by Heather F.

Dec 23rd early afternoon

Chris Larabee ran as he had never run before. His long black clad legs pumped and stretched over the uneven ground. He never looked to his right, never once took his dilated hazel eyes off the wide open distance that lay in front of him. Not once did he gaze at the gambler who paralleled him only a few inches away. Only a few inches because that was all the black iron shackles that bound the two men wrist to wrist would allow.

Ezra matched Larabee stride for stride, running for his life, as he had done before as a young child and as a young adult. He had hoped he was past this stage in his life. Guess not. Standish kept his light green eyes forward shadowing Chris's lead. Larabee knew the land. They were survivors they would not give up. It was for this very reason that they were chosen for this game. Three days ago, the lawmen, the hunters of criminals had become the hunted, they had become the prey. For three days they had run, climbed and swam just out of reach of their predators. Now on this third day the day before Christmas Eve, Chris Larabee led his friend and fellow lawman down yet another avenue of narrow escape hoping against hope that something would tip their hand.

The frozen snow dusted semi desert floor did not offer much respite for the pumping muscles and pounding of bones. Under the heavy endorphin load Ezra's limp had become non-existent. The body would worry about that minor inconvenience at a later time. Chris Larabee's nose had suddenly dried up the swollen passage ways dilated slightly allowing more air passage, the pain in his face forgotten. His lower back no longer protested the harsh punishment that now befell it. The men pumped their arms in synch forced out of necessity wrought on by the iron that bound them. Noses and cheeks were wind whipped and red. Their breath crystallized in the space just behind them. Ribs expanded allowing great gasps of frozen air into the lungs. Blood careened through their veins feeding the muscles that kept the body moving, that kept them alive so far. Their pulses roared deafeningly but not enough to drown out the baying of the hounds that slowly but methodically closed the distance. The hollow reminder still echoed in Chris's mind, "The gun won't be empty next time."

Chris did not have to look over his shoulder to know the hounds were getting closer. He did not have to hear their incessant baying, deep down inside where instinct kept the body alive on primal impulse, Chris Larabee knew those hounds closed in on their heels mercilessly. Larabee did not bother looking over at the gambler. Standish would follow his lead purely out of loyalty. Chris knew this land, Chris would know what to do. Though Ezra was not blind the conman did have faith in his friend. If he only knew what Chris did. This flat sage covered meadow was a plateau, they were at a dead end and would meet it sooner rather than later. Larabee cursed his luck, cursed his lack of options and most of all cursed Standish for being there. He was another life that Chris had become responsible for, another life that looked up to his leadership and guidance. It was an awesome responsibility that Chris did not want anymore. When they reached the edge of the plateau they would have a decision to make. At least it would be a decision they would make together. Larabee would not dictate to Standish, not now.

Standish nearly plowed right into Larabee almost knocking the older man down. The wild green eye searched the hazel ones for an explanation. Chris merely cocked his head to the side. Then Ezra noticed they were at a cliff edge. He would have run right over the edge had Chris not stopped him. When had Ezra decided to follow this man so blindly? There was a shear drop for may 50 feet and then it sloped sharply for a couple of hundred more ending at the river bed. The gawd damn river, Ezra was really getting sick and tired of that godforsaken river. Neither man willing to give up, jogged along the cliff edge searching in vain for an easier way down, hoping to find a trump card in this deplorable hand. The hounds baying sounded again. The dogs were closing in.

Chris and Ezra turned to face the hounds. Massive creatures bounding down on them, their cries becoming heated at the close vicinity of the elusive prey. With mouths open, tongues lolling to the side and ears flat back the hounds seemed to glide over the land. The horses and their riders started to melt out of the distance. The masters, the hunters were closing in on the kill.

Ezra pranced back and forth, the muscles wanted to move they had been given the order to run for so long that stopping was near impossible. It went against the body's instinct to survive. Adrenaline, saturated, tissues fired commands, the racing heart the heaving lungs all screamed to move, the body was not ready to stop. It was not ready to give up. Neither man had ever quit, had ever stopped fighting as a result the body ignored the brains command to keep stop running. A compromise was reached, the body settled for hyperactive fidgeting. Larabee had stopped and so Ezra followed. Now the gambler stepped forward and backward never gaining or losing ground but satisfying twitching muscles and Chris's silent command. The cool non-caring facade Ezra wore only masked the terror he felt. Standish with his good right eye stared at Chris.

Larabee watched the hounds closing in and then peered over at the gambler. Standish was looking at him with his one eye. The right one was still swollen closed and a deep maroon and purple. Chris chuckled, Standish could take a hell of a punch. Larabee touched his nose gently and grimaced, the gambler gave as good as he received. Again Chris smiled. Larabee matched the conman's gaze and then both men peered over their coated shoulders at the cliff edge. Careless smiles cracked their battered faces, 'What the hell.'

The hounds were only a few yards away. Chris and Ezra locked eyes a silent decision was made. Both men turned their backs to the hounds and their impending doom and raced for the cliff's edge and leaped.

Dec 23rd early am

JD stared out over the batwing doors again. Josiah was nearing then end of his patience with the boy. Buck had given up on trying to placate the kid and Vin just plumb ignored him. Nathan sat beside Josiah trying to appear interested his mug of beer. "They should've been back by now," Dunne pointed out again, almost as many a time as he had peered over the doorway gazing down the street.

"They probably just stayed an extra night at Cross Keys to enjoy themselves," Buck pointed out. Sanchez was growing equally tired of the conversation.

"I doubt it," JD retorted angrily. Why did noone else feel it? Something was wrong it was almost tangible. Something had happened to Chris and Ezra. Dunne just hoped Chris did not 'happen' to Ezra. Sometimes for all his brains Ezra did not know when to keep his mouth shut and had earned many a glares and a few punches from the riled leader. JD hoped Chris did not shoot Ezra. "Besides didn't ya hear Ezra there is no saloon or gambling in Cross Keys," JD paused and continued a little more softly, "there'd be no reason for Ezra to stay."

Dunne gazed around the saloon at the others and found none were paying attention to him. He stared dejectedly at the dust that had accumulated on the top of the hinged doors. He brushed at it mindlessly, he had never noticed the dust before.

"Shouldn't you be soaking Chaucer's foot or something?" Wilmington asked trying to get Dunne out of his hair. Chris and Ezra were big boys they could take care of themselves. Unless they turned on each other like they had a tendency to do on occasion. No, not likely the gambler would be to smart to pull something stupid like anger Larabee when noone else was around to protect his southern butt. Besides Chris and Ezra were actually getting along pretty good, heck Chris had not threaten to shoot Ezra in almost a week and Standish had not aimed his sarcastic cutting remarks at the gunslinger. Hell they were practically best friends. This made Buck kind of chuckle. Dynamite and a lighted match were about as safe to be around as were Ezra and Chris on most occasions but that was slowly changing.

Dunne shot Buck a withering stare. He had already soaked the foot. Ezra's quarter horse, had thrown a shoe and a nail had punctured it's sole just beside the frog. It was a potentially fatal injury and the gambler had surprised everyone but the six men he associated with as he tended the animal himself three times a day. At first light the gambler could be seen either leaving the comfort of his room, or pulling himself from an all night poker game to tend his horse, he repeated the same thing at noon and again at night, at times leaving very lucrative games to aid Chaucer. The others were not shocked at all, he trusted that horse more than he trusted most people. Standish had even gone so far as to use Chaucer as an excuse not to go with Chris to Cross Keys. Larabee for his part almost reneged his order that Ezra go. That was until JD volunteered to care for the horse, Vin offered his help as well. Both the Kid and the tracker were excellent with horses and were some of the few people Ezra would entrust the care of his horse. Standish gratefully thanked them. Then grumbling the whole way, saddle bags drooped over his hunched shoulders Standish followed Chris out into the dry brisk winter weather of Four Corners. That had been four days ago and noone had heard from them as of yet.

"Already done it Buck," Dunne shot back staring over the batwing doors resting his arm on the edge. The wind was cold and made his eyes water. Standish would be complaining the whole time he was stuck out in this weather and Chris would not want to listen to it. They were in trouble.

"Ezra's mom suppose to be here today. Chris said they'd be back in time. And Mary's having that big dinner tomorrow night, Chris and us are suppose to go ya'll know Chris wouldn't miss that," Dunne pleaded. If he had to he would go out and look for the others on his own. Standish had been unable to completely suppress his delight that his mother would come for the holiday. Though he had tried to pretend like he did not care, or as if he did not expect her to show up, JD caught him reading the telegram over and over. Each time a small dimpled smile would crease his features.

"JD, ya should know that iff'en Maude's comin ta town then Ezra would surly do his best not to be here," Nathan pointed out. The healer had to admit he was getting pretty worried about the other two. They could handle just about anything that crossed their paths but when it came to handling each other well that was another matter. Buck had once labeled them fire and gunpowder. The two together alone in the same room there was bound to be an explosion. Nathan liked and respected both men, for very different reasons, but they were friends. JD might be right. Besides Mary had made it a point to personally ask Chris to dinner. On top of that Billy had been wanting Chris to take him on a ride today. Chris would never purposely disappoint the young boy.

"Naw he was looking forward to spending Christmas with her," Dunne answered turning away from the empty street and leaned against the inside wall. He shoved his cold fingers into his pant pockets. The sun was just cresting over the horizon. "He ain't spent a Christmas with her since he was a little kid. He's got a nice dinner all arranged at the hotel an all for her and he had the Mrs. Potter put extra soaps and stuff in her normal hotel room." Dunne did not bother looking up. It was Christmas and his own ma was gone. Chris and Ezra were out alone and JD knew something bad happened to them and noone seemed to care. Fine JD resolved he would look for them himself. Just because he could not spend the day with his mother it did not mean that Ezra should be denied the same rare privilege, nor should Chris be kept from Billy.

"He's right," Vin said getting up. This startled everyone. Tanner had kept his counsel throughout the whole morning. Noone thought he had been paying attention. The tracker looked around at the other men and understood their reservations. It was cold, still early morning and if Chris had been stuck with Ezra for three days or more then Chris would be angrier than a stung jack-ass. Vin did not want to ride out after them but JD made a good point. Mary had a huge dinner planned for tomorrow night and Ezra had been practically humming to himself about spending Christmas with his mother. That struck the tracker as the most particular. Mother and son got along about as well as two dogs do over a single, meat covered bone. Vin could not figure it out and did not waste much time on it. He was just glad to see the gambler happy about something other than taking money off of poor unsuspecting folk.

"I'll ride with ya iff'en ya want me too JD." The relief in Dunne's eyes was enough to make the effort worth it.

The others watched as JD and Vin disappeared out the swinging batwing doors. Noone moved as the doors clunked together repeatedly until finally slowing to a stop.

"Awww hell," Buck said pushing himself up out of his chair.

Dec 20th

Chris smiled tightly as he heard Ezra somewhere off in the dark cursing. The southern gentlemanly facade had slipped a little with the dropping temperature. Larabee stirred the small pot of stew as he listened for Standish stumbling through the dark. The conman finally found himself in the corona of light with an arm load of wood which he promptly dropped near the fire.

Larabee gazed at the monstrous and growing pile of wood, "Ya plan on building a house?" He could not hide his pleasure at the conman's apparent discomfort.

"If you have not noticed my dear sir, the air has taken on a considerable chill, I do not wish to succumb to a hypothermic death." Ezra settled down next to the fire with his hands out. He pulled his rough over coat tighter around himself. Chris's short duster seemed inadequate to the gambler but the gunslinger appeared impervious to the stinging cold.

"Ezra it isn't even cold enough to snow," Larabee explained while peering up at the over cast sky, "I take that back it'll probably snow tonight." The snort of disgust that met his comment made him chuckle outright. Dark clouds were dimly highlighted by the thin sliver of moon. A few stars shone against the night sky but most were shadowed by the moisture laden clouds. A breeze had kicked up almost as if to add insult to injury. Larabee watched the gambler hunch closer into his coat. He felt a twinge of guilt but that quickly dissipated. Chris liked Ezra and actually enjoyed his wit but sometimes it did the conman man some good to be uncomfortable.

The snapping of twigs behind the men made both jump to their feet and whirl around. Before either man could pull their guns, Ezra found the business end of a gun stock crashing down connecting with his jaw and Larabee's lower back exploded with blind nauseating pain as some kind of club slammed into his kidney region.

Both lawmen crashed to the ground, both were stripped of their guns. Neither could react for different reasons. Chris stayed on all fours gasping for breath, the stew he was stirring forgotten. He fought the rising bile that threaten to explode from him. Hot pain radiated up his back and down his legs. For a second the gunslinger wondered if his back had been snapped. He quickly dismissed the thought, everything hurt to much. Larabee tried to turn his head and look for the conman but right now nothing would respond. Ezra for his part lay on his side in a daze blinking slowly.

"Now that I've got your attention gentlemen, let me introduce myself." An older man of maybe fifty or more years strode into zone of light created by the small cook fire. Chris had finally pushed himself up onto his shins still fighting the hot pain in his lower back. With agonizing slowness he straightened up muscles protesting under the use. He ignored the man speaking and searched for Standish. Larabee did not try twisting his torso. The muscles ached enough without him having to move about. He saw the gambler laying on his side facing him, his green eyes open and blinking but obviously not quite reregistering what he was seeing. Larabee did not bother making a move toward him, if these men wanted him and Ezra dead then they would be by now.

The older man speaking noticed Larabee was not paying attention but instead looking at his injured colleague.

"Scott, drag Mr. Standish closer to Larabee so I can have both their undivided attention." The one named Scott stood at about Vin's height just shy of six feet. He held a remarkable similarity to the other two men who in turned appeared related to the older man. All had shortly cropped hair, black or dark brown with short almost narrowed features, like hawks. What unnerved Larabee were the eyes. They were as cold as the night. These men were killers with the exception of the apparent youngest. He held the snarl of defiance but not the confidence of his other brothers. Chris knew they were in serious trouble.

Scott dragged the semi-conscious conman closer to Larabee dropping the groggy man at the gunslingers side. For his part Ezra merely blinked and tried to raise a hand only to let it drop back down. He was gamely fighting a battle with unconsciousness.

"I see your not surprised I know your names, Mr. Larabee," the old man spoke again. He carried an accent similar to Ezra's but something in it was slightly different. The conversational tone he portrayed was laced with a think underlying cruelty.

Chris shrugged. He did not know these men or did not remember them but that did not unnerve him. He just wanted to get to the bottom of this and fast.

"You see we've been looking for you two especially. You ,my dear sir, are responsible for the death of my brother and these boys' uncle." The old man stepped menacingly forward. "Do you remember Mr. Larabee."

Chris stared up at the older man trying to place the voice and the face but nothing came to mind.

a half smile creased his face, "how 'bout a hint." The sarcasm was poorly disguised.

This earned him a blow across the cheek. It was enough to snap his head violently sideways but not send him further to the ground. "Delany, Mitchell Delany," the old man shot back his anger under tight rein as he stepped back from the two lawmen. Larabee remembered a Delany, he had the drop on Buck one night and was going to shoot Wilmington in the back. Buck had been sheriff back then and Delany a mean drunk who beat up on the working girls. Buck was constantly throwing his butt in jail. One night Mitchell Delany was going to get even. Chris had been there to literally watch Buck's back.

"Delany" Standish muttered in a haze as if recalling the name. He had yet to sit up or move other than blink lazily and whisper a familiar sounding name.

"Ahh I see Maude Standish's little boy remembers me." With the toe of his boot he rolled the southerner onto his back. "You remember me? Huh? Ya little bastard." He shoved the downed conman with his boot but again Standish's responses were dull at best. Seeing he would get no satisfaction from the incoherent man he turned his attention back to Larabee.

"His mother stole all my boys' inheritance, all our life savings," he spat out. Then a gleam came into his eyes and a chuckle was forced out, "But tonight we will get our retribution." He turned his attention to another outside the glow of the fire, "Brian would you do the honors."

The one named Brian stepped forward. He appeared the same height as the other brother with similar features. With a cold grin to match his father he clicked a shackle around Larabee's right hand and the other end around Standish's left wrist. He straightened out and placed the key in his father's outstretched callused hand.

Chris hid his smile. Anything with a lock Standish could pick, hell the man was a damn menace when it came to locking him up. But the talent, or gift as he would call it, came in handy in situations such as this, not that they came into such predicaments often. If it had been knots and ropes the southerner would have been helpless. It was there that Chris would have prevailed. He could work knots and manipulate ropes to eventually escaping. It was one of the few places they complimented each other well.

"Knowing Maude as well as I do, I suspect she has passed on to her only son many of the unsavory traits she possessed." With that Delany snapped the key off in the lock jamming it. Chris's silent chuckle died.

Delany sneered down at the two men, "Tomorrow the boys and I are going on a little hunt." Again no reaction.

"You see my older boys are quite good at hunting and can track anything that moves. But hunting the simple mindless creatures that dot this great earth is no longer a challenge." He sighed sorrowfully and continued, "before the war my boys had graduated to hunting larger smarter prey but with the freeing of the slaves my youngest has not been granted the thrill of such a hunt."

Larabee felt his stomach drop. These men were insane, they hunted people, for the sake of the chase for the thrill of the kill. They murdered for the pleasure of it.

Delany continued, "Luckily we spotted you in Cross Keys, you two make a perfect match. We can avenge Mitch's death and teach young Standish here a lesson about cheating and stealing."

"Never worked before," a soft southern mumble whispered up.

"Ahh so you are in there. You do remember us then?" Delany asked inching closer to the gambler.

Ezra for his part slowly angled his head upward so he could stare at the old man that captured them.

"I cannot seem to recall ever meeting you," Standish returned closing his eyes and laying his head back on the frozen ground. Gawd why did his head hurt so much? What has his mother gotten him involved in?

This angered Delany and then he stopped, "No probably not you were quite young at the time."

He turned his attention back to the boys and then the two lawmen, "Tomorrow at first light we start the hunt, you will be given a few hours head start and then we start tracking you. If you make it to civilization then you can go free but if we catch you you forfeit your lives." Delany smiled and continued to lay down the rules for the 'game', "We will only track you during the day light hours, running you to ground would not be very sporting, of course."

"Of course," the lazy southern drawl echoed.

Chris sat beside the gambler, who drifted in an out of coherency. They had been sitting there chained together for over three hours and Chris was getting frustrated. Larabee thought if he heard, "What happened?" one more time he would strangle the gambler with his bare hands. Chris ignored the repeated question and watched the men across the fire. The one named Scott watched them passively with a rifle leaning against his stretched out legs. Brian cleaned and checked the weapons while the youngest, David, checked the horses and the dogs. Larabee had not heard any dogs they must have been kept someplace else.

Chris wanted to escape tonight but Standish could not hold a simple thought in his head or coordinate movement. They would not get far right now. Larabee would have to bide his time. He fixed the wool blanket over the gambler and against his better judgment shook the sleeping gambler awake, mimicking what he thought Nathan would do in a similar situation.

Dec 21st

Chris watched under the cover of his blanket while the youngest brother began to doze off. The sun would not be up for another couple of hours. Larabee waited as the David's head drooped, jerked some and finally come to rest on his coated chest. The gunslinger waited a few more minutes and then went to work. He firmly laid his left hand over the gambler's mouth and shook him awake. The fool slept like the dead. It took a couple of forceful shrugs but finally the green eyes snapped open and he tried to bolt upright. Chris held him quiet all the while indicating they needed to be silent. Whatever effects the blow to the jaw might have lingered this morning did not seem present. Together, with forced awkwardness the two men crept out of camp toward their horses.

Both men swore when they found the horses missing. "Son of a Bitch," Chris muttered. Both men hunkered down under the natural camouflage of a large pine. "Where the hell are the horses?" Larabee asked staring pointedly at the gambler.

Standish feeling frustration and an incredible headache answered, "do I look like a crystal ball?" He raised his hands in exasperation taking Larabee's wrist with it. This irritated the gunman and he yanked his arm away unbalancing the gambler.

Larabee bit back the angry retort they did not have time for this. He would straighten out the conman's attitude later. "Lets go." Without waiting for a response Chris stood up and started jogging in the direction of Four Corners. Standish had no choice but to follow. He cursed stumbling along beside Larabee. Chris did not slow his pace and jerked his right arm forward dragging the conman ahead a few steps. Standish gritted his teeth and matched pace with gunslinger.

+ + + + + + + +

Frederick Delany smiled as he watched the two men slink out of camp. He and his boys lay quietly watching and enjoying the escape. People could be so easily fooled if they wanted to be. Delany would get his revenge and better yet he would make the others suffer. Larabee would be forced to realize he was not the almighty gunslinger his notorious reputation painted him to be. Standish would fall by the wayside. The gambler would not withstand the harsh reality that a hunted animal must live and would crumble by the days end. Maude Standish would pay the ultimate price and lose her only possession. With that in mind, the foursome watched the two lawmen melt into the morning darkness. They would wait a few more hours and then set the dogs on their trail. David had secured the horses out of sight. Larabee would not want to waste time searching for them. The prey would be foot bound. Delany suppressed a chuckle. This would be the best Christmas yet, his boys and he were now involved in a worthy hunt. Young David would come into his own.

+ + + + + + + +

Standish trotted beside Larabee, the morning sun had begun to glow in the horizon the sky had begun to turn pinks and purples the cloud cover breaking up. A small skiff of snow dusted the ground. Standish did not cherish snow, not like JD and Buck. Anything and everything seemed to amuse those two from the simplest rainstorm to the occasional freak blizzard. Snow or mud one would find JD or Buck either covered in it or flinging it. Sometimes Ezra was amazed those two considered themselves adults. Ezra's wandering mind was brought back to the problem at hand when he found a prairie dog hole. His right foot twisted, his knee gave and he crashed to the ground, almost. He threw his right hand out to break his fall, his left hand uncooperatively was held back and up and he fell in a spiraling motion to the ground. Larabee was hauled to a stop. "What the hell are you doing?" Larabee hissed. His right wrist screamed in protest as the iron shackle dug into his skin and wrenched his right wrist behind him.

"Taking a flippin nap," Standish snapped back. He gamely hobbled back up to his feet. He tested his right ankle with a little weight. It held but burned. Not broken just inconvenienced. Great what could possibly be worse than being chained to Larabee in the middle of nowhere with crazy people hunting them. He could imagine his cards taking a turn for the worst but not his ankle. He could feel it already beginning to swell in the confines of his boot.

"You through?" Chris asked. He did not mean to come down harshly on the southerner but sometimes the man was more trouble than a rabid dog. Why could he not be bound to Buck or better yet Vin? Why Standish? If Chris had to be trapped in a saloon or a gambling boat then he would want the southerner by his side, but not now not out in the desert being hunted. Standish was as adapted to surviving in the wild about as well as Vin in the big city.

"No I thought I'd twist the other one," Ezra replied not bothering to edit his comments. He watched the hazel eyes narrow and turn angry. What little concern had been present in the gunslingers eyes suddenly fell away.

Chris anger boiled. He wanted nothing more than to wipe that wise dimpled smirk off those clean shaven features, but as Ezra had said earlier, 'it never worked before'. Besides knocking the conman senseless would only get them caught. Larabee would bide his time and then 'discuss' his flippant attitude. "Let's go" He yanked his right hand forward pulling the southerner into action. Standish stepped wrong on his ankle, sucked in a painful breath and silently cursed the dark clad man beside him. He would get even.

Larabee smiled at the sudden intake of air. Good maybe it would induce Ezra to keep his mouth shut. They jogged silently as the sun climbed over the haphazard mounds of boulders that dotted the sparse landscape. A snow intermittent snow flurries flew dropping a whisp of snow over the area.

As they ran, an obstacle, reared it's ugly presence. Chris redirected to his left and Ezra to his right, pulling the shackles tight between the two, chaffing already sore bleeding wrists. Larabee,in frustration, pulled the chain tight forcing Standish to precariously loose his balance trying to maintain himself on one foot. The gambler not one to be pushed into any decision grabbed Larabee's right wrist and yanked it toward the right unbalancing the gunslinger. Both men were tired, hungry and breathless. Sweat trickled between shoulder blades, stomachs rumbled and muscles were sore. Tempers flared.

"So help me God Ezra I'll shoot ya now," Larabee hissed out between labored breaths. He would not be dictated to not by the likes of a cheating, sly, conman.

"Give it your best shot,"Standish retaliated knowing full well the gunslinger was weaponless. "Ohhh that's right the fearsome Mr. Chris Larabee without a gun, just a mere mortal," Standish shot back goading the older man. He despised being forced into following anyone blindly. He would not subjugate himself to such tyranny.

Chris had had it. "You rotten son of a bitch." He flew into the smaller man tackling him to the ground. Standish for his part landed a glancing blow behind Larabee's ear. Standish slammed into the ground Larabee's bony shoulder burying itself in the gambler solar plexus. Wind rushed out of the southerner's body. Ezra snapped his head up catching it on the bridge of the gunslingers nose. Chris yelped and rolled off the gambler but not before catching the gambler's right eye with a forceful elbow. Both men tried to rolled in opposite directions clutching their faces. The short chain prevented any kind of decent separation forcing both combatants to remain within striking distance. Instead of bringing two hands up to protect damaged tissue only one hand responded the other trapped by both the iron and the opposing movement of their rival. A truce had been called as both men moaned in pain.

"Gawd damn Ezra ya broke my nose," Larabee swore between clenched teeth. His whole face hurt hell even his hair hurt. Blood cascaded from both nostrils, his eyes watered and his head suddenly ached.

"I think I lost my eye," Standish wheezed trying to squint the quickly swelling blood injected orbital area.

Larabee peered over at the southerner with curiosity and would have smiled if his lips were not attached to his nose, "No it's still there just fading fast," he spoke hoarsely his voice filled with pain.

They lay relatively quiet soaking up their misery. Then the hounds bayed. A moanful foreboding sound off in the distance, an echo really. It was enough to galvanize the two men. They bolted upright, curses falling short. Pulling each other to their feet they skirted the boulder to the left and headed toward the river.


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