Part 2

Buck reluctantly released the woman, fell back against the pillows and groaned as she slid out of the bed. He knew this woman, had explored every contour of her body throughout the night and knew how it felt to be well and truly loved. Her fingers danced along his bare chest, causing him to groan once more as she tweaked the hairs on his chest.

“Damn, Woman,” he said and sighed, as she stood naked before him.

“I take it you enjoyed yourself?”

“You could say that,” Wilmington told her.

“Buck, you and I are meant to be together.”

“After last night I think you’re probably right, but why don’t we take things slow and make sure this is what we both want.”

“I already know, Buck. Can’t you see that? Do you think I’m some kind of wanton woman who would take any man to her bed and make love so easily.”

“No, Darlin’, I don’t think that way at all. It’s just that you have so much going for you and I have nothing. People would think I’m marrying you for your money.”

“Does that really matter, Buck? I mean you and I know how we feel. Why let others dictate our actions. I know we’ll be happy and God knows what the lovemaking will be like after last night.”

“I know, Angela, and I want to marry…”

“Are you proposing to me, Buck?”

“I…I am, but I don’t want your answer right away. I want you to think about what it would mean to you. I mean the ranch would still be yours, but most people will come to think of me as the one running it…”

“And you will be as any good husband should.”

“That’s easy to say right now, but when that day comes how will you feel. I don’t want you resenting ever marrying me. I don’t want our love ruined because someone asked me a question about the ranch instead of coming to you.”

“I love you, Buck Wilmington and I want to marry you and have children with you…”

“Children,” the gentle rogue whispered longingly.

“You do want children don’t you?”

“Y…yeah, I do.”

“Well, so do I and we’re both not getting any younger.”

“Maybe not, but you are even more beautiful today than you were when I first met you.”

“Thank you, now why don’t we get some breakfast and see to running our ranch?”

“Sounds good, bet Chris is already looking at those horses you told me about.”

“Does he still like to break them?”

“Yeah, think he always will,” Wilmington said and reached for the clothes she handed him. They dressed in silence and he pulled her to him once more. “I could get used to this.”

“So could I,” Angela said as they exited the room together. They made their way to the kitchen and found Chris seated at the small table set against the window. “Good morning, Chris.”

“Morning, Angela…Buck,” Larabee said with a grin.

“Hey, Chris, you been up long?”

“Long enough,” Larabee teased and saw the smile form on his long time friend’s face as he sat next to him on the bench.

“Buck, would you like some coffee?”

“Yes, please, Angela,” the rogue said and met his friend’s gaze. He could see the teasing light in the gunfighter’s green eyes and knew they’d be talking about his plans before long. He’d been by Chris’ side when he married Sarah Connelly and now that role would be reversed.

“I just need to speak with Manual and I’ll be right back,” Angela said, pouring strong black coffee into a cup and placing it in front of the ladies’ man. She placed a quick kiss on his cheek, smiled at Larabee and hurried out of the room.

“Chris?”

“Yes, Buck?”

“Is this how you felt with Sarah…ah hell, Pard I’m sorry. It’s just, well, I can’t seem to think straight. She’s something…”

“That she is,” Larabee said of the cold-eyed woman who seemed to have Wilmington wrapped around her finger. There was no way he could stand by and see his friend hurt, but until he had evidence Buck would not believe him.

“I’m thinking about settling down for good, Chris. Angela wants a family and so do I, but neither one of us is that young anymore.”

“Feeling your age, Buck?”

“Now more than ever. I see Vin and JD and I think about what we were like at that age.”

“Hell, yeah, I feel it more and more…”

“I think we all do at some point in time, just don’t make a mistake…”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Wilmington asked, frowning as he met Larabee’s cool gaze.

“Just don’t make a snap decision until you’re sure you’re ready.”

“Chris, you sound like you don’t trust her.”

“I wouldn’t go that far, Buck, I just want you to think before you jump in with both feet,” Larabee explained.

“That’s real good coming from you…Angela ain’t Ella, Chris…”

“Never said she was!” Larabee stated angrily and placed his empty cup on the table.

“Well it sure sounds like…”

“Is something wrong?” the red haired woman asked as she re-entered the room.

“No, nothing’s wrong. Nothing at all,” Wilmington snapped as the blond stood up to leave.

Without a word Chris stood and nodded to his friend before leaving the room. Angela moved to sit beside the mustached man and frowned at the anger written across his face. Something had happened between the two men and she knew it had to do with her. She sensed that Larabee disliked her and it she could find a way to use it to turn Wilmington away from that friendship. He didn’t need reminders of his past and they didn’t need Larabee’s interference. The gunfighter had unwittingly just given her the means to drive a wedge between them.

“Chris doesn’t like me very much does he?”

“Doesn’t matter what Chris thinks, Angela, only matters what I think right now and all I can think about is you.”

“But you and Chris have been friends for a long time, Buck. I don’t want to come between you. Friends are important.”

“Yeah, they are, but they also need to realize a man’s gotta make his own choices.”

“I didn’t mean to be pushy this morning.”

“You weren’t, believe me, Darlin’, when it comes to being pushy I wrote the book,” Wilmington assured her and reached for his coffee. He knew he’d hurt Larabee with his comment about Ella Gaines and he’d apologize for it when Larabee came back inside, but for now his attention was on the woman beside him.

“Maybe you should talk to him.”

“I will…later,” Wilmington said and drew her into a passionate embrace.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris knew his long time friend had spoken without thinking, lashing out in much the same way Chris had done with Vin Tanner. Striding around the corner of the house he made his way towards the barn and hurried inside. Pony whinnied as he entered and Chris smiled as he patted the animal’s neck.

“You up for a ride, Boy?” he asked, reaching for the saddle blanket hanging on the partition between the stalls. It didn’t take long to make sure the saddle was properly in place and lead Pony out of the barn. He turned towards the house as Wilmington came towards him.

“Chris, where are you going?”

“Thought I’d take a ride into Midfield, see if they have a place to get a bath.”

“Want some company?” the ladies man asked as Angela Tate joined them.

“No, thanks anyway. I’m sure you guys have things to talk about. I’ll be back by supper time if that’s okay?”

“That’ll be fine,” Angela said, anxious to have the dark haired man to herself for the day.

“Is there anything you need in town, Angela?” Larabee asked courteously.

“I don’t think so, Chris, but thanks for offering.”

“You’re welcome,” Larabee said as he climbed into the saddle.

“Chris,” Wilmington said as he grabbed the reins and stopped the gunfighter from leaving. Their eyes locked and Buck swallowed painfully before speaking. “I didn’t mean…”

“I know that, Buck,” Larabee assured him, smiling as he turned the horse away and rode out of the yard unaware of the cold eyes that stared after him. The landscape quickly changed as he rode away from the ranch and he found the tension easing from tired muscles. Chris didn’t mind company, but he’d always enjoyed the solitude of riding alone across unfamiliar territory. He let Pony set the pace and relaxed as the sun made its journey across an azure blue sky as puffy white clouds slowly trekked across the horizon. In the distance he spotted a herd of wild mustang and smiled at the grace and beauty as they moved unerringly towards the mountains. Sighing contentedly he wondered if he was wrong about Angela Tate and was jealous of his friend’s newfound happiness. He hoped she was everything Buck remembered, but there was no way he could sit back and relax until he knew her story was true.

‘There’s only one way to know for sure,’ he thought, gripping the reins tightly as he continued towards Midfield and the answers he needed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Buck smiled down at the woman lying on the blanket beside the gurgling stream of water. Once Chris had ridden out of sight she’d asked him to accompany her to one of the line shacks near the creek and he’d readily agreed. Angela appeared half an hour later with a picnic hamper in her hand and a bottle of wine in the other, suggesting that they eat while they worked.

Buck ran his fingers through the silken strands of red hair and breathed deeply of the scent that was hers alone. They’d made love beside the creek and she suggested a quick swim before eating lunch. Now sated, with food and wine, the two lovers lay curled up beside each other.

“This place is beautiful,” Wilmington observed as he looked at the hundred foot trees that surrounded them. The sun peeked through the shade of the leaves and bathed them in warmth as a light breeze tickled their skin.

“It is, isn’t it? I’ve always loved this part of the country and I think that’s why I came back here to live. That and the hope that someday you would return as well.” She looked into the clear blue eyes and knew this man loved her and she craved the touch of his hands on her body. She would own him before they were through and he would stay at her side in the running of this ranch.

“I’m here, Darlin’, and right now there’s no place I’d rather be,” Wilmington said and reached for the glass of wine. He tipped it to her lips before sipping from the same glass and setting it down above her head once more.

“Oh, Buck, I’ve waited so long for this and I want everything to be perfect for us.”

“I’m looking at perfection,” Wilmington whispered as he nuzzled against her cheek. He heard her sigh as she pressed against the length of his body and entwined her legs with his.

“No one has ever called me perfection, Buck…”

“Well, I was hoping I was the only one who can see how beautiful you really are, Angela. I’ve never seen anyone with so much energy…so much love…and I want you…”

“You have me…”

“No, I mean I want you with me forever. Will you marry me, Angela?”

“Oh, Buck, are you sure?”

“Yes,” Wilmington said dreamily. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”

“Yes, Buck, God yes, I’ll marry you!”

“Good,” the rogue said and kissed her again. “Name the date…”

“Shouldn’t we wait?”

“What for? I want to marry you as soon as possible.”

“Well, today is Thursday and it’ll take a couple of days to make the arrangements. How about Sunday?”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Would you like to get married in the church or at the ranch?”

“How about right here?”

“Here?” Angela asked incredulously.

“Why not, it’s perfect.”

“Yes, it is, but what if it rains?”

“It won’t. Nothing is going to ruin our day.”

“What about Chris?”

“Chris will be fine, Angela. He knows how I feel about you.”

“He doesn’t seem to like me.”

“I wouldn’t say that. I think Chris just wants to make sure I don’t make the same mistakes he has. He may not always show it, but he cares about his friends and doesn’t want to see us hurt.”

“I could never hurt you, Buck.”

“I know that, Darlin’,” Wilmington said and felt her hands reach out and touch his chest.

Angela smiled inwardly as she touched the coarse dark hair on Wilmington’s chest. The wine had been laced with a drug given to her by Rosemary Clark and she knew this man was under the influence of its effects. It would not hurt him, but he would be more susceptible to her touch and she knew it had relaxed him to the point where he had asked her to marry him. She had enough of the drug to keep him under her control until after they were married and then she would use it whenever she thought it necessary. Drugs were something she had easy access to and her friend would make sure she had what she needed.

“I hope that smile is for me, Angela,” Wilmington said.

“Who else would it be for, Buck. Make love to me.”

“Here? Now? Again?”

“Hmm, hmm,” she whispered and soon felt his lips on hers. This was the life she wanted and no one would be allowed to interfere.

~~~~~~~~~~~

The town really hadn’t changed except that the few buildings still standing were in need of repair. The church at the edge of town was the only building that seemed to have weathered the years without damage. Chris wondered if Midfield had its own version of Josiah Sanchez. To his right was the saloon, batwing doors hanging slightly askew as the wind blew into the dusty interior. On his left and a little further down the street was the jail and he could see the man whose job it was to uphold the law. The sheriff sat on a chair, tilted back, feet straight out in front of him, and his hat pulled forward over his eyes.

Chris continued along, passing the saloon and a small restaurant before coming to a stop before the jail.

“What can I do fer ya, Mister?” the sheriff asked without moving a muscle.

“Need to send a telegram.”

“Telegraph office is part of the hotel. You in town long?”

“Reckon that’s my business.”

“My town…my business. Helps me keep the rabble out.”

“Not much here to attract rabble,” Larabee said with a grin as the other man looked up.

“Well, sweet Jesus, is that you, Chris?”

“Sure is. How have you been Evan?”

“I’ve been getting along pretty good. Sure didn’t expect to see you back in town. Buy ya a drink?”

“Sounds good. Just need to send that telegram first.”

“All right…hey where’s Wilmington? Ain’t he with ya?” Evan Rawlings asked curiously.

“He’s out at the Tate place.”

“Ah, I should have known. He still sweet on the lady?”

“Seems like it. I’ll meet you at the saloon as soon as I’ve sent the telegram.”

“Sounds good, Chris.”

Larabee continued towards the ramshackle building that held the sign denoting it as the Midfield Hotel and Restaurant. He quickly dismounted and looped Pony’s reins over the rail before walking into the hotel. The interior was elegantly furnished and cleaned to polished perfection. There were no patrons present, but there was a woman standing behind a counter and she smiled as he walked towards her.

“Can I help you, Sir?”

“Need to send a telegram.”

“Certainly,” the woman said as she slid a paper and quill pen across the counter to him. She watched as he wrote quickly and handed it across to her once more.

“How much?” Larabee asked as she finished reading the missive. Her answer was curt and he handed her the money she asked for and watched as she sent the telegram.

“It may take some time, Mr…”

“Larabee,” the blond answered. “I’ll be staying at the Tate place. If an answer comes ask one of the men to ride out there and I’ll make it worth his while.”

“Of course, Mr. Larabee, I hope you enjoy your stay.”

“Thank you,” Larabee said and turned to leave. He didn’t see the woman crumple up the paper and throw it into the trash, nor did he feel the cold calculating eyes that followed his every move.

Rosemary Clark knew what she had to do as the gunfighter left the hotel. She’d sent the message, but not to St. Louis as he requested. She knew he wouldn’t be receiving an answer to his query about the circumstances surrounding Robert Stratton’s death. Gathering her long skirts she turned and walked to the back room where she kept some of her personal items, including a colt pistol belonging to her husband. Checking the gun she was satisfied that it was loaded and hurried to find the one man she relied on at times like this.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris made his way to the saloon and pushed the doors open. He spotted the sheriff at the back and quickly entered as he gazed left to right and back again. The interior was like most saloons, dull and dusty, but there was also the familiar smell of whiskey and beer and Chris wanted both. He hurried to the table and without even thinking about it took the seat that provided him with a good view of the front entrance, stairs, and the windows.

“Whiskey still your choice of drink, Chris?”

“Yep,” Larabee answered as a saloon girl came over and took their orders. She came back with a two glasses and a bottle and the blond smiled at her as he reached for the Red Eye. “Leave the bottle.”

“You heard him, Maddie,” Rawlings said and smiled at the woman before she left. “So, how have things been with you, Chris? Last I heard you’d settled down and started that horse ranch.”

“Didn’t work out,” Larabee answered irritably.

“Sorry to hear that. I thought you’d have a damn good chance of making it. Never knew a man who could tell a good horse just by lookin’ at him like you could.”

Chris poured a second shot and downed it before looking at the man seated across from him. Evan Rawlings had been a friend to him and Buck and he didn’t want to insult him, but there were things Chris kept to himself and didn’t talk about. Breeding horses was too much of a reminder of all he’d lost and something he discussed with a select few.

“I’m sorry, Chris. Didn’t mean to pry.”

“It’s just not something I talk about, Evan.”

“Understood. So what are you and Buck up to now?”

“We help keep the peace in a little place called Four Corners.”

“Four Corners! Hell, don’t tell me you’re one of them Magnificent Seven Jock Steele wrote about?”

“I wouldn’t exactly call us magnificent, but we get the job done,” Larabee answered.

“Well I’ll be damned. If that don’t beat all! I never would’ve believed Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee upholdin’ the law. Seems to me ya both spent a fair amount of time keeping the flies company in my jail.”

“Yeah, times have changed, Evan.”

“Glad to hear it. Whatever happened to that woman you were seeing? What was her name? Gant…Grant…Ella Grant…no Ella Gaines? Pretty thing…did you ever marry her?”

“No,” the blond answered simply, fighting back the anger and resentment he felt rising like hot sour bile in his throat.

“Sorry, prying again. Anyway, Chris it’s good to see you, but I’ve got a job to do. Tell Buck I said hello when ya get back to the Tate place.”

“Will do. Thanks for the whiskey,” Larabee told him.

“Any time.”

Chris sat back, took a cheroot from his pocket and lit it. He was the only patron and was again grateful for the solitude. Knowing that he had a long hot ride ahead of him, Chris sipped the whiskey and enjoyed his smoke before standing and hurrying out of the saloon. He walked to the hotel and stepped through the doors before searching for the woman he’d spoken to earlier. A man stood behind the counter and he hurried over.

“Can I help you, Mister?”

“Sent a telegram a couple of hours ago and wondered if there’d been a reply yet.”

“There hasn’t been anything come through since Rosie left.”

“Thanks, I’ll check back in a few days.”

“Sure thing.”

Chris turned away and went back out into the late afternoon sunshine. He moved towards Pony and checked the saddle before mounting up and heading out of town. As he passed the last building he noticed the dark clouds moving across the sky and knew they were going to have a storm before long. The wind had picked up as well, but it would still be some time before the storm hit them and he knew he could take cover somewhere if it grew too bad. The first hour passed without seeing anyone, but he spotted a rider coming towards him from the right and he watched the newcomer with a gunslinger’s instincts. As the rider drew abreast of him, Chris’ right hand rested on the butt of his colt. The rider looked to be around fifteen and Chris relaxed slightly as he watched the smile cross the young man’s face.

“Hey, Mister, have you seen a young woman come ridin’ this way?”

“No.”

“Damn, she’s my sister and I gotta tell her Ma’s waitin’ on her.”

“She ain’t been this way,” Larabee answered, finding himself relaxing as the other man seemed to look all around and stretch his neck as if looking around Chris. “Hope you find her.”

“Damn if that ain’t her comin’,” the newcomer said and Chris twisted slightly in the saddle.

Chris Larabee cursed his stupidity at letting his guard down so easily. The boy’s laughter reached his ears at the same time the sound of a gunshot echoed throughout the landscape. Chris felt the bullet impact with his right leg and ignored the fiery trail of pain as Pony bolted back the way they came. He gripped the reins and cursed again as the boy pursued him. Chris had little time to think as another rider came into view. He recognized the woman from town just as he pulled his gun from its holster. He turned to fire on the first foe, but the woman’s shot caught him on the left side and the intensity of the pain was such that the gun slipped from his fingers even as his body was thrown from Pony’s back. He landed hard on the ground, his head impacting with a rock as he rolled down a small hillock before slamming into a tree. He had no idea how long he lay there, but forced his eyes open. An angel stood over him; one he recognized and suddenly realized his angel was a devil in disguise as she used the butt of a rifle to render him unconscious.

Rosemary Clark stared down at the unconscious gunfighter and smiled as she touched his neck. The man was still alive, but he was bleeding from two bullet wounds and from a deep laceration above his right eye. She quickly gestured for her accomplice to come closer and smiled as the twenty-two year old man with the face and gaunt body of a boy stood beside her. She saw that he’d managed to catch Chris Larabee’s horse and knew what she had to do.

“Well done, Ethan, now help me get him on his horse and out to my place.”

“Are you sure your place is safe, Miss Rosemary? What about your husband?”

“Joseph does not interfere in my business, Ethan. He knows what I do is what keeps us living so well off. I believe you understand about that…after all you have an easy job as long as you do as you’re told. Now help me get him up and secured to his saddle before someone comes along.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Ethan Turner agreed and reached for Larabee’s upper body. Most people who saw him thought he would be blown away by a strong breeze, but Ethan had worked hard to gain the strength often lacking in men his size. With Rosemary’s help he had Larabee on his feet and they managed to carry him to where Pony was ground tied. “Miss Rosemary, it might be easier if you go around the horse and pull him while I lift him. Then we just need to tie his hands and feet to the saddle.”

“All right, Ethan, are you sure you can handle him from this side?”

“Yes, Ma’am, I’m a lot stronger than folks think.”

“I can see that,” the Clark woman said as she hurried to the opposite side. Pony shied away at the strange hands and the strong smell of blood, but he could not move very far with the tight rein. She reached across the saddle and grabbed Larabee’s arms as Turner began to heft him onto the animal’s back. Larabee’s dead weight soon rested on Pony’s back and she quickly wrapped rope around his wrists and tightened the bounds until she had him tied to the stirrups. She looked across to see Ethan putting the finishing touches on Larabee’s ankles and quickly mounted her own big bay.

“Ethan, you ride on ahead with Larabee and take him to the line shack at the north corner of my property. Take the back roads and make sure no one sees you. I’ll stop by the house and get the things I need to take care of our guest.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Turner said and grabbed Pony’s reins before mounting his own animal. He turned them onto an old track before heading towards the north corner at a steady pace.

Rosemary watched as Turner disappeared and finally turned her horse towards her friend’s house. She knew she was taking a chance on kidnapping Chris Larabee, but there was no way she could have hidden the details of Angela Tate’s background. She needed to get to Angela and they would have to come up with a reason for Larabee’s sudden disappearance. Riding towards the Tate ranch, Rosemary began to formulate a plan.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Buck sighed contentedly and wished they could stay by the creek, but there seemed to be a storm brewing. He watched the woman as she packed the remnants of their picnic lunch back into the hamper while he folded the blanket and tucked it in on top of the plates and cutlery.

“Think maybe we’d best get a move on,” Wilmington said as he placed the hamper in the back of the buggy.

“Why, Buck, are you afraid of getting wet?”

“Now, Darlin’, that’s something I’ve never been afraid of especially when in the company of a beautiful woman.”

“Careful, Buck, I might think you’re a ladies’ man with a woman in every creek,” Angela whispered coyly.

“Only one woman and one creek I want, Angela,” Wilmington said seriously as he helped her into the seat and climbed up beside her. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and took the reins as they started back towards the ranch.

“Buck, thank you so much for today.”

“I think I should be the one thanking you, Angela. If you hadn’t suggested a picnic I probably would’ve ridden into town to find Chris.”

“Do you think he’s back yet?”

“I don’t know. Chris, well he can get kind of broody, but he’s a great friend, you know?”

“What is it about Chris that makes you take up for him so much?”

“I don’t know, Darlin’, but see me and Chris have always been close, even when he pushed me away I knew he didn’t mean it. We just naturally seem to find each other when the time’s right. Like what happened in Four Corners.”

“That town you live in?”

“That’s right. See, I was there just passing through and havin’ a little fun with Blossom…”

“Blossom?” Angela asked, frowning at the man beside her.

“Yeah, pretty woman, but she don’t hold a candle to you. Well anyway, I was with her when I sort of fell out of the window…”

“Out of a window?” Tate asked, jealousy evident in her tone.

“Well, yeah, Blossom’s husband was banging on the door only it wasn’t him. It was a man named Vin Tanner from Texas…never met a finer tracker. The man could track a polar bear through a blizzard and never lose his tracks.”

“Sounds like you admire Vin Tanner.”

“I do, anyway, Chris was there and offered me a job…didn’t pay much, but I couldn’t say no to him. Ended up with seven of us goin’ against Anderson and his Ghosts of the Confederacy. When we got back to Four Corners Judge Travis offered us the job of keeping the peace in the town and we’ve been there ever since. The rest of us turned to Chris and sort of made him the man in charge, whether he realizes it or not. Chris is just a natural born leader and has the instincts to go with it. Only problem is those instincts don’t always kick in. He’s ignored them a few times and it usually ends up with him being hurt.”

“Buck, do you think he’ll be okay with our getting married?”

“Oh, I think so, especially since he’s gonna be my best man,” Wilmington told her as the first drops of rain fell on them. “Looks like you were right about getting wet, Darlin’.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~`

Ethan Turner heard the approaching buggy and pulled deeper into the thicket to await their passing. He recognized the woman, but had never seen the other man before. Rosemary had told him Angela Tate was going to be married and that her beau was staying at her place and he had to bite his lip from laughing as the buggy went past. He jumped as a sound escaped his captive’s throat and quickly ripped a piece of cloth from his shirt. Without dismounting, Ethan reached for the rain soaked blond head and quickly tied the material around the man’s mouth. He lifted Larabee’s head and smiled as another groan escaped the injured man.

“Don’t worry, Larabee, Miss Rosemary’ll fix ya right up. Ya just gotta be quiet a little longer!” Turner gripped the reins and hurried the horses along as the rain began to fall at a steady pace.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Buck frowned as he passed a thick copse of trees and tried to see what had caught his attention, but whatever was out there lost its curious aspect as the skies opened up. The deluge that had threatened manifested itself as lightening flashed across the sky and the deafening crescendo of thunder shook their surroundings.

“Damn!” Wilmington cursed as he kept his hands tightly controlling the reins of the nervous horses, the movement behind him quickly forgotten as the torrential rain soaked them to the skin in less than five seconds.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The rain roused the injured man and he tried to lift his head, but succeeded only in setting off an explosion inside his skull. He shifted, and groaned as his body erupted in an agony that left him no doubt that he was in trouble. Opening his eyes, Chris tried to keep the rain from his eyes, but it was a lesson in futility. The water poured down over his body and his hair stuck to his forehead making it hard to see anything. His arms and legs were tied to Pony’s saddle and he could barely make out a second horse in front of him.

‘What the hell?’ Larabee thought and realized there was something wrapped tightly across his mouth and keeping him from making a sound. He frowned, wincing as the movement pulled on the gash on his forehead and tried to make sense of where he was and why he was in this position. The last thing he remembered was having a drink with Evan Rawlings, but everything after that was a blur of unconnected memories. He thought he’d ridden out of town, but couldn’t even be sure of that, as the pounding in his head grew worse. He couldn’t think, not with the rippling agony in his left side that sent shooting fires up through his nerves and twisted his gut in a churning sea of bile. Again and again he swallowed, praying that he wouldn’t vomit and choke because of the cloth.

‘Don’t be sick…don’t be sick…don’t be sick,’ he repeated as they rode through the violent storm. Consciousness quickly left him as each jarring impact of Pony’s hoofs with the ground sent daggers through his side and leg.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rosemary pulled to a stop in front of her friend’s house and quickly dismounted. The storm had grown worse, but she knew she had to tell her friend what had happened. She hurried up the steps and onto the porch before entering the house. Wanting to keep her news from everyone, but her friend she smiled as Carmon came towards her. The woman had always been afraid of her and she loved watching her shy away whenever she was in the room.

“Is Angela home?” Cameron’s head shook quickly before she headed back to the kitchen. Shaking the rain from her hair Rosemary walked towards the guest bedroom where she kept several articles of clothing. Angela also kept clothing at her place in case they were caught in weather like this.

~~~~~~~~~~~`

Buck drew the buggy to a stop in front of the house and handed the reins to Manual before helping his sodden fiancé out of her seat. He wrapped his arms around her as they ran up the steps and onto the porch as a thin streak of lightning struck the hundred-foot tree on the edge of the front yard.

“This is one hell of a storm!”

“Yes, it is. I haven’t seen one like this since I came home.”

“Looks like you got company,” Wilmington said nodding at the woman walking towards them.

“Rosemary, how nice of you to come,” Angela said as the woman joined them.

“I was on my way home and got caught in the storm. I didn’t know you had company.”

“Rosemary Clark, this is Buck Wilmington…”

“Buck Wilmington as in the best looking stud this side of the ocean,” Rosemary said and smiled at the mustached man.

“Well, hell, thank you, Ma’am,” the ladies’ man said of the bold woman standing before him.

“This certainly is a pleasure and Angela, you were absolutely right. He is indeed a handsome man,” Clark said.

“I know, and it’s a good thing you’re already married or I might be more than a little jealous of the way you’re looking at my fiancé,” Angela told her friend.

“Yes, well, I believe you should both get out of those wet clothes before you catch your death of cold.”

“Buck, I’ll ask Carmon to make some coffee while you change,” Angela said and smiled as the gentle rogue kissed her firmly on the lips before heading for the room they shared. Once he disappeared she turned her attention to her friend. “What’s going on, Rosie?”

“I need to speak to you privately! Get changed and I’ll meet you in the parlor. Just make sure your beau is not within earshot!”

“All right. Just give me a few minutes to change.” Angela hurried away from her friend and quickly spoke to Carmon before heading for her bedroom.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ethan Turner drew the horses to a halt in front of the line shack, quickly dismounted, and threw the reins over the hitching rail. The ground was slippery and he landed hard on his back as he fell to the muddy ground. Cursing his luck he made it to his feet and walked the few feet to the shack. Shoving open the door, he quickly looked around the interior and was glad the Clark’s kept the shack well stocked. Making sure the door would stay open he turned back to the storm swept landscape and the captive tied to the horse. Reaching down he grabbed hold of Larabee’s drenched hair and lifted his head until they were nose to nose. The green eyes blinked rapidly and a sharp cry escaped the slack lips.

“All right, Larabee, here’s the deal! I can leave ya tied ta yer horse while I go inside outta the rain or I can release ya and we get ya inside. Ya fight me and I swear I’ll teach ya a lesson ya won’t soon forget. Now ya just stay put until I cut ya loose!” Turner warned and pulled a knife from his scabbard. He cut the ropes holding his prisoner to the saddle and dumped him unceremoniously into the mud.

As his body impacted the slick ground, Chris Larabee knew he was in the hands of a sadist who didn’t give a damn how much pain he caused. The gunfighter tried to come to his feet, but a kick to his right leg sent him back to the ground where he curled into a tight ball in an effort to deflect the vicious kick sent towards his midsection.

“Told ya not ta try anything. Now, I’m gonna get ya on yer feet and we’ll get us both inside outta this rain. Ya fight me and I’d just as soon tie ya out here in the rain until the fight’s washed outta ya! Ya got that?” Turner asked and pulled the cloth from around his captive’s mouth.

“…fuck you!”

“Ain’t gonna take no time for yer shit, Larabee, and it’s time ya realized I’m in charge here. Now get on yer feet and get inside!”

Chris knew he was in no shape to fight his captor, but he wasn’t going down without a fight. Forcing his shaking legs underneath him he managed to get on his feet, but his right leg was in no shape to hold him and he found himself on his knees again. He felt the man grab his arms and was soon forced to his feet and shoved through the open door.

“All right, Larabee, now here’s what we’re gonna do! Yer gonna get outta them filthy clothes and I’m gonna fix ya a nice bed on the floor until Miss Rosemary gets out here. Ain’t much chance of that happenin’ in the next couple of hours.”

“Go t…to hell!”

“Suit yerself, Larabee, but I was figurin’ you were a smart man and well if ya just want to sit there in those dirty, wet clothes and let them two bullet wounds get infected then that’s just fine by me, but,” he looked at the blond and smiled. “If Miss Rosemary sees yer legs infected she just might decide ta cut the damn thing off. She’d do it right fine too…saw it a couple of times. So, what’s it gonna be?”

Chris glared at the other man for several long seconds before reluctantly giving in. Right now he felt weaker than a newborn calf and he knew part of the dizziness was caused by blood loss and pain. With dogged determination, Chris forced himself to stand and leaned heavily against the wall. The pain was a constant now and mixed with his anger became a volatile explosion waiting to happen.

“Ain’t much ta ya is there?”

“Put down the gun and I’ll show you!” Larabee warned and wondered at the strength he saw in the other man’s eyes.

“No…no, I don’t think that’s a wise idea right now. Ain’t gonna take a chance on Miss Rosemary being angry at me. So, here’s what we’re gonna do. First, get outta them wet clothes like I told ya to. Then ya’ll step outside and wash the mud off ya and then I got me a set of manacles just made for yer wrists and ankles. Once I got ya fitted with them ya can rest…if yer real good I might even give ya some water and beans.”

“All heart!” Larabee sneered, but understood he had little choice, but to obey while Turner held the gun.

“Ain’t I though,” Turner said, grinning as Larabee began removing his bloodied clothing from his body.

Chris bit his lip as he tried to ride out the pain running rampant in his body, but he wasn’t entirely successful in keeping it to himself. Turner’s laughter grated on his nerves as Chris removed his boots and socks and cried out as his right foot hit the floor and took the brunt of his weight.

“All right, looks like yer ready! Get on outside and wash that shit off. I’ll be watching ya the whole time!”

Chris braced his left arm tight against the wound in his side as he limped towards the door. His head was pounding again and he knew he was probably suffering the effects of a concussion along with the other injuries he’d incurred in his meeting with this man. Once outside the rain seemed to revitalize his spirit and anger drove him to turn on his captor, but the gun in the man’s hand was trained at his gut and he knew there was only one way this fight could end.

“Smart man, Larabee,” Turner said as he watched the gunfighter move out into the rain.

Chris stood in the torrential downpour as biting needles of rain struck his bare skin. The water washed away the dirt and blood and cooled his body until he stood shivering in front of the door. Turner motioned for him to step inside and Chris noted he always stood just out of his reach. Larabee was surprised when the man pointed to a rough but clean piece of material on the table and quickly dried off. Standing in nothing but his drawers he stared at his nemesis and wished he wore long johns like Buck Wilmington, but he’d always hated the way they seemed to hold his body captive.

“All right, Larabee. If you look at the table you’ll see a pair of manacles. Ya take one and wrap it around your right wrist and the other one ya fasten to the hook in the floor in the corner. Come on now get a move on ‘cause I’d just as soon put ya down myself!”

Chris seethed inwardly, but felt his energy giving out as he picked up the manacles and placed one around his wrist and walked to the corner where he fastened the second manacle.

“Very good,” Turner sneered and threw the second set of manacles at the injured blond. “These go around your ankles.”

Again Chris’ anger flared, but there was so much pain in his body that he could do little more than glare at his hated foe. He quickly placed the cuffs around his ankle and found the room spinning as his vision blurred. The room took on a decidedly slanted look as the blond’ body sagged towards the mattress in the corner. Heavy lids closed over dangerously unfocused green eyes as Larabee gave into the cloying darkness of unconsciousness.

“Ya ain’t so tough!” Turner said as he threw a blanket haphazardly over the injured prisoner. Turning away from his prisoner, Ethan whistled as he placed the gun on the table out of Larabee’s reach and walked out into the rain to wash away the dirt encrusting his own clothing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“I’ll join you in a minute, Buck. Rosemary is a good friend and she’s having problems with her husband. I’m the only one she trusts to talk about it.”

“I hope it’s nothing serious, Angela.”

“No, not really. He just drinks a lot and leaves her in a bind sometimes. We usually work things out until Joseph does something else. I wish she’d consider leaving him, but she does love him and who am I to judge.”

“You’re a friend and that says a lot. I’m going to check with Manual and see if Chris came back.”

“Isn’t he here?”

“No, I checked the house but no one’s seen him.”

“Don’t worry too much, Buck. Chris probably saw the storm brewing and decided he’d stay in town until it passed.”

“Probably, but I’d sure like to know. Carmon’s got coffee ready, but I told her we’d be a few minutes yet,” Wilmington said.

“How did you get her to understand?” Tate asked with a grin.

“I’m a man of many talents, Darlin’, and women simply understand me.”

“Yes, well, I hope I’m the only one who really enjoys your very special talents from now on.”

“Oh, believe me you are,” Wilmington said before kissing her and grabbing his hat. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“I’ll be here.” She watched him leave and hurried to meet her friend in the parlor. One look at the other woman told her something was wrong.

“Where is Buck?”

“He’s gone to see if Chris has returned from town. What’s going on?”

“Larabee came into the hotel and asked to send a telegram. It concerned you and your deceased husband.”

“Damn it! I knew he couldn’t be trusted! Where is he now?”

“I tore up the telegram after he left and got Ethan to help me set up an ambush. He should have Larabee at the line shack in the north section of my ranch.”

“Thank you, Rosie, you always take care of me.”

“We take care of each other, Angela. Now you’ll need to come up with a reason for Larabee’s disappearance!”

“I’ll come up with something.”

“Good, because Buck seems to be the type to always worry about others. He’ll want to know why Larabee left.”

“Especially since he expected Chris to be his best man.”

“Yes, well, that’s not going to happen. As soon as this storm’s over I’m going to ride out to the line shack. I’ll need bandages, carbolic acid and just about anything else you have to help me care for him. You do still want him alive?”

“For now. I’ve got everything you need including laudanum and sleeping draughts. There are plenty of bandages and other stuff in the storage cellar.”

“I’ll take them when I leave. Any idea what you’ll tell Buck?”

“I was thinking I could tell him he came to you and had you send a message to Four Corners. I’m sure they planned on letting the others know they arrived safe and sound. Perhaps you could say he received an answer while still in town and he left in a hurry. Maybe he even told you where he was going. That would take the pressure off for a while.”

“I could do that, but for now let’s leave things as they are and let Buck think Larabee stayed in town for the night.”

“All right…I think I hear him coming,” Angela said and hurried to meet him at the door. “Oh, Buck, you’re soaked to the skin again. Why don’t you go change and meet us in the kitchen?”

“Sounds good.”

“Did Manual see Chris?”

“No, he hasn’t come back yet.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much, Buck. Chris probably found one of the saloon girls and is curled up with her as we speak.”

“I hope so, Angela, because if Chris is out in this he’s in trouble!”

“Rosie,” Tate said and turned to her friend.

“Yes,” Clark said.

“Did you see a man dressed all in black while you were in town?”

“Blond…good looking?”

“Yes,” Angela answered and nodded slightly for her to continue.

“As a matter of fact he came into the hotel and wanted to send a telegram.”

“You saw Chris?” Wilmington asked.

“Not only did I see him, but I spoke to him and sent a telegram for him.”

“Where to?”

“A place called Four Corners,” Rosemary answered.

“Four Corners? Why would he send a message there?”

“All the message said was that you arrived safely and his name.”

“Did he say where he was going after that?”

“I believe he went to have a drink with Sheriff Rawlings…”

“Evan Rawlings?”

“Yes, oh I forgot you and Chris knew Evan. He’s still doing a wonderful job of taking care of us,” Angela said. “Buck, it sounds to me like Chris and Evan probably got talking about old times and Chris decided to stay in town!”

“Maybe…we’ll see.”

“There’s nothing you can do about it until the storm ends, Buck, so there’s no sense worrying until we find out for sure what’s happened. Now come on and I’ll help you out of those clothes.”

“Darlin’, if you’re gonna help me out of them I doubt if we’ll be joining Mrs. Clark for supper.”

“Please, call me Rosie. After all if you’re marrying my best friend we should be on a first name basis.”

“Rosie it is,” Wilmington said and smiled as the two women took an arm each and walked him towards the back of the house.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris watched through hooded eyes as his captor moved around the line shack. The man had a fire going and was warming something in a pot, but the smell only added to his churning discomfort. He had no idea how long he’d been unconscious, but the storm seemed to have abated. The blanket covering him was rough, but clean and he also realized his wounds had been tended while he’d been blissfully unaware of his surroundings. He didn’t want to alert the other man of his return to consciousness, but he had to move as the pain intensified and he bit his lip to stop the groan from escaping.

“Well, yer finally awake. Ya’ll be glad to know I’ve already cleaned yer wounds, but Miss Rosie got some work to do when she gets here. The bullet in yer leg’s not that deep, but that one in yer side’s gonna be a real bitch to get to. I got some beans warmed up…ya want some?”

“No!” Larabee spat as he tried to move, but found his body held immobile by the manacles, which seemed to have been tightened while he slept.

“Figure ya’d be easier ta handle if ya can’t move and it’ll keep ya from bleedin’ out before Miss Rosie gets here.”

“Why the hell are ya doin’ this?” Larabee ground out as his captor stood over him.

“Money. Miss Rosie pays real well for my services. Yer not the first one ta fall for my innocent baby face.”

“What does she want with me?”

“It ain’t Miss Rosie that wants ya out of the way…”

“Angela Tate?” Larabee asked simply. He didn’t trust the woman and somehow she’d found out he was trying to find out about her.

“Yep, she don’t want you ruinin’ her plans. Miss Rosie and her are real close and they’d do anything for each other.”

“Then why didn’t she just have you kill me?”

“Well now, that’s something I’m not real sure on. I think it has something ta do with that man Angela Tate’s marrying. They figure if Buck starts looking for you they’ll need something ta convince him to stay around. With you as a hostage she’ll be able to keep him in line.”

“Buck ain’t stupid! He’ll figure this out!”

“Maybe…maybe not. Don’t really matter since you’re here as a hostage, if they need ta use ya. Now, do ya want some beans?”

“No,” Larabee answered and looked at the bucket on the table.

“Ya want some water?”

Larabee nodded and soon wished he’d refused it as his captor knelt beside him and lifted his head. The glass was placed to his lips and he started drinking, but when he tried to pull away he found his head held fast and the liquid being poured quickly down his throat. Chris was forced to swallow again and again, choking and sputtering as the movement jarred his injuries and sent streaks of agonizing pain through his skull. He had no idea how much water was in the glass, but it felt as if he’d swallowed a river as his head was released and he tried to turn on his side. The water rose in his throat and streamed down his cheek as his stomach rebelled from the influx of liquid. Before he could relax, his head was lifted again and something pressed against his lips. He fought not to open his mouth as his nemesis laughed at his weakness and finally cried out as a hand pressed against the wound in his left side. The cry was quickly cut off as more water was poured down his throat and he again tried to swallow. Again and again his enemy continued the water torture without giving the blond a chance for respite. Briefly Chris wondered if it was possible to drown a person by forcing water down their throats at an alarming rate, but his head was soon released and again he vomited the water before losing consciousness once more.

Ethan Turner smiled as he looked at the gunfighter and placed the empty glass on the table. He knew Larabee had come close to choking to death on the water he poured down his throat, but he’d stopped just short of killing him. He’d seen it done before and knew several men who swore you could kill a man by drowning him with a simple bucket of water.

“Oh, we’re going to have such fun, Larabee,” Turner vowed and walked back to the table. He sat in the chair and watched his prisoner. He’d been in this position before, but the others had been weaklings and easily subdued. A man like Chris Larabee, a well-known gunfighter, was something new for him and he was going to break him before he killed him.

Turner served up a bowl of beans and sat back at the table once more. He studied the captive and knew the blankets hid more than the two bullet wounds. Larabee’s impact with the ground had left a myriad of bruises and cuts that would need to be tended by Rosemary Clark. There were deep bruises on the man’s lower back and he knew the blond would be in pain if he stood up. The wound over his right eye had swollen and discolored the skin on that side of his face. Smiling, Turner knew this man could still take him apart if given the chance, but he was not about to give the gunfighter that chance. Moving towards the captive he checked the bonds and was pleased to find them still as tight as ever.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Angela woke as dawn was cutting through the night sky and she eased away from Wilmington. Standing naked beside the bed she watched as he shifted, but finally relaxed in sleep once more. She turned away from the bed and grabbed her robe before walking out of the room. She knocked softly on Rosemary’s door and smiled as the woman opened it and motioned her inside.

“I was hoping I’d see you before I left. The supplies are on my horse and I’ll be riding out to the line shack as soon as I’m done here.”

“Do you have everything you need?”

“Yes, I checked the saddle bags myself and you know I keep that particular shack well stocked.”

“I do indeed. Now that we’ve set the stage for the ruse about Larabee you’ll have to go into town and set things up there before Buck decides to check Chris’ whereabouts himself.”

“Can you keep him here today?”

“Oh, I believe I can, Rosie. If not I’ll simply resort to one of those powders you gave me.”

“Good, because I’ll need to make sure Rawlings thinks Larabee left town right after they had their drink. I’ll talk to Joseph and make sure he knows how to cover for me.”

“Will Joseph do as you tell him?”

“Of course…Joseph Clark is and always will be, under my thumb,” Rosemary Clark smiled knowingly at her friend.

“Yes, and if I need your help to keep Buck under my thumb…”

“All you have to do is ask,” Clark said and the two women hugged before walking out of the room and to the front door.

“Thank you, Rosie.”

“No thank are needed, Angela. I want you to be happy and if this man gives you that than I will be only too glad to help out.” Rosemary Clark hurried towards the waiting horse and quickly mounted up.

Angela leaned against the door and watched as her friend rode out of sight. There were many secrets they shared and this added to their friendship and the loyalty they continued to cherish. How many men had died because they’d stumbled onto those secrets, she didn’t know, but there were more than she could count on both hands. She heard a sound behind her and pushed the door just as Wilmington pulled on it. She stumbled into his arms and smiled as he held her for several long seconds.

“Now this is more like it,” the gentle rogue said as her scent seemed to intoxicate him.

“Hmm, I do love the feel of your strong arms, Buck, but I thought you were still sleeping.”

“I was, but I thought I heard a rider and wanted to see if it was Chris.”

“No, I’m afraid not. Rosie just left for home.”

“Is she okay?”

“Oh yes, she’ll be fine now. Why don’t you and I go back to bed and I’ll have Carmon serve breakfast there?”

“I’d love to, Angela, but I want to ride into town and see if Chris has turned up.”

“Well, you’re not leaving on an empty stomach, Buck. I’ll have Carmon make biscuits, eggs, bacon, and coffee.”

“Angela…”

“I won’t hear of it, Buck. Come on…Chris is a big boy and can look after himself.”

“Yes…he can, but sometimes trouble has a way of finding him when he least expects it,” Wilmington said and missed the look that flashed across her face.

‘Little do you know,’ she thought with a wry grin. She led him back to their room and watched as he finished getting dressed. She needed to keep Buck at the ranch today and she would do whatever was necessary to see that he didn’t leave. The powders would make him sleep, but those would be used only as a last resort.

“What are you thinking about, Angela?” Wilmington asked as he finished buttoning his shirt.

“I was thinking about how happy you’ve made me.”

“It didn’t take much from me…”

“Oh really?” Tate asked. “It took a marriage proposal…”

“And a yes answer from the most beautiful woman to ever grace the earth we stand on.”

“Oh, Buck, you do know how to make a woman blush. Now why don’t we go eat before you leave,” Tate suggested.

“All right, but first I want to tell Manual to saddle my horse. I want to leave right after breakfast.”

“Hmm,” she said, kissing him once more. “Don’t be long.”

“I won’t,” Wilmington promised and hurried out of the room.

Angela walked to her dresser and opened the small chest nestled at the back of the top drawer. She took one of the envelopes and placed it inside the pocket sewn into the bodice of her dress. She would only use it as a last resort, but she hoped her other plan would work and keep Buck at her side. Sighing heavily she strode towards the kitchen and took a seat as Carmon served her a cup of hot coffee.