Disclaimer: No profit, I'm not a gambler. This is purely creative fun. All OCs and the story belong to myself; all else created by the series is simply borrowed.
Part 1 | Part 2
'Interesting' didn't even come close.
Not fifteen minutes from chasing Quinn's men into the forest they were forced to concede the first devastating defeat. William and the others were being pushed back from the upper ground and had to outrun the pursuers that spilled over the ridgeline to cut them down, ducking from every shot that whistled and snapped through the air. Tears streaked across the aging man's face as he gripped his youngest son's shoulder tightly in comfort and urgency. "Keep going! For Christ's sake don't stop!"
Andrew tumbled down and clambered to his feet, his boots catching on anything in his path as he ran in sheer terror from the high ground. Quinn's men had set up a substantial barricade far above the height of the remaining forest, their views damn near unspoiled, to watch the fleeing men below like rabbits from the hawk. William's men had run blind and enraged into a trap so tight they lost six already. And young Paul. With a small show of force they had teased the Cauldwell ranch hands to the lower ledges but it by no means tipped the fight in their favor.
William rubbed a hand roughly over his eyes as he ran, pushing Andrew ahead of him to better cover with wavering resolve. "Andrew, get down! Follow the hill line and keep your head down!" He bellowed, balancing himself with his rifle as they stumbled down the incline. He had to move the others onwards; it was no use stopping to fight. It embittered him to have to flee from Quinn yet again but making the stand just wasn't worth dying for. Not yet.
"Clive! Clive?!" He called. He hadn't seen his friend since the fighting broke out; he dearly hoped his friend had made the run after a vicious volley ploughed through their line with unremitting strength. It was hell, but by God, they at least had survived the onslaught.
"William!" A voice echoed, the sound bouncing through the trees over the BOOMS of rifles and shotguns. "Will!"
William dragged Andrew to a halt and pulled him behind a tree. He pressed himself against the rough bark and peered across to the other silhouettes making the desperate retreat. "Clive!?"
"Clive! Over here!"
Clive looked across at the voice and threw up a hand, ducking below the line of undergrowth before shoving his way clear to the rancher. "Will! Thank heavens!" He gripped his old friend's hand tightly and used it to drag himself to better cover.
"The others- what others are there?" He pulled Andrew close to him without thinking, trying to protect his son as though a mere child.
"Paul-" He whispered breathlessly, shaking his head and cursing.
"I know." William wiped his nose again and hefted his gun, pushing his grief to the back of his mind with a heated growl. "Any one else? I saw Fred and Dean-"
Clive shook his head and rubbed his aching thigh. "Dean got a hit- he's bleedin' bad but he's runnin', by God." He turned his Colt round and let off a shot at the ridge.
"Where's Lyle?" The worried father shouted over the noise that had his ears ringing loudly.
"Safe! He got Max out some time ago- but it ain't lookin' good." Soon they'd be down seven men. Hell's bells they only had 18 to begin with!
Latent bit his lip and looked about. "Oh God, where's Patrick?" He pulled back as a bullet nicked the tree beside him. "Clive?"
Clive shook his head with realization. "No-"
Andrew looked up suddenly. "Ezra!" He spun from his father's grip to look for the missing lawman. "Pa?"
William looked up at Clive and frowned. Hell, they hadn't seen either of them since the fight. He'd seen Ezra give as good as he got, all the while watching over the hotheaded Patrick and drawing them both from the veritable maelstrom that had killed his brother. Paul had taken a full cartridge blast to the chest the moment he was sighted, crashing through the line in a horrifying spectacle that every brother had borne witness to. Christ knew how they were taking it.
"I ain't seen 'em, Will." He whispered as he reloaded.
William shook his head and gnawed at his lip. The gunfire was abating but not by much. Now was as good a time as ever. He grabbed his distraught son's arm and pointed to the lower lands and thicker cover. "We'll find him- Andrew? We'll find him, I promise. We've got to go- now!"
"Go to your brother! He'll need us, just run, I'm right behind you. Clive?"
"I'll cover you, go!"
Andrew ran ahead of his father, struggling to find his feet for the panic that threatened to overwhelm him. He hadn't seen so much blood before, at least not in the quantity that had sprayed from his dying brother's chest. It had horrified and sickened him, turning him ghost white as his father struggled to drag him to safety. It was all too much for him and above the fear came the consuming grief. He'd wailed and bawled like a five year old as his brother died at his feet, screaming in utter disbelief as he was pulled away from his best friend, and now he was forced to suck it up and run for his life.
Since the attack, damn near everyone had been split up and forced into hiding. Strong, proud and stubborn men were forced to cower against a ruthless enemy and it had weakened them. They were running blind, emotions were soaring as they watched their friends fall to a bullet or a spear of timber from a bullet-peppered tree, and the sprint to safety only served to heighten the worry for those unaccounted for.
Being separated from the others so quickly had sent pure, heart-clenching fear through the younger Latent and it hadn't done anything to bolster the other men's morale. They would soon be running on empty of any will and hope, which William was all too aware of. They weren't fighting men, but ranchers, drovers and farmers together. Not soldiers.
As they ran over the rough ground, he could feel his son's trembling sobs through the hide coat that failed to stop the shivers wracking the smaller frame. It hurt William to urge him on, to push Andrew to his feet when even he would have dropped to his knees and wailed to God for mercy, but he couldn't lose another son- he couldn't! He just hoped and prayed that Ezra would help his son when he could not; that is, if the lawman was still alive...
+ + + + + + +
Further along through the trees, some 200 yards away, a group of men on the ridge were firing off aimlessly through the trees at whatever shadow moved or twig shifted in the slight breeze. They knew 'Edward Engle' was down there and they weren't going to give the slippery, murdering son of a bitch an inch to escape with his life. They were out for his blood. Quinn's stirring demands and heated words only served to fuel their anger at losing two good men; their own friends some would have said. They were doing the best they could to cut the bastard down, trying to cover every inch of forest floor with bullet and shell before he could escape the forest.
And Ezra P. Standish was giving his enemies hell for it. He had been hunted down, butchered, and stripped of his pride, kept from his home by men who didn't know how to give up and he wanted out. He was prepared now more than ever to fight hand, tooth and nail to fight them off; embittered by the utter savagery the Cauldwells had shown him. He remembered his weakness in the face of Fin's onslaught with stinging shame. It had tarnished his honor, his name and his pride, the guilt was slowly feeding on his conscience and he wanted nothing more than to make up for his mistakes.
He spun round from his hideout and leveled his gun on a ranch hand when he finally had the chance, plugging the man through the chest with a swift aim before swiveling back behind cover to reload. "Set things right." He breathed, pulling another shell from his pocket. He slammed the lever home and stood straight, waiting for the next brave fool to come within sight. Further along through trees, Patrick Latent waited with his firearm held out, trying to gauge the enemy's next move as Ezra raised his weapon at another gunman.
Just as his finger wrapped around the trigger, Standish gasped at the sight of a stray ranch hand lining up a shot at the young man too close for comfort. Shit, they're closing in! The peacekeeper squeezed the trigger hurriedly and leapt from cover without a second thought, spinning his rifle round to catch the man off guard. The gunman didn't see it coming and staggered back at the glancing blow, holding a hand to his jaw as the butt of the gun was forced into his gut. Standish swung his gun round before the man could recover and deftly clubbed the back of his head.
As soon as he'd made the attack, pounding vibrations rippled along the rifle. Ezra reeled back with a howl, drawing his wounded hand against his belly as the pain set in. "Oh, dear Lord!" He hissed to himself, staggering away from their fallen assailant.
The young Latent turned wide eyes on his pale-face 'bodyguard'. "Mr Standish? You okay?"
"Oh wonderful." He grumbled, upending his rifle to use for balance. He knew this effort wouldn't last; his wounds and sores were still fresh from the morning, and the throbbing made it clear he wasn't fit for the duty. But while the rush of the fight kept the hot blood racing, he knew that he could keep moving.
"This is useless," Patrick wiped his nose on his sleeve. "They know exactly where we are- I bet they can see everythin' from up there."
Ezra nodded irritably and checked his shells. With his help, the Latents had managed to draw them further down from higher ground before they were run off the slope completely, but despite that they still had the advantage. "They led us straight into this trap; they knew how exposed we'd be." He wiped a trembling hand across his brow and leant back against the splintered bark.
Patrick snorted and pointed to his shirt. "And I had to go help 'em, didn't I?" He pulled at his bright red shirt. "Like tauntin' a bull!"
Standish cringed. "What a charming analogy."
"True though, right?" He sighed and peered around the tree's wide girth, chewing his thumbnail anxiously. " Look at 'em, just pacin' around like dogs. Sure wish I knew some disappearin' tricks, right now."
Standish bit his lip thoughtfully. "You and me both." He muttered and looked about.
Patrick's familiar anger began to bubble to the surface as his frustration got the better of him. "Should have at least brought a God damn coat with me!"
Ezra caught the heated scowl and shook his head. "Well you could use his."
Wait a second... He looked down sharply at the brute's still form.
"No wonder they picked Paul off as soon as we got here," his voice trembled. "He was wearin' the same shirt! But you don't know something like this is ever gonna to happen...."
Ezra drowned out the angry mumblings behind him and bent closer to study the ranch hand's clothing.
"Pa was always trying to encourage us to keep a change of clothes for hunting. We used to go to keep getting practice for when we're out on the drives. But we soon figured why bother when Ma's already packed us good food, you know what I mean?" Patrick turned when his nervous ramblings didn't get an answer and frowned. "Ezra?"
"Yeah," Ezra replied distractedly and cast his gaze up to the ridge.
Patrick shrugged and turned back and carried on talking.
Standish squinted at the ridge, then the ranch hand, and looked up at the forest around him as he turned ideas over in his head. In a fringed hunting coat and a mottled bandana, the man was almost inconspicuous what with the lack of foliage around. Heck, with those and his stained beige pants, he could just about blend in anywhere.... just disappear.
A smile played at the corners of his mouth as he felt a surge of something almost forgotten. "Here we go again." He shook his head at the thought of dressing up again for his damn job.
"They comin' for us?" Patrick gasped and sank down.
Ezra placed a firm hand on the kid's shoulder. "Patrick, what say we play a little game of hide and seek with those loathsome individuals?"
Ezra ignored the snap and licked his lips in anticipation. "Cover me." He called before slipping out of his yellow slicker and hat as the kid took his place. Dropping to his knees, he grabbed what ammunition he had left and thrust it in his pants pocket before crawling over to the senseless brute. He rolled the man to his side with one hand and dragged the doeskin coat from over his arms, clutching his injured hand to his chest with a grimace.
"What are you doing?!" Patrick frowned, utterly puzzled by the gambler's actions.
Standish grinned brighter than he had done in many days as he shook on the coat over his blue shirt, easing his thickly bandaged hand through the sleeve. "Master Latent, you should know I'm a man of many disguises." He turned a winning smile on the boy and picked up the spare rifle before jogging back.
Standish caught on to the skepticism and smiled to himself. "I'm going to make a go for the hill, skirt around them and then pick a few off while I've got the element of surprise-"
"What!? No! Don't leave me here, I'll come with you-"
Ezra held placating hands to the boy's shoulders and shook his head firmly. "With the sun directly on the slope, I'm going to need some assistance. If I head up there now without covering fire I'm dead, end of story. I need your help with this, Patrick, understand?"
Patrick's eyes welled in some small fear as he eyed the distance between them and the ridge.
"Okay?" Ezra looked at him imploringly.
"Okay." He nodded forcefully and ran his sleeve under his nose. "What do I do?"
"You'll be safe here," he began softly. "We're out of the way. You picked a good spot." He praised, hoping the kid would take some small pleasure from the remark. Rewarded with a little smile, he knelt down and took the shells he'd pilfered. "Now, do you have any matches?"
Patrick shook his head in confusion and pulled out a slim book. "Was gonna take a smoke."
"That's not a bad idea." He handed two matches back for the kid's nerves. "Now then, I'll need covering fire while I run over but I'll only need a short, targeted burst. Do you have enough bullets?"
Patrick nodded, still puzzled, but nevertheless excited by the word 'surprise'. "Sure, just take that thing off before you come back, I don't wanna shoot you by mistake!"
The gambler grinned at the brave attempt at humor, and pocketed the matches with a snort. "Thanks."
Standish lifted himself into a crouch to make sure the coast was clear, drawing a trembling, bated breath. "I'll be back for my coat!" he called before giddily thrusting himself to his feet.
As soon as he left cover he struggled to keep ahead of the gunshots aimed his way. His tired, forced limbs were holding him back as he ran, tripping him up on the slightest obstacle when suddenly, before he could push himself behind cover, his sleeve caught against a broken stump of branch.
"Shit!" He yelped as he reeled backwards. Hurried fingertips plucked desperately at the knot of leather, trying to tease the sleeve free to no avail.
He snapped his head up to the ridge and lit a wide-eyed, frantic glare on the reloading gunmen. They'd seen him.
No, no- not now!
Patrick gasped at the hasty shouts from the ridge and knew his friend didn't have long. "Hurry, Ezra!" He hissed, gripping his fists tightly to his sides.
Ezra spun round and saw the boy's ready stance. "Stay back, Patrick!"
Patrick bit his lip and closed his eyes, pressing back tightly against the tree with his hands over his ears.
He roughly pulled at the sleeve and let the rifle drop to his feet, snatching his weight against the buckskin to un-snag the offending timber. Mercifully, it gave with a snap, pulling splinters with it before he could drag the rifle up from among the rotting leaves and make a run for it. "God damn!" He panted and pushed his hat up out of his eyes, leaping behind cover as he heard the frightening sound of the cocked guns.
Patrick had half expected to find a blood-glossy tree by the time he opened his eyes, gripping his gun tightly when the lawman had stood pinned and exposed. As soon as the peacekeeper had pulled free he let out a breath and grinned like a fool, watching with high relief as his friend dived from sight. "Damn it, Ezra!"
Taking just a second to regain his balance, Ezra peered round the tree and leaned out, trying to catch the gunman's attention and tease him to waste another shot. Instead of just one, five bullets slammed into the tree and bushes around him just as he stepped back. "Hell."
Ezra waved his arm to catch the boy's attention. "Patrick! Now!" He hissed.
The younger man nodded and fumbled with the weapon before firing at the ridge as he leaned out, forcing the gunmen on the top to turn away. It was just enough for the gambler to grab his moment and make a beeline-dash to the hillside. The thin leather fringes slapped up against his cheek whenever he lifted the rifle out from the ferns, making him wince and catch his breath; the sweat oozed into every scrape and graze he had with the forced exertion; but at the same time, with his utter physical misery, he felt strangely elated.
I'm insane! he thought. It's preposterous- why am I smiling?
It was like he was actually enjoying himself! He could have laughed hysterically at the circumstances, had he not been so concentrated on watching where he was going. Maybe it was the accumulated shock, his buzzing senses wouldn't let him figure it out; but what he felt without doubt was the pulsing surge of the thrill of the hunt. The boyish adrenaline flooded his system and lit a smile on his face; this was his element. He was starting to feel more and more like the Standish that Fin had nearly taken away that very morning and as he outmaneuvered the failed shots, he found himself enjoying his scheming side heedless of his pains.
Before he reached the bank, he pulled the bandana beneath his eyes and started the climb up the slope with strengthened strides, jumping along the ledges where the ground remained firm. He looked up constantly as he went, rifle held out to the side to counter his dizzy spells as he tackled the damp ground. When his breathing was quick to dry out his throat and mouth, he pushed his lips into the crook of his elbow and muffled the sharp coughs escaping from his lungs. With a final, spluttered cough he looked up and checked his path before closing his eyes in anticipation and clearing the ridge.
Pushing himself over into the thick grass, he thudded to a dead stop with a grunt, holding his breath to listen out. There was no sound.
Ezra lifted his head a little and saw three of Cauldwell's men lined around the trees nearest to him. He gnawed his lip; they hadn't seen him, but they were close enough. Worse, they had the best positions by far, the bare winter branches having little to ruin their view.
Waiting for the shooting to start up, he ran a reassuring thumb along the stock of his gun, steeling himself for his next move. As soon as the men were distracted with gunplay he pushed himself up with a prayer and darted across to the better cover of the bushes, clearing rocks and twigs with steadier steps.
He slid undercover in the nick of time as two men joined the fray, neither paying attention to what lay around them. Standish knelt breathlessly on the sodden earth while he fumbled in his pockets and licked his lips. Damn where are they? He took his eyes off the men and patted his shirt. "Thank God." He whispered as his swollen fingers finally plucked out the book of matches.
Ezra lowered his rifle on the ground and pulled a match out ready. Looking back up at the men he chose his moment to act; he bent down and gathered small tinder in a pile, making sure it stacked against the surrounding bushes. Ezra took one last look up and as soon as the next shot sounded he struck the match and threw it into the small bundle, lighting another to toss into the twigs.
He looked up when the smoke started to rise, wincing as the fire spit and crackled on the damp fuel. When no one turned in his direction the gambler looked over his shoulder and bolted from cover, sprinting as fast as he dared to sneak behind the firing line.
Skidding to a halt he leant dizzily against a tree, grimacing as he took a look at his hand. The bandages were either muddy or covered in dry blood, but either way he didn't dare stop; he had noticed more company. Ezra needed him out of the way soon and ran up to join the shooter behind the thicket. The man didn't bother looking at him as he sidled up with a cocky grin, naturally assuming it was just another of Quinn's men.
"You seen 'em down there? Like rats runnin' from water!" The man slapped a hand on his leg as he grinned gleefully.
Ezra chuckled. "More like a torrent of shit."
"Yeah- hey! What do you..." The ranch hand looked at Ezra and frowned. "Wait a minute-"
Standish slammed the man's head face first into the tree and watched him drop. "I'm afraid I don't have that luxury." He stooped down and pulled the ammunition from the man's belt and emptied his gun for the cartridges. "What do we have here?" He smiled when suddenly a loud shout of alarm came from up ahead.
"Fire! God damn it! Put it out, it's screenin' our view!" a voice bellowed.
Standish grinned and pocketed the cartridges for later use. With the sun aimed straight for the hill, the shooters would be nothing if not blinded by the smoke, the wind was pushing the billowing cloud in their direction. Perfect.
The gambler stalked up towards the firing line and hunkered down behind a tree as three men ran around the top of the rise for a clearer shot. Raising the rifle, he dug his knee in to give himself more elevation. With attention riveted to his target, he lined up a new shot and pulled the trigger.
Had it not been for the fact the man was running, it would have been a clean kill. The ranch hand bucked forward as the bullet tore through his shoulder, forcing him over the edge with a howl as others ran around obliviously. If that hadn't killed him, Patrick would.
Ezra cocked the gun once more and fired a second shot at the next man that stood gawping at his falling friend. But no sooner had he done so Standish realized he had blown his cover. A gunman turned sharply when he heard where the shots were coming from and dropped to a knee, pulling his revolver out on the gambler.
"Boys! Behind you!"
Before he could take him down, Standish could see four other guns already training on his position. With others closing in, and with no wish to stick around, he threw the barrel up into the air and fired a warning shot before tearing from the bushes out of sight.
With the smoke building from the growing fire he was shielded with the thickening cloud, but they were still gaining. He threw a look over his shoulder and saw them charging effortlessly through the trees.
Dogs indeed. He swore at his pursuers and begged for more strength, as his legs grew heavier. They were gaining too quickly and within seconds he'd be under their feet if he didn't come up with something soon. He eyed up the low branches as he ran, and smiled at the offering. With no time to spare he pulled off the fringe jacket and threw the article onto the sagging limbs. It wouldn't distract them long but if they concentrated on the distinctive coat instead of him it would give him a little more time.
Turning sharply between the trees, Standish held his bandaged hand on top of his hat before it flew from his head and ran back to the sight of the blaze. With no time to lose and with no one ahead of him, he drew the cartridges from his pocket and tossed them into the flames before diving ungracefully over the ridge.
The small fire above him ignited with a BOOM from the powder, ripping into the surrounding trees and bursting the nearest branches apart. The men that had chased him fell back on their asses, open mouthed and wide-eyed at the explosion before them. As they scrambled back away from the roaring heat, Ezra used the distraction to get the hell off the bluff
He had bumped and rolled down the wet earth, sliding heavily on his shoulder and catching his ribs. By the time he had scrambled to a stop at the bottom, his hand was on fire, his face throbbed with the replenished bruises, and grazes raked across his ears and cheeks from stray twigs and stones.
"Son of a bitch!" He hissed and clutched his injured hand to him as he headed deeper into the forest. His excited heart was thudding in his chest like a cannon and just as deafening as he ran, all hopes of regaining composure gone like a whiff of smoke, when suddenly a gun was shoved into his face.
"Jesus!" He jumped back with a yelp and looked up at the Winchester muzzle. Without thinking, he grabbed the barrel and pushed it from his face before taking a swing at its owner.
"Whoa! Mr Standish, wait! It's me!" Patrick let go of the gun and stepped back with his hands in the air. "Easy!"
Ezra glared at the boy. His shock, coupled with the sight of Patrick, robbed the gambler of his sensibilities. "For Heaven's sake, son! I almost dented you a new face!" He growled.
Patrick ignored the reprimand and pointed eagerly to the ridge. "What did you do up there? I mean- that was awesome!" He shouted breathlessly, supporting the dazed Standish as he ran. "Mr Standish? What happened?"
Ezra couldn't help but smile at the new exuberance from the young man and leant against him a little as his energy waned. "A certain something I remembered from when I was a young boy." He took his slicker from Patrick and tossed away the bandana; grateful the dirt-smeared garment was gone from around his neck. "That's better." He sighed and pulled the coat on.
"Oh, yes. When I was-"
They both ducked when a shot was fired close by.
Ezra pulled his eyes from the ridge and turned the kid in the opposite direction. "Head over to those ferns!" Standish shouted and urged Patrick ahead of him. They jogged down through a water-carved rut in the earth, footfalls thudding on the humus-packed soil, and hunkered down amongst the tangled roots just close enough to still see figures running back and forth up ahead.
"Are they coming?" The kid whispered; eyes fixed ahead of them.
Ezra took in a deep breath and shook his head. "Will be soon enough."
Patrick licked his lips as his nervousness returned and crouched down lower. "So, you gonna tell me the rest of that story?"
Standish winced at the awkward plea full of weak bravado. "When I was younger, I had a cousin in Georgia. He and I would spend a few summers together at his father's house near a small town. He was a gunsmith by trade, rather a good one. One day we found a box of cartridges and as young boys we were already well acquainted with fire..." He shrugged. "The two were bound to mix at some point in our escapades." He shifted more comfortably and pulled out his Colt.
"Damn," he mumbled, looking at his wrapped up hand and the small trigger guard through which to fit his finger. How is this going to work?
"You blew 'em up?" Patrick chuckled nervously.
"That and a new cart." He grinned devilishly. " It was an honest mistake, I assure you. But it was either that or spend the rest of the summer sanding the damned thing down so it wasn't a complete loss; I loathe manual labor."
"So what on earth made you want to sign up to a ranch?"
Standish shook his head in bewilderment. Hell if I know. He got up and looked across the forest floor before sinking back down. "It looks clear, but we should head back and find your father. Do you know where he headed?"
The kid nodded firmly, if a little relieved. "Yeah, saw him headed further north. Can't hear them so they must be a way off."
Standish smiled and took another look around. "Okay, let's go before others catch on to us."
+ + + + + + +
Mark Cauldwell stood far back away from the other men at the line, eyes riveted on the half hidden body of his father. A bullet's path through his skull had smattered blood around the girth of the old beech that slowly began its trail down the rough bark to the cold corpse beneath.
He fingered his gun slowly, almost unable to grip the truth that stared at him in horror, eyes widened still after death. He took a deep breath and looked about, unsure as to whether anyone had seen his hired gun take the old rancher down with ease. But what he did know, with great satisfaction, was that Quinn wasn't in his way anymore.
A grin formed across his face, pulling his lips into a grotesque show of pleasure as he realized his fortune.
"Oh, it was good alright." He whispered and bit off a chuckle before pushing himself to his feet. He wasn't about to hang around while his father's loyal men got themselves shot to bits for a pathetic squabble. He had bigger ideas, bigger plans, and he sure as hell didn't need the responsibility of the fight on his hands.
Without a second thought, no backwards glance of remorse for his fallen sire, he brushed himself off and took off in search for his horse.
+ + + + + + +
William Latent and the few survivors surrounding him had heard the blast some time ago. Initially it had put the wind up them, sparking panic for fear the Cauldwell's were going to dynamite them out of the area. But when angry words reached them from the ridge that 'Edward Engle' had snuck up behind Quinn's line, cheers broke out among the survivors.
"Damn but Standish has got a pair on him!" Fred Housen whooped, feeling the morale boost among the others. "Wish I'd seen those bastards' faces myself."
"Yeah, ol' Quinn wasn't expecting that, huh Andrew?" Lyle squeezed his brother's shoulder to try to rouse the terrified kid, but the boy just sank down, huddled and shaking. Lyle winced and patted Andrew's cheek. "Bout time he got a lickin' instead of us, huh?"
His brother didn't answer, just jumped in fright whenever a shot went off in the distance and tried to cover his face up with unsteady hands.
"Come on, Andy." Lyle whispered pleadingly, willing some courage into is brother.
Andrew looked up wearily and offered the barest smile he could muster.
Lyle grinned, it was enough of a response for him, and turned back to look up towards the ridge.
"You think Ezra's okay?" Andrew whispered timidly as he clung to his brother. He hadn't seen Standish since he and Patrick had gotten separated some time ago and it made him feel so vulnerable not having the lawman at his back, not having the reassuring presence close by.
William's smile dipped a little at the delicate plea; he still didn't know. But after all that Standish had withstood over the past few days, he truly believed the slippery lawman would see himself clear of the trouble. "Wait until he comes back, boys. I'm sure he'll tell you all about it- or Patrick will." God willing.
Andrew gulped back more tears of fear and closed his eyes; he wanted to go home. This was nothing like what he had expected when he'd demanded to come along. This was brutal and held nothing of the heroic stories the teachers had regaled them with about the war. This was awful!
William laid a hand on his son's head. "Andrew?" He bent down. His son had drawn within himself since Paul had been shot down from his horse; Quinn had set them up with another lure and it had damn near sealed their fates. William had led the others through so blindly they hadn't realized their position within the forest. Easy prey. Now Andrew sat huddled and whimpering in dread and fear because William had given into his son's wish and stubborn pride to join them. "Oh, my boy."
Andrew felt so alone, the others craved the challenge and he wanted to run back to Annie. "I miss the others, Dad. I miss Ma." He hid his face in his father's shirt and let William draw him close.
"I know, son. So do I." He whispered and looked back towards the ridge with a sigh.
For many minutes they had waited, hearing nothing but the shouts from over the ridge. Cauldwell's men were running around trying to see through the smoke and keep away from the fire that had spread to another tree. Though each man was grateful Ezra had caused so much commotion, they each held sheer relief the fire wouldn't spread to their position.
"Hey, where is Quinn anyway? I ain't seen him since we arrived." Clive called out.
William frowned. "You're right, neither have I." He whispered.
"Maybe that's good news?"
William shrugged as a shout permeated the group.
"Here he is! Standish, you lucky bastard!"
"Ezra!" Andrew called, scurrying from his father's hold. He rushed up to meet the gambler and eagerly took him by the arm, guiding him through the ferns to join the others.
Patrick clapped a hand on Lyle's shoulder before he sank down beside him. "You shoulda seen it up there- it was just what we needed, wish I'd thoughta that!" He looked over his shoulder at his younger brother and smiled over at Ezra; the peacekeeper didn't have the will to jog another step and just sank down heavily where the group was huddled.
"Mr Standish, you okay?" Andrew asked anxiously, taking in the lawman's appearance. He looked worse for wear with every passing minute. He stunk to high heaven of smoke, sweat stuck his shirt to his back and his face was a riot of unsightly color.
"M'fine." He gasped and heaved a sigh.
William crawled across and knelt beside the younger man. "What did they make of it up there?"
Standish looked up and grinned. "Turns out the devil's own men don't like fire either." He ran a hand over his face and turned to look over his shoulder, so far so good. "It should keep them busy a little while longer. The wind'll carry it towards them for some time."
"Lady Luck sure likes to straddle your lap, doesn't she son?" Fred grinned.
Ezra smiled at the image and chuckled. "Up until this point she's been somewhat elusive of late. She may still change her mind; I didn't set all the wood up there alight, just enough for a distraction, but if that smoke holds out much longer they may be forced down the ridge."
Patrick turned round from where he sat. "Pa? Back there on the hill, who did we lose?" He asked quietly.
"We lost Dean not long ago," Lyle pointed through the trees to where they had laid the body to rest. "And Max. They tried, fought really hard and got this far but they got hurt too bad." He whispered and folded his arms sadly. "We lost Rob, Harry, Matthew, Stuart and Marty on the hill."
"As for Simon, and the Thorn brothers, we can only guess." Fred shook his head. "Dean reckoned he saw them head further south, but that'd lead them straight to Quinn's reserves, if he's got 'em here."
Standish took in a steadying breath and pulled his knife from his boot with a grunt as he listened to the others.
Clive frowned. "So that leaves seven that we know of." He whispered solemnly.
"This isn't enough. Damn it, Quinn knew exactly what he was doing, didn't he? He knew we'd come runnin' if he killed Joe! He knows what strings to pull." Patrick sank down hopelessly. "Now what?"
Ezra shook his head and slipped the blade beneath the sodden bandages, contemplating their next move since brute force had gotten them nowhere.
"What do you think you're doing?" William glared incredulously.
Standish ran the tip of his tongue over his split lip in thought. "I can't very well pull a trigger I can't reach- I lost the rifle on the ridge somewhere."
"You can have mine-"
Standish shook his head and sawed slowly through a tough piece of material. "I'd much prefer a smaller gun; you're best shooting with a rifle, anyway. I'm only thinking of practicality." He rubbed sweat from his eyes and clumsily set about sawing away at the bandages.
"Don't seem practical to try cuttin' your fingers off, son!" Clive snatched the knife from him when the blade wavered and finished the job himself. "It wouldn't hurt you to ask for help, either."
Standish ignored the hint and pulled the bandage from around his hand. "Thank you, kindly." He winced as the material tugged and saw a burst stitch or two across the back of his hand. It had been seeping for a while but had sealed itself with clotted blood. The skin around the wound was puckered and red and he knew he was seeing an infection. He held a hand over the wound and looked up, relieved none of the others had seen it. He couldn't go through washing the damn thing again for fear of passing out once and for all, and so let his sleeve fall over the wound discreetly. As the adrenaline said it's final farewell to his system, Ezra closed his eyes and rested his head back as nausea teased at his stomach.
William turned back and took a good look at Ezra. "You holding up okay?"
He held a cool hand against the back of his neck. "Yes." But the pain was getting unbearable. " Rushing around has left me somewhat tired." He smiled and sat himself up gingerly.
William nodded and motioned to the ridge. "How many did you see up there?"
Standish grimaced and rubbed a hand across his abdomen. "There were five or six on the ridge itself, but what others there are I've no idea."
"Looked to be about ten others coming up from the west." William added grimly.
"Chances are lookin' a little peaked, Pa."
William scrubbed his knuckles across his brow and rocked back on the balls of his feet. "Well, standing around and facing them off isn't going to end too well." He chewed his lip thoughtfully. "Mr Standish how about-" He trailed off when he saw the gambler gulping desperately against his nausea. "Oh heck, son." He moved forward and rolled him to his side. "Does anyone have a canteen?"
"Will whiskey do?"
"Fine." William took the flask just as Standish emptied his stomach out of sight. " Keep watch, don't get distracted." He called to the others, holding the struggling lawman's shoulder reassuringly. "Stop trying to fight it and just throw up, for God's sake." He scolded when the gambler tried to resist the spasms.
"What happened?" Clive looked over.
"He's not well. Running around breathless, with the smoke and the shock- I reckon its finally getting to him. It doesn't help he bled like a stuck pig earlier, either." Guilt swept through the rancher at the sight of Standish and gripped the younger man's shoulder ever so gently.
Ezra squeezed his eyes shut at the thought of blood and grimaced against the fresh nausea. The excitement that had spurred the gambler on a freak high had abandoned him, and what food he'd managed to get down back at the ranch house wasn't nearly enough. His limbs trembled with his efforts to hold himself up and the swelling around his face only added to the pressure of a mounting headache. It was as though the old Ezra had shown himself to have one last go before leaving the broken lawman slumped on the forest floor to shiver against the heaves.
"Alright, son?" William whispered. "Take a little whiskey, it should ease the pain some."
Standish nodded meekly and rolled over. With a quiet, suffering groan, he sat up after wiping his mouth and shook his head. "It's a simple case of exhaustion. Nothing to worry about." He spat to the side and sipped at the whiskey.
Fred snorted and eyed up the man's pallor. "Sure look like shit to me."
Standish threw him a withered glare and sat up straight.
"No, he's right." William held up a hand. "Rest for a spell- more excitement would only make you worse. And we need you. It's a damn shame we haven't got the horses near by; you need to eat."
The gambler nodded, thoroughly embarrassed at having thrown up in front of the others to voice any argument. The smell of the vomit only made him want to wretch again and, being too tired to move, he couldn't drag himself away for clearer air. He resigned himself to closing his eyes and panted a little as he fought to control his rolling stomach, running grubby fingers through sweat-soaked hair. Mother would be appalled.
William watched the younger man's face crease in pain and smiled, patting the lawman's arm gently. "You've done good, son. Rest a spell." With that he moved off to join the others.
The gambler wasn't so sure; as nice as the idea was, sitting around waiting for something to happen wasn't what he had in mind. They had waited in the small shelter long enough already.
He was startled from his thoughts when a cloth wiped over his grazes. Andrew had done the only thing he could to help his friend, he had taken out his handkerchief and was trying to clean Ezra's face with a little alcohol. The gambler looked at him a little puzzled but saw nothing there but helplessness and concern marring the innocent kid's face. It touched him that the boy should think of him so fondly, not knowing what exactly he'd done to deserve it.
Andrew looked up at the frown and shrugged sadly. "Gotta do something, Ezra, I feel so damn useless." He hiccupped on a sob and bravely choked it back to dip the cloth into the whiskey.
"You're doing fine, son. And thank you." He let his eyes close and rested his head back slowly. "Stay with your father, he needs all of you now more than ever."
To his credit, William had led them on as best he could but like he said he was no fighter, and was always looking to Ezra for the next step when they realized their hopes were few and far between. Quinn had held the high ground and with it he and his men had the advantage, sending volley after volley of bullets down into the forest lowlands to drive back the defenders with unrelenting force. And not for a moment did Ezra think the attacks would cease readily.
A thought occurred to him; perhaps the distraction hadn't made enough time for them as he'd hoped. Ezra frowned and opened his eyes, holding Andrew's hand away from his face, and listened as the wind rushed through the branches above them.
"What's the matter-"
"Hush." He whispered, realising how quiet it was. Oh hell.
Suddenly Lyle hissed. "Guys, they're comin' for us!"
Ezra twisted himself for a better view and watched Quinn's men leave the ridge.
"Get out! Go!" William bellowed, cocking his gun for a covering shot.
Ezra struggled to his knees and grabbed his gun as Andrew desperately pulled him to his feet. With the kid tugging on his arm, Standish's momentum sent him crashing into the boy as they made a run for it, neither sure which way to go. Ezra spun and let off a shot before pushing the kid in front to protect him. "Andrew, go, for Christ's sake, don't stop!" He yelled and grabbed hold of the boy's shoulder for his own balance.
The others were split up; some darting through the trees for better shelter while the others stood their ground and gave covering fire.
"Just how many of them are there?!" Lyle shouted as he took another shot.
"I thought you said ten, Standish! There's about twenty through those trees!" Clive barked over the sudden noise. "Shit, I'm running out of ammo!"
"I couldn't count all of them!" Ezra shouted back in frustration, ducking out of the way as cover grew thin and their assailants swarmed through the trees. "They're getting bolder!" He cocked his gun and gunned down another man with a clean shot. He looked over his shoulder and saw William struggling to get his eldest son out of harm's way. Lyle refused to budge from his father's side and lined up another shot. "Andrew, go to your father, he needs you!" He pointed through the trees.
"What?! Through there?" He yelled incredulously. "There's no protection!"
"I'll cover you, move quickly, I've still got to lead them away!" He swung his gun round at the closest man. "There's time to run!" He let off a shot and dug in for more bullets.
"I can't- look!"
Ezra turned from shooting and grimaced. He was right, the trees were too far apart, it would kill him if he tried to make a run for it; Quinn was trying to push them into the open.
Andrew clung to the tree's girth anxiously, watching his father and brothers make a break for the thicker forest. "Pa!"
William looked around desperately for his son and hid before a bullet could find its mark. "Andrew!"
"Pa!" Andrew made to get up but a strong hand held him back.
"No! Don't move they'll see you!" Ezra warned.
William waved at them desperately. "Come over here, son! Ezra! Get yourselves over here!" He pointed to the thicker forest. "Hurry!"
"We can't!" Ezra shouted as he let off two more shots.
"We'll hold them off- get yourselves to safety!" He shouted anxiously, turned to pick off a ranch hand. "Hurry!" He yelled, frightened of losing another son to the fight.
Ezra grimaced as he set his aim, holding Andrew back as the boy prepared to run to his father. "We'd be killed, there'd be too much exposure!" His bullet splintered through the bark.
"I'm not leaving without him!"
"Will you listen!?" Ezra spat. "Those bastards are swarming towards us, how the hell can I get him across safely? We're running out of time already!"
William looked his youngest in the eyes and saw his son's raw fear. He wanted to be with him, to comfort and reassure his young child. Just a few dozen yards and it felt like a prison wall. "Son?"
Andrew huddled tighter against the tree and felt tears sting his eyes. His father's eyes pleaded with him to be brave. "Pa?" He whispered. What do I do? He ducked as Ezra's gun barked above him.
William gripped his rifle tighter and shook his head. He couldn't lose another son. He turned and watched the ranch hands close the gap. "Ezra?"
Standish turned away from his target.
"Take Andrew and get the hell out of here!" William ordered, not believing he had said the words.
Standish glared across the divide. " And just where the hell to?!" He shouted over his arm and took another shot. Damn it! Missed. "William, take your men and get the hell out of the forest, I've still got a chance of drawing their fire to me. There's no use outrunning them, God knows I can't for much longer! I could give myself in, just like I planned!"
"Just wait for Andrew to run further into the forest, then take him to safety when you're out of range!"
No? "It's worth a shot, what other choice do we have- where the hell can we run to?"
"Ezra- for God's sake they got Joe and now my Paul! Keep my boy safe, you hear! You're the one with the chance!" William turned from them and let off a shot. "They're concentrating fire over to us- we're the distraction now! We've got enough firepower to hold them off a while!" He bellowed.
"That's doing exactly what they want us to do! They're trying to separate and weaken us!"
"I don't want to do this! I just want to know my boy's gonna be okay!" William knew what Ezra was thinking- if Ezra was to flee with Andrew it would take firepower from their defences. As frightened as Andrew was he was still a gunman in the fight, but William was prepared to set themselves as the bait than let him meet his demise, they could do little else with so much blood-thirsty rage headed straight for them. He knew they wouldn't last much longer but what choice did they have? At least this way if it came down to plain running, fewer men would be easier to hide.
Standish stared at him wide-eyed, unable to comprehend the man's words.
"Get the hell out of here!" He turned and shouted his plan to the others, never turning back as they took off through the trees.
"Ezra?" A small voice called up to him.
Standish shook his head and looked down at the boy huddled against the tree.
"What's Pa doin'?"
Ezra looked back up as gunfire was drawn towards the three surviving Latents and the few survivors. "Leading them away." He whispered. He looked ahead of them and saw no one headed their way. No! This wasn't supposed to happen! They were never supposed to go like this. His mind screamed bitterly, frustration marred deep in his expression when he was kept from doing his promised duty once more.
Seeing no other way out, he let out an agonizing growl and checked the forest behind them. "We gotta go."
"We go, now!" He shouted hurriedly, grabbing the kid's collar as he broke into a run and pushed the boy in front of him. "Keep running, okay? Don't stop unless I say otherwise!"
+ + + + + + +
At the Latent house, Annie stood at the boarded up dining room window, peering through the slats. It was so odd how calm and peaceful it looked beyond the boards; the sun was tempting and gentle, the wind blew very little and on any other day she would have called together a picnic.
She turned round, straightening the creases from her skirts and looked at the children playing in the hallway. They didn't know what was going on. She held a cool palm to her cheek and shook her head.
Poppy Housen walked over carrying her young son, no older than two. "What can you see?"
Annie shook her head. "Nothing. My God, Poppy, only this morning we were all together. I was there," she pointed through to the study, "tending to young Mr Standish. We were all together."
"I saw him- quite the dashing hero." She grinned.
"Then you didn't see his wounds. They beat him awfully bad."
Poppy looked up from wiping her son's mouth with a cloth and frowned. "Did they say what they were going to? How bad it'd be? My Fred's brother fought in the war and when he came back he was a changed man- so ill and strange."
Annie patted the younger mother's arm. "This is no war- it's pathetic how it's gone on for so long. What reason could there be for- for killing a young child?" Annie bit back a sob and sank down on to a chair.
"You think it'll stay away from the house? If things are so bad, wont they reach us?"
Annie shook her head, her fingers running along the emerald silk of the cushion. "I don't know." She whispered.
+ + + + + + +
Angus Lloyd looked down grimly at the body before him. His men had long since abandoned the hill and were ready for the chase as the Latents fled. That family had given as good as they got, having the weakest position in the whole damn forest to pitch a fight, and, he had no doubt, had let Engle have his fun with them.
Angus shook his head. That bastard had done enough damage. What stung worse was Quinn's body lying in a ditch. He didn't know who was responsible, he didn't like to think, but what he knew for sure was Quinn wanted Engle dead- or whatever E.P.S. stood for. He looked at the blade and frowned. The men weren't really interested in the dispute with William, if anything it gave them a chance to hurt and maim, but with Engle they were. They all had reason to want the bastard dead. And Luke's death was enough of a reason for him.
He spun round on his heel and marched over to the others loading their guns. They had been hit hard; of the 37 that had reached the area on time, only fifteen remained. Now only the best and levelheaded were left. All the hotheaded youths had been too quick to chance and risk and now they lay rotting on the wet earth.
"While Engle's still out there, we still have to follow William; if him and the others reach safety it'll mean hell for us. I want ten good men to follow the others. Billy, Tom, Derek- go with Don and Tony; I want you to hunt down Engle. I figure you five have the best reasons."
"What about you?"
"Mark's run off back home. I have to go back, rally other men if I can and send them here. Unless Mark decides otherwise. You all know Quinn's dead?"
"Kinda hard to miss, Angus." Derek spat out a mouthful of tobacco and ground it into the dirt impatiently.
Lloyd turned towards other irritable mutterings and frowned. "Then you'll know that makes Mark the new head of the ranch. He'll want things done differently. He may not have shared his father's grudges, but it doesn't mean we should stop now. We do the job and finish this mess, clear?" He turned to Billy and the others. " Boys? When you've finished him, you can get the $1000 promised to you. Don't bother bringing him back; let him rot out there. Now, all of you, head out- don't stop until they're in their shallow graves."
Blood was stirred. The men parted ways to scout out, eager for the hunt. Their days spent in restless employment on the ranch had made them itchy- what better reason for murder than revenge?
+ + + + + + +
After William had shouted his consent, it was difficult for Ezra to keep going. He wanted to help the man, give William back his son and take the flack himself, but it was no use. Quinn's men were clever- or damn lucky. They were forcing them back through thinner trees where the ground opened up, forcing them into the clearings to pick off without shelter; separating them for an easy kill. Standish had tried to guide them through the shadows as best he could but he knew that without the distraction William and the others had offered it would have ensued a bitter fight to the death. It would have been a hopeless, reckless way to go.
It made for a hard escape when Ezra had to keep grabbing Andrew's collar and drag him in front, the boy felt utterly hopeless without his father around. He didn't know what was going on and he kept looking around for signs that the others were following them, hoping his family was safe.
Ezra felt cruel to have to keep the realities from the boy, knowing he was only hurting the kid, but he couldn't afford to sit and console Andrew while the threat still lurked. He used his anger to spur them on, hoping his energy would last. He was forced to hold a hand on Andrew's shoulder when the dizziness tried to take his feet form under him and swerved a little.
"Andrew, wait a minute. We've gotta stop a while." He pressed his wounded hand against his chest and grimaced as the nausea rose again. Just as they reached a sheltered spot he was forced to a stop, doubling up as dry heaves shook his bruised frame. Andrew ran back and took his friend by the elbow, drawing him slowly to the cover. He looked at the peacekeeper in his hold and gulped back his fear, hoping this wouldn't be it for Standish.
The gambler tried to breathe through his nose and settle the discomfort, groaning aloud when he fell against a tree. What I wouldn't give for home, right now.
Suddenly a shout echoed in the distance, then another. Ezra spun round and listened again, looking through the trees as he crouched. "Andrew, is your gun ready?"
Standish nodded and held his breath, praying his stomach would settle for a little while longer.
"Hell." He hissed and took hold of Andrew's arm. "Come on, a little further." He led a winding path through the ferns and drew them close to the trees, looking over his shoulder at every noise or movement. But that only made his nausea and dizziness worse. Ezra didn't even have it in him to talk for fear of vomiting and jabbed a finger at a sprawl of dead branches and briars that knitted tightly within a group of trees.
Get down there, he motioned and took up guard duty beside the old beech, bending over to get his breath back. His stomach rolled, the blood pounded in his head and everything seemed to hurt. His boots, he'd loaned from Angus Lloyd when Steven Travis's had been chewed up by a cattle dog, were blistering his heels; his hand felt on fire, his ribs pulled and ached; his shoulder was starting to rub and on top of being still saddle sore, his face felt like it was caving in from the swelling. He wanted to wake from this pitiful state and find himself in his own bed but... oh, to hell with it!
He hunkered down against the weathered bark and drew in painful gasping breaths before looking for his hidden charge. Andrew sat cowering to his left and Standish knew, without a shadow of doubt and no hint of regret, this was where he belonged; aches and pains be damned. The young boy was shaking against the mere sounds of carnage, fumbling with the bullets to reload his gun. The look in the boy's eyes alone spoke volumes of his terror when Ezra suddenly snatched out a hand to grab the weapon from his untrained hands.
"Take mine." He pushed a Colt into the boy's trembling grasp and reached for more bullets. He did a double take on the boy before dragging Andrew closer to the ground impatiently. "For God's sake! Stop getting up, you're asking them to shoot you!"
Andrew didn't hear, he just looked about in alarm with tears stinging his eyes. "Where's Pa? Where'd he go?"
Standish bit his lip against the pain surging through his hand as he tried to reload and shook his head. "I don't know." Truth was he hadn't seen William or any of the other Latents for a good half hour and that did nothing to strengthen his fortitude.
"We're goin' back for them, right?" Andrew crawled closer to the gambler for security and cast wild eyes around the forest. "I mean we can't leave 'em!"
Ezra locked the chamber and cocked the gun before pulling out another. His hand was on fire since he'd had to cut away the bandages and it made pulling the trigger unbearable.
Standish nodded and closed his eyes, pressing the ragged stitches to his lips as the distant gunfire finally ceased. He frowned to concentrate on the sudden silence heard a muffled shout not far from their position. For Heaven's sake! He chanced a looked over the log and saw Cauldwell's man running towards them. "Get up, run!" he hissed, bolting to his feet when the advantage was lost.
"What's goin' on?" Andrew looked up aghast.
"I said run! We can't hide here!" Standish grabbed the boy's coat and dragged him to his feet, sprinting on through the trees to get to lower lands. "Keep going! Andrew, don't stop, keep going!" He pushed the boy ahead and hid behind a tree. "Go!"
"No, come on!" He called, not wanting to leave his friend behind.
"I'll cover you, head for the thicker forest- now!" He bellowed as the shots began.
Andrew kept his eyes firmly on Standish as he staggered back, fear reaching every inch of his expression as their assailant charged through the trees.
"Go!" He pointed angrily with a hand and turned in time to miss a bullet aimed for his head. "Fuck!" He cursed and caught the subordinate through the shoulder, sending him careening into the bushes.
The boy turned at the danger like a startled rabbit and leapt through the undergrowth, throwing branches and leaves from his face as he ran desperately through the forest. He thought of nothing, of no one and no sound as he stumbled and scrambled on over roots and fallen limbs, he just had to get away. His knees fought the buckling sensation as the terror gripped him tight; his hands were covered with cuts and grazes from pushing himself on as far as he could; his eyes welling at the thought that maybe he was all that was left.
"God, Pa! What do I do?"
With no one ahead of him and no threat emerging from the trees, Standish pulled back his gun and took off after Andrew. His trail wasn't hard to find as he shouldered his way clear, clumsily jumping over the rocks and roots jutting from the earth to catch out the foolish. He made a beeline to the darkest wooded area he could see and prayed the cover would last.
Over his shoulder Andrew heard the thumping feet and harsh, heavy breaths. He looked over his shoulder and saw no one. He turned round again as the sounds grew louder and tripped himself over a stray branch. With a terrified cry he clawed at the mud to get to his feet and pulled himself away from the clearer paths to hide behind a tree, bringing his gun to bear on his pursuer as the heavy footsteps reached the embankment ahead of him. With seconds to spare, Andrew closed his eyes tight and squeezed the trigger.
Ezra skidded down the muddy embankment and grasped at tall ferns to stop his fall, his gun rolling from his grasp. He leapt the rest of the way down and reached for the Colt into time to hear the shot whiz past his head. He crouched low on all fours and raised his gun, eyes fixed on the trees in front of him.
His mind raced with the idea that maybe Quinn had taken the initiative and circled his men around the Latents, hoping to take them by surprise, praying they hadn't gotten to his young charge before him. "Andrew?" He rasped desperately, his gun never leaving the trees.
Standish sighed in welling relief at the voice and pushed himself to his feet to join to the boy. "God damn, son you nearly took my head off!"
Andrew's eyes widened worriedly as he clutched the gun. "Hell, I'm sorry- I just heard someone chasin' me, I couldn't run anymore!"
Standish drew him towards him and held a hand to the back of his head reassuringly. "I'd rather you hit me by mistake than not try to protect yourself at all." He turned to look uphill and heard noise in the distance "They'll know where we went, I think I killed one man that followed us but there's got to be more." He bent forward to catch his breath.
Andrew looked up with teary eyes, shaking his head in defeat. "Ezra, I can't go anymore. I'm so tired!" He sobbed pleadingly, clutching Ezra's arm. "What do we do?'
Ezra took in the despair and gripped the boy's shoulder. "We've got to keep going a little further. Hell, I'll carry you if it means we can clear this forest. Listen, they'll be coming over that ridge within minutes and I'm down to my last ten bullets. Just follow me."
Standish took the lead as he looked over his shoulder, half expecting a gunman to appear at any moment. They're half as exhausted as we are and they've probably got more ammunition to spare. Maybe Andrew's right, maybe we can't go on any further. He kept that thought at the front of his mind and found a staggered route for them out of the hollow. It took more effort on his part to help haul Andrew up through the dense foliage but they made good time.
But no sooner had they climbed to the top of a small rise than two gunmen appeared through the trees toting a shotgun apiece.
Oh, hell's bells! Standish grabbed the kid's arm and dragged him a little further before pulling him to a crouch behind a group of rocks. "They've probably spotted us." He panted and took a look over his shoulder. There was no easy way out. The trees thinned out beyond the fissure and with a sickening realization he knew they would be heading west, straight for Cauldwell lands. "We can't go any further."
The peacekeeper ran the back of his hand under his nose and pulled his remaining bullets from the pouch in his pocket. "I'll need your bullets if we're going to make a stand here. We've got the high ground for prime shooting and I don't trust your aim right now." He held out a hand impatiently as Andrew pulled the bullets from his belt one by one, a familiar adrenaline flooding his system.
"Are there any rocks around here or lumps of wood? Dirt, anything you can grasp?"
Andrew looked around and picked up several small rocks from under his boots.
Standish nodded and pushed the bullets into the chambers. "Good, now as soon as they reach that fissure below where we've just run from, throw a rock to the far end aiming for those bushes."
"Distraction- don't let them see the rocks or you, or you'll give the game away-"
"Engle? You son of a bitch, I know you're here!"
Standish stopped dead to hear the voice, holding his breath as Billy Favour and Tom Stone trudged down to the undergrowth.
"Ezra," Andrew whimpered in fear, clutching the rocks tightly as he fought the urge to bolt.
The gambler didn't take his eyes from the fissure. "Wait for it, stay calm." He whispered steadily, pulling the hammers back as quietly as he could.
Billy looked down at the footprints in the dirt and turned to Tom. "Bastard's in here, I know it."
Tom frowned at the obvious statement but held his tongue; he didn't have time to placate Favour's quick temper. "Spread out a little, look around. There's a chance he ain't even here no more." He whispered as he pushed ferns aside. "Grounds covered thick around here, he could be right at your feet."
Billy threw an unnerved glare at Tom at the suggestion and kicked the shrubs around him, stabbing at the greenery with the muzzle of his shotgun. "Come on out, you little shit." He taunted, using his gun like a scythe.
Just then a thud sounded out from the far side of the hollow. "Down!" He whispered and dropped to his knees. "Hear that?"
Tom nodded, eyes staring unblinking at the shadows. It didn't feel right to him, he felt way too exposed. "We should head back to the others, tell 'em what's goin on."
Billy punched Stone in the arm. "Shut up whinin'! Angus wanted us to find Engle so that's what we're gonna do- if we get to him before the others then that's just more money for us!"
Standish frowned worriedly. So Quinn had put a bounty on his head. Ezra groaned quietly and slumped down. No wonder he was taking the flack, of course they wouldn't suspect Jacob. Even after death the man would still screw you around.
"Besides, that asshole killed Luke. I owe him a bullet or two."
This made sense to Tom, he'd liked Luke more as a brother, he'd thrived on the younger man's innocent naivety when it came to the long drives. He shook his head and gripped his gun tighter, eager to finish the blood hunt. "You wanna take the left?"
"I'll take the quickest route to the son of a bitch." He seethed. Billy moved through the overgrown fissure with as much stealth as a bear, holding his rifle at shoulder height when the mud got thicker at his feet. To his right, Tom crawled towards the opposite side of the bank, still looking dead ahead at the shadows. His attention to that spot never wavered and he didn't watch where he was going. The gangly ranch hand lost his balance on the slippery earth and moss-covered rocks and careened into the muddy bank, his gun going off in his hand.
Standish ducked back out of the way as soon as he saw Tom was headed their way and suddenly heard Andrew cry out at the shot. He dropped a gun and wrapped a hand around the boy's mouth, pulling him back down.
Billy Favour looked up at the noise. "That you?"
"Course it was!" He growled and wiped himself down.
"Not the shot, idiot, I meant the scream!"
"Hell, I don't scream," Tom bent down for the gun and swore at the mud in the barrel. "Probably a bird."
Billy looked back at the shadows then turned his gaze once again to the opposite bank. He turned his body to face the rise and squinted in the dim light. What the...? He saw a fleck of blond disappear behind the rock and his eyes widened in alarm. "Like hell it was- they're up there! Tom, they're right behind you!" He warned and lifted his gun up.
Tom shot round to see for himself but wasn't fast enough to drop down out of sight when a bullet split through his forehead. He jolted and staggered for a second before pitching back into the ferns and rolling out of sight.
"Tom!" Billy cried, running through the tangled ferns to his fallen friend. "Engle!" He fired at the bank and slammed the barrel upwards after a reload before taking another shot at the rocks. "Get out here, y' yellah son of a- wretched whore!" He pulled the trigger and watched with heated rage as the bullets ricocheted off the boulder.
The stone chipped and flew at their faces as they huddled down for shelter, a shard biting into Ezra's cheek. He hissed at the sting and picked up the other gun to return Billy's fire, ducking down out of reach before a shell exploded on the rocks to his side. "Too close!" He turned and saw Andrew shaking and pale.
"Andrew," he shook his shoulder. He had to get the kid away from Billy. " Go!"
The boy didn't move, he just kept staring over the top of the ridge waiting for Favour to climb over.
Standish nudged the kid with his boot to grab his attention. "Go now, as fast as you can!"
Andrew shook his head and backed up, not daring to turn for fear of getting a bullet as he fled.
Ezra growled at the stubbornness and took another look towards the ridge before bodily pushing Andrew away. "Go, for fuck's sake, go now!" he yelled urgently, his head snapping back and forth between the edge and the kid.
Billy grinned as he clambered the embankment out of sight. "Ain't no where to go to, boy." He sneered and hefted the rifle as the edge came into view.
Andrew turned stricken eyes onto the peacekeeper, pleading him not leave him alone. "Come with me!"
"I can't, you have to go!!" He spun round and let off two shots towards the fissure to give him cover. "Now!"
Andrew scrambled backwards and tripped over his own feet to get going, when a shotgun blast boomed in the quiet.
"Ezra!" He spun and saw Ezra leap out from behind cover to slam his gun into Billy's face, not daring to waste another bullet before their escape was over. The ranch hand hadn't counted on the immediacy of the defense and couldn't react quickly enough to the onslaught. The blow to his face had him tripping back towards the ridge as he struggled for his last loaded weapon. Before he had it trained on the gambler's leg, Standish chanced his next move and rushed Billy with a solid backhand that sent him tumbling backwards over the ridge.
"Ezra?" A voice squeaked.
Standish didn't stop to see if Favour had survived the fall and turned to race after Andrew. "I told you to run!" He bellowed, tossing aside his empty gun, and reached for the kid. "I can cover you, but only if you run when I say, do you understand?"
Andrew didn't listen; he wasn't prepared to leave his side, he was too afraid. He was spun round by the lawman's force and sprinted after Ezra without a second thought, bumping into the peacekeeper as he tried to miss the trees.
"Ezra, we gotta find Pa! We gotta warn him!" He cried, wanting his father with him so badly.
Of what?? "They'll know, they're already settling matters, okay?"
"B-but those men-"
"Those men are dead, Andrew. Now come on, I don't know how many more there are."
"But, there were others! What about Pa!?"
Standish clenched a handful of Andrew's collar and forced the kid on, trying to ignore the boy's cries. He knew the kid was worried, but there was nothing they could do to help William short of going back the way they came, and that would get them killed. By now the kids pleas that had gone unanswered were wracking his body with gasping sobs, his shoulders shuddering with the force of his despair.
"Ezra, p-please!" He just wanted his Pa.
Oh, hell, Ezra groaned with guilt. Pushing him on was just causing the kid more distress; it wasn't going to help them any, and it made the lawman feel awfully cruel. Looking around for signs of a pursuit, he pulled the boy into a tight embrace, peering over his head the entire time for followers. "It'll be okay, Andrew." He whispered quietly, holding a hand to the blond hair firmly as he would a young child. "I don't know how but, by God, we'll find a way."
He turned this way and that, still holding onto the boy tightly, the despair welling in his own chest. God what now? Which way should I take us? He pushed the boy away from him and stood him up straight, willing some composure into the trembling kid. "Stay with me, Andrew. I wont leave you, not again." He reassured before grabbing the boy's arm. "Come on, we've got gotta keep going."
He drew Andrew alongside of him as they set off at a jog, grasping the Colt's handle for some reassurance.
"Where?" A small voice rasped.
"We'll head west, where they wont think to look."
"But- that's headed straight for their ranch, they'll find us!"
"We stay here and they'll find us for sure. At least heading west we could, maybe, meet up with your father and the others."
"You think?" Andrew asked eagerly.
"I said maybe." He took hold of the boy's arm and nodded through the trees. " Come on, I don't know who else thought to follow us-"
Suddenly a Smith and Wesson's bark echoed in the forest close by. Andrew leapt forward with a gasp and clutched a hand to the bullet wound when he fell to his knees, dragging the startled gambler down with him. Standish rolled to his side as the shock of the fall wore off and turned in confusion to see Andrew struggling against his pain.
Andrew? He turned suddenly as a bloodied and staggering man barreled towards them through the trees, throwing his body over his young friend's in a last-ditch attempt to protect him. I thought I'd killed him!
Derek charged at them with a mind lit with revenge; he'd found Billy with a broken neck in the fissure and now he wanted blood for two friends. He raised his gun again at the fallen gambler and let out a guttural growl as he fired, too blinded by rage and pain to shoot straight. As soon as the shot flew wide, Standish made his move and spun the gun from his holster straight at the charging bull. With a snarl of immense satisfaction he emptied the chamber into the oaf's chest and neck, bringing him to the ground with a thundering impact
As soon as the noise ebbed away, Ezra lay back down and listened out, holding his breath for the running footfalls he knew were soon to follow.
He looked down at the form beneath him and pushed himself up from the pain-stricken body.
"Ez-" Andrew's face contorted in pain as he cried, bawling unashamedly into the grass as his friend gently turned him over. Ezra pulled the boy's hands away from the wound and stared at the exit wound helplessly, pulling the bandana from the kid's neck to plug the wound.
"Oh, son, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." His whispered, looking up at the sounds of shouting. "For God's sake, give us a chance!" He shouted in anguish. His fingers fumbled with the bandana and drew a scream from the boy.
"Stop! Please, it hurts! It hurts!"
"I'm sorry- oh, God damnit!" He snapped and pressed down on the wound. There was nothing he could do; he had to get the kid to safety and Andrew wasn't going to be able to make the walk by himself. "Andrew? Listen to me, son, I have to lift you up, okay? I have to carry you." If he could get to a ranch, maybe they could get medical assistance. If it was Cauldwell's ranch, maybe he could plea for help, appeal to their mercy.
He bent down and took Andrew by the shoulders to lift him from the ground, grinding his teeth against his own pain and dizziness. And if that fails, I could always exchange my life for his.
"Don't- it's worse! It hurts so bad!" He whimpered and gripped Ezra's shoulder tightly.
"We gotta go- we gotta go, hold on to me." He stuttered before pulling the boy over his shoulder with what waning strength he had left. He hauled the sagging weight as carefully as he could, trying so hard to ignore the boy's cries of agony and stomped heavily through the trees. Blood seeped down the length of his coat from Andrew's hand clutching against the wound and spattered loudly on the tails.
"Ezra- please!" he whimpered as the pain grew immense and ground his teeth together. "God, I want Pa!"
He fought the waves of nausea and giddiness rushing his body and staggered on, trying to keep a steady speed as he struggled with the burden. "Hold on, we'll find your Pa, Andrew- I swear! Just hold on!" He whispered, trying to keep him awake.
He heard commotion behind him, and turned to watch his back but couldn't get a view. He heard more noise and shouting, an angry voice amid the gloom and it forced him on, his legs burning with the effort.
"Hold on, son. We'll find your Pa." He pleaded, keeping up the steady mantra as the noise grew. They were coming. "Andrew?" He shifted his charge and got no reply, his head lolling lifelessly against Ezra's back.
Tears welled up in the gambler's eyes, blurring his vision and tripping him up. "We'll find your Pa, son." He whispered, getting his feet back under him. Then he realized how quiet it was.
He tried to look round again when a shot rang out. The bullet pierced his thigh where he stood, forcing him to stagger against the awesome pain and cry out. He clenched his teeth tightly and forced himself on a few more paces when he saw another fissure.
"No," He whispered faintly before pitching forward over the edge. Both bodies bumped and thudded down the steep slope, colliding with rocks and twisting over roots. Ezra had long since lost his hold on Andrew and was propelled forward, his body gaining momentum as he tumbled to the overgrown hollow below. His head snapped back as he spun, his arms and legs struck rocks and stones before the ground shoved him to a dead stop within the long ferns.
He opened his eyes just for a second to recognize his pain before collapsing to the sodden ground.
On the top of the ridge a lone gunman stooped to peer over at the two bodies, a gun held loosely at his side as he panted for breath. Wiping a hand across his forehead he squinted into the gloom, looking for the two bodies that had plunged to an easy death before taking a hasty step back.
"Fuck this," he wheezed. I'm outta here-"
A hand clamped down on his shoulder and caused him to jump in surprise. "To where, sonny?"
"Christ, Don! I damn near fell over the edge."
"Shut up." He raised his gun in warning. "You could still have a chance to, unless you explain what I saw earlier."
Tony held up his hands innocently. "Heck, I was just chasin' Engle like Quinn told us to, he's over the edge- see for yourself!"
"I ain't talkin' about Engle. I'm talking about you pullin' a gun on Quinn." He snarled and backed Tony up towards the ridge.
Tony's eyes rounded at the accusation. "But I didn't- I swear-"
"Don't lie to me! You killed Quinn, I wanna know why!"
"Why the hell do you care?"
"Because the man was a friend of mine!" The amateur tracker spat on the ground and pushed the gun into Tony's ribs. "Talk, you little shit before you're spread over this God damned tree!"
"Heck, Don it was Mark! He offered me money to kill his Pa, I swear, it wasn't my idea!"
"Heck, yeah! He wanted to teach his Pa a lesson or somethin' and he wanted him dead."
Don shook his head in disappointment. "How much did he offer you? Was it worth this?" He pushed the younger man closer to the edge.
"Whoa! Wait, hold on please! Listen, he offered me five grand, I'll split it with you!"
Don cocked the gun. "You were offered 5000 for Quinn, and you were ready to accept another grand for Engle and now you're only offering 50%?"
"Okay! 60-40! I swear, 60-40! Please, whatever you want, just back up!"
"How the hell are you gonna get the money? How sure are you he's gonna pay you?"
"Why?" He stared open mouthed. "He ain't dead is he?"
"No he's not dead, but he betrayed his own father, how sure are you he didn't lie to you?"
"But-" Tony was at a loss for words, the idea spinning through his mind. "He has to!"
"That boy doesn't have to do anything!" Don snarled angrily. "He owns that ranch now, and he's got more muscle back there with him! That ranch is gonna fall under with him in control and everything we worked hard for will disappear! Christ but you're incompetent!" He kicked at the ground and stalked off.
Tony slumped against the tree and ran hands through his hair. "What do I do?"
Don holstered his gun and stood akimbo in the quiet. "We go back to the ranch, we tell them Engle's dead and then we leave."
"Leave? Hell, I ain't leavin' without my money!" He shouted.
"You don't have a choice!" Don barked back. "The Latents are all dead, Engle's dead and as far as Mark's concerned so is the threat. I ain't gonna stick around to see the ranch fail and wait for the law to discover this mess! You do what you want but if you try to get that money from Mark he'll only have you killed."
Don Hayes slapped his hat against his pants and batted off the dust. He turned to see the young man hunched over in self-pity, shaking his head at his losses. He walked over and pulled Tony to his feet, handing him his gun from the ground. "Take my advice, leave as soon as you've collected your things. Don't hang around for others to find out you murdered Quinn; there's already plenty who'll say you murdered all the others. We gotta leave fast."
Tony nodded solemnly and fumbled with his gun. "How many are there?"
"Latents, Cauldwells- anyone."
"I ain't seen a Latent since you shot that kid. As for us, there's maybe five others left. The Latents had some good shooters among them. I reckon we only lasted this far because of chasin' Engle." With that he stepped closer to the ridge and looked down. "Oh he's dead alright." He muttered and pulled away. "Let's go, son. I don't to watch 'em rot."
+ + + + + + +
At the bottom of the hollow, Ezra lifted his throbbing head a little. He took a steady breath in his daze and blinked to try to rid himself of the fog around him. He couldn't feel much, the fall had deadened his nerves to the pain but a consistent, steady throb flooded his system uncontrollably. With no one to catch him, and no mind to care if they did, he turned to his side and reached across to Andrew, his breath catching in his throat at the lifelessness of his young friend.
"Andrew?" He whispered, rolling the boy over to face him. Tears welled in his eyes when the death-gray features lolled towards him, eyes rolled to the back of his skull by the rigor-preserved agony. Standish ran his fingers through the blond hair and shook his head, willing the boy back to life. But the .32 bullet had taken the kid's life within seconds of entering his body.
Ezra shook his head in anguish and closed his eyes, letting the tears roll down his mud-streaked face. "Oh, God- I'm so sorry." He breathed as he sank down beside his friend. "I'm so sorry."
Standish had never felt so utterly lost, so alone and guilty as he did then. The evidence was useless; his friends were likely all dead. Now what remained of the Cauldwells was a threat to the other families and the sons he had sworn to protect were gone from his reach. Standish let his head fall back into the mud and curled up around his pain, as agonizing shivers wracked his body. "What have I done?" He whimpered. Why did it go so wrong?
Standish wrapped his bleeding hands around his head and tried in vain to shut off the world sooner than death could drag him away. He whispered his dead charge's name over and over with apologies and pleas, praying for the nightmare to be over as oblivion finally took hold of him and led him from the world with a gentle touch.
+ + + + + + +
Annie looked up from the fireplace and turned to her youngest, little Josephine. An illness still clung to the small child and left her very pale and weak. But even in her state she managed to crawl from her bed to her mother's side.
"What is it, darling?"
Josephine crept forward and sat down on her mother's lap, leaning in for a hug. "Where are the others? Molly said they went away. Where to?"
Annie closed her eyes and held the young child tighter. "Don't fret. They'll be home soon. But for now we've got to be quiet and patient, okay?"
Josephine nodded and huddled closer to Annie.
The door to the quiet study opened and William and Annie's eldest, Rosie, stepped through with a cup of coffee. "Got you a drink." She whispered, padding across the polished wood floor. "You want me to take her back to bed?"
Annie looked at her sleeping daughter's face and nodded, running her fingers through the shiny curls. "That's a good idea. She's not well yet, but the fever died down a little. How's Sally?"
Rosie shrugged. "Fine I guess, at least she seems to be now. She was runnin' around with Michael a minute ago." She leant forward and drew her youngest sibling from Annie's lap. "You need anything else?"
"No." She smiled and took a tentative sip of coffee. "This is just fine."
Rosie turned to take Josephine upstairs but stopped with a frown. "There's gotta be something we can do, Ma. It isn't helping just sitting around and waiting for something to happen."
Annie put her cup back on the table and shook her head. "Don't get any ideas. Your father warned us not to do anything until we got word. We've got to stay here to watch over the others."
"Just let me go! I can send for help-"
Annie slapped her hand on the chair arm with something close to panic, almost waking her slumbering daughter. "I said no! For heaven's sake Rosie, how will that help us? Do you not understand how unsafe it would be out there for you?"
"I know well enough- I'd take a gun."
Annie shook her head firmly and looked Rosie straight in the eyes. "Rid your mind of those idea, girl. You will stay here and guard the others, as I will. You've no idea how much I want to help, to do something! But I don't know what, and I'll not have another child run off into the unknown where I can't protect them- not again!" She held a hand over her mouth as sobs choked her words. The more time passed by the more her despair spiraled, she felt so useless. She was the head of a household that she couldn't give answers to. She had new mothers, expectant women, and children looking to her for guidance and there was none she could give.
Rosie watched her mother fight the tears and walked over, holding out her hand for her mother to take.
"Oh, Rosie, I miss them!" She whispered, holding her daughter's hand to her face as she let her despair show. "If they came home, alive and well, I'd want for nothing!"
Rosie lay Josephine on another chair and gathered Annie in her arms, rocking her mother gently. "I know Ma, I'm sorry. I wont argue again, I'm sorry." She bit her lip as tears welled up in her eyes and wiped them back with her sleeve. As the eldest she was obliged to take care of her siblings, doting on the frailest and the weak while her mother carried out her role as the matriarch, but she wanted to know what was going on and pacing around the house preparing drinks, meals, beds and baths didn't keep her mind occupied enough. She needed to do more and, though she wouldn't voice the opinion, she knew it wasn't like her mother to just sit and do nothing no matter what the circumstance.
"I just gotta help, you know?" She whispered and sat down beside Annie. "I feel useless. Dad knows I can shoot better than Andrew and Joe put together, and the only reason I'm not with them is because I'm not his son. Heck, I dread to think how they're getting on, they're neither of them eighteen."
Annie looked up worriedly and caught her meaning. "You don't think they'll get through this alone?"
Before Rosie could amend her words, a timid voice called from the door.
Rosie turned and saw Poppy Housen standing in the doorway, fidgeting with her shawl in the dim light. "Are you both alright?"
Annie composed herself and offered a teary smile to the young mother. "We're okay, honey, just pulling ourselves together. Are the children behaving themselves?" She chuckled, not used to having so many in the house.
Poppy nodded and walked over to the sleeping elfin child draped in a white blanket. "They're being real good, their daddy's would be proud." She cradled the little girl gently and gave them both a brave smile despite the words she had heard before walking in. "I'll take her to bed." She whispered softly. "The other's are getting together some lunch soon, was there anything I can get for you?"
Annie wiped her eyes and smiled. "No, but thank you, Poppy. I'll come through in a little while and help out."
Poppy smiled and turned to leave.
"Poppy? Not a word to the others, understand? No need to get them upset." Annie implored with gentle eyes that spoke volumes of her wisdom and experience.
Mrs Housen nodded with a knowing smile and quietly left them be, pulling the door to with a gentle click.
Rosie took the opportunity and stood up before her mother could recall her words. "I should go see how Sally is." She straightened her apron and kissed Annie gently on the cheek.
"Rosie, wait." The wizened mother held out a hand and took her daughter's in her own.
"Mama, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. I just-"
"I- I know, honey, I know." She sighed, letting her eyes wander over to her husband's photographed portrait on the mantelpiece with their beloved sons. They hadn't wanted to don Sunday best on that particular day. It was hot, stifling hot and uncomfortable out and the photographer had insisted on an outdoors portrait. She had muffled her laughter at their expressions for the most part, until the boys started getting antsy and rough housing while the photographer set up. It was the sound of her escaping giggles that had drawn the mischief over to their mother, tickling her mercilessly and chasing after her with cups of water as her laughter rang out across the yard.
Annie couldn't help but grin and made Rosie wonder what she was thinking about. "You know, that photograph wasn't taken the date we'd arranged? With you and your sisters off in Little Street with your Aunt Beth, it was left to your father and I to wrangle the boys together. They weren't having any of it until your father worked on Lyle's sense of brotherly duty and eventually dragged them out from hiding. They listened to him the best." She nodded proudly. " Lyle had- has, a way about him."
She stopped and suddenly the happy memories were over. Tears welled up and blurred their faces, ruining her view of the portrait of her dear children. Almost as though they were fading away. "Be honest, Rosie, how well do you think they're doing?"
"Ma, I can't say-"
Rosie dropped her gaze to her slippers and shook her head. "Ma, I've seen Andrew try and shoot, his aim's all over the place. I think Lyle's the only one worth giving a gun to use."
"Oh." Annie closed her eyes and dipped her head, fretting with the corner of a handkerchief.
Rosie dropped to her knees and held her mother's hands. "But they've got the others, they got Mr Standish too. Having a lawman on your side must count for something, right?"
Annie nodded and tried a smile. "Maybe." She looked back at the photograph and sighed. "But they're outnumbered, Rosie. They're outnumbered, outgunned and they've got four naïve, innocent boys among them. And that wont do."
She got up from the chair and walked over to the desk, lifting the photo with loving hands. "It was bad enough they lost Jake and Hal a few days ago, but to lose their brother too?" She shook her head firmly and replaced the frame, rubbing her tears away. "I know I promised William I'd keep us all together and well," she turned to face her daughter. "Even he would say this isn't going to help matters. I don't know what's going on, I can't see if they're okay and I haven't got a clue what's going to happen within the next five minutes, even!"
Rosie turned eager eyes on her mother as she got to her feet, clutching her hands together in anticipation. "Ma?"
Annie rubbed a hand across her face then nodded with resolve, not knowing if she was making the right decision or not. "Maybe... maybe we should do something. If not for them, God bless every one of them, then for the children at least."
"So I can ride? Can I ride out?"
Annie walked to Rosie and held her face in her hands. "Go up to Paul's room, find some old, worn brown clothes, then a hat and coat. I'll send one of the others out to get your horse and put supplies ready. Patrick and Paul saddled her ready, I guess your father knew we might need them."
Rosie's eyes widened in excitement as her mother led her through to the stairs. "Tie your hair up out of the way, it's got to be hidden by whatever hat you chose. Hurry now!" she urged her up the stairs and spun round to see some of the younger women watching worriedly.
"Annie? What's going on?"
"Has there been any news?"
Annie took a deep breath and ushered them through to the kitchen. "No, I've heard nothing, and the likelihood is, we're not going to all night." Shutting the door behind them, she took her place at the head of the long wooden table and cleared her throat. " I need all of you to listen, and don't argue with me! This is hard enough as it is. Rosie is getting herself ready to ride north. Mr Standish came all the way from Four Corners so that's where she'll try to raise help. Towns around here are useless so the quicker she goes the better chance she's got of being unseen."
Despite her warnings there were muffled gasps and looks of horror but she held fast. "Now enough of that! This isn't easy for me either, I've no idea how many of my sons will come back and while we sit here helpless they could be in heavy trouble! Rosie's getting herself dressed up in her brother's clothing, she'll go out on a fast horse and take as many guns as she knows how to use. It'll take two days to get there, so we may not hear anything for a week. God knows if it'll work but what else can we do?"
"But, Lord's sake, Annie! What'll happen to Rosie out there? I mean, won't the area be swarming with people that favor the Cauldwells?"
"She's right, if you send her out, she'll need someone else to go with her."
"Like who!" Annie snapped and stared down the table. "If I send more than one out there that's more lives at risk. It'll mean they'll be easier to spot. Just what exactly would you have me do?!"
"I- I just meant-"
"I know what you meant!" She barked then lowered her voice incase the children heard. "I know what you meant. Who else would go? I can't send children; I can't send any of you! Hell, I haven't sat on a horse in decades- don't tell me the negatives. I'm sending out my own daughter, not one of yours! Don't begin to assume I haven't thought it through because it was one of the most difficult choices I've had to make, and that I will have to live with."
In the silence that followed her heated words, Annie dropped down in a chair, holding her head in her hands. " I pray for nothing more than to have this whole affair straightened out with everyone still alive. You're right Poppy, it could reach the house, then what? Rely on what little skill we have among us?" She whispered and sat up. "I don't know what else to do and you're all looking to me for answers, and a way out. I'm sorry."
Marie Hinkley got up and sat down beside Annie with a brave smile, clearly feeling the tension in the room. "We're sorry Annie, we don't mean to- we-"
"We're just worried. You're letting your daughter ride out to a town none of us have ever been to and all we can imagine is having one of our own in that position. It's an awful reality."
"She's right. You're doing better than we could, Annie. Jake always felt happy when he left for a drive, he knew you were here for us."
Poppy nodded. "If this is what you decide, we trust you, you already know that. We're just concerned is all."
Annie nodded apologetically and sat back. "Bless you, girls."
The young widow Hinkley took her friend's hands and nodded towards the hallway. "Is there anything we can do? Does Rosie need anything?"
"She's getting what clothing she needs. Her horse is ready but it'll need some food for the saddlebags."
There was a feeling of readiness in the kitchen, a relief there was work to do. "Leave the food to me."
"I'll get some wrapping ready. She'll need a full canteen, it's past noon but it'll be warm out there on the prairies."
Annie watched them spring to life with a determined purpose and smiled. "Lizzie? Can you help me gather some weapons for her? The sooner she can head out the better. It'll be dark in seven hours."
"Of course, I'll grab the keys."
Annie walked to the door when she heard footsteps and for a moment swore her Paul had jumped down the steps. "Heavens, girl, but you look so much like your brother in those clothes." She smiled, holding Rosie tight.
"I tied it up tight, Ma." She fretted over her hair. "This is the only hat that fits. I had to use Andrew's"
"I don't think he'll mind, darling. Now the others are getting food ready, Lizzie's gone to open the cabinet, go and help her get the guns- and pick them well. You're horse is almost ready."
Rosie nodded and sprinted through to the study, coming back with two Colts, a Remington and a pair of Carbines. "I left most of the rifles where they were, if trouble comes you can pick them off at long range before they get to the house."
"Now that's smart, young lady." Annie grabbed the laden saddlebags from Poppy and followed Rosie to the porch. "Get your guns stowed while I set these up there, check the saddle too. If they were in a hurry they probably didn't have time to check the cinch."
"It's fine, Mama, got notched good and tight."
"Good, get on up there." She held the horse steady for Rosie to mount up and handed her the reins. "Here's some money should you need it. There's ten dollars. You've got a spare shirt in there?"
"I took one of Paul's."
"Well done." She took a good long look at her daughter and fought hard to restrain the tears. "Now, you remember what your father told you? Keep away from too much open ground, it'll take away any chance of hiding. And don't ride when it's twilight in land you don't know, light like that'll only serve to fox you and likely get you killed, okay?"
Annie reached up and pulled her daughter close, squeezing her firmly and dreading letting her go. "Take care out there. When you're clear of the mountains, keep heading away from any towns, you just cant trust the law these days, and don't stop until you get to Four Corners and don't send any wires. For all we know Quinn's contacts will have them and use them."
"I promise." Rosie whispered, trying hard not to cry but in the face of her mother's grief she all but fell to pieces.
Annie looked into her daughter's face with teary eyes and kissed her cheeks forcefully. "Come back home safe, you hear?"
Rosie nodded and held her mother one last time before puling herself away and thumping her heels into the mare's sides. She tore off up the yard to the fields without daring to look back, knowing she wouldn't have it in her to pull away again.
Annie watched her daughter race from sight and felt comforting arms around her waist. Poppy stood watching the young girl disappear into the horizon. "She'll be okay, Annie. You'll see."
"God I hope so." I just hope that town is willing to help.
+ + + + + + +
He felt hot, suffocated. He tried to move and felt caught up and wrapped tight within his own clothes. His limbs ached and a fire raged through his body, pounding his head like a flat iron as searing pain bolted through his hands and thigh. When he tried to lift his head up it felt like a block of lead and no matter how much spit he had left he couldn't work his mouth to get a word out.
The lawman groaned through the tidal waved misery coursing through his body and pinched his nostrils tight at the foul smell of blood and rot. His stomach rolled against the stench and forced him over to his side, pulling on the bullet still lodged deep within his thigh. The dry heaves came and went in rhythm to the spasms as he tried to fight off unconsciousness with his growing sense of urgency, a need to get, do or have something he had long forgotten. All he kept thinking of was getting home. Had to get home. Must get home.
His growing fever kept his vision in a pitiful state as he dug his elbows into the earth to push himself up. Inch by inch he forced himself to hands and knees and knelt swaying for many minutes before he regained some grip on reality. He took a weary look around him and was startled to see nothing but blotchy colours and shapes, the murdered youth beside him unseen and ignored. Ezra didn't cry for him; tears couldn't come for something you'd forgotten. He pushed his feet beneath him and staggered to the bank, needing stability on land that refused to quit spinning.
Home. Get home.
He clung to the bank with trembling hands, fingertips running over the ground unsure if it was real and grasping desperately at the long grass.
He didn't like the smell here. It smelt dead and diseased and brought his stomach into the struggle to run away, the heaves wrecking his concentration and balance. It almost took him down, the pain radiated a thousand fold from wounds he couldn't remember he had. It frightened him; he couldn't see or hear anything else. His fevered mind told him to get out, to run home. He didn't know how he'd gotten there, couldn't see for shit and he was getting scared.
+ + + + + + +
Tony was sent off a ways to get the horses with cursing and disgruntled moans since Don had ordered him to get out of his sight. The younger man kicked at the ground furiously at his losses, making his way lazily to the horses scattered on the outskirts of the forest.
"If he hates walkin' so damn much, why doesn't he get the horses himself, huh?" He grumbled before snatching the reins from the ground, causing the mare to whip round in surprise. Tony went to shake a fist at the animal but swatted at a fly that buzzed mockingly in front of his face instead, just as the horse's hindquarters gave him a broadside and knocked him off his feet.
"Dumb, God damned- donkey!" He pushed himself to his feet and snatched at the bridle.
"Stand still, God damn it! You know it wouldn't take much to shoot put ya down, you know?" He spat and grabbed the other reins. One horse had been crudely hobbled before the rider left for the fight; one hoof was still trapped within the leather whilst the other end was left to tangle up around some weeds.
Impatiently, Tony tried pulling the item free, tugging in frustration before the strap knotted itself around the brush and wouldn't give. "Damn it, Jones, it wasn't gonna run anywhere!" He pulled out his knife with a sigh and bent down to free the flighty animal. With the sunlight glinting off the blade, a gelding tried to bite this new handler at the threat, and soon got a backhand across the nose. "Piss off, you damn mule! I ain't in the mood." He swung the knife towards it and got it to back up five feet before shredding the last leather.
"Anything else?" he snapped, glaring at the animals in disgust. "Ain't a damn stable boy, I shouldn't have to do this job." In truth he knew he didn't have a choice unless he wanted to walk all the way back, but hell, this day was just getting worse and worse! Now where was he going to get his money? He bit his lip and gathered the reins again. "Hell, what's Johnson gonna say?" He owed the saloon owner $500 from gambling debts and time ran out in two days.
He turned the horses westward and started the angry trudge uphill, trying to think of a way to get himself out of trouble as one of the horses nickered behind him. He swung out a fist irritably then frowned when he heard the scraping of leather.
All of a sudden a tremendous weight crashed between his shoulders and dragged him to the ground, pushing him face first into the dirt
"What the?!" He spat out grass and soil and tried to see behind him as the weight shifted. "Johnson??" He shouted in panic before a rifle swung like a club towards him, snapping his head back like a twig, and leaving his body to fall heavily to the cold earth.
Ezra rolled off the ranch hand and fought for breath, his stomach trying to empty itself of nothing. He rubbed his abdomen gingerly and recoiled against the pain in his hand. It felt warm, too hot and blister-red around the wound. The sweat gave him no ease as it pulled the rough shirt tighter to his grazes and wounds and his fevered mind gave no heed to the startled horses around him, hooves a mere fraction of an inch from his head.
"Home, go h-home." His swollen lips mumbled over the words and brought them out as more of a breath of air. He gasped and rolled over, struggling to find a way of getting up that didn't hurt like hell fire and looked around to see long black lines swaying in front of him. He squinted curiously and rolled over a little more before stopping to stare at the hooves that walked into view. The reins stayed still long enough for his weak hands to grasp at them, after finally realizing what he was staring at.
"Thn-k- G-od." He mumbled and closed his eyes. He gently folded his fingers on the reins, and tugged a little. His eyes remained closed as his mind struggled to keep his body awake, unable to register the soft breaths wafting over his face.
Suddenly his eyes shot wide open as the soft muzzle brushed against his swollen face, forcing a cry of agony from his lips, and startling the mare back a pace.
A trembling hand moved over the aches when he couldn't curl around the agony and rubbed at his bruises as though to ease his afflictions, the mare edging forward in peaked curiosity.
"God! Gotta g-get home, oh God." He lay still for a few moments, mumbling through his pain as his hand moved to the velvet nose reassuringly as it snuffled his hair. "Andy? An- d-" He coughed with a cry. "G-home. Home." He slowly rolled back over to his side and took back the reins, letting his right arm drag behind him as he clambered to his feet on giddy legs using the horse's bulk to support him.
+ + + + + + +
It had been chilly the last few days as winter was finally letting go of spring. The weather had done some lasting damage to the town and Nathan in particular had had his hands full. Which meant Vin wouldn't be going anywhere for a while longer and Buck was in the tender arms of Millie Lewis.
"Man could get a lot worse."
"Vin- shut up. Was yer own damn fault."
"Shouldna chased that other fool."
"Man should be able to keep own business to hisself! Had no right to- Oh!" A lancing pain shot up through his ribcage. "Damn that smarts!" He whispered.
Jackson sighed in frustration. "I ain't givin' ya no laudanum either- ya wont learn."
Tanner looked up in mild surprise. "That's a pretty salty mood you've had all day Nate- what's on yer mind?"
Nathan ran a hand over his head and stood by the window. "How many days has it been?"
It took a few moments for Vin to catch on. He rested back against the pillows and sighed. "A few. No word, huh?"
Jackson shook his head. "Chris is gettin' ready to ride out and find him. He wants to pull the plug on it."
"Wish I could ride with ya."
Nate turned in shock.
Tanner raised his arms in defeat. "I've only bin joshin' with ya, I know when I'm down. Be pretty useless out there- specially fer y'all."
Nathan couldn't help the smile across his face. "Well I'm glad to hear one of y'all has sense. Vin, if you are hurtin' I can get ya somethin'."
"Nah, ain't so bad. Gonna sleep a bit though."
"Go ahead." As an after thought he added, " maybe you'll beat Buck."
At this Vin had to grin. "Yeah, not gonna get much time for rest- not with Miss Lewis anyways."
The healer nodded and chuckled. "I heard tell she's pretty amorous at night time."
"That she is." Vin gave a knowing wink and settled down to the sound of booming laughter from the healer.
Outside the breeze lifted the corners of Nathan's coat in the bright sunshine, his smile lifting to feel the warm ray at last. "Gonna be a good one today, JD."
The kid bounced up the steps with a grin. "About time. Makes a patrol easier, that's for sure. Hey, how's Vin?"
Jackson snorted with a grin. "Same old. How's Buck?"
JD cocked an eyebrow at the healer and shook his head.
"Like I should ask. Is Chris about?"
"Yeah, just finishing in the restaurant. You want me to go get him?"
Jackson was about to shake his head when he saw a movement on the trail outside of town. "Rider comin' in, JD."
"New folks'll make a change round here. It was gettin' kinda boring."
Nathan squinted against the light and frowned. "Looks like a young girl, she looks pretty distressed." He started the climb down the steps and heard her calling out, waving her hat. "JD, get Chris, Mary too." He quickened his pace and jumped down the steps as the rider bolted through the town.
Rosie saw the black man wave towards her and took her chances. "This Four Corners, mister?"
"Sure is, hold on there, Miss, what's your hurry?"
"I need to speak to the sheriff!" She turned her prancing horse round tightly to face the healer.
"He'll be along in a minute. You can tell me, I'm a peacekeeper here for the town."
"No, I'm sorry it's gotta be the sheriff."
"Well-" Nathan looked ahead to the sheriff's office and saw Chris jog down with Mary and JD in tow. "Listen, you see that man? The one in the black? That's Chris Larabee, you talk to him, okay?"
"He the sheriff?"
"No, the young man behind him is."
Rosie breathed a thank you and thumped her heels into her horse's sides, sending the little animal sprinted up the street.
JD ran forward a little blustered. "That's me? You okay, ma'am?"
"I can trust you? I mean, well, that's what Mr Standish said. But where I come from the law doesn't count for much."
"You can trust us mis-"
Chris interrupted and grabbed the reins carefully. "You came from the Latent's ranch?"
Rosie eyed up the stranger carefully and offered a small nod. "William's my Pa, Mister."
"Miss, you best tell us what's happened out there. Where's Ezra?"
She hesitated and backed her horse up, shaking her head firmly. "I wanna speak to the Judge, Ezra mentioned a Circuit Judge around here, and I'm not talking to anyone else."
Larabee took a step forward impatiently. "Miss, we ain't got time, if trouble's started you need to tell us what happened."
Mary held a hand to Chris's arm and calmly walked up to the young girl. "My name is Mary Travis, Orrin Travis's daughter-in-law. He's the judge. We'll take you to him, all right? But you'll need to tell Chris what's going on. Our friend is out there."
Chris took his hat off, as a polite gesture to ease the frightened girl, and looked up at Rosie imploringly. "Miss, we gotta know what's goin' on, one of my men is risking his life trying to help your folks out."
Rosie saw the worry creasing the man's eyes and despite feeling terrified in his presence, she was told she could trust those in Four Corners. "I'm sorry, mister, but for all I know your man's probably dead, just the same as the others." She bit her lip as tears ran down her cheeks. "All hell's broken loose, Sheriff, and we just didn't see it coming."
Sorry for the wait guys! I read all your feedback and made
corrections where you offered them, especially for having one of the women
riding out for help- thanks for that. Like I said it was difficult to write
everything in; as you know, when your story telling, you get so many ideas
it's hard to narrow them down to a select few. I hope you enjoyed this
instalment, write to me whatever your opinion.
Again, take medical situations with a pinch of salt or two; it's not meant to be accurate.