Old West Universe
The three riders rode slowly through the moonlit landscape, their movements slow and deliberate. They had been in the saddle since before the sun had appeared on the Eastern horizon that morning. The three horsemen rode side by side, the figure in the middle slouched low in the saddle. The men on either side kept watch, one or the other reaching out from time to time to settle him back atop the big black horse he rode.
The rider on the left side, dressed so dark that he blended easily with the shadows, scanned the prairie around them. His eyes settled on a spot up ahead. "Looks like a cabin."
The man on the right side scanned the area, finally nodding in agreement. "Least it'll get us out of the open for a while... give him a chance to rest before we push on home."
Chris Larabee turned to the third rider, flanked by his friends. Reaching out, he touched the man's arm. "Vin? We're gonna stop soon. Think you can hold out a few more minutes?"
Vin Tanner managed to focus his attention on his black clad friend. His voice was little more than a raspy whisper as he replied, "I'm... fine."
"Yeah, figured as much," Larabee said softly. Then he frowned as Tanner slumped forward, nearly tilting over the neck of his horse. He grabbed hold of the now unconscious man, holding him in the saddle. Calling to the third member of their group, he said, "Nathan, grab him."
Nathan Jackson had seen the slender body list forward as well and took hold of a buckskin sleeved arm. "Got 'em."
They held Tanner secure in the saddle, keeping him from falling from the back of his horse as they moved slowly toward the cabin. Just as they neared the little structure the moon and stars slid behind clouds and a sharp clap of thunder caused the three horses to start, whickering in protest. The two conscious men looked over the insensate man in the middle.
"Looks like its best we found this place when we did," Jackson yelled into the suddenly chill wind.
Chris nodded, the cutting wind taking his breath away and making it impossible to answer. Along with the other two men he rode steadily toward the little cabin. They reined in the horses in front of the door, just as the first raindrops began to fall. Making certain that the healer had hold of the sharpshooter; Larabee jumped from the saddle, hurried toward the cabin and shouldered the door. Expecting it to resist him, he was surprised when it swung open easily. Catching himself before he fell, the gunslinger turned to find Nathan right behind him, Vin lying limply in his arms.
"I got 'em, you best settle the horses in, it's gettin' worse by the minute. There's a lean to 'round the side."
As Jackson moved past him, the blond hurried out, going to take care of the livestock. Grabbing all three sets of reins, he led the jittery animals around the side of the cabin and into the shelter he found there. Stripping them of saddle and tack, he grabbed up their saddlebags and bedrolls and headed back toward the cabin.
Entering the little house, he found that Nathan had Vin lying in front of the hearth, where he had started a fire. The flames were warming the room, light dancing through the air and casting shadows on the pale features of the bounty hunter. Kneeling beside his friend, he spoke to the dark healer. "How is he?"
"Been bleedin' again. We need to stay here for at least a day to let him rest up. I'll mix up a poultice... need to check for infection, too."
"What can I do to help?"
"Get his shirt and coat off... strip him to the waist so I can get him cleaned up and the bandages changed."
"It's freezing in here," Larabee protested, knowing his friend's penchant for being cold even in moderate weather.
"It'll warm up soon enough. Might help if you'd closed the door on your way in."
"What?" Chris threw a look over his shoulder, frowning when he saw the door standing open. "I did close it."
Shrugging, the big healer stepped over and closed the door, pressing against it to make certain that it stayed closed. He was that the gunman was working on pulling the clothes off the unconscious tracker. Going to his saddlebags, he began digging out his medical supplies to tend his friends.
Larabee carefully slipped the layers of clothing from Tanner, slowly stripping him down. He frowned as he saw how much blood had stained the rough bandage Jackson had placed on him the night before. He wished they could have left him resting after the fight that had left him wounded. The problem was the man who had wounded him had been a bounty hunter. He himself had shot the man, but hadn't killed him. They had been forced to light out before the man regained consciousness. Vin had seemed in relatively good health for most of the day, but had finally begun to show the strain of riding with a deep gash in his side.
It took them almost an hour to finish their ministrations on the injured man. They cleaned out the wound, Chris holding on to the injured man while Nathan pressed the sides of the wound, drawing out the infection before bathing it in carbolic acid. That done, he carefully packed the gash with the poultice he had made and bound the wound with a fresh bandage.
That finished, they spread out their bedrolls, pulled his spare shirt onto his spare frame, and settled Tanner in on the floor before the hearth. He moaned softly, the first sound he had made since entering the little house.
Chris reached out, stroking a hand through the long, tangled strands of loose curls. "Take it easy, pard, you're all right now."
A pair of unfocused, watery blue slits peered up at the gunman. The tip of a pink tongue appeared, running along dried lips. Finally a soft voice grated out, "Chris?"
"Right here, Vin. You're safe; we're in an old cabin. Not much here, but we'll be out of the rain."
Vin frowned, managing to look past his friend. If this was 'not much' he hated to think of what Larabee needed to be truly comfortable. He could see quite clearly in the warm light of the sunshine spilling through the open window. The room they were in was small, but comfortable, white-washed walls decorated with pictures. The scent of flowers hung heavy in the air, and he looked to see a pitcher filled with wildflowers nearby. He sighed, his body sinking even deeper into the thick mattress he lay on. Brows furrowed and he asked, "Rain?"
"Sh, don't worry about it. The rain's outside, we're safe here. You just have to lay still and rest, we'll take care of everything." Chris continued stroking a hand trough the long hair, hoping to coax the man back to sleep.
"Lift 'im up and let me feed him some of this tea," Nathan instructed, bringing the mug over and sitting cross-legged on the other side of the injured man.
Hating to disturb the injured man any more, Larabee nevertheless slipped a hand beneath Tanner's shoulders and lifted him up to rest against his chest. Tanner moaned in protest and he said softly, "sorry pard, just hang on. Nathan wants to give you something to help out with the pain, okay?"
Jackson began to slowly feed the hot brew to Vin. Both men looked at one another with concern when the semiconscious man's lips turned up in a smile. "Tastes... good." He drank the tea without complaint, even running his tongue over his lips to collect the last drops there.
They settled him back in the blankets, tucking them around his shoulders and smoothing them over his legs. That finished, the two other men settled back, looking around them at the bleak remains of what had once been a trim little cabin. Other than the little fireplace, there was little other than the walls and ceiling that hadn't succumbed to time. They could see the shattered remains of a table and chairs, the skeleton of a bed in one corner, as well as the broken shards of pottery that had once been used by the house's former residents. Left unattended, the little place had given up its contents to make fires for wayward travelers such as themselves.
"Ain't much," Larabee said as he pulled his wet duster off and replaced it with his serape, "but at least it's warm."
Vin blinked his eyes open once more, the sunlight beckoning him to wakefulness. He looked around him at the bright little room, soaking in the warmth as he snuggled deep beneath the thick quilts.
There was something vaguely familiar about the room, but he couldn't figure out just what it was. Thinking was an all together difficult undertaking in any way, shape of form at the moment, and he let it go. It was enough to simply lie there, enjoying the warmth and overall feeling of peace that came over him.
A soft noise caught his attention, and he turned his head toward it. The door opened and a woman entered. She was small, built like Nettie Wells. Her hair was snow white, pulled back in a soft bun. It was her face that held his attention, though. Although he could tell she was older, even, than Nettie, her face was untouched by time, round and pleasant to the eye. Brown eyes, soft and wide as a doe's, crinkled as she smiled at him. "Well, it's about time you woke up, sleepyhead."
"I was... sleepin' long?"
"Oh my heavens, I thought you were going to sleep the day away." Her voice was soft and gentle, laced with an Irish lilt. He felt as if he was listening to a choir of angels as she spoke.
"I'm sorry... I didn't mean to."
She settled on the edge of the bed, reaching out and stroking his face as she said, "it's all right sweetheart, you needed the rest. Are you hungry?"
"A bit I reckon."
"I've got some good Irish Stew on the hearth. I'll bring you a bowl. How 'bout some biscuits, too? I've got some fresh churned butter and a jar of blackberry jam just waitin' for someone to partake of them."
He smiled up at her. "Sounds real good, ma'am."
"Now, now, none of this ma'amin' me, son. My name's Mary Catherine Elizabeth Connell O'Dell. But you're t' call me Kate."
"Kate. Where's.... where's m' friends?" He asked as he tried to push himself up in the bed.
"Now don't you be frettin' about them, deary. They're out doin' some chores for me." She reached down and lifted him up with seeming ease, settling the pillows behind him before easing him back. "They wanted to do something to thank me for takin' you in while you heal."
He nodded, simply laying there for several minutes while he waited for the room to stop spinning. Finally he took a deep breath and squinted his eyes open slowly. He frowned, seeing nothing around him but darkness. Opening his eyes wider, he moved his head from side to side, trying to find the woman who had just been sitting beside him. "Kate?"
"Take it easy pard." Larabee laid his hand on the younger man's forehead, and then frowned at the dark healer. "Nate?"
Jackson touched a hand to Tanner's forehead. "He's like ice."
"What is it?"
Shaking his head, the former stretcher barer said, "I figured he'd be sportin' a fever from the infection. Don't know why his body temperature's dropped so low now. Fire should warm him up, and it ain't even been that cold outside 'til this storm."
"Kate? Where... where are you?" Vin began to struggle, uncertain why he couldn't find the sweet woman who had been tending to him. Suddenly he felt fear growing, threatening to overwhelm him. "Kate!"
"Vin! Take it easy!" Both men struggled to keep him calm, to keep him from injuring himself further with his flailing movements. Chris continued to speak to him, trying to get his friend to calm down. "Come on, Vin, it's all right... come on, calm down."
"No! Lemme go! Where... where is she? Kate!" He continued struggling until, as a final burst of energy deserted him, he collapsed into Larabee's arms.
The blond caught him, easing him to the cabin floor. He looked at Jackson. "What the hell's going on with him?"
"Chris, if I knew, I'd tell you. I ain't never seen nothin' like this before. Man ought' a be weak as a kitten and runnin' a fever, not fightin' us, delirious, and freezin' cold. It beats all I ever seen."
"Well, what do we do?" Larabee kept one hand on the sharpshooter's shoulder, unaware that he was rubbing it gently. "How do we help him?"
Heaving a heavy sigh, the bigger man said, "ain't you listenin' to me? I don't have any idea of what's going on... how can I tell you what we need to do? Damn it, Chris, I ain't a miracle worker."
"Well, don't you have something - "
"Chris! I can't fix it if I don't understand what's goin' on!"
The two men were kneeling, rigid, on either side of the slender form huddled beneath the blankets. Chests heaving with growing anger, their eyes were mirrors for the lightening they could hear outside.
Suddenly the blond slumped, hand scrubbing over his face. "I'm... I'm sorry, Nathan. I didn't mean to... I'm sorry."
Shaking his head, the former slave said, "You're not the only one. I'm sorry, too, Chris. Don't know why I'm takin' it out on you... ain't your fault."
"I just... I don't understand what's going on and... I don't want to lose him, Nathan."
Shaking his head, the healer said, "well I ain't about to give up without a fight. Even if I don't know what's goin' on with him, I'll do everything I can to keep him goin'."
Nodding, Larabee said, "I know you will. I know. It's just... is it going to be enough?"
He cracked open his eyes once more, smiling when he realized that things were back the way they were supposed to be. The sun streamed through the window, and he could smell the flowers nearby. Drawing as deep a breath as his injury would allow, he sighed. Snuggling into the thick blankets once more, he let his eyes close once again. The young man drifted along, allowing his mind to wander as he simply existed to soak in the warmth. It was only when a soft, tender hand stroked along his cheek that he pulled himself back toward wakefulness, sliding his eyes open and gazing upward. He smiled as he focused on Kate's face once more. "You're here... y' come back."
She let loose a soft chuckle that sounded like wind chimes in a spring breeze. "Why child, I haven't gone anywhere. You've been sleepin' for hours... I was startin' to worry."
"Sorry... didn't mean t' make y' worry... I thought... thought y'd gone away. I's in... in th' dark... I... I got scared."
She stroked the back of her hand along his face. "Sh... it's all right, darlin'. Kate's right here and you're safe. You were just dreamin', sweet boy, it's all right."
He nuzzled into that soft hand, allowing her to take away his worries. With a sigh, he repeated, "it's all right."
"Yes, darlin'... it's fine." She looked down at the weakened man, watching as he drifted back to sleep. He didn't see the change that came over the woman and the room around them. The light vanished, shrouding them in darkness that was only pierced by the flash of lightening outside. The transformation went beyond their surroundings. As the vicious light stabbed at the darkness, the woman's sweet countenance was replaced by that of a wizened crone. Her hair was no longer the white of pure snow, but gray wisps that fluttered in the constant breeze that caused the air to turn icy cold. Her eyes went from kindly brown to cold and bottomless black, growing until they became nothing more than eyeless sockets. Her face, before untouched by age, became seamed, lined and ancient. She shrank, going from the gentle and ample curves of the older woman, to the skeletal, wasted form of something long dead.
"Yes, darlin'," she said, her voice shrill and she cackled. "Yes darlin' boy... everything is just fine."
Chris frowned, watching the too-still body nearby. Vin hadn't responded to anything for several hours. He and Nathan had taken turns watching over him while the other got some sleep. It was difficult at best to rest, given the power of the storm outside. Even thought common sense told him morning had arrived, he could see nothing beyond the cracks in the walls. Only the frequent lightening offered any sort of illumination. The gunman could see the rain, coming down in violent torrents, spilling gallons of water onto the all ready soaked ground. He waited, fully expecting to see waves of it crashing through the fragile walls at any moment.
He frowned as Nathan muttered something. Looking over, he saw that the man was asleep, and realized his friend was dreaming. From the looks of Jackson's face, dark brows furrowed and dark eyes flitting beneath closed lids, the dream wasn't pleasant, either.
Nathan looked around, trying to decide where he was and how he had come to be there. He remembered lying down in the corner of the little broken down shack, intent on getting at least an hour or two of sleep. He had no memory of waking or leaving the cabin, only of opening his eyes and finding himself...
He had no idea where he was, there were no landmarks to go by... he couldn't even figure out where up and down were. The world had disappeared, leaving in its wake strange shapes and colors that seemed to wrap around him like some sort of animal.
Suddenly he felt... something... and one single piece of knowledge was his. Vin Tanner was near.
"Vin?" He tried to see through the insanity that swirled around him. "VIN!"
Not knowing what else to do, he simply began to move, walking without direction, but realizing in the very depths of his soul that he was moving toward his friend. He walked faster and faster, his sense of purpose growing by the second. "VIN TANNER!"
He stumbled to a stop, managing a small smile as he recognized the soft, raspy drawl. Searching the volatile mists, he tried to spot the slender man. "Vin? Where are you?"
"Nathan... where are y'? Cain't... cain't see y'."
"Keep talking, I'll find you."
"I'll... try... tired." His voice was growing softer, trembling.
"Vin... talk to me, please. I'll find you, I swear I will."
"Nath... Nathan... 'm h-here... Nathan... tired... here... Nathan... here... Naaaathan... here..."
"Vin? Vin!" He spotted the other man, lying amongst the virulent swirls of color and texture. The big man sprinted forward, dropping down beside the lean body. He looked to find the blue eyes closed, but Vin turned toward him.
"Right here." He reached out, gently laying a big hand on the stubbled jaw. "Right here, Vin."
"Where... where is she?"
Nodding, Vin smiled. "Kate. Where is she?"
Frowning, Jackson said, "I don't know who you're talking about. Who's Kate?"
"Friend...a... a friend." His body relaxed, and the injured man seemed to be drifting.
"Vin!" He tapped the square jaw. "Vin, stay with me."
"Tired... ti... tired, Nathan."
"It's all right; I'll take care of you, okay? We need to get outta here."
"Out? Why? 'S comfortable... here."
"Vin... I've gotta get you outta here."
"No... tired. Kate... Kate'll be here... in a... a minute."
"Kate? Who is this Kate?"
"Who... Kate? She's... oh... there she... is."
Nathan gasped and jerked upright, crying out in pain as the colors and shapes swirled faster and faster. In the midst of it he sensed something that threatened to rip his sanity from him. He sensed the presence of pure evil.
"Vin! We've got to get outta here!" He was forced to scream the words as the evil seemed to envelop both of them. "Vin! We've gotta get outta here!"
"You will not take him... he is mine now... I have claimed him... body and soul."
The voice seemed to come from everywhere, coming at him from every direction.
"No! You can't have him!"
Vicious, other worldly laughter pelted him from every direction and, suddenly, he found himself being pushed. Pushed away from his friend. He struggled; fighting valiantly to remain beside the delusional man... to take him away from whatever it was that was holding him.
"Get out man. Your presence is not wanted here. I have him now. He is mine. Get out!"
"NO! Leave him alone! NO!"
The former slave opened his eyes, frowning when he saw the familiar face of Chris Larabee hovering above him. The gunman was frowning back, concern in his handsome face. "Chris? Where... what?"
"You were having a nightmare. You just started yelling, calling for Vin and telling someone to leave him alone."
"I... oh damn!" Without another word, the big man leapt to his feet and tore out the door of the cabin before the man in black could stop him.
Larabee stared after the other man, shocked at the man's actions. "Nathan!" Jackson disappeared into the angry storm outside. He leapt to his feet, starting toward the door when a sound came to him. Turning, he saw an unearthly glow growing around the prone form of his friend. "What the hell?"
Vin smiled up into the loving face of his benefactress. Kate smiled down at him, compassion fairly glowing in her gentle, brown eyes. Then he frowned. Looking around, he said, "where's... where's Nathan?"
"Who darlin' boy?"
"Nathan... m' friend. I's jist talkin' to 'im... where'd he go?"
"Why sweetheart, there's no one here but the two of us."
His frowned deepened and he shook his head. "Y' said... said m' friends was out... workin' t' pay y'... back fer t-tendin' me."
Kate perched on the side of the bed, reaching out to stroke a gentle hand down his face. "You've been ill, child, feverish and talkin' outta your head. You came to me alone sweet lad."
"No... no that ain't... that ain't right. Y' said they... they was... "
"Sh." She continued to stroke her hand down his face. "You've been feverish... havin' dreams. There's no one else here. Now -"
"No!" He struggled to lift himself up, to pull away from the woman. "Yer lyin'! They were... he... here! I know... I know... they were! I 'member... they was... I know they was... here."
"No... you came to me alone, boy." Her voice had lost some of its charm, taking on a hard edge. "You're here alone. It's just me and you... boy."
"No... yer... yer wrong. Ain't jist me... it ain't..." He fell back, panting, his chest heaving. "It ain't jist... me."
Her face lost some of its pleasantness, rounded flesh becoming more angular and snow white hair graying. Her eyes narrowed the black seeming to grow from the center to consume the iris. Her hand, still on his face, pressed against the flesh, seeming to burn it as she did. "It is just you and me... boy... just you and me."
"N-no... leggo 'a me!" He struggled to push her away, but found her much stronger than he expected. She pressed her hand harder against his check, until he felt it scorch the flesh there. "Leggo! No! Chris!"
Larabee stared at the glow that was spreading out, encasing the sharpshooter. He stepped toward the unearthly light, for once uncertain as to what he was facing. He reached out, shocked when the light burned him, drawing his hand back quickly, he cursed. The blond backed up, a shocked expression on his face. He had felt more than the heat to burn his hand.
He had felt evil.
"Oh Jesus... what the hell is going on?" Another step back, feeling the wind and rain whipping through the open doorway, stinging him. Then a single syllable spurred him back into action.
He saw then that the sharpshooter was struggling weakly, as if a great weight was bearing him down. Quickly the blond moved back in, reaching back into the vile light. Again it burned him, and he was forced to retreat. The gunman reached into his duster pocket, searching for his kerchief... anything to cover his singed flesh. Instead, his hand touched on something else. A small smile played across his lips, and he pulled his hand back out. Thrusting his closed hand back into the light, he was rewarded with an eerie cry, and the light retreated into the shadows of the little cabin. Reaching down, the gunman grabbed the still struggling man and hauled him up.
Vin screamed in pain and fell against his friend, clutching feebly at the bigger man. Larabee gathered him in one arm, the other clutching the object he had fended off the attack with. "Hold on to me, pard, we're getting out of here."
"Cain't... tired," Vin muttered against the other man's shoulder.
"Yes you can. You're a Tanner... you don't quit. Now, do as I said and hold on!"
"Chris... sh-she's... she's too strong. Chris..."
"I don't give a damn how strong 'she' is, cowboy," Larabee growled, "I'm not gonna give you up to her. Now... hold on!"
Vin tightened his hold on the black duster, trusting his friend's words. Slowly they made their way back toward the door, Tanner stumbling along as Chris pulled him along. The air was heavy, filled with electricity. Whatever inhabited the light the blond had seen screamed, raging against defeat.
As they neared the door, Larabee felt a presence behind him. Turning, half expecting to find their escape cut off, he smiled as he saw the big former stretcher bearer standing there. "Nathan!"
The big man stood just beyond the door, three sets of reins in his hands. The horses were just behind him, skittish and fighting to free themselves as fear consumed them. As Chris started to clear the opening, the door began to slam shut. Moving closer, Jackson threw his shoulder against it, keeping it in place. Keeping a tight hold on the reins, he reached out, grabbing hold of the black duster, lending his strength to the blond.
It seemed to take forever to cross the threshold but, finally, all three men were outside in the storm. While Larabee held Tanner upright, Jackson mounted his horse. Reaching down, he drew the injured man up onto the saddle before him.
The gunman took the other reins from Nathan's hands, pulling himself up onto his gelding's back. Keeping Peso's reins tight in his hands, he turned to the others. "Let's ride!"
The wind grew stronger, whipping around them fiercely. The rain pelted against them, stinging them as if they were being attacked with tiny arrows. The animals struggled to move forward, heads down in the face of the wind. Nathan pulled Vin tight against him, covering the now unconscious man's face with the one blanket Larabee had managed to snag when he rescued the tracker. He held Tanner in the saddle with one arm, guiding Able with the other. He could feel the big horse slipping and sliding as it fought to gain purchase on the sodden ground.
For nearly an hour they fought to leave the cabin, and the storm, behind.
When they did, it was almost anti-climactic. Without warning, they suddenly found themselves in the daylight. Sunlight poured around them, warming the chilled travelers. Jackson and Larabee slumped in their saddles, exhausted from the ordeal. Vin lay limp in the bigger man's arms, unaware of what was going on around him. He didn't even acknowledge the change when Nathan pulled the sodden blanket down, allowing the sun to light his features.
The other two men looked at the pale, haggard face, any sign of life buried beneath a deathly pallor. Both of them wondered if they had rescued their friend in time or not.
They traveled a few more miles, wanting to put as much space between themselves and the nightmare they had endured as they could. Finally, finding a narrow, tree-lined creek, they reined in. Chris dismounted, hurrying around to take Vin into his arms. Nathan released the insensate man, watching as Larabee pulled him into his arms.
The blond carried Tanner to the nearest tree, lowering him to the ground beneath it. All of them were soaked to the bone, with nothing to change into. In their haste they had left their saddlebags and bedrolls behind. Other than the blanket Chris had grabbed up with Vin, they had nothing.
Knowing that the already weakened young man could end up with pneumonia, they carefully stripped him down, laying him nude in the sun. The other two stripped down as well, remaining in nothing but their long johns, laying all of the clothing and the blanket out in the sun as well. Carefully they pulled the soaked and soiled bandage from Tanner's wound, finding it reddened and swollen.
While Chris watched over the unconscious sharpshooter, Nathan searched the creek bank for some of the naturally healing plants that would aid him in ministering to the Texan. While he waited, Larabee built a small fire, using a match from the little tin in his pocket to light the wood.
Jackson returned a short time later, his kerchief filled with mud and plants. He also carried the bandages they had taken off Tanner, the blood scrubbed from them in the creek. Leaving the long strips of cloth to dry, he worked with the medicinal herbs, making a poultice to pack the man's knife wound. Then he turned to the painful task of purging the broad slash. With Chris holding the injured man down, the healer began forcing the foul gore from the raw wound. To their surprise and concern, Vin didn't respond to the big man's prodding.
It took several long minutes before the wound was cleansed and clean blood welled up from the ruined flesh. Nathan sat back on his heels, shaking his head. "Didn't think we were ever gonna get it cleaned out."
Glancing over his shoulder toward the distant cabin, Chris said, "Do you think...?"
When the blond didn't finish his thought, Jackson said, "Do I think it's got something to do with whatever that was back there?"
All he could do was nod, the thought so far outside anything he could understand, that part of him wanted to laugh... wanted to laugh over the entire thing. But he didn't... couldn't... it was all very, very real.
"I wish I had an answer, Chris... really wish I did. We get home, maybe Josiah's the one who can give us some answers... but I don't know. Some questions just ain't meant to be answered."
"Not good enough," the blond said with a hard shake of his head. "Whatever happened back there damn near killed a friend of mine. There have to be answers."
Jack Connell looked up from where he sat in front of his little general store as he saw three horses coming up the dusty path that passed for a road in Connell's Pass, New Mexico territory. Dropping his long, thin legs from the splintered upright, he stood, pulling his cigar out of his mouth and blowing a smoke ring into the late afternoon air. As the horses came nearer, he realized that one of the horses was carrying double, a slender, long haired young man being held in the saddle by a larger, dark man. They reined in before him, the third man, dressed in black, taking his flat brimmed hat off and raking a hand through his short, blond hair. "We need some supplies."
Nodding, Jack said, "reckon I can set y'all up. Run int' trouble, did'ja?"
"Yeah." The man in black's voice turned surly, giving a clear indication that he had no intention of giving any answers. "Where's a place to bed down?"
With a snort, the last surviving member of the Connell family said, "any place y' wanna... long's y' don't mind dust."
Chris lifted his gaze, looking around the little town for the first time. Frowning, he said, "you the only one here?"
"Yup. Rest lit out 'r died 'bout a year ago. If y'all wanna sleep in a clean place, I've got rooms above th' store. Ain't fancy, but reckon y'all ain't real worried 'bout anything but a bed for yer friend there. He bad off?"
"You got any carbolic?"
Sighing when he realized that he wasn't going to get much conversation out of his visitors, Jack simply said, "yeah."
They got Vin down off the horse, carrying him through the doors and into the store. The injured man had come around that morning, and had managed to drink a little water. He still didn't seem to be completely awake, but at least he recognized his friends. The tracker had roused a few times during the day, but for the most part had slept, secure in the arms of one friend or the other.
With the long-limbed, balding and aged man leading the way, they carried Vin up the stairs and into a large, comfortable room. There were two beds, each covered with oiled canvas. They continued to hold Vin couched between them while Jack quickly stripped the canvas from one of the beds, turning back the bedding beneath it. Carefully they laid Vin on the mattress, and Nathan immediately began to tend the sleeping man.
Connell let lose a low whistle when the knife wound was revealed. "How long's he been carryin' that?"
"Three... four days," Nathan supplied. "I'm gonna need that carbolic, and some other things, too. Chris, can you go with 'im and get 'em? Reckon you know what I'll need."
"Yeah," the blond said softly. Turning to their host, he said, "sir?"
Nodding, Jack led the way back down the stairs. As Chris named off the things they'd need, he quickly found them and sat them on the counter. When they finished, he tallied them up, accepting the money the quiet blond turned over to him. He couldn't help but notice the faint signs of scorching on the man's right hand. He looked at the man's face, seeing for himself the haunted look in the hazel eyes. He seemed to take the man's measure in just a few seconds, but said nothing. He left the gunman to carry the supplies upstairs, while he went to fix his guests some dinner.
They had cleaned and redressed the Texan's injured side, Chris holding him up while Nathan wrapped fresh cloth around the lean abdomen. Later Larabee held him again, while Jackson slowly and patiently fed the younger man some broth. Vin's eyes opened, and he stared around him with a frown.
"Wh... where are we?"
"We're in a little place called Connell's Pass. We're gonna stay here a day or two to give you time to rest, then we'll go on home."
"Wanna leave... now... don't wanna... she'll come... gotta git away."
Chris rubbed a hand along the agitated man's arm. "Take it easy pard, we're safe."
Shaking his head, Vin said, "No. I c'n... feel... feel 'er. She'll come... we gotta go."
Peering over Jackson's shoulder, the town's sole resident said, "it'll pass, son. She has no power beyond that cursed plot of land. She can still call to y', but that's all ol' Kate c'n do."
Blue eyes regarded the stranger with open awe. "Y' know... know 'er?"
"Aye, son, I do. You're safe here, I promise. I know y' don't know me from Adam, but you c'n believe me on this. Katie's got no power over y' now."
Heaving a sigh, the tracker managed a brief smile, then closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
The other two men settled him back on the bed, covering him with the blankets. Then, as one, they turned to stare at the old man. All he did in return was smile, turn away, and walk out of the room. Over his shoulder he called out, "dinner's ready, lads."
They left Vin to sleep, following the gangly man into his kitchen. There they settled in at the table, while he dished up bowls of a rich, tasty stew. Placing a basket of biscuits and a pitcher of lemonade on the table as well, he settled in at the table with his guests.
"What do you know about all this? Who's 'Kate'?" Larabee asked without preamble.
With a smile, appreciative of the man's directness, Jack said, "I know everything about it. Kate... well, Kate was my mother."
"Mother?" Jackson yelped. The two men shot worried stares at one another, tensing as if they were going to bolt.
"Take it easy, lads. I've had nothin' to do with her... not since she... well, not since she sold her soul."
Chris scrubbed a hand over his face, offering a cold glare at the old man. "Sold her soul... you expect us to buy that?"
Shrugging his boney shoulders, Jack said, "Don't matter to me one way or the other, son. The long an' short of the story is this. I was one of twelve children born to John and Kate Connell, one of four boys. My Father was a kind and gentle man, and a hard workin' business man, too. He built this town..." he snorted, shaking his head. "I know it ain't much but, in its day, it had great potential.
"My Father was in love with his wife... my Mother, Kate. Katie m' love, he called her. And for many years Kate loved him. And then one day, Charlie O'Dell came ridin' into town.
"Kate fell madly and instantly in love. He was charming, shy and handsome. The first time he stared at her with those big blue eyes, she was lost."
"Blue eyes?" Chris said, looking over at Nathan.
"Aye. As blue as your friend's. But hopefully that's all they've got in common. Charlie was a violent, cold man. He began taking control of the town, inch by inch. My Father did his best to resist the man's attempts to take over, but Charlie eventually won out.
"He killed my Father. Right out in front of this store, in broad daylight, in front of the entire town. And no one did a thing. Not even my mother.
"Long before Charlie killed my Father, he and Kate were meeting... having an affair. They set up their very own little love nest far enough away from town that no one would see them."
"The cabin." There was no hint of a question in the gunman's voice.
Nodding, Jack said, "aye. My Mother was enough of a... a proper woman, that she insisted they wait the prescribed amount of time after my Father was murdered, even though Charlie wanted to be married the same day of the funeral. So they kept up the farce... meeting at the cabin twice a week.
"On the first anniversary of my Father's death, my Mother became Katherine O'Dell.
"Good ol' Charlie stayed around for three years... making life hell for all of us. Kate bore him two children, both boys... and both died before their first birthday. Charlie didn't seem to be very upset at their loss... but then, neither did Kate. She didn't seem to care about anyone except her new husband. No matter what he did... how he treated those around him, including my Mother herself... Kate was madly in love with the man. Even when he beat her... caused her to lose their third child... she was hopelessly, madly in love with him.
"On the eve of their third anniversary, Charlie talked Kate into going out into their old love nest for a romantic rendezvous. She rode out there... set everything up... but he never showed up.
"She never left the cabin after that. Days... weeks... months... and finally years passed. We... her children... saw to it that she didn't want for any of life's necessities. After a while the toll on her became evident. She slowly went mad out there... waiting.
"And she's still waiting for him... for Charlie," Chris said, softly. He understood the loss of a love only too well.
"Aye, she is. Your friend ain't the first man she's gone after. There were several over the years... while she was alive... "
"And since then?" Nathan asked.
"Kate passed more than forty years ago... and there've been several more since then."
"Did they... were they... "Chris stumbled over the question.
"Did the others live?"
Jack shrugged, "some did... but most of them that did went mad."
"That won't happen this time," Larabee spoke the words in a tone of promise.
Looking the two men over, Connell said, "I believe you're right."
"The things that happened out there... to Vin, to us... we don't understand," Jackson said.
Shaking his head, the old man said, "there's never been any sort of explanation I'm afraid. Most say she made a pact with the devil to get Charlie back, only something happened and it didn't work out. Others say that it's just her madness that she draws her powers from even beyond the grave. Me, I don't know, and I can't say that I want to dwell on it. I just pray that... sometime soon... she'll follow Charlie into hell and give me peace."
"Why don't you just leave?"
Jack looked into the dark-skinned man's warm brown eyes, reminded of those he saw looking at him with love so many years ago. With a sigh, he said softly, "because she's my Mother, and no matter what, I love her. I hate what she's done... what she's still doin', the things she does to innocent folks. So, I'll stay here for as long as it takes... ready to help those she attacks if they make it through their ordeal."
The two men looked at their benefactor, grateful for his conviction.
The morning sun streamed through the windows, lighting the sharpshooter's pale face. Blue eyes blinked wearily opened, staring around at the strange room. The tip of his tongue appeared, running over dried lips.
"Good morning," Came a familiar voice. He turned to find Chris watching him from where he sat in a chair beside the bed.
"You're looking a lot better today."
"Must look... better 'n I... feel," he rasped.
With a soft chuckle Chris said, "well, you've been through a lot in the last few days."
Dark brows knitting together, the younger man said, "What... what happened?"
"What do you remember?"
Giving the question some thought, Vin said, "some fella... come after me with... with a knife. Y'... shot 'im... an' we lit out... then... then... cain't 'member." He drifted back to sleep.
Larabee found himself breathing a sigh of relief. If Vin couldn't recall his ordeal with Kate, that had to be a good sign. Her hold truly had been broken.
Just then Nathan Jackson came into the room, a look of confusion on his handsome face. "Jack been up here?"
Shaking his head, the blond said, "Haven't seen him since we left the dinner table last night. Why?"
"Ain't seen hide nor hair of him. The horses have been groomed and fed... there are new saddlebags and bedrolls tied to the saddles now, and they're all waitin' outside. Breakfast is ready and sittin' on the table, includin' a pot of mush sittin' on the warmer and waitin' for Vin. But not a sign of Jack."
Looking from one man to the other, Chris said, "something tells me that its time to go home."
They ate hurriedly, helping Tanner to eat before they changed his bandage and got him ready to ride out. Fully conscious now, Vin refused to be carried. Instead, he shuffled along between the two other men, his steps short and unsteady. They reached the street outside the little store, and carefully helped Vin into the saddle. The other men climbed aboard their own horses, and the trio headed out of town.
As they continued to ride, slowly to accommodate the injured Texan, Chris reached down into his pocket. He pulled out the object that instinct had urged him to use back at the cabin; that had held the evil of Kate Connell at bay while he and Vin escaped.
It was a tiny silver cross, plain and nondescript. It had been his wife's gift to him the day they married. She had kissed it gently, asked the preacher to bless it, and had presented it to him with a shy smile. It was, she said, a token meant to keep him safe on his journeys. He had smiled in return, shaking his head at her gesture. Sarah knew she could never change him and, he knew, she didn't want to. The young bride had loved her wild and woolly husband.
He had worn it around his neck while she lived, the silver nothing more than a glint beneath his kerchief. After her death, he had ripped the chain from his body, cursing the cross and the God it represented as he threw it toward the ashes of his home. It was only later that Buck had slipped the cross into his hand, cursing him for throwing away Sarah's love in his anger. He had carried it in his pocket ever since, feeling his wife's spirit hovering near to protect him. He may have forsaken God, but he would never forsake his wife's love.
And it would seem that his wife's love had yet to forsake him, either.
As they reached the edge of the cluster of buildings, Chris happened to look back. His breath caught as he found himself looking back at a busy, bustling little town, the people moving in and out of the buildings as they went about their business. In the center of the street stood Jack Connell, one hand raised in good bye.
"Chris?" Jackson was frowning, watching the other man with concern.
"You look like you just saw a ghost."
Chris smiled at his friend's observation. He gave a final glance back at the town, seeing only swirling dust and empty buildings. With a shake of his head, he said only, "let's go home, boys."
The gathering sat in silence for a long moment until, finally, the youngest member said, "but did they never figure out why Kate did the things she did? Did they ever end her torment, and the violence she did on others?"
The storyteller said softly, "no. Her evil actions continue still, brought down upon any hapless traveler who enters that cabin."
"And her children?"
"They stay as well, seeking to right the wrongs she does."
The storyteller smiled down at the little one. "Kate... and her children... do what they do for love, my friend. Right or wrong... they do it for love."
One of the others spoke up then, capturing their attention with his voice alone. "I know of a story as well that speaks of love that transcends every barrier placed in its way."
The gathering's leader smiled broadly. "Then please, brother, spin your tale for us."
Nodding, the second storyteller began his tale...
"This story takes place in a time when the world was made small by the ability to communicate across great distances. But, at the same time, men and women found it harder and harder to communicate.
"Humans had become quite efficient at death, while at the same time they fought harder and harder to evade its cold hand themselves.
"It was a time of contradictions in many, many ways.
"My tale focuses on three men, each very different from the others, while at the same time they were very similar. And in both their differences and their similarities they had forged a friendship... a bond... that had often served them well.
"However, even the strongest bonds have their limits..."