Main Character(s): Vin, OC
Thanks to OneofAradia for taking a look. Feedback? Please. This is my first Mag7 venture.
Emily Bishop pushed a damp length of brown hair off her face with the back of her hand and once again applied herself to the task of scrubbing what had to be a month’s worth of dirt from the denim overalls in her tin tub.
Her back ached from the curved stance and her arms throbbed from the constant up and down motion of moving material against a metal washboard. Glancing down at her hands when they emerged from the hot soapy water she felt a pang of regret. Her hands were once a great vanity. Small, white and soft they had been. But that was from her days as a young privileged woman in Boston. Now those same hands were red and cracked, with swollen knuckles and ragged nails, and she was no longer a young woman. Oh, mid thirties wasn’t that old, but the West had a way of aging folks – especially women – before their time.
And she felt old most days. When she’d moved out here eight years ago with Jeb, she’d looked forward to the Bishop family carving out a place for themselves in the western territories. But that was before putrid fever took her husband, drought took her cattle and a vicious prairie fire took her home.
So that’s how Emily Bishop found herself in the town of Four Corners, New Mexico territory, taking in other people’s dirty laundry.
Mary Travis and Gloria Potter had been so kind to her when she’d ridden into town that day, perched on the only horse she had left. The fire had taken most of her possessions, except for the few articles of clothing she’d had out drying on the line. That nice colored healer, Nathan Jackson, had treated the burns on her hands and arms for free, and Mary had helped her secure a room in the boarding house and a job at the laundry.
More than anything, Emily had wanted to return to Boston – but there was nothing for her back East either. Her parents had died shortly after she and Jeb had moved out West and her only sister was living in Europe. So she stayed in Four Corners, taking in washing and existing from day to day.
Emily placed the wet, scrubbed clothes into a large wicker basket, struggled to pick it up and made her way to the back door to hang the clothes on a line stretched out behind the shop. It wasn’t yet dawn, early enough in the day that the ever-present dust was not yet stirring. The alley caught the early morning sun and what breezes there were. Hopefully the clothes would be dry long before the dust started kicking up.
She balanced the heavy load on her hip and pushed open the door with the other – and nearly bowled over a young man near the door.
He caught her elbow before she had a chance to stumble and with the other hand kept all the clean clothing from tumbling onto the dusty ground.
“Now, Miz Emily, ya shouldn’t be carryin’ such a heavy load. I told ya to give me a holler. I’d fetched it for ya.”
Vin Tanner. Probably the only other person in Four Corners who got up as early as she did.
White teeth flashed in a lop-sided grin. Eyes as blue as the sky after a summer storm twinkled down at her. And strong arms took the basket out of her arms as easily as if it had been empty.
Emily had to admit something stirred in her whenever she looked at Vin. The handsome young man made her exceedingly nervous any time she got near him. She hated that feeling. Most men didn’t make her feel that way.
“Thank you, Mr. Tanner. I certainly didn’t relish rewashing those garments.”
“Ain’t no need t’ thank me, Miz Emily. I’m happy t’ help. And it’s jest Vin, ma’am,” he said, flashing that grin again.
He carried the basket to the line and helped her lift the heavier pieces and hang them to drip dry in the pale early morning rays. They talked as they worked – inconsequential things like the weather. Nothing personal. Never anything personal. After almost five months in Four Corners – and four months and twenty-eight days after meeting Vin – Emily knew just about as much about him as she did when she’d moved there. Virtually nothing.
Actually, Vin knew more about her than she did about him. He knew she was widowed, that she lost her ranch to fire and was from Boston. But then, almost everyone in town who knew her knew those facts.
Finished with the laundry, Vin picked up the basket and handed it to her. Touching two fingers to the rim of his cavalry slouch hat, he nodded his head and said, “You have a good mornin’, Miz Emily,” and walked away, his loose-limbed stride easy and smooth.
Emily stared after him a minute, admiring the broad back and slim hips. He wore his hair long; brown strands curled to the tops of his shoulders and gleamed in the first rays of the sun. She wished she knew more about this quiet, complex, solitary man.
Most of what she’d gleaned about Vin had come from Mary or Gloria. It wasn’t proper for a single female – no matter her circumstances – to inquire after a man. There were times she envied Mary. As daughter-in-law of the esteemed Judge Orrin Travis, and editor and publisher of the Four Corner’s newspaper, The Clarion., it was her job to ask questions, to get to know people. Emily sometimes wondered if she should ask Mary for a job. She was well-educated – a Boston finishing school – and could read and write. Well, as a matter of fact.
But, whereas Mary was beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed and strong-willed, Emily was plump and dark haired and shy. So a career in the newspaper business probably wasn’t in the cards for her.
The rest she knew about Vin came from stories in The Clarion and snatches of gossip and conversation.
She knew that Four Corners had, in fact, seven ‘peacekeepers’ watching over the town – an oddity for sure, since most towns out West had problems keeping even one lawman.
The official sheriff was an impossibly young man named J.D. Dunne – a still wet behind the ears easterner with dark hair, hazel eyes and a ready smile. Green he might be, but he rode like the wind and was fairly quick on the draw. Emily had noticed him squiring a young woman around – Casey; she believed her name was – from one of the neighboring ranches. They made a cute couple.
The rest of the peacekeepers were an interesting bunch.
The unofficial leader was Chris Larabee, a tall, blond, attractive, whipcord-lean figure of a man who was, Emily suspected, more gunfighter than peacekeeper. He had green eyes that could be cold as leaded glass, but she knew he had a softer side as well. She saw that side whenever he hunkered down in the dust of the street to talk to Billy, Mary Travis’ son. There was some tragedy in that man’s dark past. He was lightning fast with a gun, and carried a polished Colt on his hip.
That nice healer was also part of the group. Tall, probably the tallest of the seven, handsome and strong, but with a soft spoken way about him and the gentlest hands Emily had ever found on a man. Emily thought it strange he was part of them, but then, a colored healer was a rarity, too. Talk was Nathan wasn’t a doctor, but had gotten much of his training during the War. Considering how widespread and devastating that conflict had been, she was sure his skills were as fine as many practicing medicine out West.
Then there was Mr. Larabee’s friend, Buck Wilmington. Now there was a fine figure of a man. Tall, broad shouldered with dark hair, dark blue eyes and a full mustache, Buck figured prominently in many of the women’s thoughts, if the talk Emily had overheard was to be believed.
Problem was Buck seemed to have difficulty settling on any one woman, which left many broken hearts and disgruntled suitors and husbands in his wake. Emily was surprised he hadn’t yet been gunned down by one of them.
And there was a preacher of sorts with the group. A tall, substantial, older man with graying hair and a voice that could boom like thunder. Emily had first seen Josiah Sanchez presiding at a funeral for an elderly widow and she had attended services at the ramshackle church at the edge of town. So imagine her surprise one morning when a group of drunken cowboys rode into town, forcing the peacekeepers into action. There was Josiah, rubbing elbows with Chris and Buck, helping restore order. Well, if a healer could keep the peace, then a preacher was just as qualified.
The one Emily had the hardest time putting in a lawman’s role was Ezra Standish. A good looking man with soft hands and soft features, intense green eyes and a dapper way of dressing, he seemed out of place with the other six; a man more used to creature comforts than gun fighting. Yet he had a fast draw and Emily had seen him hold his own in a saloon fight. He had a cultured manner of speech and seemed to confuse Mr. Tanner, Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Dunne with his extensive vocabulary. To paraphrase Mr. Wilmington, he threw five dollar words around as if they were penny poker chips.
And then there was Vin himself. Emily could scarcely believe he was part of the seven; wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t seen Vin standing shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Larabee, or positioned on one of the town’s rooftops covering the six below. He was purported to have been a sniper, a buffalo hunter, a bounty hunter – quite a laundry list for one so young. These were all skills which smacked of a solitary life. Yet here he was in a little cattle crossing of a town, risking his life for the other six and the townspeople.
Emily sighed. She could probably ponder the seven and their odd yet comfortable relationship for hours. But that wasn’t getting the laundry done. And she had several more tubs full before she could get off her feet and rest.
She pulled the damp bodice of her dress away from her chest. Not yet full sun and it was already hot. Funny, she didn’t remember the weather being this extreme back East. Out here, everything was just – more. More heat. More cold. More wind. More snow. More – space.
But, Lord, looking up at the stars on a clear night took her breath away. And the desert in bloom after the spring rains was more colorful than the finest gardens in Boston. And the sunrises and sunsets – there were no words to describe their magnificence.
That was something she and Mr. Tanner shared on occasion. The sunrises.
That first shared sunrise had found her hanging clothes on the line when she heard Vin’s voice.
“Miz Emily, y’ got a minute?”
He’d walked her to a small rise just east of town. And, shoulders touching, they’d watched the sun rise.
She’d never realized how beautiful it was. She’d never taken the time to look.
She watched the world awaken, a single ray at a time. The velvet blues, purples and blacks gave way to pale yellows, bright reds and burnished golds and the sun peeking over the horizon cast interesting shadows off rock and bush. The sky was streaked with color as though some artist had slathered spun gold and crimson on his brush and smeared it over the entire surface of the earth. No buildings or streets or people blocked the view; just the mountains in the distance and the desert spread out at their feet.
She must have gasped, for she heard Vin’s voice, soft, beside her.
“Somethin’, ain’t it? Never git tired of it. Leastways, I don’t. Kinda humbles a man, knowin’ there’s such beauty in the world.”
She’d glanced over at him, noting that clean, strong profile, those high cheekbones, that square jaw and those blue eyes framed by long eyelashes and thought, yes, such beauty.
She and Vin had watched a few more sunrises over the months. He seemed to have such ingrained knowledge of the land that he knew which sunrises were going to be especially remarkable. He knew how hard she worked and how important it was getting the laundry clean and dry before the regular town activities stirred the dust, so he rarely took her from her work. She relished those mornings he did.
It was two hours after sunrise when Emily finished pulling the dry clothes off the line. Now came the folding and ironing, a task she didn’t mind in the winter months but which was pure misery in the summer. Oh, well, no hope for it.
She grabbed the wooden handle of the heated flatiron and began to painstakingly press the delicate ruffles on one of Mr. Standish’s dress shirts. She and Ezra had an understanding. They knew of each other’s upper class upbringing and he knew she knew about tailor-made clothing. He trusted her to be as careful of his clothes as he was, and he paid her well.
The morning went quickly as Emily ironed, sorted and folded. Wrapping the last of Mr. Standish’s shirts in butcher paper, she realized it was time for the noon meal. She could deliver the shirts to Ezra and drop off a few more bundles besides and take a well-deserved hour to eat.
Hanging the closed sign in the window and shutting the door firmly behind her, she made her way down the wooden sidewalk with her bundles.
Four Corners was awake and bustling, quite a different scene from her early morning. Wagons and men on horseback rode the dusty street and it appeared the mercantile, the bank and the saloons were doing a brisk business.
Emily was glad to see the bustle. While she and Jeb had been living out on their ranch, some folks were concerned that the Four Corners would go the way of many small Western towns, especially those located away from major stage routes, cattle trails and not yet connected to the railroads. Because of vanishing customers and a too rough crowd of drifters and outlaws, Four Corners had seen businesses shuttered, shopkeepers shot and killed and respectable folks moving away. But, according to Mary and Gloria, that was before the seven began keeping the peace.
Gloria had recounted how her husband had been killed by one such ruffian, shot down in cold blood in his store. She spoke of the relief she’d felt when Judge Travis and the seven had stepped in to try to put a stop to the senseless violence. Gloria’s husband’s death had led to the seven banding together to restore some semblance of order to the town.
Lost in thought, Emily caught her foot on an uneven board. She stumbled and would have fallen; instead a strong hand grasped her elbow, keeping her upright. Another hand swept up her packages.
She looked up into a handsome, smiling face; deep blue eyes snapping with merriment, and smiled back.
“Mr. Wilmington, thank you!”
Buck grinned even wider, if that was possible. Tucking her bundles under one arm, he wrapped her wrist under his other.
“Why, Miz Emily, a dainty thing like you shouldn’t be toting such a heavy load. Allow me to escort you to your destination.”
Emily couldn’t say no. Although Buck Wilmington was, in the words of young Mr. Dunne, ‘full of crap’, he was such a charming rogue he was hard to resist. Emily knew the majority of women in town would agree.
Emily enjoyed the way Buck made her feel. Talk was Buck never paid for a woman’s company and Emily could see why. Physically he was an imposing man – tall and broad shouldered with a sunny disposition. That he was handsome was a given and Emily also appreciated that Back was one of the best groomed men she’d ever met out West. She knew he frequented the bathhouse on a regular basis and his hands and teeth were always clean. Yes, Buck was every woman’s dream.
And therein lay the problem. While it was true women loved Buck, Buck also loved women. And he wasn’t very discriminating.
So, while Emily appreciated his attention, his flattery and, of course, his strong arm, she knew tomorrow, or later today, or even minutes from now, Buck would be showing some other woman his considerable charm.
Emily thanked her lucky stars she wasn’t in love with Buck. And she wondered if ever the day would come some woman would find the key to that rascal’s heart. Now, that would be worth seeing.
Emily was pulled away from her thoughts when she realized Buck had asked her a question.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Wilmington. I was woolgathering. What did you say?”
“Now, Miz Emily, it’s Buck, if you please. We’re friends so let’s not stand on ceremony. I merely asked what was keepin’ you lost in thought.”
Emily blushed. She didn’t dare tell him what she’d really been thinking, so she said, “I was thinking how funny it was that you’re the second peacekeeper today to save me from taking a tumble.”
Buck’s eyes took on a knowing gleam. “The first wouldn’t happen to be our intrepid tracker, would it?”
Emily blushed even deeper. “Why, yes, it was, How did you know?”
“Everyone knows you and him watch the sun come up some mornings, you two bein’ early risers, as such,” Buck’s voice took on a softer tone. “He likes you, Miz Emily. Not many folks take the time to appreciate nature the way he does. Vin sorta keeps to himself, if you haven’t noticed. I think people make him nervous. I know women make him nervous. You’re different…,” here he blushed, something Emily wasn’t sure Buck could do. “Oh, not that I mean you ain’t a fine lookin’ woman, Miz Emily. It’s just you’re not like a lot of the other women in town, if you know what I mean…,” Buck’s words drifted off and he looked down at his boots, probably thinking he’d said too much.
Emily smiled at the statement, warmed by Buck’s sincere, if awkward, words. “Thank you for the compliment, Buck. I know what you mean. Mr. Tanner and I do enjoy our mornings, as infrequent as they are. I hope there’s no problem with us watching the sunrise?”
“Oh, no, ma’am,” Buck said. “It’s nice that Vin has a lady friend. I mean, he’s got Miz Nettie, but she’s like a maw to him, It’s just good to see him with someone close to his own age.”
Emily was a bit taken aback by the statement. Somehow, even with what she knew about the tracker’s past, she assumed she was a good deal older than he. She knew J.D. was barely out of his teens, if that and she’d thought Vin was only a few years older.
Even if that were true, even if she and Vin were close to the same age, Emily didn’t know that would make any difference. Despite the strong feelings she believed she had for him, she and Vin were worlds apart. Gorgeous sunrises aside, she was a city girl born and bred. Vin was a child of the West – wild, free and skittish as hell. Besides, he’d never shown an interest in her that way. While he was unfailingly polite and sought out her company, nothing in his words or deeds was of a romantic nature.
Emily sighed, a noise that Buck misinterpreted.
“Miz Emily, are you alright?”
“Why, yes, Buck, just tired. I must get this laundry delivered and get a bite to eat. It’s been a long day.”
Buck was immediately solicitous. “Why certainly, Miz Emily. How thoughtless of me to keep you in this hot sun. A fair flower such as yourself must be nigh t’ faintin’ from all this heat.”
Emily shook her head, laughing silently. “Mr. Dunne was right,” she said under her breath.
“Beg pardon, ma’am?” Buck said.
“Nothing, Buck.” Emily squeezed his arm. “Shall we be about our business?”
Ezra Standish was coming downstairs as Emily was leaving his laundry at the boarding house’s front desk. He smiled broadly at her, his gold incisor glinting in the light.
“Mrs. Bishop, how are you this fine morning?”
Emily smiled. Only the gambler would consider midday morning. His clothes were, as usual, neat and pressed, his hair still a bit damp and he was freshly shaven. Emily figured he’d been up thirty minutes at most.
“I am well, Mr. Standish, and you? I hope your last bundle of shirts was to your liking.”
Emily believed she would always be on a last-name basis with the fastidious man. He even called his compatriots by their last names. Still, he came the closest to personifying the city ways she had known most of her life.
“You did a commendable job, Mrs. Bishop, most commendable. Might I suggest a tad more starch in the collars next time? This abominable heat does tend to wilt the tips.”
Emily nodded her agreement. He took the bundles she brought him and paid her for the work. As the coins jingled in her dress pocket, she knew she would have a good lunch today. Mr. Standish had tipped her handsomely. The cards must have been in his favor last evening. He was always generous to her, but some tips were heftier than others.
There were times Emily longed to be able to sit down with him and have a lengthy conversation. She knew he had traveled extensively and knew about books, fine wine and fashions. But she didn’t know how to ask without seeming forward. For all his garrulousness he was a private man.
Emily delivered a few more bundles of laundry and then decided it was past time to eat. She was walking in front of Watson’s Hardware, about to cross the street to the restaurant, when she noticed a gang of rough looking men riding in. She glanced over across the street to the jail.
J.D. Dunne, who’d been propped back in a chair on the porch, brought it back to the sidewalk with a loud thump. Moving to the door he called out, “Chris!” then made his way down the front steps.
Chris Larabee, dressed in his usual black, stepped out of the doorway. Slowly he eased his black duster off his hip, revealing his Colt .45. The silver conchas on his gun belt gleamed in the sun and his black hat shadowed his face. He may have looked relaxed, but Emily knew the gunslinger was like a deadly rattler, poised to strike.
Down the street the saloon doors opened and out stepped Buck and Josiah Sanchez. The silver haired preacher walked one step behind Buck. She also saw Ezra rounding the corner from the boardinghouse. The three men made their way to the jail and now stood flanking Larabee.
The group of riders numbered ten. They were dirty and dusty, their horses worn and lathered. Their leader sat astride a large-boned roan. He wore a patchwork coat and a sombrero dangled from strings down his back, although he wasn’t Spanish. He was big and paunchy, his hair dark, lank and greasy. He wore it long down the back and sides, but the top of his skull was scarred, red and puckered. Emily realized with a start that the man had at one time been scalped. His cheek bulged with a tobacco plug, and as he leaned forward he spit a long stream of brown juice at the steps, barely missing J.D.’s boots.
“Look out, sonny,” the man said in a raspy drawl as J.D. moved back quickly. “Wouldn’t want t’ mess up yer baby booties.”
J.D.’s hand went towards his gun. “Easy, J.D.,” Larabee said, cautioning the young man. “It’s just talk.”
A flush rose up J.D.’s neck and his eyes glittered in anger. But he moved his hand back down.
“Name’s Malone. Black Jack Malone,” the man said. “Reckon you’ve heard of me.”
“Nope,” Chris spoke, his voice a laconic drawl.
“Was workin’ fer the Army a while back,” the man said, shifting in his saddle. “Hunting down injuns off the reservation. We found a group o’ them red devils and was roundin’ ‘em up when I was jumped by this blue-eyed half-breed bastard. The boys I’s with pulled him off me, but not before he done this,” Malone ran a hand over his bare pate. He grinned then, revealing broken, tobacco stained teeth. “Boys beat him so bad, thought they’d kilt him, but now I hear tell he’s holed up in some piss-ant town, playin’ at bein’ a lawman ‘r somethin’. Figger you boys might know him. Name’s Vin Tanner.”
Emily gasped and pressed a hand to her mouth. She stepped into the side alley and pressed in close to the wall of the hardware store. She was facing the five at the jail; the gang’s backs to her. She noticed a minute movement of Larabee’s head and glanced over her shoulder to the nearby rooftop. There she spotted Vin, crouched low, rifle in hand.
So, six present and accounted for. She assumed Nathan Jackson was still in his clinic.
“Your business with Tanner was over long ago.” Larabee’s voice was cold and flat. “Best you all be movin’ on.”
“I know he’s here,” Malone said, his voice louder, raspier. “Y’ boys best be gittin’ him out here afore innocent folks get hurt. I jest want Tanner. Got no quarrel with the rest of ya’ll.”
“You have a problem with Vin, you have it with all of us.” Larabee straightened, standing taller and looking even more dangerous, if that was possible. “Move on. Don’t reckon t’ say it again.”
A flash of steel at the back of the pack had Vin yelling, “Chris, look out!” and his rifle cracked from the roof, knocking the gun out of the man’s hand. Then it turned into a free-for-all, bullets flying fast and furious. Chris ducked low, his pistol drawn. Buck took refuge behind a post and Josiah knelt behind the chair J.D. had vacated earlier.
Some of the gang had dismounted and were using their frightened mounts as cover. Malone managed to get off several shots before bullets from both Buck’s and Vin’s guns sent him tumbling to the dirt. One of Malone’s bullets struck J.D. in the upper arm, sending him in a spiral to the ground.
“Stay down, kid!” Buck yelled, diving off the porch and dragging J.D. away from the flying metal.
To Emily, the gun battle seemed to last forever, and simultaneously, be over in a matter of seconds. When the smoke cleared, a true picture of the carnage was revealed.
Seven of the ten gang members were dead or dying. Three who had been hanging near the back had turned and were seen spurring their exhausted mounts out of town.
Black Jack Malone lay where he had fallen. Buck’s bullet had hit him high in the chest and had spun him around in the saddle to where Vin’s bullet had found its mark squarely in the middle of his forehead. His face held a shocked expression in death.
The peacekeepers had also suffered. In addition to J.D.’s arm wound, Josiah’s face was peppered with cuts where bullets had ripped through the nearby railing, shattering the wood and sending slivers flying towards him. A few of the shards were dangerously close to his eyes.
Buck stayed with J.D., trying to staunch the flow of blood from the kid’s arm with his kerchief. Nathan appeared seemingly from out of nowhere and began barking orders to move the injured men to his clinic. Several of the townsmen began collecting the bodies of the gang to take to the undertaker. In the midst of all the confusion, Larabee raised his head and began searching the neighboring rooftops.
“Vin! Vin, you all right?”
There was no answer.
Emily looked up at the nearby rooftop from her place in the alley. Vin’s arm and hand dangled over the side; a long thin trail of blood flowed down his slim fingers and dripped to the dirt below.
“Mr. Larabee!” she called, pointing to the roof. “He’s there! He’s hurt!”
“Damn it.” Chris wasted no time. “Come on, Ezra.”
Emily felt hot and cold at the same time. She breathed a silent prayer for Vin’s safety. She rushed over to where Nathan was helping Josiah shakily to his feet.
“Mr. Jackson, is there anything I can do to help? I’ve done a little nursing, and I’d…,” she stopped when Nathan gave her an odd look.
“Miz Bishop, you’ve been shot.”
Emily looked down at her left arm. A bright splotch of red was spreading slowly over the sleeve of her dress just above the elbow. Funny, she didn’t remember getting hit. Just then, her arm felt hot and began to throb in time to her heartbeat.
“Let’s get you looked after. Then we’ll talk about that nursing,”
Emily remembered Nathan’s clinic from when he’d treated her burns after the fire that had destroyed her ranch. Her arm wound was what she’d heard called a ‘through and through,’ meaning the bullet had passed through, in her case doing relatively little damage. Nathan cleaned it with carbolic and wrapped it snugly in clean cloth bandages, then had her rest it in a sling. She figured the biggest casualty was her dress, since they’d had to rip the sleeve off to tend to her wound.
Nathan set her to brewing some of his herbal tea, admonishing her to drink the first cup.
J.D.’s arm wound was also a through and through; unfortunately it had torn more muscle than hers, so he was in some pain. Josiah’s facial cuts had been cleaned and he was resting in a chair with a warm poultice on his eyes to help with any infection and dissolve any splinters that might remain.
That left Vin.
Nathan had placed Vin in his bed in the spare room, first stripping off the bedding and laying clean cloths under his upper body to catch the blood and keep it from staining the mattress.
Vin had been hit in the upper chest, right under his left collarbone. While the bullet had luckily missed the bone, it had torn through muscle and lodged close to the scapula. It had taken Nathan three tries to dig the bullet out. At the present time, Vin was unconscious, dosed up on laudanum.
Emily helped Nathan sterilize his dirty instruments as Chris and Buck helped J.D. down the clinic’s stairs. The boy would rest better in his own bed and Buck had strict orders to keep him in it and quiet for the next day or two.
Nathan rechecked Josiah’s cuts, had re-rinsed his eyes with water and pronounced him fit to leave. He gave him some comfrey salve to spread on the wounds and told him he might want to skip the sermon this coming Sunday. “You’ll scare your congregation, Josiah,” Nathan said. “By Sunday, you’ll be all bruised up and look like the devil.”
“Ah, but what better visage to put the fear of purgatory into their hearts?” Josiah smiled, and then winced, any facial movements painful.
“You jest keep those cuts clean and use the salve. Any problems, let me know,”
“Do you require assistance with Brother Vin?” Josiah asked.
“No. Chris’ll be back directly. I reckon me and Mrs. Bishop will manage.”
Emily watched Josiah make his way slowly down the stairs then turned to Nathan.
“How can I help?”
“Jest go sit with him at present. If he stirs, give him some herbal tea or a little more laudanum if the pain seems too bad. I need to grab me a bite to eat. Can I fetch you a plate?”
Emily realized she’d never made it to the restaurant, and her pre-dawn breakfast felt as if it had been eaten days rather than hours ago. Nathan must have read her thoughts, for he patted her shoulder gently and said, “I’ll bring you some sandwiches.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jackson, that would be most kind.”
She heard the door close and his footsteps descending the wooden stairs. She turned, pausing at the bedroom door, gazing in at the sleeping figure on the bed.
The man was injured, seriously injured, she scolded herself, yet she couldn’t help notice his beauty. Nathan had pulled a blanket up to his waist, leaving his upper torso bare. His golden brown hair fanned out on the pillow, and a large white bandage covered his left shoulder and chest. The bandage was spotted red.
Emily pulled up the straight back chair next to the bed and gently took his left hand in her right. His skin was dry and warm, not yet unpleasantly so, but she feared fever would set in later on. The late afternoon sun streamed in through the curtained window, turning his skin into burnished gold. She watched his chest rise and fall with his shallow breathing. Emily was amazed at the muscular definition of Vin’s chest and arms, The young man always looked slight due to all the clothes he insisted on wearing no matter what the weather. One would hardly guess at the bounty hidden underneath.
She couldn’t help herself. Reaching over, Emily brushed a lock of hair back from his face and gently ran her fingers down the strong, square jaw.
She had loved her husband dearly, but Jeb had been twenty years her senior when they’d married, being forty-three to her twenty-three. He’d been fifty when he died. Vin was probably in his late twenties, no more than thirty, in the full vigor of manhood.
And she’d heard some of the other women in town talk about him. Mostly it was about how polite he was, how shy and soft-spoken. But often it was about his blue eyes, his broad shoulders, his blinding smile, his overwhelming masculinity. Emily knew Buck didn’t pay to be with a woman, but she bet if he’d wanted to, Vin wouldn’t have had to pay for it either.
Vin moaned slightly under her touch, and she pulled her hand away from his face, clasping his fingers again.
“Vin? Vin, can you hear me?” she said softly.
His eyes opened a crack, thin slivers of blue showing out from under long lashes.
“Th – thirsty,” he said.
She slipped her hand behind his neck and eased his head up a fraction. A cup of the herbal tea was pressed to his lips.
“Slow – slowly now. Small sips.”
He drank down about half the cup and then she settled him back on the pillow. He never really woke up.
Nathan was back before long with the sandwiches and Chris returned to sit with Vin while she ate. The men seemed to understand her need to stay close to Vin as neither man insisted she leave. She’d noticed a closeness between Vin and Chris, a sort of unspoken friendship. The men could communicate with each other without saying a word.
After eating, she dozed in a chair in the main clinic room for about an hour and awoke to find that one of the men had covered her with a quilt.
Nighttime is the worst time for fever, and that’s when Vin’s hit with a vengeance. It took both Nathan and Chris holding him down when the tremors and delirium struck. Vin fought like a wild thing, and Nathan was afraid for a bit that he’d rip out the stitches and start the wound to bleeding heavily again.
When the worst was over and Vin was again unconscious under the laudanum’s power, Emily sat with him, bathing his face, arms and chest with cool water, trying to bring the fever down. She wrung out cold cloths with her right hand, placing one on his forehead and one under his neck. Between wipe-downs, she stroked the sweat dampened hair away from his face. While she couldn’t deny the romantic feelings she had for Vin, something in his weakened state brought out a definite maternal instinct, and she found herself crooning bits and snatches of lullabies she’d heard her mother sing to her and her sister when they’d been small.
He roused two more times that night and each time Emily got a bit more of the herbal tea down him. He didn’t know her, didn’t know where he was – just drank from the cup and fell back into unconsciousness. She was worried. Nathan wasn’t.
“A wound this serious, I’m not surprised he’s still under, Mrs. Bishop,” Nathan said, folding clean bandages and putting them away. “It lasts for more than a couple days, then we worry.”
“I’m sure you’re right, Mr. Jackson,” she said, handing more of the cloths to him. “And please, call me Emily. I feel as though you and I should be on a first-name basis by now.”
“Agreed, Miz Emily, but only if you’ll call me Nathan – or Nate,” he said, smiling. He was tired, she could tell, but the smile transformed his face, making him even more handsome. These seven were all attractive men, Emily realized. Even Josiah was a charmer, through Emily wouldn’t call him classically handsome.
It was close to dawn when Nate fixed her a pallet on the floor near Vin’s bed and insisted she lie down.
“Now, Miz Emily,” he said, admonishing her in that soft-spoken way he had. “You haven’t rested, haven’t hardly eaten. You won’t do Vin a lick of good if you fall ill y’self. I’d give you the bed, but Vin can’t be moved just yet.”
So Emily conceded. She drank a bit more of the tea at Nathan’s insistence and, with the sounds of Vin’s even breathing, soon found herself drifting off into a deep sleep.
When she woke, the late morning rays were bathing the clinic in sunshine. She saw Chris Larabee was occupying the chair she had vacated during the night.
When Chris saw her raise up, he left the chair and hunkered down beside her pallet, a cup of the herbal tea in his strong, capable hands.
“Nathan says you need to drink this, and then think about havin’ some breakfast,” he said. He had a drawl that sent shivers up her spine. His blond hair was mussed and he was unshaven, but his green eyes held a mischievous gleam. Good heavens, were ‘all’ the seven lady killers? She’d never realized Chris Larabee could be so charming – or so attractive. No wonder Mary Travis was taken with him; he did have a way about him.
Strong arms helped her to her feet. “Hope you’re not too stiff after spendin’ a night on the floor. Nathan said Vin was in no shape to be moved.”
“Not at all, Mr. Larabee. Thank you for your assistance.” She noticed he didn’t insist on her using his Christian name. In fact, she didn’t think she would ever be on a first-name basis with the reserved gunslinger. But that wouldn’t stop her from helping however she could. Life had become a lot more tolerable since the seven had begun keeping the peace and for that alone she was grateful. That they were brave, generous (in Ezra’s case), thoughtful, kind and very easy on the eyes were bonuses. Yes, Four Corners could do much, much worse.
Nathan rechecked and rebandaged her arm and pronounced her on the mend. Emily did not want to overstay her welcome, but something told her she could be of help here.
“Nathan, if I go home and eat and clean up a bit, may I please come back and sit with Mr. Tanner? That way you can check on Mr. Dunne and Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Larabee can continue his peacekeeping duties. I am assuming you are operating a little short due to the others’ injuries. I promise I’ll follow your instructions to the letter and will let one of you spell me later today.” She knew her eyes were pleading with him, but she couldn’t stop herself. “Please. You all have done so much to help the town. Let me help in this small way.”
Emily would later believe if she had asked Chris Larabee she would have been turned down. But Nathan recognized her need to be useful, and her need to stay close by this young man who’d never really had anywhere to call home before coming to Four Corners.
When Emily returned about an hour later, Nathan was nowhere to be seen. As she quietly approached the spare room, she noticed Mr. Larabee had pulled the chair up next to the bed. He sat, shoulders hunched, his blond head close to Vin’s tousled one. She felt she was eavesdropping, but she couldn’t pull her eyes away from the strangely intimate scene.
Larabee had Vin’s left hand clasped in both of his and was murmuring low. Emily caught snatches of conversation, phrases like “time to wake up, pard” and “don’t let that son of a bitch Malone win”. It was definitely a side of Chris Larabee she’d never seen and never expected to see.
She retreated, then made more noise coming back to the doorway. Larabee straightened in his chair, but didn’t release his hold on Vin’s hand.
“I’m here to relieve you, Mr. Larabee,” she said, pausing at the doorway. “How is he?”
“He’s roused a couple ‘o times, not really awake yet.” Larabee looked tired, and Emily realized just then how responsible he felt for these men and, it seemed, one young tracker in particular. “His fever seems down some, and he’s restin’ easier.”
“That is encouraging,” Emily said, hoping the man would get some much needed rest himself. “I’m sure Nathan will be back directly. In the meantime, we’ll be fine.”
Larabee started out the door, then hesitated. Turning back to her, he looked almost nervous. He had his black hat in his hands, and fingering the rim, said, “Sure do appreciate all you’re doin’ for Vin, ma’am. He always speaks quite highly of you.”
Emily was touched, not only hearing that Vin spoke of her, but also knowing how hard it was for Chris Larabee to thank anyone.
“It’s my pleasure, Mr. Larabee, I assure you,” she said, smiling brightly at him. “Vin is very important to me. All of you are, in fact. I can never repay you for all you’ve done for me and for Four Corners.”
Larabee smiled back at her, looking so handsome at that moment it took her breath away. The man should really smile more often! Putting his hat back on, and bringing two fingers to the rim, he nodded, simply said, “Miz Emily,” and left the clinic.
Emily had to sit down. So much for not being on a first-name basis with the man! It seemed these seven were constantly surprising her.
She turned her attention to Vin. While still asleep, his color was better and he didn’t seem quite so restless. Placing her hand on his forehead, she noted his fever was down.
Checking to ensure she had plenty of herbal tea on hand, she took a seat by the bed and began her vigil.
She’d brought her Bible with her, and began reading aloud to Vin, delving into the Psalms, which were her favorites. Emily didn’t consider herself devout, wasn’t really much of a churchgoer, but she drew comfort from some of the words she read.
She turned to Psalm 121 and began to read aloud: “I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord who made heaven and earth…,”
“Th – tha’s real purty, Miz Emily.”
Startled, she put down the book. Vin was looking up at her, his eyes mere slits. Still, he was awake.
“Vin!” she exclaimed softly. “It’s good to see you awake. Are you thirsty, dear?” The endearment slipped out. She didn’t care.
Apparently, neither did Vin. Or he was still groggy from the laudanum.
“I could use a mite t’ drink.”
Helping him raise his head, she held the cup to his lips. He drank it all.
“How are you feeling? Can I get you anything?”
“Would you mind readin’ t’ me some more?”
Emily sat back down and picked the Bible back up. “Of course not. Here’s one of my favorites. It’s the 23rd Psalm. Some folks call it the Lord’s Prayer. Then she began to read.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul…,”
She could see Vin losing his battle to stay awake. As soon as his eyes closed and his breathing evened out, she put the Bible back down and, standing, placed the back of her hand on his cheek and then his forehead. Cooler, definitely cooler.
Emily sat back down in her chair, but had no desire to pick up the Bible again. She instead pondered what had happened over the past day and a half. Was it just yesterday Vin was shot? That she herself had taken a bullet in the arm? That she’d seen the carnage of a pitched gun battle up close? She knew the seven had faced down outlaws and gangs, but she’d never had a front row seat before.
She also contemplated Black Jack Malone’s words. Was Vin capable of scalping someone? That act of savagery seemed at odds with the quiet man she’d come to know these past few months. She knew he was a crack shot, she’d heard he’d lived among the Indians for a time, but could he do something like that? And really what business of hers was it?
Her thoughts were interrupted by Nathan’s return. She told him of Vin’s awakening and he was pleased that the fever had lessened considerably. Together they changed the dressing on his shoulder while he slept.
Emily thought the wound looked horrific; Nathan said it was healing nicely. He asked her if she’d mind sitting a while longer while he went to the restaurant to get Vin some clear broth.
Vin was awake and sitting up when Nathan returned. He wrinkled his nose at the steaming cup of broth.
“Ah, hell, Nathan – beggin’ yer pardon, Miz Emily – rather have some biscuits.”
“You keep this down, Vin, and tomorrow we’ll talk biscuits,” Nathan said, smiling. A complaining Vin was a healing Vin.
Emily helped him drink the broth, but he balked at more herbal tea.
“Tastes like horse piss – beggin’ yer pardon, Miz Emily – druther have somethin’ stronger.”
“It’s tea or water tonight, Vin. Take your pick.” Nathan said sternly, but the twinkle in his eyes belied his seriousness. It looked as though Vin would make a complete recovery.
The hard part was going to be keeping Vin in bed over the next few days. Nathan and Emily reached a compromise with the hard-headed young man. Vin would spend the mornings sleeping or Chris would sit with him and in the afternoons, after she had finished at the laundry, Emily would come and read to him.
The next few afternoons were like a dream come true for Emily. Vin was a wonderful listener and sometimes they’d talk. Emily told Vin about her family, growing up in Boston and about her initial fear of moving out West. She even touched briefly on her life with Jeb.
In turn, she learned more about Vin. She was sure he glossed over most of the unpleasantries, but slowly a picture emerged of a young man who had endured many hardships in his short life. Oh, it wasn’t so much what he said; it was what he didn’t say – the deliberate gaps between his mother’s death when he was five and his life prior to coming to Four Corners.
One thing did distress her, though. Vin napped a lot when they were together, but he was plagued by nightmares and his sleep wasn’t peaceful. Maybe she could get him to open up to her about what was bothering him.
Emily had been cleaning and redressing her wound herself, but Nathan wanted to reexamine it. He asked while she and Vin were having one of their afternoon reading sessions.
“I’m fine, Nathan, really. Don’t need the sling any more,” Emily said, knowing full well this was one battle she was going to lose. As she rolled up her dress sleeve, Vin asked, “What happened, Miz Emily?”
Emily didn’t realize Vin didn’t know about her being injured.
“I got shot, Vin. Same time you did. It’s not bad, though.”
“You were there?”
“Yes, in the alley next to Watson’s Hardware. It must have been a stray bullet.”
Vin’s handsome face creased into a frown. It seemed he was gathering his thoughts, for it was a few moments before he spoke again.
“Guess you saw ever’thin’?”
“Heard ever’thin’, too? Heard what Black Jack Malone said ‘bout me?”
Emily knew she’d have to choose her words carefully. She knew how much Vin valued honesty, so she wouldn’t lie to him.
“Yes, I did.”
He hung his head. “Then I reckon ya must be purty disappointed in me. Ain’t somethin’ a woman like you should be knowin’ ‘bout a man.”
She took the chair beside his bed and clasped his left hand in hers.
“I don’t think I could ever be disappointed in you, Vin. We’ve both had things happen in our pasts that we’re not particularly proud of. Besides, I saw what kind of man Malone was. Not sure I’d believe anything I heard him say.”
She saw Nathan out of the corner of her eye, an approving look on his face. He left the room, seeming to realize their need for privacy.
“Wisht’ I could say it weren’t true, Miz Emily, but it is. But he deserved it, after what he done.”
“Can you tell me about it, Vin?” Emily asked softly.
With a lot of pauses, hesitations, starts and stops, the story came out.
And it was a truly horrible one.
“You’ve heard tell I lived with th’ People fer a time. They took me in when I didn’t have nowheres else t’ go. One o’ the older braves took me under his wing, taught me all I know about trackin’ and readin’ sign and livin’ off the land. His wife treated me like their son. They was hard, but fair. Good t’ me. First time since I was five felt like I belonged somewhere, y’know?”
Emily nodded, her throat so blocked with emotion she didn’t trust her voice.
In a quiet voice, Vin told her how Malone and his men rode into the village one day, liquored up and ready for blood. They burned, pillaged and raped. Vin had fought alongside the other braves, but had been knocked out by a rifle butt to the head. When he’d come to, he saw Malone repeatedly plunging a knife into the chest of the old Indian who’d taught Vin so much.
“Guess I went a little crazy, then. I rassled his knife away and jest started peelin’ his hair from his scalp. His men jumped me ‘n pulled me off him. Two of ‘em held m’ arms and the rest jest started punchin’ ‘n kickin’. Passed out after a while. When I come to agin, they was gone. Malone weren’t among the dead, so I guessed they’d taken him with ‘em.”
Vin had his head bowed, hair obscuring his face, hands clutching and releasing the blanket. His voice had dropped so low Emily could scarcely hear him.
“Was hard, but I managed to git all th’ bodies in a pile and burned ‘em. They didn’t spare no one – not a man, woman or child. Jest me. And I guess they thought they’d kilt me. Wasn’t gonna leave the People fer the wild critters. After that, I drug m’self to a nearby stream. Buffalo hunters found me couple days later ‘n I stayed with ‘em fer a while, healin’ up and learnin’ that trade.”
Emily sat, stunned, overwhelmed by the sheer horror of it all. Slowly she turned her head and looked over at Vin. His head was still bowed, face still hidden. As she watched, she saw something fall, once – twice – and hit the blanket.
When he spoke again, his voice was choked.
“Yer the first person I’ve told. Haven’t thought ‘bout it. Didn’t want t’ think ‘bout it.”
Emily didn’t hesitate. She moved to his side and carefully gathered him in her arms, his head buried in her shoulder, her hand stroking his tousled curls. Rocking him gently, she whispered to him, “Shh, sweetheart. It’s all right.”
He didn’t cry hard. Or long. Just a few silent tears wetting the shoulder of her dress.
As she held him, she marveled how this man could have suffered so much, yet remain the gentle, decent man she knew him to be. A few tears slid down her cheeks, too, as they mourned his loss together.
When he’d regained his composure, he was embarrassed.
“Dang it, didn’t mean t’ get all weepy on ya.”
“It’s okay, Vin. It’s the laudanum, Makes folks act strangely.” He glanced at her, startled, then grinned, silently thanking her for the ‘out’. She pulled out her handkerchief and wiped her eyes. Vin used the hem of the blanket.
He looked at her gratefully and smiled. “What does a man have t’ do ‘round here t’ git somethin’ t’ eat?”
As if on cue, Nathan entered with a tray. “Mrs. Sloan at the restaurant fixed you some chicken ‘n dumplings and Mrs. Welles sent some of her pie. Eat hearty.”
Vin’s eyes lit up. Emily helped him settle the tray on his lap. When he asked if he needed help eating, he waived her off.
“C’n manage, Miz Emily, but thanks. Nathan, reckon I could have some coffee?”
At Nathan’s nod, Emily said, “I’ll get you some,” and went to the other room to pour him a cup.
Nathan followed her. “I didn’t listen in, Miz Emily, but it seems your talk was a mite upsettin’, though I think it did him some good. Boy carries too many ghosts around inside him. Musta been some story.”
“It was, Nathan, and, awful as it was, it isn’t my story to tell. I just hope it helped. Maybe now he can get the rest he needs.”
J.D. came to visit later that day, and amused Emily with his constant chatter and endless stream of bad jokes. She knew he was an integral part of the seven, but he seemed so young with his intense hazel eyes, raven black hair, boundless energy, wide grin and infectious laugh. His arm was healing nicely; he said he’d soon be returning to his duties.
Emily knew that her time sitting with Vin was fast coming to a close. He chafed at the enforced inactivity; in fact, Emily believed the only reason he wasn’t more profanely argumentative with Nathan was due to her presence.
That time came two afternoons later. Emily went to the clinic and found Nathan remaking the bed in the spare room.
“He’s gone, Miz Emily. Rode out this morning. Reckon the mountains will help him heal faster than bed rest. Chris went with him, so I ain’t worried.”
Emily felt tears come unbidden to her eyes and quickly dashed them away with the back of her hand. Oh, it wasn’t that she begrudged him leaving – Vin was a child of nature, after all. He felt more comfortable, more at peace in that wilderness of his. It was just, for the first time in a long time, she’d felt needed by another person – seven other persons, if she were honest. It felt wonderful.
Nathan squeezed her shoulder and a look of understanding passed between them.
“Sure could use yer help ‘round here, Miz Emily, if yer willin’. Yer good with th’ sick and a sight prettier than the other six I got t’ deal with. I couldn’t pay ya much – most folks around here pay me in trade, when they can pay.”
Emily was touched. “I’d be pleased to help, Nate. And no payment is necessary. It will feel good to be useful.”
So that was how Emily found herself working as Nathan’s part time nurse. She became even closer to the seven men who kept Four Corners safe. It was a friendship which was to last for years.
She also kept her job at the laundry, not only doing Ezra’s shirts, but Buck’s, J.D.’s and Josiah’s as well.
It was one such pre-dawn morning a few months later that found her bent over a tin wash tub, up to her elbows in soapy water, when a tousled head peeked around the back door.
“Miz Emily, y’ got a minute?”
Laughing, she wiped the lather off her hands and grabbed her shawl, which was hanging on a nail on the back wall.
“Be right there, Vin,” she said, and they went off to watch the sunrise.