It has finally happened. We are at the end of our tale (or trail). It’s been an interesting ride. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten Jami and Dave’s portions back only to curse them for having thrown another wrench in what I believed to be my perfectly formulated plot. On the other hand there have been just as many times that I’ve thought: Damn, I wish I’d thought of that. It’s been fun, and whereas we’re currently on a hiatus, you never know when Sam, Snake, and Smoke will hit the trail again.
I breathed easier once I was sure I’d escaped the rattlesnake-like slap of Meemaw. I was sure you didn’t have to be family to receive one those. Jinx gave his nieces the stink eye before finally turning his disheveled self toward the door. “So we wait?”
This got nods all around. “Mrs. Winterbourne…”
“Agatha, please. The Mr. been dead a long time, good riddance too.”
“Meemaw!” Smoke chastised.
“If you like.” I reached across the table and touched Meemaw’s hand to get her full attention. Snake raised an eyebrow at me. “Agatha, this hooch is going to go straight to my head if I don’t get a bite to eat soon. I know your granddaughters haven’t eaten since they rousted me this morning and that seems like a lifetime ago.”
“You’re right Sam. Now that we have the particulars straightened out it’s time to slaughter the fatted calf.” She looked thoughtful for a moment then snapped her fingers. “A good old low country boil is what we’ll have.” Meemaw stood and crooked her arm out expectantly.
I jumped to my feet and looped my arm through hers. “Agatha, shall we?”
“We shall Sam.”
I watched Snake and Smoke exchange puzzled glances before I walked their grandmother out to her carriage. I knew they were having one of their private conversations again. I usually wished I knew what they were saying. The humor reflected on their faces was enough this time. It was the first cause they’d had to smile in a long while. I offered Meemaw a hand into her carriage then sat next to her adjusting Dragon Breath. The sisters took the back seat.
Meemaw handed me the reins and eased off the brake. She directed me with simple hand gestures. Dust rose in our wake. I leaned over. “What’s a low country boil?”
“Sam, you’re in for a real treat if you never et a boil. Just watch your fingers that someone don’t mistake your fingers for a crawdad.” She touched my scabbard. “What’s with the pig sticker?”
“Please don’t insult Dragon Breath. It’s—well kinda special.”
“I wouldn’t dream of insulting her. I sensed the power radiating from her since I arrived. Even with that other abomination in the room.”
“Her? I always thought of it as a masculine blade.”
Meemaw couldn’t control her laughter. It took her a minute to catch her breath. “My dear Sam, she has much to teach you, including her proper name.”
I heard giggles from behind me along with the smell of Snake’s cigarillo. Meemaw’s gaze looked right through me. “You know her name?”
“Its not for me to share. If you hang around a little while I’ll teach you how speak to her.”
“You would do that?”
“Of course, I don’t know what exactly went on out there in the desert, but I know your presence insured my grand babies made it back home. That makes you almost family.”
I nodded. Heat rising under my scarf spreading under my straw hat. I recognized this was not flattery, but true appreciation. Something completely foreign to my experience.
“Why don’t you tell me how you came by such a special piece.”
I told how the old Chinaman saved me, nursed me back to health and insisted I accept the sword. She listened to the story in its abbreviated form intently.
“You think you owe him a debt?” She asked.
“Of course, I owe him my life.”
Meemaw’s eyes twinkled, and she pointed me through a gate topped with an intricate piece of iron that looked like interlocking circles with no beginning or end. I paused the carriage staring at the strange symbol.
“It’s a Celtic knot.” She waved me on impatiently.
At the top of the rise, barns and out buildings came into view. Corrals holding live stock and more than a few hands attending to chores. The house was a sprawling structure with a porch that wrapped the two sides I could see. I suspected it continued all the way around. I reined in the team.
Meemaw put a hand on my arm to keep me still. “Girls, go round and tell the kitchen to put on a boil. We will be along presently.”
Unwarranted amounts of sweat gathered on my brow and in the palms of my hands. I didn’t know if I was ready to be alone with this strange woman who seemed to know more than she should.
“Pull the team around back Sam.” She directed me to a shady a spot with a drinking trough.
I guided the team to the shade and pulled them up. Turning in my seat I looked to Meemaw. “Something I should know?”
Her eyes shined with humor again. “More than your hat will hold I’m afraid.” She pointed to Dragon Breath. “Your Chinaman is from a different culture. Many Eastern people believe that when you save someone’s life, you become responsible for that life. I’m guessing here, but I think he was too old to protect you so he did the next best thing, giving you that blade to do the job in his place.”
Suddenly Dragon Breath weighed heavily on my belt. Did that make me responsible for Smoke’s life and through default Snake’s as well. I shuddered at the thought of trying to keep those two safe.
“Are you still with me, Sam?” Meemaw laid a hand along my cheek.
“One last thing.” Her dark eyes darkened until they looked black. “The Sullivans will take this deal. And they will want to make it sooner rather than later. I want you to stand with us. Are you up for that.”
“In for a penny, in for a pound. I already promised your grand daughters I would see this through with them.”
She smiled and her eyes lightened up again.“I’m glad you’re here Sam. She patted my knee. “Now let’s set this team loose and rustle up some vittles.”
The kitchen hummed with domestic activity. Even Snake helped. She was in charge of husking corn. When I saw the scowl on her face I assumed she just scared the corn out of its skin. Smoke looked at odds with herself with a blue checkered apron over her black outfit. I thought it fitting since I believed both her and Snake struggled with the conflicting natures at war within each of them. I got lost in Meemaw’s library.
The smell of food drew me to the door yard where I was in time to watch them turn out a large pot on the long table. A mishmash of sausage, ham, chicken, potatoes, corn, and a dozen other things I couldn’t identify slid out. A slab of corn bread as big buckboard wagon burdened another table stacked with plates and utensils. The family grabbed seats on the benches and reached for what tempted them most. Snake waved to a seat between her and Smoke. They were at home, their easy posture and quick smiles gave me twinge of jealousy.
“So Saaaammmm,” Smoke drawled. “Spill. What did Meemaw say? If she propositioned you, don’t tell me.”
“Eeeewwww.” Snake playfully slapped at her sister.
“A gentleman never ki…”
“Let me stop you right there Gambling man before I have to shoot you at the table.” Snake raised her head to look at me. Even her hat seemed to be sitting better since we arrived. I pushed back having eaten as much as could hold. The air was filled with the voices of cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, their spouses and kids. All talking at once.
The raucous laughter and conversation tapered to dead silence as all eyes turned to watch Jinx stumble into the yard. Two men moved to help him too late to keep him from falling face first. Meemaw was up in a flash supervising. Jinx was carried in the house. Some folks busied themselves cleaning up. Smoke, Snake and myself went to stand next to a large bon fire that had been prepared for tonight, but hadn’t been lit yet.
When I realized they were having one of their private conferences I interrupted. “Stop. No secrets remember. Agatha asked me to stand with you when you meet the Sullivans. I told her I’d already promised you I would. So what’s going on?”
“A meet is what’s going on Sam. Sooner than I’d expected.” Agatha eyes had turned black again. “Midnight at the old hanging tree.”
My hand went to my neck at the mention of the location that was picked. “Does it have to be a hanging tree?”
“No time for renegotiations. We have preparations to make.” Agatha started away leaving us standing there. She turned around. “That means now.” She snapped her fingers. I saw sparks fly from her fingers.
“And I thought I’d help with the dishes, oh well.” I followed after Agatha with The sisters in tow.
Midnight tumbled in like a wind tossed sage brush as we stood in the heavy shadows of the old hanging tree. Sam leaned a negligent shoulder against the weathered trunk, while Meemaw perched like the queen she was on the back end of the wagon. To our matriarch’s right Smoke absently played a ball of magic through her fingers, her gaze distant. I maintained my position to Meemaw’s left, my patience worn thinner than old shoe leather as I worried the frayed end of a cheroot I snuck from a hidey hole at the ranch house.
The plan was simple—demand Cyrus’ curse be lifted in return for the Yaqui Blood Star. Per Meemaw’s orders there was to be no dastardly deeds of magic, bullets, or knives thrown about. Unless of course she decided otherwise. When Sam carefully inquired into what would encourage her to choose a more forward approach, she’d given him one of her mysterious grins and muttered, “Oh darlin’, you’ll know.”
There was something between my Meemaw and the Gambling Man that left me suppressing a shudder and shying away from the possibilities like a horse about to step on a rattler. Still, Meemaw’s pronouncement let me breathe a bit easier, considering how off kilter my world still remained from realizing just how much the damned Star was effecting my judgement. Having the combined strength of my grandmother and sister, not to mention Sam’s unexpected presence, kept me from teetering into the hole of worry hovering underfoot.
The sharp snap of Meemaw’s fingers broke through my thoughts and the quiet. My cheroot disappeared leaving me suddenly sucking smoke-tinged air even as my sister’s startled, “Hey!” chased my disgruntled startlement as her magic snuffed out.
“Mind yourselves, girls,” Meemaw ordered, her power rippling around us and stretching toward Sam like the curl of a snake’s tongue.
Shifting my attention, I caught the faint vibrations trembling underfoot as hoofs beat the desert floor. The Sullivans were incoming. Straightening, I tugged the brim of my hat a little lower and rolled my shoulders, fingers flexing at my sides.
“Sam, you ready?” Meemaw’s voice was clear but quiet.
“As I’ll ever be, Agatha,” his gentlemanly drawl drifted back.
Yet a quick glance to where he last stood showed only the heavy curtain of shadows. My lips twitched. Tucking the Gambling Man into her metaphoric pocket meant Meemaw’s dramatic impulses were out in full force. Still it was nice to have a bit of insurance on the Sullivans’ good behavior.
Smoke brushed a hand over her black pants and shifted a bit closer to Meemaw’s side. Following her silent nudge, I did the same on the other side until we became Meemaw’s bookends. My grandmother’s only response was a put upon sigh.
We watched the five horses charge into the clearing in a rumble of hooves, creaking leather, and jangled metal. Five riders dismounted as dust gathered and spun before resettling as the horses shifted in place. Unsurprisingly the head of the Sullivan clan, Padric, kept himself front and center while his four disreputable sons spread out on either side.
Knowing well the part I played in our little drama, I waited until the newly arrived group spread out in front of us before remarking with silky menace, “Quite the dramatic entrance.”
“I’m rather intimidated.” Smoke’s tone indicated otherwise as she slid into her part with practiced ease.
Our barbs found their mark. Padric’s beady eyes narrowed while his thin lips curled contemptuously under the gray marked beard. “See you girls have yet to learn your manners.”
“Manners are best used for those we consider friendly,” I returned with a barring of teeth.
My disrespect lit his temper and fury rode high along his pitted cheeks and dug deep furrows in his high brow. He kept his burning stare on me while he addressed Meemaw, “Agatha, you may want to call your ill-mannered cub to heel.”
A beatific smile graced Meemaw’s face as she sat with no outward show of tension. “Well now, as Jinx is currently paying for his sins, that might be a bit hard to do, boyo.”
Like a scaled cat Padric’s chest puffed out, his mouth opening only to close when the scarecrow to his right shifted in to whisper something in his ear. Probably a reminder to rein in his stupidity, but since I didn’t think thinking ran in the Sullivans’ clan, I could be wrong.
Padric’s jaw jutted and he gritted out, “Why the demand for a meet, Agatha?”
She clicked her tongue in admonishment. “Now there’s no need to be so disagreeable, Padric. I’ve come to offer you your heart’s desire.”
The tiniest rustle of movement among Padric’s prodigy drew my attention. Scarecrow had flicked his jacket back, revealing a well worn pistol grip. I let my gaze come up and collide with his. I smiled. He paled.
“And what, pray tell, is my heart’s desire?” Padric folded his arms over the pearl button shirt that did little to disguise his sagging gut. It was quite the contrast to the harnessed power vibrating around him and his sons. The same dark power that made tangling with this clan a hazardous endeavor.
Smoke sauntered two steps forward drawing the men’s attention. Easy enough as my sister was well-versed in how to garner a male’s attention. Magic flared along her hands in a showy display, and like any good magician, one second they were empty, the next the Yaqui Blood Star glittered on her open palm. The glow of magic lit her face, providing a dramatic backdrop to the play of light and shadow.
Padric’s sharp inhale roused the black possession curling in my soul. When he shifted a step closer, I mirrored him, a low growl rumbling in my throat.
“Snake,” Meemaw’s low warning barely leashed my mindless urge to snatch back what didn’t belong to him.
It took every ounce of hard-won discipline to force my body into coiled stillness, but I managed. My chest ached as I forced my objections down, my hands curled into useless fists, but my feet stayed rooted.
Meemaw used that moment to rise to her feet and drift between Smoke and I, until she faced Padric across a few meager feet of desert. “Before you get all handsy, Padric, need I remind you we are here to negotiate.”
The elder Sullivan kept his arms crossed, probably to ensure he didn’t touch what lay in Smoke’s palm, even as he stared at the jewel. “What exactly are we negotiating, Agatha?”
Meemaw’s ever present fan whipped out faster than the eye could track and cracked across Padric’s barrel chest breaking his mesmerization. He jumped and looked to her.
When she was certain of his attention she said, “No games, or this negotiation will end before it even begins.” The threat in her voice raised every hair on my body.
Proving he wasn’t as dense as I thought, Padric reluctantly inclined his head, his words laced with a bitter bite, “Fine. I’m assuming you want the curse lifted.”
“You assume correctly.”
Tension sang through the clearing as the two family heads engaged in a silent staring contest. Padric finally unfolded his arms and flicked his hand to the quiet menace standing next to Scarecrow. “Aiden.”
Magic gathered around Aiden, darker than the man himself. This was a Sullivan that bore watching, the darkness came to his heel too quick for comfort. Heeding my instincts I gathered my power close, unwilling to leave Meemaw or Smoke unprotected. The blade tucked up my sleeve dropped into my palm, the movement hidden.
Dark powers rode the night and when Aiden’s shadowed face shifted to the hangman’s tree, I shifted enough to regain his attention. No need to put Sam in anyone’s cross-hairs. With the way Lady Luck was treating us, we might need Sam to get out of this cursed mess. The magic crested, and like some great prowling beast, it shifted against mine, tugging at the possessive little git determined to hold on to the Star. Just when I thought I’d loose the fight, the pressure dropped.
“Done.” Aiden’s voice was a rough scrape against bone.
Meemaw flicked a glance at Smoke and my sister heeded her silent command, shifting through the restraints to check on Cyrus. It wasn’t but a moment before she blinked, her eyes clearing of the strange haze using magic left, and gave Meemaw a small nod.
“Good.” Meemaw aimed her fan at Aiden. “You may come collect your bauble.”
Aiden looked to his father, who gave him a sharp nod before he stepped forward. Unable to ignore my uneasiness, I mirrored him, staying between Meemaw and Aiden. The man stopped a few inches from me. Undaunted, I waited until his gaze met mine. The impact was like a clawed hand burrowing into my gut. Power, dark, twisted, and tempting roiled in that gaze, but I simply curled my lips and shared the darkness living inside me. “Harm either and I’ll gut you.” My voice was pitched low, keeping it between us.
He answered my challenge with a slow, wicked smile and continued to move to Smoke.
Hate seared my mind as the handsome devil sauntered toward me. He gave me a knowing look along with a sinister smile. The one secret I’d ever kept from my sister our entire life was the forbidden romance I’d shared with Aiden when we were barely adults and before the magic that tugged on all of us had completely corrupted him. He still wanted me but as a possession not a partner and that was not an option even if our family hadn’t carried out a blood feud for the last century. I returned the smile which made him mister slightly. Aiden knew my smile was often given in pity to my victims.
He stepped directly in front of me. Snake practically growled next to me but I held up my hand to keep her in place.
“Why are you smiling Smoke?” Aiden’s husky voice said for my ears alone.
My smile grew wider. “Your greed for power is finally catching up with you. Please do enjoy the parasitic Yaqui Star. It will attach itself to you because you are the strongest but mark my words Aid, it will bleed you dry.”
He searched my eyes, his own twinkling in delight. “Time will tell, you do know that power is not all I want but I’m hoping it will lead to the next item on my list.” His eyes roamed up and down me.
Yup, thing, not a partner. “Meemaw, please restrain Snake, this might not be pleasant.” I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the Star that I’d wrapped tightly in cloth. It had been surprisingly quiet but suddenly at attention it hummed with magic. Snake and Aiden both gasped as I thrust it into his outstretched hand. Aiden roared as the Star reached out and connected with his magic. He was apparently more powerful than Padric for the Star to have chosen him so quickly. I’d always suspected that but now it was confirmed. That would be a fun dinner conversation for them.
My speculation was cut short as I heard my sister shriek in pain. Whipping around I ran to where Meemaw held her with wiry strength. I stepped in front of my sister taking her face in my hands even as I felt the Star ripping into her through our shared home. Blood tears fell from her eyes and I felt the telling warm trickle from my nose but I held her and reached out magically reinforcing her hold on her magic as the Star tried to take a parting gift.
“I’ve got you,” I whispered to my sister as she began to shiver and convulse the only thing holding her up was our grandmother who would never run out of strength when it came to her family. What felt like an eternity later, Snake stopped shivering and Meemaw let her slide slowly to the ground. A sharp pain throbbed at my temples as the beginning of a headache formed. I had forgotten where we were or more importantly who we were with while I had tended to my sister.
That changed abruptly when Sam’s voice rang out. Someone had come out of hiding. “I’d think twice before you move an inch closer to Miss Smoke or any of her kin.”
I turned quickly to see Scarecrow not two feet from me. Dragon’s Breath at his throat. Scarecrow looked a lot like Aiden all harsh lines and valleys but whereas Aiden was lean, Scarecrow was gaunt and mean for the sake of being mean. The only power he was interested in was the power to harm others.
Scarecrow shrugged, Dragon’s Breath nicked him causing blood to run down his throat. “Can’t blame a man for trying.”
“I wouldn’t dare label a person who tried to sneak up on a woman to do her harm when a truce was called a man.” Sam said.
Scarecrow just shrugged again drawing more of his own blood like he enjoyed the pain. “Says a man who hides in shadows.”
“What is the meaning of this?” Padric roared at Meemaw. He’d been busy dealing with Aiden and his new power surge so all he saw was a man that hadn’t been there before holding a sword to his son. Knowing the Sullivans if he’d seen the whole damn thing he’d still find a way to blame it on us.
“Your ass of a son tried to sneak up on Smoke when her back was turned. This kind gentleman stopped by to assist her in her time of need.” Meemaw stood from where she had kneeled in front of Snake, I could sense a spark in her as she readied her magic. I did the same.
“Just happened to stop by? That is preposterous!”
I felt the dark magic Padric called and held up my arms ready to defend when a deep powerful voice punched through the tension.
“Father our bargain is complete we will go now.” Aiden rose from the ground. The shadows of magic that had hung on him had multiplied and his grey eyes darkened to steel.
“I am the head of this family. We will leave when I say,” Padric snapped at his son.
I felt my mouth gape open as a line of blood suddenly appeared on Padric’s face. The man, startled and reached up his hand to his cheek. When he saw the blood on his fingertips his eyes darted to Aiden and a look of shock and then understanding passed over his features.
“We have what we came for Winterbourne and we have much planning to do with our new ‘bauble’ as you put it. Until next time.” Padric turned his horse and rode into the night, calling back to his sons like he had any control left over them. Scarecrow winked at Sam before stepping back from the sword and loping toward his father. Aiden on the other hand took his time dusting off his shirt all the while giving me a look that I couldn’t or didn’t want to interpret before he turned to make his way back to his own horse.
I looked over at Snake as she hastily started to rise supported by Sam and Meemaw. All worry over Aiden vanished and I thanked my cursed stars. The family was all that mattered.