A New and Dangerous Game
I suppose every writer has dealt with this subject and heres my take on it. Thanks to Crystal who read both the short and long versions for me. I apologize in advance if I offended anyones delicate sensibilities at the end.
Size: Approx 190K
JD went on his patrol feeling pretty pleased with himself. He had won a little over a dollar from Ezra playing poker, much to the gamblers dismay. He set out to the East of town, riding along the road without a care. A couple of hours later, he came upon an overturned wagon along the roadside.
The young sheriff dismounted and walked over to investigate the wagon. He didnt see a body, to his relief. Hello, anybody here? He called in case someone had crawled away from the wagon. He walked around to the other end of the wagon and leaned down to see if anyone was pinned beneath the sideboards.
Too late, he heard the crunch of boots on the gravel behind him. Pain exploded inside his head before he sank to the ground unconscious.
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He awakened some time later lying on a cot in a darkened room. Nathan? JD called softly, Buck? He turned his head to look around. He couldnt quite believe what he saw and he stretched out his hand to touch the bars. What am I doing at the jail? He said to himself. He tried to turn over and clung to the cot as his head throbbed.
It wasnt the Four Corners jail. There were six cells in the room, each with a cot. He was alone in the room. There were no windows in the walls. JD painfully forced himself to sit up and take stock of the situation. The wagon was the last thing he remembered. His guns and hat were gone and he had a hell of a goose egg on the back of his head.
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Buck was beside himself with worry. JD had not returned from his patrol. He and Vin had been out for the better part of the day searching. He shifted uneasily in his saddle as Tanner inspected the overturned wagon by the road.
He was here, Vin said, along with at least three or four others. He had picked up the trail a little way back and followed the tracks to the wagon. No sign of a struggle, no blood or spent casings on the ground, he announced to Buck. Unfortunately, the tracks converged and then separated and he was unable to trail JDs pony.
The six remaining regulators met at the saloon just before dark to discuss the situation. It just isnt like the boy to go off by himself! Buck was saying, He knows better than to just disappear. Josiah laid a hand on the ladies man to calm him down.
Chris had a bad feeling about the whole thing. JD was the youngest and least experienced one of them. He was the one who rushed into situations without thinking things thru. They couldnt continue to search for the boy in the dark and he ordered them to double up on their patrols. He didnt want anyone out there alone.
The blond gunslinger bumped into Miranda, the new seamstress, and Mary as he was headed to his room to try to get a few hours sleep before his patrol. He told them what he knew about JD, little though it was, and assured them that he would find the boy.
It was decided that Vin and Ezra would double up on the night patrol and that no one would go out alone until they found out what had happened to their youngest member. When they returned in the morning, they were sent to get a few hours of sleep before joining in the search.
Nathan and Josiah searched the area north and east of town while Chris and Buck searched north and west. By early evening, they returned to town to find that Vin and Ezra had gone out around noon to search another area near the river. Since Wilmington had the night patrol coming up, he and Larabee grabbed a few hours of sleep while the others continued to search until dark.
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Chris and Buck were returning from their patrol at daybreak when they spotted JDs pony. Both men jumped from their mounts and raced into the saloon expecting to see the boy having breakfast. The sight that greeted them was quite different. Josiah and Nathan stood looking into a box on the table. Chris rushed over and grabbed up the box before Buck got to it. Inside was JDs bowler hat.
Where did this come from? Chris demanded, surrendering the box to Buck.
Josiah sighed, It was tied behind the saddle. Pony walked into town about an hour ago.
No blood on the saddle or the pony, thats a good sign, right? Nathan asked.
Chris didnt look very reassured.
Ezra and Vin had resumed the search for JD at daylight, unaware of the box and pony. The tracker stared at the ground until his eyes burned.
Its not as if you can force the trail to appear by staring at it, Mr. Tanner.
Vin glared hard at Ezra and the gambler sat quietly.
From over the hill, a gunshot rang out. Ezra kicked Chaucer into motion without waiting for Vin to mount Peso. The road split, going around an old growth patch of trees. Ezra went right and looked over his shoulder to see Vin going left. The gambler pushed the horse as hard as he could while scanning the horizon for any clue.
Vin never saw what hit him. Something came out of the trees, knocking him from Pesos back. As soon as he stopped rolling, someone hit him hard on the chin and he blacked out.
Ezra rode as far as the next ridge before turning back. He reached the place where the road forked and looked for Vin. He didnt wait, but turned Chaucer and headed up the road to find him. He rode for nearly an hour without any sign of the tracker or his horse. More than a little unsettled, he returned to town.
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Vin awoke in a wash of fear and adrenaline. He rolled from the cot and into a defensive crouch.
Vin? You okay? JD asked from cell on the other side of the room.
He looked around warily before his eyes came to rest on the boy. JD? Where are we?
I dont know Vin, they wont tell me anything.
I dont know who they are, Vin, JD answered sadly.
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Ezra shuddered under the fury of Chriss anger. He struggled to keep his face passive, betraying no sign of the strong emotions he felt.
I told you to stay together! What part of that didnt you understand? Did you hear me at all? Chris yelled as he slammed his open hand repeatedly on the table top in front of the southerner. The gambler blinked every time Chriss hand landed. Ezras hands trembled lightly on the table as he took the bawling out that he knew he deserved.
It was Josiah who put a restraining hand on Chris before the gunslinger put his hands on Ezra.
Now Chris, any one of us might have done the same thing. If Ezra had taken the other road we might be having this conversation with Vin. He didnt follow Ezra and Ezra was in the lead, he gently reminded the enraged man.
The five of them rode out to the last place Ezra saw Vin. They rode side by side as each man scoured the ground and roadside for clues. The only thing they found was a patch of grass bent down.
That could have been there for days, Chris said after examining the ground carefully. After three hours of fruitless searching, the men turned back for town.
Knowing that he wouldnt be able to sleep with Vin missing, Chris and Josiah took the night patrol. The next day, Nathan insisted that Larabee get more than a few hours of sleep before joining the search parties. The other men remained in pairs and spent the entire day covering much of the same territory as they had when they searched for JD.
Forgoing the night patrols, Chris ordered that all the men stay in town and stay together.
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Peso turned up outside of the livery the next morning with Vins hat hanging over the saddle horn. The men checked the horse carefully for any sign of what happened to its rider. As with JDs pony, there was no blood on either horse or saddle.
Miranda stopped Ezra as he was walking down the boardwalk. Do you want to talk? She asked softly. Ezra looked at her, bleary eyed.
My dear, nothing I have to say will make any difference in my guilt.
She touched his arm and brought him to a stop, Come in and sit down. You look exhausted.
Once seated, Ezras mask of control slipped. Miranda pressed a cup of tea into his hands and knelt on the floor in front of him. I should have waited for Vin. I should have turned back when he didnt follow me. Maybe he knew the shot came from that side of the trees, I dont know!
She touched his forearm gently, You couldnt know.
Ezra was exhausted. He had spent the past two nights lying on his bed berating himself for not staying with Vin. He knew that the others blamed him for the trackers disappearance. Every time he closed his eyes he heard the slam of Chriss open hand on the tabletop, sounding like a gunshot to his sensitive ears ears. He had been the one to find Peso. He was going to go out alone and look for Vin. The sight of that horse standing at the livery door had been the last straw.
Miranda watched as the emotions rolled across the green eyes of the man before her. Hurt, anger, fear and desperation came from the depths of his soul. When his eyes settled on a guilt filled look, she squeezed his arm gently. Dont blame yourself! It could as easily have been you that went missing.
Id wager my lifes savings that they wished it was me. I have been a liability to them since the beginning. I abandoned them once before. Just the way I abandoned Vin two days ago. Ezra put the teacup aside and buried his face in his hands and he sighed.
She put her arms around him and rocked him gently. Warm, wet tears bathed her shoulder as he wept without making a sound. When he had cried himself out, the mask of controlled emotions slid back into place. He brushed a tear from her face before heading over to the livery to collect his horse.
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Vin checked his cell again for any possible weakness that he might use to gain his freedom. Finding none, he paced. He hated to be confined. The fact that the building had no windows enforced the closed-in feeling he was having.
JD watched helplessly as Vin paced. He tried to start a conversation several times only to have the tracker glare at him. He finally gave up and sat on his cot.
A man came into the cell area and brought each of them a tray. Vin questioned the man, What do you want from us? Where are we? How long do you plan on keeping us here? The man didnt say a word as he delivered the food and left. Vin flew into a rage and flung the tray against the bars. He then took the tray and began to beat the bars with it.
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Against Chriss command, Nathan rode out alone to check on Nettie Wells, as she had been feeling poorly according to Casey. He left a note on the clinic door and slipped out quietly.
Nathan never made it to Netties. He was stopped at gunpoint and taken from his horse. His hands were tied together and he was blindfolded. His gun and knives were removed and he was placed on a strange horse.
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Josiah regretted being the one to deliver the news to Chris. Nathans horse had shown up rider less at Netties. Only the healers hat hung over the saddle horn.
Chris flew into a blind rage! He smashed chairs against the wall in the saloon. He stormed down to the jailhouse and slammed the cell doors until his ears rang from the noise. He screamed and cussed and finally, cried. Josiah and Buck stood outside the jailhouse debating which would risk their life to go in and check on him.
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Nathan struggled when he was removed from the horse. Only the sound of a hammer being thumbed back brought an end to his struggle. He docilely allowed himself to be walked across a grassy patch of ground. He heard a door open and found himself being lead into a house and down stairs. He heard another door open and was shoved out onto a level floor.
Vin jumped to his feet, Nathan! JD also came to his feet as the healer was shoved into a cell.
As soon as the rope was removed from his hands, Nathan removed the blindfold.
Where am I? What do you want with us? Who are you? Nathan shouted as he grasped the bars. The men didnt answer, only laughed and left.
Vin and JD told Nathan all they knew about their captors. The healer told them about their horses being returned to Four Corners with their hats. He told them about the rage Chris went into when Vin disappeared. Tanner felt badly that Ezra was taking the heat for his disappearance; it was his own decision to take the other road.
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Ezra had been searching for nearly 18 hours when he finally made his way back to town and snuck back to his room. He didnt want to take a chance on running into Chris. Just as he settled his weight onto his bed, he heard the door as it was kicked open violently. Too tired to even defend himself, Standish stared dully up at Larabee as he stood over him.
Seething with rage and struggling to control the urge to slam his fists into the green-eyed face, Chris waited for an explanation from the gambler.
I have been endeavoring to ascertain the whereabouts of our companions, Mr. Larabee. Since I am of little value to the team as I am unable to follow your directions, I felt that I might be able to locate the miscreants that have taken your friends captive.
My friends, not yours? Ezra, I expect you to follow my orders without question. If you cannot do that, then maybe we should reconsider our arrangement here.
Miranda stood in front of her shop the next morning watching Chris as he glared across the street. She felt strongly that Chris was being unfair to Ezra, but the gunslinger intimidated her. Josiah stepped onto the boardwalk and tipped his hat to her.
Mr. Sanchez, may I have a moment of your time?
Josiah followed her into the shop and sat in the chair she offered.
Ezra feels badly about what happened to Vin. He mentioned something about abandoning Vin the way he abandoned all of you.
Josiah sighed, nodding, I figured it was something like that. If youll excuse me, I have to speak to Chris.
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Ezra rode from daylight until dark the next day. He kept thinking that whatever happened to the others would happen to him. When nothing happened, he thought to himself, even they dont want me. He dismounted to allow Chaucer a break. He never saw the man who hit him from behind. Chaucer bolted before the man could catch him.
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Buck walked over from the livery, Yosemite said that Ezra left early this morning. He didnt say where he was going or when hed be back.
Josiah shook his head, He blames himself for Vin, probably out there looking or trying to get caught by whoever has the others.
Do you think theyre still alive?
Josiah stared at the crescent moon, Its what I been prayin for brother.
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Ezra was carried into the cell and dumped unceremoniously on the cot. The men removed his gun belt and the gun from his shoulder holster. The others watched silently, each praying that they would miss the derringer rig on his right forearm. A cry of pain tore past the gamblers lips as the men twisted his arm behind his back as they pulled off his jacket sleeve and removed the small gun and rigging. They rifled his pockets, taking his money and his watch but leaving his cards.
Vin silently cursed as the men left, taking what he perceived to have been their best chance for escape.
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Chris was passed out on the cot in the jail when Buck looked in on him last. He and Josiah had not told him that Chaucer had returned in the past hour without Ezra. Things were getting desperate.
Miranda worked up her courage and slipped into the jail to look in on Chris. Everyone in town was talking about the man in black and the awful temper tantrum he had in the saloon two days before. He looked so peaceful as he lay. She reached out to take the whiskey bottle from his hand. As his friends disappeared, he had crawled back into his drinking.
Sarah? He mumbled as he caught her hand.
No, Chris, not Sarah, she said softly as she pulled away.
Chris awoke with a start, suddenly cold sober. His eyes focused on the woman standing before him. Oh, Mrs. Barton, you startled me.
Im sorry. Who is Sarah?
Chris remembered, he had been dreaming of Sarah. My wife. She was killed a few years ago in a fire along with our son.
A look of pain crossed her face.
You never told me what happened to your husband? How did he die? Chris asked as he worked himself into a sitting position.
She closed her eyes as the memory flooded over her again. It was influenza. Lawson picked it up in town. Lana got it from him. They died within hours of each other. I couldnt stay there anymore.
My daughter. She would have been five in the spring.
Chris nodded in understanding.
You arent being fair to Ezra, you know that dont you? Hes so intimidated by you, by all of you.
Chris raised his eyebrows incredulously, Ezra P. Standish? Intimidated by me? You must be misreading him, Maam. Nothing intimidates Ezra except a gun in his face.
Miranda glared at him angrily, No, Im not. He talks to me a lot when hes in the shop. He feels unworthy of the rest of you. Hes doing the best he can.
Chris pursed his lips and exhaled slowly. The thought that he intimidated Ezra was completely new. He had always thought of the young gambler as being the most confident of the seven.
Ill bet you learn a lot about people while youre making clothes.
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Josiah saw Chris come out of the jail with the seamstress and decided to break the bad news to him.
Chris, you aint gonna like this but, Josiah stopped at the look in Chriss eyes.
They got Ezra.
We think so, Chaucer came back alone and you know that animal, he wouldnt leave Ezra unless he was forced.
Chris stopped Josiah as he was walking away, Did you know that Ezra is intimidated by me?
Josiah chuckled, Are you just figuring that out?
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Ella poured herself a glass of wine. We have four of them now? She asked the man standing in the doorway.
Yeah, we picked up the gambler today and that darkie healer two days ago.
Ella threw back her head and laughed, He must be going out of his mind with worry. Just be careful that youre not seen taking them. How are our little pets?
The young one is getting sick pretty quick. The tracker is pretty close to losing it. He looks bad. Itll be harder to get the others, theyre sticking together now. I got the boys out watching for a chance, but it dont look too good.
The woman glared at him, I paid you good money to get all of them! You can shoot Buck Wilmington if you have to, but the preacher must not be harmed.
Ellas henchmen lay low. They didnt want to draw attention to themselves as they watched the remaining lawmen. They were just waiting for their chance.
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Josiah went to his room behind the church to get a change of clothes and some more ammunition. He opened the door and felt for the lantern to light. A hand closed over his wrist and pulled him into the room! In the dim light, he could only see hulking shapes moving toward him.
He tried to draw his gun and one of them brought a board down across his left wrist, breaking one of the bones and cracking the other. They grabbed him by the arms and attempted to put him on the floor. He continued to fight against them until the board was sharply applied to his shin, causing him to drop to his knees. One of the men forced him to the floor while another twisted his arms behind his back. Josiah cried out as a rope was passed around his broken wrist and it was tied to the other.
We have to get him out of here! This is the first place theyll look, Willy Hagen hissed at his companions.
He weighs a ton! Well never make it out of here if he keeps putting up a fuss like this, Kevin said.
Josiah heard a sigh and the sound of a gun clearing its holster. He closed his eyes and fired off a quick prayer as he prepared to die. The man slammed the butt of the gun down on Josiahs head, knocking him out.
It took all four of them to get Josiah out of the room and belly down across the saddle of the horse they had brought. They took his hat and tossed it on the ground near the door as they mounted and rode away.
Buck walked around the church toward Josiahs room. Chris was anxious for them to stay together. He heard the sound of horses moving away in the dark and quickened his pace.
There, on the ground, lay Josiahs hat. Buck picked it up and opened the door to the little room. It was completely dark. Josiah! He called, but there was no answer. Wilmington swore aloud as he went to break the news to Chris.
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Josiah opened his eyes as the horse came to a halt and he felt them begin to untie him from the saddle. As soon as his feet touched the ground, he began to struggle causing exquisite agony in his injured wrist. One of the men hit him in the stomach, knocking the air from his lungs. Another charged at him from behind, knocking him to the ground.
A single pistol shot rent the air and Josiah immediately stopped struggling. A sharply placed boot in his side followed a deep, evil sounding laugh. Sanchez tried to catch his breath as spots swam before his eyes.
Thats enough! I told you that he was not to be hurt! A womans voice called out.
Hes strong as an ox, Maam. We tried to bring him along easily but he wont cooperate!
Josiah couldnt see the woman, she was somewhere above him in the dark.
Just get him secured and get ready for the next stage of the game! She shouted shrilly.
Josiah was hauled to his feet, thru the house and hustled down a flight of steps. He heard the sound of keys jingling and a cell door opening. In the wan light of a single candle, he saw what amounted to a cage and vigorously objected to being placed inside. Finally, after another blow to the head, he was dumped on the bunk and his hands untied.
Nathan called out, Josiah! Can you hear me?
Vin, who was in the next cell, reached thru and felt for a pulse. Hes breathing. I think hes just unconscious, he said sadly.
A few hours later the men brought trays of food for the captives. They snickered as they put the trays on the floor and pushed them into the cells.
Yall better get used to it, you may be here for a while, Willy said, causing the others to laugh.
Nathan spoke up, If we gotta be here for a while, could you at least let me tend to Josiahs arm? You broke it bringing him in.
Fife Glick, who was the leader, looked disdainfully at Nathan. Hes damn lucky that his arm is the only thing we broke, he hissed, If our boss hadnt come to his rescue last night, wed have broken a lot more! He glared at Nathan and then at Josiah before he and the others left.
Guess maybe we better eat. Aught to keep our strength up in case we get a chance to bust out of here, Nathan said as he picked up the tray.
JD picked up his tray and sat on the cot, picking at the food. Why do you suppose there are only six cells?
Josiah intoned softly, Because they intend this to be a game for the seventh.
JD looked at Josiah, What do you mean by that?
I heard her last night. Theyre getting ready for the next stage of the game.
A woman? Vin asked, Did you recognize her?
It was Ella Gains, Josiah said softly, Shes planning to do something to Chris.
Ella Gains had hired a man to burn the Larabee homestead, killing Sarah and Adam, while Chris was away selling horses in Mexico. She then hired Guy Royale to threaten her so she could flee to Chris for rescue. She coaxed him into her bed and then into agreeing to stay with her when the others returned to Four Corners. It was only after he had stumbled onto the macabre shrine she had kept in a closet at her house that he put it all together. Royales gang had nearly killed all of them covering Ellas escape.
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Buck and Chris sat in the saloon eating breakfast. Neither man had gotten much sleep. They had both reasoned that this had something to do with Larabee, either personally or as the leader of the seven.
Inez poured more coffee into each cup. She had never seen Chris so despondent. Both men picked at their food until she took the plates away. They both watched the door as if they expected a monster to step thru at any moment. They werent too far off.
Ella spent two hours preparing to meet Chris. She styled her hair and carefully applied her makeup. She chose her dress with the greatest care. She would make Chris fall in love with her this time or she would destroy him again.
She entered the main street and slowed the surrey, wanting them to see her. Ella was drunk with her own power and she wanted everyone to see it.
Buck was leaning back on two legs in his chair as he watched the goings on in the street. Suddenly, he sat bolt upright and grabbed his gun. Chris jumped and pulled his gun as he struggled to see what had his friend so wound up.
Is that Ella Gains coming up the street?
Chris glared. Buck saw the tightening of his jaw and felt the vehement rage rolling off of the gunslinger with each breath.
Ella climbed down from the surrey and walked straight into the saloon.
Chris thumbed back the hammer on his gun and stepped out to challenge the woman. I ought to kill you where you stand, he growled thru his clenched teeth.
Ella appeared calm as she purred, Do that and you will never see your five friends again.
Buck shoved the chair out of his way as he approached her, What do you mean? Where are JD and the others?
She dismissed him with a glance. Come and go for a ride with me and Ill explain it all to you, she said to Chris.
Pure, unadulterated rage seeped from his pores. Chris wanted to take her by the throat and squeeze the life out of her. His hand trembled with the effort it took to release the hammer on the gun without killing her. Where are they?
Ella only smiled, Ride with me?
Chris slammed his gun into his holster and took a step toward her.
Buck stepped between them, Chris, what are you doing? Shes got JD, Josiah, Vin, Nathan and Ezra! You cant just give in to her!
Chris put his hand on Bucks shoulder, I have to go with her.
Ella chuckled softly as she slipped her hand around Chriss arm and leaned close to him.
Buck stood helplessly on the boardwalk as the surrey turned the corner and disappeared. He snatched his hat from his head and pulled on it in frustration. He just handed Chris over to the woman who had Sarah and Adam killed.
So intense was his concentration on the direction the surrey had gone that Buck didnt hear the men approaching him until they pressed a gun into his side and lifted his gun from his holster.
Dont make any sudden moves, Miss Ella gave us permission to kill you if you resist, the man said softly near Bucks ear.
Buck went with the men to the horses and allowed them to bind his hands to the saddle horn. He would give his own life to protect Chris and JD if necessary. He noticed that they didnt go the same way as Ella and the surrey.
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Vin was in bad shape. The week of confinement was taking a huge toll on the tracker. He felt like he was suffocating. He sat for hours staring at the bars and rocking slowly. Josiah had tried talking to him, to no avail. Nathan was beginning to worry that the young man would do something desperate.
Moving to kneel by the bars nearest to Vin, Josiah tried to coax the tracker closer so that he could reach out to him. He pressed his right arm thru the bars and called to Tanner.
Vin? Come on over here, son, let me get hold of you for a minute. Come on, slide over here. Can you hear me, Vin? Please, son, I just need to know youre all right.
When the tracker didnt respond, Josiah withdrew his arm and settled for sitting in the corner closest to Vin. Nathan heaved a sigh as he stared across the cells in the rapidly waning light.
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Ella rode for a long time without saying anything.
Where are you taking me? Chris demanded.
She only smiled. My men have everything under control, Chris, why dont you just sit back and enjoy the ride?
I dont want to sit back and enjoy the ride! I want to know what youve done with my friends! He roared.
Ella brought the wagon to a stop. Okay, fair enough. I have them in an underground holding pen. You wouldnt be able to find it unless you knew where it was. If you give me what I want, I will give you your friends back.
And just what do you want from me?
I want to have your baby.
Chris felt like he had been punched.
My baby? You want me to get you pregnant? Are you completely out of your mind? I would sooner strangle you than make love to you! He screamed as he jumped from the wagon.
Ella shrugged her shoulders, Very well. My men will have picked up Wilmington by now. I will leave them in their little cages and let them starve to death. By the way, did you know that Tanner is claustrophobic? I predict he will lose his mind before he dies and your precious JD will be the first to die from the poison in the water because he has been drinking it longer.
Chris let go of all reason and jumped back onto the surrey. He put his hands around her throat and began to choke her. He never saw the gun she pressed to his thigh. He heard the gun go off and felt the ripping agony in his leg. He let her go as he attempted to stem the flow of blood from his leg.
Ella pushed him into the seat next to her and shook the reins. Chris shuddered with cold from the loss of blood before he blacked out. When he awakened, he was lying in a tastefully decorated bedroom. His leg had been tended to and wrapped securely. When he tried to sit up, he discovered the chain that secured his ankle to the bed.
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Buck was dragged from the saddle and led toward the big mansion house. He was dragged down the stairs to the basement. A lantern was lit and he found himself facing a large room with six cells in it. Each cell, save for one, was filled with one of his friends.
JD didnt feel so good. He had been feeling nauseous for days. Nathan had reached thru the bars and checked the boy for fever. JD lay on his bunk shivering violently. Ezra and Nathan passed their blankets thru the bars to the boy.
The brightening of the lantern brought all the regulators to their feet. The men were disheartened to see Buck pushed into the room. That left only Chris. Josiah had been right. They pushed the mustached man into the empty cell next to Vin.
Nathan called out to them, How long yall gonna keep us down here? JDs sick, he needs a doctor. Vin cant take bein shut up down here! The man glared at Nathan without answering.
Vin reached thru the bars, screaming with rage as he grabbed the man who had stepped too near to his cage. Buck whirled on the man in his cell and kicked him in the gut, hard. Vin strangled the man he held, letting the body go only when he was sure that he was dead. Buck continued to fight the man in his cell, trying to maneuver him over to the side where Vin could get hold of him. The third man used the butt of his gun to strike Wilmington in the back of his head, dazing him long enough for the man he held to get free.
They hadnt counted on the fourth man. He heard the struggle and started down the stairs to the aid of his friends. The shotgun blast knocked Buck off of his feet as the cell door was slammed shut. They gathered the body of their dead friend and headed out of the basement.
Buck landed on the bunk, bleeding profusely from the gunshot wound in his hip. Vin reached thru the bars and tried to steady his friend on the cot. The room swirled once and Wilmington blacked out.
Glick stood in the center of the room, gasping for breath. He glared angrily at the six men. Youll pay for that. Youll all pay. See how you like going without for a while!
Vin reached thru the bars and tried to help stop the blood from flowing from Bucks hip. The tracker later began to pace in his cell as the sweat poured from his body. JD drew up into the corner of his bunk and passed out. Nathan asked Ezra if they had left him anything he could use to pick the lock on his door.
The gambler searched his pockets and came up with nothing. The others searched their pockets and clothes without much luck. Finally, they settled down in the darkness as the retreating light of the lantern left them in darkness. The situation was definitely becoming more serious.
Ellas three surviving henchman patiently waited for their mistress to return. They knew Miss Ella was not going to be happy to learn that one of her men was dead. They hoped she could be persuaded to increase their pay since she did not have to pay the other man.
Vin was getting worse as the night wore on. He began to whimper as he rocked on his cot. Buck coaxed him to the bars and put his arms thru to hold the young tracker while whispering reassurances to him non-stop. Nathan tried repeatedly to waken JD without success, the boy was too deeply unconscious to respond.
By morning, Buck was shaking with fever. Vin had dropped into an uneasy slumber. JD startled them all when he began vomiting and then continued to have dry heaves after he had nothing left in his stomach. Josiah began to suspect that it would be too late by the time anyone found them and he began to pray.
Chris struggled against the chain around his ankle until he drew blood. He raged and screamed for Ella to come into the room. When she came in, she brought a tray of food and set it on the bed for him. Are you feeling better, my love? She reached out to try to caress his cheek.
Chris slapped her hand away. Dont touch me! He growled thru clenched teeth, Where are my friends? She ignored his question and went about setting the tray across his legs and trying to adjust the pillows behind him. Chris slammed the tray off of his lap and grabbed her roughly by the arms. You are going to tell me where me friends are and youre going to do it now! The calm tone of his voice carried a menacing threat.
Ella smiled, Let me explain how things are going to be. I have your friends in nice, safe little cages. You will do exactly as I say or I will begin to hurt them. Your friend Buck was shot while being put into his cage, perhaps I should have him brought out and let the men try to remove the bullet. I think they would enjoy the chance to pay him back for all the trouble he caused. Chris shoved her away from him before he could do what he saw in his mind when he closed his eyes. Now, you will stop throwing your little temper tantrums and eat the food I bring you or I will allow my men to seek their revenge. Understand?
She brought another tray and Chris forced himself to eat some of the food and drink the tea she had brought him. After a few minutes, Chris began to have trouble focusing his eyes. What did you do to me? He asked as the room danced around him.
Just a little something to help you relax. Youre so uptight. She began to massage his chest with her fingers before unbuttoning his shirt.
Chris wanted her to stop, but he couldnt make his hands respond. The walls fluctuated and pulsed as he tried to turn away from her as she pressed her lips to his. The last thing he heard clearly was Ella giggling.
He awoke disoriented. His head pounded as he tried to sit up. His shirt was unbuttoned all the way and there were fresh scratch marks on his chest. He was desperately thirsty. When the room stopped rocking in his vision, he sat up and hung his feet off the side of the bed.
Ella promptly entered the room. Hello, lover, are you feeling any better? She chirped as she bustled around in the room.
Chris only glared at her.
Thirsty? She asked as she poured a glass of water from the decanter on the dresser.
He was but he didnt want anything else from her, No!
Suit yourself, she said as she drank the water herself.
+ + + + + + +
JD was so thirsty! He opened his eyes and looked around in the dark room. He didnt know where he was. Stumbling across the floor, he ran into the bars, waking Nathan and Josiah. The healer called to the young sheriff and coaxed him back to the bunk near enough that he could reach him. He didnt have a fever and Nathan couldnt find any reason for the symptoms he had.
+ + + + + + +
Ella sauntered into the basement with her three remaining men. She smiled evilly as she took in the looks on the faces of her prisoners. Wilmington was lying on his cot, shaking with fever from his bullet wound. Dunne was as pale as snow and lay unmoving on his cot. The thing that caused her to giggle out loud was the sight of Tanner rocking on the edge of his cot.
That one. Well start with him. She indicated Vin and turned to leave the room.
Ezra, Josiah and Nathan jumped to their feet at once, protesting.
What are you going to do with him? The big preacher shouted.
You leave him alone! The healer called angrily.
There is no need to do this Miss Gains. Mr. Tanner is in no condition to put up any resistance! Ezra called to the back of the woman.
Ella turned, fury showing in every line of her body as she stormed back to the gambler. What did you call me? Ill have you know that my name is Larabee. Ella Gains Larabee, and youd best remember it!
Startled green eyes widened as Standish stepped back from the woman raging outside of his cell. He swallowed hard a couple of times before he could formulate a response.
Forgive me, Maam, I didnt know.
His eyes flicked past the woman to the sight of the two men dragging Tanner from his cell.
Allow me to offer myself in exchange for whatever you have in mind for the young tracker. Certainly he is in no condition to play a part in your game. He stepped up to the bars and rested his hands on the crosspieces.
Ella reached thru the bars and gently stroked his cheek. Dont worry, your turn will come. She laughed softly and followed after her men as they pulled Vin out of sight.
+ + + + + + +
As soon as Ella had left the room, Chris began to try to see if he could free himself. He jerked on the chain until his ankle bled. The lock was secure and he had nothing to use to try to pick it with. The spindles on the footboard were thick and solidly set in the frame. He could not free himself.
The sound of heavy footfalls caused Larabee to drop back onto the pillows and pretend to sleep. The door opened and Ellas henchmen entered the room and dropped Vin on the floor at the foot of the bed.
Vin! He rolled off the bed and grabbed his friend up into his arms. The tracker was pale and trembling, sweat soaked hair clung to his face. There was no recognition in the blue eyes that stared, unseeing at the ceiling.
Looking up, Chris found himself seeing Ella standing over them. Her face wore an expression of intense interest as she watched the byplay between the two men. He looked back down at Vin and hugged him more tightly to his chest. The deep, wracking shudders tore at Larabees heart.
What did you do to him? The words were spat with vehemence dripping from them.
I told you before that he is claustrophobic. He isnt finding his little cage at all to his liking. I thought I might find another place to hold him for a while.
As she spoke, her men carried what looked like a coffin into the room.
Chriss eyes widened in horror and he clung more tightly to Vin as the gruesome container was placed on the floor and opened. The men then turned and moved to take Tanner from his grasp.
No! Please, you cant do that to him! Ella, please! Ill do whatever you want! Please dont hurt him!
The words spilled from his mouth in a jumble as he struggled to maintain his grasp on his young friend. It was a futile struggle as one man reached out and applied pressure to the wound on his thigh. As Chris flinched in agony, Vin was torn from his arms and carried toward the coffin.
Struggling to his knees, Chris pleaded with Ella again as he glanced back to see Vin lowered into the box and the lid closed over him.
Ella, for Gods sake, dont do this. Ill stay with you, do whatever you want, but please, dont hurt him! Please!
Her lips lifted into an evil grin. She stroked his face in a lascivious manner and urged him to his feet.
As soon as you demonstrate your sincerity, beloved, I will return your friend to his cage. It shouldnt take more than an hour or so.
Glancing back at the box, Chris swallowed hard. What if I cant, I mean what if He couldnt form the thought in his mind, he just knew he wouldnt be able to perform with her with his friend in a box barely five feet from the bed.
Fear not, lover, I have some Chinese herbs that will ensure that you are able to satisfy my need in spite of your somewhat reluctant attitude. You need only drink it and wait for it to take effect. In the mean time, you can use those magnificent lips and hands to get me ready. Her voice dropped into a husky tone as she insinuated herself into his arms.
Her three henchmen slipped out of the room, leaving her to her pleasure.
+ + + + + + +
What do you suppose shes doin to Vin? Nathan asked softly as he reached thru the bars and stroked JDs head. The boy was still having trouble keeping anything down and the healer was deeply concerned.
The gambler glanced up from the cards he was shuffling in the dim light. From the look on the face of our captor, I would not dare to hazard a guess. Whatever it is, you can be sure that it will not be pleasant. She means to use us as leverage against Mr. Larabee in her twisted game.
Buck groaned as he shook with fever. He had been lucid for brief periods throughout the afternoon, asking after each of them and worrying about Chris. Josiah had torn strips from the sheet on the cot mattress to make a binding for his broken wrist and then a sling to hold the limb to his chest.
+ + + + + + +
If anyone had told Chris that there was a tea that a man could take that would allow him to be intimate with a woman he despised, he would not have believed it. And yet, that was exactly what was happening. Even as his stomach rebelled violently to her tongue thrusting into his mouth, he was able to satisfy her animal lust.
Vin opened his eyes to the darkness. He tried to sit up and found that he couldnt. Raising his hands, he found that he had only about 18 inches of clearance before he encountered the lid of his confinement. Suddenly he was gripped by hysterical terror. Kicking his feet, he began to scream and thrash.
Jerking his head toward the box, Chris froze.
Dont stop, lover. You still have a ways to go! Hell be all right. If you can satisfy me again, maybe Ill let him sit outside for a few minutes before I put him back in his cage. Perhaps, I could even be persuaded to let him sit here with you for a few minutes.
Chris let his rage cause him to thrust into her savagely, gripping her arms tightly as he did. Thru the roaring of his climbing blood pressure, he heard Vin sobbing weakly as his struggles slowed. Tears burned in his eyes and he ground his face into the pillow above Ellas shoulder.
When her cries escalated and then peaked, she lay limply beneath him. Her hands stroked his bare back to his buttocks and she sighed softly. After what seemed like an eternity, she pushed Chris off of her and rolled from the bed. She leisurely bathed the sweat from her body before slipping into her bathrobe. Moving to the door, she called for her men to release Vin.
Chriss hands shook as he pulled on his pants and limped around the foot of the bed. He watched as the men lifted his friend from the box. Vins hands were bloody from pounding on the box and he was wringing wet with sweat. Larabee reached out for Tanner and the men looked to Ella to see if it was all right. She nodded before leaving the room.
+ + + + + + +
Ellas men delivered the trays of food and fresh canteens to the prisoners. Ella sidled into the room wearing only her bathrobe. She hummed contentedly to herself as she strode past the cells. Nathan approached the bars.
Miss Ella, could we please get some soup for JD. He hasnt been able to keep anything down for a while. Please, Maam? Id really appreciate it ifn youd let me tend to Bucks wound. I wont make no trouble or try nothing. I just want to help my friends. Please?
Feeling deliciously satisfied, Ella was in a generous mood.
I suppose it would be all right for you to tend to them. After all, I need all of you for a while. At least until Im sure Im carrying my husbands son. Ill have the cook make you some soup for the boy and my men will bring you hot water and bandages.
+ + + + + + +
Laying Vin gently on the bed, Chris stroked the damp hair back from his face. Tearing up one of the pillowslips, he used the pitcher of water on the nightstand to clean the wounds on Tanners hands. After his hands were cleaned, Larabee wiped the sweat from his friends face as the blue eyes continued to stare unseeing at the ceiling.
Vin! Vin can you hear me? Talk to me, please? He tipped a glass of water to Tanners lips and watched as his Adams apple bobbed with each swallow. Finally, the eyes seemed to focus and the slack muscles began to tense.
Easy, Vin. Take it easy. Just breath deeply. Youre going to be okay. I wont let her do that to you again. Can you hear me, cowboy?
The blue eyes filled with tears as Vin struggled to sit up and wrap his arms around Chris. His chest heaved with each breath as his hands clung desperately to the comforting presence of the gunslinger.
+ + + + + + +
Ellas henchmen returned with a bucket of hot water and a stack of bandages. A heavyset Mexican woman carried a bowl and a tureen of soup on a tray and set it on the floor outside of JDs cell. The door to Nathans cell was opened and he was transferred to Bucks cell.
Ill need a knife to get the bullet out. A pocketknife will do. Please? When one of the men dug into his pocket and handed over the small knife, Nathan decided to press his luck. Would it be all right if Ezra saw to JD while I tend to Buck?
The men exchanged worried glances, but one man finally nodded. The door to Ezras cell was opened and he was shoved, none too gently, down the row of cells to JDs. Picking up the tray, the gambler entered the cell and knelt at the side of the cot.
JD, can you hear me, son? I need for you to sit up here for a minute. The southerners voice was soft and his touch gentle as he brought the young sheriff to a sitting position. Pouring a small amount of the soup from the tureen into the bowl, Ezra picked up the spoon and began to try to feed his young friend.
Nathan unbuttoned Bucks pants and tugged them back from the wound in his hip. The skin was deeply bruised and mottled with dried blood. Using the tips of his fingers, the healer searched for the bullet. Fortunately, it was just under the skin and he was easily removed. After cleaning the wound with the hot water, he covered it with a clean bandage.
+ + + + + + +
When Vins sobs finally slowed to hiccups and trembling, Chris pushed him down onto the pillows and began to wipe the sweat from his face again.
Chris? Why is she doing this? She has the others. Buck was shot and JD is sick. What kind of crazy game is she playing?
Larabee looked into Vins eyes and shuddered. She wants a child. She wants me to father a child with her. As soon as Ive done that, shell let you all go, she says.
You cant trust her, Chris! Shes completely insane! You know that! She had Sarah and Adam killed! Shell kill all of us as soon as she gets what she wants. Dont trust her!
The door opened and Ella stepped into the room. And to think that I was going to let you outside for a while. Oh well, since I am so insane, you can go right back to your cage. Gentleman! Return him to his cell.
Vin struggled weakly as he was ripped from Chriss grasp and dragged out of the room.
+ + + + + + +
It was potato soup and it was rich and lightly seasoned. JD sucked eagerly at the spoon each time Ezra lifted it to his lips. After the first few ounces, his stomach began to cramp and he began to shake. Standish set the bowl and spoon aside and gathered the kid into his arms, calming him with his voice and touch.
Just breath deeply, JD. Its all right. Let yourself relax and try not to fight it. Youre going to be all right. Easy now. The soothing litany was accompanied by a gentle massage up and down the boys back as he gasped for breath.
JD hurt! His stomach cramped and he didnt want to throw up any more. The firm hands that held him and the relaxing tone of voice helped as his muscles began to unclench and the shaking eased. When he could finally make them obey him, Dunne wrapped his arms around Ezra and clung to the gambler for dear life.
+ + + + + + +
Ella rested her hand on Chriss shoulder as she tried to press her lips to his. She sighed aloud when her advances were met with a stony glare. Turning away, she busied herself with brushing her hair and checking her appearance in the mirror.
Mr. Jackson is tending to Bucks injury and the gambler is busy feeding the kid some soup. I thought you would want to know that Im keeping my end of the bargain. At long as you continue to co-operate, I will take care of them. I have stopped the poison in the water, so the boy will recover with proper care.
Thank you. It was said with as much civility as he could muster.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra eased JD off of his shoulder and picked up the bowl again. Pouring more soup into the bowl, he coaxed another few ounces of the soup into the kid. When Dunne had finished the second helping of soup, the gambler eased him down onto the cot and covered him with the blankets. Before long, the shaking started again and Standish pulled JD up and eased in behind him. Keeping him sitting up and talking steadily into his ear helped him to keep the food down.
Nathan bathed Bucks face and chest with damp cloths as he tried to lower his temperature. He coaxed several swallows of water into the ladies man before settling him onto the cot and covering him warmly. Looking across the way in the near darkness, he felt a gentle smile tug at the corners of his mouth as he saw the gambler with the young sheriff cuddled in his arms. In times of stress, Ezras true colors came screaming out.
Josiahs arm throbbed miserably as he sat on his cot. He had been watching Ezra and JD. The kid was so sick that he didnt even know where he was any more. His ears could barely pick up the steady litany of words that the southerner was spouting into the kid to keep him calm. He had seen Dunne reach out to wrap his arms around Standish, to draw as much comfort as possible from the man.
How you doin over there, Josiah? Nathans words intruded on the older mans thoughts.
Im worried about Vin. He cant take too much more of being shut up down here. We have to try to convince her to let him go or he will lose his mind.
Have no fear, Mr. Sanchez, I have no doubt that she will have something equally heinous for each of us. I saw it in her eyes when she was here. Ezra lowered his eyes to the sleeping form in his arms. We shall have to try to protect the weakest as much as possible. I, for one, will offer myself up to her when she returns for her next game.
Josiah felt tears in his eyes as he listened to the gamblers words. He was so very proud of the young man. With his hands tightly folded, Sanchez prayed.
Nathan also was moved by Ezras words. He had been thinking much the same thing. He was willing to offer himself if it would keep one of his friends from coming to more harm at the hands of that crazy woman. After checking Buck again, he moved to the front of the cell and called out.
Hows he doing, Ezra?
Hes keeping it down for now. The tremors have eased and he appears to be sleeping at the moment. I couldnt get much water into him before he went to sleep but he did take several ounces of the soup.
What kind of soup is it?
Potato soup. Thick and smooth.
Thats good. If he can keep it down that will help to build him up.
The captives looked up as the lantern came down the stairs again. Vin was supported between two of Ellas men and appeared to be unconscious. He was dropped, none too gently, onto the cot in his cell. The men then turned on Nathan. Waiving a pistol, the man indicated that the healer was to return to his own cell.
Surrendering the small pocketknife, he offered no resistance as he was roughly shoved across the room and back into his cell. The men glared at the gambler for a long time before they left the basement.
Ezra heaved a sigh. It would appear that I will be the next pawn in her sick little chess match.
What makes you say that, Ezra? Nathan asked as he reached thru the bars to check on JD.
Its just a feeling. She plans on using us to blackmail and control Mr. Larabee. I would hazard to guess that she will also use us to control each other. Allowing you to tend to Mr. Wilmington leaves you in debt to her. Leaving me here with JD creates a greater debt.
Ezra was grateful that it was nearly dark in the basement. He didnt want them to see the fear in his eyes. The condition that Mr. Tanner was in was enough to convince him that Ms. Gains meant to toy with all of them in the same savage way, like a cat with a baby bunny, before ending their lives. He tightened his grip on the boy in his arms to cover the nervous trembling.
+ + + + + + +
You seem distracted tonight, lover. Talk to me. Ella ran her fingers across his chest as she purred.
Please dont do that to Vin again. Ill do whatever you want me to do. Just please dont hurt him anymore. I cant stand it if you hurt him.
I will trust that you will keep your word. Ill have him taken out into the sunshine for a while tomorrow. You can sit on the veranda with him after breakfast.
In a moment of weakness and gratitude, he embraced her and sobbed onto her shoulder. He couldnt see her face. The evil grin she had showed that she knew she had broken him.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra coaxed the soup into JD every time the boy was lucid enough to swallow. By the time the soup was cold, he had taken in nearly half of it. He had also coaxed water into the young man. Every time his body tried to reject the soup, the southerner rocked the boy until he was able to relax.
When Ella and her henchmen arrived in the morning she stared for a long time at the gambler in the royal blue wool jacket as he was curled up in the corner of the cot with the boy in his arms. The preacher sat calmly on his cot with his injured arm in a sling. Wilmington lay shaking with fever on his cot. Tanner sat on his cot, glaring at her with hate burning brightly in his eyes. Lastly, she glanced at the black man.
Move him back in with Wilmington and bring them another bucket of water and bandages. Mr. Standish, is the boy well enough to eat regular food or should I have the cook bring more soup?
Cold, hard brown eyes bore into green ones as she waited for an answer.
The soup would be better, Maam. Thank you. And thank you for allowing me to stay with JD during the night. I appreciate that very much. He licked his lips nervously as she continued to stare at him.
Maam? Josiah spoke, distracting her from Ezra. Would it be all right if I sat with Vin for a while? Please? Id like to try to comfort the boy.
Turning her hard gaze upon the longhaired young man, she nodded.
Josiah came to his feet and approached the bars and offered out his hand. Thank you, Maam.
After the chamber pots in each cell were returned and everyone secured in their cells, Ella and her men left the six regulators to their breakfast. When the door closed, Vin sagged against Josiah and shuddered violently. The older man wrapped his arm around the tracker and drew him close.
Ezra situated JD against the corner walls so he could get to the tray of food. There were biscuits and fried potatoes and eggs with the tureen of soup for JD. The kid opened his eyes at the smell of the food and reached for the bowl as soon as it was within reach. His hands shook as he cupped them around the bowl and, without bothering with the spoon, he tipped the bowl to his lips and sipped the soup.
Easy now, JD. Your stomach may still be feeling a little delicate this morning. Not too much. After seeing the boy lower the bowl, Ezra turned to his own meal. The food was well prepared, he had to give her that much, he knew it could be much worse.
Josiah coaxed Vin to eat a few bites of the food on the tray. His concern for the younger man only increased when everything he ate came right back in a few minutes. He threw a concerned look to Nathan as he held the tracker when he collapsed back onto the bunk.
It could be just the stress. Let him be for a while, maybe we can get some soup for him later. How are you feeling, JD? He raised his voice as he looked into the far corner.
The dark haired young man raised his head and nodded. Better, I think. I feel all shaky inside, though. What is it, Nathan, I wasnt sick until I got here.
I dont know, JD, but its good to see you feeling better. You had us worried, son. Nathan turned and sat on the end of the cot by Bucks feet. He would try to wake the ladies man after he had finished his own food. He doubted he would be able to get him to take much since he had been delirious most of the night.
Josiah set his food aside and reached out to Vin again. After seeing how much good Ezra had done with the youngest member of the group, he gathered the tracker against his chest and dropped his head down low to whisper into Tanners ear. Knowing the young mans love of poetry, he began to recite the psalms, not so much for their religious significance but for the easy rhythm of the words.
JD watched the gambler as he finished his breakfast. Feeling the eyes resting upon him, Ezra looked up at the young man. A reassuring smile revealing dimples and a gold tooth caused the corners of the kids mouth to curl slightly.
Thanks for staying with me, Ezra.
No thanks are necessary, Mr. Dunne. You would have and have done the same for each of us at one time or other. I am only glad to have been of service.
Coaxing Buck into sitting up, Nathan offered the tray of food. To his relief, Wilmington attacked the food with a vengeance and soon cleaned every morsel of food on the tray. He took a cup of water and washed everything down. He then glared around the cells.
I was kinda hoping this was all a bad dream. Guess not, huh? Whats wrong with the kid? Whys he all bundled up like that? Swinging his vision to the other cell, he gripped the bars at his back and tried to turn around. Vin? What happened? Josiah? Nathan? What the hell is she doing to us? Is Chris here?
The healer eased Buck back around and tried to calm him. JD was sick when you arrived and we dont know what she did to Vin. She took him out of here for a while yesterday and he was damn near comatose when they brought him back.
Deep, concerned blue eyes drilled into the dim light to see the kid in the far corner. He could see Ezra pouring something into a bowl and handing it to JD. Even in the wan light, Buck could see the shaking hands that accepted the bowl from the southerners hands.
You okay, JD?
Ill be okay, Buck. My stomach is settled down some now.