The Maze

by Yolande

Part 16
Chris Larabee landed with a grunt as he rolled. He lay still for a moment before flexing all his limbs and realising, gratefully that he was unhurt, other than some new bruises. He stood up and looked up into the yawning mouth of the hole twenty feet above his head, impatient for the Southerner to join him. Whatever happened, Chris needed them to stay together. And he wanted the younger man out of the hands of their insane abductors. He needed to assure Standish that he was unharmed. "Ezra…I’m fine," he shouted upward.

Hearing the gunslinger’s voice echo from the pit, Standish sighed in relief. Now, if only Hobbs would remove his hand from his throat.

"You’re next, fancy pants," Hobbs smirked in amusement. He released his grip on the gambler’s neck and pushed the Standish toward the edge.

Standish gulped frantically, coughing as he fought for a breath. He saw, for the first time, into the hole and unconsciously took a step backwards bringing him into contact with the large man behind him. He swallowed nervously and winced at the twinge of pain in his throat. At least he could breath freely now. "I couldn’t interest you gentlemen in…"

"Ain’t interested," Everett Randall interrupted.

Standish bowed his head to his chest and with a defeated sigh he announced, "I am currently the owner of a profitable business venture. If you gentlemen were to release us both, I could sign over ownership to you all," the conman bargained, "and you would be set for life."

Hobbs glanced over the head of the smaller man to check with Randall. The older man showed a modicum of interest in the gambler’s proposition so he waited.

"Where is this…business venture?" Randall prompted.

Standish smiled broadly, "I am owner of a lucrative Casino St Louis, and if we go to Four Corners, the appropriate papers could be drawn up, and then all that is required would be my signature and your own."

"He’s lying," Madigan accused.

The Southerner slowly adjusted his gaze and turned it on Madigan. "For what purpose? I’d be risking my life by taking you to Four Corners and not having any documents to offer."

"Yeah, but the rest of their group is in that town," Davies ventured. "Reckon he could be settin’ us up."

Randall chewed on his bottom lip. It could be worth the risk, he’d never have to work for anybody but himself ever again. He could get himself a nice place to live and settle down. It wasn’t too late to start looking for a wife neither. He raised his gun a fraction higher. "Don’t see why we can’t go to Red Fork and sort it all out there. That way you won’t have yer friends around interferrin’." He grinned foolishly at the gambler. He stepped forward and pressed the gun barrel into the Southerner’s chest. "Leave him there." The older man nodded at the gunslinger in the hole and grabbed the gambler’s arm, dragging him toward the cave’s opening. A stream of curses from the depth of the hole followed their departure.

Ezra dug his heels in and struggled against the hold. "No," he protested. "I will not sign it over unless Chris is with us."

Hobbs used the butt of his rifle and drove it into the gambler’s abdomen, causing Standish to double over and grunt as the air whooshed out of his lungs.

"I still reckon he’s lying. What’s he doing working as a lawman if he’s so rich?" Madigan reasoned.

Randall walked around the gambler, who was still bent at the waist. He circled his prey, and slammed a fist into the gambler’s kidneys. "Is he right? There ain’t really no Casino?"

Ezra moaned; that was the exact same spot that was already bruised. "That’s a double negative, so effectively you’re asking…" Ezra corrected, but was knocked to the ground by Hobbs.

With a heavy sigh, Randall ordered that Standish be returned to the hole to join Chris. "He’s just wastin’ my time."

Hobbs pulled the smaller man to his feet and hoisted him over his shoulder carrying the gambler back inside the cave.

Ezra tried not to jostle about on the narrow width of shoulder, but the bony prominence dug into his bruised belly. His eyes grew round as he watched the others share knowing looks. He wasn’t prepared to go into that hole. And he just knew it was going to be a hell of a fall. Standish kicked out with his legs and connected with Hobbs’ groin, but instead of dropping the gambler to the ground he held onto the slippery conman and growled. Hobbs, in crippling anger raised the gambler above his head and hurled Standish effortlessly into the pit

With his hands bound and falling from an even greater height, Standish could not position his body to land safely. He landed heavily on his right leg and felt his knee twist awkwardly beneath him. Standish let out an anguished cry of pain as his leg crumpled, unable to hold his weight.

Laughter echoed around the entombed walls coming from the men at the top of the hole, and a howl of pain from the giant as he tended his injury. A disembodied voice yelled down at them. "Just remember, two days time, at the place we told ya about, an we’ll let ya out. See ya… or maybe not." More laughter followed this. "Have fun now."

A flaming torch was thrown down landing in the dirt close to the gambler. "Don’t want ya gitting lost in those tunnels now would we?" Randall chuckled. In his mind it would be so much better not being able to see what else was in the caves, but the imagination was a marvellous thing; it could render a man comatose with fear. And the flickering flame that the torch produced was bound to create images on the walls.

Again, more laughing could be heard as they retreated from the cave. The gate could be heard squealing its protest as it was brought back into place once more.

Part 17

Chris picked up the torch and buried one end in the dirt so it would stand by its self. "Ezra…? You okay?" Larabee quietly asked, as he rushed to the side of the sprawled form. His heart had jumped to his throat as he watched helplessly as Hobbs lifted Standish high above the hole.

"Fine," he hissed out through clenched teeth, pain evident in this one worded reply.

"Uh huh, that why your holding onto your leg like that? Let me have a look." Chris pulled Ezra’s bound hands away from his leg and tried to straighten out the bent limb. This caused the Southerner to cry out in pain. "Yer leg hurt? Ain’t broke is it?"

"No…My knee… I think… I twisted it," the gambler gasped out.

Larabee gently touched the knee and could feel it swelling already, straining against his pants leg. "Let’s get these ropes off you and then see how much weight you can put on it." Chris struggled with the ropes for ten minutes before they fell away to the ground, then pulled Ezra to his feet.

With a grunt of pain the Southerner balanced all his weight on his good leg. He craned his neck upward and looked back up the hole. A wave of dizziness surged through him and he swayed on his feet. There was absolutely no way they could climb out, the slope was too sheer, and it was at least thirty feet up. Ezra eyed the small length of rope that had been tied around his hands, that was nowhere near long enough. He turned his gaze back to his companion. He’d yet to test his injured knee and was wont to do so. Since Larabee assisted him to his feet he’d not taken a step.

Chris stood on his right and supported the gambler by his elbow. They were gonna be in a whole pack of trouble if Standish couldn’t walk. Chris had a sneaking suspicion that these tunnels were going to barely fit the passage of one of them at a time, and worse still, that there was going to be some crawling involved also. "You ready?" He watched the gambler’s head bob up and down and helped Standish to put weight on the leg. Larabee heard the hitch in the gambler’s breathing and wondered if he’d squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth together. Ezra groaned and tilted to his right as the knee bent under the pressure. Chris pushed back the opposite direction as he felt the added weight on his arm. Standish quickly swapped the weight to his left leg, and pulled his elbow from Chris’s grasp. Larabee grinned in admiration as the Southerner staggered in an awkward gait, but under his own steam. "Not as graceful as ya usually walk," Larabee teased with a grin.

Ezra panted with the exertion and rested his body against the wall. "I gather that our route is that way," he pointed down the darkened tunnel. A shiver ran down his spine as he felt the walls closing in on him.

"Reckon so," Chris agreed and picked up the flaming torch, holding it ahead of him as he stepped past the gambler and into the passage. "You coming?" he called over his shoulder.

+ + + + + + +

They had been walking for an hour in the tunnel that had led away from the hole. The surface of the ground was uneven and scattered with debris and loose rocks. The path twisted and wound around, and the flickering flame cast an eerie shadow that crept along behind them. Their progress was slow; Chris didn’t want to get too far ahead of the Southerner. It was hard enough for him to see and he carried the flaming torch, it had to be more difficult for the gambler who was trailing behind.

Standish was limping badly, although he had refused help from Chris, saying it would only tire out the gunslinger faster than necessary. His jaw was clenched together tightly in a grimace, his normal poker face absent in his pain. His head was bowed and his eyes strained in the dim light to see the floor clearly. The soft glow of the torch that Larabee carried was almost effectively blocked out by the gunslinger’s body. Though he wasn’t completely in the dark, he only had to turn his head to see the passage behind him disappear as the light crept further away.

Chris had been scrutinising Ezra out the corner of his eye, watching the grim set of features, waiting for the stubborn man to admit he required help. His limp was progressively getting worse and his breathing was becoming ragged in his attempt to keep the pain under control. He slowed and frowned as the gambler turned to look behind him. He ducked his head under a sheath of cobwebs and turned back to light the path for the gambler. A flicker of a smile touched the corners of his mouth as Standish raised his arm to shield his eyes from the blinding torchlight. The passage beyond came to an intersection, splitting into two new directions.

Once the conman’s eyes adjusted, he lowered his arm to his side. Ezra stopped and leaned heavily against the wall for support. He glanced up at Chris, wondering why he’d stopped. Glancing over the gunslinger’s shoulder, Standish realised the passage divided into two.

Chris reached out when he saw the gambler sway, but withdrew his arm when Standish glared defiantly at him. Larabee returned the glare with vigour. He knew the Southerner was not going to be able to continue on that leg for too much longer. Hell, he was surprised that Standish had managed this long. They stood eyeing each other for a good minute, neither willing to back down.

"I’m fine," Standish drawled.

"Good," the gunslinger nodded his head. Once he determined Standish was not about to fall, Larabee turned his back on Ezra and peered down into the first of the two tunnels. He took a step into them both, but couldn’t see very far down either hole, and turned back on his heel to face his friend.

"We could split up and both take a tunnel…" Ezra voiced a solution.

"No!" Larabee interrupted. There was no way he was going to let the suave conman go off on his own. "We stick together you can hardly keep your feet. Besides, we’ve only got the one torch," Chris smugly added.

"I assure you, Mr. Larabee, I’m managing quite well," the gambler proclaimed. "And I’m sure that we could easily remedy the situation of the torch." He only had to find a stick and wind a portion of cobweb around the tip to form another light. How naive did the gunslinger take him for? He’d wager even JD would be aware of that solution.

"I don’t know who yer trying to fool, but it sure ain’t me. Why don’t ya rest up a bit and I’ll head down this one," he indicated the tunnel to his left. Larabee helped the conman sit down and prop his leg up. "And as for another light, I reckon ya need both yer hands free, in case you fall. Shouldn’t be more’n twenty minutes and then I’ll be back."

Once Larabee left, the darkness closed in rapidly around him. Ezra listened to the gunslinger’s steps as they progressed further away, and became increasingly difficult to hear. He should have insisted on a second torch even if he couldn’t carry it, but to light the hole he’d been abandoned in. Standish was a night owl when it came to spending all hours of the night gambling, but the Southerner was never particularly fond of the all encompassing darkness that came with that time of day. And besides, it was never this dark; he held his hand in front of his face and could not even see an outline of the appendage. Ezra rested his head against the wall of the cave and closed his eyes, breathing deeply. It wasn’t so bad, if he didn’t think about it.

He strained to hear the footfalls returning, but instead he heard a scratching sound off to his right. Eye’s sprung back open and he stared in the direction of the noise. "Chris…" he whispered tentatively into the darkness. "Please answer me, if you are there," again it was spoken so softly; if the gunslinger were there he’d not been able to hear the nervous plea. He shuffled back closer to the wall in a panic and forgetting momentarily his injured knee, he hastily stood, putting far too much weight on the leg he immediately fell back to the floor gasping in agony. He hissed out a slew of curse words and clamped both hands around his knee.

Before they’d stopped, his knee had really started to bother him; it was sending sharp pains down to his foot and also shooting up his thigh. The knee was grossly swollen and tight within the confines of the pants leg of his trousers. His boot was even starting to feel tight, but he didn’t want to take it off, that would make walking even more difficult. His left leg was also starting to feel the strain of keeping the pressure of walking off his injured leg. But after injuring it a second time the pain had intensified. Groaning through the pain Standish felt the wetness trickle down his cheek. Anger surged within him; he was not going to let this defeat him and he wiped the telltale tears off his face. Gritting his teeth, Ezra slid his hand up the wall groping for a handhold. He dug his fingernails into the dirt and pulled himself upright, but just as he was almost standing erect a rodent scrambled over his hand and Standish let go of his hold and crashed to the floor once more. The knee collided with a protruding rock and the pain speared through the length of his leg. Standish screamed out, but the cry was cut off as he passed out.

Chris had to duck his head, as the roof above crept lower in his passage. He was thankful that he’d persuaded the stubborn conman not to come. As it was Larabee was getting a crook in his back from crouching. He followed along the path for only five minutes before coming to a dead end. The passage was totally blocked with rubble and rock. It may have continued on at one stage, but at some point the cave wall had collapsed, closing off the passage. As the light from the torch passed over the rubble a mass of rats squealed, scattering in all directions. The floor quickly swarmed thick with the rodents. "God Damn!" They flew over Chris’ boots and started clawing their way up his black jeans. He kicked out in desperation, flinging the hungry rodents off his limbs. The rats raced up turrets in the walls and scooted along the narrow paths until they darted into holes. Blindly swinging the torch as a weapon Larabee howled an ear-splitting yell, thrashing in a frenzy to rid his body of the rats. Panting heavily his skin crawled. Chris backed out the way he’d come, but was startled when a large rat dropped off the ceiling and landed on his shoulder, teeth nipping in his ear. Startled, he dropped the light to the floor, and flicked the detestable creature off his back. The animal squealed and scurried off through a crack in the fallen rocks.

As Larabee bent down to retrieve the torch the soft glow reached the darker recesses of the tunnel. Tucked up closely to the rocks and debris, hidden well in a thick layer of dust and grime was a collection of bones. He took a step nearer, and on closer examination Chris realised that it was a human skeleton, he shook his head in disgust. A few rags still covered the skeleton in some places, but the original clothing worn had deteriorated with age. A single gold wedding band remained on the ring finger of the left hand, and a small pouch was clutched in his other. The gunslinger pulled the pouch from the bony fingers and tugged open the drawstring. There was nothing inside but rocks so he closed it back up and returned it. He’d expected to find gold or something else of value, but was bewildered at the collection of rocks. It wasn’t a hard stretch of the imagination to assume that this man had lost his mind, wandering around in the caves. Beside the body was a torch, Chris picked this up then headed back to Standish.

By the time Larabee returned to his injured friend he found Ezra lying in what looked to be an awkward position. A number of rats boldly climbed over the unconscious man. Already squeamish from his recent encounter with the earth dwelling rodents, Chris stamped and yelled loudly, wildly swinging the torch flame at the rats that dared to plague his friend. With Larabee’s riotous return, the rats scurried off Ezra’s body and returned to their holes. Chris fanned the light over Standish looking for any that remained. Satisfied that they’d all departed, he turned his attention as to why the Southerner had not woken.

"Ezra," he called and gently tapped the younger man on the shoulder. A frown wrinkled across his brow. He ran the light over the gambler and the frown deepened at Standish’s lax features. The gunslinger lightly slapped Ezra’s cheeks, but the gambler’s head flopped limply on his shoulders. Prying open his eyelids, the man in black swore. "Aw hell." He tucked the second torch into his waistband and sighed deeply. "Reckon you get my help now whether you want it or not," Larabee scowled. This was gonna hurt worse than walking. He felt the younger man’s forehead, satisfied that it wasn’t too warm, and he gently lifted the unconscious man up over his shoulder and headed down the tunnel on the right.

Part 18

Chris had been carrying Ezra for thirty minutes when the gambler started to stir. Fortunately he had enough headroom and didn’t have to crouch. That would have made transporting the unconscious man more difficult.

Ezra woke, and realising that Larabee was carrying him, muttered, "This is not a good view to awaken to." His head and arms swinging over the back of Larabee. He groaned as Chris stopped and settled him down to a sitting position. Squeezing shut his eyes he bit the inside of his cheek, but his knee screamed out to him in agony. Come on, Standish. You can’t let this beat you. He slowed his breathing and blinked in surprise when he opened them to find Larabee with a concerned expression on his face.

"Ya were out when I got back. Thought we needed ta keep moving." Ezra nodded his head in understanding. "Somethin’ happen while I was gone?"

Standish vaguely shook his head and became aware of the cloth that was still tied there. He removed the makeshift bandage and tossed the bloodstained piece of material away. Glancing back the direction they’d come he asked, "Which of the tunnels did we venture into?"

"The one on the right, Ezra. The left tunnel came to a dead end."

Standish nodded and noted the second torch tucked under Larabee’s waistband. "I see you acquired another torch?"

"Yeah." Chris pulled it out and set it alight, handing it to Standish. "Seems we ain’t the only ones ta be put down here." At Standish’s inquiring eyebrow the man in black explained about the body he’d discovered. He didn’t mention the rats though.

They rested for ten minutes in total silence. The cave walls seemed to come alive with the eerie shadows dancing on the walls caused by the flickering torchlight. Ezra rested his head back and surreptitiously stared at the play of emotions that crossed the gunman’s facade. Never truly knowing where he stood with the man in black, Standish hesitated at pressuring Chris to disclose the thoughts that hid just below the surface. Ezra wondered what Larabee thought about being in these tunnels, whether the dark bothered the tough gunman. Maybe he thought only of the revenge he’d carry out once they were out of here? Did Larabee even consider that they might never find that damn exit? What then? How would Chris feel spending his remaining days with a conman who he despised? Perhaps if it came to that, then Chris would strike out on his own to be separated from the Southerner. So deep in thought Standish jumped when the blond headed man touched his arm. He heard the gunslinger say that they ought to keep going and he nodded wearily.

"It would seem that this passage also divides," Standish pointed out.

Larabee nodded his agreement; he’d noticed the fork even before they’d taken their rest. "Yeah."

"Do you have a theory on which one we should venture inside?"

"We go left, and keep taking left till we run out. That way we can keep track of which tracks we’ve been down." He paused and faced the gambler. "Think ya can keep going? I’ll give ya a hand this time," Chris offered.

"That would be an affirmative to the first Mr. Larabee, but I can manage without any assistance thank-you."

Larabee shook his head in disbelief. Stubborn ass, he thought, well he won’t last long. The Southerner pushed against the cave wall and endeavoured to gain his feet. A moan rushed to his lips, but the gambler clamped his teeth together and muffled the cry. Larabee lent a hand to help balance the wobbly man. The gambler headed off down the path and seethed in pain as it lanced through his knee.

Chris watched the Southerner take a few unsteady steps before coming up beside him and lifting Ezra’s right arm placed it around his neck and shoulders, he put his arm around the gambler’s waist to take some of his weight off the injured leg. "I reckon this’ll work better."

Standish just grunted in reply, causing the gunslinger to shake his head and smile.

Part 19

Larabee had relinquished his hold on the Southerner when the passage became too tight to fit them both beside each other. He allowed the gambler to take the lead, and also by default set the pace. Chris wiped the thin beads of sweat from his forehead, wiping the moisture on the leg of his pants. Every so often he’d glimpse a rat dart along the wall and disappear through a crack in the solid rock face. A tremor travelled the length of his spine whenever he saw one as he was reminded of the horror it was to have rats crawling over one’s body. They had to keep moving; if they stopped for too long the rodents would feast on them.

His eyes hovered over the back of Ezra’s burgundy jacket. He pondered whether they’d ever escape this underground prison. Was Standish depending on him to lead them out of here? Damn, he had no idea how to get them out. There was no pattern to which of the tunnels ended abruptly and which would lead them to freedom. It was all trial and error. He wondered if the Southerner was going to make it. Although he was the most stubborn man he was yet to encounter. Perhaps that might be what keeps him going. If only I hadn’t trusted that damn rattlesnake posing as a sheriff. Reckon Standish would have seen through the ruse, but Chris had told the gambler to tend the horses, while he fixed up the transfer papers for Carruthers. The conman would have detected the lie in Jennings’ advice to travel to Whittling to acquire travel food. His stomach rumbled in complaint at the mention of food and he heard the soft chuckle ahead from Standish. Ignoring Ezra’s unsympathetic overture Chris remained silent.

How long could they survive in the bowels of the earth? Did Buck and the others know they were missing? Was Vin back yet? If Morgan Carruthers escaped with the aid of Sheriff Jennings, then who would inform his fellow peacekeepers of their predicament? More likely it would be in Sheriff Jennings’ best interest not to impart that information. Larabee wondered if the deputy was involved also. He scratched at the growth that covered his chin, and consequently ran into the back of the Southerner who’d presently stopped. Chris quickly dropped his torch and grabbed the gambler about his waist and hugged the panting man to his chest.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled.

"You okay?"

"If you could liberate me…"

"Um… sure. Why’d we stop?"

Ezra waved the torch to the ground. "We seem to have run out of path," he quipped.

Chris peered over the gambler’s shoulder and whistled at the gapping precipice that Standish was poised on the edge of. He shot his arm back around the gambler’s waist and hauled him back off the ledge.

"I was quite capable of doing that myself," Ezra bantered in amusement.

"Just helping." Chris sidestepped past the Southerner, picking up the torch and held it to the broken path. Shaking his head he kicked the ground and sent a collection of rocks flying over the edge. He cocked his ear, waiting for the sounds of them hitting earth, but nothing returned to his ears. Swallowing with some difficulty he realised that he all but pushed Standish into the bottomless pit. "Hell of a drop."

Ezra laughed a little nervously. "Yes indeed." He watched as Larabee stepped back up and held the light higher. Ezra heard the muttered curse just as the gunslinger tackled him to the ground, covering his body with his own. Standish cried out in pain as his knee hit the hard earth, but the strangled cry was drowned beneath the frenzied squealing from the colony of bats. The black winged creatures, disturbed from their sleep by the unaccustomed light flew en mass down the passageway.

The beat of their webbed wings fanned Larabee’s back. He tucked his head over the crock of Ezra’s neck and pressed the smaller man closer to the ground. The stream of bats filled the small tunnel, and they seemed to keep on coming. From the depth of the cave’s recesses every single one of them joined in the furore of panic. Chris lay over the top of Standish for a total of fifteen minutes waiting out the conclusion of the bat’s departure.

"Ezra?" Larabee gently turned over the lax Southerner. He still remained low to the floor, as the odd bat would fly above their heads at a moment’s notice. The gunslinger belly crawled to the fallen torch and dragged it back to the gambler. Holding the flame only inches above Ezra he caught the grimace that passed over the conman’s face. Damn, he’d caused the man more pain shoving him to the ground like he did. "I reckon we oughta cut it off," Chris teased, a half smile on his lips.

Standish snorted. "That is not necessary, I assure you. I’ve become quite attached to my limbs just where they are." Chris patted him on the shoulder and cautiously stood to his feet.

"More God damned creatures in here than maggots on a dead horse."

"Quite a delightful analogy, Mr. Larabee. Have the flying mammals ceased their chaotic flight?"

"Hmmmm," Chris answered dubiously. He stared through the darkness into the tunnel the bats sought and a wisp of a smile curled his lips upward. Larabee took a small step in the same direction. "Come on, those bats are gonna lead the way out." He only took another step when the shrill squeal and the drum of thumping wings filled the passage once more. Chris dove to the floor and covered his arms over his head seconds before the swarm of bats returned to their resting place. He dared a quick look to see if Standish had dropped back down and was pleased to find the Southerner hugging the earthen ground. It seemed to take even longer for all the bats to return, and the noise they made was deafening in the enclosed tomb. The stragglers joined the colony and fanned away from the dwindling flames of the torches that lay on the path beside the two lawmen.

Cautiously, Chris crawled to his knees and then to his feet, though he crouched low to avoid any bats that hadn’t yet returned. "So much for following them," he grunted.

Ezra winced as he sat upright, craning his neck upward to the shadowy figure that stood a few feet to his right. "We could try rousing them once more," Standish shouted over the noisy bickering. God he hoped not. Please say no.

"Like hell," the gunman avowed, ducking as another bat swooped low touching his back with its webbed wings.

Standish groaned, he knew after the last tumble that he’d require the gunman’s assistance, to stand at the very least. He wasn’t certain how much more abuse his knee could take. "Mr. Larabee? If we are not planning on disturbing these mammals further, then perhaps we could depart?" The gambler held a hand over his ears, attempting to minimise the noise that echoed so loudly. A wry grin twisted on his lips. "And, I’d be grateful if you would offer some assistance…my leg seems to have forsaken me."

"Yer want my help?" Chris clarified with a smirk.

"Indeed," he sighed.

Part 20

With relief they left the bats, the chattering had lessened as they moved further away, but the untrained choir still sang echoing down each tunnel. Both men shuddered at the screeching that pierced through their eardrums.

The man in black parted the curtain of cobweb that divided one side of the path from the other, with the torch’s flame. The web swarmed with thousands of baby spiders, many of them falling to the floor as their sticky web was severed from its supports. Spiders! That was a good sign. The gunman had been in some mines and various caves at times and noticed that spiders, and bats for that matter, only live on the edges of caves, where food was available, and not in the depths. That meant that they had to be close to an exit or opening of some sort. They were gonna get out of here, even if they didn’t have the bats to follow. Chris turned sideways, lowering his head and sucking in his stomach as he passed through the narrow enclosure. Standish hobbled through the gap behind him.

The walls trickled with water in this new passage, collecting on the floor in miniature streams. Chris licked his lips; thirst was a major problem at the moment. Randall had mentioned that the tunnels contained underground waterways, but this was the first sign they’d seen. The other passage walls were damp to touch, but they couldn’t provide them with enough fresh water to drink. Chris crouched, and cupped his hand, letting the fine trickle fill his hand. He swallowed the tangy water and crunched on a few grains of sand that was intermingled, he was grateful that at least they wouldn’t die of thirst. "Ya got that flask of your’s?" It would be so much easier to carry some of the precious liquid with them.

"No. The curmudgeon at the jail appropriated it off me." Standish cautiously lowered himself to a position beside the gunman, and following his lead, cupped some of the liquid to his mouth. He could feel the numbing cold seep through his clothes and up to this point hadn’t realised how cold it actually was inside the earthen tomb.

"We’ll get it back," Larabee fixed the younger man with a determined gaze. He’d forgotten, in all the excitement, to ask Ezra about his attempt to escape from the jail. He decided now was as good as time as any to question the gambler. "Why didn’t ya leave when ya had the chance?"

Standish licked the moisture off his lips and became very interested in his boots. Larabee expected Ezra to leave without him? Is that what Chris was saying? "I believe that the opportunity to which you refer, was negligible." He frowned and glanced at the gunslinger. How did he expect the gambler to escape four men with guns? They’d already attempted such an escape prior to Larabee’s descent into the bowels of the earth, and hadn’t succeeded. "Even I, am not proficient enough to distract four armed men."

"I ain’t talking about then. At the jail," he clarified, "before the others came. Why didn’t ya just leave?" He heard Randall talking with Hobbs about Standish’s attempt to escape and why it failed, but he wanted to hear the Southerner’s account of the events.

"If you are aware of the incident, I’m certain you are also privy to the details about why it wasn’t effectuated."

"Why don’t you tell me," Larabee rested back on his heels.

"Are you inquiring why I didn’t abscond and just leave you there?" Standish clearly read the affirmative answer in the gunslinger’s expression. "Is that what you think I’d do? That I’d run out on you again?" His mouth dropped, shamed by his former desertion, but he’d thought that the six men he worked with had forgiven him that minor indiscretion. Obviously not. Clamouring to his feet, the gambler backed up. His eyes wide, the Southerner shook his head and turned his back on the older man, determined to find some space in this oppressive cramped quarters. Adrenalin pumped through his veins and the pain from his injured leg was not even noticed as he snatched up his torch and raced down the passageways.

Larabee dropped his head to the dirt, shamed by his unspoken agreement. He hit the damp floor and cursed. Why did he even ask that stupid question in the first place? He wasn’t thinking straight when the Southerner posed his own query. Damn! That fool conman had to know by now that he was a trusted member of the seven. Didn’t he? Lifting his muddy brow off the floor he searched for Standish, but he was gone. Jumping to his feet and grabbing a torch, Chris raced after the distressed man. And who could blame him? "Standish?" His heart pounded in his chest. Didn’t Ezra know how easy it was to get lost in a maze? What was he thinking? How had he managed to move so quickly on that bum knee? "Ezra!!!" he shouted, and the word echoed, but that was his only reply. He swung the torch wildly, checking offshoots for Standish’s source of light. He saw a soft glow and headed towards it.

The gunslinger’s feet skidded to a stop, and he paused to catch his breath. The Southerner was holding a handkerchief to his nose and standing over a corpse. At the realisation, the deathly aroma finally reached his senses and he almost gagged at the decaying smell. Burying his face in his shoulder he stepped closer to Ezra.

"Appears as if this poor soul did not unearth the specified exit in the affixed portion of time," Ezra grimaced; repulsed by the manner in which he’d been forced to spend his last days. The pungent odour of decaying flesh hung heavily in the air. His face was half eaten away, probably rats feasting on the unburied stranger.

"We will," Larabee assured, squeezing Ezra’s shoulder.

"I wonder if their loved ones are searching for these unfortunate souls?" Standish mused to himself, referring also to the remains found by Chris.

"Reckon there’d always be someone lookin’." Even for us, he added for his own sake. "Let’s keep going," he stepped over the body that lay across the width of the path. He took a few paces and not hearing Standish following, he stopped and retraced his steps. Immediately seeing the gambler’s problem, Larabee assisted the Southerner to traverse the corpse. "Coulda said somethin’," Chris reproached. Ezra just shrugged glibly.

At least breathing became a little easier the further behind they left the body and the odour grew less noticeable.


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