The dusty streets of Four Corners were a little brighter on this crisp morning. The sun raised her lazy head and showered a golden rain down on the sleepy town. The windows of the stores had festive decorations, the citizens bustled along whistling and exchanging cheerful greetings. Small children ran up the boardwalk, headed for the post office, clutching their letters to Santa.
J.D. leaned against the doorway to the post office and pulled out his pocket watch. It was just after eight a.m. just a couple days until Christmas. He gazed at the western town on the edge of the desert. Home? That used to be the blue-blooded hills of Boston. He was born and raised in the cradle of Liberty, surrounded by ivy-walled colleges and fine buildings, the very picture of a modern city. But it was never home. How did this dusty vista, filled with bullet-ridden buildings, drunks, wild cowboys, and some bad elements turn into home? He eyed the swaggering gunslinger down the street and his handsome face broke into a smile. Buck Wilmington was more than his best friend. He was the big brother J.D. never had...and always dreamed about. He smiled broadly as the older man's efforts were rewarded. The pretty, curvaceous blonde smiled demurely, parting her lips to reveal even white teeth. She turned and stroked the big man's cheek and nodded. With a flip of her fan, she coyly hid her inviting smile. She disappeared into the General Store, leaving the gap-grinning gunslinger in her wake.
"It never fails to amaze me at how easily some of God's gentler creatures are mislead."
"You're just jealous Ezra," J.D. defended his friend with a smile, "'cause you don't have any animal magnetism."
"An animal, My Dear Youthful Lawman," the Gambler imparted, "ruts...a gentlemen romances. Therein lies the difference."
Buck approached the pair, rubbing his hands in glee. "Mornin' Boys...What a glorious day!"
"You finally got a date with Katie?" J.D lauded.
"Seven o'clock at the Hotel. I'm gonna dine and wine her...then cuddle up under a bush of mistletoe."
"She's just anglin' to get a gift." J.D. teased, "You know how girls love presents."
"You're just jealous, Kid." Buck eyed the livery area, scanning the street carefully.
"Sheriff Dunne makes a valid point." Ezra noted, "It's no coincidence that the creature in question has finally given you the time of day, on the eve of Christmas."
"I'll remember that Ezra when I show 'the creature' how I got on the top of Santa's naughty boy list."
J.D.'s laughter arrived at the same time the first escort did. He was whistling, both hands hooked in his belt. The long, light brown locks lifted in the breeze, his blue eyes were barely visible under the slouch hat. From under his buffalo hide coat, an expensive, bright red shirt gave the big man a grin.
"Hey there, Pard...nice shirt." He boomed, tossing an apple to the lean tracker.
"Like it?" Vin nodded, catching the apple and taking a bite.
"Ain't like you to buy something so flashy Vin...Looks like an Ezra reject." J.D. scoffed, giving both Buck and Vin a chuckle.
"Your taste and knowledge of proper attire would fill a thimble." The Conman retorted.
"Didn't buy it." Vin mumbled over a full mouth of apple. "...gift..."
"From who?" Ezra frowned, his trained eye spotting an expensive fabric and design; he slipped his hand onto the collar to feel it, only to be slapped.
"Paws off..." The Texan hissed, "y'ell muss it up. She wouldn't like that." He baited, seeing Buck's and Ezra's eyes light up.
"She?" Both said in unison. "A woman...bestowed that upon you?" Ezra stammered.
"Had bumps in all the right spots...reckon it was a woman alright." He sighed, adjusting his kerchief and waiting.
"You dog..." Buck jumped off the hitching post he was sitting on and pulled Vin's scarf off, revealing a rather healthy, neck bruise.
"Man, would you look at that!" J.D.'s eyes widened, impressed. "She must have teeth like a damn wolf!"
"Good Lord..." Ezra murmured, astonished. Vin didn't seem the type to openly display such rewards.
"They ready to go?" the quiet tracker asked J.D., ignoring the commentary and enjoying curiosity killing the cat. He retrieved his scarf and retied it, and entered the jail. He took a rifle and a box of cartridges from the gunrack. He leveled a cold gaze at the two killers, who'd robbed the stage and shot the driver and one passenger to death in cold blood, and wounded two more. A short trip just north of Cloverdale to meet the prison wagon would end with them headed to Yuma Prison.
"Hey, Rico...lookee who's ridin' with us...a real pretty boy." The fair-haired prisoner lounging against the bars leered.
"Yeah, Man..." The longhaired Mexican bandit agreed. He made several kissing sounds and grabbed his crotch. "Hey Chiquita...you hungry?"
Vin ignored the pair and turned away slowly, tossing the keys to J.D. "Git 'em shackled and ready. I'll get the horses. If they sneeze...shoot 'em."
Chris Larabee raised a sandy eyebrow at his best friend. He was standing in the doorway and heard the invite. Vin mocked his gesture, raising his own eyebrow, as if to challenge the older man. Chris's lips quirked and he kicked off the doorpost, tossing his cheroot in the gutter.
"Horses?" Vin asked him.
"Yup." the black duster flapped in the breeze as the lean gunslinger eyed the emerging prisoners.
"Vin...Vin Tanner..." A sultry female voice caused all of them to turn.
J.D. cut off the prisoner's wolf whistles with a well-placed blow. Buck wormed his way past the sheriff and his bounty. "Miss Katie..." He tipped his hat and smiled as she sauntered by, barely noticing him. Her large blue eyes were trained on the Texan, who ignored her as he readied his horse for the trip.
"Mr. Tanner..." she stood next to him, eyeing the handsome face. She felt him tense slightly when she brushed against him.
"Miss Katherine..." He nodded, turning to face her.
"I just wanted to say," Her voice was low and breathless, "...that uh...lesson you taught me...left me with such a thrill." a color spread through her, staining her cheeks and leaving the onlookers wondering and more than curious. Buck was about to burst. "The power I felt...holding it...caressing it...Well, I'm still breathless. I can't wait until our next rendezvous." She lifted a dainty eyebrow as she ran a manicured fingernail along the bruised neck. "I hope I didn't hurt you too much."
"Nah..." Vin denied, wrinkling his nose. "Thanks again fer the shirt..."
"It was the least I could do, after I tore the other one..." She paused discreetly, "Well, have a safe journey."
Vin nodded and continued his task. As soon as the departing female was out of earshot, Buck almost knocked Vin over. Vin hissed and tensed, glaring at the larger man.
"What the hell was that?" The large man asked, smacking the struggling Texan on the back.
"You know what they say Buck," Chris added, leaning over his saddlehorn and eyeing Vin clutching his lower back, "It's always the quiet ones..."
"Vin...Vin Tanner..." Buck pleaded as the other man turned. "You flea-bitten Texan, I'm talkin' to you!"
Vin kept his mare's leg trained on the surly pair as J.D. and Ezra got them onto their horses. Their hands were shackled and each peacekeeper affixed the shackle to the saddle horns, thus eliminating any unnecessary arm movement. Chris took the lead, swinging around on his horse and giving each prisoner a cold stare.
"Just as easy to tote your bodies." He issued, his clipped speech and cold eyes silencing the snarling killers.
The trip to southwest to Cloverdale would take all day. A prison wagon would meet them in the bordertown and transport the prisoners to Yuma Territorial Prison. Vin eyed the blue sky and packed more rations in his saddlebags. He shoved his boot in the stirrup and threw a lean leg over his feisty horse, Diablo.
"See y'all tomorrow night," He nodded to the trio outside the jail, and ignoring the pesty ladie's man. He eyed the sky again, "'bout six or so."
"Closer to ten," Chris disputed, giving the slouching tracker a hard stare, "...if we're lucky."
"Was speakin' fer m'self." Vin cocked his head, the breeze sending his long hair back. He pulled his hat down; his buffalo-hide coat sleeve hid his grin. "...know a shortcut through Badger Pass, kinda rough ridin'...figgered y'ed be takin' the long road...seein' as how ya ain't so young anymore." Vin heard the chuckling trio on the porch and glanced up at the hooded green eyes under the dark hat brim. He saw the straight-lined lips turn up slightly. "...reckon I'll keep m'own company...seein' as how y'ell be cranky by then."
"Ah, yes, the lack of liquid refreshment, lush, lusty females and a smoke filled establishment." Ezra agreed, seeing Chris switch his cold, laconic stare from the dry Texan to himself. "Mr. Tanner makes a valid point."
"He's right Boss," Buck added, leaning against the hitching post as the quartet rode away. "Come on, Vin..." He tried one more time. "Toss me a bone...She's a real wildcat...clawin' and bitin'?" He raised his dark blue eyes in hope.
"Ya like m'name, Bucklin?" the tracker was solemn as he finally answered his pesty friend. Ezra furrowed his brows; his wary eyes darted from the Texan's serious blue gaze to the leader's cool green one. He didn't miss the quirk of the blond's lips.
"Your name..." Buck grimaced, "...uh...yeah, I guess...why?"
Chris sighed and grinned, shaking his head. Ezra was now leaning in, knowing the sharpshooter's wry humor was about to explode. He saw Vin lean down and get close to Buck.
"...s'the name she'll be hollerin' when yer with her tonight."
"Goddammit Vin." Buck slapped the lean leg and backed away. The echoes of raucous laughter followed the group as they rode off. Chris turned back and gave his best friend a curious look.
"You gonna tell him?" He asked of the encounter between the expert gunman and his new pupil. Katherine Eddows and her father lived just outside town. His business trips left her alone infrequently and the concerned father had hired Vin Tanner to teach her to shoot. They had been outside town, near a clearing and the kick of rifle send her flying backwards and she lost her footing, slipping down a small hill. In her panic, when Vin reached down to pull her up, she clawed desperately, gripping the side of his neck fiercely. He pried her hand off and then both her hands clawed at his shirt, ripping it beyond repair.
"Nah..." Vin shook his curly head, glancing back and waving at the cursing, mustached man on the boardwalk. "Let 'im sweat awhile."
Later that night, just after sunset
"Shouldn't be long..." Chris commented, eyeing the dust cloud in the distance.
"None to soon fer me." Vin replied, eyeing the surly prisoners, tied up nearby. He kept his gun trained on them and watched Chris fiddle with his saddlebag. He'd seen the blond's hand running across a dark green velvet pouch, three times now. Vin's eyes went from the strong hand back up to his best friend's face. It was blank, but the eyes weren't. They were far away, reminicising. He edged closer, "Ya alright?"
One slight nod from the gunslinger gave Vin little reassurance. He saw the green eyes flick over and then the hand opened. Vin saw a beautiful cameo and some marbles.
"Mary and Billy?" He guessed, "Christmas?" But he saw the fair head shake negatively. The pale face tightened in pain and the eyes narrowed. "I'm sorry, Chris..." He instantly regretted his actions, "didn't mean to pry..."
"s'okay Vin." Chris said quietly. "The trip...that Buck and I took...I got these for Adam and Sarah. I never got a chance to give it to them. They've been in a box by my bed at the shack. " He said of his infrequent abode. He took a deep breath and stared once again at the approaching dustcloud, before slipping them back inside he saddlebag. "I couldn't part with 'em before...it's the last tie...in a way." He kept his hand on the leather saddlebag and felt Vin's brief grip to his shoulder.
Vin read between the brief burst of words. The past several months, Chris and Mary had been keeping company. He'd seen the lean gunslinger slip from Mary's many nights in the wee hours before dawn. It was right, they suited each other. He thought carefully before speaking.
"Takin' a detour on the way back?" Vin inquired, keeping his eyes and gun on the prisoners. He knew where Chris's old homestead was. He turned back and studied the cool green gaze.
"Yeah...through Eagle Bend." He replied, eyeing the open invite in the large blue eyes facing him. "Thanks, Vin...but I gotta do this alone." He sighed. With a brief nod and a back pat, Vin returned to his prisoners as the wagon approached.
"Git up..." Vin snarled, motioning with the gun. The fair-haired prisoner complied, but his partner didn't. He was barely on his feet when he charged Vin, knocking him sideways. A click of a pistol stopped further movement.
"Gimme a reason." Chris said low, shoving the barrel into the mouthy prisoner's neck. He saw Vin's fists itching to make contact with a jaw or a gut, but the tracker remained where he stood.
"Which one of you is Larabee?" A voice called as the wagon pulled up.
"That'd be me." Chris replied, shoving the prisoner's forward.
"Last chance, Chiquita," the swarthy bandit cooed at Vin, rubbing his crotch.
"Get in there..." The guard hit his head and threw him inside. The other followed without retort. After the doors were locked, the guard approached Chris with a release form. That completed, the wagon went on its way. Chris turned back and saw Vin grimacing and tugging on his lower back again. The same motion he'd made several times over the last few hours. He'd been helping a rancher outside town load grain sacks a couple days before and pulled something. Nathan told him to take it easy, which was an exercise in futility. If the healer weren't visiting Rain at the Seminole village, Vin would most likely be back in Four Corners.
"Hot bath and soft bed okay by you, Cowboy?" He inquired, putting his boot into the stirrup.
"No need to move..." Vin replied, eyeing the town ahead. He looked back and saw the concern on the face peering at him. "Ya sayin' I stink?"
"Well, since I've been downwind of you..." Chris grinned, "Come on, a hot bath, some decent grub and a new bottle..." He left the possibilities open.
"Ya left out the part about the women." Vin said, gingerly easing into the saddle and hissing.
"You're movin' around like a man of ninety," Chris imparted, leading the way. "I wouldn't worry about tanglin' with a woman tonight."
Christmas Eve morning
It was early when Chris Larabee crossed the street in Cloverdale and made his way back to the hotel. Restless, he'd risen early and sought comfort in the new dawn outside. He tapped on the door to Vin's room and got no reply.
"s'open..." A groggy voice replied, as a click sounded from the other side.
Chris took his hat off and ducked inside, suppressing a grin. Vin was in his drawers, shuffling back to the bed. He resumed sitting on the side of the bed, blue eyes half-mast. His long hair was an unruly mess, and his fly was open.
"Barn door's open," Chris commented, walking to where Vin's clothes were folded on the chair by the door. "Get dressed, we're burnin' daylight. Sooner we eat, sooner we can get on the road. There's a storm comin', I don't want to spend Christmas Day freezin' my ass off on the road." He tossed the clothes to the unmoving body; they bounced off his naked chest and to the floor. "Dammit Vin, are you listening to me?" He said harshly, hands on his hips.
Who was Chris kidding? How could you not listen to him? It would be like missing a freight train. Vin rubbed his queasy stomach, and regretted the spicy Mexican dish he ate for dinner. He'd made several trips to the outhouse during the night, and every step sent a lance through his back. He'd sought relief after the last trip, by bribing the Chinaman who owned the bathhouse in town. The steaming water helped, and so did the pungent smelling paste the proprietor offered. He had only climbed back into bed a couple hours before. He heard the buzzing in his ears as the voice started again. He rose on unsteady legs, and felt only a tinge of pain. The stuff he rubbed on his back was working.
"Aye, Aye, Captain Bligh..." He saluted and glared at his friend.
Chris had just filled the basin by Vin's bed with water. He'd poured a tin mug full and was about to hand it to the bleary-eyed tracker, when the younger man's words struck him like bullets. The mug clattered onto the floor and he backed up, blinking and was taken to another time and another pair of blue eyes.
"What?" Vin demanded, seeing the strange look. "I buttoned up..." He noted of the front of his drawers. "Chris?" He cocked his head, staring at the wanderlust and shock on his friend's face.
'Damn...you sounded...just like...." Chris paused, sighing deeply and rubbing his neck.
"Like who?" Vin pressed.
"Dan." Chris whispered, crossing to the window and gazing on the street below.
"Dan Larabee...my kid brother."
"BROTHER!" Vin choked, "Ya got a brother? I thought ya had no kin..."
"I haven't seen him in..." He paused, recalling there bitter parting. "...a few years, and before that since the war. "He's nine years younger and a whole lot smarter." He grinned, recalling the confident little blond that used to follow him everywhere. "Had a answer for everything, no account runt..." He recalled, his voice thick.
Vin saw the Adam's apple bobbing and the clenched jaw. He waited, but no further words were issued. Shrugging, he washed up, got dressed and put his holster on. Shucking his coat on, he went to the door and waited. Chris hadn't moved from the window.
"Chris?" He said quietly, and saw the head turn. "Let's get some breakfast."
They ate in silence and finally, as the harried, aging waitress took the plates away, Chris picked up the steaming mug of coffee and spoke.
"When I left for the war in Sixty-two...he was only about sixteen or so, I guess. He wanted to join up...come with me. My Pa wouldn't hear of it...and neither would I. He's a stubborn little cuss, like somebody else I know." He smiled at Vin, who chuckled slightly and shifted in his chair. "But I talked to alone in the barn, made him understand that the folks needed him here, in case I didn't come back." He sighed, recalling his brother's shocked blue eyes, realizing this might be the last time they spoke. "Anyhow, I came back after the war, in summer of sixty-five. I found the graves first..." He paused, emitted a slow breath, eyes pained.
"Aw, shit, Chris...I'm sorry." Vin relayed, getting a slight nod.
"My folks...found out later a fever took 'em in sixty three. There was no sign of Dan. One of the neighbors said he took off after the funeral. Damn hot-head..."
"How'd ya catch up to 'im?" Vin asked.
"About three years ago," Chris recalled of their chance meeting. "Shocked the shit outta me. It was a few months after Sarah and Adam died. I'd been living in a bottle in Mexico, whoring around and shutting out the world. I'd wandered into Arizona territory to Tombstone." He shook his head, "What a treat that was."
"...been there." Vin nodded in agreement of the wild town.
"Had a real bang-up visit, three gunfights in two days...landed in jail, drunk. Woke up and there he was sitting next to me in the cell. I damn near had a heart attack. He's an engineer, works for the railroad, scoutin' out the sight lines. He'd seen them cart me off to jail and came to bail me out. I didn't say a word, not for a long time. We were almost into New Mexico Territory when we camped. He'd been talking the whole time, telling me about going to school, getting a job with the government. I laid into him good, for selling the farm...for leaving. I stalked off, with my trusty bottle...got drunk. We had a fight...I pulled out another bottle and he broke it, calling me a few choice names. I told him about Sarah and Adam. We had another fight...I told him to go to hell. He left."
"Ya ain't seen him since?" Vin's voice was tight with anger.
"Nope. He headed back the other way...California, I guess...seem to recall him mentioning in the capital."
Vin tossed some coins onto the table and shoved his chair back. Chris saw the blue eyes flashing with anger. "Should have kept my mouth shut..." He muttered.
"Both times." Vin snapped, speaking of the painful departure of the younger Larabee. "I'll see ya back in Four Corners." He said curtly.
"Look, Vin. You gotta understand..." Chris defended, grabbing the buckskinned arm and getting his own arm flung backwards.
"I understand ya got kin...a brother fer Christsake...sounds like good man, reached out to help ya." He shook his head, disgusted, "and ya threw him away...yer own brother...ya..." He bit off the reply, and strode down the street, without looking back.
Chris flinched, recalling Vin's painful past. The quiet tracker spoke rarely about his early years, but Chris knew he'd lost his mother at five and spent some rough years after. He had no family, which is why this story upset him so. He climbed on his mount and headed out.
Vin's anger ebbed by the time he got to the telegraph office. He was about to wire Buck about their arrival, and paused. His eyes lingered on Chris's form as it left town. He then glanced at the large calendar on the wall at the red number. December twenty-fifth. He nodded as an idea formed, it lingered a moment and then he stepped forward.
"I need to send a wire to Sacramento." He asked, jotting his note down. "I'll wait fer a reply."
Ten minutes later the reply came and a smile broke onto his handsome face. "I need to send another wire to Fort Bowie, in Arizona. I'll wait."
It was only ten more minutes, but it seemed like an hour. He paced and cleaned the toe of his boot with the back of his leg. Finally, the tapping started and he strode back to the desk. Smiling, he read the message and sent a reply. The return was swift and he read, folded it and put it into his pocket. He sent a wire to Buck, updating him and left. Tossing a few coins to the clerk, he left, hooted and jumped on Diablo.
Chris's mind wandered to Adam's first Christmas. The six-month-old with his mother's eyes had given him a feeling of intensity the likes of which he'd never felt. He recalled Sarah's roast...the brown potatoes...peppermint sticks...spice cake...Adam hugging the small cloth horse Buck brought him. He recalled Buck's smile, which could have lit up the room. He shivered as a flash of the charred out house returned and the graves the haunted him. Movement ahead drew him back. His hand slid to his hip and he readied his gun.
"Mornin'" a familiar voice called from a thicket of trees.
"Goddammit Vin!" He snarled, replacing the gun. "Wouldn't that have been a great Christmas gift? Me toting your body back into town. Shit..." He cursed, pulling abreast of the laconic Texan. Chris eyed the road behind him, his face puzzled. "How'd you get out here ahead of me?" He saw the grin and snorted, knowing the tracker could find his way home blind and knew every trail in the area. "Nevermind..."
The rode in silence, each aware of the harsh words in town. The clouds covered the sun and Chris assessed it to be early afternoon. A storm was coming and he picked up the pace, hoping to get to the graves and back to town before it got too bad. The fork in the road was upon them. Chris was heading slightly east, to Eagle's Bend. Vin would head straight back. Chris reined his horse and turned as Vin rode up beside him. Without a word, they locked forearms. The smile and nod he got from his younger friend, told Chris Vin wasn't upset. Chris nodded, intensifying the grip, letting the tracker know his feelings. Vin broke free and jerked his head.
"Have a gutwarmer waitin' on ya at the Saloon." He eyed the road to Eagle's Bend, then the sky and the lifted his head, scenting the wind. "Ya best git goin'...if ya put a wiggle on it, y'ell miss the worst of it...ya got a few hours 'afore it hits."
"Vin..." Chris called after the departing tracker. "Watch your back..."
"Ain't that yer job?" Vin teased, with a slight nod and took off.
The trio studied the departing friends from a hilltop above them. The leader was a large man, several inches above six feet. His graying, dark hair was close-cropped, his eyes an icy gray. The steely gaze flicked to each man, then settled on one. The anger rose in him...fueled by years of hate-laced anticipation. His hands gripped the reins with a fierce intensity as he salivated the night ahead. A feral grin played on his face and his skin tingled in anticipation.
"That him?" the gunman on his left asked, spitting a wad of tobacco juice onto the ground.
"Yeah..." the leader replied, distractedly.
"We gonna do him here?" the other, more short-tempered one inquired.
"No...not yet. It's gonna be slow and painful."
"What about the other one?" the younger gunman asked, spitting another wad onto the ground.
"What about him?" The leader turned and snapped as the wad of tobacco hit his horse. "Turner, get rid of that crap."
After depositing the remaining tobacco onto the dirt, the blond turned back to their leader "He's gonna make trouble. They're closer than kin."
"He's gonna be too busy..." The brute laughed, stroking his short, graying beard. "I've got big plans for him, seventeen hours worth. Seventeen hours of anguish and guilt can weigh on a man..."
"Seventeen hours?" the slight, olive-complexioned man inquired. "Que Pasa?"
"Maybe it's time you told us about your plan." Turner asked, taking a long drink from the bottle of tequila his friend passed to him.
"If you had done your job correctly and not gotten caught, we'd be finished and in Mexico by now, you imbeciles." The leader gritted. "Wipe that grin off your face Rico, " he snarled to the Mexican bandit. "Instead...I had to bust your sorry asses out of a prison wagon. How long you think before they send someone looking for that dead guard."
The two remained silent, not wanting to push the anger any further. This man who'd hired them was cold blooded and bent on revenge. Both had seen him in action and the bloody remnants of body parts he left in his wake. Neither wanted to cross him.
"Turner," He directed, pointing at the road below. "Follow him, don't let him see you. He'll be stopping in ...oh...I'd say a couple hours. Leave this," He handed him a package, "By his body. You know where to meet us."
"His body?" the blond asked, placing the package in his saddlebag. "I don't get it?"
"You don't have to." The older man retorted. "God was generous when he gave you that face, but short on the gray matter," he indicated of the not-so-quick gunman. "The less you know the better." He eyed the peacekeeper, who'd slowed and taken a large drink. He laughed lewdly, "With any luck...it might be sooner. Go on."
The blond nodded and took pursuit, careful of his trail. The leader waited, despite the anxious looks he got from the slim Mexican. "He's gettin' away..."
"Patience...I won't be rushed. I've planned this for years...over and over in that damn prison cell." He recalled. "We'll take a shortcut and surprise him. Let's go."
+ + + + + + +
Chris eased off the handsome horse and gave his neck a solid pat. He stood for several minutes, the familiar pain cut through him with razor-like intensity. He winced at the rubble, and strode over. He stood on the very spot where he held his son for the first time. The absolute awe he felt, gazing at the tiny red face, which had the audacity to scream at him. The jolt that ran through him when Adam grabbed onto his finger. The first smile...the first steps...the first time he said 'Pa'...teaching him to ride. He took a deep breath and rubbed his watering eyes. Swallowing hard, he made his way to the graves. He knelt, fingering the soft velvet bag, which reminded him of Sarah's skin. The magical nights they'd spent, sweat-slick limbs tangled and skin hot. Her silken lips taunting him, leaving a naughty trail of kisses and nibbles down his lean body. How wonderful she felt under him...how he drank in her kisses. Sighing, he slipped the pouch in his pocket. He laid one hand on each cross and dropped his head in prayer. The pain swelled to a roaring crescendo, the joyous sound of Adam's laughter drowned out by screams of pain. So intent was he; so lost in his grief, he didn't hear them approach. He jumped slightly as the strange snapping sound arrived at the same time something cut his air off. He clawed at the leather whip wound tightly around his neck. He jumped up and struggled as dark spots danced before his eyes...there was no air...no sound, not even a gasp. A blow to the back from a blunt object took him to his knees.
"What the hell?" Vin mumbled, widening his eyes as a strong wave of dizziness washed over him. It took all of his strength to raise his hand; he rubbed his eyes and hissed. "Shit..." He managed over his thick tongue. He swayed left and right, unable to hold himself upright. He slid bonelessly from the dark steed, already unconscious when the ground met his body.
Turner approached cautiously, prodding the still figure that was sprawled on his back. There was no movement. He knelt and rifled through the coat and pants pockets, tossing the coins he found in his own pocket. He dropped the package on the center of the blue-shirted chest. He eyed the restless horse's bulging saddlebags. He managed to grab the reins and secure the temperamental beast to a cactus.
"Whoa...easy there...." he coached, lifting the flap. He found some food, a red shirt, a box of cartridges, a small bible, a knife and a spyglass. He kept the cartridges and food and tossed the rest. After packing his own bags, he kicked the side of the unmoving man and smiled at the moan and flinch. Jumping on his horse, he turned back and headed for the meeting point.
+ + + + + + +
Just before the Grim Reaper swung the scythe, the choker was released. He collapsed, coughing and choking. He didn't have the strength to open his eyes and felt his arms being pulled away. He threw a shoulder into the body next to him and heard a grunt. He rolled over as a blow struck the side of his head. He slid to the ground, feeling the familiar warm, sticky trail of blood. He blinked away the black curtain that threatened to fall, as his arms were tied behind his back with a leather cord. He managed to curl onto his side and suck in great lungfuls of air. The spots went away and he blinked up at a pair of blurry figures.
"Get up..." A stern voice issued. He blinked, trying to clear the muddled view and felt the blood run down his face. He managed to get to his knees and the large form became clearer. "Who the hell?" He croaked.
"You'll be praying to go there by the end of this most unholy night." The tall man responded. He eyed Chris Larabee and felt a thrill inside. All the years he'd waited...and wondered what it would feel like. Now, kneeling before him, was his quarry, blinking like a lovestruck teenager. "I gave you an order, Captain Larabee."
"Cap...tain?" Chris croaked, eyeing the face carefully. The wind picked up and the angry gray clouds rebelled. Suddenly the face and voice merged and a name entered his head. "Beaumont?" His eyes widened, "Thought you were dead..."
"Despite your best efforts, here I stand." The former Union Commander directed, pulling Chris's hair back violently. He leaned in low, making sure the wary gunslinger heard every word. He drew a sharp knife out and held the tip almost in the center of the right green eye. "Do you know how long I've waited? The months...years...I endured in that filthy prison. I've tortured and killed you a thousand times...but now it's time for the party to begin. Seventeen hours, Captain Larabee, remember..." He snarled, placing the knife at the blond's throat. He pushed the tip in slightly and watched a red pearl form, shimmer and slid down the blade. "So pretty..." he whispered, licking the knife blade.
Chris saw the dangerous glint of madness in the former Union Major's eyes. Charles Beaumont has been his last C.O. Once a brilliant strategist, the long years of war and endless battles, knee-deep in carnage had broken the man. It was in late February of Sixty-five, almost at the end of the war. They were in Virginia on a bitter cold night, being pelted by ice and bullets. They were outnumbered and losing ground. The Major ordered a retreat and they moved out, dodging bullets and cannonballs in the darkness. They scattered in the darkness, falling one by one as bullets found their mark. Suddenly the ground gave way, they'd charged over the rotted timber of an abandoned mine tunnel. Seven men spilled into the hole, including Chris, Beaumont and his kid brother, Peter. They were way below ground and the freezing water from the river that flooded the mine was up to their necks. One of the men found a loose ventilation pipe. As the water grew higher, they shared the pipe, sucking in long gulps of air. Peter landed at an odd angle and Chris knew he was dying. He supported the youth, despite the bone numbing cold. He saw the sightless eyes and felt the death rattle. He let the body slide under and the Major, who was several feet away, snapped. That was when his mind went. He tried to kill Chris, and managed to kill two privates who got in his way. The surging water separated them...carrying Chris down the tunnel and spitting him out into an abandoned shaft. He saw an old mining car, threw his body into it and sailed to freedom. The shaft collapsed behind him, and took Beaumont with it, or so he thought.
"Seventeen hours...I laid in that Godforsaken hole. " Beaumont recalled, "You left us there to die. You killed my brother. I saw you push him...under..."
Chris hissed in pain as the knife tore into his right shoulder, "...he was dead...the fall killed him. I thought you drowned. I didn't..."
"Shut up..." The madman screamed, kicking Chris viciously in the side. "You killed him...he was only a boy...you...don't...deserve...to...live...you..." Each word was timed with a blow. He continued to strike out, long after Chris Larabee was unconscious, his face battered, bruised and wearing a mask of his own blood.
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The black horse nickered as his master moaned nearby. One hoof pounded impatiently on the ground, while the dark head tossed restlessly.
Cold. That was his first impression. He shivered and felt the chill as the storm clouds coughed and sent a cold wind over his aching body. The intense wind helped him roll over and he managed to get to his knees. His mouth was dry and as soon as opened it, the contents of his stomach poured forth. He rocked and retched until there was nothing left. He crawled a few feet away and sat down hard, oblivious to the wind that whipped him. He eyed Diablo, prancing and tossing his head. He spotted the canteen and rubbed his throat.
"Bad water?" he mumbled, never having been knocked out by it before. He got to his feet and staggered over to his anxious horse. "Easy there fella..." He cooed, reaching for the canteen. He took a sniff and frowned. He spilled the contents, and saw a white gummy substance hit his fingers. "Son-of-a-bitch..." He hissed, trying to figure out the muddle. Why would somebody drug him and leave him here? He picked up his scattered belongings and packed them away. He went to throw a leg into the stirrup, when he saw a brown package. He picked it up and ran under a nearby tree, shielding himself and the package from the wind. He used his knife to cut the cord and pulled the paper away. It was a box; about ten by four and several inches high. He opened it and nearly dropped it. "What the hell..." his voice trailed off as he carefully lifted a small, carved figure out. The black clothing and glued on blond hair, gave the tracker a chill. It was the tiny painted green eyes that hit him like a bullet. "Chris..." he looked around, but the landscape was deserted. He saw the folded up paper on the bottom of the box. He pulled is out and scanned it.
"Seventeen hours is all you have, tracker extraordinaire. Seventeen hours until he dies, it should have been him left there. Seventeen hours he'll lie in steeled pain, waiting for your call. His heart is in your hands, ore into Rosie's deep chest will he forever fall." Vin read it twice, slowly and tamed the pounding of his heart, as a visual image of his best friend injured and waiting for him came into his mind. He repeated the note, and saw the clues. "steel...ore...ore...with an 'e'...Rosie..." He frowned, then grabbed the doll and note and ran for his horse. "Damn!" He swore, recalling the abandoned mine, 'Rosebud' that was five miles away. He knew it was a trap, and he'd be wary. He almost heard Chris reprimanding him as he rode into the madman's lair.
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