The six horses were tethered to a rope strung between two trees, their saddles remained on each mount, but the cinch had been relaxed around their girths. They shared the shelter of the trees branches with two pack mules. Coby had produced a feedbag of oats for each animal and looped it over their heads. A coyote howled in the distance, several horses padded the earth and moved restlessly against one another.
Wood splinted and crackled sending a shower of embers into the dark sky. A thin trail of smoke curled upward and was lost in the cover of night. The four abductors sat close to the blazing fire, absorbing the warmth that radiated from the reddish flames. Huddled beneath blankets they sought to keep the chills at bay and maintain their body warmth. They sipped on strong black coffee and laughed at outrageous stories, embellished over time. Their two prisoners were ignored, to a point, but the elder of the group kept a vigilant eye on them just the same. They laughed heartily and appeared to enjoy one anothers company.
Larabee and Standish were banished to the edge of the camp and had their backs to a withered old fir tree with their hands tied in front of them. They gained little warmth from the distant fire, which their kidnappers greedily dominated. They were offered food and water after they arrived, the bonds temporarily released so they could eat. The Southerner didnt partake in any nourishment, as his stomach was not settled enough for this, nausea still taking its toll on his body. Chris did get him to drink some of the water, and used some to clean up Ezras head wound, and his own as well. The gambler obviously had a concussion, as he was asleep once more, half reclining against the trunk of the tree and slumped sideways against Larabee.
Larabee categorised every feature of the four men. He wanted to impress their ugly faces deep into his memory and didnt want to forget a single thing. He promised himself, and Ezra, that those men would not escape his brand of justice. Chris made a mental note to himself that retribution would also be taken out on the sheriff of Red Fork. Hed make them all pay. Chris ground his teeth as he sneered, boldly staring at his kidnappers. He just had to figure out how to get away. It was so frustrating just waiting, not knowing what they were planning to do with them. His irritation was rising toward the slumbering gambler for no other reason than the fact the man was able to sleep, even if it was due to the knock hed received to his head. No, this wasnt Ezras fault. None of this situation was. If anyone was to blame then it had to be him, cause it was his decision to go to Whittling.
Chris felt the Southerner shiver yet again. The gunslinger could feel the heat radiating through Ezras jacket. The fever had begun. Larabee nudged Standish trying to rouse him; he remembered Nathan doing this when one of them had a head injury, and he had been unsuccessfully attempting to wake Ezra now for fifteen minutes. "Ezra . Come on, time to wake up, pard." Larabee quietly spoke; hoping his voice would bring the Southerner around, but not travel as far as their captors ears. Chris shifted his position, as numbness was tingling down his left side where the gambler was leaning, but this movement caused the gambler to fall more sideways onto the gunslinger. "Hell," the man in black muttered in frustration, as he was now practically under Ezra.
Standish groaned softly at his change in position, but didnt regain consciousness. Chris pulled his bound hands out from under Standish and held onto his friend instead. "Oh great, Ezra. Now Im in a worse position, if thats possible." He sighed and gently pushed back the damp hair off his friends forehead, feeling the heat that emanated there. "Well at least one of us is warm and comfortable," he grumbled.
The night air plummeted and his breath crystallised in the air. Larabee rubbed his hands up the length of his leg to garner some warmth into the frozen limb. Hed asked for a blanket earlier, but as expected, none was forthcoming. If he held Standish close to him perhaps between the two of them they could ward off some of the cold night air. Chris grinned at the thought of what Standishs reaction was going to be when he woke and saw them together like this.
"Good Lord!" Embarrassment could be heard clearly in the softly spoken words. "Um Mr. Larabee?" The gambler was endeavouring to extricate himself away from the man in black.
Chris finally fell asleep, after numerous attempts at waking the Southerner had failed, he was awakened by Ezras soft words. Larabee grunted when an elbow ploughed into his gut as the man lying atop of him struggled to right himself.
"Hold on, Ezra and Ill give you a hand," Chris ordered. They worked together and managed to untangle from each other.
Ezra was breathing hard by the time they were both sitting upright. "Id be most obliged " he panted, "if you didnt divulge this minor, ah impropriety to anyone, Mr. Larabee."
"Hell, I was here too. I aint gonna mention it."
Ezra let out a sigh of relief and simply said, "Thank-you."
"Hows the head?" Larabee inquired.
"Better, I think." Standish glanced over to their captors; a moment of speculation creased his brow. If they were all asleep, now was as good a time as any, to escape. "Appears as though our friends," his voice slurred derogatively over the appellation, "have passed into the land of slumber." The fire blazed between them and shone vibrantly in the deep folds of blackness blanketing the night, casting an auspicious glow over the still forms slumbering beneath the bedrolls.
"At least three of them. The other one must be on watch," Larabee clarified, glancing over his shoulder to find the elusive guard.
"Have I miscounted? Wasnt there only three of them?" Confusion showing on his normally blank poker face. Using both hands, as they were still bound together, he massaged his head in an attempt to clear it.
"Four, Ezra. There was another one waiting here when we arrived last night. Coby, they called him." The man in black could still see the confusion on the gamblers face, so he added with a smirk, "The one who pulled ya off yer horse."
"Ah," was the only reply the Southerner could come up with. Standish swept the site for the hidden guard, but nothing moved in the darkened stillness. Perhaps it was still an option to escape even if one of the kidnappers was standing watch. For all Larabee knew, the guard may have fallen asleep.
Larabee eyed him narrowly after this short monosyllabic response. Was he really okay? And he didnt remember the forth man either. Maybe Larabee should be more concerned about Standish. "You sure youre feeling better?" His voice laced with concern.
"Im fine," Standish dismissed the concern. "Where is our mysterious guard?"
"Four oclock," Chris tipped his head in the direction.
Ezra leaned forward and blinked into the blackness attempting to discern the rocks and ground formations from a possible human threat. He shook his head, frowning at the pain that lanced through his head at his intense concentration. Standish continued to stare into the night until a movement caught his attention. Once the guards position had been established in his mind, the mans form was easily located, as was the rifle that was held in his grip. With a heavy sigh Ezra asked, "What, in your opinion, do you surmise they are planning to do with us?" The Southerner sat back and slumped against the tree.
"They aint said, but they know who we are."
The gambler raised a brow at this piece of information. "Do we know who they are?"
"The big fella, hes Wallis Hobbs. Heard him call the old timer, Randall, and Coby was here waiting for us. Aint heard a name for the other fella. These names mean anything to you?"
Ezra slowly shook his head. "Ive never heard of them. What could they possibly want with us?"
Chris dropped his head to his chest. "You talk to anyone in Red Fork?"
The Southerner threw the gunslinger an incredulous look. "When did I have time to discuss our plans?" the gambler queried in dismay. "I wasnt even aware that you had planned on going to Whittling," he added with a pained expression.
Larabee glanced up and was appalled at the stricken look that had crossed the Southerners facade. "I aint accusing ya," Chris pointed out, "its just the sheriff in Red Fork mentioned I should come here for supplies."
Standishs mouth formed an O. After a slight pause the gambler asked, "Jennings?" At Larabees nod, Ezra processed this in his mind. He rubbed his head as the implication sank in. "Jennings set us up?"
"Looks that way."
"Why would he do that?" His question was not directed at the gunslinger, but to himself. "I wonder what part Morgan Carruthers plays in this charade?"
Chris stared at the gambler. "Ya reckon Carruthers is involved in this too?"
Ezra shrugged his shoulders. "Its a possibility." Standish sighed deeply, which turned into a yawn. Damn, but he was tired. "I dont suppose the others will be coming after us anytime soon." This was more a statement than a question.
"We aint even overdue yet. Hell, in fact, were ahead of schedule. So well just have to get ourselves out of this mess and hope for the best."
"Wonderful," Ezra drawled. "I sincerely hope youve come up with a plan?"
"Nope. Nothin comes ta mind." Chris watched as the conman smothered another yawn. "Youd best get some more sleep." After a moments thought added, "Ya cold?"
"I seem to be adequately attired to keep out the chill of the night," he stated, pulling ineffectually at his jacket to straighten it.
"Like hell ya are!" Chris recognised the bald-faced lie. "Im God damn freezing my butt off. Youve got a bit of a fever, makes you think yer warm. Ezra, we gotta keep warm, so git over here."
Ezras eyes grew as wide as saucers, and a red tinge rose to his cheeks as the implication of what the gunslinger had said sank in. Fortunately Chris couldnt see this because of cover of darkness. The gambler immediately started to distance himself from the blond haired man.
"Standish, dont move another inch," Chris growled at him. "Now, I aint about to do anything thats improper. Just trying to keep out the cold is all Im offering, nothing else. Besides, you aint my type."
This bought a small flicker of a smile to the gamblers face. "Or you, mine," Ezra threw back at him as he moved closer to Larabee, but baulked at any closer contact.
"I dont bite, Ezra." Larabee grabbed hold of the unwilling Southerner and dragged him over until they were leaning against one another. "Now go to sleep."
"Im surely glad youre not my mother," Standish grumbled as he attempted to relax.
"Yeah, me too." Standish laughed out loud at this. "Just go to sleep, will ya?" Larabee retorted wearily.
Morning dawned and the new rays of sunshine spread out over the land. Small beads of moisture clung delicately to the sparse clumps of grass. The temperature of the night began to rise, ever so slightly, but the chill in the early morn was frigid on exposed skin. A soft breeze swirled around, gently swaying the branches of the trees and a thin trail of smoke wafted on the air currents upward to the cloudless blue sky. The fire had completely burned out during the long night, leaving only charred wood in the centre of the pit.
A scuffle of boots scrapping on rock could be heard in the silence of the camp, if anyone was awake to notice. Everett Randall, one of the kidnappers, stalked authoritively about the campsite, his weapons close at hand. He muttered to himself, gesturing wildly with his hands. He was the leader of the group, and the oldest at forty-eight, though he appeared much older. He had been a cowhand for well nigh most of his life and had little prospect of ever owning a spread of his own. Hed never married and had no kids that he was aware of. His parents passed on many years before, leaving him all alone in the world.
Randall found this spot a few years ago. A cave in the hills, filled with a maze of tunnels and waterways. Hed been out searching for lost stock when he stumbled across the open mouth of the cave. At the time it had been pouring rain, and to find the shelter was a godsend. The desert storm trapped him there for two days. When the storm showed little signs of abating he set out to search the tunnel. Unfortunately, hed not marked his passage in and was quickly turned about and became lost in them for three days before he blundered across a way out. He was never the same man after that. He constantly fought with demons that no one else could see. And talking to himself had become a habit to the crazed man.
Randall rested his rifle across his thigh, and grinned maliciously at Standish and Larabee. He had pulled this stunt before, many times in fact; find some lonely traveller that no one would miss, take him to the cave and offer him his life if he could get through the maze and out in two days. Everett Randall smiled an evil grin as he thought of this, only that one fella had ever made it out of the maze. Out of how many? Twenty? Thirty? Hed lost count. The look of anticipation on his face, thinking he was going to be set free. Hah! God, he was good. Randall blew him away like the dog he was. He chuckled at the memory.
This time though, there was two of em. That shouldnt matter. Aint no way they were gonna escape, he confidently predicted. Strange pair, Standish and Larabee, being together. Surprised him that the gambler had the chance to escape Hobbs at the jail, but lost it cause he voluntarily stayed to help the gunslinger. He laughed out loud; a two-bit cardsharp and a gunslinger, whod miss them? The world would probably thank him for getting rid of them.
Randall lazily watched Hobbs, Coby Madigan and Owen Davies, who were presently still sleeping. Two of these men, Madigan and Davies were ranch hands at the same spread as himself, an hour north of Red Fork. Coby was the son of Douglas Madigan; hed been a friend of Everetts for many years. It seemed only natural to involve the younger man in his operations once his father had passed on. Davies was a stock handler and had been hired on not long after himself, and that over twenty years ago. Hobbs was a drifter, just passing through, and he had little experience working with the giant of a man, but so far Randall had been impressed by his work. Until he almost let the prisoners escape, he amended. Next time, he wouldnt trust Hobbs with the job of guarding the prisoners until he could arrive. Heck, he might even do it himself. You want a job done right, ya hadda do it yerself.
Just his luck that Carruthers got himself caught by the law. Damn that man! It had been his job to find suitable victims for their game. Morgan certainly had finesse; hed dupe strangers into accompanying him into Whittling, and theyd be none the wiser till it was too late. Werent the same without the manipulative man in their group, he sighed thoughtfully.
The older man sipped on his lukewarm coffee, and glanced again at his sleeping prisoners. Hell, they were practically sleeping on each other. He smirked at this and thought, they must be closer friends than anyone suspected. Not that this would bother him in anyway. He threw the dregs of the coffee out and stalked over to his companions and gave them a bit of a kick to wake them up. It was about time to get things under way.
Larabee squinted against the rising sun as it shone down through the foliage. Ezra was still sleeping, half-lying against him. The gunslinger tilted the gamblers head back so he could see Ezras face more clearly. The normally clean-shaven face was now covered in a days growth, and bruising peeked out under the bandage Chris had wrapped around the Southerners head the day before. The gunslinger felt the gamblers forehead to check for a fever, while doing this Standish woke up. Dazed green eyes gazed up into blue-grey eyes. "Morning," was all the sleep-encumbered man said.
Chris arched his eyebrows. "Mornin yerself. Aint a morning person are ya?"
"I dont comprehend the compelling necessity to arise from ones slumber just because of the suns ascension into the morning sky; unlike yourself and Mr. Tanner."
"Hell, a simple I dont like mornings, would of sufficed, Ezra." Larabee helped sit Standish up and then started manoeuvring his hands around within the tight bonds, trying to either loosen them and or create more circulation to his hands. "Hows the head?"
"I assure you, I am quite fine," Standish claimed.
"Still got a bit of a fever," Larabee countered.
"Well, I conceive that will not be an inconvenience after these tyrannical miscreants have plundered us."
"Yeah, probably not." Larabee watched as the younger man attempted to adjust his clothing and rub his bound hands over his rough stubble. The vest fell back open with no buttons to secure it.
Randall looked over at his prisoners and noticed that they had woken up. "Bout time," he mumbled. Not that he had been especially waiting for them to wake, but now that they were, anticipation gripped him, and he was so looking forward to this. "Hey boys, lookie here. Our company has finally woken. Dya see how they were so nicely tucked up against each other?" Randall taunted, laughing at his own words. "Lets give em a last breakfast, afore we git on with this."
"Ah, Chris?" Larabee swivelled around so as he was facing the younger man. He also noted the hesitancy in the gamblers voice, lacking all the usual confidence of the suave conman. "I dont know that I like the way those miscreants are scrutinising us."
Larabee glanced over to where his captors were huddled together. As Ezra had said, they certainly were keeping a steady vigil on them. "Yeah, reckon were about to find out what happens next."
It was Davies who brought over the meagre breakfast and some water for the two lawmen. "Eat it up, boys," he sneered. "Itll be your last meal for a long while. Make the most of it." He tossed it down in front of them and laughed as he retreated back to his cohorts. Theyd re-established the fire and hunkered about it, slurping down their meals.
"A meagre pittance for what is supposed to be, presumably, our last meal," Ezra grumbled, scowling disinterestedly down at it.
"God Damn it! Just eat it, Standish and stop yer belly aching," the gunslinger snarled at him. What did it matter what it looked like, so long as they got something to eat. Chris picked up his plate and began shovelling it into his mouth. Chewing on a mouthful of food, Larabee glanced over, prepared to fight the gambler if it came to that, to ensure that Standish ate a good portion of the fare. What he didnt expect was the glimpse of hurt that flashed momentarily into the gamblers eyes, but it was gone just as quickly. He rolled the lump over his tongue and swallowed. "Hell!" he cussed.
"No need to apologise, Mr. Larabee, my fault entirely. Should know by now when to keep my mouth shut," he sarcastically muttered incoherently under his breath. Standish awkwardly reached forward and took a plate and mug and in disappointment turned his back on the blond-haired man to grudgingly eat his fill.
Larabee sighed, glancing at the unsavoury meal. Hell, hes probably still not feeling completely well and I go an force him to eat this garbage, Larabee thought to himself. Damn, were supposed to help each other out, not beat each other up. What am I doing? Still, we needed to keep up our strength, and not eating was only weakening us.
Randall explained the rules of the game to his prisoners and what was expected of them. He informed them of the deadline, that they only had until sundown the following day to make it through the maze and to the specified opening. Which in fact was only about a hundred yards away from where they were all seated, but underground the tunnels twisted and turned and there was no direct path to the exit. The opening was presently covered over with wooden planks and again covered by a boulder. This, they were informed would be removed, should they make it to the site by the appointed time. Should they not be there on time, then the exit would be closed back up. This opening was the only exit from the maze, the two lawmen were warned.
Having been summarily instructed, the four kidnappers led the two prisoners up the slight embankment to the front of the cave. They waited at the opening of a cave; a barred grill was secured to the entrance, while Randall dug a key from his pocket and unlocked the gate. The rusted gate was thrown open and swung back with a squeal of protest, and the two men shoved forward. Davies prepared a lantern and guided the way down the tunnel coming to a halt at a hole in the caves floor. Theyd walked about five minutes to reach the hole. The hole by all appearances was quite narrow at the top, only about two feet across, but the depth and width at the bottom remained a mystery as it was drenched in darkness and the glow from the lantern only reached a short distance into the hole.
Standish shuffled his feet causing a billow of dust to cover his already dusty boots. Hed looked to Chris for the moment to act. Both of their hands were still bound and both men were feeling wretched.
Chris peered curiously over the edge and down into the hole, he grimaced inwardly at not being able to see the bottom of the pit. He wasnt about to go in there willingly, and backed away from the edge.
Ezra took a deep breath, summoning the courage to voice his question; uncertain he really wanted to hear the answer. "Is it possible, to divulge to us, the purpose of all of this?" Chris nodded his agreement at this query, anything to stall the inevitable.
Randall smiled sadistically and waved off Davies and Madigan, who were about to close the distance between them and the gambler and inflict more harm. Randall leaned against the rock wall, chewing on a stick hed picked up, absently running his thumb over the cool metal of the gun in his hand. He decided that he didnt really owe them any explanation, but didnt see that it could hurt any. "Me an the boys here," he nodded his head in the direction of Davies and Madigan, "been doing this for a couple of years," he explained matter-a-factly, rather non-pulsed by the whole situation.
"Why?" interjected Larabee, also wanting answers.
"Cause I can," Randall ranted at Larabee. "Cause I am able ta do it. Cause I enjoy the thrill of being in charge of someone elses lives and havin em at my mercy." The gleam in his eyes was unmistakable; the man was totally insane. And as though that explanation was sufficient, Randall nodded to his other companions, to begin. "I am the one who decides the outcomes. Now, its time!"
Chris baulked at the advance, backing away. "Whats Jennings got to do with this?"
"And Morgan Carruthers?" Standish added.
Randall rubbed a thumb over his stubbled face. "Well now," he slowly drawled. "Its always handy ta have the law owing ya a favour. And Jennings has even come on a few of these excursions with us. Doesnt have much of a stomach for it though," he divulged. "He let me know the moment you boys caught Morgan and when ya were bringin im home. Dont expect youll find im still in jail when ya git out. If ya git out. Thought it only fittin to have ya spend some time in the caves. Kinda like paying penance," he chuckled. "Pity the rest of yas couldnt be joining ya. Maybe well send em back yer bones," he taunted, then started laughing manically. "Thats if we ever find em. Course Morgan is a friend of the boys and mine. It didnt seem right that he should go ta prison, specially seeing his old lady was the one who strayed from home. It was her and that mangy Johnsons boy what ought ta be put away."
"He murdered them both," the gambler exclaimed incredulously.
"They got everything that was coming to em." Randall announced.
"They didnt deserve ta die," Larabee flatly stated.
Thats enough!" Randall shouted. "Too much talking."
Chris determined it was now or never. He glanced across at Ezra and noticed that he was waiting for the signal and was poised ready. Without saying anything, both men suddenly lunged at their kidnappers and made a dash for freedom. The man closest to Chris was Coby Madigan, the smallest and youngest of the group. He fell to the ground with an oomph when Chris shouldered into him, dropping his weapon in the dust.
Ezra shouldered Randall sending him into Davies and overbalancing the two of them. They tumbled to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs. Chris flew out the cave entrance and hoped that the gambler was right behind him. He paused in his tracks for an instant and turned back, smiling slightly as he spied the Southerner almost run into him. They had made it just outside, when a bullet sprayed the earth between the feet of the gunslinger.
"Take another step and I dont really care about putting a bullet through yer back," the deadly threat evident in his gruff voice. Hobbs stood in the entrance of the cave, arm raised ready to mortally wound if either man did not respond to his command. The three others had regained their feet meanwhile and followed out to assist the giant of a man. "Now turn around, no fast moves, and git back up here. Now!" the large man hollered.
When Larabee and Standish returned to the edge of the cave, Hobbs roughly pulled the gambler aside wrapping one large hand around the Southerners throat and pointing the gun to his head. Motioning to Larabee to lead the way back to the hole. Chris walked ahead of Hobbs and Ezra; he could hear the conmans feet dragging in the dirt as he was pulled along with the large man. When they returned, Randall shoved past Hobbs and Standish and placed himself between the three parties.
"Now, git on over to that pit and lets see you jump in. Do it now!" Wallis Hobbs yelled the command. "Otherwise youre gonna see yer fancy gambling friends face spattered all over." He ran the barrel of the gun delicately along Standishs cheek and chin, and then thrust it hard into the side of his neck. "Ever seen a mans head blown off?" he taunted Larabee.
Randall leaned on the rock face wall, content for the behemoth to take control. "I guarantee hell do it."
Hobbs redirected the barrel at Ezras temple and with his left hand squeezed tightly at the gamblers throat. He whispered in the Southerners ear, "Tell him to jump."
Fear pulsed through Ezra as he tried to maintain a blank face, hoping Chris wouldnt see how scared he was. He raised his hand to Hobbs, which circled his neck, and attempted to pry open the crushing fingers that pressed firmly against his throat. His eyes bulged as he gasped for breath. "No," Standish refused, choking as he coughed the negative response.
Larabee watched Ezra, but he had that damn poker face on and wasnt showing any emotion. Chris felt he had no choice; they were going to strangle the gambler if he didnt comply. Sighing heavily, he walked over to the edge of the hole and peered into it, psyching himself mentally for the fall. He looked back into the green eyes of the gambler, and pursed his lips.
"No Chris Dont " Ezra choked out pleading with Chris. Well figure another way out of this, just dont go down there, he mentally implored.
Hobbs roughly pressed the gun harder into the Southerners head. "Shut yer trap!" Hobbs yelled, squeezing his fingers even tighter around Ezras neck. "Now jump!" he directed Larabee.
The gunslinger felt the knot harden in his stomach. The gambler was beginning to turn a pale shade of blue and he struggled for a breath. His options were limited, and Ezras only chance seemed to be if Larabee followed the kidnappers directions. Chris slowly sat down on the edge of the hole. "What about these?" He held out his bound hands towards the men holding them captive. Davies glanced at Randall to see his decision. Randall gave a small nod of his head and a shrug of his shoulders, giving permission for Davies to cut the ropes. Davies pulled a knife out of his boot and sliced between the ropes and then shoved the gunslinger off the edge and down into the dark hole.
Ezra sagged against the giants hold, his knees buckled, but Hobbs held him upright. He screamed inwardly, a note of despair finally settled over him. Was Chris hurt? Did he survive the fall?
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