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Nothing moved in the desolate wastelands. No living thing grew in a perfect circle around the area where lush desert vegetation once grew in abundance. The bright colors of Apache plume, blue phacelia, desert dandelion were no longer in evidence. The heartiest cactus no longer grew in the dead soil. No animals came within the circle, no birds flew over the dead area, and not a single wildflower could be seen. Along the perimeter of the blackened area many bones could be found. Some recognizable, others just tiny reminders of the deadly ground they'd strayed into. The skull of a bobcat lay next to a common gopher, deadly enemies, yet both were taken by the evil that resided within the unholy ground. Eviscerated bodies of elk, jack rabbits, and even Mexican gray wolves lay scattered an equal distance inside the circle. Hawks, Crows, quail, owls, and Vultures dropped from the sky when entering the ring, as if they'd ran into an invisible wall. Gila Monsters, rattlesnakes, and king snakes slithered to their demise within the first few inches of the circle. There was nothing easy in their deaths, evidenced by the violent destruction of flesh, bone, and cartilage scattered in the area. Death came to anything that flew, walked, or crawled into the circle of corruption. A spot that some would call hell on earth, where evil stalked its prey in expectation of the taste of living flesh.
Yet something still lived within the grounds, something that clung to the human world, in hopes of someday finding the one soul that was lost so many years ago. The blackened sands shifted revealing a piece of debris long since dormant. The splinter of wood, the only visible remnant of the Inn that once loomed over the area seemed to shift. To come to life and twist in a small column of sand, seeking out that which had been missing since the structure had collapsed on the night of the ill fated party.
The party goers were long since dead, but their tormented screams continued to permeate the area. Succeeding in driving away even the tiny insect that came within distance of the ground the Inn once stood upon. Banshee-like wails rose and fell with the shifting sand, proof that Hell could sometimes reside upon earth. Again the splinter moved, this time pointing northeast, feeling a strong sense of light that had once been on the dark side. The ground pulsed as it felt the possibility of bringing back one who had seen the dark side, but had not been enthralled in the promise of revenge.
Demonic cries drowned out the screams of the lost souls it held within its grasp, taking power from the savaged remains that faded in and out of the darkness. Severed heads, broken limbs, ravaged, twisted bodies, rolled through the undulating ground as the promise of a new future seemed at hand.
A soft whisper escaped from the power of darkness, seeking out a soul who could help release them from their captivity.
+ + + + + + +
Mindy slipped her tiny right hand into the gunslinger's left as they walked back into the house. She held the plate tightly in her left, not wanting to drop the cookies that rested there. She smiled as they entered the house and went into the kitchen, where she poured a glass of lemonade for the injured man.
Chris smiled as the child set everything on a small tray. She took a few of the tiny desert dandelions from the basket of wildflowers on the table. Then she placed them in a small empty bottle in the center. She carefully poured a large glass of cold lemonade. Her tongue snuck out the side of her mouth, in her determination and widened her smile.
"Ready?" Larabee asked the eager child.
"Do you think he'll really like my cookies?" she asked, the smile slipping a little.
"How do you know?"
"'Cause you made 'em!" The blond said and ruffled her hair, happy to see the innocent smile return to her face. "...with an extra ingredient."
"I did?" Her wide eyes inquired.
"Yup...you put love in there."
Beaming, Mindy picked up the tray and followed Chris to his room.
+ + + + + + +
Vin lifted his head slightly as the door opened. He smiled as Mindy Lawrence stuck her head in the door. The child looked so much better than the last time he'd seen her in the stage. He knew Chris Larabee had a lot to do with that. From the stories Buck often told them the blond was a wonderful father, and Vin saw that whenever the gunman was around Billy Travis.
"Hi, Vin, can I come in?" she asked softly, the tray held in front of her.
He smiled mischievously at her.
"That fer me?" he asked, his blue eyes twinkling with devilish mischief.
"Yeah, I made 'special!" she answered as Chris moved to the bed.
"I made 'em for you," she answered as Chris moved to the bed.
"Think you can sit up a little?" Larabee asked.
Again the eyes glowed with mirth as he answered.
"Fer sugar cookies...reckon I could!"
Chris eased him onto his side, wincing in sympathy as a hissed moan issued from slack lips.
"Sorry," he said, leaning his friend back on the pillow.
"It's okay...worth it fer them cookies," the tracker said. Smiling as he saw the little girl's eyes widen in excitement.
"Chris already had his, so these are just for you," she said as she sat on the chair and held the tray in front of him.
"Did ya make the lemonade too?" Tanner asked.
"Nah, I can't do that yet. Molly made it and she said it's real sour."
"Don't go givin' none ta Chris, he's sour 'nough," the tracker said and winked conspiratorially at the child. He eyed the flowers and his heart melted. "Fer me?" He asked and she leaned over and kissed his cheek. That brought a genuine blush and gave his best friend a wide smile.
"Thanks, Sugar, they's real pretty..." Vin touched the blooms and then tapped her nose.
Chris listened to his friend talking to the girl and couldn't help but feel pride at the ease with which the tracker spoke to Mindy. The scruffy Texan seemed to melt when he came in contact with children, but this one seemed to have gotten under his skin. The gunslinger realized it probably had to do with them both being orphaned at an early age. He shook his head as he heard Mindy's laughter. Once more he saw the devilment in the wondrous pools of blue looking in his direction.
"Vin likes my cookies too, Chris," Mindy bounced on the chair in her excitement.
"Sure do," the tracker said as he bit into the last of the last cookie.
"Want some more lemonade?"
"Yep," the tracker said and accepted the glass, drinking most of the tart liquid before placing it back on the tray.
Chris didn't miss the pain hidden just below the depths of his friend's eyes. He turned to Mindy and smiled as he asked.
"Why don't we go get some flowers for Molly," he said.
"Can we?" the girl asked and stood up.
"Sure, you put those in the kitchen and I'll be right out."
"Okay," she said and turned to go. She turned quickly and made her way to the bed. Mindy bent down and kissed his right cheek, smiling as the whiskers on his face rubbed against her soft skin. She turned quickly and hurried out the door.
"You ready to lie back down?" Larabee asked, worried about the sweat beading on the younger man's forehead.
"Y...yeah," the injured man groaned.
"Here, take this first," the blond ordered and held a dose of Laudanum before his friend's mouth. The fact that the tracker took it without arguing lent credence to the amount of pain he was still in.
Larabee removed the pillows and eased his friend back on the bed.
"Sorry, Pard," he said as he heard the hiss of air being released.
"I...it's ...okay... Go...Mindy's waitin'," he ordered. He let his eyes close and waited for the throbbing in his back to ease. A frown formed as something nagged at the back of his mind. Something he couldn't quite grasp, yet he knew it had something to do with Chris Larabee. He heard the door close and knew he was alone. Sleep finally overtook his thoughts, leaving him with a sense that he was letting his friend down.
+ + + + + + +
Chris smiled as he watched Mindy picking the wildflowers at the edge of town. In spite of their talk and the time spent with Vin, he knew the child needed to be doing things to keep her mind off her aunt. With Molly's help he'd been able to do just that. The cookies were a big hit and Mindy smiled with pride during their visit. Maybe he'd encourage her to read to Vin in the afternoons. He knew Vin was sleeping and hopefully would continue to do so, as the laudanum kept pain to a minimum.
"Chris, I got lots of flowers!" Mindy called as she raced towards him.
"Yep, I think you do."
"Think Molly and Vin will like them?"
"I think so. They're just about the prettiest things around here," he paused long enough to cup her chin, "Except you."
Molly smiled as she hugged him tightly. She took his right hand in her left and they walked back towards Molly's boarding house.
Mindy spotted Molly standing outside the house. She released Chris' hand and ran towards the woman, excitedly waving the flowers in front of her.
Chris frowned as a sudden chill ran the length of his body. A soft touch on his shoulder and a whisper in his ear caused him to spin around. His hand automatically reached for his gun as the now familiar words echoed through his mind.
"Dammit!" He felt an icy knife run up his spine. "What the hell is going on!" he hissed and turned back as a woman's worried voice reached his ears.
"Chris, are you alright?"
Larabee looked around the open area and realized he was standing in the center of the clearing, crouched low, his hand resting on his colt. His throat constricted as a cloying scent reached his nostrils and he staggered. Unable to take a deep breath without having the foul odor cause his stomach to roll, he sank to his knees in the street. His head pounded and he fought to quell the rising tide of nausea.
"Chris!" Molly called as she raced towards him.
The gunslinger heard her call to him as if from a distance. As quickly as the feeling came over him it left and he was able to suck in a deep breath of the sweet fresh air. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned a sweat soaked gaze at the worried woman.
"Are you okay?" she asked, not liking the gray cast of his skin.
"Y...yeah, guess the sun got to me," he lied, and climbed wearily to his feet. He swayed for a second, bent at the waist. With hands riding his tense hips, he tried to shake his head clear. He blinked his eyes, staving off the weakness invading his body and slowly walked towards the boarding house. By the time he reached the front door, he felt as if his strength had been drained from him. The gentle but firm pressure on his arm allowed him to stagger towards the room he shared with Vin Tanner.
Molly steered the dazed guest towards the room, a worried frown on her face. Something about this man tugged at her heartstrings and she wondered about the sadness she felt surrounding him. She held the door and watched as he slipped into the room.
Chris turned a grateful gaze on the woman before turning towards his friend. Vin slept on his stomach, hands under his head, and his left leg drawn slightly towards his stomach. Once he made sure his friend was okay he moved to his own bed. The late afternoon sun shone through the window as Chris sank onto the bed. He lay back against the pillows and closed his eyes as Molly shut the door. In spite of the early hour, exhaustion plagued the gunslinger and he drifted into a troubled sleep It was a fetid, dismal abyss where headless corpses called out for him to help them, and skeleton hands reached for his soul.
Molly stood with her back to the door and looked towards the kitchen. She'd sent Mindy inside as soon as she saw Larabee reach for his gun. His reaction surprised her as she neither saw nor heard anything that would cause the man to reach for his gun. Once he sank to the ground she'd hurried over to him and knew something strange was going on. His face had been drawn with pain, yet she knew there was nothing wrong with him, at least nothing she could see. She heard the child calling to her and shook off the sense that something was definitely wrong with her guest.
+ + + + + + +
Buck glanced at the woman who passed him, tipping his hat and smiling a roguish grin. He knew Ezra was still sleeping, and would probably sleep for the remainder of the afternoon. The town of Jasper was filled with excitement and the gambler's luck had been remarkable. Pot after pot was dragged in by the conman during the night, until he cleaned out every man in the fancy casino. A couple of sore losers had accused the conman of cheating. Buck knew better; Standish was no match for these amateurs. The ladies man stood by his friend during the long hours at the table. He finally escorted his friend to his room early that morning, just as the first soft rays of dawn spread her delicate fingers across the sky.
Buck hurried across the street to the restaurant. His stomach grumbled at the thought of Steak and eggs, biscuits and flapjacks. He smiled as he thought of JD and how much the kid could eat.
'Might just put you to shame, Kid,' he thought as he stepped into the simple room. Six patrons were present, three men and three women, enjoying the ample plates that were set before them. The tables were topped with red and white checked table cloths. He bit back a chuckle as he remembered the day Ezra had gambled and lost everything, including the shirt on his back. He'd wrapped himself in a table cloth and walked out of the saloon repeating the same words, 'He cheated!' over and over.
Buck smiled as he took a table beside the big window and waited for someone to serve him. He smiled as a woman wearing a simple dress and white apron came towards him. Her silver hair was pulled back in a tight bun and her soft grey-blue eyes twinkled mischievously. The woman reminded him of Nettie Wells and he gave her a winning smile.
"Hello, Darlin'," he said, and saw the face break out in a wondrous smile, that made the sunshine pale in comparison.
"Hello, yourself...Handsome," she said, and winked at the bold rogue.
"What can I get for ya?"
"Well, I'd like a thick, juicy steak and maybe a couple of eggs, biscuits and some of them flapjacks, and a strong cup of coffee."
"Feelin' a mite hungry are ya?" she asked, as she used a cloth to wash the top of the table.
"Just a little," Wilmington agreed.
"Ya want gravy on that steak?"
She stood up and looked into the roguish eyes, her hands suddenly going to her hips.
"Well, now, how come we've gone from Darlin to Ma'am in such a short time?"
Buck knew if this woman was a few years younger he'd be smitten with her. The mischievous look on her face, and the twinkle in her eyes told him she was a woman who would have been a hell of a lot of fun in her younger days.
"Back ta Darlin'...my, my but you certainly know how ta make a girl feel good," she said and patted his hand as a slight blush appeared on his face.
"Why don't ya just call me Daisy?"
"Daisy," Buck said with a grin. "A pretty name for a lovely lady."
"Why thank ya, but don't let my Harvey hear ya say that. He tends ta get a mite upset when I flirt with the customers. Last man is probably pushing up daisies, and I don't mean me, out back somewhere."
Buck nearly choked at her words and again had a sense of how much fun this woman could be.
"Maybe we'd better stick with Ma'am," he said as he caught a glimpse of a grey haired man out of the corner of his eye. The man stood in the doorway to the kitchen, a large knife held in his right hand.
"Daisy, yer last order's been ready fer a while. What're ya Doin'? Ya flirtin' with that poor man?" he asked.
"Don't worry about it, Son. Ain't got the energy ta go chasin' after her let alone you. What's he want, Daisy?" he asked.
"What if I said he wants me?"
"I'd say he can have ya!" the man laughed as he ducked back into the kitchen.
"Well now, ain't that gratitude for ya. Woman gives some of the best years of her life to a man and he's willin' ta turn her over ta the first man comes askin' for her." She turned away from the table and hurried into the kitchen, leaving a flabbergasted Buck Wilmington staring after her.
"Don't worry about it, Mister. Harvey and Daisy are harmless. They've been married fer longer than most of us have been on this earth. Ya won't find a better cook than Harvey, and Daisy makes the best apple pies around these parts."
Buck listened to the young man at the next table and smiled at his explanation of the elderly couple who ran the restaurant. He watched as the door opened and Daisy returned with a plate of food and a cup. She placed the meal in front of a man seated beside the kitchen and then hurried towards him with the coffee.
"Harvey's cookin' yer steak and eggs now. Should be ready in a few minutes."
"Thanks you, Ma'am," he said and took a sip of the hot liquid.
"You're welcome," she said and whispered softly. "Don't let him scare ya, Son, maybe you and I could slip away a little later." She laughed as coffee spewed from his mouth at her softly spoken words.
"Oh, Hell," Wilmington said, knowing by the look on her face he'd been had. He watched her move around the room, checking to make sure her customers were okay, before returning to the kitchen. The woman's movements were easy and sure and showed none of the signs of her age. He relaxed and looked out the window, frowning as he thought of Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner. He wondered if they were back from Yuma yet and decided to telegram Four Corners as soon as he finished his breakfast.
Half an hour later, his belly full, and his ribs hurting from laughing so much, Buck walked towards the general store and telegraph office. He pushed open the door and hurried over to the counter. There were two customers ahead of him and he waited patiently for them to finish. It didn't tale long for the man to serve the two women and Buck tipped his hat as they walked past him."
"Do somethin' for you, Mister?"
"Yeah, I want to send a telegram to Four Corners."
"Who do I send it to?"
"Write the message on here," the man said as he passed Wilmington a well worn slate and piece of chalk.
Wilmington frowned as he thought of the best way to compose the message. He decided on as few words as possible and passed the slate back to the telegraph operator. The ladies man watched as the man read the message and then frowned.
"Is something wrong?" he asked as the man turned away from him.
"Are you Buck Wilmington?"
"That's right," the rogue said, worry suddenly overshadowing his good spirits.
"I got a telegram here for Buck Wilmington or Ezra Standish from Farmington." He passed the telegram to the mustached man.
"Thanks," Wilmington said as he read the message.
***Vin hurt... witnessed murder...will testify in one week...Larabee***
"Dammit!" he hissed as he read the message again.
"Yeah. Don't send that last message to Four Corners. I need to send one to Chris Larabee in Farmington instead."
"Yes, Sir," the man said as he erased the unsent message and handed it back to the ladies' man. He quickly wrote the new message and hurried out of the store. He knew they wouldn't be able to leave today, but something told him it would be important for him and Ezra to leave for Farmington as soon as possible.
Buck made his way along the street until he came to the hotel they were staying. He smiled as he remembered Ezra talking to the woman who owned and operated The Golden Touch Hotel. The gambler talked smoothly, enthralling the elegantly dressed female with his southern dialect and gentlemanly manners. It often amazed him when Standish showed a new side of himself as he'd done since their arrival in Jasper. The man could not only fleece his unwitting peers, but could talk to the ladies as easily as he could. Before he even had a chance to speak, the gambler had them registered at the best suites in the house at a discounted price.
The scoundrel hurried through the door and across the lobby. High backed chairs, with dark brown cushions were lined along one wall. He raced up the staircase and along the well lit hallway until he came to room 22. He rapped loudly on the door and waited impatiently for an answer.
Something invaded the slumbering gambler's sleep, attempting to pull him from his dreams. He fought the interruption, not wanting to give up the stack of money in the center of the table. He looked at the five cards in his hands and knew he held every gamblers dream. A Royal Straight Flush from the ten to the ace of hearts. He folded the cards and placed them face down in front of him and called the wager from the woman across from him. He knew this was a dream, yet he was about to do something he didn't think possible.
'Ezra, Sugah, you should know bettah than to bet against your mothah. Read 'em and weep!' Maude Standish exclaimed as she placed her cards face up on the table, revealing a low straight flush from the three to the seven of diamonds.
Again the knock came on the door, and the gambler eased onto his left side, pulling the satiny soft sheets up over his head. "Go away!" he shouted and tried to sink back into the dream once more.
Buck pounded on the heavy door, smiling as doors opened and people stared out at him.
"Come on, Ez, I need ta talk to ya!"
Ezra looked across the table at his mother as he picked up his cards. His eyes twinkled as he looked at the woman he both loved and admired as the best gambler ever born. His dream of beating her at her own game was finally at hand. He opened his cards and was about to reveal his winning hand when the incessant pounding began in earnest.
"Not now!" he cried as, like all dreams, things began to fade and he awoke with a sense of loss. He threw the covers back and glanced angrily at the door as Wilmington's booming voice was muffled by the heavy door.
"Mr. Wilmington," he hissed as he pulled the sheet from the bed and wrapped it around his body. Making his way to the door he released the locks.
"You would be well advised to cease and desist that irritating noise or I shall be forced to shoot you myself!"
"Come on, Ez, open the damn door." The ladies man pushed his way inside and closed the door against prying ears and eyes.
"What is the meaning of waking me at such an ungodly hour?" Standish asked, walking back to his bed and sitting on the edge.
"Ain't so ungodly, Ez...not for most folks anyway..."
"We need to leave..."
"What unsavoury deed did you commit that would result in our having to leave these luxurious surroundings?" Standish asked irately.
"Ain't done nothin'. It's Chris and Vin."
"What have Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner gotten themselves into that would result in our need to depart these premises?"
"Got a telegram form Chris. Him and Vin are in Farmington..."
"Why would they be in Farmington?" the gambler interrupted, frowning at the thought of the ride that lay ahead of them.
"Vin witnessed a murder and needs to testify."
"Are they alright?" he asked, a hint of worry seeping into his words.
"Chris' telegram said that Vin was hurt, but he didn't say how bad. I want to leave first thing tomorrow morning. If we ride hard we can be there late tomorrow afternoon."
"Mr..." he stopped when he realized this was not the time for formality. The man standing before him was a friend and now was not the time to distance himself. The conman could see the lines of worry on the usually playful face.
"Buck, did the telegram say how badly Vin was injured?"
"No...just says he's hurt."
"Try not to worry too much, Buck. I'm sure Chris would have said if it was something serious." He turned away, trying to hide the uneasiness creeping into his own mind and felt a slight chill settle in his body.
"Ezra, you alright?"
"I assure you I'm fine," Standish said as he turned and met the scoundrel's gaze. "I'm sure Vin will be too."
"I know he will, Ez. I just have this feeling that they'll both need us this trip. I know you're having a good run of luck at the tables but..."
"But nothing. Our friends are in need of our companionship and we shall endeavor to be there for them. I shall pack my clothes at once and we can leave within the hour."
Wilmington's eyebrows rose at the conman's words and he knew there was so much more to this man than most people saw. He smiled as he asked.
"You don't mind spending the night out in the desert?"
"I can think of worse places to spend one's nights," Standish said with a grin.
"Alright, get your things together and I'll meet you at the livery in an hour."
"We need supplies."
"I'll pick them up what we need before I meet you." Wilmington said and hurried to the door.
+ + + + + + +
The music was soft, the crystal chandelier hung from the sedately decorated ceiling high above the heads of the lively guests. Two sets of eyes met across the dance floor, seeking each other out through the crowds of writhing bodies. Long black tuxedo clad legs stepped into the melee and green eyes sought out the beauty his eyes longed to see. He smiled as he caught sight of the blond tresses framing the face of an angel. She was the guest of honor. One he hoped would agree to be his tonight. As he reached the center of the ballroom the face he had come to love stood directly in front of him. He reached out and took the white gloved hand in his own, smiling contentedly as the twinkling blue eyes met his own. The music continued, but they remained still, enchanted by each other and ignoring everything around them. A silent bond held them to each other, one that would prove beyond a doubt that they were meant to be together. This Inn had been chosen for its elegance and charm as a place where they would finally seal their bond in a lifetime of love.
Above them, unseen by the party goers, ghastly figures waited for the feeding frenzy to begin. Demons with twisted torsos and skeletal arms waited for the signal that harvesting of new blood and flesh could begin. A lone figure stood at the front, watching the two figures meet in the center of the throng of twisting, unsuspecting bodies. Red eyes glowed in anger as the couple lost themselves in a warm embrace. This woman was meant to be his, his reward for serving the darker side of life. This man was inconsequential in the midst of his wanting need, yet the man's soul seemed to be the real reward. To take that soul, strong in the fight that had saved his own soul would prove that he was stronger than others of his kind.
He turned to his silent followers, smiling as his legions of death could not meet his eyes. This was his victory, and he would celebrate in the taste of flesh and blood. He felt the Inn surrounding him, a living structure that he was linked to. His home whenever he was allowed time in the light and warmth of the living world. He felt it breathe expectantly as he stepped out onto the landing and once more gazed at the couple. They would both die this night, but the man's soul would be his, a victory to the dark side as the strong soul was pulled deeper into the darkness he'd once beaten.
"The time has come, Children. The blood of those spilled tonight will feed us in the trying times to come. You will not touch the man or woman," he ordered, knowing his legion of demons would know who he was speaking of. 'Tonight's victory will seal my fate and place this Inn in the world of light forever!' he thought.
The red eyes glowed with the promise of fire and death as he led his followers towards the delicious temptation of unsuspecting flesh and blood.
Chris knew it was a dream, but the figure standing at the top of the spiral staircase was something that caused his heart to stop and his lungs to constrict. He heard the scream surrounding him and reached for the woman he held. Not really understanding who she was, yet knowing he had to get her to safety, he dragged her towards an open door. Winged creatures flew over his head, swooping down on the screaming guests frozen in the center of the floor. They were all strangers to him and he knew instinctively they were not meant to live through this unholy night, yet he needed to free this woman.
The door loomed ahead of him, but the opening was now covered by a demonic creature. Blood dripped from canine incisors, elongated fingers were covered in the flesh of a former victim. Red eyes glared at them as the crimson lips opened and a swarm of locusts flew from its writhing mouth. He felt them enshroud his body, yet they didn't touch him. He pulled the woman towards him, terrified by the sense that her body was being devoured. He watched as blood ran in rivulets from the tiny wounds the insects inflicted. He heard the large creature in the door, yet he ignored what it said as he tried to protect her.
She knew she was meant to die tonight, it had been foretold to her in a dream. This man was a stranger to her, yet she knew she had to tell him, someday, when his life began, he would be given the test that would reveal the fate of the world. Whether it be as it always had been, or would dark times grow to encircle the earth, driving out the good to replace it with evil. She lifted her eyes to meet his, and gasped for breath as she felt the demon's talons sink into her back, slicing slowly down, opening flesh to reveal bone and cartilage underneath.
"You must find the journal and heed the..."
Chris gasped as the creature pulled her from his arms and twisted her perfect body until it snapped in two. Its high pitched cackles sent shivers of fear down his spine, working fingers of death into his mind and causing a scream of agony to erupt from his own mouth. He saw the razor sharp talons reach for him and screamed.
"NO!" as pain erupted in his left forearm.
+ + + + + + +
Chest heaving as he tried to draw air into his frozen lungs, Chris sat up on the bed and screamed as his eyes shot open, the sound sharp and crystal clear in the nightmare realm, yet silent and desperate in the dim confines of the bedroom he now found himself in. He searched the lengthening shadows for the evil that had stalked him in his dreams, yet he could not remember who or what the evil was. He turned his head to the bed across the small space and was relieved to see he hadn't disturbed the injured man's sleep. Slipping his feet over the edge of the bed he ran his left hand through his sweat soaked hair. The gunslinger frowned as his eyes caught sight of a stain on his arm and he lifted the shirt off his skin. His eyebrows furrowed when he saw blood seeping from a small puncture wound on his arm.
'What the hell did you do, Larabee?' he thought as he reached for the cloth and cleaned the wound. He winced as the damp material touched against the small hole, but couldn't remember what caused it.
The question came from the man lying on the other bed and Larabee could not help but smile at the sharpshooter. The unruly brown hair lay haphazardly around the pale face, and Chris could tell it was time for more laudanum. He eased off the bed, frowning at the lingering weakness, and wondering what had caused it.
"I'm fine, Vin. How are you feeling?" he asked as he moved to the tiny table and picked up the familiar brown bottle.
"That's good, Cowboy. Got something here for you."
"Not yet....Water first...an...and food..." the sharpshooter stated, a smile curling his lips as he watched his best friend.
Chris couldn't help but return the smile as he looked at the younger man. He placed the bottle back on the table.
"Guess we need to sit you up a bit."
"Reckon it'd help," the Texan drawled.
The gunslinger eased the tracker onto his side and piled extra pillows behind him in an effort to make him comfortable.
"Thanks, Chris," Tanner said, gratitude evident in the softly hissed words. His back throbbed from the move, but he kept it hidden from his friend. Something was going on with Larabee, but he couldn't grasp what it was.
"Anytime, Vin," the blond said and they clasped forearms awkwardly. "I'll see what Molly's got for dinner."
"...okay..." the tracker muttered, frowning as his friend moved slowly towards the door. 'What the Hell's wrong with ya Pard?' he thought.
"We'll see," the blond said and walked towards the door. He frowned as he felt a tremor race through his body. He briefly wondered what could have caused the weakness that spread through his body so quickly. Something about the experience unnerved him, but he shook it off as he opened the door to see a pair of brown eyes looking at him.
"Hi, Mindy," he said and scooped the child into his arms.
"Molly and me made dinner. Are you hungry?"
"I sure am, Darling, and so is Vin," the gunslinger assured her.
"Is Vin coming out to eat with us?"
"Not yet...maybe tomorrow..." he saw the disappointment in her eyes and smiled at her. "Hmm, something smells good."
"Me and Molly made dinner," she said excitedly as he carried her back to the kitchen.
"That's great!" He smiled as he placed her on the floor and a familiar aroma reached his hungry senses. There was no mistaking the meal Molly Richmond was preparing, and Chris smiled as a haunting memory returned once more. He saw Sarah standing at the pot bellied stove, her face lit with the magical smile he would always associate with a happier time in his life. He shook his head as he felt a small hand slip into his own. Chris smiled at her as she led him to the table.
"How are you feeling, Chris?" Molly asked as she placed the large black pot in the center of the table.
"I'm fine, Molly, smells great."
"That's good, Chris. Hope you like chicken and dumplin's," she said.
"Always been a favorite of mine," Larabee told her as he picked up a plate and filled it for his friend. He poured a glass of the tart lemonade and smiled at the owner of the boarding house.
"I'll get Vin settled and be right back," he said and turned back to the bedroom.
Molly watched the blond carefully. Something happened in the middle of the clearing that afternoon, yet she couldn't figure out what it was. She knew it had something to do with Chris Larabee, but why she felt that she didn't know. A shudder ran through her frame as she watched him make his way towards the bedroom.
'You've got some more trials ahead of ya, Chris Larabee. Some dark ones from the feel of things,' she thought. She looked towards the child sitting at the table and prayed her grandparents would be able to care for her. To give her the happiness all children deserved and all adults craved.
Chris stepped into the room, placed the food and drink on the small table and hurried to his friend's side. The blue eyes were closed, but he could tell the patient wasn't sleeping. He eased the hair back off the pale face and watched as pale lids peeled back over soft orbs.
"Bout...time...man could starve ta death," Tanner groused good naturedly.
Larabee's eyebrows shot up and he smiled mischievously.
"Could always take it back," he said.
"N...no, that's al...alright," the tracker stammered, shifting slightly on the bed. "Wasn't that...long."
Larabee pulled the table closer to his friend. He smiled as the sharpshooter's stomach grumbled in anticipation.
"Think you can manage on your own?"
"Ain't needed nobody feedin' me since..."
"The last time you were stuck at Nathan's clinic," Larabee said with a grin.
"Damn," the tracker said and reached for the fork. "Git yer dinner, Lar'bee. I kin handle this on my own."
"Alright, just call if you need anything, Vin," the blond insisted.
"I will, now git."
Chris stood up and made his way to the door. He turned and watched the tracker struggle with the simple task of eating, yet he knew better than to offer his help. The tracker was an independent man, and would take the offer as a sign that others saw his weakness.
"Ain't gonna break, Lar'bee."
"I know." Chris smiled as he turned away from the reassuring words spoken by his friend. He made his way back to the kitchen, frowning at the slight burning sensation around the wound in his arm.
+ + + + + + +
Vin winced as he shifted a little on the bed. He looked at the meal set on the table before him and picked up the fork. His position on the bed made it awkward, but he managed to get the first forkful into his mouth. While he ate, he tried to figure out what was bothering him about his friend. Since leaving Four Corners Chris seemed to have been distracted and it was steadily getting worse.
'What the fuck's goin' on with ya, Chris?' he thought, his appetite slowly disappearing as he worried about his friend. He knew if he didn't eat, Larabee would just worry about him, and the was something he didn't want right now. He had a tendency to be protective, sometimes overly so when it came to his friends. Slowly, but surely the chicken and dumplings disappeared from the plate as he ate without realizing it.
When it came to Chris Larabee he had a sixth sense, and right now it was working overtime. Something was wrong with the gunslinger, but exactly what he didn't know. He placed the fork on the empty plate and picked up he glass of juice. Drinking was a little harder, but he managed and finally lay back against the pillows, gasping as sharp spasms raced through his back.
"Dammit!" he hissed as he tried to find a comfortable spot. He tried to calm his breathing, hoping the pain would recede if he did. The agony diminished slightly, and with his remaining strength he twisted no the bed until he was lying flat once more. He drifted towards sleep no a sea of pain, is soft vow falling on the silence of the room.
"Whatever's happening, Lar'bee, I'll be there!" The soft breeze lifted the curtains from the window as a dark shadow formed and wavered outside. A draft of frigid air flowed over Vin Tanner and the young man shivered in spite of the warmth surrounding him.
"You won't get him!" the tracker vowed as he slipped into an unconscious state. His dreams were filled with images of a beautiful angel with iridescent blue grey eyes and shimmering silver hair. Her voice held a soothing quality, yet the message she gave him sent shivers through his subconscious.
'Only you can save him, Vin Tanner, but you will need their help!'
"Need their help," the Texan drawled, but didn't awaken as the vision faded from his dreams.
+ + + + + + +
Chris sat at the table and looked up as he felt someone watching him. He smiled at the friendly woman as he picked up his plate and helped himself to the delicious smelling meal. His mouth watered in anticipation, but his stomach churned at the thought of putting anything into it.
"Chris, are you alright?" Molly asked softly, not wanting to alarm the child seated next to the blond.
"I'm fine, Molly," Larabee assured her, in spite of the weariness seeping into his body. He knew he wouldn't be able to eat much, but he didn't want to worry the friendly lady.
"Chris, me and Molly are gonna go for a walk after dinner. You want to come with us?"
Larabee smiled at the child and hugged her to him, feeling the warmth and excitement only small children seemed to exude. He tickled her under the chin and couldn't help but laugh with her.
"Mindy, I need to stay with Vin." He saw the disappointment in her eyes and hugged her to him. "I'm so..."
The little girl pulled away slightly and smiled through her tears.
"It's okay, Chris. I know Vin is hurt...so you need to help him. I'm a big girl now... Auntie Fran said so 'cause I was the only one left..."
Chris held her while she cried, knowing this was just what she needed. He looked up at Molly and noted her eyes were also filled with unshed moisture. He continued to hold Mindy as she cried, softly sobbing for her mother and father as she held tightly to his lean frame.
Mindy felt safe in his arms and clung to him tightly as she cried. She felt safe now, but she missed her parents and her aunt. She knew she would be going to stay with her grandparents when they arrived. For now she wanted nothing more than to be held by this man who was the closest thing to family she had. She knew he was worried about Vin and she lifted her head as the last of the tears left her eyes.
"'Sposed to be a big girl," she said as she used her small fingers to wipe at her face.
"You are a big girl, Mindy..." Larabee told her.
"Everyone cries, Mindy," the blond said, remembering his own tears at the loss he still held in his heart. The deep sadness of never seeing his child grow up, or having his wife beside him.
"Yes, Honey, they do," he assured her.
"You don't," Mindy said, frowning as she saw how untrue that was. She touched her finger to his eye and frowned at the wetness there.
"How come you're crying, Chris? Is it 'cause you miss your family?"
Larabee smiled at the little girl and kissed her forehead, before answering.
"Yes, Mindy," he answered honestly and sat her in the chair next to him.
"Will we ever see them again?" the child asked.
"Someday," he said wistfully and lifted her chin once more. "But not for a long time. You'll be seeing your grandparents before long and they'll need you and l...love you just like your Ma and Pa did."
"They will?" she asked, her eyes bright and hopeful.
"Of course they will. Now are you ready to eat?"
"Hmm, hmm, me and Molly cooked it."
Chris smiled as he took his first taste of the meal and knew he wouldn't be able to eat much as his stomach continued to churn. 'What the hell's going on?' he thought as his forearm burned once more.
The rest of the meal passed in silence and Chris managed to finish off what was on his plate. The meal sat heavily on his stomach as he stood up to help clear the table. Again, a wave of nausea assaulted him, but he fought to keep is discomfort from showing.
Molly watched her guest and knew he was still feeling the effects of whatever happened in the clearing. She knew Larabee and his friend were special and wondered just what kind of test they had ahead of them. As a child, her mother told her she'd been gifted with insight. Sometimes she was able to read people and signs easily, but in this case it was just a vague sense of unease. She knew in her heart it would be a hard road for these two, yet she knew they would not be alone. There were others out there who would also become entangled in whatever evil, for that's what this was, waited for these men. She shuddered as if something evil touched her soul and turned to see a shadow fall across the window.
"Molly, are you okay?" the gunslinger asked as the woman stood frozen in place. "Molly?"
"Huh?" she shook off the icy chill and forced a smile to her face. "Sorry, Chris, was just daydreaming. You look tired. Why don't you go lie down for a while."
"I'm fine, Molly, but I'd like to check on Vin."
"You go right ahead. Me and Mindy can handle the dishes. Right?"
"Can I wash?" the child asked as she picked up her plate and brought it to the counter.
"Sure can," Molly agreed, following Chris to the room he shared with the sharpshooter. "I'll just get the dirty dishes," she said as they walked into the room.
Chris moved to the bed and frowned at the beads of sweat forming on the tracker's forehead. He saw Molly remove the dishes and heard her leave the room. He reached out and touched his friend's arm, gasping at the clammy feel of the skin. He pulled the blankets up over the shivering form and took the one form his own bed to add to the blanket covering his friend. He took the washcloth from the small table and washed the perspiration form the pale face.
The blond sank heavily onto the chair between the beds and watched the tracker as he slept. There was something tense about the set of the strong shoulders, but he didn't know what caused it. He watched until the tension left the lean body and the face relaxed in sleep. Chris touched the forehead, sighing in relief as he felt the warmth of the skin. Vin now looked almost childlike, with his arms tucked under his head and his long hair spread across the pillow.
Chris sat back, watching over Tanner, feeling the icy tendrils of fear creeping into his mind and praying whatever was happening to him would not be able to touch those he cared about. He lost track of time as he stood vigil over his injured friend. Unconsciously his right hand touched the puncture wound in his arm, rubbing against the burning itch that continued unabated.
The shadows lengthened through the room as the dying daylight gave way to twilight and finally darkness. Chris finally stood up and stumbled to his bed, sinking into its welcoming warmth. His sleep was far from warm as nightmare images began to seep into the dreams, twisting them into horrific nightmares from which he could not escape.
+ + + + + + +
Buck rode slightly ahead of Ezra, his body weary from too many long hours in the saddle. Darkness was spreading across the badlands and he knew they'd have to call a halt or risk injury to the horses. He looked up towards the sky and frowned at the red rimmed moon. A shiver ran down his spine, and he turned to see the gambler looking at him.
"We need to stop and care for the horses," Standish said softly, his body aching tiredly.
"Yeah, guess we'd better call it a night. We can make camp over in those rocks," the scoundrel suggested and the two men rode towards the small shelter.
"Are you sure you don't want to continue?"
"We won't be any good to Vin or Chris if we ride into Farmington and pass out," Wilmington said. "We'll head out at first light."
The two dismounted in the small circle of rocks, making sure the animals were ground tied before they set up camp. The night was surprisingly quiet, the moon high overhead, and a myriad of flickering stars casting an eerie blanket from horizon to horizon. Normally both men would have noted the silence, the almost absence of life, but their minds were on the two men in Farmington.
Ezra found the makings for a small fire and soon a soft glow brightened the immediate area, a circle of light in a world of darkness. He reached for the extra canteen and the coffee pot, and began making a small meal for him and his companion.
Buck removed the saddles from both horses and brushed them down before moving to the fire with the bedrolls. He spread them out on opposite sides of the tiny blaze and smiled as the aroma of freshly brewed coffee reached him.
"Yeah, thanks," Wilmington said, accepting the cup gratefully and settling down by the fire.
"I'm afraid our repast tonight will be a meager one," Standish told him as he tossed a couple of biscuits to the ladies man.
"Ain't all that hungry anyway. Thanks, Ez."
The gambler knew by the tone of Buck's voice that he was more than a little worried about Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner. His own fears were growing stronger, yet he could not find a reason for them. He sank onto his own bedroll and watched the man across from him. He knew of Buck's penchant for having fun in just about any situation, but when the time came to help one of the others, the ladies man could be counted on. The scoundrel was a man who could be counted on, a man whose friendship was earned, not made.
"Hey, Ez, you alright?"
"I'm perfectly fine, Mr. Wilmington. Why do you ask?"
"You seemed like you were miles away."
"I assure you I am not planning on going anywhere," Standish told him as he settled down on the uncomfortable ground. "Unless you know of more comfortable accommodations in the area."
"'Fraid not, just gonna have to get used to it," the ladies man said softly.
"Oh, the indignity," the gambler said and closed his eyes.
Buck watched as the conman closed his eyes and tried to get comfortable. He smiled as he thought of the first time they rode together and how much Ezra Standish changed since that day. He'd ran out on them, but something inside of him knew it was wrong and he came back to free them from Anderson's Ghosts of the Confederacy. Since that time he proved again and again that he could be trusted. Buck sighed heavily and lay back, closing his eyes as he settled down for the night.
The two men slept under the stars, unaware of the proximity to the circle of death they were. Neither man heard the painful cries of a Bobcat as it wandered to close to the pit of energy and was sucked into the first few inches. Its cries abruptly ended in a burst of blood, tearing cartilage, and ripping flesh. Its destroyed carcass joining the bones of previous victims. The unnatural stillness of the night returned as a great horned howl bypassed the circle, unwittingly saving its own life.
+ + + + + + +
Vin opened his eyes and listened for the sound that awakened him. He lifted his head and used his arms to push himself upwards. He bit back a cry of pain as stiff muscles were forced to hold his body up on the bed. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and he watched as his best friend struggled with an unseen foe.
"Chris!" he called, but his voice was weak from sleep and lack of moisture. He tried to sit up, but the movement sent rippling waves of pain through his body. He gasped, and sucked air into his lungs as he was forced to remain lying no the bed as his friend continued in the throes of some kind of nightmare only he could see.
"C...Ch....ris..." he called, painfully aware of his own inadequacies due to his injury.
"Lar'...bee..." he cried out and heard a sharp intake of breath from across the room. "...Chris..."
The soft voice was like an anchor on a sea of evil and Chris Larabee reached for it...struggling to grab it and hang onto it for dear life. He heard the pain filled cries and knew he had to help his friend. Slowly, as if through a layer of thick cobwebs he surfaced and felt the evil retreat. His eyes came fully open and the nightmare was instantly forgotten as he sat up. The gunslinger turned to his friend, unaware of the blood oozing from the puncture wound in his arm. The ugly wound was the only remnant of the foul nightmare he'd suffered. A deadly reality left over from horrifying images he wouldn't remember for some time to come. He stood up and hurried across the tiny space, kneeling beside the bed.
"Hey, Vin, take it easy," the blond said as his eyes adjusted and he saw the lines of pain etched in the sweat soaked forehead.
Larabee's eyebrows rose as he reached for the lamp and lit the wick. "Me? Hell, Tanner, it's you that's hurt."
"You had a nightmare?" the gunslinger asked.
" ...weren't me...ya was tusslin' with somethin'..."
"If I did, I don't remember it."
"...bad one...cried out," the tracker said tiredly.
"It's gone now, Vin. How's the back?"
Larabee reached for the brown bottle and poured a dose into the spoon. He lifted Tanner's head and awkwardly fed him the medicine, concerned when the tracker didn't balk at the idea. He eased the sharpshooter back to the bed and covered him in blankets once more.
"Go on back to sleep, Vin," he said as the blue eyes began to close.
"Gotta w...watch yer b...back," the younger man hissed as he shifted slightly on the bed.
"You always do, Pard," Larabee said as his friend lost the battle to stay awake. Chris frowned as he tried to remember the nightmare Vin told him he'd been having. Whatever it was it wasn't there anymore and he leaned back in the chair, locking his hands behind his head. something wet ran down his left cheek and he brought his arms forward again.
"What the hell," he mumbled as a steady stream of blood ran down his arm and dripped onto the floor. He reached for the cloth on the table and put pressure on the wound. It didn't take long to stop the flow of blood and he wondered where the wound came from. He touched his fingertip against the puffy wound and winced at the heat he felt there. Standing up, he headed back to his own bed, his body exhausted once more.
'Have Molly take a look at it in the morning,' he thought as he dropped onto the mattress and quickly dropped into a dreamless sleep, his body craving the rest it needed.
+ + + + + + +
"Hey, JD, what's wrong?" Jackson asked as he watched the younger man walking towards him. He was sitting outside the small church, relaxing with Josiah Sanchez.
"I just got a telegram from Chris."
"Did they make it to Jasper okay?" Sanchez asked.
"No. According to this they're in Farmington," the youngest member of the team said.
"Farmington? What are they doing there?" the healer inquired.
"Vin witnessed a murder and he's hurt," the kid explained.
Jackson was immediately at attention. "Hurt? How bad?"
Dunne handed the telegram to the healer and watched as he read the simple missive.
***Vin hurt...not serious... witnessed murder...will testify in one week...Larabee***
"Not serious he says," Jackson hissed. "Knowing Chris it could be anything from a hangnail to..."
"Broken bones," Sanchez finished.
"Or worse," the kid supplied. "Sent an answer back asking about the murder and if Chris needs our help."
"Good, JD, that's about all ya coulda done right now," Jackson said.
Dunne nodded and turned away from the two men. "I'm gonna check on Jake at the jail and see if he's sobered up from last night."
"Alright, JD, just make sure you let us know when you hear from Chris," Sanchez said.
"I will, Josiah," the youth said as he hurried away.
Jackson turned to the ex-preacher, frowning when he saw the older man staring at the street leading out of town. He reached out and touched his right hand against Sanchez' left shoulder, surprised when the man reacted as if he'd been burnt.
"Josiah, are you alright?"
Sanchez turned a steady gaze on his friend and forced a smile to his face.
"I'm fine, Nathan," he said softly.
"I know you, Josiah, something's eating at you. Does it have to do with Chris and Vin or Buck and Ezra?"
Sanchez stood up and paced back and forth in front of the church, his eyes coming to rest on the tree standing just to the right of it.
"I'm not sure. It could be either or all of them," the man whispered worriedly.
"Did you see your crows again?" Jackson asked. There was nothing condescending in his question and he knew Josiah would see it for what it was. The concern of a friend.
The ex-preacher stood beside the door to the church, is eyes raking over the horizon. Without realizing he'd stopped facing northeast, into the Bisti Badlands.
"I've been seeing them for a few days now. Not close up like they usually are and I'm hoping that means things are not set in stone. There's something brewing out there, Brother, and it has to do with our little family." He shivered as an icy chill ran down his spine, knowing in his heart that something evil was lying in wait for an unsuspecting victim.
"Do you want to ride out and meet them?"
"I don't think it would do any good, Nathan. Nothing's happened yet, and until it does we won't be of any help."
Jackson knew the older man was even more worried than he let on. He watched as Sanchez walked inside the church, shivering as his own eyes wandered towards the distant horizon. He knew the fact that Vin was hurt was not the cause of their unease, yet he couldn't put his finger on what was the cause. Picking up his empty coffee cup he walked into the street and made his way towards the clinic.
The healer was unaware of the large black crow that landed on the roof of Gloria Potter's store. The eyes were not black, but a crimson red that seemed to bleed from the icy bowels of hell. The head swivelled back and forth, seeking out the men who were part of a special family. One that was formed by the bonds of friendship, and not born of the same blood. For that was the only thing that could end the hope of a dark future. A true brother by blood, and for this reason Hell would soon reign over the land of the living, sucking the life from any who dared deny them this right. The eyes glowed a darker red as the crow took flight, seeking a direct line towards the circle of corruption.
+ + + + + + +
Buck opened his eyes, groaning as he sat up, the remnants of his dreams leaving him chilled to the bones. The sun hadn't made its presence known yet, but the aroma of fresh coffee hit him. He stood up and moved towards the coffee pot, shaking his head at the sight of the gambler sitting on the opposite side of the fire.
"Ezra, ya know the others won't believe me when I tell them you were up before the birds."
"They will if you tell them about the despicable accommodations," Standish said. The truth was he didn't sleep very well at all. His dreams were unclear now, but the terror they evoked in him was stronger than he thought possible. He'd woken over an hour ago and knew he couldn't face the images from his nightmare. His hands continued to grip the cup in an effort to ward of the chill that was taking up residence in his body.
"Ez, are you alright?" Wilmington asked worriedly.
Standish thought about giving one of his blustering remarks, but something about the scoundrel's tone told him the other man would see right through it.
"I will be once we arrive in Farmington and hopefully discover they have the softest feather beds in the country," he said.
"I take it you didn't sleep too well?"
"Whatever gave you that idea?" the gambler asked, trying to keep the mood light as the first rays of the sun seemed to peek over the wastelands.
"Could be the extra bags you're packin'," the ladies man said with a grin.
"If you're referring to my eyes, then you haven't had the opportunity to gaze into a mirror lately," the younger man said.
"Okay, so neither one of us had much sleep. So why don't we pack it up and head towards Farmington," Wilmington said. He stood up and frowned as he finally noticed what was missing since they'd bedded down the night before.
"Is there a problem, Buck?" Standish asked, noting the slight tremor in the older man's body.
"I'm not sure. Just listen, Ez."
The two men stood beside the fire, neither one moving or saying a word as they listened to the silence. It was the gambler who broke the silence.
"What am I supposed to be listening to?"
"Nothing...that's just it, Ezra. There's nothing to listen to. There should be some sounds out here."
"This is The Bisti Badlands, Mr. Wilmington. Perhaps that would explain it."
"I don't think so. If Vin was here he'd tell ya that an absence of sound is a sign of trouble. It usually means somethin's scared the animals away," the ladies man told him.
"Our illustrious tracker would certainly know."
"Yes, he would. There's somethin' not right out here."
"In that case might I suggest we leave the vicinity immediately!"
"Y...yeah, the faster we're away from here the better. I'll get the horse saddled while you take care of this, okay?" the ladies man asked as he emptied his cup into the fire.
"That's fine, Buck," the gambler said and began dousing the fire with sand as the older man walked towards the horses.
Glowing red eyes watched form the dwindling darkness as the two friends broke camp. With a silent caw, the black bird took flight and finished its journey to its home in the evil that permeated throughout the circle.
+ + + + + + +
Vin opened his eyes and frowned as his sleep drenched mind tried to grasp where he was. Sunlight was streaming through the open curtains, lending a soft warmth to the room. He shifted uneasily on the bed, the memory of pain still sharp in is awakening mind. He was pleasantly surprised to find dull throbbing pain instead of the sharp agony movement usually caused. He turned on his side, puffing as he realized he was still weak and the pain was not as easy as he first thought. His eyes strayed to the sleeping man in the other bed, and something tugged at him, just out of reach of his memory. He tried to sit up, but bit back a gasp as the dormant pain grew stronger with each move.
"Dammit!" He swore as he dropped back down on the bed, sweat beading on his forehead.
Chris heard the soft expletive and forced tired eyes to open. He looked towards the second bed and realized the younger man was awake. He swung his legs over the side and sat up, moving quickly towards his friend.
"Easy, Vin, what happened?" he asked, reaching for the cloth in the basin of water on the table and handed it to his friend.
"W...wanted ta sit fer a s...spell," the tracker answered, as he used the cloth to wash the last dregs of sleep from his face.
Chris knew the younger man hated being down, but even worse was being unable to get outside. The tracker was in his element when dealing with nature, but he didn't like being confined indoors. He placed a soothing hand on the sharpshooter's shoulder and nodded slightly.
"Wait till Dr. O'Malley takes a look at you, Vin. If he says it's okay we'll see about getting you outside for a while."
"When is he comin'?"
"Said he'd be by late this morning," Larabee assured him.
The tracker nodded and studied the face before him. He'd grown to know when something was bothering Larabee and he could see in the expressive green orbs that he wasn't getting much sleep.
"What's goin' on, Lar'bee?" he asked, shifting sideways on the bed.
The gunslinger shook his head, stood up and walked to the window. He looked into the street, shivering once more in spite of the warmth of the sun.
"Chris?" Tanner repeated, finishing the question with a penetrating blue gaze.
Larabee took a deep breath, knowing he couldn't keep anything from this man, and turned back to his friend.
"I can't explain it, Vin. It's like I know something's wrong, but I don't know what it is."
"Does it have anything ta do with Clark?"
"No...don't think so. That bastard's locked up tight and can't hurt anyone. Sheriff Thompson's a good man and he'll make sure of that. Judge Spencer will be here in a couple of days and once you and Mindy testify he'll get what he deserves. It won't be long before Mindy is with her grandparents and hopefully she can put all of this behind her."
The tracker knew instinctively there was more to it than that. Larabee rarely made long speeches and the fact that he did now, worried the younger man. He watched as the blond unconsciously rubbed his left arm, as if it pained him.
"Chris, what's wrong with yer arm?"
"Huh?" the blond mumbled and looked down at his hand, frowning as he tried to understand what was happening.
"My arm?" he asked, his eyes glazed as he lifted them to meet the sharpshooter's. "Nothing, why?"
"Ya keep rubbing it...lemme see," he ordered, reaching for the blond's arm.
"It's okay, Vin, just itchy," Larabee lied.
"Ya cain't lie worth a damn, Lar'bee!" Tanner snapped.
Chris sat next to the bed and rolled up the sleeve of his shirt, wincing as the material peeled away from the small wound. He looked at it and then smiled at his friend.
"Told you it was nothing."
"Don't look like much," the tracker agreed as he probed the wound. "Looks like it could be a mite infected. Better have the doc look at it."
Larabee nodded and rolled his sleeve back down.
"Hungry?" he asked simply.
"Yer kiddin', right?" the tracker answered with a grin.
"I'll see if Molly's got any leftovers," the blond said, moving towards the door.
Vin lifted his head and watched as the gunslinger walked away from his bed. There was something about the slump of the shoulders and the unsteady gait that bothered him. Larabee was usually so graceful when he moved, but today that grace had been replaced by an unknown quality. Something he couldn't quite grasp, but vowed he would figure it out before anything happened.