'd been working against Chris almost from the day he'd left home. The hardships he'd endured throughout his life gave credence to his mother's teaching whenever he allowed himself to think about it.

But did demons pay calls on man? The smile brightened slightly as the ridiculous speculation came to Chris, his eyes still trained on Thaddeus. Well, maybe they did. The startling acceptance hit the gunman like a bolt from out of the blue, but something inside him told him he wasn't wrong, and he wasn't crazy. But did they look like Thaddeus P. Gilfedder? The smile dimmed to a smirk. And did they have names like Thaddeus P. Gilfedder? Well, maybe he wasn't completely crazy. Perhaps just a little sun stroke?

"A friendly visit?" Chris felt some of the tension from the disturbing moment leave him when he finally found his voice, but the anger still lay thick around his words as the subtle grin was drawn into a hard line. "You start off by calling me a coward, and you expect me to believe this is a friendly visit?"

The fact that it was yet another testament to Thaddeus' ability to read his mind wasn't lost on him either.

"Well, Chris, there's no other way to put it, is there? You're doing what cowards do, aren't you? You're running away. And I must say, I'm glad to see it. It's helping to turn you back around--head you in the right direction."

"So I'm headed back toward Hell, am I?" Stuffing his hands in his pants' pockets, Chris walked to stand next to Thaddeus on the porch's edge, his eyes fixed on the bright ball of fire in the sky. "I thought that's where I'd been. Oh well." His gaze fell to the ground, a bitter sadness creeping into his voice. "It couldn't be too much worse than what I've already been through."

"Oh, yes, it can." Thaddeus turned to look at Chris' profile. "A lot worse. It's an experience like none you could ever imagine."

The gunman merely shrugged at the ugliness of his future. His mother had warned him about fire and brimstone, and the ravages of Hell, and he'd believed her. Chris still believed her. He may not have grown into a particularly religious man, but his mother's beliefs still lingered in his mind, on occasion, gently swaying him this way or that, still having the softest of impacts on him. However, even with the influence, the threat of damnation didn't seem to be able to penetrate the hard shell of reality that surrounded him. Maybe it was because Chris still wasn't completely convinced that he wasn't hallucinating this man, his abilities and his words. Or maybe it was because he just didn't give a damn anymore. He had to make it through this hell-on-earth before he would worry about anything that awaited him after death. Of course, by then it would be too late, but he'd cross that bridge when he came to it.

Right now Larabee was simply tired. Trying to do the right thing for Mary and Billy was all he could concern himself with. Keeping himself from falling into the pit wasn't a priority. Besides, the way he saw it, he'd stumbled into that dark void years ago. This... odd encounter was nothing more than a conformation.

"And the risk of eternal damnation doesn't bother you? It doesn't frighten you?" For someone who should have been encouraged by Chris' apathetic attitude, Thaddeus seemed genuinely disappointed, a blatant incredulity marking his tone.

"No, it doesn't frighten me. No matter what you think, I'm not a coward."

"There are many different kinds of cowards, Chris." Thaddeus turned around to gaze out onto the small homestead.

Yes, he supposed there were. Was he really one of the many? No. He continued to reject the hideous possibility even as the doubt festered in his heart.

"And being beaten, that doesn't bother you either?" Thaddeus pressed on, the surprised disappointment still coloring his question. "Funny, I've always seen you as a man who hated to lose, but--"

"Beaten?" The word shot from Chris in the form of a fierce rebuff. It was another nauseating accusation he would deny with his last breath. "Who's beaten me?"

From out of nowhere, his words to Billy over a year ago echoed in his head. "I've met the Devil, more than once, and he ain't beat me yet."

"Truer words were never spoken. But they can never be spoken again... at least, not by you." Thaddeus boldly disputed the unspoken declaration. "He has beaten you--this time. He beat you the minute you chose to push Mary and the boy away. The minute you decided to kill the growing love you feel for them. In that moment, his victory over you was complete. How does it feel, Chris, to know that the Devil has finally gotten the better of you?"

Running a disgusted hand through his hair, Chris stepped off the porch and walked a few paces away from the cabin as this newest, unsettling indictment clouded his brain. Beaten. He'd been beaten.

It was true, wasn't it? And it was worse than simply being beaten, because he'd been defeated without even putting up a fight. More plainly put, he'd surrendered. The slow burn of an intense anger flickered in the back of Chris' mind, the tension pulling his hands into tight balls at his sides as he struggled against the painful truth behind what he'd done. He'd had no choice but to surrender. Mary and Billy's safety depend on his ability to walk away. But placed before him as Thaddeus had just done, the decision no longer appeared as noble as it once had. The unwanted image of a dog with its tail tucked between its legs skirted across his mind's eye, and he gritted his teeth in revulsion.

"He beat you the minute you chose to push Mary and the boy away, the minute you decided to kill the growing love you feel for them." Thaddeus' statement replayed in Chris' head.

"...the minute you decided to kill the growing love you feel for them."

"...the growing love..."

"...love..."

Larabee closed his eyes against what he knew had become an unavoidable reality. His feelings for Mary had grown, and as wrong as he knew them to be, he'd been unable to control them. But had he killed them? Truly killed them? No, not yet, not by a long shot. Would he ever be able to completely drive her from his heart? He didn't know, but he doubted it. Nonetheless... He looked back into the bright afternoon sun as if its cleansing rays might somehow burn the tender feelings from his soul. He'd have to keep trying.

"I'm not in love with Mary Travis." The falsehood left him as a belittling chuckle while he turned back to face his visitor.

"Oh, come now, Chris, please don't take the trouble to deny it." Thaddeus' brows rose with the contradiction, a subtle amusement dancing in his blue eyes. "It's as plain as the nose on your face, as clear as the thoughts in your head. You are falling in love with Mary. Actually, I'd say you're already there, but we won't quibble over trifles."

Chris' anger took on new force as he glared at the older man. He'd forgotten his thoughts were no longer private, at least, not with the demon around. The unfamiliar disadvantage gnawed at him as he had no choice but to concede, his harsh voice evidence of his infuriated ill ease. "And what if I am? What difference would it make?"

"Oh, a great deal, a great deal indeed." Stepping off the porch, Thaddeus stopped a foot or so directly in front of his host. "You see, Chris, the woman, or more precisely, the love you feel for her, is what has, in a large way, helped to pull you back from the brink. Oh, your ingrained sense of honor and fair-play, along with your roll as a protector of Four Corners, have all contributed to the reprieve. But... Lucifer has a real loathing for love and all the power it wields. It's the one thing that can sap every ounce of strength from him. As with Sarah, love calmed your heart, settled your mind, took you away from the evil that had begun to influence you. With her death, the influence returned, and the Devil began to reclaim what he'd started to lose. He'd almost beaten you then, but Mary came along, and the struggle started all over again. Her heart was there for the taking. All you had to do was reach out and embrace it. And you started doing just that. The farther you reached, the farther you drew yourself away from the shackles of anger and hatred that were dragging you back down. In your case, believe it or not, the love, and the woman you hold it for, act as sort of a... shield, if you will. Good ol' Scratch stands on one side, you stand on the other and Mary Travis stands between you." A self-satisfied smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "The wedge you're driving between yourself and Mary is destroying that protection, stealing that strength. Beelzebub is regaining control. And let me tell you, he's very pleased. Winning is one thing that does make him smile. Of course, he couldn't have done it without your cooperation, but that makes no never mind to him. He's won." The smile became a heart-felt bark of laughter. "How does it feel, Chris?" Thaddeus continued to taunt. "You've finally lost. You've finally been beaten, totally and completely. Again, I say... welcome back."

"Like hell I have."

How he kept his fist out of Thaddeus' face, Chris didn't know. But instead of the punch he was itching to throw, he pushed past the other man and strode into the cabin, slamming the door behind him. He'd heard about all he could stand.

Chris stood in the silence of the cabin, the rage and aggravation pulsing through him with every beat of his heart as the detestable triumph in Thaddeus' voice and words rang in his head. He couldn't let the bastard be right. He couldn't. There was still time to change things. There was still time to fight back. There was still time to win. But... There was also time to lose, to lose more than he had already, much more. If he went back, he carried with him the threat. That hadn't changed. Could he face it? Could he fight it? Could he protect them? A slow sigh disturbed the quiet air. He would do his damnedest. But would his damnedest be enough?

"If Billy and I are willing to face the uncertain future, Chris, why aren't you?" Mary's painful question came back to the gunman as the old struggle started to rage anew.

"Mary." The name was something akin to a whispered prayer, its force settling the brewing storm.

Chris had all but admitted to Thaddeus and himself that he loved her. How much did he love her? Did he love her enough to walk away? Did he love her enough to stay and fight? Which act was the stronger proof of that love?

The widow had already told him she accepted the risk he brought to her and her son's lives, that she was prepared to face whatever came their way. She'd made the choice with her eyes wide open. Did he have the right to take that from her? Could he really abandon the strength she offered him, the promise she held for him?

"No." The word echoed in the stillness while a powerful determination found new life, his eyes drifting shut as it cleared his mind of the paralyzing doubt, the troublesome questions. When he opened them again, it was to discover Thaddeus standing in front of him, a satisfied expression on his face. "Leave me alone." The quiet command held the faintest degree of weariness.

"Running away again, Chris?"

"Damn you, I'm not a coward, and I haven't lost." The anger crept back into Chris' insistent voice. "This isn't over, yet."

"Really?" A bewildered frown wiped the contentment from Thaddeus' face. "Don't tell me you're going to start fighting back now. It's too late. It's done."

"You think so?" A note of danger tinged Chris' simple reply as his eyes narrowed with conviction. "Well, think again."

"Hmm... this should prove interesting. So, you're willing to work at a future with Mary and Billy, to brave the uncertainty of your past?" The sigh that left him was brimming with defeat. "Well, this is unfortunate. Satan's going to be very disappointed."

"Pardon me if I'm not upset." The phony request for forgiveness was bathed in sarcasm.

"We'll see, Chris." Thaddeus seemed unfazed by the prickly response. "We'll see if you're strong enough." Taking a step forward, he captured Chris' eyes with his. "Now, I think it's time for you to rest, don't you?"

"Rest? Hell, I just woke--" The protest died in the gunman's throat as a sudden wave of exhaustion washed over him, his eyelids feeling for all the world as if they weighed fifty pounds apiece.

"That's it. Tomorrow will be soon enough. You can start your journey back tomorrow."

Thaddeus' soothing voice came to Chris from across a great distance as the only sensation he felt was his bed coming up to meet him. Even as he fought against the growing darkness, in the next instant, all was black.

The stench of brimstone pricked Thaddeus' nose just before he wrinkled it against the unwanted assault. He and Chris were no longer alone. Sliding his gaze from Larabee's sleeping form, he eyed the being now standing beside him. With an aloofness born of familiarity, he made contact with the unnatural, red eyes that considered him. A sly smile gave him a glimpse at the mouth full of jagged teeth, the rank odor of brimstone gaining new strength with the subtle movement of the yellow lips. Thaddeus took in the two small horns protruding from his visitor's forehead before he looked back into the amused eyes.

"Ya know, Thaddeus," the demon's voice crackled with a dry sort of roughness, "you're gonna get into trouble. You know as well as I do that your boss doesn't like it when you appear as something you're not. Isn't it against some kind of rule or something?"

"You're lecturing me on ethics, Claudius?" Thaddeus didn't try to stop the incredulous laugh. "This is one for the books. Wait a minute..." Looking around at nothing in particular, he pretended to search for something. "Let me write this date down somewhere." The uninspired smile Thaddeus received clearly told him the playful jab was in no way appreciated.

"Well, now that you mention it, it is a pretty noteworthy day when I have to remind you of the rules."

Thaddeus dismissed the bait with a wave of his hand. "Never once did I say that I was a demon. I just never got around to saying I wasn't. Anyway, what's really bothering you is the fact that your boss isn't too keen on my slightly unorthodox approach. Especially if it robs him of a long-sought-after prize."

If a demon could look sheepish, Claudius did for the briefest of seconds before a thin irritation guarded his freakish features. "Well, Larabee's been his twice and he's lost him twice. He really hates it when that happens. But things change. You got what you came for. At least, you've got it for now. But Larabee is still an ocean of apprehension and doubt. It won't take much for him to lose sight of his humanity again. And in the language of the region, it ain't over 'till it's over."

"Yes, Claudius, I know there's still a war to be won. This was merely a battle, a skirmish, really. But you'll find that I'm more than prepared to fight." Thaddeus' silky voice held a promise as hard as stone. Over the years, Chris Larabee's salvation had become something close to an obsession for him thanks to Jessica's unshakable faith. This was one soul he was determined to see rescued.

A shifty sneer quirked the corners of the demon's mouth. "Oh, yes, I know that all too well."

A slight nod of his head conveyed the angel's satisfaction with the response.

Claudius turned his attention to the man sleeping peacefully on the bed. "You went a little overboard, didn't you?"

"How so?" Thaddeus was intrigued.

"Well, Larabee had started back down the road, but he wasn't nearly as far down it as you made him believe."

"Perhaps not, but he'd gotten much too far down the dark path on his last journey. I didn't want to take any chances this time."

"Hmm... makes sense, I suppose." Claudius started to turn away but stopped short as he looked at his rival once again. "Oh, and just out of curiosity, why didn't you appear to him as all sweetness and light, with encouragement and love? That's the usual scenario, isn't it? Why the charade?"

Thaddeus took a deep breath as he considered the questions. "Larabee didn't need to be petted. From what I've seen of him, it's not something he'd take to very well. He's always been more comfortable when he's got something to rail against, so I gave him something. He still has a fight or two left in him. He just needed to be reminded what... or should I say who he was fighting against. Who better than a member of the enemy camp come to visit and do a little gloating about victory?"

"And thanks so much for that little reminder." Claudius injected a large dose of acid into the counterfeit gratitude.

"My pleasure." Thaddeus couldn't stop the big smile. "Are you going to stick around and see what happens next?"

"Ah... I think we both know what happens next, Thaddeus. I'll skip that scene if you don't mind. But... I won't be very far away." And with that chilling promise, Claudius dissolved from sight.

"Neither will I." Thaddeus turned his eyes back in Chris' direction. "Neither will I."

The haze of sleep slowly dissipated, and as awareness returned, Chris opened his eyes, the day's first tendrils of light reaching in through the window to cast a dusky hue about the room. Propping himself up on his elbows, he took in his surroundings. With his head much clearer than it had been yesterday morning, he decided that nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary. He was alone, his visitor nowhere to be seen. But... had his visitor been there at all?

Looking down at the clothes he'd slept in, Larabee remembered changing into them the day before, shucking off yet another shirt and pair of pants in which he'd also spent the night. Nope, the day had passed, and he recalled it all too well. The gunman was certain he'd been awake through the whole experience, even though he couldn't get himself to completely accept that it had really happened. Pretending he'd dreamed it would be so much easier, make so much more sense.

Allowing his head to fall back onto the pillow, Chris stared up at the ceiling. "So, you got a visit from a demon, a very friendly demon, but, still and all, a demon."

Closing his eyes, a long sigh passing his lips, Larabee cringed at just how crazy the admission sounded, and the need for a more reasonable explanation took hold. No, he was wrong. He hadn't been awake through the whole experience. He couldn't have been. He'd dreamed it all. He had to have dreamed it all. He'd fallen asleep sometime yesterday after feeding the horses. He didn't remember when exactly. He only knew it was the only explanation his now-unfettered mind was would allow him to accept.

But regardless of whether or not Chris believed Thaddeus had actually been there, did he maintain the possibilities and confessions the confrontation had revealed? If it was only a dream, was there any truth to what he'd learned, to what he'd admitted?

The gunman's eyes opened again to the ever-increasing light that spread its warmth throughout the room. Was he on his way to Hell? A sliver of fear sliced through him even as he reached the obvious conclusion. Yes, after the violent path his life had taken over the last several years, he more or less took it for granted that he would end up there. But did he have to end up there? Was he helpless to change his path? And if he found the determination to alter the direction his life had taken, did it still mean he'd been beaten? No. A faint relief found its way into Chris' mind, an absent resolve coming home to roost. It meant that the fight would go on, and that he would find a way to win.

"I've met the Devil, more than once, and he ain't beat me yet." His words to Billy once again repeated in his head.

At the time, the words were merely a way of making a frightened child believe he was protected, even from the Devil he was certain threatened him and his mother. But even then, Chris found more truth in them than he wanted to admit to, the pain and suffering of his life a testament to the evil that existed in the world, to the devils that existed in the world. He'd run up against several over the years, some face to face, some through the devastation they'd left in their wake, and each time, he'd found the strength to best them, if only by finding the will inside himself to carry on.

"Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is to just keep on livin'."

It had been another statement made for the sake of encouragement, but a powerful belief had accompanied it. For weeks after the fire, Larabee had wanted nothing more than to lay down and die, to join his family, Red-Eye whiskey his fastest route to oblivion. With his wife and son gone, there'd been no reason to continue. But the day Buck told him he was taking the coward's way out was the day he'd made the decision to prove to his friend and to himself that he was brave enough to live with the pain, to face whatever fate held in store for him next.

However, there were different degrees of living, weren't there? Yes, his heart beat in his chest. His breath came and went without thought. He ate when he was hungry. He drank when he was thirsty, and often when he wasn't. He existed.

Finally, the gunslinger had allowed himself to call others around him friend, and the existence once again began to show the colors of life. But there were shads missing: the brightness of home, the brilliance of family. These were parts of the spectrum that he missed the most, but was too apprehensive to try and add back into the mix. And until he'd come to Four Corners, there had never been any great desire to complete the rainbow; no one who had touched him deeply enough to make him think it was even possible.

And then Chris had run smack up against the mesmerizing personage of Mary Travis. The face of an angel. Hair the color of sunshine. Eyes the stormy blue of a restless sky. A body that promised the delights of heaven every time she moved. It was a purely enticing combination.

Chris felt his gut tighten with need as his thoughts conjured a tempting picture of Mary in his mind's eye. The familiar reaction caused a low moan to disturb the early-morning silence as he first sat up on the bed and then swung his feet to the floor before standing and walking to the window in an effort to calm the craving she never failed to stir. Larabee looked out onto the new day, and the hunger began to loosen its grip on him. The sun hovered just above the horizon, orange and pink a breathtaking sight as they painted the dusky sky, an early glimpse of the beautiful day to come.

A sigh left Chris as he continued to consider the emerging sunlight, his thoughts remaining centered on the woman who had taken up residence in his heart. Yes, Mary's beauty had caught his eye, but it was her strong determination and grit that had held his attention. From the beginning, even as he'd admired the widow's steadfast courage, she'd tried his patience to the limit with her fierce independence and unflappable beliefs. There had been many a time when Larabee had wanted nothing more than to shake a little sense into her. More often than not, Mary was too stubborn for her own good, but no matter how much the fact grated on him, he couldn't deny it was one of the things that drew him to her, made her exciting. Her kindness and decency only added to the complicated mix, and almost without warning, he'd found himself drowning in the bewitching concoction she represented.

"And what if I am? What difference would it make?"

A humorless smirk pulled at a corner of the gunman's mouth. The defensive questions had been an attempt to avert an admission, but they'd fallen short, instead sounding more like the declaration of a guilty man striving to cleanse his soul before taking his last walk to the gallows.

Running a thoughtful hand through his hair, Chris leaned a shoulder against the wall next to the window. Somewhere in the back of his mind he'd known it was happening, but he'd never gone so far as to admit it, never dared put a name to the burgeoning feeling. And now... well, he couldn't get around it anymore, not after... the dream or... whatever it was. Somewhere along the way, he'd fallen in love with Mary Travis. The very idea filled him with a sense of both peace and dread, the contradiction pulling at his conscience as the polar reactions struggled for supremacy. The shades of love and tenderness, missing from his existence for so many years, hovered ever so close, waiting to return their delicacy to the dark canvas of his life, and he wanted to welcome them back, more than he had realized. But could he? In the end, would there be a price to pay? He closed his eyes as the possibility siphoned his hope, tempering the need.

"Running away again, Chris?"

The question was so clear Chris' eyes sprang open before he spun around on his heel, expecting to find Thaddeus standing behind him with a cynical smile lighting his distinguished features, silently condemning him. To his relief, he was alone, the room still and silent as the first rays of the sun began to spread their warm fingers across the bottom of his rumpled bed. The sigh that left him was weighted heavily with that same relief. The gunman almost had himself completely convinced that Thaddeus had been the product of a dream; seeing him now would disturb what he knew to be, at best, a shaky belief. But regardless who asked the question, it remained, no matter how he would like to deny it, a legitimate one. Turing back to the window, he stared out at the sky once more.

"If Billy and I are willing to face the uncertain future, Chris, why aren't you?" For the second time, Mary's bold words came back to him, the challenge they held reinforcing the resolve he'd felt slipping away only a moment ago.

No. He wasn't running away. He would stay and put up the best fight he knew how, but he had to find out if he still had someone to fight for. Would Mary forgive him his cruelty? Would Billy?

Even as the trepidation and uncertainty gnawed at him, Chris went about the task of preparing for a journey back into town and toward his murky future.

Outlaw moved slowly down the center of the dusty road as Chris took stock of the activity around him. It was late morning, and the residents of Four Corners were already well into their daily routine, the street and walkways teeming with movement as people worked to get through the new day. Nothing looked out of the ordinary as a fragile tranquility hovered over the bustling town. How long it would last was anybody's guess.

As the jail came into view, Chris thought to ride past it, at first unwilling to test his control as the idea of facing Hawkins again brought with it a fresh wave of anger. But as he reached the front of the building, he found himself pulling his mount toward the hitching post just outside the sheriff's office.

It didn't make much sense. In fact, it didn't make a damn bit of sense, but for some inexplicable reason, Larabee had a burning need to see Hawkins, to confront the old man while he was sober and thinking a little more clearly. He had no idea why. He would be happy never to set eyes on the grieving father again, to block the man and the memory from his thoughts.

A pensive sigh escaped Chris as he stared at the door leading to the jail. That would be running away again, wouldn't it? This was all about facing the consequences of his past, confronting the unknown of his future, wasn't it? Conquering the fear and reining in the anger were both elements of the battle he was determined to wage, a battle for happiness, for serenity.

Would that battle also mean his salvation? His musings faltered as the question interrupted them. Had the... dream had that great of an effect on him, so much so as to prompt him to ponder the fate of his soul? He'd told Thaddeus he didn't much care where he ended up when his time finally came, but now he wasn't so sure. One thing he was sure about, however, was that the influence of his... encounter with Thaddeus P. Gilfedder, whether reality or fantasy, would remain with him for a very long time, challenging the strength of his resolve, reminding him of the true nature of his enemy. It was that new-found conviction that pulled him from his horse and guided him up the stairs and through the door. The struggle began today.

The room was quiet, the chair behind the deck unoccupied as was the rest of the jail, save for the inhabitant of the cell off to the left. In it sat Jake Hawkins, his head in his hands, elbows resting on his knees as he perched on the edge of the cot.

As Chris walked farther into the room, the clink of his spurs disturbing the muffled silence, Hawkins gave no indication that he heard the steady approach, his posture unchanged. But when Chris stopped just opposite the cell door, the older man raised his head, and when his eyes collided with his visitor, he straightened, his body becoming visibly rigid as his back bowed slightly with the tightness. His unease at the gunman's presence was further attested to by a nervous tongue sliding over an unsteady lower lip, his eyes dropping to the ground.

Silently, Chris looked down on the man who had come so close to destroying the life he had begun to rebuild. The meek person Hawkins presented now helped to take the edge off the rekindled fury Larabee felt move over him, but only to a point.

"Don't ever try to hurt me or mine again." A lethal silk laced the quiet words. "I will kill you next time." The deadly promise was a poor beginning to his fight for happiness, his anger, in the end, getting the better of him, but it was a truth the old man had to understand.

"There won't be a next time, Larabee." Jake looked up and faced his enemy, the trepidation all but gone, a settled calm seeming to take its place. "I'm probably gonna hang for what I did. And even if I wasn't, I'm played out." The surprise must have shown on Chris' face as Jake continued by offering an explanation, his even tone filled with a profound resignation. "I know what my boy did. I've known it from the beginning. He didn't give you much of a choice, did he? But that didn't matter. Nothin' mattered except the fact that you'd fired the bullet that killed him. I've been carryin' the hate around for so long, I couldn't see much past it. I didn't want to see much past it. Even though I didn't have a face to go with the name, you were all I saw. You layin' dead on the ground, my bullet in your heart." With a deep breath, he rose from the cot and walked to the back of the cell, his attention captured by the picture outside the window. "But now that I've had my chance... and failed, my sight's a little clearer. I see my boy as the rowdy troublemaker that he was." Turning, he looked back at Chris. "I see a man who was caught in the dangerous mischief Daniel made, and I see I've wasted two years of my life." A genuine fear entered the weary eyes. "I just thank God I didn't hurt anybody. All I wanna do now is to go home. One way or another, Larabee, I ain't gonna bother you anymore."

An unexpected sympathy forced its way into Chris' heart as he listened to the hurt, disillusioned father, a sudden need to show the old man that he wasn't alone putting voice to that sympathy. "I've been where you were, Hawkins. Hell, I guess I'm still there. In an odd way, I envy you. You've worked your way through. I'm still strugglin' with my hate." Chris' jaw tighten as that hate reawakened with the acknowledgement. Cletus Fowler was dead, but Ella Gains was still out there somewhere. "Go home." Snatching the cell keys from their peg, he pushed the rage back into hiding as he unlocked the door. "Go back to your family."

"You're lettin' me go?" The shock widened Jake's eyes as it registered in his voice.

"Yeah... I'm lettin' you go." Chris couldn't quite comprehend it himself, but it suddenly seemed to be the right thing to do, the uneasy kinship he felt with the man begging him for a reprieve. But it went deeper than the unsettling affinity he felt. He believed what Hawkins had told him. He could see the truth of it in Jake's sorrowful eyes, hear it in his submissive tone. "But remember..." His gaze was hard as flint as it captured the other man's, the cell door swinging open as he, nonetheless, felt the need to reinforce his earlier promise. "I don't ever want to see your face in this town again. You understand me?"

"I understand." A subtle nod accompanied the swift comprehension while a flicker of fear again found its way into the sad, hazel eyes.

Moving to one side of the door, Chris gave Hawkins enough room to pass, but just as Jake stepped out of the cell, he paused. "Thank you."

The gratitude was hasty and hushed, but there was little doubt that it was sincere. And as he heard it, Chris was further convinced he was doing the right thing. With an odd sense of peace, he watched the kindred soul walk out of the jailhouse, free to try and piece together his shattered life.

"Now wait just a minute, my friend." Through the closed door, Ezra's insistent voice was followed by an unmistakable click, as the hammer of a gun was pulled back into position.

With a purposeful stride, Chris opened the door and stepped out onto the walkway, taking a position between the two men, but looking toward his fellow lawman. "Let him go, Ezra."

"Let him go? After what he's done?" The gambler's brow furrowed as a perplexed frown found his mouth. "Are you thinking quite clearly, Mister Larabee?"

"I'm thinkin' fine. Let him go."

The standoff between the two men lasted only a few seconds before Ezra, with an impatient shake of his head, relented. The hammer of the Derringer was gently lowered before the gun disappeared back into the gambler's sleeve.

Quickly, and without a word, Hawkins hopped off the walkway and headed for the livery. After watching his progress for a few seconds, Standish turned exasperated eyes back on Chris. "He very nearly kills Mrs. Travis and you're going to allow him to ride out of town without so much as a by-your-leave?"

The accusatory reference to Mary, at first, sparked anger, but it cooled when he realized what the action must look like from Ezra's point of view. As far as he could see, Chris was putting Mary's life in danger again and it was, understandably, something he found puzzling. But giving Standish an explanation for what he'd done was not something Chris felt he needed to do. Besides, it would require him to reveal too much of himself, and that was one thing he was not prepared to do, especially to Ezra Standish.

"He's got my by-your-leave," Larabee stated, matter-of-factly.

"Yes, I can see that." Confusion continued to cloud Ezra's voice and expression. "Which begs the question why?"

Shaking his head, Chris injected a hard confidence into his voice. "He won't be threatenin' anybody else."

"And just how is it, Mister Larabee, that you can be so positive?" Standish wasn't anywhere close to believing him, his tone dubious at best.

A negligible shrug was all the answer Ezra got before Chris abruptly altered the subject. The gambler would just have to take his word for it. "I think it would be a good idea if you escorted Jake to the edge of town. I wanna be sure he gets there. And if he runs into another one of us before he does, you'll be there to explain the situation."

"Hmm... I'm not at all sure I can do that. I don't feel as though I'm completely abreast of the situation myself. But if the need should arise, I'll do my best." Ezra paused for a moment as a thought seemed to occur to him. "You know... the judge might have something to say about this when he finds out."

"I'll explain it to the judge." Again, there was a confidence in his tone, even as he admitted to himself that he wasn't altogether sure how that explanation would be received by Judge Travis. Discovering his daughter-in-law's attacker had been released might get quite a rise out of him no matter what the explanation. Chris would deal with that situation when he came to it.

A genuine amusement touched the smile that suddenly appeared on Ezra's face. "Now, that's one exchange I would very much like to be privy to."

"Go on, Ezra."

The gambler turned as if to follow Hawkins across the street, but abruptly stopped to once again face Chris, a mischief shading his expression. "So, you've decided you can do more good by remaining in the vicinity, keeping watch over Mrs. Travis and the boy?"

Chris considered Standish with a keen eye. The younger man's insight wasn't a total surprise. Ezra had an uncanny ability to read people, the query hitting the mark much as it had done two days ago. However, unlike the subdued conversation they had had in the jail, there was no overtone of accusation in the inquiry. Instead, it was almost as if Ezra needed to hear some kind of reassurance of Chris' intentions, to be convinced that there would not be a repeat of the frightening scene of 48 hours ago.

"I'll do whatever it takes to keep them safe." A stern certitude filled the heart-felt pledge, Chris' gaze unflinching as it held Ezra's.

There was a trust in the eyes that returned his stare. "I have no doubt, Mister Larabee. No doubt whatsoever." Raising a hand to the brim of his hat, the gambler gave a slight nod before continuing his journey across the street.

With a heavy sigh, Chris' attention slid from Ezra to settle on Four Corners' newspaper office. The hardest confrontation was yet to come.

When he walked into the paper's office, she was busy setting type and didn't look up right away. "I'll be with you in just a moment."

A faint smile warmed Chris' mouth as he watched Mary, a familiar concentration on her face while she worked the tiles in preparation for the next printing of The Clarion News. Slowly, his gaze moved across her flawless profile, and he was, as always, struck by her beauty, his body's unconquerable need once again making itself known. Unexpected, however, was the force with which the desire seized him, his acknowledged love for her giving new strength to his reaction. Dear God, he didn't want to lose that beauty, didn't want to relinquish that love, now that he'd embraced it.

Closing his eyes, Chris struggled against the nauseating possibility, grappled with the tormenting fear. What if his cruelty had been too much? What if forgiveness was beyond his reach?

No. Stubbornly, the gunman pushed the unnerving questions aside as an encouraging resignation calmed him. He wouldn't allow his apprehension to defeat him before he'd barely started the journey back.

"Take your time." Chris' voice was low as he opened his eyes, but to his ears at least, none of his turmoil was reflected in it. "I'm not goin' anywhere."

When Larabee spoke, Mary's hands stopped dead, her head coming up slightly as her gaze fixed on the view directly in front of her, the concentration dissolving into a stoniness that sent a chill down Chris' back. "What can I do for you, Mister Larabee?" The hardness found its way into the stilted inquiry.

Chris' jaw tightened when he heard the rigid tone. The ache started somewhere deep inside, somewhere in the vicinity of his heart, as he witnessed his greatest fear coming true. He'd hurt her too deeply. He'd hurt her son too deeply. Forgiveness would not come easily, if it came at all. But he'd known that from the beginning. Fighting was something he did well. This would have to be the best one of his life.

"You can start by lookin' at me." Taking a few more steps into the room, he stopped at Mary's side, his eyes never leaving her face. "Please."

For several long seconds, Chris thought the widow was going to deny the request as she stood her ground and made no move to turn toward him, a wavering confusion snatching the harshness from her expression, a minute betrayal of the conflict that seemed to hold her. Finally, to his relief, she relented, placing the tiles in her hand down and giving him her full attention, although avoiding his eyes.

Several more silent seconds ticked past as Larabee confronted the cool look Mary cast his way, another frosty finger skirting down his spine. But he'd come this far, and he wasn't about to back down now. Too much was at stake, not the least of which was his peace of mind and his peace of heart.

"I just want to protect you and Billy. Whatever it takes. Whatever I have to do." Chris' confession left him with a hushed urgency he'd not intended, the almost violent need to make her understand giving it force. The hardened gunman persona deserted him completely as the compulsion to explain stole his usually impervious defenses.

With the declaration, Mary's eyes found his, the confusion gone, a wisp of exasperation floating in the smoky depths. "Does the protection have to cause so much pain... be so cruel?"

Slowly, Chris shook his head, her disturbing question ripping at his insides, his normally sturdy detachment nowhere to be found. "I didn't want to hurt you and Billy. I only wanted to--"

"Yes, I know." A sarcastic impatience entered her voice. "You were only doing what was best for us. But I'll thank you to leave decisions about my life up to me."

As Larabee pushed a frustrated hand through his hair, the hat on his head fell to hang down his back, supported by the cord around his neck. He could do little else but concede her point even though he continued to struggle with it. "I was... wrong to make the choice for you, but I believed I was doing the right thing. A part of me still believes it. Keepin' my distance is the best way I know how to protect you from my dangerous past. But you were right." His eyes fell to the floor as the shame took hold. "I was running away, and... coward is a brand I find hard to wear."

"I never believed you to be a coward, Chris."

Mary's earnest contradiction pulled his eyes back to her face. A true surprise shone there, and the gunman gathered a small amount of gratification from the conformation that she hadn't seen him in the same harsh light in which he'd seen himself. If possible, his feelings for her grew stronger as he recognized the faith she still seemed to have in him.

"I was angry and hurt. And... I was... scared." A heartening softness soothed the amazed expression, the shadow of a smile touching her mouth. "But I never doubted your courage."

"I'm sorry, Mary." A guilty self-recrimination rose in Chris as he blurted out the anguished apology, Mary's admission sapping the last remnants of his stubborn hesitation. Unable to face the gentle sympathy suddenly staring back at him, he turned away from her and walked the few paces to take in the activity outside the paper's front window. He scanned the steady movement, but didn't see what he was looking at, a humbling remorse blurring his senses as he continued. "I'm sorry I hurt you and Billy. I'm sorry I let Hawkins get close to you, threaten you... frighten you. All I want to do is keep you safe. I don't know if I could go on knowing I'd... caused you harm." Painful memories dropped his voice to a whisper. "Once is hard enough to live with."

Another short silence made Chris wonder if his apology was going to be accepted. Would it really be enough? No, but it was a start.

"I know, Chris, and I understand... more than you think I do. Please, never doubt that." Mary's steady tone drifted through the crippling haze of regret. "But... I think you should know... when I came to see you, Jake Hawkins was the last person I had on my mind. My fear wasn't because of him. It was because of... you." She faltered a moment, uncertainty hanging heavily in the air before she spoke again. "I... I was scared that... you were going to leave... walk away for good. I... thought--"

Chris' quick pivot halted Mary's astonishing affirmation as hope welled up inside him. Slowly, he studied the beautiful face of the woman who would be his saving grace. He saw compassion, and was thankful for it. He saw sympathy, and was humbled by the generosity. He saw self-doubt, and a tender empathy warmed him. But above all else, he saw love, and was in awe of it, the peace he had wished for earlier finding its way into his heart, the bright colors returning to his darkened canvas.

"What? You thought what?" Chris' voice took on a husky note as he once again stepped closer to Mary, a need for her to finish tugging at him. Stopping less than a foot from her, he captured her eyes with his. "Tell me."

"I--" A subtle confusion entered her eyes as she wavered, but she didn't look away. "I thought we'd never see you again."

"We?" Chris coaxed, as he mischievously doubted her sincerity.

"Yes, we. Well... I--" A frustrated sigh left her as her eyes fell to stare at a point somewhere below his chin, a lovely shade of pink spreading through the smooth complexion of her cheeks, her discomfort plain to see. "Oh, you know what I mean. The town. If you left, it would be a great loss for Four Corners."

A smile lifted Chris' mouth as he watched Mary's unease. She wasn't quite ready to put into words what she'd told him with her eyes, and it was all right. He could wait. After all, he wasn't altogether sure he was ready either, but he had no doubt the words would come soon, and when they did, somehow he knew she would listen to them and accept them.

"Yeah, I guess it would." Reaching out a hand, Chris placed gentle fingers under Mary's chin, the silky contact sending a bolt of awareness through him, that tight feeling in his gut returning to play havoc with his composure. Thickness tainted his voice again as he looked back into her eyes. "It'd be a great loss for me too."

Surprised comprehension registered on the widow's face as they continued to look at one another, and she seemed to glean the feelings he did nothing to conceal. With a secret relief, Larabee watched as the surprise soon faded and a contented smile softened her expression.

Without thought, Chris' fingers moved to Mary's cheek, slowly sliding across the satin flesh before dropping to his side as he fought to temper the passion that was working on him. He saw an answering desire flare in her steady gaze before he thwarted the temptation by stepping around her and turning to face the window once again. Maybe being faced with the fact that anyone who happened to be walking by could see them would calm the need that scorched him.

Seeming to take his lead, Mary walked over to her desk and stood in front of it, putting some distance between them. After a few seconds, she broke the charged silence. "Chris, I went to see Jake Hawkins this morning."

"You did what?" Spinning around to face her once again, the gunman couldn't believe what he was hearing, the question coming hard and fast as the disbelief mixed with a fearful anger. Even after the understanding he'd reached with Jake earlier, he didn't want Mary anywhere near him.

"I went to see Mister Hawkins this morning," she repeated, an irritated defense brimming in the reply as she straightened in a physical defiance of his attitude, her chin lifting slightly as she silently challenged him.

"What the-- Why?" Chris kept his temper in check, just.

"I had to. I'm not really sure why, but I had to see him when he wasn't influenced by the drink. I needed to see if the hate was still there. And you know… it wasn't." The discovery still appeared to astound her as she acknowledged it, but it was also very clear that she drew great comfort from it, her defensive posture dissolving as an unmistakable sympathy enveloped her when she offered an explanation. "I think it died when he realized what he'd almost done. He's a decent person, Chris, who stumbled when he lost his son. He asked for my forgiveness, and I gave it to him. He's a sad, lonely old man, and I really believe he regrets what he did." She shortened the distance between them by a few steps as her hands fidgeted at her sides. Sheepishly, she looked into his face, a request for tolerance hovering in her eyes. "Can't you--"

"I let him go, Mary." Chris saved her the trouble of finishing her question, a need to reward her benevolent kindness urging his confession. "Before I came over here, I turned him loose."

Wide-eyed, she considered him with an incredulous stare, a gentle delight curving her mouth.

"You're right. He does regret what he did, and I don't think he'll try it again. He wanted a chance to go home and try to make up for the wasted years, and I gave him that chance." The stunned expression remained on Mary's face as Chris explained, and he suddenly wondered if he hadn't made a terrible mistake by granting his sympathy to the old man. "You're not upset that he's free, are you? I thought that--"

"No, Chris." A reassuring smile banished the surprise as she shook her head. "I'm not upset. When we learn from our mistakes, we all need second chances. I'm glad you allowed Jake to have his."

Relief brought an answering smile to Chris as he stood overwhelmed by the tender, generous heart standing before him.

"Chris?" A small voice hesitantly said his name, and he turned to find Billy standing just inside the door, a delicate frown furrowing the young brow even as a light of hope brightened the innocent eyes.

The boy's timid uncertainty cut Chris to the bone when he noticed it, and he again cursed his earlier cruelty, the painful guilt hammering at him. Somehow, he'd have to make it up to the youngster. Somehow.

For now, he cast Billy an inviting smile, hiding the ache, an authentic joy at seeing the child adding an encouraging tone to his voice. "Hi, Billy."

It was enough to bring a grin to the child's face as he walked farther into the room, taking a position directly in front of Chris while looking up at his towering idol. "You feelin' better?" The grin was replaced with an anxious frown as concern entered the young voice. "Ma said you weren't feelin' good, that's why you left all of a sudden. Are ya feeling better?"

Glancing in Mary's direction, Chris smiled his thank you, and she nodded her understanding. Squatting down, he faced his young friend. "Yeah, I'm feelin' lots better."

"What was the matter, Chris? Why was you feelin' so bad?" Billy's worried expression grew a little more intense as he asked about his friend's health.

"Oh... because... well, because I ran into the Devil again, and he was pretty tough on me this time around."

Chris wasn't sure why, but for some reason, he felt the need to be completely truthful with the child, even though he knew Billy wouldn't totally understand him. He only hoped a mention of the Devil wouldn't frighten the boy too much by bringing back the memory of not so long ago when he'd been the target of an assassin's bullet.

"The Devil?" A profound amazement lowered Billy's voice to not much above a whisper as his eyes grew big as saucers. "You met him again?"

"Yup." Smiling a confident encouragement, Chris picked the astonished child up in his arms, glad that there was no fear to be seen on the angelic face. "We had a mighty good fight this time, but... he still ain't beat me."

The End