"Lo the camp," the former bounty hunter announced his arrival into the unknown territory. He guided his black under the overhanging branches, ducking his head at the lowered ceiling. A group of approximately twenty men camped about a single fire.
A thickset man with a neatly trimmed beard rose to meet him, waving the tracker into their camp. "Yer welcome to join us fer supper, stranger."
"Much obliged," Vin stretched out his hand and shook the other mans. The glint of metal reflected in the night-light. He wore a badge. "You the law?"
"Donald Henning, deputy from Red Fork."
Tanner looked past Hennings shoulder to the group that watched them closely. "They the posse? Yer chasin after Carruthers?"
Henning nodded eagerly. "Yeah. Howd ya know?"
"Im part of the law from Four Corners. Were looking for some friends of ours - Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish. They brought Carruthers ta Red Fork. Ya havent seen em have ya?"
"Nope. They left a few days ago. Same day that Sheriff Jennings broke Carruthers outta jail." He glanced back at the now relaxed group and back again to Tanner. "We got plenty of hot coffee, a few biscuits and a helpin of whats left in the pot."
"Thanks, been ridin all day, thatd go down just fine."
Deputy Henning informed the tracker that theyd discovered the body of Sheriff Jennings in a gully an hour this side of Red Fork. His neck was broken. There was no sign of Carruthers, and the horse that Jennings had ridden was lame and needed to be put down. "Weve got another posse searching out north of town, but so far we aint found him. Figure hes gone to ground and laying low. Reckon we just keep lookin," he sighed.
"Id offer ta help, but were already lookin for our missing friends."
Henning frowned in concentration. "Well ya musta already passed em. Cause if they were anywhere between here and Red Fork wed a found em."
"Nope," he pondered. "Less they went around us?"
"Whittling is half a days ride South-East of Red Fork, but its got tumblin weeds blowin through the buildings. Aint nothin left of that town. Dont see why yer boysd want ta go there," he puzzled.
"Well they gotta be somewhere. Gives us another place ta look. Mighty grateful for the feed, but I best me on my way." Vin tipped his hat and saluted with two fingers, waving amicably to the posse he climbed back into the saddle. Resting his hand on the saddle horn Vin nodded his thanks and disappeared in the blanket of darkness.
The Southerner appeared out of the shadows, sitting bareback astride his chestnut gelding. He held a rifle pointedly at the culprits, and expected no resistance. "I would suggest gentlemen that you drop your weapons," Ezras cold menacing voice ordered, steady in its authority.
Wallis Hobbs and Owen Davies stood off to the side of Larabee and had to turn to view the new danger. They had not heard the approach of the rider on the horse as he came up behind them, so engrossed in the battle between Randall and Larabee. Reluctantly they complied with the Southerners order, unbuckling their gunbelts and tossing them to the ground. "Now, please lie down, and put your arms behind your head." Hobbs slowly knelt in the dirt, then dropped face first to the ground and laced his fingers at the back of his head. Davies watched as the larger man obeyed, he glanced at Randall and back to the rifle Standish held with confidence. He swallowed nervously and lay down in the dirt beside his fellow conspirator. "Dont move now, or you might loose some of your anatomy," Ezra threatened. Once both men were in position, Standish sent a furtive glance in the gunslingers direction.
Chris was sitting on the ground massaging his injured foot with one hand, and holding onto his bruised ribs with the other. He looked up from what he was doing and into the appraising green eyes of Standish. A crooked smile formed on his face and he cocked his head to the side. "You ever do anything youre told to do?" he asked in exasperation.
"Not unless its a sure bet," Ezra grinned back at the gunman.
Chris nodded. "Nice timing," he acknowledged, indicating the dead body of Everett Randall, a bullet pierced through his heart. Blood spread out over the blue shirt and onto the ground beneath him. The man had died instantly. Lifeless grey eyes stared unseeing upon the night sky.
"This was your plan?" Ezra queried in astonishment.
"Yeah," he grinned with embarrassment. "Cant trust anyone ta follow a few simple instructions," he winked at the Southerner. Chris stood, testing his twisted ankle to determine how much weight to put on it. Satisfied that he had done no further damage to the foot he bent over Randall and emptied the dead mans hand of his gun. He sorted through some saddlebags until he came across what he was searching for - a length of rope and a knife. Larabee limped over to Davies and Hobbs and secured their hands and feet.
Ezra remained on Chaucer the entire time, protecting the gunmans back should either man attempt an escape. Larabee rubbed at his chest, and winced at the tender area hed touched. He breathed in the heady aroma of the stew and faced the still mounted gambler. "Ya need a hand to get down?" Larabee wondered how the gambler had mounted the animal in the first place.
Standishs grin grew wide and showed the gold pre-molar. "Your assistance would be most welcome."
After organising breakfast and getting the two prisoners to bury the crazed man, they broke camp and headed for town. Both lawmen were exhausted from their ordeal. Chris had taken first watch over their prisoners during the night while the Southerner slept, then Ezra took over, but Larabee was restless and found it difficult to sleep. Fortunately the kidnappers had not caused any trouble.
The journey back to town had taken a little over an hour. It was mid morning as the four travel weary men rode back into the ghost town known as Whittling. The two prisoners rode with their hands tied behind their backs; Chris and Ezra led their mounts. A string of two horses and two mules trailing behind them.
The stillness of early morning emphasised the deserted atmosphere of the town. The slow procession made its way directly to the jail. Larabee dismounted, and in a revered silence ordered Hobbs off his mount. "Yer gonna be spending some time in jail," Chris nudged the giant toward the jailhouse door. "Dont want any trouble from ya either. You wouldnt like me when I get mad," Chris sneered. The man in black locked the cell door and returned outside to escort Davies inside. When Larabee was satisfied that the prisoners were not about to escape he rejoined the Southerner.
Chris worried the gambler was ready to fall off his horse. Ezras head drooped and his jaw tensed tightly, clenching teeth together. "Well rest up in town, wire the boys to meet us here, then go home." He gathered the trailing reins of his black and tugged on Chaucers bridle, urging the gambler to summon the strength just a little bit further.
They passed the saloon and moved down the street to the Whittling Hotel. Its fading painted sign declared that it offered accommodation with breakfast included. "Reckon this might be the place ta stay. Only a quarter for a room," Chris grinned. He slapped Sabers reins over the hitching rail. "Need some help?" Larabee pulled the gamblers good leg out of the stirrups and walked around the opposite side.
Standish scowled at the gunmans interference and attempted to dismount Chaucer himself. "No." He slid out of his saddle and if Chris hadnt been standing in front of the gambler, he would have continued down to the dirt road. Larabee grunted at the added weight. He practically carried Ezra into the abandoned hotel, and up the stairs to a room.
Standish was exhausted from the ride and collapsed heavily onto the bed. The bed creaked from the weight deposited on it, a billow of dust rising from the stained and dusty mattress, causing Standish to sneeze. Chris pushed the smaller man down and sat on the edge of the bed beside him. "Hell, ya know Nathan aint gonna let ya out of the clinic for ages," Larabee tormented.
"Thats very virtuous of you to mention that, Mr. Larabee," sarcasm dripped from his words. "And as much as I admire the man, being imprisoned in his clinic, at his mercy is not a pleasant thought. Perhaps we should stay here a few days and recuperate before sending the others a wire?" Larabee shook his head no, but smiled at the conniving man. Then as an afterthought Ezra added, "Youll be spending some of your time in there too, Ill wager." This was not a question, but a statement of fact; Ezra smiled knowingly at the gunslinger.
"Not, if I can help it," Chris resolved. "Gonna take the horses to the livery. Ill rustle up something for us to eat once Im through."
The gambler sank further into the bed, ignoring the fact that the covers had long since been removed and relishing the comfort of the thick mattress after spending so much time on the hard ground. He closed his eyes and drifted. "Take your time, Im not going anywhere," he yawned.
Chris reached over and squeezed the gamblers shoulder as he slipped into sleep. "Wont be long," he whispered as he stole out the door.
+ + + + + + +
Time flew, and he had no intention of being away from the injured Southerner as long as he had, but tending to the herd of horses took longer than hed anticipated. It gave the man in black some time on his own to reflect over the past days. He was happy with the end result, even if it had been Standish whod killed Randall. Chris had wanted that pleasure for himself, but respected the gamblers need for restitution also. Given the choice to spend time alone with the conman, previously he would have stalled at the idea. But Standish seemed to be made of sterner stuff. And heaven knows how he managed to stay on that leg as long as he had.
When Larabee returned bearing a tray ladened with food and their bedrolls over his shoulder; he found the gambler was awake and eyeing him suspiciously. Chris held Ezras own flask off the tray, and watched the slow smile tug at his lips. "Look what I found."
"Is there anything left?" Standish licked his lips in anticipation. Larabee shook the contents and the liquid inside sloshed loudly enough to answer the gamblers question. "May I?" Unmitigated glee was evident on Standishs face as Larabee handed him the flask. He unscrewed the lid and swallowed the fiery liquid then handed it back to the gunslinger, who eagerly drank from the flask. Standish sat up in bed and glanced at the fares on the tray, his stomach growled and his mouth watered. "We sharing?"
"Yep. Move over." Chris dropped the blankets at the end of the bed and sitting down on the edge he deposited the tray between them. "Help yerself." The food on the tray was fairly minimal, but Chris had the last laugh recalling that the meal was curtesy of Randall. The two pack mules proved to a godsend, providing enough food to last them for few days, if they rationed it out. He probably should have organised a meal for their prisoners, but they could wait.
Larabee chewed a hunk off a strip of beef jerky then waved it at the Southerner. "Been thinkin "
"Could be hazardous to your health," Standish interrupted.
"Ha ha. Bout that Casino of yours."
Ezra choked on a mouthful and had to cough. Did Chris hear the conversation hed had with the kidnappers before he was foisted into the hole? Larabee hadnt made mention of it at the time and Standish had assumed that the lawman hadnt heard. He swallowed, his Adams apple bobbed in his throat. "What exactly do you want to know?"
"Well fer starters - do ya really own it, or was it just a con?"
Ezra laughed, falling back onto the pillow. "You seriously think, Id be working as a law enforcer, in a little hubbub of Four Corners if I were financially well off?" Standish quickly looked down at the tray and picked up a mug of coffee.
Chris stared silently for a minute. "Guess not."
"It was just a ruse that didnt go exactly to plan," Ezra added once Larabee had agreed with him.
"There was somethin else." Chris stepped over to the door and lent his weight against it, crossing his left leg over the right. Ezra waited patiently, content for the gunman to search for the right words. "Just wanted ya to know the thing is " he stumbled. Larabee was not a man of words, but one of action. He found it difficult to put his feelings into words. "Ah hell," he wiped the sweat from his face, hiding his expressions behind his hand. Dropping the hand by his side he started again. "Yer saved my life from the pool and with Randall," Chris finally lifted his gaze to meet Standishs. "Just Thanks," he blurted out in a rush.
Ezra grinned, he half expected the gunman to abort the attempt. "I owe you a debt of gratitude also. I would never have made it out if you hadnt assisted me."
Chris arched his eyebrow in scepticism. "I dont believe that for one minute, Standish. You woulda conned those furry rats ta lead ya out or better still, the bats coulda flown ya out."
"Are you inferring that I am related to those rodents or some sort of demonic vampire bat?" Ezra frowned horrified at the concept.
"Hadnt xactly figured on those lines, but "
"They werent vampire bats in the cave, by the way."
Chris folded his arms across his chest. "Yeah, howd you know?"
"Any of them bite you?"
Chris cocked his head and pressed an ear against the hardy wooden door. At Ezras inquiring glance he raised his hand to silence the man.
Standish strained to hear anything out of the ordinary and was ready to admit defeat when he heard the door of the Hotel swinging back hard against the wall. He nodded to Chris that hed also heard the noise and they both drew their guns from their holsters.
The gunman backed off the door and opened it a crack to peer into the hallway. He was planning to slip out the door when he caught movement out the corner of his eye. Standish was preparing to leave the bed. "Dont even consider it," Chris growled in hushed undertones.
"No!" he hissed, silently closing the door and striding to the edge of the bed.
"But " Ezra attempted again.
"Stay put." Chris crept to the window and wiped his sleeve over the cloudy glass. He couldnt see directly below the hotel as the awning blocked his view. He pressed his face against the cold glass straining to see the length of the street, but nothing moved below.
Footsteps echoed in the hollow structure and doors continued to beat against the wall. Somebody was searching the Hotel. Muted voices joined the confusion of noise. Chris returned to the rooms exit and waited. He wouldnt leave the gambler.
Chris mouthed to Ezra, and pointed at the door. Footfalls landed on the opposite side of the petition. The knob slowly turned and the door flew open, bouncing off the bedroom wall. Both Chris and Ezra had aimed their guns on the appropriate position of where the intruder would be once entering the room. A dark haired moustached man fell over the threshold. The barrel of a colt was pressed firmly to the side of his head.
"That a way ta welcome old friends?" Wilmington grinned. Larabee dropped the weapon to his side and Buck backed out the door a fraction. "Found em," he called loudly back down the hallway.
"God Damn it, Buck. Ever heard of knocking?" Chris shouted at the ladies man. "Ya coulda got yerself killed!"
"Hot Dang! Missed you too, ya old war dog." Buck hugged the man in black then stepped quickly from Larabee before he threatened to use that gun on him after all. He widened his grin and jumped boldly on the end of the bed. "Ya can holster that gun now, Ezra." The gambler still pointed his Remington at Wilmington; even Chris was slow to return his Colt to his holster. After due consideration both lawmen complied.
"Mr. Wilmington, what pray tell are you doing here?" Standish queried.
"Hell, Ezra. Looking for you two of course."
Ezra shared a brief look with Chris then back to Buck. An eyebrow raised slightly. "As we are not yet overdue, why were you looking?" His question remained unanswered though because Vin, Nathan, JD and Josiah all descended on the room.
Nathan pushed past the others and quickly gave Ezra and Chris a visual once over. The healer shook his head; cant anyone stay out of trouble? He immediately noticed that both men appeared haggard and sported head wounds, and with further inspection discovered the Southerners torn trouser leg. Nathan picked up the shredded pieces of material to investigate what damage was hidden beneath.
Standish ignored Jacksons examination of his knee, but winced when the healer cut more of his pants leg to reveal the bruised and battered limb. "How did you know we were here?" Ezra frowned in puzzlement.
"Found Chaucer and Saber at the livery. Figured youd be in one of the buildings," Buck grinned devilishly. Standish rolled his eyes to the ceiling, and Chris stifled a laugh.
"Not here, as in this room you buffoon, here as in this town?" the gambler clarified. Ezra groaned when Jackson continued to prod his injury.
Wilmington patted the tracker on his back. "Ya can thank Vin here for that. He ran into a posse, chasing after Carruthers. Deputy told im about this place."
Larabee nodded his thanks to the tracker. "That sorry son of a bitch still on the loose?"
Nathan propped Ezras knee up on a pillow and turned to face Larabee. "Yep. Howd you know Carruthers escaped?"
"Randall mentioned it in passing," the gambler drawled.
"He one of the prisoners ya left tied up over in the jail?" Vin asked.
"Nope," Chris answered. "We left that bastard for the coyotes to dig up."
"Musta really pissed yer off, huh?" Wilmington chuckled at the blood vessel that throbbed on Chris forehead.
"Youve no idea, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra stifled a laugh, recalling Vins recounting that the prisoners were in jail, but untied. "You left them tied up?" he inquired of the gunslinger.
Chris shrugged his shoulders. He couldnt care one way or the other what happened to either man in the jail. "It was that or shoot em." He smiled broadly at the gambler waiting for his response. Ezra lay back on the quilt and grinned.
"The deputy from Red Fork also inform you that Sheriff Jennings assisted Carruthers to escape?"
"Yeah," Tanner agreed. "Sheriffs dead. Broke his neck."
"Thats rather convenient," Ezra rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
Once both sides were satisfied, Nathan sent Dunne down to his horse to procure his bag. He was unhappy with the amount of swelling to Standishs knee and he realised what an impossible task he had ahead of him to keep the enigmatic Southerner off his feet. Jackson struggled not to groan out loud. Maybe hed enlist Josiahs services to pin the gambler down. "Ya been walking on this much?" He watched the conman open his mouth. "On second thoughts," the healer interrupted, "dont answer that, I dont want to know." Standish snapped his mouth closed and shared a disconcerted glance with Larabee.
JD arrived back in the room panting; he handed the healer his bag and leaned over Jackson, wincing visibly at the grossly swollen and discoloured limb. "Howd ya do it Ezra?"
"I fell down a hole," Standish deadpanned.
"What cha do that for?"
"He had a little help," Chris answered for him.
Nathan pulled out several bandages. "Josiah, can you hold up Ezras leg so I can wrap it up?"
Josiah moved into position and gently lifted the gamblers leg off the pillow. "Just relax, Ezra. Itll feel a lot better once I put this on. Ill mix up a batch of herbs then, for the pain."
Standish, for his part, gripped the sides of the bed and bit the inside of his cheek. He held his breath and cringed at every round the bandage circled his knee.
"You can breath again, Im finished." Nathan took Ezras leg from Josiahs hold and lowered it down to the pillow. The former slave eyed the gambler critically, assessing the head wound. He touched the formed scab and massaged around the wound, feeling for breaks. Ignoring Ezra, he pointedly asked Chris. "He out long with this?"
"Yeah, he was. Reckon he had one of those concussions. Kept fallin ta sleep at the drop of a hat." Chris still hovered by the door; he hadnt moved an inch since the others joined them in the room.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," the disgruntled Southerner interjected, "but I am in the room, and am quite capable of answering for myself."
"Then Id never get the right response," Jackson quipped.
Standish harrumphed, and sank back against the pillows. Ezra glanced at the relaxed pose of Larabee, leaning against the wall. "Mr. Jackson, I do believe Mr. Larabee is in need of your expertise as well."
"Yeah, I was gonna check out that eye," Nathan agreed.
"Its fine, Nathan. Had worse from a bee sting," Chris stalled. Jackson stood and walked over, insisting he needed to check it out.
"Dont have time for twenty questions," Nathan argued. "How about ya just tell me what else needs fixin, save me guessin." Chris expression didnt alter and he remained silent.
"He strained the dexterity of his left ankle," Standish complacently informed the healer.
JD nudged Wilmington in the ribs and whispered, "Whatd he say?"
Buck leaned back and just as quietly replied, "Said, Chris twisted his ankle." The ladies man grinned at the younger mans grunt.
"Right!" Jackson ordered. "Into that chair. Larabee glared at the Southerner, but sank into the chair stiffly. Every other part of his body cringed at the abuse it had received in the past few days. Nathan deftly removed Larabees boot and firmly bandaged his foot.
"Im gonna get you for that, Standish," Chris threatened.
"Take your best shot," Standish challenged him.
With Larabee and Standish settled into the room, one by one the others departed. They dragged in a mattress from another room for Chris to rest on, and they were surprised when the gunslinger readily lay down on it without any objections.
Josiah offered to prepare dinner for the group of seven men and JD and Buck set out to repair an old wagon they found at the back of the livery, that listed to one side. Vin declared that hed tend to all the mounts, and Nathan went to check on the prisoners in the jail.
After everyone had departed, ten minutes later, only Chris and Ezra remained in the room. Chris lay down on the mattress, and smothered a yawn, his ribs ached and he was covered in bruises. "You still got that flask?" Larabee half sat on the mattress.
"I do indeed," the Southerner drew the silver flask from under his pillow. If he hadnt hidden it, Nathan would have confiscated it, he was positive. Standish tossed it to the waiting hands of the gunman.
"Why didnt you tell Nathan about my bruised ribs?" Larabee licked his lips and stretched complacently on the mattress.
"I can remedy that oversight if you deem it necessary?" Ezra leaned over the side of his bed and frowned. He hoped that the gunman wasnt seriously hurt in his fisticuff with Randall. Now he wasnt so sure. Hed assumed the lawman was only battered and bruised from the confrontation and wouldnt appreciated Nathans overzealous prodding and poking. He knew he was uncomfortable with the healer fussing over his own injuries.
"Hell no! Nathans gonna be fussing too much as it is without giving him further need." Chris watched as Ezra rolled back into the centre of the bed, struggling to find a comfortable position.
"Then figure yourself fortunate not to have all your injuries disclosed," a disembodied voice drawled wearily from above him. Within minutes Chris could hear a steady rhythm of breathing. He sat back up and peered over the edge of the bed. Standish had gone to sleep.
Chris lay back down and closed his eyes, relaxing for the first time in the past few days. He decided that the others could now take over, while Ezra and he caught up on much needed rest. Tomorrow would be a long and tiring day. Travelling home in a wagon, with Standish ugh. Maybe he could convince Jackson that he was fit to ride. Hell, Standish was probably gonna try that. Hed wait and see if the conman could convince Nathan that he was capable of riding, then try his luck. Chris yawned, it had been quite a while since hed rested without fear of waking in an unknown area. It was good to have men to watch his back once in a while. He fell into a deep and restoring sleep almost instantly following this thought.
Jackson popped his head around the corner of the door to check on his charges, and was pleasantly surprised to see they were both asleep. He pulled the door quietly closed behind him and left them to slumber. Cause tomorrow was always another day. And he just knew that both men were going to try his patience.
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