Chris Larabee moaned slightly before he became fully aware. He rubbed his head and grimaced as he felt the sticky dried blood from the cut above his eye. The eye itself was almost closed due to the swelling. Commenting to no one in general, Chris asked, "Who hit me?" This was spoken quietly, but the behemoth heard the soft words and answered.
"I did," the contemptible man admitted, standing up and moving his bulk forward, but not too close to the bars. He had heard a lot about Larabee and had no intention of giving him any chances of getting near him, even though he eclipsed the gunslinger in both size and weight.
"And who the hell are you?" Chris snarled his contempt, glaring through the bars that separated them. His menacing blue steely gaze trapped the taller mans attention for a moment, freezing his feet to the ground.
The giant recognised the implied threat and absently took a step backwards. "Names Wallis Hobbs. Im the one who put you and that gambler fella over there, in here." Tossing his head sideways, he indicated Ezras sprawled form on the floor. "Ya might wanta check im out. Hit his head on the framework over an hour ago and aint moved since." Hobbs chuckled as he stepped away from the bars. Sitting his large frame down into the wooden chair, he set it back on only two of its legs, propping his feet up on the desk in front of him. Hobbs deliberately picked up the stolen deck of cards and blatantly shuffled the pasteboards, inviting a reaction from Larabee.
Chris, unwilling to move his eyes off Hobbs, until the mention of the gambler, relinquished his quelling stare and followed the direction indicated by Hobbs. Finally coming to rest on Ezras slumped form on the jail cell floor. "Ah shit, Ezra." Chris knelt down beside the inert gambler. Standish was lying on his side with his head turned into the floor; Chris gently took a hold of his burgundy jacket and rolled the gambler over onto his back. He could see the gambler breathing, so didnt feel for a pulse. He immediately took in the dishevelled appearance of the Southerner. He knew that Standish was fastidious with his clothing and even though they were in jail, he was fairly certain Ezra wouldnt have removed his boots or destroyed his vest by ripping off the buttons.
"Whatd ya do to im?" Larabees voice was cold as steel, and his blue eyes glimmered with reprisal. The gunslinger dropped his eyes to the cards being slowly manipulated in the large calloused hands. Chris immediately recognised them as Ezras. The gambler had them almost constantly in motion the last few days.
"He wanted to get out, I just let him know he couldnt yet," Hobbs stopped shuffling and answered, grinning spitefully.
"Youre gonna pay fer that!" Larabee swore, promising hed enact revenge for the Southerner. "No one hurts my men! Dont get too fond of those cards either," he warned, "ya wont have em for long." Chris turned back to the gambler; he needed his help at the moment. Ripping a piece off his shirt Chris applied pressure to the bleeding wound. What would Nathan do now? He noticed how pale the Southerner was, and silently glared at Hobbs through the bars. "Hey Ezra, you in there? Come on pard, wake up," the gunslinger hesitantly coaxed.
The bleeding finally stopped and the gunslinger wrapped a bandage of sorts around Ezras head. While doing this he discovered the second lump on the back of the conmans head. "Geez, youre gonna have one hell of a headache when you wake up," Chris winced in sympathy. If he woke up. You sure as hell better Standish, he silently implored.
Larabee lifted the unconscious man up off the cold floor and gently placed him down on the bed. There he remained unconscious and unmoving for the next four hours.
Larabee scowled and strode defiantly to the bars. "Why dont you come in here and take a swing at me?" His lips curled into a sneer, as he offered the challenge. "I guarantee, Ill be ready," Larabee warned, his hands tightening into clenched fists.
Hobbs sat a little higher in his chair eyeing his prisoner with some trepidation, but otherwise refused to respond to the challenge.
"Come on!" Chris shouted the demand. The gunman gripped the bars in his hands with such ferocity the knuckles on his hands turned white. "What are you afraid of?"
"Sure aint you, Larabee," Hobbs replied, but confidence lacked in his voice. "And I aint stupid enough to come in there, so ya best git comfortable, cause yer in for a bit of a wait."
"Go ta hell," the gunslinger cursed, incensed that his ploy had not succeeded. Chris thinned his lips; it hadnt occurred to him that this idiot knew who he was. Did he also know Ezra? What the hell had he gotten them both into by coming here? This stop had been unplanned. Nobody knew theyd need supplies and would try to get them in Whittling. Did they? He hadnt mentioned to any of the boys back in Four Corners. Hell, the only other person hed mentioned it to he paused in his thoughts and turned to look at the gambler. Damn! He swore under his breath and stalked back to the cot where Standish remained unresponsive. The only person, Chrisd told about stopping off here was the sheriff at Red Fork. Jennings actually suggested it was a better place to get supplies than in Red Fork. But he didnt mention anything about the town being a ghost town. And he woulda have to ve known. Damn! He swore again, slamming his fist into his splayed hand. What the hell was going on? That bastard conned him. "Youre a dead man, Jennings, when I get outta here," he mumbled under his breath.
Chris settled by Ezras side and spent the ensuing hours sending quelling glares to Hobbs and hovering over his friend. He had far too much time to contemplate. He studied every crack in the stonewall and each and every bar. He catalogued all the furniture in the room and dismissed it all as a means to escape. Chris dug his fingernails into the grooves of the wooden floorboards picking out the dirt that had accumulated there over the years. And he tried not to stare at the large collection of Ezras blood that stained the floor.
Hell, what exactly could he do? He chewed at his bottom lip, desperately eyeing his and Ezras weapons, which had been removed off their person, and blatantly left in plain view on a rough-hewn table. Typical of Hobbs. His guns were within reach, if only he could get out of the cell. But even if he could get out, retrieve his weapons and render the behemoth inactive, he still had to get Standish out. Chris looked at the Southerner and sighed wearily. His own head throbbed and he could not see clearly out of his swollen eye; reminding him that he wasnt physically prepared to commit to any serious form of escape just yet. Hed wait, bide his time. But every indication from Hobbs suggested that his accomplices would be joining him soon, and that would decrease their chance of escape. Damn, this was so frustrating!
+ + + + + + +
Darkness had fallen about an hour ago as the sun sank below the horizon. A cool breeze whipped across the plains, suggesting that it was going to be a cold night. This didnt deter two riders who were now approaching the outer limits of the ghost town; they had travelled this path many times before and knew it well. They were in no hurry and let their horses dictate the pace; their captives were not going anywhere, at least until they arrived. Hobbs, the behemoth, anticipated their arrival. In fact he wired them to come, so he knew that they would be here soon.
A soft golden glow, from the one and only lantern, illuminated the room. Hobbs dozed uncomfortably in the wooden chair in the outer room, his feet resting on the desk in front of him and his rifle across his lap. Chris was fighting against the urge to drop off to sleep when he heard a soft moan coming from the Southerner. He leaned over him. "Ezra, you waking up?"
The Southerner raised his hand up to his head, but Chris prevented him from doing this, taking hold of his hand and laying it back down. "Ezra, leave it alone," Chris ordered. "How you doing? You ready to open your eyes?"
A very hoarse, "Must I?" was the response. Another groan followed before Standish opened his eyes and took in his surroundings. "We still here?" Ezra pushed himself up onto his elbows, half-reclining half-sitting.
"Yeah, we are," Larabee reluctantly agreed. "How ya feeling?"
"Dreadful," came the muffled reply.
Larabee grinned at the Southerners uncanny response; he must be feeling mighty low to admit to it. "Can you be a little more specific?"
"Why? Are you taking over Mr. Jacksons job?" Standish countered, blinking the sleep from his eyes.
"Well I wouldnt have to if you kept yourself out of trouble." Chris smiled down at the contrary man.
"As I recall, you seem to have been injured yourself," the Southerner quickly retorted, pointing out the gunslingers grossly swollen eye.
"Standish, just answer the damn question!" Larabee growled, ignoring the gamblers reference to his own injury.
A slight sigh escaped while the conman attempted to sit up fully on the bed. Chris helped him up, resting his arm around the Southerners shoulders supporting him until he was steady. "I have felt better."
Chris arched his eyebrows waiting for more of a response from the gambler. "Oh," Standish sighed in exasperation. "I feel like theres a steam train going full throttle through my head," Chris winced in sympathy at this, his head felt much the same. "Everything appears a bit blurry at the moment, the room is spinning a little too fast and my jaw feels broken." He rubbed this absently with the back of his hand. A twinge from his back caused him to sit straighter.
"Theres some bruising there, but it aint broken. Ya got a couple of bumps on yer head and a nasty cut that was bleeding quite a lot before I could fix it up. You hurt anywhere else?"
"I do not believe so," Standish replied, trying to stifle a yawn. He rolled his right wrist, and frowned as a slow burn radiated from the appendage. He wriggled each finger and was mildly discomforted by the stiffness in his hand. Must have happened when the behemoth slammed his hand on the floor. Thank God it wasnt broken.
"Yer hand hurt?" Chris had watched as the Southerner studied the hand as though it didnt belong to him.
"No, its nothing," he lied, "just pins and needles." It wasnt too bad, probably just bruised.
"Good. Reckon we aint going anywhere soon, so why dont cha just lie back down and get some more shut eye, while I work on how to get us out of here."
"Im fine," Standish muttered stubbornly, annoyed that the gunslinger was ordering him about like a child. He was fine, damn it! He shook his head, trying valiantly to shake out the fogginess that clouded his mind. Ezra blinked his eyes rapidly as the floor spun beneath him and beads of perspiration dotted his brow. The gambler swallowed back the rising bile and vaguely felt the gunslingers hands at his shoulders pushing down. "Im fine," he whispered, too exhausted to speak any louder. Once he was in a reclined position Standish found it impossible to fight the call to sleep. He forced open his eyes and focused them on the gunman, but just as quickly, the heavy eyelids shuttered closed.
"Go ta sleep, Ezra. Ill wake ya if anything happens," Chris reassured the semi-conscious gambler.
Wilmington adjusted the cinch on the saddle and glanced over to see if the others were ready to leave. Josiah looked up and caught his eye, patted his mount and led the animal out of the livery. Nathan Jackson declared he was ready and followed in Sanchez wake. "Boy, are you done?" he impatiently asked.
"Reckon so. We gonna leave a message for Vin?" He didnt like to leave the bounty hunter without telling him where they were headed.
"Leave me a message about what?" the trackers drawl spun the younger man around.
"Vin!" Dunne shouted and raced to the lean man and clapped him on the shoulder. "When ya get back?"
"Just now, JD." Turning his attention to the tall cowboy Tanner asked, "Josiah and Nathan say yer heading out. Trouble?"
"Could be," Buck nodded his head.
"Not unless hes already in it up to his neck."
"Let me get a fresh horse," the Texan announced.
Ezra had just started to drift back off to sleep when Wallis Hobbs two partners entered the building. Chris raised his eyes and followed their movements; he had heard the horses arriving in town about ten minutes ago. Scrutinising the newcomers to ascertain their intent, but coming to no immediate conclusions, Chris sat rigidly against the wall, scowling with a murderous single-mindedness.
The new arrivals talked together with Hobbs in hushed tones, sending surreptitious looks at their prisoners. After talking for a few minutes, all three approached the cell door, keys jangling, and guns drawn. "Youd best wake im up, cause were all going for a little ride. And ya best not cause any trouble," the older of the two newcomers warned threateningly, "cause we aint opposed to just ending it all here and now."
"Wherere ya taking us to?" Larabee snarled with indifference, hed just as soon end it now, but he wasnt about to endanger the Southerners life.
"Youll find out soon enough," the older man sneered. "Now, git im ready to ride," the same man ordered, anticipated glee written all over his smug face. Larabee suspected this man to be in his mid to late fifties and about his height, though a lot heavier. The shirt he wore strained at the buttons, pulling tightly across his chest. By all appearances, he had spent a hard life on the land. His face was creased with frown lines and darkened from the many hours working in the sun. His companion was considerably younger and had yet to speak. He too, was about the same height, but considerably slimmer than the older man. The younger mans face was hidden below the brim of the hat he wore low on his head, but traces of blond hair trailed at the back. They both wore grim expressions. Chris didnt recognise either man; he wondered if Standish would.
Chris gently prodded the gambler. When this resulted in nothing, Larabee called out his name and shook Standish harder. "Ezra," he hissed urgently. Chris didnt want those others to decide to wake up the gambler, he was certain Standish would come out of it in worse shape than he was already in.
A small groan echoed in the stone walled cell and his head tossed from side to side as he tried to awaken from his concussed slumber. Finally his eyes opened and rolled back into place, coming into focus, if somewhat blurred, on Chris. A half smile touched the corners of his mouth. "I distinctly remember you telling me to go back to sleep," Standish complained in censure.
Chris acknowledged this statement with a brief nod of his head. "Yeah, I did. But those ugly fellas out there have other ideas. Come on, Ill help ya up." He sat the gamblers boots on the floor and waited until Standish put them on. Chris grabbed the younger mans arm and eased him up off the cot, helping steady him as he gained his feet. Feeling the gambler sway on his feet, Chris took a firmer grip on him. "Just hold on there, pard." Larabee guided Standish over to the door. "Well, what are you waiting for? Thought we were goin?" Larabee inquired of his captors, while not releasing his tight hold on the younger man at his side.
Standish, while almost steady on his feet, felt nauseous since standing. He could feel the bile rising into his throat and was struggling to keep it down.
Larabee could see the enigmatic man going a shade paler before his eyes. "Ezra, you okay?" Larabee quietly whispered in his ear.
"I think some fresh air will do me wonders, Mr. Larabee," the gambler dismissed. "Thank you for asking."
The three men stood by the opened door and Hobbs grabbed Standish from Chris hold, roughly thrusting him up against the wall and pinning his left arm high up behind his back. Standish grunted in pain at this further mistreatment, but didnt struggle against the hold.
The other two grabbed Larabee and swung him around between them, pulling out a length of rope and tying the gunslingers hands together behind his back. "You hurt him anymore than he already is and I promise you Ill teach ya a new meaning to the word suffering." The gunslinger threatened, glaring at Hobbs who had finished tying up his prisoner.
The sky remained clear, thankfully no rain would fall tonight, but the temperature was continuing to drop alarmingly fast. The five men rode in the dark for over an hour. Two of the kidnappers led Chris and Ezras mounts.
Standish was leaning low over his horse and struggling to stay in the saddle; this was made even more difficult as his hands were tied behind his back. He tried earlier to loosen them, but they were tight and only rubbed the skin off his wrists making them bleed. And his right hand was still smarting from the abuse it received earlier. His head was pounding from the base of his skull, his vision blurred and the constant swaying motion of his horse did nothing for his already queasy stomach. Not to mention, that his back ached with a passion; there was bound to be significant bruising, he surmised. The gamblers only hope at this late stage was that they would soon be at their destination and he would be allowed to dismount his horse. Thankfully their captors allowed Chris and Ezra to use their own mounts.
Chris had been riding beside the swaying gambler in the hope of preventing a fall, which in all likelihood was soon to happen. Although what the gunslinger could possibly do to prevent this was not all that clear to him, as his hands were also bound behind his back. The blond haired man kept a close eye on the Southerner.
After another ten minutes of riding in the progressively decreasing temperatures of the night, Chris caught a glimmer of light dancing on the edges of his vision, ahead in the distance. He didnt think that there was a town around here and they hadnt headed toward Red Fork; could be a homestead or someone camping out, he mulled it over. The leader of the group paused in the dark and slightly altered their direction, directly toward the soft light. Larabee sighed, or it could be more of this group of rednecks. "Just great, more of em," ruminated Larabee.
The three appointed guards did not speak with each other or to Chris and Ezra. The entire trip was done in total silence, other than the noises of the night and the soft tread of the five animals. As the group approached, the source of the light became apparent.
A lone man was sitting on a log by a campfire huddled under a blanket. He stood when the riders came nearer, the blanket dropping absently to the ground. "These them?" he called out, nodding his head in the direction of Chris and Ezra. The others answered in the affirmative. "Got some coffee in the pot over there, and somethin ta eat iffen yer hungry," offered the new addition to the group. He then added, "Ya want me ta git em off their horses?"
"Yeah, thatd be great. Thanks Coby."
He nodded with agreement and ambled over to the semi-conscious gambler, who was leaning very low over his horse and didnt notice the approach of the stranger. Coby reached for the younger mans arm and forcefully wrenched him off his mount letting him drop heavily to the ground. Ezra landed with an oomph and cried out, more in surprise than any real pain, as he hit the cold unrelenting earth.
"You son of a bitch," Larabee hissed at him, as he awkwardly dismounted, and hurried to his fallen friend. Larabee barrelled into Coby and bodily pushed him away from the gambler. "Ezra, hey pard, you okay?" He knelt down beside him and used his knee to help turn over the gambler. Dazed green eyes met with blue eyes and locked. "Good to see youre still awake." A tight smile flickered across the gunslingers face.
"Wouldnt want to miss anything important," Ezra smugly replied.
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