Chris Larabee was riding Charlie...not his first Charlie; this was the chestnut gelding that his brother Mitch and best friend Ethan Collins had provided after he got hurt...beaten almost to death...a couple of years before. He led his black one, burdened with the small load of his personal possessions. He rode down the main street of the town slowly, not recognizing anything since he hadn't been in Durango before.
Riding toward a little town in Colorado territory, he was tired of the saddle, and thirsty, not very hungry, but he wouldn't pass through much of a town from here on, so he stopped at a place with signs saying cold beer and hot food. He hadn't stopped many times, just made sometimes cold-jerky camps, or sometimes a real camp beside some little stream when he was of a mind to rest, catch some fish, and have some coffee. He had a bottle in his saddlebags but these days, trying to escape the trouble the bottle had caused him before, he was totally sober.
He slug his long leg over the saddle and stretched his almost bony, six-one frame as he set black boots to earth. He pushed his black hat back from his forehead, letting a mass of straight, golden blond hair fall across his green-green eyes. He quickly pushed it back out of his face, seemingly unwilling to let anything block his view. He studied the street through eyes that seemed sharp and at some level deadly. He tipped his hat to a pretty, young woman who passed him and smiled. He noticed the smile and the questioning backward glance, but didn't understand why she gave him a once over. That she found him handsome, his smile and eyes mesmerizing, never entered his mind.
He was determined to eat, but he made no move into the place until he had loosened the saddle on Charlie's back, and checked the bundles on the black. Finding no scalds or other problems, he led the horses to the trough near by and let them drink their fill. They were both sweaty, though not overly lathered. He knew they would appreciate the stop as much as he did.
He was young to be a lawman, young to be much of anything, but life had made him older than his years. He was riding to take his first job as a full-fledged sheriff in a town a little north of Durango. As a too young deputy, he had been trained to be careful and smart, to watch new surroundings for possible problems. Not yet twenty, he wasn't afraid of much anymore, only of being stupid. He had been stupid often enough. He studied the street one more time, then, convinced he wasn't heading into trouble, he hitched the horses to the railing and stepped onto the boardwalk and on into the restaurant/saloon.
The first face he studied in the much cooler place belonged to a gambler who raised a deck of cards inviting him to a game. Chris ignored the offer and let his eyes come to rest on a more interesting target, a Durango lawman wearing a sheriff's badge.
The man was past forty, salty haired, not very tall, bigger than he should be, and totally preoccupied. Chris noticed the man's surreptitiously check out the .44 he wore even before he looked up to acknowledge his presence. He extended his hands, palms up. "Afternoon, Sheriff. I'm Chris Larabee. Mind if I sit at your table while I eat? Maybe talk a little?" Chris made sure to make no move toward his gun.
"Name's Herbold Chandler. Herb to most. Not my table, Larabee. Sit where ya want to sit." The man seemed friendly enough, but his eyes kept shifting...glancing toward the bar.
"Thanks," Chris turned to the red-clad woman who had come to take his order. "I'll have a cold beer, anything that's hot to eat,...oh, and coffee."
"Tortillas...got beef and beans, mister. Served with either or both. That's all..." She was pretty enough, and she smiled brightly and hopefully as she wet her lips and blatantly ogled his tight black pants and sharp green eyes. "Hot and spicy...or warm and welcoming?"
"Guess I'll take both and mild this time." He smiled at her, but dismissed her from his mind. Saloon girls hadn't ever been anything but trouble. Chris was tired of trouble.
"You new in town?" The sheriff was checking him over seriously now. Still, he kept glancing toward the bar.
"Just passing through. Thought I'd introduce myself. I'm on my way to Hesperus."
"What you want to go there for? Real pest hole."
"Job. I'm the new sheriff." He accepted his food from the girl, and settled the hot plate gingerly in front of him. "This smells good, but I haven't eaten this much in my whole life. I'd share without grumbling."
"I'm fine. Thanks for the offer. Damn young to be a sheriff up there. Ain't nothing much but tough, bare-knuckle loggers, Navajos mostly, but Ute's are trying to move in. There's a few saloons, telegraph, a general store, and one tiny little bank...ain't big enough to hold the payroll for a week, much less a month. Only church is held in the saloon on a non-regular basis. Hell, boy, the bar don't even close. Saints and sinners together." The man chuckled in appreciation of his own joke.
"Well...that's bigger than some places I've been through. Still, they got a town board, and they made an offer...so I'm taking the job."
"You ever had to fight loggers? Fightin' seems to be those boys' only pass time. Idiots'll fight about anything!"
"Shoot...was a logger for a time...fought enough of 'em. I know the type. Looks like I've finally got an idea about why they hired me. I had wondered about that. Navajo friendly?"
"Mostly...that's their sacred land, ya know. Wouldn't want to be a Ute trying to horn in though. You best learn the land to let alone real fast. You any good as a lawman?"
"Been one three times now...trainee once, hired twice; moved on once, got fired once...guess it's a good record. Why?"
"Well, I got a sort of problem brewing. You look handy enough."
"How big a problem?"
"See them boys at the bar...the three there at the end?"
"Yeah...watching the door mighty hard...bout as hard as you're watching them. Who are they?"
"Well...that one at the end is Cord. He's my deputy. One of the biggest mistakes I've ever made, making him my deputy. It's probably gonna cost him his life, and me my job."
"Whoa...why you watching him? What you figure he's up to?"
"He and his cousins...the other two...are planning on robbing the bank today."
Herb saw the sudden seriousness in the younger man as the newcomer narrowed his eyes in curiousity. "And you know this how?"
"Heard the other two...the cousins...bragging about it the other day. Could put both their brains in a sinker, and it'd still bob for fish."
"Braggin' or blowin' smoke. Practicing being big shots? They're just kids."
"You're not much more than a kid either. You're serious enough. Those two were serious...talking details,... trying to recruit some others."
"So, it's a gang of three, give or take. When you figure they're gonna do it?" Chris glanced at them as they left, never making serious eye contact with any of them. Each of their hips were well decorated with holsters and .44s.
"Today. Bank's got a shipment of cash coming in. Cord's guarding it. Other two can take it down, and they all kinds of sure the guard won't be able to do nothing about it."
"You tell him you knew what he was up to? You warn him?"
"Yeah...well, sort a did. Told him his cousins were dumber than most anything, and he best not trust 'em for nothing important."
"Seems like you could have been a bit more direct with the warning."
"He wouldn't have listened if I'd opened his head and poured it in."
"Still could have said it."
"Well, what I need is backup. I don't think there'll be much if any gunplay, but just in case, I sure can't trust my deputy to shoot his cousins, can I. They're dumb enough they might just shoot me. Since you're a lawman, and you just happened to be in Durango today, why don't ya back me up."
"Look, all I wanted was to ask the lay of the land around here, get a look at the locals and see if you knew anything about Hesperus. I'm not on the payroll, and I'm not looking for extra work. Beside that, I just want to eat my food, drink my beer, and maybe luck up on a good cup of coffee."
"And look over the red?"
He looked across the room and spotted her, She was still looking him over. She smiled and wet her lips.
"If you're interested, her name's Liz?"
"Interested are ya? Men take to her. She generally gives 'em a good time, before she decides if they've got anything to take. Ain't never proved she took anything. But, you get friendly with her, I sure wouldn't drink any whiskey around her, if I was you."
"Hell, I know that type too. Liz, ya say? Shit. No wonder I ain't interested." From the look in the young man's eyes, the sheriff knew better than to ask.
"So, you're not going to help me?"
"Nope. I don't know nothing about all this, and I don't like getting pulled into problems when I'm the one in the dark. You best just tell 'em you know about all of it. Then, I'd ride out and meet that shipment myself...ride 'em in to the bank. Stick with it 'til they throw the tumblers. Least that way, cash shipment's safe, and nobody dies."
"Well, I'll ask one more time. I could really use the help."
"Answer's no, Sheriff. For once, I'm staying out of other people's trouble, and I ain't starting any trouble on my own."
The Sheriff stood up, frowning down at him. He didn't offer to shake hands. "Well...good luck in Hesperus. Hope you never need help."
"Thanks...I'll take that last part friendly. You don't want to fight me. I'm skinny, but I'm mean in a fight."
"Naw. I don't want to fight ya. It ain't your problem...I guess I just got desperate enough to beg."
"Just handle it before it gets to be deadly. John Hill always told me it was better to settle a problem without a .44 if you could."
"You know John Hill?"
"Yeah. He's the one who hired AND fired me."
"Was he right to do it?"
"At the time...probably."
"Well. You ride safe. Hope you really don't need help. Hope it's an easy job."
"Shoot, probably not. I sort of got this reputation. Figure that's the other reason they're hiring me."
"And that reputation ain't too good, is it?"
"You know it ain't, don't ya." He was frankly amazed that the man had heard his name, and remembered it.
"Yeah. Heard a whisper or two...saw an old poster once...nothing recent though."
"Old one was cancelled. Ain't no recent one. Reputation's not too bad anymore... I've been working on it."
"Son, once it's bad...somebody's always gonna remember it. Ride safe...think I'll try to go stop a wagon full of cash."
"It was me...I'd carry a white flag. Somebody's liable to get spooked and take you for a robber."
"That's a thought. Think I'll take ya up on that one. Ride safe."
Chris watched him walking away. Something told him there was something wrong here, but he couldn't put a finger on it. "Ain't my problem, and this food's getting cold."
And it was good, he whiled away some time, enjoying it, and the coffee was almost as good as his ma's had been. Not quite as good. Remembering breakfast at her table made him a little sad. Shrugging the memory off, he stood and stretched his long legs, settling the black hat on his head. He dropped coins on the table. Her name was Liz...he didn't leave a tip.
He approached the doors, thinking about the route he'd take to Hesperus. "Damn, should have checked on that with the Sheriff. Hell...I didn't even ask him.."
He felt a hand on the seat of his tight black pants, followed by a suggestive grope. "Honey...it's a nice afternoon. I got a room upstairs, don't ya want to come up and have a little fun. My room'll be nice and cool...and we can get just as hot as ya want. Why you want to ride out right this minute? Liz'll show ya a real good time."
He grabbed the hand harshly and pulled her around to face him. "I just bet you would, but your kind of good time's just not my best whiskey. Sorry."
"Oh...shame if you're one of them funny cowboys. Wouldn't a thought."
"None of your business, is it." She saw the glare in his eyes, and knew to back off.
"Guess it ain't."
He spoke to her quietly, but she felt the anger coming from him like a slap. "Rather be a damn funny cowboy than be stupid enough to expect anything warm or welcoming from the likes of you. I suggest you get the hell away from me before I think you're the last Liz I took time to play with. I get confused, you're apt to regret it. Maybe you won't deserve it, but it's apt to happen. I suggest very strong that you get your hand off me and get the hell away from me, now, before I forget you're a woman."
Feeling the danger radiating from the man, she pulled her arm out of the now painful grip and left.
Chris drew a deep breath, feeling his hackles settling again. He was the only one who knew how close she had come to being the first woman he killed.
He resettled his hat, brushed the feel of her hands from the seat of his pants, checked his holster and went to claim his horses. The chestnut blew softly against his chest, snorting as if in protest of the unfamiliar scent. "Just a whore. Don't have to worry about that...she weren't near nothing. Want a little feed?" He brought out the bag of grain in his saddlebags and fed Charlie several handfuls of the feed, spending several minutes scratching its ear and rubbing the silky mane. He did the same for the black and checked the lashings before returning to Charlie and tightening the cinch. "Let's get the hell out of here. Think I'd rather handle loggers." He swung into the saddle at last and heard the animal groan as his weight hit the saddle. "Hey, Charlie. I didn't eat THAT much! Quit your bitchin'. Come on, Pony. That pack ain't that heavy. Let's ride."
The young soon-to-be sheriff was making final adjustments on his way out of town...typing off the lead rope on the pommel of the saddle, adjusting his hat to keep sun out of his face, checking out a hint of a limp on the chestnut. "Pick it up, son. Okay aren't ya?" Chris redistributed his weight, and felt his friend settle into its smoothest gait. "Sorry...didn't mean to cramp your..."
The gunshot from the white building, in front and to the right, sailed past his hat. Charlie reared and raked the air with his hooves. Pony pulled back sharply on the tie. Another round sounded and sailed past Chris on the left. He swore he felt it pass his arm. Before the horse put hooves on the street, Chris was off and hiding behind a water trough, gun out, waiting to see what was happening. He stood only once to wave the horses off with his hat and dump the thing into the dirt before he dropped back to safety. A well-trained beast, Charlie charged across the street, the last minute securing of the lead on Pony having kept the black from taking its own heading for parts unknown. Chris waited for developments from the building and savored the fact that at least he wouldn't have to go on a hunt for that lunatic Pony this time.
He took a closer look at the building and noticed the sign hanging from the clock out front...Durango National Bank -- A Safe, Secure Place to Grow Your Investment. "Well, not today it ain't." Another bullet rang out and he ducked a little further down. The water trough wasn't nearly big enough to offer good shelter. "Ah, hell. Shouldn't have stayed for no second cup of coffee."
It all went down so fast. The sheriff came flying out of the building...turning in circles, firing at the bank. He carried several guns and two large white bags with brown ties slung over his shoulder. The three younger men, the ones from the restaurant/saloon, came next. They fired their guns, fast and furious, but they didn't seem talented enough to hit the sheriff as he ran. There were white bags with brown ties in two of their hands.
As Chris watched, the sheriff fired and one of the cousins fell, clutching his chest, the blood splatter was much too bright and wet to signal anything but the boy's death. The sheriff reached the safety of another water trough and took cover. The street behind him, and anywhere around Chris, had emptied fast. All that was left was the showdown between the sheriff and the two remaining men...the robbers.
The first twist in the situation caught Chris's interest. While he was considering who he should challenge, he noticed that the two remaining robbers appeared to have no horses. "Surely them boys ain't dumb enough to rob a bank and just hope to find a ride? Ain't nobody THAT stupid. Hell, Herb's even got a ride! I got a ride... well, I ain't really in this, and mine are over there somewhere."
"Ah, hell, Chandler. Keep yer damn head down!"
"You got 'em covered?"
"Yeah...I guess I got 'em covered."
"Good...keep it that way. Cord, I'm coming out...you put down that gun or my friend Larabee's gonna shoot ya."
"Why would he want to shoot me, Herb. He don't know what's going on here. If he's not totally stupid, he'll wait 'til he finds out the truth before he chooses sides."
Chris was totally confused. "Hey, kid...I ain't on a side here. Why don't everybody just put 'em down...hand over the bags to somebody from the bank...and then we'll sit down and sort it all out. That little bag a money you've got ain't about big enough to cost ya your life, nor me mine."
"This little ole bag of money ain't nothing...just came across it on the way out. It's them two BIG bags of money that make this a real interesting situation. You ain't asked the sheriff where he got 'em, have ya? How long you been in on this?"
"Hell, boy, I ain't in on nothing. I'm just trying to head to Hesperus."
"Funny...you don't appear to be heading to no Hesperus. You're heading to Shiprock, through the Bisti. Maybe you're heading for the Hole. Are you totally stupid? Think I'm that dumb?"
"No. I just didn't ask for no directions. Like I say. Them bags don't make no difference to me. Why don't all of us...everybody... drop guns and bags, put our thumbs in our britches, and everybody else just calm down. Ain't no need for any more gunplay or for no undertakers here today."
Chandler rose slowly from his water trough. "That's right...I'm putting these bags right here, Cord. You put yours down...don't want to have to hurt ya."
Chris put his back to the sheriff and walked calmly toward the young man. Cord's eyes never left the direction of the sheriff.
As Chris stood, gun relaxed, for the deputy to lower his money bags, he noticed the young man's eyes suddenly widen, saw him draw, and aim in one pure motion. Chris was instantly on guard, but for some unknown reason, his mind followed the younger man's gaze.
Chris spun to see the sheriff, gun in his hand. It occurred to Chris that the aim could have been for the deputy, but it appeared that the sheriff was aiming for his own back. He didn't stop to question. His instincts opted to stay alive, and he killed Chandler with one shot straight through the heart.
"You're gonna die, Mister. That's my father you just shot!" The deputy's finger pulled the trigger on his gun, Chris dropped to the ground, knowing the round had stung him. He felt blood run down his left sleeve.
The street was suddenly filling with people. The deputy was coming for him, .44 spent, but now a shiny knife filling his hand. "I'm gonna gut you like a fish, Mister."
"Wait a minute. I don't know who's who here."
"Who are you, Mister?" Somebody in the gathering mob asked it.
Chris gave the truth. "I'm Chris Larabee, new marshal heading to Hesperus. Just stopped for a little food and a few minutes out of the saddle. Sheriff asked for my help, but I ain't part of this."
Two of the bigger ones grabbed hold of him, trying to get in enough punches to put him down. In desperation, using his fists as hammers, he layer them both in the dirt. "I ain't part of this!! I turned him down."
"He's a damn liar!" He recognized Liz's voice as she sashayed through the crowd, brazen, eyes filled with a glint of pure evil aimed straight at Larabee. "Him and Herbold was talking mighty cozy at the LoneTree as bit ago. Serious conversation. They split up. Herb left out for something they discussed, but Larabee just seemed to be waiting around. I tried to be friendly to him, but he weren't friendly at all. When he left, I watched...he's heading straight for the bank."
"Wait. You tried to..."
"She tried to be herself, Mister. What'd she do to make you so mean. I saw ya. You near 'bout broke her arm. Weren't no call for ya shoving her. You'd a said git, she'd a got. What was wrong with a little talk with Liz. You didn't want nobody to recognize ya? That it?"
"Milt, you just let him be. This is my fight."
"Sure, Cord. He's all yours."
"Larabee, you best have a blade, and you best know how to use it." The man switched the knife, left to right, then back again. Chris saw the look in his eyes, and knew there was no way to avoid the fight. He pulled the wet shirt away from his arm, then reached into his belt for the knife he'd taken off a maniac named Fisk. He knew how to use it, all too well.
Larabee just didn't know the foe he faced this time. He settled into the fight expecting a straight on attack. He got that, but after he turned away from a mighty swipe of Cord's blade, the man pitched the blade underhand, straight into Larabee's back. It was a low strike, cutting in close to his kidney. Chris almost folded from the pain, but he had long ago learned to take the pain and finish the fight. He had learned to survive. He came up grabbing the man's neck, pulling the man into the path of his blade, plunging it deep into Cord's stomach. The man lay deathly still in the middle of the street.
"Hey!" Somebody gasped, "He kilt the sheriff...he's kilt Cord."
"Hell...it was him or me. He ain't the sheriff...he's the deputy...he's the robber!"
"Like hell. He's our sheriff. Chandler was robbing the bank. You's robbing the bank with Chandler. Don't try to tell us any different. Come on Boys, we all seen him...he's kilt Cord, he kilt Herb. He's robbin' our bank. We all seen it. He's guilty as hell, and we might as well hang him now,"
There were only a few feet between him and the approaching mob. Somebody had a rope...and they were tying an efficient, serviceable hangman's knot. There was even a nice big tree only a few feet down a side street. Chris held his bleeding back, forgetting all about the blood on his sleeve. He backed up, slowly, then more quickly, then he whistled sharp. Hearing hooves approaching, he took only a second to assure himself it was Charlie. He swung up into the saddle, unhooked Pony's lead, and he rode without glancing back. They tried to shoot him, but they weren't much good. Only one found him, right next to the knife crease in his back. He was heading for the Bisti in nothing flat, leaning over Charlie's neck, Pony scrambling to keep up.
Chris didn't know how he got where he was. Hell, he had no idea where he had been either. The place where he woke smelled old and musty and close by, someone was humming. He smelled candles in the dimly lit room...no real scent, just hot honey comb wax and the sounds of somebody intoning for the dead. For a second, he just lay still and hoped the chant wasn't being sung for him. He didn't feel dead, but he sure felt he was visiting Hell. He was incredibly tired, his back was on fire, the room was stifling, and he definitely wanted to puke.
He moved, and he moaned. A seriously wrinkled, papery hand felt his forehead and wiped it clean. That hand joined another such hand to press something rough against his back. He groaned in agony, and then he cursed.
"Easy, my son."
"I ain't your son. Where am I?"
"You are nowhere. This small mission resides in the region known as the Bisti Badlands. The ones I infrequently minister to call this the place with no name. I attempt to assure them that I am never alone...but they tell me I have only coyotes and spirits for companionship. I assure them I am well provided for, that the Good Lord made the coyotes and the spirits too so none of his children face the path alone. That gives them comfort, and they trust that I understand them and mean them only well. Now that you are awake, would you care to tell me your name?"
"It's supposed to be Chris Larabee. Think that's right. What happened to me?"
"I do not know, my child. You arrived here with two horses and both a knife wound and a bullet in your back. You were unconscious, badly in need for care. You have slept for several days since the Sisters and the Good Lord repaired your flesh."
Chris tried to turn, but gave up the attempt. "Sisters...your family?"
The man chuckled, a friendly sound to Larabee's ears. "No...no...the seven Sisters of NoName. They inhabit the convent."
"Convent? I'm in a convent?" He looked down his side and realized he wore nothing at all. A small sheet covered him from waist to knees.
"Well, not in it exactly. A good thick wall separates us, but the good Sisters have provided for your needs. They have healed your wounds, comforted you when you tossed with fever, given you nourishment and drink. They have mended your torn garments, as well, so when you feel able to rise, at least you will have clean clothing to wear. They will arrive before evening to tend to your needs."
"Thanks. Should I maybe get dressed? Now??"
"Just sleep, my son. I will visit with you again tomorrow morning."
Soft light and hot air entered the tiny window. Struggling and weak, with no idea of how long he'd slept, Chris put his feet over the side of the small bed and made his first attempt at sitting up. "Hell! Sorry...ah...who are you?" The papery hands helped ease him up on the pillows. He hissed as his back began to ache.
"I am Father Juan Baptista. This small hovel, and the convent, are part of my parish."
"A priest? John the Baptist? I mean, you don't really think you're him? Do ya?"
The laugh was now rich and warm. "No, my son. I was granted permission to assume the name at my initiation to the priesthood. When I made my request, the bishop accused me of having a great deal of pride and audacity, and he sent me here to atone for my numerous sins."
"How long you been here?"
"I believe it has been forty years."
"Must a done a heap of sinnin', Padre."
"In my younger days, I was certainly a hellion. May the Good Lord forgive me."
"How many in the convent?"
"Good Lord must a forgiven YOU already. Not a bad setup."
"Believe me. He sent me seven Sisters to vex me, as he should. Seven is the righteous number, you know. The Mother Superior, she is so because she is the eldest of the seven, is a truly righteous woman. She has guarded the chastity of every Sister who has passed through this parish all these years. Some have been most comely, but I dare not break my vows of celibacy even now. All the lusts I have ever had have been driven into the dust by that woman. I have spent weeks upon my knees, or prone before the alter, seeking forgiveness for even a minute wayward thought. As I have been here these forty years, she too has resided beside me. I have watched her amazing beauty fade, yet she has never once attempted to forsake her vows. As I say, the Lord severely chastens his hellions."
"You must a been something!"
"I ran a first-class bawdy house, God forgive me."
"Damn! You gave up that for this?"
"Indeed, but I was led to believe the choice between heaven or hell is one to be considered most seriously."
"How'd he convince ya?"
"He inspired seven of my ladies to beat me near to death. I treated them most deplorably. He let them convince me that I was a mighty sinner, but he did NOT let them make me a eunuch. And I have never been less than amazed that the number of Sisters I have been given always numbers seven, and they are always most beautiful and totally uncorruptible."
"'Pears God's got a mean sense of getting' even. I best be working on making him a tad less angry at me. Ohhhhhh!"
"I would suggest that as a course of action. Now, you need to rest and recover. The Sisters will be here soon."
"You say they're all pretty?"
"Every last one, my son."
"Best send the Mother Superior with 'em."
"She will undoubtedly come with whichever is to tend you. Now, I must go say about seventy Our Fathers."
"Alas...even now. Hellions do tend to pull at the Lord's bit."
It was near dark, much cooler, when he woke. He smelled something good, and felt a gentle hand on his forehead this time. He opened his eyes, startled, and by the glow of the candles, he saw what had to be a vision. She smiled down at him."
"Lord help me."
"He will, if you ask him, sir. Are you feeling any better?"
"Definitely lots better, right now." The smile of the viril twenty-year-old flashed rakishly at the vision with soft hazel eyes and a few auburn curls peaking out from her wimple. Chris sighed.
Another vision replaced the first. Garbed the same, the voice soft and sympathetic, the eyes stern and threatening. "That is most fortunate. Sister Angela, you may tend to Mr. Larabee. I am sure he would enjoy something to eat."
"I am Sister Faith, I am the Mother Superior of the Convent of NoName. You must eat to regain your strength."
"Yes, ma'am? What's in the bowl?"
"I am afraid all we have to offer in the way of meat is Rattlesnake. Beside that, there are a few bits of potato and a nice serving of snake broth."
"Trust me, my son. It tastes just like chicken. It will help you regain your strength. The Lord has provided most bountifully today. Now, you must eat all of it, and then I will help you with your bath."
Chris looked down, realizing that he still had only the one thin covering. "Ma'am...Ah...I think I best ask ya to just bring me a basin...let me handle the bath. I don't want to cause nobody no bother." He blushed crimson red.
Sister Faith had no mercy. "You cannot possibly tend to yourself yet. The wounds to your back must be tended. Since I am old enough to be your grandmother...your lack of clothing fails to offend me. Now...Sister Angela...make certain he eats every bit of this, then call me when he is finished."
The first vision returned, and sat on a small chair next to his bed. The bowl was large, and Chris's stomach weak. But the vision offered him a small bite from a spoon held in her smooth but tanned hands. She smiled softly at him and encouraged him to eat.
A small amount of the soup dripped down on Chris's bare chest, and he gasped as if burned.
"I'm so sorry. Here, let me clean this for you."
Where she touched his skin seemed to burn. "Here...let me do that." He took the small scrap of cloth and blotted his chest.
The next spoon dripped on his arm. The young nun giggled softly, a touch of peach coloring her skin.
"How old are you? How'd you get to a place like this?" He had to know more about her.
"I am seventeen, Mr. Larabee."
"Call me Chris? I mean that's okay, isn't it."
"If you wish. I am seventeen, and my father pledged me to the Church before I was born. He thought I would be a boy, and that I would become a priest. When he found I was a mere girl, he kept his vow and sent me to bring comfort and healing to the inhabitants of this region. I serve where God has placed me."
"You never had a choice?"
"I have never regretted the lack of choice, Chris."
"But you don't know nothing. Ya don't know nothing about what's out there. I mean marriage, children...didn't you ever want a husband?"
"I am married to the Church. I am content."
"Can't imagine a woman as beautiful as you stuck in the middle of a hell hole like the Bisti. Ain't you never even been kissed?" He reached and pulled her to him...close enough to feel the softness of her lips.
"Chris. You must respect my vows, and my wishes. I am content. I remain content."
"Sorry." He backed off instantly. "No disrespect."
"Mr. Larabee...have you finished? I believe you've had enough. Sister, why don't you go...I believe it is time for prayers."
"Yes, Sister Faith. Goodnight, Chris...Mr. Larabee."
He regretted the loss of the vision...then he saw the threat in the other's eyes. "Sorry...I shouldn't a done that!"
"That is true. Well, we all have to atone for our sins."
She reached out and took his hand gently in her own. She rubbed the palm lightly. Then she bent back his fingers and whacked the palm seven fast times with a large piece of wood.
"AWH!" Chris yanked back his reddened hand. "I DIDN'T MEAN NOTHING!"
"Lying will get you a few more, Mr. Larabee."
"Shit!" He held the hand to his chest, trying to cool the pain.
"Cursing will earn you even more. Now...do I need to ask Father to make you see reason?"
"What's he gonna do? He sure ain't gonna beat me!"
"I will suggest to him that sparing the rod will undoubtedly be to your detriment."
"I'm a grown man. He ain't gonna beat me, and you ain't gonna hit me again, neither!"
"You have learned your lesson, then?"
"Hell! AWH!" He drew back a set of bruised knuckles. She kept the wood in plain sight. "Yeah...okay...Don't do that!"
"You will not try to make any of the Sisters forsake their vows...Do you understand?"
"Yeah...sure...okay. She's just beautiful, ya know. I'm sort of lonely."
"Then look, but don't touch. Talk, but don't kiss. Do you understand?"
"Fine. Shoot, that smarts."
"A touch of celibacy will be good for your soul. Now, are you ready for your bath?"
"You can just let me do it!"
"No, Mr. Larabee...I believe you are in serious need of a very cold bath!"
"Do you feel ready to walk a little again today, Chris?"
"Yeah...think I'm ready, Sister Angela." He couldn't help responding to her smile. He was getting stronger now. Every day, he walked a bit more. The other Sisters helped care for his needs, but Angela was the one to encourage him to move. Wherever she strolled, he followed.
"Let me have your hand..." The young woman extended her hand, which still carried a slight bruising across the back.
"Ah, where's Father Juan?" He moved his hand purposefully away from her touch.
"I'm right here, Chris. I see you and Sister Faith have come to a bit of an understanding again. What was it this time?"
"Cussin'! That bitch!"
"Dozen. She says next time, you're gonna give me the full lesson on spare the rod. Ain't gonna happen. Nobody's damn near gonna beat me...not now...not ever. You understand?"
The young nun gasped. "Chris! You must not use that language. My hand is still smarting too...but Sister only acts to keep us from committing a mortal sin!"
"Sure she does! Glad to see you at least know there is such a sin!" He took the cane the priest provided to help him walk.
"And if ya think I'll be carrying around the rod, just for when you find a need..."
"My, son. All you must do is practice patience while you are in Sister Faith's vicinity."
"All I need is to get the hell outta here. How long I got to stay?"
She looked like she would cry. "Sister says we must help you heal fully and quickly so you can take back up your life."
"Does, does she?"
"Do you remember anything about where you were headed?"
"I was supposed ta go to Hesperus...had a job waiting. I didn't show up; they probably gave my job to somebody else."
"Then, when you've healed completely, you will head there to find out if you still have a position?"
"Guess so. You figure a couple more days?"
"I think that will be reasonable."
"Tell Sister Faith I'm practicing reasonable and I'm keeping my mouth shut. Tell her I ain't a saint, and I ain't gonna take no beatin' without I beat back...and I don't care if it's a nun or some other bastard doing the swinging...they swing, I swing back."
"I will impart your words to her, Chris. Then I suggest you plan on being a very saintly man until the day comes for you to depart."
"Fine. Where are my horses now. I need to get 'em ready."
"They are in the corral in back. Perhaps Sister Angela would like to help you tend them. I believe her family were horse people before she came to us."
"May I, Father. Chris, can I?"
"Sure. Come on, we got lots of doing to get done."
She walked beside him, a small distance apart, as they moved to the corral. She laughted brightly when first the chestnut, then the black, whistled to the man in obvious delight. They nickered, coming to rest heads against his shoulder and chest. The tinge of anger that had marred his face, disappeared when he finally got his hands on the coats of his mounts. His very soul seemed to come to ease.
"Whoa, boys. Missed you too. Who's been looking after 'em?"
"She said you must be a truly good hearted man. Animals know their people. These two have missed you sorely."
"They're my friends. Sometimess the only friends I've got in the whole world. But that don't mean I'm a good man. Just like my own horses."
"You can't deny who you are, Mr. Larabee." She picked up a brush and began to work the chestnut's coat. She heard the beast groan as she worked through the small bits of matted hair. He reached for another, whispering to the black, "Come here, son. Let's see what ya need." She watched him work, a little stiff still, but forgetting the stiffness as he tended to the horse.
"You're going then?"
"Yeah...time I got back to reality, find out what's happened since I left Durango."
"You're from Durango?"
"No. Just stopped there. Last thing I remember. Need to see what happened. I best just head there first."
"I will miss you. Will you remember me? Truly remember me?"
"Yes. I'll never forget your kindness, or your smile,, or how easy and how much I could have loved you."
He watched her as she studied his words. She turned toward him, pulled his face down, and she kissed him on the mouth, tenderly, fully, with the taste of her tears mingled inside.
He returned the kiss with a kiss to last her a lifetime. It burned them both to the soul. Then he let her go.
He said his goodbyes to Father Juan Baptista the next morning. The older man sought to stay him, afraid his health would fail him if he pushed too hard.
"I'm ready. I got to go find out where I stand...Durango, Hesperus...it's time. Thanks for getting me back on my feet again. I won't forget ya."
"Travel with God, my friend. Vaya con dias."
Chris turned to mount Charlie with the black's lead in his hand, but then he sensed something coming behind him, and felt something surprisingly sharp bite several times into his seat. He swore, instinctively twisting, his .44 immediately in his hand. He saw her standing there, a long thorned switch in her small, wrinkled hand. He lowered the gun. He just glared at her and said "AWH! DAMN, SISTER!"
"Mr. Larabee...I send you with my blessings, but I send you with one mighty correction for being the spawn of the devil himself!"
"What'd I do now?"
"Sister Angela. She left her wimple on the front pew. She left a note that says she has to find out if the choice was ever hers. I hope you know what you've done. You've shown her the path to her destruction."
"Me? Seems you people always thinking God puts us where he wants us."
"The Lord has his ways."
"Well, Sister, why you think he didn't put me here to just let her choose her path. He put me here so you could make me well. That's clear enough. But I think there's just more to it. Least now, she knows she's got the right to choose., and she knows if she wants another life, there's gonna be somebody who wants her. She goes, she weren't meant to be here nohow. She comes back, she'll serve all her life with joy in her heart. I ain't near good enough for her, but knowing where your heart lies is the only reason for a woman like her to stay out here."
"I think the Good Lord may have put you here after all, my son. " The priest grasped his hand and then he took the switch from Sister Faith's. "I think you can turn your back on her now."
"Thanks! You best chop up that thing fore she decides to give it to you."
He mounted, twisting to get his switched seat comfortable in the saddle, and without looking back, he headed out of the desert.
He chose Hesperus. He could have made Durango in the same amount of time, but he'd already left Durango once. A little more than a day to the northeast, he rode into the God-forsaken place he'd chosen to work. He thought the mission with no name was a better place by far. He rode easy, checking the few buildings, and pulled up in front of the first saloon. His butt was still surprisingly tender, his back tired from the first long ride, but he straightened and walked without giving in to the limp. He'd rethought his town-entering ways during the long nights at the mission. He only lay his reins across the rail.
He walked into the room slowly, checking the corners then the center floor. "Name's Chris Larabee." He wangled a finger at the barkeep, pointing to the bottle of rye on the counter at the back of the bar. "I'm supposed to report for work as your new sheriff."
"You's supposed to show up damn near a month ago. Where you been?"
"Ran into a little trouble. You given the position to anybody else?"
"No. Ain't decided if we're saving it for you either."
"Wasn't no report by date on that letter. Didn't figure I had to run like hell to get here."
Three men had come up beside him, now. Curious, but no threat. "Ya could a wired us you's coming!"
"Did. Just didn't know I's gonna get sidetracked so long. I'm here. Any reason I can't get to work?"
"Just one." The man at the back of the group said it a little too sarcastically to suit Chris.
"This!" The man pulled out an overgrown piece of paper, and he thrust it into Larabee's face. "Says there's a $1,500 Reward for you. Boys and me decided long ago if you was stupid enough to show up here, we just might want to collect."
Chris backed a step, watching their faces, checking their hands. "Where's this come from? Ain't no poster on me!"
"Out of Durango. Rewards on account of two counts of murder, one count attempted murder, and there's one count of bank robbery. Small print says we bring ya in alive, we get $500 more. Whoever posted this...must want to hang you himself! TAKE HIM BOYS!"
He backed up, .44 coming up to cover his retreat. He was running before he considered what he would do...but he knew full well what to do. He shoved a table toward them, fired two shots over their head but in their general direction, whistling sharp as he cleared the batwing doors. Hooves approaching, Charlie screaming, the black rearing and pawing the air. He swung up into the saddle, leaving Pony's lead loose. He rode without glancing back. They tried to shoot him, but they weren't much good. Only one found him, right in the shoulder. He was heading for the Bisti again in nothing flat, leaning over Charlie's neck, Pony scrambling to keep up.
His stay in Hesperus hadn't lasted long. He sure didn't intend to go back to Durango now. He found himself riding mostly in the dark, camping with no fire. Sometimes burning, most nights freezing, the shoulder festering, he finally was forced to ram a red hot length of wood into the hole and seal it shut. After he woke up and puked, he ignored the pain and the fire he felt in his body.
He rode through towns only when necessary, but every one he passed through had a new, surprisingly accurate Wanted poster hanging on the wall of the jail. He looked his age, and he looked like the murdering, bank robbing Chris Larabee was known to look.
He darkened his hair. He let his hair grow. He pulled it into his eyes, and let the mustache and partial beard change his face.
He decided he needed help with the shoulder, but going to the Bisti would lead him only to the Hole. He wasn't nearly mean enough, in his mind, to handle that situation, and anyone he found there was apt to know about the reward, itching to collect. Fifteen-hundred would make lots of people into bounty hunters. They wouldn't bother with the extra $500 to keep him alive.
He was getting slower...the fever sapping his strength. By the tenth day, running as hard as he had when he was fifteen, he entered a town he had held in the back of his mind. In numbers, he could hide. He rode slowly down the big main street, nearly blind with pain and exhaustion. He pulled up sharp when two men, shouting and cursing as they faced each other down, walked into the street in front of him. Lead zinged in every direction, the last shot creasing his skull. As he fell to the street, he figured he was dead.
He woke in someplace dark, soaked to the skin with sweat from broken fever and pain. He opened his eyes, startled, his shoulder confined by a clean mass of bandages. By the soft glow and through the faint scent of an ornate lamp, with a knowledge that he lay in a dense feather bed, beside a beautiful woman who wore absolutely nothing except a fancy, gossamer robe, he saw what had to be a vision. She smiled down at him and poured a shot of whiskey straight down his throat. "Welcome to Dodge City, Cowboy. I'm Ella Gaines. And just who in the hell are you?"
Raven black hair, shining eyes, and a heady smell straight out of heaven eased against his chest. He sighed.
"I'm Chris Larabee. Lord help me."