Northern New Mexico Territory
The trip south into New Mexico Territory was a spectacular passage into the rugged wilderness. The wild beauty battered his senses, leaving him dizzy at the graceful thunder by which God's hand scored this land. He smiled as he was privy to the soul stirring reunion of Mother Earth to Father Sky. The theater they allowed him a private audience to, was filled with lusty rainbows, the scent of cedar with the hint of the lilac to be born in the spring and concluding with the surreal sunset.
He inhaled deeply, letting the wonderful scent of the thick ponderosa pines fill him. His cerulean eyes drank in the deep blue sky scored by red rocks and the churning of the rugged river roared into his ears. He felt the warm sun bake his face as he watched the swallows, falcons and eagles fill the sky. He slid of Diablo at the edge of the river and squatted to drink, savoring the sweet nectar.
After crossing the river, he began his descent into White Rock Canyon, the walls rose dramatically above him, leaving tracker humbled. Santa Fe was to the east and the San Mateo Mountains lurked in the distance to the southwest. Just beyond them, in a couple days, he'd be home. His lips curled up and his eyes softened when he thought of the dusty town he now longed to see. The faces of his friends came into view. Josiah's deep voice, practicing gospel rhetoric while the silent sharpshooter, sat in awe, his tools and repair job forgotten. Ezra's evil grin as another unsuspecting stranger lost a pile of silver and J.D.'s exuberance, which painfully reminded Vin of how much he'd missed of his own youth.
Diablo snorted and tossed his head, as if sensing Buck Wilmington near. The amorous rogue with a heart of gold and a steady gun hand always made the horse nervous. Vin teased the older man, stating that his horse wasn't used to the scent of cheap perfume. Buck's laugh caressed his ears. How many times had he sat in the saloon and found an uninvited grin? Around Buck it just couldn't be helped. Then there was the steady blue eyes and broad smile whenever he woke up in Nathan's clinic. His joking and bawdy humor didn't fool the tracker. Buck had a bigger heart than anyone Vin ever met. He chuckled as a recent vision of Buck fleeing from the hotel, half dressed, clutching his boots and shirt, came into view. Always the gentlemen, despite the red-faced husband of his latest conquest in pursuit, he'd stopped to tip his hat to Mary and Mrs. Potter.
"Good Old Bucklin..." He hushed, then sighed deeply and found his brows furrowed as a sense of Chris Larabee filled him. What was it about the somber gunslinger that caused the turmoil inside of him? It started the moment he locked eyes with a stranger in black across the hectic street. He fought the feeling at first, not able to comprehend the strong impulse inside that drew him to the older man's side. The inner voice didn't let up...'trust him' the mantra proclaimed...over and over. The next few days, in the saloon, and on the road to the Seminole Village, he seemed able to sense the other's moves and thoughts. Knowing what the message the silent man was thinking and able to respond in kind. He wondered what the new feeling was ...a sense of wholeness. and peace filled him. So it seemed as natural as breathing, as twilight rode onto the horizon, arresting the reluctant sun, to speak of his twisted fate. He sent a sure smile on the soft breeze that carried his warm voice. He turned and caught the warm green eyes radiating back at him. That's when he knew. As the sun set, he felt a weight lifted as his previously sheltered mortal secret, was freed. That smile that matched the light that shone from Chris Larabee's eyes, filled him with a sense of completeness. So as they sat in silence, each reveling in the newness and wonder of the newborn brotherhood, Vin knew he was home.
Diablo's hooves clamored along the canyon, the echo matched by the hooting of an owl nearby. The wind kicked up and seemed to shrieking Nathan's name. He winced and felt the pain and deep-seeded shame return. That was the lone wound that remained inside, still bubbling and festering, a constant reminder of his disgrace. He took a deep breath and replayed that night again. Two months gone by and the vivid colors of blood and Nathan's unholy scream still haunted him. But he now felt...no he knew he had the courage to confront his friend and bare his soul. Lost in his memories and anticipating his homecoming, he'd ridden further than he thought. There were several towns dotting the river, and he paused eyeing the night sky. The wind that had picked up and he heard the distant wail of a storm. A hot meal and soft bed beckoned with sly fingers. It would be a couple more days of sleeping under the stars, before he hit home. Besides, he needed supplies for the remainder of his trip and didn't relish spending the night being battered by the wind and dust. So with a long draw on his canteen, he patted Diablo's sleek neck and turned east, towards the nearest town. A few miles later, he passed a signpost, and squinted in the moonlight.
"Thor...ton..." he read aloud and shrugged. The name didn't matter, he'd be gone by daylight, starting the final leg of his journey home.
Meanwhile, back in Four Corners...
The miserable day was finally coming to halt. Ezra managed to peel an eye open and saw the lamp flickering on the table beyond his feet. He grimaced as the thin mattress of the cot beneath him reminded him sourly of his confinement. A week since the shooting...a couple of days blissfully unaware of the caring hands of the healer who tended him and the dark-haired, gunslinger who set by his side. Several days fighting a fever and painfully conscious...and aware of every verbal assault Nathan saw fit to toss at him. He wasn't a child and resented being treated like one. Being told how to behave, not to sit, not to cough and not to talk was enough to put up with. But being forced to drink bitter, black bile that the irate medicine man claimed was herbal healing tea and suffer the indignation of being rolled onto a chamber pot had the Southerner in a cross mood. The nagging headache and lousy feeling, a gift from the fever, had his fragile nerves on edge. He sighed and shifted, wincing at the stitches in his side bellowed.
"Hey, Ace...Get you anything?"
"Good Lord...are you to become a permanent fixture?" He hissed, shoving the hands helping him sit up in the bed. "I am quite capable of sitting up in bed...kindly remove your cold hands...or are you trying to stop my heart?"
"Sorry...Hungry? Thirsty?" Buck inquired, shifting uncomfortably. Despite the other five consoling him, he felt one hundred percent responsible for the Gambler's injury. Until the fever broke, he hadn't left the infirmary. Nathan worked around him, smart enough not to waste his breath. "Here...Nate said to give you this when you woke up..."
"If you intend to maintain growth on that shrub that is your family tree, you'll have the good sense to vacate this premises and leave me to my misery." Ezra gasped, reaching for the beside mug of water.
"Come on Ezra...Nate said this stuff will help your fever and fight infection..."
Buck protested, moving close with the warm liquid. Ezra shifted, which sent the liquid onto his nightshirt.
"Haven't you caused enough damage...must you burn me as well!" Ezra growled, pulling the steaming shirt away from his chest.
"I'm sorry, Ezra...I'll get you a new shirt..."
"Remove yourself..." Ezra fired, his pounding head and screaming side taking away his reasoning, "Get out...NOW..."
"What's going on?" Nate inquired, as Buck brushed by him and fled into the night. "Buck? Ezra what happened?"
"That ten-thumbed idiot nearly scalded me..."
"I know that fever's got you feelin' poorly," Nate admonished gently, easing a clean shirt onto the scowling Conman, "But you got no call to badmouth Buck Wilmington. You're lucky you've been lost in a fever these past days, you haven't seen the pain on his face. You know there ain't nobody within a hundred miles with a heart as big as his." Nate paused and refilled the mug of tea and handed it to Ezra. He saw the green eyes slide sideways, avoiding his own, "Don't try to hide...I know somewhere inside that chest of yours is a heart...despite Maude's best efforts to bury it. He ain't left here since he carried you in...except to step out back." He referred to the outhouse. "He ain't had hardly a bite to eat and won't sleep. Did you even look at his face? He looks awful. Guilt's been chompin' at him but good."
"Guilt..." Ezra murmured, remembering the face over his in the bar. He took the bowl of soup Nathan produced ate silently, reflecting on his relationship with Buck. Why had he lashed out? He liked Buck and thought on how he enjoyed trading barbs with the mustached man. He frowned, and placed the empty bowl on the bedside table, taking another mug of water. Why was he fighting so hard to keep them just beyond his reach? He was his own worst enemy. Nathan had disappeared to the other end of the clinic, out of sight. The small room seemed almost cavernous, and he eased down onto the pillow, wondering why the quiet was giving him a worse headache. As his eyes slid shut, he kept glancing at the door, hoping to hear the steady tred of the rogue's boots. He glanced at the table by the window, where the blurry body had been constant, during his delirium. His nose twitched, the antiseptic smell of the wound cleanser seemed offensive. He berated himself by letting a stray thought of cheap perfume cross his mind. The wicked smile and booming laugh, bold wink and charming voice followed.
"Mr. Wilmington..." He slurred as he drifted off.
Midnight, Santa Fe
Thirteen years before Plymouth Colony was settled by the Mayflower Pilgrims, Santa Fe, New Mexico, was established with a small cluster of European type dwellings. It would soon become the seat of power for the Spanish Empire north of the Rio Grande. The blending of the Native Americans and the Spanish was diluted further in the 1850's when American trappers and traders flowed in to the area. By the end of the Civil War and the press of the railroad through the area, its destiny was being born.
The area was a cross-mixed Mecca, whose whitewashed stucco buildings, adobes and religious shrines accented the glorious colors and geographies that God bestowed. Just outside town, hidden by a coppery-colored cluster of rocks, was an Old Spanish mansion. Built at the turn of the century, by an eccentric millionaire from Madrid for his petulant bride, it was gothic in its appearance. A deep dry moat surrounded the small castle, filled with snakes and other poisonous reptiles. Even in daylight, the brooding castle gave chills to those who made the misfortune of gazing upon it. Within the stone walls, in the basement, was a dungeon. Most of the cells were beyond habitation, but one had been lovingly restored. Its rusted leg manacles were waiting for the new resident to arrive. A steel bed, icy cold due to the depths of the basement, was ready to receive. The floors above were lavishly restored, with Turkish carpets, crystal chandeliers, silk embroidered sofas and wingchairs. The maze like hallways of the upper two floors would leave Ponce De Leon scratching his head.
In the master bedroom, a huge room bedecked in black accented by blood red satin bed and windowcoverings, the mistress of the manor waited. Her silhouette stood out, even in the dimly lit room. The dozens of candles lined the walls and surrounded the bed. She ran her hands along the satin quilt, her fevered mind imaging the lusty blond lover, whose animalistic maneuvers had ruined her for other men. She longed to feel him inside her and rake her nails down his slick back. Her colorful interlude was interrupted by a knock on the door.
"What is it?" She demanded angrily.
"A message, Senora..."
"This late...Who on earth?" She paused, "Yes, very well, enter..." She took the yellow paper and dismissed the servant. Like the others she'd hired, he was blinded by loyalty only money could bring. Settling back in bed, she took a long sip of red wine and read the message. Her smile was followed by a burst of evil laughter that gave the servant lurking in the hall a deep chill. He blessed himself and scurried back to the lower floor. She re-read the message outloud and slid out of her robe. Lazily reclining on the bed, she dribbled the wine over her chest and thought of his penetrating green eyes and strong hands...his lips licking the sweet wine and those teeth...
"The package has arrived. It will be delivered by dinner tomorrow. Have payment prepared." She purred, laughing lustily and kissing the message. "Oh joyous night..." She murmured, thinking of the fly who unwittingly just became snagged in her web.
Instantly awake and eyes alert, Vin Tanner swung his legs out of the bed. Grabbing his gun, he squinted into the darkness of the small hotel room. Something roused him from a deep sleep and he felt the hackles on his neck rise. There it was again...a jiggling sound...the door knob. He inched closer, his finger curled around the trigger of the gun. In the shadows of the night, he saw the knob moving back and forth. He rested his left hand on the knob and raised his mare's leg. In on motion, he jerked the door open
"Whaddya want?" He snarled to the inebriated older man who fell into him. "Aww..." He shoved the offensive odor-ridden drunk back into the hall.
"R...r...oooo..mm..." the other slurred, forcing himself forward and past Vin.
"This ain't yer room." Vin snarled, shoving him back towards the hall. "Git out 'afore I call the sheriff." The drunk became angry and fought against Vin, who coughed openly as the rum-laced unintelligible phrases slammed into his face.
Vin was so busy jousting with his nocturnal visitor in the hall; he didn't hear the window slide open and shut. The large figure stole into the room and withdrew into the corner. Hidden by the inky darkness that bathed the room, his presence went unnoticed. He watched the grumbling body drop back into the bed. He waited until the ex-bounty hunters breathing was even and crept forward. He drew out the saturated cloth and eyed the body. The slender young man was lying on his stomach, which would make his task even easier. He dropped on top of the startled body, pressing all two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle down hard.
"Shit..." Vin swore, before all the air was forced from his lungs. The oppressive weight crushed him down into the bed, trapping his right arm under him. Seeking air, he turned his face and swung his left hand blindly. This was the move the attacker was waiting for. He wrapped the chloroform soaked cloth around Vin's face and tied it securely. He shoved the face down, covered it with the pillow and waited.
At the first scent of the acrid odor, Vin tensed and held what little breath he had left. His struggle was short lived, his desperate lungs overruled him and he gulped. He felt his head buried into the dank mattress and fought weakly, before a black wall slammed into him.
Silas Edwards waited until the tension left the smaller man and then got up. He tossed the pillow away and rolled the younger man over. He waited several minutes, for insurance. Removing the cloth, he shoved it back in his pocket and laid the blanket on the floor. He rifled through the unconscious man's pockets and frowned at the single coin he found. He dropped the bounty onto the floor hard and rolled him up in the blanket. He tied it securely with twine at the ankles, knees, waist and armpits. He loosened the top, near the man's face, so he could breathe. He gathered the gunbelt and saddlebags and tossed them into a burlap bag. Opening the window, he tossed the bag down into the alley, and slung the unconscious man over his shoulder. With little difficulty, he tied the body to the horse he'd seen Tanner ride in on. He eyed the slumbering drunk, and chuckled.
"That was five dollars well spent...," He thought aloud of the ruse he'd initiated.
With a final smack to the cloaked torso, he got on his horse and made his way north, towards his payoff.
Josiah finished applying varnish to the wooden pulpit he was working on and tossed the cloth down. Easing up, he headed over towards the jug to get a drink of apple cider. He downed two mugs full before he saw a head through the window. He poured another mugful and walked down the aisle and opened the door.
"Last time I checked..."
Josiah sat down next to the forlorn figure and eyed the body carefully. If Buck had dark circles, usually it was punctuated by a lewd grin, bold laugh and bawdy story. These dark circles and shadows were accented by a pair of sullen dark eyes. He knew Buck felt guilty about Ezra being shot. Josiah also heard from Nathan that Ezra had lashed out at the tall, silent figure beside him. Knowing the large Wilmington heart, he winced inwardly, feeling its ache.
"You might want to move..." Buck said quietly.
"Cut it out, Buck." Josiah chastised. "It wasn't your fault. You did the right thing. If you hadn't moved outside, it could be Chris and Nate who went down. Would that be any better?"
"No...it's just..." Buck paused and took the cider the preacher offered and sipped it thoughtfully. "All I had to do was watch his back..."
"Seems to me Ezra had a choice too." Josiah guided, "He heard the gunfire. He could have left that table. Hell, he's the one who chose to sit there. How's beating yourself up over this helping any?" He waited and saw a glimmer in the dark blue eyes. He smacked the broadcloth shirt and hauled the younger man up. "Come on...idle hands are the devil's workshop."
An hour went by with the two men working to sand pews in the front of the church. Josiah paused to wipe the sweat off his face.
"He blames me..."
Josiah sighed at the unusual sound of a quiet Wilmington voice. "Come on Buck, this is Ezra...shouldering responsibility isn't his strong suit. More likely he's pissed off at being trapped at Nate's, and you caught the brunt of it. He's been cussin' up a storm at Nathan, now that man deserves a medal...don't know how he wasn't tempted to smother Ezra in his sleep. Lunchtime anyway...I told Nate I'd relieve him. I'm gonna get washed up, you get the tray from Inez."
Buck felt the large hand on his neck and relaxed a little. He watched Josiah leave and mulled over his words. Ezra tended to get caustic when he was hurt and had to rely on others to care for him. It still bothered Buck that Ezra fought the confines of friendship so hard. He wasn't aware he was passing the saloon until another voice interrupted.
"You look like shit, Buck."
"Huh?" Buck blinked and saw Chris Larabee in front of him. "Oh...hey Chris."
Chris frowned, not happy that the usual surly Wilmington reply didn't come back at him. He saw more than fatigue on Buck's face. He grabbed an arm and propelled him into the saloon. Sitting Buck at a table he signaled Inez.
"Two beers..." He said and settled into the chair next to the weary body. "You got a suit?"
"What?" Buck's head jerked up, his brows furrowed. "A suit?"
"Well," Chris sighed, dropping his hat on the table and running a hand through his short blond hair. "...just figured."
"Figured what?" Buck sat up, still puzzled, as Inez dropped the beers off.
"...be easier on the undertaker."
"It should have been me."
"It might be, if you keep this up. I'm likely to shoot you." Chris hissed and took a long sip. "It's been a week Buck...Hell, he wasn't even wounded that seriously. What's with you?"
"What if he was killed?"
"What if he was?" Chris repeated, scowling, "Chance we all take every day, Ezra included."
"He took that bullet for me, Chris..."
"He took that bullet because he was trying to swindle them businessmen and that lout Thomas." Chris directed. "He's the one who planted his ass there, nobody held a gun to his head. I knew who was going to fly through those doors and save me and Nate, snap out of it, Buck."
Actually Buck welcomed the harsh tone, it was Larabee's way of showing he cared. He knew Chris was worried. As if worrying about Vin wasn't bad enough...Vin. He sipped his beer and let a stray smile form. He remembered the day the prankster had stolen his clothes and he had to walk through town in pink bloomers. His mind's eyes drew up the wide-eyed innocent blue eyes that protested briefly, before Buck chased and caught him. Then the infectious Tanner laugh undid him. He chuckled out loud and cocked his head, lost in thought.
"...damn Texan...I'll pay you back for that..." He muttered.
Chris didn't know what caused the first smile in nearly a week from his oldest friend, but wasn't surprised that a Tanner memory was behind it. His green eyes drifted towards the saloon doors, almost expecting the lanky tracker to appear and subtly urge Wilmington out of his doldrums.
"He'll be back, Chris."
"Yeah..." Chris nodded and saw Josiah in the door.
"I'm coming..." Buck replied and signaled Inez. He dropped a large silver coin on the table and saw the green eyes raise. Inez appeared and handed him the tray. "That enough?"
"Si," She frowned and picked the coin up, staring at it. She bit it and Chris snorted.
"It's real..." Buck protested, and kicked at Chris's leg under the table. "It ain't that funny..."
"You will have to forgive me, Senor..." She said earnestly, "Are these not the kind you like to hide under Miss Lucy's..."
"Never mind about Miss Lucy..." Buck scowled and clapped his hat back on. He picked the tray up and moved by Josiah who was holding the batwing door open. Josiah's broad wink and grin matched those on Inez and Chris.
"I've been worried..." She said as the mustached man who stirred her left.
"Yeah..." Chris agreed. "He'll be okay."
"I hope so. I do not like this quiet...long face, which I have to look at." She decided and made her way back to the kitchen.
"Shhh!" Josiah warned Buck and pointed to Nate, who was sound asleep on a small cot by his medicine cabinet. The large preacher moved aside and waited, but Buck didn't enter. Josiah rolled his eyes and motioned with his head. Still Buck made no move to come inside. He'd avoided Ezra since the day before and still felt stung by the exile.
"Thank you kindly, for the welcomed addition of more flying insects." the patient drawled, "Either join the gathering of the winged pests or close the door."
"Afternoon to you too, Ez." Josiah boomed, setting the tray on the empty bed. He reached for the blanket and his hand was slapped. "I can hurt you, Ezra..." He warned.
"I am perfectly capable of rising on my own accord. For that matter..." "Shut up and get your feet moving." Josiah ordered, helping the Southerner up. He heard the audible gasp and felt the hands grip his forearms hard. "Got a seat reserved for you in the sun..." He sat the gasping man down and handed him a damp cloth. Ezra wiped his face and took a sip of the water Josiah offered. "Your welcome." He nodded, signing it with a grin.
"Must you enjoy my malady so much." Ezra imparted, annoyed at the himself for enjoying the smile.
"Yup." Josiah nodded and saw Ezra fighting not to grin. He turned and motioned and Buck brought the tray over.
"Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra's voice rose in surprise. Buck and Josiah both saw the startled green eyes drop their guard and heard the hint of longing in the soft voice. Josiah smiled and clapped Buck's shoulder. "I...I...uh...I wasn't aware of your presense, you are without the noxious scent of inexpensive perfume clinging to you."
"I gave up women." Buck deadpanned, "I'm joining the priesthood."
Josiah saw Ezra's lips quirk and the smile fight it's way forward. Finally a chuckle ensued and Buck's warm voice joined it. He saw the two lock gazes, the apology written loudly in Ezra's eyes and the relief in Buck's. Ezra snagged Buck's arm as the large man turned to go.
"Care to join me?"
"You sure?" Buck hesitated.
"I am not in the habit of repeating my intentions. The offer was clear enough...I..." He paused, chastising himself, then got an idea. "We have matters to discuss."
"Matters?" Buck puzzled, slipping into the vacant seat. "What matters?"
"For one thing, there is the matter of you replacing my vest and..."
"Your vest?" Buck scoffed, taking a ham sandwich from the plate and a dollop of potato salad. "Took care of that ...Babette fixed it, you can't even find the hole."
"Babette?" Ezra grimaced, swallowed a mouthful of Chicken stew. "Where on earth did you acquire a 'Babette'?"
"She's new...came two days ago, all the way from New Orleans. She don't talk much English...but with a body like that, she don't have to."
"The voice of experience..." Ezra sighed, "I take it you and this latest paramour of yours are well acquainted?" He eyed the dark head shake and studied the shadows lurking on it. He'd gotten an ear bashing from the others about how Buck was suffering and saw every guilt-ridden feature clearly. "If you are desire to become more familiar with this young woman, returning to the world of the living should be your first step. There is no reason for you to resist sleep and food...especially since your upcoming endeavors will require a well-rested body."
"Endeavors?" Buck frowned, narrowing his eyes.
"Yes...there is still the matter of the large amount of capital I am expecting from your proposal in saloon. This will require some extra-curricular activity on your part to earn adequate funding." He saw Buck's hand waiver and the already pale skin go ashen. "Of course..." He slid in, "if you would rather indulge in a game of cards..." He paused and saw the start of a smile forming. "I know a gentlemen such as yourself will not take advantage of a man in my condition."
"I keep a open heart for blind cripples," Buck raised his head and smiled, catching the glint in Standish's eye. "...not for Southern windbags." He moved the empty tray and rummaged through Ezra's discarded jacket, producing a deck of cards. " He extended his hand with the cards in it and felt the injured man's hand clasp his firmly.
"Thank you, Mr...Buck." Ezra replied, grasping the extended hand, the cards forgotten. "...please forgive my previous disposition. A gentlemen should never allow himself to become so..."
"Aw, hell, Ace," Buck boomed, relief overwhelming, "Quit jawin' and deal...and no fancy moves."
"Are you insinuating that I would stoop to underhanded methods in order to gain an advantage?"
"Hell yeah..." Buck nodded, his grin matching the others, like a Cheshire cat.
Josiah watched from the doorway and nodded, then made his way back to the Saloon. He grabbed a couple sandwiches from the tray Inez left on the bar and made his way to Chris Larabee's table. He had half of one sandwich done and one beer down, when the silent gunslinger spoke.
"How'd it go?"
"They're back to bickering like an old married couple." Josiah replied. "...everything's back in balance."
"Not everything." Chris said quietly, glad that Buck was healed, but his heart was elsewhere.
"He'll come home, Chris. He gave me his word." The preacher recalled of the note.
"I don't know...I've had a bad feeling all day..."
"We'll catch her, Chris. Them Pinkerton men are pretty good at tracking." "They don't know her like I do...she's up to something, I can feel it." Chris ended the conversation, draining his beer and leaving.
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