Jumping at Shadows

by Yolande

Follows Spectral Shadows

Thanks to my wonderful betas: Mitzi & NotTasha

Webmaster Note: this story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2009.

The thick heavy fog blanketed the air, leaving the pursued man in a quandary at which way to run. The dampness clung like an oppressive burden. The waterlogged droplets made it difficult for the much-needed oxygen to enter the heaving lungs, and it also weighed down the dark coloured woollen jacket as if it were a cloying sucker-like parasite. The added weight of the garment sapped his strength further.

Branches reached out with their long and spindly limbs, snatching at the desperate man as he raced blindly through the grove of trees. Gnarled roots leapt from the ground, tripping him up at each lengthened stride and drawing him to the ground in a tumble of bruising bones.

The gambler stumbled constantly, unable to see beyond the few paces of where he placed his last step. He panted and gasped for breath. The long strides of the galloping horse grew nearer and the reverberating sounds echoed loudly in his ears. The Southerner stumbled backwards, once again caught up in the forestry of hidden roots. He groped for his sidearm, but instead came up empty-handed. Ezra rolled onto his knees and fumbled around, scooping up large handfuls of dirt in search of the missing weapon. The palms of his hands stung as the stones and rocks brushed against the soft skin, but the weapon was not anywhere within reach. And all the while, his tormentor closed in.

The hairs stood on the back of his neck and his gut churned with unabashed fear. Ezra trembled with uncertainly, shaking his head to clear the spell that had cast him into displacement. He did the only option left to him – Run!

The steady pounding of the horse’s hooves clipped on the gravel road, taunting him with the close proximity, but allowing Standish to maintain an insignificant lead. He climbed through the narrowest track, hoping to forge a path that the rider would not follow, but every time he peered over his shoulder, the ominous spectre and mount were still in sight.

A spark of pain ripped through his shoulders sending a flash of light behind his eyes before the Southerner pummelled forward. Losing his footing, he tripped, landing spread-eagled on his stomach. With a grunt, he rolled quickly and rose up on his elbows. The rider cut through the thick fog and stopped at the edge of his vision, just long enough for Standish to roll to the side and avoid the blade sharp hooves as the horse was urged on to ride over the top of him.

The gambler bit down on his cheek as he slid down the embankment, almost cartwheeling over the bruising rocks and shrubs and ending in a twisted knot at the bottom. Ezra lay still, listening to his laboured breaths and racing heartbeat. He hugged his body close to the ground, hoping the fog completely covered him from the rider above.

After being chased for over an hour, his aching leg muscles cramped in the now stationary position. The gambler could hear the horse toe at the edge of the rise, waiting impatiently for its master to direct its next moves. Standish vaguely wondered why the spectre waited, and why the black-hooded nemesis hadn’t already finished him off. After all, this was the third time the rider had tracked him down and cornered him. It seemed to be some sort of perverted game of cat and mouse that he was trapped in.

Standish felt around his hip and winced at the burning pain that radiated and increased when he touched it. He felt the sticky mess on his pants and curiously wondered how badly he was hurt – and when for that matter. Ezra raised his hand in front of his face and winced at the bloodstained hand. He needed to tend the wound soon, before he lost too much blood.

The black-hooded rider and horse plunged down the slope, and all his previous intentions of laying still and counting on the spectre to overlook him, were drowned the instant the Southerner saw the bloodied blade cut through the fog. The moon’s silver rays reflected off the menacing weapon and a shudder of doom spirited him into action. He scrambled back to his feet and ran, conscious of the small lead he held over his attacker and how quickly it would be swallowed up. The gambler ran on adrenalin alone, not daring to glance back over his shoulder, for he knew the image that would greet him.

Unable to see a clear path, Standish slammed hard into an object, knocking himself and the object to the ground, propelled by the force with which he’d hit it. The Southerner grunted at the abrupt stop and the air was forced from his lungs. He gulped audibly and rolled off the limp figure beneath him. With unexpectedness, his eyes widened in horror, recognising the familiarly haunting body of his dreams. Ezra frantically scrambled off the corpse. When he did, the body’s head rolled to the side, falling away from the main trunk of the body. The gambler’s mouth fell open and he couldn’t take his green eyes from the desecrated man. He felt the scream bubbling at the back of his throat and Standish trembled violently. Not again, he screamed! This can’t be happening again! He closed his eyes hoping his imagination was playing tricks. When he opened his eyes, the body still remained. No! This man is dead! Or was? Wasn’t he? They buried him in the Four Corners’ cemetery – and yet, here he was. “You’re dead,” Standish croaked hoarsely. “You can’t be here!” he hissed through clenched teeth, shaking his head. Ezra crawled backwards, desperate to get away, but never for an instant leaving the corpse unsighted, afraid of what would happen if he glanced away for a second. He’d momentarily forgotten his black-hooded pursuer.

His hands and fingernails were caked in dirt and his own blood; his clothing was practically in shreds. He kept pushing himself backwards until his back was flush against a solid surface. Ezra reached behind and felt the rough bark of a tree and a relieved sigh formed on his lips. The heavy fog still milled about him, but it cut an open trail for him to view the mutilated man. Why didn’t the fog close back around the body?

The question remained unanswered as the whistling slice of the silver blade arced an inch above his head and sank deeply into the flesh of the tree. The stray hairs that had lay disturbed and ruffled became a statistic to the weapon’s wrath. The gambler dove to his left and landed deep in the brush of a small bush. It couldn’t hold his weight and was crushed to the ground. Standish disentangled himself, ignoring the numerous scratches and grazes he’d incurred and ran.

The Southerner tumbled more often, but unlike before, he no longer heard the sounds of the horse, beating a path after him. He slowed his pace, but refused to stop, listening intently to the midnight sounds. The fog lifted a fraction, so he altered his course to account for this. He climbed over the fallen log and stepped into the moonlit area.

A harsh and sadistic cackle greeted his arrival.

Ezra screamed, but no sound reverberated from his throat. He clutched at his neck and fought to draw breath to utter a sound. Eyes wide with fear, he swallowed the retching bile that rose. The rider circled him, and the Southerner froze, paralysed on the spot. In the spectre’s hands he held the decapitated head, holding it up by the length of hair. The eyes of the head moved, staring intently at the gambler as the rider continued his taunt, riding another loop around him. The black-hooded tormenter swooped in closer and threw the dismembered part to Ezra.

Instinct took over and Standish automatically reached out to catch the flying head. When it landed neatly in his grasp, Ezra realised what he held and dropped the object in disgust, letting loose the scream that had been bottled up all night. The blade followed quickly and Standish fell.

The gambler fell, landing hard on the wooden floor, tangled in his bedcovers. He peeled his eyes open and with a heavy sigh, leaned against the side of his mattress, steadying his breathing and racing heartbeat. “Good Lord,” he panted wearily.

+ + + + + + +

The night fires that lined the main street were beginning to shift as the hungry flames ate through the mountain of wood. Sparks flickered and embers spat into the dark recesses of the night. The burning timber would not last the entire night, and sometime during the early morning of the rising day, even the glowing coals would lose their luminous sparkle. The muted glow of light flooded out from the open doors of the saloon and onto the boardwalk, ending a short distance onto the wide street. Slowly, one by one, even the lanterns in the saloon were extinguished as the last patron departed, leaving the town in quivering shadows.

The soft tread of leather soled boots skipped stealthily down the wide sidewalk. Keeping an alert eye for trouble and light step, Vin Tanner strolled intently and with purpose. He stood in front of the First National Bank and cupped his hands on the cool glass window and peered inside. His sharp blue eyes scanned the inner recesses of the institution, and a dispassionate sigh left his lips at the ensuing empty building. Tanner continued onto the next store. He rubbed at his cold and cramping hands and elevated his height by a few inches to see over the top of the half width curtain that covered the lower portion of the window. Nothing moved inside, and the Texan moved on.

The tracker slowly checked each and every storefront in Four Corners, and the burning sensation in the pit of his belly refused to settle. He’d hardly slept in the three weeks since the haunting experience at Chris’. And when he did succumb, he slept so soundly that it terrified him, leaving him vulnerable in his senseless state. Unaccustomed to sleeping so deeply, he found the experience to be unsettling and he was ill at ease with the forced change in habit. He found himself irritable and out of sorts, even snapping at his friends for no apparent reason. He knew that he was letting it get at him and needed to talk about his new fears, but Chris and Ezra both seemed to be coping without any help and he hesitated at bringing up the subject. Both his friends had been hurt in the attack, and once they returned to town and explained to the others what had happened, neither man had spoken of it since.

The tracker stumbled over a rut in the uneven road and he quickly spread his arms wide to counter the sudden loss of balance. “Hell!” he cursed, hissing between clamped teeth. He glanced over his left shoulder and scanned the muted shadows for any witnesses, and a relieved sigh dusted over his lips when he found the area empty. Damn, he was so caught up in the nightmare that he wasn’t even paying attention to where he was placing his feet. The sure-footed tracker admonished himself, shaking his head in disgust. He realised that it was only a minor incident, but he bit at his lip, worried, that in the light of day when he was needed to protect the backs of his fellow lawmen, that his mind would be wandering and not on the job. Maybe he needed some time away, to clear his head and get back on track. He did not want to be the cause of one of the seven being hurt.

Vin ducked down the narrow path along side of Virginia’s Hotel. The passage was dark, but the light from the street fires led him directly to the adjacent street. Tanner stood in the mouth of the alleyway for a moment and checked to his right and then to his left. He stood deathly still, waiting for any unnatural sounds and took a step out of the shadows once he was satisfied. The light tap on his shoulder caused the buckskinned man to whirl in a fluster, brandishing his mare’s leg at his attacker. His eyes were wide with fury and his finger pressed readily against the trigger.

“Hold on there, pard,” Larabee growled with a hint of a smile.

“Hell, Larabee! Ya aiming on going to an early grave?” Vin offered a wry smile and tossed his head. He put away the weapon and felt his cheeks begin to burn, knowing that Chris had been following him and he’d not even noticed. “What ya doin’ sneaking around?”

The man in black widened his grin. “Could ask you the same thing.”

“I’s doin’ patrol,” Tanner replied in defence.

“Uh huh,” Chris nodded sceptically. “Buy ya a drink? Inez gave me the key to the saloon,” he added, presumably to further convince his friend to agree.

Vin shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. Yeah he could do with a stiff drink right about now. “Sure.”

+ + + + + + +

Larabee clapped the shorter man on the shoulder and walked along side the lanky tracker to the saloon. The gunslinger was taken aback by the Texan’s pallor. Hell, he hadn’t intended on scaring the man half to death, just figured that seeing as how they were both still burning the midnight oil, then they may as well have company. Chris watched the tracker’s posture relax from the tense hold he’d been exerting over himself and wondered if Vin’s stalking the streets had anything to do with the murder that occurred at his cabin and subsequent harassment by the spectre. Damn, that was what Standish had called the murderous demon. He wished he knew what had happened to the body. How did he disappear like that? Hell, he should have been dead a number of times over with what the three of them did to him, but still he slithered away.

Chris’ breathing hitched a fraction, but he covered the slight with a cough. No sense in passing on his fears and uncertainties to Tanner. His back crawled with the sensation of thousands of eyes boring into him, watching his every movement and silently waiting, biding their time. The hairs stood up on end at the nape of his neck and he methodically turned and scanned behind him. Muffled sounds of boot leather shuffled on the boardwalk and the lazy whistle of the wind stroked inanely at the wind chimes hanging from the veranda in front of Mrs Potter’s store, swiftly returned his attention. They paused outside of the doors of the saloon while Chris dug the key from his pocket.

“How come Inez gave you a key?” Tanner queried straining to keep his voice natural.

“Guess she figured it was easier to toss me out with the rest of the crowd at closing time and if I wanted to stay longer, then I could come back when they were all gone.” Larabee threw opened the door and slipped inside the empty room.

“Reckon there’s some merit ta that,” he agreed with the gunslinger.

“Yeah. Want ta get some light and I’ll get us that drink.”

Tanner only bothered with one of the oil lamps; he didn’t want to make it too obvious that the saloon was occupied. Kind of hard to turn away other patrons, when here they were utilising the place themselves. “Inez don’t mind?”

“Pay for what I take,” the gunslinger explained. Returning, Chris thumped a bottle of whisky on the tabletop and sank gratefully into the chair.

“Honesty…a bane of humanity,” the thick Southern tones echoed in the empty saloon. The two lawmen twisted in their seats and stared up the stairs as the gambler leisurely sauntered down. “Mr Larabee, Mr Tanner…” he paused for a moment then continued. “Isn’t it rather late to be indulging…even for you?”

“Yer up kinda late, yerself,” Tanner quipped. “’Less ya planning on seeing the sun rise?”

Standish licked his lips and steadily approached their table. “You could try breaking in less audibly,” Ezra deadpanned, “then I wouldn’t be roused from my feather mattress at the abysmal time of four in the morning.”

“Didn’t wake up nobody else,” the tracker countered, rising to the Southerner’s bait.

“Must be my exceptional hearing,” he drawled.

Chris leaned back in the chair and folded his arms across his chest. He arched an eyebrow doubtfully at the gambler. He knew they hadn’t been overtly noisy in entering the premises… and hell, he’d done it other nights and the gambler hadn’t known. “Wouldna been already awake now, would ya Ezra?” A small smile tugged at the gunman’s mouth. He pushed out another seat in the Southerner’s direction and studied Standish’s drawn features. Damned if he didn’t look like he’d been fighting an army.

“There’s a law stating what time I am required to sleep?” Ezra asked mockingly.

Tanner snorted back a chuckle and slid the bottle of whisky toward the gambler. “Hell, Ezra, we all know ya don’t sleep when normal people do,” Vin goaded.

Standish opened his mouth and snapped it shut. Normal people? Ezra squared his shoulders and sat straighter in the chair. Arching an inquisitive eyebrow, Standish raised his voice a fraction inquiring brusquely; “What exactly does that mean?”

“Hell, don’t ask me. Yer the one that speaks all fancy like…” Tanner defended.

“Just because I can hold an intelligent conversation,” he stopped and redirected his thoughts. Tanner was grinning ear to ear, and he’d fallen into that so easily. “What has that got to do with when I sleep?” he drawled, smiling sarcastically to show that he was well aware of Tanner’s game.

“Yer never awake in the morning.” Vin stretched his arms high above his head and yawned.

“That is because I prefer seeing the night time hours to the dreadful time of day that sees you rising from your bed,” Standish replied indignantly. “Perhaps you should retire, Vin” Ezra smirked, “seems to be well past your bedtime.”

Chris snorted and quickly covered his mouth under his hand after the harangued expression Tanner bestowed on him. You do look tired, Vin, Chris mused. Then so does Standish, for that matter. Come to think of it, it’s been a while since he’d been awake at this time in the morning for no good reason.

“Reckon I can take care of myself, Ezra,” Vin rasped, still staring intently at the man in black.

“I’m almost tempted to rise early this morning, just to catch a glimpse of your sleep deprived body coping with dawn,” Standish taunted.

“Reckon ya should at that,” Vin turned his gaze back to the Southerner. “Probably been a long while since ya’ve seen the sun rising,” the Texan chuckled.

“Droll, very droll, Mr Tanner.”

“You two keep arguing like that and you’ll have everybody awake and down here,” Larabee interrupted. He would have let them continue, as he was certainly amused with the byplay, but he didn’t relish being tossed out just yet.

Ezra picked up the whisky and drank directly from the bottle. Not willing to voice his agreement with the black-clad gunslinger, he opted for silence.

Tanner sighed dramatically, then grinned widely at the blond-haired gunslinger while leaning across the table to garner the whisky back from the gambler.

+ + + + + + +

They sat in amicable silence for what seemed like an eternity, passing the bottle of whisky between them. When the last of the liquid drained from the bottle, Larabee scooted back his chair and stalked to the bar to replace it. He stopped mid stride when the Southerner’s suggestion cut through the dark shadows.

“If you’ve a mind, there is a bottle of scotch from my private collection available,” Ezra announced.

Larabee turned back to the gambler and glanced at the tracker to determine his opinion. Tanner shrugged his shoulders in acquiescence and Chris arched a speculative eyebrow at the Southerner.

Ezra smiled, the dimples in his cheeks showing at the genuine gesture. He stood. “I’ll retrieve it…”

“Sit down, Ezra,” the gunslinger ordered. “Just tell me where it is stashed and I’ll get it.”

“Very well,” Standish shrugged, giving the directions he returned to his seat. After the light banter they’d shared before, Ezra was not expecting Vin’s serious tone of inquiry.

“You not sleeping cause of what happened at Chris’?”

Ezra stared intently at the tracker, attempting to ascertain if he was sincere or attempting to put one over him. No, Vin was straight as an arrow; the Texan wouldn’t be the one to pull a con… that was his arena. He thinned his lips and pondered his answer. Does he tell the former bounty hunter that he has been plagued with nightmares? That he sees the face of the dead man in every stranger’s face? He swallowed past the lump and dropped his eyes. He found that a spot on his jacket sleeve had become exceedingly interesting.

“Reckon, I know how ya feel,” Tanner admitted cautiously. Ezra snapped his head up and stared directly into his blue eyes. Vin smiled wanly and nodded his head, recognising the unspoken query the gambler sought.

Ezra returned his gaze to his sleeve, and replied, almost a whisper; “I thought it was only me.”

Vin shook his head and wiped the moisture that inexplicably appeared on his upper lip. “Reckon I’m turned up inside…Feel like I’m playing some waitin’ game and don’t know the rules,” he revealed. “Ya know… I need some answers…”

“I concur, Vin. Perhaps when we have discovered the identity of our mysterious dead man, then we’ll be afforded some answers.”

“But how’s knowing his name gonna tell us anything about the madman? I just don’t get it, Ezra. We shot him, God knows how many times…he shoulda been dead,” he finished lamely.

Standish sighed wearily; he’d gone over the scenario in his mind dozens of times and was still none the wiser. “I don’t have a solution for you, Vin.”

“Feel like he’s here, watching us.” Tanner noted the slight nod of the Southerner’s head; he’d noticed it too. “What’s he waitin’ for?”

“I wish I knew,” Ezra whispered thoughtfully.

+ + + + + + +

The spell was broken when strains of shattered glass hit the floor and a string of Larabee’s curse words erupted from the room behind the long bar. Vin and Ezra shared a brief look of stunned bewilderment and leapt from their seats and crossed to the bar. The single lantern burned shallowly on the bar and spared no enlightenment to the two lawmen. Standish jumped smoothly onto the smooth surface of the bar and swivelled on his backside to complete the move and progress into the darkened recess, which Larabee had disappeared through. Tanner mimicked his movements, but both ultimately remained seated on the bar.

“Madre Dois!” the shrill tones of the Mexican barmaid brought Tanner and Standish up stationary. “Senor? Are you hurt?”

Vin and Ezra struggled to keep the mischievous grins from turning up their mouths, but both failed miserably and broke into a chorus of chuckles when the feisty manager escorted Larabee from the backroom. <

“I’m fine, Inez,” Larabee assured.

“Senor Standish, Senor Tanner…what are you doing seated on my bar?” Inez demanded, her hands splayed on her hips.

“I’m just waiting to ascertain if Mr Larabee has broken my bottle of scotch,” Ezra grinned roguishly. Larabee was rubbing at a lump on the back of his head and was looking everywhere but at his fellow lawmen. Ezra frowned at the gunslinger in concentration; the man in black actually looked embarrassed.

Without looking up, Chris growled; “Didn’t break yer bottle, Standish.”

“That is good news,” he drawled.

Inez Recillios handed Ezra’s prize bottle of scotch to Standish and winked conspiratorially at the gambler before returning to her abode. “Night all,” she chimed, heading back through the darkness.

“Night, Inez,” Vin waved her off.

“What just happened there?”

“Cowboy?” Tanner added his befuddled query to the gambler’s.

“Nothing!” Chris growled more forcefully than intended.

Vin tapped the Southerner on the arm and motioned they should resume their drinking by snatching the bottle from his gasp and upending it. “Smooth,” he announced after the first mouthful.

“Vin!” Standish admonished, appalled at the Texan’s medieval consumption of the alcohol. “This should be imbibed from a glass, sipped in moderation to appreciate and enhance the taste and aroma.”

“Like this?” Vin put the mouth of the bottle to his lips and gulped down a second mouthful.

Standish rolled his eyes and pulled the bottle from lax fingers. “No,” he groaned, but proceeded to follow the Texan’s actions and drank the scotch in a similar fashion.

“Tastes the same, huh?” Vin grinned at the gambler’s dramatic sigh. “Chris?”

“Was beginning ta think ya weren’t gonna share.” The gunman pulled himself onto the bar and sat between Tanner and Standish.

“You gonna tell?”

“Ain’t nothing ta tell, Vin,” Larabee countered.

“That would explain the string of expletives, the unknown havoc created out there,” he pointed to the dark kitchen area. Ezra wondered briefly how the gunman had wrangled out of having to clean up the mess, “the growing lump on your head and the wet shirt,” Standish drawled sardonically.

Larabee looked down at the damp shirt as though seeing it for the first time. He moaned in irritation. “This doesn’t leave here,” he threatened.

Tanner nodded his pledge of silence with a brief shake of his head.

“On my honour,” Standish gestured with a symbolic crossing of his heart. “But I can’t vouch for Miss Recillis’ silence,” he teased.

“Give me that,” he ordered tersely, taking a swig of the fine Scotch.

“Ya gonna spill it?” Vin persisted.

Larabee pointed his index finger at the gambler and shook the digit. “Ya couldna found a more accessible place ta hide ya liquor?”

“Hardly … just liquor,” Standish rebuked. “And its position has kept my collection safe from nefarious…”

“Yeah, yeah,” Larabee grumbled, rubbing at his bruised head. “Wasn’t expecting anybody ta be sneakin’ around back there is all,” Chris glibly admitted.

Standish and Tanner’s joint burst of laughter rippled through the saloon.

“Laugh it up, boys,” the gunman groused. “Tanner you about near wet yer pants earlier in the alley and Standish…well I’m sure you ain’t down here cause ya heard us breakin’ in.” He glanced from one man and back to the other. He watched Tanner stiffen and Standish donned his mask, which had, up until that point, been absent. Reckon both his friends where feeling a mite troubled. “Ain’t nothing gonna happen!” he firmly predicted.

“Of course not!” the Southerner accepted.

“Yep,” Tanner conformed.

Though Chris noted that neither man could meet his eyes as they stated their agreement.

+ + + + + + +

Vin leaned his shoulder against the roof support and in the dawning light trekked the path of the gunslinger as he marched across the street and toward the boarding house. He waited until Larabee entered the building before making his way to his wagon. He felt the pressing weight of his eyelids and welcomed the comforts of a rested sleep. With a relieved sigh, the Texan pulled back the flap of the oilcloth and lifted his leg to climb inside. The wagon tilted ever so slightly that he froze, paused on the brink of stepping inside. Vin frowned; his lips formed a frosted line, and a sense of foreboding seeped from his gut to his chest. He slid his raised foot back stiffly to the ground and slowly circled his abode.

Tanner bit his lower lip while the frown furrowed his features. He crouched to the road and let his fingers trace over the outline of the permanent rut that the wheels of his wagon had gouged in the earth. The wagon had remained in the same position for the two years that he had lived in Four Corners. He hadn’t moved it, but here was the evidence that that was exactly what had happened. Somehow, the wagon had been moved, but only a matter of inches or so, just out of the formed ruts in the ground. Vin slowly stood, rubbing along the line of his jaw. He walked the circuit of his wagon once more and was dismayed to find no evidence of a team of horses that would have been needed to move his wagon. There were no footprints near and nothing else seemed to be disturbed. He desperately wanted to believe that Buck or one of the others had been up to this, but he seriously doubted they could have covered all their tracks. He felt relieved that he wasn’t imagining the prying eyes or the feelings of unease, he felt vindicated in a sense, but what did that mean? Were the others at risk also?

The tracker felt the intensity of the unknown eyes watching him, and spun quickly hoping to catch a glimpse of his persecutor. Tanner gripped the wagon behind him for support and grimly checked the shadows for movement. He startled at the abrupt explosion of noise and swept his panicked blue eyes in that direction. Vin took a faltering step, but halted the action when he realised the commotion was only the baker stepping out on the sidewalk. He berated himself for jumping and smiled bleakly at the barrel-shaped man. He would not be able to sleep now; instead he stalked to the livery deciding to take Peso on an early morning patrol.

+ + + + + + +

Chris smirked as he headed off in the direction of the boarding house. He didn’t need to turn to know Vin watched his back, and that allowed him time to relax his guard for a moment. He strolled leisurely down the main street, noting that the night fires had burned down to a pile of glowing embers. The stirrings of early morning activity in the bakery caught his attention for a fleeting moment before he opened the door that lead inside the boarding house.

Larabee paused in the parlour for few minutes, listening to the creaking timber of the old building. He wondered whether it was worth the effort to sleep at all, but decided the town would be quiet for another hour at least. Perhaps he’d be allowed a few hours of slumber, before his presence in the town was required. So long as he woke before Standish, he mused.

Larabee turned the knob and nudged opened the door with the toe of his boot. He wrinkled his nose as he stepped inside the room. Chris left open the door and his hazel eyes stung with the smoky haze that hovered thickly and congregated in a pluming cloud on the ceiling. The smell was more than just the burnt remains of wood. Burnt flesh mingled with the hazy smog. The gunman drew his Colt and cautiously entered further. Moving toward the window he levered it up and allowed the smoky atmosphere to idly drift outside.

He felt the anger burning in his chest and kicked out savagely at the ceramic pot that had contained the blaze until it fettered out. The pot collided with the far wall and broke into two large pieces and several smaller ones, the coals scattered over the floor in blackish disarray. The charred remains of a large rodent spilled onto the polished floor, coming to rest against the leg of the bedside table. The fetid stench and smoke brought back the unwanted memory refreshed in his thoughts of the dead man’s burning body strung up on the cross against his corral. He’d tried hard to push it to the back of his mind, relegating it to the depths, but the message was clearly spelt out. The spectre was here in Four Corners and was taunting them once again.

Larabee stomped in heavy measured steps and crouched at the remains. His heels crunched on the perished wood and smudged the charcoal, embedding it into the cracks in the floor. “Damn!” he swore, picking up the pitcher of water from the bedside table and hurling in angrily. “You son of a bitch,” he hissed under his breath, contemplating retribution. The hardened gunslinger kicked at the door and slammed out of the room.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra Standish stayed at the bar longer, not wanting the pleasant ambiance that had swallowed him to leave. He twirled the empty bottle on the counter and smiled wryly at the expense he’d accrued from suggesting the use of his private collection. Three bottles lined the bar; all empty, and that didn’t include the single bottle of whisky that had been downed at the table. He would have to find another hiding place for his dwindling collection now that both Chris and Vin knew of its whereabouts. Then again…maybe he wouldn’t.

Standish weaved his way up to his room and wondered at Vin’s reaction should he rise before the tracker. After all, Tanner had only as much sleep as Ezra so far this night. He smirked, considering staying in the saloon until Vin arrived and claim that he’d woken before the other man, but dismissed the idea as he was raked with a growing lethargy.

He smelt the putrid aroma, instantly recognising it as chloroform, and his gut wrenched in spasms. “Oh God!” he rasped. His head swam with the noxious odour; its familiar scent almost made him gag. The clinging smell was nauseous in its consistency. Bile rose from his stomach and the tangy taste lingered on his tongue, but not quite overriding the foul stench of the heavy vapours. Standish covered his mouth and nose with his white handkerchief and breathed shallowly into the fine linen. He’d forever remember that odour and pressed his face deeper into the folds of the cloth. His quarters reeked of the foul stench. Blinking back the sting of tears, he stumbled back out the door. He would find no rest in his room, knowing that the spectre had only recently been in there. Sagging down the wall outside his room, he lowered his head between his knees. How had the scourge gotten inside his abode? Both the door and window were secured. He had to get away from here, was his only thought as his mind reluctantly played out the final scene at the cabin once again.

They needed to defeat the spectre.

And this time, do it right!

The End
Continues in Stalking Shadows

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