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"Sister of Justice"

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"Fidelity is the sister of justice." - Horace

 

"I just don't know." Nathan wiped his hands repeatedly on the cloth he was holding; it had once been white, but not it was covered in shades of brown, crimson, and bright red. "The bullet was deep. I got it out, but he lost a lot of blood, and it was close to his lung. He's gonna have to stay still for a long while."

 

Buck took a deep breath, looking past Nathan into the growing dusk. They were still at her house, that bitch who had led them all a merry dance, but Chris most of all. "How long we need to stay here?" he asked, hearing the hardness in his voice.

 

Nathan shifted, still wiping at his hands. "At least a few days. He can't be moved, not until he's stronger."

 

Buck nodded. The setting sun glinted on the nails in the wooden cross over Hilda's grave. "You gonna stay with him?"

 

Nathan's movements slowed and Buck could feel the man's worry. "Never leave a patient if I can help it," he said slowly.

 

Buck nodded, once. "Vin and I are going to look for her," he said. "Would prefer if JD stays with you, in case there's trouble."

 

"Trouble?" Nathan asked. "For us, here, or for you and Vin?"

 

Buck shrugged. "Both. Don't think Handsome Jack's gang will come back, what's left of it anyway, but ain't nothing in this mess been the way it seemed. For all we know, she's out there now, watching us, biding her time until she can get back in here and finish off whatever it was she had planned."

 

Nathan was quiet for a time, then he said softly, "You saw that stuff in that room. You think she was the one that hired Fowler?"

 

The memory of what he had seen made his stomach roil. "She was," he answered. "Ain't no way she could have some of the things in there if Fowler hadn't brought them back to her." Sarah's locket, for one, but there were a few other things, too. A magnifying glass that had belonged to Chris' grandfather, the glass cracked and the wood in the handle charred but still intact. A wooden horse that Chris had carved for Adam, one that always seemed to be on the porch or in the yard.

 

A silver flask with the engraved initials 'CAL' on the front, a gift Buck had given to Chris long years ago.

 

He had collected everything together in a hatbox and trusted it to Ezra to get back to town whenever Chris was ready to travel.

 

Buck refused to think of any other alternative.

 

*&*&*&*&

 

They rode out at dawn the next morning, following the tracks her horse had left in the sand. The first stop was the town itself, where Vin lost her specific tracks among the muddle going into the town. Between them, they managed to find out that she'd ridden into town yesterday morning, bought clothes on her account at the local dressmaker's – clothes that she had ordered weeks before and paid for, but left there – taken money out of her account at the bank, and picked up some travel goods from the local general store.

 

Then she'd ridden out of town, and most of the people who saw her thought she'd ridden back out the way she'd come, as if she were heading back home.

 

They spent the rest of the day scouring the area near the house, but with no luck. Not even a sign of her horse's hooves. They made camp away from the house, Vin thinking that if she was out watching, then she might have a watchfire that they could see. They didn't make a fire of their own, eating cold biscuits and jerky while keeping an eye on the settling dusk. As the night came full on, they settled back against their saddles, their horses tied off near a small stream.

 

"You knew her before?" Vin asked after a while, his voice low and rough from the day.

 

Buck shook his head. He'd told this to Ezra and JD, back before it had all gone to hell, but Vin hadn't been there. "Met Chris just after he'd left her. Said that being with her was like walking on the edge of a blade – sooner or later, he was bound to bleed."

 

"Reckon he was right, only not the way he thought." The leather of Vin's saddle creaked as he shifted his weight against it. "Wish I knew more about her. Might be easier to figure out where she went if I had a better idea of what she's like."

 

Buck thought about it, thought about Chris laying in that bed in her house, maybe dying because of her. Thought about Chris not liking for people to talk about him – but hell, this wasn't about him. This was about her.

 

"She was a wild thing. He met her in a saloon in Dodge City. She ran the dancing girls, was a dancing girl herself – not a working girl, he said she was always very clear about that." Saying the words brought a different anger at her; he'd known women like her most of his life, women who thought they were better, more respectable, because they didn't have to sleep with men unless they wanted to. The men were paying money, though, same as they did to a working girl, usually more. "He got into a brawl with another man in the saloon, supposedly over one of the girls, and when the law arrived, Ella took Chris' side, claiming he was defending her girl's honor. Chris said she took him back to her room after, said she was gonna tend his wounds. He said it was four days before he walked back out of there,

and that for the next year or so, he was with her pretty much all the time, when he weren't working."

 

"Hard to imagine," Vin said. "Chris don't seem the type to want someone under his feet all the time – or to be under someone's feet like that."

 

"Don't reckon he was, but I guess she made it interesting enough. Seems she was wild and she liked adventure. Liked to cause trouble. All the regulars in town knew she was with Chris, but she'd flirt with all the new boys who came into the saloon – part of her job, she said. But Chris figured out after a time that that she liked to get him riled up, liked to see him fight for her. "

 

"Like she did this last time, getting all of us to defend her honor, only she'd set the whole thing up."

 

Buck thought on it for a time then sighed. "Yeah, sounds like. She covered it up a lot better this time, though, hiding it so it weren't in plain sight."

 

"Had a lot of years to figure it out," Vin said quietly. "Seems she never forgot him."

 

"Took him a long time to forget her," Buck said softly. "When I met up with him, it was like he was on the run. Said he was riding back east, going to join the army, fight the war. I had just come off a long cattle drive, wasn't looking to go on another one anytime soon. We spent the night drinking and playing cards, then one of the guys we were playing against got caught cheating and a fight started and we ended up spending the rest of the night in jail together."

 

That memory wasn't as bitter. In fact, despite himself, the anger ebbed a little. They'd shared the cell's one cot, each taking half of it, using it like a chair so that they could rest their heads back against the wall. Neither of them had slept very well, and the next morning, when the sheriff opened the door to let them out, Buck had offered to pay for a room at a local boarding house.

 

Chris had looked over his shoulder, as if he were expecting the devil to be there. Maybe he had been.

 

"Next morning, he was raring to get back on the road. I had nowhere else to be, so I asked if I could ride along – wasn't really thinking on joining the army, figured I get as far as the Mississippi and turn back. Or get myself tangled up with some nice gal and he'd go on without me."

 

"Not how it turned out," Vin offered.

 

"No, not at all. First off, he weren't in the mood to be stopping anywhere long enough for me to get tangled up – not 'cause I couldn't, 'cause we know I can. But he wasn't looking for that sort of entertainment. Most nights I spent working my charm on a young lady ended up with me pulling him out of a brawl or helping him fight one against bad odds. Before I realized it, we were in Kansas, and I was in line at the recruiter's with Chris."

 

"Didn't know the two of you served together," Vin said softly. "Part of why you know each other so well?"

 

The image came to mind before he could stop it, the two of them sharing a tent, sharing a bedroll during the long winter nights those first years, when the Union Army was falling back, the men barely able to feed themselves, and Chris, already working his way up the ranks and towing Buck along, willing to sacrifice his own equipment if necessary to save his troops. "Get to know a man pretty damned well under fire. But you know that, too."

 

It was a guess, but then again, it wasn't. Vin was younger than Buck but he had the look to him, and he certainly knew how to handle himself in bad situations. Buck didn't know where he'd served, or how young he'd been, but Vin had done his share of hard time under fire.

 

"So he got over her in the war?" Vin asked, not answering Buck, but not needing to.

 

Buck closed his eyes for a time, thinking about it. When he opened them again, the night had grown darker and he took the time to look around, hoping to see some sort of light glimmering in the woods. "Took him a while to get back to women," he said slowly, not sure how much he wanted to give up. Not sure how much he wanted to think about, himself. "War was part of it. We were on active duty for a long time, didn't get breaks very often. When we did, well, it took a while for Chris to stop seeing her in every woman who talked to him."

 

"She hurt him that bad?" The idea of it seemed hard for Vin to say, as if he couldn't believe it, and Buck thought about it for a while. Before this past week, he might have laughed, too, at the idea of Chris being that vulnerable, but now . . .

 

"Don't know if she hurt him so much as she scared him. He . . . he shied away from women who wanted him to do things – hell, he shied away from anyone who wanted him to do things. He still does, if you think about it. Well, he did. Until she came back."

 

He spent some time looking around, but he saw nothing other than the moonlight on the landscape, washing it in a pale light.

 

Vin got up, stretching, then he walked around for a while. He'd decided to take first watch, looking for the fire as well as protecting them. Buck watched, too, for a while, until the moon moved and the brim of his hat cast his eyes in shadow, and he fell into a restless sleep, dreaming of cold tents and Chris' warm body pressed against him, of blood and gunsmoke and the rare woman who made his blood run cold.

 

*&*&*&*&*

 

On the third day, they went back to the house, frustrated but sure that she hadn't been in the area, watching them.

 

"He's stronger," Nathan said. "We're going to take him back to town, in the wagon."

 

"You sure you should move him?" Vin asked, his long face tight with worry.

 

Nathan glanced over his shoulder, into the house itself. When he looked back at them, he looked as tired as Buck felt. "I think this house, her house, is worse for him than moving him. She's not here, but she might as well me. Everything in here is about her, and when he wakes up, he's angry and too upset. Need to get him out of here."

 

"No problems, though?" Buck asked. His looked out into the yard, nodding to Josiah who was at the stable, feeding the horses. In the distance, the cross over Hilda's grave stood tall, casting a short shadow in the noon sun.

 

"Not a one," Nathan said. "Ain't seen hide nor hair of her or any of her people, not even that fake doctor." His voice was hard on the last part.

 

Vin nodded. "Yeah, we ain't seen her neither, or any of her gang. We'll keep looking though. When you heading back?"

 

"First thing in the morning. Give us time to stop if we need to, to let him rest."

 

It was a good plan. "You need us to ride along?" Buck asked, dragging his eyes away from the grave to look at Nathan.

 

Nathan looked at him, then at Vin, then back. "Can't say that we do. Got Josiah, Ezra, and JD. Biggest problem I expect is Chris waking up and deciding he needs to be riding with you two."

 

"Yeah, he would," Buck sighed. "We'll be gone before first light, so you won't have to deal with him seeing us."

 

Nathan nodded, and he seemed to relax a little. "Reckon his anger is keeping him alive," he said. "Little more can't hurt."

 

Vin nodded and looked toward the door. "Josiah made chili?" he asked.

 

"And cornbread," Nathan agreed. "Eat while you can. We're bunking down in the house, since there's beds and walls without bullet holes."

 

Vin nodded and stepped up onto the porch, heading inside, but Buck looked back to the grave. "Be in in a while," he said. "Got to do something."

 

"Think JD's in the barn with Josiah, tending her horses. Gotta figure out what to do with them, too." Nathan sighed. "Hell of a thing, I swear."

 

"Reckon they belong to Chris," Vin said, stopping just at the door and turning back. "She tried to kill us, almost killed him. Seems only fair."

 

"Can't leave 'em here," Nathan said. "They'd starve to death."

 

Buck nodded. Wasn't the horses' fault that she was what she was. And she had bought at least one of them for Chris. "Take 'em back to town, at least for now." He wondered where the groom had gone, but it was a vague thought, barely there. He had other things to think on.

 

He didn't mean to go to JD. Much as he loved the kid, right now, he had other things on his mind. But as he passed the stable, JD and Josiah were walking out, rolling down their shirtsleeves, finished for the moment. JD saw Buck and before Buck could think of way to stop him, the kid was there, right up under him and so excited to see him that Buck couldn't find the wherewithall to send him away.

 

Which was how he came to be traipsing through the area around the farm, JD yammering on about everything, his questions coming so fast that there was no way to answer them. Which was a relief in itself. Buck didn't have answers for many of them.

 

Until JD got to the ones Buck dreaded most.

 

"She killed Chris' family – I mean, she was the one who had it done. How could she? She's a woman – how could she do that?" He shook his head, as if the ideas couldn't settle properly.

 

Buck swallowed. He had a hard time with it, too, the idea that a woman could be that cold-hearted. But then, maybe he didn't. "I know you ain't forgot Maddie Stokes," he said slowly.

 

JD drew a deep breath and his face paled under the late afternoon sun. He opened his mouth to say something, then he closed it and looked away.

 

They were at the edge of a hill, Buck using a shovel to dig up a flowering cactus, almost ready to bud. He was watching the edge of the shovel, not wanting to hurt the deep roots of the plant he was digging up.

 

JD was quiet for a time, long enough that Buck had most of the plant dug up by the time JD said, "You think Maddie was that kind of crazy? That she could have gone on to – " He stopped, taking another deep breath.

 

Buck paused, leaning on the shovel. "Maybe, maybe not. I've known a lot of women, JD, but I ain't known many like Maddie Stokes or Ella Gaines. Takes a strange kind of sickness to be that way."

 

JD blew out a breath. "Yeah, I know, I just . . . I keep thinking, if something happened to Casey, if it was because of me . . . I don't know what I would do. Maddies Stokes is dead, but what if Ella Gaines came back for Chris and someone got in her way, even by accident?"

 

Buck stared at the cactus, its roots slowly coming free from the ground. The idea that it could be Casey, that some other woman he cared about, some other woman that one of his friends cared about . . . that a wild woman like Ella Gaines could destroy yet more people that he cared about . . .

 

"Buck? Is that – why are you killing that plant? I though you wanted it."

 

It was partly the words but more the tone of JD's voice that drew him back. Buck opened his eyes, finding the cactus in his hand, his knuckles white as he gripped it, the cactus spikes pricking at his flesh. "We won't let nothing happen to Casey, to anybody else we care about. We know what she did, now all we got to do is find her."

 

JD stared at Buck, his nostrils flaring. He hadn't expected to be taken seriously, Buck realized, but that thought was distant, hidden well back behind a wall of his own fear, his own anger. Before he could think further, though, a flare of pain exploded in his head and he forced his fingers apart. The cactus fell, followed with a splatter of crimson. Buck looked at his hand, the thin trails of blood dripping down his shaking fingers, tines of the cactus protruding.

 

"Come on," JD said, his voice low. "Let's get this back – you want to plant it, don't you? On Hilda's grave?" He stumbled a little on the last words, which stirred Buck more than the words themselves.

 

He took a deep breath, trying to push away the image of Ella Gaines in the same room with Casey or Mary or anyone else he knew and cared for. She'd killed Sarah, and now she'd killed Hilda.

 

She'd almost killed Chris.

 

"Buck?" JD was closer now, looking down at the cactus, then looking at Buck's hand. "You want me to get Nathan?" He still looked young, scared, but not as much. He was growing up quick, had been since he'd accidently shot Annie, then, later, shot by Maddie. He was learning about women, maybe more than Buck was.

 

Buck looked at his young friend, the cloud of anger and fear thinning some. "No," he said softly. "I'll be fine." He pulled at a couple of the spiny sticks in his hand, watching the blood well up as they came free. More of it splattered the ground around the plant. "You're right, let's get this back to the house. On the way, let me tell you what I know about Chris and Ella." It wouldn't be the same story he'd told Vin, but it would have the important details. The ones that made it clear that Chris Larabee hadn't known how crazy that bitch was.

 

&^&^&^&^&^

 

It was five days later when they rode into town, tired, hungry, and frustrated. 'She leached into the landscape,' Vin had snarled, his last words, hours ago. He'd been silent since, and Buck had the sense that he blamed himself for her disappearance, as if he could have done something to stop it.

 

The good news, though, was that Chris was sitting on the boardwalk when they road into town. He was still pale, and he wore a blanket as if it were a coat. He was still angry, though, as angry as Nathan had suggested days before, and he wasn't shy about letting them know.

 

"He ain't angry at us," Buck said, sipping at his whiskey while Vin nursed a beer. "He's angry at himself."

 

"Reckon he's got every right to be mad at me," Vin said, hunched over his mug, his long hair hiding his face. "I missed her when I had the chance, right after Chris got shot. Never missed a shot like that before, but I did when it mattered."

 

"We'll find her," Buck said. "We have to."

 

As if on cue, Casey and JD walked past the window of the saloon, arguing about something that Buck didn't really hear, but reminding him of the conversation from days before.

 

*&*&*&*&

 

"You ain't ready yet," Nathan said, fists on his hips. "You're barely able to walk, much less sit a horse."

 

As if on cue, Chris staggered, reaching out, and Buck caught his arm, steadying him. "He's right, Chris. We're just looking for her. We won't do nothing 'til you're with us."

 

Chris' jaw was locked so tight that Buck thought his teeth might break, but he'd seen Chris this way before. Sometimes, even, it hadn't been in anger.

 

"She's mine, Buck," he hissed, though he let Buck lead him to a chair. "You find her, you and Vin, but you come back for me."

 

"We will," Buck agreed. He let go of Chris' arm as he sat down, his hand feeling empty. "You do what Nathan says – get you on your feet faster that way. Be ready for us when we figure out where she is."

 

Chris' eyes glinted, the gold like fire. Nathan was right, it was the anger keeping him going. All the grief was back, like it had been three years ago. That was an anger he'd never wanted to see again.

 

He couldn't stop himself from turning away, his own pain coming from deep within. He walked out the door and didn't stop until he found Vin, already at the livery, getting their horses ready.

 

"He coming?" Vin asked, tightening the cinch on his horse's saddle.

 

"Not this time," Buck said. "But we'd best not come back if we don't know where she is."

 

"Until," Vin said, jerking hard on the strap, so hard that the horse snorted and tried to draw away. "Until," he said more softly, but just as grimly, even as he patted the horse on the neck, soothing him.

 

More anger, Buck thought. They all had it, then, this anger that drove them to find her. To protect their own by getting her out of the way.

 

As he mounted up, he saw Mary Travis hurrying down the street toward them. He glanced to Vin who was looking out the doors. He glanced at Buck, his eyes wide. They didn't need words, instead turning their horses and trotting out the door, away from where the woman was headed toward them.

 

They trotted for a while, well past the outskirts of town, until Vin eventually slowed his horse and Buck dropped back with him. "You were a lawman once," Vin said. "You think we should arrest her, let the Judge sort this out?"

 

It didn't even take thinking about. "No, hell, no," he said, thinking of that morning that he and Chris had ridden back to find a smoking hull of house. Thinking of the way the light in Chris' eyes had died in the time after. "Ain't but one kind of justice here, and no matter how much I respect the Judge, he ain't the one who needs to administer it." He shook his head, trying to clear away the images.

 

Vin wasn't frowning, but his face was lined, looking tired.

 

"You think otherwise?" Buck asked, surprised.

 

Vin looked at him. "No, think the same. Just worries me when we all do, 'specially on something like this."

 

"She's proven to us all that she's a killer, and one of the worst kind," Buck said. "Worse than Maddie Stokes, which I never thought I'd say about anyone. Ella Gaines is a cold-hearted, murdering bitch. Crazy, no doubt, but that ain't no excuse for what she did."

 

"No, there ain't," Vin agreed. "And I ain't defending her. Reckon the Judge might see it different, though, might think that she should be locked up somewhere. Long as she's alive, Chris ain't gonna be free."

 

They rode on a for while, Buck thinking on that. After a time, he said, "Hell, long as she's alive, none of us will be."

 

 

*&*&*&*&*&

 

It was almost three weeks this time, three weeks of grinding through the countryside in an ever-widening circle around the town. They stopped in every town they came to, talked to anyone who would talk to them. Eventually, someone remembered a widow-woman, came through a while back, all in black. It was a waitress at a local restaurant, one Buck had talked with for a while, though he hadn't planned to take her to bed. Truth be told, he couldn't remember the last time he had taken a woman to bed. When he felt the familiar stirrings that he knew so well, the image that came to mind was Chris, all fire and anger and grief. He found more pleasure in holding on to those memories, alone in his bed.

 

Found more relief.

 

But Adele, an older woman who worked the morning shift at the restaurant in Bailey's Rock, said that she recalled the woman, because the woman had called herself "Mrs. Larabee", and Adele had had an uncle who went by that name, well back in Indiana.

 

"She stayed to the hotel," Adele said, pointing to one of the smaller buildings in the small town. "Said she was newly married and newly widowed. Felt sorry for her, all alone like that."

 

'Mrs. Larabee'. Made Buck's stomach knot. "How long was she here?"

 

Adele tilted her head, looking toward the hotel as she thought. The morning light caught the freckles that dotted her nose and cheeks. Buck had an urge to count them, thought about what it would be like to lie in bed and trace a pattern on them. But the thought was distant, and it brought to mind the scars on Chris' body. He wondered if there was a new one now, right around where his heart had been healing.

 

"Think you just missed her by a couple of days," Adele said. "I know I served her breakfast two days back – she preferred her biscuits fresh-baked and only the thickest butter. Didn't mind, as she paid well for it."

 

Two days ago. Buck drew in a breath. It was hard to take in. They'd been on this trail for so long.

 

"She didn't say where she was going, but I think she took the afternoon stage toward Walshburg." Adele looked back down at him, her brown eyes sharp. "You family?"

 

"Yeah," he said, smiling. It hurt a little, as if his face were unfamiliar with it. "I reckon I am." He pulled out some coins, dropping several on the table, enough to cover an ample tip. "Thanks, Adele," he said as he stood. For a second, he felt confused, as if he were missing something. Then he remembered and he leaned in close to her, angling for a quick kiss on the cheek.

 

She let him but she was frowning. "You leaving already? We were just getting to know each other."

 

He squeezed her arm, just above her elbow. "I'll be back this way soon," he said, though he doubted it. "Buy you a good dinner."

 

She smiled then, bright and happy and for just a second, Buck felt the tug in the bottom of his belly. "I look forward to it." Her words were full of promise.

 

Vin was walking down the boardwalk toward the restaurant, his spurs jingling fast and hard. As they got close, he said, "Walshburg?"

 

Buck nodded, curious as to where Vin got his information, but that was not as important as the next step.

 

Pushing their horses all out, they made it there by mid-afternoon. Walshburg was bigger than Bailey's Rock, but not by much. It didn't take them long to find her; she was sitting on the veranda of the hotel, surrounded by several ladies.

 

One of whom Buck knew well. Too well.

 

"Ain't that your lady friend?" Vin asked as they stood in the alley of the hotel, watching.

 

Buck nodded. There was irony here, more than he wanted to think about. "Louisa," he said with a sigh.

 

Vin nodded. "What you want to do?"

 

Buck stared at them, trying to figure out what this was all about. But all he could do was think about how Ella had killed Sarah, how she had caused Hilda's death, how she had tried to kill them all. He didn't realize his hand was on his gun, didn't realize he had even drawn it until Vin's fingers closed on his wrist.

 

"No," Vin hissed, moving in close enough to block Buck's view of the women. "That ain't the way. Not now."

 

'Not now'. It was the last words that did more to ease Buck's temper than anything else. He let his hand be pushed down, aware that it was shaking.

 

"You still on speaking terms with her?" Vin asked, pulling Buck back into the alley.

 

He knew that 'her' was Louisa, but it took him a while to consider the answer. "Think so," he said, when his gun was safely back in its holster and Vin's body wasn't as warmly pressed against his. "We agreed that it wasn't meant to be, not now, and we agreed to keep in touch. She'd just been hired to do some work for an Arizona Territory's cattleman's organization, to look into the benefits of Arizona becoming a state."

 

"Think that's why she's here?" Vin frowned. "Reckon we rode past a lot of cattle ranches on the way in?"

 

Buck shrugged. "Maybe," though he wasn't sure. "What you got in mind?"

 

Vin looked back toward the end of the alley. People passing by were looking in at them, which Buck could understand. Two men in the back of an alley, two strange men, were suspicious. "Saloon?" Vin suggested, stepping further away from Buck.

 

The nearest one was several buildings over but they could make it without crossing near where the women were still sitting and chatting. They got servings of warm beer and found spots on one of the benches in the back, where they could see the door and out a window facing the main street.

 

"You think it's just chance that Gaines is here, talking to Louisa?" Vin asked, his voice pitched so that Buck could barely hear him.

 

Buck looked at him. This time, the feeling in his gut was cold, ice cold, and spreading out fast. "You don't?" he asked, though he knew the answer already.

 

Vin looked out the window, watching as he spoke, his voice still barely audible. "She watched Chris for 13 years or so, at least the last three, and more than that, long enough to know he was married, had a kid. She watched him long enough to let him grieve and to see him starting a new life. I don't think it was an accident that she came along when she did, on the anniversary of his family's murders. Do you?"

 

The icy feeling was spreading up into his chest. He took a swallow of the warm beer and even it felt cool.

 

"She had a fake doctor to talk to Nathan, who also happened to be a gambler which got Ezra's attention, and he played golf, drawing Josiah in. She had two women there, to distract you – though I don't reckon it played out the way she expected. She knew enough about us to throw distractions out there. Which means she's been watching us, too. Don't that tell you something?"

 

The ice was solid now, making it hard for him to breathe. Louisa was sitting with her. Louisa was – "You think Louisa worked for her?" he asked, the words louder than he'd intended.

 

Vin jerked to look at him, then to look around the room, as he said, "Calm down, now, that ain't what I meant." But as he looked back at Buck, Buck saw the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes which meant he was thinking about it. "Though – well, you know her best. What do you think?"

 

Buck did think about it. Louisa had been many things, but she'd quit the Governor when she'd realized that he'd hired an assassin to kill anyone speaking out against him. That spoke of her integrity. Though . . . Ella was a devious one, they all knew that too well. "If she did," he said slowly, "she didn't know who Ella really was or what she had really done."

 

Vin nodded. "Reckon that's so," he agreed. "So she might be working for her, not knowing what she's really involved in. Or she might not be working for her at all. Either way, though, I suspect it ain't no accident that she's here and Gaines is here. Gaines knows we're coming after her – she knows Chris is, and she knows the rest of us well enough to know that she had to kill us to get Chris to stay with her. If she's been watching the town, she knows you and Louisa . . . " He faltered then, as if he were not sure what to call the thing between Buck and Louisa.

 

It was all right, Buck didn't know either. So he finished, "We like each other," he said simply. "You think Ella's keeping her around for protection?"

 

"Be my guess," Vin said. "Which means we got to be real careful here. Don't reckon you want her in the line of fire."

 

They'd been there already, that damned little assassin holding a gun to Louisa's head, ready to shoot her. Vin had saved the day, then, just as he might be now. "No," he said, thinking about Sarah and Hilda and Casey. "We could get her, ride out of here and back to Chris - "

 

"And Gaines would be gone before we got back," Vin said, cutting him off. "No, we can't let them know we're here. If she's using Louisa as a safety net, then she won't have no call to do anything as long as she feels, well, safe."

 

The idea of leaving Louisa in Ella Gaines' hands . . . Buck didn't realize he'd drunk his whole beer until Vin was sitting back down beside him, holding out a new one along with a shot of whiskey. Buck downed the shot quickly, ready to get up and get another one when Vin pulled the bottle out of his pocket and refilled the small glass.

 

Buck sipped the second shot more slowly, trying to get a grip on his thoughts. After a time, he said, "I can't do that. I can't sit and wait for Chris to get here, not leaving Louisa in Ella Gaines' hands." Just saying it out loud made his hands shake.

 

Vin sipped on his beer for a time before answering. "Riding hard, Chris could get here in a day and a half."

 

Chris couldn't ride hard, and they both knew it. Buck shook his head. "We ain't got time."

 

"Then we got a choice," Vin said, finishing off his beer and setting down the mug. "Best we discuss this somewhere else."

 

'Somewhere else' was a camp outside of town; Vin didn't trust Ella Gaines not to have her own spies – she'd bought Handsome Jack and all his men, after all, and they'd gone along with the ruse that they weren't on her payroll, right up to the point of getting themselves killed.

 

The choices were simple: give Ella Gaines a chance to defend herself - and to put Louisa in the crossfire – or not. 'Not' meant letting Vin do what he did best, while Buck got Louisa out of the way.

 

'Not' meant neither one of them having to explain this to a lawman or take their chances on this town being like Tascosa, as Vin said, a town where Ella Gaines had made herself popular and the people didn't want to take the time to learn the truth.

 

They sat in the dark, sharing the rest of the bottle of whiskey Vin had bought in the saloon and eating hard biscuits and cheese, trail rations. Another night with no fire, not wanting to draw attention to themselves, not if they had to get out of town fast.

 

"Chris ain't gonna be happy," Buck said at one point. "But it'll be better than losing her while we wait for him. Or losing Louisa."

 

"You care that much for her?" Vin asked, his words slow and careful, like he was walking on eggshells.

 

"Thought I loved her," Buck said, thinking only after he said it that he might need to stop drinking. "Was ready to marry her. But she wanted me to be on the road with her, traveling, and I – well, I didn't want that."

 

Vin leaned back on his saddle, his hat dropping low over his eyes. "Was ready to go on the road with Charlotte," he said. "Turned out she was the one who wasn't ready, not in the end. Reckon I'm glad though. Think I'm better off where I am now."

 

Buck snorted. "On the side of a hill, laying in the dirt, thinking about committing murder?"

 

In the pale light of the moon, Buck saw the flash of white as Vin grinned. "At least it's for a good cause, for people worth killing for."

 

For people worth dying for.

 

*&*&*&*&*

 

In the end, Buck was almost as pissed as Chris. When he woke up the next morning, his head pounding and his stomach trying to crawl up his throat, Vin was gone. Buck's horse was saddled, and there was a full canteen of water on the ground beside where Buck had been sleeping.

 

He didn't hear the shot, didn't hear the screams or the cries or even Louisa's voice. All he heard was Vin's horse coming in fast, and Vin calling out that they needed to ride.

 

It was mid-afternoon before Buck had the chance to ask.

 

"You said the waitress in Bailey's Rock said Gaines had a habit of eating breakfast. Figured it weren't too early – she ain't the kind to feed chicken or milk cows, and there weren't many places for breakfast in Walshburg. Got into town before dawn, set up on the roof of the general store, which had a good view of most everything. She came out of the hotel late enough that most people were off to work. Louisa had already gone into the restaurant, no worries there."

 

Buck took another drink of water, feeling it roll around in his stomach. "You got me drunk last night," he said, turning to look at Vin.

 

Vin shrugged. "Wasn't planned, just sort of happened. Seemed like it'd be easier to manage on my own. I wasn't gonna shoot Louisa, you know that."

 

Buck did. But he also knew something else. "You saved her life, once," he said. "She's like to remember how good you shoot."

 

Vin shrugged again. "Made sure she wasn't there. Made sure I didn't make the shot too good."

 

Buck jerked at that. "What the hell does that mean?"

 

Vin looked right at him, his eyes clear. "She might not be dead yet, but she will be by nightfall."

 

Gut shot, a hard, painful way to die.

 

Buck looked away. Part of him was sorry he hadn't been there, sorry he wasn't there now. Part of him was sorry Louisa was.

 

But a bigger part of him was glad it was over. He patted his horse on the side of the neck. "Ready to go home?" he asked, gathering up the reins as his horse lifted its head from the water and shook it, spraying water over Buck.

 

"Yep," Vin said, wiping at his face one more time with his wet bandana before rinsing it in the stream and remounting his horse. "Chris ain't gonna be none too pleased, but I guess he'll get over it, in time."

 

"I'll tell him it was my idea," Buck said. "Least I can do for you protecting Louisa."

 

Vin shrugged. "Won't matter, we'll both be in the shit. But if the time comes, he'll be in the clear, and he'll cover for us. Better this way."

 

Buck stopped, turning to look at Vin. It was like seeing him for the first time. "You never planned on letting Chris know, did you. If Louisa hadn't been there, you'd still have done the same thing."

 

Vin looked back at him, his eyes still clear. "And you'd have walked up to her in the street and shot her dead, then we'd have had to drag your ass out of a jail. Figure my way was more likely to keep us out of trouble."

 

He led off, putting his horse into a trot. They rode fast for a time, until the horses started to tire, then they dropped back into a walk.

 

Buck thought about Chris and Vin, thought about the friendship between them. Sarah had been the woman that had reminded Chris of the good things a woman brought to a man. He wondered if Vin had ever seen that fire in Chris, seen the way his eyes flecked gold when the heat was on him.

 

The memory of that gaze was distracting, but it wasn't as distracting now as it had been these past months. Maybe it had been seeing Louisa. Maybe it was thinking about the temper Chris was going to be in when they got back and had to tell him.

 

"You going be able to talk to her again?" Vin asked after a time.

 

Buck didn't need to ask who he was talking about. He also didn't need to ask what Vin meant. His thoughts of Louisa were changing – had been for a while, but now when he thought of her, she was tainted by her contact with Ella Gaines. Crazy wasn't contagious, as far as he knew, but then all women had a little bit of it in them from time to time. "Guess I'll see when the time comes," he said.

 

"Could send her a letter, she how she's doing," Vin suggested. "She might need comforting, depending on how close she was to the widow Larabee." The last words were drawled out, disdainful.

 

Buck thought about it. "Could," he said. "Probably ought to, just to see what happened after it was over." Make sure Ella Gaines was dead, even though Buck had little doubt about Vin's abilities.

 

They camped that evening by a wide stream, in a copse of trees and shrubs. As they packed up the next morning, Buck caught sight of a few wildflowers growing nearby. On the way, they made a detour by Hilda's grave, adding them to the cactus flower that was developing new blooms, some of them edged in red.

 

*&*&*&*&*

 

"He ain't happy," JD said, meeting them at the livery the next afternoon. "He saw you come in, probably on his way over now."

 

"How does he know?" Buck asked, glancing at Vin.

 

"Mary heard about it, got some telegram yesterday and went straight over to see Chris, asking about you two." JD looked at him, his eyes wide. "Buck, did you – I mean, she was evil, all right, but – you didn't - "

 

"No, he didn't," Vin said, cutting JD off. "Was Mary asking for the Judge or was she just being nosy?" He was pulling the saddle off his horse and making to stay in town for a time.

 

"Being nosy," Chris' voice cut across the barn. He walked in, his posture straight, his guns on his hips. He was completely dressed and if it weren't for the fact that his clothes hung a little on his lean frame and his face was still more pale than it should be, he would have looked the way he did just before they'd ridden out to the hell house. "Worried that someone from here went out and shot Ella Gaines to death. I told her that it couldn't have been you two because you knew better than to take that privilege from me." Even in the dimness of the livery, Buck saw the fire in his eyes.

 

Vin was pulling the saddle blanket off his horse, but he stopped and looked Chris straight in the eyes, meeting that fire. "You want to talk about this here?" he asked, his voice even. "Might be better to have it at the church."

 

Chris glared, and Buck could almost feel the heat in the room, but eventually, Chris snarled, "Let's go."

 

Vin nodded and looked at JD. "JD, would you mind finishing up with our horses? Tiny's busy with that sick one and I hate to bother him."

 

JD looked like he would balk and Buck added in, "Buy you a couple of beers and give you the run down in a while." He stepped closer, slapping JD on the back. "All the gory details, I promise." Though they all knew he wouldn't.

 

JD's lips tightened into a line, and for a second, it looked like he might argue, but then he drew a deep breath and nodded. "Buy me a beer," he said, taking up a curry brush. "Not sure I want to know all that much about it."

 

Past him, Buck saw Vin nod, once, as if that was what he had expected. The boy was growing up.

 

Buck and Vin followed Chris from the livery. Chris continued to walk like he was fine, his stride long and fast, his spurs rattling like a snake. But Buck noticed that there was just a hint of a catch in his stride, not a limp but a slower step on his right side, the side where he'd taken the bullet.

 

Buck sighed, following along just a little behind Vin. This was going to be ugly, but best to get it over with as quick as possible.

 

Josiah had the door of the church open and he came out of one of the side rooms as they tromped up the stairs and into the church's main room. "Buck, Vin, good to see you back in one piece. We were worried."

 

When he said 'we', he glanced at Chris, as if Chris, too, had been concerned. Maybe he he had been, though Buck suspected his worry was far more about what had actually happened.

 

Vin nodded at Josiah, and Buck started to say 'Thanks', but he was cut off by Chris who stopped and turned in the middle of the aisle between the pews.

 

"What the hell happened?" he demanded, his hands in white-knuckled fists at his sides.

 

Off to the side, Josiah drew a deep breath, and Vin said softly, "You ain't gotta stay for this, 'Siah. Reckon it's best if we talk to Chris alone."

 

Josiah was wiping his hands on a rag, the motions reminding Buck a little too much of Nathan. "Maybe so," Josiah said after a time. He shook his head as he turned and walked to a door to the back of the church. "I'll be out back, if you need anything."

 

The door had barely closed behind him when Chris said again, more loudly, "What the hell happened?"

 

Vin didn't look at Buck, launching straight into it. "We found her in Walshburg, where she was building herself a new group of helpers. One of them was Louisa Perkins. Gaines had been moving around a lot and we figured she'd bolt if she caught sight of us or she'd use Perkins as a shield. Decided we couldn't risk either one."

 

"You decided," Chris said, his voice low and biting. It was a tone Buck knew, but he hadn't heard it in a long time. Hadn't seen Chris this way in a long time. Without thinking, he looked at Chris' hands. They were close to his guns. "You decided to do it yourself."

 

Vin's gaze didn't waver. "I did. Wasn't going to let you hang for it."

 

"We did," Buck said quickly, stepping forward. A pressure built at the back of his mind, one that seemed to be living with him these days. Anger and fear, the worry that that woman had left with them that horrible morning. It was supposed to be getting better, now that Chris was on his feet. Now that she was dead.

 

Instead, though, here he was having to defend himself – to defend Vin – against Chris for something that Chris didn't really have a right to be angry about. Not this angry, anyway.

 

Chris turned to glare at Buck, his eyes wide and bright in the dimness of the church. He seemed to glow with his wrath, the emotion so strong on him that it was physical. His jaw was clenched so tight that it seemed to jump, and there was a pulsing on one side of his forehead, and blue vein that stood out sharply in contrast to his pale skin.

 

"You both did," he said, his voice low and hard and not sounding at all like Chris Larabee. "Because you thought she might use the woman you thought you were in love with," he drawled the last words, dripping his disbelief into them, "to protect herself? You afraid Louisa would try to protect you the way Hilda did, that she might love you so much that even though she wouldn't stay with you, she might throw herself in front of a gun for you?"

 

Buck stared at him. He and Chris had had some arguments in their day, especially after Sarah's and Adam's deaths, when Chris had been in the throws of his own self-hate. But this was low even for Chris. This was uncalled for.

 

The pressure in Buck's head was growing, and he could feel his heart beating fast and hard. It seemed to match the pulse that was beating in Chris' jaw, as if they were working on the same rhythm. The same fury. That didn't matter though. What mattered was that Chris was out of line.

 

"We didn't know which way Perkins would fall," Vin said, his voice distant, barely clear over the roaring in Buck's ears. "Didn't want to take the chance that she'd see Buck and realize what was going on. Or that she'd tell Ella."

 

"Or side with her?" Chris said, still throwing fire at Buck. "So you took it on yourselves to take care of that bitch without even letting me know you'd found her." Chris' thumbs were still rubbing over his index fingers, a steady pace but it was faster now than it had been.

 

Buck found that his own fists were clenched and resting close to his own guns, but that thought was as distant as Vin's voice. He heard his own words, hard and sharp, as foreign as Chris' had been. "Maybe we were afraid you'd freeze again, not be able to do it, and we'd have wasted all that time and effort for you to chicken out when the time came. Seems all your talk about women being just as much trouble as men is all talk, huh. When it comes to it, when you know just exactly how evil one is, you still can't pull the trigger. Probably a good thing Vin did it for you."

 

Chris' features tightened, his eyes seeming to glow in the dimness of the church. Buck's vision dimmed, and the roaring in his ears grew louder. He watched Chris completely, every movement of his eyes, his mouth, his hands. Time seemed to stop, the world seemed to stop, and the man before him, who he thought he knew better than he knew himself, was a complete stranger.

 

He saw it then, the very faint twitch in Chris' jaw, the slightest flare in his nostrils, the slight shift in his stance -

 

"Chris!" Vin's voice was a shock, startling Buck, and he jerked, moving to one side, reacting instinctively. But Chris hadn't drawn his gun. Instead, he was falling toward the floor, his legs folding as if they were made of paper.

 

Vin was fast, but not fast enough; Chris' head bumped against the wooden floor before Vin could get to him. "Get Nathan!" Vin shouted, dropping down beside Chris and pushing his hat off.

 

Buck stared, the pressure in his head almost unbearable – until he understodd what he was seeing. No guns had come out, no shots fired. Just Chris on the floor, Buck's hand on the stock of his pistol, trembling.

 

"Go, Buck, get Nathan!" Vin yelled again, and this time, his voice was crystal clear, right here right now.

 

It cut through everything else, waking Buck up. He ran.

 

*&*&*&*&*

"He'll live, but he ain't recovered from that gunshot, I don't care how well he wants to pretend otherwise." Nathan glared at them, as if they'd been the ones to shoot Chris. "For now, I won't want y'all seeing him. He's got to calm down."

 

"Seems like he should be glad she's taken care of," Buck said, the vestiges of anger still rambling through his head. Which meant his arms were crossed over his chest and not stretched down his sides toward his guns, but his mouth was still sharp. "We did - "

 

"I don't want to know," Nathan held up his hands, "and if you're smart, you'll keep it between the two of you and Chris. Mary's already been around town, snooping into where you two were and what you were up to. Ezra says the Judge is probably going to be coming along soon, to check up on it as well. Seems the people of Walshburg had pity on the woman Ella Gaines was pretending to be, and the sheriff down there has asked the Judge to look into things."

 

Beside Buck, Vin nodded and looked away. "We been gone weeks looking for her, and she gets killed in a little town ain't nobody ever heard of. Maybe Chris weren't the only man she lost her mind over. Maybe she hired another assassin to get Chris but this one didn't like her terms."

 

"Yeah," Nathan said, "maybe so. And maybe it'd be good if you boys stay put, keep your mouths shut, and act like you don't know nothing 'bout nothing." He blew out a long breath. "And for the time being, stay away from Chris. Let him get his temper under control. He might have had a stroke back there, I can't be sure. Best to give him some time."

 

"Yeah, we will," Vin said, pushing himself off the bench and to his feet. "Been on the road for a damned long time. Going to get a beer. You coming, Buck?"

 

Buck stood as well, but as he made to follow Vin, Nathan reached out and patted his shoulder. "Good to have you back," he said, "both of you. He is glad, too, though it might take him a while to remember that."

 

"Thanks," Buck said. "But you might be speaking out of turn, when it comes to ol' Chris."

 

Nathan shrugged. "Hope not."

 

Buck nodded. "Me, too." Though right now, he wasn't sure that he was.

 

He caught up with Vin at the bottom of the stairs, just in time for Mary Travis to come marching up with her questions. Unlike Chris, she wasn't angry, but she was concerned, and just like they'd discussed on the trail, they kept the story simple: yes, they'd been looking for Ella Gaines; yes, they'd gotten a lead on where she was; and yes, they'd been to Walshburg, but they'd gotten there too late.

 

"This woman was calling herself Ella Larabee," Mary said, looking at Buck. "Were she and Chris married?"

 

For the barest second, Buck thought about telling her 'yes', thought about what Chris would have to do to get himself out of the lie. But even as he thought it, he knew that he couldn't – not because he wasn't mad enough at Chris, oh, he was. But because he liked Mary Travis, and it was clear that she was carrying a torch. She'd be good for Chris, maybe, her and Billy. And now that Chris knew who had hired Cletus Fowler, and that person, Ella Gaines, was dead, maybe Chris could have a real life.

 

"No, ma'am," he said, trying to find a smile to reassure her. "Ella Gaines was crazy. Reckon you've heard the story by now."

 

Mary looked from Buck to Vin and back. "I have heard several versions of what happened, but they all seem to agree on the idea that Ella Gaines had Chris' wife and child murdered, and that she tried to have all of you killed. Is that true?"

 

"It is," Buck said. "She had items that belonged to Sarah and Adam, and that could only have come from the fire. Chris said that she said that she had had them killed so that she and Chris could be together."

 

"Did you hear her say it?" Mary asked.

 

Buck shrugged. "I heard her say a lot of things in those last few minutes. Enough to know she was crazy. And I saw that room, where she had all the stuff she'd collected from Chris and his family."

 

Mary looked at Vin, who simply nodded. She drew a deep breath then said, "She should have been brought to trial."

 

"Maybe so," Vin said calmly. "But that's out of our hands now, and I reckon that it's best for Chris that she ain't. He's suffering enough 'cause of her, don't you think?"

 

Mary opened her mouth to answer, then she stopped. She looked between them, then she glanced up the stairs. "Is he . . . "

 

"He'll be fine," Buck said, putting a reassuring hand on her slim shoulder. "Just pushing too hard. Excited that we were back in town."

 

"Yes," she said, and something in her seemed to relax. "I'm sure that's what it was."

 

As they walked away from her, Vin said softly, "You're getting as good as Ezra."

 

Buck grinned, and as he did, what was left of his anger seemed to drain away. "Best get over to see him, then," he said. "Don't reckon we need two of us in town."

 

"Nope," Vin agreed. "Chris don't need more reasons to shoot us."

 

Buck laughed, and it felt even better.

 

*&*&*&*&*&*&

 

"Seems like it's been forever!" Emmaline leaned in close to Buck, giving him a view of her glorious cleavage. "I thought you were never coming back!"

 

She smelled of flowers and clean laundry, like a woman, and Buck was dizzy with the scent of her. It seemed like it'd been years since he'd smelled this smell, since Hilda.

 

Hilda.

 

Her face came to mind, warm and smiling, hazy at the edges, as if it she were in candlelight. He could almost taste the cookies she had baked for him, could hear her laughter as she told him what a good man he was.

 

But unlike so many times in the past months, remembering her didn't make him angry – no, he thought, that wasn't right. He was angry, angry at what had happened to her, angry at the unfairness of it all, still angry at Chris and his uncharitable nature. But he wasn't so angry that he couldn't appreciate who she had been and what he had thought of her.

 

And he wasn't so angry that it took away his appreciation of the woman who was here with him now.

 

"I have missed you, too, Emmaline," he said, pressing her against him as he closed his eyes. "I have surely missed you, too."

 

*&*&*&*&*&*

 

The letter came about a week later. He was sitting on the boardwalk outside the saloon, drinking coffee and listening to Ezra bitch about how early it was. They had watched Chris leave the boarding-house, watched him walk right past them without speaking. Watched him walk right past Vin without speaking.

 

"He may be the most unreasonable man I have ever had the displeasure of meeting," Ezra said, watching Chris disappear into the general store. "It's not as if you did it for the mere pleasure of angering him – though I think that that has been more the effect than anything."

 

"He's just got to come to terms with it," Buck said, and for the first time, he thought that maybe was right. At least this time, Chris hadn't stalked past with his hand on his pistol. "Reckon it took a lot out of him not to be able to get his own justice."

 

Ezra shook his head. "He got justice – she is dead and she cannot bother him any more. It's not justice he is angry about, it's vengeance."

 

It was, and Buck couldn't really argue it. Instead, he said, "Don't you think you'd want to have the chance to make the shot if she'd killed your ma?"

 

For a few seconds, Ezra gaped. It wasn't long, barely enough time for Buck to actually see it, but it was there – wide eyes, mouth open, flared nostrils – Ezra had encountered an idea that he wasn't prepared for, one that was closer to his emotional core than he wanted to admit. Hell, perhaps even accept.

 

Buck grinned, but he looked away, giving Ezra time to get himself together before he said, "Takes away some of your pride, when you don't get to the be the one to at least argue your point. Ella Gaines was mad, crazy. Chris could have tried for the rest of his life to make her understand and she never would have. I think he knows that, but I think it's taking some time to get that to settle in."

 

"My, aren't you in a charitable mood," Ezra said, finding his voice.

 

Buck shrugged. His own anger was ebbing away, replaced with a sense of sorry for Chris, but also the hope that his friend could find his way back to living. It might be easier this time, since it wasn't as if he'd truly lost Sarah and Adam, as he had the last time. "Reckon I've known him for a long time. He's been a good friend to me, dragged me out of my share of trouble. Saved my life a time or two." The memory came, of Chris' body on his, pressing him down into the ground as bullets pinged around them and the sound of cannon fire was close and loud, the smell of smoke and blood bitter in his nostrils. Another memory, of that same body pressed against his on a cold, wet night, the sounds of snores and moans crisp in the darkness, the smell of horses and men too long unwashed, the smell of Chris, leather and tobacco and Chris himself.

 

He didn't realize he was smiling until his cheeks started to hurt.

 

"Buck!" JD trotted down the street, doing his best to tip his hat at people while he tried not to run over them. As he drew close to them, almost knocking over Mrs. Eider who pointed a finger at him, he held out a white envelope. "Mr. Fedder said this came for you on the stage yesterday, with the other mail."

 

He bounced up onto the boardwalk and reached past Ezra, almost elbowing him in the face in his hurry, to hand Buck a letter. Buck recognized the writing immediately. He looked up and saw Vin watching from across the street, in front of the sheriff's office. He nodded, once.

 

"Your lovely paramour?" Ezra asked, arching one eyebrow. Unlike Nathan, Josiah, and JD, Ezra knew the whole story. Not that Buck had told him, and he suspected neither Vin nor Chris had, either, but Ezra was canny enough to figure it out and strong enough not to look away from it.

 

"Yep," Buck said, turning it over. The return address was the hotel in Walshburg, which meant she was still there. He tapped the envelope against his leg, settling the papers inside to that end, then he tore off the opposite end and tilted the letter out into his hand. By the time he finished opening it, Vin was leaning against the railing near him.

 

He unfolded the papers – several pages worth – and started to read silently. Louisa wrote the same way she talked, and reading the first few lines brought her voice to his head and a curl of something warm and soft to his belly.

 

'My darling Buck;

 

Though I know it was a decision we both made, I miss you so. These last few weeks, especially. I am here in Walshburg, a town that the committee decided I should use as the base to start my investigations. It's a town like your town, small but busy, with a large number of backwards-thinking people who don't understand the advantages of being a state. I even met another squaw, if you can believe it, though this one isn't nearly as likely to be fought over by the chiefs as Mary Travis.

 

And speaking of people I have met, there is – was – the most interesting woman here, Mrs. Ella Gaines Larabee. I met her several weeks ago, when she was passing through town. She decided to stay for a while, and I got to know her rather well in the few days she was with us. She had a most interesting story, one that still baffles me: she claims that she is – was, sorry, more on that coming – married to your friend Chris Larabee. At least, I assume it is the same man, as I don't believe there can be that many men named 'Chris Larabee' who also have the tragic past that you told me.

 

But the story she told me about his friends confused me. She said that she and Chris couldn't be together because his friends didn't like her and they had such an influence over him that he couldn't see his way clear to be with her. She talked a lot about how they made him feel guilty for getting on with his life after the loss of his first wife and child, how they didn't believe that she was good enough for Chris.

 

She said that these men had even come to believe that she had been the one who caused the deaths of his wife and child.

 

It was a strange tale, and one that, had I not known that you were one of the men in question, I might have believed. I have no doubt but that she believed it, though, and it was one of the saddest things I think I have ever witnessed.

 

I spent several days with her, in and around my work. She was quite interesting, telling me stories of her past - and what a lively one she apparently had. The poor woman had lost two husbands, and she now felt that she was losing this one – she dressed in widow's weeds and kept her face veiled when we were in public. She told me one evening that she was afraid that she was in danger, mortal danger, that these men around her husband were coming to kill her. I thought her paranoia to be caused by the wine we were drinking, she was quite fond of port and brandy. After all, to the best of my knowledge, she was talking about you, and I can hardly see you as an assassin!

 

But the next morning, as she was on her way to join me for breakfast, she was shot! Right there on the street! One minute she was walking toward me, her parasol open against the morning sun, and the next, she was on the ground. It was only then that I heard the echo of the shot, and it was only when I saw the blood that I realized she had been the target.

 

Oh my dear Buck, what a dreadful and horrible time it was after. The bullet hit her in the stomach, and try as he might, the doctor, a very nice man named Welliver, couldn't stop the internal bleeding. I sat with her as much as I could stand, and as you know, I have a strong stomach for many things, but her pain was terrible to behold. Even with liberal administrations of morphine, she was miserable. I tried to be as helpful as I could be, but I fear that most of what I thought about was you, and what it would be like if you were hurt in such a way.

 

I don't know if I could bear it, darling Buck. The very idea of seeing you in such a condition makes me weak at the knees. Please be careful, even more than ever before. And consider, again, the idea of coming with me. I would feel so much safer with you here at my side.

 

The sheriff hasn't caught the person who did this. He thought it was an accident, but Mrs. Larabee was so certain that it was an attempt on her life that she made the sheriff wonder if she were correct. The barkeep at the saloon mentioned several strangers who had been in town over the days prior to the shooting, and one of them sounded remarkably like you! I know, though, that had you been in Walshburg, you would have found me, or I, you.

 

And I know that you would not, could not, ever hurt a woman, certainly not in this manner.

 

She was buried in the cemetery here. I tell you this because if your friend Chris truly was her husband, then he can visit her last resting place. The sheriff is making inquiries and you may be asked as to your whereabouts the day she was shot. I trust, though, that it is a formality. While I do wonder at her tales, I cannot actually believe them to be true.

 

In other news, I will be moving on to Chamblee Hills in the next week . . . . "

 

Buck skimmed over the rest of the letter, planning to re-read it in more detail later. The idea of joining Louisa on the road swirled around in his head, something to think about again. Especially if Chris didn't get his head out of his ass soon.

 

"Well?" Vin asked, his voice low.

 

"Seems that Louisa didn't believe that I could be a party to anyone who would want to hurt a woman, though she does wonder about the lies Ella told her. Ella died, though, and she's buried in the Walshburg cemetery, should anyone want to go spit on her grave." He folded the pages back together.

 

"Any thoughts on who would perpetrate such a heinous act?" Ezra asked innocently.

 

Buck grinned. "Seems the sheriff was willing to believe it was an accident until Ella Gaines convinced him that her 'husband's' friends were out to get her, so he's looking into that."

 

"As we suspected," Ezra nodded. "But they have no proof of anything."

 

"No, they have no proof, just some descriptions of the strangers in town in the days before the shooting." He looked to Vin, who nodded and straightened.

 

"I'm riding out for a few days," he said. "Need to track a couple of wolves out near Nettie's."

 

"No, you're not," a new voice said flatly from behind Ezra. Buck glanced over to see Chris standing there, his face hard. His eyes weren't throwing fire though, and his arms were folded over his chest, his hands not down near his guns. "No one's going anywhere until after the Judge comes and goes."

 

Vin turned slowly to look at Chris. "If the Judge needs to talk to me, he can do it when I get back." His voice was just as flat as Chris' had been. He touched the brim of his hat, turned on his heel, and walked away.

 

Buck watched Chris glare at Vin's back, but the fire still didn't come. After a time, Chris turned and walked away in the other direction, without a word to either Buck or Ezra or even JD, who looked tired.

 

"Why is Chris so mad at Vin?" JD asked. "And why would the Judge think that you did it – I mean, you didn't, did you?" JD stared straight at him, truly asking for the first time. Maybe he was ready.

 

Buck looked at his young friend and for the first time since it had happened, he was glad that he could tell the truth. "No, JD, I didn't do it. Not that I wouldn't have, given the chance, but I didn't."

 

JD glanced to Vin, opening his mouth to say something, but Ezra cut him off. "As Mr. Tanner has voiced, it's not as if the woman had only ever hurt one person. She was married at least once prior to showing up here with us, and it's more than likely that she killed that husband as well. The list of her enemies must be quite long, and while we might be the most recent, we are not the only ones. Once the authorities start digging into her past, I suspect that they will come up with many a possible candidate for the deed."

 

He stood up and yawned wide, stretching his arms back behind him. "What a lovely coincidence, to have a report from someone on the scene. I am amazed at the serendipity of it all." He looked at Buck, arching an eyebrow.

 

Buck grinned but this time, there was little humor in it. "Yeah, sheer coincidence, I reckon. Because Ella Gaines was lucky that way."

 

"Probably a good thing that this random bullet found its mark at such a time. Would be a terrible thing if Mrs. Gaines took out her frustrations on other innocents." He glanced to JD, who was still looking after Vin.

 

Buck tucked the letter into his jacket pocket and stood. "JD, I was thinking about riding out for a while this morning, maybe go check on some of the other places around Nettie Wells, see if they've seen any wolves. You coming?"

 

JD's eyes widened and he smiled - and then he frowned. "But Chris said - "

 

"Don't you worry none about ol' Chris. He's just got his grumpy pants on. We'll leave him here with Ezra." He looked back at Ezra, who was glaring at him. "You can cheer him up, can't you?"

 

"Oh, I'm certain I can think of something to distract him," Ezra sighed. "Perhaps we can discuss the best way to convince people to do what we want when sheer intimdation doesn't work anymore."

 

Buck laughed, as much at Ezra's idea as at the fact that Vin Tanner had effectively told Chris Larabee to go screw himself. And Chris had let him. Maybe things were slowly getting back to normal.

 

*&*&*&*&*&*&

 

"So you were looking for Mrs. Gaines." The Judge looked across the table at Buck, then at Vin who was sitting beside him.

 

"Yes, we were. Chris wanted to talk to her," Buck answered.

 

"Because he wanted to confirm that she had paid this man, Fowler, to kill his wife and child." The Judge looked back at the pages of notes he had on the table in front of him. "Is that the way you understand it?" He looked back up, staring at Vin over the top of his spectacles.

 

"That's the way I understand it," Vin agreed. His gaze was as even as the Judge's.

 

"Neither of you heard her admit that she had hired Fowler?"

 

Up to this point, the interview had been going pretty well. Buck knew that the Judge was leading them along, making sure that the questions were easy enough for the answers to be vague.

 

"No," he said, "but we both saw the room where she kept the things she had, and some of them, well some of them could only have come from the house, after it burned."

 

"While I agree that that is incriminating, I'm afraid that it doesn't tie her to Fowler. She could just as easily have gone there afterward and gotten them herself." The Judge looked back at his notes. "At present, all I have is Chris' word that she said this to him. While I don't think he is lying about it, it does seem that the woman was delusional. What if she made the whole thing up?"

 

"You mean, what if she just said that she killed his family, to make him love her more?" Vin asked. His voice was doubtful, as if the very idea was hard for him to believe.

 

"She was not in her right mind. There are statements from people in Walshburg who doubted the veracity of her stories. Who's to say what was true and what was not true?"

 

Vin drew a deep breath and shook his head. Buck looked at the Judge. "What are you trying to say here?" he asked. "That she lied to Chris about doing it? Did she lie to him?" The idea that this wasn't over, that whoever had dired Fowler was still out there was almost enough to make him puke.

 

The Judge took off his glasses and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "I don't know, Buck," he said quietly. "All I know is that I have a story from Chris as to this woman's complicity in the murder of his family. We do have the circumstantial evidence that she had been keeping up with Chris and what he was doing from before his marriage to Sarah Connelly. And we have the possibility that she killed her last husband, though we have little way to prove it. So I have her, dead, shot in the middle of the street in the early morning by someone who has vanished. I have descriptions of two men who could be you and Vin being in Walshburg sometime around the time of the shooting. And I have your own admission that at the time, you were out looking for her."

 

He put his glasses down on the desk and folded his hands together, leaning forward. "If she were guilty of killing Chris' family, then whoever shot her, while breaking the law in many ways, probably did the territory a favor, saving us from a long, drawn-out trial in which a half-way decent defense attorney could have gotten her acquitted on an insanity defense, and the territory would then have had to pay for her incarceration in a mental institution. But we don't know for certain that she did. No one else heard her admission to Chris. There is little way to prove – or disprove – her statements to various people that she and Chris were married. In truth, the time that he spent in her house is enough by common law standards in many states to qualify as a marriage, though it is without the sanctity of the church or a license from the territory. We haven't found anyone who was part of the group who attacked all of you on her property – though I do have a letter from the county clerk that confirms what you said," he tilted his head toward Vin, "about her owning the Culpepper Mining Company, and I do have reports from others in this town that she did come here to hire you to protect her from Jack Avril."

 

Buck blew out a breath. 'Others in this town' would mean Mary, at the least, possibly Inez and others at the saloon who had heard some of Ella Gaines' tale. "So what is it you want us to say, Judge?" he asked.

 

Travis looked at him and then at Vin, his craggy face scrunched in thought.

 

"He wants you to say that you didn't do it, you don't know who did, that you heard everything she said and she's an evil woman who deserved what happened to her." Chris walked into the room, his boots thudding on the grainery's wooden floor. "She was," he said, coming to stand in the space in front of the desk, so that he was between Travis and Buck and Vin. "And I'd like to shake the hand of the man who did that to her, for whatever reason. I'd like to have done it myself - and if given a chance, I would have. But I wouldn't ask anyone else to do, Judge, you know that. She was mine alone, and I sure as hell didn't – wouldn't – ask the men I trust to do it."

 

Travis lifted one hand, rubbing at his nose again. "I understand, Chris." He picked up his glasses again, but this time, he put them in his pocket. "Far as I can tell, there's no evidence one way or the other on this. I've got more work to do, got to look into her past, her accounts, and I've got clerks to do some of that. I'll let you know what I find out."

 

Chris nodded once and turned around. His green eyes glittered, the fire back. He met Buck's gaze for a few seconds, then he turned back to Travis. "I stand by my men," he said, "by my friends. If there's a problem, it's on me." He turned back and looked at Vin, then at Buck. "You coming?"

 

Buck glanced at Vin, who shrugged and asked, "We done here, Judge?"

 

Travis nodded and they left, following Chris across the street. Buck wasn't sure what he expected, but he was surprised when they passed the church, then the boarding house, finally ending up at the saloon. Once inside, Chris led the way to the bar, but he waved them toward a table.

 

Vin glanced at Buck and asked softly, "Did I miss something?"

 

Buck smiled. "He's still pretty upset, don't think it's blown over. He'll get drunk soon and take a swing at you or at me – hell," he chuckled, thinking on the past, "he'll do it for years. But for today, he's okay. No matter how mad he is at you, no one else gets the right to come after you. That's Chris Larabee."

 

He settled into a chair and smiled as Chris stalked over with a bottle of whiskey and three glasses. He set the bottle on the table then sat down himself, trying to ease into the chair without looking like he was being careful. The bullet wound was still sensitive.

 

Once seated, he pulled the cork on the bottle with a grunt then poured the three glasses full. As he pushed one each toward Buck and Vin, he said, "Keep your mouths shut and let me handle the Judge. He knows what happened, he ain't stupid, but he also knows that I ain't lying."

 

Vin nodded, sipping at his whiskey. "Could tell that from the way he was asking the questions."

 

Buck sipped at his own whiskey, appreciating the burn of it going down. After a time, he said, "You mean what you said back there, 'bout shaking hands with the man who did it?"

 

Chris looked at him, the gold flecks in his eyes catching the sunlight coming through the nearby window. "Don't say things I don't mean," he said sharply. "Reckon you know that by now."

 

Buck grinned and looked at Vin. "Reckon I do," he agreed.

 

Vin nodded as Chris asked, "You catch them damned wolves?"

 

As Vin answered, Ezra slid into a chair beside Buck. He had brought his own glass, still filled with whatever he was drinking today, and he lifted it in a sort of toast to Buck and grinned. When the bottle went around next, he took a drink of Chris' whiskey, smiling more broadly at Chris' glare. But Chris didn't say anything.

 

By the time the bottle was empty, Josiah, Nathan, and JD were sitting at the table too. It wasn't over, Buck knew from long experience. But it was a step in the right direction, and maybe this time, the direction was down a good, more even road.