The two peacekeepers progressively worked their way through the maze of passages, coming to many dead ends and having to retrace their steps time and again. Frustration began to show in both of them, and they snapped irritably at each other. They had also discovered more remains of human life, in various stages of decay. It became obvious that Randall and his cronies werent lying when they bragged about their prowess at repeating their crime time and again. So far, they had discovered ten dead men. Ezra had made it his responsibility to search their garments for any identifying material. Out of the ten, hed only managed to name three. But at least he could pass on those names to the respective families, and put their minds to rest wondering what had happened to their kin.
"That man is seriously delusional with his pretentious illusions of grandeur. How, pray tell has he accomplished so many misdeeds?" Standish frowned, not comprehending how one man could do this to another.
"Reckon that Jennings fella helped em get away with some of it, and just turned a blind eye to the rest." Standish nodded his head in agreement. If any inquiries had come his way regarding missing persons, he would have ignored them or laid down a false trail or plum straight out lied. "The boys wont give up so easy," Chris expected Vin and Buck to come looking for them. "Theyll find us."
Standish half smiled. "In what state, Im more concerned with."
"Hell I dont plan on dying down here. Specially when Ive got plans that involve those four bastards."
+ + + + + + +
Standish was fed up with answering questions regarding his injury, and the effort it took to do so. For once, he wished the gunslinger would just shut up. Which in itself was unusual, because in normal circumstances Larabee would hardly utter more than two words a day. Especially to him. It made him more appreciative of the quiet that Vin Tanner enjoyed. He almost gurgled with hysterical laughter, when had this role reversal occurred? Standish was the one who normally found voicing his ideas as music to his ears, but somewhere in the past day or so talking had lost its appeal.
Ezra looked down at the bulging mass beneath his pants leg. How much longer could he put one leg in front of the other? Every step brought him nearer his limit. It took a supreme effort to stifle the grunts of pain that threatened each time his foot hit the ground. If Larabee hadnt taken to sneering at him and sniping at his every other word, Standish would be encouraged to ask for assistance with his walking. Chris had offered numerous times already, but those times Standish had stubbornly refused and now, when he desperately needed that help, none was offered. So instead, the Southerner fought the trembling legs and limped painfully behind the man in black.
Several minutes after this decision, he heard a tortuous groan echo in his ears. Unable to carry the torch any longer, he dropped it and with the pounding blood in ears added with the scream that erupted from his knee the gambler didnt notice that Larabee had joined him.
"Ezra?" the soft concerned tone brought the Southerners head up. The pain shone from his eyes and Chris winced in sympathy. He kicked some dirt over the abandoned light, extinguishing the flame. Then he positioned his taller frame next to Ezras and pulled him off the wall. Larabee was almost dragged to the ground when Standishs legs buckled, but he managed to centre the extra weight accordingly.
They danced this strange lunging walk for only a short while. But the gamblers strength continued to flag, and Chris was gradually taking more of Standishs weight. Ezras head hung low, his chin rested down on his chest, unable to hold it upright any longer. His left leg was shaking, weary from overcompensating. Even the arm that Ezra had slung around Larabees shoulder hung limply and threatened to slip off.
Chris stopped the slow procession and turned the younger man around in his grasp until they were facing each other. Lifting up Ezras head, by grasping under the gamblers chin, he noticed the dull glazed expression that stared blankly back at him. Larabee shook his head, then picked the Southerner up and tossed him over his shoulder, being careful not to bump the injured knee. Standish voiced no protest at this, so Chris assumed the gambler had reached his limit. With a grunt of satisfaction, Chris knew hed made the right decision.
The sound of rushing water grew louder and Chris headed toward that sound. Initially, he could only hear it in the distance, reverberating off the rock walls, but as they came closer the roar intensified. Within a short time, Chris carried his burden into the passage that opened up into a large cavern that had an underground stream traversing through it. The path migrated along the edge of the stream for a while before branching off to the left and the stream disappeared through a hole in the wall. The ceiling was a good sixty feet above them and a thin wisp of sunlight penetrated the roof and drew patterns on the floor. This was probably where the bats would have led them.
His heart missed a beat as Chris gaped in awe at the shimmering reflections on the water. "Ezra, theres light in here," his voice animated with a renewed sense of hope. Standish didnt respond. Chris gently lowered the Southerner to the ground and walked stiffly to water, getting down on haunches he ducked his head completely beneath the surface. Wiping the wetness from his face he scooped a handful of water to his mouth. Drinking his fill of this glorious tasting water, he returned and assisted Ezra over to the stream so he could drink also.
A weariness invaded his soul. They needed to rest. And if this was indeed their way out, it would still be there after theyd rested.
Chris had no accurate way of determining the time, he didnt possess a watch and the gamblers timepiece had been stolen, but he presumed it was mid afternoon by the angle of the sunlight entering the cavern. So far this day had been inexplicably long, and it was only half over. Larabee hunkered down beside the gambler and rested his head back against the rock wall. He slowly slid to the ground and closed his eyes, focusing on relaxing the tensed muscles that had bunched up.
The man in black was feeling the strain of carrying the Southerner, and although the smaller man wasnt overly heavy, Chris was tiring. His arms and shoulders arched, and his legs were heavy as lead. Even the tips of his fingers were raw, tingling from the constant groping along the rock walls. Spasms shot through his back, reminding him that his stooped posture had not gone unnoticed. Larabee glanced over to his companion, sleeping in the exact position hed been lowered to moments before, he contemplated doing the same.
Standish had fallen asleep almost instantly after having had a drink; he lay on his back with his right arm slung over his face. His face twisted in pain periodically, as his injured knee flared up, shooting spears of pain up the gamblers leg, but this didnt wake him from the deep sleep hed fallen into.
Larabee only rested for a half-hour, but was considerably refreshed after doing so. Chris looked down at his friends face and watched, concerned that even in sleep the pain was still evidently bothering the younger man. Chris was surprised at how much younger Standish appeared when he was asleep, not being able to hide his age behind his poker face that was usually in place.
Drawing his knees up to his chest, Larabee picked up a handful of dirt and let it run through his fingers. Shaking his head, more in frustration than anger. "How the hell did we get involved in this?" Standing, he watched Ezra a moment longer for any signs of his waking, but the steady rhythm of breathing convinced him that the gambler would not wake for a while. Hed allow Standish time to sleep, while Chris checked out the cavern they were now in. He was anxious to find an exit. Hed be able to keep an eye on the Southerner and do that at the same time.
The blackclad man strolled leisurely to the waters edge. On the surface, flecks of the suns rays gave the pool the allusion of a mirrored surface. The crystal clear water rushed over the streams rocky bottom. The roar that had beckoned them to the cavern had a grounding presence, a familiarity that had been sorely missed in the darkened tunnels. The cavern itself wasnt nearly as dark as the passageways that had led them to here, but it was still blessed with a pathetic dimness. Chris crouched and dipped his hands in the chilly water. He rubbed at the dirt and splashed his face also.
Larabee craned his neck and turned in a slow circle, examining the walls for a way up to the surface above. It tantalised him, being so near yet so far. If he could find a way up, he could get a rope and send it back down for the Southerner. Pursing his lips in concentration he was determined to cross the raging torrent of water as his first course of action. On the opposite side the rock wall appeared a gentler slope, at least from his current point of view.
+ + + + + + +
Chris stretched his leg higher, and dug his fingernails into the soft crevices, pulling himself to a higher level. Panting and gasping he glanced down, hed only managed to climb up six or seven feet. From the opposite side of the raging water, the slope he now scaled hed assumed it to be only a gradual slope, but obviously that view had been deceptive. His body pressed against the rocks, he could feel the bite of the sharp edges dig into his abdomen. Hugging the precipice with failing grip, his weight rested in a small pocket that only the toe of his boot could access. He began to realise the futility of this course of action. There was no way he was going to be able to climb any higher. They would not escape by going up. He remained frozen to the wall; a sheen of perspiration dotted his brow. How was he going to get down? With a defeated sigh, Larabee threw himself off the wall and fell to the ground. A jolting pain tore through his ankle, but he managed to roll and prevent any further damage. Add more bruises to his torso and legs, but this was the final tally of injuries incurred from the fall.
Chris flexed his legs and slapped at his pants, dusting off the dirt that clung there. He craned his neck and sighed deeply. That was not a healthy option to get out. The gunman thinned his lips and cursed Randall once more. He checked the entire cavern for possible exits, but found only one leading away from the cavern and that led deeper into the bowels of the earth.
Chris glanced back across the pond and saw the Southerner beginning to stir, so he headed back across the stream. He stepped on each rock carefully, not wanting to slip and go plummeting into the icy cold water. The last thing they needed was to be wet and cold in these already damp surrounds.
The gambler groaned when awareness slowly came back to him. He rolled on his side and his arm that previously covered his face fell off when he changed positions. He blinked the sleep from his eyes and casually searched for Larabee. A moment of apprehension tightened in his chest when he found he was alone, but he stamped out the smouldering flame of dread. Ezra trusted the stoic gunslinger, and wouldnt believe that hed abandon the gambler after everything theyd gone through. He sat up and flexed the stiffness out of his left leg. The throbbing in his right knee remained, but if he didnt move the leg, the pain was tolerable. Ezra glanced up and watched Chris return from the opposite side of the stream, hopping across rocks strategically placed in the water.
Chris reached the gamblers side and crouched down on his haunches beside him. "I checked out the area." The gunslinger rubbed his bruised hands on his thighs. "Reckon we gotta keep going that way," he pointed, indicating the direction. He watched the Southerner glance wistfully at the high ceiling and didnt want to be the one to inform Standish that going up was not an option. "Cant get out that way." Ezra nodded, sighing audibly.
Though Standish trusted Chris not to voluntarily leave him, Ezra decided it was probably better for the both of them, well Larabee he amended, if he could convince the gunslinger to do just that. "Perhaps you should continue on without me, as I am only hindering your progress." He didnt want to be a burden, but that was exactly what was happening. The gambler fidgeted with the holes torn in his vest where the buttons had been ripped off, unable to meet the gunmans eyes. Standish didnt relish the prospect of being deserted and he couldnt bring himself to watch the affirmation in Chriss eyes.
"If were gonna git out of here alive, Ezra, then were gonna do it together! Got that?" Larabee snapped at him, jabbing his index finger at the gamblers chest. "Were wasting time arguing the point. I aint leaving you behind." With a smirk the gunslinger added, "Besides, you couldnt leave me behind."
Standish arched his eyebrows at the insight of the gunslinger. Sighing deeply, Ezra reluctantly nodded his head; Larabee was starting to read him like a book. "Shall we proceed?" Again Larabee helped the gambler to stand, and without asking, positioned himself against Ezra so the gambler could use him like a crutch. They headed on out of the cavern without saying anything further.
+ + + + + + +
Another hour slowly dragged by and the two lawmen walked together as one. Ezra limped and Larabee compensated, but even Chris was tiring. He didnt know how the gambler managed to keep going. The passages were more often than not covered with a thin trail of water making the floor slippery under foot. The pair found that they were constantly tripping over debris and rocks as their legs shuffled instead of lifting clear of the ground, and they had to help each other stay upright. The newest tunnel they were investigating sloped downward. Its steady decline caused a mountain of trouble for the unsuspecting pair.
The presence of rats was becoming a familiar sight and both men tended to ignore the rodents. They passed in front of their feet and ran along the sidewalls, darting rapidly in and out. In the gloom of the tunnel Chris plodded along, he carried the torch and the conman. He didnt expect the rat to race under his foot as he planted it, his ankle turned as the rodent squealed for release. It happened so quickly, the slippery floor and the downhill climb contributing also. Chris tripped over the rat and then slipped. He swore loudly as he stumbled to the ground dragging Ezra down with him. The Southerner cried out in pain as they ungracefully landed heavily on the earth. Chris landed solidly on top of Ezra.
Standish lay his head back on the dusty ground and moaned audibly. Larabee was on top of the smaller man, pinning him to the ground. He could feel the rapid rise and fall of Ezras chest against his own and the ragged breaths that panted out through clenched teeth. The Southerner groaned painfully when Chris rolled off and he swore again. "Damn! You okay, Ezra?" The gunslinger feeling tired and weary also, lay on the ground beside the gambler.
"No!" he wanted to scream, but for appearances sake he responded with a lazily mumbled, "Sure." Larabee had to strain to even hear the softly spoken word that was slurred almost incoherently. He glanced over at Ezra, concerned that the normally verbose man had used only one word and not his usual assortment of five-dollar words.
"Reckon we might call it a night. What do ya think?" Hell theyd been walking around in these tunnels for hours, now was the perfect time in his opinion. Chris waited for Standish to voice an opinion, but all he got in response was, "Fine," and this worried the gunslinger even more. Larabee propped himself up on his elbows and leaned over Ezra. His breathing had slowed somewhat since the initial fall and he had one arm draped over his face. He appeared as though he might be going to sleep. Chris took hold of Standishs arm and pulled it away so he could see the Southerners face. Pain was evident in the pinched expression. Chris knew the gambler had to be in quite a bit of distress to be showing his emotions this clearly. "Hell," he swore under his breath as he stood up, kicking at the damp floor in frustration. "If we go back a bit well have a bit more room and the surface is level." And drier, he added as he felt the dampness that had penetrated through the seat of his pants.
Ezra just wished the gunman would leave him be. His arms and legs were heavy with exhaustion and he resented the thought at any further walking. If he kept his eyes closed then Larabee wouldnt expect him to speak. Hell, he didnt have the energy to make conversation. The entire days efforts had taken its toll on him. No more, he pleaded. He was tired, hungry and cold, his whole leg was hurting something fierce, and he sure as hell didnt want to be here. Didnt Larabee know that? Why didnt Chris just leave him and get himself out? What was keeping the stalwart lawman by his side? Standish was surprised earlier when Chris wouldnt leave him, but he thought it was a front, and after the gunman considered his options more thoroughly hed change his mind. But so far that hadnt happened.
Standish was aware that Chris had moved away from him. Maybe he had finally decided to leave after all? But the gunman returned shortly and knelt down at his side. Ezra tried to lift his droopy eyelids, but they refused to cooperate. The gambler was startled at the gunslingers cool touch to his forehead, if he had the energy hed remove the offensive sentiment and brush it away, but as it was he couldnt even vocally protest.
He heard Larabee explain that he was going to carry him. That they needed only to backtrack a matter of yards. Still his body failed to respond to his simple commands. He couldnt allow Larabee to carry him, that was so undignified. Get up, Standish! There was a subtle pause, as though Chris was waiting, then the older man slid an arm around his back and the other under his upper legs. His head lolled and eventually rested into the crook of the gunslingers neck. The gunslinger grunted under the smaller mans weight, but didnt drop him. His knee burst into flames as Chris lowered him back to the floor. And a muted cry strangled in his throat. He swallowed convulsively and moaned senselessly.
"Bit more room here, Ezra." Chris waited for some acknowledgment from the barely responsive man, but knew he wouldnt receive one. Standish was passed out within minutes of lying down. "Great, its gonna be a long night," grumbled the gunslinger, and he made himself as comfortable as the rock floor allowed, settling down for a much needed respite.
Randall and his small group had done little during the days daylight hours. Their energy levels had sunk in the sweltering heat and they lazed under the shade of the trees. Theyd gathered a bundle of firewood and caught a prairie dog for their dinner. As the sun disappeared behind the horizon and dusk slowly crept upon them, they started to show more signs of life now that the heat of the day dropped to a more acceptable level.
The old man, Everett Randall whittled at a piece of wood, content in his own musings not to be concerned at the silence that pervaded his camp. He mumbled incessantly, raising his voice at times then quickly dropping it to a whisper. The others paid him no heed, familiar with his peculiar rantings. He glanced from his work to study his two fellow ranch hands playing a friendly game of cards. He speculated that they must have taken the deck from the gambler, though he hadnt seen them do so. Beyond them Hobbs returned to camp, holding the lantern in front of him. The man was restless, new to the waiting game, Randall concluded. Once Carruthers rejoined them, hed suggest to the large man it was time for him to move on. But he needed him for the moment. Just on the off chance the two lawmen discovered the exit. He may require Hobbs to terminate them.
Randall drew the blade to his mouth and picked at a piece of food that had lodged between his teeth. "Hear anything?" Randall had sent Hobbs to check the exit. Hed not expected Larabee and Standish to reach the opening yet, but it gave the fidgety man something to do.
"Nah. I even opened it up for a bit, but didnt see nothin."
"You fool!" The older man jumped to his feet and stormed across the distance separating them. "What if they were there, just waiting for you ta open it? Theyd a got away afore, me and the boys coulda stopped em," he chastised. "All I told ya ta do was to listen. Nothin else." He pulled his weapon and waved it about. "You ever do somethin that I aint told ya to do, then thatll be yer last time," he threatened, bringing the gun to bear on the larger mans chest.
Hobbs smirked, bringing the lantern to his face he blew out the light. Dismissing the threat as all bluff he wandered back into the ring of camp and set out his bedroll for the night. He winked at Davies and Madigan whod ceased playing cards to stare at him in a stunned stupor.
Randall returned to his seat, picking up his knife he continued whittling as though nothing had happened.
Dunne tramped restlessly back and forth, stirring up dust with each erratic turn of his boots. He ran his hand through his thick black hair and opened his mouth to say something, but closed it instead and continued his pacing.
"Kid, yer gonna get dirt all over supper," Tanner scolded.
Stopping in his tracks he looked from Vin then over to Buck, who lounged idly against a well-shaped boulder. "Were gonna meet up with them tomorra, right?" He had a nervous feeling in his gut all day that something had happened to the sombre leader and the enigmatic Southerner.
Tanner leaned over the jack-rabbit that cooked on a spit above the fire and sliced off a portion of meat and brought it to his mouth. "Reckon so." Vin popped the morsel into his mouth and chewed hungrily. Theyd not stopped for a midday meal, and his stomach was grateful to the peace offering. "Reckon this is about ready," the tracker announced to the others.
"Good, my bellys crying out in agony," Wilmington jauntily stepped up with his plate in hand.
"Must admit a feed is most welcoming," the former preacher boomed. Nathan Jackson joined the others also, expectantly with plate at the ready.
JD watched the enlightened mood and was dismayed at the cavalier attitude the older men had adopted. "Aint ya concerned that Chris and Ezra could be in trouble?" Dunne persisted.
Buck handed his plate to Vin and draped a comforting arm about the young gunslingers shoulders. "Son, we dont even know if they are in danger. So theres no point fretting and getting all hyped up till we know. Figure well know one way or another by tomorrow." Wilmington turned his young friend back to the fire and handed him the plate that Tanner passed to him. "Now eat. Aint gonna help nobody if ya fall off yer horse from lack of food. We need you fit as a bull." He grinned like a Cheshire cat and tapped his own chest with a balled fist, insinuating that he was indeed a perfect specimen.
Dunne paused eating, with a mouthful of food in his mouth he mumbled, "Yer so full of crap, Buck."
"Thought youd already worked that out," the ladies man chuckled.
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