“Ok lets go.” Delany shifted his position from behind Wilmington to Standish. Frederick was no idiot. He had watched the town long enough to know that Standish kept himself apart from the others. Delany could not be sure that the threat of shooting the gambler would be enough to keep the others compliant. Now with the others bound as well, Delany could continue his game.
Standish gritted his teeth and sucked in his breath as Fred gripped his left shoulder and shoved him forward. Buck was about to intervene but Sanchez’s physical presence prevented it. There would be time enough to fight later. Ezra was not in any immediate danger.. That would probably come later as well.
“The Church Pa?” David asked. He paced Fred and though he stood the same height his father David lacked the dark forboding presence that made his Pa seem larger than his actual physical height. David noticed his father curtly nod once.
Jackson led the way followed by JD then Josiah, Buck and Ezra. Wilmington kept taking furtive glances at the conman. Ezra for his part kept his steely green eyes straight ahead. Buck still reeled from the story Ezra had told him. It was vastly different from the drunken comedy that the southerner had weaved that night in the bathhouse. Wilmington had laughed himself silly, then. This dark morning there was nothing amusing about it. With the bare facts laid on the table Buck realized the anger and frustration from his two friends though now explainable was still not understood. Ezra confessed he held no anger or regret toward Larabee. Chris had come forward. Ezra could not adequately explain why he pushed Larabee as he had been doing for the past week. Buck for his part believed him. Ezra was truly confused by his sudden short temper. As for Chris, Buck knew that to be easy. He sympathized with his older friend. Wilmington did not doubt the truth behind the words Ezra spoke in the early morning hours. There was no flowery language, no anger, no spite, just simple facts that left two men at odds. The gambler was at a loss. Buck started seeing the puzzle in its entirety. When this was over he would have a talk with Josiah and maybe the big preacher could clear the gamblers head. Buck and Vin would grab a hold of Chris. Wilmington silently wondered if Nathan would drug Chris first.
The five captives walked toward the church. Four Corners under the dark receding shadows of night still slept. The sun would rise in an hour. The forge at the livery would be fired up, the cooking stove at the hotel had already started to puff out smoke. The telegraph and bank windows were still covered by drawn shades. No dogs barked no horses walked the deserted streets. Four Corners would sleep through this tragedy.
Frederick Delany smiled at the ghost town. The small oasis of civilization would come to its knees before the passage of the day. The sun had started to climb from below the horizon. The sky turned grey stars winking out as the flat winter clouds took on hues of pinks and purples. A breeze still cut across the land. The frozen mud prevented any amount of dust to kick into the air. The boardwalks empty suffered a few dirt devils a tumble weed rolled between the Mercantile and Clarion office. Delany smiled. Tonight Larabee will brought to his knees humbled and Maude wherever she maybe would suffer the death of her only son.
Frederick Delany dug his thick fingers into Standish’s shoulder bringing him to a halt. Buck noticed and he too slowed unwilling to leave the gambler alone. Josiah noticed and he too pulled up followed by JD and Nathan. They were partners, a team better yet friends. They would stick together. Vin and Chris were out there and a rescue would be forth coming. They would stay together as a group making them easier to reach. Less irons in the fire so to speak.
“Keep’em moving David.” The father spoke out harshly. Buck hesitated. He would not leave Ezra, not after learning the truth about last week. David struck the bigger man from behind forcing him forward a step.
Wilmington spun in retaliation when a rifle barked and dirt flung up at his feet. Noone saw the shooter. Brian.
“Git moving or Maude loses her little boy right here in the street.” Fred Delany enjoyed the sudden pained expression in the gunslinger. Larabee was not near as expressive.
The other three watched and waited for Buck’s decision. Josiah hoped Wilmington would adhere to clearer thoughts and back down. If need be he would back up the ladies man and the gambler. From the look on Buck’s face he had some insight as to what occurred last week. Armed with that information Buck was unwilling to leave the gambler. Josiah noticed this and would back whatever choice Buck made. JD and Nathan held similar notions and waited for Wilmington to decide their next course of action.
Buck stared at the gambler watching the green eyes. Standish revealed nothing. He had done that already earlier this morning. He told Buck everything, every last detail of last weeks hunt. Ezra could not really say he was shocked by Buck’s faithfulness. The big man had followed Chris to hell and back. He had listened without passing judgment as Ezra related the ugly truth about last week. Standish had been sure that Wilmington would have found fault with him. Instead Buck held his tongue, listened quietly and kept opinions to himself. For that Ezra was thankful, almost as thankful as he felt now. Buck checking with him if they should make a stand here and now and not let this lunacy continue any farther.
Ezra shook his head slowly, not in defeat or resignation. To fight now as the others were willing to do for him, would be suicide. Hold their tempers and play their cards right and maybe JD would reach another birthday and Josiah suffer through another holiday sermon. He would continue with Delany’s game for now.
Buck watched the subtle shake of the head. The green eyes though impassive still held thought. Ezra was still with them. He had not given up and would not give up their lives needlessly. Wilmington silently thanked the gambler for not throwing JD’s life away in a hopeless battle.
Buck acknowledge the gesture and turned away from Ezra and followed the others to the church.
+ + + + + + +
Delany missed the exchange, missed the silent communications. Instead he marveled at his son’s marksmanship ability. Brian went unchallenged in skill. Fred with an iron grip turned the conman around to face the hotel and boarding house. Larabee would be sleeping off a bad drunk. Fred smiled he had caused the mighty Chris Larabee to climb back into the bottle. His revenge had already started. He had already begun to ruin the man.
“Larabee!” Delany shouted. Ezra winced. The sudden noise and proximity of the voice hurt his already aching head.
Delany waited a few seconds and continued, “I’ve got your men!” Frederick shoved his captive forward a step as if to punctuate his statement.
Standish closed his eyes. Chris would have a fearsome hangover and not want to be trifled with. This idiot would get them both killed. Ezra hunched over a little trying to keep the tatters of his shirt closed. It was cold.
“I’m gonna be in the church!” Delany laughed “I’ve got your gambling friend Standish!” He pushed the conman’s head forward with his hand forcing the southerner to take another step. Ezra clenched his teeth. He was beginning not to like this Delany Neanderthal. “Guns loaded Larabee!” Fred stopped and chuckled a little and finished, “he’ll be dead within ten minutes unless you come to the church alone!” Delany grabbed Standish’s left upper arm and twirled the man in the direction of the church. He enjoyed the gasp of breath from the conman’s lips at the pain in his shoulder. Delany gazed back over his shoulder and hollered one more time, “Alone!”
Ezra was shoved in front of Delany both men headed for the church.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Vin watched the scene below. Tanner could feel the increasing anger. The tracker took an involuntary step backward. He had never feared Chris before. Tanner knew Larabee to be deadly, knew Chris would take a life as readily as save one. This morning watching Delany shove the gambler, Tanner became cognizant of just what a dangerous person Larabee could become. People were going to die today. Vin waited. The dark demons that raged just under the surface of Larabee’s calm demeanor surged forth.
“Vin take the roof.” The voice was whispered but harsh it left no room for discussion. “Wait for my signal.”
Tanner nodded his head and slipped out the room. Once outside he took a deep breath finally free of the charged dark atmosphere that suddenly engulfed his friend. Vin slid down the stairs and out to his wagon. Undiscovered he retrieved his rifle and headed for the hotel roof.
Larabee checked his revolvers. His hands so accustomed to the practiced movements that he could pull apart and put together his weapons blindfolded. He holstered the well oiled guns and marched out the door.
+ + + + + + +
Chris found Brian Delany tied up and waiting for him at the base of the boarding house stairs. Tanner was putting the finishing ties on the knots. “Found’im in my spot.” The tracker merely explained. Larabee smiled tight lipped. Vin was as stealthy as a damn cat. Brian never stood a chance against the nimble lethal tracker.
Chris pushed the Delany boy out in front of him. They entered the street. With a gun to the older son’s head they proceeded across the street.
Scott Delany watched as his younger brother was lead across the street. He cursed his younger brother for his foolishness. Their father would be angry. He would tolerate such mistakes from David because he was younger by a fair piece but not the other two boys. Scott waited crouching behind the a water trough. The church lay a few hundred yards to his right out of view of their father. If he could free Brian then they would be spared their fathers wrath. The oldest Delany boy slowly straightened up bringing his gun up to his buffalo coated shoulder.
Vin rested the gun barrel against the railing. He kept both eyes open only his right blue one seeing clearly undisturbed down the gunsight. With a half breath released he gently squeezed the trigger. His shoulder caught the recoil his body adjusted his left eye noted and filed the results.
Scott Delany held his hand as his colt was flung mercilessly from his hand. The tiny metacarpal bones of his hand fractured under the violent vibrations of the sudden impact of the rifle bullet slamming into his own gun. He held his wrist tightly hissing breath in and out trying to control his pain.
A gun barrel to the base of his skull got his attention.
+ + + + + + +
David Delany heard the rifle shot. He peered at his father in askance. These five men were adequately subdued especially with the gambler on his knees with a gun to his right temple. Fred stood beside the gambler in front of the pulpit. Wilmington sat to the left of the gambler against the wall. Josiah and Nathan flanked JD behind but to the side of the pulpit against the wall.
Fred looked to his younger son. David was more than willing to prove himself. The father allowed the youngest a chance to come into his own. He smiled and nodded his approval. The young man nearly jogged down the center aisle of the church to the front doors.
David held his excitement in check. If he could take down the formidable Chris Larabee on his own.... The satisfaction , the pride in his father surpassed any reward the youngest Delany could ever hope to achieve.
He crept down the steps and turned the corner. He bumped into his two older brothers. David stepped back. He noticed they were tied and then saw Larabee. For a brief moment the pure rage in Larabee’s eyes terrorized the boy. David did not notice or just ignored the pleas in Brian’s pale blue eyes. David did not see his middle brother almost beg him to drop his weapon. Instead David only saw the pride and expectations in his father’s eyes. The youngest Delany boy brought his gun up.
A revolver blast rang out in the deathly quiet morning. David Delany fell dead in the dirt as the morning sun peeked over the leafless trees on the eastern sloping hills.
Vin Tanner watched through his gunsights wondering what kind revenge drove a man to bring death to his family in a manner such as this. The tracker watched as Chris guided the two older Delany brothers over the body of their lifeless brother. The threesome headed up the front steps of the church.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee strode through the church door like a dark specter. All motion in the church ceased. Silence crashed down on both captives and captor as heads turned at the sudden intrusion. There he stood with Scott Delany gripped tightly by the upper arm. Brian Delany slumped against the back pew where the gunslinger shoved him. The hunters’ hands were tied in front of themselves. Belligerence shone on Scott’s features. Father and son stared at each other both grimacing with anticipation.
Buck took in a breath. Death had crossed the threshold of the church steps in the form of Larabee. He knew Chris had known him longer than any of the others. He knew what the dark gunslinger was capable of and now the others would become privy to it. Wilmington feared for everyone. Chris held the barrel of his pistol against the man’s left ribcage just under the arm pit.
“I’ll kill him.” It was a simple statement that held the promise of death. There was no uncertainty no room for question or disbelief. Chris intended on killing his captive.
Buck watched as Frederick Delany hesitate. His gunbarrel still pressed to Standish’s right temple. The gambler for his part still kneeled staring off at the wall accepting his death he had been down this road before and the trigger had been pulled. He expected no different in this outcome. Buck watched the southerner wondering if the gambler realized just wrong he was at the moment.
Delany hesitated to long. Chris squeezed the trigger. Scott Delany’s eyes widen with disbelief. He fell to his right crumbling to the floor like an unstrung puppet. The shock and horror that encased the room intensified as the magnitude of Chris’s intentions crashed down on the occupants of the small country church. Even Standish tensed.
Chris grabbed the arm of Brian Delany pulling the man closer taking the place his older brother just stood.
“Let him go.” Larabee’s voice had not changed. The determination still present, no sorrow or anger laced his words. He intended to kill again.
Buck watched the other peacekeepers in the room. JD paled, Nathan shut his eyes, Josiah watched riveted and Ezra blinked. Wilmington frowned the others had just learned how deadly, how cold blooded Chris Larabee could become. Chris was a killer a taker of lives, they all were, but Larabee was ruthless when need be, he would cross the line so many others toted. Buck watched Ezra as the gambler swallowed and blinked again. Wilmington knew that the conman suddenly realized how many times he had courted death, how many times he had dangerously stirred the black waters that rippled through Larabee’s soul. Ezra finally realized Chris Larabee had held himself in check so many times when the conman had let loose with a barrage of biting satire.
Vin Tanner pulled his head away from the gunsights not quite believing what he witnessed. He blinked his eyes and licked his lips. Tanner settled back down and focused his aim on Frederick Delany. He would back Chris just as Larabee backed his men. Chris would kill every last Delany if need be and he would do it with cold efficiency.
Delany had finally met an anger greater than his.
Chris’s hazel eyes bore into Delany. Neither man wavering. Brian’s blue eyes pleaded with his father. His older brother lay dead at his feet. His baby brother already gone. The middle child searched his father for salvation hoped his father would step forward to save him. Suddenly Brian Delany had clear insight as to how the southerner felt kneeling on that river bed waiting for Larabee to jump to his aid. Like Standish, Brian realized his father would let him die. “No. Pa....” He whispered.
Frederick Delany hesitated again. His middle and last son toppled to the floor with his blood quickly pooling around him.
Buck held his breath. The smell of gunpowder and bodily fluids filled the air. Death had come and claimed its victims. The specter was not done.
Delany stared in disbelief his sons were gone. Everything was gone, the hunter no longer had a pack. He buried the muzzle of the gun deeper into Standish’s temple causing the smaller man to move his head accordingly.
Chris crossed the floor his gun held outstretched as if it were apart of his body and extension of it. His boots rang out hollow on the wood floor. He passed pew after pew in a steady purposeful gait. The black duster billowed behind him. Larabee saw nothing but Delany. He focused on nothing but the man who threatened one of Chris’s family. Chris would destroy him.
Delany held his ground Standish’s green eyes followed the gunslinger’s determined approach. Ezra closed his eyes. How many times had he taunted Larabee, how many times had he defied his authority? How many times had he come close to following in Scott Delany’s foot steps?
Josiah and Nathan pushed JD back protectively with their broad shoulders trying to create as much distance from the young man and the carnage that was due to continue.
Chris stopped when the muzzle of the gun rested solidly on the chest of his adversary. They stood toe to toe with Ezra kneeling just to the side his dark brown head at Larabee’s hip. Delany’s cold gun barrel resting heavily against his temple. Standish closed his eyes in resignation.
“Let him go.” Chris whispered his fury. Enraged hazel eyes blazed into cold blue ones. Both men hardened killers both bent on revenge neither intending to back down. They faced one another playing a deadly game.
Vin had watched Brian Delany melt to the church floor just as his older brother had earlier. Tanner took a breath and closed his eyes. He opened them and refocused himself back down the gunsights. Only one left.
Buck watched as Delany and Larabee stood toe to toe. Delany had just thrown away everything in this world Chris had ever cherished. Frederick Delany in one fell swoop lost everything that should have mattered to him. Revenge was a dangerous road. A twisted treacherous passage that had nearly destroyed Chris. Now Delany forever trapped on that highway had succumbed to it’s black lure and lost everything.
Josiah watched Chris. The large man finally gained insight on the ferocity in which the younger man protected his men, the tenacity in which he watched over his family. Sanchez wondered if Delany ever realized he held a losing hand the minute he put a gun to Standish’s head for the second time.
Ezra knelt unaware of the ache in his knees. He did not feel the eyes of the other men around him. Instead he focused on the daylight that bled through the cracks in the walls at the far end of the church. Sanchez should really fix that he mused. He noticed the pitted, shabby pews and wondered why the preacher did not sand them better. Why not invest in a better plane and work the wood to a more polished finish? He concentrated on the glimmer of light oblivious to the two men who fought over his life. A gun blast shattered the deafening silence. Ezra knew he was dead.
Frederick Delany never heard the roar of the gun blast, never felt the impact of the bullet and never realized he died standing on his feet. The force of the impact knocked him back one step, muscles twitched and spasmed and finally joints folded sending the dead man crashing to the floor.
No one moved.
Standish still knelt on the floor wondering why the sunlight still streamed in through the windows. Then a voice sounded, “are you alright?” Ezra blinked still fixated on the crack in the wood.
“Are you all right?” A hand grabbed his upper right arm and hauled him to his feet. His legs shook and wobbled but held. The light still seeped in through the crack. A hand grabbed his chin and pulled his head around tearing his confused green eyes from the invading sunlight. He faced Chris. Ezra watched as Larabee’s lips moved and words came out, “are you all right?” The question was directed at him. Standish blinked again staring straight into the concerned hazel eyes. He found he could not make a sound could not get his mouth to work. Instead he merely nodded.
He watched as Chris leaned into him touching shoulder to shoulder. The gunslinger wrapped a tight hand around the gambler’s neck pulling Ezra’s head forward to his shoulder. Chris whispered sharply in his ear, “noone threatens one of mine.”
Ezra again nodded dumbly. ‘One of mine’? The words echoed over and over in his mind. ‘one of mine’. Chris stared one last time at the southerner and then turned to free the others.
Ezra stood with his head facing in the same direction Chris had turned it. He stared at a glass pane and heard it rattle as a wind gust hit it. He never thought about moving never considered his hands were still bound behind his back. He stared at the window not seeing anything.
Chris quickly cut the ropes that bound Wilmington. Buck nodded his thanks and climbed to his feet. He surveyed the area the dead bodies but more importantly the live ones. JD still sat nestled protectively behind Josiah and Nathan’s massive shoulders. Chris freed the healer and then Josiah. The fear on JD’s face was unmistakable. He too learned just how deadly Larabee could be when pushed.
Larabee knelt beside the boy and smiled as warmly as he could. He knew he frightened JD heck terrorized him but the boy needed to learn how important life was, how much it should be cherished. Dunne learned just how far Chris was willing to go to protect one of his men. Larabee cut the bindings, “there you go son.” He whispered.
“Thanks Chris.” JD answered back smiling weakly. He did not bother trying to stand not trusting his legs. Larabee patted the boy’s knee and straightened. His gaze landed on Nathan, Josiah and Buck. The three men offered nothing but support. Standish still faced the window, his back to the pulpit and Chris.
Chris met Buck’s sympathetic gaze. The price of saving Standish and the others would manifest itself in the form of nightmares when Chris slept. A life was never taken without some dues paid no matter how malicious the victim might have been while still roaming the earth. Larabee tilted his head in the direction of JD . Buck nodded and headed for the young man.
“Come on JD lets go check on Vin.” He hauled Dunne to his feet and led the wide eyed youth out the side door.
Nathan stared curiously at the unmoving conman. What had Chris whispered in his ear? What had been said that turned the young gambler so introspective or was it just a manifestation of the fear that lingered? The healer made a move toward the southerner but Josiah stopped him with a shake of his head. The preacher would handle this there would be time later to tend the bruises and shoulder.
Jackson headed for the door, “I’ll have Silace come over for the bodies.” Both Chris and Josiah nodded their appreciation. Nathan disappeared out the front door inadvertently slamming the big doors closed. Standish flinched.
Larabee approached the younger man placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder. He paused for a brief second and then Chris headed down the aisle his boot heels ringing quietly off the debilitated church walls.
Josiah contemplated the unmoving man in front of him. Standish had just learned a horribly trying lesson about loyalty and family. Chris had revealed for all to see just how ruthless and determined he could become and was willing to become in order to protect what was his. Did he demand the same fierce loyalty in return? No probably not, JD did not possess that kind of hatred nor Nathan that depth of self deprivation. When Chris killed he sacrificed a small part of himself. He lost something more in order to save the gambler but in doing so he retrieved a friend.
Sanchez approached Standish and draped a comforting arm around the smaller man’s shoulders. He could feel the muscles twitch and tremble. He peered at the impassive face and marveled at the man’s control. His face betrayed nothing of the fear and terror that coursed through his body. Instead muscles quivered and his jaw clenched. “Come on son.” He intoned softly guiding the gambler away from the carnage toward his small apartment.
Josiah sat the compliant man on the cot. Standish faced the small wood stove sitting ,back hunched and slightly quivering. Sanchez draped a blanket over his shoulders all the while watching for somekind of expression. Nothing. Josiah stepped back and poured coffee into a tin mug. He handed it to the gambler who thankfully wrapped suddenly cold hands around the mug. He quietly whispered out a thankyou. Sanchez almost missed it.
The preacher leaned against the desk next to the wood stove and observed Standish.
Ezra realized he blinked, realized he held a cup of coffee in his hands, knew a blanket covered his shoulders. He felt cold, bone numbing cold. He tried to bring the mug up but his once steady hands shook. He closed his eyes trying to wrestle the shaking under control. He had never felt so cold in all his life.
Josiah watched Ezra struggle. Part of him wanted to comfort the younger man envelop him in an embrace to bestow a sense of safety and security. He knew Ezra would resist. It was the gambler’s way. Maude had raised him to fend for himself, to watchout for himself to take care of himself. Sanchez did not blame her, in fact he admired her. Maude had succeeded where so many others had failed. Her son grew into a fine man with a sense of humor and a different angle on ethics, but a fair man none the less. (Unless you engaged in a game of chance...then fair seemed not to apply) It was this discipline that held him together, that kept him from crumbling in front of the others when he knew his life was at an end. It was out of respect for the man and the battle he waged that Josiah stood. The preacher placed a reassuring hand on the shaking shoulder and whispered softly, “I’ll be outside if ya need me.” With that the giant man left his friend privacy to fight his raging demons.
Two hours later, the bodies had been removed from the church and the stringent smell of cleaners muffled the permeating odor of death. Sanchez leaned against the pulpit and gazed over the empty pews. He ignored the sanding that still needed to be done and the walls that needed repairing, instead his thoughts wandered to the six men that found their lives intricately woven together. Chris would kill to save one of them. Not just kill but strike down with premeditated efficiency. It was an awesome responsibility he took on and a hellacious personal price would be paid. The shock on JD and Nathan’s countenance on belied the realization of the weight Chris carried for each man. Buck knew, always had, and maybe that was why he ran interference for the gambler for so long.
Ezra never appreciated how often he courted death when he badgered Larabee. Buck understood the tidal surge of black retribution that pushed just below the calm surface. Vin suspected, hell they all did, today they witnessed it first hand and it was frightening.
Josiah glanced at the apartment door. Ezra had yet to make an appearance. Josiah had looked in on him forty-five minutes ago to find him sleeping buried under blankets. Sanchez smiled sadly. Noone deserved to suffer through such a cruel game twice, well three times considering Buck’s rendition of their subsequent capture. Standish had and survived. He was a survivor, he played the angles, took bets and normally won. Today like last week the game had taken a malicious turn and though the potential had always been there, these last few events drove home just what a dangerous game could be played. Ezra faced death many times and would probably do so again, but today he learned he did not have to face it alone.
Today he learned that someone may actually crest the hill and ride in to save the day. If he became lost someone might actually come looking for him. Dependency was a double edge sword and Ezra knew he could depend on these other six men but in turn they depended on him. Josiah’s smile lightened. That probably frightened the gambler more than the gunbarrel to the temple.
+ + + + + + +
At dusk the preacher and gambler braved the bitter cold and left the warm confines of the church. They jogged across the frozen dirt street and bounded up the three steps to the boardwalk. They pushed their way into the saloon. The other five men sat at their customary table in the back near the wood stove. They would always say it was out of deference to the healer and gambler but truth be told noone liked to be cold while consuming whiskey. Warm greetings and silently raised toasts brought cautious smiles to everyone’s faces. Chris met Ezra’s gaze Larabee nodded once and a sly dimple smirk crossed the southerners face. Tomorrow would be a new game the playing field would be level. Until the next time......
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