Road to Hell

by Yolande


The stench of Death clung heavily on the air, and the grizzly demise of the unfortunate victims was sickening. Fresh blood was splattered over the ground, dying sagebrush and the rock walls of the valley, as though a manic painter had thrown a tin of red paint and the countryside was his canvas.

An overturned prison wagon lay broken and useless on its side, the front wheel split in two and the axle splintered beyond repair. Bars surrounding the sides were still intact, but the back door gaped open, hanging barely by the single hinge. Littered around the wagon, lay the bloodied bodies of the massacre and already the red blood seeped into the arid desert soil.

The afternoon sun beat down on the dry land, and a gentle breeze wafted over the scene, absently toying with the dead. The odour hung nauseously in the air, and drifted upward to the large carnivorous black vultures that hovered and circled, waiting to devour the gruesome offerings. The coyotes hung back as they too waited patiently on the outskirts, tongues hanging out, and saliva dripping, as the ravenous beasts cautiously studied the lone survivor.

Five slaughtered men! Four of these were soldiers, skilled fighting men, yet their demise was wrought by one man - One solitary bloodthirsty demon - Morris! Throats cut, mortal chest wounds, vicious slashes of the blade that caught the soldiers unprepared. The unexpected attack lasted only ten minutes. Their shrill cries for help, and then for mercy, were dismissed with a casual nonchalance of the bloodthirsty killer.

He'd killed before, and would again. In his crazed and deranged mind, this had been a test to assess his courage and strength against insurmountable odds. He threw his head back and roared with laughter as he sauntered through the carnage, admiring his handy work.

Morris squinted heavenward at the ring of black vultures and down to the valley floor where the coyotes scratched at the dirt in anticipation. He shouted out to the carnivores, "Come my friends...come and enjoy the delicacies." The adrenaline still surged through his veins and he'd yet to come down off his high. Kicking a bloodied limb as he stepped over it, Morris bent down and wiped his reddened knife on the shirt of his lifeless victim.

The murderer crouched down next to the sergeant, a dark headed man. Lifeless eyes stared up at him; the shock and pain etched eternally on his face. The emotion and trauma of his demise was evident. Morris flicked the blade over the soldier's shirt, plucking the buttons off and sending them flying over the valley floor. Using the tip of the blade to open the dead man's shirt he drew the blade over the naked torso, leaving thin red lines of blood trailing. On the sergeant's chest he wrote the word First; this man was the first of the four soldiers to die that afternoon.

Morris then proceeded to mutilate the other three soldiers in the same fashion, delegating what order they died, by scrawling it across their chests. It didn't bother him that he was desecrating the dead, only that he garnered some enjoyment out of the ritual. He'd not been allowed to do that on his last job. He planned on making up for that mistake - Real soon.

The crazed man smirked as he drew the sharpened blade between his fingertips, wiping away the red stain onto his pants leg. Morris sneered as he searched out the carnage for the one final body, Thomas Jones. The fool believed that Morris was helping him to escape, and although he'd been horrified as Morris slaughtered the group of escorts, the dandy still thought he and Morris were going to part company and go their separate ways. Morris learned long ago to never leave any witnesses alive.

Morris had taken a sadistic pleasure in killing Jones. He'd made quick work with deft strokes, slicing as many parts of the man's limbs that were flung out in his frantic and horrified defence. Most of the cuts were shallow; alone they would not cause death, but the multitude combined would slowly drain away his existence. Jones howled and screamed and even begged for his life, but by this time Morris could only hear the slash of the knife as it swept through the air and plunged into soft white skin. He'd not been quick in his assassination of Jones. No! - Morris wanted this man to know pain. His death was long, slow and painful. The murderer watched in awe as the blood seeped and flowed from numerous cuts and gashes that streaked his final victim. Jones took four hours to die.

The killer sat cross-legged cleaning his blade, then sharpened his tool on the whetstone while he patiently waited for Jones' final breath.

Morris gathered the reins of one of the soldier's horse and threw his weight into the stirrups, pulling himself into the leather saddle. Taking one last glance at the bloodshed he'd wrought before he wheeled the horse and shot off in a new direction. His face contorted and a smile of pure evil covered his visage and his manic laughter echoed around the walls of the secluded valley as he whipped the horse into a frantic departure.

Part 1
(Four Corners - Tuesday)

JD Dunne frowned as he stepped out of the telegraph office, sweeping his head up and down the boardwalk he searched for Chris Larabee. Scrunched in the palm of his hand was a note, the reason for JD's uneasiness. The young gunslinger's face straightened a little as he found the man in black stepping out of the jail and taking up the seat in front. "Chris," he waved to capture the gunslinger's attention and hastened his steps to reach the man.

"JD?" Larabee looked up when he heard Dunne call out, and seeing the note of consternation on the young gunslinger's face, threw caution into his own reply.

Dunne's steps flew along the wooden planks that made up the boardwalk. His black boots clipped at his quickened pace. His shouted call to Larabee halted the progress of the folk already on the boardwalk, stopping and turning their heads, to be privy to whatever information was to be imparted. JD rolled his eyes, pushing his way through the stationary people.

When would these people get a life of their own? Must everything in this town revolve around the seven regulators that protected it? Chris shook his head in dismay. Can't a man have any privacy? Larabee stood and ran a hand through his blond hair and then replaced his black hat. Meeting JD half way at the saloon seemed like an idea, born of frustration, and it gave them the chance to retreat from the prying eyes and inquisitive stares. He tossed his head in the direction of the saloon and was relieved to see JD's change in course.

JD pushed back the black hair that kept falling across his line of sight as he entered the saloon. The crumpled note burned a hole in his hand. He desperately needed Chris to read it. "Chris..." the kid gasped out. The young man held the note aloft for Larabee to see, at the inquiring arched eyebrows, Dunne handed him the note. In a hushed voice, JD retold the contents of the note. "Says they found those missing soldiers, all dead they are, and Jones too. Cut up somethin' bad. That Morris fella ain't there..." The young sheriff stopped talking when Larabee held up his left hand to silence the boy.

"Son, I can read," Chris admonished.

"Oh yeah...sorry." JD shrugged his compliance. He watched Chris lower the note to the bar, then impatiently questioned the man in black. "Ya think he'll come back? I mean, ta git Ezra? It hadda be Morris that killed all them people?" Dunne saw the slight shrug of Chris' shoulder; "Ezra could be in trouble if Morris comes back here..." He mused out loud.

"We don't know what he's gonna do, JD. They all went missin' about two weeks ago. That means Morris coulda already been here and gone in that time, but just in case, guess we're just gonna have to watch Ezra's back. Probably best if we can get him somewhere and take turns guarding him." Larabee picked up the shot glass that had been placed on the counter, along with a bottle of whisky when he'd walked in and swallowed a mouthful.

"Ezra ain't gonna like that," Dunne declared.

"Standish doesn't know what's best for him. This time, we're not gonna let him take off on his own." Larabee shook his head as he thought about the near escape the gambler had had only a month ago. Morris drugged him with curare and everyone thought Ezra was dead, even Nathan, so they buried him. God, Standish was so lucky to have gotten out of that casket before it was covered with six feet of dirt. "Maybe knocking him out and locking him up in jail would be a good idea," Larabee mused, contemplating how they were going to successfully protect the slippery conman. They might have better luck if the gambler wasn't informed of Morris being at large...No, then he'd be unprepared if that maniac did attack him. Larabee caught the boy with his steely blue gaze, "Where is Standish?"

"Um, Vin and Ezra are out on patrol, should be back in a couple of hours."

Chris nodded, "Not a word to anyone about this, JD. Not even Buck." JD was about to argue with the man in black, but the gunslinger frowned, holding out his pointer finger he pointed it at Dunne, reiterating his statement, "No one, JD. Understand?"

Dunne reluctantly acquiesced.

"Let me know when Standish and Tanner get back, then we'll tell 'im and the others all together."


Part 2

"Why are we heading this way, Mr. Tanner?" The southerner drawled out of boredom.

"'Cause I thought ya might want ta check out the old Henson place." Vin called out over his shoulder with a mischievous grin as he continued to guide their horses along the overgrown trail.

Standish sighed deeply and nudged Chaucer to follow the path of the tracker's black horse. Wiping the sleeve of his jacket over his sweaty brow, Ezra grumbled under his breath and pulled out his hipflask and swallowed down a mouthful of whisky. A glint of sunshine reflected off the gambler's flask and onto Vin's hand.

The tracker licked his dry lips thirstily and Vin's smile widened as he paused, waiting innocently for the gambler to come level with him.

As Standish lowered the flask he found the tracker watching him, and arched his eyebrows at the dusty man. After recognising the tracker's longing gaze, Ezra handed his flask over to Tanner, without any words passing between them.

"I hardly see the point to this extended excursion. Mr. Larabee will be chomping at the bit at our tardy return to town. As it is, I cannot fathom the necessity for these frequent patrols our illustrious leader has requested," Standish complained. "Now if you are finished guzzling my libations, can we vacate this area and return to town?" Ezra held out his hand, waiting for the flask to be returned.

Tanner's attention was otherwise occupied and didn't see the out stretched hand waiting for the flask. Vin lifted his hat off his head, wiping the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand, while his vigilant eyes studied the ground and the visible tracks that crossed ahead of their path. Leaning low in his saddle, he hung almost out of it. Nudging Peso into a slow walk the tracker edged away from his companion.


Tanner absently handed back the flask and dismounted Peso, signalling Standish to do the same.

Ezra obeyed the silent command and slipped quietly from the back of the Chestnut and guided Chaucer toward Vin's mount. In a whisper Standish asked, "To what is the purpose of this, concealment?"

"Reckon we got some strangers at the Henson's old place. 'Lessing somebody new has bought the place?" Tanner queried the gambler.

"Not that I am aware of. The house was still empty, last I heard." Ezra informed the tracker.

The Henson's were a couple unsuited to the harsh calling of the West, and after only a short time they packed up their wagon and returned East. It was only a month ago that Standish used the house in his retreat from town, after he was almost successfully buried alive. Fortunately for him, Ezra escaped the casket.

"Then, we'll just take a look, see who's about." Vin gave Standish a wry smile. Ground tying the horses the tracker and gambler proceeded on foot to assess the situation.

As they approached the house, smoke could be seen curling high into the sky, mingling with the snowy white clouds that dotted the horizon. Several horses were also apparently stabled in the barn.

The pair crouched low, straining for cover amongst the knee-high tuffets of grass. Vin pulled out his eyeglass, and closing one eye, he looked though it, training its sights on the house. Ezra watched as the tracker studied the once-abandoned house, and when Vin continued to do so in silence, Standish was prompted to state, "What do you perceive, Mr. Tanner?"

"No one about outside." Tanner shrugged his shoulders. "Could just be squatters."

"Then perhaps we should make our presence known, and determine who has taken up residence, before my jacket becomes soiled with grass stains," Standish complained as he rubbed the sleeves of his burgundy jacket where they'd rested on the grass.

Vin rolled his eyes upwards and shook his head in disbelief. We're staking out a house and he's concerned about getting dirty. Vin'd never understand the gambler. "Ya could take it off, be less of a target that way."

Ezra glared at the former bounty hunter. "This jacket stays exactly where it is. A gentleman does not disrobe to partake in land right negotiations. Furthermore, removing grass stains from my shirt would prove even more difficult," the gambler pointed out.

Tanner chuckled, "Ya won't take it off fer this, but ya had not qualms about disrobing for a poker game."

The gambler flustered, "That was an entirely different..." His retort was cut short, with crack of gunfire. The bullet whistled through the air in the open space above them. Suddenly feeling extremely vulnerable and exposed, the two lawmen fell to the ground and crab crawled backwards to gain some cover. A barrage of bullets followed the first, kicking up the dirt around them.

"Shit!" Tanner swore, not expecting that kind of reception. Tanner managed to conceal himself in a dip below a mound, inadequate protection really, but then one can't be choosey...

"My sentiments exactly," the southerner quipped as he dove and rolled to reach a low burned out stump that barely afforded him any protection.

The former bounty hunter raised his mare's leg and blasted its barrel at the hidden interlopers, shattering a window in doing so. He concentrated on the house and where the gunfire was coming from and targeted those positions. Vin glanced over at the gambler and grinned, Ezra was focusing all his attention on the house, aiming his own Remington from behind the dead tree stump. A bullet kicked up a cloud of dust just in front of Vin's boot, bringing his attention back to their attackers.

Calling out over the gunfire, Vin tried to discourage further conflict before someone was hurt, "We're lawmen from Four Corners. You come on out, ain't nobody got to get hurt..." that was as far as he got, as an increase in bullets exiting the building was the only reply.

"Ah, that went well," the gambler sarcastically drawled.

"Shut up, Ezra."

Standish was one-handedly reloading his Remington, while empting his Colt Richards conversion with his other hand. It pays to be ambidextrous. He was rewarded with a yelp from one of the attackers. Smiling smugly at the tracker, Standish licked a finger and wrote a number one in the air so Tanner could see, and then called out, "That’s one down. How many more do you suppose there are?"

"Reckon, about six," Tanner hollered over the crack of his weapon. "Make that five," he adjusted the count as one of the attackers was hit and tumbled out the window. "Reckon the odds are more in our favour now, what cha reckon, Ez?"

"More on the lines of Mr. Larabee's odd takings. But five to two has a much better feasibility than seven to two." Standish paused and steadied his aim, pulling back the trigger, and was rewarded for his accuracy. "These odds are getting better all the time. Care to have a small wager, Mr. Tanner, on the number left standing when they decide to surrender?"

"Geez Ezra, is there anythin' yer not willing ta put a bet on?" Vin chuckled.

"Oh, indeed." Vin seemed a little unsure of the gambler's avowal though.

It was twenty minutes before the gunfire ceased coming from the house. Already the paint was chipped and peeling from lack of care, but now its wooden walls were peppered with bullet holes. Not a single window remained unbroken. A movement at the door brought the focus of both Ezra and Vin's guns aimed and ready.

Somewhere behind the door a voice cried out, "Don't shoot, I'm coming out."

"Throw your weapons out first and raise your hands above your head," Standish ordered the survivor.

The man complied, throwing out the Colt and holding his hands high in the air. He stepped out into the bright sunshine, squinting at the bright rays that blinded him for the matter of seconds that it took for his eyes to adjust.

Part 3
(4:20 p.m. Tuesday)

"Hey Chris..." Buck Wilmington warily called his old friend's name, drawing Larabee from his sombre introspection to the procession that casually rode into town. The tall ladies' man smirked as he stepped off the boardwalk and onto the dusty street, a ready greeting on his lips, which was forestalled by the murderous scowl that Larabee threw in his direction.

"What the hell?!" Larabee's temper was brewing. Can't those pair stay out of trouble? What do I have to do? Tie 'em down?

"Misters Larabee, Wilmington," Standish acknowledged the men with a brief salute, tipping his black flat-crowned hat slightly upward.

"Seems like you two come across a few" Wilmington pointed out the six dead good-for-nothings slung over several horses, which were strung together and ponied behind the lawmen's mounts. "Ya find 'em like that? Or did ya help 'em get that way?" Buck chuckled.

Chris shoved Buck aside and glared up at the gambler, then over to the tracker. "Would it be too much to ask," his voice at this point was deceptively low, but the last part of the sentence was plaintively loud, "WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?" His stance was wide and his hands were resting on the top of his gunbelt, and elbows wide.

"Cowboy, we got ourselves a genuine outlaw," Tanner indicated the only felon still alive. "Pat O'Donnell, and what remains of his gang." Vin turned his head back and glanced over the bodies of the dead men. And not once had he felt a pang of remorse that six men were now dead because they wouldn't surrender.

Standish dismounted Chaucer and straightened his burgundy jacket as he strode back to O'Donnell, roughly pulling the felon off his horse. The gambler pushed the outlaw ahead of him, but the pair was forced to stop when Chris bodily stood in front of them, preventing their departure. O'Donnell's hands were tied behind his back and Standish stood behind the outlaw, bumping into him when O'Donnell suddenly stopped. "Mr. Larabee?" Ezra arched his eyebrow in question as to the barricade the man in black formed.

"You two ever heard of the term, backup?" Chris sarcastically sneered. Wilmington chuckled, oblivious to Larabee's darkening mood.

"Ain't no time ta come back and get help, pard," Vin answered.

"Yes, as my compatriot states, returning would have proved an ineffectual stratagem. And, as the curmudgeons were returning a barrage of gunfire on our persons, there was no opportunity to procure your assistance." Standish drawled, pushing his prisoner passed a bewildered Larabee and Wilmington.

"Yeah, what he just said," Tanner grinned, as he too strode by the stunned lawmen.

Chris and Buck entered the jail as the gambler turned the key in the lock, securing the prisoner in the cell. Ezra turned to face the man in black, "Would it be too much an imposition to request one of you guard him while..."

"No problem," Larabee readily agreed. Both Standish and Tanner shared a guise of disbelief, when Chris ordered Buck to guard the prisoner while he escorted the two lawmen forcibly out the jail.

Ezra's mouth fell agape as he was tugged out onto the street. Both he and Vin were similarly held in the gunslinger's grip, and were being dragged behind the man in black across the road and into the saloon.

Standish found his voice first and tugged back against the Larabee force. "Mr. Larabee, is this really necessary?"

"Standish, quit the bull shit!" Chris growled at the southerner. "Vin, keep still!" More out of curiosity than a willingness to comply, Ezra and Vin went along quiescently with the harsh demands.

Larabee dragged the two men behind him, then pushed them into seats. The irate gunslinger drew his Colt from his holster and fired the weapon harmlessly into the ceiling, causing a shower of dust to fall to the floor from where the bullet hit. Neither man flinched at the loud retort of the gunfire but the dozen or so patrons in the saloon immediately became quiet. "Saloon's closed!" Chris called out to the patrons while pinning his fellow lawmen to their seats with his blue steely gaze. "Everybody out!" The simple command was followed instantly, and a stream of people departed, leaving the saloon uncommonly empty.

Ezra rocked back in his chair and scowled at the hole the bullet left in the ceiling, and the floor of his room. His glare turned from the hole to the man in black. He did that purposely! Standish was certain. Larabee knew that his room was directly above. Damn that man!

Vin learned forward in his chair and folded his arms across the tabletop. "Somethin' wrong, cowboy?" Chris wouldn't normally behave in this manner, unless something was up.

Chris wheeled around on the two men; smoke seemed to billow out his nose and ears. "Yeah, there's something wrong!" He folded his arms across his chest, and glared menacingly at the pair. "Ya think yer invincible?"

Standish stared wide-eyed back at the enraged man. He tilted his gaze to the tracker to ascertain his reaction and found he too was similarly disposed. "To what do we owe this sudden overabundance of patriarchal..." Ezra stopped, unsure how to finish the sentence.

"Protectiveness?" Tanner finished for the conman.

Ezra shrugged his shoulders. "I was going to say vigilance, but that fits adequately enough."

"Gee thanks, Ezra," Tanner muttered.

"Would the pair of you shut up?" This outburst focused both pair of eyes back to Larabee. Before Chris could say anything further Josiah, Nathan and Buck entered the premises.

"Hey, Chris, I see yer working on that subtlety," Wilmington heckled, he could hear the altercation from across at the jail.

Chris snorted and shook his head. "JD relieve you at the jail?"

"Yep. The kid said ya had somethin' to tell us." Josiah and Nathan nodded their agreement with the moustached man.

Larabee waited until all of the five lawmen were seated, then addressed the gambler. "Ezra, you ain't ta leave town, unless I give you the say so. Got that?"

"What?" The gambler abruptly sprang to his feet knocking over his chair, infuriated at the gunman's outrageous decree. A frown marred his handsome features, and for a fleeting moment Larabee saw a reflection of oppressiveness in the green eyes. "Mr. Larabee, " Standish all but sneered, "Mr. Tanner and I have explained the circumstances surrounding this mornings incident. There was no opportunity to attain your assistance. Neither of us was harmed, so I fail to understand your reactions. I for one, will not stand by and have you malign my character, and will not have you dictate to me where I am able to go," Ezra heatedly argued with the gunslinger.

"You about through?" Larabee asked, but the conman openly glared at him in defiance.

"Chris, it weren't Ezra's fault." Tanner felt compelled to defend his friend.

The gunslinger waved aside the tracker's concern. "I never said it was." Chris stared directly at the gambler when he said this, "What I'm trying to tell ya, is that those soldiers were found, all dead. And Morris wasn't with them."

A moment of silence as the news sank in was followed by a definitive, "NO!" from Standish.

Chris frowned at the southerner for a moment. "I've got the wire for you to read if ya want?" He started tugging at his jacket pocket in search of the missive.

"That wasn't what I meant. No... I will NOT be secreted off somewhere to have you gentlemen acting as a sentry, shadowing my every move."

"Ezra, sit down!" When this directive was met with a stubborn refusal and an expression that cried out 'make me,' Larabee stepped closer toward the gambler.

Wilmington had been watching Chris throughout this confrontation, and immediately recognised the shift in Larabee's demeanour. He didn't know if Standish recognised the threatening posture or whether he did and was pushing the man in black to the limits. But it was time to call a stop, before one, or both of them got hurt. He did what came automatically to him, and jumped between the opposing men. "Now boys, this ain't the way ta handle this," Wilmington reprimanded. At the imposing height of six foot and four inches, Buck towered well over the smaller gambler who was now hidden from Larabee's view.

"Buck, get out of my way!" Larabee growled, and strode to step around his larger friend.

"Brothers, this is not getting us anywhere," Sanchez boomed as he stood, taking a position just behind Standish.

Ezra suddenly felt trapped between the two large men and stepped aside. The split second that the gambler showed himself, Chris launched himself at the southerner, clipping him on the jaw with a right hook and sending him sprawling to the floor.

Chris didn't wait for the others to comment, he pulled the semiconscious man to his feet and threw him over his shoulder. He carried the gambler out of the saloon. Calling over his shoulder as he left, "All right if we keep 'im at the church?"

"Um... sure, Chris," Josiah agreed. Turning to face the healer, Sanchez asked, "You gonna check 'im out?"

Jackson shook his head: now where did that come from? He couldn't believe Chris would go so far as to knocking the gambler out to protect him? He looked up into a sea of worried faces, "Yeah, I'll check 'im."

Part 4

From the shadows of the buildings, lurked the sadistic and crazed Morris. He'd arrived in Four Corner at dusk the night before, and secured a relatively safe position to maintain his anonymity, but also to keep an eye on the seven peacekeepers that protected this town. Of course, one in particular earned his special attention - Ezra Standish. For it was this man who was to blame for Morris' incarceration, and given time, he'd extract his revenge.

Black eyes, devoid of life, scoured the street searching for the weapon he sought. For if he was going to succeed in capturing Standish, then the incentive had to be just right, or so his boss had informed him. Morris briefly pondered the wisdom of his loyalty to that man, but since he'd been in his boss' employ for most of his adult life, it was second nature now not to even question his authority.

The crazed man reflected back on his amazing escape from the convoy of soldiers. How easily it had all worked out. And he owed his salvation to a slithering snake. The reptile had inadvertently crossed the path of the mobile horse drawn jail, causing the two horses to rear up, throwing the driver and, in a panic, race off out of control, with the soldiers trailing behind in the dust.

The wagon jostled and bounced the two prisoners inside while the horses tore recklessly across the plains, dragging the wagon behind and off the trail and into the hills. Finally coming to an end in a valley of rocks and red dirt, with only one way in, the frantic escape of the animals came to an abrupt halt. The wheels cracked and the front one finally shattered, sending the wagon over onto its side crashing to the ground. The two tethered horses squealed in terror, as they were dragged down with the heavy carriage. While the wagon twisted and buckled across the ground, the horses broke free, breaking from the joist in a crackling snap.

When the dust cleared, Morris noticed the door hanging ajar and crawled over the top of his fellow prisoner to escape. The crazed man waited a full five minutes before the soldiers caught up with them, by that time Morris was in position. The five-inch long blade that had been hidden in his boot now made its appearance. He made quick work disposing of the soldiers.

It had taken him a whole week, aimlessly wandering, before finding civilisation, and it was mere good luck and perfect timing, as opposed to any survival skills he had. He'd run the stolen horse into its grave, and continued on foot. During that time his body became dehydrated, his eyes sunken and the exposed skin on his hands, back of his neck and face were burnt red from the harsh rays of the sun. An old miner had been his saviour. Discovering the sick man, lost in the hills, the grizzly old man helped the killer to the nearest town. As the old man had shown genuine concern for Morris, the killer did not take his life.

Now, he was ready to continue his boss' instructions. Over the next few days, Morris would choose a pawn, who would inevitably be the catalyst in Standish's capture.

Part 5
(Midday - Thursday)

"I am not hungry!" Standish glowered at the tracker. His mood was sullen and had deteriorated since he'd woken and found himself in Sanchez' small room off the back of the church. Added to that, the ultimate humiliation, tied by the foot to the end of the bed.

"Ya gotta eat," Tanner simply stated, resting the tray of food on the edge of the bed.

Standish, in no mood to be cajoled, grabbed the tray and sent it flying across the room, clattering noisily against the door and then once more as it hit the floor. Food stained the wall and dropped in globs to join the tray on the floor. He glared defiantly at the tracker, folding his arms across his chest, daring Tanner to press the issue.

The southerner had been holed up in the former preacher's room for two days. And every six hours his protectors changed. One remained with him constantly, another outside in the church, while yet another watched the front of the church from a secure location. That left only three of the seven peacekeepers to protect the town. The prisoner, Pat O'Donnell who was in the jail had been escorted to Hollow's Fall the previous day, so at least no one needed to guard the jail at present.

At the sharp clang from inside the room, the door burst open filled with two curious faces. Larabee and Sanchez both stood on the doorstep viewing the tray of mush in the doorway with waning tolerance. Chris stepped over the ruined meal and further into the room. "There a problem here, Vin?" Larabee inwardly chuckled, not daring to face the disgruntled southerner.

"Nothin' I can't handle, pard."

Standish shifted his gaze from the tracker to the new arrivals. "May I inquire, just how long you are going to persist in my imprisonment?" The gambler's voice was anything but calm, and if he could, he'd have departed this place well before now. Unfortunately Standish had never worked out how to untie knots. Locks, shackles and vaults were not a problem, but anything to do with a piece of rope, left him mystified. "You can not detain me here indefinitely! Hell, Morris might never show. Then what do you propose?"

"He could be right, Chris," Josiah supported the southerner's plea for release.

"What do you think, Vin?" Growing weary of continually fighting with the gambler, Larabee sought the insight of the former bounty hunter.

"Well, I know he ain't eating in here." Tanner grinned back. Shrugging his shoulders and wrinkling his brow he considered the options. "Figure we can't foresee what Morris'll do. If we let Ezra out, then at least there are seven of us watching the town, instead of just three. Should be easier to spot him then, if he comes."

"Mr. Larabee...?" The gambler licked his lips as they formed a lopsided smile; freedom was close at hand.

"Fine! You get yerself killed, don't come complaining to me!" Larabee declared, with a hint of amusement in his grin.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Standish seriously professed, sending the tracker a satisfied grin. He lifted his foot off the bed and wordlessly requested that the knotted rope be removed. The southerner slipped his arms through the sleeves of his favourite jacket and just donned his boots when Wilmington burst through the door, pushing Josiah further into the small room.

Buck observed that the gambler was now free, and sucking in hard sought after breaths, he struggled for words. Handing Chris the note in his hand, the ladies' man gasped out, "The Bastard got 'im, Chris! He's got the kid!"

Part 6

JD Dunne blinked open his eyes, but closed them when the bright light sought entry into his clouded mind. The sheriff bit back a cry when he tried to lift his head from the downward position in which it hung, but found he didn't have the energy to do so. His body was slung over the saddle of a horse, with his hands and feet tied together beneath the belly of the animal. The constant sway of the horse turned his stomach further, fuelling his need to stop the motion. Craning his neck, Dunne sought his attacker and found him atop the horse a few yards in front, guiding JD's mount behind his.

Dunne didn't recognise the scenery, but hoped that they were leaving some kind of trail for the others to follow, which he was certain they would. The one thing that puzzled JD the most was that his attacker was Morris. And he was certain, as was everyone else, that Standish would have been the madman's intended victim. Unless Morris was going to use him as a bargaining tool to capture the conman? Dunne groaned as his side once more rubbed painfully against the saddle.

Unfortunately Morris heard the strangled moan and reined in the horses and dismounted. He strode back to the young man and lifted JD's head up by pulling on his hair, seeing the glazed and unfocused eyes that blankly stared back at him, Morris let Dunne's head drop back to the horse. "Don't go dying anytime soon, we got plans ta make. And they include your friend, Standish!" Morris started laughing as he walked back to his horse, and the laughter became more frenzied and hysterical as he mounted and continued down the secluded track.

JD restrained the retort that was on the tip of his tongue; he was already in enough pain at the moment and didn't want to provoke the unstable man into harming him any further. He wondered what Morris had install for both he and Ezra, but was in no hurry to find out. His side burned from the knife wound that had cut into his flesh and his head ached from the blow that Morris had first inflicted, to kidnap him.

JD berated himself. How stupid could he be? He all but went willingly into Morris' trap, now Standish was going to be in trouble 'cause of him. The horse JD was slung over, lurched awkwardly sending a spasm of pain spiralling out of control, plummeting the sheriff back into oblivion.

Morris twisted in his saddle to watch the limp body, and an evil smile curled over his lips. Pushing his mount into a faster pace, the crazed man wanted to establish a base before the others followed him. He wasn't naive enough to think that only Standish would come, as per his orders. So he had to make ready for all their arrival. That's where the boy came into his plans.

He'd crudely bandaged the young man's wound, but he was no doctor. And the wound was deep, needing sutures to close it properly, but that was to his advantage. And the worse the kid's condition got, the better the odds were for Morris.

The madman continued his journey, with his shrill laughter filling the silence of the desert.