Road to Hell

by Yolande

Part 19
(4:35 a.m. Sunday)

"I could really do with a shave," the gambler bemoaned as he used his good shoulder to alleviate the itchiness of his face.

"Reckon that's the least of yer worries, Ezra."

"Well, it's something different to concentrate on," Standish curtly replied.

Tanner immediately looked down at the southerner's thigh. He winced in sympathy; that had to hurt. And to make matters worse the injury wasn't cleaned since noon the day before. He was gonna be lucky if it didn't get infected. Unable to help at the moment, Vin figured he'd help relieve the gambler's boredom. "My shoulders and arms are aching so bad, and I reckon I've taken a whole layer of skin off my wrists trying ta get out of that damn rope." Vin concentrated on a root by his boot, but he felt the gambler's bewildered gaze lingering on him. Without raising his head, he continued his diatribe, "My belly's so empty, it's howling out in misery, and to add to that my mouth is so dry I can't even spit." The tracker started digging a hole with the heel of his boot, and he paused in his tirade to notice that Standish had moved his line of sight down to the small mound of dirt he'd disturbed. This brought a sly grin to the longhaired tracker. "I reckon I could really take a leak about now too..."


Tanner had the tumidity to ask, "What?"

Standish rolled his eyes heavenward. "Thanks Tanner. Just thanks." The sarcasm deeply embedded in the southern drawl.

"Yeah?" He nudged the southerner gently with his shoulder, as Vin was leaning against Ezra's injured side. "Fer what?"

Standish groaned, "I hadn't even considered those... irritants, until you mentioned them. Now..." he groaned again, shifting the weight off his buttocks and wriggling to restore some feeling to his numb backside. "You just had to mention..." Ezra squeezed the top of his thighs together and screwed up his handsome face. If it didn't hurt to do so he would have crossed his legs, but the gambler had no intention of moving the injured leg any more than necessary.

Vin chuckled; his only intention was to distract Ezra, by informing him of his own needs, not to make the gambler more acutely aware of his own discomforts.

Standish scowled at the unrepentant man and grumbled, "I hope you are in as much discomfiture as I am."

"Reckon I am."


+ + + + + + +

Two hours later both prisoners had fallen back into a restless slumber. The sun had risen an hour past, and still little movement existed from the campsite. But as the sun's rays heated the new day, so too did the seven gunmen awake. Stretching the cold and stiffness from joints they leisurely checked that their two prisoners were still bound to the tree. Once satisfied, preparations began in earnest.

Normally Bacchus would have insisted on someone taking guard last night, but Moe had dissuaded him of the normal precaution, stating that Standish and Tanner could not escape. And that Larabee and his men would be at least a day behind them, so didn't present a threat. The red-headed leader stared at the still sleeping killer. He'd known Morris for as many years as he cared to forget. When he was younger, Bacchus had taken to shortening the man's name from Morris to Moe, when the stubborn man refused to supply another name to go by. He didn't know whether Morris was his surname, but after so many years of referring to the other by the moniker of Moe he'd assimilated in his mind's eye that his name was Moe Morris. Morris never complained about the addition, but then he never actually accepted the nickname either. If truth be told, Jim Bacchus was not certain whether he'd be safe, if ever he was left alone with the manic killer. Sometimes Moe would stare at him, and evil glowered out his bleak black eyes.

The gunman searched for his right hand man, Chipper Logan, and watched him striding back through the sagebrush, that surrounded the clearing, and catching his eye Logan changed direction and headed his way. The taller man greeted his leader with a grunt. Bacchus smiled in return then nodded his head in the direction of the prisoners. "Need to fix Standish's leg up. The boss'll kill us if he dies 'cause of some infection."

Logan agreed with a simplistic nod. He didn't wanna be the one who told the boss of the southerner's injury. "Yeah, I'll get Dave ta fix 'im up." He hoped that would satisfy his friend, 'cause he wasn't gonna do it.

+ + + + + + +

"Hold still, will ya. I'm almost finished." Dave cleaned Standish's wound and started to wrap the clean bandage over the new dressing. While the older man was fixing the wound, Ezra squeezed his eyes tight and tensed his entire body, holding his breath so he didn't scream out.

Tanner offered support during the episode by talking throughout. Not one to usually run off at the mouth, the tracker found he struggled to keep up the flow of conversation. It was normally the quick-witted conman, who carried the conversations between them. Vin was confident that Standish could talk under water. As it was the gambler paid little attention to his litany.

"It's done." Dave stated, and slapped the gambler affectionately on his shoulder. He picked up the half full bottle of whisky from where it laid and was about to return to his comrades when a thought came to him. Conspiratorially, he peered over his shoulder, finding no one watching, he held out the bottle to the gambler. "Here, ya want some?"

Ezra opened his eyes and stared in puzzlement at the grizzly man. His pain filled eyes saw the whisky and he became more aware of Dave's query. He quickly nodded, before the offer was withdrawn. The older man held the bottle to Ezra's lips and tipped it up, for him to swallow. "Thank you."

"That'll help some." Dave stood to leave, but turned back. "I'll git ya somethin' ta eat, Okay?"

"Thanks, mister," Vin answered, as Ezra was shaking so badly, Tanner didn't think the gambler could respond, and he didn't want to offend the man.

Part 20

It was mid-morning before Chris came along side the former preacher and a faint tinge of red coloured his cheeks as he was reminded of this morning every time he was faced with the bruised visages of his friends. "Josiah, about this morning..."

"No need to explain, Brother. It happens to the best of us." Sanchez assured the man in black. "And if you ever want to talk about those dreams...well I've always got an open ear."

"Thing is, Josiah, last night...well they were different than usual." He shrugged as he contemplated how to explain his nightmares to the older man. Josiah didn't say anything, but just nodded his head, not wanting to rush Chris, he waited for him to continue. "They started out the same, but then JD, Vin and Ezra got mixed up in them somehow." Omitting the details of Sarah and Adam's death, which was always the same, Larabee, proceeded to tell Josiah the remainder of the confusing and disturbing images that plagued his dreams.

"Seems to me, that yer worried about those three boys."

A bark of laughter erupted from behind the pair. "Hell, I coulda told 'im that, Josiah. Without even hearing his dreams," Wilmington scoffed.

"Well, I ain't asking you, Buck," Larabee growled, and turned his back on the jovial man. "I know I'm worried...for JD and Vin...but I didn't know I..."

"Cared about Ezra?" Sanchez finished.


Josiah weakly smiled, he cared a great deal about all of the six men he now worked with. And although his relationship with the gambler was one-sided, more his than Ezra's, he felt that a bond had started developing between them. Baring that in mind, he tended to view the other five men's relationship with the debonair man with grudging indulgences. The more time Josiah spent with the conman, the more he realised that beneath the flamboyant clothes and the elaborate vocabulary beat a heart of gold. And not just the money grabbing image that the southerner tried very hard to promote, but a man who cared about each and every one of them. So much so, that he wouldn't be in this mess if he'd not agreed to Morris' demands in the first place. "You know you called out his name? Maybe you're more concerned for Ezra than you thought you'd be?"

Again Chris replied monosyllabic, "Yeah."

Part 21
(10:30 a.m. Sunday)

Nervousness began to eat away at his self-confidence when the gambler got his first glimpse of the sprawling whitewashed mansion. They approached the building from the western perspective, on a track that was not frequented all too often. Adjacent to them, a well-established and maintained road lined with full-grown oak trees approached from the south, ending in an open semi-circular drive at the entrance to the house. Obviously this was the typical route one normally made to reach this destination.

A garden bordered the outside frontage of the house, and it was well tended with a mass of vibrant colours. A typical contrast to the hostile and untamed land they had travelled through during the past days. In the centre of the drive a small pond took pride. In its middle stood a stone statue of a naked woman tipping water out of the ewer she clasped to her breast, emptying into the pool. Surrounding this was another garden. A wide set of stairs flowed to the ground from the sweeping verandah that fronted the building and a rich pair of mahogany double doors with stained glass inserts, opened invitingly inside.

A circular corral of painted white posts and crossbeams with saddles slung over the rails, stood a distance from the house, where three horses were currently grazing in the yard. Two other horses were saddled waiting with their reins tied to a hitching rail under the shade of another old oak. With such opulence on display, Standish pondered exactly how far they were from a civilised township. Surely someone with such obvious wealth, would not establish himself too far from the community.

As the large group came closer, a dog's excited barking heralded their arrival. Tanner and Standish were centred amid the group of hired guns, with Morris trailing unconcerned at his designated position at the back of the pack. There seemed to be numerous people milling around, one obviously a gardener, with his wheelbarrow and fork in his hands. One thing they all had in common was their immobility and their flagrant regard as they gawked at he new arrivals.

Ezra shared a perplexed note of consternation with the equally confused Tanner. "End of the line, boys." Bacchus quipped as he effortlessly dismounted. Sweeping a glance around, he growled condescendingly at the prying busybodies. "Get back to work!" Taking no further notice, they indeed followed his command. Bacchus demanded the attention of his two newest hired hands. "Moriarty, Pete, you two take care of the horses. See that they all get a good rub down. You know how the boss gets if ya don't take care of the animals."

The small Mexican curled up his lip. "Reckon he treats those precious horses of his better'n us."

In one quick motion, Bacchus flung out his solid fist, back-handing the insolent man in the face and sending him to the ground with a spray of blood flying from his broken nose. "With comments like those, you'll be lucky to be still here by the end of the week. Now, help Pete with the horses, or take off, 'cause I don't want no one around who ain't prepared to pull his weight."

Moriarty wiped the bloody nose and spat in disgust as he climbed to his feet. Turning his back on the red-headed man he begrudgingly led away his and Dave's horses.

It was the older man, Slugger Dave who helped the southerner to dismount his ride and steadied the swaying gambler until he could hold his own weight. But he found that the southerner had little strength left in reserve and all but sank to the ground. Dave hauled the gambler upright and supported Ezra at his elbow. Morris pushed through the guns and dragged Standish from Dave's grip and took hold Tanner's forearm, escorting them up the stairs. Bacchus motioned to Chippa and Dave and they followed at a short distance behind.

Ezra limped awkwardly, and painfully, trying to keep up, as he and Vin and were dragged inside and pushed into the first room on the right, off the elegant foyer. The gambler stumbled when Morris let go, tripping over the corner of the imported Persian rug that covered the wooden flooring in the sitting room. Landing on his knees, the southerner was tempted to lie down when he felt how thick and soft the carpet was under his knees. He was positive that he'd be unable to gain his feet without assistance, especially with his arms bound behind his back. Vin stepped protectively in front of the vulnerable Standish and glared threateningly at their persecutor.

Morris grinned maliciously in return as he intimated an advance on his prisoners. Vin stood his ground and psyched himself for the expected blow.

"Stand down, Morris!" Jim Bacchus ordered upon entering the sitting room, instantly taking in the situation. Dave scowled at the madman and quickly moved to stand behind the gambler. Widening his stance the older man gripped either side of Standish's shoulders and lifted the smaller man back onto his feet. Standish offered a weary nod of thanks for the older man's help.

The soft tread of slippers on the polished floors announced the new arrival, and the guards stepped aside to allow his approach. Even Morris deferred any further action, and retreated to a corner of the room. "Finally, at last! But why did you bring them in here?" He spoke slowly, enunciating the syllables fully in each of the words he spoke. This man was well groomed, with short styled brown hair, which was combed, across his head to hide the thinning that had begun in the last few years, and he also sported a neatly trimmed moustache. Several deep age lines angled out from his eyes, and many more creased his forehead. This man's age was perhaps late fifties, but possibly not yet sixty. His mode of dress was that of an autocrat, both stylish and resplendent of his authority.

The newcomer walked conservatively around his new arrivals, absorbing details about each of the men. "Mr.'s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I've so longed for this opportunity to have you as a guest in my humble abode." He held out his hand as though to shake, but with an opulent gesture withdrew his arm. "Beg my pardon, I see you are unable to respond at this point." He turned to face Vin and the charming smile he'd bestowed on the southerner vanished. "Mr. Tanner, as your host I hope you'll find your accommodations acceptable during you brief stay at the 'Reolta'." He gestured with a wave of his hands, indicating the mansion was known as the 'Reolta'.

"Who the hell are you?" Tanner rudely inquired.

"Gentlemen, forgive my poor manners. Let me introduce myself, I am Benjamin Argus Chisholm." Standish arched his eyebrows in recognition. Chisholm smiled broadly, showing off his brilliant white teeth, "Ah, I see Mr. Standish is cognisant with my persona."

"Your absence was duly noted when you were...detained from visiting with the Honourable Judge Orrin Travis, when he was last in Four Corners," Ezra drawled.

The aristocrat smiled, he was truly impressed. "My my my..." he shook his head and stepped closer to the gambler. "Tell me, did you only just come to that conclusion... or did something tip you off before now?"

Vin gaped, open mouthed at the civil conversation that Ezra was sharing with their host. To say he was confused was inadequate.

"Mr. Chisholm, let us not be coy. Your missive to the judge in itself was reason to question your involvement. But you'll forgive my ignorance as I'm yet to understand your connection."

"Good, good. It will give you something to contemplate while you are waiting." He turned back to Vin and once more his congenial manner dropped, "Mr. Tanner, your stay here will be short. Now that you have arrived, we can start the arrangements. I'll have the best carpenters, commence work at once on the gallows..."

"What!!?" Standish yelled in astonishment.

"Mr. Tanner murdered my son, and I shall have my retribution." He turned and strode out the door, calling over his shoulder as he retreated down the hallway. "Take them downstairs."

Part 22
(11:10 a.m. Sunday)

The ever-vigilant Morris and Bacchus, with Logan and Dave bringing up the rear escorted them down to the dungeon. They had to duck their heads, as the ceiling was extremely low at the doorway, which led from the warm and homey kitchen, down a set of stone stairs to the hidden dug out tomb below. Two cells were opened along the back wall, a mere six-foot wide, each with a narrow window higher than head level that was noticeably filled with iron bars. The floor that stretched out from the steps was tiled, but covered with a thick layer of dust and mud. This flooring material stopped several feet short of the cells, and from there it remained in it's original state after the root cellar had been extended to allow room for the two barred rooms. Apart from the stone walls and the bars that extended across the front and between the two rooms the extensions were never fully completed. But they were sturdy in their construction, and deemed suitable for the short time they were intended to be in use. Vin and Ezra were ushered into separate cells and the keys turned in the locks preventing their escape. No lighting was supplied to the rooms, aside from the daylight that seeped through the narrow slits. After the four guards delivered them, three of them returned to the top, leaving a lone man to stand watch over the prisoners. He sat down on the cold stone step, pulled out his papers and rolled a cigarette, intent on ignoring the two jailed prisoners.

"I don't think much of yer friend's guestrooms. Expected 'em to be better, 'specially after seeing upstairs," Vin complained as he stared out into the dimness of the dank dungeon.

"First and foremost, that...Neanderthal is not, I repeat not, a friend of mine. And furthermore, I too, am similarly entombed in this wretched prison." The gambler dropped heavily onto the bed, which was the only furniture in the cell. He stretched out, and covered his eyes with his forearm, blocking out the little light that seeped into the cells. Wrinkling his nose in disgust as the stench of the filthy blanket assaulted his nostrils, Standish moaned softly. If given a choice, the debonair southerner would not have even contemplated resorting to lowering his standards and accepting the respite that the single bed offered, but his stamina had been severely eroded away in recent days and the gambler was exorbitantly tired. Both his shoulder and thigh were a constant source of pain, and added to that his wrists were raw from rubbing against the rope. At least one small consolation was that his hands were no longer bound at his back.

Vin watched from his cell as the southerner sank to the bed, lying down and closing his eyes. "Hey Ezra, you okay?"

Without opening his eyes Ezra wearily admitted, "Just tired, Vin."

Tanner crouched down beside the gambler, as best he could with the metal bars separating them and snaked his hand through the bars and rested his palm on Ezra's forehead. "Yer a bit warm."

Ezra made no attempt to pull away from the tracker, "Hmmmm."

"Why don't cha get some sleep?"

"An excellent proposition, Mr. Tanner," Standish agreed.

Standish slept deeply for two hours, when he woke to the constant pacing of his friend in the neighbouring cell. Clearing the fogginess of sleep from his eyes the gambler followed the erratic movements as Vin paced in the small enclosure. He watched as the long-haired plainsman frowned and agitatedly rubbed his hand across his jaw. "Is something amiss, Vin?"

Tanner stopped his pacing and approached the shared wall between them; he'd not realised the southerner had woken. "Just can't recollect ever bringin' in anyone by the name of Chisholm. I mean it's not a real common name, so it's not like I'd ferget it."

"Perhaps, he was not one of your bounties, but from your time elsewhere?" Ezra sat up a fraction and reclined back on his elbows.

"Yeah, maybe." But in truth, he didn't really believe this.

Rubbing his head, Ezra winced at the hammering that echoed through the underground cells, "What is that infernal racket?"

Vin flicked a worried eye at the small window that was just above ground level on the outside, and back at the gambler. "Nothin'. Don't worry about it."

Standish had seen the expression that crossed Tanner's face, and the momentary flash of terror that registered in his blue eyes. Standish abruptly sat, and dropped his boots off the side of the bed, intending to climb onto the bed and peer out his small window to gain his answer. But instead, Ezra was hit with a wave of dizziness, tilting the focus of the room and forcing him to lay back down.

"You all right?" Vin asked in concern, seeing the gambler's pallor.

Standish rubbed his hand over his forehead; his eyes remained closed as he fought the light-headedness. The pounding in his head beat in time with the hammering that filtered through to the underground prison. And with sudden insight, Ezra snapped open his eyes and propped himself up onto his elbows, gaping in horror at Vin, "Good Lord! They're building a gallows, aren't they?"

With a nonchalant shrug, Vin didn't voice his reply, instead ignored the gambler's question altogether by asking, "Ya wanna talk about somethin' else?"

The gambler nodded despondently, he didn't want to believe this was happening. How could Vin be so blase about his own death? Standish furrowed his brow, but continued to stare into the tracker's blue eyes. Vin returned the stare for a minute then dropped his gaze to the earthen floor. Ezra sighed, feeling at a loss. It wasn't in his nature to offer comfort or false promises that he couldn't ensure. All his life he'd been seen for what he was - a gambler, conman, even a thief. Never before had anyone taken the time to look deep beneath the mask and discover the true side of the southerner. Of course, he'd never before dropped the facade long enough for anyone to see. Until he met up with others. And although they still had not fully accepted Ezra Standish completely, this was the closest the gambler had ever come to knowing true friendship. Could Vin really want his company? The tracker was resting his chin on his chest, seated crossed legged on his own cot. Sometime during his slumber, Vin rearranged his furniture, as the two beds were side by side, separated only by the iron bars. If Standish could offer the quiet man some measure of peace, then he was willing to give it a go. "Sure, what did you have in mind?"

Tanner lifted his head slightly, and contemplated his injured friend. The corners of his lips turned slightly upward, growing to a wide grin. "Ya could help me work out who this guy's son was, that I's 'sposed to ave killed."

Part 23
(Dusk - Sunday)

"It ain't your fault, Chris," Buck defended. "They musta really been travelling." The three lawmen had stopped for the night, but in Larabee's estimation they should have continued on, at least until they found their quarry's second night's camp. As it was, now they had no way of knowing how far behind they were.

"Yeah, I know, Buck. I got this gut feelin' that we're gonna be too late when we do catch up is all."

"Least whoever's hurt, ain't bleeding so much anymore," Buck reasoned.

Chris threw a stick into the fire and watched as the blazing fire ate the splinter of wood, "So long as he ain't dead." He'd yet to put the nightmares of the night before to the back of his mind. They'd been a thorn in his side throughout the day, a constant reminder of why they were out here, and what they'd left behind. He knew Buck was anxious to return to Four Corners to discover how JD was faring, but he was also grateful for his friend's presence, and his eternal optimism. And Josiah, had been a tower of strength.

Larabee was in no hurry to sleep, especially if his dreams returned to haunt him. Josiah and Buck set out their bedrolls and rejoined him at the fire. Sanchez pulled out a bottle that had been hidden under the folds of his brown coat. "Care to join me for a libation?"

Buck grinned brightly at the former preacher. "Ya brought some whisky along?" Wilmington licked his lips in anticipation, clapping his hands together, and stretching out his long legs.

Sanchez nodded in agreement. "Yep, was Nathan's idea actually."

Buck snorted, "Nate suggested ya bring it along?"

Josiah grinned at the scoundrel and shook his head, then clarified, "He give it to me."

"Ain't his ditch water, is it?" Larabee asked with mild concern.


"Then pass it over here." Chris held out his hand, expecting Josiah to comply. "Ya only got the one?"

"Now that would be telling." Sanchez winked.

Part 24
(6:10 p.m. Sunday

The elegantly dressed man was so out of place in the dirty and rustic dungeon that Vin chuckled at Chisholm's uncomfortable demeanour. Flanked on either side by Stone and Logan and with the older bearded man, Dave bringing up the rear. Chisholm approached Tanner's cell, but stood a short distance from the grimy bars, least his attire became stained. He heard the tracker's soft chortle, but refrained from commenting on it. "I've come to inform you, Mr. Tanner, that the work on the framework is going along smoothly. And I've set the time of your hanging to be 11 o'clock tomorrow morning. I do hope you enjoy your last night." Not waiting for any reply, Benjamin Chisholm quickly strode to the stone steps.

"Ya know, I don't even know who yer son was." Tanner gripped the iron bars in his hands and called out to the retreating man's back.

Chisholm's footfalls instantly stopped, but he refused to turn around. He stood motionless for a minute, then resumed his departure without comment. He returned to his abode above the ground, leaving Vin and Ezra in the company of the three remaining hired guns

Standish sat up on the bed, keeping a wary eye on the guards. He watch as Dave beckoned the guard, Stone, to open his cell door. The older benevolent man entered the room and dropped a bundle on the end of Ezra's bed, and turned back to take a second bundle from the guard. Stone then slammed and locked the cell door behind him. The two guards retreated to the bottom of the stone stairs and talked in hushed tones while they waited for Dave to finish.

Standish started to back away from the larger man, not understanding his intent.

Dave pulled a small bottle from his coat pocket and held it out for the southerner to take. When Ezra didn't respond, the older man picked up Ezra's hand and folded the bottle into his palm. "It's laudanum; you're gonna need it, while I fix up yer leg."

Standish opened his hand and stared down at the amber coloured bottle. "Thanks, but no thanks. I think I'll pass on any further treatment." And he held out the bottle to return it.

"Ezra," Vin called from cell, "Let him do it. Ain't nothin' else ya can do now anyhow."

He nodded his head in defeat and resigned himself to the expected pain involved. Dave grabbed him at his elbow and pulled him off the bed, balancing the unsteady man on his good leg. Dave wrenched the moth eaten and soiled blanket from the bed and threw it on the earthen floor, then spread out a clean blanket, from his bundle, over the old mattress. Seeing a small smile light the gambler's face, Slugger Dave returned the gesture. "Best if ya drink it now," he indicated the medicine.

Ezra furrowed his brow and tilted his head inquiringly at Vin, who nodded encouragingly, and back at the vile tasting concoction. Swallowing quickly so he didn't have to taste the thick liquid, he then lay back down on the clean blanket. The southerner's eyes began to droop almost immediately and he struggled against its control. "Vin, please wake me, if anything happens," his words slurred together.

"Sure thing," Tanner nodded, holding Ezra's hand as he lost the fight.

Dave set a bowl between the gambler's legs at the bottom of the bed, and poured in a generous amount of water from a canteen. He dropped in a white rag and then set about removing the sodden bandage from Ezra's thigh. The wound was very red, swollen and angry, "Looks like it's infected."

"Yeah, he's real warm," Vin admitted.

The older man cleaned the wound and wrapped a clean bandage around the sleeping man's leg. In an act of generosity, he passed the bottle of laudanum through the bars to Vin. "Here, he might need this through the night."

Vin accepted the bottle, and on a hunch asked the question that had been haunting him since they arrived. "Ya know who Chisholm's son was?"

"Nope. He ain't never married, far as I know." He combed his fingers through the long flowing tangled beard, frowning in thought. "Now that ya mention it, I did hear somewheres that he had a bastard kid, name was...Chase? No... it was Charles." Dave grinned as he remembered. "Yep, that was it, dunno. Sorry, don't remember ever hearing 'is last name. Only died a month back, 'e did."

"Thanks, Dave, and thanks fer helping Ezra. You couldn't leave that canteen behind could you?"

"Sure, make sure ya hide it." Dave stood and gathered his supplies, and called to the waiting men. "Come on, open up," he grumbled impatiently.

Part 25
(Four Corners - 7:15 p.m. Sunday)

Of all the times that one of them was hurt, it was Nathan who was depended upon to fix them up. Of course this time was no different, in the respect that here he was, administering to JD's care. But at the same time, it was so different. For one thing, he'd never had to sit around and wait, not knowing the fate of his friends, unable to be on hand to offer his help. Jackson didn't argue with Chris' decision, when he'd suggested that Nathan be the one to stay. Of course, JD needed to be tended. And he was the best qualified. Not that he was a doctor, just that he'd picked up a lot of things when he was a stretcher-bearer during the war.

The dark healer stared blankly at the medical book that lay opened on his lap. Comprehending the words that he read and reread, but simply could not absorb. His mind was adrift as he watched the young gunslinger, unconscious and unresponsive now for two days. Nathan had stitched the gashes on his abdomen, set the broken bones, and the dislocated knee and still the unconscious youth refused to wake. Everything he'd read indicated that all that could be done now was to wait. Wait and see if the kid would wake up. The lump on the back of his head was the major cause of the healer's concern. The skull was not fractured, as far as he could tell, but there was probably swelling to the brain, and until that went down, the boy would remain in his insensible state. Once the swelling was down, then Nathan could determine how much damage had occurred. Already the bruising on JD's face and torso had started to change colour, mostly still a deep purple, but around the edges a tint of yellow showed.

Jackson settled the heavy medical book down on the floor and stretched his arms above his head. A knock at his door brought the tall man to his feet, even as he called out to who ever was on the other side of the door to enter. A smile creased his worried visage when Mary Travis opened the door balancing a tray of food.

The woman editor smiled warmly at the former slave, but kept her voice to a soft whisper, as she gazed at the young gunslinger. "Have you had anything to eat yet?"

"No, Ma'am. Sure do appreciate ya taking the time to keep me fed?" Nathan grinned showing his white teeth.

"Oh, that's all right, Nathan. Gloria made the meal, I just offered to bring it up," she confessed.

"Would ya send my thanks to Mrs Potter then too?" Nathan asked as he took possession of the tray, sitting back in the wooden chair and balancing the tray atop his lap.

"Well, I'll leave you to it. I'll fetch the tray later on." Mary walked over to JD and gently wiped his dark hair off his brow, and squeezed his limp hand. She leant down and whispered in his ear, "Time to wake up, JD. Your friends are expecting you to get well. And Buck entrusted your care to Nathan, so you better come back to us soon, or Mr. Wilmington will not be a happy man. And then there's Mr. Tanner and Mr. Standish, I'm sure they would not understand your slow recovery." She bent down and lightly kissed the sheriff's stubbled cheek and turned back to Nathan, who was ravenously shovelling the food into his mouth; with a smile she mouthed, "I'll see you later."

"Bye, Mary."

Part 26
(2:30 a.m. Monday)

Ezra groaned and stretched, opening his eyes to clear the fogginess, but darkness surrounded his vision. A small orange glow burned in the corridor leading up the stairs, and a faint tinge of smoke mixed with the already pungent odours of the earthen prison. Ignoring the stationary figure, Ezra whispered, "Vin." He heard a rustle and then footfalls coming closer. As his vision didn't brighten he assumed, "Is it night?"

Vin had paced the small room for most of the night, periodically checking the gambler, then continuing his exhaustive walk. He'd stopped ten minutes ago and leaned his lithe body against the bars, glaring intently at the solitary guard, sending him bad omens through the darkened gloom. Ezra's soft call drew him from his scrutiny. Tanner almost chuckled at the southerner's confusion. "What gave it away?" Tanner's tone was one of amusement, but he was worried at the weariness he heard in the gambler's speech.

"Your witticism is astounding, Mr. Tanner," Ezra sleepily drawled.

"Huh? How ya feeling?"

"Fine. Do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Dunno. Talked to Dave while you was out. He reckons Chisholm's son was a bastard, Charles somethin'. And get this, he only died a month or so ago. So he couldna been any bounty I brought in. And it had ta been in Four Corners."

"Ah..." Standish drawled in understanding.


"Charles, alias Charlie McBride. He once informed me that his father was a lawyer, it must have slipped my mind. My apologies, Vin, that I didn't realise sooner."

"Ya mean that gambler that was in town, the one that arranged ta have ya killed? Then pulled that con on the rich dude, LC Hale? He's Chisholm's son?" At Standish's affirmative answer, Tanner cursed. "Ya know, Chris put a bullet in him too?" The silence stretched between them, and Ezra closed his eyes expecting no further conversation from Tanner, so he was surprised to hear the short Texan drawl break the silence. "So if I'm gonna die in the morning, the least ya can do is tell me about you and McBride."

Ezra covered the yawn with the back of his hand. "What is it you would like to know?"

Tanner couldn't sleep, and above all else was terrified of being hung in the morning. Every time he shut his eyes, the image of the gallows leapt into his mind. It didn't help that the son of a bitch had built the contraption close enough for him to see it either. At least talking to the southerner would distract him from his morbid thoughts. He hoped. So, although his body protested urgently for rest, the tracker denied his physical needs in exchange for some much needed emotional comforts. "Everything."

"That could take a while," Ezra muttered.

"I ain't goin' anywhere..." Vin paused, then on a rushed muttered breath added, "least not yet."

"I met McBride approximately six years ago, in a casino in St Louis. He was enjoying a rather fortuitous run of good luck, and... well, what can I say, he was a challenge I couldn't refuse at the time. I made several attempts to draw him into a game, but was thwarted at each endeavour. I didn't see him for about a week, and the next time was on a riverboat, The Madeleine Faye. Unknown to me at the time, was that McBride had heavily invested his winnings in the ill-fated steamer. The Madeleine was onerously catering for gamblers, and had a marvellous decor. By the end of the night, the Madeleine Faye had run aground, blown a boiler, and was not salvageable after she burnt to the waterline."

Vin grunted. "So what part did you play in all this?"

Standish dropped his chin to his chest, sighing audibly. "I finally managed to entice McBride into a game of chance. He wagered outrageously and lost badly. His final bet was his investment in the Madeleine Faye, and he also lost that. His proficiency with the cards was, shall we say, predictable. I'm still at a loss as to how he managed to win her in the first place."

"Guess he was pretty pissed off at ya?"

Standish smiled wryly. "Hmmm... I didn't even have ownership for one night," the gambler mused regretfully. "He stormed out of the room, and a splash was heard following his vociferous departure. It was assumed that McBride jumped off, and while we attempted to recover him from the murky waters, that was when he sabotaged the boat. Six people died that night, and numerous other people were injured. McBride did eventually jump ship, but by this time no one could be bothered going after him."

"Musta been a hell of a night," Tanner added lightly.

Standish agreed. "One I'm not likely to forget for sometime to come."

Vin felt through the darkness, slipping his arm through the bars. He patted the gambler's shoulder, and felt the heat that spread through his clothing. "Thanks fer telling me."

"Anything for a friend, Vin."

"Damn! Ya know Chris is gonna be real pissed? Promised 'im that the five hundred dollars was gonna be his."

Ezra laughed, "I concur, at least with your assumption of his animosity. But I surmise, that the loss of the money will not be the reason for his enmity." Ezra was getting a little uncomfortable lying in the same position, so attempted to roll off his back, but instead groaned at the flare of pain that the slight movement instigated.

"Ya want some of this?" Vin held out the bottle of laudanum.

Ezra ambivalently eyed the bottle. "No thank you. Do you want to converse more?"

The normally quiet tracker actually surprised the urbane gambler with his answer. "Yeah...that's if ya have a mind ta talk with me." It came out almost as a question, a plea to keep Tanner company, for his remaining hours.

"It would be my pleasure, Vin."

Part 27
(9:05 a.m. Monday)

As soon as the morning sky began to lighten, Larabee, Wilmington and Sanchez resumed their search. Silence prevailed between them for the first hour, but the monotony of the quiet soon became deafening. The creak of the leather saddles, the slap of the reins against the horses' rumps and most constant, was the echo of the hooves clipping on the hard packed earth, these were the sounds that accompanied their progress.

Three hours after they'd set off that morning they discovered the second night's camp. Chris dismounted and handed his reins to Buck, then slowly walked through the camp. He fought the terror that was mounting within his chest, squeezing tightly. "They've got company. At least half a dozen." His hand shook as he ran it through his hair. "We should be able to track 'em faster now. Let's keep moving!" Larabee vaulted into his saddle and pulled the reins out of Buck's clasp.

Buck took one last look around the abandoned camp, hoping to find some clue as to the safety of his two friends. But the deserted clearing told him nothing, and he was beginning to doubt that when they finally caught up with them, that it would all be for naught. And that only led him to ponder his decision about leaving JD behind. Sighing deeply, he studied the ground with more fervour then necessary, he only hoped that if the chance came, that he could help in some way. Wheeling Brutus from the camp Wilmington set off after the black horse.

Left alone, the former preacher listened to the retreating sounds of Chris and Buck's horses. Josiah dismounted Prophet, and holding the reins he led the horse after him as he walked through the camp. He sank to his knees and then onto his hands. A strangled sob broke the silence and great gulping sobs followed. He arched his back, and drew his knees under him until he sat with his legs tucked up to his chest. Tears ran down his face as he wept for the souls of his two boys. For what the black-clad gunslinger and the ladies' man failed to see in their scrutiny of the camp were the two black crows that perched in the branches of the trees lining the camp - symbols of death. Pulling himself together and with a heavy heart, Josiah clutched the wooden cross that hung around his neck and held it to his lips, and in two determined strides, mounted Prophet and followed the others.

Part 28

At exactly ten thirty, four of Chisholm's lackeys entered the dungeon. The final touches were finished on the gallows early that morning, and a test run was performed with a sack of grain. Tanner noticeably flinched as the trap door opened, the clap of wood whining in protest. Chisholm in his torturous wisdom had selected a site that could be visible from Vin's small window to heighten his anxiety and fear. But by all outward appearances, the tracker remained calm and unconcerned by his imminent death. He didn't outwardly react when the four men came down the passageway; Vin lay relaxed on the cot in his cell.

"Time to go, Tanner," Jim Bacchus announced, his gruff voice echoed off the stone walls. After his order, he expected some movement from the quiet pair, but neither responded to demand, ignoring the hired gun's command. The redhead dismissively shrugged and nodded at Stone to unlock the door, and three of the four entered the cell. They bound the tracker's arms at his back and pushed the compliant man out the door. Joe Stone held a gun to Vin's head and Bacchus gripped his forearm on the other side.

"Boss wants ya to see yer friend hang, Standish," Bacchus grinned maliciously. Chippa Logan unlocked the gambler's cell, but Dave pushed his way past the gunman to help Ezra out. Standish was already sitting up and swung his legs over the side. He wiped his hand over his face, feeling the sweat dampen his palm Ezra wiped the heated moisture down his pant's leg. The gambler rested both palms either side of himself and pushed up off the cot, and would have ungracefully slumped to the ground had Dave not reached out and helped the weakened man to his feet.

Ezra dropped his chin to his chest and slumped his shoulders as the older man all but carried him out. "I need to say goodbye..." Standish whispered his plea, tears watered his vision. Dave grunted. He'd not yet tied the gambler, and when Ezra was level with Vin, Dave shoved Standish into Tanner. Taking opportunity of the unguarded moment, the gambler wrapped his arms around the plainsman, drawing the man into a hug. With a sob, Ezra whispered in Tanner's ear, "Safe journey, Vin."

Vin buried his face in Ezra's shoulder; tears wet his face as he accepted the embrace. "You look after yerself. This weren't yer fault, and Chris weren't ta blame either. You tell 'im?" The last three words were yelled out as Vin was dragged from Ezra's hold. He promised he would, but the tracker didn't hear the solemn oath as he'd already been led away.

The gambler was half-carried over to where Chisholm had set himself up to witness the hanging. He was seated on a wooden bench seat, with his legs crossed at his ankles sipping at the beverage from the delicate china cup and saucer he held. A small table covered in a white lace cloth held a pot of coffee?... and a plate of muffins. He held the cup aloft in salute when he became aware of the southerner's arrival. "I'd offer you something," he gestured at the table, "but then I'd have to untie you. Maybe you'd care for nourishment after the show?"

Ezra lunged at the autocrat but his guards expected this and were prepared, restraining the angry man. "This is Murder! Vin was protecting me, when your son was killed," Standish gasped, then offered, "If you need to avenge his death, then hang me!"

Chisholm smiled with false congeniality. "I am pleased that Mr. Tanner acknowledges his participation in Charles' murder. I knew he was lying when he claimed not to know my son. As for you, Mr. Standish, your torment has only just begun," he snarled. "Firstly, you will watch your friend hang, and from then on, your life is going to be a living hell!" Signalling an end to his conversation, Chisholm called out to the men at the gallows. He stood to his feet; "The time is eleven o'clock gentlemen. Is everything ready?" He turned back to the struggling gambler. "I do detest tardiness, don't you?"

The crazed killer stood off to the left and behind Chisholm. He grinned malevolently at Ezra, but as his gloating was ignored by the southerner, he reverted his sights on the wooden gallows. Taking immense pleasure in the preparations to hang the buck-skinned man. He leaned against the oak tree, legs crossed, with all his weight directly on his left leg, and the toe of his right boot perpendicular to the ground. Morris barely gave the blade in his hand a moment's notice as he flicked the dirt from beneath his fingernails, so intent on the scene being played out.

Vin was pushed up the stairs of the wooden construction, ahead of Bacchus and Stone. Vin baulked at the top step, betraying his fear, but a shove at his back pushed him onto the platform. A knot of fear tied up his stomach, but he refused to beg. He knew this would be fruitless in any case. He looked to where Ezra was being held, and forced a weak smile to his face. He was surprised at the gambler's obvious distress; he normally keeps his emotions under tight control. Vin stepped onto the trap door and then looked up at the noose that dangled from above. His face blanched, and he realised that all hope was gone. Up until this point, somewhere in the back of his mind, Vin had been certain Chris and the others would have showed up in time to prevent this. As the black hood was pulled over his head, his breathing hitched as the darkness shrouded over him. The thick knotted rope was slipped over his neck and pulled firmly, grazing the skin on his neck. His guards retreated down the stairs, and Tanner was left standing alone, waiting. He wriggled his fingers, but the rope that bound his wrists was tight. Tanner started to bend at his knees to determine how much rope he had to play with, but he felt the tug of the rope, almost immediately, tighten around his neck, so he resumed his standing position. Fidgeting with his feet he felt blindly for the crease in the wooden structure, indicating the edge of the trap door. But he knew this was pointless as he'd noticed before the hood had been placed over his head, that the door was quite large. How much longer did he have? His breath was hot, and the hood was stifling. Hell if they didn't hurry, he'd die of suffocation.

Chisholm gave the signal, and Ezra screamed out in anguish, "NOOOOO!!!!" struggling against Dave and Logan's hold. The southerner closed his eyes, blinking back the tears that threatened to fall and sank to his knees, as the two guards loosened their hold.