Don't Know From Adam
Chris Larabee felt confused, but at the moment he felt more restful than he had in a very long time. Perhaps a few moments of just not trying would be nice. Maybe he could just ride along through the shadows and let the memories wash over him. Just not try. Just not fight. Just walk on
He turned around and the fair-haired boy with the shining blue eyes smiled at him. The sweetness of the sight warmed his heart. Chris couldnt help but answer the look with a grin of his own. How many times had he looked down on those hopeful eyes? How many times had he tried to shoo the boy away for his own good, his heart truly not meaning the admonishment? He knew the young boy shouldnt be there with him, but some part of his soul hungered for the company. After all, he knew each time that he came here that the boy would follow. No surprise there, it was almost a ritual. Still, he should probably send him on home now.
Chris slowly reached a hand out to the boy. He stared for several moments at the innocent face before he could bring himself to speak the words that were required of him. "Go on home, Adam."
Then came the expected reply. "Why cant I go with you?"
"You dont need to be following me where Im going. You need to be headin home." Chris hated the words as soon as they left his lips. Why hadnt he let him just come along? Why had he left him alone when he knew he would just follow him anyway?
The boy lowered his bright eyes, hung his head and quietly turned away. Larabee watched him go and instantly missed his company. Still, it was better that he went home Wait, that couldnt be right. That young soul hadnt gone home. That boy had followed him, had barreled after him straight into hell.
Chris made a move to catch up to the boy who drifted into the dark shadows. He forced his legs to carry him to the top of a hill and it was there that he saw his wife. Her presence didnt surprise or startle him, he simply accepted her being there as a given and went to her side in a rush of excitement. "Sarah, I saw him. I saw Adam," he gasped.
The words that reached his ears were spoken so softly he almost couldnt hear them. "I know you did. Its all right, Chris. You know yourself, its all right."
The pounding in his chest continued. It wasnt all right. Something was very wrong. Chris looked at Sarah before his eyes wandered down the hill and fell upon a commotion at the bottom. "Wait a minute. Sarah? Th-this is all wrong." Chris turned his gaze back to where Sarah had stood. She was gone. "Oh, Sarah " his voice cracked with emotion.
The man on the small rise wrapped his arms around himself and bent slightly at the waist to fight off the emptiness that tried to fill his being. It was all too much to take in. Adam was there. Adam was gone. Adam the child, the boy Sarah, had she been there too? Had she left him? His mind was reeling from the assault of emotions and the evident loss of reality. Was he going insane? Finally, truly going mad?
As if to accept his affliction, Chris straightened and rolled his shoulders back. So be it, he thought, if it means being with my family, all my family, again. Why the hell not?
He closed his eyes against the blur of information that was trying to find its way into his brain. Remembering wasnt always all it was cracked up to be. Let it pass, then just walk on.
He opened his eyes and looked at the spot where Sarah had stood. She hadnt returned. He moved his glance once again to the bottom of the incline and made out several men milling around a horse-drawn wagon. There was something in the bed of the wagon, but he couldnt make out what it was. A familiar curiosity prodded him to leave the hilltop. He had to reach the wagon.
About halfway down the hill, Chris heard shouting. He looked past the wagon and spotted what appeared to be a young man being dragged towards the gathering below. From what he could make out, the young fellow was not in good shape; he wasnt just being dragged, he was being carried. Again the youth yelled. He seemed more and more terrified the closer he came to the group. Feeling compelled to help the poor man, Chris moved faster down the hill. He was about fifty feet away from the activity when he felt an ache growing in his hip. Ignoring it, he continued, but it wasnt long before the pain in his upper right leg grew unbearable. A scream caught in his throat and he fell to the ground with a hard thud.
Larabees hands alternated, grabbing for his leg and digging into the earth beneath him. He tried to cry for help but the men were too far away, his voice just wouldnt carry. Try as he may, there was simply too little air in his lungs to make a coherent sound.
Just as he was certain he was about to be crushed beneath an unseen force, hands reached down to pull Chris from the ground. The men had come to his aid and he felt himself being half-carried, half-dragged towards the horses and wagon. He wasnt terribly happy about the rough handling, but at least he was being moved in the right direction.
Larabees eyes watched the ground as it passed beneath his bent knees. When he was able to draw a breath back into his lungs, he raised his head to tell the men who were pulling him along to slow down. Once his chin came up and his vision steadied, he caught sight of the wagon that lay ahead. Forcing his head not to drop, he was able to make out that the something lying in the horse-drawn vehicle was actually someone. He tried to spot the other man who had been dragged, but to Chris dismay, he was gone. There was no sign of him anywhere. Grunting in pain, Chris himself was finally hoisted onto the wagon. He fought the agony in his leg by gritting his teeth and squeezing his eyes shut. Damn! These had to be some of the coldest son-of-a-bitches hed ever met. Whatever he lay on was rough and scratchy. Figures.
Once the pain eased enough for Chris to unclench his teeth, he looked up into the faces of the men who had tossed him like a bag of oats onto the wagon. His mind tried to cast words to his lips, but his voice seemed unwilling to communicate. He tried to swallow, but before he could even wet his lips, the men turned away and left him alone with his fellow passenger.
Unable to ease the pain in his leg, Chris tried to concentrate on something else. He rolled to his uninjured hip and faced the man whose back lay to him. He still didnt seem able to form words, so he settled for touching the man on the shoulder. The poor soul didnt even seem to notice hed been touched. Larabee raised himself slightly higher and tried to get a better look. From his new angle, he could see that the person next to him was quite young in age not much more than a boy. His hair was yellow, his height was somewhat shorter than his own and his build was lean. The youth was facing the floor of the wagon. Surely, he cant be comfortable resting like that, Chris thought, shaking his head. Couldnt those fools at least put the poor boy on his back? Maybe put a blanket under his head? Hes just a kid, for pitys sake.
The gunslinger pulled himself into an awkward sitting position and looked again across the young mans body. He stopped his efforts briefly when his eyes took in a red puddle growing on the wooden boards near the boys head and shoulder. What the hell?
Come on, son . Chris maneuvered the dead weight of the youngster until he lay on his back, partially across Chris own legs. The instant the youths head rolled face up a pair of vivid blue eyes stared at him from a mass of torn flesh. The eyes never blinked, never moved; they stared at him with the stillness of death.
Chris mind was captured by the terror in those eyes. His brain wasnt able to register what his own eyes were taking in, so he froze. For a full minute, he just sat there-- unable to move, unable to breath, unable to act. It wasnt until he felt the wagon move that he realized what was playing out before him. Slowly he looked away from the face that had managed to collapse his very soul and noticed the rest of the boys body. It too lay torn, ripped into shreds, and bloodied. Larabee felt his soul surrender to his hearts sorrow. Before he could say the name that lay inside tightly pressed lips, he fell away from his grief, his nightmare, his own memory.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra dreamed. He was back in his own little backwater town, sitting at a table in the corner of his own little saloon, and winning hundreds with his own little hands. Poker was such a civilized game. Ah, yes, it was good to be home.
The gambler slid his wrist across the table and picked up the glass he had been sipping from during the game. He knew without a doubt that this pot would be his, so he raised his drink to salute his opponents. He was also well aware of the fact that the gentlemen at the table were growing deliciously impatient, so he drained the glass slowly and watched as the sweat began to bead on their faces.
Ezra lowered his glass to the table and returned his attention to the cards he held in his hand. Those lovely, lovely cards an Ace, a King, a Queen, a Jack and that dear old 10 card, all wearing his favorite suitspades. They were truly a beautiful sight.
"Mr. Standish, I do believe Mr. Edwards here has called your hand," an irritated voice finally broke the silence Ezra had manipulated.
"I do believe you are correct, Mr. Mullinax," Ezra said as he flashed a toothy grin at the middle-aged businessman he faced. The suspense was building and Ezra savored every second of it.
"Well, are we to see your cards or not? There is a substantial sum awaiting the outcome," Mullinax grumbled.
"Indeed. Approximately five hundred dollars, if my calculations are correct."
"Of course, Mr. Mullinax, of course," Ezra smiled as he lowered his cards to the table. "But it never ceases to amaze me how hell-bent a man can be at losing his money. May I offer you a bit of advice, sir? Slow down. That way you will at least be able to say that you enjoyed playing the game."
Just as the cards Ezra held so lovingly in his hands were about to be revealed to the men around him, the unthinkable happened. The table he sat at fell away from his reach and crashed to the floor. With it went the perfect hand, the most extraordinary hand, and every hope he had for walking away with that beautiful pot of cash.
Ezra fell across the edge of the upturned table and scrambled to regain his cards.
"Noooo," echoed in Ezras ears.
He clamped his mouth shut and then heard the cry again.
"Oh, Thank Heavens," he muttered as he realized that he had been dreaming and was now stretched across two cots. "I must have dropped off again. It would be most unkind to find that such a thing actually happened while I was awake." Ezra rubbed at his eyes a moment before he once again heard the noise that had taken him away from such a miserable circumstance.
"Nnggnnoo," came a strangled plea.
"The prison," he said in disappointment. "Chris?" Ezra heard the pants of distressed lungs and reached a hand out to feel the cot his fellow prisoner should have been occupying. "Chris, where are you?"
There was no answer, but Ezra had a pretty good idea of what had happened while he was asleep. He sat up and turned to the floor behind him to pick up the lantern. Taking note that it offered the only light to the small room, he knew it was still night out. The hours had passed since Simmons visit, and still there had been no one to come for him. It was probably looking a gift horse in the mouth, but he really was becoming suspicious as to why the warden hadnt made a move towards him or Chris.
A cough came from the far side of the shabby bed. Ezra pulled himself together and carried the light around to where his friend lay sprawled face down on the ground. He knelt a couple of feet from Chris and lowered the lamp so he could see the mans face. He didnt look good, but at least his eyes were open. "Chris? Can you hear me?"
Larabee rubbed at the leg he had been complaining about earlier.
"Come now, please tell me that you are in this position as the result of an escape attempt. Youre a bit old to be falling out of bed, arent you?" Ezra hated to approach the fallen man too quickly, so he used his voice to bridge the gap between them.
Chris didnt answer but he turned his head a little at the sound of the Southern voice.
Ezra was encouraged.
"Uh, perhaps you and I can find another way out; one that doesnt require digging. I speak from experience when I say that removing huge hunks of soil and rock from the earth is not the most pleasant of pastimes." He lowered his bandaged hands for Chris to see.
The silent man moved his eyes to the right and the left in an attempt to check his surroundings without being noticed. Then the gamblers extended arms caught his attention and he looked at the wrapped palms that were just inches away from his face. His eyes traveled up to light on the arms, and the confused look on his face gradually turned to a frown.
Standish didnt miss the slight change in the man he faced. "Can you see my hands, Chris?"
Chris looked down, as if hed been caught looking at something he shouldnt have seen.
"Chris Larabee," Ezra called in a firm tone. "Can you see my hands?"
Ezra waited patiently for his friend to gather his thoughts. He watched as Chris brought a hand from his injured hip and used it to reach out and touch the fingers that peaked out from dirty bandages. Ezra didnt flinch from the contact.
"You do see them, dont you?"
Chris froze, his fingers hanging in the air alongside Ezras.
"Its alright," Standish said softly.
Larabee looked from Ezras hands to his own. As if realizing that the image before him was a part of his own body, he pulled his forearms to his chest and made a move to scoot around into a sitting position.
Ezra slid along the floor in an effort to help Chris find a comfortable position against the cot. Once he settled Chris back, he used a wrapped hand to wipe some of the dirt from the quiet mans face. "How are you feeling?"
Once again, Chris followed the sound of the voice and shyly turned his head. He tried to focus on the face hovering close by, but it took an incredible effort. He squinted at Ezra.
Standish hoped that Larabee, the man he knew before Jericho, was trying to resurface. He reached for the lantern and brought it closer. "You cant see, can you?" he asked. "Perhaps a little light will help. Try, Chris. Try to snap out of it."
Chris edged his way closer to awareness and fought an overwhelming fatigue that seemed to fill every part of his body. Someone was here; maybe that someone could help him. "Who ?" He mouthed twice before he was actually able to voice the question.
Ezra tried not to build up his hopes that somehow he was going to be able to reach Chris this time. "Chris, do you know where you are?"
Larabee ignored the question. "Who ?" He insisted with such a tone that Ezra fell silent. Then Chris felt nausea wash over him and curled into himself as he resisted the urge to be ill.
Ezra didnt say a word. He simply put a reassuring arm on his cellmates back and gave him a moment for composure.
Chris rode out the discomfort, leaning into the person he couldnt see. Once he could catch his breath, he moaned, "Damn, that mustve been a bad bottle o rye." Weakly, the sickened man pulled away from his source of comfort and fell back to once again lean on the rickety cot. "Oooohh, why the hell do I drink that rotgut?"
"Ive often wondered that myself?"
Larabee froze when he heard the southern drawl. He couldnt really recall a specific set of events that would land him on the floor and hung-over, but he could place that voice. He gave himself another moment before he spoke. "Ezra?" he whispered.
"Yes," Chris heard, quickly followed by, "Thank the Good Lord."
Chris rubbed at his face and spoke with his head down. "Ezra, why am I on the floor and why are you praying?"
Ezra laughed softly, overwhelmed with relief that his friend had regained some modicum of his sanity. "You sir, are on the floor because you fell out of bed. I am giving thanks because it seems to have done you a tremendous amount of good."
Chris brought his face up, and for the first time Ezras smiling features came into focus. "Damn, Ezra, what happened to you?"
"You dont remember?"
Chris shook his head. When he tried to speak again, he rubbed his neck trying to ease the soreness inside.
"Do you remember a disgusting little place known as Jericho?" Ezra queried.
"Jericho?" The confusion on Chris face began to clear. "The prison!"
Ezra put a hand on Larabees shoulder when he turned in panic. The blond man twisted to either side, trying to take in his surroundings. "I would suggest you stay seated a little longer. Youve had a very difficult time."
"I remember the prison, but I was in the hole " he said hoarsely.
"They moved us here a couple of days ago. Its not exactly the sort of accommodations to which Im accustomed, but this place does seem much improved over the hole."
"And what would you know about the hole?" Chris muttered, still trying to see the room around him.
"I too was a guest there," Ezra informed with a shudder. "It was where I found you after the warden and his men found me."
"Found? How," he swallowed, "did you get here?"
"Do you remember a telegram being sent on your behalf to Four Corners?" Ezra asked.
Chris rubbed his hands together, trying to ward off the chill he felt creep into body. "Yeah, I remember. That asshole sheriff offered me a deal. Said if I could get my family to post bail, that my case would be reviewed. Piece of scum is extorting money from the kinfolk of travelers that he and the warden snatch and throw in here."
"Yes, well, it was a very smart move on your part to have them send that message in care of the Clarion. Mrs. Travis brought the telegram to me the instant she received it. I do hope you are not disappointed that I assumed the role as your brother. I am afraid the real Vin Larabee was out of town when the request for bail arrived."
"Disappointed?" Chris answered. "No, just a little unclear as to why youre here alongside me, dressed in prison clothes and looking like youve been in the middle of a stampede. Where are the others?"
"Ah, well, you see, I was the only one in town at the time your situation came to our attention. Mr. Tanner and Mr. Wilmington were called upon to escort a prisoner back to Jasper Creek. Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Jackson were needed at the Seminole village; a few of the people there were injured in a landslide requiring their assistance. Mr. Dunne was asked to investigate a situation regarding a suspected prowler at Mrs. Welles homestead. I remained to watch the town."
"So the others dont know about this place yet?"
"It is quite possible that Mrs. Travis has informed them by now. Mr. Tanner was bothered by your long absence even before he left town. Im sure he and Mr. Wilmington wasted no time in depositing their charge with the sheriff in Jasper Creek. They are most likely home by now," Ezra replied, beginning to feel the chill from the floor.
"Im sure theyll find us." Chris motioned to Ezra. "You still havent explained how you came to be in here with me, lookin like that."
"Do not be so quick to cast stones, Mr. Larabee. You have not yet had the opportunity to see your own reflection." Ezra smiled.
"Alright. As I said, I was the only one available to masquerade as your kinfolk. I spotted your hidden message in the name and recognized the con when the telegram first came to my attention."
"Hows that?" Chris interrupted.
"The telegram was too vague as to the reason for your incarceration. Now I can see you being arrested for breaking up a saloon, or perhaps thrown in jail for beating up the odd smart-mouth cowboy, but I cannot believe that you would do something that would warrant lockup in a prison camp. I tried to imagine what you could have done that would put a five hundred dollar price tag on your freedom. Perhaps I overstate my relationship with you and the others, but I see none of you capable of anything that would justify such a fee." Ezra seemed a little uncomfortable explaining himself.
Ezra continued. "Anyway, since I was the only person who could offer assistance, I came to Jericho in the guise of your brother."
"With that accent?" Chris asked.
"Certainly not. I can assure you, sir, that I am quite adept at many different dialects, a necessary skill in my line of work. Although your accent is rather uncomfortable it is not altogether difficult to mimic," Ezra answered, very nearly insulted.
"I dont doubt you one bit, Ezra. Im grateful."
"Well, perhaps you should rethink your gratitude. My plan did not work. I was found out by Sheriff Quince and then thrown in here to keep you company. Im not exactly sure how they found out, but I pray it wasnt the fault of a bad performance on my part. I would hate to think that my current employment has had some ill-effect on my abilities to accomplish a desired end," the southern voice became soft and reflective.
"You mean your ability to con," Chris clarified.
"Oh, now that it such a crude way to put it." Ezra grinned devilishly.
Now both men were feeling the cold that filtered its way into the small cell. Chris wrapped his arms around himself in an attempt to fend off the chill. Ezra noticed the small tremors that shook his friend and decided to get him back into bed.
Standish rose from the floor and leaned over to take Chris arm. "Shall we get you off the ground? Our cots are not the most comfortable of beds but they are slightly more restful than the floor."
Chris looked over his shoulder and noticed that there was indeed a cot behind his back. "Why dont I remember this place? How long have I been in here?" he questioned.
"Long enough. Lets not worry about the rest for now. You need to get some sleep. We both do." Ezra felt a yawn coming on as he tried to shoulder his way under Chris left arm. "How does your leg feel now?" he asked, trying not to move too quickly.
"My leg? Its fine."
"Your leg doesnt hurt?" Ezra asked, amazed at the disappearance of Chris prior pain.
"No. My side aches some." Chris didnt pick up on Standishs surprise.
Ezra stood, taking most of his cellmates weight, and positioned him over the bunk. He lowered him gently, eased his shoulders back and raised his feet so that Chris lay flat. He pulled the tattered blanket across the shivering form before he went back around to sit down on his own cot.
Chris rubbed his eyes before he noticed Ezra leaning back and picking something up off the floor. When he saw the man next to him fumble, he tried to sit up so he could see what he was after. "Whatre you doin?"
Ezra glanced back briefly. "The local doctor paid you a visit earlier. He determined that you were in need of nourishment and asked the warden to provide you with a small amount of broth. The guard, Phillips I believe was his name, brought it about an hour ago."
"The doc was here? I dont remember," Chris said, bewildered.
"No doubt. You were unconscious during his examination," Ezra replied as he success-fully raised the small bowl of broth from its position on the floor next to the water bucket. "We have a small amount of bread and water as well. Which would you prefer first?" he asked.
"Neither," came the response.
Ezra rubbed his hands together. "That, sir, is not an option. You have to eat something."
Chris pulled his blanket closer to his chin. "I aint hungry."
"I see you are under the impression that you are allowed a choice. It is simply broth and water. It isnt much to regain your strength, but it is better than nothing."
"You playin nursemaid, Ezra?"
"Only if you are not willing to behave rationally," came the menacing reply.
Chris stared at Ezra long and hard. The man looked more drained than he had ever seen him. He knew that Ezra was only trying to help, but he simply had no appetite. "I cant, Ezra."
"I know you are not feeling well, but the fact remains you need to eat. I have no idea the last time you were even given food, much less ate. If we are to make an escape from this little paradise of ours, we need to get you on your feet. Understood?"
Chris listened. It was true. Even he couldnt remember the last time he had eaten. The truth was he couldnt remember much of anything after the warden tried to make him clean his boots. He remembered being thrown into the hole after that, but then there was a whole lot of nothing. Reluctantly, he met Ezras eyes and nodded. "Water," he mumbled.
Ezra smiled and fetched a ladle full of water. Chris drank from it, timidly at first and then with more confidence as it filled his mouth and wet his throat. He just hoped it didnt come back up when it reached his stomach. He waited a moment before he tried another mouthful.
Chris relaxed back onto his cot, suddenly exhausted from the effort it took to lean forward. He let his eyes rest on Ezra. The man truly did look a mess.
"What?" Ezra asked when he realized he was being watched.
"What happened to your hands?"
Standish turned his bandaged palms up and looked at them sadly. "I have always maintained that manual labor is unhealthy. It appears that I have once again proven myself correct."
"How bad?" Chris asked softly.
"Not bad enough to prevent me from leaving this place should the opportunity arise," he said as he met Chris concerned look.
"Ez " Larabee started.
"Im alright," he said reassuringly. "I should be asking how you feel."
"Im fine. Just confused. I dont remember you comin in. And I dont remember being moved in here. Wherever here is," Chris offered.
"This small haven is little more than 30 feet from the hole. And I really dont expect you to remember my entrance. To be quite honest, I dont recall much about that myself. I was dropped rather carelessly into that pit you were in after the local lawmen somehow learned of my deception," Ezra said.
"You mean about bein my brother."
Ezra nodded. "I thought my plan was working. I was playing the role of Vin Larabee extremely well. I had the Larabee attitude down pat."
Chris raised an eyebrow, but kept his mouth shut.
"I made it known that I had the money needed to pay your bail, and that I wanted nothing more than to obtain your release," Ezra continued. "Sheriff Quince greeted me at the saloon and then escorted me to the prison. I couldnt have been in the wardens office more than a half an hour when I found myself at the receiving end of a rather large stick. It actually felt more like a club, but the results were the same. I found myself quite unable to resist when the guards dropped me into that pit."
Ezra reached for the broth and offered it to Chris. Larabee raised himself once again and took several sips from the bowl he was given. Standish supported Chris hand to ensure the precious liquid didnt end up on the floor.
"You say they found you out after you got to the prison?"
Ezra nodded again. "Thats right."
"Damn. I think I know why. One of the prisoners, an ugly cuss who serves the slop around here, thought he knew me. Bet he knew us both," Chris explained.
"Ah, yes. We have been known to travel in some very unsavory circles in our line of work," the gambler said with sarcasm.
Chris surprised himself and finished the bowl of broth. He allowed Ezra to take the bowl from his shaking hand before he once again lay down. Lord, but he was tired.
"I think it is at this point in time when our Mr. Jackson would suggest that you get some sleep. We can plan our departure from this place when youre feeling better," came the soft southern voice.
Chris felt himself grow more and more tired as the seconds passed. He wanted nothing more than to submit to his bodys desire to sleep, but he needed more answers. He needed to fill in the missing pieces. His head snapped up when his brain finally registered something that Ezra had said. "What do you mean you made it clear that you had the money?"
"You said you had the money," Chris reminded the gambler.
"Yes," Ezra casually responded.
"Ezra, the bail was five hundred dollars," Chris added.
"Where on earth did you get that kind of money?" Larabee was getting aggravated with the Southerners clipped answers.
It was Ezras turn to raise an eyebrow. "I believe you know good and well how I obtained that money. It is how I make a living."
"The money for your saloon? You lost your money " Chris was flabbergasted.
"I do still have hopes of reacquiring those funds," Ezra said in a very unconcerned manner.
"You lost your money " Chris was still surprised. "Im sorry, Ezra."
"Dont be. This little game isnt over yet," he answered with a professional confidence.
The gunslinger looked up at his friend and caught sight of an extremely evil and knowing grin. Chris hesitated before a small smile began to spread across his own face. "Youre right, Ezra," Chris agreed. "It aint over by a long shot."
The deputy of Jericho looked up from where he sat on the front steps of the Sheriffs Office and watched as five horsemen entered town. They crossed the stone bridge that spanned the creek running along the edge of town and came straight to where the lanky man slumped in his chair.
The tallest of the five men pushed a large hat back on his head and nodded. "Howdy. Were lookin for the sheriff in these parts. He in?"
"Sheriffs gone," the deputy answered short and sweet.
The tall, mustached man looked over his shoulder towards a man dressed in buckskins. "Talkative, aint he."
The second man just nodded and shifted in his saddle.
The first man huffed when he realized he was sandwiched between two men of few words. He looked back at the deputy. "Can you tell me where the sheriff is?"
"Outta town, but I reckon hell be back soon enough."
"And in your book, just how long is soon?" came the obvious next question.
"Oh, not too awful long."
The man under the big hat looked ready to come after the deputy, but a large hand from the third man stopped his dismount. "Brother Buck, I do believe you are going about this all wrong," said a powerful yet gentle voice. The biggest of the five men urged his horse closer to the office steps. "Now, sir, we are trying to learn the whereabouts of a couple of men, brothers in fact, who are known to have come through this little bit of heaven you call home."
From where the deputy sat, he had to lean further back in his chair and crane his neck to look up at the deep-voiced stranger. "Uh, brothers you say?"
"Yes. Mind you, they dont look too much alike, what havin different mothers and all, but they are nonetheless devoted to family. We heard where one of the boys was being held in a prison near here. His name would be Chris Larabee. The other, his brother Vin, came in lookin to post bail."
"Ah, the Larabee brothers," the deputy said nervously. "I heard tell about that one named Chris, the sheriff locked him up a while back."
The man called Buck spoke up. "What was he locked up for?"
"For?" The man was obviously stalling.
Buck had just about reached the end of his rope and made another move to get off his horse. Again the large hand prevented him. "Josiah, quit doin that!" He protested by using his hat to slap his knee.
"Buck," the large man warned.
The ladies man bit his tongue and let Josiah continue.
Josiah looked back at the man on the chair. "Well, I do believe my friend here asked you the reason Larabee was locked up. Im sure you wouldnt want to keep anything from him, now would you?"
The deputy swallowed. "No, no. Its just that I dont rightly know what that Chris feller got hisself thrown in prison for. I was away when he was arrested," he lied.
"Alright," Josiah said in an agreeable tone. "Were you away for a long time?"
"Uh, no. I wasnt gone long. Sheriff needs me around here," the seated man said with self-importance, hoping to appear stronger than he really felt.
Josiah smiled a dangerous smile. "Ah, good. Then you were around when Vin Larabee came into town."
"I-I was? I mean yes, I was."
Josiah looked at Buck and turned the interrogation back over to him. Buck grinned. When he nudged his horse even with Josiahs, the deputy instinctively sat up and scooted his chair back. "Tell me, deputy, you do know why Vin was here."
"Of course, like he said, it was to bail out his brother."
"Good. Well then, maybe we can move this along with you telling us where Vin is right now. He came into town, prepared to pay Chris bail, and he went where?" Buck asked, motioning with his hand.
The deputys eyes searched the ground before he spoke. "He came to see the Sheriff."
"And," Josiah prompted.
"And they talked for a while."
It was now Josiahs turn to lose his patience. "Son, if you dont move this along, Im afraid Im gonna have to move on down the street. Waitin for you to give information could bore a man to death. And if I leave " he hinted, patting Buck on the shoulder.
"Wait! No, ya see Im just tryin to remember."
"Okay then, maybe you could remember a little faster so me and my friends here can go find Vin and his brother. Its been a long ride and its about to get dark. Wed like to get some rest before we head back," Josiah said with a tired smile.
"Right. Well, you probably wont find this Vin before dark."
"Mister, you better make this good," said the fourth man from his position behind Josiah.
The deputy jumped when the dark man spoke, nearly falling from his chair. "Its just that Vin Larabee met with the sheriff in his office and they did talk about bail for his brother, but then that was the last I seen of him. He and the sheriff rode out to the prison to fetch his kin. I figured he got his brother and went on home."
Buck came off his mount so fast the nervous lawman never saw him coming. He grabbed the deputy by the throat and slammed him against the wall. "You figured wrong! Those boys never made it home. Now you tell me again about how he met with the sheriff!"
"I told you! They did meet, right in there," he said, pointing at the door behind him. "Vin paid the bail and the sheriff took him to get his brother! I swear!"
"Youre lyin!" Buck yelled.
"Look, I dont know what happened to the Larabee brothers once they left here! To be honest, I aint given em much thought. It was just a man bailin out his kinfolk! Happens all the time!"
"Buck," called the last and youngest of the group. "Buck, let him go."
Buck didnt release his grip or back off.
The dark-haired youth climbed down off his horse and went to stand beside Buck. He didnt touch the angry man, but he did speak firmly. "Let him go. This aint helpin any."
"Hes lyin through his teeth, JD."
"We dont know that, Buck. Maybe Vin did ride out to get Chris. It makes sense. Maybe something happened when they left the prison," JD tried to reason, more for Bucks sake than the deputys.
Nathan tried to offer JD a hand. "Come on, Buck, turn im loose. You been ridin the better part of five days now, you dont hardly know if yer comin or goin. Were all so damned tired we cant think straight."
"Hes right. Lets just go get some rest. Well talk about what to do next," JD added.
Wilmington felt the knots in his shoulders burn and finally decided to listen to his young friend. He loosened his grip on the frightened deputy and patted him on the chest without thinking. "Yeah," he said. "We cant help Chris and Vin feelin like this."
Without a word, the deputy slid along the wall until he was out of Bucks reach. Josiah saw the retreat and shook his head before he called out to the rapidly disappearing lawman. "Deputy, please excuse my friends aggressive nature. Hes a good man, if a bit out of control."
"N-no problem. A mans liable to do all sorts of things when hes worn out like that."
"Were all a bit tired. If youll excuse us, well be lookin for a spot to bed down for the night," the large man offered before he reined his horse away from the Sheriffs Office and headed down the street.
The deputy picked up his toppled chair and made the decision to go back inside the office. He closed the door behind him and looked out the window. Seeing the five men regroup and leave was just what he needed to get his heart beating again.
"Damn, I wish Sheriff Quince would get himself on back here," he mumbled.
+ + + + + + +
Sheriff Quince paced the wardens office nervously. He had left the warden earlier to patrol the area, making sure it was secure for the planned escape of the Larabee Brothers. When he returned, he was advised to eat and rest before the excitement began. He tried to comply, but now that it was well after dark he found the waiting set his nerves on edge. "How much longer are we gonna sit here?" he asked the man relaxing on the settee across the room.
"Ah Quince, you act as if youre the one whos fixing to be hunted down," the warden said with a laugh.
"I just want to have this over and done with. Those two out there are more trouble than theyre worth." The sheriff jerked a thumb in the direction of the stone holding-cell.
"I have explained this to you. I want it to be close enough to morning so we have daylight when we bring their dead bodies back through the front gates. I want everyone to see what happens to those who cross me. I also want witnesses who see two escaped convicts brought back after they recklessly tried to resist my authority. Remember, we dont really know theyre lawmen now do we," the warden coaxed.
"Yeah, yeah." Quince sat once again on the corner of the wardens desk. "Ill just be glad to get things back to normal. But next time we have got to be more careful about the saddle bums we pick up and bring in here."
The warden walked over to the fretting man and slapped him on the shoulder. "Well chalk this one up as a lesson learned. Now, how about we send for Briggs."
"I think he would be the perfect person to fetch our prisoners. Hes taken a shine to Inmate 93. Im sure a little time with Briggs will encourage an escape attempt on his part. Well have Briggs bring them here. You and I will insinuate a few atrocities of our own and then allow Inmate 78 to partake in our little gift." The warden picked up the black drug case lying on his desk and caressed its lid with his fingers. "Once our intentions as to their health are made clear, we will return them to their cell and wait for them to discover a careless oversight regarding their confinement. They should be so desperate to survive they wont recognize the setup."
"What if they do?"
The warden simply raised an eyebrow at the question.
Quince raised his hands in surrender. "Alright, alright, they wont."
"Good. Now that thats settled, I think its time to begin the game," the large man replied with an eager voice. He took his seat behind the desk and watched as the sheriff exited his office.
Quince pulled the door closed behind him and set off to find the repugnant guard. He hated being within ten feet of the man, but he was a necessary tool to use if the wardens plan was going to work. He stepped off the small porch and headed towards the area he knew Briggs would be patrolling. He was so focused on what needed doing that he didnt notice the shadow that silently retreated in his wake.
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