Camino del Diablo
(The Devil's Road)
New Edition - 2006
Part Two - El Camino a la Venganza
Dancing on angels
And I'm gone thru' the crack
in the past
Like a dead man walking
- David Bowie, Dead Man Walking -
The Ranch, Present Day
Vin could play chicken with the sunlight as it crept over the hills, but let the rays touch him and survival instinct took over. So when Ezra awoke around midday in his room, and found himself facing the inclined wall of the tracker's back and a mass of long bronze hair spilling over the other pillow, he knew what had happened.
It had taken another hour to really hit the road last night. J.D. and Vin needed baths, and then gear had to be loaded up and they had to check out, paying for an extra day because they had stayed well past the usual check out time at midday. Chris was in a rut for reasons Ezra suspected had nothing to do with the anthropology team digging up Four Corners. The caravan out had broken up into several inconstant sections—Ezra in his new Jag, Chris and Buck keeping to themselves with J.D.'s Ninja buzzing nearby, Josiah and Vin just a little behind, then Nathan, as usual, bringing up the rear. The line of vehicles stretched out for roughly a mile, sometimes narrowing down or widening for up to a two-mile stretch, and since I-10 was so barren in the late night hours, they had the luxury of driving as slow or fast as they liked.
Looking back in the rearview, Ezra had mused that it would be hilarious if one day Buck, Chris, Vin, and Josiah decided to actually ride in a group. They would look like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. After all, they were the ones who organized these hunting excursions. Well, so did Nathan, but he didn't count since he didn't ride a bike. J.D. took an attitude like he was just tagging along, and while Ezra took part in the hunt, he tended to focus primarily on the need for funds to keep the operation running. It all made for good pondering fodder to pass the time on the road.
By the time they had gone up past Lordsburg and veered south on 338, it was three in the morning. Getting to the property where the ranch rested was another story as the place was intentionally constructed far away from civilization and within a good ten miles of the remains of Four Corners.
The ranch house itself could be considered a small mansion, covering some five-thousand square feet, with seven bedrooms, three baths, a work room, a kitchen—which, while not necessary, was a favored meeting room—and a recreation center that housed the multitudes of odd collectibles accumulated over the years. This included J.D.'s movie library and a big screen television, Nathan and Josiah's books on science, philosophy and the new age, a few art pieces of Ezra's choosing, and a shared set of antique weaponry from Colt Peacemakers to swords and spears. Beneath the recreation area, an underground safe room had been installed. It was small, cramped, designed only for emergencies.
On the outside, the manse was a simple adobe design of two step levels intended not to conflict with the natural landscape. The windows were reinforced, some clear glass installed with steel panels for blinds that closed on a timer as soon as the sun began to rise. Others were heavily smoked glass with UV filtering so that anyone up in the middle of the day could still look out on the world. The workshop connected to an extensive garage on the west wing, and the graveled driveway, which like the house blended into the landscape. At the time it was under construction some thirty years ago—and it underwent new work about every other year as well—even Ezra had thought it excessive, and the defensive installations a bit overkill since the Seven only came here once a year, twice if occasion called for it.
They had arrived and immediately begun prepping the house for habitation. They pulled drop cloths from furniture and checked the power, water, and alarm system. Tucked within the cave-like safety of the place, they almost didn't notice the dawn slipping over the land outside.
Ezra's room was part of the loft in the second level and one of those installed with tinted windows, giving him a choice of whether to close the blinds or not. For whatever reason, he awoke around noon and might have drifted right off again had his eyes not immediately focused on that back, smooth and naked, tapering down into a pair of tight jeans. Filtered light fell through slightly cracked blinds, laying a pattern like ladder rungs along the upward curvature of Vin's shoulder and down his arm as it disappeared around in front of him. Without thinking about it, Ezra reached out and raked his fingers through the outer tendrils of hair on the pillow then withdrew as if he were violating the other's personal space.
This had happened before. Vin had not made it to ground in time, and so he found a place to sleep here. Ezra's bed had always been an open invitation to him, but it was so rare for him to take advantage of it given his affinity for an earthen floor. Reasons why he accepted, such as now, were as unfathomable as the North Sea since there was one other open bedroom, or the couch in the rec room, which was incredibly comfortable. Ezra suspected it was because Chris and Buck's room was on the other side of the house, and it was pure dumb luck that his own room was the furthest away. Or maybe it had to do with the windows of the upper level, and the amount of natural light that could safely be allowed into this room, because it had long been clear that Vin missed the sun at its most shining time, and mere glimpses of it at dusk and dawn did not compensate for a century of night walking.
With a sigh, Ezra tucked his hand back under his cheek and stared across the cushy pillows and their cream silk cases. He must have dropped off hard, because he hadn't even heard Vin come in or lie down on the other side of the king sized bed. He inhaled, smelling something akin to charred skin, and just above one of Vin's shoulder blades there was a sooty black mark that had for the most part healed.
The last time Ezra had observed such a mark, it had not come by simple carelessness. It had been a failed attempt on Vin's part to end his life. How long ago had it been? Ezra tried to recall.
A long-long time.
It had been roughly a week after the Seven had been transformed, when they were still such young creatures that any idea of a future for them was nothing short of horrifying. That was when Vin had tried to walk into the sun, and as if programmed to respond on its own, his body wouldn't let him. He could dance around its rays, throw curses at it, tease it, challenge it, call it a goddamned bastard, but natural instinct did not allow for full on suicide attempts.
The thought that Vin might have actually tried it again gave Ezra's heart a little turn because there had been no real indication of it coming. Sure, Vin had gotten violent two nights ago and practically fucked him through the hood of the car, but Vin had not fed then. The hunger, at its most extreme, made them all an ugly lot. No, Ezra decided, Vin hadn't tried it again, he'd just not paid attention to the time.
But dismissing the concern wasn't easy. Hesitating at first, Ezra reached out again, brought his flattened palm up to within an inch of the blackened skin on Vin's upper shoulder. His hand hovered there, feeling neither warmth nor cold radiate from the body beside him.
He wondered what it would have been like to have felt Vin when he was human. How warm that skin must have been. God, did he even remember what warmth felt like? It wasn't until after the transformation that any of them had begun to explore sexual relations with each other, starting with Buck and Chris and their feeding ritual. For one, sex outside the group was out of the question. They weren't about to have it on with any other vampires they encountered, and humans were completely off limits since it wasn't known if sex was as infectious as biting. It made sense that it would be with the exchange of bodily fluids.
Ezra remembered that night, around a campfire, within that first week, how Buck suddenly perked up and stared in utter horror at each of the others.
"My gawd," he twanged, "we can't. . ." He blinked and looked like he was going to choke.
"Can't what?" asked J.D.
"You know," Buck persisted. "We can't do it." The fire crackled and defined one side of his face in a dance of golden light as he looked down at his crotch. "Does it even still work?" he asked.
Josiah grunted a chuckle at that, and Chris stared at the fire, not interested or at least not ready to tackle such subject matter yet.
"I can't believe you, Bucklin," Nathan scolded.
The question, meant to be light hearted, disturbed Vin who took it too seriously. "You know it does, Buck," the tracker snapped. "Our sires drilled us up the ass! Of course it works!"
The rage in his eyes had no time to settle out as he spun on one heel and stalked into the dark for a moment alone. He left in his wake the most uncomfortable silence. Even the fire seemed ready to go out. That was his official departure from the Vin they had all known. . . the soft spoken, generally friendly tracker. That Vin was no more. A few days later the new Vin tried to end it all and failed.
It was no surprise, really. Each of them went through his own form of breakdown over some aspect of this new life. . . un-life. . . existence. . . whatever the hell it should be called.
It seemed then that living forever with each other was going to be hell on Earth, but for the sake of safety they had little choice but to stay together and adapt.
Some were more reluctant than others, Ezra mused dryly as he sat up and inched closer to the other man in bed with him. The sheet draped over his hip dragged along with him, the fabric whispering softly with the movement. His view cleared the rise of Vin's cheekbone and the slight dip of his temple, and he peered down at the closed eyelid and the lashes jutting out, catching some of the hazy light, the little hairs aglow along their very tips.
"Vin?" Ezra whispered.
The other grunted a response.
"You all right?" Ezra ventured to sweep the hair more neatly back from the other's forehead and incidentally provoked Vin into opening his eyes and turning his head on the pillow to look up at his watcher.
"'course I'm all right, just didn't make it outside is all," the tracker responded sleepily.
Ezra continued to unconsciously stroke the hair. The silken sensation of it sliding along the deeper crevices between his fingers was intensely arousing all by itself. Vin had probably let it grow a good six inches in the last few years, creating a mane to rival Josiah's.
Then his eyes followed the slope of Vin's narrow torso down to the little shadow spilling from underneath the loose beltline of his jeans. Typical, Ezra thought, for Vin to climb into bed in his jeans. Dusty, hole-in-the-knees jeans at that. But he'd learned they could be fun if he went with it. There was a unique and very pleasurable feeling in creeping his fingertips under that beltline, which he did now, first sliding his hand down over Vin's abs to his navel. The tautness of that skin over hardened muscle, formed via extensive riding, tracking, and constant need to be out of doors, and now preserved by some supernatural means the Seven still did not understand to this day, always captured Ezra. If he couldn't feel warmth, he at least could feel that smooth belly, and here and there the odd scar left over from Vin's former life. His fingertips ran along the edge of the denim, curling it back, and followed the trail of sandy-brown hair down to the nest surrounding Vin's cock. The inseam protecting the zipper scuffed along his knuckles as his hand rose slightly then pressured in again.
"What're you doin'?" Vin asked in a hushed and annoyed tone.
Ezra searched for the right words to cover up that he was just plain horny. "I thought you might be a little tense, considering the. . . ardor. . . of the last few days coupled with the long journey last night." He ran the tip of his tongue along the inside of his upper lip and recalled all the times before when Vin's hands were on his own body, feeling him harshly yet still arousing him beyond measure. But that just went to show the tracker was skilled at fucking, not making love.
Perhaps, Ezra had been thinking, if he gave back more gentle caresses, the message would eventually get across that force wasn't necessary and never had been. It was somehow imprinted on Vin by his sire, and Ezra had long accepted that it would be difficult to contend with, so he elected to bend, play the role of the reed in the wind and see what happened. That didn't mean he always took it without objection. As with the other night, he was known to get in his knocks if Vin went too far, but he always found the tracker's actions forgivable.
He had considered before that perhaps the natural lure he felt toward Vin was based only on the premise of progeny to sire, like Chris was still psychically connected to Ella. It was not a terribly discomforting thought for Ezra, knowing that Vin had sired him by necessity, to save his life. And Vin, while ill tempered, was absolutely no Ella by any means.
The tracker sniffed out an ill-humored chuckle, his eyes narrowing suspiciously as if he had been reading his lover's mind.
Ezra continued his tender probing, slipping his index finger and thumb around the soft, giving skin of Vin's cock, making a ring and pumping at it with the most minute, teasing pressure.
Vin sighed, a sound of complete acceptance, and rolled onto his back, staring up at Ezra still propped on the next pillow. "All right," he whispered back and reached down, opened his fly and zipper, freeing his cock with Ezra's hand wrapped around it. "Put your mouth on me," he husked then.
Ezra couldn't help smirking at the request. "Yes, Sir." He knew from past experience that Vin was generally not given to playfulness in bed. More like he was into wham-bam-thank-you-man, but if once he was willing to follow along a little rather than completely lead. . .
Straightening up to his knees, letting the sheet drop away from his body and reveal everything, Ezra eased his way in between Vin's legs and nestled down there, his mouth above the tracker's slack cock. He kissed it first, then cupped it in his hands and massaged it gently until it began to stand up, the skin transforming in texture from a wilted petal to hard blood-filled flesh. He watched it pump up, bit by bit, each pulse pushing it a little higher until the shaft was firm and solid. Licking at the base, he worked his way up until he reached the underside of the thick head. He took it into his mouth, felt Vin squirm a little at the sudden, shrouding contact, and heard an approving moan drift his way.
Ezra moved down, until his lover's cock head touched the back of his throat and he felt Vin's hips rise up, anxiously attempting to drive the organ deeper. Unable to go further, Ezra drew off, lips narrowing, then down again, lips widening. He felt some give from the sheath of the foreskin as it moved with him. When he pulled off, he continued the pumping motion with his hand, drawing the outer skin up over the head, then down again, then he teased with his tongue a little more, until Vin apparently grew impatient.
The tracker suddenly sat up, prompting Ezra to do the same, both men up on their knees and facing each other. Ezra looked into the hardened blue eyes, remembering long ago when he had first looked into them this close, right after Vin's awakening in that cavern.
Ironically, those eyes had been full of innocence then, despite the beast Vin had become. In that moment, he was completely, utterly, the vampire his sire had meant him to be, and nothing more. Strange that in that tiny moment when all Vin sought was to feed, he probably encountered the most freedom this existence could offer. Ezra realized that he himself had changed all of that. He had uttered Vin's name along with pleas that none of it was really happening. That had snapped Vin out of it, brought him around. He cast aside the freedom of simply being the carnal creature of darkness and embraced what was left of his human conscience.
It would be so much easier to let that humanity slip away, for it was indeed a heavy weight to carry on top of the hunger and the drive-to-kill, and all of the responsibility that came with keeping them in check.
That was the forbidden freedom.
That was the temptation all of the Seven had to deal with.
Ezra inched a little closer on his knees, maintaining grace as he cocked his hips forward, his softer cock meeting the firm rod of Vin's.
Vin stood statue still, projecting nothing, only his eyes moving coldly over Ezra's face. He was impossible to read in these moments, and Ezra's skin crawled with the anticipation of what would come next.
A hand suddenly swept up, over and around Ezra's right hip and reached down, fingers cinching in around the firm muscle of the accompanying ass cheek and pulled forward.
Vin was taking the lead again.
Ezra gave, his hips moving a little bit closer, leading the rest of his body in as he angled his head. His lips, and Vin's, played the air between each other. Ezra closed that little distance first, delivering a pleading kiss, forcing Vin's mouth open, but only because Vin let him. His tongue probed past the teeth, along the tips of the retracted canines as if tempting them to extend. Vin tasted, inside and out, of the earth that he preferred to sleep in. Not a bad taste, a little dry, somewhat musty, and yet fresh too, like grassy, loamy ground after a light rain. His hands found their way up to brace the sides of the tracker's head, fingers weaving through the long hair. Nudged against Vin's cock, Ezra's own began to stir more, a current of pleasure-pain coursing from the tip up into his middle.
Then abruptly Vin seized him by the shoulders and shoved him away, held him there in a vise-like grip, nails digging into his skin.
Ezra's hands went slack in their grip on the other man's long tresses. "What is it?" Ezra asked as his breath restored from the kiss.
Vin said nothing and stared up and down the length of Ezra's torso from the well molded abdomen to the chest and its distinctly chiseled out pectorals. Then he flipped them both around, slinging Ezra down onto the bed.
The gambler bounced on his side and rolled as Vin came down on top of him, stretched out along with him, one knee grinding up into his crotch so that his balls pushed up, partially splayed against Vin's inner thigh.
Ezra opened his mouth to speak, but the tracker's lips pursed, hissing air in a soft, lulling, "Shhhhhh. . ."
Then slowly Vin's clenched hands relaxed from Ezra's shoulders and he ran his knuckles down along the erogenous insides of Ezra's arms, stretching them out cruciform as he went, and he bent his head in to kiss the conman with deeper passion. Ezra moaned up into the mouth covering his own, before an anxious tongue invaded, and Vin's hands closed back in, one cupping over an already peaking nipple and flipping at it absently with the pad of the thumb. The other hand wormed into the space between Vin's knee and Ezra's thigh, caressing roughly, pushing that leg out. Vin's knee prodded the other leg out, spreading the man beneath him open.
Ezra closed his eyes, wondering where this was going, thrilled at not knowing. He arched his chest up toward the hand that teased at the one nipple and sucked at Vin's tongue, swallowing tangy saliva and that earthy taste with it. Meanwhile, he felt the tracker slide a finger up inside him, working it in circles, pressuring up toward the sensitive inner wall. Ezra moaned as his lower regions tingled and blood rushed more hurriedly into his cock until it stood up against that part of Vin's thigh still within range. A second digit entered him and aligned with the first, both moving up and down.
The ring of muscle at his entry began to relax and for a matter of seconds he felt like he'd have Vin finger fuck him forever. Almost unconsciously he rolled his hips up and surfed down into the hand tucked deeply up between his legs, but Vin had already pushed in as far as he could go. Ezra closed his eyes, felt the kiss release and bit at his lower lip. His cock head oozed out a large drop of clear pre-cum that slid down the shaft and into the ginger-brown patch of his pubic hair.
Then abruptly the massaging stopped.
Ezra gave his hips another little swivel, managing to maneuver out more delicious pleasure, but when this also failed to prompt Vin to continue, the gambler opened his eyes. He looked up into an intense, studying gaze, finding Vin as unreadable as before.
Stabbing pain shot up into him.
Ezra clenched his teeth, eyes tearing as for a moment his room turned into a cavern. Goons clutched back in the corners watching, mewling and hissing at the coppery aroma of fresh blood. Above him the pale naked figure of the vampire master hovered, ice-blue eyes piercing him, a treacherous, fanged smile leering at him while he was raped. In a moment the vision was gone, and Ezra gasped, found Vin blinking at him, eyes softened now in utter shock. The pain persisted, forcing out a miserable groan as Ezra whispered.
"I didn't. . ." Vin uttered. "I didn't mean to." Slowly, carefully, he removed his fingers from the slick passage, revealing slightly extended claws lightly bloodied on the tips.
"I know. . ." Ezra said with a growl he couldn't contain.
This was sometimes the way of it. Little accidents. Little painful accidents like this that made banging his dick on the grate of the car seem infantile. Ezra took it as only one example in many of how sad their situation was. One would think that after a century they would have this under control. But if he pushed, Vin pushed back in some way that Ezra could see was unintentional.
It was sad. . . just fucking sad.
He knew that Vin, Buck, and Chris had all had similar experiences when they were initiated. They had all gotten it the worst. . . weakened, scared, humiliated, brought to the lowest, and then raped on top of that. If Ezra were to psychoanalyze the tracker's side of it, he would say that somewhere in there, a piece of the old Vin still survived. The Vin who remembered too clearly what had happened in that cavern, and who desperately wanted to tell his story. But he couldn't just tell it. No, he had to demonstrate it, and in the most unexpected ways. The flashes of memory sharing prompted an involuntary physical response, such as this. . . extending his claws while his fingers were up his lover's asshole.
Just fucking sad.
Ezra took long, deep breaths as the internal abrasions automatically healed. Strangely, the sensation was as arousing as the massage, and his erection managed not to completely give out. In seconds the pain was gone, and Ezra huffed out one last sighing breath, looking up through narrowed eyes at the other man.
Vin had backed off, withdrawn his hand and knee from between Ezra's legs, and sat on his haunches at the foot of the bed. One knee protruded out through the hole in the jeans, framed around the edges in faded blue fringe. His zipper remained down, his half erect cock still out and sitting hopeful, nestled in the rumpled open V-line.
Ezra examined Vin's face, noting the tale tells that the tracker was sorry for the incident. The eyes were slightly misted, the blue paled down to an icy hue that indicated wariness. The lips pursed, on the verge of an apology that just didn't make it out.
Ezra tried to put together a string of words that in some lightly comical way might express that he was not really that daunted by the occurrence. He wasn't human any more, his body healed, he could take pain like this. He didn't have to like it, but it disappeared so quickly that it was a mere spec in the realm of his personal eternity.
He looked down and saw that the hand resting on Vin's knee was a normal hand, fingertips blunt, nails retracted. It almost made him wonder if he'd imagined it, so he ventured forth again, figuring nothing worse could happen for now unless Vin suddenly lost it completely and tried to drill him through the mattress.
"Well now, shall we try that again?" he asked.
Vin stared back at first as if to say You can't be serious. Then in a quick and graceful movement he was off the bed and turned away. It looked at first as if he were going to depart, but instead he stood still, the gray light contouring over the surfaces of his shoulder blades, pooling in the small of his back along the inward curve of his spine. Such pale skin appeared to shine in this light, as if oiled or damp with perspiration. A tangle of hair trailed down the back of his neck, tapering off into a few more prominent locks of golden brown near mid back. The black sun marring on his upper shoulder had almost completely faded now.
Ezra tilted his head, curious as to the wait, and then he smiled to himself as Vin quite literally put on a show just by removing his jeans.
A pair of thumbs trailed around either side, dipped into the beltline, and strong fingers clasped the denim, pulled down, at the same time the figure bent slightly. The jeans slipped down over that perfectly toned ass and were nudged down to the floor where Vin stepped out of them and straightened. Light glanced down the center of each buttock, accentuating its firmness. He turned, the movement like slow motion, first swiveling around at that narrow waist. Then his hips followed, and then his upper body, arms relaxed at his sides. His face remained in shadow above the shaft of light from the window, only the underneath of his chin illuminated by the reflection off of his chest. For a moment the light behind his eyes glowed soft orange before he stepped closer. It faded, overwhelmed by the natural light from outside as his face bled back into full view, and he simply looked at Ezra.
Something in that face had changed, and Ezra could see that the other man had distanced himself just then, in what had appeared to be a simple turn of the body. It had been, in and of itself, a transformation. Into what, Ezra could only guess. He propped up on one elbow and stretched out his free arm through the air as Vin climbed back onto the bed and leaned toward him. His anxious, spread fingers met the side of Vin's neck and curled around to the nape, drawing his lover closer, until their lips met again. It was, quite literally, like starting from the beginning.
They kissed more hungrily, casting off the interruption as though it had never happened, and Ezra's finger tips curled in, massaging Vin's scalp at the same time he craned his head up a little higher to more thoroughly allow his tongue to reach into the other's mouth again. Eyes closed, Vin leaned down deeper until once more he was stretched out along Ezra's body. The tracker bowed his head and kissed the side of Ezra's neck, sucking at, but not breaking, the skin. Ezra roamed one hand down to resume stroking Vin's cock, bringing it quickly back to full hardness as he rubbed the pad of his thumb up and down the upper shaft, around the rim of the head.
Ezra didn't object when Vin guided his body to roll over, gently situating him belly down and propped up on his elbows. In a graceful motion Vin parted Ezra's legs wide, then one hand reached underneath a hip, pulled upward in a silent gesture that Ezra raise his ass a little higher. Ezra did so then resituated himself down as Vin slipped a pillow under his hips. He bowed his head, closed his eyes, and for a moment felt only the empty air around him, heard the rustling of covers and the minute squeak of the box spring. And then the tracker's hands were on him again, meeting at the thumbs, each taking an ass cheek in palm and caressing in circular motions, parting the cleft and revealing his opening.
He thought he heard a soft murmur of, "I'm so sorry, Ezra." But feeling the slick tongue that slid down into the crevice and up against the little aperture into his body almost made him forget his own name. The very tip slid around the puckered flesh, teased and licked and slathered on wetness. The tickle of a few stray locks of hair dangling past Vin's neck and shoulders trailed around the base of one buttock, and Ezra found himself nudging his hip toward that silkiness as if seeking to scratch an itch. He smiled to himself.
This was getting interesting.
Vin's tongue probed a little deeper into the sterile crevice, then pulled out and followed the path up the middle, to the small of Ezra's back. He let the tip touch the skin, running a trail of wet up the spine, until he reached the back of the neck and with one hand pressured Ezra to bow his head, exposing the nape. Vin licked at the tiny hairs there that grew in a natural downward V pattern. He kissed behind an ear and breathed into the canal, the sudden hush of air causing Ezra to gasp as it both tickled and ached, a combination of sensation perfectly balanced.
"Vin," he whispered. Hands eagerly dug under him from the sides, fingertips finding his nipples and rolling them around. One thumb found the hollow between two ribs and notched in there. The other found the gutter line beneath a tightened pectoral. He could feel Vin's cock pressing up into his ass crack, finding his opening. Entry was swift, the passage so successfully slicked with Vin's saliva that Ezra almost didn't feel it until the organ slid along his sensitive zone.
The gambler moaned his approval and rocked his hips back a little, contracting his muscles to suck in more of Vin Tanner.
Vin shook at this, already on the verge of coming. A strange sound murmured out of him, as if he started to say something but his throat caught on the hard K sound that barely coughed out followed by a long S hiss.
Chris. . . Ezra deduced and then let it go as the hands feeling his chest clamped more tightly, possessing him completely, even if their owner was likely thinking about someone else.
Vin pulled Ezra more tightly up against him, hips pursing upward, then tucking downward to meet Ezra's upward push. For a second they would be perfectly spooned together, then separated, then together again. In this they fell into a rare and beautiful rhythm. So rare, that when it did happen, Ezra felt it was too good to be true, and his thoughts went all askew. Within him, Vin's cock continued to prod his prostate wall, precisely aligned, forcing rapturous shivers up through his middle. He felt Vin shiver too, and the gust of broken breath ghosted along the back of his neck.
Do you even see me now?
Ezra closed his eyes tightly, his stiff rod humping the pillow beneath his hips each time he dipped down before pushing up again into the crush of Vin's pelvic bone into his buttocks.
So good. . . God, it was so damned good he clenched his teeth, mini fangs involuntarily budding as he put more effort into the tempo, directing this two man band into a crescendo of movement and soft groans.
It was with a grunt that Vin came inside his lover, not an outcry of passion, but all the same, his body shuddered violently, and he shoved in a little harder with each spewing pump. Ezra's breath staggered and he came into the pillow, Vin's hands still clamped around his rib cage, his raw nipples still wedged between the tracker's fingers.
As each finished spilling his seed, Vin rolled sideways, still tucked up against Ezra who had no choice but to roll onto his side too, and lay conformed up against the tracker's body, cock still partially lodged up inside him. Ezra's own sticky cum was smeared all over his belly, while Vin's oozed out of his ass and trickled, tickling him to near madness, down the backside of one thigh. Each enjoyed his own orgasm as it radiated from his loins up into his chest, and for a moment their world was just shy of ideal. As Ezra's breath calmed, his eyeteeth restored to normal canines.
For a long time they lay tucked against each other, and Ezra sensed, from the sudden quiet that fell upon his own mind, that Vin was asleep. They weren't linked to the extent that they could communicate telepathically, but there were things. . . Ezra could tell. It was like a low buzz in his head or a dull ringing in his ear. The tracker had one arm over Ezra's side, the other bent and tucked up under his head, and he was out like the proverbial light.
Everything was just. . . quiet.
Vin wasn't even breathing.
Ezra stopped his own breath as well. This was probably a bad idea. In the dead silence, laced only by the drone of the fans whirring in the house's ventilation ducts, his thoughts swarmed too freely. Thoughts and emotions together and all those little quips that nibbled at him. So the second round had gone very well, he thought, and was almost content except that he was sure Vin had almost blurted out a name not his. Why should that bother him now? Ezra wondered. He'd been aware of Vin's interest in Chris from the beginning. How deep it ran was a mystery, and it ranged in intensity. There were times Ezra was sure that given the chance to be with Chris, Vin would go straight there without any hesitation. At others it seemed Vin fancied fucking Chris some day and let that be it.
"Vin?" Ezra whispered. For some reason he had to know the extent of it. He'd been avoiding finding out for so long. Hell, thinking about asking made his insides stir and he'd feel a mock hunger pain like he hadn't fed in weeks. That was the undead equivalent of butterflies in the stomach, he figured. Had Vin murmured Chris' name before? That Ezra couldn’t remember. In fact, had Vin actually whispered it a while ago, when they were in the throes and exchanging ragged gasps at each other? Ezra couldn't even be sure if it was just his imagination or not.
He had to know.
"Vin?" He gave a nudge with an elbow, finding the tracker's upper side belly.
The disgruntled intake of breath from behind him told him he'd roused his lover. An even more disgruntled, "Huh?" soon followed.
Ezra turned his head a little, getting in a sideways glance over his shoulder. He could barely tell that Vin's eyes were closed, and the other's breath was about to drop away again. "Vin, do you. . ." He paused to find some more eloquent way to put it, but found none. There was no way to make such an enquiry as his all that eloquent. Somehow he felt that would fail. So he elected to be more direct. "Vin, when we have sex. . . do you ever imagine I'm Chris?"
In his peripheral vision, he could see one crystallizing blue eye snap open, immediately alert. There was no answer at first.
Just cool. . . calm. . . nothing.
Then Vin moved with the speed of a wind demon, boosting up then coming down, grabbing Ezra's shoulders and pinning them, forcing the gambler over on his back. His full weight came down with a dull thud on top of his lover's body and for a moment he only hovered over Ezra glaring angrily down at him, eye to eye.
Ezra had gotten out a grunt of protest in the jostling, and now, staring up at the rage burning in those eyes, he realized he had made a mistake. This was one of those unexpected Vin-isms. Yes, he knew there was some offense to be taken in the question but this went beyond his expectations. Perhaps Vin was most riled up because the answer was indeed a resounding yes.
But the way he expressed it was a whole other matter.
"All the time, Ezra," he spat, fangs partially baring through the part in his lips as they precisely formed each word. "All the time. . . that's why I make you look the other way. So I don't have to see your face!"
A nearly paralyzing sting shot down through Ezra from head to heart. He stared, eyes exchanging shards of green for amber as he prepared a retort that wouldn't come. His tongue felt too thick. "Why do you even bother with me?" he finally whispered hoarsely, and for the first time in his unnatural life felt the true desire to lash out at a comrade.
And then Vin shuddered, as if he'd realized what he was doing or what he had said. He literally deflated, all the tension in his body leaking out, the grip on Ezra's shoulders loosening, leaving behind finger indentions and bruises that healed immediately upon release of the pressure. "It's not like that," he whispered, and a film of pain washed over his eyes. He backed off, crawling quickly backwards, until he'd cleared the length of Ezra's body.
The gambler quickly sat up and scooted to the head of the bed, wary and watching, some part of him wishing desperately to spring at Vin and rip him apart. He had known vicious anger before, felt it boil and fester in him, the curse of the beast demanding to rear its ugly head and be sated emotionally. This was different, and so remarkably powerful that Ezra had to grab the headboard and hold himself steady. Only one systemized thought managed to surface, asking if this was what Vin had to deal with. All this time Ezra had thought he'd understood, but no.
Now he understood.
And. . . God, it hurt. . .
Like having an ice fire in his chest.
Vin seemed oblivious to the fury he left in his wake. His own had disappeared so quickly, cast from one polarity to the other. He sat on the end of the big bed, hunched over, elbows on knees, head hanging. "It's not like that at all," he finished, but that was all he said. No elaborating, no solid definition of what it was he felt toward Chris or why exactly he had bitten back so viciously at Ezra's question. After a moment, he leaned down, bare ass pointed right at Ezra, scooped up the mass of his jeans in one hand, and stood. He pulled them on right there, the movement of his body in the light a scrumptious tease as it had been before.
Ezra felt himself begin to simmer down. "Then what is it, Vin?" he asked the other man's departing back.
At the door out onto the upstairs landing, Vin turned, a single hand on the frame, and looked at Ezra. His eyes had drained of color, leaving only a hint of blue, and two finely pointed, still angry and focused pupils. "All these years, and you think I'm that shallow?" he said.
It was a whisper, but its meaning came out oh so loud and clear.
Ezra let go the headboard and bounded off the bed, started for the door, and found the other figure already gone. Idiot, he chastised himself. What had he expected? He'd asked a sensitive question. That it could hurt Vin didn't occur to him. The man was a masochist the way it was, and Ezra admitted he could be too for putting up with it, for forgiving it so easily. All the physical pain they inflicted on each other could not compare to saying the wrong things, because pain was something that didn't last. Their bodies could take pain. It was so easy to forget that there were other facets of it. For all of the times Vin had taken out his aggression on Ezra, the gambler suddenly realized he'd managed, unintentionally, to exact a kind of revenge by asking that question. The aggressive force that had rattled his frame was gone completely. It had only been there in response to Vin's hateful retort, which Ezra saw now was only something meant to sting.
Shallow, he thought. What a word for Vin Tanner to use. There must be something deeper going on for the tracker to reach into the lexicon Ezra had taught him.
Bowing his head, eyes closed tightly as he swallowed down the bitter taste that infected his tongue, Ezra turned. He meandered to the window, noticing that he couldn't feel anything inside. That little buzz was gone even though Vin was conscious and still near if not in the same room. Ezra guessed there was only one explanation for that. The sire had closed himself off to his progeny.
Ezra propped on the windowsill and peered out between the blinds at a landscape rendered in smoky gray by the tinted glass. Gray sand, gray hills, gray shrubbery. All in different shades, some of it haloed by the sun's light. His pupils closed to points of their own, filtering out the excessive light. Everything he and Vin did to each other. . . and after a hundred years all it really took were a few words to really put either of them out of sorts.
Stifling a chuckle of bitter irony, he closed the blinds and turned away from any remaining light piercing the cracks. "Sticks and stones. . ." he recalled the old saying to the empty air, and finished the rest in thought.
. . .but words will break our hearts. . .
Outside Four Corners, 1877
Taking the blood had not completely been his choice.
Utmost he felt the pain in his throat as skin was torn away, the wash of hot wet down his chest, the lightheadedness that followed, and the ravenous mouth that pressed over the open wound. Then he'd felt Vin's hand press hard against the back of his head, pulling him closer, pushing his face in until his mouth came up against the base of the tracker's neck. The flesh there was cold to his lips, and he felt a hand snake up between their bodies. The sharp tip of a claw wedged under his lips, and tore a gash in the opposing skin. When the blood came, his mouth was pressed too firmly over it to refuse.
The taste was putrid at first. He tried not to weep at how awful it was, and that it came out of the body of a dead friend. Then as it settled, putrescence grew sweet, as if some secret message were conveyed through the flow that this meant he would live, if he accepted it.
So he did.
He drank as deeply as possible given the window of time he had, feeling his body give in as it was drained in turn. When he collapsed back, he was too numb to register the chilled cavern floor beneath him, only that he had been abandoned. The hands that had been holding him were gone. He heard screeches, shouting, the soft, sickening crunch of bodies hitting the stone. It all coalesced into a frightening roaring in his ears.
"V. . . Vin?" he whispered to the cavern ceiling. Or maybe, weak as he was, he only thought the name. The grayish faces of goons loomed, examining him, teeth bared. A few bowed their heads and, on hands and knees like animals, lapped at some of the last run off from the still oozing wound in his neck. Another knelt, its talons dancing over his face, so that his clouded imagination registered long black spider's legs curling above his vision.
"Get away from him, you piece of shit!" A distant snarl of a voice, familiar and yet alien to him, shooed the goons away.
And then Vin had him again, lifted his head from the floor and cradled it in his lap. Caring arms came down around him, guarded him.
"I'm sorry, Ezra," Vin whispered and bowed his head, his longish locks spilling forward like a veil.
Was he. . . crying. . .?
Feeling safe, Ezra gave in and sank into the death sleep.
Chris was able to walk on his own by the time Buck had gotten him to the church. By then he had cursed his old friend to Hell and back, stumbled three times, skinned his knees and in morbid fascination watched them heal instantly. He fought back tears as he recalled what Ella had done to him. After fucking him, she'd drained him to near death then risen up over him and slashed the tip of her right nipple with the sharp tip of a claw. When it bled freely like mother's milk, she wedged it into his mouth. The blood tickled his throat at first, forcing him to cough, thus sending it up into his nasal cavities where it washed back down out his nose. He all but drowned in the stuff as his gag responses tried to push it out, then the following suction pulled it right down his throat.
Now he carried the memory if that cold nipple in his mouth, of the texture of the pink, tightly budded skin forming a knob. Made him want to puke, except that the hunger pain argued with that notion. No, he didn't want to puke, he wanted to feed, and on the edge of his mind, he could feel her with him, coaxing gently, attempting to convince him not to run, that she was where he belonged. It felt so right, too. Terrified as he had been sprawled beneath her before, now thoughts of her sent a surge into his cock. He so wanted to fuck her, and she teased him with images of feeding, of the blood that she was bringing back to him. He would have readily veered around and gone straight back to the hotel to await her return if not for Buck slapping him on the face every few minutes. This got to be a damned nuisance very quickly, for he couldn't pause to try to collect his own thoughts but what Buck figured he needed another good slap.
The next one that came around, he caught, instinct acting to catch Buck's rising hand around the wrist. "Don’t do it again," he hissed angrily. Then he blinked in astonishment at how fast he had moved.
Buck blinked too, his other hand gripping Chris' shoulder tightly to keep him from falling over. "Well then," he said in a low rumble of a drawl, "that's more like it." Then he pried his wrist free and, before Chris could stop him this time, punched the head regulator on the shoulder.
Chris started to snarl back then caught himself. No, to act as the thing he'd been made into against his will would mean to give Ella exactly what she wanted. It was with this act of will that he found his fangs retracting, and even the hunger caved in a little so that he could stop clutching his belly so much. The haze began to clear more when he saw Josiah and Nathan.
Their faces had paled considerably, and their eyes were bloodshot, wary. The giant preacher hunched in the doorway at the church, arms hugged tightly across his chest as he cringed at his own chills. The chills of death. The healer lingered behind him, armed with stakes ready to be flung at what ever came through the church door when Josiah opened it. They weren't welcoming in the night, they were prepared to continue fighting whatever came with it.
Chris had no complete idea of what had happened elsewhere in the town during the attack last early morning, only that in the space of twelve hours, everything had changed. Between slapping him and keeping him upright, Buck had been filling him in with a few bits and pieces during the long, excruciating walk down the street. He knew Buck's sire and Ella were out on the hunt, and most of their goons seemed to have gone with them. He knew Buck had spoken to Josiah earlier in the day, while he was still human, and that the preacher and the healer were infected, and that J.D. had been sent away with the last survivors. Utmost, he knew the Seven had failed in their sworn duty to protect the town.
They had tried.
Damn-in-hell they had tried.
The misery of it all helped Chris push the hunger back a little further.
"Buck," Josiah whispered in partial relief. "You found him."
"Hey, Josiah, was wonderin' if you'd still be here," Buck said, his normally smooth voice now rusty. "Figured you mighta moved on, or. . ." he glanced away when he said this. "Or something else."
A look at Buck confirmed for Chris that his friend's eyes were misting. To look up the empty street, to feel the dead silence. . . Chris understood completely. Not even a cricket, safe within its hidey-hole crack under the steps, chirped. And yet here stood Josiah. Chris could have sworn the preacher's hair was grayer than before, or maybe it was a trick of the light from the lamps glowing inside.
"Vin?" Chris rasped. "Ezra?"
"Missing since dawn," Josiah replied. He gestured out into the nothing of trails and land cloaked in shadow southeast of the town. "One of the survivors we sent on with J.D. said something about seeing a rider go that way. Thought it might be Vin, but it was still dark then and us being sick now. . ." He shook his head, obviously disappointed at himself, and regretful of the town's downfall. "We had our hands full here," he finished with a second gesture back in the other direction up the main street. "Lost it all."
Nathan had lowered the stakes and come to the preacher's side. "You two look horrible," he said outright to the two men standing one hunched against the other in dirty, blood caked shirts and no pants. "Come on in, I'll take a look at'cha."
Before he could stop himself, Chris snapped, "No!" and pulled back against Buck's supporting arm. He staggered, legs tangling up like those of a gangly newborn colt, and almost fell over, but the taller man caught him and helped him steady. How could they not tell what he was. . . what Buck was too?
"What he's sayin'," Buck announced over the scuffling of ill planted feet, "is that we're just a bit beyond medical help, Nathan."
This caused the two men in the church to straighten, choking back their chills and tensing further, vipers ready to strike back if necessary.
"Hold on now!" Buck burst out, his free hand up and palm raised to call a truce before the conflict had any chance of breaking out.
But nothing happened.
They all stared at each other. Josiah and Nathan blinked. Chris and Buck blinked. Slowly Buck lowered his hand.
"It's happened," Buck whispered. "We're past saving, Nathan," he reaffirmed. "And if I understand correctly, so are you." He clutched Chris a little tighter as they stood there, half naked creatures hungering and hurting.
Josiah's shoulders deflated, his arms dropped down to his sides, and he leaned back against the frame, staring at nothing. A glaze of hopelessness slipped over his eyes.
"No," Nathan said, stepping closer, filling the door in the space next to Josiah.
Three other sets of eyes began to roll up and focus on him, brows knitting. Frown lines etched out a broken V-shape down the middle of Chris' forehead. He could see Nathan's natural stubbornness emerging despite the infection that had numbered his days.
"No," the healer repeated more strongly. "We still got our wits, don't we?" he asked incredulously.
"But for how long?" Josiah replied.
"It means we still got some chance," Nathan insisted, though his breath rustled weakly.
Chris cleared his throat. He could still feel that nudge in his mind, his mistress calling him. Bitch. He swallowed, his throat dry and tight, and resisted with every part of his being. Clearly Nathan still hoped to make a stand, but how deep did that hope run? Chris ventured to test it. Buck was right in his earlier statement that they would have to get out of town, and that was the only place Chris could think to start. "We need to go," he said, his voice still not completely up to par. "Gotta figure this out, see if we really do have a chance."
"You got that right," Buck backed him up. "And here we are standin' outside like a buncha idiots." He looked about, putting his new senses to work searching the night for signs of the vampire brood. "The one that did this to me, I remember hearing him. . . him and. . . Ella."
"Ella?" Nathan and Josiah asked in unison.
"Yeah, she did this to Chris."
"But. . ." Nathan shook his head in disbelief. "What does she have to do with this?"
Chris looked up at him with a scathing glare, the newer brilliance in his green eyes almost glowing. He couldn't see it himself, nor did he see that his own pupils were glowing softly from within, but he sensed the other's reaction to it. "Never mind that now," was all he said. He knew he would have to answer such questions soon, but right now he was too agitated, too hungry.
"I remember seeing her. . ." Buck continued vacantly, gaze casting to the ground. "She and that bastard. . . Christobal. . . I heard 'em fighting over me. . . I'm supposed to be dead now. . . dead-dead, not. . . this. . ." He looked down at his body and away. "She's the reason the town's laid to waste," he finished. "They had to go feed elsewhere because there's nothing. . . no one. . . else left here."
Necessary though this information was, the continued mention of Ella finally pushed Chris to snap at his companion. "Buck!"
The taller man looked at him with a flat stare as if Buck had become impervious. "Yeah, we gotta go," he agreed and looked up at the others. "You too," he said to Josiah and Nathan.
"But where?" the preacher asked.
Before he could consider options, Chris felt another nip at his will, and the voice at the back of his mind calling. It was so powerful this time, edged with anxiety. He'd gotten to thinking about Ella, and damned if it didn't strengthen the link. He could imagine her breasts in his hands, tasting the skin at her throat when she returned. "No, stop. . ." he gasped and pulled against the protective arms keeping him here where he really belonged, here with his friends.
"Chris!" Buck shouted and the slapping commenced again, one hand clamped firmly around Chris' upper arm, the other going to town on his face. "Look at me!"
Chris felt a strange and soothing trance state threaten to control him, his cock hardening as visions of fucking Ella flushed through his mind and he looked up at Buck's grimacing face as if staring up through rippling water.
"Chris!" Buck shook him hard, smacked him again.
The sting bit into his cheek, pierced the veil, and pulled Chris a little bit closer to the surface. He heard the others' voices shouting for him, echoing through the tunnels of his ear canals as if through the deepest canyon.
It was the first of many seizures to come.
He tossed as more hands enfolded him, controlled his flailing limbs, and lowered him. His body tried to stop breathing and his mind retorted, the two uncoordinated entities fighting each other, and Ella's face appeared before his inner eye. Her dark eyes taunted him, her smile invited him, her blood offered him release.
Then somehow the vision was swept away like so much dust under a mat. Something cool and tangy flooded his mouth and he swallowed instinctively. In that moment the air cleared. Ella and her call disappeared. Chris found himself sprawled face up on the church steps, three upset men pinning him down, and his teeth, fangs extended, firmly latched onto the side of Buck's hand. It was Buck's blood he tasted, Buck's blood that had brought him back around.
Chris unclenched his jaw and his teeth slid out of the wound. Buck pulled his hand free slowly, and stared at it. Before them all the flesh began to heal, sealing up each little tooth print. The blood still clinging to his skin dried quickly and flaked off as if it had turned to ash.
Buck looked from one to the other, tilting his hand a little more so that they could see the bite had completely vanished. "One of the benefits, I suppose," he said in a low, disgusted huff. That said, he moved quickly back to the previous topic. "Let's go." He reached down, took Chris by the shoulders and hefted him to his feet with hardly any effort.
Chris was back to staggering again. He stubbornly tried to give more input on the decision to follow the route Vin was reported to have taken, but the others grew anxious, especially after his little "episode" in front of the church. They didn't know what they would find out there, but anywhere was better than in town.
The hours passed with a lot of grunting, groaning, and cursing as they hauled themselves across the plain that surrounded the main road leading out of Four Corners. For Chris and Buck, the night was a chorus of noises that to the human ear were too quiet to notice. By the early morning hours, Chris could even swear he heard the dew settling. Josiah and Nathan paled out more, shivered harder no matter how mild the night air. Nathan tried to make more sense of their condition, asking questions that at times pertained to Ella, and Chris found his temper running on the same short fuse as before.
"So if Chris is linked to Ella, you could be linked to the one made you," the healer commented to Buck.
"Yeah, seems that way," the tall gunslinger replied. He had finally been able to completely let go of his burden and Chris was walking on his own again, but Buck stayed on the other's tail, keeping an eye on every slight misstep. "I heard 'em talk something about feeding us. Ella was supposed to feed Chris, and Christobal me. Something about control."
Nathan considered this. "Makes sense though. You two ain't no goons. Maybe that's how one master controls another. . . by feeding him, making sure the blood gets processed through the first master."
Josiah's brows went up. "That's what brought Chris back around," he said suddenly. "He bit you."
Buck cocked his head at this, brows furrowing deeply and he looked over at Chris who was doing his damnedest to stay focused on the journey. "You think my blood's what helped him get some control?"
"It'd be like a drug," Nathan deduced. "Sort of a temporary antidote."
"I dunno," Buck said dubiously then appeared to reconsider. "Though. . . Chris was in a hell-of-a bad state when I found him." He still looked at the other, who suddenly turned angered eyes on him.
"Would you just shut up," Chris spat.
"Make me," Buck snarled back, too tired to take any more objections.
Chris stopped in his tracks, shoulders slouched, and stared back. For a second he was filled with a vicious desire to leap at Buck and tear into his throat. There was more precious blood to be had there, his for the taking. He recalled the taste spilling over his tongue, Buck's hand in his mouth and his teeth solidly dug into the flesh as if through the peel on some ripe, juicy peach. But no sooner did he have this inclination than he realized it was instinct talking. Instinct and the continued mention of Ella. . . damn it all but Nathan and Josiah weren't exactly respecting his wishes that she not be mentioned either. He let it fizzle out. His eyes narrowed at Buck and he sighed.
"Do it yourself," he grumbled softly and turned to continue ahead.
Moonlight glanced off the crusty desert floor, stones, shrubs, and cacti. While the whole of the night was brilliant to him, that moonlight added a halo. Chris blinked to see if it would go away, but when it didn't, he realized that this was to be his vision from now on, this gray and yet so alive night.
Then something stirred ahead, and he smelled warm tanginess. Instinct kicked in again and he sniffed the air more deeply. Buck did the same, and both looked at each other.
"What is it?" Nathan asked, noting the eerie silence that fell between the two.
Chris and Buck both looked back out into the night, smelling hot blood, dust, and under that the hint of leather and saddle soap.
"Horses?" Buck asked no one in particular with a shrug.
Chris spotted the gelding first, far off in the distance, head down and nibbling on a bush. "Peso," he whispered.
"Peso?" Josiah echoed and scoped the night, but his still-human eyes could not penetrate the veil of distance even with the moon's help.
"There he is," Buck confirmed. He started forward, stopped, and spun back around. "Well, come on," he insisted and gestured the others to follow.
"Wait," Josiah called after him. "Buck, remember the horses in the graveyard?"
Buck straightened, all of the lost little boy there in that dirty shirt tail. Chris gritted his teeth, making the realization as well. "Shit," they both hissed in unison.
"I didn't even think about that," Buck added, fists clenched at his side. He was turning to look back at the others when he froze and looked slightly up past their heads. His face fell suddenly, and the glisten of dread crept into his eyes.
"What is it?" Nathan said and let his gaze follow Buck's, as did Josiah.
"How long have we been out here?" Josiah asked no one in particular.
"Oh. . . God. . ." Buck said and his voice absolutely trembled.
When Chris turned to look to the east he understood. Instinct once more spoke, pulled every cord and nerve tight.
The eastern sky had lightened from black to softer blue, and on the rim of the mountain ridge, the pale light that marked the threshold of daybreak began to wash gently upwards.
"Buck. . ." Chris murmured hoarsely.
"We gotta find shelter!" Buck burst out and spun about, scanning the surrounding land for some indication of the best place to go. To the north a closer ridge of rocky hills interrupted the desert spread. Not really even hills, but jutting rock formations. But there were shadows within the shadows, and Buck's keener vision spotted what might have been a flicker of light. "There!" He pointed, and reached out to frantically grab Chris' arm, jerking him closer and giving a shake.
Chris narrowed his gaze and homed in on the faint shift in light against the formations. "Looks like there may be a camp over there, or something."
"You two got one up on us," Nathan said irritably, "cause I don't see a damn thing."
"Me neither," Josiah agreed.
Chris turned and examined the degree of light in the sky and figured they "might" have a full hour before it would actually be lethal to him and Buck, but the implications were still horrific. He didn't want to burn.
"Here's the deal," Buck said blandly, glancing at his companions again then up at the sky. "That sun comes up, Chris and I are gonna be bacon."
Chris winced at that but agreed with the assessment Buck was arriving at. "We need to try to make that rise. I don't know what that light is but it looks like that might even be some caverns or something over there."
"You know about any caverns in the area?" Josiah asked, looking from one to the other. His heavy brow completely shaded in his eyes while the lingering moonlight touched his hair and defined the planes of his cheekbones and strong jaw.
"Nope," Buck replied, "but it can't hurt to look now can it." He gave them a wave and started hustling across the sand, over brambles and past cacti and tumbleweeds, kicking aside who-knew-what as he went.
The others followed at a slower pace, Josiah and Nathan both continuing to shiver, brows drenched in cold sweat. Where Chris and Buck didn’t so much as gasp to keep their breath up, the preacher and the healer were clearly deteriorating further, every step more sluggish than the one before
Dawn began to reach red fingers across the sky, sending Buck and Chris into a panic, and they reached the embankment first, feet padding from sand up onto rock, naked toes naturally gripping into the crevices so that they could more efficiently climb.
"There it is!" Buck called and climbed faster, reaching the lip of what was indeed a cavern mouth.
"I'll be," Josiah murmured to himself as he squinted to see ahead, and the early light now defined the dark opening. He helped Nathan along.
The two fully fledged masters made the opening well ahead of their companions and eased their way in, looking down through an uneven tunnel that went from wall-to-wall rock to developments of stalagmites in jagged rows. Deeper down, the flicker of light that they had seen from out on the plain still danced.
"It. . . smells like death," Chris stammered. After the long walk, he was beginning to find his thoughts teetering back toward Ella.
Buck inhaled as if to test that theory and nearly gagged. To say it smelled like death was a compliment. What wafted from those depths was stale blood, shit, and decay. He wrinkled up his nose and took a step forward. "Someone is down there," he whispered. "You hear that?"
Chris listened, cocking an ear, and agreed that that he thought he heard a long, agonized sigh. Just the same, it could have been air moving through the cavern. His gaze wound along the floor until he spotted something lying against one of the stalagmites. "Buck, look." He pointed, then eased on ahead toward the object, finding it to be a cavalry style hat, dusty and half flattened, its neck cord broken. Chris straightened, the hat cradled by its rim in his hands as if he held a wounded butterfly. "It's Vin's," he said and looked up through a tumble of dirty bangs.
Buck went to his friend's side and then together they looked down the remaining length of the passage to the source of that light flicker. A scuffing of shoes on stone drew their joint attention back to the cavern opening, where Josiah and Nathan now stood, silhouettes against the lightening sky.
"What'cha got there, Chris?" Nathan asked.
Stiffly Chris lifted the hat a little. "Look," he rasped and almost collapsed as a fresh dizzy spell hit him.
"Whoa," Buck whispered and caught Chris up by the arms, lowering him to his knees where he bowed his head and took long deep breaths as if it would help.
"You feel this?" Chris said, leaning into him. "You feel this kind of hold from the one who made you?"
Buck lifted his chin. "Chris, stay with us now."
Eyes watering, Buck helped his friend get back to his feet and stood transfixed for a moment. "Yes," he finally admitted. "I do." Gently he took the hat from Chris' hands and hung it on the point of a stalagmite. "He started calling to me when we left town."
It seemed to console Chris to know that they were in the same situation. He nodded and said hopelessly, "I want to go back there."
"Easy now, we'll have to, but not now," Buck reminded him with a gesture at the light beginning to creep past Nathan and Josiah. "Not in the day." It all but choked him up to say it. To never see the sun again. . . no wonder this state of being was called undeath. With minor effort he turned Chris to face down into the deeper well and looked over his shoulder. "Nathan, Josiah, you two better wait here. If what's down there decides to come out, you'll at least have the sun behind you."
They nodded, Josiah finding a boulder to lean against while he hunched up his shoulders. Nathan paced, wavering dizzily, until he also found a place to prop his tired body.
Then Chris and Buck crept ahead, following the dreaded smell, until first they saw a scattering of bodies on which the light of hundreds of nearly spent candles danced. A gnarled arm here, a head of ratty hair lying over there, or a torso sliced in two. As they rounded the last bend, looking into a vast chamber of stone, their eyes followed the carnage to one sight that made them both halt and stare.
Vin Tanner, completely naked and caked in smatters of dried blood, sat on his haunches, head bowed as he cradled the dead body of Ezra Standish.
Chris gasped relief at the sight of Vin, while he felt a surge of regret to see Ezra. The conman was partially dressed, though his lacey Parisian shirt had been torn open and was stained in blood. Ezra's head was turned to the side, exposing the side of his neck where an extremely large and thick scab had formed.
"Vin?" Chris whispered.
The tracker didn't move, which set the two newcomers more on edge. They knew what he was not by smell, or by the fact that they could hear his slow and steady heartbeat, which matched the rhythm of their own hearts. They just knew. By yet some other facet of their new instincts, they knew. Then as Vin drew a rusty breath to speak, they both tensed.
"I," Vin stammered at first. "I didn't know. . . didn't know what to do." His eyes, ice-blue and clear, raised then and he turned his head slightly to look up at both of them. "I couldn't save him. It was the only thing I could think to do."
"Vin, what happened?" Buck insisted.
Vin looked out across the floor at the carnage, at the streams of guts and washes of blood. "Their master did this to me," he whispered. "Then. . ." Quickly he turned and looked down at the body in his arms, moving fingertips just above Ezra's closed lids, brushing along the lashes, before he clutched the conman's stiff arm and pulled it closer, rocking. "He wanted me to take Ezra, to just. . . kill him."
By now Chris and Buck knew they could move closer. Vin seemed to have his senses, though there was something in his eyes that remained troubling. The candles, situated along the natural shelves in the walls, had mostly burned down to mere nubs of wax, but a few larger ones still had plenty of burning time. The golden light folded around the side of his face, bringing out the sharpness of a cheekbone, or the angle of his square jawline.
"But I remembered," he continued. "I remembered what he did to me. . ." he glanced over into a far area of the chamber and then returned his full attention to Ezra, continuing to rock, caught in his own world of shock at the new state to which he had been transformed.
A scuffling of shoes on stone called all attention to the chamber entrance, and Buck and Chris both allowed for Nathan and Josiah to come on in. They had grown tired of waiting, and when there were no outcries from the deeper cavern, they had followed.
"Oh, God have mercy," Josiah said softly as he saw the two there.
Buck stepped closer, eased down before Vin, and paused to look at Ezra's profile turned up toward his guardian, cherubic in death sleep despite the ashen hue of his lips or the lack of luster in his cheeks. Chris too, came forward, and kneeled behind Vin, looking down over his shoulder. The preacher and the healer, however, lingered at the chamber's threshold, confused, in their half state as to whether they belonged in this world of the dead, or if they were still within the realm of the human and had no business here.
"Vin?" Buck coaxed, "you killed your master?"
Vin looked into that section of cavern again, a gesture that guided Buck's gaze for a better look at the body lying there in a heap. Buck stood and went to investigate, skirting the mess on the floor, until he came upon the body. The long-limbed figure was sprawled and half draped over a dip in the floor, causing the long black hair to flow away from a face frozen with shock. It was not the face of a goon, as the open eyes revealed, for they were not oily black orbs but pale blue, the pupils fixed and dilated. One clawed hand reached across the floor, while the opened chest protruded upward. The vampire master wore nothing but a black robe that spilled away from his body as if it were part of his blood. His limp cock, painted with dried blood, hung between his spread legs, and Buck noticed a familiar scent curling up toward him, breaking past the other smells.
Buck glanced back at the gathering in the central chamber. He'd picked it up right away but not really thought about it. Now he made the connection with the musky scent of Vin Tanner around the dead vampire's dick.
He fucked Vin, too, was all Buck could think then. He gritted his teeth, felt stinging tears of empathy well up, but they dried before they could fall over. No wonder Vin was in shock, much the way Chris had been, but clearly Vin had fought back.
Vin had fought back and won.
Stumped with amazement, Buck started to turn back to the group when he thought he heard the sound of hissing and mewling from further down the passage, where it grew more narrow and even his new night vision didn't pierce that deep. Goons. There were goons hiding down there, and as Buck's eyes wandered the course of the mutilated bodies on the floor, and over to Vin's body and its coat of flaking blood, he made the next realization.
They're afraid of Vin.
"What did you do?" Chris whispered to the tracker.
"I pulled out his goddamned heart," Vin hissed then, hatred dripping from every word. He turned that poisoned gaze on Chris then, and then just as suddenly, it softened. It was then that Vin truly saw his friends, his clouded mind suddenly reaching out into the world when he found that natural recognition of his own kind. "Chris?" His brows knitted tenderly, and he rocked absently a little more. "Not you too."
Not you, too, Buck thought. The same thing Chris had said to him. That seemed to be the common reaction. He came back to the front again, looking down at the huddle. "All of us, Vin," he announced. "Nathan and Josiah, too."
"He's fine, not even a scratch on him. I got him to leave town," Josiah assured. Slowly he and Nathan began to step closer, until finally they each took a seat, still not getting too close to the others. Friends or not, the other three were completely changed and the fourth lay dead, possibly to rise soon.
"But, you're still. . ." Vin began.
"Still human," Nathan finished for him.
Focused on Ezra's state, Buck took a knee in front of Vin again. "But what about him?" he asked, gesturing at the dead conman and then the clotted wound in the throat. He made out a few flecks of blood around Ezra's lips, but realized that Vin had been wiping absently at Ezra's mouth, cleaning it off.
"I fed him," Vin explained. "Selvik was. . ."
"Selvik?" Chris interjected.
This time Vin didn't look at the master's body. "Him," he said. "He gave me Ezra, to be my first kill, but I remembered." Gingerly he readjusted against the weight of Ezra's head in the crook of his arm and pulled the body up closer to him. "I remembered how he created me. I took Ezra," he admitted shakily. "I fed from him." Slowly he looked from one to the other.
"And?" Buck insisted.
"Let 'im be," Nathan grumbled and drew in a quaking breath.
Vin answered anyway.
"Then I gave some back."
Where the others had come back into the world slowly, climbing up through mounds of mental sludge, limbs heavy and numb, Ezra Standish burst back into life with an abrupt intake of breath. His chest bowed upward, and his mouth flew open, inhaling deeply then exploding back out with a stream of hoarse coughing. His eyes flew open wide, staring up into the cavern ceiling in shock. He collapsed back, finding comforting arms catching him.
Then some not-so-touchy-feely instinct sent him scrambling away. Clumsy, uncoordinated, he fell up against the cavern wall beneath a veil of candle wax and turned to stare at the blurred faces of five of his comrades.
"It worked, Vin," Buck's voice rang with both excitement and deadly seriousness.
Ezra almost snarled at the sound accosting his sensitive ears, tried to cringe back into the wall, and shivered as the most wrenching hunger pain ever tore through his belly. Something hard came loose in his mouth and rolled across his tongue. He almost swallowed it but spit it back up, catching it in his hand at the same moment he realized that his eyeteeth had extended down to long, sleek points.
"Wha. . ." he stammered and looked down at the thing in his palm: the gold cap that covered his right canine. "What's happening?" His voice still bore its usual southern drawl, but all smoothness was gone at the moment, the words crackling out of him like wagon wheels over rocky dirt. Then as his gaze roamed, and the horrible stench of rot hit him, he almost gagged, bearing his new fangs in a grimace.
"Ezra!" Vin called to him, the tracker crawling into full view and taking him by the shoulders. "Ezra, it's me."
"I. . . see that," Ezra coughed back, and gradually his vision began to sharpen. Then, "Oh, God. . ." he clamped his arms around his belly, feeling as though he might turn inside out.
While Ezra squirmed in the early discomforts of awakening, the others observed, noting that his senses seemed to be intact, that he recognized them. The greater question lay in whether he would be able to hold it all together, to not let the new nature take over. Nathan, normally given to disdain toward the conman out of principle, felt sorry for him, seeing as he had practically become an experiment.
Ezra reached up to scratch at a vastly itchy spot on the side of his neck and startled as something fell away. He looked down to see the huge flake of scab drift to the rock floor while his fingertips probed over the clean, healed skin that had formed beneath. "I," he began, his voice still shaken and rusty, "I remember."
"What do you remember?" Nathan asked, keeping a distance.
Ezra stared at him, smelling the fresh tang of human blood. His attention drifted to Vin, still the closest, still holding his arms and keeping him upright. "You. . . killed me."
"What else?" Vin asked.
Blazing green eyes stared back, a little knit cinching down in the middle of Ezra's sandy brows as the shock persisted. Finally those eyes moistened. Silently, softly, gleaming beads of tears swelled up and spilt down his cheeks. They all waited quietly, allowing the conman more time to reach the full understanding of what had happened, and what lay ahead. "I'm so. . . hungry," he whispered after a while.
"I know," Vin replied and began to back away.
Ezra looked from Buck to Chris, then at Nathan and Josiah. "How did you all get here?" he asked, pulling his arms tighter around himself, the hand still holding the gold cap tightened into a fist as if this tiny nugget still held some string tied to the humanity he had given up.
Chris was too caught up in, and fighting, the haze of Ella that pulled at his will. Nathan and Josiah were too tired. Buck did most of the explaining, weaving together his own experiences, minus the rape, to finding Chris, to trekking through town to meet up with Nathan and Josiah, and how the first sign of that damned horse of Vin's, and the rising sun, had led them to find this shelter.
"It all comes down to one thing," the tall gunslinger concluded. "We're all here, and we're all damned."
Josiah's bloodshot eyes stared at him. "Are we really damned, brother?" he asked softly.
Buck frowned. "What else are we, Josiah?" He stepped toward the preacher, eyes casting that eerie inner glow. "That bitch Ella has won. Hell, she was on top from the start."
"How were we to know?" Vin asked absently and stared across the floor at the mass of Selvik's body. "We just didn't know what we were up against."
"And how the hell did Ella come into this?" Ezra suddenly asked after being quiet for so long.
Buck opened his mouth to speak, then it struck him to look to Chris for that answer. They all did, five sets of eyes all rolling toward the head regulator so that he stiffened and glared back at them.
With an impatient growl, Chris only said, "Fowler."
"Fowler?" Buck's brows shot up and the others all frowned their confusion.
"Ella told me," Chris explained. "Fowler was the first. They were working together even when she was still human." He eased back against a jut in the wall and sat down, the venom in his gaze drifting slowly away. "She helped him find blood, and gave him a place to hide. When things didn't work out that last time, she went to him. . . had him. . . change her." He stopped there, stiffening as some dismal thought swept through him. He drew in his lips, fighting back more tears, and then whispered, "This is all my fault."
"No," Buck snapped at him. "Chris you get that idea out of your head. You couldn't help how Ella wanted you. She was mad, get it?" He pointed a finger to the side of his head and swirled it around. "Out of her godforsaken gourd."
"Ain't no body's fault," Nathan agreed. "Maybe not even her own." He looked down at his own shaking hands and then brought them up to hug to his body.
An excruciatingly long silence fell like a waxy veil. They had all grown so interested in their own situation that the bodies on the floor had not fazed them any further, until Vin asked the penetrating question.
"What are we gonna do?"
The silence carried on, all eyes darting from one to the other, then Buck brought it all home when he turned to look at Nathan and Josiah.
"I think the next choice is up to you two."
"What choice have we got?" Josiah asked dismally. "There's death, and then there's. . . death."
"Undeath," Buck corrected blandly.
"Between the devil and the deep blue sea, gentlemen?" Ezra spoke up then broke down coughing, the grating sound echoing through the cavern. Completely on his own he pushed up against the wall and used it as a brace while he got to his feet. With baby steps he came forward.
"That's it," Buck said suddenly. "Josiah, Nathan, you're infected, but what if we could make sure you become like us?" He gestured around him. "It worked from Vin to Ezra."
"I dunno," Josiah said, his salt and pepper brows drawing sternly together in consideration. He shook his head to himself. "I've pondered this already," he admitted. "Yesterday, after seeing you in the hotel. I wondered about damnation, Buck. I wondered if a man could hold his soul together, even knowing what he's changing into." He took a few brave steps closer and looked from Ezra, to Vin, back to Buck, then to Chris. "If you four are the example, then I would say yes."
"I think it's a chance we'll have to take," Nathan said to the big preacher. "It's either let this change go on, and lose our minds, become like them." He gestured at the bodies of the slain goons on the floor. "Or we become like them." He gestured at the four men. "You all need to feed, if you can take just enough to give you some strength."
"And then we give some back," Buck spoke for them all, echoing Vin's earlier words. "But you have to understand," he added. "Chris and I are still linked to the ones who made us. Vin broke that spell enough to kill his master, but there still might be something between us all."
Nathan analyzed this quickly and cocked his head in curiosity. "But what if all of you give a little back. . ."
"No," Chris instantly argued. "No, I won't." He scooted further back against the rock. "Not with this. . . not with her. . ." He looked down at his poorly sheathed body, and brought his hands up to the sides of his head. "I can smell that bitch on me!" He couldn't be anymore jumpy if he were stepping in a nest of scorpions.
In two fast strides Buck was in front of the head regulator, looking into his eyes, shaking him again. "You don't have to, Chris," he soothed. "You don't have to. . ."
"I could take it from you," Chris said almost timidly. "It worked, remember? Just that little bit you gave me. . . it stopped her from coming in. . ." He was frighteningly close to reverting back to the state in which Buck had first found him.
"Yeah," Buck agreed in a whisper, taking note of the way his friend's lips kept curling back hungrily then closing again, canines only slightly extended. "Yeah, we'll do that, okay, buddy?" Then he attempted to get the head regulator back on track with a light pat to the cheek. "But we have to do this other, all right? We have to do something for Josiah and Nathan or else we won't be able to go back and face Ella, or Christobal. The more of us the better."
"We can turn it against them," Vin said in support.
Ezra nodded his agreement and cleared his throat but refrained from saying anything more. He admitted to himself that his own hunger forced his agreement, and to some degree he felt ashamed of it, but he wasn't going to stray from taking care of himself. That was a trained instinct that had carried over and intensified with the change from human to. . . this. . .
"So, we give some to each of you," Nathan said. "Then we each get some back from Vin, Ezra, and Buck. Right?" He shivered more now from the idea of being fed on than from the slow, cold changes that had been seeping into his body all night.
"And if we don't rise like you," Josiah said then, "you'll have to kill us."
This added some weight to the decision, but all had to nod to it.
"I don't need to feed," Vin added. "Not a lot anyway. I took from Ezra, but I may need just a little more to give some back."
"Sounds like good reasoning," Josiah said.
Buck remained close to Chris as he put more thought into the matter. "If we do this now, by nightfall the change will be over."
"Then let's do it," Nathan said. He looked at them all, and abruptly began to cry. He didn't sob or moan. Just sniffled. Not even his days as a young slave boy had ever given him witness to so much fear. But this wasn't actually fear of dying, this was fear of living.
"Who goes first?" Buck asked lowly.
They blinked at each other, the unspoken issue of fairness causing everyone to stall. In the end, Josiah and Nathan made their choices, as the preacher stepped up to Ezra, who happened to be standing closest, and looked down at the conman. Nathan followed this lead over to Buck.
Chris fidgeted, and began to pace as he watched Buck lean in, caressing Nathan's throat. There was something beautiful about the glow of the gunslinger's pale, long fingers against the chocolate skin. Nathan closed his eyes, pushing out more of those huge, glittering tears, while Buck tried to be as gentle as possible, prodding at the vein, bringing the pulse to the surface where he could locate it. Nature guided him when he leaned in and bit down, and the pop of skin breaking released the simmering smell. Chris swiped the back of a hand eagerly across his mouth and waited.
Not five feet away, Josiah still gazed into Ezra's eyes, calmly waiting. Ezra took his time pondering it all, what he should do, how he should do it. He eyed the pulse in Josiah's neck and then something new manifested to his gaze, the soft glowing aura of the blood flow itself branching through the veins.
"I'm ready," Josiah assured him.
Ezra's lips parted, the tips of his fangs visible, not threatening in their display. Just gentle, perhaps a little lusting, but he didn't make any sudden movements.
"Lumen gratiae, my friend," the conman whispered and took Josiah into his arms.
It was way too dark for J.D. to continue, and out alone in the night, his nerves had begun to crawl at every little noise. Once a lone coyote wail sent him spinning in the saddle and he nearly drew his guns only to feel stupid as hell. Bullets didn't do a whole lot of good against vampires, that was for sure, so why did he even bother to carry? Aware that Josiah would probably tan his hide like some angry schoolmarm, he decided to risk it to be with his friends, so upon reaching Eagle Bend, he had turned right back around, deeming that the folks he was escorting were out of harm's way.
He couldn't let go. Didn't Josiah understand that? J.D. felt he belonged in Four Corners no matter what, and when the preacher had given him the talk that the town was dying, and would be nothing more than a husk by the next dawn, it was all J.D. could do to keep from sobbing. So now here he was, alone, in the dark. He'd made it as far as the Wells' ranch, and figured Miz Nettie wouldn't mind if he used her barn for shelter. Then at first light he would head back into Four Corners, locate Nathan and Josiah and. . .
. . . and then what?. . .
His heart sank and rose again with a sickened feeling. Nathan and Josiah could be dead now for all he knew, and then what? His thoughts immediately drifted to Buck, who had been missing all day, as had Vin, and Chris, and Ezra. . .
"Shit," the youth hissed to himself, and once more his eyes misted. Damned if he couldn't stop crying, and that was why he was going back. Some part of him kept looking ahead, wondering what he would tell people after what he had seen. The other survivors might figure something out, but they were nowhere near as close to the regulators as he was. Hell, he was one of them. Maybe that "all-for-one-and-one-for-all" stuff Ezra had read to him once, carefully translating The Three Musketeers from French into English, had warped his mind.
Moonlight through the cracks in the barn's sides gave him enough light inside, though he couldn't see up into the rafters or the loft. He led his horse inside and closed the creaking door. Then he took the restless animal to a stall and left him there nibbling at some of the bits of hay still scattered in the box.
Next he located a kerosene lantern and fumbled with a match until he got it to light properly. He figured the blazing lantern would be enough light and wouldn't draw attention, so after unsaddling the horse and closing up the box, he found a place to settle himself down over in a warm pile of hay with his guns within easy reach, along with an old broken off walking stick that might stand in for a stake should he need it. He nibbled on some beef jerky from his saddlebags and took a swig from his canteen before fully lying down. At first it was virtually impossible to sleep, so he lounged there listening to the night with its hundreds of crickets, or the soft snuffling of the horse. Trying to blank his mind from so much thinking, he rolled onto his side and stared into the lantern, mesmerized by the flame dancing over the orange head of the wick.
The next thing he knew he'd snapped awake to the sound of a distance, shrill, owl call, and found the lantern had completely gone out. How long he'd napped he couldn't be sure. It had felt like seconds and yet when he touched at the glass on the lantern he found it cold.
Damn. His eyes adjusted to the bluish glow cast through the cracks, and found the definition of the stall doors, or the pitchfork and an old, broken wagon wheel hanging on the wall. Some night bird, outside the barn walls, fluttered away, the sudden ruffling and twittering noise startling J.D. to his feet, clamping his mouth shut before he could let out a shout. To add to that, the horse began to whiney and step from side to side in the box, his head a swaying shadow.
"Shhhhh," J.D. urged and started for the box, hoping to calm the beast. He hesitated, turned around, and picked up the walking stick in one hand and one of his guns in the other. Better to be ready for anything. He stood still, listening, heart hammering away in his chest.
Taking a deep breath, he started back toward the box, wide eyes probing along the inner walls for any other signs of movement.
But when the horse started up anew, this time with the most shrill and disturbed whinny imaginable, J.D. nearly fell over. The animal reared, his front hooves clawing at the air inside the stall, but for all that J.D. could see in the dark, the shadows of massive, kicking legs looked like they were coming straight for him. He scrambled to the side away from the stall and heard the horse come down on his hooves with a loud clop!
The horse persisted in grumbling and whinnying, kicking at the box door, until J.D. heard something else: the softest sound of footsteps outside. Frozen in place, he followed the sound as it came casually around the outside of the barn and stopped right at the front door. Swallowing hard, J.D. waited. Whatever was out there couldn't possibly expect him to come out, so that meant it was coming in.
The panicking horse only served to cover up the sound of feet dropping down behind J.D. from the loft above. Before the youth could turn, strong hands reached around in front of him, seized his wrists, and shook fiercely. J.D. shouted and stumbled backwards into the arms around him, dropping the makeshift stake and the gun. The same powerful hands now gripped his shoulders and the figure to which they belonged hauled him kicking and cursing toward the barn door.
"Noooooo!" he screamed and tried to wriggle free. The cry was cut off as he was shoved up against the door and it fell open behind him.
"Found him!" a man's voice, thick with some strange accent, called with mock happiness.
J.D. landed on his ass in the barnyard, hands behind him to stop his fall, and he looked up at the figure as it stepped gracefully out of the barn and towered over him.
"Indeed," purred a woman's voice from over him, and he craned his head around so fast he nearly snapped his own neck to get a look.
He wasn't sure, but the figure he saw in the moonlight seemed familiar. Dark hair, pale face, a generous mouth. He barely had a chance to get a look at her before the other one reached down, pulled him to his feet, and spun him up against the fence post. The top edge of the post dug into his back as he was held in place and he looked up into his captor's face.
The vampire wasn't like the goons J.D. had seen thus far. In fact, the handsome face took him quite by surprise, and even in this poor light he could see that the eyes were green chipped with bits of blue and gold, the long hair blond. "Oh, God," he gasped when a slathering smile of long sharp canines came close to his face.
"God can't help you," the vampire replied. "Your heartbeat is so loud." He leaned in closer, nuzzled his cool cheek up against J.D.'s causing the youth to wince. "Like music to my ears."
Not even when the church had been attacked the last dawn had J.D. felt this much fear. It gorged his chest, and he tasted bile sliding up in his throat only to be swallowed back down leaving a burning trail.
"You know," the vampire rasped casually, "I watched the town many nights, and I saw you with him."
"H-h-h-him?" J.D. uttered back.
"I watched you, and the others. . ."
"Christobal," the woman called impatiently. "We don't have time for these games."
Her warning went ignored. J.D. tried to look her way again but a hand came up and grasped his chin, forced him to turn back to the face closest to his. He could feel the creature's cool body through his clothes and it made his skin crawl.
"Um, yes, your Mr. Wilmington, of course, and the other men who protected the town. You're very close with him, aren't you?"
The name barely came out before the vampire opened his mouth and started for J.D.'s neck. J.D. yelped and pressed himself uncomfortably back into the fence post. If he leaned on it any harder it would fall over with both of them.
Christobal withheld from biting, the points of his fangs hovering just above the young skin. His breath ghosted against J.D.'s collar, bringing up goose bumps. "Yes," he hissed lustily. "Buck."
"What—“ J.D. stammered. "What do you want with Buck?"
"I want him," Christobal said sternly. "That is enough." He pulled back and gazed down at the frightened young face, at wide eyes framed in dark, wet lashes, and ran his hands through the ebony waves of hair. "Like a raven's feathers," he suddenly mused softly, capturing some of the locks between his fingers and watching them fall away. "He is mine now, you see. Mine forever." The same hand snaked down over J.D.'s chest and inside his jacket and vest.
The implication of that statement reached J.D. and shattered him with deeper dread. "Oh, no. . . you didn't. . ."
"Indeed I did," Christobal said, hand now sliding down between J.D.'s legs and cupping up into his crotch.
J.D. cried out and began to thrash from side to side, but the vampire's hands were so strong. The one gripping his balls tightened and pulled upward, paralyzing him with pain, while the other grabbed another fistful of hair, forcing his head back. He winced and air hissed through his teeth. Helpless, he could only hold onto the creature's lapels.
"I think I'll save you for him," Christobal said softly. "He'll be returning next evening, no doubt about that, and so very hungry." He nuzzled J.D.'s cheek again with his own. "Ah, to wait so long," he breathed, the gust tickling down into the youth's ear.
Tears unleashed in a free flow from J.D.'s eyes and he whimpered as the hand gripping his hair cinched in and applied more pressure to his scalp.
"You will help me, won't you?" Christobal asked and kissed J.D.'s lower lip. The hand clutching his balls let go, the pain subsiding almost instantly as Christobal brought the same hand up and curled it around the side of J.D.'s neck. Likewise with the other hand, he let go his grip on the hair and merely held J.D.'s head in his hands.
J.D. stared helplessly into the moonlit face, unable to register much more as the vampire's thumbs pressured in on his carotid arteries and slowly the darkness stole upon him. As he slumped to the ground, the last thing he heard was Christobal's voice whispering with sordid pleasure.
"You'll help guide my wayward angel home."
The Ranch, Present Day
Four o'clock in the afternoon somehow turned hectic as much of the house buzzed with activity. Buck sat at the bottom of the stairwell up to the loft and watched the hubbub, imagining it was really morning and that he had a cup of steaming coffee cradled in his hands as he propped on his knees. From this vantage point, he had a view of the kitchen on the left and adjacent to that a view into the rec room. Further out past the kitchen he could see the door that led into the workroom. Ezra was in and out from the kitchen into the rec room, hot on Chris' heels with advice on how they were going to take care of the situation at Four Corners.
Vin, it turned out, had spent the rest of the day on the couch and had a rat's nest of pillow head. He left the rec room scratching his crotch, eyes bleary, and didn't give a single glance to anyone else, particularly Chris or Ezra as they darted past him.
"Huh," Buck murmured to himself, wondering if it meant anything. Even though his body didn't register temperature anymore except right after a fresh feeding, he could have sworn a chill swept through. His eyes followed Vin's path out into the kitchen before the tracker disappeared into the workroom. A moment later a few dim lights came on in there and driving rock music blared from a radio, not loud but enough volume to sound like it was being played inside a tin can. Nathan came through shaking his head at Ezra's chatter, and followed Vin.
Next J.D. emerged from his room, in tee shirt, leather pants, barefooted, and paused to listen. The only one not accounted for yet was Josiah, who was either sleeping in or had immersed himself in meditations before coming out of his room.
"Mr. Larabee, it would do us credit to hasten," Ezra went on, voice rising to get his point across. "It's highly likely our little anthropology dig team has picked up and gone home for the day." He waggled his fingers through the air as if shooing on a child.
"They're dedicated enough, they'll be there," Chris called over his shoulder as he disappeared down the hall and into the room he and Buck shared.
"Yes, well," Ezra went on. He had a thick manila file envelop tucked under one arm and was immaculately dressed in a camel hair blazer and cream silk shirt with a turquoise bolo tie fixed at the collar.
With another hour and a half's daylight left, the plan was that he and Chris would drive out in the Jag, well protected by the tinted windows, to Four Corners and confront the enthusiastic anthropologists with some very bad news. By the time they reached the ghost town, the sun's rays would be tolerable enough that they could give the illusion of being human. Chris seemed to think that if they hurried now, they would get there too soon, and it would look funny for a Jaguar to pull up to the edge of town and sit there for who knew how long until it was deemed safe to get out of the car and into the remaining daylight.
And it would, Buck agreed, and sipped his imaginary coffee.
"Uh, Buck," Ezra sidetracked as he started to pass the stairwell and noticed the figure sitting there.
Buck arched a brow in response.
"It just occurred to me on my laptop calendar that as of Wednesday next week Bucklin Wilmington II will be eighty years old according to his social security filing, and for a man of that age, he looks considerably well if you get my drift." Ezra stood with that manila envelope like he was ready to slap a full lawsuit on someone.
"Ah," Buck smiled and nodded.
"I think it's time for you to die," Ezra finished flatly. "I'll see to your death certificate, but we'll need to sit down to make out your last will and testament to see that your heir receives his due." He winked so casually that it could have easily been missed. "Oh, and it may be time to look into a new name for the records."
"Sure, Ezra," Buck thanked him, eyes glittering with amusement at the ruse that made it possible for them to weave in and out of human society.
"Now," the gambler looked about, absently padding at the side pockets on his blazer. "Where's my briefcase?" He wandered into the rec room again searching for it.
"Hey, J.D.," Buck chirped happily at the kid who stood scratching his head as if deciding what to do next. "What're you up to tonight?"
"Dunno, thought I'd go up to Silver City. Want to go?"
"Nah," Buck replied, easing off the stairwell and stretching his long limbs with a grunt. "Got something to take care of."
J.D. didn't ask what. They all had "something to take care of" here and there. "Thought I'd try out—“
He was interrupted as Josiah suddenly veered around the corner at the end of the hall holding up a leather thong cord with a long quartz crystal pendant hanging on the end of it. "Hey, found it," the preacher called happily and held up the thong with the crystal.
"That the one you been missin' for a year?" Buck asked, clamping a hand down on J.D.'s shoulder and giving a brotherly squeeze.
"Yep." Josiah placed the quartz around his neck and meandered into the kitchen following the sound of the music and Nathan's voice speaking softly.
Buck grinned and considered the evening ahead as he turned back to J.D.. "Now what was that?"
"Thought I'd try Taco Bell," J.D. said.
Wincing, Buck gave the smaller man's shoulder a minor derisive slap. "Boy, I helped make you, I can unmake you," he chided.
Chris came storming out of the bedroom clad in jeans and a flannel shirt, so casual it made Ezra's hackles rise as the conman happened to come, briefcase in hand, back out of the rec room.
"You're wearing that?" Ezra asked as if he had a sour grape planted firmly in the middle of his tongue.
"We're going to tell humans to get the fuck off my property," Chris grumbled back, "not give them a fashion show." He whizzed passed the onlookers like they weren't there.
"Now, hold on just a minute," Ezra argued and started after him.
"Come to think of it," Buck said, and fished a ten spot out of his hip pocket before stuffing it into J.D.'s hand. "Have a burrito on me, and be sure to bring it back here and eat it in front of Ezra."
"Thanks, Buck," J.D. said, his eyes beaming.
The taller man cupped a hand around the back of the kid's head and pulled him closer, laying a loud smack of a kiss in the middle of his forehead, tendrils of J.D.'s silky raven hair winding in and out through his fingers. "Enjoy," Buck said and detached to follow Chris and his insistent stalker into the kitchen.
The next thirty minutes were full of debate, Ezra trying to at least get Chris into a jacket and tie, and a general discussion on how they were going to conduct themselves once they got to the dig site. Buck finally saw them off out of the garage. He watched them climb into the Jag, and seeing that they were safely hidden behind the tinted glass, scooted back into the house before the garage doors opened and spilled in the scorching later day rays.
Inside the door, he heard the engine crank and the car roll out into the drive. Buck checked the time, guesstimating how much longer he would have to wait for the sun's rays to reach the safety zone so he could take his Big Dog out. He had his own business in Four Corners. Vin and Chris had their demons, and he was no different. The pilgrimage back was always for him a time to face his own internal darkness, that which he kept at bay by seeking pleasure in the time he spent with Chris, or eternally teasing J.D.. He leaned his head back against the door and closed his eyes, giving himself a tiny moment of blessed non-thought. After a while, he opened his eyes and pushed away from the door to go back down the hall into the bedroom to ready himself for the night.
Vin found his thoughts constantly roaming and his heart jittering, while the piney-plastic aroma of resin and charcoal curled in the air around him before getting sucked out through the workshop's ventilation system. He dipped a tester spatula into the black mixture, from which the caps were molded for the Seven's specialized ammunition, and stirred it to check the consistency. The massive vat churned, its hidden gears droning. Vin barely heard Nathan and Josiah speaking to each other on the other side of the room.
The preacher and former healer were busy sorting and inspecting the caps that had already been cast. Such ammunition had to be completely customized. Since each bullet still required the weight of a lead round to put some force behind it, these were cast too but sized down so that when the graphite cap was inserted over it, the overall round met the same size as a forty-five-caliber slug. The fit had to be perfect so that the cap didn't shatter upon firing, and putting the slugs together required minor teamwork as one man secured the resin cap over the lead slug then handed it off to the other who applied the shell casing filled with gun powder, and so on. . . essentially an assembly line.
Vat duty was a fairly solitary position, as the drum was situated in a far off corner of the shop, near the fan in the wall that helped to vent the fumes. Between fan and vat, the workshop was the loudest room in the house, and at times like this also a good place to do some pondering.
It would have been so much easier, Vin was thinking, if Ezra would tell him to go to hell. But no, the smooth talking conman went one worse than curse his tormentor.
Vin never could figure it out. He could feel their link—sire to progeny—could read Ezra's desires on the air as clearly as if they were written on paper. There was the want, the need, both swirling in heady aromas thick as musk, and utmost there was the sickeningly sweet scent of forgiveness. It infuriated Vin, and yet he so needed it, and as vicious circles came around, he would always find some new reason to lash out all over again and experience Ezra's sweet mercy all over. . . again.
It's all right, Vin.
The green in the conman's eyes would deepen to a more emerald color, comforting, reminding Vin of the dewy grass he encountered of a morning when he used to sleep under the stars. Now all of that was reversed and he didn't wake up to morning but to night, and the soft grass or mosses that had once made his bed were now complexly woven into Ezra's eyes.
This afternoon, however, had been different.
Vin, when we have sex. . . do you ever imagine I'm Chris?
Vin hadn't been thinking when he snarled back his hateful response, but then the green eyes that were normally his source of comfort bleached down to a harsh and ugly yellow hue that expressed rage. That sight snapped him out of it, realizing what he had said, word for word, and the way he said it. He watched Ezra struggle, caught in the infectious web of Vin's own inner shadow, in the deeper realms that the tracker fought hard within to contain. Ezra didn't have such a demon within him, only the simpler, basic beast, for he had proven himself completely adaptable, able to adjust to the ages as the Seven moved through them like the hands on a clock, ever changing position but always the same in form.
For Vin the shadow found various ways to escape him, often through the accidental sharing of the memories he wished most would go away, but the memories were only the outer shell. They were easier to hold back. It was the emotion. . . the pure, unadulterated, burning rage that was the real threat. The only way to stop it was to close off the link, take a pair of imaginary scissors and clip the delicate ribbon tying his mind to Ezra's. Like the determined root of an old tree, it would grow back again within hours, so gradual, so natural, that neither of them would really take notice until one of them got horny again. . . or angry. . . or hungry. . . or all three. . .
What gnawed at Vin most was that Ezra had a hundred and twenty-five years worth of good reasons to ask that question. It was a common thing for any of the group to catch Vin staring at Chris. Obvious to everyone except maybe Chris himself, who stayed true to his choice of Buck as his permanent host and lover.
So Vin didn't deny it. He wanted Chris. He wanted to feed him, fuck him, hold him. But not every time he happened to look Chris' way and admire the fall of a lock of hair or the lips pursed in thought. It was a passing need, an itch, that tended to intensify at the most awkward moments. When Buck had caught him watching the last feeding, he had been in a half-hungered craze, which did not help at all. Follow that up with the notion to fuck Ezra on the hood of his new car.
Ezra had every right to ask that question.
Vin had given the wrong answer. He didn't imagine Chris in Ezra's place. He never had. There was so much more to it, and if anything, he had been angered because Ezra's query had forced him to question himself.
Vin pulled the spatula up out of the resin and watched the mixture roll off with the consistency of honey. It was looking more like tar now and still had a little while to cook before it would be ready to pour into a mold. He shook in another bag of the powdered charcoal and watched the vat's own rotating arm pull the dust into the goo. Like a miniature spiral galaxy it spun in on itself, mesmerizing.
And then as his focus absorbed into the mix, watching the arm rotate around, digging out a viscous path that filled itself in, his mind somehow released its usual burdens. He suddenly remembered exactly when and why it all began.
Brows knitting gently, he stared deeper, until the swirling resin became a scrying pool that looked not on the future but on the past.
It was a winter night that first time, and still within the first year of the Seven's new existence. They were defining what they were, and the experiment to take turns feeding Chris, to keep his will apart from Ella's, had just begun. They had figured out the bond that a master's blood formed, and that Chris was voluntarily giving his own will over to each of them if it meant drowning Ella away, but they hadn't yet examined the finer details underlying the transfer and what made it an effective treatment. Only Nathan, attempting to salvage the healer he had been before, had been keeping a journal on it.
In his mind's eye, Vin could still see Chris as he was that night. The tracker stepped back in time completely, and freshly glutted on blood, he returned to the hotel room that had been designated his and Chris' for this time. They were in Dodge City for the hunt only, not to stay for the day. Come daylight they would all be safely buried out in the wilds, away from the likelihood of nosy, investigating lawmen, like J.D.'s proclaimed hero, Bat Masterson, whose reputation as a gunfighter had earned him the position of Sheriff of Dodge that very year.
So this time was Vin's. He didn't know what he was hoping for. Certainly not to have sex with Chris. It was more about finding what he had been, finding what they had been, before the night of terror.
He was a friend coming to take care of a friend.
"Hey cowboy," he ventured when he entered the room and closed the door behind him. Like after every feeding, he felt especially alive, vivacious, and delighted in recognizing various temperatures he couldn't feel when his body was in death stasis. He had fed twice, as Buck had advised him to, and the feeling truly was one of giddy drunkenness.
Chris, having not fed yet, felt nothing. He stood, shirt off, in the dark by the open window. A chilled breeze rippled the curtain inward, the gauzy fabric reaching toward him, curling around one hip, then whipping away to billow back down along the edge of the window. "Vin," he answered in that rusty, distrustful tone of his. In life it had been something that was a part of Chris Larabee, but now it was something else, an indication that he was still recovering from the trauma Ella had inflicted upon him.
Vin made sure the door was locked, pulled off his capote, and strolled over to hang it on the bedpost. The clip-clop of hooves in the street carried up toward the little room, and the wind whistled a ghostly soliloquy along the eaves over the boardwalks. A rain of stars dashed the sky beyond the window and Chris' figure, half in shadow and yet still clearly defined to Vin's new eyes. Firelight from one of the street standards glanced off the curve of one upper arm and formed a thread of light up the slow rise to the junction of shoulder and neck. When Chris turned his body slightly, that light caught the tip of one half tightened nipple. He looked down into the street, his profile bowed gently, locks of blond hair tumbling over his forehead and catching the light to form a golden halo.
Vin had seen Chris shirtless plenty of times, and he understood the reason for it now, as feeding could be messy business, but the Seven were getting the hang of it. What was so different now was that Vin couldn't help the strange arousal he felt at the sight, and knowing something of what was involved in feeding Chris, knowing that it would mean standing close together, perhaps even putting their arms around each other, the poet in him thinking what it would be like to transfer the warmth from his own body into that cold, dead one.
"Careful, you'll catch cold," he said and offered a weak smile. Being able to smile again at all was slowly coming back, and the jitters that accompanied the memory of Selvik touching him had lessened. Full to the brim of warm blood, he found he could almost completely forget Selvik. . .
. . . almost. . .
Chris' eyes narrowed with amusement at the comment and he came away from the window to stand over a black patch on the floor. Vin looked down to see that the other man had spread his long coat out there to catch any drips.
"Are you ready?" Chris asked gently. His eyes glowed deep green with eagerness, an indication not only of his hunger but his determination to enforce the wall between himself and Ella.
"Better take off your shirt."
The tracker hesitated at this, but understanding, he did so. Took off his shirt, bandana, and hat and left them in a heap on the bed. The breeze curled around him, and he winced, refreshed and yet stunned at how cold it was. He cleared his throat nervously as the skin on his chest crawled. At first he attributed it to the cold, but then he realized how the squirming sensation carried down to his innards with each step he took toward Chris.
"I. . . I don't know what to do," Vin all but stuttered.
"Where do you want me to take it from?" Chris asked.
The space between them was like fire against ice. Chris wasn't at all aware of it, but as Vin was, he couldn't stop thinking of all the times in the past he'd found himself admiring Chris' face, eyes roaming down over the tip of the nose to the lips, mental fingertips caressing them. Then on to the chin, and down over that to the throat and the Adam's apple sometimes masked in a subtle coat of blond whiskers.
God, Vin realized, he'd been staring at Chris long before now, on one side admiring him lustily and on the other seeing only the best friend he'd ever had. He'd found a new strength in the man. From the beginning the two had been able to communicate through a simple means of head gestures and nods, and made the joint decision to save a man when no one else but Mary Travis—God rest her—would lift a finger. That man had been Nathan, and from there on the Seven began to come together, fourth with Buck, then Ezra, then J.D., and finally Josiah caved in and joined on, preaching about signs and crows. Vin had gotten to know them all as a family, working at times with the whole group, or in sections, or sometimes on his own. He was essentially spread around, his time with Chris lessened as he opened up to the others and they all began to mean something more to him in some way.
But now here he was with Chris, the two of them again, even if just for now.
Vin swallowed with a not too loud gulp. Buck had suggested he give from the wrist because it was actually easier to control the mess, but that Chris would give him this choice.
The wrist seemed so practical, and Vin looked down, massaging his right arm, about to turn it out and offer it, but then he couldn't resist the idea of Chris' arms around him, and his around Chris. The poet was indeed up to some sneaky, romantic notions.
"The neck," he whispered without further thinking about it.
Chris' brows knitted. "You sure?"
Chris stepped closer, hands wandering up, one caressing the side of Vin's neck. Vin inadvertently leaned into the caress, felt the callused pad of Chris' thumb massage harder over the vein, locating the pulse, observing how hard it pounded as the two drew more tightly together. The other hand snaked around Vin's waist, tickling slightly, before it found the small of his back. Vin shivered, felt his cock stir and hoped like hell Chris didn't feel it pressing into his own groin.
"Do it," Vin half pleaded, eyes watery. For every second Chris wasted, Vin feared the blood in his veins would grow stale. His breath staggered, grew more frantic, and then he held it, afraid of betraying his lust.
Down in the hotel saloon, someone started playing piano, the notes for "Beautiful Dreamer" jangling up through the floor.
Chris's lips parted, and the sharp tips of his canines extended into view. He hovered in that state between Chris Larabee and vampire, the inner fire roaring up behind his eyes, soft orange glowing in his pupils. Then he opened his mouth wide and jerked Vin forward roughly, plunging his fangs into the flesh where his hand had been. Chris' arms tightened around his host, and Vin leaned his head back, offering better access.
But as Chris dug in deeper, tearing the flow free, the pain that stabbed down into Vin was anything but the exquisite thing he had expected it to be, and their bodies against each other only served as a horrid reminder of how he had been initiated into this life. Vin clenched back the cry that tried to issue out of his throat as a stream of blood escaped and ran down over his chest to be blocked where their bodies met. Part of him stayed in touch with the situation, knowing that he mustn't make a sound to attract attention; the other part wanted to scream.
And for a moment, it wasn't Chris who was holding him, but the fiend who had bled him and initiated him. He felt Selvik's arms around him. Selvik draining his life. Selvik penetrating him, possessing him. And for all that he knew the difference between Chris and Selvik, his mind reached out on its own and threw up a defensive wall.
Chris swallowed three loud gulps, and moaned. It wasn't a moan of delight, but pain. He swallowed again, gurgled an objection as if he were choking, then shoved Vin away. "What are you doing?" he growled.
Vin stumbled, hunched over, and one hand flew up to clamp over the wound in his neck to keep any more blood from escaping. He felt the skin crawl back together and heal, leaving only his fingers and his neck stained.
Chris hunched, a hand clamped over his belly, blood-stained mouth bearing fangs at the bewildered tracker. The other hand lay against the side of his head, the heel pressuring in on his temple as if to stop some pounding headache.
In horror, Vin backed away. "Oh, God," he gasped. "Chris, I'm so sorry."
Chris didn't stop snarling. Some ugly thing inside him was trying to get out, for there had been no strength in this feeding. If anything, it had probably weakened him.
Horror stricken, Vin realized he had almost given Ella's will a hole through which to creep into Chris' consciousness. He almost slipped on the spread of coat underfoot, his boots stomping over the floor, no doubt heard by whoever was in the room below. He made it to the bed, grabbed his shirt and capote, forgot the hat and bandana. "I'll get the others," he said in a frenzy and began to jerk the shirt on over his shoulders, but his unsteady hands couldn't get the buttons fastened. He collapsed to the floor beside the bed and pulled his knees up to his chest. Tears burned his eyes. He choked them back and hugged his arms around himself.
Chris watched him, eyes blazing, unresponsive, for a long time. When at last he found full control, he eased himself down on the floor across from Vin.
How long they stared hopelessly at each other was a blur now.
The smell of cooking charcoal in resin began to bring Vin back around, along with Nathan's voice shouting to be heard over the roar of the machinery.
"Vin, ain't that mix ready for pouring, yet!"
Vin blinked, suddenly seeing the spatula in his hand about to fall away into the vat. He grabbed it just in time and stirred absently. While his vision registered the here and now, his mind heard Chris' last words concerning the matter of feeding trail off into the realm that belonged to unwanted memories.
"I can't do this with you, Vin. . . I'm sorry. . ."
I'm sorry, too. I'm sorry for not being strong enough.
He had never actually verbalized the apology, not the way he wanted to, and he saw now that he'd been rehearsing it internally for over a century. By now such an apology was irrelevant, but the need never ceased to nip at his heart along with the humility of his weakness.
"Yeah!" Vin shouted back and in an instant hid the tears that wanted to flow. "Yeah, I think it's ready!"
Four Corners, Present Day
Tommy Perkins was winding down for the day, taking a walk with a bottle of water and beaming over the day's discovery.
When he'd been assigned the plot of ground, he had bitched and moaned half the morning, certain he was getting the brush off. The real action was down in the main pit by the cemetery where the bodies had been discovered. But here there was obviously nothing but an overgrowth of prairie grass and weeds, all of it dried to a crisp. A lizard came shooting out of the thick growth as Tommy prodded in with a stick. Carefully he folded the grasses aside, making a neat grid pattern, until he came upon something irregular.
The little pile of stones looked so deliberately placed. It had been there long enough for dirt to have blown into the cracks and taken seed that had sprouted into yet more juts of dried grass and weeds. The second pile Tommy found less than three feet away, and the third three feet from that, until he'd traced a path of seven little stone cairns all in a row. Each cairn supported—or had supported—a wooden cross. Three still barely stood up in their rock bases, while the other four had given into time and weather wear and fallen over to be half buried in dust. They certainly seemed to be graves, but before any digging could commence to determine if there was some connection between these plots and the mass burial down closer to the town, he had to report the find and an ultrasound had to be done, but moving the equipment was a tedious venture so the task was scheduled for tomorrow.
Tommy now studiously combed the ground around one of the cairns, while his partner, John Boyd, worked on another one. They had been at it for hours, brushing away dust, picking over pieces of rocks to see if they were something other than rocks. They uncovered a piece of flint that roughly looked like it might be an arrow head, but then that could have been wishful thinking, and then Tommy came up with an old leather hat that had been crushed and leeched to a crisp. It was firmly packed into the ground when he first saw it, the rim barely peaking out. Delighted with his find, and working diligently on a theory he'd had for some time, Tommy didn't notice the sun was getting lower, and shadowy patches on the ground didn't deter him even when his eyes grew tired.
"Should probably go soon," Boyd spoke up then, "our light's just about gone."
"So we'll get flashlights," Tommy argued and wiped a grimy hand across his forehead, tilting up the brim on his baseball cap and spilling out sunny-blond bangs. The strip of zinc down his nose had long since been smeared off, leaving a sweep of dirty white at the tip. He started to dust off some other object half buried at the base of one of the cairns then stopped at the sound of tires crunching over the gravel of the main road into the Four Corners valley. Tommy looked up and squinted past the dusky rays of sun still falling over the hills.
Down below, near the main dig, a deep red Jaguar had pulled up and two men got out. Tommy couldn't make out details on them, only that one was taller, slimmer than the other, who was shorter, perhaps a little stockier, but not by much. The shorter man wore a suit and carried a briefcase, and both men had purpose in their stride as they approached Professor Jack Jameson, who was in charge of the dig.
Somehow this did not look good.
"What's all this happy horse shit?" Boyd remarked and headed down toward the site, taking larger and larger strides. "This is all we need, more outsiders," he called back over his shoulder and gestured toward a black Jeep Wrangler that had been parked at the site for several days now.
Tommy rose to his feet and watched, but didn't bother to go down there. All he knew was that when the shorter man opened his briefcase and handed Professor Jameson those papers, and the good professor started pacing, something was definitely up. Rather than go find out exactly what that up was, he decided to continue working, at least until someone told him to stop.
It was not fun for Ezra Standish and Chris Larabee to see the faces on the anthropology team drop like they did. These people had been excited over their find. They didn't deserve what was coming, but they hadn't checked all the channels, or they had and someone at the county deed's office had fucked up, not an uncommon thing.
"This can't be real," Professor Jack Jameson said as he looked at the fold of time-yellowed papers. "We have permission to dig here." His salt-and-pepper beard seemed to go to more salt all of a sudden.
Ezra took a deep breath, and Chris let the conman run his game. "Sir, as acting attorney for the Larabee family, I can assure you those documents are real. This is Mr. Chris Larabee III, great grandson of the legendary Chris Larabee, whose family back in Indiana purchased this property after the mysterious events that. . ." He glanced toward the dig area, where the earth had been carefully churned up and dusted aside, revealing a scattering of skeletal remains, some fully uncovered, some still in process of being pulled from the ground with dirt packed around the base of a skull, or a femur, a hip bone, or a fragmented hand. It was disconcerting as hell. Ezra looked away feeling suddenly sickened. This was proving a little harder than he had expected, so he didn’t look at the dig again.
Standing in the casuals he had insisted on wearing, Chris crossed his arms. "Professor, I understand how disappointing this is for you, but no one notified me of the dig. I was out of town and heard about it on the news first, otherwise you would have heard from me sooner."
"Let me speak," Ezra demanded dryly, a hand waving gently out as if to signify his authority on this matter.
Chris rolled absently back on his heals and arched an eyebrow.
"Professor, we do understand your frustration, really. It's not uncommon for this sort of thing to happen and it's not your fault." Ezra stepped forward, neatly pulled the deed out of Jameson's hand, and tucked it back into his briefcase. With hearty assurance he patted the man's shoulder and steered him back toward the site. "Now, if I may, someone has done you a great disservice by not researching thoroughly enough." His head bowed toward the other man, he dropped his voice. "If you would like to list for me the offices you went through to acquire permission for this little excavation—“
"Mr. Standish!" Chris called after him as he watched the two men stroll away from the dig to speak more privately.
Another gesture from the hand dangling at Ezra's side told him to stay out of it. Wind him up and let him go, Chris thought and shook his head to himself as Ezra's voice faded in the growing distance.
"As I said, someone on the inside has seriously compromised matters for you, and it appears to me that you will be in need of legal services, and as representative for the Larabee family, perhaps I may help you there. . ."
Chris backed up his thought. "Yeah, you go," he muttered and turned to scan across the dig site.
There were eight young people, men and women, their faces flushed from long days working under the sun, their hopes sinking. Some of them looked directly at him, no doubt wondering who the hell he was to come in and piss on their parade, while others paced, waiting to hear the final outcome between professor and attorney.
It was then that Chris noticed one man in particular, not as young as the others who were primarily grad students, but perhaps in his late thirties. Tall, black hair swept back from a chiseled face that bore a rather flat nose, giving the sum of the features a natural sneer. Chris cocked his head, making eye contact with the man, who leaned back against the hood of a Jeep. They were dark eyes, balanced with the olive complexion, though the man didn't appear to be Hispanic. There was some little difference there.
But what stirred some deep, defensive sense in Chris was how cold those eyes were. Eyes that chocolate brown, he thought, should seem warm. He could hear an even heartbeat, and smell hot blood around the figure, who sported black denim jeans and a leather jacket much like J.D.'s. He was human, at least.
The man gave a simple nod of a gesture, and not to seem too impolite, Chris did the same before he turned and took the creepy feeling with him on a walk around the site.
By now the sun had dipped low behind the hills, leaving the expansive valley pooled in shadow beneath an orange wash on one side and budding stars on the other. Within fifty yards stood a familiar rise, and Chris went that way, thinking about the view of the town from there. He tossed a glance over one shoulder at the dusky hues falling on the not too distant buildings, and the church steeple, now worn of all its paint, still bearing its wooden cross to the sky like a silent warning to evil things. Chris continued on over to the rise, eyes probing the ground before him as he smelled, before he saw, the young man who was down on his knees in the tall grass.
Chris felt his heart rise into his throat when he realized exactly where the kid was, hunched over and focused on the base of one of the Seven stone mounds. It was Josiah's cairn, if Chris remembered correctly, and somewhere inside those rocks, the preacher had left the Ethiopian cross that he used to wear. Every cairn had something: Ezra's gold tooth, Nathan's stethoscope. . .
And there laid Vin's old hat, completely crushed and dusty, and damnit, didn't these people know when to leave well enough alone? Chris glared and walked faster up the rise, until he was towering over the kid, who was so consumed in his search that he hadn't heard the approach.
"There ain't nothin' in those graves, son," Chris stated blandly.
"Oh-God!" the kid shouted and spun on his haunches, dropping the paintbrush he'd been using gingerly around the stones.
"But thank you for cleaning 'em up for me," Chris added and not a single hint of a smile touched his eyes. He heard the other's previously steady heartbeat pick up to a near frantic pace.
"So they are graves!" The youth scrambled to his feet and dusted off his hands on the sides of his jeans. "How would you know there's nothing in there?"
"I know, trust me," Chris replied and looked the other up and down.
"But how do you know?" the kid pushed on.
Chris examined the cleared area and the condition of each little stone pile. Didn't look like much damage had really been done, other than Vin's hat being pulled from the ground to which it had intentionally been consigned for all eternity.
"Who are you?" the kid insisted.
With a grunt of disgust, Chris wandered over to his own cairn. Somewhere under those stones was Sarah's locket, the piece of himself that had been symbolically buried when he and the others had left Four Corners. Fuckers weren't gonna dig that up. He didn't care if they were ignorant of the real history, and that as anthropologists it was their job to dig, to uncover the past and hope that it brought some enlightenment. They weren't digging up anything else.
Not one more goddamned thing.
"Hey, I'm talking to you."
A hand tugged at his elbow and Chris couldn't help spinning around and glowering down into wide blue eyes. He repressed the instinctual growl that wanted to ripple up out of his throat, a sound that for its tiger-like similarity would reveal that he was more than he appeared. He calmed and glanced at the sunset, now little more than a spatter of illuminated brown on the horizon, the only light coming from the main site where activity was picking up suddenly.
"I'm Chris Larabee," he replied finally. "My family owns this property."
The young man's face shifted then, going from glaring back, to an enlightened, bright-eyed smile. "You're shittin' me!"
Chris shook his head.
"Man, I can't believe this!" He turned away and literally giggled to himself. "The great grandson of THE Chris Larabee?"
Instant celebrity didn't exactly settle well with Chris. He stood perfectly still while his gut squirmed on him and his only thoughts were to get this little punk out of here. Get them all out of here.
Years after the attack on the town, when superstition still held weight enough to keep tress passers out and reduce the price on the property, Ezra had helped him acquire the funds to purchase an entire two thousand acres from the middle of town out. Playing this inheritance game was nothing short of annoying, and even though he'd been through the drill a million times, he still had to keep reminding himself that he was now Chris Larabee III. His last "incarnation" he had been John Larabee, because Ezra had insisted that they needed to occasionally break up the monotony of using the same name from generation to generation. That his name would be recognized at all had never really occurred to him.
"Hi, I'm Tommy. . . Tommy Perkins." The kid thrust out his grimy hand and grinned like a psycho. "It sure is nice to meet you, Mr. Larabee. It must be so interesting to come from such a rich family history."
Chris arched his brow again, minutely impressed with Tommy's appreciation of history. Ezra would be more impressed, though. Chris only grew more impatient. "What do you know about the history?" he asked, humoring his new fan. Didn't hurt to find out what the world—outside of books on the Old West—knew about Four Corners.
Tommy Perkins shrugged, "Well, the usual, that this town was watched over by seven regulators, then suddenly overnight, the place practically dropped off the map. The leader of those regulators was Chris Larabee, who disappeared as well. The only indication that he survived whatever happened here was that some fifty years later his son turned up in Houston, Texas. The info's all pretty garbled, but it makes good fodder for legends." He sighed disappointedly as he said this.
Chris nodded. "Yeah, it is." And he decided he wasn't going to talk about it. Garbled was an understatement.
"So did you know your grandfather, and did he have any stories about his father?"
Chris looked for an out. "Not really." He gave a nonchalant jerk of his head down toward the main site. "It's getting dark, kid, best you get on down there before you ruin your eyes."
"Hey, I've got some theories you might like to—“
"Not at the moment. I better get back to business."
Tommy started to open his mouth again, but Chris was already high tailing it down the little rise and back toward Ezra. By now Jameson was barking orders at his team, telling them to clear out their gear, and get the ultrasound equipment loaded up.
The only person who wasn't doing something was the stranger who remained observant near the Jeep but now had a map spread over the hood and was examining it with a pocket light. With a sideways glance at the man, Chris started toward Jameson, prepared to interrupt him when something came to his notice. Chris stopped in his tracks and sniffed the air, picking up a familiar scent, though he wasn't sure what it was, almost a sweet odor, that might be perfume, but then it could also be flowers blooming somewhere in the area. . . jasmine particularly. But underneath it was an even more familiar scent: musty, earthy. The aroma of a crypt.
Chris blinked, wariness tensing every muscle. Funny, but he didn’t feel like his mind was currently being picked at. He hadn't felt the dizziness or the desire that sneaked in on him when his nemesis called to him. Dampening any panic over the matter, he took quick, stealthy glances over the young scientists hustling back and forth, and then a full scan of the ridge. Nothing. He couldn't let it get to him. He wouldn't let it get to him.
You hear me, bitch? You can't come in.
Buck had taught him to say that. You can't come in. It was such a simple statement, but it did seem to throw up a fairly powerful mental barrier. Chris repeated it to himself a few times, like chanting a little protection spell. Then he hastened back toward the car, joining up with Ezra along the way.
"Something's not right," Ezra stated in a hush.
"Yeah," Chris replied. "You see the guy over there by that Jeep?"
"Yes, I asked the good professor about him."
"He said this fellow came in with a hoard of reporters, but when they left, he stayed." Ezra paused, turning his body intentionally so that he could watch the busy team packing up and still keep the stranger in his peripheral vision. "Since they didn't know this was private property, they couldn't exactly rusticate him."
Chris likewise took glances at the group, but only so that he could also catch sideways glimpses of the stranger. Random curses and a lot of bitching trailed the team to their own vehicles as they crossed his line of vision.
"He's taken some notes now and then," Ezra continued with his report, "but obviously he isn't obsessed with making the front page of any anthropology journals."
Chris weighed this in. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"
"That he looks particularly European?" Ezra asked dully, recalling Nathan's report about the Vatican hunters.
"It's sundown, those people never try to face our kind at night," Ezra said more lowly.
"Let's hope." Chris gave the conman's arm a tug. "Come on, we need to get the others. We're coming back here later."
Chris turned and looked back toward the rise and the seven empty graves, and coming down from there was Tommy Perkins. "Because I have a feeling someone here will try to come back, and it ain't safe." He headed toward the car.
"Agreed," Ezra replied and hustled along, briefcase swinging at his side. "There is definitely something else out there."
"You smell it too?"
"Yes, Sir, I do."
Chris gave a nod and got in the car, fingering his chin as he settled back into the creaking leather seat. Although he had felt certain of the presence, Ezra had given him that extra bit more confirmation. There was definitely something out there. . . something insane, evil, obsessed. . . and wearing jasmine perfume.
Headlights killed, Buck pulled the Big Dog up to the rise and dipped down over the ridge along the trail he and Vin had worn into the ground over the years. It was their little secret passage, a way in and out of the Four Corners valley without really being seen from the other ridge where the highway—if it could be called that—ran through the territory.
From the upper trail, he could glimpse the dig site on the far side of the one street town, but it was dark now, and thanks to Chris and Ezra, the anthropology team had picked up and departed, tails tucked between their legs.
The engine puttered as Buck coasted down the winding trail, through a patchy copse of trees and boulders, to the plain. He swerved and bounced roughly on the wheels, missing an old stump and tumbleweed, then found the path again. Once on flat land, he gunned the engine and sped across the plain to reach the northwestern end of the town. The shells of the Stage Company and the Grand Hotel stood to either side of the street like the gates into the underworld, and for Buck that was exactly what they were.
The path ahead was patched with bits of odd growth, but for the most part it had remained barren sand. There were tire treads running up and down the expanse, perhaps traces left by the anthropology team, or stupid kids coming down from Silver City and drag racing. One day Buck hoped to catch them at it and scare the hell out of them, although he hadn't the foggiest idea how he'd do it.
He cruised down Main Street, past the Ritz Hotel, briefly recalling the war Ezra and his mother had waged between their two businesses. He smiled inwardly and moved on, past the Clarion News, no longer recognizable by its sign and missing all the glass in its front windows. Past Digger Dave's Saloon which had lost most of its roof, and around to the side street. There he parked the Big Dog, killed the engine, and slouched back in the seat, looking up along the side wall of the old hotel Saloon where he and Chris had spent their last night as humans. His sharp vision picked up every grain in the exposed wood, every little tiny chip of paint that still fought to maintain hold, until he was looking completely up, past the roof, at a sky splashed with stars. Out here, where there was no light pollution from the cities, everything was so clear.
For a moment he sat listening to nothing but his own heartbeat, caught in that slow but steady, unchanging beat. In moments of excitement, nervous energy could cause the feeling of hammering in his chest, but it was a false sensation, and his heart rate never rose. Kind of daunting, that, even now.
He nudged down the kickstand with his heel and got off the bike, removed his gloves and tossed them over the seat. He stretched his long arms upward, grunting softly, shook the kinks out from riding, and turned to stroll across the side street and along the wall up to the boardwalk, which had managed to hold sturdy for all of these years. The wood sounded hollow under his boots as he stepped up and paused, looking out on the street where his own tire treads had joined those already laid down. He took a long, deep breath, held it, then let it slide out slowly, hissing softly, seeing how long he could push out the sound before he wasn't breathing at all.
The voice came thin on the air, still every bit as deep and masculine as before, and bearing that strange foreign accent, but it was strained. . . filtered down into an unearthly echo of itself.
Buck didn't turn around. He lingered near one of the flaked wooden supports and tilted his face up to look at the stars again, over the opposing rooftops. "Still here?" he asked with a low grumble. He had been hoping this night would pass quietly. Sometimes these annual visits gave him complete peace. Other times, his visitor was here. Always near this same spot.
"Still coming back?" the voice responded.
Buck absently rolled his neck, forcing out a satisfying crack between two of the vertebrae and slowly turned, back against the support, and looked into the darkness of the empty saloon entrance. The doors had long since fallen off their hinges, and past the threshold, he caught the faintest movement. Sighing he pushed away from the support and walked across the threshold into the saloon, finding it as it had been left, a few tables turned over, chairs smashed, while a few were still standing. Everything was covered in a layer of grime that had blown in off Main Street and formed a hard shell over time. Spider webs laced the upper corners of every passage and the rafters around the balcony that led into the hotel's upper hallway.
Buck swallowed a lump and trod over dull shards of glass, hearing them crunch icily beneath his heals. He rested his hands on his hips and his gaze followed a series of sneaker tracks that ran all over the place. Damned kids from the anthropology team, he figured, and shook his head as he approached the bar, where his sire stood, a pale image against the darkness.
Christobal was beautiful.
Buck had never denied that, as much as he hated the creature. Even more beautiful dead, the phantom projected an image of opalescent skin, honey-wheat hair, and that generous mouth. The clothes were the same as before, a frilly cream shirt with a cravat tied loosely at the throat, and a long jacket. Buck blinked once to see if the image would go away, but it stayed.
"So what is happening in the outside world?" Christobal asked, and the corner of his mouth twitched. He motioned to the bar and shrugged. "I'd offer you a drink, but—“
Not at all amused, Buck wandered a few more paces forward. "It's changed. Sorry you missed it." He continued to examine the place, remembering in that final fight how he'd watched Chris take a slam to the head that collapsed him completely. He recalled diving for his best friend, cradling Chris, thinking that if he could get out into the street, into the dawning light, they both might make it, but when he looked up, he found himself and his charge surrounded by goons. Just past them, he could see Michael Arrant's body lying heartless, a pool of blood welling across the floor, some of the vampire brood moving in like dogs and lapping it up. Then it all faded, ghosts of the past absorbed into the walls and floor, replaced by the dust and broken glass. Funny how his mind could conjure up such memories and project them so solidly before him as if to literally send him back in time.
The only image he questioned was that of Christobal. Was it in his mind, or not? He'd never figured it out. "It's been, what? Three years? Why are you here now?"
The ghost sneered. "You know me. I come when you call."
"I didn't call you," Buck husked out in a warning tone.
"Didn't you?" Christobal approached, his steps silent, until he was standing in front of Buck, head tilted in observation. "I could have sworn. . ." He sighed, again making no sound. There was only the slight heaving of his shoulders, and one hand reached up gently.
Buck backed up a step. He'd let the ghost "touch" him before—a total accident at the time—and though he felt nothing there, it still made his skin crawl to think about it. "Don't—“
"Skittish tonight, are we?" The ghost turned on his heel and began to pace slowly back and forth. "You are growing tired of carrying him," he stated suddenly.
Taken aback, Buck frowned deeply. He opened his mouth to speak, stalled, and found his tongue excruciatingly dry. "'The hell gave you that idea?"
"In all of this time has he ever given anything back? He fucks you and feeds off of you, but what does he give in return?"
Buck was ready to blow a gasket right then, but he had come to know Christobal to be a button pusher. So he mustered up the only retort he could think of and stay calm at the same time. "Shut up, that ain't true."
"It's why you came, to escape just for a while, and you asked that I be here for you."
"I am not tired," he growled. "And I did not ask you to meet me here. I was hoping for a nice quite walk by myself."
"Then why did you start here?" Christobal gestured around him at the shell of a saloon. "I think there's a finer point here, don't you?"
Buck blinked obliviously and shook his head. "Nope."
"Oh, come on, don't you ever think what it could have been like?" Christobal reached again. "What it could have been like between you and me?"
Buck retreated again. "No, never." Then everything came to a dead halt as he found himself wondering if there was some truth in that last question. Before he could stop it, new images flashed in his mind, and he felt his dick tingle as he saw himself impaled upon Christobal, who was stretched beneath him on a satiny bed, that blond hair spread wide over the pillow. In his mind's eye, Buck swiveled his naked hips, feeling his sire's full staff rub up against his inner pleasure zone and he gasped. He shook his head, casting the fantasy aside. "No," he repeated more firmly.
This was one thing that made him truly question the ghost's presence. Surely if this thing came from his imagination, he wouldn't find such illusions of being fucked by it so damned hot. It had to be real, somehow, or perhaps in life Christobal had managed somehow to leave him with some sire-to-progeny programming that kept him from finding any peace. It was like some sick final joke that gave the master vampire the last laugh. The ghost had been here the first time Buck and the others had returned to Four Corners some twenty years after the massacre, and it was there again a year later. The next year, however. . . nothing. So Buck could never be sure when the apparition would appear, only that it would always be within the vicinity of the saloon, and he had fallen into a habit of coming here first every time he visited, just to see. If nothing happened, he could walk the town breathing easier. Over time, he kept hoping that the ghost would never appear again, but some part of him couldn't resist testing that hope. For now it was a failure. Buck cleared his throat and tried to broach the real issue here.
"Why are you still here?" he demanded. "I mean, aren't you long past due to get on that elevator down?"
Christobal laid a flattened hand over his mouth in a mock yawn. "Re-DUN-dant," he said, rolling his eyes. "You still don't get it, do you, love," he purred then, and suddenly his voice softened. "I'm not here by choice. We've been over this. . ."
"A hundred times," Buck finished. "I know."
"Well, maybe not that many." The ghost strolled around the room, appearing to run a fingertip over a dirt-caked tabletop, yet there was no trail in the dust. He left no evidence at all that he was there. "You call me because you still want answers," he said. "Go on then, ask me."
Buck sighed and wandered over to lean against the bar, scrapping off and embedding a line of dust along the beltline of his jeans and a greater smear on the elbow of his flannel shirt. "Ella," he stated evenly.
"No love lost there," Christobal replied frankly, and Buck remembered his first awakening, how he had heard the two arguing.
"She's getting closer to Chris, isn't she?"
"Perhaps, but no need to ask me." The ghost found his own place to lean, propping his butt against a tabletop and crossing his arms. "You have that answer up here." He tapped his temple and then pointed at his creation with an emphatic arch in one brow.
Buck nodded and scratched absently at the edge of the bar, sending fragments of the crust flaking into the floor in a rain of fine dust and rotted wood. He stared, momentarily lost in thought on how Chris had suddenly stiffened up on him that last evening in the motel room down near El Paso. That it had happened so closely after a feeding was the clue. Ella had to be near, and he was on edge that after all this time of taunting and calling Chris from a distance, she was finally about to make some move. The woman was already out of her mind obsessed, but what did she have planned against Chris? And not just Chris but the Seven as a whole, standing together?
"It's all coming to a head," he murmured, but before he could ponder Ella any further, he found Christobal standing directly in front of him, and the ghost was doing what he had tried to stop it from doing. A luminous and transparent hand was gracefully reaching up to touch at his cheek. Buck froze, all concern for Chris cast aside as the memory of his rape drifted to the foreground. . . the pain shooting up into him, the cold goon hands immobilizing him up off the ground, legs spread wide. . . helpless. Eyes watering, he gritted his teeth. "I said don't," he snarled.
"Don't what?" Christobal said, head tilted, leaning closer, lips slightly parted, sensuous and beckoning. The tip of his tongue appeared, lightly dabbed at the bottom of the upper lip, then withdrew back into the inviting dark of his mouth.
Buck couldn't move. It was almost like being caught in that strange and comforting spell the master had held over him when he had first awakened to this life. Then for the first time since he'd encountered the ghost, he thought he felt breath hush across his face. Had to be his imagination.
"I wanted you so badly," Christobal whispered, "but it was his name you called."
The smells, sensations, and heat of sex flooded Buck's thoughts again, along with the images of his body, slim and bare, sliding against Christobal's.
"Stop that!" Buck shouted and, with a greater push of will, stumbled away from the bar, away from the apparition and the strange and urgent regret he felt in the face of his dead sire. If he could have, he would have reeled on the other and thrown a right hook if he had thought it would do any good, but he knew his hand would only pass through empty air.
Christobal remained where he was, calm as morning mist, eyes casting a soft glow as he watched Buck collect his wits and turn to glare back.
"It's time for you to go," Buck hissed angrily. Although encounters like these really were rare, the fact that they happened at all had finally gotten to him. None had ever been quite like this. If this was a real ghost, then he was only feeding it his own valuable energy. The false heart-hammering sensation picked up in his chest and his eyes watered. "Damn you," he whispered.
"Only you can let me go, Bucklin," Christobal said softly then, his voice dropping to an echo. "You know that."
Buck stared, hands clenching into fists. He was sorely tempted to put one of them through a table, or to grab one of the old chairs and slam it across the bar, the urge to break something swelling inside him. Suddenly all he wanted was Chris, to feel his lover's body against his, their arms entwined around each other's shoulders. The thought calmed him and yet only exchanged one urgent notion for another. Buck closed his eyes against the apparition before him, but still heard Christobal's voice.
"I will always be here," the ghost said. "As long as you resent that you couldn't kill me yourself, I'll keep coming back."
"I don't resent it. . ." Buck groaned through his teeth and a single tear leaked from the corner of his eye. "I don't. . ."
It took a moment for him to realize Christobal wasn't answering him anymore. He heard his own breath first, heaving madly for a moment before he stopped it. In the silence that followed, a beam creaked in the ceiling, a rat chittered as it scuttled along the wall and disappeared into a hole in the wood, and Buck opened his eyes.
Not a damned thing.
Before he could give the ghost a chance to manifest all over again, Buck turned and fled out the door. He broke into a run, veering so quickly around the doorway out onto the boardwalk that he slammed his shoulder against the frame, nearly tearing it out of joint. He winced as the injury immediately began to heal and he dropped down to the ground and hurried into the side street where his bike was parked. He snatched his gloves from the seat and pulled them onto his shaking hands as he hoisted one leg up over the seat and settled down. In no time he had cranked and gunned the engine and was steering around, sending a spray of dust up in his wake as he sped into the street and shot back out the way he had come.
His mind raced as fast as the bike's spinning wheels, the engine roaring as he kept shifting higher, speeding faster. But no matter what, he couldn't leave it behind. . . that worry-ache-fear. . . that the thing haunting him truly was born of his own resentment. He'd nurtured it, given it a new life, just as its originator had forced this life upon him. Even more he pondered what had brought the apparition out this time. Was he really growing tired of feeding Chris? It was a chore, yes, and at times damned inconvenient, but he wasn't getting tired of it. Was he? And then back to that resentment issue again.
Wind forced more tears out of the corners of Buck's eyes and blew them back along his temples. And then something the ghost had said hit him square on. He shifted down and brought the bike to a skidding halt, sweeping the rear around, the engine groaning angrily at him for the ill treatment, the rear wheel kicking around a shower of dirt, rocks and brambles. Then he put his feet down to the ground and killed the growling machine.
I wanted you so badly, but it was his name you called.
Buck relaxed his hands on the handle bars and tilted his head back, hung it there, gaze pinned on the stars just in time to see a meteor shoot out of the west and disappear to the east. This new vision provoked a hollow chuckle out of him, and he sniffled, considering the clue in those words the ghost had spoken.
He loved Chris.
Maybe he'd never stated it aloud, and after this long he could kick himself for it, but he could see it now. In those shadowy, drowning moments, when Christobal had raped him, taken his blood and filtered it back to him, it was thoughts of Chris that had kept him focused, kept him human. The important thing had been getting to Chris. So it was Chris who had inadvertently saved him. And not only once. Chris had actually saved him twice, and for that he would willingly continue to carry the burden of feeding his lover, keeping him safe, for as long as necessary. No, resentment was not an issue.
"Fucking ghosts," he said under his breath and then laughed out loud.
He took another moment of sky watching to let himself wind down. Another meteor shot by, and he made a wish on it before he cranked the bike again and this time drove at a more sane speed back toward the trail.
Outside Four Corners, 1877
Buck had been staring at the body of the dead master for some time. He crouched up slope, looking down at the sprawled limbs, his head angled for a better view of the lifeless eyes wide open, turned as oil-slick black as those of the goons. The skin had paled out to a bone white, bloodless and chalky, and Buck mused in some sick way that no flies had come to swarm this corpse. It would rot—he had no doubt about that—but so ironic the bugs wouldn't touch it. His gaze roamed down the ebony hair that ran with the course of now dried blood, and he absently listened in on his companions.
Nathan and Josiah were awake now, with Chris and Ezra coaxing them gently through the initial confusion, helping them focus past the hunger. Outside the cavern, the sun had dropped to the horizon, and Vin had gone wandering, salvaging what was left of his clothes after Selvik's goons had torn them off.
Buck considered the previous evening and the little calls he had felt from his own sire. Little tugs at his mind. . . desires. . . all gentle now as if the brutality he had felt before was now somehow dispelled. He wondered what it had been like for Vin, and marveled at how the tracker had found the strength to slay his own sire so soon after rebirth. How strange that he could so easily think about these things. Something about it came natural, as if he had been this thing all along. Then Buck recalled that last touch Christobal had given him, along with that spell-binding kiss. He shivered, his body naturally reliving the sensation of that claw tip gently pressing in on his nipple, bringing him to orgasm.
"No-no-no. . ." he hissed to himself, hands rising to grip the sides of his head. Bastard, you're not gonna get me. He realized the others had stopped talking and turned to look over his shoulder, finding Nathan and Josiah staring at him from where they both lay against the wall. Ezra, squatting before Nathan with a hand reached out, blinked at Buck. Chris, who had acquired a new habit of endless pacing, paused to look over toward the deeper cavern and raise a brow. "It's nothing," Buck insisted in an irritated rumble.
He was startled just then as Vin crossed his path almost silently, dressed now in bloodstained trousers and shirt with one sleeve almost torn completely off. The tracker had even found his bandana and tied it around his neck, but he had found something more. Buck turned in time to see Vin drop to one knee, quick as lightning, and bring down the blade of his hunting knife on the expanse of Selvik's neck right above the Adam's apple.
The sickening hack of blade on undead flesh forced Buck to look away. He'd seen men decapitated before, heads blown clean off in battle, but to watch this was different. It was too close, and it took time as the blade wasn't big enough to make a clean cut all the way through. Vin had to dig the edge in, saw with it. His teeth gritted savagely as his motions grew more urgent. At last he pried the blade in between the vertebrae and with a nauseating CRACK, completed the job. The tracker paused then, his shoulders heaving up and down with his forced breath, as the head rolled away from the mutilated stump of neck.
Then cold, blue eyes, glowing from within, angled up at Buck and stared evenly. "It's the only way to make sure," Vin said softly, his voice a complete contradiction to his stare.
"I know, Vin," Buck replied and swallowed hard.
Vin grabbed the crusted hair in his hands, lifted Selvik's head up dangling tattered skin and gore, then flung it toward the other end of the cavern. It bounced off the stone and rolled with a hollow grind over some rocks before coming to rest facing back in the direction from which Vin had tossed it. "Fuckin' scum," he said under his breath, then he turned and wandered toward another corner of the cavern.
Buck could have sworn the tracker was shaking, but then that could have only been himself, grossed and yet fascinated by the scene. He looked back down at the decapitated body for a moment before he got up and rejoined the others.
Josiah and Nathan slowly got to their feet, Nathan holding a hand tightly over his belly, no doubt feeling the hunger pains. Josiah leaned against the cavern wall, swaying against a bout of dizziness, before he pushed gently away and in doing so suddenly became fixated on his hands out before him. The big preacher looked at his palms, then turned them over, fingers spread wide. His nails had sprouted the slightest bit, the tips extended into sharp points, but they didn't look too threatening, just indicative of his infancy in this new existence.
"Everything is so. . . clear," Josiah said then, looking up and examining the cavern walls. His eyes caught the light from the candles and gleamed his amazement, and then, like Nathan, he grabbed his stomach. "Ah, God. . ."
"Get used to it," Chris said rustily and moved closer.
Buck muttered a curse at his friend's lack of tact and shook his head. "Yeah, everything's clear, especially how hungry ya are." He laid a hand on Josiah's shoulder, throwing glances at all of them.
Vin strolled past the gathering, around the bend of stone wall and through the gateway of stalagmites, out of the cavern mouth to position himself there, a solitary guardian silhouetted against the sunset.
Ezra watched after him, brows knitted with concern. "Um, I'll be right back," he said and detached himself from the group.
"Bring him back here," Chris said. "We need to make a plan."
Ezra nodded and turned to make his way up to the mouth, walking more carefully, as if to ask Vin's permission to approach.
"You think you can make it back into town?" Buck asked the two latest initiates.
"I don't know if I can," Nathan admitted. One hand still gripped the wall while the other still clamped over his belly. "I never felt anything like this," he said, gritting his teeth.
"Why do you think we're so hungry already?" Josiah asked. "I mean, we drank from them right before we. . ." he grunted uneasily as he finished it, ". . . before we died. . ."
Nathan shrugged and settled back against the wall completely. His medical mindedness had to come up with a theory. "What we drank was to make the conversion, not to feed on. Must be some change that blood causes, maybe it gets absorbed into the body—“
"Can't say's I give a shit," Chris growled. "You two aren't gonna be too useful if you're hungry, and we've got that whole town to clean up."
"Hold on there, pard," Buck interjected. "No jumpin' ahead, we're gonna sort this out."
"Yeah, well, I'm just about done sortin'." Chris' pacing grew frenzied, the angle of his body turned toward Buck, his arms hugged around his upper body, making him look cold in his shirt tail with his legs exposed. "She's out there, she's calling me."
Buck stiffened to hear that, finding the other damned man's tone strange and hard to interpret as to whether Chris simply meant he couldn't bear to hear Ella's call, or he was growing impatient to go to her. Buck couldn't argue. He had his own call to answer. And therein, he realized, might lay their means of getting back into Four Corners, of gaining the upper hand. It would take so much will power, but hell, if Vin could rise against his sire, why couldn't they? "That's it," he whispered at first. He cleared his throat and spun upon Chris, stepping directly into his pacing path and stopping him dead in his tracks. "That's it," he declared.
"What?" Chris glared.
"You and I go back, answer the call," Buck explained. "It's the best way for us to get close enough." Excitement raised his voice enough to bounce echoes off the rock walls, capturing the attention of Vin and Ezra in the cave opening. They both came back into the central cavern, staring at Wilmington and Larabee as if they were both losing their minds. Buck took Chris' place pacing, hands out in the air before him, gesturing up and down with zeal as his fingers curled, knuckles whitening. "I go to Christobal, Chris goes to Ella. The thing is we gotta resist them. Vin did it. Look.“ He tossed a gesture over toward Selvik's headless body.
Vin shuffled uneasily from hip to hip and shrugged. "I told you. He. . . he made me kill Ezra."
"But it can be done, Vin," Buck said in appraisal. "You've proven that."
Observing this revelation at work, Nathan frowned, keeping his support against the wall. "What about their minions though? We killed a good handful of 'em but there's got to be more hidin' around."
"They ain't that hard to kill," Vin added sourly.
Ezra looked him up and down, making demonstrable note of the dried blood smears remaining on the tracker's face and neck, on the arm that was half exposed through the torn sleeve. "Apparently so," he added his two bits and blinked, looking away as the harsh memory of dying and listening to the goons screeching around him returned.
"I don't know about this," Chris said. "We're all weak." He looked at Buck directly. "What you and I got off Nathan and Josiah can't hold us long. Vin and Ezra. . . they didn't get much more."
Buck groaned and wiped at his eyes before slapping his long arms down at his sides in resignation. "Then what's your idea, huh?" They weren't going to get anywhere if they kept their tails tucked between their legs. "We don't face them now, we lose. We can run, but in the end we'll always feel this connection, Chris." The desperation to make a move, to force out as much courage as he could muster and face his demon, brought Buck's fangs to bud to half-length. He could feel them against the tip of his tongue when he spoke now, so he clenched his teeth, straining out his words. "We're their slaves, Chris," he snarled. "Ella and her eternal love shit. . . she did this to you because she wants to own you. . . because it binds you to her."
To this Vin and Ezra looked uncomfortably at each other.
Chris looked away, even more discomforted. For a briefness, the jade of his eyes flecked through with feral, golden shards, and then it softened out again, hazed by tears that rimmed across his lids but never quite found the capacity to gush free. He blinked, and in that moment his eyes dried completely. Lips curling back over his own extending canines, he swallowed a hard lump in his throat and swayed where he stood. "All right," he finally said hoarsely. "So we face them. . . then what?"
Buck stalled, giving them all some time to absorb the exchange. "We kill the bastards, simple as that." Then he took three long strides forward and faced Chris directly, gripping him by the shoulders. "But when you face Ella, you think of Sarah and Adam when you do it. You stay focused." He knew at this juncture it was a lot to ask of Chris, but damn, he kept thinking, if Vin could do it then why not—
"And us?" Josiah asked.
"You and Nathan hold back," Vin chimed in. "We'll find some weapons in case you're forced to fight."
"Weapons," Buck echoed and turned away from Chris to look at the others. "I bet there are still a lot of those stakes we made in the Sheriff's office. J.D. didn't hand 'em all out."
"Getting there is another matter," Ezra reminded him. "And then there will be the matter of finding a way to sate Nathan and Josiah, and if my guess is correct there isn't another living soul in that town."
"Even if there was," Nathan interjected, "I wouldn't take 'em." His once coffee-dark eyes paled to amber, wolfish from his hunger and yet completely focused as he clung to his devotion to save, not take, life.
"How about in Purgatory?" Vin asked. "It'd be a night's run for us, and they got plenty of scum could use cleanin' out."
Each looked at the others for a response. First there were shrugs, then vacant head nods. In some ways they were chilled by how easily Vin came up with this solution, but their new bodies wouldn't let them completely argue. Where there was a way, the will followed.
Then Chris spoke up, voice a growl. "What about Fowler?"
Buck spun toward him, eyes wide, mouth pursed to offer up an immediate answer he suddenly realized he didn't have. "Oh. . . shit. . ." He scratched his head, brows knitting deeply, and the corner of his mouth, under his ungroomed mustache, twitched downward in an unbecoming frown. "I forgot about him." He propped his butt up against the side of a boulder, thinking back. He did have the answer, somehow. What was it? Something he had heard? Something from when he was still in the death sleep. . . hearing voices. . . hearing Ella and Christobal argue. . . something about. "Cletus!" he blurted out. Then, "Kleitos!"
Ezra perked up. "Wait a moment," he said more to himself. He rolled his eyes upward in deep thought, mouth open and ready to speak. "That's ancient Greek for Cletus." Then he added, "I think. I mean, it's not hard to make that deduction just from the sound of it."
They stared at him.
"I have studied history, gentlemen," he grumbled.
"Yeah, so?" Chris replied with an irritated shrug and repeated, "Fowler."
Buck jumped back into it hands up to signal for attention. "That's not my point. Ella and Christobal were arguing about him. I heard them talking on a first name basis about him. They're meeting up with him in Dodge City in a week."
"So he's not even here," Nathan concluded for the rest of them.
Chris gritted his teeth in a silent curse. "Then he'll just have to wait," he said with an edge of disappointment.
"Oh, we'll get him," Vin put in harshly. "He started this. . . we'll get him." He was showing a tad too much fang on that note.
A dead and hollow silence followed, each of them staring uncomfortably at his comrades, their eyes partially aglow and fixing with new determination.
"All right then," Buck's rasp cracked the air. "First we sneak into Four Corners and hit the Sheriff's Office. We do this, we get in there, stay focused, fight fast and hard. Then we head for Purgatory."
The corner of Ezra's lips ticked upward in a barely contained smirk. "Mr. Wilmington, I think you're forgetting something else you need. Some clothing?"
Buck looked down at his long thin body sheeted over in the nightshirt. "Oh yeah," he muttered. "Okay, clothes, stakes, what else do we need to get first?"
Josiah had that answer. "Faith, brother Buck," he said gently. "We need faith."
No one argued with him.
Before they left, they practiced by slaying some of the goons who had hidden in the back cavern. In all, ten presented themselves, and if there were any others, they had escaped into the deeper reaches where there were plenty of hidey-holes. It was a lesson in using tooth and claw, for there were no stakes, and the others began to really understand why it was they had found Vin so caked in blood.
Then commenced the rough walk back to Four Corners. Nathan and Josiah kept falling behind, their bellies cramping with hunger, but they tried to distract themselves by focusing on the landscape, learning quickly how they might put their new senses to use. It proved time to sketch out even more of a plan. They would split up when they reached town, leaving Buck and Chris to confront Ella and Christobal, while Vin and Ezra flushed the goons from the cracks and crannies. Nathan and Josiah were to gather any supplies considered necessary for the trip to Purgatory, while also keeping on the alert to provide back up where it was needed.
Instead of taking the direct route into town, they chose to go up over the ridge and down into the valley from the northeast. As they made their way down the rise, the moon shown on the town in the distance, highlighting rooftops and the empty main street. On flatter ground, they crouched as they went, moving swiftly one at a time from place to place past the old mining camp, until they reached the rear of the hotel where Buck had been trapped inside a day ago that already felt like an eternity. They used hand signals only as they fell out in twos around the eastern corner of the hotel and into the side street, slipping in and out of the shadows, until they all reached the corner of the Saloon and a full view of Main Street opened up. Directly across from their position stood the Sheriff's office, and next to it Potter's General Store.
Buck had already determined that he and Chris were going in first. They needed to act the quickest and get prepared for the real trial to come. He wedged himself around the corner and looked up and down the street, seeing and hearing nothing. Only the smell of death met him, and that was everywhere despite the empty streets. Nathan and Josiah had done a damned good job cleaning up the bodies and seeing that they didn't rise, and however many goons they had killed. . . that now proved a bonus too. He took a breath, held it, and hurried across the dusty way, up onto the boardwalk, and found the office door cracked. Glancing back at the five other new masters huddled up in the side street, he nodded a signal as he put his hand on the knob and gave it a gentle push. The door creaked on its hinges and he winced, feeling as if the tiny noise had all the power of a train whistle.
He stepped inside, listening for other sounds not of his making. Immediately he perked up to a muted hissing and looked over at the desk behind which he saw the gleam of black eyes peering at him. The goon cringed back into the corner when he approached, seeing right off that it was a female. She looked like she didn't know what to do, seeing a master before her and yet he wasn't her master. Buck examined the face, finding it familiar if he imagined it with normal, human eyes, or if the lips hadn't been curled back over fangs wet with saliva and remnants of blood. A sweep of messy, long black hair fell over one shoulder partially clothed in a tattered, frilly blouse. And suddenly Buck thought he'd be sick. His stomach turned and he nearly backed right up out of the room.
Her skin. . . her lovely tan skin. . . it was now as gray as ash.
"Inez. . ." he murmured, and his eyes began to burn as recognition superimposed an image of how she had looked in life.
She issued a sharp hiss of retort and remained crouched, ready to spring at him. Slowly, painfully, he shook his head to himself, frozen to the spot thinking what he needed to do. For a long silent moment they stared at each other, her eyes hard and black, his rimmed with wetness.
Then the corner of the door slapped Buck in the back as Chris came through, hurrying him out of the way.
"Buck, what the hell are you standin' around for—“ Chris halted, his own coarse hiss of a whisper dropping off.
The sudden entry of yet another master jolted the goon into action. Inez lunged straight for Buck, who found his body moving almost on its own, ruled by a nature to survive, as he took one step forward, straight into the attack. The goon let out a cougar-like roar and slashed at him with her claws.
"Chris, find the stakes!" Buck shouted over his shoulder as he caught Inez's wrist, spun her around, and pulled her into him, getting her into a bear hug with the one wrist in his grasp twisted behind her back. He wrestled with her squirming, kicking, screeching figure, knocking the unlit oil lamp and a set of keys off the desk. Her hair swatted him in the face, stinging his eyes, as she thrashed her head and shoulders forward and back, attempting to get free like a fish wriggling viciously against the line.
Chris' gaze darted in and out of the corners, over the desk, into the empty jail cells, and there against one wall, like a stack of firewood, he saw the pile of remaining stakes, about twenty of them. He hurried for them, dropping to his knees and grabbing two, one in each hand, before he rose and attempted to approach the struggle. He skirted the goon's kicking legs, looking for an in as he held one of the stakes up like a knife, point forward. Had to be careful he didn't stab Buck in the arm.
Buck cursed and growled as he spun this way then that with his thrashing burden. "Goddammit, Chris, get her!" He craned his head back and to the side to keep Inez from bashing him in the forehead.
Of the others, Vin came through the door first, pausing to assess the situation, then springing forward to help Chris. "Grab 'er legs!" he cried and managed to grip one ankle as it went kicking past him.
Chris stopped trying to stab with the stake, dropped it, and grabbed the other leg. They had just hauled her over onto the desktop and pinned her when Ezra came in the door, Nathan and Josiah immediately behind him, all reacting to the noise that had stirred up loud enough to carry into the street.
Inez gnashed her teeth and screeched up at Buck as he held both her wrists now. Her body bowed up then flopped down on the desk with a dull thunk. Her blouse had gotten torn and now bared one pale, jiggling breast centered with a slate-hued nipple.
"Oh. . . God," Josiah murmured as he reached down and picked up the stake Chris had dropped. He approached, holding it ready.
From where he stood over the poor creature, Buck turned his head and closed his eyes but kept his grip firmly on both of her wrists. "Do it, Josiah!"
The preacher wedged the point into place in the center of Inez's chest, took a breath, and let it out with a prayer. "In the name of the Father, and of the Son. . ."
He channeled all of his strength into the downward push, breaking past her breastplate, straight into her heart.
". . . and the Holy Spirit. . ."
The goon screeched out a pitiful, awful cry that died down into a gurgle before cutting off completely, and Buck felt the tension fighting against his grasp begin to let up.
". . . I release you. . ."
Josiah stepped back as blackish blood spewed out around the sides of the stake. Chris and Vin held her legs a little longer to be sure she wasn't going to move anymore, and then slowly they began to let go, stepping back. Buck remained where he was for a moment longer, not looking down, his head still turned to the side, eyes closed.
"Buck, it's done," Chris rasped.
"Yeah," Buck answered, eyes squeezing shut a little tighter. He let go of the thin, limp wrists and stepped away, turned his back on the scene before he opened his eyes and stared at the pile of stakes in the corner. The false sensation of a hammering heart filled his chest, and the tears that had been slow to come for shock now came for grief. Just a short spill. Then he blinked and they were gone. He padded hurriedly over to the pile, picked up one of the smaller stakes, and gripped it tightly. "Um, finish it. . . please," he said over his shoulder. Then he began to walk stiffly, but hurriedly, toward the door. "I. . . I can't. . ."
The taller man knocked shoulders with Ezra as he went outside, but Buck didn't look back, didn't ask to be excused. Inez hadn't been in there anymore, he tried to rationalize. Inez was dead; that was some thing inhabiting her body, acting as a mindless minion for who? Ella? Christobal? He'd fucking rip that bastard's heart out. Just wait. Just fucking wait. Buck veered to the right outside the door and headed for the next stop in the plan.
Potter's store, unlike the Sheriff's Office, was locked. He used his free hand to smash the glass in the front door and reach in to release the lock and turn the knob. By the time the others caught up with him, he'd already rummaged through the clothing and found a pair of trousers and shirt that fit him, but none of the shoes or boots worked. He gave up and went barefooted. Chris had better luck, even found trousers in his preferred black, and a pair of boots.
They didn't talk about Inez.
Ezra tarried near the haberdashery as well, finding a coat in which he could cram as many stakes as possible down into the pockets. It almost provoked a chuckle from the others to see him standing beside the cash register moments later in a big tan, canvas capote, wooden points jutting out of the sides.
"Ezra, what're ya doin'?" Vin asked in a grumble. "We're not payin' for it."
The gambler blinked, looked at the counter top, and muttered, "Oh, um, right."
Chris and Buck armed themselves more discreetly, Buck having already chosen the stake he would use on Christobal. He slipped it up his shirtsleeve and took a look in the mirror to make sure the hidden weapon wasn't too obvious. Funny, but he recalled Michael Arrant making mention that among the superstitions about vampires, one was that they didn't have a reflection. Superstitions indeed. . . including the one about crosses. Satisfied that he didn't exactly look like he was armed to the teeth, Buck went over to the door to wait as the others also prepared themselves. A moment later, Chris joined him and stood on the other side of the doorframe, taking a glance out into the street.
Buck examined the sharp tint in the green eyes, knowing that Chris could see as clearly as he could despite the darkness; if something out there moved, no matter how small, they would both see it. But there was also a vacancy therein, a worried glaze that Buck had rarely seen creep into Larabee's eyes. He couldn't let it be too much of a concern or they'd accomplish nothing. They had a challenge ahead that could easily break them both and to brood on its difficulty wouldn't help. "You ready?" he asked lowly.
Chris nodded at the same time he said, "No."
The others finished their "shopping" and grouped up at the door too, unease permeating the air between them that the moment had arrived, and they treated it very critically.
"Godspeed," Josiah said as he shook Buck's hand, then Chris'.
"You too, brother," Buck said.
A full exchange of handshakes ensued, all six men skirting around actually saying goodbye, for they hoped goodbyes were not necessary. Well wishes, however, were a definite. Then Josiah and Nathan slipped out into the night first. Their boots made some minor clomping on the boardwalk, but then they both jumped down to the street and disappeared around the corner.
Vin paused to look solidly at Chris as he started out the door next. The silent exchange that took place harkened back to that first time they met, Chris on the street, Vin up on the boardwalk with a shotgun in his hands. They had only nodded at each other. That was all, but it had been so much more: a silent and mutual recognition that they were not men who would stand around and do nothing while the world went to hell around them. And now it had come down to the bare bones, that they had delved into and merged with the darkness they were fighting so that they could better combat it.
Unable to find any words, Vin gave a nod and moved on, Ezra following. They too disappeared along the boardwalk, the low sound of their footfalls quickly fading.
The two remaining men waited for a long moment, not daring to say anything yet. They listened to each other's heartbeat, timing the space of minutes, until finally Buck reached up and clasped Chris' shoulders as he had been doing since he had dragged his friend out of the hotel.
"You ready?" he repeated in a sharp whisper, hunching and craning his head down a little to reach precise eye contact with the shorter man.
Chris blinked at him and swallowed, his narrow, corded neck flexing with tension. "Yeah."
Buck nodded too and then took a breath. "Call her," was all he said then.
Chris closed his eyes, meeting the dark behind his lids and the strange sense of warmth back there where Ella's voice grew stronger. Therein he asked her what he should do, and waited, shuddering as first the desire for her crept upon him, then the nag of his lingering hunger for another taste of her blood which would no doubt bind his will completely to her. A sense of drifting on the air, pulled through the town up the street, around the corner of the saloon, and toward the hotel where he had been changed, stole upon him.
While Chris made his connection, Buck made his own, closing his eyes too, and simply saying weakly in his mind, All right, I'm here. In return, he saw Christobal in his mind's eye, smiling back at him. An image of the interior of the saloon came to him, his view drifting across the polished, bar, over broken chairs and tables. This was where he was to go, he realized. Back to the place where he had fought alongside Chris, where they had both been captured.
Buck's eyes snapped open, and he found Chris staring evenly back at him, but he didn't miss that there was some struggle in there. A muscle ticked beneath one of Chris' eyes and then rested. Together they stepped out of the General Store and onto the boardwalk, then down the steps onto the street. Side by side, they began the walk that for a fraction of a moment felt like a walk to the gallows, like they were sentencing themselves to something worse than this undeath. Failure meant eternal slavery.
Moonlight bathed the path ahead of them, rendering the dusty street in soft blue. Near the saloon they paused to look at each other. By now, their voices had rusted up, refused to work. They couldn't even nod a final signal to each other. Then Buck began to walk again, losing sight of Chris out of the corner of his eye as he faced ahead, going straight for the saloon.
Chris made a right turn and headed down the side street toward the hotel, on his own date with destiny, a slim wooden stake sheathed down inside one boot, and another tucked neatly into his beltline and hidden under his new shirt.
Nathan looked down at the rough, uneven outline of what had once been a human figure, but now all that remained was ash, crusted and thicker near where the head had been, or the rib cage and legs. There were a few fragments of bone mingled in. Beyond that lay another one, and another, remnants of the goons he and Josiah had staked the day after the massacre and thrown into the sun. It had taken a while to get used to it. The bodies combusted so fast that one couldn't be too close to them when they landed in the direct sunlight. So the two men had come up with a method of Nathan taking the arms, Josiah the legs, and heaving the limp form like a sack of grain out from the shade inside the buildings. What was left littered the streets here and there, but desert winds had strewn the ashes.
They walked on quietly, listening, smelling, alert to any movement, but nothing stirred. The real action, it seemed, remained down the street.
"I wonder how they're doing," Josiah murmured. They had passed the livery corral and were now at the rear of the blacksmith's. Ahead, the shadow of the church steeple came into view above the Grain Exchange, the cross silhouetted against the moon. He stopped, feet crunching firmly into the dirt and immobilizing him right there.
Nathan got three more strides ahead before he realized his companion wasn't keeping up. He stopped and turned, his forehead stressed with frown lines. "What is it?"
Josiah shook his head, his blue eyes so vividly gleaming from the moonlight, little rings of illumination circling his pupils. "Just tryin' to avoid a crisis of faith, I guess," he said mildly.
"I know what you mean." Nathan strolled slowly back toward the other man. He reached up with both hands, touched his own face, fingertips running into the shallows beneath his eyes. "It still feels like me in here," he said softly, "but then. . ." As he curled his lips back, he felt the slightest extension of his fangs. It was all hitting him very slowly, what he had become. The hunger was telling him more about himself. With each empty stomach cramp he saw visions of exposed throats, of rivers of fragrant red. "I was sworn to be a healer, Josiah, and now look. . . I'm a killer."
Josiah's eyes angled toward the black man and he blinked with an almost mechanical and fatigued slowness. "We all are, Nathan. We were before, but it's just now the method is harder to accept than shooting or throwing knives. It's a decision we made together, we have to live with it." And then his feet came free and he started walking again. "We'll find a way," he said over his shoulder, "even if it's Vin's idea of cleaning out Purgatory." He wondered if he might play some mind game with himself on this matter by picturing himself as some black angel of God sent to root out and destroy the wicked. Well, it was a thought. . .
Nathan followed as Josiah slipped around the livery into the churchyard, and they tried not to look at the bodies there, left in a neat row, staked and beheaded. But Josiah couldn't help himself. He paused, gaze rolling reluctantly toward the dead townsmen. They obviously hadn't been completely on the road to rising as goons for the sun had not taken care of them. The foul and coppery aroma of congealed, baked-in-the-sun blood curled toward the two watchers. Josiah's eyes burned, but any tears were far from welling up. He was too tired for tears.
Sighing sadly, Nathan shook his head at the carnal scene. "Josiah, we can't leave them like that. We gotta bury 'em, or something."
"First thing's first," Josiah said. "We're too weak, and there are too many of them. We'll come back for them when this is over, do a proper burial on them all."
Nathan nodded. "Sure." He was looking back toward the church when the slightest tiny movement caught his attention and he looked to see a single black rat slip along the lower wall of the church and disappear down into a hole dug into the corner near a thick growth of prickly pear. Cursing under his breath, he thought of the rat and its kin gnawing on the bodies of the dead. Little bastards, he thought, and suddenly an idea began to occur to him. His mind tried to revoke the notion, but his churning, hungry belly told him it was workable. "Josiah, you don't think maybe. . ." He paused, thinking it through. So disgusting. . . so utterly awful. Rats carried diseases, how could he think. . . But then he remembered clearly that he had nothing more to be concerned with disease.
"What, brother Nathan?" Josiah touched lightly at the other man's shoulder.
"You don't suppose there's other ways we can get blood, besides from people, do you?"
Josiah's salt and pepper brows shot up into his hairline. "That is a. . . wait. . . are you saying what I think you're saying?"
Josiah looked at him, brows slowly sinking again, before he turned blankly and headed toward the church. "You know," he said, deliberately changing the subject. "I think we should add matches to the supplies. We might be able to see in the dark, but I think we're gonna need the comfort of a fire from time to time."
The idea passed quickly from Nathan's mind then. He smiled to himself, watching the big preacher's back as Josiah skirted around the extensive segments of cactus near the rat's hole and disappeared toward the front of the church. "Amen to that," he said to Josiah's last statement, then he hastened to follow again.
Chris took the first step up onto the hotel porch and peered through the open, welcoming, double doors into the lobby, breathing in and dissecting the scent of jasmine perfume wafting from within. He shuddered, feeling the draw on his soul pull a little tighter, like it was pulling his very essence out of his body.
Ella was in there somewhere waiting, patient, certain of his return.
As Buck had advised, he quickly thought of Sarah and Adam. He heard their voices, Adam's high and clear, giggling.
"Gimme a ride, Papa."
Chris recalled little hands stretching wide up toward him as he sat on his horse. He reached down, grabbed both, and hefted up, feeling the little warm body snuggle into his lap, straddling the saddle. Closing his eyes, he smelled the soft, sweet scent of Adam's hair, like warm, fresh cut hay.
And then there was Sarah, vibrant and alive, her golden brown hair a veil of waves and curls around her head. He felt her lips against his, warm, silky. He cupped her face in his hands, his coarse, callused fingertips lightly pressing against petal-smooth cheeks.
"It's time to let go, Chris," she said.
"Let go? What are you talking about?" he asked.
"It's time to let go of them," her voice purred, and something about its tone wasn't right. It had changed, gone from gentle and alluring to more throaty. Still feminine, but bearing a natural harshness. He looked ahead, and there, framed in the hotel doorway, Ella stood in a white silk gown that sheathed her body in sleek elegance, a corset tight around her tiny waist and pushing up her breasts. Like a bride she shown in the night, smiling at him expectantly. "Come here," she said.
Chris' eyes watered as the visions of Sarah and Adam melted away from his mind's eye. A tingling rush spiraled down through his middle and gathered in his groin. He shuddered again, resisting the desire to go forward and put his hands around that waist, feel that corset, tight as a drum, around her middle. He made the mistake, then, of staring into her face, absorbing into her dark eyes beaming at him.
"Ella. . ." he croaked, and had the strange sense that he had hurt her, and little wonder she had done what she had done to him. How could he have ever left her like he did, after all the great times they'd had together? Riding bareback in the rain. . . naked. . . His inner self laughed at the nickname he'd acquired from that. Bareback Larabee. The other regulators had laughed their asses off when Ella had told them that, and. . .
The others. . .
Chris frowned, struggling to recall what exactly he'd come here for. He looked down vacantly, thoughts completely askew.
"Chris," Ella persisted gently, her graceful hands rising out to him, to welcome him back into her arms. "Chris, come here, darling."
His body responded before he did, taking those last four strides, clearing the upper step and crossing the porch into the doorway. Then he wrapped his hands around her waist, looked down at her lips, red and voluptuous and parted lustily. Her breath ghosted over his own lips and he felt himself sigh deeply, contentedly, shoulders relaxing as he exhaled.
This was the way it should be. This was where he was supposed to be, here in her arms.
"You're hungry, I know," she whispered in his ear. "I've fed enough for the two of us, all you need do is drink from me." She tilted her head to the side, her eyes still on him, smoky and sly beneath hooded lids.
He stared at the space of neck presented to him, touched by a long lock of hair. His hand trailed up over her breast and stroked at the lock, smoothing it back. The scent diffused through her skin, tickled his nose with coppery sweetness, and the promise that what hunger lingered in him would completely be sated if he tasted it, if he leaned his head in and. . .
His fangs budded, the tips slightly pushing into his lower gums and drawing blood there. Tiny threads drained from the cuts and washed across his tongue. Tasting his own sanguine flow, he paused.
"Go on," she urged, and kissed his chin before tilting her head sideways again.
"But, the others. . ." His pebbled and rough throat barely let him speak, mind and mouth not quite working in unison.
She looked at him straight on again. "Oh, Chris, please," she murmured.
For a moment he wanted to give in, to sink into her, take her, drink from her and forget everything. Just fucking surrender and let her rule him.
His brows knitted as Sarah's face floated against his inner vision. Then over that Buck's, eyes warm and blue and full of life and laughter that had been taken away. Then Vin. . . Vin covered in blood and huddled over the body of Ezra.
"The others. . ." he stuttered out again. "What about them?"
She smiled and breathed out a chuckle. "Oh, your friends. Of course they will be with us now."
That didn't sound like Ella. Hadn't she tried to kill his friends before? He tried to grasp for the corresponding memory to back up that thought, but he couldn't stay focused.
She swayed in his arms as if they were dancing, but she was leading, and smiling wistfully she pecked lightly at his lips with a quick kiss while he stared dumbfounded at her. "They have come too far to be turned away now, Chris," she elaborated. "We will welcome them into our family. I'm so sorry that I didn't accept them before. I should have known better." She looked into his eyes, kissed him again. "Yes?"
He nodded and stared while she cupped a palm between his legs, massaged at the fabric and the tensing lump of flesh beneath. Then she let go and her fingers slid around to his hip, leaving his balls aching slightly.
"They will all join us, even the boy." She turned her head and laid it against his chest, hands both wandering around his waist.
"The boy?" he echoed. His dick relaxed, equally as confused as he was.
She chuckled again. "Of course. You'll have your family of friends, and then you'll have me. Forever, Chris," she crooned.
Her head felt so damned good leaning into him. He wanted to put his arms around her, protect her, though he knew she didn't need protection. She was humoring him, waiting out the moment until he would take her blood, until he would. . .
The boy! Chris stiffened as if lightening had jumped up his spine. "J.D.?"
"Yes, he's with Christobal right now. His time for change will be soon."
Chris pursed his lips in a vacant, "Oh," and he rested his chin on the top of her hair. "Forever?" he whispered. "Is it really forever?"
She laughed at his naiveté, a husky laugh that reminded him that she was not a fragile creature. "Is it forever?" she mocked him between coarse giggles. "Of course it is. It's a gift, lover. Forever is ours, and all you need to do is feed and stay out of the daylight." She swayed with him again, hands probing lazily up and down the sides of his back, smoothing at the cotton of his shirt. "It really isn't that hard. The blood. . . you learn different ways to take it. And taking it will get easier and easier."
Chris stared into the hotel lobby, sensing the rustling of Ella's minions, all waiting for more orders from their mistress. There might have been three or four there, but he wasn't sure, couldn't get numbers to line up in his mind, something else was distracting him. She had said that other name, Christobal, a name that rang familiar. Buck had said that name. Buck who was right now. . .
About to walk into a situation where he would be emotionally outnumbered.
Chris jolted again as Ella's hands brushed against something at his back that caused her to straighten and look at him, her wavering grasp on his mind suddenly shaken.
"What is that?" she asked with a glare, eyes losing all softness and turning to black stones.
He slipped back from her, reaching around behind him, up under his shirt, and into his beltline where he grasped the stake. His hand tightened on it at the same time full freedom flooded through him, and all became clear.
"Guess," he hissed. Then he pulled the stake from behind him, feeling the tip briefly sweep against the skin at the small of his back, before he brought it around and started to stab forward with it aimed at her heart.
Ella roared her anger at the betrayal and jumped out of the way, stumbling backward through the doorway but recovering her footing quickly. Chris lunged in after her, missing again as she proved too fast by sweeping to the side so that he, in his clumsy hurry, nearly fell right into three goons. They hissed and shrieked to see that he had attacked their mistress.
"You bastard!" Ella snarled at him as she turned to face him again and they circled each other. "You would do this to me again? Hurt me? Rip my heart out!" She pounded her chest with a fist and made a clawing motion with her fingers.
Chris wanted to make a retort as he circled low, crouched and spring loaded, but she gave him no time for that. She dove into him, her hand coming up under his, grabbing his wrist and wrestling for control of the stake. The sharp point on the wood hovered out in the open air, and Chris grunted to get more strength into his arm, but it was no good. Having not fed completely, he was the weaker, while she had fed plenty and then some.
He thrashed with her, their bodies slamming into the reception counter in the lobby, then spinning toward the dinning room. The billowing skirt on her dress tangled around his pant leg, white against black. Burning anger pounded in his head, forced out rage tears, and he bared fully extended canines at her. The new instinct then was to dive right into her throat, rip it out like a rabid wolf. He pushed against her, while one of the goons leapt forward and swept claws down his back.
Chris howled deeply and his body bowed in at the pain, not unlike that of a bullwhip but stinging him in four long gashes from shoulder blade to side.
"You can't hope to keep this up," Ella growled at him as they fell up against the doorway into the dinning room. "You're too weak, and I made you. . . you can't fight me. . ."
"Just watch me," he said through gritted teeth, awed at how his voice grated with demonic intensity.
Her fangs bared at him, she hissed with the resonance of a pissed off rattler puffing itself up. Then abruptly, and with cunning, she side stepped, spinning with him, pulling his balance completely off, and then letting go.
Chris flung backwards through the air and crashed into a mahogany buffet table on the far side of the room, breaking his back. There was an instant of sharp pain then sudden numbness from the waist down. The table broke apart beneath him, but his hand remained steadfastly clamped around the stake. Dazed, he rolled onto his side, wincing as splinters from the table embedded in his side.
Ella came storming after, her dress flowing behind her like clouds sweeping behind the thunder of her steps. She stopped a short, but safe distance away, watching him pull one of the larger splinters—a tiny stake in and of itself—out of the side of his arm, grunting in pain. He heard the crick and crack of healing vertebrae, but it was not a speedy process and he still couldn't move his legs. Floundering onto his back, he awkwardly pulled his upper body against the wall amid the fragments of smashed table. God, he had to look like the most pathetic excuse for a man this side of the Mississippi.
"Chris," she said more calmly as she gave him a chance to recover, "why play this game with me when you know it hurts me?"
New pain zinged through his side and back and another bone cracked into its rightful place. Teeth gritting so tightly his jaw creaked, he breathed out in mockery, "Me-me-me. It's all about you, isn't it, Ella."
She frowned in a most pouty way. "No, Chris, it's about us. Why can't you see that?"
"And US means me slaving to you, accepting what you did to my family!?!" He tried to bend one leg, only managing minor movement.
The pouty frown turned into a raging glare. "I'm looking out for your best interests, Chris. If you will not take my blood as I offer it, then you'll take it by force. It's the only way you will see the truth." She raised one hand and signaled her goons to come closer. They all but slithered in around her. "One of them, a male who might have been handsome in his human life, crouched down beside her like a pet tiger. "Bring him here," she told them.
Chris gurgled a weak, "No. . ." and tried to kick out as they approached. Sensation began to filter into his legs, his overall body hurting like hell. "No!" he cried as they hovered in, slathering fangs bared at him, their hands reaching toward him as he cringed away. In complete panic he did the only thing he could. He turned the stake around, the point turned inward, and then flung it toward Ella like a knife. It flipped through the air, whistling sharply before the tip came around and embedded solidly in her upper right breast. She shrieked and fell over with the impact. The goons spun around, all attention turned toward their injured mistress.
Chris took that moment to force his legs to work. He rolled onto his belly, pulled a knee up under him, no matter how much it hurt, and willing out one great jolt of energy, he ran straight for the nearest exit, a window half boarded over.
"Chris! Nooooooo!" Ella cried after him, writhing with one blood-smeared hand on the blunt end of the stake, the other clawing across the floor in the direction of Chris' departure.
He dove for the window, drawing his arms up as shields, tucked his head, and launched himself forward in a flying leap. He met the resistance of the boards, which smarted against his elbows and forearms. He broke through the first tough barrier and shattered the glass that followed. The window, the boards, and Chris' body, all exploded out into the night air. Like a falling arrow, he emerged with his body straight. Then he plummeted downward, curling up as he went and rolled as he hit the ground. The force of the landing threw him completely over, somersaulting up then forward, balance a complete bust as he did a belly flop in the dirt.
From within issued Ella's distressed cry, "Chriiiiiiiissssssss!"
He shook his head and spit off bits of dirt matted to his lips. All he knew then was that he dared not attempt to go back inside and face her again. Damned stupid that he had tried it to begin with but it was Buck's idea and. . .
. . . and. . .
The next thing to register with him as he looked up the side street from ground level, was that Ella had said Christobal had J.D.. Oh, God, not the kid too! From what Ella had said, it sounded like J.D. had not been bled and changed yet. His time for change will be soon. That could mean anything, but utmost it meant that Buck was in for a distraction he hadn't expected. Chris staggered to his feet but remained bent over as his healing back finished doing its thing. Behind him, the mask-white face of one of the goons glared out through the jagged edges of the shattered window and boards, but the hapless creature didn't make a move to come out after him. They all seemed more concerned with getting the stake out of Ella's breast.
Chris took a step, then another more hurried one, not bothering to dust off as he finally made it into a full run. He'd failed here, but at least he could try to help out else where. He clenched his fists into knots and hurried on toward the saloon, damning himself the whole way for missing Ella's heart.
Vin watched the goon writhe on the floor of the bathhouse, a gush of oily black blood issuing forth around the edges of the stake now firmly planted in its chest. It was a male whom Vin thought resembled one of the ranchers, but he couldn't be sure. Even Inez had been hard to recognize. The blanching to the skin, the black eyes, and the fiercely long fangs altered the appearance significantly. When at last the screeching, squirming thing lay still, Vin knelt and with a solid chop severed the head with a machete he'd picked up at Potter's.
Ezra held a hanky over his nose and mouth, offended by the sour odor that drifted off the body. "We are supposed to leave the stake in there, aren't we?"
Vin stood and looked down at the creature, its body twisted awkwardly, one clawed hand still reaching out across the floor like a bug desperately attempting to flee a crushing foot. "I ain't takin' no chances," he said. "Come on, let's get him in the street; sun'll take care of the rest later." He picked the head up by the hair and, as he'd done with Selvik's, hurled it right out the door into the middle of the street.
Ezra cleared his throat. "Well my, that was. . . genteel," he said dryly and moved to help Vin with the body. "No, you get that end," he ordered, taking the feet and leaving Vin with the shoulders and oozing stump of a neck.
Vin didn't reply as he got a grip under the dead fiend's shoulders and hefted it up. He turned his head away, averting his nose from the smell. "I reckon this'un never bathed," he said as he staggered backwards through the door. They turned sideways on the boardwalk and together gave a backward then forward swing, letting go of the body so that it flew through the air and thudded down in the dust.
"What do you think it was in here for?" Ezra asked. "It doesn’t strike me that these abominations would care about personal hygiene."
Vin shrugged. "Pro'ly just wanderin' about. There ain't anymore warm bodies in town, maybe they're just searching aimlessly."
Ezra nodded at that deduction. "I was afraid we'd have to torch this place," he said hollowly and looked up the street in the direction they were going. "But suffices it to say, no matter what happens here, they will all have to move on, us included."
Vin looked down in silent agreement. "Yeah. This town was. . ." He swallowed, glancing at the headless body laced in moonlight, then away in disgust. "I never felt at home any other place."
Ezra looked at him, focusing on his eyes, certain the tracker was about to weep as a glaze formed, but then it was immediately withdrawn and replaced with a vicious grimace.
"I wanna keep killin' these things, Ezra," Vin went on in a low, hissing tone. "I wanna take every one of 'em out of the world."
"That may prove hard, my friend," Ezra replied warily. "They've been roaming the earth for centuries. There is no telling how many of them are out there. . . not to mention, the world is a very big place."
Vin glared with blue acidity in his eyes. "That's why I need to know more. That's why I want you to teach me."
"Huh?" Ezra's mouth fell open.
"In the cave, you said you knew your history. . . Hell, Ez, I didn't know what a crusade was until that Arrant feller brought it up." He shook his head, the vinegar in his gaze gradually leaking out with the confession of ignorance. "Maybe if I'd known more. . . maybe if I had learned to read, or if I knew some history. . . maybe I'd have been more ready for this."
Ezra cocked his head, one brow up. Of all people, he never expected to hear the word history pass Vin Tanner's lips, not the way he was using it right now. The man hadn't seemed to care about anything other than tracking or shooting skills. But the look in Vin's eyes now was sincere, and Ezra dissected it for all that it was worth, recalling what Vin had done to save him from the proverbial fate worse than death. Thinking about the goon in the street, and Inez as examples of what he could have become, versus this, Ezra understood he had to thank Vin. Horrible though the conversion had been in the beginning, he knew it could have been worse, and on that note he couldn’t keep up his usual pretenses. "I guess," he said reluctantly, "I can offer you some education, but honestly, I'm versed on only what was required of me to—“ he paused to look for the right word. "Survive?"
Vin frowned questioningly.
"It's part of the façade, Mr. Tanner," Ezra elaborated. "Maude taught me to blend in with the upper crust when it was required for a con. She put everything at my disposal from the Iliad to Shakespeare, language lessons, and here and there a treatise on warfare so that I might converse with generals where necessary. I suppose she didn't realize how much I enjoyed self-schooling. A great deal of it just. . . stuck." He stopped there, his thoughts taking a new course. Maude. . . He hadn't even considered her until now.
"Ezra?" Vin asked softly. He could swear he felt his own emotions stir heavily and with no relation to his own present thoughts. He was angry, yes, angry for what had happened here, and how powerless he'd been to stop it, but something else was churning within him. Something in Ezra was reaching out at him. He could swear it. He felt like he was sprouting a crop of tingling goose bumps all over his body.
The conman's green eyes drifted slowly up, glossy and tired, wide with the fear that comes with uncertainty as to what the future holds. "I just realized," he said sadly. "I can't ever see her again." On that note he swallowed a hard lump and blinked before his face returned to a mask of calm. "We have to sever all ties to those we know still living, and I'm sure that's easier said than done."
Vin stared, the truth and weight of the statement reaching him. He had no ties to sever, really, except the town itself, and that had already been taken away. So he couldn't even hope to imagine what Ezra must feel, having a human mother still out there. And the others. . . Chris had already lost something; Buck too. Josiah had his God. Nathan. . . well, it would be a matter of Nathan finding some other purpose than medicine, though Vin didn't see why he couldn't continue to practice healing somehow.
The only loss he could think of, that they all shared, was J.D.. The kid had been part of their group, and now, like Ezra's mother, he was a tie to be severed. Hopefully he'd find a future in Casey's arms, living out the rest of his days happily with a slew of lit'luns running around his feet, but he could never know what had become of his fellow regulators. Better he not know and be able to move on than hold on to some painful memory of seeing his friends come back from the dead.
Vin blinked, tried to focus on the now. He and Ezra had more hunting to do.
"Come on," the tracker husked and gave Ezra a pat on the shoulder, not paying attention to how hard he squeezed or how Ezra tensed up at the touch. "Let's kill more goons."
Ezra nodded sadly, gave one final glance at the street and the body, which in a matter of hours would be turned to dust. They didn't say much more as they continued the hunt, keeping to one side of the street.
Their intentions were to cross over at the Stage Company then make their way back down the other side, but they were never meant to get that far. When the single blast of a shotgun cracked the night from somewhere back down the street, everything changed.
Buck stepped up onto the boardwalk and looked into the saloon, past the batwing doors, marveling for a moment at how, with his strange new vision, he could still distinguish light from shadow and see in the dark at the same time. Maybe it was more like a feeling of where the shadows fell as opposed to actually visualizing them. He approached to stand at the doors, hands poised on the upper edge of each panel, and frowned as he sniffed the air. Funny, but his heightened sense of smell picked up something new as well. Over the scent of dusty wood on the boardwalk, and the sticky aroma of spilt whiskey and smoke embedded in every nook and crannie of the inner saloon, there burrowed something else, something tangy and coppery-sweet, salty-sweaty, warm. . .
. . . and it had a heartbeat. . .
Buck inhaled again, examining the enticing scent, while noticing that the dull thrum he heard was not steady or slow as his own heart's rhythm. This sound was faster, labored. With a forced step forward, he pushed through the doors and let them go. They flapped on their hinges with a flutter like bird wings bursting into flight out of a quiet patch of grass. His eyes narrowed as he focused first on the bar, and then followed the countertop to the right, across the mess of broken tables, glass shards, and crusts of dried blood on the floor or splattered on the walls. Then his gaze alighted on a solitary living figure sitting in a chair that rested in one of the Seven's favorite planning nooks near the rear entrance.
It took a moment for him to recognize the figure, simply because he had not expected J.D. to be here. The kid sat shirtless, slumped back in the chair, his arms pulled down behind him and tied to the slats in the back of the chair, while his ankles were fastened tightly to the front legs. His head hung heavily, spilling black bangs forward and hiding his face, while his pale body, tanned at the neck, appeared unscathed, but that didn't stop Buck from flying into a panic.
Damnit, what was the kid doing here!
Buck lunged forward, knelt before the chair, and reached out to grasp J.D.'s shoulders. "J.D.!" he rasped, giving a little shake.
Slowly, in a daze, J.D. lifted his head, blinking as he focused, eyes adjusting to the darkness and finding definition via what moonlight fell through the windows. His mouth bobbed open, and his eyes watered as he recognized the voice. "Bu. . . Buck?"
"Yeah, kid, it's me." Buck pulled the youth's shoulders up, examining his body for bite marks, and swept fingers through the dirty raven hair, pushing it back from a face bruised and swollen on one temple, definitely from a blow. Weak doe-brown eyes blinked back at him.
"He said you were. . ." J.D. took a breath. "He said you were one of them."
"He?" Buck gripped J.D.'s chin gently. His greater sensibilities immediately jumped to conclusions. "Did he touch you, J.D.?" he asked angrily, teeth gritted.
J.D.'s brows sank into a confused frown as his vision made out Buck's pale face and eyes that were unnaturally deep blue, catching the slightest rim of moon glow around the edge of one iris. "Awww, God—“ J.D. shook his head. "No. . . Buck. . ." His voice began to rise as he gained more alertness with the shock. "No!"
"I'm afraid so," Buck said, keeping as calm as possible, thinking briefly on a way to convince the kid that he was still the same person on the inside, but that other concern came first. "Now, did he touch you in any way, J.D.?"
J.D. stared, bottom lip trembling so hard it was heartbreaking.
"Goddamnit, J.D., did he fuck you!" Buck clutched the young shoulders a little too tightly, shaking so that J.D.'s head lolled forward then back, but the kid was in too much shock to answer. He immediately backed off, surprised at himself for the burst of rage.
"No, I didn't," that familiar strangely accented voice replied calmly from the small doorway that led into the rear hall.
Buck looked up to see his sire leaning casually against the doorjamb, arms crossed. His hold on J.D.'s shoulders loosened of its own accord and he fell speechless.
"I was saving him for you, actually," the master vampire explained and strolled forward, tilting his head in an animalistic fashion, eyes aglow from within and studying Buck's still kneeling form. "You knew that I knew you'd return," he said with a sardonic smile. "Thought I'd have a welcome home dinner planned for you." He approached the chair from behind and reached up to take J.D.'s head between his hands, long graceful fingers curling toward the kid's frightened eyes, sharp talon tips coming too close for comfort.
"Buck. . ." J.D. murmured pleadingly as tears welled up and spilled down his cheeks.
"This is what you need, isn't it?" Christobal said gently, and tilted J.D.'s head to the side, exposing the side of his neck. He slid a hand down over the skin there, touching at the pulse, which Buck could clearly see now, rising and falling. The blood glowed warm orange from beneath the skin. "You have no idea of the pleasure in taking one of them," Christobal crooned, lips parted, the tips of his fangs visible. The same hand tapping at J.D.'s pulse suddenly slid down over the kid's chest to caress at a nipple, pinching it between thumb and forefinger, bringing it to perk up.
While his flesh responded, J.D. himself did not. He shivered with fear more than pleasure, and Buck noticed the faded pungency of cold urine wafting up from the young man's trousers. Buck gritted his teeth, feeling humiliation for J.D. that he had pissed himself, either from fear or because Christobal had kept him tied up here with no allowance to relieve himself elsewhere.
"Our bodies feel nothing of cold or warmth," Christobal went on explaining, "until we drink from one of them. The blood warms us, gives our flesh color. We can drink from each other as well, for pleasure, and to survive, but it doesn't give us that same surge of life as human blood."
Jaw clenched, Buck felt the words entice him. True, his body felt, in some way, like it was in a state of limbo. The night air should be cool, but he didn't feel it. J.D.'s skin should be warm to the touch, but he couldn't tell. That human lifeblood could bring him out of that limbo hadn't really occurred to him, even when he'd taken a little from Nathan. Maybe since the healer's blood had been infected, he hadn't noticed, or maybe he hadn't taken enough. His stomach lurched with a new found hunger pain and he found himself staring at J.D.'s neck, mesmerized by the pumping patch of skin that marked the pulse rising with the kid's anxiety.
And the fear. . . that was another thing. It pushed Buck's hunger a step further as he scented it, fresh and sweet, his mind imagining the taste of honey on his tongue.
J.D. shuddered as Christobal snaked his hand back up from the nipple and began to massage the warm, throbbing skin above the kid's collarbone again.
"Shhhhh," the vampire whispered to the trembling prisoner. "You want to join us, don't you J.D.?" He looked Buck square on then, smiling wistfully. "Come on, Bucklin, show him there is truly nothing to be afraid of. This is immortality, don’t you want to share it?"
Buck cringed, understanding that J.D. was completely still human, still pure and free of infection. Neither Christobal nor his goons had so much as tasted the kid. And if he was still human. . . that meant he could be spared. Suddenly Buck pushed away, awkwardly backing up a few steps. He opened his mouth to spit out a curse at his sire, but couldn't get his lips to form the right words.
Christobal's brows knitted softly. He stood still, J.D.'s head still clasped between his hands, for a moment in silence, before he let go and stepped around from behind the chair. "Or maybe," he continued with a new strategy, "you just want this." He drew a hand up to the side of his own throat, pulling the long flaxen hair back and tilting his head, and loosening the cravat so that he could pull his collar back. Suppressing a grimace, he bore the tip of one claw into his own skin and pulled down, tearing an oozing seam at a slant down the side of his neck. The stream welled up freely, leaking down underneath his collar where it spread out in a circular stain growing across the fabric. "Come into me, Buck," he whispered as he approached.
The scent of the open wound was twice as powerful and intoxicating as that of the blood trapped in J.D.'s veins. Buck found his feet wouldn't back up any further. His hands clenched into fists, nails biting into his palms, but the sting did little to snap him out of it. He wanted Christobal's blood. Wanted it more than anything. He could feel the stake against his arm, hidden up his shirtsleeve like Ezra's little Derringer, but he couldn’t will himself to let it drop down into his palm.
"Buck, no. . ." J.D. croaked out, head still hanging heavily to the side. "Don't do it. . ."
The reminder of the kid's presence gave Buck a sense for bargaining. If Christobal would let J.D. go. . . "Please don't do this to him," Buck whispered, his eyes locked on the blood, watching with agonizing anticipation as the cut slowly began to heal, sealing up from the corners inward until there was only the stain. "Let the boy go, I'll do anything you want."
Christobal paused in his approach and examined Buck's face plastered with a fusion of desperation and lust. "When I took him, I had no idea how much leverage he would give me," he mused. "You'll do anything, will you?"
"Buck. . ."
"Yes." Buck shivered to hear himself say it. Closer, he thought. If Christobal would come closer, he'd shove the stake in his fucking heart and have done. . .
The stake slipped out from under Buck's sleeve, past his hand, and landed on the floor, rolling away from him.
Thunk. . .
Cursing to himself, he didn't look down. He couldn't tell what exactly had happened. Had he dropped it as a show of surrender, or was Christobal actually controlling his movement? A hard lump gorged his throat, restricting his breathing.
Christobal barely acknowledged the weapon. It was no threat to him lying there on the floor. No threat at all with his progeny standing here, motionless, a statue.
Buck couldn't even blink. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Vin had killed his sire, he thought. Vin could do it, so could he. . .
Any moment now. . . Any moment and he'd find his body again, force it to action, grab the stake and. . .
Any moment now. . .
Without any further word, Christobal stepped in. . . so close now. . . the blood on his neck and collar teasing with its fragrance .
Buck's fangs extended so quickly he barely felt it. Something told him it would get easier like that. To just slip into the change, let the beast out. With a sigh he leaned his head in, opened his mouth, and closed it over where the cut had been, biting, feeling the skin split anew with a succulent pop that unleashed a fresh flow. It wasn't warm, but it flooded his mouth and seemed to go directly to his brain in that now familiar opiate effect. Buck remembered the little taste he'd had before, coming off of Christobal's tongue, almost like touching the divine.
"No. . ." J.D. sputtered. Through the haze of tears, all he saw was that the two silhouettes were now merged, and he could hear the gentle sound of sucking.
The master vampire shivered with pleasure and slid his arms around Buck's waist, pulling him closer. He tilted his head sideways and back, giving his child better access. "Didn't I tell you," he whispered, "that you would like what I had to offer?"
Buck moaned, closed his eyes and swallowed another mouthful, new strength gradually coursing into his limbs, tingling in his middle, from his navel in, until his cock began to push out at the figure cinched up next to him, embracing him. An eternity of this embrace. . . he could live with that. . . he could forget what he was. . . he could. . . love. . . this. . .
Christobal took in a deep breath, exhaled, caressed the back of Buck's head, and his arousal became apparent when it pushed out against Buck's own. His other hand made massaging circles against the small of Buck's back, soothing and sensuous.
Over his own greedy sucking noises, Buck heard the faint sniffle of weeping. His eyes fluttered open, looking passively down past Christobal's shoulder at the floor. He swallowed more, felt it swirl into his belly and then drain out to fuel his body, restoring strength to his extremities. But that weeping sound, it bothered him. He tried to remember who else was in the room, someone he cared about, someone whom he had tried to save and. . .
Down past Christobal's back, within Buck's range of vision, the front of a black boot stepped into view. Then another one beside it. It jarred Buck completely out of his reverie as he recognized that boot and to whom it belonged.
He startled in Christobal's arms, nearly gagging as he found himself again and started to pull away. At the same time, Christobal sensed the other presence and started to turn. Buck shook off the urge to stall, commanded his body to work, and grabbed his sire by the shoulders. He unlatched his mouth from over the bite and stepped back, looking Christobal in the eyes. . . evenly. . . deadly. . .
"What're you. . ." Christobal started to growl out, then Buck forced him around, spun him outward, facing the direction of the attack as Chris, poised with both hands on it, brought the stake down into the master vampire's heart. It slammed past the breastplate with a crunch, and a spurt of blood projected out from the side and spattered Chris' face and shirt. For an instant, Buck could have sworn the stake had gone all the way through Christobal's body and into his own chest. A fiery pain gorged his heart and he staggered backward, Christobal collapsing with him and roaring, hands reaching up to try to pry the stake out. Chris stood back for a moment, shoulders heaving, teeth bared savagely, face painted in the gleam of red-black.
Buck held on to his sire, fighting to get a hold on Christobal's wrists and keep him from wedging the stake back out. "No you don't, you bastard!" he spat and got one wrist in hand, squeezed tightly. He nearly fell over as Christobal tilted his head forward then brought it back hard, ramming Buck right on the nose.
Sparks rained down behind his vision, and Buck thought he might black out, but he shook the pain off and looking past his growling, fighting sire found Chris stepping in again.
Chris rock-punched Christobal across the jaw then reached out with the other hand and shoved the stake in further with the blunt of his hand.
Christobal's body bowed out and his knees buckled. His weight and the loss of balance proved too much for Buck to hold up. Both went over, Chris following, fighting with Christobal's flailing arms and claws to ensure the stake stayed put. Buck gritted his teeth, wracked with his own pain, and strangely felt tears and an overwhelming sadness consume him. Yet he held on to his sire, even as Christobal's claws reached down and skimmed his leg, tearing his trousers and skin.
Chris took a swipe across the face which sent him reeling, and Buck was left to deal with the final struggles as he and Christobal tumbled from side to side. At last the master vampire stilled, all strength slowly seeping out of him, until he coughed up a glob of blood and his weight came down on Buck's lap, his hair a splash of gold over Buck's knees.
Buck uttered a moan of protest as he looked down at the mass lying across his legs. Christobal's eyes stared blankly up at him, pupils dilating until they completely consumed the blue of his irises. Almost as quickly, the pain in Buck's chest subsided, and he felt the connection linking his mind to the other weaken. It remained in place, a tiny thread of will pleading with him to pull the stake out, but it wasn't enough. With a disgusted grunt, Buck scooted himself free of the other body and got to his feet. Shoulders heaving, he remained transfixed for a moment.
"Take off his head," he demanded weakly of Chris.
Chris got up to his feet, his breath equally as labored and stared down at the body lying sprawled, head tossed to the side, face hidden in a sweep of hair. The blood saturating Christobal's shirt formed a chaotic blossom, with the stake as the center. Chris turned about, looking over the place for a blade, or some other means to do the final task. "Hang on, I'll see what I can find."
"Buck. . ." J.D. whispered.
Startled from his stupor, Buck looked up, mouth agape, and slowly registered the world again. "J.D.," he whispered with relief. He took a step forward and froze.
"We'll get that machete from Vin," Chris was saying as he walked along the bar, before he turned and halted. The sensation of ice crystals flooded his stomach as he saw Ella poised there, crouched behind J.D., her fingers on his throat, while her other hand held the stake Chris had used, the point planted beneath J.D.'s heart. She had obviously crept in through the back way, and her goons had followed. They huddled up in the smaller doorway, waiting.
"You will come to me, Chris," she said smoothly while her eyes were aglow with pure madness, her lips drawn back over a grimace of fangs.
"Ella, don't do this," Chris said, shaking his head.
Buck opened his mouth to speak, couldn't find the words. That Chris hadn't taken care of Ella completely hadn't occurred to him. He glimpsed the blood stain caked across her breast and over the edges of her white dress, and she had paled out considerably from the blood loss. "You. .. b-bitch. . ." he stuttered. "If you hurt him. . ."
"Ella, there are more of
us here," Chris informed her. "The others, they will find you."
"Maybe," she hissed, and caressed J.D.'s cheek with her free hand. "This isn't over, Chris. We have eternity, remember? It may not happen now, but it will. It's inevitable." She nuzzled at J.D.'s ear lobe with her cheek, taunting the terrified prisoner while her focus remained on Chris. "You belong with me."
J.D. tried to tilt his head away from the cool tickle of her breath near his neck, or the tiny prickle of her claws. Rivers of tears mapped his face from eyes to chin, and his lips trembled in absolute terror. "I'm. . . s-s-s. . . sorry. . ." he uttered. "Buck. . ." Sopping wet lashes blinked pitifully, and then his eyes widened with shock.
In that instant, Buck felt the world around him die too.
With a single thrust, Ella shoved the stake into J.D.'s belly and jerked it out, leaving a gushing hole. J.D. spasmed, a choking gurgle issuing from his throat.
"No!" Buck and Chris cried out in strained unison. Buck started forward and nearly tripped over Christobal's body, while Chris managed to stumble a step in then couldn't move, understanding Ella's intentions completely as if she had spoken them aloud. They could go after her or stay and tend to the wounded youth.
"How much do you value his life?" she asked as she slipped back into the doorway, holding up the stake like a dagger. "Enough to make him one of us?" Two of the goons stepped into the path behind her, blocking Chris or Buck from pursuit.
Buck was too concerned with J.D.. He fell over getting to the kid, frantically worked at the bonds he'd failed to undo before, first getting the ankles untied. The whole time, J.D.'s eyes glimmered at him, wide and frightened, while his young body shuddered and he continued to choke, and blood washed up into his mouth and dammed up on the edge of his lips to be swallowed back down in a convulsive reaction to the pain.
"Buck—" J.D. spat and droplets of red-tinted saliva flew out. "I di-didn't. . ." The two of them stared hopelessly at each other, caught in their own cocoon of infinity.
Chris could only stand paralyzed as Ella slipped back into the shadows, guarded by the last of her goons. He managed a step forward, but her will maintained the barrier, preventing him from chasing after her. "I'll get you," he husked out, shaking his head absently. "I'll fucking rip your heart out. . ."
Only her laughter, echoing on the night and in his head answered back before he realized she was gone. Only then could he move. His body suddenly made the next step forward, and he blinked, turning his head mechanically to see that Buck had gotten J.D. loose and pulled him from the chair.
"Chris!" Buck shouted viciously as J.D. collapsed into his arms and Buck swept him up.
"They. . . used me. . ." J.D. coughed out vacantly, staring ahead as all he came to know in that moment was pain and sadness and disappointment.
"J.D., you hang on," Buck crooned as he carried J.D. out onto the street. Blood leaked around the kid's middle and dripped down onto Buck's pant legs. "I'll get Nathan. . . Nathan'll fix you. . . Nathan. . ."
"Oh, God," Chris hissed, making one very bitter realization. "Buck!" he called, following the desperate man outside. "Buck!"
"Nathan!" Buck shouted as he reached the boardwalk and collapsed to his knees, J.D.'s slack limbs dangling from within the cradle of his arms. "Nathan!" He got his feet back under him and stepped off to come down heavily on the ground and wander out into the middle of the street before collapsing again, dust grinding into his knees and skins, crusting over the blood on his clothes.
"Buck, wait!" Chris stamped after him, and came to kneel before him, eyes roaming over J.D.'s belly and the freely bleeding wound. The scent was intoxicating, forcing Chris to stammer before he got his tongue working again. "That stake had Ella's blood on it, Buck," he said hopelessly. "He's infected."
Buck clutched J.D. in closer, the youth's head falling heavily against his chest. "No," he whispered, shaking his head and glaring defiantly at Chris. "No, it's just a stab wound. He's had worse. . . Haven't you, J.D.?" He cupped J.D.'s chin and lifted it, looking into quivering eyes. "Haven't you?"
"Buck, he is infect—"
"Fuck!" Chris gritted his teeth and looked away, eyes reddening with anger that Wilmington was proving more stubborn than ever.
"He can't be," Buck went on. "It's just a stab wound."
Chris took a deep breath. "If he dies," he said huskily, "he will rise."
Buck rocked back and forth. New tears traced where others had dried. His lips curled back as he clenched down on a sob and the truth sank in. Then. . . "I won't let it be like that," he said and looked down at J.D. who was beyond response. "I won't let it." Then almost in a self-induced trance, he held his own wrist up to his mouth and bit down. There was the soft noise of skin breaking, then a slurp as the blood came free.
"Buck!" Chris snarled and reached out to stop Buck's hand in mid air as he brought the bleeding wrist around to poise it over J.D.'s mouth.
"Piss off, Chris!" Buck growled and pulled his arm free, his eyes so vicious, clouded with red veins sliding in around the vibrant blue of his irises. The inner glow warned Chris off from making any further objections. Buck caught a breath, calming himself with alarming ease, and caressed J.D.'s cheek with bloody fingers. "I can't do it to him. . . can't take off his head. . . I can't let him go this way," he whispered and looked into the near-vacant eyes. "J.D., please. . . please. . ." The blood ran over J.D.'s bottom lip.
"Buck," Chris said, summoning up all the patience he could. "Let him decide."
Sniffling, Buck dabbed at the blood, smearing it. "Yeah," he said vacantly. "J.D., tell me." He continued to rock aimlessly, odd locks of J.D.'s hair draped over the crook in his arm. "Tell me if you want it."
J.D. stared up at him, his body tense and shaking. Slowly, his tongue snaked out and licked weakly at the blood. The tainted tip withdrew into the darkness of his mouth.
It was all the answer Buck needed. "All right," he replied and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and held it as he laid his wrist over the open mouth completely. At first he felt some minor sucking, but J.D. was too frail, and distracted as fiercer convulsions began to seize his abdomen. The wrist wound did little more than drizzle down into the youth's mouth. "It's not enough," Buck said with growing worry. "It's not enough!"
Chris gritted his teeth, reason telling him that he should stop this right now. This mad notion Buck had of saving the kid. . . it was all growing out of hand. They had saved Nathan and Josiah this way, but that had been a joint decision. J.D. had to be too out of it to consciously decide. But then, who was to say. If he couldn't decide then what choice did they have?
"Shit," Chris hissed and stood up, spun on his heel and stormed back over to the boardwalk and into the saloon. He crossed the room still shrouded with the thick smell of J.D.'s blood and vaulted the bar to feel around under the counter. Yes, there it was, exactly what he needed. Every bartender kept one around. He withdrew the Winchester, checked to see that it was loaded, and vaulted back over the counter again. Out on the street, he found Buck still aimlessly rocking with the kid's limp body, still whispering sweet pleas that J.D. take the blood.
Turning the barrel to the heavens, Chris fired off a single shot that echoed across the rooftops of the dead town. It was only a matter of minutes before the others came into view, running madly toward the saloon, Vin and Ezra from the North, Nathan and Josiah from the South. They all stopped in their tracks when they saw the seventh member of their group. The now customary reaction of "Oh, God," uttered from their lips as Buck looked up at them, still caught in his bubble of grief.
"Help me," Buck whispered. "I drank but I don't have enough. . . I don't have enough." He wept freely now, the moon, in all of its plump illumination, almost completely reflected in the smears of wetness on his cheeks, in the little dams on the edges of his eyes. "Nathan, Josiah. . . take some of his. . . take it. . ."
The preacher and the healer hesitated, shocked that their first feeding on a human should be thus. But no one dared argue. Once more Chris refused to participate. While Nathan and Josiah took a little from J.D.'s wrists, they also gave back, making cuts in their own hands and dribbling what little blood issued into his mouth. Ezra and Vin offered some too, but by the time Ezra pulled his wrist away from the pale and parched young lips, it occurred to them all that J.D. was already dead and there was no telling how much he had actually managed to swallow.
They stood back and watched for a moment, and Buck closed J.D.'s eyes, held him more tightly and treated him like a broken doll.
Chris, standing with the shotgun propped over one arm, finally looked at Vin and gave a head gesture toward the saloon. "There's a body in there needs decapitatin'."
"Ella?" Josiah asked as the others began to step closer.
Chris shook his head. "Got away," he grated out weakly.
Vin was already walking steadily toward the saloon, machete drawn and ready to go to work. Slowly, they all followed except for Buck, who refused to move from his vigil over the dead body of J.D. Dunne.
Alone in the street with his charge, Buck detached and withdrew into himself. He rocked, and his mouth moved, murmuring whatever came out.
"Hush. . . little baby. . . don't say a. . . word. . . Papa's gonna. . . buy you a. . . mock. . . ing. . .
. . . bird. . ."
The rest was silence.