Thanks to my betas Mary Ann and AJ
This story is rewritten from a story in another fandom from many years ago.
JD carefully closed the door to his room and silently slipped down the boarding house stairs and onto the dark Four Corners street. The fires in the barrels along the street lost their warmth to the cold October night. It had turned cold earlier this month and even the horse troughs had a coating of ice on them.
Cautiously, he ran between the boarding house and the general store where Vin Tanner kept his wagon.
Knowing the ex-bounty could be dangerous if awakened suddenly, JD knocked three times lightly on the side of the wagon, immediately face to face with Vin's mare's leg sticking out of the buckskin tarps Tanner used when it got cold.
"It's JD," JD whispered and felt the wagon rock as Vin crawled to the opening and parted the tarps.
"What the hell, kid, you're lucky I didn't blow off your head off."
"Sorry, Vin, but I gotta talk to you. It's important."
"Can't it wait ‘til mornin'?"
"No! Now let me in, it's freezing out here."
Vin nodded and JD scrambled into the wagon, finding it not much warmer inside. He'd never understand why his friend liked to live like this.
"What's this all about, JD," Vin asked as he snuggled back under the warm hide blankets.
"I gotta show you something!" JD whispered, his voice carrying in the still night.
JD grabbed Vin's buckskin jacket and looked for the tracker's boots before he remembered he never took them off when he slept in his wagon.
Reluctantly Vin followed the young sheriff to the stables surprised to see Peso already saddled and waiting impatiently. JD was the only other person Peso would allow to saddle him.
"You gonna tell me what's going on?" Vin asked, again surprised to see burlap sacks wrapped around the hoofs of their two horses.
"Cain't tell you. You gotta see for yourself. Now, come on, I wanna be back before anyone wakes up."
Vin shrugged his shoulders and followed JD out of the stable. He was wide awake now and he might as well see what that kid thought he found. Knowing JD, it could have been anything.
Once they walked the horses far enough away from the buildings not to alert anyone, JD untied the burlaps sacks and waited until Vin did the same for Peso and then headed north toward the hills.
The temperature had dropped steadily as they climbed higher into the hills. Vin patted his arms trying to warm himself in the cold night air. It seemed colder than it should be, seemingly seeping into his bones. "JD, you mind telling me where we're goin?" he called. "Cause if you ain't, I'm heading back. I'm cold and I'm tired and I don't want to play your game anymore."
There was only a quarter moon, but it was enough light for JD to lead them unerringly toward a thicket of old oak trees, their leafless branches gnarled and twisted in the moonlight. Vin had the uncomfortable feeling that those limbs could come to life at any second and wrap themselves around anyone or anything that was foolish enough to get too close.
"Damn," Vin muttered to himself, he must still be half asleep if he let thoughts like that play with his mind.
"It's no game, Vin, believe me. You'll see, we'll be there soon enough."
Another fifteen minutes and JD pulled to a stop. Vin watched the kid, his shoulders sagging and his chin nesting on his chest.
Alarmed, Vin sided up against JD's horse and grabbed JD's arm gently. "You all right, kid?"
JD nodded, sighing deeply. "Just wondering if I'm doing the right thing showing this to you. I was all excited at first, but now…I just don't know."
"What is it?"
JD shook his head.
"Is it around here somewhere?"
JD's reluctance to answer told Vin it was.
Curiosity got the better of the tracker and he climbed down, his feet crunching too loudly on the brittle twigs and branches covering the ground. A strong breeze picked up, sweeping the dead leaves against the darkened tree trunks. Vin had spent many a night on the trail, most of the time with only a horse for company. But he couldn't remember ever feeling as edgy as he did here. There was something in the air, something he couldn't quite grasp that licked at his skin and sent shivers down his spine.
He was about to turn back to JD when something shiny caught his eye, then winked out. "What was that?" he asked, approaching a dark object nestled beneath a tree a few feet from him. In the darkness he couldn't tell what it was until he was nearly on top of it.
JD stayed his ground. "I changed my mind, Vin," he said. "Get back up on your horse and let's get outta here. This place isn't fit for man or beast."
It was an old chest, sunk mid-way into the ground and surrounded by dead leaves. Vin searched in his pocket for a match, and lit it, cupping his hand over the flame to protect it from the wind. In the faint light Vin could see the trunk was old, the metal straps crisscrossing the top and the hinges rusted. The match burned down to his fingers and he cursed as he instinctively dropped it into the dry leaves. He quickly kicked the leaves away before they could catch fire and lit another one.
"Vin, come on. I'm cold. You can come back tomorrow when it's light and see what it is."
Vin crouched down and fingered the old rusted padlock on the lid and noticed there was a circle of bright rust free metal in the center of the lock.
"You opened this, JD?"
"It's nothing to see. Now let's go."
"It was enough to wake me up in the middle of the night." Vin pulled the lock and felt it snap open.
"I'm not fooling about this now, Vin. We got to get out of here. Something's not right."
Vin nodded, he felt it too since they rode up…but he felt an overpowering urge to see what was inside. He pulled the padlock free of the lock and set his hands on the lid.
Immediately he felt overwhelmingly tired, as if his strength ran out through his fingertips. He sank to his knees and his arms dropped to his side. He heard JD's alarmed voice behind him but couldn't respond. He felt on the verge of passing out, but still he had to know what was inside.
Then JD was at his side, stamping out the match he'd dropped. "Come on," he heard JD say, the kid wrapping his arms around his chest and grunting in an effort to lift him.
"Open it," he whispered, trying to push JD's surprisingly strong arms away.
"We're getting' out of here right now, Vin."
"Open it," Vin demanded. "Or I ain't leaving."
"Of all the fool, pig headed…" JD shook his head and leaned over to once again open the chest.
"Oh no…" JD gasped.
The stench of death and decay spilled from the chest. Vin reared back, the smell assaulting his nose and his stomach.
JD stood up slowly, his eyes locked on the empty chest. "It…it was here this afternoon…" he said, his voice wavering. "I seen it."
"Seen what?" Vin raised a shaky hand to his face and covered his nose and mouth.
"Oh no, oh no…I don't like this. I don't like this at all. There was a skeleton in this chest…clean and shiny as Mary's special bone china. And it was holding a knife. Not any knife… it was like one of the knives Josiah showed us in his book. That pirate book. It had an ivory handle with stones set into it. It was as beautiful a knife as I ever saw."
"You sure you weren't sleep walking?"
"No. Bottom of my boots were covered with these leaves. I was here. It was here, Vin. I swear it. Just like I'm standing here looking at you…I was standing here looking at that skeleton."
"You think this skeleton of yours just climbed out of here and walked off?" Vin snickered. But in truth he found no levity. Something was wrong here.
"No I don't think that," JD snapped. "I just know something's not right."
"Well, there's nothing more we can do tonight." Vin struggled to his feet, stepping away from the chest. He felt stronger than he had, but still too weak. Maybe he was coming down with something. Maybe all this was some kind of hallucination brought on by a fever. Maybe he would wake up in the morning in his wagon. Never before had he wished to be sick. "We can come back tomorrow in the light," Vin promised. "Somebody else probably found it. If they did we'll see the tracks and that will be it."
JD backed up toward his horse, not taking his eyes off the chest. "Ya, that's what probably happened."
It took Vin three tries to launch himself into the saddle. On the fourth try he had to sit and wait for the dizziness to stop and prayed that he wouldn't fall out of the saddle. He didn't think he could make it a fifth time.
Slowly he nudged Pasco into an easy walk, and JD followed…turning back until the trees merged into the blackness of night.
"Hey, you planning on sleeping all day?" Chris' voice asked.
Vin opened his eyes surprised to find himself laying in bed in his room at the boarding house. He seldom used it, preferring to stay in his wagon. Maybe it got so cold last night that he abandoned his old home.
Nathan and Chris were standing over the bed, concerned looks on their faces.
Vin took a deep breath…relieved. It was just a dream. He was sick and it was all a nightmare brought on by fever…the early morning ride, the chest, the missing skeleton…but he didn't feel overly hot, or headachy or any of the other things he felt when he awoke from a fever…just incredibly tired, as if he hadn't slept in weeks. "I'm just dead tired." He sighed.
"Stay there." Nathan ordered, looking back toward the door as it opened. Mrs. Mars walked in carrying a tray. "I thought you should eat something," the owner of the boarding house sad. "You missed breakfast and I know what kind of appetite you young men have."
"How long have I been sick?" Vin looked from the old woman to Chris and Nathan staring down at him.
"You feel sick?" Nathan asked, rechecking his forehead for fever. "I thought you were just tired."
"No, I'm not sick, just tired. I'll be fine tomorrow." Vin closed his eyes: Damn, I wasn't sick…it really happened. Then why am I so tired? I can barely move a muscle.
Chris dragged a chair over to the bed and sat down while Vin struggled to sit up. "That was a pretty dumb stunt you pulled last night."
"You know what." Chris set the tray on Vin's lap but he could only stare at it. He wasn't hungry. It seemed the only thing he was, was tired. "JD told me all about your little hunt for treasure last night. You'll be lucky if you don't catch pneumonia. I can't believe you fell for one of JD's wild tales."
Vin lowered his eyes. "We found the chest, and…and something didn't feel right out there. I couldn't put my finger on it…it just…"
"You got pulled into one of JD's fantasies. It's easy you know. It happens to everyone once in a while. It was dark, and probably a little spooky."
Vin snapped his head up, his eyes flashing. "I don't get spooked over nothin'. There was something out there, I don't know what, but I aim ta find out."
"Not today you won't," Nathan said, lifting the tray off Vin's lap. "You're to stay in bed all day and rest. Maybe this evening if you feel up to it you can come with us to meet Travis' old friend. Remember he bought that old house outside of town, the one Mary's been working on? He came into town on the stage this morning and Buck and Josiah will drive him out there this afternoon. He's asked us all for dinner."
At Vin's confused look, Chris remembered Vin was out at the reservation when Judge Travis told them about his old friend moving to Four Corners.
"Simon Dunkett, he's an old friend of the judges. I guess they first met when they were studying to be lawyers in Philadelphia. They've kept in touch all these years and this will be the first time they've seen each other since they left college and went their separate ways."
"Well maybe it's a good thing I'm tired today." Vin slipped down under the covers again and turned on his side. "It'll be a lot easier for the judge to entertain his friend if I'm not around."
"Vin, that's not true, and you know it," Chris said. "You're just being surly ‘cause you're tired. Get some sleep. JD and I are going out and see if we can find that chest." He hesitated at the door before grinning broadly. "I can't wait to see what spooked two grown men, especially Vin Tanner."
Vin's voice turned cold as he looked back toward Chris. "There isn't always an answer for everything' Larabee. Some things you just have to accept and walk away.
Chris sat beside a silent JD Dunne. That in itself seemed unsettling. There were very few times when JD wasn't talking a mile a minute. Today he seemed lost in his own thoughts. The young sheriff not happy when Chris told him they were taking a buckboard to the spot where he and Vin supposedly spotted the chest last night. After thinking about it the rest of the night, JD was of a mind to let it be. There was something unearthly about that chest and it was best left alone.
But Chris was determined to prove that there was nothing unusual about the chest, except perhaps its age if indeed it was old as Vin and JD thought it was.
JD pulled the team to a stop and Chris looked at a stand of old oak trees, the ground beneath them covered in a blanket of dead leaves. Chris had to admit that the tree trunks looked strange, gnarled and twisted as if some force had contorted them as they grew. He could only imagine what they looked like at night, lit by the meager light of a quarter moon.
"I never noticed this stand of trees before," Chris admitted. They weren't that far from town, only a few miles into the foothills. He was sure he would have noticed them before this. But he had to admit that imagination was a powerful thing, and JD and Vin had him off center enough that the usual became the unusual and took on a sinister slant.
"Me neither. That's how come I decided to check them out and found…"
Chris smiled weakly. He was letting JD's over ripe imagination get the better of him. And still, he had to admit that he did not feel comfortable here. "Let's see about this chest, if there is one."
"Oh, there is one," JD said emphatically. "You just wait. And I'll tell you…it'll turn your knees to wobbling."
JD clicked his tongue and the wagon moved closer to the trees.
Even though it was late afternoon and the sun still bathed the valley in the last vestiges of semi-warm days before the full onslaught of fall, Chris couldn't deny that the air felt considerably colder here. He wrapped his arms around his chest and wished he'd brought a coat. But who would think they would need a coat this late in the day? He shivered, thinking that it must have been near freezing last night when Vin and JD were here.
As they drew closer to the trees, the horses balked. JD coaxed them on a few more steps then called a halt, pointing his finger triumphantly at the old chest buried amid a blanket of dead leaves.
Chris wasn't sure if he truly saw what he thought he saw. A cold shiver went down his spine despite the surge of curiosity that lured him off the wagon like a moth to a flame.
It was every bit as old as JD said. Perhaps even older. The intricately carved lid was dry and splitting from age. The iron straps encircling both ends of the chest were rusted and pulling back from the rotting wood. An iron latch in front seemed to be the most solid part of the box. As he walked closer, he felt an odd lethargy spill over him. "What's inside?" he asked.
"Nothing now," came the clipped answer.
Chris looked back to see JD sitting stiff as a board on the wagon seat, his eyes glued to the chest.
"What was in it?"
JD shook his head. "Nothing important."
"What was in it, JD?" Chris glared up at him.
"When I opened it yesterday afternoon it had a skeleton holding one of them old knives Josiah's got pictures of in his books. But when we got here last night and Vin opened it…it was empty. Someone must have found it. I wonder why anyone would just take the skeleton?"
Chris stared at the chest. "Are you sure there's nothing else in there?"
"Can't be certain. It was dark last night, but there sure wasn't any skeleton."
Chris took a few steps closer and JD's warning voice stopped him in his tracks. "Vin opened it last night, and now look at him. He was still in bed when we left."
"Are saying that Vin is sick because he opened this chest?"
"All I'm saying is, I don't know. And I don't want to know. Let's go back to town. Someone else can find it and…"
"You're letting your imagination get the better of you, JD."
Chris leaned down and brushed his fingers over the old wood. It felt so cold to the touch that it stung his fingers. He saw the padlock lying on the ground and the latch pulled up where Vin had opened it. Taking a deep breath he lifted the lid. Stale air washed over him and he felt a moment of dizziness, but it passed so quickly that he chalked it up to nerves.
"Anything?" JD asked nervously.
A layer of white sand dusted the bottom but nothing else. "No, it's empty." Chris reluctantly closed the lid and looked back at JD. "Help me lift it into the wagon. We'll store it in the stable until we figure out what to do with it."
"Oh no…you're not getting me to touch that thing again."
"Come on, JD, don't be ridiculous. It's just an old empty box."
"It's more than that, Chris. Leave it be. Something like that should be left alone."
Chris lifted the iron handle on the side and tested the weight. "Come on, JD, this thing weighs a ton. You want me to have to drag Buck out here? He'll have a hell of a time telling his story at the saloon. Because one way or the other, we're getting this back to town. It could be worth a fortune."
"If it's as old as I think it is, yes. To the right collector it could be worth thousands of dollars."
JD perked up. "And I found it first."
Chris nodded. "Yes. Now help me."
JD jumped off the wagon but even the prospect of money didn't dispel the uneasiness he felt as he moved closer to the chest. "I'm thinking," JD said, "money or no money, this is a bad idea."
Chris draped a horse blanket over the chest in the town's stable and with JD's help, set bales of hay on top of and in front of it. "That should do it." Chris stood back and made sure the chest wasn't visible from any angle. "We'll keep this to ourselves until we show it to Josiah."
"I don't like it, Chris. I don't like it at all. That thing should not be here. Something's not right about it. It gives me the willies."
"Everything gives you the willies, JD."
"And what about Vin?"
"What about him?"
"He's up in his room too tired to lift a finger, all on account of going out to see that chest."
"He probably caught something last night. It must have been freezing out there. I'm sure Vin is going to be fine. I'm going to go talk to him in a few minutes, tell him what we've done."
"Where do you think it came from, Chris?"
"I'm sure it was originally from a galleon…an old ship from the 16th century."
"You mean it could a belonged to a pirate?"
"Maybe. And if we're lucky, we might even find out who originally owned it."
"How you going to do that?"
"There are books that have detailed descriptions of the cargo those ships carried. Mary can do some research. She'll love it. This chest has some distinctive woodworking in the lid to go by."
"And the skeleton?"
Chris snorted. "I'll leave the skeleton to you, JD. If someone from town found it they're bound to start boasting. Keep your ears open. Unless, of course, it walked away on its own."
"That's not funny, Chris Larabee." JD harrumphed.
Nathan slipped out of Vin's rented room. The tracker was sleeping soundly…too soundly. He'd slept throughout the entire day, something that was very worrisome. Vin never slept that long unless he was sick. If he didn't wake up on his own by this evening, Nathan would try to force Tanner awake. Times like these he felt woefully inadequate to treat the people who trusted him without doubt.
Vin couldn't figure out why he felt so cold; it wasn't a surface of the skin cold; it was a frigid chill that reached his marrow. And it was colder now as if someone opened a door letting in the icy air. He tugged the covers up around his neck and scrunched deeper into the mattress, pulling the pillow down with him. He knew he should be up; he had spent the entire day lying here, but he still felt too tired to move a muscle.
Suddenly, he froze. There was someone in his room. The hairs on his arms and neck snapped up. He lay perfectly still and controlled his breathing, just waiting...
The intruder waited too.
Vin never lost the instinct to listen, to feel, to catalog everything he saw and heard. As a man with a price on his head, it saved his life more than once. He took pride in the fact that he could tell when Chris was near, or Buck, or Nathan. JD charged the air with his exuberance and Josiah with his quite knowledge of the world. Ezra, he could smell a mile away with his fancy colognes.
But he didn't recognize anything now. He waited and heard the faintest of sounds…it was moving nearer to the bed…a musty dank smell filled his nostrils and he fought back a sneeze tickling his nose. A current of air moved, just a wisp, telling him that something was hovering over him...
Fear pulled him into its grasp. Logic screamed for him to open his eyes, to see what was standing so close to him now that he could feel the air around him throbbing with its presence.
"Dear God," he prayed to Josiah's God and the Gods of the people, "please make it go away!"
He laid there for what seemed like an eternity. Common sense finally overcame baseless fear and he opened his eyes and froze. This was not his room at the boarding house. It was too large, the mattress too soft, and the heavy wrought iron four- poster bed frame was rich looking. The corners were bathed in deep shadows as day turned to dusk. It would be dark soon, and he felt an uncontrollable fear of the coming night. He searched the room with his eyes, still too scared to move. This unabashed fear frightened him; he never let fear control him, he controlled it. That's why he could face an enemy, why he lived when others died.
Slowly, he sat up, his eyes piercing into every shadow in the room. It was empty. It had been a dream, the end of a nightmare. He ran his hand through his long, disheveled hair and noticed he was shaking. This had to stop. He threw the covers off and swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up.
Overwhelming fatigue robbed him of his physical strength and he felt himself spiraling to the floor, unconscious before he hit the ground.
He didn't notice the line of white sand traveling from the window to his bed.
Earlier, Chris watched the stage come to a swaying stop amid a cloud of dust. Judge Travis and Mary stood on the boardwalk eagerly waiting for its passengers to appear. Larabee couldn't remember ever seeing Judge Travis so excited to see someone other than his grandson Billy when he visited.
A heavy-set man stepped onto the boardwalk a look of confusion on his face until his eyes met the judge's.
"Simon," Orrin called out, rushing forward to shake the man's hand.
Chris had never heard of Simon Dunkett until two months ago when Mary asked him to escort her to the old Garcia house a few miles out of town. According to the townspeople, it had been abandoned for years. Judge Travis' old friend decided to settle down and buy a house in or around Four Corners. According to Mary, he was very specific about what he wanted and the Garcia house seemed to be the perfect fit. For the last two months, Mary could be found at the old house getting it ready for its new owner.
"Orrin, you old dog." Dunkett grinned, wrapping his arms around the judge. "You haven't aged a bit."
"And you, my friend, are still a lousy liar."
Chris couldn't help but laugh at the characteristically dour man. Judge Orrin Travis usually came to town to conduct a trial that too often ended in a life prison sentence or the hangman's noose. It was a hard job, and it took its toll on the old man so it was nice to see him so happy. Larabee tried to be inconspicuous and ducked his head.
"Simon, meet my daughter-in-law." Travis wrapped his arm around Mary's waist and held her tight. "Mary Travis. She oversaw the tiring job of making your new house a home."
"Mary, your father-in-law writes of you often. I'm so honored to finally meet you."
"The pleasure is mine, Mr. Dunkett."
"Nonsense, call me Simon. And that must be Chris Larabee over there. You described him perfectly."
Chris suddenly felt like every eye in town was staring at him.
"Chris." Judge Travis waved him over. "This is my old friend, Simon Dunkett. We have known each other for half a century.'
"Mr. Larabee, it is good to meet you. Orrin has spoken often about you and your peacekeeper friends. I'm especially eager to meet Mr. Tanner. He sounds like a remarkable man."
Chris felt a chill run down his back. It never was good to have anyone too interested in Vin with the $500 price on his head.
"He's at the boarding house. He's not feeling well."
"A pity. Well this is my home now, so I will have plenty of time to meet him." Chris saw Mary's unease mirrored in her eyes. She was protective over everyone, especially Vin.
"Gentlemen, I have lunch ready at the Clarion. You two can reminisce over a warm meal."
Chris reached out to shake Dunkett's hand but Mary grabbed it. "Chris, why don't you join us? There is plenty."
"Excellent idea," Dunkett said. "There is no better way to catch up on old friends than through his new friends."
Chris reluctantly wrapped his arm around Mary's waist and followed Travis and Dunkett across the street to her newspaper office. He looked back toward the boarding house wondering how Vin was.
Chris sat on a chair next to Vin's bed talking softly to Josiah. "Just can't get a handle on Dunkett," he said. "He seems nice enough. Travis hangs on his every word.'
"Why's he settling here?" Josiah mused, reaching out to touch Vin's blanketed arm. It didn't seem right to see the active tracker so still.
"Say's he's tired of roaming. Seems he and Travis were close friends when they went to school together in Philadelphia. Somehow, Travis ended up becoming a circuit judge and Dunkett decided to work for a newspaper until he started to write books. His first book was something of a Wayward Man."
"Endeavors of a Wayward Man?" Josiah asked in disbelief. "He is one of my favorite authors. I knew I recognized the name."
Chris nodded, surprised at the preacher's reaction. "I guess they wrote each other twice a year since they left Philadelphia, then the letters stopped two years ago. Travis said he was surprised when he got the letter a few months ago, telling him Dunkett wanted to settle down and to look for a house for him. I think the judge is still a little stunned."
There was a soft knock at the door and Chris was surprised to find Mary, Orrin and Dunkett standing in the hall.
"I'm sorry Chris. I tried to talk them out of this," Mary said quietly.
"That she did," Dunkett chuckled, pushing past Chris into the room.
"Chris," Travis lay a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Simon has a proposal I think you should consider."
Josiah stood up standing next to the bed to keep Dunkett from getting closer. "Brother Vin deserves his privacy."
"I had no idea he would look so young. From your descriptions, Orrin, I thought he would be much older and wore down by the life he's led. He is just a boy."
"A boy who could kill you as easy as he could shake your hand," Chris' guttural voice filled the room.
Vin twitched beneath the covers at the sound of Chris' voice.
"I meant no disrespect."
"Gentlemen perhaps we should take this outside this room," Josiah said, "we can leave the door open."
"Yes of course, please accept my apologies." Dunkett turned to Travis. "Perhaps you should tell Mr. Larabee and Sanchez my offer."
Tavis nodded and cleared his throat. "Simon has offered the use of his house to all of you while Vin is ill. He has four bedrooms and someone can be with Vin at all times."
Chris shook his head. "He stays here."
Mary stepped forward. "Perhaps you should accept his offer, Chris. The house is large and comfortable with a fireplace in every bedroom."
"Why don't we ask Nathan?" Josiah asked.
"Ah, Nathan Jackson, your black healer."
"He's our healer," Chris growled. "Color ain't got nothing to do with it."
"Again I must apologize, Mr. Larabee. I meant no disrespect."
"I'll go fetch Nathan," Josiah said and headed for the stairs.
An hour later, Chris found himself in the back of the wagon sitting next to Vin. He still felt it was a bad idea to mover the tracker, but the fireplaces in the bedrooms had swayed Nathan to agree with the move.
He'd seen the house when Mary purchased it for Simon Dunkett, and at the time Chris didn't think she could pull off the miracle she had. The house was freshly painted on the outside with a terracotta brick patio in the front. The overgrown trees and shrubs were trimmed and all the weeds had been pulled. The barn had a new coat of whitewash and the corral fence repaired. Mary had to have hired an army of men to get the place fixed up so fast.
Mary climbed down from the wagon with Josiah's help and headed into the house to start the fire in Vin's room. Chris jumped out of the wagon and reached for Vin but Josiah gently pushed him away and carefully lifted the unconscious tracker into his strong arms. "Lead the way," he said.
The house was huge. Fresh paint covered all the walls and new furniture sat in the great room.
"Up this way," Mary called from the top of the stairs. Chris and Nathan followed Josiah closely in case he faltered.
They could feel the warmth of the fire burning in the huge fireplace as they entered the room. The room was twice the size of Vin's room in the boarding house. A wrought- iron, four-poster bed sat in the center of the room, heavy quilts turned back for the ill man. The light tracker seemed to sink into the soft mattress. Maybe this was a good idea after all, Chris thought.
"Alright, everyone one out," Nathan ordered. "Mary, I need a pitcher of water and two pans with hot and cold water. Josiah, would you bring in my medical bag? And I'll need lots of cloths and towels."
"You will find those at the end of the hall in the closet," Mary called as she headed down the stairs.
"It appears you forgot nothing, my dear," Travis praised.
Josiah returned with the medical bags sooner than any man his size should be able.
"Help me untangle Vin from these blankets, Josiah. Between the fireplace and the quilts he should be warm enough."
They had changed Vin into a nightshirt prior to the move, and Nathan knew Vin would hate it with a passion – in fact, he'd rather Vin was complaining because this still form wasn't the tracker he knew. With a shake of his head, Nathan opened the nightshirt and placed the stethoscope, frowning at Vin's slow heartbeat. His pulse was not better.
"When I get back to town I'm going to telegraph some doctors I know. Maybe someone will have an idea what is wrong with him."
Later that evening when the sun had gone down and lanterns lit, Chris and Josiah finished the meal Mary quickly put together. Chris wanted to be upstairs with, but Josiah persuaded him that he needed a break. Perhaps sitting at the table listening to the judge and Dunkett reminisce about their times together would relax him. Josiah was especially interested in all the traveling Dunkett had done.
A sudden loud bang from upstairs drew everyone's eyes toward the ceiling.
"Vin…?" Chris whispered.
Josiah was right behind Chris, taking two steps at a time. Simon and Travis followed as best they could, panting as they hit the landing after Larabee and Josiah had already disappeared into Vin's room.
Chris found the tracker on the floor, struggling to his knees. Vin clawed the loose quilt and fell back as Chris reached his side.
"Vin, what happened?" Chris tried to wrap his arms around Vin's chest to lift him, but the tracker flayed wildly.
"Leave me alone." Vin's voice sounded desperate.
"It's ok, Vin. Let me help you."
"Leave me alone!" Vin yelled.
"Take it easy, will you?"
Josiah grabbed a blanket folded over a chair and wrapped it around Vin. "Why is it so cold in here?" he asked, seeing the bluish tinge to Vin's skin.
Simon stood in the doorway watching the scene play out. He took an involuntary step back into the hallway; the room did seem unnaturally cold. "Bring him downstairs next to the fire," he said, stepping aside as Chris and Josiah pulled Vin up between them and guided him out of the room. Simon closed the door behind him and mumbled a prayer he had not thought of in years.
That afternoon most of the group gathered at the dinner table of Simon Dunkett', dinner table.
"This is very good, Mr. Dunkett," Mary praised.
"Simon, remember? As you can see, I like food…" Simon patted his sizable girth, "and I found at times the only way to get a good meal was to cook it myself."
She remembered JD's account of what happened in the house earlier and noticed that Vin simply moved his food around on this plate, hardly taking a bite. "It is really quite good, Vin," she prodded gently. "You should eat something."
"It's good. I just ain't hungry."
Concerned, Simon raised an imperceptible eyebrow at Vin's lack of appetite.
"You still don't look well." Mary reached over to feel Vin's forehead for fever and was startled at how cold and clammy his skin still felt. Alarmed, she grabbed his wrist and counted his pulse just like Nathan had taught her. "Your pulse is much too slow. Nathan should check you out again, but old Hank had a heart attack at the saloon last night. Nathan doesn't think he will make it and doesn't want to leave him alone."
"I'll be fine. I'm just tired is all. A good night's sleep is all I need."
"Well, I'm not so sure that is all you need…"
Simon finished the last morsel on his plate and dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a napkin. "I'm sorry for not keeping in contact, Orrin. I've been traveling extensively gathering information for my latest book."
"Where have you traveled?" Josiah asked, his interest aroused.
"All over the world, actually. South America, Africa, Europe, Spain, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. I've spent more than three years onboard one ship or another."
"Josiah's done some travelin' too," Vin said.
"Where to?" Simon asked.
"Well, nothing like you, Simon. I've been to England and Japan on missionary work."
"We must swap stories sometime."
"I would be honored, sir."
"What's your book about?" Vin asked.
"I was hoping someone would ask. I have a manuscript in my suitcase if anyone would be interested in reading it."
Vin looked puzzled. "What's a manuscript?"
"A story before it is printed into a book. It is an honor to read a book before it is published," Mary answered.
"Then I will bring it down this evening so…"
JD stepped into the dining room, his face as white as a ghost. He met Chris' eyes. "Where'd you put it, Chris?" he demanded.
Chris scooted his chair back from the table. "Put what?"
"You know what. I looked before I picked up Mary. You shouldn't a moved it."
"What's he talking about?" Mary asked, and looking from JD to Chris.
Vin stood up, swaying a bit. "You brought it here?"
JD shook his head "We hid it in the stable in town." He looked toward Chris. "But it's not there anymore."
"Well, it didn't just get up and walk away by itself. Someone must have found it and hid it somewhere else," Chris said.
"Would someone mind telling us what this is all about?" Travis demanded, his voice booming in the dining area.
"It's nothing, sir." Chris said. "JD found this old chest in the woods and he took Vin to see it a couple nights ago. He took me the next day. I told JD it might've been an old pirate chest…"
"You mean it isn't?" JD looked like his world had collapsed around him.
"I don't know what it is...was…it was old is all I know."
"A pirate chest?" Josiah looked from JD to Vin and a smile twitched his lips.
"I have heard of far stranger things in my travels," Simon offered. "I wouldn't mind seeing this ‘pirate chest' when you find it again."
Vin pushed his chair away from the table, throwing his napkin on his barely touched food. "No one's finding it, ‘cause no one's gonna look for it."
"Vin." Chris looked at his friend, realization dawning on him. "You can't possibly think that all that has happened here is because of that chest?"
"Believe what you want," Vin snapped. "I just don't want it anywhere near Four Corners."
"You all are worse than Billy letting your imagination get the best of you." Mary stood up and stacked as many plates as she could and walked into the kitchen.
"She may be right gentlemen," Travis chuckled when there was a huge crash of plates hitting the kitchen floor.
"Mary!" they said in unison, bolting for the door.
Vin reached the kitchen first, punching the door open and skidding to a stop on the tile floor in his stocking feet. A blast of cold air blew past him, smelling of dank decay. It instantly conjured up memories of his frigid bedroom and the all-consuming fear that had engulfed him.
Mary sat on the floor, her skirts billowed up around her, broken dishes and food scattered across the floor. She looked up at him, her face as white as a sheet, her eyes bright and wide with fear.
"What happened?" Travis demanded, nearly knocking Vin over in his haste to see Mary.
"Something touched me…" Mary shuddered, her voice tiny and lost. "Right here." She slowly raised a trembling hand to touch a bruise on her right cheek. "It suddenly got so cold! And my legs …I didn't have the strength to stand, and…"
"Oh, No…" JD squeezed in between Josiah and Chris. "Oh, no." He turned on Vin. "I told you not to open that chest!"
"JD, that's enough." Josiah pushed his way into the kitchen, his boots crunching on the broken dishes, and gently lifted Mary in his huge arms.
"I was so scared," she whimpered, hiding her head against Josiah's chest.
Chris stared in disbelief. Mary was the strongest woman he had ever met, yet she was reduced to this.
"It's all right, Mary, you're safe now." Josiah lumbered toward the great room, Travis on his heels. "Get a blanket," he ordered. "She's as cold as ice."
Josiah settled her on the divan and Vin poured a shot of whiskey. "Here, Mary, take this."
Mary sipped at the whiskey and coughed as the fiery liquid went down her throat.
"I was so scared," she whispered.
"I know," Vin said, his voice haunted by the memory of his own fear. "We've got to get her out of here. It's not safe."
"It's not safe for any of us," JD huffed. "It's not safe until we find that chest and take it back to where it belongs. I never should have touched it. Me and Chris never should a brung it to town."
Simon looked at JD, fear and rage shinning in his eyes for a split second, then it was gone as if it had never happened. "Where did you find it?" Simon asked calmly.
"A couple miles from here in a stand of old oak trees. Funny thing is, I never noticed those trees looking so old and twisted before. I should have known something wasn't right."
"JD, enough about that damn chest," Josiah bellowed. He was a man of God. He didn't believe in such things, yet he had seen impossible things in his travels.
"Josiah, he may be right," Simon said calmly, handing Vin a shot of whiskey. "Take this, son," he ordered. "You're nearly as pale as Mary."
Vin took the glass of whiskey and downed it in one gulp, not denying that he was nearly too tired to stand up. Just a moment in the coldness of the kitchen had sapped his strength again.
"Tell me about this chest." Simon turned to JD.
JD raised an eyebrow toward Josiah.
"Tell him and be done with it, kid," Chris growled. "Then get the wagon hitched so we can all head back into town."
"I found it a couple days back," JD began, his voice filled with guilt. "I wish I'd never set eyes on it. I wish I never woke Vin up to see it, neither."
"What did it look like?"
"Old," Chris said. "Very old. The woodworking on the lid was intricate, the iron straps were rusted and separating from the wood."
"Was there anything inside?"
JD looked around the room. All eyes were on him. Maybe he didn't see what he thought he saw. Maybe he did let his imagination get the better of him. Maybe. "I ah…I didn't see nothing."
"That's not what you told me," Vin said softly.
"Me, neither," Chris added.
"Well, you both…you thought I was loonier than a jackass. But I was right. There was something in that chest."
"What did you see, JD?" Simon prodded.
JD cleared his throat, looking down at the ground. "I, ah…I saw a skeleton and it was holding a knife. One of them fancy knives Josiah showed me in one of his books."
"And this skeleton was not there when you showed Vin the chest?"
"Oh come on…" Travis raised his hands in exasperation. "You can't possibly believe in nonsense like this."
"I've learned to keep an open mind, Orrin." Simon cautioned." You would do well to do the same. Vin, what happened when you opened the chest?"
Vin shrugged. "I got dizzy."
"Nearly passed out on me. He hasn't been the same since. Look at him. He's still white as a ghost," JD said.
"He was coming down with something. Just coincidence," Travis countered.
"And in Vin's room?"
"I don't know, I just…"
"He was cold like Mary, only worse, and disoriented." Chris took a step closer to Vin, who swayed for just a moment. "Simon, do you know what's going on here?"
A loud knock on the front door made everyone jump.
Silence hung in the room for a long moment.
"Who's that?" Travis asked.
"Can't till someone opens the damn door…" Vin snapped but didn't move.
"I'll get it," Chris said.
"No, you stay with Vin," Josiah ordered, but both Chris and Vin were on his heels as he crossed the room.
As the preacher opened the massive oak door, he was surprised to see the Kent brothers standing in front of them.
"Mr. Josiah." Kenny grinned. "We brought that old chest you wanted from the stable in town."
"What?!" JD yelped.
Kenny looked at his brother in confusion. "We got your note with the two dollars, Mr. Josiah, and brung it out right away. We put it in the barn."
Josiah nodded. "Thanks boys. You did a good job."
"Yes, sir," Kenny said hesitantly, and then grabbed his brother's arm and fled back to the wagon.
"I'll check the chest," JD offered.
Josiah closed the door slowly. He refused to buy into the ridiculous notion that the chest JD had stumbled upon was possessed by evil. But he knew without evil there could be no good in the world. The bible told him so.
He remembered those cold dark nights when he sat in front of the fireplace as his father told him tales of the old spirits that roamed the land. He remembered shivering in fear before his mother wrap her strong arms around him and assured him that they were only tales, told to frighten and entertain the little ones and the believers.
He walked back into the great room and watched for a moment as Simon led Vin to the divan and had him sit beside Mary. While Chris stoked the smoldering fire in the huge fireplace back to life, Josiah wondered whose arms had held Vin in the darkness of night when his head was filled with phantoms and spirits told by older boys in the orphanage? Who told him that those tales were just to frighten and entertain? Sadly, Josiah knew there was no one.
Travis cleared his throat.
"I believe we have a prankster among us, and I for one do not find his antics funny."
Simon looked back at his old friend. "You can't possibly dismiss all this as a prank?"
Josiah nodded. "Not dismissing the alleged skeleton in the chest…"
"What do you mean, alleged?" JD squared his shoulders defiantly. "I know what I saw."
"I'm sure you do, JD. But so far you are the only one to have seen it. But three people have seen the chest."
"Yes, and three people opened it." Chris added. "But only Vin got sick. What about JD and me? And how come Mary has been affected? She didn't even know about the chest."
"Mary could feel the tension when she walked in here," Josiah countered. "She might have overheard something you said about Vin…"
Josiah studied Vin for a long moment. His complexion was ashen white, his face drawn. "Vin let his imagination get the better of him. He was scared…"
Vin jumped to his feet. "I ain't scared of nothing," he growled, his eyes turning dark with anger. "What happened up there in my room really happened. And what happened to Mary really happened."
"There is no doubt something manifested itself in Vin's room and the kitchen," Simon agreed, gently easing Vin back down on the couch.
"Well, I think we should all leave. Right away," Mary said. "Before someone really gets hurt."
Simon looked around the great room. His great room. Mary had decorated it to perfection. But it wasn't worth his life or the lives of his new friends. "I agree. Perhaps there is pure evil in this world and it found a home here."
Mary startled as JD barreled through the front door. He huffed and ran his fingers through his hair before stuttering, "There…gone…" he said, puzzled.
"What's gone?" Chris demanded.
JD turned back and found all eyes on him. "The horses."
"All of them?" Chris asked incredulously.
"Peso?" Vin asked.
JD nodded. "Every last one of them. I checked everywhere."
Tears welled up in Mary's eyes. "We're trapped here."
A coldness descended over the great room that even Josiah felt.
"Whatever it is, it's making sure we stay put." Vin said softly.
"What are we going to do?" Mary cried.
"First, we are not going to panic." Simon said calmly. "That's exactly what it wants."
"You make it sound like it's alive," Vin said softly.
"It is…in a way. Just not in the way you would think."
"You seem to know a lot about what's going on here, Simon," Josiah said.
"I told you, I have traveled extensively. To places that don't even have names. I have seen things that cannot be, yet are. I've heard stories that are farfetched, but true."
"And here, in this house?" asked Chris.
Simon looked at Vin. "I know the only way to fight this is to believe in it."
Chris pulled Mary closer to him, feeling her tremble in his arms. If truth be told, he couldn't hold a steady hand himself. "For now, I think we should all stay together. There are six of us here. If we need to separate for any reason, we should always stay in groups of three. No one goes anywhere alone for any reason."
"Agreed," Travis conceded reluctantly. "I don't believe in ghosts or spirits or whatever you want to call them, but I do believe we are under attack from someone. So we treat it as the enemy. We sleep down here tonight. Simon, you Chris and I will take turns standing watch."
"You forgettin' me?" Vin spat.
"No. But you're in no condition to stand watch."
"I pull my own weight."
Travis turned toward the tracker. "You will do as you're told. I won't risk everyone else's lives here because you are too stubborn to admit that you are sick."
Chris stepped between the two. "It won't do any of us any good if you are on each other's backs. Vin, admit it, you're sick. Now, go sit down before you fall down. And Judge, whether you want to believe it or not, we are dealing with something we know nothing about. If it turns out to be a practical joke, I'll kill the man who thought it up."
"And I'll be in line right behind you," JD promised.
"We'll need bedding." Mary slipped her arm around Travis'. "And we should bring in more firewood. Whatever food we have left should be collected. Eggs from the henhouse and meat from the lauder. I stocked it with enough meat and vegetable to last you a week, Simon. So we will have to be careful feeding six. And I also have extra spices stored in the barn."
"We should also have an extra supply of candles and lamp oil. We don't know how many nights we will be here," Chris added.
Simon nodded, "Excellent. Make sure there are extra candles in every room in the house, including closets."
"And matches," Vin added.
Mary nodded toward a low china cabinet by the kitchen door. "You will find them in there."
Simon checked his watch. "It's nearly one o'clock. That gives us several hours to get ready if anything happens tonight."
"All right JD, you and Mary come with me," Chris ordered.
"Judge, we'll get the wood and the extra supplies from the barn," Josiah added as he strapped on his gun belt at the front door. "It shouldn't take us long
"I'll take care of the bedding and candles," Dunkett said.
Dunkett turned to Vin. "Do you feel strong enough to collect the throw pillows and blankets down here? I'll bring the bedding from upstairs. I don't think anyone wants to sleep in those frigid rooms."
Suddenly, a moan so low it was barely audible floated through the room, sending chills down everyone's spines
"What was that?" Vin whispered. He glanced at the others and by the look in their eyes, he wasn't alone in his fear.
The temperature in the great room plummeted. The fire in the fireplace burned, but there was no longer any heat emanating from the coals.
Then, the house shook, the impact loud and solid.
"It came from the kitchen," Josiah said lowly. "You stay here with Vin."
"No!" Simon grabbed Josiah's arm. "That's what it wants…to separate us. We can't leave Vin alone."
A blanket of cold wrapped itself around Vin and his body suddenly felt like it had turned to liquid; melting away like ice on a hot day. He spiraled toward the floor with boneless legs.
Simon and Josiah were by his side, moving incredibly fast for such big men, and hefted Vin between them. The coldness sucking on Vin made him weaker by the second and he was unable to help.
They reached the door and waited and listened. Silence. Then it happened again - something heavy hit the kitchen wall and the house rocked.
The floor bucked beneath them and Travis yelled, "Earthquake!"
Simon barely kept his feet with the rolling motion of the floor. His ruddy face turned white as a ghost. Again, the house shook, rattling windows and sending books and bric-a-brack smashing to the floor.
The front door flew open.
Chris rushed in, Mary and JD on his heels. He stopped, stunned by the bedlam, alarmed by the numbing cold. "What happened?" he shouted.
"Earthquake!" Josiah adjusted his hold on Vin. "We've got to get out of here before…"
"There was no earthquake."
"That's impossible. Look at this place."
"We didn't feel a thing outside," Mary said, her voice trembling. "We heard this terrible noise and it came from here…inside the house."
Vin fought to remain on his feet, but the oppressive cold syphoned his strength.
"Josiah, we have to get out of here. Vin is in grave danger
Before they reached the front door, it slammed closed with a resounding bang, followed by deep and heavy silence. The ticking of the old grandfather clock was absurdly loud.
Chris was the first to speak. "What are you talking about?" he demanded of Simon.
"There's no time." There was desperation in Simon's voice.
Simon could feel Vin weaken as he and Josiah tried to hold him up. He needed to get him out of this house before it was too late. "Philippe," he whispered as if the walls could hear. "I have been tracking him for years."
"Who is Philippe and what does he have to do with Vin?" Josiah shifted Vin's weight away from Dunkett.
"There isn't time," Simon pleaded. "We have to get Vin out of this house."
"Make time!" Chris hissed.
"The chest you found…Captain Philippe Barfleur…he pirated the Spanish galleon El Subio del Mar in 1598. He placed a curse on all the decedents of the crew who locked him in the chest, alive, and tossed it overboard before the galleon sank."
Josiah looked at him in astonishment. "Simon, you can't expect us to believe…"
"This is crazy!" Josiah snapped. "Vin's sick. We need to get him into town so Nathan can take a look at him. We can…"
Suddenly, a deafening thump of something hitting the side of the house was so monumental that it nearly knocked the house off its foundation.
Mary screamed in terror as the floor began to undulate beneath their feet.
"You believe me now?"
"I'm not taking any chances with Vin's life. Let's get out of here," Josiah yelled
They staggered toward the front door. The house creaked and groaned, and the floorboards snapped beneath the carpets. Vin tried to wrestle his way free of Josiah and Simon's grip, confused, but they kept dragging him along.
Josiah flung the door open.
"Hurry!" Chris shoved Mary after JD. Josiah and Simon made it through the doorway just as a rush of cold air enveloped Vin, stopping their forward motion. Vin issued a low, angry moan as he became semi-aware of what was happening, and he began to fight his way across the porch.
Then, something inhumanly strong wrapped itself around Vin's waist and he was yanked from Josiah and Simon's arms, and back into the house. Crossing the threshold, he was thrown across the room like a rag doll, slamming headfirst into the grandfather clock. He vaguely heard Mary scream before he felt her body crash into his. He wanted to wrap his arms around her to keep her safe, but his head pounded, threatening to burst like a ripe melon. As he succumbed to the concussion he most certainly had, he heard Mary sobbing as blackness descended upon him.
Josiah tackled Chris, driving him to the ground, and then grabbed his legs to pull him back. "No!" he yelled. "You can't help them by getting trapped yourself!"
"Let me go!" Chris tried to kick his legs free of Josiah's strong grip.
"Listen to him!" Simon yelled. "He's right!"
Chris kicked his way free and charged Simon. "Why the hell didn't you tell us what was going on?" He grabbed his shoulders. "Why didn't you tell us Vin was in danger?"
"Chris!" Josiah tried to drag him off.
Josiah grabbed Chris' arms from the back and hauled him away from Simon. "That's enough!"
"No it's not." Larabee jerked his arms free. "That's my best friend and Mary in there. I'm sure as hell not going to stand by and do nothing."
"There's nothing you can do. Not yet," Simon said.
Travis grabbed Simon's arm and yanked him around until they were standing face to face. "Damn it, Simon. I want to know what's going on here. Everything."
"Not here. It can hear us." Simon nodded toward the barn. "In there."
Travis looked at the building suspiciously.
Simon's voice turned cold as ice. "You want to save Vin, you'll do as I say."
"Watch the house," Josiah ordered JD. "Let us know if there are any changes."
"I don't like this," JD said. "I don't like this at all. The judge is right, Simon knew all along. Why didn't he say something?"
"I don't know son.
"Let's go," Chris urged. "It'll be dark in a couple of hours. We don't want Vin and Mary in there alone overnight."
Chris slammed the barn door shut and leaned against it, fighting to catch his breath. What just happened wasn't possible, but there was no denying that it felt all too real. He would never forget the look of surprise and terror on Vin's face as he was hauled back into the house. Then Mary, her expression mirroring Vin's. He squeezed his eyes shut. It couldn't be, but it was.
He heard a loud groan and watched Simon ease his copious weight down onto a hay bale, his breathing labored, and his ruddy complexion nearly purple from exertion. All this seemed to lie at his doorstep and Chris fought back the urge to strangle the man.
Travis paced the floor behind Simon like a caged animal, his fists flexing open and closed. They had all witnessed the impossible; but for the man who only saw things in black and white, this was hardest on him.
"All right, Simon, what is going on here?" Travis demanded. He stopped pacing and dragged a bale of hay closer to Dunkett and sat down. "What just happened to Vin and my daughter-in-law?"
"And why didn't you warn us?" Chris snapped, his voice deadly serious.
Simon ran his hand over his face, wiping away the sweat. "Would you have believed me? Even now, you are having a hard time accepting what you saw."
Josiah eyed Chris then nodded toward Simon. "Just tell us…everything."
Simon took a deep breath. This was the first time he told this to anyone, and he hoped he didn't come across as a raving lunatic. But the proof was only a few yards away in the main house. "Four years ago, I was involved in the salvage of a 16th century Spanish Galleon off the Boston Harbor in Dorchester Bay. When the salvage was done, six of us broke off from the main group and continued to explore. We found a chest, nearly buried beneath two hundred years of ocean silt three hundred yards from what was left of the ship's bow. God help us…we brought it up."
"What did it hold?" Josiah asked, intrigued, in spite of himself.
"We should never have opened it…we had read about the curse…"
"What did you find?" Chris growled.
"We found nothing…" Simon said with a strange timbre to his voice. "…It found us."
"What the hell." Chris exploded. "We don't have time to listen to stories of buried treasure…"
"No, listen to me, Chris," Simon pleaded. "You asked for the truth and now you are going to hear it. Three men were dead within an hour of opening the chest. Another man died two days later."
"From what?" Josiah asked.
"No one knew. The doctors were baffled. It was the middle of summer, yet the men seemed to have died from extreme exposure to the cold."
"That leaves two men…" Travis urged. "You and…"
"Thomas Hazelton. He knew we'd found something we should never have found. We researched the ship together, knew the curse of El Subio del Mar…"
"The Rose of the Sea," Josiah translated.
Simon nodded. "According to the maritime records, she was boarded by pirates and sunk in 1598. Seventeen crewmen survived. Tales were told of a pirate locked in a chest, the lock anointed with the blood of the dead crew of the El Subio del Mar and the chest thrown overboard before the del Mar sank. It was said that the pirate cursed every man on board and all his descendants."
"That doesn't explain why the chest is here, or how it got here."
"Thomas didn't die that day four years ago…but he hasn't lived since, either."
"This is ridiculous!" Chris growled. "Time is wasting."
"Chris please, hear me out. I have been following Thomas Hazelton for four years. He spent three years in Europe then headed for the states. He has been making his way cross country for the past year seeking out the male descendants of every man who locked Philippe Barfleur in that chest."
"And you followed Thomas Hazelton here?" Chris looked from Simon to Josiah, disbelief spreading across his face.
"Hazelton was spotted in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Lovett, Texas. The man killed in Baton Rouge was ignored, a drifter who wandered from one ranch to another making just enough money to play cards and buy a couple drinks. Next Arturo Valencia was the town's only doctor…well respected. He was found dead in his house, apparently from extreme exposure to the cold. It was July in Texas."
"You're trying to tell us your ghost, this Philippe Barfleur, killed those two men?"
"And more. Sixteen between Europe and the states."
"And now he's after Vin…?"
"A rigger for the El Subio del Mar was Alejandro Salcedo."
Chris' stomach plummeted. "Salcedo?"
Travis looked to both men for an answer.
"Judge," Josiah said, his voice catching. "Vin's grandmother's maiden name was Salcedo. I remember reading it in Vin's bible."
Silence hung heavy in the barn while everyone but Simon tried to come to terms with what they heard. No one man wanted to believe, but there was no denying what just happened inside the house.
"What can we do?" Josiah asked, breaking the silence.
"Barfleur won't let them out of the house. He needs Vin's strength until he can return to the chest."
"If he needs Vin, why did he take Mary?" Chris asked.
"To control Vin, I suspect. He has tasted Vin's strength and learned his weaknesses."
Chris nodded. "Vin would fight to the death if it were only him. But with Mary…"
Travis turned on his old friend, anger burning in his eyes. "How could you let this happen? Why didn't you tell us right away? We could have gotten Vin to safety…"
"Would you have believed me? You thought I was crazy up until the time you felt Philippe Barfleur's power yourself. I could do nothing but pray that I found the chest before it was too late."
"That chest, that damn chest…" Chris searched the barn, frantically shoving the bales of hay aside, but they found nothing; just a dusting of white sand where the Kent brothers left it."
"We have to find it. It is the only way to save Vin and Mary," said Simon.
Josiah looked back at the house. "They must be scared to death in there."
"Vin will keep his head," Chris said, his voice overconfident.
"How do we get them out of there, Simon?" There was a sound of desperation in Josiah's voice that Chris had never heard before.
Simon Dunkett sighed deeply. "I don't know," he said. "God forgive me, I don't know anymore."
Chris tapped his fingers against his holster as he stared at the empty front yard. He couldn't remember anywhere being this still. The silence was deafening. Even the birds had disappeared from the trees. Nothing moved except JD as he paced silently in front of the house, his eyes glued to the window he saw Mary look out of two hours ago.
"We're waiting for an answer," Chris said without looking back at Simon.
"I don't have one," came Simon's anguished voice.
Chris turned slowly, his eyes burning into Dunkett. "You could have prevented this. You could have warned Vin."
"I didn't know he was here until I arrived. I thought Vin was still bounty hunting…still safe from Barfleur."
"How the hell did you know about Vin? We hardly know anything about him - just what he's willing to let slip," Chris demanded.
"I told you. I researched every man that was on that ship. It was hard, but I would not be denied. I traced the name Salcedo to Vin Tanner. I thought staying here in Four Corners would give me a better chance of finding him. I had no idea that he had become one of your peacekeepers."
"Simon, what will happen if we don't find that chest?" Josiah asked. He stood in front of Peso's stall. He felt so helpless. They were so close to Vin and Mary, and yet they couldn't reach them. Memories of stories he heard as a child rose to the surface again and he panicked inwardly. He had fought all his life not to believe in ghosts and spirits…but now…
"Barfleur needs the chest to regenerate his strength. Without it he will weaken and die."
"Vin and Mary?" asked Chris.
"He will use Vin as his source of strength until … but he will do it slowly. He knows he needs to keep Vin alive as long as possible."
"He can only gain strength from a descendent of the ship's crew. But he will keep her alive…it will be the only way he can control Vin."
Chris looked back at the house. "We have to get them out of there. They can't spend the night…."
"I'm afraid there is nothing we can do tonight. He will not let us near the house. Understand this, gentlemen, he will not kill Vin right away because he needs him. And he will not kill Mary because he needs her as his bargaining tool. But he needs none of us."
Chris met Josiah's eyes. Dunkett was right. They would have to wait until morning…and then how long after that?
JD paced the front yard. The sun was dipping behind the mountains. Soon it would be dark. He couldn't stand the thought of Vin and Mary being in that house with Barfleur. He had heard Simon Dunkett and believed every word. There was evil in that house and he was the one who brought it to them. If only he had left well enough alone and not touched that chest. Why did he bring Vin to it? Thinking back on it now, it was almost as if he hadn't had a choice, like something had compelled him to act without thinking. But that didn't make him feel any less guilty. "Vin…I am so sorry. And you too Mary."
He looked back at the barn. They were in there just talking, just talking while who knew what was going on in that house. "Well," he squared his shoulders and jutted his chest out, "I not going to leave you two in there alone!"
JD moved toward the house, every nerve alive.
The sky turned fiery red as the sun began to set, reflecting back in the windows. How many times had he enjoyed this time of evening? Now it taunted him, kept him from seeing inside the house and reminded him that darkness was close behind.
He reached the patio outside the great room. The French doors were only an arm's length away…there was a coldness emanating from the house…he fought back the instinct to run. Vin and Mary needed him.
The ground began to tremble beneath his feet. His heart beat so fast he thought it would burst his chest open. He cried out in fear as the ground began to shake violently.
Strong hands wrapped around him and he knew he was going to die.
"I'm sorry," he muttered as he fell into a black void. "I only wanted to make right what I did wrong…"
Chris spotted JD approaching the house, his steps halting as he got closer to the patio outside the French windows.
"JD, no!" he yelled, but the young sheriff didn't stop.
Josiah rushed over to stand beside Chris. "What does he think he's doing?"
"He's doing what we should be doing," Chris growled. Guilt that he hadn't not gone back for Vin and Mary ate at him. Now he hid in this barn, his heart in his throat, feeling more scared than he had ever felt before in his life.
"Stop him," Simon warned. "Barfleur will kill him."
Chris knew it was true. He had smelled it in the house as they escaped - the smell of death.
"JD!" He raced across the yard, Josiah at his side. JD was nearly at the door, his hand outstretched to grab the handle.
Suddenly JD staggered as the patio beneath his feet came to life, each terra cotta tile dancing like kernels of corn in a hot frying pan. His knees buckled and he sank toward the ground.
Chris reached JD. The patio was enveloped in a mind-numbing chill, the dank smell of rot and mold assaulting his nostrils. He wrapped his arms around the boy, dragging him away from the patio. He tripped and fell backwards, JD landing lifelessly on top of him, and suddenly there was dead silence.
He looked back at the French doors and froze. Standing on the other side he saw Mary looking out. There was a look of hopelessness and fear on her pale face.
Josiah was at his side, carefully lifting JD off him.
"Chris," he stood with JD in his arms, staring at the French doors. "We can't help her now."
"We can't leave her," he said miserably.
"We can't fight what we don't understand."
Chris climbed to his feet and his heart broke as he saw Mary step away from the window.
"We'll get you out of there," he promised. "Both of you."
Vin cracked one eye open. Two faces wavered above him.
"It's about time you woke up," they said.
Confused, he closed his eye and waited for the dizziness to ratchet down. Strings of foggy memories started forming. Things that made no sense.
"Don't sleep!" The voices pleaded. "Wake up. Please . . ."
Vin concentrated and cracked both eyes open. Mary was leaning over him wiping his face with a cool damp rag. soft candlelight played with the shadows above her on the ceiling.
"You had me worried. I tried to wake you. Nathan always says not to let a person with a concussion sleep to long."
Throbbing pain registered in his head, making him nauseated.
"Lie still," she warned.
"What happened?" he sighed.
Mary laid her hand gently on Vin's shoulder, realizing the concussion had left him confused. "I don't know…something pushed us back in the house. It threw you against the grandfather clock."
Everything came back to him. The fear, the cold, the dark malevolence that held the house in its grasp. He remembered the helpless feeling as he was flung against the clock.
Mary pushed a strand of hair off Vin's forehead and said softly, her voice shaking, "Vin, a couple of hours ago JD tried to get into the house."
Vin stared at her, saw the pain in her eyes. "No…" he whispered,
"Chris and Josiah carried him away. I don't know Vin, I couldn't tell…"
Vin closed his eyes.
"They saw me. Chris and Josiah saw me and they know we're alive. They'll find a way to get us out of here. I know they will."
Vin reached out and pulled her toward him until she was leaning against his right side, his arm folded around her. "We'll get through this." He kissed the top of her head, the fragrance of her shampoo lingered in her hair. "I promise, we'll get through this."
As she rested against him he tried to look around the room. Mary had set a ring of candles on the floor around them, but there was total darkness beyond. He wanted, no needed, more light. He couldn't stand the blackness. Somewhere, something was watching them; he could feel it.
"We need more light," he said, a hint of desperation in his voice. He tried to sit forward and nearly passed out.
"No, stay still, just a little longer. I don't want you passing out again. I couldn't stand it, sitting here in the dark, alone. I thought I would go crazy. I was afraid you…I was afraid you would never wake up and I would be in this house alone for the rest of my life! Oh, Vin, I'm so scared. I want this to end."
"I know," he whispered, pulling her back down against him. "Listen to me…you said Chris and Josiah saw you, right?"
"Then they'll be working on a plan to get us out. We just have to stay strong until they do. And I promise I won't pass out on you again."
She sniffed back a tear. "Promise?"
"Promise." Vin felt her relax against him and he held onto her. He didn't tell her that he saw a shifting of the darkness or that the room had suddenly gotten a degree colder.
Chris stood at the barn door and looked across the yard at the house. Dusk had turned to night and heavy clouds had moved in, obscuring the quarter moon and the stars, plunging the land into an inky blackness.
Guilt, like a cancer, ate at Chris as he watched the light of a candle flicker dimly through the great room windows. Why had he moved that chest? JD tried to warn him, but he wouldn't listen. He carried it right to their door.
He looked down at JD, laying on a bed of soft hay, wrapped in blankets gathered from the bunkhouse, his heart barely beating. He almost envied the young sheriff' the bliss of unconsciousness. In his forced sleep JD was at least safe from the torment Chris now suffered –being torn apart by the memory of Mary's face as she stared out the window, fear, shock, desperation haunting her face. And where was Vin? They'd not seen even a glimpse of him since being forced into the house.
"How do you fight an enemy you can't see?" he asked as Josiah walked up behind him. Chris reached down and felt the gun at his side. Even that would not help this time. "Did you see the look on Mary's face?"
"Damn it!" Chris slammed his hand against the wall. "I feel so helpless. They're right there, less than a hundred yards away, but they might as well be a hundred miles away. There's got to be something we can do." He whirled around to face Simon. "You know this thing. Tell us what it's doing." A horrible thought came to mind. "Will it hurt Mary? Will it…?" His voice caught in the asking.
Simon shook his head. "I don't know. Barfleur has never haunted a woman before."
Chris took a deep breath and closed the barn doors. He pointed to a bale of hay. "Sit," he ordered Simon. "Tell us everything you know."
"I have already told you everything…"
"You haven't told us how to get them out of there…" Chris growled. "I want to know everything. Every detail."
Simon was stunned by the vehemence in Chris's voice. "I…I don't know where to start."
Josiah sat down on a hay bale next to him. "Start at the beginning. How did you find out about El Subio del Mar?"
The pain was manageable now. Mary helped Vin to his feet. He swayed for a moment, leaning heavily against her until the room stopped spinning. The pounding headache added to the feeling of his strength being slowly sucked out of him by the lingering cold that filled the entire house and seemed to be following him everywhere.
"Can you make it to the kitchen?" she asked. "You should eat something."
"I'm not hungry."
"I know, but you have to eat anyway. I did what I could, but I don't know how serious the concussion is. You have to keep your strength up."
"See where our boundaries lie." A smile shadowing his lips.
"Vin, please don't play with this thing…"
"I'm not playing, Mary," Vin answered softly. "Just gonna see what the rules are." He pushed away from her just a step or two and called out. "You hear me?"
"Philippe Barfleur," Mary whispered. "I remember Simon saying his name."
"Philippe Barfleur." Vin grinned. "So you have a name. Can't say it's a pleasure to meet ya. So what do you want with me, Philippe Barfleur? Did I meet you in a gunfight somewhere or chased ya for the bounty?"
Vin heard a rustle of sound in the darkened corner by the front door. It was there, watching, listening. The temperature in the room dipped another degree.
"Barfleur…don't sound much like a gunfighter."
"He was a pirate," Mary whispered again.
Vin chuckled, "A pirate? Like,' Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum?" But inside he was trembling. Was he doing the right thing in showing no fear to this thing - this ghost - or should he capitulate to it? The wrong move could cost him his life… or worse, Mary's.
He felt something brush by him and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. A current of cold, musty air drifted by and he felt Mary seek out his hand and hold onto it desperately. The candles on the floor danced wildly for a moment as the current of air passed them, shifting the shadows on the wall and ceiling. Vin felt the coldness descend over him again for just a moment, draining more of his strength. Then it was gone.
"Vin…?" Mary whispered.
"I don't think he liked my joke," Vin whispered back. But there was no humor in his voice.
"What are we going to do?"
Vin looked around the room. There was no warmth here now, no sanctuary from the nightmares of a dream, instead they were caught in an all too real nightmare.
His headache was beginning to build and he knew he had to get off his feet soon or land on the ground.
"Let's see if the kitchen is off limits," he suggested. "How about it, Barfleur? Kitchen okay?"
The kitchen door behind them squeaked ever so slightly in the dead quiet. "Hinge needs oilin', Barfleur," Vin whispered.
"We knew we shouldn't have opened that chest," Chris said. Simon sat between Josiah and Chris, his voice struggling to stay even.
"But curiosity is a dangerous temptress."
"You knew what was inside?" Chris asked.
"We had read the accounts of the curse when we researched the ship. But no one took it seriously, except Thomas Hazelton. He warned us. He said he could feel the evil trying to escape from within. We all laughed at him." Simon looked over at JD. "No one is laughing now."
"I don't remember much. There was a terrible odor, so foul we all became sick. I saw the skeleton with the knife in his hand for only a second before I passed out. It must have been a horrible death. When I came to several hours later, three men were dead and Hazelton and the chest were gone."
"And the sixth man?" Chris asked.
"He died several months later in a crude clinic in Viana do Castelo, a small village in Portugal. He sent me a letter. I arrived the day before he died. He said he had been traveling with Hazelton, and that the curse was real. I didn't believe him at first, of course. But I was soon convinced that it was all too real…and I have been following him ever since."
"Vin?" Josiah asked, his voice gruff. He didn't want to believe…he wanted an enemy he could fight. Not some insane curse.
"I found the names of all the crewmen in a maritime library in Portugal. When I saw the name Alejandro Salcedo I knew we would be meeting again."
Chris caught his breath as he saw the pain of guilt in Simon's eyes. "I thought…I thought if I could find Vin I could save him somehow. That's why I came to Four Corners. Close to Mexico, if Vin tracking a fugitive. Or Texas, any of the western states. I never expected to find him here. God help me…I'm too late again."
Mary picked up a candle from the floor and lit their way into the kitchen. A cold dank smell filled every crevice. She shivered, not from the cold, but from the sense of malevolence that hung in the air.
"Maybe," she said, "I can get a little warmth in here."
She banked the cold ashes in the stove, adding before striking a match. The match blew out with a tiny puff of smoke. She tried again, and again the match flickered and went out.
"It looks like Barfleur doesn't like the heat," Vin said dryly. "You got something cold we can eat?"
She nodded, first finding, and then unwrapping, the leftover meat from dinner along with sliced day-old bread.
Vin sat at the table, his head throbbing.
They ate in silence, neither one hungry, but both knowing they had to eat. Mary kept her head down, her eyes fixed on her plate, the darkness beyond the candlelight harbored too many unknown shadows.
"What do you think Josiah and Chris are doing right now?" Mary broke the silence.
"Trying to figure a way to get us out of here."
"Do you think they can?"
Vin reached across the table and drew her hand into his. "Yeah, I do."
Suddenly something tugged at Vin's chair and it was yanked out from beneath him. He hit the floor hard. The impact jarred his head, sending waves of pain throughout his body.
"No!" Mary cried. "Don't hurt him anymore."
Vin grabbed his head and rocked back and forth, trying to control the pain.
"You have us trapped here, isn't that enough?" Mary screamed. "Leave us alone!" She felt something cold brush her cheek and she whimpered softly. "Please leave us alone."
The kitchen door slowly closed, that damn hinge sending a shiver down Mary's back. After, the cold that had seeped into her bones blessedly drifted away.
Mary hurriedly retrieved the candle from the table and placed it on the floor and sat down next to Vin, pulling him close to her. There was nothing left to do but wait. "Rest now," she whispered, "I think he's going to leave us alone for a while." She felt his body relax against her, pain and exhaustion pulling him down into a fitful sleep. She brushed his cheek gently, worried by the feel of his still cold and clammy skin. Tears tracked down her cheeks and she had the horrible feeling that they would never get out of this house alive.
Chris crawled silently across the front yard, each movement slow and deliberate. Crouched low, on his hands and knees, he moved forward, stopped and listened…moved forward, stopped and listened. The night was cold and getting colder. The moon and stars were hiding behind a canopy of clouds. Around him was nothing but total blackness. Only the flickering light from a lone candle in the kitchen steered him toward the house. He imagined where he was, the corral behind him to his right, the bunkhouse to his left, and the barn behind him now hidden in the blackness. Josiah would be standing by the door, watching and waiting.
He wondered if Barfleur could hear his heart beating in his chest, or each breath he took, echoing so loudly in his own ears. Would the ghost sense the fear that clamped his heart in a vice grip so tight that it hurt? He couldn't remember ever being so scared. Even during the war, when fear was a constant companion, when his stomach was knotted so tight it ached, he had not felt this all-consuming terror.
Chris couldn't even imagine what Vin and Mary were going through inside the house. His mind kept picturing the horrible image of Vin being dragged back into the house and Mary…her eyes wide with fear looking out at him through the great room window, pleading for his help.
Move forward, stop, listen…
The candle had been moved from the great room to the kitchen an hour ago. The rest of the house stood in darkness, disappearing into the blackness of the night.
He didn't plan to enter the house, just get close enough to hear a voice, to somehow let them know that they were not alone; that help was just on the other side of the door.
Move forward, stop, listen…
He was only a few feet away now. The stench of death and decay hovered over the house, cold, malevolent fingers reaching out into the blackness.
His stomach ached with fear. His instinct screamed at him to turn and run, but Simon's words droned in his ears. The four years he'd spent chasing Hazelton - South America, Africa, Europe, Spain, lands steeped in superstition; the Middle East, Asia, Australia - each time arriving too late as Hazelton and the chest already moved on to the next victim, another innocent descendent tied to a grisly death two hundred years ago.
Of all the ghosts that could have haunted Vin Tanner, Barfleur would be the unlikeliest.
And Chris could not dismiss the role he played in this drama. He had brought the chest into town in the first place; if he had only listened to JD.
He felt the first terra cotta tile of the patio and skirted the portico, slowly moving toward the kitchen. Soft light from the flickering candle created a kaleidoscope of color in the kitchen window. He settled down on the ground and lay perfectly still… waiting.
Suddenly Chris heard a sound from within. He froze - listening, waiting - a low painful moan, followed by a soft feminine sob and he knew that Vin and Mary were together.
He had to do something, had to let them know they were not alone. He thought about everything Simon told them. Barfleur's power was finite. The ghost had proven that tonight. The spirit's power was limited to the house and a few feet beyond or else Chris could have never gotten this close.
Slowly Chris moved back until the oppressive cold lessened and he knew he was beyond Barfleur's reach. Here is where they would make their stand. Here is where they would let Vin and Mary know that they were not alone –that somehow, some way, they would beat Barfleur.
He cupped his hand over his mouth and whistled a bird call Chris taught Vin. At the time he had thought it was so foolish, and now…now it could mean the difference between life and death, heaven or hell.
Mary raised her head, listening. The faint sound she heard from outside was so familiar. The sound teased her memory until she suddenly knew what it was, and she shook Vin gently.
Squeezing his hand she watched as Vin's heavy eyes opened and the faintest of smiles played at the corners of his mouth.
Memories of a warm summer afternoon came back to her. It had been Vin's idea to stop on the way back Eagle Bend to sit by the lake. She remembered feeling a guilty pleasure as she dangled her feet in the cool water knowing she still needed to get her daily newspaper out. And then she had laughed until she cried as Vin and Chris tried to outdo each other with birdcalls. Some were surprisingly good, and others were so bad she could only groan. Then Chris whistled one that Vin didn't recognize. "A Scarlet Tanager," Chris had grinned. "You won't find one around these parts."
"Then how do I know you done it right?" Vin asked.
"Well, cowboy, I guess you have to trust me."
Vin shifted his head from her lap, and she brushed an ever present lock of hair from his eyes. The candle had burned down to a mere puddle of wax on the floor, but she had been reluctant to disturb him as he slept, even though the dark shadows deepened in the kitchen. His forehead felt too warm now. The fever she had expected was beginning to rise.
"A Scarlet Tanager…" he whispered.
"I know," she whispered back. "I remember. I'm going to get some more candles," she said, lifting his head gently from her lap. "Will you be all right alone for a minute?"
He nodded, regretting the movement. "Be careful," he whispered.
Vin heard the rustle of her skirts then the squeak of the door hinge as she walked out of the kitchen.
The darkness closed in around him without Mary by his side. But there was now a light in his heart, knowing that Chris was just outside, signaling to them that he was there, and reassuring them that they were not alone…
Mary heard the door close behind her. She listened for a sound. The silence was absolute, as if the world stopped within the walls of the house. Even Chris' Tanager had faded into the distance. Had he stopped on his own, or had someone or something stopped him?
Stumbling through the darkness Mary found the candles on the floor where she previously sat with Vin. It was a nightmare she would never forget. She dropped to her knees, running her hands over the floor searching for the box of matches. Fear broiled up within her. If she couldn't find the matches, then they would be left in the dark. She thought she heard a sound behind her, the squeak of a floorboard. She searched faster, fighting back the tears, so scared she could barely breathe.
At last she found them. Her hand shook as she opened the box and struck the match to life. She hurriedly lit one candle then another and another until she pushed the blackness away with golden light.
"God…" she breathed; this couldn't be happening. She got to her feet. Holding two of the candles she slowly walked over to the kitchen door, expecting the candles to be snuffed out or feel a hand pull her back into the darkness. But neither happened. She held the candles to the window, the temptation to open the door screaming in her mind, but she couldn't leave Vin.
She tried to see beyond the patio but there was just inky blackness. The Tanager whistled and she turned away from the door…there was hope now.
Chris made his way back to the barn quickly. Mary looked scared but unhurt. He felt confident that Vin was still alive, or she would have been inconsolable. By the time he got to the barn door, more light splashed out onto the patio from the kitchen. Perhaps they were learning a thing or two about Philippe Barfleur, too.
The barn door opened and Travis pulled Chris inside. "Well?" he demanded.
"I saw Mary. She looks as well as can be expected under the circumstances. You were right, Simon," Chris began lighting the lanterns. "Barfleur's power extends only a few feet beyond the house. That means he can't stop us if one of us heads for town tomorrow at first light."
Josiah looked around him. "But who do we send?"
Simon pushed himself up from the hay bale with a heavy sigh. "I would go gladly, but I'm afraid I'm a bit out of shape for a long hike. And not to be callous, but I believe you are too, old friend." Simon said to Travis. "I believe it should be the only young able- bodied man here."
Chris stood toe to toe with Simon. "I'm not leaving here with Vin and Mary still in that house. We wait it out here together. One of the boys will get curious and Nathan is bound to show up worried about Vin.
Josiah nodded. "Divide and conquer…that's the best way to lose a war."
"Simon," Chris turned toward Dunkett. "You are the only ones who know what is inside there with Vin and Mary. Give us something we can fight with."
"I've never been this close…not since we opened the chest. Hazelton has always been one step ahead of me. I never know where he is going to strike next. I can only follow. Names have changed in two hundred years. This time…This time I thought I could beat him at last."
"You knew he was after Vin."
"Yes. But I had no way to know where he was. I knew he was raised in Texas for a while. I decided to settle here for a month or so then start my journey, where it led me. When I saw the name Salcedo, I knew. Tanner was a distant descendant of Salcedo.
"Ah Simon," Josiah sighed. "If you had only told us in the beginning. I know we wouldn't have believed the entire story, but we would have protected Vin…somehow."
"No, Josiah. Vin's fate was sealed the moment that chest was found."
Chris slammed his hand against the barn wall. "Damn that chest. If JD hadn't…" He suddenly stopped and turned back slowly to look at Simon. "How did that chest get to those old oak trees? How did the chest get close to any of the victims?"
"Hazelton, of course. He would ship it by boat or rail then by carriage. It is a distinctive chest; there was always someone who remembered seeing it. That's how I trailed him."
"And Hazelton…what does he do while Barfleur is enacting his retribution?"
"I don't know. I have never been this close."
"He is most likely waiting somewhere close by to get the chest again, right?"
"What are you getting at, Chris?"
"Hazelton probably has the chest hidden. I think Hazelton left the chest by the oak trees with the intention of sneaking it into the boarding house so Barfleur could seek his revenge on Vin. But JD found it first, and we brought it to town. We did half his work for him. Simon, how close to the house did he have to get the chest for Barfleur to make his move inside?"
"Close. A few feet. The same when he returns to the chest."
"So he can't leave the house until Hazelton returns with the chest."
"He's trapped then," Josiah said.
Simon nodded. "And he uses Vin's strength to survive."
"How long?" Josiah asked.
"How long can Vin last?" Simon looked toward the house. "As long as his strength holds out; another twenty- four hours at most, I'd say."
Vin tried to raise his head, but the pain slammed against his skull like a hammer.
So far Barfleur had left them alone as Mary lit candles and lanterns throughout the first floor. But he was there, always there, and if she drifted too close to a door or window, she would feel a cold hand touch her shoulder.
"Vin…?" She knelt down beside him and stroked his forehead, pushing aside his mane of tangled hair. The tinge of red in his cheeks had grown deeper as his fever rose. She needed to get his fever under control, but she hadn't stocked the house with medical supplies yet, thinking she had plenty of time.
His eyes fluttered open and it took him a moment to focus before a small smile played at the corners of his mouth.
"Did Chris ever tell you how pretty you look in candlelight?" he whispered.
She blushed and that brought a wider smile to Vin's face.
"Do you think you can sit up?" she asked. "I think you would be more comfortable on the couch in the other room."
He nodded and slowly sat up, gritting his teeth as a spasm of pain ripped through his head.
"Here, drink some water," she ordered. "You have to keep hydrated with that fever."
"Did the Tanager fly away?" he asked. And he felt her squeeze his hand.
"It saw me in the window and flew back to its nest."
Vin didn't react outwardly, but inside he felt like laughing. Chris was a sly one.
"Help me up?" he asked a few minutes later. It took several attempts before Vin struggled to his feet, but once there, he stood and balanced himself. Mary held his right arm to support him.
"I'm all right," he said, though his voice didn't sound very convincing.
Slowly, they made their way into the great room and Vin was surprised at the number of candles Mary lit. There wasn't a shadow left in the room. But as they moved toward the couch, one by one, the candles began to flicker and die. The smell of candle wax and smoke vied with the ever - present stench of decay, and the darkness moved in on them until only one candle remained lit - the one clutched tightly in Mary's hand. They stood huddled together in the meager circle of light of the lone candle. Mary couldn't hold back the tears that began spilling down her cheeks.
Chris paced, looking at the house each time he passed the open barn door. For a short time the great room and kitchen were awash with light. The warm glow of the candles and lanterns spilling out into the yard almost felt inviting. But the cold lump of fear that sat in the pit of his stomach reminded him that there was no warmth coming from the house, only evil.
He turned on Simon as the rotund man sat on the bale of hay, plucking at the straw and dropping it on the floor, forming a small pile.
"We've got to do something," Chris growled. "We just can't sit here and wait."
Simon looked up. The man had aged in the past twenty-four hours. This was not the same man who sat at his new table and reminisced with Travis about the good old days. This man was haunted and overwhelmed by grief. But why the sudden turn around? If he had been chasing Barfleur for more than four years, why should this encounter affect him so deeply? Was it his friendship with Travis? Or was it more deeply rooted?
Simon shrugged. "There is nothing we can do."
"I don't buy that. I don't buy that for a minute."
"What do you suggest? We can't get inside and they can't get out." Josiah sighed, the helplessness in his voice a stark reminder of what they were facing. What they were all losing.
Simon heaved himself up off the hay bale and walked to the barn door. "This was my last chance, you know."
"Last chance?" Josiah snapped his head up, the bridle he had been worrying in his hands, forgotten. "What?"
"Vin's ancestor was the last of the seventeen men who trapped Barfleur in the chest and threw it overboard. The curse will die with Vin's death."
"Then what?" Chris asked.
"Hazelton will return the chest to the ocean and Barfleur will be released from the curse. But he will remain trapped here for eternity, between worlds, if the chest is destroyed before it can be returned to the sea."
"Then we have to kill Barfleur first." As if Barfleur could read his mind, he watched the candles and lanterns flicker out one by one, leaving only one small candle burning faintly in the great room. Vin and Mary were once again plunged into the darkness and he could only imagine the terror they faced in there.
Silence drifted over the three men. Were they facing the impossible?
Vin felt himself drifting away from Mary. He fought so hard to keep his heavy eyelids open, but the combination of pain and fatigue was too much for his weary body and mind.
They sat huddled together on the couch, a small oasis in a sea of blackness that was growing ever smaller as the lone candle sitting on the coffee table burned toward extinction.
"Stay with me, Vin," he heard her whisper close to his ear, her warm breath brushing his cheek, her hand clasped too tightly around his right arm. He could feel her tremble beside him but didn't have the strength to pull her in closer.
"I'm trying." Even to himself his words sounded like a whisper of air.
He felt his body sinking deeper into the soft cushions of the couch and he fought harder to stay with her. He couldn't leave her alone.
"What do you think it wants?" she asked, her voice tremulous, on the very edge.
There was a shifting in the blackness near the fireplace and Vin knew they were being watched.
"I don't know," he answered, his voice now over loud. It was not his way to meekly crawl into a corner and wait.
The candlelight flickered for the barest of moments, the air displaced as something passed by the table.
"I'm guessing you want me, right?" He cringed at the worsening stench that filled his nostrils.
Vin felt Mary shudder beside him, her voice filled with terror as she whispered, "No, Vin, don't"
He squeezed her hand and nudged her with his knee, pushing her away until only their hands touched.
"Seems to me," he said into the blackness, "it's me you want. You don't need the girl."
"Let her go."
Something heavy scraped along the top of Simon's desk and Vin could hear the wood splinter in the silence, then it broke apart falling to the ground, the sound echoing in the blackness.
Mary gasped and her hand tightened around his. He could feel her pulse throbbing in her fingertips.
"Whatever it is you think I did, she had nothing to do with it. Let her go!"
Something slid from the coffee table in front of them and clattered to the floor.
Vin suddenly felt profoundly sad realizing that Chris and Josiah were on the other side of that door, and that he might never see them again. That realization sparked something inside. Fear and anger exploded from him and he blurted out the words before he could snatch them back. "Only a coward hides behind a woman's skirts."
Excruciating silence followed. Then the candle flame sputtered and winked out.
Suddenly the couch quaked beneath them and Mary screamed. The temperature plummeted. A roar like a freight train sped through the great room and Mary's hand was ripped from his and he was dragged over the back of the couch. His left arm hit the ground and there was a firebrand of agony as a bone snapped. Mary's terrified screams rose in pitch as the couch bucked beneath her.
Chris barreled through the barn door out into the yard. He had heard the cacophony of sound followed by Mary's terrified scream as the meager light from the one remaining candle disappeared and the house was plunged into blackness.
"What's happening in there?" he yelled as Josiah ran up beside him, lantern in hand. The flickering light played with the shadows across the preacher's face and for the first time he saw absolute fear in the older man's face.
Chris never felt so helpless. He ran toward the house, skirting the perimeter, just outside the curtain of cold air and Barfleur's reach. The sounds emanating from the house shook the ground beneath his feet. The air itself seemed to vibrate.
He fought back the urge to run into the house. It would either be suicide or he would be just another prisoner of Barfleur's. He had to stay smart and use his military training…use his head. They were half -way through the night.
Josiah started to run past him and he reached out, caught his arm, and dragged him back. "No! You'll end up like JD."
"We've got to do something!"
Mary's screams were bordering on hysteria.
But not once did he hear a sound from Vin.
"Distract him." Both men turned to see Simon standing behind them, silhouetted by the light streaming from the barn.
"Distract him," Simon yelled over the din.
Chris pulled his gun and aimed for the upstairs bedroom windows.
Silence suddenly filled the air except for the echoes of the three shots as they disappeared into the darkness beyond.
"Mary?" Josiah whispered. Her silence scared him more than her screams.
The three men stood huddled in the light from the lantern and watched and waited for a sign, any sign, that Vin and Mary had survived Barfleur's wrath.
The first rays of the sun gave a pink tinge to the cumulus white clouds slowly being pushed toward the mountains on a light wind. But there was no warmth in the air, no anticipation of the day ahead, only a cold, perverse silence. Gone were the sounds that heralded the coming day; birds and katydids singing in the trees, the horses nickering in the corrals…
Chris stood motionless in the center of the yard, his eyes glued to the windows of the French doors leading into the great room. The drapes were torn to shreds, the curtain rod sagging in the center of the window. He wondered what the rest of the room looked like, but the sunlight reflected off the glass and he only saw himself standing there.
The horror of the night left him shaking inside. His eyes slowly moved up to the second floor again to the shattered window in the room Vin used. The sheer white curtain Mary hung only days ago, now peppered with three bullet holes. The soft breeze should play with the flimsy material, but it hung perfectly still.
He turned and slowly made his way back to the barn.
He had an inkling of an idea and a question for Simon.
Vin heard a strange murmuring sound off to his right; it was such a sad, lost lament. Slowly he forced his heavy eyelids open, slamming them shut again against the sunlight streaming in the window. Was it just a terrible nightmare?
"Damn…" he whispered, "let it be a nightmare." After a moment, he opened his eyes again, letting them adjust to the light and he knew, with an inescapable truth, that it was all too real. He swallowed back the fear rising in his throat. It was the only thing he could fight right now, the only thing he could control.
He turned his head, the effort sending black pinwheels in front of his eyes, and found Mary huddled in the center of the room, her arms encircling her knees. She slowly rocked back and forth, humming softly. Her eyes were open but there was no light of recognition in them. Her face was expressionless. She hadn't been able to cope with the fear.
"Mary?" Vin called carefully. But there was no sign she heard him. She continued to hum softly to herself.
Slowly, he struggled to sit up, his body trembling from the exertion. His left arm hung awkwardly at his side, a thin line of blood trickled down his face. The cut on his head was reopened.
The sunlight spilling in through the windows revealed the carnage left behind by Barfleur's rampage. The massive couch tilted upside down on the edge of Simon's broken desk. Mary laughed that it had taken four strong men to carry it into the house. The heavy brocade red drapes covering the picture window behind the desk were torn to shreds. The coffee table was split in half and was wedged in the fireplace. The dining table lay on its side, its legs snapped like kindling. Chairs were shattered where they had been smashed against the walls. The floor was strewn with books and papers and Simon's manuscript. Broken glass from oil lamps and picture frames glinted in the sunlight. The only thing that escaped destruction was the sailing ship that Simon had so proudly placed on the mantel. It sat on its stand, not one sail out of place, not one piece of rigging touched.
Painfully, he struggled to his knees and crawled over to Mary, his left arm pulsating, and his head ready to explode.
"Mary…?" He gently pushed the hair back from her face, but she didn't even flinch. She was inside her own little world, perhaps the safest place for her now, Vin thought sadly. He checked her carefully for injuries. Remarkably, amid all the chaos she had come through without a single new bruise or scrape. Barfleur obviously wanted Vin Tanner and not Mary Travis.
"You rest," he whispered to her. He tried to climb to his feet, but the effort was too much, and he keeled over, his right arm coming to rest against Mary's feet.
But she didn't notice, she just continued to rock and hum.
Chris rushed into the barn and found Simon lying in a pile of hay, snoring loudly. He kicked his boot impatiently. "Wake up!" he yelled.
"Chris?" Josiah approached quickly, alarmed by Chris's outburst.
"We've got to talk. Now! I couldn't see very much inside, but I did see enough to know that it looks like a tornado hit the great room."
Simon struggled to his feet, running a hand through his thick red hair.
"Did you see them?" he asked, still groggy.
"No. Everything is quiet. Simon, how did you know that distracting Barfleur would stop his rampage?"
"You said you have never been this close before. How did you know?"
Simon shrugged. "I took a calculated guess."
"No." Chris took a menacing step closer to Simon. "That was not a calculated guess. You were sure of it. It was in your voice. How much more do you know about Barfleur that you're not telling us?"
"Chris, believe me, I have told you everything I know. Don't you think I want this to end too? Not just for Vin and Mary, but for me also. I'm tired of the hunt. Four years of chasing a ghost, arriving again and again just a day late."
Josiah stepped forward. "If you know something, Simon..."
"Tell me how to get into the house." Chris demanded. "How can we distract Barfleur long enough for me to get inside?
"What if something happened to Hazelton? What if he never comes back?"
Simon sighed heavily. "Vin will die and Barfleur will be caught between both worlds, in limbo for eternity, unable to make contact with either world."
"Vin's not going to die. Now, you've got an hour to come up with an idea. Josiah, we've seen Mary at the window twice since we've been here. I'm guessing that Vin is hurt or restrained somehow."
Josiah nodded. "Chris, our first priority has to be to get Mary out of there. It's what Vin would want."
Chris looked back toward the house. "I'm going to get both of them out of there.
"The answer's here," Chris yelled. "It's right under our noses and we can't see it. Damn it. Think!"
Josiah watched Chris pace, his anger broiling, near to exploding. He was blaming himself and it was shoving him to the very edge. Josiah feared he would lose Chris as well as Vin if they didn't get the tracker out of there. He could still feel the ground tremble beneath his feet as they stood outside the house listening to Mary's screams…furniture crashing, glass breaking…a thunderous cacophony of noise. It was a nightmare he would not forget until his dying breath.
Suddenly, Chris stopped, his head cocked. "Vin's room . . ." he said lowly.
"I saw you out there Chris…you saw something…what did you see?"
"The window," he said. "The curtain…"
"The curtain…What about it?"
"It wasn't moving."
"The breeze should have moved it."
"For God's sake Chris, what does a NOT fluttering curtain have to do with Vin and Mary trapped in that house?" Josiah growled.
"I don't know…The air felt cold and heavy, the stench smelled like death…" He spun on Simon. "Damn it... It smelled like the chest! The stench…the chest is in the house. In Vin's room!"
"Vin's room…" Josiah looked up at the broken windowpane. He remembered the dead silence after Chris shot the window out. Mary's screams still echoed in his mind.
Simon shook his head. "We searched the house, we didn't…"
"Think about it. How hard did we search Vin's room? How many people actually went in there? And those who did, how long did they stay? The cold and the smell drove us out. You said it yourself, Simon, Vin's room was the center of the disturbance. We all thought it was because of Vin. But I think it's because the chest is hidden there. I think Hazelton left the chest by the oak trees with the intention of sneaking it into the boarding house so Barfleur could seek his revenge on Vin. But JD found it first, and he and I brought it into town. Don't you see…that is why Vin's room was so cold. I remember how cold it was by the oak trees when we first found the chest, numbing cold like Vin's room. And the smell…death and decay. That's why Vin couldn't stay in there. The combination of the chest and Barfleur nearly killed him that first night. Why didn't I see it before this?"
"Vin was stronger when we got him downstairs," Josiah admitted.
Chris slammed his hand into the barn wall. "It was right under our noses all this time. Why didn't I see it?"
Josiah turned back to face Simon. "Well Simon?"
"It is a possibility. It would explain a lot of things. But how did Hazelton get it into the house?"
"Up the back stairs to the second floor," Josiah suggested. "He didn't have to carry the chest far after the Kirk boys left it in the barn.
"But it would be too heavy for one man to carry alone. It took both JD and I to lift it into the buckboard."
"Hazelton is a big man. He would be able to carry it for a short distance. He has for the past four years."
"But what about the skeleton and knife JD saw when he first opened the chest?" Josiah asked.
"I'm not sure." Simon said. "I think perhaps JD took Barfleur by surprise. I think he can hide, become invisible when he needs to."
"So the skeleton and knife are still in the chest?"
Simon nodded. "He would be wandering the house at will now."
"And neither Vin nor Mary can see him?" Chris asked.
"Not unless he wanted them to. But unless Hazelton returns soon, Barfleur won't have a choice. As the curse weakens Barfleur will no longer have the strength to remain invisible."
Chris turned back to look out the door. The house was bathed in the morning sunlight, and what should have been warm and comforting was now grotesquely evil. Would any of them ever get past this nightmare?
"My God…" Simon looked at Chris in disbelief. "I think you are right. It all makes sense. And I think we may have just found the way to distract Barfleur long enough to get Vin and Mary out of there."
Chris and Josiah turned in unison. "How?"
"The chest is in Vin's room. Without it he can't be transported back to the ocean where the curse will finally end. He knows he will be stuck in limbo for eternity without it. He has to protect it. When you shot at Vin's window last night Barfleur rushed to see if it was safe."
"The distraction we need." Chris smiled for the first time since he found Vin near death in his room. An eternity ago, it seemed.
"And he can't hurt us outside the house, we know his power is limited." Josiah said.
Simon nodded. "We get Vin and Mary out of there, and then we stop Hazelton from taking the chest."
"I don't think we have to worry about Hazelton. I don't think he's coming back." Chris slipped his gun out of the holster and began reloading. "He knows what will happen when he takes that chest back to sea. He has been Barfleur's puppet for four years. Barfleur won't let him just walk away. Hazelton is a dead man if he comes back."
"But why hasn't he left before this?" asked Josiah.
"The curse is nearing its end. Simon said that the chest was losing its power to protect Barfleur…and I'm betting that Barfleur is losing his power to control Hazelton."
"Gentlemen, if you are right, and I think you are, then we have very little time left. The chest will be useless to Barfleur soon. He'll turn to Vin then. He will kill Vin as his last act before he slips from this world."
"Then we had better move fast. Chris, how many rounds do we have?" Travis asked.
"Six in my gun and a full belt."
Simon grabbed Chris's arm and squeezed it with surprising strength. "We only have one chance. If you get caught in there, Barfleur will kill you."
Chris felt his heart beating in his chest. He had faced fear before. On the battlefield, in the hell hole of a prison, on a cattle drive amid a thousand head of frightened cattle, but he had never experienced this kind of numbing fear.
He could barely put one step in front of the other.
Now he stood before the house, searching for any sign of Vin or Mary through the great room window, and his hands shook like a man in the grip of a great fever.
"Are you ready?" he heard Josiah whisper from behind.
"Yes…" he whispered back. But he wasn't, not really. The specter of the house loomed in front of him and he swallowed hard. This was the single most difficult thing he had ever done in his life.
"Now!" Josiah shouted, and a barrage of bullets hit Vin's bedroom window.
Pushing his fear aside, Chris ran for the patio. He felt the cold envelope him as if he had walked through a curtain, one side warm and filled with life, the other side cold and haunted by death. But it was not overpowering this time. He reached the front door and turned the knob. A blast of putrid air assaulted his nostrils, and he was pushed backwards by the intensity of it.
Panic filled him and he wanted to turn and run, but Vin was in there…He lunged through the door and nearly collided with the old grandfather clock leaning against the archway into the great room, upside down.
Chris was not prepared for the carnage he saw before him. The room was destroyed. Only Simon's ship seemed untouched.
Outside he heard the barrage of gunfire. Josiah and Simon would use half their ammunition on the first volley then wait ten minutes before they started firing the second volley.
Chris moved into the great room slowly. He didn't see her at first, huddled on the floor, near the overturned dining table, rocking back and forth.
Suddenly the gunfire stopped and Chris stood as still as a statue, his ragged breaths drawing the foul air into his lungs. Then he heard something else…a soft humming. It seemed so alien in here, amid the malevolence that hung so heavy.
"No…" he breathed. His heart sank as he spotted Mary sitting on the floor, her arms huddled around her knees, her straggly hair falling across her face. She seemed oblivious to his presence…she simply hummed her little song…lost to this world…safe within her own mind.
He maneuvered across the debris and kneeled down next to her, afraid when he touched her she would cry out in surprise. But she didn't make a move…not a sound other than the soft haunting lullaby. He gently picked her up and carried her toward the front door.
His heart was in his throat…would Barfleur allow him to take her out of the house? He reached the door and he saw Josiah and Simon standing just beyond the patio.
He held his breath and ran through the door practically throwing Mary into Josiah's waiting arm.
"Vin?" Josiah asked, his eyes filled with fear as he clutched Mary in his arms, still humming softly.
"Take care of her," Chris said, his voice faltering and stepped back into the house. The door closed behind him on a current of putrid air. Barfleur knew he was here.
Vin awoke, every inch of his body ached. But nothing could compare with the pain in his left arm. With each breath he could feel the bones grating together. Barfleur had broken his arm badly.
He lay there quietly, eyes still closed, listening to Mary's faint humming. He'd heard that song before…how old was he - seven, eight at the most - when he watched a woman sitting on her porch, rocking her baby in her arms? "Hush little baby don't you cry…" the woman's voice was sweet and tender. He remembered the tears welling up in his eyes; he had wanted so much to be loved like that.
"I'm sorry, Mary," he whispered. "I'm sorry you had to get caught in all this."
Vin opened his eyes cautiously, allowing them time to adjust to the sunlight. Carefully, he levered himself into a sitting position, his left arm wrapped tightly against his chest.
The ever-present headache behind his eyes and the drone in his ears told him his fever was high. He needed water. He had more than just himself to think about. He had to get Mary out of here somehow.
Measuring his energy, he maneuvered onto his knees then pushed himself to his feet, using the back of the upended couch. Swaying like a drunkard, he held onto to the couch until the dizziness passed.
Vin hoped that Barfleur had left the pitcher of water sitting on the kitchen table. With legs shaking like a newborn colt's, he staggered toward the kitchen door. Mary's soft humming following him, adding to the surreal image of the destroyed furniture as moved across the great room. Everything was smashed and broken. He heard glass crunch beneath his stocking feet and he longed for his boots.
The stench of death and decay hung heavy in the room. The sunlight streaming in the window held no warmth; nothing escaped Barfleur's evil presence.
Vin moved slowly. Too weak to lift the shattered chairs that littered the room, he cut a path around them. He couldn't avoid the glass, however, and felt shards of it cutting his feet.
He reached the kitchen door and cringed at the sound of the squeaky hinge. He would oil it first thing tomorrow. Vin snorted at the absurdity of it - worrying about a squeaky hinge.
He found the water pitcher unscathed, and fought hard not to swallow every last ounce, knowing it would make him sick.
Vin eyed the kitchen chair, so inviting, but he knew if he sat down there was a good chance he would not be able to get back up again. Instead, he walked back into the great room. It looked so different in the light of day, but the light couldn't warm the dank air or chase away the putrid smell that seeped from every inch of the room.
He heard a shuffling noise behind him and spun around, nearly losing his balance. In that instant, he saw a flash of something solid…a figure.
"Come to see your handy work?" Vin's voice sounded raw, even to him.
There was the slightest tremble beneath his feet and Vin backed off. He was in no condition for a confrontation with Philippe Barfleur.
With a sigh, turned back and looked out the window.
Vin jerked awake and he gasped as pain surged through his arm. He had fallen asleep at the table, his head resting on his right arm. He didn't remember walking back into the kitchen.
He listened, his mind muddled by pain and fatigue. Gunfire…lots of gunfire. It was hitting the walls of the second floor.
Galvanized into action by fear and curiosity, he struggled to stand, levering himself up with his right arm against the table, but his legs gave way and he collapsed back into the chair, his left arm striking the tabletop and he screamed in pain.
Then all was deathly still. The gunshots stopped. The only sound was his own labored breathing. He couldn't hold on any longer. He felt himself sinking into a black void…where each breath sounded hollow and drifted further away.
He moaned in defeat as he felt Barfleur wrap his arm around his waist and heft him out of the chair.
"God…don't leave me now…"
Chris made his way across the great room. There was no sign of Vin. He stepped carefully, his boots crunching on broken glass. What happened in here? What sent Mary into a near catatonic state? The destruction was overwhelming, testimony to Barfleur's strength and rage. Every piece of furniture lay in ruins.
Except Simon's beloved ship.
By the dining table where he found Mary, he spotted a cluster of blood spots on the floor. Vin was hurt. He followed them, their path erratic as if the tracker staggered wildly as he made his way toward the kitchen. Chris stood a moment, staring at the door. What would he find? With his heart pounding he turned the knob and pushed the door open. He cringed at the squeaky hinge.
But all thoughts of squeaky doors were forgotten the moment Chris saw Vin hunched over the kitchen table, his head resting on his right arm, facing the door. His face was as pale as a sheet, but his cheeks were brushed red with fever and his tangled hair hung limply around his face, heavy from the sweat that glistened on his face.
But it was the look of sheer exhaustion that sent a chill down Chris's spine. Vin's cheeks looked hollow, his eyes sunken and rimmed with dark circles.
Chris stepped cautiously into the kitchen and moved to stand behind Vin's chair. He could see the broken left arm dangling uselessly at his friend's side, hesitating to touch it.
"Vin…" he whispered, but there was no reaction.
He gently shook Vin's right shoulder and still there was no response. Leaning down he brushed the hair from Vin's forehead and felt for the fever he knew was there. "You're burning up cowboy," he said. "Let's get you out of here."
He lifted Vin's right arm and wrapped it around his waist and hauled him up out of the chair. Chris' heart nearly stopped beating as Vin moaned softly. "Please God, …don't leave me now…."
"It's ok, Vin, it's me. It's Chris. "I'm getting you out of here."
Vin lifted his head, his eyes meeting Chris'. Hopelessness turned to recognition and the barest of smiles touched his lips. "What took you so long?" he whispered.
Chris grinned sardonically, "The doorman wouldn't let me in."
Vin clamped his right hand on Chris's shoulder, letting Larabee support his weight while he fought to gather his wits and his strength. "Mary?" he asked, and his voice caught, the memory of her humming echoing in his head.
"I got her out. She's with Josiah. Now, let's get you out. What happened?" Chris nodded at Vin's left arm.
"Broke," he said simply.
They moved away from the table. Vin's legs buckled and Chris latched onto Vin's belt and they shuffled toward the door together.
"Listen to me," Chris whispered. "In a minute all hell is going to break lose again. We're going out the front door…can't take a chance with the French doors, they could shatter."
Vin nodded then stiffened. The temperature plummeted. The bright sunlight streaming in through the picture window behind Simon's desk turned gray and heavy. The foul stench rose up around them and Vin sagged.
"No…" Vin moaned.
Chris clamped his arm tighter around Vin's waist and started running for the door, half dragging the near unconscious man across the littered floor. The house shook violently and Chris lost his footing. He slammed into the overturned desk and lost his grip on Vin's belt. Vin gasped in surprise as a strong hand gripped his right ankle and yanked him off his feet, dragging him across the glass shards and shredding his shirt.
"Vin!" Chris yelled as he dove across the floor, catching Vin's right wrist.
Vin thought he would be pulled apart as a tug of war ensued. The house shook harder and harder until cracks appeared in the walls. Plaster dust fell like snow. The heavy couch leaning precariously against the desk shifted and then fell. Chris dodged aside as it crashed to the floor in a resounding thud. Shattered glass danced on the floor like water in a hot skillet and Vin felt shards slice his face and hand.
The air temperature dipped toward freezing and Chris felt his grip on Vin's wrist falter…
"No!" he cried out as Vin's hand slipped through his and the tracker was dragged toward the stairs. Chris knew instantly that Barfleur was taking Vin to his bedroom, to the chest.
Chris scrambled to his feet, but the house lurched violently, and he crashed into the mangled desk.
Vin clawed desperately at the rug with his right hand. The grip on his ankle tightened and he knew that his bone would snap any minute.
Suddenly, another sound filled the house. The shaking stopped, and Vin heard gunfire. He saw the air around his ankle waver and for a split second, a skeleton hunched over him. Vin blinked, and the apparition disappeared along with the hold on his ankle.
Chris scrambled to his feet frozen in shock. Was that a skeleton dragging Vin? He opened his mouth to shout a warning, but the vision winked away. His senses returned with the thunder or gunshots.
Pushing past his shock, Chris ran across the room and scooped Vin off the ground and headed for the door. The tracker was heavier than he looked, but Chris was hardly aware of it; he just knew that this was their only chance.
The grandfather clock now blocked the archway leading to the front door, shifted by the quaking house. They had to crawl under it.
Vin was too dazed to follow on his own, so Chris crawled under the clock and turned to pull his friend after him.
Then, the floor plunged beneath them and the clock began to slip with Vin's head and shoulders still beneath it. Chris made a split- second decision and leaped over the clock, grabbing Vin's ankles in time to drag him back just as the clock crashed onto the floor.
The cold stench intensified, and Chris was forced to crawl back into the great room, dragging Vin with him.
Everything was deathly quiet now. The gunshots outside had stopped, and the heavy, putrid air hung like death.
They were trapped.
Barfleur had won yet another round.
Vin lay on the floor, his head cradled in Chris's lap, his chest heaving to get air into his starved lungs. His fever robbed him of what strength Barfleur hadn't stolen. Chris closed his eyes…they almost made it.
"I'm sorry…" Vin grated. "I got you into this…"
"Don't worry about it," Chris shushed him. "We're still going to get out of here. You rest for a few minutes then we'll make a plan."
Vin nodded and his eyelids slid closed.
Chris sat in the stillness, Vin's breathing and his own heartbeat the only sounds intruding on the quiet.
This was not the end. He would not give up when they had almost won. He would give Vin a few minutes to rest, then they would try again.
He heard a whisper of a sound by the stairs and saw the faintest of figures standing there watching them. If Simon was right, Barfleur would no longer be able to remain invisible. There was still a ray of hope.
Chris looked down at the tracker and brushed the hair from his forehead. "We'll get out of here," he promised.
From somewhere, everywhere, a low growl filled the house, and Chris felt pure, unadulterated fear
Chris carefully repositioned Vin on the floor, placing a pillow from the ruined couch beneath his head and another by his left side to support his arm.
The house was eerily still. The overpowering cold and stomach - churning smell had receded to the background but was still remained Chris that he was trapped.
Taking a chance, Chris began to walk around the room. It didn't take long to find out where his boundaries lay. It appeared he could go anywhere in the great room except the windows and the doors.
Knowing Vin needed water to get his fever down, Chris walked toward the kitchen door. It appeared the kitchen was within his boundaries. It made sense. If Barfleur needed Vin to keep up his strength, then it behooved him to keep Vin as healthy as he could…for now.
He quickly filled a bowl with water and grabbed a towel, then filled a glass with water and returned to Vin.
Being as gentle as he could as he could, he lifted Vin's head up enough for him to drizzle a little water over his lips. Vin's senses came back to him and he drank the water thirstily.
"Easy," Chris warned, "you don't want to drink too much."
"What happened?" Vin asked.
"Things didn't work out exactly as planned. It looks like we're stuck here for a while longer."
Vin closed his eyes as Chris wiped his hot face and neck with the cool towel. "You've got quite a fever, there."
"I think my ankle is broke," Vin sighed.
Chris crawled down to Tanner's ankle and gently lifted his stockinged foot, noticing the speckles of blood from the shards of broken glass on the floor. He probed with his fingers then nodded. "I'm afraid you're right. I'm going to have to splint this."
"Chris…what I saw…"
"I know. I saw it too."
Chris crawled back to sit next to Vin's shoulder, wiping his face with the cool rag. "I'm not sure myself…"
Josiah carefully laid Mary on a bed of hay in the barn and covered her with a blanket. It broke his heart to see her like this. She still hummed softly to herself. Her eyes were open, but they saw nothing.
Next to her JD still lay perfectly still.
"You shouldn't have let him go back in…"
Josiah stiffened at the sound of Simon's voice. He stood up slowly, his tall frame towering over Simon. "Chris is doing what he has to do," Josiah said. "If you'd been honest with us in the beginning, maybe Chris wouldn't be risking his life to save Vin."
Simon shook his head. "There was nothing you or any of us could do. Barfleur will kill Vin because that is why he exists. The curse is stronger than you, or I, or anyone. Those men on the El Subio del Mar sealed Vin's fate two hundred years ago.
"I'm sorry Josiah, but there is nothing more we can do. As much as it pains me to say it, the best thing for us to do now is leave until Barfleur has claimed his last victim. In a day maybe two…"
"You listen to me!" Josiah reached out and grabbed Simon by the lapels nearly jerking him off his feet. "I'm not leaving either one of my friends behind. And neither are you. We're going to get them out of there. We are going to figure out another diversion, big enough to get both Chris and Vin out of there. Do you understand?"
Dunkett stripped Josiah's hands from his jacket. He looked toward the house and shook his head. "You're a fool, Josiah. Barfleur is getting weaker and he's becoming desperate. He knows he's lost his hold on Hazelton. He's running out of time. Nothing will stop him from fulfilling that curse. If you don't leave now, you will be as dead as Vin."
"Then I'll die trying. But I won't leave him behind, and neither will you." Josiah looked down at Mary and JD. "As God is my witness," he promised, "we will be together again."
Chris fell silent as he watched Vin absorb everything he had just told him. If he hadn't experienced it himself, he would never have believed it. And, as he sat there, surrounded by all the destruction, he still had to wonder if it were really happening. It defied logic. And yet…
"El Subio del Mar…The Rose of the Sea…" Vin said faintly. "I got a lot of ghosts chasing me, never thought it would be a pirate that..."
"We are getting out of here, Vin."
Vin let his chin sag to his chest, it was all too overwhelming. He just wanted to wake up and have it all behind him.
"Those men who tossed Barfleur overboard, all their ancestors are gone now?"
"According to Simon, you're the last one."
"Lucky me." Vin snorted and looked up at Chris. "You got a plan on how to get us out of here, cowboy? ‘Cause I'm not going to be that skeleton's last victim."
Chris nodded. "I'm thinking on it. But right now we have to set that ankle and get you ready to move when the time comes."
"Don't worry about me. I'll be ready."
Chris used three slats from a broken dining chair for splints and wrapped them around Vin's ankle, securing them in place with his belt.
He eyed Vin and saw the pain registering on the tracker's face.
Chris sniffed at the air. "I don't think Barfleur is down here right now. He's probably upstairs with that chest. If Simon is right, the chest is losing the power to keep Barfleur alive."
"That means that chest is the key," Vin said. "We destroy it and…"
"And the minute we do, Barfleur will come after you. We have to figure a diversion…"
"Barfleur wants me, right?"
"He ain't interested in you, except for the fact that you barged in here uninvited."
Chris nodded again.
Vin looked at Chris and saw guilt added to the pain on his friend's face. "I want you to get out of here, Chris."
"Shut up and listen," Vin snapped. "My mama believed in fate. So do I. There ain't nothing that's gonna change what is meant to be. Only thing that'll happen is you will die when you're not supposed to. Please, for me…go. Before it's too late."
"If you think for one second that I'm going to leave you here alone…" Chris' voice softened. "Rest while you have the chance. We'll be getting out of here very soon and I want you ready to move. Understand?"
"Rest while you've got a chance."
Vin sighed and closed his eyes. If there was one thing he learned about his best friend, it was that he could be as stubborn as himself, and that was one hell of stubborn. He just prayed that they were both not signing their death warrant.
Chris noticed a book lying near his legs and he pulled it closer, running his hand over the embossed leather cover. El Subio del Mar. An uneasy feeling settled over him that had nothing to do with his surroundings. In small letters in the bottom right corner was the name Simon Dunkett.
Inquisitiveness battled with apprehension, but in the end he opened the book.
It was the unpublished manuscript Dunkett talked about. As he began to leaf through the pages, he realized it was an accurate account of the salvaging operation of the El Subio del Mar. Facts and figures were peppered with Simon Dunkett's own observations. He wrote in detail how he first learned of the ship's location, the cargo manifest and a list of all the souls aboard.
Chris turned page after page, skimming over the details. Dunkett's search for the right crew…including Thomas Hazelton and the search for the right ship. They left the port of Boston on June 14th, amid an unusually strong summer rainstorm. The hopes for a successful salvage operation seemed fraught with disappointment from the outset. The weather was against them, the crew was young and inexperienced, and more than one of the young men on board believed the legend of Philippe Barfleur.
When the salvage was complete and no treasure chest was found, the crew, according to Simon's account left and he, along with five other crew members, went looking for the pirate chest.
‘I awoke with a splitting headache and the sun shining down on me from directly above," the passage read. "I was completely disoriented until I felt the slimy wet wood of the chest next to my shoulder. I stood up slowly…and gasp at the sight before me. Five men lay on the ground around the chest, their faces frozen in terror. Their deaths must have been horrifying. I wondered why I had been spared as I looked down at Thomas Hazelton, a man I had grown to admire…his death pained me more than the other four combined.
Chris froze. Hazelton was dead?
‘I don't know what happened next. I awoke in a rundown room for rent next to the pier. I know I must find the chest…I feel driven to do so. I feel my thoughts are no longer my own. I must find the chest and destroy it before it destroys me…or worse, destroys all the descendants touched by Philippe Barfleur's curse.'
Chris turned the page and realized that was the last entry in the book.
He leaned over and gently shook the tracker's shoulder. Exhaustion had finally taken its toll and Vin dozed with his back propped up against the overturned desk. Chris didn't like the grayish look to his skin. Vin was losing ground. He wondered if he would ever get him out alive.
"Vin…Vin, wake up…we've got to move."
"Vin…we have to hurry."
Vin opened his eyes, disoriented.
"Listen to me…I just read Simon Dunkett's book…the manuscript he told us he was writing. It talks about what happened when the El Subio del Mar was salvaged. Vin, only one man survived the first encounter with Barfleur. Simon Dunkett. Thomas Hazelton was killed right away."
Barfleur remained quiet for the moment. The stench was a mild annoyance compared to the overpowering odor when he was near. Perhaps now was the time to try their escape. If he was getting weaker as Dunkett said, then…a low rumble shook the floor and Chris scrambled back to Vin's side, carrying the manuscript…was that just a coincidence, or could Barfleur read his mind?
If that was a warning, he would heed it, for just awhile longer, He couldn't move him now, not hurting as badly as he was.
Chris picked up a long shard of glass, as sharp as a knife, and wrapped the hilt with a strip of cloth from his shirt and handed it to Vin. "He can't let you die," he said.
Vin accepted the make-shift weapon with a weak yet wicked smile. "This will keep him busy. Be careful up there."
"I will," said Chris. He made it to the top of the landing, his shirt clinging with sweat, his heart beating so fast he thought it might seize up any second.
The door to the bedroom Vin used stood half open. The light spilling out of the room into the hallway seemed strangely heavy, like dense fog. As he walked closer, the temperature dropped and his damp shirt felt cold against his skin.
Fear broiled up inside him as he pushed the door open and smelled the thick putrid air. Taking a deep breath, he stepped inside.
The room was ransacked. The mattress was pulled half-way off the bed, the bureau and drawers were overturned. Large gouges rent the walls. The sheer white curtains hung motionless. The light breeze that should have fluttered the curtains through the broken windowpane stayed on the outside, forbidden to enter past the blasphemous air.
Chris searched the room with his eyes, looking for a sign telling him where the chest was. And there, in the corner, to the right of the door, the walls looked black as if a cancer ate them.
He carefully drew his gun, aimed at the chest, and pulled the trigger. He hit the lock and the latch disintegrated into a pile of metal dust on the floor.
The floor lurched. The walls sagged inward as if they were going to implode. The temperature in the room plummeted below freezing. Chris could see his breath as puffs of vapor.
He aimed and fired again, his hand shaking from the cold and the fear that nearly overwhelmed him. Instinct screamed at him to run. Reason told him this could not be happening, and guts made him stay his ground…it was Vin's life he was fighting for.
The second bullet hit the lid of the chest. The old wood cracked and splintered open. The house shook again…
A wail of anger roared up from the great room quickly followed by the sound of something crashing below. Chris's heart skipped a beat. What was happening to Vin?
Chris aimed again and a cloud of dust rose up from a gaping hole in the chest. He felt his knees nearly buckle at the stench that billowed out with the dust.
Vin felt the blade of glass sink an inch into his chest and felt a moment of insane accomplishment as Barfleur staggered backwards.
He heard Chris's second shot. The walls shuddered and the floor bucked beneath him.
Barfleur heard it too. He jerked his head up to look toward the second floor. Traces of bone dust drifted to the floor like powder and a malevolent wail of anger and pain filled the house.
"It's almost over," Vin hissed. He struggled to his knees. He nearly blacked out from the effort, but he needed to distract Barfleur for a little while longer.
A third shot rang out and Barfleur staggered back again. More bone dust sprinkled off him.
"Simon Dunkett is standing outside, waiting for you to die," Vin yelled. "He left you here. He only had to come back for the chest, but he watched and waited. He'll be a free man and you'll be trapped for eternity between heaven and hell. How does it feel? The curse is on you, Barfleur."
Vin sank back against the overturned desk, his strength played out.
Barfleur exploded in a fit of anger. He grabbed the desk and flung it across the room as if it weighed nothing. It crashed against the far wall and broke into a dozen pieces.
Vin tried to scramble away, but his broken ankle screamed and his legs weighed a hundred pounds each Barfleur reached down for him, his skeleton fingers wrapped around Vin's arm and the injured man's body followed the path of the desk, as he, too, was flung across room He crashed into the ruined desk, pain exploding From everywhere.
He gasped and the stench nearly gagged him. Vin fought it down, he had to give Chris more time.
"You kill me and even hell will shut the door on you."
Barfleur charged across the room, but another shot rang out and the ghost staggered for a moment before he leaned down and grabbed Vin by the wrist and ran toward the stairs, dragging Vin behind him.
Vin's strength was gone. His left shoulder hit the first stair and his world collapsed into blackness.
Simon heard Barfleur calling to him, demanding him to return to the chest.
"I can't let you do it…" Simon cried, pointing a derringer at Josiah's stomach. "I've spent the last four years in hell, now's my chance to escape."
"I can't leave my friends in there," Travis growled.
"I'm sorry, Orrin, but I told Chris not to go back in there. Vin is my only way out. When I saw Salcedo, and I remembered the name, I knew I had finally found a way to destroy Barfleur and the curse.
"Please forgive me, I thought Vin was still bounty hunting. Barfleur could ‘smell' his victim…he knew when he was close. He would have ‘smelled' Vin, even as a baby. When I saw your name in a newspaper article I decided I would semi settle down here in Four Corners. I would buy a house and use it as my headquarters. I planned to search every western state until I found Tanner knowing that Barfleur would follow me to Vin and break the curse. Can't you see how close I am to victory? After all these years…
"You unleashed a monster like that on us? On Mary?"
"Vin was not supposed to be here. I could not believe my eyes when I saw him in that bed. I knew then that Barfleur was getting his strength from your peacekeeper."
Josiah saw Simon's unsteady hand, saw the terror in his eyes, and knew he was serious. Dunkett would shoot Travis. He had no choice but to wait.
The sound of a gunshot from Vin's room rang through the air…
Josiah looked up toward the still window. "It's started…."
Chris felt the cold seize his hand and he could barely pull the trigger. The sound of Barfleur's rage rocked the house. He heard the sound of something hard thumping up the stairs and he turned back to take another shot at the chest.
The chest was on the verge of disintegrating. The room grew painfully colder like the icehouse in town.
Chris had two shots left, one he would keep in the chamber in case he needed it. He had an unspoken promise to keep.
The floor suddenly buckled beneath him and he leaped to his right just as the sound of splitting wood heralded the collapse of a six- foot section of floor. A gaping hole looked down onto the first floor.
The stench grew thicker and he knew Barfleur was outside the door.
He took his last shot at the chest, praying he would not have to use the last bullet in the chamber. The chest exploded, rusty hinges clattered to the floor and wood flew everywhere.
The door crashed open and Chris only had a moment to see Barfleur dragging Vin into the room before his friend's limp body was tossed across the room. Chris collapsed beneath Vin's weight and the floor gave way beneath them both.
He felt himself falling, and then they landed in a tangle of arms and legs on a pile of sofa cushions next to the overturned couch.
Dazed, Chris looked up to see Barfleur's skeleton looking down at them through the hole in the ceiling.
The chest was destroyed. Barfleur was now the victim of his own curse. The only thing he had left to do was kill the last living descendent of El Subio del Mar.
He tried to lift Vin, but his own strength was being drained by the encroaching blackness.
Then everything became deathly still. Chris looked down at Vin and saw his chest heaving for air.
"Go…" Vin gasped.
"Forget it." Chris tried to heft Vin up again, but his knees buckled under the strain.
A movement caught Chris's attention and he looked up the stairs. Vin looked too, his eyes widening as he saw Barfleur standing three steps from the bottom, his dagger in hand, watching them. His bones, solid just a few minutes ago, were now beginning to crack and splinter. As he walked down the three remaining steps, powder from his bones sifted to the ground, leaving a trail of dust and ocean sand.
Chris felt Vin struggle to sit up, his right hand grasping Chris's shoulder. The effort weakened both men. Together they held each other up.
Chris wrapped his arms tighter around Tanner ignoring the gasp of pain as his embrace squeezed Vin's broken arm. He knew the gesture was useless. In his weakened state, Barfleur was much stronger than him, but it was instinctive, this need to protect this man who was closer to him than a than a brother.
The blackness crowded around them.
Barfleur raised the dagger, a horrible wail of fury shook the room.
"No!" Vin yelled breathlessly. "It's me you want."
Barfleur threw the knife, slicing across Chris's arm. Chris hissed, realizing too late that he had relinquished his hold on Vin. The ghost grabbed Vin's splinted ankle and began dragging him toward the stairs.
Vin desperately clawed at the polished floorboards trying to dig his fingers into the wood, but he was dragged inexorably toward the staircase.
The blackness continued to eat up the room.
Chris held his bleeding arm, unable to move.
Barfleur reached the first step and dropped Vin's ankle. There was the sound of cracking and splitting wood throughout the house.
Vin, his eyes wild with fear, grabbed onto a throw rug anchored by the overturned dining table, and held on as Barfleur reached down to grab his arm.
Amid the sounds of the barn's tacking hitting the back of the house, Josiah flung Simon at the French doors and the portly man crashed through the glass and wood, landing unceremoniously on his stomach, inches away from Chris. Josiah followed him in, stunned at the scene playing out in the great room.
It was too much to take in all at once. The stench was overpowering. The air felt heavy, and he soon found himself on his knees, his strength spilling out of him like blood from a cut.
He saw Barfleur for the first time as the skeleton standing at the bottom of the stairs. And then he saw Vin holding on desperately to the corner of a throw rug.
"Vin!" Josiah cried frantically.
"Josiah!" Chris gasped.
Josiah spotted Chris to his left and scrambled over to him as fast as he could. Chris sagged against the preacher's huge chest, his fingers worked to staunch the flood of blood from his arm.
"Help him…" Chris pleaded.
"Simon!" Josiah roared as he turned around to see Simon struggling to his feet, stooping to stay below the growing blackness consuming the room.
Simon moved over to them, his face white with fear.
"Tell us what to do, Simon," Josiah ordered.
"I don't know."
"You're the only one who does." Josiah looked back at Vin. "You can't let him die like this."
Simon nodded "I'll distract him while you get Vin."
"How?" Chris rasped.
"I don't know yet." Simon looked over at Josiah and smiled. "Make sure you add this to my manuscript. It'll make one hell of an ending."
"You can write it yourself when we get out of here." Josiah pulled his belt off and crawled on his belly toward Vin.
"Barfleur!" Simon yelled. "We come to the end at last."
Barfleur spun around, the act sending more bone dust into the air.
"Four years," Simon said. "Four long, hellish years, all to appease a curse that I should never have unleashed."
Barfleur took a menacing step toward Simon, Vin forgotten for the moment.
Josiah reached Vin just as his hand began to slip from the rug. Barfleur was enraged. Simon Dunkett had betrayed him and was the man responsible for the Hell he was committed to for eternity.
Simon took a step backwards and Barfleur followed. Bone dust continued to fall off the skeleton like snow. He raised his head toward the ceiling and roared with a fury that shook the house.
"You lost, Barfleur," Simon mocked him. "You weren't as strong as you thought. You couldn't fulfill the curse. How does it feel to have lost the ultimate battle?"
Vin heard a faint voice and recognized Simon, his voice shrill and taunting.
"You're weak, Barfleur," Simon mocked, taking another step forward. "You're nothing anymore. Even Death turned its back on you. The crew of El Subio del Mar did the world a favor when they sealed you in that chest. If not for me, you would have continued to rot, festering in your own evil curse."
Josiah could feel Vin slipping from him, his strength all but gone. The suffocating blackness engulfed them. He gagged on the stench.
Vin couldn't feel anything anymore. Even the panicked beating of his heart seemed to stop.
"I'm sorry…" he whispered as his body relaxed
"No!" Josiah yelled. Tanner was dying. Barfleur was winning.
"You were an incompetent pirate when you were alive," Simon continued to taunt. "And now you can't even carry out your own curse. You were incompetent then and you are still incompetent now. You're a failure, Philippe."
Chris dropped down beside Josiah, cinched his good arm around Vin's waist and held on as the stairway began to crumble around them.
Barfleur roared in anger. He whipped his skeleton head toward Vin and those who were trying to protect him. Tanner was his. He still had time to save himself from an eternity of hell. Tanner had to die.
He staggered toward the stairs. His hand and left arm disintegrated into bone dust. Chris and Josiah covered Vin's body as Barfleur reached out for them with his other boney hand. Josiah was flung across the room.
Chris tightened his hold on Vin, gasping for air through the dense blackness when he remembered the last bullet he saved for Vin. He grabbed his gun and brought it up, firing a bullet straight into Barfleur's skeleton head. Bone dust exploded into thin air.
The blackness consuming the great room slowly withdrew. Sunlight poured in through the picture window. The stench disappeared.
Simon crawled over to the three men. "He's gone," he panted.
He reached out and touched Vin's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Vin. I never wanted to see you hurt."
Vin closed his eyes and turned his head away.
"Get out of here, Simon," Josiah ordered.
Simon got to his feet and made his way through the demolished room and out the French doors.
"It's over," Chris sighed.
Josiah nodded. "Let's get Vin settled in the barn, and then one of us can walk into town and bring the rest of the guys out here. They can go look for our horses."
"Not necessary," JD said from the doorway, a big smile plastered across his face. "They're all coming back, just as pretty as you please."
"JD!" Chris grinned. "Thank God you're all right."
"Of course I'm all right. Why shouldn't I be?"
"And I'm all right, too," Mary said pushing past JD and kneeling in front of Vin. "We need to clean you up before we do anything. JD, would you heat some water please?"
JD grinned. "Consider it done. Then I'll head into town and get Nathan."
"Mary," Vin reached out for her with a shaky hand. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, now. And you will be too, soon." She looked around the house and cringed. "I think I'll help JD with the water."
"She went through a lot," Vin sighed sadly, watching the woman retreat from the demolished room.
"We all did," Travis said looking around at the once beautiful great room. The destruction was mind numbing.
But no matter what happened now, Barfleur and his curse were history.
A low rumble shook the house.
"Earthquake?" Chris asked.
Vin and Josiah both nodded. "Earthquake."
Josiah chuckled as he turned the last page. "That was quite a story, Simon." He grinned.
"Yes. Quite a story, indeed." Travis threw an extra blanket for Vin to put over his shoulders. "A perfect story for a stormy Halloween night."
"I had help," Simon said nodding toward Vin. "I picked Mary's brain for the necessary background on all of you and this house."
Josiah laughed. "I have read all your books and enjoyed them immensely."
"Thank you, Chris. I only intended to visit for a day or two…but fate had something else in mind." He tapped the heavy cast encasing his right leg.
Thunder rumbled overhead, shaking the house. The flicking fire roared in the fireplace casting deep shadows over their faces.
"You didn't like the story?" Simon Dunkett looked toward Vin who sat huddled under a mound of blankets. The story did nothing to improve his sour disposition. Stuck in Nathan's clinic for over a week with a nasty cold, he didn't find much humor in it.
"Why couldn't Chris's ancestor be one of the men to throw Barfleur, or whatever his name was, overboard?"
Simon laughed "I had to pick one of you, and it happened to be you."
"Lucky me," Vin grumped.
"Well, I liked the story," Mary jumped up. She had opened her house to Simon Dunkett while he convalesced. This was the first time they had been together for dinner. "Would everyone like a hot cup of cider?"
Another huge clap of thunder shook the house and the candles flickered as a draft of air blew through the room.
"Where did that come from?" Chris asked.
Mary looked toward the darkened kitchen and sat back down. "Maybe one of you would like to get the cider," she said. "I think I'll stay next to the fire if you don't mind."
No one minded. In fact they all moved in just a little closer to each other.
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