Characters: Old West. Chris, Vin, Ezra, all Seven & a very unfriendly ghost.
Summary: While its owners are absent the boys seek shelter from a violent storm inside an empty ranch house with a history. Vin and Ezra decide that this is the perfect chance for a little payback...
Contains: The Supernatural. Reincarnation. Pirates. Refers very briefly to some events described in The Bad, The Good and The Ugly
"That's m' name, Cowboy, ain't needin' ya ta remind me."
"This is a helluva trail to choose!" yelled a furious Chris Larabee.
"Yeah, like there were a choice at all, Cowboy!" snarled the aggravated sharpshooter.
Pony suddenly slithered towards the edge of the steep trail and it took all the gunslinger's concentration to make progress through the torrential rain that mercilessly lashed the seven peacekeepers.
Vin Tanner, the men from Four Corners' very own tracker and sharpshooter, foully cussed out the filthy weather, Christopher Adam Larabee and anyone else foolish enough to be within earshot in a low, growling voice.
Buck Wilmington, dedicated ladies' man, laughed uproariously even as the raindrops dripped from his thick black mustache.
"That boy sounds like a spitting cougar when Chris gets him riled up," he said to J. D. Dunne.
JD was too concerned with persuading his pretty bay mare that in fact her master did not have a death wish and only wished to seek out shelter, to answer his mentor.
"Nag, nag, nag," muttered Tanner as Larabee yelled at him yet again.
"We need shelter!" insisted Larabee as the wind whipped up and battered the seven men repeatedly.
"Ya sure we ain't lookin' fer a place ta stop an' have us all a Sunday picnic?" snapped Tanner, cold rain plastering ringlets of long hair to the back of his neck.
"Shut the hell up, Ezra."
"Yes, indeed, the inclement weather is cruelly damaging my best red jacket, Mr. Tanner," continued Ezra Standish.
"Look like I gives a damn, Ezra?" growled the tracker.
"Brother Vin is not to blame for this maelstrom, Brother Ezra," pointed out the voice of reason, Josiah Sanchez.
"I'm in full agreement, Josiah. However, our Mr. Tanner is paid a dollar a day to be our tracker---"
"Ya want me ta quit an' leave y'all ta find the way outta this yer own selves? 'Cos a dollar a day ain't enough ta put up with yer goddamn puling," snarled a deeply affronted buckskin wearing tracker.
"Vin," soothed Nathan Jackson.
"Nathan!" rasped Tanner, "Shut the f---MUDSLIDE!!!"
As the ground shifted beneath them both men and horses felt the full force of Mother Nature's awesome power. Slithering, rolling, tossed topsy-turvy and in the case of JD's really stupid hat, bouncing, the men and horses finally came to a stop in a tangled heap of flailing hooves.
"Horses awright?" shouted Tanner over the noise of the storm, calmly staying in the saddle as if he was nailed there as Peso scrambled back up onto his feet.
"Mr. Tanner, I may never dance the Polka again," winced Ezra as Tanner reached down a hand and hauled the bedraggled gambler upright.
"Ya lost a fancy boot is all, Ezra."
"All? All? Those boots were custom made for me four years ago by the finest boot maker in St. Louis, Mr. Tanner!"
"Time ya got a new pair anyways, them's gettin' a mite small fer all yer poker winnings."
"Everyone alright?" barked Chris Larabee, as he finished checking a trembling Pony's forelegs over.
"Jus' fine," confirmed Tanner.
"Nathan?" Larabee questioned the healer who was examining a minute scratch on JD's hand.
"Everyone is intact," confirmed Nathan.
"Tol' ya," muttered the tracker, "an' after takin' the quick way down we's nearer shelter."
"The Stacey Ranch!" exclaimed JD.
"At last, an abode entirely worthy of my presence. China tea poured from a silver teapot served in the finest porcelain cups and saucers along with the most engagingly saucy repartee of the ravishing Mrs. Orlando Flynn."
Vin Tanner brutally interrupted the gambler's reverie. "She ain't there."
"I do beg your pardon, Mr. Tanner?"
"Away in New York with Cousin Orlando."
"Then how will we make an entry? do we intend to commit larceny, Mr. Tanner?"
"Hell, Ezra, ya kin pick locks faster than ya kin pick yer fancy gold tooth but don't go on the worry I's gotta key."
"A key? The Flynns entrusted you with a key to their abode? Heavens above! What were they thinking? All that fine art hanging on the walls, priceless bronze sculptures, the library of valuable first editions and you...you...you...a buckskin philistine!"
"Yer talkin' yerself inta a night on the hard floor a the bunkhouse with jus' refried beans fer supper an' rough an' rude cowboys fer company, Ezra. While we all swigs that there fancy China tea in more commodious surroundings," warned the tracker.
"The Stacey Ranch won't flood! We can hole up there until all this dang mud dries out! C'mon, Buck!" JD was back in the saddle and already heading out in completely the wrong direction.
"That boy is too much giddy-up an' not enough whoa," laughed Vin good-naturedly.
The young Easterner's enthusiasm always acted as a balm that alleviated any tensions between the men.
"But he's right, whoever originally built that ranch house chose the perfect spot, on higher ground so it won't flood. We're burning daylight, let's ride!" ordered Chris Larabee.
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Ezra Standish recalled the day he had got his first sighting of the Stacey Ranch. He had gaped slack jawed at the size of it. Ezra had found himself looking at a large, well built ranch house with a veranda. Corrals, stables, a big red barn, a generously sized bunkhouse and other outbuildings sprawled across the horizon. All spruced up and freshly painted.
"Mistah Tanner!" he had cried.
"What?" Vin had drawled.
"You never even mentioned it!"
"That it made the James ranch look positively Lilliputian!"
"What? Made it look what?"
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A series of lookouts normally kept a constant watch and heavily armed men patrolled the ranch house perimeter when Elvira Flynn was in residence. There was only one way to reach the ranch house. A series of newly constructed, rock filled ditches encircled the ranch house and its attendant buildings. The ditches were too wide for a horse to jump and even the most surefooted animal couldn't cross them. The only way to reach the ranch house was by a wooden bridge.
Today Vin Tanner signaled to the single rain-bedraggled sentry and the peacekeepers were waved across the bridge.
"So how much is Cousin Elvira worth?" Ezra asked Vin casually, his heart once again pounding at this display of wealth.
"Worth in money? Ain't no idea. Ain't never asked," shrugged the tracker. "Reckon she makes dollars hand over fist. Invests it real clever. Railroad stock, shippin' an' newfangled inventions. Woman don't stand still fer a minute," Vin beamed with pride at his cousin's uncanny ability to succeed in a man's world, almost as if she was receiving a helping hand from the great beyond, as once again Ezra fell in love with the Stacey Ranch and the money it made.
Larabee noted the positioning of all the watchtowers and guessed he was seeing Jake McKenna's handiwork. He could find no fault with the layout, not one blind spot. It did put many forts to shame. Larabee admired how the ditches mainly did away with the need for a stockade and were far less ugly. Vin's pa had certainly ensured Cousin Elvira's security.
"Boots off," Vin Tanner reminded them, a little sheepishly, as the men prepared to enter the amply sized kitchen, "Cousin Elvira ain't allowin' ya keepin' yer boots on in the place. Take ya half as long, Ezra."
"Highly amusing, Mr. Tanner. I'm quite exhausted from hopping around on one foot in the stables seeing to the horses. It will be a relief to remove this single solitary boot."
"Cousin Elvira sent her servants back ta San Francisco fer a vacation so we gotta fend fer ourselves."
"I don't care it's shelter! I'm soaked to the skin. I don't expect to ever feel warm and dry again!" admitted JD.
With lightning speed Vin Tanner stripped off his outer clothes and pulled down his wet and muddy buckskin pants.
"Dear Lord! Mr. Tanner!"
"Ezra, ya ain't needin' ta stare like that ev'ry time I's bare-assed nekkid. 'T ain't the first time ya seen me without m' britches."
"Indeed but a gentleman prefers some advanced warning, Mr. Tanner, when another man is totally sans undergarments."
"And in Vin's case it only needs a LITTLE warning," guffawed Buck Wilmington.
"I's effected some by the cold weather what's yer excuse, 'Itty Bitty' Bucklin?" smirked Tanner.
"Put a lucifer to the stove, Buck," ordered Larabee sternly.
"Poor disappointed Cousin Elvira, missing the handsome sight of me undressing my manly body in her very own home," laughed Buck, lighting the stove.
"Yeah, she's the sort of lady that enjoys a good laugh," grinned JD, dancing away as Buck swatted him on the behind with a rain saturated shirt.
"We needs blankets an' extra towels. Mebbe we's kin find some old clothes in the attics. Follow me, Ezra."
"Mr. Tanner, please, why me? The thought of having to follow on behind you while you remain in a complete state of undress is most distressing."
"Yer fancy shiny bloomers will dry afore the rest a the boy's undercrackers an' it takes Cowboy ferever an' a day ta shoehorn hisself outta them tight black pantaloons."
Chris Larabee, a fair minded man, gave each of the other six a stoney glare a basilisk would envy.
"These under things are made from the finest Chinese silk and they are certainly not bloomers, Mr. Tanner!" protested Ezra indignantly.
"Look like I cares, Ezra? Ain't ya wantin' ta help yerself ta somethin' wearable from the late Septimus Stacey's wardrobe?"
"Mrs. Flynn kept all her late husband's clothing? I am quite sure that Mr. Septimus Stacey and I had quite similar tastes in gentlemen's fine apparel and sundry items of haberdashery."
"Plumb plenty a stuff up in the attics, Ezra, no need ta vex yerself."
"Lead on, my dear sir," said Ezra, now eagerly following the tracker into the hallway and up the imposing staircase.
"My, my! The late Mr. Stacey spared no expense when it came to having a suit built by the best tailors. Unfortunately, he was far too tall to accommodate me," lamented Ezra, reluctantly returning the bespoke suits to their wooden hangers, the powerful smell of camphor almost making his eyes water and helping himself to an armful of fine linen shirts.
"Mebbe there's more pants an' stuff in the other trunks, go look while I gits them blankets an' towels."
When Vin returned to the attic wearing a quilted robe he had borrowed on a previous occasion and carrying a pile of thick blankets, he stopped dead in the doorway. He had intended to quietly step back out of the room but Ezra spied him in the full length cheval mirror and swung around guiltily.
"I don't have any idea what came over me, Mr. Tanner, I couldn't r-resist trying this on," stuttered Ezra, turning as scarlet as the silk ball gown.
"That ain't Cousin Elvira's best ball dress yer wearin'?" Tanner demanded to know, narrowing his blue eyes at the gambler.
"No. Certainly not!"
"Joyful ta hear that, Ezra, cos I'd have ta shoot ya iffen it were hers."
"There are several ball gowns in this trunk but they are somewhat outmoded. Your Cousin Elvira only wears the very latest Denver fashions."
"She do? Old fashioned ya say?" drawled the tracker, scratching his stubbled chin with an interested expression on his face.
"Why, yes. Quite antediluvian. These garments are meant to be worn over a hoop with several starched, lace-trimmed petticoats and..."
Again Ezra blushed with embarrassment but Vin was smiling at him. "Ezra?" he said.
"Mr. Tanner, you are scaring me now. Please, do not look at me in that tone of voice."
"Ya 'member all them tricks JD an' Bucklin done played on us?" Vin asked. His azure eyes sparkled with mischief, making him look almost boyish.
"Yes, indeed. Mr. Wilmington does have a somewhat warped sense of the absurd."
"An' how scared JD gits when J'siah spins all them ghostly yarns at Halloween?"
"Er, yes, Mr. Tanner."
"Got a white dress in that there chest, Ezra?"
"In point of fact there is a wedding dress and a full length veil over there in that tin trunk but I thought that far too---"
"Ya kin find it an' stow it in Cousin Elvira's dressing room fer later tonight?"
"Really, Mr. Tanner, Vin, I think you may have misunderstood my intentions---"
"Borrow some a that old stage make-up she still has? Make yerself a deathly white face with greasepaint?"
A wide smile chased away Ezra's trepidation. "A ghostly face?"
"The ghost of the Stacey ranch," grinned Vin.
"I think The Phantom Bride of the Stacey ranch---"
"The Blood Spattered Phantom Bride of the Stacey ranch---"
"That is just too overly dramatic, Mr. Tanner."
"Hell no! Let us pull out all the stops, Mr. Tanner!"
"Indeed let us, Mr. Standish!" agreed Vin, his eyes shining.
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After returning to the kitchen and distributing the blankets and clothing, Tanner ambled into the parlor. Bending down to light the log fire before straightening his back to stare up at the full length, gilt framed oil painting of the late Septimus Stacey. The saturnine features stared back. Two wings of silver hair at the temples did nothing to soften the aquiline nosed countenance. The almost black, hooded eyes seemed to follow Tanner as he moved across the room to gaze out of the veranda doors at the unrelenting rain. Suddenly chilled to the bone he pulled the heavy drapes closed and returned stand in front of the painting again. Tanner had never met the man but he knew instinctively that he wouldn't have liked him.
The extremely tall, gray suited figure in the painting held a dangling gold pocket watch on a long gold chain in one hand and rested his other hand autocratically on a towering pile of books he had authored himself. Oddly, the long bony fingers reminded Tanner of a spider's legs. He half expected them to scurry away by themselves.
"An extremely accomplished portrait painter includes clues to the sitter's personality in every brush stroke," remarked Ezra, suddenly very serious for once as he joined Tanner.
"Yeah? That so, Ezra?"
"Yes and I strongly suspect that I would not have found a single redeeming feature in Septimus Stacey's character that could have enabled me to tolerate his company. There is a definite air of watchful tyranny surrounding the man in this portrait."
Both men stared up at the portrait in solemn agreement.
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Wrapped in a blanket and one of the long wool shirts Vin had found for them, JD entered the library, presuming that the strong smell of camphor came from the borrowed clothing. Admiring the gilt framed paintings, the bronze sculptures, the floor standing globe and marveling at row after row of books bound in morocco leather he was transported back in time. His own mother had worked as a servant for a wealthy family back East, eventually JD was grudgingly employed on the same estate as a poorly paid stableboy. On one occasion he had pressed his nose against the cold window glass of his master's drawing room and stared awestruck at the rich furnishings inside, never once expecting to be made warmly welcome as a guest in a home as splendid as this. He was sure that his mother would be both proud and surprised. Nervously padding across the thick rugs, he picked up one book after another and was soon lost in the words of world travelers, historians and philosophers. Taking down from one shelf some of the musings of Septimus Stacey himself.
Realizing that he had taken down dozens of books JD tried to remember where they all belonged. The last thing he wanted to do was annoy the Flynns by disrupting the well ordered shelves. He scurried about replacing book after book. He was left with a book authored by Septimus Stacey in his hand that he could not find room for. He reached for the library steps and tried to find a space on a high shelf. He pushed aside several books but only succeeded in dislodging a few books that toppled from the shelf onto the floor. He scrambled back down the steps picked up the volumes and finding one open at a handwritten page he read a few lines.
Horrified at the words he read he turned to the inside cover and found it was a private journal inscribed with Septimus Stacey's name. It did not take JD more than a few lines to realize that the man was a sadist. He started to read on in spite of himself, gradually understanding that he was privy to the unraveling of a brilliant mind. A slow descent into madness.
JD felt his usual affable expression change. Rage bubbled up inside him. Those men! Those so-called friends of his. They had dragged him into this house, somewhere he had no right to be anymore than that blonde jezebel had a right to claim it as hers, acting as if they had the right to bully and humiliate him. Treating him like a kid when he was quick enough on the draw to kill the lot of them! Yeah, he would just walk in there, pull his guns and show them who was the master here!
JD caught sight of his face reflected in the highly polished top of a small wine table. His own features, twisted with fury and malice, were almost unrecognizable to him. Repulsed, he snapped the book closed with a cold shiver, the smell of camphor fading. He secreted the journal behind the other books and scampered back to the safe friendship of his fellow peacekeepers now happily sitting drinking gallons of hot coffee.
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Five of the seven men moved into the parlor each in search of something to distract then from their rumbling bellies.
Unable to sit unoccupied for long and having already heard Buck's colorful stories of conquest more than once, Vin mumbled, "Gettin' cabin fever."
"Cabin fever? Mr. Tanner, this delightful abode is many things but never to be described as a mere 'cabin'. You may apply the term 'cabin' to Mr. Larabee's small habitation erected on his horse ranch but never to this impressive edifice," remonstrated Ezra.
"Chris lives in a rickety ol' shack," insisted Vin.
"I can hear you, Tanner!" growled Chris, watching Vin's left leg jiggle up and down restlessly and knowing that the cornered tracker was about to make a bolt for the door any minute.
"Ah fully intend to reside in a substantial property such as this one day. It is entirely in keeping with my future ambitions," mused Ezra. "It will serve as the perfect backdrop to my accomplishments."
"I agree my good man," snickered Vin.
"Your foresight is to be commended, Mr. Tanner."
"Iffen one day they up an' makes it a territorial prison, Ezra."
"Why, really, Mr. Tanner," sulked Ezra, as the door closed behind the tracker.
Chris gazed around the room at the remaining men while savoring the Scotch whisky and pondering on the fact that Vin was the only one totally unswayed by the sumptuous surroundings. The tracker would be just as happy, no happier, seated at a campfire in the hills. To the tracker the place was a gilded cage. He was sure that even now the long haired tracker's wanderings wouldn't be without purpose. His instincts still on high alert. The safety of his 'brothers' paramount to the buckskin clad man.
No doubt using the same inborn intuitiveness that had led the tracker to check up on Ella Gaines at the County Clerk's Office. Not fooled for a single second by the facade that Ella Gaines had so carefully engineered to draw Chris into her tenebrious masquerade. An illusion built on quicksand. Yes, Chris Larabee was now keenly aware that a solid well-built ranch house, good livestock, pure bred horses and a beautiful woman offering all that a man could desire in bed was easily as deadly as any mantrap. Still, this house seemed to be possessed by such an air of overt masculinity that it caused him to wonder if any woman other than Vin's Cousin Elvira had ever occupied its many rooms. He had the sudden and odd idea that she too had fallen into some kind of trap. With the aid of Vin and the others he had escaped Ella's snare but what if there had been no one to help Cousin Elvira?
Ezra had drifted over to the grand piano and seating himself on the double piano seat upholstered in heavy red brocade, jovially began to pick out a melody on the keyboard, interrupting Chris' introspection. The handsome Southerner looking perfectly at home tickling the ivories. Chris found a small smile lighting his face, it was always about those skillful hands for Ezra. He was in no doubt that if Maude Standish had acted the role of a real mother, capable of giving Ezra a normal life, the gambler could have made a name for himself as a concert pianist.
Buck was studying a portfolio of etchings and aquatints that he hurriedly abandoned once he'd sadly discovered that they weren't that sort of etchings, in favor of a stereoscope and its small mahogany box containing a number of rather more risque images. Buck loved women in all their shapes and guises. It was one of the characteristics that had made him leave his initial career as a badge-wearing lawman. All too often finding the law weighted unjustly in favor of the menfolk of the town. Chris was certain that left to his own devices Buck's animal magnetism could fill a house this size with damsels-no-longer-in-distress in no time at all.
JD, the huge cigar he was valiantly puffing on turning him a sort of pale green and guaranteeing that he wouldn't enjoy his meal as much as he ought, was now engaged in placing antique chessman on a chessboard inlaid with mother-of-pearl, hopeful of a game. With a wry smile Chris moved one of the chess-pieces forward and poured yet another glass of amber nectar, grunting with contentment. Damn! he could get used to all this!
This house needs the happy laughter of children to bring it to life.
Chris swiveled in his chair but the invisible owner of the hoarse, heavily accented voice had vanished. All that remained behind was the strong, oddly familiar, smell of the open sea.
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Leaving the parlor, an antsy Vin meandered around the ranch house checking on the many doors and windows. He had always felt a welcoming presence pervading the ranch house yet there hidden in the background something malevolent loomed. It was stronger in some parts of the house, at the top of the stairs, the library and the late Septimus Stacey's study now used as the ranch office often felt oppressive, almost as if a violent battle was being fought within its walls. Noting once again the ornate iron grills on all the windows, he idly wondered who had built the ranch house originally.
"Treat it as your own home," she had told him repeatedly. So he made for the library. He hesitated before opening the door, feeling overwhelmed with the idea that something evil waited behind it, seeking to hurt him. Squaring his shoulders he dispelled his fears to enter the library and he too was soon engrossed in perusing the bookshelves. There was an entire shelf encompassing all of Septimus Stacey's writings. As expected there was a reference to the Stacey ranch and its original builder, one Captain Jedediah Stacey.
Septimus wrote in a flowery style causing Tanner to smile as he realized that the man never used one word when he could use ten. Just like Ezra, thought Tanner but settling in to read he managed to understand most of what was written. Septimus did not seem to hold his ancestor in very high regard but Tanner found Jedediah to have been a fascinating man. Evidently, a born leader who had led the piratical life of a seafaring freebooter. Vin realized that the house had several odd features that had made him recall his own brief adventures at sea.
The flat area up on the roof where he himself often slept, offered a view of what had originally been the entirety of the Stacey Ranch and now reminded him of the crow's nest. The secret doors hidden in the wainscoting leading to winding escape passages and hidey-holes a smuggler might have considered essential. In his lifetime Captain Stacey had held several letters of marque enabling him to equip a ship with cannon and Scottish carronades and attack largely unarmed merchant shipping.
This booty had no doubt formed the basis of his fortune, enabling him to lavish money on the building of the property in his dotage. Although the house had undergone major external changes and minor internal additions over many decades, it had remained in the sole ownership of the Stacey family throughout its long history.
Jedediah had sailed the Seven Seas aboard his flagship the Lady Sarah. Always with the same six members of his stouthearted crew. All of whom were colorful characters in their own right. The first mate was Jedediah's boyhood friend and together they had left their Cornish village to run away to sea at a very early age even for those times. The two boys, one a flint eyed blond and the other exceptionally tall and dark haired, had proved themselves two tough characters not afraid of violence alarmingly quickly. Taking command of their own ship in a astoundingly short amount of time.
Gathering an exotic crew aboard ship even by pirate standards. Including a mysterious long haired navigator who consulted rutters written in a seemingly unbreakable code and almost seemed to be able to conjure up trade winds whenever the ship was becalmed. A sawbones picked up off the coast of darkest Africa with the ability to heal with little or no access to medical supplies other than the plants and herbs he had gathered himself. A gray-haired ex-Jesuit priest came aboard somewhere in the Orient to serve as ship's cook. Although he quoted from the Holy Bible more often than he consulted a cookbook.
When far too drunk on the 'wrong kind of spirits' to carry out his duties the defrocked priest's place was taken by an over eager cabin boy. The only survivor of a reef wrecked brigantine when still a babe in arms and keen to learn every job aboard ship. The seventh member of the crew, a misleadingly foppish Frenchman dripping in gold and jewel encrusted rings, was initially treated with suspicion by the rest of the crew until he proved his worth as a conniving, cheating, rapscallion of the first order.
Outside the storm grew worse. Jagged lightning ripped across the leaden sky. Although, according to the ormolu clock's enamel dial, it was only a little past noon, Vin lit all the brass wall lamps as high winds rattled the windows upstairs. The smell of camphor tried to assault his keen sense of smell but it was overpowered by the strong smell of tar and wet, salt encrusted rope.
A home. Twenty or more years had passed by since he had last thought of anywhere as home. Boarding houses, wagons, encampments full of buffalo hunters or gold-crazed miners, not one of them had he really considered home. To him family meant home, not wooden timbers or shingled roofs but something elusive he had yearned for all his life. Hearing the other men laughing and joking, Vin realized that his home was currently only a few doors way. A family of his own choosing. A family he had so rudely eschewed the company of and yet they had let him go without a word of censure because they each took great pains to try and understand him. To make allowances for his desperate need for solitude. Vin gladly hauled himself out of the adventurous past and arose from the horsehair-stuffed leather chair. Gladly leaving the library in search of equally adventurous present day company.
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"Where's Josiah?" asked Vin, on reentering the parlor and suddenly having a need to know exactly where in the ranch house each and every member of his chosen family was.
"Cooking up a storm," grinned JD. "Did you hear what I did there? We're in a storm and I said Josiah was cooking one up!"
"An' Nathan?" drawled the tracker.
"Mr. Jackson is setting out the silver and crystal on the stately mahogany dining table for this veritable banquet," Ezra informed him. "You did say that Cousin Elvira invited you to treat this fine abode as your family home?"
"She do. We is family. All us seven."
"Then we'll open another bottle," decided Larabee, bypassing the bottles of Highland Pure Rye whiskey Cousin Elvira kept especially for him and selecting another Scotch whisky to try, hoping to lift his sudden melancholy mood with the 'wrong kind' of spirits.
"Ezra? There's a wine cellar."
"There is? Well, of course there would be wouldn't there? You have a key, Mr. Tanner?"
"The wine cellar?"
"Most likely it's in the wine cellar door," shrugged the tracker. "Cousin Elvira trusts her Chinese servants, reckon she ain't fer keepin' much under lock an' key. Each an' ev'ry door an' window in the place has a lock an' key but all their keys is usually left in the locks."
"Mr. Tanner, let us make a foray into the bowels of the earth and return with the bounty of Bacchus!"
"Show me the way to the wine cellar, Mr. Tanner!"
"Hell, Ezra, why cain't ya jus' speak English?" complained the tracker.
"I do, Mr. Tanner, you are the one that persists in speaking in a foreign tongue."
Tanner poked his head around the brass studded, green baize covered kitchen door, "Josiah? We's goin' ta the wine cellar fer the wine."
Josiah Sanchez waved a busy hand in their direction somewhat distractedly but a wide grin lit up his face. Clearly he was enjoying himself immensely. Judging by the number of copper pots and pans simmering away on the range and the fabulous aromas emanating from the oven so would the peacekeepers when it was time to dine.
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"This is a good 'un, Ezra," rasped the tracker, holding up a bottle covered in a thick gray dust.
"Indeed it is, Mr. Tanner but how would you know?"
"Had it a time a two afore with supper."
"Mr. Tanner, that single bottle alone is worth a few hundred dollars!"
"Yeah? She got crates full over in the corner. It's all French so mebbe she paid a few dollars less fer it than the stuff we makes here."
"Mr. Tanner, that is not how it works."
"Most certainly not, Mr. Tanner. However, this cellar is very well stocked and thoughtfully laid out. See the Champagnes and the white wines are over by the cooler North wall."
Vin wandered over to the tall stacks of wooden crates containing Champagne. Feeling the icy cold draft coming from the wall behind the Champagne, he quickly realized that he'd just solved another clue to the murder mystery. "She got some fancy city fella all the way from Denver ta stock it fer her."
"A wine merchant, Mr. Tanner," explained Ezra, "a vintner."
"This Vin likes the taste," smiled Vin. "Ain't all that partial at first but she gave me different ones ta try an' we find where they's from on the floor-standing globe in the library."
"You do?" Ezra raised his eyebrows at the picture Vin painted of the humble tracker and rich lady rancher spending evenings pouring over the library globe seeking out far off exotic countries that neither of them were ever likely to sail across the sea to visit.
"Ezra?" asked the tracker softly, "Ya think she were jus' pokin' fun at me? Me not knowin' nuthin' 'bout highfalutin stuff?"
Ezra looked into big blue eyes blinking nervously.
"My dear Mr. Tanner, why of course not. No one that knows you well would ever think that you don't know anything. Indeed, you are most knowledgeable on many different subjects."
"Plant life, animals, the weather and a multitude of miscellaneous facts delightful in their very randomness," Ezra assured him.
"Ain't ever gotten a likin' fer the fizzy French stuff she got the taste fer in her theater days it gives me gas," announced the tracker changing the subject abruptly.
"Champagne? Cousin Elvira must have attracted the attentions of a number of amorous admirers with quite some wealth at their disposal to have acquired the taste for Champagne so young."
"She never fergot she were a lady, Ezra," warned Vin.
Ezra recognized the fact that Vin was always very protective of his cousin's reputation even though the lady herself routinely flouted convention. "I never thought otherwise, Vin."
"Hell, mebbe she only fergot she were a lady once, when she up an' married that no-good cardsharper of a first husband," grinned Vin impishly.
"Indeed 'Lucky' Luke Sawyer was an exceptionally handsome gilded youth as I recall. A scion of an old and venerable plantation family, he gambled away his entire inheritance soon after his marriage. Then he pawned the jewels he had given her on their wedding day and lived off her earnings from the theater."
"Damn fool got hisself shot deader than a beaver hat walkin' right by the Sheriff's office with money bags bearing the name a the town bank on 'em after holdin' up the town bank fer more money ta gamble with. He left her a young widow mired up ta her pretty neck in deep debt ta big Jack Nichols."
"Of Kansas City?"
"The same. He tol' her he would quit her debts if she were ta agree ta be his mistress."
"She tol' him ya kin go ta hell on a pitchfork an' up an' ran off. So he paid a gunslinger, King Madison, a Queen's ransom ta find her an' bring her back but once he found her King Madison done proposed marriage an' warned Jack Nichols off her. King Madison he were hangin' up his guns fer her 'til another gunslinger, name a Nash Walker, rode in from New Orleans all hot an' bothered sayin' he had a prior claim on her."
"I often played a hand or two of cards in an elegant Louisiana establishment owned by one Nash Walker. On openly admiring an emerald the size of a bird's egg I had espied Mr. Walker wearing on his gold watch chain, I was informed that it had been intended as a wedding ring and was quickly apprised of the story of how Mr. Walker was left waiting at the altar while his bride eloped with a gambler. Mr. Walker later took to commemorating what would have been his wedding anniversary by shooting at least one gambler a day for an entire week. Therefore, I made it my habit to carefully absent myself from New Orleans every June," shuddered Ezra. "The better part of valor is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life."
"Mighty wise, Ezra. Nash were a real fast gun. He done called King out over her an' shot King stone cold dead in the street."
"Ye gods! Is every single member of your paternal family obliged to have a colorful and bloody history?"
"It is a strict requirement," smirked Vin.
"And I thought dear Maude had a lively past."
"Thinkin' she were glad ta fall in love an' settle down with a much older man. Him a man a book learnin' not gunplay. Her likely reckonin' Septimus Stacey weren't goin' ta cause her the same heartbreak as men her own age."
"Much better to be an old man's darling than a young man's plaything."
"Whatever paddles yer canoe, Ezra," teased Vin.
"Mr. Tanner, you are fully aware that I did not intend to refer to myself."
"Ya done now?"
"Let us adjourn to the dining room forthwith!" replied Ezra, happily gathering up a wide ranging selection of dusty bottles and heading for the stone steps.
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Ezra carried the wine bottles into the dining room before placing an affectionate hand on Nathan's arm. "Mr. Jackson, the table looks the very epitome of elegance but I hope that you did not feel obligated to carry out this service. Neither Cousin Elvira nor any one of us would care for the notion that you felt compelled to fall back into your role as houseboy."
"I enjoyed doin' it, Ezra. You ain't the only one with an appreciation for fine crystal and antique silver cutlery. It's a long time since I handled quality like this," answered Nathan, holding a long stemmed crystal flute up to the light. "I visited the library first, intending to seek out any medical books but the atmosphere in there made me plain uncomfortable. I prefer this room."
"The ambiance in here is conducive to fine dining."
"You did bring Champagne up from the cellar with you?"
"Why of course, Mr. Jackson."
"Knew I could rely on you, Ezra. Have I forgotten anything?" queried Nathan, eying the long mahogany table heaving with the Stacey family silver.
"No. The place settings are inch perfect."
"I would give anything to inhabit a house of such refinements," remarked Ezra wistfully.
"Careful what you wish for, Ezra."
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Ezra couldn't resist sliding inside the study on his way back to the parlor. A solid-looking partners' desk dominated the room but Ezra's eye was taken by the large safe sitting in the corner. Licking his lips Ezra studied the maker's plate. A safe of this type would be manufactured with a standard combination, its new owner expected by the makers to have the sequence required to open the door altered for his own sense of security but this seldom occurred. Human nature dictated that the owner would be too afraid of forgetting the new combination and being unable to rely on a locksmith having the ability to open it for him without damaging it, would err on the side of caution and retain the original combination.A safecracker familiar with the maker, as Ezra was, might have obtained prior knowledge of the standard combination. Flexing his fingers and cracking his knuckles, Ezra knelt by the safe. Deftly he turned the dial a number of times to be rewarded with a satisfying click as the lock disengaged. Ezra wondered precisely how much in cash and valuables the safe contained. The entire payroll? The quarterly profits? Go on Standish, help yourself. You are no more entitled to the money that she is but don't let that stop you taking it. She earned it on her back the same as any other backstage harlot. The lying, cheating whore! With a shudder, Ezra turned his head but there was no one there, only a strong smell of camphor. Without even looking inside he reengaged the lock. This was merely an intellectual exercise to keep his hand in. Ezra did not steal from those people he considered family and the Flynns were Vin's kinfolk. Getting to his feet Ezra slipped back out of the study with only one brief look of longing aimed at the safe. Once he was standing out in the hallway he rethought his actions. Turning around he reentered the study. Taking a pen from the pen tray on the solid silver inkstand, he dipped the nib in the inkwell, scribbled a few words on a sheet of writing paper and pressed it down on the blotter before opening the safe again and leaving the memorandum inside. He sincerely hoped that on reading it the Flynns would take his advice and change the combination of the safe.
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The sound of the dinner gong signaled that Josiah had indeed excelled himself in the kitchen and some hours later seven men, replete with delicious home cooked food, puffed on expensive cigars and cradled snifters of fine French Brandy in the parlor. A roaring log fire throwing shapes on the long velvet drapes that shut out the fearsome thunderstorm still raging outside.
"Hell, J'siah, will ya marry me?" groaned Vin, stretching out his legs and rubbing his full belly.
"Brother Vin, what makes you think that I could afford to feed you? The amount of food you have just eaten would keep an entire army well-provisioned over a severely bad winter," laughed Josiah.
"I's kin hunt it an' ya kin cook it, Josiah," offered Vin.
"And you can both adopt us all," chipped in JD.
"And you can wash all the dishes," laughed Buck, digging JD in the ribs.
"I don't think I'll be able to eat again for a week," smiled Nathan, leaning back in the velvet wing chair as his cigar smoke curled leisurely upwards.
"I shall need to sleep late every day this week in order to recover," agreed Ezra, refilling his snifter and swirling the honey colored liquid around the bowl of the glass.
"Ain't no noticeable difference, we crowbar ya outta yer feather bed long after noon most days," pointed out Vin.
"Mr. Tanner, unlike you a gentleman does not debase himself by forgoing his down comforter to ride abroad at some ungodly hour of the morning."
"Yeah? Yer a gentleman? When did that start?" grinned Vin.
"Speaking of bed, I'm sleeping on Cousin Elvira's goose down mattress tonight!" leered Buck, winking at JD.
"It'll be the only chance you ever get!" snickered JD.
"Naw, ya ain't, Bucklin. Y'all try it an' y'all get hot lead fer a nightcap," warned Vin, "'t ain't decent ta go lay in a lady's bed."
"Vin, one day we need to have us a long talk about what ought to happen in bed with a woman," laughed Buck.
"Awready knows sleep ain't the first thing a man likes ta be thinkin' on when he's in bed with a lady, thank ya, Bucklin."
"Speaking of bed for a second time, you won't be bedding down in the stables with the horses tonight, Vin," insisted Chris, sternly.
"You heard me, Tanner."
"Guess kin find a floor somewheres," muttered Vin, sourly.
"See that you do," ordered Chris.
Vin deliberately caught Ezra's eye. "Reckon we needs ta be turning in iffen we wants ta get an early start in the mornin'."
"I do feel in need of the restorative comforts of a feather bed," agreed Ezra, finishing his brandy before stretching his arms above his head with a yawn.
Chris Larabee got to his feet and without further ado the rest of the men followed their leader up the wooden hill to dreamland.
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Before midnight Ezra padded along the upstairs corridor in stocking feet, turning the blue glass doorknob he opened the door to the master suite to be greeted by the strong fragrance of roses. Closing the door noiselessly, Ezra jumped six feet in the air as bare feet slapped across the highly polished wooden floor.
"Ezra," hissed Vin. "Ya okay?"
"I am almost dead of apoplexy, Mr. Tanner!" complained the startled gambler.
"Shoot, Ezra, ya knew I's sleepin' on the floor in here. Ain't letting Bucklin in neither!" rasped Vin, turning up the wick on one of two pink glass shaded oil lamps.
"My good gawd!" exclaimed Ezra, staring at the four poster bed with the burgundy hangings, completely dominating the spacious room.
"Finest goose down mattress," nodded Vin.
"I have sailed aboard riverboats plying their trade on the Mississippi most of them a great deal smaller than that bed!"
"Septimus Stacey were a mighty tall fella."
"Even so it is beyond grandiose."
"Bed is a bed," drawled Vin.
Ezra stroked one of the bedposts carved like a twisted stick of barley sugar and patted one of the stylized wooden 'pineapples' adorning the post. "How old was Mr. Stacey when he died?"
"Figuring sixty-five or so," shrugged Vin.
"I would flatly refuse to shuffle off this mortal coil if I had a bed like this."
"He were shot dead, Ezra, ain't like he'd gotten a choice," drawled Vin.
"Then I would come back and haunt the place," sighed an envious Ezra.
"Talkin' a ghosties, where did ya stow the dress, Ezra?"
"In Cousin Elvira's dressing room. I could hardly drag myself away from all her furs. They alone must be worth a small fortune. Have you seen them, Mr. Tanner?"
"Are they not indeed luxuriant?"
"Reckon I's able ta trap her finer iffen she were ever in danger a freezin' ta death enough ta really be in need of 'em."
"Mr. Tanner, I am constantly reminded that you are able to obtain goods that we mere mortals regard as eminently valuable, at little or no cost to yourself," chuckled Ezra.
"Ain't huntin' down an' murderin' a beautiful critter jus' so a woman that ain't needin' anythin' else ta make her more easy on the eye kin dress up fancy ta impress stupid folks even dumber than the animals, Ezra. That'll cost me part a m' soul."
"But you were once a prolific buffalo hunter were you not, Mr. Tanner?"
"Took years ta git the stink offen me."
"Mr. Tanner," began Ezra, shaking his head, "I find it hard to understand why you constantly allow your scruples to prevent your amazing sharpshooting ability from making you a very rich man."
"Still rightly ashamed a the senseless slaughter, Ezra. Took livin' with the Comanche ta teach me it ain't right ta kill an animal jus' 'cos ya's able."
"Yes but with your prodigious skill with a pair of buffalo guns you could have become very wealthy very quickly then retired to live in luxury."
"Killin' the buffalo fer money were makin' my own heart poorer ev'ry day."
"One day, Mr. Tanner, I hope to come to understand the unique way in which you think," sighed Ezra.
"Would admire ta see that day, Ezra," smiled the tracker.
"Until then I should undergo my metamorphosis from gambler to phantom blood spattered bride."
"Ready by midnight?"
"I don't anticipate any delays in my toilette."
"Gazunder is under the bed, Ezra."
"You are jesting, Mr. Tanner?"
"Yep," grinned Vin, "git a shuffle on now, Ezra."
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Taking the lamp Vin offered, Ezra entered the small dressing room and seated himself at the mirrored table. Reaching down he retrieved the cantilevered wooden box with the leather handle. Opening the box he inspected the stage make-up. It was still in good condition and remarkably varied. He had also found some fake blood possibly left over from Elvira Flynn's days as a stage illusionist's assistant. In very little time he had painted his face with a ghostly pallor. Dark greasepaint turned his jade green eyes into deep hollows and a startling slash of crimson defined his mouth.
Attaching a tall carved tortoiseshell comb and pinning the bridal veil in place with extra long hairpins, specially designed to hold Cousin Elvira's thick blonde tresses firmly in place while whooping high-pitched yells and catcalls as she had cartwheeled across the stage with her dress up over her head during the cancan, he cunningly disguised the fact that he had short hair. Patting it in place he was inordinately pleased with the vision in the mirror.
Stepping into the wedding dress, its hoop and several petticoats, Ezra decided to stay in stocking feet as he had been unable to find footwear that fitted even among the rows and rows of shoes and kid boots that Vin's Cousin Elvira had amassed and as he himself was now reduced to one fancy boot.
Taking one last look in the mirror the blood spattered bride returned to the bedroom.
"Hellfire, Ezra! Iffen I ain't awready knowed it were a real live man under that dress I's be scared witless."
"Damn spooky, Ezra."
"Precisely the aura I sought to achieve."
The tracker scratched his stubbled chin thoughtfully. "Needs jist one finishin' touch, Ezra."
Vin inserted a key into the brass lock and delved inside the substantial brass-banded jewelry box. Pushing aside a long rope of black pearls and opening a smaller velvet box the tracker handed the gambler a diamond and pearl collar, "Disguise yer Adam's apple 'cos Bucklin's sure ta spy it."
"You dare to trust me with this valuable piece?"
"Ya goin' ta thieve it, Ezra?"
"No, of course not!"
"Makes no nevermind then do it?" shrugged the tracker. "Trusts ya."
"How shall we enact this otherworldly happening, Mr. Tanner?" asked Ezra, taking a deep breath on realizing that it had never occurred to Vin not to trust him with the jewels.
"Ya stand with yer back ta the top of the stairs, holding the candelabra under yer chin fer a spooky look an' I'll bang the dinner gong an' holler some. When they comes running out ta see what all the ruckus is fer, turn an' disappear back down the stairs."
"What if they seize me at the top of the stairs? it could get nasty and I suspect, rather painful?"
"Won't shoot at a woman an' be too scared ta move at first so ya gotta move real fast while they is stood staring like moon gazing jackrabbits."
"Moon gazing jackrabbits? How quaint. Won't they then proceed to search the premises until they eventually discover me?"
"Not after I runs back up the stairs an' swear blind ya walked right through a wall an' vanished."
"How shall I achieve this vanishing act?"
"Take the backstairs up ta yer room, strip an' jump back in yer bed. They won't expect ya ta be awakened by the ructions an' iffen they come in yer room they's be unsurprised iffen ya slept on."
"Wish me luck, Mr. Tanner."
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Vin banged on the dinner gong with gusto as Ezra positioned himself at the very top of the staircase. As predicted the other five men emerged guns drawn and hesitated open-mouthed in the corridor. Satisfied, Ezra turned, intending to glide 'spectrally' down the staircase. Instead he gave an ungodly scream as he fell headlong down the stairs.
Ezra landed in a heap at the foot of the stair as one of the candles fell from the candelabra and ignited the billowing silk wedding gown. Vin reacted immediately by snatching up a rug from the floor and smothering the flames. Nathan ran down the stairs and flung himself down onto his knees by the gambler's side.
"Ezra?" asked a bewildered Nathan.
"Is he alright? I really thought he was a ghost," giggled JD nervously.
"What the hell is going on?" Chris demanded to know as the rest of the men congregated at the bottom of the stairs. "Tanner?"
"Was playing a prank on y'all an' Ezra here took a tumble," confessed the tracker sheepishly.
"No! No! I was pushed!" protested Ezra.
"There was no one near you, Ezra. You just slipped and fell," soothed Nathan, "and did you really need to wear so much rose scent?"
"I felt two hands in the middle of my back quite deliberately pushing me down the stairs! I know the difference between slipping and being purposely shoved!" insisted Ezra. "And don't be so damn ridiculous, Nathan, as if I would drench myself in rose perfume."
"Brother Ezra did seem to take flight as if assisted," agreed Josiah.
"I-I saw h-him," stuttered Buck.
"Yeah, we all saw Ezra slip," said Chris.
"No. I saw a man at the top of the stairs. He raised his hands and then he pushed Ezra in the back. A very tall man in a gray suit," explained a clearly shaken Buck.
"We have been here most of the day and would have noticed by now if there was anyone else in the house, Buck," said Chris.
"I saw Ezra get pushed but he was attacked by a ghost," reiterated Buck.
"A ghost? Buck, a ghost? There are no such things as ghosts, you told me last Halloween that they were all in my imagination." JD found himself laughing hysterically at his best friend simply because he didn't know how else to react.
"Perhaps someone else is in the house," suggested Josiah.
"No, I saw a ghost. He had half his face missing as if he'd been on the wrong end of a shotgun blast. A man couldn't have survived that, you could see his brains and...hell, I think I'm gonna puke just thinking on it. It was damn ugly."
"If it was someone else at the top of the stairs why didn't we all see him?" pointed out JD.
"See! It was a ghost I saw!"
"Spirits is usually actin' out somethin' from the past," rasped Vin, crouching down to study the dark sinister stain on the polished floorboards, previously hidden by the rug he had extinguished the flames with.
"Ghosts can't step into the corporeal world and hurt us. They have no physical being," asserted Josiah.
"I can assure you all that I did not simply launch myself down the stairs on a whim, I was pushed!" said Ezra, sitting up and trying to wriggle out of the charred gown. "Do stop your fussing, Nathan, thanks to Mr. Tanner's prompt actions I am completely unharmed. My only hurt is the fact that my six friends don't believe in my veracity."
"I believe you, Ezra," said Buck.
"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington."
"I know what I saw," insisted Buck, turning to face Chris.
"We are all tired, let's go back to bed and discuss this in the morning. It will all seem just like a bad dream over a hearty breakfast," suggested Josiah.
"Ezra, quit palavering, take those fool clothes off and get back upstairs to bed. All of you. Josiah is right, we'll laugh about this in the morning, now move," ordered Chris, leaning on the newel post at the foot of the stairs and closely watching Vin Tanner run his long slender fingers over the stain.
Ezra climbed to his feet and stepped out of the dress, throwing it down on the floor before opening his mouth to argue. He hadn't time to utter even a single syllable as Vin jumped to his feet and hurriedly stepped back. The seven men watched as the dark liquid bubbled up between the gaps in the floorboards. Red-black and glistening in the light of the full moon it spread inexorably across the hallway floor. The men attempted to lift their feet out of the way but the sticky substance surrounded them. Unpleasantly warm, it coated the soles of their feet and the accompanying stench of putrefaction filled them all with nausea.
"What the hell?" growled Chris, drawing his six-gun and only re-holstering it when he realized the futility of his reflex action.
"It's blood," rasped Vin, as the red liquid lapped around his bare toes.
"It's coming up out of the floor!" added JD, holding his nose.
"It ain't stopping," pointed out Buck.
They ran as one man into the parlor and slammed shut the door behind them. Staring aghast as the blood leaked under the door and into their newly claimed sanctuary.
"Do something, Mr. Larabee. I have no desire to drown in blood!" demanded Ezra.
"You started this, Ezra, you do something!" challenged Chris.
"Mr. Larabee, may I remind you that I am the victim of this gothic horror!"
"Can ya exorcise it, J'siah?" asked Vin.
"I could recite the Rite of Exorcism, Vin but truth be told I doubt the fiend behind this would be convinced. You need faith for it to work and I...have lost mine."
"That's who I saw pushin' Ezra!"
They all turned to see that Buck was pointing up at the gilt-framed painting of Septimus Stacey.
"Ya sure 'bout that, Bucklin?" asked Vin.
"Yeah, I'm sure," nodded Buck.
"Interesting," said Josiah, "ghosts mostly have met with a violent end and Septimus Stacey was gruesomely murdered."
"With a shotgun," added Nathan.
"These supernatural entities are usually compelled to return and reenact a human tragedy," explained Josiah.
"This whole thing is getting ugly and y'all know how I hate ugly!" said Buck.
"Hell, it's never ending!" yelled JD, as the blood level rose above his ankles. "Oh God! The smell! Do something Buck!"
"Mr. Larabee, I have no great ambition to be submerged in gore." Ezra had produced a large Irish linen handkerchief from somewhere and JD was tempted to wrestle him for it.
"Think Ezra means it's time we made a run fer it, Chris?" rasped Vin.
Chris turned and headed for the door only to halt abruptly in mid-stride as the key turned ominously in the lock. He grasped the china doorknob and rattled the door but it remained steadfastly in situ. Turning about the men headed towards the glazed verandah doors as the keys in those locks promptly turned under their own volition.
"Iron grills," groused Buck, as he shook the door handles. "Who puts iron grills on the inside of all the glass doors and downstairs windows?"
"To keep someone out or to keep something in?" mused Josiah.
"Indeed, I think that our Mr. Tanner may have been correct when he remarked in jest that this house would one day become a prison," shuddered Ezra.
"Ezra, Vin, pick the locks," ordered Chris.
"Most unusual," murmured Ezra, studying the keys he held in his hand.
"Get on with it!"
"Mr. Larabee, rather than the simple locks one would expect to find on an internal door these are in fact Bramah locks of quite some sophistication and far more suited to external doors. A Yorkshire man named Joseph Bramah patented a lock in 1784 and I do believe that these locks are of his manufacture and were imported at great expense from London, England," reported Ezra, rising from his knees after several fruitless minutes spent employing his picklocks and warding files.
"Yeah, what Ezra jus' done said," agreed Vin, from over by the parlor door, "we's trapped."
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Chris Larabee poured a generous measure of an eighteen-year old Scotch whisky into a crystal glass and raised it with a curl of his lip in the general direction of the portrait hanging on the wall by its chain.
"Go to hell," he sneered.
"The sooner the better," agreed Buck.
"Are we giving up?" asked JD, looking from one man to the other.
"Naw," rasped Vin. "Cowboy here is jus' usin' up his three words fer the day."
"Kid, we never give up," grinned Buck, slapping the younger man on the back.
"Then what do we do next?" asked JD.
"Stud?" prompted Buck, raising a foot onto a button back chair to avoid the blood pooling on the floor.
"Mr. Larabee, please, I implore you to think faster!"
"What triggered this, Vin?" questioned Chris.
"What makes ya think I knows?"
"Elvira Flynn is your cousin, Vin, what did she tell you about the circumstances of Septimus Stacey's death?"
"Nuthin'!" Well, that part was true at least. She herself hadn't told him anything, he'd quickly worked out the gist of it himself.
"You were the one that related to me the story of his tragic demise, Mr. Tanner," pointed out Ezra.
"All is knowed is some spiteful lies an' secondhand gossip bandied around in The Lucky Dollar saloon."
"Then please, Brother Vin, recount this calumny," asked Josiah.
"He done got murdered by robbers in a real bad thunderstorm jus' over yonder hill."
"We got the thunderstorm but where does Ezra in a bride's dress fit in?" mused Nathan.
"Ezra in a bridal gown is enough to make my blood boil," chuckled Buck.
"We have the dried bloodstain at the foot of the staircase. Well, it was dry, guess it's wet again now," shivered JD.
"The re-enactment of a bride being killed when Septimus Stacey hurled her down the staircase and left her to bleed to death?" pondered Josiah.
"Septimus Stacey married up late on in life but he only ever done got one bride an' that were Cousin Elvira," rasped Vin.
"And she is very much alive," snickered JD.
"Yep, every sensuous inch of her is definitely flesh and blood! No offense, Vin," leered Buck.
"None taken," muttered Vin, only half listening as he stared up at the portrait.
"Cousin Elvira would know if there was a malicious spirit abroad in this house but she has never mentioned anything to any of us," stated Josiah. "Brother Vin, how many times have you slept here?"
Vin blushed. "Jus' what ya implyin', J'siah?"
"Only that if you have stayed here as a guest several times in the past then the odds are that you would have seen or heard something."
"Ain't heard nor seen nuthin' ta do with Septimus Stacey an' ghosts afore." That too was the truth but not the whole truth and nothing but the truth but as much of the the truth as was needed.
"An angry ghost of a murdered man, a wedding dress and a bloody stain? Cousin Elvira must hold the key to this conundrum," pondered Josiah. "And why now?"
"It's their wedding anniversary! The date was written in the journal I discovered in the library!" exclaimed JD.
"Cousin Elvira ain't ever here on this day it makes her feel a mite sorrowful. She were away in Denver this time two years ago an' she's in New York with Cousin Orlando now," recalled Vin.
"The year before that she was in Four Corners for a week," nodded Chris.
"I remember! Wasn't that the time she sat in Vin's lap right in the middle of the saloon?" snickered Buck.
"Cousin Elvira were hiding me from them bounty-hunters searchin' the saloon lookin' fer me. Draped herself all over me so her big feathered hat an' bustle was all them bastards looked at, they ain't able ta see it were me," rasped Vin defensively.
"Sometimes it pays to be as scrawny as a toothpick," laughed Nathan.
"That is Vin's version of the story. I recall that he let her carry on sitting in his lap for a good twenty minutes after the bounty hunters had given up and left town." Josiah's rumbling laugh echoed around the room as he watched the mortified tracker squirm with embarrassment.
"It was pure luck that the bounty-hunters ain't shot him dead right there and then, it would have taken the town undertaker three days to scrape the lewd look off his face," guffawed Buck, giving Vin a hearty slap on the back.
"Dammit! Bucklin, ain't never bin lewd!"
"Gentlemen! We are currently ankle deep in blood. Joshing our Mr. Tanner, however enjoyable it may be and solving the riddle of this house are leisurely pursuits that we may perhaps indulge in at a later date, much more urgent is our escape from this, our present predicament."
"Ezra, is right," agreed Vin.
"Thank you for your support, Mr. Tanner."
"Cos, I kin smell smoke," finished Vin.
"Lordy!" cried Nathan.
A man of action Chris Larabee knocked a potted plant off its columnar stand and using it as a makeshift battering ram attacked the panels of the parlor door. Grunting with satisfaction as one after another they splintered.
"Cousin Elvira is gonna hunt ya down armed with her frilly parasol fer doin' damage," Vin grinned at the gunslinger.
"She can spank me black and blue later, much later."
Spilling out into the hallway again, swirling clouds of thick black, choking smoke greeted the men. Quickly they realized that the fire was ahead of them, cutting off their escape route to the doors towards the front of the house and the wine cellar. Turning back they headed towards the staircase only to find that it too was smoldering.
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"Now what?" groaned JD, as the blood reached the level of his knees.
"May I reiterate that I have no intention of drowning in blood, Mr. Larabee. It is far too undignified and verging on the ridiculous. Whatever would my dear mother say?"
"Shut up, Ezra," ordered Chris.
"Ain't gotten a hankering fer gettin' smoked like a kipper, Cowboy," rasped Vin, noticing that steam was now rising up off the blood as it foamed and burbled.
"I'd rather drown in blood than be burned alive---" JD winced as Buck dug him sharply in the ribs and nodded furiously in Larabee's direction.
"Cousin Elvira has an absolute fortune in jewels!" cried Ezra, heading for the staircase. "We must save them from the flames!"
Vin dived after the gambler, grabbing him by the arm and yanking him almost off his feet. "She kin always buy more baubles, Ezra, we's only got one gambler. Tryin' ta rescue 'em is pure foolishness."
"Aw hell! Look!"
The men looked up to see that Ezra was pointing to a ghostly phantom standing at the top of the stairs.
"Plug ugly wife-beatin' varmint," muttered Vin.
"The bastard's laughing!" roared a furious Buck.
Suddenly they all heard the ghastly laughter echoing through the house, reaching an ear-splitting level.
"We're all going to die," said JD, resignation in his tone.
"The hell we are!" replied Chris.
"Brethren, let us join hands and pray," intoned Josiah, gathering up JD's hand in his big paw and extending his other hand to Nathan.
"Ain't surrending ta no ghostie!" Vin started toward the staircase and galvanized into action Chris took up his place by the furious tracker's side.
"Stacey, you bastard! Go back to hell!" barked Chris.
In the background Josiah rumbled out the Lord's prayer. JD and Nathan joined their voices to Josiah's as Ezra found his hand in Nathan's comforting grip.
"Chris! Vin! We're stronger together!" called out Buck, grabbing JD's hand and holding his other hand out to Chris.
Chris grasped Vin's hand and took the hand that Buck offered. Chris stumbled over the half-remembered words that no longer held any meaning for him. It was nothing but religious clap-trap but he did have faith in these six men.
Vin was rasping the same words over and over again in Comanche. Deeply personal words of protection for the six men that meant everything to him.
The specter was now laughing silently at the seven men and their imminent fate. As he held its gaze Chris wanted nothing more than to wipe that sardonic look off its ruined visage.
As they felt the heat coming from the fire Josiah's sonorous voice rose in volume, strengthened by the voices of his fellow peacemakers but they all became aware of another sound vibrating throughout the ranch house.
Chris stole a glance at Vin.
Vin's astonished blue eyes opened wide. "Sounds like iffen ya put a seashell ta yer ear, Cowboy, like...the ocean."
JD was gaping open-mouthed at the top of the stairs. "Pirates...Buck, I see p-pirates!"
The ghostly shade of Septimus Stacey turned around, already silently screaming as several pairs of hands, some red and roughened by the seven seas, clawed at him, forcing him back down into the hell he had briefly escaped from.
Saltwater flooded down the elegant staircase in waves, washing away the blood and dousing the smoke before just as suddenly ebbing away as silently as a spring tide.
Seven peacekeepers stared fixedly up at the seven figures gazing down on them. Tall and blond with eyes like knapped flint, Jedediah Stacey raised a hand to his black tricorne hat in salute, one bad element acknowledging another's less than stellar reputation. Chris Larabee raised a hand as if to tip his own black hat in reply. Behind Chris, Buck Wilmington nodded a greeting to Jedediah Stacey's exceptionally tall, dark and handsome, boyhood friend. Next to him lolled a Frenchman in a scarlet, gold frogged coat, his smile revealing an entire row of glittering gold teeth outshone only by the emerald rings covering his fingers. He removed his broad brimmed feathered hat and gracefully extended a leg, bestowing a low sweeping bow on the Southern gambler.
A sawbones, standing strong and proud, raised an arm banded with gold snake bracelets and signaled a greeting to Nathan Jackson. A gray-haired man clad in a black soutane, a giant leather bound bible under his arm, his smile like a row of tombstones made the sign of the cross in the air above Josiah Sanchez. Beside him stood a jolly cabin boy with one gold hooped earring almost large enough for the hyacinth macaw on his shoulder to perch on. Armed with a cutlass joined by two flintlock pistols tucked into a broad red sash, he waved to J. D. Dunne.
Vin Tanner blinked at a blue-eyed young man leaning against the wall a little apart from the others. He wore a loose white silk shirt open to the waist revealing a deeply tanned chest. His long hair, bleached blond by the tropical sun, loosely held back by a black velvet bow. Baroque pearls dangled from his ears and around his neck he boasted a dazzling heart-shaped sapphire hanging from a rope of black pearls. The navigator mouthed a question in Spanish and the tracker shook his head in reply. The navigator smiled, obviously gladdened by the answer.
As Captain Jedediah Stacey and the phantom crew of the Lady Sarah faded from their sight, seven bright points of pure light hovered in the air before flying upwards like so many campfire sparks.
The Larabee gang finally had time to notice that it was dawn.
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The rug was was back in place at the foot of the staircase, apparently totally undamaged. Looking about them they realized that the Stacey ranch house was as pristine as it was when they had first entered it. The parlor door was in one piece and hanging over the fireplace in a dark wood oval frame was a well executed portrait of Vin's Cousin Elvira, wearing the priceless Stacey rubies.
"How the hell did that get up here?" asked a baffled JD.
"Just how much did we have to drink last night?" murmured Buck.
"Too much," said Nathan.
"Or not enough," added Chris, dryly.
"A few hours sleep and then we ride out?" suggested Josiah.
"In our own clothes," agreed Ezra, with a shudder.
"Cos there ain't no such things as ghosts," rasped Vin, leading the way back upstairs.
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Returning to the master bedroom Vin gathered up his blankets and knocked on Ezra's door.
"Mr. Tanner, your timing, as evah, is impeccable. Would you care to accompany me to the attics as I return this singed bridal gown?" asked Ezra, handing Vin the diamond and pearl choker with a wry smile.
"Wanted ta say sorry, Ezra, fer causin' ya grief," rasped Vin, as he watched Ezra open the trunk to replace the clothing.
"There is no need for an apology, Mr. Tanner. I'm sure that it was merely some form of mass hysteria. I have witnessed similar reactions as a traveling preacher."
"Captain Jedediah Stacey and the crew of the Lady Sarah has a connection ta the ranch."
"They once resided here, Mr. Tanner?"
The tracker nodded. "Ain't never left, Ezra."
"They all died here? The place really could be haunted?"
"Yep. Lookie here, Ezra."
Vin stepped across the threshold to pause in the corridor and press lightly on a small section of ornate molding. A hidden door in the wooden panelling sprang open and a draught of damp, cold air made Ezra shiver.
"How? I could never have distinguished the section of molding disguising mechanism from the rest."
"Cousin Elvira discovered it on some old plans, she say even Septimus Stacey ain't never knowed it were here."
Ezra poked his head through the doorway and examined the narrow winding staircase. Wild stories of hidden pirate treasure overcame Ezra's natural consternation. Clinging to a thick red rope threaded through several iron rings protruding from the wall, he started up the steep steps.
Finding himself standing on a flat portion of the roof, Ezra waited for Vin to emerge.
"Usually sleeps up here," grinned Vin.
"You do, Mr. Tanner? Those seven opulent bedrooms, all those soft featherbeds and you sleep up here under the stars?"
"This here is luxury," drawled Vin, as Ezra stared goggle-eyed at him. "No rattlers, no bounty-hunters sneakin' up on me. Cousin Elvira done suggested it."
"Is Mr. Larabee aware of your peculiar sleeping arrangements?"
"What Larabee don't know won't kill me dead."
"Is this all of the ranch?" asked Ezra, gazing out across the valley.
"Hell naw. Mebbe originally ya kin see it all but now it goes off inta the wide blue yonder."
"A most prosperous business woman your darlin' Cousin Elvira. Dare I say that her more farsighted transactions are spookily lucrative?"
"Yep. Septimus Stacey barely broke even an' never made a cent in profit offen the place. Mebbe from time-to-time she hears a ghostly whispering in her ear jus' afore she falls asleep, givin' her some right good advice on her business dealings," suggested the tracker.
"The lady has never seen fit to run screaming from this house of restless spirits?"
"She mostly grew up in the theaters, Ezra. Stage folk is used ta specters walkin' the boards an' ain't scared a no ghostly apparitions."
Vin held up a brass bell, obviously of some age. Rubbing away some of the grime with his sleeve he indicated that Ezra should read the inscription.
"The Lady Sarah, that was Jedediah Stacey's flagship?"
"Yep. Iffen ya look over the house ya'll find old ships timbers makin' parts a the place. The red planking in the downstairs infirmary, reckon that started life aboard the Lady Sarah. A ship's surgeon usually had 'em painted red ta disguise all the blood. The black an' white checkered canvas spread out on one a the attic floors, figure that came from the floor in the captain's quarters. An' some old stained glass an' carved wood 'bout the place."
"Are you suggesting that almost the entire ship was absorbed into the very fabric of the building?"
"The famous Stacey family jewels, are they in fact pirate plunder?"
"Yep. More stuff behind ya."
Ezra turned to see a wooden panel painted red and emblazoned with the name of the ship in gold lettering. Pulling aside a tattered remnant of sail he revealed a ship's wheel and a wooden figurehead.
"A gilded boy cradled in the arms of a loving mermaid?"
"Dreadful beautiful ain't it?"
"Yes. Yes, it is indeed. A true work of art."
"Reckon it's Jedediah's son's likeness an' Sarah were the name of his wife. They both died in a fire while he was away at sea."
"A fire? Mr. Tanner, I do hope that you have never---"
"Brung Chris up here? Naw."
"Vin, why build on this spot? So far from the sea? Back then all this would be a savage wilderness undiscovered by civilization."
"Ain't no notion," shrugged Vin. "Ain't never able ta fix names on 'em all 'til today."
"Mr. Tanner? Would you perhaps do me the honor of sleeping on the floor of my room?" shivered an unnerved Ezra.
"Already brung my blanket. Don't go on the worry, Ezra, makin' sure only the bedbugs kin bother ya."
"How delightfully comforting, Mr. Tanner."
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Vin Tanner's eagle eyes lingered briefly on the seven slightly raised plots of earth in the very center of Cousin Elvira's flower garden. The seven moss covered graves, only visible from up here on the flat roof, had no markers other than the seven rosebushes planted and lovingly tended by Septimus Stacey's murderer. The vibrant colors of one exceedingly prickly rose always reminded Vin of flickering flames. Beside it flourished another velvety blossom that was such a solid deep red hue that it appeared almost black from a distance. The small low-growing peach colored rose always made Vin think of peach fuzz and the tall rambling pink rose seemed to be branching out to encircle and protect it. A particularly old variety of rose, its twisted silver-gray roots firmly planted in the ground, had an air of peacefulness and quiet contemplation to its snow white blooms. The most abundantly flowering rose of the seven was a traditional rose red and its small sharp thorns lay in wait for the unwary but it was well worth getting close to the tightly furled little buds as they hid the sweetest scent imaginable. Vin couldn't help but choose the straggly but beautiful yellow rose as his own personal favorite. Even though the golden flower stubbornly insisted on only growing in the stoniest patch of slightly higher ground. Appearing to be standing guard over the other six.
Before making his way back down to Ezra's room, once more Vin Tanner gazed at the seven points of light encircling the ranch house. For an instant one suddenly flared more brightly that the other six. Vin held out his hand, the dazzling orb that danced just above his palm suddenly blazed blue before streaking away. Smiling, Vin respectfully tipped his hat to seven seafaring brothers still together even in death.
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