The nausea that filled him at the thought of this brute laying hands on his person was enough to drive the Southerner into the untamed frenzy of a wild bronc. Using his captor's hold on his arms, Ezra released the weight from his legs and kicked backwards, the heel of his boot striking the red-haired guard in the crotch, sending Hawkes and his desires to the floor.
The men holding him were shocked by the sudden fall of their companion and loosed their grips. Ezra dropped from their grasps and spun around. He came up fighting, sending another of the guards to the floor with a kick to his solar plexus. The two remaining guards jumped on top of Ezra pulling him to the floor. They grabbed the crazed man's arms and wrenched them up forcing him to stand. One of the men then drove a fist into Ezra's mid-section, bringing forth a yelp of pain and subduing him in the process.
"Hey, Hawkes, you okay?" One of the guards holding Ezra laughed, looking down at Hawkes who was stilled curled up on the floor, trying to catch his breath. He had been surprised at Ezra's strength; apparently, there was more to this man than just his fancy clothes.
Hawkes gasped and wheezed as he slowly got to his feet, clutching his bruised balls. He glared at Ezra who was now bent over, his arms forced overhead. "Kill the son-of-a-bitch!" he hissed.
Standish braced for what he knew was coming. He tightened his stomach muscles and tried to shift slightly so the blows would strike his side and hopefully miss vital organs. Ezra's breath expelled from his lungs as Hawkes' huge hammer-like fists drove themselves brutally into his midsection, lifting him off the ground. The blows came quick and hard, making it difficult to inhale. Ezra felt himself growing light-headed. A straight punch connected with his jaw, snapping his head back where it struck the back wall. Another blow to the side of his head brought white splashes of light dancing within his vision. Two more upward blows connected with his stomach doubling him over again.
Chris shook the bars in helpless rage, fear and anger strangling his heart. He winced at every blow the con man endured.
The blows stopped as Ezra slumped within his tormentors' grasp. He took a couple of quick painful gasps to get air down to his oxygen-deprived lungs. Ezra was then lifted, his back slammed against the wall, his shoulders pinned firmly. He couldn't clear his vision. Vague images passed in front of him and an incessant ringing muffled the voices around him. He felt dazed and disconnected--even the pain was starting to drift away. Ezra turned his head to the other side when he felt his left arm being raised and stretched out, and then thought he heard Chris yell.
"NO, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP!"
Standish couldn't recall ever having heard such raw terror in the stalwart leader's voice before. He didn't have time to consider the reason for Larabee's emotionally charged outburst as he caught the blur of a club out of the corner of his eye and felt the agonizing pain when it connected with his arm.
Standish screamed as his arm broke mid way between the wrist and elbow the jagged bone end tearing into muscle and flesh. He was allowed to crumble to the floor, cradling his now useless limb. His head spun and his vision blurred with tears. He swallowed back the bile that rose up in his throat. Ezra closed his eyes tight, forcing out the tears that traveled down his face, trying to concentrate only on the cold rock-slab floor beneath his broken body. Wave after wave of pain flooded his battered form, and he trembled weakly at the guard's feet.
The next kick broke two ribs; he felt and heard them snap as the delicate protective bones gave way under the vicious attack. Ezra's mind went numb as laughter cascaded all around him. In the midst of it he thought he could hear Chris's fury cutting through the perverse delight of his attackers. Ezra tasted the end of his life in the blood that filled his mouth. This was his last coherent thought as the room dissolved into a frenzy of fists, feet and laughter, drowning out Chris's promises of death.
Larabee lunged at the cell bars, reaching out as far as he could, trying to grab hold of one of the guards. He knew he was witnessing the death of one of his men; it was driving him to madness. Chris's fingers latched onto a collar, and he yanked the man back, almost tearing the ugly brute's ears off as he tried to force his head through the bars. Chris threw his arm around the man's throat and squeezed. He listened to the gurgles and sputtering of the man gasping for breath and trying to yell for help. Chris's anger didn't allow him to see the club that swung down, catching him above the eye and driving him to the floor. Chris struggled to raise his head. He met and held Ezra's pain filled green eyes, hoping to convey the regret he felt. As consciousness left him Chris knew the agony etched on the gambler's face would be an image that would haunt him till his dying day.
Chris had no idea how long he was unconscious as awareness slowly seeped into his body. He found himself on a cot, a bandage wrapped around a head that felt heavy and unfocused. His first thought was that he had gotten drunk and for some reason Buck had been forced to hit him. It wouldn't be the first time. He glanced up and saw the barred window above the bed. By the position of the sun it was already late afternoon. Sudden recollection caused Chris to spring up on the cot, grabbing his head as a surge of pain flooded the area between his eyes. He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes until the pain subsided enough so he could at least see. Chris pushed himself up to his feet, swaying slightly, and shuffled over to the bars that connected the two cells. He looked into the other cell. A dark wool blanket laid over a body on the floor. The body was completely covered, except for a hand that protruded from beneath the coarse fabric. Chris's breath quickened, and it felt like his heart had lodged into his throat. His hands gripped the bars so hard his knuckles turned white. A feral howl escaped his lips, coming up from the depths of his soul and ripping out his heart.
The men in the next room smiled and chortled at the heart-wrenching scream.
Buck and JD had dropped their prisoner off in Cedar Ridge, much to his relief. JD managed to convince Buck that they needed to rest and eat or they would just end up falling out of their saddles. Buck grudgingly relented, knowing that the kid was right and he wouldn't be doing anyone any good if he got them in trouble, too. The two friends grabbed a few hours sleep and some food and headed back to Four Corners.
JD was quiet on the ride back to town, not voicing any protest or asking any questions. Buck's uneasiness had filled his own young heart, and he wanted to get back to Four Corners as quickly as possible. Nothing good ever happened when the seven split up. JD's young imagination started churning up terrible scenarios that could befall Chris and Ezra and he had to inwardly slap himself and concentrate only on the swiftly passing scenery.
When they finally rode into town Buck continued straight for the livery. The anxious cowboy pulled up his winded mount and jumped from the saddle. He barely missed being run over by JD's paint as the young gunslinger also smoothly leapt from his animal.
The two men rushed into the livery for fresh horses to go after Chris and Ezra. JD slammed into Buck's back, the taller gunslinger having come to a stop in front of him.
"Ay, Buck, JD, 'bout time y'all got back," a soft Texas drawl brought a grin to JD's boyish face.
"Yeah, we thought we were goin' to 'ave to leave without ya," Nathan said as he tightened the cinch on his saddle.
All five gunslingers paused and regarded each other with a mixture of wonder and concern, knowing what had brought them together, but unable to put words to their feelings.
Josiah inwardly smiled. He understood better than the others did; maybe it was his age, or his philosophical outlook on life, or who knows, maybe the man upstairs still had a use for him. Either way the ex-preacher knew all seven of them were bound together in some extraordinary way. There was a lifeline to each man, and when threatened, the others instinctively reached out to protect and restore that connection. Josiah watched as the mantle of command seemed to inevitably and without rancor, fall on the tracker's shoulders.
"We ready to ride?" Vin called out from atop his mount. He looked over his shoulder at four steadfast gunslingers ready to follow him to hell and back. It was a good feeling.
"Yeah, pard, let's do this," Buck eagerly replied as Vin spurred his horse forward and the five men galloped out of town.
Chris sat on the floor, leaning against the bars that separated the two cells. His legs were brought up to his chest and his chin rested on his knees. He stared at the still body. His eyes focused on the motionless, ivory-white hand: the hand of his friend. His brow furrowed as his mind tried to dismiss what his eyes were showing him. Why had he put Ezra in such danger? He was now responsible for three deaths. Three people that he cared about killed by the same woman. The fire of hatred that burned in his heart became a raging inferno threatening to engulf him. Chris rested his forehead on his knees. He didn't know how long he sat on the hard floor of his cell. He had noticed the cell growing dark, but he didn't know if it was because the sun moved behind a cloud or if it had descended. He knew the others would never be able to forgive him for not protecting the inscrutable gambler. He'd never be able to forgive himself. It felt as if he had just lost a brother. Why did everyone he care about die?
Ezra found himself slowly rising up out of the blackness that had held him somewhere between life and death. He hated leaving it as his body would now register the abuse it had endured and turn it into pain. He felt lost and forlorn, and his fear was amplified by the silence. Was he dead? Was Chris? Maybe it would be better if he was dead then Ella wouldn't be able to use him to force the gunslinger's hand. Within his pain riddled world Ezra chuckled. He would be more useful to Chris dead the thought had probably occurred to Larabee before.
A low moan reached Chris's ears, and his head snapped up. He stared at Ezra's shrouded body, searching for any sign of movement; any promise that what he had heard was not just his imagination. He saw the hand twitch and become still again.
"Ezra," Chris said quietly, getting on his knees and keeping his eyes on the blanketed form.
Chris's urgent and fear-filled voice penetrated through Ezra's pain, dissolving some of the misery and weariness that held him.
Chris gripped the bars of the cell then reached out to try and take hold of the gambler's outstretched hand. He couldn't quite reach the limp fingers. Chris thought a moment then pulled off his belt. Making a loop, he tossed it over the gambler's extended hand until he got a good hold. Chris slowly pulled his injured friend toward him, the sweat and blood that had accumulated beneath him reducing the friction. Chris hoped he wasn't hurting him any more. The blanket that covered Ezra remained over his face. As soon as the unconscious man was close, Chris pulled the blanket off and stared down into the younger man's slack features.
Larabee's heart raced in hope when he saw the gambler's eyes flutter and a soft moan force his lips apart. Chris frowned when he noticed the broken arm and the bruises that marred the dirty and blood-covered face. Blood had caked on the left side of Ezra's head turning his hair a rust color. Chris had to see those green eyes open. He gently patted Ezra's face, eliciting another groan. Ezra's shirt was ripped and bloodied and there was barely anything left of it. Chris ran his hands gently down Ezra's torso feeling the broken ribs and bringing forth another groan of pain.
Standish stirred weakly. He kept hearing a voice and he thought it sounded familiar. Then he felt a coarse hand on his bare skin and the horror reawakened.
"No no ," Ezra screamed and tried to push away. Blood pounded through his skull, driving him almost wild with its attendant pain.
Chris immediately released his hold on the gambler, realizing what he was doing to him. He kept his voice low and soothing.
"Ezra, it's me, Chris. It's over now. It's over."
The conman ceased his struggles and slowly forced his eyes open halfway. He looked up at Chris and tried to cover the tears he knew were showing on his face.
"Ezra, don't worry 'bout it, I won't tell a soul," Chris tried to reassure him. He noticed Ezra's efforts to compose himself.
Ezra closed his eyes for a moment and allowed the faintest of grins to grace his lips. "Thank-you," he whispered.
A shiver coursed through the gambler's body. Chris reached through the bars and managed to grab hold of Ezra's jacket that had been thrown into the corner. He laid the covering over Ezra's chest.
"Ya need some water." Chris turned his head to search his cell. A basin had been placed beside his bed containing a small amount of water. He had no way to get the basin through the bars.
"God, Ezra, I thought you were dead," Larabee admitted as he soaked his bandana and squeezed a couple drops of water into Ezra's mouth.
"The way I feel I wish I were," Ezra whispered, opening his eyes and staring blearily through the bars at the dark shape.
Chris gently swabbed the gambler's bloody face.
The outer door again opened, and Chris jumped up, prepared to protect his injured friend in any way he could, although at the moment he didn't know what he could do. Leo Kimball entered first with two of his men. The threesome stepped aside as Ella entered.
She glared over at Kimball. "Well, I guess your men were a little premature about Mr. Standish's death." She wasn't happy. She had allowed the men their fun, but they had gone too far. She needed the Southerner to keep Chris in line, at least for a little while.
Kimball smiled and shrugged. "Yeah, well, the way he looks I think that little mistake will soon be resolved."
Ella turned and slapped Kimball across his soft mustached face. "He's no used to me dead, you moron!"
Kimball rubbed a hand over his quickly reddening cheek. He put up with this woman's eccentricities because she had set him up in this town, even buying him the saloon. She continued to pay him a hefty salary as long as he did what she wanted. As soon as all this business was done Kimball planned to head east with his newfound wealth and live the good life.
Ella looked down at the tortured Southerner, so helpless and so handsome. She shook away her licentious thoughts and turned her attention to Chris.
"Who hit him?" Ella asked as she noticed the bandage wrapped around Chris' head.
"He grabbed one of my men; they had to subdue him," Kimball tentatively explained, prepared for any more retribution.
"No one touches him, but me. Is that understood?"
Kimball nodded in compliance. He knew he was already walking a thin line. He didn't want to lose everything that had been given to him.
Larabee stepped up to the bars, wishing he could just reach out and break Ella's neck. "Why?" Chris asked his voice hoarse with emotion.
Ella raised a dark eyebrow. "I figured with a little prodding Mr. Standish would be willing to convince you to marry me, if for no other reason than to save his own hide," Ella calmly pointed out. "Of course, the ruse of his death was Hawkes' idea, for which he was severely reprimanded."
Ezra guffawed, but it turned into a cough that sent tentacles of pain throughout his body. Chris knelt back down and laid a hand on his friend's chest. "Easy, Ez."
As Ezra regained his voice, he glared defiantly at the deranged woman from the floor. "You make me sick," he gasped.
Ella laughed. "You do have some stupid friends, Chris."
"Get him a doctor," Chris demanded.
Ella smirked maliciously and reached into the pocket of her skirt, pulling out a small brown bottle. "I'm afraid this will have to be the extent of his medical treatment at the moment. If you behave after we're married I'll have the doctor see to him."
One of the deputies took the bottle of laudanum and slid it on the floor past the bars of Chris's cell.
"I'll be bringing a preacher by first thing in the morning. Mr. Standish can be our witness if he's up to it," Ella smirked. "Until tomorrow my love, adieu." Ella blew Chris a kiss.
Chris watched as Ella left the cell area. Before leaving one of the deputies set down a lantern, turning up the flame. Chris reached down and picked up the bottle of medicine.
Standish felt his head lifted, it was awkward for Larabee through the bars, but he managed. Ezra then felt the bottle of laudanum at his lips and gratefully drank the pain-relieving medicine. Chris allowed Ezra a few sips then laid his head back down. "Sorry, Ez, until we know what we're going to do, we have to go easy on this."
Ezra nodded in agreement.
Chris then reluctantly stated, "Ez, I need to set your arm."
Standish groaned and turned his head away in acceptance, not wanting to watch the procedure. Chris took hold of Ezra's hand and grabbed above his elbow then smoothly pulled the bones back in place.
Ezra didn't bother trying to hold back the scream of pain--it would have taken more effort than he could afford. He squeezed his eyes shut, so tight that tears trickled down his cheeks. He wished he would just pass out, but it was not to be. His whole body re-ignited in pain at the abuse it was receiving. Chris used his belt to form a sling and eased it over Ezra's head, he then paused a moment, allowing Ezra to catch his breath.
"I'm sorry, Ez," Chris murmured.
"Had had to be done," Ezra breathed.
A sheen of sweat matted the gambler's auburn hair to his skull. His face was pale, except for the flush of fever that rose in his cheeks. Ezra's right eye was swollen shut and a livid bruise covered half his face. Strange horseshoe-shaped wounds marked his shoulder where that bastard Hawkes had bitten him. Bruises and welts ran up and down Ezra's sides and legs.
Pain and exhaustion siphoned off Ezra's remaining strength, and soon the gambler was once again unconscious. Chris bowed his head and laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder. He quickly went to work on cleaning the gambler's injuries.
Larabee stood up, trying to work the kinks out of his knees. He'd been doing what he could for Ezra for several hours but the man still looked like he was at death's door. The orange glow of the lantern cast cavernous shadows throughout the jail and gave Ezra an even more deathly appearance. Chris saw the shudder race through the cardsharp's body and grabbed the thread-bare blanket from his cot and threw it over Ezra's chilled form. He had done all he could and only hoped it was enough until that doctor or better yet, Nathan appeared.
Morning was fast approaching, and Chris worried what would happen to his injured friend when he was taken away. He had seen the way the deputy had looked at Ezra, and Chris didn't think Ezra could survive that.
Larabee walked over to the window; the rising sun graying the undersides of the dark, ominous clouds that had earlier obscured the star-lit night. A clap of distant thunder rumbled through the building, giving notice of a coming storm. Chris hadn't slept all night-Ezra had needed him. The laudanum allowed the gambler some measure of sleep. Chris's thoughts drifted to his wife and son and the life they could have had together. Sarah might have had another child by now-a girl. Chris's hand struck at the stone wall. Why was he doing this to himself? His gut wrenched and his eyes blurred with impending tears--God, how he missed them.
Ezra woke slowly from his laudanum-induced sleep and turned his head to the side. He was able to open his eyes and time passed as he attempted to focus them. His brow furrowed as he caught the glint of something sticking out from between two sections of the floor. His good hand groped slowly about, and he picked up a long, flat piece of metal. Ezra brought the metal up to his face and examined it a moment.
Chris's thoughts were mercifully interrupted by Ezra's low Southern drawl. He stepped away from the window and knelt down next to him.
"How good are you at picking locks?" Ezra asked, grasping the flexible metal in a trembling hand.
Chris arched a sandy eyebrow. "Well, I'm no where near as talented as you," he chuckled. "But I can do it if I have the tools."
Ezra held out the piece of metal and Chris smiled as he took it. The Southerner never ceased to amaze him.
Ezra watched the outer door as Chris worked fervently on the lock, swearing under his breath as it refused to give, time and time again.
It took over thirty minutes for the lock to finally surrender to Chris's trial and error attempts. Larabee looked over at where Ezra lay. Lord, he looked even worse than before. Chris's gaze then drifted to the small window in his cell. The morning sun was lighting up the gray day.
"Ezra, it'll take too long to open your cell. We're running out of time."
"I'm well aware of that, Mr. Larabee." Ezra shifted his leg bringing forth a grimace of pain. He knew that Chris would not be able to open both cells in time. "I'm in no condition to travel would only slow you down."
Chris's eyes darkened at what the con man was suggesting. "I'm not leaving you."
"Mr. Larabee Chris, don't be a fool. The others need you, and I abhor the idea of that demented woman bearing you a child." Ezra knew if Ella Gaines became pregnant with Chris's child, she would be able to keep him for the rest of his life.
The dark-clad gunslinger stared at the cardsharp, realizing he'd never understand him, but glad he was a part of his life. He knew he would one day have to tell Ezra that. Chris remained in his cell and closed the door, leaving it slightly ajar, then called out. "Guard!"
One of the deputies entered, stopping in the doorway. "Yeah, what 'cha want?" He had been told to cater to Larabee in any reasonable way.
"How about some water and a razor so I can get cleaned up for my wedding?" Chris asked, rubbing at the stubble on his chin.
The guard cocked an eyebrow. "I ain't givin' you no razor."
"Okay, just the water then."
The guard picked up an ewer and approached the cell door. He paused a moment, and then leaned forward to examine the lock. He noticed several scratches and nicks on the metal. The guard raised his eyes to see the gunslinger smiling back at him. Chris slammed the door into the guard's puzzled face and watched as the dubious lawman crumbled to the floor. Chris grinned darkly, glad to have doled out some small punishment to one of the men who had attacked Ezra.
Larabee grabbed the deputy's gun. He sidled up alongside the heavy outer door and peeked out through a small opening to be certain that nobody had heard anything. The outer jail area was empty-thank God. He stuck the weapon into his waistband and took the keys from the guard's belt. He then dragged the unconscious man into his cell and left him on the floor. Chris quickly went to Ezra's cell and unlocked the door.
Larabee smiled at Ezra's tenacity as the con man struggled to sit up.
"I do believe some of my resourcefulness is rubbing off on you," Ezra managed to gasp out.
"Ay, don't go insulting me now," Chris good-naturedly replied as he eased himself under Ezra's right shoulder and helped him to his feet, mindful of the broken ribs. All things considered, Chris would rather have left Ezra still, aware of the further damage that could be done by moving him now. The problem was that there were no other options. It was either get Ezra to his feet and out of here, or leave him here and expect further torture at the hands of Ella's guards.
Ezra clutched his side as a spike of pain cut through him almost doubling him over. He couldn't even tell where the pain was coming from, and it really didn't matter. His whole body hurt.
Chris halted briefly, as more of the color left the Southerner's face. "You okay?" He wrapped an arm around the smaller man's waist and fumbled in his pocket for the bottle of laudanum.
Ezra opened one eye to stare at the stoic gunslinger. "You're kidding, right?"
"Here, take the rest of this." Chris forced the bottle of laudanum into Ezra's good hand.
The gambler downed the rest of the pain medicine and threw the empty bottle aside. He wasn't sure he could make it. Ezra looked at Chris and knew he would have to, if only to save Chris from a fate worse than death.
The rain was coming down in sheets and the two men were quickly soaked to the skin as they made their way out the back of the jail and down an alleyway. The heavy downpour was a blessing and a curse. It aided in hiding their escape, but Chris knew getting wet wasn't good for Ezra. He had to find shelter. They made it to the surrounding woods and headed west, toward home. There was no trail to speak of and the rain made the ground slick in some spots and like quicksand in others.
Chris squinted out through the driving rain, wishing he'd see one of his men riding toward them. Nothing--only barren rock and scrub awaited them beyond the boundary of trees. He had to get far enough away from town so they wouldn't be spotted. He held no delusion that Ella would just give up. He renewed his grip on the fading gambler. The man was starting to grow heavy. Chris reached over and patted Ezra on the cheek.
"C'mon Ez stay with me."
Ezra winced as he jerked up and started supporting some of his own weight, but Chris could see the pain etched on his face and feel it
slowly stealing away the conman's strength.
"Sorry," Ezra muttered, his eyes remaining locked on the ground ahead of him. Chris frowned at the gambler's lack of vocabulary: this was not a good sign.
The rain had pasted Ezra's jacket to his body and the cold was soaking into his very bones. 'God, I hate the rain,' Ezra thought as he concentrated on keeping his feet. The laudanum had taken his pain past the point of sharpness, into a numb, pounding ache. What was he doing out in the rain? Nothing made sense, and he couldn't hold onto any clear, concise thought from the many that fluttered in his head. Ezra turned to look at the man who was holding him and forcing him to walk in the rain. Ezra was about to voice his displeasure but the thought was stolen from him when he stumbled. He gasped at the sharp pain that went up his side as Chris tightened his grip to keep him from falling.
Chris halted a moment to allow Ezra to regain his balance. The gambler's teeth were clenched in a grimace and he remained slightly bent over. Ezra looked up into Chris's worried visage and slowly straightened. Without a word they continued.
"You fool!" Ella shrieked at Kimball. The Sheriff stood silently with his chin tilted up, trying to retain a measure of dignity under the barrage of insults. Ella glared at the unconscious guard still sprawled out in Chris's cell.
"Sorry, Ella dear, they couldn't 'ave gone far, not in the shape that Southerner was in," Kimball finally answered, trying to placate the incensed woman.
"You better hope not. I want everyone with me searching." Ella turned and pushed past the sheriff.
Kimball stood a moment and removed his hat rubbing his hand nervously over his bald pate. How had things gone so wrong? When he discovered Ella's plans to capture Chris Larabee he had almost backed out. But then she reminded him that she could take back the saloon and expose him for the corrupt man he was. No, he was in this too deep now.
Ezra steps were faltering, and he was visibly shaking within Chris's grasp. The medication was beginning to wear off. Chris could see the muscles in Ezra's jaw quiver, his green eyes focused only on the next couple feet ahead of him. Chris caught the mumbled words, 'hate the rain,' and smiled. The gambler was seriously injured, miles away from any help, on the run from a sadistic woman and all he could think of was how much he hated the rain.
The rain tapered to a slow drenching drizzle as the two men continued their trek. Chris wiped his face and looked off to the right where a large outcropping of boulders lay strewn about like a child's marbles. Ezra was barely conscious. For such a lean man he sure weighed a ton. Larabee struggled now with the weakening gambler. He wanted to get far enough back in the rocks to make it difficult for anyone to see them. He laid Ezra down under a ledge and tried to make him comfortable.
"How you holdin' up?" Chris asked.
Ezra raised a hand and forced a weak smile to his lips then the hand fell limply across his chest as he fell unconscious. Chris could hear the labored breathing and knew he couldn't risk carrying the injured man for fear of causing more damage. He wished Nathan was here. Chris slumped down against the rocks. He didn't expect the others to come searching until at least tomorrow by then it would be too late. He could leave and try and find help, but he didn't know whom he could trust in Red Fork. He suspected Ella had control of most of the town. He couldn't leave Ezra; Chris didn't want him to die alone.
"I'm so sorry, Ezra," Chris murmured to the unaware cardsharp. He looked up at the parting gray clouds, moving off to release their life-giving burden on some other parched land.
Larabee was surprised when he heard Ezra's weak voice. "I'm right here, Ez."
"You should go."
Chris wiped at his haggard face. "I thought we settled this already. I ain't leaving you."
Ezra opened his eyes. "There's nothing more you can do. You can't let Ella win."
Chris chewed on his bottom lip. Choices. If he left Ezra, he could probably get away, but the gambler would certainly die. If he stayed, Ella might find them, and he would be forced to marry her, but at least Ezra would get some help. Chris laid his arms atop his knees and bowed his head.
Larabee's head rose when he heard the sound of galloping hooves. He slowly stood and climbed atop a large rock to see Ella and several of her men riding past. He looked over his shoulder at Ezra. The Southerner was fighting to stay conscious, wracked with pain. His body quivered and shook with convulsions. Chris knew he had no choice. He wouldn't sacrifice Ezra's life, not like this. Chris slowly pulled the gun from his waistband and raised it into the air.
Ezra's eyes widened at what the stalwart gunslinger was about to do. "Chris, no."
Chris fired the gun into the air and then calmly sat down. He smiled at the disbelief on the conman's face.
"Why?" Ezra mouthed, stunned by what Chris had done.
Chris's brow furrowed, intensifying his blue eyes. How could the man even ask him that? The sharp lines on Chris' face slowly softened. He felt like a wolf that had befriended a mountain cat, neither one fully trusting the other, but respecting each other's prowess.
"You think I'd let you die for me?" Chris vehemently replied.
Ezra continued to stare at the gunslinger, not really having the strength to reply. The sound of horses drew near. Chris stood and took a deep breath. He knew what he had to do.
Ella led Kimball and his men warily into the small collection of boulders. She guided her horse around a large rock and suddenly pulled up, taken aback by the sight in front of her. Chris stood over Ezra with the gun in his hand pointed directly at her. The manipulative woman raised her chin defiantly at her ex-lover's threat, hearing the men behind her cock their weapons.
"We seem to have a standoff," Ella remarked coolly.
The rain had finally stopped and the air felt crisp and clean, which Chris would have relished under different circumstances. Chris' leg bumped against Ezra's thigh, and he felt the con man shiver. He didn't dare break his gaze from the deranged woman before him, whose hair now hung in long wet tendrils down her shoulders. He ignored the seven men behind her; they were only pawns in this game.
"I'll marry you, if you get Ezra to a doctor," Chris firmly said.
Ella chortled slightly and a small smile of victory caressed her face.
"And what's to stop us from just rushing you? There's seven of us," Kimball interjected. He wished he could just kill the two men and be done with it.
Larabee glared at the dutiful Sheriff, and then slowly brought the gun to his own head. "Yeah, but you'll be taking back a corpse," Chris snarled. Ella's smile of victory vanished only to reappear on Chris's visage.
"You wouldn't! What about your friend?" Kimball retorted.
"He's as good as dead anyway unless he gets to a doctor."
Ella was shocked by Chris's plan to sacrifice his life for his friend, and she could tell by the look in his eyes that he would do exactly what he said.
"Leo, take Mr. Standish back to town and have the doc look at him," Ella conceded. She was too close; soon she would be Mrs. Chris Larabee and nothing was going to stop her. Kimball opened his mouth to protest obtaining a sharp look from his employer. It promptly caused him to reconsider.
Chris continued to glare directly at Ella and struggled with the next words. "Swear, on your love for me that you'll take care of Ezra." Chris pulled the hammer back on the gun that was still pointed at his head and watched as Ella's eyes widened.
"You have my word; he'll be taken care of," Ella quickly added.
Chris' shoulders dropped, and he allowed the gun to fall to his side. He didn't know if he could trust her, but it was Ezra's only chance.
"Clifton, Graham, get his gun," Kimball ordered. The two men dismounted and cautiously approached the defeated gunslinger. He allowed them to take the gun.
"Bring Mr. Larabee to my ranch. It will be a more romantic venue for a wedding, don't you think, darling?" Ella laughed at the beleaguered look on Chris' face. She turned her horse and rode off.
Graham handed Larabee the reins to his horse, actually feeling a little sorry for the dark-clad gunslinger. He was only in this for the money and was planning to take off as soon as possible. Chris hoisted himself up into the saddle and was immediately surrounded by four of the deputies.
"Take Larabee to the Gaines ranch. The rest of us will get Standish back to town," Kimball said.
Chris looked over his shoulder, at the wounded cardsharp. The man was barely aware of what was happening. He hoped it wouldn't be the last time he saw him alive.
Ezra gritted his teeth as he was roughly thrown on a horse in front of Kimball. The Sheriff made no attempt to hold on to him and Ezra knew he would have to hang on or die. He wrapped a weak grip on the saddle horn and leaned forward, almost resting his head on the horse's neck. Kimball kicked his horse into a bone jarring trot.
Larabee was shoved into the living room of an immense ranch house. He glared at the rough-looking guard who had pushed him. He then smiled wickedly as the guard unconsciously stepped back and pointed his gun directly at him.
Chris walked under an archway and stopped in the middle of the room on a large oriental rug that covered most of the wood floor. He glanced around, seeing the velvet curtains that failed to hide the bars on the windows. Armed men blocked the two entrances to the room. One of the men moved aside to allow Ella to enter. She had taken the time to change into a long, body hugging, blue gown. Her hair was still damp from the rain, but she had managed to pull it up and secure it with a blue ribbon.
Ella glided over to a small bar that sat discretely in the corner of the room. She gracefully poured two drinks and brought the glass over to Chris, who refused her offer. Ella shrugged, unconcerned with his present attitude, and sipped from her own glass. She turned to one of the four guards and whispered something to him. The man nodded and left the room. Ella returned her attention to Chris after the guard departed. "I just told Chavez to go and tell the preacher that there's been a change in plans. The wedding will be held here."
Chris clenched his fists and continued to glare silently, trying to think of all his options. He wasn't coming up with much-Ella Gaines was certifiably insane.
Ella stepped up close and ran a finger down his stubble-covered cheek. "Now, Chris, you have free rein over this ranch, but step outside the lines and one of my boys will fire a shot, which will alert the men I have camped a mile from here. They in turn will go back to town and cut your friend's heart out." Ella said this as if she was talking about her day at a church social.
"Of course, if you step out of line with me the same thing will happen," she continued. "I know in time you'll come to accept this as our destiny and it really won't be so bad."
Chris continued to stand silently in the center of the room, resigned to his fate. Hopefully Ezra was okay.
"Now please, come." Ella took Chris' arm and felt him tense up. She led him toward an overstuffed chair that sat on the other side of the room. Chris felt the eyes of the guards follow his every move. Ella must have paid them well to extort such devotion. He sat down, trying to escape from Ella's touch.
"How do I know Ezra is still alive?" Chris asked.
"I guess you'll just have to take my word on it," Ella replied as she sunk into his lap. He turned his head away and tensed as she started nibbling on his ear and running her hands through his hair. He didn't think someone's touch could feel so vile. This was the woman whose hands were covered in the blood of his wife and son, and she was fawning over him like some kind of pet.
Chris grabbed her hands in his and pulled them away. His eyes caught the subtle movement of a raised gun, and he gently released her. "I thought you wanted to wait for the preacher?" Chris asked.
"Well, I've never been one to wait and it's not like we've never done it before."
She continued to nibble at his ear and down his neck, stopping when she realized she wasn't getting any kind of response.
"Well, I was hoping to do this in a more romantic way, but I'm flexible."
"It's a little hard to get romantic with your guard dogs watching," Chris rebuffed.
"Sorry, but after your past behavior, I believe they're necessary, at least for a little while." Ella rose from Chris' lap and motioned for two of her men to approach. "Willis, Miguel, please take Mr. Larabee to the bed chambers and make him comfortable."
Chris didn't like the sound of that or the gleam in the two men's eyes, but had little choice. He surmised that the guards had been instructed not to kill him, but a bullet in any extremity could hinder his chances of escape and hurt a lot.
The five gunslingers had just exited the saloon, frustrated. They were unable to extract any information from the townsfolk. No one was talking.
"So now what? This damn subtly shit is overrated," Buck voiced his frustration to the others. He was ready to just start shooting and ask questions later. They weren't getting anywhere.
"Ohmygosh, look!" JD's eager voice diverted all their attention toward the end of the street.
Two horses rode single file into town, each one carrying an extra rider. What really got their attention was the slumped figure riding double on the second horse.
The five lawmen stepped off the boardwalk to intercept the riders. They restrained their pace, laying their hands on their guns. Jaws clenched and eyes narrowed as they neared the riders.
The two riders on the first horse dismounted as they reached the railing in front of the jail. When the second horse pulled up Ezra was allowed to fall hard onto the muddy street. The gambler screamed out in pain, causing his friends to draw their guns.
Kimball laughed as he dismounted, and then stood over the withering figure on the ground. He would send one of his men to find the doctor, but if the doc didn't arrive in time, it wouldn't be his fault. Kimball reached down and grabbed the Southerner's broken arm, separating the bones, resulting in another agonizing scream of pain. The sheriff flinched and pulled back a little.
Ezra's head swam, and he was having a hard time catching his breath as wave after wave of pain threatened to rip away his sanity.
Kimball reached down again to pull him to his feet. He froze when he noticed that his two men were standing off to the side terrified and motionless. He straightened and the hairs on the back of his neck bristled. Kimball turned to see five gunslingers in a semi-circle in front of him.
"Touch 'em again, and you're dead!" Vin growled, the barrel of his gun pointed directly at the Sheriff's heart. He never wanted to pull a trigger so badly in his life.
Buck had to smile. The taciturn tracker could sound as dangerous as Chris and probably was. Each of the gunslingers, in turn, cast a worried glance at the prone form on the ground.
Kimball raised his hands. He and his two men stared at the five gunslingers.
"Now, this here ain't none of your business, so you best just move on," Kimball stuttered. He looked up and down the street that had inexplicably become deserted.
Guns cocked and Kimball and his men flinched. "Now, wait just a minute what the hell do you want?" Kimball noticed the buckskins that Vin was wearing and his heart skipped a beat. Ella had told him that a buckskin-clad tracker might accompany Larabee.
"Ah, shit you're Larabee's gang. Now listen, I can explain " Kimball's words began tumbling over each other. He now wished he hadn't sent all his men to Gaines' ranch.
"Shut up and back away from him!" Buck growled, taking a step forward and cocking his gun. Kimball and his men couldn't move away fast enough from the hate radiating from the lawmen.
As soon as Nathan saw that the others had them covered, he holstered his gun and raced to Ezra's side. The healer placed a hand on the gambler's shoulder, and slowly turned him over. "Oh, Sweet Jesus." Nathan's heart broke at the bruised and bloody sight of his friend.
"Lord, what did they do to him?" JD wondered out loud.
"I was going to get him a doctor, honest," Kimball said quickly.
"Before or after he was dead?" Josiah remarked.
"Ezra " Nathan whispered. "Ezra, can you hear me?" Nathan placed four fingers on the gambler's neck, his thumb stroking a bruised cheek. He felt the thunder of the man's pulse but heard no response. He gathered the front of Ezra's jacket over the remains of what was once his shirt and closed the material around him. Jackson winced as he felt the hardness of one sleeve stretched tight around its swollen contents.
"Josiah, give me a hand," the healer said as he positioned himself to lift Ezra. "Let's get him to the hotel."
The two men eased beneath the battered body and lifted him slowly, Ezra's face rested against the healer's chest. "If there is a doctor in this town send him!" Nathan said as they moved across the deserted street.
Buck, Vin, and JD crowded around Kimball and his men and removed their guns. Vin and Buck then grabbed the Sheriff by the arms and pulled him away from the false security of his men.
"Where is Chris Larabee?" Buck asked, putting a knife against Kimball's face.
Kimball closed his eyes and seemed to mouth a silent prayer.
Buck smiled then flicked the edge of the blade, slicing off one half of Kimball's long mustache.
Vin's gun dug into the man's stomach. "Well, we're waitin', and we're not patient men, and I've had a headache for over three days," he growled.
Leo Kimball remained silent, biting his lower lip. He looked over at his two deputies, who were standing submissively off to the side under the deadly gaze of a very angry young man.
Vin stepped back from Kimball and calmly began emptying the chambers of his gun, allowing the bullets to fall into his hand. His fingers made the movement of slipping one bullet back into the cylinder. He then slammed the cylinder closed and placed the gun against the sheriff's temple.
"You know, I've heard of this game called Russian Roulette. Always wanted to play." Vin's voice tightened with mock amusement.
Buck grinned as Kimball's eyes grew wide, and his face drained of color.
"Now, one more time, where is Chris Larabee?" Vin repeated stressing each word.
Kimball swallowed the lump that had lodged in his throat and felt beads of sweat trickle down his back. These were supposed to be lawmen; they wouldn't kill him--would they?
"Time's up," Vin humorously intoned.
Before Kimball could say a word Tanner pulled the trigger. CLICK! The Sheriff jumped and snapped his eyes shut, his breath hiccupping at the empty click.
Buck looked down to see a dark spot forming on the front of the Sheriff's beige pants. "Geeze, he's pissed on himself," Buck hooted.
Vin spun the cylinder and put the barrel of the gun into the Sheriff's ear. "Let's try this again." He could tell the man was about to break.
"Are you sure you're doing it right, Vin? Maybe you're not suppose to spin it," Buck helpfully suggested.
"You might be right, Buck. Too bad Ez can't tell us what the odds are on this game," Vin said. "Although I wouldn't wager on you surviving." Vin shoved the gun farther into Kimball's ear.
"Hell, I'll wager we'll eventually blow his head off," Buck confidently declared and slapped Kimball on the back.
"A sure thing. Ezra would like them odds," Vin muttered sadly as he slowly squeezed the trigger.
"ALRIGHT, STOP, STOP!" Leo blurted out, his whole body shaking. "Ella took him to her ranch just north of town."
"What happened to Ezra?" Vin asked.
"Ella used him to keep Larabee in line," Kimball replied. "She promised Larabee that he'd see a doctor if he behaved himself."
"What the hell does she want Chris for?" Buck asked.
"They're to be married," Kimball admitted. All three lawmen stared in disbelief at Kimball.
"What?" Buck yelled, grabbing Kimball by the shirt and pulling him close. "Chris wouldn't marry that bitch!"
"That's all I know, I swear," Kimball nervously replied.
"Buck, she did this to Ezra to force Chris's hand," Vin pointed out. He knew that Chris would do whatever it took to protect one of his own men.
"Looks like we're crashin' a weddin', boys!" Buck gleefully intoned, "and I even got the shotgun."
Vin glared at Kimball. "You're going to tell us how many men and where they're positioned."
Kimball bowed his head, completely defeated and wanting nothing more than to get out of this alive. Lord, even the kid was intimidating, he thought. He took a deep breath and started telling the three lawmen everything he knew, minimizing his part in everything. He claimed he had no part in Standish's beating. He left out the part about Larabee being hit, deciding not to add more fuel to the burning rage he saw in each of the gunslinger's eyes.
When Vin, Buck and JD were satisfied that they had been told everything they ushered the three mockeries of justice into the jailhouse and locked them up. But not before administering a little punishment of their own.
Nathan and Josiah entered the hotel with the gambler secure between them. The owner was there at the desk and swept in front of the men to hold the wide doors, her gaze locked on the battered man between them. "Bring Mr. Standish this way," she said, moving quickly around and leading them to a ground floor room close to the kitchen. She pulled the coverlet off the bed before they laid Ezra carefully on it.
"Find Doc Chalmers, Jimmy," she said to the youth who appeared in the doorway. She turned back to Ezra once more and spoke without taking her eyes from him. "There is water already boiling on the stove. I'll get more blankets."
The two lawmen threw off their coats and hats and moved to their comrade. Nathan rolled up his sleeves. "Ezra!" he said gently placing one hand across the gambler's forehead. "Ez, are you with us?" He placed his other hand on Ezra's arm and felt the unnatural shape of it. The sleeve of the ragged jacket was pulled tight and Nathan produced a sharp knife and sliced it from wrist to shoulder. He heard Josiah's quick intake of breath at the sight. Nathan worked efficiently, cutting off the rest of the gambler's clothing without disturbing him. Ezra's skin was heated and sweat soaked. He struggled to swallow.
"See about that water, Josiah," the healer said as he moved to set the broken bones.
Josiah met the hotel owner in the hallway and she handed him two buckets of water and a stack of sheets and towels. "Tear that up for bandages," she said retreating for more supplies. "We'll find the doctor!"
As Josiah bumped back into the room he heard Ezra grunt painfully. The bones in his arm were now repositioned. The preacher handed Nathan a small towel soaked in the hot water and Nathan began to clean Ezra's face and chest.
"Look at this, Josiah."
The preacher moved around the bed. A red crescent of teeth marks topped a dark bruise on the gambler's shoulder. Nathan held the warm cloth to the wound and Ezra moaned and turned his head. "Ezra!" Josiah said, "Are you with us, brother?" He half hoped the man would stay unconscious. "Dear God, why would he have a mark like that?"
Nathan observed the angle of the teeth-he'd been bitten from behind. "Only Ezra or Chris can tell us Josiah, and knowin' the two of them we may never find out."
Ezra's eyes fluttered open and he tried to lift his head. "Chris Chris?" It was clear he was delirious and Nathan laid a calloused palm on his chest to settle him back to the bed. Ezra seemed to panic at the touch. "No! get away from me please no "
The two friends moved together to hold him still, Nathan holding the gambler's jaw in a firm grip to meet his eyes. "Ezra! It's OK. It's Nathan!"
"Nathan?" Ezra said weakly, trying to focus. "Nate?" He looked long into the healer's face and slowly ended his struggle against them. Josiah continued to hold one arm across Ezra's chest as he watched the man give up consciousness again. He turned when a brisk knock sounded and a young man, no older than JD, entered the room.
"I'm Dr. Chalmers," he said moving forward and opening a leather bag on the end of the bed. "What happened?" He pulled a stethoscope out, clipped it to his neck, then quickly and gently examined Ezra's swollen arm. "The bones have been set here. Let's splint this."
Nathan and Josiah were momentarily motionless. Nathan's gaze fixed on the leather bag. What else did it contain? His wonder was interrupted by the young doctor's confident voice. Chalmers held both palms firmly to the curve of Ezra's chest. "The ribs on the left side are cracked."
Josiah felt a warm rush of hope. For once Nathan was not alone in his efforts to heal. Ezra coughed and the young doctor positioned the stethoscope to listen. His hands felt his patient's feverish forehead and face and he spoke with an angry energy. "Who did this to him?"
The competent hotel owner reappeared at that moment, swinging open the door for JD, Vin and Buck. She carried a fresh basin of water and exchanged it for one dark with blood. Her gaze swept over Ezra's bruised face. She could hardly believe it was the same man. "Let me know if you need anything, Doctor," she said, retreating behind the trio of lawmen.
"How is he?" Vin asked sadly, looking at Ezra's injured form on the bed. Vin could barely tell the cardsharp was breathing and had to concentrate hard on Ezra's chest to see even the slightest amount of movement.
"Not good," Nathan stated, staring intently down at the Southerner, wondering if Ezra would ever wake again. He decided to keep this fact to himself, at least until they found Chris.
"We know where Chris is, and we're going after him," Buck said urgently, "Can you take care of Ezra by yourself?"
Nathan tuned to the young doctor. "I ain't alone this time, Buck."
"Dr. Chalmers here is going to help Nathan and I'm coming with you," Josiah added. Chalmers looked at Nathan and nodded once, holding out his hand.
"Nathan Jackson," the healer said. "Thanks for your help."
"Doctor?" JD said sizing up his peer.
"We've got a lot to do here, gentlemen, if you wouldn't mind," Chalmers said, returning to his leather bag. JD stared directly at the man, wanting to know more, but Buck grabbed a handful of his jacket and yanked the young sheriff from the room.
Larabee was led down a hallway by the two guards. He paused in front of a darken room and stiffened when he felt the gun press into his back urging his progress. Two more men stood just inside the room. Chris recognized the red-haired man and hatred propelled him forward. His attack was anticipated and short-lived.
Laughter echoed down the hallway as the three other men grabbed the enraged gunslinger and held him back. Hawkes drove a meaty fist into Chris' mid-section driving the air and fight from him. Chris hung limply in his captors grasp trying to breathe.
"You just don't know when to quit, do ya Larabee?" Hawkes snarled, grabbing a handful of blond hair and jerking Chris' head up. The red-haired man inwardly flinched at the look in the gunslinger's eyes. The devil himself couldn't have looked more dangerous.
"Tie him up!" Hawkes commanded and stepped aside to allow the hallway light to reveal a bed in the center of the room. Chris' heart started to race and his mouth went dry at the sight of the handcuffs attached to the head of the bed. Rope lay wound at the foot.
The men holding him began to drag him toward the bed. "Wait, we have to make him presentable." Hawkes grabbed hold of Chris's shirt and ripped it off his body. He took a moment to admire the fine physique of the gunslinger. Chris fought as the three men dragged him to the bed and threw him down, latching his wrists into the cuffs and tying down his feet.
As soon as Chris was secured to the bed the four men surrounded him.
Chris pulled at the cuffs, rattling the metal bar that stretched across the head of the bed. Ella had thought of everything. He had never felt so vulnerable in his life. The men who had handcuffed him glared licentiously at him, trying to debase him into submission.
"Lord, never had to tie someone down so they could have sex with a beautiful woman," Hawkes laughed. He bent down close to Chris. "Maybe, unlike your friend, you prefer men," Hawkes sneered and placed a hand on Larabee's crotch causing a shudder to course through him. Chris spit into the depraved man's face.
Rage sprang to Hawkes' face and he raised his fist.
"Hawkes, don't! Miz Gaines will have your hide!" Willis yelled.
Hawkes lowered his hand and eyed the helpless gunslinger. "I guess I'll go back to town and see if your fancy friend is up for a little fun."
The four men turned and left, their laughter ringing in Chris's ears.
The room was plain, with the four poster bed dominating the center. Dark drapes covered the bare walls and had been drawn over the windows, throwing the entire room into darkness. Chris could see the dark silhouette of a night stand that sat next to the bed, and a rocking chair in the corner. These were the only articles of furniture in the whole room. A current of air flowed over his naked torso as the door opened, allowing light to brighten the room momentarily.
Ella crossed the threshold of the bedroom, wearing a wispy see-through gown and carrying a candle. She stopped beside the bed, allowing her
gown to fall from her slim shoulders, gathering at her feet. Her black hair was loose and tumbled around to frame her oval face. The candlelight flickered, throwing shadows over her thrusting breasts and slim waist. Her eyes shined bright as she trailed a hand down Chris' bare chest, admiring his sinewy body. He could smell the lavender and had to bite his tongue to keep the tears from falling--it had been his wife's favorite fragrance.
Chris glared at her. "Keep the hell away from me, you bitch!" he
snarled slowly and coldly.
Ella paused and a glimmer of rage raced across her face, but was soon replaced with that familiar mocking smile. "Still the hostility. You know there is a fine line between hate and love." Ella slowly tilted the candle allowing the melted wax to drip off, landing on Chris's bare chest.
Chris hissed through clenched teeth as the burning wax seared his chest.
"Pain and pleasure are such wonderful combinations." Ella ran a thin trail of wax across, down his chest, and over his stomach. Chris' face turned red, choking back the scream. She finally placed the torturous taper on the nightstand and knelt down next to his ear. "Remember how good we were together?" she whispered and bit lightly at his ear lobe. "Bareback Larabee." She sighed. Her tongue darted in and out tracing a path down his neck and chest, tasting and relishing him. She rolled his nipples between her fingers. Chris closed his eyes and tried to think of anything: hunting with Vin, fishing with Billy, losing at cards with Ezra, which he hoped he had the privilege of doing again.
Ella lifted her head and stared into Chris' face, an unearthly glow lit her dark eyes in the candlelight. She ran a finger over his lips. He closed his eyes then stiffened when he felt her mouth on his nipples, teasing and biting. She started working her way down his stomach taking nips of flesh whenever it pleased her.
Ella slowly unbuttoned the lawman's pants and slid the clothing to his knees. Chris audibly inhaled when he felt her fingers run lightly over his crotch, not out of any sense of pleasure, but disgust. He had, at one time, taken gratification in their sexual trysts. He had never loved her, maybe he thought one day he could. She was someone who filled a void in his life after his wife had died. When he discovered she was the cause of that void he didn't think he'd ever be clean again, and now to have her hands on him once more sickened him. His thoughts were expunged when she grasped his manhood between her slim fingers.
Her hands started expertly stroking and manipulating his cock. "Being difficult aren't we. Well, I know a few tricks," Ella purred.
Chris felt her kisses trail further down his stomach and ground his teeth to keep from gasping out loud. He did not want to give in to the intense sensation, but his control was sliding away. His body was betraying him, giving in to its carnal hunger.
Ella's mouth suddenly took all of him in, and he shut his eyes so tight that tears streamed from the corners. He couldn't stop himself from being aroused. He was hard and pulsing--the woman knew what she was doing.
"Now that's the Larabee I know," she whispered. She could feel Chris' heart beating furiously in his chest and feel the hot, engorged organ in her hand.
Ella climbed on Chris and swung one leg over his waist, straddling him. Her slim hand stroked and guided his hard throbbing member into her welcoming softness. Ella gasped as he entered her, awakening every nerve in her body. It was always so good. She tightened her muscles and wrapped herself around her desire. She started moving, slowly, up and down, working him in deep, feeling every inch of him. Her own breaths started coming out in fevered pants.
Larabee bit his tongue, trying to hold back, but it was hopeless. She rode him hard and fast now, her muscles milking him with practiced ease. Chris felt his insides ignite with liquid fire and explode, hearing Ella moan in ecstasy as she threw her head back, then fall across his chest, breathing him in.
"Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" She rolled off and stood up beside the bed rubbing her stomach. "I can already feel the life growing inside me. I'll have Hernandez attend to you, and I'll be waiting in the sitting room."
Ella gathered up her gown and walked out of the room. Chris lay stunned and panting, wrenching at the handcuffs in frustration. "You bitch!" he hissed at her retreating form.
Chris yanked at the cuffs; tears of anger and frustration streaming down his face. This woman had finally taken everything of his and twisted or killed it. He halted at his futile struggles and allowed the tears to flow, hoping to cleanse some part of himself that he could hold on to. His mind went to the six men he rode with, each one of them holding a special place in his heart, a place even Ella couldn't soil. They were his strength now, his family. He hoped and prayed that Ezra was still alive and that the others at least found him in time. Chris didn't hold out much hope that Ella would ever let him leave. Two guards entered the room and Chris shook off his melancholy mood and determination burned in his sapphire eyes. He would not let Ella win, even if they had to go to hell together.
Larabee was released from his bonds and allowed to dress. He stared repugnantly at the dark tux laid out on the nearby chair. His own clothes had disappeared. Having no choice, he donned the pants and shirt, ignoring the jacket and vest.
Larabee was led back out to the living area where Ella sat contently on the overstuffed chair. The fragrance of fresh cut flowers filled the tidy room and brought a nauseous feeling to the pit of Chris' stomach. He sat down in a hardback chair and glared at the woman he despised most in the world. He caught sight of the guards and clenched his teeth in helpless rage. Even if he did escape, he'd never get to town before one of Ella's men. Ezra would be killed if he wasn't dead already.
Ella huffed in disgust at Chris' stern appearance. "You might as well relax and enjoy." She had hoped that the little sexual reminder would have made him more receptive.
"I'm a prisoner."
"Well, you certainly have a plush prison," Ella intoned; the smiled fell from her face at Chris' scowling features. "You'll get used to it and when our child is born; everything will be perfect." Ella's smile returned. "What do you think of the name Anna if it's a girl, and Brett if it's a boy?"
Chris's frown deepened. Ella was oblivious to anything outside her own realm of desire. What if she was now pregnant? Chris' shoulders slumped, and he wiped his hand down his face. He couldn't leave a child in the hands of this mad woman.
Vin, Buck, Josiah and JD waited for the cover of darkness and quietly took out all the perimeter guards that surrounded the ranch house. Kimball had revealed their positions correctly or Vin would have gone back and cut the man's heart out.
"So what's the plan?" Buck asked as the tracker came up alongside him. They had all gathered on the west side of the house.
"Plan, I don't have any plan," Vin glibly replied, the darkness hiding his cocky smile.
"Ah, great so what do we do?" JD broke in.
"We need a diversion; somethin' that'll bring the guards from inside--outside," Vin stated, looking over at Josiah with a knowing smile.
The ex-preacher took a deep breath. "One drunken tryst, and you're marked for life. Please make sure I'm not shot."
Moments later the former preacher came riding into the compound singing some off-key love song. The huge gunslinger looked like he was about to fall off his horse as he reeled in the saddle, yelling devotions of love for his horse. When the door to the house opened, the others started forward, keeping to the shadows. Guards started pouring out the doors and coming around from the other side of the house to investigate. As soon as Josiah believed he had a large enough audience, he drew his gun and began to fire. Ella's men were stunned for a moment. Then their amusement turned deadly. They added to the flurry of bullets and scattered into the night. Buck and the others rushed out looking for any target that presented itself and giving Josiah ample cover.
Chris's head snapped up and a slow feral grin appeared on his rugged face at the sound of gunfire from outside.
Ella ran to the window to see what was going on. "Get out there!" She yelled at two of her body guards, who quickly obeyed.
The remaining sentry turned his attention away from Chris for a moment. It was all the time the gunslinger needed. Chris lunged at the guard, taking them both to the floor. He struck the guard with his fist twice, knocking him unconscious. Chris then grabbed the guard's gun and stood up.
Ella ran toward Chris and grabbed him by the front of the shirt. "You can't leave me, you can't leave us!" Chris glared at the woman who stood clasping his shirt.
"There will never be an us." Chris pulled Ella off him and threw her to the floor.
"Standish is dead! Do you hear me? He's dead!" Ella screamed out.
Chris's fear for Ezra eased the revenge he wanted to bring down on her. He reached down and grabbed the ranting woman by her slim wrist, hauling her to her feet. He started dragging her toward the front door. If Ezra was dead, he'd make sure Ella hung and he'd pull the lever. Ella Gaines struggled like a wildcat within Larabee's grasp. Just as Chris put his hand on the front door knob, Ella bent down and bit into the back of his hand, drawing blood.
Larabee released his hold, and brought the bleeding wound to his mouth as Ella ran back the way they had come. The gunfire out front stopped him from pursuing. He had to help his friends. Chris crouched low and slipped out the door. He froze when he spotted Hawkes taking cover beside the well. Chris stood up and stepped off the porch, oblivious to the bullets that whizzed by him. His focus only on the man who might have killed his friend.
The red-haired man felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle and turned to meet Larabee's deadly gaze. 'I'm a dead man,' was the last thought that ran through Hawkes' mind as he raised his gun. Chris aimed and fired; smiling as the huge red-haired man crumbled to the ground, blood oozing from the hole in his chest.
A bullet slammed into Chris's shoulder and threw him to the ground.
Vin's gunfire intensified when he saw Chris appear on the porch and then take a bullet. The tracker darted and dodged to reach his friend. Grabbing Larabee by the arm Vin pulled him to the side of the house and out of harm's way.
Chris grabbed hold of the tracker's arm to get his attention. "Vin, you
have to get back to town! They're going to kill Ezra."
Vin smiled and forced Chris back down. "Don't worry, pard, we got Ezra. Nathan is with him." Vin removed his bandana and pressed down on the gunslinger's bleeding wound.
Relief flooded Chris's blue eyes. "You need to find Ella," he said.
"I have to stop this bleedin' first, pard." Both gunslingers listened as the gunfire slowly diminished. Vin helped Chris to his feet, and the two men slowly walked out to meet the others.
Buck pivoted and pointed his gun at a lone rider, who suddenly materialized out of the night. He lowered the weapon as he recognized the clothing of a padre. The aged priest stared opened-mouth at the carnage that the moon's glow revealed. He swallowed and looked into the smiling visage of the mustached cowboy. The grin on Buck's face only made the padre more nervous, thinking he was face-to-face with a madman.
"Ay, good thing you came along, padre. You can give some of these sinners last rites," Buck quipped with a boyish grin as he walked toward the stunned preacher, holstering his gun.
"He won't be saving any souls today," Josiah remarked as he came up behind Buck. "These sinners are already pleading their case with the devil."
"Ah, I I thought I was here to perform a wedding," the preacher's baritone voice stammered.
Josiah stepped up to the priest. "Sometimes the good Lord has a change of plans."
The priest nervously smiled and Josiah tipped his hat and walked on.
"Ay, pard, you okay?" Buck asked as he jogged up to Vin and Chris. Wilmington stopped short, and his shoulders slumped as he looked into Chris' eyes; eyes that radiated hate and something else-another part of his friend's soul had been ripped apart. Damn, what has that bitch done?
"Any sign of Ella?" Chris' voice was quiet and meditative. Vin and Buck could see the struggle to remain calm going on behind his icy blue gaze. It was like a rumbling volcano, trying to decide whether to erupt and devastate everything in its path or hold off for another day.
"Sorry, Chris, I just went through the house and she's gone," JD exclaimed as he joined them.
Larabee's jaw tightened and the image of Ella flashed before his face, her smiling visage promising that this isn't the end. It was too much. Chris's legs gave out as his eyes rolled up into his head. Vin and Buck were ready and carefully eased their unconscious friend to the ground. Buck lay a hand on the blond head, feeling completely useless and wondering how one woman could bring so much desolation to this man's life.
Larabee sat in a chair looking out the window of the hotel room where he and Ezra continued to mend. JD and Josiah had headed back to Four Corners, and the others were busy cleaning up the rest of Ella's hired guns. Chris shifted his gaze over to the Southerner, who lay asleep on the bed across the room neatly bandaged and splinted. The bruises on the gambler's face were a stark contrast to his pale features. Ezra's fever had finally broken this morning, and he appeared to be resting comfortably. It had been two days before the battered gambler had regained consciousness, and even now he slept like the dead. Nathan had told him this was not unusual considering the extent of his injuries. Chris's gut quivered as he recalled the anguish he felt when he thought his maverick lawman was dead. He didn't know when it had happened, but Ezra had come to mean a great deal to him.
Dr. Chalmers had warned them not to move his patients but Buck was already seeing to a wagon, knowing that Chris would want to get as far away from here as possible. Vin had again gone off to search the surrounding area for any sign of Ella Gaines.
The sound of a scraping chair broke Chris from his trance. He turned his head to see the tall healer checking Ezra for the hundredth time, making sure his fever hadn't returned. Ezra mumbled incoherently at the contact then fell silent. Nathan hadn't said anything, but they all suspected that the Southerner had been very near death. It was never a good sign when Nathan forfeited sleep and nourishment to tend to a patient. Jackson fingered the stethoscope that hung about his neck. Dr. Chalmers had loaned him the valuable instrument to check Ezra for pneumonia. The doctor had been a wealth of information and had shared his knowledge in an open exchange for the healer's experience.
"Nathan," Chris began, causing the healer to straighten and turn. Nathan was worried about their leader. The gunshot wound wasn't serious, but Chris had barely said two words since leaving Ella's ranch. "How long before a woman knows if she's pregnant?"
Jackson folded his arms across his chest, his face showing his bewilderment. They all knew something had happened to Chris, but the obstinate gunslinger refused to talk to anyone about it. The question he posed gave Nathan a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach and an inkling to what was tormenting his friend.
"Ah...a couple months usually," Nathan answered.
Chris's gaze left Nathan's worried face and swept back over the distant mountains.