The waterfall tumbled, cascading in torrents to the pool at the base. With the late afternoon sun almost directly behind it, the spray was highlighted with a rainbow of colour, as the suns rays refracted at just the right angle. Here they had found the most perfect place; surrounded by rock and desert, this hidden oasis of dreams that beckoned peace and harmony. With such tranquillity, it only stirred at the gunslingers ardent need for retaliation. Chris just finished pushing his arms through his shirt, when Ezra started to stir.
Standish lay still on his back for a moment, blinking at the sunlight that filtered through the shade of the trees, and wondered momentarily where he was. The throb in his knee quickly brought back the lapse in memory, and he glanced about their camp. The roar of the waterfall was ever present; it even held a place of prominence in his dream hed just woken from. The Southerner sat up on his elbows and dropped his head backwards. A shadow drifted over his body blocking out the warmth from the sun. He lifted his head back up to find Larabee standing over the top of him; a feral look crossed his countenance. Chris dropped the gamblers assortment of clothing on top of his bare chest and walked back to the fire without uttering a word.
Ezra clutched the clothing together in a bundle and sat up. He shook out his shirt and frowned at the creases in the fine material. With a fatalistic sigh he shrugged his shoulders and donned the garment. Fortunately, he mused, the wrinkled shirt would be covered by his vest and jacket, and not be seen. Though looking at the condition of his burgundy jacket he winced at the pulled threads and tears that he hadnt noticed up until now. He wondered if Mrs Potters skill with needle and thread would be able to salvage the jacket or if he was going to have to replace it. Then there was the condition of his vest, without buttons it fell open, revealing more of his shirt then hed hoped would be seen. He grunted as he reached for his woollen socks, and with some difficulty managed to cover both feet. Slipping the leather boot onto his left, he stomped it into position then picked up his second boot. He held it in his hand, contemplating what to do with it. He didnt think that hed manage to slip his swollen foot back inside, but
Chris finished dressing and out the corner of his eye noticed Ezra contemplating his boot. His mouth curled up at the corners into a rare smile, surprised by the indecision of the younger man. "Probably best if you leave it off, Ezra. Ill find us both a crutch, and then we can get going." Chris hobbled off into the brush and returned with two branches. He tested them both for strength and satisfied with his find held out one to the gambler. Chris put the fork under the pit of his arm and limped over to the Southerner, extending his hand to haul Standish to his feet.
Ezra nodded his thanks and applied the use of his own crutch in much the same way as Larabee. The branch was gnarled with knots, but at least the stick was moderately straight. Ezra tentatively stepped forward, taking his weight on his left leg and the crutch, he prayed the branch wouldnt bend or break. A tense smile lit his face at his success. "Shall we?"
They had headed in the presumed direction of the waiting kidnappers camp. Chris judged the direction from the suns position, they would stumble across the group of miscreants, as Ezra would say, if they walked toward the sun and kept it just on their left. They had to traverse the pool and waterfall first and that ate away precious time, as they had to slowly crawl up the rock face. Larabee was undecided on their course of action should they find that Randall and his hoodwinks had gone. Hed contemplate that problem if it arose.
It was another hour until sundown. So assuming Randall and his gang were true to their word, and he didnt put it past them not to be, and remained behind to open the exit at the appointed time, then Chris and Ezra were going to be waiting for them instead.
The gambler had been keeping pace with the gunslinger, although his chin rested on his chest, he watched the ground for unevenness, rocks in his path, or gopher holes he could stumble into. He held his right limb out in front as he walked, and his torn pants leg flapped against his skin allowing the air to circulate freely. Ezra gripped tightly onto the rough surface of his temporary crutch and he came to a halt, heavily leaning on the prop.
Larabee had continued on a few more paces before realising the gambler had stopped following him. Turning back to face the Southerner, Chris frowned in concern. "You okay? We can rest up for a bit if ya want?"
"No. Im fine." Then with some hesitation added, "Im assuming there is a logical explanation for us to voluntarily go back into that den of depravity?"
Larabee chuckled lightly. "Fer someone who can find a hundred different ways of saying the same thing, you always revert back to Im fine."
Standish dimpled, and tilted his head to the side. "Well, I am," he responded.
Chris leant his weight on the branch and stared intently at Standish. "We gotta get the horses," and with a malicious sneer continued, "and those bastards need to be taught a lesson."
"Oh, joy," he drawled. "Might I remind you, we have no weapons and yet were going to waltz in and attack our assailants, who, I might add do have said weapons. Added to this, neither of us can walk without the aid of a crutch. What do you propose we do? Poke them to death with these instruments?" Ezra indicated the makeshift crutches, staring at Larabee in disbelief.
The man in black threw back his head and let out an almighty roar of laughter. "That aint exactly what Ive got in mind," Larabee threw back at him, "though it does have some merit." He chortled again at the gamblers snort. "Ive got a plan," he smiled, tapping the side of his nose with his index finger.
"We shoulda met up with them," Dunne announced, waving his arms in the air. "Where are they?"
"Calm down, son. You know how Ezra is. Chris has probably had to drag that Southerner kickin and screamin. That boy dont know the meaning of an early rise. Theyre probably just taking their time," Buck finished lamely. He could see the doubt in the younger mans expression but didnt know how to squash it. Wilmington squeezed the smaller mans shoulder and led his grey passed. He glanced up into the trackers blue eyes and stopped squarely in front of Vin Tanner. "Kids right," he muttered in a whisper, not wanting JD to hear. "Somethings gone wrong. Aint like Chris to put up with Ezras posturing. Hell, find it hard ta believe Ezrad willingly stay outdoors longer than necessary."
Tanner nodded his head in agreement. "Gonna scout on ahead. Dont keep supper for me."
The ladies man removed his hat and wiped the sweat off his brow. "Watch yer back, Tanner."
The golden orb was just setting, concealing its head behind the distant hills, the brilliance of orange, purple pinks and gold fanning out, splashed into the clouds, each colour bleeding and blending into one another.
Darkness would soon encompass the land, the ebony of night blanketing the landscape. Long elongated shadows extended, stretching out across the countryside. The fingertips of darkness touched at the encroaching evening. Four desperate men hovered around the exit, waiting anxiously for the arrival of Larabee and Standish. The coverings were removed off the opening and thrown haphazardly to the side. Guns drawn, they peered down into the silent yawing hole. From their perspective, the tunnel below was eight feet from the grounds surface. It would take a little ingenuity on the part of the lawmen to climb out, as Randall had no intention of helping them.
"I dont see em," Davies whined, crouching lower he ducked his head down in the hole and listened. "Cant hear nothing either."
Randall grunted, not willing to give up so quickly. He glanced at the setting sun and back to the hole. "They still got some time."
Madigan spun the chamber of his gun. "You want me to go down there and take a look about?"
"Nah," Randall shook his head.
+ + + + + + +
The gunslinger and gambler had approached the campsite from the opposite direction, and observed the burly men from behind the safety of a large boulder. The delicious aroma of food cooking wafted up toward the famished men, causing their mouths to water and stomachs to growl. It had been days since theyd had anything to eat. "You stay here," Larabee ordered the younger man.
"What?" he hissed incredulously. "I didnt traipse all this way to sit back and watch you have all the fun," the Southerner complained bitterly.
"Dammit, Ezra," Larabee growled through clenched teeth. "What do you think you can do to help? Youll only get yerself killed and maybe me as well. Aint noway Im taking that risk." And to prove his point, he shoved the younger man sideways off his perch. Larabee quickly covered his hand over the gamblers mouth to smother the scream that he knew would be forthcoming after intentionally hurting the Southerner. And he dropped his knee onto the gamblers chest, pinning him to the ground. He felt the muffled cry smoulder beneath his cupped hand, and the frantic breathing that followed.
Ezras eyes watered, and his Adams apple bobbed at his throat. Standish was shocked and a little afraid that Larabee would resort to inflicting violence upon his already tortured limb. He fought to control the fresh surge of pain that lanced his knee, but with Larabees weight on his chest and his hand covering his mouth he found it difficult to do. "Get off me," he wanted to scream.
Chris pressed down on the hand that remained over Ezras mouth. He looked down into the green eyes, noticing the pain and bewilderment in them, and he could feel the quick indrawn breaths that were sucked past his hand. "Had ta show ya that you werent up to it. Ill take my hand away if youre not gonna make any noise. Okay?" Chris leaned close to the Southerner and whispered this, not wanting to reveal their presence to the others, and complied once he felt the gambler nod his head in assent.
Ezra laid his head back against the cool hard rock, he closed his eyes and draped an arm over his face attempting to hide the pain and fear he knew would be etched so clearly in his features. Taking in slow deep breaths he sucked the cool night air past the sleeve of his jacket. The fear in his eyes was obvious and he didnt want to reveal to the other man how very frightened he was at the moment. Ezra felt Chris touch his leg, and he involuntarily tensed, but refused to open his eyes, too much emotion still swam in the depths of the emerald green orbs. He needed a few minutes to regain his control, before he could face looking into those blue eyes of Larabees. Ezra heard a rustle of clothing, but couldnt determine what the gunman was doing.
"Ezra? Im gonna put my jacket under your knee Ezra?" He was rewarded with a slight nod of acceptance. Chris rolled his jacket up and gently raised the gamblers leg, positioned the jacket and lowered the leg back down onto it. Chris felt like a heel for what he had done to the enigmatic man, but still considered it the right thing to do. How else would he keep him safe? "Ezra open your eyes?" Standish complied and looked squarely into the concerned eyes that scrutinised him. "Hell, I didnt mean ta hurt ya," he paused waiting for a response, but got none. "Im going. Shouldnt take too long." He took a few strides away, then turned back. "If anything happens and I dont come back, I want you ta wait right here. Those bastards wont come lookin for ya up here. Ill tell em I left ya in the tunnel. Then you just gotta wait for the boys to show up." Larabee stood and silently stole away into the darkness of night.
Standish opened his mouth to object but the gunslinger had already turned his back and slipped into the darkness. "Take care," Ezra quietly called after him, but Chris did not hear the parting advice.
The kidnappers waited until darkness surrounded them before they finally admitted to each other that their prey was not going to appear. Begrudgingly, they recovered the opening with the splintered and worn planks and rolled the heavy boulder over the top of the planks. Once everything was back in position they slowly returned to the camp. Disappointment and frustration surged through them.
Randall remained adamant that the two lawmen would have succeeded, where so many others had failed, and found the opening. He had anticipated the thrill of shooting both the gunslinger and the gambler dead. Watching their expressions change from relief at finding the exit to abject horror as they comprehended they would die. He had even contemplated allowing them the chance to step back up on solid ground, giving them a moments reprieve before plugging them full of holes. He wondered if they would have tried to protect one another or theyd stand still. He had no idea how the two peacekeepers would have reacted. Randall rubbed his chin in thought, he decided he would have liked to have had them watch each other die. But now, what to do confounded him. The thrill had lost its edge. He trudged, with a heavy heart and slumped shoulders in the darkness back to their camp where the fire blazed in the short distance.
Madigan openly voiced his own displeasure. Kicking at the rubble under foot he raised his gun and fired several rounds into the air. He returned his weapon to the holster and spun around facing the hole. He cursed and yelled, falling to his knees and thumping the ground with his fists.
Davies grabbed the younger man by his upper arms and pulled him to his feet. "Best get yerself under control," he warned.
Madigan growled and yanked his arm out of Davies grip. "What would you know, old man!" he shouted a bare few inches from his face. "Im fed up with all the waitin, and never gettin to finish anyone off."
"Boy " Davies cautioned, seeing Randall slow his steps.
"No, it aint right. This is all so stupid! Aint no fun, not being able ta see em suffer," he complained loudly. "Whats the point of putting em in those damn tunnels? There must be so many corpses down there and none of em are ever coming out!" he ranted irately.
Hobbs stood a short distance apart, watching the proceedings with a curious eye. He stepped out of harms way when Randall slowed, then stopped. The large man sent an appraising eye over Randalls twitching gun hand, folded his own arms across his chest he leant against a boulder.
Madigans raised voice peppered with insults and curses at Larabee and Standish began to irritate the insane man. A growing fury balled in his chest and Randall finally determined how he could fill that hollow feeling. He turned and faced Madigan and smiled falsely. The younger man would not have been able to see his features in the dark, but as Randall drew his gun and aimed it at Madigan, his outline against the backdrop of the fire gave all the warning Madigan was going to get. Davies instinctively stepped further away.
Madigan stopped mid sentence as he realised Randalls gun was trained on him. He swallowed past the hard lump that had formed in his throat, and felt a knot of tension tighten in his stomach as the click of the hammer came down into place.
The silence of the night was broken with the shrill shout of the weapon firing. Madigan was dead before he hit the ground the bullet piercing dead centre between his eyes. Randall walked over and kicked at the dead form; "Bury im," he ordered callously over his shoulder as he strode with determined lengths back to camp. A sadistic smile crossed his face followed by a howl of laughter.
Davies looked in horror at the young man and the retreating back of Randall. Hobbs shrugged his shoulders with indifference and knelt down by the dead man and closed his eyes. He grabbed the collar of the ranch hands coat and dragged him away.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee circled the camp and crept silently among the tethered horses. He murmured softly in his blacks ear and stroked the length of the animal. At least his horse appeared to be well looked after in his absence. Chris patted the horse on the rump and hunkered down in the shadows, watching the proceedings with interest. He looked up the incline where hed left the Southerner, searching the dark recesses for movement but finding none. He prayed that Standish remained hidden after Randall shot Madigan and didnt come down to investigate the gunshot. He squinted into the dark and strained to see anything passed the fire pit in the centre of the camp. With a shrug of indifference he calculated that his odds had improved significantly with the subsequent demise of one of the kidnappers. With only three remaining, and two of them tending the burial of Madigan, now was the perfect time to call the shots.
Randall wandered lazily into camp and sank down onto his haunches in front of the fire, giving the stew a stir, hoping it hadnt burnt to the bottom while they had been gone. Lifting the stirring implement to his mouth, he tasted it and reached into a pack for a container of salt. He dug his dirty fingernail into the tin and added it to the cooking supper. He reached forward to deposit the spoon back into the pot when something hard was pushed into the middle of his back. Randall dropped the spoon into the coals of the fire, slowly raising his arms. Without turning his head Randall queried, "Who are you and what cha want?" He was surprised that he hadnt heard the mans approach.
"Chris Larabee and Im taking ya in," was the deadly reply.
Davies and Hobbs were still burying Madigan and not yet returned to camp, they wouldnt be too far away that they couldnt hear if something were to happen, the older man reasoned. Randall threw himself backward into his intruder, sending them both into a heap. Randall gripped the gunslinger about his waist and leant all his weight onto the slimmer man. Chris sprawled and cursed, as his twisted ankle would not hold the extra weight of this man. He dropped the pseudo weapon, which in fact was only a thickened branch off a tree, and grunted under the unexpected attack. Randall groped for his sidearm, drawing it from its holster, but Chris lifted his knee up into the older mans groin. Randall groaned in pain, but managed to hold onto the gun. Chris pummelled the flabby belly and finding his footing he stood. Randall quickly followed Larabee and regained his feet.
Larabee panted and widened his stance, crouching lower. He listened for the return of the others, but the call of the night was all that answered. He watched the older man mimic his pose, puffing out his chest and sucking in his gut. Randall had gained the advantage and he still gripped it in his right hand. "Reckon ya got a lot of nerve," Chris snarled, taking a very small step closer to his opponent.
"Mr. Larabee, Im surprised to find you out of the hole. Where is Standish?"
"Dead," Chris lied, and took another step closer.
"You must have found another exit?" Randall queried, but the gunslinger was not forthcoming. "Im quite willing to grant you your freedom if youd reveal how you escaped."
Chris barked out a short laugh. "What, so you can seal that exit off also? No," he shook his head; a grim set to his features and gained another few inches closer to his target. "Youre insane if you think Id help you. I should warn you, that at least five friends of mine and Ezras are heading your way, even as we speak."
Randall roared with laughter. "They all say that, you know?" he sputtered.
"Yeah, but I aint lying," Chris blandly stated, confident with his prediction. Just another step and hed he near enough to launch a second attack. The gunslinger suddenly lunged at his opponent and grabbed the gun arm, slamming it against his knee. Randall bellowed in rage, dropping the gun at Chriss feet and bent to retrieve the weapon, but Larabee kicked the gun beyond his grasping fingers. Chris bit his bottom lip and swung around throwing a right uppercut into Randalls jaw.
Blood sprayed out from the lawmans blow and Randall spat the collection of blood at the gunslinger. The older man wild with rage screamed, blood outlined his yellowing teeth. He lowered his head and charged Larabee, but Chris sidestepped the steaming bull, landing a crushing blow to Randalls back as he continued through.
Chris staggered to the downed man and pulled at his jacket, "Get up," he ordered. Chris thumped another blow to the side of his head after he regained his feet and knocked him to the ground with one more. Larabee stood over him, panting heavily. So focused on the fight, Larabee was unprepared for the barrel that rested against his head. His breathing quickened as he heard a click of the hammer pulled back.
Hobbs and Davies had heard the skirmish and returned to camp in time to see Larabee and Randall tearing each other apart. They didnt intervene at first, but waited to see if Randall would get the upper hand without their help. Since the gunman outmanoeuvred Randall, the behemoth decided to end the skirmish. Hobbs dragged the gunslinger off his cohort; a twisted smile showed on his face as he recognised that Larabee was their intruder. Hed not expected to see the gunslinger again. Especially not alive.
Hobbs and Davies securely held Larabee between them with his arms pinned behind his back, while Randall struggled to his feet. Insanity guided the crazed mans actions, while Chris was held prisoner, Randall decided to enact on his rage. Not caring how Larabee had escaped the maze, or that the gambler was nowhere to be seen. He slammed his fist hard into the gunslingers jaw snapping his head to the side, teeth clenched down on his inner cheek, this was quickly followed by a volley of solid punches to the mans abdomen and chest, forcing the air to whoosh out. Had Chris not been held upright he would have bent forward and fallen to his knees.
The older man was of stocky build, and worked on the land most of his life, but this didnt help any, his strength was all but exhausted from the physical assault he launched on the gunslinger. Bending at the waist, hands resting on his knees, he gulped in large quantities of air. "Let im go," he rasped out at Hobbs and Davies. "Lets see how well he can stand up to a bullet."
The behemoth shrugged his massive shoulders and smiled his agreement. Davies followed the larger mans lead. Larabee collapsed to the ground, and curled his legs up protectively. Once on the ground, Hobbs kicked Chris in the ribs and upper thigh. Larabee grunted and pulled his legs up to his chest. The giant stepped over him and continued to kick at his exposed back.
Randall, meanwhile scanned the area for his lost gun and after an intense search of where he assumed it had landed, he spied it in the thick grass not too far away. He checked the chambers for bullets and twirled the cylinder around in his hand before locking it back in place. He walked up to the gunslinger and pointed the weapon directly at Chris head. He waved at Hobbs to stop and knelt in the dirt at Chris head. "Any last words?" he drawled in the gunmans ear.
"Go ta hell!" Chris spat with defiance.
"Youll be going there first, I assure you, Mr. Larabee." Randall pulled back the hammer
Once again the ringing of gunfire shattered the night.
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