Mary, Chris and the rest of the gang don't belong to me. I'm just borrowing them for a short while.
To Tread on Sacred Ground
The midday sun beat down on the small group with an unyielding intensity only an August day could inflict, the uncomfortable stillness of the air testified to by the motionless windmill standing in the background silently overseeing this most recent burial.
"Grant this man peace, Lord, that he may find a home and forgiveness in your heavenly kingdom. Amen." Josiah Sanchez raised his head as the last word was repeated by three of the people gathered around the grave.
"Amen." The utterance was the last confirmation as Chris Larabee pulled on his black hat, his sorrowful eyes lost in the shadow thrown across his face.
Mary Travis raised her head and searched the darkness that now shielded his expression in a vain hope that she would see an easing of the profound sadness that had once again taken hold of him, sharply reflected in the handsome features, boldly lurking in the keen green gaze. It was a ludicrous hope, of course, an unrealistic need that refused to release her. They were burying his father-in-law. What else was he supposed to feel, if not sad?
But there was something more, something deeper, responsible for the agony she saw in his face. There could be little doubt--it was this place. This deserted piece of land and the ghosts it harbored, the lost happiness it represented. This desolation that had once been Chris Larabee's life.
A renewed sympathy for the gunman welled up inside Mary as her attention strayed from his somber features to again roam the burned-out remnants of what had been his home. The scorched remains painted a terrifying picture in her mind: the house engulfed in flames as its two innocent occupants desperately tried to escape the fatal inferno. Such an agonizing death for Sarah...for Adam. An overpowering sorrow suddenly gripped Mary, threatening to bring with it a flood of tears as her empathy for the two lost souls nearly overwhelmed her. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she tried to exorcise the horrific image from her mind's eye, but just as she did, another took its place--Chris's arrival back home and the devastation of what he had found. It was a feeling she understood all too well.
Pain held her tightly as she pondered the past. She had returned home to find her world destroyed by the monstrous act of another. She had felt that same devastation. And to return to the place where the destruction had taken place only made the torment worse. To this day, she had trouble going back to the cabin she and Steven had called home. The happy times they had enjoyed in the house were difficult to recall now, the image of her husband lying lifeless in the middle of the floor acting like an icy fog, easily obscuring the warm memories. For that reason, it was easier to think about the good times when she wasn't at their old homestead.
Mary's eyes wondered back to Chris, who continued to stare down at the grave. It had to be ripping him apart to be here again. Mere sadness would only scratch the surface of what he must be feeling as he stood amongst the wreckage of his former existence. Coming back here would do little else but remind him of the happiness that had been so cruelly stolen from him.
As far as she knew, this was the second trip he'd made back to his ranch since coming to Four Corners, the desire for justice and revenge fostering a need for the first return. When she'd arrived back in town from visiting her friend Rose, she had finally been able to convince Buck to give her a reason for Chris's darker-than-normal mood. Although she'd gotten the barest of facts from Orrin, it was Buck who finally confided to her the details of what they discovered during their search for Sarah and Adam's killer. The story she'd been told had shocked and saddened her, deeply saddened her. And now, the tragedy of yet another death had seen the need for this most recent return.
Again, she'd been away from town when the odyssey began, but this drama had been played out for the whole town to witness. Learning what happened had not been difficult. The residents of Four Corners were all buzzing about the Nichols family, the reason for their arrival and the confrontation that had taken place. She'd learned that Hank Connelly had been driven senseless with grief for his daughter and grandson, the burning need to punish the one responsible for their deaths encouraging the madness. So too Mrs. Nichols, apparently, the murder of her son and the unyielding desire to see his killer dead pushing her beyond reason. It was another sad story, a sad, useless story. Revenge was always sad and useless. Mary mourned the fact that Chris had lost another member of his family. It was a tragedy, in and of itself, but the wasteful insanity that is revenge made the loss even more intolerable.
"Well, we best be headin' back." Chris's low, stony voice broke through the prolonged silence and Mary's troubled thoughts as he lifted his head and glanced around the small group. "If we leave now, we should get back to the camp site before dark."
A few nods of agreement and the group quietly began to disperse. Vin lent his support to Josiah as they made their way to the buckboard. Nathan had gotten the bullet out of the preacher's leg, but the wound was still fresh and obviously painful. The healer had suggested he stay in town and give it time to begin healing, but Josiah had insisted on coming along.
"Every man deserves a proper burial. I want to be there to say the proper words." A tender smile touched Mary's mouth as she recalled the words he'd said to Nathan as Vin and Chris had helped him into the wagon beside her.
Mary's smile widened slightly as she watched Buck Wilmington move up along side Josiah and offer his good shoulder for further support. He had also gotten hurt in the skirmish with the Nichols brothers, but his wounded shoulder wasn't the result of a bullet from the vengeful family. No. Hank Connelly, in his delirium, had shot Buck, but he held no ill feeling toward the older man. He, too, had insisted on coming, against the advise of his doctor.
The smile faded as her thoughts drifted to the absent members of the seven. JD wanted to come, too, so Buck had said. But the beating the young man had taken had broken a rib or two, and Nathan had been immovable in his insistence that he stay in town. Ezra remained behind to keep an eye on things and to help Nathan with JD if he needed it.
As Mary turned toward the buckboard to follow Josiah and the others, a twinge of pain shot down her back and stopped her short. The ground had made a hard bed last night, and today she was feeling the effect. She wouldn't say a word or give the slightest indication, but a night on the rock-solid ground had left her a little stiff. Chris had warned her, of course. In fact, he'd warned her about several things, but she hadn't listened to him, the desire to join him on this somber journey proving much stronger than her well-intentioned common sense.
His disapproval of her wish to accompany them had been strong and swift. He'd rejected it outright, telling her it wasn't proper--a woman riding alone with four men on an overnight journey, forced to camp in the middle of nowhere.
But even as he turned and started to walk away from her, Mary had continued to insist, a subtle urgency reflected in her quiet tone. "I want to pay my respects."
With the words, Chris had halted his retreat from the paper and faced her once again, an incredulous frown darkening his expression while the skepticism crept into his voice. "You didn't even know the man."
"He was your father-in-law--your family. That's all I need to know."
The response had appeared to surprise him, his eyebrows rising slightly when he heard it. But Chris hadn't been the only one taken aback by her answer. As she'd digested the statement, Mary felt a wave of bewilderment move through her mind.
As she remembered the brief conversation, the same question that had plagued her then, haunted her now. Why? Why did she feel it was so terribly important for her to be here? Why did she feel it would be some sort of missed opportunity if she hadn't come? Why was she so all-fired ready to embark on an ill-advised trek to bury a man she'd never met? The chatter that had undoubtedly followed her departure from town should be burning her ears right about now, but somehow that didn't matter. It should, but it didn't. Why?
Mary's gaze traveled back to Chris who had yet to move away from the graveside. Yes, knowing that Hank Connelly was important to the gunman was enough to urge her to come. After all, she hadn't made the trip for Hank. She'd made it for Chris...for herself. She wanted, needed, to help, to support him in whatever small way she could. Besides, it was the right thing to do. It was the Christian thing to do. It was what a...friend did for a friend. They were friends. At least, she saw them in the light of friendship. She was beginning to believe that Chris viewed them in the same way. They shared experiences over the last year that had increased their understanding of one another and drawn them together. This was another one of those experiences.
But was friendship the only light that burned in her heart? Or had the feeling blossomed into something deeper? Is that why she had felt such a strong need to be here with him in this time of grief? But...was the need to support him the only thing that had brought her here?
As she continued to concentrate on Chris, Mary saw him lift his head a little higher, his eyes moving to the two older graves that lay in front of him.
No, she admitted to herself. The desire to be with him in this time of sorrow wasn't the only thing that had brought her here. There had been a curiosity, morbid perhaps, but there nonetheless. She wanted to deny it, but she couldn't--not and be honest with herself. She was more than a little embarrassed to acknowledge it, but she'd wanted to see this part of Chris's life, to get a forbidden glimpse of the past he allowed only a few to see, to tread on the sacred ground of his former life. She hoped, perhaps foolishly, that it would somehow bring her even closer him, increase her understanding. And because of this hope, her earlier question continued to haunt her. Had her feelings of friendship for this man grown into something deeper?
Suddenly, Mary felt like a cheap interloper, intruding on a moment that she had no business witnessing. But even as she felt the heat sting her cheeks, she couldn't pull her eyes away from Chris's face as she saw tears well up in his eyes, his raw pain a tangible thing that begged for her comfort.
Instead of continuing her walk to the buckboard, she found herself moving back toward the freshly churned earth and Chris. When they'd arrived at the ranch, it hadn't taken him and Vin long to dig the grave. With space enough for another resting place between Hank and his daughter, the two men had silently prepared the ground for Sarah Larabee's father. Mary stopped to stand on that clean patch of grass opposite Chris and looked into the sorrowful face of the man to whom she knew she was slowly losing her heart.
He didn't seem to see her standing there as his attention traveled back to the grave over which he stood. "I'm sorry, Hank." His voice cracked as he whispered the painfully sincere apology. "I only wanted to make her happy. You never believed that, but it's the truth. I only wanted to make her happy."
Chris's crippling guilt hit Mary like a brutal hand across the face, and as she tried to beat back the tears that abruptly blurred her vision, the telling words clawed mercilessly at her heart. She knew he blamed himself for his family's death. What she didn't know, until now, was that Hank hadn't approved of him as a son-in-law. And with Sarah's untimely death, Hank's objection had seemingly been justified. A stray drop rolled down Mary's cheek. How much more guilt had that knowledge piled on Chris's already tormented soul?
And Hank's death? Did Chris blame himself for that also? The older man had fallen into madness as a result of losing his daughter, and had set about taking revenge on innocent people for the crime. His death had been the result of that madness. Did Chris condemn himself further for this most recent loss of life? Mary couldn't help but believe that he did.
As she wiped away another stubborn tear, her need to comfort him grew more intense, but she had no idea what she could possibly say or do.
Chris remained oblivious to her presence, his attention still trained on Hank's grave. Slowly, Mary walked around it to join him on the other side. Placing a light hand on his arm, she quietly spoke. "Chris? Chris?"
When she repeated his name, he looked up from the ground and cast tortured eyes in her direction. Squelching a sympathetic sob, she gently squeezed his arm in an effort to offer some small gesture of comfort. For a moment, it seemed as though he didn't know her, the pain his only reality. But the blank expression faded quickly as recognition sparked in his gaze, and a question entered the eyes that considered her.
Forcing a gentle smile to her lips, Mary answered the silent inquiry. "You said it's time to leave. Don't you think we should be going now? We have a ways to travel before we get back to the camp site."
Blinking, Chris pushed his hovering tears out of sight. Taking a deep breath, he nodded. "Yeah, we should be going."
Shaking off the growing urge to pull him close, Mary returned the nod and started to remove her hand from his arm. But before she broke the contact, Chris captured her hand with his. The rough skin sent an unexpected tingle darting over her body, and she scolded herself for the inappropriate reaction. Whenever he touched her, she responded in the same way, a foolish thrill racing through her.
"Mary? Mary, I--" His eyes fell to the ground between them as he appeared to be searching for what he wanted to say. However, his hold on her was steady as he reached out with his other hand and held hers between his two callused ones. "I just wanted--" Lifting his head once again, Chris looked into her face, intently holding her eyes with his. "Your coming here, your being here--"
A genuine smile softened Mary's features, a warm happiness filling her heart as she understood the gratitude he didn't seem to be able to put into words. "I did what any friend would do, Chris. After all, it's times like these when friends are needed most and friendship is best shared."
An answering smile faintly lifted the corners of Chris's mouth as he tenderly squeezed Mary's hand and silently accepted her explanation. After a second or two, he pulled her arm through his, and they started walking toward the wagon.
Despite the lingering sorrow that surrounded and permeated the ground on which she walked, the warmth in Mary's heart gathered strength. Coming here had been the right thing to do. There was little doubt now. She had gained understanding. And the shared experience had moved her closer to Chris, had moved Chris closer to her. Although this step forward frightened her more than she wanted to acknowledge, it was a stride she would have found impossible not to take.
What future steps she would take, Mary had no idea. She only knew she was prepared to take them.