Notes: Inspired by a history class, Lewis and Clark
The death of
Meriwether Lewis is so mysterious I couldn't help but take a portion of one
of the possibilities and put it on paper, kind of (grin, well, not so much,
Lewis' death after studying it had me depressed for weeks-hopefully, this story
isn't as bad.).
Special Thanks to Lisa for her eyes and invaluable corrections!!
Please send comments to: email@example.com
It was a story, a fable of sorts, told by young and old alike, mostly to keep the curious curious, and the young in search of the unknown.
Nobody knew if the stories were true, but once in a while gossip would spread through town, causing doubters to believe and believers to pray.
The Devil's Mouth had once again been opened and someone had perished. The newly deceased rarely had a name, and if they did it was something common: John, Mark, Mr. Smith.
The Devil's Mouth was an obscure hole that only opened for the chosen-never seen by anyone. It was said to be located miles from town, just beyond the mesa, on the Brewer's farm.
Nobody went there.
The Brewers had lived on their pig farm for several generations, producing enough pork to sustain themselves and a few buyers. They stayed to themselves, never venturing out.
The two oldest boys, Jeb and Steven, had on several occasions left the family farm, usually in search of a quick drink or a fast woman. Like most young people, they wanted to see the world, experience more than pig slop or their father's switch. They found themselves becoming fast friends with a small group of young men that called themselves the Hornets-wanting to cause trouble and make names for themselves. At nine strong they were a force to be reckoned with. The final straw had come when Sheriff Walton of Pen Station had been murdered after trying to stop the gang from robbing the local bank. Warrants were issued and printed, but for reasons not understood, the gang seemed to have disappeared.
Buck belched. It was a sound they had all become very familiar with. He leaned back in his seat, kicked his feet onto the table and winked toward one of the barmaids. Having eaten a large meal made by Inez, he couldn't help but look and feel like a hometown boy, complete with food in his mustache and horseshit caked to his boot.
Ezra groaned, pushed his plate away and turned. "What in the name of all that's holy, have you been walking in?"
"The fruit of my horse's labor, Ezra, plain and simple." Buck smiled and removed his foot from the table. He wiggled his boot in Ezra's direction. "And as you can see he's been workin' hard."
JD entered the saloon and tossed his bowler onto the table before taking a seat. "Vin ain't back yet." He looked at his watch and then eyed Buck's beer. "You got food in your mustache."
Buck sat straight and wiped quickly at the hair on his upper lip. "Damn it, Ezra, you should have said somethin'." He tried to look in the mirror behind the bar without being obvious.
"Sorry to say, Mister Wilmington, that my attention was focused elsewhere."
"I heard Mrs. Potter tellin' Mr. White that the gang who killed Sheriff Walton was makin' there way here-told Chris about it, but he didn't think so."
"I was under the impression that particular band of miscreants had disappeared," Ezra said, reaching for Mary's latest edition of the Clarion.
"That's what Chris said-not in those words exactly, but almost the same." JD picked at Ezra's unfinished meal. "The food bad, Ezra?"
Ezra ignored the question and concentrated on the news.
"When's Vin due back?" Buck asked, watching Inez wipe the counter.
"Few hours ago, Chris thinks he's out at Nettie's. I told him I'd ride out and see-told Casey I'd take her fishin' anyway." JD pulled Ezra's plate toward him and proceeded to finish the meal.
Mr. White entered the saloon and walked up to the table where Buck sat. He took his hat off and twisted the brim between callused fingers. "Before you tell me to take my stories and keep 'em hid, Mr. Wilmington, I just have to tell you what I've been hearin' around town."
"I hear from good solid sources that the Devil's mouth has been actin' up again. It done ate up ol' Mister Hepler-hat an' all."
"And just who might Mr. Hepler be?" Ezra asked, folding the newspaper just so to read the back.
"He's that travelin' salesman that come through here a couple o' weeks ago-you know the one?"
"No," Buck said, "I don't. Now why don't you take your wild stories and disappear for a while, Mr. White, ain't nobody goin' to get eaten by a hole in the ground-much less, one of us."
Their number had grown from nine to eleven when Jeb and Steven had officially joined the gang. They sat around the fire, drinking, playing cards, and planning their next event. Leroy, the leader, flipped through a stack of wanted posters, disappointed and relieved that his face was missing. He pulled one sheet from the pile, tossing the others into the fire and raised it into the air so the others could see.
"He look familiar?" Leroy asked, smiling with the cigarette dangling between his lips.
Jeb nodded: "He's one of them lawmen from Four Corners. Goes by the name of Tanner."
"Heard that group is pretty tight," Olson said, Leroy's younger brother. "Seven of 'em total. Guess they cleaned up that town real good-got a school there an' everythin' now."
Leroy laughed and balled the paper into his fist and tossed it into the fire. He looked up, dark eyes glowing red from the reflection before him. "What about this Devil's Mouth we hear about every once in a while?"
Jeb snickered and looked toward his brother, Steven. "My grandfolks made it up after they moved here. It's a hole 'bout ten miles north o' here, folks keep trespassers in it."
"Trespassers?" Leroy asked.
"Folks never liked nobody knowin' our business, so when people started comin' onto our property, we tossed 'im in the hole an' fed 'em to the hogs." Steven shrugged, and looked toward his brother.
Leroy laughed and was quickly joined by the rest of his men. "You raise hogs?"
"My folks do, sell 'em to a few of our friends an' eat 'em ourselves." Jeb sighed and looked around.
"This hole easy to find?" Leroy asked, grinning.
"If you know what you're lookin' for, why?" Steven said, grabbing a canteen.
"How long would it take a hog to finish off a man?" Leroy grabbed a stick and twisted it in his hands.
Jeb chuckled: "You figure on goin' after that Tanner fellow?"
"An' six others-Might be time to make a name for ourselves and lettin' it stick. Don't like disappearin' after every job we do."
"You said stayin' low was the best thing to do, keep us from gettin' caught," Arthur Davis said, kicking dirt with the toe of his boot. "Don't reckon takin' down those seven would be worth the risk-from what I done heard about 'im."
"You're welcomed to leave, Davis, ain't nobody makin' you stay, but if we take those seven men down it'll open up the territory for us, give us more of a chance to take down more coaches and even a bank or two-maybe then you could pay off the debt you owe for that farm o' yours, marry that woman you's always talkin' about." Leroy looked into the fire.
"You figure on dumpin' those men in the Devil's Mouth then what?" Olsen finished the stick of jerky he'd been working on.
"No bodies no questions, and sure as hell won't be no one to blame." Leroy stood and looked toward the rest of his men. "I sure as hell could use the money. What about the rest o' ya?"
"Ain't got no problems here, boss."
"Sounds like a plan to me."
"Wouldn't mind puttin' an end to Larabee myself. He killed a cousin of mine a few years ago, claims it was self defense," one of the men said, spitting his chew toward the fire.
James Macroy shuffled his cards and smiled, and then looked at his watch. "An old friend of mine is ridin' with that bunch." He pulled the ace from the deck, looked at it and then reshuffled it. "Wouldn't mind seein' him again."
"Then it's settled," Leroy said, "let's hunt some flesh."
Mary grabbed an armful of papers and placed them on the counter next to her press. She jumped when she realized she wasn't alone. "I wasn't expecting you."
Chris shrugged, standing in the doorway. "I'm sendin' Nathan and Josiah out to Nettie's place. Buck, Ezra, and me are headin' west to look for JD and Vin-"
"-He's not back yet, it's been three days?"
"I don't want you printin' anymore stories about the Devil's Mouth, Mary. People are startin' to get riled, and with Vin bein' gone it's only makin' things worse."
"I'm a reporter, Chris, and I won't keep the truth from people."
"There ain't no hole in the ground that eats people, Mary, and by writin' that there is you're causin' people to get scared. Hell, even Mrs. Potter can't keep supplies in the store you've got folks so scared."
"It's not fiction, Chris." Mary turned and reached into her file cabinet. "There have been people over the past 30 years that have disappeared with no explanation."
"This is the west, Mary, people go missin' durin' a rain storm."
Mary shoved the old newspaper clippings in front of him. "All I'm asking you to do is take a look at these. There's reason to believe that something is going on other than rumors and innuendos. I've been looking into it and something is going on at Brewer's farm."
"You can't be accusin' people without proof."
"All I'm asking you to do is take a look. Don't you think it's strange that they live so close to town but never come here?"
"So they like to be alone, that ain't a reason to blame them for somethin' like this." Chris turned to leave.
"Something is going on out there, Chris and if JD or Vin are caught up in it, God help them."
Chris turned toward her, his jaw flexing. "I don't like to guess the worst when it comes to a friend, and I hate it even more when another starts pointin' fingers-"
"I'm not saying they're a part of it-"
"I know what you're sayin', Mary, and I don't cotton to it. Before you go printin' anymore stories, make sure they're truthful and accurate." He slammed the door behind him and he headed toward the livery.
Mary tossed her pencil toward the desk and placed her hands on her hips in a huff.
JD hunched his shoulders and pulled the collar of his jacket around his neck. He hated the rain, and spring was the worst for it. He was on his way back to town after visiting with Nettie and Casey. Neither had seen Vin.
The storm had kept him overnight and he knew the others would be worried; at least Buck would be, as much as he would try and deny it. He watched his horse's ears flick forward and back, and the subtle toss of her head against the weather.
He pulled on the reins, pulling his horse to a stop and paused to look up the path. Four men guided their horses onto the trail. They rode steadily forward, sitting overly confident in their saddles.
JD turned just enough to look behind him and his hand went to the handle of his weapon when he found three more riders behind him. Even if he ran off the trail he knew he would not out run them, Buck had taught him better than to even try something so stupid.
"You look nervous, boy," one of the men said, casually resting his arms on his saddle horn, "are you?"
JD clenched his jaw and pressed his lips into a thin line. "No."
The man who spoke nodded toward one of the riders behind JD and smiled when a lasso was whipped into the air and quickly around the kid's chest. JD was pulled from his saddle. He hit the ground hard and was drug a few hundred feet, mud covering his clothing, face, and had slipped down his shirt and pants. He gasped for breath and tried to wipe his face free. He could hear the men laughing.
"Ready for another ride?" someone said. The man spit, and chew slipped down his chin. He wiped at it with the sleeve of his jacket.
JD choked and spit mud from his mouth.
"Thought this would be harder," a familiar voice said, "takin' them down one by one, they ain't so tough." The man chuckled and then yanked on the rope, causing JD to fall forward.
"Let's get him with the other one and then locate the others." Leroy laughed. "Looks like we're gonna have seven mud covered lawmen on our hands 'fore too long."
JD was airborne, and he flailed his arms and legs before landing with a splash belly first. Surrounded by mud nearly six inches deep, he pushed himself upright and spit mud from his mouth. Slowly, and painfully, he got to his feet, stumbling back when he lost his balance. He was surrounded by dirt walls, and above him was a black sky delivering more rain. The walls were too high to climb, roots poked out, and clumps of dirt fell after losing their stability.
JD wiped his face and looked around, finding a lump hidden under a cove. "Vin?" he said, squinting his eyes and slowly moving forward. He recognized the fringe of a jacket.
Vin sighed and slowly turned, having found the only dry spot. "Hey, kid," he said, moving enough so JD could join him.
"Hell, Vin you look like shit."
Vin muffled a chuckle and nodded. His hands were swollen and bloodied, two fingernails were missing, and JD guessed it was caused from trying to claw his way out before the rain had started. Vin's jaw was inflamed and his bottom lip was split, and his right eye was swollen shut. Every time he breathed a rattle could be heard and JD reached up and placed his hand on Vin's brow.
"You've got a fever."
Vin chuckled and paused. "S'pose I do."
"What's goin' on, Vin? What do they want with us?"
"I don't know, kid."
"You boys should stick around 'til that weather clears a bit," Nettie said, wrapping the shawl tighter around her thin shoulders. "Know for a fact this rain 'ill cause your skin to prune up and peel right off-most disgustin' thing I've ever seen." She curled her nose and looked toward Casey who was looking worriedly out the window.
"Thank you for the offer, Mrs. Wells, but we should be gettin' back." Nathan slipped into his jacket and watched Josiah do the same. They hadn't said anything about Vin's unusual disappearance, nor the fact that they hadn't seen JD on their ride there, despite the fact they should have.
Josiah reached for the door and then pulled the collar of his jacket up and around his ears. "Thank you for the pie, Mrs. Wells."
Nettie smiled and followed them onto the front porch. She watched them mount. "When you find 'em," she said, pausing just enough to catch her breath, "let 'em know they'll be dinner here for 'em."
Josiah turned toward her. "How'd you know?"
Nettie smiled: "I'm old, not stupid." She turned and entered her home, closing the door behind her.
Nathan shook his head and guided his horse toward the path. "This ain't looking so good."
Josiah nodded and leaned forward in his saddle, resting his forearm on the horn, the reins hanging loosely between his fingers. He swayed gently in the saddle, and he could hear the sounds of his horse's hooves hitting the muddied ground with a hollow, wet clop as steel struck hidden stones. "JD couldn't be far-we must have just missed him during our ride here."
"We should have passed him."
"He could have gone another way." Josiah rubbed his face and watched as more black clouds rolled in from the west.
Nathan sighed and shook his head. "I don't know, Josiah just don't feel right."
They rode in silence, needing to get back to inform the others and start the inevitable search. A brisk wind caught the opening of Josiah's jacket and he pulled his shoulders together. His pants were wet and he could feel rain slip into his boot, pooling near his heel.
Having ridden a couple miles, Nathan pulled his horse to a stop and examined the ground before dismounting to study it closer. Josiah quickly joined him. Mud splattered on their pant legs, covered their boots, and peppered their jackets as they looked around.
"Don't look right," Nathan said, noticing how the ground was indented where it shouldn't have been. The rain had washed away most tracks, instead leaving muddied puddles and unidentifiable markings. Nathan knelt near the side of the road and swiped his hand through spring's fresh greenery and winter's harsh remains of stems and twigs. He caught his hand on something soft and leaned forward to grab it. "Josiah?"
Nathan held JD's muddied hat in his hands and he looked toward the mesa to the south, instinctively knowing they were in deeper than they had first expected.
"Want to take a look," Josiah said, remounting his horse. He didn't want to wait.
Nathan nodded and quickly remounted, after securing JD's hat to the back of his saddle. "Think that old legend is true?" he asked, knowing he probably shouldn't have.
Nathan shrugged and guided his horse off the path and followed the abnormal indentation that had scarred the ground. "The Devil's Mouth."
Josiah shrugged and furrowed his brow. "It's inherently human, the need to derive these-"
"Never mind," Nathan said, moving in his saddle as his horse stumbled forward. "I've grown up around stories like these, Josiah. People disappear and stories are created to make up for what's not known."
"Sometimes though," Josiah sighed, "there is some truth to those stories."
"We could do this on a better day," Olsen said, shaking rain from his gloved hand. He frowned and looked up the road.
Leroy chuckled and shook his head, water dripping from the brow of his hat. "This is the best time, boys hit 'em when they least expect it, and from what I gather, they'll be out lookin' for that one we took down a few days ago. We wouldn't want to disappoint them by not showin' up now, would we?"
He moved his feet in his stirrups and leaned over the horn of his saddle and looked toward the edge of the road, knowing it would only be a matter of time before the young boy's hat would be discovered, carefully hidden near the bush where he fell. Leroy chuckled, envisioning the future.
"What are you goin' to do when we get 'em all?" Olsen asked, watching Davis' signal from across the meadow.
They were coming.
Leroy chuckled and licked his lips. "Claim the territory."
Ezra groaned and hunched his back against the wind as he fought against the spring weather. Larabee rode ahead with Buck, and Ezra took up the tail again. His horse moved at a leisurely pace, hooves splattering mud.
Buck spoke fondly of a young woman he'd met while on a trip up north a few months back, speaking in detail about her features, both good and bad.
"Is this absolutely necessary?" Ezra asked, pulling the rim of his hat over his eyes.
"Hell, Ezra," Buck said, turning in his saddle with a smile, "you're such a pansy."
"I, Mr. Wilmington, take umbrage to that remark."
"Is there a remark you don't take umbrage to?"
Ezra rolled his eyes and pulled his horse to a stop when Chris stopped his own horse and looked into the distance.
"Shit," Chris said, raising his hands and kicking his horse's sides. The animal lunged forward, his front hooves striking the ground and sending spatters of mud upward onto gaskins and cannon bones.
Buck and Ezra followed, unaware of where they were headed.
Mud spattered when Josiah fell from his horse. He tumbled down the steep incline, hitting rocks, and tree stumps. He felt his elbow collide with something solid and he cried out, trying to cover his face from the onslaught of debris. He lost track of his location and wondered in what direction his horse had fled. Was Nathan behind him or before him? How far were they from town? Would they make it back?
He stopped suddenly when he collided with a downed tree and it took him a moment to collect his thoughts, ride out the pain, and orient himself enough to move. Josiah coughed, clasped his arm and sat upright. Covered head to foot in mud, he stood and looked around.
Josiah wiped his face, trying to keep muddied water from entering his eyes. It didn't work and he squinted through the pain.
Someone chuckled and Josiah turned to look, seeing only blurred images of men on horseback.
"Over here," the man said, his voice was strong, deep, and full of knowing what Josiah didn't. "Took some fall."
"Who are you?" Josiah asked, moving toward the figure on horseback. He could see the barrel of a pistol aiming toward him, carefully hidden behind the pommel of the saddle.
"Folks named me Leroy, and that's the name I'm called most often." He cocked his weapon and the sound echoed.
Josiah stopped, looking for Nathan, and realizing that JD and Vin had probably fallen into these same hands. He saw several riders come from the shadows of trees and Nathan pulled behind one a rope around his neck, and his hands clasped and tied. Blood ran from a cut along his hairline above his right eye that was slowly swelling shut, and his nose looked to have been broken.
"What do you want?" Josiah asked, watching as two men dismounted and efficiently tied his hands together.
"Fame, preacher-I'm the leader of the gang that took out the Magnificent Seven."
The fire raged and nothing could be done to save the barn. Nettie could hear the horses and cows screaming beyond the doors, and she grabbed Casey, stopping her from trying to save them.
Chris pulled his horse to a stop, mud flowing up the gelding's hind legs, spraying his belly. Chris' coat billowed as he jumped from the saddle. His horse trotted toward the corral. Buck and Ezra soon joined him.
"What happened?" Chris asked, watching Casey cry against her aunt's shoulder.
"Would appear that someone decided to burn my barn." She rubbed Casey's back, and guided her toward the porch of their small cabin.
Ezra grabbed the horses and let them loose in the corral, and then joined Buck in capturing the few that escaped the barn. Chris followed Nettie, knowing the gut-wrenching-feeling that flames could provide. He clenched his hands, digging his nails into his palms.
"Did you see who did it?" Chris asked, watching Casey slip into the cabin.
Nettie placed her hands on her hips and looked toward the barn. It burned, despite the rain, and slowly the roof caved in, taking with it the beams and panels of the side walls. "I don't know," she answered, looking toward Chris, and then toward the three mares Ezra and Buck had caught. "I was weavin' when I heard the horses screamin'. Casey and I ran out, but by then it was too late." She crossed her arms over her chest and curled her nose as the waves of burning flesh hit her senses. She looked toward Chris, knowing the smell was sickening, but he hid it well. "Didn't think it would go up as fast as it did."
"If we can find a trail we'll follow it-"
"Whatever is goin' on here, Chris, doesn't have anythin' to do with my barn," she looked toward Ezra as he nursed one of the mares, "this has more to do with the seven of you or should I say three."
Chris clenched his jaw and looked at Nettie, understanding her meaning.
"I'm not a fool, and when I get visits from all of you, I know there's somethin' wrong. Now, go out there and find 'em, before I kick you into next week." She turned, grasping the door knob. "And, if you would be so kind, put that mare down."
Chris looked toward the still burning remains of the barn, knowing someone had started it, and knowing they had doused it with oil probably kerosene. The smell is what he hated; the bitter, haunting, and nauseating odor that made his stomach clench and twist. Rain traveled in a narrow stream off his hat and he turned toward Buck.
Ezra held the mare, gently rubbing his hand up and down her neck. The burns on her back and flanks were red, blistered, and open. Every drop of rain caused her to flinch and stomp her hooves. "Might I inquire?"
"She didn't see anything," Chris said, taking the lead from Ezra and handing it to Buck.
Buck took it and slowly walked the mare toward the trees in the distance.
Ezra watched him go and then turned toward Chris. "I understand your animosity toward me, Mister Larabee, but I have on occasion eased a horse's suffering."
"I need you to ride back to town and find Josiah and Nathan."
"Shouldn't we have seen them here-or passed them on the road?"
Chris clenched his jaw and sighed when he heard the shot come from Buck's rifle. "You've got the fastest horse, Ezra-find them."
"If I don't?"
Chris sighed and watched as Buck grabbed the reins of the horses from the corral. "Take the $10,000 and run."
Chris took his horse's reins and mounted, looking at Buck. "Let's head west."
"Brewer's place?" Buck asked, adjusting himself in his saddle.
Chris nodded, looked toward Ezra and then spurred his horse forward.
Buck's big gray jumped, but he held him back. "You comin?"
Ezra shook his head: "I'll meet you there."
Buck nodded and nudged his horse's sides, leaning forward in his saddle, he moved to catch Chris.
Ezra stood near the corral holding his horse's reins, watching them leave, and wondering why Chris would still believe-after everything, that he would run.
Nathan hit the bottom first, and was quickly joined by Josiah. Soaking wet, covered in mud, and bruised, both men sat up and tried to fling the mud from their hands and fingers. They'd be scrubbing for weeks.
"Glad you could join us," JD said, moving from his position next to Vin.
"You okay, JD?" Nathan asked, getting to his feet.
"Seem to be, Vin's pretty busted up though."
Nathan looked up, allowing the rain to rinse his face and then he looked toward the muddy cove. Through his one opened eye, he could see Vin's form huddled.
"He's breathin' real bad, Nate." JD walked toward Vin and squatted, gently rocking him awake.
"Hey," Vin said, slowly pushing himself upright. He leaned against the muddied wall and sighed, grinning when he spotted Nathan's black eye, but frowning when he spotted a familiar reddish rope mark around his neck.
Josiah looked toward the edge of hole they'd found themselves in, noticing how brittle the edges had become. It wouldn't take much for the walls to collapse, burying them. "Where are we?"
JD shrugged and watched as Nathan carefully checked Vin's ribs. "There's someone who looks down every once in a while, some kid-never says anything though."
"Looks like one of the Brewer's boys," Vin said, wincing when Nathan pushed on a rib, "I'm not sure which one-never got a good look at any of them when I had the chance."
"You've got a couple broken ribs, Vin, and the way you're breathing sounds like lung fever."
"Is that all?" Vin chuckled and then coughed.
Nathan looked toward JD and Josiah. "We need to get out of here."
Ezra raced toward Four Corners. He knew in his gut that Josiah and Nathan wouldn't be there, but the words that escaped Chris' mouth before he left with Buck ate at him. A portion of him wanted to take that money and run, but the other part-the part that was stronger and knew better, wouldn't.
His horse galloped through the mud. He rode leaning over the pommel and horn, using his thighs to keep him out of the seat. The big chestnut's head moved smoothly up and down, his nostrils flaring, and ears back.
The need to prove Chris wrong, once and for all, fed Ezra's soul, and he kicked his horse's sides in an effort to get to town quicker. The big chestnut complied. Ezra knew he didn't have the faithfulness of Josiah, devotion of Nathan, innocence of JD, honesty of Vin, or the gregariousness of Buck. Instead, Ezra had been cursed with the ability to cheat the Devil out of hell.
His gift was a curse, and he knew it.
He could shoot as good as any of them, and he never failed in his duty to back them up-despite that telling day not so long ago. The temptation almost won out, but it hadn't. Didn't that count for something? He could hear his mother now, cursing him for being such a fool, reinforcing in him his inability to be her equal.
As town grew closer, his heart raced, and he knew that his next decision would make or break him.
Chris pulled his horse to a stop and looked toward the tree line. His heart burned, and he imagined it to look like his home as it went up in flames, his wife and son trapped within the walls. The smell of Nettie's horses and cows burning had brought back memories he thought he had forgotten, and he wished now that he had.
There was nothing more horrific than the sounds of someone screaming, knowing they were dying, and being unable to stop the fact.
"Why'd you send Ezra back to town?" Buck asked, pulling his horse to a stop beside Chris'.
"Told him to find Josiah and Nathan and then get back here to help us."
"You know he won't find 'em, we should have seen 'em on our way to Nettie's."
"It's a big country, Buck."
"Maybe for everyone else except Josiah an' Nathan, those two are as predictable as Mary's Clarion."
Chris rubbed his chin with his hand and then rested his forearms on the saddle horn. "Who would benefit the most if the seven of us were out of the way?"
"I only got two hands, Chris, you're goin' to have to bring the number down a bit."
"Who'd go to this extreme to get us out of the picture?"
"Ranchers-any of 'em, know a few saloon girls that wouldn't mind my head on a platter."
"I'm serious, Buck."
"Hell, Chris, anyone we've ever pissed off could be doin' this, if there's somethin' goin' on."
Chris sighed and shook his head: "Got a bad feelin' about this."
"Could be nothin'."
Chris nodded and nudged his horse forward. "Could be."
Ezra pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted, quickly tying him to the hitching post outside the saloon. He sprinted toward the church, knowing in his gut that Josiah wouldn't be there. The streets were bare, except the few stragglers that tempted the weather.
As expected the church was empty, and Ezra paused when he spotted the ace of spades tacked with a throwing knife to the front of the pulpit. He pulled the knife free and looked carefully at the card, recognizing it. He looked out the window, watching the rain stream steadily down the panes, listening to the soft pangs of droplets landing on glass and wood.
He slipped the knife and card into his jacket pocket and headed toward the saloon.
"Mr. Standish," Mary said, crossing the street, holding her skirts in her hand. "Ezra!"
Ezra stopped before entering the saloon and turned toward her. "Mrs. Travis."
"Mr. Andrews, the banker-"
"I know who he is." He didn't mean to sound impatient, and the moment he spoke the words he regretted them.
"He received this today at the bank," she handed him the note.
Ezra grasped Mary's elbow and moved her out of the rain and then read the note. "How long ago?"
"Couple hours right after you and the others left. He didn't see who left it."
Ezra rubbed his eyes and then looked toward the bank.
"Where're the others?"
"Searching for Vin."
"I told Chris about the Devil's Mouth before he left-"
"Mrs. Travis, I really don't-"
"I just think there's more to it than what we know-what if this," she grabbed the note from Ezra and pointed toward the signature at the bottom, "group, the Hornets-as they like to call themselves, is using this-this old legend as some kind of tool-"
"Mrs. Travis, whatever it is Chris will find it, and he'll do what is necessary." Ezra turned to enter the saloon.
"Ezra," Mary said, trying to stop him. "What are you saying?"
"Tell Mr. Andrews to close the bank and keep it closed until Chris and the others get back."
"Where're you going?"
Ezra pressed his lips together, tipped his hat, and then disappeared into the saloon.
"Mr. Standish," Mary said, watching the batwing doors swing closed, "Ezra!"
"Chris," Buck said, tossing a stick into the bush. He looked toward the north mesa and the hairs on the back of his neck rose.
"We're not alone," Chris said, carefully pushing his duster behind the handle of his weapon. He looked toward the horses, their ears were raised, alert to something in the distance.
"Tracks look like they're leadin' us to Brewer's farm-and you know how unsociable they are."
"Got a bad feeling about this." Chris focused his attention in the direction that the horses were focused.
A lone rider appeared in the distance. He stopped and held his position, not making a movement. His horse tossed its head and stepped impatiently.
"They're behind us too," Buck said, readying himself for a gunfight. "How'd they know we'd be here?" He looked toward the rider behind him and then before him.
"If I knew that, Buck we wouldn't be here."
Buck nodded and sighed: "Think the others are alive?"
Chris clenched his jaw and watched as four more riders rode out from the confines of the trees.
"Your reputation seems to have outgrown you, Larabee," Leroy said, leaning forward in his saddle, resting his forearms on the horn. "I thought for sure takin' the seven of you down might be difficult-never once did I reckon you'd be no different than anyone else."
"Who are you?" Chris asked, relaxing his shoulders, knowing a gunfight would only be fatal.
Leroy chuckled and looked toward his men who had encircled Buck and Chris. "I'm the man that made the Magnificent Seven disappear."
"I've got it!" JD said, grasping a thick root while standing on Josiah's shoulders.
"Can you pull yourself up?" Josiah asked, carefully adjusting his balance.
"I think so!" He grasped the root with both hands and pulled himself up, barely managing to peek over the side. "Nobody's around."
"Careful, JD," Nathan said, watching as mud slipped down the sides of the walls.
JD pulled himself up and managed to get his left elbow over the top when the root snapped and he fell backward. He landed with a thud, sending mud in all directions. "Shit."
Josiah was at his side while Nathan tried to keep him from moving.
"I'm okay," JD said, catching his breath. "Just had the wind knocked out of me."
"Stay put, JD, until I have a chance to look you over." Nathan clenched his jaw, wishing he would have protested the stupid idea to begin with. "You could have broken your neck."
"But you could have!" Nathan pressed his hands against JD's ribs and watched for any sign of a wince.
"I'm okay, really." JD sat up and flung mud from his fingers.
"Shhh," Vin hushed, listening quietly. "Riders are comin'"
Josiah, Nathan, and JD moved the sides of their prison and waited.
A man appeared, his hat and neckerchief hiding his features. "Seems you boys are gonna have some company." He chuckled and quickly disappeared.
Buck and Chris were tossed into the hole together, bound with their hands behind their backs. Buck landed belly first, sending mud toward Josiah and Nathan who tried to cover their faces in time but failed. Chris landed on his backside, sending mud onto Buck.
"You both all right?" Nathan asked, squatting behind Chris to untie his bonds.
"Peachy," Buck answered, rolling onto his backside. Josiah helped him stand and untied the ropes securing his hands.
"What happened?" JD asked. "Thought you guys were goin' to get us outta here."
Buck raised his lip and snarled. He looked toward Vin who remained seated, slightly hidden in the shadows. "This is where you decide to disappear to you couldn't pick Virginia's Brothel?"
Vin smiled, but kept quiet.
Chris flung mud from his fingers and then looked up.
"Already tried," JD said, "fell like Buck out a married woman's window."
Josiah chuckled and slapped the kid on the shoulder.
"This hole is gettin' mighty small," Buck said.
Nathan sighed and looked up, hoping someone might peek over the edge, just enough to let them know what was going on. "Did they say anything to you-about why we're here?"
Chris shrugged: "Guess Leroy wanted us out of the picture."
"Who's Leroy?" Josiah asked.
JD raised his arms and slapped them against his thigh. "The dude that wants us out of the picture."
Josiah frowned: "Hole's getting smaller, JD."
Chris rubbed his face, smearing mud along his cheek bones. He looked toward Vin and sighed. "How's he doin'?"
Nathan shook his head: "He needs to be in a warm bed slurpin' some of Nettie's chicken soup."
"Where's Ezra?" JD asked, pulling his jacket collar up and around his ears.
The saloon, if it could be called that, was empty except for the lone bartender who continuously wiped out shot glasses. The man looked up, nodded, and then returned to his duties. Old leather, bad whiskey, and grunge filled the odors of the night, they were joined with cheap cologne and tobacco. Two lanterns hung from support rails at each end of the bar, the reflection of flames danced off the walls, causing shadows to move like ghosts.
It had been built for the singular purpose of supplying a breather for weary travelers. It was located twenty miles south of Four Corners, hidden within the confines of cottonwood trees and sage brush. The directions to such a place were carefully hidden on the note to the banker, as well as the card left for him on Josiah's pulpit.
Ezra walked toward a corner table and sat with his back to the wall. He pulled the card from his breast pocket and ran his thumb over the gash centered over the black ace. He could hear the movements of the barkeep, the hollow pops of glasses as they were set upside down on the counter, the subtle shift of his feet, and the swish of his apron against the counter edge.
The bartender grabbed a bottle from the wall behind him with a glass and walked toward the table. "I'll leave the bottle," he said, turning back toward the counter. He tossed his dirty dishrag toward the water basin and left the room, closing the door behind him.
Ezra tossed his hat onto the table and waited. His mind threw him back in time: When he first met Chris and the others, Nettie Wells and her niece, Tiny and his damn one-liners. It hadn't been easy, but then, it never was. He'd been running all his life, what was to stop him now what had stopped him in the first place? It wasn't for the measly dollar-a-day pay.
He looked at his hands and rubbed his thumb over the calluses on his fingers and the base of his palm-the places where his gun rested. His hands had been soft at one time, held in refinement for his work, knowing the feel of marked cards, shaved coins, the smoothness of a woman's hip.
"I nearly choked on a steak when I heard you'd become part of the law in Four Corners." the man said, entering the room with a confident stride. He tossed his hat onto the table next to the door before taking a seat across from Ezra. "A lawman?" He was tall, heavyset, with a beard that covered most of his chin. A long scar ran from the corner of his left eye to the pinch of his nose.
"Could be worse."
"Not much," he chuckled, reaching into his breast pocket for a cigar. "Sure as hell beats fleeing every city you pass through."
Ezra nodded, but kept quiet.
"Saw your mother in New Orleans about a year back-she still knows how to bring a room to a stand still."
"What are you doing here, John?"
"Trying to survive just like you." He bit off the end of his cigar, spit, and lit the opposite end, the flame illuminating his face. He looked older than he should.
Ezra tossed the playing card across the table, the scarred ace face up. "What do you want?"
John picked up the card and fingered it. "Guess I lost my touch a few years ago," he moved the card up and down, "don't know how to read them anymore-they served me well for a few years-but not anymore. I guess I never had your teacher." He met Ezra's eyes.
"Where are my friends, John?"
John chuckled and shook his head: "How do you know if I have anything to do with that?"
"Because I'm not foolish enough to believe you wouldn't."
John nodded: "You've grown up."
"Don't patronize me."
"I didn't." He took a long puff and looked around the room. He grabbed the shot glass next to the bottle of whisky and filled it. "There was a time at the first sign of trouble when you would have high-tailed it outta here, but here you are, talking to me and not a bedroll in sight."
"Where are they, John?"
"Speaking as someone who knows, Ezra, pack up your bags and leave you can find more friends-hell, I've made hundreds." He downed a shot and poured himself another.
Ezra shook his head: "I haven't."
"You could con the teeth out of a dog."
"Not them and I wouldn't try."
"So fucking noble You'd better be ready to do more than try." He ran his finger along the lip of the shot glass, watching the amber fluid dance against the flames of the lanterns.
"Why are you involved in this?"
"You know me, Ezra, I always was the adventurous one." He tipped the glass and slowly spun the whiskey. "Maude must hate this you being here, wasting your God-given talents." He downed the shot. "I was selling Bibles up north when I helped this kid by the name of Leroy who, with his friends, was looking to make a fast buck." He poured himself another shot, topping the glass. He brought it to his lips, smiled, and toasted. "To family."
"What did you do?"
John held the whiskey in his mouth momentarily before swallowing, enjoying the warmth, the flavor, and the subtle intoxication. "I robbed one then two then three banks, before turning to stagecoaches. Earned enough to play a few high stakes poker games."
"What does this Leroy want?" Ezra sighed, and rubbed the bridge of his nose in frustration.
"Notoriety He's mad at the world and taking it out on anyone he comes across." John shrugged and leaned back in his seat, crossing his right ankle over his left knee. "It started out as robbing a few banks, then we'd go into hiding and hit again-after things settled down, but something's changed."
"Where are they?"
"I could end up dead for this they're probably out there looking for you right now." He replaced his foot on the floor and rested his forearms on his thighs. "I guess you could say that for every fable there's some truth. Seems there's a hole-guess it's a sinkhole that was caused by gophers. Anyway, this hole is deep and wide enough to hold men in, deep enough so they can't get out." He met Ezra's eyes. "Brewers raise pigs, and they're well known for it within their small circle of friends." He looked toward the half empty bottle of whiskey. "No bodies, no proof, and then poof the seven of you are gone forever, nowhere to be found."
"They've been feeding people to their pigs?"
John leaned forward, shaking his head. "You don't get it do you, Mr. Lawman, by the time you find your friends there'll be nothing left of them to sew back together. Leroy and his mob will execute them one by one and dispose of the bodies, and there's not a better way to do it than to feed them to pigs."
Ezra's gut flipped, and he suddenly felt sick. He scanned the room, searching for proof, for life, or the fastest way back to Four Corners but he couldn't focus enough to find the door. "Why?"
"Why not?" John stood and tossed two bits onto the table and the money spun and flipped, before coming to a rest next to the shot glass. "I'm headed east, maybe I can hit a few games before the bastards catch up with me." He smiled and turned, walking toward the door. "If I see your mother, would you like me to send her a message?"
Ezra shook his head.
John nodded and placed his hand on the arch of the batwing door. He paused: "Just because we share his blood, doesn't make us brothers I guess we never really were."
"What now?" Olsen said, tossing his cheroot into the fire. He looked toward the barn where Jeb and Steven were collecting meat hooks and tanning knives. "Still need to find number seven."
"James was supposed to take care of that one," Leroy said, warming his hands over the fire.
"Can you trust 'im, seems to me he was more interested in makin' a few bucks than catchin' Standish." He slipped his hands into his gloves. "Can't trust those kinds of people."
"Con men, gamblers cheats."
"Takes one to catch one, Olsen."
Olsen looked toward the mounds of dirt that encircled the pit, Devil's Mouth. He suppressed a smile, knowing the legend was nothing more than folklore gone awry. He couldn't help but think after the seven were gone that things would start to look up. Instead of hiding after a raid, they could enter Four Corners knowing they wouldn't be challenged taking the place of the seven.
He looked toward the house where Jeb and Steven's parents were sleeping, completely oblivious to what was happening. But then, they wouldn't care. He looked toward the others, watching as they cleaned their weapons and prepared their bedrolls.
"We goin' to use that hole as a shootin' gallery?" Davis pulled his chew-stick from his pocket and gnawed on the end, chewing off just enough to stuff between his gums.
"Seems good 'nough to me," Olsen said, "ain't no challenge though." He chuckled and looked left and watched a series of six lightening flashes. "Why don't we at least move to the barn, it's gotta be better than sleepin' under this tarp?"
"You wanna sleep with the hogs, you go right ahead." Leroy lay against the underside of his saddle with his feet near the fire. "We'll take care of them tomorrow after James brings Standish's body back."
"And if he don't?"
"Wait and see."
Ezra banged on the door to Mrs. Potter's store. The glass in the door rattled and the closed sign bounced. He saw a light flicker in the back room and he took a step back, looking into the street, watching for something suspicious.
"Mr. Standish?" Gloria said, peeking through a side window.
"I need a few things, Mrs. Potter, and I'm in a bit of a hurry. "
Gloria nodded and quickly shut the window.
Ezra could hear her moving throughout the room, the clatter of pans when she bumped against them, and the hustling of stocking feet on old floorboards, they creaked and popped as she made her way toward the door. He sighed, realizing he would need to do something about that.
The handle of the door wiggled along with the subtle click of the lock. The door squeaked open and Gloria stood with her hair bound in a white cloth and wearing a smile and a day dress.
"What do you need, Mr. Standish?"
"Chris and the others are in some trouble-"
Gloria opened the door all the way and turned toward the supplies. "What is it you need?"
"Rope ladder, blankets, dry clothes, maybe some-"
"Okay," she interrupted, "I'll gather the animals, you build the ark."
Ezra smiled, nodded, and turned toward the livery.
Tiny picked a large bay gelding who had been used several times as a pack horse. Instead of a pack saddle, he'd chosen a standard Colorado style; just in case someone was short a horse. He'd wanted to trade out Ezra's big chestnut for a fresh horse, but Ezra refused, saying his horse was strong enough to make it.
"You're sure they're at Brewer's place?" Tiny asked, untying the bay.
Ezra nodded, having traded out his horse's wet saddle pad for a dry one.
Tiny nodded: "I'll go on over to Mrs. Potter's store and get those supplies for you."
"Thanks." Ezra slipped his rifle into the scabbard and secured an extra blanket to the saddle. He reached for the small satchel of bandages and items from Nathan's clinic-hoping he'd chosen the right things, if indeed they would need them. He untied his big horse and slowly left the barn, wincing when the sprinkles of rain tapped his hat and caused ripples in puddles that lay sporadically across the street.
Ezra led his horse toward Mrs. Potter's store and was thankful to see a rain rubber lying over the supplies.
"I put that rope ladder over the top of the blankets," Tiny said, pushing the tip of his hat up. "You sure you don't want a few of us to go with you?"
"Take care of the town, from what I understand this gang may try and hit the bank." He slipped his foot into the stirrup and mounted, pulling his collar around his ears.
Tiny handed him the lead to the big bay and stood back. "You be careful, Mr. Standish."
Ezra pressed his lips together and nodded. He tipped the brim of his hat in Mrs. Potter's direction and slowly headed out. The rain that had started slowly was now coming down in droves.
Vin coughed and groaned, bracing his arms against his chest. Nathan rubbed his back with a worried look on his face, brow furrowed and an unhappy curl to his lips. He'd placed his own jacket over Vin, hoping in some way that it might help. Nathan shivered as another rain storm relentlessly pounded the ground, and the spring wind continued to bite at his skin. Despite the depth of the pit they found themselves in, the wind and rain seemed to focus its energy on them.
JD stood, ankle deep in mud, in the center of the pit. He looked up, searching for any sign of life. The clouds moved across the moon, exposing only portions as they continued their path east. His hands felt like fuzzy ripe peaches, but they looked like shit-covered prunes. Mud had dried in his hair, and except for where the rain couldn't hit it, it was clumped, reminding him of when he was a kid making mud pies with his friends.
Josiah squatted in front of Nathan and Vin, wishing his prayers had been heard. "Ezra will come through."
Nathan nodded, fearing the worst. He watched Chris continue to pace, spraying mud onto his legs. Buck shook his head, allowing water to whip off the brim of his hat.
"Could be worse," Buck said, folding his arms across his chest.
"Don't start, Buck." Chris placed his hands on his hips and paused.
"Think they'll toss Ezra in here next?" JD asked.
"They'll have to kill 'im first," Buck said. "Ezra and mud the man can barely handle dust."
"Let's hope he can handle more than we expect of him, brothers," Josiah said, standing and turning toward Chris who looked suddenly away.
James was fifteen years older than Ezra, and he'd looked it. Ezra sighed, dismounting and tying the big bay to a tree a hundred yards from the fire burning to the east of Brewer's farmhouse. He had remembered him as being jovial and outgoing, always ready to laugh and never short of jokes. He smiled, thinking of Buck, and realizing the two had been very similar at one point in time, but things had changed for James and not for the better.
Ezra crouched and focused his attention toward the fire. The barn was just a few hundred feet away, and he thought it odd that they weren't utilizing it. The house was dark and he assumed the family was asleep. He curled his nose when the winds changed directions and the overwhelming aroma of pigs hit him.
Someone chuckled and tossed a rock at a dog that yelped and ran for the house. Ezra could see the beast's white furry legs as he dashed beneath the porch. He sighed, shook his head, checked his weapons and then returned to the packhorse. The big bay had cocked its left hind hoof and lowered his head, seemingly content. He removed the rope ladder and grabbed a lariat, slipping it through his left arm and resting it against his shoulder.
He knew he should wait until the men surrounding the fire had gone to sleep, but he wasn't sure they would. Were any of them standing guard? Who or what were they watching for? If Chris and the others were devising a devious plan of escape, was Leroy planning to shoot them while they tried?
Ezra crept to the east, keeping his distance from the small gathering of men. He could tell a few had dozed off beneath the oversized tarp. Four men sat around the fire, quietly talking. Ezra couldn't hear their words, but he understood the gestures of facial expressions and hand movements.
He focused his attention toward the pit, and hoped he didn't fall in by accident. He'd never seen it, only heard of it, and even then the stories varied. He knew Leroy and his men wouldn't be far from the pit's opening, they'd need to see it. He also knew it wouldn't be terribly close to the house, for no other reason than practicality. The thunder and rain disguised his footfalls, and for the first time in his life he was thankful for it. His heart raced and felt as though it would jump from his chest. He had to do this, and he had to do it right.
Ezra dropped to the ground when a flash of lightning lit the sky. Dressed in his dark heavy jacket, concealment was a goal, and not impossible. He remained still, and was slow to peek up past the foliage, the rim of his hat hiding the whites of his eyes. The four men were still gathered around the fire, now smoking and drinking.
He got to his feet, mud dripping from his hands, knees, and the chest of his jacket. Crouching, he crept forward again, keeping one on the men, and the other to where he hoped the hole would be.
Give or take a couple hundred yards.
"Farmers will be happy," JD said, still standing in the center of the hole. He looked up, allowing the rain to wash the mud from his hair. He'd given up trying to stay warm, and being dry was impossible.
"Are you kiddin' me?" Buck replied.
"They've got to have something planned," Josiah said, sitting beside Vin who was nobly trying to keep his discomfort quiet.
"Hey!" JD said, raising his hands to silence the others. "There's someone up there."
Chris stood, walked to the center and looked up.
"Hey, boys!" someone said, tossing an empty bottle of whiskey into the hole. The man peered over the edge, chuckled and unbuttoned the front of his pants. "Figure you ain't gettin' enough rain down there."
Chris grabbed JD by the back of his jacket and shoved him out of the way.
"Sick sonofabitch!" Buck stood defensively, clutching cold hands into clenched fists.
"What's the matter, boy, you think you're worth somethin', sittin' in that shithole, waitin' for a bullet to end your miserable little life." He chuckled again, buttoning his pants. "Figured you might enjoy somethin' warm 'fore you die."
"Who in the hell are you?" Buck asked, moving past Chris to stand in the center.
The man chuckled again. "Your substitute."
"Stand back, Buck, the asshole might turn around and make another deposit." JD grabbed the back of Buck's jacket and pulled.
The man chuckled, placed his hands high on his thighs and tried to get a better look at those beneath him. "Thought fer sure you boys would be more of a problem to conquer-with yer reputations an' all." He jerked forward, his hands falling from his thighs and dangling toward the pit. His knees buckled and he fell headfirst.
Josiah grabbed Chris and pulled him back as the body fell forward, landing with a thumped splash. A heavy knife protruded from between his shoulder blades.
Chris was the first to step forward, pass the body and look up.
Ezra smiled, lighting a match that highlighted the arrogant expression on his face. "You had to get captured and imprisoned on a pig farm."
"You plannin' on borin' us all to death or gettin' us the hell outta Dodge?" Buck asked, ignoring the dead man.
Ezra disappeared and then lowered the rope ladder that he'd tied with the lariat to a nearby tree. "I'll have you know, Mr. Larabee, once the reward money comes in for capturing these miscreants, I will need a few things-clothing that doesn't have the overwhelming scent of pig shit saturated the fine fibers."
"Shut up, Ezra," Chris said, turning toward Nathan who was helping Vin to his feet.
"I could pull the ladder up." Ezra, on his knees, and supporting the rope attached to the ladder and the tree. He reached for JD's hand as he carefully made his way up the ladder.
JD struggled against the instability as he moved upward: hand over hand, foot over foot. He grasped Ezra's outstretched hand and then carefully crawled to the surface, his fingers sinking into muddy ground and his already wet pants becoming once again covered with the slop.
"We weren't sure you'd show, Ezra?" JD said, turning to look into the pit and wishing light was available.
"And I take it by the sound of your voice that you're relieved?"
JD smiled: "Hell yeah." He tried to look into the pit to see who would be the next up. "Vin's pretty busted up, ain't real sure how we're going to get him out of there."
Ezra handed JD a weapon. "Do you know for sure how many men are in this so called gang of outlaws?"
"Not really, close as any of us can figure, it'd be around eight or nine."
Ezra nodded and handed JD the other two pistols he had brought along. "I'm going to retrieve the horses, help the others out and be quiet."
JD swallowed, feeling the lump in his throat knot. "Be careful."
Ezra patted his shoulder before sprinting into the woods.
"Ezra!" Chris called up, keeping his voice low enough to not be heard by the members of the gang.
"He left, went to get the horses. How do you want to get Vin up?"
"Shit," Chris said under his breath. He looked toward Vin who was standing, with Nathan's help.
"Let's just get out of here," he said, walking slowly toward the rope that Buck was holding.
"Get up top, Buck, and help JD pull Vin up."
Ezra did not bother to look toward the men who were gathered around the fire. He could still here their mumbled words, and he could still see the illumination of the fire from the corner of his right eye. Both horses perked their ears forward when they spotted him through the branches of the trees. The big bay flared his nostrils and exhaled, moving his ears back and forth. He looked bored.
Ezra's big chestnut shuffled his back legs and then settled on his right hoof, cocking his left. Ezra reached into the saddlebags and retrieved several weapons, stashing them in jacket pockets and in his belt. He shoved ammunition into his pants pockets, hoping it would be enough to at least help them escape.
The click of a weapon caused Ezra to pause, close his eyes, and slowly raise his hands in the air.
"And you might be ?" the man said, his voice so low it blended with the wind.
Ezra sighed, kicking himself for allowing someone to sneak up behind him, particularly someone who smelled like the inside of a New Orleans brothel.
"You must be number seven-what's his name Standish? That who you are? And what'd you do to Macroy?" He shoved the end of his weapon into Ezra's back.
"You'll never get away with this."
"Don't have to."
Vin lay on his left side, gasping for breath. "I agree with Ezra," he said, clenching his teeth as Nathan slipped his hands beneath his arms, "I say we all get new clothes after this." He sighed, squeezing his eyes shut. "I never want to wear these again."
"Keep 'em on until we get you back to town," Buck said, helping Chris out of the pit.
They all ducked and dropped to the ground after the secession of two gunshots.
"Where's Ezra?" Chris said, jumping to his feet, the weapon Ezra had given him held tightly in his hand.
They could hear the rustling of the men near the campfire, and Josiah and Nathan quickly grabbed Vin, pulled him to his feet carried him toward the trees.
Ezra appeared, leading both horses. He dropped their leads, ground tying them, and started handing out weapons and ammunition.
"What happened?" Chris asked.
"You've made quite a few enemies, Mister Larabee, it would be prudent not to ask."
Chris, leaning his shoulder against a tree, looked toward Buck and JD who were similarly positioned with their weapons ready for action. Shots were being fired and bullets landed in tree trunks, mud, and snapped branches. He returned his gaze toward Ezra and waited.
"I fell," Ezra said, squatting and resting against the base of a large tree. He fired, using the light from the fire as his only guide.
Josiah and Nathan sat on either side of Vin, who was also ready to fight.
"Give it up!" Leroy yelled, hiding behind a cluster of rocks.
"Who in the hell does this guy think he is?" Buck said, trying to hit his target, a man attempting to douse the flames of the fire.
The big bay Ezra had brought with him, grunted and stumbled back onto his hindquarters before collapsing, heaving as he fell onto his left side, crushing himself beneath his own weight.
Josiah mercifully euthanized the animal with a quick shot to the head, and then removed the supplies that were still attached to its back.
"Ain't no use tryin' to fight us, Larabee, soon as the sun comes up, we'll spot you and kill you and the others on sight."
"At least he's goal oriented." Ezra dumped the empty cartridges from his weapon and then reloaded, trying to hide his shaking hands.
"The horses are on the other side of the barn," JD said, having seen them briefly through the rain, while the clouds had allowed the moon a brief showing.
"Too risky," Chris said, lowering himself closer to the ground, peeking around the tree for any signs of the enemy.
"We can't stay here," Nathan said, looking toward Vin.
"What choice do we got?" Buck said, wiping his face, succeeding only in smearing mud across his nose and right cheek. He looked toward the house and saw that lanterns had been lit. The dogs were barking, but staying close to the porch.
A flash of lightening flew across the sky, and Chris spotted one member of the gang trying to crawl his way forward. Shaking his head in disgust, Chris fired, stopping him permanently.
"How many are we dealin' with?" Vin asked, clutching his weapon and using his senses to locate movement or the rankness of body odor.
"At least nine," Chris said, "I'm not sure how many of the Brewers are involved in this." He looked toward Ezra who was still stationed next to the base of the tree, looking toward the farmyard. "How'd you manage to find us?"
Ezra turned, sighed, and leaned his back against the tree. "One of the members of this, mob, saw the wisdom of informing me of what was happening."
"Who?" Buck asked, turning defensively toward him.
"A gambler," Ezra said, "you wouldn't know him." He returned to look toward the house and barn, wishing now the fire were still lit.
"Where's this gambler now?" Nathan asked, resting the rifle on his thighs.
"Why does it matter?" Ezra said, moving slightly and then resting his head back.
"If we don't get dry it's only a matter of time before these bullets fade and they won't be worth anythin'." JD said, trying to keep his weapon dry.
The heavy bang of a rifle echoed and bounced off trees and the surrounding buildings. Mr. Brewer stood on his front porch, rifle in hand and ready to fire at the next thing that moved. "JEB, STEVEN! GET BACK TO THE HOUSE NOW!" He fired another warning shot and his two boys were seen running with their tails between their legs.
"Don't shoot us, Pa!" the boys said in unison, their arms raised. As soon as they reached the porch their father hit them and forced them into the house.
"FOR THE REST OF YOU!" Mr. Brewer continued, his white nightshirt blowing around his bare legs, "GET OFF MY PROPERTY!"
"His idea is the most solid," Ezra said, clenching his jaw and squeezing his eyes shut.
"I'm open to any ideas," Chris said, looking toward the house and hoping to see the gang's escape.
"We've got one horse, we could load Vin up on it and head on over to the Sampson's place, it's only a few miles from here." Buck turned, pushing his shoulder into the tree he leaned against.
Chris shook his head: "They've got three little ones-won't risk these bastards followin' us there."
"GET THE HELL OFF MY PROPERTY!" Mr. Brewer yelled, this time raising his weapon and firing at a target.
His mark fell with a grunt, and landed with a splash.
"Come out, Larabee!" Leroy yelled, safely hidden under the cover of darkness. His remaining six men rested beside him, all ready for a gunfight. "It ain't no use. There ain't no way outta here 'cept through us, an' you ain't gettin' through!"
"Is this guy crazy?" Buck asked, shaking his head while carefully protecting his weapon.
Chris sighed and tried to get a better idea of Leroy and his goon's location.
"There's dynamite in the pocket of the saddlebags," Ezra said, adjusting his position to get more comfortable. His legs felt numb, and he was slowly becoming lightheaded.
JD smiled: "Dynamite."
"Hold your horses, kid, you could blow yourself to Texas if you're not careful-you'd best let the professionals handle it." Buck watched as Josiah dug through the saddlebags and removed three sticks. "Any idea of where they're at?" He looked at Chris, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth.
"Close enough," Chris said, looking toward Ezra. "You bring any lucifers with you?"
Ezra leaned his head back against the course bark of the tree. "They're in there." He pushed his hat up and wiped his brow with the back of his hand before looking toward the house where Mr. Brewer continued to stand, rifle in hand, nightshirt blowing around his legs. He looked ghost-like, and he reminded Ezra of stories he had heard as a child growing up near Savannah.
Josiah continued to dig, finding a bundle of medical supplies, food, dry shirts, socks, and even a bundle of jerky. Ezra had thought ahead and had come prepared. Josiah couldn't help but smile. He found a small bundle of lucifers, wrapped tightly in dry cotton cloth. He untied the bundle and then handed them to Chris. "Make this fast, I want to go home."
Chris nodded. He looked toward Vin who was doing his best to stay conscious. He wouldn't last much longer, not with the rain, the wind, or the spring cold-the bitter cold of new life. The branches of the trees rustled together drowning out the murmurs of voices.
Buck took one of the sticks of dynamite, protected the fuse with his hands as Chris lit a match. They met eyes, nodded, and quickly formed a plan.
The fuse was lit and it sparked at the end, seemingly harmless as it spit sparks. Buck stood and threw the stick as hard as he could, sending it spinning through the air. Chris turned, protecting himself behind the tree, and he watched as the others did the same.
The explosion caused a rumble that shook the base of the trees. Mr. Brewer was thrown back and he quickly crawled back into his home. The horses panicked, pushing toward the furthest corner of the corral.
The sky delivered a downpour, enough to blind its occupants. Chris pushed himself against the tree and watched as Buck risked his life to cover the remaining two sticks of dynamite with his body. Rain pelted his back, despite the cover of trees. Josiah held the rubber covered items as close to his body as he could without dampening them. Nathan tried to cover Vin, pulling him against the base of the willow tree, its girth nearly as thick as the seven of them. The large branches overhead supplied some cover. Ezra pushed his back into the tree, tipped his face downward and watched as the water streamed down a narrow path off his hat.
They could not hear themselves breathe over the heavy rains, and even the screams coming from the horses were dulled. Gusts of wind blew open jackets, shirts, and seeped through skin. Bones shook, muscles cramped, and cheeks quickly lost feeling.
Buck hugged the dynamite close to his chest, ignoring the thoughts of the unstable explosive detonating. Instead, he thought of a woman named Ruth, a fair-haired beauty who instructed him in the art of what she called, "The horizontal two-step". They were thoughts much more soothing than seeing parts of himself blown to pieces.
JD pulled his knees to his chest, trying to make himself as small as humanly possible. His hat kept his knees, portions of his shoulders, and head dry-or as dry as possible. Water ran in a steady stream from the rim of his hat and onto the front of his legs. He could feel water entering his boots, soaking his socks, and pooling near his toes. What he would not give for a warm bed and dry feet. His hands felt cold, folded together and bound around his legs.
Chris could barely see the house from where he sat, and the only source of light came from a lantern within the home. The lightning flashes had diminished, but the heavy rolls of thunder continued with a steady even rhythm. The explosion had been spectacular, but the effects of flying debris hadn't lasted long with the sudden downpour of rain. He could only wait the weather out and allow Mother Nature her need for release. He could barely make his men out as they hid themselves from nature's wrath, but he knew they were tired, just as much as himself, and the spring chill had taken him to the bone. His toes felt like ice, and despite the season, the cold had a relevance all its own.
It was slow to let up, the rain, and at times it only hinted at it, offering false hopes. Josiah knew, despite his size, that his poor attempt to save the dry supplies had been futile. He could feel the dampness seeping in through his own clothing, running off the rubber sheath and soaking his pants and jacket as though he'd jumped into a lake and gone swimming. The supplies buried beneath were slowly succumbing to spring's great swell of life offering blood for harvest. At the moment it was unwanted, but desperately needed.
Nathan hated feeling helpless, particularly when someone he cared about was in pain. It wasn't his fault, and he knew it, but when the others looked to him to aid in relief and he couldn't do anything to help, his heart felt as though the burden were his own. He hated it. Vin was miserable, and yet he sat there as focused as humanly possible under the circumstances, unwilling to lose the battle. With broken ribs, bloodied hands, and a fever, he grasped his weapon beneath his jacket and waited for the inevitable moment that he would need to use it. Despite the damage being done to his body, Nathan surmised, Vin wouldn't stop until someone stopped him. It was a brave, and yet stupid thing to do.
He had not thought, at first, that the fall he had taken had been that bad. Ezra clenched his jaw and felt the burning sensation on his left side-always his left side. Why couldn't it be his right for a change? This entire situation seemed preposterous a hole in the ground that swallowed people, pigs eating people, young miscreants looking to make names for themselves it sounded more like one of JD's dime novels than it did a true-to-life situation. And yet, here he was, sitting in mud with his back to a tree wishing it would stop raining just enough to ensure his clothing wouldn't shrink. This entire incident would ensure a reasonable argument for a pay raise. He sighed, and closed his eyes, feeling fatigued and unbelievably cold.
"Rain's lettin' up," Buck said, looking toward the small space between the pit they'd found themselves in earlier and the barn. "Want to toss another out there and see what happens?"
Chris turned his head and followed Buck's gaze. "Leroy!" He waited a moment, looked toward his men and then called again, "Leroy, give it up, there ain't no use tryin' to fight us! Come in easy and you'll walk out of this!"
The only sound was of light rain on the wet ground. The horses had settled, bunching together in the corner of the corral, protecting themselves from the weather with the only thing available themselves.
"LEROY!" Chris yelled, pushing himself away from the tree, looking into the darkness, hoping that on some level he would be able to pick up a light-colored shirt or jacket.
No response came.
"I say we toss another stick out there just to be on the safe side." JD released his hands from around his legs and slowly squatted on the balls of his feet. "What can it hurt?"
"There's a fine line between safety and stupidity, JD, and it's a line we can't cross," Josiah said, placing the bound items he had been holding onto the side of the dead horse. He stood and removed the weapon Ezra had gotten for him from beneath his shirt.
"I'm not lettin' you walk out there, Josiah," Chris said, standing.
"As much as you'd like to try, brother, you couldn't stop me, besides, I have a feeling those young men out there are going to need some medical attention. I know how Ezra has a fondness for dynamite, and I wouldn't be surprised if he'd spiced them up."
Buck's face dropped and he slowly removed the two remaining sticks from the clutches of his chest.
Ezra leaned his head against the tree and smiled, keeping his eyes closed.
"I'll go with you," Chris said, standing and then checking his ammunition. "Ezra," he said, looking toward him.
Ezra raised his head and then made a motion to stand. He fell back, slumping against the tree and sighed, moving his hands on either side his of his hips to try again. His world spun, and he leaned against the tree to regain his balance, looking like a drunk who had fallen and was desperately trying to stand.
Josiah saw and watched Ezra's shadowed form, allowing his eyes to adjust and wishing for lightening, he stepped forward. "Ezra?" he said, furrowing his brow, keeping one eye toward Standish and the other toward the site of the explosion. "Ezra?"
Despite the black of night, Ezra could feel his vision blur, and once-defined shadows became blurs of inconceivable forms. Someone grabbed him by his shoulders and he grabbed a slippery jacket sleeve before feeling his every ounce of energy drain through his toes. The voices surrounding him faded, and then disappeared altogether when the blurry shadows grew large enough to envelop him.
"What the hell?" Buck said, knowing something was wrong, but was unable to define with any confidence of what.
"Josiah?" Nathan asked, knowing Sanchez would be there for Ezra. "Can you tell what happened?"
"He said he fell," Chris said, clenching his jaw, fighting to keep himself from blowing Leroy and his goons to hell. He eyed Buck, and not knowing exactly where the dynamite was held, silently thanked God for the darkness that surrounded them.
Josiah pushed Ezra against the tree and gently patted his cheek with a bear-like hand. "Ezra?" he said, opening Standish's jacket, feeling for blood. Josiah shook his head, they were all soaking wet, and how would he be able to tell the difference between warm blood, or a rain soaked shirt ? Josiah's hands were too cold and callused to feel any difference.
"I say we blow them to shit an' get the hell outta Dodge," Buck said, squatting toward their target.
"Ezra's out," Josiah said, "and I can't tell what's wrong."
Nathan stood, abandoning Vin, and moved toward Chris. "I'm not one for excessive violence, Chris, but if we don't get both Vin and Ezra outta here " he paused and wiped his brow with his hand, " we could lose them both-I need light, Chris. Vin's busted up good, and Ezra ?"
"I know, Nathan." Chris looked toward the house and watched the last light flicker off, as though the Brewers' had an agenda all their own. "Buck?"
"I'm will ya, let's just get this done."
JD stood, unwilling to be excluded. "What do you want me to do?"
"Sit this one out, kid," Buck said, "we don't know what we're dealin' with."
"I'm not a kid, Buck, an' I ain't sittin' anything out!"
"JD," Chris said, his voice stronger and more secure than before, "head toward the horses, stay low to the ground and when you hear Buck and I, let 'em rip."
"We'll need to get them back to town," Nathan said, still standing between Josiah, Ezra, and Vin.
"Not in this weather, Nate," Vin said, taking a rough breath as his lungs rattled. "We'll use the house."
"The Brewers ain't the kind of people who're goin' to let that happen," Josiah said, keeping a hand on Ezra's shoulder.
"They won't have a choice," Chris said, placing three bullets into the chambers of his weapon. Three was all he had, ammunition was low.
Josiah slowly stood, his knees protesting as they cracked. Muscles, cold and stiff, burned with exhaustion. He felt Ezra slump to his left and Josiah moved him gently, positioning him on his side with his head against the large root of the tree. Josiah couldn't help but think, if the situation were different it may have been humorous, Ezra portraying his own version of Rip Van Winkle.
"Ready," Chris said.
"Let's do this."