Live To Fight On
JD approached the saloon with purpose, going over in his mind for the fifth time what he was going to say. He was beyond convinced they should answer Dovan´s plea for help and wanted to make sure he had everything right that he needed to say. He stood outside in the cool night and reflected for another minute on the events of the past few days, and wondered what it was that made him feel so strongly about the stranger who had come seeking their help. We´ve helped strangers before. Isn´t like we´ve never done that sort of thing, not like it won´t happen again. There´s always someone riding into town hoping we´ll saddle up and take on their cause heck, it´s what made us the seven´ in the first place but this has something more to it, something I can´t quite identify but is driving me all the same. Wish I knew what it was. One last deep breath and he pushed into the saloon and made his way over to their table and was chagrined to see he was the last to arrive. Hope they haven´t had much chance to discuss this without me. Hate for them to get a head start on why we shouldn´t before I´ve even had the chance to argue. Buck grinned and motioned him into the seat he´d saved. JD whispered thanks and sat down, feeling the same nervous anticipation he did before any theatre show he´d been able to see through the years. Idle conversation dwindled off and a silence fell over the group. Chris started things off.
Like ta hear you´re thoughts on the matter, see what you all have ta say. Figure we can just go from there. Anybody wanna start? JD wanted to get his rehearsed speech out before the others´ arguments drove it from his mind. He half-raised a tentative hand which Chris acknowledged with a nod. JD took another deep breath. Well, here goes.
I´ve given this a lot of thought today, going over what Dovan had to say and the way I felt about it. I´ll be honest and admit I can´t explain exactly why I´ve decided on the opinion I have, but something tells me not to argue against it, like this whole thing happening...somehow we´re already involved in it, so to say no would be kind of a waste of time, cause I think it´ll find us anyway. He paused very slightly to breathe then plowed on. We need to help her. Not just should, not just think about it, we need to. I can feel that down deep. Soon as I saw her I knew this was something I couldn´t hide from. I´ll do my best to understand if the rest of you all don´t want to get involved or have reasons for not doing it, and I´ll try not to hold it against you in the future. But whatever your decisions are, I´m going with her, wherever and opposing whoever it is she needs me for. JD came to a stop, pleased he´d gotten all the way through without being interrupted or losing his place. He loosened the death grip on the mug in his hand resting on the table, having realized he´d been holding on like it was a lifeline. Buck sat forward and patted JD on the shoulder.
That´s jus´ fine JD, those were some good words there. It´s nice ta know I´ll have good company. He shared a smile with his young friend, seeing the relief and approval shining in JD´s brown eyes before looking at the rest of the group, his own blue ones now serious. I´m gonna share something with you boys, something I think is important, something that made up my mind. Like JD I can´t right explain it either, but it´s there all the same so I figure it´s worth mentioning. I had me a vision. His simply phrased statement had the other men gaping at him just slightly and talking all at once. He grinned a little and lifted his hands. Hold on now, I´m getting to the part where I tell ya what it was. Now lets see right, vision. It came when I saw her for the first time, getting off that huge black beast of hers just before she sashayed into here. Hit me right tween the eyes and jus´ kinda took over, ya know, so like I couldn´t see or hear anything but what was going on in the dream. It was me and her in some strange place, dark and kinda musty. I was wearing the damndest thing, these almost frilly white cuffs sticking out under leather things that surrounded my wrists with metal studs through em, and the heaviest chest protector made from metal. Wonder what it had ta be so heavy for Buck didn´t get any further as Chris growled,
Don´t need ta know what you was wearing, Buck. Just get ta the point. He scowled and Buck smiled in return.
I kissed her. Before anyone could groan or make comment he hastened to add, It ain´t like that. I may have kissed her but it was real, important like real. It was something I´d be willing ta swear happened at some time. Besides, I get the feeling I was kissing her for a reason. Vin´s quiet laugh cut across the table.
Yeah, and none of us need figure too hard on yer reason´s for kissing a lady, he smirked. Buck looked annoyed and waved a hand at Vin dismissively.
Like I said, weren´t like that. Besides, she cuffed me real good when it was over. He couldn´t help but grin at his admission. When there was no immediate response he felt his feathers ruffling. I jus´ go and tell on myself for having a damn hallucination, and no one can even say that´s nice?´ What´s wrong with these guys? Vin and Ezra looked lost in their own worlds. No help there thought at least Vin would know what I was talkin´ about, him living with the Indians and all. Josiah? Buck looked at the preacher almost pleadingly, but he too seemed rather engrossed in his own thoughts. Finally Buck´s patience ran too thin and he burst out, Well, ain´t anybody gonna say anything? I´ll be happy for ya´ll ta know this wasn´t exactly the easiest thing ta come out and tell ya. He was a little surprised to find himself being reassured by Ezra.
Mr. Wilmington, please do not fret. We are not intentionally holding back comment on your experience, but you must understand this sort of revelation can take a moment to settle in, hmmm? Buck felt his ire die down and he nodded, placated by the gambler´s words and concerned green eyes. He would have been satisfied with the statement but the cardsharp went on to say more. I appreciate your candor and trusting us with this, especially given my personal circumstances. You see, I too had a specter of the past come to haunt me. Buck´s brows shot up, and everyone else at the table were once again completely focused on the speaker. It was something I was uncertain of when it happened, and admittingly I am uncertain of it still. I had been contemplating whether or not to reveal this to you gentleman as I was still not quite comfortable with its occurring myself and wasn't sure how to explain it. But now knowing you shared in this aberration, I feel it only fair to do such. It consoles me to know I was not the only one to have been seized by apparitions. He and Buck shared a smile until the ladies man´s brow furrowed and he asked,
What of Ez? You didn´t kiss her too did ya? then he added almost as an afterthought, When did it happen? Ezra laughed easily and held out his hands.
I promise you we had no such intimacies Mr. Wilmington. You needn´t preoccupy yourself on that point. It came to me after we had spoken at that table for the first time and she was preparing to leave, he gestured to the table in the corner he and Dovan had shared while the rest of the seven looked on. Ezra sobered suddenly, enough to draw a worried frown from Vin and Josiah. What I did see was terrible, almost indescribable in its horror. I too was in a time and place I would ascertain to have been in the past, for I was also outfitted with a quite fearsome suit of armor. I was on a battlefield, surrounded by chaos I could hardly comprehend. Dovan died in my arms. He shut his eyes and squeezed them tight, as if trying to banish an image that still remained. Vin rounded his hand on Ezra´s shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze. The gambler opened his eyes to smile at Vin. Thank you, he said quietly, then continued. I cannot say what we were fighting or how the battle was going. But I felt then as if I had failed her somehow, and though I continued on I never really lost that feeling. I do not intend to have it again. Therefore it is my honor and duty to announce I too will be joining the cause, he said, the southern drawl resolute. He raised his glass of brandy, then took a deep draught.
That must have been a difficult vision, Brother. I am sorry it was visited upon you, Josiah said, his deep voice quiet and concerned. Ezra nodded his understanding of the preacher´s words, but his expression made it obvious he did not regret knowing what had come from it, nor the decision it prompted. Josiah accepted that with an inner pride he tried not to let on to the gambler about. Don´t want to embarrass him or have him start making excuses and trying to lie to us all about his motives. He cleared his throat. There is a startling amount of overlap here Brothers, ones I think would be foolish to ignore. Anyone else here have visions of this past time? he looked around the group and stopped on Vin, who had bobbed his head once in a barely discernable gesture. Brother Vin?
Vin froze for a moment when all attention was focused on him. Damn. Hate it when this happens. Guess I´ve got the floor now. Yeah, I saw something. Wasn´t so elaborate as Ez´s, and nothing specific happened like in Buck´s. It was when she was explaining ta us why she needed our help this afternoon. She was speakin´ but I couldn´t hear the right words. Instead I heard others, and I had this real strong feeling she´d said them ta me before. Plus the saloon kinda melted away and was replaced by thick stone walls and torches for the lighting. Didn´t see much else. He left out the part about Chris being there. Not too sure Cowboy´s ready ta be included in alla this yet. Ain´t an important detail anyway.
JD had been paying close attention to what everyone had said, and leaned even further forward in his chair to request clarification on something Josiah mentioned that he couldn´t quite work out.
Josiah, you said there was lots of things that were overlapping. What else have you found out? The preacher hesitated slightly and looked to Ezra and Vin. The tracker nodded encouragingly while the gambler spread his hands in a gesture suggesting 'why not?' He reached into his coat pocket and drew out the pendant he´d shared with the cardsharp and sharpshooter earlier that day. He handed it to JD and indicated the sheriff should pass it along.
Look familiar? The baritone voice asked. JD´s eyes rounded in surprise. He´d seen the medallion around Dovan´s neck, and recognized the symbol he was holding in his hand as being almost the same. He passed it to Buck who had a similar reaction to seeing Josiah´s relic. Found out today I´m not the only one here with something like that. Besides the one Dovan wore, Ezra and Vin both have a version of their own. At his words the men each produced their respective tokens and those were passed along as well as each was explained. JD held Ezra´s and Vin´s and noticed right away they interlocked and snapped them together.
Geez guys, look at this! Theirs are like a puzzle or something. He studied them for a minute more before springing up from his chair. Just a minute, I´ll be right back. He dashed off for the boarding house, but before he could exit the saloon Buck called after him.
JD, bring back my box with ya. Ya know, the one that sits on the dresser? JD bobbed his head in understanding and took off again. Nathan had gotten up too and had said he would return in a moment as well. Josiah grinned.
Looks like I figured right. Thought with all three of us having one the rest of you would too. A comfortable silence fell over the waiting peacekeepers and they finished their drinks and procured refills during the respite allowed. It wasn´t long before a slightly out-of-breath JD was bounding back into the saloon and flopped back into his seat, Nathan not far off his heels. The healer placed an object about the size of his hand in the center of the table before sitting down.
This was given ta me by one of the old slaves on the plantation. He was always carvin´ at something, always busy with his hands. Had a wiseness ta him that even the bosses and owners respected, some quality that was more than just age. One day he came ta me and gave me this, saying after he´d made it something told him it belonged ta me. Nathan shrugged. Had it with me ever since. Thought it was meaningful cause he´d made it and thought ta give it to me as a gift, but there was something more about it too I could never really figure, but at the same time felt real strong about. Vin had picked up the carving and was marveling at the skill involved in making such a fine piece of art. It was a smooth black walnut disc, the middle being about a half-inch thicker than the outside so it tapered gently to the edge. An intricate pattern was carved into the outer part of the disc and the middle had been inlaid with a seven-point star made from white pine that had been stained indigo. The star had a circle carved at its middle, and more of the intricate detailing had been added to the center of the circle. It was beautiful. Vin held it reverently then passed it along to Ezra. The gambler accepted it and ran his hands along it slowly.
Why, its stunning Nathan. Your friend had a true gift. Nathan nodded in satisfaction, warmth filling his belly at the compliment and obvious respect the conman and the others showed the piece, which had always meant so much to him. Glad I have an appreciative audience ta share it with. Feels good ta have it out and admired. Jacob´s work deserves it. While the carving was being passed around Nathan looked pointedly at Buck´s box. The ladies man didn´t hesitate to retrieve his own amulet. He pulled out a dainty handkerchief with a lace trim around its edge. Nathan assumed whatever he was getting had been wrapped in the delicate cloth for safekeeping, but was proved wrong when Buck fluffed the small square out and spread it on the table. There was a two inch border embroidered around the edge that looked like some Celtic knot patterns the healer remembered having seen before. At the center of the fabric was the seven-point star, stitched in overlapping hues of blue that made it look like it was shimmering. At the point of each star was a small black circle. That work ain´t no less a marvel than Jacob´s musta taken weeks ta get that done.
A lady made it for me, the rogue explained unnecessarily. She was a friend of my Momma´s, one of the other fallen doves that helped raise me from knee high on a grasshopper. She was lovely, with soft blonde hair and a full figure a man could get lost in, but her beautiful brown eyes were sharp and clever. Not much got by Miss Sophie, no sir. She spent her time between entertaining duties with needlework, always busy with something. I used ta like ta sit next ta her real close and watch those hands create the scenes that seemed ta appear like magic as she worked. She taught me a lot about life and people during that time I spent at her side, probably enough ta give her credit for my learning much as my Momma. This was something she made and gave ta me right after she finished it. She sold the other stuff in the general store in town, though no one knew who made the goods a´ course. No one woulda liked ta buy something made by a working girl, no matter how fine looking the craftsmanship. This here was the only thing she ever gave away I know of, he said, a touch of pride in his voice. Miss Sophie wasn´t around but a few months after she´d finished it. Some man came in and beat her something awful, and she had ta be sent away and taken care of, cause the beating left her unable ta care for herself. Goddamn waste iffen ya ask me. He shook his head in disgust and for a moment brooded on the harsh side of the life he had grown up around. It wasn´t long before his usual affable demeanor resurfaced, and he shook his head a little to clear the fog, then rubbed his hands together and looked at JD expectantly. What have you got there JD?
JD opened his hand and handed Buck a man´s pocket watch. It was sliver and the face had lost its cover, but the value of the piece was obvious to the ladies man. Delicately engraved stags chased each other around the thickness of the watch, and the fob was a curly-cue of filigreed silver. The backside had lines of varying widths etched across it, with tiny turquoise rectangles embedded all around the edge, and in the center was a inlaid seven-point star made from ebony. Buck whistled in appreciation before passing it on to Josiah.
I found it one day right outside the stables. The cover had been broken off somewhere and I never was able to find it even though I looked about everywhere I could think of. Couldn´t afford to get it fixed so it never worked, still doesn´t but as soon as I saw it I knew I wanted to keep it. For a little while I was afraid someone would come back to the house looking for it and I´d have to give it up, but no one ever did. Figured that meant I could keep it fair and square. Was real glad I could. The young sheriff smiled, remembering how it felt the day he´d finally allowed himself to believe he would be able to possess the watch that captivated him. Just something about it that made me feel I had to have it. Glad I held onto it, seems important I did. JD hazarded a look at their leader, who so far had been mostly silent throughout the exchange. He had made a few comments about the workmanship of the objects shown, but other than that hadn´t offered more. JD said, Okay, Chris. Your turn. He sat back and waited, hoping some storm wouldn´t erupt from the gunslinger at the question. A first it looked like Chris was scowling and JD got a little nervous, but the scowl was actually a smile the man in black was trying to keep hidden. He finally gave up on the effort and grinned at the group.
Don´t know that any of you boys wanna look at mine. Well, don´t know if you´re interested in looking where you have to ta see it. His grin widened at their confused expressions. He sat up just a little and swept back his coat, then patted his right hip just above the buttocks. Mine´s right here. Woke up one morning in Mexico after about three days of being blinding drunk. My ass hurt like hell and I could hardly sit for days. After I came to I went back ta the saloon and was pretty ticked off when this old Mexicano started laughing at me, this secretive chuckle like he knew something about me and wasn´t gonna share it. His lips curled so the grin was just a touch sinister. I managed ta get it outta him. He´d found me passed out not quite to the boarding house and thought ta make a few peso´s offa me. Seems he did a little tattooing on the side, and one of the ways he got easy money was ta plant one on some far gone drunk then take a little dough for the service. Chris shrugged, looking like he wasn´t all that upset for having been treated in such a manner. I hightailed it outta that saloon and over to my room and managed ta get a look at the thing finally. Took a little fancy maneuvering, he admitted with a laugh, eliciting a similar response from the others. It´s pretty simple. Black star, same as these with a little blue dot at the tip of each of the star´s points. First I thought ta be mad about it, but didn´t last long. I´m kinda used ta it now, and it´s probably a good thing it´s permanent - never one ta keep material things with me, sometimes from losing them being too drunk ta tell, and others cause I went and destroyed them in a fit of anger. This way I couldn´t shake it. The men all accepted his words with appreciation, honored he was willing to reveal those aspects of his closely guarded self. Buck sat shaking his head, arms crossed loosely over his chest.
Damnation Pard! Never knew you had a tattoo. The rogue narrowed his eyes but said good-naturedly, How´d ya manage ta get that by me all this time? Chris just laughed.
Ya don´t have ta know everything, Buck. Figured this was one of them. Came awhile after anyway, so ya didn't quite have the same opportunity ta get careful inspections in. 'Sides, its real small, only about this big," he circled his fingers in an O about the size of a quarter. Buck leaned towards JD and said in a stage whisper,
"Next time we get to the swimming hole or are in the bath house, I'm getting me a real good look at that beaut. You can hold him down. Remind me, okay?" He winked at the younger man and nudged him in the ribs with his elbow. JD rolled his eyes.
Wonder what they all mean, he asked no one in particular. They all looked at each other and shrugged, not really knowing how to answer the question. Josiah said finally what was on everyone´s minds.
Figure that´s something Dovan can answer when we tell her tomorrow we´re ready to fight. Chris nodded the affirmative that they would agree, and the mood turned, taking conversation into speculation laced with excitement.
+ + + + + + +
The next morning found the town of Four Corners in much the same condition it was before Dovan´s arrival. The peacekeepers were a different matter. There was a particular air of purpose about them, and a new closeness that couldn´t be defined. They had all remained in the saloon well into the night, revealing more details about their feelings and experiences that seemed connected to the lovely stranger who had arrived until finally breaking to get some rest. They would not be speaking to Dovan until lunchtime, so the lawmen were following their usual habits for a normal morning. Ezra was still asleep, Nathan and Josiah were working on some repairs to the church, Chris was at the jail, and JD was making rounds through the town. Buck was busily engaged in chatting up Miss Daisy. The girl had been after him for some time now, and Buck wouldn't mind a little company before lunchtime came around. Never one ta turn down a good thing. It'd been well over a week since he'd last entertained the fair dove, and he wasn't one to deprive a soul in need. Especially not when I have such a ready cure. He grinned at the young lady's easy compliance to his suggestion for a walk along the river just out of town. He nodded to Vin, who was in his usual lean against one of the poles supporting the awning over the saloon. Vin just nodded back and smiled a little as he watched Miss Daisy's hand wrap possessively around Buck's forearm.
Don't know how the damn rascal always seems ta manage it. Always some delicate creature waiting to fawn over him. More'n I wanna admit, he's probably onta somethin' there with that 'animal magnetism' bullshit. He grinned at the thought, imagining just how pleased Buck would be that Vin was starting to become a believer in what the ladies man believed to be a God-given gift. There was the faintest of shiftings to his left and Vin looked over, startled to see Dovan standing very close to him. He realized she'd shifted purposely so he would notice her presence. Hellfire, where'd she come from? Seems ta come from nowhere -ain't like me not ta notice that kinda thing. He shook his head to clear the thoughts. It didn't really matter. Vin touched a finger to the brim of his hat.
"Ma'am." Dovan smiled very slightly. She was looking intently at the progress of Buck and Miss Daisy as they made their way to the livery. The next thing she said took Vin totally off his center.
"We need to follow them." He looked at her, dumbfounded. Whatever the hell for? The question was easy to read in his expression.
"I must follow them, and I am asking for your assistance as I may require it. I would prefer not to explain here. Besides, there is not the time." She indicated the openness of the street and the passersby. Vin hesitated for the briefest of moments then relented. Something telling me she's right. 'Sides, Buck and Miss Daisy may be in some kinda trouble. Can almost feel it. Instead of wasting time on conversation Vin nodded then stalked toward the livery. JD walked up alongside and asked in a lowered voice,
"Where you going? Need some company?" Vin looked JD up and down and simply nodded. "Yeah JD. Get Toby ready and let's go." Vin didn't even wonder why he'd so readily accepted the offer from the young sheriff. But his gut told him there was trouble, and he knew by now to listen to his instincts. Vin and JD entered the livery and quickly readied their mounts, but upon exiting Dovan was nowhere to be seen. Now where'd she go? Dammit. Coulda sworn she was jus' here. Vin shook his head again. He didn't like how easily the woman managed to evade his usually keen senses. He led Peso a little ways from the building and mounted up, trotting easily from the center of town in the direction Buck had taken Miss Daisy, JD just behind him. A few paces out and Dovan pulled even astride Dragon. Vin couldn't help but smile. Did it again...damn. She looked at JD and an arched eyebrow lifted above the rim of her blue spectacles, but she didn't comment. They rode off at a fair pace, but not one quick enough to overtake Buck and his companion. When they had made it close to Buck's destination Dovan slowed Dragon to a stop and motioned they should dismount and make the rest of the approach on foot. They went silently until they were within a stand of trees where they could easily see the pair.
Buck had said something to make Daisy blush and twitter, his delighted grin brighter than the sun's highlights dancing in the lazy river. He grabbed her hands and twirled them around each other in a circle, directing her towards the grassy slope. He fell easily, pulling Daisy down with him so she landed softly on his ready frame. He said something unintelligible the pulled her down for a kiss. Dovan turned to look at the two men she was with. Vin was scanning the area, searching for the trouble they had ridden out to find. JD was looking at anything but Buck and his companion, resisting the urge to shift uncomfortably. She whispered,
"I am going to make for the trees just behind them. After I have made that position JD needs to step forward and distract them. Vin, remain concealed and ready with cover fire." She didn't wait to see if they had even agreed to her words but simply made off silently through the thin tree stand. There wasn't even the barest rustle of movement of the leaves around her as she half-ran along the line. Vin couldn't help but be impressed, and then she seemed to completely disappear, shimmering into the trees. He blinked once and tried to track her position, catching the barest glimpse of her as she passed through the greenery. She faded again but Vin continued to search, eyes intent on the shadows. There. He found her again, squatting among the roots on the opposite side of the tree Buck was reclining on. He almost didn't believe her to be there already, but it was obvious she was, so he tapped JD on the shoulder.
JD looked at him, seemingly at a loss to understand what was happening. Vin made a negative gesture, indicating he had no better idea. For a moment he worried the young man wouldn't act, but watched the steel of determination creep into the brown eyes and then JD was striding into the clearing. He raised his arms and waved in a carefree manner, calling in a voice that was surprisingly genuine in tone.
"Hey Buck! Been looking all over for you." He kept forward steadily, never wavering. "Well, hello Miss Daisy! Didn't right see you there." He smiled as brightly as he could, watching the utter stupefaction on his friend's face turn to a disgruntled frown.
"Uh, little busy here JD. Surprised ya didn't notice that." Buck had sat up slightly and was holding Daisy in an awkward position away from his chest, but still supporting her leaning frame with his long arms. "Know you're a little dense sometimes but geez, woulda thought this was pretty obvious." He flapped his elbows a little to indicate his position and the very readily visible form of the curvy woman cuddled against him. JD didn't relent.
"Sorry Buck. Came out for a ride and saw Lady. Never crossed my mind you'd have company. Usually you do go to the trouble of paying for the lady to have a horse. Though come to think of it, has been a little while since you and Miss Daisy last...uh...enjoyed a bit of nature. Maybe you were in a bit of a hurry?" JD winked and grinned. Shit...shit. What the hell did I say that for? Buck is gonna kill me. He sighed internally and just kept walking. In for a penny, in for a pound...dammit! There had better be good reason for me standing out here doing this. If not I'm gonna have a little chat with Dovan - if I can get to her before Buck skins me alive. For the first time since making himself known JD looked at Daisy. Her face was scrunched into a frown, her eyes narrow and black. He blinked rapidly, once, then twice. He focused again on her slitted gaze. Yup. Just like I thought. Completely black. His mind whirled. He'd expected there to be some trouble coming for Buck, or something to stop Buck from running into - not lying in the man´s willing arms. Just what am I gonna do now? Daisy evidently saw the change in JD's demeanor from his easy teasing to the tense and suspicious posture he was now in. Her lip curled in a snarl and she said in a low, hateful tone,
"You stupid child. Trying to ruin everything. It will not happen. I see you know -do not think I would be so foolish as to allow you to leave with this knowledge!" JD stopped, horrified as he watched the lovely face shift and contort. Glimpses of something dark and terrible roiled under Daisy's fresh beauty like the bubbles that formed in oil lamps as they gathered heat. He couldn't help his mouth falling open at the unbelievable sight. She was turned away from Buck, so the older man had yet to notice. He was petting her shoulders and speaking in a voice that was at once shocked and placating.
"No need ta be so upset Miss Daisy. No harm done. JD'll be happy to jus' go off the way he came, and no one need think more on it." He curled his hands around her pliant upper arms, trying to draw her near so he could look into her face. She struggled in his grip.
"Oh no, I think not. He will not be going anywhere." The gentle voice was gone, replaced by one that was deep and strangely displaced sounding. Buck tried harder to look into her face, terrified for JD's safety after hearing her words and the foreign quality of her tone and attitude. JD watched with helpless dread, knowing she was going to stand and attack but was impotently glued in place by her black gaze. He wanted to shout for Buck to get away, to draw one of his colts, or at least propel his legs into action so he could run, drawing this demon woman from Buck's side. He was powerless to do any of it. Like there's some damn spell on me. Can't look away from her, yet I can't really figure out how to see her anymore either. He heard a rushing in his ears and then she sprung.
Daisy wrenched from Buck's grasp with a strength that was far beyond her delicate frame. He lurched forward and wrapped his arms around her legs in an attempt to slow her progress but she jerked her left leg once then kicked back with her right, neatly landing a blow at the center of Buck's chest. He grunted with the force of it and fell forward but didn't give up. JD watched as she simultaneously lunged at him, her arms extended and hands grasping, while Buck struggled to push himself back up from the face-plant he'd suffered from her attack. The strange quality of her being there yet not grew and JD lost complete sight of her even though he knew she was inches from him. The roaring in his mind grew to deafening proportions, and just as JD thought to go mad from it the world snapped into jarring silence.
Dovan stood before him now, a great curved sword in her hand, Miss Daisy's body at her feet. At least, what was left of the poor girl. Her body had been cleaved completely in two from armpit to just below her ribcage on the other side. The wound was clean and even and JD watched with detached fascination as thick black ooze dripped from the interior of the corpse onto the grass, making hissing sounds as it contacted. Dovan's face was drawn and she looked at JD, holding eye contact.JD? JD? You are unharmed? It is no longer there...look and you will see...you are free from it now.
The voice whispered inside his mind, penetrating the paralysis he'd experienced from Daisy's dark gaze. He shook himself in a violent gesture, hoping to get feeling back into his numb body. She turned the sword easily in her hand, twirling it behind her in a fluid motion. She reached forward with the same hand and clasped his shoulder. JD hadn't even blinked but had no idea where the weapon had been concealed.
"You look as if to keck. Do you feel you might?" Her voice was laced with concern. JD shook his head, not understanding the word but figuring what it probably meant. He made his best attempt at an encouraging smile. Do feel like I could hurl...ugh. Feel real nauseous and don't really know why. She smiled softly then crouched so she was standing over Buck. He was looking at the dead form of his lady friend, and was saying softly again and again,
"Miss Daisy...killed her...least thought it was Miss Daisy...dead... Dovan stroked a light finger across his brow and caught the distressed man's attention.
"Miss Daisy is gone. I fear she has been for some time. Of that I am certain." The green pall that had fallen over JD started to seep across Buck's handsome features. He gulped in a breath of air and allowed Dovan to help him sit up. He gestured with a limp hand in the body's direction.
"If that ain't Daisy, and yer sayin' it probably hasn't been for awhile, then..." he trailed off, unable to finish his statement.
"Think not on it. It is not worth your energy. Just be glad she was unable to do any harm today." Her words were softly, reassuringly spoken. Vin stepped up next to JD and regarded the scene. JD swiveled to look at his friend. He had completely forgotten about the tracker's presence. Vin still had his mare's leg drawn and looked tense as a strung bow. Can't say I blame him, or don't understand why.
"Iffen that," he kicked at the body disintegrating at their feet, "wasn't Miss Daisy, then jus' what the hell was it?" He was still having difficulty believing what was very clearly lying before him. He'd watched as JD made his way across the narrow bank, watched as Daisy grew more and more agitated, watched the scene get stranger and stranger. He couldn't hear what was happening, but he could read them easily enough. After not too much time he could tell JD was real anxious about something, and though he couldn't clearly see Daisy he had a bolt of clarity that she was the threat Dovan had asked for his help with. Then everything was a blur -her struggle with Buck and JD's seeming inability to move or react. He'd had his weapon at the ready and prepared to fire at the small woman's center when like a flash Dovan was there, the great sword slicing through the body making for JD's vulnerable throat. Somehow she'd been able to break from her hide, get herself between JD and the attacking woman, then cut her in two neat halves before he'd even been able to take aim. Startin' ta think she and Miss Daisy may have somethin' in common. Definitely more there than meets the eye.
"It was Rakshasa, she said simply. She had helped Buck stagger to his feet and was supporting his tall frame against her own. She made a through catalog of his person while continuing her explanation. "They are evil spirits who encase themselves in flesh for the purpose of deception. They are masters of illusion and can easily render themselves into any form they choose, while at the same time manipulating the minds of their victims." She had finished her prodding of Buck and seemed satisfied he was more or less uninjured. She turned back to Vin and met his steady gaze. "I suspect it was sent here to learn what it could about you all in whatever way possible. There was no telling what form it may have taken before this one, if any." Buck's face was still pale. She took his hand and squeezed it, smiling gently.
"It was very easy to kill. If it makes you feel any better, this is an indication that it had not been in solid form for very long. I suspect no more than a few months. Otherwise simply hewing its body in twain would not have been sufficient." Buck smiled weakly and looked into her concerned face. Some of his color started to return.
"Least that's something. It does help, thanks." Buck closed his eyes and expelled a breath then turned his full attention to JD. He loosened his hand from Dovan's and stepped to his best friend's side, all thoughts of his own discomfort at the revelation forgotten.
"You alright JD? She didn't get ya did she? Damn!" He was squeezing JD's arm fiercely, but the younger man chose not to point it out. It felt good to have Buck's real and comforting presence with him, even if it was a bit intense. "She was so strong there at the end. And suddenly it were as if I couldn't do anything. Kept tryin' ta get up but something wouldn't let me." JD nodded in understanding.
"That's why I was just standing there like some blinded animal. My mind was telling me to do all this stuff but my body had other ideas." He smiled then, relief flooding into him that no harm had come to his brother. "Maybe this'll finally teach you to be a little more selective." Buck looked incredulous for a whole half-second before his face split into an answering grin. It was more relief than humor but was welcome all the same. He hauled the younger man in for a rough embrace.
"Wondered why you were jus' standin' there doin' nothing. Thought ta myself, now Buck, you've been workin' on him a long time! Long enough fer him ta not be so damn useless in a situation like this." He pulled back and cuffed JD affectionately on the back of the head. Vin rolled his eyes but couldn't suppress his own smile. It was balancing for them to have fallen into their usual banter, cleansing the strange air that had settled around them. He looked down at the body with distaste.
"We gotta do anything with this? Don't rightly think it'd be a good idea anyone happenin' on it." Dovan shook her head.
"It will be gone soon. Once mortally wounded the Rakshasa quickly decompose, melting away to nothing. As this was still a young one this will be so in another few minutes." Vin studied the corpse, seeing what she referred to. A line of strange foam was working across what remained of the body, leaving almost nothing in its wake except for a few drops of the black goo. Even the clothes shriveled up and evaporated away. Damn...whole thing was an illusion. This mess is jus' gettin' messier as the minutes go by. Least nobody was hurt. Though ya gotta wonder what it found out...and who it was reportin' to. Dovan responded as if she'd heard his thoughts.
"There probably wasn't much learned by this one. A Rakshasa will often remain in place for months if not years, learning and insinuating itself into a particular locale. This way it not only gathers information but eases the way for more to follow later." Vin's brows shot up.
"Ya mean there's gonna be more of," he gestured at the puddle at their feet, "these ta come?" He didn't like the sound of that.
"Unfortunately no. They make the way for things much darker, much more powerful. They are but a trifle compared to what they are working for." JD couldn't stop the shudder that wracked his body at the thought. No one missed it but neither did they comment. It was a shared feeling. "Perhaps now you gentleman can understand my urgency." Buck took a last glance at the bit of corpse that remained, and then looked up with an air of finality.
"Think ya could say that. Don't reckon we're gonna get anything else accomplished here. Should get back ta town and gather the others. Seems high time we give ya an attentive ear. 'Sides, iffen this thing was workin' for someone else as ya say, won't be long before bossman starts ta wonder what happened to his favorite little underling." Dovan's lips quirked in a smile. Mr. Wilmington may be thought of as an affable and perhaps slightly dense man, but she knew there was nothing to that. It hadn't taken him long to make that connection, nor understand why it heightened their already precarious position. She would have spoken but he continued. "Sorry we didn't jus' listen to ya full out from the start. Still," he shrugged, not one to hold onto that sort of thing for long, "we're listenin' now and I 'spect that's what we're all needin'." He studied her intently. "How'd ya know what it was?"
"I had a sense of something, ah, unfriendly in the town. I made a serious study of the inhabitants to ascertain where the sensation was coming from. Miss Daisy caught my attention for a specific but seemingly frivolous reason. Though in all appearances she was the Daisy you all knew, there was an aspect to her character that did not seem natural. She used no contractions. Though not a remarkable point, nor even something out of the realm of possibility, I felt it unlikely she would refrain from using the vernacular of most words in their less formal form. After I made this observation I was able to make a better assessment of her and finally deduced she was as I feared."
"You don't use any either, at least I haven't heard ya," Buck replied. There was humor about his eyes though, taking any possible sting from the statement.
"I choose not to. It's the way I learned to speak, so it's my natural inclination. Rakshasa's can't use them. It's a strange quirk of their being, but an existent one nonetheless." Buck grinned at her words. They showed her own humor while also making it clear she could indeed use the shortcuts if she wanted. Buck nodded once and pushed JD up the shoreline to the horses. She could hear them talking as they went. She waited a little longer, intent on the remainder of the Rakshasa's form. It was apparent Vin had the same idea to make certain all evidence of it was gone before they vacated the small clearing. She was startled when he spoke, having expected silence to be between them as they waited this out then returned to their mounts.
"Want ya ta show me." he said. She looked at him in question. "Why I can't hear ya approach or leave, how ya moved in and outta them trees like you were part of em, where ya got the blade from and where it went again. All that." There was a long silence and Vin worried he'd asked something forbidden, crossed some unknown barrier. The silence stretched out and his discomfort grew. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Forget I said anything." Dovan returned the favor by startling him with a laugh. Though short it was clear as a mountain stream and musical, warming him from head to toe.
"No Mr. Tanner, I apologize. You surprised me, that is all." Her eyes danced and she looked genuinely pleased at the prospect. "Does not happen very often. I was enjoying it." A smile had remained on her face after the laugh and it deepened as she readily agreed to show him what he'd requested. "All that may interest you I will be happy to demonstrate." Vin smiled back and nodded, satisfied. He looked down to see only grass.
"Can head back now. It's all gone." Without looking down to verify his words Dovan turned and walked up the slight embankment but stopped at the trees. She took one of Vin's hands in her own and held it out in front of him, making a sweeping motion so his fingertips just brushed the leaves at the tree line's edge.
"You must step into the leaves. Do not go where you know they are not. Instead, follow to where you know they are." Vin furrowed his brow, not quite following her meaning. "The trees are also a place you can exist if you are able to perceive this place. It is a sharing. The first step to sharing is knowing where the trees are. You already know where they are not, and how to navigate this." She looked to Vin for confirmation.
"Course I do. No tree there, so there's room fer me." Her words held more riddles than Ezra's usually did. "And I know where the tree is," he pulled her hand so they were fully touching a thin branch reaching into the clearing.
"You know where you see the tree. You know where you believe it should be. What you must come to realize is where the tree actually is, not where your expectations make it. It is in this tenuous void that you can come to share." She gripped his hand so tightly he almost yelped, but he tamped down on the sound. His hand began to tingle and at first he attributed it to the hold she had on him, but the sensation grew and traveled up his arm in such a way that he didn't believe it was from lack of circulation. To his wonder she pushed his hand so that it passed through the little branch, then pulled it back towards them. She didn't clear the branch though; rather she let them stand with their hands intercepting the branch's course where it grew. He wanted to snatch his hand back, wanted to rub away the strange feeling coursing through it and up his arm, but she wouldn't let him.
"You wanted to learn?" it was a statement more than a question, but not one offered harshly. Vin nodded wordlessly. "It is not easy. I understand. Had we the time this would not be the way I chose to introduce you to the concept. I am sorry. Do not worry you are unable as yet to grasp what I am trying to explain. Perhaps my approach is not adequate." She let go of the hold on his hand, her own falling to her side. Vin felt guilty and confused all at the same time. I did ask her. And I still wanna know. But I also know I have no idea what the hell is goin' on here. Iffen that thing she killed is jus' the beginning, I'd better learn this. Only way I can hope ta put up even somethin' of a fight. Not like I've got anythin' ta lose.
His mind made up Vin squared his shoulders. "I'm ready." Vin's voice was strong and determined. He reached out and took her hand then looked at her expectantly. She stretched them forward again and Vin felt the tingling. It was odd but not unpleasant, like the first sensations of a limb falling to sleep before the painful prickles began. She stopped short of the branch.
"That you were able to track me at all before gives me the confidence that you will be able to master this quickly. Most people are not even aware of my ability to travel within. It shows you have an innate understanding even if you are not consciously aware of it." She indicated he look at the trees. "The branch is at once where you see it and where it is. What you see is a reflection of itself - where the light bounces off its planes and shapes it for your eyes to perceive. But it is also below that in a shadow you are unable to simply observe. This is the void - the place where the tree actually is but is not. This is where you must also go." He stared at the branch with intensity, trying desperately to see 'below' the branch but it was futile. All he could see was what he knew was there. "Close your eyes," she almost whispered. Vin complied. She pulled him forward and he had to take a few steps. She spoke to him in a gentle voice, almost a croon, that at once soothed his nerves and commanded his attention. She spoke to him of the trees and his being, how it felt to look at the void, the sensations he could expect when he was finally able to see it. She told him how to relax his body and focus his energy to physically accomplish being within, detailing each step in turn. Vin's whole body was tingling now and he was beginning to feel he might actually be able to do what she was describing. "Now open them."
Vin did and stood in awe. Dovan was before him but not, standing in the sunny clearing between the trees and the river. At first he thought she had again displaced herself like she'd done with their hands, but realized it was not she who was creating the vision. I'm in a whole damn tree...or with it...something. I can feel it all around me, yet it ain't there, jus' like being in the open. He closed his eyes then opened them again and he saw it. Really saw it - the place he was standing, the view out into the world, how he was within and yet still present. It was a powerful feeling that elated and terrified him. He tilted his head back a little, experimenting. He took in a breath and went over what Dovan had said, letting his body melt further into the tree. Her form was clear as ever but he knew that he had completely disappeared. Dovan remained where she stood, letting him test the newfound waters.
Vin could feel the tree pressing against him, like sitting on a bench with too many people stuffed onto it. Not all that uncomfortable, but not all that much room to squirm around either. He was beginning to understand her use of the word share. He had stepped into the place where the real tree was, not where he'd just figured it to be. It was like being behind it and under it all at the same time, yet he didn't feel disconnected from the world around him. Vin looked about him, starting to see the real shadow beneath everything his greedy eyes focused on. He knew he hadn't mastered this yet - knew he couldn't start off and running through them like he'd watched Dovan to. Still too convinced I'm jus' gonna run right into em and break something. But I've got the scent now. Only a matter a time 'fore I figure it out completely. She's right though. Wish I had more time. Like a coupla years or so. Vin stepped from the tree and stood next to Dovan again.
"I see it. The tree. And what ain't the tree. Think I'm gonna need little more practice before I'm totally comfortable with it, but now that I know it ain't gonna go anywhere." Dovan smiled.
"You have done impressively well. Much better that I ever could have anticipated for your first attempt. I would wager you have done this before without realizing it." Vin blushed at her compliment but it also got him to thinking. The boys always tease me 'bout being able ta hide behind a pebble in the dust out here. And I remember times when I've wanted ta just melt from sight, and somehow I ain't been noticed. Yeah...maybe I've had more practice at this than I knew.
"Never hurts ta get a head start," he grinned. She snorted a little and the noise surprised and delighted him. She jerked her head towards the horses.
"We had better get going. They will wonder what has become of us." They reunited with their mounts and took off at a fast trot back to Four Corners.
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