Thanks to my wonderful betas: Mitzi, NotTasha and Kelly A.
Webmaster Note: this story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2009.
“Storm’s coming!” Vin hollered loudly over his shoulder, competing to be heard over the blustering wind, to the man a few paces back.
The gambler snuggled deeper into the folds of his overcoat; his face raw from the sting of the wind. He rubbed his gloved hands down the length of his thigh to garner some semblance of warmth, but the instant he stopped, the cold seeped back in. Guiding the chestnut gelding abreast with that of his friend’s, Standish glared in annoyance. Gritting his teeth against the flurry of words that fought to escape he lifted his gaze instead to scan the murky grey sky. Billowing clouds, heavy with menace gathered on the horizon. Coming? What does he mean by coming? The only part of this storm that hadn’t begun yet was the drenching rain. Sighing audibly, he muttered an oath and, with a forced patience uttered, “Then I suggest we return home post-haste.” Didn’t Standish comment on the weather prior to embarking on the patrol? Even then, the dark clouds loomed threateningly. So why was the longhaired tracker insistent that they had plenty of time to finish the patrol and return before the storm began? Ezra shook his head and frowned with confusion.
“Can’t.” Tanner shrugged his shoulders.
The monosyllabic reply sent a shudder through the Southerner’s lean frame. “Why pray tell not?” the gambler drawled melodramatically.
“Too close,” Tanner calmly explained. “‘Sides we’ll never make it back in time and it’s gonna be a real humdinger. Reckon we’ll only just make it to Chris’.”
Standish signalled his mount to stop. Now they were getting to the bottom of this. Chris had retreated to his cabin four days ago and had not as yet ventured back to town. The week preceding Larabee’s self-exile was fraught with tension and threats all aimed solely at the gambler. Of course, Ezra hadn’t helped matters any, and at every given opportunity heckled the gunslinger into further anger. “I don’t think Mr. Larabee is going to appreciate my presence in his humble abode.” Not that he was anxious to challenge the weather, but he imagined that getting a little wet would be preferable to the gunslinger’s wrath. “Surely we have sufficient time to return…” he insisted.
Tanner smothered the smile that emerged beneath the thick folds of his coat’s collar. He knew that Ezra would baulk at coming to Chris’, that’s why he’d left out suggesting it until the absolute last minute. “Nope. Ain’t time. And if we don’t get moving, it’ll catch us good an’ proper.”
Standish sighed and tested how much rope he had to play with. “I will return to Four Corners…”
“NO!” Vin shouted over the roar of the wind. “We’re goin’ ta Chris’, and that’s final!” Tanner glared at the Southerner and dared him to object. Seeing the resignation in the gambler’s slumped shoulders, Vin gave a curt nod. He wheeled his black gelding and set off at a gallop, calling over his shoulder as he departed. “Let’s go, Standish. ‘Cause here it comes…”
Ezra grudgingly followed Tanner’s example and urged the chestnut horse into a heady pace, even as the first of the rain droplets hit the earth.
Daylight vanished with the false obscurity of night; the sun banished under the sheath of the moody dark sky. The wind whipped, swirling in gusts and trumpeting in gales. The sparsely scattered trees struggled against the gale-force winds and branches sagged with exhaustion as they were plundered. The first of the raindrops fell quickly from the swollen clouds and mingled with the dry earth. Puddles of muddy water covered the dips and ruts in the well-traversed road, overflowing these to form a small river along side of the track. The deluge of rain pounded the earth relentlessly.
The hectic race of the two mounts splattered the murky slush upward coating the underbelly and legs of both Peso and Chaucer in slick mud. Both riders were similarly coated, but the constant downpour of rain washed off the worst of it.
Twenty minutes of hard riding brought the pair to the gunslinger’s home, completely drenched and exhausted from fighting the tumultuous conditions. Both mounts were heaving hard, and their breath crystallised on the chilly air. They pulled up directly in front of Larabee’s front door, but neither man dismounted. Inside a single lantern burned and the shadow of the rifle in the window was easily discernible.
Chris heard the rapidly approaching horses over the hammering rain and picked up his rifle, shouldering it at the window. With a groan of recognition, he set the weapon aside and flung open the door, stomping irritably onto the porch. He scowled at the two interlopers, growling his malcontent, “What ya doin’ out here?” Larabee narrowed his eyes and steadily glanced from Tanner to Standish, watching the water dripping off the rims of their hats.
“Need a place ta stay, cowboy, ‘til this passes over,” Vin swept his arm wide and called out over the roar of the wind. He wiped the water off his face, but the driving wind and rain merely returned it with persistence.
Larabee continued to glare at the Southerner, who’d yet to speak. “Put yer horses in the barn,” Chris ordered, waving off to the newly erected enclosure situated off to the left, but not level with the small cabin. He wanted to get in out of the cold. Just standing on the veranda, without actually being in the rain was sending chills through his bones. He turned on his heel to wait inside with strained inevitability for the two lawmen who were about to invade his peace. Not that he had any problem with Tanner waiting out the storm in his cabin, but being in the same enclosed space with the Southerner was something he could easily pass on.
+ + + + + + +
“Not exactly an open armed invitation,” the gambler muttered beneath his breath while rubbing down his faithful mount.
“Ezra,” Tanner warned in a low growl. “Just shut-up and stay out of his way. Come morning you’ll be outta here.” Vin threw his saddle over the stall rail and petted Peso’s shoulder. He glanced about the stable that he’d helped to build and decided that there was not a lot of room inside, especially when three horses were stabled in together. Vin scooped some oats into a bucket and placed it under Peso’s nose. He checked on what the gambler was up to and waited by the door for Standish to join him. “Come on, Ezra. Only so much ya can do for yer horse. Yer gonna haf ta come inside sometime,” Tanner groaned with impatience.
Standish grimaced inwardly at the thought of spending time in the sombre gunslinger’s home. Thank God Tanner was here, and he didn’t have to do this alone. Then again, if it weren’t for Tanner, he wouldn’t be here in the first place. Instead he’d be earning a living off those two wealthy gentlemen who came in on the stage that afternoon. And their pockets certainly bulged with temptation. With any luck, they would still be in town when he returned in the morning. Assuming this inclement weather passed on by then. No, he didn’t want to even think on that possibility. Just being here for one night was going to be a chore. Ezra shivered in his wet clothing and hefted his saddlebags over his shoulder and gamely strode past the waiting Texan.
The unseasonable storm rattled at the door and wind whistled through the gaps in the wall. The cabin itself shuddered and strained under the force of the maelstrom. Thunder exploded simultaneously as the silver streaks of lightning splintered the late afternoon sky. Larabee had put off questioning the two men until they’d removed the worst of their wet clothing and their teeth stopped chattering. With blankets cocooning the pair and a mug of coffee in their possession, Chris decided he’d waited long enough. His voice deceptively low, but the fury behind the words echoed loudly. “What in the hell were you doing out in this?” The older man waved his hands irately above his head. The question was intended for them both, but Larabee’s gaze centred on his best friend, Vin Tanner.
Vin answered while the gambler pursed his lips together in silence, ducking his head lower under the blanket. “Just doing patrol, pard,” Tanner sheepishly replied.
“In this?” Larabee stared at them both incredulously.
“Hadn’t started when we left,” Tanner hedged.
Ezra scoffed, but resisted rolling his eyes at the former bounty hunter’s inadequate explanation. Hell, Tanner claimed to be a tracker, an outdoors’ man, familiar with the intricate variations in the seasonal weather. Yet he’d failed to recognise the signs that pre-empted this storm. Even Standish, with his lack of skills, noted the forthcoming storm and mentioned its approach before they departed Four Corners, only to be told that it was, quote, ‘nothin’ to worry about.’ More than likely, the conniving longhaired tracker had his own agenda that involved both Chris and Ezra to be present.
Another crack of thunder roared, rocking the foundations of the cabin. “You got somethin’ to add?” Chris levelled his dangerous blue-eyed glare at the unusually quiet man.
“Nope,” Ezra answered non-commitally, then swallowed another mouthful of the warm beverage.
Chris stood menacingly with hands on hips, thoroughly pissed off with the entire situation. The rattle of the front door reinforced the tempest outside, but it hardly rivalled the growing enmity within the closed walls. He reluctantly pulled a chair out and planted himself beside the tracker. Folding his arms across his chest, Larabee resigned himself to the fact that he’d acquired company, albeit unwelcome, to wait out the storm.
“How’s Mary?” Larabee softly asked Tanner.
“She’s doing fine. Still got her arm in a sling, but she’s managing to get that paper of hers out in time,” Vin concluded. They’d been there for at least a couple of hours; he’d wondered how long the gunslinger could resist, before he inquired of Mrs. Travis’ health. Because in effect, it was her injury that placed his best friend and the gambler at loggerheads. And if Larabee hadn’t disappeared for a time, then the Southerner would have been in a dangerous position, one that would have seen him in more than a fisticuff with the widower.
Ezra stopped the steady rhythm of shuffling to look up and appraise the depth of animosity that still crossed the older man’s face. Standish’s lips thinned to a straight line and a slight twitch formed at the corner of his mouth. The cards lay still in his nimble fingers as the gambler studied Larabee’s expression. Ezra watched the change in Larabee’s expression, going from concern for the newspaperwoman, to be replaced with a familiar scowl when the gunslinger glanced in his direction. He bowed his head back down and slowly continued the manipulation of the idle deck.
“Ya still deny it was yer fault, Standish?” Larabee challenged, not even attempting to conceal his disgust.
Standish sighed. He didn’t want to get into this now with Larabee, so he tried to placate the difficult man. “Mr. Larabee…it was an unfortunate accident…”
“Yeah,” Chris interrupted, growling his agreement. “You really got a way of manipulatin’ the truth, Standish. Way I see it, if you didn’t cheat them folks, then they wouldn’t ‘ave been gunnin’ for you in the first place.”
Once more the cards stilled in the gambler’s hands. He licked his lips and watched Vin stand unobtrusively behind Chris, subtly affiliating his support to Chris. Why did Tanner arrange this…meeting? It was obvious that Larabee had not relented on his opinion of the gambler. This confrontation was doomed from the start. Standish morosely slipped the deck away and stood, the blanket falling to the floor. “I did not cheat. And I take umbrage at the accusation. I am a professional gambler and make no secret of that fact. I do not force; nor did I coerce those particular gentlemen, to partake in a game of chance. They in fact, requested a game with me, not the other way round. Their skills were below mine and they were free to leave the table at any given time. As to the altercation…it was unfortunate that Mrs. Travis chose that moment to pass by the alley. I didn’t expect she would intervene, but I dare say I’m glad she did.” Ezra smiled thinly, “Had I realised she was in the vicinity, I would have requested the gentlemen to desist in their assault on my person immediately, allowing her to pass by unharmed, then continue their attack on myself once she was safe,” Standish sarcastically concluded.
Tanner chuckled softly. Dropping his head to his chest, he shuffled his feet in embarrassment. He didn’t know why Chris was so adamantly biased. If Mary hadn’t happened along when she did, then Standish wouldn’t be here now even to discuss it. Mary’s interruption had given the slippery conman an advantage against his two assailants, but not before one of them discharged their weapon and sent a bullet hurtling out of control, inflicting an injury on the spunky editor. The bullet gouged a small crease in the woman’s upper arm. A few stitches from Nathan had the injury fixed almost immediately.
“You think this is some kind of joke?” Larabee jumped aggressively to his feet, stalking with the speed of a leopard until he was within striking distance of the gambler. His fists clenched methodically by his side anticipating the moment of inevitability.
The loud crack of thunder and flash of lightning illuminated the crowded room. The ragging storm outside compared insignificantly with the rising tensions that were being fuelled inside.
“No, Mr. Larabee. I am well aware of all the implications,” Ezra heatedly retorted.
“She coulda been killed!” Chris growled, physically gripping the lapels of the gambler’s still damp jacket and lifting him slightly off the ground, their faces mere inches apart. Larabee curled his upper lip into a sneer; stern dark eyes challenged the emotionless green eyes that betrayed nothing.
“Chris,” Vin’s soft drawl interrupted the argument. He grabbed Chris’ arm and tugged against the hold he had on the gambler.
Larabee shrugged off the tracker’s hold and at the same time shoved the gambler backwards, following the movement with an uppercut to his jaw.
Ezra lost his footing when the gunslinger abruptly released him and he wasn’t prepared for the physical blow that immediately followed, sending him sprawling inelegantly to the floor. He tentatively wiped the blood from his split lip and slowly massaged his jaw as he regained his feet. Holding Larabee’s fiery gaze with one of contempt, Standish made his opinion on the matter abundantly clear, without uttering a word. He was the first to break contact, though not intimidated by the sombre man, he merely wanted to leave before a further altercation between them occurred - One where he was not willing to submit so readily.
Reluctantly, he gathered the abandoned blanket off the floor, along with his saddlebags, threw open the door to the cabin and stepped out into the weather, away from further confrontation. The Southerner deliberately left the door swinging open, allowing the frigid wind to enter the warm room, plummeting the temperature inside to equalise with that of outside.
Tanner remained by the door, shuddering in the windy turrets he watched the retreating back of the gambler. He followed the gambler’s path as he disappeared through the downpour, and stayed at his post until a dim glow lit the barn. Sighing heavily, Vin spoke over his shoulder. “Did ya haf ta hit him?” He slowly shook his head; this was not working out how he’d planned. “Ya can’t let ‘im spend the night out there.” Vin spun on his heel to face the gunslinger, but Chris turned his back on the tracker and stepped over to the blackened pot bellied stove.
Hunkering down, he opened the grate and poked at the fire. Reaching for the bucket of wood that sat by the stove, he added another log to the hungry fire. Chris rose and stirred the contents in the pot. “If he wants to spend the night with the horses then I ain’t gonna stop him.” Under his breath he added, “Might even be for the best.” Larabee glanced up and noticed the imperceptible shake of Tanner’s head, and was surprised by the tracker’s affiliation with the gambler. “You gonna close that damn door?” Effectively shutting out the problem.
Tanner had to put his whole weight behind the timber door to close out the forceful wind. “You’re one stubborn ass, Larabee.”
“We’ll see who’s stubborn come morning. Ya want somethin’ ta eat?”
The gambler shook off the excess water and ran his hand through his wet locks. A shiver racked his lean frame. Twice in the same day he’d been subjected to the ravages of this same storm, and it did little to temper his mood. Absently he rubbed his tender jaw and touched his tongue to the split lip. Searching the barn for a source of light he found a lantern hanging on a rusty nail, skewed in the rough timber at an odd angle. After a few attempts, cold and numb fingers managed to light the oil lantern and a yellow glow illuminated the rustic room.
With the cold seeping through the soddened overcoat, Ezra removed it and hung the garment by the door. Angrily he kicked at the hay on the floor and swore in disgruntlement. Angry at his own rash display of impetuosity and inability to hold his tongue, he kicked the toe of his boot into a support post for the roof. Now look where it got him?
“Just what are you looking at?” Standish demanded of his three companions. “Surely you can afford me the pleasure of your company?” He paced in the small area adjacent to the stalled animals. “What? Nothing to say?” Standish ducked under the lead rope and came face to face with Larabee’s mount. The black automatically recognised the gambler and nickered softly, nudging Ezra in the chest. The Southerner gingerly lifted his hand and stroked Saber’s muzzle. Ezra leaned into the mount and wrapped an arm around the horse’s neck. “You’re certainly a lot friendlier than your owner,” Ezra chuckled.
Releasing the docile animal he stepped over to Chaucer, who was jealously stamping his hooves on the earthen floor. “My friend you have no need to fret, I have not forgotten you.” The gambler reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small bundle wrapped in brown waxed paper. Fending off Chaucer’s frantic attempts to remove the bundle from his hands, he managed to unwrap it and offer the horse a sugar cube. Damn beast was far too familiar with the gestures, recognising the intended treat before he’d even completely disclosed it. The chestnut licked the morsel off his palm and went searching for more. “My, my. We certainly are greedy tonight.”
A droplet of water trickled down his cheek, and the gambler dejectedly lifted his head to inspect the ceiling, screwing up his handsome face as another drop landed in his eye. “Ah, we’ve been bestowed with such benevolence for our accommodations, my friends,” Standish addressed the three mounts. “What a glorious night to spend in a flea ridden, rat infested, rustic and leaky stall,” he groaned with malcontent. “Mr. Larabee could afford to spend some time refurbishing his guest quarters.” He folded his arms across his chest, lightly rubbing his hands up his upper arms. Ezra stepped away from his horse and thoughtfully assessed the barn to determine where was the best, and driest, spot to make his bed for the night.
Standish used the fork to mound up a large quantity of straw by the western wall, where it seemed to still be moderately dry. “I hope there are no unpleasant surprises buried beneath this grass.” Another shiver quivered down his spine, this time it had nothing what so ever to do with the freezing temperature, but his unfettered abhorrence to slithering reptilian creatures.
Determined to feather his nest sufficiently, Standish threw on another bundle for good measure. He took the damp overcoat off its temporary hanger and spread it over the bed, lying down to test his efforts. “Not as good as my feather pillow and bed, but it will do.” The Southerner turned down the lantern and returned to his makeshift bed. Covering himself with the procured blanket, he snuggled beneath the folds and almost immediately fell into a deep sleep, brought on by the stress and events of the night. He curled his legs up and rolled on his side, the straw moulding stiffly around his exhausted body.
Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee were seated at the small table finishing off the last of their supper. Vin licked the remnants off his spoon and held it upright between the pair of them in a commanding gesture. “Ya know, Ezra ain’t had a lick of food ta eat since this morning.”
Chris thinned his lips, but held his tongue. He knew Tanner had more to say.
When Vin saw the man in black was not going to comment, he continued, “Reckon ya been a might hard on ‘im too.”
“Mary coulda been killed,” Larabee objected.
“Yeah, he knows. And don’t think that don’t worry the shit outta him. But he coulda been killed as well iffen Mary didn’t come along when she did.” Vin wiped the slice of bread around the plate, mopping up the juices he then shoved it into his mouth. Speaking around the lump of dough, Tanner accused, “Reckon you think things woulda been betta if she hadn’t.”
Chris’ eyes grew wide with the implication. “I ain’t never said that!”
“Reckon Ezra sees it that way,” Vin stared evenly at his friend.
“He reckons I want him dead?” Larabee questioned in bewilderment. At Tanner’s grim nod the gunman swore.
“You’ve threatened him yerself on a few occasions,” Vin reminded. “Tonight included.”
“But I never would have done it,” he asserted.
Vin shrugged. “He don’t know that.”
Larabee swallowed hard, ashamed of his hurtful comments. “I could take some of this out to him.” He stood and lifted the lid off the pot of stew, stirring the spoon around the remainder and considering the amount left.
“What’d be the point? Ya don’t want him back in here with ya,” Tanner sighed deeply. “Way he’s feeling at the moment, he’d just throw it back in yer face.
“Then tell him to come back in,” Chris unenthusiastically prodded.
Tanner shook his head, it wasn’t up to him to invite the gambler back into Larabee’s home, that was the gunslinger’s job. “Nah. Leave him be. ‘Sides the light’s already out.”
Come morning the storm’s ferocity had diminished some, but the ominous sky predicted further storms during the day. The pounding rain had washed the dust from the air and rinsed the grime from the cabin and barn and managed to soak into the formerly parched earth, turning it into a bog. The ground surrounding Larabee’s cabin was one overly large puddle.
Inside the barn, Ezra woke with an uncomfortable stiffness and weariness. Although he’d gone to sleep immediately the night before, he’d only managed to grab a few hours of slumber before he was awakened by the rumbling thunder. To add to his languor, his stomach growled with emptiness. Determined to remedy this situation, the gambler rose and immediately started saddling Chaucer, aiming on reaching Four Corners as quickly as possible. He hadn’t checked outside first, or he would have recognised the approaching storm. But with such intent to leave, the obstinate man may have challenged the fates and left anyway.
Ezra led his mount forward by the reins and was in the process of reaching for the latch when it was drawn open from the outside. Two startled faces greeted him at the barn door. The gambler’s right eyebrow arched sardonically upward and his lips thinned in greeting. Both men blocked the gambler’s path.
“Morning, Ezra. Didn’t ‘spect you’d be up so early,” Tanner cheerfully addressed.
Standish smiled in return, although it didn’t reach his eyes. “The accommodations were not conducive to sleep,” the gambler replied as he drew his mount between the two lawmen. He was actually surprised when both Tanner and Larabee stopped the horse’s progress by capturing either side of Chaucer’s bridle.
“Ya can’t go, Ezra. You’ll git caught up in the next storm.” Tanner pointed at the dark morning sky, expecting the gambler to comply once confronted with the evidence.
Standish barely glanced upward at the heavens, cursing inwardly. He tugged his mount out of the restraining grips and ignored the concerned looks passed between Chris and Vin as he stepped into the stir-ups and climbed into the saddle.
“You can’t be serious?” Larabee snarled in disbelief.
Ezra shook his head and studied the frowning man. Did Larabee honestly expect he’d stay? Even an hour longer? Hell, Larabee probably wanted him to starve to death in the equine domicile.
“Ezra,” Tanner held onto his leg.
The gambler kicked out of the hold and surged ahead. “I’ll inform the others of your situation on my return.” The elegant horse splattered through the sludge and sprayed the stunned men as they stood, mouths agape, staring after the Southerner’s irrational departure.
“What the hell’s he doing?” Chris vented his anger by punching his right fist into his splayed left hand.
“Guessing he’s a bit pissed,” the tracker shrugged his shoulders and grinned. “Come on, Larabee, we gotta catch ‘im up afore this storm hits.”
“Damn fool Southerner!” Chris mouthed as he followed the buck-skinned man into the stable.
"You oughta know.”
The black-clad gunslinger paused in the middle of throwing the blanket over his black. “What’s that supposed to mean, Vin?”
“Well, we wouldn’t be heading into the mouth of the storm, chasing out after him if ya hadn’t gone off at him last night,” Tanner accused, sparing him no leniency.
Larabee grunted in response and hurriedly finished saddling Saber. The gambler already had a ten-minute start on them, and the longer they argued, the further behind him they would become. “You coming? Or ya gonna spend all mornin’ taking shots at me?”
Tanner grinned sheepishly. “Let’s go.”
Ezra already regretted his foolhardy escape from Larabee’s homestead, but given the circumstances, he felt obliged to depart. Not to mention his lack of sustenance over the past twenty-four hours. Had he stayed longer, the cold and wet barn, added to his lack of food would have ebbed away his strength, and he’d have been forced to submit to Larabee’s will in order to maintain his health. And that was not an option. The first drops tapped lightly on his black hat, not ten minutes from whence he’d left. He knew Tanner had been right in his assessment of the weather. One look at the rolling dark clouds confirmed his worst fears. But he was determined to reach Four Corners, and so kept Chaucer at an even pace. He’d slowed the animal to a steady gait once leaving sight of his fellow peacekeepers. The ground was treacherous in parts and hazardous if Chaucer should stumble or slip on the unstable track.
+ + + + + + +
The gambler was dumbfounded at the sight of the two ground tied horses off the side of the road. He wouldn’t have noticed them if one of them hadn’t responded to his own mount’s whinny. Other than him, Ezra hadn’t expected anyone impulsive enough to brave the elements. The Southerner guided Chaucer over to the beasts, suspecting that their owners might be in trouble. Not immediately seeing anyone, Standish called out over the roar of the wind, but wasn’t surprised by the lack of response. Dismounting, he soothed the frightened animals, running a comforting hand along the sorrel gelding’s neck, then the muddy grey’s, talking softly to steady the disturbed mounts.
Curiosity getting the better of him, Ezra left Chaucer with the abandoned horses and set off on foot through the thicket of brush. Swiping ineffectually at the stream of water raining down his face, Standish drew his Remington and slowly pushed through the screen of foliage.
His eyes widened at the scene that fronted him. A figure in a dark cloak and hood plunged a long blade into the hapless victim lying beneath him. A startled cry erupted from the body as the blade penetrated, but at the massive flow of blood that spread rapidly across his chest, mingling with the torrent of rain, Standish was convinced he’d succumbed quickly. Raising his weapon at the murderer he called out, “Raise to your feet, sir. You’ll be accompanying me to the jail.” The cloaked man slowly rose to his feet, his face hidden behind a dark hood, shielding his identity from the gambler.
A crack of thunder shook the ground beneath their feet and a streak of lightning lunged toward the earth, hitting the tallest tree and splintering the old timber down the centre, into two. Shards of fire rippled down the freshly exposed wood and a furrow of smoke spiralled into the morning sky, but the fire would soon be extinguished with the steady shower of rain smothering the flames.
The moment’s distraction was all the killer needed and he quickly darted away, up the slight embankment and out of the Southerner’s sight. “Damn!” the nimble gambler cursed, and reluctantly gave chase. Firing haphazardly, the gambler aimed in the general direction the escapee took, not considering that he’d actually hit the villain, but bargaining on the retort of the weapon as an incentive for the killer to abort his evasion. No such luck.
Standish slowed his chase, cautiously approaching the cluster of tall brush, where the murderer had disappeared through. Checking nervously over his shoulder, the conman tightened his hold on the Remington. Taking a deep breath he filled his lungs with the frigid morning air and pursed his lips together. He unhurriedly parted the grove of shrubbery, but didn’t stand a chance with the swinging log aimed at his head that greeted his disclosure. The thick lump of wood struck the gambler a glancing blow and he lost consciousness, collapsing to the ground. The Remington discharging harmlessly as the branch connected with the Southerner. A river of blood flowed from the wound and collected in the soft ground where his head had fallen.
The rain continued to fall, soaking the fallen man, while the murderer disappeared leaving behind an aura of evil - one that was about to overtake and consume the lives of the three peacekeepers. A malignancy of pain and disaster, threatening the whole existence of the three men.
The man in black only just caught the tracker calling his name. Stopping the black and spinning back around to face Tanner, he replied simply by raising an inquiring eyebrow.
“That’s Chaucer.” Vin pointed out the chestnut gelding off the road in the shelter of a grove of trees.
“What’s he doing?” Larabee couldn’t conceal his puzzlement at Standish’s behaviour. Firstly the stubborn Southerner had left as the storm was ready to hit, and now, he’d stopped for some reason and was obviously on foot.
The tracker guided Peso up along side the gambler’s mount. “Ezra…” he paused, waiting for the gambler to answer, then called out again. “Standish, answer me!” Not receiving a reply, Vin dismounted and followed what he hoped was the Southerner’s path. Chris was not far behind Tanner’s lead.
The pair searched the immediate area for their friend, and almost tripped over the still form that lay hidden in the brush. “Ezra,” Tanner hunkered down, gently rolling the unconscious man onto his back. A soft moan passed the gambler’s lips, and Vin sent a worried frown in Larabee’s direction. Seeing the gambler’s eyes flutter, Tanner tapped the side of his cheek. “Ezra, pard. Come on, time ta git ya out of this weather.”
Chris handed the tracker a folded handkerchief and it was immediately pressed against the bleeding gash on his temple. The gunslinger stood up and passed a discerning eye around the area, but didn’t discover anything. Not that the sheet of rain helped any, or the gloomy light. He heard the tracker trying to coax the gambler back to consciousness and turned back in time to see the un-focused green eyes gazing at him. Chris smiled wanly down at the gambler, and crouched beside Vin. “What happened, Ezra?”
The Southerner lifted his hand to his head, but Vin stopped the movement. He closed his eyes and winced, then attempted to sit up. “Whoa, hold on there.” Tanner pushed the gambler’s shoulder back to the earth.
“The dead guy?” Standish slurred the words slightly as he looked from Tanner to Larabee.
“Ezra. Somebody hit you?”
“Obviously,” Standish drawled thickly. “May I get up?”
Tanner nodded; they had to get him up sometime so he helped the gambler to his feet and kept a steadying grip on the Southerner’s arm.
“Did you see him?” Standish tried again.
“Ain’t no one out here ‘cept us.” Vin could see the agitation in the gambler growing, and figured the gambler more than likely had a concussion.
Seeing the blank looks passed between the pair, Ezra pulled his arm out of Tanner’s hold and staggered back the way he’d come. Swaying on his feet, Tanner and Chris followed closely, ready to catch the stubborn man when he fell. Standish rubbed the back of his neck and waited until his vision cleared. Noticing the missing horses he mumbled there under his breath and staggered to the spot where he’d last seen the deceased. “He’s not here.” Ezra frowned. A wealth of emotion swept across his tired face.
“Who?” Chris asked calmly.
Ezra squeezed his eyes together tightly and swayed precariously on his feet. He felt first one arm caught, then the other, and someone slipped a steadying brace around his waist. Opening his eyes, he was momentarily taken aback to find himself flanked by Larabee and Tanner. “The dead guy,” he irritably replied.
“Maybe he weren’t dead,” Vin offered appeasingly, believing that Standish was under the influence of a concussion and thereby didn’t know what he was talking about. Although, somebody had hit Ezra, maybe there was some merit to the gambler’s story.
“He had a knife sticking out of his chest, I don’t think he was up to walking away,” Standish sarcastically drawled in disgust.
“Check around, Vin.” Chris took more of the gambler’s weight when the tracker let go of Standish. “Who hit you, Ezra?”
“The curmudgeon who killed the missing dead man,” Standish confirmed.
Chris nodded and led the swaying man over to the horses. “Reckon you can ride?”
“Of course. But I will be returning to my own bed in town,” he adamantly stated.
“Not in this ya won’t,” Chris differed. “‘Sides ya witnessed a murder. The killer’s still out there. Reckon he saw ya. Be safer if ya came back with us,” the gunslinger reasoned.
Ezra’s mouth dropped open, stunned by the degree of the gunslinger’s concern for him. “If he had intentions of ending my life, then he had ample opportunity. And if you expect me to believe that you want me back in your abode…” Standish wasn’t given the opportunity to finish as Vin rejoined them.
“Hard to tell, but reckon somethin’ or someone was bleeding awful bad over there. This damn rain’s not making things any easier.”
Chris nodded, and turned to the gambler. “Yer coming with us. Either in the saddle or over it. Your choice.”
Vin clapped the Southerner on his back as he walked past; a smirk turned up the corners of his mouth.
“I’ll ride,” Ezra valiantly declared, mounting Chaucer.
Wet and irritable was the only description that covered all three lawmen as they made their way back to Larabee’s cabin. The return journey was fraught with tension and barely a civil word was spoken between them. Tanner kept up a steady pace, but constantly checked over his shoulder on his two companions. Standish slumped low in the saddle with a death grip on the pommel. And Larabee pressed Saber as close to Chaucer as the Southerner and his ornery horse would permit. The man in black was determined not to let the semi-conscious gambler fall.
Ezra glared in indignation as Chris reached out and placed a steadying hand to his back. He would have continued the scowl, but his strained countenance only heightened the headache that throbbed mercilessly. Instead, the gambler grunted, coaxing his overextended muscles into sitting taller in the saddle. This in turn, meant that he had to increase his already tight grip on the reins and pommel and hug his legs in more snugly than Chaucer was accustomed to.
The gelding pranced and sidestepped a few paces, but ultimately relaxed into his owner’s adjusted stance. Chaucer flicked and twitched his ears, recognising Ezra’s uncompromising mannerisms, he gracefully submitted. The horse tossed his head and shook the depressing rain from his slick coat. Standish leaned forward; bending over Chaucer’s neck he rubbed it in circular motions while whispering words of encouragement.
Once they returned to Larabee’s cabin, Vin stabled the horses while Chris half-carried, half dragged the semi-conscious gambler inside. Larabee sat the gambler on the edge of the bed and divested Standish of his boots and wet clothing without a token resistance. Chris pushed the compliant man into the bed and pulled up the covers. Then he tended to the Southerner’s wound. It had stopped bleeding, but already the bruising around it had started to show. Chris ripped up an old shirt and used that as a bandage. That would have to do until Nathan could fix it up better. He’d just finished when Tanner returned.
“He all right?” The tracker could only see Ezra’s lax pale face peep out from under the covers.
Larabee frowned in concern, unable to give the tracker a better answer. All they could do was wait.
Ezra slept fitfully for the majority of the day. Waking only for a few minutes at a time, but always asking about the dead man. The storm kept them trapped at the cabin, isolated from any source of help. The rain would let up for a short while, but would inevitably return with renewed vigour.
+ + + + + + +
“Ya sure ya should be outta bed, Ezra?” The lean tracker dropped into chair along side of the gambler.
The gambler slouched at the rough-hewn table, resting his head in his hands and elbows wide on the table. He didn’t look up. “I’m fine,” Standish thickly drawled, his words slightly muffled by his hands.
Tanner glanced over his shoulder to Larabee, then back at the Southerner. “Then I reckon ya can eat this,” he surmised, as Chris produced a plate of stemming beans and bacon and placed in front of him. “Ya ain’t eaten in over a day.”
Ezra moaned softly when the fusing tracker pulled his arms off the table, which in turn meant he had to hold his head upright without any support. The aroma of food cooking had filled the cabin for the past hour. He still wasn’t entirely sure whether his stomach was growling in hunger or churning with the idea of it. He licked his lips slowly and warily picked up a fork. He could feel the intense scrutinising gaze of both Larabee and Tanner. “Is there not enough for everyone to consume?” He heard the distinct clip of Chris’ boots as he moved away from the table. He waited for the man in black to return with two more plates before eating.
Once the meal was finished the gambler shuffled back to the bed and sank down, sitting in the middle, he leant his head against the wall and closed his eyes. Ezra winced at the sharp pain that lanced through his head and reached up to rub absently at the bandage. He felt the bed dip as someone sat down with him. Larabee or Tanner? No not Vin, he had a distinct earthy aroma about him. So it was Chris. “Mr. Larabee?” He left the question open.
Chris shot a half-smile in amusement to the tracker. “How’d ya know it was me?”
The Southerner sat forward, pried open his eyes and took a deep breath. “You pervade a certain aura.” Ezra gestured with his hands.
Larabee snorted, then grinned, interpreting what the Southerner said, by the lack of what was said. “He said you stink, Vin.”
“Nope, he said yer the one with… pervading aroma,” Tanner countered, crossing the room he settled on the opposite side of Standish.
Tightly closing his eyes, Standish threw his head back to the wall. “Heaven help me,” the gambler muttered under his breath.
“Dunno about Him helping ya, but we’re here.” Vin clapped the smaller man on the shoulder.
“Ezra, about last night…” Chris began, stumbling as he sought for the right words.
“Entirely my fault, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra interrupted, content to accept the blame for the sake of a remaining civility between them. At least for the night.
“No it ain’t. I should never a hit ya. Ya deserve better than that,” Larabee blurted out in a rush. He was mildly surprised that Standish would accept the blame for the altercation the night before. Especially when the gunslinger knew that it was he who started the argument, and he who hit the gambler, and he who let the Southerner spend the night in the barn with the horses. It was Chris’ fault that sent the gambler scurrying back to town in the middle of a storm, and ultimately him to blame for the condition they found Ezra in.
Ezra shook his head in disbelief, and squeezed his eyes tighter at the pain that the simple action caused. Was Chris Larabee apologising to him? To Ezra Standish, resident gambler and conman? The one he held responsible for Mary’s injury? No, he must have misheard what the gunslinger had said. There was no way that Larabee would ever consider him worthy of an apology. But he needed to clarify exactly what was said. “Pardon?”
Vin punched the gambler on his right arm, chuckling at the stilted conversation. “Open yer eyes, pard. See for yerself. Chris Larabee is saying sorry.”
The gunslinger sent Vin a quelling look, but softened his complexion when Ezra did as Vin told him and opened his eyes. “I ain’t one to take back my words, but I reckon I mighta been wrong in this case. I’m sorry.” He waited for a reply from the conman but he only stared back in stunned silence. “Ezra…”
“You’re serious?” the Southerner asked in astonishment.
Chris grinned. “Yep, Guess I am. Reckon we can call a truce? At least for the night?”
“By all means.”
Vin rubbed his hand over his stubbled cheek. A smug smile crept across his face; he knew it would work. It was only a matter of time before Larabee saw reason, and got over his initial anger generated by Mary’s injury. The smile grew as he watched Larabee hover over the gambler as he stirred in his sleep. A sense of pride welled in his chest. He’d brought these two friends of his together, and finally they’d struck some accord with each other. No way he was naive enough to expect that the two lawmen would now be firm friends, but now at least there was some foundation laid, something to build on. Until next time, a small voice erupted in his mind, but he paid no heed to the pessimistic thought.
The pounding on the roof drew Tanner’s gaze to the ceiling. Although the room held a comfortable warmth, he shivered involuntarily just thinking about the tempest outdoors. The rain splattered endlessly on the shingled roof like the constant beat of drums, and the wind whipped up and howled, throwing branches and debris randomly at their shelter. He pondered how Ezra managed to sleep through the noise.
Sipping at the scalding coffee, Vin listened intently to the sounds of the night. He attempted to single out each particular sound and identify its origin, but one sound had him mystified. He frowned in befuddlement, struggling to identify the constant bumping noise. Tanner stared thoughtfully at the latched door. It seemed to reverberate with each thump, like something was hitting it. The tracker abandoned the remaining coffee and in a daze of concentration, stepped to the door and placed his ear flat against the wood. He heard the blond man voice his query, but he held up his hand in a stop motion. Chris joined him at the door. Barely above a whisper Vin asked, “Ya hear anythin’…odd?” The hairs on the back of his neck stood up on end.
Chris pressed his ear flatter, attempting to single out the noises from outside. He shrugged his shoulders and opened his mouth to utter no, when he felt the door vibrate against his cheek. “Hell! What was that?” he jumped back and faced the tracker in puzzlement.
“Reckon somethin’s out there,” Vin concluded with an air of mystery.
“Only one way ta find out.” Chris drew his peacemaker and stepped back, aiming the barrel at the centre of the doorway. “Open it,” Larabee commanded, nodding his readiness. Vin swung it open in a flurry; the roar of the wind filling the quiet and the answer to their questions hung from a rope swinging from under the porch in the gale. “Shit!” Chris swore and lowered his weapon.
Tanner gaped into the darkness at the lifeless body. A dark patch covered the man’s flannel shirt, and his head fell at an awkward angle, his neck obviously broken. “Who do ya reckon he is?”
“He’s the man I witnessed murdered early this morning,” the melodic Southern tones of the gambler responded from behind them. Both men jumped fractionally, they’d not heard the gambler’s approach.
“Let’s get him down, then we’ll take him over to the barn,” Chris ordered, warily searching the darkness on either side of the cabin.
Vin pulled a knife from his boot and dragged a chair outside to reach the rope attached to the rafters. He sent an appraising gaze about the front of the house, searching the shadows for unfamiliar movements. Chris held the deceased on one side and Ezra the other; both prepared to catch the body as it fell. “How in the hell, did he git up here, without us hearing anything?”
“Does that really matter?” Standish responded with a question of his own. Who cared how the corpse was attached to the rafters? Wasn’t it more important where the murderer was hiding? And why he’d done this? And why them? And who was this dead man, and why had he been killed? Was somebody out there looking for him, hoping to find him still alive? Maybe Standish could have prevented the man’s death, if only he’d arrived on the scene a few minutes earlier. Perhaps if he hadn’t interfered, then he may not have even been killed. Ezra’s head whirled with doubts and unanswered questions, and the frustration clearly showed on his face.
The deceased dropped with useless limbs swinging. Chris and Ezra lowered the dead man to the porch.
“Ezra, you go back inside. We’ll take ‘im over to the barn.” Chris watched the gambler’s frown grow as he looked down at the body. “Weren’t nothin’ ya coulda done ta save him,” Larabee reassured.
“Geez, he weighs a ton,” Tanner complained bitterly.
Chris grunted in agreement. “Put him over there. We’ll take him into town in the morning. I don’t care what the weather’s doing.” They both nonchalantly dropped the dead man to the floor, and then Larabee dropped an oilcloth over him. “Let’s get out of here.” He turned out the lamp hanging on the wall and psyched himself for the chill that would envelope him when he stepped from the barn.
“Chris…?” Vin paused; he couldn’t see a foot in front of him. “Why do ya suppose Ezra turned out the light?”
Chris looked up and blinked into the darkness where he imagined the cabin stood. “Shit! Ain’t no good reason at all,” he yelled over his shoulder as he dashed across the churned up yard. “Ezra!” he screamed the Southerner’s name, yelling over the wind.
Panting and out of breath, the man in black hit the porch with thundering boots. The cabin door swung on its hinges as the wind sucked and pulled at the unlatched door. It bounced off the wall and rocked back to its original position. The fire in the potbelly stove had been blown out; a few red embers glowed uselessly in the darkened room. Chris caught the door’s edge and stopped its progress, once more calling out the gambler’s name. “Come on, Ezra,” he pleaded softly. “We need some light,” he beckoned Vin as the tracker followed him through the door. “And shut that damn door!”
Larabee swore; gliding his fingers along the head high shelf where he knew the box of matches rested. He found them and struck the thin timber, and a small glow emanated at the tip. The gunslinger made a slow circle around, seeking the shadowed corners for the gambler.
“He’s at the table,” Tanner announced, taking two large strides to reach the conman just as the illumination from the match faded. Once more back in darkness, Vin felt the gambler’s hair, and ran his hand down the side of his cheek until it rested in the crook of Standish’s neck. Finding a pulsing beat, Vin let out a breath he didn’t realise he was holding. “Ezra…” he whispered into the gambler’s ear. Kneeling down beside him, Tanner wrinkled his nose at the strange odour. He leaned closer to the gambler and sniffed. “How about some light, Larabee?”
“Yeah, it’s comin’,” Chris answered just as the lamp sprung back to life. He sat the lamp on the table; his blue eyes darkened with fear as the light fell on a ten-inch dagger that rested on the table, red blood painted the end of the blade. “Hell, Tanner! How is he?”
Vin pulled the unconscious man back from the table and Standish slumped further in the chair, his head lolling to one side. A deep crimson stain covered his left leg. “He’s been stabbed in the leg,” Vin paused, “an’ he’s been drugged or somethin’.” Pulling off his scarf, the tracker pressed it hard against the bleeding wound.
“The bastard’s toying with us,” Vin flatly stated.
Larabee curled his lips into a grimace and hurled the bloodied knife into the corner of the room.
Standish lay still, fogginess gripped his mind. A throbbing ache in his head tugged at his awareness and a sharp pain lanced through his thigh. He moaned softly and fought against the whirl of turmoil. Someone held his hand down by his side, and sat at his hip. A cool cloth brushed lightly across his face and Ezra rolled his head under the ministration. Blinking open his eyes, a blurry form met his gaze. The image swum and the room tilted. A vile sensation resided in his mouth. Due to the lack of secretions, he winced when he swallowed past his scratchy throat. A mug of water was pressed to his lips. He whispered a grateful sigh to his benefactor.
“What happened?” Standish asked, his accent thickened with grogginess. He heard the soft chuckle at the head of the bed and the tracker say: that’s what we want to know. The gambler pushed off the cot and sat up, hissing out a ragged breath as his leg erupted with pain. A bandage was wrapped around the offending limb and in bewilderment Ezra traced the outline trying to discern its reason for being there. “Why…”
Seeing the obvious confusion, and pain in the expressive green eyes, Larabee took pity on the gambler. “Somebody put a dagger through yer leg.” Chris held the implement up for the gambler to see and Standish’s eye’s flared with more confusion.
Ezra shook his head; the fog had yet to clear. Rubbing his hand over his forehead he brushed at the makeshift bandage, then tugged it off. “Who?”
“Prob’ly that murderer ya saw.”
Chris tapped him on his good leg to gain his attention. “Do ya remember anything?”
Standish shook his head once more, damn that fog. “I thought it was you coming back. The next thing I know, I have a piece of cloth being held over my face…” he screwed up his face in concentration. “Nothing else comes to mind after that.”
“Chloroform,” Tanner declared, that was the smell he’d been trying to fathom. “What are we gonna do?”
“Just sit tight till morning, then catch the bastard,” Chris growled. “Can’t see a whit outside. Be a fool ta try looking for him now.”
Ezra swung his legs over the side. “What about the dead man?” he asked in frustration.
“Vin and I took him over to the barn.”
Ezra shook his head, muttering incoherently under his breath. “No. He won’t be there,” the Southerner adamantly stated.
“Yes, he is,” Chris corrected. He weighted down Ezra’s coat, making it impossible for him to rise off the bed. “You need ta keep off that leg. Don’t want ya to bleed to death, afore Nathan can fix it up.”
“He’s not there,” Ezra persistently refuted, looking from Larabee to Tanner. “I have to check.”
“Oh no you don’t,” the gunman slammed the smaller man beneath him, pushing the gambler into the mattress of the bed.
Ezra groaned as the older man dragged him down, but didn’t physically protest, he was much too exhausted to fight. He winced again as Chris moved his weight. “He won’t be there,” the gambler persisted urgently.
“Chris,” Vin warned, “What’ll it hurt, if we all go an’ check together? That way Ezra’ll be satisfied too.”
The man in black, gazed down into the gambler’s demanding eyes. “Okay, fine with me,” he capitulated. “Vin, grab the lantern.”
The silver white stars dotted the heavens, mystically appearing as the blanket of cloud was swept away. The whispery clouds moved rapidly across the sky and the temperature plummeted further, as the little heat that had been trapped between the earth’s crust and the moisture layer, evaporated. The wind had yet to abate, and the branches rattled high in the trees, signalling that the tempest was not yet at an end.
The three lawmen picked their way laboriously toward the barn, avoiding the larger puddles. Inside, the restless movements of the horses were easily discernible.
The tracker opened the door and waited for the shuffling pair to enter, then followed through the opened doorway, illuminating the insides of the barn with the emergence of the lantern. A nebulous shadow shrouded the corners, making the outlines of shapes difficult to determine. Soft nickerings of the three horses welcomed them into the barn, but the lawmen paid little heed to the mounts. Instead, the corpse stole their sole attention.
“He seems to be missing some body parts,” Standish drawled, wavering unsteadily on his legs.
The oilcloth that Chris had thrown over the body earlier had been pulled back revealing the headless body of the unfortunate victim. A pool of blood soaked into the earthen floor. Vin edged nearer, holding the light low to the body. He grimaced, wincing in sympathy for the decapitated man. “Ain’t right that a man have that done to ‘im after he’s already dead an’ all,” the former bounty hunter imparted. Even when he was bringing men in for the bounties on their heads, he never did this to them. If the bounty was dead, he looked after the body until it was buried proper like. He handed the lantern to Larabee and retreated to the door, staring out into the precariousness of the night.
Tanner leaned stiffly against the wall, nervously holding his hand at the ready over his weapon at this side. He sought the shapes that hovered on the edge of his vision, squinting to determine their original form and he listened to the sounds of the night; he could hear the soft murmurings of the Southerner and Larabee inside. They were probably replacing the displaced oilcloth to adequately cover the victim. His lips narrowed. He should help Chris get Ezra back inside; the Southerner was barely staying upright and in no condition to be out here in this. Vin swept the yard one more time, then turned with the intention of heading back to the others, but something odd caught in the corner of his eye. Something that seemed out of place. And he frowned in concentration as he did another circuit of the yard. “Aw shit!” he cursed. “Chris! The bastard’s been in yer shack again,” he hollered as he sprinted the twenty yards or so, back to the cabin.
The door to the cabin swung on its hinges, allowing the cold wind to whip through the room. Panting loudly, his pulse drumming in his ears, Vin cautiously stepped up on the porch. He heard his name lost on the wind, but didn’t turn to see Chris helping Ezra across the yard. Holding his Winchester at hip high he stalked into the room. A gasp fell from his throat and a churning bile rose from his stomach. He lowered his head and backed up, waiting for his friends to join him. “The head’s on the table,” Vin choked out the words, informing Chris and Ezra of the latest development.
“Good Lord!” Standish grimaced, eyes wide as saucers as they set on the bloody mass.
Larabee dragged the mortified gambler over to the bed and with little encouragement forced the compliant man down. “I’m taking that thing back out to the barn. You two stay here,” the man in black ordered.
“You ain’t plannin’ on goin’ out there alone?” Tanner queried, barricading the door with his lean frame.
“Outta my way Tanner!” Chris ordered, gingerly placing the head in a flour sack. “Nothin’ is gonna happen,” he patted his holster for effect. “Just gonna drop it off and come straight back.”
“You can’t see whit out there,” Vin protested. “And with all this wind ya won’t hear ‘im. He’ll be on top of ya afore you’d even smell ‘im.”
“Hell, Vin, it’s only twenty yards away, not ta here and Four Corners. I’ll be fine.” Chris sidestepped the tracker and slammed out of the room, thumping boots hitting the wooden planks with a powerful force.
When the echoing steps died into the night and the room crackled with a limp fire attempting to dismiss the alien force, the gambler studied Tanner’s motionless form. A slight tremor shook the tracker’s lean frame and his hands trembled ever so slightly by his side. “Mr. Tanner…Vin,” Standish whispered. “Are you…”
Tanner leaned against the wall still shocked by the malicious turn of events. He picked up his slouch hat and slapped it hard against his leg. “Chris shouldn’t be out there by himself,” Vin vehemently declared. Determined to remedy the situation he planned on joining the gunslinger.
Standish groaned inwardly, he was exhausted, both mentally and physically. He wanted this nightmare to end, and daylight to arrive. He was sick to death of the wind and rain, being wet and cold… and hurt. He splayed his fingers through his windblown hair and with extreme effort pushed off the bed. A nagging throbbing pain gripped his thigh as he stood and a grunt escaped his mouth before he could rein it in.
Vin stopped, turned to the gambler and holding up a warning finger, demanded, “Where the hell do you think yer going?”
“If you think for one moment that I’m going to stay here, while you go traipsing off after our illustrious leader, than you have another thing coming.” Standish limped slowly to stand by Tanner.
“Ezra,” Vin spoke softly, “you need ta rest.”
“That may be so,” Standish acknowledged, “But is it wise for all of us to be separated, while that lunatic is at large?”
Ezra did have a point and, Larabee did tell them to stay here. Vin’d give Chris a few more minutes, but that was all, then he’d go outside. He wasn’t keen to leave the gambler alone, and obviously Ezra wasn’t all that anxious to be left alone, but he couldn’t subject the Southerner to the elements another time. “Come on, let’s get you lyin’ down. Chris’ll have my gizzard iffen he gits back and finds ya standing in the middle of the room.”
Ezra chuckled. “I find that inordinately hard to believe.”
A light tap on the door halted their progress. Vin and Ezra share a brief look of puzzlement then stared hesitantly at the door. “Chris…?” Vin called out, fear in his voice. Another solid thud hit the wood, and the planks bowed with complaint.
“Vin, open the damn door!” Standish pleaded urgently.
Tanner complied with the stricken request, and the blackclad gunslinger fell over the threshold; a knife embedded in his back through his left shoulder.
Ezra rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “Will this hell not end?”
“Ezra, yer gonna be losing that bed for a while,” Tanner informed the Southerner as they hefted the unconscious Larabee toward the bed. Laying him down on his stomach they cringed at the weapon that protruded out his back. The black coat Chris wore already glistening with the dark stain of blood. “Close the door,” Vin ordered. “And we’ll need some boiled water,” he continued with the instructions as he psyched himself against the internal battle that raged within about having to separate Chris from the blade. Giving the gunslinger his undivided attention, he hadn’t noticed when Standish had complied with his requests and drew up behind him. He heard the gambler’s offer to remove the knife and would have accepted if not for the fact that Standish was already injured himself. “Nope, I can do this.”
“Then I suggest, we do it while Chris is blissfully unaware.”
Tanner nodded and with a shaking hand gripped the hilt of the blade and pulled back in one fluid motion. Chris cried out in alarm and just as abruptly returned to oblivion.
+ + + + + + +
Standish shifted uncomfortably in the hard backed chair and earned a worried frown from Vin in return. Under the tracker’s scrutiny Ezra stilled, breathing rapidly as the discomfort reasserted itself causing the gambler to drop his gaze. The throbbing in his leg overrode the blistering headache and attempting to remain upright in the chair for the past hour since Chris’ injury was draining.
“Ya might find it more relaxing ta lay down.” Even if it was on the floor.
Standish eyed the floor and grimaced visibly. He was above resorting to the basic instincts of animals to curl up on the wooden floor - though he did sleep in the barn with the horses the night before. He didn’t need to remind himself of that, he chided. Instead, Ezra stretched the wounded limb out and slouched further in the seat.
Tanner curled one corner of his lip into a lopsided smile. The Southerner would not manage to stay sitting for much longer. “You got that flask of yours?” He reasoned that the liquor would at least dull the pain. Might work for Larabee too, once the gunslinger came to.
Rubbing a thoughtful hand over his face, he wryly shook his head. It wasn’t often that he was separated from the silver flask, but he’d emptied it the morning Tanner dragged him out on this miserable patrol and hadn’t the chance to refill it from a private stock before leaving. Consequently, he was without at present.
Standish watched Vin stride to a large box and lift open the hinged lid. The wooden box was behind the table and Ezra hadn’t taken any notice before of its presence. The tracker kneeled and used both hands to lift the solid lid and the hinges whined in protest. Standish leaned forward, attempting to see passed the body that blocked his view. What exactly was in the box? Vin was obviously looking for something. The gambler shifted in his seat and leaned to the right, half hanging out of the chair. If Vin would move a fraction to his left, then Ezra would be benefited with a better view. A muttered curse resounded from the tracker and he leaned over the edge of the box and his head disappeared from sight. Ezra on the verge of jumping out of his chair when a pitiful groan echoed from inside the box had Vin jerking backward landing on his backside. “Mr. Tanner?” he called in consternation. What the hell was in that box? Had the murderer placed something inside it, when he’d been in the cabin? What if it was a rattler? Though he hadn’t heard any rattle, he reasoned.
Vin slumped away from the box; though his arms still dangled inside. “It’s all right, Ezra,” Tanner smirked ruefully, rubbing at his chest, “there’s a damn nail sticking out and it snagged me a bit is all.”
“A nail?” Standish deadpanned. He bit his bottom lip and held back the surging chuckle. What had he been thinking? “Did you find you were searching for?”
“Yep.” A content grin crossed the buckskinned man’s stubbled face.
A dimpled grin of his own appeared as Tanner drew out a bottle of whiskey from the box. Trust Larabee to have a hoard. He licked his lips in anticipation as Vin poured a generous amount into a metal mug. “You are a Godsend, Mr. Tanner.”
“Ya best save yer thanks for Chris when he wakes up,” Vin protested.
Smiling around the rim of the mug he affirmed, “That I will.”
The former bounty hunter walked past the gambler, stopping, as his footsteps echoed in the room. He glanced back at Standish and frowned disconcertedly, lifting his gaze to the ceiling. Sliding up on the toes of his calfskin boots he circled under the creaking roof tiles. “Ezra,” he hissed in a whisper. “Get over with Larabee, now,” he ordered, drawing the mare’s leg from the side holster.
Ezra obediently edged out of the chair, but stared with foreboding at the roof. He too, could now hear the roof tensing under the added weight that crawled across it. “Do you think it is him?”
Tanner answered, by cocking the mares’ leg and aiming at the furtive noise, blasting a hole through the roof. He again quickly discharged the bullet shell and hammered another round upward and then another. Three fresh holes peppered the ceiling and a silence greeted the explosion of shots.
Vin swivelled on his heels and waved Standish to move with a flick of his drawn weapon. He concentrated on the outside noises for any peculiarities, feeling the backlash of dread wash over him. With grim determination, Tanner shuffled to the door.
“You can’t be serious?” Standish stared in wide-eyed shock.
“Someone’s got ta check if he’s dead,” Tanner neutrally dismissed.
“He’ll still be there in the morning, if indeed he has succumbed,” Ezra countered.
“I ain’t taking anymore chances, Ezra. Look at yerself and Chris, this bastard is a damn maniac!”
Standish stepped closer and rested his hip on the corner of the table taking the strain off his leg. “Exactly my point! You would be placing your life in danger if you go out there and he isn’t dead. We are safer to remain inside,” he reasoned. Ezra didn’t want the tracker to become the killer’s next potential victim.
“We ain’t gonna be safe ‘til that bastard’s dead!” Vin irately ranted.
With a defeated sigh Ezra nodded his head. “Then we’ll both go.”
Vin was ready to refuse, but caught the unyielding glint in the bright green eyes and nodded his acquiescence. He glanced at the gunslinger, still passed out on the bed and over to Standish. “Sure you can do this?”
Ezra rolled his eyes; every step he took was agony, but still with the briefest of nods he limped to the door. “Shall we?”
Vin swung open the door and barged out wielding his sawn off Winchester ahead of his body. He planted his feet in a wide stance and scoured the yard in front. Standish pushed from behind and Tanner stepped to his left allowing the Southerner to cross the doorstep. Ezra pulled the door closed behind him. Without uttering a word, the pair determined which route around the cabin they should each take. Vin slowly slid around to the left and Ezra limped off to the right.
The Southerner leaned against the outside wall and propelled his body along the length until he reached the back corner. Soft shards of light filtered out through the slivers of gaps where each plank of wood buttered against one another. He nervously craned his neck to spy around the back wall. The deep ebony swamped the back of the cabin in an eclipse, even the backdrop of trees that bordered the property were lost in the devil’s shadow. Swallowing the lump that lodged in his throat, Ezra looked over his shoulder then whispered softly under his breath, “Courage, Ezra, courage.” He stepped out and rounded the corner expecting to see the tracker on the opposite side, but the lean hunter had not yet arrived.
Intending to circuit the back wall as he’d done the side, Standish was unaware of the rain barrel wedged firmly against the back of the shack. He’d have to step away from the wall and further into the darkness as he moved around the barrel. The Southerner dipped his fingers into the well of water and the sudden icy temperature of the liquid quickly numbed his hand. A shiver ran down his spine and he staggered with his next step.
A rush of wind fanned his face as a large object hurtled from the roof, knocking the gambler to the ground. A startled cry of pain was bitten off and a whimper of frustrated relief echoed loudly in his mind. A hoot from the feathered owl covered his own panicked call. The night bird flew off, beating its wings in a flurry. Ezra groaned in disgust. Downed by a bird of all things. He levered himself back to his feet using the barrel as a support behind his back.
A soft nervous chuckle bubbled from the gambler’s throat, only to be squashed by the grounding realisation that Vin had not appeared. “Vin…” Ezra hissed through clenched teeth, urgently calling his friend, but not wanting to readily announce his own position. “Tanner…?” Ezra called more loudly than the first time and lunged round the final wall. “Vin? This is not humorous…answer me damn it!” Standish’s eyes darted back and forth searching for the missing tracker. With a limping gait, Ezra walked the length of the cabin and returned to his pole position. Frowning, a rising dread rushed over him, a deathly cold crept up his spine. “Vin!” the Southerner shouted, unconcerned about informing the killer of his whereabouts, only worried about the fate of his friend.
Ezra stamped his foot with indecision, and instantly regretted the movement as his injury flared raw with pain. Should he leave and return with a light, or should he just stay and hope that he’d stumble across Tanner? Groaning in frustration, the gambler stalked inside and ripped the oil lamp off the table and raced back outside. He wildly swung the light over the rain washed earth. The glow from the lantern cast a sympathetic illumination, dipping over clumps of buffalo grass and delving into the ruts and gullies. Standish continued to call to Vin as he stepped deeper into pervading blackness. He was beginning to loose hope when the lantern’s light dusted the brown buckskinned jacket of Vin Tanner lying sprawled in the open field.
“Dear Lord!” Standish dropped to his knees and rolled the unconscious man over. Feeling for a pulse, he was summarily pleased to find one. He glanced over his shoulder toward the cabin and wondered if he was capable of transporting the injured tracker back without inducing further injuries. Ezra bent over Tanner and sat him upright, resting Vin’s back to his chest. Standish panted from the exertion, but didn’t allow that to stop him. He snaked his arms under the tracker’s and finger locked his hands tightly across Vin’s chest. Leaving the lantern on the ground, Ezra traced his steps backwards, excruciatingly slow and to Chris’ cabin. Vin’s boots drew lines in the soft earth as Standish dragged his fellow lawmen to safety.
Ezra grunted, a harsh rasping sound met his ears. He hefted the unconscious man over the step onto the veranda and startled, dropping his charge to the deck when a hand clamped down firmly on his shoulder. Spinning awkwardly, Standish drew his Remington and confronted his assailant.
“Ezra, is Vin hurt?” Larabee drowsily asked, struggling to even form the words in his mind, let alone to voice them.
Heart pounding loudly in his ears, the Southerner smiled weakly at the gunslinger. “I think you’ve just taken ten years off my life,” he reproached. “Mr. Larabee, what are you doing out of bed?”
Chris screwed up his face, tilted his head to the side to see past the gambler and leaned heavily to one side. “Why is the lantern over there?” he asked, confusion written clearly on his pallid face.
“I couldn’t carry that, and Mr. Tanner.”
Chris swayed on his feet and furrowed his brow at the unmoving form slumped in the exact position that Ezra had dropped him in. “He hurt?” Larabee seemed unaware that he’d all ready asked Standish this question.
“Yes. I should get him inside, before the spectre reappears.”
Chris arched an inquiring brow, but it went unaddressed as Ezra resumed his former position and brought the unconscious tracker inside. The gunman followed and slammed the door at his heels.
Standish had dropped his cargo at the side of the bed and winced as he stood erect, rubbing at his back. How was he going to lift Vin onto the bed? A wave of nausea hit him and almost rendered him to the floor. He wiped his face and swallowed back the secretions that rose from his stomach. He wondered if Vin would mind terribly if he fell into the bed himself. Not that Tanner was even coherent at the present. He wouldn’t even know. Ezra bit the inside of his cheek and turned, coming face to face with a concerned gunman. “Mr. Larabee…could I prevail…upon you…to help get…Mr. Tanner…into bed,” Standish huffed.
“Sure you can manage?”
“I’ll make…do,” he smiled wanly.
+ + + + + + +
Chris itched where the rough cotton rubbed intimately against his chest. Irritable and in pain, Larabee tugged at the makeshift bandage. Between Standish and Tanner they had relieved him of his shirt and coat leaving him with a cumbersome wrapping around his left shoulder and a leather belt hanging from his neck like a sling to rest his arm in. He winced, sucking in a raspy breath at the sharp pain, while attempting to sit taller. He’d lowered his six-foot frame to the floor and stretched his long legs out, crossing them at the ankles.
Anxious to keep a vigilant eye on Vin, he rested close to the single bed. Tanner was lucky, if one considered being smashed across the skull as lucky, that he had no other injuries other than the obvious lump on the side of his head. The skin remained intact under the blow, but he was bound to have a headache when he woke. The tracker had mumbled incoherently after they first brought him inside, but had since drifted into a concussed sleep. He lay still on the bed and only the soft rise and fall of his chest assured them that Tanner was alive.
Chris glanced up and watched the gambler slowly cross the room and slip down the wall beside him. With a feral grin and a hint of apprehension, Standish opened his jacket and produced from an inside pocket a half-empty bottle of whiskey. One of his bottles, from his own stash. The gunman glanced at the storage box and back at the offered gift.
Ezra held out the bottle and increased consternation clouded his face when Larabee didn’t immediately accept. “Mr. Tanner thought you might not mind,” Standish hesitantly stumbled over the words, attempting to explain his possession of one of Larabee’s collection. The smile dropped completely and the bottle in his hand thumped hard on the floor. Ezra closed his eyes and threw his head back hitting the wall. Fool! He screamed inwardly. Outwardly his face took on an expressionless façade. And they were even beginning to develop a degree of tolerance of each other. Now he’d blown his chance with one stupid mistake.
A half smile tugged at the corners of the gunslinger’s mouth. Standish actually believed Chris would hold it against the conman, that he’d blame the gambler for stealing a lousy bottle of whiskey. Hell his shoulder hurt too much to care how Ezra had found his stash. And he did mention that Vin had supplied him with it, in any account. Tanner knew what was stored in that old chest; he’d been out to the cabin often enough. Chris leaned sideway and rocked into the gambler’s side. “You plannin’ on sharing that?”
The Southerner snapped open his eyes and tensed, shifting away from the gunslinger. Warily, Ezra passed the bottle. “Help yourself.”
Chris tipped the bottle high and leaned his head tiredly back, his eyes blinking over the gritty feeling that scrubbed at his blue orbs. He smiled around the tip of the bottle’s neck and sighed contentedly at the warming sensation that flowed down his throat and into his gut. He choked on the next swallow, spilling the mouthful over his chin and snorting it through his nose.
Ezra bit back the chuckle and raised a speculative eyebrow. “Perhaps taking a breath between mouthfuls may be advisable,” Ezra grinned impishly.
“Shut up, Standish.” There was not any of the usual ferocity behind the words though. Chris wiped the spilled liquid off his chin. “What the hell happened to my roof?”
Standish followed the upward gaze and turned his head guiltily away.
The Southerner pursed his lips, better to bite the bullet now, then wait for later. “That demented felon was on the roof…and,” Ezra looked past Chris to the unconscious tracker and forced a placating smile on his countenance. “…Well…it seemed like a good idea at the time,” he finished lamely.
“Tanner shot three holes in my roof?” Chris clarified.
Ezra shrugged non-committally, and grimaced when he attempted to stand.
“Here,” Larabee flung out his arm and hit the gambler square in the chest with the bottle of whiskey, effectively halting Standish’s escape. “And keep off that leg,” he admonished.
Ezra’s eyes drooped heavily, but he fought against the rising urge to allow his body the need to fall asleep. His limbs felt listless and the simple effort of remaining awake was taxing on his already overloaded system. He felt the stilted movement of Larabee shift against his side and a groan also issued from the gunman. “Chris, are you awake?”
“Yep. What’s on yer mind?”
“It’s awfully quiet outside.” The wind had settled down and only blew in sporadic gusts. The rain had apparently ended and the clouds had all but drifted away. But the pervading quiet, after the storm’s wicked tempest had an eerie quality to it. “I wonder what he has planned next?”
“We ain’t goin’ anywhere ‘til we can see. That bastard’s been pulling our chains long enough and I ain’t gonna let that happen anymore. He’s good as dead when I get my hands on him.” Larabee clenched his hand into a fist and the blood vessel in his forehead pulsed with annoyance.
Ezra smiled with relief, he didn’t feel up to moving and was grateful for the reprieve.
Their small respite was shattered when a howling gust whipped over the cabin. Standish inhaled and bent forward to bury his face between his raised knees. “Good Lord, what is that ghastly odour?” His face contorted and the foul smell caused a return of his nausea.
Chris swallowed bitterly; a pinched expression muted his features. He’d recognise that distinct smell anywhere. The smell of burning flesh. Choking back his rising bile, Larabee crossed to the window and peered through the glass; he rubbed a circle to clear the glass free of condensation. A discordant gasp inexplicably forced its way out of his mouth. And a similar response was evoked from the Southerner, who’d moved immediately to follow the gunslinger and stood by his side.
Ezra cupped a hand over his mouth and abruptly stumbled backwards, trying valiantly to hold down the meagre contents in his belly and not show any weakness in front of the hardened man in black by heaving. Doubling at the waist, Standish wrapped a comforting arm about his middle and slowly sank to the floor. The memory of such vile atrocity would live in his mind forever. He felt a hand squeeze his shoulder and stay there a fraction longer than expected. Fearful eyes lifted, and with a degree of reverence sought Larabee’s. He was appeased to find a soulful depth of empathy in the responding blues eyes. But of course, Chris had a past association with that dreaded odour, when he was confronted with the deaths of his wife and child. “We should put out the flames,” Standish rasped.
Chris nodded his head, unable to find his voice. That would be the proper thing to do. Seeing the headless body strapped to an upright post on the corral with a bundle of firewood burning hungrily at his feet and licking fervently up the length of his body to fully encompass the whole mass, sickened the gunman no end. Jumping back rigidly from the window he almost tripped over Standish with his wooden movements. He watched Standish as he struggled with his breathing and the distinct lack of colour. He knew exactly how the gambler was feeling, probably more so. And as much as he wanted to close his mind off to what he’d seen, and block it out, there was no way in hell he was stepping one foot outside that front door. Not until the morning sun lit the sky. “No,” he belatedly growled changing his mind, “he’s already dead, nothin’ we can do for him.”
“No, Ezra!” the gunslinger turned away not willing to discuss it further.
Both lawmen startled, as the same window that they’d been peering out only minutes before, shattered into a cascade of jagged shapes, spraying inwardly. A large rock rolled, finally stopping from its flight and entry to the cabin.
Ezra was surrounded and covered in an accumulation of broken glass. He shook his head and the slivers fell from his hair. He heard the harsh command of Tanner’s to stay where he was, and a similar order issued to Larabee. Standish ignored this and sat back on his heels.
“I’m fine, Vin,” Chris stated. “Help Ezra.”
Tanner gripped Standish at his elbow and pulled him to his feet and carefully started to tug off the gambler’s jacket.
“What are you doing?”
“Stand still,” Tanner ordered. “This jacket of yours is covered in glass.” After that the Southerner complied and assisted in removing the burgundy coat. “You hurt?”
Standish shook his head and laughed. “Nothing new,” he cocked his head to the side and nodded in Larabee’s direction. “I’m fine, but I think Mr. Larabee may need some assistance.”
The gunslinger was standing motionless, staring out the broken window into the night. A thin trickle of blood trailed down the side of his face from a cut just below his hairline. A growing malevolence spread though his soul and his hooded eyes burned with retribution. A formidable rage guided his next movements. Chris drew the peacemaker and thumbed the cylinder, rolling it past the empty chamber. He scowled and fired the first two shots rapidly into the heavy shroud of the night. “YOU GET SOME KIND OF PERVERTED PLEASURE OUT OF THIS?” Chris screamed loudly at their unseen foe. He shot another bullet to the right and a fourth further right again. “WELL, FUCK YOU! YOU MESSED WITH THE WRONG PEOPLE,” Larabee warned and sent the final bullet deep into mass of trees that bordered the edge of the barn. He glanced at the dying flames that ate at the dismembered corpse and with disgust stepped back from the window.
Vin slipped a supportive arm around Chris’ waist and guided the exhausted man over to the bed where he’d deposited Standish. The bandage about gunslinger’s shoulder was bleeding anew, fresh blood stained the bandage. “Ya finished?”
“Vin, we gotta cover up that hole,” Chris grunted as he sank to the mattress. He fumbled with the bullets from his gunbelt and reloaded his weapon.
Tanner glanced at the broken window and trailed his gaze slowly around the room. Spying a toolbox, Vin picked it up and dropped the heavy box on the bloodied tabletop and sorted through the contents. A hammer and a tin of nails was a start, he sighed. What a way ta wake up, he groaned. And his head was still smarting from the blast of Larabee’s gun. Trouble was, he’d yet to figure out exactly why his head was protesting so vehemently. Last he remembered was blasting holes in Chris’ roof and going outside. He glanced to the ceiling to verify that what he remembered was indeed the truth and not a fragmented dream. A wry grin dusted his mouth at the dark speck of night sky that could be seen through the tight circle. Guess Larabee was gonna want him to fix that up at some stage.
Tanner moaned softly and crossed the room, glass crunching beneath each step, to gather up a number of planks of good timber that were stored under the bed. He crouched low at the end of the bed and slid his hand along the floor to find them. Vin ducked his head and rested his cheek on the floor. The blanket hung low to the floor making seeing under the bed difficult. He stretched his arm full length and scooted it in a fanning motion. Where the hell were they? Did Larabee move them? Chris didn’t even know he’d put them there. So where were they? Vin pulled himself under the bed. He took a frantic breath as he felt the narrow space enclosing around him. And his head began to throb more persistently. His mind’s eye drew images in the recesses from under the bed. Nausea rose to his throat and he closed his eyes, but the dead man’s severed head and bleeding body remained clearly. Frozen in place he swallowed, unable to move and find the timber or to escape. He jerked his head upright and hit the base of the bed, but the blow drove away his fear and he delved further under and resumed the search.
A relieved smile lit his face when his fingers finally came into contact with the planks. Vin pushed out the wood and rolled out the side, under the raised boots of Larabee and Standish. He winked at the gambler’s steady gaze. “Put ‘em under there, ta keep ‘em out of the weather,” he explained.
“Wondered where you’d put them,” Larabee stated, staring at the tracker and noticing how pale Vin’s features were. “Waste to board the window up with them.”
“You want me ta use somethin’ else?”
“Go ahead,” Chris allowed.
With the first phase of dawn the land slowly closed the final chapter on the long night. The brightening of the early day brought with it hope and a fresh cleansing, washing the debauched dread under the earth’s pillow. The sun’s rays crept stealthily over the storm ravaged fields, forcing the prairie grasses to wave in welcome at the warming flush that greeted the meadow. The abandoned lantern lay broken, smashed on the muddy earth, its lifeblood leaking deeply into the wet ground.
With the coming dawn, the gentle murmurings of nature intruded on the oppressive silence. The shrill call of a raven announced it had survived to greet another day and the animals of the night returned to the shelter of their homes, content to spend the daylight hours in slumber. The morning sky was splattered with a wash of white wispy clouds and the dawning rays of light broke through the muted clouds and doused them in a hue of colour.
The burnt body hung limply from the post, a charred shell of his former self. The stench of death listed on the tender wind, and soon through an open invitation, the birds of debauchery would come to sample the goods.
Inside the cabin the three lawmen anxiously waited for the morning light to dispose of the infiltrating blackness. Tired, and weary beyond exhaustion also wounded and dispirited. Standish slouched restlessly on the narrow bed, jerking suddenly upright as his head drooped to his chest, he pried open his bloodshot eyes and groaned involuntarily as he reawakened fresh hurts. On his right Larabee eyed him with comparative empathy, and he even offered the gambler a lopsided smile. A soft snore emanated on the right of the gunslinger, Tanner had succumbed in the last hour to the mild concussion and leaned casually against Chris’ uninjured side. Ezra leaned forward and a tentative grin flushed his face.
“This does not leave here,” Chris warned, but there was a lack of authority behind the words. Chris could not move as the tracker had effectively pinned him, and any movement would waken Tanner.
Standish refused to agree, and his smile broadened at the possible implications that he could spin on this harmless situation.
Larabee watched the gambler, and would swear that he could see the cogs spinning inside Standish’s head. “Whatever you’re schemin’, just remember that you’re involved too. And I’ll happily inform anyone of that fact if you breathe a word,” Chris calmly stated, a wicked smile crossing his face.
Chris Larabee led the peacekeepers outside. He’d donned his black coat over his bare torso and presently rested his arm in the belt-like sling. Vin edged to the gunslinger’s right and Ezra to the left. Chris scanned the immediate area and cursed at the hidden assailant. He motioned for the others to stop and he tilted his head and listened. “Vin?”
Tanner stepped level with his friend’s side. His gaze focused on looking for any unexplained movements, he didn’t look up when Larabee called his name. “Nope,” he replied, indicating that he could not find him. He heard the gunslinger question Standish similarly and the gambler responding also with an unsatisfactorily negative answer.
They stood a few yards from the cabin’s entrance, stationary in their tracks. Chris was straining so hard to hear anything out of the ordinary, that his own breathing became too loud and he held onto it to eliminate it from the other sounds. Then to undermine his resourcefulness, his heartbeat immediately increased in pace, stampeding with thunderous rolls; he let out the breath he was holding and shook his head in disgust. He heard the horses paw their shoes on the hay strewn barn floor and the call of a crow.
Ezra swivelled in a tight circle and backed closer to his fellow lawmen, searching the area to the back and behind them. His nose twitched as a faint smell of smoke invaded his nostrils, and he shuddered involuntarily as he glanced at the blacked remains. He glanced behind Larabee’s back to catch Vin’s wary blue eyes and slowly edged away from the group. A stronger whiff of smoke drew his attention and just as quickly, that of Chris and Vin’s.
“The barn!” Chris hollered and dashed frantically to the smoking building.
Chris threw back the barn door and was greeted with the wild-eyed squeals of the terrified horses and the interior quickly being engulfed in a ravage of flames. He released Saber and slapped the black horse on the rump sending it in the direction of escape, then he moved on to Peso and Chaucer.
Vin and Standish picked up a saddle blanket each and proceeded to beat the flames seeing that their mounts were rescued. The choking smoke began to billow at the top of the building and thickened murderously. Vin covered his nose with an open hand, swinging courageously at the hungry flames. He could hear the gambler coughing and wondered fleetingly how they hoped to save the barn, but still he wielded the blanket, smothering the flames.
Larabee threw a bucket of water into the body of heat and it stuttered for a second then resumed its fiery path. Chris grunted and raced back outside and dipped the bucket deep into the rain barrel and hefted the contents back inside. He aimed the water at the area Standish slaved at, half dousing the gambler when he did so. Larabee panted and returned to the task of collecting more water. Another two or three bucket-fulls and they should have it under control.
On the sixth journey to the rain barrel Chris pulled up another load, he wiped the sweat from his brow and struggled to return with the water. That would be the last load he would get from this source, he noted. He bent at the waist and rasped unevenly, but determined to save his barn he forced his aching body to summon the strength. Chris choked on the heavy smoke and threw the bucket of water blindly into the blanket of smoke. He stepped back and sighed, even though the inside was blackened and the bales of hay totally gone, they had saved the timber barn from going up in smoke. If the timber had not already been soaked from the heavy rain over the past few days, Chris doubted that they would have had much chance in saving it. He glanced at Vin and smirked triumphantly, he figured Tanner probably fought hard so he didn’t have to help rebuild.
The tracker was sweating and his face smeared in soot. He grinned with exhaustion and proceeded to double over as he was wracked with a bout of coughing. Too much smoke. Chris grabbed at the tracker’s coat and led him out into the fresh air, glancing back worriedly over his shoulder into the shrouded barn to find Ezra. “You gonna be okay?” Larabee crouched by Tanner and patted him on the back.
Vin wheezed and sank to the wet ground. His throat burned and breathing was a struggle. He gulped at the fresh air and panted. Tanner drew his legs to his chest and rested his brow on his knees. This was no way to treat ones body. He felt Chris nudge his arm and lifted weary eyes in confusion.
“Tanner are you gonna be all right if I leave you for a bit?”
Vin nodded slowly and dropped his head back to his knees.
Chris strode back to the barn worried that the gambler was still inside. “Ezra,” he called, and headed to where he’d last seen the gambler. The burgundy jacket was the first indication he’d found Standish. “Ezra,” he called more urgently when he got no response.
Standish didn’t move, even as Larabee crouched at his side. Chris rolled Ezra over and his heart leapt to his throat. The gambler’s face was pale beneath the dark smudges of soot. Chris couldn’t believe the pained rush of loss that stabbed at his heart, fearing for the Southerner’s life. This conman and gambler was one of them, an integral part of the seven. How had this scheming and conniving gamester managed to worm his way into their lives? Larabee couldn’t bear to lose another member of his family; and that was how he considered each of the six men he rode with – brothers.
Chris lightly touched Ezra’s neck, worried that under the soft touch he wouldn’t find a pulse. And at first he didn’t, but that was because Chris hadn’t pressed his fingers firmly enough to discover the pulsing beat. Once found, Chris set back on his heels and lifted his gaze to the ceiling and whispered a sincere thank-you. “Let’s join Vin,” Larabee sighed as he carried Standish from the barn.
Vin coughed and blanched when Larabee carried a limp Standish out of the barn. “Oh, God…He isn’t…?”
“No,” Chris grunted lowering Ezra to the ground.
The Southerner rolled on his side and drew his knees to his chest. His face was warm from the heat of the fire and his lungs protested violently to the smoke that had been inhaled. Choking on his own saliva, Ezra coughed. And continued to cough, harsh and racking bursts. Gentle hands slipped under his arms and sat him upright, propping him against a supportive chest. Ezra tensed in the hold, and struggled to catch his breath. Fresh blood stained the grubby bandage about his thigh and fine ash dusted his sandy brown hair. He dropped his head forward to his raised knees and clutched his hands into fists.
Chris held onto the Southerner, patting his back in circular motions. He shared a worried glance with the tracker after Standish continued to cough and increased the pounding on the gambler’s back to a more rhythmic beat.
Vin knelt in front of Ezra and lifted his head from his knees. “Easy, Ezra,” Vin soothed. “Just try an’ take a few deep breaths.”
Standish followed the commands and took control of his raged breathing. He wiped at his forehead and grimaced as it cleaned off a dark smudge of charcoal grey. “I’m fine,” he rasped and the two simple words evoked another bout of coughing.
“You will be, soon as you give yer lungs a chance to recover,” Chris smugly replied, squeezing Standish’s shoulder as he stood to his feet. Larabee could feel the slow trickle of blood leak from the wound and run down his back. The bandage was no doubt soaked with sweat and blood, but the fact remained hidden, covered by his black coat.
He could feel the sinister eyes watching their every movement and knew that the killer was biding his time and waiting for them to split up. Well that wasn’t going to happen. They were weak from their injuries, blood loss and lack of sleep, but together they were a formidable team. A force to be reckoned with. They were going to catch the bastard this morning and nothing was going to prevent the inevitable. They were going to win.
Standish’s harsh breathing had grown less noticeable, and his features had gained some colour. Tanner occasionally coughed also, but he thought that both men were now out of danger. “You two ready?” Both Tanner and Standish nodded and Vin snaked an arm about Ezra’s waist and hauled him to his feet.
The black caped killer urged his large grey into a wild dash. Aiming at the group of three he stabbed at the horse’s underbelly, digging his boots deep into the abused horseflesh. The wind whistled past him as he galloped headlong at his victims, flapping the black material and giving him the appearance that he had wings and sailed along the wind. A hoarse cry erupted from him as he continued his charge, bearing down on the stationary men.
The thumping hooves galloped, a mountainous roar in the dawning light. A flash of sunlight reflected off the curved sword that he wielded, arcing back and forth from one side to the other.
+ + + + + + +
Tanner was the first to feel the slight vibrations under his feet. “Rider coming in, fast.”
Larabee turned to face the same direction and casually waited, a sneer of retribution flashing. “He’s mine.”
“I think I have just cause to claim that right,” the Southerner growled, a tone that didn’t go unnoticed by the other pair.
Tanner glanced at the pair and shuffled his boots. “Reckon we all got good reason,” he drawled. And the silent pact was cemented.
The horse charged into view and the regulators, by unspoken consent, remained unmoving. An open invitation, which taunted the black-hooded murderer, and mutilator, into making his first judgemental error. As the grey closed the distance, the heavy snorts from the mount and the heaving sides showed how uncaring of his animal the killer was. A heavy curved sword swung threateningly as he powered down on them.
“Just a little closer…” Chris whispered and risked a quick glance either side of him. Both Ezra and Vin were focused on the approaching rider and beast. A perpetual pause passed. “Now!”
All three, Larabee, Tanner and Standish drew within the same breath and fired on the barrel chest that was somewhere beneath the dark robe. Three bullets echoed as one, abruptly stopping the impassioned ride. The grey, slid to a halt as the impetuous to continue suddenly stopped, and the rider dropped the gleaming weapon, a startled and strangled cry gurgled from his throat. The horse stepped a few nervous steps and the hooded killer was dislodged from the saddle, falling to the ground.
Vin clapped Larabee on the shoulder and a wisp of a smile began to form. He was beginning to get a morbid feeling that one or more of them would not survive the night. A soft chuckle rattled from his chest. “Hell of a night, cowboy.”
“Not wrong there,” the gunslinger agreed. “Thanks for droppin’ by.”
Tanner shrugged. “Glad you and Ezra got some things sorted out.”
Standish crossed the short distance to check the body, to ensure that he was dead, and to reveal what lay hidden under the hood. Smiling broadly, he awkwardly crouched to turn over the body, when his feet were kicked roughly off the ground and he found himself flat on his back with the black robed creature straddling him. Large calloused hands pressed down on his neck, squeezing at his throat. He bucked his hips and attempted to dislodge the mass, but his chest was crushed and fingers dug into his tender flesh, preventing him from drawing in a breath. Ezra wrapped his hands over the large hands that circled his neck and tried to pry them off, but the hooded man smashed his head down on the gambler’s skull causing him to see stars. He vaguely heard Vin and Chris, but their voices seemed so far removed. His eyes bulged and lips had turned blue and a wave of panic had set in. After surviving the night, was this going to be his end?
Vin glanced over his shoulder, and his heart rushed to his mouth. “Chris!” Vin shouted, his fear and desperation conveyed in the single word. He spun on his heels and searched for a weapon. He couldn’t use his gun for fear of hitting Standish. He spied the chopping block and detoured by there, snatching up a hefty log of wood. He yelled a mighty bellow and swung wildly, connecting with the head of the killer. “Get the hell off him!” Stunned, the killer sat back on his haunches, but still straddled Ezra, until another blow knocked him off and to the ground. Vin brought the lump of wood down once more and was satisfied to hear a moan and a distinct crack of bone. Tanner lifted the timber high over his shoulder preparing to bring it to bear once more when he heard the dark menacing voice of Larabee behind him.
The gunslinger rested a calming hand on Tanner’s shoulder. “Only one way ta finish this devil off, Vin.” His Colt, still in hand, rose and with deadly accuracy fired into the body. The hooded killer jerked convulsively as the bullet entered his body. Another bullet followed the first and another until the chambers of the Colt were empty. “That should stop the bastard,” Chris grunted.
The gambler rolled on his side and laboriously lifted to his hands and knees. He rubbed at his bruised neck and panted. A bout of hysteria bubbled to the surface and he wiped the pain and emotion off his face. Standish drew in a fortifying breath in an attempt to regain his composure. Both Tanner and Larabee hovered over the black robed menace, and neither moved to remove the hood. He crawled the short distance and savagely pulled off the hood. Ezra snorted, staggered by the revelation, and he heard the gasp of surprise from both Vin and Chris. “No wonder he kept his face hidden,” Standish chuckled with a giddying sensation. The killer’s face was plastered in ghastly white paint, with deep black wedges drawn about his eyes. A thin band of black spliced across his face, separating the top from the bottom half. And his mouth was rimmed with a pasty brown that looked suspiciously like dried blood.
“Yep,” Vin drew the cape back over, covering the hideous painted white mask. A shudder ran down his spine. This was one sick hombre. At least he wasn’t gonna be hurting anyone else from now on.
Standish wearily sat back on his heels. “I think I’d like to return to town now,” Ezra blandly stated.
Tanner leaned over and patted the Southerner on the back. “Reckon Buck and others will be out here this mornin’ anyhow, to check to see if we ain’t killed each other.” With a sheepish grin he added, “Kinda mentioned we might stop by here the other day.”
“I knew it!” Ezra glared at Tanner, but couldn’t hold the expression. It faltered and with a sigh reverted to one of acceptance. How could he hope to compete? And at least Chris and he were talking.
“Planned huh, Tanner?” The gunslinger mimicked the gambler’s attitude. Chris offered his hand and pulled the gambler to his feet. The leg wound was bleeding profusely and would need to be attended soon. With the gunslinger’s help and Tanner’s they escorted a limping Southerner over to the cabin and settled him in a chair. Larabee collapsed beside the gambler in another chair and let out a groan when his shoulder touched the top of the chair. “And Buck knows?”
Vin glanced from Larabee to Standish and back to Chris. “Worked didn’t it?”
The gunslinger arched his brows in astonishment. “Bring me to town next time.”
Vin grunted and headed for the corral, whistling a spritely tune as he left. “Reckon I’ll go clean this up, afore the boys turn up.”
Chris watched Vin’s lean figure walk away. “Could do with a drink right about now.”
Ezra leaned forward in his seat and smiled lazily, but his green eyes flashed with mischief. “Well, there is this.” He withdrew a bottle from inside his coat and held it up for inspection. A slow smile greeted Chris’ lips.
“You been raiding my stock again, Standish?”
“I could return it,” he hedged.
The tracker strolled fluidly, smiling with half an ear to the conversation behind him. They were going to be stronger as a team now that his friends had reached an understanding. He’d achieved the impossible. That was how Nathan had described his plan when he first put it to them. Of course, he hadn’t bargained on the murdering bastard when he developed the idea. Still, it all worked out, save for this fellow’s decapitation. But there was nought they could have done for him. He gingerly sliced the bindings of the burnt victim and let the headless body fall. The least they could do was find out his name and let his family know he was dead and bury him. That might take a little investigative work to discover his identity, but he deserved to be buried with a name on his headstone. There had to be some way of finding out his name and where he came from.
Vin disappeared into the barn and returned with the oilcloth and the head. He wrapped them together and tied it with a rope to prevent the cloth from falling open. The last thing they needed was JD seeing the corpse. That was something he would endeavour to spare the youngster. He dragged the body over the hitching rail and returned to the barn in search of a second oilcloth to wrap the dark creature. If he couldn’t find one then a blanket would suffice. His body involuntarily shuddered as his mind drifted over the horrific night he’d endured with Larabee and Standish.
+ + + + + + +
Tanner approached the cabin and found Ezra and Chris more relaxed then he could ever recall, even though they were both sporting injuries. Vin winced as he looked at the gambler’s neck and the distinctive bruising that was starting to show. Standish, under scrutiny, tugged on the collar of his shirt to cover the marks. Ezra offered the bottle of whiskey, but Vin shook his head and frowned.
“Why the long face, Mr. Tanner?” Ezra inquired.
“He’s gone,” Vin dumbly answered.
Chris and Ezra glanced past the tracker in search of the missing body. Their eyes widened in disbelief. The murderer was indeed gone.
“I ain’t touched ‘im,” Vin clarified. “Just finished fixing the other fella and came to do him, but he weren’t there.” Chris stood and sighed deeply. “Horse is missing too,” Vin finished.
“Any tracks?” Chris rubbed at his brow and cursed.
“Not a one. Like he vanished into thin air.”
“A spectre,” Ezra drawled. “He should have been killed when we shot him off his horse, but he wasn’t. Now he’s walked away with at least eight bullets in him.”
“So yer saying this didn’t happen?” Tanner questioned.
“Oh it happened, all right.”
“Then what?” Chris tempered.
Standish shook his head, unable to explain further. “I don’t know.”
“We’re going home,” Chris stood, not intending to wait for Wilmington to arrive. “Tanner, saddle the horses.”
Continues in Jumping at Shadows
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