CHOICES

By Winnie

The Magnificent Seven -OW / Rated PG-13 / Word Count: 6,666

CHOICES image created by Pywacket

(Author's Note: This story is for Marti. I hope she enjoys it. Thanks to Antoinette and Pamela for the great beta.)

 

 

The town of Four Corners slept under the misty rain that wasn’t quite enough to take the heat from the air. Most of the people had retired for the night, but there were still a few who enjoyed the libations in the saloon. Ezra Standish and Josiah Sanchez sat at a table and watched as the patrons slowly dwindled until it was just the two of them left as Inez Recillos finished clearing away the tables before closing down for the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the empty jail, JD Dunne slept on a cot with a dime store novel open on the floor beside him. The day had been a quiet one with no problems, mainly because of the rain that didn’t seem to let up and was probably the reason there’d been no trouble from outside.

 

Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee were staying at Chris’ ‘little piece of heaven’. The two men had done a patrol of the outlying homesteads before retiring to Larabee’s home where they planned to spend the next 24 hours enjoying the bottle of Red Eye while mending the corral fence. 

 

Nathan Jackson had retired to his clinic that doubled as his home to read one of the journals Orin Travis had brought during his last visit. The journals were from John’s Hopkins and were filled with the new treatments implemented by the hospital’s top doctors.

 

Buck Wilmington was snuggled up against his newest conquest with a hint of a roguish grin on his face as she chuckled softly as he teased her neck with the tip of his tongue. He respected and loved women, especially those who gave themselves freely, not because they were forced to, but because they wanted to. Sure, he had a reputation as a ladies’ man, but most of the women he slept with were either whores, widows, or women in a loveless marriage. The latter didn’t happen often, but Buck had met a few who seemed to blossom after their lovemaking.

 

The lone rider sat astride a big bay as he entered the town and headed toward the only place that still showed some life. There was no doubt in his mind that it was the saloon and he hoped to find the man he was searching for there. He’d ridden several days in search of Buck Wilmington and adrenaline had kept him in the saddle even during the torrential downpours that plagued the area over the last few days.

 

He was soaked through, but he wasn’t cold as he studied the buildings he passed. He spotted the livery and the hotel, the jail, the mercantile, several other buildings that could be homes, and a place that proclaimed it to be ‘The Clarion’. He’d done as much research as he could once he’d confirmed Buck Wilmington was living in this town and now it was just a matter of renewing old acquaintances.

 

The rider pulled his horse to a stop in front of the saloon and dismounted before looking around once more. He could hear voices inside, one woman and if he was right, two men. He stepped up to the batwing door and looked inside, not at all surprised when the two men, one rather large, the other reminding him of a ‘dandy’ with his fancy red coat turned in his direction. He’d done his homework and if he was correct the big man was Josiah Sanchez, ex-preacher who seemed to be looking for his calling again. The other man was Ezra Standish, resident gambler and conman turned lawman.

 

The rider stepped through the doors and shook the rain off his hat before running his fingers through dark hair that was too long and hung over his forehead. He moved to the bar and smiled at the beautiful woman whose eyes were filled with life and placed his hands on the bar.

 

“We’re closed,” Standish said, not at all sure what it was about this man that had his dander up.

 

“Was hoping to get a whiskey to warm up, been riding for a while and stumbled across your little town,” the man said.

 

Inez poured a shot into a clean glass, placed it in front of the newcomer and smiled at the look she received from Ezra. Josiah stayed where he was, but she knew he was also sizing up the man and trying to figure out whether he meant trouble or was indeed just a poor man who’d been caught unawares by Mother Nature.

 

“Thank you, Ma’am,” the man said.

 

“You’re welcome,” Inez said and cleaned the empty glass as the man turned toward Josiah.

 

“Is there any place a man can bed down for the night?”

 

“You’re best bet is probably the livery at the end of town,” Sanchez answered. “You’ll get some feed for your horse and Yosemite might let you bed down in one of the empty stalls until the hotel opens up in the morning.”

 

“Thanks,” the man said, and turned toward the door. He strode purposefully toward it and felt the trio watching him as he exited onto the street. Nothing moved except the batwing doors creaking behind him as he took his horse’s reins and walked steadily toward the livery at the end of the street. A hint of a smile formed as he heard the sound of the wind picking up and he knew he’d come to the right place. His brother would be proud of him…if he’d been alive to see his plans finally come to fruition.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Chris Larabee stood outside the door of his home and let the rain cascade down over his bare shoulders. It was cool, but not freezing and he relished the feel of it on his skin as lightning flashed in the distance and thunder rolled through the surrounding hills.

 

“Yer a mite wet, Cowboy,” Tanner said from inside the cabin.

 

“Sarah loved storms like this. She said it was God’s way of cleansing the land,” Larabee said wistfully and leaned against the railing as lightning streaked across the sky. “Adam hated it…scared the hell out of him when the thunder was loud enough to shake the roof.”

 

“Can see why…he’s jest a little fella,” the Texan said.

 

“I told him to count and see how long it was between the thunder and the lightning and told him the higher he counted the better because it meant the storm was moving away,” the blond said. “It worked with Buck too.”

 

“Buck’s afraid of storms?”

 

“He was…least when we first met. Buck told me about it when Adam turned two. He was caught in a storm in the middle of nowhere when he was eight. His ma had everyone looking for him, but he’d wandered off from the carnival that had come to town. They found him hiding out in a cave in the hills. He was soaked to the skin and hugging his knees and refused to come out. Buck told me it took three of the men to help his ma get him out of there and back to town. He never really told me what it was that spooked him, but I believe he saw something that’d scare a kid and make him afraid of storms even in his later years,” Larabee explained.

 

Chris lit a cheroot and realized he’d spoken of a part of Buck’s past. They’d come a long way from that dusty day when he’d placed a razor at Buck’s throat and told him his past was his own. Since that time, Chris had opened up to the six men he rode with and had even managed to talk about his family. The trust was there and it was something he felt privileged to have.

 

“Buck afraid of storms…ya know Larabee there could be a free meal or two in this if’n I work it right,” Tanner said with a grin.

 

“Hell, Vin, he quit being afraid when Adam needed him,” Larabee said.

 

“Maybe, but he might not want anyone knowin’ he was scared of thunder and lightning,” the Texan told him. He envied Wilmington’s long time friendship with this man and the shared memories of the life Chris had with Sarah and Adam. A life that held the promise of forever, but was snuffed out by a crazed woman who thought Larabee belonged to her. Ella Gaines was still out there and until the woman was caught and brought to justice, Chris would never feel safe enough to settle down with anyone. 

 

“”Any whiskey left?”

 

“Might be a shot or two,” Tanner said and moved into the house. “You want it straight or in coffee.”

 

“Straight….you made that last pot and I figure by now I’d probably need a knife and fork for it,” Larabee said.

 

“Last time I make it fer ya.”

 

“I’ll hold you to that,” the blond said with a grin and took the glass of whiskey. It went down smoother than ever as he looked at his friend and wondered what it was about the six men he rode with that made him think of a band of brothers.

 

“Ain’t certain I like the way ya said that Larabee…sounded like one of them insults Ezra said caused a duel. Should I be takin’ ya out?”

 

“I think you mean calling me out….takin’ me out can be taken two ways and neither one of them fits. Rather not be called out…least not by a friend,” Larabee said with a grin and grew silent as the storm seemed to subside and the winds died down. “Think that fence will hold?”

 

“We fixed what we could…might be better off puttin’ up a new one,” Tanner suggested.

 

“Are you volunteering?”

 

“Anytime, but I told Josiah I’d go with him. He wants ta check on his sister.”

 

“When are you leaving?”

 

“Day after tomorrow,” the Texan answered.

 

“How is he?”

 

“He’s hidin’…don’t really talk much about her, but I heard him prayin’ that God would help her.”

 

“Josiah’s got more faith then he realizes,” Larabee offered.

 

“He’s a good man.”

 

“Yes, he is and his sister doesn’t deserve what happened to her,” Larabee said. During the months following the killing spree, Chris had come to know Josiah and he trusted him just as much as he trusted the man standing beside him. They grew silent, enjoying the solitude and the cool night breeze that swept across the land.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Buck woke to the sounds of voices outside and smiled as he nuzzled against the woman’s neck before sitting up and grabbing his clothes from the chair.

 

“Where are you goin’, big guy?” the red head asked with a lusty smile.

 

“Sorry, Millie, but I’m supposed to do the morning patrol,” Wilmington told her and found himself kissing the ruby red lips before reluctantly pulling away from the woman whose bed he shared. 

 

“Oh, Buck, I’m sure someone else can cover for you while you and I tend to your…ailment,” Millie cooed.

 

“Darlin’ you’re a temptress, but I doubt I could keep up with you any longer…unless you’re free tonight that is.”

 

“I can’t say for sure, but I’ll meet you in the saloon if I’m free,” the woman said and bared more cleavage as Wilmington pulled on his pants.

 

“Those words will keep me warm while I ride,” Wilmington told her and finished dressing. He hurried from the room and leaned against the wall as a satisfied grin lit up his face. Mille certainly knew how to entertain a man and he could appreciate her feminine attributes and her willingness to use them. Buck raced down the stairs with a fancy step that had him dancing in the street before tucking his thumb through his belt and making his way toward the saloon. He pulled up short when he heard a strange voice calling his name from the livery.

 

“Buck? Buck Wilmington? Is that really you?”

 

Buck turned to see a tall man ambling toward him and frowned as he tried to figure out who the man was. The newcomer’s hair hung low over his forehead, nearly covering his eyes as he strode purposefully toward him. “Who’s askin’?”

 

“Ah, hell, don’t tell me your memories going already? Figured your manhood would be the first thing to go.”

 

“Now that’s…wait a minute! Is that you, Johnny?” Wilmington asked as a smile formed on his face.

 

“None other,” Grady said and offered his hand, not surprised when it was returned. “It’s been a few years.”

 

“You’re telling me,” Wilmington said. “Last time I saw you…”

 

“I was running from the law, but I went back and faced what I done, Buck. You were right when you said if I told the truth things would work out for me,” Johnny Grady explained.

 

“I’m glad, Johnny. How long will you be in town?”

 

“I was plannin’ on leavin’ this morning, but if you’re gonna be around…”

 

“I’m part of the law that protects the town, Johnny, so I’m not planning on going anywhere.”

 

“I thought you said you’d never pin a badge to your shirt again?”

 

“No badge…just get paid to keep the peace,” Wilmington answered. “I got morning patrol, but if you’re here when I get back I’ll buy you that drink…”

 

“I’m the one who’ll be buying, Buck,” Grady said and walked beside the other man.

 

“I’ll hold you to that, Johnny,” Wilmington said. “Hey, did you eat yet?”

 

“Not yet. The lady at the hotel said Inez makes a great breakfast so I figured I’d check it out,” Grady told him.

 

“Well, come on, ol’ son, you’re in for a real treat. I’ll buy.”

 

“Sounds good. What time do you go on patrol?” Grady asked as they made their way toward the saloon.

 

“As soon’s I’m done eating,” Wilmington said. “Care to ride along?”

 

“Wouldn’t mind seein’ what the area is like. Maybe I’ll settle down.”

 

“Yeah right,” the rogue said and chuckled as they reached the doors.

 

“You sound like you don’t believe me.”

 

“You’re too much like me, Johnny, and that means you’ll never settle down,” Wilmington said and held the door for his friend. “Hey, Inez, can we get two of your breakfast specials?”

 

“Certainly, Senor,” Inez said and smiled at the two men when they moved toward the table occupied by JD Dunne and Josiah Sanchez.

 

“What happened, Buck? Did Millie kick you out of bed?”

 

“Bite your tongue, Kid,” Wilmington said and swatted the Bostonian with his hat.

 

“Who’s your friend?” Sanchez asked. He recognized the man from the night before, but hadn’t caught the man’s name.

 

“Boys, I’d like you to meet an old friend from my marshaling days. This is Johnny Grady and he’s a fast draw and crack shot…”

 

“Bet Chris could take him,” Dunne said.

 

“I hope we don’t find out, JD, ‘cause I don’t know who’d be standing at the end of the day,” Wilmington offered as Inez brought two cups of coffee.

 

“Chris can outshoot anyone, Buck,” Dunne said.

 

“Sounds like this Chris is a fast gun,” Grady said.

 

“He is…I met him just after you left. Gave up marshalling and started riding. Met Chris in a small town…hell, the place could hardly be called a town ‘cause it only had three or four buildings and a livery, but Chris was there and he was having a good ol’ time with these two ladies,” Wilmington said with a grin as Inez returned with two plates of eggs, bacon, beans, and biscuits. “Thanks, Inez.”

 

“You are welcome, Senor,” the pretty woman said and returned to the bar.

 

“You were telling us about the time you met Chris, Buck,” Dunne said as Wilmington swallowed a mouthful of food with a smile.

 

“Oh, yeah, I was wasn’t I?” Wilmington said and took a drink of the strong hot coffee. “Where was I?”

 

“Chris was having a good time with two ladies,” Dunne answered.

 

“Not just two ladies, but the only two in the whole damn town. They were beautiful and full of…well, let’s just say Chris had his hands full and being the sharing kind of man I am…”

 

“Yeah right…”

 

“Now, JD, Buck would share if…”

 

“They looked like mangy dawgs,” Dunne finished for Sanchez.

 

“You boys want me to finish the story or are you gonna keep insulting me and by the way no lady is a mangy dawg unless we’re talking about Ezra dressed in that outfit he wore to Wickestown,” Wilmington chuckled softly.

 

“He did cut a fine figure though,” Sanchez said.

 

“As long as you didn’t look at the face,” Dunne agreed. 

 

“Anyway, Chris had one on his lap and the other was massaging…”

 

“Massaging my foot,” Dunne said.

 

“JD, are you gonna let me finish this story?”

 

“Sorry, Buck, I’m listening,” the Bostonian said.

 

“So, I find out Chris is being entertained by the only two available ladies…”

 

“That never stopped you before…oops sorry, shutting up now,” Dunne said with a grin.

 

“Bout time,” Wilmington said. “Anyway there’s Chris with this shit eating grin on his face looking like he’s having the time of his life and me being the gentlemen that I am I offered to take one of the amorous ladies off his hands and he looks at me like I had two heads and says. ‘Sorry, Stud, you don’t have the kind of curves I’m interested in, and I aim to be in bed with these two for the next week.’ He nearly did it too only the other men in town got a mite upset with him and ran him out of town. We met up again on the road and he offered to share his bottle of whiskey with me. Me and Chris have been through hell…”

 

‘Not yet you haven’t,’ Grady thought.

 

“…and then some and there’s not another man I’d rather have at my side,” Wilmington finished.

 

“Where’s this Chris fella? I’d like to meet him,” Grady said.

 

“He’s got a little place just north of town near the creek. Tell you what…let me do my patrol and then I’ll take you out there to meet him,” the rogue offered.

 

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Grady said and finished the food on his plate before patting his belly. “Now that was a mighty fine meal.”

 

“Told you Inez makes the best breakfast in town…hell in the state is more like it,” Wilmington said.

 

“You got that right. How long do you think your patrol will last?”

 

“I’ll be gone a few hours…you’re welcome to ride along if you want?”

 

“No, thanks, but there’s a couple of things I need to do…heard tell there was a little spread for sale just south of here so I’ll go take a look and meet you back here around one.”

 

“That’ll work,” Wilmington agreed and shook hands with the man before nodding to JD and Josiah as he left the saloon.

 

“Well, boys, it was nice to meet you, but I’d best get moving if I want to make it back here in time to meet Buck,” Grady said and left the two men alone.

 

“Are you and Vin still going to the convent?”

 

“That we are, Son,” Sanchez said.

 

“What time are you leaving?”

 

“Planned on tomorrow morning, but if Vin gets back we might leave today,” the older man advised.

 

“Vin’s out at Chris’ place…maybe you could tell Buck to ask him to come back early,” Dunne offered.

 

“Maybe,” Sanchez said and smiled when Inez refilled his cup.

 

“If you’re talking about Senor Tanner I believe he just rode in,” Standish said from the open doorway.

 

“Must be my lucky day,” Sanchez said and hurried out of the saloon.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Chris loved the smell of the earth after a good rainstorm and sat on the chair with his long legs stretched out on the porch railing. Tanner had left soon after sunup, leaving him to the solitude he sometimes desired. Days like this were few and far between and he listened to the sounds of nature around him. 

 

He looked at the corral and the barn and the other additions that had been made to make it more like ‘a little piece of heaven’ than the shack the boys had called it in the beginning. There was an extra room at the back now and every one of the peacekeepers had used it at one time or another. Buck and Vin were his most frequent guests…the former using it whenever he ran into trouble with one of his ladies…or their husbands as the case often was.

 

Chris knew Buck would never change his ways, and often wondered whether there was a lady out there who could tame him long enough to get him in front of a preacher. Somehow he didn’t think that was possible, but he’d thought that about himself at one time. Right up until Cupid’s little arrow had knocked him on his ass in front of the most beautiful woman to ever grace the earth. Sarah had been in town with her pa, ma, and brother getting supplies when Chris had flown through the saloon doors and landed on his butt in front of the temptress. He’d never forget her face, or those sensuous eyes that bore right through him. He’d stood, picked up his hat, put it on his head and tipped his head before re-entering the saloon and the brawl that he’d helped start. By the time the fight ended he’d been battered and bruised and had to help pay for the damage. When he and Buck exited the jail she was there and he couldn’t help the smile that formed. Buck had asked him if he knew her and he’d announced that she was going to be his wife. Within a month, they were married even though her father hadn’t been too pleased about it.

 

Chris often wondered how Sarah and her ma had convinced Hank to let them get married, but she’d never told him and that secret had gone to the grave with her. He knew from experience Sarah could be the most stubborn woman in the world and he knew she probably got that from her mother’s side of the family.

 

Chris lit a cheroot and took a deep draw as the sun rose above the treetops, bringing with it the warmth that would soon become uncomfortably hot as the day wore on. The creek running nearby would be a welcome pleasure once he made sure Pony had a good rubdown and mucked out the stalls. It was times like this that Chris missed Sarah and Adam the most…and could almost hear them if he closed his eyes and let himself imagine he was back on his small ranch.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

John Grady rode as fast and hard as he could, ignoring the heat that surrounded him in his haste to reach his destination. If he wanted to reach the others before heading back to town it was imperative that he let the horse’s hooves pound the dirt beneath its hooves. Buck Wilmington would soon find out what it was like to lose a friend and just maybe Patrick Grady would be avenged. He’d been riding for close to an hour and pulled to a stop near two boulders that marked the entrance to an arroyo where his father had told him to meet them.

 

Grady strained to see beyond the opening, but he could not see anyone, yet he knew his father would have posted sentries. “Pa, it’s John…I’m coming in.”

 

“Were you followed?” a disembodied voice called from inside.

 

“No, I’m alone,” Grady said and rode through the narrow opening. He spotted several other sentries watching from different angles as he spurred his horse forward and stopped when he saw his father sitting on a large rock near the campfire. He dismounted and looped the reins of his horse over the branch of a dead tree before hurrying toward the older man.

 

“I expected you back last night!” Randall Grady snapped.

 

“Sorry, Pa, but I thought I’d find out some information while I was there,” John said and kept his eyes down until his father spoke again.

 

“Did you find that bastard?”

 

“I did….he’s there and he’s a lawman…”

 

“Sonofabitch, once a lawdawg always a lawdawg,” the elder Grady spat and threw a half smoked cigar into the fire. “Well, it’s time we called on him and showed him…”

 

“No, Pa, wait…”

 

“Are you telling me what to do, Boy?” Grady snapped.

 

“No, Pa, it’s just that I may have found something better than just killing Buck Wilmington,” the younger man offered and could feel the other men watching him and knew they thought he was a coward. That wasn’t the case at all, but he did fear his father’s wrath and bore the scars of his anger.

 

“Nothing could be better than seeing Wilmington die!”

 

“What if I told you he’s got a friend in town…”

 

“I’m not interested in his ladies…”

 

“No, Pa, it’s a man and from the story Wilmington told me he’s damn good with a gun.”

 

“What’s this man’s name?” Randall asked interestedly.

 

“Chris Larabee…”

 

“Larabee’s quick with a gun…might even be able to take you, John,” Danny O’Brien said, his voice a raspy whisper that barely reached their ears.

 

“You know this Larabee?” Randall asked.

 

“No, but I saw him gun down a man once. The other man never even cleared leather before Larabee’s bullet hit him between the eyes. Sonofabitch just turned and walked away,” O’Brien explained. “I heard tell he hired out to a couple of ranchers, but didn’t like what they were doing to the homesteaders.”

 

“So Larabee has a conscience…he have a family?”

 

“He did, but I heard tell they was murdered,” Jack Lawson answered from the opposite side of the fire. “Heard tell Wilmington and Larabee were selling horses somewhere when it happened and it damn near killed him, but that’s when he took up with the gun and got damn fast.”

 

“Do you know where Larabee’s place is?” Randall asked.

 

“Buck told me it’s not far from town. I’m supposed to meet him back in town and we’re going to ride out to Larabee’s place,” Johnny answered.

 

“What direction?” Randall asked impatiently.

 

“North and there’s a creek nearby,” Johnny answered.

 

“You get your ass back to town and we’ll meet up with you at Larabee’s place. Figure we’ll head north and find the creek and see if we can get Larabee before you and Wilmington get there. Don’t do anything to screw this up, Johnny, or we’ll test just how fast you are compared to this Larabee. You got me, Boy?”

 

“I hear you, Pa,” Johnny said wearily and turned to look at the horse. “I’m gonna…”

 

“Going to! How many times do I have to tell you I hate it when you talk like some harpy,” Randall snapped and grabbed his son, turning him so that they stared into each other’s eyes. “Your brother understood how important it was to speak properly. Sometimes I wonder if your mother messed around on me with that salesman. You don’t have the brains God gave a…”

 

“I’m sorry, Pa, I wasn’t thinking.”

 

“Damn right you weren’t! Now get on back to town before Wilmington thinks you ran out on him!”

 

Grady nodded and moved to the horses and found that Lawson had already changed his horse for one of the spares. He mounted up and rode away form the camp, wishing his mother had married the salesman instead of his father.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Chris Larabee reached for a nail and drove it into the post before pulling on the fence and making sure it was solid. Pony whinnied in the coral and Chris knew the animal wanted to be rode and planned on doing just that once he finished this final part. Vin had left early in the morning and had dropped by with Josiah on the way to the convent. He’d brought the supplies Chris needed, and told him Wilmington planned on stopping by in the afternoon.

 

Chris thought about his long time friend and the memories they shared of a time when life had been so much better. A time when Sarah and Adam were alive and the promise of a wonderful future spent raising their son and building a successful ranch. That dream had been killed the day they were taken from him and it had taken three long years of fighting to even begin to live again. His memories during those years were unclear at times, but he’d done things he regretted now and hoped someday he’d have done his penance just as Josiah was doing with his life.

 

Chris heard a sound behind him and turned to face a lone man on horseback. The newcomer raised his hands as Chris’ own hand rested on his gun and left no doubt that he’d shoot if need be.

 

“Easy, Mister, I just wanted directions to Four Corners,” the man said.

 

“You have business there?” Larabee asked.

 

“I might. I’m looking for a friend…maybe you know him.”

 

“What’s his name?”

 

“Buck Wilmington…do you know him?”

 

“Maybe…what’s your business with him?” the blond asked.

 

“I owe him a debt and wish to pay it,” the man answered.

 

“Where are you from?”

 

“A small town in Indiana…you probably never heard of it.”

 

“Might just surprise you,” Larabee said. “The town’s just south of here about an hour ride.”

 

“Thank you,” the man said and pointed to the well. “Would you mind if I had some water and maybe gave my horse a drink?”

 

“Guess so,” Larabee said and watched the man closely. There was something about him that didn’t feel right and Chris wasn’t going to turn his back on the stranger. The man continued to speak and suddenly Chris wanted the man gone and felt the hairs at the back of his neck rise as instincts kicked in.

 

“Nice place you have here. Are you going to raise horses again…”

 

“Who the hell…” Chris didn’t get a chance to finish as a rope landed over his shoulders and he grabbed for it with his left hand even as he pulled his gun from its holster.

 

“Don’t do it, Larabee, it’s not you we want,” the man who’d distracted him said and removed Larabee’s gun as six riders surrounded them.

 

“What the hell do you want?” the blond snarled.

 

“It’s not what he wants, Larabee, it’s what I want. I was told you and Wilmington are friends is that true?”

 

Chris stared at the man seated astride a large Bay and wondered who he was, but refused to answer the man’s questions. Whoever the newcomer was he seemed to be the man in charge and the dark blue eyes were cold as ice.

 

“I asked you a question, Larabee, and you’ll find things are a lot easier for you if you answer me the first time around.”

 

“Go to hell!” the blond snapped and was struck from behind. He hit the ground hard, and must have blacked out because he suddenly found himself being dragged to his feet, with his hands tied tightly in front of him.

 

“You will find I am not a patient man when it comes to getting the answers I want,” the man said and looped the ends of the rope over his saddle horn before turning away.

 

Chris tried to stay on his feet as the horse moved forward and managed to hold his own until his captor dug his spurs into the animal’s side. The shock pulled at Chris’ shoulders until he fell forward and tried to cover his face as best he could. He felt the ground underneath him as the horse continued on its haphazard race over the rough terrain. Rocks and sticks cut at exposed skin and tore the shirt that covered his chest. The heavy denim pants he wore protected his legs, but even those would tear at the grueling pace set by the rider.

 

Chris’ knew he couldn’t survive long if his captor kept this up and suddenly realized he was no longer moving. He groaned and tried to turn onto his back, but a foot was planted on his abused shoulders and he was forced to remain still as heavy boots sounded beside his head. Someone grabbed a fistful of his hair and pulled back until he was looking at the blue eyed-devil who had dragged him across the ground.

 

“Now, Larabee, I can be a reasonable man, but my patience are wearing thin and I need to know if you and Wilmington are friends.”

 

“Wilmington’s a bastard and I’m going t…to kill h…him,” Larabee lied.

 

“Nice try, but I already know the answer and that wasn’t it. Get him on his feet and bring him over to the fence,” Randall Grady ordered.

 

Chris sucked in a breath of air through tightly clenched teeth as he was pulled off the ground and dragged to the fence. His hands were untied, but just long enough for his arms to be stretched out and tied to the fence so that he was forced to stand. He swallowed and tasted blood and dust in his mouth as he struggled to stay conscious. Blood trickled from a cut above his right eye and he cursed as his captor grabbed his chin and forced him to look into those stone cold eyes.

 

“My quarrel is not with you, Larabee, but you are a means to an end…Wilmington’s end. I heard tell you’re fast and maybe I’ll let you have a go at my son, but not until I see Wilmington’s blood spilled on the ground. I’m going to tie his carcass on an anthill and let the sun bake him while he’s eaten alive. The sonofabitch is going to pay for killing my boy, but first he’s going to watch you die.”

 

“Go…fu…fu…”

 

“Better save your strength, Larabee, you’re going to need it.”

 

Chris’ head dropped as the man released him and he tried not to black out, but there was so much pain in his chest, shoulders, and head that it seemed simpler just to let go. He sank toward the darkness, but fought to stay awake as Wilmington’s face swam behind his closed lids. Somehow, he had to find a way to warn his friend before he rode into this trap.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Buck leaned against the post as he watched John Grady return and smiled at the ease with which the man handled the horse. He glanced at his pocket watch and strode into the street to meet the man. “I was beginning to think you rode out on me.”

 

“Just took longer to go over the spread than I thought,” Grady explained.

 

“What spread were you interested in?” Wilmington asked and reached for the reins of his horse.

 

“I’m not very good with names, but it’s about an hour south of here and it’s not very big,” Grady answered and hoped Wilmington would leave it at that.

 

“Are you really thinking about settling down?” Wilmington asked as he mounted up.

 

“Maybe, but I’m not real sure of the area yet,” the man answered.

 

“It’s a good place to settle down. Mary Travis owns The Clarion and she’s been saying how much the town’s growing and that there’s some real interest in homesteaders and folks settling in around here. You’d better grab that piece of land before the prices go up,” Wilmington advised and started riding toward the livery, but stopped at the jail as Dunne exited.

 

“Where’re ya headed, Buck?” Dunne asked.

 

“Going to see Chris…should be back some time tomorrow,” Wilmington said and nodded toward Standish who stepped out of the hotel door. “Looks like Ezra’s finally up so he’s got your back, Kid.”

 

“Oh joy,” Dunne snapped and watched as Wilmington and the other man rode out of town. He frowned and turned as the gambler caught up to him.

 

“What has you glowering this morning?”

 

“This morning, Ezra…it’s two in the afternoon,” Dunne observed.

 

“Still morning by my standards,” Standish said. “Where is Mr. Wilmington going?”

 

“He’s goin’ to Chris’ place.”

 

“So why did you appear to have misplaced your best friend when I joined you?”

 

“Buck’s friend is riding a different horse than the one he had,” Dunne answered.

 

“Perhaps his other horse came up lame,” the gambler explained.

 

“Maybe,” Dunne said and began walking toward the jail. Something about the newcomer didn’t sit well with him, but there was nothing he could do about that right now.

 

“Well, if there is nothing pressing I shall see what Miss Recillos has to offer in the way of libations,” Standish said and walked toward the saloon with a frown as he glanced toward the road where Wilmington and the newcomer had disappeared.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“It’s nice country out this way,” John Grady said as they topped a rise and looked out over the terrain. The creek was high after the heavy rains over the last few days and they could hear the roar of the rapids a short distance away.

 

“That it is, Johnny. A man could settle down here and raise a family,” Wilmington offered softly and reined his horse to a stop as he glanced at the man next to him.

 

“Is that what you’re thinking about, Buck?”

 

“Sometimes,” Wilmington said with a hint of a smile. “I guess I haven’t met the right woman yet, but I figure she’s out there and when I find her there’s gonna be a lot of unhappy ladies crying on their pillows.”

 

“You’re still a skirt chaser,” Grady said with a grin.

 

“I am that, and damn proud of it,” the rogue said with a matching grin. “Come on…ol’ Chris might just have a bottle of whiskey waiting and if he don’t I brought one with me.”

 

“Sounds good to me,” Grady said and took a deep breath before following Wilmington along the trail.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“Is something wrong, JD?” Jackson asked of the young man who raced up the stairs to his clinic.

 

“I don’t know…maybe…just a feeling,” Dunne answered.

 

“Well, that was clear…you’re not sure if there’s something wrong, but you’re not sure there ain’t either,” the healer said with a grin and reached for the cup of coffee on the railing.

 

“Buck’s friend…there’s just something not right with him,” Dunne said and sat on the railing to look out over the town.

 

“Not right how?”

 

“I ain’t sure, but he said he was gonna check on a spread for sale just south of here.”

 

“I didn’t know anyone was sellin’ out,” Jackson said.

 

“Me either, but that don’t mean nothing. I was going to ask Mrs. Travis if she knew of anyone selling their place, but I haven’t had the chance yet. He came back and left with Buck, but he wasn’t riding the same horse.”

 

“Maybe he traded it with Yosemite for a fresh mount,” Jackson suggested.

 

“Maybe…I’ll check with him,” Dunne said.

 

“Are you feelin’ a little left out, JD?” Jackson asked.

 

“Left out?” Dunne repeated and shook his head. “No…I ain’t, Nathan, it’s just a feeling I got in my gut and Vin always tells us to go with our gut.”

 

“Yeah, he does, but Vin’s gut is always right while ours…yours included is usually jest somethin’ we ate,” Jackson said.

 

“Maybe, but I’m gonna check with Yosemite and Mrs. Travis anyway,” Dunne said and hurried back down the stairs as the liveryman walked toward the saloon.

 

Nathan shook his head as the youngest peacekeeper chased down the man as Ezra tipped his hat to a couple of ladies who passed him on the dusty street below. He turned and walked back into his clinic and reached for a journal, relieved there was no one in dire need of his help at the moment.

 

 

PART 2 / PART 3 / PART 4 / PART 5 / PART 6

 

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