A Witchs Gift
Warnings: Not mine, no money made.
No beta. Horrors. This one is all on my on bad English, bad spelling, bad grammar etc. All mine! Haaahaaahaaa (evil laugh)
Challenge: MegTs October Challenge 10/2004 (2004 = the year the Boston Red Sox beat the Yankees for the ALCS and the World Series bye bye 1918!)
Characters: Buck, JD and Ezra
Three riders serpentined and twisted between the greying trunks of a late autumn forest. Leafless branches stretched skeletal knotted limbs into the air. Their darkened limbs and trunks seemed prematurely blackened by an ever present moisture that worked to sap heat from any living soul. Thin tracks of green undergrowth had long ago given up the fight and surrendered the harsh bite of an approaching winter.
The clop of galloping hooves was muffled by the packed mud of late fall rains. A slate grey sky hung thickly over the riders blanketing itself to the darkening horizon. Not a splash of natural color would please a weary eye, no oranges or yellows or the sharp reds expected by New Englanders and those few of the Midwest.
Occasionally a flash of sharp royal blue peeked out from under the rough coat of the last rider, as if flaunting its brilliance to the dreary forest around it.
It seemed as if defiance bubbled from the fleeing riders. A defiance that had them running for their lives.
The three riders clung low over the necks of their horses. They swayed and bent with every turn their horses made as they shot down the narrow wooded path. Hooves clumped dully gouging out soft tufts of cold leaf covered mud as they wound their way around and through graying trunks and scratching bare branches.
JD kept his head low next to his rented bays neck feeling the whipping lash of the mane as it flew back from the geldings sweating neck. The young sheriff knew nothing of the thin red marks that scratched his neck and hands as the wet horse hair lashed his chilled skin. Instead, the young man kept his eyes focused on the haunches of the powerful grey just in front of him.
JDs little bay bent its body and slid between obstacles as effortlessly as the elegant over grown grey that preceded it.
A chilling unearthly scream shattered the dying day. It pierced the falling night from all around them.
Riders cinched down lower to their animals. Horses found another burst of speed.
Nostrils flared, hearts hammered and legs pumped as the geldings dug in and fled the bone chilling scream that rent the area.
The three horses snaked through the forest mirroring one anothers galloping movements with hairpin precision.
The young sheriff dug his head closer to his horses neck and peered frightfully over his shoulder.
Chaucer brought up the rear. The big chestnut kept its head low and out, extending its neck, flaring its nostrils expediting the delivery of oxygen to its lung with minimal air turbulence. The horses massive pectoral muscles bunched and flexed with each flinging stride of its front legs.
The horse acted on instinct guided by the urgent forward seat of its rider. The gamblers deep blue coat was hidden under his rough coat. Guns remained in hostlers as reddened fingers and blanched knuckles held desperately to leather reins.
JD could see the whites of the chestnuts eyes and understood the terror that ripped through its body.
They couldnt possibly outrun the extrodinary creatures that hounded them.
JD turned back facing front, not wanting to witness the fear in the eyes of the gambler. The sheriff knew it was there just as it was surely flashed through his body and that of the rider in front of him.
Buck Wilmington cringed closer to his horses neck and urged the animal on with the simple clenching of his lower legs. The big grey dropped its head a little further, bunched its hind legs a little more and found a little more speed.
Wilmington didnt bother directing his horse. The big Grey worked faster without his interference. They were running blind, but running fast.
Speed was what they needed.
Distance was what would protect them.
Wilmington gripped his hands tighter into the leather reins, fisting reddened numb fingers around the stiff leather without impeding the animals forward motion.
Another shriek ripped through the grey dusk of night fall. They were closer. They were closing in on the fleeing men.
The cries pierced their way through the grey skeletal forest over fallen and dying leaves. The sounds tore through every shadowed space encroaching on them.
The unholy screams bore down on the fleeing men from all sides lending no clue as to which direction to flee.
Buck stole a quick glance over his shoulder.
JDs little rented bay hounded his heels, just a horse length behind. The Sheriff kept his body low to his animals back creating a smaller target, less wind resistant and more distance between himself and the demons that hounded them.
Wilmington witnessed as Chaucer was once again brought up short. The gambler held tight to reins and muscled back twelve hundred pounds of terrified horse flesh. The quarter horse had the speed and endurance to out run them, to out maneuver them but its rider held it in check. Despite its own driving instinct to survive, Chaucer gave into his training and paid heed to the command to remain behind.
Wilmington swung his head forward, grateful the gambler protected their rear but cursing the rented boney nag that threatened JDs survival with its lack of speed and endurance.
Trees and branches whipped by as the hard muddied trail twisted and turned through the dense forest. There was no cover here, nothing to keep their pursuer from seeing them. Orange and yellow leaves blanketed the ground, pooling water and curling their edges as they lost their luster and color and molded into decaying tones of brown.
The forest was dying as winter slowly clenched its fist over the land.
Rain drizzled down intermittently soaking the land while a crisp wind tore at skin and fur alike. The sky seemed forever cast in an over shadow of thick heavy clouds lightning only to a pale grey before succumbing to its darker self and dropping more moisture on those souls foolish enough to be out in the threshold of winter.
The big Grey swung around a blind turn. Its thundering hooves never skipping or tripping for purchase. They landed sure footed, clipping the ground one striking glance at a time. Bone thin lower legs flashed forward as heavy upper muscles flexed and contracted whipping the body forward.
The big grey made the turn and stuttered.
Wilmington yanked on the reins, knowing he couldnt stop and not bothering to try. He whipped the reins across the Greys neck forcing the horse to the left just as the animal adjusted its own direction.
It didnt need the extra guidance. The big grey was no fool. Running off the sharp edge of the trail would serve no one.
The Grey slipped and sputtered in the mud. Its hind end slid out from underneath it. It nearly flopped to its side but front legs scrambled digging for purchase as forward momentum propelled itself and its rider around the turn, passed the deadly trap and back into the scratching clawing forest.
Buck whirled around in his saddle hauling back on the reins slowing his Grey, fighting every instinct that raged through his body to continue forward. He watched as JDs little rented bay slid around the turn -- and tried to stop.
The bays eyes flashed white. Its mouth was open exposing the long-john bit that rested heavily on its tongue. Flared nostrils quivered as dark eyes roved and it threw its head upward fighting the reins that desperately directed it away from the crumbling edge of the trail.
The bay slid in the mud. Its hind quarters flashed out from underneath it sending its left hip crashing into the ground its front legs clawing for purchase.
Buck was whirling his grey around when the little rented bay snapped its hind legs underneath itself, threw its head and neck forward and hurled itself back onto all four legs.
JD kept his seat, sitting square center in the saddle, the sheriff remained put as the bay slid half falling down and then scrambling to regain itself.
It took less than a few seconds.
Bucks relief was short lived when Chaucer barreled around the blind corner. The gambler was turned looking over his shoulder, his gun drawn searching their back trail and trusting Chaucer to follow the others.
The big chestnut fighting the reins, fighting its own terror did not stop in time. It clipped the little bay just as it struggled to regain its feet.
Chaucers left shoulder rammed the bays hindquarters and hocks, knocking elbow shaped joints together and swinging the bays hind end around nearly sending it crashing to the trail again.
Chaucer lost his balance. The heavily muscled horse swung his head and neck to the left, trying to keep on the trail. His left shoulder folded under him and the big horse went down with a screaming crash.
Standishs flew from the saddle projected forward, following the momentum of his horse. The gamblers revolver remained clutched in his hand as he shot from sight over the razor edge of the trail. His horse followed rolling like a barrel over the edge and vanishing.
NO! Wilmington hollered as he watched gambler and horse tumble to their death. A sure death, not from the actually fall but perhaps the lessening of distance between themselves and their pursuers.
Horrible piercing screams echoed from behind peacekeepers emanating from the blackening forest, bleeding forth unseen from the cover of the trees.
JDs bay swung itself back to its feet, shifting its weight from one back leg to another.
Dunnes terrified look focused solely on Buck.
Go! Wilmington hollered.
Another scream tore through the settling day, ripping through the darkening forest and searching them out. Night was taking its grip. The creatures were closing in, flanking them.
Buck dug his heels into the sides of the big Grey, lurching the horse from a stand still into a gallop; a suicidal move on any given day.
Wilmington kicked his horse passed Dunne giving the animal its head and leaned back.
The Grey galloped over the edge of the trail. Its feet left solid ground and for a moment horse and rider hung suspended in mid air.
The sound of rolling mud and rock filled the air as horse and rider crashed out of control and out of sight.
JD whirled the bay around and with a mighty kick and shout sent the bay off the trail and over the edge.
The bay flew from level ground. Its front legs were extended out searching for the sharply sloping ground that seemed too far away, back legs remained tucked in close to its belly.
JD leaned back giving the horse free rein and held onto his hat.
The bays front feet hit the slope with a brutal intensity. Its front hooves slid forward stretching further from its center as rolling rock and loose soil gave way under the punishing weight. The bays head and neck continued downward nearly slapping off the ground as back legs over rode the front legs, threatening to send animal and rider tumbling ass over teakettle. Its front legs flashed forward again, maintaining its momentum and balance.
Horse and rider followed the mad descent of the big grey and its rider down the perilously steep decline toward the open desert ground that sat sharply below them.
Buck urged the grey onward. Forcing the big horse to move faster with greater speed and agility than it knew it had.
Wilmington watched as the big chestnut tumbled side ways rolling like a runaway barrel with stirrups flapping and reins whipping pell-mell with its out of control descent. The horse came close to regaining its feet as momentum and soft earth stole any purchase it might have won and sent it careening toward the bottom. The gambler somersaulted in a flash of color. Black pinstripe pants, brown over coat, an occasional spark of deep blue wool gaming coat. Boots and hands seemed to tangle with one another.
Horse and human rolled, bounced and skipped down slope at frightening speed just a few feet apart.
The two hit the flat desert ground with an abrupt, wind steeling stop.
Chaucer gained his feet as he slid, his feet hitting flattened ground at the bottom of the slope. The big horse took an unsteady sideways stuttering step, stepping on one of its reins and inadvertently capturing its own head.
The horse panicked and jerked its chin upward snapping the leather rein like twine.
The Grey jumped the last few feet and cleared itself from the steep decline. The big Grey bounced past the unsteady chestnut fighting his own reins, raising his muzzle and twisting his head trying to free itself of the restraining bit.
Buck leaned to the side and snatched up the one free rein of Chaucers while harshly turning his grey to the side to circle the gamblers horse watching the southerner somersault to the desert floor.
JDs little bay stumbled to the bottom of the slope as Standish rolled head over shoulders and came up on his feet much like his horse; disoriented and still moving.
Distance and speed would save them this night.
Standish staggered and limped eyes wide but unseeing as he stumbled blindly left and right and solidly into Chaucers flank.
Standish was already fumbling to get his foot into the stirrup blindly working on instinct that had saved his life time and time again.
They needed to keep moving. Something was still up there, still hounding after them.
JD moved to dismount to help the gambler.
JD! Stay put! Buck hissed out. Chaucer stood still, legs shaking, nose bleeding and one eye swollen closed. Wilmington ignored the surface wounds and stared at the horses legs. He stood unequally on all four. He was sound enough for now.
Ezra? Buck ground out, impatient for an answer and worried that hed hear the truth.
Standish merely nodded his head as he groped blindly for the leather rein that should have rested on Chaucers mud caked mane.
Lets go! Buck tossed the one rein back over the neck of the gamblers horse, knowing that Standish would eventually find it.
The big grey pirouetted and sprung forward heading out across the open sage covered plain.
Chaucer followed gamely his left shoulder dipping more than his right, his head bobbing up and down in time with the landing of his left leg. His rider sat heavily in the saddle lower legs tight against the horses mud covered and bruised sides.
JD whirled his rented bay away from the slope and paused, his eyes staring up to the high ridge they just baled over.
He stared mesmerized at the empty ridge and looming dark forest behind it. He could almost feel their pursuers sprinting through the trees after them. He could almost hear their clawed feet as they skimmed over the muddy trail, could almost see their red blood iriss with their unnatural slanted pupils. They were up there somewhere, following their trail, scenting out their prey with heavy heads hung low over blackened grey powerful shoulders. They were up there following. Circling around them.
The bay pranced in place dancing around the bit that was held tight in its mouth by taut reins.
JD broke his eyes from the ridge and kicked his horse into a gallop.
The little bay needed no urging and lunged after the other two horses.
Buck leaned low over his grey urging the heaving horse for a little more speed, a little more distance.
Wind whistled across the open space slicing through coats and outer ware. The big gelding moved forward, its own fear and racing heart kept it moving when muscles should have quit long ago.
Wilmington peered around his upper arm at the two men who followed.
Chaucer gamely kept up. The powerful quarter horses pink muzzle was stained with dried blood. It stared forward with only one eye while its right front leg took more of the animals weight than it should have. The stubs of two leather reins hung from the metal rings of his bit. Wilmington cursed. Chaucer had somehow managed to snap his second rein. Nothing controlled the horses direction, except Standishs legs and the animals sense of survival. There was safety with the herd. The quarter horse doggedly followed heedless of the abuse wrought upon it by the fall.
It was sure to pale in comparison to the brutal tearing death at the teeth of the creatures that hunted them.
His rider was no better and no less determined. Standish hung close to his horses neck. His left forearm lay tucked up between pummel and his seat. His head was kept down and he gripped the horses mane knotting it in his right hand trying to accommodate where his sense of balance failed.
JD followed behind. The sheriff kept swinging his head over his shoulder, watching their back trail. Nothing seemed to move behind them.
They appeared to be all alone on the open trail.
Night fell fast. Heavy clouds blocked the light of the moon and the wind kicked up.
Manes and hats fluttered in the scathing breeze and hands tightened around reins.
The horses ran on, their fear nearly palatable.
The flat seamless desert slowly gave way to large boulders and buttes.
Buck led them across the plain, down a rutted ill used path and down a narrow canyon between mesas. He angled them beside an empty river bed between boulders and over brushes.
The horses clipped the ground with little less assuredly. Fatigued muscles failed to pick up hooves quick enough and animals began to stumble. Heads hung low and noses dragged near the ground.
Buck was forced to slow them to a rushed walk, having to accommodate aching muscles and abused limbs. He pushed them onward. His blue eyes constantly slid over the area dissecting shadows and movements from the thick blackness of true night. Buck listened to the unsteady and uneven clop of Chaucers hooves. He heard the crisp soft assurances JD whispered to his little rented gelding.
They had to keep moving. Create more distance. Get to Four Corners.
A rain began to fall.
The wind whistled through the narrow canyon, picking up strength and piercing clothing and hides with bone cracking intensity.
The night wrapped around them like a funeral cloth.
Wilmington pushed them further. The horses walked with heads hanging low and heaving in great gasps of breath.
Standish listed in his saddle. His left arm slipped from the pummel of his saddle and hung too low at his side.
Chaucer limped dragging the toe of his left leg. His haunches quivered and muscles fasciculated under lathered skin.
JD kept his colt out. His little bay swayed and stumbled but continued to plow ahead. The sheriff kept his eyes riveted to their back trail.
They followed a snaking game trail along a sandy river bed nestled within a ravine. The wind whipped the rain down upon them, slanting it, stinging flesh, finding gaps in clothing, biting and soaking ill protected skin.
Buck kept them moving.
He kept his eyes open, his gun in hand.
They were close to Home. Close to safety. What chased them would not venture into the light of civilization. Or so they hoped.
Wilmington watched the trail ahead of them through a curtain of rain, trusting JD to watch behind them, and trusting Standish to keep in his saddle.
The sandy trail finally broke free of the confining walls of the ravine.
Wilmingtons breath came a little easier. They were no longer hemmed in, no longer cornered.
The Big grey stepped heavily, dragging his feet through the sand. The horse coughed violently, shaking its whole body and burning its chest. The big Grey took another step forward and then another.
The Grey cleared the wall of the ravine and stepped into the open of the prairie and was hit by the full brutal force of the gusting wind.
Shadows moved in the periphery. Scents streamed and swirled in the frenzied wind. The gelding pinned its ears and fought the reins and his rider.
Buck pulled his gun and searched left and right with controlled panicked sweeps of his head.
They were caught.
The grey screamed when something flung onto its flank and tore its rider from the saddle.
Buck hit the ground with a sickening crunch and sharp pain running through his arm.
Wilmington fought, unaware of what he fought against. He could hear horses screaming, guns firing and men shouting and through it all the harsh snarling and screaming of what hounded them sliced distinctly through the bedeviled night.
Claws dug into his skin. Yellowed fangs and incisors snapped and lurched to rip chunks of meat from his body.
Buck held the black foaming head back from his chest while he felt the claws of the beast above him rake his midsection and legs. He could feel the curled nails as they dug through his coat trying to gain purchase on his skin.
Wilmington stared into the fiery red eyes and snapping muzzle of the beast above him, all the while wrestling to keep the snapping jaws away from his neck.
JD turned forward just in time to watch Buck get flung from his saddle by one of the things that hounded them. Wilmingtons big Grey screamed and pirouetted on its front feet aiming his deadly back hooves at the creatures that shot at them from the blackness of a moonless night.
Iron shod feet struck a charging beast catching it in the muzzle and snapping its head back with a sickening crunch.
Chaucer settled back onto its hind legs lashing out with his right front hoof, managing to trap a head between its shod hooves and the ground. The skull gave like an egg shell.
JD raised his colt and aimed for the creature that tore at Wilmington. The young sheriff fired, adjusted his aim unerringly with each prancing step his little bay took. Shot after shot buried itself into the hulking black form that pinned Buck to the ground.
Dunne urged his horse forward sidling beside Chaucer as the chestnut smashed skull after skull of creatures that came within reach of his fury. His rider remained tight in the saddle using leg muscles that had long ago been tapped of their strength.
Survival edged out just a little more strength.
With Remington in hand, the gambler fired at the black creatures that flashed out of the night at the flanks of their horses.
JD fired again. Another bullet buried itself in the wiry black hide of the beast that focused on Wilmington.
The creature gave an unearthly cry and toppled to the side.
Buck shoved it away scrambling to his feet desperately clawing for his gun.
His Big grey wheeled around and lashed out with both hind feet smashing the ribs of a blackened creature that ran at his rider. The hooves crushed through the creatures ribs hollowing its side with a sickening crunch. The creature was flung into the dark recess of night.
The three men and horses stood shaking at the mouth of the ravine. The big grey danced on its front feet swinging its haunches left and right at unseen predators, it stirrups flapped uselessly at its sides.
JDs wild gaze searched the penetrating darkness and incessant rain with his second colt at ready.
Chaucer shifted his weight between hunched hind quarters and his good front leg. The horse kept his teeth bared and ears back. His rider, no less, infuriated and terrified kept his Remington aimed and searching the surrounding black.
Ok Wilmington assured and scrambled to his feet, lost his balance and fell back to the desert floor near the carcass of creature that attacked him. Buck scraped his way back to his feet and lurched to his horse hoping the animal moved toward him as much as he moved toward it.
JD kept his Bays hindquarters to the two men as he guarded their flank. He watched from the corner of his eye as Buck struggled to climb into his saddle.
Dunne couldnt see the wounds, or the blood but he saw the shredded coat, the lack of strength in Wilmingtons left leg and the way his right arm hung awkwardly at his side.
JD tightened his grip on his colt and nudged his gelding to take the lead. Chaucer dutifully followed his head bobbing and lifting with each unsteady foot fall.
The big grey fell into line behind the little bay. Chaucer brought up the rear as was his custom. His rider sat a little straighter in the saddle though the horse still could not feel communication from his riders hands. The big quarter horse took his cues from his riders legs.
JD led them through the blistering wind and rain that left man and animal raw with cold and misery.
Dunne kept his colt in hand resting them across the withers of his bay.
The little rented gelding walked with its ears lifted straight and forward, swiveling them left and right while it tested the relentless wind as it scarred its away across the land.
JD occasionally stole glances behind. Buck leaned heavily across his saddle and horses neck pistol gripped tightly in one hand. His hat sat low and the brim sagged beaten by the heavy rain.
Behind him visible only as an uneven outline limped Chaucer. The chestnut kept up lunging itself forward with each step. His rider slumped in the saddle gun in hand.
Dunne kept them moving.
Four Corners was only a few miles away. They were almost home.
It was the squeal and grunt that had JD twirling his horse around.
Buck! Get down! Dunne hollered as he raised his gun and aimed to fire. Wilmington hunched low over his horses neck when Dunne fired.
The first shot loosened the black beast that gripped itself to Chaucers left flank. The second shot flung the beast to the ground as it made to leap again.
Chaucers saddle was empty.
JD buried his heels into the bays side and shot it passed Wilmington. The big Grey turned and followed.
Shit, shit, shit, JD cursed over and over. Ezra git up, Dunne hissed afraid to speak to loudly and unwilling to get down off his horse.
Dunne watched as Standish wiggled out from under the body of one of the creatures. The gamblers hidden derringer smoked, mirroring the shell of a cavity that was once the beasts eye.
Git on your horse Ezra, come on, git on your horse, JD all but begged. The young sheriff watched as the gambler gamely rolled onto his stomach and pushed himself to all fours using only one arm while trying to keep a look out for any more creatures.
With a tight sigh Dunne swung his horse around to take the lead once Standish flopped back into the saddle. Chaucer snorted and snapped its teeth with its ears pinned back while he side stepped trying to maintain his balance. The horse repeatedly battered the carcass at its hind feet crushing it until it no longer held a form.
Were almost home.
Buck simply nodded and tightened his grip on his gun.
JD pointed the bay toward town peering over his shoulder making sure the other two followed.
Town was just over the hill.
JDs elation at seeing the outskirts of Four Corners and the glow of its street fires was nearly drowned by his increasing anxiety and fear.
Bucks grey followed tight on the bays tail and Chaucer hobbled and lurched struggling not to fall behind. Both riders kept precarious seats with revolvers clutched tightly in numb hands.
Dunne swiveled his eyes left and right watching for another ambush.
Terror and anxiety ratcheted another notch with each step closer to town.
As they drew entered Four Corners, JDs fear climbed. No one walked the street, no voices or bodies were seen on the board walk.
He convinced himself it was to be expected. It was night, the wind blowing and it was raining hard.
No one would be out tonight. They would be ensconced in their homes with their families enjoying the warmth of cook fires and hearths.
He angled the horses through the end of town toward the livery.
Not a soul moved, not a voice carried.
Light bathed the boardwalk before the saloon.
Rain sounded hollow as it beat against wood.
JD wanted to call out, wanted to shout for Nathan, and Chris and Josiah and Vin. He wanted to holler for help but feared the noise, and worse yet, feared no one was left to answer.
JDs little bay stopped before the livery and dropped its head. It had made it.
Chaucer limped passed the other two horses and shoved on the livery doors with his head creaking them open. The chestnut, with his rider still slumped on his back, headed into the livery, down the isle way, and stopped at his stall door.
JD dismounted gathered the greys and his own and followed the gamblers horse. He watched somewhat amused as Chaucer worked the latch, opened the door and limped into the stall.
The falling of a limp hand from the hay loft above had JD pausing. He gazed upward and saw the bloodied arm and wrist, stared mesmerized at the blood that dripped from lifeless fingers. The arm wore the remnants of a torn buffalo hide coat. Vin.
Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod!!!
JDs body tensed. He turned to shout to Buck and Ezra .
A shrieking howl rent the air.
Chaucers sudden terrified screams filled the livery. Shadows descended upon the self stalled horse. The gambler was tackled from the back of the horse. Rapid fire shots filled the stall as the Remington barked out its owners desperation.
JD watched horrified as a black creature bound into sight from within the stall and dragged the struggling, rising, gambler down out of sight.
The stall boards cracked and groaned under the relentless onslaught of flashing hooves as Chaucer fought a helpless battle to save himself.
The big Chestnut went down with a horrified scream, it squealed in an almost pig like fashion and tried to raise itself, the whites of his eyes flashing in the moonlight as tufts of hide hung from his neck and face.
A hulking body of a blackened creature raised up and dragged the dying horse back to the stall floor by the poll and forelock.
The frantic sounds within the stall finally died down. Only the sounds of tearing flesh and eating could be heard.
No sound came from the gambler.
JD backed himself into the grey. The little rented Bay had bolted for the door. JD turned and watched as the little gelding made the entrance of the livery only to be set upon on both sides by a foursome of red eyed hounds.
The little bay fought and kicked. It tried to side step and twirl but fangs sunk deep into its left flank and held tight. The added weight sagged the young gelding to the side slowly forcing it to the ground. The horse craned its head and neck, twisting and turning it, trying desperately to protect itself. It never stopped struggling.
The creatures boiled onto it. Attaching themselves like fire ants, swarming and biting. The little bays screams were muffled under the weight of biting bodies.
JD stood frozen. His heart hammered in his chest.
He slowly backed into the Grey. From the corner of his eye he spotted a black boot with a spur. The leg was bent at a hideous angle. The toe of the boot pointed in the opposite direction of the bent knee. A black duster lay torn and shredded under the mostly hidden body. Chris.
What was left of Josiah and Nathan lay tucked and gutted just within the shadows. The chocolate brown eyes of the healer were missing as was his jaw. Josiah lay curled with his back to JD, his flank peeled back like a can opened with a knife.
The young sheriff rested a nervous hand on Wilmingtons leg and looked up. Buck? The name came out as a quiet plea.
The young sheriff looked up to his silent friend, hoping to find help, support, anything.
JD back peddled away from the horse, a hoarse scream dying on his lips.
Buck sat slumped backward against the greys croup soaked in his own blood. A creature sat upon his chest feasting.
The black head swiveled and stared with unearthly red eyes at the sheriff. It mouth dripped with Wilmingtons blood and flesh hung from its fangs.
Dunne staggered back another step. His breath came in short gasps. His sweating hands curled around his colts but could not coordinate the effort to pull them.
He backed into a warm body.
JD slowly turned. The scream died on his lips as a set of jaws sunk into his spasming throat.
Gawd damn it, hold him still.
What the Fuck do you think Im trying to do, Cowboy!?
You two knock that shit off and holdim still, Nathans curt voice cut through the clinic with a scathing ire that some how did not match the frustrated animosity that bubbled between the other two peacekeepers. Alright forget it, Josiah! Jacksons bellow had the preacher entering the small clinic. He had been relegated to the outside. He had spent sometime in the saloon but curiosity got the better of him and he now sat outside the clinic listening, much to his dismay. There was really no room in the small room for all seven peacekeepers. A fact he didnt mind so much right at the moment.
The preacher let his eyes roam over the three friends they had found in the livery late last night.
Buck had still been sitting on is horse, JD lay crumpled at the horses feet and Ezra had been found in Chaucers stall.
All three men were soaked through. Only Buck and Ezra wore various deep wounds. JD appeared to have escaped whatever creature had apparently attacked them on the trail but had not avoided the fever that raged in all three men.
The mystery remained as to what had happened and why.
Gawd damnit, Josiah, git your ass over here! Chris hissed out as he avoided another flying fist from JD Dunne. The young man struggled and fought as if his very life depended it. Tears leaked from the corners of the young mans eyes. He arched his back and bucked, snapping his head left and right, using his feet as efficiently as his hands.
Vin I want you to see if you cant get some of that tea down Buck and Ezra, and then change the poultice on Bucks chest. Nathan ordered without looking up from his work on JD. Dunne fought the nightmares the most. The other two lay quietly occasionally fighting with unseen demons, struggling within the confines of their blankets but eventually they would lay still, as if recouping their strength for the next battle.
Whats wrong with them Doc.? Chris asked out as he and Josiah managed to wrestle JD back onto the bed.
Dont rightly know. Nathan answered. He concentrated on checking the young sheriff over for any unusual wounds, anything that would indicate what had happened. They guessed from Ezras and Chaucers wounds that the two had taken a bad fall and the mud covering JDs rented little bay hinted that it was some how involved in it.
The wind whistled outside, rustling papers into the air and carrying them and tumbling them over boardwalks and off building fronts. The citizens of Four Corners didnt venture out on this grey wind whipped morning. Thick low clouds threatened rain. And strange sounds had ripped through the night keeping the timid behind closed doors and latched shutters.
Inside the clinic, Tanner coaxed Wilmington to drink while the tracker lifted Bucks head just enough so he wouldnt choke on the herbal remedy.
Once finished, the tracker refilled the mug and headed for the gambler.
Shit. Tanners tired curse had Chris, Josiah and Nathan pausing in their work and look across the small room to the Texan.
Little sneaky shit is gone again, Vin shook his head and placed the mug down on the small end table near the empty bed.
Probably drifted back to Chaucer again, Josiah answered with an amused chuckle that matched the humor in Larabees eyes.
If ya need help getting him back up here, might want to call on Inez, Larabee offered, smirking at the younger man.
Fuck you, Larabee, Tanner shrugged back into his coat and headed back out the door.
How is it none of us notice Ezra skip out of the room when were all packed in here like sardines? Nathan questioned.
Larabee merely shook his head as Josiah laughed.
The three men had their attention refocused as JD bolted up right with a blood curdling scream.
Damn, but, that was unnerving. Chris thought.
Chris reached out to grab the young man and received a black eye for his trouble. JD was a scrapper.
Buck moaned in his sleep and wrestled with the quilt that covered him.
+ + + + + + +
Tanner entered the livery to find Yosemite backing out of Chaucers stall.
Ezra slither his way in here? Vin asked as he tried to dampen the slamming of the livery door.
Yah, Yosemite answered and nodded his head a large smile gracing his rounded features.
He back in the stall with his crazy horse? Tanner asked as he slowly made his way toward Chaucers stall.
Yosemite merely smiled wider and nodded. I bedded the stall extra deep. He can lay down now and not get so sore. The blacksmith said nodding his head in direction of the large quarter horse that pushed some of the thick straw about with his nose before grunting and collapsing down onto his front legs and then his haunches only to roll over onto his side.
Hows his shoulder? Vin asked as both men watched the horse lay down with much relief. With one leg unable to bear much weight it taxed the animal forcing it to rest its legs by laying down instead of hitching a leg.
Not broke, no, badly bruised, not hot, Yosemite answered with concern and relief. He then smiled, not like his owner, who is broke and bruised and fevered. How is Sheriff Dunne and Mr. Buck?
Vin nodded and sighed, Theyre doin okay. Least they stay put. Tanner stared into the stall as he opened the door, Pain in the ass.
Standish laid in the stall in the forward corner wrapped in a blanket most likely curtsey of the livery owner. Chaucer pinned his ears back and stretched his head out smacking his teeth together. Ornery cuss when hes hurt, aint he?
He is much like his owner, yes. Yosemite chuckled as he helped the tracker carry Standish out of the stall, being careful to keep the blanket well placed. Not that the gambler would care. Damn man parades around town in nothing but a table cloth and his boots, no shame at all Vin couldnt help recall.
+ + + + + + +
JD struggled feeling the heat of the creatures breath on his exposed neck. He felt the weight of its feet on his chest.
Oh God, no, He whispered out.
Chris, Nathan and Josiah shared a look.
Son? Can you hear me?
JD, open your damn eyes, Chriss voice brooked no argument.
Now brother, Josiah started to reprimand.
JD felt his heart race. He kept his eyes squeezed shut.
I said Larabees directive was flooded with warning.
JD slowly opened one eye, expecting to see the bloody teeth of the hound that had him pinned to the ground.
Instead, he saw three curious sets of eyes. It was then he realized that the livery floor was soft, like a bed.
Thats it JD, nice and slow.
What the Hell happened to your three? Chris demanded. He had no patience for slow.
Nathan tossed Larabee a seething glare. Sanchez just laughed.
Youre youre dead, JD breathed out.
News to me, Nathan replied smiling down at his patient resting a hand on JDs sweating forehead. The fever had dropped some. He was sweating now, cooling off.
What happened, JD? Chris demanded again.
The young sheriff stared at Larabee for a moment trying to fathom how the three lawmen could be leaning over him when he had seen them dead in the livery; torn to pieces by relentless creatures of the night.
The clinic door slammed open and Tanner and Yosemite staggered in with the gambler slung between them, Gawd damn it Nathan, youve got to move down stairs somewhere. Those stairs are bullshit, the tracker huffed out as he dropped the insensible gambler onto the cot, blanket and all.
Sure, Vin. Nathan replied in a tone that indicated that Hell would probably freeze first.
Brother, Josiah kept his attention on JD who blinked in confusion. Can you tell us what happened?
Youre not dead?
Not yet, Chris answered tiredly.
Buck and Ezra?
Still irritating ole Chris and Vin, Nathan answered with a smile and an amused glare directed at the two men.
But the creatures, JD answered moving his gaze from man to man, the old lady sent them after us. Buck he, he didnt mean it, and Ezra was only being Ezra but the old lady she got . JD paused and then added in a quiet awed voice, She was a witch. Buck and Ezra got a witch all irate.
Theres a big surprise, Nathan muttered.
Slow down son, Josiah soothed. Start from the beginning.
Buck and Ezra caused this mess? Chris interrupted.
JD stared from Chris to Josiah and then to Nathan. He could hear Yosemite and Vin working across the room.
They didnt mean too, they were just havin some fun and this old scary lady got all upset. She said wed never get back home alive. JD spoke in a quiet frightened voice. She was a witch, she said so but Ezra laughed said shed never met his mother. Dunnes eyes widened at the memory.
Well son, you made it back just fine. Josiah reassured. It seems his brothers couldnt stay out of trouble for even a few days.
Yosemite found you boys in the livery late last night when he got back from the privy. Nathan added and smiled at the blush that crept up the livery mans features.
There were no hounds? JD asked in disbelief. Was the whole thing fake?
Is that what dug into Buck and Ezra? Nathan asked. He and Vin and the others couldnt identify the type of animal that made the marks. They were too wide for a large cat, grizzlys wouldve removed more meat and they were too big for even a large dog.
Yeah, but Ezra fell over a cliff first, Chaucer banged up his leg real bad. JD answered, he gonna be okay?
Damn horse is more trouble than its worth, Tanner muttered as he adjusted the blankets around the gambler and headed over to JD.
Whats this about hounds?
They were Hell Hounds, JD seemed to shrink into his quilt even further, afraid of the creatures that attacked them and afraid that his friends wouldnt believe them.
Larabee bit his tongue at Josiahs warning glare.
Well, there aint no hounds here, JD, Nathan answered making sure that neither Larabee or Tanner mocked his patient. He had no need to worry from either quarter.
We made it back then?
Yeah just fine, Josiah answered.
She said the hounds would catch us before Four Corners. She said theyd tear us apart and eat our hearts out.
Yeah, well Buck and Ezra really do know how to get people all lathered. Tanner muttered and slipped quietly into the rocking chair next to Standishs bed. The lean Texan sighed and then sat forward and rested a heavy hand on the gamblers chest, you just lay your sorry ass back down. Tanner shook his head as the gambler once again settled back into the bed. Damn man wasnt even aware that he was trying to get up and walk around.
Her hounds cant come into Four Corners, JD, Josiah reassured the young man with undeniable authority. The young sheriff focused tired eyes on the older man in question. Sanchez smiled widely exposing two sets of straight white teeth, Nothing unearthly can enter town my town JD. Not while we are here. The big preacher laid a heavy, reassuring hand on the boys shoulder and nodded, Get some sleep.
JD relaxed under the support and hesitantly drifted off.
What the Hell was that all about?
Josiah merely met Chriss gaze, Nothing but the truth brother, nothing but the truth.
That n Buck n Ezra r more trouble together than a kid with a bag full of rattlers, figures they poke a sharp stick at something that wields hounds from Hell. Tanner shook his head in exasperation.
Yosemite paused at the door uncertain.
You think you can get that knottheads horse up and sound? Chris asked directing the conversation away from less substantial topics.
Yosemite nodded, Yah, The big blacksmith looked at the four sound peacekeepers and then the three injured men. He nodded again. The big chestnut will be sound before his rider, I think.
Thats no far stretch, Nathan mumbled. Damn fool gambler will pull every trick he can think of to avoid any type of confinement thats not his idea.
Larabee nodded his thanks to the big man and Yosemite took his cue to leave.
You think whatever trouble those two stirred up will stay outside of town? Chris didnt believe that Hell had to come from some dark underworld. It lived on the same plane as the rest of them. JD might have believed that whatever tore strips off of Buck and Ezra were Hell spawn, but Chris didnt.
Nothing is crossing into town. The confidence in which Josiah spoke had the others looking at him in an almost concerned manner.
Chris gave Sanchez a wary eye and then headed for the door. If you boys got this mess under control, Im heading to the saloon.
Nathan was about to speak but was pre-empted with a soft, It was Ezras fault.
Bucks voice was just strong enough to whisper around the room.
Jackson nodded his head in understanding. Knowing that in a few seconds .
Like Hell, A tired southern drawl retorted back.
You cheated her son at his own shell game. Buck accused rubbing at his forehead with his good arm.
You bedded her daughter, Ezra retaliated curling onto his side seeking protection from the howling wind outside under his blanket.
She was willing, Buck answered and then added, and what a gal; takes endurance to a whole new level. Wilmington answered dreamily. She said I was a gift from heaven.
Ohh please, Standish complained, as if the first few tellings werent enough. The poor girl was confused.
You two through? Larabee stated as he strode to the narrow center of the room and stared at the two bandaged and rosy cheeked occupants. Their fevers though troublesome were not labeled as dangerous as of yet. JD, on the other hand, had been a handful.
It was his fault, Chris. Buck stated
Was not, Ezra moaned.
I dont care whose fault it is. Larabee hissed, you two, when youre back on your feet have got Vins morning patrol for two weeks.
I feel feverish, Ezra lamented, Mr. Jackson perhaps some of your magical elixir to soothe my ills.
Nathan chuckled and shook his head, Sure Ezra, the healer picked up the discarded mug Vin had left on the small table. Your shoulder achin you any? The seriousness in the tone cut through the shenanigans for a moment.
Ezra paused and then simply nodded, afraid to give voice to his discomfort and thus reveal a weakness.
Nathan helped the gambler with the tea and listened half heartedly to Bucks version of the events that occurred just over a day ago in a little no name town south of Four Corners.
He chuckled at the obvious embellishment wondering how much Chris and the others believed and how much did they listen for the mere joy of hearing the tale for the sake of the story itself.
In a few days, Ezra would have his own version, as colorful and as twisted as Bucks. JD would add his two cents, no less censored but perhaps less embellished. But the boy was student of the others and it would stand to reason his tale would be no less tall and no less colorful.
Nathan shook his head as he watched the gambler fight the sedative affect of the tea. In a few moments the gamblers eyes stopped rolling and the eyelids stopped fluttering and finally settled closed. Jackson rested a callous hand on Standishs forehead; a fever still burned but had lost some of its bite. The deep wounds in Bucks and Ezras torsos were made by a large predator of some kind. Maybe he and Vin could take a few days and venture out and try to track it down.
Nathan wanted, no needed a break from town, from his duties and from his recuperating friends.
Hounds of Hell indeed; and Josiah feeding all of this with his assurances of keeping all unearthly beasts away.
Nathan smiled. If anything, his time in Four Corners would make for interesting tales for his grand children.
+ + + + + + +
Chris entered the livery quietly. The musty smell of horse hide, leather and straw filled the area. The gunslinger strode down the wood alleyway and stopped before Chaucers stall. The big chestnut was lying down again. Yosemite had placed hay and a water bucket within reach of the big animal.
Larabee opened the stall door and quietly entered. The horse perked its ears forward and huffed a few breathes testing the scent and intentions of its visitor.
Youre an ornery SOB, you know that? Chris spoke as he approached the horse. It rested on its chest. Its left shoulder grossly swollen.
Spoiled to the core. Larabee squatted down in front of the horse who watched him with nothing but curiosity. There was no hint of the biting demon that Vin reported about earlier. Youre too smart for your own damn good, and have more bad habits than youre owner. Chris reached into his coat pocket, but you did good. He pulled out a giant red apple and cut it in two. You did damn good. Juice squeezed from the cut halves into his palm. He held an apple half out to the horse palm flat. Chaucer gently lipped it from the gunslingers hand and crunched it.
You deserve it. My gift to you. Larabee tossed the second half onto the pile of hay, youre still a rotten monster, but youre a damn fine friend to him.
Larabee stood wiping his hands on his pant legs and headed out of the stall listening to the big chestnut crunch contently on the apple halves.