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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

Larkspur: A Sidewinder Tale - 10. Chapter 10 Showdown

Gulping air like a starving man....

 

Showdown

 

 

The exhilaration Mitch had been feeling since he purchased his land was sorely affected by Will’s presence. It was impossible to ignore the man, but it was also hard to look him in the eye for more than a few seconds. Damn, but it was still such a good face. Nearing fifty—forty-eight if he counted right—there were a few more lines etched into it for sure, but they gave him manly character Mitch couldn’t help but appreciate.

His beard, salted with some grey, had thickened from the boy’s he remembered, but those blue eyes hadn’t changed. Will looked every bit as handsome as when he’d secretly shared Mitch’s bed and life decades earlier—maybe even more so. He’d filled out some too, no longer the gangly, lightly muscled colt of his younger days, but the added weight suited him. He was powerful-built now, likely from rassling with logs all day long at that mill of his. Even the slight belly pushing his shirt forward looked good on him, though Mitch couldn’t help noticing it looked smaller than four days earlier. Was the man eating at all?

“Judging by this mess of food, I’m figuring you found some good fishing spots on your trip upriver?”

Mitch nodded as he turned the trout over. He’d rolled them in flour before he set them in the sizzling pork grease, and they were now becoming a golden brown. Would go good with the fresh-baked loaves of heavy bread he’d bought in town that morning.

He could feel Will watching him, and decided he should do some talking if only for Coy and Boone’s sake. They were doing everything they could not to act uneasy, which made them awkward as all get out. Mitch didn’t mind—it would even be kind of amusing if he weren’t feeling nerves hisself—but it seemed they were holding their breath waiting for him to get riled and stomp off. He felt some guilt for that, and wouldn’t do such to them again. It would serve no purpose, and besides, he didn’t have the heart for it.

He finally remembered to answer Will with more than a nod. “More fish in that river than a body can handle. Found a shallow where I kept throwing some back. Too much fun to stop… threw one to a bear to convince him to leave me my spot.”

“Did it work?”

“Third fish did. Took that one into the bush and I didn’t see him again.”

“Makes me want to go fishing,” Will said.

Mitch noticed his expression had lightened considerably at sharing those few words. He didn’t enjoy keeping the man at arm’s length, even though he was still mad as a hornet at him for leaving the way he had. He sighed quietly. It was years in the past, and best be left there. “River’s there for anyone to use.”

“Still ain’t found the time,” he said, and Mitch could tell it was more for something to say than the truth. “You recall going to that big pond out at the north fork, up from Buffalo Springs—the one with all the willows around it?”

Mitch’s movement stilled, and he couldn’t look at the man. “Yep, I suppose I do. Was a long time ago.”

“Yep, it was. Still remember that catfish you was determined to bring in. Must have took you an hour just to get him close to shore, and then another hour to get him on land. He bent that big, old hook but it held, yet you wouldn’t let me spear him once you had him beat.”

Steeling himself, Mitch finally faced Will, and their eyes tangled in that moment. Without a doubt, Mitch lost every bit of simmering fight against those memories as they came to life. “No, I wouldn’t. He put up a fight to be proud of.” Forcing himself to look away from that blue, Mitch’s mind wandered into dangerous territory, and he wasn’t thinking about the catfish so much as the spot deep in the willows where they used to love one another—sometimes under the sun, and a few times beneath the moon. Just what Will had intended him to remember when he brought up the pond.

“And then you went and threw him back in… all that good meat. He probably still has that hook in him, don’t ya think?”

Mitch didn’t answer.

“I didn’t understand then why you threw him back, but I reckon I do now.”

“Well… there weren’t no getting that hook out without him slicing my hand to bits with those teeth, and I didn’t have the heart to eat something that was likely older than me and a match for any man.”

“Yep. We didn’t need the food, and it wouldn’t have been right. I see that clear.”

“You thought I was plumb loco at the time.”

“I was young then,” Will said with a deep sigh of his own.

Mitch suspected there was a message behind those words, and he also noticed the little smile Coy had on his face. Of course he’d be smiling. That boy had the biggest heart of anyone he’d ever known, but he was tough as that catfish when he needed to be. He’d fight anyone or anything to protect Boone… and likely Mitch too.

He was a lucky man to have such friends as these two, especially after losing Wes and Lee, and then their son Dan, a boy he’d loved like a son. Seeing them together when they came to him with proof Coy’s brother was the one who’d shot his friends, there was no doubting of the love he’d seen between them—of course he’d been looking for it, given what Wes and Lee had said many times. They’d been right about how they belonged together, and he’d done his level best to help them along. Coy had carried a lot of weight on his shoulders back then, mostly over that back-shooting brother of his, and Boone had been close to breaking over his decision to leave.

Unfortunately, Coy was wrong about him and Will. So was Will. Their love was in the past—it had to be. With him being soon to die, it was no time to rekindle anything. He might be mixed up… even angry with the man… or maybe the situation… but he didn’t want Will grieving. He surely didn’t deserve that kind of pain. Best they keep their distance and just be acquaintances for the boys’ sake. Yep, they sorely needed to talk.

Supper was good and plentiful—with two more fish going in the pan once the first three were done cooking—and Will ate his fair share. Not much talking went on during the meal, other than about how tasty the trout was, and as soon as they were finished eating, Coy and Boone stood at the same time and went off with the excuse of needing to finish up some chores.

“That weren’t subtle,” Will said as they disappeared into the barn.

“They want us to talk.”

“Yep, and that’s what I want. Don’t you?” Will asked with a hopeful voice.

“Something I got to say… something I need to tell you.”

“I suspected so, and I’m glad to hear you say such. Hope it ain’t too bad, but I want to hear it, whatever it be.”

Mitch put down his plate and stood up, trying to keep rein on his frustration at being in this position. “Come on.”

“Where we going?”

“Not far. Something I want to show you.” He strode off quickly, trying to figure how best to make things clear to Will. The feelings coming from the man were hard not to take notice of. A few times he looked downright heartsick, and that made Mitch feel the worse for what he had to do.

“Lot of walking with a full belly,” Will said when they finally reached the ravine. “Can we sit a spell… and talk?”

“Not much farther. You tuckered already?”

“Ain’t been sleeping much. Close my eyes and I see you.”

Mitch felt a sudden chill despite the warm evening. “It’ll pass,” was all he could think of to say. He followed the easy path down to the creek and sloshed across.

Will was right behind him, but gently grabbed his shoulder when they got to the other side. “Coy’s land ends back there. Why are we on someone else’s property?”

“It’s not someone else’s. It’s my land, bought and paid for this morning.”

“What?! You’re actually settling down here? So… so you’re not moving on to Bearpaw Lake after all?” he asked as he puffed his way up the slope. Mitch didn’t look back until he’d reached the site of the earlier sage burning.

“No, I ain’t moving on… at least not to Bearpaw Lake.”

“What does that mean? Where else would you be moving on to if you bought this here land?” His confused expression might have been funny another time, but it weren’t at all now.

“I’m dying, Will. There ain’t no other way to say it, and I know you’ve had this fool idea we could pick up where we left off, but there ain’t no future with me.”

“You… you’re serious? Dying? I thought… I thought you were going to tell me you were in trouble, but… dying? How can you be dying? Are you sure, because you look healthy as a horse. I don’t understand… I think I need to sit,” the man said with a deep gasp of air as he leaned forward, bracing those big hands on his knees. “Dying? Never in my thoughts expected hearing such a thing. You… you should have told me this sooner,” he accused, his face twisted in a grimace Mitch saw as pure pain.

“Maybe so, but it ain’t an easy subject to speak on. Are you all right?”

“Me? You’re asking me that?! No, I’m not all right… of course I’m not, but I… I reckon I ain’t feeling faint like I was. You about took every ounce of air from me. How… what’s killing you, Mitchell?”

Mitch blew out a breath, trying to get this over and done with, but facing the distraught man made it so damn hard. “Ah… we can sit if you want.”

“Just answer my damn question!” He stood up straight, and his voice had taken on a shrill tone, surprising Mitch.

“Ah… Doc called it tumor disease. Carcino something something. Says my lungs likely have tumors… growths that keep getting bigger… that steal my breath, eat away flesh, and foul the blood.”

“Foul the blood?”

“It’s what he said.”

“When?”

“When am I dying?”

“No… well, that too, but I meant when did he tell you this?” Will appeared a bit calmer now, his expression curiously blank.

“Oh, months ago now. I was real sick. Could hardly breathe and fever came and stayed, and my guts turned to water. Kept getting worse. He tried a few things but nothing worked.”

“Something must have?”

“Was poulticed on my chest with an Indian medicine, but he gave up on it after a few weeks… not sure exactly how long. Said it was only a matter of time—different for everybody afflicted with such—and that I might have some good spells until it got bad enough to finish me. Reckon I’m having one of those now.”

“Yet you were well enough to travel by horseback to Larkspur?”

“Not according to the doc, I wasn’t, but I did it anyway, soon as I could mount and stay upright. Sold my house, quit as sheriff, and set out. The cleaner the air got, the easier it was to breathe, but I spent more than a few days sprawled out on the trail not able to muster the strength to move.”

“Jesus. How much time did he say you had?”

“None to speak of, really. I expected it would have happened by now. According to Doc Bailey, I should be six feet down already. Like I said, thought I’d die on the way here, but better that than dying in a bed by my lonesome.”

“No need to be lonesome now. I’m here now, and I’ll stick by you.”

The life in his eyes was back, and Mitch saw determination there. “No! No you won’t. That’s exactly the thing I ain’t wanting from you. I got the boys who’ll see to my burial when the time comes, but I don’t want you fretting and fussing over me because we used to love each other a long time ago.”

Will’s eyebrows were sitting high as he listened, but then his expression clouded over with anger. “Don’t seem that long ago to me.”

“That may be, but it don’t change the fact it was.”

“So you tell me this and then expect me to walk away?”

“Yep. I want you to walk away, and now would be a good time.”

“The hell I will,” Will said, a thunderous expression on his face. “I searched after you for years, and now that I’ve found you, I ain’t going nowhere!”

“You didn’t find me. I found Larkspur, and you just happened to be here.”

“Mitchell!” After barking out his name, his voice softened. “I went back for you, to Buffalo Springs, but you were gone without a word to no one about your plans. I spent the next two years traveling from town to town, asking for you… hoping and praying I’d find you.”

Mitch got caught up in the passion of the man’s face, and could feel his will begin to fall apart. He fought against that happening. “Thought you were headed west, but I’ll admit I searched for you too. It don’t matter none now because we never found each other… and now it’s too late for what’s long gone.”

“Why is it too late?” Will asked, the pain back in his voice.

Mitch snorted. “I know you ain’t stupid. You heard me tell you plain I’m dying.”

“Yep, and I also heard you should have been dead by now.”

“So?”

“So, maybe that doc didn’t know his ass from a knot hole.”

Mitch groaned. “I’m telling you, he is a real doctor who’s been practicing for forty years.”

Will huffed. “A doctor is just a man, and men make mistakes, especially old ones.”

“You sound just like Coy.”

“Well, you listen to him, so listen to me. Maybe you’re dying… I don’t know… but you and I are here now, and I love you like I always have. I never stopped hankering for you… to feel you in my arms… to feel you pressed against me and….”

“Would you quit that path you’re going down? That’s all in the past, and don’t do us a lick of good.”

“Do you still love me, Mitchell?”

Mitch stared into those hurt-filled eyes and almost broke in two. “I did once, I won’t deny it.”

“But not anymore?”

“No, not anymore,” he answered, looking the man straight in the eyes because he had to. It wasn’t easy to lie like he did. “There ain’t no room for you in the life I have left—I’ve faced what’s coming, and I know how it has to be. I need you to respect that.”

“I… dammit, you’re asking a helluva lot of me—”

“Don’t see it that way. We crossed paths again, had a meal, and that’s all.”

“Maybe for you, but I got all these feelings I’ve held onto, and I don’t see the harm in letting them out while there’s still time.”

“You got to understand,” Mitch said, exasperated as all get out. “What time there is left, I need to find some peace, and I can’t do that worrying for you.”

“Why would you worry for me?”

“Don’t be a fool, Will. How many times did you set yourself beside my bed and mope after I got shot? It used to be like you were the one who took the bullet, and it made me feel powerful guilty. Don’t need to go through that again.”

“You never felt guilty enough to quit sheriffing in that godforsaken town,” he accused.

“You want to do this again?”

“No… no… I’m sorry. You’re right about I used to harp at you and play on that guilt you was feeling… but it’s different this time. I won’t mope, I swear—”

“I don’t believe you. You’re professing love for me, and there is nothing but sorrow in watching someone you love leave, however they do it. You walked away before, and you can walk away now, for both our sakes… please.”

Will swiped at his eyes, and Mitch saw how close he was to breaking down completely. He hadn’t noticed the man’s exhaustion before, but he did now.

“Why did you buy this here land?”

Mitch was startled by the question. “Cause it’s about the best piece of land I’ve ever seen, next to Red Apple Farm. Got the kind of rich earth my pa would have killed for. I’m leaving it to Coy and Boone when I die, since they didn’t want to take the money I got sitting in the bank. I care deeply for them boys—they’re good men and they’ve made a damn good life here. They can add this land to the rest. Besides, it’s a spot I can be buried. Got a place picked out up on the ridge.”

“I think highly of them too. Watching them together, I see a life we could have had if we’d wanted it.”

“There was a time I did want it, but there was a time I wasn’t ready too.”

“The time in Buffalo Springs… yep… I knew you weren’t.”

“Couldn’t be a sheriff in that town and be shacked up romantic-like with a man.”

“Which is why we should have left… together, so we didn’t have to sneak around.”

Mitch sighed. “You think I didn’t figure that out after you left, that my choice was the wrong one? Cause I did… but it was too late because you were so damned impatient. And before you say anything else, it’s still too late.”

“I was impatient—I see that now, though I worried for you every day you walked down the street with that badge on your vest… but you knew that already. Ah… you reckon I can see the spot you picked for burying?”

“My gravesite? Why in hell would you want to see that?”

“I could say I want to know your wishes, but it’s more than that. Guess I’m looking for reasons not to leave just yet too… I know you’re itching for me to.”

“Only because I don’t see the reason to drag this out like we are… this is hard for both of us.”

“Is it, though… for you?”

“Do you want me to say no?”

“I reckon not. But you said yourself you don’t love me no more—that you didn’t keep the feelings for me that I did for you.”

Mitch flinched at his false words being thrown back at him. “Don’t mean this ain’t hard, Will.”

“You still mad at me?”

Again, Will had caught him by surprise. “Ain’t no sense to holding onto anger.”

“Like there’s no sense to holding onto love?”

“Tarnation, Will! If you aren’t the most persistent son-of-a-gun I’ve ever known. Some things never change.”

“Well, now I got you riled, haven’t I?” Will’s smirk weren’t obvious, but it was there.

Mitch groaned. “Yes, you do, because you are deliberately trying to make this more than it needs be. Follow me,” he said as he stomped off towards the ridge. He imagined the man smiling behind him but he didn’t look back. Damn him! Damn these blinding feelings the man had stirred up!

“Mitch, hold up!” Will hissed. “We ain’t alone!”

“What the hell you talking about,” Mitch asked as he looked around in the dimming light. His hackles rose at the thought of being watched.

“I heard a horse stomp to the east.”

Instantly, Mitch relaxed. “Ain’t nothing but my mare. She’s hobbled in a clearing on the other side of those trees.”

“What the hell is she doing over there?”

“What do you think, Will?” Mitch asked, his exasperation at the man back. “This is my land, so where else should she be?”

“I just thought….”

“Plan on setting up camp here tonight. My packs are over there too. Satisfied?”

Will didn’t answer as Mitch turned his back on him and continued striding north.

 

Mitch had cooled down by the time they neared the ridge. He had no choice because Will had finally caught up with him, and he didn’t want to give the man the satisfaction of knowing the effect he had on him. Truth was, he was also feeling bad for letting his temper loose.

“You sure ain’t short on vigor for a man who’s supposed to be sick,” Will said with a breathless-sounding chuckle.

“Supposed to be? You think I’m lying to you?”

“No, course not. Don’t be getting riled again. I just meant you’re about as fast a walker as you used to be. I always did have trouble keeping up with you when you stormed off.”

“I didn’t storm off!”

“There I go again, putting a burr under your saddle. Was only trying to say you look strong… you got good color to you, and you ain’t puffing like I expected you might, given the tumors… and the sickness and all.”

Mitch stopped short, realizing the man was right. He’d been walking at the pace of a young man, and his breathing was better than fine. Will, on the other hand, had a flushed face and was breathing deep. Course he was a bigger, heavier man. “Suppose I’m having one of those good spells.”

Will looked at him curiously. “When was the last time you coughed?”

“I don’t know… yesterday?”

“Do you cough bad, like when you first got sick?”

“Hasn’t been real bad for a while—not like back in Red Bluff I reckon—but I have worse days. This is the spot, under that big oak.” It’s spreading, leaf-filled branches almost reached them where they stood.

Will walked a few steps forward and looked up before peering out to the north. “Got quite a view here. This reminds me of the lookout tree you used to talk about sitting up in at your pa’s farm.” He turned to face Mitch.

“You remember that?”

“I remember everything you ever told me, and everything we ever did, from the first night you rescued my drunk ass.”

Mitch stepped closer, caught up in naked truth he saw in that familiar face. The love it held was powerful, and took him back to all those nights they spent in each other’s arms, telling each other things they’d never shared before, not with anyone. This man had never been afraid to speak his love. He felt a sudden pull and didn’t resist it, stepping forward again until they were only inches apart. Will’s arms hung at his side, and he appeared to be holding his breath.

Without allowing himself to think of consequences, Mitch closed the distance and brought his lips to Will’s. He knew what he was doing was foolish, but he was powerless against those eyes that held so much hurt. Goddamn, he loved this man, always had and always would, and he let him know in the kiss what he wouldn’t say in words.

Will’s arms moved up and embraced him as his mouth opened and their tongues moved together. It was like those decades hadn’t passed. Mitch was thrilled in exactly the same way he’d always been in these arms, breathing in the mixed scent of cedar, smoke, and sweat through his nose. Will’s groan brought his senses back to him, and he reluctantly pulled back, away from lips that had awoken his heart.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.” He tried to take another step back, but Will still kept a hold on him. “Will, we have to be smart about—”

“Not yet. Please, not yet. He pulled him back into his gentle embrace, but Mitch felt the power of the man as he squeezed him tight. “I never want to let you go again,” he said softly into Mitch’s ear. “I’ve missed you for so long this shouldn’t even feel real, but it does.”

Mitch sighed before breathing the man in again. All the reasons they shouldn’t do this were still there. It would be selfish to let Will love him again, and then go through what was to come. He couldn’t do it. “It’s real, but so is what’s ahead for me. I can’t do this.”

“You don’t mean that. I know you don’t… I can feel that you do love me. You couldn’t have kissed me like that if you didn’t. Tell me you love me,” he pleaded in a whisper.

Mitch stepped back out of the embrace, needing to use some of his own strength to break Will’s hold. “I can’t do that. We loved each other once, and that has to be enough. It was a kiss goodbye, so just accept it as that.”

“But—”

“Course I’m lonely, and I reckon you are too, but nothing’s changed. I’m still dying, and I don’t want the trouble of worrying for another.”

“Trouble?”

“Yep. Plain and simple, that’s what it is and I don’t need it. Neither do you, and you’ll see that one day.”

“Don’t tell me what I’ll see, Mitchell Willard. You said I was stubborn, but you take the cake. You only see your way, like you always did. You’re right… not a thing has changed.”

The powerful hurt in his words and on his face was hard to bear, but Mitch couldn’t break. “You need to go now.”

“All right, I’ll go,” he said with a crack in his voice. He cleared his throat, and again swiped at his eyes. “But I’ll be back.”

“I’m asking you not to.”

“Maybe so, but you can’t stop me, and you better get over this foolishness soon. We still got time to be together and you’re wasting it.”

“I can’t stop you from going to Red Apple Farm, but I don’t want you back on my land—I mean that.” He spoke the words as forcefully as he could, staring the man down hard.

Will matched his stare for way too long, and stayed looking stern, yet couldn’t hide the fact he was near collapse. “Lord, you’re a stubborn cuss. It don’t matter to me you’re dying, and I ain’t some young’un you need to look out for—you’re not the sheriff here, so stop trying to control every damn thing.”

It sounded like an accusation more than a statement. A sigh followed. “I’ll leave for now cause I don’t want to look at you no more, but don’t think that means I’m giving up. You best be prepared to shoot me someday soon… just make sure you’re staring me in the eye when you do it. And remember something, Mitchell—you were the one who kissed me, and it didn’t feel like no goodbye… so you ain’t fooling me none. You need to think about that.” Turning away, he strode off, his shoulders set firm.

Once he was out of sight, Mitch dropped to his knees in the soft grass, gulping in air like a starving man. Had he done right? His head said yes… his heart, though, screamed another story. Already, he was missing the man—the feel of his lips, and the comfort he’d felt in those arms.

 

 

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40 minutes ago, CincyKris said:

I think my fellow readers have summed up all my feelings so I'll just leave you some emojis.  🐟🍴🙏😣😠😢😘😍💔😢😵

Thanks, Kris! Your emoji comment is very eloquent. :)  :D  Cheers! :hug: 

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