Follows Spectral Shadows and Jumping at Shadows
Webmaster Note: this story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2009.
Larabee spun around, sniffing at the air searching for smoke. "Vin, do ya see--" But Tanner was already sprinting past him. "Aw hell!" Chris broke into a run hot on Vin's heels. The church bells bellowed, calling the town to alert.
"Damn, damn, damn!" As Tanner passed the mercantile store, he snagged a bucket from the display and kept running. He had the bucket plunged into the trough and filled in one quick motion, following through with spraying the contents over his wagon. "Fire!" he screamed, retracing his steps and filling the bucket. He emptied the water over his home and went for more. "My wagon. . . why the hell's it got ta be my wagon?" he muttered.
Vin filled the bucket again and jumped through the back end of his wagon tossing the water forwards. It sizzled when it came in contact with the flames, but it made little impression on the hungry fire and the heat drove him back. Smoke billowed out and the timber frame crackled. The heavy canvas cover smouldered as the fire ate along the wooden ridging.
"Tanner, get out of there!" Chris hollered from outside, shaking his head wryly as Vin jumped out. He nodded grimly to Josiah and Nathan. "We need to move this wagon away from the other buildings," he shouted to be heard.
Wilmington slapped him on the back, arriving with JD from the sheriff's office. "We'll take care of that."
"You there," Josiah pointed at several townsfolk standing back and simply watching. "I need a bucket brigade and some backs behind shovels!" he ordered. Many of the menfolk of Four Corners dropped what they'd been doing and joined in. They didn't need to be asked twice. They all feared how a fire could spread, leaping from store to store and house to house. The town could disappear in a blink of an eye.
Vin dipped the bucket in the trough, took a step back and stopped. "What the hell." He jumped fully clothed in the trough and rolled in the narrow tub. He held his breath and ducked his head below the surface. He was wringing wet when he climbed out. Vin returned with a full bucket spraying it at the wagon and vaulting inside again. He could save a few of his things, but not if he waited for the fire to consume the simple structure. He tossed out whatever he could grab. Several items sailed through the air landing on the sunbaked road. A heavy wooden chest, already burning on the lid was dropped over the backend with a thud. The wagon moved, lurching precariously, and Vin lost his footing and grunted. "Argg!"
"Tanner!" Larabee hurdled over the box and reached inside grabbing hold of a boot. "Get yer ass out here!" He pulled back and literally dragged Vin from inside the wagon. "Ya plannin' on roastin'?"
Tanner bent over at his knees and coughed. "Was comin' out."
Larabee sighed. They'd worked together, pulling the burning wagon to the middle of the road, away from the buildings, doused it with water, and plied it with sand, but Vin's wagon had no chance of surviving the day. At least he'd managed to save a few possessions.
Once the fire was extinguished, the townspeople involved gradually drifted away once they were satisfied that it wasn't going to spread further.
"Sorry, Vin." Wilmington wiped a dark smudge off his face and shook his head.
"Thanks, Buck. Boys." Tanner sighed, looking at the smouldering remains, feeling disappointed, but also relief. It could have been so much worse. The wagon had been a place to hang his boots. . . somewhere to sleep, nothing more. Some clothes and bedding. His tack was at the livery. Everything of real value, he carried with him at all times. And the wagon could be replaced. Maybe this time he might get a room. . . something a little more permanent. His hand itched and he rubbed it on the back of his pants, wincing as he did so.
"Yer hand burnt, Vin?" Nathan asked, noticing the tracker's frown.
"Ain't bad," he confirmed.
"Come up ta the clinic and I'll put a salve on it."
"Thanks, Nathan." Vin gave his wagon a last forlorn look before following Nathan.
Larabee resisted the urge to follow the pair to the clinic, but he trusted the healer to treat Vin's injury. And if he were hurt worse, Nathan would have said so. Chris frowned at the burnt wagon. He glanced up and down the street, searching for the culprit who'd started the blaze. Usually, in his estimation, they liked to stand back and watch the turmoil they'd caused, but there were only the casual glances cast over the wagon. He'd left it too late. The perpetrator was probably long gone now, if it hadn't been an accident. Chris thinned his lips and continued his perusal of the town; something he'd missed. . . "Where's Standish?" Chris asked, only now realising the gambler was absent.
"Ezra! Where the hell have you been?" Larabee shouted at the gambler as he exited the livery. He grabbed the gambler by the jacket and swung him about to face him. Chris, surprised by his current condition, shoved Standish back so he could get a better look. A dark dirty smudge graced the conman's jaw; No it wasn't dirt. . . it was in fact a bruise. His hands were stained and his knuckles bruised. And the usually immaculately dressed man was dusty and his burgundy coat sleeve torn.
Standish glared at the gunslinger. As if he didn't know. "I've been following your directives," he snapped, stalking off to the saloon in resentment. God, what a miserable day. A fool's errand. Larabee's instructions read simply; Check out the Wilson's place for squatters and move them on.' A two-story ranch house. Ezra had inspected the outer buildings first and then moved on to the abandoned home. It had been left abandoned for a very good reason. . . it was riddled with termites. Ezra had dutifully inspected the lower rooms before the floor in the kitchen collapsed beneath him. He'd then spent half the day crawling and clambering his way out of that hole. He definitely needed a change of clothing and then a bath. And a good stiff drink. "For your information, there are no vagrants, squatters, settlers or children within the vicinity."
"What the devil are you jawin' about?"
Standish continued on, mumbling. "Didn't even have the decency to make the request in person. . . sent a damned note!"
Chris stood dumbfounded, truly taken back with the gambler's tirade. And was Standish limping? "Tanner's wagon was burnt down."
Ezra stopped abruptly and turned around. "Is Vin injured?"
"He weren't inside. . . " Well not when the fire started at least. . . damn fool.
"Ahhh. . . " Standish strolled back to the man in black. "And because I was absent from town at the time, naturally I am the culprit?" Ezra deepened his scowl. "How typical," he said, and left Larabee standing in the street.
"What? Who put a hornet up yer backside?" Standish ignored him and this made Chris more irate. Ezra made it through the swinging doors before Chris caught up with him and had more to say. "So, where were you?"
"Is your mind deteriorating with old age?" he queried, tempting fate by mouthing off, but the thought of retribution didn't inhibit him, since he was already on a roll. "I was out at the Wilson's abandoned accommodations as per your stipulation. Your written stipulation," he emphasized, with derision.
Chris arched his eyebrows. "I ain't left ya any notes. And there's no way I'd send anyone out there, least not alone. That place is a death-trap. . . "
"Indeed," Standish drawled walking slowly to the staircase. He held on to the railing, feeling every ache and pain in his bruised and battered body as he climbed the stairs.
Chris frowned at the gambler and followed. He was almost tempted to offer a hand to the gambler as he faulted up the steps. Why the hell would Ezra think it was him who'd sent this note? Why didn't Standish check with him first? "When was I supposed ta have given ya this note?"
Standish sighed, reaching the top of the stairs. "It was slipped under my door. . . "
"Weren't from me. . . "
Ezra shrugged, throwing open his door and stamping into his room. Oh sure, deny it now. Who else would have sent it? It was Larabee's script. . . wasn't it? Damn. . . he hadn't taken that much notice. . . but it had been signed-- Chris Larabee. But as Larabee had said, he wouldn't send any of them out there. And if it wasn't Chris. . . who sent it? "What? It just miraculously appeared?" He threw his hat on his armoire, his face livid with anger. He'd had all day to stew and now he wanted some answers. "And you had nothing to. . . " he broke off mid sentence, frozen, his eyes widening in alarm. He held his breath not daring to breathe. But it didn't prevent his throat tightening or his galloping heartbeat. Aw hell!
"Don't move," Larabee warned, slowly drawing his Colt. "No sudden movements, Ezra."
Ezra lifted his eyebrows and glared at him. As if. Just shoot it!
Larabee stepped cautiously over the threshold; his arm came up to take aim at the thick-bodied water moccasin. It sprang forward aggressively, the white insides of its mouth showing off the poisonous fangs. Chris squeezed off a shot and his accuracy had the reptile dead on the floor, before it could strike Standish. But it had been close.
Ezra stood, rooted to the spot. He licked his lipped nervously. Hell, he despised snakes! And it hadn't escaped his attention that this breed of snake belonged in water and shouldn't by rights be here. Someone had gone to an awful lot of trouble. But why? Last week it was a room filled with horse manure, then the message in Chaucer's stall, now it was slithering reptiles. The reason for his anger toward Chris was driven from his mind. "I need a drink." He swept by Chris, pausing momentarily. "Thank-you."
Ezra Standish paused at the swinging doors, looking out at the night sky. A sliver of moon yawned in the heavens and in a week's time it would be a full moon. The time of month that seemed to bring out all kinds of lunacy and fanatics. Behind him the raucous laughter and clink of glass echoed in the saloon, but even the familiar environment couldn't dispel his unsettled mood. He stepped out onto the boardwalk and took up a seat on the bench. He lounged back against the wall, giving the impression, to anyone watching, that he was relaxed and contented. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To top everything off, he'd received a wire from his mother that morning. And he hadn't heard word from her in months. That was not unusual. But her sending a message by telegraph informing him that she was sending three tickets to St Louis and they would arrive via the stage was distinctly out of character for his mother. But she was always doing something out of the ordinary to keep him on his toes. He only needed to send a return wire to confirm, but to do so would either prove it to be wrong, or worse, if it is indeed genuine, have her rescind her offer. What to do? He certainly relished the idea of vacating the town for a while. It had been a particularly trying time of late contending with the frequent. . . pranks being thrown his way. And the others always denied doing them. He flinched as Vin Tanner jumped onto the walkway, leaning against a support. He hadn't seen, or heard Vin's approach. "Mr. Tanner," Ezra drawled, quickly recovering his equilibrium.
"Word about town says you encountered some trouble earlier today?" Standish looked pointedly at Vin's bandaged hand. Didn't Larabee say Vin had not been injured?
"Prob'ly j'st kids." Vin saw where the gambler's attention had strayed. "Small burn. Nathan gave me some salve ta put on it. Hear ya ain't had such a great day neither."
"That why ya out here hidin'?" He'd laughed with the others when Standish complained of the pile of horseshit dumped in his room; they'd all thought it a harmless prank, but no one had owned up to it. But Cottonmouths were another thing. And there'd been three more inside Ezra's room, besides the one Chris shot, and they were all fully-grown, too. Larabee had found the others after the gambler had left. Ezra could've been bit. He could have died in his own room.
"Nothing of the sort," Standish rebuked. "I'm. . . enjoying the scenery."
Vin snorted, looking over his shoulder and taking in the view Standish had been staring at. "Ain't much ta look at. I'm takin' a room at the Gem tonight. Mightn't be a bad idea if ya do the same."
He'd been contemplating the same idea. "I was given the impression that Josiah offered you respite."
Vin shook his head and grinned. "Ain't ya heard Josiah snore?"
A glint of amusement shone in his eyes. "Indeed," Standish chuckled.
Tanner scuffed his boots on the wooden boardwalk. He clicked his tongue, wondering how he should address his thoughts.
Standish watched the Texan's turmoil. If Ezra had been in a more frivolous mood he might have harassed Tanner, but he was tired. "Vin. . . " Tanner met his eyes. "Just ask."
Vin nodded and sighed. "Heard yer ma is payin' for three train tickets ta St Louis."
Of course. . . who hadn't heard? Dunne had been breakfasting with him when he received the wire. "Mr. Dunne should have been a woman."
"The way he propagates gossip," Standish clarified causing the tracker to shake with laughter.
Tanner wasn't exactly sure what the word propagate' meant, but he got the point and it was funny. "Everybody's been talkin' about it." Along with his wagon going up in flames and the snakes in Standish's room. Hell, there was far too much talk about them at the moment.
"I gather by your presence that you are angling for one of them?" Ezra arched his eyebrows. He'd been planning on asking Tanner to join him, but as yet hadn't determined whom the remaining ticket should go to. JD had certainly been keen. But Josiah's company would be agreeable too.
"That would depend on our illustrious leader."
"Chris ain't gonna stop ya." Why would Ezra think that? Unless it's an excuse not to go.
That's debatable. "Yes, I would like to take the opportunity to visit Mother in St Louis, especially since she is covering the costs. That occasion doesn't avail itself very often." In fact, he was hard-pressed to ever remember a time. . .
"Yer gonna want some comp'ny." Vin grinned, his smile infectious. "Long way ta go on yer own," he reasoned. "And we wouldn't want ya gettin' lost." Standish needed some support when he came face to face with the elderly con-woman. He could also ensure that Ezra returned, unharmed, to Four Corners. Vin would face travel in a sweltering stage and train and visiting a city to protect his friend.
"I have travelled many miles unaccompanied in the past." That was certainly true. He'd been shuffled about the country since he was a child; a majority of those trips were very long and extremely lonely. When Maude had finished a con, or required him no more in the use of a con, Standish had been put on the first stage out of town. Those were very frightening times, making a journey over unknown land to relatives he didn't know. He soon learned how to mask his feeling of trepidation, and invariably became quite adept at masquerading as the seasoned traveller he had been forced to become.
"If'n ya don't want comp'ny--"
"Vin," Ezra paused, crossing his legs at the ankles. "Would you like to visit St Louis?"
There was a prolonged silence between the pair. Vin rubbed his rough chin and stared up at night sky. He didn't want to put Ezra in the position of feeling he had to invite him. Well he did. . . but, he didn't want Standish to figure that out. "I dunno, Ezra. . . don't want ta put ya out or nothin'. . . and if'n yer figurin' on taking someone else--"
"Damn it, Tanner!" Standish cursed, thumping his fist down bench seat.
The tracker smiled broadly at Ezra's show of frustration. It was so rare to see this side of the Southerner. "Reckon I could come."
Ezra nodded with acceptance. The tickets weren't due to arrive until later in the week, that gave him a few days to convince Chris that he and Vin, and likely one other of the seven, would be departing Four Corners for several months. Oh joy!
"So who else ya gonna ask?"
"I haven't determined that as yet, although JD has made it very apparent that he'd be partial to come." Whomever he chose, the others left were bound to feel disappointed. He wondered if Maude had been more suspect than he'd originally thought in providing him with only three tickets. He wouldn't put it past her to drive a wedge between their tight knit group. Divide and Conquer? He could have, if it hadn't already become public knowledge, paid for another ticket, several others in fact, but thanks to JD, everyone in town knew he only had three tickets on offer. He should never have disclosed the contents to Dunne.
"How ya gonna decide?"
Ezra threw back his head and laughed. "I may resort to drawing the names out of a hat."
"That'll work," Tanner chuckled.
Larabee dropped the front of the chair down on four legs, his eyes following the progression of a wagon being guided through town. The lines deepened in his forehead as he recognised JD as the driver and his horse tagging along behind. He spat the stub of the cheroot out, stamping it out as he stood.
"Mr. Larabee," JD waved, signalling the gunslinger to come over. He stopped the vehicle in front of the jail.
"Thought you and Buck were out on patrol?" Where was Wilmington?
"Hey, stud," Wilmington elbowed himself higher in the wagon, grimacing as he did so and hugging his ribs.
"What's goin' on? You hurt, Buck?"
"Not real bad," he glared at Dunne's snickering. "Cinch snapped up on Bullet's Pass. Took a header part way down it."
Chris leaned over the sides of the wagon, checking for himself that Wilmington was not hurt badly. "Anything broke?"
"Nah." Don't reckon the ribs are broke leastwise, probably just bruised.
JD was sniffing back the tears of laugher. "He landed on a cactus, got a whole bunch of needles in his--"
"JD," Buck hissed, slapping his hat at Dunne and missing. "Don't want the whole flaming town ta know."
Chris grinned, shaking his head. "Ya best get up ta Nathan's, see what he can do. This Nettie's wagon?"
"Yeah. . . I promised ta take it back."
"Vin can take it. He's goin' out that way later."
"That'd be good, thanks," JD sighed. As much as he thought it was incredibly funny Buck having a backside full of cacti needles, he needed Nathan's reassurance that Wilmington had escaped with only a few bruises and scratches. He'd also taken a good blow to the head and been knocked out for twenty minutes before JD could rouse him. That probably scared him the worst, but Buck had made light of it, saying he had a hard head and that he didn't even have a headache. Not that Dunne believed at word of it. Even if it was the truth, the ladies' man wasn't going to be doing much more than lying down for the next week. And he certainly wasn't going to be up to riding. Or sitting. But he'd probably find a way to take advantage of that.
"Where's Buck's horse?" Chris asked JD.
"Damn mule got spooked and took off after he tossed me," Buck cursed.
"This yer saddle?" Chris hefted it from the wagon. He examined the cinch suspiciously, expecting to find it sliced through, but it was frayed. But someone who knew what they were doing could have easily made it look like that. . . Where had that thought come from?
Wilmington saw Larabee fingering the strap. "It broke, Chris."
Larabee shrugged, unsure of anything at the moment and unable to prove otherwise. "I'll go scout around for yer horse. Ya go see Nathan."
"'Ppreciate it, Chris."
Larabee leaned over the railing, looking down on Josiah astride his big bay. "Josiah?"
Sanchez glanced up. "Chris. I'm gonna be gone for a few days. . . maybe a week, could be longer."
Chris could read the worry in the preacher's face and his impatience to leave. "Where ya headed?"
"Vista City. . . I can't tell ya any more."
"Ya comin' back?"
"I'll be back." Sanchez saluted and kneed his mount into motion.
Chris Larabee paused on the clinic veranda, watching Josiah's dust fade into the distance and grinned. He couldn't have planned it better himself. He raised his knuckles to knock on the clinic door, but heard voices inside. JD was visiting with Buck, and their conversation had Chris listening at the closed door.
"Ezra ain't gonna ask me ever again," JD complained. "I always wanted to visit St Louis. . . well lots of other places really, but we never had the money to spare when mama was alive. And I really did want ta go. It woulda been awesome!"
"Ain't no reason for ya to be stayin'. Specially on account of me. Go. Take Ezra up on the offer."
There was a long silence between the pair. "I can't," JD sighed. He felt so guilty even thinking about leaving since Wilmington had been hurt. But he also worried about not being able to go with Standish. It was one friend or the other. . . how was he going to choose? He'd figured if he went to St Louis, then no matter what happened between Ezra and his ma, JD would be able to convince the gambler to return. Not that he'd told any of the others that. And especially not Ezra. "But what if Ezra decides ta stay on, and not come back?"
"That why ya wanted ta go? To make sure he came home." Buck leaned back on the pillows finding it hard to get comfortable.
JD flushed at being so easy to predict.
"Ain't nothin' ya can say to a man who's already made up his mind."
"But if I was there--"
"Vin's goin'. Reckon he'll be doin' the same thing."
"JD. Buck," Chris Larabee greeted, choosing that moment to enter.
"Morning, Mr. Larabee."
"How ya doin', Buck?"
Wilmington grinned at his oldest friend. "Just waitin' on the ladies ta come visitin'. Ya find my horse?"
"Back at the livery, and he ain't hurt."
"That's good. Thanks, Chris."
"I've got a job for ya, JD." Larabee had given this a great deal of thought. . . it couldn't be anything too dangerous -- or Buck would be on his case, but it needed to keep JD interested and in town. And Judge Travis had offered him the perfect solution.
"Really?" Dunne asked excitedly. It wasn't often Chris chose him for a job. "What do ya need me ta do?"
"Travis' niece is comin' to town and he wants you to show her around. . . keep an eye on her. . . and keep her out of trouble."
"Ah Um. . . Well, I guess I could do that," he mumbled a little uncertainly, looking to Wilmington in confusion. "That's if Casey don't mind."
Wilmington snorted. "Hell, I'd be willin' to sacrifice my health to look after the little filly, if yer not up to it."
"Shut-up, Buck! He wasn't asking you. When's she comin'?"
"Beginning of next week. You'll be doing Travis a huge favour."
"Might be the prettiest little thing this side of the border," Buck winked.
"It is gonna mean you staying in town," Larabee felt the necessity to point out.
"Oh. . . I had told Ezra I was goin' with him to. . . but this seems really important too. . . " JD had momentarily forgotten about the trip in his excitement, but realised he also didn't feel so cut up about it now. The decision had been a difficult one for him to make and it eased his conscience having Chris make it for him. Besides, what would he have done while Ezra and his ma were planning out all the details for the new casino? He would have been left to his own devises. "And the judge is payin' me to protect the town, so I can hardly say no." There'd be another time one big city was the same as another.
"Well good. Glad that's settled." Now he needed to have a word in Vin's ear. . . get the ball rolling more in his direction.
"Thanks, Chris," Buck mouthed over the top of JD's head. He hadn't been that keen on Dunne travelling all the way to St Louis, without him being able to watch over the youth. It was much better this way.
Ezra squeezed the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes against the throbbing headache. The pulsing beat of the locomotive rocked him sideways and the steady rumble echoed in his mind. The carriage was shared exclusively by the three lawmen and was set up formally to cater to dining and sleeping. It was spacious and pleasantly decorated and stationed at the rear of the train, only the engineer's caboose was behind them. Earlier they had been waited on and served a three-course dinner. Maude had been very generous with the purchase of their first-class tickets. That alone should have caused Ezra to ponder the offer more seriously. Perhaps he had, but was so desperate for the offer to be true that he'd put aside his misgivings.
Standish gazed unenthusiastically out the moving window, the scenery skipped rapidly by, not even filtering through his dark mood. He despised being manipulated and had he not been so preoccupied he would have recognised a con when one was being played. After all, he was a master at such deception. And it irked him that Chris and Vin, had resorted to such tactics. Standish passed an assessing gaze over his two companions. Why had they been so adamant about coming? Not that they directly came out and said as much, but they had gone to particular lengths to guarantee their inclusion. The whole situation had him mystified. And he was tired of waiting for their motives to be revealed.
Vin had been Ezra's first choice and then he'd approached JD about making the trip together. He'd been content with his selections, until Buck's untimely accident. JD wouldn't be budged from town until Wilmington was fully back on his feet, and Standish understood that entirely. Then there was the mysterious niece of Travis, who JD had promised to escort around town and she wasn't arriving until next week. Ezra couldn't wait that long. Of course Buck was out of the question, with his delicate injury and then Josiah received word from the Nuns in Vista City. He assumed that had something to do with his sister, Hannah. Once again, Standish couldn't counter fate. The gambler had been content to allow the final ticket to not be redeemed. After all, he didn't need two travelling companions. But when Ezra had confronted Vin with the changes, the tracker had suggested Larabee joining them.
"I know who'd like to come," Vin had urged. At Standish's raised eyebrows the tracker continued. "Chris. . . "
Standish sighed in resignation. "If you would like Mr. Larabee's companionship, then by all means. . . please ask him."
"Nope!" Tanner had firmly resolved. "Gotta come from you."
Standish groaned at the prospect of inviting the sombre gunslinger. There was no way in hell he was going to offer the third ticket to Chris Larabee! He closed his eyes, recalling the conversation he'd then had with Chris in Four Corners.
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra began apprehensively. He'd put off the inevitable for two days. "Maude has seen fit to invite myself to St Louis to assist with the establishment of her new enterprise. She has purchased a casino and requests a measure of my time to organise the new administration. I realise that you probably consider her capable of managing this transaction without my presence; and she more than likely is," he admitted ruefully, boasting a modicum of pride in his Mother. "But, I would like to render my assistance in this instance." How often had Maude Standish asked for his opinion on anything, let alone requested his help? He leaned rigidly against the post, unable to bring himself to meet the gunslinger in the eye. "I would be absent for a month. . . perhaps two." Standish braved a quick look and was unsettled by Larabee's intense scrutiny. Ezra licked his bottom lip and pressed on. "Mother has also generously supplied two additional fully paid fares from Ridge City to St Louis." As if Chris didn't already know this. Surely he'd heard the talk.
Larabee had folded his arms and leaned back on the chair. It seemed like minutes before the gunslinger replied and in that time Ezra had seen a multitude of emotions shift across the blond's face. "And?" he'd asked, as though bored with the whole affair.
Standish deftly handed the remaining ticket to Chris. Words had failed him; he couldn't voice the request asking the gunman to join him, especially as he wasn't certain why he was even offering it. Vin was the one who wanted Larabee along, not him.
Chris frowned at the slip of paper and brought his chair back down onto four legs with a jolt. "Yer givin' it to me?"
Ezra rubbed his hands together in discomfort and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Yes."
"Why?" he asked suspiciously.
Standish threw his hands up in the air and retorted angrily; "If you don't care to accept it, then I'll offer it to--" Who? "-- Someone else," he finished feebly. He made an abortive attempt to reclaim the train ticket.
Larabee snatched it to his chest, surprising Ezra by the possessiveness. "Vin's goin'?" Ezra nodded in confirmation. "Reckon I'll go too. Need someone ta watch his back."
Standish bristled at the gunslinger's off the wall remark. It stung. . . the lack of faith was like a fist to the gut. He was perfectly capable of protecting the tracker's back and had every intention of doing that.
But was there more to Chris' subterfuge than met the eye? Ezra suspected so. And it was Vin who suggested inviting Larabee along. So why had Standish agreed? He couldn't even answer that question. He certainly didn't need Larabee along, but there had been a determination to Tanner's request that had prompted him to do so. And he had acquiesced. It stood to reason that they would want to protect each other's backs; after all, Larabee and Tanner were close friends.
Ezra watched Chris and Vin arguing good-naturedly over a game of checkers. He had no reason to resent Larabee and Tanner their unique bond, but he felt alienated by it. They had been, thus far, enjoying their journey. The stage ride from Four Corners, and the single night that they'd stayed in Ridge City, and now the train. Larabee, in particular had been relaxed, and smiling more often. Pity Ezra's own mood wasn't as light. He couldn't explain why he was so uncomfortable with the situation. But there was a persistent feeling of dread that resided in his gut and he couldn't put his finger on it.
But it was definitely there.
Chris Larabee picked up the counter and jumped it over two of Tanner's men. He grinned slyly, daring the tracker to challenge him. With an exaggerated slowness, he removed Vin's counters off the board and dumped them on a growing pile in front of him. "Ain't got many left."
"Only need one ta whip yer ass, cowboy."
Chris bristled at the use of the word cowboy, but let the remark slide for now. "Ain't gonna have even the one left soon, Tanner."
Vin stared at the board for a full minute, contemplating his next move. He winked, and a lazy grin spread over his features. Picking up the red disk, Vin jumped it over two of his opponent's men, finishing on the opposite side of the board. "Crown me!" he whooped, scooping his captives off the board and leaving Larabee with four discs. "Still reckon yer gonna win?"
"Ain't finished yet," Chris growled, sliding his counter to another square.
The tracker pursed his lips in concentration, frowning when he realised he'd have to forfeit one of his counters to make another move. He rubbed his hand over his jaw while he weighed up all the possibilities.
"He's awful quiet, ain't he?" Chris nodded in the Southerner's direction.
Tanner turned in his seat and glanced at the reclining gambler and wondered what was going through his mind. "Yeah. He ain't hardly said a word since we left Four Corners, and he's said even less since we've got on this train. Ya don't reckon there is more to his visitin' Maude than he's made out?"
"Reckon there's a whole lot more goin' on than any of us knows." Yet.
"What cha chinwaggin' about, Larabee?"
Chris shrugged, not willing to voice his notion of unease. The same gut gripping awareness he'd had for the last number of days. "Nothin' I know f'r sure. No need ta worry Ezra, though."
"I ain't about ta tell Ezra how ya conned him out of that ticket."
"Strange as it is. . . I reckon he already knows. I can't figure why he went along with it so easy."
"Maybe he don't know. . . "
Chris arched his eyebrows in a speculative manner. "Nope. . . he knows."
Tanner shrugged. He didn't see anything wrong with Maude's invite, but there was no telling what the older con-woman was capable of doing when she set her mind to it. "We gonna let him brood all the way there?"
Standish watched as the two peacekeepers abandoned the checker game and pushed back their chairs. He'd seen the circumspect glances in his direction and gathered they'd been discussing him. "It appears as if my introspection has come to an end," he muttered. "Gentlemen," he drawled, stretching in the cushioned seat and sitting straighter. "How was your game?"
Tanner dropped down on the seat beside him. "Reckon we called it quits."
"Tanner was losing."
Vin shot a dark look of annoyance at the gunslinger, but Chris ignored it. "Ya been awful quiet."
"That's not what I'm usually accused of," he answered with a grin. Damn! Had he been that transparent?
"We ain't accusin' ya of anythin'," Vin was quick to defend.
Standish licked his bottom lip and studied his companions thoughtfully. "A poor choice of words. My apologies."
"Figured ya might want ta join us," Larabee asked.
"That is a very generous offer, but three-sided checkers seems a little too unmanageable." Vin elbowed him in the ribs, pushing him against the carriage wall. "Mr. Tanner," he admonished.
Tanner chuckled. "Ya gonna deal some cards?"
Ezra glanced from Tanner to Larabee and back to the tracker. Were they serious? Only one way to find out. He might even get some answers to those questions that had been bothering him. An amused gleam entered his eyes and a deceptive grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. "And the stakes would be?"
The gunslinger sighed loudly, but Vin thrust a handful of peanuts onto the seat between them. "Peanuts!" he smirked, throwing one high in the air and catching it in his mouth.
Ezra groaned. "Good Lord!" Vin slapped him on the back and returned to the table, clearing off the checkerboard. "I'm surrounded by Neanderthals."
"Poor Neanderthals," Chris tossed back.
Chris woke with a start, his breath catching in his throat and forcing him to swallow the painful lump to keep from uttering a noise. His heart drummed loudly in his ears and his forehead glazed over with perspiration; he wondered what it was that had woken him. Glancing about the carriage, in the subdued lighting, he could barely make out the sleeping forms of Tanner and Standish. But both men were sound asleep; it could not have been them. The fine hairs at the back of his neck stood up on end, and it was with effort he held his breath, straining to hear anything unusual within the carriage.
Larabee dropped his hand over the edge of the long couch; his fingers crawled along the floor until they curled around his Peacemaker. He palmed the cold metal and rested it on his chest, circling his thumb on the hammer in anticipation and emitting a chilling click in the dead quiet. Slowly the gunslinger slid off the makeshift bed and crouched, his shoulders tense and muscles prepared to spring into action, all his senses heightened and on alert. He moved stealthily around the cabin in the darkness, his bare feet silent on the panelled boards. "Vin," he hissed, following it quickly by calling the gambler's name.
Vin, never a heavy sleeper, blinked back the wash of sleep instantly snapped open his eyes coming immediately alert. The click of gun metal followed by Chris' call woke him. He cautiously slipped of his bed. The rumble of the carriage groaned and swayed as he eased from the sleeping booth. He tapped the slumbering gambler on the arm as he dropped past Ezra's booth. "Chris?" he whispered into the darkness, curiously alarmed at the silence that returned. Tanner sought his sawn off Winchester and made a scan of the poorly lit room.
Ezra awoke more slowly, sluggishly pushing back the covers and the last vestiges of sleep. He rubbed roughly at his face and winced at the grit that had lodged in the corners of his eyes. He felt, rather than saw, Tanner move around the ornate carriage, and sat up straining his eyesight to fathom why he'd been awakened. "Vin?" Why had the tracker woken him? Resting back on his elbows, the Southerner studied the gently swaying carriage. He was on the verge of returning to his pillow when he heard a crash and reacted instantly, bolting from the bed.
"Vin?" he called more urgently. Standish frowned; he wasn't alarmed, but certainly concerned as to why Vin had not answered. Using his hands as a guide Ezra shuffled toward the source of the crash. "Chris?" he called softly, wondering why the gunman hadn't joined in the search. "Gentlemen?" he hissed, anxious for any reply. A knot formed in his stomach, wondering momentarily if the two lawmen were foxing with him, and for what purpose. His insecurities gained momentum -- had this been the ultimate scheme? "Gentlemen, this is far from amusing."
The skin on his bare chest quivered as a blast of night air met his flesh. He spun quickly, startled by the gust of wind inside the carriage and in his haste tripped over an obstacle on the floor. With a grunt, his leg twisted under him and Ezra landed with a thump, knocking his knee on the timber floor and catching his chin on the object.
"Yep," Tanner grunted, wincing beneath the Southerner. "C'n say that again, pard. Get off me."
The carriage erupted into a deceptive daylight, causing both lawmen to shield their eyes from the flare of light.
"Ya'll right?" Chris grinned at the tangled pair on the carriage floor.
"Ya got somethin' on yer mind, Chris?" Tanner asked, climbing to his feet and rubbing at his chest, which had taken the brunt of Standish's weight.
Larabee glanced about the carriage; it appeared exactly the same as it had when they turned out the light a few hours ago. He coughed, chagrined at his vigilance. A flush rose on his cheeks and he reluctantly uncocked the hammer of his Colt. "Reckon it was just my imagination," he grimaced sheepishly. Though a moment ago, his suspicions had been raised and it was with great effort he pushed aside these feelings.
"And what, pray tell, did your mind, conjure up?" the gambler asked, a dimpled grin spread widely showing he was plainly amused by Larabee's discomfit. If he was going to be woken from his beauty sleep, he may as well hear the reasons behind the interruption.
Larabee ran his fingers through his hair, brushing the blond locks off his face. He flushed uncomfortably under their scrutiny. They would think he was losing his edge if he told them. But what if it was real? He stole a glance about the railcar, searching for a reasonable explanation. "Reckon it was nothin'. Thought I heard the door openin'," he muttered. Could have been dreaming it, he reasoned, though the explanation didn't sit well with the gunman. Both Vin and Ezra immediately glanced in the direction of the doors at either end of the carriage. Attempting to lighten the mood and shake off the chill he tried to divert their attention. "What were ya both doing lyin' on the floor?"
"Mr. Tanner was laying in ambush--"
"He tripped over me," Tanner chuckled.
"A little warning wouldn't have gone astray," Ezra rebuked. "What were you doing on the floor?"
The grin disappeared from Vin's face and he looked suspiciously at Chris. "Reckon I was pushed," he hesitantly admitted, wondering if it had been Larabee's idea of a joke.
Chris frowned; noticing the wary look the tracker was giving him. "Yer sure? Cause it weren't me." He looked at Standish and the gambler quickly shook his head. This seemed to give more credence to his theory that the door was opened. He crossed to the door and turned the handle -- it was locked from the inside. "Ezra, want to check the other one?"
"It appears to be likewise engaged."
"Reckon it's nothin' to worry over. Might as well get some more shuteye," Chris suggested, picking up the blanket that was bundled up at the end of his bed. Not that he'd get anymore. Let the others rest up, no sense worrying them -- yet. But someone had been inside their cabin, and for whatever reason he didn't know. It might have only been the steward, but wouldn't he have knocked on the door or turned up the lamp. Or apologised for knocking a passenger over? And why hadn't Chris heard him leave? Both Ezra and Vin were awake by then, why hadn't they heard anything? And the doors were still locked, too. It would be best to leave further investigation until daylight, then he could give the carriage a thorough going over.
Standish remained unmoved. Did he dare add his impressions? Would Tanner and Larabee believe him? They were returning to their bunks; he needed to act now if he was going to say anything. "I experienced. . . a squall."
"A what?" Vin mouthed to Chris.
Vin snorted. "Reckon it coulda felt like that when ya were fallin' over me."
"In this instance I can't agree," the Southerner argued, "as it occurred before I encountered you, Vin."
Chris was beginning to get a bad feeling and the uncertainty was gnawing at his gut. But there was not a thing that could be done now. Nothing had been taken, nothing disturbed and nobody was hurt. He glanced from Tanner to Standish; they both watched him in return, waiting for him to come to a decision. With a pessimistic sigh he looked grimly at the carriage door. "Hell! Ya'll a bunch of girls." He shook his head in mock disgust. If it were going to appease them, then Chris would open the carriage door and prove that there was nothing, nefarious, as Ezra would say, beyond their cabin. They didn't need to know that he was feeling the same way. Larabee shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly, and reached for the handle. He hesitated a fraction, but gripped the latch firmly. "Ain't gonna find nothin'."
The key turned crudely in the lock and the gunslinger pulled it open with a rush. The action caused an influx of midnight air inside the railcar and the steady pulse of the engine vibrated loudly. Larabee stepped out on the siding, a smug grin completing his expression. "Take a look." Vin tilted the lantern, shining its meagre light through the opening. "Nothin' here," Chris claimed, stepping back inside the carriage and closing the door triumphantly. "Ya want to check the other one, Ezra."
"Of course." The faint smile vanished as the gambler threw the door open. He stumbled backward and gasped, symbolically crossing himself. "Good Lord!"
"Hell!" Tanner stepped up behind Standish and dropped a hand on his shoulder. Vin felt the gambler tense and gently squeezed. "That ain't good."
"That's an understatement," Ezra drawled, attempting to keep the rising bile under control. This was the last thing he had expected. Or wanted. Or needed.
"Reckon this is what woke ya, cowboy."
"No shit," Larabee growled, staring at the grossly disfigured corpse that hung pitifully at the end of a noose. "Neck-tie party." And it hadn't been out here earlier. Chris knew this for certain because he'd stepped outside onto the platform and had a smoke not long before they turned out the lights. He frowned, looking past the body. Where was the final caboose? -The engineer's railcar. When had it been disconnected? "Caboose has gone."
"Pardon?" Standish questioned. Surely Larabee was jesting? "How does a twenty ton piece of monstrosity just vanish?"
"Uncoupled," Tanner shrugged. That was the least of their problems at the moment. "How ya s'pose he got there?" And who was the poor wretch? God he hoped that neither Chris nor Ezra personally knew the victim. He glanced at both men suddenly worried, but neither showed any signs of recognition and Vin felt somewhat relieved. But why hadn't they heard anything? He was a light sleeper and so was Chris; even Ezra at times. Surely they should have heard something! Dragging a body around atop a train carriage ain't silent work. But they had slept through it all until Larabee had roused them, and by then it was too late.
Chris shrugged. He'd been wondering the same thing. The body twisted on the rope, swinging with the rocking motion of the train. "He's been flogged, and all his fingers have been hacked off at the second joint." Bare feet dangled above a large pool of blood. "That blood looks fresh."
Tanner hunkered down and examined the pool. "It is." What Larabee hadn't noticed was that a copper coin lay in the pool; Tanner picked it out and wiped it on the victim's trousers and slipped it in his pocket. He stood back up and gingerly patted down the body. "Ain't his, though."
"How do you come to that conclusion, Mr. Tanner?"
"He's been dead for a while. . . it's prob'ly animal blood."
"Charming. Did you discover anything else?" Standish inquired, wondering what Vin had placed in his pocket.
"Nah," Vin lied, his face flushed as he was unable to successfully deceive. He turned away, and neither man commented further.
Ezra stared at Tanner's back. What was he hiding? "Someone has gone to a vast amount of bother to set up this display," Standish concluded, attempting to draw on Tanner's expertise.
"Yeah," Chris agreed. "But why?" He noticed that Standish had turned an unhealthy shade of grey, and the tracker also looked decidedly unwell. He didn't blame them; he was feeling queasy, too. "There's a killer on board, and I don't aim on lettin' the bastard escape." They couldn't possibly go onto St Louis now. It was likely that the three lawmen would even be considered suspects. And he had no intention of letting a pock-faced railway inspector or the local hick sheriff take over the investigation and make a mess of it. "Would appreciate ya boys sticking around ta help."
"Was plannin' on it," Vin agreed.
Standish shrugged his shoulders up and sighed. What choice did he have?
Chris rubbed the nape of his neck. This trip was beginning to give him the chills! "Let's get him down. Ezra, get some blankets ta wrap him in." They couldn't leave him hanging like that.
"Do you suspect there is some significance as to why his eyes have been removed?"
"Prob'ly done b'fore he died. . . cause more pain." Like the fingers. . . probably removed them one at a time.
"Ezra. . . the blankets," Larabee prompted.
"I can take a gander around top," Tanner suggested.
"NO!" Chris snapped. "As soon as it's daylight ya can take a look."
Vin shrugged. "Come on, Ezra." He pushed the compliant man down on the lower bunk and picked up the burgundy jacket that lay at the end of the bed. He riffled through the pocket until he discovered Standish's flask. "Here, have some of this."
"Thank you," Ezra mumbled, swallowing down a mouthful and absently handing it back. "It's happening again, isn't it, Vin?"
The Texan took a generous sip from the flask and glanced up, meeting Larabee's assessing gaze. Unable to answer, he thrust the woollen jacket at the gambler. "Put this on, huh?" He grinned wryly as Ezra reached for his shirt and buttoned it up before donning the coat.
"This ain't the same," Larabee decreed. This could not be the result of the sadistic animal that had stalked them at his cabin six months ago. Could it? But he'd been feeling awful tense lately. He'd thought Vin and Ezra had sensed it, too. It was this same feeling of uneasiness that had prompted Larabee to force Standish's hand into inviting him along. He'd had a gut feeling something sinister was going to occur on this trip.
Ezra eyed him dubiously, but didn't refute the claim. He stood, picking up a blanket. He didn't fancy sharing the room with a dead body. "How do you suggest we remove the. . . cadaver?" And where were they going to put it?
"Get down!" Larabee threw his body at the younger men, knocking them to the floor as the first window exploded inwards. Shattered glass flew around the carriage. The row of windows along one side erupted one after another, showering the room with splintered shards. Chris felt the warm trickle of blood run from his hairline into his left eye and the sting associated with it. "Keep down!" He covered his head as best he could, holding his breath as he waited for the final crash. It was all over within thirty seconds. "Either of ya hurt?"
"I don't believe so."
"Nope." Tanner answered, cautiously shaking off pieces of glass.
Larabee made a dash to slam the door closed. Forget the damn corpse! He planned on staying alive and right now his life, Vin and Ezra's were more important than securing a dead body. And the killer was still right outside! "What the fuck was that?" Chris leant solidly against the carriage door, breathing hard. His Colt was nestled readily in his hands. He noticed, with relief, that both Vin and Ezra had also drawn their weapons. "Stay down," he hissed. "And find some cover." He was half expecting the windows on the opposite side to go next.
"What do ya reckon is goin' on, cowboy?" Vin studied the carriage roof hoping to hear a telltale sign, something to suggest how many they were up against. He desperately wanted to hear something, anything that would convince him that it was a mortal man that was attacking them, rather than. . . something else.
"Dunno. . . Can ya'll see anythin' out there?"
Tanner cautiously sat up on his knees, taking a closer inspection of the carriage. "Reckon he's gotta be up there." Without warning Vin pumped his sawn-off Winchester and shot several holes though the roof.
All eyes glanced upwards, waiting for a sign that the killer had been hit. The rattle of the engine ploughed on through the night. They waited, but nothing changed.
Standish blew out a stream of breath and sighed. "How do you explain that each window fractured one after the other?" Ezra drawled, stepping up to the bank of broken panes in search of a reasonable explanation. Glass crunched under the heels of his boots as he leaned out one of the windows.
"Ezra, get the hell away from there!" Chris barked, grabbing the Southerner roughly by his jacket and hauling him backwards. "Ya asking ta get shot?"
"Couldn't see anything, if you were wondering," he smirked, overwhelmed that Larabee was concerned enough for his welfare to haul his ass back to safety.
"Damn fool," Larabee mumbled. "Ya want to end up like the crowbait out there?"
A glib repartee died on his lips. Standish frowned. "The train is reducing speed."
"He's right." The sounds of the engine were becoming less noticeable; they were indeed, slowing down. "What do ya reckon is goin' on, Chris?"
Larabee joined Tanner at the doorway already forgetting the reasons to stay low. "Reckon we're--" The remainder of the gunslinger's words were cut off as an almighty jolt struck their carriage. Chris fell hard against Tanner, and they almost fell out the door. "Vin! Hold on!" The carriage wobbled on the rails for several moments, but eventually righted itself, allowing Chris to pull Vin back inside. Once the carriage was settled on the track it started to pick up speed, and as it gathered momentum it rolled backwards down the slope.
"We've been uncoupled," Tanner shouted above the roar. The front half of the train continued on into the night, unaware that the final carriage had been disconnected.
"Shit!" Larabee hissed crawling to his knees. He glanced about the disorder of the carriage and firmly rose off the floor. His gut wheezed strangely with the uncontrolled backward pull and he wobbled ungainly with the increased momentum. "Grab a hold of somethin'." This could only get worse!
The gentle slope the train had been hauling up was their starting point. Uncoupled from the main train the carriage drifted onwards for a short spell, but with each turn of the wheels the carriage fell further behind the train. For a pause the railcar rested in contemplation until the pull of gravity tugged on the vehicle. Then the heavy iron carriage careened backwards down the tracks, its speed increasing, and rocking violently out of control towards the gully.
"We have ta jump," Vin shouted.
"Are you out of your mind?" Standish retorted. Jumping from a horse was one thing, but from a wayward railcar? Perhaps if it wasn't moving. . .
"Cowboy, we gotta get off here," Vin appealed to the gunslinger.
Larabee slipped, landing hard on his thigh. "We stay here." Surely it was safer inside?
The high-speed carriage whined, groaning and shuddering against the buffeting winds. The squeal of metal grating on the rail tracks whistled through the broken windows, along with the hush of the dawning day. Eventually the ground levelled beneath the stampeding railcar, but the track wound sharply to the left. The curve in the rail, although quite manageable when the engine pulled the cavalcade of carriages, became a hazard for the rampaging railcar. With no brakes to control the backward descent, it hit the concave bend with an almighty jolt. Instead of rounding the corner and coming to a natural deceleration it hit the edge and broke away from the rails, forging a new path. Inside the carriage, the three lawmen were tossed and thrown about carelessly.
For a full minute as the vehicle hurtled in midair, the whining and groaning ceased and an eerie silence took over. It was never going to last. The flight of the heavy carriage came to an abrupt end when it nosedived into the soft earth.
The resounding thump jolted the occupants inside again, shifting loose objects that had been bolted to the floor, tossing boxes, tables and other furniture and careening them all to one end, collecting in a mismatched jumble. The thrust from the backward drive carried it on, ploughing up the top layer of grass and dirt and causing a huge drift of scored earth behind. It finally came to rest with a creak and strain of shifting metal, splinted timber and broken objects settling into new positions.
Three bodies lay beneath the pile of debris.
In the inky blackness of the aftermath, Chris blinked, confused and disorientated by the creaking and groaning monstrosity that entombed him. He momentarily forgot where he was and was tempted to surrender to the dull wave of haziness that beckoned. Larabee groaned, wincing at the fire inside his head and concentrated on the heavy weight that pressed into the middle of his back, pinning him to the floor. The pain and discomfort cleared the fog in his mind. He cautiously shifted his lower limbs, relieved to find them free and unimpeded, but a spasm of aches and pains rippled along his spine where the object dug into his back.
His face scrunched into a frown and with an almighty thrust of his hips he dislodged the item. With a distinct sigh of relief, it fell alongside him and landed with a splash, the unseen weight sending a spray of water into Larabee's face. Water?!
"Shit!" The cold and brackish water cleared his head, as nothing else could. A burst of garbled grunts echoed in the eerie stillness as Chris staggered in the darkness to come to his knees. Beyond the buzzing inside his head, the gunslinger belatedly realised that he was kneeling in a shallow depth of water. He patted his chest and discovered the front of his shirt and pants were soaked. Could this get any worse? "Fuck," he swore, squinting to see inside the crippled carriage.
Larabee gave no thoughts to the whys, how or what had caused the accident. There was time for analysis later, once they were free and all his men were safe. "Vin! Ezra!" The carriage had come to rest and was currently filling with water. If they didn't get out soon, they would be drowned in the railcar. Gotta get out! "Vin! Ezra! We gotta leave here now!" He stumbled through the cabin, feeling his way through the chaos and confusion. The water lapped at his ankles and other than his sloshing, the eerie silence fed his anxieties.
"Tanner! Damn it, answer," he implored. His panting breath sounds were loud to his ears, so he held his breath, straining to catch any sounds he might have ordinarily missed. After what felt an eternity, Chris expelled the breath in a harsh gush, and sucked in another lungful. He called again, fearing the mute response. Why don't they answer? Surely such a response could only mean one thing, but he wasn't going to contemplate that. Both men must have survived! He did! His actions grew sharper and more agitated, worry and fear drove his wayward search. He tossed loose chairs and boxes to the high end of the carriage, clearing a path toward the sloping end that was filling quickly with murky water. In the crash, everything had slipped to the lower end, and the carriage listed on its side with one end higher than the other; surely his friends were safe under all the rubble? But ya can still drown in a puddle of water. No! He wouldn't think on that!
"Tanner?" Chris paused his frantic movements, cocking his head to the side and listening. The soft ripple of water and his heavy rasping breaths were the only sounds in the cabin. Goddamn it! "Vin! Ezra! Answer me!" he commanded. "I'm not leaving this death pit unless the both of ya are with me," he muttered, striving to reassure himself.
Chris planted his feet in a wide stance, trying to get as much purchase on the slippery floor as the twisted cabin would allow. He didn't want to know how quickly the cabin was filling with water, but every now and then the carriage would list further into the depths of the lake. He could hear the soft splash of water as it entered inside and Chris wasn't afraid to admit that he was scared. Come on, Larabee. Pull it together! They're in here, just work on a section at a time. He decreased his frantic actions and moved in a more methodical approach. Each section he cleared pulled him further down the cabin. And the trickle of water filling the room roared in his ears.
It was an age before his hands gripped the woollen coat Ezra had been wearing. A wry chuckle bubbled in his throat. Finally! Yes! Chris dragged the limp form from the carnage and flipped him over onto his back, slapping the lax face. "Ezra! Wake up! We've got to find Vin!"
Ezra shook his head to clear the fog. He heard Larabee call him and was staggered by the pain in his left shoulder. Dislocated. Damn that hurt! "Chris?"
"Ya okay?" Larabee didn't have the luxury to wait for an answer; he was running out of time to find Vin. If the cabin continued to fill with water, Tanner would surely drown, buried beneath the chaos. He wouldn't allow that to happen.
Standish groaned, wincing as he attempted to stand. The ground moved beneath his feet and he dropped ungainly on his backside, his face contorting into a grimace as his shoulder jarred. He swallowed back the bile, biting his lip to keep it at bay and stood again, being careful to form a wider stance. He was forced to grip his right hand under his left elbow, and with a staggering motion, he followed Chris. He stood at Chris' shoulder, swaying on the spot. He'd need to drop his left arm by his side to be of any use searching for Vin. "Vin?" he croaked.
Chris smiled gratefully at the gambler, at least he attempted to. Thankfully, he needn't worry about the Southerner. Now they could search twice as fast. It was only a matter of time, Vin. Hang on, pard.
Only then, the carriage slipped deeper into the water, the rush of water bucketed through the mangled walls and the level inside the cabin grew higher. Both Chris and Ezra were knocked off their feet in the process and slipped further into the bowels of the wreckage.
"Chris, I've got him." Ezra gasped, fumbling with a limp tracker and trying to keep his head above water. He'd found Vin, and Ezra couldn't have been happier.
"Right." The gunslinger had regained his feet quicker and had already begun searching the rear of the sinking carriage. This he abandoned abruptly at Standish's claim. "He okay?" What he really wanted to ask was if Vin was alive, but he couldn't voice those words.
Standish propped the Texan's head on his thigh, feeling for a beat at his neck. Chris was at his side, before he could determine any injuries. "He's breathing." Cold and clammy too, or was that him?
Larabee sighed. "Let's get him outside." As the words left his mouth, the railcar tilted and groaned, slipping deeper, yet again, into the swamp. "Now!" he commanded, hauling a limp Tanner over his shoulder and rushing to the higher end of the carriage.
Standish fought the gnawing sensation of lassitude and in a few steps joined Larabee. He watched in dismay as the gunman leaned his shoulder into the doorway. A grunt followed by several cuss words, ripped from Larabee's mouth, but the door wouldn't budge. The framework was splintered and rough, the door was wedged in at a slight angle. Standish glanced at what was now the roof. "Perhaps, we could lift Mr. Tanner out through there," he indicated the glass free windows. It seemed to be the only exit available.
Chris nodded, and lowered Tanner down, propping the unconscious Texan upright. He jumped up and climbed through the narrow hole. Standing atop, Chris removed his jacket and hung it through the opening, hoping to protect the injured man from any remaining glass as he was passed through. Chris dropped his head back inside. "Pass him up, Ezra."
"Certainly. . . " Standish bit the inside of his cheek and frowned at the unconscious man seated on the floor. He threw a worried eye up to where Chris was waiting impatiently. Taking a deep breath, Ezra reconciled himself to the upcoming pain. This was going to hurt! His left arm was all but useless by his side, and every move caused a wealth of agony in its currently dislocated state. Who's idea had this been? Dumb, stupid!
"Come on, Standish! What's takin' ya so long?"
"Just determining how I should manoeuvre. . . "
"Just, drag him under this hole. . . get a box ta stand on. . . and I should be able ta reach him from there," Chris explained sarcastically. Did he have to spell it out?
The gambler did as he was instructed, and moved Vin into Larabee's grip. A weary sigh escaped his throat as the dead weight of Vin was raised through the opening. Standish stared out the window, only seeing the dark pants of the gunslinger until he too disappeared from his line of sight. He continued to stare at his promise of escape, and not for the first time contemplated how he could manage to make the climb. With a dejected sigh the gambler slid down the wall and closed his eyes. Vin was safe. . . Chris was safe. . . everything was as it should be.
Larabee was blinded for a moment when he shimmied through the window, the dawning sun speared silver rays flashing over the horizon. The new day brought with it a sense of tranquillity; it was hard to imagine the dangers that had loomed during the night hours. He even grinned momentarily, all things considered. That was until he spied the churned up path that the carriage had gouged into the knoll on its way down the slope. Somewhere up there, the rail tracks led to home. The gunman didn't want to consider how they were going to survive the journey back. The train hadn't stopped, and there were no signs of civilization. It would be a long walk home. And who knew what dangers they would face along the way.
"Need to lose some weight, pard," Chris mumbled under the heavy load of Tanner. He grunted a number of times and his cargo seemed to slip, but Chris had no intention of letting Vin fall into the water.
Chris lowered the Texan gently to the ground, part way up the incline. It would have to do. There was little shade and even fewer trees, but the filtered sunlight was at least dispersed a fraction through the foliage of the sole cottonwood tree. And it was only dawn. . . the day had yet to warm up. Chris was concerned that if Vin remained unconscious there was little the gunman could do for the injured man. He grimaced as his eyes passed over the still figure; Vin obviously suffered a broken leg in the crash. He winced at the thought of fixing the break. Best to do it while he was still out. "Ezra. . . get something we can use for splints." He didn't look up, kneeling in the dry earth to assess Vin's injuries further.
Not hearing any movement behind him, Larabee glanced up, frowning at the empty space. "Ezra!" He licked his lips and his breath caught in his throat as he looked at the sinking carriage uncertainly. Oh, he couldn't be? Chris jumped slightly as the railcar creaked, slipping deeper into the marsh. It wouldn't be long now before the entire carriage was swallowed whole. Surely Ezra wasn't still inside?
He glanced at Vin and down at the sinking carriage. He was going to have to leave the tracker. He scanned the barren hillside; would Vin be safe? The railcar creaked and groaned, echoing loudly in the early morning. What in tarnation was Standish playing at? Was he deliberately trying to drown? Or had Chris missed something important? This last thought had Chris on his feet and sprinting down the slope. "Standish. . . get the hell out of there now!" Still no sign of the missing gambler. He charged into the soft edge of the lake, his feet sinking in the thick mud and slipping slightly as he stepped onto the exposed portion of the carriage. All the while he was calling out for the gambler. Reaching the place he'd originally exited, he threw his face back inside the gloomy cabin. "Standish!" he shouted, seeing the gambler slowly picking his way through the contents of the railcar. "Get up here! I need help to set Vin's leg." What in the hell was he doing?
Ezra swayed drunkenly, rubbing the knot at the back of his neck and wincing. He looked up, fighting a bout of vertigo. "Mr. Larabee. . . I've collected a few items you might find necessary--"
"Of all the stupid. . . I ain't concerned about any of that stuff!" Chris rebuked loudly. "I want ya out of there now!"
Ezra held the gunslinger's hat in his hand, momentarily disconcerted as to what he should do. The water poured inside the cabin and it lapped at his thighs, but it was significantly deeper at the opposite end. The carriage tilted more, the heavy end dragging it deeper into the water. Ezra slipped with the sudden movement, and with a startled cry, disappeared under the water.
"Ezra!" Larabee yelled, jumping through the hole and joining his friend inside. He pulled the gambler above the surface and almost dropped him instantly when Standish screamed in pain. Damn! Shoulda realised the stubborn cuss was hurt! "What's wrong?"
Panting and struggling in the gunslinger's grip to firmly plant his feet, Ezra ignored the question. . . or perhaps he just didn't hear it over the buzz that was roaring through his head.
"Relax a bit. . . and stop struggling."
Standish found his feet and pulled away from Larabee. Swaying he searched the cabin. "I found blankets. . . they're rather waterlogged at present, but they will dry."
Chris nodded, spying the bundle, and agreeing that they would be useful. "Ya hurt?" He saw the confused expression and the telltale look Standish gave his shoulder. And a fresh trail of blood trickled down his face while Chris watched.
He grinned at the blasé answer given. "Then, let's get out of here," Larabee directed a wave upwards. "I'll go first."
Ezra staggered through the rising water. "What about the blankets?"
Chris grinned, removing his Stetson from the gambler's hand and planted it firmly on his head. "I'll fetch em." Right after I've got you out. Lowering his body halfway through the window Chris reached down for Ezra. "Give me yer hand--"
"I don't think--"
"That's fine by me, Ezra. . . Don't think. . . just do as I say," he ordered, "and stop arguing."
After several minutes both men were sitting on top of the carriage exhausted. "Vin's up there." He pointed half way up the hill. Now that Chris had Ezra out of the carriage he gave the gambler a thorough going over. Satisfied that he wasn't about to expire, Chris helped Standish off the carriage and guided him up the hill.
Standish sat in a rush, his head falling between his knees. "How's Vin?"
Chris dropped to his haunches by the tracker, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Vin lay exactly as he'd been left, but there was an oilcloth bag on his chest. And Chris had not placed it there. He scanned the hills intensely and back to the ground surrounding Vin. The branches of the tree were given the same scrutiny. Nothing! And no footprints, other than his. Chris cautiously picked up the bag, and opened it. "Shit!" The bag dangled loosely from his hand.
"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra prompted, startled by the gunslinger's exclamation. Surely Vin had not. . . died?
Seeing the colour literally fall from the Southerner's face he quickly amended. "He's still out." And remembering Ezra didn't know already, he added, "Vin's leg is busted." He gingerly pulled the drawstring on the oilcloth bag and dispose of it later. For the moment he hid it behind Tanner's body. Chris quickly checked over the Texan. He worried more so, that something had occurred while he'd been rescuing Ezra. He lingered over Vin's unconscious form, reassuring himself that the killer had only left Vin with a souvenir. But how it had been delivered baffled Larabee.
"What is in it?" Standish broke through Chris' reverie.
Larabee meet Ezra's eyes. Damn! Standish had seen it. "Bits of fingers." No point denying it. Ten of them he'd hazard a guess; he hadn't counted them. He wondered briefly where they'd find the corpse's eyes.
Ezra grimaced. "From our cadaver on the train?"
Chris shrugged. Ezra had seen the bag, now was as good a time as any to get rid of it. Burying it would have worked, but animals could easily dig that up. He shuddered; he would be more satisfied with tossing it in the lake.
"How did Vin come. . . to have this. . . bag?"
Chris massaged the nape of his neck. "He didn't. . . least not til I came ta get you out."
Ezra arched his eyebrows. "Then. . . how--?"
Chris looked at the ground, some of the grass was pressed flat in places, but most could probably be attributed to him and Ezra. "I dunno." He watched the Southerner frown and adjust his grip under his left elbow. "Yer shoulder out?"
"Hmmmm," Ezra replied noncommittally, still considering the ramifications of the. . . gift.
"Reckon I could fix it?" At least then Ezra could use his arm. "How does Nathan do it?"
Ezra looked up, an expression of dread on his face. After a long pause, the gambler responded. "He. . . pulled it--" Standish attempted to explain.
"Ah huh." Larabee picked up the gambler's wrist and gripped it tightly. He had absolutely no idea what he was doing and hoped he didn't make it worse. "Here goes--" Chris yanked hard on the injured arm, dropping it soundly when Ezra screamed and rolled away hugging his arm to his side. Shit! "Ezra. . . Ezra. . . Hell, I'm sorry--" he apologised. Standish continued to moan, rocking on his side in agony. "Next time will work--"
"No!" the gambler answered gruffly, curling away from Larabee. "I'm fine. . . help Vin. . . I'm fine," he stuttered.
Chris grimly nodded at the buck-skinned man; he needed to set Tanner's leg before he came around, but he needed Ezra's help for that. "Gonna have to fix yer shoulder, first." Standish shook his head vehemently. "Ya gotta trust me, and tell me exactly how Nathan does it," he implored. God he hoped he could do this.
The gambler wearily shook his head, resting it on his knees. "Can't."
"I'll give ya a few minutes, then I'm doin' it," Chris announced. He'd find some splints for Vin's leg while he gave Standish a moment's reprieve. "Ain't plannin' on sittin' around here all day."
Chris returned for the blankets and a few other items he deemed necessary -a bottle of scotch, which mysteriously survived the wreck intact, and a canteen among them. It wasn't long after his final trip into the doomed car that the carriage disappeared beneath the water's surface; the only evidence left behind were the vast slide marks etched down the incline into the lake. Hell of a way to die. He'd always figured he'd die at the end of a gun. Thank God they'd all gotten out safely, if somewhat injured.
Vin had regained his senses on and off during the morning; thankfully not until after his broken leg was set and splinted. Standish had been another matter. Chris'd had no idea how to set the Southerner's shoulder; it had seemed simply enough, but after the first attempt, he revised that opinion. Even when he did put it back in place, Chris wasn't totally convinced, but Standish could at least move it and managed to assist him to fix Vin's leg. Larabee had then fashioned a stretcher utilizing the blankets and they'd set off at a hectic pace, basically following the railway line.
Larabee kept an eye on their path and a wary eye on the every tree, rock or brush that could conceal someone - it didn't escape his notice that all wildlife was unaccountable silent. Even the hawk that flew high above them just soared on the up currents. He wondered if the silence bothered either of the other lawmen. Chris wiped the sweat off his forehead on his shoulder leaving a dirty smear on his shirt. . . and cussed under his breath, grumbling at the flies that buzzed about his face. He tripped with as much regularity as Standish; his excuse being that it was difficult to watch his every step while he safeguarded them. He glanced at his sidearm and wondered how ineffective it would be with both his hands fully occupied. He sighed, biting back a groan, his mind swirling with images of the night.
One image that kept replaying with monotonous regularity was the corkscrewing ride inside the carriage as it jumped off the tracks and bounced back to earth. Before he'd been knocked out, Chris recalled feeling scared, for himself, and the others. He remembered how useless he'd been, flying and tumbling out of control in the carriage, futilely groping in the dark for a handhold, and hearing the grunts and groans of pain being inflicted on the other pair. He had caught hold of Tanner at the start, but with the jolting and shaking about he'd lost connection quickly. If he'd managed to keep a tighter grip. . . perhaps Tanner might not have broken his leg. If he'd listened to the tracker and jumped from the speeding carriage instead of stalling, perhaps they may have escaped with fewer injuries. He kicked at a rock angrily, sending it rolling off their track; he wished he could as easily dispel his ineptitude at not being able to prevent their disaster.
"Would a small rest be permitted?" Standish drawled, interrupting Larabee's reverie.
"Damn it, Ezra! We only took one twenty minutes ago," Larabee snarled, not even bothering to turn and face the gambler.
Ezra groaned, bumping the stretcher as he adjusted his grip. The groan turned into a choked gasp. God, his shoulder was a coiled knot of pure agony. The muscles in his neck were taut and there was a tingling sensation that spread down his left arm to his fingertips. His face was a mask of indifference, but maintaining the façade was almost as difficult as putting one foot in front of the other. He prayed he wouldn't stumble; such an accident would cause Tanner more agony, not to mention his own, and also garner the wrath of Chris. He closed his eyes wearily; taking the rear end of the stretcher had allowed him some measure of relief, he only had to put one foot in front of the other. And he could watch the gunslinger; not having Larabee's reproachful eyes boring into him all day had been a blessing. The added advantage was of course, being able to monitor Vin on the stretcher.
"Might be worthwhile stopping f'r a bit," Tanner rasped.
Chris lowered his end. "Yer awake. Ya hurtin'?"
"No more an I expect."
Larabee arched his eyebrows. "Ya thirsty?"
He nodded. "That'd be good. Ezra looks done in."
The Southerner snapped up his head at the mention of his name. To his dismay, he hadn't even noticed Vin was awake until he'd spoken. So much for his assertion that he was keeping an eye on the tracker. "I'm fine, Mr. Tanner. It is you who is injured."
Vin sat up on his elbows, grimacing as he did so. He continued to stare sceptically at the gambler. Who was Ezra trying to fool? Tanner could see the fatigue and pain written all over the conman's face. He had to be hurting. So why was he denying it? Surely Chris had noticed Ezra's pallor, if not, it was about time the gunslinger took a closer look. And Vin was more than ready for a rest all the jostling around was paining him awful bad. Damn rotten luck. . . why'd he have to break a leg? "Wouldn't mind stoppin' m'self."
"Sure," Chris grunted. He wanted to keep going, needed to put more distance yet between them and the accident, but he could seen the logic in resting. "I'm gonna scout on ahead for a while longer." He shared a look with Tanner, knowing instinctively that the tracker understood his message - watch out for each other. "Ezra, ya stay here with, Vin."
"Watch yer back, cowboy," Vin called as he eased back to the blanket, patting his sawn-off Winchester reassuringly. He didn't expect to use it, but there was always that possibility.
Ezra fumed, biting off the sarcastic retort on the tip of his tongue. Why does Larabee always do that? "He's incensed with me," the gambler moaned several minutes after Larabee's departure.
"No, he ain't."
"I beg to differ, but you have not been conscious so could not possibly know." It seemed that after every word the Southerner had spoken this morning, Larabee had snarled or snapped at him. Eventually Ezra had curbed his tongue, only requesting a respite when his shoulder was screaming in agony and protested the use. And this time had been no different. He could have pressed on, carrying his share of the load, but he was not willing to upset both Vin and Chris by being unable to hold up his end, and subsequently dropping it. Heaven forbid, Larabee's reaction to that. And Vin. A ten- minute respite was all he'd been after, just enough time to ease the ache in his shoulder, but not too long that it would stiffen.
Vin growled. "I ain't up f'r arguin', Ezra, just take my word on it, okay? Larabee is just tryin' ta get us home safe." Why couldn't he see this? It was what they all wanted.
The gambler couldn't bring himself to refute Tanner's claim. After all, none of this was either Vin or Larabee's fault. It was his alone, and he didn't blame either man for placing the responsibility for this debacle solely where it belonged - on his head. "You'd best rest while the opportunity exists, my friend."
Vin stared intently at the Southerner, surprised that Standish held his gaze. He grinned through a spasm in his leg, eventually it turned into a grimace. God, he hoped his leg was set right. Larabee had fixed it and bound it tight to some splints, but he'd also tied his good leg to the busted one, and it left him dependent solely on Standish and the gunslinger. It was not an arrangement he was comfortable with. "Be more comf'table if ya could free m' good leg?"
The gambler glanced Tanner's legs, wincing in sympathy. "Supposedly having them secured together gives the affected limb a better chance with stability. . . "
"I ain't after a quack's opinion. . . I just want ta be able to move some more."
Ezra bowed his head and sighed. Now he was offending Tanner. "Certainly. . . " He'd let Larabee convince the headstrong tracker of the importance when he returned.
"Thanks. . . that's better." Vin stretched his good leg and wriggled his butt on the blanket. A startled gasp rolled off his tongue when he jarred his injured leg unintentionally. "Arggg. . . " he moaned.
"Vin. . . "
Tanner took a long moment before he could speak. "Whiskey. . . " he hissed.
Standish brought out the bottle and rested it on Vin's lips. "Here."
"Thanks. . . and no I don't want ya ta retie m' legs," Tanner growled. He saw the knowing look, - the I told ya so', attitude -but he was thrown by the note of regret that passed over Ezra's face. "It's better this way. . . believe me," he drawled.
Standish smiled thinly, not convinced. "As you wish." He found a spot of thick grass and settled back against a log. His headache still bothered him and he would love to succumb to his baser needs and sleep the afternoon away, but that was not an option. Larabee had left Vin in his care; it was up to him to protect the tracker.
Ezra had not forgotten the frightening presence from the train and the subsequent disaster in the early hours of this very day. The horror and trepidation was still fresh in his mind. He feared that the train wreck was only the start of more menace to come. And the oilcloth bag Larabee had discovered with Vin was another anomaly. How had that appeared? And what was its significance? He glanced along the path Chris had taken earlier, wondering how safe the gunslinger was off by himself. Standish had never considered Chris unable to defend himself against ordinary means, not by a long shot, but this was suspiciously supernatural and even a mere mortal would have difficulty defeating the unknown. Lord, he prayed Chris returned unharmed.
Chris Larabee jogged alongside the silent rail track. His shoulders ached and muscles tensed in his calves and thighs; it had been a long time since they'd been accustomed to this treatment. He must be getting old, he lamented. There was a time in his past when such physical exertion wouldn't have caused an issue of complaint, but his body had been in better shape then. Living as a peacekeeper in town, barely raised a sweat. Certainly work on his ranch was more taxing, but he didn't manage to get out there more than once or twice a week. Such an erratic workout couldn't maintain his fitness. He wondered briefly how the others kept in shape.
Chris realized that he shouldn't be pushing either of his friends like he had been that morning, but he desperately wanted as much distance between them and the doomed carriage before nightfall. It also put them that much closer to home. Larabee couldn't shrug off the imminent shroud of dread that seemed to be keeping pace with the three lawmen. Even now, it seemed to follow him, and Chris stopped in his tracks suddenly and scrutinised the trail he'd forged for signs of life, but only the persistent wariness stirred in his gut.
The gunslinger spun on his heels, searching and listening. A breeze brushed over his sweaty face, cooling his skin, but leaving a trail of ice running through his veins. His skin crawled and goose bumps dotted his flesh. His boots kicked up a dust, and his nervous skip had the gunslinger landing inelegantly in the dirt. "Shit!" he sputtered, wiping a mouthful of dry grass and dirt from his lips. Larabee shook his head and scowled. . . Thank Christ nobody saw that! He slowly climbed to his feet and began to walk.
Somewhere out there, eyes watched his every move. Larabee frowned, attempting to hide the tremors that raced along his spine or his fingers inching toward the hilt of his Colt. Chris stopped again. His nerves were shot. "WHAT ARE YA WAITIN' FOR?" His voice roared loud in his ears. He stood panting, motionless in the blazing sunshine, waiting in vain for a reply. The wind picked up, howling and whining though the tops of the trees, and he paused in thought, hearing the tinkling of . . . bells. Larabee squinted against the glare, wondering how in blue blazes he was hearing bells out in the middle of nowhere. Probably a bird, he convinced himself and kept moving.
Chris decided he shouldn't continue much further; already he'd left Tanner and Standish alone for too long. "Just over the rise," he muttered and set off at a steady sprint. As he reached the crest, the gunslinger caught sight of smoke trailing a path through the valley below. Finally, he grinned, and he set off in that direction. Once he'd left the railway line his progress slowed. It was going to be a fair hike for the small group to make to the shelter, but they needed some protection from the scourges of the night. Not that Larabee believed in such nonsense, but given the strange circumstances surrounding the carriage derailment, he wasn't about to quibble. And he figured Tanner and Standish would feel more comfortable with a roof over their heads for the night.
The gunslinger had no intention of going the full distance, but he'd at least like a better glimpse of the place. Not that he'd been presented with many options; the countryside was more deserted than a whorehouse in a leper colony. Chris snorted and rolled his eyes; damn, that was one of Buck's euphemisms. It was difficult to get a descent view through the woods, but there was definitely smoke rising above the house, and not a small brush fire. "Hello the house?" It was useless calling out really; he was too far away to be heard. It was some distance to the shelter, but Larabee had seen enough. Satisfied, the man in black made his way back to his friends. And they damn well better be safe!
"Standish, wake up." Larabee crouched by the Southerner and lightly shook the younger man. He wished he didn't have to do this, but after finding the huge knot on the back of his head this morning, Chris was concerned about allowing him to sleep too deeply. He guessed correctly that Ezra had a headache and the way his eyes strayed while they talked, he presumed accurately, that Standish had a concussion. He was worried that once Ezra hit the ground, they wouldn't be able to shift him for the next few days, and Chris didn't want to spend a moment longer in the wilderness with the two injured men, than was absolutely necessary. They needed a doctor. Some horses wouldn't go astray either.
Standish moaned and tried to shy away. "Go away."
"I found us a place to stay the night, and I need yer help to get Vin there."
Ezra's head rolled on his shoulder, and his eyelids fluttered. "Vin?"
"--Is hurt. Do ya understand me?" he questioned the concussed gambler.
Standish cracked open an eye, and it rolled as he fought to focus. "Vin!" he exclaimed, bolting upright and guiltily glancing about. The Remington in his lap, slipped to the ground and a wave of nausea hit him like a hammer, forcing the colour to drain from his face. Alarmed and realising his mistake, he shamefacedly hung his head and gulped down the bile. Damn! He couldn't even do a decent job of keeping watch over Tanner. How was he ever going to earn their trust?
"Ain't nothin' ta fret over," Vin drawled, raising his Winchester an inch off the stretcher.
Larabee grinned. Leave it to Tanner! "He been asleep long?"
"Ten minutes, tops," Vin answered with a grimace. "Tried ta keep him awake, but with this leg. . . " The minute he moved, even slightly, was a major cause of pain.
Chris nodded in understanding. "Found us a place to sleep. Looks peaceful enough, saw smoke comin' out the chimney, but couldn't see no one about."
"Figure they'll let us spend the night, cowboy?"
"I'm sure Ezra'll be able to talk em around."
"How far?" Ezra asked, still attempting to clear his muddled mind.
"Probably will make it just bfore nightfall, if we don't dawdle."
"Could prob'ly get there faster if ya weren't carryin' me." It was bad enough having a busted leg, but having to rely on friends to carry him everywhere while he lay back and took it easy. . . it wasn't in his nature.
"What're ya suggestin'?"
"Reckon, if I had one of ya on each side of me--"
Larabee shook his head, dismissing the idea completely. "Just enjoy the ride, Tanner."
It had taken them as long as Chris had predicted to reach the shelter and during that time Larabee and Standish had come to an unspoken understanding regarding the handling of the stretcher, which was fortunate as both lawmen were too exhausted to argue. As one, Chris and Ezra set their load down. Vin shifted slightly on the blanket as the stretcher touched the ground, but otherwise didn't stir.
The wind moaned, sounding suspiciously like lost souls warning them away and it whistled through the eves of the shack, swirling thick dust into the air. The very atmosphere surrounding the place vibrated. An early fog settled over the building and the damp moisture of the cloud diminished any possible welcome further.
Standish stared in utter astonishment. "Surely you jest. Someone lives in that?"
"Not all folks have money enough to throw around," Chris rebuked. He didn't want the Southerner insulting their hosts before they could be taken in for the night. "Go ahead and knock." Larabee had convinced Standish that he should introduce them, hoping his finesse and Southern charm would guarantee them shelter for the night.
"You don't seriously believe anyone resides in this. . . . hovel?"
"Just knock, Ezra," Larabee hissed.
The gambler shrugged, momentarily forgetting his shoulder and wincing. He rapped on the weathered timber, turned and leaned back on the door, taking in the unkempt yard and brambles that grew out of the well. Old tiles were scattered around the perimeter of the yard and Ezra stepped back to take in the view of the roof, shaking his head at the veritable patchwork. Hope it doesn't rain. To make matters worse, the windows were broken and the glass lay in pieces under the windowsills. Going to be a very chilly night, especially if this wind keeps up. "Obviously the residents believe in a slipshod approach to house maintenance." The comment was purely for Larabee's benefit. In Ezra's opinion, the house was abandoned. But there was the steady stream of smoke that haunted the old relic, and that seemed to be the only indication that anyone might possibly be in residence. Perhaps a squatter? Disregarding propriety, Standish trampled through the thorny brambles and peered through the window.
"No one's home. . . can't we go in?" Standish whined. Gone was the large vocabulary, reduced to simple understated words of need. Ezra was exhausted, mentally and physically.
Larabee rolled his eyes, it didn't take a genius to see how drained the gambler was, but he wasn't going to break into someone's home just yet. "Knock again, there may be someone about."
"Fine," Standish drawled, and he hammered rudely on the coarse door. "I suggest we take Mr. Tanner inside, and when the owners return, beg their forgiveness," he challenged sarcastically.
Chris sighed; he didn't want to spend the night out in the open, when there was some form of shelter available. And the sun was dropping quickly from the sky; they would be surrounded by darkness soon. "Do it."
Standish gratefully pressed open the door and stepped over the threshold. Other than the dying fire in the grate, the single room was alarmingly empty. Even the earthen floor was bereft of footprints, making him question how the fire had been laid. "Welcome to my ever so humble abode," Ezra muttered caustically.
Chris eyed the room critically, seeing the same room as the Southerner, but he felt overwhelmed with the urge to run, to get his friends as far away from here as possible. He shared a brief look of understanding with Ezra, then shook off the heavy cloak of doom. "We'll get Vin settled, then I'll scout around for dinner."
With the last vestiges of the light rapidly dwindling from the day the wind grew in intensity. It had been building throughout the afternoon, washing the clouds across the pale blue sky and working against their progress towards the shelter. A bitter whine whistled annoyingly through the cabin's walls and dust and debris was an undesirable nuisance they had to cope with as they fought to keep the fire protected.
As there was no other source of lighting available, a ready supply of fuel was necessary for the hungry fire. The gambler had dragged inside every available branch, log and twig that he could find within the grounds surrounding the abandoned home. The entire western wall was crowded with the mass of firewood.
"Ya collect enough wood, Ezra?" Chris taunted, grinning at the large stockpile.
Standish snorted. "It won't harm being prepared, and--" he glanced meaningfully at the roof, "--it will be a gruelling job keeping the room sufficiently heated during the night with all this ventilation."
"Ya plannin' on keepin' watch over it all night?"
Ezra bit his lip and frowned uncertainly. "I thought perhaps. . . we could share?"
Larabee threw back his head and laughed. God that felt good. He turned his back on the gambler not granting him an answer and squatted down beside Vin. He saw the smile that lurked behind the mask of pain. "Ya holdin' up?"
"Yeah," Tanner agreed. "Could do with some of Nathan's teas right about now. Wash down the grub ya made, too." His leg was pure agony, and any simple movement damn near had him passing out.
"Somethin' wrong with my cookin'?"
"Nah. . . If ya don't mind crunching on dirt. . . "
Standish chuckled; the wind had been particularly unkind while the rabbits roasted over the open flames. "Gave it a rather rudimentary flavour."
"Hell, ya coulda both gone without. . . didn't hear no complaints earlier." In fact, the three lawmen had eaten the meal in relative silence. After the arduous trek and long day without any sustenance they had devoured the meagre offerings quickly.
"Filled the hollow."
"Ya don't reckon the boys at home are in trouble?"
"Why?" Larabee twirled the brim of his hat in his fingers in thought.
"Just thinkin'. . . how everything was happenin' around the time we left town."
"Yer wagon burning, the snakes in Ezra's room. . . the dead calf out at my place? That what ya referrin' to?" There were other things too, but he hadn't mentioned them to Tanner.
"Yeah. . . but Buck's accident too, and Josiah leavin' town."
Chris ran his fingers through his hair. "Awful lot of coincidences."
"But ya knew this was gonna happen, didn't ya?"
"Figured somethin' was goin' down," Larabee answered softly. "Wouldna guessed at this."
"That why ya went ta so much trouble ta get Ezra to invite ya along?"
Chris shrugged. "Couldn't help if I wasn't here."
"Ya reckon the tickets weren't from Maude?"
"Not unless she's involved in all this."
"So it was planned from the beginnin'. Ya don't reckon Ezra had anythin' ta do with this?" Tanner glanced at the door, expecting Standish to come back and choked on his next words at the gambler's entrance.
"It is blowing a gale outside." He glanced from Chris to Vin and immediately sensed the tension. "My apologies for interrupting. . . if you'd like to continue I am willing to return outside."
"Said all we got ta say," Tanner stated. "Ain't got no reason ta leave."
Ezra remained silent, understanding more than he wanted to.
Larabee grinned, watching the gambler creep closer to the hearth and push another log in between the flames. A few sparks jumped out as he poked through the coals and set the log in the centre. Chris sat forward. "Why don't ya let me take this watch?" The smirk widened when Ezra dropped the branch he'd been using as a poker into the fire. The amusement was clear in his voice. "I promise not to let yer fire go out."
"Very droll." Ezra absently rolled his shoulder, gripping his elbow to limit too much movement.
"Yer shoulder botherin' ya?"
Standish stepped backwards and was quick to reassure. "It's fine."
Larabee sat up on his haunches; he'd seen the momentary flash of panic in the Southerner's eyes. Damn, it had been unfortunate that it had taken Chris three attempts to set Ezra's dislocated shoulder. With each new attempt he'd lost what little trust the gambler had bestowed on him in a matter of seconds. It had to be aching! And it probably didn't do the injury any favours by having to carry Vin on the stretcher all day either. "Is it really?" he asked seriously.
Standish sighed; a small fluttering grin graced his mouth. "It is nothing compared to Vin's injury," he countered, not wanting to elicit any unwarranted sympathy.
"Hmmmm," Chris frowned at Tanner. It was going to be another tiresome day for them all tomorrow; he hoped everyone was up to it. "Just the same. . . I'll take over. . . I want ya ready to take yer share come morning."
Standish glanced at the slumbering tracker. "I shan't forsake my responsibility," he retorted irritably.
"I never expected ya would."
"Oh. . . " He'd not considered this possible response.
"I don't know how much ya heard earlier--"
Standish quickly refuted, "I did not eavesdrop on your conversation."
"If ya were. . . ya could have chosen a better time ta barge in-- "
Standish's mouth fell open. "I do not need to hear this."
"Damn it! Would ya just listen ta me!" Larabee shouted irritably, jumping to his feet and pushing Ezra back against the wall. "If ya'd waited a few more minutes I'd've had the chance to answer Vin."
Ezra stared at the gunslinger in confusion. "I have no idea what you are alluding to."
"Ya didn't hear anything?"
"Nothing but that horrendous howling windstorm out there." What had Larabee and Tanner been discussing? Why was Chris acting so defensive? From their reactions earlier he gathered they'd been talking about him. But what had he done this time?
He'd put his foot in it now. Damn! "We don't reckon Maude sent ya the tickets."
Was that all? "I concur."
Chris did a double take. Standish agreed with him. "So who sent em?"
Ezra sighed. He had his suspicions, but voicing them might not be such a good choice. "That I do not know."
Tanner woke choking for his very breath. Strangled gasps and frenzied thrashing were tempered with the gale force winds that blew outside-- the night had not settled the turbulent winds. Vin clawed at his neck and winced as his fingers buried deeper into his skin, digging holes through his flesh and effectively tightening around his windpipe. "Chris. . . " he hissed weakly.
Larabee jolted alert, startled by the disquieting moan. He rubbed at his temples, wincing at the dull ache that still lingered. "Vin? Ya need somethin'?" Chris frowned at the wispy cloud that hovered over the tracker. As the gunslinger approached, the cloud dissipated, giving Chris a clearer view of the fraught Texan. "Vin!" he shouted, alarmed at the desperate pose and the suffocating wheeze.
"He's choking himself," Ezra claimed brushing aside the stunned gunman and grabbing hold of Tanner's arms, attempting to pry tight fingers away from his neck. "VIN, STOP IT!"
Chris jumped onto the opposite side, following Ezra's example and taking hold of Vin's left wrist, but the tracker continued to struggle for breath.
His eyes wide with terror and panic far outweighing his normal common sense, Vin fought with everything he had. He didn't feel his broken leg; he could only feel his lungs fighting to take in every breath. So he fought. It didn't occur to him that he was fighting against Chris and Ezra, who were only trying to help him. His face burned, turning bright red while his lips were tinged with blue.
"For God's sake, Tanner, breathe!"
Standish plied his whole body weight onto the frantic clasping hands; he was astounded by the strength of the injured man. His face was almost pressed against Vin's shoulder and he could hear the fight wrought for each laboured breath as it was snatched desperately through blue lips. Vin hadn't been choking himself as Ezra had first believed, but his actions were hampering his ability to catch his breath.
"Can't. . . Breathe. . . " Vin rasped out in a panic. Hurts! Chest feels likes it's caving in! God, Larabee! Help me!
The cloud that hovered over Vin lifted up and hurtled toward the fire where a surge of flames leapt out and met with the mist. The cloud and flames mingled as though both were a living entity and they battled for supremacy. The fire roared, drawing power and strength from the hearth and extending translucent fingers out into the shack, engulfing and smothering the cloud. The mist quivered, and the fire acted on the minute weakness, devouring it, and the evil it represented, to a fiery grave. A blinding white flash erupted inside, and just as quickly the fire returned, crackling contentedly in the pit.
Tanner's body surged off the ground, his back arched and his eyes rolled back in agony. A deafening scream filled the cabin while his body shook with tremors, his limbs writhing and twitching uncontrollably. Vin clenched his teeth, biting through his tongue, spilling a trickle of blood from his mouth. He screamed again as though he was fending off the devil himself, then collapsed to the floor unconscious. The room fell quiet and Vin's breathing returned to normal.
Ezra stared open mouthed and eyes wide. He glanced at the sedate fire with what could only be described as a mixture of bewilderment and intrigue. Had Larabee seen what he'd witnessed? And then he glanced at Tanner's unresponsive form. "What the hell was that about?" Standish asked, though he didn't expect Chris to reply.
Larabee's face was still warm from the fire's surge and he was seeing white dots from the dazzling flare. Never had he seen such a phenomena. And there were several moments where he had expected his life to end. But it had only lasted thirty seconds. Chris shook his head, unable to answer. He touched Tanner's chest and was reassured by the steady rise and fall. He wiped the trail of blood from Vin's mouth with a rag and stood up. "I'm. . . taking a look round outside."
Ezra quickly raised his eyebrows, sceptical of such a move. The wind moaned outside the miserable little cabin, the gusts buffeting the very foundations. "Is that wise?"
Larabee saw the look and was quick to defend his actions. "There is somethin' out there. I can feel it in my bones. . . "
Ezra stood, quickly placing himself between the gunman and the door. "And there was something just as. . . mysterious inside this hovel two minutes ago." And it almost choked the life out of Tanner while we stood by and watched!
It didn't take much to read the direction of Standish's thoughts. His were travelling along the same path. But he needed to do something. "It's gone now." Larabee pushed the gambler aside and reached for the door, but his feet were rooted to the ground. Loosen up, just relax.
Ezra glanced at the dwindling fire and licked his lips. The cloud had disappeared, but the shack seemed to have taken on a life of its own. And the wind wailed outside, disguising threats and covering real dangers. Was it the wind calling Larabee like a siren, tempting him into the unknown? Had Larabee allowed danger to become his mistress since the death of his wife and child? Had adrenalin become his true toxicant? What was Chris' motivation? There was no necessity to leave the building. . . none that was worth risking his life for. Where had the levelheaded Larabee gone? He was acting reactionary and not considering his options clearly. "I shall accompany you. . . "
"No need. . . " the gunslinger dismissed, finally managing to lift his lead weight boots.
"You stated yourself there was something nefarious outside. It is only practical to. . . "
"I ain't scared of no chicken shit! You stay with Vin."
Standish nodded reluctantly.
"Ya call me if Vin has another turn." A lot of good they'd be able to do though.
Standish was apprehensive; this was not a wise choice. His eyes flickered nervously between Tanner and the exit, while he listened to Larabee's heavy footsteps as they circled the shack. He followed the sounds, scanning the insides of the walls and imagining where the gunslinger was on the opposite side and his heart beat more rapidly while he waited inside with the unconscious tracker. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and Ezra drew his Remington. Larabee had returned to the front and Ezra sighed when the cabin door began to swing open. Nothing had happened! There was nothing to fear.
Or was there?
The Southerner's eyes flew to the opening. Why did it take an eternity for Chris to open the door? His heart skipped a beat and the Remington in his hand rose to chest level. And then, Chris was standing in the framework. Ezra swallowed around the lump in his throat and zeroed in on his target. His hand didn't tremble.
Larabee squared his shoulders, and returned the gambler's scrutiny. It was the flick of Ezra's eyes and a hoarse garbled shout that had him diving off to the right. A whoosh of air swallowed the shouted warning; a tense rush of movement and disgruntled cursing did not mask the discharge of two gunshots that pierced the very spot where he'd been standing. Chris sprawled on the floor, stunned for a millisecond, then he rolled, bringing up his Colt in a single movement and aimed it at the gambler. "What the hell. . . ?"
The gunslinger's eyes darted from the transfixed gambler to the wide open door. He stared out into the darkness wondering what captivated Standish. He saw nothing. Chris glanced back at Ezra, and his eyes widened, taking in the arrow that was buried several inches into the wall behind the gambler. Standish had just saved his life, at the risk of losing his own. Larabee shouldered the door closed and returned the Southerner's stare. Standish had not dropped his gun, and by leaning into the door, Chris was now facing Ezra's gun for a second time that night. "Ya get him?"
Standish shifted uncomfortably, and looked over his left shoulder to examine the crossbow arrow. He'd felt the parting of the air as the arrow sailed past his left ear. He winced involuntarily, imagining where the arrow had been intended and sank to his knees, both legs feeling numb and not willing to support his weight a moment longer. Get it together, Standish! he ordered, shaking his head to clear the dazed sluggishness. "Sorry," he rasped.
"Sorry?" Larabee blew the wind from his cheeks. "Ya just saved my hide, and yer sorry?" It was easier to vent his anger than allow the fear that was close to surfacing to rise. It wasn't aimed at the gambler, although his tone was rough and abrupt. He was a fool to wander outside.
Ezra blinked. "My apologies for not reacting earlier--"
"Ya saw something," he clarified, it wasn't intended as a question. Chris knew for certain they had unwelcome company outside. He'd felt a presence when he was outside, but not seen or heard anything. How he could have expected to hear anything over the wail of that damn wind was beyond him. But Larabee also hadn't sensed anyone standing directly behind him either. He hadn't noticed. How the hell had that happened? He lived by his instincts. . . were they failing him now?
Ezra nodded. "I am uncertain," he contradicted himself. There had been a shape, dark and distinct. Both bullets should have found their marks. They were perfect shots, and should not have missed. If there had been something, or someone there, he should have hit him. . . it. But nothing lay out in the yard. Not even any blood. Nothing but shadows and the howling wind moved outside. "We. . . I should verify--"
Been down this path before. Chris glanced at the closed door. It wasn't much of a barrier between them, especially as the windows were missing and the roof was half fallen in around them, but he wasn't taking any more risks. His instincts told him that given a second chance, the spectre wouldn't miss. "No. . . stay in here." He shoved off the door, his knees wobbling unsteadily. . . the impact finally catching up with him. But he wanted to get a closer look at that arrow. "Ya hurt?" he asked belatedly as he pulled it free from the hardened plank.
"I am unharmed."
He'd seen the confusion and doubt in the gambler's eyes. "Was definitely someone out there. . . or how else do we explain this?" Chris angrily snapped the arrow over his thigh and tossed it to the fire.
"Mr. Larabee. . . Chris. . . I'd like to apologise for dragging both you and Vin on this jaunt. I was under the false assumption that Mother had indeed supplied the tickets, but as that seems to be a deception--"
Larabee shook his head in pure astonishment. Did Standish truly believe that he and Vin blamed him for this debacle? He grunted, not bothering to hide his scowl.
Ezra continued, not noticing Larabee's menacing demeanour. "Had you not accompanied me--"
"What?" Chris interrupted gruffly. "Ya'd still be here with. . . Who? JD and Josiah? Or worse still, ya'd be stuck out here by yerself, fighting that. . . that. . . spectre did ya call it? On yer own!"
Standish's shoulders sagged. What exactly was Chris saying? Did Larabee prefer to be here? Is that what the sombre gunslinger was attempting to impart? "You want to be here?" Ezra asked incredulously.
"Hell, Ezra! I don't want to be here!" Any place but, in fact. Seeing the gambler nod in understanding was not what he'd intended. "Damn it all!" Why did he have to spell it out? Why couldn't Standish just know what he was thinking without him having to say it? He's a conman; he makes a living reading people's expressions, so why can't he read me? Doesn't he trust what he sees? "I'd rather be here watching yer and Vin's back than back in Four Corners and worrying about ya'll."
Ezra raised his head and read the serious note that was evident in Larabee's expression. He licked his bottom lip and a miniscule smile creased his mouth. "You might yet come to regret that proclamation."
Chris returned the grin in fashion.
"Reckon I should break out the violin?"
"Mr. Tanner, welcome back."
"Ya guys kiss and make up?" Vin winced as he sat up on his elbows.
Ezra screwed up his face, choking on his retort. "Dare I ask what manner of dreams you've been plagued with?"
"Weren't dreamin'. . . but wakin' up and hearin' ya'll sappy. . . Yech!"
"Humph!" the gambler responded, feeling a little off centre. "Any difficulty breathing, Vin?"
Tanner twisted his mouth and frowned at Chris. Why the hell was Standish asking about his breathing? But Larabee stared at him with equal contemplation. "I broke m' leg, boys. Ain't nothin' wrong with m' chest." He thumped it with two solid blows.
"So ya ain't having any trouble?" Chris kneeled in the dirt beside Tanner.
"I just told ya both," Vin responded abruptly, "ain't got nothin' wrong, cept m' leg." He stared, perplexed at them both. What was their problem? His leg was busted! That didn't affect his mind. . . there was nothing else wrong. . . except. . . his tongue was fat and swollen and he could distinctly taste blood in his mouth and he swallowed down the acrid taste. How had that happened?
"He doesn't remember." Ezra glanced at Chris to confirm.
"Don't seem like it."
Vin sat up further and shrugged away from Chris' helping hands. "What the hell's got into ya pair? I said, I didn't--"
Chris rested his hand on Vin's shoulder. "How's the leg, Vin? Is there anything we can do?"
"Yeah, there's somethin' ya can do," he snapped bitterly. "Ya could shut the hell up and let a body get some rest!" Tanner grimaced as he shifted position, but he glared at Chris when the gunslinger went to help him. "Don't need ya touchin' me! J'st need some sleep," he growled.
Neither Chris nor Ezra spoke a word or uttered a sound until Tanner's breathing was deep and regular. It didn't stop them from sharing confused and worried expressions regarding Vin's behaviour.
"That was peculiar."
"He ain't doin' so well. What do ya expect?" Larabee growled in defence.
Ezra licked his lips, uncertain how to answer. To him it seemed that Vin was unaccountably angry, with both himself and Chris. But if Larabee found Tanner's behaviour within the bounds then he had no reason to dispute it. He didn't need Chris on his back when they'd only just come to an understanding. "Of course, you are correct."
Chris stared at the conman for a long moment; Standish didn't flinch under the scrutiny. Ezra had been right about Vin, and it concerned Chris that Tanner had reacted as he'd done. It was strange. So why hadn't he just agreed with Ezra and let it be? "Ezra. . . "
"I shall take position by this window, while you tend Mr. Tanner."
Chris nodded. "Stay out of sight. I don't fancy diggin' out any skewers," he grinned wryly, but Standish ignored him.
Ezra tiredly allowed his Remington to drop to his side. Waiting was never one of his strong suits. And he'd yet to see anything since taking up watch.
"Anything?" Larabee asked.
Standish rolled his shoulders before answering. "Nothing apparent." He continued staring out into the night and feeling Larabee's gaze on his back.
"Were you acquainted with the deceased?" Standish interrupted.
"The dead guy from the train?"
"Never seen im b'fore." Could have been the engineer from the caboose. . . but who was to say? And was Standish going to continue this conversation without facing him? "You?"
"I do not believe so. What do you infer his purpose is. . . or was, in this macabre circumstance?"
Larabee shook his head. "I have no idea, Ezra."
Standish finally turned, meeting the gunslinger's eyes for a fraction of a second before dropping them. "I've been giving some serious thought to our. . . misfortune."
"And?" Chris prompted. He wouldn't mind hearing a second point of view.
Standish sighed. "I'm hesitant to admit, but the answer escapes me."
Larabee chuckled softly. "Ya ain't alone there."
"Ezra. . . I need ta stretch my legs, so why don't ya sit beside Vin?"
Ezra glanced at the still form alongside Larabee. He saw the tracker tense as his name was spoken; the blankets at his side lifted slightly, but when Standish checked Vin's face his eyes remained closed. Ezra frowned, wondering if Vin was awake and why he was playing possum. Tanner's eyes sprang open, and there was such vehemence in those normally clear blue eyes, that Ezra recoiled under the Texan's glare. But nothing prepared him for the sneer of distaste that Vin bestowed on the unsuspecting man in black or the flash of steel that moved upwards. His eyes widened in alarm. "Vin! Chris. . . move!" Ezra shouted as he lunged full length across the room, landing squarely on the tracker and shoving Chris with his elbow.
"Standish. . . what the hell?" But Ezra was clearly preoccupied. He struggled with Vin and appeared to be allowing Tanner to get the upper hand. "Standish, get off him!" Chris roughly pulled the gambler from above, tossing him to the side. He was stunned when Vin followed the movement slashing at both him and Ezra with a bowie knife. "Vin?" What was Tanner doing? Wasn't he awake properly? Was he reliving a nightmare? Talk to him. . . let Vin hear his voice. . . "We ain't tryin' ta hurt ya, pard."
Vin glared defiantly, ignoring any pain he may be receiving from his broken leg. His eyes stared fixatedly, his mouth drawn tightly into a thin line. He returned Larabee's confused look and smirked. His fingers moulded intimately around the handle of the knife and his licked his lips in anticipation.
"Vin," Chris edged forward, down on his haunches. "Drop the knife."
Tanner glanced at the blade, his eyes flickered briefly, puzzled and he allowed the blade to touch the floor.
"All right. . . Vin. . . it's gonna be. . . "
"Argggg!!!" Tanner screamed, lunging at the gunslinger.
Chris met the attack head on, gripping the wrist that held the knife and pushing it down. "Damn it, Tanner," he groaned, losing his footing and finding himself under the possessed tracker. Chris couldn't let go the wrist that wielding the knife, and Tanner was using every last bit of strength he had to inflict an injury.
Ezra took a flying leap onto the struggling pair, rolling Vin away from Larabee as he did. The manoeuvre severed Chris' grip on Vin's arm and the three lawmen tumbled on the floor. Vin in the centre flanked by his friends. Ezra panted, clearly worried by Tanner's behaviour. He couldn't get past the fact that Tanner had been planning on using the blade on Larabee. They were best friends. "Vin, calm down." Ezra got his feet under him, but remained in a crouch.
Vin glared in Larabee's direction, swallowing convulsively. He snarled a guttural noise in his throat, his fingers inching toward the lost weapon.
Standish saw the furtive glance Vin was giving the misplaced knife. It had fallen closer to Vin than either of them, but it was definitely on Ezra's side. There was no way Larabee would have a chance of getting it.
"Back up, Ezra," Chris ordered. He could see the cogs churning in the Southerner's mind, even as Vin stretched toward the bowie knife. Vin would have the blade before Standish made the move. . . they needed another way to disarm Tanner. . . permanently.
"I said, ta back away!"
Vin picked up the weapon as Larabee had suspected he would. . . and Chris braced for the renewed attack. A bullet would stop Tanner short, but he baulked at such a measure.
"Fine," Ezra grudgingly obeyed. Tanner had already reclaimed the knife. . . He presumed Vin would resume his attack on Larabee and was totally taken off guard well Vin threw his injured body around and plunged the knife into him. "Ah . . . arggg!"
"Tanner?" Chris stood dumbfounded while Vin surged off his floor and attacked Ezra. He saw the blade cut through the gambler's coat and was shocked to see Vin draw back for a second swing. Enough was enough! And this had gone too far! "Sorry bout this--" Larabee cold-cocked Vin with the butt of his gun and he collapsed onto Standish.
"Is that too tight?"
"It's fine," Ezra agreed eyeing the bandage Larabee had wrapped around his arm.
"We could cut up one of the blankets and make ya a sling."
Ezra pulled on his coat. "It is only a minor laceration. . . I certainly don't require a sling."
Chris picked up the blood-soaked shirtsleeve and tossed it into the fire. "Bet Nathan would disagree."
"He's not here."
"Hmmmm. . . why'd ya jump, Vin?"
Ezra threw his head back against the wall. His arm was already throbbing. Another ache alongside his shoulder. He supposed it was a blessing that both injuries had occurred to his left arm. "Ah. . . Vin was. . . um. . . I thought he--"
"--Was gonna attack me?" Larabee finished, and stared at the gambler incredulously. Why couldn't he just come out and say it? Tanner was aiming for him. Them both.
"Yes," Standish sighed, his shoulders slumping. "I could have been mistaken though. . . and will attempt to make amends with Vin when he awakens." There was the possibility that Vin was dreaming and wouldn't recall his actions.
Chris continued to look steadily at the gambler. He hadn't seen what Standish had seen, not initially in any case. And he hadn't seen the knife in Tanner's hand until it was too late, but he hadn't expected Vin to use it against them either. He trusted Vin. . . with his life. What had prompted the Texan to attack them? It bothered him immensely. If one good thing came out of this was that the gambler had surprised him. Maybe he could trust Standish. "Ya did good, Ezra. Least ya don't have ta explain why he was pistol whipped," he grinned wryly.
"Ah. . . should we remove Vin's weapons. . . for safe keeping?"
Larabee cocked his head to the side and smiled. "Reckon, we'll do just that, til Tanner's actin' normal."
"Did you notice Mr. Tanner's apparent ignorance of his limb? And his eyes?" Not to mention the abnormal amount of strength. Where did that come from?
"Caught up in his dreams. . . ?"
"But he has a broken leg!" How does one just forget that?
"Dunno." It was all too strange to consider. Now what? "Ya hear that?"
Standish glanced at the door and unhooked his gun. Something was scratching at the doorway. "It sounds suspiciously like. . . a dog?"
"Or a. . . WOLF!" Larabee shouted, firing at the furry beast that jumped up to the window. It scrambled for a foothold, clawing at the sill, but all life drained quickly from the animal and it sank to the ground. "Sounds like he brought his pack."
Ezra approached the opening.
"Don't get too close! They ain't afraid." Which in itself was odd. He'd never seen a wolf bold enough to enter a building.
"Why are they howling like that?" Ezra pressed a hand over an ear and bent the other down on his shoulder. "Please don't tell me they're mourning."
Larabee snorted. Only Standish would come up with that. Or JD, perhaps. "Reckon he was the alpha." He spent several shots from the opposite window hoping to break up the pack. He heard Standish fire blindly into darkness also. "Save yer bullets." We might need them later. Chris turned to face the inner room. "Ezra!" he screamed as the Southerner fell to the floor. Distracted by the gambler's plight, Chris stepped in front of the opening. He felt the searing pain as a projectile skimmed through his hair, simultaneous with the report of a rifle. Damn!
Chris crumpled to the floor; his peacemaker still gripped in his hand. His eyes fluttered as he fought the call to surrender his body to oblivion. "Vin?" the question died on his lips as he lost the battle.
Vin dropped the slender log to the ground, and stepped over the unconscious gambler. His eyes glazed over and unfocused, he limped outside, not giving either of his friends a parting glance. His broken leg only a slight hindrance as he walked out into the night.
Chris moaned. "Shit!" He pushed himself to a sitting position, his head rolled and a wave of vertigo took over his senses. He rubbed at a knot on his head and his hand came away sticky with blood. "Fuck!" He'd been lucky, the bullet had only creased his skull, but that didn't mean it hurt any less. Larabee looked around the room, fearing the worst. And he wasn't far off with that assessment. The door was standing open, Tanner was absent, Ezra was unconscious and he boasted a new part and a bitch of a headache.
"Standish?" He found it easier to crawl to the Southerner. "Ezra? No time f'r nappin'." He rolled the Southerner over onto his back, and peeled back an eyelid. Damn! "Gonna have ta leave ya for a bit, while I find Tanner," he mumbled to the unconscious gambler. "Don't go anywhere, ya hear?"
Chris crawled to his feet, staggering as he did so. How long had he been out? Where had Tanner gone? "Vin?" How far had he gone? And what the hell had happened to Vin? Did he have amnesia? Or was he caught up in a nightmare? Chris carefully pulled a burning log from the hearth. He needed light if he was chasing Vin outside. "Tanner?" Larabee leaned on the doorjamb, scanning the yard for his missing friend. He cast a look at the heavens and a tremor fanned out along his spine. It was a full moon. The wolves were gone, but he could still hear them howling. They hadn't gone too far. He glanced at a spot below the window expecting to see the body of the dead wolf he'd shot, but the animal was gone. He bit his lip and swung the burning timber in a wide arch, following the cries of the wolves.
His muscles tensed, tightening with each step he stole further away from their sanctuary. It couldn't be helped. He was not going to leave Tanner out in the open by himself. Vin had to be out of his mind, confused or concussed; it was the only explanation Chris could come up with as to why he had attacked Standish and then gone off on his own. The wind swirled about his feet, and bit through his jacket, the chill in the air had dropped beyond all predictions. The cold seeped through his clothes, and sucked away his strength. Or perhaps this sensation could be attributed to his injury. "Vin?"
Larabee glanced over his shoulder; the shack had been swallowed up by distance and the night. He came to a standstill, frozen with his foot paused in space. The shadows shifted with the swirling breeze, images blurred, changing too quickly. He took his next step and waited. He could feel a presence behind him and it was these instincts that had saved him many times in the past, but usually he could see the threat. "Show yerself!" Chris walked backwards for several steps, straining into the edges of his vision hoping to catch a glimpse of. . . something. Of anything? His boot heel collected in a slight hollow, unbalancing the gunslinger and causing him to fall. "Shit!"
The second his backside touched the ground, Larabee rolled to his knees. He swallowed back the start that choked in his throat, coming eye level with a grey wolf. The burning log he'd been using as a torch was lying off to the side, he glanced momentarily at it. The timber wolf growled. Its teeth were all Chris could focus on as it boldly closed the distance between them. His fingers twitched, hovering over the handle of his Colt. The second he moved to empty the holster, he was guaranteed the animal would attack; it would be a close contest. His arm moved on its own volition, and he thumbed the hammer back, shooting the wolf as it launched at him. It landed in front of him, panting and whimpering. The dog would die before long. Chris slowly backed away.
His arms and legs wobbled, and his heartbeat pounded in his ears. He picked up the log and it weighed strangely heavy in his hands. "Vin?" his voice cracked, sounding pathetically weak. He tried again, summoning his strength. Chris wondered once again how Vin had managed to walk so far on his broken leg. "Vin. . . Tanner?" And there he was. "Hell!" Larabee resisted the urge to run to his friend; instead he crept up behind the tracker, keeping Vin between him and the group of wolves that panned out in front of Vin. The wolves kept their distance, showing their teeth and growling. His nerves were still frayed from his encounter with the beast; he had been lucky to escape. How was he going to protect Tanner and himself when this time there were four or five wolves? "Pard, this ain't no time ta be gettin' in touch with nature."
Tanner turned slightly, confused. He heard the tingling of bells and it seemed to bring him out of his trance. "What's. . . goin' on?" he slurred. His eyes widened slightly taking in the presence of the wolves. He instinctively fumbled at his side for his sawn-off Winchester, but the weapon was missing. "Larabee?"
A mournful cry filled the night air and the wolves lifted their heads in unison, turning and listening to the sound. Chris shivered, disturbed by the wretched wail. He reached out and captured Vin by the elbow, using the burning log to ward off the wolves and curiously they disappeared into the darkness without attacking. Had something called them back? Was that their signal? Larabee wasn't about to question his good luck. "Need ta get ya back inside." They'd been gone for far too long.
Vin lurched, the pain in his leg reaching his numbed senses. "No."
"I don't like that place any better'n you, but it's gotta be safer than out here."
"He wants us. . . " Vin groaned, unable to manage the growing fire from his leg and collapsed.
Chris moaned, lifting Vin up over his shoulder and returned to the shack. He practically ran, fearing any minute that the wolves would return. But the shadows and eerie fog that had closed in around them had him more on edge. "This is gettin' too weird."
Chris gasped, dropping Vin gently to the ground. "What in the hell's been going on?" He grabbed his Colt, inspecting the single room in wide-eyed shock. The shadows in the shack danced along the walls with an eerie essence. Flames flickered to life from several candles, that weren't here a few minutes before. And Standish was in the midst of them all. The door slammed behind him and Larabee jumped, cursing his inattention. A draft whistled through the windows and the flames wobbled and twisted, strengthening instead of faltering.
Chris stepped uncertainly toward the gambler. He swallowed around a hard lump. Standish had been moved while he had been rescuing Vin, his body dragged clear to the centre of the room. A circle was drawn in the dirt under the Southerner and a five-pointed star drawn inside the ring. A candle had been placed at each point of the star. Larabee bent awkwardly, crouching, fearing he'd find the gambler dead. He reached out, his hand trembling, and lightly touched Ezra; his skin was cold and clammy, but his chest rose up and down. "Ezra?"
The door banged again and Chris dropped forward onto his hands. Hell his nerves were shot! He sucked in a breath and spun about, drawing his Colt and aiming it at the swinging door, his heartbeat galloping wildly. Nothing was there. He lowered his gun. He'd thought the door had latched when it first slammed, but that was obviously not the case. A gust sucked the door outwards again preparing to careen inwards with another mighty thump; Chris jumped up caught the door mid-swing and bolted it himself this time, double- checking that it was secured.
Chris scuffed through the symbol on the floor, and in his haste knocked over one of the candles. He wanted to stamp them into the ground, or throw them into the fire, but the extra light inside the shack was welcome. "Ezra, pard. I'm gonna move ya a little."
Standish groaned, raising his hand to his head and slumping back against Larabee's chest as he was sat forward and dragged clear of the circle.
Chris kicked up the dirt and wiped away the remaining image. Why was this bastard playing with them? He'd had each of them alone and vulnerable. What was he planning? And what could they do to stop him. . . it? They were all safe again. . . for the moment. He sank to the floor and squeezed his eyes closed. His head was aching, his stomach churning.
Larabee opened his eyes, sighing. "Ezra?"
He asked in such a way that instantly raised awareness in the gambler. Ezra looked past Chris and across to Tanner, unconscious on the floor. He sat up quickly, peering out through the darkened window. "The wolves?" He listened intently, but the howling had stopped.
Larabee shrugged. "They're gone." At least for the time being. He winced.
Chris touched his head wound; the blood was sticky, but it had stopped bleeding. "It's nothing."
Standish didn't believe him for a minute. He rubbed the nap of his neck and made a face. Why did his head hurt? He noticed the candles for the first time; it wasn't as gloomy inside the room. "Is Vin. . . ?"
"He's no worse."
Standish bit his lip, knowing something of importance had occurred. "How did we acquire the candles?"
Chris sat back against the wall, closing his eyes and sighing. There was grit in his eyes and they burned now, insistently beckoning sleep. He wouldn't be at all surprised if they were bloodshot. It had been a long night, and it was yet to finish. "When I brought Vin back inside. . . they were. . . " he gestured with his hands, "all around you."
Standish started, rubbing at his arm that was bandaged beneath his jacket. His eyes widened. It took him a few moments before he could bring his panic under control and could speak normally. Almost normal. "Could you be more explicit?"
"There was a symbol scratched out in the ground, the candles were at certain points and you were laying in the middle."
Standish shivered, glancing at the symbol that was still recognisable; he could still make out the markings even though Larabee had scuffed them out. A pentagram. "Ah," he muttered, finding it difficult to tear his eyes from the demonic pattern. He saw Chris watching him with a degree of concern, and knew he was showing far more emotion than was wise. He turned inside himself, took a calming breath, and cleared his expressions. Time for some deflection. "Why was Vin venturing outside?"
Larabee arched his eyebrows. He'd watched the change come over the Southerner, but still he'd been dead certain Ezra would want to know more about the symbol. He wanted to know more himself. "I've seen the symbol before. . . "
Standish glanced down at the floor and gulped in a quick breath and expelled it slowly. "How did Mr. Tanner manage to--?"
"What is it with you?" Larabee shouted, jumping to his feet in frustration. "Ain't ya the slightest bit curious as to where I've seen it b'fore?" Not waiting for an answer, he continued, "I saw it about a week ago. . . it was only small compared ta this one, but it was painted in blood and it was in Chaucer's stall."
Standish stared at the gunslinger as though he was talking a different language. Ezra had been unnerved at discovering that symbol and had gone to great pains to remove it without, he'd thought, raising any suspicions. When had Larabee seen it? "I. . . ah. . . Um. . . "
Chris snorted. He'd followed Standish into the livery, his intent forgotten when he heard the gambler gasp and begin muttering and cussing. He'd thought at the time the Southerner's horse had been injured or ill, but the more Standish carried on he decided it was something else. When Ezra had bolted from the stall, Chris had hid in the shadows, coming out while Standish collected a bucket and scrubbing brush to remove the image. It had meant nothing to Chris, but Standish's reaction had made him suspicious. Josiah was the person who eventually told him the truth behind the symbol.
"I didn't put it there." He stood up and wandered over to the churned up floor. "I do not, nor have I ever participated in demonic worship or sacrifice."
"Ezra. . . I never reckoned ya did. Few weeks back there was a dead calf out at my place. It was butchered up awful bad. Thought it was just kids. . . didn't put two and two t'gether til after I talked ta Josiah."
Standish stared openly at the gunslinger. "Are you suggesting you're being. . . stalked?"
"Me, you. . . and probably Vin. . . though he ain't admitted it. It was why I needed ta come with ya'll."
Standish broke into a weak smile. "You orchestrated this?" he asked incredulously, though he'd had his suspicions. But to hear Larabee admit it. . . well. . . that had Ezra astounded.
Larabee waved it aside. "Ya offered me the ticket, Standish."
"True." Ezra licked his lips. "At Mr. Tanner's insistence."
Chris shrugged it off. So what if he asked Vin to suggest to Ezra that he was invited along. It had been no guarantee that Standish would do so.
"And Travis' niece?" Was that part of Larabee's quest to gain the ticket. . . had he stooped so low? Buck's accident was surely just that. . . Chris would never do anything to endanger him, but had Larabee urged JD to stay behind?
Larabee had the good grace to flush with embarrassment. "May have mentioned JD being available to him. . . but she'd hardly take up any of his time. . . she's only a kid herself. . . ten or eleven. . . and she was goin' ta be stayin' with Mary."
"I see. And Josiah's urgent call to visit with his sister. . . ?"
The gunslinger was thinking on the same lines as the Southerner, and he didn't appreciate where Ezra was going. "I had nothin' ta do with that message. . . as far as I know it was genuine. . . "
Ezra's eyes flicked up. . . why hadn't he seen it before? "Buck's cinch broke." It wasn't a hard jump to make from there that JD would remain by his side. Wilmington could have easily been hurt worse. And Josiah's message was probably just as false as his was from Maude.
"I hope you ain't suggestin' I fixed Buck's cinch," Larabee growled.
Ezra blinked. "I'm saying that you, Vin and I were the ones. . . he chose to make this trip into hell." If only he'd seen the con before they'd left Four Corners. But he'd been so caught up in wanting to believe the offer was genuinely from his mother. He should have seen through the ruse! How had he not?
Vin Tanner bit back a groan, blinking through the tears that blinded him. He was cold and uncomfortable, his leg was aching like a bitch, his head was pounding and his tongue was thick and full in his mouth.
Larabee heard the slight movement and lifted his head off his knees. He waited a minute, wondering how Tanner was going to react this time round. "Mornin'." Technically it was morning, even though it was hours from dawn.
"Hey. Don't s'pose ya got another blanket?"
Chris glanced at Ezra. He'd dropped their other blanket over the gambler when he'd succumbed. "Ya can use my jacket."
Vin sat up awkwardly, the blanket falling to his waist and frowned. Why was Larabee sitting on the opposite side of the room? And why was Chris giving him such a wary regard? Like he was edgy about coming too close. There was that look again. Like he was willing the gambler to wake up. . . or. . . "He sleepin'?"
There was a pause before Larabee spoke. "Took a blow to the head, he ain't feeling too perky."
Vin noted the pause. "He gonna be okay?"
Chris nodded, wondering why Vin didn't remember causing Standish's injury. "How's the leg?"
Vin looked down at the splinted limb. "Hurts like a bitch," he grimaced. "Ezra ain't gonna be up ta carryin' me t'morro'."
Chris had already thought the same thing. Hell, the way his head was reeling at the moment he doubted if he was going to be of much use either. Hell, they needed to survive the night first. "We'll work somethin' out. Vin. . . do ya remember goin' outside?"
"Walkin'?" Vin snorted. "I've got a busted leg, Larabee. Ain't no way I can walk on it."
"Fact is. . . ya did. Right after ya clipped Ezra and knocked him out."
"Now I know yer bullshitting. I wouldn't do that!" Vin lifted the blanket up, glancing at the empty place where his mare's leg should be. He frowned, recalling that it had been empty when he was facing down a pack of wolves. Wolves? Now he knew he must have been dreaming. . . there was no way he'd been outside, facing down wolves. But Larabee had just said he'd been walking around outside. Had he really attacked the gambler? If he did, he had no recollection of that. He looked up, meeting Larabee's eyes, and wincing as he noticed the bloody gash in Chris' hairline. Oh God! "D. . . did I. . . do that?"
"Nah. . . this was my own stupid fault."
"But I hit Ezra?" He glanced at the gambler's unmoving form. "That why ya took m' gun?"
"Yeah. . . " Chris was slow to answer. They'd been removed earlier in the night, but that seemed neither here nor there.
And Tanner picked up on this quickly. "What else d'I do?"
"Weren't yer fault. . . ya were havin' bad dreams--"
"J'st tell me, Chris!"
"Ya tried ta attack me with yer knife. Standish stopped ya in time. . . so there's nothin' to worry over." Vin didn't need to know he'd cut Ezra in the clash.
"Geez. . . I'm so damn sorry. . . " Knocked Ezra out and attacked Larabee with my knife. . . it couldn't be true, but why would Chris lie about that? And how did he walk on a busted leg?
"Vin, it's alright, it's. . . "
"What the hell's goin' on here, Chris? I coulda killed ya. . . "
"It's forgotten. . . "
"How can ya say that? I coulda kill. . . Oh my, God!"
"Ya weren't yerself. It's like ya weren't there. Ya seemed ta be in a trance. Do ya remember anything?"
Tanner shrugged, frowning at the task Chris had set him. Did he mention the wolves? "Nope. Somethin's been goin' on. What else? What aren't ya tellin' me?"
"Nothin' ya need worry over."
"Chris. . . "
"Ya best get some more sleep." Chris turned away, not wanting to continue with Vin's line of questioning. Hell, he didn't have the right answers himself.
"Yeah, reckon I will." Vin agreed, knowing he'd get no more answers out of Larabee. He'd work on Standish later; maybe he could make some sense of this then. And he didn't know how he'd managed to keep falling asleep so easily as it was. . . he sure as hell wasn't tired. . . well his leg was screaming like a banshee, but that shouldn't be putting him off to sleep like a baby. It wasn't like he had a head injury. . . although there was a lump back there. . .
Larabee stared intently at the eastern wall. He'd inspected every inch of their domain over the past hour and kept coming back to the same spot. He stood, walking over to the wall.
Chris glanced over his shoulder. "Good ta see ya awake, Ezra."
"Ya see anything odd?"
Ezra joined Larabee at the only complete wall of the building. He raised his brows incredulously. "You mean other than the maniac outside stalking us or the bizarre behaviour of Mr. Tanner," he glanced thoughtfully at the slumbering tracker, "or the train derailing or the--"
Chris chuckled, and it felt good to release some of the pent up energy. "Was only referrin' to this wall, actually."
Ezra ran his fingers through his hair, wincing as they came into contact with the lump. He sighed and gave the wall due consideration. "I have never claimed to be a carpenter. . . but these planks ending at the same level. . . is that what you're referring to?"
"Yeah." Chris picked at the groove with his knife, running it along the crack. "Reckon it's a door."
Standish rolled his eyes. "Just what we need, another exit from this shambles."
"I figured it might be," he grunted, prying the panel inwards, ". . . a hidden room."
"So the previous owners had a storage area," Ezra yawned in disinterest and returned to his place on the floor.
"Figured ya'd at least be interested." Chris dug his fingers around the edge of the newly exposed door, it was difficult to open and he kicked at the build-up of dirt on the floor that held it in place. A musty scent invaded the shack. And another smell that was not at all pleasant. He put his weight behind the door and wrenched it open. "Shit!" Chris stumbled back, tripping and landing on his backside. His Colt flew to his hand and he fired off three shots. He turned a menacing scowl on the gambler laughing behind him. "Shut-up, Standish!"
"I do believe, that rodent has perished," Ezra drawled, his accent thicker than usual.
Larabee smirked sheepishly and gingerly picked up the dead rat by the tail and tossed it out the window. "Goddamn, vermin!"
Ezra stifled his laugh, bringing a candle to the newly unsealed room. "Perhaps an inspection might be warranted seeing as you've disrupted the occupants."
Chris glared at the Southerner. "Yer a real comedian. . . you first."
"No, no. . . this is your discovery. . . I'd hate to deprive you of the satisfaction."
"Harrumph." Larabee took the candle from the gambler, and allowed the meagre glow to enlighten the confined space. The flickering light spread along the rear wall, shadows reaching out with elongated fingers and touching on each corner. The light revealed several canisters with elaborate markings assembled on a narrow shelf and a curtain drawn closed at one end of the hidden room. There wasn't enough room for the gunslinger to go further than a foot inside, but his curiosity was raised, against his better judgement.
Ezra's skin crawled. He stared transfixed by the canisters, wondering about them and not paying attention as Larabee reached for the curtain. "Oh, Lord," he gasped, recalling the significance of the jars, but it was a moment too late, already hearing Larabee's exclamation.
"Shit!" Chris dropped the dusty cloth, and backed up right into and onto the gambler.
Ezra steadied the gunslinger, his hands at Larabee's back. "We seem. . . to have disturbed a burial chamber." The wind outside the shack whistled ominously at that moment, moaning and wailing; giving the impression of lost souls crying out.
"What is. . . that?"
Standish glanced behind, feeling trails of icy tentacles crawling down his spine he trembled. Ezra almost feared finding something there. But there was nothing to see. He reflexively pushed the gunslinger forward a step. Standish didn't know whether to follow Chris inside the hidden room or remain in the outer room. He couldn't decide where he would be safer. Neither, his mind screamed. And the sooner it was closed up again, the better.
"Standish. . . ?"
Ezra met a pair of hazel eyes. He shook his head to clear it. "I believe this. . . fellow has been. . . embalmed."
"As in Egyptians. . . Mummies? But in this instance the wrapping used in the process have been. . . removed," Ezra grimaced. The grotesque facial features of the corpse were horrifying. He pointed past Chris' shoulder. "The body is dried out with salts, all moisture is removed from the body. Quite barbaric really," Ezra commented. "Those jars, more than likely contain his," Ezra nodded at the body, ". . . internal organs. But I understand the heart remains with the body. It was a ritual the Egyptians performed to promote rebirth into the afterlife. Many doctors performed it during the war so the dead could be returned home for proper burial."
"So he wants to live forever. . . " Chris grunted and held the candle higher. He'd seen enough. Far too much! He looked at the corpse and grimaced; the haunted expression would leave behind an unforgettable impression. His stomach rolled, and he bit back a curse, kicking out his boots and lowering the candlelight to the sandy floor. "Goddamn, rats!" he exploded, jumping to avoid having the rodents crawl up his legs.
"I suggest we reseal this room," Standish pressed. He was anxious to leave the shack altogether after discovering the tomb.
Larabee met his gaze and nodded, but not before the building creaked on its foundations. He braced himself on either side of the wall. "Wha. . . What?" What was happening?
The shack shuddered again; the walls trembled under the strain. A bolt struck the wall from outside and the petrified corpse was catapulted at the gunman. Larabee gasped, catching the remains automatically, his fingers breaking though the fragile shell and disappearing inside the corpse. "Goddamn it!" he yelled, dropping the body with a violent shudder. His breathing lurched and his heartbeat sped up, but his feet became lead weights.
"Chris, get out of there!"
He heard Standish shouting, even grab at him, but his feet began sinking into the sandy depths. "Ezra?" Chris attempted to lift his boots out, but they quickly disappeared into the floor. His balance vanished and he fell. The sand parted, dragged him deeper into the abyss. The next time he called the gambler's name there was a note of terror in his voice. "Ezra!"
"Chris?" Ezra instinctively grabbed for Larabee's outstretched hands. He was shocked to see Chris being bodily pulled into the earth. "Hold on!"
"Ezra. . . " Chris cried out, rolling on his stomach to get a hold. The doorframe was out of reach. How had that happened? He glanced over his shoulder and panicked seeing that both his legs were gone beneath the surface. "Don't let go!"
Ezra was sweating, the strain in his arms and legs was excruciating and his left shoulder burned more than he could imagine. He braced his feet on either side of the door, and reached for the flailing hands. Larabee clasped onto him, fingers digging into flesh. Whatever had hold of the gunslinger had a relentless grip. It dragged Chris deeper into the soft earth. "Hang, on," he gasped, as much to Chris as to himself.
"Hurts. . . " he grimaced. Talk about the proverbial tug-of-war. He looked back, wincing as his hips joined his legs beneath the surface.
"Don't look back," Standish ordered. He felt himself being pulled inside the room. Larabee's hands were slippery and he was loosing his grip. He could see the fear on Larabee's face and he dreaded watching such expressions on the normally composed gunslinger. He didn't want to fail Chris. Not now. Not again.
"Can't. . . hang on. . . any longer," he huffed
"Damn, you. You will!" Ezra demanded, pinching his fingers around Chris's wrists tighter. "Larabee, don't you dare give in!"
Chris looked into the gambler's eyes, saw the determination there, but knew in the end it wouldn't be enough. He knew Standish would fight to the end, and be dragged down with him too. He wouldn't allow that to happen. "Thanks, Ezra. Look after Vin," he managed in an almost calm voice. Once the words left his mouth, Chris let go, the gambler's hold only lasted a fraction longer before breaking. When the connection was finally broken Larabee was swallowed down.
Standish fell backwards, stunned. "CHRISSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!"
"Dear Lord!" Ezra scrambled into the small room and urgently started digging back the sand where Larabee had vanished. His shoulder rebelled against the treatment, but he ignored the throbbing ache; a little pain was nothing compared to a life of a friend. He scooped the sand frantically in every direction, but it made little impression. There was no trace of the gunslinger. Chris Larabee was gone.
This can't be real! How does a grown man sink into the ground? How would he explain Chris' absence to Vin, and the others? How did they get him back? And was he alive? NO. . . Larabee had to be alive, and until he was provided with proof otherwise, he would accept no other possibility. Ezra shuddered recalling the last expression on Chris' face as it was covered over in sand - the gunman was absolutely terrified! Once Chris let go, Ezra felt Larabee's fingers slipping. And his body had disappeared within seconds of their connection breaking, and even as Chris was disappearing, Standish had been making a second grab to restore their connection. He hadn't wanted to break the hold. . . but in the end he'd had no choice. Then he was gone. Ezra buried his hand through the top layers and wriggled it down until his shoulder was lying flat on the surface, but he could only feel sand. It pressed around his arm like a glove and he could hardly move it in any direction. "Chris, where are you?"
Standish removed his arm and looked about in panic, his eyes wild and tense. His gaze rounded on the tracker, curled on his side and resting peacefully. He winced uncomfortably, his gut queasy as he thought about Tanner's reaction. What would Vin do in this situation? He considered rousing the younger man, but couldn't bring himself to do so. He tore his gaze away, disgusted with himself. What was he going to do? The others wouldn't forgive him if he gave up so easily, but what more could he do? He stumbled back numbly, frustrated and worried, scrubbing at his damp face with his knuckles. Don't run out on me again! He heard the words in his mind and fell onto his knees. "What the hell do I do?" he screamed, his accent thick and full of emotion.
A shadow passed by the window outside and Ezra jumped to his feet, scrambling for the door and palming his Remington. He glanced once at Tanner, but figured he'd be safer inside. Besides, Ezra would be limited to how much ground he could cover if he had to support Vin's broken leg. The wind tugged at the door, and whistled through the opening and through the gambler's clothing. The wind chilled his face and hands and he shivered. Vin moaned in his sleep and rolled over on his back, unconsciously tugging the blanket up under his chin. Even in his pain-induced sleep the cold was affecting Vin. Standish stepped over the threshold and deliberately closed the door behind him. He stood with his back to the shack undecided over which path he should take. His anger and, in his mind, incompetence, was returning full force. If he could have held on. . . just a while longer. . . perhaps. . . but no. . . it was too late now. "You bastard, what have you done with him?" Standish bolted into the night, tripping over rocks and the uneven ground. "Chris!" Which way? Where was he?
The wind buffeted around him, stirring up dust and small twigs and whistling eerily. It sent the wispy clouds drifting across the sky, hiding the full moon at times, and creating more shadows and gloom. Ezra spun about trying to look in every direction, even up at the heavens. He took a step forward and several to the side, still he couldn't determine where to go. "I propose an exchange. . . take me in Chris' place," he shouted into the wind. He knew it was a futile offer, who would trade Larabee for a common gambler? He waited, resisting the temptation to recall the offer; he could feel the monster's gaze upon his person, the unnatural atmosphere only added to his tension.
"Please, please, don't be dead, Chris," Ezra said softly. He paused by the trunk of the tree, its leaves rustling in the wind. He gasped, the colour draining from his face. Larabee's gunbelt hung abandoned in the branches. Ezra jumped away from the sycamore, and cautiously checked out the overhanging branches. He reached up for the belt, stretching up on his toes and just touching it with his fingertips. "Hell!" He yanked back his hand, staring mutely at the narrow streak of blood on the back of his hand. He grabbed for the gunbelt and sprinted back to the shack.
Ezra tossed the gunslinger's weapon on the floor. He vaguely noticed the bundle on the floor, but didn't bother to investigate further. . . there would be time for recriminations later when Tanner was awake. He couldn't face that yet. But what if Chris was still out there? How would he defend himself now that he was unarmed? Standish sighed deeply, pacing in the small enclosure. This wasn't the first time he'd failed Larabee, but it was definitely his biggest blunder. He stopped pacing and leaned his head forlornly into the wall, angry and disappointed with himself. He stood that way for five minutes. It took that length of time for the raspy sounds to reach his ears, and the warm breath that touched the back of his neck. He straightened slightly, but the movement was insignificant at best. Dear Lord. . . the spectre had followed him inside. Damn! He'd brought the monster inside, and now he'd pay the price. And Vin, unable to even defend himself. . .
A hand grasped his shoulder, pinching his tender muscles in the previously dislocated shoulder. He squelched a moan, but the weight tightened. Ezra plucked up the nerve and glanced at the hand, a black jacket covered past the fingertips. A nervous tick moved over his cheek, and a shudder raced along his spine.
Chris screamed. The sand in his mouth choked him, grinding under his teeth. It filled his nostrils, scratched at his eyes and pressed against his chest. It surrounded him completely and he couldn't move. The tugging force that had bound his legs together had relented; there was only a slight ache left in his ankles. It didn't help his situation though as he couldn't move a muscle. The sand had buried him alive. It was dark and his heartbeat galloped wildly. Hell, he didn't want to face death like this. God it hurt! How long could he hold his breath? Sarah? Help!
And then the sand wasn't surrounding him. His legs were free and the sand was gone and he could breathe. It felt good to move his arms and legs, but that sense of freedom quickly dimmed. Without the sand holding him in place, he fell. His legs peddled, kicking out while his hands groped and clasped for a handhold to break his fall. But there was nothing. "Argggggggg!" he screamed, ripping the very last miniscule of air from his lungs. His throat burned and his stomach heaved with queasiness. He fell -- seconds, minutes, or hours . . . he couldn't hazard a guess. The only thought that pressed on his mind was how painful the landing was going to be. He hoped the end would be quick.
He fell, and fell and all the while Chris tried to keep his feet turned to the ground. But the gravity that pulled him down also kept spinning him about. He'd run out of breath to scream and with the sense of suffocating still so close to his thoughts he panicked, which only sent him into a head-spinning tumble. His stomach gurgled and bile rose to his throat. Waves of nausea and light-headedness became the centre of his whole world. The end came as a jolt, his body entering a dark pool of water with a splash. He speared though the water, catapulting toward the bottom, but he never reached it. He swallowed a mouthful of water before his mind even realised he should be swimming against the downward spiral. Bubbles surged from his nostrils, as he finally kicked into gear and pushed towards the surface.
Chris broke the glassy surface, gasping audibly as he swam to the edge. He climbed out of the pool, dripping wet and exhausted. He'd landed in a cavern, but bars separated him off from the other side. "Hello?" he called out hesitantly and his voice echoed and returned ominously. He peered out into the semi-dark room that was illuminated by torches and grimaced. This is not good! He gripped the iron bars and shook them violently, looking upwards and frowning at the ceiling that was only a dozen or more feet above. "Where the hell did that come from?" How could he have fallen when there was a ceiling above him? And where had all the sand gone? He shivered in his wet clothing, and hugged his arms around his chest, attempting to retain some of his body heat.
"Ezra? Vin? Can anyone hear me?" Chris shouted up at the roof, hoping one of them could hear him. Standish was probably a mess by now, not knowing if Chris was still alive. Ezra had been frightened, Chris had seen it on his face; he hadn't thought Standish would ever put himself out on a limb like that, but that was the second, or third, time in a matter of hours he'd done so for Chris. And Larabee had no idea where he was. He could only assume he was below the shack. If that was the case, reckon they'll hear gunfire. "What the hell?" he exclaimed feeling the belt, holster and Colt missing from his side for the first time. How had that disappeared without him noticing? He was unaccustomed with how exposed he felt by the absence of his Colt. And he'd be reduced to relying on his brute strength and his wits, but would that be enough?
Chris paced inside a cell; three-feet wide and dozen feet long, backed by a pool of water. The outer cavern was lit with several torches, the meagre glow failing to completely enlighten his surrounds inside his cell. He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully, and quickly glanced out into the cavern for signs of life - but he couldn't hear or see anything he shucked out of his boots and without hesitation dived in the pool. Hell, he was still wet anyway. The mirrored surface crinkled with ripples as he swam to the back wall - which was solid rock and reached all the way up to the roof. He paddled on top of the surface and spanned the length of the cave. "Come on. . . it's gotta be here somewhere," he muttered, searching for a means of escape. Chris dove under the surface, and continued his search. He swam down several feet and with no light below the surface he was forced to use his hands as a guide around the bowl-like sides of the pool. He went around the pool in that fashion, taking a deeper route on each turn, but there was no passageway leading off from the pool. But that didn't stop Larabee's determination and, after he'd returned to the surface for the sixth or seventh time, he dove again going deeper and deeper until his head was beginning to spin. He returned to the surface, gasping and feeling woozy and generally disappointed. "Damn." Larabee folded his arms on the floor of the cell, his body languid in the water. "Has to be a way out."
"Ezra?" Vin squeezed the gambler's shoulder with concern.
"Vin?" he sighed in relief, almost staggering into the tracker as he turned around. Vin was wearing Larabee's black jacket. . . how odd. "How did. . . you should be resting." Ezra drew away, wondering how Vin would react this time. Tanner was walking about on his broken leg again. . . to Standish that implied Vin was in a trance again. And he wasn't in a good frame of mind to coax and be gentle. If Vin were going to attack him, he would not hold back.
"Where's Larabee?" Vin asked looking about the room.
Ezra found the words difficult to form. "He's gone."
"Just gone!" Ezra stormed past, throwing his hands up into the air. He kicked Chris' gun against the wall hoping Vin hadn't seen the weapon. He turned around, coming face to face with Tanner, and had to take a step backwards. "Ah, Vin. . . Your leg? Isn't it advisable to elevate it?"
"It ain't too bad. . . " He watched as Ezra drew back from him again. "I ain't gonna hurt ya, Ezra. Look, I'm real sorry bout clippin' ya b'fore, but I didn't mean it. . . hell I don't even remember it."
Standish arched a single eyebrow upwards. "Pardon?"
"Well, I hit ya. . . I figured that was why yer shying away from me. . . ?"
"You hit me?"
"Ah. . . that's what Larabee told me. . . said I came at him with a knife, too. Reckon I don't remember that either."
"Oh." Vin knocked him out? He must have missed that piece of information. . . Larabee hadn't informed him. "Don't concern yourself overly. . . you weren't yourself." Ezra gently rubbed his arm where Vin's knife had cut him. Obviously Chris hadn't informed Tanner that he'd actually injured Ezra. Well, he wasn't about to tell Vin. The bandage was hidden beneath his jacket, so Vin wouldn't be any the wiser. He could feel the dampness through his coat, and when he turned his hand over there was blood between his fingers. He looked up into Tanner's blue eyes, and hastily lowered his. As if he had all the time in the world, Standish wiped his hand on a linen handkerchief and stowed it back in his pocket.
Vin frowned. Why was Ezra bleeding? And why was he hiding it? "Yeah. . . that's what Larabee said. So, where is he?"
Ezra sighed. "I don't know."
"I said, I don't know! The ground swallowed him whole." As if Vin was going to believe that, but he had wanted an answer.
Tanner limped up behind Standish and swung him around. Every step he took on his busted leg was agony, but damn if he was going to let that limit him. He'd been lying around far too long as it was. "You ain't makin' a lick of sense."
"There. . . " he pointed at the hidden room Larabee had discovered. "Inside that crypt, Chris disappeared through the floor! It had too strong a hold on him, and I couldn't pull him back out."
Vin reached out to the distraught gambler, but Ezra reacted warily and moved away. Fine, don't trust me. If he had to earn back that right, then he'd do just that. He limped to the room and pried back the door. He swallowed convulsively and wiped his hand down his face and grimaced. "Ugly cuss."
"No! Don't go inside!"
Vin glanced back at Ezra, seeing the terror that had seized him. "J'st takin' a look. Ain't goin' in."
Vin regarded the room sceptically. Broken pottery was scattered about on the hard packed floor and innards spilled between the cracked jars. The corpse slumped in a pile. "How did Larabee disappear?"
"Through the floor. . . he sank into the sand. I attempted to dig him out afterwards, but it. . . "
Vin scratched his head. "Ain't no sand here, Ezra."
"What?" Standish pushed aside the tracker. He frowned, shaking his head in befuddlement. "No. . . No. . . there was sand on this floor. . . and the canisters were on that shelf. . . "
"That shelf ain't likely ta hold up anything no more."
"Indeed," Ezra answered numbly, studying the two halves of the ledge broken on the floor.
Vin closed off the fetid room. "That Larabee's gunbelt?"
"After Chris disappeared, I ventured outside. . . in the hope of finding him. . . and discovered it hanging in the branches of a tree." He watched as Tanner hobbled over and picked it up.
"Reckon I've had about enough of this shit!"
Ezra's lips twitched slightly. "What do you suggest?"
"Find Chris and go home."
"Amen to that."
"Right after we finish off that bastard!"
Chris Larabee sat on the stone prison floor, cold and miserable. There was only so much patience he could extend his guard. . . for he was certain there was one on the opposite side of the grill. But no matter how much he'd shouted and ranted, even attempted to heckle the mysterious. . . creature, so far he'd yet to lay eyes on him. He'd grown irritable and desperate, formulating elaborate escapes while he passed the time.
Muted light from the touches reached inside his cell and brought with it a frightening chill. He glanced out into the sinister cavern, his breath catching while he furtively examined the room. He ignored the narrow table that took up prime position and cast his eyes over the symbol on the floor instead. The same one that had been drawn around the gambler inside the shack. A pentagram, Ezra had called it. Josiah had claimed it was a symbol of the devil. His eyes narrowed, considering how this situation was going to unfold. Larabee buried his head on his knees.
He revisited the room within his mind's eye, giving it due consideration. Large thick columns reached from the floor to the ceiling, they were spaced fairly regularly and Chris could count at least eight; their purpose appeared nothing more than to give support to the ceiling. A set of stairs led off into the dark; he could only assume that they would take him up to the surface, and a large arched door sealed another possible exit. Chris reluctantly allowed his mind to pan back across the room to the narrow table, and his breathing quickened. Above it was a row of unlit candles evenly spaced along a narrow ledge. His mouth ticked involuntarily and he interlocked his fingers, wrapping them around his shins. He could only assume this was some sort of chamber reserved for sacrifices. Hell, what trouble had he landed into?
Chris snapped his head up. . . the prison door sprang open with a squeal, the whine grated on his already taut nerves. His mouth hung open, perturbed all the while as he leant forward searching the shadows and empty corners, wondering how his cell had opened. Only the eerie presence of dread filled his soul. "What the hell. . . " The gunslinger slowly climbed to his feet and tentatively stepped from his prison, but startled back a pace when the row of candles along the far wall came to life. He gripped the bars of the cell, staggered as the room continued to explode into light. Lanterns, candles and torches he hadn't been able to see in the gloom, now shone brightly. He shielded his eyes, blinded by the light. "How. . . ?" he whispered, dreading leaving his cell.
He glanced at the stone stairs and channelling energy to his cold and stiffened limbs he sprinted, for what he hoped, was an escape. The call for escape was very clear. His legs pumped and his boots pounded on the granite floor. Gonna make it! But then, nothing is ever that straightforward. Chris almost reached the steps, but skidded to a stop. His exit was blocked, and now he stood within reach of the dark-hooded tormenter and his blood ran cold. Goddamn it! Where had he come from?
Larabee retreated, his eyes never leaving the dark nemesis. His hand automatically searching for his gun, but it brushed over vacant space. The hooded creature leisurely took a step forward and Chris' heart drummed frantically under his ribs, swelling as blood rapidly entered and expelled from the organ. Chris held up his hand in vain, attempting to fend off the spectre, but he glided down the stairs and came within a hair's breath. Chris staggered backwards, his eyes roaming frantically as his breaths came in gasps. He went with the fall and wheeled around, racing for the opposite side of the room. "Ahhhhh!" he screamed, his shoulder burning with agony as he was catapulted several yards through the air and landed heavily on the floor. "Urgh," he moaned, levering himself up. Chris looked behind, and seeing the flash of metal coming at him, he rolled to his right, drawing up his legs and seeking protection from under the sacrificial table. The blade glanced across the granite floor and sparks flew up from the connection.
Taking a deep breath, Chris rolled out the opposite side. He stumbled as he found his feet, and needed to steady himself with his hand. He hunkered below the table and kept it between him and the killer. The heavy blade slashed through the gloomy cavern interior and hit resoundingly on the table. Chris jumped back, panting. He looked up searching for a face beneath the dark hood. The killer lifted the blade high above his head and Chris stepped away from the table, giving it a mighty push. It fell with a crash, and Chris dashed for the arched doorway in the moment of confusion. He knocked the candles off the ledge and threw the torch out of the holder and behind him. But as Larabee reached for the handle of the door, his feet were pulled out from under him. He fell, his chin crashing into the ground hard and his vision blurring as he was dragged back to the centre of the room.
Larabee kicked out struggling against the powerful hold. His hands clawed along the stone tiles, arms flailing as he was dragged backwards against his will. He passed the broken table and managed to snag a piece of the table's leg. His lips thinned, and his face turned to stone as he twisted, bringing the lump of wood around and connecting solidly with the killer. It seemed to squelch through the black-hooded spectre, but he did release Larabee. Chris was up and running for his escape. For his life.
Chris bolted up the stairs, taking them two at a time. He slogged up the steps not looking behind or pausing when the stairs levelled out into a narrow corridor. The passageway enclosed around him, he could feel the cool press of stone and he fought the urge to return to the wide-open space of the cavern. More stairs appeared in front of him that would take him up ever higher; he didn't hesitate, but did climb more languidly.
He slowed to a jog, resisting the fatigue, hunger, burning muscles and winded lungs, but it was fear of what was back in the cavern that kept him moving. His eyes were becoming accustomed to the erratic light in the tunnel. Every twenty or thirty feet there was a torch in a bracket on the wall. As the gunslinger came within a few steps of the torch it would instantly hiss and a flame would appear. Sometimes he would be totally in the dark and other times there would be light up and down both ends of the passage. Chris had no idea where he was going, but he still ran; up the stone stairs, and along the narrow tunnel.
Larabee huffed, coming to a set of stairs, he glanced behind him and he could see torches extinguish, disappearing while he watched. A distant grumbling sound came through the tunnel, but while he stood and listened the sound sped up, until the groaning wail was all around him and reverberating in the narrow enclosure. The walls shook with the resonance and Chris was thrown off balance. The moaning echoed inside the tunnel and swallowed all other sounds. He leaned into the wall, grimacing, as the sound grew louder pressing his hands over his ears, until he crumbled to his knees, incapacitated by the high pitched scream.
Chris rocked on his knees, his head clasped protectively in his hands; with each forward movement his forehead touched the floor. The screaming cacophony howled inside his ears, his hands a futile barrier against the harsh wail. And his mind swarmed with confusion, his limbs uncooperative, and a single tear spilled from under clenched eyelids. Get up! Now, Larabee! Chris crawled forward, his own voice finding sound and he shouted back, attempting to drain out the noise, but his cry went unheard even to him. "Got to. . . keep going. . . need to. . . find a way out." He pulled his feet around and made an effort to stand using the stone walls as a guide. He'd been motionless for a while and all the torches had diminished leaving him in total darkness. The blackness seemed to accentuate the piercing scream. He placed a foot in front of the other and followed it with a wobbly step. He took six faltering steps in the dark before the torch on the wall flared. The light had returned once more, but his ears were still ringing and the screaming continued.
Larabee's progress had slowed, but he was optimistic about having escaped. There seemed to be no pursuit. The dreadful clamour still consumed the tunnel, but the level had dropped a fraction. Perhaps he was far enough away. He'd come to the end of the passageway and only a wooden door barred it. He only paused to recapture his breath before pushing it open. "What the hell?" Chris glanced around and swore. "NO!" he shouted angrily.
How was this possible? He'd returned to the cavern. . . after climbing all those stairs and running through the narrow tunnel, he had returned to the same room he'd escaped from. No wonder there hadn't been a chase. Chris glanced at the tunnel on the opposite side of the room, the one he'd used to make his escape. . . there was no point going that way again. There had to be another way out. . . It was only a fleeting thought before Chris' side seared with pain. "Aargg!"
Larabee fell with the blow, his hand automatically seeking the wound; blood spilling out between his fingers. He'd landed on his back and dared not move with the hooded killer standing over the top of him. He glared up at his tormentor. "You'll have to work on yer aim if ya plan on killin' me," he taunted.
"I will have no difficulty," he predicted arrogantly.
"Damn! It talks!" Larabee hissed sarcastically, and knew the taunt had reached its mark when the killer swung his heavy sword at the gunslinger again. Chris scrambled on the floor only saving himself from another strike by seconds. He raced for the overturned and broken table, kicking at one of the legs until it was free. He turned about and faced the killer, holding the lump of wood in his hands and brandishing it like a sword in his defence. "Come on. . . "
Pieces of wood flew out of Larabee's weapon each time the black nemesis brought down his sword. With each stroke Chris' arms quaked under the violent attack, his arms and shoulders barely managing to keep the blade from hitting his flesh. His side ached in agony; he'd do anything to prevent the blade from connecting with him again. But even with this determination, he lost ground with every arc of the killer's swing.
Chris circled the room, desperately searching for a weapon he might use and his hazel eyes fell on an ornamental timber pole that held up a shelf. "Missed," he goaded, ducking under the head high assault. His gaze wandered back to the pole. . . there were two, one on each side. The wood had been turned and shaped, but the part that held some promise was the narrowed point at the end almost like a spear if only he could reach it. . .
Larabee swung the thick table leg, blocking the stroke of the blade, and allowing the killer to push him back towards his goal. The next stroke cut Chris' weapon in half, and the killer laughed, a callous screech that chilled his bones. He threw the remaining piece into the spectre's face and made for the turned shaft. He pulled it off the wall with a grunt and swung it around in time to meet the next assault.
"It is almost time."
"Yeah?" Chris jabbed the sharp end of his spear and it disappeared beneath the killer's hood. He pulled it back out as quickly as it had gone in. The creature screamed, throwing back his head and ranting. His hood fell off and Larabee shuddered, his stomach knotting with repulsion. He stood motionless; almost waiting to see what effect the injury would have on the spectre. If anything, Chris had only made it furious. It came at him with more vigour and strength than he could defend against and subsequently lost his footing, landing square on his backside. The wooden spear clattered on the stone floor.
Chris stared up into the grotesque face, his hands working fervently to find the spear. He watched in slow motion as the sword lifted high, and pleaded that this time would be the last. He waited for the spectre to step forward, while his hands found and wrapped securely around the stem of his would-be spear. Larabee took a deep breath, and surged up with the pole. His aim was true and it slammed into the killer's chest. The sword dropped with a clamour.
An immense torturous howl filled the cavern and the walls shook. The body beneath the black cloak disappeared before Larabee's eyes, leaving only the dark cloth to flutter to the floor, spreading out over the demonic symbol etched in the stone.
"What the hell was that?" Tanner asked, frowning at the terrible wailing noise.
Ezra drew his Remington, and pointed at the room. "It came from in there."
"Reckon we oughta check it out."
Standish nodded in agreement and elbowed past the injured Texan. He pulled back the exposed wall section and his breath dropped to his stomach. "Oh my. . . Good God!"
Vin limped awkwardly up behind the gambler and leant against him. His leg was still paining him considerably, but he didn't want to concern Standish further. "How in the hell did. . . Hell if I understand what's goin' on here, Ezra."
The Southerner cupped his mouth in his hand and swallowed convulsively. The corpse was pinned to the wall writhing; a wooden spear protruded from its chest cavity, the point disappeared into the wall at its back. Something oozed from around the spear's penetration, something that looked distinctly like blood. Ezra gulped, his face paling as he made eye contact with the undead creature. The cadaver's face wretched and contorted in pain, its withered hands grasping at the weapon, loosening the connection that held it against the wall. "This seems rather improbable. . . "
"Shit!" Vin grabbed hold of Ezra's coat and swung him around. They both crashed to the ground, Tanner screaming as his broken leg twisted in the splints as he fell. "Close the door!"
Standish was up on his feet in an instant. He put all his weight onto the door; his previously dislocated shoulder pressing into the wooden panels. He grunted, boots slipping in the earthen floor. The door rattled and bulged with the force applied from the opposite side. "I can't hold it," he rasped.
"Hang on," Tanner urged, attempting to get upright, although the agony showed on his face.
"Vin!" Ezra almost fell over when a withered arm and hand flailed out through the crack. "Dear Lord!"
"J'st for a while longer, Ezra." Tanner staggered, thumbing open Larabee's Colt. Five bullets. "Where's my gun?"
Standish shoved harder, while attempting to stay out of reach of the creature's hands. His forehead beaded with perspiration, his shoulder burned and his wound split open and bled under the bandage. It took a moment for Tanner's words to register. "Inside the fireplace."
Vin arched his eyebrows and glanced at the fire. There were only embers left in the hearth. "M' bullets?" Surely they wouldn't have left the gun loaded.
Standish looked down. "My . . . pocket."
"Easy. . . for you. . . to...say." The gambler turned around keeping his back planted firmly against the bucking door and dug the cartridges from his jacket pocket and threw them across to Vin. "Oomph!" Ezra was jolted unexpectedly away from the wall and the corpse pushed through the gap. Standish was on his back foot, but quickly adjusted and lunged forward, slamming the monster between the wall and the door, trapping it half in and half out of the room. It howled, throwing its head back and screaming; the pitch of the cry had both Ezra and Vin wincing. Dead flesh stretched and crackled over bones, and its mouth worked viciously as teeth hungered after the gambler's flesh. Ezra brought up a fist and hit the undead creature in the face. His stomach lurched when his hand splintered through the skull. "Ugg."
"Okay, Ezra." Vin had collected his sawn-off Winchester from the fireplace, but it was too hot to handle, so he returned it to his holster. He'd use Larabee's Peacemaker first and hope he could load his quickly enough when he needed it.
"Finally," Standish hissed, lunging for the ground and rolling out of the way, allowing the door to open widely. Several bullets from Larabee's Colt slammed into the corpse as it came into view.
"Whoo! Take that you ugly bastard!"
Ezra rolled and took up the attack when Vin stopped in order to reload his own weapon. The corpse jerked with the entry of each bullet and staggered under the combined assault, falling back inside the room. It lay unmoving and finally appeared to be defeated.
"Do ya reckon it's dead?"
Ezra slammed the door closed and faced the tracker. "That is difficult to determine, under the circumstances, but if I were to hazard a guess - I'd say, no." Last time, bullets had little effect on the spectre. He doubted that they had seen the last of it. It might be down for the moment, but how long would that last?
"That's what I figured. Reckon we oughta burn this place to the ground."
That might work. "Excellent suggestion, Mr. Tanner." Although Standish gave the hidden room a forlorn look, wondering if they'd ever see the black-clad gunslinger again.
Before they'd even taken a step away from the hidden room, the ground trembled beneath their feet. Ezra reached out to support Vin, but the floor sunk, the earth crumbling and falling into a hole taking both lawmen screaming into the bowels of the earth.
Chris Larabee stood transfixed, his mind sluggish and his limbs uncoordinated. The immensity of the situation he'd survived taking its toll. He gingerly moved to pick up the black cloak and quickly dropped it; his stomach churning just touching the hideous garment. He kicked it off the symbol and bent to his knees, fingering the deep groves chiselled in the stone. The spectre had gone, but did he dare hope that he'd dispatched it permanently? Somehow he couldn't bring himself to believe that. Blood dripped from his wound onto the symbol, the bright crimson red stark against the grey stone; Chris stared at it for a moment then stood. Just standing on the pentagram gave him the chills. He stepped outside the scope of the circle and pushed a handkerchief under his shirt to stop the flow of blood at his side. It was damn painful, but at least it wasn't deep. Fighting the spectre had taken a lot out of him, physically and mentally. He lethargically spun around, his breaths coming in short gasps as he scanned the eerie cavern for an escape. How did he get out?
His head snapped up as the silence in the cavern was broken by screams that were quickly swallowed by an explosion of water. A flash of red had caught his eye; it gave momentum to his legs, carrying him toward the pool. "Vin? Ezra?" Chris didn't wait, knowing that Tanner had no hope of swimming to the surface with his busted leg, and dove into the rippled surface.
Larabee swam down, feeling blindly in the spasm of turbulent water. He sucked in a mouthful of water, it rolled like a solid lump in his throat and he was forced to swallow it down; it landed with a heavy thump in his belly. His fingers touched briefly on something that wasn't rock, and he quickly reached out in the darkness, hoping to catch onto it again. Luck was with him and he brought the limp body with him to the surface. "Vin?" He pulled the unconscious tracker to the edge of the pool, struggling to keep his head above water, their combined wet clothing and boots weighing them down and working against them. Chris slapped the Texan's face, but there was no response. . . At least he was breathing.
Ezra broke through the surface, spluttering and gasping for breath, his left arm heavy and aching with renewed pain. It took a moment for his mind to clear and to catch his breath. He'd thought he was never going to reach the top. He was relieved to discover Chris had rescued Tanner, he couldn't be certain that he would have managed.
"You all right?"
"Per... fectly," he panted, swimming a few strokes to join Chris and Vin at the edge. "Is he. . . ?"
Larabee shrugged. "Reckon hittin' the water, was too much for his leg. Will ya hold him up, while I get out?" Chris released Vin into the gambler's hold and sluggishly pulled himself from the pool. He staggered, needing to take a couple of deep breaths, before he attempted to lift Tanner out. He glanced down and noticed his wound was bleeding once again; it stung persistently since he dove into the water. He closed his eyes and swayed dangerously on his feet.
"Chris?" Ezra frowned at the gunslinger's unsteadiness; he grew more concerned when he noticed the wound on his side bleeding. With strength he didn't realise he still had control over, he boosted Vin higher in the water, but he realised, as probably Chris had done, that he couldn't lift Tanner out of the water from this point. He needed Larabee's assistance. "Chris. . . "
"Yeah. . . " Larabee staggered to the pool's edge and bent at the waist, tucking his hands under the tracker's armpits and dragging him out; he noticed that Standish had gone under the water and helped lift Vin out from below. "Damn, he's heavy!" Chris winced, touching his side, and sinking to his knees. He glanced at the pool, frowning. Ezra was still in the water, his head resting on his arms, completely spent. Chris didn't know if he had the energy to pull Standish out, too. "Ya need a hand?"
Standish opened one eye, unable to lift his head. "I'm fine."
"Ah huh. . . "
Ezra groaned, not wanting to move. He lifted the top half of his body above the waterline and rested his stomach on the edge. Leaning forward, he used the momentum and practically rolled the rest of the way out. He lay exhausted on his back, content to be returned to dry land or in this case, the cold stone tiles. He could feel the gunslinger's eyes boring into him and he looked up, his mouth twitching slightly. "I'm relieved to see you haven't expired." Larabee returned the grin, but his lips thinned at Ezra's next words. "Although you appear to have sustained an injury."
Larabee pressed a hand against his side; he was surprised by Ezra's observation and the concern in his green eyes. "It's just a scratch."
"Hmmm. . . is there anything I can do. . . "
Chris grinned widely, pleased by the Southerner's offer. "Nah. . . I've got it covered." Literally, in fact.
Ezra nodded, resuming his study of the rock ceiling. He frowned. "Where are we, exactly? And how did we get down here?"
Vin moaned and Chris crawled to his side. "I'm up ta the part, where I'd rather just get the hell out of here," he answered the gambler.
"I'm for that," Vin agreed.
"Hey. . . Enjoy yer swim?"
"Could of done without it." He wiped his face and flicked water from his hair. He gritted his teeth and stifled a moan. "S'pose ya want. . . yer jacket. . . back now?"
Chris grinned. "Would've preferred it ta be dry."
"That would've been good." Vin sat forward and shrugged out of both Larabee's borrowed coat and his own. They were too heavy to keep on and only added to the cold that invaded his body. His shivering was more pronounced once he was down to his shirt, and his teeth started to chatter. "Ezra okay?"
"Certainly." Standish turned over onto his side to answer, then rolled back. Feeling decidedly uncomfortable, he sat forward to remove his coat and vest, wringing the excess water from them. It left him wearing his linen shirt with the left sleeve missing. The white bandage around his arm that Larabee had applied earlier in the night was seeping blood and running down his arm and dripping from his elbow. Standish sighed philosophically and searched for a handkerchief. He could feel both Larabee and Tanner watching him as he fumbled to secure the cloth over the bandage.
"Want me ta tie that off?"
Ezra only met concern in the hazel eyes of his leader. He'd been about to refuse, but surprised himself and Chris by saying, "That would be appreciated. Thank you."
Vin watched closely as Larabee knotted the cloth, wincing in sympathy with the gambler. He still hadn't worked out how Standish had sustained that injury, but with how much it was bleeding he assumed the wound was fairly deep. He wanted to pursue the topic, but knew it could wait until later. "Ya been down. . . here, the whole time. . . since ya disappeared?" Tanner questioned Larabee.
"Yeah. . . had a run in with our friend, then he vanished on me." Chris patted Ezra's arm as he finished the task.
"Let me guess," Ezra drawled, lying back down and resting his head on his wet jacket, "you impaled him through the chest with a wooden lance."
Larabee frowned at the Southerner. "How. . . could you possibly know that?"
"That ugly cuss. . . in the room?" Chris nodded. "He weren't. . . real happy. . . bout that."
"Amazing recuperative powers. . . " Ezra mumbled sleepily.
"Reckon he ain't gonna. . . be real happy. . . bout all them bullets. . . we put in him either."
Chris looked worriedly out into the cavern. "That didn't stop him?"
"Slowed him down some. . . "
"But our floor collapsed beneath us, before we had the opportunity to inflict further damage," Standish finished.
"I figure that makes him about due back down here."
Ezra sat up on his elbows, taking in the surrounds and not impressed by what he saw. "Then I suggest we leave."
"That's easier said then done," Larabee sighed.
Chris' guess was more accurate then he wanted to accept. The spectre appeared on the stone stairs, making little noise as his emaciated and shrivelled body stalked across the room. It skirted the cell and moved directly toward the sacrificial area. But there could be no doubt he knew the three lawmen were down in the cavern with him. He had them exactly where he wanted them.
"Boys," Tanner nodded wearily. "Reckon we got company."
"Hell. . . " Chris glanced at the weapons Ezra and Vin carried. "Tell me you've got bullets left?" Not that they would work after the dousing they'd received.
Vin sat up with a groan. "Sorry. . . I'm all out."
Larabee climbed to his feet keeping a watchful eye on the killer. "Shit!"
"Reckon we can get past him and up those stairs. . . "
"There's no point. It's a circuit, comes back out through that door."
"Then there must surely be another egress."
The spectre set the fallen candles upright, ostensively ignoring them in the open prison cell. He waved his arm and set the candles to life. The cavern illuminated with a blinding light and the three lawmen were forced to shield their eyes and turn away. The spectre moved over to the pentagram, setting candles out around the points of the star.
"Vin. . . can you stand?"
Tanner sat forward. "Just get me up. . . and I'll be right." Ezra and Chris took hold of an arm and gently brought him to his feet. His face paled and he clutched painfully at both men to remain upright. He knew right away what they were thinking. "I'll be fine. . . j'st need a moment. . . ta adjust."
"Might be best if ya stay in here. . . "
"I ain't gonna sit around and watch!" Vin retorted, balancing on his good leg and taking his weight off them. "Let's get this over with."
Chris was still undecided. He strode out the cell door, and the spectre turned to face him. The bars of the cell started to swing closed and Ezra dove through the closing gap, only narrowly escaping being trapped inside the cell with Vin. He landed on the floor with a groan. "Ezra. . . "
"I'm fine," he gritted out, gratefully accepting Larabee's hand to pull him to his feet.
Vin rattled on the prison bars. "Hey!" he shouted in the general direction of the spectre. He glanced hopefully at Larabee. "Chris? Can ya open these?"
Chris shook his head; he had no way of opening the door. "Sorry, pard." At least Vin would be safe in there and they could find a way to open the door later when they'd disposed of the cretin.
"Apparently he was determined to confront us individually."
Chris grinned at the gambler. "Yeah. Ya ready for this?"
"As I'll ever be."
Chris went to the left and Ezra to the right, with an unspoken agreement they circled the killer. Chris took a torch from its holder; it wasn't his first choice of a weapon, but he'd use whatever was available. He noticed Ezra removing the other ornamental spear from under the shelf and nodded approvingly, they wouldn't be much defence against the heavy sword that the spectre had reclaimed, but it was two against one. The odds were in their favour. It had to mean something that the spectre only wanted to take them on one at a time. Perhaps his strength was waning.
The undead killer faced Chris, and Larabee felt chills run down his spine. "I can understand now why you were so keen on wearin' that cloak," he goaded. He was absolutely hideous!
"Chris," Vin hissed from his cell. "Don't rile im."
Chris ducked under the wild swing, stabbed forward with the flaming torch, rushed past and turned on the opposite side. The candles that the spectre had taken particular care to set out were knocked over and the flames snuffed out.
Ezra joined in the fight launching at the killer with his wooden spear. "This is so barbaric," he muttered. He brought the long spear around meeting the sword mid air; the blade hit the shaft sending spasms up Ezra's arms and to his injured shoulder. He grimaced, fighting the need to drop the shaft.
"Don't get in too close, Ezra." Larabee followed up by slamming the burning torch into the spectre's back. Standish attacked from the front, but lost half his spear when the spectre brought his sword down on the wooden pole. They kept attacking from the front and behind, getting in their licks as the spectre diverted its attention from one to the other.
Vin hung on to the bars, wincing as he put more weight on his leg. He wanted to cheer his friends on each time they made a hit on the killer, but he was afraid of distracting them. Instead, he whispered out encouragement. He hobbled to the end of his cell, peering into the cavern, straining to see the fight. The wide columns holding up the ceiling invariably blocked his view and he cringed every time Standish or Chris disappeared behind them. He saw the torch Chris had been wielding slide across the stone tiles, his breath caught in his throat, unable to see what had happened. "Chris. . . where are you?" he softly called. He received his answer when Larabee jumped out from behind a column and picked up a table leg. Tanner sighed deeply, wishing he were able to be of some help.
Ezra's spear was being whittled down; soon it would be useless as any form of defence. He'd been paying attention to the spectre's hold on the sword and knew they needed to separate the two. He spun around, kicked out with a jump and landed a boot in the spectre's jaw, he followed this up with a deft manoeuvre with his spear, catching the hilt of the sword and robbing the spectre of his hold. It flew through the air clattering into one of the columns twenty feet away. Ezra couldn't resist a satisfied grin. The smile was quickly replaced by a grimace, as he found himself ultimately too close. Emaciated fingers clutched his shoulders with supreme strength and swung him firstly into Chris and then tossed him effortlessly aside. He hit a column and slumped under it. A dish of oil was broken off the column, its contents spilling and running over the floor. The slippery liquid slithered to the symbol and filled the engraved pattern.
"Ezra!" Vin screamed. This wasn't how it was supposed to pan out.
Larabee was stunned for a moment, stumbling back as the gambler was knocked into him. He'd had to abort his attack on the spectre as Standish would have received it and he lost his momentum. Sweat dripped down his face, tendons in his arms and legs rippled, taut muscles burned and his side was searing. His breathing was rough and raspy and he could do nothing to prevent the Southerner being hurled around. Unsteady on his back foot, he spared a worried glance at Ezra. He didn't move, and his arm was slicked with blood. "Shit. . . Ezra?" Chris had taken his eyes off his adversary for too long.
"Chris. . . Look out!" Tanner screamed hoarsely.
Larabee flinched as a fist connected with his jaw, his head twisted around under the blow and the table leg dropped from numb fingers. The woozy gunslinger was picked up with ease and thrown through the air. He connected with a thump on the far wall, his inert body slumping in a heap on the ground.
"Oh my, God. . . Chris!" Vin screamed, shaking the bars as though they would suddenly release him. "This can't be happening. Ezra. . . " He winced, tears brimming from his eyes; Standish was struggling valiantly to get off the floor. But would he find his feet in time? "Come on, pard," he urged. "Get up." Tanner felt so useless, trapped in the cell watching while his friends faced the attack. He gripped the bars tightly, the knuckles of his fingers turning white with the exertion. "Chris!" His gut turned and his blood ran cold. The spectre was closing in on Larabee. Vin couldn't bear to watch, but he couldn't bring himself to turn away.
"NOOOO!!!!!" Standish screamed, tackling the creature around the legs and stopping him cold, but it brought both of them down and the spectre recovered faster. With an almighty howl the killer pulled Ezra up and threw him across the room. He landed on the edge of the pentagram with a scream that echoed a hundred fold over in the cavern, his shoulder dislocated on contact. "Arggg!" He moaned, and hugged his left arm, supporting it by the elbow. Damn, not again! Not now! Blood dripped from the bloody bandage around his arm and landed between the points of two stars and the arc of the circle. The gambler took no notice; his shoulder burned in anguish and hazy lights danced before his eyes. He stumbled a few steps and came down on his knee, muttering and cursing his unsteadiness. He blinked away moisture and glanced up at Tanner.
"Ya c'n do it, Ezra. . . come on, pard. Look b'hind ya." Vin pointed desperately, trying to coax Standish, but not arouse the killer's interest.
Ezra fell forward, resting his face on the cool tiles. It felt good on his flushed skin. What was Vin telling him? Heavy bloodshot eyes met with blue orbs. "What?"
Vin glanced desperately from the spectre closing in on Larabee and back to Standish. He didn't want to voice it out loud, but he did want Ezra to pick up the sword. "Ezra," he called again, using the gambler's name to bring him out of the pain-induced confusion he was in. "Get up," he ordered, "and look b'hind. You'll find something. . . "
Ezra shook his head and sat back on his heels, cradling his arm protectively. Time stalled and everything moved in slow motion while he lethargically searched for what Tanner was pointing at. He sighed, eventually seeing the heavy blade that had been abandoned. He looked to Vin and to Chris, his heart beat frantically with indecision.
Interpreting Ezra's hesitation Tanner called out. "Ya can't help Chris unless ya get it." He hoped that was cryptic enough to confuse the spectre, but not Standish.
Ezra sighed, and stood on wobbly legs. He teetered between the columns using them as guides. He reached down and picked up the weapon. It had an unfamiliar feel and he stiffened, feeling a surge of life flow from the blade. Heat raced up his arm, giving strength and power to his weary body; the heavy blade fit snugly in his hand and he deftly swiped it through the air experimentally. His left arm was useless, but the pain was gone. He smiled, but didn't meet Vin's concerned look.
The spectre turned around and laughed, a hollow and vicious cry, it seemed he had known exactly what Vin had been alluding to, and didn't care. The power of the sword brought him a new ally.
The interference from Standish gave Larabee time to come to his senses. He gathered his reserves and found his feet. His head spun and he used the wall behind him to steady his legs. He glanced over at the cell. . . Tanner was shouting and pointing, but his mind was under a foggy haze and couldn't make out what the tracker was saying. He swallowed painfully, staring mutely into the face of evil. Nothing they'd done so far had made any impact on the spectre. He pressed himself into the wall, wanting to escape, but his legs were not cooperating. But with each moment he had to clear his head, the muffled sounds in the cavern started to ring more clearly. Tanner wasn't calling out to him, but shouting at Standish. He shifted his line of vision past the killer to where Ezra was struggling to gather his feet. His mind was cloudy though and he couldn't put Tanner's words together to make sense to him. Chris groaned, leaning heavily onto his side and pressing a hand to his wound. It had started to bleed again.
Larabee sluggishly rolled his head up, startled by the menacing cackle. The spectre had turned and was watching Standish, clearly amused by something. Chris frowned. This isn't right! Ezra had the sword and was slicing through the air with indifference to their situation. "Ezra. . . lose the sword!" At Larabee's words the spectre spun around and growled, bearing hideously yellowed teeth. Chris flinched back from the threat.
Standish blinked. He strode to the centre of the pentagram and stood in the circle. He ignored Tanner's incessant pleas and looked thoughtfully at the engraving. Part of the spear he'd used was lying across one of the points of the star. His mouth twitched at the corners and he lifted the sword, hesitated, glanced at the spectre and brought it down with a clang. The strength that surged through him helped to bury it deep into the stone tiles. He pushed it easily through the stone as though it were butter and kept going until it was almost to the hilt. Then he released it.
Cracks splintered out from around the sword and the symbol opened, deforming before his eyes. The walls of the cavern shook and trembled. The columns cracked and one shattered instantly under the added pressure. The cell door of Vin's prison opened and rocks fell from the roof and splashed into the pool. And the spectre screamed, a terrifying piercing howl that drowned out all other noise in the cavern. His emaciated body bolted to the symbol and Ezra stepped warily out of his path.
The ground trembled and the stone engraving continued to break up. The spectre howled persistently and reached to remove the sword. He growled in frustration, unable to retrieve it from the stone. The cry grew with intensity as he saw the blood on the stones.
Vin limped from his cell and carried a torch to the symbol; he threw it into the centre and the oil that had seeped into the engraved pattern ignited. The spectre was trapped in the centre, as the ground beneath him broke apart. A wide tunnel of blinding white light grew from the symbol, encompassed the spectre and reaching to the top. The cavern stopped shaking, but small stones and pebbles loosened in the quake rattled down occasionally. Inside the tunnel of light the spectre writhed and screamed.
Tanner gasped. "Chris, I need m' jacket, would ya get it for me?" he ordered urgently.
Chris shook off the last of his stupor and ventured inside the cell. He picked up Tanner's wet coat and brought it to Vin, handing it over curiously. "What's. . . ?"
"Thanks." Vin balanced awkwardly on one leg and turned out the pockets. He felt the burden of guilt as his fingers found what they were searching for. He should never have taken the coin. . . he couldn't even explain why he'd done so. . . but he attributed that with everything that had befallen him. . . and now it was time to get rid of it. Tanner held up the copper coin and flicked it high into the air, it spun, turning head over tail into the column of white light. "Wanted ta return this."
The coin disappeared inside the light and they heard a gut- wrenching scream from inside. The floor broke under the symbol and a surge of fire flew out, attacking and swallowing the spectre within the tunnel of white light and sucking it into the bowels of the earth. Wind whipped around the room, buffeting the columns still standing. The hole began to close and sucked the windstorm down, drawing the last vestiges of evil below. The ground sealed over - the spectre, the symbol and the sword were gone. Left on the stone floor was the wooden torch Vin had thrown into the circle and sitting under it was the broken portion of the spear. Together, they formed a cross.
Chris looked around at the devastation; a satisfied small broke out on his face. He shook his head and grinned. "Nice touch, Tanner."
Vin returned the smile. "Couldn't let ya'll have all the fun."
Larabee grinned at Standish, but it faded realising that the gambler was holding his left arm tightly. With the sleeve gone he could easily see the swollen joint bruised and out of alignment. "It out again?" Standish sighed. "I'm gettin' good at this. . . shouldn't take more'an three goes," he teased.
Standish groaned and shook his head, surrendering to the inevitable. "Fine."
Ezra bit down, his teeth clenched tight. Larabee had promised to set his shoulder, and it had only taken two attempts, but it sure as hell hurt. He wasn't up to talking just yet.
Chris patted the Southerner on the back sympathetically. His gut rolled; he'd never get used to performing such a manoeuvre - bone grating on bone and deliberately inflicting more pain to fix an injury. . . uck! He wanted to take the pain away for Standish, not to have been the person to cause more. When Ezra lifted his head he could read the gratitude in his eyes, but there was still pain that lurked behind them. He needed to get his friends out of this hole, but Standish needed a few more minutes to compose himself. "How'd ya know. . . what ta do with the blade?"
Ezra wriggled his fingers with relief. "I didn't. . . it just seemed. . . appropriate."
Vin leaned against the bars; he'd been standing there waiting for Larabee to give him the signal, he suspected Chris already guessed what he was about to say. "There's light comin' from the bottom of the pool."
Chris nodded, pulling the gambler to his feet and following Vin into the cell. Figured Vin had found something. He peered into the water expectantly. Yep. . . definitely a light coming from down there. "I'll check it out. . . "
"Be careful, cowboy."
Chris slid into the water and was gone for ten minutes.
"I'm going after him." No one could hold onto their breath for that length of time.
"Wait on, Ezra. Here he comes."
"That's our way out," he answered breathlessly. "Who's goin' first?"
"Ya reckon ya can swim with that arm, Ezra?"
"I could manage. . . "
Chris shook his head. It was a hard swim down, even for him. "I'll take Vin first. . . give me an hour. . . ?" He needed some time to recoup after making the long swim. "Ya be okay here on yer own?"
"Naturally. . . but I. . . "
"Wait for me," Chris ordered, pointing at the gambler. "Ya ready?" he questioned Vin.
Tanner frowned dubiously, but nodded, trusting his friend.
Chris Larabee climbed down into the well, leaving Tanner up top. At the bottom of the well was a deep spring of water that was fed from the pool inside the cavern. He slid into the water and returned to the cavern to collect Ezra. It was under the specified hour, but he was anxious to have all his friends back together. He broke through the surface inside the cavern and grinned. Ezra had put his jacket back on and rested on the floor, both Vin's and his jacket pillowed under head. "Comfortable?"
Larabee could smell smoke; it filled his nostrils and clouded his senses. He crawled up the insides of the well and the smoke grew thicker. He took gulping breaths and began coughing; he very nearly slipped back to the bottom. He heard Ezra coughing as well. His fingers crawled over the well's rim and pulled himself free of the well. Larabee turned back to help Standish crawl out the last part. Tanner had been busy. "Ya couldn't wait?"
Vin broke into a smile. "Thought we agreed on havin' us a bonfire."
"Figured I'd get it goin' so we could leave."
"Excellent proposal, Vin. Might I suggest we vacate these premises forthwith."
"I'm good ta go."
"Yeah. . . all right. But first we need ta close off this well. . . " He was almost convinced that they'd never see the spectre again, but would feel better knowing the cavern below was not going to be accidentally stumbled upon. Larabee walked over and pushed on the side and it collapsed in on itself; a cloud of dust rising from the debris. He clapped his hands together and wiped them down his pants' leg.
"That was straightforward," Ezra drawled.
Chris pulled a face and offered his shoulder to Vin. Tanner had conveniently' forgotten to rescue the stretcher from inside before setting the shack alight, but Chris wasn't about to admit it'd be easier on his aching back and injured side and Ezra's shoulder and arm to support Vin between them, rather than on the stretcher they'd been using. But Tanner was going to be feeling awful wretched by the time they reached town. "Let's go then."
Larabee glanced back for a parting look just before they entered a cluster of trees. The fire had consumed the dilapidated building in minutes, levelling it, but a thick cloud of smoke rose high into the sky. It surprised him to see that a large area around the burnt shack was completely barren. . . there wasn't a tree or bush, or any living thing within that circle. . . How had he missed that?
"Chris. . . "
Larabee turned his back on the ruins. "Yeah." It was time to go home.
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