Disclaimer is and has always been I don't own them, never will alas sadly they belong to others I'll return them as soon as I am done. This is a story spurned forth by the Challenger weekly chat. Young Fourteen-year-old Ezra Standish in the Old West.
The air was dry and hot as the sun burned in the sky overhead. The hard ground long baked ago dry looked hazy under the early afternoon sky, heat rising from the trail distorting the brush in the distance. The tracks were old yet still visible after five days. The patience was wearing thin the trek almost wearing almost exhausting at points yet the determination to continue remained. Tyler was at a disadvantage from the beginning because the trail was old to start. The old mule had pulled up lame three days earlier slowing the pursuit to a walking pace still closing the gap between hunter and the hunted pushed the man on. The loss of his mount was unfortunate he would walk down the remainder of the trail; this alone did not put him at a disadvantage his quarry was on foot as well. Not a man to question why, he cared only for the reward he was to receive when he returned with the boy.
Laying on his belly the child carefully placed his foot over the cliff's edge only looking when he felt a solid foot hold with his bare toes on his right foot. The canteens he was carrying slid to his side, pushing it back he lowered himself farther over the edge reaching down with his left leg feeling for another footing. The boy was tired but he pushed him self on carefully finding his way down, sweat ran down his face. Not daring to take his attention away from the precarious journey, he did his best to ignore the stinging it caused by dripping into his eyes. Ignoring as well, how the sun over head rays burned his bare flesh.
Taking more than an hour to descend he smiled briefly as he touched level ground again. Wishing to be better dressed was silly; he thought to himself as he tossed the crude bundle over his shoulder, the smart red jacket was tucked inside a rough blanket. He had removed the garment earlier knowing that its bright red color would bring unwanted attention, tying the garment into a tight bundle on his side. The boy tried not to think about his feet, having no stockings or shoes for protection they hurt badly, his trek across the rocky terrain had bloodied and blistered them. Days earlier, Cantrell's men had removed them to keep him from going far; grinning while thinking those same men now knew that had not stopped him.
The chance she had taken by running off into the night desert with nothing to protect them, the rough terrain had made his feet raw. Squinting, the boy looked at his surroundings. Remaining alert to the sights, sounds and smells around as he took a sip of warm water from one canteen partially filled, carefully closing it before he painfully stepped away from the bottom of the cliff. Ezra did not think of himself as a child, he was almost fourteen years old he hoped he would see his next birthday as he walked on east towards a town he hoped would be there.
Cantrell was pissed.
"Idiots!" He bellowed as he stared at the empty wagon and his men looked on. Grabbing a jar a preserves he tossed at the closest man Reilly hitting him in the stomach, causing the man to double over and sink to the ground with his right arm holding his mid-section. A ceramic ewer hit Anderson square in the back of his head sending him into oblivion.
"Who!" Cantrell exploded as he pulled out his colt pistols. "Who let that bastard escape…I want to know who it was… Now!" A shot hit the ground in front of Whitey Mitchell, started stammering. Cantrell lunged at him halted when he had the Colt cocked and resting between Whitey's eyes. "Tell me who Mr. Mitchell…Who was on watch!"
"It was Davis…"
Cantrell pulled the trigger, Mitchell's brains splattered on his face and the man fell to the ground, the stood watching in horror as Stuart Cantrell twisted around and shot Lon Davis point blank through the heart. The child was his, he was in his grasp yet somehow he managed to escape, and had slipped away in the middle of the night. Now that he had personally had taken cared of the sentry on duty at the time, cutting him down with a single shot without waiting for an explanation, failure nor weakness would not be tolerated his men knew the price they would pay for disappointing the boss.
Ezra walked over the hard ground leaving bloody footprints in his wake; his resolve kept him going until he saw the town in the distance. Pausing for a moment to sip some water before he set the canteens down, he shook out his jacket carefully slipping it over his sun burned blistered skin. Sighing loudly as he carefully buttoned up the garment smiling now that he was completely clothed in his wrinkled attire. He delicately stooped to pick up the canteen before continuing on the arduous trek towards the town.
A frontier town birthed more of necessity than planning to service the surrounding homesteads. A bank, a mercantile, a saloon conveniently located next to the jail, stables and a smithy had sprouted up due to demand. The town's lawman was the sheriff by default, chosen for his talent as a natural mediator rather than elected to the position. Sheriff Cyrus Maitland shook his head as he leaned on the hitch in front of the jail thinking that was before the drought began two years ago and the homesteaders drifted away, not much left to watch over, he wasn't sure he'd be staying much longer himself. The sheriff wondered if he was turning into a gristled old man too set in his ways to leave Mule's Gulch. Even the stagecoaches failed to pass through the town there hadn't been one through for weeks now.
Caught up in his thoughts Maitland didn't see when the child first entered the town, but there slowly walking by the mercantile was a dusty, dirty, sun-burnt russet-haired waif treading painfully shoeless over the arid street. The disheveled child walked straight towards Sheriff Maitland dressed in a wrinkled red jacket and had three canteens slung across his right shoulder he could hear them gently thumping against his left hip as he got closer. The boy's expression turned to a grimace as he miss-stepped and stumbled to the ground.
The sunset still lingered over the hills as JD Dunne first laid eyes on the town, he had tracked the bloody trail for three days trying to hide it as he pursued the red-jacketed boy. His head was pounding as he gently urged his horse towards Mule's Gulch, the air was cooling it did nothing for his aching body, just reminded him of the fall he took from the stage coach and that he was unable to mount the horse that day. JD had started out angry that anyone could get the jump on him and rob the stage leaving almost all passengers aboard to rot in the open air. Except for Red, they hadn't harmed the boy but had hauled him from the stage and taken him with them leaving a trail of corpses behind them.
JD Dunne was left among the dead, oblivious for the better part of a day underneath the stage. The bandits left the horses, the money, and the jewelry behind. Taking nothing accept the child, in a strange way he was grateful because the first few days unable to stay on his feet for extended lengths of time he had to rely the supplies aboard the stage.
The second morning he hastily buried the dead in a shallow mass grave covered with stones saying a brief prayer and slowly gathered what supplies that remained together. After watering them, he freed all save one of the coach horses knowing that's all he would need. His only regret starting out the third day was that he didn't have a saddle when he set out after the bandits. Four days later he found the child's trail leading him here to this town. The town seemed deserted, the main street was empty, not a horse in sight and there were no lights lit that he could see. Dunne urged his mount into town and after spotting the jail he headed straight towards that end of town.
Maitland had been standing in the shadows of the saloon when he saw the horseman astride a coach horse come into town, and waited until the man dismounted before approaching him with his gun drawn slowly cocking the hammer. The young man spun around, his eyes rolled up, knees buckled before the sheriff had uttered a word.
JD rolled over on to his back groaning, he could hear footsteps shuffling through the room, he lay there wondering how he ending up in a bed as he was gently lifted and tin cup was placed to his lips. He was trying to figure out what was happening when a woman's quiet voice spoke into his ear.
"It's just water lad, have a wee sip…slowly." He took a tentative taste of the tepid water but when he realized how dry he was he tried gulping it down. The tin cup quickly disappeared causing JD Dunne to open his eyes. His vision was slightly blurred so he was just able to make out the woman's smiling face as laid him back on the bed. Then he panicked when his memory flooded back, tried getting up but was unable to. The woman firmly pressed his trembling body back into the pillows.
"Don't worry boy, the child is safe…Look." His eyes followed to where her finger pointed across the small room in another bed. All he could see of the boy was a mop of brown hair the rest lay hidden under a blanket curled up tight and sleeping peacefully. Unable to hold his eyes open any longer JD drifted off to sleep before he could ask the woman a single question.
Maitland had been standing in the doorway when the young man had come to. He had been out of his head when he woke briefly in the street fretting about the younger boy so he took the lad up to Iris. God bless that woman she had stayed on running the saloon when most of her clientele had moved on. An old whore in a one whore town, her looks were starting to fade when she bought the saloon figuring there would be a future here in Mule's Gulch, she was just as much a fool as Maitland staying when the drought drove away most sensible people.
The child had start of heat sickness but he would be all right given some time to rest. While Iris Dupree tended his feet and sun burnt skin, the exhausted boy never raising his head had told them calmly while staring at the floor in the saloon what had happened. The sheriff was troubled, He just couldn't understand why the bandits wanted the boy, it was something he couldn't get the boy to tell him, and maybe the black haired young man could offer an explanation.
"It's already been four days…shit…" Hunkered down next to the bloated equine carcass staring at the gaping hole left by a scatter gun in the beast's side, Buck Wilmington's muttered words barely reached his companion but Chris Larabee didn't have to hear them as he stood next to him he could see the mustached man's crestfallen features even though they were partially hidden in the shadows cast by the toppled coach. Plenty could have happened but in the harsh unforgiving land that land ahead of them none of it deemed good. Dunne was no where to be found amongst the wreckage, nor was he buried within the shallow graves, Larabee took on the unhappy task upon him self not caring it were sacrilegious to defile the final resting place of the dead, the effort did little to reassure him his young friend wasn't dead but at least he wasn't there.
The stench of rotting flesh was enough to turn the most hardened stomach. Fat flies buzzed and crawled over the dusty animals. The Stagecoach lay on its side broken, crushed into itself, debris was scattered over the arid ground, a lace hanky caught on a wooden shard fluttered in the light breeze. Vin Tanner ignored the noxious odor as he squatted down about thirty feet away carefully studying the soft indentations in the hard packed dirt reading the subtle tracks. More than a dozen men on horseback were involved in the assault from what he could tell but he didn't understand why. There was no payroll on board it was just a simple passenger run between towns and JD had simply been off to accompany Mizz Nettie and Casey safely to Juniper Springs, so that the two women could care for an ailing relative, just was returning home.
The first moments in the waking world were bewildering for the boy as he blinked his eyes open. He lay on his side with a rough linen sheet tucked almost under his chin staring out at the dimly lit room. Although he couldn't see the source the familiar odor of burning lamp oil made him realize it was burning somewhere nearby. As his mind slowly cleared his body tensed and heart began to race because not only didn't he know where he was Ezra had no idea how he had gotten there worse yet he was nauseous, his whole body hurt with his skin on his face, neck and arms painfully tight. A small childish part of Ezra wanted to stay put ignore the current discomfort but a larger self-preserving part of him wouldn't allow that. Shoving aside the lingering desire the boy pushed down the bed sheets and slowly sat up his battered feet barely hit the floor when a hushed harsh voice broke the silence startled him and had him scrambling away from the confines of the warm bed.
"Hey where ya going?"
It took a moment in the dim light for Ezra to recognize the small room’s other occupant.
Off in the darkness, that lay far beyond the burning embers of the dying fire, the mournful cry of a coyote echoed across the distant hills. Larabee squinted up at the full moon that lit up the clouds in the overhead sky. A hard day spent following the dusty trail left behind to find no recent trace of their young friend, had them more than a little discouraged and more determined than ever to track these men down. But the lingering question as to why set Chris to gnawing at the end of his cheroot. Knowing that there would be no easy answers that night fueled his already growing frustration with little to do but keep watch over his sleeping men.
"Sorry if I scared ya Red." The dark haired young man called after him in the near dark trying to reassure him.
"Excuse me but my name isn't Red." Ezra answered with all indignation he could muster with his heart still rapidly pounding in his chest.
"Sorry what is your name? It's because of your jacket... I've been following you and that nasty group the last few days and well.... aw hell... never mind... Hey how did you know my name?" J.D. words spilled out, the past few grueling days left him babbling and giddy.
"Do you always go on so Mr. Dunne?" The exasperated question slipped out before Ezra could stop it, exhaustion involuntarily lowered the boy's defenses but the comment didn't seem to bother the dark haired young man at all, instead of acting insulted J.D. smiled then let out a tired chuckle. "My friends seem to think so… hey you didn't answer my question.”
“No it seems I have not… Ezra P. Standish at your service.” The boy stood up tugging down his nightshirt before painfully shuffling over floor to climb back underneath the blankets. “Now that proper introductions have been made would you mind imparting our current locale?”
“Huh?” Dunne’s slightly bewildered exclamation only proved that the young southerner wasn’t the only one with a sleep-addled brain.
“Where… are we?” Yawning Ezra wearily rephrased the question.
But the answer fell on deaf ears because Ezra was fast asleep. Dunne wearily smirked in the dim light before rolling over and drifting off himself.
The first hint on the sun’s rays had barely crested over the hills as Tyler sat perched atop a cool rock waiting, watching the town below ignoring the ache that had settled in his bones. It had been a long walk, but he had managed to pick up the weaving tracks left behind by the boy. The Standish kid had been careful to cover up his trail, though that hadn’t stopped Tyler until he almost lost him at the cliffs and had to spend the better part of a day back tracking trying to see just where the boy had gone off. Wasn’t until he figured out the kid had climbed over the edge. The tricky little bastard was clever but not clever enough to fool Ole Bowden for too long.
Now all he had to do was sit there and wait for the residents of the dried up old town to wake up.
Squinting in the dusty mirror, Ezra realized that he did indeed fit the Mr. Dunne’s description. Every inch of exposed flesh was burnt deep red. The dark patches across his nose and cheeks were leathery. He was not meant for this rough life. The lingering effects of his over exposure to the sun left him slightly nauseous, cotton mouthed and the accompanying headache had him up at an obscene hour. Mother would be appalled at the deplorable situation he had gotten himself into.
The youngster hobbled painfully across the uneven floorboards, gingerly picking up his bandaged feet as he made his way to the window. At least his mind was in a better state other than being awake at such an ungodly hour he felt physically better than he had in a while, the current discomfort was almost tolerable. Unfortunately the circumstances that brought him to this dusty little burg hadn’t changed. He stood there and stared down into the darkened street below, nervously plucking at a loose thread on the oversized nightshirt, knowing the peril was far from over and that big trouble was coming with the light.
Having made a decision Ezra tugged his pants off the pile of neatly stacked clothes on the dressing table.
The sound of shod hooves dully thudding over the sandy ground filled the early morning air. Conversation was sparse as the trio of men on horseback slowly picked their way down the steep grade. Not wanting to waste anymore time Larabee, Tanner and Wilmington. The early light cast shadows over the valley. The tracker kept a keen eye looking for the tells, looking for something that might reveal where Dunne had vanished to.
No that sounded peaceful, J.D., from what Vin could tell, had be left for dead and then took off straight into the desert riding one of the coach horses after the outlaws. Not the smartest thing to do, Tanner was sure the kid had his reasons. Vin just hoped that they could catch up with him before things got ugly.
The sun was creeping over the horizon with just a hint of brilliant hues to come. Ezra stood just inside the front door of the dusty old brothel staring out the window pane, trying to figure what to do next. At least he wasn’t too uncomfortable and after a little effort on his part managed to get his shoes back on. The youth was too tired to travel any farther on foot. Though it might have been easier to ride out of town he lacked a mount and doubted that Sheriff Maitland left his animal unattended. Besides he was concerned about what lay outside the small burg or rather whom. It was still too dangerous because Ezra wasn’t sure if he had had been followed to Mules Gulch. He fervently hoped that he had lost the shadowy figure that had been trailing him since he escaped from Cantrell’s clutches.
Despite lacking the obvious skills to endure long in the rough barren land he had survived, small comfort because he knew that if he stayed in the town his chances of living through this debacle would be slim. For now he would rest in a slightly more secluded place until morning. His mind rambled as he sought out a comfortable spot to sleep eventually finding one. Memories of the past few weeks plagued his thoughts, and most concerned his childhood spent with his mother. As the sun rose he found secure shelter for the moment in a cramped space underneath the boardwalk, crawling far beneath the loose boards before settling in, it was then he took a complete inventory of items he had procured. Ezra realized his luck was getting better, inside the satchel he had tucked the worn and tattered book. Something his mother’s had entrusted to him. An absurd thought considering Maude trusted no one. Ezra dug through the leather bag inventorying the bits of food he scrounged up, a tin of the lucifers and a pocketknife. His survival up until now had been miraculous he wasn’t about to push that luck, it was best to be prepared. Stuffing the items back inside the satchel, he flattened it out the best he could, lay down and tried to sleep. It wasn’t long before he began to dream.
In the fading light of the rattling stage coach Ezra consulted his well-worn tome knowing that at best it was an insane plan. Desperate hope on his part, he was heading towards the last known location of his mother, praying that his mother would still be there, alive full of knowledge on how to survive this calamity. If he had deciphered the passages correctly salvation laid two station stops east farther into the territories. Until now he had avoided returning to the major cities for fear of being caught. Memories of his flight from the deep-south haunted him.
Ezra tried to shut these images out, fear gnawed at his mind; the pain of the recent days bore through his soul it was a reminder of the hunger he suffered for food and human companionship. Mr. Dunne was sleeping in the seat across from him. The young man had on several occasions tried to strike up a conversation with him. Ezra had managed to successfully deflect the friendly overtures thus far. It wasn’t the time for idle pleasantries.
Settling back in his seat he closed his eyes dreamt broken dreams mixed with feelings of confusion and terror. He awoke with a start he heard a noise he couldn’t identify. Looking about the other passengers had also been startled from their repose, then he heard it again a distinct bang, gunfire! For reasons he could not fathom he was suddenly airborne, painfully being tossed and smacked into his fellow passengers as well as the sides of the coach. The air in his lungs stole away with as wooden axles hit the ground, snapped. The whole tumultuous horrifying ride stopped as the wooden coach slammed hard into the solid earth, halting with the sound of horses screaming. The stagecoach settled on its side as the world slipped away from the young southerner.
As quickly as reality departed it rushed back. For a bewildering moment Ezra didn’t know what had occurred, nor did it help matters that his view was completely obstructed. He didn’t have to wait long before he heard another shot this one was closer accompanied with muffled voices. Not waiting for the next shot he wiggled deeper into the debris of the coach, the voices that were getting louder and clearer. He held his breath, straining to hear which direction the sound came from.
“I saw him go that way….”
Who went what way? There was another shot followed by screams, then silence. He was afraid to move the sweat started to trickle down his back. Time passed by his muscles cramped but he stayed in his pose afraid, a bird screeched nearby.
Only when the sun had moved its position from over head to farther across the sky, Ezra felt he could move and did so with caution. The youth peered out of his hiding place making his way out with care. No at all sure what direction to take his stepped back tripping, falling flat on his backside onto the dry earth. Bolting up he looked to see what he fell over. It was the remains of a man freshly killed, his face blood caked empty sockets where eyes should have been, bones jutting out minus limbs. Bodies littered the ground surrounding the fallen coach. Scrambling back up to his feet Ezra ran wildly from the morbid scene.
Bravely he went on, slightly altering his course by remaining behind the trees, dead and dried versions not green like the ones he remembered of years past. Occasionally he would see something move, too far to make out exactly what. Ezra still afraid of whom he might encounter slowed his pace then halted at the bottom of an incline wishing he had some way to carry water
It wasn’t until he reached the scrub that he slowed down to a steady pace, wary he searched the horizon to be sure that he was alone. Small consolation, he had to find a steady supply of food and fresh water or he would no better off than those he left behind, with that thought he began to follow a dry river bed walking on the side through the even drier brush. Two hours in to his trek he came upon an abandoned wagon, it was old missing a wheel and a well weathered exterior. Finding nothing useful initially inside the cart until he found the trunk and popped it open, inside the trunk he found several canteens, after cursory glance tossed the volumes of faded books to the side. The battered chest was packed with clothes and tattered photographs memories from someone else’s life.
Tired he sat down in the shadow of the overturned wagon. The young southern wearily traced the faces of the people in the crumbling cabinet cards, a man, a woman and an infant child obviously a family made him briefly wonder why they had left these treasures behind. But he already knew, this was a hard land. Hard choices had to be made to survive something he was all too familiar with. Taking stock of this unexpected find Ezra took absolutely what was needed he fashioned these items into an awkward makeshift pack using a thread bare blanket and continued on his way.
The sun was blazing overhead when rifle shots echoed through the air startling young Standish. Rocks splinters showered him as a bullet ricocheted off an out cropping of boulders set him off in a panic running. He almost flew into the path of four horsemen instead he awkwardly stumbled and landing hard in a thick patch of mesquite that sprouted from the sandy soil. The men’s presence stopped him dead in his tracks. The youth fought the natural instinct to extract his person from the thorny predicament instead waiting for the men to pass.