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The shifting sands battered the four men as they fought their way through the unholy tempest. The tiny grains stung as they found uncovered skin and left it raw and burning, but the solemn group knew this was a journey they had to see through. The horses labored under the heavy strain of pulling the wagon and fighting the storm. Their legs sometimes got mired down, but JD and Ezra grabbed the leads and tugged until the animals were free.
Ezra closed his eyes and prayed they would make it through, but the storm seemed to go on forever. The shifting swirling sands invaded every pore of his body, gaining entrance through his clothing and grating against his skin, but it did not deter him. He held tight to the reins and patted the animal's neck when he sensed it shy away from their destination, whatever that may be. Tugging on the material covering his mouth and nose he turned to look at JD Dunne, but all he could see was a darker shadow amidst the shifting swirling sands.
JD felt uncomfortable as he shifted in the saddle and glanced over his shoulder. He couldn't see much of the wagon, but he knew it was still there, the wheels turning slowly as the sand covered the ground until it was picked up by the winds once more. He held tight to the lead reins and turned back toward the front, wondering how much longer they'd be caught in the storm. His mind turned to the three men who were still inside the Inn and he held tight to the bible as he said a silent prayer that they would be safe.
Nathan glanced over his shoulder at the cargo, his eyes blinking rapidly in an effort to keep the sands out. It was a losing cause, but his body was doing what came naturally. He turned to the big man sitting next to him, but Josiah's gaze remained on the reins held tightly in his hands. This man was a mystery to him, yet he knew more about Josiah Sanchez than any of the others. He knew the reason behind the older man's loss of faith and smiled as he realized Josiah had never really lost faith. He'd simply detoured from it until he was needed and now they prayed for strength to get them through.
Josiah knew Jackson was watching him, but he didn't look at him. The former slave believed he knew him, but there were still secrets hidden from those he cared about. He could not tell them of the deaths of the innocent he'd seen or his own hand in the revenge that took place soon after. God had never abandoned him, he knew that now, but there were times when he had felt so alone. His road was one that was filled with misery until he rode past the ruined church at the edge of the town he knew as Four Corners. It was there that he found a way to do penance and found six men he called family. He thought about the people of Four Corners and prayed they were blissfully unaware of what was happening in the Badlands.
+ + + + + + +
The Inn shifted on its foundations, settling once more as it sought the reasons for its weakness. It breathed, but the air was of fire and the walls shook with the shifting of the earth underneath. What was happening was unknown to the living structure, but something was missing, something it needed, something it craved, something it had to have. The walls and floors were now covered in brackish brine that churned with the tremors that threatened to pull it below ground. The walls creaked and groaned as the Inn cried out in anger. The well was no longer alive, the bones stolen, the souls gone, and the loss had taken a large chunk from the power behind the hellish building, but it was not beaten. It still held the power of Satan...of the chosen Prince and it would seek vengeance on those who had dared invade the unholy sanctuary.
+ + + + + + +
Buck had never felt so alone as he looked at the two men who shared the room with him. Vin Tanner seemed to go in and out of consciousness, crying out whenever Chris Larabee shifted. Something was happening within the Inn itself. The wall behind him was no longer hard, but buckled and bulged as if breathing with some malevolent force. He pulled Vin away from the wall and had his head in his lap as he watched the eerie changes in Chris Larabee.
+ + + + + + +
The demon had left, that was the first thought that came to Chris Larabee as he opened his eyes and looked around. He faced a wall that was filled with fissures that bled openly with a sickly cloying pestilence. The pain was unbearable as something twisted in his gut and he now understood why the demon had departed so suddenly. The Inn itself was alive and with each breath it too the piece of wood inside him moved with it and he muffled a cry of pain as his body began to bend at an unbelievable angle.
+ + + + + + +
The trussed up body began to writhe in a macabre dance as it twisted and turned in ways a man was not meant to move. The arms bulged, the veins in his neck throbbed, the chest heaved, and the legs kicked out grotesquely as if an inner war was being waged. The splinter of wood rolled through his gut, pressing against his abdomen and threatened to twist through the ravaged flesh. The head turned, the eyes opened and a sliver of green shone through.
"Chris?" Wilmington whispered hopefully. His grip on Tanner's hand tightened as he watched the chilling transformation as his long time friend was subjected to some unseen force.
"I'm here, Chris, we're all here!"
"...save...self...Vin..." Larabee ground out as his body dropped to the floor and the walls grew still around them.
"We're all safe here," the ladies man said and wished he could release the gunslinger, but he couldn't take the chance that the demon would return.
"No...go now...get away. T...take Vin...safe," the blond wheezed through a torrent of pain.
"No way, not without you!"
"H...have to! G...get out."
"We all have to get out of here, Chris and we will...together! We don't leave no one behind!" Wilmington vowed.
"The I...Inn, Buck...the Inn's alive!"
"I know, Pard, but we're going to send it back to hell where it belongs!"
Chris closed his eyes as nausea and pain washed over him. His body burned with fire as he struggled to stay awake, but he knew he was losing the fight as the room swam in and out of focus once more. He began to pray for those around him, ignoring the agony inside as he finally fathomed the depth of the friendship he had with Buck Wilmington and the others. Somehow he would get them through this even if it meant giving his own life in return for theirs.
+ + + + + + +
The people of Four Corners huddled inside the small church and prayed for salvation from the tremendous howling winds and slanting sheets of rain. Thunder ricocheted off the surrounding hills as lightning streaked across the now dark sky. Never before had a storm of this magnitude been seen and it seemed to be gaining in intensity as it swept through the town and battered against the wall sand windows. The horse trough outside the saloon was picked up and thrown against the windows of Potter's store, shattering the glass and landing on top of a display of material. The howling winds bore down on the town as if they were spawned from hell itself and the townspeople knew a holy war was being waged somewhere in their vicinity.
+ + + + + + +
Something had changed, but at first JD could not figure out what it was. They'd been riding through this nightmare for what seemed an eternity with no end in sight. He blinked his eyes, trying to rid them of the gritty nuisance, but there seemed to be no relief from the unending wall of sand. He turned his head to the side and suddenly it hit him what had changed. He could actually see Ezra Standish! Not just a dark shadow against the turbulent wall of never ending sands. He glanced over his head and nearly cried out in relief as he spotted not only the horses, but his fellow peacekeepers and the wagon being drawn steadily along.
Ezra, too had seen the change and knew they would soon be out of the dangerous storm. His lungs cried out for air and he knew if they didn't exit the tempest soon he would pass out. He turned to see the others were having the same difficulty in breathing and felt his horse shudder beneath him. Turning his head toward the front once more he urged the weary animal onward.
"Josiah, do you feel it?" Jackson screamed.
"I do, Nathan! Thank you Lord for staying beside us and bringing us through!" Sanchez said as the storm seemed to lose much of its ferocious appetite for violence. They pushed onward, the sands slowly diminishing with each turn of the wagon wheels.
"Just a little further!" Dunne shouted as he joined the two men.
"Keep the horses moving, JD. We need to put some distance between the Inn and the resting place we choose for these souls!" Sanchez yelled. His heart was heavy as he thought of the three men still inside the unholy den of evil.
"I will, Josiah, but we're going to make it! I can feel it!" Dunne said and rode ahead once more.
"How far do we need to go, Josiah?" Jackson asked.
"I'm not sure, Nathan, but it has to be far enough that it gives us a chance to get rid of that damned Inn once and for all! We can't let it survive!" His voice was scratchy with the layer of sand that covered it, yet there was no denying the strength and volition behind the words.
"You talk as if it's alive!" the healer said.
"It is!" Sanchez said ominously.
+ + + + + + +
Satan once more took on the persona of Columber and smiled as the door began to bend and knew it would not be long before he entered what had once been a holy haven in an evil structure. This was it! The time had finally come and he would take Chris Larabee and place him at the gates. The demon would be given its chance to kill Wilmington and Tanner, but not until the gate was secure and the invasion of his legion had begun.
+ + + + + + +
The sky above them was a swirling kaleidoscope of colors that ranged from soft blue through mystic violets, turbulent orange and angry, crimson red. It spoke of the war raging between good and evil, echoing in the shriek of the wind. It told of the deaths of a million souls and the lives yet to be spared or taken. It spoke of blood spilled and wounds revealed. It cried for those that had already died, and for those that might yet be lost. It spoke of the heartbreak of loved ones who reaped a harvest only to find a dry stalk where an ear of corn should be. It was life...it was death...it was a battle for souls that cried out for peace.
Josiah looked up once more as a sunset beyond anything he'd ever seen obliterated the sky from horizon to horizon. That things were happening at the Inn was a certainty and he knew they had to finish this and get back to their friends. The images burned his eyes with an intensity that sent a shiver of dread down his spine, and he turned his head away in hopes of preventing permanent damage to his eyes.
"Josiah, we need to hurry!" Jackson stated.
"I know...it's just..."
"Josiah, over there! Do you see it?" Standish cried, his voice filled with awe as he pointed to a rocky outcropping near the base of a majestic hill. There was no mistaking the shape they'd found or that it was a gift from God and the four men turned the animals toward the area that would become the final resting place for the lost souls.
The holy man's eyes sparkled with renewed hope and the profound faith that came with new discoveries. The rocks were shaped like a crescent moon and a hollow chamber had been gouged out by the powerful winds over the years. Small rocks and pebbles were strewn all around and would make covering the bones an easy and spiritual chore. A smile formed on his face as his gaze came to rest on the ultimate deciding factor that this was the place they sought. It had been formed by Mother Nature, but under the guidance of God's hand for he had never seen such a perfect symbol of faith. Three rocks formed a holy trinity; so smooth it looked to have been polished by loving hands. It formed a cross that had stood for eons and would probably stand for many more to come. For Josiah, it became a promise of victory, and he stopped the wagon without a word.
"God has shown us the way," Sanchez said and bowed his head in prayer. He knew the others were following his lead and he sighed as he lifted his head once more. Without a word the four peacekeepers began to unload the remains of the dead and gently placed them in the shallow chamber. No words were spoken; none were needed as time and again they showed how tender their hands could be when the times warranted it. A healer, a gambler, a greenhorn, and an ex-preacher, each one different, yet all had the heart of a warrior waging a war against evil.
+ + + + + + +
The walls now glistened with the sickening pestilence that had finally broken through the holy haven. No longer was the barrier strong enough to fight the advancing legion as the door shattered from its frame and struck the back wall.
Buck wrapped his arms protectively around the tracker as the man he once knew as Columber stood framed in the doorway. He swallowed several times, fighting back the fear that shook his body. This was the devil! Hell was now encroaching on this domain and they were at the mercy of the evil figure before them.
"You will bow to the master of hell and earth!"
"Never!" Wilmington vowed as a fetid stench threatened to take his breath away. His grip on the Texan tightened and he heard Chris Larabee's voice as though he spoke through sand.
"Let them go!"
"No!" the rogue cried as his friend struggled to his feet and stood facing the spawn of hell.
+ + + + + + +
Working together they soon had the remains placed in the hallowed ground and began placing stone after stone over them until there was no sign of the bodies that lay beneath. Josiah nodded to the others and clasped his hands before him as he began to speak.
"O God, by Your mercy rest is given to the souls of the faithful, please bless this grave. Appoint Your holy angels to guard it and set free from all the chains of sin and the soul of them whose body is buried here, so that with all Thy saints they may rejoice in Thee for ever. Through Christ our Lord. Amen."
"Amen," Jackson, Standish, and Dunne repeated as thunder echoed through the hills and lightning flashed angrily across the sky. The ground shook with the force of the unholy battle and the winds howled once more.
"May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen!" Sanchez said as he put the final stone on the burial pyre.
"Amen!" the others repeated once more.
"We need to get back!" JD said, his voice edged with anxiety as they moved to unhook the horses from the wagon. The winds were beginning to pick up again, but did not have the velocity to pick up the sands. Something had shifted in the power struggle; something they hoped would see the evil sent back to hell where it belonged.
They rode as if hell was at their heels, but it was a Devine hand that led them.
+ + + + + + +
"Do not think that you can protect them, My Dark Prince!" Columber spat, moving toward the two men as talons formed and elongated on grotesque fingers. The souls of the innocent had been taken from the Inn and had been buried somewhere outside the circle of corruption. Satan knew that the peacekeepers had succeeded where all others had failed and this brought with it the realization that God was indeed still a powerful force to be reckoned with. He had to get Larabee in place and open the floodgates before it was too late.
Larabee looked at the evil creature and then turned to his friends. He knew Vin Tanner was hurt, but could not remember how or why, but his life and that of Buck Wilmington was in his hands. He fought to tear his gaze from the bright blue orbs and finally stood his ground before the horrid image before him. "L...leave them a...alone and I...I'll..."
"N...no!" the Texan's voice was weak, but held a holy strength behind it as the eyes came open and hatred flared through his heart.
"What will you do, Christopher?" Columber asked, humouring the three men as he scraped a long nail against the wall behind him.
"I'll go with you!" Larabee said, groaning as the splinter inside him shifted once more.
"You will take your place as Sentinel?" the demon asked.
"Y...yes," Larabee answered, his gaze shifting to the Texan once more.
"NO!" Wilmington cried and felt the man he held fighting to stand.
"I...I have t...to!" the defeated gunslinger whispered.
"N...no, Chris, yer not indi..."
"...spensible!" Wilmington finished as the tracker collapsed against him once more and Larabee's trembling voice reached his ears.
"No, Chris, I...we won't let you do this!" the ladies' man vowed.
"You can't stop what has been long foretold. Chris Larabee was chosen long ago to stand at the gates of hell and let my legion roam free of the boundaries once set upon them!"
"You w...will leave them a...alone?" Larabee asked, struggling to stay on his feet and face the hellish nightmare set before him.
"They will be safe for now!" Columber said as the Inn around him breathed with newfound life.
"Chris, don't do this!" Buck tried, but something in the gunslinger's eyes told him Larabee would do anything to keep them safe.
"T...take care of h...him, Buck...lin," the gunslinger said and reached out to touch Columber as an idea began to take hold. He turned to look down at the Texan whose eyes were once more open and staring at him. An idea was born then, its genesis in the sky blue eyes he knew as well as his own. Their depths went to a place known only to he and the Texan. It would work...he felt sure it would. 'Seven can close the gates,' Larabee thought and saw an imperceptible nod from the tracker. Somehow, Chris knew this was how it should be and something in Tanner's eyes told him the sharpshooter had also felt the change. Their journey was meant to lead them to the gates of hell and it was there that the final battle would be fought and won. "T...take care of h...him, Buck," the gunslinger said and reached out to touch Columber as the idea grew and he felt his confidence rising as well.
He was armed with faith, a far more valuable weapon. He felt Columber's hand on his arm and nearly screamed when the touch seared his skin.
"Chris!" Wilmington screamed unaware of the silent exchange between the two men.
Vin reached for Buck's arm and waited for the older man to look at him. He heard Larabee's cries of pain and Columber's demonic laughter and knew what had to be done. The others would be back soon and together they would claim victory in the holy crusade they would undertake.
+ + + + + + +
Chris turned his back on the two men he was closest too, ignoring Buck's rampant tirade as Columber's hand gripped his arm and led him away from his friends. He felt Columber's touch and sensed him trying to read his thoughts, but Chris would not allow his evil to touch him. His thoughts moved to the family he'd loved and lost and with it a sense of peace overcame him.
Satan breathed the fiery fumes into his lungs and led his Chosen Prince toward an opening that led from the Inn up the hill that ran along the southern walls. The gate rested at the top where the Inn's spire met the hillside and would not open fully until the Sentinel was in place. He pulled the unresisting man along the flaming stairs and soon stood on a platform overlooking the lands far to the east, west, and north. The southern lands had been obliterated by the advancing legion and he could feel their hunger for the blood of the innocent.
He turned Larabee toward the oncoming mass and held his hands high as he spoke. "Behold the Chosen One! Hell's Dark Prince will reside as Sentinel and keep this entrance free of mortal interference!"
+ + + + + + +
The shifting sands no longer swirled with malevolent strength as the four devout peacekeepers raced toward the Inn. The structure loomed ahead of them, stretching high into the tempest that lit the backdrop and sent unholy flames reaching for them. The time was at hand. A war that would be waged for all mankind and one they would have to win in order to destroy the evil dominion Satan had created. They knew Columber had Chris Larabee in his grip and that the gunslinger was inwardly fighting the demonic touch, but was he strong enough to hold Hell off until they arrived and brought their holy number to full strength once more.
High above them a doorway was opened and they could see Chris Larabee, his black clothing silhouetted against the light cast by an unholy fire. Satan stood before him, back to them as he lifted his hands and called forth his legion. They had to stop the cursed invasion!
Josiah and JD moved to support Buck, lifting his arms over their shoulders and taking the weight off his injured leg. Nathan and Ezra moved to support the tracker and felt the intense power of the Lord at their backs, surrounding them, encasing their bodies against the spawn that hell spit out. The steps loomed ahead and they began their ascent towards the gate.
Tendrils of flame reached for them, snagging their clothes in an attempt to stop their forward progression. The demons that had come before fought for purchase on the stairs ahead of them, but with their voices raised in prayer, Josiah, Buck, Vin, JD, Ezra, and Nathan continued their journey. They could hear Satan speaking, could feel his unholy fire as he tried to capture their souls, but they would not be stopped.
+ + + + + + +
Columber felt them coming near and turned to face the six men who would dare to battle him. They were not impressive to look upon, yet they emboldened everything that was good. He turned back to the gate, revealing rotted teeth as his mouth turned up in a demonic grin. Again he raised his hands, this time placing them on Chris Larabee's shoulders as he spoke to the gathering mass of twisting, gyrating bodies that pressed against the opening, but could not yet break through.
"Listen to me and be ready when the gate is complete! The unholy hour is upon us and the feasting will be ours as it was always meant to be! Their God has no power to stop us! Their faith is nothing against our number! This is the Dark Prince!"
"No!" Josiah's shout rang out with such vehemence that a tremor shook the Inn to its very foundation. The living mass of hell born wood and nails cringed as the voice filled with Divine power rang out in heavenly anticipation. Josiah's voice was joined by those who walked with him as they moved toward the Chosen One.
"You were warned! Behold the gates will open and the feast shall begin with your flesh!" Satan screamed as cries of hunger and need rose up from below.
"Lord, we beg You to destroy the power of Your greatest enemy- the evil spirits who fight Your will!" Josiah's voice rose above the screaming legion and a holy light shone down upon them.
"Do not think to defeat me with words, Preacher Man!" Satan spat, hatred dripping from each word as the gate inched open.
"Cast them into the deepest, darkest recesses of Hell and chain them there forever that they can no longer threaten Your children!" Sanchez shouted as they neared the final stage where a hellish play was about to unfold. He felt Buck falter, but with their support he stayed on his feet as they moved out onto the platform. He watched Nathan and Ezra maneuver Vin into position on the other side of Chris Larabee and Satan and knew the time was at hand.
Satan turned as the six men seemed to be positioning themselves as close to Chris Larabee as possible. Three men stood on either side of the Dark Prince and seemed confident that they could defeat him. Laughter began in his fiery gut and floated up with malevolent glee as he thought of the victory ahead of him.
"I will tear your hearts from your chest and feed them to my legion of demons and spread your rotted flesh across the lands for all to see how futile it is to defy me. BOW DOWN BEFORE SATAN AND FEEL THE POWER OF HELL!"
"Your power is insignificant in the light of God's will!" Sanchez said, releasing his hold on Wilmington and placing his free hand on Chris Larabee's right shoulder. Nathan did the same to Larabee's left and soon the seven men stood shoulder to shoulder as Chris reached for the door.
"OPEN THE DOOR AND FREE THEM, MY DARK PRINCE!" Satan ordered as he stood near the fiery opening.
"Go back to hell where you belong!" Chris ground out as he felt six men giving him their strength.
"NOOOOOOO!" the drawn out scream echoed and re-echoed through the structure and high into the hills, floating out over the badlands and shaking the buildings of the towns nearest the unholy domain.
"Behold the strength of THE WHITE KNIGHT!" Sanchez shouted as the door to hell began to close. Bit by bit the dark evil was kept at bay, and the promise of the feast was slowly broken.
"I will take him to hell with me!" Satan vowed, but the circle of heavenly light began to engulf the seven holy messengers and their voices rose together in solemn prayer.
"Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name," Angelic voices of souls once lost joined those of the seven men.
"He is mine! It was written long ago!" Satan raged as his body began a twisted tormented macabre dance.
"Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven." The voices soft and lilting were filled with the promise of life everlasting.
"I will kill them all!" Columber's form stood before them and the chief justice of hell knew defeat and cursed the powerful force that defied him time and again.
"Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses." The gate was nearly closed, the screams of the evil nearly silenced.
"I will not be denied!" Columber disappeared and the black crow soared high above them until it perched on top of the gate.
"As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil."
"I will not be driven from this world! Hear me and mark my words for I have only just begun to tempt these creatures! I will strike when they least expect it and take their loved ones from them!"
"For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen." Their voices were as one and filled with Devine power as the black crow lifted its wings and flew toward the north. The gate closed with a final display of holy light. The platform rippled and buckled as the Inn refused to give up its power.
"We need to get out of here!" Sanchez shouted as he struggled to keep Buck Wilmington on his feet. A shrill cry of pain rose up as Chris Larabee dropped to his knees and clutched his side.
"Chris!" Jackson said, dropping to his knees in an effort to get Larabee's attention. They needed to get away from the structure, but they also had to care for the injured men. He watched Sanchez supporting Wilmington, Standish and Dunne supporting Tanner, leaving him to get Larabee on his feet and moving down the fiery stairway.
"Nathan! We have to leave now before the building collapses! Can you handle him on your own?" Sanchez asked.
"Chris, we need to go now!" Jackson said as Larabee's head came up slowly and the vein in his forehead throbbed with the effort it took.
"G...go!" the gunslinger forced through tightly clenched teeth.
"Not without you!" the healer vowed.
"Nathan, p...please, I c...can't!" Larabee muttered, hands clutching at the twisting splinter embedded in his side.
"Chris, we leave together or we stay together!" Wilmington promised and knew the others were silently saying the same thing.
"Come on, Chris, I'll help you up and we take one step at a time," Jackson said and pulled the trembling blond to his feet. He nodded to the others and Josiah led them away from the disappearing gate.
The seven men stumbled down the steps that seemed to lead away from the demonic gate. The fire burned around them but destroyed only the outer fringes of the stairs as if something holy was guiding them out of hell. It seemed to go on forever, but they finally reached the bottom step and began the final trek out of the evil structure.
Vin fought to remain conscious as Ezra and JD clung to him, but he knew the wound in his chest was bleeding with each beat of his overworked heart. Blood soaked through his clothing, the coppery scent strong in his nostrils and making his stomach churn, but he knew they could not stop. The journey was not yet over, their work not quite finished for the Inn still breathed with a life of its own. Closing his eyes he tried to keep his tumultuous stomach calm, but the bitter bile rose like a tidal wave in his throat.
Buck was grateful for the strength of the big man who supported him during the hazardous descent away from the crumbling gate. He knew Vin was faltering and silently prayed the Texan had the strength left to make it clear of the Inn's influence. He glanced over his shoulder and spotted Nathan holding tight to Chris Larabee. The gunslinger was bleeding again and he knew both Chris and Vin were dangerously close to death, but God was on their side and faith was something they all clung to.
Chris blinked rapidly as he tried to stay focused, but blood loss and weariness threatened to catapult him into the dark abyss he knew awaited him should he give in. He felt Jackson arm around his waist and was grateful for the support when they stepped off the final stair and turned to see the platform and everything around it crumble to the ground in a billowing cloud of dust, dirt, and ashes as the fire engulfed the structure.
"Where to now?" JD shouted above the screeching wails that seemed to come from the very walls of the Inn.
"JD, do you still have my bible?" Sanchez asked.
"Right here!" Dunne answered and showed them the battered bible.
"It hasn't failed us yet!" the holy man said and watched as Dunne gripped it tightly and began to lead the way once more.
+ + + + + + +
The Inn was dying! Its unholy alliance with the spawn of hell was coming to an end, but it would not go willingly. It could still salvage a small victory by claiming the seven men who were still within its domain. Bulging walls strained and burst as blood and gore spilled from within. There was still a part of it nestled inside the once chosen prince of darkness. That splinter moved with each demonic breath from the Inn itself. It would not let them escape, not now, not after everything that had happened. The youngest one held the key, but there were ways to get around that and it would make sure they paid dearly for their destructive actions.
+ + + + + + +
JD took a deep breath and took the lead. He released his hold on Vin and knew the Josiah could easily manage the Texan. He held the bible before him, speaking words that gave him strength and faith. He heard the others join him as he led them along the fetid corridor.
"We live within the shadow of the Almighty, sheltered by the God who is above all gods."
+ + + + + + +
The words were softly spoken, but the conviction behind them burned through the structure that had been the base of the Inn since it rose from the unholy bowels of hell. The demonic walls shifted and crumbled with the faith of the seven men who had won a battle and seemed on the verge of winning the war. The Inn breathed deep, the walls shifting even as a violent scream was torn from Chris Larabee.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan used every ounce of his strength to keep the gunslinger on his feet as Chris grabbed his side and nearly fell.
"Keep going!" Jackson yelled, knowing if they stopped now all would be lost.
"Can you handle him?" Sanchez shouted.
"I got him!" the healer vowed as the very building shook with demonic rage.
"N...Nathan," Larabee stammered.
"Don't you dare quit now, Chris! We're almost out!" Jackson said and helped steady the blond once more. He knew they were all nearing the point of exhaustion, but there was no way they would give up. Their faith would not allow them to lie down and end their own torment.
JD felt the howling winds increase and clung tightly to the bible. The hallowed words hidden inside its cover gave him a sense of peace and he knew he had to hold on if they were to escape the Inn's clutches. The winds picked up debris and putrid wood and he ducked as one board came within and inch of his head. He knew they were nearing the entrance, or in this case the exit and could almost feel the euphoria that came with escape.
Chris looked ahead and tried once more to concentrate on what lay ahead of them. They needed to escape the decaying structure that still held them in its grip or they too would be sucked into the burning fires of hell. His arm was held tight to his side as he felt the living fragment inside him shifting with a life of its own, but he knew that was not the case. He carried within him a piece of this hellish haven, and he knew he would not be allowed to pass through the entrance until the sliver was removed.
"N...Nathan," Chris whispered the word and felt the healer stop in his tracks.
"What's wrong, Chris?" Jackson asked, knowing something had changed in the gunslinger's demeanor.
"W...won't let me go!" Larabee warned as the others also stopped and turned toward them. "It will kill me if I walk through there."
"He's right, J...Josiah," Tanner said, leaning heavily on Standish.
"You need to remove it, Brother," Sanchez said and knew the healer was filled with fear at the thought of digging for the living object buried within the gunslinger's body.
"I...I might k...kill you!" Jackson said and looked into the pain filled green eyes.
"If you don't get it out I'm d...dead anyway," Larabee said and placed his hand over the former slave's. "I...we have f...faith in you, Nathan."
"Where?" Jackson asked looking around the area for something that could give them a fighting chance. With Vin and Buck also injured he wanted to get them out of the filthy structure, but again it was there number that kept them safe and he knew none of the others would leave until Chris was free of his ties to hell.
"Next to the door!" JD suggested and pointed to an area that was bathed in white light. Things were happening quickly now and none of them questioned whether it was the right thing to do. Somehow they understood that by releasing the splinter of wood they would also be escaping the evil influence that enshrouded the Inn itself.
Although weak and in pain, Vin moved toward the spot and sank down on the floor. Buck followed suit until five men sat in and informal circle around Chris and Nathan.
"Chris, I don't have anything to give you for pain!" the healer said, reaching for the knife in the scabbard at his waist. He'd left his supplies on his horse and knew there was no time to retrieve it.
"Just do it!" Larabee ground out as Josiah said a prayer and reached to hold the gunslinger down. Chris felt someone move in behind him and leaned heavily against the strong chest. He knew Wilmington was offering his strength and gladly accepted it as the ladies' man gripped his shoulder. Chris closed his eyes for several seconds, listening as Jackson gave orders to the others, but his eyes snapped open as he felt someone watching him. The Texan was seated across from him, the blue eyes filled with a certainty and strength that left the gunslinger awed. Vin Tanner was silently telling him that he was not alone, not now, not ever. He nodded almost imperceptively and rested back against Wilmington as Jackson nodded to JD and Ezra and they grabbed onto his legs.
"I'm sorry, Chris," Jackson peeled away the blood stained bandage and winced at the raw red rimmed wound. This was the hardest part of being a healer, but it had to be done. With one last glance at the pale face he took a deep breath and pressed against the translucent like flesh.
Chris cried out when Jackson's hand put pressure on his side and he felt the splinter move once more. He took shallow breaths as the tip of the blade touched against his damaged side and tried to be still, but the pain was immediate and intense as Jackson's sure hand pressed the blade into the ravaged wound.
"Nathan, hurry," Buck whispered, but there was no doubt of the intensity of the situation as the walls seemed to come alive with thick oozing pestilence. The sickly stench seemed to surround them as the screaming banshee like wails rang in their ears.
"I can feel it!" Jackson said and wished he had something to grip the offending splinter. His hands were slippery with blood and he knew Chris could not afford to lose much more. In a last ditch effort that cut through his heart in much the same way the knife cut through Larabee's flesh, Nathan grabbed the end of the splinter. Chris writhed beneath his touch as a fiery shock raced up his own arm and threatened to send him into a dark abyss, but he could not let go.
"GODDDD!" Chris screamed his body came up off the floor as Nathan tried to pull the sliver from his body. He thought he heard someone scream and briefly wondered if he was dead when the pain grew so intense he wasn't sure if he survived.
"I got it!" Jackson yelled and threw the splinter across the room, watching wide-eyed as it seemed to be absorbed by the sickening squelch of the Inn's structure.
"Nathan, I got Chris! You take Buck!" Sanchez ordered when the healer tried to pull Larabee to his feet. The Inn was collapsing in on itself and they needed to get free before it sucked them all down with it. With no time for niceties the holy man grabbed the gunslinger and managed to get him over his shoulders and nodded to the Bostonian to lead them outside.
+ + + + + + +
Wood began to bow as if bent by invisible hands, bricks dropped from the outer walls as columns disintegrated and the porch collapsed. Perfect window pains blew out, shattered by an unseen force as tapestries and chandeliers dropped from the walls and ceilings. Paintings faded as the once vibrant colors seeped from the canvas and rolled down the ruined frames to drip into the refuse left by centuries of death and decay. Dust and debris once more littered the marble and tile floors as blood discolored the once beautiful mosaics. The spiral staircase began to disintegrate as wood buckled and splintered sending the upper floor crashing down in a cloud of bricks and mortar. Death beckoned to the Inn, but it was not true death for sometime in another hundred years the gates would open once more.
+ + + + + + +
The seven men dashed through the door as the cataclysmic events unfolded inside the once stately Inn. The beautiful columns and balustrades collapsed into ruin as the Holy warriors retreated from the hellish nightmare.
"We have to stop it!" Sanchez said, searching his pockets for anything he could use.
"It's collapsing, Josiah! It's finished!" Ezra shouted above the screaming cries of unholy agony.
"It has to be des...destroyed!" Larabee screamed above the tormenting cries from the demons trapped within the walls.
"How?" Wilmington asked.
"Burn the fuckin' place d...down!" Tanner spat.
"I can't find..." the ex-preacher stopped when Larabee's voice cut through the echoing torment.
"In my saddlebag!" the gunslinger told him.
"Hurry, Josiah, we need to burn it before it disappears!" Dunne warned, watching the destruction of the Inn with a mixture of hope and fear.
Josiah raced for the barn and entered through the main door. He spotted Larabee's saddlebag hanging on a wall that separated two stalls. The horses were skittish and he spoke softly as he opened the bag and sought the matches he needed.
"Easy, Boys, it's almost over now and we'll be going home!" Sanchez found the matches and a shirt before he hurried back outside. The Inn was nearly level with the ground now, but there was still enough above ground to burn. Josiah raced toward his friends and stood with them. He lit a match and touched it to Larabee's shirt before flinging it into a pile of broken wood and canvas painting. The effect was immediate and violent as the writhing twisting remnants of the Inn caught fire as if a holy hand was fanning the flames.
"Josiah, we need to get Chris, Buck, and Vin away from the fire!" Jackson shouted as the keening wails of demonic creatures assaulted their ears. The four men still standing grabbed their friends and moved them away from the flames.
+ + + + + + +
There was no doubt that whatever had inhabited the unholy dwelling was dying and each wet sucking flick of fire burned hotter until the flames engulfed everything. Wood, tapestries, canvas, even bricks seemed to glow as the flames sought more fuel. The dark spiralling smoke wafted straight into the air as a funnel like cloud that dissipated before it reached the clouds.
Seven men watched as the final battle was waged and God's Holy Hand defeated the tempest hell had created. The sun shone through the darkness with a promise of reward and rebirth, but for the Inn it signalled the loss of a war it had raged for eons.
The mournful cries did nothing to garner the seven men's sympathies. Death had come to the Inn, a final burning fire that would never go out and would signal the end of the hellish gates that once beckoned the legion to enter the world above. Now the shrieking grew dim, but the fires continued until something sizzled and sparked, but there was no real life left within. The demonic inhabitant of the once stately Inn ceased to exist and the unholy torment of a million tortured souls cried out in relief.
"It's done," Chris whispered as his strength finally gave out and he sagged against the holy man. Josiah settled the injured man to the ground and moved to help with Buck and Vin and soon had the three men lying side by side.
"Nathan, tell us what you want us to do," Josiah said when Jackson's shoulders sagged.
"I don't have the supplies I need, Josiah!" the healer said.
"Tell us what you need and with God's help we shall move heaven and earth to find it," the holy man vowed.
"We need a miracle...three of 'em," Jackson said.
"The Lord has not failed us thus far, Mr. Jackson, and I would wager everything I posses that he is not going to do so now," Standish said and placed a hand on the former slave's shoulder.
"I'd like to get them away from here, but without a good wagon there's no way to do that," Jackson said before glancing toward the barn. What he had wasn't much, but he would use his skills and limited supplies to keep these men alive.
"Farmington is probably the closest town," Standish said.
"It's probably the same distance as Four Corners," Jackson corrected as he knelt beside Vin Tanner. The wound had bled profusely and he knew there was a very real danger of shock and blood loss. The two combined could prove deadly.
"Yes, but in Farmington there is a man who could help you," Standish explained. "He's a doctor."
"A real doctor?" Jackson asked.
"Yes, but that is not to say you need him, but he does have the supplies you need and we could get a wagon there," the gambler explained.
"Ezra, right now I can use all the help I can get. How long do you think it would take you to get there and bring back help?" the healer asked hopefully.
"I'm not sure. You see we were engulfed by that monstrous tempest and I have no idea how long we were inside it, but I believe no more than a day, maybe two days of hard riding."
"You can't go alone, Ezra, besides we'll need someone to drive a wagon back here and Vin's been showing me how to track rough trails. I'll ride with you," Dunne offered.
"I would be honored to have you at my side," Standish said.
"Josiah, gather up anything I can use for bandages and see what you can find in their saddlebags. I need to get them taken care of. Ezra, JD, don't ride your horses into the ground, but for God's sake get back here as fast as you can!" Jackson ordered, feeling the exhaustion creep through his bones. 'God help me!'
+ + + + + + +
It took less than fifteen minutes to ready the horses for the ride ahead of them. They were well rested as JD and Ezra mounted up. The two men looked at their injured friends, but didn't voice the fears that they were seeing two of them for the last time. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were in bad shape and they'd seen the lines etched on the healer's face, a true sign of just how worried the healer truly was. Buck Wilmington nodded to the two men and watched them ride away from the desolation that was once a stately structure.
Josiah knew the former slave was as exhausted as he was, but the man would not rest until he'd seen to the injured men. He searched the saddlebags and found removed anything that could be used to treat the three downed men and carried them back to the camp they'd made in what remained of the barn. He knew one of the things Jackson would need was a supply of fresh water and anything they could use as food. Once he helped Jackson settle his patients, Josiah was going to search the surrounding hills for anything they could use.
Buck sat between the unconscious Texan and the semi conscious gunslinger and watched Jackson as he considered what he could do. There was very little water in the area, but Josiah had told him he'd be searching for an old water hole he'd heard about near an abandoned fort in the hills to the east. He looked up as Sanchez returned and placed several items on a broken crate they were using as a table. He nodded to the healer who seemed to be distancing himself, yet Buck knew that was far from true.
"Nathan," Sanchez called and the healer turned away from the smoldering Inn. "This is all we have until JD and Ezra get back."
"Not much," Jackson noted and sorted the items.
"Nathan, Vin's still bleeding," Wilmington shuddered when he looked at the makeshift bandage on Tanner's chest.
"I know," Jackson said and knelt beside the tracker. "Josiah, bring me some of the bullets."
"You gonna cauterize it?" the ladies' man asked.
"Gonna have to," Jackson said and looked at the gunslinger as fever baked green eyes opened at the damning words.
"H...how bad?" Larabee asked, his eyes filled with pain that had little to do with his own wounds.
"He's lost a lot of blood and has a fever, but he's fighting, Chris," Jackson said when Sanchez returned with the bullets and placed them on the table. "Josiah, I'm going to need you to hold him down. Weak as he is it ain't gonna matter when the time comes."
"Have you got anything you can give him?" Wilmington asked.
"Wish I did," the healer said, taking a deep breath at the inadequate supplies he had with him.
"Vin," Larabee whispered, but there was no denying the force behind that one word. He tried to sit forward, clutching his side as pain lanced through his gut.
"Easy, Chris, just lie still," Jackson ordered and easily held the injured man down. He looked into the sea green eyes and saw the horror behind them. Chris Larabee's soul had been saved, but at a cost that shone in the fiery depths.
"I got him, Nate," Wilmington said and watched the healer work.
Larabee felt the other man's strength and wished there was something he could do to help. Because of him, Vin Tanner was about to be put through hell and there was absolutely nothing he could do to help. He twisted his body until he could see the Texan. There was very little color in the Texan's face, but tiny beads of sweat had formed on his forehead and ran in tiny rivulets down his cheeks. Unable to face what he'd done, Larabee laid back against the pillow formed by his own saddle and blanket and closed his eyes.
Chris could hear the others working around him and knew Jackson was doing what he could for the sharpshooter. He listened to the Texan's wheezing breath next to him and focused on the fact that he was alive, they all were, in spite of Satan's attempts to open the floodgates and allow hell to encompass the world they lived in. He felt his mind drifting and latched onto the sound of Tanner's breath, but choked on the bitter bile that rose in his throat as a scream tore through his mind and cut deep into his heart. He knew the instant Nathan Jackson cauterized the wounds, because it burned a trail straight through his chest just before he blacked out.
"God, help me," Jackson whispered when he finished cauterizing Tanner's wound. He'd seen the gunslinger react as if he'd been shot and knew the Texan's scream had cut him more deeply than any knife ever could.
"It had to be done, Nathan," Sanchez said when the healer looked up at him.
"Never gets any easier, Josiah," the healer said.
"It never will," Sanchez said and helped Jackson clean and bandage the area around the wound. Between them they checked on Larabee and Wilmington before standing and moving away. "Nathan, I'm doing to see if I can find that water hole."
"You sure it's out there, Josiah?" Jackson asked.
"No, but if it's there I'll find it," Sanchez vowed. "Keep the faith, Brother, God has seen us through the worst of this and I don't think he'll forsake us now."
"I hope you're right, Josiah, because I'm about out of ideas with these two and I haven't even looked at Buck's leg yet," Jackson said, ignoring the weariness seeping into his bones.
"Why don't we see to Buck before I leave?" Sanchez suggested.
"You only have a few hours of daylight left, Josiah. I can handle Buck," the former stretcher-bearer said and squared his shoulders. No matter how hard things got, Nathan knew he could count on the others to help him. This was something he could do for them and when the others returned they'd find their group still numbered seven.
"All right, Nathan," Sanchez said and watched the healer kneel beside Buck Wilmington. The rogue had finally succumbed to his own body's need for rest and yet he sat between Larabee and Tanner as if he were a silent sentry intent on guarding a vast untold treasure. Whispering a prayer for guidance he saddled his horse and rode toward the hills, his hand resting on the bible JD had handed him before he rode away from the Inn.
+ + + + + + +
The people of Four Corners sensed a change in the world around them as the intense storm dissipated, leaving only a steady drizzle that seemed to cleanse the land with a holy light. The doors to Josiah's small church opened and Yosemite stepped outside. He breathed deeply of the air and sensed the malevolent evil that had driven the wall of sand and debris before it was no longer the driving force behind this sprinkling of holy water.
"I think it's safe," Yosemite said and smiled as Mary Travis and Gloria Potter stepped outside. The town was a mess, hitching posts torn out of the ground and thrown through windows. Boards were torn from roofs of the Clarion and the batwing doors were missing from the front of the saloon. The tree that marked the edge of town had fallen and obliterated the stairs that led up to Jackson's clinic. Several outer buildings were going to need repairs, but the people of the town ignored their material belongings and moved to the center of the street.
As if guided by a Devine Hand the gatherers began to sing, their voices rising as if celestial angels taking flight as one.
"I to the hills will lift my eyes;
O whence shall come my aid?
My help is from the Lord alone,
Who Heav'n and earth has made.
He will not let thy foot be moved,
Thy Guardian never sleeps;
With watchful and unslumbering care,
His own He safely keeps.
Thy faithful Keeper is the Lord,
Thy Shelter and thy Shade;
'Neath sun or moon, by day or night,
Thou shalt not be afraid.
From evil He will keep thee safe,
For thee He will provide;
Thy going out, thy coming in,
Forever He will guide."
The words felt like a soothing balm to those who sang them and it felt as if they were viewing the day in a new light. The tempest that had raged a war against them seemed to have been dispersed and it was time to rebuild what the unholy storm had sought to destroy.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah knew the journey he was undertaking would be laughed at by anyone who'd ever ridden through the Bisti Badlands. The ground was grey and red and wrought with signs of a landscape ravaged by winds and the passing of time. The talk about a water hole was probably just that, but at least it gave them some hope. The canteen fastened to his saddle was barely over half full. He'd left Nathan with the full one and knew Ezra and JD had one with them. Water was worth more than gold in this territory and guarded for the life giving fluid it was. He pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted. The sun beat down with a fierceness that made the very air hot to breathe and Sanchez removed his hat. He hit it against his leg and reached for the canteen. He poured a small amount into his hat and held it in front of his horse who drank greedily.
"Sorry, Boy, we're both on rations," Sanchez said and took a small drink for himself before walking along on foot.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan watched over the three men as the sun began to dip below the horizon. He started a fire and placed the old pot on top of it. He poured half the canteen of water into it and reached for the herbs he kept in his saddlebag. There wasn't much, but what he had would help keep the Buck comfortable. Chris and Vin were both unconscious and neither man stirred when he checked them. He poured a small amount of water into a tin cup and moved to the Texan. Vin's body was bathed in a fine sheen of sweat that spoke of a fever burning within him. He needed water badly, and Nathan prayed he could get him to swallow some of it.
Nathan eased the tracker forward until he could slide in behind him. He supported the younger man until he could hold the cup against his lips and slowly trickled the water inside. He spoke in low tones, carefully avoiding the bandages on Tanner's chest as he continued to trickle the water into the partially open mouth. He was so intent on what he was doing he hadn't realized he had an audience until a raspy voice spoke from his left.
"Are you getting' any in him?" Wilmington asked. He'd been watching the healer since the man had moved Tanner into a semi sitting position. It amazed him that Nathan Jackson could be so tender in his ministrations and yet when the time called for it he could raise the rafters with his voice.
"He's takin' in some, but it ain't enough," Jackson explained and again tipped the cup.
"At least it's something, Nate," Wilmington said and turned his gaze toward the second unconscious man.
"No change, Buck," Jackson answered the unspoken question.
"Damn." The rogue moved until he shifted his leg and winced when he put a little too much pressure on it.
"Let that be a lesson to ya," Jackson gently scolded and eased the Texan back down before moving to check Wilmington's leg.
"Nate, you look beat."
"And then some," Jackson answered tiredly.
"Why don't you get some rest?"
"I need to keep an eye on them two," the healer answered, breathing a sigh of relief that there was no fresh blood on the bandages placed over Wilmington's leg.
"They ain't goin' anywhere. I can watch them."
"Buck, what if..."
"What if nothin', Nate. Look, I'll just sit here, put wood on the fire and wake you if either one of 'em needs you."
"All right, Buck," Jackson said. He moved to the fire and quickly poured some of the warm liquid into the cup and handed it to the ladies' man. "Drink that."
"What is it?"
"Just a few herbs and hot water. It ain't much, but it's about all we got until the others get back," Jackson said. The sun was down now and the desolation was complete. A slight breeze had picked up and the sand shifted around them, but there was none of the evil they'd felt earlier.
"Think Josiah'll find anything?"
"I don't know, Buck, but after everything we've seen today I wouldn't be surprised by anything he brought back." Jackson looked at the blackened remains of the Inn and shuddered at the thought that they could have all died within its evil walls, but they'd survived and faith had seen them through it.
Buck watched as Jackson settled on the opposite side of Vin Tanner. He knew the healer was exhausted and soon heard the telltale signs that the man was asleep. Taking a deep breath he shivered as the wind picked up slightly, and prayed that the others would make it back in time.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra and JD made camp just before dark and settled down under a starry sky. There was nothing they could use for firewood, but they had no fear of animals in this part of the badlands. So far they'd seen nothing move except the shifting sands.
"Ezra, how can you be sure this is the way to Farmington?"
"I can't, JD, but if I've learned anything since stepping foot in this dreadful wilderness it's that God has not forsaken us or we would be inhabiting the well of souls as we speak."
"I didn't think we'd make it," Dunne said softly.
"I believe that was something we all were in doubt of. I believe we encountered Satan and with God's help we drove him back to hell."
"I hope so, Ezra, because I'd hate to have to go through that again."
"You'd do fine, JD, and I would follow your lead without question," Standish assured him.
"Thanks, Ez," Dunne said. His mind wandered over the strange events of the last few days and he knew they'd been given a gift. They were shown what could have happened if Satan and his legion were allowed to roam the world.
"Get some sleep, JD, we ride at dawn," Standish announced and closed his eyes. Sleep was a long time coming, but the two men woke at first light and headed toward the town of Farmington and the promise of help there.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah spent the night searching the terrain for anything that could help them, but nothing moved in the barren wilderness. The further north he rode the harsher things became and he finally admitted defeat and turned his horse around just as the sun began to peek from behind the hills. The landscape was filled with strange formations, carved out by natures hand and leaving a vast treasure of untold resources, yet the one thing they needed was no where to be found. It was close to ten the next morning when he spotted the old barn that stood near the destroyed Inn.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan had slept for several hours and yet he still felt the weariness of fatigue weighing heavy on his shoulders. Buck was showing signs of a fever and he'd been forced to drain the deeper wounds on his left leg. The three men needed more than he had to offer and again he turned toward the north, sighing when nothing moved. He stood up and stretched the kinks from his back and looked at the meagre supplies on the makeshift table. There wasn't much there he could use to help them, but he would do everything in his power to make sure they had the best care he could provide. A distant sound caught his attention and he turned in the direction it came from.
Jackson placed a hand over his eyes and shaded them against the bright sunlight. He scanned the landscape until he picked out the dark shape of a horse and rider. He knew instinctively it was Josiah Sanchez and was glad he'd have some company. It took another fifteen minutes before Sanchez reached their camp and Nathan reached up to take the reigns from the weary hands.
"Anything?" Jackson asked hopefully.
"Nothing but sand, sand, and more sand," Sanchez rasped dryly.
"At least ya tried," the healer said and handed the older man one of the canteens, relieved when the man drank his fill.
"Thanks," Sanchez said, handing the canteen back. "How are they?"
"Buck's been awake off and on. Even gave me a chance to catch some sleep. His leg's showing signs of infection, but until Ezra and JD get back there's not a whole lot I can do except keep draining it. Been able to get a little water into Vin, but it ain't enough and Chris, he just ain't moved since we cauterized Vin's chest wound."
"You're doing everything that's possible for them, Nathan," Sanchez said and reached out to place a hand on Jackson's shoulder.
"Am I Josiah?" Jackson asked tiredly.
"Nathan, a man can only do so much with what he's given and you've gone beyond the impossible. Chris and Vin and even Buck are alive right now because of you. They're strong so don't go giving up on them because they aren't giving up on you," Sanchez said.
"Thanks, Josiah, maybe you could ask God to send some rain or a bird or two."
"I've been asking, Brother, but I'm thinking he's answered a lot of our prayers of late and maybe it's time we made our own miracles."
"You look tired, Josiah, why don't you get some rest?"
"That sounds like a plan, Nathan," Sanchez said. He whispered a silent prayer and laid down next to his fellow peacekeepers before closing his eyes and slipping into an exhausted sleep.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra knew they were probably riding the horses too hard, but the closer they got to Farmington, the harder he drove them. The lives of three men were depending on him and his companion and he was not going to fail. He'd run out on too many people in his life, but this was one time he would see things through. He hadn't slept much during the night and was feeling the hours spent in the saddle, whereas Dunne had slept deeply and seemed to be on his second wind. Exra thought he'd seen a spark of light in the distant darkness, but did not bring it to JD's attention until he was sure it was not his imagination.
"JD, I believe our destination lies slightly to the north of our position," Standish explained and pointed out the light he now knew was a street fire.
"It could be a campfire," Dunne said.
"Doesn't really matter as long as there is someone there to help us, but I believe we are looking at a street fire."
"I hope you're right," the easterner rasped through his exhaustion
+ + + + + + +
Hank Thompson had no idea why he'd lain awake for so long, but as tired as he was he couldn't fight the feeling that something big had happened. He sat at his desk, searching through the old wanted posters and tearing up the ones he knew were no good when he heard the sound of approaching horses. Frowning, Thompson took out his pocket watch and cursed the late night visitors because they usually meant trouble. Pushing away from his desk, the tired man made his way to the door and pulled it open as two riders came to a halt in front of his door.
"Kinda late ta be travelin'," Thompson said softly, but there was no denying the authority in his voice.
"My good lawman, we are in dire need of your assistance," the gambler announced as he dismounted.
"Standish?" Thompson asked. "What the hell are you doing back here?"
"We need your help," Dunne stated in an irritated voice, "Didn't you hear him?"
"Who are you?" the sheriff inquired of the brash young man.
"This is young Mister Dunne, he's the sheriff in Four Corners. JD, this is Sheriff Hank Thompson," the gambler explained when the other man moved out of the way and motioned them inside.
"Are you boys gonna tell me why you're here? Where are Larabee, Wilmington, and Tanner?"
"That's why we're here, Sheriff. Chris and Vin were hurt and we need a doctor," Dunne said.
"Hurt? How? What happened?" Thompson asked.
"It's a long story and one you would find hard to believe, but I'm afraid we really are in need of your town's physician."
"He's probably sleeping, but we can go over there first thing in the morning..."
"Sheriff, I'm afraid you don't understand. They need help now. Nathan is doing everything he can, but he doesn't have the implements he needs and they were running low on water," Standish explained.
"We wouldn't be able to leave until first light," Thompson explained.
"I know, but at least we could procure the necessary items," Standish said and felt a hand on his arm as his legs threatened to give out.
"Jesus, what's wrong with him?" Thompson said and helped Dunne ease him onto the cot he kept there for emergencies.
"He's exhausted," Dunne said. "Don't think he's slept much since they left here."
"Let him sleep..."
"No, we need..."
"Ezra, I'll make sure we get everything we need, but you're not gonna be any help if you don't get some rest. The sheriff is going to help us, right Sheriff?"
"I'll do what I can," Thompson vowed.
"Sleep, Ezra," Dunne ordered.
"Perhaps I will rest for a minute," Standish said, but his eyes closed and the two men knew he was sleeping.
"All right, Sheriff Dunne, why don't you tell me what's going on?"
"I can't tell you much, Sheriff," Dunne said seriously.
"Cause I don't think you'd believe me. Look, all I can say is we were in a fight..."
"Not exactly, but Chris and Vin and Buck are hurt and they need help fast."
"This got anything to do with them weird storms we been havin'?"
"Weird storms?" Dunne asked.
"Yeah, came out of nowhere not long after those four left. Lots of wind and sand and some thought it was a war of dark and light."
"You could say that, Sheriff, but it still wouldn't explain everything I saw in the last few days. I...me, Josiah, and Nathan didn't get there until later, but Vin, Chris, Ezra and Buck...they saw it all. They can explain it better than me."
"All right, Son, why don't we go see Doc O'Malley and see if he's in the mood to travel through hell's half acre."
"Just a little name we call the area you're talkin' about. That place gives me the creeps by day so travellin' by night is liable to give me a bad case of the...well, you get my drift."
"Yeah, I do," Dunne said, looking at the sleeping man once more before following his fellow lawman out the door.
+ + + + + + +
Jack O'Malley cursed his late night visitor, but quickly pulled on his boots and made his way to the front door. He pulled it open and glared at the two men standing there. "Whatever it is I hope you know you..."
"Sorry, Jack," Thompson interrupted. "I know it's late, but we've got trouble."
"Trouble?" O'Malley asked, fully awake and gazing out at the darkened street. "What's going on?"
"You remember them fellas that left here a few days ago?"
"Hard to forget a bunch like that," the physician said.
"This is Sheriff Dunne from Four Corners. Seems those men are friends of his and they've been injured."
"What do you mean? Injured how?" the physician asked.
"Chris and Vin were stabbed and Buck was attacked..." Dunne said, wishing he could explain how his friends had been injured.
"Attacked by who?" O'Malley asked.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," the Bostonian answered. "All I can tell you is Buck's leg is torn up bad and Nathan needs your help."
"Nathan?" the physician asked.
"Nathan Jackson. He's a healer..."
"I've heard of him...good man," O'Malley stated. "All right, Son, where are they?"
"More'n a day's ride south east of here. Through the worst of the badlands," Dunne explained. "We're gonna need everything ya can get your hands on. Nathan was nearly out of everything when me and Ezra left."
"All right. I'll pack a couple of bags. Hank, see if you can arrange for a wagon to follow us and make damn sure there are a couple of barrels of water. We'll need blankets, lanterns, food and supplies. Gets cold out there at night!" O'Malley stated.
"All right, Sheriff Dunne, looks like we got some work to do if we're gonna leave at first light," Thompson said. "Jesus, Jack, got anything for that old curmudgeon so he don't shoot me on the spot!"
"Just show him that sunshiny smile of yours, Hank, better yet send the kid in there and maybe ol' Carl will think he's dreamin'," O'Malley said with a grin.
"Hey, kid, are ya afraid of getting' shot?" Thompson asked, laughing as he clapped the younger man on the back and leading the way toward the livery.
+ + + + + + +
Buck sat between the two unconscious men and wished they'd show some sign that they were alive. The shallow rise and fall of their chests was not quite enough for him, but it was all he had. He heard Josiah and Nathan as they tore wood from the outer walls of the barn and added them to the small fire. He turned toward the pile of ash that had once been a stately manor and shivered as a chill wind blew across his body. High overhead, just beyond the circle of light cast by the flames, something circled, something dark and sinister and Buck was thankful he was not alone.
"Buck, are you all right?" Sanchez asked, upon seeing the look of fear wash over the pale features.
"Something's still out there, Josiah," Wilmington answered softly, as if to speak aloud would bring damnation down on them once more.
"Yeah, I feel it too," Jackson said and added several pieces of wood to the fire.
"It's the evil that surrounds this place," Sanchez said, looking around them as if something dark was slinking just at the edge of his vision. "The Inn may be destroyed, but it was only a vessel for Satan's work. He's still out there and so are his demons, but for now the war is over. He can't touch us, not now."
"That may be, but I just hope the victory isn't a shallow one," Wilmington said.
"What do you mean, Buck?" Jackson asked.
"It's not much of a victory if we lose the two main warriors," the ladies' man answered and rubbed his leg. The pain was still there and it felt hot to the touch and he looked at Jackson as the healer slowly removed the bandages.
"Buck, there's not much I can do until JD and Ezra get back," the former slave said.
"I know, Nathan, it's okay," the rogue whispered softly and nodded that he was ready.
Sanchez moved in to offer support and held the injured man down as Jackson released the putrid gore from the wounds. His arms encircled the struggling man until he felt Wilmington's body go limp and quickly reached for his throat, silently thanking God when he felt the soft pulse beneath his fingertips.
"Ease him back down there, Josiah," Jackson ordered before rewrapping the wound in the last of the bandages. His heart skipped a beat as he looked at the stricken trio and he felt Sanchez watching him. "I've done all I can, Josiah, but I'm afraid it's not enough."
"Have faith, Brother, God has yet to forsaken his 'warriors'," the holy man vowed. He stood and walked the perimeter, protecting those who could not protect themselves and unaware that he'd become a silent sentry protecting God's chosen champions.