Chris had gone for a long walk; the entire perimeter of their camp. With no blanket of clouds to hold it in, the heat had escaped quickly into the late winter night. You could almost smell the frost in the air. Tomorrow the same clear sky would probably let the temperatures rise well above average for this time of year. It was too early in the year for the sound of insects, but the coyotes were calling to each other. The cedars, mesquites and oaks rustled west to east when a breeze cut through them. The moon had moved a good quarter of the way across the sky in the time he was gone. And only now did he allow the thoughts to come. First he had to tame the emotions, the regrets, the anger. Only now would he think about what had happened.
God, Buck A sad smile crossed Larabee's lips. You might be easy going, but it's because you know how to cut to the heart of a problem and stab at it with words better than even Ezra could ever hope. He'd never say those things when he was sober, Chris realized. Not because they weren't true, not because I didn't deserve it, but because he knew how words could hurt. That was a lot of the reason Buck watched himself so closely as to how much he drank.
Chris found himself at the horses. He ran a gentle, appreciative hand across his own horse's neck. "Hey, Habanero." He remembered when Buck insisted on the name for the horse. His friend had been helping break the outlaw-pony, got kicked in the ribs and laid up for two weeks for his effort. Some pretty senorita had recently convinced the lady's man to try one of the small orange peppers. Chris had thought the thing might cause actual physical damage from the reaction it got. Buck was sweating from the second he put it in his mouth. His eyes watered and he couldn't seem to get enough air to ask for water. Chris had laughed for two days over that. Habanero. The name seemed to suit the hot-tempered gelding. And Paladin, Buck's own horse. Chris begrudgingly admitted he liked the sound of it. Buck had immediately shortened it to Pal. Appropriate. Short and to the point.
Ezra's horse was content to be among the others that he traveled with regularly. The gunfighter thought about the gambler. He must not like his chances Chris mused. Larabee knew why their errant companion had chased the animal away; had seen it as it happened. The horse would be free. It wouldn't share it's master's road this time; not when the odds were this low. He wished there was some way to let Ezra know they were coming for him. That they were there for him. Huh Larabee snorted derisively. I can't let Buck know I'm there for him when we're face to face. That damn Southerner's right to save his companionship for the horse. Chris felt a presence behind him. He knew his men so well he didn't have to turn around to sense who was there. "What makes a friend, Josiah?"
The ex-preacher moved closer. "I'm not sure that's a fair question." The big man paused and really thought about the question - possibly for the first time in his life. And he thought about it for himself as well as the man in black; the man he hoped to comfort. Then he answered for himself and for Chris. "I think it's one of those things that raise humans above other animals. It's more than loyalty. It's certainly not obedience. There's been people I have a lot in common with - I don't like them much." Chris chuckled. "I think admiration has to be there - the way they live their lives, or fight obstacles. It's something someone sees or feels about another person. A look, a single word said, a word not said ... And respect. You have to be just as proud that they call you friend as they are the other way around." Josiah waited but didn't get a response. "You can say something anytime so I can stop rambling." He smiled. Still no response. "What does it mean to you?"
Chris was surprised by the question. "Pain. Worry. Josiah, those times Buck brought up... "
"Forget it. Ain't askin' you to admit anything. But Chris, not admitting you care, to yourself or others, ain't gonna change how you do feel. Not being here if we need help ain't gonna make the pain any less when you hear one of us went down. But how are you gonna feel when you realize being here might have changed the outcome? You weren't there for your family. That wasn't anyone's fault, but do you feel better or worse for not being able to try?" He let that sink in. "We're not talking about friendship, here, Chris. We're talking about brothers. Brothers who choose to be brothers. Don't rightly remember ever seeing it go so deep or mean so much as it does to this group. I don't want to lose that."
"How much worse could I have torn that up back there with Buck?"
Josiah thought he was about to get Chris Larabee to open up, about to let go of the emotions he held inside and that festered as anger. Just a few more words -- but suddenly gunshots echoed from the camp. Guns drawn, Chris and Josiah ran to protect the others.
+ + + + + + +
Buck wasn't sure where he was. He was riding Pal hard. He could see smoke over the treetops. The wagon? The surroundings didn't look right, but they felt familiar. He wasn't alone. Vin, Nathan, and Josiah followed him. Vin fell from his horse. As Josiah and Nathan helped him up, Buck could see angry red burns on Vin's hands and face. Buck never dismounted. He reached down and gathered the reins of his friends' horses. "Josiah, get them in that scrub brush over there." He could feel they were being pursued, but couldn't remember who or why. Who was trying to break them up?
"No time, Buck. They're not far behind... what are you doin'?"
"They're following the horses' trail. They'll never know you're still here." Buck adjusted his grip on the reins.
"We stick together." Josiah grabbed the reins of Buck's horse.
"Not this time." Buck used his boot to Josiah's stomach to shove the man away; quickly gathered up the reins and pulled the horses down stream. "Get to cover."
Pal stretched out in response to Buck's urging. They broke the tree line. The flames licked around the wagon in front ... no, not a wagon. He was still too far to make out details, but it was not the Zimmerman wagon, but Chris's house. Sarah and Adam were inside. The flames were only now licking at the walls. He was hot, as if the flames were already reaching him. His muscles seemed sluggish, but Paladin was like the wind. She would get him to where he needed to be - to what he needed to get done. For some reason he was being given another chance. It niggled at the back of his mind that it didn't make sense, but it was blocked by the need to succeed, to save Sarah and Adam, save Chris. He refused to take the time to question why he was alone; why Chris wasn't beside him.
And so he rode. But as he came closer he saw it was not the cabin, not death and dying ashes; no not smoking embers ... not a chance forever lost ... not ... not Chris's house. It was Nettie's ranch house alive with flames. "Nooooo!" He pushed Paladin. He could hear Nettie and Casey's cry for help from inside. JD was there. He could see him as he drew closer. He was trying to get to them. And then there were the men. Coming from behind, the ex-Union soldiers, shooting, horses racing forward, they were trying to stop him.
Almost there. Together he and JD would get the women out.
One of the horses trailing him took a bullet and fell unmoving on the ground. Its reins, ripped from Buck's hands, became entangled in the big mare's hooves. She went down, but looked no worse for the wear. It was just like the fall at the wagon. The soldiers caught up to Buck. Now one held his left arm and the other his right. Buck, on his knees, still struggled until the third soldier, his hand fisted in Buck's hair delivered a vicious blow to Buck's knife wound. Buck's back arched. He gritted his teeth to avoid screaming with the pain. The man pulled back for another strike. This time Buck recognized the man. It was Clay. No, it was Chris. Chris was keeping him from getting to JD and Casey and Nettie.
No. Chris and he could have it out, could end everything, but not at the expense of the others. Nathan and Vin and Josiah had been left behind, now JD could not get the help he needed to save his future because Buck and Chris were at odds again. Buck, enraged, pull back and freed his right arm. He pummeled the man who held his left. The problems between him and Chris were tearing the others apart. It had to stop. Fighting for survival Buck pulled the gun from one attacker's holster, aimed it in Chris's direction and fired.
+ + + + + + +
Everyone asleep around the campfire awoke to gunfire. They had their own weapons in their hands before they were fully awake. Instinctively checking to see that everyone was safe, Vin noticed Josiah and Chris were missing. Nathan, immediately awake, took in the situation in a glance and held his hand out in an order for the ex-Confederates to lower their guns. He saw Buck kneeling on the ground in front of the campfire; gun aimed at everyone across the fire from him. But he could tell that Buck, fevered and drunk and sick, was seeing something else.
+ + + + + + +
It was too late. The roof of the house toppled in on itself. JD turned lost, dead eyes to Buck - the same eyes that had looked back at him for three years from Chris's face. "Buck, don't ... don't let it happen ... " JD pleaded. One man stood between them; separated him from the boy and his grief. He couldn't see the man's face clearly, but his swirling thoughts told him it was Chris. Buck again fired into the night, "Damn you!"
"Buck" He heard a soothing voice.
Chris and Josiah had run back to the campfire to find Buck pointing the gun into the darkness. No one dared to move except Chris who unhesitatingly stepped forward to protect his friend from himself and demons brought on by the alcohol and fever; demons no one else could see. "It's me. Chris." He could tell Buck's eyes weren't focused; that he didn't know where he was or what was happening. "Buck, put the gun down." The gun wavered but from the holder's weakness, not any tendency by the holder to lower the weapon.
"Leave me alone!"
"I can't do that."
"Why? You did it in Texas. You did it in Sweetwater."
"Buck, you're dreaming. Wake up."
"Now Casey's dead and Nettie. Where are Vin and Josiah? Nathan!" As much as he wanted to come forward and treat his friend, as he called to him, Nathan knew he must let Chris deal with him in this condition. Buck's back was bleeding again.
"Buck, it's a dream. You're dreaming. C'mon, follow my voice."
"Chris?" The gun lowered slightly.
"Vin and Josiah are right here. Nettie and Casey are safe." Buck squinted to recognize the face he thought was Chris and who he thought was destroying his family. He never saw the face before it dissolved into wispy curls of memory, but he knew Chris's hair was never that jet black, and he hadn't worn it that long since ... "Chris?" The voice was a little more coherent. Chris knew at that moment he was in no danger from his old friend and gently removed the gun from his hand. Buck continued rambling. "How long?" Buck looked pleadingly into the hazel eyes for an answer.
"Let Nathan look at you." Chris didn't know what Buck was asking. For the moment he was concerned with his physical well-being and what he might have done to re-injure himself.
"I wasn't there again." Buck said with a deep sadness.
"Buck, wake up." Nathan whispered. Once Chris had defused the situation, he was quickly at their friend's side.
Caught between sleep and wakefulness and unsure what was real, Buck heard and recognized Nathan's voice, but sought out a familiar safe haven. "Chris?"
"Come back to your friends."
"I can't. I can't come back." His eyes met Chris's and he spoke to him alone. "If I stay, if I do something careless ... if someone ... if Casey gets hurt ... JD turns out like you ... ."
The words hit Chris like a physical thing. His eyes cut to the boy and then back to his old friend. "Buck, listen to me. That's not what's happened." He took the man's face between his hands. "Buck, it's not your fault. JD! Get over here." JD slid to a stop on his knees beside Chris. Buck's eyes moved his way, but didn't seem to focus. "JD tell him you're okay."
"Buck, I'm fine. No one's hurt."
Nathan slowly examined Buck's eyes. He was for all intents and purposes unconscious and unaware of his surroundings. "Let me take him, Chris. The whiskey and the head injury have everything running together for him." The man in black hesitated. "He won't remember any of this tomorrow. We all need to rest tonight and straighten things out in the morning."
"He's not going with us tomorrow. Not in this condition." Larabee charged.
"I'll help you with that tomorrow." There was an authority to the healer's voice that demanded obedience. "You should get some rest." Chris hesitantly agreed.
The black-clad gunman sat quietly until Buck finally dozed off and seemed to be resting peacefully. Then he left him with Nathan and JD. Vin and Bonner had just taken the night watch and would later be relieved by Carson and Kestrel. Larabee didn't dare approach that man right now. He wanted to tear him apart and they would need all the help they could get until Ezra and the others were safe. There would be time for everything else later. And the part of him conditioned as a soldier let him sleep relatively soundly through the night because he knew he would need the rest in the days to come.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra followed the man around the compound. He wasn't an imposing man, instead being of rather average build and stature. But he was a fighter. He didn't give up and he didn't want others to give up although, and Ezra could see this in his eyes, it was a struggle to maintain the mask of optimism. Most of the men here were sick and weak and malnourished. The filth and constant intimidation by the guards beat them down further. Never knowing when someone would be dragged from the group and executed for all to see ... of course it was nerve wracking. It had been back then ... No, this is now.
He had known the other prisoners were all watching him from the moment he was dragged from that damnable pit. He sat alone and thanked the unpredictable February weather for warming up and chasing the chill from his bones. With Kestrel in the mix they had more than likely learned the hard way that anyone, newcomer or not, was a potential informant or infiltrator. So he hadn't been expecting to be contacted so soon. But the man stood before him and offered a hand. "Name's John Lassiter. I'm sort of the spokesman for those inside."
After the briefest moment, Ezra shook the hand. "Ezra Standish. Hoping to awaken from a three day inebriation to discover that you and your little cadre are alcohol induced hallucinations."
Lassiter had given him a sympathetic smile. And now, an estimated two hours later, he found himself following the leader of the incarcerated as he laid out honestly but painfully the pessimistic details of their situation. "Is there any way to convince Carlisle to turn his prisoners over to the U.S. government now? That he has accomplished what he set out to do?" Ezra asked.
"He's insane. He thinks he has to get us at least to the Mississippi before he will be taken seriously. Logic doesn't apply."
"You've tried?" Lassiter nodded. Ezra continued. "I've been well indoctrinated in the fact that I am to eventually stand trial for imagined war crimes. Is there a schedule for these hearings?
Lassiter eyed the camp sadly. "No schedule. It's when his men get bore or to rid himself of troublemakers."
"So, even giving the man the benefit of the doubt, what once may have been a noble, but perverted cause, has long ago turned into simple robbery." Ezra observed as he analyzed the possible outcomes of the situation: Everyone escapes, some escape, I escape, no one dies, everyone dies. That will get me nowhere. Ezra could possibly appeal to Bridger, but wasn't willing to get too close to the man to gain his confidence except as a last resort. Besides he would be expecting that. He realized Lassiter was watching him, possibly for some encouragement. Ah, hell. "There are some men outside those immediately involved who have some idea of what is transpiring."
"But you don't hold out much hope." Lassiter interpreted from his tone.
Damn. I must be slipping. C'mon, Ezra, where's the reason to hide the fact that you think you're on your own? If he's sincere, he deserves the truth. If he's spying for Kestrel, let him think you're defeated. "As a friend of mine is wont to point out, 'God helps those who help themselves'."
Lassiter seemed to find encouragement that this new prisoner still had a little spit left in him. "Well, I guess we better keep trying to come up with a plan that gets us out." Ezra grimaced. Bridger would be watching closer than ever for just such a mass escape attempt since Ezra had been successful in orchestrating one of those the last time. Ezra sighed. He didn't mind making his own luck, but he had to have something to work with. No, something had to happen. Kestrel had to make a mistake.
+ + + + + + +
Morning had Chris up first of his men. Whatever they were going to do it was going to be soon. Ezra wasn't staying in that hellhole. Damn stubborn cuss. Speaking of stubborn cusses ... "Nathan," The healer woke up groggily to his name. He glanced over and sleepily noticed the fire needed to be rekindled to make the coffee. "Where's Buck?" Nathan looked around instantly more alert. The others heard and looked as well.
"Where's Kestrel?" Vin growled.
"They rode to the camp." Carson drawled as he came in from guard duty.
Chris was nose to nose with the heavier man in a heartbeat. "They what?" It was a whisper.
"We took off their outriders. The men you killed at the wagon." He drawled sarcastically as if Larabee would so quickly forget the deaths he caused. "We had to come up with an excuse for what happened to them before they go to missing. We can't afford them sending out search parties and finding us."
"What did Kestrel talk Buck into?" Josiah's voice was low, rumbling.
"Didn't take much convincing." Carson defended. Chris's eyes were coal black, and deep pools of threatening emotions. He didn't say a word but the threat had Carson continuing. "K - Kestrel's due to report in anyhow. He'll ride in like Wilmington's his prisoner. Say Wilmington took out those five blue coats while he was looking for Simpson - Standish. Those what arrested your man'll recognize him. They saw him fight. They'll believe he could best five men. Kestrel will tell Bridger and Carlisle he's a sympathizer."
"No- Chris - you can't ... we gotta stop him... " JD fairly bounced, torn between going for his horse and awaiting some insight from his hero.
Larabee grabbed Carson's collar and pulled him forward. "How much of a lead do they have?" Chris asked.
"Five hours at least. They left when we took watch."
Chris threw the man away from him. "Damn." Nathan spat.
"They'll kill him." JD felt truly lost.
"He'll stand trial." Darby volunteered.
"I'll be damned if he will."
"We're buying time. Time we need." Carson was confident. "We'll stay here for two days then we can go in ... "
"Like hell." Larabee was heading straight out and straight into that hellhole as soon as they arrived.
"Gotta be two days." Carson demanded. The look Larabee gave defied him to continue. The leader of the ex-Confederates noticed the same dangerous expression had taken over all of their faces. Even the boy had been pushed so that anger and turmoil had finally hardened his expression as well. Wilmington's concerns had been justified. This boy could become another Chris Larabee if his fortune followed a similar course. "Wilmington's been told he has two days after he goes in to organize a resistance movement from the inside. If we jump the gun, no telling what kind of damage we'll be doing. As it is, we're outnumbered at least four to one. I can guaran-damn-tee ya more people will die if you ride hell-bent in there now than if we wait."
"Chris?" Vin was waiting for the decision.
"If we get any closer, their scouts will find us for sure." Bonner warned. "You put him in too hot a spot, no tellin' what Kestrel'll do to save his hide." Chris studied the man. His allegiance was to Carson, not to Kestrel. He was telling the truth. This Kestrel, the one who had been riding with them, could and would sell Buck and Ezra out to buy himself some time. What had happened to the man he once knew? Had Kestrel always been this way? No, but when they had hooked back up briefly after Sarah and Adam's deaths, hadn't Buck felt uncomfortable about him? Maybe Chris had been such a dark and dangerous figure during that time, he had not noticed the changes in the older man. Chris turned his back on everyone. Carson glanced over at Bonner. JD watched with growing distress. Vin thought back on how Kestrel had manipulated them all along until now they were forced to wait this out despite their better judgement. Two days. Chris and Josiah would have to beat him to Kestrel, Vin vowed to himself.
+ + + + + + +
The young Zimmerman family got comfortable on their borrowed horses. Tommy sat in front of his father. "As soon as you get to town, you wire Judge Travis, you understand?" Josiah went over the last preparations.
"I tell him to start sending the cavalry and he doesn't stop sending men until you tell him to." Zimmerman repeated back. Josiah, Nathan and JD took the time to shake hands with the others. JD tousled Tommy's hair and promised that he and Buck would take him fishing in just a few days. Larabee and Tanner were beyond conversation and nowhere to be found. Their minds were set on a job that needed to be done and over with. The part of the gunfighter that had taken over had no place for civility. Buck and Ezra were in danger. He was not going to arrive too late. He would never arrive too late again.
+ + + + + + +
Kestrel led Wilmington into the compound. Buck was almost thankful his hands were tied to his saddle horn. He was fighting to stay in the saddle. He knew he was weakening but it seemed the other symptoms of the concussion were lessening. The hangover, well, he deserved that. At least his headache was now tolerable. He was able to think clearly. This was another thing Kestrel had been right about. In his current condition Buck knew he was next to useless in a firefight. It was for the best he be the one to go inside. He would get inside and rest; tell the men they were about to be rescued, come up with a plan and wait for Chris Larabee to arrive. Better than the horse soldiers any day. And Chris would have the others with him. Yep, he would sit back, rest up and enjoy the show. With a little rest he might even be able to be of some actual help in the rescue.
Buck had never seen a POW camp and hadn't known what to expect. Now as he studied the abject conditions he was grateful he hadn't. He tried to look past the filth and squalor to find Ezra. The men inside the wire seemed to be standing at attention. He couldn't pick out his friend. That tugged at him. These men were all dirty, ragged and covered with dust and dried mud, maybe even dried blood; so much as to make them indiscernible one from the other. The usually fancy dressed gambler should stand out like a peacock among guineas. So where was he? Two men, dressed in the remnants of Union blue approached and drew Buck's attention back to his immediate surroundings. The one with a missing eye walked a little in front.
Ezra was standing at attention with the other prisoners. He knew this was a technique to sap their stamina and break their spirit. Punishment for breaking ranks was swift and hard. Flies and gnats and mosquitoes were swarming around the men. No one was allowed to swat at them. As was typical of many February days in the plains, the temperature was rising. For the moment Ezra was still content to allow his body to absorb the heat and take away the chill of the previous night. Soon the sun would become unbearable. He closed his eyes and tilted his head ever so slightly so that the sun could warm his face. He was refusing to allow the reality of his situation to take hold of his mind.
Ezra sensed a flurry of movement near Bridger's cabin and turned his head that way out of curiosity. Ezra wasn't sure what his first emotion was when he saw Kestrel lead Buck in, his first thought was, "Please, God, don't do this." The raven-haired gunfighter pulled Wilmington up in front of Bridger and Carlisle and said something. They eyed the peacekeeper with a mixture of contempt and respect. Kestrel suddenly hit his prisoner on his injured back, an action that brought him to his knees. Ezra almost broke formation to go to his friend. One of the guards saw the movement and was at his side ready to exact retribution for the first misstep. Helplessly he watched as Buck had a hard time standing. He was hurt. Kestrel laughed as the soldiers behind Carlisle dragged Wilmington to his feet and toward the compound. The guard on watch was unchaining the main gate to force him in.
There was a scream. One man in the last row broke ranks, seemed to fight some invisible foe, tripped, fell, screamed again and crabbed his way backwards. He ignored the blast from one guard's scattergun that tried to discourage his actions. Finally, guards and prisoners alike were able to make out the shouted words. Rattlesnake.
When Ezra's eyes adjusted to the scene behind him, at first he felt dizzy as if his eyes were swimming. Then he realized it was an optical illusion caused by the fact that the craggy outcropping of boulders within the barbed wire was moving. The warmth of the late winter sun had drawn at least two dozen diamondbacks out of the den where they had nested together over the winter months. They were so well camouflaged the first appearance was that the ground was moving. Then it became clear that it was the snakes crawling over the mounds of earth and rocks which were the same color as their tan, brown and black skins. One snake had attacked the hysterical man. When he tripped, he couldn't get away from him. Its fangs were trapped in the denim of his work pants. The long, thick reptile writhed, coiled and uncoiled in an attempt to break free. The man shook his leg in panic. "Get it off! Get it off!"
Several of the guards, from a safe distance behind the barbed wire, fired buckshot into the vipers. The prisoners moved away from the slithery death. Ezra went to the man who was attached to the snake. He assessed the situation, trying for a course of action. Suddenly a heavy boot came down on the rattler, just behind its neck. Ezra looked up to see Buck there evaluating the snake rather casually. The six-foot long reptile coiled around Buck's boot and up his leg. The 12 rattles and a button buzzed in anger. Buck reached down, grabbed a fist size, glassy rock, adjusted it in his hand, then reached down and neatly sliced the head from the rest of the body. He had to remove the coils from his leg, then he carefully pulled the still deadly fangs from the frightened man's jeans leg. He looked back at the rest of the den. Many were wounded by the shotgun blasts. Very few were truly dead. He looked at the men around him. "Hell, don't tell me you never killed a rattler, before." He met the eyes of two of the men who looked rugged, capable. One of them was Lassiter. "Just 'cuz you're in here, don't mean you can't protect yourself." The fact seemed to galvanize the men to action. Several of them moved forward and with rocks, sticks and their boots, they killed the creatures.
Ezra kneeled beside Buck and heard him talking casually to the man who was attacked. "That thing get you?" The man nodded. Buck ripped open the man's pants leg and found two puncture marks. "Gotcha just the once?"
"I think so."
"What's your name?" While the man answered, Buck took the rock and cut a single slit into each wound. He was careful to use a different part of the rock each time so as not to recontaminate the second puncture with poison from the first. "M-my names Phillips. Jack Phillips." Buck leaned down and sucked blood and venom from the wounds. "It's gonna hurt, it's gonna be scary, but you don't gotta die from a rattler bite. You understand me? You fight it, you got a chance."
The man nodded. Buck and Ezra both gave startled jumps when they believed another snake had suddenly wrapped itself around Buck's throat. But with the jolt that pulled him backwards, Buck identified the feel as a length of leather. Jordan had lashed out with his whip and jerked the taller of the men onto his back on the ground. Buck's hands went instinctively to the coil to try to loosen it. Jordan held a remaining pit viper in front of his face. "You like playing with rattlers?" The man asked. The snake's slitted eyes were angry and defensive. The jaws were open and venom dripped from the fangs. Two additional guards had their hands full to keep Ezra from coming to Buck's aid. Several other sentries, inside the barbed wire and out, kept rifles, scatterguns and pistols aimed at Lassiter and the other prisoners and held them at bay. Bridger was watching and he was uncomfortable. As soon as Standish and this other man got together, they seemed to breed a sense of insurrection in the previously docile prisoners. Bridger tapped his riding crop against his upper arm and watched.
"I've heard a man bit in the neck bloats up and dies gasping for breath; knows every minute as the life leaves his body." Jordan toyed with the snake he held in a firm grip just behind its head. "They say you killed Tucker and the others. He was a friend of mine."
Buck allowed the man to think he had an edge. He must think it came from the simple fact that he was one of the wardens. Well, Buck was glad to take advantage of his over-confidence. He still held the fist-sized rock in his right hand. He bashed it into Jordan's temple. At the same time, he rolled out from under the big, red headed man. Stunned, Jordan hit the ground and lost his grip on the snake - and met his own fate. The rattler lashed out and sank his fangs into the man's throat and shoulder twice before Buck could grab it by the tail and slam it into the side of the outcrop with deadly force. Buck rested on his hands and knees and tried to suck in air in deep breaths as he loosened the whip around his neck. The bearded man's face took up most of his line of sight. He knew he was looking at a dead man. Jordan's fear of the bites as much as the poison itself would prevent him from fighting. The man thought he would die and so he would die.
Two guards had Jordan and were lifting the gasping, terrified man before Buck was able to move again. The camp's medic was beside him, but showed no reassurance. "What about your other casualty?" Ezra demanded as everyone ignored the prisoner who had been bitten. Ezra's comment was equally ignored. With a final glance at the stricken Jack, who seemed surprisingly calm, just like Buck told him to be, Ezra quickly made his way to his friend.
The guards regrouped outside of the wire. The prisoners seemed to keep a distance from Buck and Ezra as if they had something that was contagious. Ezra's eyes met Lassiter's in quiet understanding. Buck had stood in defiance to the guards. He would be expected to pay a price. It would do no good for the other prisoners to support him and suffer the same fate. Simple survival strategy. Ezra would have done well to follow it, he might even be able to do Buck more good later if he had. It didn't matter. Despite the safest course of action, Ezra knelt down beside his friend. He remembered how they left him unconscious at the campsite. That wouldn't happen again. The Southern accent was strong, a reflection of his disquiet over the situation. "I hope you have some plausible explanation as to why you have seen fit to grace us with your presence."
"Chris's been in a powerful pissy mood lately."
Ezra bowed his head and shook it, unable to avoid the smile. "Welcome to the lesser of two evils." But then he got serious again. "We should probably avoid as much as possible letting them know we are acquainted."
"Kestrel brought me in. Don't think we'll have many secrets." Buck looked around. Ezra's clothes were in tatters. His bare feet were covered in dry blood and bruises. His hair was so dirty as to be matted and caked to his brow with mud. None of the others looked any better as Buck surveyed their situation. "Are you all right, Ezra?" He asked. The concern in his voice touched the Southerner. Not trusting his voice, he nodded. Finally he was able to ask, "Does Mr. Larabee know you're here?"
"Oh, by now I 'magine he does." It was Buck's turn to smile involuntarily and it held more than a hint of disquietude.
"And?" Ezra picked up on the emotions.
"And I plan on cuttin' a choggie to Mexico before he can get his hands on me."
"If I translate all this correctly, you have a plan. Mr. Larabee didn't approve of it. You enlisted Mr. Kestrel to help you initiate it. Mr. Larabee will rain down on this facility like a plague of locusts just to kill you and me for antagonizing him and you don't know how much you can trust Kestrel to play by the 'good guys win' rules. Have I left anything out?"
"Only the part that the boys are outnumbered around 4 to one and every man here's a potential hostage or dead man if we don't get them pulled together and ready to put up an organized resistance from the inside."
"Kestrel knows this plan?"
"He came up with it. The boy's'll ride in tomorrow about the same time we came in today." Ezra cursed under his breath. "Ezra? Trouble?"
"How bad are you hurt?" Was the response.
"I can carry my weight." Before he could say more, strong hands grabbed Buck and forced him to his feet. He was painfully jockeyed out of the compound by fiercely angry guards who didn't say a word. Ezra was shoved back to the ground when he tried to follow.
As the gambler scrambled to follow his friend, a detached part of his mind automatically stopped him at a low rope strung ten feet from the barbed wire. He knew what the line meant. The distance in between was deadman's land. The guards would gun down anyone who stepped across the line. It wouldn't do any good for him to cross and get himself killed. This was as close as he could get to what was happening.
+ + + + + + +
Bridger, Carlisle and Kestrel stood on what passed for a porch in front of Carlisle's quarters. Buck was shoved to the ground in front of the group. Immediately men took off his coat and boots and doled them out to their fellow soldiers. Buck's struggles were useless against the odds. "You killed one of my men." Carlisle's voice boomed loud enough for the prisoners to hear. "I have a witness that says you killed five others. There is no need for a trial when every man here bears witness to your crime."
"I didn't kill him. The snake got to him before I did. I planned on using my bare hands." Bridger backhanded the gunfighter. Buck came back up spitting dirt out of his mouth.
"I sentence you to death by hanging." A roar of approval went up from the guards. The prisoners watched in meek submission.
Ezra tried to think of something to do, but he couldn't seem to get beyond the drama unfolding before him. Bridger was no longer speaking for the benefit of the prisoners so he couldn't make out the words. They seemed to be taunting Wilmington with the rope before they put it around his neck. He saw his friend's frustration at not being given a fighting chance. A part of him was amused and proud that the usually boisterous and loud gunfighter sensed that silence was the best way to defy these men. He could tell the lady's man was forcing Kestrel to meet his eyes at the end.
Then there was a presence beside him. A tired voice observed, "It's for the best. Man like that don't need to be broke down in here bit by bit." Ezra turned with an angry response but was stopped by the sight of the grizzled old man before him. No, not old, probably no older than Chris Larabee. But he was used up. His eyes were hollow in their sockets. His hair and unkempt beard looked dead as if no nutrients were getting to them. He was too thin and his skin was yellowy. His dark eyes never left the lynching.
Some of the soldiers draped the noose over the railing of the structure that had been built for Bridger and Carlisle to headquarter in. There were no trees in the high plains tall enough for a hanging. Ezra watched Buck struggled against the men around him. He turned back to look beyond the man at his side to the other prisoners who had distanced themselves from the happenings. He knew what he would see. The other men watched with resignation and sad acceptance. He knew he would never see that combination in Wilmington's eyes and fought to keep them from welling inside his own chest. Words from the man beside him worked their way into his consciousness, "You reminded us for an instant what it's like to be men, not caged animals. You're like your friend, son. Fight the good fight. As long as you can." Something in the tone pulled Standish back in time to see the worn prisoner beside him step over the line. "No!" Ezra grabbed for the man who pulled away and quickly put himself out of reach. Bullets and dust popped up in front of his feet, not so much a warning as it was the guards were toying with the tired soul.
Ezra would have gone after him but Lassiter was there and held him back. They watched helplessly as the man walk unhurriedly toward the rows of barbed wire. A first bullet found its mark. The man kept walking. A second and third finally brought him down, but not before he was able to latch onto the near row of barbed wire, as close to freedom as he would ever again come in this life.
The moment brought a stunned silence that was quickly broken by a cheer from the guards as, the dead man already forgotten, they put the noose over Wilmington's head. Lassiter tried to steer Ezra away from the scene unfolding so he would not have to watch. He could tell the men were friends.
Ezra brushed Lassiter's hand away with a violent gesture. "Carlisle!" Ezra called. He could not be heard over the commotion. "Carlisle!" He defiantly redirected the darker emotions that threatened him toward a determination to stop these men who artfully broke a man's spirit before they broke his body. His mind was sorting and discarding ideas, plans and options faster than he could recognize the individual thoughts themselves. "Bridger! I want to talk to you! On your terms!" The words cut through to Bridger's mind. He looked straight at Standish and smiled. It was a malicious, controlling smile. He turned back to the hanging with no further recognition. "Kestrel!" He couldn't believe this man would risk Larabee's wrath in such a fashion. "Bridger!" The guards began to pull the rope tight. They purposely didn't tie Wilmington's hands, willing to let him fight and suffer for every last gasping breath he could take in. This was not the quick snap of someone's neck, this was slow suffocation. As Wilmington balanced on his toes to keep his weight off the rope, Bridger signaled the men to hold the rope in that position and turned to Kestrel. "Bring him out here."
Kestrel knew he referred to the southern gambler and with two guards in tow moved to comply. Let the games begin.
Standish's mind was racing; calling on all the points he could make to save his friend's life. Then he noticed the smug look on Kestrel's face as he approached. It was like a lamp lit suddenly in a darkened room. That man's motives and desires were written on his face for all to see. Damn Ezra berated himself. It must have been my brain that froze last night. He calmly slipped back into his conman persona, the man he had been most of his life. The scam formed just that quickly and completely in his mind. He had the persuasive words. The only thing that had changed was the reward. This time it was not selfish, greedy monetary gain, it was the life of a very good friend. It was still an extremely selfish motive for Ezra Standish. That kind of friendship was much rarer to him than any other reward he had ever sought with his subterfuge. He knew what and how. He blocked out the consequences. On the exterior no one could tell, after the initial panicked shouts, that the man was anything but his nonchalant self. As Kestrel led him out, Ezra spoke in a low voice that would not carry. "I've figured out what you want, Kestrel. You may think you need Wilmington dead, but if Larabee gets even a whiff that you could have prevented it, he'll have your flesh for lampshades. And your plans are so much dust. Are you willing to take that risk?" Kestrel didn't acknowledge the statement, but the tension in his body told Ezra everything he needed to know. Ezra allowed himself the smallest of smiles. Gotcha.
Damn, damn, damn. Kestrel cursed himself. He had been so distracted by almost seeing the final stage of his plan begin, he had lost perspective. He might convince Larabee he tried to stop this, but why take the chance? There were too many opportunities coming. The gambler was right. After all, it was his forte to read the odds. That damn smug Standish. He knew he had won this round. Kestrel would have to help him save Wilmington if there was a way. All the better. As of this moment, Kestrel was determined to personally kill both Wilmington and Standish himself.
"EZ, you have something to say to me?" Bridger crowed.
"Did Kestrel tell you this was a lawman?"
"He told me he was a sympathizer. He told me he was a murderer. He has proved himself a murderer with the death of Jordan."
"Jordan could be argued an accident." Bridger gave him a blank look. Ezra continued as if he were casually debating the prospects in a horse race. "Officers were punished for the treatment of prisoners at Andersonville. The commandant was executed. If you want to get your message through to Washington, D.C. you can't open yourself up to controversy. If the men you punish are guilty, you must have trials. You must have the law on your side. The politics of Washington are volatile now. They can't afford to side with you if you have tarnished your original, fundamental goal which is to show that war crimes and atrocities were committed ... could you please let him down while we carry on this conversation, there are points to be made and a man slowly suffocating before my eyes distracts me." Ezra tried not to sound too concerned.
Bridger stared at him for way too long then the evil grin slowly returned to his face. "A lawman." His eyes brushed over Standish, trying to evaluate him. "I said there was never any telling what you would care about. And I told you I'd find it." It was a calculated risk, but Ezra let his mask fall for the briefest of instants and allowed Bridger to know that he was right. Then he put the mask back in place and waited. Two days. Damn it, two days.
Bridger laughed, but made a motion. With the release of the rope, Buck fell to the ground. What the hell, Ezra mused, I've chosen the way to play this. So he rushed forward to support Buck and check the rope burns on his neck. "Tell me more, little man." Bridger moved to tower over them.
"It can't look as though your prisoners have been tortured. You must show that while you were housing war criminals they were treated with humanitarian considerations. Think about it. Think about Washington and politics. You'll know I'm right."
"Perhaps we can negotiate." Bridger seemed to ponder the situation. "And you, little man, what do you have to offer?"
"A signed confession for your war crimes. I'll plead guilty to your charges without benefit of trial."
"And your lawman friend? Will he sign that he is a sympathizer and guilty of the deaths of honorable Union fighters?" Carlisle asked smugly.
Ezra felt Buck tense under his hands and pressed down hard to keep him quiet as he casually offered up bargaining terms. "We need fire and pots to boil water. There are sick and injured that can be helped and you know it. We need bandages for the injured. Blankets." He knew that in Bridger's mind he was signing their death warrant.
"You're offering me your lives for blankets and hot water? I can have your lives with a simple trial." He walked around the men kneeling before him and tapped a tedious beat on their shoulders and backs and heads with his riding crop. The more seasoned gunfighter was trembling with rage. Ezra was pleading silently with his friend to trust him and play this out. "You're very good at ingratiating yourself with the other prisoners." Bridger upped the ante.
Kestrel had to jump in with an attempt to incite Larabee's old friend to action. "You would be able to tell us who is guilty and what their crimes were. You can tell us who is trying to initiate sedition."
"You want us to spy on these men!" Wilmington growled. He started to rise.
Ezra held him back and spoke quickly. "I would need at least two days." The only thing that kept Buck reined in was the emphasis his sly friend had put on the words "two days". The smaller man was trusting his word that Larabee would be there for them. The least Buck could do was have the same trust. Kestrel didn't miss the by-play. So they were going to rely on that timeline. A timeline Kestrel had constructed. Excellent. He could toy with them for a while after all.
"Not good enough." Bridger raised an eyebrow and looked at him. Ezra knew what he wanted. He wanted control.
"Two days, and then like you said, 'your terms'. Anything else that might mean to you." Ezra swatted at an itch on his back as he waited for a reply. Buck didn't like the sound of that Ezra noticed. And well you shouldn't, Mr. Wilmington. You better be right about our illustrious leaders capabilities.
"Two days. That's what you said last time."
"I appreciate the irony as well, but this time, I haven't had the six months to initiate the excavation of an underground escape route." And one couldn't get through this ground to dig one anyway. Something glinted in Kestrel's eye and he leaned over and whispered in Bridger's ear. Bridger and Carlisle both heard and nodded appreciation of whatever was said. "Deal." Carlisle replied simply. Neither Ezra nor Buck liked the sudden acquiescence to the terms or the matching, dangerous, self-satisfied expressions on these men's faces. Ezra sighed. All they could do was play the hand they were dealt.
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