The Case Of The Widows' Obsession
Disclaimer: The characters of "The Magnificent Seven" belong to MGM, Trilogy, etc. and are used
here without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
Notes: Many thanks to Marnie for her beta work and to Katy for the amazing collage that goes with this piece.
Characters: Buck, seven
Universe: Untitled Closed Universe
Feedback: To MMW
The Case Of The Widows' Obsession
Days like this mean only one thing for a private eye like me - a dame with a sob story, a secret and enough trouble to land me in a world of hurt. It looked like today would be no exception.
I was just finishing up my lunch of alka-seltzer and trying to remember the name of the bird I was with last night in the hopes of getting my favorite shirt back, when a knock sounded on my door. Inez, my assistant, with a figure that wouldn’t quit and a temper that matched, turned the knob and walked in.
“What’cha got, toots?” I asked, leaning back in my chair and wishing the gorilla pounding on my head would stop. Last time I matched a redhead drink for drink.
“There is a lady here to see you,” Inez spat out at me, her eyes clearly showing her disgust for my current condition. “Shall I send her in?”
“Yeah,” I agree, unable to keep my eyes from roaming over her curves; best view my bloodshot eyes have had all day. With a nod, Inez sniffed in disdain before spinning on her heel and leaving, making sure to close the door with just a little too much force.
Wincing as the glass rattled, I cleared away the evidence of my lunch and ran my hand through my hair. As I straightened in my chair, I adjusted the noose around my neck and spread out some papers. I take one of the papers in my hand and look like I’m reading it when the door opens and in walks the dame.
She was a piece of work - cool and beautiful; blond hair, green eyes and a set of gams that went clear up to there. She was dressed in black and had one of those little veil things on her hat - a woman in mourning.
As she paused in the doorway, I could smell the money on her and that means a fat paycheck and a whole new level of trouble.
Watching her hips sway as she sashayed across the room, I found myself unable to stop the appreciative grin that I knew was on my face. If there is one thing I can admire in any state it's the beauty of the female form and I have the little black book to prove it.
With no little effort, I hid the pain in my head and rose from my chair to greet her. "Welcome," I said. "Have a seat." Once she was seated, I returned to my chair and asked, "Would you like something to drink, Miss...?"
"Travis," she supplied quickly. "Mrs. Mary Travis. "
I nodded. A Mrs. but using her own name instead of her husband's - a widow. When I didn't receive a response to my query, I tried again, "Would you like something to drink, Mrs. Travis?"
She started as if she had forgotten I was there, a reaction I don't get too often from the fairer sex. "I'm sorry, Mr. Wilmington," she said. "I'm fine. I don't need anything."
Nodding, I picked up a pen and pad of paper and settled back into my chair. Whatever her story was, it was going to be a good one. When she didn't seem to take the hint to start gabbing, I took it upon myself to get her talking. "You look troubled," I observed, feeling a little tug at the lost look in her green eyes. Those eyes and that face should be wearing a smile and I could think of a hundred ways to put one there. Pulling my mind away from more pleasurable pursuits, I focused back on business. "Why don't you tell me all about it and I'll see what I can do to make it better?"
That won me a small smile. I watched as she drew her handkerchief from her clutch and dabbed at her eyes before twisting it between her fingers, a sure sign the trouble involved a man and one that put me on edge. A woman like this with that kind of tale wouldn't reveal everything. I could only hope what she failed to reveal wouldn't get me killed.
"I was widowed two years ago," she started, staring at her hands. "I thought my life was over and my heart was broken," she admitted, blushing slightly. Her eyes flicked upward and met mine. So far she was telling the truth. "I thought that I would never feel for anyone the way I felt for Stephen."
When it looked like she wasn't going to continue, I asked, "Until you met him?" I smiled at her when she looked up, startled.
"Yes," she breathed, her eyes taking on a dreamy quality. "We didn't really get off on the right foot, but he's a match for me in every way. Smart. Well spoken. Strong both physically and mentally. And willing to stand up for what's right regardless of what everyone else thinks."
I nodded sagely. She was painting a pretty picture; a picture of a woman in love and a woman in love was often blind to the reality of things. "A perfect man," I supplied, trying my best to get some answers out of her.
An odd look passed over her face as she admitted, "Not perfect, no. He drinks too much and wears his pain too close to his heart. If he would only let me closer I know I could help ease it."
She was a reformer. Poor sap who got tangled in this one's web was in for a tough time. If he ran off, I might be doing him a favor to let him keep running. Putting on my most sympathetic look, I asked, "He have a name?"
Mrs. Travis nodded. "Chris Larabee," she supplied.
If she had said it was the President I couldn't have been more surprised, but I just nodded my head and kept looking sympathetic. Chris Larabee and I had a long history and I knew all about his grief and drinking, had nearly gotten my head handed to me a few times because of it. I understood, though. I felt the renewed loss of Sarah and Adam every time I thought of him. Can't imagine what it was like to lose a wife and son, I had a hard enough time having lost a sister and nephew.
Setting aside the thoughts that rose up at the mention of my old friend's name, I leaned forward and put the paper and pen on the desk before resting my arms on the edge and looking into the dame's eyes. "What do you need me to do?" I asked, thinking I might do some checking into the history of Mrs. Mary Travis while I was at it.
"I'm worried about him," she admitted, finally locking eyes with me and leaning forward herself. I was about to get some real information. "About two weeks ago an old flame of his from before he was married stopped by told him she needed his help."
"This broad got a name?" I asked, fearing the answer. There was only one woman in Larabee's past who had enough of a hold over him to get him to do her a favor.
"Ella," Mary supplied. "Ella Gaines."
I swore to myself, angry that my fear had been confirmed. Ella had been a wild one, nearly getting Chris killed more than once - all before I knew him, of course. I knew women like Ella. They were nothing but bad news, death in a pretty package. "Did she say why she needed his help?"
The blonde nodded, her eyes burning with a fire that always made me want to run for the hills. It only meant trouble, bad trouble. "Supposedly a man was trying to take her ranch away from her by forcing her to marry him or be burned out."
Concentrating on keeping my face neutral, I nodded my head. Sounded like the perfect set-up to lure Larabee away - damsel in distress and all. "And you have suspicions that's not the whole story?"
The blonde nodded. "It's just too pat, too perfect. And..."
"And?" I repeated, waiting for her to continue.
A faint blush crept up her fair cheeks. "And when he and Ella left together, she told me he wouldn't be coming back," she admitted, unable to meet my eyes as she revealed this secret.
Another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place. Her pride was hurt. Another dame had tried to take what was hers and ended up wounding her pride. Only two things were more dangerous than dealing with a woman who had wounded pride - a dame with a broken heart and a woman scorned. There was a good chance I might be dealing with all three rolled into one before this was over. Maybe I should ask for payment in advance. "If he went on his own, what do you expect me to do?"
A determined look came into the green eyes. "I want you to look into this supposed threat to her. I don't think it's real, she was way too calm and not at all scared. Whatever you uncover, I want you to tell me, and I want you to tell Chris. I think Ella might be doing something to force him to stay there against his will."
I didn't have the heart to correct her on this last point. Chris Larabee didn't stay where he didn't want to and I had a pretty good idea of exactly what Ella was doing to keep him there, the lucky dog.
"I believe I can help you," I assured her, rising from my chair. "My fee is forty dollars a day plus expenses." It wasn't, but hey, she had money and I had to pay my secretary. As I thought of Inez, another plan came to mind. Maybe if I made enough off the Travis woman, I'd get something really nice for Inez, something she'd be sure to thank me for in a very pleasing way.
She didn't even blink at the amount. "Very well," she agreed, rising from her chair. Both hands were clutching her purse. She wasn't about to shake hands with me.
"You can speak to Miss Recillos about arranging payment," I informed, walking to the door ahead of her and opening it. "You should also leave a number or place I can contact you."
Mrs. Travis nodded and walked out the door. "Thank you, Mr. Wilmington," she offered, her voice sounding relieved. "I look forward to hearing from you."
As she passed through the door, I couldn't help but notice the gentle sway of her hips. She was one fine looking woman. Unfortunately, she smelled like trouble.
I made my way down to Finnegan's bar. It was too late for hair of the dog, but early enough for a beer. Finnegan's has lousy beer, but I wasn't going there for the booze. Finnegan's was the hangout for some of my... associates. Specifically, I was looking for Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish.
Tanner was a bounty hunter from Texas. I helped him a few years ago when one of the bounties he was chasing set him up for murder. It was pure dumb luck I found that witness to the killing of Jess Kincaid, but it got him off the hook. Turns out he's damn good at what he does, near to a human bloodhound as you're likely to find whether he's hunting down a man or information. He has connections in all the wrong places. And he knows Chris.
Standish was a conman and a gambler. He ran a floating craps game on Sundays and high stakes poker the rest of the week. Standish was smart, cultured and could smell a con from a mile away. I figured I just might need him for this. It was true he and Chris didn't exactly get along, but they had watched each other's back more than once.
I stepped into the dim bar, and was immediately assaulted by stale cigarette smoke and the smell of old beer. The empties from the night before were still on the tables as were some of the patrons. The stench wasn't any worse than any other joint. It took me only a moment to spot the men I needed. As I stepped nearer their table, I let out a low curse. Of all the rotten luck, I had to find him here.
"Him" was JD Dunne, my apprentice as he liked to call himself. The kid had his uses, but I didn't want him anywhere near this case. The set-up stank to high-heaven and I figured there'd be some gunplay before the end of it all. I sure didn't want him becoming a target. Too late now, though.
"Buck!" he called out, waving me over.
I let out a sigh, walked over and settled in a chair at the table. "How many times do I gotta tell ya, Kid, not to call out to people like that? Sometime it's better to keep a low profile than to let the whole place know you're there."
"Especially when there are potentially angry fathers, brothers, fiances and husbands in the offing," Ezra added, dealing me into the game they were playing.
"Or angry marks looking for their money back," I added, fanning my cards and wondering how Standish got away with dealing junk like this. Pulling three cards out of my hand, I tossed them on the table and picked up the three more he dealt me. We weren't playing for money or even match sticks just now, we were playing to keep Ezra's hands in practice.
"Touche," he replied, dealing two to Vin, three to JD and one to himself. "Call."
I shook my head. Ezra's full house beat everything else on the table.
Gathering the cards together, he began shuffling again. "What brings you to this establishment, Mr. Wilmington?" Standish asked, dealing another hand.
My cards were even worse than the first time, and I knew he had to be stacking the deck, but I sure couldn't see it. "Got a job for you and Tanner, if you're interested" I supplied, tossing down four. Hey, as long as we weren't playing for anything I might as well get rid of as much garbage as possible. Standish raised an eyebrow at the four cards, but dealt me four all the same.
"What kind of job?" Tanner asked with a wince, probably remembering the broken arm he suffered from the last job I offered him.
"We have a job?" Dunne asked, excited as a puppy on his way outside.
"Stop wagging, Kid," I told him, laying out my two pair. Looks like the four cards had been the right move, at least until Ezra laid down a flush.
"Please, go on," Standish encouraged, gathering the cards and laying out a game of solitaire, a sign he was ready to listen.
I felt Tanner's eyes drill into me and could almost feel the kid vibrating across the table. "Mrs. Mary Travis came to see me today," I informed, taking a sip from the beer I didn't remember ordering, but that had appeared at my elbow nevertheless. "It appears she and a mutual friend of ours are something of an item. Then another bird stepped into Travis' nest and stole her man."
"And the man's name?" Tanner asked.
I could read in his eyes he already suspected. That didn't surprise me much. He and Larabee seemed like they'd known each other forever. "Chris Larabee," I supplied. That got the reaction I was expecting from Tanner and Dunne. Standish was playing it cool as always.
Shuffling the cards he tossed out, "And that would make the 'bird' in question Ella Gaines."
I raised an eyebrow in question as several vehement swear words escaped Tanner's lips. "What do you need?" he asked, leaning forward and resting his arms on the table, his eyes burning with impatience and anger.
There was some sort of story behind that look, but it wasn't any of my business to ask what it was. It was obvious only that Tanner had some dealings with the Gaines woman in the past. "I need you to track down some information," I told him.
"And me?" Ezra asked, intrigued not only by the job, but by Tanner's reaction.
"Travis thinks this whole thing is a set-up, a con. I need you to get on the inside and sniff it out from there."
"Easy enough," Standish replied, setting the cards down and pulling on his cuffs. "I already have an invitation."
I just grunted, not surprised in the least. Standish had a way of being where he was needed when you needed him.
"What about me?" came the anxious question from JD.
"What about you kid?" I asked. I really didn't want him involved, but knew there was no way I could keep him out of it. That being the case, there was only one safe place for him, stuck like glue to my side.
"Oh, come on, Buck!" he pleaded. "I can help. You know I can."
"Like you helped in the Dambrowski case?" I asked, watching as Tanner and Standish both looked away trying to hide their amusement. The kid was blushing brighter than a nun caught skinny-dipping. That earned me an indignant, "Buck!" I chuckled and smiled at the kid. "You're with me, Kid," I told him. "Stick to me like glue." He nodded.
I leaned forward and began laying out exactly what I wanted from each of them.
I finished up with Tanner, Standish and Dunne sometime before dinner. They were all eager to help out, given what the Travis woman had told us as well as my own thoughts. Vin was off to see what he could dig up in Red Fork, Ezra had his own moves to make and JD, well, I gave him some busy work. I figure, if he's doing it right, he'll be busy until about midnight and that's exactly what I needed. Kid just didn't know how to lie and spinning a yarn was beyond his abilities. And if I was going to meet Larabee when and where I thought, the last thing I needed was the kid tagging along.
I took some time to contact two more of our friends and put them on the alert, just in case. Nathan Jackson was a doctor with a small practice on the other side of town. Josiah Sanchez was a local handyman and carpenter. Both were good men to have at your back. I'd drop Standish a note later to see if he could include them on his invitation.
I'd spent the afternoon following my own pursuits, figuring it would be the last time I'd have to see Miss Dora before this thing was over. And what an afternoon it was for both of us. Good thing her nearest neighbors are a half-mile away, though I'm not sure her laying hens will be the same for a while.
After a quick stop by the office where I lost my tie and jacket, I headed off to one of Larabee's favorite haunts.
Stopping outside the dive in question, I couldn't help the sick twisting in my gut at the thought of entering this place. I knew exactly why he chose it, but that didn't mean I had to like it. There was a chance he wouldn't be here, but I felt pretty sure there was no woman on earth that would keep him from his whiskey on this day - the anniversary of the day he lost his wife and son.
Rolling up my sleeves, I stepped over the drunk collapsed outside and did my best to avoid the pool of vomit seeping toward the door. The rat scurrying out of the way held about as much of my interest as I did its - none at all. Reaching out, I reluctantly pushed the door open, nearly gagging at the stench of unwashed bodies, stale alcohol and other things I didn't want to think about. I also didn't want to think about the disgusting stickiness of the door or the sound my hand made as I pulled it away.
With a quick look around the room, I sized up the occupants. The rowdies weren't around yet and the murderers were keeping themselves to the corners. Despite the fact I could only see five people, I could feel a dozen pairs of eyes on me, not menacing, just evaluating. I didn't care, I could take care of myself and they knew it too.
Spotting Chris wasn't too hard. He was the only person sitting on one side of the bar. Obviously everyone else was wise enough to realize you didn't cross Chris Larabee when he was in a bad mood. Everyone but me, that is. I didn't really have a choice.
As I felt the eyes leave me, a sign that I was deemed a non-threat, I moved across the sawdust-covered floor, ignoring the pools of spilled beer, whiskey and I don't know what that covered the floor.
A dive would be a step up from this place, I decided as reached the bar and found myself loathe to touch it. "A bottle of whiskey," I ordered as the small, twisted barkeep limped his way over. He placed the bottle and a glass on the bar and I dropped my money there as well.
Grabbing the bottle, I strode across the room and settled in the chair opposite my old friend, ignoring the two empty bottles on the table and the two on the floor as well as the quarter full one he had in his hand. He didn't look that much different than this time last year. His eyes were red enough to color a Chinese dragon and the dark circles under his eyes only seemed to make them stand out all the more. His cheeks looked hollow and his skin, though tanned, wasn't looking so good. I found I could only wonder how long he'd been at it this time.
With deliberately slow actions under the glaring green gaze, I set the bottle in front of him and leaned back in my chair, waiting. It didn't take his blurry eyes long to move from me to the fresh bottle. A drunken smile curved his lips.
"Thanks, Buck," he slurred as he lifted the mostly empty bottle and downed the rest of the contents. He nearly slid out of his chair as he brought his head upright once more. "Hell of a pard, Pard," he offered as he struggled to remain upright. Then he giggled. "Pard, Pard," he repeated and giggled again.
A grim smile graced my face as I looked at my oldest friend. I couldn't help but wonder momentarily how a good man could fall so far. But I remembered a moment later and found myself wishing I'd picked up that glass too. It wasn't hard to see how Ella had taken advantage of Chris' state to get him to move out to her place. No better time of year to do it. "You're welcome," I finally replied, knowing I would have to say something.
A few minutes later his wavering gaze rested once more on me, a puzzled expression crossing his face. “You ain’t got a date?” he asked.
I cracked a grin, thankful he was too drunk to see how fake it was. “You ever known me not to?” I reply, thinking of the fair Dora and our afternoon together.
Green eyes narrowed before Larabee’s head wobbled back and forth a few times in denial. “Not Buck,” he replied, overemphasizing the end of my name. Then in a sing-song voice he began a chant I’d only heard once before and that led to a night I was still hoping to forget. “Buck, Buck who likes to f…”
“Yeah,” I interrupted loudly before he could finish. The last time he sang that song, I woke up in a hospital three days later. That he would even try to sing it told me exactly how far gone he was and I realized I could use that to my advantage, provided I could keep his temper in check long enough.
Reaching over, I filled his glass. “Best drink up,” I encouraged with a smile. I watched as he downed the shot in one and then poured another. He blinked at the glass, puzzled.
“Thought I just drank that?” he mused out loud, his hand unfailingly finding the vessel and leading it to his waiting mouth.
I watched it disappear and poured again as soon as the glass hit the table. It took six more before his head landed on the table with a thud. Letting out a sigh, I left the bottle on the table and walked over to Larabee. Slipping his arm over my shoulders, I lifted him to his feet which seemed to rouse him a bit.
“Bu-uck?” he slurred. “Where we go-go-in’?”
“Someplace where you can dry out,” I answered, getting him moving toward the door, letting the half-full bottle of rotgut remain on the table, knowing it would be gone before we hit the door.
Shouldering the door open, I half-dragged Larabee through it and set our feet on the path toward a better neighborhood where I could catch a cab. Tomorrow was going to be an interesting day.
3. Somehow I found myself unsurprised when the Gaines dame showed up on my doorstep the next morning just barely late enough not to raise eyebrows. I figured she’d have her prize stud on a tight leash. Her appearance at my door also revealed a few things about her I’m sure she didn’t mean to like the fact that obviously still had connections to the bar where I found Chris, unsavory connections to say the least. It also let me know just how possessive she was of Chris.
“Good morning, Mr. Wilmington,” she cooed, holding out her hand and smiling.
I felt a cold chill run down my spine at the look. Dame could freeze a tropical island for all the warmth in her. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss…”
“Gaines,” she supplied, a satisfied gleam in her eye that I didn’t seem to know her. When dealing with people like her it was always good policy to let them think they had the upper hand. “But not for long,” she added, almost more to herself than to me as her eyes drifted past me and toward the interior of my apartment.
I knew just what she was looking for, or, rather, for whom, but kept up with my dumb act. “And to what do I owe the honor of your visit this morning?” When she looked at me and hesitated, I turned up the charm a bit, “After all, a man like me doesn’t have a beauty like you turn up on his doorstep everyday.” It was true. Most of the time they were leaving my doorstep in the mornings, or I was leaving theirs.
“Why thank you, Mr. Wilmington,” she replied coyly. “But I’m just here to collect my Chris.”
“Your Chris?” I asked before I could stop myself, my eyebrow raising. Her sharp eyes drilled into mine. Pushing my lips up into a smile rather than letting them fall into a frown like I wanted, I chuckled and added, “The old dog didn’t tell me.”
Ushering her inside, I closed the door and watched as she walked over to my sleeping friend. Settling on the scarred coffee table across from him, she reached out and ran her hand through his hair. There was such an air of ownership and possession in the movement and on her face, I found myself almost cringing. I was saved from making any further conversation when Larabee groaned aloud and fought gravity into a sitting position.
"What the hell hit me?" he asked, his eyes remaining closed and his head dropping into his hands.
"Still courting trouble, I see," the Gaines woman says, reaching out and running her hand over Larabee's blond hair. It's the look in her eyes, though, that sets my skin to crawling.
"Ella?" Chris asks, obviously confused and out of it. "What are you doing here?" Looking around his eyes take in his surroundings. "How did I get here?"
With an effort, I manage to sound light-hearted as I laugh. "Well, ol' dog," I tell him. "Seems you got to drinking a bit last night. Lucky thing I ran into you when I did. Couldn't quite make it anywhere by my couch," I offer, stepping closer and waiting for his bloodshot eyes to focus on me.
"Buck?" he asked, his voice sounding confused, but pleased. It's been a hell of a long time since Larabee's been happy to see me.
"Got it in one, Stud," I offer back with a laugh. Then nodding toward Ella, I decided it was time to set my plan in motion. "This the lady who owns that ranch we're working for?"
"We?" Chris asks, rubbing his head, obviously not remembering anything. Of course, there's nothing to remember. We never discussed any of this last night.
"Yeah, don't you remember?" I ask, hating that I was lying to a friend, but knowing that it was for the best in the long run. "Last night we met up in that bar? You were telling me about this woman you were working for who had a ranch. You offered me a job there as well since business has been so slow." It was easy to tell he didn't have a clue, but I wasn't about to help him out. I needed to get onto that ranch.
"Oh, yeah," he finally agreed. "Yeah, this is Ella Gaines. She owns the ranch. Ella," he said, turning toward the woman, "Buck Wilmington. He's one of the best horsemen I've ever worked with. Figure he can help us out."
I could easily read the flash of displeasure cross Ella's face as she momentarily frowned. She recovered quickly, though. "If you think he'll be of help, then I'll be glad to have him," she added with a smile more phony than a three dollar bill. If Larabee had been in any sort of conscious state, he would have picked up on it in a snap. Turning to me, fake smile in place, she asked, "Will you join us, Mr. Wilmington, as we return to the ranch?"
Putting on my best "aw shucks" act, I say, "Oh, no, ma'am. I have a few things to pack up around here before I head out. I sure do appreciate the job, though. It came at just the right time for me."
Her smile looked more like a sneer as something dark and evil flashed in the depth of her eyes. Something was not right with the woman. "And we're glad to have you," she said, rising and looking at Chris as if she expected him to do the same.
I helped Larabee up and walked them to the door. Watching them leave in the chauffeured car, I felt a cold chill run down my spine; a warning I knew better than to ignore. Death was walking hand in hand with Ella Gaines. The only question I had, was whose?
Vin pulled his truck up briefly in front of the ranch. I thought it would add to my "down and out" story if it looked like I had to hitch out to the ranch. We figured it would pass easily with Chris if he was around since we'd just say Tanner was on his way to Red Fork, which he was.
Looking around, there was no sign of Chris.
JD jumped down from the back of the truck as I exited the cab. He pulled down his own bag and bounced over. "This the place?" he asked.
"Sure," I said, almost doubting. I didn't doubt long as Chris appeared on the porch with the Gaines woman hanging on like a leech. It didn't take much imagination to figure out how they were dealing with Chris' hangover.
"Buck. JD," he greeted, the smile on his face broadening. Then he caught sight of Vin who took the time to climb out of the truck and walk around the front. "Vin," he greeted, his smile getting bigger.
Never have quite figured it out, but I would swear the two of them were brothers if I didn't know better. Thing of it was, there were times it was tough to tell who was the older brother and who was the younger.
Tanner nodded in acknowledgment, his eyes never leaving the soulless orbs of the woman beside his friend. "You going to introduce us?" he finally asked, a cold note to his voice that belied his dislike of the woman. I knew Vin had a run-in with the woman a few years ago while tracking down a bounty, but he wouldn't talk about it and that meant it must have been bad, very bad.
I almost reached over and slapped him. The last thing I needed was him blowing this before it even started. The information he'd gathered so far on the woman was enough to turn my stomach, but I knew I couldn't let it show. Then again, that was just one of the reasons he wasn't staying at the ranch. The kid couldn't lie to save his life, at least not to Chris. Lucky for us, Larabee didn't pick up on that. I just hoped that Gaines didn't recognize Tanner.
"Buck, JD, Vin, this is Ella," he said, slipping his arm around the woman's shoulders, drawing her forward and pulling her close to his side.
I was pretty sure I was going to be sick and Vin looked like he'd be joining me.
Larabee then turned his eyes toward Ella, the emotions he felt obvious to anyone looking. "Ella," he said, pausing as he smiled at the woman, "these are some friends of mine. You met Buck this morning. The young fellow is JD Dunne and the other man is Vin Tanner. JD and Buck are the two who will be working here for us."
"For us?" JD asked, his head tilted to the side.
Sometimes the kid came in handy, especially when it came to asking the questions I knew I shouldn't ask.
Chris looked at the three of us and smiled broadly. "For us," he repeated, squeezing Ella close. "Ella and I are going to be married."
I've been sucker punched a few times in my day, taken by surprise once or twice and had the rug pulled out from under me. This was worse than all of that. The very thing Mrs. Travis had hired me to prevent, the very thing the little bit of information we'd gotten said shouldn't happen, was already underway and, if I was right, Ella Gaines was about to take far too many years off of Chris Larabee's life.
"Then we're happy for you," Vin choked out. And choked is the right word. I thought the boy was going to start hacking as the words came out.
"We're having an engagement party tonight," Larabee continued, oblivious to our shocked silence; oblivious to the triumphant gleam in Ella's eyes. "You should all come." The little filly stood on her toes and whispered something in Chris' ear. "And wear a suit," he added as Ella pulled him back toward the house. Didn't take a genius to figure out where they were headed.
"I'll head on to Red Fork," Tanner said, heading back toward his truck. "See what I can find before tonight."
I nodded, snapping out of the stupor that had taken me over. "JD and me will see what we can find out around here." Turning to meet the worried blue eyes, I added, "Watch yourself and make sure Ezra gets here tonight." Vin nodded as he got into the truck and took off.
Turning my attention back to the house, I adjusted my grip on my bag and looked at JD. "Reckon we got our work cut out for us," I said.
He nodded. His normal chatter gone as a worried look appeared on his face. I wished I could find the words to comfort him, but I didn't have any. Things were going from bad to worse quickly.
It was sometime around mid-afternoon when Chris made his reappearance wearing a look that only a satisfied man can wear - I know, I see it on my own face nearly every morning - but it didn't sit well with me. Having known the man for years, what I was seeing didn't jive with what I knew of him. In fact, if I didn't know better I'd say he wasn't thinking at all, and that was one of his trademarks, thinking things through.
Eyeing him carefully as he entered the corral, I knew I'd have to wait for my opening. "How you doin', Stud?" I ask, forcing a smile onto my face.
Larabee laughs, tossing his head back. "Good, Buck," he replies. "For the first time in a long time, I'm doing good." He then takes a lead in his hand and moves toward the horse on the other side of the corral, the one I was told he was breaking and training.
"So you're getting married, the old ball and chain." I watched as Larabee's smile softened and a small amount of confusion entered his eyes. Maybe things weren't as good as they seemed, or maybe he was finally beginning to question his whirlwind romance with Ella. "'Course it was different with Sarah," I add softly.
His eyes stared off into the past. "She was amazing," he agreed.
"Tamed you, civilized you, taught you the joys of hearth and home," I continue, getting him thinking about what it was like with Sarah, and what it probably isn't with Ella. Something about that woman doesn't just leave me cold, it leaves me frozen and that just isn't natural. Watching Larabee closely, I could see he was beginning to think things through, compare what he had then to what he has now. I could almost see the wheels turning. And then *she* called out.
I love women of every shape and size. My mama taught me to find the beauty in all women, to protect them and worship them. Hilda was putting my faith to the test. She had more love to give than I've seen in a long time and a heart a man could get found in. I just wasn't looking to get found, at least, not yet.
Larabee's quiet chuckle didn't help improve my mood, nor did his quietly uttered, "You can run, Stud, but you can't hide."
"Buck!" Hilda called again, beaming bright enough to blind a man. She wasn't anything exceptional to look at, not like her cousin on whom I'd set my sights. I was finding it really hard to work my magic on the cousin when Hilda was always there.
Turning I face my would-be paramour and struggle to turn my grimace into a grin. "Hilda," I greet, hoping my irritation doesn't show too much. This dame just has the worst timing. Another minute and I might have achieved my goal of getting Chris to think with his head - the one on top of his shoulders, that is.
She smiled at me with a sweet little smile and I felt some of my irritation disappear. There were days it was nothing but pure Hell being as attractive to women as I am. "I brought you some berries," she says shyly. About the only thing she's done shyly since I arrived.
"Thanks," I reply, carefully choosing a plump berry and eating it. It was firm and ripe, just the way I like them and sweet like you can only get at the peak of the season. "That's really good," I compliment. Just about then Larabee makes some sort of choking sound. Turning I can see him struggling to suppress his mirth and I wonder if shoving my fist in his mouth would help him contain it.
Hilda must have picked up something in my look since next thing I know she's passing me the bowl of berries and making excuses to leave. She's barely out of earshot when Chris finally loses control and lets his laughter out. I can't help wondering how he'd look with a bruised jaw and a black eye. What else are friends for?
Finally, he's wiping his eyes, all laughed out. "Never seen you so ready to bolt from a woman," he gasps out, still smiling. "What's wrong, Stud," he asks, drawing out the nickname, "she too much woman for you?"
I narrow my eyes at the man who claims to be my friend and then turn toward the house, I see Hilda and Ella talking on the porch and I can't help but see the brilliant goodness of the younger woman's soul when she's standing next to the pitch blackness that is Ella Gaines. There was something about Ella Gaines that made my soul shiver. "Just might be," I admit quietly, realizing just how dangerous a woman Ella could be and knowing Larabee would think I was still talking about Hilda. "Just might be."
I headed back to the bunkhouse not long after Hilda left her berries with me, looking forward to a long, hot shower before dressing for the party, when the Kid comes bounding along looking like he’s found Santa’s secret hiding spot. “Kid,” I greet, keeping my eyes on the bunkhouse, hoping none of the others is in there just now.
“Buck!” he shouted as if I was across the yard instead of three feet away.
I couldn’t stop my involuntary flinch away from his volume. The message that he was too loud must have gotten through since his next words were at an almost manageable volume.
“Buck,” he began again, leaning in a little closer and looking around to see if anyone else was listening. After his first greeting I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone in four counties was paying attention. “I was riding the perimeter, checking on the fences when…”
I cleared my throat to cut him off as Dusty, one of the other hands walked by. “Let’s take it inside,” I advised, grabbing JD by the arm and directing him into the bunkhouse.
We got inside the relative safety of the bunkhouse when the kid started talking again. I raised my hand to cut him off, checking to make sure we were alone and the windows were closed before letting him talk. Last thing we needed was extra ears overhearing things.
“What did you find, Kid?” I ask, leaning against the wall, more tired than I care to admit from the day’s work.
“I was riding the perimeter checking the fence when I found a gate,” he tells me, nearly aquiver with excitement.
“Not that unusual to have a gate, JD,” I caution, knowing that there would be more to it than that to get him this excited.
“I know that, Buck,” he replies, letting out a sigh of frustration. “But it wasn’t just the gate. There was track leading up to the mountains. Someone had been driving along it often enough to kill the grass and weeds. I followed it up and found an old mining cave."
Interesting stuff, but I couldn't fit it in. "And?" I prompt, seeing how the kid was about to bust open with his news.
"I got closer and saw two cars parked outside. I pulled my horse off the track and into the woods, made sure he was hidden, then I crept up as close as I could," the kid says, his voice dropping as low as it ever does. I swear, at times I can't figure out if the kid wants to be Tom Swift or a Hardy Boy, but I do know whichever he finally decides on, he's bound to find trouble. "Don't worry, I stayed out of sight. No one knew I was there."
"Go on," I encourage, praying JD's right about no one having seen him.
"I don't know what was being said or what was inside the cave, but a few minutes after I got there, I saw Ella leaving with Handsome Jack!" His eyes are huge as he reveals this last bit of information in a whisper that could carry across state lines.
I feel my stomach drop down to my knees as another piece of what is fast becoming a very ugly puzzle falls into place. I force my eyes back to JD and try to calm myself. Maybe it's time for me to make a few friendly overtures toward Hilda and see what I can find out.
"Handsome Jack!" the kid repeats in an excited hiss. "You know, the guy Chris came out to protect Ella from?"
"Yeah, I know," I assure JD, standing and already thinking of how to approach my potential source. Looking into the kid's wide, excited eyes, I tell him, "You go ahead and start getting ready. I got something I gotta do." I see the confusion in his eyes and offer up a smile and a pat on the shoulder as I head out the door.
"Would you like one?" Hilda asks, offering up a plate of fresh-baked cookies. Smiling, I take one and taste it. If a good cookie melts in your mouth, hers must have been a slice of heaven.
"So, how did Ella come to be your aunt?" I ask. We'd been talking a while and I'd gotten her to admit that Ella wasn't a blood relation, but her uncle's wife.
"Well," she continues, looking a bit puzzled. That strikes me as strange. Not only does she seem to know everything about everybody in her family and on the ranch, but it's only natural for a woman to know something like how a friend or relative met their husband. "I'm not really sure," she admits. "Uncle Joseph never really said and Ella only says he swept her off her feet." Her face lights up like the Forth of July and she lets out this soft laugh. "'Course, that would be a little hard," she says confidentially, "seeing that Uncle Joseph wasn't much bigger than Ella."
With those words, I get that "rug just pulled out from under" feeling again and this ugly puzzle is beginning to sound a whole lot less like a puzzle than a nightmare. It's not just Mary Travis' heart and pride that may be bruised, it might be Chris' life. "Do you have a picture?" I ask, trying my best to smile and pretend it's a normal question. Chris had mentioned earlier that Ella had kept all of her husband's old clothes to give to him. He thought it a little odd, especially since everything seemed to fit as if it was made for him.
"Sure do," Hilda says, pleased as punch to do whatever she can for me. Woman with a heart like that needs a man who will watch over it, take care of it and protect it from men... well... men like me.
I watch her wander off and lift the cookie I'd been eating to my mouth before realizing that I'd lost my appetite and I probably wouldn't get it back until I got everyone as far away from the Gaines woman as humanly possible.
Scanning the crowd in the cramped, crowded parlor, I couldn’t help but divide the people into groups. There were Ella’s people, my people, and Chris Larabee stuck in the middle, belonging on my side and trying desperately to convince himself he belonged on Ella’s.
I still hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Tanner and I could only hope he’d show up soon. I had a bad feeling things were going to get ugly quick and I do hate ugly. On the plus side, Jackson and Sanchez were in attendance.
It was just about then that Hilda, Ella’s niece, the one who’d been making cow-eyes at me all day, started singing “I Dream Of Jeannie”. I’ve always prided myself on finding beauty in the female form; Hilda had tested that belief to the limit right up until she sang that first note. That’s when it hit me like a ton of bricks, everything my Ma had ever told me was true, a woman’s beauty came from the inside and that made Hilda the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen. This night I’d be dreaming of Hilda, not Jeannie.
I started over toward the lovely lark when the sound of a door closing sharply drew my attention away. Turning toward the sound, I caught sight of Larabee glaring at the door and looking grim before Ella swooped down on him and drew him back into her throng, a bird capturing its unsuspecting prey - or rather a spider luring a fly into its deathtrap, maybe even a black widow.
Most of me wanted to head over to the songbird and claim her as mine, the rest of me was alert to the danger in the air. Making one of the hardest decisions of my life, I tear myself away from Hilda's siren's song and head for the door to the kitchen where the back door to the house is located. I open it and make my way to the rear of the house. That's when I hear the sounds of a fight outside and know it means bad news for me.
As I throw open the back door and step outside, I can see I'm right. There are two of Handsome Jack's men and two of Ella's hands there and in the middle is Vin Tanner, already bloody and bruised. Without waiting another moment, I jump right in and try to get Tanner out, figuring Ella finally remembered my friend from their previous business.
The two of us were making some pretty good headway when reinforcements arrived. Standish appeared for our side, four more larger men appeared for Ella's. I watched as one of the gorillas swung a two by four at Vin, landing it on his forearm. I heard the snap and knew it was Tanner's bones that had given way, not the board.
My attention was drawn back to the hired help in front of me by a quick jab to my chin. Letting out a curse as I tasted my own blood, I hauled back and nailed the dirtbag, unable to stop my grin as he kissed dirt. Unfortunately, I saw Standish do the same. Tanner cried out and I spun in his direction as the wood-wielding scum landed a blow to the back of Vin's head.
I barely had time to wince as a ton of bricks came into contact with my own mug and I saw stars for a few seconds before night really fell.
The stars were back, only this time they were spinning in a circle and taking my stomach with them. I took shallow breaths in the hopes of settling my world into a more stable sort of place before trying to open my eyes.
When I thought I was just about back on solid ground I blinked my eyes open and felt momentary fear grip me as everything seemed to remain black. It was with no small amount of relief that a faint light appeared as my eyes adjusted. Permanent black is just not an option I'm willing to live with.
With my newfound sight and retreating nausea, I looked around and got an eyeful of nothing. If I was thinking straight I might have been able to come up with something, as it was, my thoughts were doing what my stomach had earlier, circles.
Time came, though, that I needed to push myself up and take an accounting of myself. The good news was I was still in one piece. The better news was that I wasn't tied up. I figure there are only so many reasons I wouldn't be tied up. One is that there wasn't any escape, the other was that they just wanted us out of the way rather than dead. Given the pieces of the puzzle I had, my money was on option one, but I never was one to sit down and take what was given to me.
A soft groan to the side of me drew my attention away from those not-so-pleasant thoughts. Turning my head as carefully as I would handle fine china, I saw the vague form of a body next to me. It was the scarlet coat that gave away the man as Ezra Standish. Pushing myself to my feet, I didn't even try to stifle the groans of pain. Nothing was broken, but bruised was another matter. Even if we did get out and I got a hot soak in, I'd still be feeling it for days.
In the dim light I couldn’t make out all that was wrong with Standish, but it was easy to see the blood on the side of his face coming from up near his hairline. Must have hit his head on a rock or something when they tossed us in here, wherever here is. Looking down at his hands, I could tell he’d been fighting hard. He had the broken knuckles to prove it. A quick review of the rest of him didn’t show me anything obvious was wrong. I checked to make sure he was breathing alright before I started looking for Tanner.
When I found my other friend, I couldn’t help but shake my head. He was a mess.
Just looking at him, I could tell his arm was broken. There weren’t any protruding bones, which was good, but there was an odd lump and some swelling. I only hoped the swelling would stop. Remembering he had gotten walloped on the back of the head, I moved closer and reached behind him to check where the board had hit. The good news was there wasn't much blood. The bad news was that he was developing a lump to rival his swollen arm.
The fact that his whole face and both hands seemed to be covered in blood, dirt and bruises didn't leave me particularly hopeful either. "Aw, Vin," I couldn't help but sigh as I carefully moved his arm so it rested on his stomach. Not the best solution, but better than letting it lie there on the floor.
I could feel the weight of responsibility fall on me like a ton of bricks. And it didn't sit well. Half the time I had trouble taking care of me and whatever little filly I happened to be running with. Taking care of the Kid took the rest of my time. But I didn't have a choice. Standish and Tanner were here by my request so it was on me to make sure we all made it out.
With an effort worthy of an Olympic athlete, I manage to gain my feet, reeling like a drunk who's been given the keys to the bar and managed to clean it out. It didn't take me long to find the wall. I leaned against it knowing it was the only thing keeping me standing. My head might be clearing, but it was taking its own sweet time doing it.
Using the wall to keep myself on my feet, I made it around the perimeter of the room, nearly collapsing in relief when I found an old jug with some liquid in it. If it was what I thought, chances were it would kill us as much as help us. Lifting the container, I removed the cork and had to turn my head away. Yep, just what I though, homemade whiskey, pure grain alcohol. It may not be too good for drinking, but I imagine it would kill anything that might cause an infection.
Re-corking the jug, I continued on my ramble. In another corner I found an old quilt. The outside didn't seem too moldy, and hopefully that meant the inside would be something I could use. Of course, the alcohol would probably kill anything on, in or around the quilt, too.
I finished my round of the place none the richer. Best as I could tell we were in a cellar of some sort. What didn't register until I settled myself down next to the waking Standish was that I didn't pass a door and the ceiling was pretty high up.
A low moan brought my attention back to the matter at hand. Flipping open the quilt, I was relieved to find it fairly clean and not moldy in the least. Tearing the cloth, I folded it into a square and uncorked the white lightning I'd carted with me.
Dousing the rag, I re-corked the bottle and reached out to wipe the blood off the side of Ezra's face and hopefully clean out that wound a bit.
As I wiped away the blood that coated his cheek, he tossed his head lightly. "Rest easy, Ezra," I soothed. "Just ol' Buck cleanin' you up. Seems you engaged in some ungentlemanly behavior and managed to get yourself a good old fashioned knock to the head."
I could just make out his eyes blinking open to form slits. I just grinned down at him, relieved he'd woken up.
"B... Buck?" he asked, his eyes falling closed again for a few second before opening.
The man had to be hurting bad if he was using my first name. "In the flesh," I assure, unfolding and refolding the cloth to a cleaner spot before trying to deal with the cut on his head. "Just gotta get you cleaned up a little bit, hoss," I assure him, using a nickname I know will stymie him for a while. Maybe I should have tried a different nickname, if I'd kept him wondering he might not have lashed out and hurt us both worse.
As it was, I got the cloth onto the wound and managed to hold it there for about a half a second before Standish lets out this howl that would have rivaled JD at his loudest and swings around with his broken hand, clipping me on the side of the jaw where that gorilla caught me. When he connected, we both let out a howl loud enough to wake the dead.
I fell back and reached for my aching mug while Standish curled around his hand, eye shut tight. One thing I'll give him, Ezra may dress like a dandy, but he was as tough as they come.
"Wha..." he began before swallowing and forcing his breathing to slow. "What was that?" he demanded.
"Moonshine," I supply through a mouth that's not moving a whole lot.
His eyes open and he stares at me. "Moonshine?" he demands, sounding as if I just told him I was applying a cow pattie.
"Yeah, moonshine," I confirm, trying to set myself back up to help him. "Only thing down here that I could use to help you and Vin. Figured it's better to get you cleaned up now than chance infection later. Least that's what Nate would always say."
I could see Standish mulling over my words. Finally, he nods. "Alright," he agrees. "Just be careful and warn me next time."
I just grin at him and reach for some more fabric. "You find out anything?" I ask, hoping to distract him.
"Yes," he admits, visibly bracing himself for the next onslaught. "Nothing good, though."
"Something about the mine?" I ask, thinking back to JD's comments earlier about what he found by the old used mine.
"Indeed," Standish replies looking puzzled. I motion him to continue, I can always fill him in later. Taking the hint, h e begins talking. "It would appear that much of Miss Ella's money comes from dubious sources. No one knows for certain what she is doing, but it appears she and her partner have founded a profitable business in the area."
"You find out who her partner is?" I ask.
"Unfortunately, that information was not something I was able to garner," he answers, disappointment showing in his eyes. "I do, however, know that the supposed trouble that brought Mr. Larabee out to protect the fair maid was only show and that the men who were attacking her were, in fact, in her employ and following her orders."
I let a curse slip out. This isn't good.
"It would also appear that Ella was taken with the idea of being Mrs. Larabee long before she was able to lure our friend to her home. From what I understand, she will occasionally sign her correspondence as Ella Larabee."
Another curse slips out, only this time it's Ezra's. I've just gotten to his abused hand and started cleaning out the abrasions. "Seems a bit odd," I reply, working as quickly and gently as I can.
"Very disturbing," Standish agreed. "I am also given to understand that Miss Gaines is also taken with the thought of herbology and natural healing. From what I understand she has any number of combinations that can do or fix any number of things."
So maybe Chris isn't thinking straight because he can't. I must have waiting too long to reply because when I open my mouth to ask him how she could slip him something, I see he's back asleep.
When I was finally finished with his head and cleaning and wrapping his hand. I allowed my eyes to close. It was a mistake. I could feel the darkness pulling at me and felt myself fighting not to give in. It was only a soft shifting sound from behind me that caused me to force my eyes open again. "Vin," I identify, digging into some resource of strength I didn't know I had and gathering my meager resources together.
Checking on Standish one last time, I sigh when I see he's still out. Rising to my feet, I lift my jug and quilt and stagger over to Tanner. Dropping down next to him a little harder than I would have liked, I take a deep breath, and set my own weariness aside. Right now he needs me more.
I open my eyes to find his staring up at me. I hate it when he does that. Forcing a smile on my sore, swollen lips, I greet, "Hey there sport." He blinks at me in reply. "Looks like you didn't play to well with others today."
His eyebrows drew down in puzzlement. "Buck?" he asks.
"Yeah, it's me," I reply, wondering exactly how bad I look that both he and Ezra would have to ask. "Looks like you got into it with a few of Ella and Jack's gorillas. If I didn't know better I'd say they were trying to put you on the spot."
"Yeah," Tanner agreed softly, blinking slowly and looking away. "Tried to turn me into a spot, too." His eyes wandered back and met mine. "Guess she remembered," he offered.
What can I say to that? He's right. Reaching out I squeeze his shoulder. "Got me some homemade hooch and a quilt here."
"Ain't my type," he replies and I can't help but laugh as I think of the glint in his eye.
"You ain't exactly mine either," I assure. "I'm only giving you fair warning," I tell him, not wanting a repeat of the incident with Standish. "This stuff is going to burn when it hits open skin, but I figure it'll kill anything that might make you sick."
"Make Nate happy," Vin replies, the pain he's feeling obvious in his voice. If I didn't think it would kill him, I'd offer him a drink of the stuff.
"You got pretty banged up out there," I inform as I begin removing layers of dirt, sweat and blood only to reveal the horrible bruises they left behind. "Four on one aren't the best odds."
"Jumped me as I was leaving," he informs, trying to turn his split lip away from the stinging cloth.
"Figured," I reply. I know he's hurting, but I just gotta know, "Why'd you leave like that?"
Tanner's eyes slip closed and he lets out a heavy sigh. "Told Larabee what I found. Didn't sit too well with him."
"What did you find?" I ask, struggling to find enough patience to get the story out of him.
"Handsome Jack works for Ella."
That gives me pause. It adds a still uglier piece to the puzzle in my mind. What was Chris thinking? I figured that was enough, but he keeps talking.
"There are a lot of questions about the death of Ella's husband. Near as I was able to gather, Petrie had a fair sum and this spread. Ella swooped in and they were married real fast. A few years ago, she gets wind of an old beau living in the area."
"Chris," I say. It's no question. I know. And I don't like where this is heading.
"Yeah," he confirms. "That's what I figure, too. Anyway, she starts watching for anything having to do with Chris, talks about him all the time, stuff like that. Drives a wedge into their marriage and they begin fighting."
I'd be fighting, too, if someone came between me and my wife.
He continues, "About three years ago things go from bad to worse. They have a real public fight one night and two days later he's dead and she's already talking about marrying her true love. And before you ask, there wasn't enough real evidence to prove anything against Ella."
As everything he says sinks in, I can feel my stomach start to churn. Three years ago is when... I close my eyes and swallow hard. Vin must have seen it and realized what I suspected. I could only pray I was wrong.
"I checked the dates," he admits softly. "Petrie died the day before the fire."
I collapse in on myself at having my suspicions confirmed. Even with Tanner not saying their names, there is only one fire that serves as a point of reference for us - the fire that killed Sarah and Adam Larabee.
"Sorry," he sighs.
Opening my eyes, I can see him looking away. It's not his fault and I know this hits him as hard as anything can. "That's okay," I assure, moving back to my cleaning. "You found the answer we've been searching for from that night." How he got all that information so quickly, I didn't want to know. I've seen him "persuade" people before and it still chills my soul. I idly wondered how many people were admitted to Red Fork's hospital today.
He's quiet and seems to slip back into an unconscious state. I try to be as careful as I can cleaning him up, but eventually I'm left with his arm to deal with. I figure about all I can do is wrap something around it and make a sling. I have the cloth to wrap around his arm ready when I feel him watching me. "Sneaking up on me, Tanner?" I ask.
Vin offers up this slight half-grin for a second before it fades and I see that he's not done with the bad news yet. "Found out something else in Red Fork, too," he replies.
I pause in my preparation, waiting to see what he has to say and knowing I'm not going to like it..
"It's about Mary Travis..."
I jerked awake. It was a little brighter in our prison and my first thoughts were for my friends. Standish had been in and out, but Tanner had developed a fever. There wasn't much I could do for either of them other than keeping them awake and trying to get us out, but my own bruises and fatigue eventually overcame me.
As I started looking around, I noticed Standish over at one side of the room, staring upward. "Something catch your fancy?" I ask the man who was cradling his hand against his chest.
Turning to face me, the gambler offered a wan smile. "Trying to find the source of this light in the hopes of freeing us from our prison," he admitted with a shrug.
I nod, having attempted that the night before. It wasn't like we were in a huge room so it was an easy search to make. The light was coming from the cracks of what must be a trap door overhead, well out of reach.
"Perhaps if you were to provide me with a leg up, I could attempt to free us from our current environs," he offered.
It didn't take a genius to realize he had to be hurting as much or more than I was, but with what I'd found out last night from Vin, there was no way I was going to sit here any longer than necessary. Larabee needed us whether he knew it or not. Pushing myself up to my feet, I make my way over to where he is standing, grateful that I hadn't stiffened up too much overnight.
Clasping my hands together to make a stirrup, I squat down and nod that I'm ready. Standish steps into my hands and I give him enough of a boost to reach the door. What I had suspected all along, though, was confirmed - the door wouldn't budge.
"I'm afraid we're trapped here for a while longer," Standish admitted as he regained the floor.
Straightening myself, I stretch a bit. Not happy with the information, but not surprised. If we were going to get out of this, it would be because someone else got us out of here. That realization did not sit well with me. A low groan followed by a soft curse drew both Ezra and I to the Tanner's side. As he blinked his eyes open, we helped him sit up. I could tell he thought the room was spinning by the blinking and rapid breathing he was doing.
Ignoring that as best I could, I grabbed the square of cloth I'd fashioned into a sling the night before and offered to help him get into it. It was easy to see the idea of having help didn't sit well with him, but he knew he had no choice.
Once his arm was settled, he too wanted to get up and move around. I couldn't blame him, but I warned against it. A board to the back of the head isn't something you get over on one night's rest.
Sure enough, he gained his feet and went reeling. He decided real quick that sitting was the better option. Standish and I joined him.
"We can't get out can we?" Tanner asks.
I can't stop the sigh from escaping me. After what he told me about Ella, and what Standish was able to confirm, we all knew Chris was in real danger. I'd just opened my mouth to reply when the sound of footsteps above us met our ears. It was a sound sweeter than any dame's voice I'd ever heard, even sweeter than my Hilda's.
The three of us struggled to our feet, not having a weapon to our name, but heading over to the opening on the off chance there would be some way we could get out of here.
A scraping sound echoed in our barren room. It was the sound of a heavy object being dragged away. Moments later the door opened, momentarily blinding us in the early morning light. After a moment or two, we could make out the back-lit forms of several men. One of them was holding a gat. The sight made my blood run cold. We had no protection, no defense against bullets, nowhere to hide in this hole.
Then the sweetest sound since Hilda's singing floated down to my ears.
"Need a hand up, brothers?"
"How badly are you fools wounded?"
I winced. It was JD. Still, I couldn't stop the smile that spread across my face.
"Tanner has a broken arm and took a hit to the head from a two-by-four. Standish has a lump on his temple and some busted knuckles. I'm in one piece." Mostly, I add to myself. "We need some way up and the sooner we're out of here the better." I have to swallow back my fear and anxiety as I say the next words, "Chris' life is in danger."
That got things moving.
Against Nate's advice, the six of us headed back toward the farmhouse, making sure to stop by Tanner's truck and arm ourselves. There was no telling what would happen.
As we were going, Nate was telling us what happened last night. He had noticed that Standish and I left and began to get worried when we didn't come back after about twenty minutes. He had gone out the back way and was just in time to see a truck pulling away from the house. Some of the gorillas we were fighting were still out cold on the ground and the whole area looked like trouble.
He'd slipped back in and told Josiah and JD his concerns. The three of them had approached Chris who did nothing but look at them coldly and say we were big boys and could take care of ourselves.
That hit me right in the gut and hurt more than any of the punches I'd taken last night. What had Ella done to Chris?
When Larabee wouldn't help them, they decided to see what they could find out from the others. There wasn't much to be said. Hilda offered what help she could. My poor bird was near heartbroken that I'd disappeared during her song. I knew I could make it up to her, though.
As it turns out, it was Josiah who was finally able to shed some light on our whereabouts. Seems he tracked down which of the hired help had driven us. Seems the guy took a little persuading, but eventually told him what they needed to know.
The three of them got even more anxious when JD overheard Handsome Jack and Ella fighting about Ella's engagement. It would seem Jack expected their partnership to be more than whatever their business was. Her engagement to Chris hadn't set well with him and he had threatened Larabee's life. As if having that woman after him wasn't enough.
Once they had the information, they called in the sheriff and came out to get us and set us free. From the way they were all acting I imagine we were a sight. But until the sheriff arrived and we were able to convince Chris he was in danger, we were on our own.
Making our way up to the farmhouse, we could hear the sound of gunfire. Most of it seemed to be coming from outside the house. We forced our pace a little and made it to the fire zone as quickly as we could.
I was just settling in at one corner of the house when I heard Chris' voice cry out in anguish. He was cursing Ella. A bullet burying itself into the wood next to me drew my attention back to the present. Spying the man who had a bead on me, I waited and pulled the trigger. He went crashing to the ground. I don't like taking life, but when it comes down to him or me, I have no choice but to stand up for myself.
A new threat emerged as two bullets went whizzing by me. Crouching down, I scouted for the shooters. I just caught sight of one when I heard a door open behind me.
Spinning around, I could only watch in horror as Hilda stepped outside, shotgun in hand, still in her nightgown. "Buck!" she called, her terror for me obvious in her voice.
Forgetting everything I ever knew about gunfights, I stood up and headed back to her. "No, Hilda!" I cried, desperate to get her out of danger. "Go back inside..."
The rest of what I was going to say evaporated as I saw her body jolt at the impact of a bullet. A cry of terror ripped from my throat. "HILDA!!!!"
With a speed I didn't know I possessed, I was by her side and calling for Nathan. There were so many things I wanted to tell her, how blind I'd been, how much she'd come to mean to me... Instead I watched that beautiful, innocent light begin to fade from her eyes.
Jackson dropped down next to me and did a quick check. He shook his head and I could feel the tears forming in my eyes, but she wasn't crying. Just about then, I heard Vin call out that Chris had been hit. Somehow, holding Hilda in my arms, I just couldn't care about that. "Go," I told him.
I heard him scramble away as my songbird began to struggle for each breath. I knew our time together was short, so I gathered my words and put all the love I could manage into what I had to say. "There's somethin' that I have to tell you," I began. "There is beauty inside of you the likes of which I have never seen. It sneaks up on a man at first, and then it just hits him in his heart." That earned me her wonderful smile. I hid that image away, knowing I'll treasure it always. "There's just no two ways about it now. I'm stuck on you. And I always will be." I had to swallow back my tears and my anguish as I let truth of my words burn my soul. "So wherever it is that you're goin'... just know that a part of me is goin' there with you."
My angel granted me one last smile before her eyes closed and her breathing stopped.
I lowered my head so my forehead rested on hers and I let the tears fall.
Somewhere in the background, I heard an engine start, one final gunshot, then the sound of the car crashing into something and bursting into flames.
And I realize none of that mattered anymore.
I stood outside of Nathan's office contemplating the stairs. He'd given me a clean bill of health two days ago, but that didn't make the soreness go away.
Of course, what was really keeping me from climbing those stairs was having to face more of the nightmare that had consumed me. We laid Hilda to rest today. There weren't many of us there and Jeannie didn't even shed a tear. How could I have ever thought her beautiful?
Still, there was one more thing that needed to be done and I knew almost everyone was waiting for me inside so we could get on with it.
Taking a deep breath, I mounted the stairs and entered the small clinic. I smiled at Raine, Nathan's wife and nurse, and headed back toward the room where I knew they were keeping Larabee. He had been shot in the upper chest and wouldn't let anyone but Nate work on him. Not that I blamed my old friend, Jackson has the best hands of any doctor I've ever known.
Stepping through the open door, I could see I wasn't the only one there. Tanner lounged on the other bed in the room, his cast resting on his chest, and Standish waited, settled in a chair, his casted hand resting in a sling. JD was bouncing slightly by the window, looking outside and Josiah was nestled in a corner reading the Bible.
Larabee was looking pale and resting his eyes, but I could tell he wasn't sleeping. Jackson came in right behind me.
I nodded my greeting to everyone and took up a position between the two beds. "She been by yet?" I asked.
"Said she'd be back in an hour," Tanner supplied. "That was twenty minutes ago."
"Good," I said. "Gives the sheriff time to get here."
"Was the good sheriff able to procure the necessary evidence?" Standish asked.
"Said he had it all, just needed to get the arrest warrant signed and he'll serve it on her tonight," I informed.
"And Billy?" Larabee queried, opening his eyes for the first time.
"Safely with his grandparents," I replied.
"Good," he said and then closed his eyes again.
"You still haven't explained all of it to us, Buck," JD complained.
He's right. So far I haven't told anyone but the sheriff what Tanner discovered about Mary Travis. Glancing over at him, I could see a look of disgust cross Vin's face. I couldn't blame him.
I opened my mouth to say something when there was a disturbance in the lobby. A moment later, the widow Travis came into the room, her eyes locking onto Larabee, the fire of obsession burning in their depths. "Chris!" she breathed, oblivious to our presence in the room. I watched as she clutched his hand and lifted it to her chest.
I noticed she had thrown off her mourning clothes and was wearing a light green frock that brought out the color of her eyes. Amazing how quickly her poor dead husband was forgotten. And how easily she slid into the role of grieving widow when it suited her needs.
She reached up and stroked a stray lock off of his forehead. I could only admire his acting ability as he didn't flinch. "I'm here now," she said, as if that would make all the difference. "And I want you to know I forgive you for being with that woman."
I raised an eyebrow and looked at Nathan who shrugged. It seemed to be her normal greeting for Chris.
"I know, Mary," he replies.
Looking up, she seemed to notice the rest of us for the first time. "Oh, hello, gentlemen," she greeted, smiling a little uncertainly. Her eyes settled on me. "I want to thank you, Mr. Wilmington, for saving my Chris from that awful woman."
"Not at all," I answered, glad I didn't eat anything since I'm pretty sure it would have been making a reappearance at this point.
"I understand she was involved in some sort of unsavory business?" she asked.
"Had a deal going with Handsome Jack Averil. Seems they were making and running moonshine together. There were some problems and they had a split that resulted in the gunfight out at the Gaines ranch. We were just unlucky enough to get caught in the middle," I supplied. No reason to hide the truth from her on this. She ran her own newspaper after all.
"How shocking," she replied.
I couldn't help but think that if she found that shocking, she's going to find what we have in store for her downright amazing. As I open my mouth to say more, I see Tanner tilt his head as if listening to something. Shifting my eyes to the door, I caught sight of the sheriff who looked in the room and then backed out of sight. It's time to get this show on the road.
"Ma'am," Josiah said, rising from his corner and approaching the blond woman. "I never had the chance to tell you how sorry I was to hear about Stephen's passing."
"Oh," Travis replied, taken off-guard, after all, Stephen Travis had been murdered almost two years before. "Thank you, Josiah," she finally responded.
"I thought you were married to Frank Travis," Standish supplied from his chair. "Isn't that what your friend Gerard said? That you and Frank had been married in Boston?"
"Well," Mary said, becoming flustered. "I was married to Frank, but he..." She cut herself off as if she was going to reveal something she didn't want to and finished, "he passed away shortly after our marriage and Stephen was there and he was so kind. We fell in love and, well, there you go."
"I thought I remembered a wedding announcement in that scrapbook you were showing me that said you were marrying John Griffin?" JD supplied. The kid was a favorite of Mrs. Travis to watch Billy while she was out.
"Oh, well..." she said, her face turning red as she tried to find the right answer.
"And before that wasn't it Charles Ellison?" Vin asked, his blue eyes boring into hers as he sat up on the bed, turning to face her.
She tried to extract her hand from Chris' as Nathan added, "But your first husband was really Allan Coleridge, wasn't it?"
By this point her face had contorted into a hideous mockery of the cool beauty it normally held. It was my turn now and I would make it count. "Five husbands for someone your age is an awful lot," I observed, beginning to slowly make my way down the length of the bed, my eyes never leaving hers. "Strange that they all ended up dead. Stranger still that they all had life insurance policies on them," I tossed out.
Struggling to compose herself, she smoothed her skirt with her free hand and continued to pull against Larabee's hold. "I don't know what you mean," she denied, the fire of murder burning in her eyes.
"Allen Coleridge was eighteen when you married him," I said. "He took a position in New York and took you with him out of that little backwater town you two lived in while you were in Kentucky. The big city was an exciting place for a young couple and Allan excelled at his job, quickly rising through the ranks. But once you got a taste of the high life, you wanted more and Allen couldn't get it for you."
"So he met with an unfortunate accident," Josiah supplied, his voice grave, but his face determined. "And you were the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. Quite a sum for a young woman of twenty."
"But it wasn't nearly enough to sustain you for long," Standish jumped in. "You needed more, and you found a way to get it. You married Charles Ellison, the Vice President of a large bank. And, again, you were comfortable in your lifestyle, until things at the bank began to fail and poor Charles met an unfortunate end to the tune of many thousands of dollars. Fortunately, six months later John Griffin was there to offer solace."
"John Griffin of the Connecticut Griffins, of course," Nathan chimed in. "Old money of the best kind. He lived a lifestyle to which you very quickly became accustomed, not to mention the fact that the Griffin name opened many doors for you. Unfortunately, he wasted most of his inheritance with his high living and what he didn't spend was tied up in trust, unavailable for you. Fortunately, you didn't have to live with that shame for long. John had an unfortunate boating accident which you, by some miracle, survived, leaving you with a substantial settlement from the Griffin estate."
"Too bad it wasn't enough," JD interjected, his bouncing having stopped a while ago. "Two husbands dead in New York within three years and the rumors were bound to start flying, threatening your social position. Add to that, a dead husband in Connecticut and things are beginning to look really bad."
"So a move to Boston was just what you needed," Jackson supplied. "There's old money in Boston, reliable, secure and plentiful. The Travis family is from there and they are the epitome of old money. Orin still holds most of the wealth, but each of his sons was given a substantial amount of their own to handle. It was just the sort of life you wanted, until you found out you were pregnant. That just didn't fit into the plan and Frank paid the price."
"But with Frank gone and Billy on the way, you discovered that you didn't have access to the money," I added. "Frank's portion went to Stephen who had lost his wife and son to scarlet fever. And that left you as a beggar in your in-law's house. Not who you deserved to be."
I could see her breathing faster, reason and rational deserting her as she drew herself up straight and started to smile. "Stephen, was an easy mark. You could use your mutual grief and family connection to trap him into marriage. Unfortunately for you, he saw his marriage to you as an opportunity at a new life, as a way to break from what he'd always known. He moved the three of you out here and refused to accept any money from the Travis fortune, determined to make it on his own. He didn't know that you'd convinced Evie Travis to send you a stipend for Billy, though. And the night he found out, you two had a huge fight. He told you to leave and kept Billy with him. That night he died. But that didn't give you control of the money. Billy's portion is being held in trust for him until he's twenty-five. And since he's home with his grandparents, there's no reason for money to come your way."
"Why didn't you just return to Boston with him?" Dunne asked.
"Couldn't," Tanner replied. "Someone out there suspected what happened with Frank and found proof. She goes back, they tell what they know."
Mary's lip curled up into a snarl. She was trapped and knew it.
"And then Chris came along," I continued. "He met all your criteria and then some."
Larabee looked confused. "But I'm not rich," he protested.
"No," I agreed. "But your land up near Eagle Bend would more than make her enough money to live until she could convince Billy to come back."
"I'd never sell that land," Larabee defended. I can see he's not happy about what he's hearing. He knew about the husbands, but not about this. Tanner, Standish and I all agreed it would be best to keep it from him as long as possible. "I'll keep that land as long as there's breath in my body."
"Which wouldn't have been too long, after you married Mrs. Travis, there," Vin added, standing beside his bed.
"But it's not that valuable," Chris denied.
"True," Standish agreed. "But the mineral rights would more than make up for that. It appears your land is rich in minerals that are in great demand by our government."
A hissing sound escaped the hellcat beside Larabee. "Shut up!" she shrieked. "You'll ruin everything!"
"No," I answered grabbing her free hand. "We'll keep you from ruining it."
Knowing she was trapped, she let out a shriek a banshee would be proud of and tried to escape. When that didn't work, she threw her head back and let out a laugh that could only come from someone who has lost their grip on reality. "They deserved it!" she shouted. "Every one of them was weak! They promised me the world and never delivered. I took what I deserved, what they owed me."
"And Chris?" I asked, wondering what she had to say.
"Chris?" she repeated, suddenly calming. "Chris is mine. I've watched him for three years, ever since that slut he married died I've been planning how to make him mine. Then that... that woman... Ella comes in and ruins it all."
The devastation I saw on Larabee's face ripped at my already shredded heart. "Sheriff!" I called out. Turning my head to look at the man, I asked, "That what you need?"
"It's more than enough," he agreed, pulling out his handcuffs to place on Mary's wrists.
We all watched as he walked her out of the room. I couldn't help but think it's a good thing I got my fee from her before all this.
Turning back around, I saw the exhaustion and pain in Larabee's face still there. Suddenly my old friend seemed very frail. Reaching out, I squeezed his shoulder in a show of support. "You with us, Stud?" I asked, forcing a smile on my face.
His pain-filled green eyes rose up and met mine. "First Ella and then Mary..." he said, his voice sounding so lost, so confused I almost winced. Neither of those words is one I would have ever associated with Chris Larabee. "Why?"
I don't have an answer. I don't have the words. Why did two obsessed women set their sights on Chris Larabee? Why was the most beautiful soul I'd ever beheld stolen from me before I could worship her as she deserved? Why did it seem that pain was the only gift either of us could give to those we cared about? Shaking my head, I admit, "I don't know, Stud. I just don't know. But I reckon if there's that much bad out there, there must be an equal amount of good waiting just around the corner for us."
"Yeah," he replied, though I can see he doesn't believe the words. Not yet. Can't say I blame him just now, but I know that tomorrow the sun will rise and bring new challenges and new joys, new loves and new reasons to smile and laugh. Tomorrow the sun will rise on a new world with new opportunities just waiting to be grabbed. Tomorrow will be better. It has to be.
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