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The Path Less Traveled

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~~~~~~~~~

For some, when a journey begins, it often has to start at a beginning and often times it reads like a book. Beginning, middle, end, plot, hero, villain and sometimes there is a heroine involved. Most stories, if printed, were over-dramatized to bring more action to a story but some of the best had very little drama and were quite understated. Adam had very much hoped that his true story was one of those. Something clean cut, something that would be resolved quickly, something to help him understand who he was and where he came from.

He was quickly learning that wasn’t the case.

“Boy, you need something else?” the gruff man who owned the local store asked.

Lifting his head, confused green eyes cleared and shook his head at the man before pausing. “Actually, do you know of any farm or ranch hiring right now?” he asked. He handed over the few coins that the man was asking for. “’Fraid I’m getting low on those.”

The man packed up the few things Adam had bought into cloth that he could easily put into his saddle bag. He shrugged. “The Stokes ranch is a few miles outta town,” he said. “Ain’t rightly sure if Kate’s hirin’, but can’t hurt to ask. She’s been up there by herself for a few years now since comin’ back here. You could go talk to her, but don’t be surprised, boy, if she sends you packin’.”

“She got something against men?” Adam asked.

“With good reason,” the man said. “But she’s also got somethin’ against people she think are pityin’ her. Right independent one she is. Guess she had to be, considerin’ what a waste that father o’ hers was.”

Adam could have taken anything from that statement, but he wasn’t going to ask any more questions of the man. He knew how men that were a ”waste” were often men that took advantage of the girls in their family. The man probably didn’t know all the details of this Kate’s history either beyond what he possibly heard on rumor, but at least Adam now had an idea as to how to potentially approach her.

“Which direction is the Stokes’ place?”

~~

Normally Kate Stokes was very aware of her surroundings. You didn’t run in the circle of a man like Del Spivak for so many years and not learn how to keep looking over your shoulder. Even though it had been a number of years since the events in Four Corners that led, not only, to Del’s death but her sister, Maddie’s, as well, she still felt like she had to look over her shoulder for the next person that was trying to take advantage of her. But she was arguing with a particularly stubborn weed that just would not release its hold on the rock hard soil it was buried in, so she didn’t see the horse coming from over the hill, a solid figure astride its back.

“Excuse me, you Kate Stokes?” the voice called.

Kate stiffened and glanced to her left where her shot gun rested against the rickety fence. She wondered if she would have enough time to dive for the object and aim before she felt a bullet pierce her skin. She figured moving wasn’t a good idea. Yet.

“Who’s askin’?” she asked, not turning.

“Name’s Adam,” the voice said. “Man over at the general store in River Creek said you might be in need of help out here.”

“That man’s got a big mouth and shouldn’t be talkin’ ‘bout things he doesn’t know,” Kate quipped.

Adam sighed a bit. “Look, ma’am…”

Kate slowly turned and looked at him. “I ain’t hirin’,” she said. “And certainly not any man that is gonna try and tell me what to do.” She couldn’t help but stare at the boy. Oh he was far too young for her in terms of looking at him as a more than just a kid, but she’d have to be completely blind to not see the resemblance between this boy and Chris Larabee. Why would a boy that looked like a gunslinger she hadn’t seen in six years end up on her land?

*She’s got more of a chip on her shoulder than me…* Adam thought, his eyebrow arching some. “Ma’am, no offense, but it doesn’t look like you are making much headway on this land,” he said. “I could help.”

“I’ve been doin’ fine the last few years without any help from anyone else,” Kate protested. “I think you can go now.”

Adam hopped off his horse. “Miss Stokes…”

“I said you can go, or I swear I’ll grab that shot gun and put a bullet through you,” Kate said, stiffening. “I don’t give a damn if you can get to your gun faster.”

Adam paused where he stood, the reins of his horse still in hand. He studied the way Kate stood and wondered just what was done to her.

“Ma’am, I’m not aimin’ to hurt you.”

“Yeah,” Kate said. “I’ve heard that before.”

Adam put his hands up, reins dangling from the one. “I’ll go,” he said. “But really, I was just lookin’ for work. Am running out of money and it was just a suggestion to come here.” He kept himself passive, finally getting back onto his horse. He turned the steed and started a slow walk away, not wanting to spook Kate anymore than he obviously had.

“Wait,” Kate called. She reached for her shotgun, in case, but then began walking towards the young man. “Said your name was Adam?”

Adam glanced over at her, nodding his head. “Yes, ma’am, I did.”

“You got a last name, Adam?” Kate asked.

The blond young man shook his head, his features shuttering some. “Been using Smith,” he said.

“Using Smith?” Kate questioned. “You wanted or somethin’? Cause I don’t need that kind of trouble again.”

“I ain’t wanted,” Adam snapped. He took a calming breath as Kate’s eyebrow arched. “I mean, I’m not wanted.” Her eyebrow quirked higher.

“Well?” she finally asked.

“I don’t know who I am beyond my first name,” Adam said. “I’ve got bits of memory here and there, but that’s it. I don’t remember my parents. Just the orphanage I grew up in.”

“Oh,” Kate said. “Look. I ain’t looking to be some wayward teenager’s Ma--.”

Adam looked at her incredulously. “I don’t need a Ma,” he said. “I need a job. And to be frank, you need the help.”

Kate took a moment to study his look; his posture. If she let herself view him older, she would swear Chris Larabee was the one she was talking to, not some kid calling himself Adam Smith. She still couldn’t understand why the cantankerous son of a bitch she met six years ago in Four Corners was coming to her mind now as she looked at this boy. Keep telling yourself that you don’t think of him often, Kate. Maybe you’ll start believing it. Sometimes she hated her subconscious. Maybe with this kid here, she’d have less time to listen to that internal voice.

“All right, fine,” she finally said. “I do need help. But I can’t afford much and I’ll be needing some help cooking and keeping up the house, too.”

“A few coins, a roof over my head and food in my belly is all I need, Ms. Stokes,” Adam said.

“It’s Kate,” she said. “You can stay in the barn’s loft for now. If you’re here come winter, we’ll figure something out.”

“Thanks,” Adam said.

“There’s a stall for your horse you can use,” Kate said. “Then you can get started.” Adam tipped his hat and turned to lead his horse to the barn. Kate’s voice stopped him again.

“And Adam?” He turned to look at her. “If you aren’t on the level and try something, I won’t hesitate to shoot you.”

The smile he quirked was a swift kick to her gut. He tapped the brim of his hat before heading to the barn. Without looking like she was running, Kate hurried to the house and stepped inside. Once she closed the door, she practically collapsed against it, willing her heart to stop pounding as that smile came to her mind. Only this time it was in a face that was older, harder and haunted her dreams every night since she and Maddie found themselves in that damnable town six years ago. Who the hell was Adam Smith and why was he the spitting image of Chris Larabee?

~~

Nights were always the hardest for Kate. She slept a few hours, but the nightmares always brought her back to reality. Times like that brought her outside, getting fresh air, allowing her mind to filter the nightmares out of her mind. Mostly. They always lingered in some way.

She was just passing the barn, pausing when she heard something. It sounded like a child. Great, just what she needed, another child.

“No...” A frown crossed Kate’s features as she moved quietly towards the barn.

“Mama... no...” That wasn’t a child. Not a young one, at least. Kate stood completely still, listening. When she heard the whimper again, she realized it was Adam. Something ached in her chest as she heard the soft cries as she also heard him tossing in the make-shift bed he’d made for sleeping arrangements.

Turning and quietly making her way back to the house, all she could think was that she wasn’t the only one that suffered with nightmares.

~~

“Rough night, huh?”

Adam had quietly come into the house to pour some coffee, figuring Kate was holed up in the bedroom off the kitchen and living area as she was every other morning since he had started working on her homestead a few weeks ago.

“What makes you say that?” Adam said a bit cautiously, reaching for the coffee pot on the potbelly stove.

“Sometimes I need to clear my head,” Kate said. “Especially after a rough night of my own. So I take a walk outside.” She saw Adam’s hand pause with the pot in hand before finishing pouring and setting it back down.

“I heard you havin’ a nightmare.”

Adam closed his eyes, swallowing hard. He wished he could remember most of the nightmares and dreams he had, but they were so fuzzy that he had to wonder if they were memories trying to surface. He doubted he would ever really know.

“Everyone has nightmares,” Adam said, sipping the coffee, forcing himself not to grimace at drinking the scalding liquid too quickly.

“Occasionally,” Kate said. “But not many are cryin’ out for their Ma’s in them.”

“Don’t see me sneakin’ around and listenin’ to yours, do you?” Adam snapped. Kate stiffened. The tone, the posture, it screamed Larabee. There had to be a connection, only Kate didn’t know why.

Kate Stokes was no fool. Shortly after leaving Four Corners after her sister died, she couldn’t return to this place for awhile. Curiosity had gotten the best of her regarding all of the men in Four Corners, so she’d done her research. Some of them were harder to find information on, but Larabee had a farm between River Creek and Eagle Bend. The tragedy that had befallen him was all over the newspapers. She knew he had been married and had lost his family in the fire. She also found out that a few years ago, while in Four Corners, he had found out who had killed them, and then who had been behind the entire thing. If Kate hadn’t known that information, she would have guessed this boy was his son.

*Just ‘cause he lost one son doesn’t mean he didn’t have another shortly before that or after...* But she knew that wasn’t the case. Though she hadn’t gotten along with him at all, Kate knew that Larabee wasn’t the type of man like her father or Del or any of those other good for nothing men she’d met in her life. For all his faults, he was honorable and would have held true to his marriage vows. For this kid to be Larabee’s, he would have had to have cheated on his wife or fell into another woman’s bed shortly after her death. While the latter was a possibility, she would hazard a guess that he would be so drunk that he wouldn’t have done any woman any good between the sheets beyond slobbery kisses.

“I ain’t tryin’ to pry...” Kate started.

“Then don’t,” Adam snapped. He looked at her. “You’ve done your best to keep me at a distance since I started working here, so don’t go pokin’...”

“Don’t get lippy with me,” Kate finally snapped at him. She took a deep breath to calm her ire. “Look... I know I didn’t exactly act cordial or anything when you showed up. But you are a good worker and seem like a good kid. I know you said you couldn’t remember who you were. Figured maybe these dreams had somethin’ to do with it. Sometimes talkin’ helps.”

Adam picked up his coffee cup and drained its contents before setting it down. “Tell you what,” he said, his tone harder then he truly intended. “When you decide to start sharin’ your own issues and nightmares, then I’ll consider sharin’ mine. ‘Til then, I’ll be outside gettin’ the fencing up before startin’ on plowin’.” Before Kate could comment, Adam’s long legs carried him the few steps that led to the door and he disappeared outside.

Kate sighed, crossing her arms over her chest. “Great,” she murmured. “This is why I said I wasn’t lookin’ to be any kid’s Ma.”

~~

Despite all of what Kate said, she found herself a short while later making her way over to where Adam was finishing up one of the fences he’d been repairing. She held a glass of lemonade in her hand. Adam glanced at her, not pausing until she got to the fence. He ran the back of his hand over his sweaty brow.

“Here,” Kate said, handing the glass over. “Not sure how good it is. Not exactly a stellar cook or anything.”

“Thanks,” Adam said, taking the glass. He sipped, grimacing only slightly. A bit more tart than he was used to, but otherwise not bad. “Tarter than I’ve had, but not bad.”

Kate smiled a little, but she was focused out on the horizon, her arms resting along the top of the fence. Adam could tell something was on her mind, but figured if she wanted to say something, she would. He was about to finish off the glass and get back to work when she finally did.

“I had a sister,” she said. “Maddie. Our Ma died a couple years after havin’ her. She got sick when givin’ birth, but she made it through. She just never really recovered. I don’t remember much about her and my Pa before that, but I suspect most of his meanness was taken out on Ma. With her gone, he turned it on me and Maddie.”

Adam was rather surprised she was talking about her past, but wasn’t going to interrupt. He did say when she would start talking, he would do the same. He suspected his story was a lot shorter than hers.

“Once I was old enough, I took off. Wanted away from my Pa. Met up with a man named Del Spivak. Figured he wasn’t anything like my Pa. I was wrong,” Kate said. “But I figured I was in love, so I convinced him to come back so I could get Maddie. Didn’t want to leave her to deal with Pa.”

He could see the struggle she was having, which only led him to realize just how hard of a life this woman had had throughout the years. He actually wondered if she was younger than he initially thought because of it.

“I didn’t want to see it, but Maddie had gotten pretty mean herself. Once I finally escaped Del and his gang, we became bounty hunters. Decided to start huntin’ Del’s gang, especially after a particular robbery. Maddie wanted her money, I admit I did too, but I mostly wanted Del dead.” She paused, her throat working as she remembered everything she had been pushing aside for so long.

“What happened?” Adam asked gently.

“We finally got a lead,” Kate said. “Man named Carver was tried and gonna be hanged in a town called Four Corners, about a day’s ride from here. Del and his gang arranged an ambush to rescue him. Almost all went well, but we got the drop on Kirkland, Del’s powder man.”

Adam was shocked to see tears fill Kate’s eyes before they spilled out of her eyes and splashed onto her cheeks. He suspected she hadn’t dealt with whatever demons she’d been running from until now.

“Everything just snowballed,” she said. “The gunmen in the town that were the hired law... they were going after Del with us. Didn’t trust us, ‘specially Larabee. Turns out he was right, he shouldn’t have. We just wanted the money from Del; I wanted Del dead. It wasn’t ‘til Maddie shot one of them point blank that I realized how bad it was, but she was my sister.”

With a hard swallow, Kate continued to speak. “We were caught trying to escape. I couldn’t let anything happen to my sister. But we were caught. I was let go, but Maddie... she was sentenced to hang. She was the one who murdered a friend of the judge’s during the stage coach robbery that Del’s man was bein’ tried for. I didn’t... I...”

Adam had come to realize that Kate didn’t like being touched, but he felt she needed some comfort. He carefully reached over and curled his fingers around her arm. He felt her tense but then she relaxed, her body shifting to lower her head and rest her chin on her clasped hands on top of the fence.

“I couldn’t just let her hang. I begged with Wilmington, one of the men, but he brought up his friend fighting for his life. Said he thought women were everything good, ‘til he met me and Maddie. There was no help, so I decided to break her out myself. At the time, I’d rather have lived a life on the run with my sister then live life without her.”

“What happened to her?” Adam asked gently. He ignored how the two names, Wilmington and Larabee, seemed to whisper to him as if he should know those names. He re-focused on Kate and her story.

“Del showed up. Not sure of all the details, but guessing he came lookin’ for the money Maddie had stolen from him when he was knocked out. He...” Her voice caught and she had to quell the sob that was rising. “He shot Maddie.”

“Did those lawmen do anything?” Adam asked.

“They must’ve heard his shot. All I remember is Wilmington... he came in with Sanchez and shot Del. I think Del was trying to shoot me,” Kate said. “Maddie never stood a chance. She died in my arms.”

“I’m so sorry, Kate,” Adam said.

“I was free,” Kate said. “I was free, so I left that town. I wasn’t wanted there, not after what Maddie did. So I came back here. Not right away, but it’s all I had.”

Adam was at a complete loss, especially when Kate let the tears fall more. He swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. He cleared his throat before he started to speak.

“I told you I don’t remember who I am,” he said. “When I came here. Just a first name, but beyond that I don’t remember much before ending up in that orphanage. The nightmares... I keep wondering if my mind is trying to remember. Nothing is ever clear though.”

Kate lifted her chin, turning her head to him before reaching to brush tears off her cheek. “Nothing?” she asked.

Adam shook his head. “They’ve been getting worse. I’m not sure why.”

“What do you remember of them?” Kate asked.

“Screaming for my Ma. Heat, I have a few burn scars on my legs so I wonder if a fire is what killed my parents,” Adam said. “I think I hear a gunshot in the dream, but it’s never the same so I don’t know if that’s a part of it or not.”

“And you have no idea where you are originally from?” Kate asked. “I mean, even the area?”

“I was in an orphanage in Red Fork,” Adam said. “That’s about all I can say, I think.”

A frown formed more on Kate’s face as she thought for a moment. She shook her head. “That really could mean anywhere,” she said. “Just this area alone there’s here, Red Fork itself, Four Corners and Eagle Bend.”

“I can’t guess what answers I can find, though,” Adam admitted. “I keep thinkin’ I should look, just to know, but how am I ever gonna find out? Not like my parents can tell me.”

“But what if both your parents weren’t killed?” Kate blinked. She honestly had no idea why she even mentioned that, and she had to admit that she regretted it when she saw the look on Adam’s face.

“If one of my parents survived, why didn’t they keep me from endin’ up in an orphanage?” he said roughly.

“Adam, don’t...”

“Why, Kate? I was just a kid!”

Kate reached up and put her hand on Adam’s shoulder. He had grown some since he came to work for her a few weeks ago. She figured he was going to be a tall one. Again, Larabee’s form came to mind. So did Wilmington’s, but she knew that the two had been friends even before Larabee’s marriage. Why the hell was she thinking about them so much of late? Even with telling her story, she had been thinking of them more and more.

“Adam, I don’t mean you were abandoned,” she said softly. “Maybe... if one of your folks did survive, they were too hurt to know or thought you had been killed too.”

“That doesn’t make any sense, how could that be?” he asked.

Kate’s eyes unfocused, a memory slipping in as she remembered reading about Larabee’s tragedy. It just seemed too convenient and too impossible at the same time. But what if it wasn’t?

“I think I know where we can get started.”

~~

One thing that could be said about the town of Four Corners was that it was a town of changes. Over the past seven years it grew and flourished under the protection of seven men who initially were only meant to stay thirty days. They had all made roots in the town, watching it grow, growing themselves and establishing lives amongst the town’s residents. It was never more obvious as it was today as the town waited with baited breath as one of the protectors became a father for the first time.

The town had already been abuzz as the wedding plans were thriving with each passing day as the wedding date grew closer for Mary Travis and Vin Tanner, but everyone had even paused in those preparations after the official Sheriff of the group, JD Dunne, raced out of the saloon towards the Sheriff’s office.

“It’s time! Chris! Vin! Ezra!” The young man was calling so loudly that he hadn’t needed to run the length of the boardwalk towards the Sheriff’s office to alert the three men inside. Ezra Standish was the first to run out of the Sheriff’s office, quickly followed by Chris Larabee and Vin.

“JD?” Chris had questioned the man.

“Inez said it’s time, Buck’s helpin’ her over to Nath--,” JD started to say but Ezra hadn’t bothered to listen, instead racing to where he saw his wife, Inez Ashford-Standish, being assisted by Buck Wilmington and Casey Wells out of the saloon. Once she disappeared up the stairs into Nathan Jackson’s clinic, everyone began to wait.

“Why is it takin’ so long?” JD demanded, pacing in front of the saloon after a few hours.

“Considerin’ how long Emily was laborin’ with yer son, you gotta ask that?” Vin asked, amusement lacing his tone. It caused JD to blush as he remembered just how long his own wife had been in labor with their first born.

Biologically the child was not JD’s, but it didn’t matter. Emily had been a working girl when she and JD had met, but he had been smitten even then. When she left with Lydia and the other girls from Wikkes town, he never expected to see her again. Just two years ago, she had returned, expecting a baby from one of the men she had been with and no one to turn to. JD had immediately taken her in and the two soon married, JD claiming the baby as his. No one questioned, even though they all knew just by looking at the boy that he wasn’t JD’s; the difference was that JD didn’t care. He loved his wife and his son.

“Any news?” Casey asked as she came up the stairs. After helping Buck with Inez, she had gone to see to her own child. Like JD, the child that Casey now called her own was not hers biologically. Lucy Banitter had been a good friend that Casey had met when her aunt Nettie had sent her to a finishing school out East. The two returned together shortly before Emily came back to town.

JD and Casey had realized that they were nothing more than friends and that’s all they would ever be. With Lucy in town, Casey found herself corralling her best friend as she became a bit of a wild child. Immediately drawn to Buck, as most women were, she found herself pregnant. Buck hadn’t denied being the father and had been at Lucy’s side during the entire pregnancy, but the labor had been hard and Lucy died shortly after giving birth to a dark-haired blue-eyed little girl. Casey had promised Lucy that if anything ever happened to her that she would take care of the baby as if it were her own. Buck and Casey were now raising the little girl together, the man having built a small home near the Wells ranch to be close to his daughter. The other men were starting to wonder if Buck was getting closer to making an honest woman of Casey, and an honest man of himself.

“No, nothing yet,” Josiah said. “It could be--.”

The sound of a child’s cry broke off and they all grinned. They would feel better once they saw Ezra and they knew that Inez was okay as well as the baby. It didn’t take long before Mary Travis came out of the room, having helped Nathan with the delivery. She smiled brightly, letting them breathe a sigh of relief that Inez was okay, as was the baby. She moved over to her fiancé, receiving a kiss. JD was about to say something but the door opened and Ezra stepped out, all smiles and a small bundle firmly cradled in his arms.

“Gentlemen, Ladies,” Ezra said with a grin. “I’d like you to meet mine and Inez’s daughter, Katherine Rosa Ashford-Standish.” The men, along with Mary and Casey, all descended on Ezra to get their first glimpse of the new member of their family.

“She’s beautiful,” Casey said, brushing a finger along the baby’s swaddled foot.

“How’s Inez?” Chris asked, feeling a slight tightening in his chest. One he felt even when JD’s and Buck’s children were born. It made him ache and think of when his own son, Adam, had been born. He’d be close to sixteen now, he thought to himself before forcing himself to shake out of his thoughts and focus on the here and now.

“She’s tired, sore, but deliriously happy,” Ezra said. “I’ve never seen anything more harrowing and terrifying as what my wife went through.”

“Wait ‘til the day comes when Mary and Vin start having their own little ones,” Buck said, grinning. “And it’s your sister going through it.”

“I already have,” Mary reminded Buck with a light laugh.

“Yeah, but Ezra weren’t here and he knows you’re his sister now,” Buck pointed out.

“I’ll worry,” Ezra said. “But somehow I think Vin would protest if I were in the room while his wife were giving birth, even if I am related to her.”

“You only think I would?” Vin quipped with a grin. Ezra chuckled, cradling his newborn daughter close to his chest. His gaze shifted to where he saw Chris slipping away from the group. He immediately look towards Buck, who had also noticed Chris’ motion. The gambler glanced at the former lady’s man, arching a brow. Buck inclined his head, indicating he would make sure all was well, earning a very small nod of acknowledgement from Ezra.

Buck brushed a hand against Casey’s lower back, moving past the group to follow after his longtime friend, letting his long gait eat up the distance to him. Ezra watched them go a moment before drawing himself back to the others and the newborn in his arms.

“You okay, pard?” Buck asked once he caught up to the black-clad gunslinger.

“Yeah,” Chris said, but Buck could still hear the soft longing in his voice. The taller man arched a brow and waited for his friend to speak. Chris sighed softly, a small shake of his head accompanying the spoken words.

“It’s getting harder, Buck. I thought it would get easier as time went on, but with everyone settlin’ down and havin’ their own families... it’s getting harder.”

Buck’s brow furrowed. He reached up and squeezes his friend’s shoulder. “I thought things were getting easier?” he asked, concern coating his words. “That you were movin’ on and such?”

“So did I,” Chris admitted. “But it’s been almost eight years since I lost them. In that time, have you seen me closing to settlin’ down?”

Buck knew better than to bring up Ella Gaines. It was still a sore topic for Chris, hell for all of them, especially since Ella had managed to remain hidden in whatever dank rock she was residing under. Buck also suspected that one of the reasons he hadn’t settled down wasn’t because he couldn’t let the past rest, but because he didn’t want to put another woman in the line of fire while she was still out there. Let alone to start a family with her.

“Hell, pard, you ain’t shown more than passing interest in any woman since the Stokes girls were here six years ago,” Buck said, trying to lighten the mood. Probably not the best way to do it, considering the glare Chris shot him. He put up his hands in defense.

“Just sayin’ that despite all my charms, it was you that seemed to light a fire under Miss Kate’s backside whenever the two of you crossed paths. And I know that little filly stirred something in that stone heart you claim to have,” Buck continued. “I ain’t sayin’ you should go off lookin’ for her, I’m just sayin’ you should remember that you can feel again. And I also understand why you keep yourself at a distance.”

“Regardless of who they are, I can’t put someone else in danger,” Chris said. “It was hard enough losin’ Sarah and Adam when I didn’t know the circumstances. Now... now I know she’s still out there. And the minute I let my guard down to move on, she’s going to strike.”

“Maybe it’s time we go huntin’,” Buck said. “Instead of keep talkin’ about it, we need to actually do it.”

Chris gave Buck an odd look, shaking his head. “No,” he said. Before Buck could open his mouth to protest, Chris cut him off. “Vin is getting ready to marry. Ezra’s daughter was just born. JD has his kids to think of and you’ve got your daughter. Nathan’s practically engaged and Josiah has settled in here with Gloria that I can’t even imagine askin’ any of you to go huntin’ with me. If I make that choice, I’ll go alone.”

“Chris, we’re your friends, your family--.”

“And I know that,” Chris said. “But it ain’t just us anymore, Buck. There are other kids and wives, or soon to be wives, involved now. No way in hell will I be responsible for kids losin’ their fathers or wives and fiancees losing their spouses.”

“That’s an argument for another day, pard,” Buck said. “‘Cause you know that Mary and Inez, at least, would probably disagree. I’m thinking Casey would too, and Gloria. Emily and Maria might protest, but they knew what JD and Nathan did when they met them and fell in love. All the women would worry, but they know we help our own.”

“But I can’t--,” Chris started.

“Chris, pard, stop,” Buck said. “Do you hear yourself? You tried this once before, remember? We didn’t listen then and the ladies we are blessed to have in our lives understand that. They will worry, they will fret, they’ll probably make most of us sleep on the floor the night we’re back, but in the end, they know us enough to know we are going with you. To hell and back if necessary.”

“You got reason to worry about sleepin’ on the floor?” Chris asked after a moment, taking the sudden emotional discussion in a different direction and off of him.

“You know Casey and I--.”

“Are dancin’ around one another like you ain’t interested,” Chris said. “I know I’m not good about takin’ advice, Buck, but I call things like I see them. You know that.” Buck acquiesced a nod in agreement. “Tell her how you feel. You may be surprised by the answer.”

“We’ll see,” Buck dodged, but Chris could see a slight blush on the other man’s face starting to form.

“I’m going to call it a night,” Chris said. “If I’m needed, I’ll be at my homestead. Josiah’s takin’ Nathan’s patrol tonight.”

“Don’t drown yourself, pard,” Buck warned.

“I won’t,” Chris promised. “Haven’t gone down that road in a really long time. I’d like to keep it that way.” With a wave of his hand, Chris headed to the livery to get his horse. Buck watched his friend go, sighing as he turned to rejoin the rest of the group when he saw two figures riding into town. One was much more slight of frame than the other, but the body was hidden in the folds of a duster.

*That duster looks rather fam---.* Buck’s thought was cut off as the smaller of the two turned to say something to the other and he saw two things; the smaller of the two was a woman. And she was a woman that he knew.

“Speak her name and she will appear?” Buck murmured. His feet were already moving before he even realized he was walking over to where Kate Stokes was dismounting her horse near the livery. The person with her had already dismounted and had walked into the livery, most likely to talk to Yosemite.

“Never figured on seein’ you again,” Buck said, breaking into Kate’s thoughts as she rustled through her saddle bag.

Kate lifted her head, almost startled by the familiar deep voice. A part of her was a little surprised that Wilmington remembered who she was and also a little surprised that he was still in town. Though she knew that shouldn’t have surprised her. When she had been here, they had all seemed ready to settle down. Except for Standish, however she had heard he found a reason to stay so the seven men were still here.

“Never figured I’d be back here again,” Kate finally said. “Not sure if I should say it’s good to see you again or not considerin’ the last time.”

Buck crossed his arms over his chest. “You got a point,” Buck said. He gave her a small smile. “Though I do understand the situation you were in. Just tryin’ to save--.”

“Hey Kate, the livery owner said... oh sorry.” Kate couldn’t turn her head to talk to Adam. She was too fascinated by the look on Wilmington’s face as he stared at the boy. It almost scared her how pale he suddenly became as he stared at the boy.

“Kate?” Adam asked.

“Oh... sorry,” Kate said, shaking herself. “Um- this is Buck Wilmington. One of the men I told you about that protects the town.”

Adam stuck out his hand to Buck, trying to determine why he felt as if he should know this man. “Mr. Wilmington,” he said. “I’m Adam Smith.”

Buck took the boy’s hand, giving it a firm shake. He couldn’t help but stare. “It’s... nice to meet you, Adam.”

“Thanks,” Adam said. Buck hadn’t let go of his hand. “Can I have my hand back?”

“Sorry,” Buck said, releasing him. He watched the young man turn to Kate, feeling a punch to his gut. It was impossible, absolutely impossible, but if he didn’t know better he was looking at a ghost. A ghost that had grown into a young man. He shook himself as the boy’s voice penetrated the fog and swamp of memories that began assaulting him.

“--something about a place we can stay, but the price for boarding the horses is pretty reasonable,” Adam was saying.

“If I remember, there was a boarding house down the street,” Kate said in response.

“There... yeah, it’s still there,” Buck finally interjected. “Before you go, Kate, can I talk to ya?”

“Uh... I’ll go see if there are any rooms available,” Adam said. Kate nodded. He gathered their saddlebags and headed down the street. Buck waited until they saw him disappear into the boarding house before whirling on Kate.

“What the hell kind of scheme is this?” he asked hotly.

Kate blinked, taking a physical step back from the man’s ire. “What are you talking about?” she finally asked.

“Who is he, Kate? What kind of trick are you pullin’?” Buck demanded.

Kate’s face screwed up in confusion. “Trick? What? You aren’t making any sense!”

“Who. Is. He.”

“He told you!” Kate said. “His name is Adam Smith.”

“Adam Smith. Right. Then you wanna tell me why that boy is the spittin’ image of Chris Larabee?” Buck asked. “‘Cause I feel like I was just lookin’ at someone that shouldn’t be.”

“That’s what he told me,” Kate snapped. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes a moment to steady herself. “That’s all the name he knows.”

“What?” Buck asked. When Kate opened her eyes, his body was tight with tension and suppressed anger. She supposed she could understand the emotions that he was facing. Of anyone, he was the closest to Larabee.

“All I know is what he’s told me so far,” Kate said. “He said his name is Adam and he took on Smith ‘cause he has no memory of who he is.”

Buck’s shoulders shifted. “No memory?” he asked.

Kate shook her head. “He grew up in some orphanage in Red Fork. ‘Sides his first name, he can’t remember anything before endin’ up there.” She shifted, debating if she should tell him more. She suspected that if she didn’t, it would make things worse. And maybe it would help if Wilmington did know.

“He has nightmares,” Kate said. “Pretty bad ones.”

“He’s just a boy!” Buck immediately imagined the reason why she would know about his nightmares. Seeing the hurt and angry expression forming on her face, he immediately realized his mistake in allowing his mind to go that route.

“Ain’t nothin’ between him and me that’s inappropriate,” Kate growled. “He helps out on my land since I need it and in turn he gets a few coins for the work, a place to sleep in the barn and a place to board his horse. I got some pretty nasty nightmares myself, so sometimes I walk the land. Heard him havin’ one. That’s all.”

“Sorry,” Buck said, holding his hands up. “Was wrong of me to say what I did. I apologize.” He sighed, taking his hat off and running his fingers through the dark locks.

“How did you two end up here then?” Buck asked. “And if he just works for you, why go to the trouble of helpin’ him find answers?”

“That’s why we ended up here. Figured since Red Fork ain’t that far, he could be from here or Eagle Bend. Any of the neighboring towns. He’s tryin’ to find answers were he can,” Kate said. Answering the second question was going to be a bit more difficult because even she didn’t know the answer. Honesty. Was the only way to go right now.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Just feel like I need to help him. No idea why, ain’t like I have a stake in him findin’ out the truth.”

“He really has no idea who he is?” Buck asked.

“That’s what he says, and judging by the nightmares he really doesn’t. He thinks the answers are there, but all he keeps rememberin’ is heat and flames,” Kate said, looking towards the boarding house. She didn’t see Buck jerk his head to look at her with shock written all over his face.

“He was in a fire?” Buck asked.

Kate looked up, seeing the change in his face. She slowly nodded. “I think so, yeah,” she said. “He’s got some scars too. Burn scars on his legs. He just remembers screamin’ for his Ma, he said. Wonders if that’s how his parents died.”

“You know about Chris,” Buck said more than asked.

Kate slowly nodded. “When... when I left here, I found out what I could on all of you. Curiosity I guess. No idea why I really did it,” she said. “When I saw Adam... I could see Larabee in every inch of him. When he told me his story...”

“That why you brought him here?” Buck asked.

“Told you. Brought him here since it’s close to Red Fork and figured he could find answers. We’ve been to Red Fork and Eagle Bend. Shop owner in Eagle Bend suggested coming here because of Larabee,” Kate said. “Buck... Adam’s pissed. Shop owner implied that he was Larabee’s kid. Adam’s got that in his head and thinks he was abandoned now.”

“Chris would never--,” Buck started.

“I know,” Kate said. “Even if I hadn’t read the articles from then, I know just from having met him that he’d never abandon his son if he knew he was alive. Or give up searching if he thought he was. Even told Adam that, but he’s not thinkin’ clearly.”

“I don’t think he’s Adam Larabee,” Buck said. “Despite how he looks.”

“Why?” Kate asked.

“Because when we got back that night, we found two bodies in the burned out ruins of the house.”

“Everything okay?” A new voice asked. Kate looked to see Vin Tanner join them. She registered the shock on his face when he saw her.

“Not sure yet,” Buck said. It caused Kate to sigh when she saw the shock on Vin’s face change to cooled speculation. “No, not necessarily with her. Not like before.”

“Gee, thanks,” Kate murmured.

“I’m confused,” Vin admitted before Buck could say something more. It would seem he was only sticking his foot in his mouth every time he spoke. Kate had to turn away, she didn’t want either man to see how hurt she was at the idea that she wasn’t trusted, berating herself for the emotion because they really had no reason to trust her. She could hear Buck explaining to Vin what he knew so far.

“He ain’t goin’ to try somethin’ stupid like confrontin’ Larabee, is he?” Vin’s voice penetrated the fog.

Kate stiffened. Her protests to Adam about Larabee seemed to go right through him. She hoped that he wasn’t intending what Vin was asking. Slowly she turned and she saw movement as Adam exited the boarding house. He started down the street back in their direction.

“How close were you to the family?” Kate asked Buck absently, watching Adam walk. Her eyes started to unfocus and she saw Chris. She couldn’t help it.

“Chris and I were like brothers. Loved that boy as if he were my nephew,” Buck said. “Why?”

“Let’s just say he is Larabee’s. I know you say he can’t be, but what if he is?” Kate said.

“I... why?” Buck asked.

“Maybe you can help. Adam’s almost within ear shot.”

Vin and Buck both turned at Kate’s statement. Vin didn’t know how Buck had kept it together. Like Kate, he saw Chris in every inch of the boy. He couldn’t even begin to imagine how Buck was feeling at the moment, when he had known Adam Larabee as a child.

It unnerved Adam to no end how the three adults watched his every step as he got closer. Especially Wilmington. He couldn’t pinpoint why, but he felt like he knew him. Like he should know him. He knew that Wilmington was Larabee’s oldest friend. He couldn’t get the words of the store owner from Eagle Bend out of his mind and wondered if that was clouding why he felt he should know Wilmington.

While riding into Four Corners, he realized that Kate was right about going off half-cocked without any information or knowing for certain that Larabee was his father. Words began penetrating his thick-headedness as they rode; Kate telling him how Larabee had come home to find the house burned. Listening to her telling him that Larabee wasn’t the type of man to abandon a son if he had an inkling he was alive. Made Adam realize that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t Adam Larabee. Or if he was, he was believed to be just as dead as Larabee’s wife. But if *he* was in fact, Adam Larabee, why did Chris Larabee think him dead?

“You look a hundred miles away,” Kate said, breaking into his thoughts.

“Not important,” Adam said a bit too gruffly. He saw the long haired man’s eyebrow quirk towards his hairline and the corner of Wilmington’s lips twitch and wondered what both of those expressions were about.

“Vin, this here is Kate’s farmhand, Adam Smith,” Buck said. “Adam, this here is Vin Tanner.”

Adam hesitated in extending his hand. Would this one not let go like Wilmington had? He finally stuck his hand out, getting a firm handshake and release from the tracker. “Mr. Tanner.”

“Adam,” Vin said. “You can call me Vin. Short of good ole’ Ez, I rarely get called Mr. Tanner.”

“Ez?” Adam couldn’t help but ask. He felt a kinship with Tanner, like he would be a good man to have at his side in a bad situation. He couldn’t describe what he was going through right now. First Wilmington, now Tanner?

“Ezra Standish,” Buck offered. “Another of our group and the local saloon owner with his wife.”

It was Kate’s turn to arch a brow. “Guess some things have changed since I was last here,” she said.

“Quite a bit,” Vin said. “JD done got married, Ezra’s married. I’m ‘bout to be. Even ole’ Buck here has settled down some, though he’s still pussy footin’ ‘round askin’ for the lady’s hand so they can settle down like a proper family.”

Buck shifted his feet uncomfortably. “You been talkin’ to Chris again, ain’t ya?”

Adam couldn’t help the grin that had formed as Vin and Buck spoke, obviously familial affection in their tones from those closest in their lives. The grin faded, however, at the mention of the name Chris. Where anger once settled in the pit of his belly while riding here, now fear took its place. What if the man was his father? How did he deal with it? How did he convince the man himself?

“A--,” Kate started.

“I got us two rooms at the boarding house,” Adam interrupted, pressing a key into Kate’s hand. “Reckon I’m a bit more tired than I thought. Gonna turn in.” Not giving any of them a chance to comment, he turned and quickly made his way back towards the boarding house.

“I... should go rest up too,” Kate said, suddenly uncomfortable standing there with Vin and Buck. “I’m sure I’ll see you both around.” She tipped her hat to them and quickly followed Adam’s path to the boarding house. Not even in town an hour and she felt drained and off kilter.

“Hey Buck,” Vin said, watching the two retreating backs.

“Yeah?” Buck asked, also watching.

“If that boy ain’t Adam Larabee, then I ain’t a Tanner.”

Buck let out a breath, his head slowly bobbing in agreement.

“Come on,” he finally said. “I think we best tell the others before ole’ Chris is back so we can prepare for the fireworks.”

~~

Sleep, even exhausted sleep, had been scarce last night. Chris wasn’t any grumpier than normal, but he was tired. A bone weary tiredness that he hadn’t felt since those first few days after finding his family gone. He had never felt this tired after JD or Buck’s kids had been born, why would the birth of Ezra’s daughter make him think on things so much more clearly? He was broken out of his thoughts when he collided with a small body.

“Sorr...” Kate’s voice broke off as she looked up at Chris, seeing his eyes and face hardened with suspicion.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded more gruffly than he intended. Mostly because it unnerved him the way his body instantly felt alight with tension and need at feeling her petite, yet curvy, form briefly pressed against his length.

“Ain’t here to cause trouble if you think that’s why I’m here,” Kate said automatically, feeling defensive. From day one, the two had a tense relationship.

“That’s what I thought last time, too.” The moment the words left his mouth, he regretted saying them. Especially when he saw Kate stiffen.

“Just passin’ through. Helpin’ a friend with something,” Kate got out tersely. “Once my business here is done, I’ll be ridin’ back to my patch of weeds.” Chris didn’t get a chance to question her before she was pushing past him and walking towards the boarding house. He watched her slender form turn to walk into the door, pausing when someone obviously stopped her just in the door. He frowned when he saw her talking then her hands came up to press against whoever she was talking to. Then she was gone inside of the building.

He was curious what had brought her here and something in what she said made no sense. He shook his head and walked down to the saloon, stepping inside. Once his eyes adjusted to the darker interior, he saw Vin, Josiah and Buck eating breakfast.

“Did you two notice Kate Stokes was back in town?” Chris asked, walking up to the table to take his own seat.

“She rode in last night,” Buck said. “Vin and I saw her.”

Josiah frowned, leaning back in his chair. “Never figured she’d show up here again. Not after losing her sister here,” he said. He remembered the troubled young woman. They all did.

“She say why she’s here?” Chris asked, looking at Buck as one of the barmaids the Standishes had on staff brought him a plate of breakfast. It was not lost on him, or Josiah, the look that Vin and Buck exchanged.

“She came into town with a young man that works for her on the land her Pa had when he died,” Buck said. “She’s helping him find some answers about his past.”

“Here?” Josiah asked.

“This area,” Vin said. “He was orphaned over in Red Fork, but from what Buck and Kate told me, he ain’t got no memories from before endin’ up there.”

“How did he end up there?” Chris asked before taking his first bite. A frown creased his forehead when Buck and Vin looked at one another again.

“Brothers, there a problem we should know about?” Josiah asked, also noticing the exchange. He waited, watching as Vin and Buck contemplated what they would say. A small, decisive nod from Vin had Buck sighing and wiping his mouth with his napkin before he spoke. He glanced to Chris, noticing that the man had finished his first bite of food and now waited instead of continuing. He wondered if that had been planned by the men.

“He doesn’t remember, like Vin said,” Buck said. “But... he suspects his family was killed in a fire. Near Red Fork.”

They all knew of the fate of Chris’ wife and son, but Josiah wasn’t putting two and two together just yet. He was, however, noticing Chris’ stiffened response to what Buck was saying.

“Why does he suspect that?” Josiah asked.

“He gets nightmares. Screamin’ for his Ma. Nightmares filled with heat and smoke,” Buck said. He hesitated before looking towards Chris. “Got burn scars too.”

Chris was stiff, his spine rigid. Uncertain if he was filled with cold anger or hot fear, he wasn’t sure. Forming words was difficult, but he managed to say something. “Meaning what, Buck?”

“We seen him, Chris. Vin and me,” Buck said.

Vin bobbed his head. “We did, briefly last night,” he said. “I swear, Chris, if’n he wasn’t the spittin’ image of yo--.”

Chris got up quickly, shoving his chair back as it clattered to the floor. “No,” he said. “No.”

“Pard...” Buck slowly unfolded his tall frame.

“No,” Chris said. “We buried Sarah and Adam the day we got back, Buck. You know that.”

“We buried two bodies, yer right,” Buck said. “But the reasons why we thought they were killed weren’t what we thought for a long time neither. Not ‘til Ella came back in your life.”

“No,” Chris snapped. “No!”

“Chris,” Vin said, not rising yet.

“What you are implyin’ is impossible,” Chris said, his eyes never leaving Buck’s face. “You were there. You know that.”

“I was there,” Buck said. “But I seen this boy, Chris. He’s the right age he’d be now if the fire hadn’t--.”

“No!” Chris snapped, smacking his hand down. The plate that held his breakfast flipped and crashed to the floor. The few patrons that hadn’t been interrupted by his outburst now turned their attention over to them just from the sound of broken crockery.

“My son’s dead, Buck. You were there to see the house. You saw the bodies. He’s dead.” His tone was dull, but anger simmered beneath it. He quickly turned and hurried out of the saloon, spurs clanging as he walked. He barely acknowledged JD and Nathan as he pushed his way out of the saloon.

“What’s wrong with Chris?” JD asked, walking up to the table. The barmaid had quickly moved over to the table to clean up the broken dish and spilled food. Nathan knelt to help her, but his head was tilted indicating that he was listening as well.

“More demons, it seems, to haunt Brother Chris,” Josiah said, studying the cup in his hand.

Buck sighed, glancing off after his friend. “We wanted to tell everyone last night, but ya’ll had dispersed after saying good night to Ezra. Was going to wait until this morning...”

Josiah nodded, his eyes shifting to look where Chris had been. He waited until Jane was finished cleaning and had returned to the bar before he focused on Buck and Vin.

“I think, then, you better tell us the entire story about Kate and this young man that came to town with her,” he said. “I suspect this is only the surface of the story.”

~~

Kate really needed to realize that she had to watch where she was going. At least this time, she didn’t entirely collide with the person in front of her. When the bite of pain slipped through her arms, she lifted her head ready to lash out. She suddenly felt as if someone threw ice water on her as she stared into the furious gaze of Chris Larabee.

“What game are you playing?” he asked roughly.

“What?” she asked.

“Don’t pull that innocent shit with me, Stokes,” Chris growled, reaching to hold her arm. “You got a reason for being here and it ain’t innocent. Not when you got Buck thinkin’--.”

“Wait a minute,” Kate said, trying to wrest her arm away from him. “I ain’t here for any ulterior motive, if that’s what you think. I don’t know what Wilmington said, but I’m here to help a friend then I go back to my shack I call a home.”

“The hell you are!” Chris snapped. “You enter this town, acting as if everything you and your sister did is noth--.”

Kate finally managed to wrench her arm out of Chris’ grasp. “Don’t bring up Maddie,” she spat out. “I do not and have not forgotten what it was that she, and I, did the last time we were here. I regret everything about it but I can’t change the past. I’m just trying to get on with my life.”

“And bringing some kid here claiming to be my son is doin’ that?” Chris demanded.

“This is about Adam?” Kate asked.

“Don’t you dare say his name!” Chris snapped, advancing on her.

“Hey!”

Chris lifted his head and stared at the new voice that entered the mix, seeing the angry teenager step out of the boarding house. He was staring at Chris, anger and something even more terrifying deep within his green eyes. He had no idea who Chris was.

Like Buck, Chris felt a kick straight in the center of his gut the moment he laid eyes on Adam. Immediately his mind tried to deny it, but his gut and his heart were screaming at his mind. How often had Sarah teased Chris that Adam’s slightly lighter than her own brown locks would lighten over the years to the darker blond like his father? Especially when out working in the sun with him and Buck? Even as he stared, the angry, defiant way the young man stared at him screamed so much of Chris’ own defiance around the same age. He understood, now, why Buck had questioned. But this boy couldn’t possibly be... could he?

“This has nothing to do with you, son,” Chris said. His stomach twisted and cramped at such a simple word. Something he had called even JD once upon a time. With this one it was different. It felt too right, too good. And it held too much hope that Chris couldn’t give in to. They had found two bodies that night!

“It is when you think you can man-handle my friend,” Adam said, moving up beside Kate. “And Kate told me you were a good man.”

Chris blinked, eyes going from Adam to Kate then back. “What?”

“You’re Chris Larabee, right?” Adam asked. Chris gave a small nod in acknowledgement. “Kate said you were a good man. Bit of a hard ass, but fair and good. One that could be trusted. Guess she was wrong, huh?”

“Adam,” Kate said gently, resting a hand on his forearm. Between the obvious disappointment in what seemed to be Kate’s wrong judge in character and the name she called him, Chris felt like the entire world was closing in on him. A cold sweat broke out over his skin and he suddenly felt like he needed to get away. He had to flee, too much of the truth was screaming at him. The feeling was quickly followed by devastation as the harsh reality sank in. If this was Adam Larabee... he didn’t remember who Chris was.

“I... I’m sorry. I...” Chris swallowed, backing away from them. He saw more anger flash across the boy’s face, but confusion and concern were all over Kate’s. He couldn’t handle that anymore than he could handle what he was facing with Adam. For the first time that he could ever remember, Chris Larabee spun on his heel and ran away.

~~

She didn’t know why she came, not consciously anyway. She knew deep down why she was here. She cared, had cared for some time. And now it wasn’t just caring about him but about Adam as well. She had left the young man with a quick comment that she’d be back later to try and explain, then she headed out towards Chris’ cabin. She started to knock on the door but it was ajar. Concern for the blond gunslinger, she slowly pushed the door open to make sure he was okay.

When she was a little girl, she had been fascinated by stories she had heard of large felines that lived in the wild in a country far from the small, dusty backhole she had grown up in. She had heard of a grace they held; all the while being large, predatory and completely intimidating. She suspected that the pacing Larabee could very much be compared to one of those large cats; just as predatory, just as large and just as intimidating.

“What are you doing here?” he asked in a low tone. He had paused to spare her glance before he resumed his pacing, long legs carrying him four or five steps before he was turning to return the way he came.

“I was worried.” Three words that were so innocent, yet told so much at the same time.

“Why do you even care?” Apparently they were not words of comfort to the man, his green gaze hard as he focused on Kate, never ceasing the repetitive motion of his pacing.

“I care... more than you realize,” she said very quietly, pulling her hat off her head. She raised her voice more for the next words she spoke. “Adam’s become someone I’ve come to care ab--.”

“Why did you bring him here?” Chris demanded. “Why did you give him hopes that he’s someone long dead?”

Kate blinked, focusing on Chris’ face as he paused near her. “I didn’t give him hopes that he was your son, if that’s what you mean,” she said. “He told me about dreams he was having. Where he had been in an orphanage. Told him the best places to look for answers would be the nearest towns, which meant here too. I told you that.”

“He’s not my son!” Chris snapped.

“I ain’t ever said he was!” Kate said. “And would it be so bad if he were? He’s not a bad kid!”

“My son is dead.” Chris anger evaporated immediately and his voice cracked on that last word. It made Kate’s own annoyance over his reactions immediately dissipate.

“What if he’s not?” Kate asked gently. “What if Adam Smith is really Adam Larabee? Are you going to shove him away? Lose your son again and make him angrier at the world than he already is?”

“He doesn’t remember me,” Chris said, his voice cracking again. He had a tenuous hold on his emotions and that was about to break any moment. He refused to let himself break down in front of this woman.

“No, he doesn’t,” Kate said. “There’s a lot about that night he doesn’t remember, if it is him. It could come back to him, but something is blocking the memories. A doctor we talked to before getting here even said that’s normal for traumatic--.”

“He doesn’t remember me!” Chris all but wailed, the emotions too much for him. It didn’t matter anymore that he didn’t believe that Adam could be his son. It didn’t matter that it was Kate he was breaking down in front of. Too many emotions were assaulting him, because deep down his subconscious was telling him what his brain refused to believe. Adam Smith was Adam Larabee. And he did not remember his own father.

Kate hurried over to Chris as he slumped down to his knees. He flinched away from her, but she refused to move and put her arms around him. His body was stiff against hers until he finally succumbed more to the emotions and sobs began to rack his frame. Kate felt at a loss. She cradled Chris’ head in the crook of her arm, letting him cling to it as he sobbed and leaned into her some. She started to rock him slightly, not letting her mind remember the last time she had rocked someone in her arms while she had been in this town.

“He doesn’t remember me.” His voice was muffled in her arm, but the sound still managed to make her chest ache. She rested her forehead against his hair as she held him, giving whatever comfort she could.

“He could,” she finally said, her voice a simple whisper. “Help him find answers, for both of you. Something could make his memories of you come back.”

“He thinks he was abandoned, doesn’t he?” Chris said, his voice not nearly as hysterical as it was but still small, so unlike the man it came from.

“Yes, but he doesn’t know the truth,” Kate pointed out. “He doesn’t know you thought he was dead.”

Chris straightened some, the rocking motion having stopped. His head was still lowered, his blond bangs hanging forward. He turned his head to the side, his eyes catching Kate’s as she sat beside him, her arms still partially around him. He didn’t know what compelled him, but he moved towards her, pausing just a breath away from her face. His eyes searched hers before one of them, he wasn’t sure if it was him or if was her, closed the gap before their lips were pressed to one another’s.

Kate was just losing herself in the kiss when he pulled away. Her eyes cracked and she saw regret filling his eyes. He doesn’t want this...

“Kate, I’m--,” Chris started.

“No, it’s... I shouldn’t...” She tried to get up, fast, only managing to embarrass herself some as her legs got tangled in the fabric of her duster. She still managed to get to her feet faster than Chris did.

“I’ll go,” she said, turning to the door. Despite the short distance, Chris caught her arm before she could pull the door open.

“Stop,” he said quietly. “I don’t want--.”

“Me, I know. I get it,” Kate said. “Please let me go.”

“No,” Chris said, frowning. Confusion was forming over his face, but it was quickly shifting to understanding as he realized what she had thought he was trying to say or do.

“I don’t want you to think you… have to do anything you... I haven’t...” Words were not Chris’ strong suit. That was Ezra’s department, even Josiah’s. “I haven’t been the most cordial, even downright hostile. Then I go and kiss you and--.”

“I wouldn’t have kissed you back if I didn’t want to,” Kate said.

“What?”

Kate couldn’t help but laugh slightly. He looked so befuddled that it made him look less like the intimidating gunslinger he was. She shook her head, her eyes sparkling.

“I said that I wouldn’t have kissed you back if I didnt--.”

Chris didn’t let her finish. It was confirmation enough for him, his body moving to her again before his lips were once again on hers, parting them to spar with her tongue. He moved his hands to her waist and then slipped his arms around her more firmly as he felt her snake her arms around his neck. He pulled her tighter and lifted her up more. He reveled in the taste of her before slowly breaking the kiss. He had to be absolutely sure.

“Are you sure?” he asked softly. “Because if you aren’t, I’ll stop now. If you want this, I don’t plan on sto--.”

“Larabee, you talk too much sometimes,” Kate said quietly. Chris simply grinned and let her pull his head back down to hers, his foot shifting to kick the front door firmly shut.

~~

She felt her hands curling into fists as she saw the door close and the blonde hadn’t come out again. This would not do. It would not do at all. Not when she was so close to getting everything that she wanted.

Ella Gaines turned her mount away from the small home Chris had made. She would ensure that was burned down too if necessary. As long as she got Chris in the end.

~~

“I don’t really know what to do,” Chris admitted softly. His fingers brushed through Kate’s hair as she lay curled against him, her head on his chest. A comfortable silence had fallen as they both gained their breath after finding pleasure in one another.

Kate shifted to rest her chin on Chris’ chest, looking at him. “You mean with Adam?” she asked.

He nodded, staring at the ceiling above them. He turned his gaze down to Kate, smiling slightly. “Yeah,” he said aloud. “No idea where to begin with things.”

“I wish I had the answer for you,” Kate said. “But this is new for me. I told Adam I’d help, but I’ve mostly been here for morale support and to be someone he could talk to when he found things out.”

“What has he found out?” Chris asked, his fingers slipping down to brush along the skin of her spine. The corners of his mouth twisted softly when he felt her body shiver against his from his touch.

“Not much,” Kate admitted. “We haven’t found a lot of answers yet, beyond a few things that some shop owner told him over in Eagle Bend. We only arrived yesterday before the confrontation between you and I in front of the boarding house.”

Chris grimaced, his fingers moving to the finger shaped marks that were starting to form on the paler skin of her upper arm. “I am sorry about that,” he said.

“They’ll fade,” Kate said gently. “You are a good man, Chris. I didn’t lie to Adam about that. I wish I had thought about finding a way to tell you before you had to find out like that.”

“How do you tell someone something like that? I mean really?” Chris asked.

“Good point,” Kate said, her fingers brushing along a scar near his shoulder. She noticed other scars, but for some reason this one intrigued her.

“I had her in my sights,” Chris said softly. Kate looked at him confused. “Ella Gaines. She was the one responsible for losing my wife and son.”

“What happened?” she asked softly.

“She was an old lover of mine,” Chris said. “Before I was ever with Sarah. She was obsessed with me. Couldn’t handle that I had moved on and loved Sarah and that we’d had Adam. She hired the men responsible for burning down my home and killing ‘em.”

“But what if Adam isn’t--.”

“She still took him from me,” Chris said. “I’ve missed the past eight years of his life because of what she did. And if it is really him... she put another child’s body in his place to make me believe it was him.”

“She’s still out there, isn’t she?” Kate asked.

Chris swallowed. “Yes,” he said, his voice rough. “I had her in my sights, Kate. I had her... and I hesitated. It got me shot and she got away.”

Kate’s eyes slid to where the scar at his shoulder puckered the skin. It was obvious an older wound, but there was something about it that had her instantly knowing that it was the very wound he was talking about. Lowering her head, Kate pressed her lips to the wound. Her eyes closed, willing tears that had suddenly formed in her eyes to not fall onto his skin. Her lips parted and she gently traced the scarred tissue with her tongue.

Chris’ eyes closed a moment, savoring the feel of her against him. When her tongue touched his skin, he couldn’t stand it anymore and flipped their bodies so she was beneath him. Without speaking, he lowered his mouth to hers, fusing them together. As he teased her lips and tongue with his own, his hands were already roaming over her body and they came together over and over the rest of the night.

~~

Adam slowed his mount as he got to the edge of the property. It seemed strange to be riding up to it, having grilled Wilmington that morning about it. He needed answers and since Kate hadn’t returned, he was going to find them out for himself. After ensuring he got what he could out of Buck, he had mounted his horse and headed out to the homestead where Larabee had once lived.

Despite the number of years that had passed since the Larabee family had been torn apart, the shell of the former home was still standing. He was sure that a few of the framework’s pieces were crumbled due to weather and the fire damage over the years, but the house still remained. He got off his horse, his eyes riveted to the burnt out shell before him. He took his hat off, resting it onto the horn of his saddle as he tethered the beast to a nearby post that was obviously used for that very reason. Luckily his horse wouldn’t take off, short of being attacked himself, as he suspected the beam wouldn’t take much pressure otherwise.

Adam made his way over the overgrown grass, pushing open the gate before stepping over the threshold to officially be inside the yard. He felt as if he knew this place. That he could pick out where some of the best hiding spots were. He felt that if he looked over to the left of the house where he could clearly see broken down fencing of what was once a horse paddock, he could almost see in his mind’s eye a young boy with light brown hair waving to a man, wanting to help as much as a small boy could.

A lump formed in his throat as he looked at the ruins of the house, nothing more than a hollow emptiness where once was a strong structure, he was sure. He closed his eyes at a sudden image coming to mind of lace curtains, ones carefully crafted by a woman’s gentle touch. He could almost see the outline of the wood furniture within and knew that much of it had been made by the woman’s husband with as much care and love as she had with the curtains as well as the other more decorative items that had made the house a home.

Opening his eyes, Adam looked around and saw the two grave markers. He frowned and walked towards them, the slats of wood with the painted names having faded some in the years since the house had been burned. He felt his heart still and his limbs grow cold as he knelt to stare at the names.

Sarah Larabee. Adam Larabee.

He swallowed the lump that formed. He felt as if his hopes of discovering who he was were crumbling and fading right before him. How could he be someone that was buried beneath settled mounds of dirt? He felt a twitching pain starting to form at his temples, a headache beginning to take root. He rubbed at his temple lightly, attempting to straighten. The pain intensified and he suddenly felt as if he were trapped in his nightmares again. He doubled over as the pain became too much and he cried out softly, collapsing onto the hard ground. It felt as if flood gates had been opened or a paddock gate had been released against an angry stampede of horses.

Sarah Larabee was just finishing washing the last of the dishes when she heard horses approaching the house. Glancing at the clock on the mantle, she smiled. Buck and Chris must’ve made good time with their horses, they were back a few hours sooner than she had anticipated them.

“Pa!” Adam Larabee came running out of the small room that Chris had added to their homestead for their growing son. Her hand lightly rested against her belly where their new baby would soon start showing its growth. Chris had said he hoped for a girl as pretty as her Mama, but she had to admit that she would be content with another boy like his father.

“Adam Larabee, don’t you open that door,” Sarah said as the boy raced towards the door. She laughed indulgently as she walked over, opening it herself. She knew, immediately, when she opened the door and saw more than two horses approaching fast that they were not Chris or Buck. She quickly shut the door, turning to kneel in front of Adam.

“Adam, get to your room. Close the door and stay there. If you hear anything, you hide. You remember what your Pa told you to do if you had to hide, right?” Sarah said.

“Jump and run,” Adam said. “The shed in the woods would be where to go.”

“That’s right,” Sarah said. “You do that. You go there and you wait until I come get you or your Pa.”

“What about Buck?”

“Or Buck,” Sarah said. She pressed a kiss to Adam’s forehead. “Now go.”

Adam ran to his room, closing the door. He jumped when he heard wood crashing as a door was shattered. He heard different voices arguing with his mother before he heard her scream then a gunshot. Paralyzed with fear, he quickly hid under his bed when footsteps got louder as they got closer to his room.

“I can’t find the boy,” he heard someone say. A man.

“It doesn’t matter,” he heard a female voice say. “Get the boy you found. He’s the right size and age. Even if the brat managed to get away, he won’t make it in those woods before something will kill him.”

“Then what?” the male asked.

“Burn it down. He’ll never be able to recognize them and he’ll think it was one of those trying to run him off this land,” the female said. “Then take care that no one says a thing about what happened here. Handle it, Fowler. Or I’ll handle you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Adam heard them walk away, tears running down his small cheeks. He heard a few crashes, then what sounded like liquid being poured around the wood. He knew it was something bad when he smelled the acrid scent coming from the liquid that was starting to flow into his room from under the door. He scooted away from it, finally getting up. His pant legs soaked up some of the liquid as he rose. Ringing his hands, he felt panicked, forgetting what it was he had to do. That’s when he smelled the smoke.

Heat started filling the room as did smoke. He covered his mouth, coughing against it. His eyes widened when he saw flames starting to creep under the door before catching the liquid that had poured in. Memory of what his mother wanted him to do hit and he raced for the door. He climbed onto a chair in the room and managed to push the window open. Pain started assaulting his senses as he felt heat on his legs as well. Dragging himself out of the window, he fell to the ground below with a painful jar, sharp pain radiating from his wrist. The heat and pain on his legs hadn’t slowed. Glancing he down, he saw that where his pants had been soaked by the liquid from his room, they were now on fire burning him. Barely remembering what his father told him to do in such a situation, he began rolling on the ground until the flames were out.

Pushing himself painfully to his feet, snot and tears sliding down his face, Adam ran as fast as he could towards the woods. Night had fallen and he got himself turned around by the second turn that would have led him to the shed where his father would have looked for him. Hearing the sounds of the wild, he pushed his small legs to carry him as far and as fast as they could. He was just crashing through the brush along the edge of the woods onto someone’s property when he tripped over a large tree root. He heard questioning shouts coming from the house, but he was never able to answer as he fell. His head struck another part of the tree root and blackness quickly overtook his senses.

The next time he woke up, he was in a bed with a nun dabbing his forehead with water to clean the cut he had. His wrist and arm were wrapped immobile, told he had broken the limb. Burns covered his legs, but he was told then as well that they weren’t showing signs of infection. They would scar, but they didn’t seem to be causing any other issues. The next thing they asked, he was able to answer.

“What is your name?”

“Adam.”

When they asked him where his parents were or where he’d come from, he never answered. The look of confusion on his face was all the answer they needed. Whoever Adam was, he had no memory of it and without anyway of knowing, he couldn’t get back to a father who now grieved the loss of both wife and child.

~~

“Chris!”

Chris turned to look at the voice calling him. Buck and Vin were both walking with a determined gait towards the dismounting man. He glanced over at Kate, who still sat astride her horse.

“Chris, we got a problem,” Vin said.

“What problem?” he asked.

“Adam took off,” Buck said. “He came demanding to know about you. Said Kate told him she’d be back to talk to him but she hadn’t shown up and he wanted answers.”

“What did you tell him?” Kate asked, worry in her voice for the boy she had come to care about more than she intended.

“Probably more than I should have,” Buck said.

“Buck, what did you tell him?” Chris demanded.

“Told him ‘bout Sarah and the homestead,” Buck said. “He headed out there.”

Kate’s eyes widened. Her gaze snapped to Chris’ and saw the anger just below the surface of his features. But there was something else that she saw as well. Concern and fear.

“I have to get out there,” Chris said. He quickly mounted his horse again.

“Do you...” Kate started. Chris shook his head, giving her a long, meaningful look. It was not at all lost on Vin and Buck that something had changed between them.

“I need to do this alone,” he said. “If he’s going to be angry at all, it needs to be without anyone in the crossfire.” He gave them one last glance before spurring his horse into a gallop out of town, heading in the direction of his former homestead.

~~

The hooded figured stood in the shadows, slinking like a snake would through the underbrush. She had to hide in shadows for too many people knew her face; knew her name. She could not, would not, let anyone see her. She needed time to come up with a way to convince Chris that he belonged with her, that he always had. She needed time to find a way to show Chris that everything she had done to ensure that they were together was meant to be.

But first she had one problem she needed to take care of. She studied Buck and the one she remembered as Tanner, the one that had never trusted her besides that blonde bitch that Chris had once thought he had a future with before she turned away from him. They were talking to the problem she had to take care of. She needed to rid herself of another obstacle.

~~

Chris tightened the hold on his horse’s reins, bringing him back to a steady speed as they finally got closer to the homestead. As he slowed his mount to a trot, he saw a horse tethered to one of the rickety ties that he and Buck had built almost twenty years ago when he had first built the home for himself, Sarah and the family the eventually wanted to have together. A couple years later, they had started that family with Adam’s birth. Now those dreams were shattered and Sarah was dead, but was Adam?

Things were too still as he brought his horse to a stop, looking around. He knew the boy was going by Adam, the only part of his name that he knew. The more he and Kate had talked in between passionate encounters, she had told him all she knew and all that, in turn, Adam knew as well.

“Adam?” Chris called. A frown formed when he got no immediate response. Had something happened? Had bandits been here and hurt the boy?

“A--.” A moan stopped him from saying the name. His horse shifted its stance and he saw the boy’s legs on the ground. Swinging off his horse, he threw the reins over the tie post, startling Adam’s horse.

“Adam!” He ran to the boy’s side, kneeling beside him. Adam groaned, starting to wake. He was vaguely aware of Chris kneeling beside him, the older man’s hands on his arms as he helped him sit up.

“Adam, are you okay?” Chris asked. “Did someone get the drop on you?”

“No,” he said, his voice groggy. He wiped his hands on his thighs before scrubbing at his face. He took a moment to focus himself, lowering his hands to stare down at the ground. He turned his head towards Chris, seeing his worried expression.

“I’m fine, Pa,” he said. “I wasn’t attacked.”

Chris went perfectly still, his heart feeling as if it stopped in his chest a moment before it started pounding so loudly in his ears that he thought he heard incorrectly. “Wh... what did you say?”

Adam looked at him more clearly. There was new recognition in the depth of his green eyes. The same eyes that Chris had.

“I remember.”

Two words. Two simple words that held so much meaning for a man who had mourned the loss of so much the past eight years.

“You...” He had no words.

“I heard them,” Adam said. “Heard them kill Mama. I heard some woman tell a man named Fowler to find me and kill me. If he didn’t, then I’d just be killed by animals or something.”

“You got away... why didn’t you go to the shed like you were taught?” Chris asked. He couldn’t be angry, wouldn’t be. Hurt laced his words, wondering what had happened that night besides the loss of his wife.

“I ran,” he said. “I ran so hard and so fast, but I must’ve gotten turned around. I tripped and fell, hit my head. Woke up at the orphanage. I’m sorry, Pa. I tried to get there, I did. It hurt so much. My legs were burnt, my wrist was bro... I couldn’t save Ma. I wanted to, but she made me hide and promise to... I wanted to--.”

Chris grabbed his son and pulled him close, gripping him hard as he held him. “Don’t, son,” he said, his voice rough. “Don’t. It’s not your fault.”

Adam collapsed into his father, gripping the back of his duster as he started to sob against his shoulder. Eight years without memories had started to flood his mind again and he released everything that he felt within. All the grief, all the regrets, all of the memories that had been trapped within his mind for so long were finally coming to the surface. He knew, now, that he hadn’t been abandoned. That his father had thought him lost alongside his mother. Someone was buried beneath the dirt beside Sarah, but it wasn’t Adam. Whoever did this to his family had made Chris believe that his own son had died, while that son lay in an orphanage recovering from injuries that forever haunted his dreams and left him without precious knowledge of who he was beyond his first name.

Chris felt tears slipping down his cheeks. Tears he hadn’t shed in a long time were once again falling, though this time they were the bittersweet tears of happiness. Eight years of loss were weighing on him in a new way now. Knowledge that his son had been out there and he’d never known because of some obsession. He began to feel more determined to find Ella Gains the longer he held Adam close. He needed to find her and put an end to what she had done to him and his family. He needed that closure now more than ever, because he would not allow his son to be ripped from his arms again.

Adam finally pulled back, wiping his arm across his face, leaving tracks of dust. He was glad for the canteen on his saddle so that he and his father could both the dust and tears from their faces before returning to town. A chance to see Buck again, now knowing exactly who he was, left Adam feeling a little giddy in a way. So much had been lost but they had a new chance again. He couldn’t wait to tell Kate that...

“Kate,” Adam said. He studied his father’s face. “Where is she? She never came back last night. You didn’t make her leave did you?”

The corner of Chris’ mouth lifted slightly at the protective tone that Adam had in his voice for Kate. He knew that he cared for her and she cared for him. It made Chris’ heart swell and twist in a way it hadn’t in a very long time. It was something he had to admit that he wasn’t ready to focus on just yet, unsure of what it all meant. Or if it was a fleeting emotion that he had.

“Kate’s fine and she didn’t go anywhere,” Chris said. “She uh... she stayed with me last night. She’s back in town with Buck and Vin after they told me you talked to Buck and headed out here.”

“She stayed with you?” Adam asked. “You mean you two... ew.”

Chris had to laugh. It was such a typical reaction a son would have when having to potentially think of their father or any parent-like figure in an intimate fashion. The fact that Adam thought of Kate in the possibility of a parental way twisted something inside of Chris that he wasn’t quite ready to admit to. It was too soon to even consider what those emotions meant. Right now, he knew that he needed to focus on his son. His son. After all this time, his son was alive and here.

“It happens, son,” Chris said. “But she’s worried about you, so it might be a good idea for us to head back to Four Corners.”

“Pa...” Adam’s gaze fell from Chris’ to look at the grave markers again.

“Yes?”

“Can we just... stay and visit Ma for a bit longer?”

“Yes, son, we can.” The two men settled where they were, sitting in front of the graves. Chris already knew in his mind that he intended on changing the one that had been for Adam to that of Adam Smith. The young man known to all of them as Adam Smith, for all intent purposes, was now dead. Adam Larabee was once again alive and didn’t need that protective skin any longer.

~~

Kate had separated from Buck and Vin shortly after Chris left. They had offered for her to join them, but it was obvious that Buck’s curiosity over her time with Chris was getting the best of him and she wasn’t ready to answer any questions just yet. Too many of her own were swirling through her head and she had no answers for herself, let alone for anyone else. She had gone to her room, grabbed a couple things and decided that staying cooped up was going to do her no good. Not while waiting to find out if Adam and Chris were both okay.

With her duster and saddlebags draped over her arm, she made her way to the livery to check on her horse. Maybe she’d go for a ride, just to clear her head. She had always felt that riding helped with that. She would just need to make an effort to not ride towards the direction of the old Larabee homestead.

“Hey, boy,” she said softly to her horse, walking up to the steed. He nickered, backing away from her some. A frown crossed over her features. “What is wrong with--.” Pain assaulted her senses and she was aware that she was falling to the ground, but darkness surrounded her and she never felt when she hit the ground.

The hood slipped off the dark, slightly tangled hair. Once an attractive woman to most accounts, madness and obsession had started taking its toll on Ella Gaines. Staring with wild eyes at the blonde woman that now lay in a heap before her, she was already planning how best to handle this latest obstacle. Looking around her, she struggled to drag Kate to the wagon she had stolen, hauling her body up into the back of the wagon.

“Shut up,” she hissed at Kate’s wickering horse, its head tossing back and forth. How she wanted to simply put a bullet into the animal, but it would draw too much attention. She needed to escape this town and take her prize with her before she returned and took care of the rest of her obstacles.

Making sure Kate was tied and covered by the wagon cover, she pulled her hood back over her head and got up onto the buckboard. Slapping the reins, she left as quickly and inconspicuous as she could, bringing the horse with her. She’d make them think that Kate had left town, and by the time they realized the truth, Kate Stokes would be dead.

~~

Chris couldn’t even begin to describe the emotions that were going through him as he rode side by side with his son. His son. Even as they sat at Sarah’s grave, he thought maybe that his mind had finally snapped and he believed only what his mind wanted to tell him. He still wondered, even as they rode into town, if his mind was simply giving him the hallucination he so wanted to believe was reality. His eyes shifted to the men he saw exiting the saloon and it was obvious by the looks on their faces that the young man riding beside him was no hallucination.

“Boys,” Chris said, riding up. “Need to introduce you to someone.” He looked to Ezra, seeing how the gambler stared. “Figured you’d still be with Inez...”

“She and Mary kicked me out. Apparently I was fussing too much over her and Katherine,” he drawled, giving a pinched look as the other men chuckled.

“‘Cause none of us have done that over the other kids born,” Nathan quipped, earning a chuckle from the other men.

“You were saying you had someone to introduce, Chris?” Josiah said, bringing them back to the matter at hand.

“Yes,” Chris said. “But not out here. Ezra?”

“Of course,” Ezra said. He stepped inside the saloon, whistling for everyone to clear out temporarily. Only a few grumbled greatly, but a promise from the gambler that they would be duly compensated upon their return, they filed out. Thankfully the saloon was not overly busy this time of the day so it didn’t take long. Chris and Adam both dismounted and all eight men walked into the saloon.

Ezra closed the doors, something he had installed to ensure the safety of his employees, his wife in particular and his sister when she would sometimes be visiting with Inez. He didn’t lock the doors, but he knew that this conversation required privacy. Turning, he rejoined the men, all with expectant looks on their faces.

“Boys,” Chris said. “This is Adam.” He put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “My son.”

Total silence was the only response that came forth. As it continued, Chris furrowed his brow. He could feel Adam tensing under his hand, taking the silence as rejection.

“No one has anything to say?” he finally asked.

“Pardon for being blunt on this,” Ezra said. “But... how? We have all see the gravesite ourselves where your fair Sarah and dear son lay.”

“Ezra’s got a point, Chris,” JD said. “We went after Fowler ‘cause of it and been lookin’ for Ella Gaines ever--.”

“JD,” Buck said, his voice rough. His eyes never left Adam’s face.

“Wasn’t me,” Adam murmured.

“Son?” Josiah said, his voice gentle.

Swallowing, Adam lifted his head. It made the men almost physically step back. Wearing the broken expression they had only seen on Chris’ face a few times, they saw the pain, fear and knew that this boy was who Chris said he was.

“Whoever was found,” Adam said. “With my Ma. Wasn’t me.”

“I think we should start at the beginning,” Ezra suggested.

“You callin’ my son a liar?” Chris’ first reaction was to immediately come to his son’s defense. Annoyance started filtering into him as Ezra merely arched an eyebrow at the gunslinger.

“Quite the contrary, Mister Larabee,” Ezra said. “But I’m sure I speak for most, if not all, of us in this room besides yourself and the young man at your side, that we are immensely confused and might be able to better wrap our minds around the circumstances if we know the full length of the tale at hand.”

“Ezra has a point,” Vin said. “We aren’t sayin’ we don’t believe you. Hell, all we have to do is look at him to know he’s your son, Chris. But you got us all a mite confused right now.”

Chris relaxed, taking a breath. He looked at Ezra, smiling slightly. “Sorry, Ezra.”

“Quite all right,” Ezra said. “I suspect I would have reacted in a similar fashion were I in your shoes.”

“I think I should start,” Buck said. He cleared his throat. “Adam here came into town with Kate Stokes. When I saw him after she introduced him, I knew he was related to Chris somehow. Can’t deny that Larabee look, that’s for sure.”

Adam blushed lightly, but took note of how JD had stiffened slightly at the mention of Kate’s name. He filtered through his more recent memories, recalling the information of how he was the one that had been on the receiving end of a bullet from Kate’s sister. *Suppose bad memories will do that to any man...*

“I demanded answers from her,” Buck said. “But she told me that Adam had no memories of who he was prior to endin’ up in an orphanage in Red Fork. Only knew that his first name was Adam and started using Smith since he didn’t know who he was. Told me ‘bout nightmares he had--.”

“She told you that?” Adam asked, his face flushing with embarrassment.

“I think she did it so I wouldn’t go demandin’ answers just yet,” Buck said. “I was pretty rude to her. Claimin’ she brought you to town to play games with us. She said you’d done told her ‘bout the burn scars you have on your legs.”

Adam nodded, swallowing his embarrassment down. He couldn’t be angry with Kate, not when she was faced with Buck’s scrutiny. “Whatever was thrown into the house to make it burn had gotten into my room. Was under the bed when it started coming in. Didn’t even realize some had gotten on my pants ‘til I crawled out of the window and felt the heat and the pain on my legs.”

Buck swallowed hard, thinking of the pain he must’ve been in. He had only been eight years old! “But...”

Josiah placed a large hand on his shoulder. “Brother Buck, you were sayin’ about Kate?”

Vin could see how much this was hurting Buck, so many unanswered questions left unspoken right now. He picked up the story where Buck had left off.

“‘Bout this time, I came over to make sure everything was okay,” he said. “Got the same story. Kate said she figured a good place to start with helpin’ Adam was the neighborin’ towns to Red Fork. Said some feller over in Eagle Bend suggested he was related to Chris ‘cause of the information they were lookin’ for and Adam here was the right age. Made sure to ask Kate if’n he was in town to start somethin’ with Chris, seein’ as how he was thinkin’ Chris might’ve abandoned him.”

Adam blushed, ducking his head down. “Didn’t know...”

“It’s okay, son,” Chris said. Adam nodded.

“So how did Chris end up findin’ out?” JD asked.

“Remember yesterday?” Buck asked JD. “When we explained to you and Nathan about Chris stormin’ off?” He bobbed his head. “That’s when it was brought up. Not sure what happened after that.”

Chris cleared his throat, hoping that the blush he felt forming wasn’t showing too much. A quick glance at his friends suggested that was a fruitless hope. “I uh... confronted Kate. S’how I saw Adam,” he said. “He came chargin’ in, aimin’ to protect her because I had a hold of her arm. Felt like I was lookin’ at a ghost. Then Kate called him Adam and...” Chris swallowed hard.

“Pa?” Adam asked as Buck said: “Chris?”

“I saw nothing in his eyes,” Chris finally said. “No recognition, at all. My heart and my soul was screamin’ at me that this was Adam, but he didn’t know who I was.” Adam flinched, causing Chris to squeeze his shoulder again.

“What happened?” Ezra asked. His heart ached for Chris. He knew all of theirs did, but having just become a father, he couldn’t imagine the devastation he would feel if his daughter didn’t know who he was when she looked at him.

“Something I ain’t done in a real long time,” Chris said. “I ran away. Ran to my cabin. That’s where Kate found me.”

Adam bobbed his head. “She said she was goin’ to go talk to you, then would be back to talk to me,” he said.

“But she stay--,” Chris said, Adam lifting his hand to stop him.

“Let’s just... skip that part,” Adam said, grimacing. “That’s just... don’t... no. Ew.”

The men chuckled, Chris grinning again at his son’s reaction. Adam continued from there, shuddering a moment at the thought of his father and Kate.

“When Kate didn’t come back like she said she would, I went in search of Buck,” he said. “Knew he was Pa’s closest friend back then and would most likely have some answers. That’s when he told me about Ma and the house burnin’. Told me where it was too. I needed to see it.”

Adam swallowed. “My head felt odd once I got there,” he said. “Wasn’t until I was staring at Ma’s grave and what’s been mine for the past eight years that the memories came back. All of it. Thinkin’ Pa and Buck had come home, Ma tellin’ me to hide and then run to the shed where I was supposed to run to if somethin’ ever happened so I could be found.”

“What happened?” Buck had to ask. “We looked and--.”

“Buck,” Chris said.

“I tried,” Adam said, his voice clogged with tears again. “Like I told Pa... I ran. Legs hurt from the burns, broke my wrist when I fell out of the window. It was dark, I must’ve gotten turned around. I couldn’t find the shed, but I kept running. I didn’t want them findin’ me.” He took a steadying breath, feeling his father’s fingers digging into his shoulder. He wouldn’t wince, couldn’t. It was tangible, physical evidence that this wasn’t a dream. He was here, with his father, memories of his past around him. Regardless of how painful they were, they were actually there now.

“I tripped on something in the woods, fell and must’ve hit my head. All I remembered was waking up in the orphanage. They asked me my name and I remembered Adam... but nothing else.” He lifted his head and looked at the men.

“That’s it. Spent the last few years in an orphanage. Once I was old enough, I left. Met Kate when I was gettin’ some supplies and they suggested I see if she needed some help on her land. Was her that suggested I start coming to the neighboring towns, see if I could find answers that way. Not real sure why she decided to come with, just said she wanted to help.”

“You must have struck a chord with her,” Nathan said. “If I remember right, nothing good happened here for her to ever want to come back.”

“Maybe it had and she just didn’t know it,” Ezra commented, his gaze on Chris. His eyebrow quirked ever so slightly when he saw the man’s cheeks color slightly.

Adam shuddered, shaking his head. He did not want to think of his father, or Kate, in that manner. Buck simply grinned when he saw Adam’s reaction. Finally feeling calm enough, he stepped away from the men and approached Buck.

“So you remember me, kid?” Buck asked, hope in his words.

Adam looked at the man, quirking a small smile that was such a combination of Sarah’s smile and Chris’ that Buck couldn’t tell if he wanted to cry or give a whoop in elation. Instead, he waited for Adam to respond.

“How could I forget you, Uncle Buck?” he asked. “Givin’ me rides around the horse paddock before you and Pa would leave to take them somewhere.”

Buck couldn’t handle it anymore. He pulled Adam too him, hugging him tight. He thought his heart would burst when Adam’s arms came around him, returning the hug. “God, boy, we missed you.”

“Missed you too, Uncle Buck,” Adam said, tears pricking his eyes again.

Chris was grinning so widely, he could feel his cheeks aching. He still felt a small amount of dread within and a nip of heartache, but he hadn’t felt as light as he did now in years. Having Adam back gave him a renewed vitality and love for life. He had unfinished business that needed handling, but it would keep for now.

“You got others to meet, officially,” Buck said, stepping back. “Right, Chris?”

“Damn straight,” Chris said. “We’ll have a big gathering so he can meet everyone, but this is a good start. Adam, this is Ezra, Vin, Josiah, Nathan and JD.”

Josiah smiled warmly, taking Adam’s hand in his much larger one. He almost made Adam think of a big bear of a grandpa all kids would love. “It’s a pleasure to have the chance to meet you, Adam,” Josiah said. “Your Pa missed you.”

“It’s good to see the Larabee glare fade some,” JD quipped, grinning at Chris. He laughed when Chris tried to give him his usually stoic look, but failed. The elation he felt was too much.

“Somehow, Mr. Dunne, I suspect there will be other reasons for it to return,” Ezra said, smiling. He extended his hand to Adam. “But it’ll be good to know that one reason for his stoicism has faded into oblivion.”

“What Ez means is that it’s good to see you,” Vin said, taking Adam’s hand.

“Translate for him often?” Adam asked, laughing as he shook a variety of hands, Nathan being next.

“Every day it seems like,” Nathan said with a grin. It was obvious, as Adam watched the men, that it was a typical response. He could tell that these men had become their own form of family and they were welcoming him into the fold, or back into it, as was the case with Buck.

“This is certainly cause for further celebration,” Ezra said. “I think drinks all around will do.”

“You just say that so you don’t rush off to see Inez and Katherine,” Vin teased.

“True, but I’d also rather not be on the receiving end of my dear sister’s ire either as she spends time with her new niece and sister-in-law,” Ezra quipped. Chris chuckled, glancing at his son. He tilted his head as Adam turned towards him.

“Pa, do you mind if I go find Kate first?” Adam asked. “I want to let her know about things.”

“Of course, son,” Chris said. “You can uh... you can tell her she’s welcome to join us if she wants.”

Adam wrinkled his nose but laughed. “Sure thing, Pa.”

Vin waited until Adam had left the saloon before he approached Chris. The other man glanced at him, noting the serious expression.

“Something on your mind?” Chris asked.

“Got a bad feeling,” he admitted. He shook his head when he saw Chris’ face hardening. “Not about your boy. Just a general one. Similar feeling I had ‘round when we headed over to Red Fork with Ella ‘fore we knew what she’d done.”

Chris felt a chill go up his spine. He studied Vin’s face before speaking. “You think she’s back?”

"I think she's a snake that'll crop up again," Vin said. "Ain't no sense in her gettin' the drop on us this time. If'n she ain't here yet, she will be soon. 'Specially as I can't see she's the type to not keep tabs on you. Which means she'll find out about Adam sooner or later."

"We need to make sure all of our families are safe," Chris said.

"We'll keep them safe," Vin said. "In the mean time, while Adam's lookin' for Kate, I'm gonna take a look around myself. Just to be safe."

"Thanks, Vin," Chris said, holding his arm out. The two men clasped forearms before Vin tipped his hat and made his way out of the saloon. Chris tried to tap down on the sudden unease he felt and had to squelch the part of him that wanted to find Adam and make sure he was okay.

~~

"Hey Kate?" Adam called as he knocked on the door to Kate's room. He didn't hear anything, trying the doorknob. He frowned as it easily opened and he peaked his head inside. The bed was only slightly mussed, as if Kate had briefly laid down before rising again. His eyes scanned the room and he noticed that her duster, hat, gunbelt and saddlebag were missing. He swallowed slightly, feeling like someone punched him in the gut. He quickly turned and hurried out of the boarding house and across to the livery.

Once Adam entered the livery, he felt as if his heart was aching. Kate's horse was gone. She had left without saying good-bye. He sighed, not sure how he was going to tell his father. He started to turn when something caught his eye near the stall where Kate's horse had been.

Frowning, Adam walked over and knelt down to get a better look. His eyes widened and he snatched at the leather. Rising, his hands shook slightly as he stared at Kate's saddlebag. If she'd left, why would...

He wasn't able to finish his thought when his eye caught something on the ground. He paled and almost dropped the saddlebag at the implication. Instead, he turned and ran out of the livery in search of his father.

~~

Vin had just ridden out of town when he saw an unusual upturning of dirt. Trotting his horse over, he dismounted to get a closer look. He frowned at the wheel tracks, wondering why a wagon was heading off in the direction it was. He glanced up at the horizon, narrowing his eyes some. Nothing was along that stretch of land beyond brambles, abandoned mines and coyotes. Maybe a wolf pack or two. No reason for anyone to be heading there, at least not without ulterior motives.

Straightening, Vin took a look around the area, noticing that the dirt was also turned from the shuffling of a horse’s hooves. A spooked horse or one too stubborn to be led in the direction it was going. He didn’t blame the beast for not wanting to head in that--.

He spun around when he heard the pounding of horse hooves coming towards him. He immediately recognized the horse as Kate’s and his own wickered in familiarity. Peso had been in the livery and probably knew the steed by sight and smell. There was something off about the horse, which is when he noticed the blood.

The horse slowed, lathered with sweat and its sides heaving as it drew in each breath. Vin moved closer, noticing how the horse shied just slightly but its nostrils flared and the others horse’s presence, plus Peso’s smell on Vin, had it settling more. It flinched when Vin touched its withers gently.

“What happened to you?” he asked softly. He saw the tattered fabric of a dress attached to the horse’s saddle. He caught it and his eyes shuttered. He remembered that material, even so many years later. The same material that Ella Gaines had been wearing that last night in Red Fork; right before Chris found the room Ella had in homage to him and he discovered her responsibility in the fire.

~~

“Pa!” Adam called as he ran across Four Corners’ main street towards the saloon. Chris stepped out with Ezra and Buck at his side, all three men immediately concerned by the tone of Adam’s voice.

“Adam?” Chris asked.

“Kate’s gone,” he said. Chris felt his heart clench in a way it hadn’t in a long time.

“She left?” Chris asked, trying to keep the hurt and betrayal out of his voice.

“That’s what I thought at first,” Adam said. “Then I found this.” He showed him the saddlebag in hand. “Kate’d never leave without this.”

“Was her horse gone?” Buck asked.

Adam nodded. “That’s why I thought she left, ‘til I found the saddlebag,” he said. He looked at his father. “There was also blood near the stall.”

Chris had been reaching for the saddlebag, his eyes snapping to Adam’s. He could see his worry mirrored in his son’s eyes. “Any signs of a struggle?” he asked.

“Not that I could tell,” Adam said. “But I gotta say that I don’t really know what to look for to know.”

“Vin’s back,” Ezra said. “And he’s not entirely alone.”

Adam spun, hoping to see Kate with him. Chris put his hand on his son’s shoulder, frowning when he saw the hopeful gleam on his son’s face disappear when they both noticed that Vin had Kate’s horse with him. But not Kate.

“We got trouble,” Vin said, dismounting. “Wagon headin’ off to towards the old mines and barren lands that are northwest of town.”

“Kate’s horse?” Chris asked, stroking the horse’s velvety nose.

“Nothing he won’t heal from,” Vin said. “But I’m guessing he struggled with whoever took him and got that slice in his side for his troubles.” He pulled something from his pocket and showed it to Chris. “And I found this attached to his saddle.”

Chris reached out and took the fabric. Red started to form over his eyes as he, too, recognized the fabric in hand. He tried to take a calming breath. Fabric wasn’t a clear indicator, but after discussing things earlier with Chris, what else could it be?

“Mr. Larabee?”

Chris lifted his head to see Yosemite standing between Peso and Kate’s horse. “Yosemite,” he said.

“Saw Vin ridin’ in with Miss Stokes’ horse. I can take ‘im back to the livery, see to that wound and get him bedded down,” Yosemite said.

“Thanks, Yosemite,” Chris said. Vin handed the horse’s reins over to Yosemite. None of the men spoke until Yosemite had gotten the horse back into the livery. Finally, Vin turned back to Chris.

“I think she’s back.”

Buck and Ezra both straightened even further than they already did. There was only one she that earned that tone from Vin and an icy stare from Chris. Adam, however, was awash with confusion until he couldn’t hold it in anymore.

“She who?” he asked.

“Ella Gaines,” Chris all but spit out.

“Who is she?” Adam asked.

Buck rested his hand on Chris’ shoulder, feeling the other man vibrating with suppressed rage. “She and your Pa had something of a past with one another when he was wild and wooly,” he said. “Before he and your Ma ever met and married. She hired the man responsible for killin’ your Ma and tryin’ to kill you. Hell, made your Pa think you were dead all this time. Your Pa found out a few years back when she came callin’.”

“Got shot ‘cause of her,” Chris managed to get out. “She went to ground after that.”

“But as JD pointed out earlier, we been huntin’ Ella since Red Fork six years ago. Which means, unless somethin’s happened to her--,” Vin said.

“Which is unlikely,” Ezra quipped.

“Then she’s still out there and still a danger to you and your son, Chris,” Vin finished. “And since Adam’s got most of his memories back--.”

“All of them,” Adam interrupted.

Vin nodded. “Suspected so,” he said. “And I’m suspectin’, since you didn’t die in the fire, you definitely heard something.”

“Wait,” Adam said, turning to his father. “The woman that’s responsible for killing Ma is still out there?” Chris slowly nodded.

“That means Kate’s in danger, Pa!” The realization of what they were telling him had finally hit. And it started to make sense as he remembered hearing a woman’s voice before the house was set on fire.

“Last time I checked, Kate was pretty mean with a shotgun,” Buck said, interrupting Adam’s musings. “If anyone should look out, it’s Ella.”

“Not unless Ms. Gaines got the drop on Miss Stokes,” Ezra said. “And if her saddle bag was merely dropped, I suspect that is the likely outcome.”

Chris felt ice forming in the pit of his belly. A feeling he never thought he’d feel again for anyone had quickly taken a hold of him and he knew that he couldn’t lose another woman the way he lost Sarah. And never again because of Ella Gaines.

“This has to end, Chris,” Buck said quietly, watching his oldest friend as he processed everything. “You just got your son back and it ain’t just about Kate’s safety anymore. She sees all of us as a threat. That’s going to extend to our families.”

Chris slowly nodded, his eyes slightly unfocused. Memories came unbidden- riding up to the house to find it in cinders; finding Sarah’s body and the body of who he thought was Adam; reuniting with Ella and thinking they had a renewed future; finding the room that Ella held as a shrine towards him and held evidence of her responsibility behind Sarah’s murder before admitting it to Chris herself.

“Get the rest of the boys,” Buck said.

“No,” Chris said. “No, I’m going alone to find her.”

“Wait, what?” Buck said. “Chris that’s insane!”

Chris looked at his friends. “This is my fight,” he said. “Ezra’s got Inez and Katherine now, Vin’s got Mary, you’ve got Casey and little Beth, JD’s got his family. Too much is at stake here.”

“And you’ve got Adam back,” Vin said. “This ain’t just your fight anymore, Chris. We made it ours six years ago when she tried havin’ all of us killed in that showdown that got you shot.”

“I can’t risk you for my vendetta,” Chris said. “Any of you.”

“Like Vin didn’t want to risk us to clear his name a couple years ago?” Ezra drawled in a too calm voice. “As Nathan has never wanted to risk us when facing so many prejudices from former slave owners and Confederate soldiers that have trooped through our fine municipality with chips on their shoulders? What about when Josiah didn’t want to risk us when accused for those murders that Poplar was trying to pin on him? To say nothing of my former reputation before I became a touch more respectable.”

“You ain’t going alone,” Adam finally piped up. “Even if you try and convince them that they can’t go for whatever reason, I am going with you.”

“Like hell!” Chris said, spinning to face his son. He had to admit that his argument had fallen flat with Ezra’s statement, but now he had a new focus.

“I have every reason to want to see justice done too!” Adam snapped at his father. “She’s responsible for killin’ my Ma! She’s responsible for me runnin’ for my life which led to me falling and havin’ no memory of who I was for eight years. She wanted to kill me too!”

“You are my son, Adam. I am not letting you--,” Chris started.

“You can let me do it without a fight, or I’ll just follow,” Adam interrupted. “You may have a good tracker with you, but I suspect Uncle Buck and the others would side with me in knowing I have just as much right to see this through as you do.”

“Definitely got that Larabee stubborness in him, pard,” Buck said, amused. “Though he’s also got that Irish temper from Sarah too.”

“Best combination at a time like this, I would say,” Ezra drawled.

“You are supposed to be on my side with this,” Chris growled at his friends.

Vin simply grinned. “In most cases, cowboy, I think we would be,” he said. “But Ezra and Buck both have a point about our involvement in this. And Adam’s got a point about his. Either way, you are outnumbered. Because if you leave without us, I’ll simply track you and we’ll follow.”

Chris turned sideways, studying each of the men’s faces before settling on his son’s. With a small sigh, he finally nodded.

“Gather the boys. We ride soon.”

~~

“You will be careful, si?”

Ezra spun from where he stood beside his horse to look behind him at his wife, who stood with their newborn daughter cradled in her arms, snuggly wrapped in a type of shoulder sling that kept the baby closer to her chest.

“You shouldn’t be out of bed, mi amor,” Ezra said, hurrying towards her.

“Women have been known to have children in the fields where they work and immediately start working again once done,” Inez said. “There is no sense in me laying in bed when I could be up.”

“Inez...”

“Don’t argue with her, brother,” Mary said. “And you didn’t answer her question.” Ezra hated when his wife and sister ganged up on him.

“He will,” Vin said, checking the girth on his saddle before facing his fiancee and future sister-in-law. “We all will. Got a lot to come home to.”

“Just wish you didn’t have to go,” Emily Dunne admitted from where she stood. Gloria Potter was inside the Tavern with the children to keep them distracted.

“I told them they didn’t have to,” Chris said from where he was finishing preparing his horse.

“I could go too,” Billy Travis said, stepping up beside his mother. Only a couple years younger than Adam was, he was already taller than his mother.

“No,” Vin said. He reached over to grasp the teenager’s shoulder.

“Adam’s going,” Billy said. “I want to protect my family too.” So far the rest of the Seven’s family had taken the news of Adam with the grace that they could, considering the shock involved. Learning of where they were going quickly shifted their focus from the newly acquired family member to the matter at hand.

“You are, nephew,” Ezra said. “While we know that all of the lovely ladies we care for so much can take care of themselves, we need you to ensure that they and the children are. We can’t let even one of them get taken. That’s where you come in.”

“Ezra’s right,” Vin said. He squeezed Billy’s shoulder again. “And this is Adam’s fight. If this were ‘bout your Pa and those that killed them, I wouldn’t hesitate to let you come with even if it meant feeling the sharp side of your Ma’s tongue for it. But this is Adam’s fight. His and Chris’.”

Billy took a deep breath but nodded. He wasn’t going to argue with the men that he looked up to, not when they explained things like that. Not when he was being left to protect the other children, including his newborn cousin. Finally he nodded, earning a small smile from Vin and his uncle.

Casey watched the men a moment before walking over to Buck, handing him the canteen she had filled. Buck took it, studying her a moment.

“You are far too quiet,” he said.

“You better come home,” Casey said, tucking part of Buck’s horse’s saddle blanket better under the girth of the saddle. “Beth needs her Pa.”

“She’s got her Mama if someth--,” Buck started to say before Casey’s hand was covering his mouth.

“Don’t,” she said, her voice slightly strained. “Don’t say that.”

Buck carefully pulled her hand away. “Ole’ Buck ain’t going down without a fight, darlin’. Hellhounds themselves will have to be dragging me to the hereafter to keep me away from my girls.”

“Good because I wil--- girls?”

Buck grinned at her. “Girls,” he said. He lowered his head and brushed a kiss against the corner of her mouth. “We need to talk when I’m--.”

Casey gripped the lapels of Buck’s jacket, pulling him closer and kissing him properly. Neither saw the knowing looks that passed between the other men, Mary, Emily and Inez. Casey finally, gently, broke the kiss and pulled back. Buck’s eyes were still closed and he licked his lips before opening his eyes to look at her.

“Yeah,” he said, huskily. “We definitely need to talk when I’m back.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Casey said.

“Buck, we gotta go,” Chris said, breaking into Buck’s thoughts.

“Right,” Buck said. He smiled softly at Casey before stepping back and mounting his horse. Taking a breath, he noticed all the men were ready to ride.

Glancing one more time at the women in their lives, the men tipped their hats in a promised return before they rode out of town, heading in the direction of the barren lands. In the direction of the final showdown that would settle an obsession once and for all.

~~

Pain assaulted Kate’s senses as she slowly came out of the deep fog she had been shrouded in. She tried to gauge the amount of damage done to her. Her arms were confined and a small shift of her wrist immediately told her that they were tied as she felt the rough twine rubbing against sensitive skin. Her legs were not tied but there was a twinge in her ankle. She could feel the limb swelling slightly in her boot, but she didn’t feel any grinding which only meant, to her, that it was a bad twist or sprain and the muscles were protesting their confinement.

Her head was throbbing, but that was to be expected. Whoever had her had taken her by surprise, hitting her from behind. Beyond that, she couldn’t tell what other injuries she had. Trying to push herself up, Kate grunted a bit in pain when her shoulder hit a sharp rock.

“Well, well, well,” a female voice said from nearby. “Look who’s finally awake.”

“You or some cronie hit me on the back of my head,” Kate spat out. “You could’ve killed me.”

“Oh you’ll die,” the woman said. “No one will be the worse for wear, but I wasn’t going to deal with the mess of things in town when those men decided to come looking for you. If they did, but I suspect they would if my love had any say considering how you spread your legs for him so willingly.”

Kate stiffened slightly. Her mind raced as she thought back to her conversation with Chris over Adam and the woman responsible for his wife’s death. Turning her head, she found herself staring into the blackest eyes she had ever seen. Eyes filled by insanity and a coldness that made Kate want to shudder. She refrained.

“Ella Gaines,” Kate said quietly.

Ella gave a dazzling smile, as much as a woman covered in dust and dirt, her hair as wild and unruly as her mind now was. “My love remembers me and has been talking about me to his lovers. How quaint... don’t be jealous. You had to know you were just a warm body until I returned.”

“Oh he remembers you,” Kate said, finally pushing herself up more, almost into a sitting position. “He remembers what you tore away from him. He remembers the hatred he felt, still feels, for you when he found out you were responsible for losing his world.”

Ella’s face twisted into a horrible mask of hatred and disgust. Faster than Kate thought possible, Ella lashed out and kicked Kate in viciously, knocking her back again.

I am his world!” Ella snarled.

Kate heaved slightly, forcing the contents of her stomach to remain where they were supposed to as she simultaneously drew in a ragged breath. Water filled her eyes and she turned her head to see Ella walking over to a nearby table. She saw the knife in her hand, turning back towards Kate. The minimal light that was coming in through the cracked windows and the ramshackle building glinted off the blade.

“One slice is all it’ll take,” Ella purred, stroking the hilt of the knife. “Just like it did with her.”

Kate paled at her words. *Oh God... Chris only thinks Ella hired that man to murder... she did it! She killed...*

“Chris will never love you,” Kate said. “Never, don’t you get that.”

Ella’s maniacal smile faded and she moved forward, grabbing Kate’s hair, jerking her head back. “As if he could ever love some backwater whore like you?!”

Kate stared into her eyes, her throat arched too closely to the knife Ella had in hand. She never wavered as she spoke.

“At least I didn’t murder his wife in cold blood.”

Ella snarled and jerked Kate’s head back harder. “She didn’t deserve him, and neither do you. I got rid of her, I’ll do the same to you.”

Kate’s eyes shifted to the blade. She could feel her heart pounding in her throat and knew that the heady beat could be seen beneath the pale skin of her neck. She couldn’t help the reaction and her eyes squeezed shut, waiting to feel the blade piercing her skin. She felt nothing beyond a hestitation in the hand in her hair. That’s when all hell broke loose.

~~

Vin pushed the spy glass back to its smaller position before putting it in his saddlebag. “Yep, she’s down there,” he said.

“Kate with her?” Buck asked.

“Someone is, I suspect whoever they are is Kate,” Vin said. “Saw someone tied up but couldn’t make out exactly.”

“So sending a canon into the dilapidated building is out of the question,” Ezra drawled.

“This is personal,” Chris said, his eyes intent on the small, rundown shack. “No long distance anything for this one.”

“What about Kate?” Adam had to ask. “What if she’s not in there with her?”

“We’ll find out, son,” Josiah said. “Another reason not to do anything at a distance. We don’t want Ella dead if she’s got Kate hidden somewhere.”

“What if we’re too late to save her?” JD asked. He still wasn’t overly fond of the idea of the woman being around, but she wasn’t her sister. And Chris seemed taken with her. His demons needed to be settled because he couldn’t hold her to blame for what her sister did.

Chris didn’t answer JD, but Buck saw the tell-tale sign of his jaw clenching at the very idea. Adam started to vocalize his protest, but Buck shook his head. Finally, he looked at his young friend.

“Can’t think like that, JD,” Buck said. “Until we see her as...” He couldn’t bring himself to say corpse or anything about a dead body. “Until we see otherwise, we need to think she’s alive and act like she is.”

“We can’t really go in guns blazin’,” Vin said. “Ella’s likely to use Kate as some sort of shield, or kill her before we can get to her.”

“That’s exactly what we’ll do,” Chris said.

“Pa?!” Adam said, frowning at his father.

“Ella knows that we would never risk Kate,” Chris said. “So we’d find a way to sneak in. I’m sure she’s done something to expect that.”

“So risking the fair Miss Stokes is the answer?” Ezra asked, a confused frown puckering his forehead.

“She’s at risk regardless,” Chris pointed out. “So we do the unexpected.” He pulled out his gun, grinning grimly at them. “Let’s ride.”

They rode in, guns blazing, doing their best to keep an eye out for Kate. They pulled up quickly, eight hell-raisers whose horses reared up as they pulled them to a stop. All the men stared at the sight they were met with. There stood Ella, dragging Kate in front of her. The other woman was tethered, a blade pressed to her throat. She had blood on her face and she was covered in dirt, a bruise forming near her temple.

“Come closer and I will kill her,” Ella said. Her gaze shifted to Chris. “My love.”

Chris’ lips turned up in a sneer. “I am no love to you,” he growled. “Let her go, Ella.”

“She’s standing in my way,” Ella said. “They all are! They are standing in *our* way!”

“Our way of what?” Chris demanded. “Of being together? You had my wife killed! How could--.”

“She did it,” Kate said, cutting off Chris. “She killed her.”

“What?” Buck asked when Chris stared at Kate silently.

“She killed Sarah,” Kate said. A gurgle sound slipped from her lips as Ella pressed the knife closer to her throat.

“She’s lying,” Ella said.

“Ma was shot,” Adam said. “I heard the shot go off.”

“You remember...” Kate whispered.

“Who the hell is this? Who the he...” Ella demanded before trailing off. As she studied Adam, everything that the others saw was apparent. She screamed and grew tense and agitated behind Kate. “You’re dead!

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Adam sneered.

“Someone might have shot at her or the little boy they thought was you,” Kate said. “But Ella killed Sarah. She slit her throat. She told me she did.”

“She’s lying!” Ella screamed. “You lying whore!” She grabbed for Kate’s hair, yanking her head back.

“If you kill her, I will kill you,” Chris said, his voice hard and cold. “If you think I’ll let you kill someone else I care about, you better think again.”

“She’s just a whore, Chris,” Ella said. “How could you love a whore? How could you have loved two of them?”

“Sarah was my angel,” Chris said plainly. “She was heaven sent to lead me out of the dark path you started leading me down. You were poison to me, Ella. She was the healing balm I needed to get rid of that poison. And she gave me Adam. You took them both from me. Kate may be no saint, but she’s not a whore either.”

“You rolled around with her like she was one, I saw you!” Kate paled at the idea that this woman had watched her and Chris together.

“What Kate and I did privately is none of your concern,” Chris said harshly. “Even if Kate and I hadn’t been together and I took up with some working girl who’s name I didn’t know, I’d rather be with her than with you. I despise you, Ella Gaines. You stole my world from me and thought I’d just accept it.”

“No,” Ella said. “No, you love me. You always have. You just needed the obstacles gone to realize it.”

“I may have thought I loved you at one time, but you weren’t good for me. And even if I thought of giving us a second chance years ago, that was destroyed when I found out you were the reason my life was ripped in two!” Chris’ anger had snapped, screaming at Ella.

“No!” Ella yelled. “You love me. You love--.”

Kate could feel Ella’s fingers loosening in her hair was she raged at Chris, but the blade was cutting closer to her throat as well. Throwing caution to the wind, Kate leaned forward, pressing the blade even more into her throat before quickly slamming her head backwards. She felt her skull connect with Ella’s face and heard a sickening crunch just as she threw herself to the side as she felt her hair released as the other woman screamed.

Two gunshots broke whatever silence surrounded them, then a gurgling sound before two thuds came as two bodies hit the wooden porch. Kate didn’t dare open her eyes, pain assaulting her again as she had felt shift in her shoulder when she fell, her hands still tethered behind her. She couldn’t tell if it was blood or sweat sliding down her neck until she felt the sting of sweat in the slice at her throat.

“Kate!” She finally managed to open her eyes, staring up into two pairs of concerned green eyes as Chris and Adam knelt over her. Adam shifted and moved behind her, beginning to work at the ropes around her wrist as Chris helped her sit up. She cried out softly when he came into contact with her injured shoulder.

“Nath--,” Chris started to yell.

“Right here,” Nathan said. “Looks like her shoulder’s dislocated from that fall. Suspect she might have a bit of a concussion from slamming her head into Ella’s face.”

“What the hell were you thinking risking your life like that?” Chris demanded.

“Needed to break her hold,” Kate said. “Need--.” Her words were cut off as she screamed when Nathan easily slipped her shoulder back into the joint.

“What the hell?” Adam demanded.

“Dislocated shoulders ain’t easy to get back into place,” Nathan explained to him. “And it’s mighty painful, but better than not taking care of it and the arm being useless.”

Kate slumped against Chris, letting her eyes adjust. The pain from her shoulder had created spots and she almost thought she was going to pass out. As she shifted, that’s when she saw Ella’s body. Only two shots had rung out, she did distinctly remember that before hitting the ground. Both shots found their marks- one through Ella’s throat, the other right between her eyes.

“He’s a good shot,” Chris said quietly, seeing where Kate was looking.

“What?” she asked.

“Adam,” Chris said. “He’s the one that got her between the eyes.”

“Need to get her back to town,” Nathan said. “I can clean that cut up, but may need a couple stitches and I want to make sure it don’t get infected. Need to keep an eye on her for the next day or so from the hit to the head.”

“Ankle,” Kate said against Chris. “Feels swollen in my boot.”

Nathan nodded. “Will take a look at that too once we get you back to town,” he said.

“I got her,” Chris said. With his son’s help, he rose to his feet and lifted Kate into his arms.

“What about her body?” Buck asked, his voice hard as he tilted his head to where Ella lay.

“Leave it as far as I’m concerned,” Chris said. “Ain’t my call.”

“We’ll handle it, Chris,” Ezra said. “Get Kate back to town, let the ladies know we’re right behind?”

“Will,” Chris said. Adam took Kate from Chris’ arms so he could mount his horse before lowering himself to take Kate and settle her in front of him. It worried him slightly when she laid her head against his chest, not even stirring up a fuss. He only hoped that it was because she had no other real choice and that she realized he needed to hold her and ensure she was okay. Now that he and Adam had their vengeance, the fact that he almost lost Kate was chilling Chris to the bone. Which told more of his emotions than he realized. That was all he thought of as he, Nathan and Adam turned their horses back to town.

~~

“Pa, can we talk?” Chris looked up from the book he was reading in front of the sheriff’s office. It had been over a week since he had found out Adam was alive and they had handled Ella Gaines once and for all. In that time, he had spent as much time as he could with Adam, acquainting himself with the man his son had become.

“Of course,” Chris said, closing the book in his hand.

“Why are you hidin’?” Adam asked.

That brought Chris up short. Confusion clouded his features as he tried to unravel what his son meant. Not finding any answers, he finally shook his head. “I’m not hiding...”

“Your feelings are,” Adam said. “You’ve barely seen Kate since Nathan said she’d be sore but otherwise okay. And every time she sees you, she turns the other way.”

Chris shifted uncomfortably. The entire way back to town had Chris’ emotions churning wildly, but he had set them aside in order to ensure that Nathan took care of Kate before throwing himself into getting to know his son. Since then, he couldn’t admit that he was too scared to simply go talk to Kate. When she so obviously avoided him, he thought it best to let whatever had transpired between them to fade into distant memory.

Chris tried dodging his son’s pointed question. “Thought you didn’t want to think about--.”

“No,” Adam interrupted. “You are hiding from your feelings for Kate and you shouldn’t. You need her.”

“Son...”

“Pa, I need her too,” Adam admitted. “I don’t know what it was, but she took me in. If it wasn’t for her, we may never have found one another. I may never have remembered who I was. We both need her and I think she needs us, but she’s never been good about admitting that sort of stuff. She needs to know you need her.”

“I’m scared, son,” Chris finally admitted. “She hasn’t come to see me maybe she doesn’t--.”

“If you think she doesn’t want to be with you, then you aren’t seeing her watching you,” Adam said. “When she walks by she always looks for you. When she’s near you, she watches you. I may be young, but that screams to me that she wants to be with you too.”

“But she could--,” Chris started then shook his head. “No, maybe you are wrong.”

“Pa... she told me a bit about her past,” Adam said. “We made a deal. She’d tell me about her nightmares if I told her about mine. She ain’t had it easy with men. Her Pa was a right bastard then she was involved with that Del character you know about.”

“I remember,” Chris all but growled. He may have held a lot of animosity and hostility towards Kate from that time, but now he wondered just how bad things were as he remembered Del Spivak.

“I don’t think Kate knows how to begin telling someone she needs them, Pa,” Adam said. “I don’t think she thinks anyone can need *her*.”

“What do you want me to do?” Chris asked him.

“Stop her from leaving would be a good start,” Adam said.

Chris sat up quickly. “What?”

“I saw her heading towards the livery with her things,” Adam said. “My guess is she’s getting ready to head back to that shack she calls a home to be alone.”

“Like hell.” Chris pushed himself out of his seat and was already walking across the main street of town before Adam could even think of stopping him. Not as if he would. Instead, he simply smiled and glanced down the boardwalk towards the Saloon where he saw Buck giving him a wink before he disappeared into the building, Casey at his side. Adam only grinned wider before he got to his own feet and headed down to join them.

~~

Kate was too wrapped in the blanket of her thoughts as she adjusted the girth of her horse’s saddle. Yosemite had told her that a bit of salve and taking it easy would heal his wounded side best. While she had recovered from her own injuries, so had her horse. She was thankful for Vin finding him and for her horse finding his way back to town. Otherwise, she might be dead right about now.

“Leaving?” The voice was soft and so achingly familiar, but unexpected which is what caused Kate to jump. She turned to look into Chris’ green eyes, currently unreadable.

“Got a homestead to get back to,” Kate said in a soft, husky voice.

“You don’t have to leave,” Chris said, leaning a lean hip against the side of the coral where Kate’s horse wickered and tossed his head.

“Figured it’s what you wa... what was best,” Kate said, quickly turning away from Chris to focus on her horse. Tears suddenly wanted to form and clog her throat and she didn’t want Chris to see that. She wouldn’t let him see how much it was hurting her to leave.

“You figured it’s what I wanted,” Chris said. “Why would you think that?”

“You are putting words...” Kate trailed off. Her jaw clenched before she was able to say what she needed to again. “You have your son. You don’t need me there complicatin’ things. I know that JD ain’t comfortable with me and a roll between the sheets ain’t really serious and it’s maybe easier to just--.”

“Stop,” Chris said.

“No, it’s okay,” Kate said. “Kinda got it out of our systems and we can just pretend that it never...”

“Kate, stop,” Chris said again, moving closer to her. He curled his hands around her shoulders, pressing his fingers into the tense muscles.

“I can’t,” she said quietly. “I can’t... I can’t get close only to...”

“I need you.”

Kate tensed beneath his hands. She felt him loosen his hold and she took advantage, turning around to look at him. “What?”

“I need you,” Chris said. “I want you close. I need you close. Stay.”

“But...”

“Adam needs you too. We both do,” Chris said. He let out a breath and reached up to cup her face, tilting her head up more. There were still bruises from what Ella had done, though many were almost complete gone. He could still see the faint shadowings in a few places. He brushed his thumb across the soft skin of her cheek where a bruise was still fading.

“I can’t let you go, Kate. I am not going to let you go,” he said. “When Ella had you... when I thought I could have lost you. It made me realize just how deep you had gotten into my soul. But it took Adam telling me you were leaving to realize that I needed to man up and tell you.”

“But JD... the others... what happened--,” Kate started to say.

“What happened six years ago happened six years ago. And it wasn’t all you. JD was shot by your sister. You live with the pain of your past every day, just as I live with the pain of mine. Mine only eases now because I have Adam back and Ella’s finally gone,” Chris said. He stroked Kate’s cheek again. “Let me help you ease your past. Let Adam and I both help.”

“You want me to stay?” Kate asked, trying to keep the hope out of her voice. “For how long?”

Chris drew her closer, a thumb still stroking her cheek. His lips quirked at the corner of his mouth when her fingers curled around his wrist. “For as long as you want to be with me,” he said. *For the rest of your life and mine if I have a say...*

“And if I say forever?” Kate asked, hope finally slipping over her words. Her voice was small, waiting for a crushing blow that was never to come.

“I would say forever’s a good start,” Chris said. “We’ll start with forever and go from there.”

“Forever it is.” Chris spoke no words, simply lowered his head and claimed Kate’s lips with his own. Forever was all they needed and more.