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The crow flew gracefully towards the circle, soaring high above the badlands. Its dark wings spread wide as if to capture the darkness it was seeking. It cawed loudly as it neared its domain. The head swiveled as it gazed upon the land below him. The desert foliage was thick here and its keen eyesight spotted a gopher below it. It swooped down, hooking the tiny animal with its talons, before flying high in the air, its prey held captive in its claws. The bird shuddered as the lifeblood flowed from the puncture wounds it caused in the rodent's body. It continued on towards the beckoning circle, dropping the dead gopher without feeding upon its flesh. The crow was satiated by the force of the fear it empowered over its prey and did not need the flesh as its children did. This killing was not about survival, but simply its way of showing dominance over a fellow creature.
It continued on its flight path until it felt the strange tingling sensation provided by the energy emanating form the other demons residing within. The creature was enamored of the lives it destroyed and kept the souls close at hand by burying the body within the walls of its home. The Inn itself would soon rise again, Spreading its own dark shadow across the land, but for now it waited for his call. A call that was close at hand and one that was eagerly awaiting to be fed.
The bird dropped gracefully from the sky, the wings becoming arms, the legs elongating and taking human form. The feathers evolving into skin, as the bones strengthened and completed the human shape. The only remaining sign of the crow was the crimson eyes that glowed with an unholy light as the ground around the being began to take on a life of its own once more.
"The time is almost at hand!" the demon whispered, his words bringing the beings he thought of as children before him. Creatures with hideous deformities, and green glowing eyes slithered towards the man they called master. A creature whose heart was as black as the deepest ebony, yet cast a light over the darkened circle that burned the life from anything that entered without his permission.
"He will be brought to us before the next full moon and he will take his place at my side! Rest, my children, for soon we will feast upon the flesh of those who walk this world of light. Their blood will soon fill our bellies, their fears will give us the strength we need. We will soon rejoice in the renewal of our hold upon this land. Sleep, children, and dream of the wonders that are to come," the being said as he spread his hands and a crimson glow was cast across the horizon.
+ + + + + + +
Molly opened the door and smiled at the man standing in front of it. O'Malley held the black bag in his hand, a gift from the grateful citizens of Farmington. The kit was a familiar sign of who this man was, and what his revered place in the community.
"Afternoon, Molly, how's the patient?" O'Malley, asked.
"He's anxious to see you...something about sick and tired of bein' stuck in bed," Molly said with a smile.
"Yeah," the doctor said as he stepped through the door. "He doesn't seem like the type to stay down long."
"Is there anything you need?" the woman asked.
O'Malley smiled as he turned down the hallway, and stopped before the closed door.
"Got any of that Apple pie you made yesterday?"
"I think I might have one piece left..."
"I'll see what I can do," she laughed as he knocked on the door.
+ + + + + + +
Chris sat in the chair beside the window, listening to his friend's soft snores. The younger man seemed so vulnerable with his hands on his arms and his hair spread across the pillow. There was no hint of pain in the slack features and the gunslinger was glad of that. His eyes wandered to the small bandage he'd placed over the wound in his arm and he wondered about he slight burning sensation that came from the puncture site. He wondered if it had anything to do with his lack of energy, but shook it off as a soft rap sounded on the door.
The blond stood and stretched as he made his way across the small room and eased the door open. He smiled at the man standing there and gestured for him to enter.
"Hi, Chris, how's the patient doing?" the doctor asked.
"He seems better," Larabee said simply.
"F...feels better," the Texan drawled softly, a hint of a smile on his face as he looked at the two men standing over him.
"Well, that's good news at least. Molly says you want to get up."
"Yeah, back's not so bad," Vin explained as he tried to move.
"Now hold on there until I get a chance to take a look!" O'Malley ordered, pulling the chair closer to the bed. He heard a small sound escape the Texan's throat and smiled as he realized the young man was indeed feeling better. He eased the blankets off the tracker's shoulders and moved it down towards his waist.
"Hey!" the younger man said as the covering was lowered and the cool air hit his bare skin.
"This won't take long, Vin, but I need to see if the swelling has gone down," O'Malley explained as he probed the injured area.
Chris stood by the window, watching as the physician explored the area around the Texan's hips. He winced sympathetically when the expert fingers touched a particularly sensitive area, and a muffled curse escaped Tanner's lips.
"Sorry, Vin, but I think you're right. The swelling has gone down some."
"I can git up?" the sharpshooter asked hopefully.
"Well, you can, but not without help. I don't want you doing anything that could re-injure your back."
"Ain't plannin' on..."
"Now, Vin, I know you're not planning on doing anything to hurt it again, but there are a few more things to talk about," O'Malley explained. "I don't want you sitting for long periods of time, start with maybe twenty minutes..."
"Twenty minutes!" the Texan said irritably.
"That's right twenty minutes!" the doctor reiterated. "I have a feeling you won't argue once you've been sitting half that long."
"Damn!" Vin hissed painfully.
"I'm sorry, but back injuries are tricky," O'Malley explained looking from one man to the other.
"He'll do as you say, Doc," Larabee assured the man, smiling at the stubborn Texan as he spoke.
"Make sure he does, Chris. Oh, the sheriff wanted me to tell you he'd like to see you when you get the chance."
"Alright," the gunslinger said as Tanner stared at him.
"The Sheriff?" the Texan inquired with a stifled sigh.
"Probably wants to let us know when Judge Spencer gets here."
"Hope it's soon. Sonofabitch deserves ta hang!" the blue eyes were filled with anger at the thought of Clark's victims.
"He will, Vin," Larabee assured his friend.
Tanner's eyes came to rest on the bandage wrapped around Larabee's left forearm. He could see a tiny circle of crimson in the center of the stark whiteness.
"Chris, Doc oughta look at yer arm," he said softly. The tone told Larabee he'd make a point of forcing the issue if the blond didn't do as he suggested.
O'Malley turned to the gunslinger and frowned as he saw the bandage. "What happened?" he asked simply.
"Don't know," Larabee answered honestly.
The doctor frowned as Larabee turned away from them and seemed engrossed in whatever he was thinking about. He waited a few seconds longer before speaking, hoping more information would be forthcoming from the tight-lipped man.
"Well, let me take a look." O'Malley indicated the gunslinger should sit on the second bed and turned the chair to take care of the wound.
Chris sank gratefully onto the bed, his energy reserve dwindling quickly as he looked into the concerned blue eyes of his best friend. He shook his head imperceptibly, but knew the tracker understood the message that he was okay. He untied the bandage and winced as once more the material was stuck to the wound.
O'Malley looked on in concern and finally reached for the blond's arm. He frowned at the red swollen area and using his finger gently pressed on both sides. A small amount of bloodied puss oozed from the wound and he looked up at the pain filled green eyes.
"When did this happen?" he asked.
"I think it was last night, but I can't be sure," the blond said as the fingers continued to press down on his arm.
"There's a bit of infection here and I'm going to have to clean it properly. Do you need something for pain?" the doctor asked, amazed at the lines of pain on the gunslinger's face.
"N...no," Larabee stammered.
"Alright," the physician said as he reached for a piece of bandage in his bag. He pressed it against the now bleeding wound and stood up.
"You keep pressure on that while I get some fresh water and carbolic," he ordered.
Larabee nodded his head and watched the man leave. He knew instinctively that Tanner was watching him and finally met the steady gaze.
"It's nothing, Vin."
"Then why do ya look like hell?"
"Doc caught me off guard's all," the blond said, smiling as he realized the younger man could see right through his weak assurances.
The two men had never needed words to convey what they were feeling and this was no exception. Chris could tell the Texan didn't believe him for an instant, but was willing to wait until he was ready to explain. Problem was Chris didn't know how to explain what was happening to him, he couldn't even explain it to himself. He looked at the door as O'Malley returned with a basin of water and some clean material.
"Alright, Chris, let's get that cleaned up," the doctor said. He set the container of water on the small table and reaching into his bag for the bottle of carbolic acid he kept there.
Chris held his arm out to he doctor, hiding the pain the movement caused. He felt the doctor cleaning the wound, pressing once more to be sure the infection was cleared out. Again his eyes met the man across the room and he smiled in spite of the worry he saw in the deep blue pools.
'I'm fine,' he sent.
'Sure, so'm I,' Tanner sent back.
"Chris, are you sure you don't know how this happened?" O'Malley asked.
Larabee shook his head and turned towards the doctor.
"Sorry, Doc, what was that?"
"I asked if you were sure you didn't know how this happened?"
"No idea," Larabee told him, as the man wrapped a clean bandage around the wound and tied it off.
"Well, I've cleaned it, but I want you to come see me if it starts to show signs of the infection returning," O'Malley ordered.
"I will, thanks, Doc."
"You're welcome," the physician said and turned back to the other bed. "Do you feel like getting up for a short time?"
"Hell, yeah!" the tracker winced as he tried to sit up.
"Now, I told you to let us help you," O'Malley berated softly. "Chris, Can you give us a hand here?"
Larabee moved to help sit the younger man up. Between them they managed to get the young man seated on the side of the bed and held him in place while beads of sweat formed on the shaking body.
"Let's get you into some clothes," Larabee said.
"Can you two manage on your own, Chris, or do you need my help?" the doctor asked.
"We can handle it," the gunslinger said, watching the tracker closely.
"Alright, then, just holler if you need me," O'Malley said before leaving the two friends alone.
Vin tried to calm his breathing and ignored the sharp talons of pain in his back. He knew the doctor wouldn't allow him to move if it would cause more harm than good, and he was grateful to the strength on his left side. He turned to face the gunslinger and smiled weakly at him.
Neither man spoke as Larabee reached for Tanner's discarded clothing and placed it on the bed beside him.
"You sure you're ready for this?" Larabee asked.
"...think so..." the Texan drawled and reached for his pants. He knew it would be impossible to do this on his own and turned to his friend. He saw the smile and knew the gunslinger understood what was needed.
Chris eased the tracker's long legs into the pants and eased him up on his feet.
"Just hang onto me!" Larabee ordered and felt the strong hands clamp onto his shoulders as he tugged the pant's up over the lean, well muscled thighs and hips. He met the younger man's steady gaze and saw a slight smile on the handsome face.
"Good thing Buck ain't here!" the tracker drawled as Larabee's hands eased him back down
Larabee nodded in agreement, realizing his long time friend would find some way to tease the injured man. Buck was a man he'd trust with his life, had done so often in fact, and was alive to prove the trust was well placed. The man also had a tendency to make light jokes and right now he had enough ammunition.
It didn't take long to get the rest of the clothes on the younger man and Chris reached for the well-worn boots. He slipped them onto Tanner's feet and stood up, stretching his own taut muscles before meeting the sharpshooter's eyes.
The Tanner head bobbed once and reached for his friend's helping hand.
It took the two men five minutes to cover the short distance down the hall to the front porch. They stopped to give the younger man a chance to rest, and Chris wondered if it was such a good idea to move the tracker. He smiled as Molly passed them and held the door open. Once outside in the bright afternoon sunshine all doubts left him as he gazed at his friend. The pain was still evident in the younger man's face, but there was also a look of rapture. Something akin to pure joy in the blue eyes when he was returned to the outside world. It didn't seem to matter that they were in a strange town. Vin Tanner was in his glory, and the pain he endured seemed minor in comparison to the chance to be outside.
"T...thanks," the sharpshooter said once they'd eased him down on the chair.
"You just make sure you let us know when you're ready to go back inside," O'Malley warned as he joined them on the porch.
"I will," the Texan assured him, smiling as Molly Richmond came towards him with a glass of lemonade and a piece of pie.
"Thank ya, Ma'am," he said as he accepted the plate and the woman placed the glass on the railing within his reach.
"That better not be my pie, Molly," O'Malley warned, the grin on his face belying the severity of his words.
"Plenty more where that come from," the woman said and turned to the gunslinger. "Chris, I'll bring you out a piece as well."
"Thanks, Molly. Where's Mindy?" he asked, frowning at the thought of the missing child.
"She's sleeping, Chris," the woman answered.
"Sleeping," Larabee said, his green eyes filled with worry. "Is she okay?"
"She's fine. Just a little tired. I guess everything finally caught up with her and she gave into it."
"You're sure she's okay?" the blond asked.
Molly held his gaze and smiled at the man. She wondered what the sorrow was he kept hidden and knew instinctively this man was once a father. She reached for his arm and gently patted it as she answered.
"Yes, Chris, but if it'll ease your mind you can look in on her yourself."
"N...No, don't want to wake her," Larabee said simply and took a seat in the swing.
"Alright then," she said with a smile. "Come on, Jack, gimme a hand with the pie and I'll see you get an extra big helping."
"Sounds good to me," the doctor said and followed the woman inside.
"You worried about Mindy, Chris?"
"Yeah. Kid's been through a lot."
"Shouldn't have ta go through shit like that at her age."
"No one should," Larabee agreed. The two friends relaxed as they enjoyed the silence and the late afternoon sunshine. Fifteen minutes later, Chris smiled as he realized the quiet would be short lived as he looked towards the end of the street. Tanner's back was to them and he couldn't help but smile as he realized the cavalry had arrived in the form of Wilmington and Standish.
"...riders comin'..." the gunslinger's cool gaze observed. Horses and riders were framed by the late afternoon sunshine, yet Chris could tell both men were exhausted.
"Buck and Ezra."
"Where?" Tanner turned towards the street and smiled at the tired looking men. "Damn, they look worse'n I feel."
"They do look a mite sickly," Larabee said as the two peacekeepers dismounted and came towards them.
"Good afternoon, Gentlemen."
"...fellas...," Tanner said, the twinkle in his eyes showing how glad he was to see his friends.
"What are you two doing here?" the blond asked gratefully.
"Well, Hell, Chris, we got your telegram and it said Vin was hurt and witnessed a murder. Me and Ez figured ya might need us to watch your backs," Wilmington said anxiously, his eyes running up and down the lean tracker's body.
"You alright, Vin?" he asked the pale man.
"Yeah, threw out my back." Tanner answered.
"How did you manage such an injury?" the conman asked, sitting next to Larabee in the swing.
"Long story," the tracker told him.
"We got time," Wilmington said, planting himself on the porch rail and wiping the dust from his pants.
Tanner looked up as the door opened and smiled at the owner of the boarding house stepped outside.
"Oh my stars!" she exclaimed as she looked at the two newcomers.
"Howdy, Ma'am," Wilmington said, standing up and doing a graceful bow.
"Good afternoon," Standish greeted a little more formally.
"Molly Richmond, this is Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish," Larabee introduced the newcomers. "We work together..."
"Hello, Mister Wilmington..." she started.
"It's Buck, Ma'am, and that's Ezra," the scoundrel smiled as he reached for her hand and kissed it gently.
"Oh, Lordy, you're a rake for sure," the woman said with a light laugh.
"Please ignore this charlatan, Ma'am," Standish said, his gold tooth reflecting the bright sunshine as he smiled warmly at the woman.
"Well, that's kinda hard ta do when he's standing right here," the woman said, feeling a slight heat rise to her cheeks as she looked at the bold grin on the rogue's face
"We kin fix that," Tanner said.
"Indeed we can. All it takes is a hot bath to rid him of the ungodly odor he so easily wears," Standish agreed.
"Thanks a lot, boys," Wilmington said, trying, but failing to look offended.
"Well, I got a couple of more pieces of pie if you two would like one," Molly offered.
"I would dearly love to partake of your baking skills, my good woman."
"Please call me Molly, and I'll be right back with the pie and lemonade," the woman said and hurried back inside.
"Now about that long story..." Standish's keen eyes drilled the squirming patient. Then he watched the tracker and the gunslinger exchange a quick glance.
"Alright," Vin said and got comfortable on the chair.
+ + + + + + +
"Look, will ya just shut the hell up for a while?" Thompson snarled as he moved away from his desk and over to the cell housing the prisoner.
"Ain't got no right ta keep me locked up like this. I ain't done nothin' wrong!" James Clark shouted.
"Look, just pipe down until the judge gets here tomorrow or," Thompson warned, turning at the sound of a cold voice behind him.
"What business is it of yours?" Thompson asked. His eyes quickly taking in the man standing beside his desk. The black suit he wore was well tailored, a white shirt and shoestring tie added to the effect.. The shoes were polished black leather, matching the case in the man's hands. The sheriff looked into the dark eyes and frowned as he saw flecks of red shimmering in the iris. Jet-black hair was combed back from the high forehead, framing the gaunt face. There was something about this man that bothered him, but he couldn't put his hands on what it was.
"That's my client you're threatening and it will stop as of right now!"
"Client? Who the hell are you."
"My name does not concern you, but since it is a necessity if I am to see my client it is C.F. Columber I am a lawyer and have journeyed here to represent Mr. Clark against the slanderous allegations..."
"The what?" Clark interrupted.
"The charges, my good man," the lawyer explained.
"Oh!" Clark said with a grin.
"That's right. I am here to make sure no one takes advantage of you."
"I ain't got no money! The sheriff took it when he put me in here" the murderer confessed.
Columber turned to the lawman, his eyes dark, and his expression hard as he stared at the man.
"The money has been..." the sheriff began, but was cut off by the lawyer's next words.
"Money is not an object when it comes to principles. How have you been treated in this despicable excuse for a jail?" he asked Clark
"He's got the treatment he deserves!" Thompson hissed.
The dark haired man turned his attention back to the sheriff and again a smile formed on the too white face.
"Is that so, Sheriff?"
"Yes, it is!"
"Mr. Clark, have you been fed properly?"
"Are ya kiddin'? The swill they've been feedin' me's not fit fer pigs!" Clark said, pointing to the half finished meal on his cot.
Columber lifted his head and a disgusted look came over his face as he looked at the plate of stew.
"I'm afraid that will not do, Sheriff. From now on my client is to be given proper meals and..."
"Your client is charged with murder..."
"We got witnesses!" Thompson snapped.
"Ah, witnesses, and I suppose they are completely reliable."
"Yes they are! A lot more than that man in there!"
"We'll see about that, Sheriff. When does the judge arrive?" the lawyer asked.
"He should be here sometime tomorrow!" the lawman answered.
"Good, then if you'll excuse us I wish to speak with my client in private."
Thompson looked at the newcomer with barely constrained anger, before turning and leaving the two men alone.
Clark smiled at the straight-backed figure standing on the other side of the bars.
"Hey, thanks mister..." he froze, his body trembling, his eyes glued to the face before him as the dark eyes seemed to take on a life of their own. He backed up until his legs hit the cot and sank down onto it. His breath caught in his throat as the figure before him undulated, sending puffs of frigid air into his cell.
"W...who are y...you?" he stammered, his breath eerily visible inside the cell.
"You do not need to know my real name, but it is only fitting that you know who holds your soul in his hand."
Clark stared at the man who'd come to defend him, and swallowed painfully, gagging at the foul stench in the air.
"Yes!" the man laughed. "I am here to protect that which belongs to me."
"I...I d...don't..." He stopped as Columber's hand came up and long taloned fingers pointed at his throat. His eyes grew wide as his air supply was effectively cut off and fiery pain seeped into his body. It offered no warmth, just a searing icy cold that attacked his mind as well as his body.
"You don't what? You don't want my help? Well, it's far too late for that since I already own you, body and soul. Rest assured you will hang after your trial, but I am in need of this farce in order to get close to a soul that was stolen from me!"
The figure shimmered and seemed to change before his very eyes. Clark had the distinct impression that he was in the presence of an evil such as he'd never known, and silently prayed as lack of air caused horrific visions. He watched as a smile formed on the face of his benefactor. He screamed as the hand clenched into a fist and his heart felt ready to burst in his chest. Somehow the figure now stood over him, towering above him, its fetid breath scalding against his face. Its fingers did a light dance over his chest, before continuing up his neck and stopping at his temples. For the first time in his life Clark knew what real fear was. He felt painful tendrils reach into his skull, digging deep into his brain, to the very center that controlled who he was.
"Do not pretend to pray to HIM. He will not come to save you as your evil has taken too many lives. Your soul is mine and if it pleases me I will allow you to stand with me in my army of darkness. If not I will feed you to the legion of demons who will devour your flesh for all eternity!"
'N...NO!' the outlaw screamed inside his mind, yet the thing before him cackled as it raked a talon across his chest. He felt his mind being invaded by the evil the now pervaded his mind and body. An evil from which there would be no escape. James Clark felt enraptured by the evil he'd served all his life and finally understood that his reward was not all he'd dreamed of. He tried to fight as one final scream echoed through the horses of taloned creatures scurrying through his mind, twisting his features until they were hardly recognizable.
"Yes, my good man," Columber said, releasing his invisible hold on the prisoner as he heard the door open. He smiled inwardly as he realized Clark was totally under his control now, a new puppet whose strings were held within his tight grasp. The murderer would die, but that death would not release him, instead he would be a prisoner of hell for all eternity.
"Time's up!" Thompson hissed at the dark haired man.
"Thank you, Sheriff. My client and I were finished. Right, Mr. Clark?"
"I..." the outlaw choked out, icy fingers touching up against his heart and mind once more. Fear taking control as he wondered how the man was able to be inside his cell yet the doors were locked.
"Y...yeah, Mr. Columber is my...my lawyer." He breathed a sigh of relief as the searing touch left his body.
"Now, Sheriff, I wish to speak with the witnesses who say this poor unfortunate soul is guilty."
"I'll see if I can arrange it," he lawman said.
"See that you do!" the dark haired man said and turned back to his client.
Clark flinched as the dead eyes changed imperceptibly, creating an almost liquid essence of fear in them. He turned away, feeling again the dread that speared his mind and body. He heard the two men talking, but couldn't meet their eyes, as realization dawned on him. This man was evil, and he now possessed his soul. A soft sob formed, but was quickly silenced as Columber's voice hissed in his mind.
'You belong to me and I will not abide such open displays of weakness!'
Y...yes, Master..." he whispered, knowing to do otherwise would bring an eternity of pain.
+ + + + + + +
"Hell, you two attract trouble as easily as I attract the ladies," Wilmington said, when the harrowing tale was completed.
"How is the child faring?" Standish asked.
"She's scared," Larabee observed.
"But she's brave," Tanner finished, wincing as his back protested his time in the chair.
"Time to go back, Vin," Larabee said, standing and moving towards his friend.
"...think so..." the sharpshooter agreed. He gazed down the street and frowned as the sheriff and another man hurried towards them. There was something in the way the newcomer walked that set of alarms inside the tracker's mind. He felt Larabee standing next to him and knew the gunslinger was also checking out the man walking beside the sheriff.
"Vin?" Wilmington called to the younger man.
"Sheriff's comin'," Tanner advised.
"He can wait!" the gunslinger said, offering a hand to his injured friend. Before the tracker could grasp it the two visitors were at the gate.
"Chris," Thompson called, opening the gate and stepping inside, without holding it for the man with him.
"Sheriff." Larabee looked at the sheriff, but he scrutinized the man standing just behind him. He frowned as his arm began to throb and his vision blurred for an instant.
"Chris, you alright?" the scoundrel asked worriedly.
"Y...yeah," Larabee said as a familiar scent assaulted his nostrils and his eyes began to water.
"Looks like ya need ta git ta bed more'n me!" The sharpshooter frowned as he watched his friend.
"Come on, Pard, let's get you inside," Wilmington suggested, grabbing Larabee's arm and easing him towards the door.
Chris felt weak and didn't have the strength to protest as he leaned on the ladies man.
"Ezra, s...stay with Vin!" the gunslinger warned sharply, and was glad to see the gambler nod in agreement.
Buck led the ill man into the house and followed Larabee's pointing finger. His fear for his friend's well being intensified as the blond continued to lean against him. He saw Molly out of the corner of his eye as they passed the kitchen.
"What's wrong?" the woman asked as she looked up from the table where she was peeling potatoes.
"Chris don't feel very well," Wilmington answered and was glad to see the doctor was still at the house.
"Let me help you," O'Malley offered as he came out of the kitchen and helped support the nearly unconscious man.
Chris welcomed the strength of the two men as his own seemed to have left him completely. His body felt weighed down as they placed him on the bed. His eyes closed and he sank into a nightmare world where birds with crimson eyes and long claws slashed at him. Where voices screamed at him to help them from twisted, ravaged mouths sunk in sightless skulls. A place where his friends could not reach him and hell was his alone.
Buck watched as the doctor began examining the unconscious man. He knew from Vin and Chris that this man was good at what he did, but in his heart he wished Nathan Jackson was there as well. 'Damn, Chris, what's wrong with ya?' he thought.
+ + + + + + +
"Vin, this is Clark's lawyer C.F. Columber," Thompson explained.
Standish and Tanner both heard the undercurrent of dislike in the sheriff's voice. Something about the darkly dressed man set wrong with both men. Without a word the gambler quickly moved to stand beside the tracker's chair.
Vin looked the newcomer in the eyes, noting the empty black depths seemed devoid of life, yet flecks of red warred for dominance in the irises. Something about the newcomer didn't sit right, but the tracker was suddenly unable to think straight. The sharpshooter felt as if the man was seeing through him, deep into his mind and heart, to the core of his soul. A secret place where everything he ever done or faced in life resided. He squirmed in the chair as their eyes locked in a mortal embrace, one he had to win, yet knew instinctively he could not. The man standing before him wreaked of an evil essence that soon had the young man nauseated. He fought to turn away from the gaze, before the evil could take control of who he was. He sucked air through clenched teeth as he hissed.
"That animal murdered that poor woman," Tanner rasped, clutching the arms of the chair in anger. "...and that ain't all he done t'her."
"Mr. Tanner, I will not have you insulting my client's good name when he is not here to defend himself..."
Vin's anger got the best of him and he tried to rise out of the chair. Columber's hand steadied him and the tracker's eyes widened as pain erupted along the nerves in his back. He cried out as he sat back in the chair, his breath coming in painful gasps as Standish moved in beside him.
"Vin!" the gambler's worried gaze took in the white face, the beads of sweat on the handsome face, and the tightly clenched eyes and mouth. He glared at the newcomer and shoved his hand off the sharpshooter's arm, hissing as he felt an icy fire race through his fingers.
"Mr. Tanner, I'm sure you understand that my client..."
"...is a fuckin' ani..." his words were cut off as pain erupted once more. Thick, cloying darkness began to close over him, taking with it any protests he wanted to make. He could hear his friend talking to him, but Standish's words fell on deaf ears as he succumbed to his body's demand for relief.
"It's time for you to leave, Mr. Columber!" Standish hissed as the sheriff moved in to help support the sagging body in the chair.
"I was simply doing my job," the devil whispered beguilingly, his voice soft, yet holding an icy depth that caused the gambler's body to shiver in spite of the warmth of the day.
"I'm afraid your job is despicable if you're aiming to free that murderer," Standish said. He looked up as the door opened and Buck Wilmington stepped outside.
"What the hell happened?" he asked as he saw the two men supporting an unconscious Vin Tanner in the chair.
"I'm not sure," the conman said, diverting his gaze from the lawyer. "He was suddenly in agony and passed out."
"Let's get him in to the doc," Wilmington suggested and took over from the sheriff.
Columber turned a cold gaze on the sheriff, before moving out into the street. His eyes glowed a deep scarlet as he thought of the things he'd found out by simply touching the sharpshooter's arm.
Thompson stood frozen for a second as icy tendrils crawled down his spine. Quickly shaking them off, he turned to follow the newcomer only to find the street deserted and as cold as he felt inside.
+ + + + + + +
O'Malley tucked the blanket around his patient, before standing and stretching, to ease the kinks from his back. His examination of Chris Larabee uncovered nothing that could explain the man's unconscious state. The wound in the arm was still showing signs of infection, but that didn't explain why Larabee's skin felt cold and clammy.
'Hope the hell it's not some new disease,' he thought. The door opened, revealing Vin Tanner supported between the two newcomers.
"Put him on the bed," the physician ordered. He watched as the men eased the young tracker down, amazed at the care and tenderness they showed.
"What happened?" he asked.
"Clark's lawyer showed up and Vin became agitated while they were conversing. He tried to stand up and passed out," Standish explained as the doctor moved in to examine his second patient.
"I told Vin no longer than twenty minutes. This back injury is nothing to fool with and he needs to rest," the doctor explained.
"Vin was fine until Columber placed his hand on him. That's when he gasped in pain and passed out," the gambler stated.
"Ez, are you sayin' the lawyer did something to Vin?" Wilmington asked.
"Yes...no...I don't know, Buck, but something's just not right here," the conman said, as he looked from one unconscious man to the other.
"Yeah. I think you're right about that, Ez..."
"Gentlemen," O'Malley interrupted Wilmington. "I need your help here."
"What do ya need, Doc?" the ladies man asked.
"I need you to help turn Vin over so I can get a look at his back. Ezra, go ask Molly for some hot water and towels," the physician ordered.
"Right away, Doctor," Standish said and hurried form the room.
"Alright, Buck, I need you to support his shoulders for me."
The two men eased the injured sharpshooter onto his stomach. Buck winced as he heard a gasp escape from his friend, yet he knew the young man was still unconscious.
O'Malley lifted the shirt and gently probed the area. There were still signs of swelling, but he didn't think it was any worse than the last time he'd examined this patient. He looked up as Standish entered, a basin in his hand and a towel thrown over his shoulder. The doctor could tell the younger man was worried, yet he couldn't ease either man's fears for their friend's well being. Something strange was happening to the two men, but what it was he didn't know. He could treat the wounds he saw, but he knew there was nothing he could do for the wounds he couldn't see.
"Put the basin on the table," the doctor ordered. He watched as the gambler did as he was asked and took the towel. He placed it in the water and smiled as he realized Molly Richmond had the water at the right temperature.
'What are you going to do, Doctor?" Standish asked.
"I'm gonna put hot towels on his back to ease the tension. His muscles are tight here and I'm hoping if we can help him relax the problem will ease off before he wakes up." O'Malley placed the towel on Tanner's back and eased back in his chair.
"How long before we know if it helps?" the ladies man asked.
"It may take an hour or so, but we need to keep this up for a couple of hours. I've got a couple of people I need to check on, but I'm confident you two can handle this," the physician told them as he stood up and turned his attention to the second man.
"What about Chris?" Standish asked.'
"Except for the wound on his arm I can see no reason he's unconscious. I've done all I can for him. The wound in his arm is the only thing I can see wrong with him yet he's unconscious. When he wakes up make sure he eats something. He's been sick a couple of times, so I'm going to ask Molly to make him something light..."
"Oh, Hell, Chris'll love that," Wilmington said of Larabee's fondness of the light meals.
"Well, I want you to make sure he gets some fluids into him and get him to eat. He needs to build up his strength again," the doctor explained.
"Doctor, what are you not telling us about Mr. Larabee's condition?" the gambler asked as he watched the expressions on the older man's face.
O'Malley looked into he inquisitive green eyes of the brown haired man and knew instinctively this man could easily read him. He looked down at Larabee's still form and shook his head.
"Look, I don't really know any more than I've told you. Anything else is just guess work on my part..."
"Doc, what do you think is going on?" the ladies man interrupted.
"If I were to hazard a guess I'd say it has something to do with the mark on his arm. There's a mild infection in it, but Chris doesn't have any fever. If anything he seems to damn cold. I want you to keep him covered...it's the only thing you can do for him right now. I'll be back to change the bandage on his arm and check on Vin's back later today. If there's any problems before then come get me."
"We will, Doc," Wilmington said as Standish settled in to take care of the tracker. He watched the doctor leave the room and pulled a second chair up to Larabee's bed. 'What's going on with you two, Chris?' he thought as he tucked the blankets around the sleeping man.
The two peacekeepers kept a silent vigil over their friends. They lost track of time until Molly came into the room with a dinner tray. She smiled at the ladies man and the gambler as she placed it on the table between the two beds.
"How are they doing?" she asked.
"There's no change," Wilmington said.
Molly nodded as she looked from one bed to the other. She felt a chill deep inside as her gaze came to rest no the lean gunslinger. Something about this man touched her heart, and she knew there was a fight coming his way. She looked at the tracker and knew if anyone could help him with that fight it was him. The other two men would be involved, but Vin Tanner would be the man who could save Chris Larabee. Of that, she was certain as she turned and left the room.
"Do you really think Columber had something to do with what's happening to Vin?"
"There's something about that cretin I don't trust. I think it would be prudent if we make sure he doesn't get close to Chris or Vin."
Buck nodded as he helped himself to one of the plates of Stew and biscuits.
"Yeah, I don't trust him either. Hopefully the trial won't last long and we'll leave this place and Columber behind."
Standish picked up his plate and settled in to watch over the two men.
+ + + + + + +
The dream was so real, fire and ice chilled him to the bone. Red eyes and elongated fingers dominated the tiny room. He fought against there hold on him, but there didn't seem to be any way to escape the deadly mass of demonic souls. He screamed as something invaded his mind, an evil so cruel it cast him into a spiralling vortex of hatred and rage.
'You belong to me!'
'The more you fight the more rewarding this will be for me. A soul as strong as yours is worth many hours of torment. Yours is strong and will become a part of me once the earthly body has given up the fight. Keep fighting and you shall take your rightful place at my side. We will be strong, especially after you bring me the souls of your friends...'
'No! I won't...I can't...' His protest was weak and met with demonic laughter as icy shards touched his inner core, chilling him to the bone. He struggled to awaken, to escape the horror of his nightmares, but something seemed to follow him. He knew to release the evil into the world would mean the death of everything and everyone. He fought to leave the evil behind, ignoring the hot talons that raked across his nerves. He felt the evil reluctantly release him yet, something followed him into the waking world. Two words he'd grown familiar with, yet couldn't remember why the tormented voices were calling to him.
+ + + + + + +
Standish smiled as the tracker opened his eyes and looked across the room. Darkness had completely enveloped the world and he was alone with the two men. Molly Richmond was a wonderful lady and Buck Wilmington was now sleeping on the couch in the living room. He placed a hand on Tanner's shoulder as the young man tried to sit up.
"That would not be advisable right now, My Friend," the gambler said.
Vin turned his head and met the worried green eyes of the man sitting beside his bed. He vaguely remembered the arrival of the two men, but couldn't grasp anything else. His back throbbed as the conman eased a new towel onto it, but the heat eased his aching muscles and he smiled.
"Ez, what happened to Chris?"
"Mr. Larabee is going to be fine."
The words did little to alleviate the tracker's worries as he watched Larabee's face. Something bothered him about the way the other man seemed to be curled into the blankets, as if trying to ward off the cold. Vin knew Chris didn't mind the cold as much as he did. Somehow this bothered him even more since the air seemed uncannily warm to him.
"Vin, he will be okay," the gambler aid reassuringly.
"Thanks," the younger man said gratefully as Larabee's eyes began to flicker.
Standish noticed the change as well and moved to the second bed. He placed a hand on Larabee's shoulder and watched as the sea-green eyes opened and tried to focus.
Chris blinked rapidly to rid himself of the double image standing beside his bed. The vision of Ezra Standish and the flashing gold tooth was a welcome one. The nightmare receded with the warmth of the other man's smile and he tried to sit up.
"How do you feel?" the gambler asked.
Larabee frowned as he tried to formulate an answer. He felt fine except for the chill he seemed to have caught.
"Cold," he answered.
"I thought that was Mr. Tanner's problem," Standish said as he eased the blanket s back over the gunslinger.
"V...Vin," Larabee stammered as he turned his gaze on the other bed.
"Are you okay?" the blond asked.
"Fine...you?" the sharpshooter answered.
The gunslinger pulled the blankets tightly around his trembling body, wondering why he felt so cold.
"Think so. What time is it?" he asked.
"It's two thirty in the morning and you two need to go back to sleep," Standish said.
"Hell, Ez, slept 'nough," the tracker said as he shifted on the bed. He was surprised by the lack of pain in his back. There was still a dull ache, but the agonizing torment he remembered was gone.
"Well, Mrs. Richmond was kind enough to leave something for both of you to eat..."
"Good...I'm starved," the tracker said.
"Mr. Larabee, would you like something to eat?" Standish asked.
"N...no," Larabee answered as he felt the call of sleep once more. He heard the two men talking softly and knew they were worried about him. 'Why am I so damned tired?' he thought as he followed the cold trail into his troubling dreams once more.
+ + + + + + +
Buck opened the door and looked in, surprised to see Standish whispering softly to the injured tracker. He moved quietly into the room and nodded to both men before turning his gaze towards the man in the second bed. Larabee was turned away from them, the blankets wrapped tightly around him as he slept. Once he was sure the blond was resting comfortably, he moved to the other bed.
"How are you feeling, Vin?" he asked.
"Better," the Texan answered softly.
"Ya look a mite better too. Molly's just makin' breakfast and she sent me to tell you she'd bring it in here for you and Chris."
"Tell her I'm okay. Jest need help gettin' dressed," the tracker told him.
"You sure?" the ladies' man asked, not at all convinced that the younger man was ready to move around again.
"Yeah." He looked from one man to the other before continuing. "I need ta be able ta move 'round if'n that judge gits here taday."
"Ez, gimme a hand to get him dressed before you go eat."
"Certainly," Standish said and moved to the opposite side of the bed. The two friends eased Tanner up until he was sitting on the side of the bed. They watched as Larabee stirred and rolled towards them, his eyes slowly opening as he pushed the blankets away from his body.
"Hey, Chris, how're you feeling?" Wilmington asked.
Larabee frowned at the question, wondering why the scoundrel asked him that. He shifted on the bed and slid his legs over the side before answering.
"I'm fine." He turned his attention to the injured man. "Vin?"
"I'm okay, Chris." The tracker studied the blond for a few seconds, seeing the pain flicker behind the sea-green eyes, before the older man reached for his pants and pulled them on.
"Smells like Molly's making flapjacks and bacon," Larabee said, his stomach growling in anticipation.
"She is, Chris and she's got that little ray of sunshine helpin' her out."
Chris smiled at Buck's apt description of Mindy Lawrence. They were hoping to receive word from Mindy's grandparents as to when they'd be arriving. Larabee knew the child needed them, now more than ever with the trial so close at hand. He finished dressing as Buck and Ezra continued to help the tracker.
"Ya sure you're up for this, Vin?" Wilmington asked.
"Ain't nothin' gonna stop me!" Tanner answered with a grin. He stood up, only to glad to have the scoundrel's steadying hand on his arm.
"Glad to see there's nothing wrong with your appetite," Standish said as he held the door open. "After you!" he said, bowing courteously.
"Thanks, Ez!" the sharpshooter smiled as they made their way slowly down the hall towards the kitchen.
Mindy looked up from where she was putting plates on the table. She smiled as the three men walked into the room, but her eyes lit up as the forth man stood framed in the doorway.
"Chris!" she called as she put the dishes down and hurried towards her.
Larabee smiled as he plucked the child from the floor and her arms wrapped around his neck. He felt her tighten her grip as he saw the other men help Vin into one of the chairs. He felt her hold loosen as she pulled back slightly and looked at him.
"Are you okay?" she asked him, frowning as she looked at his face.
"I'm just fine, Honey," the blond answered as he walked to the table.
"Good, 'cause I was scared you was sick. You slept longer than Bruno did..."
"Bruno?" Larabee asked her.
"Yeah. He was a big ol' dog we had when I was little. He slept lots like you and Vin did and he...he," she started to cry and Chris pulled her into a tight embrace once more.
Chris knew the others were watching him with the child, but didn't take the time to acknowledge it. He felt her trembling sobs and wished she didn't have to testify at the trial. His eyes met those of the sharpshooter and he saw the same concern in the soft blues. He nodded slightly as he reached up and ran his fingers through the soft brown hair.
Mindy lifted her head and tried to stop the tears. Her little girl's mind told her crying was for babies, but her heart told her she needed to let the tears fall. She finally met the green eyes of the man holding her and a small smile formed as his fingertips wiped the evidence from her cheeks.
"I w...want to go h...home," she hiccupped softly.
Chris felt his heart breaking at her words and pulled her tight. His right hand again held her head to his shoulder as the sobs grew in volume. He knew she needed to do this, everybody did. His gaze quickly fell on Wilmington and he knew the other man was seeing a time in the past. A time when Chris Larabee had finally let down his barriers and cried out his pain. Although neither man knew it at the time, the tears he shed that cold December day was the beginning of the healing process for him. They'd parted ways the next day and a piece of him often wondered why he hadn't told Buck he was sorry for the things he'd said and done. A part of his subconscious had realized he needed some time alone, time to let the wounds heal before his life could be whole again.
The time after Sarah and Adam's deaths were some of the blackest times of his life. A time where his soul could've been lost forever, but salvation soared hopeful in the sky eyes of the Texan. The young man seemed to understand his own need for privacy, yet they'd probably never be able to keep anything secret from each other again. A gift was given to them that day, one that seemed to give them both what they'd been missing. A brother, not by blood, but by destiny and need. The need for a soul that mirrored the others needs. The look on Buck's face told him he understood, and he smiled at the scoundrel as he held the girl close.
"We'll make sure you get home," Chris vowed as she settled against him, her arms clinging tightly to his neck. He held her as Molly placed platters of flapjacks, biscuits, and bacon on the table. A thick jug of syrup, a pot of coffee and several cups soon followed. He felt Mindy lift her head once more and again he wiped the red-rimmed eyes.
"Feel better?' he asked softly and smiled as the brown head nodded vigorously. He eased her onto the chair beside him and accepted a cup of coffee from the gambler.
"Thanks, Ez," he said as he sipped the strong, flavorful brew. He put the cup back down and without realizing it rubbed at the bandage covering the wound on his arm.
"You're welcome," Standish said and helped himself to a plate of breakfast.
"Hungry, Vin?" Wilmington asked as he watched the tracker pile the food on his plate.
"...yep...' the Texan answered as he added another flapjack to his plate.
"Are you eating, Chris?" Molly asked as she watched the gunslinger rub at his arm. She knew by the look on his face it was bothering him, but decided against saying anything until after the meal was over. She trembled as she remembered the feeling of foreboding that crept over her when she'd seen him in the street. This man had a fight coming his way, one that dealt with things beyond her imagination, beyond this world. Whether he won or lost would depend on the men seated around the table, and their willingness to believe in the unbelievable. To act without questioning their own sanity. To go beyond the normal things in life and see past the damper that was put on the human mind. Her own sanity was questioned often enough when she was a child and she'd learned to keep her thoughts and dreams to herself.
"Molly, darlin' are you alright?" Wilmington asked, as the woman seemed to pale before him.
"Huh? What?" the woman asked as she came back to the present and stared into the pools of liquid blue set in the handsome face seated across the table.
"I asked if you were okay?"
She smiled warmly at the scoundrel as she reached for a plate. She knew there was nothing she could do to help them. She could not warn them of what lay ahead, as she didn't know exactly what was going to happen.
"I'm fine, Buck, just daydreaming. Ain't nothin' else a woman can do with four handsome men to keep her company," the woman said mischievously, smiling warmly as the gunslinger picked up a plate and began helping himself to the heaping platters of food. 'Eat now, Chris Larabee, Lord knows you'll need the strength for the trials ahead of you,' she thought.
They ate in silence, lost in their own thoughts of what lay ahead. According to the sheriff Judge Spencer would arrive sometime later in the day. The trial would probably start the following day and that's when things would be rough for Mindy Lawrence and Vin Tanner. They would have to relive what happened when they were forced to answer the questions put forth by James Clark's lawyer.
Molly finished eating and began clearing the table. Mindy's melancholy seemed to have left her, and for that the woman was glad. Children had an ability to forget easily, yet she knew the events of the last week would remain with her for the rest of her life.
"Vin?" Larabee spoke the name softly as Mindy moved to help the older woman clear the table.
"You Want to go outside for a while?"
"Y...yeah," the sharpshooter answered.
"Ez, you give Chris a hand to get Vin outside. I'll help the ladies clean up," Wilmington suggested.
"Now you go on outside with the others, Buck. Mindy and me can handle this. Right Mindy?" Molly asked, placing her hands on her hips.
"Right!" the child said as she imitated the woman's actions and placed her tiny hands on her hips.
"Are ya sure?" the scoundrel asked.
"Get yourself outside!" Richmond ordered.
Buck bowed at the waist, causing the child to burst into laughter as he smiled at them.
"Yes, Ma'am," he said and cupped Mindy's cheek in his right hand. He turned to see Larabee and Tanner walking slowly towards the door, Standish following closely behind.
Once outside, Chris helped the tracker into the swing before turning towards the street. He knew Wilmington and Standish would look after the younger man while he checked for messages at the hotel.
"I'm gonna see if there's any messages from Mindy's grandparents. Come get me if the judge or sheriff shows up," Larabee told the three friends.
"We will," Wilmington said, sitting on the step and watching the lean man walk slowly out the gate. Something about the way the gunslinger walked reminded Buck of another time, another place and he prayed Larabee wasn't headed for the bottle again.
Chris could feel the three men watching him and he fought the urge to rub the wound on his arm. He flexed his fingers and hoped the tingling numbness was not a sign that something was wrong with his arm. He made his way to the hotel and stepped inside just as Tilly was coming out of the office.
"Ah, Mr. Larabee I was just comin' ta see you. I've got an answer from Saint Louis for you. The wires have been down and this only just got through" the woman said, handing him the slip of paper with the missive on it.
Leaving immediately...Thank you for watching over Mindy....Rupert Lawrence.
The judge had already communicated with the child's grandparents. As her next of kin, they would be needed for the trial, due to her status as a minor. The gunslinger hoped that the couple showered Mindy with the love and care she needed.
"Thank you, Ma'am," the blond said, tipping his hat to her.
"I'm sorry it took so long to get the answer, Mr. Larabee," she told him.
Larabee nodded as he made his way back to the boarding house. He stopped in the middle of the street as he felt someone watching him. An icy touch seemed to wrap around him, sucking the air from his lungs. He turned towards the jail, frowning as he saw the man framed in the doorway. He recognized him as the man who'd been with Hank Thompson the day before, yet he couldn't remember hearing the name. The man's hand was held straight out in front of him and his finger seemed to be pointing straight at the gunslinger. Chris gasped for air as he turned he locked eyes with the newcomer, yet he would not release the hypnotic glare. The man's eyes glowed red and he remembered the nightmare world of his dreams since his arrival in Farmington. This man was the center point of his trouble, yet how or why he didn't know, but he would find out.
Chris felt the world around him fading and the beaconing fires of hell rising up to engulf him. Sweat beaded on his brow, and his heart beat rapidly in his chest. His eyes continued to lock forces with the newcomer as the heat of the day grew into epidemic proportions and the town began to fade before his eyes.
Columber smiled as he pointed his finger at the man standing in the middle of the street. He knew he could kill him with a simple flick of his hand, but that would not give him what he wanted, what he craved. A man's soul was stronger when given freely, and Chris Larabee would do just that when the time came. He admired the blond haired gunslinger as the intense green eyes seared into his own red ones. He knew this man was a born leader and would add strength to his own forces.
He continued to force his evil influence on the dark clad man, ignoring the voice from behind him. He knew he'd have to release his hold or risk Larabee collapsing in the middle of the street. Reluctantly he turned away from his victim and turned a cold glare on the sheriff.
Chris sucked in air as the town shimmered and solidified before his eyes. The vacuum he'd been trapped in disappeared and an abundance of honeysuckle scented air entered his body. His grateful lungs burned as the oxygen his body craved cleared his mind and pushed back the blurred vision. He watched as the man in the doorway disappeared inside, taking with him the chill that seemed to permeate the air around him. His gaze swept over the dust-covered street as two familiar words drifted past him on a soft breeze.
'Jesus, Larabee, what the fuck's wrong with you?' he chided.
The gunman waited for his legs to stop trembling and slowly moved down the street. The whispered words reverberated through his mind as he sought their meaning.
+ + + + + + +
Buck, Ezra, and Vin watched as the blond walked slowly towards them. The three men immediately picked up that something wasn't right, yet none spoke of the fear they felt at the pale features.
"Something wrong, Chris?" Wilmington asked when Larabee entered the yard and made his way towards them.
Larabee turned a pained gaze on the mustached man. He moved to the swing and sat next to the Texan.
"No, things look good for Mindy," the blond explained.
"They coming for her?" Wilmington asked.
"Yes, left as soon as they got the message if the telegram is indication," Larabee answered.
"They should be here in time for her to testify then," Standish observed.
"Looks that way. I'm gonna give Mindy the good news." Larabee stood and nearly collapsed as he was overcome by a cloying scent the others were oblivious to. He held his breath, praying the weakness that was plaguing him over the last few days would not manifest itself in front of his friends.
"Chris?" Tanner's drawl penetrated Larabee's stupor and the blond turned glassy eyes in his direction.
"I...I'm okay, Vin," Larabee assured him.
"Sure you are," Wilmington said as he stood next to the lean gunslinger.
"Perhaps you should lie down for a while?" the gambler offered.
"No, I'm okay...just need to do this," Larabee said simply and walked into the house.
Vin watched as the older man disappeared inside. He knew Buck and Ezra were also watching and he wondered if they sensed a difference in the gunslinger. Somehow he knew they did as the trio sat quietly and watched the dusty street of Farmington.
+ + + + + + +
Chris smiled as he entered the kitchen to find Molly and Mindy sitting at the table. Molly was showing the little girl some sewing stitches and the child was concentrating on her nimble fingers. The brown head popped up as he entered the cozy room.
"Hi, Chris," The girl's voice was filled with excitement as she held out the piece of material for the gunslinger to see.
"Hi, Mindy, what've you got there?" Larabee asked.
"Molly's showing me how to make a blanket. I'm gonna make one for Frannie," her eyes misted over as she said the name.
The blond placed his finger on her chin and tilted her head until their gazes met. He smiled at her, knowing she'd been through so much.
"Your Aunt would be proud of you," he told her and saw a flash of hope in her eyes.
"Of course, you're a brave girl," Larabee said and smiled as Molly agreed with him. He picked the child up in his arms and wiped away the silent tears.
"Now, I've got some good news for you," Larabee said as he took a cloth from Molly's hands and washed the girl's face.
"That's right, Honey. Your Grandpa and Nana are on their way to get you," the blond explained and was glad to see the excitement return to the soft eyes
"That's right. They should be here tomorrow."
"They gonna take me back to St Louis with them?"
"They sure are," Larabee answered.
Mindy leaned her head to the side and again met Larabee's sea green eyes. For a minute the blond saw something he couldn't read until the child spoke in a voice too mature for her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and asked softly.
"Will they love me?"
Larabee held her tight and ran his hand through her soft curls as he answered.
"Sure they will, Honey."
Molly watched the two and wondered if Larabee knew the effect he had on the child. In the short time they'd been here she'd seen a side of Chris Larabee few people got to see. The man knew his way around children, whether he realized it or not. She'd sat quietly and watched the interaction between the two and now understood why Mindy Lawrence was drawn to the gunman. Chris Larabee hid this part of himself from most people, yet it was evident as soon as he picked her up. This man knew how to treat children and how to talk to them and not down to them. She turned away from the private display and walked out of the room, knowing Larabee had a fight coming and praying his friend's could help him win it.
+ + + + + + +
Columber watched from the jailhouse as the stage entered the outer boundaries of Farmington. Although he looked forward to the trial and using the things he'd garnered from his meeting with Vin Tanner, there were other things on his mind. He looked down towards the little house, nearly invisible because of the brush and flowers in the yard. He could feel Larabee's aura as if it called out to him and a shudder of anticipation ran through the form he'd chosen. His attention returned to the stage as it pulled to a stop in front of the hotel and he smiled. A short, well-dressed man, with black hair, streaked with silver, stepped down and looked in his direction. He knew instinctively this was the judge and continued to stare until the man dropped his gaze.
'Your trial is about to begin, Chris Larabee,' he thought as he watched the man accept a small bag and enter the hotel.
+ + + + + + +
Clark sat in his cell staring at the small spider that skirted the edge of the window. He'd been watching the creature since an insect had flown into its web and become trapped within the silken threads. His head tilted to the side and he watched as the insect slowly disappeared inside a cocoon of softness, yet he knew there was nothing soft about the creature's new home. He felt a chill run down his spine as he realized the insect was in a far better place than he was. At least its death would be final, unlike his own. Columber had told him he would die at the end of a rope, but that would not be the end for him. It would be the beginning of a life of misery, a life he'd garnered for himself with his first killing. He felt tears well up in his eyes and turned his gaze away from the spider and its meal. His throat constricted and he looked towards the door, feeling Columber's icy touch surround his heart once more.
'I do not abide cowards,' the silken voice reached only his ears and he struggled to contain his growing fear.
"Y...yes, Master," he said aloud, his words barely reaching his own ears as he sank down on the cot once more and waited for the inevitable. The pain in his chest grew until he thought his heart would burst, but the vice like grip released him before the organ burst like a ripe fruit. He felt his eyes flutter closed as he sank into the depths of hell where he was surrounded by demons he'd never imagined existed.
+ + + + + + +
William Spencer had been a judge in this territory for the past eleven years. He'd held court for arguments between landowners, trials involving horse thieves, and robbery to name a few. Yet none affected him more than a man or woman charged with murdering a fellow human being. He knew he didn't have all of the facts pertaining to this case, but he knew of Clark's reputation and had even presided over a case several years in the past that ended badly because the witness against Clark turned up dead. 'Natural causes' the doctor said. 'Man died of a heart attack.' Spencer understood the remark, but he also understood the heart attack was precipitated by the man's fear of closed in spaces. The witness was well known for this and somehow ended up locked in a cellar, sealed completely in darkness, before said heart attack occurred.
Taking a deep breath the judge placed his bag on the bed and sat on the edge. The room he was in was familiar to him as it was always reserved for him. Tilly and Burt Baker made sure this room was available when he was going to be in town. He was glad to have familiar surroundings when he needed to concentrate on a case. He stood up and walked out of the room, intent on getting things ready for the trial. He spotted the sheriff coming towards him and smiled at his long time friend.
"Afternoon, Hank," he greeted as the sheriff joined him in front of the hotel.
"Afternoon, Bill. How was the trip?"
"Dusty. I want to get this trial going as soon as possible. Burt and Tilly are setting up the lobby of the hotel. We'll set the trial to start tomorrow morning. Does Clark have council?" he asked. Trials were usually held at the hotel since it was the only place big enough to hold everyone.
"Yeah," the sheriff answered softly as he looked across the street at the jail.
"Anyone I know?"
"Don't think so. I never heard of the man although he does seem to be legit."
"What's his name?"
"C.F. Columber. You know him?"
"Not personally, but there's something familiar about that name," the judge said as they walked towards Thompson's home.
"What about the witnesses?"
"They are staying at Molly's boarding house."
"How is the child holding up?" the older man asked, knowing what the child would be going through over the next few days.
"'bout as well as you'd expect after what she's been through."
"And the other witness...Tanner is it?" the judge asked. He knew about Vin Tanner, yet he would not act on that knowledge as Orrin Travis was working on getting the charges against him dropped.
"Yeah. Doc says he'll be able to be at the trial. He hurt his back, but he seems to be doing better."
"What about the child's grandparents? Will they be able to make it in time?"
"They are on the way. Should be here day after tomorrow."
"Good, then we'll leave her testimony until they arrive. Now, please tell me Carolyn has made her Apple Cobbler?"
Thompson laughed as he walked alongside the older man. His wife was proud of her baking skills and this man knew just what to say to get her to make what he craved. Apple Cobbler was the judge's favorite. The sheriff rubbed his hand as he remembered her swatting him with the spoon when he attempted to sample it that morning.
"You know Carolyn almost as well as I do, Bill. She's got it ready and waiting for you. Wouldn't let me touch it this morning."
"That why you're rubbing your hand?" the judge asked, smiling at the sheepish look on the other man's face.
"Yeah, she rapped my knuckles," Thompson laughed.
"Good, teach ya to keep your hands off my cobbler," William said as the walked side by side.
+ + + + + + +
Columber watched the two men stride towards the sheriff's house, before turning away. He knew the trial would not last long as he wasn't planning on putting up much of a fight. He needed to get rid of Clark and move things along. The Inn waited for its new sacrifice, its taste for flesh growing as it waited for the new soul to bring it life. He heard the cries of his minions and turned his head in the direction of the call.
'Soon, very soon you will know the taste of a perfect soul again,' he vowed as he turned his head towards the whimpering sounds emanating from inside the cell. He pointed his finger towards the man seated on the bed and smiled as the sound abruptly stopped. The look on his face as he exerted his power was one of rapture, yet it sent a chill through the woman walking across the street and he fed on the fear emanating from her body.
+ + + + + + +
The following day dawned with a darkness that mirrored the feelings surrounding the trial. Gray clouds dotted the sky, rolling in until it blotted out the blue sky overhead. The heat was oppressive as nature continued to hold the rains at bay and leave the town of Farmington in the grip of a promise of moisture.
Chris walked beside the sharpshooter as they made their way towards the hotel. Vin was struggling not to show how much this was costing him, and Larabee could see the grim determination on the handsome face. He felt Wilmington on his right and knew Standish was on Tanner's left as the strode confidently towards their final destination.
The sheriff had come to them the day before and explained that Judge Spencer had set the trial for the following day at nine am. The prosecutor was a man named Joseph Mallory and was widely known for his ability to draw the truth from an accused man or a reluctant witness. Mindy Lawrence would not be testifying until the following day, and only if her grandparents were there at that time.
The four peacekeepers made it to the hotel and were not surprised at the crowd waiting to be allowed inside. A few faces were familiar to Larabee and Tanner, but many had come from the outlying areas, the thrill of a murder trial bringing out the morbid curiosity in a lot of people. They stepped into the slightly cooler interior of the hotel and waited to be led to their seats.
+ + + + + + +
Columber looked at the man he was supposed to defend. The power he had over the man was strong, yet not as satisfying as when he lorded himself over men like Larabee and Tanner. They fought against his wishes, and were worthy of his attention. Once this coward's job was done he would be sent to live his life in his own Hell, a place where he would suffer at the hands of demons who knew how to inflict terror into the hearts of their victims. He smiled as he slipped through the iron bars and walked towards the cot.
Clark cringed in the back of the cell as the older man moved towards him. The sheriff would be coming for him once everyone was seated in the makeshift courtroom, but for now he was alone and he trembled in fear.
"You will do exactly as I say in the courtroom. You will not speak unless I wish it. You will answer questions put to you by the judge, but I will speak for you. I will defend you in my own way. And your reward will be an eternal life in which you serve those who are stronger than you. Do you understand me?"
"Good, the sheriff is on his way," Columber said as he melted through the bars of the cell once more. He smiled as he saw the terror his words caused the prisoner, but hid it as Thompson came through the door.
"It's time, Clark," Thompson said, reaching for the steel bars and wincing at the cold he felt there.
"My client is ready, Sheriff," Columber said.
"Doesn't matter to me if he is or not. Judge says he's to be brought to the courtroom." Thompson walked into the cell and secured the prisoner's arms behind his back.
"That's not necessary, Sheriff. Can assure you Mr. Clark is not going to attempt to escape."
"All prisoners are escorted to trial like this," the lawman said as he grabbed Clark's arm and led him out of the cell.