Fool's Gold and Ashes

by Mitzi

Part 5

“C’mon, Buck, snap out of it.” He gave the cheek a firm pat, and then again.

A hand reached out and grabbed the offending palm. Then the dark blue eyes opened, focused, and Chris saw recognition. Then he saw the frown.

“Larabee,” He acknowledged, then pushed to his feet. What felt like a pressure hit the easy-going scoundrel behind his eyes. Nausea worked its way up his throat and then the dizziness hit. He sucked in air and rocked back against the cool wall to keep his balance.

”Are you all right?” The gunfighter put a supporting hold on the other man’s shoulder.

Buck sidestepped away from the touch, but turned a social, if somewhat indifferent smile to his old friend, “Wakin’ up in a jail cell with Chris Larabee…”

“Been awhile, I guess,” Larabee growled with self-effacing memories.

“Ain’t never been a time when I was the one who couldn’t remember how I got here.”

Larabee winced at the statement, but didn’t have time to ponder, “Are you drunk?”

The glazed, dark blue eyes were unfocused as if he was trying to divine the answer to that question.

Larabee could tell when his old friend thought he came up with the answer. The sadness and regret on the face was palpable. Were those unshed tears in those dark blue eyes? That bordered on impossible. It didn’t happen.

The long-limbed body collapsed back to sit on the cot. Finally he gave the other occupant of the cell a sad smile, “Guess Josiah was right. God does have a sense of humor.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“You and me? Sharin’ a jail cell for eternity? Is that hell or not?”

“Are you drunk?”

”Can you get drunk when you’re dead?” He asked the question matter-of-factly as if, if anyone could figure out how to sneak booze into the after life, it was this man. “Can’t get drunk enough to forget,” He added softly. His voice sounded lost and empty like a wind blowing through the caverns outside of Carlsbad.

“Look, you gotta pull it together.” Chris demanded, “Vin and the others …”

“Tanner? The others? Here? Oh, God, JD?”

“Are you drunk?” Larabee repeated impatiently.

“I’m sorry, Chris, so sorry. I swear I would have killed you myself if I could … to get to you … to keep it from happening …” Whatever Buck was hinting at was intolerable. Whatever his old friend thought he knew or endured, well, Larabee couldn’t get a handle on it.

“I’m not the one who rode out after Slaughter alone.”

”I’ve been ridin’ in and out of this town nigh on eight months followin’ and losin’ leads on that man. But I think he let me chase him because he liked watching me scramble around alone after the rest of you died.” There was a bitterness in the tone. As he spoke, the taller man reached to the nape of his neck and scratched. The itch was caused by a leather thong. Finally he pulled the strap of rawhide free and released his hair. He continued speaking before the blond could respond, “I didn’t know how to kill him. I wanted him to suffer the way you did. He wouldn’t die. In the end, it was Slaughter and the Santero who wouldn’t let me die.” The dark blue eyes met hazel then, with a depth of despair even the grieving widower had never seen when he looked at himself in the mirror, “I thought he’d never let me die.”

Larabee was staring at the man trying to work his mind around the fact that the sleek black hair had fallen to below his shoulders. The tresses were six or seven inches longer than they had been the night before and the added weight pulled the usually wavy hair straight down his back.

‘I’m right here! Larabee’s mind was screaming. ‘How can you think I’m dead when I’m standing right in front of you?’ But the words wouldn’t work their way through his throat, all he could rasp out was, “What have they done to you?” His voice came out in a painful whisper; he hurt for his friend. He reached out to touch a strand, not believing his eyes and knowing it would take months to grow that long.

Buck recoiled from the touch and even more so from the sympathetic tone of voice that could draw him in.

Chris looked at the man. He knew this Buck Wilmington, the clean shaven, long haired drifter that wanted to be someone else. He couldn’t wrap his mind around what the other’s words implied. He thought he’d sound a fool putting words to his suspicions, but Buck was so despondent and plaintive, he dared it, “No one’s dead, Buck.” It wasn’t exactly true, they’d lost JD again. And Ezra. But he could break the details once the man had crossed back to sanity.

Wilmington’s head jerked up in reaction to the statement and his eyes where black with emotion, “Alive? It’s happening again? Oh, please, not again. I don’t want to watch them die again.”

Larabee reached up to comfort his distraught friend. Buck jerked away. Chris tried to move closer. Before he could, Armstrong threw open the door and entered followed by six other men.

Larabee stepped protectively in front of Buck as the men approached. They were all dressed in Cavalry blue. Armstrong’s creases were as sharp as ever. But it was the battered Cavalry hat he tossed on the desk that made Chris’s heart leap into his throat; all earlier conversation forgotten. That hat, he knew as well as his own.

“I won’t watch again!” Buck screamed at Slaughter’s nephew, “Leave them alone. Chris, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”

Armstrong delighted in the breakdown of the once strong man. Practically cackling like an old hen, Armstrong put his finger to his lips, “Shush, shush now. Listen …” It was like a kid who thought he heard St. Nick at the door.

“Ready!” A voice called from somewhere outside of the jail.

“Aim!” Larabee was trying to work his head around who those words were meant for as he kept his eyes on Tanner’s damn ratty hat.

“NO!” Chris screamed as denial finally gave way to fear for his missing friends.

“Fire!” And it was followed by a volley of gunshots.

Wilmington shrank to the floor, his eyes focused on the past. Larabee didn’t even realize he had moved to the rogue’s side, it was so natural. His eyes were moss green defiance as he directed them toward the army deserter, but his first priority had to be the man collapsed on the floor.

Armstrong was laughing now, “Oh, Chris, oh hell, the expression on your face.”

Buck was swaying forward and back; shaking his head, ‘No.’

“It was quicker this time. But they’re just as dead.” He continued to antagonize the old partners, “So which one of you is it?” Armstrong chortled as he swaggered closer to the bars, “Typhoid Mary. Jonah. People keep dying around you. Which one of you is the hex? Or maybe it’s when the two of you are together?”

“Buck?” Chris asked softly, totally confused, “What’s he saying?” He demanded.

Armstrong craned his neck as if trying to see the dark haired man. Larabee got the message. George S. knew Larabee meant to shield the more susceptible one. It thrilled the old rival to be able to taunt the blond this way. So he bounced his head around like a Tom turkey looking for bugs until he caught Buck’s eyes, “I’m saying five good men rode into Pyrite looking for you and it got them killed. Again.”

Buck’s eyes focused suddenly on the other man. Slaughter’s nephew’s laughter dropped instantly to an evil leer, “You didn’t know?” That led to a quick glance at Chris, “I get to tell him?”

Larabee could feel his heart beating and tried to control his breathing. He couldn’t let this maniac see he was getting to him. But the notorious gunfighter was keeping score. The man would pay.

“Yes, five, because young Dunne rose from the dead to try to watch your back. Only to get blown to SMITHEREENS,” He clapped his hands together loudly like a five year old.

Buck was swaying as he was buffeted by the words. It wasn’t something he could absorb, “The end will always be the same until you give in to the Santero. The only thing that will change will be the ‘how’. And the pain.”

Wilmington bent over and grabbed his belly, trying to keep the nausea from winning. The ringing in his hears mercifully drowned out the rest of the man’s words.

It didn’t matter, their adversary had turned back to his true target, Chris Larabee. “And you know what else I know?” He taunted the lean killer who was safely behind bars, “It doesn’t matter. Because all I’ve done, as much as you hate me and want to kill me? You won’t do a thing to risk each other’s lives.”

“I’ll pull your heart out.” Larabee promised.

“I’m sorry about the others.” Armstrong continued as if the other had never spoken, “Uncle did so want them butchered on the altar. But you really are a threat when you have too much to lose.”

Chris just stared. If they had to die, thank God they went quickly and not at the hands of that brutal sadist. He couldn’t put it into words, but on some level, he knew that in itself was a small victory.

Larabee cursed himself as meaty fists grabbed his arms and strong fingers bit into his biceps. Somewhere during the tirade Armstrong had unlocked the cell and three men each had grabbed the two prisoners. They held tight as if knowing their lives depended on keeping the two in check.

Was it more magic that he hadn’t realized it was happening? Larabee asked himself, or had the tempest of emotions he was trying to conceal paralyzed him for a moment?

Buck was dragged out of the cell and followed passively as if all the fight had died with his friends.

George S. Armstrong stepped almost nose to nose with the man he considered his equal before his minions could drag him away. The humor was gone, “The Culandero and my uncle have their plans. Me? I’m in it for the money. So what you’re going to do now,” the Cavalry deserter continued, “is come with me and the two of you will sign for the gold payroll you kept us from getting last time.”

Judge Travis had ordered that the Army payroll not be released until two of Four Corners’ peacekeepers were present to sign for it. Larabee and Tanner had made the last money run without the support of the soldiers. That had unintentionally thwarted Slaughter’s plan to steal the gold.

“You’re gonna hold us here for almost a month before the next payroll? You don’t think people will wonder where we are? The judge’ll send half the army in here by then.”

“Oh, well, time’s a little wonkyjawed here,” Armstrong offered, wide eyed like a child, the insanity worming its way back to the fore, “We’re gonna leave right now and be there in just enough time to sign for it.”

“Are you trying to tell me it’s been a month since the last payroll? We only rode into this town last night.”

Armstrong looked back at Wilmington, his long hair, clean shaven face and lost expression as he was dragged out the door. He waggled his eyebrows as if to say, ‘You’d be surprised what might have happened since all of you left Four Corners.’ But he didn’t elaborate, just threw his head back and let loose a deep belly laugh.

“What makes you think I won’t force you to kill us both right now?”

As he answered, he replaced both Wilmington and Larabee’s guns in their holsters. It was for appearances, he showed Chris the weapons were empty, as he spoke, “Because you always think you’ll get one more chance. Every time. Won’t happen, but you’ll wait for it to keep Wilmington alive. I don’t know why, but I know it as well as I know my own name.” Armstrong rambled amiably as he escorted the guards and their captive to the door.

The deserter’s uncontainable jealousy briefly fought the insanity into submission and came to the fore, “You learned that stupid optimism from him. He makes you weak.”

“You don’t know what strength and weakness is.” ‘Damn it.’ Larabee cursed himself. He hadn’t been going to let that madman provoke him into a reaction. But the thick dark fluid that stained the ground two buildings down, even in the darkness of night, seemed to corroborate Armstrong’s story and put the gunfighter in a controlled rage. It was cool, detached, and that was when he was at his most dangerous. But if the blood pooling on the street was where Armstrong’s firing squad had taken the lives of his friends, Larabee vowed to himself that was where he would drag George S.’s body back to watch him die.

“Tell you what,” the ex-Cavalry officer bowed his head for a moment then slowly turned to face the gunfighter. They were on the boardwalk now. The residents of Pyrite gave them a wide berth, but did nothing to help them. Armstrong crooked his finger and moved out of earshot of Wilmington. Larabee was shuffled along in response.

The ice cold eyes studied the shootist for a moment and then repeated, “Tell you what, I’ll let you go.”

He waited for a response, but got none.

“No, really, you walk over to that saloon and stay until, say, noon tomorrow? And then you ride out alone. You’re free to go. Wilmington? Well, my uncle’s Culandero has big plans for him. So you have to leave alone. Otherwise, you walk down there,” he nodded to where three more of his men, also in uniform, stood with thirteen saddled horses. The odds were about to get a lot worse, “get on your horse and pretend that’s not a weak and stupid thing to do.”

He raised his eyebrows defying the other man for an answer.

Chris Larabee leaned forward in the grasp of the men who held him. His dirty blond bangs hung in his eyes like long dead winter grass. The amber had gone an intense predator green. Armstrong’s body vibrated with an involuntary chill. He had the impression he was facing off with a mountain cat more than a human. And he laughed.

A barely perceptible gesture from their leader had the men releasing their hold and backing off. The laugh lessened to a smirk and a raised eyebrow. Everyone waited.

Larabee looked toward the saloon; toward Wilmington who couldn’t hear what had been said, and didn’t care anyway. The gentle man was staring, unfocused, into the past. The green eyes took in all the other men around them, the ambivalent townspeople who would be no help, and the horses saddled and waiting to take them to the payroll pickup.

The broad shoulders straightened in the black duster. His spurs rang as he headed toward the saddled horses. He’d take his chances. He ignored Armstrong’s mocking snicker.


George S. Armstrong would have been surprised if he knew Chris Larabee’s thoughts as he strode toward the horses despite the alleged freedom that lay in the other direction. He was thinking of a pair of clear eyes of mountain spring blue. They had met his cynical gaze across the street barely 30 days ago. He could tell then that the young man was going to try to save an innocent life even though he was outnumbered; even though it wasn’t his fight. In that moment the morose widower had seen a sense of honor that he himself had lost when his family died.

He remembered how he had decided at that moment, that it was as good a day to die as any and had tagged along to, maybe, keep that idealism from killing the kid. It didn’t take long to figure out that “kid” was a man and could take care of himself. And for all the man in the ratty buffalo coat had seen and been in his short life, he still understood justice.

Beyond that, there was the man they had saved, a good, gentle man who could have died because he tried to help. There was the old friend they had given him an excuse to reconnect with and the others who had become friends despite his best efforts to push them away. The memories stabbed his heart in a way he thought nothing would ever touch him again. So, for the first time in a very long while, he decided that any revenge had to be tempered with the fact that he wasn’t willing to lose anyone else this day.

Something had happened to Buck Wilmington and the innuendos and challenges that swirled around spoke of having lived through unfathomable things. The hint that he had lived through things repeating themselves seemed impossible; but Chris’d seen things in this town that seemed to wrinkle time.

Part 6

The part of being an officer that Armstrong did best was look good while he was leading his men. That’s what he was doing now as they strode toward their waiting mounts. They had obviously stolen more uniforms to play their part. The six men with them wore the uniforms. Three more men dressed in Cavalry blue tended thirteen horses in front of the saloon.

Larabee held his head proudly. He could feel three of Armstrong’s men at his back. The lieutenant and the other three were even further behind him with Buck. He knew his old friend was there, but he couldn’t feel the solid presence that would usually represent. He was worried that the spark was missing from the usually so resilient, gentle warrior.

In front of the saloon, Larabee walked a gauntlet of his enemy. Without granting them a second glance he moved to Habanero and checked the animal’s cinch. It was only then that something registered. It was the scraggly non-regulation hair peeking out from under the slouch hat of one of the soldiers. The slender man leaning against a wall felt the gunfighter’s eyes on him, raised his head slowly and winked. Vin.

The man tending the first set of horses and the man tending the second group turned. Josiah. Nathan.

Relief hit the gunfighter like a physical thing. His knees would have betrayed him but for his grip on the saddle.

Events took on a life of their own at that moment. His three guards moved forward and realized the deception. They went for their guns. One shouted in inarticulate surprise.

Two blades sailed through the air faster than the eye could track and silently brought two of the deserters to the ground. Vin grabbed Larabee and pulled him out of the blanket of blue and shoved a gun into his hand.

Chris put a bullet between the eyes of one soldier Nathan had wounded. Tanner cut the legs out from under the one who was still standing.

A giant of a man stepped from between two buildings, gun pointed at the last three would-be cavalrymen. They stopped in the process of drawing their firearms.

Then another shot rang out. Armstrong’s bullet grazed Josiah’s forearm and he dropped his Colt. Armstrong’s last three standing men dove for cover as they drew their guns. They forced the regulators to find protective shelters as well.

Gunfire from across the street suddenly put Armstrong’s men in a crossfire.

Buck hadn’t even registered what was going on. Armstrong grabbed the big man and dragged him into the closest alley.

A slight built man with chestnut hair wore the third uniform. He shot one soldier who was taking aim on Larabee and Tanner. The shootist and the tracker were fancy stepping to keep from being trampled by the horses terrified by the gunfire.

Then a blur of tweed and dark hair raced across the street and slid beside Chris and Vin, “Where’s Buck?” JD demanded.

The question had eyes of hazel and blue migrating to the alley from where Armstrong had taken his shot. The deserter was nowhere to be seen. Buck was gone with him.

Chris looked back quickly to the young face demanding answers. The back of his mind registered that JD was alive and vibrant beside him and Ezra was the chestnut haired third

soldier. There was no time to bask in the relief that flooded him, “Cover me!” He shouted and ran after Armstrong and his hostage.

With almost suicidal intent, Larabee dove for the alley. Tanner cursed the move, but started breathing again when his friend made it to the mouth of the road safely. He followed, relying on the others to neutralize the enemy so he could go cover the blond.


Larabee spun around the corner and into the alley. Wilmington was sitting in the dust propped up against one wall. Armstrong must have decided not to deal with the less than compliant man. Buck must have taken a pretty good blow to the head, but his hand was spasming as if reaching for a gun. He was alive.

Larabee did no more than register his friend was breathing before he made the decision to chase after the enemy. And he was gone through the far “T” intersection at the far end of the buildings.


The streets were vacant; everyone having sought cover. And then there was silence. The bodies of the men who had thought to divide the seven lay in the dust turned muddy with their blood.

The gunfire had barely died before Nathan was standing beside Sanchez to tend his wound. Josiah was fussing against the attention and insisted they should instead, be following after their missing brothers, “Let’s all get off of this street,” Josiah said and it was an order. One that Nathan seemed to disregard as he tracked the groove in the muscled flesh.

Sanchez pulled away to refocus the healer’s attention, “We are vulnerable out here on the street. Let’s not make ourselves targets.”

“Or victims.” Nathan muttered to himself.

“Frankly, I am frustrated by the way our numbers are continuously fragmented in this town.” Nathan knew it was Ezra’s way of saying he was worried about the others.

The ex-slave was also aware of JD Dunne practically bouncing beside him. An uncharacteristic maturity had the young man standing guard over his comrades even though he wished he could follow his hero in the spontaneous dash after their foe.

The shelter of the narrow alley walls was inviting and Nathan supported much of the preacher’s weight as he led them in that direction. It was where Larabee and Tanner had disappeared to and there had been no gunfire, so it was as safe a route as any. Standish and Dunne covered their retreat.

Anticipating more gunfire at any moment, Nathan rushed his movements and staggered under his old friend’s weight. He finally turned into the eerie silence of the smaller road.

There was a man slumped against the exterior wall of one building. As the healer watched, this man’s head drooped forward and the hair fell across the face like blue/black curtains being drawn across the final act of a play.

The first impression was that this was one of Armstrong’s fallen comrades. Except there was again, appearing like a Will O’ The Wisp, Tobias Thibodaux, kneeling beside the form. The one blue eye and one brown widened when they met those of the healer. He was holding possessively to one strong but motionless arm and kneeling in a thick dark liquid.

The Louisiana stray’s attention to the fallen one was what it took. “Oh, my God,” Jackson breathed, handed Josiah to Standish and dashed the short distance. He gently pushed the shoulder length hair back and recognized what his senses had been shouting at him, “Buck?”

He heard a gasp from JD as the others joined him kneeling beside the boneless body. Jackson noticed that the young Culandero wasn’t giving up his place. The thick liquid the boy was kneeling in was blood and the knees of his trousers were stained with it.

The ex-slave was quickly running his hands over the unconscious body looking for the source.

“What’s wrong with him, Nathan?” Came JD’s high pitched question.

“Keep your eyes out for danger.” He heard the southern accent bark, “And let our healer do his job.”

Ezra, gun drawn, focused entirely on his surroundings to deny what was playing out beside him.

There was too much blood coming from somewhere and staining the dirt. There was so much blood.

The healer’s heart skipped a beat. It disturbed him more than he understood when he discovered the blood was pulsing from a jagged gash at the dark-haired cowboy’s left wrist. He pulled the over sized bandana from Wilmington’s throat and wrapped it several times around the offensive wound. But not before the others had seen the angry cut.

“We need to get him somewhere safer; where I can get a better look,” Nathan sounded preoccupied. He knew what a cut like that often meant. It was unacceptable to someone who clung so valiantly to life, to his control over his own life, and had so recently nearly lost that control to see someone willing to voluntarily throw all of that away.

Sanchez, ignoring his own wound, bent and helped their unconscious friend from the ground.

Ezra again took it on himself to keep guard as the larger men carried Buck toward the street and toward the nearest hotel.

JD followed, trying to stay close to his fallen mentor. He almost tripped over Toby who wouldn’t get out of his way.

Josiah steered them toward the hotel. As they arrived, a rotund, grey haired man slipped out the door. His eyes cut this way and that down the street as he addressed them, “You can’t come in …”

“I got an injured man.” Nathan demanded.

“I don’t … you can’t …” the little man began.

“We need a safe place!” JD reinforced.

“You should ride out. You have to …” The little man’s bluster was interrupted.

The small crowd of men was so focused on the confrontation that they were startled when a lean, black clothed leg kicked out and hit the elaborate double doors. Glass shattered as the force of the kick slammed the door back against the foyer wall. Larabee shoved the clerk aside and led the way into the lobby and straight to the stairs. Vin slid in beside Ezra as they covered their friends progress up the stairs.

With a quick “I-wish-I-had-thought-of-that-move” grimace, JD bounded forward to address Tanner, “Where did he go?” He asked their tracker, referring to the elusive Santero.

“Disappeared like a ghost.” Tanner responded, “Again.” And he didn’t sound happy about it.

The gambler could tell their Texan was preoccupied with something, but he was, nevertheless, focused on protecting his friends.

At the same time, one word, the tone, from Larabee asked an entire question, “Nathan?”

“Bad enough.” He referred to their friend’s condition, “I need to check for any other injuries. I don’t like that he’s out like this. I can’t figure out why he’s unconscious.”

With those words in his ears, Larabee led the way upstairs, used his foot again as a key to get into the first room and stood aside for the larger men to bring their friend in. His sharp eyes didn’t miss the fact that several of their number needed to nurse their injuries.

They settled the gangly body bonelessly on the bed. Lost as he was to his surroundings, Buck’s head was shaking back and forth in some kind of denial.

“Buck! Wake up!” Larabee ordered, trying to put enough demand in the voice to drown out his fear. He fought the niggling thought that Buck had been indifferent to their friendship lately and the time that his voice could call to his old friend through pain or delirium may have past. There was no response.

“Did he lose enough blood to be out like that?” Ezra asked.

Nathan regretfully shook his head, ‘no’. The healer had determined that Buck had no other apparent injuries, but had given up trying to rouse him. Hoping their gregarious friend would come around on his own, he kept pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding.

Ezra took up residence by the window and watched the street below. Josiah steered JD to the open hallway door where they could watch for anyone coming their way and still be a part of what happened in the room. Tanner moved near the window beside Standish but not where he made himself a target.

“You want to tell us what is going on?” Sanchez asked the young Cajun. The wide eyes looked up at him as if he had been trying to be invisible, but offered no response.

“He asked you a damn question!” Larabee shouted. “What happened to him? What’s going on? You’re gonna talk.” Chris demanded as he strode across the room and over to Tobias.

He looked up at the lean man in black with his bi-colored eyes. For a moment they thought no answer was forthcoming. But at last the disturbing voice offered, “The Orishas have a plan.”

Chris bunched his fists into the new blue shirt and suspenders the boy wore, “I want a straight answer.”

Toby smiled as if, for some reason, he was thrilled that Chris Larabee would shout at him. He held tighter to the coat and hat under his care.

“Now, Old Dog … “ The Crescent City orphan drawled. The gunfighter immediately shoved the young man away like he’d been stung. He studied the kid and then started to move back in on him.

“Cowboy,” The one word had Larabee releasing the boy none too gently and moving quickly to the window to see what had Vin’s attention.

There, in the halo of one of the lamplights, stood the old, wild-maned Santero. He was staring at their window. His eyes met theirs immediately. He didn’t seem concerned that he’d been discovered.

“That man down there could answer a multitude of questions.” Standish observed.

“He’s mine.” The gunfighter was already moving toward the door when a voice stopped him.

“No!” Ezra’s raised voice surprised them all, “I grant that I have seen many things in the last few days that I can barely comprehend, much less understand or believe. But with Mr. Jackson’s need to stay with Buck and Josiah, I know more about Santeria than any of us and I am best equipped to know what is going on when I see it happen.”

Larabee shook his head, no. He wanted that one for himself. He headed toward the door only to find his way blocked by Tanner. Their eyes met in mutual defiance.

“We see ‘em.” Vin referred to either Slaughter, Armstrong, their men or the Santero, “We chase after ‘em. We lose ‘em. We come back and our friends are hurtin’ worse.”

Chris didn’t look around. He didn’t want to acknowledge the truth of these words. Josiah was wounded. Nathan was working over everyone else so he didn’t have to think about the tortured and ritualistic cuts he was aware were on the ex-slave’s chest.

“So what? You want to sit here ‘til they use some of that magic on us?” Larabee asked harshly, “How you want to go out, Tanner? Burst into flame? Your bones dissolve in your body? Maybe you want them cuttin’ your heart out?”

“Ain’t used nothin’ but guns since we first got here.”

That was like a cold shower. It was true, Larabee hadn’t registered the change. What had caused it? What did it mean? What had changed?

“But we keep doin’ the same thing over and again. Al of us are like rats in a maze and we keep runnin’ the same path we would always run.”

Their leader knew all of the others were listening. He responded defensively, “We do what works for us. What’s kept us alive. What else is there?”

“I ain’t backin’ ya on another chase. I’m waitin’ here, together, and makin’ them come to us.”

“I ain’t never asked for your help.” Was the defensive response.

“You ask, Pard, just not with words.” Was the soft reply. “Buck ain’t comin’ around. Our place is here.”

“Chris.” The tone of voice Josiah used broke the confrontation and had Chris moving back to the window wondering what else could happen.

He arrived at the window in time to see the Santero’s eyes flicker to something on the boardwalk in front of the hotel. The tall man melted into the shadow of the alleyway.

Two figures moved out of the shadows and into the halo of light created by one of the fancy oil lights on poles that illuminated the town instead of street fires. The taller of the two figures was removing a red coat that looked dark maroon in the dim light.

It gave Chris an horrific sense of déjà vu, again seeing Ezra and JD float like ghosts toward that man. Chris’s head whipped back inside the room.

Sure enough, he realized with gritted teeth, only Josiah, Toby, Vin, Nathan, Buck and himself were in the room. His eyes flew back to Standish and Dunne on the street below. JD was like a little terrier going down a weasel hole to kill his prey. He slid into the dark alley with that conviction.

Standish took the time to offer two fingers to the short brim of his hat, a salute to his leader in the upper window before he followed the young sheriff. And it brought back Vin’s words that they were acting predictably. Like rats in a maze.

He felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and looked up into Josiah’s cool blue eyes, “Ezra knows more about this Santeria than any of us.” He reaffirmed, “And JD will stay safe just so he won’t disappoint Buck.”

“You heard what Vin just said,” Larabee said, his way of acknowledging the logic of the tracker’s words.

“And I more than understand their validity. I should have realized it himself, but once it was pointed out to me, I realize we all need to find a way to act against our nature.” The preacher let that sink in before he added, “But if someone is playing us based on our personalities, it’s very possible they have misread our gambler, because he is not what he seems on the surface.”

That was very true. The Southerner kept his loyalty, sense of honor and sense of justice carefully hidden. Could he be unpredictable enough to be their hole card? “We need him alive.” Larabee said referring to the old man and speaking to the gambler even though Ezra wasn’t there. “But if it’s him or them, they damn well better stay alive.” Larabee, conflicted by having two goals with opposite results, added this last statement to the room so they would know where their priorities lie.

Josiah nodded. He was worried, too.

“Chris.” Nathan said quietly, but knowing where the healer’s energies were focused at this moment, Larabee was at his and Buck’s side instantly, “Nathan?” There were a hundred unspoken questions in the name.

“He ain’t comin’ around, Chris. I think they drugged him.”

Remembering what the powerful Santeria drugs had done to him, Larabee closed his eyes to hide the emotion there from the others in the room. After a brief moment, he opened his eyes again and started to say more but was interrupted by a loud commotion downstairs. The innkeeper had gone for reinforcements.

Part 7

Ezra had said nothing as he simply left the hotel room, defying Larabee’s demand that he himself be the one to go after the Santero. Nor had he reacted when JD saw him sneak out of the room and followed.

They were trailing the man instead of trying to take him down. Ezra was clearly still of the opinion that was the way to learn what they needed to know.

JD’s mind dusted back to Buck, all the blood and how he wouldn’t wake up, even at Chris’s call. JD was trying to block out Chris’s voice when he ordered then almost begged Buck to open his eyes. He’d never heard his hero sound like that before. It was desperate and demanding. And maybe a little fear? And Buck hadn’t moved.

No, JD tried to direct his thoughts away from that, to study the surprising number of men and women who once again strolled the streets of Pyrite at night. They were like deer, easily startled, but not smart enough not to return to their old habits and territories, and unable to recognize real danger. But these thoughts were only a distraction, and one that didn’t work. Because JD was scared. Of all the things that had gone before, even his own ‘death’, nothing scared him like the thought that Buck Wilmington might never wake up. He was too afraid to be in the room, to watch. He had done it before. He would watch his dying mother take a breath. He would hold his own and his lungs would get hungry before his mother would finally take another too weak breath. Buck was waiting too long between breaths now, too. He had caught himself doing it again, holding his own breath between one of Buck’s respirations and the next. He couldn’t do that again. Somehow he thought Ezra felt the same way.

There was another reason JD continued to tag along. The southerner seemed more comfortable with accepting JD back into the fold. Oh, the others were glad he was alive, but they slid hooded glances his way. Did they think he was possessed? Or that he was on borrowed time and would collapse finally at any moment?

Ezra seemed comfortable with whatever happened, with the talk of herbs and plants that simulated death. No, Ezra was okay with JD, but kept a close eye on Toby. JD was all for that. He didn’t like the boy.

“JD,” Standish broke the silence and his tone told Dunne he needed to heed the next words, “We need to take him alive.” He cut a glance at the darkening hazel eyes. A credit to the respect and trust he had for Ezra, the boy was waiting for an explanation instead of denying the suggestion. “bloodletting rituals such as he attempted to perform on Mr. Jackson always have an ulterior motive. There will have been potions or curses along with the blades. We need the man alive to tell us what he did and how it might be undone.”

JD Dunne wanted to deny the sinister ramifications Ezra was suggesting. But how could he after all that he’d seen? After what happened to him? He swallowed hard and nodded, “What do you think they did to Buck?”

‘When the time comes, we shall ask him,” Ezra promised. They moved through the alley after their quarry.

As they exited the far end of the alley, Ezra sensed as well as saw that the Santero had vanished again. But what was in front of him was a gang of rough looking trail hands, drifters, Vaqueros and Comancheros standing in front of a small, unadorned building next to the general store.

A man stepped out of the building. Even before he could see the man’s face, the gambler identified him as Francis Slaughter by the way he carried himself and the respect, tinged with fear, he commanded.


Slaughter stood on the step of the building connected to the general store. He looked at the faces before him. These men were ruffians, rustlers and murderers, all held in check by the power of, the fear of, Santeria. Then there were the others. The “buyers”. Slaughter turned to his right-hand man, “Make sure these men get what they came for. Try to keep it quiet.” Then, with a nod of his head, Slaughter singled out five men he knew and trusted, “You, you … come with me.”

“Where are you going?”

”To get my Santero back. And meet my destiny.”

With that, Slaughter strode back toward the hotel Larabee had sequestered his men in. The others milled around a moment to watch them move off, then went inside the building where the altar rested.


Ezra and JD were too far away to hear what was being said, but the men quickly split into two parties. Slaughter led the smaller group back toward the hotel where Chris and the others were holed up.

“Should we try to beat them back and warn Chris?” JD asked.

“Given Mr. Larabee’s current state of mind, and that there are only six men, if I were going to try to even the odds, it would be Mr. Slaughter who needed to be warned.”

JD was surprised at the admiration he heard in the statement.

“You want to try to see what’s in that building?” JD guessed.

“No time. I suspect we need to discover their intention.” Standish said with a nod toward the larger group as it entered the mercantile, “Unless you’d prefer to go warn Mr. Larabee yourself?”

”No, Ezra, we can’t split up. You’re right. The others are together. They’ll take care of things.”

“The boy is correct,” A gentle voice said from behind them. They both spun to see the man with the wild white hair slide out of the shadows and meet their eyes. The bi-colored eyes evaluating the two were the eyes of a man who had nothing to hide.

“I am not your enemy.” The old Louisiana witch doctor stated passively.

“I find that statement debatable,” Ezra drawled, never lowering his gun from its target. His voice was much calmer than he could have hoped. Rarely had the southerner’s imagination betrayed him, he relied on it for his successful cons. But right now it had him imagining lightening flying from the man’s gnarled fingers and demon red eyes. Ezra shook his head and the man was just a man again.

“I am here to redeem the soul of Tobias Thibodaux.” The man continued softly.

“What did you do to Buck?” JD shouted, his gun hand shaking with emotion.

The old man frowned, he seemed to be confused by the question. But before he could respond, a woman’s terrified scream ripped through the night.


The four peacekeepers had headed down the stairs at the first sound of a disturbance in the hotel foyer. Now, Chris Larabee had his hand resting on his gun. He stayed in the middle of the stairs to have a good look at the entire room below. Josiah was beside him. It took a force of will not to draw. The weasley little innkeeper had brought back a toady Sheriff and his two deputies. Larabee could tell that they got their backbone from Slaughter’s presence and little else. But they had their guns pointed at Nathan and Vin. Vin had his mare’s leg out of the holster, but held at his side. Nathan’s hand was waiting by his undrawn gun.

“We’ll just walk over to the jail and get things straightened out.” The Sheriff was saying.

“Nathan, go back up with Buck.” Larabee contradicted the order.

Slowly Nathan started moving back up the stairs, behind Chris and Josiah so as never to block their line of fire. Just as he made it past Sanchez’ massive back, the air turned electric. The tall, imposing figure that led reinforcements in for the sheriff looked around coolly. His eyes met the leader of the regulators, “Chris Larabee.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Slaughter.” Larabee growled. At that moment, they were the only two in the room.

“You’re a fool to challenge me in my own town.”

“I’ve seen good men and scared boys die because of you. It ends now.”

“You can’t best my power. My Santero.”

“I’ve stood toe to toe against the devil. You’re a poor second-ran.” Larabee’s eyes shot green sparks.

Slaughter wasn’t intimidated and continued to meet the lawman’s stare. “I don’t let people test me.” Slaughter challenged, “But I like to test myself.” He had a self-satisfied smirk on his face. Even here, already, these four men were outnumbered and outgunned.

Larabee’s eyes went hooded, “Your mistake was when you used your poison to turn me on the one man who stood beside me all those times and fought the demons of hell with me.” In that moment, Larabee remembered the look on Buck’s face when he, himself had said unforgivable things.

Slaughter actually laughed at Larabee’s defiance. Vin Tanner’s gun came up to aim at the fancy dressed outlaw, “You got anything to ask this snake afore I gun him down?” The Texan directed his question to Larabee.

The guns the sheriff and his deputies held shifted slightly to aim at Tanner. And then Larabee’s gun was in his hand, faster than anyone could react, but his focus, his anger, was still on Slaughter, “The only reason I don’t blow your head off is because I want to know what that white-haired medicine man did to my friend.”

“White haired …” Slaughter blanched, “He’s here? In this town?” Slaughter’s eyes darted quickly, there was panic in their depths, “Kill them! Kill them all!” He screamed.

Vin took out two of the men before they could pull the triggers. Chris’s first bullet hit the man to Slaughter’s left and sent him sailing through the hotel’s plate glass window in an explosion of glass. His next shot hit Slaughter high in the shoulder and sent him spinning.

The only cover the deputies and others could get to would be to retreat to the street. Larabee leapt the banister and landed cat-like on the fine Persian rug of the foyer. He used his gun butt to backhand the deputy that was trying to get Slaughter to safety and grabbed the fine lapel himself.

“Chris!” Nathan’s voice came from upstairs. Something was wrong. The tone had Chris, Josiah and Vin rushing back to their room. Larabee kept Slaughter in tow, but ignored the fleeing fugitives as he made his way back to his other friends as quickly as possible.


Nathan was standing inside the hotel room door as if a part of him still had an ear out to possible danger downstairs, but he was staring into the room.

Buck was up and his eyes were open. But, as Chris led the others to a surprised stop, it was clear that where ever Buck’s mind had him, it wasn’t in the room. There was no doubt that he had just thrown a saddle blanket over his horse’s rump, settled it, and was reaching for a saddle only he could see as he spoke with a sincerity and profound pain he would never allow himself to reveal in real life, “… yard dog,” They had come in in the middle of the soliloquy, “… beat him, kick him, curse him, but if there’s even a hint you’ll throw him a bone or scratch his ear, he’ll forgive you. Never liked dogs.” It was a lie, “They’re too loyal.” He adjusted the imaginary saddle and threw its stirrup over the saddle horn to get to the cinch. The others were fascinated with what they were seeing, but didn’t know how to stop it or if it was the safe thing to do.

The tall gunslinger was unaware of their presence. It was becoming clear that he did think he was talking to someone that only he could see, “It’s funny, or maybe sad, but when you carve away the guilt, the pity, the responsibilities, the memories of a different time - hell, maybe we were different people – there ain’t nothin’ left. Seems I should feel somethin’ and I don’t like myself so much because I don’t.”

Chris was frozen to the spot, hearing the words, afraid to put them into any context, but knowing he hurt for his friend. And he hurt for himself.

Larabee shoved Slaughter to Josiah, never doubting that the former preacher would take custody. Josiah watched Toby, huddled in the over sized coat of the man who had befriended him and was now lost in some dark place. He was trying to read the boy’s reaction to everything. And everyone.

Nathan was searching the sparse room quickly. It didn’t take him long to find it. A damn green and black candle hidden behind the dressing screen. He didn’t dare to blow it out. But gradually, slowly, he began to swirl the wax so that it would eventually extinguish itself. He still didn’t understand exactly why letting the candle’s wax extinguish itself seemed to neutralize any spells that had been cast. All he could remember is that is how Standish got ride of the scorpions crawling over the healer’s body and they’d used the technique ever sense. Jackson reminded himself to ask that damn Southerner how he knew to do that once they were together again.

Vin watched and listened and didn’t like what he was hearing.

Buck roused from his momentary reverie and turned his head as if, in fact, he had been talking to someone, and now there was a second someone he had been listening to and was now addressing, “You think you can do better than me?” It was said in such a neutral tone for such an emotion laden question. But there was no anger or jealousy, loss or sorrow. He just didn’t care, “I wish you luck.” But it was an everyday salutation with no true emotion behind it.

Buck walked around the small room as if checking the other side of his horse, and then moved back, “Sometimes the easiest way isn’t the best way. Sometimes you can be right surprised to find out where things stand, where you stand. But somehow the truth’s always gotta be a good thing. Ya gotta tell yourself that.”

Larabee couldn’t stand it any more, he didn’t want to hear this. He didn’t want to watch his dearest friend walking around in a world different from his own. Josiah watched closely, at the same time, he ripped a pillow case from a pillow and used it to tie Slaughter’s wrists behind his back. He was double checking the job he’d done even as he kept a cautious eye on the goings-on in the room.

“Buck,” Larabee strode forward and put a gentle hand on the other man’s shoulder.

Wilmington swatted at the sensation as if it were a fly or a bee at his shoulder and reached down to gather up the reins only he could see. He bent down and continued to the ground in a soft, crumpled heap. Chris was kneeling at his friend’s side immediately, Vin beside him.

The tracker had been raised in a way to be open to the spirit world, the unexplained, but Buck’s words and the indifference in his tone sent a chill up his spine and he wanted to do something to pry back the jovial, amazing friend he’d gotten to know.

Buck wouldn’t be roused and Chris turned intense eyes on their healer. Josiah shoved his prisoner to the floor in a corner of the room.

Nathan was staring at the candle. As soon as he had let it extinguish itself, their friend had collapsed. He hoped he had done the right thing.

“He’s still breathing.” Tanner reported with no little relief. He had to reach around Larabee to feel for signs of life.

“What the hell’s the matter with …” Chris had found his voice, but stopped and grabbed his old friend’s right forearm. Blood was beading at four tiny slices along this wrist. They were like the cuts that led to the deep, threatening slice that was still bandaged and raw on his left wrist.

“His soul is ready to be received in a new vessel.” Toby droned, almost trance-like, “That body is ready to receive its eternal rest.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Larabee was on the boy in a bound. He bunched the too big coat in his fists and slammed the youth into the wall, “What have you done to him?”

“Now, Old Dog,” The boy droned, smiling at the emotion he could rile out of Chris Larabee.

”Don’t call me that!” Chris demanded and slammed the boy back against the wall.

”Chris,” Josiah was there trying to separate the man from his victim, “Chris, leave him alone.”

“Did you hear him?” the dark gunfighter demanded, “He’s done something.”

“Chris,” Sanchez tried to calm the younger man, “Sometimes a man gets tired. Buck thinks JD’s dead. You and him? Well, I believe he thinks that’s over, too.” Larabee shook off the big man’s grip. He was remembering the things Buck had said in the jail. The kindhearted scoundrel thought he had lost much more than the others understood.

Josiah continued soothingly, trying to project his acceptance to the other man, “I’ve seen marks like that before. I’m guessing you have, too. When a man’s trying to make a decision, wondering if the physical pain will match the emotional …”

Larabee slammed his open hand into the preacher’s chest and shoved, sent him staggering, “Buck Wilmington wouldn’t try to kill himself. He wouldn’t even think of it.”


“Shut up. Shut the hell up! You don’t know shit. And you stay away from him if that’s what you think!” Larabee’s conviction and devotion to the words and the man were powerful and a testament to a friendship that was sometimes hidden in the wispy, gossamer curtains of the recent past.

Toby was simply in awe of the friendship he saw and held the coat tighter around himself.

“Chris …” Sanchez tried again.

“Stay away.” And his glare included Jackson in the directive, “I’ll take care of him.”

He turned his glare on Tobias Thibodaux to demand answers. And then they heard it. There was one, shrill, terrified scream. The following silence didn’t last long.