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- M7 -
Ezra's keen eyes took in all aspects of his surroundings, knowing that it could mean not only his life, but the lives of the rest of them. They were very close to the place he, Vin and Buck had first found Chris. It was a location that would be forever burned into his memory, although he would give anything to forget it.
Speaking over his shoulder, as if he was talking to Mary, the gambler said quietly, "I believe we're almost there."
"Yeah, I recognize this little corner of hell," Buck agreed in a whisper.
"I suggest that we're all ready for anything," Standish suggested. There was no way any of them could ever be ready for what they were about to find.
- M7 -
Josiah caught up with Vin, grabbing Peso's reins just before the stubborn Texan fell out of the saddle. "Damn it, son! You can't put yourself through this. I'm not going to let you kill yourself trying to rescue Chris."
"J'siah, let go. . . 'a my d. . .damn horse!" Tanner ground out between gritted teeth.
"No! I'm not going to sit by and let you do this to yourself, now -"
"J'siah!" Vin protested once more. "L-listen to me. We're. . . we're 'bout. . . 'bout th-there!"
Sanchez stopped, looking at the younger man to gauge his truthfulness. Staring into the haunted blue depths of swollen eyes, he realized quickly that Vin was being honest. Heaving a sigh that was part relief and part frustration, the former preacher nodded. "All right, let's go rescue Chris. Let's bring him home."
- M7 -
Once upon a time, there had been a man known as Joseph Able. He was the son of zealous parents who convinced him by the age of four that he was God's Messenger, sent to earth to prophesy and lead the righteous to salvation.
By the age of fourteen, his father had succumbed to the disease bestowed upon him by his visits to a variety of brothels. Whores on Saturday night and prayers Sunday morning. As soon as the last shovel of earth was tossed onto the grave, his mother proclaimed him the man of the family. . . in more ways than one.
When he was sixteen his mother gave birth to his brother. . . and his son. Standing over the bed as she pushed the infant from her body, he knew what he must do. Pulling the abomination from between her legs, he slit its tiny throat and tossed it into the flames. Turning from the fireplace to the sounds of his mother's screams, he moved back to the bed. As he listened to her wailing and cursing he experienced an epiphany and, through it, he felt himself reborn.
Calmly, he stood over her once more. Raising the knife, he plunged the knife into her body over and over again. Until the curses turned to screams. Until the screams became cries. Until the cries became whimpers.
Until the whimpers became nothing. . .
Dropping the knife, he turned and moved away from the bed. Stopping only long enough to set fire to the bed, turning it into her funeral pyre, he walked away.
Joseph Able died in that fire as well, to be reborn as Father Cain.
- M7 -
Cain stood at the tailgate of the wagon, looking at the man who lay inside. He admired the handiwork still evident on the scarred flesh. He read the chant, smiling as the battered blond moaned and shifted on the rough, wooden floor.
The ceremony would begin in a few short hours, at the rising of the full moon. The man's friends might have interrupted the sacrifice, but it was only a temporary setback. They could not stop the inevitable.
Cain had known the moment he had seen the dark-souled blond that he was special. This man, this Christopher Larabee, was meant to be a general in the black army he meant to bring forth. Made up of darkened souls of men like Larabee, this army would bring hell to earth, where it belonged.
The unconscious man moved once more, whimpering as he bumped his injured arm. Glassy eyes blinked open for a few seconds before closing once more. In that time, however, Cain clearly saw the pain and fear residing there.
With a wolfish grin, Cain said, "There is no reason to fear. You will come to understand the gift I shall bestow upon you soon."
- M7 -
"How much farther, friend?" Ezra nearly choked on the last word, but managed to hide it.
The group's spokesman, who had eventually introduced himself as Zeke Mullet, turned to regard him. Taking the time to spit a wad of tobacco, the man replied, "We ought ta be there inside 'a the hour."
Standish nodded, forcing himself to smile, now. He wished he had seen some sign of the others. All he could hope was that they would make their appearance by the time he had driven the wagon into the cult's encampment.
- M7 -
"There, I see them!" JD called out, as if the other two couldn't see the wagon and horses ahead of them.
In truth, it was possible that Tanner hadn't seen them, or was even truly aware of where he was. After an initial burst of energy, brought on by the knowledge that the others were in the company of four riders, his energy left him quickly. Now he clung gamely to the reins and saddlehorn, trusting his horse to stay with the others.
Beside the battered man, Josiah watched with growing concern. Reaching out to steady the smaller man when he nearly fell, Sanchez put voice to his thoughts. "Vin, you need to rest, or at least ride with one of us."
Pulling himself up with painful slowness, the younger man pulled away with a muttered, "'M fine."
With a sigh, Josiah contemplated going 'Old Testament' but decided against it. They did, after all, need to get to the others as quickly as possible. He just prayed that they were all three alive when they did.
- M7 -
Father Cain strode purposefully toward the small tent near the edge of the encampment. There were two guards there, but he barely acknowledged them, offering only a slight wave of his hand. Entering the dimly lit interior, he waited impatiently for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he moved to the narrow cot.
The young woman lay there so still, her distended belly marking her as their first sacrifice of this full moon. She had no value otherwise.
Cain leaned over her to check the ropes that held her wrists tied to the cot. What caught his attention, though, was her face. He saw the dried gore around her blue-tinged lips and realized immediately that she had asphyxiated on her own vomit. With a howl, he ripped away the thin gown she wore, revealing her pregnant belly. Yanking his broad-bladed knife from his belt, he plunged it into her cold flesh, slicing open her womb. Quickly he yanked the infant from her body, only to find that it, too, had died.
With a howl, he tossed the infant aside and stormed from the tent. Outside, one of the guards approached him but, before the unlucky fool could ask what was wrong, Cain slit the man's throat with his gore-covered knife. Not even registering his actions as the man fell, clutching his throat, dying before he fell to the ground dead, he moved on.
"Malachi! Malachi!" Cain screamed, red-faced with anger. Quickly, his second-in-command hurried from his post, sprinting toward him.
"Yes, Father? What's wrong?"
"She's dead! She and her bastard child. . . both of them, dead!"
"Dead? But how?" Malachi asked.
"The drugs, it had to have been the drugs. Where is Jacob? Jacob!"
"Jacob!" Malachi called out as well, turning and hurrying off. If he was lucky, he could keep their chemist from suffering Father Cain's wrath. The man's horrible temper had cost them far too many men, either by death or desertion. They couldn't afford to lose any more; they were stretched thin as it was.
- M7 -
They were close, he could tell. Suddenly the air seemed heavier and the sky darker. The animal sounds seemed quieter; almost tentative.
Zeke reined in alongside the wagon, pointing at the trees ahead of them. "That's it; that's where we're headin'."
Once more, Standish pasted on a smile. "Wonderful!"
"Dear?" Mary's voice was muffled by the canvas.
"Yes, darlin'?" Ezra drawled.
"I'd love to come up there with you; I'd like to see the countryside."
Standish felt his breath catch before he managed, "Why of course, dearest." It was one part of the plan that he had trouble with. He wanted to keep the young widow as safe as possible. At the same time, they had all agreed that the disguised woman needed to be as visible as possible.
Braking the wagon, the southerner helped his 'wife' onto the wagon seat. With Mary in place, the little group was on the move once more.
- M7 -
Malachi found Jacob just beyond the clearing, sprawled out against a tree. The man was pulling on a long pipe, glassy eyes staring into nothingness. Shaking his head, Malachi squatted down beside the drugged man. Reaching out, he drew the pipe from lax fingers. "What in Hades do you call yourself doin', you fool?"
"F-Father's gonna. . . gonna kill me," The young man slurred.
Cain's lieutenant sighed, watching the fear and guilt dancing across the other man's face. "Did you kill her on purpose?"
Shaking his head, Jacob stammered out, "I mis. . . mis. . . miscal. . . c'lated. Gave 'er too. . . too much. F-Father's gonna k-kill me."
"No. . ." Malachi sighed, "No. . . he's not." With that, he pulled his knife, and shoved it into the man's heart. Watching as the man's eyes dulled, blood bubbled and dribbled from the corner of his mouth, he hoped he'd done the right thing. Jacob was right, Cain would have killed him, and it would have been a slow, torturous death. He had spared the young man that, at least. He began formulating a plan; what he would tell Father.
Squeezing the young man's shoulder, he whispered to the dying man, "I'm sorry, Jacob. We'll meet again. . .soon. . . and you'll take your place in Father's army once more. I'll see to that." With that he stood and strode back toward camp.
- M7 -
As they entered the clearing, Ezra felt Mary press herself against him. He couldn't blame her, really. He felt it, too. There was an air of evil that surrounded them. They both watched as several men started moving toward them.
One man in particular seemed more than curious about them. Although he didn't appear to be any more menacing - in fact, he wasn't smaller than many of the others - there was an indefinable "something" that caused him to stand out. As he drew near, he called out harshly, "Ezekiel, what's going on here?"
Suddenly nervous, Zeke Mullet stammered, "This here f-fella. . . him and 'is missus are-are lookin' ta settle d-down 'fore their little 'n comes. The missus is due t' have 't 'bout any time, Fa - um, Sir!"
The man's resulting glare did not go unnoticed by the two people on the wagon seat. Then they watched as the glare blossomed into a cold, calculating grin. "Well, is that so? Welcome, folks, welcome!"
Pulling his best poker face on, Standish said, "Why, thank you, mister. . .?"
His hesitation barely noticeable, the other man replied, "Cain, sir. . . just Cain."
Nodding, the gambler said, "Please to meet ya. My name's Elton Sanders and this is my wife, Margaret."
With a slight bow, Cain replied, "Very pleased to make your acquaintance. Please, step down and take your leisure. Perhaps you'd like to join me for a cup of coffee?"
"Mighty neighborly of ya, sir." Ezra replied as he set the brake. Climbing down from the wagon, he turned and helped the encumbered woman down as well.
Turning, Cain ordered, "Malachi, have Jacob prepare some coffee for our visitors."
Just coming from the far end of the clearing, where Jacob's body lay, Malachi hesitated before replying, "Yes, sir. . . right away."
- M7 -
The blond moaned; his head tossing back and forth as he fought the terrors that stalked his tormented mind.
"No. . . alive. . . no. . . stop. . ." Although the words screamed through his brain, they escaped as barely heard whispers. There was nobody there to hear them, anyway.
And Chris heard only the whispers.
"Dead. . . dead. . . dead. . . dead. . ." That single word burned through his mind.
Larabee opened his eyes, only to find his vision obscured. Reaching out, he found the barrier to be nothing more than cloth. Clawing at it with trembling fingers, he tore the cloth away, only to find himself in a deep, fetid smelling hole. As he rolled his vision upward, he could see worms slipping in and out of the earth; bugs with thousands of legs skittering along the surface as they fought for purchase.
Upward he stared, following the earthen walls toward the distant source of light. As he reached the end of the damp walls, he saw a rectangle of light, blue sky in the distance. Then the sky was eclipsed as two figured peered downward.
"Dead. . ."
"Damn shame," Buck's voice came to him, sorrow mixed with resignation in his tone.
"Yeah, wish we could 'a got to 'im in time," Vin replied, shaking his head and sighing.
"Dead. . . dead. . ."
Suddenly a third figure joined them. "You boys did all you could. He couldn't be saved. . . the devil claimed his soul long ago."
"Reckon you're right, Preacher. He lost his soul the night they killed his family." Buck replied. "Must 'a made it easy for the devil to put his mark on it."
"Well, fellas, reckon we need ta finish up. Miz Nettie promised ta have us a reg'lar feast waitin'," Vin's voice lost it's solemn tone now as he tossed a shovel full of dirt into the hole.
"Dead. . . dead. . . dead. . ."
"NO! No, damn it! Alive! Alive!" Chris screamed, only to realize that he couldn't even hear his voice, himself.
Buck tossed another shovelful as he asked, "She make them dumplin's?"
"Said she was," Tanner responded. *Thump* another shovel full of cold dirt landed atop the black shroud.
"Dead. . . dead. . . dead. . . dead. . ."
"Apple pie?" *Thump*
"Hey, you best stay away from that pie 'til I get my piece!" *Thump*
"Lord, forgive them the sin of gluttony!" *Thump*
"Dead. . . dead. . . dead. . . dead. . . dead. . ."
"ALIVE!" Chris screamed, clawing and tearing at the cloth that he had been sewn into. "ALIVE!"
"Dead. . . dead. . . DEAD. . ."
"Hey, fellas! Hurry up, Miss Nettie's getting ready to serve up dinner!" JD's voice called out.
"Ah, hell," Vin's actions sped up as he shoveled more and more dirt into the hole.
"NO! Alive! Alive!"
The earth continued to pile up around him. . . over him. He found his view obliterated as they continued to fill the grave. He continued to hear their voices, however.
"Damn, Tanner! Can't figure out what I'm workin' so hard for!" Buck chuckled. "You're gonna have this hole filled before we know it!"
"Shut up an' work, Bucklin," Vin growled.
"ALIVE DAMN IT! I'M ALIVE!"
"You gonna say a few words 'fore we head off fer dinner, Josiah?"
"What's to say, brother? He's finally where he's wanted to be for so long."
"Reckon you're right. Never could figure out why he didn't just put a bullet in his own brain, 'stead of killin' all those other fellas." Buck's voice became harder with each word.
"Mebbe he wanted ta see how many folks he could send down ta Hell 'fore he got there," Tanner drawled.
"Could be he just wanted to try and fill up the place. . . reckon that's the only way he'd ever reach the pearly gates and his family."
"Reckon you're right."
"NO! ALIVE! DAMN IT. . . ALIVE!"
"Hope he's found some peace. . . finally."
"Amen to that, preacher."
"Fellas! Come on!"
"DEAD. . . DEAD. . . DEAD. . . D. . . E. . . A. . . D!"
"I. . . AM. . . ALIVE!"
"Rest in peace, Stud."
"ALIVE! NO! ALIVE!"
"Vaya con Dios, pard."
"NO! Oh, GOD! I'm alive, ALIVE! Please. . . please, help me! No! No!"
Larabee began to tremble, vomiting, his entire body seizing as the tortures of his mind threatened to suffocate him. The wagon vibrated and shook as he thrashed over the rough surface of the wooden floor. Blood mixed with the vomit as he bit his tongue and the inside of his mouth. He coughed, choked, eyes opening even though he saw nothing but the cold earth his mind had buried him beneath.
He reached out, blood dripping from his injured arm, clawing at the air as he fought his way from the grave. Unaware of the pain erupting from the broken bones and torn flesh of his latest injury, he continued to fight. Gasping, he struggled to bring air into his lungs, certain that he was choking on the earth he swallowed as well.
Then he collapsed, wheezing, onto the wagon bed's floor. His eyes stared upward, seeing nothing but the earth that pressed down upon him. He sobbed, trembling as his last bit of strength deserted him.
- M7 -
'Where in hell are you?' Ezra thought, his eyes flitting in every direction as best he could, considering. Considering Cain was sitting three feet from him; the man's eyes hungrily taking in Mary's distorted figure. Standish, sitting close beside her, felt the woman tremble. She couldn't help but notice the man's seeming obsession with her. Casually, he put his hand over hers, giving a slight squeeze. Turning toward her, they locked eyes. The widow Travis gave him a wan smile.
Malachi came over, carrying three mugs. With a nod, he handed one to Cain before turning toward the couple. "Here ya go, folks. This is a special blend. . . think you'll like it."
"Why, thank you," the Southerner grinned, taking the two mugs and handing one to the woman beside him. Their eyes locked once more and he communicated his thoughts. 'Don't drink this, not until I do'. He sniffed at his mug, trying to detect something that shouldn't be there.
Taking a gulp of his own drink, Cain smiled broadly. "Drink up, my friends, drink up! I think you'll find this quite. . . interesting."
He knew they couldn't hold off much longer. Just as he was resigned to taking a drink, and wondering how he could spit it out without anyone noticing, a shot rang out. They all watched as one of the men fell to the ground, holding his arm.
"Drop your weapons, now!" A deep voice rang out. Buck and Nathan appeared from around the back of the wagon, weapons at the ready. The rangy brunet continued. "Ezra, get Mary over here."
Taking the young woman's arm, Ezra dropped the mug and released his derringer. Together, not taking their eyes off the cult members, they moved quickly to the wagon. While they did, Buck and Nathan held their weapons on the other men. One of the cultists decided to take that opportunity to move, bent on getting to Father Cain. But, before he could reach his goal, he dropped, one of Nathan's knives in his leg.
"You're surrounded. . . surrender!" A voice boomed from the trees.
Buck heaved a sigh of relief; knowing that their friends had their backs. "All right, boys, drop the weapons. Nice and slow."
But, the cult members had no intention of giving up. Even though there were no more than a dozen left, they began shooting wildly, sending the two peacekeepers running for cover.
Seeing his opportunity to get away, Cain scuttled away from the battle. As the sound of gunfire receded he crouched low and made his way toward the wagon, where his captive lay. As he approached his goal he was so focused on it that he didn't see a figure detach itself from the trees, moving stealthily toward him.
Pulling the pegs loose, he dropped the wagon's tailgate. With an evil grin, he saw Larabee laying there on the floor, trembling in a pool of blood, vomit, and urine. Ignoring everything but his prize, he started to climb into the wagon. Just then, he felt the cold barrel of a Colt pressing against his neck.
"Best you stand down, ya fuckin' son'bitch," A voice growled softly, in his ear.
Slowly, making certain that nothing set his captor off, Cain moved a few inches away from the wagon. Raising his hands away from his body, he spoke softly. "You don't understand, my son. I wish only to - " He broke off with a grunt as the gun barrel dug into his flesh.
"You ain't doin' a fuckin' thing. . . got it? Not a thing. Ya just - " The other man made a certain move, taking Tanner by surprise. The Texan, barely managing to stand, reacted without thinking, his gun going off. He watched the action, seemingly in slow motion, as the man's throat exploded, blood and gore splattering everything in its path.
Recoiling from the horrific shower, Vin stumbled back, crashing against the wagon. With a groan, he slid to his knees, tears of pain rolling down his ashen features. It seemed to be hours before he could catch his breath; weeks before he could see; years before he felt he could stand. With slow, deliberate movements, he pulled himself up, using the wagon to brace himself. Finally, more or less on his feet, he got his first good look inside. He groaned when he saw Chris laying there, trembling in his own gore.
"Ah, hell. . . I'm. . . I'm sorry, pard." He knew he wasn't going to be able to stand for long. Grabbing hold of the side of the wagon, he dragged himself upward, crawling into the wagon.
Slowly the former bounty hunter crawled toward the blond, whispering softly when he saw the man's eyes opened. "Hey. . . it's jist me. . . Chris. I ain't. . . ain't gonna hurt'cha. Yer safe, now, Chris. I'm. . . sorry. . . sorry I couldn't save. . . ya earlier. My fault, cowboy. My. . . my fault."
Larabee simply stared at him, no hint of comprehension or recognition in the dark eyes. He moved closer, managing to pull himself up onto his knees as he stopped beside the man. Carefully, he took hold of the blond, pulling him away from the vile puddles beneath and around him. Panting by the time he got them both to the end of the wooden bed, he dropped to his hands and knees once more.
Slowly, Vin managed to arrange himself and the other man. He pulled Chris up, holding him in a loose, protective embrace. The blond head lolled against his shoulder, the gunman still staring into nothingness.
Tanner's perspiration soaked head dropped back to rest against the wagon. He continued to fight to catch his breath; to calm his racing heart. Larabee rested heavily in his arms, tremors running through his slender frame. Rubbing a hand up and down the gunman's uninjured arm, he murmured softly, "Yer okay. . . yer okay, Chris. I got'cha. . . I ain't lettin' ya go this time. . . n-neither. Yer okay. . ."
- M7 -
They found the cult members far easier to overtake than they expected. They were also surprised to see so few men opposing them. When the gunfire dwindled; only their weapons barking in the clearing, they stopped. Looking at one another, Nathan and Buck stepped away from cover, watching for signs of ambush even as Nathan called out, "Y'all okay?"
Ezra emerged from where he had hidden, protecting Mary Travis. Helping the woman to her feet, he nodded, brushing his jacket off as he replied, "Mrs. Travis and I seem to be in one piece, Mr. Jackson."
Josiah and JD emerged from the trees, their guns drawn; eyes watching their surroundings warily. "We're fine as well."
Nodding, Buck asked, "Vin and Chris safe?"
Head swiveling quickly, JD called, "Vin! Vin?"
"What's wrong?" Nathan asked; concern in his voice. The plan had been for Josiah and JD to make certain that Vin and Chris were safe out at the shack, then meet them at the clearing.
"They re-captured Chris," Josiah explained quickly. "They left Vin to die, and carried him off."
"Damn," Buck hissed. "All right. Fan out and look for 'em. Ezra, you make sure - "
"Our fair maiden is safe," Standish finished with a smile.
- M7 -
Vin managed to lift his head, staring blearily toward the end of the wagon. He could just make out four figures. Raising his weapon, he gritted out, "Y'all hold it. . . right. . . there."
"Hold up, son," Wilmington murmured soothingly, "It's just us. You're safe, pard. You're both safe."
Bracketed by Tanner's arms, Chris Larabee continued to stare into nothing.
- M7 -
Mary Travis climbed out of the wagon, having removed her disguise. She watched the activity taking place in the dim light of evening. Nathan appeared briefly, coming out of the tent where they had taken the two injured men.
She trembled at the memory of the seeing the blond for the first time. He had been carefully lifted from the wagon bed by Buck and Josiah. None of them could help staring at Chris as he lay motionless in the arms of the two men. He stared at nothing. . . reacted to no one.
Forcing the memory away, the young widow hurried over to Jackson as the man was returning to the tent a bucket of steaming water. "Nathan? What can I do to help?"
Stopping and favoring the woman with a tight smile, Nathan said, "I think Chris respond to your voice. The rest of us have tried, but. . ." He shrugged.
Chewing on her bottom lip, Mary nodded "I'll. . . I'll see what I can do."
"Thank you ma'am," the former slave managed a true smile as she slipped into the tent ahead of him."
Mary saw that both men lay on narrow cots, both of them with their heads and upper bodies elevated. Vin seemed to be sleeping, his battered body finally resting comfortably. Chris was still as well but there was an unmistakable tension in his slender frame and he still stared blindly at the world around him.
The young widow knelt at Larabee's bedside. Reaching out to take his hand softly she called, "Chris. . . Chris it's me. . . it's Mary. You're safe now. Buck, Vin and the others are here. We're all here for you, Chris. We're here and you're safe. . . you're safe."
- M7 -
He moved slowly through the utter darkness as if he was moving through drying tar. He wasn't certain where he was. . . how he got in there. . . or where he was going. His feet kept moving him forward though, so he kept going along for the ride.
Was this hell?
Suddenly he realized there were soft sounds, murmurs, all around him. Frowning, he tried to decide which direction to go. . . what to do about the sounds.
Was it demons?
Deciding that it really didn't matter which direction he moved -- because he hadn't stopped moving -- he allowed his feet to pick the route and his legs to carry him. Somehow he knew that he would find the others if he just kept moving.
Were they dead, too?
He supposed they were if he was hearing them. He suppose that should give him some feelings -- sadness and anger -- something but he supposed that would come as well. He didn't seem to have much control over much of it anything at the moment.
Maybe that's what made it hell.
Once that wouldn't have bothered him; not having control. Back before he'd met Sarah Connolly, before he'd made her Sarah Larabee. Before he become a father, before. . . he'd do this very thing; let his feet point the way and his legs carry him where they would.
"What?" Chris' voice interrupted his rambling thoughts. Someone had called his name.
Frowning, he thought it sounded like Buck.
Yeah, it was Buck. He tried to decipher where the call was coming from but there was nothing to pin a direction on. He needed to find his old friend. Wilmington's voice sounded panicked. Chris didn't think the ladies' man was needing help to get away from some young woman's family.
"Chris! God, please! Please!"
"Where are you Buck? Buck? Buck!" He tried to focus on the voice, to find a way to get to his friend. "Where are you Buck?" The blackness slowly parted giving way to a lightning gray. Vaguely he could make out the faint outline of his friend's face in the distance. Slowly he forced his suddenly unwilling feet to turn in that direction. The going got harder, taking all his effort to move one foot even a few inches forward.
After what seemed like a year, he thought he could detect some change. Buck seemed a bit closer, at least. "Buck! What's wrong?"
"Chris! Help. . . HELP ME!"
Suddenly he was much closer, as if he'd leapt a thousand feet. Buck was right there, before him. The big man lay sprawled out on a velvet couch, wearing nothing but a thin sheet draped low over his body. At first there didn't seem to be anything wrong with him; in fact the man seemed to be in very good shape.
And he wasn't alone.
Chris watched as three nubile young women slipped up around the mustached man. They began to stroke and caress his chest and arms, dragging their fingernails lightly over his flesh. He heard the man moan softly then the moans moved quickly from soft, pleasure-filled sounds to tight, pain-racked cries.
"Oh, GOD! Please. . . Chris, please!"
Larabee watched as, with each touch of their hand, the young women raised welts and sores over his chest. The chest dripped blood and then began to ooze gore. The sores began to spread over his body, bringing him more and more pain. Wilmington screamed, begging his friend to help him.
Chris reached out, trying to touch his friend. But, as he did, the couch, his friend still on it, writing in pain, moved away. The harder he tried to reach Buck, the farther away the man moved. "Buck!"
"Chris. . . help. . . help. . . "
Larabee watched, impotently, as his oldest friend slipped away, his three companions stroking him, singing to him. . . killing him.
Then his feet took up their journey once more, and he found himself an unwilling companion on the trip now. He continued to watch behind him, trying to find the man he had called friend for so long. But even the sound of the big man's voice was gone.
On he moved, his mind reeling as he sought to find some way to take back some control. He needed to get back there. . . wherever 'there' was. He needed to help his friend.
Then, he heard barking.
And his feet suddenly changed course, taking him toward the sound of the animal. And then he saw it, a blond mongrel. And the words "I don't wanna hang like some mangy, yella dawg" echoed through his mind.
"Vin? Vin!" His eyes pierced the darkness, searching for the buckskin clad man. Then he found not only Tanner, but Nathan Jackson. Both men hung by their necks from ropes, but they were still alive. He watched as they dangled, feet kicking slightly, inches from the ground. "Nathan!"
They didn't speak. . . couldn't. . . but their eyes spoke volumes. Chris looked from defiant blue to resigned brown and back again. Again he reached out, but found himself too far away to touch them.
"NO! NO!" He screamed as he struggled to reach the two men. Then the cur was between him and his friends, baring its big, canine teeth and growling a warning. He tried to kick at it, but found he couldn't move his legs enough to kick at it. "Get away! Damn you, get away!"
The animal didn't move; seemed to grow. . . did grow. . . and suddenly he was looking into the face of Eli Joe. It seemed so appropriate; the man was the true, yellow cur. "What the fuck do you want?"
"What do you think?" The man asked; his voice soft and cold with anger. "You killed me. . . for him." He nodded back toward Tanner. "I can't have that."
"Yeah, well it seemed like the best thing to do at the time."
Smiling a cold smile, the blond said, "I'd do it all over again if I had to."
"And doom him to. . ." Eli Joe canted his head sharply toward where Vin hung. "You did that to him, you know. You signed his death warrant when you killed me."
"And you wrote it when you framed him." Even though his words were for the killer, his eyes were on his friend. Then his gaze fell on Nathan. "And what's your business with him?"
"Nothin'," Came the reply, "he's there 'cause of them."
Larabee turned to see several figures just emerging from the darkness. Somehow he recognized them immediately; the cowboys he and Vin had killed as they rescued Jackson from them. He stared at the one standing in the front of the group, the dark shadow of a bullet hole just above the bridge of his nose. "What do you want?"
Grinning, the cowboy replied, "Revenge. . . what else? You an' that 'n there, " he pointed one boney finger at Vin, "kept us from hangin' that darkie. But we got the last laugh, now, didn't we? Now you can watch both of 'em swing."
The laughter that rang out sent a chill through him and he started to retort, only to find his feet moving again. Screaming into the darkness, he cried out, "NO! Damn you, NO!"
He tried desperately to fight, to have control over his own body's movements, but there was nothing he could do. His feet took him forward through the black nothingness. His mind burned with the images of three of his friends, dying, and him not able to do anything to stop it. He felt his body tremble at the truth of it.
This was hell.
On he moved; his body beyond his control, through the blackness. The voices started again, calling to him in whispers. He tried to put his hands over his ears, to block them out but, like his feet, they no longer listened to him. They hung from his sides, worthless to him. Still a prisoner of his body, he could only wait to see what happened next.
Next he heard the caw of crows. What was it they called them? A murder of crows? He could hear the sound of their ebony wings, seeming to move through the blackness with an ease he hadn't found.
" Josiah! " He knew it had to be the preacher and then, suddenly, he saw the big man facing the crows, as if his thoughts had caused the darkness to fade He was suddenly witnessing the older man's penance. Josiah was chained to a huge boulder, his muscular arms and legs tense as he fought against his bondage. All around him the huge black birds flew, diving toward him, their beaks tearing at his flesh. The man's head was tilted back, his mouth opened wide as he screamed. The carrion ignored him, and continued to peck and pick at his bloody body. Then Chris noticed the most horrific damage. The crows had already claimed the man's eyes; empty sockets stared at nothing.
" Josiah! "
"Chris? Chris, help me! "
He tried he did everything he could to bring his body back under his control; to save at least one of his friends. But still he had no luck in bringing his arms and legs under his control; they had a mind of their own it seemed. He wanted to laugh at the comment, the absurdity of parts of his body having their own mind. But it didn't matter, nothing mattered anymore it didn't matter if he was dead. He was letting them down. . . he was letting them all down.
Yes, this was hell.
He wasn't surprised when his feet started taking him away once more. He tried to call out, to tell Josiah that he couldn't help. But suddenly his voice, too, was no longer under his control. And all he could do was watch as the older man disappeared just as the others said.
Buck, Vin, Nathan, Josiah. All of them beyond his reach. All of them beyond his help.
Who would be next?
Ezra. It was Ezra. Chris found him slowly being lowered into a huge pot of boiling tar, screaming as it sealed itself to his skin. He was surrounded by men; faceless, armed and angry. They were calling to him, deriding the con man for cheating them. The con man was screaming back, swearing that he'd never cheated anyone in his life. Chris found himself agreeing with the man knowing that, although this Ezra might change the odds, he never cheated. Once again he tried to move forward, to save another friend. And once more he was stopped and although his mind screamed his voice remained silent.
"Chris. . . Chris please! "
All he could do was shake his head. There was nothing more he could do, no one he could save. He resigned himself to the fate that he could never save any of his friends. Hell, he couldn't even save himself.
And then he heard the voices once again; speaking to him, around him and through him. He knew that he was soon to see the last member of their group.
He never wanted the Kid to be there, had all but begged the kid to ride away. . . to go back. . . to leave. . . to live.
Dunne stood alone, facing a mob of armed and angry men. They were all yelling at him, but Chris heard their voices in whispers. They threatened and taunted the young man. The Sheriff. . . the Kid. Why hadn't JD listened to him? Why hadn't he gone back East, where he belonged. Where he could find a future.
Joining them. . . joining him. . . had sealed the young man's fate.
He looked and saw JD watching him; staring at him, hazel eyes pleading for help. And he could do nothing more than stare at him as - once again - his feet dictated his movement.
He had given up; had come to realize that there was nothing he could do. Nothing he could ever do.
And then he felt even more helpless.
He found the darkness lifting once more, but this time it was beaten back by flames. The flames of his home. And the voices became frantic, calling to him. Pleading. Begging. And there was nothing he could do. He couldn't bring himself to look. Couldn't bring himself to look away. He watched as Sarah came to one window, a halo of flames outlining her. Beside her, Adam stood, one little hand reaching out toward him.
"Chris. . . Chris! Please. . . help us!" Sarah called out, coughing as the smoke filled her lungs.
"Papa! Papa! Help!" His son screamed, frightened, begging to be rescued.
Tears streamed down his face as he fought to move in their direction. Even though he knew beyond a doubt that it was useless, still he tried. Then he screamed in silence as the house exploded and the flames engulfed his family. He sobbed, great, gut-wrenching sobs as he struggled to move toward the fireball that had taken his wife and son. Better he endure the tortures there, with his family. But his feet took him away, and he found himself watching behind him as he was torn away.
The darkness engulfed him once more.
- M7 -
"Nathan? Nathan, come here. . . please!"
Jackson responded to Mary's call, moving quickly from Vin's bedside to Chris'. He looked down and saw the man, his body frozen in a contorted position. Larabee laid there, eyes wide open and staring into the nothingness. Larabee's mouth was opened wide, in a scream that never came. His eyes, too, were opened wide, with tears rolling freely from them. As the blonde woman's eyes searched him for answers, all he could do was shake his head.
"Mary, there's nothin' I can do for him. . . nothin' for now at least. I can't put any more drugs in 'im since I don't know what those cultists gave him."
"But he seems to be in such pain," the widow Travis argued.
Nodding, Nathan said, "Yes ma'am, he is. But it's not the kind of pain I know how to fix." Pointing to his own head, he said, "It's all right up here ma'am. And I don't know any cure for that, other than time."
Between them, Larabee continued to stare.
- M7 -
Nathan Jackson found himself wakened from a restless sleep by a soft but urgent sounding groan. Blinking open weary eyes he saw that Tanner was moving fitfully on his bunk. Stretching his tall frame from his bedroll, he leaned over the restless man. In a whisper, he asked, "Vin? You hurtin'?"
Slowly the Texan's eyes opened, and he managed to focus on the healer. It took a minute for him to process the simple question, and then he managed to say only, "Yeah."
Gently squeezing the man's shoulder, the former slave promised, "Be right back."
He nodded and then realized that Nathan had left the tent. It seemed to take an awfully long time for the big man to return. Then he found Jackson leaning over him once more. He felt himself lifted up and a tin mug was pressed against his lips.
"Drink it slow, okay?" The bigger man offered a slight smile at the frown Vin pulled at the bitter taste. "Yeah, I know. . . boiled skunk."
"Worse," Tanner rasped as the mug was taken away briefly. Then it was returned for a few more sips. When it was taken away again, he asked, "Chris?"
Canting his head to the side, the healer said briefly, "Over there."
Waiting until he took a few more sips, Vin questioned, "He okay?"
Nathan knew the young man wasn't nearly well enough to deal with the whole truth, but he also knew Tanner well enough to know that he would demand to hear it. He started with the less troublesome news. "He's got a gunshot wound in the arm and the bullet broke the bone. It's infected, but I've got it cleaned out, set, and a poultice on the wound. As long as we can keep it clean it should heal just fine."
Vin accepted a few more sips before he prompted, "But?"
Heaving a sigh, Jackson said, "He's not respondin'. . . not hearin' any of us. He's got himself lost. . . up here."
Watching the bigger man tap the side of his head, the Texan ran the tip of his tongue before he managed to grate out, "Reckon we. . . gotta. . . find 'im. . . then."
As the injured man's eyes grew glassy from the herbal brew, the healer argued gently, "First thing you need to do is get better."
Tanner sighed, eyes drifting closed as he murmured, "Reckon. . . I c'n do. . . both. . ."
Nathan just shook his head and watched the badly beaten man slip back to sleep. Once he was certain Tanner was out, he moved to the other cot. Kneeling beside the blond, he murmured, "Where are you, Chris? And how do we get you back?"
- M7 -
The morning light spilled over the landscape, sending pale tendrils into the clearing. Two figures were already stirring; Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne. While Buck stirred the campfire and added wood to get it going, JD went to tend the horses. The mustached man kept an eye open for trouble even as he fixed a pot of coffee. They were fairly certain that all of the cult members had been accounted for. Those who hadn't died during the gun battle had taken their own lives rather than surrender to the peacekeepers. There had been no more than a dozen men in the camp, though, and both Buck and Ezra could recall at least twice that many when they had rescued Chris the first time.
The last thing they needed was to face more of the cultists.
Hearing movement nearby, Buck turned to find Nathan coming from the tent where Vin and Chris lay. The big man looked exhausted, it was easy to see that he hadn't slept much. Of course none of them had gotten much rest for a long time; as the healer neared, he held out a mug of coffee and offered it up with a quiet, "Mornin'."
Nodding his thanks as he took the mug, Nathan replied, "Mornin'."
"How they doin', Doc?"
Jackson heaved a sigh, barely repressing his oft-used disclaimer of 'I ain't a doctor". Instead he shrugged and answered, "Not sure. Vin's pissin' blood and having trouble breathin' if he lays flat. Chris is fightin' an infection and. . . well, whatever demons he's been fightin' all along. Neither of 'em need to be movin' for a few days at least."
Frowning, Wilmington shook his head. "Not certain we can do that."
Looking pointedly around them, the former lawman explained, "There were a lot more 'a them fools last month."
Finding himself searching the trees now, the healer cursed. "You think we might have company then?"
Shrugging, Buck replied, "Don't know. . . maybe. . . maybe not. Not sure we can afford to stay here for very long, though. How soon do you think they'll be able to travel?"
Scrubbing his hand over his face, the former slave said, "I need to get Chris' fever down for one thing. Other than that. . . well, I don't think movin' him will make any difference."
"Hell, Buck, I don't know!" His frayed nerves had finally reached their limit. Standing, the big man began to pace. "I don't know for sure if he's bleedin' inside or just bruised up bad. I don't know what's going on, on the inside, and don't have any way of findin' out. Our best bet would be to keep him here, and quiet, for at least three or four days."
Ignoring the outburst, knowing how frustrated the dark man had to be, Buck nodded as he answered softly, "Then we've gotta find a way to do that."