Josiah strained under the burden of dragging Larabee the few yards to a relatively flat area. Spots and flashes sparkled at the edges of his vision. His back complained and knees protested against the stooped over position. Beside him the preacher could hear the gambler gasp and grind his teeth, while he too pulled on Larabee's shirt. Twin scuff marks grooved the rocky terrain marking their progress. After just a few seconds of exertion and with a few yards covered Sanchez declared they had found a good spot.
Ezra did not really care. He dropped his burdened and collapsed to the ground. He muttered a half hearted apology to the prone gunman. The gambler could not see how this small patch of desert was any less hilly or rough than the area they just vacated. Standish cast a glance at Larabee. The gunslinger appeared senseless to his surroundings. Dirt, dried sweat and traces of salt clung to slack, sun burned features.
Though the desert did not hold the serene comfort of his feathered bed this particular spot of ground beckoned to the gambler. It would not hurt to just rest his eyes for a moment and catch his breath. Joisah could handle things for a bit.
With an impatient sigh Ezra pushed himself upward again. Damn when did he start having a guilty conscious. Godforbid. His beloved mother would cringe if she thought self imposed guilt motivated her only son.
Sanchez pulled his attention from Larabee when Ezra sat up with a frustrated groan. He had thought the younger man was going to doze off. The sun had been relentless, sapping them of their strength even when they were not exerting themselves. Standish also had to contend with the small abuses wrought on him by Benjamin. The man deserved some rest.
"Its ok brother, get some rest I can tend his wounds," Josiah spoke quietly again a hint of an apology lacing his words.
Josiah unbuttoned the dark shirt and pulled it back. The shirt material peeled with some reluctance from the stained and damp bandage below it. With Larabee's arms tied the shirt was prevented from being removed completely.
Without prompting Standish held the shirt corner down and out of the way. His dark red tanned hands were covered with thick film of desert dust turning them a greyish white. His ropes were crusted with black dried blood and a few hardy flies settled on them for a meal. The gambler ignored the damage and the pest and kept his attention on Josiah's movements.
"Easy brother," Sanchez mumbled softly when Chris reacted to the makeshift bandage being pulled away. Tied hands swapped heavily at the offending pressure near his shoulder.
The entry wound itself was deceivingly small. This always amazed the gambler. A small child's finger could barely fit in the hole, yet such a tiny violent puncture wound could wrought so much damage and inflict incredible amounts of pain. The exit wound was bigger of course when a bullet left its host. Sometimes the recipients of such violence were not so lucky. Sometimes the lead foreign bodies embedded themselves in bone..sometimes they splinted. Worse yet, there were times when slugs ricocheted like a roulette ball around the body bouncing and careening off different unnamed structures until finally settling somewhere inappropriate and often time inaccessible. Yes, Ezra had to concede, in the larger scheme of possible scenarios Mr. Larabee managed to pull an Ace out of his sleeve. The bullet went in and came out in a relatively straight line. Things could have been definitely worse.
The wound was angry but not terribly swollen. No purulence oozed from the holes and though painfully dry and chapped the raggered edges appeared healthy. No dead tissue offended the site.
"We're going to need some water," Josiah whispered out to himself.
Standish hung his head in defeat...maybe they just got worse.
"Don't worry brother I'll get it," Josiah smiled at the sudden relief on the younger man's face. Purple and maroon bruises graced both cheeks and the left jaw. Swelling had squeezed the left eye slightly closed. The boyish smile that Mary and Inez had admired would not be winning any hearts or wallets for a few nights.
The preacher was about to push himself to his feet when David McCall passed near. He tossed a canteen and another white shirt to them. McCall paused long enough to catch Sanchez's eye. The cousin merely shook his head in regret and continued on his way.
"Thanks brother," Josiah spoke with soft sincerity.
+ + + + + + +
Chris's backside was going numb. The back of his head ached. He had to move, shift positions. Cool air brushed his face and chilled him. Muscles tensed. He groaned. His head rolled to his left and hit something relatively softer than the ground.
"Brother?" Josiah watched with relief as Chris began to stir. The fever was low grade. Dehydration, however, was taking its toll on the gunslinger. The straw blonde hair was stiff and corded with dirt and dried sweat and clung to the pale forehead.
"Ezra help me sit him up," Sanchez struggled to gain purchase on Larabee's good shoulder. Ezra slid over a few feet and together they gently eased the gunslinger into a sitting position. Larabee leaned heavily against the preacher.
"Come on Chris I need ya to drink some of this water," The preacher held the canteen up to the drooping chin. Larabee's head had begun to slide down Josiah's chest. Ezra reached over and propped it back up. Together they managed to get a few sips down before Larabee gagged.
"Feelin' better?" Josiah recapped the canteen and put it out of sight. Hopefully the others would forget that they had it.
"Yeah," the hoarse answer was no better than a dry croak. The greedy,dry oral tissue absorbed most of the water but a little trickled down his throat. His stomach revolted agitated by the influx of the tepid liquid.
"You're a terrible liar Mr. Larabee," Standish smirked and once again cautiously moved a few feet away from the other men.
The sun had set an hour ago. A light pink haze of clouds offset the pale grey blue twighlight. A soft breeze rustled through the sage brush. The air was still hot so the gentle wind held a degree of warmth. The frantic flight patterns of swarming gnats were kept at bay. Desert grasshopper movements were marked by the delicate click of their legs. The coyotes had yet to start singing.
Standish doodled in the hard packed desert sand with a stick. He no longer searched for an explanation from the preacher. Chaucer had whinnied at one point in the late afternoon. A plaintive sound asking for some grain. Standish felt his insides turn at the soft cry. His mount deserved better. The black had snorted and stomped its front feet in impatience. Ezra had quietly wondered if Chris had actually pinned his mounts ears to the back of its head. The sorrel had ignored the other two contented to eat the slim forage that was available to them.
Standish silently promised his horse better treatment when they managed to free themselves from these men. For now however, Ezra worked haphazardly at his ropes, managing to chafe his burnt and swollen wrists some more. The veins on his hands stood out as did the blood vessels in his forearms. He marveled at the symmetry between the two hands and noted the subtle varying differences of matching blood vessels. With a broken stick in hand he doodled a collage of shapes with one hand...erased it and mimicked the same collage using the opposite hand. The designs held symmetry with only a slightest degree of variation......like his hands.
When Josiah started talking Ezra could not be sure. When he started paying attention to the story wove by the soft baritone voice, Standish could not pinpoint. How he managed to move closer to his two friends he did not recall but at some point in the evening Josiah began to weave a tragic tale of loss and rage. Somewhere in the beginning of the story the Southerner had been drawn to the speaker like smoke under a door.
Through it all the same hint of apology laced the words. Ezra did not think the Josiah sought forgiveness from the two men held captive with him...no not for them..for those that had died at Sanchez's hands. For those that had died as a result of his decisions.
Sanchez had a soul once. He really had been a preacher with a flock....he really had a son...for all of a week.
With a growing sense of loss and deep regret Ezra could not help but listen to the soft baritone voice all the while wishing he could move away. Distance himself from the loss of hope that had engulfed a man Standish did not think could truly falter beyond blind drinking binges.
With stick in hand...doodling so not to have to look the preacher in the eye Standish felt his heart lurch. He felt a knot build in his chest, bit his lip and slightly shook his head...trying to deny the pain that wove itself in the dark rumblings of a man that Standish once held above others.
With quiet deep voice that rose above the sounds of the desert, floating heavily in the warm breeze Josiah Sanchez relived his tragic loss in Faith, God and everything that breathed.
The camp fire flickered and danced with the breeze. The brittle branches cracked and flared. Faces were shadowed by the soft undulating light cast by the small cook fire. Captors and captives alike listened in silence.
Kerns melted into the shadows. He had lived part of the nightmare and relived it almost every time he closed his eyes.
+ + + + + + +
His voice nearly cracked when he spoke of his Shannon. Shannon O'Toole from Cork County. That was how she introduced herself. A whisp of a woman with a strong heart and fiery temper. Raven hair and light green eyes. Freckles highlighted her small features. Josiah remembered her just as if she stood before him now. She had been a member of his congregation and stole his heart. When vows were spoken and promises made they left security of civilization to gather their own flock. It was in this wilderness with just a scattering of faithless nomads that Sanchez met a trial larger than his faith.
John 'Jack' O'Toole Sanchez...flaming red hair. Had a set of lungs that would make a mother proud. But his mother had bled freely during delivery. The blood kept coming, pouring from her. She smiled weakly apologetically as she gazed upon her husband and new born son. Pale lips kissed the wrinkled drying forehead of her child...welcoming it into the world and saying good bye.
A father and husband was left in the wilds of a new territory with a motherless child. Jack, named for her father, who had died on the ship that left Galway and traveled to Maine. Jack and his mother came from a strong family seeking a better life.
Sanchez remembered falling to his knees keening for God to save his wife and child. With a trembling sigh Shannon's life ebbed quietly from her, the cries of her new son and husband the last sounds she heard.
Josiah prayed. Bartered with his God...Pleaded for his God to save his son. His son that never received his mother's first milk. In a weeks time as his pleas grew stronger and angrier, the cries of his son grew more frail. Cows milk filled its belly but with the short passage of time the small body became weaker.
Josiah buried the boy next to his mother.
Chris turned his head. Flashes of Sarah and Adam in a small picketed fenced garden...nothing more than wooden s. Buck had made them while Chris sat mutely ,almost catatonic, before the burnt out shell that was once his home.
Standish shifted a few inches away unconsciously. These men held a pain that nearly had no equal. He wanted no part of it. He remembered his father and quickly shook the memory off, that loss held nothing in comparison to those with him now. He silently chastised himself for being a fool. The image remained....a small child, so young that the mysteries as to why a King beat a Jack and why a pair of twos beat a lone Queen were just revealed. A small once dearly loved son learned at an early age fathers were not the strongest men in the world. Da's did not know everything. At an age to young for clear reasoning, death knocked on the life of a little southern boy and violently shattered those protective misconceptions at to early an age.
Still that loss failed to meet those of Chris and now Josiah. It was not a contest of who could withstand how much. Not at all. It was frightening to know that one can hurt beyond reasoning and have it scar a very young soul. It was even more terrifying to know that there were trials out there waiting to scar again.....deeper oh so much deeper.
To lose a child.
A black rage had descended on the preacher. The numbness had quickly dwindled when the preacher had hit the small inadequate grave for the last time. When he had emerged from the wild unpopulated frontier he had become a lawless shell of a man. God and his people be damned.
A gun for hire....a 'messenger'....anything a dollar would buy that allowed him to act on his fury. He would punish himself, his God and anyone who stood opposed to the ones that paid his wage.
Chris shut his eyes smoothing out his shuttering breaths. He knew that road. Had traveled it killed and maimed in a fury that knew no bounds. Buck shadowed him, tempered him and protected him...very much against Chris's will. Larabee had never been alone even when he had desired it the most. Buck never left him. Lord knew he had every right too. Larabee knew even though the alcohol erased memories...he knew he verbally blamed Wilmington in drunken rages. Knew he even pulled his gun on Buck more than once in an attempt to run him off. Still everytime Chris opened his eyes Buck was there ready to help.
Ezra ran the stick continuously in the dirt creating a groove. He did not want to know more about the men he rode with. He did not desire to learn about their dark pasts. He did not want to know that his personal hell paled in comparison to those that befriended him. Standish needed more distance. He wanted Josiah to stop talking....Ezra did not desire an explanation for their captivity.
Garret and Bobby Kerns had become the 'Buck Wilmington' for Josiah. The two brothers had picked the drunken man up off the floor of a saloon one night and sobered him up. They were good boys. JD reminded Josiah so much of the young Garrett. He had boundless energy. Everyone was innocent until proven guilty...people were basically good. Bobby had the darker side...still angry at the passing of his ma and pa. Though the boys were in their late teens they homesteaded land with their elderly parents. Cattle rustles took their parents lives and then the beefs and the bank eventually took the land.
The Kerns' found Sanchez and pieced him back together. In return the preacher educated the two and let them join him. They had been hellish years. Bobby rode with an anger almost as dark as the preachers. Garrett followed because they were older and smarter....his heroes. He dragged them both out of harms way when they had become fallen down drunk. He had bailed them out of jail, he had fed them and cleaned them when they were too hungover sick to tend themselves. In return they had treated him like the little brother he was....protected him, joked with him and let him grow.
Garrett had loved them as if they were both his brothers. He had wanted nothing more than to be just like Bobby and Josiah.
Kerns listened from the heavy cloak of a starless night. He heard the inflections in the older man's words as he spoke about that night. Garrett blinked rapidly staring up at the overcast sky trying to harden his resolve. He felt himself get lured into the soft rolling thunder that was Sanchez's voice. A voice he had once listened with rapt attention...hanging on every word.
Ezra knew the betrayal before Sanchez had uttered it. Standish knew all about betrayals....he had learned early on never, never trust anyone....never let anyone close. Even family would use you for the feel of coin. The value of life was in the eyes of those who controlled it.
Bobby Kerns had a violent streak when it came to working girls. This fateful night he fixated on a young dark haired waif from a small island off the Green Isle. Her brogue still thick, Gaelic still mingled freely in her sentences. She had the face of an angel... the face of Shannon Leigh O'Toole Sanchez.
Bobby had hit her...Josiah had tired to ignore him. Kerns had hit her again....and she had cried out, a small, plaintive, wounded sound....Sanchez had risen from his chair like a dark avenging demon......Kerns had reached for his gun....Josiah killed him.
Somewhere in this tangled tale...Chris could picture Buck folding toward the ground...he could imagine the shock that would flash in JD's eyes. A shock that would easily brand itself into justifiable hatred........Larabee shut his eyes against the macabre image.....
Josiah's voice continued to toll in its uneasy cadence.
Years of friendship tossed away with the simple action of squeezing a trigger. Two lives wasted. Bobby and Garrett.
Chris ran a thumb nail over his opposite thumb. When Sarah and Adam died he died too. So did Buck. How long had it taken Chris to realize that Buck suffered almost as much as himself?
Standish thought he could hear the sharp crack of the bullet from Josiah's gun. He felt as though he could smell the acidity discharge of gunsmoke wafe from Sanchez's barrel. It was not with any difficulty that Ezra could see Bobby Kerns stumble back against a bar in a nameless town, crumbling to a dusty floor betrayed by a friend.
It was not hard....not hard at all. He rubbed absently at his shoulder feeling a dull ache. No...not hard at all...
Ezra dug the stick deeper into the dirt wishing it were Buck or Vin stuck out in this Godforsaken desert listening to this tale.
Chris kept his eyes on his hands wondering how many times Buck nearly met the same fate. Larabee raised his gaze briefly settling it momentarily on the shadow that hid Garrett Kerns. Would JD follow the same path as the younger Kerns if Wilmington were to meet a similar end as Bobby? Would Dunne careen down the dark trail of twisted blind revenge or would the young Sheriff simply fold in on himself? Would JD hunt Chris down or would Dunne just come to loathe him. Larabee closed his eyes again and silently prayed he never learned the answers to those questions....
Garrett Kerns tried to mute the sharp dead features of his brother.
The words of the Judge rang hollowly in his ears...exonerated...let free. Bobby's killer was let go.
Josiah closed his eyes once again in defeat when the Judge's words rang through his mind, "Free to go....self defense" Why did the Judge let him walk away?
Sanchez needed to pay for his sins. He needed to swing from a rope at the hands of civilized men.
It was not to be.
While Garrett Kerns buried the last of his family Josiah Sanchez headed west. Seeking Penance and hoping to see crows.
Garrett Kerns stood quietly in the desert stifling his re-surfaced agony and fueled his anger.
It was time to return the misery.
The McCall cousins shared quiet glances....David decided to check on the horses. Peter needed to help him.
Benjamin watched the dark shape of his friend. He would stick by Garrett. Kerns always stuck by him.
Reciprocity was easy....whether for a friend...or for an enemy. His eyes settled on the Southerner.
Chris offered no words of condolences. No empty reassurances. Larabee had killed men before...for lesser things. He had killed someone's son or brother or father. He had left aching families in his wake. Just as he had been left in the choking smoke of his family's murder.
There were no words to be spoken. No gentle gestures of understanding. Larabee had nothing to offer Josiah because deep down inside he could not offer those reassurances to himself. He could only hope to go on....Face one day at a time. As the days turned to weeks then months and finally years... the ache had dulled occasionally flaring like a forest fire in a brittle stand of trees. Flare up but the explosions of loss became further and further apart. The intensity muted slightly each time. He had survived only through the good graces of Buck Wilmington. God damn that man for his persistence.
Josiah survived alone.
Ezra sat mutely staring at the deep groove he had dug. Where did Emma Dubonnet fit in all this? Despite himself he chuckled at the memory of Josiah riding to her rescue on a misappropriated horse hollering he was coming. The smile broadened against his best wishes when he recalled Buck lobbing the stick of dynamite without the fuse. Standish shook his head trying to erase the smile.
Sanchez raised his eyes from his feet at the sound of the soft chuckle. He had no anger left in him at the moment. The dimpled smile and soft chuckle confused him more than offended him.
Chris shot a glare at the younger man and then turned a cautious eye toward the preacher.
Ezra gazed up at the other two and shook his head trying to ask forgiveness without having to open his mouth. He saw the warning look in Larabee's eyes and his smile waned.
"Where did Emma Dubonnet fit in all this?" Standish asked. Curiosity would be his undoing there was no doubt.
Sanchez's face flushed and his gaze fell back to the ground. A deep chuckle rose from his chest.
Before he could answer Garrett melted from the shadows. He circled the three men and finally knelt in front of the gambler.
"Can I help you sir?" Standish asked squinting up at the face that loomed over him, his tone petulant.
"Ya know Josiah I couldn't figure out why a gambler? Remember Josiah there was a time you used to just shoot their kind for no good reason," Garrett never let his gaze wander to the younger man before him. He did not give Sanchez a chance to answer. "Then I figured it out, same green eyes...Didn't you think baby Jack would have had Green eyes?...Like his mother?..." He gripped the Southerner roughly by the back of his head. "Dimples too...didn't you use to tell Bobby and I about Baby Jack's dimples...?.....mmmmm....they'd be about the same age wouldn't they? .....Tell me Josiah you see Baby Jack in this gamblin' man?"
The grip tightened forcing Standish to drop his head and raise his chin toward the sky.
"Let'm go Garrett...its me you want," Sanchez answered tightly.
Larabee moved to interfere. Benjamin lumbered to his feet in warning.
"Tell me gamblin' man ya think ya could be like baby Jack?"
Standish held his tongue wondering how anyone could mistakenly place him in the role of an innocent beloved child. Mother loved him dearly in her own way but never had she erroneously bestowed virtues on him that did not exist. There was nothing redeeming about himself that would justify the false shadows Josiah or this fool Kerns saw in him. To try and place him in a spot reserved for a someone else's son was wrong....terribly, terribly wrong. Josiah deserved better...more importantly so did 'Jack'.
Garrett laughed without humor. It sent a chill down Josiah's spine. "Maybe I'll let Benjamin work on him a little....like you used to do those poor Snake and Oil fellas. What'da ya think Josiah?.....a little show for your friends so they can see what ya were like before ya became a law man."
"Don't do it Garrett...you're better than this...you were always better than me and Bobby, there was good in you," Sanchez slowly gained his knees hoping to make it to his feet. Any kind of distraction to keep their attention focused on him.
"Well you snuffed that right quick like when ya gunned down Bobby," Kerns laughed again a hollow sound. He hauled the Southerner to his feet by his hair.
"Here ya go Benjamin," Like offering a meat ladened bone to starving dog Garrett shoved the gambler toward the ex-slave.
Chris bolted to his feet. A pistol butt slammed into his wounded shoulder sending him crashing to the ground with stars dancing in his vision. Kerns laughed holstering his weapon. Chris struggled up again only to meet a fist careening toward his jaw. A bright flash, muffled voices and somewhere he thought he had heard Josiah yell for Ezra to run...Then nothing.
JD tossed and turned in his bed roll. He shucked the blanket. It was to hot for a blanket. An obligatory fire dwindled to mere coals. The early morning light was still a few hours off. Dunne cursed himself for not being able to sleep. The young man sat up reaching for his hat disgusted with himself.
A noise behind him made him swivel around. A silhouette slid amongst the horses. JD's moment of panic passed when he noticed the mounts were not alarmed. Peso grumbled softly. Dunne heard his Bay nicker quietly feeling his rider's unrest.
It must be Vin. Dunne sat in his bed roll and waited for the quiet tracker to leave the comfort of the horses and return to their camp.
Buck woke to find JD slumped sideways on his bedroll. Vin had the horses and waiting. The four did not bother with coffee or breakfast.
+ + + + + + +
Chris woke with a pounding headache. His shoulder still had the forefront of his attention but the head was a close second. After a few frustrating moments he was able to focus his eyes. A blanket lay over him. His head was cushioned by a coat. It was light enough to see by but the sun had yet to crest the horizon. The false grey dawn did not seem as hot as the other morning. Maybe he was getting used to this blasted weather.
The distant landscape was still cast as dark silhouettes. The small campfire was able to cast a slight glow but that would eventually diminish with the rising of the sun.
He lay quietly for a moment soaking up the aches that reported in from different parts of his body. His hip was sore from lying on the hard ground. He ran his tongue over his teeth and felt a thick mossy film that normally accompanied a hangover. Chris blinked his eyes slowly focusing on the small patch of dirt just in front of his face.
He thought of Josiah and Garrett. Larabee wondered if he had been close to losing Buck that way. What would have happened if in a drunken rage he offended one of the many working girls with whom he sought solace night after night? Would Buck have challenged him? Would Chris have killed him? Back then....in those bleak days of furious hatred...yes without a doubt Larabee figured he would have gunned down his oldest friend...hoping Buck would have out drawn him....
Chris shook off the thoughts..it was like scratching at a wound that was already bleeding...
Larabee rolled gently onto his back. This sparked a surprisingly new pain in his jaw. Then memory came crashing down on him. He tried to bolt up but restraining hands easily held him back.
Chris fought ignoring his shoulder, forgetting about his headache and jaw. With determination that rivaled Wilmington's Larabee struggled to move.
"Easy Chris just lie still."
Josiah's voice. It sounded defeated. Chris opened his eyes and found Sanchez staring down at him. The sadness in the big man's eyes frightened Chris more than any gun aimed at him. Dried blood matted the side of the preacher's head and cheek. His bottom lip was swollen and split. One eye struggled against the puffy tissue surrounding it.
"Alive," Sanchez swung his gaze to the curled form a few yards from him. They had not let him tend the southerner last night. It was dumb luck the gambler rolled onto his side when he did.
All through the night Josiah watched for the unsteady rise and fall of ribs. When the moon had been shadowed by clouds he had to rely on the raspy drawing of soft shallow breaths. Steady and slow....
"I'm gonna kill the bastards," Larabee promised laying back craning his head trying to see his fellow law man. What sympathy he felt for Kerns quickly dissipated. Standish had no role in this game of revenge....nor himself for that matter.
"You'll have to stand in line," Sanchez returned. He had felt the devil stir in his soul last night, an old familiar feeling.
"You get a look at him?"
"Can't get near him," This was met with a furrowed brow.
"Well they can shoot me where I stand then," With that Larabee struggled to his feet wobbling dangerously. He hugged his injured arm in close to his body. Sanchez steadied him. Together they headed over toward the gambler. Both men walked gingerly but their eyes swept their immediate vicinity. They matched pace and gait like a pair of injured wolves with raised hackles. Only so much insult would go unanswered.
The sharp clicking of hammer punctuated the early morning grey. Horses picked their heads up from the ground swiveling ears toward the sound. The animals paused briefly, perceiving no immediate threat to themselves, they continued to chew.
Chris ignored it. Sanchez kept himself between the gun and Larabee. He would not allow any more trauma to befall his friends.
The two men knelt beside the curled southerner. A cool wind sailed over the desert floor rolling dry tumbleweeds across the open ground. Chris laid a hand on the upward shoulder and brushed dirt and a few stray hairs from the fallen man's face. Standish moaned and curled tighter into himself.
"Easy son..." Sanchez whispered out kneeling at the front of the gambler. Together Chris and Josiah gently rolled him onto his back.
"Son of a bitch," Larabee cursed softly...
+ + + + + + +
Vin urged Peso to pick up the pace but prevented a trot. They should meet Chris and the others by this afternoon if all was ok. A two day ride if Chris pushed, three if they took their time and longer if they fell to trouble. Tanner did not bother trying to read trail here. If Larabee and the others ran into trouble it would have occurred closer to Junction city. If....somewhere in the night the 'if 'had dwindled away. It was not a matter of 'If' trouble found them...but what kind..
The others rode silently behind them. Vin had seen JD wake up this morning. Tanner had watched him from the cover of pre-dawn darkness. The kid was worried. He had good instincts...just like his little bay. Damn those two made a pair.
Buck did not even taunt JD today.
Nathan checked his supplies again this morning. Somehow the knife thrower knew they were heading into something bigger than just a disagreement between friends. Jackson had run a thumb over the blades and tested their weight. He caressed each one knowing the blades by feel rather than sight. Not all knives were equal...not all were weighted identically. With a knowledge spawned by pure repetition of motion Jackson cleaned and examined each tool unconsciously placing a function with each weapon.
Buck had not even bothered to put on coffee. Instead he shook out his bed roll...rolled it up and packed it behind his saddle. The others followed suit. They hit the trail early. Apprehension and fear hung heavily in the air. Wilmington patted the neck of the Grey more out of habit than affection. The horse recognized the touch...the need for action would be coming soon. They Grey blew air heavily from its nostrils. He was ready.
A storm was brewing somewhere just out of sight.
The sun lifted over the cusp of the mesas. The sharp edge that once held the slight breeze evaporated with the rising of the sun.
The small camp stirred to life. A dangerous air hung about the men. Predators watched prey...each biding their time...
David checked the horses again. The Chestnut had become uncontrollable last night. Peter wanted to put it down out of fear that the snorting beast would strike out at one of his new handlers. The Black gelding had bitten at anything that strode near his herd. The sorrel waited for the men to come within striking distance and without warning had lashed out with either front or back feet.
The two men had decided it best to leave the animals be for the evening. If they were missing by morning then so be it. The McCalls were not going to risk life and limb over a few dumb beasts. Instead the cousins sat outside the fire light wagering on the violence in camp.
The damn southerner had held his own for a little bit. Pete had lost a dollar to his cousin...blasted gambler was tougher than he looked. When the preacher had finally interfered real money was layed down. Would Garrett kill the older man...or would he let Benjamin rip both men apart limb by limb. Neither had occurred.
The preacher had fought like a demon...though his hands were tied he had given Benjamin a lesson in taking blows. While keeping the unmoving gambler underfoot, the preacher had given as good as he got. In fact if Garrett had let things go Sanchez might have gotten the upper hand. As it was, Kerns had interfered threatening to put another bullet in the blond.
Like heaving giants the combatants had stared at one another. Benjamin had circled around the preacher like a scavenger eyeing his next meal. Sanchez welcomed the threat and had offered one of his own as he silently, nimbly stepped over and around the unconscious man at his feet, never trodding on the southerner but never leaving his side.
It had been the vocal warning and threat to the ex-slave from Kerns that finally snuffed out the posturing.
Pete and David had exchanged cash when Benjamin returned to his seat by the fire. Sanchez bent to drag the southerner back to their side of the camp when Kerns pushed him roughly to the ground.
The McCalls had watched in fascination laying quick bets as to whether their boss would simply put a bullet in the downed gambler.
David was forced to dig out another double eagle and flipped it to his cousin when Kerns had holstered his gun without firing.
With the rising of the sun the cousins peered over their coffee when they heard the hammer click back. Through the evaporating steam of their morning coffee they watched in amusement as Larabee and Josiah ignored the implied threat and tended their friend.
The two cousins made it a point not to gaze at their boss. He was a frightening man.
Kerns sipped his coffee and squeezed the trigger. He laughed when Sanchez went down clutching his leg.
Larabee whirled on them.
The cousins lost their smirks. Their mocking gazes fell as eyes suddenly looked elsewhere. Something flashed in the blonde's eyes. Even from across the camp the McCalls recognized the predatory fight in their captive. These men were not beat....
Neither McCall wanted that monster at the end of their lariat. They had a demon in their midst...Kerns was playing a dangerous game one that could get them killed. They should have finished off the blonde and Sanchez instead of poking sticks at them.
There was a fine line between prisoner and guard. The rope bindings did not seem adequate.
"We're moving out," Kerns stated standing up tossing his coffee into the fire. The flames hissed and flickered shrinking from the liquid. The moisture singed and popped. The flames then grew larger, angrier at the sudden insult.
Peter shared a gaze at David....David merely shrugged and gained his feet.
Josiah hissed between clenched teeth gripping his calf tightly. Blood oozed from the small tear in the skin and muscle. The thick coppery smelling fluid flowed down his pant leg into his boot. The bullet grazed the large muscle mass. Nerve endings fired, small vessels bled freely and the skin screamed in response to the friction burn.
"You alright Josiah?" Larabee asked. His words held only a trace of the vengeance he promised on the bastards that started this. Chris did not bother looking up from the gambler. It was hard to judge if Ezra was conscious or not...both eyes were swollen shut. Heavy bruising marred his once handsome face. Dark purples and maroons stretched up under the skin protected by the filthy white shirt. His hands were still tied more blood saturated the ropes. Torn tissue swelled around the fibers while more bruising encircled the swollen forearms.
"Ezra ya hear me?" Larabee rested a practiced hand against the contused neck feeling for a pulse. Somewhere during the struggle the conman must have broken out of a strangle hold. Probably pulled a cheap shot out of his sleeve....Chris hoped Benjamin walked with a limp this morning.
"Is it morning already?" The 's's had become 'th's, the vowels drawn out and the 'y' had lost its usual sharpness falling mostly into the 'eh' sounds.
Larabee hesitated for a moment trying to decipher the garbled words. A small smile graced his face, for the benefit of the gambler...if he could see him.
"Yeah and we're movin' out," Chris tried to help him sit up but Standish offered no aid.
"Ratha stay here," The words were mumbled and spacing lost between the thick lips and bloodied teeth.
"Yeah well you have no choice in the matter so lets go," Larabee put more strength into his effort. Josiah reached over and braced a knee behind the younger man keeping him upright.
"On your feet brother," Together Larabee and Sanchez hauled the gambler to swaying feet. His knees buckled and despite their best efforts the threesome sagged back to the ground.
"Shit," Chris muttered out in frustration. Sweat dotted his forehead and he heaved for breath. The muscles of his chest, neck and back cried in protest while the furrowing puncture wound cracked and tore...the skin too dry and chapped started weeping again.
"Git'im on his feet or I'll shoot him here," Kerns rode up beside the tangle of three men.
Both Larabee and Sanchez dared him to pull the trigger placing themselves partially between the Southerner and the horse. Standish slid the rest of the way to the ground. It was as comfortable as his feathered bed....
Garrett nudged his horse onward telling himself it would be more rewarding to watch Sanchez suffer the death of the gambler and then gunslinger.
"Ok son, lets try this again," Josiah and Chris paused caught their breaths and once again unceremoniously hauled Ezra to unsteady feet.
The knees shook and began to give, "Oh no you don't," Larabee hissed shifting his grip putting more of his weight under the southerner.
"The knife.....is......killing me," Standish mumbled out. His chin hung below his shoulders. Larabee bit back a curse when he spied the heavily mottled skin on the back of his friend.
Josiah gazed at Chris in askance...did he hear correctly? Chris shrugged best he could with his injured shoulder and added weight of the gambler.
"What knife Ezra?" God might not have forsaken them afterall.
"The one Benjamin so judiciously left unattended," The sly tone highlighted the muffled, softly spoken words.
"You son of a bitch,you stole 'is knife? " Chris nearly choked out with a laugh. "Knew there was a reason to keep your theivin' butt around..."
"I do not 'steal' Mr. Larabee....merely 'borrow' things," Standish huffed out quietly feeling a sudden loss of breath.
"Well ya gonna have to live with it for a while longer....ya think ya can do that son?" Sanchez tightened his grip when he felt the strength ebb from the younger man's legs.
"Is he limping?" Standish tried to raise his head and make sense of the fuzzy world around him.
"Can hardly ride a horse," Chris answered not bothering to stifle his chuckle.
David ponied the three men while Peter led the horses. Kerns rode point with Benjamin behind him....shifting constantly in his saddle.
+ + + + + + +
Vin pushed his hat back off his head and wiped his brow with his shirt sleeve. He stared at the ground reading the scruff marks and broken sage as some read a newspaper. Tanner more often than not gleamed more information from the soil and his environment than most did from printed words.
This was a language he understood. As he stared at the torn and pitted earth he could visualize with astounding clarity what had occurred.
Buck, JD and Nathan remained in their saddles. Peso stood quietly, unruffled that the young energetic rider held the end of his reins. The large gelding ignored the rough foliage around him and watched as his rider inspected the area.
Dunne held Peso in tense hands. The black bluffs were imposing. They radiated heat blasting the small group with a furnace like intensity. The little bay fidgeted shifting its weight from foot to foot eager to be moving again. JD spoke softly to his Bay trying to ease its anxiety.
Buck patted the Grey unconsciously, smoothing the rough coat caused by the chaffing of wet leather reins. The gelding stood quietly swiveling its ears left and right. There was a faint scent of the Black. It hung in the air just above the ground. A taste really nothing more. The Grey snorted and searched the air again for the hint of his herd.
Nathan hung back from the group. He fingered his saddle bags wishing someone else carried the responsibility of trying to heal the others. His knives fit comfortably in his hands....as weapons. Though he had tried to nuture and educate himself in the way of healing his knives held a truer more confident cut when used in a violent manner. It made him shutter. Jackson wanted to be above such violence...to heal rather than destroy was always more gratifying. The fear however intensified. To take a life, he had had much practice though his hand been forced...to save a life was both frightening and exhilarating. To be asked to save a friend terrified him more than he cared to admit. With rising anxiety the healer watched the tracker read the ground.
"They passed through here a few days ago...looks like someone got hit....a scuffle over there...a horse went down.." Vin spoke out loud but mostly to himself. The others heard but kept their silence. Tanner continued to pace the area circling it stepping over sage and rocks careful not to mark the signs.
The others waited with an aire of impatience. The sun dominated the pale sky...not a cloud in sight.
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