“Buck, our guests have arrived,” Angela said as she entered the room to find Wilmington standing at the window dressed in the clothing she’d set out for him.
The rogue didn’t acknowledge her presence right away. He’d been staring out the window, wondering where they were holding Chris Larabee and how the hell he was supposed to search for him when Angela seemed dead set on spending every minute with him and when she was unavailable, one of her men would be there to make sure he didn’t ride off on his own.
“Did you hear me, Buck?”“Yeah, I heard you,” Wilmington answered, sighing in disgust as he turned towards the object of his hatred. They’d made love before she left to make sure things were ready and he’d felt dirty at the thought of what he’d done, yet what choice did he have.
“I must say that suit does fit you perfectly. Women will be very envious of me when they see us together,” Tate said as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him into a lustful kiss. She deepened it and smiled as he tried to draw away, but seemed to remember their arrangement and the kiss deepened for several drawn out seconds. She pulled away, breathing heavily as she straightened her floor length green dress and fanned herself. “My, my, but it’s warm in here. I wish we could stay and continue this, but it would not do to keep Reverend Collins waiting. After all we have much to discuss before tomorrows celebrations.”
Buck felt her arm link through his and walked out the door with her and along the hallway towards the parlor. He knew he had to make things look good and forced a smile to his face as he opened the door and held it for her. They entered the parlor and Wilmington was surprised to see Evan Rawlings sitting beside a woman around his own age.
“Hello, Miss Tate, Buck?”
“Evan,” Wilmington greeted, smiling slightly as he shook the other man’s hand.
“Hello, Reverend, Miss Collins, I’m so glad you could come out here tonight,” Tate said with a smile as she reached for the other woman’s hand. “I do love your dress.”
“Thank you, Miss Tate,” Martha said, as the three men seemed to leave them alone. “You look beautiful and please call me Martha.”
“Martha, and you must call me Angela. Miss Tate is so formal.”
“Angela, you have such a lovely home.”
“Thank you, but I can’t take the credit for it all. Rosemary is wonderful with making sure everything has a place,” Tate explained as the door opened once more and the Clarks were issued inside.
“Good evening everyone,” Rosemary greeted as she moved to her friend and hugged her close. “You look lovely, Angela. How are things?”
“Perfect so far. See the smile on Buck’s face?” She asked as they released each other and moved to speak with the others.
“Rosie, Joseph, I believe you know everyone here.”
“Yes we do,” Rosemary said as Wilmington moved to serve drinks.
“Would anyone like something stronger than Lemonade?” Buck asked.
“Lemonade is strong enough for me,” Martha answered.
“I’d like a brandy,” Rosemary said and nodded in pleasure at the handsome rogue. So far he was being the perfect host and she wondered if he’d be able to keep it up.
“Brandy would be wonderful, Buck,” Tate said and walked over to join the two women at the settee.
“Joseph, would you like a drink?” Wilmington asked.
“Whiskey,” the older man answered and joined the three men near the window.
“Lemonade will suffice,” Collins answered.
“How about you, Evan?”
“Whiskey,” the sheriff answered, studying his friend’s face and noting the forced smile. He’d been a lawman and studied enough faces to know when things were not as they seemed and right now he was reading Wilmington’s face like an open book. He wouldn’t say anything until he was sure they were alone, but something about his friend’s demeanor did not set right with him.
Buck sensed the sheriff watching him and didn’t meet his eyes as he poured the brandy into the glasses and served it to Tate and Clark. He then served the whiskey and took a deep breath before reaching for Angela and pulling her close.
“Oh, Buck, we have company,” the woman said coyly.
“Yes, but I am a man in love and when you’re close I can think of nothing else, but holding you in my arms.”
“Easy, Darling, we still have to wait until it’s official. It’s only one more day!”
“Too long when all I want…”
“Ahem,” Collins cut in.
“Oh, sorry, I forgot myself. Angela and I have agreed to wait until we’re married and I’ve been trying to grant that wish. She is a woman of true virtue,” the rogue easily lied.
“One of us has to be,” Tate said with a laugh as she pulled away from her intended. She returned her attention to the two women and began talking about what they’d be wearing to the small gathering.
“So, Buck, you’re really gonna marry Angela,” Rawlings stated.
“Yeah, she’s everything I ever wanted in life. I’ve always known we were meant to be together and I can’t tell you how glad I was when I got the message from her.”
“Sounds like love to me. One of God’s greatest gifts is the love between a man and a woman and the family they raise together,” Phillips said.
“Now, Reverend, they haven’t even said I do and you have them starting a family,” Rawlings said with a laugh.
“Yes, well the Lord works in mysterious ways and I believe this union is one he blessed long ago. Angela told me she’s known you for a long time,” Collins said.
“We go back a few years,” Wilmington answered.
“That they do. I knew Buck, Chris, and Angela…”
“Chris?” the reverend asked curiously.
“Chris Larabee. He rode into town with Buck, but I haven’t seen him around since he sent a telegram a few days ago.”
“That’s because he went home, Evan. I told you in the saloon that Chris left a message for me saying he had to go back to Four Corners,” Wilmington explained as Angela joined them.
“Is everything okay, Buck?” Tate asked.
“Everything’s fine, Darlin’. Evan just forgot about me tellin’ him about Chris’ message.” Wilmington explained as the other women joined them. He looked at Rawlings and shook his head imperceptibly and hoped the man got the message. Rawlings knew of his true feelings about Angela Tate and of his determination not to rush into marriage, yet here he was acting like a love struck kid on his wedding night, yet what he felt was disgust whenever she was near him.
“I’m so glad you’re not worried about Chris anymore, Buck. You seemed as if you were tied up in knots about his whereabouts.” Angela said and saw a spark of anger in his eyes. “I believe Carmon has dinner ready and she does make the most delicious roast beef and gravy and I do believe today’s events have left me rather famished.”
Rosemary Clark found herself lagging behind as she fought the urge to laugh at her friend’s comment. She felt her husband’s hand on her arm and followed him out of the room as he bent low to speak in her ear.
“You’re playing a dangerous game, Rosemary.”
“You know I love dangerous games, Joseph,” she whispered as the others entered the dining room.
“Yes, but this is one game that could have deadly consequences and I don’t like it.”
“I promised I would not kill Chris Larabee, Joseph, and I will keep my word no matter what happens. Now lets go in to dinner before we’re missed.”
The stars created a blanket of light in the dark sky over their heads, but only one man actually saw them. Vin Tanner sat on a fallen log near the edge of the ring of light cast by the flickering fire. He’d taken first watch and would probably let Ezra sleep a little longer before waking him. There was no pressing need for a sentry, but there was always the possibility that someone was on their trail. His thoughts turned once more to the missing men and he wondered why they hadn’t contacted Four Corners.
Since Chris Larabee’s disappearance in Jericho nearly six months ago, they’d come up with the plan that while away from home they would contact their fellow peacekeepers at first opportunity. Chris and Buck should have contacted them nearly a week ago, but there’d been nothing and his instincts were telling him they needed to get to Midfield before it was too late. His eyelids were growing heavy and he knew he had to get some sleep or tomorrow would find a riled bear in buckskin riding Peso and the others didn’t deserve his anger and impatience.
Vin walked over to the sleeping men and gently nudged the gambler who grumbled about having a dead man’s hand before startled green eyes opened and looked around.
“Easy, Ez, it’s just me.”
“Mr. Tanner, you are extremely lucky I have the instincts needed not to pull the trigger,” Standish told him.
“Always knew you had gentle hands, Ez.”
“I would not consider them gentle, just very sure,” Standish said as he threw back his blanket and stood up.
“Guess ya slept well.”
“Very well, just not as lengthy as I normally require. Sleep well, Mr. Tanner, for dawn seems ready to spread her blanket.”
“Jesus, Ezra, thought Vin was the poet.”
“He is, Mr. Sanchez, I am but a student of his expertise,” Standish said with a flourishing bow. “Good night, gentlemen.”
“Night, Ez,” Tanner said, grabbing his saddle and lying down. He reached for the blanket Standish had used and covered himself with it. “Night, Josiah.”
“Night, Vin,” Sanchez said and closed his eyes once more.
Chris woke to the loud sound of snoring next to his left ear and quickly opened his eyes. Dazed and confused he shifted away from the sour smell of whiskey and tobacco and groaned as pain slammed through his body and mind. He trembled as he tried to put some order to the twisted memories that flowed through his mind. He looked at the dirty head that seemed to be resting near him and his memory quickly cleared as the man’s name slipped past dry lips.
“Tu…Turner!” The man mumbled something about being stupid and Chris waited to see if the bastard would go back to sleep. He didn’t want to be on the receiving end of Turner’s twisted attention and tried to remain still as he waited for the pain to subside. His feet were numb and he wondered about the circulation as he tried to lift his head, but there was just no strength left. The stench coming from the man snoring next to him was overpowering and he wished the man would wake up and get away from him. He was tempted to try waking him, but decided against calling attention to himself and finally turned his head and let his eyes slide closed.
Chris knew his own position was dangerous, but was more worried about Buck Wilmington and what he was being forced to do. Being forced into a loveless marriage was one thing, but being forced into a marriage with a woman you’d grown to despise was even worse. Buck was a man who loved women and had never done anything to harm one, although there were a few exceptions. Chris knew that Buck could easily kill Ella Gaines on sight for what she’d done to Sarah and Adam. Now there were at least two other names that could be added to that short list. Angela Tate and Rosemary Clark had made a bitter enemy out of the ladies’ man and someday he knew they would both regret the day they’d crossed him. Chris just hoped that he lived to see that day, but as he shifted and cried out, he wondered if he would even live past their wedding day.
Chris felt Turner move beside him and the dirty head lifted and looked around before settling once more on the bed. Too tired to do anything about the disgust he felt, Chris closed his eyes and prayed he would be alive to see the next day.
It was very late when the last of their guests left and Buck stood next to Angela as she said goodbye to Joseph and Rosemary Clark. He’d seen her talking to the woman earlier in the evening and needed to know what had been said. The smile on their faces was enough to let him know they were talking about Chris Larabee and he needed to know what they’d decided about his performance. As far as he could tell no one had noticed anything amiss.
“Angela, what did you tell Rosemary?” Wilmington asked as the woman turned to face him.
“Whatever do you mean, Lover?” Tate asked and pulled him into a kiss. “I’ve been waiting to do that all night.”
“What did you tell her, Angela?” the rogue asked again as he gripped her wrists.
“I told her that you redeemed yourself for now and that she’s to take special care of Chris when she visits him tomorrow. You’ll be able to ask her how he’s doing when her and Joseph come over before our wedding.”
Buck wasn’t sure if the woman realized she’d just disclosed that Chris had to be close by if Clark would be able to visit him, and still be at the house before three o’clock, which was the time of the ceremony that would bind him to the she-devil before him.
“Buck! Did you hear me?” Tate asked, angered by his seeming lack of interest.
“Sorry, my mind was elsewhere.”
“Well, Lover, it’s not your mind I need right now, but I’m warning you that the reprieve you won for your friend is in serious danger if you don’t perform tonight.” She ran her fingers along the firm jaw line and once more pressed her lips to his. This time she got the reaction she was looking for and she deepened the kiss until she stood breathless before him once more. “Carry me to our room, Buck.”
With little choice in the matter, Buck picked her up and easily carried her to the bedroom they’d been sharing. He placed her on the bed and sat on the edge as she reached for him.
“Love me, Buck.”
“I’ll never love you, Angela, not like I once did.”
“Careful, Lover,” her eyes were glacial in the light cast by the lamp. “You’re dangerously close to crossing that line again.”
Buck swallowed the bitter bile that threatened to choke him as he turned to face her and watched as she sat on the edge of the bed next to him. The beauty he’d seen there before had been replaced by an ugliness that went beyond the surface and shone like the coldest depths of hell. Angela Tate was a woman without a soul and she was eating away at his.
“Shall we start again? Love me, Buck.”
Without a word Buck began removing his clothing and knew there was no choice. Not here, not now, maybe not ever, but he hoped and prayed that Evan Rawlings was as good at reading people signs as Vin Tanner was at reading signs no one else seemed able to recognize. He closed his eyes and lay down with the woman he’d come to despise and began worshipping her body.
Evan Rawlings nodded to Reverend Collins and his sister as he escorted them to their house at the edge of town. It was nearing midnight, but the night sky had been covered with brightly twinkling stars surrounding a full-bodied moon. The trail was well lit, but Rawlings knew it by heart and could find his way home during a fierce storm. He waited until the duo were inside and then rode his horse towards the livery. It was quiet and he knew most of the town had been in bed for hours, giving him plenty of time to think. His mind quickly wandered back over the evenings’ events and he kept seeing Wilmington with his arm around Angela Tate and the small motion the man made with his head. That alone had caused him to pause and take notice, but coupled with the fact that Wilmington had told him he wasn’t going to rush into a marriage with the woman, Rawlings knew something more was going on than met the eye.
“What the hell is going on, Buck, and where is Chris?” He whispered as he dismounted in front of the livery. Jacobs would already have gone to bed and he knew he would have to take care of his horse on his own. He knew there was nothing he could do about it tonight, but tomorrow he would go see Joseph Clark and make sure a message was sent to Four Corners requiring an answer as quickly as possible. Buck Wilmington was to be married in less than twenty-four hours, and somehow he thought instead of it being the happiest day of a man’s life it was more of a death sentence. He had to help his long time friend, he owed him that much.
Rosemary Clark arose with the first light of dawn and stretched her arm high over her body as she looked at the man who shared her bed. She’d drugged him the night before in an effort to keep from feeling his hands fumbling with her body and knew that he would remember nothing after they returned home the night before.
She eased out of the bed and reached for her robe before heading towards the kitchen and the promise of fresh coffee. The young woman she’d hired over a year ago was deaf and mute, but she could easily get her to understand what was expected of her. Maria was also very afraid of retaliation if she did not please her employer. She smiled as shaking hands passed her a white china cup filled to the brim with the aromatic brew she was used to.
Rosemary shook her head when Maria motioned to the plate of biscuits and bacon she’d placed at the center of the hard wood table. She was not hungry; in fact her stomach was doing flip-flops as if she was the one getting married today. She turned away from the young woman and headed back to her bedroom to change into her riding clothes. She looked at her husband in distaste as she pulled on her clothes and left the house. She hurried to the stable and told Matthew Jennings to get her horse ready and make sure her saddlebags were also added to the animals’ saddle. By the time she mounted up, the sun was just beginning her daily ritual and the promise of a bright day for the wedding that would take place later in the day.
Ethan Turner was worried and it showed in the way he paced in front of the line shack. Since waking up he’d been trying to get the blond’s fever down, but no amount of wiping him down was helping. Chris Larabee was in the throes of fever-induced nightmares that had him screaming, crying, and thrashing about on the bed.
“What the hell am I supposed ta do now?” He shouted as the cries seemed to weaken and the body dropped back on the bed where soft keening moans escaped the parched throat. He turned back towards the clean basin of water he’d just fetched from the deep well and picked it up before entering through the open door.
“God damn it!” he cursed his own inadequacies as he wondered how he was going to explain Larabee’s condition. He took the cloth and soaked it in the water and again washed down the fevered man.
“B…Buck, t…that you? Hot, Buck…too hot! W…where’s Sarah? Sarah!”
“Look I don’t know who the fuck Sarah is, but your friend is fine, okay! Now I ain’t one ta give a damn what happens ta ya, but right now I gotta keep ya alive or she’ll rip the skin off my back…”
“You’re damn right she will! What did you do?” Clark asked as she rushed forward and replaced Turner in the chair.
“Ain’t done nothin’! I’ve been doin’ everything ya told me too and this mornin’ I woke up ta him screamin’ for someone named Sarah!”
“Yeah, think maybe she’s dead ‘cause he’s wailin’ like a banshee and tellin’ Wilmington not ta stop him from savin’ her!”
“Chris, I need you to listen to me. I’m going to help you!”
Larabee heard a voice calling him and the promise of relief from the pain and heat that scorched his body and mind. He tried to speak, but his mouth and throat were drier than the desert he’d ridden through with Buck on the way to Mexico. He forced his tongue past cracked lips and looked up into the face that seemed to be bathed in a bright light. He sighed contentedly as he tried to reach for the woman, but frowned as his arms refused to move.
“I’m right here, Chris. I’m going to make you feel better and then I want you to eat and get some sleep,” Clark spoke in soft soothing tones as she placed her hands on both his cheeks.
Chris frowned as a scent suddenly overpowered everything else and he knew beyond a doubt that whoever this woman was she was not his beloved wife. He forced the words through his ravaged throat and inwardly winced at the weakness behind them.
“N…no Sarah…Buck!” he cried and sought out the motive blue eyes he’d trusted for so long. The familiar voice did not answer and Chris caught sight of the man standing just to the right of the woman. Memories returned, but Chris had no strength with which to fight anymore as he remembered the woman’s name.
“Ethan, we need to get his fever under control! There are several packets of powder and herbs in my saddlebags. Put half of each packet in a cup and mix it with hot water. Then we’re going to get some water into him and clean him up. I’ll need the strips of bandages I brought with me too!”
“Yes Ma’am,” Turner said and hurried out of the shack to retrieve the items from her horse.
“I know you can hear me, Chris, and I need you to listen to me. I really am here to help you today. Your friend Buck is putting on a marvelous performance and you are not to be harmed today, but that can easily change. So right now it is in your best interest to take advantage of my training and let me help. Do you understand me?”
“B…bitch,” Larabee rasped.
“Oh, you’ll pay for that I promise, but I have plans this afternoon so I will mark that one down as one against you,” Clark said as she eased the bandages off the wound in his side. She frowned as she looked at the wound and pressed on the area surrounding it. “Ethan?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Turner answered.
“What did I tell you when I was here last?”
“Told me to take care of him!”
“I also warned you not to do anything unless I told you to. Do you remember that?”
“Then explain to me where this new wound came from and do not attempt to lie to me!”
“Stop stumbling over your words and answer my question!”
“He made me angry and I had my knife in my hand and I couldn’t stop myself! It ain’t that bad!”
“It’s bad enough, you fool! I’m trying to keep this sonofabitch alive long enough to satisfy Wilmington and you fuck up like this. That knife was probably full of dirt and now it’s caused an infection in that wound and I have to clean it! You damn well better make sure you do everything I say from now on! Do I make myself clear?”
“Good, now get that tea ready and get me some more water! Where’s the whiskey I left here?”
“I…I used it to clean his wounds,” Turner lied smoothly.
“I don’t believe you! You drank it didn’t you?” Clark said, standing and advancing on the baby faced man. She slapped him resoundingly and forced herself to be calm before walking back to the bed.
Chris watched the woman as she advanced on Turner and saw fear in the man’s face as she delivered an open handed slap to his right cheek. He breathed past the pain and nausea and looked into the deadly eyes staring down at him. He’d never seen such cold hatred and knew it was directed at him.
“Bring me the carbolic and my scalpel!”
Chris’ insides twisted with fear, but he refused to show this woman any sign of weakness. Instead he stared at the woman even as she sat down and turned her attention to his wounds once more. He felt her pressing roughly against the tender flesh around the open wound. The woman was relentless as she opened the wound and drained the bloodied pus from within. He twisted away from the torment, but was unable to move very far and could not hold back the cry of pain as she used a cloth laced with carbolic and water to clean the wound. By the time a new bandage was in place, he was breathing rapidly and his heart was beating a staccato rhythm in his chest.
“Just need to check your leg and then I’ll be on my way, but first you need to drink this!”
“That’s two, Chris, and I’m afraid you won’t enjoy the punishment when the time comes. Ethan, bring me the tube you’ll find in with the bandages!”
“Yes Ma’am,” Turner said and quickly returned with the length of tubing.
“Now, Chris, last chance. Are you going to drink this or do I put this down your throat and pour everything I can find into it?”
Chris’ anger grew, but there was no chance of winning this particular fight. He opened his mouth as she pressed the cup against his mouth and drank the bitter tasting liquid. Time after time he swallowed until the cup was empty and he lay back against the pillows gasping for air.
“Chris, if I come out here and Ethan tells me you aren’t drinking the way you should be then I will put it down your throat and leave it there. It will become your only source of fluid. Understood?”
“Yeah,” Larabee answered and watched as she readied an injection. He knew it was morphine and right now his mind and body craved the release it represented. He felt her clasp his arm and press the needle into the vein before delivering the narcotic once more.
“Ethan, so help me if I come out here and he’s worse I’ll put a bullet in each leg and make sure you’re awake when I remove the damn things. Now do what you’re being paid to do!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Turner said and walked her to the door, relieved when she mounted up and rode away from the line shack. Turning back towards the inside of the one room dwelling he noted that Larabee seemed to be sleeping and ran his fingers through his grimy hair. No matter what happened, this would be his last job for Rosemary Clark. The woman was getting worse and he was beginning to fear for his own life.
Buck sat on the edge of the bed and fiddled with the string tie around his neck. The white shirt was buttoned to the top and it felt as if he was being choked as he moved his head from side to side. It was nearing two o’clock and most of the guests had arrived. Angela Tate had been greeting her guests and making sure things were perfect for the ceremony. A variety of wildflowers were spread throughout the house, the rugs had been cleaned and the curtains washed and hung once more over the windows that were opened to allow the soft breeze to tease the curtains and keep the house from being too stuffy.
Buck had no interest in the goings on, but he forced a smile to his face each time someone new showed up. More than twenty guests had already arrived, mostly people who knew Angela and wanted to see the man she’d chosen to marry. Buck felt as if he was on display at times and had retired to the bedroom to wait for Rosemary Clark’s arrival. His mind wandered back to the last time he’d seen Chris Larabee and the sheer pain that was evident on his washed out face. He stood up and made his way to the window as the sound of a buggy reached his ears. He watched as Angela walked out and greeted the Clark’s and knew she would be bringing Rosemary to him. He turned and watched the door until it opened and the woman stepped inside.
“I must say you do look rather handsome this afternoon, Buck.”
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t say the same about you,” Wilmington said and winced at the high-pitched laugh from the woman.
“Doesn’t matter. Angela told me you’ve been worried about your friend and I told her I’d come talk with you.”
“How’s Chris doing?”
“Right now he’s fighting a raging fever, but Ethan will keep feeding him the tea and bathing him. I’ll go out there after the ceremony and dancing and make sure he’s doing what I’ve told him.”
“Chris needs a doctor.”
“He has me!”
“If that was meant to ease my mind you’re crazy!”
“No, not to ease your mind, just to let you know that Chris is still breathing and I’ll make damn sure he stays that way as long as you behave yourself.”
“You make it sound like you’re scolding a school boy, Rosemary, but I’ll tell you the same as I told Angela. There’ll come a time when you won’t be holding all the cards and when that time comes you’d best watch your back!”
“Is that a threat?”
“No, no it’s not a threat! It’s a promise and my friends know I always keep my promises! Make no mistake about that!”
“I’ll try to remember that, Buck, but tonight while you’re enjoying yourself with Angela, I’ll be visiting your friend and let’s just say things could get even more uncomfortable for Chris.”
Wilmington reached out and grabbed her by the wrists and stared into her eyes as he spoke. “You hurt him and all bets are off! I’ll tell everyone what you’re doing and I’ll make damn sure Evan contacts St. Louis and finds out the truth about you and Angela. You keep that in mind when you go out there tonight because I may be down, but I’m far from out!”
“You’re hurting me!”
“Damn right I am! Now get out of here and go tell your partner in this shit that I want this over and done and then I want to see Chris!”
“Oh I’ll go see Angela, Buck, and I’ll show her just what you’ve done to me. Perhaps she’ll allow another visit in order to drive home the fact that we do hold all the cards…especially the Aces!” She turned and stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind her.
“Not for long, Rosemary, not if I can get a message to Evan,” he vowed and sat down on the edge of the bed. He ran his fingers through his hair and caught a reflection of himself in the mirror over the small dresser. He looked as bad as he felt; yet his friend was the one who was paying for his actions. Somehow he would get Larabee out of this and make damn sure Angela Tate, and Rosemary Clark paid dearly for what they’d done.
Angela spotted her friend as she swept down the hallway and excused herself from the two women she’d been talking with. She hurried towards the room her friend entered and walked inside to find a livid Rosemary Clark standing at the window.
“Rosie, what’s wrong?”
“That sonofabitch thinks he can dictate terms to me!”
“What did he say?”
“He told me you and I would pay for what we’ve done!”
“Oh, Rosie, that’s just because he’s angry right now and knows you and I have control over Chris and whether he lives or dies!”
“I know that, Angela, but I’m not so sure we do have control. Buck Wilmington is like a keg of dynamite and right now his fuse is getting shorter and when he blows he’s going to take us down hard!”
“You can’t be serious?”
“I’m deadly serious, Angela. This man is not like the others and I think we may be underestimating him!”
“I can handle, Buck.”
“Can you? It seems to me you said the same thing about Robert and Brian, but they very nearly were our downfall! We need to finish this and get the hell away from here!”
“All right, Rosie, but let me have at least a week of happiness with Buck before we get rid of them.”
“A week may be too long, but you know I’ll stay with you no matter what you decide.”
“I know, and I would do the same for you,” Angela vowed and the two women hugged.
“I think we’d better get this done before the groom decides he’s gonna hightail it for the hills!”
“Not while we have Chris, Rosie. That’s something you can be sure of.” Tate said and smiled as she stood and the two walked out to greet their friends and neighbors.
“Angela, Phillip says he’s ready whenever you are,” Martha Collins said as the two entered the parlor. The furnishings had been moved back and chairs were lined up for the guests.
“Thank you, Martha,” Tate said and turned towards her friend. “Could you let Buck know we’re ready to begin?”
“Certainly,” Rosemary said and walked towards the closed door. She pushed it open and spotted the handsome groom standing at the window once more. “It’s time, Buck.”
“I’ll be right out!”
“No, you need to come now!”
Wilmington took a deep breath and strode purposefully towards the door. There was no way around it, today he was marrying a woman he’d once loved and adored, but now was disgusted to be in the same room with her. He walked past the woman and hurried towards the parlor and was surprised to see every seat was taken. Angela stood at the front of the room where Reverend Collins and Evan Turner stood. He’d asked Turner to be his best man and suddenly realized how very wrong this was. Chris Larabee should have been standing there and he should have been celebrating the happiest day of his life, but it was not.
Collins signaled for him to come and stand with his bride while Rosemary Clark stood next to Angela. Buck took a deep breath and took his place beside his bride. He heard Collins speaking, felt his stomach churn, and forced himself to concentrate on what he was doing. When it came time for the exchange of vows he spoke quickly and sharply before placing the ring on her finger. Everything moved as if in slow motion until the preacher looked at him and motioned to Angela Tate. He had no idea what the man wanted and frowned as he tried to figure out what was expected of him.
“You may kiss the bride!” Collins repeated and smiled as the groom finally reacted.
Rawlings had watched the proceedings and there was no longer any doubt in his mind that Buck Wilmington was being forced into something he didn’t want. The question now was why he could be so easily coerced into this marriage. It didn’t take long to figure out that it had something to do with Chris Larabee’s disappearance. The telegraph office had remained closed through the day and he’d been unable to send a message to Four Corners, but he would do so first thing in the morning when Joseph Clark opened the doors.
“Congratulations, Angela, I hope you and Buck are as happy as Joseph and I have been.”
“Thank you, Rosie,” the bride said as she kept her arms around her husband’s waist.
“Buck, think it’s time I kissed your bride,” Rawlings said and forced a smile to his face. “Congratulations, Mrs. Wilmington.”
“Why thank you, Evan,” Angela said, glowing with happiness at the musical sound of her name.
“Buck, wish you all the best.”
“Thanks, Evan,” the ladies’ man said as people clapped him on the back and proceeded to kiss the new bride. He found a glass pressed into his hand as Joseph Clark raised his glass into the air and shouted above the crowd.
“To Buck and Angela Wilmington. May your life together be happy and long and that you’re blessed with children.”
“Thank you, Joseph,” Wilmington said forcing a smile to his face as he kissed his new wife once more. He continued to put on a show, giving everyone the idea that the marriage was indeed something he’d wanted, and hating every minute he was forced to be at her side. He lost track of how many drinks were forced on him, but he drank them as if he was a man dying of thirst and the glasses held the elixir of life.
Buck lay awake long after his wife had succumbed to sleep. Her fiery red hair spread across his chest and tickled his chin and neck, but he didn’t move to push it away. They’d made love, although there was no love in it for him, until she’d finally placed her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes with a softly sated moan.
Wilmington turned to look out the window and heard the far off cry of a coyote. It brought home how alone he was and he trembled inwardly as he returned his gaze to the woman lying on his arm. Never before had he held a woman like this and been loathed to take her and love her the way a man loved a woman. The very thought of touching her in any way sent waves of nausea rolling through his stomach and rising on a tide in his throat. It was something he had to do, and he would do it until he found a way to free Chris from the chains that bound him. He felt her moving and closed his eyes quickly before she realized he was awake. He heard her speaking softly and calling his name, but did nothing to make her believe he’d heard her.
“Are you awake, Lover?” Angela asked as she lifted her head and looked into the handsome face of her husband. She rubbed her hand across his chest and winced at the whiskey-drenched breath that reached her nostrils. “Damn it! Why did you drink so much?”
Buck felt her settle back down on his arm and fought the urge to laugh at her comment. Whiskey had nothing to do with why he didn’t want to make love to her. He kept his eyes closed and finally drifted towards sleep with thoughts of murder running rampant through his mind.
Rosemary Clark rose before her husband and hurried towards the barn. She waited impatiently for her horse to be saddled and mounted up as her employee placed the saddlebags in her hands.
“Tell Joseph I’ll see him in town!”
“Yes, Ma’am,” the man said as he rubbed his heavily stubbled chin. He found his employer’s wife strange, but had never said anything about it because the job paid well and included a roof over his head. He’d seen some strange things between her and the Tate woman, but had never spoken of it. He wondered where she rode so early in the morning and why she always seemed to be in a hurry, but again he didn’t question her even when her husband inquired as to her whereabouts. He watched her ride out of sight and returned to the job of repairing the ladder leading up to the loft.
Ethan Turner watched the woman riding towards him and reached for the reins as she dismounted. He looped them over the hitching post and grabbed the saddlebags before following her into the shack.
“How is he?”
“Still got that fever, but he seems ta be sleepin’ easier.”
“Have you been able to get him to drink anything since I left yesterday?”
“Yeah, all I gotta do is show him that tube and he drinks just fine,” Turner said with a grin.
“Good, make sure you keep at him. Bring me some clean hot water and cloths. I’ve brought bandages and more herbs and I want you to mix one now.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Turner said and watched the woman for several seconds as she tried to wake the fevered man.
“Chris, I need you to look at me! Open your eyes.”
“I know, but I’m going to help you feel better. I’ve brought some herbs to make a drink for you and I’m going to clean your wounds.”
“N…no. W…wait f…for,” Larabee said weakly.
“Wait for what, Chris?” Clark asked knowing the man wasn’t really with her.
“N…Nathan…he, he’ll know what to d…do,” the blond mumbled, eyes glassy and unfocused.
“Nathan told me what to do to help you, Chris. Do you trust him?”
“T…trust Nathan w…with my l…life,” Larabee said as he tried to make sense of the pain knifing through his body.
“That’s good, because Nathan trusts me, Chris.”
“That’s right. He couldn’t be here and asked me to take care of you. I’m going to do that now and make you a little more comfortable.”
“I’m sure it is, Chris, and I promise we’ll do something about that too, but right now I need you to drink something for me,” she explained as Turner handed her the cup of herbal tea. She held it to his mouth and spoke in soothing tones as she tried to get him to drink the offering. She knew she had to keep him in a semi-dazed condition if she was going to get him to cooperate and so far things were going better than she expected.
“T…tastes b…bad,” Larabee mumbled and licked his lips before closing his eyes.
“I know and when you’re done I’ll give you some water,” Clark said.
“O…okay,” Larabee muttered and frowned as an image flashed before his eyes. Someone was calling his name, but he couldn’t quite see who it was. A familiar face swam before his eyes and he tried to make sense of the anger on Buck Wilmington’s face. For several long moments he thought it was directed at him, but his vision suddenly cleared and he gasped as the cold eyes looked back at him.
“Welcome back, although I think you’d have enjoyed it more if you’d stayed where you were.”
“He’s probably at home sleeping or making love to his wife,” Clark explained maliciously.
“Wife…no, not ma…married.”
“He is now, and believe me he’s probably in as much pain as you are!” She heard Turner chuckle as she forced more of the liquid on her reluctant patient.
“Why? Why what?” Clark asked.
“Why y…you help…helping bitch?” He yelped as she roughly pulled the bandage from his thigh.
“Angela is not a bitch, Chris, and you’ll do well to remember that! Now I need to clean this and get back to town. I hope you realize that things could be much worse for you. I’m going out of my way to see that you’re cared for!”
“Don’t d…do me an…any fuckin’ favors!” Larabee spat as she pressed against the wound and then replaced the dirty bandage with a clean one.
“You’re such an ungrateful bastard! I’m doing as much as your Nathan could do…”
“Not e…even close,” Larabee spat and held his breath as she removed the bandage from his side.
“This looks better, but I’m still not putting any stitches in until there’s no pus present. Ethan, I won’t be able to make it out here tonight so it’ll be up to you to change the bandages.”
“My pleasure,” the man said as he watched the woman working on the blond’s injuries.
“How does the arm feel? Is it numb or any tingling in your arm?”
“N…none of y…your f…fuckin’ business,” the bound man answered sharply. He knew he was goading the woman, but could not answer her questions as if she cared. He felt her working on his side and then another cup was placed at his lips. He thought about refusing the liquid, but the threat of the tube being shoved down his throat made him reconsider and he drank the laudanum laced water and felt his eyelids grow heavy.
Rosemary stood up and washed her hands in the clean basin of water Turner had brought in. She knew the blond was nearly asleep and that he was little or no threat to them and she turned her attention on Turner. “I want you to make sure you do everything I just did this evening and give him the laudanum again tonight. It’s imperative we keep him dazed at all times. I’ll be back sometime tomorrow morning, but it won’t be this early!”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Turner said and again walked the woman to her horse. It was still early in the day, but the heat was already uncomfortable as he stood watching her ride away. He looked back at the sleeping man and smiled as an idea began to form. He could force the laudanum on Larabee late in the afternoon and leave for town for a couple of hours. There was a saloon girl he wanted to see and share a bed with for a few hours and then he could ride back here before sun up. Whistling a tune he smiled and walked inside, closing the door behind him as he looked for something to prepare for lunch.
Turner moved drunkenly towards his horse as the saloon girl he’d spent most of the night with waved to him. He knew he had to hurry back to the line shack or risk being found out by Rosemary Clark.
“Bitch’ll tar and feather me,” he slurred as he finally got his foot in the stirrup. He again looked towards the pretty saloon girl before turning and riding out of town, unaware of the man standing in the shadows watching his departure.
Rawlings recognized the man he’d just seen riding out of town and knew he was often in the employ of anyone who needed a shady job done. He hadn’t seen him in nearly a week and frowned as he looked at Suzie as she walked into the saloon. It was too late to ride after the man now, but if Turner had money he would be back in town the next night. Evan would follow him when he left and see just what the man was up to and whom he was working for.
The day seemed to drag on for Buck, as he couldn’t shake the shadow that seemed to have attached itself to his body and soul. Angela was insatiable and they’d spent most of their waking hours in bed. She’d even had their meals delivered to the room and intercepted Carmon at the door each time. He sat coldly while she insisted on feeding him and wanted so much to choke the life out of her, but there was nothing he could do until he was sure Chris Larabee was safe. He felt her hands reach for him again and groaned as his body reacted to the touch.
“See, Lover, you do want me,” Angela teased playfully.
“I’m tired, Angela.”
“That’s what you say, but your body tells me differently.”
“It’s late and we have to get up early tomorrow to make it into church. It wouldn’t look good if the newlyweds were late for church.”
“We could stay home.”
“No, we need to show respect for Reverend Collins.”
“I don’t remember you being so all fired big on sermons.”
“I wasn’t, but that was before I met Josiah Sanchez and I promised him I’d always make it to church if I was near one,” the ladies’ man lied.
“Oh, Buck, I want you so much right now, but I will leave you alone if you do one thing for me.”
“What?” the rogue asked suspiciously.
“Say my name for me. My full name.”
“Angela Marion Ta…” he grunted as an elbow was driven into his ribs.
“Don’t play me for a fool, Buck. You know what I want.”
“Angela Marion Wilmington,” the mustached man said in utter defeat. He heard her laughter and felt her cuddle up to him. He shivered as if cold air had blown over his naked body and knew he was lost.
The third night on the trail found the three peacekeepers weary and ready to bed down. They’d had coffee, beans, and bacon and were camped next to a small creek that provided fresh water. Vin knew there were fish in the creek and would catch some before the other two woke at dawn. He was taking the second watch this time and rubbed at his back as a dull ache began to build there. He’d always had pain in his back, sometimes it was so bad it nearly incapacitated him, but tonight it was just an annoying throb. He pulled his blanket up over his body and closed his eyes.
Standish watched as Sanchez and Tanner settled under their bedrolls. He hadn’t missed Tanner’s wince when he twisted under the blankets and was not so sure he would wake him in four hours. His gaze went to Sanchez and he nodded when the older man pointed to himself and knew he was saying he would take the next watch. The gambler began walking along the outer edges of their makeshift camp and until he found a place to sit. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the deck of cards he kept there. There were tricks he could do to keep himself occupied, ones he’d learned growing up in the care of his mother’s family. He’d learned at an early age that he could keep his hands and mind occupied by perfecting his technique with the cards. The hours passed quickly as again and again he flipped the deck through his fingers and checked the perimeter of the camp while keeping the fire going. Finally midnight came and he touched the ex-preacher’s shoulder gently.
“I believe you wished to be roused for the second watch,” he whispered and looked towards the sleeping tracker.
“Yeah, get some sleep, Ez.”
“I will, Mr. Sanchez.”
Josiah stood and shook off the last vestiges of sleep and added a few broken pieces of wood to the fire. He checked the horses and returned to the fire, smiling as he heard the soft snoring from both men. Vin Tanner seemed worn out during the days’ ride and it had been obvious his back was bothering him. The older man often wondered what caused the pain and whether it was from an injury or something he’d been born with. Tanner was such a private man he didn’t think he’d ever know the full story. The ex-preacher turned away from the fire and strode towards the creek. The moonlight shone off the rippling water and added to the serenity of the musical sound of gurgling flow.
He walked back to his saddle and reached into the bag that clung to one side. There he found a small knife that he’d owned since his days in the ministry. He rarely talked of those days, but often found himself using things he’d learned in his experiences. He walked back to the creek and removed his boots and sock and rolled up the legs of his pants. He knew he had to be perfectly still and let his instincts take over as he stood in the middle of the slowly moving stream. The vibrant moon hung heavy in the sky and illuminated the water and the man who stood silent and still at the center. His eyes spotted a darker shadow and his arm moved as if of its own volition and came up with a writhing fish impaled on its sharp tip. It wasn’t big, but he threw it on shore and returned his attention to the job of catching breakfast.
Vin slowly woke to the delicious enticing smell of fish and quickly threw back the blankets to find Josiah Sanchez smiling around a mouthful of trout. He shook his head as he realized the two men had let him sleep and knew it was out of concern for him.
“Thanks,” he said simply as he accepted a plate of fish from the conman.”
“You’re welcome,” the ex-preacher said and poured coffee into a battered cup before passing it to the Texan.
“I agree wholeheartedly, Mr. Tanner. A finer feast I have never before indulged in,” Standish blustered.
“Somehow I doubt that, Ezra. Maude didn’t strike me as a person who disliked the finer things in life including meals.”
“Well, Mr. Sanchez, it behooves me to say that Mothah was not always around when I was growing up, but she did love eating at fabulous restaurants, and I have accompanied her to several, but I reiterate that this is the finest feast I have had and might I add that the company at this time is preferable to the stuff shirts we dined with!”
“Ez, why don’tcha just say ya like our company better.”
“I thought I just did,” Standish said frowning bewilderedly at the two men. The two smiled knowingly and they ate the remainder of breakfast in silence before saddling the horses and riding towards their destination. They knew if they rode hard the rest of the day they would be in Midfield by midnight or shortly after.
Chris woke on and off through the night, mumbling unintelligibly as the fever continued to ravage his body. He’d search for something or someone, but the illusive people he saw in his dreams were always just shadows he could not reach while awake. Someone had thrown a heavy blanket over him and the heat was nearly unbearable, but he did not have the strength to push it off. He frowned as he tried to move his arms and legs, but they were mired in thick sludge that allowed little or no movement at all. The room he was in was completely dark and the only sound was his harsh breathing.
“Sarah,” the word was whispered with a deep longing that would’ve sent tremors through the most hardened heart, but even worse was the sound of soft sobs that escaped the injured man’s raw throat. There was no one there to offer comfort or sooth the man from his too-real nightmares as Chris Larabee slipped back into the dreams that did little to ease his tortured body and spirit.
Buck held the reins of the horse as he drove the buggy towards town. His new wife sat beside him, but few words were exchanged between them as the town loomed in the distance. They’d passed several other couples walking and riding and acknowledged them with a tip of the hat or a simple wave of the hand.
“You’re too quiet today, Buck, what’s wrong?”
“How can you even ask me that, Angela?” Wilmington asked not bothering to look at the woman as his voice was edged with bitter defeat.
“Perhaps we should go home. It wouldn’t do for people to see you unhappy so soon after we married,” the woman said coldly.
“No, I’ll put on a good show for you, Angela, but you need to know that that’s all it is, an act and God help me, but I’ll see it through.”
“I’m sure you will, but you also need to think about Chris and what I can do for or to him.”
“That’s always on my mind, Angela,” the gentle rogue said as they drew up alongside another buggy. He quickly climbed out, threw the reins over the itching post and reached up to help her from the buggy. He could feel the townspeople watching him and made a show of pulling her close and walking towards the small church with her. He spotted Evan Rawlings and smiled as the man linked arms with Martha Collins. The two seemed well suited and he hoped they could find happiness together.
“Buck, are you listening to me?”
“Sorry, I was just thinking about Evan and Miss Collins.”
“They do make a handsome couple, don’t they?”
“Yeah, they do,” he said wistfully as they entered the church and took seats halfway up the aisle. Ethan and Martha quickly joined them exchanged pleasantries before Phillip Collins stood before the congregation and began to speak.
Ethan Turner groaned as he dismounted and stepped inside the line shack. He knew he was later getting back than he should have been and was glad Clark was not there. He’d fallen off his horse and slept several hours before coming to and blinking his eyes against the blinding sunlight stabbing at his skull. His big bay was standing a few yards away feeding on the grass it found there. It didn’t take long for him to grab the reins and mount up, but the ride back had been nothing but pure torture.
Turner enter the shack and heard someone talking, but quickly realized it was just Larabee speaking to someone only he could see. He walked to the bed, swayed and rubbed at tired eyes before finally focusing on his charge.
“Damn, ya’d best not die on me ya bastard! I got plans for the money she’s givin’ me!” He looked around the shack and tried to think past the headache and sour stomach and realized he needed to make sure the bandages were changed and Larabee drank something before he could give into his own body’s need for sleep. Taking the bucket from the table he hurried outside to the well and drew fresh water. He hurried back inside and started a fire before hanging a kettle of water over it. While he waited for the water to heat he went back to the injured man and pulled back the covers. His fever was still high and tiny beads of sweat ran down the pale cheeks.
With a put-upon sigh he sat down and began bathing the glistening chest and washing away the evidence of Larabee’s fever.
“Should be me lyin’ down, Larabee, but if that bitch comes out here and sees ya like this she’s li’ble ta tear a few strips from my hide.”
Chris found himself dragged from his quiet dream as something was roughly washed over his body. He struggled to get away, but quickly realized there was no escape and this nightmare was very real. Forcing heavy lids to rise he stared at the shadowy figure sitting beside the bed. The man was muttering something with each swipe of the cloth, but Chris could not make sense of his slurred words. He knew there was no point in fighting him, and right now he didn’t have the strength to do so. He drifted in fevered delirium, but was dragged towards consciousness once more as something was placed at his lips. He drank without fighting and gasped as the slightly too warm liquid flowed down his throat. He knew to get sick would probably kill him because there was no doubt in his mind that his tormentor would and could easily lose his temper. All of this ran through Chris’ mind until finally his head was released and he was allowed to seek out his dreams once more.
Rosemary silently cursed as she looked at her husband. Joseph had never shown any backbone where she was concerned, but the last few days he’d become increasingly dominating and wanted her to break all ties with Angela Tate. She couldn’t let him ruin something that had been a saving grace in her life at a time when she had nothing to fall back on. Since their first meeting in St. Louis the two women had bonded and vowed they would always be there for each other. She gently straightened the blankets over him as she listened to him once more.
“Rosemary, did you hear what I said?”
“I heard you, Joseph, I just don’t know what to say.”
“Tell me you’ll do as I say,” Clark told his younger wife.
“I can’t, Joseph. Angela and I have been through too much to throw it all away because you’re nervous about what you know.”
“Nervous? No, it goes beyond nervous. I thought I knew you and could change you, but after seeing the way you’ve been acting I find I don’t know you at all.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t show any remorse for what you’ve done. If anything you seem to be enjoying yourself. I won’t be a party to it anymore and as soon as I get into town today I’m going to speak with Sheriff Rawlings.”
“You can’t mean that, Joseph!”
“I can and I do, Rosemary. I will not allow you two to hurt anyone else. How many have there been? Can you even answer that?”
“No, but there haven’t been that many and they left us no choice.”
“What about Larabee and Wilmington? What did they do to you?”
“Nothing to me, Joseph, but Wilmington bedded Angela and then told her he would not marry her! Don’t you see we had to do something or her reputation in Midfield would be ruined!”
“She must have been a willing partner…”
“That may be, but only because she loved him and thought they were going to be wed! He used her and we had to do something to make sure her reputation was untarnished.”
“Is her reputation worth a man’s life?”
“Tell me Joseph, would we be having this conversation if the roles were reversed and Angela or I were the ones in their position?”
“Of course we would! This has to stop before anyone else is killed, Rosemary. Come see Sheriff Rawlings with me and we’ll get this straightened out.”
“I’ll go to jail, Joseph.”
“Not if I can help it,” Clark said as a sharp pain raced through his chest. He groaned and sank back onto his chair, as the pain grew worse. He looked up at his wife and saw the smile on her face as she held a small vile in front of his eyes.
“Is something wrong, Joseph?”
“Wh…what did you d…do?” the older man asked as cramping pain cut through his gut.
“I’ve grown tired of waiting for you to die, so I just gave you a little something to help you along. Is there much pain…I did not really mean for you to suffer so, but I refuse to let you ruin things for Angela and I. We will be leaving before long, but I will stay around to see that you have a proper burial. After all you have been a good husband. Sh,” she placed her hand over his lips as he tried to talk and leaned down to kiss him once more. “Save your strength, Joseph, although there is really no need. I will send for Dr. Morton shortly, but first I need to be sure it is too late to help you. I’ll make you proud of me though. I’ll play the distraught widow so well the town of Midfield will be in danger of flooding. They’ll come to help me and mourn your passing, but it will be easier that you passed with the woman you love by your side.”
“W…won’t b…believe you,” the dying man gasped as he clutched at his chest. Now he knew why she had served him breakfast in bed. It would be easy for her to tell her story and have people believe he had truly had a peaceful passing.
“Yes, they will, Joseph, you see I will put on a performance that would take your breath away if you had any left in you, but I don’t think you hear me even now. Thank you for giving me some good years, but now I must grieve your passing and look to my future.” Rosemary let the tears fall and hurried out of the bedroom. She threw open the doors and called for help and was relieved to see Matthew Jennings racing towards the house.
“What’s wrong, Mrs. Clark?”
“Oh, Matt, he’s…it’s Joseph…he…he…oh God send someone for Dr. M…Morton!”
“What’s wrong?” the ranch hand repeated as the woman trembled at his touch.
“It’s Joseph. I woke up before him and had Maria make breakfast for us, but Joseph seemed t…to be s…sleeping a…and he’s b…been do tired lately that I…I just didn’t want to wake him, but he was so happy when I brought his breakfast t…to him.”
“What are you trying to say, Mrs. Clark?”
“H…he’s gone, Matt. He’s dead…oh, God,” She wilted towards the ground and he caught her and lifted her into his arms and carried her inside.
Matt moved towards the spare bedroom and placed her on the bed before getting Maria to come sit with her. Once he was sure the woman was taken care of he hurried to the bedroom and found Joseph Clark propped up on pillows. His eyes were open and unseeing and Jennings knew before he checked that the man was dead. Taking a deep breath he removed the tray and covered the man’s body with the blanket. He knew they needed to get the doctor out to look at Mrs. Clark and make sure things were arranged for the man’s burial. Turning away from the room he headed outside to assign the tasks to other ranch hands and to send a message to Angela Wilmington.