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William Spencer finished reading the notes from the trial of the day before. There was something about the defense attorney he didn't like and he was going to check into the man's credentials once this trial was over. He regretted sentencing Chris Larabee to a night in jail, but it was necessary that he keep a tight rein on the proceedings. He sighed heavily and reached for the cup of coffee on the desktop. He took a small mouthful, wincing when he discovered the liquid had grown cold and bitter. The trail was supposed to reconvene that morning, but he'd felt unwell and asked the sheriff to inform the others that it would start at one in the afternoon. Pushing away from the reminder of the trial he stood up and made his way to the window just as a knock sounded on the door.
"Come," he called and wasn't surprised to see the sheriff standing there.
"Something wrong, Hank?"
"Ya might say that, Bill. Clark's dead..."
"What? How?" the judge asked as he moved towards the door.
"Doc's over there checking now."
"What about Larabee?"
"He's okay. Had a little trouble waking him, but we managed to get him back to Molly's place. Him and Tanner are sleeping right now. Doc says that's what's best for both of 'em."
"Did the girl's grandparents get here?"
"Yeah, they're with her at the boarding house."
"At least the child won't need to be subjected to a courtroom."
"Yeah, ain't no kid deserves that, especially after what she's already been through. So maybe it's a Godsend that Clark is dead."
"Yes, maybe it is."
"How are you feeling, Bill?" the sheriff asked, knowing how ill the older man had looked earlier.
"Actually, I'm feeling perfectly fine. Strange how it came and went so quickly."
"You had me worried there for a while. Never seen you lookin' so green before."
"Must've been something I ate yesterday."
"Yeah...yeah, sure it was," the lawman said as they left the room to check no the dead man.
+ + + + + + +
O'Malley shook his head as he finished checking the dead man. The cloth covering his mouth and nose did little to filter out the smell of death. Except for the usual signs that showed up on a dead body there were no marks, no bruises, nothing to tell him the cause of death. Nothing, except the expression on the man's face. The sunken, sightless eyes, set in skeletal like features, as if the man had been scared to death. The jaw were clenched tightly, the upper teeth protruding over the bottom lip, a light dusting of blood at their tips. Something had scared this man, something far beyond his own minds comprehension of terror. He'd tried to close the eyes, but had been unable to do so and covered them with coins. The problem was the eyes were so far back in the man's skull that the coins sank deep into the depressions. He'd finally given up and simply covered the man's face with a towel. A small shudder ran through him as he looked around the empty cell. What was it about this small, simple jail that could scare a man so badly he'd bite his lip in death?
He looked up as the door opened and felt a sense of relief chase back the chill that was slowly seeping through his body. he stood up and reached for the basin of water to clean his hands. He scooped up handful after handful in an effort to wash away the fear he knew would be written on his face. Finally able to push the feelings away he turned to the newcomers.
"Hank, Judge," he greeted, glad there was no hint of fear in his voice.
"Find anything, Doc?" Thompson asked.
"Nothing that could explain how or why this man died. Unless you believe a man can be scared to death," O'Malley answered.
"Scared to death?" Spencer asked doubtfully.
"Yeah... Look, Judge, there's no marks on his body, except the ones he had in the fight with Tanner, but those are old and faded now. There's no way they caused him to die."
"Poison maybe?" Thompson asked.
"I don't think so."
"Just a feeling. Look, this man died of fear..."
"I'm serious, Hank. Did you get a real good look at his face?" O'Malley asked.
"No...not really. I just knew he was dead," the lawman answered.
"Well, take a look and tell me if you still think I'm wrong!" the physician snapped and pulled the cloth from the hideous face. He heard both men gasp and knew they'd been unprepared for Clark's appearance and he quickly covered the evidence again.
"What the hell could've scared him that much?" Spencer asked.
"I don't know and he's certainly not talking!" the doctor answered.
"Maybe Larabee has an idea," Thompson suggested.
"Maybe, but if he did see anything wouldn't he have called for help?" the judge asked.
"Not if he couldn't," O'Malley said, unsure of what he was getting at.
"What's that supposed to mean?" the lawman snapped.
"I don't know, Hank. Look we won't know anything until we talk to Larabee," the healer told him.
"I'd suggest we do that right now," Spencer ordered.
"It's not that simple, Judge," the doctor told him as he reached for the wet cloth once more.
"Why not?" the older man asked.
The physician wrung his hands in the cloth as he tried to control his emotions. So many unexplained things had happened over the last week, including the strange puncture wound on the gunslinger's arm, and he didn't have the answers. For a brief instant he wondered if he was better off without them. Finally he threw down the towel and looked at the other men in the room as he answered honestly.
"Because Larabee hasn't really been awake since this happened. He opened his eyes for a few seconds here and again when we put him in his bed, but he hasn't moved since."
"Are you saying whatever happened to Clark knocked Larabee out?" Spencer asked.
"I'm not sure, but something caused him to sleep through all of this and to remain in that state when we moved him back to Molly's."
"Do you have any idea how long it'll be before we can talk to Larabee?" Thompson asked.
"I'd like an answer to that as well. Perhaps we should be looking at charges of murder against him," the judge said.
"How?" Thompson asked. "There's no way in hell Larabee could've gotten from his cell into this one. Both doors were locked and I had the keys!"
"Wouldn't matter if Larabee used something to scare Clark to death," Spencer said.
"I don't think so, Judge. Chris Larabee's no murderer, at least not in this case!" O'Malley hissed.
"What makes you so sure?" the older man asked.
"Because no man could scare another man this badly!" the doctor said, pulling back the cloth to make his point. He knew he'd made his point when the two men with him turned away and walked out the door. He quickly followed them, hoping to escape the sickly odor of the corpse.
"Doc, are you finished with him?" the sheriff asked.
"Yeah, you can get the body out of there whenever you want."
"Okay, I'm going to round up a few men to bury him," Thompson explained.
"Has anyone told the child's grandparents about this?" Spencer asked
"I...no, I don't think so. They weren't there when we brought Chris and Vin in. Molly said Mindy was taking them for a walk to show them where she picked flowers and berries," the lawman explained.
"Mindy is staying with Molly right now, Judge. Maybe Molly can keep her busy while you talk with Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence," O'Malley suggested as the sheriff left them alone.
"I'd also like to speak with Larabee when he wakes up. Any idea how long that'll be?"
"Are you still considering him as a suspect?"
"Not really, but maybe he heard something. He's the only one who was there when Clark died."
"Yeah...yeah, he was. You know, Judge, there's something else that bothers me about this whole thing," the doctor said, lifting his right hand and running his fingers through his short hair.
"What? And please don't tell me it's something else that can't be explained."
"What bothers me is that Clark was dead for some time, yet Jamie didn't notice anything strange."
"Clark was turned away from him...facing the wall."
"Yes, he was, but the smell should've been enough to tell him something was wrong. A dead body has a very distinct smell, especially in this heat."
"Maybe he just didn't recognize it for what it was. He's not that old," Spencer tried, his voice soft as he tried to come up with a reasonable explanation.
"That doesn't explain why Hank didn't notice it. He's been around dead bodies long enough to recognize..."
"Maybe he wasn't at the jail this morning," the older man said doubtfully.
"Yes, he was. He told me himself he was there. Said Jamie came in when the stage arrived and stayed while he went to see Mindy's grandparents. I just can't see him missing the fact that there was a dead body in one of his cells."
"There's got to be an explanation," the judge said, his voice lacking conviction.
"Well, if you come up with one let me know. Come on, I might as well go with you and check on my two patients," O'Malley said and the two men strode towards the boarding house.
+ + + + + + +
Buck opened the door and looked in on the sleeping peacekeepers. He knew they both needed rest, yet his worry for them kept him checking. He smiled as he saw the almost twin looks on both faces. Vin lay on his right side, facing Chris, who lay on his left side. Wilmington was always shocked by how innocent grown men could look in sleep. The pain, weariness, and any sign soft age were gone, pushed away by the hands of nature as she stepped in and allowed them to sleep without pain. He turned away and closed the door, smiling at the woman who watched him.
"Hi, Darlin'," he greeted her with a trademark smile.
"Hi, Buck, how are they?"
"Good, they both need it. Would you like some pie?"
"Sounds good to..." He stopped when a soft knock sounded on the door. He watched as the woman moved to answer it, relieved to see the doctor and the judge.
"Afternoon, Jack, Judge, please come in," the woman said, holding the door pen for the two men.
"Thank you, Molly, have the Lawrences returned yet?" O'Malley asked.
"No, I'm expecting them soon though. Mindy wants to help ice the cake she made for Chris," she explained.
"Is Mr. Larabee awake?" Spencer asked.
"No, I just checked and him and Vin are both sleeping. Ain't gonna let ya wake 'em, Judge. They both need this," the scoundrel hissed, his tone slightly menacing.
"That's fine, Mr. Wilmington, but we will need to speak with him as soon as he wakes up," the older man told him.
"Why don't we go into the kitchen and I'll make fresh coffee?" Molly asked feeling the tension between the two men.
"Sounds good, Molly," Thompson said as he took the woman's arm and lead the way into the kitchen.
"I can't stay, Molly. I'll just look in on my patients before I leave."
"Okay, Jack, I'll save you a piece of pie," the woman said.
"Thank, I'd appreciate it," O'Malley said and moved to the room at the end of the hall.
+ + + + + + +
Rupert and Jeanie Lawrence watched as their grandchild picked the wildflowers that grew in abundance at the outskirts of town.
"She's so much like Frannie," the woman said as her husband reached for her.
"Yes, she is, and if I know you she'll be loved just as much," Rupert said, lovingly wiping away the tears threatening to fall from his wife's eyes.
Jeannie looked at her husband and smiled knowingly.
"Are you saying you didn't spoil her?"
"No, I'd be lying if I did."
"Grandpa, Nana, look at all the flowers I picked!" Mindy called as she ran to the older couple.
"Those are beautiful, Honey," Rupert said, bending down and easily picking the slight girl up in his arms.
"I picked 'em for Chris and Vin. Think they'll like 'em?"
"They'll love them, Mindy," Jeannie assured her.
"Can we go back now so's I can put them in water?"
"Sure, I believe there's a cake back there that needs someone to ice it," Rupert said.
"Me and Molly are gonna do that...but will you help too, Nana?"
"I'd love to Sweetheart," the woman said, leaning towards her grand daughter conspiratorially. "I'm sure your grandpa will help eat it too."
"Will you, Grandpa?" the child asked excitedly.
"Sure will...think there'll be a piece for your old grandpa?"
"You're not old, Grandpa," Mindy said as they walked towards the boarding house.
"Well thank you, Mindy, but there's not too many around who'd agree with you on that."
"Rupert, to me and Mindy you'll always be young. Right, Honey?"
"Right, Nana," she said wrapping her small arms around her grandfather's neck and kissing his cheek. She held him tight, needing the now familiar warmth she felt when they were with her.
+ + + + + + +
Vin opened his eyes and looked at the man in the other bed. Larabee seemed to be on the verge of waking, but the sharpshooter remained silent, waiting to see if the blond would finally open his eyes and look his way.
Chris shifted on the bed, his eyes furrowing as he struggled to wake. His body felt laden down as he moved and for a minute he thought he was back to the dark time in his life. A time when a bottle and hangover went hand in hand. When he lived to drown his memories in amber liquid and cheap women. He frowned as he tried to remember what was real and what wasn't. His eyes finally opened totally, adjusting to the light admitted by the partially open curtains.
The soft voice from the next bed brought relief from his troubled thoughts. He realized the dark times were truly behind him and his life had changed for the better. He shifted on the bed until he was sitting up and tried to remember what had happened and where he was. The last thing he remembered was being sentenced to a night in jail. A dull pounding began in his skull as he tried to remember what happened between the time Thompson put him in the cell and his waking up at Molly's. He waited for the room to stop spinning before swinging his long legs over the side of the bed and looked across at the tracker.
"Vin, you okay?"
"Think so. How'd I get here?"
"Buck and Ezra brought ya."
"Buck and Ezra? Damn, can't seem to remember."
"Chris," the tracker edged onto his side, ignoring the dull ache in his back.
"What?" Larabee asked, rubbing at his temples. Before Tanner could answer the door opened and Ezra Standish looked in.
"Well, good afternoon, Gentlemen," he said.
"Afternoon?" Larabee asked.
"Two thirty to be more precise," the gambler said.
"Two thirty, Dammit, what about the trial?" the blond hissed, standing on shaky legs.
"Ain't no need of a trial," the Texan said as Wilmington stepped into the room.
"Chris, Vin, the judge and sheriff are in the kitchen. They want to talk to both of you," the ladies man supplied.
"Why? What's going on?" Larabee asked confusedly.
"They'll tell ya," the scoundrel answered worried about his friends.
"Something wrong with Mindy?" the blond asked.
"Mindy's fine, Chris, she's with her grandparents," the conman told him.
"Grandparents? They got here?" the gunslinger asked.
"Sure did, Pard. They got here this morning. They've been spending lots of time with her, and she seems happy they're here," Wilmington explained.
"She's okay?" Larabee's voice echoed the concern evident in his eyes.
"I assure you the child is fine. Now the question that concerns me is whether you two can join us in the kitchen or should I tell Judge Spencer and Sheriff Thompson to come back here?" Standish asked.
Larabee looked at the young man in the other bed and moved to help him stand.
"Guess we're coming out there," he answered.
"Chris, Let me and Ez take care of, Vin. You go on out," Wilmington ordered as he eased the gunslinger out of the way.
Chris nodded and walked out the door, a smile quickly formed as the outer door opened and a woman held the door for an older man carrying Mindy. The child's eyes lit up as she saw him and she quickly released her grandfather's hand.
"Chris!" she shouted and ran to him, wrapping her arms around his neck.
The gunslinger welcomed the embrace and touched her hair. He winked and then smiled at the child, relieved to see her eyes didn't hold the same underlying sadness he'd been seeing.
"Hi, Mindy, how are you doing?"
"I'm doing real good, Chris and you were right!"
"I was," Larabee asked as he watched the two newcomers.
"Yes, Chris, you said my Grandpa and my Nana would come for me and they did. Just like you said they would and they want me to go to St. Louis with them and we'll go on a stagecoach and a train. A big train, Chris..."
"Easy, Molly, let Mr. Larabee catch his breath," Jeannie said, smiling at the man her grandchild seemed to hold dear.
"It's okay, Ma'am," the blond assured her as Buck, Ezra, and Vin exited the room. Larabee was surprised to see the tracker moving on his own, albeit stiffly. The three men left them alone in the hallway and entered the kitchen. Chris could hear them talking to the sheriff and was grateful for the time they were giving him, knowing he'd want to speak with Mindy's family and put his own mind at ease.
"Mr. Larabee, I'm Rupert, Lawrence and this is my wife Jeannie. We're indebted to you and Mr. Tanner for what you've done for Mindy."
"Mindy's been helpin' out," Larabee told her.
"Is that right?" Jeannie asked.
"Sure is, she makes the best cookies," Larabee said, and smiled as Mindy giggled.
"I picked some flowers for you, Chris," the girl said and lowered her voice. "I made a cake for you but it needs chocolate icing first."
"Come on, Mindy, why don't we see about getting some water for those flowers and then we'll check with Molly about that cake."
"Okay, Nana," the girl said and turned to Chris. She smiled and pecked him on the cheek before running into the kitchen.
Larabee turned to the couple standing in the hall with him and knew they would be good for Mindy Lawrence.
"She's a good kid," he said simply.
"Yes, she is, and we'll take good care of her, Mr. Larabee," Jeannie assured him.
"I know. Just make sure she's happy," the blond said, as Molly and Mindy returned.
"Mrs. Lawrence, Mindy and I need to get some sugar for the icing. Would you come with us to the general store?" the boarding house owner asked, hoping the woman would understand the need to get the child out of the house.
"I'd love to, Mrs. Richmond," Jeannie answered as Mindy took her hand and walked towards the door.
"Molly said I can get a piece of candy if it's okay with you, Nana. Is it?"
Larabee smiled at the excitement in the child's voice before turning towards the kitchen door where Wilmington stood watching him. Before the women left he heard Jeannie's assurance that she'd buy Mindy the candy herself.
"You okay, Chris?"
"Yep," the blond answered, passing his friend as he entered the kitchen. Vin was seated on one side of the table, the chair next to him empty. Spencer and Thompson sat on the opposite side, while Wilmington, Lawrence, and Standish moved to stand at the far wall.
"Mr. Larabee, would you sit down please?" Spencer suggested, waiting while Larabee slipped into the chair beside Tanner.
"What's going on?" the blond asked.
"We were hoping you could tell us, Chris," Thompson told him.
"Tell you what?"
"Chris," Tanner's soft drawl caught the gunslinger's attention.
"What's going on, Vin?"
"Clark died last night," the sharpshooter answered.
"What? How?" the blond asked.
"That's what we were hoping you could tell us, Mr. Larabee," the judge said, his instincts telling him Larabee had nothing to do with the other man's death and that his confusion was very real.
"I d...don't..." He unconsciously rubbed his right hand against the burning sensation in his left arm. And tried to remember what happened.
"Chris?" Wilmington asked.
"I...Last thing I remember is Hank taking me to the jail," Larabee told them, confusion easy to read on his face.
"That was yesterday, Chris. We brought you back here this morning when we discovered Clark's body," Thompson explained.
"How did he die?" the gunslinger asked.
"According to Dr. O'Malley he was literally scared to death," Standish answered.
"What? That's impossible!" the blond hissed, the burning in his arm growing more pronounced. "Maybe he had a nightmare...maybe his guilt got the best of him...could be a heart attack?"
"Chris, what's wrong?" the sharpshooter asked.
"Damn arm," Larabee winced painfully.
"Let me take a look," Tanner said.
"It'll keep," the older man said, again trying to find the elusive memories. He knew something had happened during the night, that he'd seen something beyond his own comprehension and wondered if his mind had chosen to forget them. A slight shiver raced through his body as he met the sharpshooter's eyes.
"I saw him, Chris, the terror on his face was like something I've never seen before," Thompson explained.
"Never heard of a man being scared to death," Larabee said softly.
"Stranger things have happened, Mr. Larabee," Standish supplied as he brought over two glasses of water and placed them before his two friends.
"You really don't remember seeing or hearing anything, Mr. Larabee?" the judge asked.
"N...no, nothing," the blond said, turning away. He could feel Tanner watching him and knew the younger man was reading him like an open book. He turned to meet the steady gaze and shook his head imperceptibly before turning back to the judge.
"Has anyone talked to Clark's lawyer?" Tanner asked. Something about the way the judge and the sheriff squirmed in their seats told him they hadn't and his eyebrows furrowed dangerously.
Spencer looked at the lawman, frowning as he realized neither one of them had even spoken of Columber. Somehow the attorney had simply slipped their minds, yet he should have been one of the first people they spoke to, and he should be in on this meeting.
"Strange...I never even thought of him. I'll go see if he's still at the hotel," Thompson told them.
"Columber wasn't staying at the hotel," Spencer said, a slight tremor in his voice.
"He had to be. I mean it's either the hotel or Molly's. Ain't nowhere else he could've stayed." the lawman said wearily.
"Well, Tilly told me I'm the only guest they have right now," the older man assured him.
"That doesn't make sense," Thompson began.
"Nothing makes sense about this one," Spencer told them. "James Clark is dead and will be interred before long. I have a few things to take care of before I leave, but I'd like you to let me know if you remember anything, Mr. Larabee."
"I will," the gunslinger assured him.
"Thank you, Mr. Larabee. Hank, I need you to sign a few papers for me," Spencer said.
"Coming, Judge. Chris, Vin, take it easy. I'll stop by later to see if you've remembered anything."
Wilmington and Standish moved to the table and sat across from their friends, while Rupert Lawrence left the kitchen, affording them some time alone.
"One good thing comes with Clark's death," Larabee said softly.
"What's that?" Wilmington asked.
"Mindy's been saved having to testify," the blond answered.
"Yeah," the scoundrel agreed simply.
"Mr. Larabee, would you let me take a look at your malady?" Standish asked.
"Arm's okay, Ez," Larabee said as he sipped at the water.
The conman looked as if he didn't believe a word Larabee said, but let it go.
"At least Clark has paid for his heinous crime," Standish said, watching the two men who'd been through so much in the past few weeks.
"Didn't pay near enough," Tanner hissed.
"Maybe not, but there's nothing we can do about it now." Buck looked towards the door as he heard someone entering the hall. He smiled as Mindy Lawrence came running in.
"Hello, Darlin'," he said as she hurried into the room, a small bag in her hands.
"Hi, Buck, look what Nana bought for me. I got some for Vin too on counta he got a sweet tooth just like me. Don'tcha, Vin?"
"Sure do, Mindy," Tanner smiled warmly as she offered him a stick of candy. "My favorite too."
"Yep," the tracker answered as Molly and the Lawrences came into he room.
"Chris, you want one?" Mindy asked.
"No, thanks Mindy. Think I'd rather wait for a piece of that cake," Larabee answered, a weak grin on his face.
"Oh, okay," the girl said as she dropped the bag on the table and turned to her grandmother. "Can we ice the cake now, Nana?"
"Certainly, Mindy. Now why don't you gentlemen leave us women alone so we can get some things done. Mr. Larabee?" Jeannie called.
"You're looking a little pale. Perhaps you should get some more rest."
"I'm fine, Ma'am. Just need a little air," Larabee told her as he stood up to follow the others outside. His eyes locked with the sharpshooter's and he knew Vin Tanner understood what he'd told them earlier. It remained to be seen whether this was really over or just the beginning of a new, deadlier nightmare, that would cross over into their world.
+ + + + + + +
"Well, Doc?" Tanner hissed as the older man finished his examination.
"Things are looking better, Vin, but you need to remember it's only been a day since you collapsed in the courtroom."
"I know it does, but I'd still like you to take it easy..."
"All I been doing..."
"I know. Look I'm not saying you need to stay in bed. If anything I want you to try to move around, but take things slow. Pace yourself and listen when your body tells you it's time to rest. Take short walks around town, but make sure someone is with you."
"I'll see that he does," Larabee said from where he sat on the second bed.
Vin looked at his friend and frowned. He knew Larabee hadn't slept well and his instincts told him it had something to do with the time he'd spent in the jail. He knew Larabee was holding something inside and knew he wouldn't reveal anything unless he got him alone.
"Okay, Vin, let me help you sit up," the doctor said as the younger man eased onto his side. He wasn't surprised when the gunslinger moved to help him and they soon had the tracker sitting on the side of the bed.
"You okay?" Larabee asked worried about the tiny beads of sweat forming on the younger man's face.
"Yeah," the tracker told him simply.
"Good. Now, Chris, let me take a look at your arm," the doctor ordered, surprised when Larabee rolled up his sleeve and revealed the slightly bloody bandage. O'Malley removed the soiled material, frowning at what he uncovered. The area around the tiny wound was swollen and appeared to have been burned. The pattern of red surrounding it made a perfect circle, and he knew it needed to be drained again.
"I'm gonna need to clean this again, Chris. Just stay here and I'll get some water."
Larabee simply nodded as the physician left the room. He looked across the narrow space and saw the worry in the shaded blue eyes. He knew there was no point in telling the younger man he was okay, Tanner would see right through it. The two men remained silent as the doctor returned with a basin of warm water and set it on the bed beside the gunslinger.
O'Malley reached into his bag and pulled out the bottle of carbolic he kept there. He poured a fair amount of the liquid into the water, before replacing it in the bag. He took out a small probe and finally met Larabee's gaze.
"Chris, I'm going to clean this out and make sure there's nothing else going on in there. Do you want a little laudanum first?"
"No, I'm okay," the blond said, meeting the telling gaze from the tracker.
"Okay, just hold still," O'Malley ordered and slowly probed the wound. The pungent odor and pussy fluid worried him, but he continued to clean the infection as best he could. The fact that there were no streaks of red coming from the puncture was a good sign, yet this wound bothered him. Placing the probe on the bed he pressed at the wound until the pus cleared and blood oozed from the center.
"Sorry," he said as Larabee tried unsuccessfully to hide a groan.
"...okay..." the blond said, wincing again as the doctor dipped a cloth in the water and began cleaning the wound. Closing his eyes, he tried to ignore the mounting nausea, and was shocked by the pictures flashing before his eyes.
"Chris?" Tanner hissed as he stood up and moved to sit beside the blond.
Larabee swallowed and opened his eyes to see the doctor placing a new bandage over the wound.
"You okay?" the tracker asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Larabee insisted as O'Malley finished with the wound.
"Chris, I want to check this again this afternoon, unless it starts getting worse. If that happens you come see me right away!" the doctor said, and smiled as the blond nodded and the tracker said he'd make sure Larabee came to see him. These two men had a friendship beyond his comprehension. What others said with words, these to said with gestures. He picked up the basin and left the room, feeling as if he were intruding on something private.
"It's okay, Vin," Larabee said, hearing the worry in the way his friend said his name.
"Come on, you ready to go for a short walk?"
Tanner knew there was no point in pushing it, but he vowed to find out what was really going on with his friend.
"Yeah," the younger man said, forcing his body up off the bed. He made his way to the door, knowing Larabee was close behind him, his lightning like reflexes ready to catch him if needed.
+ + + + + + +
Buck and Ezra watched as the two men walked along the path to the gate. They knew the tracker's back was better, but knew by the way he moved that it would be some time before he was completely healed.
"Ez, did you send the telegram to Four Corners?" the rogue asked, his gaze remained on the slowly moving figures as they moved into the street.
"I sent the missive this morning," Standish assured him, knowing the three men in Four Corners would be worried about Tanner's injury and the trial. He made sure the others knew they wouldn't be leaving until Dr. O'Malley said it was okay for the tracker to ride.
"Nothing to thank me for, Buck. Do you think Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner are truly okay?"
"I don't know...something about this whole thing with Columber bothers me..."
"Well the man seems to have simply disappeared without a trace. Sheriff Thompson has been unable to find anything that shows the man was here at all," the conman said wearily.
"Yeah, well, I'll be glad when we can head for home."
"I agree wholeheartedly," the gambler told him, moving towards the gate in order to keep the two men in sight.
+ + + + + + +
"Need a break?" Larabee asked as Tanner's small strides faltered.
"Y...yeah," the tracker admitted as they neared a small bench at the edge of town. They covered the remaining distance and both men sat down. Neither man spoke for some time, content just to watch what was going on around them.
"Ya ready ta talk 'bout it?" the sharpshooter asked, not bothering to look at his friend.
"'bout what?" Larabee asked, refusing to acknowledge what he thought was just a dream.
"'bout what happened ta Clark."
"Don't know what happened..."
"Ya saw somethin', Chris...ain't no doubt..."
"Didn't see nothin'," Larabee hissed, rubbing at the wound in his arm without realizing it.
Tanner heard the slight edge in Larabee's voice, yet he knew the other man needed to talk about what was bothering him. He also new the blond could be stubborn when he set his mind to something.
"Chris, ya ferget I can tell when somethin's eatin' atcha..."
"Larabee, I know ya. Ya cain't tell me yer not afraid..."
The blond stood up, and turned to his friend, fury smouldering in the green eyes at being so easily read.
"Ya seen somethin' that scared ya, pard..."
Chris turned away, breathing heavy, his fist raised as if to strike at something and he knew Tanner was right. The dreams, if that what they were, scared him, deep down, where he hid his secret fears, yet the tracker had seen it for what it was, and was calling him on it.
Vin watched the warring emotions on the blond's face before the older man turned away. He knew Larabee had been ready to strike him, and sensed that the taut body was still in turmoil.
"What'd ya see, Chris?"
The gunslinger took a deep breath and sank back onto the bench, his eyes on the ground at his feet. He felt the tracker watching him, silently waiting for him to tell him what he'd seen, or dreamt, he didn't know what was real, what was nightmare. He lifted his gaze and met the strength in the blue-eyed Texan, rubbing at his temples as he felt a headache forming just behind his eyes.
"What'd ya see, Chris?" tanner repeated when the blond remained silent. He watched the gunslinger's throat work as he finally began to speak.
"You won't believe me, Vin."
"Ya fergitin' I grew up with the Indians...saw some things ya wouldn't believe...don't mean they weren't real."
Larabee smiled weakly as he heard the soft words and knew this man had indeed seen many things during his hard life. He nodded his head and looked down the street, aware of nothing but the man beside him and the tale he was about to disclose. He closed his eyes and began to speak.
"Thought I was awake...but...couldn't have been...Clark...he seemed to change...looked like a rat....no a mouse," the gunslinger corrected, his closed eyes preventing him from seeing the worry on the face of his friend.
"Go on," the tracker prodded gently.
"A crow," Larabee moaned softly. "It tore at Clark's chest...t...took his...heart...killed him..."
Tanner remained silent, watching as a slight tremor ran down the length of Larabee's body. He knew there was more and waited patiently for the blond to continue.
"...came into my cage...cell...damn thing...thing held...Clark's heart...told me to open my mouth...w...wouldn't...couldn't...wanted m...me to eat it...I couldn't...can't...I won't...do it." His body trembled as the air around him grew cold and he forced his eyes open.
"Easy, Chris," Tanner placed a calming hand on his friend's shoulder, and was rewarded when the green gaze turned towards him.
"It seemed so real, Vin..."
"I know, Chris, but whatever it was it's over..."
"You really believe that?" Larabee asked and saw the answer in the blue orbs. Something was coming, what it was and where it would lead, he didn't know, but this man would be by his side through all of it. He was never so sure about anything in his life.
"You ready to get back?" the blond asked.
"Yeah...looks like Buck and Ezra are headin' this way." Tanner stood up and watched as Larabee did the same. The lean gunslinger moved slowly and Vin hoped they could leave this all behind them and head for home before things got worse.
+ + + + + + +
The red eyes glowed fiercely as the crow perched on the tree overlooking the bench. It knew the bond between these two was stronger than it originally thought, but it wasn't gonna let something as simple as faith take what belonged to it. It watched the two figures as they met up with two more and waited for them to move beyond its sight. When this happened the wings spread wide and it lifted off. It flew towards its home in the desert, to wait for the Inn's reconstruction, and the return of the soul that was destined to belong to him.
+ + + + + + +
Chris stood at the end of the porch, sighing as he watched the dying rays of the sun. Two long days had come and gone since the trial and he was alone with his thoughts. Something about the encroaching darkness bothered him, yet he knew there was nothing there, except what was in his dreams. His nightmares. Only one other man knew about them and something told him Vin was living his own version of hell once he gave in to his need for sleep.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cheroot and a match. He flicked the match and touched it to the tobacco filled paper and felt as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. He understood the feeling stemmed from the weariness seeping into his body and he knew the only way to be rid of it was to sleep.
Chris remembered the conversation with Thompson and Spencer after the failed attempt to find C.F. Columber. There was no evidence that the man had even been in town, except their own visual sightings of him. According to the people they'd spoken with Columber wasn't staying in town or anywhere in the surrounding area. The liveryman told them the man didn't board a horse there and they couldn't find anyone who'd supplied the attorney with his meals. Larabee shivered as he thought of the red eyes of the crow in his nightmares. Something about them reminded him of Columber, but he couldn't put a finger on what it was. He shook his head to clear the image of the struggling mouse and turned his attention back to the darkening street in front of the house.
The Lawrences would be leaving in the morning, taking Mindy with them. He knew he'd miss the little girl who'd wound her way into his heart, but understood Rupert and Jeannie's need to get her home. His instincts told him they loved the girl and would be good for her, and he thanked God the child would not be subjected to an orphanage. He knew what those could be like, although he'd never experienced one himself.
The sun dipped below the horizon, taking with it the last vestiges of safety. In its wake was a sense of fear, so foreign to this man that it sent icy fingers dancing down his spine. He sucked deeply on the cheroot as he looked out over the town, unaware of the man watching him from the window.
+ + + + + + +
Vin ignored the dull ache at the bottom of his spine as he watched the older man. His own nightmares were just elusive memories now, but something told him they were a warning of something yet to come. He'd lived with the Indians and learned their ways. The spirit world was an integral part of their beliefs, yet here, in his world, few believed it. For most, evil was something in people's hearts, not something that stalked the nights, invading people's dreams, turning them into nightmares. He looked past Larabee, seeing more than the day coming to an end, feeling helpless to stop what was to come. Knowing Larabee was safe for now he turned back to his bed and slowly sank into its waiting comfort. Sleep would not come easy, but when it did a single haunting caw echoed through his dreams.
+ + + + + + +
Chris finished the cheroot and dropped it, squishing the soft tobacco with his booted heel, before turning back to the house. He saw a shadow turn from the window and realized the tracker had been watching him. It didn't feel like the younger man was invading his privacy, and Larabee understood his concern. Taking a last look around the streets he moved towards the door, freezing as he heard the now familiar plea that haunted his sleeping and waking mind.
'I wish the hell I knew how!' he thought as his feet finally obeyed his command and he hurried inside, before the chill he felt grew any worse.
+ + + + + + +
JD hurried towards the saloon, a piece of paper clamped tightly in his fingers. He knew Nathan and Josiah were already inside and pushed open the batwing doors . He spotted them immediately and strode towards the table, a smile on his face as he sat down.
"Alright, JD, what is it?" Jackson asked.
"Got a message from Ezra. The trial is over and they'll be coming home as soon as the doctor gives Vin the okay," Dunne explained, handing the telegram to the healer. He didn't miss the look on Sanchez' face and wondered what would make the older man look so worried.
"Knowing Vin he'll be chomping at the bit to come home," the former slave said.
"I'll be glad when our four brothers are back home where they belong," the ex-preacher said, a distant look in his blue eyes.
"Josiah, you still worried about seeing those crows of yours?" Jackson asked.
"The crows don't lie, Nathan," the older man whispered softly.
"That's what you said at the Seminole village, but they were wrong then," the healer said.
"That's right...you didn't die!" the young Bostonian readily agreed.
"Maybe not, son, but many others did," Sanchez said, standing up and moving out into the street. He missed the worried look that passed between the two men he left seated in the saloon. Josiah turned towards the north and felt the call of an evil he'd known only once before. One that could tear a man's soul from his chest and leave nothing but an empty shell. He couldn't quite remember the details, but he knew it had to be defeated before it spread horror throughout the land and turned light to dark. He knew when the time came they'd have to move quickly, but until then they'd have to wait and hope their arrival would be in time. Seven was their number and in that number was their salvation, of that he was sure. Yet he had no idea why this was so. Taking a deep breath he turned towards the small church he was rebuilding and made his way down the street, needing the warmth that came from reading the scriptures on the tattered pages of his bible.
+ + + + + + +
It was ten a.m. the following morning and the stage was being readied for the trip north. Mindy's possessions were stacked on top along with her Grandparent's luggage. The sheriff handed a small bag to the driver after explaining that it belonged to Mindy's aunt.
Chris sat outside the hotel, watching the little girl as she said goodbye to Vin, Buck, and Ezra.
"I'm gonna miss you, Darlin'," Wilmington said as he bent down and embraced the child. He felt her kiss his cheek and returned the gesture before releasing her.
Mindy looked at the man dressed in the fancy red coat and smiled as he reached out to take her hand in his. She giggled as he touch he lifted hers to his mouth and kissed it as he bowed at the waist.
"Little lady, it has been a pleasure to make the acquaintance of someone as charming as yourself. St. Louis will reap the rewards of your presence," the gambler said, smiling as the child continued to giggle before she moved away.
Her attention turned to the two men seated on the bench outside the hotel and she felt her heart beat faster as she moved to the tracker. She wanted to hug him, but hesitated because she knew he was hurt.
Vin saw the hesitation and despite the discomfort reached out and pulled her to him. Normally he was a private man, one who kept his emotions in check. In this instance he felt the need to embrace the girl who'd been through so much since they found her in the wagon. Vin knew from his own past that Mindy would have nightmares about what she saw for years to come. He hoped and prayed her new family helped her to deal with it. He reached behind his back and took the small wrapped package he'd placed there.
"Got somethin' fer ya," Tanner said as the child drew back and her eyes lit on the parcel in his hands.
"That's for me?" she asked, her eyes dancing brightly.
"Me and Chris thought ya might like it," he said as he handed her the present.
With a child's glee, Mindy tore the wrapper from the present and smiled at the leather bound journal and quill pen that went with it.
"It's a special place t'put yer thoughts 'n dreams in," the tracker said as she moved to hug him once more. He caught her chin and caught her eyes. "Sometimes, puttin' it on paper...gettin' out of yer chest...it helps."
"Thanks, Vin, thanks, Chris...Nana and grandpa can help me spell the big words," she said as tears came to her eyes.
The sharpshooter released his hold on her and watched as without another word she moved to the man beside him. He knew Mindy had latched on to Chris from the moment the man found her in the wagon. The fact that Chris was a father shone through in his treatment of her. He'd watched the two during the time they'd been in Farmington and wished he'd been given the chance to meet Sarah and Adam Larabee. To be blessed with the knowledge that only Buck Wilmington had first hand.
"I'm gonna miss you," Mindy sobbed as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
Chris held her close and placed his hand in her hair. His eyes met the blue ones of the tracker and he sighed heavily. This child was leaving to start a new life, one where he prayed she'd find the love every child deserved. He felt the moisture in his own eyes but fought to keep them from showing as he eased her arms from around his neck. He smiled warmly as he began speaking.
"We both gotta be strong now, Mindy. Your Grandpa and Nana love you and they want you to live with them. I'm gonna miss you too, but I know you're gonna be just fine."
"Grandpa says he's got a big ranch and Nana says she's gonna teach me to sew and cook."
"That's great, Honey. You be good for them, okay?" Larabee told her, smiling as the older couple moved to join them.
"Promise?" the blond said softly.
"Mindy," Molly Richmond's voice called from the side of the stage and Chris could see she held something in her arms.
"You go see what Molly wants," Larabee said as she hugged him once more before running to the woman who'd helped care for her.
"Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner, we want you to know how much we appreciate what you've done for Mindy. If you hadn't come along she wouldn't be here with us now. We lost our son, daughter in law and daughter, but we still have something of them in her and for that we owe you more than we can ever hope to repay," Rupert Lawrence said.
"Rupert and I want you to know that Mindy will have the best life can offer her."
"All Mindy needs is to know you love her, Mrs, Lawrence," Larabee told the woman.
"We do, Mr. Larabee and we'll show her every minute of the day. Mindy's lost so much in her life, but she's not gonna lose either of us," Jeannie assured him.
"Tha's all she needs, Ma'am," Tanner said as he watched Mindy hugging the owner of the boarding house.
"You folks ready ta go?" the heavily whiskered stagecoach driver called from his perch on the seat.
"Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner, if you're ever around St. Louis please come by the farm. Just ask for the Lawrence spread and someone will point you in the right direction," Rupert told them.
"Just might take you up on that some day, Mr. Lawrence," Larabee said as Mindy stood by the side of the coach.
"Goodbye," Jeannie said, reaching out and hugging the blond gunslinger.
Chris was startled by the open show of gratitude and smiled as she did the same to the tracker. He shook hands with her husband before moving to the stage. He knew Mindy was nervous about getting on the stage, and he knelt before her. The fear was visible in the brown eyes and he knew she was close to bolting as her eyes darted from left to right.
"There's nothing to be scared of, Mindy."
"What if he comes back?"
"He can't come back, Honey. He's never gonna hurt anyone again."
"But what if he does?"
"Do you love your grandfather?"
"Grandpa is big and strong..."
"Yes, he is," Larabee said, smiling as he saw the others stand back and let him talk with the little girl. "Do you think he's as strong as me or Vin?"
She looked towards the couple she was leaving with and sniffed in spite of the smile beginning to form on her face. She turned back to the gunslinger and nodded.
"He looks like papa, only papa's hair was all brown."
"And papa always took care of you and kept you safe?" Larabee asked softly, swallowing the lump in his throat.
"Papa and mama always took care of me, but they're gone now, and so is Aunt Frannie," the child said as the tears sparkled in her eyes.
"Where was your Aunt Frannie taking you?"
"To grandpa and nana. She said papa and mama wanted me to go there so's I could grow up to be like mama."
"So your ma and pa and your aunt wanted you to go to St. Louis and live on your grandparents' farm?"
"Hmm, hmm," she sniffed again as she watched the older couple moving towards her.
"You know the only way to get there is by the stagecoach?"
"I gotta get on there 'cause pa and ma would want me too?"
"Yes, Mindy, and you know what?" Larabee asked, smiling at the little girl.
"Wh...what?" she stammered as she turned to the open door of the stage.
"All it takes is for you to step inside and a new adventure is waiting for you."
"Sure, You'll see new places and meet new people. You'll get to try new things and make new friends. You'll get to go to a big school and learn how to read special books about far off places."
"I w...will?" she asked, excitement showing as she wiped the tears away.
"Sure will," Larabee told her as she threw her arms around his neck.
"Will you and Vin come see me?"
"I can't say for certain, Mindy, but maybe someday we'll get to take the same adventure you do and visit you in St. Louis. Until then maybe you can write us a letter and tell us all about your trip," Larabee said as she released her hold once more. He nodded as the couple came forward and took Mindy's hand.
"Nana, will you help me write Chris?"
"Of course," she said, and turned a grateful gaze in Larabee's direction.
"Thank you, all of you for what you've done for us," Rupert said as the second man held the door for them to enter.
Mindy turned to the stage and took a deep breath before letting her grandfather help her inside. She sat by the window and pushed back the small curtain.
Chris felt the tracker move to stand beside him as the family entered the stage. He knew Mindy Lawrence was going home, but a small part of him wondered what it would be like to be a father again. The driver's helper closed the door, climbed up in the seat, and the stage lurched ahead. Larabee waved goodbye to the young girl who'd lived through hell, yet was a shining example of the strength found in a child's heart.
"She'll be fine, Chris," Tanner said.
"Yeah...yeah, she will," Larabee said, certain that this was one child who would find herself loved unconditionally for the rest of her life. He watched as the stage finally disappeared, before turning back to his three friends. Without a word he nodded to the sharpshooter and smiled as the younger man understood the gesture.
"Where are you boys headin'?" Wilmington asked, laughing as the one word answer sounded from both men.
+ + + + + + +
Miles to the south the red eyes of a single black crow lit up the circle of corruption that would soon be home to the newly risen Inn. The feeding frenzy had already started with the small tidbit it dropped into the writhing mass. The blood from the newly desiccated organ had succeeded in driving the waiting demon's into a feeding rage that would not be sated until new blood stained the dead black soil. It watched from high above as the area glowed red, waiting hungrily for the time to reform, to make whole, to suck the life from those who crossed in its path. Soon the lost souls would scream once more as new ones joined them in the helpless void of misery where they waited for a salvation that would never happen.
The crow circled, swooping low as it neared the epicenter that would soon spew out the remnants of the Inn giving birth to it as a woman gave birth to a child. Screaming out as blood poured from the open womb. Only this would not be a child, but it would be alive as the channel erupted and spit out the sand, stone, mortar, wood, and brick that would become a strong foundation for evil. The crow neared the center, its beak opening in a cry that let its minions know the soul they sought was coming closer. The reward for taking this man would be to see darkness become the norm in the world of light. This would happen only when Chris Larabee gave his soul willingly, and fed upon the blood of those closest to him.
+ + + + + + +
Things in Farmington returned to normal as the trial faded away. James Clark's earthly body was buried in a grave outside of town, his soul however was in a hell of his own. Fire raged all around him as his victims invaded his disembodied dreams. He cried out as again and again men, women, and children paraded around him, reminding him of his crimes against humanity. He ran...ran in long strides, but they caught him, dead fingers grabbing at his decaying skin even as their screams penetrated the barrier he tried to erect.
"Help!" he screamed as his skin burned with the holy touch of innocents. A cry that didn't go unheard, but was met with the laughter he recognized as his savior. He turned and looked overhead at a tree, so red it seemed to exude heat from every tainted leaf. Something black sat at the very top of the petrified altar and he knew he was home. He swallowed past the his decaying throat and trembled as the crow descended towards him. It swooped low and landed in front of him in the form he'd come to know. The screams of his victims were lost as a force of evil so strong it took his breath away reached out to touch him. he knew there was damage to his body, three days in the ground had taken a toll on him. His skin was dry, his mouth decaying as the smell of his own putrefied corpse permeated the air around him.
"Masstterrr...h...heeellllppp...y...yourrrr...fa...fate...ful...s...ser...vant" The air hissed through rotted gums as he knelt before the demonic force before him. His body shivered and he felt his flesh sliding from his bones.
The red eyes glowed with demonic force as the elongated finger reached for the newest member of its legion. The nails scraped against the dripping flesh of his throat, tearing off a layer of skin. The evil enigma before him eyed the thin membrane before mixing its own saliva with it and holding it before Clark's ruined mouth.
Clark knew what was expected of him and opened for the offering of his own flesh. He knew this was the sacrifice that would give his new master total control of his soul. He felt sickened by what he'd become, but understood there was no turning back. His heart had been fed to the sands of hell, to give it hope for new life. Now his flesh was being fed back to him in order to bring new life to his ruined body. He swallowed the offering, feeling the strength of his master standing over him, even has its saliva worked its magic through his veins. He felt new strength, new skin growing, dead cells rejuvenated with evil life as the form he knew as Columber reached out to touch the empty place where his heart once dwelled. A heart that held little love, and therefore did not understand the difference between good and evil. His master's hand released his chest and he smiled, knowing he now belonged to this demon...his body, his mind, and his soul could never be redeemed.
"Come, James, we must prepare for his arrival."
"Yes, Master." His words were no longer slurred through desiccated lips, his body oozed a new found strength and he knew he was where he belonged.
+ + + + + + +
As time passed, Vin Tanner grew impatient. The memories of his nightmares had faded, but the feeling that something evil stalked them was stronger than ever. In the four days since Mindy Lawrence left town, his back seemed to grow stronger, yet O'Malley was not willing to let him leave so quickly.
"Vin, I know you feel better, and I've seen you walking with the others and I'm happy with your progress, but I'd rather you give it a couple of more days," the doctor said as the sharpshooter sat on the edge of the bed.
"He giving you a hard time, Doc?" Larabee asked as he entered the room.
"No more than usual. Is he always this stubborn?" O'Malley asked as he closed up his bag.
"No...you just caught him on a good day," Larabee said, grinning at the blue glare sent his way.
"Ya ain't one ta talk, Lar'bee," the tracker hissed. The doctor's poking and prodding had awakened the pain, but it wasn't as bad as the day before.
"Chris, how's the arm?" the physician asked.
"It's doin' better, Doc," the gunslinger said. One look at the sharpshooter told him he wasn't fooling the younger man.
"Let me take a look," O'Malley ordered.
"No need...it's fine," the blond said.
"Now who's bein' stubborn?" the tracker drawled softly.
Larabee sank down on the second bed and rolled up his sleeve. He knew there was new blood on the wound, and couldn't understand his reluctance to let the sawbones look at it. Somehow it reminded him of the nightmares that waited just beyond his waking mind. He wouldn't have been surprised to find out his best friend was having the same problems remembering his dreams.
O'Malley lifted the soiled cloth and shook his head. The wound was small and should've healed up by now, but blood and pus continued to seep from it. He knew he'd need to clean it again and looked sympathetically at the gunslinger.
"I'm sorry, Chris, I just don't understand what's going on with this. You sure you've been taking care of it...not overusing the arm?" O'Malley asked, pressing the edges in order to get rid of the poison.
"Haven't been doing anything with it, Doc," Larabee winced as the man placed his fingers on the sides of the wound.
+ + + + + + +
Vin watched the two men, his worry evident on his face. Something about the wound still bothered him, yet he couldn't quite place what it was. His mind wandered back to his days with the Commanches and a ritual he'd performed with his brother at that time. His right hand instinctively reached for the tiny scar on his left forearm and he smiled as he remembered his Indian brother. The young brave wanted to make sure they were brothers by blood as well as spirit and he'd used a knife to make a shallow cut on both their arms. He remembered how honored he felt when they'd been declared blood brothers. He shook his head and forced himself to concentrate on what the doctor was saying.
+ + + + + + +
"All I can do is clean it again and hope whatever is causing it is over. Does it hurt?"
"Not really," Larabee answered honestly.
"Least that's somethin'," the physician said as he re-bandaged the wound. He closed up his bag and looked from one man to the other before speaking.
"Look, I know I can't keep you here, but I'd really like you to stay for at least another day..."
"Doc," Tanner hissed, not really understanding his need to get back to Four Corners as fast as possible.
"Just one day, Vin. I'd like to check Chris' arm once more," he knew he'd said the right thing when the tracker simply nodded. He turned to the gunslinger, knowing he was about to protest.
"Chris, this gives me a chance to check Vin's back once more," O'Malley smiled as he got the same reaction from his second patient. "Good, now that that's settled why don't we go see what Molly's made for lunch.
Larabee watched the doctor leave and turned a steady gaze on his friend. "I think we've just been conned."
"Think yer right...gotta keep the doc away from Ezra," the sharpshooter said, standing and walking towards the door. He felt Larabee join him and shuddered as he thought of what it would be like not to have this man watching his back. Shaking off the feeling he continued out into the hallway, following the sweet aroma of fresh bread and beef stew.
+ + + + + + +
Long after darkness had descended over the town, and everyone else slept, a lone man lay awake. His fears and worries continued to nag at him until he sat up and retrieved the symbol of brotherhood his blood brother gifted him with. The moonlight shone through the window and glinted off the sharp blade in his hand. A blade that made a small cut so many years ago, and would do so again.
Vin had no idea why he felt compelled to cut into his arm, but he could not resist the need to do so. He looked across the room, his heart beating haphazardly against his chest as the moonlight shone on the pale face. What he saw took his breath away, and he wondered if a man like Chris Larabee could be considered angelic. For that's what he sensed in the sleeping visage, surrounded by a halo of white light. The lines in the handsome face eased with the deep sleep he seemed to be residing in and Vin knew if he was to do this it had to be now.
Looking back at the blade he placed it against his left arm. Gritting his teeth he pressed on the blade until blood welled up around the small wound left by the knife. He eased off the bed and made his way across the short distance. Vin looked at the other man, making sure his movements hadn't woke him, before he untied the bandage and exposed the wound to the air. He pressed against the outer edges of the puncture mark until a small amount of blood appeared. His head snapped up as Larabee moaned and then settled back on the bed.
Taking a deep breath, he touched his left arm to Larabee's and felt their lifeblood mix in an open exchange. He prayed what he was doing was right as he finally pulled his arm away from his friend and quickly replaced the bandage.
+ + + + + + +
His nightmares continued to hold him, keeping him from the sweet dreams of a life he'd loved for such a short time. He felt his soul being pulled from his body, but something jolted the evil presence, driving it back and surrounding him in a warm light. He felt someone lift his arm, and something warm, life giving drove back the chill of evil that seemed to live within the tiny wound. He moaned softly, feeling as if the added strength would always be a part of him. Smiling inwardly, he sank back towards his dreams, knowing the nightmares would not intrude this time.
+ + + + + + +
'We're true brother's, Lar'bee. Nothin' can tear us apart now,' he thought as he picked up a cloth from the table and cleaned his self-inflicted wound. The bleeding had already stopped as he sat on the edge of his own bed and again studied his chosen brother. He watched the sleeping man for another few minutes, before he sank onto his own bed and closed his eyes. Hoping the dreams would not come, yet feeling their nightmarish call even as he sank into the world of darkness.
+ + + + + + +
"Time to rise and shine!" Wilmington said as he opened the door and looked from one sleeping man to the other.
"What the hell?" Larabee hissed as his long time friend's voice shook him from the realms of sleep.
"Shut the fuck up, Buck!" Tanner snapped, pulling the blanket back over his aching body. His sleep had been far from restful as crows with long talons and glowing red eyes invaded his dreams.
"Mr. Tanner, do I detest arising at such an ungodly hour myself, but if you are determined to leave this fair..."
"Ez, wouldn't use them big words if I were you. Looks like Vin's sufferin' from lack of sleep," the ladies' man warned, smiling as he watched the tracker fighting to sit up on the bed.
"What's got you two so happy this morning?" the gunslinger asked, as he pushed back the blankets and sat on the edge of his cot.
"I'm always happy, Stud, now ol' Ezra here, well that's a different matter. Maybe he needs a little ipecac," the ladies man suggested.
"Mr. Wilmington, if I may be so bold, it is you who requires a thorough purging," the gambler said, smiling as Larabee and Tanner laughed at the exchange.
"Do you two ever stop?" Larabee asked, reaching for his pants. He frowned as he looked at the bandage, remembering something that he thought was a dream. He flexed the fingers of his left hand, feeling the ease with which they moved. His eyes fell on the bandage and he fought to remember what remained just beyond his capabilities. He lifted his gaze and met the blue-eyed tracker seated across from him, knowing instinctively this man had something to do with it.
Wilmington watched as his friend opened and closed his left hand, and seemed to be testing his strength.
"Something wrong with your hand, Chris?" the ladies' man finally asked.
"No...don't think so anyway," Larabee answered.
"Is it your arm that is causing the problem?" Standish asked, moving to check the bandage.
"No...arm feels fine now," he said, his gaze still on the tracker. He finally looked down at his arm as the gambler began to untie the white material. A small amount of blood was present on the inside of the bandage, but there was none of the pus and swelling that worried the doctor the day before. Again he looked across at the younger man, sensing relief in the blue orbs.
"This looks much better, Chris," Standish said, his voice showing his surprise.
"Doc's in for a surprise when he checks that, Chris," the ladies man observed, relieved to see the wound was no longer festering.
"Why don't you two go on and eat. We'll join you as soon's we're ready," Larabee suggested.
Buck sensed the need for the two men to talk and moved to the door once more. He looked at the gambler and knew the younger man understood as he released his hold on the gunman's arm and hurried out of the room.
Chris waited for the door to close, his gaze locked on the tracker as he waited for him to speak. When the younger man remained quiet, the blond broke the silence, his voice low, and filled with awe.
"You did this?"
"Didn't do nothin'," the sharpshooter insisted.
"Vin, I thought it was a dream..."
"Maybe it was."
"Let me see your arm," Larabee ordered, not surprised when he saw the small wound in the tracker's arm. "You did that for me?"
"Did it fer us," the tracker whispered softly.
"Why? Columber?" The blond realized he'd answered his own question and nodded his understanding.
"Ain't seen the last of that bastard!" Tanner warned.
"I know," was Larabee's simple answer. The two men dressed quickly, needing to leave Farmington and hopefully the evil they sensed behind.