Chris and the guys don't belong to me. MGM is the lucky one. I'm only borrowing them for a little while.

The Auction

by

C7

"Hey, kid!" Buck Wilmington yelled.

Chris Larabee looked up from his book to see his old friend bound onto the walkway in front of the jail, a mischievous smile lurking under the ever-present mustache.

"You got your money ready? Think you got enough?" The tall man winked at Chris as he put his hands on his hips and stood just outside the jailhouse doorway. The gunslinger couldn't help the grin that formed along his lips. Buck was at it again. Giving JD Dunne a hard time seemed to be a mission in his life. But Chris knew their growing friendship allowed for such irritations, and when it was all said and done, JD would probably feel very lost if Buck wasn't around to make his life a little miserable. Some lessons were hard to learn, and Wilmington, in his own odd way, had proven to be a pretty good teacher.

"What are you talkin' about, Buck?" JD's exasperated voice sounded from inside. "The barn raisin' isn't until tomorrow." With the last word, the youngest member of the seven appeared in the doorway. "And," a smug grin curved his mouth as he looked down at Chris and then back to Buck, "I don't think I'll need too much money. I'm gonna have enough to get what I want."

A loud bark of laughter shot from Buck as Chris cast incredulous eyes on the kid in the bowler and shook his head. "Overconfidence can be a bad thing, JD."

The younger man's eyes widened in surprise as they darted from one elder to the other. "What?" The single word came as a short, vehement denial of the subtle condemnation visible on both men's faces. "Most people know that me and Casey are.... That we're...."

"You're what?" Buck prodded, a teasing gleam in his eyes.

"That we're.... Well...." JD sighed as he shook his head. "Oh, never mind."

Buck's impatient sigh was even bigger than JD's. "How's everybody supposed to know what you don't seem to know yourself? And what about Tom Wilson?"

"Tom Wilson?" the one-time sheriff scoffed. "What about him? He and Casey are just friends."

"Oh, I don't know." Buck's voice was filled was playful doubt. "He may give you a run for your money, kid."

A thoughtful frown shaded JD's expression, but he quickly shook it off as he dismissed his friend's suggestion. "No. You're crazy, Buck."

"Okay." The taller man sat in a chair next to the doorway. He looked out into the busy main street as he shrugged his shoulders in surrender, a healthy skepticism coloring his tone. "But don't say I didn't warn ya."

When there was no immediate reply, Chris thought the conversation had come to an end, but he should have known better. Just as he switched his attention back to the book in his hands, JD challenged, "And what about you? You gonna be biddin' tomorrow?"

"Oh, yeah. I think Inez is entering a little somethin', and I'm--," Buck raised a hand and pointed a finger at himself. "I'm gonna be there to win it."

It was JD's turn to laugh as he looked down on his determined friend. "When are you gonna learn, Buck? She just don't like you. Plain and simple...she just don't like you."

"No, kid." The older man shook his head, an easy grin pulling at the corners of his mouth. "She just don't know me yet. But after tomorrow, when I win her basket at the box-social auction, and she has to have supper with me, I think she'll like what she learns."

Again, Chris smiled. Buck never could take no for an answer, not from a pretty woman anyway. But it appeared as if the self-proclaimed lady's man might be beating his head against a wall this time. Even after he'd foolishly almost gotten himself killed for Inez, the strong-willed woman still refused to give him the time of day. She had thanked him, of course, but didn't seem to feel as if she were too far indebted to him for his act of chivalry. He was fighting an up-hill battle.

"Oh, no," JD countered, an evil smirk on his face as he did a little teasing of his own. "That's when your troubles 'll really start. After she learns more about you."

"Oh, ya think, do ya?" Buck jumped up from the chair and snatched the hat off of the boy's head. "And I think you still need to get rid of this god-awful hat."

As the roughhousing started, Chris noticed Vin making his way across the street. He gave the two wrestling for the hat a sideways glance and a crooked smile as he walked up to the seven's leader. With a nod of his head, the bounty hunter indicated the livery. "You see what just came into town?"

The question halted the good-natured tussling, and all eyes gravitated to the building down the street. Chris's eyes narrowed as he recognized the primly-dressed man getting down from his horse.

"I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm gettin' a little tired of seein' this guy's face in town." Vin didn't try to hide his distaste at the arrival.

"How many times has it been since the trial, anyway?" JD's attitude wasn't much better than Vin's as he spoke, the irritation clear in his voice. "Three...four?"

"This is the third," Chris said quietly as he rose from the chair, his eyes still trained on the man now walking into the barn. A keen resentment tightened his grip on the book as he silently agreed with Vin. James Lightfoot was starting to wear his welcome thin, the reason for the lawyer's visits a very sore spot with Chris. During Obediah Jackson's murder trial, Lightfoot had become smitten with Mary Travis, or so it seemed. Since that time, he'd ridden from Eagle Bend on two previous occasions for the express purpose of seeing the widow. And each time he showed up, Chris felt his dislike for the man grow a little more intense. He hadn't thought he could disapprove of the slimy character anymore than he had at the trial. He'd been wrong.

"You don't think Mrs. Travis really likes him, do you?" JD asked as he looked around the small group. When his sights fell on Chris, the steely frown on the older man's face caused him to rethink what he'd said. "I mean-- That is to say-- Of course, she doesn't like him. What's to like?"

"Ah, kid," Vin tapped JD on the shoulder before shaking his head. "I'd quit while I wasn't too far behind, if I was you."

They all watched in silence as Lightfoot left the livery, a bright smile on his face and a bag in his hand. He next headed for the hotel.

"Well, it looks like he's stayin' the night at least. You don't--," Buck thought out loud. "You don't think he's here for the barn raisin' tomorrow?"

"Can't see him doin' much good with a hammer and nails. I'd say it's more like he's here for the box social," Vin answered.

Jealousy wasn't a word Chris cared to ponder, but he couldn't think of a better reason for the rage simmering in him at the moment. The thought of James Lightfoot and Mary together caused a tight knot to settle in his gut. Not unlike the feeling he'd experienced as he watch the widow with Gerard, her one-time fiancé. Although, as he'd witnessed the affection between the two, it had been more of a dull ache that had plagued him than a hot fury. He'd liked Gerard and knew the homesteader would be good to Billy and Mary. But even so, the idea of seeing her married to another man had hurt him, and, he had to admit, angered him. The idea of Mary with any man was nothing short of infuriating. Any man, that is, except himself.

Oh, hell, the silent resignation sounded in Chris's head. He'd tried to convince himself that all he felt for the beautiful woman was friendship, but when he was honest with himself, he knew it went far beyond friendship.

"Well, why don't we just find out?" The question left Chris as he laid the book on the seat of his chair. In the next second, he was in the street, striding toward the hotel.

"Now, Chris," Buck cautioned as he trotted alongside his friend, Vin and JD not far behind. "Chris, take it easy. You have to be calm about this."

The gunman stopped abruptly, almost causing a collision with the two men walking behind him. Turning his head, he gave Buck the most relaxed, innocent smile he could muster, his voice dripping with civility. "This is just a friendly hello. I'm calm. Don't I look calm?"

"About as calm as a rattler ready to strike."

Chris ignored Vin's pointed observation and resumed his journey to the hotel, his entourage still in tow.

Once inside, his eyes were immediately drawn to the man standing at the reception desk signing the register. Chris looked the lawyer up and down, and JD's earlier question ran through his mind. 'What's to like?' Good question. And an even better one, what did Mary see in this weasel of a man? Chris just didn't understand it.

Straightening from the desk, Lightfoot turned to retrieve his bag, but stopped short as he noticed the small group standing at the doorway. Chris thought he saw a trace of apprehension skirt across the guest's face before an unsteady smile took its place.

"Mister Larabee. Gentlemen." The lawyer addressed the group as he nodded. A strained moment or two of silence followed his greeting before he continued, a little uncertain. "Is...is there something I can do for you?"

"What brings you back to Four Corners, Lightfoot?" Chris cut right to the chase, not seeing any need for pleasantries. They both knew they didn't like each other.

"Well," Buck murmured from behind his friend, "so much for friendly hellos."

"Not that it's any of your concern, but I...I've come for tomorrow's festivities. Thought I'd give Four Corners a hand with its schoolhouse."

Chris's jaw tightened when he heard Lightfoot so much as tell him to mind his own business, but what bothered him even more was the fact that Vin's guess as to why the lawyer had returned seemed to be right. The town council had decided holding a box-social auction while people were gathered at the Hamilton barn raising would be a good way to help raise money for the schoolhouse they one day hoped to build. Apparently, Lightfoot had come to participate. There was no need to wonder whose basket he would be bidding on.

The realization brought the anger surging back to the surface. Chris's hands rolled into rigid fists at his sides as he took a step forward. "Mister, everything that goes on in this town is my concern." Two more steps and he was face to face with Lightfoot, his tone low and menacing as he bit out the next words. "The sooner you learn that little lesson, the better off you'll be."

A hefty satisfaction moved through Chris as he watched Lightfoot take a step backward, some of the color draining from the prosecutor's stricken face. "Is that a threat, Mister Larabee?"

"Threat?" Chris's eyebrows rose in mock surprise. "That was no threat. That was just a friendly piece of advice." Smiling, he tipped his hat. "See you at the barn raisin' tomorrow, Lightfoot."

With the promise, the gunman turned and walked out of the hotel. Standing on the walkway, he took a deep breath. That had gone pretty well. He hadn't put his fist in Lightfoot's face, and he'd found out what he wanted to know. The knowledge didn't make him feel any better, but at least now he knew the lawyer's intentions. But he'd known those already, hadn't he? The visit really hadn't been necessary, had it? No, it hadn't. A smile tugged at Chris' mouth as he recalled the look on Lightfoot's face when he'd accused the gunslinger of threatening him. No, maybe the encounter hadn't been necessary, but it had been...fun.

Chris was back in the street before his friends caught up with him.

"So," JD broke the momentary silence, "you gonna be biddin' tomorrow, Chris?"

The question drew laughter from Buck and a simple shake of the head from Vin. It appeared as if both of them thought the question silly. Just JD being his usually naïve self. The two men seemed certain that Chris would be taking part in the auction, especially after what they'd just witnessed. But as Chris thought about it, it didn't seem like such a stupid question.

He barely heard Buck's teasing jabs at JD as he asked himself the same question. Was he going to bid? He hadn't really thought about it until now. An auction like the one being held tomorrow wasn't just about raising money and getting a good, home-cooked meal. It was also about sweethearts and courting and spending time with someone you cared about. At least, that's the way it always seemed to work out. JD and Buck were certainly looking at it that way. Was he prepared to tell the whole town how he felt about Mary, even before he'd told the widow herself? No, he wasn't ready. He wasn't anywhere near ready to tell either the town or Mary. But James Lightfoot? A subtle wave of revulsion passed through Chris. Could he stand by and watch the unsavory character lay claim to Mary's affections without so much as a word?

And...what did Mary want? In the end, the answer to that question should be his only concern--what she wanted, and what would make her happy. Did she welcome Lightfoot's attentions? It seemed as though she did. Chris hadn't spoken to her at all about the man's visits. All he knew was that the lawyer had come back to town twice, both times bearing gifts, and had taken Mary out for an evening meal. There was no reason to think that she didn't appreciate the devotion being shown her. Chris's smile returned. If Mary didn't want Lightfoot hanging around, she would let him know about it, in no uncertain terms.

As Chris climbed the stairs leading to the jail, the grin faded into a deep scowl. Picking up the book, he sat down in his chair. A lawyer was safer than a gunslinger, much safer. No, he didn't know if he was going to bid tomorrow or not.

**********

Chris wiped the sweat from the back of his neck with the bandana he pulled from his pant's pocket. It had turned out to be another hot, July day, and the men of Four Corners had worked through the better part of it. But they had a lot to show for their efforts, and the accomplishment made Chris feel good despite the oppressive heat. He enjoyed working with his hands, building things. He hadn't realized how much he missed it until he'd started working on his cabin.

Leaning down, he plucked a canteen from his saddle as it rested on the ground underneath a group of trees where the horses were tethered. The well was a little too crowded for his taste at the moment, most of the men gathered around it in an effort to ease the thirst and wash away some of the dirt from the hard day. Pulling the cork, he looked over at the fledgling barn as the cooling water bathed his mouth and throat with a welcome relief. The frames for all four walls were now in place, along with the beginnings of the roof. They'd given Hamilton a good start on replacing the building he'd lost to fire almost a month ago, and over the next few weeks the town would help him finish it.

A flurry of activity beside the barn caught Chris's attention. Gloria Potter was directing a few of the men as they set up a table. Once in place, at least a dozen baskets of all sizes and shapes were distributed along the table. It was late afternoon, and the auction was about ready to start.

"Well, pard," Buck walked up to stand beside Chris, an eager smile on his face as he indicated the table with a nod, "looks like we're gettin' to the good part."

Shaking his head, Chris lowered the canteen. "Buck, anybody ever tell you you've got a one-track mind?"

The taller man's smile widened. "Hmm, seems I've heard it once or twice before. But you have to admit, it's an awful nice track to be on."

All the gunman had time to do was laugh before Inez appeared at the table. With a quick pat on Chris's back, Buck scurried off to greet the town's newest resident. Again, Chris could do nothing but chuckle to himself as he watched his old friend run smack up against that wall one more time, Inez barely giving him a second look before turning her back on him and walking away.

The gallop of an approaching horse drew Chris's eyes from the pitifully comic scene. It was Ezra. A few days ago, he and Nathan had volunteered to stay in town. 'Physical labor and I have never had much of an appreciation for one another.' So the gambler had said when asked if he would be going to the barn raising. And although Nathan would have been very comfortable with a hammer in his hand, Chris had gotten the impression he wouldn't feel the same way about the auction. The former slave never said a word against the idea of holding the sale, seeming to accept that it was a harmless enough way of raising money. But Chris had seen something in his eyes that told him Nathan was nonetheless a little uneasy about the whole thing. As a result, the healer and the gambler had both agreed to stay behind and keep an eye on things.

The entire area knew about the barn raising and the auction. With a majority of the town at the Hamilton place, today presented a perfect opportunity for any mischief makers to take advantage of the situation. Ezra's arrival probably meant that the opportunity had been taken. Anticipating trouble, Chris prepared to saddle up. Pulling on his hat, he grabbed his gun from where it hung around his saddle's horn and strapped it to his waist.

Ezra brought his horse to a stop under the trees and climbed down. As he walked up to Chris, he shook his head, correctly reading the stern frown on the older man's face. "No need for concern, Mister Larabee. All is quiet in the fair metropolis of Four Corners."

"Then what are you doin' here?"

"Well, you see," the gambler pulled a flask from his coat pocket and took a drink. "I was persuaded to cut short my leisurely day of tranquility only this morning, as I promised a friend a small favor."

"A favor." Chris eyed the southerner with suspicion. What was he up to now?

"Yes, ah...." Ezra replaced the flask as an uneasy smile crossed his lips. "I'm really not at liberty to go into it, but--"

"Ezra," Josiah joined the two men, "I see you made it. You're just in time."

The relief on Standish's face was plain to see as he tipped his hat in quiet gratitude to Josiah. "So it would seem." Glancing around, he took in all the activity of the day. "Everyone has been busy. And it would appear the ladies have been as hard at work as you gentlemen. Not only do the baskets look inviting, but the meal for those who don't participate, or who have the misfortune of not being victorious, also looks delectable."

The subject had effectively been changed. However, that didn't stop Chris from wondering what Ezra was up to. The man always seemed to have an angle, and the seven's leader was always alert to the fact. Even though Ezra had proven himself a valuable member of the group, and Chris's doubts about his loyalty had waned over the last year, he still couldn't keep himself from questioning many of the southerner's actions.

Let it go, Larabee, Chris silently admonished himself. Whatever Ezra was up to this time, it was more than likely harmless. He was doing someone a favor, after all. How bad could it be?

"Well, if you're stayin' here, Ezra, I'm gonna head back to town. I don't want to leave Nathan by himself." Chris turned to collect his saddle, but stopped short of picking it up as he caught sight of Mary Travis, the shadow of James Lightfoot dogging her as she made her way to the auction table. Chris felt another stab of jealous anger slice through him as he watched Mary laugh at something the lawyer had just said to her. They looked so at ease with one another, so comfortable together, it hurt. It hurt like hell.

God, she looked beautiful today, her loose hair reflecting the brilliance of the sun in a golden wave over her shoulders, her blue eyes alight with an easy happiness that made her shine from within. Beautiful. Chris's thoughts slowed. How many times today had that same thought run through his head? A reluctant grin tugged at a corner of his mouth as he considered the question. Every time he'd set eyes on her. They hadn't spoken, both busy with their respective duties, but he'd been conscious of her from the moment she and Billy had arrived, catching glimpses of her every now and then when he looked up from his work or stopped to get a drink. They'd made eye contact only once. She'd offered him a nod and a pleasant smile. He'd simply returned the gesture before resuming his work on the barn, his body betraying him like an inexperienced schoolboy's. Yes, she looked beautiful today. Had there ever been a day when she hadn't?

Chris's gaze followed the couple as they reached their destination, the pain joined by an intense longing. He never thought he'd envy Lightfoot anything, but at this very moment he begrudged the lawyer a great deal. Not the least of which was the expression on Mary's face as she looked at the outsider. To have her look at him with such untarnished delight would be the answer to a secret prayer. Lightfoot didn't know how lucky he was.

"Ah, there's no need for you to go back to Four Corners, Chris." Josiah stepped forward and placed a friendly hand on the younger man's arm, his eyes trained on the scene that had halted Chris's movement. "After I've had some of that delicious food," the preacher nodded toward the front of the Hamilton home where a steer turned on a spit and another table sat, loaded with any number of dishes, "I'm going to go back to town and see how Nathan's doing. You stay here. Enjoy the auction."

Closing his eyes, Chris broke the spell that momentarily held him, Josiah's words helping to pull him from his musings. He turned to look at the preacher, and confronted an unexpected understanding in the kind, blue eyes that stared at him over an encouraging smile. It was as if Josiah had heard every thought that had just run through Chris's head. But he knew mind reading was beyond the former priest's grasp. Or, was it? The blatant comprehension on the big man's face made him wonder for a moment, before a more rational possibility suddenly became clear. Was he so obvious? Were his feeling for Mary so easily seen? Apparently so. A tiny stitch of panic wove through the back of the gunman's mind at the realization of discovery.

Buck, Vin and JD seemed to know how special the widow had become to Larabee, his actions yesterday doing little to contradict their belief. He'd even gotten the impression that Nathan and Ezra weren't completely blind to his affection for Mary. A half-smile twisted the gunman's mouth. Evidently, he hadn't been as successful at hiding it as he'd thought. During his first days in Four Corners, he'd done a fairly good job of it. But lately, Chris had let his guard slip. A look here, a touch there. He hadn't even thought about them at the time. But now.... Was it such a surprise that the men in whose hands he placed his life everyday should be sensitive to him? And had it really been so difficult to see?

The half-hearted smile broadened, a quiet thank-you for the understanding. But thinking he'd maybe been a little too obvious, Chris shook his head. "No, Josiah. You stay and enjoy yourself."

As he hoisted the saddle off the ground, he heard an elated, young voice call his name. "Chris!"

He stopped to watch Billy Travis run up to the small group, a big grin spread across the freckled face. If there was another person in Four Corners who vied with Mary for Chris Larabee's affections, it was the little boy standing in front of him. The innocent devotion shinning in his young eyes never failed to astonish the gunslinger. He was warmed by it. He was humbled by it. He was frightened by it. He was thankful for it.

"Ma said when you were done workin', I could come over and say hi. Are ya done?" The smile vanished as Billy's attention fell to the saddle in Chris's arms. "You're not leavin', are ya?"

The bitter disappointment in the youthful face tugged at Chris's heart.

"Of course, he's not leaving, young man," Ezra spoke before Chris had the chance. Stepping forward to place a friendly arm around Billy's shoulders, the gambler looked meaningfully at his leader. "Mister Larabee had considered returning to town, but has since changed his mind. He wouldn't think of leaving before he's had the opportunity to spend a little time with you. As a matter of fact, I'd venture to say that Mister Larabee would be the last person in this world, aside from your lovely mother, who'd disillusion you by running off right now." Ezra's brows lifted in emphasis, his voice tinged with an unmistakable challenge as he continued to eye Chris. "Wouldn't he?"

Yes, he would. The last person. As Chris silently agreed, a subtle anger rose in him at the implication of Standish's words. He wasn't 'running off'. But then again.... The temptation and consequence of the auction loomed before him. Maybe he was.

Damn it, Ezra, He cussed in amazement as he stared daggers at the con man. Sometimes you're just too honest for a person's own good.

With a defeated sigh, he dropped his saddle on the ground. Very quickly and very effectively, his mind had been changed for him by two of the best manipulators he had ever come across. Billy, of course, didn't have any idea of his affect on Chris. Ezra on the other hand....

"No." Chris smiled down at Billy. "I'm not leavin'."

And as he lifted the delighted child in his arms, he wondered if this was another decision he was going to regret.

**********

"Okay, everyone," Judge Travis hit the table with his gavel. "Everyone can I have your attention please?"

Chris and his three companions stood at the back of the crowd that had gathered in front of the new barn. As JD finished telling another one of his not-so-funny jokes, all eyes moved to Orrin Travis. The judge was in the area issuing a couple of warrants and had agreed to act as auctioneer.

"As you all know," Orrin continued, "this little event is for a good cause. A schoolhouse in Four Corners is a dream we all share, and your generosity today will help make that dream come true. So don't be shy gentlemen." The judge cast a warm smile over the crowd. "The ladies have put a great deal of care into their offerings, so let them know you appreciate it. No matter what the price, you'll be getting a bargain--a delicious meal enjoyed in the company of a lovely lady."

"Here, here!" Buck's enthusiasm was followed by a wave of laughter and agreement flowing through the gathering.

"All right then," Judge Travis acknowledged, "let's get started."

As bidding began on the first basket, Chris scanned the front of the crowd. All of the women who had prepared something for the auction stood at or near the table. He didn't have any trouble spotting Mary. She stood off to Chris's left, closer to the barn, a steady smile curving her lips as she watched the proceedings. Right by her side hovered James Lightfoot.

Another shard of resentment sliced through Chris as he stared at the contented expression on the lawyer's face. The gunman had all but convinced himself that, for Mary's sake, he would stand back, not interfere. Safe. He had to keep her safe. But the sight of the two of them together once again made him wonder if he would be able to do what he knew was best for Mary and Billy. Lightfoot may not be the most likeable man in the world, but if he was what Mary wanted.... Chris's jaw clenched tightly at the thought.

Two more baskets were auctioned before JD turned a big smile to the small group. "This next one's Casey's."

"Well, all I've got to say is that you better have lots of money, kid," Buck warned, the teasing gleam returning to his eyes. "Hmm...let's see here." He pulled at one of the boy's pants pockets. "How much you got in here? And now that I'm thinkin' about it, maybe I should charge you for that last joke you told."

JD scowled as he angrily batted his friend's hand away. "Shut up, Buck. And you wouldn't know a good joke if you heard one."

"Neither would you," the taller man shot back as JD turned his attention to the auction.

The boy opened his mouth to start the bidding, but was beaten to the punch by a voice that sounded as though it came from somewhere in the middle of the crowd, "Two bits!"

"Who the heck is that?" JD wondered out loud, an inconvenienced frown furrowing his brow.

"Well, unless I miss my guess, that would be Tom Wilson." Buck didn't try to hide the satisfied smirk that turned his mouth. "I told ya, kid."

JD threw the older man a cold look of disgust before shouting, "A dollar!"

When the basket reached the unthinkable price of ten dollars, JD nudged Buck. "All I've got is nine an' two bits. Can you lend me some more?"

An incredulous laugh left the tall man as he shook his head. "Sorry, kid. I've got my own biddin' to worry about."

"Goin' once," Judge Travis' voice echoed in the background.

Chris studied Buck's smiling face and saw a dim light of sympathy lurking in the cheerful expression. He wanted to help JD, but this was another one of those little life lessons that had to be learned.

"Goin' twice."

JD's pleading eyes fell next to Vin, but the bounty hunter only shrugged. "Don't look at me. I didn't come here ready to buy anything."

As the youth turned to Chris, the judge's voice echoed again, "Sold! To Tom Wilson for ten dollars!" The gavel hit the table and the bidding ended.

The utter dejection on JD's face almost made Chris wish he'd given the kid some more money. Almost. Overconfidence was one of the boy's weak points, and if he could learn something from a harmless experience like this, the better off he'd be. Today, only his pride had been wounded. He would be smarting for a few days, but he would make a full recovery, no permanent damage done. Next time, maybe he'd consider things a little more closely, size up the situation with more care, regard his adversary more cautiously.

In the next instant, Tom walked through the crowd with Casey on his arm, a proud smile of victory plastered across his face. As they passed the Four Corners' lawmen, Casey looked over her shoulder and gave JD an innocent look of stunned surprise as she shook her head. Apparently, she was as flabbergasted by what had happened as JD.

"Well, kid," Buck put a lazy arm around the boy's shoulders. "Seems I heard a saying not long ago that kinda fits this situation. I think it went somethin' like...all's fair in love and war."

"Oh...shut up, Buck." JD knocked the arm away as he crossed his arms over his chest, the earlier scowl returning as he turned to face the auction table.

Four more baskets went under the gavel before Buck rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Okay, Inez, prepare to be swept off your feet."

This time JD wasn't alone in his laughter as Vin and Chris chuckled right along with him.

Buck gave them all a reserved grin as he nodded. "Okay, okay, have your laugh. But I'm tellin' you she's gonna come around."

"Oh, yeah. One of these days she's gonna come around and give you a swift kick in the--," JD's prediction was cut short by the sound of Judge Travis' gavel.

"All right, what am I bid for this next bundle of culinary delights?"

"Five dollars!" Buck yelled, confidently.

"Startin' out a little high, aren't ya, pard?" Chris cautioned quietly as he looked over at his friend.

"Naw." The taller man shook his head while a devilish smirk played along his mouth. "I want to get this over with, taste some of that fine cookin'. Shouldn't be too many more bids."

And there weren't. Not too many. The last bid was seven dollars, and Buck stood, hands resting on his hips, beaming in triumphant expectation.

"Goin' once. Goin' twice." Orrin raised his gavel.

"Eight dollars!" a familiar voice called from behind the gathering.

A low murmur of surprise moved through the crowd as everyone turned to watch Ezra Standish join the small group of lawmen, the unique gold tooth lending an extra gleam to his smile. "Gentlemen."

"Ezra, just what in the hell do you think you're doin'?" Buck's shocked irritation erupted in the accusatory question as he faced the man who dared to challenge him.

The southerner didn't appear at all putout by the hostile greeting and calmly answered the inquiry. "I'm doing a favor for a friend."

"I've got a bid of eight dollars," the judge coaxed from the auction table. "Do I hear nine?"

Buck's attention was pulled back to the front of the crowd as he hollered, "Nine!"

"Ten!" the gambler countered again.

"But, Ezra," JD looked more offended than Buck as he came to his friend's aid, his sudden change of heart not too surprising. "You know that Buck.... Well, that he.... Well, he...."

Chris couldn't help but smile as the words, once again, seemed to get caught in the boy's throat.

"Ah...thanks, kid." Buck patted the young man on the back and gave him a dubious grin. "I think."

"Yes." Ezra nodded as he looked from one accuser to the other, an amused skepticism shadowing his expression. "I am aware that Mister Wilmington more or less sees himself as Inez's knight in shinning armor, but I don't believe the lady in question sees him in quite the same light."

"I have ten," the auctioneer barked. "Do I hear more?"

"Eleven!" Once again, the tall gunman shouted a countering bid, his growing impatience bleeding through in his tone.

"Twelve!" Ezra shot back.

Buck stared at the gambler, his brow furrowed in a harsh frown. "And what makes it any of your business?" he demanded, unconscious of the sea of eyes and ears trained on him and his rival.

"Well, I was never one to turn down a lady in need."

"Inez?" Buck's voice was hushed, his surprise at the implication momentarily draining some of his resentment. "She put you up to this?"

Ezra nodded. "She wanted to participate in the auction, to help the town in some way with the new schoolhouse, but felt it would provide you with an unfair advantage. The lady hates to be at a disadvantage. So, in the event that it looked as though you were going to be victorious, she requested my assistance in attempting to thwart your coup."

"Twelve, going once," Orrin's voice broke through the short, tense silence.

Buck's mouth formed a stubborn line, a defiant determination entering his eyes. "We'll just see about that." Turning his attention back to Judge Travis, he yelled again, "Fifteen!"

Chris looked over at Vin, who just shook his head. They were thinking the same thing. Buck didn't have the money to outbid Ezra. Hell, the gambler was probably using some of Buck's own money to bid against him. But Chris knew saying something to his friend wouldn't do any good. Buck wasn't going to listen to any sense at the moment. He had other things on his mind. And besides, getting in the middle of this little squabble was something the men's leader had no intention of doing, not if he could help it. They'd have to battle it out between themselves.

And battle they did, until Buck's pockets were empty. Which really didn't take very long. When the bid reached twenty dollars, he was forced to concede defeat. He turned down JD's offer of the nine dollars and fifty cents the boy still had in his pocket, finally realizing it was a lost cause.

"Now, if you'll excuse me, gentlemen. I have a supper engagement." Tipping his hat, Ezra smiled to his fellow lawmen before making his way through the crowd to a grinning Inez who stood at the table by the barn.

"Well, Buck," JD slapped his frowning friend on the back, "it seems I heard a saying not long ago--,"

"Don't," Buck interrupted his young friend as he held up a hand in a gesture of denial. "Don't say it, kid."

"All's fair in love and war," Vin finished for JD, a lazy smirk pulling at his lips.

Buck shot him a hard look that quickly dissolved into a relenting smile. "Well, the war ain't over yet, not by a long shot."

And with that, the men settled into a comfortable silence waiting for the auction to continue.

When it was time to auction Mary's basket, Chris stood by quietly observing. At first, for whatever reason, a hesitation hung in the air for several long seconds after Judge Travis opened the bidding. It was almost as if no one wanted to make the first bid. Chris noticed several pairs of eyes move his way, and they all seemed to have the same question lurking in them. He had to be imagining it, of course. Why would they look to him for...permission to act? No. He had to be reading them wrong. It was nothing more than wishful thinking on his part. He had no say in who would or wouldn't show Mary Travis attention. And even though he was tempted, he had no right to tell them to back off. Besides, he wanted Mary to find someone. Someone she could live out her life with, someone safe, who would help her raise her son and run her business. Even if that someone happened to be James Lightfoot, Chris would be happy for her. He would. Yes, he would.

After the short hesitation, it was Lightfoot who broke the delicately strained silence with a bid. Chris felt his jaw tighten at the sound of the man's voice, but he kept quiet. Once the lawyer made the first bid, it was as though everyone else had been given the okay to proceed. The floodgates seemed to open and more bids quickly followed.

Maybe Chris should have been surprised by the interest, but he wasn't. After all, just like he and Gerard Whitman, the men of Four Corners weren't blind. Mary was a beautiful, intelligent, caring woman. There weren't many men around who wouldn't find her attractive. An unwanted splinter of possessiveness worked its way into the gunman's mind with the thought. He could acknowledge the admiration of other men for the widow. He could even pretend to accept it, but he didn't have to like it.

Continuing his forced silence, Chris watched as the competition dropped away one by one, and Lightfoot moved closer to his goal. The gunman ignored the confused glances he received from his fellow lawmen until Buck finally vented his frustration. "Chris? Why the hell aren't you biddin'? You gonna let Lightfoot just walk in here an' take--,"

Pinning his old friend with a harsh stare, Larabee effectively killed whatever else the impatient man was going to say. "Leave it alone, Buck," his steely words weren't much above a whisper. "Leave it alone."

Buck's lips pressed into a thin line of reluctant submission as he bowed his head in acceptance of the warning.

Chris's attention turned back to the activity at the front of the crowd. He tried not to look at Mary, finding it easier to hold his tongue if he couldn't see her precious face. But the alternative didn't do much for his piece of mind either. He felt his good intentions slowly begin to slip through his fingers as he watched Lightfoot's confidence strengthen with every bid he made, until finally, the lawyer appeared to have defeated all of his opposition.

"The bid stands at eight dollars. Do I hear any more?"

The judge's question hung in the air while everyone waited for another bid. When there was none, Lightfoot's smile grew a little bigger, and he stepped back over to Mary. As Chris watched a victorious smugness descend over the lawyer's expression another wave of bitter resentment washed through him. Although he wasn't sure how, he still found the will to remain passive. It was one of the hardest things he'd ever done. But it was the right thing to do. He kept telling himself that, but it didn't seem to make him feel any better.

"Eight dollars goin' once. Eight dollars goin' twice."

As Judge Travis raised his gavel, Ligthfoot put an arm around Mary's shoulders, and Chris felt all of his well-intentioned resolve shatter into hundreds of irretrievable pieces, the subtle look of confused unease on Mary's face giving him all the reason he needed to abandon his damnable chivalry.

"Ten!" The number shot from Chris before he gave himself the chance to stop it.

As the surprised attention of the crowd shifted to the gunman standing on its outskirts, Buck breathed a sigh of relief, "Well, it's about time."

Chris barely heard the remark as he started to make his way through the dozens of onlookers. The citizens of Four Corners quickly made way for the lawman, parting like the Red Sea as he strode toward the auction table.

Stopping a few feet from the table, he felt his friends come to a halt just behind him, Buck and JD on his left, Vin on his right. And although he couldn't see them, he could feel the satisfied grins on each one of their faces. Out of the corner of his eye, Chris also noticed Ezra appear off to his right at the edge of the crowd, a supportive anticipation lifting the gambler's mouth. Inez was at his side.

Chris's gaze was drawn first to the auctioneer. Orrin Travis was wearing a smile too, a sort of crooked, knowing smile that made the gunslinger swear the words he'd just heard Buck utter were the same words running through the judge's head at the moment. The man appeared oddly pleased.

James Lightfoot, on the other hand, appeared anything but pleased, and Chris couldn't help the boyish delight he felt with the recognition, the concerned scowl on the lawyer's face sending a hearty jolt of gratification through him.

When he looked at Mary, Chris was slightly taken aback when he encountered yet another smile. He'd been prepared to see a disapproving frown, something akin to the one now shadowing Lightfoot's face. If she really wanted the lawyer, Larabee knew that his interference wouldn't be well received. But as he looked into Mary's eyes, the ginman saw nothing remotely resembling anger or disapproval. There was a faint surprise, but more unexpected was the contented relief he read in the blue depths, the happy consent. And as he continued to gaze at her, Chris watched a wonderful tenderness enter the widow's eyes, a warm gentleness that wrapped itself around the gunman's heart and reinforced his determination.

"I have ten dollars. Do I hear more?" Orrin looked pointedly at Lightfoot.

"Twenty," the lawyer quickly countered, a resolute emphasis in his tone as he bit out the word.

Pulling his eyes from Mary, Chris caught the challenging glare Lightfoot threw his way, and smiled, "Thirty dollars."

It was the highest bid of the day, and a murmur of excitement moved over the crowd.

"Forty," the lawyer immediately answered Chris's offer.

"Fifty dollars," the gunslinger upped the anti again, and another astonished murmur echoed through the crowd.

"Ah...pard," Buck tapped the older man on the arm, a note of doubt clouding his hushed voice. "That's a lot of money. This guy's a lawyer, Chris. You really think you can outbid him?"

Chris didn't look at Buck as he considered his friend's words, but kept his sights centered on his adversary. Fifty dollars was a lot of money, but he had it, that and a little more. After his visit to the hotel yesterday, he'd gone to the bank. The new land and cabin had cost him most of the money he'd been able to save, but not all. As he'd watched the cashier count out his withdrawal, a dozen different excuses for having the money ran through his head, none of which was the truth. This morning he'd stuffed the bills in his boot and refused to give them another thought. He wasn't going to use them. He wasn't. Well, so much for his iron will.

"Hell, Buck," Vin drawled quietly in reaction. "He's a lawyer in Eagle Bend. How much money could he have? Besides, Lightfoot don't want this...basket near as much as Chris does."

For the first time since the bidding had started, the lawyer hesitated, a nervous tongue darting over his lips as he dropped his eyes from Chris's stony stare.

"The bid is fifty dollars," Orrin interrupted the strained silence. "Fifty dollars going once. Fifty--,"

"Fifty-five," Lightfoot halted the judge's cadence.

"Sixty," Chris wasted no time with his response.

Again, the prosecutor wavered, a further uncertainty playing across his features. He glanced from Chris to Mary and then to Orrin, who looked ready to burst as he once again prepared to call for a final bid. But before he could get a word out, Lightfoot spoke, "Seventy."

"Eighty," was the speedy reply. And with the bid, Chris saw the defeat register in Lightfoot's eyes before he closed them against the sound of the unwanted rejoinder.

Slowly moving his head from side to side, the lawyer indicated that he would not be making another bid.

"Eighty dollars goin' once. Eighty dollars goin' twice. Sold!" Judge Travis brought the gavel down on the table, hard. "To Mister Chris Larabee for eighty dollars!"

As a thunderous applause erupted around them, Buck leaned forward and whispered into his friend's ear, "Damn, Chris. That's one hell of a big no-trespassin' sign you just put up."

The gunman paused as he heard the statement, his eyes falling to an unseen spot on the ground. He'd never really thought about it in quite that way until right this very minute, but he supposed Buck was right. He wanted Mary Travis, and if they hadn't known before, the people in Four Corners knew it now. And so did the widow.

The idea spooked him a little as he thought about Mary, and he wondered what she might be thinking right now. He really wasn't sure. But as he looked in Mary's direction in order to try and gauge the reaction on her face, Chris was confronted by the unhappy personage of James Lightfoot.

The opponents glared wordlessly at each other for no more than a second or two before the lawyer forced a stilted smile to his lips and held out a slightly unsteady hand. "No hard feelings, I hope."

Chris looked down at the out-stretched hand and then back at Lightfoot's face. With a mental shrug, he shook the man's hand. It didn't pay to be a bad winner. "No hard feelings, Lightfoot."

The Lawyer tipped his hat, turned and walked into the dispersing crowd.

There were congratulatory pats on the back from Vin and Buck as Chris spied Ezra standing off to the side in the same spot he'd been throughout the bidding, a satisfied gleam in his eyes. Raising a hand to the brim of his hat, the gunman bowed his head in silent gratitude. The insightful gambler had known exactly what he was doing when he as much as shamed Chris into staying. And far from regretting the knowing manipulation, the gunslinger was grateful for it.

Ezra returned the gesture before offering an elbow to Inez and escorting her back to their supper.

"Chris!" That familiar young voice resounded through the air, and the gunman turned his head to see Billy Travis running towards him, Gloria Potter and her two children following a short distance behind. "You won!" The boy came to a stop in front of his hero. "You won Ma."

Just as the last words tumbled out of the innocent mouth, Judge Travis and his daughter-in-law joined Chris. A rosy pink flooded Mary's cheeks as the three adults stood awkwardly mute while Billy bathed them all in the glow of a bright, happy grin.

"No, Billy," Mary's abrupt denial came in the form of a nervous laugh as she shook her head. "Mister Larabee...didn't win...me, honey." She faltered as she tried to explain to her son what had happened, her embarrassment giving her more than a little trouble. "He won the supper I made. You remember what I told you? We're trying to raise money for the schoolhouse. The people bid on the ladies cooking to help the school."

A confused frown darkened the boy's expression. "But Chris is gonna be with you, isn't he? He's gonna have you for supper too, isn't he?"

At first, Chris thought he was the only one who took Billy's clumsily worded question the wrong way. But as he looked from Orrin to Mary, he could see the misinterpretation reflected in their faces. Mary cheeks flushed a deep crimson as she gazed down on her son with wide-eyed disbelief.

"Well...." After a second or two of hesitation, Mary struggled past her obvious ill-ease and tried to explain further. "Yes, Billy, he's going to have supper with me and you."

Chris figured he should have been embarrassed right along with Mary, but he wasn't. There was no need to be, not really. Raising a hand to his mouth, he covered the amused smile that refused to be held back. He almost chuckled, but was able to keep that impulse at bay as a sobering thought entered his mind. The idea of having Mary for supper brought forth several stirring pictures, and he cursed his body's reaction to them as they flitted across his mind's eye. Suddenly, he wondered if a tinge of red could be seen in his face as well.

"Ah, actually," Gloria Potter joined the group, her son and daughter beside her. She'd apparently caught Mary's last remark and ventured a suggestion. "I hope you don't mind, Mary, but I thought Billy could have his supper with me and the children while you and Mister Larabee have yours."

"Oh, no, Gloria--,"

"I think that's a fine idea," Judge Travis interrupted his daughter-in-law, a devious glint in his eyes. "Mind if I join you too, Gloria?"

"Not at all, judge," Mrs. Potter answered, a slow smile curving her lips. "You're more than welcome."

As Chris glanced from Orrin Travis to Gloria Potter, he got the sneaking suspicion he was witnessing the unfolding of some kind of plot. They both seemed determined for he and Mary to spend some time alone. But he was imagining it, surely. Of course, he could believe the manipulation coming from Gloria Potter. She wanted Mary to get married again. And Chris somehow got the impression she wasn't beyond giving her friend a little help in that area when she felt it necessary. If Lightfoot had won the bidding, he had no doubt Mrs. Potter would probably be suggesting the very same thing. What he couldn't see was Judge Orrin Travis--matchmaker. No, that just didn't fit. But regardless of whether it fit or not, he still couldn't shake the feeling that was exactly what the judge was doing.

But wouldn't Travis object to the idea of Mary with the likes of you--a gunfighter? The question pushed its way into Chris's head. Yes. The answer came quickly because it was the one that made the most sense, and Chris would never fault the judge for it. He knew Travis worried a great deal about his grandson and daughter-in-law, alone in a barely-tamed town like Four Corners. The seven's presence had taken some of the burden off the older man, but it hadn't removed it completely. And having the mother of his grandson involved with one of the lawman certainly wouldn't help lessen the judge's concern, especially if that lawman were the seven's leader. Chris knew Travis trusted and respected him. He was pretty sure the old man even liked him. And he returned each one of those feelings. However, Larabee was all but certain that Orrin would harbor the same fears Chris had about getting close to Mary, the exposure to Chris's troubled past, the danger. These were things he was sure Travis would find unacceptable for his son's family. At least, he'd been sure until now.

"Okay, then," the judge broke into Chris's thoughts as he held out his hand to his grandson. "Let's go get some supper."

"Ya mean I can't eat with Chris and Ma?" The pout that tugged at Billy's lower lip spoke volumes as to his disappointment.

"I made chocolate cake," Gloria playfully whispered the enticement so all could hear.

"Chocolate?" the boy's ears perked at the word, but the unhappy reluctance continued to shadow his face.

"Come on, Billy," Orrin offered his hand once again. "How 'bout havin' supper with your ol' grandpa?"

The child's hesitation vanished instantly with the loving request, his frown replaced by a cheerful grin. "Okay, grandpa."

Chris watched with warm delight as Billy skipped to the judge's side and took his hand.

As the pair headed toward the Hamilton house, Gloria stepped up to Mary and pointed to a small rise just to the left of the new barn. "There's a real nice spot just over that hill. The creek runs through there and there are a couple of big trees. It's perfect for a picnic," she indicated, almost gleefully.

"Ah, thank you, Gloria." That pretty trace of pink returned to Mary's cheeks as she acknowledged Mrs. Potter's suggestion, her fingers nervously toying with the handle of the basket she held.

With a satisfied nod and smile, Gloria turned to follow the judge and the three children walking on either side of him.

Mary moved her head from side to side as she finally looked at Chris, a sheepish smile curving her mouth. "Chris, I--"

"Shall we take a look at this 'perfect' spot?" Offering her his arm, the gunman interrupted whatever apology or explanation she was going to give him. There was nothing to apologize for or to explain.

A relieved gratitude sparkled in Mary's eyes as she took Chris's arm. Slowly, and in comfortable silence, they started toward the horizon.

**********

Gloria was right. The thought ran through Chris's mind again. It was a perfect spot. Made all the more perfect by the woman kneeling on the blanket across from him. Taking another drink of the delicious iced tea she had made, the lawman once again marveled at the beauty in his company. A sudden, gentle breeze brushed the silken strands of hair away from her face as she leaned over the basket she was re-packing, and Chris's fingers tightened around the cup in his hand, the urge to touch the honeyed satin abruptly moving over him. His grip on the cup remained tense as his eyes traveled over her lovely profile, the creamy, smooth perfection of her skin yet another temptation for his rebellious fingers. Her pale, blue eyes concentrated on her task, but they still held the subtle glow of a happy smile, as did her mouth. And as the gunman's gaze settled on the inviting blush of Mary's lips, a hunger, that had nothing remotely to do with food, seized him. He felt the tin of the cup give slightly under the pressure he continued to put on it as he worked to push the sudden need back into hiding.

Draining the last of his tea, Chris moved away from the trunk of the tree they sat under and knelt on the other side of the basket, opposite Mary. "Here, let me help you." He handed her the empty cup and began gathering the few dishes that remained on the blanket. As he watched her pack that last of the utensils away, he smiled. "That was very good, Mary. Thank you."

"You're most welcome." The widow closed the basket lid and looked up at Chris, a faint apprehension finding its way into her expression. "I hope it was worth it. That was very generous of you back there, you know."

Shaking his head, Chris's smile sobered into a solemn line, an earnest intensity entering his voice as he captured Mary's eye with his. "Generosity had nothin' to do with it. I always fight for what I want."

A nervous laugh escaped the widow as her eyes fell to the ground. "And you wanted my cooking."

The gunman paused as he studied the beautiful, uncertain face before him. She was trying to make light of what he'd said, as if afraid to read too much into the words. Did she feel for him what he felt for her? It was a question Chris had asked himself many times in the past, and still didn't seem to be able to answer with any certainty. At times, like earlier at the auction, he'd seen a gentle warmth in her eyes when she looked at him which made him believe that maybe she did hold deeper feelings for him. However, on other occasions, after one of their many disagreements, she'd looked at him as though she would like nothing better than to give him a good, solid 'pat' on the cheek, and it was at those times when he wondered if they would ever really get along. But somewhere along the way, they had become friends, and that fact always seemed to get them through the misunderstandings. Was this another one of those misunderstandings? He didn't think so.

For a moment, Chris considered going along with her simple interpretation of his statement, knowing it would obscure his true meaning, allowing them to step back from one another without any complications. But as he continued to look into Mary's face, he found he no longer wanted to step back, discovered he could no longer keep his distance. She was everything sweet and gentle he'd lost from his life, everything he was now prepared to let back into his starving heart.

"No." Chris reached out to place gentle fingers under Mary's chin, lifting her head so he could look into her eyes. "I wanted you."

With the confession, the widow's confusion seemed to increase. That she had been surprised by the gunslinger's words was more than obvious in her startled stare. And for a second, Chris wished the words back, fearing he'd frightened or offended her with the truth behind his motives. But the wish was soon forgotten when he saw another emotion move into Mary's eyes. As her gaze raked his face, Chris watched the earlier tenderness return, and he felt a fierce relief rush through him at the sight. Her slow inspection continued until it stopped at his mouth, and the gunman saw a need, not unlike his own, flash in her eyes. He had no other thought than to fill that need.

Tentatively, he leaned over the basket that sat between them and touched Mary's lips with his. She was as soft as he'd imagined, and when she didn't pull away, Chris sought to bring that softness closer. His hand left her chin to feather its way through the silken hair at her neck, drawing her nearer. At the same time, he increased the pressure on her mouth, silently requesting admission to the sweetness awaiting him inside. With a hushed moan, she granted his request, opening for him, allowing the kiss to deepen. As he felt Mary's arms move around his neck, Chris reveled in the taste of her, his hunger growing stronger. He couldn't seem to get enough as he greedily drank in her velvety warmth, never wanting the sensation to end. And yet, at the same time, wanting so much more, his body burning with the desire to sate the hunger that continued to pulse through his every fiber. Beating back the baser craving that clawed at him, Chris remained blissfully lost in Mary's welcoming passion until the need for air forced him to reluctantly raise his head, breaking their contact.

They stared at one another for a long moment, their shallow breathing the only sound passing between them.

"I--," Mary hesitated as she started to speak, a sudden misgiving removing the rich contentment from her eyes.

"Mary? Are you all right?" Chris quickly asked. The fear that his barely contained need might have hurt her in some way came surging forward with a terrible force, and he cursed himself for losing control.

She seemed to read the grave concern in his face and cast him a reassuring smile. "Yes, I'm fine. I'm more than fine. But there's something I think I should tell you."

The muscles throughout Chris's entire body formed one big knot as he held his breath and waited for Mary to continue. It was Lightfoot. Damn! It had to be Lightfoot.

A soothing hand reached from behind the gunslinger's neck to cup his cheek, the widow's eyes locking with his as she finally spoke, "It seems that I've...I've fallen in love with you Chris Larabee."

Blessed relief was the first thing that raced through his mind. He hadn't hurt or frightened her, and James Lightfoot's name hadn't passed her lips. What followed next was a keener realization of what she'd just said to him. 'I've fallen in love with you....' He heard the words again, and they astounded him. They scared the hell out of him. They strengthened him. They weakened him. But above anything else, they calmed him, the gentle peace of knowing she loved him settling around his heart with a healing radiance. And as the cascade of emotions continued to roll through him, Chris grabbed the happiness and held on for dear life.

"Well," the gunman began to slowly lean closer to the widow as he smiled. "It's nice to know that I'm not in this alone." His mouth hovered a hair's width above hers, their breath mingling as he captured her gaze with his. "Because, Mary Travis, it seems that I've fallen in love with you too."

Chris barely saw the delight register in Mary's eyes before he once again covered her lips with his. And even though he didn't stop to relish the joyous expression on her face, he knew how his admission had moved her by the way she responded to his touch. The latent hesitation he'd sensed in her before was gone. She eagerly welcomed the intimate caress; her own passion rivaling his as she returned the kiss, boldly exploring and savoring him as the embrace moved toward a fevered pitch.

With a strength Chris didn't think he possessed, he slowly relinquished Mary's mouth, his forehead resting against hers as the air moved in short gasps over his lips. His body was on fire, and if they continued, he wouldn't be able to prevent himself from taking what he so desperately wanted.

Smiling, the gunslinger lifted his head. And as he searched Mary's eyes, Chris saw the same desire smoldering there that scorched through him, the sight only serving to magnify the heated ache wracking his body. The temptation to relieve that ache was almost too great for him to ignore, and he sought to remove it before his weakness got the better of him. "Maybe we should head back now," he suggested, his voice little more than a husky whisper.

"No, not yet." Mary's voice was almost as strained as Chris's as she disagreed. Removing her arms from around the gunman's neck, the widow took his hand as she stood. "Can't we just sit here for a little while?" She glanced at the tree behind them. "It's so beautiful here. I...I just want to enjoy it a little longer."

His body continued to warn him of the danger, but he had no mind to deny her.

And so they settled under the tree, Chris resting his back against the trunk, legs stretched out in front of him crossed at the ankles, while Mary sat next to him. She leaned her back against his chest, her head resting just under his chin as his arms wrapped around her waist, their hands intertwined as they rested in Mary's lap.

They sat quietly in the cooling shade of the tree. With Mary in his arms and the knowledge that she loved him in his heart, Chris didn't see the need for talking, at least not yet. And it seemed Mary felt the same way as she relaxed peacefully in his embrace. For the time being, everything that needed to be said had been said.

Soon, the sun started its retreat, and the sky was a blaze with glorious pinks and oranges as day began to give way to twilight. It had been a long time since Chris allowed himself the pleasure of a sunset. Lazy summer evenings on a porch by a windmill sprang to mind, and he tried to stifle the sharp pain the memory inflicted. He refused to let the dreaded recollection spoil the joyful serenity he was feeling now. As he had promised Hank, he would never forget his beloved wife and son. They would hold a cherished place in his heart for as long as he lived. But he'd finally realized that it was time to move on, time to make room in his heart for the living, for Mary, for Billy.

And as he thought about the liberating realization, Chris's hold tightened around the woman in his arms. He would love her with every corner of his heart and soul. He would protect her with every ounce of strength he possessed.

"Chris?" Mary's hands squeezed his with tender encouragement. "What are you thinking about?"

"Oh...you, me," the gunman paused as an unexpected name popped into his head, a frown tugging at his mouth, "Lightfoot."

"James?" The widow released Chris's hands before turning in his arms, facing him as she continued to lean against him, her upper arms and hands resting flatly on his chest. There was a genuine confusion in her eyes as she studied his face.

Her use of the lawyer's familiar name sent a repulsive bristle creeping down Chris's back. "What is he to you?" It was a question he'd been itching to ask her, and now he figured he had a right.

"Jealous?" Mary's eyebrows rose in playful emphasis.

"Well...." He was green from his head to his toes, but he didn't want to say it.

"Good." The widow planted a satisfied kiss on Chris's mouth as she seemed to read his mind. "But there's no need for you to be."

"No?" A healthy skepticism echoed in his voice.

"No," Mary repeated softly as she ran soothing fingers down the gunman's cheek. "James is.... Well, he's a friendly acquaintance who would like to be more than an acquaintance and more than a friend, but I think he knows that's not likely to happen." Looking into Chris's eyes, she smiled, "Especially now."

"It looked to me like he was more than a friend. Takin' you out to supper and bringin' you gifts." Chris couldn't stop the subtle anger that rose in him as he thought about the attention Lightfoot had paid to Mary.

"Well, a woman likes to be fussed over every once in a while, Mister Larabee," Mary gently scolded, an impish gleam in her lovely eyes. "James was very happy to do so. He knew that I didn't have strong feeling for him, but he was more than eager to try and change my mind. And I...well, I saw no reason to turn him away."

'A woman likes to be fussed over every once in a while...' A faint guilt clouded Chris's thoughts as he stared over Mary's shoulder at the darkening sky. He knew that, but somewhere along the way, he'd forgotten it. Or more to the point, he'd forgotten how. But whether or not he remembered how to court a woman really wasn't the issue. Until now, Larabee didn't see himself as worthy of pursuing Mary, of making her a part of the dangerous life he led. And as Chris pondered that worth, or lack of it, a little more closely, the doubt started to reassert itself in his mind, the latent fear finding its way to the surface. Did he really have the right to bring her into his world of uncertainty and risk? Maybe Lightfoot was better for her. Maybe....

Looking back into Mary's eyes, Chris removed the loving hand at his cheek, his worried frown growing deeper. His gaze fell to the small hand resting in his, and he wondered if he would always be able to protect her the way he wanted, the fear of failure suddenly clawing at his insides. With the dread hounding him, he started to speak, "Maybe you shouldn't turn him away. Maybe Lightfoot would be better, safer, for you and Billy. Maybe--," he didn't get any farther as Mary bolted upright, an angry disbelief on her face as she jerked her hand from his grasp.

Tears shimmered in her eyes as she shook her head, the pain of Chris's words clearly reflected in the smoky depths. "Oh, no you don't." A fierce determination colored her shaky voice. "Don't you dare pull away from me, Chris Larabee. Not now."

"Mary, I-- Lightfoot-- I was only--," the gunman stammered at the vehement emotion he felt simmering through Mary's body, the intensity of her reaction catching him off guard.

"No!" Mary's unshed tears quickly vanished as the fervent rejection sprang from her lips, the determination in her voice replacing the drops that had sparkled in her eyes. "I don't give a...hang for James Lightfoot. And don't you presume to tell me what you think is right for me, Mister Larabee. I'm a big girl now, and I know what's right for me. I'll never settle for second best. I realized that the day you asked me if I loved Gerard. Don't ask me to settle for it now."

The passionate outburst left Chris speechless as he stared at the resolute woman in front of him, a tiny flame of irritation warming the back of his mind. Couldn't she see that he was only thinking of her, that he only wanted to protect her no matter what it cost? Couldn't she understand her well being was more important to him than his own happiness? But.... The gunslinger's anger died as he allowed himself to comprehend what she'd just told him. What about her happiness? Couldn't he see that, for her, the price of peaceful security was too high, that she loved him enough to risk a life with him? The realization had a powerfully humbling affect on him, and he closed his eyes against the onslaught.

"I'm sorry, Mary." Chris looked back into the widow's eyes, his tone filled with the modesty that consumed him. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I never want to hurt you." Reaching out, he ran loving fingers down a silken cheek, a shiver of need slipping along his spine with the contact. "I just want to keep you safe. I don't want you and Billy to suffer because of me. I don't-- I--" Words failed him as he tried to explain.

"I know, Chris. I know." Covering the hand at her cheek with both of her own, Mary breathed a soft sigh, compassionate understanding replacing the exasperation. "I know the pain and guilt you suffer for your family's death. There have been times, when I've seen the agony in your eyes, I've suffered right along with you, ached for you." The sorrow of the memory veiled her eyes. "And I know the fear that's eating at you now. I'm not going to sit here and tell you it's unfounded because I harbor more than a little of it myself. But I'm not going to let it rob me of this chance at happiness. I want this. I want you. I love you. And no matter what the future holds for us--good or bad, I'm telling you here and now that it's worth it. Whatever happens, having you in my life is worth it."

The undeniable force of the love and faith in Mary's words, brought the sting of tears to Chris's eyes. He sat quietly amazed by her strength and conviction, in awe of her deep understanding and thankful for it. He was further astonished by the realization that she could hold such an overpowering feeling for him. He didn't deserve it. He didn't deserve her. But he no longer possessed the ability to reject the promise of happiness she so unselfishly offered him. Right or wrong, he would never question her entry into his life again. He would only cherished it, cherish her.

Moving his arms around Mary's shoulders, Chris pulled her to him, burying his face in the satin hair that lay at her neck. "God, I do love you," he whispered. He held her for several seconds, relishing the precious feel of her arms around him, before looking back into her face, once again astounded by the devotion he saw in her eyes.

In the next instant, Mary covered Chris's mouth with hers, and the gunman set about showing her how deeply he felt. With deliberate restraint, he slowly and gently caressed her, fighting back the need to greedily devour the warm softness that innocently surrendered itself to him. But as the exploration continued, Larabee's restraint slowly gave way to the tempting urgency he felt coming from the woman he held. Eagerly, the widow's hands feathered through the hair at the back of his head, and she pulled him closer, the pressure of her lips telling him of her consuming hunger. Chris felt the last of his control dissolve, the fiery ache flowing through his body effectively robbing him of any discipline he may have had left. With a low groan, he gave in to the desire, and took Mary's mouth with all the blinding passion that held him in its grip.

When the embrace teetered on the edge of no return, Mary reluctantly pulled her lips from Chris's. Leaning back a small distance, she worked to catch her breath, her focus dropping to the shallow rise and fall of Chris's chest as he too tried to recover from the kiss.

"Mary, I--," the gunman's voice wavered as the hot need coursed through him. He wanted her more than he could possibly put into words.

Gazing back into his face, the widow smiled her understanding. "Me too." Reaching out, she ran feather-light fingers across Chris's lips while her eyes burned with the same craving that continued to nip along his flesh. "But maybe it is time we went back."

The softness of her touch sent another hungry wave darting over him, and he struggled hard to control it. As much as he hated to admit it, she was right. They needed to get back. They already had a great deal to think about without complicating it any further.

Returning her smile, he silently nodded.

With the blanket safely tucked in the basket, they slowly made their way back toward the Hamilton house. As they approached the new barn, JD and Casey walked from around the corner.

"Ah, hey, Chris, Mary." The boy tipped his hat as he stopped to greet the couple.

"JD, Casey." Mary bowed her head to each of them.

"Hi." Casey smiled at the gunman and the widow.

Chris put a hand to his hat before quickly looking around. "Casey, where's Tom?" he asked, his eyebrows raising with the mischievous query.

"We don't know where he is," JD answered for Casey, a possessive arm moving around her waist. "Anyway, supper's over now, and things are the way they're supposed to be."

With a polite resolve etched on his face, the boy once again tipped his hat before he and Casey continued their walk toward the dance that had begun next to the farmhouse. As the young couple walked away, Chris felt the hand he held give a gentle squeeze, and he looked down at the woman by his side.

"I couldn't agree with him more," Mary whispered softly as she lifted warm lips to the gunslinger's cheek. And Chris found that he didn't have the slightest wish to challenge what seemed to be the happy consensus.

The End