Author's note: I apologize for taking so long to post this chapter. I had a lot of thoughts and ideas to weed through, and I hope this works for you. If you like what I've written or have some constructive criticism, please post a review or send me a message.
Previously: Chris, Nathan, Vin, and Josiah have left town to carry out a job for Judge Travis. Sammy, feeling constrained by the watchful eyes of the residents of Four Corners snuck out of town to the pond. While there, she comes close to being attacked by two men, only to be rescued by Michael Langdon.
Oren Travis sat on the porch outside the saloon, smoking a cigarillo. He would be catching the stage to Red Fork later in the day. Chris had sent a telegram reporting that he and the other peacekeepers had arrived there the day before with their prisoners. Having turned the men over to the town marshal, they were on their way back to Four Corners.
Crushing out his cigarillo, he rose and stretched the kinks out of his back. He was planning to go spend some time with his grandson before he had to leave. However, Judge Travis's attention was caught by Sammy and a man he vaguely recognized riding into town. Normally, a sight like that wouldn't have piqued his interest as people rode into and out of town all the time. But he knew how protective Chris was of Sammy, and he couldn't imagine Chris having condoned the activity.
Curious, Judge Travis watched as the two riders neared the livery stable. Sammy dismounted, but the man remaining atop his horse. They exchanged words, but he was too far away to hear what was being said. Sammy led her horse into the stable, while the man continued in the direction of the saloon. As he couldn't help but notice that the girl was moving a bit too stiffly, his curiosity was piqued even more.
Resuming his seat, he decided to wait for the man to dismount and move onto the porch. "Did I just see you ride in with Samantha Browning?" he asked, lighting another cigarillo.
"What business is it of yours if I did?" Michael studied the older man. His brow furrowed slightly. The older man was slightly familiar, but Michael couldn't place him. Either way, he was in no mood for small talk at the moment.
"I'm Oren Travis, territorial judge. I'm also a good friend of Chris Larabee."
Damn, Michael thought. Now he remembered. During his marshal days, it had once been his duty to escort a prisoner to a trial before Judge Travis. Michael removed his hat and dusted it against his pant leg in agitation. Given the man's identity and his connection to Chris, he supposed it would be better to answer than not. Sighing in frustration, he said, "I was riding into town when I spotted her at the pond, and she wasn't alone. There were two saddle bums who were preparing to raise sand with her." Michael settled his hat back on his head. "I chased them off and escorted her back here."
Judge Travis glanced in the direction of the livery stable. He almost felt sorry for the girl, as Chris certainly wouldn't be happy when he heard what happened. Turning back to Michael, he asked, "she okay?"
Michael debated about how to answer that question. Given the sensitivity of the subject, he decided to be a bit judicious in his response. "They didn't hurt her, but I'd say she's still a mite sore." When Judge Travis raised his eyebrow in inquiry, Michael continued. "That's something you'll have to discuss with her. Now, if you'll excuse me." He moved past the older man and into the saloon.
Oren Travis removed his hat and scratched his head as he contemplated his next move. Finally making up his mind, he stepped off the saloon's porch and headed toward the livery stable. He paused as he stepped into the darken structure and watched Sammy as she carried her horse's saddle to the tack room. His earlier impression had been right, she was moving a bit too stiffly.
Sammy started when she came out of the tack room and saw Judge Travis standing in the wide doorway. She had known he was in town, but hadn't run into him, so she couldn't help but wonder why he was here now. For the moment, however, she tried to ignore him as she entered her horse's stall to begin the grooming process.
"I heard you've had quite the day," Judge Travis stated as he neared the stall. He casually crossed his arms on the top of the stall door, patiently waiting for Sammy to respond. His instincts told him to tread carefully if he wanted to have his curiosity satisfied.
Sammy looked up from running the curry brush along the horse's side and met Judge Travis's eyes. When she had first met the man, she had resented him for the role he'd played in preventing her from being able to pursue her revenge against the Slater gang. Since she had adapted to life in Four Corners and had grown closer to Chris, some of that resentment had eased. That didn't stop her attitude from showing through. "Yeah, so?"
Judge Travis grinned. He'd had a lot of practice reading people, and Sammy was definitely uncomfortable. Whether it was his presence or the thought of what suspected had happened between her and Langdon was yet to be determined.
"I ran into Michael Langdon over at the saloon. He told me what happened."
"Why, that boot-licker. He had no business telling you about it. Or anyone else, for that matter." Sammy nearly slung the brush onto the shelf. The horse shied away in fear at her sudden outburst.
Ignoring her language, Judge Travis stepped back and opened the stall door. "Come on out of there," he directed. Taking her by the arm as she exited the enclosure, he led her over to sit on a hay bale. He took a seat beside her.
"I've been meaning to sit down and talk with you about how you're finding life here in Four Corners. Mary tells me you're settling in well." He glanced over at Sammy.
Not quite sure where this conversation was going, she shrugged. "I suppose I am."
Judge Travis bit back a grin at her reticence. This was going exactly as he'd expected. "She also tells me you are helping out at the school. How's that going? Are you enjoying the work?"
Sammy tried not to pleasure at the idea of her time at the school show on her face. "It's a good job. I do enjoy it."
"Maybe I can make some inquiries about getting you admitted into one of the normal schools back east so you can be formally trained as a teacher." He paused a moment to let the idea settle in. "That is, if that is what you want to do. Why don't you think about it and discuss it with Chris?"
She wouldn't admit it, but Judge Travis's offer had certainly taken her by surprise. "I'll think about it."
He nodded and settled back on his makeshift seat. Now was the time to get to the meat of the matter. "You want to tell me about what happened at the pond?"
Sammy shifted so she could look the older man in the eye. What she saw there was concern and a measure of patience, rather than the condemnation she had expected to see. She sighed heavily and shifted so that her back was against the wall and pulled her feet up onto the bale of hay. In doing so, she took some of the pressure off her still sore backside. Wrapping her arms around her raised knees, she leaned her head back so that she could study the hayloft.
"I had to get out of town for a while. Since Chris left, people seemed to be watching my every move. It was worse than when Chris is around. At least he lets me have the run of town without having to explain my every move."
"I suppose that would make a person itchy," Judge Travis commented when Sammy paused.
"Yeah, I managed to make my way out of town without being stopped. At first I planned to just ride for a while, then head back to town. But, when I got to the pond I decided to stop. I was sittin' on that giant boulder that overlooks the water. You know the one?" she asked. When Judge Travis nodded, indicating he knew the area to which she was referring. "Well, I'd been sittin' there maybe fifteen minutes, just thinking about stuff, when two men came up behind me." She shuddered at the thought of what had nearly happened. "I spent enough time with the Slater gang that I knew exactly what they had planned. Those sons-a-bitches would have done it, too, if Michael Langdon hadn't shown up." She ignored the judge's raised eyebrow at her use of the vulgar term.
Judge Travis acted on instinct and draped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close to his side. "You were a very lucky young woman."
Sammy took comfort from Oren's embrace. "I know. I don't think I've ever been so scared, even when I was living with the Slaters." She wiped a tear from her eye. Giving a short laugh, she continued, "I guess I finally learned that lesson Chris keeps trying to teach me about ridin' out alone."
A thought suddenly occurred to her. "You're not going to tell Chris about this, are you?" Sammy asked, turning pleading eyes to the older man.
The judge studied her a moment. Deciding that fostering trust between them was more important than telling on her to Chris, he shook his head. "No, what you just told me stays between us." He smiled kindly when Sammy sighed in relief. "However, Four Corners is a small town. It's a good bet he'll hear about it from someone else. You'd do better to tell him yourself."
XxxxxxX XxxxxxX XxxxxxX
Chris sighed as he and his friends rode back into Four Corners. He was weary from being on the road for so long. He wanted a drink, a meal, a bath, and to check in with Mary and Sammy, and not particularly in that order.
"What's eatin' you, Cowboy?" Vin asked. He hadn't missed his friend's sigh.
"Nothin'," he replied as he dismounted in front of the livery stable. He looked around at what he could see of the town. It didn't look like anything had changed. "Just glad to be home." And wasn't it strange to be calling someplace "home," he thought. He'd spent much of the last several years on the run from his memories, only to finally find his place in this town.
"I hear that," Nathan stated from his other side.
Josiah grinned as he led his horse into the stable. "It's a wonder how quickly a place can become home."
The four men unsaddled and groomed their horses in companionable silence. Each was lost in his own thoughts of what Four Corners and the people had come to mean to them.
Finally, giving his horse one final affectionate slap on the rump, Chris stepped out of the stall. He'd decided that the first order of business was to be a drink and a serving of whatever Inez had prepared in the kitchen of the saloon. Then he'd go by the boarding house for a change of clothes before heading over to the bath house to get cleaned up.
A few minutes later, he was ensconced at a corner table, a beer at his elbow and a plate of tamales and beans in front of him. Given the relatively early hour, the saloon was nearly empty, but the few customers who were there were giving the black-clad gunman a wide berth.
Michael Langdon entered the saloon just as Chris stood to leave. Deciding now was as good a time as any to have this particular discussion, he stepped into the older man's path. "Can I have a word with you, Larabee? I'll buy you a beer."
Chris nearly shoved Michael out of his path and walked on. However, something in the younger man's face made him pause. He turned on his heel and headed back to the table he'd just vacated. "You've got five minutes," he said over his shoulder. "Keep your beer."
Michael nodded and followed Chris. Given their history, he supposed five minutes was as good as he was going to get.
"Whatta you want?" Chris demanded as soon as Michael neared the table.
Michael nearly changed his mind, but what he was after would be worth the confrontation. He pulled a chair out and sat. Leaning back, he crossed his arms over his chest. "I know we haven't gotten off on the right foot, but I want to change that."
"Why?" Chris questioned as he studied the other man's face. He wasn't sure he liked what he saw there.
Michael shifted in his chair. He nearly walked away from the table, but that wouldn't get him what he wanted. "I want your permission to court Sammy."
Chris stared at the younger man for several long seconds before smiling. It was a grin many people had learned to fear. "And exactly why would I do that?" He leaned back in his chair in a deceptively relaxed pose.
"Because I'm not the same man you first met. That's my past. It's not my present or my future. Right now, I want to work hard and make a good living and find a good woman to settle down and raise a family with. I think Sammy may just be that woman." Michael studied Chris, trying to read the inscrutable expression on his face.
Chris leaned forward to brace his hands on the table, bringing his face close to Michael's. "I catch you anywhere near Sammy, and by the time I get done with you there won't be enough of you left to even interest the buzzards." He straightened and stalked out of the saloon.
His temper was on a slow boil when Chris stepped into the foyer of the boarding house. The first thing he noticed was the piano music. He instantly recognized it as something Sammy played when there was something weighing heavily on her mind.
The music abruptly stopped, and Sammy appeared in the parlor doorway. "You're home," she said as she moved to embrace Chris. She stopped short as she reached him. "You smell worse than a horse."
Chris gave a short bark of laughter. "Hello to you, too." He studied Sammy's face. "Something on your mind?"
Sammy nodded. "It can wait. I'm sure you want to get cleaned up."
Chris's eyes narrowed. Whatever had been on Sammy's mind had her upset. He glanced around the parlor, trying to decide if he'd ruin any of Mrs. Patterson's furniture if he sat on it. Finally deciding it was safe enough, he grasped Sammy by the arm and led her into the room. "You're more important than me taking a bath. If you can stand the smell, we can talk about whatever's eatin' at you."
Sammy sighed heavily. This wasn't a conversation she had looked forward to having, but she supposed it would be better to get it over with sooner rather than later. "How was your trip?" she asked, hoping to ease into the subject.
"Long and dirty," Chris replied shortly. "Somehow, I don't think my trip is what's on your mind. Something happen while I was gone?"
Sammy shrugged and moved to pace the room, unable to stand still. "After you rode out, everybody in town started keeping an eagle eye on me. I couldn't walk down the street without ten people asking me what I was doing or where I was going." She turned to face Chris, and he could see the strain in her face.
"I didn't put them up to it, if that's what yer thinkin."
"I didn't think you had," Sammy responded. "I'd like to think you trust me more than that." She moved to sit on the small rocking chair in the corner of the room. "It got to be too much, and I had to get away for a while." She studied Chris's face as she told him exactly what had happened at the pond, including what had happened between her and Michael. "I guess I finally learned my lesson," she said as she shrugged her shoulders.
Chris rubbed his hands over his face and stared at Sammy over the tips of his fingers. His gaze was so intent that she started squirming in her seat. He supposed this was what had spurred Langdon to approach him about courting her. "I ought to blister your ass, you know that don't you?"
"Yes, sir," Sammy replied in a soft voice. This was exactly what she had been expecting and was afraid that sitting was soon to become just a fond memory.
Chris let her continue to squirm for several long moments. "I'm proud of you." He nearly grinned at the surprise that crossed Sammy's face. Obviously, it wasn't what she had expected to hear. "But I won't. In the time you've been here, you've grown into a responsible, caring young lady. I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt this time and assume you've more than learned your lesson." He paused to allow his words to sink in. "But," he said, his voice taking on a stern tone, "you pull anything like that again, and I'll strip all the skin off your backside. Is that clear?"
Sammy grinned. "Perfectly." She stood and considered her next move. Making up her mind, she threw her arms around Chris and hugged him tightly.
"I love you, Chris."
He hugged her back, oblivious to the tear that left a muddy track through the dust that coated his face. Yes, he thought, he was home.
Author's Note: I've decided to end this story here. I promise to return to Four Corners one day. There are still so many stories to tell. In the meantime, I've got some ideas to explore in my NCIS story, More Than She Can Chew.