Chris awoke with a stiff neck and sore muscles, but emotionally refreshed after his sleep. He didnt know how long hed slept for, but his stomach growled indicating it was time for a meal, and there was a chill in his bones that had seeped in during his sleeping hours. Larabee rubbed his arms to generate some warmth. He needed to get up and moving, the frigid temperatures of the underground tunnels were not conducive to ones health. He blinked in the darkness, but it brought with it a weird sense of disorientation.
Stretching his arms above his head, Chris yawned. He was uncertain as to what caused him to wake, but was vaguely aware of there being light. "Aug!" he screamed uncharacteristically, jumping to his feet and shaking his right leg. He worked his hands down his leg until they came into contact with a wriggling bulge at his knee. "God damn it!" Hopping on his left leg he kicked off his boot, shaking the limb more vigorously, but the bulge refused to budge. Tiny claws dug through the thick material of his jeans hanging on for grim death inside. "Hell!" Larabee unbuttoned his pants and pulled them down to his knees. He tugged the rodent from his black jeans and tossed it angrily against the rock wall. "God! What a way to wake up," he groused, pulling the seat of his pants back over his buttocks.
"Ezra, you awake?" Chris softly posed the question; surely the gambler couldnt still be asleep after all the noise hed been making. Hell, it was probably time to get him up anyway; before they were both eaten alive by these rats. When no response came to his query, Chris groped in the darkness to find the gamblers form, but his hands only found the hard dirt. "Ezra?" he hissed in concern. Fumbling for the torch, he lit it with a precious match and the light revealed what hed already suspected, the conman was gone. Larabee groaned in frustration and spun in a slow circle calling out the gamblers name, "Ezra Ezra ?" he shouted.
Chris searched the immediate surrounds for the elusive Southerner, trying to ascertain which direction to head. "Wheres Vin when you need him?" he grumbled. "Standish, where the hell are you?" He shouted and the question echoed off the walls. Chris paced up and down the immediate passages, anxiously looking for the gambler. "When I find you Im gonna wring yer scrawny neck," he muttered in growing consternation.
"Im right here, Mr. Larabee," the Southerner drawled. "Is there something you require of me?" Came the smug reply from Ezra who was leaning against the cave wall grinning complacently at Chris.
The gunman immediately noted the way the gamblers smile reached his eyes. His eyes travelled over the length of the Southerner, scrutinising the mans stance. Standish certainly appeared better than he had prior to their sleep, thought Chris. "Where have you been?"
"I was unaware that I had to supply a detailed account of my every movement to you. And as you were still sleeping when I woke, I hesitated at waking you just to announce that I had to relieve myself." Ezra raised his eyebrows at the blond man. A slight tremor ran through his lean frame. Actually, the tiny claws of the many rats that crawled over his body had awakened him. Hed woken in a rush sitting bolt upright, a scream lodged in his throat, with dozens of the hideous rodents falling off his chest in the sudden movement. Peeling the furry animals off his jacket, and one that had burrowed between his vest and shirt, he groped in the dark for a torch, lighting it with trembling hands. Unable to remain on the floor and go back to sleep for fear that hed be inundated once more, he decided it was a better option to answer natures call.
Standish had waved the torch high over the gunman, and with disgust saw a number of rats scurry off the older man as the light approached. Larabee must indeed be exhausted, as he must have been, to allow the critters to climb over them during the sleeping hours.
Chris shook his head. In the dim light he swore that a fine tremor attacked the gamblers frame. Perhaps the conman was greeted similarly as hed been. "Hows the knee?"
Ezra looked down at the offending limb and lifted it slightly off the ground. "It has not decreased any in size, but it seems to have improved. And at least I can walk on it better this morning."
"You shouldnt be walking around on it at all," Chris admonished.
"Well, as Mr. Jackson isnt present with us on this inordinate expedition to prevent me, I would say its a moot point. And as we require both ones lower extremities to be ambulant, to escape this miserable hellhole, unless youre considering carrying me the entire way," the conman paused here for effect, and raised his eyebrows in query at Larabee before continuing, "Id maintain its a prerequisite. Wouldnt you?"
"Ya talk too much, Standish," but a smile softened the words. "We need to work out what were gonna do."
Ezra pushed himself off the wall and hobbled over to where Chris was now settling down. In the gunslingers opinion, Standish limped just as badly as he did the day before, but at least could walk on it. The rest probably did the injured knee some good. If only he could keep the gambler off it, but then theyd never get out of here.
"I reckon we oughtta find our own way outta here and not head for that exit with those fellas waiting for us." Chris handed the torch to the gambler and after only sitting for a minute clambered to his feet and walked a short distance from the Southerner.
Standish followed the gunmans departure with his eyes and raised his voice to compensate. "And how exactly do you propose to accomplish that? Supposedly that is the only escape from this earthen prison. And if we do not arrive by sunset tonight then the miscreants will seal us in. Now there may be sufficient water supply down here, but there is only so long a body can survive without sustenance."
Larabee returned, adjusting his black jeans, he hunkered down, rejoining the gambler. "I aint worked that out yet," he admitted. "Thought maybe youd come up with a few suggestions. And whos to say its the only way outta here?" With a wicked grin Larabee added, "Was gonna cook ya up rat for breakfast, theres plenty of them scurrying around down here. Whatd ya say?" He attempted to keep a straight face, but at Standishs reaction it broke into a smile.
Ezra screwed up his face in distaste. "AUG! Think Ill pass on your fine cuisine. Remind me to decline any offers of dinner at your place in the future." Chris laughed heartily and slapped the gambler on his back.
"Perhaps," Standish drawled in thought, rubbing his thumb and forefinger over his chin, "seeing as how there is so much water down here, there is a slight likelihood that we could gain our escape by going with the flow, so to speak." Larabee nodded his head in approval and smiled at the younger man. Then Ezra added under his breath, "Or we suffer an untimely demise to a watery grave."
"Dunno, Ezra. Id rather give it a go than wait for a bullet to the back of the head as soon as we stepped foot out of that exit. Hell, what are our chances of even finding it? Dont answer that. So its gotta be worthwhile considering."
Standish wasnt totally convinced, but shrugged his shoulders in acquiescence. "Then I suggest we return to the impressive pool, it has been by far the largest course of water weve encountered, and possibly that is our best option."
"Lets go then." Larabee stood and held out his hand to Standish. He was surprised when the gambler actually accepted the offered hand.
Chris had decided from the outset that he would assist Standish, and accepted no arguments from him. The gambler had put up a good front earlier that morning about the condition of his leg, but the truth became evident as the hours past by, that he simply could not put any significant weight on it.
Judging by the light the filtered in from above, it was late morning, or perhaps closer to midday, by the time they returned to the underground stream. It measured about ten feet across at its widest and about three foot deep in the middle. The rushing swirling waters tumbled over many rocks and pounded the edges of the hole in the wall as it disappeared from sight. They doused the flaming torch in the water and tossed it, they would have no further use for the implement, the light being sufficient in the wide cavern.
They stood at the edge of the stream viewing the turbulence and listening to the roar, at what seemed to be too much water trying to squeeze through a too small an opening. What seemed like a good idea in theory was now looking seriously frightening.
Standish and Larabee both took tentative steps off the edge and into the stream, the frigid water immediately penetrating the material of their pants, both sucking in their breath at the sharpness of the cold sting. Water swirled around their legs, trying hard to upset their tenuous footing. Numbness was already spreading through their lower limbs, and the gambler was starting to lose the throbbing ache that had settled in his injured knee, due to the freezing cold water. Larabee stretched out his hand to steady the injured man. They cautiously trudged towards the rushing mass of water that entered and disappeared behind the wall. Water splashed up over their waists and wet the bottom of the coats they were wearing. As they neared the hole, both men took a moments reprieve, green eyes met with blue, and they both smiled as they gripped each others hands in form of farewell.
"Good luck," Standish croaked. This may be his last moment on the face of earth. What a way to go. Drowned, and nobody would ever know. Would his mother even miss him? And what if only one of them makes it out? Swallowing with great difficulty, the gambler squashed the overriding fear and bravely gave the gunslinger his customary two-fingered salute and adopted a tentative smile.
"Be right behind you," Chris promised.
Standish nodded, closing his eyes against the tide of emotion; he took a deep breath before hurling himself into the surge of rapids. The shock of the frigid water engulfing him almost stole the harboured breath, but he managed to suppress the urge to release it. The water swirled around the Southerner, dragging him into the depths of its bowels, pummelling him against the sides of the tunnel the water also surged through. The tunnel carved a neat hole through the cave walls. The shaft dropped and plunged downwards, then just as suddenly altered its meandering course and levelled off, not before Ezra rammed into the sharp bend. He snorted water up his nose and it stung as it flowed down the back of his throat. The need to cough and choke at the same instant threatened the hold on his dwindling supply of air.
He fought the urge to take a breath, knowing if he did so it would be his last. Standish concentrated on swimming as best he could in the limited space available, his knee useless in this endeavour. He pulled along the base of the tunnel assisting in his transport through the narrow fissure. His chest ached from the lack of oxygen, and the edges of his vision swam. A detached sensation of falling and lurching at the same time played havoc with his equilibrium. His eyes burned in the pitch-black tunnel, fighting with the water as well as the unseen walls that encroached around him. The need to wipe the water away from his face irritated him; it stung at his eyes. He swam and his lungs burned. Ezra prayed for deliverance from the watery hole.
Standish feared he could not last too much longer, but he continued to hold his breath. His heart beat rapidly, pounding loudly in his ears, competing with the roar that echoed and threatened to swallow him whole. Like Jonah and the Whale he mused with a floating detachment. He struggled to focus; an apathy began to sap his energy. It took another sharp turn and rapid descent to refocus and direct a newfound strength to his arms so they could continue to pull him through the torrent of water. How long could a person hold their breath? How long had he held on? And how much longer did he have left?
Ezra was on the verge of unconsciousness. Hed asked for his lungs to do the impossible, and the risk was not going to pay. He opened his mouth and instinctively drew in a breath, but water filled his mouth and nose. What, to Ezra, seemed like an eternity finally ended, and he found himself flying through the air, water spraying all around him. He coughed and spluttered, snorting water out through his nose. It was a second thought before he realised that he was no longer in the tunnel but out. He looked down and panic surged a new as he felt himself falling. He peddled his legs and flailed his arms as he looked down at the pool below, which was getting closer and closer with each passing second.
His voice screamed in his ears as he fell with the cascading waterfall, the roar of the water drowning out his anguished cry. Landing with an almighty splash, he realised finally he was safely out of that hellhole, now he only had to swim upward toward the surface and gain further freedom. The gamblers face smashed through the surface of the pool, taking deep gasping and refreshing breaths that were desperately needed to replenish his depleted oxygen starved lungs. He paddled in the pool getting his bearings, finding the bank he swam toward the dry land. The gambler dragged his body out above the waterline and sank to the ground, exhaustion and cold overcoming him.
Chris Larabee struggled with the overwhelming desire to pull the Southerner back, but he counted to ten and waited. Standish wouldnt appreciate the return to the cavern. Nor would his leg. In doing so hed only convey his growing trepidation to the gambler. And that was not his intention. This was Ezras idea, but Chris was certain that the younger man was not comfortable with the decision to proceed. He smiled wanly. Standish no doubt thought the gunman would reject the idea instantly. But he hadnt. And for the life of him he couldnt determine why.
Once more his life, and death, rested in his own hands. So many times in the past this decision had been forced upon him, especially so after the deaths of Sarah and Adam. If it hadnt been for Buck Wilmington, his life would have ended long before now. His need to avenge the murders of his family kept the will to live forefront in his mind. But the strength required to live each day without them was a battle. He shook the memory from his mind and wondered how long it had been since the gambler had disappeared. How long should he wait before following? Was five minutes sufficient time? No one could survive underwater if they could not breathe for five minutes. What if the enigmatic Southerner was already dead? Drowned in a watery grave. If this was indeed their passage out, then Standish would either be already out or dying because of him. What if the passage became too narrow for them to fit through? Surely if that had happened, an obstruction to the flow, he would see some sort of back up at the very entrance that he now waited at? And since there was none, didnt that bode well? Unless Standish was still being ushered through the tunnel. And the gambler was smaller than him.
Chris shivered as the rapids tugged and pulled at him, edging him nearer the mouth of the hole. He had no choice but to follow. He couldnt allow the conman to confront their kidnappers alone. And thats exactly what the Southerner would do, if he wasnt around to prevent him. Buttoning his jacket closed, Chris took a few preparatory breaths, then his final one for the journey. A surge of water splashed the cave wall when the gunslinger ducked under the surface.
The Southerner lay face down, coughing up swallowed water and breathing hard. He fought against the chills that invaded his body. Ezra blinked furiously as the light pained his sensitive eyes, accustomed to the pervading dark of the past two days. His clothing was cold, wet and plastered to him, his sandy brown hair slicked down against his scalp. Water dripped from his nose and ran down his cheek; this was absently wiped away with the swipe of his hand. His injured knee was screaming out at him, unhappy at the rough treatment it had received. And the swollen leg was uncomfortable in the tight leather boot and constrictive pants.
Dismissing his pain and agony for the moment he glanced back over his shoulder searching for signs of his friends emergence from the hole, but the blond headed man was nowhere to be seen. Twisting around to get a better view of the area, he unintentionally sent a sharp spasm of pain bolting through his knee, down to his foot and up to his thigh, which caused him to groan. How long should he wait for the gunslinger? Standish had already been out of the pool for five minutes. Would Larabee have waited this long before following? The possibility of the gunslingers demise reawakened once more. He thought that since hed survived the flight of passage then Chris would too. But Ezra had only just escaped in time.
Chris had been the only person hed given his loyalty to, unconditionally. Could Ezra return to Four Corners without the gunslinger by his side? His heartbeat increased in tempo and his breathing quickened as he fought the rising panic. What if Chris ran out of breath? Or he gave up too soon? Larabee wouldnt give up so easily, Ezra corrected. If anything, the man was like a dog with a bone, persistent to a fault. So it was just a matter of time before the shaft ejected him. Somewhat at a loss, he waited anxiously, eyes focused upward at the waterfalls inception.
Ezra heaved a huge sigh of relief at the sight of the blond haired man, delighted and relieved that he finally made it out. Standish struggled to his feet when Larabee was finally spat out with a forceful gush and plummeted to the pool below. A small chuckle broke his silence, and he casually edged to the waters boundary. A dimpled grin grew in the wake of the harrowing ordeal theyd been through.
The Southerner waited impatiently for the older man to resurface. But when Larabee finally bobbed to the pools surface, Ezras ready smile dropped. His face paled, losing what little colour he had regained as he realised that Larabee was laying face first in the water, and unmoving. "Oh God NO!" he screamed in anguish.
Ezra, galvanised into action, raced awkwardly back into the pool, spraying water as he splattered through the shallows he dove into the deeper water and quickly swam the short distance to the stationary form. The gambler dog paddled next to the man in black and gripped a handful of clothing to flip the gunslinger onto his back. Ezra wrapped an arm securely about his neck and hauled Larabee across the water and to shore. When swimming became impossible, Standish stood in the knee-deep water and dragged the unresponsive man the rest of the way out of the water. The gambler dropped down beside Chris and hesitantly felt for a pulse. His wrinkled fingers trembled, and it took a few seconds for Ezra to register that a pulse thumped beneath his fingers. "You sorry son of a bitch," Standish growled, and he collapsed back beside his friend.
A smoky fire sputtered and coughed to life. Far too many leaves and small twigs caused the fuel to smoke, but as the undergrowth quickly caught light more substantial material was added to the hungry fire and the profuse cloud of grey smoke gave way to an amber flame. Standish hovered close to it, too close in fact, the flames licked perilously close to the hairs on his arms. His arms were covered in gooseflesh, as was his bare chest. He held out his hands, palms up, attempting to warm his icy limbs. After a short time Ezra brought the numb fingers to his face, cupped over his mouth and nose he breathed in the warmth from his hands. Standish seated his backside on the ground and picked up another branch, throwing it on the fire. He looked over at the unmoving form of Larabee and shrugged at the ire of the situation. He pulled the gunslinger free of the water, and positioned him near the fire, but he was at a loss at what to do next.
Around the hastily made camp, clothing was draped haphazardly over surrounding trees and bushes, sizzling in the sunlight as they dried. The Southerner had divested himself of his upper clothing and that of the gunslingers. With any luck, the garments would dry in a short amount of time in the suns heat.
Standish licked his lips and frowned at the remaining black leather boot. With one already removed and emptied of water, the sock wrung out and sitting close to the fire to allow them to dry, he contemplated the removal of the second one. The fire in his leg rivalled the heat that burned from the campfire. The need to remove the offending footwear became compelling. He desperately needed to liberate his cramped foot. The swelling from his knee had gone beyond the knee itself, even his toes were so squashed he couldnt move the digits. His attention was diverted momentarily as Chris came back to consciousness.
Larabee coughed violently, hastily bolting upright gasping and sucking in oxygen. His hand grasped at his throat and his eyes watered. As the coughing fit abated he let his head fall forward to rest on his knees. He took in slow-moderated breaths, fighting the urge not to panic he calmed his breathing. "Standish?" he croaked without lifting his head off his knees. His eyes stung from the light and he closed them tightly.
"Right here," the Southerner confirmed his presence on the opposite side of the fire.
Chris lifted his head off his knees, rubbing his eyes he glanced over to where the accented voice came from. Noticing the lack of apparel on the gambler, he looked down and realised half of his clothing was also missing. Larabee coughed again before asking, "You okay?"
"I do believe thats my prerogative to ask." A smug grin enlightened his features. "Seeing as how I had to pull your sorry ass out of the water." Ezra wriggled his eyebrows waiting for a reply.
"Okay I think." He rolled his shoulders and stretched his limbs and for his efforts was painfully alerted to the throbbing in his ankle. His face contorted, unprepared for the flare emanating from his foot. "Other than a twisted ankle," he added. He distinctly remembered his foot hitting a rock that was jutting out in the tunnel; the pain caused him to let go of the breath. He remembered struggling to breathe, and the painful burning of his chest as his lungs sung out for oxygen. Larabee watched Standish roll his eyes and chuckle softly. "Ah, thanks."
"My pleasure, to be of some assistance to you is a change."
"We been here long?" Larabee asked, unsure of the time, he blinked his eyes as he searched to find the sun.
"Not long," Ezra answered not looking up from his ministrations.
Larabee watched Standish intently as he placed his booted foot between two half buried rocks and pushed the foot tight into the crevice. Standish bowed his head and hissed out an expletive. Then started to pull against the rocks hold on his leg. "What the hell do you think youre doing?" Chris thundered, jumping to his feet and crossing over to the opposite side. It finally occurred to him what the gambler planned to do.
Panting, the gambler stopped, startled at the gunslingers vociferous outburst. "I need to remove this boot as it has become a trifle too tight and uncomfortable to continue wearing it any longer," he puffed.
"Thats gonna hurt like hell, specially with yer knee like that," Larabee warned.
"Im well aware of that and am open to suggestions." Ezra grimaced, not wanting to cause himself more pain, but knowing he had to rid himself of the boot. The man in black sidled over closer to the gambler, causing some discomfort to his twisted left ankle in doing so.
Chris gently lifted the booted foot from between the two rocks and supported it on his own legs. Grabbing the material of Ezras lower pants leg he ripped it open up passed his knee. Chris whistled when he saw the extent of the swelling and the purplish blue bruising that coloured the surrounding knee, disappearing under the rim of the boot. He winced in sympathy and wondered at how Standish had managed to walk as long as he had with the injury. "We oughtta use a knife to cut this off." He of course, referred to Ezras boot.
"If you have one, Ill not protest to you using it." The gambler was well aware that all their weapons had been removed off them at the jail.
"Sorry, Ezra. Reckon youll haf ta settle for me pulling it off." Larabee pursed his lips, alerting Standish to the impending pain he was about to cause.
"As I surmised, please go ahead," he nodded his head in resignation.
Chris steadied himself, taking hold of the heel of Ezras boot in his right hand and wrapping his other hand firmly around his leg just below the knee, but above the boot. Giving the gambler no chance to tense up his leg, Larabee tugged the boot off in one fluid motion. Standish screamed out in agony, throwing himself away from the clutches of Larabees hands, rolling onto his side and holding onto the injured leg, swearing up a storm. Words Chris had never heard pass the lips of the Southerner before were now being used quite freely. "Didnt know you knew all them colourful words?"
"Just because Im a gentleman doesnt mean I dont know em," he rasped out.
"I spose not," agreed the gunslinger. Chris picked up the boot and tossed it over next to the fire. He looked down at his own, deciding to take off at least one of them so it could dry out. Squelching around in wet boots wasnt particularly enjoyable. His left was firmly fixed in the boot, swollen tight; hed best leave it on. It was gonna be bad enough that Standish was now without one boot, let alone both of them. Hed wait. He could manage.
The pair slept the afternoon in peaceful quiet, recouping their lost energy. The fire had died down and their clothing dried. A light breeze had picked up, and gently swayed the branches of the trees. The clouds moved across the sky and the sun lowered toward the horizon.
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