~~ The South Wind ~~

by TJ

Larabee glanced at Vin and then turned to see what had distracted the man.

Athena stood in the doorway of the saloon and looked at the men. Except for the blood stained clothing, no one would have guessed she had, only hours ago, taken a bullet. She looked as strong and determined as she had before.

Chris narrowed his gaze irritably.

The woman could sense their anger and despair. She could feel Tanner’s need to run and the gunslinger’s need to hide. How am I supposed to keep them together when they are so far apart?

Athena closed her eyes. She finally understood what the whispers had told her… why the eagle had guided her to this place. Seven would soon be less in number. And if they were not seven… History would never know their names… So much happiness depended on this… Seven men needed to be as one… They needed to see Destiny together…

She opened her eyes and looked at them once more. The pain in her heart reflected in her expression. Tired and worn, she was now questioning her ability to realize this monumental chore. The dark one truly scared her and his companion still concealed his inner heart. These two men would be the greatest challenge she had ever faced.

Vin could feel a desperation growing deep in the pit of his stomach. He glanced towards the window… away from the woman’s mournful eyes. "You need to know…" The tracker took a deep breath. "I’ll be leaving tomorra… won’t be back…"

Larabee seething stopped as he looked at the sharpshooter quickly. He’d been thinking along those same lines himself but it hurt to hear someone else say it to him... especially coming from Tanner. "Vin…"

The tracker turned to face the blond. "Ain’t nothin’ tah say, Chris. I got ‘a go." He licked his lips. "I can’t stay knowin’ I put people in danger. That I weren’t there when they needed me."

"You?" Larabee stared at the young man. "I’m the one who wasn’t here, Vin... You did nothing that couldn’t be helped."

"I could ‘a kept ma mouth shut and let ya do yer thinkin’ in town." The sharpshooter started to move for the door.

Larabee grabbed the man’s arm.

"It ain’t no good no more, Chris ... I got ‘a move on."

The gunslinger sighed deeply as he realized he wasn’t going to change his friend’s mind. "Yeah… I’ll be moving on too, in a few days." He turned back to the bar and swallowed down another whiskey. "Don’t suppose we’ll be meeting up again."

He’d stopped to listen to the man’s declaration, but Vin wouldn’t let it change his mind. "Suppose not," he responded then made a hasty exit from the saloon. As he past Athena and swung the doors open, the tracker felt like his heart was about to explode, yet he also knew there was nothing else he could do. He had to go. He couldn’t bear to be around these men anymore.

The woman’s stare left Larabee and tracked Tanner out the door. A single tear rolled down her face. She could feel their pain. These two men are like brothers. They need each other to remain whole and continue on. What am I to do? Looking once more at the blond, Athena turned and followed the sharpshooter through the doors and along the walk. "You must not leave," she called out as they walked into street.

Vin stopped, suddenly angry. She’d been in his mind for almost two weeks now. He could hear her in his sleep and felt her presence all the time. Now! Now she chose to speak to him! Now, when he was leaving for good. "Ain’t got no choice," he almost yelled at her.

"You must not leave," she repeated again.

He turned to look at her and moved to stand just inches from her face. He stared into her eyes. He could see and feel her desperate need… but his need was greater. He had to get out of there. He had to be free from everyone and everything. He needed to be alone again. "I got ‘a go…"

The tracker was radiating anguish and Athena knew she would not be able to stop him from going. "Do not go far," she whispered softly to him.

Tanner took strange satisfaction from her words. He imbedded her tone into his soul as he turned and marched off down the street.

A deep longing surfaced in Athena’s heart as she watched him go. The woman knew that she would not know his thoughts if they met again. She understood the spirits could no longer help her free this man’s essence. A single tear escaped as she silently said goodbye to the soul she had shared for the past ten days.

Minutes passed like hours and the world was silent until Athena heard a menacing tone behind her. "So you’re off on a journey at last," Larabee glared at the woman.

Stunned by his violent tone, the woman lowered her head to gather the strength she needed to confront this man. As she turned to face him, he continued his ramblings.

"Suppose you got what you wanted... right!" The whiskey was fueling his anger, which in turn was feeding his sarcasm. "Reckon I should be thanking ya for taking my place during the fight."

Athena stood calmly and let the man vent his animosity.

"Guess that bullet was meant for me." He had moved into the street and was in her face as he spoke the words.

"Let her be, Chris." The ladies’ man spoke, with just as much anger in his voice. This man he once called friend… First, he ran away from a fight and now he was badmouthing the woman who had stood beside them in his absence.

Larabee turned to face his oldest friend. He could see the hatred in Wilmington’s eyes yet he did not question it. There were more than enough things for Buck to blame him for.

The rogue took a step closer. "If it weren’t for Athena we’d be plannin’ a funeral... still might have tah," he thought about the kid lying up in Nathan’s clinic. It soured his belly to know he hadn’t protected him. It made him even angrier when he thought about Chris off seeing to his own needs. "You ain’t got no right tah talk to her that way. She warned us best she could. If she hadn’t… reckon them bandits would’ve run this town into the ground." He limped over to Larabee and looked him in the eye. "Let her alone," he repeated in the gunslinger’s face.

Larabee looked back over his shoulder at the girl. "Ever consider she’s tah blame, Buck… Maybe if she hadn ’a come, this wouldn ‘a happened?" he narrowed his gaze before turning back to Wilmington. Without warning, the blond found himself flat on his face in the dirt. Shaking off the attack, the gunslinger gained his feet and looked coldly at Wilmington. "What’s the matter, Stud? Thinking with your pants again instead of your brains."

Bang! He was in the dirt again.

"Stop it… " Athena beseeched. She could see what was happening. Larabee was fueling the fire in Buck’s heart so he could take the beating he thought he deserved.

Chris gained his feet again and motioned with his hands for Buck to come get him.

Wilmington swung repeatedly.

Larabee was not fighting back. He went down again and again.

The tall rogue wasn’t thinking about the pain in his shoulder or leg. He was enjoying himself too much.

Three more times the gunslinger hit the dirt before the woman stood between them with her Colts drawn. "That’s enough," she growled. Her own fire was clearly visible in her eyes.

The men looked at each with contempt and hatred. The look they reserved for Athena was just as ominous.

"Back off," she growled again.

The men acknowledged that the fight was over ‘for now’ and Chris began to back away.

"We’ve proved we don’t need ya no more, Larabee," Buck yelled at him. "Maybe you should move on."

Looking over his shoulder, the gunslinger grinned. "Don’t got ‘a worry about that none," he shouted. "I won’t be back." He waved his arm in the air to signal his goodbye.

Wilmington watched the blond leave and then slumped back against the support post as he tried to catch his breath. He looked at the woman as she holstered her weapons. The disappointed look he read on her face cut through his anger like so many hot pokers and the ladies’ man began to feel ashamed.

Athena glared. She desperately wanted to go after the two men who had stormed off but she knew that she would have to cool the fire in this man first. If the rogue’s anger wasn’t quelled before she returned the other, there was no way of telling if they would remain… if she could get them to return at all.

Sitting in the corner table of the saloon, Buck was nursing his shoulder.

The man had inhaled half a bottle of whiskey in less than thirty minutes and Inez was becoming annoyed with him. "You need to go and rest, Senor Buck. It is late and this is no good for your injuries," she picked up the whiskey bottle and tried to take it away.

"Hold on there, Darlin’. I’ll be needin’ that," he grabbed the bottle back.

Miss Recillos was thoroughly disgusted with the man as she shook her head and walked away.

The tall rogue watched the lovely lady leave but another one caught his eye as she approached the table. "Well hello there, beautiful," he smiled gently.

He held his liquor well, but Athena could tell he was intoxicated. She stopped just outside his reach. "Dr. Jackson has a message for you, cowboy..."

Wilmington smirked. "If he’s convinced ya he’s a doctor and is trusting you tah get me home… Lord I’m in trouble now!"

Athena was not amused by his comment. It was late, her shoulder was uncomfortable and she was tired. "The boy…"

"JD?" the ladies’ man interrupted. He straightened in his seat and looked at her with great concern. "Is he gonna…"

"The boy has stirred," she continued. "Your healer believes he will survive his injuries."

Buck was elated to hear the news and his body relaxed again. He swallowed down another drink and poured one more. "Reckon that’s worth celebratin’," he mused. "Didn’t need tah be blamin’…"

Athena looked at the man, as he grew quiet. She could sense the turmoil in his soul and the confusion in his heart. She closed her eye, accepting the opportunity that befallen her. The rest that she desperately needed would not come to her tonight… "Tell me?" she whispered.

He heard her beckoning and the ladies’ man hid his eyes. He knew she’d caught him thinking and he wasn’t exactly proud of his anger. He glanced around the room as though the whole world knew every secret he ever had. Cautiously, he looked back at the woman, and gave her a reserved smile. Somehow, he felt at ease in her presence. Somehow, he knew he could talk to Athena… but he couldn’t do it here. Licking his lips, he tried to stand and slumped back down in the chair. Shaking his head, he growled at his own incompetence then laughed. "Help me tah my room?" he asked happily.

She hesitated.

"I…" he knew what she must be thinking. He smiled and shook his head before lowering it… not that he hadn’t thought about it. She was indeed, a beautiful woman and he was attracted to her. He looked back into her eyes. Now was not the time...

She smiled guardedly. Believing she understanding his intentions, Athena assisted him in rising from the table. Carefully the injured couple made their way out of the saloon.

Buck sat at his table with his head in his hands. They must have been talking for an hour now and all it seemed to do was confuse him. He was tired and his frustration was getting the best of him. "Come ‘ere!" he called to her.

Athena was tired, too. She felt like she wanted to give up but she understood that the forces that drove her would not relent. If only she knew how to get through to this man. How to calm his anger so that he could see clearly enough to bind the others together. The passions that drove Buck Wilmington could provide the element that would keep The Seven linked until Destiny came.

Each member within this select group contributed an intricate part of the whole yet; it was the ladies’ man that defined their universe. He guided them without knowing. They followed without understanding that they were being led. He did not understand himself, how important his role was. How could she make him understand?

Glancing across the room, Buck smiled at the woman, "Come ‘ere!" he called again. He could see she was deep in thought. He tried to stand but his leg gave way.

The crash and the groan brought Athena back from her reflections and she moved to his side and knelt down. She did her best to help him up but his weight was too much for her. They landed back on the floor in a heap.

Buck laughed. "Well, Darlin’… best you back off while I make ma’ way tah the bed."

She did as he asked and watched as the ladies’ man crawled to the bed and climbed up. He unbuckled his gun belt and set it on the table. He kicked off his boots and looked at the woman who stood watching him. "Come ‘ere!" he said one more time. He motioned her to sit beside him on the bed.

Athena looked at him hesitantly for just a second, then did as he requested.

Wilmington shuffled over to give her room to join him. He pulled her to his chest for comfort but could tell she wasn’t sure of his actions. "Relax," he suggested. "Reckon we could rest up betta lying here."

Athena could feel the gentle nature of the big man as she lay beside him. There was nothing for her to fear here. She reached down and took off her gun belt and boots, then turned back to look into his eyes. She leaned into his good shoulder and relaxed into his arms as Buck lay back on the headrest.

"So let me get this straight. You’re tryin’ ‘a tell me them boys need me around to keep ‘em happy?" The ladies’ man looked down at her and smiled with a renewed satisfaction.

Athena smiled at his interpretation of what she had tried to explain to him. "To keep them strong cowboy… They need the strength and passion that lives here." She covered his heart with her hand and sat up to look deep into his dark blue eyes. "You must learn to control that fire so that it can serve them in time of need."

Wilmington returned her gaze but looked inquisitively at her. Her words slowly sunk in. "Sounds tah me like your tellin’ old Buck he’s got ‘a change some… Don’t reckon I like that idea much."

She smiled at him again. The rogue had this uncanny knack of rethinking everything she said. "Not change…" she looked him in the eye. "Just grow… Use your fire to forge the bonds that can transform seven into one."

His face was full of questions as he stared at the woman. He could hear the passion in her voice and somewhere, deep inside; he considered that he might understand what she was getting at. He would need more time to think on her words.

Athena could see he was beginning to understand but that it would take more time. She tried to think of another way to explain. "Have you ever heard of a Devil’s Advocate?" she asked.

The knock at the door awoke the two sleeping people in Wilmington’s bed.

Jackson had knocked twice already. Concerned when he received no answer, he went on in unsolicited. The sight that met his eyes made him smile. He didn’t think the ladies’ man spent too many nights in that bed with a fully clothed woman in his arms. "Well… I’m glad I found both of ya. Don’t reckon I thought I’d find ya like this though," he laughed. Moving to the bed, he put his medical bag down.

Buck and Athena both seemed a little embarrassed at the comment. They sat up and moved apart.

The healer rubbed his hands together. "I’m here tah check on them bullet holes. Who wants tah go first?"

Wilmington moved to the edge of the bed and slipped his legs over the side. "How’s JD and Ezra?" he asked, unbuttoned his shirt. His body was stiff but he felt a renewed strength in his heart.

Jackson pulled back the dressing on the man’s shoulder and examined the wound. "JD’s awake and been asking for ya. I told ‘im you took a couple ‘a bullets yerself. Seemed tah make ‘im feel better." Resetting the first dressing, the healer motioned Buck to pull his pants down.

A quick glance over his shoulder told Buck that Athena had moved to the other side of the bed. The window held her gaze as she slowly unbuttoned her shirt. Wilmington undid his pants and dropped them to his knees.

"Darn kid," Nathan laughed. "All he wanted tah know was how come ya made it out ‘a the clinic and he hadn’t."

The rogue huffed loudly at Jackson’s story. "Seems like none of us are keen on spending much time in your place, Nathan. What’d ya make of that?"

The healer was busy looking under the other compress. "Think maybe it’s got somethin’ tah do with all them holes you keep gettin’ in ya?"

"I hope you didn’t say that tah JD?" Wilmington raised an eyebrow comically.

Nathan laughed. "Think that was ‘bout that time he fell back tah sleep again."

"And Ezra?" Buck asked as Jackson moved over to the girl. Like the gentleman, he knew he could be, the rogue kept his back to the lady, giving her some privacy.

Jackson pursed his lips as he set about examining the woman’s shoulder. She’d already removed her shirt and was using it to cover herself. "Came to ‘bout two hours ago. He’s hurtin’ real bad. He’s been wonderin’ if you’d come sit with him a spell, Miss Athena." The healer looked into her eyes as he finished up.

She nodded her affirmation as Nathan headed for the door. He looked back and smiled. "You two get some more rest now, ya hear!" his tone was serious but his grin betrayed the humor he saw. Shaking his head again, he quickly left.

Buck sat on one side of the bed with his shirt off and his pants unbuttoned. Athena occupied the other side of the bed, naked from the waist up except for the shirt she held over her breasts. They glanced at each other briefly before turning their backs to fix the situation they found themselves in.

Later that day, the door to the clinic opened and Buck and Athena walked in, closing the door behind them. Nathan motioned the two to be quiet as he slipped outside for a break. Athena stood over the gambler and took in his face while Buck moved over to the waiting kid.

The woman watched her green-eyed gentleman for a long time. She couldn’t help but wonder if the actions he had taken yesterday were her fault. Slowly she knelt beside the bed and leaned into talk to him. "Ezra," she whispered in his ear.

His eyes slowly opened and he smiled his best smile for her.

She ran her fingers gently over his cheek and sensed his pain through the touch.

Seeing her flinch, the southerner frowned. "It’ll be alright," he assured her. He knew she felt his pain. "You’ve given me a special gift, Athena. The strength I need to see this through." Searching for the right word, Standish pursed his lips. "I’m stronger now than I was before. My heart understands…"

She smiled at his words but it pained her to leave him like this. She would have liked nothing more than to stay by his side but she was being called away. Staying here would be so right… but it was not to be. "I’ll be leaving tomorrow," she said, lowering her head. "I need only a little more time here then I must leave to send the others back."

Josiah had explained to Ezra and JD about everything that had gone on while they were unconscious. The gunslinger had left sometime during the night and had not stopped to say goodbye to anyone. The tracker had hauled his wagon out of town early that morning. Vin’s cautious farewells had seemed as permanent as any. None of the others presumed to know what Larabee and Tanner were going through but the southerner was scared for the woman. He knew her intent too well. Perhaps he had listened too closely. Perhaps Athena should give up now before it was too late… "I do believe you may have witnessed the last ride of The Seven, my dear." He took a painful breath and continued. "Whilst Mr. Tanner might be reckoned with. I would suggest you stay as far away from Mr. Larabee as you possibly can." Standish had faced the blond’s wrath himself and there was one thing he was sure of… Chris was a dangerous man and even more so when he was angry.

Ezra’s warning was as serious as any the woman had heard. She smiled at his concern, knowing that he had no idea that his own happiness was at stake. "I have no choice," she said just as painfully. She laid her head on the man’s chest. After several minutes she continued. "Our time was brief, Ezra Standish." She looked up into his beautiful green eyes and kissed him long and hard. "I will remember you in my dreams." Setting her head on his shoulder, she closed her eyes.

The gambler nuzzled her head with his as they held each other closely. He would remember her too… for a very long time!

Buck limped into his room and locked the door behind him. Rubbing his shoulder and leg, he moved for the table. Suddenly the tall rogue became aware of a presence in the room and spun around to face Athena.

She sat on his bed with her head down and her knees curled in to her chest. Her hat, coat and boots lay beside her as she rocked slowly back and forth.

The ladies’ man could sense she was upset and he moved to sit beside her. He touched her head gently.

Athena lifted her eyes to meet his.

"What’s wrong, Darlin’?" Wilmington asked softly. The woman’s eyes were beautiful this close up but Buck could see fear in them. He pulled her close and asked again. "What’s wrong?"

"I must leave soon. I must send them back… I have no choice."

There was a tremble in her words that Buck had never heard before. It scared him to hear her talk like this. "Chris and Vin?"

She nodded into his shoulder and pulled him close. "Tell me you understood the words we spoke of yesterday. I need to know that you can forgive… and forget," she raised her head to look at him again. "Please tell me you will welcome them home… if I can send them back!" She sat back and looked at the man. Slowly she lowered her head to hide her eyes. "… I must know I will not endure his wrath in vain."

Wilmington took the woman’s elbows and looked at her carefully. He knew from her tone that she was frightened and he understood from her words that only one of the two men could make her feel this way. "Now you just hold on there, Darlin’. Don’t you be goin’ out after Larabee if he’s gonna hurt ya."

Her eyes begged for the answer that she needed to hear. "Tell me you have made peace in your heart."

Wilmington looked at the girl in amazement. It was obvious she was being compelled to do something that scared her, yet all she could talk about was the conversation they had had last night. Buck remembered how she’d explained the importance of accepting his oldest friend for the man he was... and not to judge him on one single act.

Wilmington had argued it wasn’t one single act but a string of many.

It was at this point in their discussion that Athena had taken time out to calm his thoughts and refocus his anger into useful energy. She had reminded him that the gunslinger was alive now because of the way he was. She had asked if he would change a man so much… and then bury him because of it… It was that statement alone that had ended the conversation that had dragged on well into the night. Chris Larabee was Buck’s oldest friend for a reason…

"I reckon I understand what you told me… What happened ain’t nobody’s fault. And, blamin’ Chris or Vin for it ain’t gonna do nobody, no good. If there’s anyone around here who can straighten this out... " The ladies’ man cocked his head and grinned. "Well, I can’t turn my back on ma friends now… can I?" He caressed the woman’s cheek and tried to reassure her of his decision. In eleven days, he’d never seen this woman look so vulnerable. Wilmington didn’t like it one bit but he understood why she might be frightened of Chris. Hell, any sane man would be… let alone a woman. Yet, he couldn’t quite grasp her apprehension in confronting Tanner. "Look at you," he pulled her closer. "You’re shakin’ all over." Feeling her apprehension, Wilmington tried to offer her options. "You don’t got ‘a go after ‘em, ya know. Chris’ll calm down… eventually. He’ll be back. Vin, too, probably."

Athena shook her head. "He who sees has heard the call of the mountains and plains. His need for solitude is real." She couldn’t explain to the ladies’ man that Tanner was using what had happened as an excuse to run away. "… And, the dark one is lost. He will not come back this time. I must go…" She knew in her heart that she had no way of understanding the man called Larabee. She also understood, beyond any doubt, that he would not return without her guidance.

Buck held nothing against the tracker. After his conversation with this lady last night, the rogue had accepted that Tanner had done his level best when the chips were down. There was no blame to be laid or any benefit in holding contempt in his heart. He was also confident that Vin just needed to hear those same words from the right person.

The rogue pulled the woman tight into his arms and held her as he took a deep breath. Larabee was another story entirely though. He’d known Chris for more than a dozen years now and had seen him at his best… and his worst. He knew what happened in the gunslinger’s head when things went wrong. There was no reasoning with him. Wilmington had tried once… and paid a terrible price. Understanding this simple fact first hand scared the heck out of him. For that reason alone, Buck didn’t want Athena to go.

Taking a deep breath, the rouge pulled her closer. An idea flashed through his mind and he was ashamed of it. He was afraid to admit it even to himself but he couldn’t deny what he knew in his heart. Wilmington understood, that if anyone else tried to convince the pair of ‘stubborn jackasses’ to change their minds… Oh, God! He was afraid for Athena, yet there was a strength in this woman… Something he had seen in no other individual before.

Lying against his strong chest, the woman could feel Buck’s sincerity. She knew that he would be able to complete his task if she could just send the two men home. She understood his concern though and tried to relax and give him peace of mind with her body gesture. She sat back and looked up into his deep blue eyes. She caressed his cheek and ran her fingers through his hair. "I will be gone by morning cowboy... You must promise to stay here and give the others strength… I cannot promise I can send your friends home tomorrow." She lowered her head again. "But I will send them back to you."

"But…" he started to object.

She looked up at him and placed her fingers over his lips to quiet his insistence. "I must go. Neither of us can do anything to change what must be. History must know The Seven and only I can make sure it is so. You must all see Destiny together." Athena lowered her head, then looked back at him again. "Remember your promise to stay here… Keep the others strong for as long as it takes… Welcome your lost friends when they return and always…" she stroked his cheek again. "Always remember your fire and passion are the elements that bond these men as one."

Her words rang through Buck’s ears and into his heart. He leaned down and kissed her as he stroked her hair.

She pulled back from him and looked deep into his soul.

He smiled ever so gently and kissed her again.

This time she did not pull away. She felt a stirring within herself that she had never experienced before.

Wilmington gave in to the feelings that now consumed him and, in doing so; he freed his mind from all that it knew.

The tall rogue gazed into her eyes and for the first time since she had met this man, Athena was able to truly know him. She saw his inner most thoughts and feelings with different eyes... She finally understood how genuine and explicit this man’s passion really was. The woman smiled at him cautiously.

Wilmington returned her smile and kissed her again… and again.


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