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The M7 Files:

Framed

Disclaimer: We donít own these characters, never willÖWe do this just for entertainment!

Authorsí note: This is the continuation from The ReunionÖIf you did not read that, you will not understand this! We played around with Chrisís past, and more of his story will be revealed in our next File. (According to our series, it was not Ella that ordered the hit on the Larabee Family, but Bradley.) If you have questions, comments, etc., e-mail either myself or Brandi wink15849@hotmail.com or briar_rose_15@yahoo.com

 

 

* October 15, 1875 *

 

"Buck, you make sure JD donít do somethiní dumb while Iím gone. And keep Alex out of deathís way too."

"Where ya goiní Chris?"

"Just away from here. Need some space."

"Why?"

"Because I do."

"All right."

Chris mounted his horse as Alex came out of the saloon, dressed in her riding clothes.

"What happened to that dress I bought you?"

"I donít want to wear no dress Chris, I told you that."

"Buck, try to make her act like a lady. Maybe Josiah can help. Letís go horse, giddy up!"

Alex glared at the back of Chrisís black hat. "Just because heís older doesnít mean he can boss me around. And donít think that youíre gonna do it either!"

"Just so long as you donít start drinkiní whiskey like your brother and smokiní too. I mean it Alex. Alex! Get back here!"

Buck chased Alex into the saloon and grabbed the shot glass out of her hand. "Buck, you ainít no fun, you know that?"

"Iím lookiní after you Ďtil Chris gets back whether you like it or not, so deal with it."

"Fine, Dad."

"And stop calliní me that!"

"Yes Dad."

 

* Chris, Late Afternoon *

 

Chris laughed to himself. Buck was probably having a ball with Alex by now. So many things were changing in his life all at one time. He needed to get away for a while, get his thoughts together and let off a little steam.

"Whoa."

Chris looked around for a minute. Being out in the middle of no where was calming, but it was also nerve racking. It made him feel a little lonely, empty. Paranoid. So many people could be hiding out there. Waiting for him. And he had a feeling that someone was out there. Chris tried to shrug off the feeling and continued on his way. Maybe he would head out to Boulder Canyon, just go get a room for the night and drink. His mouth was as dry as the sand he was riding on.

After about half an hour, Chris stopped his horse near a small ridge and dismounted. He sat down in the shade and pulled his hat down over his eyes and fell asleep. He awoke only minutes later, hearing the sounds of horses. He stood up and looked around. Chris saw two horses, but no riders. Too late he heard footsteps behind him.

Thunk.

Chris crumpled in a heap on the ground with a groan. Two people stood over him.

"Be quick now, grab his gun and hat."

"What about the duster?"

"Leave it. Fire two shots, then letís get out of here."

"All right, letís go."

 

* 10-16-75. Four Corners *

 

"Help! Please help!"

"Whereís the sheriff? We need him right away!"

Buck ran out of the saloon with JD close behind. "Iím the sheriff, sir. Whatís wrong?"

"Our son! Heís dead! Someone killed him!"

"Slow down maíam," JD said, trying to calm the hysterical woman.

"We were riding through the desert. My wife aní son aní I. Someone on a black horse came at us, and killed our boy. He just laughed and killed him, and rode away."

JD looked at Buck. "Do you know who it was mister?"

"No, but we have some of his things. He threw down his gun, and he accidentally dropped his hat when he rode off."

Buck took the gun, and JD took the hat from the man. Buck stopped breathing when he recognized the gun. JD turned pale.

"Buck, this hat is black."

"The man was dressed in all black!" the woman told them.

At the same time, both JD and Buck said, "Chris!"

* Chris, Morning *

 

Chris sat up slowly. He knew from experience that it was wise to move slow and careful. He tried to stand, but fell back down.

"Damn it, too quick." He looked around, trying to find any trace of his attackers. He squinted in the blaring sunlight. He reached for his hat, but it was gone. He tried to stand again, and this time made it. He saw his horse, pulling at some scraggly grass. That was strange, if those people took his hat, why wouldnít they have taken his horse? He noticed now that his gun was missing.

"What the hell is goiní on around here?" he asked no one in particular. He mounted his horse with one last shake of his head and circled the sight where he had been attacked. He suddenly remembered the last time something like this happened. It was when he had met his sister face-to-face. It had been about a month ago. She hit him good and hard. He smiled faintly. She was a wild woman, not like Sarah or Mary, hell not like any woman he knew.

Chris took one last look around for any signs of his assailants, gun or hat. Nothing. Sighing, Chris spun his horse around and headed back to town. He felt safer there. Anytime he left, he seemed to find a heap of trouble a mile high.

*Four Corners Afternoon *

Chris could see the town up ahead, bathed in the afternoon sunlight. People were moving about with their usual business and chores. This was a good sign. "So far so good." But as Chris rode into the town he had that feeling that something was amiss. People wouldnít look at him, or they would start whispering as he passed. The first thought that flashed in his mind was that Alex had gotten herself into trouble. He saw Vin walking towards him. Chris dismounted and tied his horse to the post outside the saloon.

"Chris."

"Whatís goiní on? What did she do now?"

"Itís not Alex."

"Well, what is it then?"

"Where were you?"

"Out riding."

"See anyone?"

"Yeah, a few riders passed me. Why?"

"A few people rode in, asking about you."

"Some more of my Ďfriendsí come calliní?"

"No."

"Then who?"

"A family named Tolley, mean anything to ya?"

"No. Iím getting sick of these games, Vin. I need a drink." Chris started towards the saloon but the bounty hunter stopped him.

"They said you killed their son."

Chris stopped. "Itís a lie. Now move." Vin didnít budge.

"So, whereís your gun Chris? And hat? What took you so long?"

"I said it wasnít me. Someone took my hat and my gun, and that same somebody hit me on the head."

Vin looked at Chrisís head. "No bump, no mark. Two shots were fired from your gun. The Tolleys brought in your gun and your hat. How many other riders dressed in black are there out in the desert for no reason with an identical pistol and horse Chris?"

"I didnít do it." Chris stepped past Vin and went straight to the bar. He hadnít been gone long and already trouble was brewing. He noticed how quiet the saloon was. Everyone was staring at him. The bartender stepped up to him, nervously.

"Can I help you Mr. Larabee?"

"Whiskey." The bartender handed Chris a glass and bottle. Before he could even take a drink he saw Alex running up to him. He put down the glass. He didnít feel like talking to anyone, especially her.

"Chris?"

"What?" Before Alex could answer, he saw Judge Travis and JD coming towards him. "I really donít need this," he muttered.

"Chris, Iím sorry about this, but as a suspected murderer, you need to stand trial. JD, do what needs to be done," the Judge said, looking sorrowfully at Chris.

Alex blocked JDís way. "You canít do this! He didnít kill anyone, I know he didnít!"

"Iím sorry Alex, but I have to abide by the law, and law says that we have to arrest him."

JD put his hand on Chrisís shoulder and led him over to the Jailhouse. Alex looked on, her anger mounting until she started to tremble. "You will regret this Judge. I have spent ten years searchiní for him and I ainít about to let you take him away from me."

"I know Alex, and I hope that we are all wrong about this. Chris isnít the type to go around just killing people for no reason."

"But he used to be, and that isnít going to help his defense."

"Donít worry, weíll get him out of this some how."

Alex went after Chris and left Judge standing in the street. He had just intended to come out for a visit with Billy and Mary, and now he would have to decide if a friend would live or hang. He hated vacations.

* Jailhouse *

"Iím really sorry about this Chris."

"Itís all right JD, youíre just doiní your job."

"Alex is outside, you wanna talk to her?"

"Send her in." JD turned away, but looked back at Chris.

"Sheís the only one in town who thinks you ainít guilty. She says she knows youíre innocent."

"Sheís one in a hundred." The dark clad gunslinger looked up at the young sheriff. "What do you think?"

JD didnít answer. Chris Larabee was a man he looked up to, but many people called him naÔve for this. He thought Chris was a good man with a dark past, but maybe the past had met the present. JD walked outside and Chris sat down on the narrow bunk and sighed heavily. This was not a good day. Not even his own men thought he was innocent.

Alex came in and walked up to the cell door. "I know you didnít do it. I got a good look at those Tolleys. I think I recognize them, but Iím not sure."

"Old friends? You sure got into a lot of trouble if you got mixed up with so many rotten people." Chris tried to smile as he said this, but it just wouldnít happen. He could tell by the look on his sisterís face that this was a serious moment. He never thought that she could be serious about anything, until now. He stood up and walked over to the barred door.

"Chris, I think itís time I give you an explanation for all this. I can see that my problems are going to be yours, and yours will be mine. I guess I should tell you why."

"I donít needÖ"

"Just shut up Chris, itís my turn to talk."

Chris was slightly shocked. Had any one else dared to say to him what she had just said, that person would not still be standing there.

Alex grabbed the keys off the hook and unlocked the cell. She stepped in and motioned for Chris to sit down again.

"First of all, do not try and escape. I know from experience that doing so will only make them think you are guilty and theyíll hunt you down and kill you. Got it?" Chris nodded. "Yeah, right. Thatís the first thing youíll try, ainít it?"

"Unless you have some miracle to save my hide or one hell of a defense plan."

"Well, miracles arenít in my line of work, thatís Josiahís specialty. But I do have a plan, maybe."

Chris looked up at her. "You really think I didnít do it?"

"No." Alex smiled faintly. "I know you didnít do it."

"Thatís comforting."

"Now let me get this out before I get too nervous. I shouldíve of handled all this before I came lookiní for ya, but itís too late now for second thoughts. When I was twelve, my foster parents were caught in a terrible fire. It was started in the barn, by lightning during a storm, or at least thatís what I though at first. It spread to the house real fast. I was outside, just cominí back from a ride in the rain. I heard screaming from inside the house. I realized that they were trapped, and couldnít get out. I didnít know what to do Chris, I was so young. I yelled for them, for help, for God to save them. All my pleas went unanswered. I sat there, crying, until the fire burned itself out. I just sat there while my parents burned alive. Two whole days had gone by until the fire went out, and the house was in ruins. I looked around for my parentsí remains, and gathered them into a box I found in the barn. Strange enough, it wasnít in that bad of shape. I buried them, mourned for them, and then decided that I was a kid all alone in a big world. I searched the barn thoroughly. The Fletchers kept everything important out there. Money, documents, heirlooms. I found an iron strong box and broke the charred lock off of it. I found ten dollars, a gold ring, and a birth certificate. My birth certificate. It told me who I was, and I felt strangely. My parents had lied to me, and now they were gone and left so many unanswered questions.

" I took the box and itís contents and my horse as far away from that cursed place as I could. I ran into the woods, Indiana had lots of woods, and stayed there. I knew the trees, the animalsÖI thought I was safe there. I tried to collect my thoughts. Everything that I had though was my life was now gone. I clutched that piece of paper close, and wondered if I could find these Larabees. I had another mother, a father, and even a brother out there somewhere. I realized that I couldnít live in the forests forever, so I moved on to the closest town. Ten dollars didnít go very far, and, being not only a child but a girl as well, no one would help me. I started to steal. That is how I met Josiah. He took me in, taught me things, and told me that God had a purpose for me, and that I would find my family someday. Of course I never told him exactly who that family was.

" I met John Mason then, and left Josiahís home. After my husbandís death, I started the cycle all over again. Steal, run. Steal, run. Always running from Bradley. I never stopped looking for you, though. I followed you closely, though you never knew it. I heard about Sarah and Adam, and your little killing spree, trying to avenge their deaths. Bradley did that job on your family because the land was rich in silver, or at least he thought so. He figured that if you were dead he could just claim it. It was the same with my family, too." Alex frowned at Chris. "I know I told you that I didnít really know why your family was killed, but I just wasnít ready to tell you." Chris nodded in understanding and Alex continued.

"They also saw an added bonus in burning you out. They figured I knew you and tried to get to me by hurting you. It only partially worked. I almost gave in to them, but decided that it wouldnít help you if I ended up dead. I lost you for awhile when I went into hiding. A year later I heard of a black dressed gunslinger turned lawman in a sleepy town called Four Corners. I watched you again, making sure it really was you, and then I disguised myself when I learned that Bradley and Jake were in town as well. I did what I thought necessary, and it almost got us both killed.

"And now here I am. I brought all my troubles to you, and Bradley had lots of friends who caused those troubles. Tolley is probably one of Bradleyís men who want revenge. Now do you see why I know you are innocent?"

Chris was stunned by Alexís story. She had been through a lot, and it was hard to believe. "Well, that was veryÖ informative. You knew me all along?"

"I found out who you were right after I met Josiah. A store clerk had a paper that was telliní about a local boy who had moved out west with his wife. I got a good look at the picture of you, and the place where you were goiní."

"So how is any of this gonna help me?"

"Iíll have to try to prove that Tolley is in with BradleyÖsomehow."

"Thatís real reassuring."

"Well, sorry."

Chris sighed and stood up. He walked over to Alex and crossed his arms across his chest. "Youíll be the only one in town who believes me. The others all know me too well."

"Well then, look at it this way. At least you canít yell at me for not coming to you sooner than this. If I had, then I would know you too well also."

"But if you donít know me, wouldnít you want to side with everyone else?"

"Not really. I believe people change, you canít always trust the image. Besides, Buck told me you made a drastic change after the accident, with a little help from him."

Chris smiled. "You better be goiní, here comes JD and Josiah."

"All right, but remember what I said about escapiní. It would only make things worse for ya."

Alex stepped out of the jail cell, locked it, and started to leave.

"Hey Alex?"

"Yeah Chris?"

"Go put on that dress I bought you."

"Sure Chris."

Josiah smiled at Alex as she left, and approached the cell. "Afternoon Chris, how ya feeling?"

"How do you think I feel Josiah?"

"Pretty lousy." The big man hesitated then said, "ChrisÖ"

"I didnít do it."

"All right."

"You donít believe me."

"Nope."

"Thanks for being so subtle," Chris sneered. "I thought that being a man of God meant you never judged people."

"Chris, all evidence points to you. I can only go by what I see."

"And you see a murderer, whoís a friend, behind bars for killiní a kid, right?"

"For now, yes. And wasnít that what you saw when that detective accused me of murdering that girl?"

"That has nothing to do with this!"

"Doesnít it? Are you sure of that Chris?"

Chris knew that Josiah was only letting off steam, but it hurt him to think that a man he trusted his life to no longer trusted him. "Josiah, I didnít kill anyone."

Buck walked in then, and Josiah gave one last glance at Chris before he walked out.

"Hey pard. How ya doiní"?

"Why does everyone seem to want to ask how I feel when itís so obvious? I feel great Buck, just wonderful!"

Buck approached the jail cell. "Take it easy Chris. I just want to know what happened."

Chris sighed and grabbed the bars on the door. "I didnít kill nobody, Buck. No one."

"Are you sure?"

Chris looked up at his friend incredulously. "What?!"

"Well," Buck began, "you have a tendency to get angry for no reason, and drunk, and maybe you just blocked it out..."

Chris grabbed Buckís collar through the bars and slammed the carefree cowboy into the door. "I DIDNíT MURDER ANY DAMN KID! DO YOU HERE ME? I DIDNíT DO IT!"

JD came to his friendís aid. "Chris, now calm down!" the sheriff shouted. He pulled Buck out of the raging gunslingerís grasp.

"How the hell am I supposed to calm down? Iíve been a accused of a damn murder that I didnít commit!"

*Ezra, afternoon*

"Afternoon Miss Travis. I am sorry that we could not meet under happier circumstances. I understand how upset you must be..."

"Ezra, what on Earth are you talking about?"

"You mean you have not been informed of Mr. Larabeeís predicament?"

"What has Chris done now?"

*Jailhouse*

Chris looked up when the door opened again. "Mary! What the hell are you doing here?" The gunslinger advanced towards the bars.

"Chris?" Billy peeked out around from his motherís skirts.

"And what did you bring Billy for?"

Mary walked up to the door. "I had to come see you, and Billy begged me to allow him to come along. Ezra just now told me of what happened. Are you okay?"

Chris sat down on his bunk. "Iím fine, I guess. Everyone is against me on this. Even my own men," Chris explained, shooting a glance at JD. The kid blushed and turned away. "Only Alex thinks Iím innocent."

Mary looked at Chris sympathetically. "Donít lose hope, I believe you."

"Me too," Billy quipped.

Chris managed a weak smile. "Thanks."

JD tapped Mary on the arm. "The Judge needs to see Chris, so youíll have to leave. You can come back later, though."

Mary nodded. "All right JD. Come along Billy, weíll go find Alex and talk to her for awhile." Billy took his motherís hand and as he walked out looked back at Chris. Chris waved, and then they disappeared. JD opened the cell door and Chris stepped out.

"Whatís the Judge wanna see me for?"

"A trial I suppose. Címon."

JD led Chris across the street to the Judgeís office in the courthouse. Judge Travis motioned for Chris to sit down in a large chair across the desk from him. "Okay JD, leave us alone for a little while."

JD nodded and left the room. Chris sat down and sighed. "Will this take long?"

"For a man accused of murder you donít seem too worried."

Chris laughed. "Been accused of a lot of things in my life. I learned to control my emotions."

"Yes, I see. Buck has a broken nose because you controlled your emotions so well. Alex seems to think youíve been framed."

"Probably. I didnít do it, someone had to."

"Well, the trial is in three days. Iíll conduct it since Iím here. I promise it will be fair..."

"I doubt it."

Judge Travis looked at Chris sharply. "Why?"

"Someone set this whole thing up. Theyíll have fake witnesses, a phony lawyer. The whole works. Too many people hate me to turn down an offer to help me hang. Every person on that witness stand will condemn me one way or another."

"Your past caught up to you, is that what youíre saying?"

"That and the fact that I brought most of this on myself. I shouldíve known better than to stay here so long. A man gets in trouble if he donít keep moviní."

The Judge sighed and walked around his desk. "Chris, bad things happen to people. You can do one of two things when this happens. One, try to fight it or two, let the problem bury you. Which will it be for you?"

The gunslinger stared up at the older man. "I donít wanna die as a mangy murderer. I donít really see nothiní I can do about it though when no one believes me."

"First of all, get a lawyer. I canít allow Alex to do it though."

"Why not? Sheís the only one who thinks Iím telliní the truth."

"People will think itís a set-up. Relatives really canít defend relatives in such a case as this."

"Then who?"

"Josiah."

Chris snorted. "No, he doesnít believe me."

"Well, how about Vin?"

"No, he gets too nervous in front of large crowds."

"Oh, right. Buck?"

"After what I did to him? Besides, too many women will be there. We went through all this with Nathan when his father was on trial."

"How about Ezra?"

"Hell no!"

Travis sighed. "Well, Nathan is the only one left. Do you have any objection to him?"

Chris smiled. "Not yet."

"All right, Iíll talk with Nathan about it." The Judge sat back down behind his desk. "The trial is on the nineteenth. That gives you enough time to collect your evidence and get your case ready. Alex will no doubt be looking for a possible suspect during these three days, so youíll be on your own. I know what the town thinks, but minds can be changed. As for the rest of the men, theyíll need to find the truth for themselves. Got it?"

Chris nodded and stood up. "Thanks for your help."

"Iím just doing my job. JD! Come take Chris back now."

The sheriff walked in and took Chris by the elbow. "Come on Mr. Larabee."

As Chris and JD walked across the street, a woman came running at them. "Murderer! You lying dog! Why? Why did you kill him? He was just a boy!"

Chris looked at JD as a man came and took the weeping woman away back towards the hotel. "Who the hell was that?"

JD looked up at Chris, confused. "You donít know?"

"Never saw her before around here."

"That was Mrs. Tolley, the mother of the boy you, uh, I mean..."

Chris shook his head as JD locked him back in his cell. The mother of the boy you killed, thatís what he meant to say, Chris thought sadly. My own men, my friends, donít trust me. Chris wondered if this was what Ezra felt like sometimes. Knowing that people always thought the worst of you no matter how hard you tried.

Just then Ezra, Buck, and Vin entered the jailhouse.

"Mr. Larabee, we have come to extend our deepest apologies for not standing with you on such a delicate matter. We owe you our lives, and we all believe your innocence."

Chris barely heard the words spoken by the gambler. He was too deep in his own thoughts. Besides, what good would their faith do now? The trial was in three days.

Buck cautiously approached the cell door. His nose was wrapped in a thick white bandage. "Now Chris, I know weíve had our spats now and then, but this is not just another small fight. I was wrong about what I assumed earlier, and ignoring us all wonít help you in the least."

Now the gunslinger looked up. "And what will help me Buck? A lawyer? A trial? Not even God himself could get me out of this fix. Too many people want a piece of my ass to just let me walk out of this."

Vin also stood next to the barred door. "Chris, I thought it was all over for me when that supposed marshal tried to take me in. You saved me, and I need the chance to repay you."

"You have. Every time you take position at my side you repay me." Chris stood up and walked towards his friends. "I appreciate what you all are trying to tell me, but it ainít gonna work. I know I didnít kill no one, and I know that thereís probably evidence somewhere proving that I didnít, but I sure as hell couldnít find any and neither will any of you. I brought this on myself, and Iíll pay for it, whether it be now or later. I would rather it be now and just get it over with."

The three men stood in shock. Not only had Chris just given the longest speech of his life, but he was telling them he wanted to die.

"Mr. Larabee, are you suggesting that you will just bravely go meet that noose and your maker?"

Chris smiled without humor. "Not bravely Ezra. Iíll bawl like a baby when it happens, and I pray there was another way, but nothing can really help me. If you didnít trust me until now, what will the jury think? Iíve killed myself over the years, and death has just finally caught up with me."

Now Buck was getting mad. "So what do we do? Just let them sons of bitches hang ya? Sit back and watch you die? No Chris, not a chance. Even if you have a death wish, I donít wanna see it come true. Iíll gun down every person in town until I find who set you up before I see you swing. You hear me? You better start acting like the Chris Larabee I used to know, or..."

Chris smiled, for real this time. "Or what? Youíll shoot me?"

That broke the tension and everyone laughed. Chris just now noticed that JD was still at his desk. The young man had his face buried in his arms on the wooden surface. It looked as though he were crying.

"Chris, please," Buck asked quietly, "donít give up yet. Things look bad, but weíll get you out of this. Alex has a plan, a good one too."

"Great," Chris plainly stated.

The others looked at him and smiled. Their leader was upset, he didnít want to hang, but his emotions, which he kept so far away, had overwhelmed his judgment. He wasnít about to go without a fight.

 

* Saloon*

"Can I help you Miss Larabee?

"Give me a bottle of whiskey. Put it on Chrisís bill."

The bartender handed Alex a bottle and a glass. She walked over to a secluded table and sat down. She was about to light up one of her brotherís cheroots when Josiah grabbed it from her lips.

"This ainít healthy Alex. You keep acting more and more like Chris every day."

Alex laughed derisively. "So itís wrong to act like a man I look up to? You afraid I might go and kill some one now?"

The large man sat down beside Alex and shook his head. "That isnít fair, Alex."

"What is fair Josiah? You just accused your friend of murder!" the girl exclaimed, slamming her fist onto the table top. She winced when she realized it was her gloved hand. Ever since the shooting match with Bradley last month, Alex had worn a black glove to hide her disfigured hand. She had tried to block a bullet with her fist and the lead had bored a hole clean through it. Nathan had said the scar would heal with time, but there were no results thus far. Alex tossed back a shot and sighed. "Chris is not a murderer. You know that, I know that, this whole damn town knows that."

Josiah took Alexís hand. "Listen to me. I want nothing more than to find out that Chris is innocent, but all evidence is pointing a mighty finger his way. He has no alibi, no proof, hell, he doesnít even know what exactly happened. I have to play it straight here, friend or not."

"Donít you go giving me this self-righteous speech preacher! You just want revenge because Chris doubted you! That was a long time ago, and Iíll be damned if I let you take him down over some stupid grudge! Iíll find my own evidence, and when I do, everyone will eat their words!"

Josiah let go of her hand and stood up. "Go over to the Judgeís office, and get a copy of Chrisís record. Look at everything he has done over the years, Alex, and decide. I am not God, I cannot justly judge him, but I will stand firm in my belief that something happened out there between Chris and that boy that got the boy killed. You want to know why everyone doubts him? A young child was killed, and that is a crime all in itself that the people want reconciliation for."

Alex also stood, took one last drink and left. The preacher bowed his head, mumbling, "Lord, let her find what she needs. A good man may die, and she may be the only one to save him and us all from ourselves." He grabbed the whiskey bottle and left for his church.

* * * * * * *

Alex saddled her horse and led it over to the jail. She went inside, grabbed the keys, and entered Chrisís cell. He was lying on the bunk, his hand over his face. "Hey cowboy, Iím leaving."

Chris sat up. He looked terrible in the pale light. His face was ghostly white and his eyes were red. It looked as though he hadnít slept in weeks. Alex sat beside her brother.

"Where?" he asked her.

"Just to check in on these Tolleys. I Ďborrowedí your records from the Judgeís office, hoped it would give me a clue that would prove you innocent."

"How could seeing all the people I killed help you find me innocent?"

Alex shrugged. "I dunno, but I read about it in a book once. Donít worry, Iíll help you out of this. If nothing else Iíll shoot the Tolleys and then no one could press charges."

It was meant to be a joke, but neither Larabee smiled. Chris put his arm around his little sister and sighed. "Alex, you are the only one who can help me here. Do you have any idea how many people came here today to yell at me and threaten me and condemn me? More than half the town. The others...They believe me now I think, but they canít protect me when the trial comes. I need you to find this evidence. There had to be something, right?"

Alex smiled. "Of course, and I will find it. No one, especially if connected to Bradley, is that careful. Iíll find it." She got up and walked out of the cell, locking the door behind her. She was about to leave, but turned back. "I wonít miss your trial. Even if I canít find anything, I will be here."

"Promise?"

"Wouldnít miss it for the world. About time my brother got in trouble and not me."

Chris did smile at that. "Alex, be careful."

Alex put her hat on and winked at Chris. "I always am." She left the jailhouse and Chris watched her gallop away from his window.

* * * * * * *

Chris couldnít sleep that night. He kept having bad dreams about strangers, little kids, and nooses. He looked around the dark building and almost smiled. JD was snoring softly at his desk, his feet propped up and his bowler tipped over his face. He used to look up to me, Chris thought glumly.

Sitting on his bunk, Chris watched an ant scurry across the dusty floor. "How do I get myself into these messes?" he asked it, rubbing his eyes. Because youíve been trying your luck ever since you could walk, a sarcastic voice replied in the back of his mind. Suddenly very angry, Chris shouted, "Damn everyone in this damn town!"

JD jumped from his chair, toppling it over backwards. He had grabbed for his gun, but it was stuck in its holster. The sheriff looked over at Chris and set his chair back up. "Donít do that!" he grumbled.

"You shouldnít be sleeping anyhow," Chris growled back. It was well past midnight, and Buck would be coming in to change shifts with the young man soon. "When you guard a prisoner, you donít close your eyes and hope that heíll stay there."

JD sat back down. "Are you sayiní that you need to be guarded?"

That comment stung and Chris found no reply. He merely lay down and stared at the ceiling. Soon JD was asleep again, and so was the gunslinger.

 

* October 17,1875 (early morning)*

Damn, these are heavy! And this is only for the past three years! Alex lugged the saddlebag full of papers from her horse and over to the small fire she had made. She plopped down in the sand and took out a few of the papers. The records had been originally kept by Maryís husband, but Judge Travis had taken them for safe keeping. They contained only a few details of what happened, but there was enough information to paint a clear picture.

Alex started with the earliest dated record and read aloud. "March sixteenth, 1872. Chris Larabee shot and killed Paul McCormick. Reason: McCormick shot and killed Sheriff Coffey in a street duel. No trial was held.

"April second, 1872. Chris Larabee shot and killed Anthony Walker. Reason: Caught robbing Larabee of horse. Note, Larabee suspected was part of familyís murder. No trial was held.

"June thirtieth, 1872. Chris Larabee shot and killed Samuel, Robert, and Jakob Dean. Reason: Unknown. Note, Larabee suspected was part of familyís murder. Traces show brief contact between Deans and Walker. No trial was held.

"August sixteenth, 1872. Chris Larabee shot and killed Clancey Jones and Jonathan Smith. Reason: Unknown. Note, Larabee suspected was part of familyís murder. Traces show Deans, Jones, and Smith rode together in numerous stage coach robberies and bank heists. No trial was held.

"August twenty-third, 1872. Chris Larabee shot and killed the McClinsey brothers, six in all. Reason: Unknown aside form a previous land grudge and beliefs of participation in murder of family."

Alex sighed and looked at the stack of papers. She had recognized Walker, the Deans, Jones, and Smithís names. They had all ridden with Bradley at least once. She had shot Walker a number of years ago in the arse, getting a good laugh and keeping the gang off her trail for awhile. Chris must have killed him shortly after that.

Alex read into the reports a little more, noting the coronersí remarks and the places of the killings. They all seemed similar. Either they took place here in the territory or close by. A few were in Mexico, where Bradley had roosted a few months to keep hidden. Alex smiled, knowing now that Bradley was connected, even if he was dead. She looked at the other stack of reports. She wouldnít have to read them all to find an obvious lead, or so she hoped. Alex gathered the papers and stuffed them back in her saddlebag. Mounting her horse, she rode off towards a small town called Purgatory.

 

* Four Corners, morning*

"Well, Mr. Larabee, it is another glorious morning but here you are, trapped in this loathsome stone prison. The saloon is just not the same without your brooding presence."

Chris looked at the cheerful gambler. "What do you want?"

"I was sent to inquire about what you wanted for breakfast."

Chris scowled. "Nothing. Go away."

"Mr. Larabee..."

"I said leave me alone!"

Ezra shook his head. "It would do you more good than harm if you learned to control yourself. Your infamous temper is what makes the people of this fine establishment most suspicious of you."

"Point being?"

"The point is that when patrons in a crowded saloon can hear you yell at JD, they get nervous. Your anger could be focused on anyone at a given time, and they believe that the poor Tolley boy fell under your wrath."

Chris glowered at his friend but kept his mouth shut. He did tend to get mad for no reason, and it probably was a big factor in the townís mistrust.

"Have you seen Miss Larabee this morning? Buck and Josiah are looking for her."

The gunslinger shrugged. "Havenít talked to her since last night."

Just then, the large frame of Josiah walked through the door. "Good morning Chris. Sleep well?"

"Just wonderfully, Josiah. Tell ya what, tonight Iíll sleep in the church and you can stay in here," Chris spat. That "infamous temper" was beginning to boil again.

"Chris, you need to settle down and..."

"Donít you tell me to settle down preacher! Had you backed me up I wouldnít be in this place right now, would I? I did not kill anybody out in that cursed desert, I do not know that Tolley family, and I sure as hell am not gonna settle down! My friends abandoned me and Iím supposed to settle down?!"

Josiah returned Chrisís withering glare and, very calmly and evenly, said, "All right Chris. Tell me what happened then, from start to finish. Tell me everything."

Chris slowly took a breath and walked around his small cell. Ezra was right, he had to learn to contain his anger. "I left the other morning early. Buck and Alex saw me off. I just wanted to go riding, clear my head and get some space from being a lawman and now a brother. I stopped a ways out and rested under a rocky cliff. I mustíve fallen asleep Ďcause I remember waking up later that afternoon only to have someone hit me. I didnít see who, but I saw two horses before I blacked out. Then I woke up again yesterday morning, found my gun and hat missing, and came back to town. I heard about the Tolley boy, I was arrested, and now Iím here talking to you."

The big man sighed. "You left mysteriously. You gave an explanation for your gun and hat that no one, not even yourself, can prove. The victims of this crime have told a very different and more believable story than yours. And then you came back in mysteriously. What reason do we have for not doubting you?"

Chris saw for the first time what his friends saw. A man with a murderous past, unstable emotions, and a questionable reputation. He didnít know what the hell happened out there himself, other than the fact that he didnít gun down a little boy.

"Chris," Josiah softly spoke, "Even if you did shoot Jason Tolley, give a decent reason and you wonít hang. You know the law, you know that accidents or inevitable killings are pardoned. Your life is living proof of that. Youíll serve a few years in a labor camp and then youíll go home."

Chris sat on his bunk, staring out the window. "I canít confess to a murder I didnít commit Josiah. I wonít."

"Mr. Larabee, a confession may be the only thing standing between you and the gallows."

A ghostly smile crossed Chrisís face as his blue eyes met Ezraís green. "Then Iíll swing, but I wonít confess."

* Alex, Afternoon*

Alex scowled in disgust as she rode the dusty street into Purgatory. She hated this place. What she hated more was the fact that most everyone who had stayed in town long enough knew who she was. She dismounted and tied her horse to the post outside of the saloon. Checking her gun, she entered the smoky building.

"Aye, Senorita Larabee! Bienvenidos amiga!" called a dirty looking man from a table in back. Alex smiled. Piece of cake, she thought smugly.

"Carlos, nice to see you again. Keeping in trouble I assume," she greeted him, approaching the table.

The Mexican shrugged. "Ever since I left Senor Bradleyís group I have spent no time in a jail cell senorita."

Alex laughed and sat down. "I find that hard to believe. Once a killer amigo, always a killer."

Carlosís smile left his haggard face. "I could say the same about you, no?"

"No." Alex grabbed Carlos by the neck and lifted him off his chair. "I know you keep contact with the group. You give me names and Iíll give you your life, got it?"

The older manís dark eyes filled with a mixture of anger and fear. A few people left the saloon, others slowly went for their gun belts. Alexís left hand quickly drew her pistol and fired a shot over Carlosís head, giving a warning.

"No one messes with me, I wonít have to kill anybody. Me and my amigo here are just talking about old times, right Carlos?" Larabee watched for any more interference and found none.

"Si senorita. Who do you wish to know about?"

"A man named Tolley, or possibly something else. Tall, thin, light blonde hair and dark brown eyes. Has a scar running across his forehead and is missing a front tooth. Know Ďim?"

Carlos nodded. "Si, his name is Ernest Whitaker. He ran with the pack until Bradley was killed. He was as mad as hornet when he found out you murdered him."

Alexís icy blue eyes glittered. "Iíd hardly call it murder. Whoís the woman?"

"Bradleyís old fiancee. She was even more angry than Whitaker."

Alex tightened her grip on Carlos. "Name?"

"Theresa...Sloan..." he choked.

"Gracias Carlos. Youíve been a great help. You tell anyone we had this discussion and Iíll hunt you down and shoot you right between your beady little eyes. Comprendes?"

"Si senorita."

Alex smiled again. "Bueno. Adios muchacho." She holstered her gun and strode out of the saloon. She noticed a young man watching her, a knife in hand. Without hesitation she spun and fired, knocking the blade to the dirt and removing a few fingers.

"Didnít your mother ever teach you not to play with sharp objects?" she sneered. The youth held his bloody hand close and took off. Alex mounted and started her journey back to town, trying to work out a plan to save Chris. She had names, but still no proof. At least not yet anyway.

* Chris, evening*

 

Where are you Alex? I need you back here. Chris paced his cell, feeling like a caged animal. Being locked up was killing him. Luckily no one new came to Four Corners to stir up trouble. Chris picked up a cold biscuit from his plate and munched on it. It was the first thing heíd eaten all day.

Címon Alex. Please hurry. So many people had visited him today, spitting insults and hurtling rotten food at him through the window. The men, save for Josiah, had been there, too, trying to calm the angry mob. One man, Jonas King, brought a noose to the party. Buck had used it to tie the rancher up and sent him speeding out of town on a runaway horse.

The brooding gunslinger sighed and threw the biscuit back on the plate. His appetite was gone and his furry was slowly turning to cold fear. Work had begun on a scaffolding for a gallows, right in view of the jail. Judge Travis had sent the men away, claiming that until justice was properly served he didnít want to see their faces in town again.

Alex, sister, get your ass back here now!

 

*Alex*

Puffing on a cheroot, Alex sifted through the records again. Something had been nagging at her, something in the coronersí notes.

Most of the fatal wounds were located in the upper chest, near the heart or lungs. A few were in the head, some in the stomach. The deaths were deemed quick and merciful because of the location of the wounds.

"THATíS IT!" Alex shrieked, a smile lighting up her face. She quickly found the notes she had copied from Nathanís report.

The two gunshot wounds were found in the upper left shoulder. The death occurred later after the shots were fired due to a combination of blood loss and shock. The exit wounds were found in the front of the body, indicating the boy was shot from behind.

"Chris would never shoot a man in the back, and certainly not a child for that matter! Every one knows that!" Alex jumped up and joyfully spun around. "Heís innocent and I have proof!" Chris had drilled in her head that you never shoot a person in the back. It was cruel and heartless, a work of cowardice. He had let a murderer get away once instead of the firing the shot from behind. How could others have overlooked that fact? They knew Chris better than she did, and even she knew that Chris was no cowardly cowboy to shoot someone in the back.

Alex loaded her saddlebags and mounted once more. She needed to be home by the morning, to offer her proof to the Judge, and it would take all night to ride into town. The smile remained glued to her face as she spurred her horse and raced back to Four Corners.

*Chris, Evening*

Chris was startled when he saw the Judge come into the jailhouse. It couldnít mean anything good.

"Chris, Iím afraid Alex might not make it back for the trial."

"You knew she left?"

Travis nodded. "She told me what she planned on doing and took your files from my office. I know youíve been counting on her return to save you from this but you should be working on your defense with Nathan, just in case."

Chris shook his head. "What defense? All it will be is my word against theirs. I donít stand a chance unless Alex gets back."

"Iím growing tired of this attitude, Chris. You seem to have given up all hope."

The gunslinger paced in the tiny space of his prison. "Not all hope, just most of it. Alex is the only one who can find the evidence to clear me, Judge. Without her testimony, Iím a dead man."

Travis shook his head and let out a frustrated sigh. "You may feel that youíre at the end of your rope, no joke intended, but you have a damn good reason for living, Larabee, and that reason is your sister! You know that she went crazy after her parents, husband, and children died, what do you think will happen if you refuse to fight this time? You havenít been convicted yet Larabee, and there still stands a chance that you wonít be, but, dammit, you have to want it to be that way!"

"Do you think I wanted this to happen Judge?" Chris yelled back, clasping the bars. "I didnít ask to be set up for murder! I donít want to walk to my death and I sure as hell donít want to cause Alex to have a break down but what can I do?!"

The Judge smiled. "Keep up that firey spirit, son, and maybe we can get through this. Iíll go fetch Nathan and see if we can get a defense built up. Is that all right with you?"

"Hell yes."

* Alex, Evening. Four Corners*

Alex pulled her horse up just before she trampled the familiar figure of the Judge. "Travis!"

Startled, the Judge reached for the small pistol he kept hidden in his pocket, then noticed who his assailant was. "Larabee, you about gave me a heart attack! Donít you know itís dangerous to ride through the streets that fast? You damn near ran me over!"

Alex dismounted and began to speak rapidly. "I got the proof we need to clear Chris, isnít that great? It was right under our noses, we just couldnít see it. I mean, it wasnít literally under our noses, itís actually in a pine box now over by Nathanís, but you know what I mean, or even if you donít..."

"Alex!"

The girl stopped talking and looked up at the older man. "What?"

"Tell me tomorrow, at the trial. Right now itís late, Iím tired, and I need my rest if Iím going to face that mob in the morning. Youíd better do the same."

"Oh, right. Will do, Judge, but right now I need to go see Chris."

"Yes, fine. Go. But just make sure youíre in my office bright and early."

"Okay. ĎNight Judge."

"Good night." Travis resumed his sojourn to the Clarion and Alex headed for the jailhouse. Chris saw her coming and waved. She waved back. Two men suddenly jumped out of the shadows from the side of the building, grabbed Alex, and disappeared down the street.

* Chris *

"ALEX!" Chris shouted. No one heard him, of course. Except for perhaps the Judge, everyone was at home, asleep. Even JD was sleeping. Chris looked around frantically. He needed to get out of the cell and go after Alex. He suddenly spotted his gun. It was lying on a chair right outside the bars. Travis had dropped it off earlier that day as a piece of evidence to be kept under supervision. Reaching as far as he could, his hand wrapped around the familiar handle and he quickly withdrew his arm.

"Psst! JD!" Chris called quietly. "JD? JD!" The last call was not so quiet. The young sheriff jumped out of his chair, looking around.

"Damn it Chris, would you...AHH!" JD yipped. He was staring right at the business end of Chrisís gun. "Where did you get that?"

"Shut up and open this door JD."

"You know I canít do that."

Chris sighed angrily and cocked the hammer. "Let. Me. Out."

JD didnít need to be told again. He quickly unlocked the cell door and stepped back.

"Sorry to do this to you kid, but someone took Alex and I need to go after Ďim. Get inside."

"But..."

"Just do it!"

JD obediently stepped inside and Larabee swung the door shut and locked it. "Like I said, Iím sorry. Someone will be along shortly to let you out. Iíll be sure to tell the Judge on my way. And by the way, never let a man threaten you with an empty gun."

Chris left a stunned sheriff in the jail and ran to the Judgeís office. Travis looked up, completely shocked, as Chris barged in.

"Larabee! How the hell did you get out?"

"Someone grabbed Alex in the street. Sheís found somthiní and they knew it. Iím goiní after her."

The Judge shook his head. "Iím sorry, Chris, but youíre still a prisoner. I canít let you leave Four Corners."

Chris thought of pointing his gun at the old man, like he had JD, but thought better of it. The Judge would know that is was unloaded. "Damn it Judge, sheís my sister!"

"I know, Chris. Iíll round up the others to go after her. But right now, I need to put you back in jail. Howíd you get past JD, anyhow?"

Chris smirked and held up his gun. "A little trick that Iíll laugh about for the rest of my life. Heís over in my cell."

Judge Travis muttered something under his breath as he led Chris out of his office.

"You know, Judge, if they hurt Alex, I just might end up on trial again."

"I know, Chris. I know."

 

* Alex*

"I know who the hell you are! You wonít get away with this!"

Alex was fighting like a cat, scratching and kicking every chance she got. Mr. Tolley, or actually Ernest Whitaker, had picked her up and dragged her out of town. After mounting a horse, theyíd ridden for hours through the desert. Dawn was fast approaching, and Alexís temper was flaring, as the sun would soon be.

"Shut up Larabee!"

"Let me go damn it! My friends will be after you, you know it!"

"Thatís what Iím hopiní for, darliní. If those men come lookiní for you, no one will help your dear olí brother at his trial."

"Why are you trying to kill him anyway? He didnít do nothiní to you!"

Whitaker smiled smugly. "Call it whatever you want, darliní, but it all comes down to sweet revenge for me and our gang. You and your lowlife brother murdered Bradley and youíll all pay for it, starting with you aní him!"

"That wasnít murder! It was self-defense!" Alex argued, but it was a losing battle. Ernest was going to exact out his revenge, and unless Alex could slip away, both she and Chris were goners.

 

* Chris (before previous _____) *

Judge Travis locked the cell door and dutifully handed over the key ring to JD. Ezra, Buck and Vin were gathered in the jailhouse, waiting for instructions from either their leader or the Judge.

"If he hurts her..." Chris was mumbling, back to his pacing. "I swear Iíll do something that deserves being locked up so help me..."

"Mr. Larabee, I believe that such threats may be impossible to carry out from inside of a jail cell. Weíll gladly carry them out for you," Ezra said, deadly serious.

"Youíd better, or youíll next on my list."

Buck gave his old friend a smile. "Glad to see youíre feeling better."

Vin turned his attention towards the Judge. "What if we canít find Alex? Can you postpone the trial?"

Travis shook his head. "No."

Ezra motioned the others out the door. "Then I suggest that we make our departure very quickly."

"If she doesnít come back in one piece..." Chris threatened again.

"I know, youíll hunt us all down and such," Buck finished. He was happy to see the familiar, if distant, look in the gunslingerís eyes. A spark that indicated a still fighting spirit. "Letís go boys, before itís too late."

Chris watched his trusted men leave the jailhouse before collapsing on his bunk.

"Chris?"

"Yeah, Judge?"

"You know that if Alex doesnít make it back, Iíll have to proceed with the trial."

"I know."

"Without her evidence, you know youíll probably be found guilty?"

"Yup."

"Iíll try to help you out anyway I can."

"Thanks Judge, Iíll appreciate that."

* Alex *

"Iíll give you one last chance to let me go, Whitaker, and then I hope my brother tears you limb from limb!"

"Shut up, Larabee."

Alex and Ernest were sitting next to a fire out in the desert. Ernest was drinking, Alex was tied up and trying to annoy her captor to death. So far, so good.

"When heís found innocent tomorrow, heíll come after you! You and that woman!"

"I said to SHUT UP!"

"All talk and no action, just like Bradley. When will a worthy opponent try to ruin my life?"

"Will you just shut your yap?!"

"Make me!" Alex challenged. She gave Ernest one of the famous "Larabee" smiles.

Whitaker threw his flask to the ground, standing up. He grabbed his revolver and advanced on Alex.

"Iíll make you shut up all right. Youíre lucky Iím following my plans at all and not puttiní a bullet in ya here and now!" Ernest crashed the gun into Alexís head, knocking her out cold. "Well, Sweet Alexandria, I must be off. Itís time to watch your brother swing from the gallows."

Ernest doused the fire, mounted his horse, and rode off, leaving the Larabee alone.

* October 19, 1875, Morning *

"Hey Chris? The Judge just told me that if you donít eat your breakfast, heíll have Nathan force-feed you."

Chris looked up at JD. "Go to hell. And tell the Judge to join you." The gunslinger hadnít gotten a wink of sleep since Alex and the men had left town.

"Tell me yourself," Travis said, a hint of amusement playing in his voice. "Nathanís here, and he is very capable of making you eat."

Chris sat up on his bunk and looked at the plate of food. Oatmeal, toast, and coffee. "Not much of a last meal," he commented dryly, but picked up the coffee and took a sip. "Couldnít you have at least brought me some whiskey instead of this sludge?"

Nathan chuckled and sat down outside the cell. "You can have as much to drink as you want once weíre done with this trial. But for now, coffee is better for you. I want to go over our case one more time, just to make sure we got everything right."

Larabee nodded. "All right."

Nathan looked at his papers. "You rode out of town and returned in one day, right?"

"Yeah."

"That means that you didnít go very far, especially if you stopped to rest and then were knocked out."

"I rode maybe ten hours, total. What does that prove?"

Nathan shrugged. "Not much, Iím just going on what we have. You said that when you woke up, your hat and gun were gone, probably stolen by the same people who attacked you and are blaming you for killing their son."

"Yeah, the Tolleys."

"Okay, so they set you up because, what, you killed a friend or relative of theirs?"

"Bradley."

"Right. Bradley. How could I forget him? So you and Alex both took out Bradley, and now these people want revenge. Now weíre getting somewhere."

"Brother Nathan, why donít you go back to your clinic and leave the soul saving to me?"

Josiahís large frame filled the doorway. Nathan couldnít hide the smile that crossed his lips. "Gladly, preacher man. This is harder than it looks."

Chris stood up and met Josiah at the bars. "So now you believe me?"

The preacherís face was solemn. "Forgive me, brother, for not trusting you. I allowed my pride and hurt to get in the way of my judgment. Travis told me about what happened to Alex, and I realized what a fool I was being."

"And you think Iím innocent?"

"Arenít you always?"

Chris smiled. "I hope so."

* Ezra and Gang, morning*

"Gentlemen, I still see no sign of Miss Larabee."

"We gotta keep goiní, you heard what Chris said," Buck laughed. The other men joined in his chuckling, but the severity of their situation hit them again and they fell silent. They spurred their horses on faster across the plains.

Vin suddenly pulled his horse up. "Hey, look. He left us a clear trail from here."

Buck and Ezra glanced down at the hoof prints in the dirt, their hopes rising. The bounty hunter led the way for a few more minutes before stopping again. Multiple tracks diverged in every which way. Vin, contemplating the trails silently, took off again straight-ahead. The others followed close behind.

"Chris is running out of time," Buck mused. "We need to hurry and find Alex before too much longer. Are you sure weíre on the right path here, Vin?"

Tanner shrugged. "As sure as I can be."

The three men pushed the horses even more, driven by the fact that they had to save their leaderís life and they had to be quick about it.

* Alex, same time *

Damn it! That was extremely rude!

Alex tried to sit up, but her hands were of no use behind her back and so she just stayed as she was. She wouldnít be able to go anywhere, anyhow, because her ankles were also tied. Staring up at the blue sky, Alex realized that she wasnít going to make it back for Chrisís trial. She might not even make it back for her fiftieth birthday.

"Help!" she shouted, trying her luck. Her only answer was the cry of a buzzard, circling overhead. "I ainít dead yet you damn bird. Go find a rabbit to eat."

Alex looked towards the direction that she hoped led to town. Maybe I can roll there...

Oh great, now Iím thinking. Roll there. Thatís a stroke of genius.

"Chris, this really ainít lookiní too good right now. Iím sorry I let ya down and all. If I keep talking to myself like this, Iíll go bash my head on that rock a few times and kill myself."

Alex took a deep breath, went over all of her options, and sighed.

She slowly started rolling after Ernest Whitaker.

* Judge Travis, 9:30 AM *

"Mr. and Mrs. Tolley, we need to discuss this trial."

The distraught parents looked at the Judge. "What about?"

Travis chose his next words carefully. "I know that you believe Chris Larabee killed your boy. Chris is a good man with many enemies. Anyone could have framed him. And we have the evidence to prove that he very well may have been set up."

"So let him tell his story and present his evidence in court," Mrs. Tolley said, a trace of bitterness in her voice.

"Well, madam, thatís the problem. The proof isnít here yet, and Iíve yet to see it"

"Well, then it doesnít count, right?"

The Judge nodded. "But if both the plaintiff and the defendant agree to postpone the trial, and I think that the reasoning is fair, then it may be re-scheduled. And right now, I am asking for you to agree to a postponement."

Mr. Tolley jumped up out of his seat. "This is because heís a friend of yours, right? He murdered our Jason, and you donít want to believe that such an Ďhonorableí friend would do such a thing! Youíre siding with a murderer!"

Judge Travis also stood up. "Sir, in this town it is my job to ensure that justice is carried out and it will be! But I want to give an equal chance to both parties involved. Now if you do not wish to hold the trial, I must proceed as planned."

Mrs. Tolley sniffled into her handkerchief. "I donít want that monster to go on living a minute more if it can be helped. The trial will be at ten oíclock."

Travis sighed and sat back down. "If thatís what you want, I must comply. I will see you both at ten."

The Tolleys walked out of the courthouse and the Judge looked out the window towards the jail to see Chris looking back. Judge Travis shook his head slowly, and Chris disappeared from view.

* Chris, 9:45 AM *

"Chris, are you sure you told Nathan and me everything?"

"Yeah, Josiah, Iím sure."

The preacher looked out at the dusty street. "I hope Alex gets back here soon."

"Me too."

"Iíve got some bad news, Chris," the Judge muttered, coming into the jailhouse. "Alex isnít back, and Iíve tried every loop hole I know, even illegal ones like that bit about postponing the trial. Itíll still be held in fifteen minutes."

"Better start saying my last good-byes..." Chris grumbled, the outlook of his future seeming very bleak.

"CHRIS!" Both Josiah and Travis yelled in unison.

"Youíve got to stop thinking that way. Youíll get out of this, somehow, and even if you are found guilty..."

Chris regarded the big man with anger for a moment. "I told you, Josiah, I ainít gonna confess to a murder that I didnít commit just to save my hide."

Josiah wrapped his hands around the barred door. "Are you gonna be this stubborn throughout the entire trial?"

Chris grinned. "Probably."

The preacher nodded seemed to consider this a minute. "Well, then I have one last question for ya."

"What?"

"Who are you going to leave in charge of the Magnificent Six when you get hung for being a damn fool?"

 

* Ezra, Alex, and Everyone Else out in the Desert, 9:50 AM *

Alex slowly continued to log roll through the sand, following the tracks left by Ernest. She would stop occasionally, close to passing out from dizziness, and tell herself that the sun was frying what little sanity she had left in her mind. Then Alex would keep going, grimacing as flipped over onto a stone or some prickly grass.

When a voice suddenly broke the silence around her, Alex wondered if she truly had lost it, until she recognized the sweet southern drawl of Ezra answer.

"Hey! Guys! Help!" she shouted.

 

A little ways north, Vin was examining the trail that had popped up again, plain as day. "Looks like weíre on the right path," he called back to the others.

"Iím afraid that we are out of time. Mr. Larabee will be on trial momentarily," Ezra sighed, adjusting his hat and looking forlornly at Buck.

"Hey! Guys! Help!" a voice shouted, somewhere in the distance.

"Alex? Is that you?" Buck asked, searching out in front of them.

"No! Iím a damn cactus that looks like Alex Larabee! Get me loose!"

The men watched as a very dusty, dirty Larabee rolled towards them form behind a clump of prickly plants. Stifling his laughter, Ezra calmly said, "I do believe we have found Miss Larabee, unless that is indeed a mobile cactus with a loud mouth."

"Ha ha Ezra, funny. Hilarious. Now cut me loose!"

Vin jumped down to aid their young friend and then threw her up on his horse. "You okay?"

"Fine. Now letís get going before my big brother gets his neck stretched."

* Chris, 10:00 AM *

Judge Travis took his place behind the bench and sat down. He gazed out across the room, seeing many angry, leering faces. Very few looked concerned for the prisoner at all. JD came up behind the Judge, his expression crestfallen.

"Sorry, Judge, but there ainít hide nor hair of Alex or Buck or anyone out there," he said, his voice barely audible.

"Then weíll just have to hope for the best."

Chris watched the exchange between Travis and JD and shuddered. He looked over to see the Tolleysí lawyer. Lightfoot.

Lightfoot glanced at Chris, a wickedly cold smile on his thin lips. The look in his eyes was a murderous one, and Chris knew that the scum from Eagle Bend was in on the plot, whatever it might be.

"All right, this court is now in session. Mr. Sanchez, would you care to make your opening statement?" Travis called, no enthusiasm whatsoever in his voice.

"I would, your Honor. You see, every man is born with sin..."

Judge Travis rolled his eyes heavenward. If Josiah planned on talking in parables the entire trial, it would be a very long day.

* Alex and Gang, 11:00 *

"Weíre never gonna make it in time!"

"Miss Larabee, Josiah would not approve of your lack of faith."

"Ezra?"

"Yes?"

"Shut the hell up."

"Yes maíam."

"Will you two stop bickering? Chris is on trial right now. Weíre still about an hour away from Four Corners," Vin snapped. He hadnít meant to sound mean, but his worries had been mounting ever since Alex had relayed the story of what had happened from the time she left town until now. All the proof that the Judge needed was in Alexís saddlebag, and even if that wasnít enough, the Mexican would surely stand in her defense, whether he wanted to or not. But if someone found the files, and destroyed them, then Chris was lost.

"Vin? Do you think the Judge will be able to find Chris innocent?"

The bounty hunter shook his head. "No, not with the phony case those Tolleys or whoever they are have against him."

Everyone grimaced at the thought, and rode faster.

* Chris, 11:10 *

Travis quickly went over everything that had been established thus far. Lightfoot had one hell of a case going for him. All the witnesses Josiah had called had turned to mush as soon as the crooked lawyer had questioned them. And his own witnesses were so sincere that the Judge couldnít tell if they were fakes or not. It wasnít looking good.

He watched as the last witness, a young lady from Cherry Rock, stepped down after describing in detail how Chris Larabee had gunned down her older brother last year. The tears were quite real, as was the account of the event. Judge Travis remembered Chris telling the tale a few months ago to Buck.

"Mr. Sanchez, please call your next witness," the Judge said wearily.

"Yes, your Honor. I call JD Dunne to the stand."

The sheriff looked rather surprised at being summoned, but went and sat down.

"Mr. Dunne, how long have you known the defendant?"

JD swallowed. "Chris? Little less than a year."

"And have you ever seen him kill a man?"

JD nodded. "Sure. Itís his job."

"What do you mean, Ďitís his jobí?"

"Well, the people are usually stirriní up trouble, and they shoot at him first, mostly. He doesnít always kill `em either. Sometimes he just wounds `em."

Josiah smiled inwardly. "And when does he kill them?"

"Usually if itís a bad fight, or if they hurt someone real bad here in town. Heíd shoot to kill to protect anyone if he thought it was necessary."

Josiah nodded. "I see, so he never just kills to kill? He doesnít really murder anybody?"

JD shook his head. "No, and neither do the rest of us."

"Thank you, Mr. Dunne."

Josiah, thoroughly satisfied that perhaps one of his attempts at making a good name for Chris had finally worked, sat down, grinning.

Lightfoot approached JD, also grinning. "Mr. Dunne, you stated earlier that the defendant never murdered anybody, correct?"

JD nodded. "Yeah."

"Is that to say that heís never murdered anybody in his life?"

The young man fidgeted under the lawyerís stare. "Well..."

"Answer the question, Mr. Dunne."

"I, uh, I guess I canít say that."

Lightfootís smile broadened. "Has the defendant ever just ridden out of town, for no reason, and then come back?"

"Well, yeah. Lotís of times."

"Were you ever with him on such occasions?"

"No."

"Do you have any idea as to what he might have done on these trips?"

JD looked at Chris. "No, other then maybe get drunk at the local saloon, but heís never caused any trouble."

"But Mr. Dunne, if you have never accompanied the defendant, how can you possibly know whether or not he would have gotten into any trouble? How can you say that he would never have gotten into a Ďbad fightí somewhere and killed just for no reason? How can you possibly tell us, without a shadow of a doubt, that he would never murder anyone once he got away from the watching eyes of the town here?"

JD swallowed again. "I canít," he whispered.

Lightfoot put a hand to his ear. "What was that? Speak up, son."

"I said I canít tell you that!" JD suddenly yelled, realizing that Lightfoot had cornered him just like everyone else on the stand today. He wasnít going to help Chris any more than Mary, who was first on Josiahís list. She had been tricked into telling everyone that she had hoped a "bad element" like the infamous Larabee would keep other potential threats out of town.

"Thank you, Mr. Dunne."

Lightfoot sent an arrogant look in Chrisís direction and sat beside the Ďgrievingí parents.

"JD, you may step down," Travis sighed.

The sheriff bit his lip to stop the quivering of his chin when he saw the dejected look on Chrisís face. The gunslinger looked completely lost.

And lost he was. The entire case that he and Josiah had built was crumbling. Chris knew that he hadnít a chance left unless his men and sister miraculously appeared. Everyone had condemned him today, even if they hadnít meant to, and it looked hopeless.

"Any more witnesses, Lightfoot?" Travis asked, hoping the answer would be no.

"Yes, your Honor. Iíd like to call Nathan Jackson."

Chris, Josiah, and the Judge all watched, shocked, as the black man calmly took the stand.

"Mr. Jackson, you are a doctor, correct?"

"Never claimed to be one, but most folks see me that way," Nathan replied coolly.

"All right, and you examined the body of Jason Tolley, yes?"

"Yes."

Lightfoot nodded. "Then would you please tell me and the Judge what the cause of death was?"

Nathan shrugged. "He was shot."

"Where?"

"Right through the heart near as I can tell."

"A dead-on shot at the heart?"

"Right."

"That is a remarkable shot, isnít it?"

The healer shrugged again. "That depends on who fired."

Lightfoot began pacing in front of the stand. "If it were Miss Travis, would it be remarkable?"

"Yes."

"What about yourself?"

"Yes."

"And what about the defendant?"

Nathan looked at Chris. "Maybe. Heís a good shot, but from what the Tolleys tell me, he was a long ways off."

"Iím not asking how far away he was, Mr. Jackson. I want to know if that shot would be impossible for Chris Larabee to accomplish."

"No."

"And the bullet recovered from the boyís body. It matched another spent bullet fired from the defendantís own gun, correct?"

"Like before, it looks that way, but weíre not certain on the matter."

"Is it close enough to be suspicious?"

"Yes."

Chris felt all eyes in the courtroom shift from Nathan to himself. Nathan looked extremely calm in front of the lawyer, and Chris had to wonder what miracle he planned to pull off. He was helping Lightfoot an awful lot up there.

"So, Mr. Jackson, you will agree with me that we have substantial evidence to prove the defendant guilty of murdering Jason Tolley?"

"No."

The room went wild with both whispers and shouts.

"Did you hear that?"

"What do ya mean, no?"

"You said so yourself he looked guilty!"

Judge Travis stood and banged his gavel loudly.

"Order! ORDER!" he hollered. "Everyone just quiet down!"

Lightfoot smiled at Nathan. "Mr. Jackson, you yourself revealed this evidence. Why do you now say that the defendant could not be guilty?"

"Iím saying that there is enough evidence pointing the other way for there to be doubt. The Tolleys were a ways off; they could have mistaken his identity. Any man can dress in black and ride a black horse."

"But have the same gun? And what a coincidence it is for Mr. Larabee to be missing his gun. What was his excuse for this?"

Nathan started to lose his edge. "They were stolen."

Lightfoot spread his arms open. "Of course they were. How convenient. And how were they stolen?"

"He was, well, he was unconscious."

"Is there proof of that?"

"No."

"Is there proof that his hat and gun were indeed taken?"

"No."

Lightfoot leaned in close to Nathan. "Then is there proof saying he is innocent, other than a lot of ifs and buts?"

The healer closed his eyes. "No."

"No more questions, your Honor."

* Alex and Gang, 12:00 *

"Vin! Look out!" Alex shouted. Too late. The large snake slithered out in front of the horse. She reared back, throwing both Vin and Alex off. They landed hard in the dirt. Alex got up and saw the horse about to trample the bounty hunter.

"Mr. Tanner, I suggest that you roll to your left unless you would like to lose your right arm!" Ezra yelled, ever so helpful. Again, the warning came too late as the mare came down hard not on Vinís arm, but his leg. A loud snap was followed by a howl of pain from the Texan.

"Damn it!" Alex cried, closer to tears now than she had been through the entire ordeal thus far. "Now what? Vin canít ride with a busted leg!"

"Go on without me," Vin gasped, his face twisted in agony.

Ezra dismounted. "Iíll remain with Mr. Tanner. You and Buck go on. You must rescue Mr. Larabee, and you do not need us to do so."

Alex was reluctant to leave her friends alone in the desert, especially if one was injured. But...

"Okay, take mine and Buckís canteens. We wonít need them. Try to find some shelter, that sun is wicked. And be careful."

Alex mounted Vinís still skittish steed and rode off with Buck. Ezra brought his horse over to stand in front of Vin to offer the hurting man some shade.

"Do you think theyíll make it in time?" Vin asked.

Ezra had to shrug. "If she has the same determination as her brother, then they will."

"If she doesnít?"

"Then may God have mercy on Mr. Larabeeís soul and may he at last find peace."

Vin cringed at the words, knowing the truth to them, and turned away. He soon fell unconscious from the pain. Ezra watched over him, thinking of what would be happening back in Four Corners. The afternoon was drawing to a close, and with it, Chrisís life.

* Chris 12:10 *

Josiah wearily stood, mustering as much superficial strength as possible. "Your Honor, my final witness is Christopher Larabee."

Travis nodded. He hoped that Chris could convince the people that he hadnít murdered a seven-year-old boy.

Chris went and sat down. He and Josiah had agreed earlier that the only way the gunslinger would take the stand would be if things looked hopeless. They looked worse than hopeless. They were downright bad.

"Mr. Larabee, may I start by asking you outright if you shot and killed young Jason Tolley?"

"No, I did not kill him."

"You have heard all of the statements made against you, are they true?"

"Some."

"Are you the hardened murderer that Mr. Lightfootís witnesses made you out to be?"

"Hell no."

Josiah managed a smile at Chrisís choice of words. "Can you tell us, in your own words, what happened on the day of October fifteenth?"

"I rode out to clear my head. Finding a sister, especially one as crazy as Alex, takes a lot of adjusting to. I got out a ways, got tired, and decided to rest a while. I was just dozing off when I heard footsteps and hoof beats. I opened my eyes, got hit, and blacked out. I came to and my gun and hat were gone. I came riding back to town then, got accused of this damn murder, and arrested."

The preacher nodded. "Anything else?"

"Nope."

Josiah turned to the Judge. "No more questions."

"Your witness, Lightfoot," Travis reluctantly called.

"Thank you, your Honor. Mr. Larabee, how many men have you killed?"

"More than I care to count," Chris admitted.

"Then what would one more life mean to you in that vast record?"

"A hell of a lot when itís a seven-year-old kid."

"Oh thatís right, you had a son about that age, didnít you?"

Chris glared at the lawyer. "Yes, I did."

"His name was Adam, wasnít it? And the wife was Sarah?"

"Thatís them."

"They died mysteriously in a fire, correct?"

Chrisís anger began to mount at the mention of his deceased family. "Yes," he answered tightly.

"Their murderers were never found, were they?"

"Almost, yes."

"What if there werenít any murderers Larabee? You know what I think? I think you got sick of your family. I think you were tired of being chained down by a nagging woman and a runny-nosed little boy. Iíll bet you killed them yourself, then went on your self-righteous killing spree to make yourself look innocent and to gain pity from people."

Chris lunged at Lightfoot, wrapping his hands around the manís throat. "Iíll kill you!" the gunslinger snarled. "If you ever talk about my wife and son again I swear Iíll kill you with my own hands!"

"LARABEE!" Judge Travis yelled, banging his gavel. "GET OFF OF HIM!"

Chris and Lightfoot rolled on the floor, grappling for the upper hand. JD, Josiah, and Nathan quickly sprang to their friendís side, trying to break up the fight. It took all three of them to finally drag Chris away, and even then it was difficult to keep him under control. JD finally pulled out his pair of handcuffs and reluctantly used them to restrain his angry comrade.

"You see, your Honor, this man is highly unstable and susceptible to violence at the mere mention of his Ďmurderedí family. Whatís to keep him from showing this absurd rage at the sight of a child who looked so much like his own hapless son? Nothing, as far as I'm concerned. Mr. Larabee is an animal and he did kill an innocent youth out of pure spite. Look at what happened only a few moments ago! How can you tell me that he is not guilty?"

The courtroom cheered Lightfootís dramatic speech. Chris slumped in his chair, defeated. He had allowed himself to be baited into the conflict that had destroyed his entire life. Josiah sat down as well, patting Chris on the back. The Judge pounded his bench again, demanding silence.

"The court will take a short recess at this time. The prosecution and defense and will prepare their closing arguments and be ready in fifteen minutes. Dismissed."

Murmurs followed the crowd outside as the room emptied. Travis withdrew quietly to his office and Lightfoot went to triumphantly join his clients.

"Itís over," Chris whispered hoarsely. "I just hung myself."

"Have faith brother," Josiah encouraged. "God is with us this day, He canít let a good man die for no reason."

"Thatís the problem," Chris sighed. "I ainít a good man."

* * * * * * *

"Ladies and gentlemen, your Honor, by word of mouth and by actions shown to this court today, I can, without a doubt, say that Chris Larabee is guilty of murder. It was no accident, it was not a case of mistaken identity, it was a deliberate, cold-blooded killing that happened to a poor, poor boy. I beg the good Judge and the people of Four Corners to not believe the fancily woven lies of the preacher and the murderer. Look at the facts, and you will see the truth."

Lightfoot smiled wickedly in the cowboyís direction. Chris never felt so lost in his life. Josiah got up and started pacing the floor. He wasnít sure of what to say to save his friend, and for some reason God wasnít providing him with anything. A feeble idea came to mind, and, with little else to do, the makeshift lawyer went with it.

"Christopher Larabee had a dark past, Iíll grant you that. He did kill a lot of people. Hell, if I didnít know him like I did, I would be a believer of Mr. Lightfootís testimony myself. But thatís the point: I know who Chris Larabee really is. He is a man with integrity, grit, and a sense of honor that fails to fall on many other human beings. He wouldnít gun down a kid, not even if he resembled Adam Larabee. Young Billy Travis has never fallen under Chrisís Ďrageí, as Mr. Lightfoot put it. He is, today, a victim himself of circumstance and a bleak life that he has tried on numerous occasions to change for the better. Heís my friend, and he was everybodyís protector before these strangers rode into town and accused him of this unholy crime. People, I canít keep telling you things that you already know. I canít change your minds if they are closed. All I can do is tell you what I know, I know that Chris Larabee is not a killer."

Mary Travis caught Josiahís eye as he turned to sit down. She was crying, her eyes red and her cheeks damp. But she was smiling. Josiah gave her his best look of confidence and sat down. Chris didnít even move.

"I fail to see any reason to withhold my verdict under tomorrow morning," Judge Travis said very, very quietly. "Again, I call for a brief recess so as I can collect my thoughts. Court adjourned until 1:00." With a dismissive bang, the room again emptied, save for the Tolleys, Lightfoot, Chris, Josiah, and JD. The six people sat in silence, each lost in different thoughts. The prosecution, happiness. The defendants, sorrow and dispair.

* Alex and Buck, right outside town, same time*

Alex was close to hysterics. They were an hour later in arriving than planned. Everybody was out milling around in front of the courthouse. She and Buck pulled their horses to a stop, trying to decide on what to do.

"That doesnít look good," Buck stated.

"No, it doesnít, but it ainít over yet. Letís get down there and save him." Alex and Buck were about to continue when a bark of harsh laughter sounded behind them. Spinning in their saddles, the two friends were met by guns pointed right at them by three men. A fourth man stepped up from behind the others, an evil grin on his lips.

"Stains!" Buck spat. "Why am I not surprised?"

The rotten ex-sheriff laughed again. "Probably because youíre none too bright. Now get off them horses nice and easy and toss down your guns."

Alex was tempted to go for the draw, but she wasnít dumb enough to take on all four men. She slowly unhooked her gun belt and let it drop to the ground and then swung over the side of her horse. Buck quickly followed suit, cursing the day Chris had let Stains live instead of shooting the crooked law official.

"Look, Sheriff," Alex pleaded. "Let me get this stuff to the Judge, please. Chris is counting on me."

"Well, now, isnít that sweet. Sorry to tell ya, but I know that. And my boss is paying me lots of money to make sure you donít get anywhere near that there trial or the good Judge Travis." Stains motioned his posse forward. "Get them back to Eagle Bend. Theyíll be too far away from Larabee to help him. Goodbye."

"You canít do this!" Alex shouted, lunging for Stains. One of the men grabbed her arms and held her back. "I swear to you Sheriff, Iíll kill you when I see you again if anything happens to my brother! Iíll kill you!"

"Ainít you a spitfire," Stains whistled, approaching the youngest Larabee. "I like spitfires. Never a dull moment. Maybe Iíll just keep you around for myself after this is over. What do you say?"

Alex brought her legs up and landed a solid kick to Stainsís stomach. "Go to hell."

"Get them out of here," the sheriff gasped, doubled over. Alex and Buck were forced onto horses by Stainsís men and rode away from town. Alex felt the hot tears sting her eyes, and then the dam burst. She had never felt so lost in her life. She finally had a family again, one for keeps, and it was robbed away from her in less than a few months.

* Chris & Co., Courthouse. 1:00*

"This was a trying and difficult trial to conduct. Not only because the defendant is a friend of mine, but because of the seriousness of the charge. I have spent my time going over and over the case and the evidence, and I have reached a very saddening verdict."

Chris stared numbly at Judge Travis as he made his opening remarks. Josiah stood faithfully at his side, awaiting the final blow. "Chris, please, confess to this, give good reason and you wonít hang!" the preacher begged vehemently in a whisper.

The gunslinger shook his head. "No."

"I find the defendant, Chris Larabee, guilty of murder. The penalty is death by hanging, which will..." Travisís voice trailed off as he looked at Chris. "Which will commence at dusk." The judge banged his gavel once more, but this time no sound was heard. The courtroom was wild with cheers and Lightfootís whoop of joy. Chris fell back into his chair, stunned. He couldnít believe the words he had just heard.

"Chris! Damn it Chris, snap out of it!" Josiah yelled. "You have to do something!"

"Do what?" came the meek reply. "Iím a dead man."

Judge Travis retreated to his office, unable to face Chris. The evidence was too much. He didnít want to believe that Chris was a murderer; he knew deep down inside that he wasnít. But to say he was innocent in the face of all the evidence... The people wouldnít allow it. Theyíd claim the trial was fixed, and Chris would just have to face another judge who would condemn him all over again. This way was better, somehow. Travis tried to find solace in that fact, but could not. He had sentenced his friend to die a horrible death. There would be no comfort in anything ever again.

* Chris, few minutes later at the Jailhouse *

Chris felt cold all over. He rubbed his shoulders, trying to warm himself, but nothing took the icy chill from his body. Iím gonna die. This is how it ends. Iím not going out in a blaze of glory, or by protecting this little town, Iím gonna hang as a murderer of a seven-year-old boy. Isnít this all ironic.

Chris looked up when he heard the door open. Mary came in, tears running down her face. She stepped up to the barred door, and took Chrisís hand in her own.

"Please Chris, you have to do something, say something. Anything. Confess to the murder of the boy, say it was self-defense," the distraught woman begged.

The gunslinger squeezed Maryís hands. "Mary, listen to yourself. I canít confess and say that I killed a little kid to defend myself. I canít give good reason to shooting a boy who probably doesnít even know how to use a gun. You know that, Josiah knows that, the Judge knows that. And I wouldnít confess if it were a fifty-year-old man they claimed I murdered. I canít, because I didnít do it."

"I canít watch you hang Chris, I love you!" Mary sobbed.

Larabee wasnít sure if he had heard right or not, but the look in Maryís green eyes told him the truth without words. She loves me.

"I know that youíre upset and all, Mary, but..."

"I have loved you for a long time Christopher Larabee, and I refuse to watch you die!"

"Then donít. Thereís nothing you can do to stop it. You canít just go running into the streets with a shotgun to protest every hanging. Whatís done is done."

Mary shook her head. "No, please, thereís got to be something I can do..."

Chris did his best to smile at her. "There is. Take care of Alex for me. Tell her that sheís helped me a lot, and that I love her, and to stay out of trouble. Tell Buck and the others thanks for me, if they donít get back. And tell Billy goodbye, too."

"I canít, Chris..."

"Please Mary, itís my last wish and all."

"Why are you being so stubborn?"

"Because Iím good at it."

"This isnít funny."

"Mary, life ainít funny. Sometimes, in Ezraís words, you get dealt a two when you need that Ace to win. Itís my time to go, and Iím scared, but thatís just the way it is. Donít make it any harder for me."

Mary turned to go, but Chris called her back. "I love you too, Miss Travis."

Mary smiled. "I know." Then she fled the jailhouse, crying.

* Chris, same place, 3:00 *

Chris watched the shadows shift on the ground outside his cell window. He was still dwelling on what Mary had told him. He was destined once more to hurt someone who cared about him. She didnít just care for him, though, she loved him. No one had told him that since Sarah. Not even Alex.

Chris flashed back to the life he once had. He had been happy. Content with raising his son, his horses, and loving his beautiful wife. Then, in one night, it ended. His family, his ranch, his soul...Gone. "Poofed" as Alex liked to put it.

Ah, Alex. His new family. The wayward adopted sister he had never even known about until a few months ago. And the men. They all were like brothers to him, and JD a son. And Billy and Mary. God, he would miss them. Will they miss me?

The condemned man watched as a few townspeople double-checked the scaffolding for his execution. A man walked over to the lever for the trapdoor and pulled it. Chris looked away quickly, cringing as he heard the hinges squeak and the wood bang against wood. Was this how Nathan felt when he was about to be hung?

Automatically the memories of his first day in Four Corners came flooding back. The day he had watched a gang of men load Nathan into a wagon to take him out and hang him. Thatís the first time Mary appeared on the scene, waving her gun at the men, trying to save the black man. And Vin Tanner, leaning on a broom, came to help as well, giving Chris a comrade in arms. And, eventually, a new friend.

After awhile the void in Chris began to fill. His heart was a little less empty each day; his sanity a little bit more restored. He had a purpose in life again. And now it was crashing down around him.

* Alex, Buck, and Bad Guys. 3:30 *

"I swear to you Stains, I will not hold my brother back! If he want to tear you limb from limb, Iíll let him!"

The crooked sheriff looked at the younger Larabee and sneered. "Shut up." He then shut and locked the door of the hotel room, leaving a fuming Alex and sulking Buck to themselves. Alex said something in Spanish, then scooted across the floor to sit beside Buck.

"Whatís wrong?" she asked.

"I should be there with him."

Alex shook her head. "Chris can handle himself."

"You didnít think that awhile ago."

"Youíre right, I didnít. But right now I have a plan for getting us out of here and I need you to cheer up and help me."

Buck looked at his friend. "What have you got in mind?"

"A little ass kicking for Sheriff Stains and his men, not to mention Ernest Whitaker/Tolley. But first we need to get our hands loose."

"Got that knife I gave you?"

"In my boot. Can you get it?"

"I think so."

"Okay, you work, Iíll fill you in on my scheme."

Buck grinned. "I love it when you get that ĎLetís go kill someoneí look on your face."

Alex flashed a cocky smile at the cowboy. "Sorry Buck, but those sweet pick-up lines donít work on a gal like me. Now get my knife."

"Yes maíam."

* Chris, same time *

Chris was getting restless. He couldnít help wondering what had kept Alex and the others away so long. He was worried about them. An unsettling feeling in his gut told him that something bad happened. Things just kept getting worse and worse. Except for the part where Mary had finally told him the truth. He wished he could make it out alive just because of those three little words. I love you.

Again Larabee thought of his past, and of Buck. Poor Buck. The guy had stuck with him for so long, putting up with the mood swings, the drinking, the deaths. And now it ended like this, with Chris sending him off into danger once more to rescue Alex. And he hadnít come back. Chris vaguely wondered why the cowboy hadnít married himself a wife yet. Buck was great with kids, he loved them. Especially Adam Larabee. Adam used to call him Uncle Buck. Chris sighed. He missed his son.

"Chris?"

The gunslinger looked up to see Nathan. The healer looked sick. Chris felt sorry for him.

"Iím really not in the mood to talk Nathan."

"I know, but I needed to apologize to you."

"What for?"

Nathan pulled up a chair and sat down. "I didnít help you much up on that witness stand."

"Hell Nathan, no one did."

"Dusk is coming. Only a few more hours."

"I know."

"Are you scared?"

"Oh hell yeah."

The two men sat in silence for a minute, neither one looking at each other. Chris felt his stomach churn as he thought of the question he wanted do desperately ask his friend.

"Nathan, Iíve been thinking," he said softly. "Hanging is a rotten, painful way to go."

"Yeah, I know."

"I always imagined a bullet would end my life, not a rope."

Nathan looked up sharply. "What are you talking about, Chris?"

"I donít want to dangle to death. A single, well-aimed shot would be much simpler. Faster. Easier."

"I donít think I can do that. I canít kill you, Chris. I donít have the courage," Nathan stated firmly, understanding Larabeeís question. "Maybe it wonít be so bad. Some people die instantly, it could happen to you."

"I donít want to take the chance, Nathan. Please, Iím asking you to do the humane thing here. Just one shot."

Nathan felt tears sting his eyes. "Iíll try."

"Thatís all Iím asking for. Take Josiah with you if you want. The saloon roof is close enough. Should be able to get a clear shot from there."

"Iíll do that. Is there anything you need?"

"Just take care of Alex for me, and Mary and Billy."

"You know we will."

"Promise me, Nathan."

"All right Chris, I promise. Theyíll be in good hands."

"Thank you." Then something happened that none of the Seven had ever expected to see: Chris Larabee was crying.

* Alex and Buck, 4:30 *

"Buck you moron!"

"Donít call me a moron!"

"Fine, you idiot!"

Just as predicted, Stains and one of his men opened the door. Buck was on him in a second, using the rope that had bound his hands to strangle the man. Alex delivered a swift punch to the other manís jaw, dropping him. Buck held on to the flailing sheriff until the struggle ceased. Buck let go and the dead man fell to the floor.

"All right, letís get," Alex said, grabbing hers and Buckís guns from the unconscious goon. They went out into the hallway and looked around. No one was in sight. They quickly ran for the staircase, nearly colliding with the man coming up the steps.

"Whitaker!" Alex cried, recognizing the man.

"Larabee!" Ernest shouted. He lunged at Alex, knocking her to the floor. Buck grabbed his shoulder, hauled him to his feet, and punched him. Alex regained her composure and kicked the fallen con man in the ribs.

"Letís get him back in the room with the other guy," Buck suggested.

"Good idea. Itíll keep him out of the way until some real law men get back here to pick them up." Alex suddenly thought of something. "What is Ďhereí, exactly?"

"Eagle Bend. Letís go."

The two friends quickly dragged Ernest back to the room they had recently vacated and locked the door. They went downstairs and found their horses tied outside the hotel. Alex mounted and looked to Buck. "Howís the quickest way to get back? Dusk is coming, thatís surely when theyíll hang him."

Buck bit his lip. "Itíll take us awhile no matter what, but this way is shortest, I believe."

"Then letís go. Híyah!"

 

* Chris, 5:30 *

Josiah entered the jailhouse. He nodded to JD who had just recently returned to his desk, and the young sheriff let the preacher into Chrisís cell.

"Nathan told me what you said, and I ainít so sure I can do it," the baritone voice said quietly.

Chris sat up on his bunk. "Iíll die either way, Josiah. It can be quick or it can be slow. I prefer quick."

Josiah nodded. "The Lord says to not take a life."

"You do it all the time when we fight."

"Thatís different, and you know it."

Chris shrugged. "Why? Because the men we kill steal from our town? Or because they kill our townspeople? Iíve done worse in my life preacher."

Josiah was beaten. He held up the bible he had brought. "Itís time to make things right with God, friend."

"I think itís a little late for that, but okay."

Josiah began to pray. "Our Father, which Art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name..."

* Alex and Buck, 6:30 *

"How much farther Buck?"

"Not too much. Weíll be there by dusk."

Alex shook her head. "Not good enough. We gotta be there before they get the chance to pull that lever. Donít you know any more short cuts?"

Buck considered for a moment. "Just one, but if the riverís swelled from the rains we had, weíll never make it."

Alex frowned. "We canít chance it. Weíll just have to ride faster." Buck agreed.

Iím a cominí Chris, just hold on, the girl thought. She quickly wiped away the tears that blurred her vision.

* Chris, 6:56 *

"Chris, itís time," JD called quietly, opening the cell door. Chris stood up, white faced and trembling. He glanced out the window one last time: The sun had set. Josiah had left only a few minutes ago, but the tranquillity of his prayers had fled.

"JD?"

"Yeah?"

"Youíre on hell of a sheriff. Just donít fall asleep on duty no more."

"Sure thing, Chris." JD tied Chrisís hands behind his back and led him out into the streets. The Judge met him at the foot of the gallows. He also was pale.

"Chris."

"Judge."

Travis gazed up at the scaffolding. "I want you to know that over these past months, youíve become like a son to me. I donít want you to go up there thinking otherwise."

"Iím flattered."

"Glad to hear it."

Chris looked over at the saloon. "Hey Judge, Nathan and Josiah are up on that roof. Donít go arresting them for shooting me."

"I know, Josiah told me." They walked up the steps and across the platform to the trapdoor.

"What are you waiting for?" came an angry shout from the crowd. Mrs. "Tolley". "My son never got any delays!"

"Mrs. Tolley," the Judge snapped, "we do justice my way in this town." He turned back to Chris and slid the noose around his neck. "Any last words, Mr. Larabee?"

"Only that I didnít do a damn thing to anyone in this town, and I didnít murder a little kid." Chris looked at the Judge. "Can I have my hat?"

JD threw the black hat up to the Judge, who set in on the gunslingerís head. "Is that all?" Travis asked.

"Letís just get this over with."

"NO!" Mary shrieked, making her way through the crowd. "You canít do this! Stop it!"

"JD! Get her out of here!" Chris yelled. JD obediently took Mary by the shoulders and led the grieving woman away to the saloon. Larabee fought to keep control over his emotions and he looked over at the Judge. "If my hands were free, Iíd shake yours."

"Goodbye, Chris."

"Goodbye, Judge."

Judge Travis nodded towards the man at the end of the platform and went back down the steps. Chris looked at the same man, whoís hand was on the lever. Looking straight ahead, he waited.

* Josiah and Nathan *

"There goes the Judge. Get ready, brother," Josiah instructed.

"I canít believe this is really happening," Nathan said, his tone flat.

"Things wonít be the same, thatís for sure."

Hoof beats sounded down the road, but Josiah didnít dare turn around. He kept his finger tight on the trigger of his rifle, as did Nathan. The man on the stage pulled the lever. The crowd below cried out at the sound of the gunshot.

* Alex *

"Now hold on just one damn minute!"

"Alex!" Josiah shouted from the rooftop. Neither his nor Nathanís gun had gone off.

"Chris started cursing as he rolled over on the street under the platform. "Who the hell cut that rope?" he asked in shock.

Alex jumped from her horse onto the stage. "I did." She whipped her rifle around and aimed it at Mrs. Tolleyís chest.

"You move, you die," Alex warned the woman who had begun making her way through the crowd.

"Listen! Alex has proof to clear Chris!" Buck hollered from his own horse.

The Judge came running up to Chris and helped him stand up. Alex through Buckís rifle back to him and he guarded the Tolley woman.

Alex through her arms around Chris and he calmly said, "Nice shot, but werenít you cuttiní it a little close?" Alex looked at Chrisís hat and saw the hole in it.

"Oops." They both laughed. The Judge untied Chrisís hands and brother and sister embraced again.

"You need to get a posse out to Eagle Bend to pick up Mr. Tolley, whoís actually Ernest Whitaker. And that woman is Theresa Sloan. They set up Chris," Alex informed the Judge after she broke the hug with Chris. "Oh, and youíll also need to pick up Sheriff Stainsís body."

Theresa tried to stutter out a lie, saying it wasnít true and that all she wanted was justice... It didnít work.

JD came out of the saloon, hesitantly looked over at the gallows, and did a double take. "Chris?!"

"JD, arrest that woman. Buck? Go get Josiah and Nathan and prepare to leave for Eagle Bend. Just get this rope off my neck and Iíll..." Chris tugged at the thick noose and threw it aside.

"Whoa cowboy, slow down. I still have more to tell you," Alex interrupted. "Vin and Ezra are still trapped out in the desert. Vinís got a busted leg, and needs help quick. And more of Ernestís men may be lurking about."

"How do we know that heís innocent?" a voice called from the crowd.

"Yeah," a woman joined in. "Whereís this so-called proof?" Others were soon shouting similar remarks.

"Alex," the Judge asked warily, "Do you really have the proof?"

"Yup." Alex walked over to her horse and pulled the files from her saddlebag. Raising her voice to be heard, she read a few choice reports with the medical inserts. The people soon realized what she was getting at. "Everyone here was shot in the chest, the stomach, the head. Never in the back. Nathan! Where was the boy shot?"

The healer cupped his hands and shouted, "The back!"

"Correct. You have all seen Chris in action. Heís let ruthless killers escape town rather than shoot them in the back, you know it! He lives by his motto that no one deserves to die that way. Itís cruel. Youíve got to believe me!"

A murmur of agreement swept through the crowd. Chris smiled at his sister and put his arm around her shoulder. "Good work kid, I owe you my life now."

"Of course you do."

"CHRIS!" Mary screamed, coming out of the saloon. Chris jumped from the stage and met her half way, sweeping her up in his arms. Mary cried, but in relief. Chris held her as though heíd never let go.

"I love you," she whispered.

"I love you, too."

* 10-20-75. Chris and Alex, saloon. Morning. *

"Okay, so letís see if I got this straight. Sloan and Whitaker were in Bradleyís gang, they wanted to kill me for killing Bradley. They grabbed an orphan boy, killed him, and set me up. Now theyíre on trial for murder."

Alex nodded when her brother finished. "Yep, thatís about it. They sang like birds, but theyíll still hang. Iíll see to it." The younger Larabee looked up over at Nathanís clinic. Vin had been brought in late last night, unconscious.

"Not that Iím sure I want to know, but where did you learn to shoot?" Chris asked Alex.

"From Josiah."

"He teach you to shoot from horses too?"

Alex grinned. "Nope, I learned that yesterday all on my own."

"Great."

"Here comes Nathan," Alex stated, standing. She awkwardly went to meet Nathan, trying to walk like a proper lady in the pale blue dress. Chris still wasnít sure what exactly caused his tomboy sister to where a skirt, but she looked nice.

"Well," the black man sighed, "his leg broke cleanly. Should heal in a few months without complication."

"Is he awake?" Chris asked, also coming out to meet the healer.

"Yes, and heís been asking for you constantly."

Ezra walked out of the saloon then, counting his early morning winnings. Alex and Nathan started back to the clinic. The gambler smiled. "Mr. Larabee, if I did not for a fact that the young woman over there was Miss Larabee, Iíd swear that she was a lady."

"Donít let Alex hear you say that, Ezra. Sheíll knock you flat."

"Yes, I know. But I canít help but feel pride in my handiwork."

Larabee looked at the shorter man. "You cleaned her up?"

Ezra snorted. "Well, you most certainly cannot have a teacher running around in a dusty manís shirt and riding chaps."

"Teacher?"

"You were not informed of Miss Larabeeís appointment to the school teacher of Four Corners?"

"Nope." Chris shrugged and he followed Ezra over to Nathanís.

Once inside the clinic, Alex went to discuss something with Nathan in the back room. Vin smiled from the bed against the wall.

"Well, well, well, Chris. It seems that you are back from the dead," the Texan drawled quietly.

"And look at you. Even getting trampled by your own horse hasnít knocked the smart ass out of you."

"Nope, it didnít."

"Good to see you again, Vin."

"Same here, cowboy."

"I know." Chris smiled and patted his friend on the back.

"All right, everyone git. Vin needs his rest, and now that he knows Chris ainít a damn ghost, he can go back to sleep," Nathan ordered, coming out of the room to shoo the men away.

Chris laughed. "Yeah, okay. Weíll see ya Ďround, Vin."

"Yes, good day Mr. Tanner." Ezra tipped his hat and went out.

"See ya," Vin waved.

Alex came out of the room, barefoot. At Chrisís curious glance, she sighed, "Those damn boots hurt my feet, and the dress is enough by itself."

Chris rolled his eyes and laughed again. He had a feeling heíd be fighting her to keep that on, too. He and Alex walked out of the clinic and down the steps.

"Here comes the Judge and Mary," Alex said with a giggle, elbowing her brother in the ribs.

Chris threw her a dirty look before approaching Travis and his daughter-in-law. Mary waved at Alex, who gave Mary a thumbís-up sign.

"Judge, what you said yesterday, about me being like a son to you. Did you mean it?"

"Of course I did."

"Good." Chris turned to Mary and held her hand. "Mary, I love you. Iím not sure how to really ask you this but..."

"Yes, Iíll marry you!"

Chris seemed shocked at her quick answer, especially since he didnít even ask the question. "Well, okay then. Weíll work out the details later."

Mary reached up and planted a kiss on Chrisís lips. He returned it. The kiss lasted a long, long time.

"Way to go cowboy!" Alex cheered.

"Shut up Fletcher," Chris mumbled, partially muffled by Mary.

"Kids," Judge Travis sighed. He shook his head and headed for the saloon. Chris Larabee, husband to my daughter-in-law. I guess we wonít really be related.

Chris picked Mary up and swung her around, never breaking the kiss. He was happy.

END FILE #2

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