Part 4

Vin Tanner reached for the beer and slugged it down before turning to face the trio standing at the bar. So far they’d been quiet and not bothering anyone, but that was changing quickly as they began harassing Inez Recillos. The woman could handle herself, but the three cattlemen were growing braver and lewder by the minute. He nodded as Ezra and JD entered the saloon and took up positions near the door as he walked towards the bar.

“Can I get another beer, Inez?”

“Si, Senor,” the pretty woman said and reached for a clean glass.

“Hey, Mister, can’t ya see the lady was busy serving real men? Go find yerself another whore!”

Vin’s rage was evident as he struck out and sent the man flying into his two friends. The two men caught their friend and moved to take down the buckskin-clad man, but stopped when they heard two guns cocking behind them.

“I wouldn’t if I were you!” Dunne said, smiling as fear replaced lust on the men’s faces.

“We’s jush havin’ a liddle fun wish the whore,” the same man slurred and found himself once more flying across the floor, landing on a table which quickly broke under his weight and he landed in a heap behind his friends.

“Ya best ‘pologize to the lady or I’ll show ya what it means ta be a…what’s that word, Ezra?”

“What word, Mr. Tanner?”

“The one when a man ain’t got no dick between his legs.”

“Ah, I believe you’re looking for Castration as in Eunuch,” Standish smiled as he saw real fear on the two men standing near the bar.

“Yep, knew ya wouldn’t let me down! Now ya got one minute ta ‘pologize to the lady or I put this ta work,” Tanner warned and showed the three men the blade he had tucked into a sheath at his side.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am, didn’t mean to offend,” one man said while the other mumbled his apology as he stared at the shining knife.

“Mister, as much as I’d like to see Vin’s expertise with a hunting knife I’d rather not be the one having to explain the mess to Judge Travis,” Dunne said, smiling as Vin slowly advanced on the third man.

“No! Please, I’s just fooling with her. I’m sorry, Ma’am, I truly am. We’ll leave if’n that’s all right wit ya,” the third man said as he looked at the woman behind the bar.

“That was pretty good, but there’s somethin’ yer forgettin’,” Tanner warned.

“Wh…what?” the man stammered as the blade was placed at his groin.

“Ya owe the lady for those beers and fer breakin’ the table!”

“But it was your fault I broke the ta…Okay, I get it. I’ll pay for the damages…”

“And the beer!” Standish ordered.

“And the beer.”

“Very good, you’ve just saved your self a night in our jail!” Dunne said as Jackson and Sanchez joined them.

“Looks like we missed the excitement, Nathan,” the ex-preacher said as he watched two men haul a third to his feet.

“Sure looks that way. What happened?”

“Those three decided they’re better off leaving the vicinity of our town. For their own health I might add,” Standish explained as the three men emptied their pockets and placed the money on the counter.

“Trail hands,” Jackson spat as the memory of his own brush with death at the hands of angry trial hands sent a shiver down his spine.

“It’s all right, Brother, they’re just leaving,” Sanchez said and smiled as Jackson moved to the table at the back of the room as JD began picking up the pieces of the broken table. It didn’t take long for the trio to ride out of town and life return to normal for the peacekeepers.

“Are you all right, Vin?” Jackson asked as he noticed the Texan favoring his right hand.

“Yeah, just split my knuckle on his teeth.”

“Come over to the clinic later and I’ll clean it for you,” the healer said and knew the younger man would do as he asked. As often as they protested the need for his attention, the six peacekeepers respected his abilities and more often than not did as he asked them too.

“I will,” Tanner said and turned to JD. “Amy word from Chris and Buck?”

“Nothing. I figured I’d send a message myself when Mrs. Potter opens up tomorrow.”

“You worried, Vin?” Sanchez asked as Inez brought over five drinks and placed them on the table.

“Thank you for defending me, Senor,” Recillos said before turning away and smiling at the slight blush she’d seen on the Texan’s face.

“Chris said he’d wire us when they got ta Midfield. Figure we should’ve heard from ‘em by now.”

“Knowing Buck they probably went to see his friend…”

“Friend, Mr. Dunne, I would say it is more like paramour,” Standish corrected.

“Whatever you say, but I’m betting he’s already ensconced in her bed…”

“Jesus, Kid, stop emulatin’ Ezra!” Tanner said, grinning at the look that washed over the conman’s face as he used the new word he’s read in one of Mary Travis’ articles. He was quickly picking up new things and reading was something he enjoyed.

“I believe you are picking up some of my finer qualities, my friend…or should I say friends,” he said as he looked from one man to the other.

“Better not let Chris hear you talking like Ezra. He might just decide to shoot the three of you,” Sanchez explained as several towns’ men entered the saloon. The Five men grew quiet as they watched the newcomers and readied themselves for another night as Four Corners’ peacekeepers.

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

“Open your eyes, Chris!”

Larabee did not want to, but the voice was annoying and he wanted to tell it to shut up before his head exploded. He shifted and felt something pressed against the wound in his leg and tried to come off the bed. His eyes shot open and he shot the woman a glaring stare as he struggled to breathe.

“Sonofabitch!” the blond groaned as the burning subsided.

“Sorry about that, but I tried to warn you. I need to clean this out and I’m sure you’d rather be awake during the operation.”

“O…operation?” Larabee stammered and heard the fear in his own voice.

“Oh, not that kind of operation.” Her smile didn’t reach her eyes as she looked at her patient. “At least not yet, but I’m afraid I need to lance this one and the wound in your side in order to get rid of the infection. I’m afraid it’s the only way to make sure you don’t lose your leg. Now I do have some morphine here, but I’m sure you’d rather not take any drugs.”

“D…don’t do me any fucking f…favors!” Larabee spat and received a slap across the face that threatened fireworks once more.

“I warned you about that mouth and I promise you there won’t be another. Vulgarity is not something I enjoy listening to and I assure you it would be in your best interest to speak in a civilized manner when I’m in the room. Do I make myself clear?”

Chris groaned as she pulled the bandage from his side and felt blood flow freely from the wound as she roughly pressed her fingers into the ravaged flesh. He twisted and tried to pull away, but was held completely immobile as she worked her fingers around the wound.

“Ethan, bring me some clean water and bandages…and my scalpel. I believe it’s best to leave the wounds open and let the infection drain on its own so I need to cut the stitches out.”

“God…stop!” The blond groaned as she pressed deeper and deeper into the wound.

“I’m doing my best to keep you alive, Chris. You do see that don’t you?”

“Not f…from where I am,” Larabee said as he watched her reach into the basin of water and remove a strip of cloth. He tensed as she placed it against his side and would’ve cried out if his teeth hadn’t been so tightly clenched.

“Hand me the scalpel!”

“No!” Larabee spat, but knew it was no good as the knife cut through the stitches and sent a shockwave of pain through his body. He stretched out on the bed and tried anything to twist away from the shooting agony that seemed to invade every pore of his body until he lost sight of the pain in the murky black fog of unconsciousness. He didn’t hear Turner’s mocking laughter or feel Clark clean the wound and place fresh bandages over it and was oblivious to her touch as she repeated the process with his leg.

“Ethan, make sure you give him the laudanum and herbal teas because it’ll help you control him.”

“He ain’t so much, Ma’am. I mean there’s nothing he can do while he’s trussed up like that!”

“Are you so sure of that, Ethan? Larabee is far from helpless even with those bullet wounds. No, keep him semi-dazed and we’ll both be able to sleep easier. Remember what I said and I’ll make sure there’s a bonus for you when all is said and done.”

“Anything you say,” Turner said and smiled as he thought of the extra money and the women at the brothel who could and would do anything for money.

“He’s getting a fever and it’s going to be up to you to keep it in check. That means you keep wiping him down with cool water and make sure those wounds stay clean. I may not be able to get out here as often as I want too, so I’m trusting you to keep him eating and drinking.”

“Ya know ya can trust me, Miss Rosemary. I’m beholding to ya for the jobs ya send my way.”

“Good, I will try to come out tomorrow, but it depends on Joseph and Angela’s plans. I believe she’s going to marry Wilmington as soon as possible.” She turned her gaze on Larabee as he mumbled something and she leaned closer to hear him.

“No…no, Buck. Don’t marry…lying bitch! She’s no good…no good…”

“Ethan, hand me my bag,” Clark said as anger seared through her. She took a small vial and a metal syringe and metered out a dose of the narcotic. “Hold his arm while I find a vein!”

“What is that?” Turner asked as he gripped Larabee’s arm and watched the veins become more prominent.

“N…no!” the blond winced as he felt something pressed into his arm. His eyes shot open, but refused to focus as he tried to see what was being done to his arm. It didn’t take long for the drug to work and he smiled in spite of the fever as it dragged him towards the edge of an awaiting abyss. He laughed as the newest torment caused his body to tremble and knew hell had finally reached out and snatched him into a dark journey of which there seemed no escape.

“He’ll probably sleep for hours now, but when he wakes up you know what to do.”

“Yes, Ma’am, I sure do,” Turner said, enjoying the pain he’d seen this woman inflict. It showed how strong she was and he prayed he never failed to do her bidding for he suspected she would dispatch him as easily as she had the others. He walked her to the door and watched as she mounted up and rode away, feeling sorry for her husband for he was under her spell and would do anything she asked of him. Turning back he walked into the shack and towered over the captive.

Larabee seemed to be dreaming and as his head moved from side to side he mumbled unintelligibly and tiny beads of sweat formed on his brow as his fever began to rise. He reached for the basin of soiled water and hurried to throw it out the window before getting fresh water and moving to the bed. Somehow it seemed silly to bathe the ravaged body, but he would do as ordered until such time that Chris Larabee was no longer needed.

“Jesus, Larabee, you’re a fucking mess!” Turner laughed and ran the cloth across the lean chest as he tried to cool the captive down.

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

Rosemary Clark watched as the rider raced towards her and waited for Manual to pull to a stop beside the front porch. She knew instinctively that something was wrong and was glad her husband was already sleeping.

“What’s happened?”

“Senora Tate sent me to get you. Something has happened and she needs your help!”

“What’s happened?”

“I do not know, but I found Senor Wilmington choking her and hit him with a bottle. She has him in her bed even now.”

“Saddle my horse, Manual! I need to check on Joseph!”

“Si, Senora!”

Clark turned back to the house and hurried towards her husband’s side. The sleeping draught she had given him with dinner would ensure that he slept through the night. She often slipped it to him when she did not want to feel his hands on her as he fumbled with making love. She quickly covered him with a blanket and hurried outside where Manual was waiting. She quickly mounted the big white mare and rode towards the Tate ranch.

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

Angela looked up as the sound of hoof beats reached her ears. She looked at the still unconscious man and was struck by the innocence she found in his relaxed state. This man was hers and she would not allow anyone to interfere in the life she was meant to have. Reaching for her robe she stood away from the bed and moved to the window. She smiled as she recognized the white horse bathed in moonlight and knew her friend had arrived. She looked at Wilmington once more and hurried out to the porch to greet her friend.

“Oh, Rosie, thank you for coming so quickly.”

“You know I’ll always be here, Angela. What’s going on?”

“Buck came back from town and said he didn’t think we should get married and I was so angry I screamed at him!”

“Why did he try to choke you?”

“I was so angry at being used by him that I threatened Larabee and he knows I know where Chris is! What am I going to do?”

“You’re going to do exactly what you planned and marry Wilmington!”

“He won’t marry me now!”

“Of course he will,” Rosemary declared, smiling as she took her friend’s arm and walked back to the bedroom. “After all you have that ace in the hole!”

“Yes, I do, don’t I?” The malicious grin spread over her face as she sat on the edge of her bed and gently tapped Wilmington’s cheeks. She heard a soft groan and knew he was on the verge of waking and smiled as the blue eyes finally opened.

Buck felt the touch of a soft hand on his cheek and forced heavy eyelids to open. He smiled as he looked into the familiar face, but that smile died before it completely formed and anger exploded as he tried to get free of the ropes that held him fast to the bed.

“Lie still, Buck, you’re not going anywhere just yet, but if you promise to behave I just might release you, although right now you look damn sexy and helpless!”

“I’ll show you who’s helpless, Bitch!” Wilmington spat as he continued to struggle against the bonds.

“Buck, I am going to say this once and after that Chris…”

“Where the hell is he?”

“Temper, temper, Buck,” Clark said as she sat opposite her friend.

“Get these fucking things off me!”

“Not just yet!” Tate said as she ran her fingers down his chest and stopped at his navel. “Now, I have let you get away with that vulgarity twice, but from now on any transgression on your part will result in punishment for Chris Larabee. Now I know you don’t want him hurt so I’m sure you’ll be willing to cooperate in my plans for our happiness.”

“You see, Buck, Angela and I are a team and right now we have something that you care about. Chris Larabee is a captive audience and you are the performer who can assure his survival, but you have to put on the performance of your life tomorrow when we bring the preacher out here! You and Angela will be married and live happily ever after and at the same time your friend will be treated according to your actions. As of right now you will not use that vulgar language and you will treat Angela with the respect she deserves.”

“I’ll kill you both for this!”

“Now, Buck, it’s time you realized who is in control and set your mind to pleasing me instead of making me angry.” Angela smiled as she leaned over the helpless man and pressed her lips to his.

“Don’t fuckin’ touch me!”

“Rosie!” Tate said sitting up as anger dominated her face.

“Yes, Angela?”

“When you go see Chris, break his arm!”

“No!”

“Certainly…”

“God no!”

“Any preference as to which one?”

“The left I think!”

“No! Sweet Jesus, Angela, don’t do this!”

“I’m sorry, Buck, but I warned you and now Chris will pay the price.”

“Angela, please, I’ll do anything you say.”

“I hope so, Buck, because Chris’ life really does depend on you. Rosie, make sure Chris knows why his arm is being broken!”

“I will!”

“God damn it! Please, Angela, I promise I’ll do whatever you say, just don’t do this!”

“You should have thought of that before you used those words. Now be still and listen to everything I have to say because I’m sure you don’t want to make the same mistake twice. Understood?”

“Y…yeah,” Wilmington stammered as he looked from one woman to the other. Their matching smiles did little to soften the horror he felt and his heart skipped a beat as he realized there was nothing he could do except cooperate for now.

“Good, because I can promise you that Chris Larabee will not like the consequences if you so much as breathe the wrong way!” Angela warned.

“Angela, let him go,” Wilmington tried, but knew by the malicious gleam in her eyes that he was speaking to someone he had never really known.

“Now, why would I do that?”

“Because I’m asking you to.”

“Oh, Buck, I love it when you beg like that, but I’m afraid you’ll have to prove how much you really love me before I give you any rewards.”

Buck’s stomach churned as he forced himself to remain calm in the face of the two women who seemed to hold all the cards. Taking a deep breath he felt some of the tension leave his body as he looked at the woman he had once thought he loved.

“I want to see him!”

“I don’t think so!” Angela said with a grin.

“Then how do I know you’re telling the truth and that Chris is even alive?”

“You take my word for it!”

“Your word does not mean much right now. I’ll cooperate if and when I see that Chris is alive!”

“I could have Rosie bring you a finger…”

“No!” Wilmington shouted and fought against the tight ropes that bound him to her bed.

“Such anger, Angela, are you sure you want to take him to your bed.”

“Oh my, yes, Rosie, I certainly do. Buck was always wonderful in bed and I crave the feel of his hands on my body.” She touched his cheek and smiled at the look of disgust on his face.

“Angela, I’m telling you right now that I won’t cooperate until I see Chris. I’ll fight you every step of the way and when the preacher gets here I’ll tell him and anyone who’ll listen what you’re doing!”

“I said no…”

“Angela, perhaps it would be best if we take him to see his friend.”

“We can’t let him see where we’re holding him!” Tate spat.

“We won’t have to. I’ve given you several sleeping draughts and we could give him one before we leave and another on the return journey. That way he can see that is friend is still alive, but he will not know where he is!”

“Will you take the sleeping draught, Buck?”

“Anything, Angela, but I need to talk to him.”

“I don’t know if he’ll be up to talking,” Clark said.

“What the hell does that mean?” Wilmington spat in anger.

“It seems that your friend had an argument with a bullet or two, but I assure you I’ve taken care of the wounds and even given him something to help with the pain, although I’m sure today will be even worse on him than the extraction of two bullets,” Clark said as she turned to her friend. “It was the right arm?”

“No, the left,” Angela said and watched Wilmington’s face for the reaction she wanted and knew she had his undivided attention. “I will have Carmon mix the sleeping draught and tell Manual to get the buckboard ready. You rest easy, Buck, and I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Wilmington watched the two women leave and tugged on the ropes, but they were too tight and he was finding it hard to concentrate. He now understood the meaning of the fine line between love and hate, and wanted to use that line to strangle Angela Tate and Rosemary Clark. Closing his eyes he thought about Chris Larabee and his own part in his long time friend’s misery.

‘God, Chris, I’m sorry,’ he thought and waited for the two women to return.

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

“I’m not so sure this is a good idea, Rosie,” Angela said as they walked into the kitchen and she told Carmon what she wanted.

“You’ll never keep him in line unless he sees that Chris is his own hostage to fortune, Angela. You need to make him realize that you truly do have the upper hand and that Larabee’s life depends on his behavior. It will also work in your favor to have him witness the breaking of his friend’s arm and I think that’s what will ensure his cooperation.”

“Buck does care about Chris.”

“Exactly, and he’ll be willing to do anything to keep us from hurting Larabee further, but we won’t be able to keep this up very long.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think Joseph is starting to come apart. I’m not sure how much longer I can control him.”

“What will you do?”

“Get rid of him, but it will also mean I’ll have to leave Midfield.”

“You can’t leave me!”

“I won’t have a choice, and neither will you. I think it would be best if we left before Rawlings becomes suspicious.”

“Damn it! How can everything have gone so wrong so fast?”

“It happens, Angela, remember St. Louis?”

“But I love him, Rosie.”

“I know you, do and I wish there was some other way, but you have to face the fact that sooner or later Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington will have to die.”

“When?”

“I think we’ll be safe for a couple of weeks. You do have money tucked away?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Good, because when we get ready to leave we’ll have to move fast.”

Angela knew her friend was right, but she wanted Buck Wilmington and she would have him, even if it were only for a few weeks. He would be hers to do with as she wished and Chris Larabee would be damned because he would suffer for anything that displeased her.

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

“JD, did you send that telegram?”

“Just sent it, Vin. Mrs. Potter said she’d let us know as soon as she got an answer back.”

“Good. I’m gonna go check on Chris’ place and maybe patrol the area, but I’ll be back by nightfall. Any problems just…ah hell, Kid, ya know what ta do as well’s the rest of us. I’ll see ya later.”

“Sure, Vin, watch your back!” Dunne warned and walked towards the livery with the soft-spoken Texan.

‘That’s Chris’ job,’ Tanner thought as he mounted Peso and headed out of town. Since Buck and Chris had ridden out of Four Corners, Vin’s hackles had been on edge and right now something was eating at him. He couldn’t place why he felt something was wrong, but had never been one to ignore his instincts. If there was no word from the two men when he returned he would head for Midfield at first light.

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

Chris licked at dry lips and bit back a groan as pain flared through his body. He’d heard Turner moving around in the line shack, but kept his eyes closed in an effort to keep the other man from knowing he was awake. He heard the door open and the distinct sounds of horses and opened his eyes. The shack was deserted and lit only by a small kerosene lamp that sat on the small table. He didn’t have time to search further as Turner entered and walked towards him.

“Glad ta see yer awake ‘cause we got company.”

“Who?” The blond asked as he looked beyond the man at the trio who entered the shack. “Buck!”

“C…Chris?” Wilmington’s head shot up when he heard the rasping voice and his eyes sought out the source of the sound. He tried to pull away from the two women, but his hands were tied and the manacles secured to his feet allowed for very little movement.

“Not yet, Buck, there is still the matter of his punishment,” Tate said as they steered Wilmington to a chair at the table.

Chris fought against his own bonds, but succeeded only in awakening the dormant pain in his side. He heard the two women telling Turner to make sure Wilmington could not get off the chair and cursed his own weakness as the trio successfully bound the gentle rogue in place.

“Angela, for God’s sake he’s already hurt too much. Don’t do this to him!”

“I warned you, Buck! Now he is going to take the punishment and if you keep on with this behavior he will suffer the consequences.” Tate said as she cupped his chin and kissed him long and hard.

“Leave him alone, Bitch!” Larabee spat, unaware of Turner moving to the opposite side of the bed.

“Watch that mouth of yours, Chris!” Rosemary warned as she looked at the two helpless men and smiled at the power she held in her hands.

“Now, Buck, sit still and enjoy the show,” Tate said and sat on the rogue’s legs. She knew he was still not quite focusing as the lingering effects of the sleeping draught made him weak.

“I’m begging you, Angela! I’ll do anything you say, but don’t let her do this!”

“She won’t,” Angela said and smiled at the relief that shone on Wilmington’s face. “But he will. Ethan, break his left arm!”

Chris swallowed hard as the impact of her words struck home and the length of rope around his left arm was shortened until his arm was stretched above his head. He saw Turner smiling maliciously as he lifted a rifle and held it above his arm.

“What the fuck?” He cursed as the full impact of her words shot home and the barrel of the rifle was driven into his arm near his elbow. He felt and heard the bone snap and Chris thought he heard a scream echo his own as sickening nausea raced through his stomach. He fought the restraints, which only added to the screaming agony of bone grating against bone.

“You bitch! God, Chris, I’m so sorry!”

“I will let you get away with that one, Buck, because you’re distraught, but be warned that I will not tolerate that language from you. Now I am going to give you five minutes alone with your friend, but you try anything and he will pay for it. Understood.”

“Yes, but his arm…”

“Rosie will see to it as soon as you’re done talking. Ethan, Rosie, come with me,” Tate ordered and left the two men alone.

Chris’ breath came in hitching gasps as he tried to breath past the bile rising like an ocean in his throat. There was no longer any sensation of one pain as it grew to an extreme where there was no way to distinguish what hurt worse. He heard someone calling his name and tried to speak, but again the pain was too much and he turned his head as his stomach gave up its meager contents.

“Chris, Chris…look at me! God I’m sorry,” Wilmington tried and was rewarded when Larabee’s head turned towards him, angered by the pain that was evident on his face.

“B…Buck…why?”

“She’s crazy, Chris.”

“G…get away, d…don’t stay h…here!” Larabee ground out between gasping breaths.

“I won’t leave you!” The ladies’ man vowed as he watched his friend struggle with the newest torment heaped on his shaking body.

“G…get help…”

“If I get away they’ll kill you, Chris, and I won’t let that happen.”

“St…staying w…with her will k…kill you. G…get help! V…Vin…others…come…”

“Something tells me the boys will come anyway because I don’t think she sent a message at all and Rosie runs the telegram.”

“T…that’s h…how she knew w…what I w…was doing. T…tried to telegram S…St. Louis…find out ‘bout h…her. God, Buck!”

“Easy, Chris, just try to be still!”

“So, Buck, have we come to an understanding?”

“What do you mean, Angela?”

“Are you willing to marry me or should I just have Ethan take care of Chris now? I assure you that his death will not be an easy thing to watch!”

“No, Angela, don’t let him touch Chris. You make sure he’s taken care of and I’ll do anything you ask of me.”

“No, Buck, s…sell soul to devil first.”

“Think I already have, Chris, and I wish it hadn’t been at the cost of yours,” Wilmington said as Rosemary held a cup of liquid to his lips. He knew what it contained and knew he would be asleep as soon as they put him in the buckboard and he let his gaze wander back to his friend. No words were spoken, but beneath the pain he read the promise of retribution and gave a simple nod that the message was received and understood. No matter what happened there would be hell to pay before all was said and done.

“Angela, I’m going to set his arm and give him a shot of morphine,” Rosemary said having read the message in the men’s body language.

“Don’t touch me!” Larabee ground out through tightly clenched teeth.

“Do you really think you can dictate what I can or can’t do, Chris?” Rosemary said with a smile as she stood staring into the pale face.

“Bitch!”

“No!” Wilmington cried out as the woman viciously slapped Larabee across the face.

“Get him to finish the drink, Angela and then get Ethan to help you out to the buckboard while I finish things with my reluctant patient!” Clark ordered and released Larabee’s now useless left arm. She smiled maliciously as he yelped in surprised pain.

“Jesus, Angela, please stop this!”

“I’m afraid I can’t. Besides she’s doing what needs to be done if he’s to have use of his arm again. Ethan find something she can use for splints while Buck finishes his ‘tea’.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Turner said and hurried out the door.

Chris watched in horrified surprise as the woman moved his arm and tried to put the broken bone in place. He knew from experience it wasn’t easy, but the woman before him seemed to take pleasure in prolonging his discomfort. He fought the waves of nausea and tried to see past her to where the ladies’ man sat, but Rosemary Clark successfully blocked his view. 

“Almost done, Chris, and then I’m going to have to immobilize this arm. I’ll strap it to your chest. There, all done. That wasn’t so bad was it?”

“B…bitch!” the blond cursed softly as he fought to breathe. He watched as she loaded a syringe and tried to move away from her, but there was no slack in the ropes and he was forced to watch as she injected the narcotic into his vein.

“That should keep you comfortable for a while.” She said and took the splints from Ethan Turner. She quickly set about fixing them in place and then used other materials to strap his arm to his chest. By the time she was finished he was glassy eyed and seemed to be laughing at her. “I see you’re feeling better, Chris.”

“Fuck…ing Bitch!” Larabee laughed, but the strength was not there as he tried to find Wilmington once more. Their eyes met for less than a second, but the promise was there once more.

“Are you ready to go, Buck?” Tate asked.

“Please, Angela, I’ll go anywhere…do anything…be anybody you want me to be if you just let him go. He can’t hurt you!”

“He knows about me and Rosie, Buck, so for now he stays put and you share my bed. Come on, Lover, the night is late and I want to enjoy the fruits of my endeavors.”

Buck felt himself pulled to his feet and realized he hadn’t even felt the ropes removed from the chair. He turned and looked over his shoulder as the two women led him out the door. His last glimpse of Chris Larabee sent a tremor of grizzly fear through his body and he wondered if he’d ever see the man alive again.

~~~~~~~~~~~

It was late when Vin Tanner returned to the town he now called home, but he knew the others would still be in the saloon. Turning Peso over to Yosemite he turned and walked briskly towards the establishment. He’d done a lot of thinking while patrolling the area and his gut instincts were kicking in more than ever. Something was wrong and he knew whatever it was didn’t bode well for Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington.

The tracker pushed open the batwing doors and immediately spotted the four men seated at the usual table towards the back wall. There were three others present and they seemed to be playing a hand of cards, but without much enthusiasm. Vin smiled inwardly because he knew from experience that Ezra Standish had probably already won their wages and left them with little or no means of winning it back. He hurried to join the four peacekeepers as Inez delivered a fresh drink for each of them.

“How are things out at Chris’ place?” Dunne asked.

“Quiet,” Tanner answered before washing down the days dust with the glass of beer.

“Always is,” Jackson said.

“Any word from Chris or Buck?”

“Nothing,” Standish answered simply.

“I’m ridin’ fer Midfield first light,” the Texan told them.

“I think we’re all in agreement that something is wrong in that fair town,” Standish said.

“Vin, Ezra and I will be riding with you,” Sanchez explained as he looked at the others. They’d talked it through before Tanner’s arrival and knew it was time to find out what was keeping Larabee and Wilmington from answering their summons.

“I’d go, but Mrs. Jenkins is due any day and well it bein’ her first she’s as skittish as a newborn calf,” Jackson explained.

“And I got two men waiting for the marshals to pick them up,” Dunne said unable to hide the disappointment in his voice.

“All right, I’m gonna catch a couple hours sleep. Meet ya at the livery at first light,” Tanner told them as he stood up and headed for the door. As he stepped through the door he caught a glimpse of the moon and for a few seconds it seemed to be bathed in a pale red glow and Vin shuddered as he thought of the two missing men.

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

Buck opened his eyes and tried to focus on the world around him. His memories were fuzzy and it was hard to concentrate and he briefly wondered why Nathan had drugged him. A sudden scent struck him and with its onslaught came the memories that were just out of his reach moments before. The memory of a scream of pain and the glassy green eyes that promised redemption for both of them made his heart beat a little faster. He heard movement on his left and he turned to see the most beautiful she-devil he’d ever known.

“Hello, Lover, I’m so pleased you’ve decided to rejoin me. Last night was so good, but I know it can be even better when you’re wide awake and a willing partner.”

“Angela, why are you doing this?”

“Because I love you, Buck, and want us to be happy. Maybe we could have a baby and you could be a real father and love us.”

“I could never love you. Not after what you’ve done!”

“Maybe not, but at least I’ll have a satisfying partner in my bed. And if by chance you can’t perform there are ways to ensure your cooperation. A few things I’ve been able to acquire from the little man who does the laundry at Rosie’s hotel.”

“You’ve changed,” Wilmington stated as she sat down beside him. His arms were tied to the bedpost, but his legs were free and he fought the urge to kick out at her.

“No, Lover, you have. There was a time when you would have craved the excitement I offered.”

“Not if it meant someone had to suffer.”

“Chris doesn’t have to suffer, Buck, not if you keep up your end of our bargain even if you do consider it a bargain with the devil,” Angela laughed as she stroked her hand down his taut biceps.

“I won’t answer that because I don’t want to see Chris hurt anymore than you already have hurt him. What you did was cruel.”

“No, Buck, it was justice because you wronged me.” Tate warned as she struggled to control her own anger. “I do hope you won’t be the reason for him being hurt anymore!”

“I won’t, Angela, but be warned that someday I’ll find a way to get Chris out of this and when I do I’ll see you and that other she-devil hung for murder!”

“You can’t prove we murdered anyone!”

“Not yet, but I’ll find a way!”

“Don’t be so sure. By the way Reverend Collins will be out tomorrow and you and I can exchange our vows and you can tell him how much you love me.”

“It’ll be a lie,” Wilmington stated.

“I’m sure it will, but you’d better make him and my other guests believe you or I’ll have Rosie visit Larabee again!”

“Don’t!”

“That depends on you, Lover,” Angela said and disrobed before sliding into the bed with her captive mate. She trembled at the touch of his body against hers and vowed she’d have him as often as she could during their time together.

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

They’d been on the trail for over ten hours and Josiah knew he had to call a halt to it before the horses collapsed and they were left to walk the trail to Midfield. He spurred his mount past Standish and reached for Peso’s reins only to receive a sidelong glare from the Texan.

“Vin, we need to rest the horses.”

“Still got an hour of daylight,” Tanner told him.

“Yes, but we’re all tired and wearing out the horses won’t get us there any faster. In fact it’ll probably slow us down!”

“Mr. Sanchez is correct in his appraisal of the horses. They are indeed beginning to show signs of exhaustion,” Standish said as he drew up alongside his companions.

“Vin, we’re all worried about Chris and Buck, but we’ll be no good to them if we don’t get there in time.”

“All right, Josiah. There’s a place ‘bout a mile ahead that’s got water and grass,” Tanner said and rode ahead.

“Mr. Tanner’s concern is showing,” Standish said.

“I know, and that’s not like Vin. He’s usually as tight lipped as Chris,” Sanchez said as they watched the Texan ride towards a cluster of boulders and sagebrush.

“Do you believe that our missing members are truly in need of our assistance?”

“I don’t, but if Vin’s this hell bent on getting to Midfield then I’m willing to ride along and watch his back.”

“He does seem to have a certain ability to know what is happening with Mr. Larabee.”

“Yes, he does. Something tells me they are kindred spirits and were meant to cross paths in Four Corners.”

“Very astute of you.”

“Thank you,” Sanchez said and turned a toothy grin on his riding companion. “Now what do you say to catching up with Vin?”

“Certainly, Mr. Sanchez,” Standish said as the two men picked up their pace.

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

Ethan Turner paced back and forth in the small confines of the shack. It had been raining most of the day and he was irritated that he couldn’t get outside. His anger escalated each time he looked at the man lying on the bed. He should be on the floor, but the women had insisted that he be kept in the bed. Right now the money he was being paid did not make the situation better and he reached for the bottle of whiskey on the table. He sprawled on the chair and lifted the bottle to his mouth.

Chris watched the man as he dropped onto the chair and returned his attention to the rapidly emptying whiskey bottle. Turner looked as if he’d be a mean drunk and somehow Chris knew that meanness would soon show through. The man seemed to be on edge since the rain had started and Chris had no idea how long ago that was. Between the utter pain and the laudanum-laced drinks he had lost track of time and didn’t even know what day it was. He’d thought long and hard about what Buck was being forced to do because of him and wished there was some way out of the mess they were both trapped in. His attention returned to the man at the table as he heard the bottle slammed hard on the surface. Turner was out of liquor and Chris had a feeling things were about to get a whole lot worse for him as the man picked up a knife and started twirling it between his fingers.

“I know you’re awake, Larabee. Heard ya movin’ around and tryin’ not ta groan, but it ain’t workin’.

Chris swallowed and shifted slightly in an effort to get a better view of his tormentor. The lethal looking blade sent shivers down his spine, but he was helpless to do anything about it. He watched as the man twirled it and the light reflected off the shiny steel. The light also caught the glassy, drunken eyes of the baby-faced killer seated at the table.

“Ya listenin’ ta me, ya miserable sonofabitch?”

“I hear you,” Larabee answered in hopes of keeping the man from doing anything more than twirling the knife.

“I should drag ya outta that bed and show ya who’s really in charge!”

“You bow to those women, Turner. No way have you got the guts to free me!”

“Ain’t gonna free ya! Just gonna drag ya off the bed and tie ya in a corner like the dawg ya are!”

“You don’t have the guts! Scared of them two ladies!”

“Shut that fuckin’ mouth or I’ll shut it for ya!”

“I don’t think so, Turner. From where I am you’re so scared of them two you’re getting a yellow streak down your back!”

“Shut up!”

“What’s the matter? Truth hurts!” Larabee knew he’d gone too far as Turner stood and crossed the short distance in a two strides. The man stood over him and lashed out with the blade, slicing into the bandages that covered his side. Chris could not move as Turner placed the tip of the blade at his throat.

“Not so fuckin’ cocky now are ya?”

“S…sick fuck…”

“Shut up, Larabee! God damn it ya’d best do as I say or I’ll slit yer throat and let the vermin have yer body before it’s even cold!” Turner spat as he watched Larabee’s face convulse in pain. He removed the blade and looked at the blood seeping through the bandages and knew he’d gone too far. Rosemary Clark had warned him not to do anything to the captive, but the liquor had made him forget his place. He had to do something to stop the bleeding before Larabee died or else he’d have signed his own death warrant. He grabbed the towel draped over the chair and lifted the bandages from the injured man’s side as he swiped at the sweat from his eyes.

“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! See whatcha made me do?”

Chris was beyond hearing the man’s angry voice and the words did not make sense anymore as the burning pain in his side intensified. He felt someone pressing against the wound, but could not find the energy to open his eyes and see who it was. As darkness descended Chris Larabee gave himself over to the welcoming oblivion.

Turner worked hard to stop the bleeding and was relieved when it seemed to have slowed. He quickly reached for the basin of clean water and carbolic and bathed the reddened area in an effort to bring down the swelling and rid the area of any sign of bleeding. The cobwebs had left him shaken and angry, but he could not take his anger out on this man, not here, not now! He placed clean bandages over the wound and went for more water to wipe down the fevered body that lay quietly in the bed.

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

“Buck, I’m going to release you, but I’m warning you not to try anything or Chris will pay dearly for it. Do I make myself clear?”

“Perfectly,” Wilmington snapped as he stared at the hated figure standing beside the bed. He knew she was expecting Reverend Collins and several other guests later in the day. She’d come to him that morning and told him of her plans and what the outcome would be if he didn’t convince everyone of his undying love for her.

“Very well. Oh, I have a suit ready for you and I expect you to wear it today. I’m having several new outfits tailored to fit you as they should and they will be my wedding present to you. What are you getting for me?” Tate asked as she placed her hands on his chest and leaned down to kiss him once more.

“Ain’t got nothin’ to give you, Angela. You took everything I offered and twisted it into something dirty and twisted and there’s nothing that can change that. Oh, I’ll perform for you…just like those people who make out they’re Shakespeare’s characters, but you and I will both know the truth. There’s no way around that!”

“That’s okay, Lover, because I have enough love for both of us. Now don’t you go telling Reverend Collins about our sleeping arrangements because I’ll just deny it. As of now you’ve been sleeping in the spare room.”

“I’d rather sleep there anyway…alone!”

“That’s not going to happen, Lover. Once our guests have left you and I are going to celebrate our upcoming wedding.”

“Sounds more like a death sentence to me,” Wilmington stated flatly.

“Now, Buck, I think it’s time you realized that we’re going to be husband and wife and like it or not you’re going to be a willing participant. After all Chris Larabee is depending on you or have you forgotten that little detail?”

“I haven’t forgotten, Angela, but you mark my words and hear me real good. There will come a time when you won’t be holding all the cards and when that time comes I’ll make you pay for everything you and your friends have done to Chris. Understood?”

“Understood, but you’d better understand me, Buck Wilmington. You’ve just cost your friend the use of his leg, because those scalding comments don’t sit within the boundaries of our arrangement.”

“No, Angela, please…”

“You should have thought of that before, Lover. I warned you I would not appreciate any kind of threats.”

“I didn’t mean it,” Wilmington lied as she reached over his head to untie the knots in the ropes.

“Why should I believe you, Buck?”

“Give me a chance to prove it and I promise you won’t be sorry, Angela.”

“You put on a good show, Lover, and maybe I’ll reconsider. Rosie and Joseph will be here and she will be riding out to visit Chris. What she does when she sees him depends very much on how well you please me today.”

Buck felt his arms released and tried to rub the circulation back into his hands as he stared into the glacial green eyes. His hatred grew with every breath he took, with every sensation of her body against his, and with the very scent he associated with her. Fighting back the nausea he reached for her and pulled her into his arms. He’d learned at an early age that men and women could fake their bodies’ reactions and he forced himself to concentrate on the feelings he once had for this woman. He heard her soft moans of pleasure and knew he was giving her what she craved. Forcing down the bitter bile that rose in his throat, Buck Wilmington knew he had indeed sold his soul to the she-devil in his arms.

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

Evan Rawlings smiled at Reverend Collins and his sister Martha as they arrived at the front gate of the Tate ranch. Martha wasn’t a particularly beautiful woman, but to Rawlings there was a hidden beauty seldom seen and he’d been seriously considering asking the woman to several barn dances in the area. His thoughts returned to the reason for his presence at the Tate ranch as they rode closer to the house. He’d been surprised to hear that Buck Wilmington was going ahead with his marriage to Angela Tate. Even more surprising was the invitation he received to attend the dinner the woman was holding in honor of the upcoming wedding. Rosemary Clark had come to the jail early in the afternoon and handed him a formal invitation and one he was intrigued by to say the least. He’d searched through his clothing to find something halfway suitable for the dinner and was pleased with his appearance. He tipped his hat as he came abreast of the buggy driven by Reverend Phillip Collins.

“Evenin’ Reverend, Miss Collins.”

“Good evening, Sheriff, I must say it is wonderful to see you dressed in such finery,” Miss Collins said with a smile. It was rare to see Rawlings without his customary white shirt and black vest, and she knew there would be several ladies who would do anything to spend the evening in his company, but tonight she would see if there was anything between them besides the flirting.

“Thank you, Ma’am, you look lovely tonight.”

Phillips Collins smiled as he helped his sister down from the buggy. He knew she had feelings for the sheriff and hoped the two would stop the mating dance and tell each other how they felt. He deposited his sister on the ground and reached for her parasol and handed it to her.

“Thank you, Phillip. Shall we?”

“Of course,” Rawlings said as he linked arms with the pretty woman and walked toward the front door and knocked.  He smiled as the door was opened by Angela Tate’s housemaid, Carmon. She motioned them into the house and closed the door before leading them to the main parlor. Without a word of explanation she left the trio alone and closed the door behind her.

“Miss Tate certainly has a beautiful home,” Martha Collins said as she explored the room. A large bookcase took up most of one wall and a small settee and matching armchair took up the other. A large window in the wall opposite the door allowed sunlight to brighten the floral paper that covered the walls.

“Never seen so many flowers in one place before,” Rawlings commented as the sweet scent of roses and honeysuckle threatened to take his breath away and he sneezed. “Excuse me. Sorry.”

“No need to apologize, Sheriff.”

“Please call me Evan, Ma’am.”

“Only if you call me Martha,” the woman said sweetly.

“Done, Martha.”

“It’s about time you two quit dancing around and settled on a first name basis,” Phillip said as he sat in the armchair leaving the two younger people no choice, but to sit on the small settee.

“Phillip, never berate a man for being a gentleman,” Martha scolded.

“I wasn’t berating him, I was applauding him,” the reverend said with a smile.

“Oh,” she said and ducked her head slightly before looking around the room once more. “I wonder where Mr. And Mrs. Clark are?”

“They may be a little late. Joseph was still working when I left town,” Rawlings explained as Carmon returned with a tray that contained a pitcher of lemonade and glasses and placed them on the table. She left hurriedly and once more closed the door.

“I wonder if we’re going to see our host and hostess after all,” Martha said.

“Now, My Dear, don’t talk like that it doesn’t become you,” Phillip said.

“Well, it is bad form to leave the guests wondering,” the woman said as she accepted a glass of lemonade and waited for the others to make an appearance.