Chris Larabee rode into the town of Four Corners with little expectation of anything but a hot meal, a warm bed, and a bitter whiskey. Not necessarily in that order.
Honestly, he didn’t expect much of any place or any day anymore—a bitch of a thing, since he was likely to see too damn many of both of them before he was through. Damn sight different from when he was begging not to die down in Texas.
There were times he wished he had, times he wished he'd never met that crazy German doctor they'd brought in to save him, times he wished the concoctions he’d been fed had killed him. He'd made his deathbed deal with the devil, though, and now he had to live with it. The United States had thought they needed a miracle during their war with Mexico and Chris had been too young and stupid not to realize what a curse living forever was really going to be.
A super soldier. That was what Erskine had said. Chris would be faster and stronger and smarter. He’d live longer, heal quicker, and take more punishment. That last part was true, at least.
They’d won the war, after a fashion, but Erskine and his whole team were dead now, killed in the next war—the war the States fought amongst themselves. The government, in their infinite wisdom, had disavowed all knowledge of the program once Lincoln had been killed. Soldier X had supposedly perished in Charleston in one of the final campaigns of that war (and it hadn't been far from the truth), and Chris had seen too much by then. He took the chance to just disappear. And he’d met Sarah and they’d married and Adam had been born. He started to think, maybe, he could live a real life again. A normal life.
But that was then. Today, alone as he had been for the past three years, Chris settled his hat more firmly on his head and made his way toward the first clean-looking saloon he saw. He needed a drink in the worst way.
“Please!” The woman’s voice was high and scared, but steel ran through it. “You can’t! He was only trying to help!”
Chris turned to watch the commotion at the other end of town. A black man, tall but bent under an exhaustion and fear that Chris knew better than he wanted to, was being dragged down the street toward the graveyard by six men who looked to be ranch hands. All of them were drunk, and half of them were shooting into the air for God knew what dumbass purpose.
“Darky freak, playing at being a doctor!” one of the men called. “We’ll show ‘em what we do to the likes of you. Ain’t no darky doctors, and there never will be!”
“There wasn't any way to save him!” the black man pleaded. A righteous sense of power and anger suffused the seemingly cowed words. “Your boss was too far gone when he got here. If I’d seen him just a day or two sooner—”
A rifle shot stopped the proceedings, and Chris stepped up onto the boardwalk in front of the saloon to see a bit better. A woman with white-blond hair and shining eyes stood in front of the lynch mob, a Spencer carbine in her hands. “You can’t do this,” she said, her voice the same one that had captured Chris’s attention in the first place. “Nathan didn’t kill your boss. Gangrene did.”
One of the men pointed his gun at her and Chris braced himself to move, but the gunman suddenly stumbled hard, as if shoved from behind. His gun flew out of his hand to the laughter of his friends, and the cowhand whirled on the black man—Nathan, Chris assumed—and slammed an elbow into his face. Chris wasn’t sure what had just happened, but he was damn sure Nathan hadn’t been the one to push him. “Try anything more, and you’re dead, you hear me?”
One of the others grabbed the woman’s rifle and shoved her out of the way, then dropped a rough noose over Nathan’s head, leering into the black man’s face. “He’s dead anyway.”
Chris sighed. This was not his problem. Not any more. He’d played the hero before and all it got him was death and pain and he wasn’t doing it again.
“STOP THEM!” The woman’s angry shout did something to his insides anyway. She’d pulled herself to her feet and, now unarmed, was following the procession toward the graveyard. “God, what is wrong with you people!?”
Chris looked away and his eyes locked with a pair of angry blue ones across the street. A young man stood just outside the grocer’s with a broom in his hand, his brown hair shaggy and rough, his long buckskin coat out of place in the heat of the day. The man needed to do something. His eyes pleaded for help.
Gritting his teeth, Chris nodded to him, watched the man nod back, then kept an ear trained in that direction while he walked on toward the chaos, his enhanced hearing picking up the words clearly.
“You walk off with that rifle and you’re fired, son,” the shopkeeper said.
Chris smiled at the response. “Hell. I’m probably going to get myself killed, and now I got to worry about a new job, too.” The young man’s voice was light and amused with an easy Texas twang.
Chris could smell him coming, a scent like hawks and buffalo. Not unpleasant, but a sign that the senses that Erskine’s formula had heightened—senses he’d long since learned to ignore—were being reawakened now in an instant. He cursed them, but he couldn’t deny there was a thrill to being alive like this again. The young man moved a little faster to catch up, and the two of them faced the lynch mob, side by side.
The mob had Nathan standing, bound hand and foot, on an upended log, the noose over a tree limb and tight around his neck with all guns trained on him. A coffin was propped up nearby, a newly dead corpse standing at obscene attention. The stagecoach that had raced into town minutes ago dropped its passenger like a sack of crap and raced right on out again. Seemed like no one wanted to be in Four Corners for long. If this was a normal day, Chris could understand why.
“Thought you might like to see your killer swing, Mr. Fallon,” the head of the mob told the corpse. Chris cocked his pistols loudly to get their attention. “Who the hell are you?” the leader demanded angrily.
“Cut him loose,” Chris told him. Didn’t think he was being in the least unclear.
Half the guns found their aim suddenly on him and he calculated his shots rapidly. He could take down two of the six—maybe three—before the first one got a shot off. Not great odds, but he’d had worse.
A rifle cocked next to him and that light, amused Texas drawl sounded loud in the silence of the stand off. “Reckon you’d all be happier if you just rode away.” The young man would certainly narrow the odds a bit more, from the easy stance he took.
The leader snorted and Chris zeroed in on the man's finger as it tightened on the trigger. "Like hell."
The ranch hand fired just after Chris's bullet left his own gun. Chris's shot ended the man's life, while the dead man's went wide.
The rest of the men looked just a bit less righteous, all of a sudden.
“You shot a lot of holes in the clouds back there,” Chris reminded them. “Anybody stop to reload?”
One of the idiots growled a curse and opened fire—the rest followed like sheep.
The long-haired man at Chris’s side held his own nicely, but the woman's piercing shriek of "Nathan!" had Chris refocusing his attention. One of the remaining ranch hands had knocked the stump out from under Nathan's feet and the man was swinging in the wind, bound hands grabbing uselessly at the noose that was killing him.
Chris's companion was on it—two quick, accurate shots rang out, one of them hitting the man who'd kicked the stump, the other severing the rope and dropping the tall black man to the ground. Nathan reached down to his boot and pulled out a knife, so Chris figured he could get his own self free.
His attention snapped back to the fight a second too late, and he felt a bullet plow into his side and out his back. Damn, that was going be a bitch. He held in his reaction and watched the man who’d shot him fall from a knife in the back. Chris looked over at Nathan, nodding his thanks for the throw.
The last of the ranch hands had had it and ran for the open desert. Chris was content to let him go and clearly, so was the Texan. But a short blur of enthusiasm darted in front of them and brandished a gun. With speed that he hoped no one noticed, Chris slapped the pistol out of the boy's grasp, but not before he got off a shot. The bullet’s flight must have been knocked off by Chris’s move, as the ranch hand kept running.
"Never shoot a man in the back, boy!" He growled.
The kid, black hair long and greasy and eyes deep and earnest, looked cowed and slunk off, his pistol back in his hand. Who the hell had given that kid a gun in the first place?
Chris looked at the man beside him, who was watching Nathan pull himself to his feet and rip the noose from his neck. It had left some evil-looking burns.
The few idiots still moving in the graveyard were getting themselves together to slink off. Chris and his new friend kept their guns trained on them, and the sorry remnants of the mob left their firearms and their dead where they'd fallen.
"Name’s Chris," he introduced himself to the Texan.
"Vin," the man replied. “New in town?”
Chris smirked. “Pretty much just now. You?”
Vin shrugged, the coat pulling strangely around his shoulders. “Last week.”
“Buffalo hunter?” Chris asked. Sure smelled like a buffalo hunter. But with that weird raptor scent underneath.
Vin snorted at that. “Among other things. Ain’t many left to hunt.”
Nathan and the woman both walked up. Nathan was much taller than he'd seemed while bowed under the threat of the mob, but he looked exhausted and gray. "Want to thank you both," he said quietly, voice rough from the noose. "Didn't think no one'd do anything."
"My name is Mary Travis," the woman butted in, sounding put together and educated. “Where did you come from?”
Chris didn’t grin, but he wanted to. She sounded so officious, like the ladies who worked in the government medical facility. “Saloon,” he answered shortly, walking away from her.
“Wait!” she called in confusion. “Where are you going?”
Chris did smile when Vin and Nathan joined him in his walk and replied as he did: “Saloon.”
Nathan took a deep breath and drained his shot glass, feeling the whiskey burn down his tender throat. Damn it. There was a hell of an irony to the fact that he’d spent all last night working on healing a dying man and he couldn’t even heal himself.
The men who had introduced themselves as Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner stood beside him at the bar and he almost laughed. A couple of white men saving a black man. Maybe Josiah was right after all. Maybe one day, people’d forget that color meant anything at all.
Tanner looked Larabee up and down with a strange suspicion. “Nathan, you’re a doctor?”
“Ain’t no darky doctors, didn’t you hear?” he replied bitterly. “I used to be a stretcher bearer for the Union army. Helped out in the field hospitals and picked up what I could.” He left it at that—they may have saved his life, but he didn’t know the first thing about them, and his secrets could easily have him strung up all over again.
“Figure my friend here could use your skills,” Tanner said pointedly, catching and holding Larabee’s gaze.
Larabee shrugged. “It’s nothing.” Nathan looked him up and down. He was favoring his left side a little, but stood tall.
“Excuse me.” A deep, slow voice with an Indian lilt to it interrupted them. The three of them turned as one and came face to face with a man Nathan knew was Tastanagi, the chief of the Seminole village down the valley—he came into town now and again for supplies and such. The healer didn’t know him to speak to and he didn’t recognize the black man with him, but he nodded a silent greeting all the same.
“We have seen what you have done,” Tastanagi said, holding out his hand and showing them a crudely worked golden pendant bigger than any Nathan’d ever seen. “We wish to hire you.”
Nathan shrugged minutely as Larabee looked at him, and Tanner did the same. Larabee took the pendant and handed it to the bartender—bartenders being surprisingly good at gauging worth as a general rule.
He handed it back after a moment. “Maybe $35.” Sounded generous to Nathan.
“Hire us for what?” Larabee asked.
“Our village is set upon by ghosts… of a very human variety.” Sounded ominous.
But Tanner just nodded. “How many ghosts are there?”
The Indian had to consider his answer, which was never a good sign. “Would 20 men frighten you?”
Larabee smirked. “Ain’t much frightens me anymore.”
“Hell, I was making five dollars a week at the hardware store without anybody shooting at me,” Tanner countered lightly, but not like he was rejecting the call for help. Seemed like the man took everything lightly, or at least with a fair amount of humor.
Larabee nodded as Nathan did. “Assume we pay five dollars a head that gets us all of seven men.”
“The Seminoles put themselves on the line for many an escaped slave,” Nathan replied, locking eyes with Tastanagi. “They took us in when nobody else would. For five dollars, they can have a week of my life.”
“Or all of it,” Tanner shot back with a smile. He finished off his whiskey and sighed. “Hell... I wasn't planning on dying with a broom in my hand anyway.”
Larabee held out his hand and shook with Tastanagi. “All right. Tomorrow afternoon, then.”
They all turned back around as the two villagers left, and Chris gestured for another whiskey.
“If they're asking for help from the white man they're desperate,” Tanner said. “How are we going to find hired guns for five dollars?”
Nathan sipped his whiskey. Seven men, huh? He wondered what Josiah would say about that: he was always spouting predictions and portents. Seven brothers, seven winds and what have you. Speaking of… “I think I know a man who can help.” If they were open to his kind of help, that is. Josiah was… Hell, sometimes, Josiah was downright scary.
Larabee slammed back his second shot and winced. Tanner was right—something was off about the blond. “I know one, too,” the blond man said with a smirk, turning a mite awkwardly to look out the door after seeing something in the mirror above them. “If we can get him out of bed.”
“First, I think I might should look at you for a minute,” Nathan put in. He wasn’t up to any real healing right now, but he could at least figure out what the man’d done to himself and patch him up. “Seems like you might not have come out that fight without a hurt.”
Chris shrugged. “It’s nothing,” he repeated.
Tanner snorted. “Get your ass up to the man’s clinic and get whatever it is looked at,” he commanded good-naturedly.
Surprisingly enough, Larabee nodded in resignation and gestured for Nathan to lead the way. He was breathing a little hard by the time they entered the clinic above the livery, but he didn’t seem in too much distress.
“Why don’t you take off your coat,” Nathan said, turning to his table of bandages and such. “Feel free to do the same, Vin. I know it’s hot up here. You must be boiling in that getup of yours.”
“Doing fine, Nathan, thanks,” Vin said from behind him. His voice changed to concern that had Nathan spinning back around quickly. “Damn, Chris! You figured to just walk around like that?!”
Larabee had been shot. Blood glistened against his black clothing, now that it wasn’t hidden by his duster.
“Take off your shirt,” Nathan ordered him angrily. Damn it! “This ain’t something you can just ignore. What the hell were you thinking?” Nathan examined the damage. The bullet had gone in his flank and exited out his back, tunneling through skin and fat and not much else. A simple wound and barely more than a graze, all told, but it was weird. The wound was partially healed already.
“When’d you get this?” he asked, unsure, as he turned to get his carbolic and some bandages. The wound was clean and maybe a couple of days old. Hadn’t been stitched, though, and Nathan wondered whether he’d even seen a doctor for it. “Should’ve had this stitched up when it happened,” he scolded. “It opened up during the fight, huh?”
“Just bandage me up,” Chris said dully, shooting Vin a glare. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
There was something… familiar… about the man’s defensiveness. And now Nathan was close up, there was no denying the faint acrid smell of burning that flesh made when a bullet went through it. Trusting his instincts, he reached out and touched the skin around the entry wound. He didn’t have a lot of energy to spend, but he funneled some into healing the red and oozing skin.
Larabee flinched back hard a second before relaxing and giving him a considering look. He gently removed Nathan’s hand from his side.
A normal person never would have even felt that. Amazing as it seemed, that wound was fresh, and Larrabee was someone like Nathan himself. Different. “You always been so quick to heal?” he asked carefully.
Chris ignored the question. “Knew a woman back in the war. Peg. She was like magic.” Nathan was caught in those sharp eyes, pinned like a butterfly by the suspicious voice. “She could just touch you and whatever hurt you had, seemed almost to disappear.”
Nathan broke the gaze and flicked a look at Vin, who stood still and watching, his face showing nothing. “Is that so?” Nathan asked quietly, grabbing a wad of cotton and soaking it in carbolic to clean the wound that probably wouldn’t even need wrapping in a week or so. “Must’ve been helpful when the wounded came home.”
“She was a war nurse. Figured she’d be more helpful in the field,” Chris replied. “I reckon you know just how that is, don’t you?”
Nathan smiled at the subtle accusation. He wondered if Tanner had the least clue what they were talking about. “Like I said, I helped out when I could.” He wrapped a bandage around Chris’s midsection nice and tight and tied it off. “That should keep you till it’s healed. Shouldn’t take long.”
Larabee snorted and glared again at Vin. “Now we’re finished babying me, can we get to having some fun?”
Vin smirked. “Well, hell, I’m all for that.”
“I think I’ll stay here,” Nathan said, looking around at the mess those idiots had made of his clinic when their boss died. “Clean up some.” And God, but he needed to rest and recover.
“Get some sleep, while you’re at it,” Chris told him seriously, again with that look in his eyes, that easy acceptance. “I hear being a healer takes an awful lot out of you.”
Nathan nodded his understanding and smiled as Vin tipped his hat in farewell.
What was it Josiah had been spouting just a couple of weeks ago? “Where those who are exceptional meet, there home will be for all?”
Well, Nathan didn’t know about home exactly, but it was nice knowing there was someone nearby who knew what it was like to be this different.
Buck Wilmington was eight years old before he figured out he could feel feelings that weren’t his own. Miss Petunia, one of the women in his mama’s house, had a baby and the baby died. But sad as the ever-sensitive “Young Buck” had been about it, he knew with frightening clarity that the overwhelming hole of grief he felt in the dark of the night three days after the baby passed was Miss Petunia’s, and not his.
He’d run into her room and hugged her tight and promised they’d make it all right for her somehow, and Petunia had put down the knife in her hands and gathered him to her and cried.
He’d always been good at going with his instincts, at reading people. And he learned, as he grew, to give people a little of what they were missing, be it a hug or a friendly ear to listen, to help them remember what they needed. He never told his mama about his gift, but she’d said to him on more than one occasion that God had obviously blessed him with a giving heart.
When he hit puberty, he figured out a much more satisfying way to put that blessing to use than just assuring that those around had smiles on their faces. And he found out that there was something… perfect... about the emotions of a woman in love.
And something damn fine about a lady in lust, too.
This particular lady’s name was Betty, and she was lovely and lonely and needed a bit of attention that Buck was only too happy to give her. He’d spent the last month on the trail and had sauntered into Four Corners for no very good reason that he could see at first. He’d been headed back to Eagle Bend, where he always ended up, despite the pain it brought, but something had turned him east toward this little dust spot.
And Betty had been waiting in the saloon. Buck savored every bit of lust and happiness coming off of her as he’d courted her, and now they stretched out on her narrow bed. She was blonde and buxom and soft with a sweet smile and her own giving heart. Her desire washed out toward him in waves, and he lowered his face to hers to—
BANG. BANG. BANG. “Hey! You in there with my wife?!”
Buck shot up to sitting at the ruckus. The man on the other side of the door was… Well, he was hard to read, but the words kind of spoke for themselves.
And so did the woman’s sudden worry. “Oh, Lord, it's got to be my Billy,” she said, a tired dread welling up from her.
“I thought he was in Yuma prison,” Buck said, trying to gather up his things, right glad he hadn’t started toward the good bits and finished undressing.
He almost didn’t want to leave her to the man, though. She felt sad and resigned—her Billy didn’t treat her right, it was plain to feel. “Oh, he is,” she said, throwing his hat at him. “He was.” She shoved his pants into his hand, a spark of her worry for him warming his heart even as he headed for the window in his union suit. “Go!”
He nearly didn’t, as the door shook again. What the hell was it about her husband? A weird blend of mischief and fettered animal lashed out at Buck from the man… Dangerous and confusing...
“Just a minute, hon,” Betty called, struggling into her dressing gown and waving Buck frantically toward the window.
“I hear you in there!” Billy yelled. No anger at Betty—least not that Buck could tell. “Open this door!”
It was weird—there was a controlled kind of mayhem about Billy. Truly angry people were usually a lot easier to read. Which meant maybe this angry husband was more dangerous than most he had to deal with.
“I got to go,” he told Betty, lunging over to give her one more long, lingering kiss.
“I'm gonna get you!” Billy yelled. Buck headed out the window before the door burst open and tried to make his way to the next room across the slippery roof. He cursed as his feet went out from under him and he slid, finding himself abruptly ass-down in the horse trough outside the boarding house. He closed his eyes a minute to recover from all the excitement.
“Afternoon, Buck. Interrupt something?”
A wave of amusement and affection that was so damn familiar it hurt washed over him, soaking him better than the tepid water had. The horrible self-hate and crushing guilt he’d felt last time he’d been near this particular soul were tempered now, and though the connection that had once had Buck nearly reading this man’s thoughts was still dulled, his heart leapt to know it wasn’t truly broken.
“Chris,” he whispered, opening his eyes and dragging himself out of the trough, feeling the amusement more strongly as his best damn friend in the whole world grabbed his hand. Buck gained his feet on the boardwalk and enveloped Chris Larabee in a massive hug.
Something was wonderfully different. He felt the usual endless pain in his friend, but there was a glimmer of something… shiny... as well. “Hey, you old war dog!” he said louder. “Good to see you.” He’d honestly worried, after Parkerstown, that he’d never see Chris alive again.
Chris patted him on the back, which was more physical affection than he usually showed. “Easy, big fella,” he grumbled gently, his good-natured embarrassment bleeding off of him. “Folks will talk.”
Buck broke the embrace and couldn’t help the laughter bubbling up in him. Things were sure as hell looking up in the world!
“Got a job,” Chris told him, still looking around. Always keeping an eye out. “You interested?”
“Yeah.” Buck didn’t even take a second to consider. Chris wasn’t mad. He wasn’t drunk. He was curious and keen and Chris for once in recent history. “What's it pay?”
Chris looked him dead in the eyes. “Five dollars.”
“A day?” Chris mentally shrugged and Buck shook his head. “A week!?”
The mental shrug was followed by a physical one. “I know it ain't much.”
But it was something. “How are the odds?” Buck asked. Not that it really mattered.
“Three…” Chris corrected himself. “Four. To one.”
Buck slapped him on the back. “It's just our kind of fight,” he replied, as if there’d been any question about him following where Chris would lead. Something bright and amused—like Chris’s new shiny—was headed toward them, and Buck turned to see who was coming. “How'd you know I was here?” he asked.
“I make a point of knowing who's in town,” Chris said. “Live longer that way.” He snorted. “And I saw you heading down here with your girl. Hoped maybe we’d get to you before you got too involved.”
Buck nodded, not really listening. They both watched the man in buckskins approach. The man at Betty’s door. He wasn’t Billy, obviously, and Buck hoped he hadn’t scared the poor girl too much with his controlled mayhem.
“He with us?” Mayhem asked, a blithe smile on his tanned face as he took up a position behind Chris’s left shoulder. His hair was long, his clothing Injun, and his mind… Something Buck had never felt before. Everything was a game and it was all deadly serious. Tragic in the most optimistic way…
“Is he with you?” he asked Chris, thought he could see the truth of that by the feeling of belonging that united the two men. He didn’t know who the man was, nor quite whether he could be trusted, but he and Chris were bound together anyway. Buck’d just have to come along for the ride. “There going to be ladies where you're going?” he asked, oozing that lust he never did let go of.
Chris grinned a grin Buck hadn’t seen in a year at least. “I imagine so.”
“Well then, imagine I'm in,” he replied with a randy smile of his own. He stuck out his hand to Mayhem. “Buck Wilmington,” he offered.
“Vin,” the man returned. They clasped hands and Buck’s read on the man got even more complex. He was hunted. Feared. Terrified, amused, saddened, alone, thrilled by every minute, excited by any chase…. Air lifted him up, wheeling him northward—
“People really will talk, Buck,” Chris said, that rough bite to his voice that could always call Buck back when he went too deep in search of answers. With Chris missing in every useful way since Sarah and Adam died, Buck hadn’t gone deep in a very long time. Might be he was a little out of practice.
He let go of Vin’s hand and cleared his throat, looking down at himself to prevent Vin from seeing the disquiet in his eyes. “Should probably get dressed in something… drier. Huh?” he asked, his gaze lifting and boring holes into Chris’s skull. What the hell had his friend gotten involved in here?
“Reckon you should,” Chris agreed, ignoring his glare. “There’s a clinic, up above the livery. Figure we meet there around dinner time.” He looked Buck over with a twist of a smirk. “You might think about a bath first.”
Buck just frowned, as Chris and his damn perplexing friend walked off.
Josiah Sanchez wasn’t surprised to see Nathan and the others approach. The crows and his dreams had given him their forms: the soldier, the empath, the hunter, the healer... He knew the wave was coming—the cresting of power that would be centered in this tiny town, bringing hope and justice and what have you—he just didn’t care. He bent to his work again, placing fallen stone on fallen stone. Rebuilding the Kingdom of Heaven that he had plundered in his youth.
“Afternoon, Josiah,” Nathan called out. His throat was raw-sounding, and Josiah looked up to see the imprint of a rope there. He held his anger in check. He was done with retribution. The young black man dismounted and walked onto the hallowed ground, hat in his hands in a way that always made Josiah smile bitterly.
The child was right to be a little bit afraid.
“There’s word the Seminole village down the way’s been having some trouble with raiders and such.” His hat was slightly crushed now. “I was thinking—”
Josiah glanced at the overwhelming power of the bonds between these men, strands of gold and silver that only the cursed could see, and he turned back to his stones.
Nathan’s voice dropped and he walked closer, imparting secrets Josiah had already seen in a vision more than two weeks ago. “Remember your talk about exceptional men?” he whispered. “Reckon we got another one here. He’s eager to help them, and I thought—”
“Then go help them, Nathan,” Josiah said. “I’ll stay here and do my penance.” It would never be enough, he knew. Nothing could make him unlearn the secrets he had pursued with such ignorance and nothing could undo the havoc he had wrought as a result.
The universe might be calling him to become a part of its machinations, but God had punished him for his hubris once already. He wouldn’t presume against the Almighty again.
Nathan felt the wave coming, too, even if he didn’t understand it, and he tried once more. “I was hoping—”
“Keep hoping, my friend,” Josiah said, in that flat and final tone he knew Nathan had learned to respect. “I’ll still be here building.”
Stone on stone...
With unwilling ears, he listened as his young friend returned to the others. The tarnished silver strands that connected him to Nathan were old friends, easily accommodated, even ignored if need be.
“He says he's not coming,” Nathan told them, all cautious frustration. “He said that's his penance.”
“For what?” the soldier wanted to know.
For her… An image of Hannah, soft and innocent, mocked him and Josiah slammed down the stone in his hand with more force than necessary.
“He won't say,” Nathan replied. “Word is he done killed a lot of men. He's a hard man to persuade.”
The Devil had persuaded him with ease, though, hadn’t he? Perhaps he was finally learning from his mistakes.
“Could be useful in a fight,” said the hunter. Josiah grinned ferally to himself. Oh, he’d be that, all right. If he cared.
“The Seminoles are the dispossessed of the earth, Josiah,” Nathan tried again, spurred by this thing among the four of them. “Ain't saving lives a part of saving souls?”
You don’t save lives, Josiah Sanchez, the demons in his mind reminded him. You take them. Twist them. Ruin them.
Not anymore. “Seems to me a man ought to put his own house in order first,” he rumbled placidly. Because truly, he didn’t care.
“We can promise you a hell of a fight,” the hunter offered. He obviously saw a kindred spirit in Josiah. Once upon a time, Josiah wouldn’t have disagreed.
“Hell…” He rolled the word around his tongue, tasting dust and flames and bitterness. “I've already been there.”
He could almost hear the soldier thinking So have I. “Think he'll change his mind?” he asked of Nathan.
Josiah hauled his stones.
“Maybe,” Nathan allowed, ever the optimist. “We could ride by tomorrow…”
And I will still be here, Josiah thought coldly. Stone on stone…
Ezra Standish was tired. And he was bored. A week in this town and he’d gained himself exactly forty dollars at the tables. He couldn’t imagine why he stayed, but the place…
Well, the place was an insufferable dustbowl and he’d likely leave any day now. The people were poor, by and large, and he didn’t lack all morals, the way his mother did. He couldn’t sap them for everything. So he worked the cards as hard as he could sometimes to make sure even the worst players didn’t walk away destitute, while still lining his pockets enough to get the hell to San Francisco. Or Denver. Anywhere where he could start over again after that fiasco in Kansas City. Lord, if he never saw his mother again, it’d be too soon.
He knew himself better than one might credit, to look at him, and he knew that when he was bored, he was known to make poor decisions. So it was little surprise to find himself in the dankest, grittiest saloon in the little town, pulling the Drunk Man Shoots the Ace con. Because it was a con that could get you killed, and he needed a little excitement.
The cowboy before him squinted as he took aim at the queen of hearts on the darts board beside the bar. The man’s old pistol fired with a huge cloud of gunpowder and Ezra worried the damn thing had exploded before the man whooped, gesturing to the queen, whose hand had been shot through.
”Beat that, will you!” the cowboy said, dancing in his inebriated joy.
Ezra barely took notice of the four men who walked in and set up at the bar—and only then because he recognized the black healer, Jackson. He’d seen the tall white man womanizing here in the saloon, a harmless peacock out for "fun and charming," as his Aunt Carine would have said. The other two were the ones who’d saved Jackson’s life that morning.
With a bit of help. Assisting them in thwarting those idiots in the street today had been amusing, even if no one had known he was there. The moron he’d knocked sideways when he tried to shoot that beautiful woman…? That had been fun.
“You gonna take the bet or not?” one of the men at the table asked him. They were all cowboys, headed toward Mexico with a herd to be delivered to some wealthy Senor. Easy marks and soon to be on their way, so he could stay in town if he needed to. Never did to anger the townspeople until you were ready to leave.
He tossed back another shot of whiskey—actually drinking this one—and stood unsteadily, knocking his empty bottle to the floor and making sure to place his foot close to it. He pulled out his Remington and sighted the ace of spades the cowboy had used to replace the amputee queen.
“Stand aside, sir,” he told the man between him and the card, slurring his words realistically. The Lothario with the mustache at the bar was watching him with a broad smile that made him nervous. “You are... obstructing my view.” He let his aim yaw back and forth a moment. “This should be a piece of cake.”
He didn’t actually mean to hit the ugly stuffed bird on the mantle, but he wasn’t sad to see it go when he purposely let the empty bottle roll under his foot and send his shot high. Damn thing had been staring at him for days.
The cowboy to his right slammed a triumphant fist on the table. “Pay up!”
“Nonsense,” he protested, weaving slightly. “I was encumbered by the debris on the floor.”
The man laughed at him with his friends. The perfect mark is a mark who thinks he’s superior. “Well, let's just try it again.”
Ezra spread his arms extravagantly, uneasy that the three white men at the bar were watching the spectacle so closely. “With pleasure. Double or nothing.” He fumbled with his wallet, doubling his stake while flashing enough money to keep them all interested.
The man laughed again and slammed his money down on the bar as well. “It's your money. Get ready to duck, boys.”
Ezra smiled as he drew his second weapon, and again, that demon boredom took him. He made a mistake that, in retrospect, he never should have made.
He shot true once, piercing the single spade with as much ease as ever. He shot a blank. He kept shooting blanks because, well… He really was bored. Somewhere in his head, he was hoping for a fight.
“He put all six in the same hole!” he heard the bartender gasp.
“My, my,” he murmured, an amused smile on his face. “How astonishing. I've never done that before.”
The cowboy was a fool, but not a complete fool. “You sure sobered up quickly, Mister,” he growled.
“Must be the desert air,” Ezra replied, letting a bit of steel seep into his voice. He readied himself. If it came to bullets, he could always disappear. But he was figuring on fisticuffs.
He was hoping for fisticuffs, actually.
True to dream, the men all stood, spoiling for a pounding. “We don't take kindly to being hustled.” Oh dear. Except that the leader pulled his knife. Knives were a little more challenging. “Let's see how good you can shoot with one eye.”
Ezra made the first move, ducking under the blade and tackling the man behind the leader, using his momentum to spin the much larger man around and stop the leader from shoving the blade in his flank. Two of the men dove for him and he slipped his way out, but not before they each got in a solid punch.
By this time, of course, it was inevitable that other patrons got involved. It was just the way of barroom brawls—Ezra had been in enough of them to know. By the time he’d tripped over a leg for the third time and collected more head shots than he was really comfortable with, he decided it was about time for him to go.
He waited another moment, until he was sure the ruffians nearest him were occupied with other men’s fists, then summoned the silver that would wrap him up and make him invisible to those around him. He watched the colors fade, the saloon and its “patrons” now seen through a brownish lens, darks darker and lights brighter than real life. He’d seen a photography exhibit in St. Louis a couple of years ago, showing off a new technique called “sepia tinting,” and was amused by the accolades the “new innovation” received. He’d been looking at the world this way for twenty-some years. Every time he disappeared.
Making sure not to get in the way of any more fists, he made his way to a wall and skirted the action until he got to the bar, where he collected his winnings and slid out the back door with no one the wiser.
The trick that had first saved his life at the age of six, when one of his mother’s “paramours” had come at him with a pitchfork, stood him in good stead as he extended his invisibility to the money and slid it into his wallet. He would find a place to hole up until the cowboys moved on. Although really, he should just cut his losses in this horrible little burg, saddle up Chaucer, and be on his way…
Except that he wasn’t sure he really wanted to. The feeling was odd, and he didn’t like odd.
He was high enough on the fight and wrapped up in his own thoughts, so he wasn’t really looking around him—until he ran into a brick wall with a black duster on. The wall grunted with the impact, as if it hurt.
The surprise of the collision almost made Ezra lose control of his invisible state, but he held it together and tried to slide around the man who’d helped rescue the town’s healer just that morning. The man moved to intercept him.
“This might be easier if you go ahead and show yourself,” the tall blond told him, a slightly dangerous smile on his face. Lord, he did make for an imposing figure.
And could tell exactly where Ezra was even though he couldn’t see him, which was a puzzle Ezra just had to solve. The scales of invisibility sloughed off of him and he smiled winningly. Which made exactly zero impression on the man before him.
“And how, pray tell, did you, ah…” He chuckled uncomfortably. “See me? Sense me?”
The man’s smile grew positively feral. “Smelled you.”
“Well now, that’s just rude—“ Ezra began, only to be interrupted by the arrival of the other men that the man in black had collected around him.
“Slippery little thing, ain’t he, Chris?” the mustached man said, leaning against the wall like a cat finding a place to nap. Despite the seeming indolence, he was clearly watching Ezra like a hawk.
As was the thin man in buckskin. “Nice shot, pard,” he said amiably, his voice a lazy Texas drawl. There was a diamond hard look to his eyes, though, as if he was seeing more than Ezra could afford for him to.
“Lucky,” Ezra corrected him cautiously, waiting to see what the man named Chris would say to the others. He’d only been found out once before. He still had the scars to remember the occasion, as invisibility did not, sadly, equate to being bulletproof. “I expect the lure of the pot focused my aim a mite.”
Chris looked over at the mustached man as if asking a question, but Ezra couldn’t see that he got any answer beyond a barely raised eyebrow.
“First shot was louder than the other five,” Chris said bluntly, turning his focus back to Ezra.
Ezra knew he was being baited, but couldn’t help responding. “What are you attempting to suggest?” Lord, proving that he really had cheated could be almost as dangerous as revealing his true nature.
But Chris didn’t seem interested in that, and the three white men were relaxed. Jackson was tense and annoyed at the side, but that wasn’t all that surprising. Ezra could hardly expect to be trusted by someone like him—and the feeling was more than mutual. “First bullet was real,” Chris announced easily, but quietly enough that no one nearby would be able to hear. “The rest were blanks.”
Chris was amused, Ezra realized. And inclined to keep Ezra’s secret, which endeared him to the southerner immediately. “Well, sir, I abhor gambling, and as such, leave nothing to chance.”
The answer seemed to satisfy him. “We’re looking for guns to protect an Indian village. You interested?”
Indian village? Honestly? It was so absurd it was almost intriguing. “Who’s financing?”
“The village,” Chris replied. A touch of gold flashed in his hand, and Ezra found himself taken in by the rough-sculpted medallion that looked to be pure gold. Where was the Indian mine, he wondered—if there was a nugget, perhaps there was a vein... “Five dollars a man.”
Okay, more absurd, less intriguing. “Five dollars wouldn’t even pay for my bullets.” Jackson was glaring, and Ezra did so hate to be glared at.
And none of this was his fight anyway. Better to get out now, before this man Chris let anyone else in on his secret. “Will he be riding with you?” he asked, jerking his chin toward Jackson. When the mustached man nodded, a frown creasing his forehead, Ezra made up his mind. “Not interested.” Jackson grimaced, as if it was all he could expect of a fancified Southern white man.
And it probably was.
The man in buckskin moved forward, almost too close, as a loud crash and a query as to Ezra’s own whereabouts sounded from inside the saloon. “Reckon you should be leaving town anyway,” he said, a grin in his voice that was a shade too gloating.
Perversely, it served to make Ezra think twice. Mostly because his mind was a damned contrary place. “I’ll sleep on it,” he allowed, drawn again to the medallion Chris had yet to put away.
“He must’ve went out the back!” cried one of the cowboys from inside the building behind them. “Let’s get him!”
“Meet us at the livery at dawn,” Chris said, as if Ezra’s participation was a foregone conclusion. His mouth quirked mockingly as he pocketed the golden trinket. “If you live that long.”
The quartet moved off, leaving him standing against the back of the building. The second they were around the corner, he wrapped himself in silver and followed them, hearing Jackson speak for the first time.
“Why would we want to use a cheater?” Ezra sighed, watching, unobserved, as the black man shook his head in disgust.
Chris turned back and looked directly at the space Ezra occupied, though Ezra knew he couldn’t be seen.
“Might need one,” Chris said quietly, before moving them all on down the alley. The buck skinned man turned to look back and despite himself, Ezra ducked around the corner, invisible though he was.
“And we are right back to intriguing,” he breathed to himself, sticking his head back out to watch the four of them walk away.
to be continued…