The Mag 7 gang doesn't belong to me. I'm just taking them out for a little while to stretch their legs.

The Return of Inmate 78

by

C7

She stood on the porch of the Clarion looking down the dusty main street of Four Corners, the glare of the mid-day sun making it difficult to see the busy avenue clearly. It had been five days. Five days since the six men had left town in search of their leader, and still no word. None. Apprehension tightened its grip around her heart as the worried frown creasing her brow grew a little deeper. The anxiety that held her so firmly also clouded her smoky, blue eyes. The dusky circles under those eyes spoke loudly of the restless hours she'd spent the last few nights tossing and turning...worrying. Mary Travis was waiting. Waiting and praying. Waiting to hear something about a missing friend. Praying that he was all right.

Turning around, she walked back into the office of the paper and stood in the silence with her arms crossed over her chest. Her eyes sightlessly scanned the sparse, yet adequate, workings of the paper while her mind raced. But, for a moment, the direction of her rambling thoughts changed from the dread she felt over Chris Larabee's absence to the uneasy, frightening, reason for the growing despair in the pit of her stomach as the idea that he might not return started to take root in her mind.

When had it happened? Mary quietly asked herself. When had she grown so acutely aware of him? When had Chris become so important to her? When had never seeing him again become such a horrific prospect?

No. Stubbornly shaking her head, the widow dropped her arms to her sides and moved to sit at her desk. Picking up a pencil, she tried to concentrate on the copy that needed proofreading. The words on the paper started to blur as she looked through them.

No. She wasn't anymore concerned about Mr. Larabee then she would be about any of the other men if the circumstance was the same. She would have been moved to inquire about any of them and would be just as worried about them if they were missing. She would. Wouldn't she?

The words on the paper continued to swim before Mary's eyes as she wrestled with the uncomfortable truth. When had she grown so acutely aware of Chris? A short chuckle escaped her. Almost from the moment she'd set eyes on him. After all, he was an impressive figure, to say the very least--tall, lean and handsome. A person would have to be blind not to notice him. But he was impressive in other not so inviting ways. Chris Larabee was hard, and could be very cold and unfeeling at times. There had been occasions when she'd thought that stony, green stare would cut her in half. A chill raced up Mary's back as she recalled the look Chris had given her in the Potter's store when he'd rejected her supportive words about his dead wife and son. She supposed he had every right to be callused by the hardships that fate had thrown in his path, but Mister Larabee had to realize that he wasn't alone in his grief.

And even more disturbing than Chris's sometimes-harsh demeanor was the danger that surrounded him. He was dangerous, very dangerous. Dangerous to those who were foolish enough to go up against him, and dangerous to those who were impetuous enough to be drawn to him. After what had happened to Steven, she couldn't let herself get too close to any man who was as partnered with risk as the hard gunslinger.

Mary's train of thought slowed a moment. Impetuous? Was she? No. Again, she shook off the silly question. Of course she wasn't.

Restlessly, the widow dropped the pencil and paper, and walked back over to the front door of the office. She looked out the window again before starting a slow pace back and forth in front of the entrance. When had he become so important to her? Or maybe a better question was--why had he become so important to her? Well...they were all important to her. Mary argued the answer to the nagging question. All of the seven men her father-in-law had hired held the safety of the town in their hands. There was no one more important than the other. Well...maybe Chris's leadership was something the men might find hard to get along without.

As she continued to wear a hole in the floor, Mary threw up her hands in frustration. Who did she think she was trying to kid? Chris had become important to her for several very good reasons. The first time she'd seen him, he was putting his own life at risk to save a friend of hers. If not for Chris and Vin, Nathan would be dead. Without Mister Larabee's support against Lucas James, Orrin might not be alive today. The hardened gunslinger had rescued her from the horrors of Wickes Town. And perhaps the most important thing of all, Chris had saved her precious son from his father's fate. She had many logical reasons to feel that Chris Larabee was important to her.

But... She stopped her nervous pacing. There was something else about him, something that had nothing to do with logic. A feeling she was hesitant to put a name to. A need she was unwilling to look at head on. An emotion she was afraid to recognize. He stirred a longing in her that had been dormant since her husband's death, an untamed craving that she couldn't seem to shake.

When Chris Larabee was around her, there was a disturbing flutter in her stomach that would not be calmed. It was an attraction, an excitement, over which she had no control. It was a sensation that felt so right, but at the same time, one that she knew to be so wrong. She tried to squash the feeling, to kill it, but it refused to die. Instead, it only seemed to be growing stronger. And now...

Turning, she opened the door, and, once again, stepped out onto the walkway in front of the Clarion. When had never seeing the gunman again become such a horrific prospect? She didn't know. She just didn't know. She only knew that she wanted to see him again. She had to see him again.

And almost as if the Lord had, all at once, seen fit to spare her the agony of another loss in her life, Mary looked down the street to see a group of men riding into town. They moved slowly, their horses covering the ground at a leisurely walk. The dust from the shuffling hooves made it hard to get a good view of the group, but she knew who they were. One, two, three... She squinted against the bright sunshine. Four, five, six...

Moving down the stairs, she took a few steps out into the street. With a hand over her eyes in an effort to block the blinding rays of the sun, Mary saw the seventh man. A wave of relief, the likes of which she hadn't experienced since she realized Billy was safe from his would-be killers, flooded Mary's mind and body, threatening to send her to her knees. The tension seemed to leave her in one forceful rush as she saw the hauntingly familiar figure of Chris Larabee riding uncharacteristically behind the men he led, his face hidden by the black hat as his head hung a little lower than was normal.

Fighting the urge to run up to the men as they made their way down the street, Mary took a few steps back and climbed onto the first of the stairs leading to the Clarion door. In the next minute, the seven riders brought their horses to a stop in front of the newspaper office. They were a ragged, exhausted looking bunch, but they were all alive, and they were back.

"Howdy, Miz Travis." JD tipped his hat before climbing down from his horse.

Mary pulled her concerned gaze away from the figure of Chris as he sat quietly in the back of the group. "Hello, Sheriff." She worked to keep her unsteady voice from betraying all the jumbled emotions that were running through her at the moment. But the relief was something she just couldn't hide. "I'm so happy you were able to find him, and that you're all back safely. Where was he?" She couldn't keep the curiosity in check as she ventured the last question.

"Well, ma'am..." Buck was the next to get down from his horse, his face darkened by an unfamiliar frown. "He wasn't havin' as good a time as I thought he was havin'."

Mary felt the subtle crimson move into her cheeks as she remembered the excuse Buck had given for Chris's tardiness almost three weeks ago. At the time, she'd been a little embarrassed and... appalled by the explanation. She still refused to believe that there had been any trace of jealousy mixed in with those other feelings. But now, she couldn't help but feel a small spark of satisfaction knowing that Mister Wilmington had been wrong about his friend's whereabouts. However, from the grim look on the faces of all the men, Mary wasn't sure if she wanted to know where Chris had actually been.

I just thank God he's safe. The widow silently offered her thankfulness once again as her eyes fell back to the reason for her gratitude.

"I'm all right, Buck." Chris's quiet, insistent voice broke the short silence as he too got down from his horse.

Mary noticed a slight grimace cross the gunman's face when he stepped to the ground, and she thought she heard the softest of groans escape him.

Nathan must have heard the painful sound too, because he was on the ground and at Chris's side in the next instant. "I finally wrangled it out of you that you got cut. Now I need to see it. Let's get you over to my room and take a look."

Mary's heart started to beat a little faster. Chris had been hurt. Cut. Where? How badly? Who did it? Where has he been? The questions darted through her head as her patience rapidly started to deteriorate. Somebody had better tell her something soon or she was going to start doing some damage of her own.

"I also told you that I was stitched up. It's nothin'. I'll be fine." Chris protested as he straightened, another look of discomfort skirting over his handsome features. "You took a bullet back there. Seems to me, you need to be worryin' about yourself. All I need is a drink."

"The bullet passed clean through my arm muscle. I've already seen to myself. But you didn't say a word. If I hadn't noticed you holdin' your side on the ride back to town and dragged it outta ya, I wouldn't know anything right now." The former slave impatiently shook his head before continuing. "You can get that drink first, but then I'm takin' a look at that wound. You hear? I don't wanna have to worry about you comin' down with a bad infection. I want to see that wound and make sure it's cleaned proper." Nathan's mouth was set in a stubborn line, and even Chris didn't seem all too eager to tell the healer no.

With his mouth set in a harsh line of its own, Chris reluctantly agreed. "All right."

Quietly bowing his head, Nathan accepted the reply.

With the ghost of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, Vin tipped his hat to Mary and drawled as he looked from Nathan to Chris. "Well, I'll meet y'all over at the saloon. I'm goin' to get my horse settled in." Reining his animal back toward the street, he started to make his way to the livery.

"I'll join you, Brother." Josiah raised a hand to the brim of his hat. "Ma'am." And he too headed for the livery.

Mary's boiling point had just about been reached. Trying to keep the growing intolerance out of her voice, she finally spoke. "Would someone mind telling me where you've been? I've been very worried, and I'd like to know what happened."

The widow's anxious gaze moved from Chris's unreadable face to Buck, whose eyes dropped to the ground in a blatant effort to avoid answering the question. She then looked to Nathan and JD, who, for whatever reason, appeared just as reluctant to offer any information.

"Mrs. Travis," the smooth, southern voice of Ezra Standish broke though the charged stillness. "I think the description is best left up to the individual who experienced the misadventure. Truth be told, Mister Larabee wasn't forthcoming with much information, even to those who rescued him." He ventured a look in Chris's direction and received one of the coldest stares Mary had ever seen anyone get from the leader of the group, especially one of its own members. Clearing his throat in an uncomfortable recognition of the disapproval, Ezra tipped his hat to the widow. "And now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll take my leave. I'm suddenly in great need of some refreshment. Ma'am." With that, he turned his horse in the direction of the saloon.

"Ah... yeah," JD piped up, a note of nervous enthusiasm coloring his voice. "I think I could use a drink too." He and his horse were the next to leave.

"Me too. Wait up, kid." Buck bowed his head in Mary's direction. "Mrs. Travis." With a few long strides, he easily caught up with JD.

Nathan looked steadily at Chris. The black man didn't seem to be intimidated by the harsh, steely face of Chris Larabee. Instead, he met his leader's granite eyes and, once again, issued his order. "I'll meet you over at the saloon and then we'll get you looked at." Without waiting for an answer, he led his horse down the street.

The next few seconds passed in an awkward silence between the two people still standing in front of the Clarion office. They had both watched Nathan walk away, but were now forced to face each other. For a fraction of a second, Mary got the impression that Chris was going to turn around and follow Nathan. But before the gunman had the chance to make his escape, the widow prompted. "Would you care to come inside, Mister Larabee?" She felt compelled to get out of the open, away from the bustling street and sidewalk. Maybe she could get him to tell her more if they were someplace more private. She motioned toward the door of the Clarion, and thought for a moment Chris was going to refuse as she saw a flicker of hesitation cross his face. But, in an instant, it was gone, and he nodded in agreement. Silently, he followed her into the office and closed the door behind them.

Now, finally, they were alone. Mary tried to ignore the returning flutter in her stomach as she concentrated on what she wanted to learn. Maybe she would get some answers. Maybe. Chris Larabee certainly wasn't the 'gabby' type, especially about personal matters. To the contrary, he didn't talk about himself at all. Mary wondered if he would be willing to tell her much, if anything, about what he'd just been through.

It took several ticks of the clock before Chris raised his head and looked her in the eye. Mary's heart ached for what she saw there. A haunting shadow of pain lurked in the green depths, but that, in and of itself, wasn't unusual. It was always there. It was a part of him. What was unusual and surprising was the hollow look that confronted her. Whatever he had been though had affected him profoundly and had taken something from him. She couldn't be sure what it was, but it was almost as if one more piece of his already damaged soul had been cut way, one more section of his troubled heart hardened.

Chris took a few steps forward until he was standing directly in front of Mary. He removed his hat when he finally spoke, troubled eyes locking with hers. "Buck told me that you were the first one to start worrying about me when I didn't come back on time. He said you sent some telegrams trying to figure out where I was. I want to thank you, Mary. You helped save my life just as much as the others did. Thank you."

"You're--" Mary fought to hold back the tears that unexpectedly surfaced as she listened to Chris's words, the intense sincerity in his sad eyes chipping away at her composure. "You're welcome, Chris." Her voice was barely a whisper. "Please tell me where you were. What happened?"

"I--" He faltered, as if uncertain whether he should go on. But as he searched Mary's face, it seemed as though he saw something that conveyed her need for him to continue. And, much to Mary's surprise, he did. "They locked me up. Put me in prison." His jaw tightened as the memory appeared to bring a seething anger to the surface.

Raising an unconscious hand to her mouth, Mary heard her own soft gasp of horror. Prison. Oh, God. Who would do such a thing? Why? She'd read about several prisons in her research for articles for the paper. She knew some of what went on inside one of those places, the mistreatment and cruelty. She felt the tears beacon again as she thought of Chris trapped in that hell on earth, forced to unjustly endure the abuse.

"Oh, Chris. I'm sorry." Without thinking, Mary closed the gap between them and raised a tender hand to his beard-roughened cheek. She wanted so much to comfort him in some way that any thought of propriety simply didn't register in her mind. It wasn't until she felt his face in her hand, and saw the surprised look in his eyes, that she realized the impulsiveness of her action. The shame washed over her quickly, but before she could pull her hand away, Chris covered it with his own. The touch sent a jolt of awareness shooting through the widow, and that disturbing ache of need grew stronger. The hand that lightly held hers in place felt coarse against her soft skin, but it was also alarmingly gentle.

The ability to speak suddenly deserted Mary as Chris captured her gaze with his. The intensity of his stare made her want to look away, run away, but the widow couldn't find the will to move. In the unwavering green depths, she thought she saw a longing, a hunger, that surpassed her own. The recognition scared her to death, but it also sent a forbidden finger of excitement slipping along her spine. It was wrong, very wrong, but that didn't stop her from feeling it.

With his eyes still locked on hers, Chris took Mary's hand from his face and brought it to his lips, his mouth shockingly soft as it brushed the backs of her fingers. His husky voice shattered the electrified stillness as he slowly released her. "Thank you, Mary." Without another word, the gunslinger pulled on his hat, tipped it to the widow and left the office.

Mary Travis stood rooted to the floor quietly staring after Chris Larabee for several long seconds. Then, still working to get a handle on her chaotic emotions, she slowly moved back to her desk and sat down. Another few moments of clearing her mind and the publisher of The Clarion News banged her hand angrily on the piece of furniture. He'd gotten away without telling her anything. She hadn't learned anything at all about his ordeal. But... Her eyes dropped to the floor in front of the desk while her hands reached up to touch her hot cheeks. She'd certainly learned more about herself. And she wasn't altogether sure if it was a good or bad thing.

The End