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A scream shattered the silence as the old Victorian Manor shook right down to its foundations. The wind howled through broken panes of glass and barely hanging shutters, screeching through the interior as horrific screams echoed through the dying wood. The walls expanded and collapsed as death came to the inhabitants who'd laughed and danced throughout the evening hours. Now as the hour of midnight grew closer, that laughter was turned into terrified cries of pain and rage as a shadow grew to encompass the living structure. The walls pulsated as a crimson fluid ran from the spiral staircase and into the main room, drowning any who remained alive within its domain. Demons roared their anger at having their blood feast cut short by the escape of one soul.
A soul that should have been theirs, by right, by desire, but the fight had been lost and now they would have to wait for that soul, or another dark soul to journey within their walls once more. A banshee like wail emanated from the very bowels of the only room that remained alive, a cry that only blood could silence, but that blood would not come until the time was ripe and a new harvest began.
As silence once more took over and the walls continued to fold in upon themselves the faded sign swung on its hinges, crying out its name:
The Inn Of Lost Souls.
+ + + + + + +
The town of Four Corners was a welcome sight to the two weary peacekeepers. However, not as welcome as the sight of the saloon at the center of town. By unspoken agreement they aimed Peso and Pony for the livery and turned them over to Yosemite. The liveryman would care for the horses as if they were his own.
Larabee and Tanner thanked the man and turned towards the drinking establishment they frequented with their friends. Chris thought about their first meeting and how many times they'd made this same walk since then. The sharpshooter had quickly become more than just a friend and he was grateful for the quiet man's company. He stretched the kinks out of his back and strode towards the saloon, knowing the younger man was right beside him. 'Home,' he thought and didn't flinch at the idea.
Vin knew where they were headed without asking and smiled at the thought of the first drink they'd had in days. He caught sight of the gunslinger out of the corner of his eyes and didn't miss the sigh that escaped the older man's throat. Vin felt it too; this town had become something more than just a stopping off point in his own journey. Four Corners was a place where he had friends, six friends who protected his back the same way he did theirs. 'Home,' he thought as they stepped through the batwing doors into the familiar surroundings.
They spotted three familiar forms at the back of the saloon and headed straight for the table, not surprised to find two glasses of whiskey poured and waiting for them.
Chris sank onto the hardwood chair and lifted the glass. He tipped it to dust covered lips and sighed contentedly as the fiery liquid burned a trail down the back of his throat. "Thanks, Boys," he said as he watched his traveling companion do the same thing. "How are things around town?"
"Quiet, has been for a few days now," Sanchez explained.
"Long trip?" Jackson asked as he took in the haggard faces of the two men. He knew his two friends needed to wind down after the last three hectic weeks. It began chasing bank robbers, joining a posse, and then delivering the two prisoners to the authorities at Yuma prison. The telegram arrived a few days after they'd left and the healer worried whether the two men would come back in one piece. Although they looked worn out, the former slave was pleased there were no new holes that needed tending. Also, no broken bones in need of setting; in fact, he was pleased by their return and seeming good health.
"Yeah," the tracker answered simply.
"Where're Ezra and Buck?" Larabee asked.
"They went to Jasper, Chris," Dunne answered as he refilled the empty glasses.
"Jasper?" Tanner drawled. "I can see why Buck'd go ta Jasper what with all them 'so called' loose women, but what the hell's there for Ezra?"
"They're having a poker tournament there and we all know Ezra Standish and his penchant for gambling," Sanchez told them.
"Yeah, he does like a good game of cards," Larabee agreed and looked sideways at the tracker and wasn't surprised to see a mischievous twinkle in the sparkling blue eyes. "Wanna have some fun?"
"Hell, I like that," Tanner said of the devilish light in the green eyes, an evil grin on his face as he dropped the shot glass back on the table and stood up.
"Where are you two goin' now?" the healer asked as he watched Larabee stand beside the smiling tracker.
Larabee and Tanner looked at each other and then rested their gazes on the former stretcher-bearer as they answered in unison. "Jasper."
"Jasper. That's a good day's ride north of here and you two just got back! You need to rest!" Jackson blustered.
"Northwest of here," Tanner corrected. "We're not leavin' right now, Nathan, jest gonna get some sleep..."
"And leave at first light," Larabee finished for him. "I'm sure you boys can handle things around here for a few more days. Right JD?"
"Yeah, ain't much ta do except help clear the damn tumbleweeds from in front of Mrs. Potter's store," the young easterner answered. "I swear she stacks 'em there just ta give me somethin' ta do."
"She's just trying to keep you out of trouble, Son," the ex-preacher said with a grin.
"I don't get into trouble..."
"I ain't touchin' that one," Tanner said. "We'll see ya boys in about a week, depending on how much of Ezra's winnin's we can get him ta spend."
"And whether he's already used it up bailing Buck outta jail for lewd behavior," Larabee said. "Stay out of trouble, Kid," Larabee said as he headed for the doors, the sharpshooter beside him.
"Hey!" Dunne called indignantly. "Ain't no kid and I don't get in trouble." He frowned as the two men at the table joined the other two in laughter at his expense. He knew they were teasing and finally lost the fight to look mad as is own boisterous chuckle joined theirs. "It ain't funny," he tried again.
"Sure it is, JD," Jackson said as the three men stood up to leave.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee looked sideways at his traveling companion and smiled as the shaggy head turned his way. The two men were on their way to Jasper on the trail of Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish. They'd returned to Four Corners the day before to find out the pair were headed to a poker tournament. Both men knew Standish was probably engrossed in the tables already, but Wilmington was probably testing the 'so called' massage parlor the desert town was famous for.
"How're ya doin' Chris? Ya need ta rest those old bones of yers," the sharpshooter teased.
"Ain't much older than you, Tanner. My bones are doing just fine," Larabee told him and the two men lapsed into the comfortable silence they'd grown accustomed to. As they rode, sipping cautiously from their canteens, the leader looked forward to the upcoming water stop. They timed it so the stage depot would provide a brief respite from the intense heat.
The two peacekeepers dismounted and walked to the watering trough, allowing Pony and Peso to drink. Both men took in the surroundings and the stagecoach that was stopped in front of the single dwelling. The driver was talking to two women and was pointing to the wheel.
"Howdy, fellas," a grizzled old man stepped out of the small building and walked towards them. "What can I do fer ya?"
"Jest passin' through," Tanner told him.
"Where ya headin' fer, Jasper or Farmington?"
"Jasper," Larabee said simply, knowing those were the only possibilities in this direction.
The old man laughed as he smacked his hands on his knees. "Ya gonna try yer skills at the gamblin' or are ya takin' some talent upstairs?" he asked, eyebrows shifting up and down as his laughter turned into a harsh cough. "Damn sand's always makin' me choke!" he swore as he looked at the two men. "So which is it?" He watched the two strangers and instantly realized they would not be giving him an answer. "Hell, ain't pryin' inta yer affairs, Boys, just always been a man with too much time on my hands and I ain't got the sense ta keep my yap shut! Go on inside and grab yerself somethin' ta eat if'n yer hungry."
The gunslinger looked at the older man and answer. "Thanks..."
"Grady, we're not hungry, but I'd appreciate a chance to fill our canteens before we move on," Larabee said as Tanner flipped the reins over the hitching posts.
"Yer more'n welcome ta fill 'em up, Boys. I got me some things ta do fer Tom before he leaves fer Farmington so just let me know if'n I can help ya with anythin'."
"We will. I'm gonna see what kind've supplies they got, Chris," Tanner said as he walked towards the office. He stepped inside and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. A lone man sat at the table and the shrewd tracker kept his eyes diverted as he studied the stranger. There was something about the way he sat with his back to the wall and his eyes shifting back and forth from the door to the tracker. Vin moved to the counter, but kept watching the other patron as the man stood up and walked out of the room. He knew the type and wondered if this man had a price on his head.
Chris watched as a man exited the building and walked towards the stagecoach. Something about him didn't set right with the gunslinger and he leaned heavily against the hitching post as he watched the man's movements. The newcomer stood approximately six feet tall and red hair stuck out from underneath a wide brimmed hat. The man stopped halfway to the stage and turned to face him, but Chris didn't look away from the heated glare.
"If'n yer comin' ya'd best climb aboard now," the driver of the stage called.
Chris watched the man for a few minutes and knew there was something about him he didn't like. His instincts had saved his life many times and he knew when to listen to them.
Grady waited for the newcomer to climb into the stage before he closed the door. "All right, Tom, they're all yers!"
"Thanks, Grady, see ya in a couple of weeks."
"Just make sure ya don't ferget that bottle of whiskey ya owe me."
"Ain't much chance of that what with you puttin' that paper in my pocket. Watch yerself out 'ere."
"Always do, Tom," Grady said as he moved back and watched the stage pull out of the yard. He turned towards the man standing beside the horses. "Ya sure I cain't int'rest ya in a bowl of stew. May not be the best tastin', but it's fresh and hot."
Chris knew the old man led a lonely life in the middle of the badlands and felt sorry for his earlier refusal. He looked up to see the tracker standing in the doorway and smiled at the almost imperceptible nod of the shaggy head. "Well, now, Grady, you just said the magic words. Hey, Vin, looks like we'll be eating here instead of on the trail."
"Ain't gonna argue with that, Pard. Hell, it'll be good ta eat somethin' that ain't charred," Tanner said as he turned his gaze on Larabee.
"It wouldn't be charred if you cooked it yourself, Tanner."
"Come on you two before we end up eatin' charred stew," Grady told them, a smile on his face as he remembered an old friend he treated the same way.
Thirty minutes later, their stomachs full, their thirst sated the two men mounted up and thanked the stationmaster before following the trail north. Without realizing it both men were thinking about the man at the depot and the stage he was riding in.
Vin turned towards his riding companion and wasn't surprised to see Larabee looking at him. "Did ya see that fella at the depot?"
"Yeah, hard to miss him. He didn't look like the trustworthy type."
"I was just thinkin' the same thing. Think maybe we outta go after the stage and maybe ride along with them fer a while?"
"Yeah, I was kind've thinking the same thing. Grady said it was headed for Farmington, right?"
"Yeah," Tanner said and the two men picked up the pace in order to catch the stage.
They rode for approximately twenty minutes when Chris suddenly pulled Pony to a stop. Vin instinctively pulled Peso up beside him and watched as Larabee dismounted.
Larabee lifted the gelding's right foot and frowned. "Looks like he's picked up a stone."
"Damn!" Tanner swore, his instincts telling him they needed to hurry. There was something niggling at the back of his mind and he knew it had to do with the stagecoach.
"It won't take me long to get it out, Vin, but I think you'd better get after that wagon."
"Ya feel it too?"
"Yeah, something about that man just doesn't set right."
"Ya sure yer okay?"
"Vin, I've dug stones out before," Larabee said in exasperation. "You need to get moving before it's too late. I won't be far behind you."
"Alright," Tanner agreed as he turned away.
Larabee looked up as the tracker eased Peso forward. "Vin," he called and waited for the shaggy head to turn his way. "Watch your back."
Tanner smiled at the concern on Larabee's face. "Thought that was yer job, Cowboy," he said as he raced away.
Chris stood for a few moments watching his friend ride northwards and silently prayed they were wrong about the man who boarded the stage at the depot. He turned his attention back to Pony and removing the tiny stone that had jammed itself in the shoe.
Chris' head snapped up as a soft breeze floated over him, tickling at his spine, and raising the hair on the back of his neck. He was sure he'd heard a tiny voice whispered on the breeze. "Is somebody there?" he asked and looked around at the wide-open expanse of desert. He glanced towards the northeast as a shiver of dread ran through his body. 'Vin,' he thought and finished the job at hand before mounting Pony. He knew only fifteen minutes had passed since Pony had come up lame, but something told him he was already too late. He rode hard, unaware of the sands of time whipping into a frenzy around the area he'd just vacated.
+ + + + + + +
Vin pushed Pony harder than he normally would have, knowing in his heart he was already too late. He spotted the stagecoach ahead of him, shimmering in the heat from the brilliant orb overhead. He heard screams as he raced towards the scene and again picked up the pace. He saw the man with the red hair dragging something towards a low clump of scrub brush and hurriedly dismounted beside the stage. He spotted a young girl huddled in the far corner of the stage, her hands clenched tightly in front of her mouth as scream after scream left her throat. The driver's body hung over the side of the coach, blood dripping from his hair and the fingertips of his right hand.
"Are ya okay, Miss?" the tracker asked as he placed a foot inside the stage. He guessed the child's age to be around eight or nine and he tried not to scare her more than she already was.
"Pl...ease," the young girl cried as she bit the knuckles of her left hand. "Help Aunt Fran...he t...took her."
Tanner remembered seeing the man dragging something towards the brush and he nodded to the girl. "Stay put!" he warned as he raced towards the brush just as a blood-curdling scream erupted from behind them.
+ + + + + + +
Chris could see the stagecoach in the distance and knew his and Tanner's instincts were right. Pony's leg was fine and the steadfast animal heeded his rider's instructions. The gelding's long legs ate up the hard packed earth in an effort to reach their destination as quickly as possible.
+ + + + + + +
Vin pushed aside the brush in time to see the red-haired man bury a long blade between the woman's exposed breasts. "NO!" he screamed as he used his body as a missile and tackled the man.
Vin fell in a heap, just to the right of the woman and grunted as pain flared in his back. He ignored the signs of injury as he felt someone move beside him. He climbed to his feet just as the attacker made it to his own, the weapon he'd used on the woman held in front of him.
"Ya bastard, ya'll pay fer that!" the man snarled as he whipped the knife from one hand to the other.
The tracker glared at the murderer and knew he'd need to keep his wits about him. The man didn't seem very skilled, but the blade in his hand gave him the upper hand.
"What's the matter, halfbreed?" he hissed as he saw his foe's long hair. "Ya afraid of ol' Jim. Ya'd better be cause I's plannin' on taking me some breed scalp!"
Vin shifted to the left as his nemesis slashed the blade towards him, barely avoiding the razor sharp instrument. But the sharp turn twisted his back even more. He winced as he righted himself and knew the other man had seen it.
"Hurt are ya? Well this here's gonna hurt even worse when I sink it into yer gut," he slashed again, and smiled as he saw a thin line of blood on his enemies left arm. "Gonna leave ya ta bleed all over the ground while I take me pleasure on the other young lady..."
"Ya fuckin' animal," the tracker hissed as his anger over the man's words grew to the boiling point. He let his instincts take over and used everything he'd learned from the Comanche to bring him down.
+ + + + + + +
Chris dismounted in front of the stage, the smell of blood assaulting his senses as he spotted the dead driver. "Vin!" he shouted as he looked into the coach. 'Goddammit!' he thought as he saw the terrified child. "Miss, I'm gonna help you. Are you hurt?" he asked, his voice soft and calm as he tried to get through to the sobbing girl.
The girl moved away from him, curling up in the seat in an effort to get away from the newcomer. "N...NO!" she screamed and struck out at him, her small hands flailing as she tried to escape.
Chris knew Vin could handle himself, and that the child needed to be taken care of before he could search for his friend. Larabee climbed into the stage and reached for her hands. She flinched away and he knew he had to be careful of the traumatized victim. Her eyes were opened to complete circles, yet he knew they were not seeing him.
"It's okay. I'm not gonna hurt you. My name's Chris what's yours?"
Again she tried to hit him, harsh sobs escaping her parched throat as she struck out at whatever horror she was seeing. He reached behind him for the canteen sitting on the seat and opened it. He smelled the contents and was relieved that it held only water and he took a small sip. He saw her terrified eyes flick between him and the canteen and held it out to her.
"Would you like some?"
He wasn't surprised when it was snatched from his hands and the child drank greedily. Her eyes never wavered from his face as her arms dropped down to her sides and more cries erupted from the small body. Chris reached out and took her hands as the canteen dropped to the floor.
"Are you hurt?" he asked as he looked over her shaking form.
Mindy's eyes glazed over as her horrific experience replayed before her.
"NO! Au...Aunt Fran...No! No! Do...don't take my aunty...don't hurt her...No!" her screams turned into soft sobs as she tried to shut out everything she'd seen, but her wayward arms continued to strike out at anything within reach.
The gunslinger knew who the girl meant and he looked at her as he reached for her hands once more. "You can trust me, Honey, I won't hurt you. Okay?"
Something about the soft tones and the warm eyes told the child she had nothing to fear from this man.
"O...kay," she sniffed, her shoulder rising and falling with each terrified breath.
"What's your name?"
"M...Mindy Lawrence," she said and began sobbing harder. "Please, help A...Aunt Fran, he's g...gonna h...hurt her b...bad. Said he w...was going to c...come get m...me when he was d...done!"
Larabee flinched as another scream erupted and pulled her close, feeling the horrific tremors that ran through her body. He ran his hands through her soft brown hair and held her close.
"It'll be alright," he said and looked out the window towards the brush.
Chris ran his hands through her mousy brown hair and held her close. "It'll be alright," he said as he looked out the window towards the brush. He felt her go limp in his arms and checked her throat. He felt a pulse, a little fast, but there and he placed her back on the seat. He knew she'd be safe until he returned and he hurried to make sure the horses pulling the coach would not be able to take off. He secured them to a thick dead branch and raced towards the sound of a scuffle behind the brush.
+ + + + + + +
Vin circled the man, his back getting worse as he moved to avoid the blade. He knew his enemy was weakening and frustrated in spite of the knife in his hand. Vin continued to avoid the slashing blade and inflict a punch here or a kick there and the man snarled as he lashed out once more. The fight was going the way the sharpshooter wanted in spite of the pain shooting through his back.
James Clark was tiring, but he knew to give in would mean a trip to the gallows and he wasn't going to give in willingly. He slashed sideways with the knife, not really expecting to hit anything, but surprised as his enemy lost his balance and fell backwards over a dead branch. Before the younger man had a chance to react he pounced, landing heavily on the tracker, straddling him and lifting the blade over the dazed man.
"See ya in 'ell!" he screamed as he lifted the blade over his head.
Chris Larabee's blood ran cold as he heard the unfamiliar voice scream 'See ya in 'ell'. He knew instinctively Vin Tanner was in trouble as he parted the brush and moved into the clearing. His eyes quickly took in the body of the woman and the life and death struggle going on a few feet from where he stood.
"Vin!" he shouted as he saw the knife poised over the exposed throat of his best friend. The black clad man proved why he had a reputation as a deadly accurate gunslinger as he pulled his colt.
Clark's blade began its descending arc.
Larabee's gun cleared leather and Chris realized he couldn't get a clear shot of the man's body for fear of hitting the struggling sharpshooter.
The sun glinted off the razor sharp weapon.
A steady hand rose and aimed the gun at the hand wielding the knife.
The knife raced towards the vulnerable throat.
Larabee's finger depressed the trigger and Clark screamed as a bullet struck the blade and knocked the knife from his hands. He scrambled towards the weapon, but the gunslinger's icy voice stopped him where he knelt. "You'll be dead before your finger touches it!" he snarled.
James Clark stared at the man dressed in dark clothing and felt fear take up residence in his body. He knew this man was not the type to give idle threats and he sank back to the ground. He wasn't a smart man, but he knew he needed to find a way out of the mess he was now in.
"H...he attacked me. I found 'im murderin' that w...woman!" he stammered.
"That right?" Larabee asked as he watched his friend's eyes finally focus.
"Ye...yeah...said he's gonna kill that other one too," he said, hoping he could convince the newcomer he was telling the truth, but the gunslinger's next words quickly dashed those hopes.
"That right, Vin. Did you attack this asshole?"
"Fuckin' right I at...attacked the b...bastard!" Tanner's voice was laced with pain as Larabee knelt beside him.
"Think you can keep him covered for a few minutes."
"...like lickin' butter offa knife!" he said accepting the gun.
Larabee looked at the man seated on the ground and smiled as he saw the thin rope that was holding up the man's ruined pants. "Take off your belt!" he ordered.
Tanner smiled as he eased back on the trigger.
"O...okay," Clark held his hands up before undoing his belt and pulling it from his pants.
"Throw it over here," the gunslinger ordered and smiled as the object dropped beside him. "Now turn around." The man did as he was told and Larabee pulled the arms roughly behind his back and wrapped the rope tightly around his wrists.
"Hey yer cuttin' off my circulation!"
"That's the least of your worries," the gunslinger hissed as he shoved the man back to the ground. "They'll be cuttin off the circulation to your head as soon as your trial is over. Now shut up before I gag you too."
Clark grew quiet and swallowed painfully, as he realized the black clad man was right.
He walked back to the sharpshooter and realized he was still lying where he'd been when he handed him the gun. "You okay?" he asked worriedly.
"Jest fine!" the sharpshooter hissed, frustrated that he'd been unable to subdue Clark.
"Want a hand up?"
Blue eyes flashed dangerously as they met green and Tanner's frustration came out in the tone of his voice and the heated words.
"Said I's fine, Lar'bee!'
Chris raised his hands in front of himself, his own short temper showing as he hissed "Fine! Suit yourself!" He took his gun from Tanner's hand and covered Clark as he waited for his friend to make it to his feet. He smiled as he listened to the muffled curses from his friend.
"Lie down on your belly and don't move!" Larabee ordered and Clark quickly complied. He turned back to his friend, crossed his arms on his chest, and smiled at the look on the dust-covered face.
"Shut the hell up, Larabee!" the tracker hissed as he raised his arm for help.
The gunslinger's eyebrows rose in amusement as he looked at his friend. He knew Tanner wasn't seriously hurt, but he could see pain in the eyes, yet the sharpshooter hated admitting he needed help. Larabee also knew they needed to keep things light or what they'd witnessed would fester and Clark might not make it to Farmington.
"Are you asking for my help, Tanner?"
Vin searched the area, but didn't see anything that might help him stand and finally glared up at his friend. "'Dammit t'hell, lar'bee..."
The blond grinned from ear to ear as he reached for the injured man's arm. "All you had to do was ask," he said.
"Never needed any fuckin' help b'fore," he snarled as he rubbed at his lower back.
"Must be getting old," Larabee said and again received a deadly glare from the younger man. "Are you okay?" The gunslinger asked as he took Tanner's bandana and wrapped it around the shallow wound in his arm.
"I'm f...fine," the tracker answered, knowing the question wasn't in jest this time. He turned towards the woman and asked. "Is she..."
Larabee walked over and checked the woman's body. He knew she was dead as he looked into unseeing eyes. 'Why?' he asked as he closed the lids and removed his duster, covering her upper body with it before returning to the sharpshooter. He looked towards the tracker and shook his head.
Tanner ignored the pain in his back as he strode towards the prone man. He grabbed the murderer by the neck and pulled him to his feet. "I oughta show ya the way a Comanche takes care of people who hurt women and children!" He struck the hated figure in the face and watched as he dropped to the ground. He felt a hand on his arm and looked into the green eyes of his best friend.
"The bastard will pay for what he's done, Vin," Larabee insisted.
"The girl?" Tanner asked.
"She's okay. A little shook up, but she said he never touched her."
"Good thing," Tanner said and turned back to the prisoner. "'Cause if ya had I woulda cut off yer balls and shoved 'em down yer fuckin' throat!"
"Ya cain't do that..."
"Wanna bet?" Larabee asked. "Shut up or I'll give him the knife and hold ya down for him!"
"But..." Clark shut up when the gunslinger reached for the knife lying on the ground.
"That's better," Tanner hissed. "Now get on yer feet!"
The three men made their way back to the stagecoach and made Clark sit behind it, in order to save the girl from seeing him.
Chris watched the sharpshooter's stiff movements and hoped Farmington had a doctor. The town was closer than Jasper and he knew it was the best bet for help. "Vin, I'm gonna check on the girl, before I bring the woman's body. "Are you okay to watch him?"
"Y...yeah. I'm fine, Chris. Jest make sure the girl stays put."
"I will," Larabee said. He moved towards the door of the stagecoach and stepped inside. He touched the still unconscious girl and waited to see if she would wake up. He stepped out of the coach and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
"She's still out, Vin," he said as he reached for the blanket on top of the coach. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes." The shaggy head nodded once and Larabee frowned at the lines of pain on the younger man's face. Here," he said as he pulled the younger man's canteen from Peso's saddle and passed it to his friend. The gunslinger turned away, took Pony's reins, and led him towards the brush.
"Thanks," Tanner said as he kept watching the prisoner. He took off the cap and tipped it towards his mouth.
"Ain'tcha gonna gimme some?" Clark whined.
Vin looked at the man, disgust and anger on his face. "Jest sit there and shut up!" The tracker winced as he reached around and again rubbed at his lower back. The pain that had earlier been annoying was quickly becoming unbearable, but he could not show any weakness in front of this animal.
"Ain't no way ta treat a man..." Clark started, but a hand quickly snapped out and grabbed him by the collar.
"Yer not a man!" the sharpshooter's voice dripped venom as he glared at the murderer. "An' I might jest give ya a whole new meanin' fer the word breed! Ya got that?
"Yeah, yeah," Clark stammered as he was dropped heavily to the ground.
Vin stood over him for a few minutes, his eyes filled with deadly intent as his prisoner stayed down. He straightened his back once more and bit his lip as it caused a deep ripple of pain to course threw him. He had no idea how long he stood there, fighting back the encroaching darkness, but was shocked when he heard Larabee's voice close beside him. He turned to see a blanket covered body draped over Pony's saddle and shook his head at the violent loss of life.
The gunslinger couldn't help but see how pale his friend was and asked worriedly. "Vin, you sure you're alright?"
"Yeah, just twisted my back a little," Tanner assured him.
"Well you just stay there while I get things ready. Faster we get to Farmington the faster that piece of dirt is in jail." 'And you get to see a doctor,' he silently vowed.
"I can help ya..."
"Yeah, you can. By watching him and making sure he stays put!"
"Hey, he threatened me!" Clark whined.
"You're lucky that's all he did! Now shut the fuck up!" the gunslinger warned. "Think you can ride in the stage and keep an eye on him?"
"What about the girl and the driver?"
"Figure the girl can ride up top with me while you and that piece of trash ride inside. I can put the driver's body on Peso."
"Peso ain't gonna be happy!"
"I know, but there's no other way," he looked down at the prisoner. "Unless we tie him to the back of the stage and make him walk," Larabee's eyebrows rose as he looked at his friend.
"It'd slow us down!"
"Ya cain't do that!"
Larabee and Tanner looked heatedly down on him and hissed in unison.
"But..." his words were shut off as Larabee tore a strip off his shirt and shoved the material into Clark's mouth.
"Thanks, Chris, I was ready ta shoot the bastard!"
"Anytime. You gonna be all right for a few minutes?"
"Am now, ain't gotta listen to 'im spoutin' garbage anymore," Tanner said as he turned his attention back on the prisoner.
Larabee moved away from the two men, retrieved his canteen from Pony, and walked to the door of the stage. Mindy Lawrence was just waking up and he slid in beside her. He watched as deep brown eyes opened and looked pleadingly at him, tears forming in them and sliding down her cheeks.
"Aunt Fran?" she asked as she recognized the face before her.
Larabee shook his head and cradled her in his arms as the tears fell from her eyes and heavy sobs wracked her body. He held her until her body was still in his arms and lifted her chin until she looked at him.
"I'm sorry, Honey," he said as he saw the fear in her eyes. He held the canteen to her mouth and watched as she drank a couple of mouthfuls before pushing it away.
"Wh...where is he?"
"He can't hurt you anymore. My friend has him tied up outside and we'll take him to Farmington."
"That's where we were go....going," she hiccupped and he nodded his head.
"I know and we'll make sure you get there. Do you have family there?"
"N...no. Aunt Fran was taking me back home to Nana's house in St. Louis. Ma and Pa died in a raid on our farm and they said I'm t...too y...young to s...stay th...there on my o...own. I don't know how I'm gonna get to Nana's now."
"Don't worry, Mindy, we'll find a way to get you to your Nana. Now how would you like to ride up top with me?"
"He killed the driver," she said softly.
"I know he did, but he won't hurt you! You have my word on that. Okay?"
"O...okay," she said as he passed her the canteen once more.
"You just sit here for a few more minutes and I'll tell you when I want you to come out." He smiled as she nodded his head and he slipped back outside. It took nearly half an hour to secure the driver to Peso's back and make sure the horses were tied to the back of the stage. Once he was done he turned back to his friend.
"Vin, keep him out of sight until I get Mindy out."
Tanner nodded and watched his friend move to the side of the stagecoach. "Don't make a sound!" he warned the prisoner.
"Okay, Mindy, Let's get you up top. Put your bonnet on so the sun won't be too hot."
"Okay, Chris," the girl said as she slipped her bonnet up over her hair and tied the ribbon under her neck. She accepted his hand as he led her from the coach, steering her away from where Vin held the prisoner. He lifted her into the seat and smiled as he climbed up beside her. He looked over the top of the stage and shouted.
Tanner signalled for Clark to get up and led him to the open door of the coach. "Git down on the floor!" he ordered and shoved the man forcefully. He used the rope he'd taken from Peso to secure the mans ankles and the tied them to the seat in order to stop him from lashing out with his feet. He slid into the seat, relieved as it took some of the pressure off his back.
"You ready, Vin?" Larabee asked.
"Yeah," the tracker shouted as he slammed the door of the stage and reached for the canteen.
"Mindy, my friend is back there," Larabee explained as he flicked the reins and started the horses forward. "His name is Vin Tanner and if you get too hot or too tired to ride up here anymore you just let me know and we'll change places. Okay?"
"I wanna stay with you, Chris," the girl said as she slid closer to him, seeking comfort in his presence.
Larabee smiled as she leaned in closer and he wrapped his arm around the trembling form. He knew she was close to tears again and he hoped she'd be okay until they reached Farmington. "Would you like to help me?" he asked.
"Drive the horses," he said and saw some of the fear disappear from her eyes.
"Sure. Just hold onto the reins with me. When we need to turn you just pull the reins in that direction," he explained and showed her how to tug on the lines. He felt her relax against him and smiled as she tugged gently on the reins and the horses obeyed her commands. He heard her soft giggle and was glad he'd gotten her mind of her problems if only for a short time.
Chris looked around and frowned as he heard the two words repeated and again a whisper of a breeze flickered over him. He felt the girl move beside him, but realized she hadn't heard anything. He glanced around the eerie desert, but the call for help was not repeated.
Vin relaxed against the hard seat, knowing he'd feel every bounce of the coach as they rode towards Farmington. He kept checking the prisoner's ropes to make sure there was no way he'd get them undone. He sucked in a deep breath as the wheels went over a particularly deep rut. "Shit!" he hissed and stretched taut muscles as he heard laughter from Larabee and the girl. 'Where the hell's yer flask, Lar'bee?' he thought, knowing the rest of the ride would be misery for him.
+ + + + + + +
Buck hardly saw Ezra during the two days they'd been in Jasper. So far they'd been moving in separate circles. While Ezra made his luck at the poker tables, Buck Wilmington made his own luck. The best kind, soft curves covered in satin and ruby lips teasing him.
The scoundrel lay back against the soft pillows as two sets of hands massaged his body. His eyes were closed but he felt a glass held to his lips and he sipped at the delicious wine. He licked his lips and smiled contentedly as the hands returned.
"Ah, Darlin'... I'm thinkin' I've died and gone to heaven 'cause there's no way those hands belong to anyone but a pair of angels," Wilmington said as he opened his eyes and looked from one beautiful face to the other. Amanda and Ariana were identical twins and the two women were more than willing to share their delight in this man.
"And there was never a more beautiful pair of angels!" Wilmington said as he kissed a set of ruby red lips and turned as the other set of hands pulled him away.
"I bet you say that to all the girls, Bucky," Ariana said as her sister poured scented oil into the palms of her hands.
"Yeah, Bucky, how many women have you used your charms on?" Amanda pouted.
"Ah, hell, I assure you ladies, ol' Buck's got enough to go around," Wilmington said, sipping at the glass of wine Amanda held to his lips.
"Is that right, Sugar," Ariana asked as she rubbed the oil over his bare chest and throat.
"That's right, Darlin' just ask any of the ladies...Shit!" he hissed as he realized he'd said too much. Wilmington had grown up in a brothel and understood how rough this life could be, but once in a while he forgot and paid the price. This was no exception as a glass of cold water was dumped in his lap.
"Ah, Hell, that was cold!" the ladies' man hissed.
"Well, Bucky, maybe you can find someone to warm you up. Maybe that little Carrie is willing to share her bed with you again," Amanda said as she pulled him out of the bed. "Me and Ariana have decided we need to use our talents on someone who appreciates us for our finer attributes."
Buck shivered as he stood naked before the two women and reached for his clothes, His head spun and he shook it in an effort to clear the cobwebs. He now understood why they were upset with him. Somehow they'd found out about his tryst with the feisty redhead down the hall.
"What's wrong, Bucky, can't handle your wine?" Ariana smiled as she watched the big man sit back on the bed.
"Ah, hell, ladies, what did you do?" he asked as they lifted his legs on the bed.
"Don't you worry, none, Darlin, you just go on to sleep and things will look just fine in the morning." Amanda giggled as she rubbed his chest and tweaked the hairs there.
"Yeah, everything will be hangin around just waitin' for you to wake up," Ariana whispered in his ear.
"No hard feelin's, Bucky," Amanda said as she ran her fingers across his forehead.
"That's it just sleep," Ariana ordered.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was slow in waking, his body not wanting to move, yet nature called and the urge was beginning to get painful. He forced his eyes open, regretting the move immediately as the light stabbed at his eye.
'What the hell did I do last night?' he thought as he peeled his eyelids open. He looked around the unfamiliar room and finally remembered where he was and whose room he was in.
"Ah, Hell!" he groaned as he sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He ran the fingers of his right hand through his hair and looked around. He groaned at the pain the movement caused. He stood up and grabbed onto the post at the head of the bed and smiled.
"So you ladies like to play rough?" he said, remembering how the single glass of wine had been his downfall. He hopped around the room in search of his clothing, groaning as he realized there wasn't a single article of clothing in the room, even the bedding and towels had been taken away.
"Oh, I owe you ladies," he said when he glanced out the window. There was no doubt that the clothing strung across the street was his. He stuck his head out the window and tried to reach his longjohns, but they were just out of his reach. He looked down as soft giggles sounded from below the window.
"I hope you're not bashful, Bucky, you see we think the ladies would love to see your assets running down the hall," Ariana said.
"Ah, come on, Ladies, you're not really going to make me go out there like this." He laughed, but wasn't sure if these two were serious or not.
"Ah," Amanda said, smiling up at the ladies man. "We are serious, Buck.!"
"Yes, there's nothing more fun than seeing you run through the street buck naked!"
"Ah, Hell, ladies," he said. "Can I make it up to you?"
"Ah, don't worry, Stud," Ariana smiled innocently at him. "Help is on the way."
"That's right, and she should be arriving right about now." Amanda told him.
"Damn!" Wilmington hissed as a knock sounded on the door and the door was slammed open
"You ladies don't play fair!" he said and tried to find something to cover himself.
"Oh, Bucky, we play to win," the twins said in unison, their laughter floating to his ears as the ladies man placed his hands in front of his private area.
"My girls tell me ya might be interested in something I own." The woman standing in the doorway was large framed, her red hair pulled back in a tight bun, her dressing gown clung like a second skin to her 'ample' body.
Buck felt the heat rise in his cheeks as the woman's hazel eyes raked over his bare body. Her left arm was behind her body and he knew she was holding something in her hand. He hoped it was something he could wear, but something told him whatever it was would probably heighten the color already seeping into his cheeks.
"What would that be, Ma'am?" he asked and moved to pull the small table in front of him as the woman came into the room.
"Well they said you were in need of something to cover that luscious body of yours."
"Ah, hell," Buck said as the woman held her offering out to him.
"I'm afraid this is all we have to spare, but I'm sure you will fill it out nicely," the woman said.
"Damn, I mean...ah, Ma'am, I don't think..."
"It's all I have," the woman said, her eyes raking over the handsome man standing before her.
"Can't you ask one of the men for a..."
"Oh, well, I guess you'd rather leave the room the same way as you came into the world," she laughed as she turned her body, but not her face away form him. "I look forward to you parading through..."
"Damn!" the scoundrel swore as he saw his only hope walking away. "I'll take it!"
The woman turned back and placed her hands on her hips. "What was that, Bucky?"
He knew she was not going to make this easy for him and again the heat rose to his cheeks as he crouched down behind the table.
"I'll take it, Ma'am," he repeated.
"Well, maybe I've changed my mind about giving it to you," she said with a grin, hazel eyes twinkling with mirth.
"Maybe if you asked nicely..."
Buck swallowed his pride and smiled sweetly at the woman.
"Please, Ma'am, what?"
"Please, ma'am, can I have that..."
"Nightgown," Wilmington knew the twins were getting him back tenfold and there was nothing he could do to recover his dignity. He thought of all the times he'd been able to put one over on others, always in jest, and he realized this was the same thing, only in reverse. He finally gave into the laughter he'd felt building since seeing the dressing gown covered in large red flowers, high red collar, and a big crimson bow at the back. He stepped out from behind the table and bowed to the woman.
"May I borrow your gown, Ma'am?" he asked and lifted his head to her high-pitched laughter.
"Lordy, Bucky, my girls don't know what a charmer they're giving up!" she exclaimed as she tossed the gown high in the air
Buck grabbed for the gown, leaving himself unprotected from gawking eyes.
"Oh, my, if I was only a few years younger," she said wistfully.
"I don't think I'd be man enough for ya, Ma'am." The scoundrel winked as he wrapped the gown around himself and smiled at her. As he raced out the door. He made it to the top of the stairs and could see the crowded gambling hall below him. Normally the hall would not be so full, but with the poker tournament on it was packed day and night. He prayed Ezra Standish had already retired as he raced down the steps two at a time. Not used to running in a 'dress' his feet tangled and he would've fallen at the bottom, but a man in a black suit grabbed his arm.
"Best watch your step, little lady," the man said and laughed when his eyes met Wilmington's.
There were not many men that the scoundrel had to look up at, but this man was one of them. He seemed to tower over Buck, and he smiled brightly as he pulled from the man's grasp
"Thanks, but I ain't no lady!"
"Well ya look mighty fine in that gown," the man shouted over the loud music.
Wilmington hurried into the street with the sounds of wolf whistles following him. He glanced at the window and saw the two identical faces watching him. He wondered how they'd managed to get inside so quickly. 'Must've slipped back inside while I was changing,' he thought
"Ah, Bucky, looks like someone's taken a fancy to you," Ariana laughed.
The mustached man bowed to the two women with a flourish before turning to find his clothes. His jaw dropped as his eyes came to rest on a familiar form, holding his pants and shirt. He knew the twins had managed to get his clothes off the line before they went inside and somehow, lady luck had smiled down on the only gambler in Jasper who knew him.
"Ah, shit," he swore in a low breath, "Hey, Ezra!"
"Well, Buck, I see you have decided to expand your wardrobe." The Southerner charmed, eyes glittering in devilish green light.
"Shut up, Ez, and gimme my clothes!" the ladies man snapped.
"Your clothes? I thought you were wearing them? Flowers do suit you. Although the ones on your posterior seem to expand your rather ample backside!"
"Ez, don't make me shoot ya!"
The gambler circled his friend and smiled as he stopped in front of him.
"I'm sorry, but I do believe that is an empty threat as I cannot find a place where you could endeavor to hide a gun."
"Ez!" The ladies man grabbed for the clothes, forgetting that his hands had been holding the gown together. A loud gasp from beside him made him turn and his face blushed crimson as he spotted two refined ladies hurry away in the opposite direction.
"Ah, Hell, Ez, gimme my damn clothes!"
"Buck, the color of your face now perfectly matches the color of those flowers you wear."
"Oh, I'm gonna make ya pay for this."
"From what I see, I stand to make a fortune from this chance encounter."
"What are you talking about?" the ladies man asked as he continued to grab for his clothing.
"Well, I'm sure our illustrious tracker..."
The dark head came up and he froze in the street.
"You wouldn't dare!"
"Now what kind of friend would I be if I didn't share this hilarious moment with our mutual acquaintances. I'm sure the lovely widow would run a front page special on..."
"Ezra, I'm gonna..."
"Not to worry, Mr. Wilmington, a small monitory payment from you will ensure my silence."
"Ez!" the ladies man snapped and was relieved when Standish relinquished his hold on the clothes.
"I owe you!" he hissed as he pulled on his pants.
"Of that I am certain," the gambler smiled, his tooth glinting, "I'll expect you'll be very generous."
"Oh, Bucky, you want these?" Amanda called from the window.
The ladies man looked up at the window as he finished pulling on his pants. He grabbed for the gun and belt as they were thrown towards him, forgetting his pants were undone until the two women laughed once more.
"Mr. Wilmington, you give new meaning to the words 'drop em'," Standish said, no hint of a smile on his face, but the dancing green eyes betraying the serious tone.
"Ya know I really oughta just shoot ya," he said as he pulled the pants back up and made sure they wouldn't fall again.
"So what did you do to upset your lovely companions?"
"None of your damn business," Wilmington said as his boots landed beside him and he knew he would never live this down. "Thanks, Ladies."
"No hard feelings, Bucky," Ariana called.
"None, at all, Darlin'. I'm just sorry you didn't get to see just how hard things could get."
"Well, hell, come on up and we'll try again," Amanda called.
"N...No, I don't think so. Things get a mite cold around you two."
"This I have to hear," Standish mumbled as they walked towards their hotel.
"Not from me you won't!"
"Maybe I should pay a call on the two lovely ladies?"
"If ya do ya might wanna keep your clothes on and make sure there's no ice around," Wilmington said, wincing as he walked beside his friend. "And don't ever mention another woman around them or things'll turn cold real fast."