A sky, beginning to lighten, woke the gunslinger who found him secured in the exact position he remembered upon falling asleep the night before. Tanner continued to hold him like a coiled snake; arms enslaved his torso; and the thin legs ensnared the lower half of his body. Feeling stiff and slightly agitated, Larabee remembered his plans. He had to get up. "Vin! Vin! Wake up."
"You were exhausted after yesterday. Did you catch up on your sleep?"
"Nope." The weary reply, spoken softly against his chest, confirmed the ailing tracker had remained alert their first night home.
"Why not? Are you nervous sleeping indoors?" Chris gentled his tone, but remained anxious to get moving.
"Afraid you'd run off to find Buck." Tanner's movements were slow, as he released his prey, knowing exactly what would happen next. It did. Larabee jumped out of bed, immediately dressed, and pressured the younger man to hurry. Unfortunately, after his long vigil and remaining in the same position throughout the cold darkness, Vin ached from neck to toes. Finding some sensation returning allowed him to sit and dangle his feet over the side of the bed, but he felt ill and dizzy. He had not slept the previous night on the trail, vomiting every hour to rid the demons he would face at the wedding. The monsters came and went that day, but this morning, after pondering on everything said at the party, he felt perplexed over his behavior. Embarressed and unnerved, he could not fully remember what transpired the previous day, and could only hope that he had not scandalized his relationship with Larabee, although relieved that his friends welcomed his return. Silently muddling through the chaos of the day before, he nearly passed out, when a longer hand grabbed his arm and hoisted him onto his feet.
"I wouldn't run off without you. Now, come on, let's get moving." Chris tossed Vin his clothes, which nearly knocked him back onto the bed. As instructed, the tracker tried to rush with his clothing, but his fingers ached and they stumbled over each button he attempted to fasten. The gunman caught the young man's dilemma, but not the cause, quickly securing and tidying him up, before the younger man could utter a word. "I'll saddle the horses, and you wash up. You're sweating, and that clean, cold water in the basin should cool you down. Hurry, Vin."
Barely ready, the tracker required assistance to mount Peso, but they were off at a gallop that Vin could not control. Sick, aching, and exceedingly light-headed, he held his tongue, hoping the man on another quest would stop or slow down. Arriving in town, they both dismounted outside the Sheriff's Office, but Vin's knees gave way, and he tumbled into the sand that appeared neatly raked. A new ordinance of the town paid for the nightly cleanup, as well as keeping the garbage and animal waste burning during the night, suffocating Four Corners in a smoky purple haze. He could barely breathe and started to cough, but another grab of his arm had him upright. Taking seconds to stand erect, the tracker readied himself to follow the gunslinger into hell if he had too.
Wilmington awoke from his cot in the Sheriff's Office, a rather uncomfortable sleeping arrangement for a man so tall. "Damn, if I'm going to be the law around here, some city official better buy me a bed. Can't leave when I've got visitors, boys. Okay, you old drunk, get up and get out of here. Go home." Buck's prisoner, a man caught in an ugly brawl at the saloon, had slept off his drunken stupor, and staggered out the door. "Alright then, what are you doing here so early? This better be good."
"So, you've decided to take on the job. Thanks Buck. Can't leave these citizens with another new lawman like the last one."
"You're damn tooting about that. So, what are you doing here? Vin looks like he's ready to drop, Chris." The tallest of the seven friends looked at the tracker from head to toe, immediately sensitive to the younger man's need to lie down.
Larabee paid no attention to the new Sheriff's concern and rattled off the tale of Ella Gaines and the possibility of her stalking the gunslinger. Without a mention of where she may be or what they planned for her, the chatter continued, and the three men went to find a few bodies that could help spy on the Telegraph Office. Ezra came first, then Josiah, and lastly Nathan Jackson. After hearing two names, Mrs. Gaines or Mrs. Larabee, they made a list of those, who came to mind, that had moved to Four Corners in the last six or so months. The list became too long, and as Tanner had mentioned, the four older men agreed that the culprit could be female, increasing the number of names. They needed help, and Mrs. Standish, although unprepared to get out of her feather bed, did agree to help, after dressing in the appropriate manner of a lady. Her conning ways, always in the back of the men's minds, necessitated her commitment to ingratiate herself to gain the answers of what had been sent, what had been received, and by whom. The perfect picture of delightful charm, she emerged quickly--just in time--as businesses began opening along the main street. Mary Travis was their second contact that morning, as she opened the door to the Clarion Newspaper office. After a few quick questions, to the person who knew everyone and everything in the town, the group received a clue. A woman had asked about the disappearance of Mr. Larabee, several months previously, and ironically had been hired to make the frocks for the wedding party. Described as small and redheaded, Mary looked down the street and mentioned the dressmaker's shop still remained closed that morning. Scanning the street, the Widow Travis nodded her head at a petite, well-dressed woman, with flowing auburn hair, heading with determination to the Telegraph Office.
Larabee inhaled deeply in disgust, but four men held him back. "Damn, that's Ella's sister. I knew her as a kid, but she hasn't changed. She's as wild as her sister, and finding me would be a great triumph for Sissy. She's probably one of many that may be looking for me."
Before the men could initiate a plan, Maude immediately went into action, following the woman, whom she had hired, to the Telegraph Office; and on her arrival, stood next to the pretty red-head, while they both scribbled notes to be sent and chatted about the wedding. Striking up one of her favorite cons, just by talking, her eyes shifted to the large print the younger woman had written. Smiling and giving the excuse that she would write her note outside in the fresh morning air, Mrs. Standish departed. After stepping onto the boardwalk, she waved to the men waiting. Wilmington went in first, knowing the petite red-head would recognize Larabee. After some flirting conversation, and the woman delighting in the attention, he snatched the paper from her hand. Furious at the action of stealing something personal, the tiny sister, of a murderer, fought back, but another pair of male arms grabbed her. Ezra had entered at the appropriate moment, immediately dragging the distraught seamstress off Buck, while the new lawman rushed out to show the coded message to the others. Tanner had been correct; the stalker was a woman.
Larabee looked at the note, swore under his breath, and read aloud the contents of the unsent telegram that was written in a normal fashion before being ciphered by the operator. "Ella, prey has returned, but appears concerned over another. Prey plans leaving in two months. Will attempt to assess his destination. Love, Sis."
Ezra continued to struggle with the angry woman as they exited the Telegraph Office. "Would one of you kind gentlemen care to lend a hand?" The plea defined his predicament, and Chris finally heard the humor in the statement, as Tanner had pointed out. He had misread the gambler and his mother in so many ways.
Larabee entered the Post Office before being seen by the culprit. He scanned each envelope for a pertinent address, but the last from his uncle was dated mid-July. Ella Gaines appeared to have stopped his communications in some manner, and probably with the statement that her husband had died from a gunshot wound. The conniving woman planned to ruin his life, no matter whom she hurt or cheated. Time became imperative, and he immediately had a scheme to contact Frank through other means. On his way back to the group, he found Buck arresting Sissy, escorting her to jail; while Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah searched her home and business. They found what Chris required; evidence came from the letters and telegrams sent between the sisters. Proof of fraud, forgery, and murder was immediately locked in the Sheriff's Office safe. Once in the hands of the Lexington law, there would be no doubt of Ella's theft of his name, his holdings, and the most crucial of documents, which stated she had arranged the murder of Sarah and Adam to regain Chris Larabee's affection. Caution remained a factor, however, as alerting the law, too early, would enhance the chances of the 'so called' Mrs. Larabee running away or selling the estate. Tanner came to mind, as revenge filled Larabee's thoughts. A bullet, from a dead assassin's rifle, became his way to terminate an insane, obsessed woman, and lay his past to rest. Having the best sharpshooter he had ever seen, riding by his side, the moment came to pursue and terminate the evil that had possessed the gunslinger for nearly three years.
With concrete evidence against Ella, and her sister now screaming for justice at being locked up, Chris and Buck headed for the bank to handle the sale of his many sections of land. The property covered a vast area, unbeknownst to most of the population of Four Corners. Delighted that the bank could prosper further, the manager had no qualms in handling a bidding war between several ranchers. He would also advertise the ranch in Eastern newspapers, hoping for additional wealth to arrive from other parts, and to extend Four Corners name, ensuring the railroad found the town desirable as a station stop. Another day would come to take care of both fortunes of Larabee and Tanner, but this was not the day. With good news and cheer to be spread, the next item on Chris' list required a quick ride out to the Welles' homestead. The contracts had been drawn-up by the Bank Manager early that morning, and it would only require signatures from Nettie, JD, and Casey. Larabee thought Tanner the best choice to announce the good tidings.
"Have you seen Vin, Buck?" Chris asked as they headed for their horses.
"Not since our talk at the jail. I'm assuming he heard and saw the ruckus at the Telegraph Office, but I don't remember him standing with us. As I said earlier, he didn't look well, Chris." Wilmington's concern about the tracker escalated; however, the man in black paid him no heed and insisted he needed Vin on another trip.
Seeing Nathan, Ezra, and Josiah completing the final ransacking of Sissy's quarters, Chris yelled out to the three for information. All shook their heads, and the situation turned into a mad dash of five men scouring the town for the tracker. Now high noon, Vin had been gone for hours.
Coming into an alley and turning to look both ways at the back, Mr. Standish found the tracker sitting and leaning against a horse trough, minding his own business, looking pale and sad. "There you are. Whatever made you decide to sit in this ghastly scent of horse manure and rotting hay?"
"Just thinking." Vin's voice murmured in search of air, as the raspy sounding lungs impaired his speech.
"You look exhausted, Mr. Tanner; and I do declare, you should be sleeping, rather than partaking in this wild venture at such an early hour." Ezra tried to remain calm, but the young man, whom he leaned over, appeared close to death. "You wait here, and I shall find the others expeditiously. I do believe you require Mr. Jackson's attention." Without a commitment or argument from Vin, the gambler moved slowly until he had turned the corner, and then immediately sped up his walk to find the healer. "Mr. Jackson, I have found our runaway. He is most certainly in a bad way."
"Find Larabee, and I'll go tend to him. Where is he?"
Ezra pointed in the exact direction, as he breathed hard from a racing heart over the condition he found the tracker. The constant inhalation of smoke fumes, from the dwindling garbage fires, and that of cigars in the saloon from many nights of just sitting, did not make the gambler the fittest of the group. Regaining needed air to fill his lungs, he swiftly walked toward Larabee, again, not wishing to cause a scene with the gathering of early morning risers and children. He caught up with the gunslinger, said his piece, and felt heartbroken over the sad face of the man in mourning black. Another item on Chris' list, he had promised to summon the undertaker, before taking care of more projects than Vin realized. What seemed the perfect start of the morning became a sad filled day.
Nathan discovered Vin in the same position that Ezra had found him. "Morning, Vin. Think it's time we get you to the infirmary. Have you eaten today?"
"Nope. Chris was in a rush to get to town." The depression Larabee had mentioned now expressed itself further to the healer. Having witnessed the turmoil of the tracker's mind during the party, Nathan could do little to help someone suffering from acute duress. "Tried to find something to eat, after our chat with Buck, but couldn't find a place open so early. Just don't feel good, Doc. Was sitting over on that side, but started coughing so hard, more blood came out. Can't deal with this, and neither can Chris."
"He has a lot on his mind today, and one of them is you." A few comforting words seemed to make Tanner's face paler. "You have to help me out here, Vin. When did you last eat?"
"Yesterday, at the party."
"That was early afternoon. With such bad pain in your belly, the first thing you must always do is eat or drink something to coat your insides. Those sores are eating away the lining of your stomach, Vin, and we best get you drinking more milk. Come with me; let me help you; and you'll start feeling better."
Tanner did not resist the aid, considering how tired he felt, and realizing he had not slept for forty-eight or more hours. Feeling like a feather, ready to blow away on a cool autumn breeze, he allowed the healer to lift him to his feet, and put one arm over the very strong shoulders. Unfortunately, it left him to dangle a few inches off the ground. "May be best if Ezra helped, Doc. We're similar in height."
Standish and Larabee came around the corner at speed, hearing the plea of the tracker. Ezra immediately took over from Jackson, allowing Vin to take small steps, now that his feet touched the ground. Feeling hands touch his face, neck, and then holding tight against his abdomen, he knew Chris had arrived, which gave him little comfort. The hotel seemed the closest, with a restaurant open for guests, where they all sat down and watched as the youngest drank a glass of milk, forming a white mustache that he swiped clean with his sleeve.
"Why didn't you tell me you were feeling poorly, Vin?" The gunman had come to his senses, feeling awkward at breaking a promise to care for the tracker.
"Didn't give me a chance. Tried to stop you while riding in, but I couldn't open my mouth without gagging."
"You seemed fine when we spoke with Buck, but... Damn, I forgot I had to help you onto your horse, and then you fell off at the end of our ride! You didn't sleep at all, did you?" Chris looked away, thinking of the past few days and the torment the young man had suffered. "Can you help him, Nate? What can we do?"
"I'll get him fed and then take him to the infirmary. He needs rest, and lots of it. Let him sleep, while you finish whatever else needs doing." Jackson's concern spread around the table as Josiah walked in. He pulled up a chair and said nothing, but stared straight at Tanner. His young friend seemed in a deep depression and physically fragile.
"Y'all stop fussing. It ain't like it hasn't happened before. Let the Doc help me, Chris, while you make me a happy man, by taking care of business with the undertaker. Ask Mrs. Travis to put an announcement in the paper, that Sarah and Adam's proper funeral will take place this coming Sunday. Please, Chris, just get your business done, while I sleep at Doc's place." Vin held his stomach as he coughed out the words, and choked down the porridge and milk he forced down his throat.
"Okay, but I think it best we talk to Nettie, JD, and Casey together. I'll send someone out to fetch Nettie, and she'll be here by the time I'm done making funeral arrangements. Are you sure you want me to leave?" Larabee wiped the sweating brow, wanting to hold the young man who recommended the best alternative. There would be no shopping this day.
Josiah's dulcet voice responded in support for Vin. "He needs rest, Chris. I'll help you with the undertaker, but we're baffled as to what you're planning."
"Vin thinks it best that we remove Sarah and Adam's bodies from their location and bury them in Four Corners. He made a good point that the buyers of my land won't pay any respect to two forgotten graves. A proper burial will make us both happy." The gunslinger grew increasingly distressed, worried about his partner, and not wishing to leave him.
"Guess I'm the best man for such a ritual; so brother, shall we depart and leave Nathan and Ezra to tend to Vin. He needs more than a catnap. Let him sleep, and I'm sure your business with Nettie does not require his help."
Both the tracker and the gunslinger exchanged knowing glances. Vin remained Chris' savior from insanity, making the proper decision. With nothing else said, Sanchez and Larabee left on a sorrowful quest. Josiah handled everything, allowing the gunslinger to make personal suggestions, and leaving all other details to the preacher. The funeral would be Sunday, and Mrs. Travis, who had forgiven the strained gunman, helpfully wrote a lovely request for the townsfolk to participate in a proper farewell. With thanks, and leaving the preacher behind to tend to other matters concerning the ceremony, Buck joined Chris and they rode out together to talk to Mrs. Welles. There was little need for her to make the journey into town, and she left it to a generous man to surprise the honeymooning Mr. and Mrs. Dunne.
Nettie Welles appeared enthusiastic over the deal, and thought it appropriate in all respects. Her land would belong to her niece one day, and joining the adjacent area of the Larabee holdings would give the couple a grand start. Leaving the title of the house in Chris' name also deemed appropriate, considering the two men, whom she loved, would seldom be back and certainly not permanently. The treasure of such a gift had the stoic woman in tears. Agreeing to come to town the following day, she would gladly sign the papers, assuring the gunslinger, and the newly appointed Sheriff. that Casey and JD would be overjoyed. As they rode away, Nettie cried for the first time in many years, for Mr. Larabee had insisted adding a clause to the contract of the rest of his property. The buyer, of the land being put up for sale, would forfeit the title and the purchase price, if anything should befall the young couple and their holdings. The two would be under the prospective new owner's protection, and would be their main buyer of the oats, wheat, hay, and other staples the new farmers would grow. Sheriff Wilmington would ensure the peace.
The two men rode back to town, but before finding the honeymooning couple at the hotel, they made their first stop at Nathan's infirmary. Without a knock, the healer opened the door, only wide enough to whisper that the tracker slept soundly and should remain there a few more hours. Jackson would meet them at the saloon later for an early dinner. With a nod, Chris and Josiah headed straight for the hotel, and discovered the new couple giggling over their lunch. A delight to see, the two older men smiled at the pair who greeted them both with handshakes and hugs. Their first night had gone very well. Joining them at the small table, it took little time to explain Larabee's wedding gift of land and the use of a rent free house, inciting much merriment. Nothing could stop Casey from leaping up with joy, and dancing about the restaurant, much to the cheers of the hotel's cliental. Settling her took some doing, but JD took her hand, sat her back down, to accept the best gift of miraculous imaginings. Mr. and Mrs. Dunne graciously and excitedly agreed to the terms, and would move into the house when the gunslinger and his tracker left in the next couple of months. In the meantime, they would stay with Nettie who, along with Casey, would start teaching the greenhorn the hard work of farming. JD did not hesitate to inform Sheriff Wilmington of his immediate availability for any problems brought about by outlaws, bank robbers, and thieves. With a laugh and more giggling from the cute couple, the two older men headed for the saloon and found the quiet table where Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra sat, sipping their whiskey slowly, while discussing the changes in the two returned men.
"Have you finished all your business, Mr. Larabee? On behalf of the others, I sincerely wish you and Mr. Tanner the very best." Ezra cleared his throat before speaking, and did so with sincerity filling his heart, which the wary gunslinger again recognized as meaningful.
"Running through the list: the main bulk of my property is now up for sale, the contract for the house and gift for Mr. and Mrs. Dunne only requires their signatures, Sarah and Adam's funeral is set for Sunday, and we found our stalker that will be taken care of by Buck who has accepted the title of Sheriff. Of course, I'm assuming that he'll have someone watching his back on occasion. Do you all agree?" Chris leaned back, puffing on a needed cheroot that he had tried to give up. The scent of the little cigar would dissipate once outside and on the ride home. Unfortunately, he knew a dip in the cold pond and fresh clothes would be necessary, considering the tracker's sensitive nose.
Strange looks between the men indicated some hesitation, but whether construed as whom would become Sheriff, or possibly other plans were afoot, could not be detected without someone speaking. Buck, however, had decided his future, and he slapped his hand down on the table to finalize his decision. Lifting his jacket lapel, he confirmed the difficult choice he had made after talking to Larabee, exposing the badge of honor. Having once been a lawman when he first met Chris, the tall man had taken the gunslinger's words to heart. Changing with the times, a steady job would give him the respectability he lacked, and possibly a family of his own one day. With JD and Casey wedded and soon to be farmers, and again with his best friend and their tracker also going to a nowhere destination, the one thing that held them together was the town of Four Corners. Larabee and Tanner would return occasionally; and Buck finally saw the softer side of a very sensitive young man. The idea of the funeral and exhuming the bodies made perfect sense; and it had been Vin's idea. He swore to keep the tracker in higher esteem, although the partnering arrangement weighed heavily on his shoulders. If anyone could make a go of a male bonding, these two men had the know-how and expertise to get out of any dangerous predicament.
On the announcement of a fulltime, experienced sheriff, the healer found his voice, and stumbled out his plans for the future. "I'll be here until Vin's fit to travel, but after they leave, watching your back will be more awkward, Buck, although I'll only be a half-day's ride away. I'm returning to the Seminole village, where we originally grouped together. Rain has not yet married, and the note, which I sent a few weeks ago, was received and my proposal accepted. She's offered a way to change my life, and I can retreat in grace from the fighting and the hatred expressed by the new arrivals heading this way since the war ended. Many of our latest citizens do not take kindly to my presence, or of me as the only healer. I'm going to be a married man, taking care of a mix of racial cultures, and living a simple life. I informed Mrs. Travis to start searching for a new, young doctor, trained at a proper school of medicine; and she has begun her search. Before everyone leaves, you have another wedding to attend in the next few months." Nathan smiled sheepishly, looking down at his drink, instead of the shocked faces of his friends.
After a gasp of surprised silence, the men soon broke into toothy ear-to-ear grins upon realizing Mr. Jackson would soon have a wife, and a beautiful one. "Congratulations, Nate. Did you tell Vin before he fell asleep?" Impossible to remove the laughing smile that lit up the handsome gunslinger's face, he reached over and shook the man's hand. The rest of the group did likewise, and all toasted their healer, an imposing, wonderful man whom they needed far too frequently.
"Gave him the good news, but it took all his strength to shake my hand. Just clung weakly to it for a few minutes, until he drifted off. It didn't take long."
"Damn, I'm mad at myself for ignoring his plight. I can't remember the last time he had a full night's sleep. Best we stay here, where he'll find us at our favorte watering hole when he wakes up. In the meantime, your words do worry me, Nate. What has happened to our quiet little town?" Larabee stopped the merriment, and the expression of those in attendance told him part of the unexpected news.
Josiah answered, to immediately derail the healer's exposed emotions, with the recent events of discrimination in Four Corners. "With the influx of people from the Southern states, who left because of their losses after the war, it seems they are taking it out on the only man who reminds them of their past. A former slave is fair pickings to those whom believe our brother's talents are beneath them. Nasty words and beatings have become part of our friend's life. As a group, we try to sway the bigotry, but I fear it will be an never ending battle for Mr. Jackson if he remains in town."
Surprised and heartbroken, Larabee tried to refrain from the anger seething through his soul. "What can we do about this, Buck? Creating laws for such abuse is probably out of our hands."
"Completely out of our hands, as name calling isn't an offence. As for the beatings, we just have to protect him, and other's like Nathan when they arrive. Those we catch end up in jail for a few days, and according to law, they're treated like any fist fight that happens regularly in a frontier town. Nathan is a free man, but without regulations on treating former slaves with respect... well, Chris... it just ain't going to happen anytime soon." Wilmington took off his hat and eased his fingers through his hair. While Larabee had been away, the town had changed for the worst, and the new Sheriff could only hope Jackson could find solace in the peaceful village. He had and would always be there for his friend.
"Were there any instances at the party the other day, Nate?"
"With me around, you'll all become castouts eventually. I had my friends yesterday, and that put the newcomers to a disadvantage. They all know what would happen to any cuprit who decided to attack me in such a public gathering. Rain will now be my life, and we'll live amongst people who love and know us as just ordinary people. Let's leave it at that, Chris, as I don't want to see you exploding over something that can't be conttrolled." The healer kept his eyes downward throughout the conversation, believing himself to be free of what once was, but had turned around suddenly into something very different and equally as frightening.
"Not on my watch, Nate. While I'm still here, I'll do my part in setting people in there place. So... enough of bad news... does anyone else have plans or surprises?" Chris continued puffing and chewing on the end of the cheroot, while swallowing down another full glass of whiskey, another thing he had missed during his trials on the trip with Tanner.
Josiah took off his hat and brushed off the dust coating. His future lay elsewhere for a time, but he would return. He just had to say the words that he thought only Vin knew. "Reckon I'll be leaving for a spell. There's an old, ramshackled convent of nuns in Vista City. Seems they need help with stonework and such, and perhaps getting my hands dirty, planting flowers and trees, would help them out." The sadness came through too clearly for Larabee, remembering a secret about Josiah that Tanner kept hidden.
"Probably need a man of the cloth in that tiny village, and it's a day's ride away. Don't think you're telling us everything, Josiah." Chris continued to delve into each man's life; and with the preacher, his digging could end in a brawl; and the gunman knew Sanchez could beat the daylights out of him.
"Vin knows. He'll understand. Don't need any of you visiting me there. I'll come back when necessary and in my own time."
"Can we help, Josiah?" Tanner suddenly appeared at the table, looking rested and standing straight. A chair suddenly appeared, and the missionary's son helped him sit next to him, to ensure his mysterious visits to Vista City would remain safe.
"Ah, brother Vin, I gather you told no one of this matter." Josiah looked up from under his thick eyebrows, almost in warning. He had already made peace with the tracker for finding his sister, but the others need never know.
"Nope, or did I tell Chris when he found me? Wasn't quite myself while in Mexico, and would you stop puffing on the teeny cigar, Larabee. You're trying to kill me." Tthe tracker changed subject mid-statement, in between coughing fits. Unsure if the gunslinger had caught the slip he had nearly made, while hiding out, he closed his eyes and hoped he had said nothing of consequence. Promises were meant to be kept, and he had shared enough with the gunslinger.
"Sorry, Vin." The man in black doused the cheroot in his drink, and dissipated the smoke away from the sensitive nose and raspy lungs. "Don't recall you talking about Josiah, except sleeping in the church when you were too stubborn to stay in the boarding house when winter set in." Larabee had heard part of the secret the two men hid, but refrained from asking more.
Sanchez took the younger hand and squeezed it a little too hard, but Tanner did not wince, but came up with a response. "Your... our investment in New Orleans should help you out, preacher man. You don't have to spend your entire time away from friends."
"You're right, Vin. Keep forgetting about the cash that filters in once a month. You're a good lad, and a smart one. I'll send the sisters a portion of the money once a month, which they can use to purchase supplies, food, and other items. There appears little need for me to visit them as often as I once did." Josiah continued to clasp the tracker's hand, ignoring the questioning looks of the others.
"No hope, Josiah?" The simple question was answered with a simple shake of the head. Sanchez' sister looked close to death when he had seen her, and now it had been months. The tracker felt badly for the woman who had endured so much under a missionary's abusive hand. From the response he received, he felt the man's sister no longer recognized her brother.
"Now, how about you, Vin? Feeling better?" Another shift in the conversation, the preacher had given an answer no one but the tracker understood, and he gazed at the sad blue eyes, hoping they would soon spark with delight on hearing news of the others.
"Yes, sir. How long did I sleep?"
"About four hours. Once again, it's my fault you became sick. Should have fed you and let you sleep longer today." More regrets heaped on Larabee's shoulder, but with some color, in Tanner's face, gave him hope he could withstand staying in town a short while longer.
"Ain't nothing. Was worth it catching Ella's sister. Did you find anything in your mail?"
"Yes, but I'll tell you everything on our way home. Seems we're currently discussing exciting news about our friends. Think Nathan mentioned to you that he's marrying Rain before we leave." Chris smiled at the man, gave him a wink, and a little squint that indicated he knew Ella's location. Nothing further needed discussing at the table full of happy faces.
A female voice suddenly came up behind the former slave, and bid the healer luck and love. Maude Standish had been playing poker at a nearby table when she overheard the news, and had quickly folded, pursing the money she always won, and came over to sit with six of her investors. "Ezra, darlin', did you tell them of your news? I do not know whether to be joyful or bereaved."
"This is not the time, Mother, as I wait on an important telegram." Standish had been wrapped up in the affairs of the others, forgetting his own impatience and agitation. With the sudden slamming of the batwing doors, the telegraph operator barged in, quickly handed Ezra a piece of paper, and as quickly scampered out the swinging doors. "Lord almighty, that man has certainly had a busy day. If you will forgive my momentary exit, Gentlemen and Mother, I shall read this in private.
Now six heads turned to stare down a suddenly fumbling gambler. They all saw the shaking hands, and heard the stammer of an apology, as Ezra rose from his chair and found a quiet hidden spot just outside the bar. Tears ran down his face as he read the note, but speedily wiped away the emotional tidal wave washing him clean. With his hand patting his heart, to keep it beating, he emerged with a giant smile and a reflection sparkling from his gold tooth. He could only stand there smiling, unable to open his mouth to speak. Looking everywhere except at the faces waiting for news, and Maude holding her breath, he tried several times, but a calm, raspy voice stopped him.
"She's coming, ain't she?" Vin grinned wily and winked at the usually calm, but now obviously unsettled man.
While still patting his chest and refraining from ungentlemanly conduct, Ezra finally spoke. "Be still my beating heart, for the love I have nurtured over these past months has accepted my proposal and her father has granted me his blessing. Yes, Mr. Tanner, you are correct as usual. She will be here in three weeks. We shall be having another blissful wedding, Gentlemen."
"Who?" A chorus of male voices rang out in unison.
Maude stopped the fun with a bitter retort. "Some foolish girl of another race, pardon me, Mr. Jackson, but it is appalling to take a bride from another country. She will not fit into New Orleans culture, I assure you."
"Mrs. Standish, I hate saying you're wrong, but I know Lee Pong, and she's beautiful, sweet, strong, and a heroine in our eyes. She saved your son from getting his fool head blown off, by telling me and Chris of his whereabouts. Not only did she save, Ezra, but all her people working on the railroad." Vin squinted menacingly at the well-coiffed woman who found every opportunity to belittle her only child.
"Lee Pong? She's perfect for you, Ezra; and I assume you've known this secret awhile, Mr. Tanner." Chris looked at Vin who just tipped his hat to his partner. "Well, I'll be damned. Congratulations."
"I fell in love with her the moment she spent the night with me..."
"...I told you, Ezra, not to touch that girl. You won her playing cards. What's the matter with you?" Nathan stood up and yelled, his eyes bulging in anger at the gambler.
"Doc! Doc! Sit down!" Vin lost control, jumped to his feet, and shoved the healer back into his chair. A tough triumph for one too weak to pick up a spoon, the tracker proved his mettle, by taking on someone a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier, and yelling at him. "You didn't see Ezra give Lee Pong the money to help her family, or the ticket for a stage back to San Francisco. Well I did; and I spoke with her right after, afraid someone else had seen the exchange. I stayed with her while she packed, slipped her up on my horse; and we high-tailed it back to Four Corners, just in time to bribe the coach driver to protect her. He did, and she made the trip safely back to her family. As for Ezra touching her, she said he was the perfect gentleman and slept on the floor. The first time she'd slept on a feather bed, she fell immediately to sleep; and in the morning, our friend here, remained where he had settled for the night. When they both got up, they sat staring out the window, and Lee Pong told him about the ledger's Browner kept, and what she'd discovered about his bookkeeping. Now, that's the story, and they've been keeping in touch daily, so don't go off on him now, Doc; it ain't the time. You like each other, laughing, playing jokes, always competing over everything. I'm tired of it, so shake hands, because in two months, you'll both be standing side-by-side as your brides walk down an aisle, if that's what ritual y'all partake in." Vin collapsed in his chair, having raised his voice to a level few had heard. Coughing while gasping for air, Chris put his hand on the pounding chest and tried to calm his lover.
"I expected nothing less of you, Mr. Jackson, than to protect the young lady's honor. She wanted to thank you, but unfortunately her exit, from that rancid little hole by the railroad that they called Chinatown, required expediency; and Mr. Tanner, I thank you for thinking it through. She could have been robbed and killed by either a white-man or one of the Chinese."
"Sorry, Ezra, we are friends. Never thought I'd see the day you didn't take advantage of someone." The healer felt ashamed, as did the gambler. The two sparred continually over every matter, and they had fun doing just that. As the two men reached over to shake hands, another unexpected interruption closed the conversation.
"Did none of you hear what my son just said; he's going to marry, and to a woman I know little about, except that..."
"...don't start, Maude. You're a lady, and I ain't going to yell my frustrations at you, like I did the Doc. So Lee Pong is Chinese, what difference does it make, when she's exactly the person Ezra needs and loves? She's smart and when they move to New Orleans, I expect nothing but the best for her, so don't go demeaning a woman who figured out the rail boss was cheating her people. I plan to pay her to make sure you haven't swindled the seven of us, like you've done to so many others, including your only son. Y'all hearing me? Think we've all won a prize with Miss Lee marrying Ezra." The tracker sat back once more, fighting back the gagging he felt in his stomach and throat.
Chris immediately had a glass of milk for him to drink, and he gratefully swallowed it. Proud of the tracker, Larabee silently agreed that the time had come for the two men to make peace. One had been a former slave, joining the Union Army as a medic, while the other an unlikely Confederate soldier who managed to escape the ravages of his home frontier, along with his mother.
"Now look what you've done, Ezra. You've made Vin ill." Nathan called out from the seat he had no intention of losing. The tracker had made it clear; but the healer wanted another few cents worth of the gambler.
"I swear, Mr. Jackson, you are as bull headed as they come; and, Mother, you shall not be interfering with Lee Pong in any manner, refraining from making her one of your servants. If she desires to work, she can help with accounting matters; or as a seamstress, one of great talent, designing and making clothes for whomever she favors. You witnessed her fine work in my green jacket and gold vest at yesterday's wedding. Although it looked similar to one I already own, she graciously sent the finest jacket, vest, shirt, and trousers that I've ever worn. Perhaps, she'll create a uniform appropriate for our staff, making our hotel look even more luxurious. Remember that term, Mother, staff not your personal servants."
"Sounds like we're back to normal. Let's order dinner, and find out more details of what is to happen, where, and which rituals. Sounds like fun to me." Chris beamed his best smile, laughing at the two men who would continue to debate and fictitiously fight until they died. Always amusing with Nathan and Ezra, love and hate seemed to co-exist nicely between them.
"I am shocked at your assumed insults, Mr. Tanner." Maude jolted them back to the argument that Chris had deflected. "You did not let me finish; and I resent your remarks, considering you are my favorite amongst your group, besides my darlin' son of course. What I planned to ask was just who is this young lady? Does she come from a background of farming, or is she accustomed to large cities? What does she like? How do I speak to her if she only speaks Chinese? These are among the many things I need to know, as a mother, in order to assist her in adjusting to society in New Orleans. Does that sound like a racist to you, Mr. Tanner, or to any of you for that matter? I must return to New Orleans to check on many things, before I again make the long, disturbing trip back to Four Corners." Maude made plausible statements, and she had always treated Nathan kindly. Vin's statements had not been fair.
"Sorry, Maude, just concerned for Lee Pong." Vin saddened at his assumption, but continued to feel uneasy. Mrs. Standish could swamp the gambler's quiet new bride with her outlandish remarks and hurtful words toward her son. "As Ezra just said, be kind and gentle to her, as she is vulnerable and won't understand exactly what you're inferring. Just like me, hey Chris?"
"You could say that, Vin. None of us understood that English is not quite your first language, and because of it, you hear things literally. Even now, you forget how Ezra and Nathan banter about, always sounding like they dislike each other. You know they don't, because they're still at each other's throats, but both are sitting here enjoying their good fortune." Chris smiled at each person at the table, and they all rallied behind him.
"Chris' right, Vin. I'm the one that started the fiasco by forcing Ezra to pay for Lee Pong's freedom."
"Which reminds me, Mr. Jackson, you still owe me seven dollars."
Laughter again erupted around the table, and the merriment continued as a simple dinner was set before each person. Many things were discussed while dining, mostly answering Maude's endless questions, which proved interesting to all and confirmed where, how, when, and in what manner the two men would say their vows. Ezra asked Josiah to perform his ceremony, while Nathan requested that the preacher attend to help the Chief in the simple rituals of a Seminole marriage. Considering the Chief had become the protector and elder who Rain looked to for guidance, it would be the healer's duty to honor her new family. Made up of so many members of different races, bands, and cultures, a wedding seemed only a celebration of joining two people together in the small village.
The two men, soon to become married men, sat quietly and pondered their situations, and came to the bright idea of holding both marriages on the same date, and at the village. Having only a handful of true friends, and one bride having an enlarged multi-raced family, while the other had no members of her family to present her, it seemed the most plausible idea. Obtaining legal Certificates of Matrimony in Four Corners seemed appropriate, but the traditions of the two brides would be maintained, along with those of their future husbands. With the question 'of where' decided, the next would be easy. The guests for both would include their five friends, the villagers, plus Casey, Nettie, Mary, and Maude, a horrifying thought for the latter, considering her fears riding through native lands during an ongoing war further east with the Apache. A second name had Vin nervously wringing his hands, but with a quiet whisper from Chris, he calmed his mind. Mary had helped them this day, and had forgiven both men. She had brought them together in a strange manner, and although she disapproved of them after the gunfight to save Nathan, calling them 'The Bad Element', Mrs. Travis had made friends with them all but one.
"My, my. Two weddings to plan and very different ones; how shall I manage when I must return to New Orleans on tomorrow's stage?" Maude continued to unnerve the men, but Ezra put an immediate stop to her involvement.
"You remain in New Orleans, taking care of our business, and then expeditiously return as not to be late for the nuptials. This is not a request, I assure you, and you shall have your son's admiration eternally. I know you wish to help, but the brides are very different than her royal cuteness, Mrs. Dunne."
"Darlin' Ezra, you are such a tease, leaving your mother in such suspense. At least tell me what to wear for such non-Christian events."
"You are not a Christian, Mother, and not once have I seen you in a church, except for JD's affair. You wear your golden-colored dress, with very little on your head. The headdresses worn by both brides will be different, but ornate, so please do not try competing with their loveliness. From what I understand, Miss Rain's dress is made of soft deer hide, bleached white in the sun, with colored beading as adornment. Is that correct, Mr. Jackson?" A nod of the healer's head indicated Ezra's uncertain knowledge of native traditions seemed correct, at least from what Nathan had learned from Rain. Ezra continued with a surprise, "Lee Pong's garments, of red silk, gold, and silver, may alarm you, as well as a few more unorthodox traditions. Her headpiece will make a powerful statement, and because a Chinese wedding is truly one of uniting families, and not just two people, she requires your support, and thus I recommend your golden attire as part of a combined family. The others can dress as they please, but leaving red in their armoire. Only Mr. Tanner will be obliged to wear a red, silk shirt that my fair bride will stitch for him; but only if he accepts Pong's formal request. My dearest darling has asked, that if our runaway returned, he would represent her brother. Of course, it is up to Mr. Tanner to accept such a prestigious position." Again all eyes turned to the tracker who looked surprised.
"Don't know what to say. What do I have to do, just wear a red shirt?" Tanner's hand immediately grabbed onto Chris' sleeve, wishing the surprises would cease.
"Absolutely nothing, unless we must partake in all the rituals. Since Lee Pong is open to tone down the celebration, you just have to help her out of her sedan chair, which requires porters to carry, and protect her from being viewed twenty-four hours before the wedding. I'm sure she would appreciate Mrs. Travis' quiet assistance, or perhaps Mrs. Dunne's exuberance. Possibly Miss Nettie could also help. We shall make a decision on her arrival."
"Oh! Reckon I could act as her bodyguard, and I'd like a sister?"
"Exactly, Mr. Tanner, and your red shirt indicates you represent her family; and as for you, Mother, dressed in gold, represents the Standish family."
"Sounds easy enough. Okay, I'll do it, but what other surprises should I expect?" Vin confirmed his desire to participate, thinking how much he liked the still countenance of the young woman and her silent ways of communicating. He never had a sister, and now he may have several, including Casey and Rain. He rather liked the idea, and certainly enjoyed the company of all three, very different, young women.
"Be prepared for a large fireworks display on her entrance, and one afterward. The wedding will take place at sunset, and a magnificent display will enchant everyone, including the villagers who must be prepared for multiple explosions." Ezra finished, knowing more than just fireworks would impress the group. "I personally think that it appropriate to set off the first set to excite the crowd immediately after Rain and Nathan are wed, along with introducing the next bride of the day. The finale will be for both parties. What do you think, Mr. Jackson?"
"Been awhile since I've seen fireworks, but they're beautiful, and certainly will wake every creature that wonders too close to the village." Nathan laughed and clapped his hands. "With all that said, I need a best man, Ezra. Would you accept?"
"You bestow an undeserved honor upon yours truly, and of course I'll accept, but only on the chance you shall stand at my side."
All in agreement over the weddings, including Maude who suddenly glowed with the excitement of something different, an unexpected visitor arrived a second time. The telegraph operator hustled his way through the restaurant, and handed Josiah a telegram. Without hesitation, the poor man poured a glass of whiskey from one of the bottles sitting on the table, swallowed it straight down, and puzzled over the paper he slowly unfolded. Quietly reading the news, tears filled his eyes, and again Vin reached for the man. "She's gone, ain't she, Josiah?"
"Yes, Vin, my sister has passed on and entered the gates of heaven. Living on this earth has been her hell, but I'll miss her. I should've been there for her from the beginning. I must leave for Vista City tomorrow to arrange her burial." Sanchez looked skyward, holding his preacher's demeanor through the bad tidings. No one else moved, stunned that the oldest of the group had a sister.
"I'll go with you." Vin spoke quietly, hushing every word and everyone around the table.
"I'd appreciate that, son, but you know you're too ill to ride."
"Just need to rest tonight, eat before I leave, carry some milk, and I'll be ready. Don't want you to bury her, Josiah. Let her go free, flying on the wind, and riding the raindrops. Please, Josiah, she's been locked up too long." Vin pleaded to everything holy to let the poor, insane woman take flight, and not bury her in the dirt to rot.
"One of your funeral pyres?"
"Yeah, a big one, and you, me, and the nuns can watch her spirit rise into the light, heading for the stars, if that's where she wants to go. Please, Josiah, set her free."
Larabee had to jump in, afraid of Vin taking part in a long ride and inhaling smoke from a pile of wood with a body resting on top. Far too sick, fragile, and exhaused for a ride, as well as Larabee not at his side, Tanner's offer did not bode well with the gunslinger. "Vin, you're intentions are good and proper, but you fell off your horse today and have been sick all morning. Josiah can't handle your problems during his time of sorrow. I am sorry, preacher man, for your loss, but I don't think Vin should be tagging along."
"He's the only man she's had contact with in twenty or more years, although she never spoke to him. The last time I saw her, and after years of not speaking, she said a few jumbled words: angel friend, blue eyes, sweet boy. I can't forget what Vin accomplished that I could not."
"But I upset her, Josiah. She screamed and came toward me, but then stopped. One of the nuns sent me away, before I could even say anything." The seated patrons at one sad table hung their heads, and many tears burst out from hardened trail men and one stoic woman. Josiah's reason for hiding his older sister had fallen upon them, and if he had only asked for help, they would have come together as a group. Too many secrets, too many heartbreaks, too many broken fences, they all led to one person: a young man who remained lost in a fog of sorrow mixed with joy.
"Apparently you did in a very good way, son. The nun, who sent you away, told me my sister almost called you back, running for the door, her hands hiding a crying smile, and tears falling down her face. She has never cried, Vin; not through the beatings, the incarcerations, the insanity--you meant something to her--a blue-eyed boy angel. Chris, I need Vin to be there, and I'll make sure the trip is easy for him. Just pack the right foods and I'll make sure he stays healthy."
"I don't like this, Vin. You're sick and need sleep. We've only been home twenty-four hours, and you've already had too much excitement today. Look at you; you're already holding your stomach. If you go, I'll be riding beside you." Larabee's frown illustrated his adamant decision. He would go, no matter what the preacher or his partner said.
"You're welcome to come, brother, but she didn't know you. Seems I need only Vin, her blue-eyed angel, to send her on the path to a future that may lead to some happiness for her soul." Josiah pondered the gunslinger's request. The young man had experienced two bad days in a row, and it felt inappropriate but correct for the tracker to ride with him. Peering at Vin through tear-filled eyes, he saw the tanned skin turning ashen in color, and the frail body he could snap like a twig. Tanner needed two months to heal, according to the doctor, but the look, in the young man's deep blue eyes, sparkled with life and a need to do the right thing. The preacher had a decision to make, and he made one. "Okay, if you're both up to three or four days away from your home, I'd appreciate it, Chris."
"Okay, but I'm warning you, Vin, one vomiting episode, and we're heading back home." Larabee sighed as his partner nodded in agreement. They had barely unpacked, and it would all start again on the morrow. "Make it after the sun is up, Sanchez, so I can get both of us ready. Agreed?"
"I would also like to propose that Mrs. Standish delay her trip for those four days, as I wish to accompany her back to New Orleans to check the books. Knowing how frightened she is of the long journey, I may give her some comfort with my gun at the ready; and it's been awhile since Ezra and I have made the trip." Josiah forced a smile, having always been intrigued by the stylish, beautiful woman.
Maude beamed her brightest, hoping to spark life back in the sad, pale blue eyes of the preacher. Without a stumble over her words she agreed, and would pay for two fares on a coach leaving in four days, giving her time to find all the answers she required from her son. "As it being such a long trip, and giving us enough time to audit the accountant's work, perhaps we shall return together for the upcoming weddings. While we are in the exciting city, we could partake in a few excursions of the sight-seeing variety, if you so desire, Mr. Sanchez."
"Sounds delightful just to be in your presence, Mrs. Standish; and I shall endeavor to behave in the most gentlemanly manner as your personal escort."
Larabee went into action, afraid of the elimination of his own plans. "Josiah, you can't leave before Sunday."
"Oh, I am sorry, Chris. Perhaps those tickets can be purchased for the Sunday afternoon stage, Maude, as Sarah and Adam's funeral is scheduled for the early morning, and I don't wish to rush through something so important."
"Of Course, Mr. Sanchez. My goodness, everyone appears to be in turmoil with two funerals, yesterday's wedding, and two future weddings. I wish everyone well, and if the ceremonies can be postponed for seven or eight weeks, we shall return to celebrate, and also bid farewell to Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner, sending them off with much love in all of our hearts."
"Thanks, Maude." Chris hung his head and discreetly held onto Vin's hand.
The preacher nodded, and asked a last question, as Larabee helped the tracker to his feet, "Please, everyone, tell us if there is more news: good or bad."
Vin immediately responded. "Still need new clothes, Larabee. Let's see if the store's open."
"Let's go then, before the haberdashery closes. If we're traveling tomorrow, we best get you something that fits you. Don't want your pants falling off when you dismount. See you in the morning, Josiah, and we bid all of you a good evening and a heartfelt thank you. We'll be back for Sunday's funeral. Perhaps, Ezra, you could speak with our preacher man tonight, about Sarah and Adam, and ensure my family's belated funeral will go according to plan."
"I shall most certainly take upon the honor, Mr. Larabee."
With handshakes and gentle hugs, the two struggling travelers left the saloon for new attire and then onward toward home. Life had changed for them all, and the routes they intended to travel seemed only known by the intuitive Vin Tanner. They had turned into a strong group of lawmen called "The Magnificent Seven" in a wild west book by Jock Steele and fame came with the title. As friends, it started the day the gunslinger and the former bounty hunter had saved Nathan Jackson from a hanging. From there, the seven gathered in spite of themselves. Buck Wilmington, although already a middle-aged man, had grown up and taken on a job he could handle with his mouth or his gun. JD Dunne had also grown from a clumsy greenhorn to a man of substance, marrying the fairest of little pixies in the land. With the death of his beloved sister, Josiah Sanchez found the freedom to help others, as he did with his friends, and the world would be better for it. Nathan Jackson found happiness elsewhere, away from the hate and bitterness of the southerners moving into their territory. Ezra Standish had also turned into a decent individual, convincing them to invest in a profitable venture, making them enough money to live in a more genteel manner, and marrying the perfect lady who seemed to fall from the sky and into his arms. All seemed right in the town of Four Corners where the group would meet occasionally, and in far off cities like New Orleans, Lexington, and San Francisco. The many broken fences in Vin's head had been eradicated; and he could hear the meanings behind the literal translations.
For the second time in two nights, Chris and Vin rode down the wheel-rutted path to their home. Feeling better, the tracker wore a broad smile, as did his riding partner. One more trip of four days, and they would return down this trail, to a place the younger man could relax, read, learn, and become a man who could disguise himself as a gentleman, while traveling to Kentucky. On a stage heading East, in a mail pouch, a letter sat with many others, this one addressed to Frank Larabee in care of the Bridgewater Tavern, for only his eyes to see. A warning about Ella and the soon arrival of his nephew would gladden his uncle's heart. Instructions were very clear and concise, and Frank Larabee would protect the plantation, from 'Mrs. Larabee', all very secretively. A telegram would arrive the moment the important letter arrived in Frank's hands. A sad day, a good day, perhaps even a special day, it would end with the gunslinger spooned around his young lover.
A quick dip in the pool, a little tussling in the large bed, two men lay contemplating their future. The gunslinger swept the long hair off the tracker's handsome face and asked once more, "Are you sure about this trip, Button?"
"It's the right thing to do, Cowboy."
"You got me thinking about Sarah and Adam, during your discussion with Josiah. Do you really believe their spirits would be set free to roam if cremated?"
"Just my belief, not yours."
"I'm beginning to wonder. Their tombstones could still be set in place, but their spirits would remain as prisoners in their caskets. Think I'm changing my mind. Something else we could do to help Josiah, is have a tombstone for his sister beside them. I never saw her, but as a Sanchez, she's part of our family."
"Think Josiah would like that. Once the wind blows away the ashes, there's no place to visit the dead, except in your mind; but if you listen, their spirits sing through the trees and tall grass, and every once in a while, you'll feel them. A tombstone is a reminder, and it should always say something loving about the departed, and not just a name on a stone."
"You have a beautiful, spiritual soul, Button, and I can't believe all the secrets you kept safe and your intuitive thoughts."
"Might have another prediction, because I know something else is going to happen in the next six months." The tracker snickered as he snuggled deeper against the warm body of Larabee.
"Tell me now, before I have to guess another secret."
"Think Josiah is going to end up real happy as well. Watched as Maude looked at him in the church during the wedding, at Nettie's place, and then at dinner tonight. She's growing fond of our friend, and he now has a gentleman's suit, looks real handsome, and can talk her out of almost anything. Seems a good match."
"Good God, Vin, you're imagining things now. Those two are complete opposites."
"Maybe, but he's riding to New Orleans with her, and they plan to stay until their return to Four Corners. Inez and Raphael won't cheat us, but Josiah has a good eye for detail and pretty women." Again, giggles erupted as Chris found the ticklish spot on Vin''s thigh. "Stop, because I need to understand something. Tell me about them thoroughbreds you mentioned and whatever a venue is."
"Where did that come from? Your mind is certainly active tonight, but a story you'll get. A thoroughbred is a special breed of horse, trained to race around an oval track at higher speeds than any other horse can run and over greater distances. The races are measured in furlongs, and don't ask, because I don't know what that is either. These horses are bred for speed, and every one of them is related to three different stallions that date back several hundred years. Accurate records keep the breed pure, and there's something called a Jockey Club in England, that ensures the horses maintain a standard of color, size, look, as well as other things. A jockey is the rider, and every race, they ensure that the weight carried by each horse is the same. Don't know how they do that, but I reckon we'll soon find out. Horseracing certainly happens in our country, but since the popularity of the sport and betting has become so prevalent in England, Ireland, and many other countries that neither of us have heard of, Uncle Frank saw the eventuality of the races and the horses coming here. The track on which they race could be grass or dirt, and the venue is the track with a series of raised benches along the straight-away and finish line, which can then be seen by the spectators and those that make bets on a particular horse. Seems all very complicated, but we'll learn. If betting's involved, Maude will be visiting regularly."
"Maude and Josiah." Vin giggled, knowing the pair would share a rare but loving bond, both being similar in age, and each one deflecting the other's flaws to the outside world.
"You could be a matchmaker, Mr. Tanner." Larabee chortled lightly against the long brunet hair.
"Nope, but maybe one of them jockies. Have a plan then, Cowboy. If the seating is only on one side of the track, that means there's nothing but trees or bushes on the other side, or maybe barns to hold the thoroughbreds. Ella Gaines will proudly stick out from the crowd in her finery, in perfect range for a shot from that assassin's rifle from the far side of the track. If we hide out some place close, and not tell your Uncle Frank of our plans, we can even the score with that evil bruja, then disappear for a spell, while they search the grounds for the shooter, never expecting it to come from such a distance. About the time the venue is finished, and the first race makes a grand opening for the new track, we need to be there and ready. Once done, we'll show up at the plantation a few weeks after the investigation dies down, and you can be the mourning husband. What do you think?"
"Probably a better plan than killing her at the plantation, and I know all the hiding areas in the bush around the area where they're building the track. As far as being the grieving husband, I won't be doing that, with all this proof of her guilt over Sarah and Adam's deaths. There was a Mrs. Larabee, a Mrs. Sarah Larabee."
"Sorry, Chris, didn't know just how much information you found."
"That's okay, Button, as the rest of your plan might be possible, but we need to know the exact layout. I'll send another casual letter of inquiry to Uncle Frank, making it sound that I've grown interest in the sport. He won't figure it out for a while, and once I'm back, he won't care or turn us in, unless he's grown attached in some way to Ella. Damn, his marriage may run amuck if she has plans to establish her place on the plantation! He also has two sons about your age, who would be easy pickings for that flirtatious woman."
"Once your Uncle Frank receives the letter, he'll put a stop to any shenanigans, and keep Ella restrained from dipping into your inheritance. I'm sure of it, Cowboy, so don't even fret, until you get that telegram."
"I need to know if you can handle the shot, Vin. Perhaps, it's my sole responsibility to put a bullet between her eyes."
"I can take the blame and not feel guilty over the deed. You had a relationship with the woman once, and it might make you hesitate. You have only one chance, Cowboy, and it has to hit the mark exactly."
"You're right about getting only one chance, but I wouldn't hesitate, not for a second. All I'd see, looking down the barrel, is Sarah and Adam's burned bodies, and the trigger would be pulled."
"If you're sure, and you don't feel guilty of cold-blooded murder. I'll teach you how to handle this special rifle while on the trail, and see if your sight warrants the attempt of such a long distance shot. I still think I should be the one, Chris."
"I can do it, if everything goes as planned, although it will change once we get our barings of the area. Glad you're back, Button. Of all people, you're the smartest, clearest-headed man I've ever known. Now, enough for tonight, mi amante. Sleep well. We have another long trip ahead of us." Chris reveled in the feel of the body he had so long desired, and now would hold firm for whatever remained of his life. He dozed off quickly and rested peacefully, dreaming dreams of the young man in their own bed, knowing his one last great love would grow stronger physically and mentally, with the help of their forgiven and forgiving friends. His runaway had returned, and he felt confident Vin's future would be long and happy. It was the tracker's turn to experience a life of joy, after years of hardship; and the gunslinger wished only to share it with him, protecting his back in whatever way he could.
Vin dreamed of his cowboy. Chris Larabee was his amante, his corazón, and his alma, and could now look forward to a new future and a new start, without having to watch his back. He found himself this day, helping others, and getting them to open up, just as Chris had done for him, in the heat of the Mexican sun and the coolness of desert nights. The gunslinger and his Peyote Button would start by helping a friend on the morrow, with Larabee in his shiny black boots and Vin in his new, tight, leather pants--desert colored.