Fool's Gold and Ashes
Thanks as always to Heather. This probably wouldnt have been finished and certainly wouldnt have made much sense without her help.
Size: Approx. 180K
Francis Slaughter stood before the altar. His long, sinewy fingers fisted and unfisted at his side. His hooded eyes lost their focus as he tried to sense the forces present in the room. There was a disturbance, but he couldnt name it. The air fairly vibrated with power.
And his candles were missing. The candles his Santero had lit to destroy the Seven from Four Corners had disappeared. The candles his Santero had lit to protect him from their power were gone.
Slaughter could feel it; the Seven were entering his town. But his Santero had already returned with his powerful magic. The vanished candles must be a sign. It had all come down to this. The candles would reappear at the time and place for each Regulators demise. With the death of each of the peacekeepers he would absorb their strengths and powers. He would be invincible.
Slaughter turned and drifted back out the door.
Chris Larabee was setting a torturous pace, but his men didnt complain. Whether they were relieved to finally be taking the offensive, or making their peace with what might be waiting for them; dwelling on their own thoughts or trying not to think at all, they rode on.
They had ridden past the Artesian springs that bubbled from the craggy foothills where he and Vin had spent the night returning from the gold run. What? Three days ago? It seemed like much more time had passed since their brief stop in the upstart town of Pyrite.
Larabee tried not to focus on what had happened during those three days. Much of it was a blur, anyway, wrapped in drug fueled rage. He remembered all the times in the last few days something sleeping had wanted to wake up and apologize or change his actions. But with each puff on those laced cigarettes, is was asleep again. He pushed that thought back as well as the inexplicable and brutal deaths and missing people. He had mastered the art of putting his mind where he wanted it. Long ago he had learned how to shut down on thoughts that hurt too much. He would focus forward how to approach the enemy, how to lead his men, how to keep them safe, how to cover this Slaughter guy in honey and stake him out over an ant hill.
The thought of spending the night isolated in the countryside had been disconcerting given everything that had gone before. Entering Pyrite under cover of darkness? Well, his instincts told him that the night was a friend of his enemy and he would do better to make a stand in the light of day. Not much of a choice. What made the decision easy was their missing seventh man. And so, Chris Larabee found himself leading the others into the streets of Pyrite long after the sun had set. Once again he found the others following him into a possible suicide mission. But this time they all had a better reason for what they were doing.
He couldnt help but worry about how much of a head start Buck Wilmington had on them. How long would Buck have mourned at JDs side before his quicksilver temper hit that flashpoint that removed all reason and he headed out for revenge? That recklessness, Larabee fumed, was why the impulsiveness scalded him so. It was going to get his friend killed some day. Anytime Larabee was sober that was just plain unacceptable. And that was what had them all willing to keep riding when good sense told them to rest.
Larabee looked forward to seeing the look on his old friends face when he presented JD. They had all thought their boy was dead. And Wilmington left before they found him sitting up in the coffin; very much alive and not a bit happy to be there. It would be nice to be a part of giving Wilmington something that special.
JD had been unnaturally quiet. The leader of the Peacekeepers was pretty sure it was because he was thinking his perceived death had been the catalyst for Buck to head out on his own. Chris had heard the soft whispers as first Josiah and then Nathan would try to get JD to talk, but what could you say? How were you supposed to feel? Larabee still had doubts about letting the boy ride with them on this trip, but couldnt think of a good excuse to keep him away. The best he could do was keep him close.
Planning strategy, the blonds mind again came back to Tobias Thibodaux. That youngster had told them that he knew the ways of magic and Slaughters motives. Then he had vanished before they could question him. That young Bayou bred shaman had the answers. He had said he was Santero. He said he had saved JD. So he must know about Slaughters Santero, who he was, if he had any weaknesses, how to kill the son of Satan.
but if Toby was able to save JD, that must mean that one Santero can break the spell of another Santero. Tanner was saying, as if reading his friends thoughts. But in truth, there was very little else that could be on any of the others minds.
Perhaps, hopefully, it is merely a matter of knowing what herbs or potions induce the death-like trance and knowing what plants act as an antidote. As much as I have heard the talk of undead zombies controlled by their master Ezra offered.
Aint nobody controllin me! I aint undead! JD shouted fearfully, You show me that Santero or witchdoctor or Culandero, whatever the hell you call him, causin all this trouble and when I shoot him dead, Ill show you! Youll know he aint got no power over me! The boy was defiant and begging to be believed. He would know, wouldnt he, if someone had control of his body or actions?
Which gives credence to a more scientific theory that drugs, found in nature, as I was saying, produced this effect. Ezra continued, unruffled.
Hes right, JD. I seen a zombie once. I dont know if he was bein controlled, but you could tell his mind werent right. It was like the worst kind of alcohol poisoning, or a feller what had an injury to his head that damaged his brain. Nathan recalled.
JD was skeptical and still fearful although he tried to hide it.
What theyre saying, son, Josiah soothed, is that you have too much heart and independent thought and emotion to have any ill effects from your sleep. He couldnt make himself say death. Thank the Lord, Josiah added as an afterthought and with perhaps more conviction than hed felt in years.
That damn kid, JD began, ignoring the fact that he and Toby were, very possibly, the same age, He can tell us what he did. He can tell us what happened. JD hoped.
Oh, hell tell us. Larabee vowed as he led them into Pyrite.
Ezra hadnt known what to expect pulling into Pyrite, but a miniature San Francisco nestled in the desert was what he found. The town had been born in a box canyon. The steep peaks on three sides gave the impression that titanic granite sentinels of the desert stood over and protected the town. Even this late at night, there were several people strolling the walkways. And it wasnt just working girls, drifters or drunks headed for a warm bed. There were proper, sophisticated women strolling on the arms of their husbands. Restaurants were still open at this hour. The whole feel of the small burg was one of money and sophistication. The gambler would have seen a large potential for profit here if it wasnt for the over-shadowingly grim events that had gone before.
At last they were turning their tired mounts toward the livery where they would reward the animals with sweet feed, fresh water, and a well-deserved rest. Hopefully there would even be a couple of stable boys around to give the horses a good rub down.
They needed to be careful. They didnt know how much of a hold this Slaughter had on the town. The man had to be stopped. But as far as the gambler was concerned, their first mission was to find their wayward friend.
To that end, Standish was making his own plans. He was aware that Larabee didnt know how else to battle but straight on. He would barrel in looking for answers and a fight. The others would follow even if it over-ruled their better judgment.
Ezra planned to separate from them and slide quietly into the saloons amid the maelstrom that was about to be Larabee and the others. He was hoping to learn more about Slaughter and his Santero who operated out of this town. Two good men had died trying to warn them of this place and a frightened boy died horribly. A boy Ezra had promised to protect.
Entering the stable, the conman sensed Tanner suddenly tense and pull up in a way that screamed trouble. The gambler was immediately trying to see what the tracker saw.
The deep purple shadows of sunset peeked through the loose fitting boards of the wall and stretched across the hay covered floor. The rest of the vast, cavernous building was, at first, lost in a dusky haze that blurred images.
Except for the candlelight. More candlelight. Damn. And were there shadows scurrying at the far end of the building?
Whether or not there was something alive in the shadows, there were most certainly six gaudily painted jars holding homemade candles positioned around several hay bales shaped like a makeshift altar. The light flickered through the opaque colors of their containers and danced across the walls like an arcane kaleidoscope.
The candles were gaudy in their coloring; with no obvious rhyme or reason. Unless you understood Santeria. Nathan? Standish whispered. Otherwise the room was silent as they waited to hear what these two had to say. Nathan and Ezra had shown a working knowledge of Santeria and they would rely on them, now.
We need to get out of here. The healers voice was raspy. The gambler seemed to concur.
What?! Larabees voice demanded an answer.
He knows were here. The ex-slave whispered as his eyes cut around the stables.
Were not turnin tail. Larabee couldnt see how retreat now was anything but kids jumping at ghost stories; grown men running from something they didnt understand.
I suspect it is too late for that. Standish observed, a bit of defeatism in his tone.
Larabee glared green lightning at the cavalier attitude. He grabbed one of the candles and would have hurled it against a stall, but a big hand stopped him, I dont think thats a good idea. From what weve seen, unpleasant things happen when these candles are broken. Josiah recalled.
Without a word Larabee demanded an alternative. Nathan and Ezra were already swirling the wax of the candles so that the flames extinguished themselves. It had seemed to work in defeating the scorpions that had attacked Nathan. Maybe they could neutralize whatever spell was being cast if the lights went out.
Perhaps we could slip out the back, the gamblers eyes were already looking for a rear exit, We could reconnoiter, learn where Slaughter and his Culandero are staying, how many allies he has in this town
Where Buck is. JD added definitely.
Larabee moved toward the back door in tacit acceptance of the plan. He would take the lead. No one would take the risk but him.
The gunfighter slid the back door of the livery open only enough to slide through. With his hand on his gun butt, he scanned the street before he slid out the narrow opening. JD followed as if trying to prove something and almost ran into their leader who had pulled up short.
Larabee looked back at the livery. How had that happened? HOW HAD THAT HAPPENED? He knew he had walked out the back of the stables, but he was now standing, vulnerable, at the front of the establishment.
A party of thirteen men, dressed in black, stood in a semi-circle around him and the others. One man stood out from the others by his presence alone. He was tall, with an eagles beak nose, high forehead, long black, shoulder length curls and dead eyes. Mr. Larabee, weve been waiting for you and your men. The voice purred.
One of the other men moved forward. The family resemblance was apparent, except this younger man had sun kissed hair.
Armstrong. Larabee spit it out.
Its about time you showed up. The Cavalry deserter laughed.
Larabee heard a soft thud behind him. Through the crack in the door, he could see that Josiah had collapsed to the dirt floor. Vin was trying to support an unconscious Nathan Jackson. As the gunfighter watched, Tanner seemed to fold in on the healer and on himself and follow the black man to the floor.
Ezra tried to draw his gun before he passed out. Before it could completely register what was happening, Chris felt a dead weight on his shoulder. JD had collapsed on his gun hand. Before Larabee could reach for the boy, he felt the heaviness behind his eyes; tried to force them to stay open. He never knew when he hit the ground.
Oh, he knew that feeling, Standish moaned. It could only be the universally unsophisticated and uncomfortable experience of an overly thin jail cell mattress. His head was throbbing unmercifully and he tried to remember which town he was in and what scam he had been pulling. But when reality finally filtered into his thought processes, he realized that, while things were much worse than he had thought, he might very well be lucky to be alive.
Give it up, Ezra, A familiar voice advised, they know youre awake.
Ezra rolled over to his side, beginning the slow process of gingerly getting into a semblance of a sitting position. He was, indeed, in a jail cell. He shared it with Sanchez and Tanner. Larabee, Jackson and Dunne were in the other cell. In front of the locked bars stood Slaughter and Armstrong.
I thought you were dead, Larabee growled, his tone promising that fate if he could get his hands on the man.
Nice touch, huh? The deserter smiled, Cremated? Goes a long way to promote superstition.
Not to mention stop anyone who heard the story from looking for a band of Army deserters that had already met their fate. Standish added cynically.
George S. Armstrong tipped his hat at the truth of the statement.
Mr. Larabee, Slaughters voice was low and cold, I am very impressed with your energy untapped and untrained as it may be. All of you. I look forward to absorbing those powers. And he was gone.
Armstrong was thrilled with the power he felt he welded over the Seven, Thats my uncle, he said proudly.
Wheres Buck? Larabee asked as if nothing else had been said.
Armstrong laughed out loud at that. He didnt offer the answer, but it was obvious he was very pleased with it.
And then he was gone. They left two guards who seemed content to keep to themselves at the sheriffs desk.
Ezra. Larabee said as soon as Armstrong and Slaughter were gone.
Nothing. They took my derringer, lock picks, everything.
They got my knife.
Larabee was on a slow boil.
What are they going to do? Where do you think Buck is? JD whimpered. He was trying not to let his fear get the best of him. Even in his youth he had picked up on the fact that Wilmington had suffered some fate at the hands of these men. Once again it struck him how much he missed the comforting presence of the older man.
I suggest we try to answer that first question; see how to use their plans against them. Then we will tear this town up until we can answer the second. Josiah offered.
You think figuring them out will help somehow?
I think if they were smart they would have killed us already. If they are willing to sacrifice caution and common sense for some secret agenda, I agree with Mr. Sanchez we may be able to use something they do against them.
I think sacrifice is a bad choice of words. The gambler was surprised to hear this comment come from Tanner; it seemed out of character.
Standish didnt want to think that the tracker was shaken by events. The man was never out of control. Nathan, He spoke up to get his mind off that possibility. He had the healers attention so he focused his thoughts, I believe I recognized a clue in the candles in the livery.
Nathans minds eye drifted back to the candles. He didnt like to think of their possibly more ominous, mysterious purpose. But they would have to.
Nathan looked up to the gambler.
There was a green and black candle. Ogun. Standish pushed.
Ogun. Nathan pronounced without hesitation. Green and black were the colors assigned to that Orisha.
With his suspicion confirmed, and noticing the confusion on JDs face and the trepidation on Sanchezs face, Ezra offered an explanation, He is the Orisha of protection, the liberator. The red and black candle those are the colors for Eleggua? He looked to Nathan for confirmation.
Nathan confirmed the name, He rules the crossroads, hes the messenger of the Orishas.
The white candle, Nathan? Ezra hurried on.
Obatala. Aid in healing.
Perhaps a protector for yourself? Ezra said.
Nathan threw his southern friend a suspicious glance, What good is all this going to do?
Compare it to a guardian angel. Ezra simplified for the benefit of the others, even as he ignored Nathans skepticism, Obatala, healing. Mr. Jackson. Crossroads messenger perhaps yourself, Mr. Sanchez? Protection? A liberator? That exemplifies Mr. Larabee.
Nathan nodded, There was an amber and yellow candle that was threatening to extinguish itself. Oshun? To attract wealth?
Ezra bowed slightly to acknowledge a certain kinship to Oshun.
There are only six candles. JD spoke up. It bothered him. Being part of the seven was important to him; what if he was the one that wasnt represented by a candle?
The candle striped in seven colors, JD, is for Oya to honor a strong sense of justice and rebirth.
JD paled at how close that description now applied to him. As much as he had been afraid he would be the one not included in the candles, he now was very uncomfortable that a Santero knew so much about him.
Im afraid the significance of the purple and blue candle escapes me. Standish admitted.
A minor Orisha. You may have never heard of him. Ochosi, he focuses his energies to protect the home and animals.
Vin. JD snapped immediately, But that means Buck doesnt have
Is there an Orisha that would represent Bucks persona? Josiah asked.
Oh, yes, most definitely. If I remember correctly, the warrior/protector/lover Shango would delight in the carryings-on of our rogue.
So someone went to a lot of trouble to represent Vin with the candles and left Buck out. Larabee growled. He didnt like where this was going.
Theres got to be a reason for the candles. Seven is a powerful number. There would have to be a reason for a Santero to settle for six.
Chris Larabee could hear the others talking and he knew most of it came from nerves, hoping something they said would prove useful. But the widower was fighting his own private battle. The one feeling that could immobilize the formidable man was helplessness. Ever since that night, so long ago, when he came home and found he was too late to save his family, a cold sense of helplessness was forever associated with that loss. Insurmountable odds? Physical wounds? Hate, love, fear, he could overcome them all. But helplessness, too late to make a difference, it was Larabees private hell. And he couldnt shake the feeling he was already too late.
He looked at the men around him. JD wasnt going to hold it together much longer. Then he perked up. He looked closer. Being locked up was wearing on the Texan. He was hiding it well, but Larabee could see it. Whatever he may have already lost with Buck no longer at his side, the gunfighter finally realized that, for the first time in a long time, he had a lot more he could lose. He started listening more closely as he moved from one end of his cell to the other. He placed himself as close to Tanner as the bars allowed. They exchanged a look and found strength in each other and a determination to help each other fight their personal demons
But Buck is here. JD was insisting, Somewhere. They dont need a candle for him. Hes here. JD tried to make sure his friend was still a part of the regulators. He moved back toward the cot, nearer his hero, and felt a strong hand, warmed with renewed confidence, rest on his shoulder. He looked into the hazel eyes and forced himself to ask, What does it mean?
Chris gave the narrow shoulder a squeeze and then looked to the others for an answer.
Maybe hes right, Nathan offered, Maybe if Buck is here, somewhere, then they lit those candles to draw the rest us to this place? Or maybe there was something in the smoke, and thats what put us to sleep?
Nathan looked to Ezra for answers. Ezra shrugged as his minds eye drifted back again to the different candles and tried to come up with answers.
The healers dark eyes slid over to his big friend to see what Josiahs take was on the information he had just been supplied, Josiah? Youve been quiet.
Josiah shook his head as he replied, At least Nathan, JD and I suffered adversity when our candles appeared in town. Whos to say all of our candles werent there at one time or another? Maybe they were some kind of test?
Whats been tested? Larabee growled.
How we react to danger or fear, Vin offered quietly, How we work together, what can separate us, our strengths and weaknesses, who we are individually and as a group.
Larabees thoughts went unbidden to the hurtful words he had thrown at Wilmington while in his drug induced fury; words that had finally killed a friendship that had survived so much. He recalled how the Cajun had gradually cut his hair and changed his clothes until he looked like JD, as if he were trying on their youngests skin like a chameleon.
Why? JD asked, Why test us? Why not stand up to us in a fair fight? Or kill us straight out?
I suspect we may not like that answer when we get it. Standish mused.
As if on cue, Francis Slaughter strode into the jail. Armstrong, following him like a shadow, was trying to stifle a cackling laugh. He was amused a lot lately, it seemed to Ezra, as if he were a little bit insane.
Slaughter strode toward the bars. Ezra, still seated, held the impassive look on his face. Sanchez raised an eyebrow defiantly at the man. Vin would have been surprised how his expression matched the one Standish had schooled to his face.
Slaughter smiled. He liked what he saw. And he liked that he had power over it.
He moved on to the next cell. JD took an involuntary step back. Nathan was able to control his body, but he was breathing heavily, his chest rising and falling, his stomach roiled. Pinpoints of sweat beaded at his hair line.
Slaughter knew that if Larabee could get through the bars, he himself would be a dead man. The dark presence that controlled Pyrite liked the power he felt thrumming through that hate.
My Santero is very satisfied that the six of you are here.
Get him in here. Give me a little face to face time with him and Ill see if hes still happy.
Oh, cant do that, Armstrong hooted. Hes getting ready for tonight. He added with nervous excitement. He curled past his uncle to meet Larabees eyes, Besides, you dont want to see him too soon, oh, no. Because the only time youre gonna see him is when youre tied to his altar and that fancy gemstone knife is aimed at your heart.
JD gasped and took another step back. He remembered the body they had found when all this started. He remembered the young soldier had said Slaughter, Armstrong and the Culandero ate the heart.
The young regulators movements drew attention. Slaughter turned black crow eyes at the youth, You would make a prime sacrifice. But the Santero says thats not to be. JD tried to swallow, but it was hard. Slaughter let his eyes linger then slowly, ominously, he let them slide toward Nathan Jackson. At the same time, five big men entered the small office.
Sir? One addressed the former Cavalry lieutenant. The response was a breathy laugh and he nodded at the cells.
Two of the men drew their guns and took aim at Larabees small chamber. Armstrong took the keys and unlocked the door. Immediately the two massive deserters muscled Larabee and Dunne into a corner as the ex-lieutenant and another man grabbed Jackson.
It happened so fast that the former slave had almost been dragged from the cell before he or the others had time to react. And then Jackson was struggling and trying to break free. Larabee sensed what was going on and, by willpower alone, was almost able to break past hiscaptors, Nathan!
JD forgot his own fear, replacing it with dread for his friend. He struggled valiantly, but he was no match for the larger assailants.
And then it was over. Their captors had backed out of the cell, taking Jackson with them, and Armstrong locked the door back. Larabee and Dunne sporting new bruises, were alone in the cell and helpless. Helpless.
Armstrong! Tanner roared.
It almost looked as if Sanchez would be able to bend the bars on their cell, so intense was his anger and fear for his friend.
Ezra didnt remember leaving the cot, but he was at the bars looking for any chance to help the former slave.
Slaughter was able to completely dismiss the others as he gave all his attention to their healer. He matched the dark man in height and almost in skin color and met his eyes with an intense gaze that Nathan couldnt pull away from. The mans whisper seemed to reverberate around the room at a different speed than it did as it echoed in Nathans head, The Power feeds on fear. It will enjoy you. He turned to the others, Gentlemen, your turns will come.
Nathan was struggling frantically, his eyes tried to search out his friends. And then they were gone. And the room was silent.
Two of Armstrongs men stayed in the jail, but hovered around the office desk and the coffee pot on the fat stove. They looked relieved that they had drawn guard duty instead of participating in what was about to happen outside.
Weve gotta do something, JD finally gasped. But he didnt get any answers. The other men locked up with him knew that sometimes, the good guys didnt win.
Nathan felt the steel grasps on both of his biceps. They didnt give his taut muscles any room to move; any chance to fight back. They were dragging him along. His mind had almost shut down trying to deny what was about to happen. His mind was hurled back to his childhood and slavery on the plantation. It hurt to be back there. It hurt his heart and his mind.
As they dragged him down the street, he thought they were headed toward a makeshift gallows. He couldnt catch his breath. Think. Look around. Find a way to escape. Find a way to fight back. Fight! Dont be a lamb led to slaughter. Control your life. Control your destiny. But the truth was, he wasnt in control. He was being dragged to his death with no say over his fate. He was facing his greatest fear. His throat was tightened; air barely moved in and out. His mouth was dry. He tried to pray, but his mind would wander to how truly lucky he had been these last years, especially these last 30 days, and hed never realized how blessed. He would realize his mind had strayed and hed try to pray again. He caught himself wondering if his soul was somehow doomed if he died at the hands of a Santero?
He was partially aware they were dragging him up the steps, now. Was he a coward? To feel this kind of fear? After all hed seen?
There was no noose. There were six hay bales stacked two high. They laid him there and tied his arms and legs with thick hemp ropes he hadnt noticed. He was seeking strength anywhere it might exist. But none was to be found.
Armstrong smiled a toothy grin as he leaned over and ripped the healers shirt open. The wind brushed his chest and chilled his body.
Nathan felt a presence. He actually felt the force before the man came into his line of sight. He was smaller than Nathan had expected. Jackson was mesmerized as the smallish body, dressed in solid white, seemed to float toward him. He was wearing a mask of some grotesque bird and had strands of braided, multi-colored strings in his hair and around his neck. He seemed to draw the ritual out by tossing ashes and chants as he circled his victim.
Get it over with! Nathan called defiantly.
But the ceremony continued at an agonizingly slow pace.
Nathan was still fighting his bonds. Armstrong and Slaughter stood on the upraised dais. These were the last faces he was destined to see. And then the masked Santero handed the ritual dagger over to Slaughter who hungered for the opportunity to participate in the sacrifice. No friendly faces, only
Josiah was shouting at and cursing God.
Chris was pacing like a caged animal.
JD had shrunken back into the tiny space between the wall and the cot in the cell he shared with Larabee. He didnt realize he copied the position the soldier had taken back in Four Corners; before that young mans bones had disintegrated within his body and his organs had collapsed in on themselves and suffocated.
Vin and Ezra had thrown the mattress from their metal cot and were searching the frame for anything that might be used as a weapon.
Chris stopped and pulled on the bars that held him. If willpower alone could bend the metal, it would have given under the force.
The front door creaked slowly open. Their guards hands went reflexively to holstered guns, only to relax a moment later. They didnt consider the new arrival a threat. But then they couldnt move or speak. One mans eyes went wide, his throat worked to no avail and he collapsed over the desk. The other man knew what was coming. He had a pleading look on his face.
Tobias Thibodaux walked gingerly into the room. He held his hand out before him and slowly closed it into a fist. As he did, the second man tensed and then collapsed as well. The Cajun observed his handiwork briefly before he turned to look at the men in the cells.
I had to, Chris. The boys voice was asking for forgiveness.
To hell with em. Get us out of here. Larabee was as stunned as the others by the inexplicable power the boy wielded, but he didnt care that the men had died. They had a friend to save.
Josiah only regretted he hadnt been able to kill them himself. It didnt matter. There were others awaiting his judgment.
JD was creeping up off the floor, ready to make a run for it if the door came open.
Ezra and Vin exchanged a look. The callous killing was a justifiable end for the men. But the indifference with which the boy committed the act was frightening. His seeming to ask Larabees absolution was more of an afterthought. Larabees approval was more important than those mens lives.
Toby grabbed the keys and gave Chris a cocky smile as he turned the lock.
Larabee pushed through and was grabbing their holsters as the little Santero opened the cell for the others to come out.
Are you okay? Toby asked JD as he went by. His eyes on the dead men, all the young regulator could do was give a shaky nod.
Larabee impatiently shoved JDs holstered gun into his arms and it seemed to break the spell over the boy. With his other hand, Larabee was doling out the other holsters.
Grab every gun in here and all the cartridges you can find. Larabee ordered unnecessarily. Everyone was already stuffing their belts with guns and pockets with shot.
Wheres Nathan! Larabee turned on the boy.
We gotta hurry, Big Dog. Toby began.
Where! The dark gunfighter interrupted.
Down the street, in front of everbody.
Ezra, you take JD and get the horses. Larabee grabbed the gamblers arm as he went past, You kill anyone who gets in your way, you hear me? You come runnin if were not there by the time theyre saddled.
Ezra tipped his hat and the coldly efficient look on his face assured his leader that he would do his part.
And keep that kid with you -- But it was too late. The Cajun was gone. The eerie thought passed through Ezras mind that the Louisiana stray might only be a spirit himself the way he seemed to appear and disappear.
To hell with him. Larabee growled. The boy was nothing but trouble. Hed saved them, but he still didnt fall under the purview of what Larabee considered his to be protected.
He led his men toward the door. They edged past the corpses as if the death might be contagious. They split at the door to carry out their assignments.
Nathan felt the knife slide through his skin once more. The light touch was more agonizing than a deeper cut, like a paper cut is so much more painful than a stab wound.
Nathans mind was trying to shut down; trying to deny that he would die this way; trying to deny the needle pricks of pain all over his chest.
There were drums thrumming in the background, but he couldnt see where the beat came from. His eyes could see the gem encrusted dagger, the tiny skull tattoo just above the pulse point on Slaughters right wrist, the mans fixated stare and the Milky Way, contrastingly pure and eternal, above.
Why were they prolonging this? Armstrong had said the Power fed on fear. Nathan tried to close his eyes and pretend this wasnt happening.
There was suddenly a more staccato percussion joining the drum beats. Voices were mumbling.
Slaughter suddenly looked first angry and then frightened. Nathan wondered if spirits were coming to accept the sacrifice. Slaughters head jerked up taking in the circumstances around him. His eyes went to pinpoints of defiant black and he raised the knife over Nathans helpless body. The healer saw the final downward stroke as if it were in slow motion. Nathan resolved to watch the end; keep his eyes open; not turn away.
The blade was almost out of Nathans vision when it unexpectedly blew apart. Whatever impact shattered the blade also threw the rest of the weapon out of Slaughters hand.
The man screamed. It was a primal, livid sound.
Had the staccato sound now become recognizable as gunfire? Nathan strained to raise his head enough to see what was happening.
Slaughter turned. His heavy draping cape wafted over Nathans body. And he realized Slaughter was turning and was running away.
Strong hands grabbed his shoulders and fairly lifted him from the altar. Josiah? Nathans body and mind had been shutting down in shock. Now he was struggling to come back to the moment. He looked around as if in a daze. Vin was sliding a knife back in the top of his boot. The ropes that had held the dark healer lay harmlessly on the ground.
Josiah was holding him then, in a hug that seemed to start his heart beating again and the world turning again. Nathan fought back tears. He was having to fight to believe he was still alive.
Sanchez! Get him out of there!
There were snipers shooting at them, Nathan realized now, but Larabee and Tanner, guns in each hand werent giving the enemy much of a chance to find a shot.
Josiah practically carried his old friend down the steps; he too had a gun leaping in his free hand.
Vin jumped off the escalated stand to land cat-like beside them. He handed the former slave a gun. Somehow the ex-buffalo hunter seemed to know what it would be like to be vulnerable and have your fate at the whim of someone else.
And then they were running.
Chris, Josiah and Vin skidded through the livery doors. Josiah was still practically carrying Nathan. He wasnt taking any chances of losing his friend. They were spent, breathing hard. Chris covered the door, expecting the others to grab horses and they would get out and regroup. But the horses were still in their stalls. That, in and of itself, sent a despondent chill down their leaders spine. Where were JD and Ezra?
Something moving at the far end of the building drew the gunfighters attention. The candles had been relit. Damn. The six candles were glowing again.
And on the hay bales beyond the candles, a small figure was struggling against a large gangly man with wild, white hair. The old man was trying to drag Tobias Thibodaux out the back door. The boy was clawing to get free from the hands that held him.
Tanner thought he remembered the tall, rangy ivory haired stranger as having recently been lingering in Four Corners. A couple of times Vin had thought hed seen the man, but it was like seeing a ghost, there and then gone; sensed more than seen.
Their eyes adjusted to the dim light and another form became recognizable as a man crumpled on the dirt and hay littered floor and surrounded by the candles, No. Larabee breathed in; louder, he demanded, NO!
Larabee couldnt get a clear shot at the man for fear of hitting the boy squirming to get free. But he fired two shots in the air to let the antagonist know reinforcements were near and jump started in that direction.
Josiah grimaced, knowing that any leeway they had scored, or if Slaughters men hadnt been certain where they were, there was no doubt, now.
But it worked and the stranger got the message, released the youngster and scurried out the back door with surprising agility.
Nobody goes anywhere alone! Larabee ordered as he gave chase, Get those damn horses saddled. He wasnt waiting around to follow his own directive, but accepted as natural that the agile Texan fell in at his side. With mountain goat agility and puma prey drive, they disappeared after the outsider. Chris Larabees anger had overcome his reason. He didnt need the Santeros drugs to let the emotion derange him.
Nathan and Josiah might not yet have figured out what Larabee was reacting to, but Tanner did. And he cursed Larabee for going into prey drive instead of thinking of his safety and the wellbeing of the others. Chris should be attending to the body in the dirt who Vin knew had stoked the reaction. And the Texan cursed himself for following what he knew was a strategically flawed move. And then he cursed Larabee again for never doubting that he would back him. Chasing this man, splintering their numbers even more, was fool-hearty and dangerous. But he couldnt let his friend go after the stranger alone.
Toby watched the two sail past as he edged further into the center of the building and sought security from the healer and the preacher.
No sooner had the gunslinger and the tracker disappeared through the back door, two more figures dove through the front. Nathan, still itchy aimed his gun. Josiah had to knock the weapon aside when he recognized their two strays. It discharged harmlessly at the feet of Ezra Standish as he entered the cavernous room.
Ezra, JD! Where were you? What about the horses? Josiah couldnt control his temper.
Nathan! JD shouted in relief, but then he added, more defensive than angry, We just left you. How did you get here so fast? He asked Josiah, but before he got an answer, he was on another tangent, Nathan, are you all right? He was touching the healer as if to be sure he was real.
Thats impossible Ezra demanded. He and JD had run directly to the stables and yet, Josiah and the others had had time to rescue Nathan and get here before them.
All Josiah cared about was getting them away from this place. He tossed a saddle blanket in Standishs direction before grabbing one for himself and starting to work on the horses. But a small gasp from JD had him turning back to see what more could happen. Buck, the boy whimpered and ran toward the candles.
Buck? Josiah thought to himself, and looked back at the still body he had all but forgotten in his need to protect the others.
JD slid to his knees beside his still friend. He was afraid to touch the older man and his hands hovered around the too still form like hummingbirds. Their lost lamb was almost unrecognizable. He was clean shaven, and sallow; he almost looked malnourished. While Larabee wore a single color to warn people off and as a sign of mourning, Buck now wore shades of tan as if he hoped to disappear into the western landscape.
JD, let me get to him, Nathans voice didnt even register, JD? Josiah finally took the boy by the shoulders. He resisted briefly, but at last seemed to realize that Nathan was trying to help, and allowed himself to be led back a small distance. He watched Nathans every move intensely.
Nathan? Ezra, gun drawn, focused entirely on their surroundings and tried to keep the pleading out of his voice, Nathan, whats wrong with him? Will he be all right? The situation was untenable. They needed to be gone. They needed to have stayed together in the first place, but Larabee let his temper control him. Vin let his loyalty control him. It did dawn on the gambler that Larabee would have recognized their unconscious friend as fast as JD did which may have fueled his fury and need for vengeance.
Josiah split his attention between JD, Toby and watching for danger in the shadows and the stalls. His eyes kept going back to the six candles, Who was that man, boy?
My uncle, Toby whispered, with wide, frightened eyes, one blue, one brown. His accent was enhanced by his emotions, and he clasped Wilmingtons doe colored jacket and hat like security blankets, He would have me follow his path.
What did he do to him? Ezra asked, referring to their unconscious friend.
He wants me to be like him. Trying to understand all that the boy was saying in those words, it occurred to Josiah that he, himself, might try to stop being so obtuse with his answers. He damn sure didnt like it when he got those vague answers from this one. They needed to stop whatever evil was residing in this town.
Damn. Nathan hissed under his breath and it drew everyones attention to the crumpled body they surrounded. I cant find anything wrong with him. He ripped the shirt open and was startled to see how thin and wasted their friend was. From all too many injuries, Nathan was aware that the mans size made him look heavier than he was. But now he was absolutely emaciated. And he was unconscious for no apparent reason. The ex-slave was preoccupied with diagnosis, so the youngster turned his eyes to the elder peacemaker, Josiah?
The ex-preacher addressed the healer instead of JD, Nathan, we need to move.
I dont think he cant sit a horse.
We arent leaving him. JD demanded unnecessarily.
No one is suggesting such a course of action. Ezra hissed with frayed nerves, But we cant stay here.
Get him out of that dirt. JD pled.
Get the horses saddled. Ill carry him. But we need out of here to regroup. Josiah demanded.
Ezras eyes drifted back to the candles. Whatever their initial intent they were now supplying the only light available for Nathans examination. Ezra didnt like to think of their mysterious purpose. But they would have to, sooner or later, I concur, we can find a more hospitable environment for Mr. Jackson to work his craft.
What have they done to you, Buck? Nathan asked, all of his fears and superstitions coming to the fore, then he turned to the man who had been his foundation for many of the past years, Nothing I can do here that cant wait til were somewhere we dont have to look over our shoulders all the time.
Josiah, JD and Ezra brought the saddled horses into the center of the structure. With the rogue breathing regularly if still unconscious, Josiah moved to help Nathan lift their friend onto the gentle gray and climbed up behind him. The others walked their horses out the door.
The street had been bustling when they rode in. Now it was deserted.
As they moved into the street, Jackson slid silently behind Toby, took hold of his upper arm and steered him out onto the street before he could vanish again. Toby didnt resist, he just held onto Bucks coat and hat and joined the group as if he were a part of them.
What about Chris and Vin? JD blurted out in a rough whisper, wanting his friends all together.
Theyll be okay, JD. Theyre together.
Ezra could see JDs concern, understood it, felt it himself. But he still tried to lighten the mood, Mr. Dunne, I assure you, if Mr.s Larabee and Tanner run into trouble, we will hear the gunfire.
JD was surprised at the admiration he heard in the statement. Ezras confidence in the others, and JDs own confidence in the gambler and the others was starting to make him feel better when, suddenly gunshots echoed through the night.
The horses shied. Even Bucks gentle Paladin reared as the bullets threatened his hooves. Josiah grabbed Buck and turned their leaving the saddle into a controlled fall. And then Larabee was there to help ease his friends to the ground.
Vin took up a position beside Nathan to cover them.
Rifle fire spewed dust at their conmans feet, forcing him and the young sheriff further from the others. The riderless horses sped past them up the street.
Jackson tried to hold onto Toby with a vise-like grip, but the boy writhed out of the hold as if the attack terrified him. Toby ran. As he moved past the gambler, Ezra grabbed him and dragged him along as he and JD sought shelter in a small clapboard shed adjacent to the livery. The smaller conmans strength was surprisingly impressive and he towed the youngster and still dodged the bullets that seemed to be herding them in a specific direction.
Josiah threw Buck over one shoulder and barreled across the street. Nathan, laying down cover fire, paced the larger man and put a hand on Wilmingtons back and pushed them forward.
Vin and Chris stood back to back and followed them.
Sanchez stumbled and fell with his burden behind barrels stacked in front of the Mercantile. Vin made it to the alley behind them and took up a position. Chris was beside Sanchez and Nathan was flattened on the ground, using the raised boardwalk for cover.
Larabee scanned the area. The shadows were alive with dark outlines of more men running their direction. Gunfire ricocheted all around them.
Vin, Larabee called as he evaluated the situation.
I reckon it does have a vague resemblance to the Alamo. The Texas acknowledged that they would be overcome by sheer numbers in a matter of seconds.
Larabee crabbed over to Josiah and checked on Buck for himself. The dark haired mans head lolled from side to side as if he was coming to.
Buck? His friend asked gently. A frown creased his brow in response to the voice, but the eyes stayed closed. Larabee tried to smooth the furrow with his thumb, but the troubled expression remained.
Vin The gunfighters tone had a subtle difference
Not gonna happen, Cowboy, The tracker predicted what was about to be said. Their leader wanted them to retreat while he stayed with his old friend.
I need you where you could do some good.
Josiah heard Ezra and JDs guns from the plank board shed across from the livery. They were quickly being surrounded. They could never carry the unconscious rogue and move fast enough to escape. The logical thing would be to leave Buck here, trust that since Slaughter had kept them alive this long, for whatever purpose, he would do the same for Buck. But that sort of thought is not what had kept them alive. And he could tell by the way Larabee divided his attention between the fight and his friend it wasnt an alternative for him.
Go! Larabee hissed. It grated on Tanner to obey; it tore at his heart to leave these two for Armstrong and Slaughter. What hed seen of George S. told him that the blue coat would use the loyalty the two shared against them. But Larabee knew that, didnt he? Thats why, even though it was logical for them all to escape, regroup and return to rescue Buck, that wasnt the way it would play out. Chris was going to stay and run interference. Larabee couldnt put his loyalty into words, might hate himself for the emotions that could tear his heart out again, but no one would get to Buck Wilmington physically or emotionally that hadnt had to go through Larabee to get there.
There had never been any question that the tracker wouldnt travel to Pyrite to end Slaughters reign of terror. But they were traveling after their thirty day commitment to the judge had run its course. During that month, Tanners spirit had never been far from the need to return to Texas and clear his name. But, to leave for Texas with Wilmington missing, would have forced Larabee to chose between heading south with him to the Lone Star State, or making sure Buck was safe. He wouldnt ask the man to make that choice then. He wouldnt ask him to make it now. And, to threaten to stay if Larabee didnt leave, would be forcing that choice of who to protect. The look he exchanged with his friend reflected those thoughts and that he was only leaving because Larabee wouldnt and because he had to be free to help his friends. Because the battle raging was not going their way. Because the magic could be brought down on them at any moment and leave them helpless.
Keep yourselves alive. Ill be back. and Vin was gone, followed by Nathan and Josiah. Chris covered their retreat.
Larabee! Armstrongs voice rang out.
Im giving up! The proud voice answered back. It would be a chess game now, between Larabee and Armstrong. He had to stay alive to match Armstrongs moves until the others could come up with a rescue. The shooting on both sides stopped. Armstrong strode triumphantly to his adversary, took in the insensate form that the gunfighter stood over protectively and smiled. He knew the notorious gunfighter had sacrificed his liberty to be in a position to protect the other man. I always knew Wilmington would be your downfall. He makes you weak. There was a tinge of jealously in his voice.
Larabee stood taller over his friend and didnt grace the other man with an answer.
Armstrong laughed again, snapped his fingers and two of his acolytes approached. The ex-lieutenant knew Larabees men wouldnt do anything as long as the other two were in such a vulnerable position. Chris was forced to let one of the men help him support Buck, but the other was relegated to following as Larabee carefully put a shoulder under his friends arm.
Ezra held his fire reluctantly. JD was at the next window over and followed his lead. The young man couldnt tell what the con artist was thinking, but he, himself, felt his future was being dragged away down the street along with his hero and the one he was slowly coming to understand was the big brother he had always wanted.
Weve got to do something, JD pled of the other man.
We have to be smart, Ezra countered as he looked around the inside of the shed for the first time, We have to be concealed until we know how to fight back.
How do we hide? They know we wont leave.
Just as Ezra started to answer, he realized that they were in a shed used to store explosives for something called the Pyrite Mining Venture, We have to hide in plain sight.
And then he saw it. A yellow and amber candle flickering atop a partially open crate of nitroglycerine. He ran toward the flame that was too near the TNT.
The force hit them and threw them to the ground before the sound of the blast registered. From where he had fallen on the boardwalk, Larabee looked over his shoulder to see that the small shack he had seen JD and Ezra duck into had exploded into splinters. The force was so strong that walls on both sides were damaged and glass was blown out of windows for yards in both directions.
Larabee closed his eyes and absorbed the loss of two of his men. He had warned the kid he would die young if he stuck around. He never really understood Standish, even though he had often been entertained by his antics. He was already trying to deny that the loss that had hit him instantly like a tidal wave.
The rumble of the blast was followed by an unnatural silence. But the noises finally filtered in. There was the crackle and howl of the flames. Glass was still being shattered by the heat. Voices were shouting now. The townspeople were ineffectually trying to organize a bucket brigade. Their ersatz Utopia had not prepared them for any disruptions.
And Armstrong was laughing, Then there were five. He cackled. He turned his eyes on the two men beside Larabee, Get them to the jail. Armstrong demanded, Watch em close. The rest of you, come with me. He stalked off with his men already spreading out to continue the search for the others.
Buck moaned and tried to lift his head, but it was too heavy and fell back to his chest. He sensed that someone was dragging him along, but anytime he tried to help by getting his feet under him and taking a step on his own, it seemed to tangle everyone up and make matters worse. So he finally gave up. Funny, it felt like one of the men supporting him was Larabee. When was the last time that had happened?
Larabee let one of the deserters help him get his friend to his feet, but the other man was relegated to following. The shootist was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. He was distancing himself from the death, refusing to dwell on the loss. He went back to what had always been a given. He and Buck had to get out of this somehow. And that meant Larabee couldnt give up or Wilmington would go down with him. He couldnt allow himself to seek an end. And that was part of what sometimes made him hate the tall man beside him.
The explosion echoed through the streets. Tanner, Sanchez and Jackson frowned at each other, trying to deny what they heard, but in the end, they were running back the way they had come. I never should have left them, Vin cursed himself, I never should have left any of them.
Thats far enough. A voice called from the darkness. The ex-bounty hunter recognized Armstrongs voice. Youre surrounded! To prove his point, hundreds of pure white bees wax candles sprang to life all around them. They heard several triggers cock. All of the enemy were hidden in the shadows beyond the illumination of the flames while they, themselves were easy targets.
Pacing in the same cell as earlier in the day, Chris was fighting a sense of helplessness. He migrated to the high window over the cot. Standing tall he could just see the far wall of the alley. He was thinking that the wall he leaned against must have been no more than six inches of adobe brick. Freedom was six inches away. The sound of the explosion still echoed in his mind. He had thought to bring JD to heal Bucks damaged soul. Now, when he awoke, he would have to tell him that both JD and Ezra had been lost to them.
Was he afraid? Not to die, no, but to die at the hands of these people? Or whatever they had in mind for the two old friends? Or was he afraid to face Buck with the news Ezra and JD were dead? His thoughts were dragged away from that precipice when he noticed... what was that? There, watching from the alley way, in the halo of one of the lamplights that had replaced street fires in the modernized town of Pyrite, stood the white haired man. That Santero. That Culandero. The cause of it all. The old man looked up as if he knew he were being observed. He didnt seem bothered by it. Cmon you madman! Come in. Face me! The mans enigmatic expression angered Larabee more. Then the gangly shaman looked away as if something was stalking him, as if there was something, somewhere that could disrupt his calm. He didnt seem to hurry, but the man drifted away.
Chris was surprised to see two elongated shadows break away in the darkness and follow the old man. The shadows were ten feet long, elongated and deformed and started in the dirty alley floor and stretched up the opposite brick wall. One shadow was wearing a derby hat. The other wore a riverboat hat. The impression startled Larabee and he wasnt used to being startled. But it looked like, maybe, the ghosts of JD and Ezra were following the man. Go get im boys, He thought to himself as a low moan from the cot had the gunfighter heading back to the friend sharing the cell with him.
Ezra and JD were more than aware that they were in hostile territory. The things theyd heard about Pyrite, the terror in the voices that spoke the name, and the things theyd seen of late, had their senses on high alert. JD could see the logic of setting the explosion and letting Slaughter and Armstrong, the Santero and their men think they were dead. He hated doing that to the others, but it made sense. They could move around now because no one was looking for them. Hide in plain sight. But they needed to find Josiah and the others. They needed a plan to get Chris and Buck away from that mad man.
They turned the corner. And there, in the light of one of the gaslights like they had back in Boston, stood the white-haired Santero. His eyes met theirs immediately. He didnt seem concerned that hed been discovered. But he did move further into the alley.
Despite it all, the Gambler walked casually as he moved to follow the old man. JD tried to match the pace, understanding that this would draw less attention to them than any rapid movement. Ezra had removed his bright coat. It seemed to be working because, at the unhurried pace Ezra had set, no one seemed to note them. So JD tried to match the step.
Ezras head barely moved. But JD noticed his partners eyes scanning both sides of the street, missing nothing.
JD tried to watch the street, too, and at the same time, keep the thin Santero in sight. For the first time he got a closer look at the man. He wore a heavy wooden cross around his neck. The Four Corners sheriff was surprised to hear spurs jangle as the old man walked.
As they slipped into the alley, the young man heard Larabee cursing the Culandero from inside the jail. As much as he admired the man, he was seeing that, to be that kind of a gunfighter, you had to sacrifice a lot, and couldnt afford to trust many friends.
Ezra had sure gone into great detail to over-explain that, beside following the old man, they were using him as an excuse to reconnoiter the municipality. He said he had a feeling it was going to be important to know what was going on in this place. So, instead of catching up to the Cajuns uncle witchdoctor, they were keeping him in sight, following him, observing. The bothersome thing was that it seemed there was no doubt that the old man knew what they were doing and was somehow agreeable to the game of cat and mouse.
As he scanned the area, JD kept looking for Toby. The Louisiana stray had been with them in the shed, and followed them out, but when hed seen the man he called his uncle, hed run the other direction. He didnt like the boy. He didnt like the soft whispery voice he used to ask if JD was okay. He didnt like that the kid had wrapped himself in Bucks coat against the chill of the night. It was way too big for him. His hands disappeared in the sleeves.
Ezra had said nothing once he decided on this ruse, he knew he had to let his friends suffer, thinking they were dead; that they had lost JD again so soon. He didnt have to say that if the hands played out wrong he might not be where he should be to help the others when they needed him.
Ezra stopped walking and cursed himself for letting his mind wander. The sudden stop jolted JDs thoughts back to the present as well. The young sheriff chastised himself that he had let his mind wander, did a quick inventory that he was normal and not a zombie he didnt know how he would know, but Josiah said the fact that he could ask himself the question was a good sign. So he asked himself the question over and over. But for now he forced himself to concentrate on what had Ezras attention. He would have been surprised to know the conman was rebuking himself for the same lapse of focus.
Standish, his gun suddenly in his hand, even if it was held casually at his side, was deadly nevertheless. He touched JDs shoulder to get his attention. Thats all it took and JD had both of his revolvers in his hands.
Ezra was focused on something down the street. JD followed his gaze and saw him. The old man with the wild white hair was staring at them from another alleyway three buildings down.
Something was wrong. The man must have vanished earlier for Larabee and Tanner to abandon the chase. But he wasnt hiding now. He was leading. But that suited the young regulator just fine. Ezra was clearly of a like mind, because he had already taken the first step in the mans direction.
Ezra had locked eyes with those of the Santero. The witchdoctors eyes seemed black and iris-less as they tried to penetrate the darkness. Only when the scarecrow of a man knew they would stay on him, did he slip into one last dark alley.
He knows were following him. The gambler advised his young cohort.
Thats good. I want him to know who took him down.
Hes leading us somewhere. Possibly into a trap. Ezra thought out loud.
He can try. JD threw back.
Ezra wished that he heard some brashness of youth in the statement. All he heard was a bloodlust that would make Larabee blink. And, surprised as he was, there was a part of Ezra that agreed with the sentiment.
But then they saw where they were being led. Ten men were herding Vin, Josiah and Nathan along the road down from the jail. Armstrong grabbed the hat off of Tanners head, and, laughing, led six of the men with him. The remaining four men lined the regulators up and then
Oh my God, Ezra recognized the formation of a firing squad and was running even as the first words rang through the night, Ready