Ashes and Smoke
Two days, and nothing. Some of the local ranchers recognized Fowler's description, but no one would admit to knowing him, or even to having seen him. Tired, frustrated, hungry and saddle-sore, they drifted back to town and convened in front of the livery, trading what few, insignificant scraps of information they'd collected and realizing yet again just how little they knew. It was as if they were chasing a man who didn't exist.
Except that Chris knew he did.
"I need a drink," he said tersely, striding away from his men and toward the saloon, feeling an odd, instinctive itch between his tight shoulders.
"Ah, you know, this is for the birds," Steele groused in disgust. He'd gotten as involved in the search as any of the others, had begun to think of their quest as his own, and couldn't bear the thought of it ending like this. "We have to do something," he insisted, looking around at his tired, dirty companions. "Come on, everything's gonna grind to a halt if Larabee starts wallowing around inside of a bottle!"
Angered by the little man's words, and by the contempt he heard in the grating voice, Josiah loomed before Steele and planted big hands on his hips, fixing a cold, hard gaze upon the writer. "I'm gonna assume your concern is for a man who lost his family," he said in a deep, warning voice.
Steele immediately realized his misstep. "Uh, yes," he murmured, eyeing the big preacher fearfully. "Of course."
Vin let Josiah handle Steele, wishing he'd find some way to get rid of him. The man had renewed his attempts to get close to him, fascinated by the notion of a bounty hunter-turned-bounty. He'd put together Tanner's whole name, had gotten part of his story back in Purgatory, and wanted to hear the rest of it, easily able to envision the books he'd sell, and the money he'd make.
Except that Vin didn't care to have his story spread all over creation and lining the little man's pockets.
He took Blackfox back to the jail, spoke briefly with the sheriff, and headed for the saloon. He wanted desperately to soak his tired, aching body in a tub of hot water, but knew he had to see how Larabee was holding up first.
Then they'd have to draw up a new plan...
He entered the saloon and saw Chris at once, seated at a table with a bottle and glass before him, his dirty, unshaven face deeply creased by lines of exhaustion, frustration... and concentration. He was almost startled to realize that Larabee wasn't drunk, that the bottle had hardly even been touched, then swore silently at himself. Hell, of course Chris wouldn't be drunk. Not with Fowler still running loose.
He stopped before the table and shoved his thumbs into his gunbelt, shifting all his weight to one hip to ease the ache that had taken up permanent residence in his back. "We're ready ta keep lookin'," he drawled. "Sheriff 'n some of the local boys've agreed ta help."
Larabee raised his eyes to his lover and studied him intently, needing those hunter's instincts more than ever. "Where do you think he is, Vin?" he asked softly, thoughtfully.
Tanner shook his head slightly. "I don't know." Unable to bear standing any longer, he pulled out a chair and eased himself into it with a long, involuntary groan. "After that brush in Purgatory," he went on, slouching as deeply as his back would allow, "he knows there are seven men gonna hunt him down. Hell, he's probably long gone."
Chris sat with his elbows on the arms of his chair and his hands cupped together. "My gut tells me different." He fixed narrowed eyes on Tanner, knowing he better than anyone would understand what he was about to say. "Back when I was ranchin', I had some trouble with a mountain lion. Kept comin' down at night and killin' my stock. So I went after him. Tracked him for seven days up in the mountains." He regarded Tanner evenly. "Fifth day out, I woke up, my pack horse was dead. Cougar had gotten him durin' the night. See, I was trackin' that cat. All the while he was behind me... Watchin' me." He nodded slowly as Tanner suddenly turned and glanced over his shoulder, as if he could feel it, too. "That's how I feel about Fowler."
"Fine line 'tween hunter and hunted," Vin murmured with the certainty of one who knew that line well, and had crossed it. He nodded firmly and started to rise. "All the more reason for us ta go get him first--"
"Wait," Chris called, smiling slightly. He poured a drink and pushed the glass toward the tracker, green eyes catching and holding blue. "Have a drink."
Vin frowned and narrowed his eyes, studying Chris carefully from beneath the broad brim of his hat. He knew that look, knew that tone, knew that smile.
Larabee had a plan.
+ + + + + + +
They mounted their horses with as much stir and ruckus as they could create, wanting to draw as much attention to themselves as possible. Even Vin, who seldom raised his voice, forced himself to shout.
"Okay, we'll meet back up here in three days."
"I can't believe Larabee's not coming," griped Steele, who had not been privy to the plan.
Vin shot the little man an exasperated glare, then raised his voice again. "Let's head out."
Steele urged his mule after the tracker, and, as JD touched his spurs to Milagro, he called over his shoulder, "Sure you don't wanta ride with us, Buck?"
The six split up and rode out in their appointed directions, accompanied by a few volunteers from town, while their leader, the man for whom they were doing this, sat in the saloon and got acquainted with the bottle.
Or so it seemed to the hard man watching from the shadows.
+ + + + + + +
The sun sank below the horizon, and darkness fell over Eagle Bend. Normally, the Sandpiper Saloon would have been crowded and noisy at this hour, but the black-clad man had chased all the patrons, and finally even the bartender, out with his dangerous, volatile temper. Bottles littered the floor around him, and he reeked of all the whiskey he'd consumed.
The once-proud Chris Larabee was gone, replaced by a stinking drunk.
He leaned heavily against the bar now, barely able to stand on his own, and shot at whatever caught his eye. "Fowler!" he screamed between gunshots. "Where are you? Fowler!"
He shot wildly at the chandelier, and was satisfied to hear glass breaking as one of his bullets hit a fixture. He tried another shot, but heard the hammer click on an empty chamber. Pushing himself away from the bar, he staggered back toward the table, tossing aside his empty gun. But his legs were too unsteady beneath him, and he stumbled heavily, falling to the floor. As he lay there, the door opened with a squeak, then closed, and footsteps fell against the wooden planking of the floor.
"Get up, you drunk," Cletus Fowler ordered, nudging the fallen man with a foot. "You found me."
Chris stared up into the face of his nemesis, and felt waves of bitter hatred surge through him. "You killed my wife and son. Why?!" he demanded, finally able to ask the question that had haunted him for three years.
Fowler joined his three henchmen at the bar and turned contemptuous eyes upon the drunken Larabee. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," he quipped coldly. "At least the money was right."
Chris levered himself clumsily to his feet and rushed Fowler, only to be caught and thrown back to the floor. "Who hired you?"
"Son, I'm a professional," Fowler said. "I guarantee the anonymity of my clients. What I can tell you is, I was hired to go after you. Your little family was just unlucky. I do apologize for killing them but," he smiled thinly, "I have to admit I enjoyed it."
Enraged, Chris lurched to his feet again and once more rushed Fowler, but was flung to the floor. The assassin watched him fall, and continued his taunting.
"I'd have enjoyed killing you, too. But you ran off."
"You ran off!" Chris shouted, his hatred of the man growing every second. The thought of Sarah and Adam having suffered at the hands of this cold, ruthless, vicious bastard was more than he could bear. "I've been lookin' for you for three years! You ran off!"
Fowler reached into his pocket and drew out a thin cheroot, putting it to his mouth. "However, it was good enough for my client. But now you're back and I'm back on the payroll."
"What about Blackfox?" Chris asked, needing to know whether the horse thief had been telling the truth about his part in all this.
"Blackfox?" Fowler struck a lucifer on the bar. "He's local talent. Hard to find good help these days. I had to eviscerate him in his cell." He lit his cheroot, and watched through flat, cold black eyes as Larabee dragged himself back to his table and pulled himself into the chair. "I see you've got a symbiotic relationship goin' with that bottle. Too bad." He shook out the match. "Makes a man sloppy. Could get him perforated."
Chris settled himself in his chair and stared at Fowler's three men, appraising them and their abilities. "You look like you brought an awful lotta men to kill one drunk," he pointed out with a humorless smile.
"Yeah. Well, I have no problem delegating authority," Fowler said, turning his back on Larabee. The man disappointed him. He'd hoped for a challenge, someone worthy of his talents. Instead, all he found was a drunk who couldn't even stand on his own. He'd let one of his men kill Larabee; the job was beneath him.
Chris put on his hat, and the green eyes staring out from beneath the brim were as clear as glass. "Hey, Cletus," he called, reaching under the table and pulling the gun he'd hidden there, "you sure do use big words for somebody so stupid."
Fowler turned as he heard a hammer being pulled back, drew his own gun by instinct and turned. As he did, he suddenly saw shadows rising on the floor above him, saw other guns come out of hiding, and knew he'd walked into a trap.
All he'd heard about Larabee hadn't been a lie, after all.
Thunder erupted throughout the saloon as guns began to fire, and bullets whipped and whined in all directions. Bodies darted here and there as cover was sought or broken, as men tried for better angles. Glass shattered and wood splintered, here and there a harsh cry sounded as flesh was hit, and still the desperate fighting wore on.
Fowler darted toward the door, and Chris looked up to see Wilmington drawing a bead on the escaping assassin. "Buck! Don't kill him!" he shouted. He rose and started after Fowler. "Cover me!"
He ran out of the saloon, and saw Fowler heading for the livery stable across the street. Taking off at a run, he leapt over a water trough and ran inside just as Fowler was pulling himself onto a big gray horse.
"Where you goin', boy?" he yelled, launching himself at the man and knocking him to the ground.
The two men fought with a wild fury, each knowing his life was at stake. But, for Chris, much more hung in the balance. Here, in the vile person of Cletus Fowler, was every explanation he'd ever sought, every answer he needed to put his past to rest. And he was determined not to lose it.
But Fowler was equally determined not to be taken. He grappled with Larabee, traded punches, and was knocked down. He came up with a pitchfork, and wielded it with deadly intent. He lunged at the gunman, missed and knocked a lamp off its hook instead, setting the hay in which it fell ablaze. Still the fight raged on. Fowler got an arm around Larabee's throat and squeezed, trying to choke him to death.
Chris was given strength by his rage, and managed to break the assassin's hold, then dealt him several more hard, punishing blows and knocked him to the ground. It was not enough. He wanted Fowler to resist, to fight, to give him an excuse to beat every answer he wanted out of him.
"Come on, Cletus! Get up!" he shouted, bending over the man and grabbing him. "Get up!" He dragged Fowler to his feet and out of the burning livery. Once outside, he threw him to the ground, taking a vicious, vengeful pleasure in the man's obvious pain. Fowler landed hard, and Chris stalked slowly toward him, like a black shadow of death.
Kneeling at Fowler's side, he grabbed the assassin's once-immaculate coat and hauled him up roughly. "Tell me who hired you!" he spat, shaking Fowler hard. "Tell me!" The man mumbled an answer, and Chris thrust him away and rose to his feet, waiting for the name he had prayed for three long years to hear.
Beaten and bleeding, Cletus Fowler drew himself to his feet and locked gazes with Chris Larabee, who stared back at him with all the wrath and pain of hell unleashed. "I will," he muttered. He turned to glance over his shoulder at the burning livery, then returned his gaze to Larabee. "It was, uh... Lemme think now, it was, uh..." He reached into his vest and pulled out his pocket watch, glanced at it, then fished in a pocket for a cheroot.
Chris watched him, hardly daring to breathe, his need to know who was behind the deaths of his wife and son warring with his almost uncontrollable desire to tear apart the man who had actually done the deed. Rage pounded through him in hard, hot torrents, turning his blood to fire, and every fiber of his being screamed for vengeance. He would kill Fowler, but only after the man had uttered the name of the man Larabee would kill next.
Fowler put the battered cheroot in his mouth and chewed on its end, still staring at Larabee. "His name was, uh..." Something dark and ugly flared in his eyes, and a faint sneer twisted his bleeding lips. "No, on second thought, go to hell." He turned and walked calmly into the burning stable.
"NOOOOoooo...!" The scream ripped from Chris in a wrenching cry of rage and horror as Fowler committed himself to a fiery death and took the name of his employer with him into oblivion. Unable to bear watching all his hopes consumed once more in flames, he launched himself forward, intent upon going after Fowler and dragging him back.
Immediately, hands grabbed him, held him back, then held him down as he was pulled, pushed and wrestled to the ground. He fought the men restraining him with a strength and wildness born of his desperation, but there were too many of them, and, despite his best, most furious efforts, he was overpowered. His howls and curses gave way to wrenching sobs as the reality of his defeat crashed in upon him.
Once he stopped fighting, his friends released him and stepped back, not wanting to intrude any further upon his grief. All except Vin. The tracker continued kneeling in the dirt at Larabee's side, his head bowed to conceal the tears sliding down his own cheeks, and kept a firm hand on Chris' shaking shoulder, saying nothing, merely letting his lover know he was near.
Buck stood off to one side and stared in mute, shocked horror at the burning stable, his face streaked with tears. They'd never know. They'd never know who, they'd never know why. It had all been for nothing. None of it had made a damn bit of difference. It had all gone to ashes.
Seeing the look on his face, JD went immediately to him and, not knowing what else to do, unable to think of a single word to say, simply put an arm around him and held him as Buck had so often held him. And when he felt the big man's frame begin to shake from the sobs he could no longer hold back, JD slipped his other arm around him, then lowered him gently to his knees and cradled Buck to him while he cried.
Josiah, Nathan and Ezra exchanged long, worried glances, then Josiah went to Vin and Chris, and Nathan went to Buck and JD. From the corner of his eye, Standish saw a familiar figure hurrying toward the scene, and, with an uncharacteristically foul oath, turned on his heel and set himself on an intercept path.
"I cannot allow you to intrude upon their grief," he told Steele in a hard, cold tone. His gaze dropped to the pad in the man's hand, then snapped back up to his face. "And I will not allow you to make a spectacle of their suffering. This is not a matter for public consumption."
Steele looked around at the devastation before him, at the two grief-stricken men being comforted by their friends against the backdrop of the burning stable, and pocketed his pad without argument. He didn't understand it himself. He'd made a career capitalizing on blood, tears and violence, and had assumed that these men, and their desperate quest, would provide more of the same. Except that, somewhere, somehow, this story had become more than just the usual blood-and-thunder adventure. Something deeper.
And it would be that story he'd tell when he wrote about these men.
"I'll just go on back to my room then," he said quietly. "Do some packing. I think I've got all I need anyway." He nodded once to the gambler, then turned and left.
And Ezra watched, dumbfounded, as the little man walked away.
+ + + + + + +
It was a somber and nearly silent group that mounted up outside the hotel the next morning, with seven faces showing plainly the signs of a sleepless night. The sheriff was there to see them off, torn between relief that men who drew such trouble would be going and sorrow that their search had come to such a bitter end. He wanted to offer his condolences to Larabee, but the gunfighter -- pale and utterly withdrawn -- was unapproachable. Instead, he turned to the long-haired man in buckskins, upon whom the mantle of leadership seemed to have fallen.
"I'm truly sorry it ended this way," he said softly, sadly. "I wish he could've found his answers."
Vin sighed and nodded. "Reckon we all do," he breathed. He gazed up at the sheriff at nodded. "But we're grateful fer yer help. 'N sorry 'bout the liv'ry."
The sheriff suddenly frowned, remembering having seen this man prowling through the wreckage early this morning. "You find what you were lookin' for in there?"
Vin's eyes hardened, and his stance stiffened. He'd wanted to make certain Fowler had really died in that fire, hadn't gotten out some other way to continue preying on others. And he'd vowed that, if Fowler had escaped, he'd hunt him to the ends of the earth.
But that wouldn't be necessary. He'd found the body, or what was left of it, had wrapped it in blankets and taken it outside town, where he'd carved the charred corpse to bits and scattered the pieces for the scavengers to eat. Fowler's spirit would never trouble anyone again.
"Yeah, I found it," he said softly.
The sheriff felt a chill ripple down his spine at the coldness in the young man's tone, at the light of savagery in those blue eyes. He suddenly realized he didn't want to know any more.
"You fellas have a safe journey," he bade, touching a finger to the brim of his hat and hurrying away, needing to put some distance between himself and the soft-spoken young man with the killer's eyes.
Vin turned and made his way to Peso, who stood waiting for him with uncharacteristic patience. But the big horse had been ridden hard over the past five days, even for him, and Tanner knew the gelding had to be about as played out as the rest of them. He stopped and swept a loving caress down the blazed nose, then slipped a molasses cookie he'd saved from supper into the waiting mouth.
"Jist git me home," he murmured, resting his forehead on Peso's and closing his eyes briefly, feeling every bit of his exhaustion settling upon him. "Then mebbe we both c'n rest."
He patted Peso's nose once more, then walked around and hauled his weary body into the saddle. Chris was at his left, looking so utterly lost that it broke his heart, and Buck was at Larabee's left, in no better shape. Vin leaned forward in the saddle and glanced across the two men to JD, who rode next to Buck, and got the boy's nod. With the other three behind them, Vin raised an arm in a habitual cavalry gesture and swept it forward.
"Let's ride," he said in a tired, throaty rasp, kneeing Peso forward.
+ + + + + + +
They made it as far as the cut-off to what had been the Larabee ranch. There, Chris seemed to come to himself, and reined Pony to a stop. The others drew up around him, their worry obvious.
He swallowed hard and met those looks, grateful for what they represented. These men had ridden with him without being asked, without ever asking a question of their own, and with nothing in it for themselves. Buck alone had shared some personal stake in the hunt, yet, from the first, he'd been willing to push his grief aside for the sake of his old friend's, and shouldered whatever part of Chris's grief he feared Larabee couldn't handle. And Vin...
God, what would he have done without Vin?
"I wanta thank you boys for what you done," he said softly. "And I don't want any of ya thinkin' you coulda done more. It just... wasn't meant ta be."
"God holds all the answers we seek, brother," Josiah intoned quietly, his blue eyes sad. "And, in His own time, He reveals them." He shrugged his thick shoulders resignedly. "But it's hard for us to remember that God's time is not always our time."
Chris nodded, still struggling with that. "I want you all ta go on back ta town. There's..." He glanced over his shoulder at the cut-off and clenched his jaw hard. "Somethin' I gotta do," he finished in a ragged voice.
"Chris," Buck called softly, worriedly, "you--"
"It's all right, Buck," he said, turning a sad smile on his oldest friend. "I'll be along soon. I just... need some time here, first."
Buck studied him a moment, then nodded, still worried but not afraid. Chris was tired, was hurting, but he didn't have the bleak, desolate look about him he'd had three years ago. The grief was still here, but the demons had gone.
"All right," he said at last. "We'll tell Travis what happened. He'll wanta know about Blackfox, anyway." He gazed steadily at his old friend, his heart in his eyes. "You take care, and we'll see ya when you get back."
Chris nodded, then touched his spurs lightly to Pony's flanks and set him down the road where once a dream had been, and where now only ashes waited.
When Larabee had gone, Buck turned to Vin. "You take care of him, hear?" he said softly.
The tracker was startled by the words, and his face showed it. "What?"
Buck had to chuckle; the boy must be truly exhausted to look and sound just like JD. "You go after him, watch over him. He don't need ta be alone."
Vin licked his lips, uncertainty in his eyes. "Ain't my place," he whispered. "If he wants ta be with them--"
Buck fixed a compelling gaze upon the younger man. "I've known him a long time, Vin, and I know that what he wants and what he needs ain't always the same. Maybe he does need ta be with them right now, but he don't need ta be there alone. He's lookin' for a place with the dead, when he's already got one with the livin'. And he's gonna need somebody ta remind him of that." He grinned mischievously. "Since yer the one he's least likely ta shoot, I'm thinkin' that makes it yer job."
Vin scowled at the big man, but knew he was right. It was his job. And he'd pull Larabee kicking and screaming back to the world of the living if that was what it took.
"Jist remember," he rasped, blue eyes narrowed menacingly, "you better have some nice words at my funeral!"
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