The stage rolled into Four Corners on a dusty summer day. Among those it disgorged were two nondescript people who went to the boarding house. As the woman signed in, the boy with her tugged her sleeve. She turned to look at him.
“Mind if I go look around?” he asked softly.
“Don’t you want to get checked in and rest first?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I saw someone….it looked like my father.”
She rolled her eyes. “You see your father’s ghost everywhere we go,” she sighed. “I suppose I’ll be doing the same after this with my dead father. Go on, but be back by supper.”
Nodding, the boy ran out of the room, his hat falling off his head and hanging by its cord around his neck.
He ran to the saloon and looked in under the batwing doors. What he saw there made him gasp. Without another thought, he pushed the doors open and entered the saloon at a fast clip.
Chris Larabee sat at his usual table, getting as drunk as he could at three in the afternoon with the meager supply of whiskey Inez would give him at this hour. Since he’d found out about Ella Gaines’s part in the deaths of his wife and son, it was harder and harder to keep his grief and rage in check.
The only thing holding him together was his link-partners. If it wasn’t for Vin and Ezra’s constant ‘buzz’ in his mind, he’d probably have self-destructed in a rather spectacular way. Not even Buck could keep this rage in check. It grew every day.
He raised his glass to knock it back and realised he wasn’t alone. He squinted down at the child standing beside the table. “What do you want?” he snarled.
The child just stood there.
“Come to stare at the drunk?” he snarled, knocking back the shot and putting the glass down with a thud. He turned to order the child to leave – and the motion cleared his head enough he could see the boy clearly.
In the rooms over the saloon, Ezra bolted straight up in his bed. At the desk across the room, Vin stiffened and the pencil fell from his hand. Poem completely forgotten, he turned to Ezra.
Their eyes met and together they sent, Chris?
There was no reaction in words. There was, however, emotion coming through. Strong emotion. One that was so many things at once that there was no way any of them could even put words to it.
Chris frowned down at the boy standing beside his chair. His mouth worked, but no sound emerged as he stared.
For his part, the boy walked over and smiled. He lay a warm hand on the ebony sleeve. “I knew it,” he said with the confidence of youth. “I knew you weren’t dead.”
…..it’s real….. Tentatively, Chris reached over and ran a gentle finger over the small knuckles. The warmth of it reached into his shattered soul. He wiped some of the sweat from the wet sleeve and raised the finger to his nose.
OH G-D! Suddenly Chris shot to his feet, the chair toppling over from the force of the movement. He crashed to his knees, his eyes wide as they locked onto the child.
Ezra and Vin both shivered as they felt it as well. Something deep inside Chris’s soul shattered – and reformed. As one, the pair ran to the landing and looked down to the saloon below.
“Oh, G-d,” Chris sobbed aloud as he crushed the boy close and buried his face in the crook where neck met shoulder. “Oh my G-d…..”
The boy’s hand petted his shoulder, though sobs were wracking him as well. “I knew you weren’t dead,” he kept repeating. “I knew it, I knew it!”
“Oh, G-d,” Chris gasped out. “It’s real….this isn’t a dream…. You’re really here…. Oh my G-d – ADAM!”
Vin walked over to the doubled-over man and gently placed a hand on the boy’s back. His eyes widened as he felt warm flesh, the bones of a normal child’s back, and felt a slight heartbeat thudding under his hand.
The child was no spirit.
Ezra tilted his head. He’s real, all right, he transmitted. But is he really ADAM?
Chris raised his head. The scent… it’s Adam’s scent.
Vin and Ezra’s eyes both widened. Both of them knew how a person’s appearance could be changed. Perfumes could be used to disguise a person’s scent.
Nothing could change it. And it was one of the things about a person that could not be faked.
Chris pressed a kiss to the top of the boy’s head, then pulled him back enough to look in his eyes. “Adam….”
Adam beamed at him, and pressed a sweaty hand to the stubbled cheek. “I knew they were lyin’ and you wasn’t dead. I looked for you every town we was in. I knew I’d find you.”
Chris shook his head, unable to completely stop the sob that wrenched from his heart. “….I thought you were dead --- you and your ma! I buried you, Adam! I buried you!”
Shaking his head, Adam frowned. “No…. it wasn’t me. I’m here, I promise!”
“I can see that,” Chris said, smiling. He couldn’t stop touching his son’s face, arms and shoulders – afraid that if he stopped touching him, the boy would vanish like smoke. Then his eyes widened again. “Wait…if-if you’re here….”
“Momma’s at the boarding house.”
Chris’s voice became a choked, alien thing. “….Momma?”
Adam nodded and grabbed his hand. “Come on!”
Laughing, Chris gladly followed, amazed at this miracle that seemed to be unfolding before his eyes.
Buck was heading down the hall of the boarding house to meet Miss Maisy for his afternoon ‘constitutional’ when he heard something from one of the unoccupied rooms.
“….come and sit by my side before you go….”
He frowned. The song wasn’t the shock – he’d heard it several times. The voice was.
“…do not hasten to bid me adieu….”
It was the voice of an angel. A voice that brought tears to his eyes. A voice he had never expected to hear again this side of paradise.
“….just remember the Red River Valley….”
Like a moth to a flame, he found himself drawn to the doorway of that room.
“….and the girl who has loved you so true.”
Before he could talk himself out of it, he knocked briskly twice. He was not really expecting anything to happen except the voice to stop.
Buck was convinced he was hearing a ghost.
When the door opened, Buck let out a gasp and took a step back. He stared in awe as the figure behind it came into the light.
“Oh merciful heavens,” he breathed, his eyes huge. “…..this just can’t be!”
For her part, the woman he was staring at grabbed onto the doorframe to keep herself upright. “You,” she gasped, staring at him with pure shock.
Then she lunged forward and slapped Buck across the face.
Buck staggered back, a hand flying to his stinging cheek. “….what….Sarah…”
“One more night,” she growled, stepping into the hallway and waving a single finger at him. “Just one more night in Mexico!”
An old pain reared in Buck’s eyes. He’d often told himself if he’d not talked Chris into staying that one last night….. but how could she know? “Sarah, what are you sayin’?”
She grabbed his shoulders and shook the large man as if he were a rag doll. “I’m saying, if you had kept him in Mexico just one more night – just one more! – Chris might be alive today!” She sobbed. “Why did you let him come home early?”
Buck gaped at her. “….Sarah….what are you sayin’?” he repeated. “…Chris was with me until we came home and saw the house burned down! We thought you were dead!”
“Don’t lie to me, Bucklin Joseph Wilmington!” Sarah roared, the sheer force of her fury pushing him back a step. “I saw Chris shot to death before my eyes!” Her fists clenched. “How dare you stand there and tell me he’s alive! HOW DARE YOU!”
“He dares,” a quiet voice said behind her, “because I am.”
Sarah froze. She whirled and her eyes widened as she stared at the man standing there holding Adam’s hand.
Adam beamed proudly. “I found him, Momma. Pa is here. I knew he wasn’t dead.”
Chris’s eyes were soft and loving as he looked at her. “I don’t know what’s going on here,” he said, his voice trembling. “But I just got my family back from the dead. I’ll be damned if I let you get away again.”
Sarah moved forward on trembling legs. She touched his cheek lightly. Her eyes closed and a wail of primal emotion ripped from her throat. “CHRIS!” She flung herself into his arms.
Chris buried his face in her shoulder, crushing her close.
There was still a mystery here. There were many questions still to be answered.
But for this moment in time – surrounded by his friends and the wife and son he thought he would never see this side of heaven --- Chris Larabee was complete.
“I was what?” Chris asked, frowning down at the woman in his arms as they sat on the bed.
“Shot. Before my eyes,” Sarah sighed. “I was held back – Cletus wouldn’t let me go hold your body – but he wore your clothes and was riding a horse that looked exactly like Pony.”
Chris frowned as something suddenly made sense to him. “It might have been Pony. That ornery horse vanished just after we got down to Mexico. When he came back, he was lathered and blowin’. We couldn’t figure it out.”
Sarah shook her head. “I don’t understand. Who would make me think you were dead? Why?”
“Who would make me think you were dead….and brag about it?” His eyes – hard green flint now – bored down into hers. “I’d lay odds Ella Gaines had something to do with this.”
“Ella?” she frowned. “She let us stay with her after you…. the copy of you … was…” She shook her head. “And all she asked in return was my locket. Since I thought you were dead, I gave it---“ Her eyes lit up and she smiled as he pulled the necklace from underneath his shirt. “My locket! How?”
“Ella,” he growled. “She said she did it all to get you out of the way so we could be together. I think she thinks you were killed in that fire.”
Sarah’s eyes widened again. “You mean that fire was deliberately set?”
“You knew about the fire?”
She nodded. “Cletus came in and told us that Suanne Johnson and her son Martin were killed when our place burned down while they were watchin’ after it.”
“Fowler set that fire! We came home and saw the end of the fire…we buried them, thinkin’ they were you!”
“And I never thought to go back, because I thought you were dead!” She buried her face in his shoulder. “Oh, Chris…”
“We’ve been played for fools. Both of us.” He looked down at her and tilted her head up. “Somethin’ I don’t understand, though. Fowler worked for Ella. Why didn’t he tell her you were dead and how did he keep that fact from her? She really and truly believes you’re dead.”
Shame touched Sarah’s cheeks. “Cletus loved me. And when I thought you were dead…and I had nobody…”
He lay a finger on her lips. “Don’t say any more. I understand.” He smiled and held her closer. “I did the same thing. It hurt so bad…”
“…and there was no way to heal it… a hole in my heart….”
”…where you once were…”
She nodded. Then she smiled into his eyes. “Cletus helped me get away. He said he could tell Ella was losing her mind and he believed Adam was in danger. So we snuck away the night after the fire. We went to Texas and have been there ever since.”
Chris held her close, burying his face in her hair. “This feels like a dream….”
“For me, too,” Sarah whispered. “For me too…. I keep thinking I’m gonna wake up … and you’ll be dead….and Adam…”
“Will be just fine with Ezra tonight.”
“Can he be trusted? We’ve had some bad experiences with gam—“
“I know him as well as I know myself. He loves kids. Adam couldn’t be in better hands.”
Sarah studied his eyes. Smiling at what she found, she leaned forward and captured his lips with hers.
He lowered her to the bed, feeling twin flashes of amusement before his mental partners disengaged, leaving only the ‘hum’ of their presence behind. Thank you for the privacy, he sent before returning all his attention to his returned wife.
The sunshine passed through the window of the boarding house and tickled Chris’s eyes. He rolled over, smiling, and reached for Sarah.
His hands encountered only cold sheets.
Gasping, Chris sat up and stared at the bed. He was alone in the bed and in the room.
Despair clutched Chris’s heart, welling up into a ball of hurt disappointment so thick it climbed into his throat and threatened to choke him. …it was a dream, he growled to Vin and Ezra, not daring to trust his voice as he closed his eyes against the well of furious, grief-stricken hot tears that sprang into them. Her and Adam bein’ home…bein’ ALIVE…it was all a fu—
It wasn’t a dream,/i> Ezra interrupted. Adam is with me in the saloon, sitting here devouring his second helping of huevos rancheros.
And Sarah just left the newspaper office and is walkin’ toward Miz Potter’s store, Vin reported from the rooftops. You wasn’t dreamin’, Cowboy. You just overslept.
Hope and warmth detonated in Chris’s chest. Show me! SHOW me!
A view of his Sarah – whole and alive and even singing! – popped into his head as she entered Potter’s Store. …Sarah…
A blur from below caught Vin’s attention and he looked down to see Mary waving her arms. She motioned for him to come down behind the church and headed that way herself.
Wonder what she wants, Vin sent. Be right back. And the ‘buzz’ remained as he focused all his attention on the newspaperwoman.
Then it was Ezra’s turn. Through his eyes, Chris saw Adam sitting at the table beside Ezra and happily plowing his way through one of Inez’s specialty eggs and tortillas.
Adam…. Chris sighed warmly, reaching out as if he could touch the boy.
Adam turned his head and looked up to meet Ezra’s eyes. “Wow!” he gasped, his own eyes widening. “How’d your eyes change colours like that?”
Chris laughed, ‘hearing’ it as Ezra did. Good luck explainin’ THAT one, Ez. I’m gonna go find Sarah. He got out of bed and reached for his clothes.
Hang on, Cowboy, Vin broke in just as he was buttoning his shirt. We may still have a problem.
What do you mean? You sound grim….
Sarah was just talkin’ to Mary, askin’ a lot of questions. Found out what she’s been doin’ all this time.
Chris nodded. Tell me.
She’s workin’ in Texas, for the courts. Sort of one of them new-fangled private investigator things. One o’the only women t’do it.
Shaking his head gently, in awe, Chris frowned. And this is a problem…how?
She’s from Texas, Chris. And she’s lookin’ for ME.
Sarah came out of the store with her arms empty and a smile on her face. She saw Chris coming out of the boarding house and waved.
Chris waved back, though the smile felt artificial. Ezra… would you mind keeping Adam for awhile longer?
Under the circumstances, it would be more than a pleasure. Ezra leaned in and asked, “Adam….do you know how to play Crazy Eights?”
His face lit up. “I sure do! What do we play for?”
Ezra choked on his water, bringing a genuine smile to Chris’s face and a bark of mental laughter from Vin. Play for something small, Chris told him. Preferably edible. And don’t let him clean you out.
Sarah had reached him by now. “Chris?” she breathed in wonder, touching the corner of his eye. “For a second…your eyes looked very light green.” She shook her head. “Must’ve been a trick of the light.”
He bent his head and kissed her lips lightly. “We need to talk. In private.”
A small crease appeared between Sarah’s eyebrows as she frowned. “Of course… is something wrong?”
“There might be.” He led her to their room and closed the door behind them. Sitting on the chair after setting her on the bed’s edge, he leaned forward. “So… not that I’m complaining, because I definitely am not – but what brings you back here after all this time?”
Sarah sighed and put her hands on her knees. She met his eyes. One of Sarah’s little quirks was that she was never able to lie when she looked him in the eyes. “I found out that my father died. I came to say my goodbyes.”
He waited for her to say more. When no more was forthcoming, he asked, “And there’s no…other…reason?”
Her mouth quirked in a smile. “Chris, Adam looked for his father wherever our travels took us. When he said he saw you, we didn’t know you were alive.”
“That’s not what I mean. I heard an interesting – rumour – about you.”
The smile grew. “Oh? Tell me?”
“I heard that you’re a private investigator.”
She leaned forward slightly. “I am. Every town I’m in, I go to the newspaper and jail and see if any of my bounties are anywhere near.”
Well, Vin sent softly – mainly so Chris’s eyes wouldn’t shift -- at least she’s bein’ honest with you.
Sarah always has been, Chris sent back. To Sarah, he asked, “And did you – find – any?”
“As a matter of fact, there’s been a fascinating rumour about you.” Sarah smiled at him. “I’ve been told you’re part of the law around here. Seven men that protect this town.”
“I’ve also found out this morning from the newspaper office that there’s a wanted man somewhere in town. A Vin Tanner.”
“Vin’s innocent, baby.”
Her eyes widened. “You know him?”
“More than know him, sweetheart.” He moved to sit by her. “He’s one of the Seven.”
She shook her head, but he could tell she believed him. “Innocent.”
“Innocent.” He licked his lips and took her hand. “I’ll tell you the whole story.”
Sarah held up a hand. “I think … this… I need to hear from Vin himself.”
“You’re not takin’ him.”
“Of course not, Chris. If you trust him…. Maybe I can help.”
Vin couldn’t contain himself any longer.
From Sarah’s perspective, Chris’s entire body language shifted. His eyes widened slightly and he gripped her hand tighter. His eye colour changed before her eyes to a smoky light blue. The voice that came from his throat was still his, but the accent and grammar were completely different.
“Y’can? Ma’am, if you would, if you’d help clear m’name once and for all….”
Sarah screamed. Her eyes filled with terror and she jerked her hand from his. She crab-scuttled off the bed and landed in the floor. And still she screamed, kicking her feet and putting as much distance between her and her suddenly altered husband as she could.
Chris sighed. His fingers went to his nose and he sighed. His body language was all Chris again in a second. “You REALLY shouldn’t have done that. I wasn’t ready to tell her yet.”
Another sigh and hazel eyes opened. Sarah had grown quiet, studying him. She saw him stare into space, over her head. “Well, you and Ez can get your asses up here and we can get all the explanations over with at once.
“Yes, Ezra. Bring Adam. …. I know you’re sorry, Vin. There’s nothin’ that can be done now but explain.” His eyes had clicked emerald green and that smoky blue colour as he seemed to answering voices Sarah could not hear.
His eyes clicked blue and then emerald again, then settled into the familiar hazel as he lowered them to where Sarah lay. Slowly – moving as if to a skittish horse – he lowered himself into a crouch. “I’m sorry, Sarah-love.”
A shudder ran through her. “…..what…..who….what are you?”
“I’m Chris. I’m your husb—“
“Not my husband!” she roared. “My husband couldn’t do what you just did!”
A quirk of his lips, and Chris’s head tilted as his hand came up to rub the back of his neck. “No, I couldn’t. Till I came back here. Now I can – there’s three of us, we’re all mentally linked—“
At that moment, Chris’s eyes turned emerald green. When they became hazel again, he smiled and headed for the door. Opening it, the gambler walked in with Adam holding his hand. Adam ran over to Sarah and hugged her.
Sarah clung to him like a lifeline, her eyes on the two men who seemed to be merely staring at each other. But their eye colours were shifting back and forth.
Ezra suddenly nodded. “Ma’am, with your permission.” He reached over her head and brought down a small chain that was used to hold a basin to the desk. He showed her the chain. “See these three links? He unhooked them from the main chain and twisted them so that they were hooked into a circle. He touched one link. “Chris.” A second link. “Vin.” The last one. “Ezra – myself.” Then he reached the chain toward Sarah.
Slowly, Sarah took the slightly misshapen circle. She sat up more, tucking her legs under her, studying it. Fascination overcame fear and she looked up at Chris. “You all are…still yourselves?”
Chris nodded. “That has never changed. We’re all just….”
“…enhanced,” Ezra added with a smile.
Sarah suddenly blushed till her face was crimson. “You two…if you know….then when we….”
Chris and Ezra both chuckled as a tall man with blonde curls walked in. “Don’t worry, ma’am….we draw the shields. Chris an’ you had absolute privacy.”
She looked up at him. “…..Vin…Tanner?”
A nod and a sheepish grin. “Ma’am, I’m sorry. I just got so excited t’hear you believed me and wanted to help get this damned bounty off my head…sorry, ma’am. I should have kept my mouth shut.”
“No,” Chris jibed, “you should have kept my mouth shut, Cowboy!” He turned to Sarah. “When I returned to town, I saw Vin across the street. Our eyes met and something ‘clicked’. It was a week or two later that we realised we could hear each other’s thoughts.”
“And I became part of their link several months ago,” Ezra said with a shrug. “I’m still not entirely sure how that happened, but it has.”
“At times,” Vin put in, “it will appear we are one mind in three bodies. We promise you, Ma’am…whenever you and Chris want… well… you’ll have all the privacy you need.”
Sarah gently rose to her feet. “This…is hard to swallow. I just find out my husband is alive… after years of thinking him dead… then this…” She ran a hand along a suddenly aching forehead. “Mister Tanner…Mister---“
“Standish,” Chris supplied.
“Mister Standish…. You will forgive me if I do not respond to something you obviously are used to with a measure of glee.”
“You’re overwhelmed,” Chris said with a nod. “And this is something completely out of your realm of experience. I understand, darlin’. Nobody’s askin’ you to go turn cartwheels in your nightgown.”
Sarah stared at him, then smiled as her high cheekbones were kissed with pink. Well she remembered that day – the day Chris had proposed – and she recognised the attempt to show her it was still him. “Or for you to go runnin’ bare-bottomed to Buck’s,” she returned, showing him the message was understood and appreciated.
She knew this wasn’t faked when both men looked at a blushing Chris, then as their eyes all flicked hazel and back, both men burst out laughing. She had not let him live down his reaction to being told Adam was on the way for months.
“Could…” she asked, her tongue darting over her lips. “Could you – all of you – clear out and – give us privacy? Chris, I need to speak to you. About this.”
A nod, and Ezra held out his hand for Adam. Adam grinned, put his hand trustingly in Ezra’s, and went to his side. It was Vin who spoke, though. “Will you two be joinin’ us for supper?”
“I’ll let you know,” Chris said, looking into Sarah’s eyes.
Nodding, they left husband and wife alone.
“Sarah?” Chris asked at long last.
She looked up at him, tears in her eyes. “When were you going to tell me?” she whispered.
Chris held up a hand. “Hold on a second.” His eyes flicked emerald, then blue, then settled down into hazel. “All right. It’s just you and me now. All shields have been drawn.”
Sarah shook her head slightly. “How do I know that? I only have your word.”
“My word was always good enough for you before, darlin’.”
“Yes, but before I was dealing with just you.”
Chris smiled. “They’re gone. It’s just you and me. Like it was when we made love last night.”
A faint blush kissed her cheeks. “All right. When were you planning on telling me of this?”
“A couple of days. I wanted to make absolutely sure this was real, that you and Adam wouldn’t just vanish on me.” He frowned, tilting his head. “Speaking of Adam…”
“Why does he seem so content to take off with Ezra? I’m glad for this chance to connect to you, but—“
Sarah smiled. “He’s content because he knows he’s giving us time. Adam has always maintained his father was alive and well – even when I didn’t believe it – and he always said that when we found you he would give us a day or two to be just by ourselves. And he’s keeping his word, it looks like.”
“That makes absolute sense.” Chris ran a hand through his hair. “I miss him, though. What say the three of us go on a picnic tomorrow? Just us…”
“Just us?” she asked pointedly.
Chris smiled. “I’ll tell them to only ‘knock’ in case of emergencies.”
And Sarah returned his smile.
“I’m sorry it took Hank dyin’ for you to return to Four Corners.”
“Oh, is that what they’re calling the town now? I like that… So am I. But in a way, I’m glad.” Her arms went around him at last. “Because I now have you back.”
“Sarah…” He cupped her face with his palms, infinitely gentle. “This is more than a dream. This….you….this is a miracle.”
Sarah agreed whole-heartedly.
Morning came to find both of them cuddled up and sound asleep. They had stayed up till three AM talking about the confusing hand fate had dealt them both, and how to deal with it.
When they woke, Sarah studied Chris’s face as they dressed.
“What?” Chris finally asked with a nervous laugh.
“If I ask, can one of your – others – speak through you by choice?”
Chris slowly tilted his head. “Yeeesss….. why?”
“I’d like to….see it again. Without the suddenness of it. Perhaps if I’m expecting it….”
Chris smiled. “Who do you want to see?”
“I’ve seen Tanner. I’d…..like to see Standish.”
Chris sat on the edge of the bed. His eyes clicked emerald for a second, then back to hazel. “He wants to know if you’re absolutely sure.”
Sarah took a deep breath. Her shoulders squared. “I’m sure.”
A nod and his body language shifted. He was suddenly more formal, more tense. His eyes shifted to emerald and stayed that way. The voice – again – was Chris’s, but the accent was completely different. “I’m here, Mrs. Larabee. Although I have one salient request.”
Her head tilted suspiciously. “Name it.”
One corner of his mouth rose in a grin that showed only part of the deep dimples that cut into Chris’s cheeks. “You must call me Ezra and our other Linkmate Vin. And we shall call you Sarah.”
“Fair enough….Ezra. Tell me of yourself.”
A finger rose. “Ah, now that is something that can’t be told in one sitting. You must get to know me first. I ---“ The full grin exploded across his face, then. “I must go, dear lady. Your son has awoken and is demanding sustenance.”
Sarah laughed, her head falling backward slightly. “Yeah, that’s Adam all right. Go. I’ll talk to you later.”
“I look forward to it.” The eyes shifted back to hazel and Chris’s posture relaxed. “He’s still a stomach on legs?”
“He never stopped,” Sarah chuckled. Then she sobered, sitting next to Chris. “Now…. Let me talk to Vin.”
As he studied her face, his shoulders tensed again as his eyes shifted to blue. “What can I do for y’, Sarah?”
“You and I have business, Vin. A little matter of a bounty and proving your innocence.”
Chris’s head tilted, but it was the Texas-accented whisper of a voice that answered her statement. “Yes, ma’am, we do. Where do you want to meet to discuss it?”
“You come here. With Chris and I.” Sarah smiled. “You know Chris won’t let me take you – and I promised him I wouldn’t. He says you’re innocent. I believe him. I need to hear the story from your face, not my husband’s.”
A shy smile and a nod. “I’ll be there soon’s I get off patrol. Thank y’, Ma’am.” And Chris’s eyes turned hazel as he shifted position. “That’s the bad thing about him talkin’ through me – my body tries to mock the curve in his back and I can’t do it.”
“Mm,” Sarah said, visibly distracted.
Chris touched her arm. “You’re takin’ this awful well.” When she frowned at him in confusion, he smiled slightly. “This.” He waved a hand toward his head.
Sarah returned the slight smile. “Well, one thing I picked up doing my job is a raging case of pragmatism. I can’t do anything about the way you are now. It’s weird, I’ll not lie to you – but the core of you is still you. And you love me. I’m holdin’ onto that with both hands.”
“I do love you,” he told her, taking one of those hands in both of his. “I never stopped. To them you’re a… a sister. To me -- you’re my life.”
Sarah hugged him.
Mid-hug, he suddenly chuckled. “So tell me…” He ended the embrace and smiled into her eyes. “What do you have in mind for Vin?”
“And risk you broadcasting to him?” she laughed. “No. You’ll find out when he does. But trust me. I mean him no harm. Not now.”
Those words brought a frown to Chris’s face. “Not now.”
Sarah shook her head. “Not now. When I found out he was in town – well, you know what I do.” She met his eyes. “And five hundred dollars is an awful lot of money. But you say he’s innocent and he doesn’t feel like he’s guilty. I can usually tell a guilty man.”
Studying her eyes, satisfied with what he found there, Chris nodded. “Sarah, we’ve got some time before he gets here. There’s something else.” His eyes flicked through the pair of colours again, then settled back to hazel. “Something I need to ask you alone.”
She scooted back till her back touched the headboard and swung her feet onto the bed. “All right….”
“Sarah…” He lifted one of her feet into his lap and began to idly massage it as he spoke. “Since you found out about – us – the three of us – you’ve seemed a little…..”
When he faltered for the words, she supplied, “Cold? Distant?” At his nod, she sighed. “I know. It’s….difficult to put into words.”
That brought a smile to her face. “Ever my Chris – never mincing words.” The smile faded. “It’s…I do love you. I do. That’s a fact. But knowing you’re this --- altered --- feeling is taking awhile to follow fact. Do you understand?”
“I….think I’m beginning to.” He smiled. “You’ve been thrown for a loop and you don’t know who I am or what to think or anything.” He put her foot down and leaned over her body, brushing a stray lock of hair from her face. “I’d think there was something wrong with you if you didn’t get thrown by this. But….” He cupped her cheek. “The fact that you’re still here --- that shows me more than anything that kind, loving woman I fell in love with is still there behind the rough, tough private investigator.”
Sarah smiled. “You’re full of it, you know that?”
“I’ve been taking lessons from Buck.”
Sarah looked incredulously at him, then howled with laughter and leaned into his arms.
When Vin returned from patrol, he headed right to the boarding house. Chris opened the door as he approached. “Is she ready?”
“She’s ready,” Chris said, gesturing him inside.
Vin walked in to find Sarah sitting at a table covered in papers, engrossed in reading one of them. “What’s this?”
“Everything I’ve gathered on your case.” Sarah smiled at him. “I work on several cases at once – your capture was one I’ve been working on for some time. Finding you here was a stroke of luck, I thought. Now – sit down. I want to hear all of this from your point of view. If, as you say, you’re innocent, I’ll do my damnedest to prove it and get your name clear.”
Vin took off his hat and sat down, unconsciously stretching his aching back. “So – where d’you want me to start?”
Sarah smiled gently at him. “Well, in cases like this, I find the beginning to be a good place to begin.”
So Vin took a deep breath and told his story. All of it. From being framed to Chris’s shooting of Eli Joe in order to save Vin’s life. “And now, with him dead,” he ended with a sad sigh, “that bounty’s never gonna be off m’head.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t exactly say that.” Sarah’s smile returned. “I’ve reason to believe your case may not be as hopeless as you think. Tell me his name again – the man you found dead and thought was Eli Joe.”
“Samuels. Tom Samuels. What –“
Sarah shuffled some papers. “Yeah, here it is. An affidavit by the widow of Tom Samuels. She saw the murder and described the killer in detail. And her description does not match you.” Then she shook her head. “Of course, the confession will be harder to disprove…”
“Confession?” Vin and Chris asked together, in perfect unison. “What confession?”
Shivering, Sarah took a moment to compose herself before she answered. “Sorry. That’s….still disturbing to hear. There’s a sworn confession by the Tascosa local courts, signed by Vin Tanner.” She slid the paper toward him. “Have you ever seen this before, Vin? Is this your signature?”
Vin suddenly burst into a huge grin. “Ma’am, at the time this was wrote – I was ill…ill….” His eyes flicked emerald green and the word came out in a Louisiana drawl. “Illiterate.” They went back to blue and he smiled. “Thanks, Ez. I couldn’t read or write.”
“Can this be independently verified?” At their blank looks, she asked, “Can someone outside of you Seven tell me this is true?”
Chris looked at Vin. “Mary?”
“Mary,” Vin nodded. “Mary Travis, the newspaper woman?” Sarah nodded in recognition. “She was teachin’ me t’read before Ez came into the Link and taught me how.”
Sarah nodded. “Well, with this information, there’s two things to do.” She stood up. “First, I talk to Mary and get this verified. And then, I need to go to Tascosa. I have some people to interview there.”
“Not alone,” Chris said suddenly.
She shook her head. “Never alone. I’ve just found you again – if you’re willing to come, I’d love it.” She looked at Vin. “You, however, it would be dangerous for you to come.”
“I’ll be there,” he smiled. “At least m’mind will be.”
Sarah nodded. “Chris, let’s go have that picnic. And I need to find someone to care for Adam – he never goes with me on my interviews. I’ve been shot at too many times.”
This time it was Chris who shivered at the mental images that casual comment conjured up.
The picnic was foremost in the married couple’s minds as they rode toward Tascosa, Texas. The image Sarah would always cherish was Adam sitting on Chris’s lap, fishing as father and son quietly talked. The image Chris would always cherish was Sarah and Adam lying side-by-side on the checkered quilt, watching the inevitable ants.
They were now only a half hour outside of Tascosa when Sarah guided her horse off the side of the trail. “Time to change.”
“I still say this is overkill,” Chris said as he followed her.
“Chris, you’re wonderful at intimidation. But we’re dealing with a widow who might have been cowed. She needs a warm touch, not a cold gunfighter.”
Sighing, Chris pulled on the ‘monkey suit’. He also re-strapped on his guns and hid them under the jacket. As he swung back onto Pony, he asked, “So where is Mrs Samuels?”
“The last the file said, she lived on a farm about three miles out of town. Follow me.” She swung up on the mare she had borrowed from Yosemite and arrayed herself side-saddle. She swung the mare around and they were on their way again.
Ezra! Hey, Ezra!
Ezra sat up, knuckling his eyes. …Vin? What….?
Got somethin’ for you to see.
Show me. He stretched and yawned, closing his eyes to ‘see’ what Vin was transmitting more clearly.
Vin was standing just inside the batwing doors of the saloon, looking out onto the boardwalk. Adam was sitting on the edge of the boardwalk with three boys of the same age or slightly younger in a crude semi-circle around him. He was doing something with his hands.
What’s he doing? Ezra frowned. The motions were somewhat familiar….
Vin’s mental voice was rich with amusement. He’s holdin’ court. He’s fleeced those kids out of several good luck charms and has moved on to small coins.
He’s WHAT? Ezra bellowed. He shot out of bed, catching his feet in the coverlets and pitching face-first to the floor. He scrambled to his feet and grabbed the first clothes he found. Oh, HELL, Chris is gonna KILL me….
The man at the fence casually draped his holster over his shoulder as Pony and the mare rode up. “Can I help ya people?”
Chris tilted his head toward Sarah, who smiled and spoke. “Yes, I hope so,” she said in her most sugary voice. “We’re here to talk to Tom Samuels’s wife –“
“She don’t live here no more,” the man interrupted. “Nobody lives here but me.”
Sarah’s eyes flicked around the homestead and Chris saw a darkness touch her eyes. But the smile and the sweet voice remained. “Well, do you know where we can find—“
“Look, lady, you and your husband best be gettin’ ‘long there. You don’t want no trouble from me.”
Chris opened his mouth, but Sarah broke in. “Thank you, sir. Good day.” She jerked her head toward Chris, and they turned the horses.
“What was that—“ Chris hissed.
“Not yet,” Sarah hissed back. “Wait’ll we’re outta gun range.”
A few minutes later, she growled, “She’s there.”
“That shadow in your eyes…”
“I saw her peep around a curtain. She’s there. And she’s terrified.”
Chris sighed. “This is your forte, darlin’. What do we do?”
She looked at him with a smile he’d seen on her face before – and which never failed to make him catch his breath.
She was smiling the smile of a predator about to pounce.
Returning to the homestead, the Larabees changed their clothing to utilitarian ones. “We have an edge,” Chris informed Sarah. “Vin can tell us if these people are ones he knew.”
Sarah nodded. “Good. See if he does.”
Chris closed his eyes and transmitted the faces to Vin. After a few moments, he opened them and nodded. “The man was a sheriff’s deputy when Vin was framed.”
“Shit,” Sarah sighed. “Let’s go.”
Ten minutes later, their horses rode onto the homestead again. The man walked out with the gun across his arm. “Thought I told you you weren’t welcome here.”
“And I told you we’re here to see Mrs Samuels,” Chris replied.
“Ain’t no Mrs Samuels here,” the man replied coldly. “Believe I done told you that, too.”
Sarah raised her voice. “MaryJo! MaryJo Samuels! I’m a private investigator and I have some questions for you!”
Sarah was suddenly facing the business end of a gun. “You’re not askin’ her nothin’.”
Chris’s gun was in his hand a second later. “Yes, she is. And you’re going to let her.”
The man laughed. “And who in the hell do you think you are?”
“Chris Larabee. This is my wife.”
At his name, the man paled. Very slowly, the gun lowered.
“Smart man,” Chris said, his gun still leveled at the man’s forehead. “Now let her pass.”
Adam had just gotten several more pennies when a hand closed on his collar and bodily lifted him from the game. He let out an indignant yelp and found himself spun around to face indignant emerald eyes. Smiling gently, he waggled his fingers. “Hi, Ezra…”
“Don’t you ‘hi, Ezra’ me. Emulating me will not earn you or me any points with your father. Once he finds out about your gambling, we’ll be damned lucky if he doesn’t shoot me and switch you till you can’t sit down!”
Adam frowned. “Emulating?”
“I’m not copying you,” Adam protested. “I’ve been doing this since I was able to read the cards!”
Ezra blinked and dropped him onto his feet. “You have?” At Adam’s nod, he asked, “And your mother – knows of this?”
“No way, I’m not stupid!” He crossed his arms. “She’d tan my hide if she knew!”
“You’re fortunate if I do not do the same!” Ezra growled. “I have been running cons and games of chance since I was very little. I’ll be damned if I watch another child throw away his childhood away like mine was ripped from me!”
“You turned out all right!”
“Only by the grace of God!” Ezra repositioned his grasp and drug Adam down the boardwalk by his arm. He took him into the saloon and sat him firmly at a table. “Inez!”
Inez came in and smiled. “Well, little man….hello.”
“Hello,” Adam said shyly.
“Inez,” Ezra said coolly. “This is Adam Larabee – and he’s trying to become a younger version of myself.”
“Ah,” Inez said and went off into Spanish for a minute.
“No, it is not cute,” Ezra shot back. “His parents don’t know of his illegal activities and I will not have another child grow up the way I did!” With that, his eyes flicked hazel – just for a second – as he peeked in on Chris to see if he was busy.
Chris was, indeed, busy. He was holding the deputy at bay so Sarah could do her interview.
“What are you trying to prove?” the deputy asked at last. At Chris’s glare, he elaborated, “What are you even doing here?”
Chris had a question of his own. “How deeply were you involved with the framing of Vin Tanner?”
“Yes. Tanner. How high up did the frame go – and what was the reason behind it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about….”
“I do,” Sarah said as she walked out of the house, MaryJo clinging to her arm. “Vin was convenient. Any patsy would have done, any victim would have done.”
“Patsy for what?” Chris asked.
Sarah glared at the deputy. “Eli Joe was the circuit judge’s son. Vin was a convenient cover for his illegal activities and Tom was killed because he was there that day.”
MaryJo nodded. “And David here…” she nodded at the deputy, “still works for that same judge.”
Chris sighed. “So how do we beat this?”
The motley little party rode into Tascosa proper just in time for supper. Any further discussion of how to help Vin was tabled due to tiredness and overwhelming despair.
As they were checking into the boarding house, Sarah’s face suddenly lit up as she traced a name in the register. “…Dave…” she whispered.
“What?” Chris asked, feeling suddenly jealous.
“Dave. I know him – I did some detective work for him a couple of months back. I found the evidence that freed one of his sons from a frame.” She smiled at Chris. “I knew he vacationed in Texas every year… this is a stroke of luck! He owes me one!”
Chris shook his head and his eyes clicked cerulean. “Yeah,” the soft twang asked as his shoulders crooked to the side. “But I ain’t seein’ how this is gonna clear me.”
Sarah smiled and brushed a kiss on his cheek. “Vin – you’ve trusted me this far. Trust me on this. I don’t have time to explain if I’m gonna talk to him before he goes to bed.”
A nod, and the eyes were hazel again. “Go on, love. We’re in room seven.”
“Appropriate.” She kissed him deeply and walked off, chuckling to herself as her last glimpse of her husband was of him raising his arms over his head to stretch out the painful twist to his back his body took on when Vin took him over for a moment.
Sarah was halfway down the hall when she realised that she was becoming used to this most bizarre of twists.
Sarah closed the door and smiled at her husband. “Oh, yes. We’re going to crash the courtroom tomorrow morning. One way or another, this is going to be solved.”
Chris nodded distractedly. His lips were pressed together in annoyance.
“What’s the matter?” Sarah asked, sitting down beside him.
“Trouble at home. Ez wants to tell you himself.”
Sarah nodded grimly.
Chris’s eyes clicked emerald and his shoulders straightened. His fists clenched on his thighs and his body began to tremble with rage. “Madam…. I feel it is my duty to inform you---“ The eyes clicked blue and then back to emerald, then the honeyed drawl resumed. “Oh, very well. Sarah – I caught Adam in the process of thoroughly fleecing his agemates in a game of chance.”
“What?” Sarah gasped.
Chris’s head bowed in a nod, though it was still Ezra there. “He told me he has been secretly running these games since he was old enough to read cards. He said you don’t know because you would have tanned his hide.”
Sarah sighed and ran a hand along her forehead. “And I would have, too. Not so much for the gambling…” She met the emerald eyes. “I’m becoming quite – fond – of gamblers. After all, one is a third of the mental chain my husband is in.”
Chris’s own dimples showed in Ezra’s shyest of smiles, the one he reserved only for pretty women and when he was being himself.
“However,” Sarah went on. “The man who most likely taught Adam his wares was not the sweet man you are. He was completely amoral and wouldn’t hesitate to harm anyone to get what he wanted. I do not want Adam to end up that way. Also, there’s the matter that Adam’s been lying to me….”
Sighing, the blond head shook slowly. “Sarah, what shall I do till your and Chris’s return?”
“Take him under your wing,” she said after a moment’s thought. “Teach him how to use his skills for good. If he’s been doing this as long as you say he has, then it’s part of him now.”
“Are you sure, Sarah? This is no small task you’re entrusting to me.”
A second later, his eyes were hazel again. “Oh for heaven’s sake, Ezra, I ain’t gonna shoot you! Just do what Sarah asked!”
Emerald returned, and a huge dimpled grin exploded on Chris’s face. “Yes, sir. Message duly received!” He reached over and took Sarah’s hand. “Thank you for your trust in me. I’ll leave you be now.”
“Good night, Ezra,” Sarah said, leaning forward and kissing a dimpled cheek lightly.
When the eyes returned to hazel, the dimpled smile remained. Chris laughed and shook his head. “You too, buddy.” A flash of blue, and then Chris’s eyes were all his again. “Just us now.”
“Good.” He opened his mouth and she lay her fingers over it. “No. No asking how it went. No talking about tomorrow.” She kissed him fiercely. “For tonight…for right now….” Her fingers went to the buttons on his shirt. “Just love me.”
Chris smiled into her eyes – and did.
The next morning, court proceeded as always in the Tascosa jail.
Judge Elliott Gray sat on the bench and faced the terrified woman with a smug grin. “Miss Lee, on the absence of any clear evidence, this court finds you –“
The doors burst open and in walked two black-clad angels of death. One male, one female.
Sarah walked halfway up the aisle and pointed her finger at the Judge who was busy pounding his gavel and screaming for order. “Judge Gray!” she roared. “I find you guilty of various illegal activities – up to and including framing and murder to keep them secret!”
Gray’s jaw lowered as he stared at them, then he burst out laughing. “Preposterous! Who are you people?”
Chris moved to flank Sarah, covering her back as he did. “I’m Chris Larabee.” Gasps went up at his name. “This is my wife Sarah. We are in the employ of Judge Orrin Travis.”
“Travis?” Gray laughed. “He has no jurisdiction here! I am the law in these parts!”
“He may have no jurisdiction –“ The door swung open again and a well-dressed man walked calmly inside. His eyes met the crooked judge’s. “But I do.”
Gray lurched to his feet. “Oh, do you now? And who might you be?”
The man draped his coat casually over his arm. “I, sir, am David J. Brewer from Kansas. Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer.”
Grey looked at Brewer, as if sizing him up.
Brewer took a step forward. “Mister and Mrs. Larabee have presented me with incontrovertible and unmistakable proof of your activities. Up to and including murder.” He suddenly noticed the shaking woman. “And you are---?”
“Amelia Lee, sir,” she whispered. “Accused of prostitution… I’m a widow, sir, I’ve not done anything he says I’ve done…”
A man suddenly walked to stand beside Sarah. Sarah frowned as she took note that it was David, the deputy who still worked for the judge. David nodded toward Mrs. Lee. “She’s right,” he said unexpectedly. “I was told to fake proof she was. The judge wanted her in his stable of whores.”
“David?” Sarah asked challengingly.
David turned to look at him. “I love MaryJo,” he told her solemnly. “I’ve lived under the weight of this man too long. I want to be free, too. Free to love MaryJo the way I should have all along.”
“And so you shall,” Brewer said, walking to stand before the bench. “Elliott Grey, you are hereby disbarred and under arrest.”
Grey roared and lunged under his desk. He came up with a gun.
Twin blasts from both Larabee guns, and Grey went spinning back into the chair. He was suddenly unarmed and wounded, but not killed.
And – just like that – it was over.
Two horses rode into Four Corners five days later. Adam ran out with his hands raised. Sarah shot off her horse and embraced him, rocking him and murmuring endearments to the child.
Chris added his embrace a few moments later, overwhelmed and delighted beyond words that his family had been restored to him.
Vin walked out and smiled. “Let me see it,” he whispered.
Beaming, Chris pulled a piece of parchment from his saddlebag and handed it to him. Vin unfolded it and read it, tears springing to his eyes. Uncaring he was in the middle of Main Street, he ran his fingers down the soft document. “It’s real….”
“It’s real,” Chris echoed. “You’re pardoned. You’re a free man at last.”
“And your family’s home,” Vin put in with a smile. “And maybe someday you can figure out why they went to so much trouble to make her think you were dead and you think they were dead.”
Chris nodded grimly. “I owe it to them.”
Ezra put in through their link, And you’ve friends who’ll follow you to hell and back, Chris.
Of that, Ezra… I no longer have any doubts. He looked over at Sarah, who was regaling Vin with tales of her work for Brewer – who had signed the pardon himself. And a wife who will do the same.
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