Fool's Gold and Ashes
It started like a whisper on the wind. And then it became desperate, angry, like banshee shrieks and the moans of doomed souls. The voices called names of loved ones lost, they called for anyone they thought could help them; save them.
And one voice sent chills, a small, clear voice calling, Pappa! Pappa!
Larabee was shaken. The tiny voice took him back to his first trip to Pyrite and further, back to happier times forever lost.
Until the voices permeated the night, Vin Tanner had been smiling. He was honored to see such devotion as Larabee showed his friendship with Wilmington. He had been thinking how, someday, he could dare to share that trust and camaraderie. Now he saw the distressed look taking over their leaders, their friends, face and took a step closer to offer his support. The step saved his life.
A bullet shattered the window beside him and embedded itself in the wall where the Texans head had been a heartbeat before.
Nathan, Josiah, Vin and Chris dove for cover, drawing their guns at the same time. Larabee dragged the unconscious Wilmington behind the protection of the bed. And then his face turned hard. Crouching, he headed for the hall door, Nathan, no one comes in this room. They try, you kill em, you hear me?
Jackson nodded solemnly. Chris took a last look that seemed to satisfy him that Slaughter was secure and he, himself, was out the door. The man was screaming at everyone in the room, Im invincible. The Orsas protect me! Santero! The final sacrifice! Santero! No one can stop me!
Interhanwe! Interhanwe! Toby chanted. Only Nathan, or Ezra if he had been present, knew the meaning of the word: Those who attack together.
Sanchez clapped his old friend on the shoulder and then followed his leader down the stairs. Vin followed as far as the door and then turned the other direction to find access to the rooftops.
Tanner knew his leader, his friend, had taken their earlier conversation to heart. He could feel that Larabee was only moving to a strategic place to defend their sanctuary. Vin moved to the roof to do the same.
Larabee slammed out of the front door of the hotel and shot two men before they realized the counterattack had begun. He rolled to cover behind a horse trough and kept firing. Sanchez ran and then rolled into the nearest alley where the side of the building would offer some protection.
Fire spit sporadically from the muzzles of at least 20 guns scattered about the buildings surrounding Sanchez and Larabee. A chunk of wood fragmented as a bullet found its mark. The shards hit the right side of Josiahs face. Reflexively he closed his eyes to keep the splinters out and ducked his head. He could feel warm tendrils of blood start down his temple and cheek.
Larabee raised his gun over the trough and fired blindly. It didnt stop a fraction of the onslaught. Then he heard the familiar bark of Vins mares leg and a man yelped. Another shot and another man screamed.
Slaughters men regrouped and split their attention between the adversaries on the ground and the one on the roof.
Larabee was reloading and mentally inventorying how many cartridges he still had; silently giving thanks theyd taken the extra ammunition from the jail.
Here they come! Vin bellowed from above.
Their enemy showed military discipline. They moved forward covering each other. Neither Vin, Chris nor Josiah could get a shot because at least a third of the men had their range and a good aim at any one time.
Suddenly more gunshots were coming from up the street. The rear line of Slaughters men began to fall rapidly before they realized theyd been flanked.
The candles! It was Ezras voice calling from somewhere behind the phalanx, Shoot the candles.
What candles? Chris growled to himself.
You must stop them. The old Santero had demanded of Ezra and JD as he pointed toward Slaughters men and where they had entered the building.
Neither of the men could deny their nature to protect the weak or innocent but it was hard to trust the word of the ancient Culandero. When they heard the scream, it made the decision for them. They turned and ran toward the direction of the scream. It had come from the building Slaughters men had entered. Two of the men exited the door, a struggling girl held between them. As soon as the men saw the two regulators they went for their guns.
Single bullets took out each of the outlaws. The young woman was never in any danger of being hit. The aim of both the gambler and the kid were true and they were more than ready to have a tangible adversary.
The young woman was hysterical. She almost fell to her knees, but not quite. She crouched in the middle of the street, grasped her hair in both hands and screamed. And screamed.
Another of Slaughters men stuck his head out the door to investigate the disturbance. He took a quick, wild shot that wisped past JDs ear. It only made the boy mad. The youngster rushed the building, the assailant. His first bullet shattered the window of the general store. It hit a candle with seven stripes of color. Instead on extinguishing, the flame burst like a Roman candle. The sparks hit bolts of cloth, clothes, more candles and school supplies. Everything they touched seemed to burst into flames.
Neither JD nor Ezra slowed down. They ran past the bodies in the street and the girl. As they hit the door and knocked it open Ezras first bullet slammed into a man standing by an open basement door. The force of the bullet slammed the man against the wall. His body jostled a small shelf above his head. A squatty amber and yellow candle teetered for a moment, fell to the floor, rolled through the door and down the steps into the basement.
JD wasnt sure how many people were shooting at them, but it didnt matter. The ones they were hunting now had sided with a man who had caused unholy grief to too many. They made their own fate.
The long hallway led to a building that was larger than it first appeared.
From the depths of the basement, a red and yellow glow began to pulsate against the shadows on the wall. And then there were screams. Wails and terrified cries split the night. It was coming from the basement. Pappa! Pappa! One tiny voice touched their hearts.
Ezra and JD became desperate to work their way past the men that stood between them and whatever was happening in the bowels of the building. The fire surrounding them on their floor seemed to be spreading unnaturally fast. And the fire in the Mercantile had almost consumed the building. The smoke from the general store was wafting into the hallway. It took Ezra a moment to realize that smoke was also coming up from between the cracks in the wood that made up the floor. The whole floor beneath their feet, as they worked into the building, moving from cover to cover, must be entirely hollow and on fire. The howls and cries for help grew louder and more frantic.
Rat-like skitterings could be heard beneath their feet. And then there were heavy footfalls pounding up the stairs. Slaughters followers never suspected there would be men with guns to challenge them as they ran out of the basement. They werent used to dealing with people capable of fighting back. Standish and Dunnes bullets drove them toward a back door. It didnt take long for the panic to become contagious among the cowardly bullies. It was already full blown down below in the overcrowded prison.
Ezra and JD ran after Slaughters hired guns. They wounded at least two of the fleeing men. Ezra glanced toward the basement door, unsure what to expect as the haunting screams carried to him.
He skidded to a stop. JD reacted to the move and pulled to a stop as well. He had learned in the last few moments to trust the gamblers instincts. There before them, trying to make it up the stairs, were men, women and children, dirty, thin, hollow eyed, terrorized and shocky. They looked as if they didnt know how to accept the possibility that they could soon be free. They seemed at least as fearful of what might wait for them as they were of the flames threatening them.
Get out of there! Ezra knew that after being imprisoned and tortured, an authoritative voice is all they would respond to until they had time to recover their dignity and sense of self-worth. He shouted an order for them to move.
Even though the dark, thick smoke was threatening as much as the flames, the people seemed willing to mill like sheep. Then the old Santero was suddenly at their side, Move quickly. Do not panic. Were here to help you.
Slowly the first of the men and women moved out the door. And then they ran. And the others followed. They were in threat of stampeding and trampling each other.
Ezra grabbed up a little boy with curly blond hair. I want my pappa, He sobbed.
Suddenly Ezra and JD and the Santero were being carried along by the throng. They tried to help where they could.
They reached the street in the middle of the swarming masses. Then the gunshots from the direction of the hotel echoed through the night.
Ezra thrust the young boy into the arms of the white haired man and was running to help his friends. JD was already headed that way.
Neither of the men noticed the old man hand the child off to the safety of a woman in the crowd and followed them.
Shoot the candles! Ezras voice directed over the commotion and gunfire surrounding them.
Vin saw the first one. If it had been there before, he hadnt noticed it. A purple and blue candle flickered in the hay loft of the livery across the street. He took the shot. The hot wax and fire landed on the dry hay and burst into flames. The man gunning for the regulators from the loft fell to the ground. The horses immediately began to whinny in fear.
Chris heard a grunt of pain followed by JDs startled shout, Ezra!
The air was punctuated with curses with a decidedly southern accent, but it was one of the best sounds Larabee had ever heard, and then he heard, Im alright! Stay down, Standish shouted back, sounding as protective as Buck Wilmington ever did.
Ill quite survive, Mr. Larabee. But Id like to end this as quickly as possible.
You got it. Larabee hissed. There was a black and red candle flickering in the window of the telegraph office. Had it been there a moment before? He took the shot. The papers and other supplies in the office caught like dry tinder.
Larabee couldnt understand what was happening when the street was suddenly full of angry, vengeful people. They werent the proper ladies and gentlemen that had inhabited Pyrite when he and his men rode in. They were dirty and in rags. And they attacked Slaughters men with a vengeance. A few of them had confiscated pistols or long rifles from the men they had already overpowered. The others carried farming tools from the mercantile or what looked like table legs as weapons. But they were bent on destroying the gang who had enslaved them. The people of Pyrite, who had turned a blind eye on the travesties hidden by their town werent immune either. They, as well as the gunmen, were paying for their greed and apathy if the mob caught them.
There was very little left for the Four Corners regulators to do.
Until Larabee saw the white haired man theyd been chasing for so long. He was making sure all of the horses made it safely from the fiery livery. Larabee stopped in front of the shattered plate glass window of hotel and raised his gun. Josiah was working his way over as well.
No! JDs voice pulled the dark gunfighter up short. JD came up supporting Ezra. But he immediately handed his charge over to Sanchez and raced inside and upstairs. He needed to see how Buck was doing.
Mr. Larabee, Ezra ground out through clenched teeth, That man is not our adversary.
Flames were devouring most of the structures, leaping from building to building.
What? Larabee frowned.
Chris and Josiah evaluated the gamblers bloody shoulder. It seemed to reignite Larabees anger and he turned back toward the Santero. The man was hard to see in the heavy smoke that seemed to permeate the town. Larabee started toward the man only to be surprised when the old Santero jogged his way.
Before the man in black could react to the man moving their way, a candle became one of the projectiles in the riots swirling around them. It flew through the hotels plate glass window and began to eat the carpet and drapes.
The entire town seemed to be giving itself up to the purifying flames faster than was natural. The hotel was no different.
The flames that lit up the hotel had Larabee mentally accounting for his men. He knew Nathan was inside with Buck. In the back of his mind he remembered JD running in as well.
Chris was immediately running toward the building Tanner! He shouted above the roar of the flames that now encompassed the structures of the town.
The Texan poked his scraggly head over the eaves. He must have realized their friends were in danger at the same thing, Ill meet you inside! He called, and he was gone.
By this time, the old Santero had joined Larabees group. The leader of the Four Corners regulators reached out to grab him. Ezra pulled from Josiahs grasp to stop the arm and force his leader to listened, This man is not a threat Tobias Thibodaux is Slaughters Santero! He is the source of the black magic. This is the uncle he refers to and alleges to fear. He has been trying to liberate the young man from Slaughters influence.
Despite the flames eating at the hotel and the thick, choking smoke, Larabees lean legs were carrying him inside and up the stairs before all of the ramifications of that statement could sink in. All he knew was that he had left two of his friends alone with that Tobias. Ezra was going to follow no matter what, so Josiah grabbed the younger mans arm and supported him toward their friends.
Just as Larabee began to skid into the bedroom where his other friends were sequestered, instincts had the hair at the nape of his neck standing on end. Acting spontaneously, Larabee threw himself backwards into the hallway as a bullet ricocheted off the doorframe inches from his head.
Larabee took up a slicing the pie position against the far corner of the hotels hallway. Here, on a diagonal, he could see much of the hotel room. In his minds eye he played back what he had seen in the room the fraction of a second before he leapt for cover and it sent a chill down even this hardened mans spine.
Nathan, apparently unconscious, was propped up against the west wall of the room. He was tied with the pillow case that had, moments before, held Slaughter.
Slaughter was standing in the middle of the room. His right arm held JD Dunnes unconscious form in front like a shield. His left arm was more than free to take shots at anyone or anything that came through the door.
Buck Wilmington, still unconscious, lay at Slaughters feet. The young Cajun was kneeling over Larabees old friend. The sleeves of the tan coat he was wearing were much too long and he kept pushing them up out of his way as he held that that damn coconut shell cup in one hand and Bucks limp left wrist over the thing with his other hand. Also in the hand holding the shell, was a jewel encrusted dagger with blood dripping from the blade. Wilmingtons wrist, which had recently only sported hesitation marks, was now bleeding from an ugly gash that was at least as ugly and deep as the one that had been on his right wrist earlier. And Toby was massaging the wrist to urge the blood to drain into the coconut shell.
When Slaughters young Santero saw Larabee, he skittered back into the northwest corner of the room. He was careful not to spill any of the contents of the cup. He came to rest cringed between Nathans unconscious body and the far wall. Pressed against the wall, the wild things smaller frame was blocked from Chris getting a shot by the healers larger size. Besides the lifeblood being drained from his friend, one other thing was burned into Chriss memory of the moment he had to take in the room. It was the feral look in the blue and brown eyes that had looked up at him. Toby was wrapped in Bucks big coat, was wearing the gangly gunfighters hat and had used soot from a candle to swab a grotesque caricature of a mustache across his upper lip.
As Toby crab-crawled himself back into the corner, his foot kicked the candle. It slid into the patterned white curtains. The lace ignited immediately. It seemed to turn red briefly because the fire caught and ate it so fast, that the fabric maintained its pattern for a fraction of a second before it gave itself up to the blaze. The flames caught on the wall paper and immediately began moving around the room.
From his position in the hall, Larabee watched in horrific fascination as Toby brought the shell to his lips and drank Bucks blood. Some of the thick red liquid trickled out the corners of his mouth and down his chin as he rushed to down the life-elixir.
Josiah and Ezra, behind Larabee were trying equally hard to absorb what they were seeing.
Larabees arm was outstretched, his gun ready, his hand shaking. He wanted nothing more than to kill the youth and stop this horrible ritual that was being had at his friends expense. Only the danger of his bullet hitting Jackson held him in check.
Hurry, Santero! Slaughter screamed.
Vin Tanner made his way back inside. He took up a position similar to Larabee, but on the opposite side of the door. He saw what the others were seeing. And he remembered back to when Tobias had told JD to drink the deers blood to absorb its soul. Tanners eyes shot to the gambler, wondering if what he was seeing could possibly be. He knew the Southerner had much more knowledge regarding this dark religion. Ezra didnt hesitate to meet his Texas friends eyes, and he nodded.
Mr. Wilmington, Ezra called out.
Larabees head jerked around to the smaller man and his eyes blazed. Standish ignored him.
Mr. Wilmington Buck are JD and Mr. Jackson all right?
Toby cocked his head like a puppy listening to his master.
Get on with it! Slaughter demanded of his Santero, Weve got to kill them. Now.
Bucklin? Vin called.
Toby seemed confused.
The hotel room roof was deteriorating into flames and about to collapse. The smoke was consuming the building and the hallway faster than the fire. The inferno from the first floor was licking at the flooring of the second floor. The roar of the flames blocked out the sounds of riot outside.
Smoke was coming from between the crevices and joints of the oaken floor. The senseless Buck was lying on a carpet that was smoldering and appeared as if it were ready to burst into flames at any moment.
Tanner stifled a cough brought on by the smoke and looked at Larabee. The gunfighter knew what they were doing, understood that the manic little man cowering in that corner was trying to become his old friend. He couldnt make himself acknowledge the little fool.
Chris Tanner hissed. They were running out of time, We can never He was interrupted by a coughing bout, We can never get Tobias to help us. If he thinks hes Buck, he might help us.
The gunfighter shot green lightning at the tracker. He knew what was going on. Tobias Thibodaux was trying to us his black juju to become Larabees friend. The gunfighter couldnt do it. He couldnt empower that idea in any form.
Were runnin out of time, Tanner demanded as embers and debris fell around them, If he thinks hes Buck, its your voice hes waiting for.
Larabee fought back the bile at the back of his throat, Hey, Bu Stud
Tobys eyes shot up. The sooty mustache and trickles of blood were partially obscured by his stingy, black-dyed hair. He was listening.
Suddenly, with a deafening crash, the south west corner of the rooms floor gave way to the flames. Slaughter held on to his gun and his grip on JD as he balanced to keep from falling back into the three foot chasm that opened just behind his feet to the inferno below. Like a living thing the fire moved across the floor toward Slaughter, his prisoner and the unconscious Wilmington.
Kill them! Slaughter demanded, panic touching his voice. He had come too far. He couldnt stop now. He had to defeat the Seven. Thats all it would take. He would be all powerful and nothing could stop him.
Buck! I cant get a shot! Hell kill JD! Do something! Larabee called. The room was collapsing. He could count his friends lives in seconds. The boy was still hesitating.
Buck, Im coming in! Cover me! Larabee knew that Buck would cover him.
Without a second thought, Larabee charged into the room, not giving the boy a chance to process beyond the moment. And then Slaughter was raising his gun. He couldnt miss the gunfighter.
NO! Toby screamed. He couldnt let anyone hurt his oldest friend. He leapt toward Slaughter and was there in a bound. Somehow he wedged himself between the tall man and Dunne. The Cajun shoved the young sheriff with all his might. The momentum landed JD on the bed. Slaughter and Toby were both unbalanced and falling into the firestorm below.
Desperately Slaughter grabbed out for anything to anchor himself. His fingers wrapped around Wilmingtons ankle and pulled. All three of the men tilted into the fiery abyss.
It was as if it were happening in slow motion to Larabee. He dove into the room, grabbed for Wilmingtons wrist. He grabbed air. Slaughter, Tobias and Buck tipped over and into the flames biting up from the first floor. Helpless to do anything but watch them being devoured by the conflagration, Larabee screamed his denial of the moment and his loss to the heavens.
And then he was on his feet again and running from the hallway into the room as it was consumed by flames. He grabbed for Wilmingtons wrist and this time his momentum enabled him to grab Bucks arm and hold on as the other two disappeared into the fire. Tobys eyes, whether they reflected betrayal or pride, were burned into Chriss memory like a brand. And then neither Slaughter nor his Santero could be seen.
All of the conversations and circumstances that seemed to hint that time warped around this town flooded back on him. The gunfighter shifted onto his side for leverage, his fingers cramping from the force with which he held his precious burden.
Larabee found himself staring at his own spurs wrapped around the old Santeros ratty and worn boots. Even with the stress of the moment, this startled him and caused him to focus on the old timer he had never had time to study before. Yes, the Santero was wearing Larabees spurs. But more, Tanners skinning knife was sheathed in one boot just the way the ex-buffalo hunter himself wore it. As his eyes scanned upward, the gunfighter recognized Josiahs heavy cross around the wrinkled neck, and Nathans knives worn bandoleer style across his chest. Larabee could see now that the man who called himself Malachi had fashioned a makeshift tie of leather straps and into the brim of JDs old derby which even know hung down the old mans back. It could never have controlled that mop of white hair anyway. The top edge of a deck of cards peeked from his faded green vest pocket.
Mementos or trophies? Chris didnt know. Maybe he didnt want to know. His gaze scanned up to the blue and brown eyes. There were tears of gratitude and relief in the aged eyes. His fine, colorless tresses haloed around his face, held aloft by the heated updrafts that were destroying their surroundings. Energy glowed around him and Chris knew the old-timer had manipulated time once more to give him a second chance to save Buck. With wrinkled lips, he mouthed the words, Thank you to the gunfighter. It was one last frozen moment in time and then the ancient simply ceased to exist. At that instant, the man in black knew that the flames had devoured young Tobias Thibodaux.
And then Buck was slipping from his grip. Thats what told Chris that life had started again. He threw his gun back toward the hall and grabbed onto his old friend with both hands. He felt himself gradually sliding into the hole himself, but he wouldnt let go.
Josiah knew the floor was barely supporting Larabee as he held onto Buck who was dangling over the flames. It would never hold his added weight. Josiah flattened his body so that it was distributed as much as possible and grabbed both of Larabees lean legs. He started to pull.
Vin ran into the room and found the strength to drag Nathan out into the hallway. The smoke was becoming overpowering.
JD was coming around and Ezra steered him toward the hallway. The hall was no safer, but no one was willing to leave as they watched Josiah and Larabees drama continue to play out in the room. As JD regained his senses, and registered what was happening, he tried to go back. He struggled against Ezra who held him tight.
Standish and Tanner pulled their burdens to the floor where the air might be a hint fresher.
It was painfully slow, but Josiah gradually pulled the dead weight of Larabee and Wilmington back up from the chasm. His eyes burned from the heated air and he was coughing to the point it affected his grip.
There was no way he was letting go. There was no way Larabee was letting go. Finally Larabees elbows were able to find some purchase on the ragged remains of the flooring and he could find enough leverage to help pull his friend the rest of the way.
The smolderings along Wilmingtons trousers had turned into licking flames. Chris ripped off his duster to beat out and smothered the fire on Bucks legs. Josiah was still pulling them both closer to the door. Chris got to his feet with Josiahs help. They got Buck between them and out the door.
Reunited, with the others, they found that the stairs had disappeared in the flames.
Quickly Vin herded them toward the back stairs he had used earlier. The fire was working that way, but the path was still there for the desperate, determined men of the Magnificent Seven.
The blackened timbers of the ruined buildings were even darker than the surrounding night. The inferno was devouring the town like a living thing. The edges of the town glowed with orange and yellow.
Vin and Chris dropped over the second story balcony of the hotel. The flames were generating a hot wind all around them. They helped the others drop, crawl or be lifted down. They were gagging as they ran away; the smoke was burning their throats and eyes. The hotel buckled into itself as they stumbled off the boardwalk and onto the street.
The scorching current of air seemed to follow a path that paralleled the buildings that had made up Pyrite, leaving the middle of main road relatively free of smoke.
Human shadows danced and reflected in the gray, hazy plumes that billowed all around them; some chased, some hid, some fled in terror. The screams and cries that previously had come from the prisoners, now were coming from the populace of Pyrite who had so recently been parasitic feeders on the cancer that was Francis Slaughter. Revenge was being taken this night.
It may have been that no one of Four Corners peacekeepers could have made it to the center of the main street on their own, but somehow, supporting each other, they finally collapsed there, relatively safe from the fury around them.
Vin and Ezra were the first to collapse when they could no longer support Nathan. Their own injuries finally taking their toll, they were pulled down by Nathan almost dead weight. JD fell to the ground when they did.
Nathan was still trying to orient himself. One minute he had been leaning over Bucks unconscious form; then a brilliant white light seemed to flash behind his eyes. He wasnt sure if he was ever senseless, because, somehow, he knew that Toby had struck him from behind. He had been helpless to do anything when he realized the young Cajun was freeing Slaughter and doing something to Wilmington.
Jacksons protective instincts had almost roused him when he heard JD burst into the room. There was something wrong with the boy. Did he cry out? And then, was that Larabee? The very tone of the mans voice, the worry there, sent chills down the healers back. And now he was lying on the hard ground. There were people crying in pain and fear all around him. He could smell fire, he was breathing smoke. He could smell fear and death. Where were the others?
Ezra was trying to evaluate the healers head injury. Tanner was trying to tie off the gamblers gunshot wound. But Tanners own injuries were finally taking their toll. And then, surprisingly gentle hands took over the bandaging job for the sharpshooter. Josiah, despite his own wound, carefully wrapped Erzas shoulder. Sanchez had wrenched the sleeve off of his own shirt to use as a dressing.
The preacher wasnt sure that their youngest was exactly coherent yet, but something, a friendship that had yet to recognize itself, had the boy crawling toward the unconscious Buck Wilmington. The young sheriff stopped then, focused on his gregarious friend, afraid to touch him, unable to take his eyes from the bloodied rag at his wrist.
On the other hand, Chris Larabee, focused on tying off the deep, threatening gash at the ex-Texas Rangers wrist, was very likely recognizing, for the first time in a long time, a friendship that he denied because it scared him by its very depth. Josiah tried to stretch his over strained back muscles as he watched the reclusive gunfighter. The preacher was prepared to stop JD if he tried to move any further. Larabee was in protective mode and might take any move toward his old friend as a threat.
Sanchezs heart went out to Larabee. The man looked so helpless; it was so out of character. He was holding the dark insensate head against his chest and massaged the brow, So, Larabee breathed out, Imagine that kid wanting to be you. Josiahs kicking himself. He thought the boy wanted to be JD. He adjusted his position so the unconscious man would be more comfortable and gave a mirthless smirk.
Josiah was surprised by the statement. How did the man know all that? He suspected that some part of the gunfighter, the protective part that he denied, but couldnt turn off, knew pretty much that all were present and accounted for, but his focus was his old friend. It was fascinating to the preacher, this rare glimpse of an even more rare kind of friendship.
They didnt see the truth, huh? That its easier to be your friend than to be you. You do all the work. The gunslinger, who fought so hard to be a loner, usually taciturn, truly believed that Buck could hear his voice if not the words, and needed to know he wasnt alone. And that was important. Larabee was rambling, saying anything that came to his mind so that his voice reached the other man. Sanchez was certain that he didnt realize how personal and telling his words were. Or maybe, tonight, for some reason, Larabee felt compelled to say the words out loud.
Papa! A small voice wailed, Papa! Frightened, sooty, the tow-headed toddler was bawling in the middle of street. He rubbed a squatty fist in his red eyes, Papa!
Larabee reacted to the cry with a fathers instincts. Looking for the source, he spotted the small child he had seen the first day he rode into Pyrite. He was about to stand, to bring the boy into the protective circle of the regulators when another form dashed forward, Jeremy! The man with dirty blond hair sobbed. He fell to his knees and held the youngster close. The man cried tears of joy when the short arms wrapped around his neck. Oh, thank you, God, oh thank you. The man chanted.
Josiah sighed as he watched Larabees face when he saw the young boy who had started it all safely back in his fathers arms. The inconsolable widower watched them with a bittersweet smile as that man was given the second chance he, himself, would have sold his soul for. Or thought he would have until this nights events.
Josiah raised his eyes, thankful for one miracle; one happy ending. He turned back to study his friends and wondered if it was too much to ask that there be more miracles come out of this night.
The sky dawned bright, clear and topaz blue. It was as if the region had been purified. The town of Pyrite lay in ashes but the freed prisoners and slaves had quickly set up makeshift camps and were learning to live again. Any remnants of Slaughters mercenaries had slinked back into the landscape. Armstrong was not among the bodies as far as they could tell, but some had been burned beyond recognition.
The seven from Four Corners stood on a hill as the sun set in a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, pinks and oranges. Buck Wilmington stood over the solitary grave that rested at his feet. His straight, shoulder length hair fell forward and concealed his features. The others were nearby, but tried to give him some space. It was easier for some than others The plain wooden cross bore the name Tobias Malachi Thibodaux. He stared at the name and the others couldnt tell if he was trying to believe the man-child was finally dead, or mourning a loss.
They had all had their suspicions regarding the Louisiana whelp, but no one would have guessed he was Slaughters Santero and his magic, hidden in their midst, was responsible for so much suffering. Unfortunately, there were no drugs or spells to undo the emotional damage or take away words once spoken. Josiah suspected they might never comprehend the torment Wilmington endured or thought he endured in the eight months none of the others had lived through. So far, Buck had refused to say anything about the time he had been separated from them.
JD was like a leach when it came to staying at Bucks side. But the older man was withdrawn; something felt different and the boy hoped that trying to be a friend now wasnt too little too late.
Vin found himself at Ezras side, questioning everything that had happened, the hows and whys as much as the Southerner could supply.
Vin seemed to hope that understanding what happened could minimize the hurt. The usually quiet tracker might initiate the questions, but everyone listened and needed to fill in their honeycombed knowledge with details and facts. Unfortunately some things theyd experienced still didnt seem possible.
And while it wasnt in Larabees nature to hover like JD, his eyes were always focused on one of his men or the other. He was either watching for danger or reassuring himself the danger had passed.
The lone gunfighter stood slightly behind his oldest friend. He was a black, protective presence. He thought back on how long it had been since he saw the big guy laugh. There had been a couple of sarcastic smirks the days prior to leaving for Pyrite, but that was so out of character that it was bothersome as well. And when the two were too close together, Buck would back away from him as if they were two negatively charged sides of magnets. Youd have to know Buck Wilmington to know when hes putting distance between himself and you. And even if he had been his laughing, good natured joking self Larabee would have felt the rift in their friendship. It was the size of the grand canyon. And it was growing.
Oh, he had been glad enough to see Larabee that first day in Four Corners, the gunfighter was sure of it. Truth be known, Chris had been glad to see him, too; glad for an excuse to look him up. The only other excuse would have been to say Im sorry. Aint never been good at that. Larabee thought to himself.
His first reaction was to be glad to see me. The widower thought, as he watched the slumped shoulders over the mound of dirt, Thats the real Buck. But my own guilt had me pulling back, afraid maybe he would call me on things that happened the last time we met. Not a word was spoken of course, but he felt my distance.
I think I know when I took that job for the Seminole Village I was hoping to get killed. I have just enough Southern Baptist hellfire and brimstone engrained in me that I cant pull the trigger on myself. Even at that, Ive probably blown any chance I have of going to heaven. When Im drunk or being challenged, I forget that if I earn my place in hell, Ill never see Sarah or Adam again. No, I couldnt kill myself, but if I got myself killed fighting for some damn fool noble but hopeless cause, for innocents, maybe some of the good and bad will cancel each other out. But then, why was I willing to take five other good men down with me?
Like I said, with Buck, it was an excuse to hook up again. Not my fault he was too stupid to say no to a suicide mission. Josiah I didnt even ask him, but hes the one I understand Larabee was pulled out of his musing when he saw Sanchez approach Buck.
Buck, Josiah spoke as he put a hand around the mans neck. They needed to get away from this place. They needed to not dwell on what lay in that grave.
Its something, huh, Parson, that poor kid thought he could do a better job of being me than I can.
I dont believe he thought he could do better. I think he saw a loyal friend, JDs protector, Ezras partner in crime, someone the infamous Chris Larabee confided in
Buck couldnt keep the derisive snort from escaping, He was a poor, messed up kid, Siah. Took him a lifetime to try to make it right.
The preacher was amazed at the compassion he heard in the voice. Whatever had happened in the eight or so months that had been stolen from the man, whatever he had lived through and so far he refused to as the others to endure even a hint of it he saw the wounded soul beyond all the damage the boy had done. The boy had adults who took advantage of him. That didnt get a response, so the elder statesmen of the peacekeepers continued, I think that wanting to be you, in the end, well, I think it saved his soul and all of our lives.
Buck looked up at the gray hair that symbolized knowledge, often earned the hard way. The gangly mans eyes had lost all of their humor. Whatever he had lived through had scarred him.
You should talk about it, Buck. He said again.
His only response was a negative head shake.
Buck, you know you were given drugs? Josiah was talking slowly, as if to a feral pup, Your feelings may be confused. And you know, from the war, sometimes, with injuries like yours, sometimes they affect your frame of mind how you see people or the way things happen around you.
Youre givin a lot of credit to the reckless, irresponsible son of a two bit whore, Buck murmured sarcastically as he pulled at his cuffs again; self-consciously trying to hide his bandages. Damn. Sanchez thought.
Larabee was there, then, pulling his friends hand away from his wrist and the gauzy wrappings there. Stop it. He demanded, Youve got nothing to hide. The gunfighter shoved both of his palms against the bigger mans shoulders, And you got no right holdin those words against me. He snarled guiltily.
JD started to move forward. He didnt want these two fighting. But he questioned whether his place in the seven gave him the privilege of getting between them. In the end he hesitated and then did nothing but listen to the harsh words.
The others had enough life experience to know that this topic had been allowed to fester far too long and only these two could resolve it and come out better on the other side. But it didnt make it any easier to watch and not interfere.
Dont, Chris. You got a right to speak the truth. Buck tried to walk away but his old friend got in his path.
I was drugged. It was worse than drunk. I couldnt stop what I was sayin.
But you had the thoughts. The words had to come from somewhere. Buck blurted out before he realized that he was admitting that the words had pierced so deeply.
From you! They came from you! The blond demanded, trying to get the other to understand.
Wilmingtons eyes blaze in midnight blue defiance. Before he could react, Chris continued, You think Im so sorry a friend, I dont know what touches you? What to say, whether I mean it or not? You dont think I saw you flinch when Mary Travis bad-mouthed Lydia? The fights youve started when men would say even less than she was saying?
Larabees eyes demanded and then pled with his old friend to see the truth of his words.
Buck was supposed to know the truth of things. It was like he wasnt even trying now. It wasnt like the distance that had grown between them since his familys death; since he had become so afraid of losing people he cared about. Recently Buck had seemed to be empty to him. And he wasnt reaching him now, I see every day what a good woman your Momma was. I see her in you, and theres no greater monument to a Saint. He willed the other man to hear the sincerity in his voice. It didnt get a reaction. In a moment of clarity Larabee realized there had been many times where they stood and said similar words, but the positions had been reversed. Buck had been asking him to stay or see the truth in things. But Chris hadnt listened.
This time it was Buck trying to walk away and Chris trying to find the words to keep their friendship together.
Their eyes held.
And then Buck turned and walked away. Moving to his horse, he spoke to the others without looking up, We gotta all step foot back in Four Corners for time to be set right again. Best we start headin that way. No further explanation was forthcoming and suddenly the others were having to scramble for their horses because Buck Wilmington was riding out without them.
It was a crisp winter day. The harvest was in and the territory was settling in for the winter. If the three weeks since their return hadnt seen things going back to normal, they had gotten back to routine. Buck seemed to have some sort of agenda, as if he were sticking around until he could be sure that the dark things that had haunted them had dissipated and he wasnt going to wake up and have to relive them all again.
Until, one morning, as the sun was peeking out in response to the roosters call, a solitary figure made its way toward the stables in Four Corners.
Buck Wilmington entered the dark, cavernous building and quickly and efficiently made his way to Paladin standing contentedly in her stall. He didnt need light to saddle the gentle gray.
Ridin out? a Texas drawl asked from the shadows.
Turning around quickly, Wilmington spotted the lean figure walking toward him, What are you doing here?
Larabee has his horse saddled to move out. Figured the only thingd have him packeds if he saw something that told him youd finally decided to up and leave. Tanner stopped and patted the big, gentle horse. It was interesting how animals took on the personalities of their owners.
He aint ridin out with me. He tried to make it sound hard and callous. He just sounded resigned.
I thought you and Chris had some good times.
We had some good times. After a pause, he added, almost to himself, Werent the kind of friendship that could survive the bad times.
Looks to me youre still riding together.
Buck looked up at the words. It was like he hadnt realized he had spoken aloud and was surprised to have someone respond to the words.
With a shrug he offered, back to his indifferent tone of voice, He tried tellin me I was holdin onto something that wasnt real. I shoulda listened.
Seems you knew he didnt mean it then. Why now?
Buck looked hard at the younger man. The sun was coming up so his features were easier to see. Old beyond his years, the boy didnt talk unless he had something to say. And if he was going to stay here with Larabee, he deserved answers to his questions, I want you to watch out for him for me. When I hear him talk to you, his whole tone says you two have something special. He had to work at controlling his tone before he continued, You can hear respect when he talks to Josiah and Nathan. His voice laughs even when hes yellin at Ezra. He lets JD do and say stupid stuff and shows more patience with that boy than I thought he still had in him. I dont hear none of that when we have words.
He can be a damn fine friend, Vin. The one ex-patriot Texan said to the other, Hes worth it.
Larabee aint got a closer friend than me. He knows it and I know it. Tanner said casually, as if he didnt realize the simple sentences were usurping Bucks place at Chriss side. It wasnt something either man would admit to or even understood, much less conversed about, but they were talking about friendship and emotions they had been trained to hide. Or maybe Vin knew exactly what he was saying, but thought the final results were worth it, because he watched the other mans face. And when he seemed to get the reaction he wanted, he continued, But he watches his tongue with me. We aint had our first fallin out. Neither of us knows if we got a friendship to make it through those hard rides youve taken together. We aint been there. Vin pulled a blade of hay from a bale, put it in his mouth and talked around it as if he were discussing the weather, Ive seen you two have knock down, drag out fights and stand side by side on the other end. I figure he thinks hes earned the right to speak his mind to you and you to him, knowin you got each others best interest at heart.
Tanner watched the other man. He wasnt saddling the grey, but his posture was still stiff and defensive. He wasnt buying into anything the ex-tracker was saying. What he wanted to believe was warring with whatever he had been put through by that damn Santero.
Vin kept a casual stance and continued as if being this chatty was a natural thing for him. You know that respect and patience and humor you spoke to? When he talks to you? I hear all of that mixed together. The People have words for it. Blood brothers. So, yeah, Id trade with you if I could.
Buck finally looked away to hide the emotion in his eyes. Vin knew he wanted to believe. He stepped closer, put a gentling hand on the mans arm and added softly, We dont know what happened to you. I think youre trying to protect us by not sharing. But I think the one thing you cant handle is someone talkin trash about your Ma. And youre worst fear may be that Larabee meant what he said and you want to get it over with proving thats what he thinks. But youre heart knows he doesnt think that about your Ma. Listen to your heart.
Buck Wilmington stared. Tanner spoke so easily about things that most men considered weak and womanly. They didnt sound weak in the common sense way Vin presented them. Tanner met the studying gaze honestly and waited.
Finally Wilmington took a deep breath, blew it out and his body relaxed. Vin smiled and sauntered toward the door. His keen hearing picked up when the other man followed. Vin mentally let out the breath he, himself, had been holding. He had been worried about losing both of his friends.
Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington walked out of the stables together. The sun was up and promised a pleasant, unseasonably warm day.
Chris stood up from where he was slouched against the outside of the sheriffs office and watched his two friends closely for any sign of their frame of mind.
Buck was surprised to see Ezra up this early. The gamble looked over his shoulder in response to Larabees moves. His face didnt give anything away.
Buck was still a bit stiff as he stopped to stand before his old friend.
The enigmatic gunfighter met the dark blue eyes and then slid his hazel ones toward his horse, We ridin out? He asked without a word being spoken.
In response Buck glimpsed Tanners way. Something had passed between those two that had affected the older mans decision whether to stay or go. When he looked back at Larabee, the eyes said, Im stayin cause I want to. Not out of guilt or obligation. It ever gets to be more than that, I ride.
Larabees smirk told the other man that was the way it should have always been; Chris never expected more.
Still not a word had been spoken. Ezra and Vin knew something had passed between the other two and waited to see what.
Josiah and the Doc are headin for breakfast. Was the first thing Chris said with a nod down the street where those two were coming their direction.
I could eat.
And youre gettin a haircut. Larabee grumbled as he flicked the blue/black strands back from Bucks face. The two headed toward the saloon.
Youre damn pushy, Larabee. But there was finally a crinkle of laugh lines at Bucks eyes.
Aint havin you walkin around lookin and actin like Zack Monahans.
Dont start on my friends
As Standish and Tanner started to follow the two, the sound of running boots pulled them up short. They turned and waited for JD coming up behind them. They sheriff watched Larabee keep walking as Wilmington stopped, motioned extravagantly and then strode irately after the blond.
Are they fighting? JD asked worriedly.
Yep, Tanner announced with unconcealed pride in his voice. He smiled at JD and then Ezra. The southerner, in turn, bowed appreciatively at the waist and extended an arm in invitation for the other two to precede him as they, too, headed for breakfast.
They had been walking wounded when they came back into Four Corners. Now they were walking seven strong as they entered the saloon together.