WHEN THE SUN COMES BACK

by Winnie

A/N: This story has been 4 years in the making and I hope you enjoy it. Thanks to Marti and Antoinette for the wonderful beta. A special thanks to Deirdre, for your help with this story and for bringing so many wonderful characters to life. Without you, it would have lain flat, but instead it has depth and I hope people enjoy it. There is a beauty in the world…a beauty given to us by God and we call her Mother, Mom, Ma, Aunt, Grandma, Sister, Friend.

 

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Northern Mexico

 

The fertile land of the hacienda covered 60,000 acres and was home to many mestizo people. The fields were alive with the rich crop of the midsummer months and would make for a bountiful harvest under a bright moon. The field workers, known as peons, were busy checking the cacao bean and the cotton plants. When the harvest was completed most of it would be sold to the Americans who frequented the cantinas in the settlements along the Rio Grande.

 

The hacienda owed its very existence to its close proximity to the Rio Grande. The workers had diverted the water from the river onto the lands and during the last ten years the dream had become a reality to the De Rivera name. A system of trenches and wooden funnels brought water to the crops and also brought life to what were once desolate lands. The cotton plants and cacao beans thrived under a rich hot sun because of the water that would otherwise have been unattainable.

 

In several areas magnolias, styrax, and hamamelis intermingled with beschorneria, agave, and cactus, some reaching as high as 60 feet, but had been cut down or uprooted to clear the land for planting. The landscape was also home to many animals, and birds, whose colors added to the beauty of what to some was rough terrain. The hot sun forced most of the animals, including Gila monsters and snakes to seek shelter during the hottest part of the day, but there were times when one darted out as if searching for an unwitting prey.

 

The western end of the grounds was taken up by the Haciendada’s home. A four-foot wide, cobblestone walkway led up to the Casa Principal. Bright flowering plants such as Penstemons, Angelita Daisies, and Brittle Bush lined the walkway. Two large Mimbre trees, with pink and violet blossoms stood near the entrance to the home that dominated the landscape. The main house and numerous outer buildings were made of cut stone or sandstone and stained with bright red and yellow pigment. Three massive arches were ornamented in the Baroque style. Each one held intricate etchings that depicted the Haciendada’s genealogical line since being recognized as descendants of the royal family in Spain. The front of the two-story structure sported a beautiful portico that rose from the marbled entrance to the roof. Near the top of the second floor wall was a flying buttress attached to the roof with several half arches giving the structure the effect of a castle. The second floor held a covered terrace that could be accessed through the master bedroom. The columns were done in white sandstone and supported the upper tier and the roof. A highly decorative cornice of latticework floral design ran along the roof and had taken nearly a year to complete. The windows were Palladian with curved tops and covered in shutters to keep out the hot rays of the sun when the heat of high summer invaded the landscape.

 

The interior of the home that dominated the well-kept grounds was as impressive as the outside. The main doors opened into a corridor with 12 foot high ceilings and windows along both sides. There were two walk-in closets with silver hooks set at two foot intervals. Further along the corridor opened on a sala with a cathedral style ceiling. A highly polished spiral staircase that opened onto the second floor dominated the sala. Along the wall were portraits depicting the family’s history since the early days in Spain. The floor was a rich marble and hardwood combination. The Palladian windows were covered in rich tapestries brought over from Spain. The walls in the sala were stained red and heirloom paintings depicting bullfights and matadors hung along one wall that was devoid of windows.

 

A single door to the right of the staircase led to the family chapel where a crucifix and a statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus sat on an altar covered in velvet and surrounded by prayer candles. Another chapel was built for the peons and Padre Francisco Garrido would listen to their prayers and hold Mass each Sunday.

 

An open arch led to a caverness cocina that would be used to prepare the daily meals, while a second cocino, which sported a ‘horno’ or oven, was used for baking breads and pastries for the family. The main cocino had wooden prep tables, stools, and chairs, and a variety of hand-carved stone and wooden vessels including mortars, sugar molds and cheese presses. A trastero, or open cupboard, designed to hold plates and cups within easy reach, hand woven baskets held special herbs, while large, hollowed gourds kept freshly made tortillas warm. Stacks of large clay ollas, or cooking pots, were often stacked upside down ready to be used in preparing the feast. The smells and flavors of the last meal still dominated the sala and the family dining room.

 

The dining room itself was in a large alcove off the cocino and sported several archways decorated with etchings of small birds and flowers native to the area. The hand carved redwood table was surrounded with 12 high backed chairs. The floors were highly polished and several oil paintings of the Hacienda grounds in its early years hung on one wall. Another was taken up with a massive redwood cabinet and held family heirlooms and china from England and France. Nowhere in the immaculate home was there a sign of dust or other debris.

 

The second floor held 12 bedrooms, although most were seldom used except when guests arrived from Spain. There were several that held children’s furniture, but the main nursery had not been used in nearly 20 years, yet it was kept as clean as the rest of the house. Toys were still in an honored place, waiting for a child’s hand to hold them; sadness permeated every fiber of the room and the only people who entered were the mestizo women who cleaned the hacienda. At the far end of the hallway was a water closet with an adjoining room that held a tub for bathing and shelves lined with soft towels used only by the Haciendada and his wife.

 

The master bedroom held a massive four-poster bed with mosquito netting and curtains that could be drawn across to keep the sunlight and bugs off the Haciendada. The furniture was decidedly masculine and even the walls held very little to prove that a woman had ever been present. Again the room was dominated with portraits of the De Rivera family who had lived on the land since being granted the large holdings by the royal family as a reward for years of service.

 

Off the master bedroom was a library with a roll top desk and matching chair and several bookshelves lined with books in Spanish, French, and English. A set of large French doors opened onto a sweeping veranda that ran the length of the home and offered a spectacular view of the fields and surrounding countryside.

 

Don Garcia de Rivera stood watching over the fields with a pride that shone in his dark brown eyes. This was his heritage, the legacy he would pass on to his son. His life since leaving Spain at the age of fifteen had been wrought with hardships, and what lay before him was the result of hard work and accounted for most of the gray hair that speckled his rich dark hair and the moustache on his upper lip. Don Garcia was still a handsome man, even at the age of 58, and could still make the field workers cringe with fear when they heard his voice.

 

His first wife, Adelina Rosario Gonzales had died while riding near the Rio Grande. He had truly loved her and would often sit staring at the portrait of Adelina holding their son, Alonzo. The boy had his mother’s coloring with thick black hair and dark brown eyes. The child had been chubby in his early years, but had trimmed down, as he grew older. Don Garcia stared toward the family plot at the back of his home and felt the ache in his heart. Alonzo had died at the hands of a gunslinger, but he had never been able to find out the man’s name. All he knew was that the murderer had taken his son’s life and killed any chance of an heir to the De Rivera legacy. There had been rumors that Alonzo had beaten a whore at a saloon in Purgatorio, but even if it was true his son did not deserve to die for such a deed. He had never given up on finding the gringo, but for now he had a new wife to look after.

 

Don Garcia made the trip to Spain and brought back a beauty whose blood was as rich and pure as his own. She came from a good family and was the middle daughter of the Montoya family. With three older sisters and two younger ones, her family had jumped at the chance to marry one of them off. In a ceremony that took place on the very day he was to return to Mexico, he’d married the 18-year-old virgin named Maria Elena de Montoya. Now, seven months into their marriage, the birth of their first child was imminent.

 

This should have been a time to rejoice, but Maria was not as hearty as she’d appeared and life in Mexico had been hard on her. Like a flower that had bloomed early and was struck by a late frost, she wilted and had gone to her sick bed five months into her pregnancy. She continued to lie in the bed as if waiting for death to come for her, but he could not let her go until he held his son in his arms. The child was to be his future, his hope of a long legacy, yet now, once again, it seemed to be the death of his dream. The women who worked the fields had tried to help, but there was little they could do for her. He’d sent word to the surrounding settlements in hopes of bringing a doctor to the Hacienda, but so far his men had come up empty handed.

 

Taking a deep breath, the aging Haciendada reached for the cane that was not just for show anymore. His limp was growing more prominent with the passing of time, yet he could still lord his ways over these people. Any man, woman, or child who dared to disobey his orders bore his mark on their bodies. He made his way toward the bedroom his wife now stayed in and silently cursed the Gods who thought it funny to snatch the victory from him when it was so near.

 

It no longer mattered that his wife did not share his bed, for theirs had not been a marriage of love like his first one. He needed her to provide him with a son and it did not dawn on him that he had several sons and daughters by the mestizo women who worked his fields. He made his way to the room where his young wife lay covered in the finest sheets that money and station could provide. Her hair spread across the pillows, her skin as white as the snow, and her face as beautiful as an angel. De Rivera moved into the room and reached out to touch her cheek. This was the most affection he’d shown her since she’d retired to her bed and seemed to wilt like a flower left without rain for too long. That was the least of the worries plaguing him for his son still grew inside her.

 

“Evita, has she eaten?” De Rivera asked the mestizo woman tending his wife. She had bore him a son, one he would have been proud to acknowledge had it not been for her mixed blood.

 

“Si, Patron, but very little,” Evita Martinez answered. “I fear she may not be strong enough to…”

 

“Do not speak of my son! He has my blood and comes from royal blood and he will be born healthy and strong like all De Rivera men.”

 

“Si, I did not mean,” the woman cringed and returned her attention to straightening the blankets.

 

“Our son will be strong like his papa, and will one day inherit everything I own,” Don Garcia said. He looked at the weak woman lying in the bed and walked out of the room. He leaned heavily on his cane and made his way down the stairs and outside. He stood watching as riders hurried into the front yard and Luis dismounted and strode toward him.

 

“We found a doctor,” Luis Martinez told him. At 29 his features were unmistakably those of the De Rivera bloodline, and he knew the Patron was his padre. Yet he did not feel out of place because Don Garcia gave him everything he wanted. He would do anything the older man asked of him including lay down his life.

 

“Where is he?” De Rivera asked and then noticed the man standing between two of his men. “You are a doctor?”

 

“Si, Senor,” the man said. He knew who this man was and heard stories of his cruelty, but the promised bounty made him braver than he thought possible. One of the mestizo riders handed him a bag that held his instruments and several herbs he thought might be helpful in treating Don Garcia De Rivera’s pregnant wife. He did not tell these men that his patients usually had four legs, not once he’d heard what the patron of the hacienda was willing to pay.

 

“My wife carries our son and has fallen ill. You will help her.” It was a statement not a question and he turned to walk back into the house.

 

“Si, I will do everything I can for her.”

 

“You will make sure my son is born!” Don Garcia warned.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Four Corners

Saloon

 

The town of Four Corners once held a reputation that rivaled the hellholes known as Purgatorio and Tombstone. There were gunfights and drunken brawls and innocent people killed because they dared try to live in such a place. That had changed the day two men stood up to a group of trail hands and saved Nathan Jackson’s life. Most people who’d been present that day swore the silent exchange had bonded the two men as brothers and was the start of the changes that overcame their town.

 

Mary Travis, whose husband had been murdered, had called the man dressed in black ‘The Bad Element’ and Larabee hadn’t argued the point. What Chris had argued was her use of his reputation to try and make what they’d done the day before seem ‘dirty’ in his mind. It hadn’t been, the fact was it had been a turning point in his life and no longer was he ‘The Bad Element’. Since Jock Steele’s novel the nickname of The Magnificent Seven’ had stuck and people no longer crossed the street to get away from him.

 

The town was attracting more and more families and instead of gunshots and fighting it was a normal part of life to hear children’s laughter. There were times when Chris felt penned in, but he had a little slice of heaven outside town where he could relax away from the pressure of keeping the peace in Four Corners. Right now he didn’t need solitude; instead he enjoyed a game of chance with the resident gambler who had a reputation of being a cheat. But those who knew him understood Standish was simply a man who’d honed his skills. Those who called him a cheat were usually sore losers who’d made the wrong bet.

 

They sat at the back of the saloon, a bottle of whiskey and four glasses of the fiery liquid between the gambler and the ex-preacher. Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, Josiah Sanchez, and Ezra Standish had been ensconced in the game of poker since mid-afternoon and no one was winning any big amounts. This was a friendly game amongst friends and not a make or break gamble.

 

“Ez, yer bluffin’,” Tanner said simply.

 

“I believe that is a possibility, my friend, but it will cost you to find out,” Standish told him and tossed several coins into the pot.

 

“I’m out,” Sanchez said and threw his cards on the table before reaching for the whiskey glass. “Fortune favors the faint hearted.”

 

“Faint hearted, J’siah? No way in hell!” Tanner cursed. “I’ll call yer two dollars and raise ya one!”

 

“I’m out,” Larabee said and tossed his cards into the center. “Looks like it’s just you two.”

 

“Ya in, Ez?” the Texan asked, a wicked grin on his face.

 

“You, Sir, are bluffing,” Standish drolled and placed a coin between finger and thumb. He stared at the sharpshooter and saw something in the deep blue depths before letting the coin roll down his fingers.

 

“Ez, Vin don’t bluff,” Larabee told the gambler.

 

“We shall see,” the gambler said and flipped the coin into the pot. “I call.”

 

“Damn…” Tanner said, shoulders slumping as the smile left his face.

 

“See, Mr. Larabee, even Tanners bluff occasionally” the gambler reached for the pot when he showed a straight from the deuce to the six.

 

“Uhuh, Ez, ya’d best get yer grubby…”

 

“Grubby?” Standish said indignantly.

 

“Grubby paws off muh money,” the tracker rasped and opened his cards to reveal a Full House of queens over sevens.

 

“Told you he don’t bluff,” Larabee's lips quirked into a wicked grin, watching the buckskin clad man reaching for the money. His hand went instinctively toward his gun as a commotion outside the saloon reached his ears. He knew Tanner, Standish, and Sanchez were ready for anything, but what they saw brought broad grins to their faces as Buck Wilmington, as naked as his name suggested, except for a flowery towel wrapped around his waist hurried past their table and hastened his step toward the back door.

 

"Hey that's real purty, Bucklin," Vin chirped, his eyes crinkled in mirth. "Brings out yer eyes."

 

“Ya didn’t see me!” Wilmington gasped, but stopped when Sanchez’s hand caught the edge of the towel and he lost his grip on the material. Buck ducked in behind the bar and heard a soft chuckle just before a small towel struck his face and a loud bellow could be heard just outside the saloon.

 

“Where the hell are ya? Wilmington I swear I’m gonna cut ‘em off and feed ‘em to the fuckin’ dogs!”

 

“Friend of yours, Buck?" Chris quipped, taking a sip of whiskey

 

“Maybe we should let ‘im know yer here!” Tanner suggested.

 

“I got a long memory Tanner!" Wilmington said.

 

“For a diminutive monetary fee I would willingly…”

 

“Shut the fuck up, Ezra!” Wilmington snapped and ducked down as the doors swung open and a heavily whiskered, bear-like man filled the entire doorway. 

 

“Where’s that womanizing bastard?” Lars Heinrich growled.

 

“And exactly what 'womanizin bastard' would that be, Lars?” Larabee asked when the big man strode purposefully toward him.

 

“That sonofabitch Wilmington was with my wife and he’s gonna be gelded when I get my hands on ‘im!” Heinrich cursed.

 

“Well now, Lars, how can you be sure Mister Wilmington was the perpetrator?” Sanchez asked.

 

“Ain’t no one else wears them dang bright drawers and he left ‘em on the chair. I been looking for a new place for me and Martha to live and he’s plowing my field while I’m away. I’m gonna chop his balls off!"

 

“He doesn’t have any for you to chop off, Lars,” the gunslinger noted with a straight face as he calmly poured another shot.

 

“What are ya talking about” Heinrich asked.

 

“Well see, near as we can tell Buck don’t got any fam’ly jewels like a real man,” Tanner said.

 

“He don’t?” the big Swede asked incredulously.

 

“Not accordin’ to Nathan,” Sanchez answered, fighting to keep a straight face as Wilmington stood up to defend his 'manhood' and was pushed back down by Inez Recillos. “Why don’t you ask Nate yourself?”

 

“Ask me what?” the healer asked when he joined the men at the table, but didn’t speak as the whirlwind known as JD Dunne raced in.

 

“Ya seen Buck? There’s a mean sonofa…”

 

“JD, this is Lars Heinrich,” Standish introduced the Bostonian and the Swede.

 

“Oh shit!” the town’s sheriff said. “Look, Mister, Buck’s a part of the law in Four Corners and you go shooting him and you’ll find yourself in jail!”

 

Inez kicked the man sitting behind the bar when he whispered something about ‘You tell him, Kid!’ She coughed to hide the sound of his grunt and smiled at the man who turned toward her.

 

“Is it true what they told me?” Heinrich asked the dark skinned healer.

 

“Guess that depends on what they told ya,” Jackson said.

 

“They tell me Buck Wilmington is a gelding…not a stallion?” Lars said with a frown. He turned when the pretty Mexican woman barkeeper choked and then took a broom and began sweeping the floor, a sweetly innocent smile on her face.

 

“Buck?” Jackson asked incredulously.

 

“Didn’t you tell him he’d never be a real man?” Larabee asked.

 

“Lost his family jewels in the war. Might as well be one of them funny cowboys,” Tanner said, shaking his head sympathetically. “Saddest soldier ever ta try and stand at attention.”

 

“That’s why the ladies flock to him because they feel sorry for the poor bastard,” Dunne said, turning away when he spotted Wilmington glaring at him from behind the bar. He tried to hide his face when Inez smacked the rogue with the broom and the ladies’ man disappeared once more.

 

“Yeah, that's Buck," Sanchez said. “Always trying to put on a brave front when he doesn’t have anything up front at all!”

 

“I hear this about Senor Wilmington too,” Recillos said from behind the bar. “He is like them bullets that make a loud bang, but don’t shoot nothing.”

 

“Blanks?” Heinrich asked.

 

“Si, that is the right word,” Inez said and smiled sweetly as she heard Wilmington grumbling.

 

“This is the truth?” the Swede asked.

 

“Yes, I’m afraid it is, but Buck keeps trying to prove he’s a man,” Jackson said. “When are you leaving town?”

 

“I was going to leave in two days, but I cannot stay here,” Heinrich explained. “If I stay I will have to defend my honor and I refuse to hurt someone like him. You make sure he stays clear of my Martha and I promise not to shoot him in the ass!”

 

“I’m sure he knows that, Lars,” Sanchez said. “You’re a damn good man.”

 

“Yes, unlike Wilmington I am a man…a real man,” Heinrich said and hurried out of the saloon.

 

Chris looked at the man seated next to him and tried to hide his mirth, but they both lost it when Buck stood up with nothing but a glare and a small towel that covered very little.

 

“Funny Cowboy my ass!” Wilmington spat.

 

“Least ya still got an ass,” Tanner said with a grin. "Course it ain't a Tanner ass, but we all can't be that lucky"

 

“Si, that he does, but his cheeks are flaming red right now,” Recillos said with a grin.

 

“Damn it to hell! Ya told him I lost my family jewels! Vin, you’re gonna pay for that one!” the rogue vowed.

 

“Now, Buck, ya should be thankin’ us for savin’ your ass and your jewels,” Jackson said and accepted a glass of whiskey from the ex-preacher.

 

“Now if that don’t beat all? Man thinks he knows his friends and they stab him in the…” Wilmington said and raced behind the bar when Heinrich’s voice was heard just outside the door.

 

“Yes, it is sad, but I have heard men such as him called Eunuchs,” Heinrich explained to the unseen person to the right of the batwing doors.

 

“Sonofabitch!”

 

“How do you catch a unique Eunuch?” Dunne asked.

 

“Unique upon ‘im,” Tanner said and the group roared with laughter.

 

“Oh yeah, I owe you boys big time!” Wilmington vowed.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Purgatorio, Mexico

 

The town was alive with outlaws, murderers, and cutthroats who didn’t give a damn who they robbed or where their next victim was from. Many a weary traveler had wound up in an unmarked grave because they’d wandered into the town unaware of the danger that lurked there. Dust billowed up as a hot wind swept through the streets. A mangy dog cowered under an open step after being kicked by a man who’d happened upon him.

 

Several buildings were in need of repair, but the owners knew it would be a waste of time and money because the gangs would simply destroy it before the paint had time to dry. There were no families living in Purgatorio because it was simply a stopping off place for Mexican bandits or murderous thieves who thought to escape into Mexico should the law come looking for them. Many a marshal had been shot dead before he’d announced who he’d come for.

 

The sickly odor of stale whiskey, spilled beer, urine, and vomit added to the towns unsavory elements. The lone restaurant was stained with grease, the floor covered in dirt and bloodstains from numerous gunfights. Several Mexican bandits sat near the back laughing and teasing two of the town whores while they waited for their leader’s return.

 

Hernando Lopez knew what he wanted and took it. He was fast with a gun and had earned a reputation that made others fear his name. Today, he was searching for news of a man who had once frequented Purgatorio. He had beaten the whore, but not so severely that she could not speak. Her beautiful face remained unmarked, except for lips swollen from the brutal kisses.

 

“Now, Amora, you are still beautiful, but I will scar that pretty face if you do not tell me about this man.”

 

“I…I do not know who you speak of.” Tears rolled down her cheeks when she lowered her head, but Lopez grabbed her chin and squeezed viciously while staring into her dark eyes.

 

“You lie, Amora, and I do not like people who lie to me. Perhaps you need a little more persuasion.” Hernando reached for the sleek knife he kept in a sheath strapped to his leg and pressed it against her right breast. “Now, it would be a shame for me to have to mark you so. After all a whore needs her breasts…needs to be pretty for a man to use her. Now who is this blond gringo that pays to use you?”

 

“I don’t…” Maria cried out when the tip of the blade penetrated her flesh. She gasped when the fetid stench of his breath reached her nostrils and shivered when his free hand stole down between her legs.

 

“Now, Chiquita, I will ask this once more. Who is the blond gringo who wears nothing but black and is said to be as fast as I am with a gun?”

 

“Please, God, forgive me,” she whispered and looked her tormentor in the face. Chris Larabee had shown her nothing but kindness during his occasional visits and she was about to betray him. For that she would never forgive herself, but there was no choice for her now as the damning words escaped her mouth. “His name is Chris Larabee.”

 

“Chris Larabee,” Lopez said with an evil lilt in his voice. “If you see this man before I return, tell him I am looking for him. I will prove to him who is the fastest with a gun.”

 

Maria felt tears in her eyes when he violently took her and wished she had been stronger while hot tears of shame ran down her cheeks. She felt him leave her body and opened her eyes to look at the dark Mexican.

 

“You are a good whore, Amora, perhaps I shall sample you again after I cut Chris Larabee’s heart from his body and return with it to my patron.” Hernando Lopez tossed a coin onto the bed and fixed his clothes before leaving the sobbing woman alone. He strode out of her room and hurried across the dust filled street and into the restaurant to find his men waiting for him.

 

“Did you find out who he is?” Rodrigo Marquiz asked his friend.

 

“Si,” Lopez answered with a grin. “His name is Chris Larabee.”

 

“He is very fast. I heard that he beat Alonzo Valadas without blinking an eye,” Marquiz explained.

 

“Didn’t Alonzo work for Don Paulo?” Juan Vargas asked.

 

“Si, but he was not as fast as me. I will not be…”

 

“Hernando, our patron wants Larabee brought to him alive,” Marquiz observed.

 

“Si, he was very insistent that if we found out who killed his son we were to bring him to the hacienda and our reward would be great,” Vargas agreed.

 

“Perhaps if I told Don Garcia there was no choice he will still reward us for killing the gringo who murdered his son,” Lopez said with a sly grin.

 

“The last man who thought that is buried to his head in an ant hill,” Marquiz reminded them.

 

“Si, I remember,” Hernando said and rubbed at his balls. “Don Garcia had his balls cut so the fire ants could…”

 

“Don’t remind me,” Vargas said, shuddering at the thought of Pedro’s fate.

 

“Guess I’ll just have to find another way to prove I am faster than the gringo,” Lopez said and reached for the bottle in the center of the table. They were celebrating the success of the last raid and Lopez fingered the braid he’d cut from the woman’s head before slitting her throat and leaving her in the hot sun. They were about to set out on several more raids before returning to the De Rivera hacienda with their bounty and the news that they had discovered the identity of Alonzo De Rivera’s murderer. Throwing the empty bottle across the room the band of Mexican thieves and cutthroats cheered before hurrying outside and mounting their horses. Today was a day they would rejoice in and would see them return home with the honor they deserved.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Small Homestead North of Purgatorio

New Mexico Territory

 

Scott and Shannon Doherty had left Ireland in hopes of starting a new life in America. With the deed to a small piece of land they built a home with their own sweat and vigorous labor. The house was a simple one-room dwelling made of wood and built near a small creek that often dried up, but the young couple persevered. The small vegetable patch was alive with the first crop and Scott smiled when his wife walked toward him. The fiery red head was the love of his life from the moment he’d laid eyes on her. She’d taken his breath away with just a smile and he’d proposed on the spot. Her folks had agreed to their marriage, but only after a courtship that led to him meeting her rather large family. Her brothers, uncles, and cousins had given him a passing grade and their wedding took place exactly a month after their first meeting. The move to America had been met with a mixture of joy and sadness, but he’d promised her family he’d look after her and anyone who wanted to join them would be welcome in their home.

 

The heat was hard on them both, but they’d grown used to it now and with the strength of love and hope they worked together to bring about their dreams, unaware that fate was about to betray them and their dreams would soon be shattered. Scott wrapped his arms around his wife’s waist and lifted her high in the air much to Shannon’s delight and she giggled like a schoolgirl when he placed her back on the ground. She frowned and turned toward the south when her husband scowled.

 

“What’s wrong, Scott?”

 

“Looks like we got company, Honey. Go back inside and get my gun,” Doherty warned and saw the fear in her eyes. The cloud of dust seemed like a warning and one he heeded as he turned and followed his wife toward the house. He didn’t consider himself a coward, but there was no way he could face the large group by himself. He made it to the front porch before the sound of a gunshot reached his ear and the sharp pain exploded in his shoulder. The force of the impact pushed him through the open door and he landed hard against the sofa.

 

“Scott!” Shannon screamed, but finished loading the weapon even as she kicked the door closed.

 

“Senor, it would be wise for you to come out here now,” Hernando Lopez said, his fingers twisting the ends of his mustache.

 

“Maybe they do not wish to have company, Hernando,” Vargas suggested and smiled when his leader dismounted and strode toward the house.

 

“Americans love to have callers, Juan,” Lopez said. “Isn’t that right, Senor?”

 

Scott made it to his feet and staggered to the window. It was open to let the slight breeze into the house, but today it would offer a way to defend his home and protect his wife. He reached for the rifle and knew Shannon was quickly loading his pistol.

 

“Get off my land!”

 

“Your land? No, Senor, this is not your land. It is part of Mexico and no gringo deserves to live here,” Lopez said.

 

“I have the deed…”

 

“Deed? What is that, but a piece of worthless paper given by a cowardly man who hides somewhere in the north? He does not have the balls to show his face where it doesn’t belong.”

 

“I’m only gonna say this once, Mister,” Scott warned and tried to ignore the fiery pain in his shoulder. “Get off my land or I’ll blow your fucking head off!”

 

“Scott, there’s someone out back!” Shannon screamed and lifted the pistol. She aimed the weapon and fired, surprised when her bullet hit its mark and a bandit dropped to the ground, writhing in the dirt before growing still.

 

“Hernando, Juan is dead! The woman shot him!” Marquis spat angrily from the corner of the house. The other eight men had taken cover as soon as the first shot rang out.

 

“Your bitch has killed one of my men and for that she will pay,” Lopez warned and nodded to several of his gang to set the house ablaze.

 

“You come near her and I’ll…” Doherty ducked back when a bullet struck the frame of the window.

 

“Don’t be stupid, Senor. There are nine of us and only two of you. How many guns do you have; one, maybe two at the most, and how many bullets? You are at a disadvantage, Senor. Send your woman out and we will spare you.”

 

“Fuck you!” Scott said and fired the weapon at a man who tried to make a run at the house.

 

“Oh God!”

 

“Shannon, what’s…” Scott stopped when he too smelled smoke and felt the desperate need to protect his wife.

 

“The house is on fire!” Shannon snapped.

 

“Is it getting hot in there, Senor?” Lopez asked and motioned with his gun for the others to make their way around the house as the roof lit up with flames. “My offer still stands, Senor. Send the woman out and you can go free!”

 

“Go to hell!” Scott spat and took the pistol from his wife. He chanced a look through the window and spotted a man racing toward the door. He fired and was rewarded when the bandit grabbed his shoulder and ducked behind the water trough.

 

“That’s two of my men you have murdered and I am not a man to live and let live! You will pay for that!”

 

“Shannon!” Scott shouted when a man dove through the open window near his wife. He turned to fire, but was too late as the butt of a rifle connected with his head and he dropped to the floor. The Mexicans swarmed in through the open door and Scott fought with everything he had left as Shannon was pulled from the burning house. His rifle was kicked out of his reach, but he continued to struggle until a blow to his gut cut off his air and the world around him faded in and out.

 

Lopez grinned when the gringo was hauled to his feet in front of him. The man was bleeding from a cut above his right eye and blood stained the white shirt he’d been wearing when they arrived. “You are a very stupid man!”

 

“Fuckin’ bastards!” Scott cursed and felt his hopes and dreams dying around him. The bandits had set fire to the crops in the field at the same time they fired up the house.

 

“You have such a pretty woman, but not for long,” Lopez said, moving back and allowing his prisoner to see his wife. The men had removed her clothing and she knelt on the ground trembling in fear.

 

“Please, let her go!” Scott begged, but one look at the leader of the bandits told him that was not an option. “Shannon…”

 

“Scott…help me…” Shannon said when Lopez pulled her to her feet.

 

“I’m afraid your husband is not the man you thought he was, fair lady, but I will prove that I am even better.”

 

Scott fought with his captors when the dirty Mexican dragged his wife out of sight. He heard her scream and knew in his heart he could not help her. He kicked, gouged, and bit, but there were too many of them. He was pulled toward two trees and his arms were quickly tied to the branches. His shirt was ripped from his body and he panted against the pain slicing through his shoulder. When the men moved out of the way he caught sight of Hernando Lopez as the man wiped his mouth and fastened his pants. Tears streamed from his eyes as another man took the bandit’s place. Shannon whimpered when he took her, but there was no other sign of life in her body.

 

“She was very good, Senor!” Lopez said and reached for the whip hanging on his horse’s saddle.

 

“I will kill you!” Doherty warned.

 

“No, I don’t think you’ll live that long,” the Mexican said and brought the whip forward in a tight arch that burned a fiery trail down his victims back. Again and again he struck out and continued to talk about what they were doing to Shannon Doherty until the fire left the Irishmen’s eyes.

 

By the time the Mexicans were through, Scott and Shannon Doherty were as dead as their dreams and the fire had destroyed the evidence of their existence. Lopez cut the thick long red braid from the dead woman’s body and mounted his horse. With one last look around he turned and headed back toward Mexico before the evidence of his brutality was discovered.

 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Northern Mexico

 

Evita watched the man tending the fragile woman lying quietly on the bed. In the three days since his arrival it seemed Maria De Rivera was growing worse and yet she could not question his efforts. Don Garcia had told her she was to do whatever Miguel Delgado ordered. So far she had seen the man do very little. He gave her several herbs too steep in hot water, but there were times when the aroma was enough to make her stomach churn.

 

“Evita, did you hear what I said?”

 

“I am sorry, Doctor, I did not. What do you wish me to do?”

 

“Have you been giving her the herbs like I explained?”

 

“Si, but she does not take them very well,” Evita explained and gently eased a cloth over the pale woman’s face. How many times had she done this? How many more days would this poor woman suffer? Her pregnancy was not the problem, but it was adding to whatever caused her misery. This man cared nothing about her welfare and neither did Don Garcia. To him, Maria was simply a vessel to carry his heir, a son to do his bidding. Her thoughts turned to her own son. Luis Martinez was so much like his father and yet the man did not acknowledge the blood tie they had.

 

“If you are not going to do as I say I will have Don Garcia replace you!”

 

“No, please, I will make sure she drinks and eats,” the woman pleaded.

 

“See that you do! I need to prepare several herbs for her and will return,” Delgado told her and hurried out of the room.

 

Evita looked into the pale angel she cared for as the eyes opened to reveal a debt of gratitude. She had been with Maria from the very first day she’d come to the Hacienda. She’d often heard the Patron when he violently took his young wife and knew there was no love between them. Maria deserved better, and when she became pregnant it seemed like Don Garcia had finally realized his dream.

 

“E…Evita,” the young woman whispered softly.

 

“I am here,” Evita assured her and placed a wet cloth on her forehead.

 

“My baby? Is he…am I?”

 

“Your baby is fine…he will be born strong and make his mother proud,” Evita told her.

 

“You will look after…after h…him?”

 

“I will help you,” Evita smiled and felt the tears in her eyes as Maria grabbed her hand.

 

“I do not believe I will see my son grow up, Evita, but I w…will go to m…my g…grave with p…peace in m…my h…heart as l…long as I k…know he has s…someone w…who lo…loves him. Please, Evita, promise me…p…promise me y…you will n…not l…let Don Garcia m…make him in…into a…a…”

 

Evita felt the woman’s hand go slack in her own and eased it down on the bed. There was no resentment that this woman wanted her to care for her unborn child. She had long since grown used to her lot in life and her son had grown into a strong man who made her proud. Luis worked the lands that should have been his birthright with no sign that he coveted what would never be his.

 

Evita walked toward the open doors that led onto the veranda and gave a sweeping view of the back of the property. Her heart was in her throat when she spotted the gathering of field workers at the center of the ‘slaves’ enclosure. She could see the young man hanging from the posts and knew when this was over he would bear the marks that so many others received. Don Garcia stood in his customary spot, a raised platform that stood in the shade of a magnolia tree. She could not help the mestizo and turned away with tears escaping from her eyes.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Don Garcia stood watching the overseer and tapped his cane against the ground with each stroke of the whip. Fernando Gores had taken over the role of overseer when several workers killed his father. Those workers had met with a very painful death at his hands and now Gores was indebted to him, but his loyalty went beyond that. The man was big, even for a Mexican, and did not question his patron. He was a man who loved to lord his position over the peons who worked the fields.

 

Don Garcia enjoyed watching the punishment and found his people were less apt to disobey his commands if he was present. The young mestizo, whose name he thought might be Pero Valades had taken something that had not belonged to him and would receive ten strokes with the whip. The Haciendada’s shoulders slumped when he hit his palm for the final time and the weak cry echoed around the enclosure. This was a special place where punishment was meted out and it was law for everyone to attend, with the exception of Evita Martinez who tended his wife.

 

De Rivera turned to see Luis standing beside him and wondered why this man showed no fear of him. Although Luis was his son he would never hold that station, he’d insisted the boy be given an education. The child had excelled in reading and studied the literature that was supplied to him. Now, Don Garcia found he craved Luis’ company and craved his respect. He wanted to know Luis did not hate him, yet he refused to show the love of a father for a son.

 

“It is done, Patron,” Gores said while two men cut the mestizo from the posts.

 

“See that his wounds are tended and he is put back to work,” De Rivera ordered.

 

“Would it not be wiser to let him rest for a day?” Martinez asked when Gores left them alone.

 

“What purpose would that serve except to show the others you are rewarded for wrongdoing?”

 

“He has suffered for what he did. Resting him would help him grow stronger and his work in the fields would be better.”

 

“It would also prove that I am as weak as you when it comes to these people. They are here to work off a debt…”

 

“What debt?” Martinez asked, knowing he could easily end up under Gores’ hard hand for speaking in such a manner.

 

“They are peons, Luis. They owe me for everything. They work off that debt, but they must also pay for what they use. Pero stole from others and he is lucky I did not order the removal of his hand.”

 

“What did he steal?”

 

“I do not know, but Fernando saw him do it. He ordered the punishment and I agreed with his decision.”

 

“Why? Fernando has been accused of stealing…perhaps he is the true thief?”

 

“You overstep your bounds, Luis! Do not think I will not have you whipped because of your mother’s loyalty to me! Go now before I forget my promise to her!” Don Garcia warned and thought back to the vow he’d made when Luis had been born. He could not acknowledge whom the child belonged to, but he did promise the mother he would have a good life.

 

“Si, Patron, forgive me,” Martinez said and hurried away. He could feel his father watching him and knew if he were anyone else he would have been struck down for what he’d said. Sighing heavily he looked toward the house that should have been his, but for his mother’s station in life.

 

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Jackson’s Clinic

Four Corners

 

Chris Larabee loved the solitude of darkness and stood outside Jackson’s clinic watching as the town he now called home settled under the cooler temperatures of the night. Chris almost laughed at that thought because cooler temperatures simply meant you had the heat, but without the scorching rays of the sun. Chris knew where the other peacekeepers were and could hear the raucous laughter from the rowdy bunch of trail hands who had ridden into town just after sundown. Ezra, Buck and JD were in the saloon; Josiah and Vin were at the jail and would be joining them for a drink before calling it a night. Chris frowned when he thought of the tracker and wondered what it was that bothered him about the other man’s actions during the last few days. Something was wrong and when he had the chance he planned to find out exactly what it was. He turned when Jackson joined him and lit a cheroot, breathing deep of the strong smoke and sighed contentedly.

 

“Everything still quiet?” Jackson asked, his hand unconsciously going to his neck as he remembered the trail hands that had tried to lynch him when their boss died from gangrene. Chris and Vin saved his life that day and it wasn’t long afterward that Travis had offered them a job for a dollar a day plus room and board. He often wondered what would have happened to the town if they’d refused the job and gone their separate ways.

 

“Yeah, guess having the boys in the saloon was a good idea,” Larabee said, regretting his words as loud voices echoed over the town and the sound of breaking glass reached their ears.

 

“Guess ya spoke too soon,” Jackson said when Larabee snuffed out the cheroot and raced down the stairs. They headed for the saloon and were met at the doors by Vin and Josiah. The four men entered to see Inez use a whiskey bottle to hit a man who held Wilmington down.

 

“Thanks, Darlin’!” Buck said with a grin and ducked when a fist was sent in his direction.

 

“Trouble, Ez?” Tanner asked when the gambler brushed off a layer of dust and struck one of the trail hands in the jaw.

 

“To put it mildly,” Standish answered and rejoined the melee.

 

“Think we should help them?” Sanchez asked.

 

“Seem to be handling things pretty well,” Jackson said, ducking when someone threw a chair in their direction.

 

“JD’s turning blue,” Tanner said.

 

“Guess we’d better help out,” Larabee said with a grin and grabbed the big man whose hands were wrapped around Dunne’s neck.

 

“Yehaw!” the Texan shouted and was soon at the center of the fighting.

 

Jackson shook his head and nodded at the ex-preacher before they moved to help the others and shouted when he saw one of the brawlers lift a chair and bring it down toward the other man’s unsuspecting back. “Buck, look out!”

 

Wilmington moved out of the way, lifting his leg and connecting with the man before he completed the downward arch of the chair. Nodding his thanks, Buck moved to pull a man off Inez and kissed her cheek before pushing her back behind the bar. He’d seen the others enter and knew they were no longer getting the tar beat out of them.

 

Ezra saw a man break a bottle on the bar and move toward Nathan’s back. He shoved the smaller man he’d been fighting aside and dove at the miscreant. He connected solidly with the man’s upper body, sending them both into the bar. He grabbed the hand holding the dangerous weapon and slammed it against the rail again and again until his opponent lost his grip on it.

 

“Fucking bastard!” the trail hand spat.

 

“Mothah abhors using excess force, but in this case she would agree it was warranted!” Standish said and picked up a broken piece of chair and quickly rendered his nemesis unconscious.

 

JD blinked the dizziness away and shouted before he swung at one of the two men who were beating Buck into the wall. He ducked away from a devastating blow and drove his head into the other man’s gut. He heard the harsh whoosh of air, but didn’t stop until he rendered the man unconscious.

 

Josiah kept watching his fellow peacekeepers even as he took down two men who’d tried to make a battering ram out of a destroyed table. He spotted Inez and knew she was safe, smiling when the pretty woman proved she could take care of herself.

 

Chris fought side by side with Vin and the duo gave as good as they got until Vin went down under a devastating right hook. Chris drove into the guy before he had a chance to kick the tracker and lost sight of Tanner when several other bodies got in the way. He tried to see Tanner and was relieved when the sharpshooter came up cursing and looking for blood. The tide of the fight changed and the trail hands went down under the fierce persistence of the seven peacekeepers.

 

“Damn,” Larabee wheezed, bending over with his hands on his knees and a smile on his face as he wiped the blood from his nose.

 

“What’s the matter, Pard, gettin’ too old for this?” Wilmington asked and stretched the kinks from his back.

 

“He’s not the only one, Buck. Your back sounds worse than a rusty spring,” Dunne teased

 

“Watch it, Kid, or I’ll show ya how old I am,” the rogue said and moved to help with the prisoners who were still conscious. “Well, boys, looks like ya get to spend the night in jail.”

 

“What about the damage? Who will pay for all this?” Inez asked, hands on her hips while she surveyed the damage.

 

“Figure these boys should pay up,” Tanner said.

 

“That seems appropriate considering these miscreants destroyed the establishment,” Standish agreed.

 

“Pony up ta the bar and pay the lady, boys,” the Texan ordered.

 

“We ain’t the only ones fightin’,” a scruffy man with graying hair spat indignantly.

 

“It doesn’t matter, because you boys started it,” Sanchez said. “Empty your pockets on the bar and that includes any weapons you may still hold.”

 

Chris watched the Texan while they gathered the troublesome trail hands and again wondered what was bothering him. He frowned when Jackson pointed out his own problem.

 

“Chris, better get on over to the clinic and let me take a look at that?” the healer said.

 

“Look at what?” Larabee said and looked down at his left side. “Damn, how’d that happen?”

 

“Mr. Larabee perhaps you zigged when you should have zagged,” Standish said.

 

“Ya all right?” Tanner asked when he walked past.

 

“It’s just a scratch,” the blond said.

 

“Maybe, but it’s gonna need cleaning,” Jackson said. “Ya boys all right ta clean up this mess?”

 

“We got ‘em,” Tanner said, turning away as he worked his jaw and felt the pain come alive. He hurried out of the saloon before anyone noticed.

 

Chris wanted to speak with the tracker, to ease his own worries, but Vin was gone before he had a chance and Nathan was hurrying him toward the clinic.

 

“Nate, did you notice anything wrong with Vin?”

 

“Can’t say as I did,” Jackson said when Larabee glanced over his shoulder. “Was he hurt?”

 

“No…don’t think so,” Larabee said and held his hand against his side.

 

“Well, you can check on him once I’ve cleaned that up,” Jackson said and guided the gunman up the stairs. Once inside he lit the lamp and told Larabee to take off his shirt.

 

Chris opened the shirt and took it off, wincing when he looked at the jagged wound. He knew it wasn’t bad, but Jackson was right that it needed to be taken care of. He sat on the edge of the bed and watched the healer get things ready including pouring carbolic into the basin of water. Next the man pulled a chair close to the bed and made sure the lamp was close enough to illuminate the wound.

 

“Lay back, Chris!” Jackson ordered and waited until the blond was stretched out on the bed. The wound wasn’t as bad as he thought, but it would need stitches and the healer reached for the bottle of whiskey. He measured out a liberal shot and handed it to Larabee.

 

“Thanks, Nathan…”

 

“Chris, this ain’t bad and it probably don’t hurt much, but it’s gonna need cleaning and stitches,” Jackson said.

 

Chris sighed wearily, and settled back on the bed. As Jackson worked on the wound he thought about Tanner and tried to figure out what was bothering the tracker. It wasn’t something outwardly read, but there was definitely something amiss. He sucked in a breath of air and held it, glaring at the healer when he pressed the cloth against the wound. Chris knew it was soaked in water and carbolic and that was the reason for the fierce stinging sensation.

 

“Shit!” The blond snarled and knew there was more to come. He watched Jackson ready the needle and thread that would sew the wound together and closed his eyes again. A picture of the Texan holding his jaw came to mind, but it disappeared when the needle bit into his flesh.

 

“Sorry, Chris, just a few more,” Jackson said, concentrating on the neat row of stitches he was putting in.

 

“N…not digging in dirt,” the blond whispered through clenched teeth. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the healer say he was done.

 

“Just stay put, Chris, and I’ll cover it,” the healer explained and could see the blond’s face ease. He knew it had been a long day and the fight culminating with the shot of whiskey would probably put the gunman out before long. He busied himself getting the bandages in place and quickly finished the job of tending the blond. “All done, Chris, you just rest up while I check the others and ya can go back to your room when you’re ready.

 

“Okay…thanks, Nate…check Vin.” Chris felt himself drifting toward sleep and barely felt Jackson’s hand on his side. ‘Need to talk to Vin,’ was his last thought before the sandman pulled him completely under.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Vin Tanner eased into the saddle and turned Peso away from the livery. The sun was just rising when he headed out of town and he knew it was going to be another day of scorching temperatures and blistering heat. He knew the heat wasn’t what was making him miserable and his left hand went to his jaw as each jarring step sent excruciating pain through his gums. He knew he should talk to Nathan, but the thought of anyone touching his mouth made his gut clench.

 

He hadn’t slept very well and wanted to be up and out of town before anyone saw him, especially Larabee. The man could read him as easily as an open book and would know he was hiding something. He’d taken a blow to the cheek that had sent him to his knees and had barely escaped from Jackson’s attention because Larabee had been cut by one of the trail hands. He’d stopped by the clinic and was assured the blond was fine and would be up and around once he had rested.

 

Vin headed south, boycotting several homesteads in his quest to be alone. Again his hand went to his jaw and he worked his tongue around the inside of his mouth, feeling the small lump near the left side of his incisor. The area was tender to the touch and he flinched when he pressed against it. The coffee that morning had been another reminder that maybe it was time to see Nathan. The pain had been so bad he’d cursed a blue streak and was glad no one had been in earshot.

 

Turning Peso east, Vin gave the animal its lead and felt the wind whipping around him. This was something he loved to do, but lately with the ties to the town he’d been unable to find the time. There were so many people now who looked up to him, and he smiled when he thought of the elderly woman who reminded him so much of his own mother.

 

Nettie Wells was something of an enigma to most people. A woman who’d fought to keep what was hers in a land where men like Guy Royal sought to take what didn’t belong to them. Vin smiled with warmth at the thought of Nettie Wells standing on her porch with her Winchester Carbine held tightly in her hands. He admired her for her spit and vinegar stance, and knew she’d be a formidable foe as Royal found out the hard way. Without thinking about where he was going or what he was doing, Vin turned Peso north toward the Wells’ homestead.

 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Northern Mexico

 

Luis Martinez watched his mother when she exited the house and made her way toward the small building that served as a chapel for the mestizo people. It was a simple structure, but well maintained because of their faith in God. During the early morning and late evening hours there were many fieldworkers who came to pay homage to God for everything He bestowed on them.

 

“Luis, how is Pero?” Evita asked when he caught up to her. She dipped her fingers in the Holy Water and made the sign of the cross before entering the chapel.

 

“Camila is tending his wounds. He is sore, but he’ll survive.” Luis also made the sign of the cross before sitting beside his mother.

 

“Tell her to put this on his wounds,” Evita ordered and passed her son a tin of salve.

 

“Will you get in trouble for taking this?”

 

“No one saw me, Luis,” she assured her son and touched his cheek. “I am careful.”

 

“If Don Garcia…”

 

“He won’t. Don’t worry, Luis, I can handle Don Garcia.”

 

“He is not a man who forgives easily, Mama,” Luis said, gently touching the scar on her cheek. He had witnessed the blow that had caused this mark and would always look at it in anger.

 

“He will not hit me again,” Evita assured her son. Don Garcia had promised his wife that he would not hit her attendant and so far he had kept that promise to the pregnant woman. The Haciendada would do anything and promise anything if it meant his heir came into this world strong and healthy.

 

“I wish I could take you away from here,” Luis said.

 

“This is the only life I have ever known, Luis, and I have but one regret and that is the lack of a true papa for you. Don Garcia provides well for us, but he will never admit who you are. I beg you do not do anything that would make him take his whip to you for I could not bear to watch.”

 

“I know that, and I will respect him because of you,” Martinez said.

 

“Thank you, Hijo,” Evita said. The two grew quiet, both saying a silent prayer for the other’s well-being. When she was finished, Evita pressed a kiss to her son’s forehead, and made the sign of the cross on her chest before hurrying out of the chapel. She did not see the concern on her son’s face when he too left the holy building with a final prayer that God keep his mother safe.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Don Garcia entered his wife’s room and watched the doctor tend his wife. Miguel Delgado jumped when he turned to see the man he knew as the Patron standing at the foot of the bed. He swallowed several times before speaking; his squeaky voice gave evidence of his skittishness.

 

“How is she?” De Rivera asked, standing tall and elegant in an immaculate white shirt and black pants.

 

“She is better,” Delgado lied.

 

“She does not look better,” the older man stated angrily.

 

“That is because I have only been with her a short time, Patron. She will need time to build up her strength and then she will give you a healthy son.”

 

“For your sake I hope you are right,” Don Garcia said and looked around the room. “Where is Evita?”

 

“She was not here when I arrived,” Delgado answered. He did not like the woman who questioned his every move where De Rivera’s wife and unborn child were concerned. Evita Martinez probably knew more about childbirth than he did, but he was not about to admit that to the Haciendada.

 

“I am here,” Evita said upon entering the room with a basin of water and a bar of soap.

 

“Where were you?” Delgado asked indignantly. “Don Garcia was looking for you!”

 

“Evita, you are to watch over Maria…”

 

“Si, Patron, I was just in the chapel saying a prayer for her and the child,” Martinez said. She had said a prayer and knew De Rivera believed in God, if only to try and buy a space in heaven for himself. She did not think one so cruel would ever know the reward of life after death. For Don Garcia and others like him there was a fiery hell awaiting them. She placed the basin on the table beside the bed and gently touched the ill woman’s brow.

 

“Evita, from now on you will use the family chapel so that you are close by if Maria needs you. She seems to know when you are around.”

 

“Si, thank you, Patron,” Evita said, but did not miss the angered sneer from the physician. She busied herself preparing the bath water and turned to the men. “I will bathe her now, but she does not like when there are others around.”

 

“I am a doctor…”

 

“My wife’s wishes will be respected, Doctor,” De Rivera warned and turned to walk out of the room. “Evita will let you know when she has completed her task.”

 

Evita waited for the men to leave and then closed the door before returning to the young woman’s side. There was no doubt in her mind that Delgado was an enemy she could ill afford, but there were times when one had little choice. She smiled when Maria’s eyes opened and looked up at her.

 

“Thank you, Evita, I do not think I could stand his touch much longer.”

 

“I am sorry, Maria, I wish there was more I could do,” Martinez said and brushed back the sweat soaked hair.

 

“You’re being here is a Godsend,” the pretty woman vowed tiredly. “I know when I go to my grave my son will have someone to care for him and teach him.”

 

“I will do all I can for him, but you will be a wonderful mother.”

 

“You and I both know that is not true, Evita. I grow weary and find it hard to believe I will see my son born.”

 

“God will protect you.”

 

“God has always given me strength, Evita, but this is something that I can foresee. Bring my son up as you did Luis and I shall die happy knowing he is someone I can be proud of.” Maria smiled when the other woman reached out and took her hand. That simple touch gave her strength when she needed it and somehow she would hold on to that and see her child born.

 

Evita Martinez knew Maria Elena De Montoya was right. The woman’s health had always been fragile and there was nothing more she could do except keep her comfortable during the final weeks of her pregnancy. She would bathe her and see that her linens were changed and talk to her when she wanted. She wondered what this beautiful woman would have been like if she’d married a man who truly loved her. Would she have blossomed into a rose whose delicate beauty spoke of its inner strength? What would her life have been like if she’d married a nobleman from Spain and been pampered by his family? Folding back the blankets, Evita cared for the woman who had come to mean so much to her.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Four Corners

Mid-Day

 

Chris sat with his feet on the rail and his chair leaning back against the wall. For all intents and purposes he looked like a man without a care in the world, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Under the brim of the dark hat, sea green eyes scanned the dusty street, watching and anticipating where trouble could come from. Larabee knew where five of the other six peacekeepers were, but Tanner had been gone when he woke up in the clinic. Yosemite told him the quiet Texan had left around dawn and would be patrolling the area until he wound up at the Wells farm at the end of the day.

 

Chris’ mind turned to the reasons he was worried about the sharpshooter. Vin hadn’t been himself over the last week and Chris knew there was something bothering him. The wound in his side was minor, but it irked him that he’d so easily fallen asleep in Jackson’s bed the night before without speaking with Vin. He would correct that mistake when the other man returned.

 

“Hey, Chris, them fellas we put in jail last night are grumbling about being hot,” Dunne said with a grin and sat on the rail next to Larabee’s boots.

 

“Serves ‘em right,” Larabee replied softly.

 

“That’s what I said,” the Bostonian agreed. “Told them I’d let them out when I was good and ready.”

 

“Good plan.” Larabee tipped his hat when several women passed by.

 

JD shook his head and wondered if the blond knew just how much of an effect he had on the people of this town. It seemed whenever the ladies saw the dark clad gunslinger they watched him out of the corner of their eyes. He’d heard several eligible women talking about what Larabee would be like as a husband. Most times JD simply shook his head and walked away, but there were times when he listened to the conversations and knew that Buck was not the only ladies’ man in town. Chris was one whether he realized it or not. It never dawned on JD that most of the women found the peacekeepers attractive and secretly yearned for the dangerous element that clung to the seven.
 

“Looks like Mrs. Travis is coming this way,” Dunne said and saw the almost imperceptible move on Larabee’s part. JD often wondered whether these two would ever see eye-to-eye and realize they had feelings for each other. It seemed pretty obvious to him.

 

“Morning, Mary.” Larabee sat forward.

 

“Morning, Chris, JD,” the blonde woman acknowledged and ruffled the paper in her hand.

 

“Morning, Ma’am,” Dunne greeted the newcomer by tipping his hat respectively.

 

“Something wrong?” the gunman asked.

 

“I…Chris, I’m sorry, I know this has nothing to do with you, but I need to talk to someone.”

 

“What’s wrong?” Larabee queried.

 

“Did you read the story I ran about the raids south of here?” Mary anxiously inquired.

 

“The ones by the bandits?” Dunne asked. Truth was he’d read about them and the murderous rampages they’d been carrying out on the homesteads north of Purgatorio. Whole families had been slaughtered and it seemed that the bandits were staying close to the border in order to make a clean getaway.

 

“Yes,” Mary replied, worrying her bottom lip as she handed Larabee a telegram she’d gotten that day. “This is the latest report I received from Orrin.”

 

Chris could tell there was more to it than just a newspaperwoman looking into a story. Despite their first few meetings, Chris knew Mary was not the type to run a story just to sell a paper. She cared about the town and the people who lived there and it showed in the respect people gave her. He read the message and looked at the woman for an explanation.

 

“They were friends of Steven’s,” Mary explained. “I met them just before they married and we talked about where they wanted to settle down and start a family. Steven and Scott checked many of the homesteads before Scott settled on that piece of land. He built the house and they cleared the area. It took them a long time…but they were happy.”

 

“I’m sorry, Mary,” Larabee offered sincerely. Her voice was filled with raw emotion and he knew she was fighting to keep it in check.

 

“It’s just…it seems so senseless,” the newspaperwoman said and looked into Larabee’s eyes.

 

“Murder usually is,” the gunman told her.

 

“They didn’t just murder them, Chris,” Mary told him. “They raped Shannon and brutalized her body. The bandits seem to be moving further north and I’m afraid it’ll get worse unless someone puts a stop to them.”

 

“Does the judge want us to check them out?” Dunne asked.

 

“Not exactly, but he’s requested that you expand the patrols to include the homesteads south of here,” Mary said and handed Larabee a second missive.

 

Chris read the message and nodded to Dunne. “JD, tell the others to double up when they’re on patrol.”

 

“Sure, Chris,” Dunne said and hurried off.

 

“Mary, it might be a good idea to run something about people taking precautions especially those near the border,” Larabee suggested.

 

“I will,” the blonde woman answered and watched a wagon coming toward them. She knew about the fight in the saloon the night before and asked. “How is your side?”

 

“Sore, but I’ve had worse,” Larabee answered and stood up. His shadow fell across the floorboards, elongated by the sun, until it touched hers and the two seemed to be as one. He lifted his head and glanced into soft green eyes and was relieved that they’d been able to get past the events of their first meeting and the rocky relationship with Ella Gaines. “I’m going to ride out to the Wells place and make sure they take precautions.”

 

“Just be careful.”

 

“I will,” the gunman assured her and strode toward the livery.

 

Mary watched the tall gunslinger move along the street. There was no sign that he’d been injured and no one could mistake the man’s confident stride as anything but what it appeared to be. Chris Larabee had a checkered past, one wrought with grief and violence, but he was still a man who deserved the respect of his peers. Sighing heavily she pushed her feelings aside and hurried toward the Clarion office.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

The ride along the trail south of Four Corners had done very little to ease the jagged nerve endings in Vin’s damaged tooth and he’d come to a decision. Resigned to the fact that he would have to see Nathan when he got back to town, the tracker had continued his trek to the Wells’ homestead. The feisty woman had found her way into his heart and he found himself drawn to her like a moth to a flame. Nettie Wells often reminded him of his mother in spite of the fact that she’d died when he was only five years old. His last image of her was ingrained on his mind and one he would keep forever in his soul. She’d been sick for so long, yet in the final moments of her life there’d been the vibrant glow of youth to her as if God had taken pity on a five-year-old boy and given him something to hold on to. Vin spotted Nettie near the barn and quickly dismounted and tipped his hat.

 

“Afternoon, Miss Nettie.” The Texan smiled at the elderly woman in spite of the throbbing pain in his jaw.

 

“Afternoon, Vin, is something wrong or is this a social call?”

 

“Little o'both,” Tanner told her and looped Peso’s reins over a post. “Wanted ta make sure ya had ever’thin’ ya needed.”

 

“Well now, Vin, I got everything I want right here,” Nettie said, smiling when the younger man looked around.

 

“Guess ya do. Where’s Casey?”

 

“She’s in the house,” the woman answered, frowning when she saw Tanner studying the landscape. “What’s goin’ on?”

 

“Don’t want ta worry ya none, but them bandits that’re raidin’ down near Purgatorio are gettin’ bolder.”

 

“You telling me ta keep my carbine closer?”

 

“Somethin’ like that,” Tanner said. “Might be a good idea ta come inta town until they’s stopped.”

 

“Ain’t no one gonna run me off my land, Vin. I know how to use that old gun and I ain’t afraid ta shoot a man if he needs it. Comes with the life out here…and I ain’t one ta go hide under my bed when trouble comes ta calling.”

 

“No, Ma’am, I don’t ‘spect ya are,” the Texan told her and realized this woman really could look after herself, but there were some things even a gun and a strong woman could not handle.

 

“Me and Casey’ll be fine,” Nettie assured him. “First sign of trouble or of them bandits comin’ north we’ll come into town…you have my word on that.”

 

“Jest want’cha ta be careful,” Tanner told her.

 

“Well now it seems ta me that it’s you who needs ta be careful. Got some cider and apple pie if you’re a mind ta sit a spell.”

 

“Ya twisted m'arm." The Texan grinned and followed the woman inside.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Northern Mexico

Evening

 

Hernando Lopez was not a man who feared anything…except this man. Don Garcia De Rivera stood before him, his cane raised high above his head and the long, bloodied, red braid clutched tightly in the fingers of his left hand. There was no doubt in Lopez’s mind that he had overstepped his bounds, but he fought for something, anything that could save him from this man’s wraith. When the patron had found out what his banditos had done, he’d ordered him stripped to the waist and made him kneel before him. Now he knew exactly what his punishment would be and his fear was very real for a man who’d raped and murdered so many men, women, and children.

 

“You were not to go so far north!” De Rivera spat, his nostrils flaring in rage. “You will bring the fucking gringos here and they will try to take what belongs to me!”

 

“They can’t cross the border, Patron…”

 

“Why the hell not?” The Haciendada snapped and brought the cane down across Lopez’s bare shoulders, leaving a fiery red welt in its wake. “What makes you think they are any more bound by borders than you are?”

 

“I am sorry, Patron…it will not happen again.”

 

“No, it will not because I am going to…”

 

“Please, Patron…listen to me…”

 

“Silencio!” De Rivera ordered and felt the urge to strike the insolent man down. He struck him twice more before the man’s words got through to him and his chest heaved with the force of his labored breathing. “What did you say?”

 

“I know who murdered your son, Patron. I know the man’s name!”

 

“Who is the bastardo?”

 

“His name is Chris Larabee.” Lopez eased back on his heels until he was looking up at the older man. There was a ferocity in the eyes that put fear in his heart and he was glad he’d deflected the man’s attention.

 

“Chris Larabee. Who is he?”

 

“A gunslinger, Patron.” Lopez said, suddenly feeling some of his terseness returning.

 

“He will die for what he did…”

 

“Si, Patron, I am sure I will be able to take him…”

 

“You are not worthy of killing the man who murdered my son. No, he will die at Luis’ hand,” De Rivera said and paced along the small pathway. Yes, that would be the best revenge for Alonzo’s murderer. Chris Larabee would die by De Rivera’s bastard son’s hand, he would see to that.

 

Hernando Lopez noticed the change in the older man and breathed softly in an effort to keep the man from seeing him again. The Haciendada played with the tip of his mustache and pressed his lips together, but his attention seemed elsewhere as he stroked the cane in his hand. Lopez could see the hatred in the man’s eyes and the flaring of his nostrils and suddenly he felt very glad he wasn’t Chris Larabee. He could tell by the patron’s actions that the pain he’d suffered at the man’s hands would be nothing compared to what he would do to the gringo if he caught him.

 

Don Garcia let his imagination run wild and for now it was running toward dark revenge. For the first time since his son’s body had been brought to him he had his killer’s name. That name he damned to a thousand deaths, each one more excruciating than the one before. By the time he was finished with the gringo he would be begging for death, but death would not come easy.

 

“Chris Larabee,” he whispered the name and felt something akin to superiority enter his veins. He was stronger than any gringo and he would lord that power over him. He would use this cane and strip the skin from Larabee’s back and feed it to the dogs while the man was still alive. Alonzo’s death would be avenged and the chains that twisted around his heart would finally be cut.

 

“Hernando, find out everything you can about Chris Larabee! I want to know where he lives and who he loves! I want to know how many friends he has and I want him brought to me…unharmed!”

 

“Si, Patron,” Lopez said, but remained where he was. De Rivera had not yet released him and he did not want to bring the man’s anger back on him.

 

“Take your men and go across the border…kill anyone who stands in your way and bring that black hearted bastardo to me!”

 

“Si, Patron,” the bandito agreed and stood on shaky legs. He stayed where he was when De Rivera’s hand clutched his shoulder.

 

“He is to be brought to me alive, Lopez, or I will cut your heart from your chest and feed it to the pigs!”

 

“I will see to it, Patron,” the dark haired man agreed and breathed a sigh of relief when the man’s gnarled fingers released him. The elderly man turned and walked quickly back toward the main house. He knew he’d barely escaped the Haciendada’s anger and he reached for his hat. He brushed off the dust and smiled at the thought of bringing the gunslinger here. De Rivera had said he wanted him alive, but he did not say he could not be marked. There were many ways to bring Larabee down, and the best way to do that was through the people he cared about. From what he’d gathered about Larabee, he was a ‘lawman’, but without a badge. His bandits had been going further north and would continue to do so until the gunman and his fellow ‘lawmen’ formed a posse and came after them.

 

“Hernando, you are okay?” Rodrigo Marquiz asked.

 

“I am fine, Rodrigo, but we must head north again tonight.”

 

“I thought we were to stay out of the gringos’ way?”

 

“No, our patron wants us to step up our raids and bring Chris Larabee to him!”

 

“Chris Larabee is not a man to fuck with!” Marquiz said, a hint of awe in his voice. He’d heard stories about the dark gunslinger and the notches he was supposed to have on his gun. If even half of what he heard was true, then he had no desire to face the notorious blond.

 

“Neither am I, Rodrigo!” Lopez said and eased into his shirt. “Get the men together! We leave in half an hour!”

 

“Si, Hernando,” Marquiz said and hurried off. Within half an hour the banditos, now numbering twenty were headed north with only one thing in mind, the pillaging of the homesteads on the other side of the Rio Grande.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Wells Homestead

Outside Four Corners

Late Evening

 

Vin stood looking out over the land and unconsciously ran his tongue over the sizable lump on the inside of his mouth. The apple pie had been so good, but he’d barely touched it because the sweet dessert produced throbbing pain in his mouth. He’d felt Nettie watching him and managed to finish the piece she’d placed before him, but he’d refused the extra helping he usually indulged in.

 

“So, when are you gonna see Mr. Jackson?”

 

“Huh? Sorry, Miss Nettie, didn’t hear ya come out,” the Texan said and stood straighter when a dark speck appeared near the edge of her property. It didn’t take long for him to pick out the figure and he turned his attention back to his hostess. “What did ya say?”

 

“Asked when you’re gonna see Mr. Jackson?”

 

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with me,” Tanner answered simply and smiled at the look of disbelief the woman sent his way.

 

“In that case there must’ve been somethin’ wrong with the pie. Guess I’d best throw it out!”

 

“No!” the young man assured her and shook his head when she laughed. “The pie’s great…jest not hungry…”

 

“Since when?”

 

“Chris’ comin’,” Tanner observed in hopes of deflecting her attention.

 

“I see that…maybe I should tell him you’re ailin’,” Wells stated.

 

“No…I’m fine, Miss Nettie. I’ll see Nate when I get inta town,” Tanner told her.

 

“Sure you will…evening, Mr. Larabee.”

 

“Evening, Mrs. Wells,” the gunman greeted and dismounted with an air of stiffness in his body.

 

“Somethin’ wrong, Mr. Larabee?” the older woman asked.

 

“Chris got cut last night, must be feelin’ okay if’n Nate’s let ‘im ride out,” Tanner told her, leaning against the railing in a relaxed manner.

 

“I hope it’s nothin’ serious,” Nettie said.

 

“It’s fine,” the blond assured her and turned his attention to the sharpshooter. “You all right?”

 

“I’m okay, Chris, was just headin’ in. Everythin’ okay in town?” the tracker asked.

 

“Everything's fine. Might be trouble heading this way.”

 

“That bunch of bandits?” Nettie asked.

 

“Yes, Ma’am,” Larabee answered. “They’re getting bolder and hit a homestead north of the border.”

 

“How far north?” Tanner asked.

 

“Too far. This wasn’t a mistake, Vin. They killed a man and woman and burned their place to the ground.”

 

“Oh my Lord,” Nettie said.

 

“Might not be a bad idea for you and Casey to stay in town until we catch them,” Larabee explained.

 

“Is that necessary, Mr. Larabee?”

 

“Maybe not yet, but if they decide to raid even further north we might not be able to get a warning out.” Chris knew if anyone could convince the elderly woman to stay in town until the danger was over it was the Texan, and he looked to him now.

 

“Think it’s fer the best,” Tanner suggested and saw the woman nod once.

 

“I’ll get some things together,” Nettie assured them.

 

The peacekeepers watched her enter the house and sat back to wait for the two women. They knew it was probably not needed, but for now they would escort them into town.

 

“Anyone we know?” Tanner asked.

 

“No, but Mary did. They were friends of Steven Travis…Mary met them a couple of times.”

 

“We gonna go after them?”

 

“Might not be a bad idea,” Larabee told him.

 

“Are ya up fer it?”

 

“Hell, Vin, cut myself worse shaving,” the blond answered with a grin and suddenly remembered the reason he wanted to talk to the quiet man beside him. “What about you?”

 

“What about me?”

 

Chris didn't say a word, didn't have to. A single sandy brow arched and he leaned over the pommel. The silent message of 'you're kidding me, right?' came through loud and clear.

 

“Nothin’ I can’t take care of,” the Texan lied.

 

“You sure, Vin?” the gunman asked. “Gonna need to know you’re watching my back out there. These bandits are hitting too close to home and something tells me this bunch is not gonna be happy with the homesteads.”

 

“Ya think they’ll come inta town?”

 

“Might…just no way of knowing for sure.”

 

“Ya figurin’ on goin after ‘em?”

 

“Was thinking it might be a good idea. Figured we’d start at the Doherty place…”

 

“Doherty?”

 

“The homesteaders that were killed the other night.”

 

“Cold trail,” Tanner observed.

 

“I know…but there’s someone can read sign better than anyone I know,” Larabee stated with confidence and clapped the younger man’s shoulder.

 

“Ain’t many men I trust, Chris,” the Texan said and saw the belief in Larabee’s eyes. He’d given the blond a part of himself when he’d told him about the bounty on his head. That was not something he talked about lightly and very few people knew about that part of his past. Someday he was going back to Texas to clear his name and there was no doubt in his mind that this man would be riding beside him.

 

“Goes both ways, Vin,” Larabee assured him. He scrutinized the quiet man and knew there was something wrong and this time he was not letting him change the subject. “What’s wrong, Vin?”

 

“We’re ready,” Nettie said and looked from one man to the other as if reading an unusual tension there.

 

“I’ll hitch up the buggy,” Tanner said and hurried away.

 

‘This ain’t over, Vin,’ Larabee thought and smiled reassuringly at Casey before taking her bag. Whatever was ailing the sharpshooter would have to wait until they were back in town. Chris just hoped it was nothing serious.

 

“Aunt Nettie says trouble’s comin’,” Casey said while her aunt locked the door.

 

 “Might be, Casey. It’d be best if you stayed in town for a while,” Larabee explained and was glad the two women had packed light. It wasn’t long before they were headed back to Four Corners and Chris knew they’d need to come up with a plan once they arrived. Pressing his hand against his side he waited for the throbbing ache to subside and watched the Texan’s left hand rub against his jaw.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Four Corners

Early Morning

Two Days Later

 

The sun had risen with the promise of another day of blistering temperatures. The town of Four Corners baked under the torrid rays, yet inside the building that housed the freight and grain, tempers were heavy as voices were raised in incensed frustration. Stories of the bandits’ raids had spread quickly and there was a real fear that if they continued north, more deaths would follow. Most of the male population had gathered inside the structure and the women and children who happened within earshot could hear a fiery discussion.

 

The seven peacekeepers were seated at the back of the building, sweat beading on their foreheads while they fought to control heated tempers that matched the scorching rays of the sun, as voices rose in angry confrontation. There were several townspeople present including Yosemite and Conklin, the latter being as obstinate and belligerent as always.

 

“You men were hired to protect this town. What are you going to do about these bandits?” Conklin snarled.

 

“We’re doing our job!” Dunne snapped back.

 

“Easy, JD, Mr. Conklin is simply stating his position, which is very tenuous if he continues in this manner,” Standish said, snapping the deck of cards in his hands.

 

“I don’t give a damn what those big words mean, card sharp, but I know Judge Travis pays top dollar for you men and I aim to see this town’s money is not wasted,” the man spat and turned to the blond gunman who seemed to be the unofficial leader of the ragtag group of ‘lawmen’. “You need to get out there and stop them before they reach this town!”

 

“If’n yer in such a hurry ta waste lives git out there yerself. Rest of us are workin’ on a plan,” Tanner calmly told the irate man.

 

“Vin’s right, Conklin,” Larabee stated, hand resting dangerously on the butt of his gun, eyes narrowing dangerously when the other man’s mouth opened to speak. “You’d better think about what you’re gonna say and think hard!”

 

“Now see here!”

 

Buck jumped up, grabbed the man by the collar, and stood toe to toe with him. “You think you can do better then get the hell out there and show us instead of telling us what to do, Conklin!”

 

Chris stood beside the mustached man and placed a gentling hand on Wilmington’s shoulder. “Easy, Buck, Conklin’s all talk!”

 

“I…I…”

 

“Ya what, Conklin?” Tanner snorted in disgust. “Ya gonna help us or should we save ya a spot with the women and children!”

 

“Sonofabitch!” the townsman spat and pulled away from Wilmington’s hands. “I’m not a coward…”

 

“Then quit acting so righteous and help us come up with a plan!” Sanchez stated softly.

 

“He’s right, Mr. Conklin!” Yosemite shook his head in disgust at the other man’s actions. “We need to do everything we can ta help keep the people of this town safe. What do you need us to do, Chris?”

 

“We’ll need you and several others to take up the patrols once we leave…”

 

“You can’t leave the town unprotected!” Conklin placed his hands on the table, breathing a little easier now that Wilmington’s big hands weren’t locked on his shirt.

 

“We’re not,” Larabee told him. “Josiah and Ezra are staying in town. The rest of us will head out this afternoon…check the homesteads to the south before riding into Purgatorio.”

 

“That’s not what Travis hired you for…”

 

“Judge Travis hired us to protect the people of this territory and that’s jest what we’re aimin’ ta do,” Jackson said. “That includes the people in the Seminole village and farms. The Wilsons are close ta the border and I aim ta make sure they know what’s happenin’!”

 

Chris calmly reached for a cheroot and lit it, aware of the heightened tempers. He understood the fears and worries, but it was people like the weaselly Conklin who made it hard for everyone. The blond knew Ezra and Josiah, with the help of people like the livery owner, could handle any trouble that came this way. The problem was Conklin, and Chris was glad there weren’t many like him. Most of the people cared about their neighbors, but Conklin didn’t give a damn about anyone except himself. Larabee drew the smoke deep in his lungs and stared at the man, smiling inwardly when he seemed to wilt imperceptively.  

 

“Conklin, if you’re not with us on this, you’re against us and right now there’s enough problems with the bandits…so shut up and sit down or get the hell out of here!” the ex-preacher ordered and turned his back on the irate townsman. “All right, Chris, any idea on where you boys are gonna start?”

 

“Nathan mentioned the Wilsons and that’s as good a place as any. From there we’ll head to the Doherty place and see if Vin can pick up their trail.”

 

“If anyone can it’s Vin,” Yosemite said, admiration easily read in his eyes.

 

“Ain’t that good,” Tanner whispered.

 

“Damn right you are,” Dunne vowed.

 

“Well in any case once we’re through there we’ll either head back here or send a telegram from Purgatorio,” the gunslinger stated.

 

“You boys best be careful,” Sanchez warned the others.

 

“Same goes for you and Ezra, Josiah,” Jackson said and nodded toward Yosemite. “Make sure ya can trust the ones who’re watching your back.”

 

“Amen to that, Brother,” the older man said and looked into the empty cup. He knew Larabee and the others were treading on dangerous ground, but it was part of their lives and probably always would be so long as they chose to fight for what was right.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Northern Mexico

Mid-Morning

 

Evita Martinez glared at the man who entered the bedroom and silently cursed the man for the bumbling idiot he was. She knew there was no way she could remain quiet, but there was also the real possibility that Don Garcia would not listen to her. The man trusted her, but he wanted a son and if Miguel Delgado could make sure he was born, the Haciendada would not listen to her.

 

“Did you give her the herbs?” Delgado asked when he touched the sick woman’s forehead.

 

“Si, but she does not like it…”

 

“That does not matter. It will help with the fever and make her sleep.”

 

“She has never had a problem with sleep…Doctor,” the final word was spat and showed her distaste of this man.

 

“Do not think to tell me my job, Evita. I am the doctor here and I know what is best for my patient,” Delgado snapped and stood facing the formidable woman. He sensed her dislike of him, and wished Don Garcia would replace her, but De Rivera held a deep respect for Evita Martinez and it would not be easy to get rid of her.

 

“She is not getting better…”

 

“It’s only been a few days…”

 

“That may be, but your herbs and potions are not helping her. If anything she seems to be growing worse.” Evita moved to sit on the bed and touched the woman’s shoulder when Maria shivered under the blanket. Her fears for the patron’s wife were very real and her heart was in her throat whenever Maria cried out.

 

“It will take time for the herbs to work…they are not magic…not like some of the things I have seen your people doing in the fields…killing animals in the name of your gods…”

 

“My people do not use magic or kill anything. My God…our God is the same one my patron prays to.” Evita stood and stared heatedly at the man who was proving to be a hindrance more than a help before speaking. “I will speak to Don Garcia…

 

“E…Evita…please,” Maria’s head moved side to side and she sought the face of her special angel. One who could soothe the savage fires burning inside her and cool the burning fever that sapped her strength. “Help me, Evita.”

 

“I’m here, Senora,” Evita said and turned back to her charge. “Tell me what you want.”

 

“Stay with me…thirsty.” The voice was weak beyond anything Evita had ever heard before and she feared for the young woman’s life. There was very little she could do on her own, but she could not allow this man to endanger her further by giving her unknown herbs and potions.

 

“Where did you put the herbs I gave you?” Delgado asked.

 

“No,” Maria whispered. “No more herbs…no more teas…make me sick…please, Evita, just some water.”

 

“Si, Senora, I will bring water and perhaps you will eat something…”

 

“I will try,” the sick woman promised.

 

“She needs to drink the herb teas…”

 

“No, she does not,” Evita told him.

 

“I will speak with Don Garcia!”

 

“So will I, Doctor Delgado. Perhaps I shall tell him of the rumors I have heard amongst my people.”

 

“What rumors!”

 

“That you are not a real doctor!”

 

“Now see here…”

 

“No! You see here! In the time you have been tending Senora De Rivera she has grown worse and is not eating like she should be. Perhaps if Don Garcia heard the truth about you…” Evita’s head rocked back with the force of the slap, but she stood her ground. Her pride and bearing was that of a woman who had never backed down and she would not allow this man to change that.

 

“Evita,” Maria cried when she heard the heated voices. “What is wrong?”

 

“Nothing for you to be concerned with, Senora…”

 

“Tell him to go,” the patron’s wife snapped weakly. “I do not wish to have him tend me anymore.”

 

“You heard the Senora…leave now or I will have you…”

 

“Don Garcia is the patron and it is up to him whether I leave or not! You are merely a peon and have nothing to say, now get out of my way…”

 

“Evita…please. Make him le…leave!” Maria whimpered when the strange voice was raised in anger. The man was vaguely familiar, but her dislike for him was strong and she reached out to grasp the older woman’s hand. “My baby…don’t let him hurt my baby!”

 

“He won’t…”

 

“What is the meaning of this?” The voice was smooth, dangerous, and filled with anger.

 

“Luis, tell Don Garcia that the Senora does not wish to be touched by this…this…” Evita struggled to find the right word while her son’s eyes grew as dangerous as his voice.

 

“Who hit you?” Luis asked touching her cheek lightly before turning to the man who cringed away from him. “You did this?”

 

“No…yes, but she…” His words were cut off when a hand, large and callused gripped the collar of his shirt and nearly pulled him off his feet.

 

“I should kill you…”

 

“No, Luis, let Don Garcia deal with him,” Evita said and turned back to see tears sliding down Maria’s cheeks. “He won’t touch you again…that I promise you.”

 

“My baby…he will…need a doctor…”

 

“Yes, and we will find a real doctor,” Evita vowed. “Luis, get Don Garcia and tell him I wish to speak with him.”

 

“Si, Mama, but what of this one?”

 

“I do not care what happens to him…just make sure he does not come back in here!” Evita felt the young woman’s hand on her arm and wished she could do something to ease her fears and worries for her unborn child. Maria De Montoya was wilting like the beautiful flower she represented and there was nothing she could do to stop her imminent death, except make sure she was as comfortable as possible. She’d seen this happen before, but never had she felt so helpless for this woman was as beautiful as the sunrise that brought with it the promise of a day filled with hope.

 

“Thank you, Evita,” Maria whispered when Evita bathed her face with a soft cloth and touched her heart as none had ever done before.

 

Evita watched the eyes close, but knew the woman wasn’t sleeping. She didn’t speak while she cared for her, but felt the trust that bonded them together. No one, not even the patron would hurt her charge, not if she could say or do anything to stop it.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“Don Garcia will be very angry with you, Luis!” Delgado told the dangerous man escorting him down the stairs.

 

“Don Garcia trusts my mother, Delgado, and once she speaks with him you won’t be allowed anywhere near the patron’s wife.”

 

“I am here to help her. She needs a doctor!”

 

“Yes, she does,” Luis snapped, as he too had heard rumors that this man was not what he passed himself off as. Several times he’d heard stories that Delgado was nothing more than a horse doctor who passed himself off as a physician. There’d also been hushed talk about how he’d used herbs that only made people worse.

 

“Don Garcia will hear of this!”

 

“Si, the patron is outside having his morning meal and I’m sure his appetite will leave him when he hears what I have to say.”

 

“You don’t know anything!”

 

“Are you so sure? I should have looked into your reputation further, but the patron wanted a doctor brought here…”

 

“If he finds out you were wrong he will kill you!”

 

“Perhaps, but I will die knowing you will not hit my mother again.” With those words Martinez propelled the other man through the door and onto the veranda. The Haciendada placed his cup on the table and looked up at the intrusion.

 

“Luis, what is the meaning of this?” De Rivera enquired angrily.

 

“This man is not what he says he is, Patron…”

 

“Por favor, Don Garcia, he lies,” Delgado pulled away from the younger man and spoke quickly. “He and his madre are trying to keep me from tending your wife. She is very sick…enfermo and without treatment she will get worse. Think of the baby…your hijo.”

 

“Luis…explain yourself!”

 

“Mi madre wishes to speak with you…”

 

“Evita should know I will not be summoned!” Don Garcia warned.

 

“She is overstepping her bounds and should be punished!” Delgado smiled inwardly at the thought of seeing the proud woman suffer under this man’s touch.

 

“No, Patron, this man has overstepped his bounds and struck mi madre,” Luis snarled.

 

“Is this true, Miguel?” De Rivera asked, his voice deadly calm.

 

“No…si, but she would not allow me to treat your wife. She thinks she knows better than I what should be done for Dona Maria.”

 

“Mama says he is making her worse, Patron,” Luis explained.

 

“I am doing everything I can for her!” Delgado stated. He could feel the elderly man watching him and swallowed several times in an effort to calm his nerves.

 

“If Evita is wrong it is my place to deal with her, Miguel. You have no right to hit anyone under my roof. What are you doing for my son?”

 

“I am giving herbs that will help with the fever…”

 

“Are they working?” De Rivera asked.

 

“It is too soon to tell, Patron. I am using herbs that…”

 

“Perhaps you are using the wrong ones,” Don Garcia said and grabbed for his cane. Straightening his body he strode toward the door. He was tired beyond anything he’d ever known because his dreams had been filled with thoughts of revenge. Numerous times, countless ways and yet each one ended with Chris Larabee dying at his feet.

 

“No, Patron…”

 

“Bring him along, Luis,” the Haciendada ordered.

 

Miguel Delgado felt a hand clamp onto his arm and swallowed the bitter fear that threatened to cut off his air. There was no doubt in his mind that he was in trouble, but there was still a possibility he could change the facts and make it look as if Evita Martinez was behind Maria De Rivera’s illness.

 

“Don Garcia, por favor, it is not I who is harming the patrona. That woman…she is a witch…”

 

De Rivera spun quickly and was nose to nose with the smaller man before snarling. “Evita may be many things, but she is not a witch. She is a woman of God and I will not hear you speak ill of her again. Do I make myself clear?”

 

“Si, Don Garcia, I did not mean to offend, but your wife…she is very ill and I wish only to help. Evita Martinez fights me at every turn and I cannot help the patrona if I…”

 

“Mi Madre does not trust this…this medico,” Luis spat in disgust.

 

“Luis, we shall see what Evita has to say,” De Rivera explained. Through the years Luis had grown into a man he could be proud of, but his own pride and prejudice in his linage would not let him openly acknowledge the younger man. He trusted his ‘son’s’ judgment and knew Luis would not lie to him.  “I will do everything in my power to see that my son is born healthy!”

 

“I swear I have been doing everything to make sure your son is given the best possible chance, Don Garcia. I have given her the herbs that help bring down fever and…”

 

“It does not seem to be helping,” Martinez interrupted and pulled the man’s arm, forcing him to follow the Haciendada. “There is talk that you are not truly a medico…”

 

“Now see here…”

 

“Is this true, Miguel?” De Rivera spun round once more, his hand clutching tightly to his cane, raging fire in his eyes.

 

“I assure you Don Garcia, the talk is wrong. I am a medico and I am doing everything I can to help your wife!” Delgado cringed, inwardly quaking at the thought of the loss of the promised fee, but fear for his life over shadowed even monetary gain.

 

“We shall see,” the Haciendada vowed. The tip of the cane landed against Delgado’s cheek with just enough force to leave a distinct red streak across the man’s stubbled face. De Rivera turned away and led them toward his wife’s room without another word.

 

Delgado’s hand went to his cheek while fear gnawed at his gut. There was no doubt in his mind that the elderly man would kill him if something happened before the child was born, and his resolve to stick around and collect the promised money shattered like a pane of glass during the stormy season.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Evita silently wept for the woman who came to mean as much to her as a daughter, but dried the tears when she heard Maria’s voice. She placed a cool cloth on the young woman’s brow and smiled.

 

“Would you sing for me, Evita?”

 

The older woman couldn’t help but smile at the softly spoken words and a song she’d learned from her long dead mother came to mind. She began to sing the words that carried the promise of a new life and felt the tears flow from her eyes when Maria De Rivera sighed heavily and a beatific smile graced her pale features.

 

“Follow the Drinkin' Gourd

Follow the Drinkin' Gourd

For the old man's waitin' for to carry you to freedom,

If you follow the Drinkin' Gourd.

When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,

Follow the Drinkin' Gourd

For the old man's waitin' for to carry you to freedom,

If you follow the Drinkin' Gourd.”

 

The words always filled her with a sense of freedom and she often wondered what life would be like if she were to move north, across the border and into the country that some called the land of milk and honey.

 

“When the sun comes back,” she whispered hopefully and looked up when footsteps sounded in the hallway. She looked at her charge and was grateful the young patrona had fallen into a deep sleep when Don Garcia graced the doorway.

 

“Evita, how is my son?”

 

The older woman swallowed the bitter retort that formed when the Haciendada spoke of only the child. Maria was nothing but a vessel for his heir and it was hard for her to keep her feelings from showing.

 

“Mother and child are still with us,” Evita answered and stood away from the bed.

 

“Delgado says you are not helping. That you stopped him from treating her.”

 

“Don Garcia, I do not trust this…this…hechicero. I fear he knows nothing of the herbs he pretends to use and she grows worse instead of better.”

 

“Luis brought him here…”

 

“Luis had no choice…he is the only medico in the area,” Evita told him.

 

“Si, that is true,” De Rivera told her and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I will send word to Hernando to find someone further north…across the border. There are stories of several fine medicos who have traveled far to help the sick and injured.”

 

“What if the medico refuses?” Evita asked and knew the answer before the man spoke.

 

“He will not be given a choice!” De Rivera answered simply and asked. “Are you so sure Delgado is a hechicero?”

 

“As sure as I am that the sun will come back,” Martinez answered and read the uncertainty in the older man’s eyes. She knew her meaning was lost on the Haciendada, but in her heart she knew someday the sun would indeed come back into her life and when it did she would embrace the freedom and light it promised.

 

“Are you sure enough to accuse him to his face?”

 

“Si, Don Garcia, I am more than sure,” Evita vowed.

 

“Luis, bring him here!”

 

“Si, Patron,” Martinez said and dragged Delgado into the room.

 

“Don Garcia, she is the one who doesn’t know what she’s doing! I swear I am doing everything in my power…”

 

“Power, Miguel?” De Rivera asked. “What power do you have? Evita does not trust you…she says you know nothing of the herbs you use.”

 

“She is wrong! I am using the skills I learned…”

 

“You are a hechicero,” Evita whispered.

 

“Now see here…I am not a witch doctor! I do not sacrifice animals I heal them!”

 

“You heal animals?” Luis asked and saw the disbelief wash over the man’s face when he realized what he had said. “You are an animal doctor?”

 

“Si…no…no, I am a doctor,” Delgado snapped and turned to the Haciendada. “Don Garcia, do not listen to them! I can help Dona Maria, but not with her hanging over my shoulder! I need to be able to examine…”

 

“You have done nothing to help her since you arrived. She has grown weaker and I fear you have done more damage than good,” Evita explained and looked to the elderly man leaning heavily on his cane. “Por favor, Don Garcia, do not let this man near her again.”

 

“If I do as you ask, Evita, you will be responsible should anything happen to my son!” De Rivera stated.

 

“I will gladly take on that responsibility, Don Garcia!” Martinez said and felt her son watching her closely.

 

“Luis, see that a message gets to Hernando to look for a medico while he searches for my son’s murderer!”

 

“Si, Patron, I will send word with Lucas,” Luis assured the older man. Lucas Aguilar was part of his own banditos, and Luis trusted him with his own life. He nodded toward Delgado and asked.  “What about him?”

 

“Yes, what shall we do with you, Miguel?” De Rivera asked and stood in front of the cowering man.

 

“I will go back to…”

 

“You will go nowhere until I know my son was unharmed by your treatment. Luis, see that he is unable to leave!” the Haciendada ordered and walked over to the bed. He looked down at the sleeping beauty, but did not feel anything for her. Maria De Montoya would give him an heir before she died and the boy would grow strong at his side. 

 

“Por favor, Patron! I did nothing wrong! It was her…she is the one who harms your unborn son!”

 

“Mi Madre would do nothing to hurt the patrona or the child. She has served Don Garcia with nothing but dignity and respect!” Luis vowed and dragged the cursing man out of the room, but not before he saw the pride shining in his mother’s eyes. Evita Martinez was a strong woman and he knew she could handle De Rivera…she’d proven that again and again over the years. She would always face those who would harm anyone she cared about and never back down. Delgado’s raging curses did nothing to slow Martinez down and they soon reached the building that housed the prisoner’s cells.

 

Martinez realized it wasn’t much of a building, but more of a shanty built over a hole dug in the hard ground. Dynamite had been used to hollow out the area and then workers had managed to ‘smooth’ out the sides and ground until it formed a square approximately four feet deep. Next iron bars had been driven into the sides until a criss-cross pattern covered the top of what had become known as the hole. He nodded to one of his men and waited for him to lift the heavy barrier before shoving Delgado inside.

 

“You can’t do this!”

 

“Si, I can,” Martinez answered with a small grin. “Don Garcia wants you here until he knows for sure whether you harmed the patrona…I doubt if you will last long. Make sure there is a guard stationed here.”

 

“Si, Luis,” Leon Velasquez agreed and slammed the heavy gate on the protesting prisoner. He fixed the padlock before standing and looking toward the main house. “How is the patron’s wife?”

 

“She is not well. Mi Madre is with her.”

 

“If anyone can help her it’s your mother, Luis. She has a heart of gold much like her son.”

 

“Have you seen Lucas around?”

 

“Si, he is at his home,” Velasquez answered.

 

“Gracious,” Martinez said and walked toward the section of houses that belonged to the peons who worked the fields.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Southwest of Four Corners

Evening

 

The five riders headed south toward the Wilson farm, stopping at several homesteads and warning the families of the possibility of attack. There was very little more they could do and Chris Larabee kept his group moving south toward the Wilson home. From there they would head for the Doherty place and rely on their tracker to find a trail that was at least four days cold.

 

Chris unconsciously rubbed at his side and cast a sideways glance at the Texan. Tanner was a quiet man, but the last day or so he’d been eerily silent and still Chris hadn’t found the time to confront him alone. He shifted in the saddle, hiding the discomfort from the wound in his side and realized he was guilty of the same thing he attributed to the sharpshooter.

 

Sighing heavily the blond led the group south; ever watchful of anything that could represent danger. The bandits who were responsible for the death and destruction could easily be lying in wait for unsuspecting travelers. In the distance the sky was darkening, bringing with it the immanent promise of a storm. Chris hoped they would make the ruined Doherty homestead before the rains came, but their first priority had to be the Wilson family and two other farms to the west.

 

“Storm’s comin,” the weary tracker rasped.

 

“I know…looks like it could be a bad one,” Larabee agreed

 

“Might be best if we split up,” Tanner suggested and winced as the pain in his jaw exploded. He turned away, closed his eyes and clutched the saddle horn in a death grip, waiting for the waves of pain to subside. He was grateful for the growing darkness that covered him.

 

“I don’t know, Vin.” Chris shook his head when he looked at the others. “We’re already short by leaving Josiah and Ezra behind. We split up and it could lead to a pack of trouble.”

 

“We don’t split up and that storm hits it’ll wash away any trail left at the Doherty place,” Jackson interrupted. They all knew how a sudden storm could hit, bringing with it torrential rain that could raise the levels of a small creek and turn it into an ominous liquid black snake. The power of such flash floods could tear apart the landscape and wipe out entire homesteads. It could rewrite the area and leave a man lost until he found something familiar.

 

“We need to warn the homesteaders,” Wilmington supplied and saw the tracker’s simple nod.

 

"Vin's right, we need to split up,” Dunne offered.

 

“Meet up tamorrow,” Tanner told them. His jaw ached as he spoke and he caught Larabee watching him closely. The inside of his mouth hurt from trying to hide the pain, but the blond could see right through his resolve to keep it to himself.

 

“Chris, Vin’s right,” Jackson quickly agreed. “You, Buck, and JD could check the homesteads while me and Vin get over ta the Doherty place. We’ll meet you tomorrow evenin’ near Purgatorio.”

 

Larabee knew they were right and reluctantly agreed with the new plan. “All right, Nathan, but you boys be careful. There’s no telling where these bandits are. You see them you stay clear until we meet up!”

 

Tanner’s simple nod kept the gunman from seeing his tightly clenched jaw and he was glad they’d be splitting up for a while. The group settled on a spot near the town of outlaws and would meet there before heading across the border into Mexico.

 

“Watch your back,” Larabee told the Texan just before they separated.

 

“Ain’t tha’ yer job?” Vin turned Pony and rode southeast toward the Doherty place, glad to be out from under Larabee’s watchful eye. There was no doubt in his mind that the gunman would have asked questions, but he wasn’t ready to answer yet. The tooth was bad and would probably need to be pulled, but right now there were more important matters to deal with. People were dying, murdered and Vin wanted to make damn sure the bandits did not reach Four Corners and the people he cared about.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

 

Evita Martinez stood on the verandah and watched the sun dip below the horizon. The colors of the sunset bled into one another with the promise of another beautiful day. Yet, Evita found no pleasure in Mother Nature’s display. She turned and walked back into the bedroom and sighed tiredly when she looked at the bed that had been brought in for her. Maria De Rivera needed constant care and Don Garcia insisted that she be available for his wife 24 hours a day.

 

Her meals would be brought to her, her chores spread out between the other servants, leaving her free to take care of the ailing woman. Maria’s belly showed her condition and every now and then Evita was blessed to see the small shape of a foot or a hand moving beneath the taut stomach. She remembered her own pregnancy and Luis’ birth. It was something she’d never forget, and it saddened her to think of the child growing inside Maria De Rivera’s womb. The child might never know his mother, but Don Garcia would give him everything he wanted, except the love of a mother.

 

“Lord, protect Maria and her child from the evils of this world,” she whispered and made the sign of the cross on her chest before walking to her bed and lying down. Sleep was a long time coming, but when it did her dreams were filled with visions that would plague her for some time. Two men dominated her dreams, men she’d never seen, yet she felt as if she had known them all her life. One dressed in black with eyes the color of the turbulent seas, yet filled with a grief she had never seen before. The other was longhaired with eyes the color of the sky and filled with a love for all things living. There was something about the two men that tugged at her heart and she prayed the day would never come…yet the visions said it would. The two strangers would cross her path and change her life, whether for good or bad she did not know, but their faces would be with her when she opened her eyes to a fresh new day.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Wilson Farm

Southwest of Four Corners

Late Evening

 

Chris held his hand tight against his side and realized the wound must have opened up during the hard ride to the Wilson place. He heard Buck and JD bickering beside him, but was in no mood to listen to them. He was never more relieved to see the house looming ahead. The windows were lit with a soft glow that told him Tom and Martha were still awake. He stopped near the barn and dismounted, smiling when he heard Wilson’s voice.

 

“Who’s out there? Whoever ya are you’d best know I got a rifle pointed at ya!”

 

“It’s Chris Larabee, Tom,” the blond called and chuckled softly when Martha’s voice berated her husband.

 

“Put that blasted thing away before you shoot yourself in the foot,” the woman mock scolded and hurried out to greet the newcomer. “Hello, Chris, Buck, JD…what brings you boys out here at this hour?”

 

“There’s trouble, Martha,” Larabee answered.

 

“What sort of trouble?” Tom asked and motioned for the men to come into the house. They walked into the kitchen and Martha made a fresh pot of coffee while they talked.

 

“There’s a gang of bandits crossing over from Mexico,” Larabee began, unconsciously rubbing his side. “It started with just a few raids here and there, close to the border, but they’re becoming increasingly more dangerous. They killed a couple of homesteaders east of here…”

 

“Oh my Lord,” Martha said. “Not the Dohertys?”

 

“Did you know them?” Wilmington asked.

 

“Not well, but I’ve spoken with them on several occasions…Mrs. Doherty did some needlework for me,” Martha explained sadly.

 

“Vin and Nathan rode out that way to see if they can pick up the trail, but it’s several days old,” Larabee told the friendly couple who’d helped save his life when his past came back to haunt him. “We’ll be meeting up with them outside Purgatorio sometime tomorrow.”

 

“That place is hell on earth, Chris,” Martha said, shaking her head at the thought of the outlaw-infested town. “You’d do well to bypass it…”

 

“Martha’s of a mind the world would be a better place if Purgatorio was burned to the ground,” Tom said, hugging his wife.

 

“She’s probably right,” Wilmington agreed. “It’s getting as bad a reputation as Tombstone.”

 

“Heard tell those ‘cowboys’ and Johnny Ringo are tearing Tombstone apart,” Tom observed, watching Larabee closely. Something didn’t set well and he’d noticed the blond was protective of his left side. His eyes met Martha’s and he knew she’d seen the same thing.

 

“Chris, what happened to your side?” the concerned woman asked.

 

“Nothing…”

 

“Don’t give me that, Chris Larabee, you’ve been holding on to it as if a heap of red ants is digging at your hide,” Martha said.

 

“She knows you too well, Ol’ son,” Wilmington said with a mischievous grin.

 

“Shut up, Buck,” the gunslinger groused, but moved his arm.

 

“My stars…you’re bleeding! Why didn’t you say something?” the woman scolded. “Tom, get me some water, whiskey and bandages! Chris, let me take a look at you!”

 

“Martha, Nathan took care of it,” Larabee tried.

 

“I’m sure he did, but you riding around didn’t do it any good,” Martha told him and folded her arms across her chest when it seemed the stubborn man would refuse.

 

“Oh, hell, Chris, might as well let her do her Florence Nightingale routine or neither one of us’ll get any sleep tonight,” Tom said and smiled as his wife’s stern gaze was turned on him. “Hey, turn down the fire, Martha, I’m not the patient here!”

 

“That may be, Tom, but let’s not forget that carbuncle might need tending to,” Martha reminded her husband before helping the dark clad man out of his jacket and shirt.

 

“Hell, Tom, that sounds painful,” Wilmington said, smiling when the other man moved to the stove and poured water from the pot into a basin.

 

“It’s not too bad, Chris, but it does need cleaning,” Martha said of the jagged wound to Larabee’s side. She reached for the carbolic and added a liberal amount to the water before cleaning the slightly inflamed area. She felt Larabee tense up, and knew he was fighting to keep from crying out. ‘Men are always so damn stubborn,’ she thought and had Buck help her wrap a bandage around the gunman’s waist to keep the wound clean.

 

“Thanks, Martha,” Larabee said and reached for his shirt.

 

“Now there’s no point in you boys riding out tonight,” the woman said. “Timmy and Joey are spending the night with the Jacobsons so you can have their beds.”

 

“Don’t want to put you out…”

 

“You’re not, Buck, besides Chris should get some rest and let that wound heal some,” Martha stated and saw Larabee’s determined gaze turn on her.

 

“No point in arguin’, Chris,” Tom stopped the gunslinger before he had a chance to speak. “Martha’s mind’s made up and ya know what she’s like if you get her riled.”

 

“Chris, you boys look like you could use a bite to eat. There’s fresh bread and stew left from supper and it won’t take much to warm it up,” Martha said before handing Larabee his shirt.

 

“JD, we’d best tend the horses,” Wilmington stated.

 

“There’s fresh hay in the barn,” Tom told them and walked them to the door.

 

“Martha, you don’t have to do this,” Larabee said.

 

“I know I don’t have to, but I want to. The Good Lord supplied us with plenty today and it’s my way of giving some back,” Martha said, patting the gunslinger’s shoulder before moving to the stove and adding wood to the fire.

 

Chris watched the woman and couldn’t help, but smile tenderly at her. Martha was a lot like Sarah, not in looks, but where it counted. She had a heart of gold and would never see anyone turned away if she could do something for them. He eased into his shirt and realized he was looking forward to stretching out in bed and sleeping under a roof that didn’t leak.

 

 

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