Summary: When Mary Travis discovers an ancient Indian amulet, her search into its past awakens a death cult determined to recover it all costs.
WARNING: Period-specific gun violence.
Fourth story in the "Seven Scrolls" series. Follows One of Those Days.
Legends never die.
They are carried from generation to generation until the moment of its first telling fades so far into memory it becomes as one of the great mysteries. While the tale becomes legend, the message that forms its truth is often forgotten. Tales that speak the shaping of the world usually are. They are carried across the sea to new lands, to be told around new campfires to become the legends of the undiscovered country.
Of the legends, it is the story of the Three Worlds that endures through all its telling. Reality rests on the triumvirate of the Three Worlds, for it would be unthinkable if there were only one. There is the Upper World, where the sun god sits in judgement with the creatures of the air and where all goods spirits will someday soar. There is This World, where all living things exist through the seasons of time until their mortal cloak is finally shed. Those who have lived well need not fear the summoning to the Under World, where Uktena waits in anticipation of evil souls to feed his hungry minions.
It is said the Upper World and the Under World are in constant battle, where Falcon Warriors of each army wage war to shift the balance in favor of the other. Their battlefield is This World and in this, unfortunately, placed realm, the shape of all things is decided by endless matches between the forces of light and darkness, between the Sun God and Uktena.
And we, in This World can only watch and pray that neither shall win because it would be unthinkable if there were only one...
Mary Travis was not one for antiques.
It was distaste cultivated from her youthful days in Boston where every street corner seemed to boast at least one such establishment. Her mother used to love antiques as was the custom of most well-bred society ladies. By the time she was sixteen, Mary had come to cringe at the sight of a dusty Victorian chair or the reference to anything Elizabethan or Tudor in the context of furniture. Coming out West, she was grateful to leave behind such places as the aesthetic of vintage objects had yet to reach the Territory.
Thus it was to Mary's mild surprise she learned Bitter Creek had an antique shop. Out in the rugged West, antiques seemed to be an ill-advised investment. The climate was merciless to expensive furniture as the summer heat was inclined to warp ageing wood. While she had an eye for paintings, the variety found in antique shops were seldom of any quality that impressed her enough for purchase.
"I think my mother would like this," Inez declared, studying the vase from several different angles as she held it up to the light. Mary was tempted to remind her that ceramic had no watermark to speak of and would offer no insight as to its make or value at exposure to sunlight.
"It's pretty." Mary decided the tactful response was probably the best. Personally, there were too many flowers on the design for Mary's liking but then the excessively ornate pattern was not to her taste. She preferred her vases to come in simple colors with a mother of pearl luster when possible.
"I think I will take it," Inez said decisively and tucked the object under her arm as she went to the shop owner to haggle a price.
Knowing just how voracious Inez could be when it came to bargain hunting, Mary decided she would forgo the carnage and began wandering through the narrow aisles cluttered with trinkets, furniture and other decorative items. Other than some silver handled brushes and a grossly overpriced cameo, little caught Mary's interest. In truth, she had come to Bitter Creek to pick up printing supplies and had invited Inez to come with her for the company. She knew Inez wanted to do some shopping for an upcoming visit with her family and thought it might be nice to make a day of it.
After Mary bought the supplies needed at the local stationer, the two women enjoyed lunch at a local restaurant and then spent the rest of the afternoon browsing through the shops. Although she was not an extravagant shopper by any means, Mary bought herself some nice things and picked up some good Sunday clothes for Billy. She doubted whether her son would appreciate the effort considering how Billy felt about sitting still for even a moment, let alone an entire morning. Nevertheless, it was her responsibility to make sure that Billy was raised with some semblance of a Christian upbringing. A hard enough task on its own when the only male influence in his life happened to be a brooding and somber gunslinger with a penchant for black clothes and an almost monosyllabic vocabulary.
While Inez's gentle arguing with the antique store owner faded into the background, Mary let her gaze move across the items gathering dust in their display cabinets. Judging by the thickness of the dust, Mary was convinced the trade in antiques in Bitter Creek was less than a booming industry and the store itself saw little traffic. She suddenly had an insight that Inez would get the bargain she desired. Instinctively, Mary glanced over her shoulder and saw the weary old man sigh in unspoken defeat from behind his steel-rimmed glasses.
Mary allowed herself a faint smile as the peak of the negotiation seemed to have levelled off and was descending clearly in Inez's favor. She made a mental note to bring the sultry woman the next time she needed supplies for the printing press. After dealing with saloon clientele, Inez's ability to detect a con from a mile away could not be underestimated. This was what came of having Ezra Standish as her business partner.
Sensing that the transaction was very near completion, Mary was about to join Inez when suddenly, something caught her attention from the corner of her eye. It was little more than a blur of iridescent color that would have been easily missed had she blinked. However, as it stood, Mary turned back in curiosity. She took a step forward and located the object immediately. It was lying next to a silver picture frame on top of a cabinet. The reflection from the polished surface reflected the object's bluish hue in her direction.
Its location into the store indicated to Mary the object neither the faith of value or demand placed upon it. At first, Mary had no idea what it was. It was as odd an object as she had ever seen in her life. No larger than her hand, it was meant for ornamental purposes only, but its design was like nothing she had ever seen. Mary picked it up and blew the fine layer of dust from it. As she rubbed some of the more stubborn dirt from the smooth surface, she immediately guessed it was a made from seashell. Although it retained some iridescence, age had worn most of it away.
Mary studied it closely, unable to fathom what culture could have made this. She had seen Indian relics before, but this object resembled nothing like those she had seen. It was neither Navajo nor Cheyenne but the more she inspected it, the more she realized it was definitely of Indian origin. Shaped like two hands placed side by side, the creases of fingers were carved clearly on each digit. However, its oddest feature was what appeared to be eyes carved in the center of each palm. She also noticed that there were two carved holes at the base of the object, beneath the wrist of the sculpted hands. The holes were tiny and for a moment, Mary wondered what their purpose might have been. Suddenly it came to her.
It was certainly small enough, and that would explain the puncture holes through the shell. The more she thought about it, the more sense it made. Perhaps it was a good luck charm of some sort. Eyes were carved into the shell with stones set in place for irises. Mary held it up to the light and where it caught the sunlight perfectly, revealing multi-faceted stones that did glow like sapphire but were most likely crystals of some description.
"Are you ready Mary?" She heard Inez's voice suddenly asked and Mary was so lost in her examination that she jumped at the sound of Inez' words.
"I'm sorry," Mary muttered as she felt her heart recovering from the momentary jolt. "I didn't hear you behind me."
"Obviously." Inez smiled and noticed the pendant in Mary's hand. "What is that?"
Mary looked at it herself and found herself shaking her head in answer. "I have no idea." She said honestly and showed it to Inez. "Lovely isn't it?"
Inez gave her a skeptical look indicating otherwise. "If you say so."
"Hey, I said your vase was nice," Mary remarked with mock hurt.
"I'm not that good a liar." Inez winked. "You like that thing?"
Mary returned her attention to the pendant and studied it further. She could not explain her fascination with it for it appeared she was the only one who saw anything extraordinary in its irregular design. Yet Mary could not bring herself to return it to its place on the display cabinet. The notion of letting it languish in this antique store for all eternity bothered her.
Okay, not for an eternity but she did not want anyone else owning it. To them, it would always be a curiosity but Mary Travis saw something special. Instinct told her there was more to this item than met the eye and she was suddenly very interested in unlocking the secrets to its origins. Mary knew she was being impulsive because, for all she knew really, it could be little more than a worthless relic from some Indian's medicine pouch. However, the possibility that it may not have that simple an explanation was tantalizing.
"I guess I do," Mary answered finally.
"Okay," Inez sent a furtive look at the shop owner who was behind his counter. "But let me do the talking when we pay for it. Whatever it's worth, I'm sure I can get him down to half."
"I can't believe it," Mary declared some hours later when they returned to Four Corners. She was still in shock at the wolverine ruthlessness Inez displayed when haggling over the price of her pendant. Mary was certain the owner was close to tears and even closer to barring them from his premises permanently in the future. Every point he brought up to justify the cost of the trinket was effectively countered by Inez with the skill of a master tactician. It was really quite something to see.
"Were you always like this?" She looked at Inez as they left the livery behind after Homer her horse was stabled.
"Not really," Inez replied considering the question. "I just picked it up as I went."
It was true. When she was travelling from town to town, hiding from Don Paulo, Inez had to think fast on her feet. However, in running away from home without any income of her own, she was forced to learn fast to keep herself from falling into ruin. Unfortunately, whatever town she happened upon, Inez learned that most respectable establishments had little need of employing an unattached Mexican woman with a past. Having no wish to sacrifice the virtue she'd become a fugitive to keep, she sought employment in saloons and bars before her arrival in Four Corners.
"It's easy when you are alone and have only this to rely on." She gestured to her head. "I suppose." Mary could not disagree with that assessment considering the proof of it was evident. "I've just never seen any antique store owner forced to admit he bought my pendant from an old Indian for practically nothing. Normally, they come up with something a little more extravagant. It drives the price of the piece upward if there is some colorful history to go with it." Mary replied, remembering some of the tall tales her mother believed when she was being conned into buying a particularly expensive bauble.
"Let us say I knew he was bluffing," Inez remarked. Being a student of Ezra's card games in the saloon taught Inez much. The gunslinger and con man had the real gift, and when he spoke about how he sized up opponents during his infamous poker games, Inez found herself paying attention. Without even realizing it, Inez was soon able to tell which one of his poker opponents was going to bluff or call. While she would never dream of applying it in a similar situation, she found the skill allowed her to become the bane of merchants across Four Corners and now Bitter Creek.
"Well thank you," Mary said gratefully. "I think I would have strained my pocketbook somewhat if I had paid full price for it. I must admit, he was asking quite a bit for it."
"I had a sense of what he was about," Inez replied as they turned down the main street of Four Corners. The sun was starting to set in the distance and the town seemed bathed in an amber glow. While there were still people on the street, the afternoon crowd was starting to thin as the local merchants began closing up shop after the day's trading.
"He bought it for nothing and was hoping to make a profit because it looked so unusual," Inez concluded. She glanced at the town clock and took note of the time. Ezra must be becoming tired of manning the bar by now. Inez hoped she would have time for a bath as the ride from Bitter Creek had left her feeling rest than refreshed. Knowing her partner well, she had no doubt Ezra was itching to be at the card table taking bets.
"I had a good day anyway," Mary smiled warmly at Inez.
"Me too," Inez returned the smile with one just as bright. "Thank you for inviting me."
Since her arrival in town some months ago, Mary Travis and Inez had struck quite a close friendship, and it was the subject of much gossip among the locals. Most people found it odd that a pillar of the community like Mary Travis could have anything in common with Inez, the only female employed at the saloon who was not a working girl. Although liked by most folks who came to know her, Inez was a woman with a checkered history and therefore someone to be viewed with caution by the more respectable members of the community.
Anyone who knew both women personally could say the unlikely friendship between Mary and Inez was inevitable for they were both strong-willed and in possession of fiery spirits. They defied convention by their daily occupation with Mary in her role as newswoman and Inez as a lady bartender. They were both unattached, businesswomen and they were, without doubt, two of the most beautiful women in Four Corners. However, despite their unorthodox lifestyle, Mary and Inez guarded their privacy fiercely as well as their reputations. While they sometimes pushed the envelope of protocol for feminine behavior, no one could impugn either lady's virtue.
"I have to go Sweetwater in a few weeks to get some parts for the press. Why don't you come with me? I do have to stay there the night, however." Mary suggested. "Do you have any trouble staying overnight?"
"I don't think so." Inez considered her eyes shifting to the saloon where the number of customers moving through the door was increasing in frequency. Judging by the music and noises emanating from the open doors, Inez decided the saloon was going to have a busy night. "I think I can rely on Josiah to keep an eye on things."
"Josiah?" Mary exclaimed wondering why Inez would put her faith in Josiah Sanchez. Although Josiah was one of the seven lawmen who protected Four Corners, he was mostly a preacher by trade. Mary could not see him running a saloon. "What about Ezra?"
Inez shifted uncomfortably. "I don't trust him."
"I thought you were business partners." Mary retorted, her confusion increasing.
"We are." Inez sighed. "Don't get me wrong, he's a wonderful friend but he does not handle responsibility well. I prefer Josiah look after things if I am going to be away for more than an afternoon. At least I know the saloon will still be there when I get back and not gambled away because of one of his strange schemes."
"Oh yes," Mary nodded in understanding, remembering all of Ezra Standish's insane schemes in vivid detail. "I did tell you about the time he tried to tutor working girls into becoming respectable society wives?"
"Uh huh," Inez recalled the story. "And the time that he tried to convince you to turn the schoolhouse fund into the Four Corners Casino project."
Mary and Inez met each other's eyes and had the same thought.
"Josiah it is."
"Howdy ladies." They heard Buck Wilmington's voice approaching from behind them. The tall cowboy was on his way to the saloon. "How was Bitter Creek?" Buck asked tipping his hat to both ladies but having eyes only for Inez, Mary noticed with a bemused smile.
"Quite enjoyable Mr. Wilmington," Mary answered, knowing Inez would not. The two had an odd sort of relationship. Buck was determined to win Inez's favor no matter how much she might wish otherwise. Mary who was privy to some fiery exchanges between the two suspected Inez might be sweeter on Buck than he knew. Still, that was an admission Inez would make once hell froze over. "We did a great deal of shopping."
"I am hardly surprised." He said with his boisterous grin. "You got enough boxes there." He gestured to the packages they were carrying.
Buck could be utterly charming when he wanted to be. Around Inez, he oozed it in every possible effort to win her affections. While Mary was sure that Inez was not as immovable as she seemed on the subject, it was his forward manner that made Inez hesitate. Despite her outgoing personality, Mary saw a very conservative upbringing in Inez's past. Inez did not offer herself to just anyone, and Buck's reputation with the ladies was alarming to any woman who did not wish to be considered just another notch on a long list of conquests.
"Anything interesting happened today?" Mary asked as they continued on their way. Buck who was going in the same direction, fell in step with them, taking up flank next to Inez.
"Not much," Buck answered. "Couple of drunks here and there but then we threw Chris in the jailhouse, and it was quiet."
Mary laughed shortly, trying to picture anyone throwing Chris Larabee into jail. Even drunk, he was known to be able to outgun most of the seven. However, she kept that observation to herself. "So I gather it was quiet.".
"Pretty much. Although everything seemed duller without you two lovely ladies around."
Mary rolled her eyes. She had miscalculated. She had given him at least 30 seconds more before he started using his tired repertoire of lines, in a renewed effort to draw Inez's attention.
And predictably, Inez rose to the occasion. "Oh please Senor Buck!" Inez groaned visibly.
"It's true!" Buck exclaimed meeting her gaze. He gave Inez, what Mary called his best 'puppy dog look'. "You know my heart just aches when I don't see you, Inez." He clutched his heart for emphasis.
Mary knew where this was going, and she decided she did not want to be present at the fireworks. No matter how entertaining it could sometimes be. She saw Inez blush furiously, even though it was difficult to tell with her coloring. The raven-haired siren straightened up and judging from her posture; Mary knew she was preparing to deliver a scathing rebuttal to Buck's declaration. It was time for the innocent bystanders to clear the area. Mary wondered if she should ring the church bell and tell everyone to leave the streets. Buck and Inez's verbal jousting was growing a strange sort of notoriety around town.
"Inez," Mary said hastily. "I'll see you later."
Inez barely heard Mary as her gaze was still locked with Buck's. Mary decided an answer was not really that important and started crossing the street towards the Clarion. As she heard the first sounds of artillery behind her, Mary Travis let out a sigh and shook her head with one thought in mind.
Their children were going to be very loud.
Chapter One: Ancient
Mary Travis dreamt.
It was black all around her. She could not see ahead and there was not enough space for her look behind her. She felt cold biting in her skin because there was a chill in the air. It wasn't the cold of winter but chill that came with dread. The kind of cold in the mists covering a battlefield the morning after the fighting. It felt like the cold of the grave.
Jagged rocks cut her hands but she kept crawling. An instinct she could not define forced her onwards and so her limbs, tired and bruised kept the struggle forward. She strained to see anything ahead but there was only the black and the sounds of what she had left behind. She could hear their call, soft, gentle whispers that beckoned her home with promises of delights upon her return. She knew not who or what they were but she knew they were lying.
How long had she had crawled. She could not remember. Time did not have any meaning to her. She only knew this journey once begun could not be halted. What lay in between was unimportant for the middle is always a neglected child. The need to crawl forward through the dark was more powerful as if everything depended on it. If she were to die, she could accept it only if she had completed the journey first.
The journey was everything.
Suddenly a pinprick of white appeared in the path ahead. She could not tell what it was only that it filled her heart with warmth. Seeing it made her crawl faster towards it. She didn't care her knees were screaming in protest, that her hands were torn and bleeding. All that mattered now was reaching the light. She saw it grow, until it was no longer a pinprick but a beacon calling out to her.
She began to feel the heat on her face, the closer she approached the light. Suddenly, the walls around her began to take shape and she realized she was crawling through a narrow tunnel of jagged obsidian. Memories of what she had left behind began to fade in her mind, slipping away like a dream. She could remember nothing of that place except it was gone and no longer existed for her.
Suddenly she reached the end of the tunnel and as her gaze pierced the powerful, canvas of blue overhead as she climbed out of the passageway, she saw she had come to a new place. Her eyes were unaccustomed to the light but it did not matter if she viewed her new world through squinting eyes. Colors filled her consciousness where none ever existed before. She saw green for the first time in her existence. Green that inflamed the trees and covered the ground in shades of vibrancy that was almost overwhelming. Blue stilled her breath and it ran across the land in silken waves of water and a canopy of sky.
However, it was the orb of gold fixed supremely over all that captured her attention. She did not know what it was but she knew it held minion over life and death, over everything she had known and would ever know. Tears ran down her cheeks as she stared into its fiery depths, trying to see past its brilliance in the hope of understanding what it was that had compelled her here.
You are the first.
She did not understand.
You are the first to come here.
This World. It answers with gentle humor. For there cannot be only one.....
Mary woke up the next morning feeling as if she had not slept at all. She staggered out of bed unable to fathom what brought on such a restless night. Throughout the night, she had awoken abruptly with the fading tendrils of cryptic dreams withdrawing into the dark recesses of her mind. Mary was normally a sound sleeper. Her days were so crowded at times, that there were occasions when she literally fell into bed with exhaustion.
On those occasions her dreams were pleasant and she hardly remembered them. They were nothing like the marathon of fear and foreboding that plagued her the night before. At one point, she climbed out of her bed and padded down to her kitchen in the dead of night to prepare herself some warm milk. Mary hoped it could soothe the imaginings of her stormy subconscious mind. Unfortunately, despite the fact the milk had settled her, they did not produce the desired effect. No sooner than after Mary's head had hit the pillows again, did the same dreams repeat their visitation.
She was not usually a late sleeper but when she finally awoke, to her dismay, Mary realized it was almost ten o'clock. It was a situation that did not sit well with the young widow to realize she had stayed in bed for most of the morning. She had a ton of work to get through today, including the distribution of the papers and a number of errands to run that would now be delayed by a late start.
Begrudgingly, she forced herself out of her bed and got dressed. Despite the late start, she did not intend to sacrifice the rest of the day. However awful she felt.
It was an atypical day in the town of Four Corners. Atypical in that, it was only one of small towns scattered across the rugged wilderness known as the Territory in heart of the new West, currently enduring an unseasonably hot summer. When the July heat was at its most formidable, the town inhabitants would wonder whether the decision to clear the land completely during the town's erection was such a good idea after all. The lack of trees was never felt more profoundly than during the summer, when the temperatures rose so acutely that the heat was reflected off the dirt streets in waves.
Most of Four Corners opted wisely to stay indoors utilizing the shade they would have otherwise enjoyed from the absent trees. The day progressed lethargically, with a general air of boredom resting over the town like the afternoon sunshine. Old men sat in the chairs provided outside the general store, taking advantage of the awning as they spent a lazy afternoon watching people go by. Younger men were drawn to the saloon where the promise of alcohol and other entertainment's made them easy prey. Children on the other hand were at the local river, delighting in frivolous abandon of youth to which their older counterparts could only envy.
The majority of townsfolk who ignored the constraints of the weather were largely the female population of Four Corners. Their immediate concerns over the errands they needed to perform transcended any thought of the hot day outside their domestic world. They went about their business, as usual, stopping to gossip when the need took them, but generally oblivious to the heat except when it arose in conversation.
Despite her morning, Mary had managed to catch up on all the work delayed by her late awakening. Although she felt like a thousand miles of bad road, she would have been gratified to know her secret was safe from the majority of Four Corners. To her neighbors, she looked as perfect and composed as always.
She walked along the wooden sidewalk, carrying a stack of papers published under the name of the Clarion News. Normally, the paper was distributed by means of a few local boys whom she employed for the purpose. However, on occasion, Mary did not mind doing the chore herself. There was only one thing worse than being forced to work on a hot day when she felt miserable and that was working indoors on a hot day when she felt miserable.
Mary strolled beneath the shade of the shop awnings, taking in the sight of the merchandise behind the shop windows. She felt a measure of pride knowing this booming community was her home and its progress gave her a sense of accomplishment. Memories of the years spent here flashed in her mind, interrupted occasionally by someone who wanted a paper. She remembered Four Corners when it was so dangerous it wasn't safe to walk the streets as she was doing now.
Mary too had been different back then. When Steven was alive, she had hidden behind his protection, relying on him to make all the important decisions in her life. Like Four Corners, Mary had evolved into something strong and resilient.
Still, she couldn't deny craving the excitement that came from living in a place like this, despite its harsh realities. She was always at her best when there was a challenge to overcome and she was proud of what she tried to accomplish in Four Corners. Mary had come to the West with her late husband out of mutual love of adventure. Life in Boston suited neither one of them and Four Corners was a chance to build something they could be proud.
Of course, life rarely transpired the way it should and Mary now found herself alone, having buried Steven a few short years ago. The sum of their marriage had amounted to their son Billy, and a newspaper that played an important part in the growing community of Four Corners. It would have been simpler to give in after his death and admit defeat, however, Mary couldn't submit to a mundane existence. She demanded excitement and enjoyed the newfound independence once she stopped mourning for Steven.
Nevertheless, despite her confidence in herself, Mary could not ignore Steven was murdered and it was a fate she would not risk for her son. Billy came home to her during his school holidays but for the most part, he resided with his grandparents. Although Four Corners was safer than it used to be, there was much to be done before Mary was confident enough to have Billy return to her permanently.
Mary looked up to see the only other uncertainty in her life, the gunslinger Chris Larabee standing before her. She must have been day dreaming quite deeply if she had managed to let him come right up to her without noticing. Chris Larabee was not a man who was easily ignored or missed. Always dressed in black, he moved through town as undisputed leader of the seven men guarding Four Corners. Although most of the citizenry viewed Chris with fear, there could be no doubt since his arrival into town, life in the town was much more secure.
To Mary Travis, he was a source of great consternation as well as fascination.
"Hello, Mr. Larabee." She responded politely. "I thought you'd be with the rest of your friends away from this weather." Her gaze touched the saloon briefly.
"I needed some fresh air." He said shortly. "Besides, I get tired of watching Buck getting shot down by Inez." He added in that silky voice of his.
Mary laughed at Buck's misfortune. "I decided to forgo yesterday's round. Did we have a clear winner?"
"Not really," Chris shook his head. "Although you could call the game hers after she threw that vase at him.'
"You never know Mr. Larabee, persistence may win the day. Some women like the chase."
"Buck's chasing all right," Chris sighed. "Like a hungry dog after a bone."
Mary looked at him with a raised brow. "A word of advice?"
"There's a first time for everything."
"I would refrain from letting Inez hear that analogy. No woman wants to be called a bone."
He chuckled softly and the sound seemed alien coming from him. Chris Larabee did not laugh often but when he did, Mary decided she liked how it sounded. His intense blue eyes shifted to the stack of papers she was carrying and Mary tried hard not become lost in its icy depths. Although she was still uncertain of what he meant to her, personal magnetism he generated in his cool, deliberate manner made her just as susceptible as the next woman to its aura.
"I'll carry that." Chris stepped forward and liberated her of the papers. As always, he did not ask. He merely stated his intention and then did it. Mary learned long ago, not to argue over minor points although she could not count the number of times when she held firm. Their battle of wills was almost legendary as Buck and Inez's ongoing feuds.
Chris fell into stride with her, never meeting her eyes unless he had to, as they continued walking through town.
When she first met him, Mary confessed the gunslinger intimidated her. His reputation was notorious and the way other men seemed to stand aside for him reaffirmed the fact. However, there was a side to Chris Larabee Mary found touching. Few knew he was a man mourning a wife and child, whose loss had affected him so profoundly he was still unable to come to grips with it. That part Mary understood all too well.
"I got a letter from Billy today." She said brightly. "He'll be home in a month or so. I'm sure he wrote just so that I'd remind you that you promised to take him fishing the next time he came home."
For the first time, Mary saw a genuine smile steal across the man's dispassionate features. Since Billy's first return from his grandparents, her son formed an unlikely friendship with the gunslinger. In truth, Billy utterly adored Chris the way he loved no one since Steven's death. In some ways, both boy and man filled a void in each other left empty for far too long.
It comforted Mary to know that there was a man in her son's life and he would die protecting Billy if the need ever arose. Chris had already proved his protection did not merely extend to her son. How many times had he come to her rescue? Mary could no longer count the times when this man who appeared indifferent to everyone else, became the only person on whom she could depend upon entirely.
Theirs was a strange relationship.
"Let me know before he gets into town," Chris replied, snapping Mary out of her reverie. "I'll take him fishing up my place. There's a good spot."
"Just don't spoil him. I have to live with him, you know."
Chris smiled faintly and met her gaze directly. "I'll keep it in mind."
Secretly, he had no intention of doing so but he did not wish to tell the boy's mother that. Despite himself, Chris looked forward to Billy's visits to Four Corners. Billy reminded him of different time and place when he had taken another boy fishing.....
The memory of Adam and Sarah flashed so hotly in his mind that for a moment, Chris could hardly breathe. Outwardly, he showed no signs of his emotional turmoil to the beautiful widow beside him. With practiced control, Chris crushed the emotion into submission.
They continued their walk saying very little to one another as people came up to get copies of the Clarion. However, Mary's relationship with Chris Larabee was like that. Their conversations were always short and to the point but there was an underlying tension that was hard to deny. Occasionally, he would surprise her though and ask a question that would take her completely unprepared. Mary was almost certain he derived some pleasure from doing so.
"You seemed far away back then." He said not looking at her. For some reason, she noticed that he avoided looking into her eyes when he could help it. Mary wondered what he saw there.
"I guess I was." She admitted as they started back to Clarion's office. "I was thinking about how much Four Corners has changed since Steven and I came here from Boston. Actually, now that I think of it, I don't think any of my friends from Boston would recognize me either."
For some reason, there was a sudden shift in his mood when she said that. Mary caught the glimmer of something in his eyes that vanished almost as quickly. "I guess you miss it."
"I do." Mary nodded. "Although I could not imagine leaving Four Corners." She responded, putting an end to the unspoken question he would not ask. "I buried Steven here and I owe him too much to pack up and leave. Besides," she said with a wry smile. "My life is here."
Her words seemed to satisfy him for she saw the tension in his jaw relax a bit. As usual, he showed neither happiness or otherwise over her answer but Mary's intuition told her it did matter to him. Once again, they were the impasse all their conversations eventually arrived, poised on the edge of something neither could articulate. Still, they were friends and both would be surprised if they were aware how much it meant to one another.
"Well thank you Mr. Larabee." Mary said graciously when he had escorted her back to the Clarion. He had carried the papers for even though there were only a few copies left of the edition. "I appreciate the help."
"I can't let you do everything." He drawled with a hint of mischief in his voice. "You do more than any woman is supposed to already."
The remark was meant to irritate her. As always, Mary Travis rose to the occasion. "I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, Mr. Larabee." Her eyes burned in indignation. "I had been doing quite well before you happened along."
"I'm sure you were." He said enjoying her annoyance.
She was at her best when suitably riled. Her cheeks would flush pink and those beautiful eyes would blaze with the passion. Mary kept her passionate side as deeply hidden as he buried his emotions. He wondered how much of a nudge it would take to draw part of her to the surface. When she was provoked, Chris enjoyed sitting back and reveling in the display.
She made a small sound of outrage because she was certain he was merely being condescending. "Good day Mr. Larabee." She said sharply and disappeared through the door of the office, slamming it hard behind her.
He turned away, completely satisfied that Mary had not disappointed him.
"Where is our fearless leader on this balmy day?" Ezra Standish, gambler, con man and gunslinger extraordinaire inquired to the rest of the group the town of Four Corners had labelled the Magnificent Seven. Like most of the men in town, the seven minus Chris Larabee sought refuge from the heat within the confines of Ezra's saloon, where the drinks were plentiful and the heat a minor consideration.
"I think he's with Mrs. Travis." JD Dunne replied. As the duly appointed sheriff, JD was the youngest member of the seven. He had travelled across the country from New York. Following a dream of becoming a real-life gunslinger like those he read in the dime store novels of his youth. Cocky and brash, JD had dreams of becoming as accomplished a gunslinger like the rest of his older and more experienced companions.
"Now that's an interesting combination." Ezra responded in turn, studying his cards carefully. While he found Mrs. Travis highly attractive, she was too straight-laced for his tastes. Despite viewing his mother's appearances with an unhealthy balance of trepidation and anxiousness, Ezra wanted a woman possessing her better qualities.
Maude Standish was as complex a woman as any Ezra had ever known in his travels. She was elegant and refined but hidden beneath her lace draperies and linen was nothing less than steel. He had seen her smile her most radiant while completely aware beneath those blue eyes, schemes were being hatched to which Machiavelli would have been proud.
Nevertheless he loved her and he sought someone not entirely unlike her. Although in Ezra's case, he wished the steel would come with a trace of compassion, a quality he was uncertain his mother possessed.
"The Lord works in mysterious ways." Josiah Sanchez sighed, deciding the cards he had been dealt were definitely not worth the gambling. "I fold." The ex-preacher declared, conceding defeat by throwing his cards on the felt-covered table.
Buck who was the last player at the table was barely listening to the conversation. His attention was focused elsewhere on the sultry woman who tended bar. Inez noticed his eyes following her and she flicked a tendril of dark hair away from her cheek, knowing it would drive him insane with longing. She did so with an alluring smile that bordered almost on flirtation. She knew she ought not to tease him this way but Buck made it so easy sometimes. After their public display yesterday, she wanted him to suffer. Although it was probably not a good idea for her to have thrown her mother's vase at him.
"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra called out. "Are you in or are you out?"
"What?" Buck turned around quickly and faced his fellow players, remembering what he was doing. "Yeah, yeah I'm in. Keep your britches on." He said slightly annoyed but could not resist another glance over his shoulder at Inez who was now bored with the by-play and had returned her attention to the paying customers.
"Would you get your mind off Inez already?" Vin Tanner said with similar irritation. He was waiting to be played into the next game and Buck was holding things up being so distracted. Vin was only a few years older than JD but his eyes revealed they were poles apart. Vin who had been alone for most of his life appeared little more than a mountain man, with his clothes made of skin and his hair worn long. In truth, he had been many things during his lifetime, tracker, buffalo hunter, bounty hunter and now unofficial lawmen of Four Corners. If anything, Vin seemed like a younger version of Chris Larabee, except he was not as driven or as embittered.
Buck scanned his cards quickly and found little that was worth betting. "I'm done." He growled and tossed his cards on the table in a gesture of surrender.
"Well Mr. Dunne," Ezra said with a widening grin that almost bordered on the predatory. "I guess the gamble is between us."
JD shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Like everything else, he had little experience gambling and was struggling to learn the lessons taught by Ezra and the others. He knew he had a good hand but Ezra's confidence weakened his resolve. It was not so much the money he hated losing but once again being bested by a more experienced player. It seemed as if he was always being outdone by everyone else in the group. He looked at the sizeable pot in the center of the table and then at Ezra, who seemed unconcerned by his hesitation.
"I fold.' He groaned, subconsciously aware that it was a mistake. The cards fell down and were open to everyone's scrutiny.
"Are you crazy?" Buck exclaimed as he saw three Jacks staring at him with as much stunned disbelief as he felt. "You never throw in three of a kind!"
"What's done is done, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra smiled triumphantly and laid down his cards for all to see.
As he did so, everyone else at the table groaned with disbelief but not as much as JD when he saw what he had folded against. "Two pair!" He exclaimed. "You got a lousy two pair?"
"It's the size of the bluff that matters, Mr. Dunne," Ezra replied reaching for the stack of bills in the middle of the table. "Not the cards."
"I know but two pair?" JD repeated again, his voice had raised an octave when he attempted to overcome his astonishment. Meanwhile, the others laughing around him deepened his embarrassment.
Knowing how easily a young man's ego could bruise, Ezra leaned forward and said sympathetically. "If it makes you feel any better Mr. Dunne, I was not entirely sure you were going to buy my ruse. I expect you will see through my charade the next time you pick up the gauntlet."
Although it was not exactly an admission of his skill, the ploy worked well enough to bring appease JD somewhat. "I sure won't." He replied but did not sound at all confident that he would. However, the gesture Ezra made was not lost on JD.
"I got start my rounds." He vacated his seat for Vin. "I'll catch up with you guys later." With that, JD walked out of the saloon whistling.
"Ezra, you are getting soft in your old age," Josiah said smoothly, patting the man on his tailored back once JD was out of earshot.
Ezra merely shrugged. Despite his debonair attitude, Ezra liked keeping his sentimental side to himself. However, he did have to confess to having a soft spot for JD because of his youth. In many ways, they had become the boy's surrogate family since his arrival from the East. The fact JD admired every one of them as if they were something special instead of the rabble-rousing bunch they was, touched each man, more than they would care to admit. "I merely pacify to take the boy's money another day."
"Sure, Ezra." Vin did not believe him for one moment.
Ezra merely smiled to himself, not wishing to indulge Josiah's inclinations any more than necessary. Instead, he concentrated on meting out the appropriate number of cards to the players around the table.
"I'm telling you," Buck whispered as he picked up his card and looked at Inez once again. The lady was oblivious to his observations as she had a thirsty number of patrons to deal with. Buck took in the sight of her, knowing that his determination to win the lady had more to do with just a passing fancy. "She's starting to fall to my charms."
"Give it up." Vin rolled his eyes, glancing at Inez and then back to Buck again. "The woman has not shown you the time of days since she arrived, even after you almost got your idiot self killed by the Don Paulo bastard."
Buck was not to be deterred. "Yeah, but she did kiss me didn't she?"
"Learn to tell the difference between gratitude and love Buck," Ezra reiterated.
In truth, Ezra did not really know what Inez felt about Buck. His own relationship with her was purely platonic. He found her an unusual wit and a more spirited woman was not to be found anywhere, perhaps except for Mary Travis. However, he liked keeping Inez as a friend rather than a lover. Business relationships operated much more efficiently with those boundaries in place.
"She's like a spirited animal," Buck grinned as he started discarding his unwanted cards in the pile allocated for the purpose. "She just needs breaking in."
Ezra shook his head in disbelief at the man's persistence while Josiah opted to roll his eyes in resignation. Vin however, did neither. He looked at Buck and remarked. "Buck?"
"Yeah?" Buck looked up from his cards.
"Shut up and play."
Chris walked into the saloon and saw his friends at their usual table, playing cards and enjoying each other's company. He had seen JD a short while ago, when the boy made his obligatory rounds of the town in his capacity as sheriff. The saloon was full today and Chris scanned the faces in the room, trying to see if anyone present could pose any trouble. After a moment, he decided there was little of which to be concerned. The collection in the saloon was mostly made up of bored husbands passing their time while their wives did the shopping at the local merchants. There was the odd drifter here and there; a ranch hand or two who was taking a well-deserved break from the afternoon sun during an undisclosed cattle rail.
Realistically, if there was anyone in town who could be considered a bad element at this time, it would Chris Larabee himself.
He made his way to the bar where Inez was holding court with a number of thirsty men who were waiting impatiently for their drinks. They stepped aside, however, when he reached the counter. Chris was accustomed to their caution after spending almost a year in town. At least the citizens of Four Corners were no longer terrified of him since Chris and his band had proved themselves to be adept lawmen who kept the town safe.
"What can I get you, Chris?" Inez inquired radiating an alluring smile, made more so because she was not even trying.
Inez immediately reached for a tall bottle of amber liquid situated on the shelves behind her. She produced a glass from under the counter when Chris added further. "Just leave the bottle." He instructed.
The woman sighed, trying to hide her disapproval of his drinking habits. Inez spent so much time in the company of the seven since she had become a partner in the business, she felt a certain amount of friendship towards them. As always, Chris was the hardest to read among the seven but she observed enough to know that he drank way too much for his own wellbeing.
"You're going to kill yourself drinking in bottles." She pointed out.
"I can think of worse ways to go."
Inez rolled her eyes, indicating that he was beyond hope and then turned back to the customers waiting for her attention. Chris allowed himself a bemused smile as he picked up the glass and bottle and joined his friends at their table.
"Howdy Chris." Vin greeted, not looking up from his cards. "Did you manage to get Deacon settled in?"
"He's tucked in at Eagle Bend like a baby," Chris said pouring himself a glass of whiskey.
"Anything happened I ought to know about?"
Chris had been gone from Four Corners for most of the day. He had ridden out early this morning to deliver Deacon Wells, an unsuccessful bank robber who had made a try for the Four Corners branch, to Eagle Bend where he would await trial. Since Deacon had been shot in the leg during the robbery, he had posed little resistance when he was finally arrested and taking him to Eagle Bend required only one of them.
"Just the usual," Josiah answered. "Buck and Inez doing their mating dance.'
"Very funny." Buck scowled at the gambler. "How is Mrs. Travis today?" The tall man inquired casting an inquisitive glance at Chris. The suggestive gleam in Buck's eyes was not lost on Chris who did not appreciate the innuendo.
"She's alright." He replied with a hint of warning for Buck to let the matter rest with that.
"Where is Nathan today?" Josiah inquired. No one had seen the tall black man who was the only medical authority in Four Corners.
"He said something about fixing Dan Stoner's teeth. He had to ride out there to Stoner's place at first light. I think he'll be gone for most of the day."
"Ouch." Buck flinched at the thought. He had never liked dentistry in any shape or form even though much of his charm relied upon his winning smile.
"At least he has something to do." Josiah sighed. Although he should have been hard at work, restoring his church, the ex-preacher could not drag himself under the hot sun to continue the job he had set for himself. It was not to say that he had not made any progress at all. It was just the work could become tedious and Josiah's failing as a priest was mostly his inability to cope with impatience. To the others he was as calm as any man of the cloth but only Josiah knew for certain, how much of a facade that was. He was just as eager as any of them for adventure. He just had trouble admitting it.
"Hello, Mary." They heard Inez greet and Chris immediately looked towards the batwing doors and saw it swinging back and forth as Mary walked towards their table.
"Hi, Inez." Mary greeted momentarily but it was obvious she had come here to see the lawmen.
A chorus of polite responses greeted Mary when she reached their table. It was not her habit to come into the saloon but she knew that if she wanted to speak to any one of the seven, this was the most likely place to find them. After her conversation with Chris earlier, it was obvious they were not going to spend a hot afternoon in the jailhouse. Like the rest of the men in Four Corners, she had guessed accurately they would not be eager to leave their favorite watering hole.
"What can we do for you, Mrs. Travis?" Ezra inquired politely.
"I actually came to see Mr. Tanner," Mary announced, her blue-grey eyes staring in Vin Tanner's direction.
All eyes shifted to the bounty hunter who was concentrating on his cards more than anything else that was going on in the immediate vicinity. At the mention of his name, Vin looked up and found his friends staring at him quizzically, silent in their curiosity over what business he might have from the widow. Vin particularly took note of Chris, whose attention was most obvious by his indifference. The man in black remained on his stool, nursing his bottle of whisky, appearing aloof as always but was obviously listening closely.
"How can I help ma'am?"
Mary reached into the pocket of her dress and produced the pendant she had bought the day before. It was well known Vin Tanner had an extensive knowledge of Indian culture and traditions. Prior to his arrival in Four Corners, Vin was one of the best trackers in the Territory, among other things. There were also rumors he learnt how to hunt buffalo from Indian teachers. His skills as tracker and as an expert in Indian lore was one of the reasons he was such a formidable bounty hunter. The only way the outlaw Ely Jones was able to deter Vin from bringing him in was to frame him for murder in Tascosa.
"Have you ever seen anything like this?" She handed him the pendant.
As Vin took the object in his hands and examined it, the others leaned forward for a closer look as well. Even Chris climbed off his stool and edged closer towards the table so he could see what had captured Mary's attention enough to seek Vin Tanner.
Vin was fascinated. While everything about the pendant cried an Indian origin, he recognized nothing in its design that belong to any tribe he knew. Vin had travelled extensively enough to say with confidence that he had seen them all, Apache, Navajo, Sioux and Cheyenne. The object could not claim descent from any of this. It was unusual for Indians in this region to carve anything from seashell for they were hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean.
"Where did you get this?" He inquired, mesmerized by the eyes staring at him from the carving.
"In an antique store, if you believe," Mary replied.
"An antique store?"
"Can I have a look?" Josiah asked and Vin glanced at Mary, obtaining her approval before he handed it to the preacher.
Josiah took the object and examined it closely, taking care to note all its unusual markings. Like Vin, he had never seen anything like this but there was enough education in his past for him to make one conclusive observation. "It's old."
"That's pretty obvious." Vin drawled rolling his eyes.
"No," Josiah shook his head, taking no offence at the younger man's sarcasm. "I mean it's really old."
Mary wrinkled her forehead in confusion wondering if all these gunslingers had a contract somewhere which bound them to make sentences sound as enigmatic as possible. "How old?"
"I can't say." Josiah looked up at her. "When I was at the seminary, I saw church pieces with similar degradation. You can tell by the erosion on the surface it has not been ground by unnatural means." He indicated the edge of the object and explained. "See that there? It's a smooth wear. That's happened because of water erosion not by a grinding stone or anything. You only get that kind of finish over a lot of years."
"How many years?" She asked, feeling her pulse race that her instincts about the object might have been correct.
"Centuries at least."
"I'd still like to know where it came from." Mary sighed, easing back into the chair. For some reason, the mystery sparked her interest the way nothing had for too long. Mary thrived on challenges but she was starting to have the terrible suspicion this might be even for her determination to solve.
"Vin," Chris suddenly spoke up. He hated seeing Mary disappointed. "Do you think Chanu's people might know what that is?"
The thought had not occurred to the tracker.
"Maybe," Vin said with a meaningful nod. "Their medicine man is older than the hills. If anyone can remember where this thing came from it might be him."
"I can ride out there tomorrow and ask him," Mary suggested, brightening up considerably.
The idea of Mary riding up to the Indian village did not impress anyone at the table. It was not proper for a respectable white woman to be in that area particularly after what happened to Claire Mosely. Although everyone was aware it was the Reverend who killed his daughter, people in Four Corners still had difficulty coming to terms with a respectable, god fearing girl like Claire willingly marrying an Indian. It was nonsense that none of the seven prescribed to of course but Mary Travis' reputation was a point of honor to all of them, particularly, Chris Larabee.
"Mrs. Travis," Ezra spoke up, being the only at the table who could put anything tactfully. "It isn't exactly appropriate for you to go riding up there."
Mary looked at the faces around her. It did not take long for her to realize to what they were alluding. The notion not only angered her but seemed terribly presumptuous. "I am only going to see someone at the reservation," she said hotly. "I am not running off to marry anyone." She stated in that tone of voice that indicated she did not intend to tolerate any argument on the matter.
"Mary you ain't going up there," Chris said firmly, taking up the gauntlet of defiance she had just thrown down before them.
Mary took a deep breath and was unsurprised he would be the one to take a chauvinistic stance with her. She hated it when he treated her like a child. Did they believe her lacking of all good sense? "I will be fine Mr. Larabee." She said coldly, retrieving the pendant from Josiah before rising from her chair. "Nor do I require you to tell me what to do." Mary rose to her feet and regarded the men before her politely. "Good day gentlemen." With that she started out of the saloon.
However, Chris was not about to let it go that easily.
By the time she reached the batwing doors to make her exit out of the establishment, Chris was already two paces behind her. "You can't go alone." He repeated, starting to become clearly annoyed.
"Oh really?" She glanced over her shoulder and gave him a sarcastic look. "Watch me."
Chris swore under his breath as she disappeared through the doors before he went after her.
In the wake of their departure, the rest of the seven were silent as Chris and Mary's voices faded into the distance, becoming lost in the crowd of patrons in the saloon. Even Inez seemed to be staring at the doors after the duo had taken leave of the room. Like the rest of the men at the table, Inez was also wearing the same blank expression.
"You know something," Inez remarked as she stepped out from behind the bar. "Their kids will be loud.'
"Absolutely." Said Ezra.
"Yep." Nodded Buck.
"Uh huh." Vin mused.
"Let's play cards." Josiah retorted.
Chapter Two: Amulet
"Mr. Larabee." Mary Travis mumbled as she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes after opening her front door and finding him standing before her. When she had first heard the knock from her bedroom, Mary was immediately gripped by the worst suspicions. She did not even bother becoming dressed, content to cover her bare shoulders with a shawl before hurrying downstairs, in barefoot. No one woke anyone up at Four Corners at this time of night unless something was wrong.
Unfortunately, nothing was wrong and no one was hurt, at least not yet.
"I know you're planning to go to the reservation on your own at first light," Chris announced before she even had the chance to fully wake up.
Mary winced and released a groan of annoyance. Unfortunately, her reaction made it impossible to lie to him and Mary decided begrudgingly, she would not even bother. Besides, she was a terrible liar and he was just too good at detecting people who did. With great dignity, Mary took a deep breath and responded, "I am assuming your presence at my doorstep at this hour is to tell me otherwise?"
"Actually," Chris replied with a hint of smugness on his handsome face. "If I can't stop you from going then I might as well go with you and make sure you don't get into any trouble."
Mary bristled at that remark. She resented the fact he felt she required his protection and she really hated it he knew what she was planning since he was absolutely correct. Mary intended riding out early this morning. After the Seven's reaction in the saloon, Mary thought a stealthy departure from Four Corners was definitely in order. Mary thought she knew most of Chris Larabee's habits, in particular, his habit of not waking up before noon. It had been her intention to sneak away before he had any idea she was gone. However, it now looked as if she had been outwitted on this particular point.
Mary glared at him through narrowed eyes, deciding that it was not worth the trouble losing her temper with him at this hour of the morning. It would avail her nothing. He would just take her abuse with little more than a shrug and then do what he wished anyway. It was simpler to just concede defeat this time.
"All right," Mary growled as she turned around and walked up the hallway. "Just get in here and make coffee while I get dressed."
He watched her go upstairs, her silky blond hair trailing behind her as she ascended the flight of steps. Even in this disheveled state, she looked beautiful and realized what a sight she must have been to her husband when he first woke. For a moment, some rather tasteless images flashed through his mind and he reminded himself that he was here on business.
"Grow up." He said under his breath and decided that coffee was a good idea.
A cold shower would have even been better.
Mary lived in the same building where she published the Clarion News. The front half of the house had been converted into a shop front and office for the newspaper while the rest of the house remained traditionally residential. He had come through the back door because he did not think it appropriate that he be seen with her at this hour. As it was, there was enough talk about her relationship with the seven, in particular with him, for Chris to desire to protect her reputation.
It was the first time he had used the back entrance and he was surprised what he had seen. There was a small patch of green behind the building that was enclosed by a paling fence. Although he could not imagine Mary on her knees, working in the garden, he supposed she must have. There were flowerbeds being coaxed into existence and the thick grass had to be tended to attain this level of lushness for the local climate. There was a swing on the back porch and Chris could imagine her sitting there alone, watching the sunset over the horizon.
The image of her sitting there alone did not sit well with Chris.
He entered the kitchen and noted it was immaculately tidy with all the things' indicative of a woman's touch. Gingham curtains hung on the back kitchen window as he lit the stove and placed the kettle above the cast iron plate. He could smell flowers throughout the house and spied a small vase on the windowsill. Preparing the pot of coffee for the boiling water to come, Chris made certain he returned everything to its place. It surprised him how much of his life with Sarah remained in his memory after so many years without her. She was always telling to put things away when he was done with it. A sad smile stole across his face when he remembered conversations about leaving his socks all over the house and teaspoons left on the kitchen table. Especially teaspoons left on the kitchen table.
Sarah really hated that.
After a while, Chris did it on purpose just to amuse himself and Sarah stopped being annoyed for that same reason. He took a deep breath in the quiet of Mary's kitchen, forcing away the painful emotions that usually followed memories of his wife.
"The kettle seems to have boiled," Mary remarked entering the kitchen to see steam flowing out of the spout.
Chris blinked and the emotions were forced away into that singular place where none of it could reach him. "That was fast." He replied, taking the kettle off the reddening plate. "Every woman I know usually takes hours to dress."
If the weather was consistent, it would be just as warm day as yesterday had been. Mary had taken this into account, wearing a riding cloak over a pale blue dress that Chris had seen her wear on occasion. Although her hair was brushed, it was still loose around her shoulders. He wondered if it would make any difference to her if Chris were to tell her that wearing her hair long made her look so much younger.
"I'm a quick change, Mr. Larabee," Mary said sarcastically, still unhappy at having his company forced on her. "I have too much to do, to waste time on spending all morning in front of a mirror."
"We could just forget about the whole idea."
Mary gave him a cool look. "Nice try but you're going to have to do better than that to convince me to stay home."
Chris returned her aloof stare. 'The day's just beginning, Mary."
To her credit, nothing Chris was able to say to Mary Travis throughout their trip to the reservation could persuade her to abandon her visit. Her determination made Chris wonder exactly what she saw in that curious oddity to fire her imagination with such intensity. He'd seen her challenged before and it was one of the more attractive features about her but Chris found her interest in this instance deeper than usual, even for Mary. If he did not know better, he would say she was obsessed with the object.
It was mid-morning when they finally arrived at the reservation and their presence in the village afforded no more than a passing interest to the locals. Chris had been a frequent visitor when Vin came to see Chanu and Kojay. However, since the incident with Reverend Wolseley, the Indians preferred to keep to themselves, lest there be a repeat of the cross-cultural disaster that was Chanu's and Claire Wolseley's marriage.
Although the natives were polite, it was obvious they felt uncomfortable with Mary's presence in their village. Nothing inflamed the white man more than harm coming to one of his women and the Indians were well aware of the danger should anything befall Mary Travis in their presence. Vin Tanner was barely able to stop a posse from burning down their village and the memory of the threat still lingered fresh in their minds.
Mary had some inkling to all this and so she allowed Chris to do most of the talking. She did not blame them for their fear although she was one of their strongest champions in town. Mary was a firm believer in Native American rights, understanding they were here long before the first pilgrims had arrived. It disgusted her their land had been stolen from them and were now forced to reside wherever the US government decided was an appropriate settlement. Her stance on the humane treatment of Indians had given rise to much hostility from some quarters of town.
"Good day Mrs. Travis." The Indian chief Kojay greeted her after Chris led her to the man's dwelling. The chief was aware of Mary Travis' reputation and the editorials she had written about them in the Clarion News. Part of the reason that relations between the village and Four Corners had gone smoothly before the Wolseley incident was due to her words in the paper.
"Good morning Chief." Mary smiled pleasantly. Although she had never met Kojay before, she knew, without doubt, he was the leader of the settlement. He was a wizened old man in his seventies, although he might be older because Indians held their age well.
"Chris has told me you wish to ask me something," Kojay responded. He was sitting on the ground before a small fire, warming something unidentifiable in an earthenware pot. Mary dropped to her knees so she could look him in the eye when she asked her questions. For an Indian chief, it was the least she could do to show her respect for his position.
"Yes," she nodded, reaching into her pocket. "I wanted to know if you have seen anything like this."
Mary produced the pendant and allowed Kojay to take it from her for examination. His eyes widened as he studied it and Mary caught the look of surprise in his eyes as he scrutinized the object. She glanced at Chris who had not missed the expression on Kojay's face either.
"May I ask where you found this?" Kojay asked neutrally when he met her gaze a few seconds later.
"I bought it at an antique store in Bitter Creek," Mary answered automatically. "The owner said he purchased it from some old Indian." She waited to see if he would offer any insight into the object's origin but he remained silent, continuing to study it from several angles.
"Do you know what it is?" She asked again, wondering if he was being evasive on purpose.
"I know that it is a relic of the Old Ones." Kojay finally answered. His response seemed reluctant somehow.
Chris could tell immediately there was more to it. Without knowing how he knew, Chris was certain that Kojay was lying. He knew exactly what it was.
"Old Ones?" Chris asked. Suddenly, he could see Mary's interest in all this. Mary Travis was a journalist and like every one of them he ever came across, they were all afflicted with the same insatiable curiosity. This trinket with its enigmatic designs and non-existent origin must have been a tantalizing mystery not only for a journalist but also for a woman like Mary, who thrived on solving the unknown.
"The Old Ones who made the crossing from the old lands," Kojay replied after a moment. "They came before the white man, even before our people. When I was a boy, we used to find their cities, scattered across the land. They are mostly gone now, your people have seen to it." There was no bitterness in his voice w just a sad acknowledgement of the way things were.
"How do you know this is one of theirs?" Mary inquired. "Have you seen anything like it?"
"Some of them bury their dead underground," Kojay explained, searching through the decades to a memory so old that it almost predated his lifetime. "Under giant mounds of earth. When I was child, my father and I discovered one of these burial places. The dead were buried with personal belongings. I saw many things with these design upon it." He pointed to the staring eyes. "This amulet is one of theirs."
"Amulet?" Mary had never considered it could hold any religious significance. In retrospect, however, she decided it must have because the Indians were a spiritual people and their ancestors were most likely the same. "There's a Doctor Wetherill who lives a couple of hours from here. He is an authority on early Indian settlement. Perhaps he knows what tribe this came from."
"This should be laid to rest where it was found," Kojay said firmly, starting to see that Mary's interest was more than just passing. "It was not meant to be among the living."
"So you do know what it is," Chris replied, staring at the chief with hard eyes. With an instinct, he no longer questioned any more, his suspicion that Kojay was lying came back to him with greater intensity. The old man knew exactly what this amulet was but for some reason and Chris could not fathom why he was afraid of it. However, if there was any question of danger to Mary because of this thing, Chris wanted to know and he wanted to know now.
Kojay shifted uncomfortably under the high powered gaze of Chris Larabee. Of the white men that he had met over the years, only one had the eyes with the obsidian cunning of the Coyote and that was Chris Larabee. Kojay knew nothing of the man's history but he knew enough to decide this was not someone to cross under any circumstances. The illusion of civilization he wore beneath the predatory gleam in his eyes was exactly that, a facade. The woman by her presence, held it in check, just barely.
"It is a thing of evil." Kojay finally admitted. "In my time, the symbol of the staring eyes was something we did not speak of. There are those who worship the staring eyes, those who kill for it. The amulet you carry belong to those who pray to its darkness. Destroy it before they find you."
"I don't think we need to worry about that," Mary said unafraid of his prophetic words. "Hardly anyone knows I have it and I don't intend to wear it around my neck for everyone to see. Besides, it a just a trinket. Why would anyone kill me for this thing?"
"You do not understand," Kojay replied quickly, looking at Chris so he would realize the danger even if this golden-haired innocent did not. "Its worshippers still exist. They hide among us in silence, like the mountain lion that waits among the deer for the kill. I do not say this lightly. The amulet is dangerous. It will draw out its followers and it will bring them to you."
Chris said nothing but anything that placed Mary's life in danger was of concern to him. Personally, he did not believe in the superstition of Kojay's people but men have been known to do terrible things in the name of religion. This was no different from the Crusaders of a thousand years ago. Even if Kojay was right and these worshippers existed, the amulet had not been languishing in obscurity for some time. He doubted if it held anyone interest in this day and age.
"Even if they do exist, why would they come after me?" Mary countered. "This is a piece of seashell, nothing more. The stones are not precious, just some form of azurite. While they might object to me owning it, I would doubt they would go to any trouble if it's just an amulet."
Something flashed in Kojay's eye at the moment and this time Chris did not intend to let it go. This was more than just a religious relic Mary had stumbled upon, Chris was certain of it now. "All right," he inhaled deeply, showing the older man that he no longer wished to hear any more ghost stories but the truth. "Exactly what is this amulet to these followers?"
"The ways of my people are steeped in traditions you cannot understand." Kojay shook his head, wrestling with his conscience over his next course of action. He was chief and as chief, he was the keeper of a thousand mysteries passed on to him by his father and his forefathers as far back as the ancestors and the Old Ones. These were tales spoken among chiefs and medicine men. It was not to be divulged to outsiders and certainly not to gun slinging white men and their outspoken women. However, the woman had found the amulet, which meant it was likely she was already bonded with it. Once the process had begun there was no turning back. She had a right to know, even if she did not believe.
"Our legends speak of Three Worlds." He began speaking and could immediately see Chris Larabee coming to the conclusion that Kojay was just telling him another ghost story. The Indian ignored his misconception because the woman was listening closely and in this drama, it was she who held the power without awareness. "There is the Upper World where our spirits ascend after our death. There is our world in which we exist now and there is the Under World, where all the dark and terrible resides. There has been conflict between the Upper World and the Under World for as long as we have lived. They battle for dominance over one another."
"This is their battleground," Mary whispered suddenly, a forgotten memory clicking into place. "We are of This World."
Kojay's astonishment was apparent. "Yes," He nodded, staring at her in wonder. "That is what we call it. How did you know?"
"I didn't sleep well the night before." Mary mused, her mind swirling in the uncertain memories of last night and the dreams that pursued relentlessly throughout her sleep. She had remembered little of it until this moment when Kojay started speaking of worlds. "I dreamt I was crawling through the dark and when I reached the sun someone told me that I was the first."
Now Chris was really starting to become worried. He believed in things tangible could be fought, not shadows and dreams that required more than he was capable of understanding.
"That's it." He said firmly. "We're burying that thing!"
"No, you are not," Mary said with such force in her voice it was almost a physical blow. "Ever since I saw it, I can't seem to get it out of my mind. I won't get rid until I know why."
"Mary," Chris pulled her up gently by the shoulders so that she could see how serious he was about this. "This is starting to affect your judgement. If it is the reason for your bad dreams then the smartest thing to do now would be to pull back."
There was genuine concern in his eyes, that and a great deal more. Suddenly, it became clear to how just how deep his feelings ran and Mary realized how it would affect him if anything should happen to her. Under normal circumstances, she might have given in but not this time. The amulet had come to her for a reason. She was sure of it now. Mary could not turn her back on it until she learned what that reason was. "Mr. Larabee," Mary swallowed, steadying herself for the protest. "I have to see this through."
"Your friend is right." Kojay intervened, lending the weight of his support to Chris's arguments. "The danger is increasing. Those who worship the staring eyes mean to shift the balance between the two worlds. I do not know how or when but that amulet is connected to the ritual that weakens the boundaries of the two. Our legends speak of the Falcon armies burying Uktena's tools for the uncreation to keep it from its worshippers. You have found one piece, do not pursue this and uncover the others."
Mary retrieved the amulet from Kojay's hand and walked away from both of them. Chris stared after her, wondering what to do. Part of him refused to believe any of this. He believed in things he could see and touch, not legends and half-spoken truths. However, Kojay's words had the ominous distinction of reaching the part of him that did not use his mind to form decisions. Against all better judgement, Chris could not help believing the man's story.
"She is a strong-willed woman," Kojay remarked, realizing that Mary would not this rest whatever the consequences to herself.
"You have no idea." Chris sighed, following her.
Chapter Three: Intruders in the Night
She was back.
In a flurry of disjointed images swirling in on her, she recognized the initial stage of her descent into the dreamscape. None of it frightened or confused her, for this was nothing new. There was a certain peace that fell over her in the knowledge that she made this journey already. Still whatever the details, they were unimportant. Nothing was, once the journey had begun. The only thing of importance she had to remember was to follow it to its inevitable end.
A hot wind blew across her cheek, snapping her out of her lapse. The light of a whole new world seemed to flash in her eyes for a few seconds. She blinked once, so she could see clearly. Everything about this place was new and yet familiar At times, she saw recognition in a patch of earth or in the groove of a hill. It was probably the mystery of the realm keeping her so enamored. It strengthened its power over her because she craved the unknown.
She always saw the sky first and it was the sky that mesmerized her the most. It was blue.
For most of her life, in a memory that no longer existed, she knew, without doubt, she had awakened to the sight of the sky, warmed with the amber of perpetual twilight. The stark brilliance of a blue sky always took her breath away, for there was something mesmerizing about this unnatural color. Blue was a color for oceans and frozen icescapes, certainly not for a sky.
Still, it was only one enigma of many in this place. When she looked at the landscape, gold ran across the plains, disappearing into hills that slowly shifted to a more familiar green. Color was so new to her, it exuded warmth and life. It whispered promises of things unformed and dreams unrealised. She did not feel the aching cold in her limbs when she remembered the other place. The existence before seemed far away when she looked at the golden stalks standing majestically in the sunlight, proud and defiant against the wind that was gently coaxing them to bend.
They gave off a peculiar odor, unfamiliar yet strangely soothing. In some distant memory, an ember of recognition sparked, but its light was so faint that it disappeared before she could even sense where to look for it. Tiny grains of pollen, carried along by the breeze, danced in the air. She could hear the cacophony of graceful white creatures sailing across the sky with their melodic voices.
She often wondered how this place came to be. How it could exist in his dreams when she knew nothing of the like in her memories? Was it a vision conjured by the fabric of her psyche? Was everything here a missing piece to a symbolic puzzle she had been unable to decipher? She did not know. Yet, being here made her feel safe. It instilled within her with a sense of power she had never known. Here she was supreme, a woman who stood her ground in the face of a new frontier. The voices had told her she was the first, she wondered when the others would arrive.
Suddenly, there was a visible shift in temperature. The trouble with a blue sky, she decided, was when it grew cold, it seemed more grey than blue. Above him, the white clouds became an ominous grey reminding her of ash. The wind's breath grew more bated, turning quickly into a gust. The pollen dancers stirred violently by the rising gale, broke from their graceful tapestry to scurry frantically in all directions.
The sound of the first impact made her drop to her knees. Finely honed instincts, no matter how apprehensive, forced her to act. Looking up at the sky, she saw them come, swooping in for another pass. They were like shadows moving across the sky and when they flew overhead, she heard them screech in manic fury. She could never see them clearly enough to identify what these winged assailants were. She only knew that they set the golden field ablaze with fire. That they were terrible, there was no doubt. The beautiful white birds lay on the charred ground. Their white feathers darkened by ash and dust.
The explosions pushed earth and billowing smoke into the air. The aroma she knew became toxic with thickening smoke. Her eyes began to water and the heat started to tickle her skin. She wanted to wake up and leave this nightmare. She wanted to be away before this beautiful place disintegrated into further carnage but she could not leave yet.
There was a moment of pain and she felt the life drain out of her body like her blood draining into a cup. The next thing she knew, she was staring at her own body on the charred ground. Her dead eyes were staring into the darkening sky with vacant blue eyes while her golden hair became matted with blood. Crimson streaks ran across her cheeks, intermingling with dirt and drying tears. Her face wore an expression of confusion more than anything else. Death had caught her by surprise. The killing wound was in her chest. Charred flesh sizzled with blood as she lay outstretched.
Mary Travis started to scream.....
Someone was in her house.
She woke up from her nightmare, hearing the distant sounds of movement emanating from the lower floor of her house. For a moment, she thought she was still dreaming but when she heard the sounds of footsteps against the wooden floorboards Mary knew she was very much awake.
She listened closely for a minute, trying to guess where in her house these intruders actually were. After a few seconds of shuffling feet and hearing drawers being pulled open, Mary guessed they were still on the lower floor of the house. They had yet to make it up the stairs. Although she was frightened of being discovered, Mary knew she had little choice. To remain in her bed was to invite capture and she was not willing to submit to that under any circumstances.
Taking a deep breath, Mary calmed her racing heart, still pounding from the effects of her nightmare to deal with this new threat.
Her life had really become very complicated lately. Climbing out from under her sheets, she tiptoed quietly across the rug towards the door. Peering through the narrow crack, she saw shadows moving against the wall above the staircase. With a sinking feeling, she knew she could not make it out the front door without being seen. She made a mental note to keep her shotgun upstairs instead of the office since it was now of little use to her. Mary knew she did not have much time. She could not assume her intruders would not come upstairs. Judging by all the noise they were making, they were definitely searching for something. It would not be long before they expanded the search to include the upper floor of the building.
Looking around, she grabbed her shawl and decided the window was the only way to escape left to her. As she crossed the floor of the room, the floorboards beneath her feet heaved in betrayal and produced some soft but unfortunately, audible creaks alerting her intruders to her escape attempt. The footsteps immediately became loud and thundered across the house beneath her. Mary let out a short squeal of fright and grabbed the amulet on her dresser as she ran to the window.
Mary was halfway through when she heard the intruders running up the stairs. Terrified, she climbed all the way out and slammed the window down hard after her. The roof of her front porch was built at an angle and Mary had to watch her footing as she ran across the corrugated sheet of steel to find a suitable place to dismount. It was at least nine feet drop to the ground and Mary felt her stomach flutter just thinking she would have to jump.
The glass shattered behind her and Mary turned around enough to see a dark form starting to emerge from the broken window of her bedroom. Deciding she had no choice, Mary hurried to the edge of the roof and took a deep breath, mindful that there was now someone only a matter of feet behind her. She looked at the green grass of her garden and hoped that it was as soft as it looked. Without further thought, she stepped off the edge and plunged downwards.
Mary landed badly, feeling her ankle pop in protest when she landed. The pain caught her by surprise and she let out a soft cry. However, she had little time to recover for she heard the footsteps across the steel roof above her and that compelled her to stand. Fortunately, her ability to move told Mary she had not broken her foot. Yet as she took a step forward, she felt spasms of pain shooting up her leg. Biting down hard, Mary ignored the agony coursing through her and limped painfully towards the side gate that would take her to the main street. Although it was in the small hours of the morning, she could hear the faint sounds of life emanating from the saloon.
She heard a thud behind her and without looking, knew her pursuer had jumped from the roof and was now on the ground with her. Mary felt tears in her eyes as she tried to control the pain in her ankle as she forced herself to run. Bursting through the gate, she began picking up speed as she heard his footsteps grow louder behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw the tall figure crossing the garden and coming straight at her. Her injury was going to let him catch her before she could reach safety. Mary looked around and saw a shovel leaning against the fence. Without thinking twice, she picked up tool and swung it around hard just as the stranger reached her.
It connected with his face. He barely had time to utter a cry as he fell backwards from the force of the impact. She was certain she heard the awful crunch of bone as metal made abrupt contact with flesh. Seeing him go down, Mary threw the shovel aside and continued running because she was certain he was not alone and she was not capable of dealing with both of them. She ran onto the street and headed towards the lights of the saloon, praying that some of the seven were present.
"Mary!" Inez exclaimed as she saw Mary burst into the saloon, wearing only her night-gown and a shawl. Immediately, the bartender emerged from behind the counter as well as some of seven who were present at the time. Buck Wilmington reached her first and Mary immediately took his arm for support, so she could remove the pressure off her injured foot.
"What happened Mrs. Travis?" Vin Tanner inquired, worry etched in his face as he took her other arm while Ezra pulled a chair for her.
"Someone is in my house!" Mary exclaimed frantically as she tried to regain her breath. She looked around the room for Chris but he was nowhere to be seen. Although disappointed, she was glad that at least three of the seven were present.
"Come on Buck," Vin turned to Buck once he had helped Mary sit down. "Let's go check it out."
"Right." The big man nodded and the two of them hurried out of the room, amidst the faces staring at her with concern. "Ezra, you stay and make sure no one followed her here."
"Are you alright?" Inez asked as Ezra placed his coat around Mary's bare shoulders.
"I'm fine." She said breathlessly, taking the glass of whisky Inez handed her. She drank the liquid down in one gulp, allowing it to settle her nerves with its overpowering taste. In the meantime, Ezra was ushering people out the door, citing that it was time to call it a night to the more persistent drinkers. After a few minutes, however, the three of them were alone and Mary felt confident enough to elaborate on her nocturnal experience. "I woke up a few minutes ago when I heard them moving around downstairs."
"How did you get out?" Inez asked, knowing Mary's bedroom was on the top floor of the building.
"I went out the window and jumped," Mary said sheepishly and gestured to her injured foot.
"You jumped Mrs. Travis?" Ezra looked at her with a mixture of surprise and horror. "You could have injured yourself severely."
"What else was she supposed to do? Stay there and let them murder her!"
"Of course not." Ezra gave Inez a dirty look. "I merely suggested Mrs. Travis might have broken her neck."
"Please," Mary interrupted before this got out of hand. "I'm alright now. I just sprained my ankle."
"I'll go get Nathan," Ezra replied. "Are you two ladies going to be alright?"
"We'll be fine," Inez said boldly.
When he had gone, Mary remembered the amulet she was clutching in her hands. She looked at the artifact in her palm and suddenly remembered Kojay's words to her. "I think they came for this."
"That was just a story Mary," Inez replied, not wanting to think that anything about Kojay's outrageous story could be true. She had listened in when Chris Larabee related the warning the Indian chief delivered to Mary. Although he was skeptical about its truth, he was right about that Mary should get rid of the thing. "Nobody except us knew you had this thing."
Mary was not about to believe that. "He said they were all around us, that they were drawn to it." The more she thought about it, the more Mary was convinced the men in her house were looking for her amulet. She had heard them going through drawers and cupboards and was further inclined to believe they had a purpose deeper than robbery in mind for invading her home.
Suddenly gunshots rang out through the air and both women jumped. Inez left Mary and hurried to the batwing doors. The shots had come from across the street and Mary knew instinctively that the weapons belonged to Vin and Buck, engaging the intruders in her home. Her heart clenched at the thought that either of them might have been injured.
"Can you see anything?" Mary asked, not realizing she was holding her breath until she had spoken.
Inez did not speak for a moment as she peered through the doors watching the street outside intently. Mary was suddenly glad Chris was not here. At least she knew he was not in danger. Suddenly, Mary saw Inez's sigh of relief when she stepped back from the doors at Vin and Buck returned. Although she kept her face hidden from him, Mary saw that the grateful look in Inez's eyes at Buck's safe return.
"What happened?" Mary asked, impatient for news.
"They won't be bothering you anymore ma'am," Vin said first and that told Mary her intruders were dead. "We found one of them on the street and the other in the house."
"I didn't kill him when I hit with a shovel did I?" Mary was almost afraid to ask. Although she would do anything to protect herself if required, Mary had never actually taken a life before. She was not ready for this to be the first time. "No," Buck shook his head. "He came to and went after Vin with a knife." He explained, sitting down. He need not elaborate he was the one who had shot the man. The other one had been in the house and was armed. Buck hated to think what would have happened to Mary if she had not escaped. Chris would never forgive himself if anything happened to Mary Travis while he was out of town.
"They were looking for your amulet ma'am," Vin said firmly.
Mary had expected that even though she did not voice it. "Who were they?"
"Indians," the tracker replied. "And they both had tattoos on their arms."
Mary looked at him puzzled. "Tattoos?"
Vin did not look away when he answered. "Ma'am, their tattoos were staring eyes."
Chapter Four: Wetherill
"How do you always talk me into these things?" Inez asked when Four Corners became distant in the horizon behind them.
"Easy," Mary threw her a mischievous grin. "I asked."
"I know you asked," Inez declared with exasperation clearly in her voice. "You ask me to do these crazy things with you and I just agree to it, even though I know it is insane. You should be at home, resting that foot of yours, not gallivanting across the countryside to God knows where." Inez paused a moment and then added. "Where we are we going?"
"To see a Doctor Isaac Wetherill," Mary answered as she snapped Homer's reins to make the horse hasten his pace. As it was, they were moving briskly away from Four Corners, but Mary wanted to cover as much ground as possible before lunch. It was a beautiful morning and there did not seem to be a cloud in the sky. It was a good day for travelling.
For once, she had managed to sneak away without Chris Larabee or the whole of Four Corners knowing what she was planning. After last night, Mary was more determined than ever to get to the bottom of this escalating situation with the amulet. "He was a rancher until he discovered these ancient ruins on his property. Since then, he has become a sort of authority on ancient Indian cultures in this region."
"Well, that makes sense," Inez said dubiously. "Ezra is never going to let me hear the end of this you know." She looked at Mary critically. "I was supposed to keep an eye on you while they went to the reservation with the bodies."
"I know," Mary said quietly. She did not want to think about the events of last night or the two men who had broken into her house. However, their appearance proved what Kojay told her was true. Her amulet may be a thing of evil. If it was that, there had to be a way of disposing of it without playing right into the hands of those who wanted it to fulfil some terrible prophecy. She had a feeling that Kojay did not know as much as he believed.
She had to hope Doctor Wetherill would be different.
"You still be dreaming about it?" Inez asked.
Reluctantly, Mary had to say yes. "I don't know what any of these dreams mean, whether or not it's the amulet or some subconscious fear I have it might more than it seems."
"Those men who broke into your house certainly believe it." The Mexican remarked. "They must have seen you with the thing when you were at the village. There can be no other explanation for how they knew."
"Agree," Mary nodded when an unpleasant thought came to her. "Unless they dreamed I had it."
The thought made them both fall silent. For a moment, both women felt a cold shiver run down their spines. However, Mary forced such thoughts away, knowing how easy it was to let fear dictate her actions. For too long, she had relied upon others to solve whatever crisis came tumbling into her life. No more. This was her quest, her grail and she was going to deal with it without Chris Larabee treating her like a child. It was pointless being afraid of shadowy suppositions when there were more tangible dangers to be found.
"Let's assume for a moment they were at the reservation," Mary stated, deciding to look at this logically. "They know where I live or if they didn't then, they sure do now. They would also know Chris would protect me because they saw me with him but they still sent only two men to my house. I get the impression there aren't many of these followers around. They may not be able to spare the men or at the time, didn't think they would have any trouble stealing an amulet from a woman."
Inez considered her words but found the flaw in the theory. "Are you sure it was the amulet they were after?"
Mary looked at her. "Why yes," she retorted. "What else would they want? You saw the place afterwards. They tore my house apart searching for it."
Inez could not disagree with her on that point for Mary's house had been ransacked thoroughly. Mary had almost been brought to tears by the state of her home. It was to some comfort her intruders had not reached the second floor of the house. They had torn upholstery, ripped pictures from the frame and dislodged every drawer in the house searching for the amulet without success.
"I know," Inez found herself nodding. However, she had instincts of her own. Despite their attempts at deductive reasoning, none of this truly made any sense. It was dark when Mary escaped her bedroom, how would the intruder know she had the amulet on her person? Why make themselves vulnerable by pursuing her? Inez forced away from the darker possibilities from her mind because she did not want to frighten her friend. Even though it sometimes felt as if Mary might need a good scare to snap her out of this adventurous streak that had all the signs of disaster.
Inez was just glad that she was not in town when Chris Larabee found out they were gone.
"Goddamn!" Chris Larabee swore loudly when he heard the news.
The seven had just returned from the reservation where they had taken the bodies of the men shot dead in Mary's house the night before. Chanu and Kojay identified the men as being from a part of the village but were astonished that they were part of the cult that worshipped the staring eyes. Kojay seemed sincere in his denial he knew such men existed in his tribe although he was unsurprised the emergence of the amulet had drawn them out. Chris had returned to his property after leaving Mary in Four Corners the night before. When he heard Vin's horse in the early hours of the morning, Chris expected trouble. Even though he had not seen the widow, Vin had assured him Mary was in good hands as they rode off to rendezvous with the others.
He should have known that there was no such thing where Mary was concerned.
"I'm sorry Chris," Ezra said genuinely apologetic. They had arrived at the saloon and found Mary and Inez were nowhere to be found. Upon further investigation, JD had learnt Mary's wagon and horse Homer was no longer in the livery. "I thought she'd be safe here with Inez."
"I swear she does this just to piss me off!" Chris swore with uncharacteristic emotion that drew amazed expressions from the others present. "It's like she sits up at night and dreams of ways to be a pain in the ass!"
"Chris," Buck cleared his throat. "I'm sure that's not true." He was trying very hard not to smile but he felt he ought to come to the defence of the lady. Still, it was satisfying to see Chris in such rare form. However, he supposed if there was anything could drive Chris Larabee to distraction, it would be Mary Travis. No matter how hard Chris tried, she was the one random element in his life he was powerless to control.
"Of course it's true!" Chris shouted, storming past the tall cowboy towards the doors of the saloon. "Right now, she's out there with Inez, thinking of ways to get into trouble!"
"Chris where are you going?" Vin called out.
"To find a goddamn archaeologist!"
"This is absolutely amazing." Doctor Isaac Wetherill declared from behind his magnifying glass. For an archaeologist, Wetherill was not what Mary had expected. She had pictured a wizened old man with thick glasses, trapped in a library and surrounded by dusty old books. However, the man she met now looked nothing like that at all. Doctor Wetherill was in his late forties but he had the look of a man used to spending much of his time under the hot sun. His skin was creased and tanned and his hair was bleached from the extended exposure to the sun.
"So you know what it is?" Mary asked hopefully. They had been fortunate to find Doctor Wetherill at home. He was in between digs and normally spent most of his time commuting from one site to another. Wetherill had been more than happy to study the relic and even more fascinated once he discovered it was a genuine find from an ancient site.
"It's definitely Mississippian in origin." He explained, putting the magnifying glass down on his bench. His study was decorated in objects not too dissimilar from the amulet Mary had found. However, the tone of his artefacts did not seem as sinister as the amulet. They were very ordinary in nature, being vases, pots and other domestic tools. There were earthenware statues and carved idols that looked artistic in a pagan sort of way.
"Mississippian?" Inez asked, knowing absolutely nothing about archaeology even though she came from a culture with a prominent ancient civilization.
"Yes," Wetherill nodded, turning the object over while he continued his inspection. "They were mound dwellers whose primary location happened to be along Rocky Mountain foothills. They were prominent in the area from the period of 800 to 1500 AD and then suddenly just before the arrival of Columbus, they disappeared. They were eventually replaced by the modern Indian tribes or in some cases evolved, depending on which school of theory you subscribe to. However, they were not known for using seashell. Most of the shell deposits have been located in the flatlands before the Ouachita Mountains. We believe they travelled to the sea by way of the Arkansas River and then the Mississippi."
"I wonder what happened to them." Mary mused, wondering if her mysterious followers of the staring eyes had anything to do with it.
"It's a mystery that not even we can solve," Wetherill said sadly. "We hypothesize with what we are given and sometimes that is not a lot. Archaeology is an inexact science. Our theories change with each new discovery. As to this little piece," he took a deep breath and searched the relevant memory. "Some years ago, I came across the Anasazi who had these legends about the Three Worlds."
"The Upper, Under and This World," Mary spoke up so that he would not feel the need to explain.
Wetherill looked at her impressed. "You are very insightful Mrs. Travis." He said with admiration. "Apparently the Upper and Under Worlds are in constant battle for dominance and each side sometimes rally forces from This World to fight their battles. Originally all humans came from the Under World and their creation legend has them crawling through a great tunnel of darkness leaving behind all the trappings of their previous existence."
Mary felt her stomach lurch, suddenly remembering what she had been dreaming since she had come into possession of the amulet. Crawling through black on her hands and knees, searching for the light that would bring her to the surface of a new place. His words reflected her dreams so accurately; it made her blood run cold.
"Are you alright?" Inez asked concerned, not missing how pale she had suddenly become.
"Yes, I'm fine." Mary nodded. "Please," she looked at Doctor Wetherill who wearing a similar expression of worry. "Continue."
"Of course," he nodded a little confused. "Uktena which is the Lord of the Underworld was unhappy by the creation of This World and has been trying to shift the balance between the Upper and Under World to destroy what lies between. Thousands of years ago, a Shaman in the service of Uktena was said to have created talismans to weaken the barrier between the Worlds and rallied his worshippers to perform the ritual to make it happen."
"Obviously it did not." Inez pointed out.
"No," Wetherill replied. "The Sun God was said to have sent his Falcon Warriors who destroyed the worshippers and scattered the talismans of across the world." He eyed the amulet critically and then looked up at Mary with concern. "This was a story I heard from a Medicine man who was ancient even by the time I met him 20 years ago. I've never seen anything to corroborate his story. The talismans if they existed were buried so deep it is absolutely taboo to speak of them among the elders, who are the only ones who are aware of their existence. However," he took a deep breath, regarding the object in his hand. "I do know they can be identified by the staring eyes of Uktena."
"These worshippers," Mary said grimly. "I believe they still exist. Last night, someone broke into my house to steal that amulet. I think they've been waiting for a long time for it to surface to carry out the ritual."
Wetherill did not like the idea of that at all. "Madam, its superstition." He declared, sounding as if he was trying to convince himself more than her. "These are tales the Indians tell around the campfire when they tire of the white man's atrocity. They have no basis in fact."
"The existence of Christ and our God have no basis in fact," Inez stated firmly, refusing to believe this was all in their heads. "Yet we believe in them. We go to church on Sunday and we pray for forgiveness when we sin because our faith tells us they exist. Can it not be the same for others as well?"
It was an argument that impossible to debate and wisely Wetherill chose against doing so. "The Medicine Man came from a tribe that is only about an hour's ride from here. I first came across them when they took up residence in one of the old sites. They're mostly nomadic but they come back occasionally. I don't suggest you go there now but if maybe if they see this," he held up the amulet. "They might be willing to talk."
He did not seem very hopeful but Mary was not ready to give up yet. She knew Inez wanted to go back to Four Corners but Mary did not relish the dressing down she was going to get when she reached the town. Undoubtedly Chris would be unhappy at her sudden departure and she hated it when he was right because she was being irresponsible to a certain degree. Still, the amulet was not done revealing its secrets and she could not let the matter rest. In conclusion to her inquiries, Mary made Wetherill show her the location of the Indian site where she could find the Medicine Men.
"We've taken enough of your time," Mary said rising to her feet. Her foot still ached but the pain had diminished to a dull throb that was tolerable now. "Thank you for your assistance." She smiled warmly at the man.
Wetherill stood for the two lovely women and handed the amulet back to Mary somewhat reluctantly. Mary could understand his hesitation, knowing that a find like this was hard to give up. She was sorry she could not leave the amulet with him for further study but she was certain he understood her quest. "These are dangerous times my dears," he regarded both Inez and Mary. "Please take my advice and forget this idea of going to the cliff dwellings. You certainly will not make it back to Four Corners before dark and I dread to think what could happen to you."
"Oh don't worry," Inez said with a confidence she did not feel because she knew that look in Mary's eyes and she also knew they would not be paying any heed to this learned man's warnings. "If I were to venture a guess, I think our guardians will find us sooner than we think." Inez gave Mary a sarcastic look, which cried 'you know who I am talking about'.
"Come on Inez." Mary frowned wishing Inez was not such a pessimist sometimes. She always thought that Latin women were supposed to full of beans. At least that's how Buck Wilmington put it. "We've got a lot of ground to cover."
He could not believe his luck.
Here he had men combing the town of Four Corners looking for the talisman and here comes Mary Travis, bold as you please, to ask his advice on the thing. All these years of sifting through dirt and sand, wasting endless hours, collecting trinkets of little use to him except for their limited monetary value. All this time, waiting for the moment when Uktena's promise to him would finally be fulfilled.
He didn't intend to begin the ceremony for at least a day or two but now she was riding into his trap with the talisman in hand, the opportunity to move things along was too good to resist.
Tonight, the balance would be restored and Isaac Wetherill would sit at Uktena's right hand as a prince of the Under World.
Chapter Five: Trap
"This is bad idea." Inez repeated for the fifth time.
She did so every time she looked to the sky and saw the sun inching closer towards the western horizon. The warm July heat was waning and soon the cool of nightfall would be upon them. Inez did not relish being out in the wilderness after sunset. The Territory was a dangerous place at the best of times but for two women on their own; Inez shuddered to think what could happen. Suddenly, she wished Buck and the others were here.
Good lord, she must have been afraid to wish for Buck.
"You said that already." Mary said wearily, shaking her head in resignation that she would have to put up with this until they turned back to Four Corners. Considering she had no intention of doing so, this was going to be a long trip to find the Medicine Man.
"I know I did," Inez repeated hotly. "But this time I really mean it. This is a bad idea. In fact, of all the ideas you have today, this one could be considered the very worst."
"Inez," Mary said taking the same tone of voice that she used with Billy when he was arguing with her over the necessity of eating his vegetables or washing up before supper. "I'll just go and see if anyone is there, ask a few questions and we'll get going. I swear."
Inez looked at her skeptically. "You said that when we went to see Doctor Wetherill."
Unfortunately, Mary could do little to convince her otherwise. As their journey progressed, leaving behind the lush plains of farming land to a dry, dusty terrain with crags of rock instead of loamy soil beneath Homer's hooves, Mary started to think that perhaps this was not such a good idea after all. She began to realize that it was unlikely that they would make it back to Four Corners before dark and she did not want to think of what await her when she got there.
He is going to be so mad at her.
She could just imagine all the things he would say to her while wearing that superior look of indifference on his face, even though they both knew just how much he cared for her. Mary was not blind to his affection and she knew that someday her own feelings with Chris Larabee would have to be addressed. However, he had this idea she ought to listen to his every word like the rest of the seven and that was a situation Mary was never going to accept. Still, it felt nice to know she had the same power to drive him crazy that he often did to her.
In any case, despite her reservations about continuing their journey, Mary said nothing to Inez. The bartender had opted to fume silently beside her but as of yet had not demanded that they turned back. For all of Inez's complaints, Mary was starting to suspect that there was a reluctant curiosity on her best friend's part that wanted to know the secrets behind the amulet as much as she needed to solve its mystery.
"His name is Wetherill." Chris replied as Vin, Buck and Ezra rode out of town towards Doctor Wetherill's estate. It had required some hours in Mary's files to find the information but Chris knew she must had it somewhere to know the man was an archaeologist. Considering the amount of disarray her office was in after her unexpected guests the night before, Chris did not think she would mind if he went through them in search of the elusive Doctor Wetherill.
"You think Mary went to see him?" Buck asked gingerly. He could tell that Chris was still furious Mary and Inez had taken off without the benefit of an escort or telling anyone for that matter. Chris was quiet at the best of times but he was in the filthy mood usually reserved for severe hangovers or when he was confronted with questions about Sarah and Adam.
"She mentioned him when we were talking to Kojay." Chris said quietly. The Wetherill farm was at least two hours ride away but it was not soon enough for Chris. There was no telling how much jeopardy Mary was capable of placing herself, whenever she suffered this reckless streak of hers.
"I still cannot believe Inez was convinced to accompany Mrs. Travis on such an ill-advised course of action." Ezra found himself saying. Normally, Inez was one of the most responsible people he had ever known. If it were not for the woman, Ezra was certain the saloon would have fallen to pieces long ago.
"They're strong women." Vin remarked.
"Stubborn is more like it." Buck retorted. "The last time they got together, they burned down that old house on the hill. It's the whole independence thing, you know. Lady bartenders and newswomen, they're coming out of the woodwork. Next thing you know, women will be taking over everything and they'll only need us for the breeding."
The others said nothing and merely stared at him for a moment.
"What?" Buck exclaimed.
Vin turned to Chris. "You had to bring him?'
It was sobering to remember most of the west was occupied long before the arrival of the wagon trains. The remnants of the previous culture still remained, negated perhaps by untenable relationship of the old inhabitants and the new settlers. Much was destroyed because of the lack of understanding. Tribes were wiped out by greedy land barons and ancient structures demolished to prepare the land for homesteading. However, a new consciousness was rising in the west, one that had nothing to do with its violent past or its rugged existence. Preservation was becoming the topic of the day and across the Territory, ancient relics were being found and restored.
As Inez and Mary approached the wall of rock before them, they could hear the rushing of a river not far away. The presence of green was hard to detect in this terrain of mostly rock and craggy layers of sedimentary soil. However, the cliff had been home to a race once and while whoever they had been was lost to the ages but their city still remained, carved from stone. With the setting sun behind them, the ancient city seemed eerie. Mary tried to picture the people who lived in those carved rooms and peered out their windows into a landscape untouched by any other. She felt sad knowing they were all gone.
"It doesn't look like anyone is around." Inez remarked.
Mary had to agree. The ruins seemed deserted and the only sounds to be heard where the nocturnal animals making their first tentative appearance for the evening. Mary pulled the wagon to a halt near a set of uneven stairs that led to a walkway that would take them to the heart of the abandoned city.
"I'm just going to take a quick look." Mary said to Inez as she proceeded up the degrading steps.
Inez was just as fascinated but she was not about to admit it. She had seen Aztec structures in Mexico but nothing quite like this. Despite herself, she felt a rising curiosity and wondered if she was starting to become influenced by Mary's insanity. "I'll come with you."
"Can you believe how much time it would have taken to carve this city?" Mary exclaimed as she observed the intricacy of the carving. She tried to imagine artisans and engineers hard at work, creating a city from an enormous slab of mountain.
"Well," Inez remarked. "Let's get it over with and get going." She looked up and saw the blanket of twilight trailing the amber sunset closely. "It's going to be dark soon."
"Inez, I sometimes think you lack a sense of adventure." Mary retorted as they reached the top of the steps and ambled along the path that appeared to be the main walkway through the city.
"I have all the adventure I need thanks to you." She smiled at Mary sarcastically. "I just hope we don't burn this place down too."
Mary paused and gave Inez a weary look. "Are you ever going to let me forget about that?" "No."
"I didn't think so." Mary sighed remembering that incident well, not to mention the day after. "Think of this way, at least we're not drunk this time."
"That's right," Inez nodded and another thought came to her. "I don't think I can handle Buck's sure fire remedy for hangovers."
Mary paused and stared at her sharply. "You mean you had the vile concoction too?"
"Yes," Inez wrinkled her nose in disgust, memories of that awful experience stabbing at her even now. "I was throwing up all day."
"That bastard!" Mary exclaimed with sudden realization. "He gave me the stuff and he knew!"
Inez did not even bothered to ask. "So tell me," Inez replied. "At what point are you two going to stop dancing around each other?"
Mary knew precisely what she meant of course because this conversation was an old one. Fortunately, she had the perfect rebuttal for Inez. "Oh about the same time you admit that you don't hate Buck as much you say you do."
Inez fell silent and considered the question. "Let's change the subject."
It was Mary's turned to smile. "What a nice idea."
Suddenly, Mary saw someone emerge from the darkness of one of the crumbling doorways. He stepped out of the opening just as another emerged from a window behind them. Their appearance signaled the emergence of others and she heard Homer neighing in protest from the ground below. Looking down, she saw that there had been men hiding behind the cover of rocks and shrubs, having waited until she and Inez had left the wagon far behind before springing their obvious trap.
Without even seeing the tattoos, Mary knew they were worshippers of the staring eyes. Trapped on the narrow walkway, unable to go backward or forward, Mary met Inez's gaze with an expression of futility.
"Mrs. Travis." The man in front of her stated. He was an Indian in his late thirties, who wore his hair long with an angry red bandanna tried across his forehead. It was the long blade tucked in his belt that Mary noticed most. "We have been waiting for you."
"What do you want?" Mary asked trying to display the bravery she did not feel at those ominous words.
"Where is it?" He asked as the others moved quickly to surround them. One of them was leading Homer away and Mary felt her heart sink as she saw her trusted horse disappearing beyond her line of sight. Mary instinctively reached for her pocket, knowing it was a mistake even before she did it. Immediately, the man stepped forward and Mary backed away, refusing to allow him to touch her. However, the man was not about to be denied of his price. He grabbed a handful of Mary's hair and yanked her forward viciously.
"Let her go!" Mary saw Inez stepped forward to help her only to be restrained by the men behind her, when one of them slipped an arm around her throat and held her in place.
"Give it to me!" He demanded viciously, leaving no doubt in Mary's mind what their fate would be if she refused.
Swallowing hard, Mary ignored his grip on her and fumbled for the amulet, hidden in the pocket within the folds of her skirt. She removed it almost hesitantly and the moment it saw the light of day, the man snatched it out of her hands. He regarded it almost lovingly, which only served to fuel Mary's fear as to what was going to be done with herself and Inez now that they had what they wanted.
"You have the amulet," she said nervously. "Please, let us go."
He looked up at her reluctantly drawing his gaze away from the artefact, as if her voice was an annoyance to be endured. Ignoring her question, he raised the amulet in the air for all to see. "It is time for Uktena!" He cried out. "It is time for a new beginning!" There was a gleam of maniacal fervor in his eyes that served only to terrify Mary and Inez.
They started chanting Uktena's name loudly, as if the amulet empowered them to realize some religious fantasy.
"Let us go!" Mary cried out, demanding attention. The fear was starting to overcome her ability to think straight and now more than ever she wished she had not been so reckless in her decision to come here alone.
The man glared at her with bald hatred in his eyes. Something in his manner told her that his rage was not generalized but aimed at her personally. "We must endure your presence but not hers!" He said savagely and nodded to the man holding Inez.
Mary's eyes widened in horror as she saw the Indian holding Inez removed a Bowie knife from his belt and raised it to her neck.
"Please don't!" Mary implored the leader, trying to think of some way to help Inez before it was too late. Inez didn't struggle but the terror in her eyes was apparent. Inez was too willful to allow their captors the satisfaction of hearing her beg for her life.
"You said you must endure my presence!" Mary exclaimed, clutching at straws but unwilling to give up without a fight, no matter how desperate the situation. "That means you need me to co-operate! If you kill her, I will not help you, no matter what!"
"We do not require your consent for our ritual!" The leader sneered and nodded to his minion to continue. Mary saw Inez close her eyes tight, for she did not want to see the blade slicing her life away.
"You are performing a ritual!" Mary shouted, sounding as forceful as sure of herself as she was capable of acting. "Rituals require everything fall into place without deviation. You need me for your ritual and if I do not co-operate then it might harm your chances of bringing Uktena's world into This World!"
The possibility of failure caused him to hesitate and he paused a moment. Mary saw uncertainty creep into his eyes and held her breath as the millisecond ticked by as he weighed her words carefully. Finally, after an eternity, he barked Indian dialect at Inez's would be killer. The blade dropped from Inez's throat and Mary was finally able to draw breath knowing that Inez's life would be spared, for the moment at least.
"You will come with us." He let go Mary's hair and took her arm instead. "You must be prepared for the ceremony."
"I will go with you willingly," Mary said bravely. "As long as my friend is safe."
"She will not be harmed," he said pulling her into one of the dark doorways, "for now."
Chapter Six: Escape Plan
Chris had one of those feelings.
He could not explain it but over the years, he had come to trust his instinct implicitly. He was not a man who put faith in things unseen. Logical, direct action saved his life on more occasions than he could possibly remember. However, on the rare moments when he had entrusted his life to nothing more than pure gut instinct, Chris Larabee was not disappointed.
With Vin, Buck and Ezra, Chris found himself facing Doctor Isaac Wetherill, who was more than cordial. The archaeologist had been happy to allow them access to his home and answered their questions more than amiably, but Chris could not shake the feeling the good doctor was hiding something from him.
"I spoke to Mrs. Travis," Wetherill answered without any trace of duplicity in his voice. "She inquired about the object and I told her what I knew. She and the other charming young lady thanked me and left." "Did she say where she headed?" Vin asked. It was normal strategy for Vin to ask the questions while Chris observed closely.
"No," Wetherill replied, looking Vin straight in the eyes as he answered all questions. Chris noticed his gaze did not waver for one moment. "I assumed she was returning to Four Corners."
"Why would assume that?" Vin pressed further.
"It was starting to get late in the day gentlemen," Wetherill responded, well aware of the scrutiny that he was being placed under by these gunslingers. "Two women travelling alone, where else would they go but home?"
"We did not come across the ladies on our journey here." Ezra offered, feeling the same tightness in his chest that Chris did. Like Chris, he had his own methods of reading people and his instincts told him this man was a liar. Ezra had seen enough of them in his lifetime and was practiced enough in the art himself to detect it in others.
"I'm sorry gentlemen," Wetherill concluded. "I cannot help you beyond that."
Vin shifted his gaze towards Chris, to see if their leader had any more to add but Chris said nothing to indicate otherwise. Instead, he watched Wetherill with those intense blue eyes, no doubt cataloguing everything about the man for use later on.
"Well thank you, Doctor Wetherill," Buck replied, realizing they were being told politely to leave. "We appreciate all the help you've given us."
"I am sorry I could not assist you with the ladies whereabouts," Wetherill said extending his hand towards Buck in a friendly handshake. Buck took it without question but he could sense the tension in the air even if none of his companions had spoken it out loud.
The four men were shown out of the large house and no one spoke until they were on their horses and riding towards the main gate. Only when the homestead was a suitable distance behind them did the lawmen choose to comment on their meeting with Doctor Wetherill.
"He was lying," Vin said with utter conviction.
"I agree." Ezra nodded. "He had something to hide."
"The question is, what?" Buck asked because he had seen it too. Wetherill's answers had been too perfect, almost rehearsed. There was more than a hint of performance behind the concerned persona he was attempting to promote.
"He knows where Mary and Inez are." Chris stated quietly, his eyes staring ahead. "Not only does he know where they are but he was mighty anxious to get us out of there." Despite the man's polite concern, Chris had observed his subtle attempts to steer their attention toward Four Corners and then the repeated affirmations of sorrow at his uselessness to them. He had wanted them gone and quickly. "He wanted us out of there so he could get going himself," Chris replied, meeting the other's eyes. It was a look the others knew well and had learnt through experience not to argue with. "The question is where he off to is in such a hurry?"
The answer was obvious.
The room was dark because the sun had set completely now.
Inez had no knowledge as to where Mary was taken only that they had some dark purposes intended for the widow in their ancient ritual. In her heart, she feared greatly for Mary, praying to her own gods that the ritual did not require the spilling of blood. Inez had not forgotten how Mary had stood up to the worshippers in her desperate bid to save Inez's life. Inez intended to return the favor somehow.
The worshippers had little concern for her life, knowing she lived only because Mary would not co-operate if she were harmed. She was deposited in this dark room; illuminated by whatever light the moon was casting tonight. She could not see its walls and the wooden doors in place were more recent additions to the ancient structure. Inez remained confined and alone, listening in dark to the voices fading into the distance outside her door. She could hear the river nearby and wondered if there were settlements along the banks that might be able to help her if she actually managed to escape.
She waited for as long as she dared until she heard no further movement in the rough corridors beyond her cell. When Inez was confident it was safe to move around, she starting working on the ropes tied behind her back. It was difficult to see anything in the dim light but Inez could see shapes in the darkness.
Standing to her feet awkwardly, she stepped forward, hoping to find a tool or some sharp edge, which she could cut the ropes around her wrists. The room was filled with the overpowering aroma of musty air and each breath she took seemed to make its stagnancy more potent. She drew close to the shapes against the wall, suddenly wondering what they were. Ominous suspicions started to emerge in her mind as they began to take more tangible form and by the time she found herself staring at the face of the first mummified corpse, Inez was so horrified, she thought her heart might burst.
She staggered back in repulsed terror, straight into another body behind her. The decrepit carcasses fell forward against her back and caused her to let out a choked scream as she scrambled away. The corpse fell against the gravel floor, crumbling to pieces from the impact. The movement seemed to cause a chain reaction and the sudden stirring of one quickly led to the collapse of the others.
Inez bit down, forcing herself to remain silent as the macabre scene unfolded before her. She could not afford to scream and draw attention to herself. Quashing the sickness threatening to make her retch, Inez swallowed the rising bile in her throat and concentrated on freeing her bonds. Obviously, she was in a burial chamber of sorts and she recalled something of what Doctor Wetherill had said about such chambers. The dead were usually buried with personal items. Gingerly, she waded through the broken bodies; trying not to breathe in too deeply for some of the dust was undoubtedly human remains. Studying the irregular shapes in the dark carefully, Inez located what she was searching for. She saw the silhouette of earthenware pots and saucers, objects of affection to the dead assembled. Inez walked to the collection and delivered a powerful kick that hurled the object against the nearby wall. It shattered completely into a dozen sharp pieces.
Bending over carefully, Inez picked up one of the pieces and manipulated its sharp edge against the ropes until she felt strands beginning to snap. There was pain when the swipes missed and she felt cuts against her skin. Like her previous fears, she forced this one away too, knowing that the pain had to be endured for the task to be done. Inez was conscious of everything, the pain in her bleeding wrists, the snapping freedom of each cut strand of Hessian and finally the silence that ensured there would be no unexpected arrivals before she was done.
When the last strand finally split, her arms came free suddenly and the shard flew out of her hands into the darkness. Inez rubbed her sore wrists and ignored the slick feel of blood against her skin. She stepped lightly on her toes and went to the door. It was locked but after a few forceful pushes, the lock broke free from the wall of dried mud. Time had degraded its texture and much of it crumbled upon touch. Inez estimated it would not take a lot of strength to collapse some of the walls. In either case, she had neither the inclination nor the time to try.
Somehow, Inez had to find Mary.
Mary Travis was trapped in between the unreality of her situation and the fear that was threatening to chase all sense from her mind. After they had taken Inez away, despite her vehement protest, Mary was escorted to a strange room inside the catacombs of the dead city. Unlike the others, it had to be reached through a set of stairs built inside the structure as opposed to its outer perimeter like the one she and Inez had ascended to become trapped so completely. Her mind was still reeling by her capture. She could not understand how they had known she was coming here and Mary wondered if it was just an unlucky coincidence she should walk into straight into their hands.
Or had Wetherill sent her here?
Her mind wrapped itself around the possibility and the more she thought about it, the more sense it made. When the realization became the undoubted truth in her mind, Mary cursed herself at her own foolishness because it was not just her life she gambled with. She dragged Inez into this mess and if anything should happen to her, how would it affect her son? Suddenly, the thought of Billy alone with both parents gone gave Mary the strength to center her frantic thoughts. She had to survive for his sake.
There was no doubt in her mind that this new room was the site of the ceremony although how it would be performed was beyond her understanding. Its shape was circular, reminding Mary of some Apache rituals she had chanced to witness some years before. A ring of stones sat in the middle of the floor and those performing the ritual wore colorful masks with animal faces. They paid very little attention to her for the moment other than making certain she did not attempt to escape.
There was no door to the room, except a flap of animal leather hanging in a place of one at the entranceways. Mary watched in a mixture of fear and fascination as they began building a fire in the center of the room, within the circle of stones. She noticed they used wet wood that began to smoke almost immediately after being lit. Clouds of billowing, grey smoke started to fill the room.
One of the worshippers was assigned to tend the fire while the others sat down in a circle. She was positioned directly in front of the blazing fire and for a moment, Mary had terrible suspicions to her part in the ceremony. The smoke began to press against the walls until it felt as if there was a fog in the room. Her eyes began to burn as the smoke reached her lung. Mary tried not to cough and around her, the worshippers had begun chanting in a language she could not understand.
Her fear started to rise when suddenly, one of them appeared. His mask was black and their designs clearly birdlike, she thought it might have been a crow or perhaps a raven. Its features were marked in strong white lines. Without hearing him speak, Mary knew it was the man who had taken the amulet away from her. No sooner than the thought had crossed her mind, he produced the object and reached for her. Mary shrank away instinctively but he grabbed her hand forcefully and forced her palm open.
"Take it!" He ordered. "Or your friend dies."
The image of Inez with a knife to her throat suddenly forced Mary to remember the bargain she had made with these men. She had given her word to willingly help them with their arcane ritual in return for Inez's safety. Until she thought of a way to extricate herself from this situation, Mary was unwilling to gamble with her friend's life. For better or for worse, she would have to keep her promise to them.
Desisting in her struggle, Mary took a deep breath and nodded in submission as the raven mask placed the amulet in her hand, its eyes staring at her as it glowed with the reflection of flames dancing in its tiny orbs of blue.
It was time to shake the boundaries between the worlds.
Chapter Seven: Underworld
Despite having to fight the overwhelming feeling that somewhere a clock was ticking against Mary Travis' life; Chris Larabee forced himself to remain calm. The group remained well hidden behind the canopy of trees surrounding the Wetherill homestead, certain Doctor Isaac Wetherill had something to hide. Night hurtled by quickly and soon they were waiting in the darkness for Wetherill to make his appearance. However, the more time slipped by, their impatience began to set in. Particularly in Buck who had very little to spare at the best of times.
Buck shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, trying not to show the others his concern for Inez was deeper than he let on. When Don Paulo had come to Four Corners to claim her months before, Buck had appointed himself her protector, despite Inez's protests. His friends believed his desire to fight the Don was borne out of some misplaced sense of honor while Chris had more or less accused him of feeding his vanity to restore his injured his pride. It was the closest the two friends had come to blows over any point in years.
The truth had always been closer to his heart than just a simple matter of pride.
What Buck told Inez about Don Paulo was no exaggeration. Over the years, Buck had come across men like Paulo. Men could only feel when they were allowed to vent the full brutality of their sadistic nature upon the women brazen enough to cross them. Inez was a force of nature. He had never known or encountered anything like her. She was everything wild and untamed. He looked into those fiery brown eyes and he saw rain clouds and thunderstorms. Her passions whirled like a tempest. In her presence he felt as trapped as any man caught in such a calamity. He feared what she represented but he was too awe struck to remove himself from her presence.
When he thought of the life Paulo had envisioned for Inez, it made Buck sick to his stomach. He could not imagine her living that nightmare, not when it was possible for him to deliver her from it. Buck did not know what came over him that day but he knew he would prefer death than let Paulo break that wild spirit he found so mesmerizing.
Even now, he was still as enchanted. There had been women before but the exception of Inez, he had yet to meet one he was not able to charm. It was not like he had not seen his share of beautiful women. He remembered them all clearly because they were all special in their own way. However, none of them held the place Inez did. Buck was starting to suspect, they never would.
He loved her. There was no doubt in his mind about that. However, admitting was another thing entirely. In that at least, Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee had much in common.
"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra let out an impatient sigh. "Will you please stop fidgeting? I am becoming exhausted simply looking at you." While Ezra's feelings for Inez was entirely different from Buck's, they were no less potent. Since her arrival, the young woman had taken a place in his heart Ezra rarely gave anyone accommodation. She was a business partner but more importantly, she was his friend.
And Ezra did not have that many friends to squander.
"I wish this guy would quit stalling!" Buck hissed back in irritation. "This waiting is making me crazy. Anything could have happened to Inez and Mrs. Travis by now."
Only Vin noticed Chris's fingers tightening slowly around the reins of his horse. While his expression remained dispassionate as always, Vin knew better. Beneath that impregnable armor he wore around his emotions, Chris Larabee was seething. He was just better at hiding than Buck. His eyes never moved off the myriad lights scattered around the Wetherill homestead because Mary's life depended on his concentration. As long as Chris knew that staying in control would help Mary, Vin did not doubt he would stay just as alert even if it meant staying out here all night.
"Just calm down," Vin said it before Chris put it more curtly. "You're spooking the horses."
"I can't calm down." Buck retorted. "She could be in trouble or worse. The Territory is no place for women, not with all the varmints and outlaws out here! They're both young and pretty, no man in his right mind is going turn down easy pickings like that'"
"Buck," Chris responded finally, his voice calm. He did not turn his eyes away from the watch but then Buck did not need to see his eyes to know just how serious he was. Chris had been listening to Buck even though he seemed indifferent, his own patience about to reach critical mass. "We need to stay frosty if we are going to find Inez and Mary. We let Wetherill slip past us, it's over."
"Sorry Chris," Buck replied remembering that Chris had similar demons about Mary. "I just lost my head a little."
Before Chris could answer, he heard Ezra announce. "Heads up gentlemen, the bird is taking flight."
Chris looked up and saw a dark figure riding away from the homestead and knew immediately this was what they had spent most of the evening waiting. Vin, Buck and Ezra looked to him as always, waiting for him to take the lead. Chris said nothing as he watched Wetherill widen the gap between them. Chris allowed him enough distance to follow him discreetly. Despite the part of him that favored a little good old-fashioned torture to get his answers, Chris decided to take no chances. They would allow Wetherill to get where he was going.
If Mary and Inez were not at the end of that journey, then Doctor Wetherill was going to have a very bad evening.
"Let's see where he goes," Chris said simply before digging his spurs into his horse and causing the creature to bolt forward. Without question, the others did the same and thundered after their leader praying silently that the women they cared for were still alive for them to find.
Otherwise, Doctor Wetherill was going to wish he were dead by the time Chris Larabee was done with him.
After a while, the sound of drums beating was almost hypnotic.
As Inez moved through the dimly lit corridors carved from mud and dried clay, she heard the chanting from the bottom of the cliff where she and Mary unwittingly entered their trap. She peered through the occasional window and doorways, spying on what was transpiring outside. The voices, which had been distant before, were now loud and echoed through her consciousness like some primeval song designed to surface long forgotten memories of a primitive past.
The entire cult had emerged in anticipation of the ceremony Mary Travis was forced to participate. A bonfire was lit at the base of the cliff and the revelers, both men and women indulged in all manner of excesses. They chanted and danced to the rhythmic pounding of drums and called to the gods whom they hoped to resurrect on this warm night. The men's bodies were painted in all sorts of bright colors while the women wore similar markings on their faces. Seeing the fervor in their eyes frightened Inez like nothing else she had witnessed so far. The insane belief the world would change tonight was not just some flight of fancy but a reality they would kill or die to ensure.
With all the worshippers engaged in their orgy below, Inez was grateful she was able to move around with some measure of freedom. She had no idea where Mary was nor did she have a weapon with which she could defend herself when her escape was discovered. She moved deeper into the maze of rooms and corridors carved into the cliff by the ancients of this land. It was almost comforting when she could no longer hear the celebration outside.
More than anything, she wished she could believe Buck and the others had miraculously learnt they were here and even now, were riding fast to reach them. In the end, however, such imaginings did little to improve her state of mind. She could not rely on him to save her again, as much as she would wish otherwise. This time, Inez was going to have to fend for herself.
The city was little more than a series of room to a dwelling interlocked by wide corridors throughout its expanse. The race that occupied this vast network of connecting homes was a close-knit community. Inez did not need to know anything about anthropology to understand the social structure of the ancient Mississippians were not unlike the tribal communities of the modern day Indians.
The corridors seemed endless and after a while, Inez hoped she was going around in circles while Mary was being treated to God only knew what during this mysterious ceremony. Her presence in the ceremony explained one thing for Inez. The two men who had broken into her house had not only desired to steal the amulet but they also intended to kidnap Mary as well. It explained why they had wasted time pursuing Mary instead of making good their own flight after being discovered.
Suddenly, Inez became aware of something else. While the noise from the festivities outside had faded into the background the deeper Inez penetrated the inner depths of the city; it was replaced with something far more reverent. She wondered if something had occurred outside to alter jovial atmosphere but after a moment of careful listening, Inez realized the fevered chanting she now hearing did not come from behind her was travelling through the catacombs from its inner depths.
It came to her with a flash of insight on what was transpiring. The cultists outside were celebrating the coming of the new dawn because their priests were at this instant performing the dark ceremony that would bring it about! Inez had little belief in the validity of the amulet's power or its claim to transform the world into some nightmarish underworld. However, the worshippers believed it. Judging from the look of hatred they visited upon Mary Travis earlier, it was probably scalding effrontery the impetus that made the amulet work just happened to be a white woman. Inez had no doubt as to Mary's fate once the ceremony was over and she was no longer required.
The chanting was becoming louder now and there was the faint odor of smoke in attendance. Inez thought the smoke might have originated from the torches hanging on the walls to light the caverns. However, she knew enough about fires and starting them to know there was something odd about its scent. It seemed thicker somehow. Nevertheless, her observation of the torches did give her an idea to a more immediate problem. Inez tore a strip of material from her skirt and wrapped it around her hand as she lifted one of them from the wall.
Reasonably armed, at least in her opinion, Inez moved stealthily up the passageway certain she would soon encounter a sentry guarding the ceremonial chamber. If the ritual was as important as she believed then there could be no interruptions. A guard had to be posted to ensure that was none. She rounded a corner and discovered a collection of dusty tools at the foot of an exposed chamber probably left behind from Wetherill's excavation team years before. Upon closer inspection, Inez detected little that was very formidable. The closest thing to a weapon she could find was a spade but then decided this was hardly the time to be selective.
Inez continued her search, narrowing in on the chanting that was suddenly beginning to wane. It puzzled her its intensity should start to deteriorate even though she knew she was very close to it points of origin. Finally, Inez realized she only had to turn up one more corridor before she confronted with it. The smell of smoke intensified considerably and Inez forced the terrible combination of fire and Mary Travis out of her mind. This was not the time for such fears when she was already so nervous. She did not even dare risk peering over the edge less she was seen. As it was, she abandoned her torch further down because she did not want to give away her presence by the shadows cast by flickering flames.
Inez quietly picked up some large pieces of gravel. Clutching her spade in one hand, she took a deep breath and threw stones hard against the wall. They made enough of a skittering sound for Inez to hear footsteps advancing down the corridor seconds later to investigate. Steadying her racing pulse as the shadow of a man loomed on the wall opposite her; Inez swung the spade hard as he moved past her. The curve of metal caught him in the squarely in the stomach, causing him to double over in pain. Robbing of any chance to recover, Inez swung again and brought steel across his neck. There was a sickly snapping sound like elastic breaking before he fell forward with a thud.
It was a few seconds before Inez was able to breathe again. She waited with her pulse racing to see if he would rise again. When he did not, Inez wrestled with the possibility that he may have been trying to trick her into dropping her guard, by this false display. Finally, she braved prodding him with the handle of the spade. The fear pounding in her chest abated slightly when he did not move and she was grateful that he had been alone. Retrieving her torch, she rounded the corner and found herself staring at a chamber with a flap of animal hide hanging from its entranceway.
She was lucky so far but luck was not eternal and sooner or later, it would run out. She hoped it would happen after she freed Mary.
Mary Travis could not understand what was going on.
When the ceremony began, she had expected to see all kinds of heathen practices being carried out before her. Terrible images of human sacrifices, cannibalism and the worst kind nonsense inspired by terrified pilgrims regarding the nature of North American Indian religion sprung to mind. Mary had always refused to believe such tales were true but as she sat in fearful anticipation about the dark ritual about to begin, she could not deny their presence in her mind.
However as the smoke billowed in such thick, grey swirls that it obscured the faces around her, Mary realized this ceremony was nothing at all like what she had envisioned. As it was, she was finding it extremely difficult to focus as the thickening smoke fed on the scant fresh air that still lingered in the chamber. She tried not to inhale too deeply but with each involuntary breath of smoke, Mary began to feel more disoriented than ever. The room was spinning around and she felt a sickening wave of nausea in her stomach.
She tried to see the others around her and realized that they too were suffering the same ill effects from the lack of oxygen. Mary's face was wet with tears because the noxious smoke was stinging her eyes badly. However, she was still aware of the raven mask close by. She could feel his hand pressing hers into a clenched fist until the amulet contained within her palm tore into her skin and a slick warmth that could only be blood, oozed from her broken flesh.
"What do you want me to do?" She demanded before descending into a violent fit of coughing. What faces she could see through the fog appeared to be doing the same and the purpose of this mass poisoning eluded her. With a sudden burst of panic, she wondered if the completion of the ritual required all of them dying. "I don't understand!"
"Breathe!" The Raven mask ordered viciously.
"I can't!" Mary cried out, barely able to force the words out her mouth before started coughing again. It was becoming harder to breathe and even more so, keeping conscious.
"Breathe it in!" He repeated oblivious to her physical state.
"No!" She exclaimed, trying to stand.
"Your friend will die!" He reminded her coldly and yanked her back to the ground. Mary felt down hard and felt the despair of knowing he was right. She could not renege on her word to them, not while they held Inez's life over her head. Mary took some comfort in knowing that she would be of little use to them in her current state, let alone be in any shape to complete their damn ritual. The disorientation she felt was beyond control now because the room was little more than a blur of smoke and faces. She could no longer distinguish where the floor began and where the ceiling ended. Even the pain in her hand had become a faraway ache that dulled further with each lungful of smoke she inhaled.
Mary finally succumbed to the dark fog poisoning her brain as she began to suffocate.
Mary Travis was dreaming.
The prevailing blackness enveloped her world appeared with such abruptness her initial realization of self, sent her spiraling into panic. Scrambling against the walls enclosed her like a tomb, she felt the stark fear of not being able to see ahead and having little room to turn around and see behind her. The biting cold tore through her bare skin and it was with a surge of terror she realized she was naked. The iciness in the air was unlike anything she had ever known and could only be described with the cold that came with dread.
Jagged rocks cut her hands as she began to crawl. An instinct previously absent now compelled her forward despite the ache in her tired and bruised limbs. Suddenly the struggle to be going became paramount in her consciousness. She no longer strained to see ahead but because the black promised her nothing, except the miseries of what she had left behind. She could hear the black calling to her, their voices caressing her skin like the soft, gentle whispers of a forgotten lover. It sang a siren song with the promises of delights upon her return. She knew not how or why but she knew their promises were lies and they were deceivers all of them.
After a while, she could not remember when this journey had begun. Her mind drew blank as she searched its walled recesses to unlock that knowledge. Time cease to have any meaning if it even existed in this place. The only thing she did understand in this place of shadows the absolute need to complete the journey before her. What lay in between was unimportant for the middle is always a neglected child. The need to touch the end, to ignore all distractions no matter how enchanting, was more powerful an instinct than she had ever known. Even death had no meaning unless the journey was done.
The journey was everything.
A familiar pinprick of white appeared before her eyes. At first, she was unable to recognize what it was for light did not exist where she had been. Yet in seeing it for the first time, filled her weary soul with warmth capable of dispelling the frightful shadows around her. Seeing it made her crawl faster, even though her knees were screaming in protest and her hands were torn and bleeding. All that mattered now was reaching the light.
A voice seared through her consciousness, slicing cleanly through the thoughts that compelled her forward. She paused a moment, knowing this was not the same voices that had tried to sway her from her course as they tried to coax her with their empty promises. She had not listened to them and she would not listen to this one either.
However, it did not take very long for her to realize that this voice was different. She felt its power seducing her with each dulcet tone of utterance. It affected her as fiercely as the passion to continue ahead. For the first time, she wondered if rest was indeed permissible. She was so very tired and the idea of closing her eyes to slumber in the cool was terribly inviting. Her mind was becoming cloudy and she quickly forced away the notion, focusing instead on the path once again. Despite the insatiable need to continue, the promise of sleep made her sluggish and had broken the back of determination that brought her this far.
IT WILL STILL BE THERE EVEN IF YOU REST.
Who was speaking to her? She asked herself as she forced herself to move despite its seductive words. A tiny kernel of fear was working its way to full-blown terror once more. On the periphery, she sensed it was waiting for her, she was no longer alone in the darkness. It should have pleased her knowing she had company for this had been a most lonely journey but it did not. Instead, she was filled with terrible images of things slithering in the black, things with rippling scales and glistening sharp teeth. She wondered if it was her imagination when she thought she felt its breath against her back.
Go away, she says unable to see the stranger but knowing with certainty now that it was here with her.
REST AND SLEEP. THE JOURNEY CAN WAIT WHILE YOU SLUMBER. THERE IS NO HURRY.
But there was. She could feel the urgency in her bones, could taste the necessity of speed in her mouth. Its salt was heavy and relentless and with the arrival of the stranger, had become frantic. There was danger in its soft caressing voice and its promises of sleep. With a flash of insight, she realized that she was being delayed.
You are trying to stop me, she cried out defiantly.
YOU WILL NOT COMPLETE THE JOURNEY. I WILL NOT ALLOW IT.
The smooth comforting voice had all but disappeared now. It slithered away into the dark like its unseen face. Its voice had become sinister, with the edge of concealed malevolence all but overcoming her. She crawled faster and faster, until the pinprick of light became a distant strobe urging her own like a mother urging her child to make its first steps. The pain in her hands was making her cry. Hot tears stung her cheeks as she pushed forward. She had to finish the journey, she had to reach the light!
FOOLISH. FOOLISH. FOOLISH.
The pain struck without warning. It slammed into her with such force that all thoughts of the journey was forced away from her mind. Slivers of white heat burnt through her hand until all she was aware of was the excruciating agony tearing her asunder. She did not know she had been screaming until her throat became hoarse and her vocal cords felt like knots of leather.
DO YOU UNDERSTAND NOW?
His voice was mocking her. She could hear his laughter in her agony. The pain was all-encompassing now as she rolled onto her side, clutching the hand that was the source of so much exquisite pain. She wept in the darkness, unable to fight it and knowing in her inability to do so she was failing a greater quest.
DID YOU THINK THAT I WOULD ALLOW YOU TO SIMPLY LEAVE? THERE IS NOTHING FOR YOU EXCEPT WHAT I DEEMED TO LET YOU HAVE AND I WILL NEVER LET YOU GO.
His triumphant words infuriated her because defeat seemed inevitable. The light still waited for her and she understood that all she needed to do in order to reach it was to look inside herself and use the strength that had driven her thus far. The pain would have to be disconnected. A memory flared somewhere in her mind of someone else who was able to do that. She searched through the secret places inside her soul, to the impregnable fortress keeping her memories from her. She had to remember! She had to tear down that wall! She aimed all her energy at that blockade and willed it gone with every ounce of strength left inside her ravaged body. She needed to remember!
And suddenly, it crumbled and the knowledge filled her as if she were immersed in warm water and the name surfaced just as effortlessly.
With that name came other memories. Thoughts of him engendered a contradiction of feelings. She felt passion and desire intermingled with the security of his protection and a gamut of emotions telling her that to find him she would have to make the journey. The knowledge of him forced her onto her knees, ignoring the pain that came from the action. She allowed herself to cry out because there was no shame in doing so if it allowed her to endure. Slowly, she took a tentative step forward, preparing herself for the icicles of agony that pierced through her with each distance of progression.
Its voice had taken on another emotion and it was one she knew well which allowed her to revel in the satisfaction of knowing. Fear. She could sense its fear. Her knowledge of its fear made it easier to continue, despite the pain, despite the overwhelming need to hide in the dark, where its words could not reach her.
I WILL HURT YOU, MARY!
Mary Travis. Her name was Mary Travis. A tidal wave followed those two words swept the last vestiges of doubt away with ruthless abandon. It brought home to Mary how important it was to continue. Other images filled her mind, images beyond the dark around her or the light ahead. A kaleidoscope of faces began to spin around her, awakening feelings and memories with each new image. Chris was there but there was also another face which made the attempts to stop her, all the more futile. She saw her son. Her beautiful, golden-haired boy, whom she carried in her body, whose first smile, still brought tears to her eyes.
Its voice felt silent but she heard other things now. There were fierce things that growled and breathed heavily against her skin, she felt the sickly warmth of fluid rolling down her back. Mary ignored them and continued, even though the sounds grew louder and closer until the threat of them made her heart pound so loudly, she feared it would explode in her chest.
Suddenly, there was a flash of bright orange and the dark tunnel was illuminated by the glow of a fire, barring her way. Was this its last trick? Mary did not know but she was determined not to let it win and would now allow its ruse to stop her. Agony, fear, humiliation and now death. It seemed the natural progression in its desperate bid to keep her from completing her journey.
KEEP GOING AND YOU WILL DIE!
Perhaps she would someday soon, she decided.
But not today.
"Mary, wake up!" A new voice cried out frantically.
She looked up and felt that same dizziness in her head, wondering when it was she had felt this way'
Chapter Eight: Butch and Sundance
"Wake up Mary!" Inez shouted as she found the unconscious widow lying in the thick fog of smoke.
Through the stinging in her eyes, Inez was able to see other shapes in the grey. Some of them were slumped across the ground unconscious, their faces covered in garish masks. The few who were sitting up were swaying unsteadily as they tried to retain some coherence while inhaling the noxious smoke. Inez did not understand what this was about but she did not intend to remain long enough to let the smoke affect her.
It took her some time to find Mary but eventually, she saw a glimmer of gold hair through the billowing clouds of grey. Mary was unconscious, clutching the amulet tightly in her bleeding palm. Inez immediately felt for a pulse and thanked God to see the widow still alive. She tried to lift Mary to her feet but the woman was a dead weight and Inez could not hope to make any kind of escape with Mary in this condition. Inez shook Mary hard when suddenly she noticed the swirl of smoke behind her. She turned around and saw a shape wearing a raven's face mask lunging towards her. His movements were sluggish and unsteady and Inez guessed he was suffering from severe smoke inhalation. Inez was able to dodge him easily and she shoved him hard as he stumbled past, sending him crashing into the fire. He screamed loudly as tongues of orange flame were quick to offer embrace. By the time he rolled out of the fire, she saw his hair and clothes were on fire.
Inez ignored his attempts to extinguish the flames around him, knowing she had little time. The others were struggling to rise and while they were not dangerous because their smoke-induced stupor, Inez feared that they may alert other worshippers who were not as disadvantaged. Wasting no further time, she grabbed Mary's arm and dragged the woman from the ground towards the door. The smoke was starting to affect Inez and she started coughing as they slipped through the leather flap.
Outside the air was fresher but not by very much. The smoke was gaining similar potency beyond the ceremonial chamber and soon the air in the passage would be just as toxic. However, Inez estimated the fire itself would soon burn itself out now that there was no one left to feed it. Carrying Mary as far down the corridor and away from the smoke as she could, Inez finally laid Mary on the ground, knowing that there was little time to spare in reviving her.
"Come on Mary!" Inez shook her hard. "Snap out of it!"
Mary's head lopped from side to side as Inez tried desperately to rouse her. After a few minutes, Inez was rewarded with a weak cough as Mary Travis' shallow breathing gained momentum and she started to regain consciousness. The line of concern running through Inez did not dissipate however until Mary's coughing become stronger and she was gasping for air. The widow's face was covered in smoke and soot, making it difficult to gauge her pallor. Inez hoped she had not inhaled enough smoke to cause her considerable harm.
"Where am I?" Mary asked, her voice little more than a hoarse whisper.
"Same place," Inez replied unable to hide her relief at Mary's coherence. "Worse trouble. Can you walk? We've got to get moving."
Mary nodded weakly and tried to stand up. Her head still swam and she felt pain in her right hand. Glancing down at her palm, she saw that she still holding the amulet firmly in her palm even though it had caused her to bleed. She tried to recall what had happened after she had fallen unconscious but the images were vague and uncertain. However, now was not the time to decipher her cryptic dreams. Through some miracle, Inez had freed herself and had found her. The chance could not be allow squandering.
"I can walk." She said shakily. It hurt her throat to speak. The smoke had burned her lungs and she still felt dizzy from its poisoning effects on her system. Mary rose to her feet with Inez's help when suddenly saw something behind Inez.
"Look out!" She screamed.
Inez spun around to see the man in the raven mask rushing at her. His body clothes were smoking from where he had fallen in the fire and Inez's stomach hollowed when she realized some of it had been seared onto his skin. Without thinking, she swung the spade at him, connecting with his face. He was practically swept off his feet from the powerful blow and hit the wall hard. Unfortunately, despite the fact she had delivered a formidable blow, he was merely dazed and still capable of giving pursuit. Inez knew the next time he attacked; she may not able to come away unscathed. She decided not to give him the opportunity.
"Come on!" Inez grabbed Mary's hand and pulled her down the corridor. Seeing Inez deal with their attacker snapped Mary back to almost full coherence. Even though she was still suffering the effects of the smoke and her ankle had not completely recovered, Mary had regained enough control of her faculties to keep in stride with Inez as they tore down the passageway. With adrenalin coursing through her veins, she noticed neither injury nor the damaging effects of smoke inhalation. She suspected tomorrow was another matter entirely but if she had a tomorrow to suffer, Mary would little reason to complain, since at the moment that seemed unlikely.
With Inez leading the way and appearing to know where she was going, Mary followed her lead without question. She was glad that one of them had some sense of direction because winding passageways of rock and mud were indistinguishable from one length of the corridor to another. While she had no idea of their progress, she could no longer smell the awful stench of smoke from the ceremonial chamber. However, as they drew further away, the stench of smoke was replaced by another sound that was hauntingly familiar, even if its tone was different.
For a moment, she was unable to place it until they drew closer to the source and the noise began to permeate the passageway.
Voices were chanting. Judging by their number, Mary guessed that they were many of them.
"Inez!" Mary managed to ask. "How are we getting out of here?" It was now clear to Mary from where the chanting was emanating. As they passed by the main entrance of the city, the voices were clearly coming from below the cliff face. She did not need to see the scene for herself to know that they were in serious trouble indeed.
"Not that way," Inez replied quietly, as she crept past the edge of the doorway and indicated Mary to do the same quietly. As Mary darted across the doorway quickly, the widow stole enough of a glance to discover what Inez had learnt earlier, that to reach the ground they would have to expose themselves to the cult worshippers. Despite their celebration for the dawning of a new age that would never come, Mary saw they were well armed, carrying guns and knives that were more than a match for two frightened women.
"That looks really bad," Mary said trying not to sound afraid but not quite able to manage a brave front. Despite Inez's quick thinking, her best friend was similarly terrified except Inez reacted to it better than Mary.
"You!" Mary looked over her shoulder to see the raven mask sidle up behind them without a sound until he was in reach of them both.
Mary ducked in time to avoid being caught but Inez was not so lucky. She reacted a fraction slower and it was all the time the raven mask needed. He grabbed a handful of her dark hair and yanked her to him. Inez let out a short scream that jarred Mary into action. Picking up the spade that had fallen from Inez's hand, she struck his charred shoulder. He cried out in pain as flat metal slapped hard against raw skin. Taking advantage of his distraction, Inez tore herself away from him and both women turned on their heels without looking back.
This time, their attacker did not give chase. As they ran further down the other direction, Mary heard him cry out for assistance to his celebrating companions. The chanting died abruptly and was soon followed by shouts of outrage when at the discovery that the ceremony had not been completed and she had run off with their precious artefact. She did not need to see the scramble of worshippers up the uneven steps herself to know that she and Inez were going to have company.
"Do you know where we are going?" Mary shouted at Inez. Neither woman as willing to stop running. The angry voices behind them were providing a formidable incentive to keep moving at all costs.
"Not particularly," Inez exclaimed breathlessly. "I'm making it up as I go."
"Making it up as you go!" Mary said horrified. "This is hardly the time for blind faith!"
Inez paused long enough to give Mary the filthiest look. "Don't get me started."
Behind them, they could hear the enraged voices giving chase through the tunnels. By now, Mary realized begrudgingly, the raven mask now had plenty of help to search for them. Somehow, being armed with little more than a spade was not going to be effective an army of religious fanatics.
"We've got to find another way out of here." Mary declared.
"Trust me," Inez retorted as they turned down another corridor. "Nothing could be further from my mind." They were fast running out of breath and light. There were no torches lighting this section of the city and the air had started to become dank once more. What little illumination there was emanated from torches in the previous corridors?
"We're going to have to hide Inez," Mary said firmly, thinking of no other recourse. They could not keep running because, for all they knew, they might be travelling in circles. It was unlikely they could find their way out in this maze of dark tunnels and there were too many people searching for them to remain in the open.
Inez stopped running and met Mary's gaze. "You're right." She agreed. "We've got to keep out of sight for as long as we can." However, even Inez could not be sure how much time would be enough with so many hunting for them. The unseen pursuers giving chase were closing in on them and Inez started to feel the situation was hopeless, that the trap sprung upon them was fatal with no escape. She tried to think of a plan but her mind was drawing a blank.
They kept running because it was the only thing they could think to do, knowing that they could continue this indefinitely. There were enough men behind them both to run them into the ground for sheer exhaustion and both Inez and Mary were starting to falter. Mary first because her lungs were still suffering the effects of smoke inhalation. Mary took note there were many chambers but very few that possessed doors. Wetherill had conducted large-scale excavations of this site many years ago and it appeared he sealed some rooms to protect the artefacts they might have contained. By now, the more valuable of these were removed but the chambers remained as well as the doors. As the footsteps behind them grew increasingly louder, Mary grabbed Inez's hand and pulled her into one the chamber.
It was almost the last chamber in the corridor and Mary suspected that they were still at large because the worshippers were searching such annexes as they kept in pursuit. A wise course of action Mary decided since they could not afford for her to hide the amulet from them, when it was so vital to their ceremony. Understanding her intent, Inez slammed the wooden doors as quietly as possible and immediately looked around for something to barricade it. After her escape from her cell earlier, she knew that it would not take much to break down these doors
Mary, on the other hand, studied their new enclosure briefly. It was dark except for a small window placed high on the wall. Through the ragged clay edges, she could see the welcoming sight of the night sky and hear the sound of running water. Upon hearing it, Mary remembered the river they'd seen when they had come in search of this place. There had been little reason to investigate it then because larger issues captured their attention.
"This lock is not going to hold," Inez informed dutifully.
"Is there anything to hold it with?" Mary asked hastily searching the room. The darkness made it difficult to see and she took a few steps forward when suddenly her foot struck something hard and she fell over. Whatever she had walked into slumped forward and Mary picked herself up only to find herself staring at the bony face of a very mummified corpse. The scream that escaped her lips gave away their position immediately as she scrambled away in fright, Mary heard Inez swear loudly behind her. However, the damage was done. The response to her cry of fear was immediate and suddenly, their situation took on an entirely new urgency.
"Damn it!" Inez exclaimed. "They heard us!"
"I'm sorry!" Mary apologized futilely almost to the point of tears but knew the mistake was fatal. "It caught me by surprise."
"It's a burial chamber!" Inez retorted angrily as she pressed her body against the door and braced herself for the invasion that was coming. Mary hurried forward and took up position next to Inez in what was fast looking to become their last stand.
"I'm so sorry Inez!" Mary stammered trying not to cry at a time like this but there was so much regret inside her she could barely contain it. "I should have never got you involved in this! What was I thinking?"
"It's a gringo thing," the Latin woman declared sarcastically. "All your people have it. Always so curious, without any ability to see the train until it runs over you!" She hated to be so cynical at a time like this but at the moment was difficult to feel anything positive when death was approaching with such speed. "We're not going to be able to keep them out for long," Inez continued as if any commentary was needed. "The walls are very weak, they'll be able to break the door down without damaging the lock. The doorways just crumble."
"They do?" Mary looked at her as a spark of inspiration ignited within her. As the idea took shape inside her head, Mary scoured the floor looking for their trusty space. It had helped them so far, she hoped it would do so again. It was not far from where she had tripped over the corpse and Mary ran forward, picking it up off the ground. Running to the far wall, she controlled her revulsion, trying not to squeal or cringe when she pushed aside the corpses stacked against it.
"What are you doing?" Inez demanded frantically. "I need help holding this door! I cannot do it myself!"
"I'm getting us out of here," Mary said confidently and then added with less certainty. "I hope."
"Whatever you're going to do, make it fast." Inez cried out because the voices coming down the corridor were too close for comfort. Inez estimated they had less than a minute before the worshippers reached them. After desecrating their ceremonial chamber and stealing their precious religious icon, Inez did not want to be on the receiving end of their wrath. Inez did not believe that they would limit the bloodshed to just her. She had a feeling that Mary Travis no longer had the same value she once did.
Mary took a deep breath and prayed this worked. Swinging the spade forward, she sank it deep into the wall and forced it through the crumbling bricks of mud. Using the tool as a fulcrum, she used all her strength to dislodge the bricks holding the wall together. Mary pushed so hard her arms started to ache but after a final sharp thrust forward, one of the bricks loosened. When it fell on the ground and a small hole appeared in its place. Without wasting time, she started working on the others.
While she could see very much else on the other side of the opening, the sound of rushing water was even louder and that gave her the incentive to continue. However, the spade was taking too much time and they had little of it to spare so Mary began kicking at the opening with her boot. It had the effect of dislodging several bricks at a time until the whole wall seemed on the verge of collapse.
"Help me!" She shouted at Inez.
Inez glanced over her shoulder and saw what Mary accomplished. She did not want to leave the door but decided to take a gamble on Mary's plan. While she did not wear boots, her shoes gave her flexibility to deliver more powerful kicks and with their combined effort, the mud holding the wall together crumbled completely, taking most of the wall with in its final demise. Some of the bricks had fallen through the orifice but most of it piled on the dirt ground.
The wind outside whipped at her skin as Mary peered through the opening first. As suspected, she found they were standing at the edge of an almost thirty-foot drop. Directly below them, Mary observed the wide expanse of white water below. Judging by the flow of rushing foamy water, Mary guessed the river was deep.
"Oh god." Inez caught Mary's gaze and guessed what was coming. The sounds were in earshot now; requiring neither echoes nor tunnels to carry their voices to the prey.
"It's the only way," Mary looked at her with as much confidence as she could display at this moment, which was to say not very much. "We're going to have to jump."
"What is it with you and jumping from great heights?" Inez snapped terrified. Inez was never good with heights and it was the one thing capable of making her a complete gibbering wreck. Like she was at this moment.
Mary saw the terror in her eyes and came to a decision. There was not going to be an easy way to do this. "Inez," Mary said taking a deep breath. "I am so sorry."
"You said it already." Inez's expression softened. "This is not your fault, you were doing what you thought was right. I could not let you do this alone anyway," she said trying not to become emotional. She was never very good at it. "You are my friend and I am honored to know you. Besides, I could never say no to adventure." That was an untruth but they were about to die so she perfectly all right with telling a white lie.
God would understand and if not, she'd set him right when she got to heaven.
"No," Mary shook her head, although Inez's speech was sweet and made it all the more difficult to do what she about to. "I was not apologizing for that. I was apologizing for this."
Without another word, she shoved Inez over the edge.
Mary saw Inez plunge downwards, filling every second of her downward journey with a terrified scream. As the door burst open behind her, Mary did not look behind as she closed her eyes and stepped off the edge with one thought in mind.
If we die, Inez is going to be so mad at me'
Chapter Nine: Showdown
Mary did not scream because when she hit the water, the impact forced all the air out of her lungs. She fell against the foamy surface of the river with a tremendous splash before the temporary displacement of water, swirled back upon her. She almost reached its depths before the buoyancy of the choppy water drove her to the surface.
Mary saw nothing in her ascent because the night had made everything black and impenetrable. The only thing she was able to make out clearly before breaking the surface was the flurry of bubbles rising with her. She emerged in the night air and took in greedy gulps of air, exhilarating in its fresh and untainted flavor. For a moment, she reveled in the prospect of simply being alive, oblivious to all the things that would impress themselves upon her memory soon enough.
The river was running fast and furious with powerful currents sweeping away anything caught in its clutches along its predestined path. Despite it being summer, Mary felt the icy water bite into her skin as she struggled against the awesome might of the waterway. Inez was almost an afterthought until the memory slammed into her with as much intensity as the choppy waters around her.
While Mary was a strong swimmer, she realized she had never discussed the subject with Inez to say with confidence if her friend had similar expertise. As the terrifying possibility wrapped itself around her horrified mind, Mary realized that she probably should have asked if Inez could swim before pushing her off the ledge.
"Inez!" Mary cried out in panic. She tried not to become hysterical over the possibility Inez could be at this moment drowning at the bottom of the river. The rushing waters of this river were more than a match for someone who could swim, Mary did not want to imagine how easy it would overcome someone who could not. Struggling to keep her head above water, Mary scoured the length of the river as far as she could, searching for some sign of Inez. The see-sawing motion of the waves sweeping her along made it difficult to see anything through the dim glow of moonlight.
"Inez!" Mary shouted again. She was starting to let the fear overcome her as she frantically searched for some trace of the woman.
Despite all efforts to the contrary, Mary was fighting a losing battle with her terrified emotions. Guilt and remorse were stabbing at her with as much fury as the turbulent waters around her. What had she been thinking? Since the amulet's presence in her life, Mary Travis had been embarking on a series of foolish escapades. She should just leave the thing to languish in that antique store where no one would suspect the dangers hidden within its ornate facade. She had not only placed her life at risk but she had unwittingly endangered Inez by dragging her best friend into this situation! Mary was mortified by her reckless behavior.
Please let her be all right.
Mary prayed to herself silently before coming to the conclusion it was too soon to give up hope of Inez' survival. If there was anyone who was better equipped at landing on her feet no matter what the situation, Inez had proven time and time again that it was she. Although Mary could not see her, it proved nothing. Mary stubbornly refused to believe that Inez was dead and would continue to do so unless she saw proof otherwise.
Suddenly, she saw a flash of red against the frothy white surface of the river. Mary remembered that Inez had been wearing a red skirt! Filled with renewed hope and vigor, Mary cried out again, hoping to draw Inez's attention. "Inez!"
"Mary!" Inez's terrified response sent a wave of relief flooding Mary's guilt-ridden spirit.
Hearing Inez's voice gave Mary a hidden reservoir of strength she didn't know she possessed. Swimming ahead, Mary allowed the powerful currents to carry her forward, propelling her through the rushing water with greater speed. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Mary caught sight of Inez, clinging to a piece of broken log for dear life. It did not take Mary long to reach her and soon they were both hanging onto the driftwood as it swept them along on its turbulent journey.
"Thank God you're okay!" Mary said unable to stop smiling despite their current situation. She was so glad to see Inez alive all thoughts of their current predicament seemed far away. Nothing felt as important to Mary now she knew Inez was all not at the bottom of the river. The joy at seeing her friend almost brought tears to her eyes.
"I can't believe it!" Inez exclaimed with just as much jubilance. Inez had been gripped with similar feelings of loss until she had heard Mary's voice calling out to her.
"That we made it?" Mary gushed unable to believe they were still alive after everything that had transpired this evening. By all rights, jumping off the cliff had been a big gamble. She wondered absurdly what odds Ezra Standish would give her for surviving such a feat.
"No! That you pushed me!"
"I had to do it!" Mary protested vehemently. "You weren't going to jump otherwise!"
"Of course I was!" Inez insisted but once knew inwardly it was a lie. Suddenly, they both noticed that the pitch and tempo of the rushing water around them had increased sharply. Inez looked at Mary with a sober expression and inquired over the sound of pounding waves. "Do you know where this river goes?" She asked. Before encountering Mary, Inez had tried reaching the shore but the currents dragging them along refuse to give her up. Each attempt to reach dry land was met with the river gently ushering her back to its dead center.
"You don't want to know," Mary whispered looking past her. Inez saw the color draining from Mary's face as her eyes stared forward with wide eyes. Inez followed her gaze with a terrible premonition of disaster, wondering what could cause Mary Travis to finally be at a loss for words. Slowly, Inez looked over her shoulder and decided God was punishing them both for something.
Did this ever end?
There was less than a second to descend into a complete panic before the two women went over the waterfall. The drop was nothing like jumping from the cliff but they nevertheless uttered short screams in unison as they spilled over the edge and landed in the plunge pool below with a thunderous splash. Fortunately, the currents in this section of the river were mild and they were finally able to swim in the direction they wanted, without fear of being swept along on another wild ride.
It took a few minutes before they were able to swim clear of the cascade and reach calmer waters. When Mary caught sight of the uneven break of water against the pebbled shore, it felt like the most beautiful things she had ever seen. Inez was not far behind her and they both swam towards the edge before weakly crawling onto the pebbled ground.
"Thank God," Mary exclaimed, enjoying the feel of land beneath her. Her wet clothes felt like lead weights and Mary wished she could remain here for a while and sleep. "I may never go near a river again."
"I'm never going into an antique shop with you again." Inez declared, panting in similar weariness.
As she rested on the shore next to Mary, Inez brushed the tendrils of jet colored hair from her face and wrung out her waterlogged skirt. Mary, who was sitting beside her, was more removing the boot on her right foot since the location of the other one was anyone's guess. Mary wrinkled her nose in distaste as she examined the ruined footwear before tossing it aside. The cold had made her injured ankle numb and Mary was grateful for small consolations.
"You are never going to let me forget this are you?"
"Not if we both lived to be a thousand." Inez grinned, her spirits lifting a little. At the moment, she was still on a high at being alive.
"Thanks," Mary returned with a wry smile. "You're a true friend."
Suddenly, they heard a rustle of leaves coming from brush behind them. Mary and Inez looked over their shoulder to see Doctor Wetherill standing behind them with a group of worshippers.
"Oh fuck," Inez swore.
"Inez!" Mary stared at her reproachfully.
For a moment, neither of them was surprised by this turn of events. Considering how the rest of the day had gone, this was almost expected. Letting out a collective sigh of resignation, they regarded each other with almost weary expressions before rising to their feet slowly to face this new trial. After what they had been through already, death seemed almost anti-climactic. Mary was starting to think that it was better to get this whole thing over and done with. She certainly did not have the patience to endure another like this.
"Well ladies," the doctor exclaimed even though he was puzzled that neither woman seemed very afraid of him. "You have led us on a merry chase. Once we saw your dramatic exit into the river, it did not take a foot of genius to know where you would emerge. I must say your daring surprises even me."
Mary had suspected his involvement in this sordid affair prior to his appearance and now it was more or less confirmed. It was Wetherill who had sent them here knowing his minions would be on hand to capture them as soon as she and Inez had walked into his trap. Upon further consideration, later on, Mary realized he was the leader of the cult of the staring eyes. It made perfect sense he would have revived the ancient sect when he knew most of about it. Men like Wetherill were drawn to power, no matter how outlandish it might seem.
"We're glad to oblige." Inez retorted defiantly. If it was her destiny to die tonight that Inez was going to do so with dignity. She was tired of running, hiding, jumping, and especially jumping, from this madman and his band of crazed fanatics.
"Now madam," Wetherill said taking a step towards Mary, "I will take the amulet."
"Why?" Mary instinctively took a step back. "The ritual did not work."
"I expected it would not," Wetherill answered without any fear of disclosure. Soon these two troublesome women would be dead and the amulet would be his. The thought of that drove caution from his mind. There was no reason for them not to know what he intended to accomplish in the wake of their untimely demise. "I hoped you might be weak enough to serve Uktena's purposes but I am hardly unsurprised by the failure of the ritual."
"I don't understand." Mary was stalling for time. She had no idea what she was stalling for but she knew she could not let him have the amulet. For once, it no longer became a matter of obsession but of keeping the only bargaining point she possessed for saving both their lives. If she handed over the amulet, Wetherill would kill them both at this very spot.
"Of course not," he smiled as if pleased at his knowledge and her lack of comprehension. "You do not know the beginning of the tale." "What beginning?" Inez demanded, tired of all this. She wished the man would just get on with it instead of waffling on, obviously in love with hearing himself speak. "You told us everything about the creation of the Three Worlds."
"You were listening Senorita," Wetherill said with a measure of surprise. "Then allow me to fill the gaps in your knowledge."
Despite herself, Mary was interested to know. Something happened to her in that ceremonial chamber. While her memories of it were vague, enough was retained in her memory for there to be questions that required answering.
"The Sun God did not create This World." Wetherill announced. "The legends say we created it when the first of us crawled through the nexus existing between the realms. Originally, humankind were of the Under World and subjects of Uktena. They were not happy to lose us when the first human chose to breach the boundaries of worlds into what we know as This World. When the First emerged into the Sun, the others were inspired to follow and soon all of humanity left Uktena's realm. Once in This World, the Sun God who resided in the Upper World decree there should always be three realms of existence despite Uktena's desire for his minions to return."
Mary remembered the whispering voices in her dream. Was it truly that? "But the smoke?"
"The Indians call it a vision quest," Wetherill explained helpfully as if enjoying this moment at center stage. So very few people had a chance to know of his genius since the Indians around him saw it the ritual as a way to shirk of the bondage of the white man and not appreciating that they were changing the universe. "The smoke allows your body to escape the boundaries of your mind, to reach places in yourself that would otherwise remain buried and hidden. It sometimes acts as a conduit for spiritual projection, if you can reach it before the smoke suffocates you."
Now Mary understood clearly. "To shift the balance between the worlds, you have to stop that first person from crossing the boundary." Mary whispered in comprehension 'You are unravelling a creation myth."
"It is hardly a myth," Wetherill replied, his eyes now taking on the same religious fervor as his followers. "However, your insight serves you well Madam," Wetherill complimented. "You bonded with the amulet when you found it and thus you were required to complete the ritual."
"But nothing has not changed." Inez pointed out.
"As I said," he looked at Mary. "You are a strong woman Mrs. Travis, too strong to be swayed by the destiny of what could be. The amulet gave you the chance to change things and you refused." He looked at Mary with a sinister gleam in his eyes that made both of them shudder. "When I kill you and sever the bond you have made with the amulet, I will perform the ritual and I will change the universe."
"MARY, INEZ, GET DOWN!" A familiar voice cried out in the night
Mary did not even need to see him to obey that order. When Wetherill turned to the voice, Mary and Inez used his distraction and started running towards a tree trunk resting against the embankment. Diving behind it, the two women took cover as the explosion of gunfire erupted, shattering the serenity of the dark. While the shootout took place, Mary reached into her wet pockets and produced the amulet, trying not to think of the gunfire and the men fighting to save them.
"That was Chris wasn't it?" Inez asked as they both crouched low behind the protection of wood. Bullets whizzed over their heads while some met their mark when Mary saw a worshipper fall dead near them. A spot of crimson expanded across his chest as he died. Mary closed her eyes and forced the image away. She knew Inez was keeping her eyes rooted to the damp ground instead of the carnage occurring around them.
"Yes, it was," Mary replied, never believing she could be so grateful to see the gunslinger. "I've got to get rid of this thing." She said holding the amulet in her hand. "Wetherill can't get his hands on it."
Whether or not Wetherill's belief in this trinket was valid, Inez could not disagree with Mary's assessment. The amulet was dangerous and while it was in her possession, Mary would never have any piece of mind. Not to mention there was a little matter of it being able to end life as they knew it to consider as well. There were not a lot of places to dispose of the trinket so Mary had to think quickly, difficult enough task to do when there were bullets flying overhead and people dying around her.
It came to her just as the gunfire died. The shooting and her search to find an appropriate hiding place seemed to culminate at the same time. Her choice was simple but not obvious for minds that placed more myth on the object that they ought. The amulet remained in obscurity for so long because no one had suspected it would have been displayed out in the open for everyone to see, escaping attention simply because it presented itself so obviously. While had something a little more elaborate in mind that an open display, her hiding place was just as simple with an even less of a chance at being inadvertently stumbled upon.
For better or worse, the worlds would remain in accordance with the Sun God's decree.
It was over almost as suddenly as it began.
Mary rose to her feet when the shooting was done, in the wake of the uneasy silence that normally followed such events. The clearing where she and Inez had faced Doctor Isaac Wetherill only a short time ago was now marred with bodies strewn across the shale and pebble ground. It was to her intense relief no one she recognized was among the dead.
Her heart pounded as her eyes moved over the deceased worshippers and saw Doctor Wetherill counted among the fallen. She wondered as she stared at his lifeless eyes, trying to ignore the widening pool of blood forming under his head, whether he had truly believed the amulet was capable of ending existence or was he as misguided as his followers. It was a question, she supposed would never really be answered. In any case, the amulet was beyond the reach of anyone although, with Wetherill's death, Mary suspected the cult of the staring eyes would fall into obscurity once more.
"Ladies," Ezra Standish emerged from the trees where he and the group had taken cover during their gun battle. "I trust you are unharmed." He said looking at them carefully. While he could see no signs of injury on either woman, he could be forgiven for assuming the worst. Both Mary and Inez were in their bare feet and completely soaked, their clothes were torn and covered with dirt. They appeared in quite a state even though they seemed in somewhat perfect health.
"We are fine, Mr. Standish." Mary tried to say with as much dignity as she could muster. "How did you find us?" Her eyes furtively searched for Chris because she knew he was here, somewhere. As pleased, as she was to have him rescue her yet again, she was not happy at placing so many of friends in jeopardy because of her obsession with an ancient Indian artefact.
"We followed Doctor Wetherill here," Ezra replied.
"Well, well," Buck announced himself as he appeared, wearing a thoroughly amused grin plastered across his face. "It looks like you two ladies had yourself quite a day out." He swaggered forward full of bluster and obviously very pleased with himself. Mary saw Ezra roll his eyes in resignation at some secret knowledge he was keeping to himself.
The smirk he was wearing only made Mary feel even more foolish. However, she decided against making any comment considering he and the others had just saved their lives
"One we would rather forget," Mary said uncomfortably, as she brushed down her dress and tried to fix her hair to some measure of decency. It was bad enough that her nocturnal adventure would be a source of great amusement to the township of Four Corners for months to come without her riding home looking like something that got dragged through the river.
Inez however, was not so restrained.
"Get that smile off your face." She ordered as she strode towards them. Her steps were made gingerly as the jagged, pebbled ground dug into the soles of her feet. At this point of time, she was in no mood for Buck's attempts to embarrass her. Inez could just imagine what the next few days were going to be like.
She was never going to hear the end of this.
"Aw come on honey," Buck protested, giving her that little boy look of his. "Ain't you gonna thank us? Looks to me like we arrived just in time. I think that at least deserves a thank you kiss." He held out his cheek for her.
Inez glared at him with narrowed eyes and said quite firmly. "In your dreams."
"It's never just a kiss in my dreams, Inez." He grinned wickedly; knowing it would infuriate her even more.
"I'll have you know Senor Buck," she said defiantly, "we were just about to formulate a new plan when you arrived." Despite how happy she was to see Buck again, it was unnecessary for him to know that. She hated it when he had the upper hand on her because Buck did not have the grace to be a good winner. He was going to get a great deal of mileage out this latest escapade of hers and Mrs. Travis.
Mary met her gaze with a raised brow. "We were?"
"Infierno!" Inez exclaimed in exasperation.
As Inez and Buck continued their verbal foreplay, Mary turned to Ezra who was making sure there were no survivors among the fallen Indians. "There are more of them, Mr. Standish." She pointed out. "I think we should be leaving. Wetherill was their leader, I'm sure of it. If they find him dead'"
"I know." Ezra nodded. "Mr. Tanner is at the moment keeping watch on that eventuality. You are right however; we should be on our way as soon as possible. Are you in good enough health to travel?"
Mary nodded in response. Sometimes Ezra Standish was almost as much an enigma to her as Chris Larabee. Outwardly, he showed every sign of being just as shallow and conceited as any other conman of his type but then on occasion, he would show them all that there was more to him than pressed shirts and fanciful card tricks. Despite his remarks otherwise, she knew he cared for the six men he rode with and Four Corners had become more to him than just another town. Like Chris, Ezra had put down roots in Four Corners, a gesture she would never have believed of the conman.
"I want to go home." Mary said breathlessly, "I've had enough adventure for one night."
Mary looked up and knew it was Chris Larabee who had spoken. He was staring at her, arms folded, with that sardonic expression on his face that made her feel two inches high. Mary flinched under his intense gaze, knowing instantly he was not impressed with her. Considering what had happened today because of her reckless behavior, she supposed he was somewhat justified in being a little annoyed.
Okay, perhaps a little more than annoyed.
"I'll get the horses," Ezra replied making a discreet exit.
As he walked past, Mary caught the barest hint of a smile slipping past his lips as he retreated from the line of fire. Coward, she thought ruefully, before looking at Chris, trying to appear as nonplussed as possible. "Well Mr. Larabee," she said politely. "I guess I owe you a debt of thanks."
"I guess you do."
She wished he would just say what was on his mind instead of dragging this out. Obviously, he was angry. Mary would be extremely disappointed if he was not. They regarded each other for a moment, now that Inez and Buck had moved off the stage and they had the clearing to themselves. She knew he was angry because his arms were folded and she had only seen him do that when he was feeling particularly ornery. Strangely enough, he always seemed to be that way around her.
"Okay," Mary sighed deciding to throw caution to the winds and stop delaying the inevitable. "Let me have it." She threw up her arms in a gesture of defeat. "I deserve it, I know behaved foolishly. I should not have left town alone and walked into an obvious threat. You don't have to tell me that I put my life and Inez's in jeopardy."
"Don't forget our lives as well."
Until that point, Mary had been willing to admit that she was wrong. After all, she had behaved irresponsibly in the matter of the amulet and the events that followed since she acquired it. However, that stupid, smug, expression on his face was doing more to infuriate her and provoke her rebellious streak than a thousand crazy fanatics bent on spilling her blood. Why was it necessary for him to make it so difficult for her to thank him? Suddenly, a thought came to her and a faint smile stole across her lips.
Mary sauntered over to him, crossing the distance between them in a graceful flow of movement. The anger in her lovely features had dissipated and instead of that irritated expression she was wearing a moment ago, Chris saw something else in her face that he could not quite define. Mary paused barely an inch away from him and looked up into his eyes with a slight pout to her very luscious lips.
"You are right of course Chris." She sighed breathlessly, her chest rose and fell inches from his skin. For a moment, Chris had no idea what she was doing, aware only that her creamy skin was within reach of his lips and that proximity was way too close for comfort. He cleared his throat and took a step backward, suddenly aware the rules on this little engagement of theirs had changed dramatically.
"Maybe I was a little reckless," she smiled seductively, her blue-grey eyes dancing with suggestion. Mary brushed a finger against his chest and heard his breath catch at the gesture. "I was just curious. Haven't you ever been curious about anything?" She placed another hand on his chest as her tongue moistened her dry lips. Chris could only stare.
"Sometimes." He said cautiously, wondering what game Mary was playing. Although she was not quite pressed up against him, he could not ignore how close she was.
It was the first time Mary had seen what she had always suspected. Chris Larabee wanted her and he wanted her very much indeed. The hunger in his eyes was almost predatory and despite the fact this display was to toy with him a little and get her own back, Mary could not deny his intense gaze was just as intoxicating to her.
"Maybe we can just forget about this little indiscretion for now?"
"I don't see why not." He cleared his throat, deciding he needed to get her away from him NOW.
Just a little more and she could call this charade effectively over. Mary inched closer to him until her lips were almost touching his. She could feel his reaction as her breath grazed his skin in soft flutters. Despite her own pounding heart, Mary whispered softly in his ear. "Thank you, Chris." She looked at him coyly. "I'm so glad we had this little talk."
With that, she stepped away from him while he was still reeling from the effects of their encounter and stated in a more familiar voice. "Now that we have settled all that, shall we go Mr. Larabee?"
Chris stared at her and realized just what she had done to him. His face almost turned red with anger but she had humiliated him enough for one day without him losing his head as well. However, what she had done was not easy to let go. Chris had not fallen for that trick since he was a teenager and it incensed him beyond belief she could have been so damn underhanded and sneaky and so unbelievably seductive and desirable. This was not helping, he told himself forcefully and met her gaze when an idea came to him.
Two can play at that game, Mrs. Travis.
"Certainly Mary," he said recovering almost completely now. "There's just one thing." He stepped towards her.
Before Mary could react, Chris Larabee caught her by the waist and pulled her to him. Without saying another word, he pressed his lips against hers, delivering to Mary Travis a rough, bruising kiss. There was so much passion and sheer want behind that one kiss Mary actually felt dizzy from its effects as she felt his sensuous lips taste her like she was the sweetest thing ever.
And then just like that, he pulled back, smirking at her dazed expression with smug satisfaction.
"Now we can go."
Epilogue: Boot Hill
Whoever he was, did not matter.
Those who buried him were only aware that he was dead and required a Christian burial, even if he was not of the faith. To them, he was just another Indian. No more, no less. His final resting-place was a dry patch of dirt at a nondescript corner of Boot Hill, his neighbors were forgotten like he soon would be. The place of his burial mattered as little as his name and matters even less to us.
"That's deep enough." An aging man with bad teeth told his young apprentice, before spitting a mouthful of tobacco at the ground.
The boy stopped digging and climbed out of the hole, taking care to take his shovel with him. The sun was setting in the distance and he was glad that this backbreaking work was over. Although the money for this work was good, he was eager to leave it behind today.
"How come he don't got no coffin?" The boy inquired looking at the body of the dead Indian.
"Cause ain't no one paying for." The older man retorted. "Now quit your yammering and let's get him in there." The man was almost in his sixties but would not retire until he dropped dead from the work. He had not family to support but a drinking habit that required employment. Groaning from the effects of his aging body, he grabbed the shoulders of the corpse, while the boy lifted the legs. It was not the most dignified burials but then there was no one to care. Certainly not the dead man, that was for sure.
"What's that around his neck?" The boy asked as he saw an odd shape pendant hanging from the dead man's neck. It was held in place by a thin piece of cord and did not seem very impressive, even if it did look somewhat unusual.
The old man regarded it with a quick look and saw nothing that interested him. "Just a piece of Injun junk." He growled in response. "Probably worthless."
The seven returned to the city of the cliff dwellers a day later and found no sign of the worshippers. Any evidence of a religious movement promptly disappeared with the death of their leader, Doctor Isaac Wetherill. Chris found Mary's horse Homer and her wagon abandoned in the canyon before returning the animal home to her.
For a while, he was concerned that Mary might be in danger from the remaining worshippers who might wish her ill in retribution of their leader's demise. However, Vin informed Kojay and Chanu to keep an eye out for worshippers bearing the tattoo of the staring eyes. Eventually, the word spread to numerous tribes in the area and a large number of the fanatics were identified. While not all of them could be held accountable for threatening Mary and Inez's life, their faces were known and that kept them away from the widow.
There was one question that remained unanswered. Although she was asked, Mary Travis would smile evasively and reply the amulet was not in possession. Despite the best efforts of the seven excepting Chris, who stayed well away from Mary for days after, none of them were able to find out what happened to the mysterious object which had been the cause of this whole affair. Neither Mary nor Inez, who was present at the time, felt inclined to reveal the location of the artefact although both seemed perfectly confident that the object would not surface any time soon.
Eventually, the amulet passed into memory becoming a component in one of the more colorful experiences in Mary Travis life but largely forgotten by those who were perfectly content with the existence of the Three Worlds.
For it would be unthinkable if there were only one'.
Next Story: The Narrow Margin Between Love and War
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