(6:55 p.m. Friday)
It was the constant swinging motion that caused him to wake. Prying open his eyes the tracker sighed at the uncomfortable position he found himself in. Draped over the horse's middle, Tanner lifted his head away from where it rested against the stirrups and struggled for a moment to comprehend why he was in this position. A band of pain circled his head and Vin reached to rub his aching head, but discovered his hands were tied together with his feet under the belly of his horse. Groaning inwardly, the memory flooded back with vivid clarity.
"Ezra?" Vin barely whispered, calling out the conman's name.
"Mr. Tanner..." the gambler's voice was low and weak. Tanner strained to hear the quiet response from behind.
"You okay?" Vin inquired, unable to see for himself as to the southerner's condition.
"Fine," Standish replied curtly.
"You two best keep quiet or I'll have ta stop and make sure ya can't talk!" Morris threatened his hostages.
The light from the sky had all but diminished, and a yellow glow was all that remained of the dwindling sun as it set below the distant mountains. The darkened shadows joined, sending a blanket of black spreading over the rugged landscape. A sensation of foreboding settled over the hostages as they were led further away from their friends, Four Corners and help.
Standish rolled his neck, trying to eradicate the ache that stemmed from the wound in his shoulder, but the action did little to dull the pain. His horse trailed behind Vin's, who was directly behind Morris. If he'd felt some relief that his captor allowed him the privilege of sitting astride his mount, then over the past two hours, that emotion evaporated. Instead of hanging limply over the horse's middle, as the tracker was, Ezra had to utilise all his energy just to stay upright in the saddle. Aside from the constant ache in his shoulder the gambler had to contend with the agonising pain that screamed out from his leg. Blearily gazing at the bound and bloodied hands that he'd earlier held to the injured limb, the southerner grimaced as he replaced them when the binding round his thigh started to spread with fresh blood.
Standish was relieved when Tanner regained his senses. Lifting his eyes until they landed on the back of the tracker, he found it a comfort that Vin was with him, and that he wasn't alone. How could he explain the heart wrenching emotion that assailed him, first, when he'd laid eyes on JD? God, he prayed that the others weren't too late and Nathan could help the boy. And secondly, when Vin rushed Morris in defence of Dunne and also been attacked by the cold-hearted murderer. Yes, that was exactly what the man was. A murderer! Because it had to have been Morris who slaughtered those four soldiers and Thomas Jones.
Standish visibly shuddered, as he fought the encroaching blackness that attempted to take him. He poignantly hoped that Morris would call a stop to this journey soon, before he fell from his rented mount's saddle. His only consolation to this entire mess was that he'd not ridden Chaucer this day, and his mount was safe in his stall in Four Corners. He'd also noted that the horse Tanner was slung over was not Peso. How long had they been riding for since they left JD? Ezra lost all sense of time. As it was dark, he surmised that they'd been travelling for at least a few hours. The gambler guessed that Morris wanted a substantial distance between them and the others. That's if they even came. Yes, they would come. Vin was Chris Larabee's best friend, so Chris would indeed come. If not for them both, for Vin. A grim smile crossed his tired countenance.
From the horse in front the southerner heard the Texas drawl of Tanner inquiring of their captor when they were going to stop. Vin must also be feeling uncomfortable.
"You boys just git comfortable, 'cause we ain't stopping any time soon." The madman hollered over his shoulder and the two prisoners heard their captor's hysterical laughter erupt once more.
Confirming the gambler's worst fears, Ezra groaned and slumped from exhaustion forward in his saddle.
Worried at the southerner's response, Vin apprehensively called out, "Ezra?" Tanner lifted his head and strained to see passed the rump of his mount. "Ezra, answer me!" Tanner strained his body away from his steed and caught a glimpse of the hunched figure astride the horse. "Standish!" Vin tried once more, but still no reply came from the southerner. Unable to retain the position any longer, the tracker collapsed back to the horse. Squeezing his eyes closed, a furrow formed across his forehead as he fought the headache and exhaustion that threatened his equilibrium. Sighing, Vin gave up attempting to communicate with the gambler and let the sway of the mount send him back to oblivion.
It was well after midnight before Morris called a halt and decided to camp for the rest of the night. He pulled the unresponsive gambler from the horse and dragged him over by the fire, leaving him there while he untied Tanner. Once Vin was free he wriggled his fingers until the numbness left them and before he was tied back up the tracker joined Ezra by the fire and checked the gambler's injuries.
Vin frowned in concern down at the gambler; he was relieved to see Ezra blink open his eyes. "How ya doing, pard?"
"Fine." Vin nodded at the obvious lie, but didn't call him on it. "Can you undo these, please?" Standish hoarsely croaked as he wearily held his bound hands for Tanner to comply.
"Yeah. Need ta fix ya up some, too." The tracker watched the weary expression of acceptance and then called out to Morris. "Hey! Ezra needs to have these injuries fixed. I need some water and bindings," he was rather brusque in his demands, but if he wasn't, how else would he garner the insane man's assistance?
Morris looked up from his musings, and contemplated his prisoners. Staring vacantly into the red glow of the fire, he mentally assessed how much trouble each man was going to cause him. Tanner was a pain in the ass, and if it wasn't for his Boss' request that the tracker was bought to him alive, then he would've already slit the man's throat. As for Standish, well, keeping him alive was a must. Morris didn't know what his superior wanted with the gambler, but ever since they'd found out that Standish survived the attempted burial, his boss was even more adamant about taking care of matters himself. He just hoped there'd be something left over for him. His lip curled up sardonically.
Groping through his saddlebag, Morris found and old shirt and a cheap bottle of whisky. Carrying them over to his hostages, he dropped them at Tanner's feet. "You leave his hands bound, 'cause as soon as you've fixed 'im up, you'll be gittin' yours back on."
Morris stood over the pair while Vin cleaned and wrapped the gambler's shoulder. When the tracker finished, he gave Ezra a wry grin, then looked up into the black eyes of the killer. "I gotta git the bullet out." He felt the gambler tense beneath his hands and the sudden increase in his breathing drew Tanner's gaze back to the injured man.
Morris began roaring with his maniacal laughter, and in gasps asked, "You seriously think, I'm gonna let you have a knife? Do ya think I'm crazy?"
At this statement, both hostages glanced in disbelief at one another. Did he want an answer to that question? Then he stunned them both further, by announcing that he'd remove the bullet from Standish's thigh.
Ezra's eyes widened to saucers and made a desperate lunge away from the crazed man, who'd hunkered down beside him. "Like Hell!" The gambler weakly protested.
Vin didn't like the sudden change in events any better than Ezra and stepped forward to intercept Morris. "I'll just wrap it up. He don't need your help."
"I said, I'd do it! Now, out of my way, Tanner, or you'll be feeling this blade intimately, like your other little friend did!" And when Vin stayed his ground Morris yelled out, "Move it, Tanner!"
"Vin!" Ezra screamed the tracker's name, as he watched Tanner fall to the ground. Morris moved so quickly and struck the tracker on the side of his head with the handle of the knife, that Vin had no chance to react to the attack.
"Now, it's just the two of us, Standish," and his eyes gleamed with evil merriment as he raked the knife down his pants leg and widely grinned at his terrorised victim. Ezra tried to edge away but Morris clamped his hand down on the gambler's bleeding leg causing him to cry out in agony at the rough handling. "Stay real still, or it's gonna git awful messy," he warned the southerner. Morris pressed one knee heavily down on the top of Ezra's thigh, above the wound and ripped the trousers pants to reveal more of the area.
Standish bit his tongue and shook with fear and trepidation while he waited for Morris to plunge the knife into his skin. He briefly pondered how mutilated he would be when the killer had finished. But all thought disappeared when an immense searing pain cut into the wound. Standish felt a roar in his ears as he fought the intensity of pain, and realised it was his own blood-curdling scream that he could hear. Ezra felt the knife twisting and turning in his leg and the tip of the blade scrape across the top of the embedded bullet, pushing it further into his limb. Blood spilled freely from the gaping cut and the ground below his leg was soon soaked with the red liquid. With one final stab at the wound, the southerner cried out but was blessedly taken into the arms of darkness.
Once the conman lapsed into unconsciousness, Morris lost his enthusiasm for the torture he'd been inflicting and easily pulled out the bullet with a minimum of fuss. He leered, even though unconscious, the gambler still twitched in pain, and the madman considered continuing the torture after all. Uncorking the bottle of whisky he tipped the alcohol over the bleeding wound, then pressed a section of his spare shirt to stop the bleeding, and finished by bandaging it up. Leaving the gambler where he lay, Morris stepped over to Tanner and checked him over before retying his hands and feet.
Retreating to his position by the fire, he resumed his earlier musings, absently watching the glowing embers flicker as the flames licked up and down the dry piece of bark.
"So, how is he, Nathan?" Wilmington badgered the healer.
Jackson wiped his bloody hands on an old cloth, and met the painfully bleak blue eyes, with his own brown orbs. "Stitched both the knife wounds closed, and he's got good colour in his foot still. Jest gonna haf ta wait for him to wake up now. I've done all I can. It's up to him now."
"Well I ain't leaving till he wakes," Buck adamantly decreed.
Larabee lifted his own gaze from the floor to the ladies' man at the determined statement. He hated that he had to force Buck to choose between his friends, especially when the young sheriff was so deathly still. And maybe, he had little chance of making it. But two of their friends were still out there, hurt and injured, and in desperate need of their help. "Buck," Chris waited until the tall man acknowledged him. "Come mornin', we gotta look for Vin and Ezra... and we need you along."
"I ain't leaving the kid!" Buck growled vehemently.
"Buck, calm down. Nathan will stay and look after JD. But we need you... Vin and Ezra need you, and we're leaving in the morning." His tone brooked no room for argument.
"I'll take real good care of him, Buck," Nathan promised. "Ya could stay the night, he might wake up while yer here." Although Nathan was almost certain that he wouldn't wake any time soon.
"But what's he gonna think of me, if I ain't here for him?" Buck countered.
Josiah draped his large arm over his confused friend. "JD will understand, Buck. In fact, if he were awake, he'd insist that you came with us to search for Vin and Ezra."
Wilmington nodded his head that was exactly what the young man would want. Unselfish to the core, he always thought of others before himself. "Yeah Nate, I'll be stayin' the night."
Come morning, JD had still not regained consciousness. And true to his word, Wilmington remained by the youth's side throughout the night, slouched in a wooden chair beside the bed. Buck had held the younger man's hand, and talked on and off while he waited for some signs of the kid coming around. In one sense, the older man hoped that JD didn't wake just yet, for when he did, the pain from his injuries would be excruciating. But it was just so unnatural to see the boy so deathly still, and he wiped the back of his hand over his cheek as a lone tear trekked its way down his face. He jumped in his chair as the door flew open, and he ducked his head to the floor and scrubbed his tired and emotional features.
Chris stood on the threshold of the door, undecided whether to come in or not. Sanchez stood just behind him. Searching the dim interior for the resident healer they found him blinking wildly in confusion as he woke up. Stepping further into the room, Chris sought his friend of more than ten years, and found him gaunt and tired with red-rimmed eyes that beseechingly stared up at him in misery. Obviously the tall cowboy didn't get much sleep during the night.
"I can't leave him like this, Chris," Wilmington all but pleaded. He dropped his eyes, already knowing what Larabee's response would be. Tucking the kid's hand back beneath the covers, he patted JD's good leg and spoke softly, "You get better now, you hear me, kid?" Turning to Nathan, Buck chewed his bottom lip. "Take care of him." At the healer's nod, he left the room and continued down to the street below, where three horses were saddled, ready and waiting.
Larabee followed Wilmington's departure with a silent gesture, unable to offer any words of wisdom, or heal the rip that cut at the compassionate man's heart. Tearing the man in two; Chris could see it happening before his eyes, his concern for JD versus his loyalty and friendship that compelled him inexplicitly to Standish and Tanner. Morris was tearing them apart, eating away at the solidarity, that as a team they had accomplished. Breaking them up and wearing them down, both mentally and physically. For their strength lay in the fact that together, the Seven were a formidable force. A power to be reckoned with.
With Nathan having to stay in town and tend JD, and Vin and Ezra drawn from the equation, only the three of them remained. Larabee pondered whether three of them would be enough. Without understanding why, the sombre man knew that there was a greater force involved, something that spurred the erratic Morris into this feast of devastation. It was the only explanation. If the madman was intent on slaughtering Standish, why didn't he already do it? Why kidnap JD to lure the gambler out of their protection, and not take his life immediately the opportunity arose? He'd also waited for Tanner. Why did he take them both?
"Chris..." Jackson tapped the sombre man on his shoulder. Watching the blue eyes clear, the healer held out his hand. "Bring 'em back."
Larabee nodded, clasping the outstretched hand and shook it. Taking one last look at JD, he turned on his heel and left. Sanchez patted the former slave on his shoulder and with a heavy sigh, followed in his leader's footsteps.
Nathan followed them out of the room and stood on the balcony at the top of the stairs, watching the three lawmen depart the town. The sun was only just now rising and the town had yet to come to life. A new day dawning, Nathan wondered at what it would yield. His brown eyes sought the sky for Josiah's crows, and with a small taste of victory, he thinly smiled and headed back to his charge.
The fire died during the night and the bodies that lay sleeping around the perimeter of the campsite shivered in the wake of the cold morning. Morris tossed his head restlessly as he fought against demons in his dreams, but he didn't awaken at this time.
Vin stretched his legs, and flexed his numb fingers that were tightly bound behind his back. Licking his tongue over his dry lips he realised he'd had nothing to drink for a long time, or to eat for that matter. Not that he really wanted anything to eat at the moment though. Vin rolled onto his back as far as his hands would allow and squinted up at the sky. This was usually his favourite time of day. Particularly when he was out alone, communing with nature. Everything was so quiet, and the air was fresh and clean, untarnished with the hustle and bustle and rushing around that so many folks seemed insistent on doing. He drew in the brisk morning air and filled his lungs with the cool and faintly smoke tinged air. If not for his damnable position he currently found himself in, this particular spot was quite, as Ezra would say, enchanting.
With a grunt and deftness that belied his predicament, the tracker pushed himself into a sitting position, but he had to rest his head on his knees when an attack of dizziness clouded his vision. Tanner pulled himself over to the gambler and very gently nudged the southerner, being mindful that he was on Ezra's injured side. Not wanting to alert Morris to his presence, he whispered, "Ezra."
With a groan, the southerner's eyes flew open, and instinctively drew away from Vin. But a start of pain in his leg prevented him moving too far, and throwing back his head, Standish hissed out a gasp, and he rolled onto his uninjured side away from Tanner.
"Ezra, you okay?"
Vin's concern filtered through the wave of strumming in his ears. Panting and eyes clamped shut; Ezra managed a small snort. "Define, 'okay'."
"We're gonna get out of this! Chris'll come, you'll see," the lanky tracker assured the southerner.
+ + + + + + +
It was close to noon before the insane man called a halt to the trip, allowing the two prisoners a chance to rest. He'd thrown both of them over the saddle of the two spare horses and tied them, bound, as Vin had been, the day before. The ride was particularly taxing on the gambler and he struggled between periods of unconsciousness and semi-awareness. Vin was still bruised and sore from being trussed up all night and riding his horse this style the day before.
"Untie me first." Tanner demanded of their captor. "I can help Ezra get down then."
Morris grabbed a handful of the tracker's hair and lifted his head up. Bending at his waist, so he was as the same level, his mad eyes danced and his toothless grin mimicked a desperate soul. But Morris stared benignly, breathing his fetid breath as he spoke, "You wan ta help the little gambler? Ah... ain't that sweet?" He licked his lips and blew his foul breath into Vin's face. Tanner reacted, pulling his head out of Morris' clasp and defiantly scowled at the crazed man. "Sure, you look after him. Once we get ta where we're goin', ain't nobody gonna help either of ya then." He untied the rope and let the tracker fall to the ground, before turning his back on the pair of them, certain that they had no chance of escape.
With a watchful eye the madman set about making a fire. He desperately needed coffee. He smiled broadly and sporadic fits of laughter erupted from him as he listened to the southerner's groan while Tanner tugged at the rope bindings.
"Almost done, Ezra. Then I'll git ya off."
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner." The gambler would have slid straight to the ground if Tanner had not been behind him to stop the descent. "I'm afraid my legs have forsaken me," Ezra apologised.
With a grunt at the extra weight he now held, Vin looped the gambler's arm around his shoulder and all but dragged him to the shade of a large outcropping. "S'alright. You want somethin' ta drink?"
"That would be most desirable, but perhaps I should inquire of our captor for the sustenance."
"May I point out, every time you ask him for something, you are rendered unconscious."
Vin absently fingered his bruised face. "Ah sure...you ask, Ezra."
Standish cleared his throat to garner the attention of the crazed man. "Mr. Morris, would it be permissible for Mr. Tanner and myself to partake in some liquid refreshments?" He attempted to appear cowed, and with the pain from his shoulder and thigh ever present, his complexion pale and gaunt; his presentation was one of defeat, one that pleased Morris immensely.
Morris stared intently at the southerner for a minute, then gathered up his canteen and another shirt and tossed them across the distance to the two men. "Clean up them wounds, Tanner."
Vin quickly scooped up the canteen, before the madman changed his mind. "Guess it's your... charm."
Nodding his head in agreement, Standish sarcastically replied, "Yeah, works exceptionally well on murderers, criminals, lunatics and general run of the mill bad guys."
Tanner snorted at the gambler's quick wit, which was still strong, even in this dire situation. He offered the canteen to the southerner, swallowed a mouthful himself, then pushed Ezra back into a reclined position so he could clean his wounds. Unwrapping the bandage from around the conman's thigh the tracker visibly winced when he exposed the wound. He'd not seen the wound since Morris knocked him out the night before, now he shuddered to even contemplate what the lunatic put Standish though while removing the bullet. His leg was a mess. There was no better way to describe the angry red slices that gouged deeply into Ezra's thigh.
"Mr. Tanner... Vin..." Standish stopped to fight off a wave of pain.
"Uh Huh... Vin, you need to get away from here. Take your chance while you're not tied up."
Tanner glared at the injured man. "I ain't leavin' ya here, with him!"
"Your chances of escape are quite high, but I would only hamper your successful attempt," Standish reasoned.
"Then I guess I'll be stayin', 'cause I ain't goin' anywhere without ya!" In his anger, he roughly cleansed the wound and applied pressure overly hard on the now bleeding wound, forcing his whole weight down on Ezra's leg. Tanner didn't relent until he noticed how pale the southerner had become, even his eyelids were flittering, and his fists were clasped so tightly that his knuckles turned white. Vin eased up on the pressure and muttered an apology. "Sorry, but I ain't going. Got that?"
"Most... definitely." Standish hissed out between his clenched teeth.
(The Devil's Marbles - 7:25 a.m. Saturday)
Wilmington scuffed his boots in the red dirt and showered a plume of dust and rock sailing over the precipice. He grumbled under his breath and wearily gazed out over the marbles below, squinting against the rising sun. Buck rubbed his hand over his stubbled jaw, sighing in desolation at the unwarranted situation he was in. He sought out his fellow compatriots and watched as they scoured the ground for the departing trail of their missing friends. And with a sense of foreboding, Buck felt uncommonly distracted, distanced from the scene below. His thoughts solely on the young man that he left...no abandoned to Nathan's care. Not that he didn't trust the healer to take care of the kid; it's just that he needed to be there for JD as well.
When had the young gunslinger become so important to him? Remembering back over the two years they'd shared together, a group of mismatched men brought together to fight a common goal - a shared destiny. With a grunt, he had to admit that the kid had gotten under his skin from the first. And although they didn't share blood, they'd spilt enough in sacrifice for each other, forming a stronger bond than if they'd shared the same parents. Damn, he should be with him now! Not traipsing over the countryside.
He dipped his chin to his chest, lifting his hat off and wiping the sleeve of his shirt across his sweaty brow and feeling the warm rays of the sun hit his uncovered head. Another heavy sigh followed this action. He'd not really given Vin and Ezra a thought since finding the battered body of JD. Wilmington knew how much the kid idolised the tracker and the gambler and how hurt and upset he'd be if anything happened to them. The moustached man shook his head and wanly smiled. That damn kid could get under his skin out here, even when he wasn't with them. Roughly shoving the brown hat back into position, Buck jumped down to the basin floor. In a rough growl, he called out to Chris and Josiah, "So, any one found anything yet? 'Cause times a'wastin' and those two boys are more'n likely in trouble."
Sanchez raised his eyes from his scrutiny of the ground and smiled broadly at the ladies' man. He thought that Buck regretted coming, but was pleased to see some spark back in his temperament. Only moments after, Chris' voice echoed around the marbles, informing them that he'd found the trail. Minutes later, they mounted up and headed out in single file through the narrow ravine that soon would lead them to Tanner and Standish.
Larabee knew without a doubt that Sanchez and Wilmington followed him. He didn't need to look over his shoulder to see their forms, or strain to hear the footfalls of their mounts as they kept pace with the man in black. As undisputed leader of this motley group of men, he just expected they'd be there. But it was Buck, his oldest and longest friend he'd ever had, that threatened to not follow his lead. Chris was a little dismayed at first, that Buck would even consider refusing to search for their missing friends. He wondered if it had anything to do with Chris' new friendship he'd formed with Vin Tanner. The tracker and he had seen something in each other and respected the other immediately. Larabee had to question if Buck was jealous of his relationship with Vin, as theirs was not as close as it once was. The blond leader uneasily admitted to himself, that it was initially for Tanner's sake, he'd forced Buck's assistance. Damn, he'd been worried when they'd found all that blood at the Devil's Marbles. And it wasn't until the three of them came back this morning to search for the trail, that Larabee even considered that the bloodstains might have belonged to the cocky gambler.
Chris sighed deeply, wiping his sweaty hands on the black denim of his pants. Tugging the lid off his canteen he brought the nozzle to his cracked lips and swallowed the blessed water. He squinted from the blazing sun, and tipped a measure of water into the palm of his hand wiping it over his heated face. Larabee watched as his partners also took the opportunity to whet their whistle. "Buck...I want ta thank you fer coming, I know how hard it musta been to leave the kid...not knowing..."
"Both Ezra and Vin are my friends, Chris. And they also mean a lot to JD, and I'd do anything for that boy. He'd want me to be out here with ya, looking for 'em. Not moping around town waitin' fer him to wake up. And before ya go thinking that I'm only here 'cause of what JD would want, then that ain't right either. Neither of them boys deserves to get hurt, especially by some half-crazed maniac. I mean ta find 'em, and they sure as hell better be in one piece when I do." Buck nudged Brutus passed the other two men, who were still a bit shocked by the ladies' man's impassioned speech, he ducked his head under a low branch that stretched across the path.
Chris shared a look with the former preacher, who was still staring after Buck's departure. "No need to worry about him, Chris. He's seems to have settled his misgivings." Larabee heard the older man's words, but didn't look up or respond to Sanchez. Chris watched as the former preacher guided his mount passed him and followed Buck. Guess Josiah's right, he didn't need to worry about Buck.
They'd been silent in their musings for the last few hours and the lead changed once more, now Josiah led the trio. Sanchez pulled his mount's reins, calling a halt to the procession. Stepping down from Prophet, he crouched down and rubbed his fingers over the brown spot that stained a rock on their path. "More blood, whoever's bleeding, they're leaving a real easy trail fer us to follow."
"Don't reckon that's their real intention, Josiah." Wilmington grimly replied, leaning over his saddle horn as he spoke. "Come on, those boys are getting further away with us just sitting here."
Larabee nodded. "Let's keep moving then." Chris hated wasting precious time. The more often they stopped, the further behind they lagged. The man in black urged Saber into the front and set off at a pace.
It wasn't until mid afternoon that the trio discovered the campsite that their quarry used the night before. Larabee knelt down by the remains of the fire and raked his hand through the cold ashes. "Damn, stone cold."
"They appear to have a full days start on us," Josiah intoned.
"Geez!" Buck's startling oath had both Larabee and Sanchez' heads whipping around in unison. "Look at all that blood!" He pointed to the dark collection adjacent to the fire. Wilmington wiped his fingers over his mouth and jaw, as the bile rose to his throat. "Damn, someone's hurt real bad!"
Chris kicked at the dusty ground, billowing a cloud of dirt over his already dusty boots. They'd pushed their horses to the limit all day, trying to gain some time, but their efforts seemed to be in vain. The three horses were all but spent, and the three men were just as tired and worn out as their mounts. They needed to call it a night, and get an early start again in the morning. But seeing the determined expressions on the faces of the former preacher and the ladies' man, he figured he'd have a battle on his hands to have them even admit they should stop.
Realising the direction of Larabee's thoughts, Buck quickly vetoed the idea. "We can't stop here, Chris." Wilmington waved his hand around the deserted camp. He couldn't relax if they stayed the night in the same spot as Vin and Ezra shared with their kidnapper, knowing that they were somewhere out there and in pain. And it was Wilmington's belief that the gambler, and Vin for that matter, would not be in this predicament if he'd not been so eager for Ezra to trade his life for that of the kid's. Damn, what was he thinking? Ezra probably thinks I don't care a whit about him.
Agreeing with Buck's reasons, Chris assented with a quick nod of his head, then took Saber's reins and led the black through a thicket of brush. Josiah and Buck followed his lead, and after walking their mounts for fifteen minutes, found another clearing that was suitable and they set up camp.
Conversation was minimal that night, as each of the three men delved deep into their thoughts. But each man, at some stage contemplated the fate of their three youngest. With JD back in Four Corners, still unconscious? Would he even wake up? And if he did...? Then there was Ezra and Vin, were they going to be in time to prevent any further injury to the pair? Or worse?
The scenery changed little during the day, rock and grass and a barely identifiable trail. The heat from the sun drained the strength from the travellers and even the horses were covered in a fine sheen of sweat. The horses kicked up a thick cloud of red dust around their hooves and pulled and strained at the bits in their mouths. They'd come quite a distance from Four Corners, and the skilled tracker no longer recognised any of the landmarks that they'd passed during the day's journey.
During the second half of the day, Tanner found himself at least upright in the saddle, although his hands were bound at his back and he had no control over his mount, over than with leg pressure. But this docile mount was not responding to any of the commands that Peso would have easily understood. He trailed at the back of the pack, behind Ezra who was led behind Morris. Tanner scowled; glowering at the back of Ezra's rumpled burgundy jacket as he rode slumped in the saddle. Standish hardly said a word to him after he'd refused to heed the gambler's advice and escape. Not that Vin blamed him. He was rather rough when he cleaned the gambler's injuries. Hell, that maniac probably enjoyed torturing Ezra while he took out that bullet the night before. Damn, that had to have hurt! They had to escape. That weren't gonna be easy, not with Ezra's injuries. Least the shoulder wound was clean and healing, but his leg...aug. Think, Tanner think. There's gotta be a way.
They stopped at the crest of a rise, and the tracker's curse was barely audible as his eyes absorbed the new development. Below them was a group of six or seven men, staring unconcerned as Morris led his captives down the rise and through the centre of the group. Damn, they were waiting for them! That's all they needed. Hell and Damnation!
"Hey Moe," the red-headed man in the centre addressed Morris.
Morris tilted his head, acknowledging the greeting, "Bacchus." His black eyes scanned the group, and with a sneer he curled his lip upward, glaring intently at the leader. "What cha doin' out here?"
"Just doin' as the Boss ordered."
"And what exactly would that be?" Morris dismounted his steed, still holding the leads of Ezra and Vin's horses; he stepped up to the leader of the group. He stood inches from the shorter man, and...smiled. He didn't like Bacchus, but with the added men the rest of the trip would be made a lot simpler. Morris slapped the red-headed man on the back and startled the gunman with his sudden change of mood. "Don't matter none, I s'pose. You boys gonna help get these two," and he indicated his prisoners, "back to the homestead?"
Bacchus nodded, "Yep." And he turned around to the five other gunmen behind him. "Ya prob'ly already know, Chippa?" At Morris' nod the leader continued the introductions. He pointed out a small Mexican with greasy black hair that hung into his eyes, and introduced him as Carlos Moriarty, a large and brutish American by the name of Joe Stone, a tall and wiry gunman who only grunted when Bacchus pointed him out was identified as Pistols Pete. And finally, Slugger Dave, a much older man with a long and bushy beard made up the group.
The six hired guns had already set up camp, and since Morris was in no more of a rush to reach the homestead, he decided they would stay out another night, knowing that they'd reach their final destination early the next day. Drawing his hostage's horses behind him, the crazed man announced his plans. "We'll stay here the night."
The red-headed leader considered for a moment to challenge that command. But one glance at the dead set, of Morris' eyes and uncompromising stance, he quickly changed tact. Instead, he silently ordered the prisoners to be removed from their mounts, with a nod and shake of his head and waving his arms about.
Pete and Chippa responded to their leader's demands, familiar by now with his gestures. They roughly pulled Standish and Tanner from their mounts, and then momentarily untied them, only to have their hands retied at the back of a tree. The group of seven guns now ignored the two lawmen, and made dinner.
Morris sat apart from the group, not joining their conversation or the meagre meal that was hastily put together. He kept a vigilant eye on his hostages, but didn't move from his position. Instead he pulled his knife from his boot and cleaned the dirt from under his fingernails, flicking the debris into the fire.
"How ya doing, Ezra?" Vin whispered as he stretched out his long legs, flexing the stiff muscles.
"We seemed to have acquired more escorts," the southerner drawled as though it only just occurred to him, nodding toward the camp.
"Yeah. Ya didn't answer my question, but."
They sat shoulder to shoulder and Ezra blearily lifted his head and in confusion stared blankly at Vin. "Huh?"
The tracker would have laughed at the uncharacteristic response from the eloquent southern gentleman. But instead he frowned; this was not good if Ezra was resorting to one worded reply. "Yer leg, how is it?" Vin rephrased.
Standish looked down at the sodden bandage and winced. He'd attempted to put it out of his mind, by reciting the Greek alphabet. Unfortunately it was still there to remind him, and once more the pain was forefront in his thoughts. He closed his eyes and tipped his head back against the rough bark of the tree.
Tanner watched the play of emotions as they flitted across Ezra's face. "That bad, Huh?"
"On the contrary, I feel it is better than this morning," the gambler stated as he opened his eyes, fixing his poker face back into position.
Seeing the mask drop back into place angered the normally quiet man. "Quit lying to me, Standish. I ain't no fool."
"Does it really matter then? We're as good as dead." He'd lost hope and Standish shuddered as he turned his face away, mumbling under his breath. "And now, you have no chance for escape."
Vin heard the gambler's last words and shook his head; "I don't regret it, Ezra. Woulda done the same fer Chris, or any of the boys fer that matter. I wouldna left any of 'em. I reckon you'd a done the same fer me."
Vin felt the gambler shake, was he laughing? "You really don't know me very well, Mr. Tanner. Had I been given the opportunity to leave our esteemed host, I for one, would have taken advantage of the situation and left."
"You woulda left me behind? If things were reversed?" Vin didn't believe for one minute this was so, but wanted Ezra to see it that way also.
After a short pause Ezra replied, "Definitely." The response was weary, and definitely lacking in spontaneity.
"Now I know yer lying." Ezra managed to arch his eyebrow upward, waiting for Vin to finish. With a laugh Vin continued, "If you were so mercenary, how come you let yourself be swapped fer JD? Huh? Hell, ya didn't even want any of us to be involved in the trade, so nothin' else would happen to the kid."
"Yes...well, a lot of good that did. JD's probably cursing me...and Morris, for his involvement in this situation. That's if he's survived."
"JD'll be fine. Nathan's the best Doc around. He'll fix the kid up." Vin didn't know whether or not this was the right thing to say, but just hearing the words spoken aloud gave him some much-needed reassurance. "Ya know, if I'd shot the bastard, when I first came in, then we wouldna even be here."
"JD was in your line of fire; you couldn't risk taking the shot. I thought you didn't want to play the what if game."
"Yeah... reckon it's hard not knowing though."
"That it is, my friend."
(Four Corners - 6:55 p.m. Saturday)
"Nathan," Mary Travis was slightly out of breath as she hurried along side of the dark healer. "Have you heard any word from the others?"
Jackson stopped and faced the blond woman, "No Ma'am, don't really expect to hear anything for another day or so though."
Nodding her head, a few strands of her golden tresses loosened from her bun and fell around her neck. "How's JD?"
"No change. I just thought I'd duck out fer a quick bite, then be right back."
"Why don't I go sit with him a spell, then you can relax while you have supper. Can't have you worn out now." She beamed up at the tall peacekeeper.
"Sounds awful tempting, Ma'am. Could do with a bit of a break." He took the editor's hand in his large hand and squeezed it lightly. "Mrs. Travis, that'd be really nice of ya if ya'd do that fer me. Thank you, Ma'am, I'll take you up on yer offer."
"Good. You get a few hours sleep now too," she ordered and shooed the healer in the direction of the restaurant. Smiling contentedly to herself she climbed the stairs to the healer's clinic.
(11:50 p.m. Saturday)
A blaze of red and orange sputtered, eating through the mountain of twigs and branches, glowing in the dark as it heated its solemn companions. A log moved in the middle of the pit sending a shower of sparks sailing a few feet into the air. Three pair of eyes watched the patterns dancing in the fire, staring into nothingness, but with a play on the imagination, images of life formed on the flames of fire.
Was it only Chris that saw and heard the panicked screams of his wife and only child as they perished in a house of flames? He saw Sarah hugging Adam, trying to shield his body from the flames that at the same time ate away at her. Taking her life and eventually Adam's while he arrived too late to save them, but soon enough to know their agony. And for them? Did Sarah know he was outside? And couldn't save them? Chris dropped his head to his knees, which were pulled up in front of him. Overwhelming sadness enveloped him, as it always did when he thought of Sarah and Adam. Chris wiped the back of his hand over his moist eyes. When he reopened them the image in the fire had changed.
He watched as a young man hammered on the walls and screamed in pain as the fire also made claim to his life. Chris raced to the house and burnt his hand as he put it to the window, straining against the heat and smoke to see who was inside. As the gunslinger brought his face closer to the window, a moment of clarity appeared. And in that instant the young man's face showed clearly in the window and Chris recognised it immediately as JD's. But the moment was gone and the boy no longer stood on the other side of the window, all he could see now was the wall of growing flames as they ate the cabin. He balled his fist and slammed it into the window, breaking the glass and sending shards in all directions. The gunslinger furtively searched for Buck, but he was no longer with him. Chris was all alone, save for the burning cabin with JD inside. Without waiting, Chris crashed through the broken window and into the house, coughing as the smoke filled his lungs and the heat burned his soul. He easily found JD, and gently picked the boy up and stepped out of the inferno. But as soon as he had JD clear, the fire disappeared and the house was gone. Looking down at where he'd deposited the burned man, he found that JD was still lying at his feet. Dying. Gasping for every breath. And as he took his final breath, the young gunslinger also disappeared. Chris stood motionless, in the middle of a field, with no burning house, and no dead body of JD anywhere to be found. He clasped his hands over his head, falling to his knees and he screamed out in rage.
"Chris...Hey pard," Buck shook the shoulder of the man in black. The blood-curdling scream that still rang in his ears echoed in the silence of the early morn. "Come on, Chris, wake up."
The gunslinger abruptly sat up, and struggled to catch his breath. He pushed away the hands that held him down, and not until an open hand slapped his cheek did he fully wake and take in his surrounds. Both Josiah and Buck each had one of his arms pinned within theirs, and they stared at him with confusion and exhaustion. His body shook with the tremors that still gripped him, and he audibly groaned, relaxing back down to his bedroll. The two men let go when Larabee pulled out of their grips. And as way of explanation, Chris closed his eyes and whispered on a shaky breath, "Nightmare." He turned his back on Buck and hoped they'd get the hint and leave him be, without embarrassing him further.
After the nightmare, Chris took quite a while before sleep reclaimed him. Normally, after such interruptions to his sleep, he'd stay awake, drinking through till morning. But as they'd not brought along any spirits, he forced himself to relax until he could sleep once more. This time when the dreams started, it wasn't Sarah and Adam, or even JD in danger; it was Vin and Ezra. They were trapped, as his wife and child, and then JD, they screamed out his name, calling him to rescue them. He could see them through the windows. Why didn't they smash the window and get out? Something must be stopping them. Larabee barrelled down the door and the flames licked around him, but they didn't seem to harm him. He searched the room, but Ezra and Vin were no longer here. The room was empty and suddenly the fire was gone also.
One door lead from the room, and Chris hesitantly stepped toward it. The doorknob was hot and he snapped his hand quickly off the latch. The blisters began to form on the palm of his hand, and still the door remained closed. He called out his friends' names as he kicked down the wooden door. Behind the door was a tunnel filled with a blaze of fire. Standing on the threshold he contemplated whether or not to go into the tunnel. His decision came easy when he saw the burgundy jacket of the gambler just before he disappeared around a bend. "Ezra!" He hollered out, but the southerner was gone. Chris raced down the tunnel, unconcerned by the flames. He could hear Vin's Texan drawl out his name, and Ezra's southern accent calling at the same time. He stopped, his head was spinning, and the pleas grew louder. Chris sank to his knees and his friends voices faded. "No!" Larabee screamed at the top of his lungs. "Don't go! I'm coming!" But the tunnel was empty, and the fire was gone, only a faint tinge of smoke hung on the air. The floor beneath his feet disappeared and he started to fall, his arms and legs flailed as he plummeted downward. Every so often he'd feel something solid but it would just as quickly vanish before he could get a firm hold. He fell, deeper and deeper into the dark abyss, until he was...swimming? He shook his head, and droplets of water rained down his face.
"You gonna wake up now?" Wilmington asked with a frown of concern marring his normal jovial features.
Chris blinked his eyes, and wiped his hand over his... wet face? His eyes travelled down and he frowned at his damp shirt that clung to his chest. "Why am I wet?"
Josiah squeezed the gunslinger's shoulder. "Ya had another of those nightmares, and it took a bit to wake you up."
"And you had to drown me in a bucket of water?"
Buck's roguish smile lit up his face. "That was only after ya slugged Josiah in the jaw." Chris arched an eyebrow in disbelief. "Ya got me too. See..." The ladies' man pointed to a swollen area under his right eye. "I'll owe ya one fer that."
"You want to talk about those dreams?" Sanchez queried.
"Maybe later, Josiah. Okay?"