New Mexico Territory, Summer, 1867
“If you want me to come, then of course I shall. But I think you overestimate any influence I might have with Chris.”
“Thank you, Charlotte,” Ezra said. After discussing the situation with Vin and Buck, the three men had decided that Charlotte might be able to reach Chris in that dark place he'd fallen into after his grievous encounter with Ella Gaines. And Ezra privately hoped that it might prove to be a much needed distraction for Charlotte, who seemed to be trapped in a darkness of her own.
She nodded. “Let me change and tell Charles and the children I shall be away for the day.”
Ezra Standish cast a critical eye over his cousin as she threw the last of the feed to the chickens. The morning sun washed over her, giving him a sharp reminder of just how much weight she’d lost in the weeks since Methos had left.
He cursed the ancient Immortal for the wreckage he’d left in his wake; though a part of him couldn’t help but think it was for the best. Ezra had never thought the man was good enough for Charlotte, but at the same time, it pained him to see how right he’d been.
Oh, she put up a good front, acting as if all was well, making sure that none of her children felt a moments uncertainty or concern at their mother’s betrothed leaving a few short weeks before their wedding. But Ezra wasn’t fooled, though he had gone along with the pretense for Charlotte’s sake. He made his livelihood reading people, and she was like an open book to his practiced eye. That, added to a lifetime of familiarity with the woman who had been like a mother to him, made her current distress all too apparent. Her smiles were forced, and laughter, on those rare occasions when it passed her lips, was for effect with no real joy behind it.
Charlotte had told him once that Immortals had to want to live, that state of mind could be as important as one’s skill with a sword. Observing her over these last weeks, Ezra realized just how right she’d been. Except now, it was Charlotte whose emotional state was in question.
It wasn’t just Methos leaving that had caused this melancholy, of that, he was certain. Not long after the man had left, something had happened; whatever it was she had refused to divulge. He had glimpsed the fear in her eyes before she’d shuttered all emotion away and was concerned enough that he was seriously considering contacting his mother. Despite the sometimes fractious relationship the two women shared, Ezra knew that Maude was the one person Charlotte might confide in. If the situation didn’t improve over the next few days, he would send a telegram requesting her presence.
She seemed to sense his regard, glancing over her shoulder at him as she set down the feed pail. He plastered on a congenial smile, offering her his arm. As she took it, he felt her lean against him, just for a moment, before pulling back. This time, he didn’t hide his concern, wrapping his arm around her shoulders and pulling her close as they walked back to the large hacienda style ranch house.
“I am fine,” she said softly, but without much conviction.
“And I’m afraid I no longer believe that, Charlotte,” he replied quietly. “I haven’t spent enough time here with you and the children. I intend to remedy that, I promise you.”
“You are not responsible for me, Ezra,” she told him tiredly. “You have your own life to live, and I have no wish for you to feel some sort of obligation towards me.”
He stopped dead in his tracks, pulling her around to face him. “You are my family! I refuse to let you push me away. Whether you like it or not, dear cousin, I intend to look out for your best interests,” he told her firmly.
“You’re a good boy, Ezra,” was all she said in response, and that worried him more than anything else.
Ezra, greeting the two men who were walking towards them, pulled her from her reverie.
“Buck, Vin,” she said politely, studiously ignoring the concerned looks they flashed at Ezra. She knew she looked like hell and didn’t need the reminder.
“Ma’am,” the two lawmen replied, touching the brims of their hats.
“Ez, not sure Charlotte being here now is for the best,” Vin said with a quiet solemnity.
“Things have changed,” Buck added.
“What's happened?” Ezra asked sharply.
“Mail came just after ya left; letter from Ella with a photo of her’n Chris. Signed herself ‘Ella Gaines Larabee’,” Vin explained.
“Not an hour later, Chris parked himself in the saloon. Been there ever since,” Buck finished, his voice a mixture of concern and anger at his best friend’s actions.
“He shouldn’t be drinking with that serious a gunshot wound!” Charlotte exclaimed, furious at the man for being such a fool.
“You know that, and we know that, but Chris don’t give a damn,” Buck said in exasperation.
“Our brother’s soul is riddled with guilt and regret,” Josiah intoned, joining the group on the boardwalk just past the saloon.
“He’ll be riddled with more that that once I’m done with him,” Charlotte muttered under breath.
Ezra, hearing her, snorted, his lips twisting into a half smile. “Of that, I have no doubt,” he replied softly. Then he said in a louder voice, "Then what is to be done, gentlemen?"
"Exactly what was intended in the first place," Charlotte said firmly, waving away the objections that swirled around her. "I did not let Ezra drag me all the way out here to simply get back on my horse and ride away, leaving Chris alone with his demons." While she and the gunfighter didn’t always see eye to eye, she considered him a friend. Indeed, all the men that her former ward rode with were like family to her now. She could no more walk away from Chris Larabee, grieving and lost, than she could from Ezra.
Buck shook his head. “Charlotte, as much as we want to help Chris, none of us are gonna risk sending you in there when he’s in this state. I know full well what he’s like when the drink strips away the man he is, leaving nothin’ but the rage and the hopelessness. It ain’t safe.”
“Buck, believe me when I tell you that I will be fine. Even if Chris were to somehow hurt me, as an Immortal, any damage would be fleeting.”
“And you think that matters? You’re a woman, and there ain’t never an excuse for a man to raise a hand to you in anger. It would surely kill Chris if something were to happen when he’s like this.” Buck put his hand on her shoulder, his normally happy visage now sad and tired. “And I could never forgive myself if he hurt you.”
Placing a gentle hand on his wrist, she nodded, understanding exactly what the ladies man was trying to tell her. “Chris is not the first man I have known to fall prey to such darkness, seeking solace in a bottle. You have to trust me, Buck; I can handle Chris. He’s my friend too, and I need you to let me try and help him.” She looked at the gathered men, finally locking eyes with Ezra. “You, all of you, need to let me do this and not interfere.” Ezra clenched his jaw, but he nodded his acquiescence, the other men following suit upon seeing his acceptance.
Buck sighed, squeezing her shoulder before letting his hand drop. “I do trust you, Charlotte. God only knows I hope you can get through to him before it’s too late. I dunno if he can come back from this, I truly don’t.”
“We’ll stand with you,” Josiah told her as the small group began to make their way towards the saloon.
“Don’t much like it,” Vin said. “But I’m mighty grateful.” She patted the sharpshooter’s arm comfortingly, earning her a shy smile.
Buck managed a chuckle. “You’re a dammed stubborn woman.”
“You have no idea,” Ezra replied, rolling his eyes.
Loud voices and a crash coming from the saloon interrupted her response. The shouts were swiftly followed by a body crashing through the batwing doors. Ezra grabbed her arm, pulling her behind him protectively.
“Nathan?” Buck queried as they realized the prone figure in front of them was the town’s healer. “What the hell happened?”
“Chris’s what happened!” JD Dunne snapped angrily, answering Buck’s question as he joined them, having run out of the saloon. “Nathan tried to stop Chris from drinkin’, said he was thinning out his blood and it would bleed through the stitches.”
“I can only imagine our revered leader’s reaction to that,” Ezra said sarcastically.
“He told Nathan to mind his own damn business, and Nathan said it was his business considerin’ he’d spent hours sewing him back up, then Nathan tried to take away Chris’s bottle of Red Eye,” the young sheriff finished breathlessly.
“Damn fool,” Buck muttered. Whether he meant Chris or Nathan, she wasn’t entirely certain.
“Nathan, stay where you are,” Charlotte ordered as he tried to push himself off the ground. “Josiah, could you please help him sit up, gently and slowly, and keep the cloth pressed against the wound.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Josiah put a strong arm behind Nathan’s back, helping him up to a sitting position, while keeping the compress against his temple with his other hand.
“I’m fine,” Nathan protested weakly, trying ineffectually to shake off Josiah’s ministrations.
“Yes, of course you are,” Charlotte said with a sniff, which elicited chuckles from the other men despite the gravity of the situation. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Fingers, Mr. Jackson,” Charlotte repeated sternly.
“Better answer her, brother,” Josiah said with a huge smile, “or you’re likely to get your ears boxed.” There was more laughter from his companions.
Nathan slumped resignedly in Josiah’s hold. “Three, ma’am.”
“Good. Now, look up for me.” She observed at his eyes. “And follow my finger.” This time he complied with her requests with no protest.
Clicking her tongue, she patted his hand. “I believe you have a slight concussion, and that cut is going to require a few stitches. You need to learn to duck, Nathan,” she told him with a warm smile.
“I’ll try’n remember that, ma’am,” he said ruefully.
Ezra took her hand, helping her to her feet. Brushing off her skirt, she said, “Josiah, could you please help Nathan back to the clinic? I shall join you shortly and see about those stitches.”
The preacher didn’t immediately reply, seeming deep in thought. “Is there a problem, Mr. Sanchez?” she enquired with some impatience.
He shook his head, “No, ma’am, none at all.” He paused, as if considering his next words carefully. “I suppose I’m just wondering what you’ll be doing in the meantime.”
She looked at the faces of the gathered lawmen, seeing the troubled expressions they wore, and on Ezra’s face, the added emotion of his love for her. She knew he battled with the warring aspects of their relationship. On the one hand, that of the little boy she had helped raise, and on the other, the grown man he was now, Immortal, and she his teacher. It could be a difficult path to walk.
With a glint in her eyes, she answered, “Nothing for you gentlemen to worry about; I merely wish to share a quiet drink with Mr. Larabee.”
As she stood there, the memory of another man and another tavern replaced the present with the past. Giving herself a mental shake, she firmly pushed the ghosts back. This was not Macau, Chris was not Jack, she was no longer that newly immortal twenty-eight year old of a century before, and Methos was gone. Taking a deep breath, she strode across the room to the bar, where Chris sat at one end alone. His skin was pale, and she knew it would feel clammy were she to touch his face. Inez, the barkeep, looked at her, dark eyes filled with worry. Charlotte gave her a reassuring nod before turning her attention to the leader of the Seven.
Picking up his shot glass, she drained the contents, the fiery liquor burning her throat like acid. But it was a comforting fire, and she had intimate knowledge of its allure. Her action finally caused Chris to notice her presence at his side. He looked at her angrily, his hazel green eyes bloodshot, heavy with rage and grief.
“You are done, Chris,” she said, her voice pitched low. Pushing aside the bottle of Red Eye, she put a hand over his. “You’ve done enough damage for one day, and now, we’re leaving.”
He growled something unintelligible, taking her wrist in a painful grip. “Didn’t ask you to come round, stickin’ your nose in my business!”
She easily broke his hold. “No, you didn’t, but your friends did. Though frankly, I’m not sure you deserve it. What sort of man attacks his doctor; the very man who moved heaven and earth to save your life?”
Glaring at her, fury in his eyes, he replied hoarsely, “A killer, that’s who!”
“A killer?” She laughed at him. “Yes, I suppose you are—for a child. I have known killers, Mr. Larabee, and you don’t even rate the bottom of the list.” Charlotte shivered, pushing back the all too fresh memories of Kronos. “But who knows? Maybe one day.”
That got a reaction, Chris rearing up and grabbing her arms, pushing her back against the bar, snarling obscenities. She looked past him, shaking her head at the other lawmen, hoping they would remember their promise. Ezra looked like he was ready to kill Chris, but he stayed where he was. Then she fixed her attention on the enraged man holding her. “You are not a killer, Chris." She twisted, knocking him off balance, freeing herself.
He was panting now, even paler than he had been when she’d walked in. She knew his nearly fatal wound mixed with alcohol consumption and violent exertion was taking its toll. He slumped against the bar.
She moved in closer, almost whispering, “The world is full of darkness, Chris—don't let that darkness overwhelm who you are. Do not become a man who would be a stranger to Sarah, to Adam."
This time he looked at her, really looked at her, and shock suffused his features as he realized what he’d done. “God…Charlotte…,” his voice cracked, and then failed entirely. He leaned against her, and she could feel him tremble.
She laid a hand against his side. “Hush now,” she murmured soothingly. “It will be all right, I promise you; not today, but one day.”
“My fault,” he mumbled. ‘All my fault; Sarah, Adam, because I was blind, stupid. Because of me.”
“No, Chris, the fault was not yours.” She sighed. “But you will not believe that this day either.”
“Shoulda died with them, shoulda been me,” his broken whisper floated past her into the gloom that surrounded them. “So tired, Charlotte, so damn tired. Would be better off dead.”
Wrapping her other arm around him, she stroked his back as if he were a child. “You are far too young for heaven, dearest Chris. But Sarah and Adam will wait for you, and one day, you’ll be together again.” She blinked back tears with some effort, willing strength into the devastated man in her arms. “You and I both know they would not want you to still feel their loss so deeply. It is time for you to live your life, as hard as that might be to bear. Believe me when I tell you, Chris, I understand the anguish of letting the dead go.”
Shifting a little, she beckoned the other men closer. “And now, we need to get you to the clinic so I can restitch your wound.” She could feel the warm wetness of his blood as it seeped through his shirt against her hand. “Come along now,” she said gently. “Buck and Vin will help you.”
As Chris’s weight was removed from her, she sagged against the bar, Inez handing her a rag to wipe off her bloody hand. Ezra reached over, snagging a bottle from under the bar, uncorking it and handing it to her, not bothering with a glass. Gratefully, she took a long swig of the whisky, shaking a little in the aftermath.
She looked up into Ezra’s distressed eyes as he placed a gentle hand against her cheek. “It’s going to be fine.” Whether she meant Chris or herself, she wasn’t sure.