Confessions In The Dark
Authors Note: This started as an idea and bloomed into a short story. After the fall of slavery, poor people flooded into America as indentured servants or bond slaves. After working to pay off whatever benefactor paid for their sojourn to the new world, they were free to pursue their own lives.
Due to the fact that my Beta is absolutely swamped, this story is beta free. Any mistakes in spelling or grammar are mine and mine alone.
The pair rode into town with a mule in tow bearing their possessions. The man stopped the animals in front of the livery and dismounted. The woman dismounted as well, gathering the reins of the horses. The man flipped a coin at her and instructed her to see to the animals.
The man strode into the saloon and ordered a drink as he studied the people around the room. It was early in the afternoon and the room was only sparsely populated. He tossed back the whiskey and ordered another. He also asked the Mexican barmaid for whatever she had in the kitchen to eat.
The woman led the animals into the livery and approached the man mucking out the stalls. She waited patiently for him to take notice of her before she spoke.
"Sir, I would like to board the three animals here for a couple of nights." In her hand she clutched the coin as she waited for the man to nod.
Yosemite looked over the diminutive brunette with the Irish lilt in her voice. She looked almost terrified as she stood looking up at him. He nodded toward the three end stalls and accepted the coin she offered. He watched her as she stalled the big stallion first. She removed the saddle even though it looked as if it weighed as much as she did. After brushing the horse, she moved to the mare. The small saddle from the mare was light and easily handled. She groomed the animal and spoke fondly as she stroked her neck.
When the woman began to unload the mule, Yosemite finally stepped in to help. The mule was carrying a load of dried beans and grains as well as camping and mining gear. Everything was stacked in the corner of the stall with the mare. The mule was also gently groomed before the woman moved to bring in water for them.
"I'll tend to the feed and water, miss, you go on now."
A grateful smile lit her face as she picked up a bag and slung it over her shoulder before slipping out of the livery. She made her way thru the town and saw the church at the end of the street. It was a perfect place to wait for Mr. Dalton.
The sun was shining warmly as she eased herself down onto the bottom step. From the bag over her shoulder, she took a sketchbook and began to draw. The first few lines were only a hint of the town. As each progressive pencil stroke filled the page, the town came to life on the paper. The curves were set in place where there would be horses drawn in later.
Josiah opened the door and stepped onto the porch of the church. At the bottom of the steps was a young woman with something on her lap. He quietly moved down the steps and looked over her shoulder.
"That's very good," he said as he stepped down and sat beside her.
Meagan jumped and covered the paper with her hand. She looked into the intense blue eyes of the older man as her heart leapt into her throat. Her eyes dropped to the cross around his neck and she felt herself relax a little. Moving her hand, she allowed the man to see the rough sketch.
"It is really very good. You have a good eye." He started to turn the page and looked at the woman for permission. Getting her nod, he turned the pages and studied the towns that she had drawn. "This is Eagle Bend and that looks like Spring Bluff."
"That's right! I'm glad you recognized them. I wasn't sure anyone would. I sketch the towns so I will remember all the places I passed thru in my life."
As Josiah turned a few more pages, he saw sketches of ocean views and a ship deck. The next few pages were filled with rolling hills and open vistas. There was a collage on one page, a stone wall, a cottage, a well, a bucket. The detail was remarkable, he could almost feel the images looking at them. A man's voice calling angrily intruded on his thoughts.
"Meagan! Are you listening to me?"
The woman pushed the sketchbook into Josiah's lap and cast him a pleading look as she came to her feet. Her hands smoothed her clothes as she stood.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Dalton, I didn't hear you. I took care of the animals and I was just sitting here waiting for you to finish in the saloon. I'm sorry!" The woman's voice was trembling.
The man grabbed the woman by the arm and dragged her away from the church. When they were out of earshot, he began to scold her.
"What were you telling him? Are you complaining to him about something?"
"No, we were just sitting there talking about the towns we've passed thru. I like to find a quiet place to sit and the church was a quiet place! I didn't tell him anything, I swear!"
Josiah watched the stranger man handling the girl and came to his feet. He would have gotten involved but for the pleading look the girl had given him. He closed the sketchbook and carried it into the church. By the time he came back out, Meagan was gone. He crossed to the saloon and approached the others.
"Have any of you noticed the man who arrived here a couple of hours ago? Big fellow with dark hair, he was wearing dark pants and a light colored shirt."
"He was in here throwing back drinks. Why do you ask?" Vin asked.
"He had a girl with him. Something about the way he talks to her bothers me."
"In what way?" Chris was now leaning forward on the edge of the table looking intently at the older man.
"Just brusque and rough with her. She looked almost scared when he came up on us while we were talking. I just want to keep an eye on them."
That evening, JD entered the livery and pulled Racer from his stall. He brushed the animal and saddled him in preparation for his patrol that night. He didn't notice the woman until she stepped out of the stall.
"Oh, hello, I didn't know anyone else was here," JD said as he studied the woman.
"I was just tending to the animals."
The lilt of her voice brought tears to the young sheriff's eyes. He blinked hard and brushed away the few that managed to escape. He stared at her without speaking until she blushed and turned away.
"Forgive me, I'll come back another time," she started out of the livery.
"NO! Please, don't go! I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. You reminded me of someone. Someone very dear to me." He forced his eyes to the ground.
"She must have been very special."
"M-my ma. She died almost two years ago. Her voice sounded just like yours. You came here from Ireland?"
A shy smile accompanied her nod. A man entered the livery and the girl recoiled. She entered the stall and took up the currycomb again.
"Do you have some place to be, young man?"
"I was just heading out on patrol, sir." JD tipped his hat and led Racer outside.
Getting ready for the early morning patrol, Vin pulled Peso from the stall. As he was saddling the horse he heard a sound from the hayloft. Pulling the mares leg from its holster, he silently climbed the ladder. Peering carefully over the top he saw the cause of the noise. A young woman lay on a bedroll on the loose hay. Her brown hair was loose around her face as she turned over. He climbed down and left her undisturbed.
Over breakfast JD mentioned the woman with the Irish lilt in her voice. Josiah looked up at the tone of voice the kid used in describing her. He then remembered that JD's own mother had come to America from the Emerald Isle.
That afternoon, Vin mentioned that he had seen Meagan sleeping in the loft. Josiah and Chris questioned why she would be sleeping there while Mr. Dalton slept in the hotel. It was a question that the men wanted answered, however, the man and woman went out overnight.
Over the next few days, the pair left early each morning and returned late each evening. Vin reported that the girl was still sleeping in the hayloft. They returned early one afternoon and the man headed for the bathhouse. Meagan led the horses to the livery and Josiah followed her.
As he watched her with the horses, Josiah noticed that the girl looked exhausted. She had smudges of dirt on her face and clothes. As she lifted her hands from the saddle he noticed that the palms of her hands were raw and bloody. He crossed to her and caught hold of her wrist.
"What happened to your hands?"
"It's nothing, please, I have work to do." She pulled her hand away and resumed tending to the animals.
Moving into the other stall, Josiah brushed and tended to the other horse. He moved on to the mule and finished just as she finished with the mare. When she stepped from the stall her steps wavered and she fainted. Josiah swept her into his arms and carried her to the clinic. Nathan examined her and found nothing wrong with her except that she was painfully thin. He cleaned and wrapped her hands. She awoke just as he was finishing.
"How did I get here? How long was I asleep? I have to go, please, let me go!" She tried to get up and Josiah eased her back against the pillows. Nathan pressed a mug of soup into her hands.
"Drink that. How long has it been since you had a decent meal?" The dark healer asked. She turned away, shame coloring her delicate features.
Josiah caught her chin gently in his fingers and lifted it so that he could study her eyes. He smiled warmly at her as he repeated the question. "How long has it been?"
"Mr. Dalton feeds me. Please, I must get back to the livery. If he cannot find me, he will be upset. Please?" Her eyes were pooling with tears and she was shaking in fear.
"Drink that and then you can go. I will find Mr. Dalton and let him know that you are being cared for here. You will be safe here." Josiah released her chin and eased off of the edge of the bed. He looked back on her once before going in search of the man.
Thomas stood in the saloon seething in anger. He had not been able to find Meagan when he left the bathhouse. He wanted her to wash his clothes since they had returned to town early. Tossing back another shot of whiskey, he looked up from the bar as the big, gray haired man came to his side.
"Mr. Dalton, I wanted to inform you that Meagan is in the clinic being treated for the wounds on her hands and for exhaustion. Nathan would like to keep her for a couple of days to make sure that she doesn't have any other problems but she's determined to leave."
"Then let her leave. I need her to do things for me and you have no right to interfere. I will be at the clinic in a few minutes to collect her." Dalton glared angrily at the man at his side.
Meagan finished the soup and got out of the bed. Nathan tried to coax her into staying but she was determined to leave. He asked her to come back the next night so that he could clean and redress the wounds on her hands. Dalton was just reaching the bottom of the stairs when she came out. Nathan watched as the woman followed the man into the hotel.
The men gathered around the table and discussed the odd relationship between the woman and the man. JD was upset that she had refused to allow Nathan to help her. Ezra tapped the deck of cards against the table and waited for a pause in the conversation.
"I know why she behaves the way she does. She's what's called an indentured servant. I've also heard them called bond slaves or bond servants. He paid to bring her over here and she has to work off the debt. It's gaining popularity since the loss of the slaves in the south. The people who come here are penniless. They are treated no better than slaves."
A pair of angry eyes flashed as JD came to his feet. Buck pulled the boy back into his chair and placed a calming hand on his shoulder. Josiah leaned toward the gambler.
"How do you know this?"
"I played cards with the man the other night. He was bragging about how little it cost to bring her here and how he charges her for every little thing she needs or uses to keep her in his debt. He has her digging with him in a mine."
Several pairs of angry hands clenched into fists.
"He can't do that, can he? He can't make her work in the mine like a slave!" JD protested loudly.
"It's all quite legal, I'm afraid, Mr. Dunne. He showed me the paper. Until she satisfies the debt, she has to serve him."
"She may have to serve him but that doesn't give him the right to abuse her and I'm going to stop by his room and make sure that he understands that fact," Chris said with a menacing tone in his voice. He got up from the table and left the saloon.
Knocking on the door of the room the desk clerk identified for Mr. Dalton, Chris waited impatiently. The door opened and the man stepped into the hallway. In the room, he saw the girl asleep on the settee in the corner.
"Mr. Dalton, I wanted to make sure that you understood something. I don't care if you have a bond contract on her, you will not be allowed to abuse her. My friends and I will be watching you. Nathan will be checking on her and cleaning the wounds on her hands. You will return to town early enough for her to get a decent meal."
"Mr. Larabee, I hardly see how any of this is any of your business. Miss Riley and I have a working relationship. I pay her for her work. She is free to seek other work as long as she repays her debt to me."
Chris glared at the man for several moments before he walked away.
Buck noticed the young woman sitting alone in the restaurant the next morning and approached her table. He flashed her his most charming smile and asked if he could join her. She nodded and he pulled out a chair. He noticed the bandages on her hands and knew immediately who she was.
After sharing breakfast with her, Buck left the girl and headed for the saloon to let the others know that she had at least eaten a good meal. Meagan headed for the church. Josiah came out of the small room he had at the back of the church when he heard the front door close. He looked up in surprise at Meagan. Reaching back thru the door, he took her book off of the table and offered it to her.
"Thank you for keeping it for me. If Thomas saw it he would be upset with me," she explained as she tucked the book into her bag. "I wanted to thank your friends for what they tried to do yesterday. But please don't try to help me, you'll only make matters worse for me."
"Meagan, you can't go on like this. You'll never be free of him if things continue the way they are. He doesn't plan on letting you go free."
"Just tell them that I appreciate what they tried to do. I have to go." She turned and bolted out of the room.
From where he stood in front of the saloon, Nathan watched the girl run from the church and head for the livery. A short time later, she rode out with Dalton. The healer shook his head as he went to get breakfast.
The men noticed that Dalton and the girl did not return that evening. JD was distraught and insisted that they go out looking for them. Vin and the young sheriff headed out for a couple of hours before it got too dark to track. They returned to the saloon to inform the others of the results of their search.
"They're headed south and west. There are some small silver mines in that area and that may be where they're headed. We'll go back out at first light and see if we can find them." Vin pulled his beer closer and leaned the chair back against the wall.
"I'll go with you tomorrow. I don't want the two of you out there alone with that guy," Buck announced as he looked to Chris for confirmation. The blonde man nodded.
Ever the voice of reason, Ezra asked a single question. "What do you intend to do when you find them? He still holds the bond note on her. If he chooses not to return to our humble little hamlet, we have no cause to impel him."
"Ezra's right. He could just keep riding with her and we have no way to stop him," Nathan said with a heavy sigh.
"What if we bought out her note? She would be free then, right?" JD offered hopefully.
"She owes him close to eighty dollars, Mr. Dunne. Where do you expect to garner the funds to buy her freedom?" The gambler asked acidly.
All eyes rested on him for a moment before each man dug into their pocket. Between the six of them they put almost thirty-eight dollars on the table. When the final pair of eyes returned to meet the striking green eyes, Ezra sighed.
"I suppose that you expect me to contribute the remainder?"
"You've won at least that much from us in the past couple of months. You'll win it back. Besides, I'll bet it cost more than that to return that Chinese girl to her family in San Francisco." Chris's voice was a whisper as he leaned closer; they were not supposed to know about the good deed the gambler had performed for the young woman.
"H-how do you know I was responsible for that?" Ezra asked as he shifted in his chair uncomfortably. He thought he had gotten away with the act of kindness unnoticed. 'Mother would have been thoroughly disgusted with me,' he thought.
"We know that you aren't the selfish son of a bitch that you portray yourself to be. Let's just leave it at that," Chris continued quietly as the others looked around the room pretending not to notice their leader hissing softly in the southerner's ear.
With a slight nod, Ezra dropped several bills on the table before excusing himself from the table and heading for his room.
"Is he pouting?" Buck asked.
"Leave him alone, Buck!" Came the terse reply as Chris gathered the money and handed it to Vin. "You three head out at first light. And watch your backs!"
The wounds on her hands stung as the sand ground into them. Meagan felt her arm snap as she fell from the horse. Thomas Dalton was furious! His boot caught her in the side and she cried out as she curled up, trying to protect both ribs and arm. He left her where she lay as he made his preparations.
The mine was old and deep. Dalton had found a fair vein of silver inside and had been working diligently to remove it. He had several pounds of the precious mineral in his saddlebags. An evil grin lifted his cheeks as he pulled the dynamite from his bag.
His plan was simple. He knew that they would follow him to find the girl. He was going to lure them into the mine and collapse the opening. It was so simple that he couldn't believe it took him most of the night to come up with the plan. It took a couple of hours to plant the dynamite and bury the detonator wire. Deep in the mine he fashioned a dummy in Meagan's clothes. A single candle and a low lantern would draw them into the tunnel.
As the first streaks of pink and lavender crept over the horizon, Vin was already preparing the three horses to leave town. JD was getting breakfast for them and Buck was picking up supplies from Nathan in case one of them got hurt. Peso and Racer tossed their heads repeatedly as they waited for their masters. Ghost stood calmly, one foot resting on the tip of its hoof as he waited patiently.
They made good time getting to the marker Vin had placed the evening before. From there the ride was slower as the tracker stared at the ground. The trail was clear, too clear for the Texan to be comfortable. It was as if Dalton wanted them to find him.
Meagan pleaded with Thomas not to hurt the lawmen. She had been on her knees clinging to his wrist with her unbroken arm when he backhanded her. That evening, she gathered the herbs that she knew would make the big stallion ill. She planned to try to ride out and warn the men from Four Corners about the trap. After fashioning a sling for her arm, she hand fed the plants to the animal.
A hand closed over her mouth and Meagan awakened with a start. Thomas bound and gagged her before dragging her away from the camp and leaving her in a ditch. He warned her that he could just as easily leave her there to die if she continued to make trouble for him. He returned to the campsite to get it ready for the lawmen.
Vin pressed his field glass against his eye and studied the camp. The horses and mule were picketed a good distance from the mine opening. A small fire burned near the pair of bedrolls. There was no sign of either Thomas or Meagan.
"They must be inside the mine. We'll get closer but we have to go in on foot. JD, you stay out here with the horses," Vin said softly.
"No! I'm not a kid, I want to help. Please Vin?" JD's eyes were impossibly large as he bore into the tracker. Finally, there was a small nod.
"Okay, but if you get hurt I'll kick your butt all the way back to town."
The three men crept up to the mouth of the mine. JD stayed behind Buck on the left side of the opening as Vin moved up from the right. They pressed their backs against the walls as they peered into the dark tunnel. Several feet into the tunnel there was a candle in a niche in the wall. Buck edged farther into the tunnel with JD at his hip as Vin began to hang back. The darkness and closeness of the walls was getting to the claustrophobic tracker.
Peeking around a bend in the tunnel, Buck saw a dimly lit lantern and what looked like a bound body. He rushed forward. JD looked around the corner and whispered toward the tracker.
Just as both of the younger men started forward there was an explosion. The shock wave knocked Vin into JD as both men hit the ground. The tracker instinctively covered the smaller man and held him tight as the tunnel behind them collapsed.
A gush of dust blew out of the tunnel mouth as Thomas Dalton pressed the plunger and set off the dynamite. Beneath his feet he could feel the tremor of the rocks falling and sealing the fate of the three troublesome lawmen. He laughed as he threw down the detonator and prepared to break camp.
The throbbing of her ribs and arm was excruciating as Meagan lay in the ditch. She had prayed the 'Hail Mary' several times as well as 'The Lord's Prayer' two or three times. The rope that bound her arms to her sides was so tight that she was struggling for each breath. Her ankles burned from struggling against that rope. She heard the muffled sound of the explosion and began to sob.
The explosion threw Buck from his feet and he landed on top of the dummy. Even as he tried to shelter what he thought was the girl, he realized that they had been duped. The lantern turned over and the dry grass stuffed into the clothing caught fire. In the few seconds that he was unconscious, the fire burned Buck's forearm, it was the pain that brought him around.
The dead weight on top of him was making it difficult for JD to breathe and he wiggled out from under Vin. The dust in the tunnel was choking thick and he began to cough. When he could control the spasms in his lungs, he called out for his friend.
"Buck! Where are you? BUCK!"
Rolling away from the burning pain in his arm, the ladies man called back to the frightened kid, "I'm here, JD. Is Vin all right?"
Mounting the stallion, Thomas Dalton tipped his hat at the tunnel opening before laughing and spurring the animal into motion. He slid out of the saddle at the spot where he had left Meagan and began to remove the ropes. Her face was covered in dust and streaked with her tears. She cried out as he roughly jerked her to her feet.
"I killed three of them because of you! Keep that in mind at the next place where we stop! You're my property and you will do as I say!"
Shoving the girl toward the mare, he put her up in the saddle and mounted the stallion again. They would head north and try to find another mine that they could work. He looked over his shoulder a couple of times before deciding that he was not being followed.
JD reached for the warmth that was Vin's body. Rolling the tracker to his back, he felt carefully for breathing. When the chest rose slightly under his hands he felt relieved.
"He's here but I think he's just unconscious. Are you all right?" The young man peered into the darkness where he could see a few spots of glowing red.
"Yeah, the lantern fell over and started the grass to burning and got my arm pretty good but I'm okay. How about you?" Buck wasn't going to let on that his arm hurt so badly that he was close to passing out from the pain.
"I'm okay. Vin landed on top of me. He took the worst of it, I think."
The men lapsed into silence for a couple of minutes.
They rode for a couple of hours before the stallion began to slow. Dalton spurred him a couple of times before the fractious animal tried to throw him off. He decided to stop and see what was wrong with the horse.
"Stay up there, I only want to see what's wrong with him. Could be that he picked up a stone or something." He ran a knowledgeable hand over the horse before lifting his feet. As he was moving to the other side of the animal he noticed the way the stallion was bearing down against the cinch strap. "What in the hell?"
As soon as the big stallion was between Thomas and herself, Meagan kicked the mare into motion. The animal jumped forward and took off like a shot. It was all the injured woman could do to stay in the saddle. Even as her ribs and arm screamed pain into her brain, Meagan struggled to go on. She heard the bark of a pistol and leaned low over the mare's neck as she tightened her one-handed grip on the saddle horn.
A soft moan drew JD's attention and he reached for Vin. The Texan was rolling to his side and groaning. It was so dark in the tunnel that the men could not see their hands in front of their faces. The young sheriff reached out for the other man.
"Vin? Take it slow. Are you hurt? Vin?" JD's voice rose slightly as he got no response.
"Gotta get out. Can't breathe. Dark." The tracker's voice was tight with terror.
"Vin, calm down, son. Sit still for a minute and get your bearings. Don't go moving around a whole lot." Buck's voice was calm and Vin focused on it.
"B-Buck? Where are you? B-Bucklin, I can't see anything!" A note of hysteria was now creeping into the voice.
"Neither can I, Vin. It's black as coal tar in here. Are you hurt?"
Dalton sprang into the saddle and spurred the big stallion again. The animal took it for only a moment before he reared up and dumped the man on the ground. The horse was in pain and it wasn't going to take any more abuse from the man.
The mare began to slow and Meagan opened her eyes. She was only just barely conscious. Her vision swam as she raised her head and stared at the horizon. She realized that the mare was veering away from the mine and she forced her brain to command her arm to move. Pulling slightly on the reins, she was able to turn the horse toward the mine.
Around mid-day, Josiah approached Chris. "How long do you think it'll take Vin to find them?"
"Depends on whether they stopped anywhere or if Dalton is trying to get away. If they stopped, he should already have them."
"Have either of you considered the young woman's feelings in the matter? She is determined to pay her debt. If we buy her bond contract, will she not have traded one master for seven?" Ezra raised a questioning gaze at the two men. "How will she pay her debt to us?"
"Shut up, Ezra!" Chris growled as he walked away.
"What are you getting at, Ezra?" Josiah asked.
"Only that the woman has her pride. Witness our young sheriff. Has he not, on several occasions, demonstrated the characteristics he was raised with? His determined pride. The zeal to prove himself worthy. I seriously doubt that the woman is going to let us buy out her bond without making an attempt at restitution."
It was early afternoon before Meagan reached the mine. Toppling ungracefully from the saddle, she made her way into the mouth of the tunnel. She had only taken a few steps when she saw the wall of boulders. Her heart dropped and a gasp of anguish burst forth. Sinking to her knees, she wept against the wall of rocks.
The darkness began to work its tortures on Vin. He began to rock slowly as the cold of the wall behind him penetrated his body. The slight motion carried to JD and he reached out to try to comfort the tracker.
The pain in his arm caused Buck to black out briefly. He was awakened to the stinging and burning sensation as he tried to raise the injured limb. An involuntary moan of pain escaped and brought JD crawling to his side.
"Buck? What is it? You're hurt aren't you?"
"Yeah, kid. It's my arm. I got burned."
JD reached out for his friend. When his hand touched Buck's shoulder, he rested it there for a moment. He could feel the tremors that ran thru the big man and knew that the pain must indeed be serious.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"No, thanks kid. Just see if you can keep Vin calm. That's the best thing you can do."
JD crawled back to the side of the tracker who was still rocking. He reached out and stilled the motion. Vin was trembling and his breathing was rapid and labored. He jerked away from the gently touch and tried to crawl away. His head struck the wall and he lashed out angrily.
By the time JD got hold of him, Vin was gasping for breath and totally disoriented. He wrapped himself around the smaller body and clung to him. Holding onto JD anchored him for a few moments before he passed out.
"JD? What happened? Is he okay?"
"He's out cold. Buck, he's shaking like a newborn foal! Is there anything we can do for him? I've never seen Vin like this and it's scaring me."
"When he comes around, see if you can get him over here to me. Maybe between the two of us, we can keep him calm. Vin has always had a fear of being closed in. Being in this close quarters and in the dark has got to be tearing him up inside. We need to try to keep him calm and comfort him as much as possible."
JD eased Vin's arms off of him and moved so he could support the tracker against his chest. He wrapped his arms around Tanner's chest and held him as tightly as he could. After a while, his head dropped to rest against the top of Vin's and he slept.
The snorting and stamping of the horse woke Meagan and she got up and went out to see what was happening. The big, gray gelding was nudging her mare with his nose. She recognized the animal from the livery at Four Corners. It belonged to one of the men trapped in the cave in. An idea formed in her mind and she looked back at the wall of collapsed rocks. At least she could let someone know what had happened to the men.
Her legs were shaking as she tried to mount Ghost. She hoped the horse would take her back to Four Corners without needing her to guide him. It took her three tries to get up on the saddle after she tightened the cinch. She nearly passed out from the pain in her ribs as she settled on the horse and turned him toward the horizon.
"Go home horse," she called as she tapped him with her heels.
The mood in the saloon was one of quiet tension as the four men waited for the return of their friends. Inez set plates before them and removed them later, barely touched. Every clatter of horses in the street brought all four men to their feet looking expectantly for a familiar face. Each time they were disappointed, they would collapse around the table again.
The rest of the saloon patrons took their cue from the four lawmen and remained subdued as they finished their drinks and sat silently waiting for the inevitable. Only the soft whisper of the shuffling of cards sounded from the table on the dais.
Ghost stopped when he came to Peso and Racer. Meagan looked up and noticed the other animals. It took some work, but she managed to catch hold of the other reins and tied them to the rope hanging from the saddle. Nudging the gray again, she told him to go home.
The body in his arms twitched and JD's grasp tightened automatically. Vin began to toss and fret as he pushed away the restraining hands. His breathing had been calm and even while he slept but became strained as soon as Vin remembered where he was.
"Gotta get out! Can't breathe! Walls closin' in on me! Chris! CHRIS! Help!" Vin flailed his arms and rolled to his knees again. His hands slapped against the wall as he shouted. He began to move around the enclosed space, beating against the walls and whimpering in fright.
"JD, get hold of him and sit him down. We gotta keep him calm. See if you can get him over here to me." Buck had been asleep when Vin started to panic.
Reaching out in the dark, JD caught hold of Vin and tried to steer him toward Buck. When Vin's knees bumped against Buck's legs, he lost his balance and fell, landing on the injured arm. A cry of pure agony ripped from the ladies man as soon as the burn was touched. Vin jumped away from Buck, knocking JD into the wall.
Buck reached out with his uninjured arm and caught hold of Vin. He could almost feel the terror that the young man was experiencing. Wrapping his arm around the trembling body, he spoke calmly into his ear.
"Take it easy, son. Try to relax. You're breathing like a woman in labor. Slow down. Take it easy. Calm down. We're here with you. I've got you, son."
Slowly the litany of comforting phrases began to filter thru and the trembling eased slightly. A cold, shaking hand crept up and grasped Buck's hand. After several more minutes, Vin began to relax and he settled back against his friend.
"Not doing so good, Bucklin. M-minds playin' tricks. Can't hardly breathe."
"Take it easy, son. I've got you. Breathe with me. Nice and slow, in and out. You're going to be all right. Just hold on. The others will come and find us and we'll be out of here before you know it. Just you hold on for me, okay?"
"I'll try, Bucklin. I'm so cold."
Waiting for Vin to calm down, JD rubbed his arm where it had hit the wall. When his fingers came away sticky and wet, he knew he was bleeding. It wasn't bad but in the dark it seemed much worse. His knees began to shake and he crawled over to the others. When he reached Vin's outstretched legs, he rested against them.
It was dark by the time Ghost made it to the livery door. The other two geldings and the mare crowded around him, eager for food and water. A hard nip drove Peso back into Racer and the younger horse neighed in frustration. Yosemite opened the door and his eyes widened in surprise at the sight of the young woman passed out on the gray with the other horses in tow.
Easing the unconscious form out of the saddle, he let the horses into the livery and closed the door behind them. He then headed for the saloon. When he reached the batwing doors, all four of the lawmen came to their feet and rushed to his aide. Josiah eased Meagan into his arms and raced toward the clinic with Nathan on his heels. Chris and Ezra followed Yosemite to the livery to see the horses.
Placing the girl gently on the bed, Josiah brushed the loose tendrils of hair away from her face. Beneath the coating of dust, he could see the ugly, dark bruises on her face. Nathan brought a washcloth and began to wipe away the dirt so he could assess her injuries. The cool cloth roused her and she began to try to turn from the touch.
"Meagan, can you hear me? It's Josiah. Meagan?"
As Nathan lifted her arm to wash her hand she screamed and tried to sit up. Josiah held her down as he waited for her to calm down. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she tried to pull the injured arm away from the healer's hands. He let her arm down at her side and studied her face carefully.
"Miss Riley, are you hurtin' anywhere besides your arm?"
Her dark eyes focused on him and she nodded slightly. "My ribs. He kicked me."
The two men exchanged knowing looks before Nathan gently probed her ribcage. She whimpered and writhed under his touch until he withdrew his hand.
"Two broken. I can't believe you rode like that. I'm going to give you something for the pain and then I'll see about binding up them broken bones."
"You have to get to them! They might still be alive in there. I tried to stop him, I really did but he wouldn't listen. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
As the torrent of words poured out of the girl, Josiah removed his hands and looked at Nathan. Her words had frozen the blood in his veins. 'They might still be alive.' Josiah bolted off the bed and out the door. Nathan eased off the bed and brought the laudanum to give her for the pain. She twisted away from him, cradling her injured arm and ribs as she sobbed and apologized repeatedly.
A couple of minutes later, all three of the men came running into the room. One hard look from Nathan nailed Chris in his tracks and froze the words in his mouth.
"I need to tend to her before you go questioning her. I need one of you to help me with her. The other two can wait on the landing and I'll let you know when she's ready to answer your questions."
The rapid rise and fall of the blonde man's shoulders slowed slightly as he took in the filthy, injured woman in the bed. A hand lit on his shoulder and he allowed Ezra to steer him out of the clinic.
Even after the laudanum, Meagan was terrified when the men took hold of her and began to remove her clothes. Her soft whimpers became cries of 'no, no, no' before escalating to screams of terror. A second dose of the powerful drug had to be forced down her throat before she finally slumped into Josiah's arms.
For the three men in the tunnel, the night seemed to go on forever. The pain in Buck's arm kept him from being able to relax. The deep shudders that he felt were the beginning of the fever that was building. Vin dozed for an hour or so before he jerked awake and had to be calmed again. JD lay trembling across the tracker's legs. He was cold and scared and thirsty.
When his legs began to tingle, Vin reached down and pulled JD up and turned him to lie against his chest. With Buck behind him and the kid in his arms, Vin felt a little more secure in this black infinity he found himself in. His head dropped until his chin rested on JD's head and he dozed off again.
"You'll have to hold her while I re-break the bone in her arm," Nathan announced after probing the limb.
"Re-break it? Are you sure? Nathan, that's gonna hurt like hell and she's already been thru so much." Josiah stared at the healer as if he had certainly lost his mind.
"I'll get the others in here to help hold her down. If I don't do it now, I can't give her any more laudanum and the arm won't heal right. She'll be crippled."
While Nathan opened the door, both of the others rushed in. Ezra's eyes swept over the girl before turning to the healer.
"I know that she's unconscious but couldn't you put a night shirt on her to preserve some decorum if we are all to have our hands on her?"
Meagan was wearing only her camisole and the bandages on her ribs above the blanket. Nathan huffed as he moved to the dresser and brought back one of the soft, cotton nightshirts that the gambler insisted be kept in the clinic if he should ever need to be confined there. Josiah managed to get the nightshirt into place since the girl was still leaning heavily against his chest.
Nathan explained what they had to do and waited for the men to absorb the idea. When the healer suggested that Ezra be the one holding her arm while it was re-broken, the gambler paled. Josiah immediately suggested that he trade with the southerner since he had helped Nathan once before when he had to re-break a bone.
When Ezra was settled behind Meagan and Chris had eased his weight across her legs, Josiah took hold of her arm at the elbow and nodded. Nathan took hold of her wrist and began to apply pressure to the break. Maintaining a steady pull on the wrist, he applied more and more pressure to the healing break.
Meagan began to struggle. Chris let his weight settle more firmly on her legs as he reached for her other hand. Ezra tightened his grip. He had one arm over her shoulders with his elbow keeping pressure high on her chest. The other arm was around her waist well below the bandages supporting the broken ribs. When the bone finally separated, she cried out weakly.
"I know it hurts but Mr. Jackson is trying to help you. It will only be for a moment longer. Hold on, Miss Riley." Ezra's soft voice seemed to calm the woman and Nathan caught his eye and nodded.
When they finally had the arm set and splinted, Nathan secured it to her chest before sinking into a chair, exhausted. Josiah eased Meagan up so that Ezra could move from behind her and they settled her on a pillow under the quilt.
"How long will she be out? I need to know where the others are. I need to know what happened to them," Chris said softly.
"You can't head out before daylight anyway, Chris. You may as well try to get some sleep. She needs to rest and we dosed her pretty good for the pain. She ain't gonna be waking before morning."
"Gentlemen, may I suggest that I sit up with the young lady while the three of you get some rest? Someone will have to stay and tend to her tomorrow anyway." Ezra waited for them to understand what he was saying.
"You saying that you're not riding with us tomorrow?" Josiah's voice was incredulous.
"Someone will have to stay with Miss Riley. If our friends are injured then Mr. Jackson will most certainly need to be at your side. You, Mr. Sanchez, are much better at the physical aspects of rescue if they should need to be extricated in some way."
The explanation made sense. And Chris swept it aside.
"We'll get Mrs. Travis and Inez to tend to her. We need to go together. I have a feeling that we'll need all the help we can get. All right?" Chris shot a questioning look at the gambler. To his surprise, Ezra actually seemed relieved that he would not have to be left behind.
"I'll stay with her. She's comfortable with me. I can sleep on the cot until she wakes up. You three go get some rest. I agree with Chris, we're going to need all the help we can get." Josiah announced as he ushered them out of the clinic.
Hot! So hot! It felt like he was sleeping in a blast oven. Buck twitched as he wakened and the pain in his arm reasserted itself into his mind. He groaned softly and stroked the silky hair that his hand rested on.
"I hate to ask, since you are both so comfortable, but can I get up for a minute? I need to stretch my legs and take a leak."
Both of the younger men moved quickly to get off of Buck and crawled out of his way. When all three had gone to the bathroom and stretched the kinks out of their backs they settled against the wall again. Vin was much more calm than he had been and as he sat next to Buck he realized that the ladies man was burning up with fever.
"Bucklin, you're awfully warm, pard. Is there something we should know?" Vin's soft drawl took the sting out of the accusation that the older man was keeping something from them. JD immediately wiggled across Vin and reached out for Buck.
"My gosh! You're burning up! Buck, why didn't you say something?" The young man was now terribly upset and scared.
"Wouldn't make any difference. There isn't anything you can do for me in here. I'll just have to wait until the others get here and get us out. It's this damned burn on my arm, it must be pretty bad." Buck sighed softly as he reached out in the dark for JD's shoulder. Giving it a firm squeeze, he hoped to convey calm to the boy.
"If they get us out of here," JD whispered softly. Tears stung in his eyes and he wiped them away self consciously, even though no one could see them.
"Don't go giving up on us, kid. You know Chris, he won't leave us in here. We just have to keep it together until they find us. Come on now, sit back down here and let's try to keep Buck warm."
Vin peeled off his hide coat and draped it over Buck before leaning back against him again. JD settled with his back against Vin and the three of them lapsed into an uncomfortable silence broken only by Buck's audible shudders as the fever climbed.