Part 3

Buck patted his stomach and looked at the older woman who’d served up a wonderful breakfast. “I couldn’t eat another bite.”

“Are you sure? I could have Carmon serve another…”

“No…no, believe me I can’t. I don’t think my horse will be as appreciative as I am of Carmon’s cooking. He’s gonna bitch all the way ta Midfield and back.”

“Oh, Buck, that big bay of yours could easily carry you to town and back no matter how much you ate. Come on, I’ll walk you to the barn.”

“Gonna kiss me goodbye too?”

“Only if you kiss me back…”

“Ain’t your back I want to kiss, Darlin’,” Wilmington assured her as they linked arms and walked out through the kitchen door. They reached the barn where Manual had Buck’s horse saddled and ready to go. He took the reins and still held Angela’s arm as they walked around to the front of the house. Once there he kissed her and watched her walk up the three steps to the porch before she turned and smiled at him.

“Oh, Buck…NOOO!” she screamed as her boot caught on the step and she found herself falling towards the ground.

“Angela!” Wilmington shouted and moved to catch her, but was not in time as her head struck the ground and she lay still. He gently turned her onto her back and cradled her body in his arms as he called for help. A livid bruise was forming on the left side of her head as he lifted her into his arms and stood up. He kicked open the door just as Manual came around the corner.

“Madre De Dios! What has happened?”

“She fell. Get Carmon and make her understand that I need water and cloths and ice if she has it. Send someone into Midfield for the doctor!”

“Si, Senior, it will be done!”

Buck carried the unconscious woman to the room they’d shared and laid her on the bed. He quickly removed her boots and heard a soft moan from the woman as he reached up to touch her cheek.

“Easy, Angela, just lay still.”

“B…Buck, what happened? My head hurts!”

“You fell, Darlin, and hit your head.”

“Fell? How? I d…don’t remember.”

“That’s okay. I sent someone for the doc and he’ll make sure you’re okay.”

“Doc’s in t...town…you w…were going to t…town. W…worried about C…Chris!”

“I’ll go into town later, Angela, right now it’s you I’m worried about. Carmon’s bringing some cloths and ice and we’ll see how big that bump is.”

“Stay…stay with m…me?”

“I’m not going anywhere, Darlin’,” Wilmington vowed as her eyes began to close once more. He sat by her bed as Carmon brought in water and towels and helped him undress her. Once he’d bathed the wound he sat back, glad that it hadn’t broken the skin and yet, Buck knew head wounds were not something to fool around with. Sighing tiredly he sat back and waited for the doctor to come out to the ranch.

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

The sun had reached its zenith as Rosemary Clark drew her horse to a halt outside the line shack. Chris Larabee was not the first unwilling guest to be held here and he probably would not be the last. She grabbed the saddlebags just as the door opened and Ethan Turner stepped out.

“Thought I heard someone ride up.”

“How is Larabee?”

“He’s a mess. Think he’s probably gettin’ a fever too.”

“That’s to be expected. Did you clean him up last night?” Clark asked as she handed the heavy saddlebags to her cohort.

“Sure did…made him strip down to his drawers and stand in the rain. Cleaned him up real good.”

“I’m sure,” Clark said, smiling as she stepped through the door. Larabee was lying on his back in one corner of the room and she could see Turner had managed to get him restrained in that position. She quickly knelt beside him and felt for a pulse at his neck. Her early years had been spent working in a hospital in St Louis and now she was using much of what she’d learned there. Pulling back the blanket she winced at the colorful bruises and contusions covering his upper body. Pressing against one especially deep bruise she felt the lean body flinch away from her touch. 

“He’s got one hell of a bruise on his back too. Musta hit it hard!”

“I’ll check that after. Right now I need to take care of those bullet wounds. Get me some hot water and there’s a bottle of whiskey in one of those saddlebags.”

“Good, I’m thirsty!”

“The whiskey’s not for you…at least not yet. I need to clean out the wounds and I only have a little carbolic with me. I have Laudanum and we’ll use that to keep him controllable. Did he try anything?”

“Hell yeah, but he took the worst of it.”

“Is that where this boot shaped bruise came from?”

“Had ta show ‘im who’s in charge. Took the lesson pretty hard though,” Turner said with a wry grin.

“Get my things, Ethan, and from now on you leave Larabee alone unless I tell you otherwise!” Clark warned and knew the man would do as she ordered. She heard Turner move away and watched as Larabee fought to return to consciousness. Even with the bruises and swelling she still thought he was a handsome man and she ran her fingers along his jaw. His hands clenched tightly as he fought the restraints and Rosemary was glad he couldn’t move. The eyelids finally fluttered open and the sea green eyes glared dangerously at her.

“W…what the h…hell is this?” He gasped as she touched his wounded leg.

“You should have kept your nose out of our business, Chris. It would’ve been so much simpler if you had.”

“Y…you’re the…that woman from t…the hotel!”

“That’s right and I don’t think you’ll be getting an answer to your telegram I’m afraid!”

“You B…bitch! Let me out of these!”

“I’m afraid that’s out of the question. Right now I’m going to remove the bullets from your side and leg and I think you’ll be happy you’re restrained when I start digging around in there. The leg’s not so bad, but well that side is another story altogether. The way I see it you should be grateful that I have received some medical training, although it has been a while since I’ve had to remove bullets.”

“D...don’t touch me!”

“I don’t think you’re in any position to stop me. Ah, Ethan, put the saddlebags on the table and pour some hot water into the bowl. Oh add a little carbolic and then I want you to clean the area surrounding the wounds. I’ll be back as soon as I have my instruments ready!”

Chris watched her stand with a mixture of trepidation and fear, but he didn’t let it show on his face as Turner came towards him. The man’s face was filled with malicious glee as he set the basin down beside the makeshift bed.

‘Get a…way from me!” Larabee ground out, but knew there was nothing he could do to stop Turner or the woman. He tried to shift away, but the other man clamped down on his leg and Chris fought to keep from crying out as Turner lifted a cloth from the water and carbolic mixture and placed it against the bullet wound. The liquid burned like molten lava and Chris bucked against the ropes and manacles holding him to the floor.

“That gotcher attention!” Turner spat and smiled as he scrubbed Larabee’s right thigh.

“S…sick fuckin’ bastard!” Larabee groaned as the woman knelt opposite Turner. Chris saw her place several instruments to her left before she looked at him.

“Now, I can do this and let you scream or I can give you some Laudanum and it should ease the pain. Your choice!”

“Don’t d…do me a…any fuckin’ favors!” Larabee snarled.

“Suit yourself. Ethan, are you done there?”

“Think so,” Turner said and lifted the blood soaked cloth. “Damn, I made it bleed again.”

“Clean the one on his side while I see to this one!”

“Leave it!” the blond ordered, but the weakness of his voice had no effect on his tormentors.

“I can’t have you dying on us just yet, Chris. You see we need to make sure Buck thinks you went back to Four Corners and once we’re sure of that then I’ll find a way to dispose of you!”

“Buck won’t b…believe you!”

“Oh, I think he will, especially once I show him the telegram you received. You couldn’t stay long enough to tell him and you left a message with me to give to Buck.”

“W…won’t believe…”

“Sure he will, but right now I don’t have time to argue with you. It’s time to do this!”

Chris groaned as he felt the scalpel press against the wound in his leg. He bit his bottom lip, drawing blood even as Turner roughly cleaned the wound in his side. The gunfighter had been hurt before…been shot, beaten, stabbed and any number of other wounds, but he couldn’t remember ever hurting like this. It felt as if the woman was using an ax to tear open his flesh and pull out the smashed piece of lead and there was nothing he could do to stop her or the man grinding a wet cloth against his ravaged flesh. He fought the excruciating touch and gasped in relief as he heard the sound of a bullet hit the basin.

“That’s the easy one!” Clark said and smiled as Chris Larabee’s rasping curse reached her ears. “So, you’re still with me! I’ve never had a man stay awake through an extraction like that.”

“Bet he won’t like the next one none!” Turner said with a grin as he shifted out of the woman’s way.

“Would you like to reconsider the Laudanum, Chris?”

“G…go to h…hell…Ahhhh!” the cry of pain escaped from his throat as the blade was pressed against his side. He thought he knew what pain was, but never before could he remember it being so maliciously enjoyed. He heard Turner’s cackling laughter as he fought against the restraints. His breathing became labored as the woman drove the scalpel deeper into his ravaged skin. He felt the edges of darkness begin to spread across his vision as his eyes dropped closed and he gave in to his body’s need for relief.

“Looks like ya were too much for him, Miss Rosemary,” Turner explained as Larabee went limp under her touch. He heard the woman curse as she continued to probe for the bullet and again wondered why they were even bothering. Sooner or later Chris Larabee was going to die anyway, so why prolong his life. He looked at the woman as she concentrated on the task at hand and was glad he wasn’t the one under her touch.

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

Buck watched as Angela Tate moved slightly on the bed he’d shared with her since arriving. The woman’s face was still unmarked by the passing of years, yet there was something about her that struck him as deadly. Shaking his head he pushed back this new train of thought as her eyelids flickered and finally lifted revealing green eyes.

“B…Buck?”

“I’m right here, Darlin’, how do you feel?”

“My head hurts.”

“I know…doc’s on the way.”

“Doc? Why?” Angela forced the words through her throat and kept up the pretense that she really was in pain. She knew Wilmington well enough to know he would stay beside her if he thought something was truly wrong and right now she needed him by her side.

“You hit your head, Angela,” Wilmington said as he brushed the hair back from her face.

“I…I did?”

“Yeah, had me worried.”

“D…don’t be,” Tate said and reached for his hand.

“Easier said than done when the woman I love and intend to marry is hurtin’,” Wilmington said as the sound of approaching footsteps reached his ears. He turned to see an older man with silver streaked black hair enter the room.

“Hello, I’m Doc Morton. How’d this happen?” the physician asked as he looked at the vivid bruise on the woman’s face.

“She fell and hit her head,” the worried rogue explained as he continued to hold the woman’s hand in his own.

“Angela, are you hurt anywhere else?” Richard Morton asked.

“No, just my head,” the woman said and closed her eyes against the bright light seeping through the window.

“Who are you?” Morton asked.

“Buck Wilmington. Angela and me are getting married!”

“Is that right?”

“Yes, we are,” Tate said.

“Well, congratulations. Now Mr. Wilmington…”

“Buck!”

“Buck, please close those curtains so the sunlight doesn’t cause more pain than she’s already in,” the doctor ordered.  “Now, Angela, let’s take a look at you!”

Angela kept her eyes closed and moaned when the doctor probed the swollen area. It was tender, but she knew how to play it up and heard the concern in Wilmington’s voice as he returned to her side and asked about her condition. She opened her eyes slightly and squinted at the two men before letting her gaze come to rest on her fiancé.

“Buck, I’m fine. Just a headache.”

“A big one from the sounds of it,” Morton said as he sat back in the chair and reached for a packet of powder in his bag. He turned to the other man and handed him the medicine. “Make sure Carmon mixes this. She knows the proportions and how often Angela can have it.”

“I don’t need…”

“Hush up now, Darlin’, Doc says you need it then you’re gonna take it,” Wilmington chastised lightly.

“Well, I can see you’re in good hands so I’ll leave you to it. Buck, make sure she stays in bed for at least twenty-four hours. Don’t let her fool you into letting her up!”

“I won’t, Doc.”

Angela smiled inwardly as she watched the two men walk towards the door. Morton had ordered twenty-four hours of bed rest and she now had the means to keep Wilmington from riding into Midfield in search of Chris Larabee. She hoped it was enough time for Rosemary Clark to put their plan in motion. If not she had a hostage and would use him to keep her lover in line. She quickly lost the smile as her fiancé returned to her side and reached for her hand.

“Carmon’s mixing some of the powder for you, Darlin’.”

“I don’t really need it, but if it’ll make you feel better I’ll drink it,” Tate explained as she looked into worried blue eyes.

“You always did worry about others before yourself,” Wilmington said and kissed her cheek.

“Buck, I know you’re worried about, Chris. I’m fine and Carmon will be here so why don’t you ride into town with doc and find out where he is?”

“I’m not leaving you like this, Angela. Like you said, Chris is a big boy and can look after himself. You go ahead and sleep and I’ll be here when you wake up.”

“Hmm,” Angela mumbled and closed her eyes as a thrill raced up and down her spine. She had this man where she wanted him and nothing was going to take him away from her. She remained quiet for several long minutes before opening her eyes and reaching for the handsome rogue. “Buck, lie down with me.”

“I don’t think…”

“Sh, trust me, please. I just need to feel your strong arms around me,” Tate said as Carmon brought the powder mixture and placed it on the table before leaving without a word.

“You drink all of this and I’ll lie down with you.”

“Under the blankets?”

“I…I…”

“Please, Buck, I need to feel you near me,” the woman cajoled and was glad when the ladies’ man acquiesced. She drank the warm tea and watched as Wilmington removed his clothing and slid under the blankets. She moved closer to him and smiled as he placed his arm under his head as she maneuvered her body until she was spooned up against him. She felt his hand on her shoulder and gently eased it down to her breast before sighing contentedly. This was how her life should be; lying next to the man she loved, without any cares in the world.

“Angela?”

“Hmm,” she mumbled as if half asleep.

“You know I love you.”

“I know.”

“Would you be willing to give all this up and move to Four Corners if I asked you too?”

“I’d go anywhere with you, Buck,” Tate answered and fought to keep the irritation out of her voice. There was no way she would leave her home, and she would not allow Buck Wilmington to leave either. This was their destiny and she would see that he stayed at her side…willingly or not.

“That’s good, Darlin’, but we’ll talk about it again when you’re not hurt,” the gentle rogue said and closed his eyes as he breathed in the scent of his lover, unaware of the anger that burned through her mind.

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

Rosemary Clark looked down at the captive and knew he would be trouble if she allowed him any freedom. They’d moved him to the bed and she still heard Turner’s angered grumbling, but knew the man would do anything she asked as long as she kept him supplied with funds. She ran her eyes over Larabee’s battered body and knew she’d done all she could for now. The bullet she’d removed from his side had caused heavy bleeding and they would have to get him drinking before long or she would have to resort to a feeding tube to keep him hydrated. She’d inserted them before and knew of the dangers involved, but would use it if she had to. Her attention returned to the blond as she pulled the blanket up over him and sat in the chair next to the bed and watched his eyes open and fight to focus.

“So, you’ve decided to rejoin us. How do you feel?” She asked as she checked the bonds holding him to the bedposts.

“Get these fucking things off me!”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible and if you don’t start speaking in a respectable voice I’ll have Ethan gag you once more.”

“Bitch!”

“Ethan, would you bring me one of the strips of cloth?”

“Sure thing,” Turner said and moved to the table.

“Fuckin’ kill you!”

“I’m sure you’d like to try, but I’m afraid I can’t give you an opportunity to see if you can do that. Now, are you going to keep a civil tongue in your head or do I have Ethan silence you?”

“Let me do it!” Turner said as he pressed against Larabee’s wounded side.

“Ethan, control yourself and keep your hands off him unless I tell you! Understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am, just don’t ‘preciate anyone bad mouthin’ ya!”

“Thank you, Ethan, it’s nice to know there are still gentlemen in this world. Now, Chris, there are a few things you need to understand before you answer my question about the gag. First, I need to keep you alive and am willing to do anything to keep you that way. Second, if keeping you alive means forcing a tube down your throat and feeding you that way I will do it. I don’t really want to, but it’s something that can easily be done, but is very uncomfortable for you. Third, there are several degrees to keeping you alive and not all of them are pleasant. I’m afraid Ethan is not as appreciative of good looking men as I am and I would be saddened if I allow him to mark such a handsome face before the swelling goes down. I have done an admirable job of putting stitches in your head and would not like to do so again. I know you think I’m cruel…”

“Cold bitch!” Larabee groaned as a hand clamped onto the wound on his right thigh and tried to twist out of her grasp, but succeeded only in awakening the monstrous pain throughout his body. “Fuckin’ bitch!”

“That’s it! Gag him, Ethan!”

“My pleasure, Ma’am!”

“D…don’t fuckin’ touch me!” Larabee ground out before a cloth was shoved brutally into his mouth and he was forced to breathe through his nose. His anger increased and he twisted his head back and forth as the woman placed a hand on each cheek and held him fast.

“Now that I have your undivided attention I’ll say this once more and this time I want you to think about your friend Wilmington. Angela loves him very much and they are going to be married whether you like it or not!”

‘No!’ Chris’ anger increased and he tried to breathe past the mounting waves of nausea. The woman’s face was mere inches from his own and her scent assaulted his nostrils as he fought to control his anger and pain.

“You’re alive right now because she doesn’t want to hurt him, but if it comes down to it, Angela will use you to keep her fiancé in line. I’m sure Buck Wilmington would not appreciate one of your fingers as a warning! Do you?” Clark asked as she reached for the index finger on his left hand and bent it back.

Chris cried out behind the gag as he felt the digit break and knew the woman before him was a spawn of hell. She inflicted pain for the sake of seeing a man squirm and enjoyed the control she thought she had over him. He knew she would do anything to keep him in line and right now there was nothing much he could do to stop her. If he was going to get out of this alive, and right now the chance of that was very slim, he would have to play his cards differently and let her think she had control.

‘Who the fuck are you trying to kid, Larabee? She does have control!’ He thought as she released his hand and stared at him once more.

“I see I have your attention now, Chris. I do don’t I?”

Larabee nodded and felt the room around him waver as the pain in his skull increased. His breathing was troubled as he tried to keep from being sick.

“Very well. Would you like me to remove the gag?” She smiled as he nodded slightly and reached for the gag.

Chris knew he was going to be sick and there was no way to move as his stomach gave up its meager contents and landed on the sheets around him and the woman’s hands. He heard her curse, but didn’t hear anything except a loud scream and finally understood it was coming from him as something slammed into his stomach and darkness reached out to enfold him in its welcoming arms.

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

Joseph Clark looked up as the door opened and his wife entered the room. Although she was much younger than he was, she loved him and for that he would do anything in his power to please her. He knew of her activities with Angela Tate, but was too lost in his own lust to do anything about them. He rose from his seat and walked over to greet her with open arms.

“Rosemary, are you all right?”

“I’m fine, Joseph, just tired is all.”

“I made dinner for us,” the older man said and took her hands to lead her into the kitchen.

“I’m not really hungry, Joseph, but I’ll try. I’m so sorry I’m late.”

“It’s okay, honey. You’re home now. Did you see Angela today? Is that why you’re so tired?”

“I saw Angela this morning and spent last night there because of the storm. I hope you weren’t too worried.”

“I was, but I figured that’s where you went after you left the hotel. Is everything all right over there?”

“Yes, she’s fine and I met her fiancé. He seems very nice and well suited to Angela.”

“I’m glad.”

“Joseph, I need you to do something for me,” Rosemary said as he held the chair out for her and took the seat across the table.

“Anything, Rosemary, my life is yours,” the love struck man said and reached for her hand.

“I know you don’t like it when I ask you to help me with something that might go against the law, but it’s important to me.”

“Are you in trouble?”

“No, but I might be if you don’t help me. You know I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”

“What do you need?”

“The man Angela is marrying loves her very much and would do anything for her, but his friend is a miserable lowlife who does not want to see his friend happy. He’ll try anything to stop the wedding and I…I did something to see that he would not be able to hurt Angela and her fiancé.”

“What have you done, Rosemary?” Joseph asked and wearily leaned back in his chair, the meal momentarily forgotten. The woman across from him was like an addiction and there was no way he could refuse her as tears came to her eyes.

“I had to, Joseph. Do you remember that man who came in and wanted to send a telegram?”

“The one you took care of…dressed all in black.”

“Yes, that’s him. He wanted me to send a telegram to St. Louis and you know what would’ve happened then. They’d come for me, Joseph, and we’d never be together again. I know I’m asking a lot from you, but I need you to help me stop that from happening. I love you so much and cannot bear the thought of not being with you!”

“I could not live without you, Rosemary. What do you need me to do?”

“I need you to make sure no one is suspicious of Chris Larabee’s disappearance. All it takes is for you to deliver a telegram to Buck Wilmington at Angela’s home…”

“What telegram?”

“One that I’ll write. It will just say that he had to go back to Four Corners and that he’d return as soon as he took care of business there. It won’t be very detailed, but it should stop Wilmington’s suspicions for a while.”

“Then what?”

“Tell Sheriff Rawlings that you saw Larabee leave shortly after they spoke in the saloon and that he said he was going back to Four Corners. Tomorrow you will send a telegram to Four Corners and tell them that their friends arrived safely. That should keep them off our trail for some time to come.”

“All right, but there is something you have to promise me.”

“Anything, Joseph,” Rosemary said and came to kneel in front of her husband.

“Is Larabee alive?”

“Yes, but he’s been hurt.”

“Did you take care of him?”

“Yes, we need him in case Wilmington decides against a marriage to Angela.”

“I want your promise that you will not kill Larabee!”

“I may not be able to stop it, Joseph, because if he lives then he’s always going to be a threat to me…to us. Do you want to take that chance with our happiness?”

“I don’t want you to kill him!”

“I promise I won’t kill him,” Rosemary stated as he hugged her to him. It was an easy promise, one she knew she could keep for she would not be the implement for Chris Larabee’s death, but she would be there when he breathed his last.

“Thank you, Rosemary. I love you so much,” the older man said as he drank in the scent of her and reveled once more in the love she had for him.

“I love you, Joseph, more than you’ll ever know,” the woman said as he held her close. She knew Joseph Clark would soon be disposable and at his age it would simply be explained as a weak heart or something similar. She snuggled against him and sighed contentedly as she waited for him to release her once more.

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

Buck remained close to his fiancé as she cried out in pain and knew he could not leave her side. He’d slept off and on during the day, only leaving her side to eat and check on the ranch. Carmon had fed Angela and also insisted on her taking the powder Dr. Morton had left for her. Now the darkness beyond the window was sending a shard of fear through his body. Chris Larabee had failed to return to the ranch and now it seemed likely that something had happened to prevent his return.

“Where the hell are you, Chris?” he whispered and felt the warm body shift up against him once more.

“Buck?”

“I’m right here, Angela. You okay?”

“I think so. Did I hear you say something about Chris? Is he back yet?”

“No…no he’s not and I’m worried, Angela. Chris’ got a lot of enemies and some of ‘em wouldn’t think twice about putting a bullet in his back. I need to find him.”

“I know, Buck, and I’m sorry.”

“You got nothing to be sorry for, Darlin’.”

“Yes,” she softly sobbed as she turned towards him. “If I hadn’t gotten hurt you would already have gone to check on Chris and you wouldn’t be so worried right now.”

“Angela, look at me!” Wilmington ordered and waited for her to open her eyes. “You’re not to blame for any of this. You were hurt and Chris’d understand why I stayed with you. Hell, he’d never forgive me if I left you because of him. If you’re feeling better in the morning I’ll leave for town and probably find Chris having a few drinks and talking about old times with Ethan.”

“I hope so, Buck, because I can’t stand the idea that Chris is hurt and I’m keeping you from helping your best friend,” Tate said, laughing inwardly as she felt his arms tighten around her. She felt safe and cocooned in his hold and knew she would do anything to keep him in her bed.

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

Chris struggled against the darkness surrounding him, but there was so much pain he wasn’t sure he could avoid it by staying where he was. He could hear someone moving around in his vicinity, but did not want to acknowledge the person as muffled curses reached his ears. He licked at dry lips and didn’t realize he’d moaned until a hand clamped onto his chin. Forcing his eyes open he realized that his nightmare had followed him into the real world as he looked into the baby face of his tormentor.

“It’s ‘bout fuckin’ time you woke up! I’m getting’ mighty sick of cleanin’ up after ya! Ain’t getting’ paid ‘nough ta do this kinda woman’s work!”

“G…go…ta…hell!”

“Don’t ya know you’re already there, Larabee, and I’m your very own devil!”

“Bastard!” Larabee cursed as Turner grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled his head backwards. The sickly odor of stale beer and tobacco assaulted his senses and he spit in the man’s face.

“Sonofabitch! You’ll pay for that!”

Chris gasped as his nemesis placed his hand on the bullet wound in his left side and waited for the pressure to be released. He could hardly breathe, as the pain became a constant heaviness that would not let go. He sucked in a shallow breath and fought down the urge to be sick as Turner’s mocking laughter reached his ears.

“Let that be a lesson to ya. Miss Rosemary doesn’t want me to mark ya anymore, but she didn’t say nothin’ about making ya uncomfortable! I figure I ain’t adding injuries, just playing with the ones ya already got! Now she also wants me ta make sure you’re eating, but if ya don’t want anything just say so ‘cause I’d just love ta see her put that tube down your fucking throat! Got it?”

“Y…yeah!” Larabee spat and groaned as the man released his grip on the raw wound.

“Good, now I ain’t much on what someone hurt liken you should eat, but I got some liquefied beans and sopped ‘em up with bread. Yer gonna eat it or Miss Rosemary’s gonna force it on ya!”

Chris watched through hooded eyes as his tormentor turned away from him. He knew he had to choose the lesser of two evils and eat whatever Turner gave him, because he did not relish the idea of something being shoved down his throat. It was bad enough to have to lie here, helplessly, but to have to let this man feed him was a lesson in his own humility and one he was hard pressed to win. The smell of the beans was nauseating and he wondered if he could manage to eat it without being sick. He closed his eyes and fought to concentrate as Turner came back to the bed.

“Ain’t bad ‘nough I gotta let ya have my bed and my beans and bread, but I gotta feed ya too! Open your fuckin’ mouth and eat this shit before I change my mind and let Miss Rosemary do what she’s talkin’ about!”

Chris knew there was no choice and opened his mouth. The liquefied beans and clumps of stale bread threatened to make him sick, but he fought to keep his churning stomach from making a return trip. He had no idea how many times the noxious stuff was placed at his mouth or how often he was forced to swallow, but was finally rewarded when Turner stood and walked over to the table. Chris closed his eyes and tried to curl into a ball as his stomach cramped and pain traveled from one end of his body to the other, but it was impossible to move with the restraints holding him to the bed.

“Need ta make sure ya drink this too!” Turner didn’t wait for an answer as he lifted his captive’s head and placed the cup of warm liquid against his mouth. “Now ya drink it all or I’ll just have to make you another one!”

Chris glared at his captor as he opened his lips and tasted the bitter brew. There was nothing he could do to stop the onslaught of liquid and he was forced to swallow again and again until the cup was empty and Turner once more left him alone. He searched his memory for the events that had led him to this point in his life and knew his only way out for now was Buck Wilmington. He wondered if his long time friend even knew he was missing and whether he was looking for him.

‘Buck, don’t marry that bitch!’ he thought as he struggled with the pain. His mind began to wander and he quickly realized there’d been something added to the drink he’d been given.

“Fuckin’ bastard,” he cursed as the laudanum and his own exhaustion worked to pull him under once more.

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

Joseph Clark watched as the sheriff and another man came towards the hotel. He felt his stomach flip as he realized the man had to be Angela Tate’s fiancé. Forcing a smile to his face and straightening his suit he greeted the newcomers.

“Hello, Sheriff, how are you today?”

“Hello, Joseph, I’m fine thank you. This man is looking for a friend of his and I believe he was in here day before yesterday.”

“Rosie was here that day, but she’s not here today. Not feeling very well I’m afraid.”

“Damn, hope it’s nothing serious, Joseph.”

“I don’t think so, Sheriff, but I insisted she stay home and get some rest.”

“Were you here at all, Joseph?” Rawlings asked.

“As a matter of fact I was. The hotel can’t run itself now can it,” Clark answered.

“Guess not. Look we’re looking for a man named Chris Larabee…”

“The gunslinger…so that’s where I know him from.”

“You know Chris?” Wilmington asked hopefully.

“Not really, just spoke to him the other day when he came in to send a message.”

“What did he say? Where is he?”

“Now, just hold on a minute there, Mister…”

“Wilmington…Buck Wilmington. Look Chris is a good friend of mine and I’ve been trying to find him. Did he say anything when he left?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, he did. He had Rosemary send a message to someplace…can’t rightly remember what it was.”

“Four Corners?” Wilmington asked.

“That’s it. He said he wanted to let them know you both made it here.”

“Did she send it?”

“Of course she did. That was just before he went to the saloon and had a drink with you, Sheriff.”

“We were there an hour or more and he said he was headed back to the Tate place, but he never made it…”

“No, don’t expect he would,” Clark advised.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Wilmington spat.

“Well Mr. Larabee was on his way out of town when the message came in. Can’t rightly remember who it was from…sheriff or something like that, but it asked that Mr. Larabee come back because he was needed to testify or something. Now unless I miss my guess he gave Rosemary a message to send back that said he was coming straight back because he wasn’t letting the ‘scumbag’ as he called him get away with murder. He told me and Rosemary to let you know he’d contact you when he got back home and that he didn’t want you to follow him so he left from here instead of going out to the Tate place.”

“So why the hell didn’t you come out and tell me?” the angry rogue asked.

“Well Mister, it’s like this. We have a business to run and sometimes we just don’t have time to take care of other people’s problems. Rosemary was going to Angela’s place to let you know,” Clark informed him.

“She was there the day of the storm and didn’t say anything!”

“She probably forgot because, well, see we had this little disagreement and she took off. We’re okay now though and she’ll tell you what Larabee said to her when she’s up to it.”

“What really happened to her? Did you hit her and that’s why she’s at home?” Wilmington spat and reached for the older man.

“Wait a minute, Buck, Joseph has never hit Rosemary in his life and I can vouch for that. Hell, they hardly even argue and when they do, it’s Rosemary’s voice and anger that gets raised!”

“I’m sorry, Ethan, but that’s not how I see it. Rosemary came out to the ranch because she’d had some kind of argument with her husband. She was upset and stayed the night!”

“Angela is Rosemary’s confidante and they talk about every little upset. If you’re Angela’s fiancé then you’d best get used to it!” Clark warned.

“At least she won’t have to run to anyone when she’s upset. I’m the kind of man who listens.”

“All right, Buck, back off. I know you’re upset about Chris, but that’s no reason to take it out on Joseph. Come on and I’ll buy you a drink and I’ll let you buy me two.”

“Yeah right! Guess I do owe you a few, but first let me send a telegram to Four Corners.”

“All right, Buck, but hurry up. A man can die of thirst and boredom here, but hell if I suffer both then you’re to blame.”

“Don’t go getting’ your knickers in a knot, Evan. I’ll be right there!” Wilmington said and wrote a short message that he slid across the desk. “Send that and get the answer to me as quick as you can! I’ll pay whoever comes out to the Tate place for their troubles.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Wilmington. I’m sorry about the mix up with your friend.”

“Thanks, send that right away.”

“I will,” Clark said and began sending the message. He could feel Wilmington’s eyes on him and was glad he’d had the fortitude to make sure the message would not go through. He finished what he was doing and then handed the paper back to Wilmington and watched as the man left the hotel.

“What have you gotten us in to, Rosemary?” he whispered before making sure everything was back in working order.

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

Evan Rawlings looked up from his drink as Buck Wilmington entered the busy saloon. The man looked worried and Rawlings wondered if he had good reason to be. Chris and Buck had always been close and somehow he didn’t believe that Larabee would ride out without making sure Wilmington knew where he was going.

“Over here, Buck!” Rawlings called and waited for the ladies’ man to join him.

Buck eyed the glass of beer and nodded his gratitude as he lifted it and drank half the contents in an effort to rid his throat of the dust he’d inhaled during his ride to Midfield. “Thanks, I needed that!”

“I’m sure you did.”

“It’s dustier here than I remembered.”

“Sure is. So you’re really going through with this.”

“With what?”

“You’re really going to get married and disappoint all those ladies who have their eyes on you.”

“A man needs to settle down sometime.”

“Yeah, he does, but I never thought I’d see the day you’d be tied down to one lady. Must be love,” Rawlings said and saw the frown on Wilmington’s face. “You do love her?”

“I…yes. No, hell I don’t know,” Wilmington said and realized the words were the truth. He didn’t know if he loved Angela Tate anymore. He liked her…liked being with her and enjoyed their sexual prowess together, but was he in love with her?

“Well, shit, Buck, you’re supposed to be marrying her and you don’t even know if you love her anymore. Could be a cold marriage made in hell.”

“No, don’t think I’d say marriage made in hell, but I’m thinking maybe I need to talk to Angela. Maybe we’re rushing things a bit. Hell we haven’t seen each other in ten, twelve years. Jesus, I don’t even know exactly how long it’s been, but people change and I’m just starting to think maybe it was the excitement of seeing her again that got me thinking marriage.”

“I’d say you’d best tell Miss Tate how you feel and give yourself time to look at things, before you say I do,” Rawlings suggested.

“Hell of a thing coming in here and facing the truth, because you still ask questions that make a man think too hard. I don’t know whether to thank you or shoot you!”

“I’d rather you said thank you. Been on the receiving end of a bullet more often than I’d like to think about,” the sheriff said with a grin.

Wilmington ran his fingers through his disheveled hair and reached for the glass of beer once more. He downed the contents and ordered two more before shaking his head and looking at the other man once more.

“Damn, thought this was right, but now I ain’t so sure. Thanks, Evan,” the gentle rogue said as he took the second glass of beer.

“Hey, wasn’t me. You must’ve been thinking about it yourself.”

“Not until you asked me if I loved her.”

“Well, maybe it’s a good thing. I can tell you one thing though.”

“What’s that?”

“I’d be ready to take off as soon as you talk to Miss Tate. That woman has a temper that’s as fiery as her hair!”

“Yeah, I remember,” Wilmington said smiling as he sipped from the glass. “Guess nothing’s ever easy.”

“Not when there’s a woman involved. Are you gonna stick around after you tell her?”

“I don’t know, Evan. Guess it all depends on her and if I hear from Chris. Like I said I just don’t know if I still love her or if I’m just trying to get back something I lost long ago.”

“I think we’re always trying to get back our youth, Buck, but I can safely say there’s no way of doing that without being hurt. Maybe you’ll find that you really do love her, but you owe it to yourself to think things through first.”

“Guess so,” Wilmington said and took a deep breath. He’d have a few more drinks and then head for the ranch, but he was not in a hurry to get there anymore. The thrill and excitement were not as enticing as they once were and he knew Evan Rawlings had opened his eyes to a truth about himself. He wasn’t in love with Angela Tate anymore; he was in love with the idea of being in love.

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

Buck rode towards the Tate ranch and thought about the events of the day. He needed to speak with Angela’s friend and find out exactly what Chris had told her. The drinks he’d had with Evan had done nothing to quell his worry and something told him Chris was in more trouble than he imagined. His thoughts quickly turned to Angela Tate and he felt a sudden chill at the thought of her.

He held tight to the reins as he shook off the chill and smiled as he thought of the morning spent in her arms. Their lovemaking had been a mixture of pleasure and pain that had left them both panting and breathless, but there had been something missing and he wasn’t sure what it was. Suspicions were mounting and they were not easily squashed as he rode closer to his destination.

Frowning Buck pulled his horse to a stop just before topping the rise that would bring him in full view of the Tate ranch. Questions formed and he was hard pressed for any answers.

‘You do love her don’t you?’ he silently asked and was again shocked when the answer came back too quickly. ‘Used to anyway.’ 

“Damn!” he cursed and started the animal on a slow walk back to the ranch. The feelings he had for Angela Tate were not the ones he’d had when first hearing from her. The love they’d once shared was not the same depth it had once been and somehow he knew he would have to tell her it was over and that he wasn’t ready for marriage yet. The trail quickly gave way to the entrance to the ranch and his attention was drawn to the figure standing on the porch.

Angela Tate was indeed a formidable woman and one that any man would be glad to marry, but Buck was beginning to understand that a marriage between them was not what he wanted after all. He knew bedding her was something he would have to live with, but he hadn’t forced her into it, and they were both adults, yet he still felt a pang of guilt about how things were playing out. He sighed heavily as the woman smiled and walked out to meet him. The strain of her injury seemed to have dissipated, but the ugly bruise was still there. 

“Buck, welcome home,” Angela said as she drew up alongside the horse.

“Thanks, Angela,” Wilmington said as he dismounted and turned the animal over to Manual.

“Is something wrong, Buck? Did you find out what happened to Chris?”

“Not really. I talked to Evan Rawlings and Joseph Clark.”

“What did they say?” Tate asked as she wrapped her arm around his arm and walked slowly towards the house.

“Evan didn’t know much, but Clark said Chris told his wife that he was going back to Four Corners.”

“Well there you go,” Angela said, laughing as they reached the door. “Chris always did like to do things on the spur of the moment.”

“No, Angela, that’s not Chris at all. He wouldn’t just up and take off like that without making sure I knew what was happening. I sent a telegram to Four Corners and hopefully there’ll be an answer by tomorrow.”

“You’re that worried about him?”

“Yeah, I am. He’s a good friend, Angela, and he wouldn’t run off like that.”

“I wish there was something I could do to make you feel better, Buck.”

“I know you do, Angela, and that’s what makes this so hard.” Wilmington turned her to face him and saw something flicker in her eyes that sent a chill down his spine.

“What so hard?”

“We need to talk, but I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Hurt me? Why would you hurt me?”

“I don’t want to, Darlin’, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking today and I’m just not sure about getting married.”

“But…you asked me and I said yes.” The woman pouted as she tried to wrap her arms around him.

“I know I did, but I just can’t see us marrying because of feelings we once had.”

“Once had? Jesus, Buck, I have always loved you and always will! I know you feel the same way or you wouldn’t have come all this way!”

“I thought I did love you, Angela, and I needed to see you to be sure! I know we have a lot of deep feelings, but is it love and is it enough to make a happy marriage? I need some time to think about it!”

“You bastard! How can you stand there after taking me to bed and fucking me and tell me you need time!”

“Angela…”

“Don’t you Angela me! I’m good enough to be your fucking whore, but not good enough to take as your wife!”

Buck fought the urge to slap her as she continued her tirade and knew now that his feelings were not as deep as he first thought. “You’re not a whore, Angela, and I’m sorry about all of this. I guess it’s a good thing we’re having this talk before we took our vows. I’ll get my things and ride into town and leave for home tomorrow.”

“No, God, please, Buck, you can’t do this to me. I love you!”

“I’m sorry, I just wish we could have talked this through like adults. I hope you find what you really need, Angela, because I don’t think I can be that person.”

“No, Buck!” Tate cried as he pulled away from her and she sank to her knees as he walked into the house. Her anger mounted as hot bitter tears flowed from her eyes. Her chest heaved as she heard him speaking to Carmon and she knew her plans were falling apart and that it was time to play her trump card. Buck Wilmington would marry her tomorrow or he would never see Chris Larabee alive again. She stood and straightened her skirt and blouse before walking into the house and reaching for the bottle of brandy she kept at her desk. She poured a hefty amount into the glass and downed it as Wilmington returned from the kitchen. She stared at him, chest heaving and mouth set in a straight line.

“I’m sorry, Angela, I really am.”

“No, you’re not, Lover, but you will be if you walk out that fucking door!”

“What are you talking about?” Wilmington asked wary of the look of pure hatred in the woman’s eyes.

“Just what I said, Buck. You walk out that door and it’ll be the sorriest thing you ever did and I guarantee that he’ll pay for it!”

“Who’ll pay for what?” the rogue asked and somehow knew he didn’t really want to hear the answer.

“Chris Larabee!” She didn’t have time to continue as strong arms latched onto her shoulders and violently shook her.

“You bitch! Where is he?” His hands wrapped around her throat as anger and fear fought for supremacy.

“No!” Manual cried having heard the screaming and hurried to help his employer. He grabbed Wilmington’s wrists and tried to pry them from the woman’s neck as her eyes seemed to bulge. His own strength was nothing compared to the irate man who seemed set on killing Angela Tate. He reached for the half full bottle of brandy and brought it down on Buck Wilmington’s head and watched as he dropped to the floor and lay still. He reached for the woman as she sagged and lifted her into his arms. Her breathing was harsh and he carried her towards her bedroom and called for Carmon as he placed her on the bed.

Angela was finally able to breath and reached to touch her throat as the dizziness left her fatigued and nauseous. Finally able to speak she looked at Manual and issued orders in a croaking rasp.

“Send someone for Rosemary Clark and have her come to me. Tell her it’s important, Manual, and remember you owe me more than you can repay. If you do as I say it will wipe the slate clean and you and Carmon are free to leave and I’ll add a bonus. Understood?”

“Si, I will take care of it, but what about Mr. Wilmington?”

“Bring him in here and I will take care of him until Rosemary gets here!” Tate ordered as she sat on the edge of the bed. She heard her employee dragging Wilmington into the bedroom and cursed the fates that allowed things to go so badly so fast.

“Where should I put him?”

“On the bed then get out of here and have Carmon bring me some hot water and bandages!”

“Yes, Miss Tate,” the Mexican said as he helped her put the unconscious man on the bed before hurrying from the room.

“Oh, Buck, how could you do this to us?” She stated as she started removing his clothing. It took some doing, but she finally had his clothing off and quickly tore strips from the top sheet and tied his wrists and ankles to the bedposts. She knew she would not be able to keep him this way for long, but she would make sure she had a captive audience when she explained how things were going to play out. She thanked Carmon for bringing her the water and bandages and told her that she was not to be interrupted until Rosemary Clark arrived. Once the door closed, Angela removed her clothing and spooned up against the restrained man’s side and placed her throbbing head on his arm and drifted towards sleep.