Main Characters: Seven, OCs
Notes: Written for both Halloween and the Blackraptor Chris Fic Challenge, Number 23 And Then There Were None: Take the Seven to a Ghost Town where one by one the members of Chris’ team begin to disappear. Many thanks to the amazing Muse for the awesome picture accompanying this unworthy story.
Webmaster Note: This story was previously archived at another website and was moved to blackraptor in September 2012.
Seven men rode into the little town in the darkness of a moonless night. Seven
horses plodded wearily along the dusty street, as exhausted as their riders. Watching their surroundings with the wariness of men used to trouble, they saw little of the town beyond the weak light of the far spaced street fires. Finding the livery the men turned their reins over to the brawny, leather-apron clad livery man and his wizened, palsied assistant. Slapping hours of trail dust from their clothes, the men moved as one toward the town’s single saloon, drawn by the sound of laughter and the smell of alcohol.
The man dressed as black as the night led the way, only a step ahead of his companion, who was dressed in buckskins. The others followed close, eager to relax for the first time in days. The seven peacekeepers had been searching for a pack of demons, men who held so little regard for human life that they had cut a wide path of blood and destruction. A path that had slashed tragically through the little New Mexican town the men protected. The seven had come to realize that the demons had returned to hell, which lay just South of the border. Purgatorio, Mexico. They would stop over in the little town, catching a little rest and picking up enough provisions to continue their journey.
Stepping into the saloon, unmoving until their eyes adjusted to the light, the men surveyed their surroundings. Clusters of people, most as tail worn as they themselves, looked back at them. Deciding that the saloon held no immediate threat worse than a bad plate of stew, the men found a secluded table. Dropping weary bodies onto creaking chairs, they shared a collective sigh and ordered dinner and drinks from an aging barmaid.
Chris Larabee pushed the hat from his head, raking long fingers through pale blond hair. Barely stifling a yawn, he turned to the man beside him. “Think we’ll pick their trail up in the morning?”
Scrubbing a calloused hand across his handsome face, Vin Tanner nodded replying, “Easier ’n fallin’ off a log.”
Smiling at the younger man’s confidence, he nodded. The two friends slouched in their chairs, facing the room with their backs to the wall. Out of habit they looked for any signs of trouble among the other patrons.
Dinner arrived in the form of bowls of hot stew, baskets of biscuits, and pitchers of beer. The seven men made short work of it all, and the pitchers and bowls were replaced with bottles and glasses. The men sat, hunger sated, and sipped their whiskey. Ezra Standish produced a pack of cards, and they settled in to play a few friendly games of poker.
Chris left the group and went to the bartender to inquire into getting rooms for the night. The piggish man behind the raw wooden plank bar baulked at the thought of a ‘darkie’ occupying one of his rooms, but it took little more than a glare to get him to change his mind. Larabee rented the last three rooms and spun on his heel to return to where the other six men sat. He hesitated, frowning when he noticed that someone had… somehow… moved into the shadows between Vin and the wall. That couldn’t be, Tanner would have registered the movement of a moth behind him. What was even more confusing was the fact that the darkness cloaked figure had a hand on the Texan’s shoulder. None of the other six seemed to register the fact that they were no longer alone, either. It made not sense and, rubbing a hand over his face, Chris saw that there was no one there now. Huffing a sigh, the man in black decided that he was more tired than he thought. Scuffing across the sawdust packed floor, the man in black took his seat among his friends.
Tanner cocked his head, looking with a puzzled expression at his friend. “Y’ okay, cowboy?”
Larabee blinked, frowned and considered the other man’s question. Finally he nodded, “fine.”
“Y’ look like y’ seen a ghost, or somebody walked across yer grave.”
Larabee’s frown deepened and he repeated, “I’m fine.”
All but one of the weary men scuffed up the stairs to the bedrooms above a short time later. Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne took one room, Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson took the second. Chris, Vin and – when he had fleeced the locals – Ezra Standish would occupy the third and largest room.
As they reached the landing, Larabee looked back down toward the gallery below. He was uneasy at the thought of Standish remaining behind, but had nothing but a vague feeling that something was wrong to offer as argument. Pausing at the railing, the blond stared down into large, shadowy room, locating the crimson coat easily. Then he frowned as he caught a glimpse of movement behind the Southerner. Once again a vague form shifted in the shadows then disappeared. He shook his head, rubbing his eyes before he looked once again to find the darkness empty behind Ezra.
Larabee jumped at the soft voice so close to him, reaching for his gun as he turned.
“Whoa, there, Cowboy!” Vin Tanner backed up a step, hands out and away from his body. “Don’t be puttin’ no holes in me, now, I was jist comin’ t’ see if yer okay.”
Drawing a trembling breath as he fought to calm himself, the gunslinger shook his head. “Just tired I guess… jumping at shadows.”
Frowning at the strained voice and puzzled features, Tanner watched him for a moment before finally nodding. He led the way, and the two friends moved down the hall. Finding their room, they quickly settled in for the night.
Vin scrubbed a hand over his face, staring up into the darkness. He sensed that several hours had passed, and that there was the sound of only one other person in the room. Knowing without looking that it was Chris, he sighed. Ezra must have gotten wrapped up in a game, which would mean that the money hungry gambler would be difficult, at least, to deal with when they left in a few hours. That would mean Larabee would a royal pain in the ass when Standish started complaining. That would mean that the rest of them would have a hard ride home.
Shifting off the bed silently, the sharpshooter slipped on his shirt and padded out of the room. Going to the landing, he frowned as he saw the table below empty. Returning to the room, he pulled on his boots and strapped on his gun before going in search of the missing man.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, he looked around, finding no one but the bartender and three working girls in the big room. Dragging a hand through long, disheveled locks, he tried to decide which of the four people to ask first. Catching the eye of one of the women, he smiled and strode over to where she and the other women were playing cards. Nodding, he said, “Excuse me ladies, but did y’ happen t’ see where m’ friend went… fella with a red coat?”
“Well howdy honey,” a big brunette cooed. “Why y’ lookin’ fer him, when we’re right here. We c’n promise y’ a much better time. Why’n’t y’ come upstairs – “
Smiling, the lean man said, “Much obliged fer the offer, ma’am, but reckon I’ll have t’ pass right now.”
As the tracker moved to turn away, the fragile looking blonde sitting at the table said, “Yer friend went out back a while ago.”
Turning back and smiling at the pale woman, he replied, “Thank y’ ma’am.” Tanner strode through the saloon, going to the back door. If Ezra was still outside, it meant that he was most likely either sick or hurt. Either way, the Southerner was probably in trouble.
Exiting through the back door, he felt the hair on his neck prickle. He caught a glimpse of movement to his right, then felt a breath of icy air that seemed to go right through him. Turning, he studied the dark alley for signs of someone else being there.
“Come with me.”
Vin looked to see a young woman standing at the end of the alley. He couldn’t see anything but her outline, the darkness keeping her features hidden. The bounty hunter hesitated only a moment, then walked toward her. “Y’ know where my friend is?”
“Yes, but you need to hurry, he needs you.”
Finding himself believing the woman, even though he couldn’t explain why, he nodded, following her into the dark street. They moved quickly, Vin trusting her to know her way through the town. He wondered exactly what sort of trouble Standish had managed to get himself into this time.
The woman led him toward a small building at the edge of town, turning toward him as they reached the door. Still in shadow, she said softly, “He is in here.”
Nodding, the sharpshooter followed her.
JD Dunne yawned broadly, scratching his chest through his long johns. Stretching, his body managed to make its needs known. He needed the privy and breakfast. Soon.
Pushing himself out of bed JD pulled on his boots and shirt, padding from the room so as not to wake Buck. Shuffling down the stairs, he found the saloon empty. Sighing as the chances of breakfast any time soon disappeared, he found the back door and, a minute later, the privy.
Exiting a short time later, Dunne caught sight of someone just disappearing around the corner in the dim light of dawn. Deciding that, whoever it was, he might get some information about getting breakfast, he followed. Coming to the end of the alley, he looked to find no one in sight. Frowning as he tried to decide what to do next, he felt a presence behind him. Turning, he found himself looking into a painfully familiar face… one that could not possibly be looking back at him.
“You… you can’t be here.”
Chris woke later than normal, wondering why Tanner hadn’t wakened him. He found himself alone in the room, which meant that Standish had probably not come up at all. And that meant the gambler would be on his nerves by the time they climbed into their saddles.
Stretching out of bed and feeling his still-tired body protest the movement, Chris got dressed and left the room. He found Buck just exiting his room, a frown on his rugged face.
“Mornin’, stud. You seen the Kid?” The big ladies man asked.
Shaking his head, the gunslinger said, “I just woke up. He’s probably with Vin and Ezra, they’re not up here, either. Let’s roust Josiah and Nathan, and get some breakfast. They’ll show up as soon as they smell food.”
Wilmington chuckled and the two old friends moved to wake the other two members of their group. Ten minutes later, four men moved down the stairs, eyes searching the room for signs of the other three. Settling in at the table they had used the night before, they ordered breakfast. Downing two pots of coffee while they waited, the men discussed their plans for the day. As breakfast arrived and was devoured, the foursome found more and more reasons to check the doorway, waiting for signs of the three youngest of their number.
Chris began to get the same, uneasy feeling he had experienced the night before. He couldn’t help but think that the missing members were in trouble and, finally, voiced his worry.
“Ah hell, Stud,” Wilmington scoffed. “They’re probably just checkin’ the town out.”
“Buck, unless you saw something I didn’t last night, there isn’t that much town to see.”
“Well, y’ know it ain’t the size that counts,” Buck leered at the blond.
Rolling his eyes, Larabee said, “Knock it off. I’m telling you, there’s something about this town that has me worried.”
“Well then,” Josiah spoke quietly, his face saying that he trusted Chris’ instincts. “I say we find our brothers and head out as soon as possible.”
They moved outside, splitting into two pairs to search the little town. While Chris and Buck took the far side of the street, Josiah and Nathan took the near side. They checked every building and questioned every person they met. Meeting at the other end of town at mid-day, they discovered that neither pair had had any luck. They did find that the horses belonging to the missing men were still in the livery. This alone told them that their friends were still in town. But nothing told them where they were.
“So where do we look next?” Buck was getting worried now, too. While Vin and Ezra might not think to leave word of their whereabouts, JD would.
Shaking his head, the blond said, “I don’t know. Are you sure we’ve checked at every building? Even the homes?”
“Yeah,” the big man responded, looking at Josiah and Nathan, who nodded in agreement.
With a frustrated sigh, Larabee shook his head. “There’s got to be something… some place… we missed. Unless – “
“Unless what?” Wilmington asked.
“If they were together, and someone recognized Vin…”
“Whoever it was might have taken all three of them,” Nathan finished.
“But how did they get them out of town if the horses are still here?”
“Wagon?” The blond looked around, as if expecting to find an indication of where his friends were.
“Maybe, but it’d be easy to follow a wagon,” Josiah added. “It would be simple for us to catch up with them.”
“You’re right, but what other explanation is there? Buck and I will see if we can find any signs of a wagon leaving this morning. Josiah and Nathan, you keep looking here in town. Stick together, just in case…” Chris didn’t finish his sentence, he didn’t need to.
A short time later the remaining pair of peacekeepers watched as their two friends rode out of town, in search of clues. Nathan turned to Josiah, the big men exchanging a mutual sense of worry with a single look.
Larabee and Wilmington road until mid afternoon, hope dwindling as hours passed without any sign of their friends. Finally, making a complete circle around the little town without finding any sign of wagon tracks, the two men rode wearily back into town. Leaving their horses once again in the care of the livery man, they walked back to the saloon. As soon as they entered, they saw that neither Sanchez nor Jackson were there.
“Maybe they’re still out looking,” Buck said with little conviction.
Shaking his head, Chris said, “I don’t think so.”
Looking at his old friend, Wilmington tried to read the man’s face. The gunman had been quiet, even for him, all day. Barely speaking more than a word or two, something had been weighing on his mind the entire day. “Why don’t you just spill it, and let’s see if we can figure out what’s goin’ on.”
Staring at his friend, Larabee didn’t look as if he were going to reply at first. Then, “I saw someone last night.”
“Who? Bounty hunter?”
Shaking his head, Chris said, “No… at least I don’t think so. The problem was, they stayed in the shadows…”
Ducking his head, embarrassed to admit what he thought he saw, the man in black said quietly, “They disappeared.”
Buck frowned, trying to decide if Chris was being serious. But he knew he was, Larabee wouldn’t joke about something like that. “Disappeared?”
Unable to meet the bigger man’s eyes, the blond nodded. Finally he explained what had happened the night before. When he finished, he finally looked up to see the other man staring at him incredulously. “I know it sounds crazy.”
“Ain’t sure that crazy is the word I’d use, but I can’t say as I believe you. I mean, come one, Chris, think about what you just said – “
“I know what I said!” Larabee jumped up from the table, glaring hard at the other man. “For crissakes, don’t you think I know how it sounds? I’m not even sure I believe it myself.”
“Well then, let’s just forget about it, and get back to lookin’ for the boys.”
“Where Buck? Where can we look that we haven’t already looked? Who can we question that we haven’t already?”
“I don’t know, but I do know that what you’re saying is crazy. We’ve just got to figure out what’s going on, get them, and ride out. Simple as that.”
Chris chuffed a hash bark of laughter. Simple. There wasn’t a thing about their current predicament that was ‘simple’. “So where in this simple plan of yours do you see us looking next?”
“Well, I’m gonna go check and see where Nathan and Josiah are. Then we’ll get us some dinner and figure out what to do next.”
Knowing Buck was going on a fool’s errand, Chris nonetheless said, “we’ll go look for them.”
The two men checked the room their friends had slept in the night before, finding it empty. Then they left the saloon, going out into the late afternoon. They made another trip around the little town, checking with everyone they met. No one had seen… or admitted to having seen… Sanchez and Jackson. Back on the porch in front of the saloon, they stared out into the darkness.
“So, what next?” Wilmington looked at the smaller blond.
Shaking his head, Chris said, “I don’t have any idea. None of this makes a damn bit of sense. Jesus!” The day’s frustrations came out in an explosive reaction, the gunman’s fist plowing into the porch upright.
Watching his friend rubbing angrily at his knuckles, Buck said quietly, “Don’t think bustin’ your hand’s gonna help anything. I’ll go get some whiskey and a rag t’ clean up your knuckles.
Frowning out into the growing darkness, it took Chris a minute to realize that his friend was no longer beside him. He strode hurriedly into the saloon, looking around quickly for sign of his friend. Not seeing the big man, he went to the bar. “Where is he?”
Looking up at the angry man in black, the bartender asked evenly, “who?”
“My friend. We were in here earlier. Where is he?”
Shaking his head, the man behind the bar said, “ain’t seen ‘im. You sure he come in here?”
Pushing away from the bar without answering, Larabee hurried upstairs, looking for his old friend. Finding only an empty room, he came back downstairs, pushing his way through clots of customers as he searched for Wilmington. Finding no sign of the big man, he went back outside, making a complete circle around the building. Coming back to the porch in front of the saloon, he leaned against the wall, scrubbing a trembling hand across his face. What the hell was going on?
Chris Larabee stared out into the darkness, feeling more alone than he ever had before.
Vin reached out his hand, trying unsuccessfully to find some clue as to where he was. He remembered following the woman into the little house, and then…
His next memory was of waking to absolute darkness, chilled to the bone and confused. Reaching out as far as he could in all directions, he found nothing but damp, cold stone. He tried standing, finding that a low ceiling, made of the same stone as the rest of his prison, kept him from straightening all the way. That same stone blocked him into an area so small that he could neither stand nor lay down.
The reality of his situation began to sink in, leaving him trembling and gasping for air. A frightening sense of terror took hold of him, sending his mind reeling at the thought of being trapped. Eternal moments passed as he fought the overwhelming panic, then sent him screaming and pounding his fists on the unrelenting stone.
“LET ME OUTTA HERE! GIT ME OUTTA THIS FUCKIN’ HOLE! SWEET JESUS, LET ME OUT!”
His screams continued for long hours until, exhausted in both mind and body, he collapsed in a shivering, whimpering heap. “Oh… damn… le-le-let me out. Please… let me outta here.”
Larabee stood staring out into the darkness, uncertain as to how long he had been trying to find answers in the shadows. Leaning against the saloon wall, he found his mind reeling with questions, conjecture, and fears. No sign of his men… his friends… his brothers of the gun. No idea of where they were or why they had disappeared.
Nothing made sense.
A heavy roll of thunder brought his attention back to the present. Frowning, he watched lightening dance across the heavens. The wind blew brisk, smelling of rain, and the blond moved reluctantly inside as the first raindrops fell. Crossing into the saloon he frowned at the presence of more than two dozen people. He couldn’t remember hearing or seeing more that three or four enter the building while he stood on the boardwalk. Staying to the edge of the room and walking through the shadows, he moved to a corner table, sitting with his back to the wall. The memory of the night before, and the shadowy figures he had seen in the dim light came to him, and he shivered.
One of the barmaids brought over a bottle of whiskey and a glass, smiling tiredly down at him before turning away with a coin in her hand. He watched her move back to the bar, then turned his attention to the others scattered around the big room.
The sound of thunder and the crack of lightening grew, drowning out most of the sounds in the saloon. Light flooded the darkness with each strike, and he took advantage of the illumination to observe the staff and patrons. What he saw made him doubt his sanity.
“JD?” Buck leaned down over his young friend, gently stroking the long, black bangs back from the pale face. He could see the movement of the young man’s eyes, but the lids remained closed, just as they had since he had first found the boy. He knew only that he had entered the saloon for whiskey to clean Chris’ knuckles. Inside, he spotted what looked like young Dunne’s bowler at the back of the saloon. He had dashed through the room, following it out the back door. The next thing he remembered was waking up.
Wilmington straightened, once again looking around him at the room he had awakened to find himself in. There were no windows, and the single door was bolted from the outside. He had tested it as soon as he had been able to stand, beating on it until he was sore.
There were two beds and a chair in the room, along with a small table holding a pitcher of water and two glasses, but that was it. He had awakened on one of the beds and had found Dunne out cold on the other. That had been hours ago, according to his pocket watch, and there had been no indication that anyone was beyond the locked door during that entire time.
What worried the big man most was the fact that, in all that time, JD had yet to wake. Occasionally he moaned or twitched, but beyond that the young man could have been dead. A thought that Buck wouldn’t… couldn’t… entertain. They would be all right, and they would both get out of this mess.
But lord, he wished he knew where the other men were.
Ezra Standish groaned, rubbing a hand over his aching eyes. Opening them, he found himself surrounded by pitch blackness, unable to see even the faintest glimmer of light. Gasping, he fought down terror as his first thought was that he had been stricken blind. But then some sense kicked in, telling him that it was an absence of light rather than one of sight. Taking a deep breath, he slowly calmed down, only to become agitated when he discovered he was trapped in a small space, barely large enough for him to lie down in. reaching out, he found he could touch walls without extending his arm. They were soft to the touch, satin soft.
“A coffin,” he gasped finally. “Oh my God, I’ve been buried alive!”
Josiah sighed and stretched, smiling across the table to where Nathan sat. Between them, covering the wide table, sat the remains of a rich meal. On either side of them, dressed in rich silks and thick velvet, were two of the most beautiful women either of the men had ever met.
The two men had come to the charming little cottage while out searching. Knocking on the door, they had been greeted by the two lovelies and invited in to dine. At first they had declined but, after crossing the threshold, they found the memory of their duty quickly fading. By the time the women coaxed them to sit down, there was only a dim, nagging memory that there had been something important that they had needed to do.
“That was just wonderful, ladies,” Nathan said, smiling broadly at the dark beauty on his left and the pale beauty on his right. “Don’t know when I’ve ever eaten anything so good before in my life.”
“I have to agree,” Josiah said with a nod. He grinned as the blonde beside him offered him a cigar, lighting it for him. Drawing deeply, he sighed. “The perfect end to a wonderful meal. I’d venture to guess that even Ezra hasn’t enjoyed riches like this.”
Nathan nodded in agreement, then a frown crossed his handsome face. “Ezra? What… wasn’t we supposed… Josiah, wasn’t we supposed to be doin’ somethin'… lookin’ for somethin’?”
The older man frowned as well, his blue eyes searching their surroundings before locking with the dark brown eyes across from him. “I… yeah, I think you’re right, brother. But… I… I can’t remember… what was it?”
Between them, the two women looked at one another and smiled.
Chris stared, wide-eyed, at the bar. The lightening flashed, illuminating the big man behind it. Larabee’s breath caught as, instead of the bartender, he looked into the cold, evil eyes of Asa Wykes. The black-hearted owner of the infamous “Wykes Town”.
A dead man.
Wykes stared at him, sending an icy chill through the usually unflappable gunman. Tearing his eyes away from the apparition, Chris looked at the other occupants of the bar.
A weary cowboy, leaning against the bar, suddenly became Eli Joe.
A table of card players became Bob Spikes, Sheriff Quince, the Warden at Jericho, and Dicky O’Shea.
Cletus Fowler stood beside the bar, talking to Achilles Thompson.
Cyrus Poplar was playing the upright piano in the corner.
Both generations of Stutz’s ate stew at a corner table.
The room was filled with every man whose life they’d ended since becoming peacekeepers at Four Corners.
And, suddenly, they were all looking at him.
With a strangled, shocked growl, he leapt up, knocking his chair backwards to crash against the wall. His mind spun at what his eyes saw but his brain refused to believe. Every person in the bar had died, either by their hand or due to their actions. There was no possible way that any of them were here now.
Stumbling backwards, drawing his gun in a trembling hand, the usually calm man ran from the room, a single cry leaving him as he did. Larabee staggered out the back door, his mind refusing to function. As he ran out into the rain-soaked alley, he felt hands grabbing at him and then darkness claimed him.
Buck looked up at the sound of something heavy thumping against the door. Crossing the room, he stood beside the door, waiting for it to open. When it remained closed for several minutes, he tentatively tried it, expecting it to resist his touch. Instead, the door creaked open. Pulling the heavy wood back, he was shocked to find his old friend lying in a wet heap on the floor beyond the threshold.
“Ah, Jesus!” Wilmington grabbed the black clad man under the arms and dragged him inside their prison, only vaguely aware of the fact that the door closed behind him. Stretching the lean man out on the floor, he checked for signs of injury. Somewhat confused when there were no signs of any type of hurt, he began peeling off the layers of wet clothing. Chris was soaked through, his flesh icy cold. Lifting the unconscious and nude man into his arms, Buck slipped him beneath the covers on the empty bed. Larabee was pale, every hint of color in the usually ruddy features had been drained. His lips were blue, as was the flesh around his closed eyes.
“Ah, hell, Stud. What happened to you?” Buck searched through the soaked duster, finally locating Larabee’s silver hip flask. Lifting the unconscious man from the pillow, he slowly fed him some of the whiskey. After a few sips, dazed hazel eyes fluttered open. He grinned, saying softly, “Welcome back, pard.”
“Hey, pa,” Chris whispered breathlessly, using the term he had rarely used during the last few years. “Wh… where are we?”
“Wish I knew. I was chasing down JD… at least I thought that was who I saw in the saloon. Then all of a sudden, I was here. Don’t make a lick of sense.”
The blond frowned, as vague images came to him… dead men, staring at him with pure hatred in their eyes. He gasped as the memories became clearer, bolting upright, caught only by a pair of strong arms.
“Whoa there, son, take it easy.”
Taking a few shuddering breaths, the traumatized man dropped limply against his old friend. He found himself drawing strength and comfort from the big ladies man. Then he moaned softly as the world spun around him. He felt Buck carefully lowering him back to the mattress. “I… I… oh, Jesus, Buck. What I saw… back in the saloon. I… it wasn’t possible.”
Tucking the blankets back around the shivering man, Wilmington said, “just take it easy, Chris. I don’t know what it was that got you in this state, but you need to rest.”
“Can’t… gotta… gotta find the others. Gotta get out… out of here.” He moaned again, one quivering hand emerging from the blankets and grasping at the bigger man’s sleeve. “We… we’re gonna die here… we’ve gotta… gotta…”
Wilmington watched as the smaller man’s eyes fluttered closed, opening back to half-mast and growing black as shock took hold of the usually strong-willed gunman. He took the trembling hand holding on to him, and placed it between his two bigger ones. Rubbing briskly, he said, “Take it easy, pard. I ain’t certain of what’s goin’ on, but you’ve gotta calm down. Now, JD’s here with me, but he’s out cold… from what I don’t know. “
Chris struggled to rise, pushing himself up on trembling arms. “JD?”
Nodding toward the other bed, Buck said, “he’s over there. Been out cold since before I found him. I don’t think he’s been hurt or anything, it’s just like he’s asleep.”
Dropping back to the mattress, the gunslinger groaned. Running a trembling hand over his face, he muttered, “What the hell’s going on here?”
Vin had ceased to struggle, and lay limply on the cold stone. From time to time he moaned softly, unintelligible words muttered in a raspy drawl. Wide eyes stared into the darkness, the pale blue obscured by inky blackness. He didn’t register the light that flowed in as a door opened above his prison. The sharpshooter didn’t even seem to notice it when several pairs of hands reached into the stone room and lifted him out.
Pulled upward into the arms of several murky figures, Tanner was carried through a dimmed corridor to a large room. There, they dropped him unceremoniously on the hard floor.
From a different direction, a group of dusky figures carried a second limp body into the room, depositing it next to the traumatized tracker. The second body, cloaked in a red coat, lay just as motionless. Both men were surrounded by the figures who had delivered them to the room, as well as even more who joined them. Several of the dark and menacing forms broke out of the circle, and lifted first Vin and then Ezra upward. Their clothing was pulled roughly from their upper bodies, leaving them stripped to the waist. Then the two men were bound, spread-eagle, to a network of chains in the middle of the room. They hung limply from the manacles, heads drooping forward.
Two of the shades raised large knives, slicing several times across the nude chests, deep enough to draw blood, but not deep enough to cause serious damage. The entire group watched as first one and then the other man responded to the pain.
Vin groaned, his head coming up as he tried desperately to focus on his surroundings. Some part of his tortured mind realized that he was no longer in the darkness, but he couldn’t gather the frayed threads of his sanity together enough to understand what was happening. Turning, he frowned at the man beside him. “Ez… Ezra.”
The Southerner’s head came up, the smaller man crying out as he registered the pain of the cuts. Then he realized slowly that he was no longer trapped in the satin lined prison that he had feared would be his final resting place. At the sound of his name, he turned toward the familiar voice. Slowly he registered the identity of the man beside him. With a relieved sigh, he said, “Vin.”
Then they both heard it, sounds that made the gathering of their captors scatter, leaving behind them the sounds of excitement and joy. From every direction the two men heard growls, low and menacing. And each sound seemed to be just a little closer.
Buck despaired of ever getting his friend warmed up. Chris seemed to be made of ice and frost, cold down to the marrow of his bones. He had rubbed each stiff hand until he expected the flesh of his own palms to be peeled off. Larabee lay limply on the bed, his eyes opening from time to time as if needing to verify where he was.
Then both men looked toward the door as they heard it being pushed slowly open. Buck frowned as several figures entered. He found that, the closer he tried to look at them, the less he could see. Not letting his mind settle on that fact, he looked back at Chris. Larabee looked as pale as he felt, the blond’s eyes growing wide as they beheld their visitors.
“They need you… need your help,” one of the apparitions spoke, although they couldn’t be certain which one it was.
“Who?” Wilmington stood, putting himself between his friends and the visitors. “Who needs our help?”
“Your friends. .. Vin and Ezra. We were not able to bring them here… they were taken by the Others, instead. They are in danger… grave danger.”
Frowning, Buck said, “Who has them and what danger are they in?”
“Doesn’t… doesn’t matter,” came a weary voice from behind him. The big man turned to see Larabee struggling to push himself up from the bed, heedless of his nudity.
Trying to coax the blond back down to the bed, Buck said, “Now hold on, stud. We don’t know who… or what… they are. We can’t go runnin’ off just cause they want us too.”
Shaking his head, Chris said, “No… no, we can… trust them. We’ve got to go save them… save Vin and Ezra.”
Looking into the clearing eyes, Buck knew… knew… that what his old friend said was true. Nodding, he said, “all right. But you’re not in any shape to be running around, and JD isn’t even conscious yet. I’ll – “
Shaking his head, Larabee interrupted. “No, I’m going … JD can – “
“We will care for him. You must go, quickly.” The figure broke in.
Nodding, the gunslinger moved to retrieve his clothing, only to find Buck already holding it out for him. It was still damp, but unless he wanted to affect a rescue in the buff, it would have to do. Struggling to slip his gun belt around his narrow waist, he took it as another sign that these… whoever they were… were on their side. Each of them retained their firearms.
Leaving Dunne with two of the beings, Chris and Buck slipped out of the room, following the others down the dimly lit hallway. They passed to the outside, the only indication of that being the damp feel and smell of the air. They moved in utter darkness, at the complete mercy of these strange figures.
Larabee questioned his sanity, while at the same time following behind the others. Nothing made sense and he had ceased trying to decipher it. He was moving on gut instinct alone now, content to simply be moving, doing something to find the others.
Buck walked close beside Chris, occasionally reaching out to steady the smaller man. He wasn’t certain how the blond was staying on his feet, but suspected that it was pure grit alone. Chris Larabee was not a man to give up on his friends, and no friend surpassed the bond he shared with Vin Tanner. He would move until he simply stopped breathing, falling on his face as the last breath left his body. And even then Buck’s suspicion was that his body would still attempt to move. It was what had kept them all going on more than one occasion. He hoped that this wouldn’t be the last time that would be true.
They could feel a closeness, and both men realized that they were along side another building. Their guides led them toward the far end of the nearest wall, then stopped. One of them lifted a hand, silently opening a door before beckoning the two men forward.
Grabbing hold of his friend, Buck said, “Hold on there, pard. I don’t like this. We ain’t got a clue – “
Wilmington was cut off as both men heard it at the same time, snarling, vicious noises somewhere ahead of them in the darkness.
Josiah leaned back on the settee, sipping the golden liquor in the crystal glass he held. He smiled across to where Nathan lounged on a second couch, drawing deeply on a fragrant cigar. His smile was returned by the dark man. Then both men turned to the two women who had been catering to their every need for hours. The pale blonde in the rich velvet dress giggled as she perched on his broad lap.
Sighing deeply, the oldest peacekeeper wrapped on big arm around the slender waist, pulling her closer to him. She leaned forward, pressing her full lips to his. His hand strayed from her waist, coming to rest on one curvaceous hip. “Oh, darlin’, you are the best thing I’ve tasted for a long time.”
While the big man fondled the blonde, his friend was being just as playful with the dark-skinned, silk-draped beauty. She leaned against him, brushing her ruby-coated lips across his jaw to his ear. Taking the lobe into her mouth, she sucked at it, then tugged at it playfully with her teeth. He let out a sharp breath, his fingers stroking through her thick hair.
From time to time a faint worry would nag at one or the other of the men, as something tried to make itself known to them. But, just as memory would try to push to the forefront, their minds were clouded with the scents of jasmine and honeysuckle.
A sound came to Nathan, causing him to pause, tilting his head to listen. It came again, a knock at the door. He frowned up at the woman who was just loosening the ties at the top of her dress. “Shouldn’t you answer the door?”
“Why? It’s not important. Only you and I are important, my love. Now, lean back and let me – “
the knock drew Jackson’s attention once more. “I’m sorry… it could be… it could be important.” He struggled to focus his mind, then struggled to pull himself from her grasp.
“No!” She grabbed at him, trying to stop him from going to the door. “You can’t!”
Shrugging off the woman’s clawing hands, the big healer stumbled to the closed door, needing all of his strength to open it. He was barely aware of the dark beauty screaming behind him. Forcing it open, Nathan was shocked to see several vague, indescribable beings beyond the threshold. He leapt back, eyes wide with shock. “Josiah!”
Sanchez struggled to pull himself back to the here and now from the headiness of where the blonde’s lips and perfume had taken him. Slowly he managed to focus, and fought off the woman’s grasping hands to rise. As if moving through mud, he forced himself to move across the room, stopping beside his friend. Both of them looked to see the mysterious figures entering the room. Sensing they were facing goodness, the holy man said, “What do you want of us?”
“Nothing. Your friends are in need of your help. You must go to them… now.” The words seemed to come from all of them and none of them.
“Friends… oh my Lord!” Suddenly a wild kaleidoscope of images sent the older man’s mind reeling. Chris… Vin… Buck… JD… Ezra… where were they? “We’ve got to find them!”
“NO! You must stay here!”
The two men turned toward the voices, their two hostesses crying out to them as they tried to leave. They were shocked to see the transformation that was taking place before them. Both women had gone from the charming and sultry temptresses to angry, spiteful crones.
“What the hell?” Jackson staggered back, crashing into the open door. He barely felt Josiah grab hold of his arm, pulling him toward the exit. They could feel invisible hands grasping at them, trying to halt their progress. Both men fought valiantly, finally managing to cross the threshold to join the beckoning figures.
“You must hurry. They are in danger.”
Knowing instinctively that the beings they were following were safe, Josiah ran hard behind them, pulling Nathan behind him. Their rescuers glided along the ground at a much faster rate of speed than they should be able to, and moved effortlessly through the darkness. After several breathless moments they found themselves halted behind the others. Suddenly an opening appeared in the shadows, a faint glow beckoning them forward.
Josiah turned to the forms they had followed. “What’s going on? Are they in there? Are our friends in there? What’s going on? Tell us! What’s happening to our friends?”
The preacher got his answer, but not from the source he expected. In the distance, he heard the frightening sounds that had beckoned Chris and Buck earlier. The sounds of violent, vicious growls.
Vin strained to see through the darkness to see what it was that was coming toward them. It seem that, with each breath he took, the sounds were nearer. But, even when the snarling creatures seemed to be right in front of them, he could see nothing. He chanced a look toward Standish, only to find the gambler looking at him with the same expression of confusion and fear.
And then he felt it. Something bit him. he looked toward the spot, shock keeping him from feeling the pain quite yet. Amazed, he watched as fresh blood welled up in two wide arcs on his side. Groaning as the pain made itself known then, he arched back as far as his bonds would allow.
“Jesus… VIN!” Ezra cried out, pulling on his own bonds as he struggled to reach his friend. The chains held firm, leaving him with nothing to do but watch as a second broad wound appeared on the lean frame. Then his attention was ripped violently away as he was attacked as well.
Chris and Buck heard the screams, knowing instinctively that they belonged to their friends. Hurrying forward as quickly as they could in the faint gloom, they prayed they were on time to save the two men. It seemed an eternity before they came to the end of the corridor, which opened up on a large, shadowy room. Stopping before they revealed themselves to whoever… or whatever… was secreted in the cavernous space, they probed the faintly lit place, searching for their friends.
Guided by the cries of the two men, Larabee and Wilmington found the missing men. They turned to one another with shocked expressions.
“What the hell?”
The man in black had no answer for his friend, his gaze turning back to watch the two men. Both were thrashing about, held upright by heavy chains. The frightening growls continued, seeming to be coming from the area surrounding the men. The entire scene defied explanation. But it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they had found two of their friends.
Now they just had to save them.
The two beings guarding JD hovered near him, their presence keeping him safe. One of the protectors settled near the unconscious youth, a nearly transparent hand reaching out to stroke his stubble covered cheek. Then a voice filled the room.
“You are needed. Your friends need you… you must go to them.”
Dunne moaned softly, his eyes moving rapidly beneath closed lids.
Chris started to move away from their hiding place, Buck grabbing his arm to stop him. The ladies man hissed, “Whoa there, son, you can’t just go out there all piss and vinegar… we don’t even know what the hell’s goin’ on!”
Trying to jerk his arm away from the bigger man, Larabee said, “We can’t just stand here and watch… whatever the hell’s going on. We’ve got to do something!”
“I ain’t arguin’ that, damn it, but what the hell are we gonna do?”
Looking squarely at the mustached man, Chris growled, “save them.”
Through the haze of pain, Tanner managed to focus his gaze on movement coming from one corner of the room. He thought at first that some of their captors had decided to get a closer look at the carnage, but then he realized who he was looking at.
It was little more than a raspy whisper, but the blond’s head snapped up at the sound, and he smiled grimly. With Buck close on his heels, the man in black ran hell bent for leather toward the middle of the room. As they neared the two bound man, they were thrown backwards by an invisible force. From the area surrounding Vin and Ezra came the sounds of carnage, and they found themselves blocked by a shear wall of energy. Very violent, angry energy.
And the dark, shadowy figures who had taken their friends began to move toward them.
Pulling themselves to their feet, the two men turned to face the approaching mob. Lifting their guns, they exchanged a quick glance, knowing that it could be the last time they looked into one another’s face. That glance said it all… despite the pain and heartache, it had been a good ride.
They began shooting into the crowd, dropping one of the figures with each shot. Both of them knew it would never be enough, they would eventually fall beneath the shear weight of attackers. Then a wild cry echoed through the expansive room, drawing their attention quickly. Neither man could help but smile as they saw Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson dashing across the room in long, space eating strides.
The two men joined their compatriots, all four firing into the horde. Even with double the fire power, they knew it would never be enough. With one exception, the Magnificent Seven would fall this day.
Above the sounds of madness, that single word rang out loud and clear. And they did stop… the growls and cries, the shots and the attacking mob. Everything was silence.
Then, an ethereal glow shed brilliant light through the big room, and every eye was drawn toward its source. And what they saw amazed the peacekeepers. There, perched above the crowd on a rough hewn balcony, was the power to end the fight in an unlikely source.
“JD!” Buck screamed the name, panic blanching his handsome face.
“STOP!” Dune called out again. Only it wasn’t exactly the Kid’s voice. And the glow that seemed to wrap around him like a cloak certainly wasn’t normal.
“What the hell’s going on here?” Larabee growled as he sent another of the demons to hell.
No one had any answers, and before anyone could formulate that response, the glow began to expand, until the great room was bathed in its light. As it touched the area where Vin and Ezra continued to be attacked, it faltered, but soon swept that portion of the room free of the darkness as well. As it did, the animalistic sounds of violence were silenced, and the two men hung limply from their bonds.
“Leave. Now. You will be safe… but only for now.” The voice coming from their youngest member informed them.
The foursome moved quickly to where their friends hung, working at the shackles. To their astonishment, the manacles opened, and limp limbs were freed. Exchanging puzzled glances, the men made to leave. Josiah scooped Ezra into his arms, while Nathan took Vin. With Chris and Buck flanking them, they moved toward the exit, shocked to find that their way wasn’t blocked in any way. Half way, Wilmington stopped.
“JD! We can’t just leave you here!”
“JD will be fine… you must go… now,” the voice informed them with Dunne’s mouth.
“Come on, Buck, we’ve gotta go,” Larabee barked, grabbing the man’s arm and pulling him forward.
“But…” the big man felt a nudge, but could find nothing to account for it. Not thinking about it in depth, he turned and followed his companions.
Vaguely they could hear the sounds of the mob rallying beyond the light. Trusting that, whatever had brought Dunne to this place would be able to spirit him safely away, the other six peacekeepers hurried from the room. Moving into the corridor, they found themselves facing the darkness once again. Slowing only a little, they continued down the passage, pushing forward toward where, they hoped, the exit lay.
Reaching the doorway, Josiah and Nathan drew to the sides of the corridor, while Buck slid past to check the darkness beyond. Even though it seemed to the men that hours had passed, there was no hint of light beyond the building, and the heavy scent of ozone spoke of the rain returning. They moved out into the darkness, moving by instinct more than anything else to move away from the danger.
“We’ve got to get these two back to the hotel… get them patched up,” Nathan said,
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Chris felt icy fingers of terror clawing at him at the very thought of remaining in the town any longer than it took to get JD, saddle their horses, and ride like hell…
No. Ride away from hell.
“Chris, ain’t neither of these men in any shape to ride. We’ve got to hole up long enough to let me patch ‘m up.”
“We’ve got no choice,” Buck said softly, right beside the blond.
“Damn it,” Chris growled.
They moved farther into the darkness, suddenly feeling the rain pouring down on them. Faint lights, lanterns inside the various buildings of the town, began to appear. Guided by the glow, they found themselves on the street and headed for the saloon.
The handful of patrons looked up as six men stumbled into their midst. As they watched, two men were carried past them and up the stairs, two more men with their guns held at the ready.
Larabee felt his heart leap in his chest as they passed the strangers. He stared hard at the bartender, nearly falling against Buck as he searched for any signs of the specters he had seen before.
“Whoa, stud,” Wilmington said, reaching out to steady the other man. He frowned as he saw that the color had drained from Chris’ face. The big man kept a hand on the black sleeve, intent on keeping his old friend moving forward.
They made their way up the stairway, heading for the biggest of the three rooms they had taken. While Buck moved to light the lantern, Nathan and Josiah deposited the two unconscious peacekeepers on beds. Chris stood near the door, watching for signs of approach. They all turned at the sound of a gasp, looking to see the big ladies man staring open-mouthed toward the third bed.
Indeed, Dunne lay, looking as peaceful as if he had been sleeping there the entire time, on the third bed.
“What the hell is goin’ on here?” Wilmington asked no one in particular as he moved to check over his friend.
“Hell is right,” Larabee said, almost under his breath. “Nathan? How soon?”
“Ain’t for certain, they’ve both been bitten several times, and lord help us if we come up against what made the marks. I’m gonna need a lot more then what I’m carryin’. I’m gonna need you an’ Buck t’ go round some stuff up. Reckon I’d best make a list.”
Chris had stopped listening. Go? Out there? He couldn’t… wouldn’t… none of them could. It was too dangerous. But, even while his mind was racing with such thoughts, his head was nodding weakly.
Moving from where he was helping the healer, Josiah gripped the gunman’s arms at the biceps. “Chris? Are you all right?”
Even as he felt his knees buckle, the blond whispered, “fa… fine.”
“Come on, sit down.” The big ex-preacher led the shaken man to the room’s only chair and lowered him to it.
Watching from where he knelt beside JD, Buck filled the other men in what had happened earlier. He watched as Sanchez rummaged around in Larabee’s duster and retrieved the man’s flask. Uncapping it, he handed it to the blond.
“You stay here with Nathan, Chris, I’ll go with Buck.”
Chris blinked back from the memories that had pulled him in, and turned to the bigger man. “What? No… no, Josiah, Nathan will need your help. I’ll go.”
A short time later, Nathan had finished his list and turned it over to the two men. Three pairs of eyes were on Larabee, watching every move the pale man made.
“I’m all right,” he grumbled as he and the big ladies man moved cautiously from the room.
In the corridor, both men were relieved to see that it was empty. They slipped along the carpeted passageway, each step sounding like a heavy thud to the nervous men. At the head of the stairs, Chris stopped, keen eyes scanning the room beneath them for signs of danger. After each flash of lightening, he watched the faces of the bartender and customers, seeking any sign of the faces of the dead men he had seen before. After the fourth flash, he decided that, what he had seen then must have been a product of his own imagination. With a soul deep sigh, he shook his head and waved his friend forward.
The two men walked down the stairs, ignoring the curious looks of the others as they left the saloon. They crossed the street, heading for the faintly seen general store. A single lantern showed them the inside of the building, shelves filled with a variety of goods. Chris rapped sharply on the door, peering inside for signs of the proprietor. After a few seconds, he knocked again. The third time, he pounded, frustration creeping across his handsome features. When he started again, Buck fully expected to see the glass of the door shatter.
Larabee glared at the gray-haired man who peered across the room from a door at the back. “We need supplies!”
“I said, we’re closed!”
Wilmington grabbed old of the blond’s arm before he plunged a fist through the door and explained, “We’re real sorry to disturb you, sir, but we’ve got some injured friends… it’s an emergency.”
They watched the man consider the comment for a minute, but finally he shuffled across the store, and threw the bolt on the door. Opening it with a creak, he said, “You’d best be tellin’ me th’ truth.”
Brushing past the man with only a slight glare, Chris walked into the room. “We need supplies to fix our friends up.”
” We’ve got a list,” Buck said helpfully, pulling the piece of paper from his pocket.
While the ladies man and the store owner moved about, filling the order, Chris stood at the door, watching the darkness beyond. He wondered where the creatures who had kidnapped them were, and why they hadn’t seen any sign of pursuit. Of course it wasn’t the only thing he questioned. None of it made sense, and he knew that, if they managed to break free, they would ride away with more questions than answers.
He looked to see Wilmington standing beside him, his arms loaded down with burlap bags of supplies. Nodding, he opened the door, and the two friends walked out into the storm once more.
They returned to the room without any problems, delivering the goods to the healer. Chris settled in at the door once more, determined to make certain they weren’t attacked. Behind him, Nathan and Josiah kept busy cleaning and bandaging the broad wounds on Vin and Ezra’s bodies, while Buck kept a vigil beside the sleeping Dunne.
Everything was quiet. But Larabee had a bad feeling that it was only the calm before the storm.
Morning. It had to be morning, but there was little sign of the sun as the weary men peered out the windows of the room.
Vin and Ezra lay peacefully, their wounds cleaned and bandaged, dosed with laudanum and covered to the chin in blankets. JD continued to sleep the sleep of the innocent in the third bed, looking none the worse for wear for all that he had been the vessel of whatever power had aligned itself with them against the darkness.
“We’ve got to go.”
The words, spoken softly to no one in particular, filled the room. The other three conscious men looked at the speaker. Only one of them could remember ever seeing him look so drawn and pale before, and he hoped to never behold the sight again.
“Chris, it’s still rainin’, and Vin and Ezra need rest. We still don’t know what’s goin’ on with JD, either. Them folks… whoever they were… that attacked us surely would’ve found us by now if they’d had a mind to. Seems to me the safest place for us all right now is here.”
Larabee looked at the dark healer. He looked at Josiah and Buck, seeing the same look on their faces. None of them seemed to understand. “No! We’ve got to go. Now!”
Only Buck knew what had caused the outburst. He remembered Chris’ tale of seeing the ghosts in the saloon, but knew that, other than in his imagination, even the blond knew the ghosts weren’t real. “Look, pard, I know you think you saw something down there --”
“There was no think about it, damn it! I saw what I saw!”
“Care to enlighten us?” Josiah stared from one to another of the arguing friends.
“Chris thinks he saw the ghosts of the fellas we killed or caused to be killed, and – “
“Shut the hell up, Buck!”
“What did you see?” Josiah turned to Chris, cutting off any further comment from the dark haired former lawman.
Scrubbing a hand over his face, the blond said, “Don’t you start, too.”
“I want to know… what did you see?”
Larabee described his experiences in the saloon to the big man. As he finished, he looked into the older man’s face, expecting to see disbelief there. He frowned when all he was compassion. “You believe me?”
Nodding, Sanchez said, “I don’t see any reason to doubt you, brother. I have seen… things… people… that I couldn’t explain rationally. Sometimes we just have to take things on faith.”
“Ain’t had any of that for a long time,” the gunslinger breathed sadly
“Well, there’s no time like the present to work on restoring it.”
Chris couldn’t help but smile at that, shaking his head at the smile Josiah bestowed on him.
“So, what do we do?” Nathan asked from where he sat on the edge of Ezra’s bed. He was feeding the sleeping man spoonfuls of water. The former slave had learned some time ago that the spiritual man knew more about faith – and the lack thereof – than anyone he’d ever known before. He had also learned to trust the other man’s instincts.
“We get out of here.”
If only it could be that easy.
The darkness lightened only a little, leaving the world with a gray cast that matched the moods of the men. While Josiah and Nathan stayed with the unconscious men, Chris and Buck once more left the safety of the room.
The saloon was quiet, only the bartender and a couple of the working girls present at the moment. Wilmington nodded, smiling at the women, while Chris refused to look at any of them. They moved out onto the street, the continuing rain causing the street to be deserted.
Reaching the livery, they retrieved their horses and borrowed a wagon. They needed to move fast, but the wagon would be the best way to transport the injured and unconscious men. Returning to the saloon, they left the animals and wagon outside, moving back into the dimly lit room.
The room had filled in the short time they had been gone.
“Damn,” Wilmington muttered as he pushed through the mass of humanity. Turning, he realized that Larabee was no longer with him. Frowning, he looked to see that Chris was still at the doorway, staring around him with eyes wide. Moving back, he grabbed hold of the black sleeve, tugging on it. “C’mon, son, let’s get back upstairs.”
Tearing his eyes away from the people surrounding them, the blond managed to nod. Following on Buck’s heels, he moved through the room. As they reached the stairway, he turned to look back into the room. “Oh, Jesus.”
Looking back Buck tried to see what had caused the other man’s exclamation. Seeing nothing, he turned back to the blond. “What?”
Chris looked at his old friend as if the rogue had lost his mind. “What the hell do you mean, where? There!”
Wilmington saw the bartender, the working girls, and a variety of patrons.
Chris saw Bob Spikes, Cletus Fowler, and any number of dead men in the faces of the people in the saloon. And they were all looking his way.
Buck saw his friend sway and grabbed hold of his arm, pulling the smaller man up the stairs and down the hallway. As they entered the room, he pushed the blond to the chair. Turning to the others, he said, “We’ve got the horses and a wagon outside. We can get outta here, now.”
“No… no we can’t.”
They turned to look at Larabee, varying degrees of confusion on their faces.
“What do you mean we can’t?” Wilmington bellowed, heedless of the fact that even Dunne flinched at his tone. “You were the one all hell-bent t’ get outta here, and now you’re gonna say we can’t?”
“They won’t let us,” the man in black explained, unfazed by his friend’s tone.
“Who won’t?” Josiah asked softly, coming to stand before the gunman.
“They won’t. Spikes… Fowler… all of them. They won’t let us pass. They’ll kill us.”
“Then we go around – “
Shaking his head, Chris said, “won’t matter. They’ll know. If they don’t stop us… the others will.”
“Others? The ones who took us,,. The ones that injured Vin and Ezra? How do you know?”
Shrugging, the black clad man said, “I don’t. It’s just… just a feeling.”
“Well, I say that, if we’re gonna have to face them anyway… might as well do it head on and now.” Buck said, moving to lift JD into his arms, blankets and all.
Josiah and Nathan exchanged looks, then faced Larabee.
“Seems like the only way,” Nathan said with a shake of his head. He pulled Vin into his arms.
Lifting Ezra from the bed, Josiah looked deeply into their leader’s eyes. “It’s the only way.”
With a sigh that sounded more like a moan, Chris nodded in agreement and pulled himself from the chair. Pushing past the three men and their burdens, he moved into the corridor. Pulling his Colt, he led the way toward the head of the stairs.
He had led his friends into hell. The least he could do was to try to lead them out.
Reaching the top of the stairway, Larabee stopped, surveying the room below. The crowd had ceased the pretense of being the patrons and staff of the saloon. They stood in a loose cluster, staring upward at the group of men, their features devoid of expression. To everyone but Chris.
The blond made a strangled sound, nearly falling to his knees. He struggled to maintain his balance, holding tight to the railing. They were all looking up at them… at him… with murder in their colorless faces.
“Chris?” Sanchez’s voice was heavy with concern.
“I’m… I’m okay,” the gunman managed to say through tightly pressed lips. He stood staring down into the gallery for a full minute before he began his descent. Each step seemed to be harder to take, as if he were pushing against a brick wall. By the time he was at the halfway point, it seemed to take every thing in his power to move at all. Behind him, the others moved slowly as well, their movement slowed by the man in black’s hesitant movements. Then Chris stopped once more, and he looked past the gathering.
Stopped now as well, the others followed their leader’s gaze. They all saw the slowly growing light, coalescing beyond the supernatural gathering. Then it began to move forward, expanding and pushing the dual featured gathering away from the stairs.
The others heard the shocked cries of the saloon dwellers as they were forced toward the edges of the room by the growing radiance. Chris heard the angry voices of the dead.
The illumination touched the stairway, and Larabee felt the heaviness leave the air around him. He moved forward with lighter steps, moving quickly to meet the light. The others moved with him and within seconds the group of men found themselves bathed in the peaceful light. They walked through the saloon, the others held at bay.
As the light grew more intense, Chris felt something surround him and, as it did, he felt a sense of peace overcome him. He looked around, took in the faces of the others, and saw the same peace fill their features.
Then, once again, the presence utilized their youngest as a means of communication. While the young man lay limply cradled in the arms of his friend and surrogate big brother, he showed no signs of being consciousness. Still, the young man spoke.
“You must go. We cannot hold them off for long… they are too strong. You are not out of danger yet. You must hurry.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Chris Larabee growled.
They moved quicker, clearing the doorway and re-grouping on the boardwalk. The rain continued, water running from the overhang to add to the growing river that had once been the street. They moved to the wagon and managed to get the injured peacekeepers into its bed. Just as Nathan climbed into the bed along with them, they heard a growing noise. Turning, they saw the black-robed figures moving toward them.
“Damn it! Nathan, get up there on the seat and get them out of here!” Larabee sounded more like himself than he had since they arrived in town.
“Chris – “ the dark man started to protest.
“Go! You need to get them out of here! We’ll hold them off!”
Jackson looked at the other three men, his dark eyes showing his dilemma. He had not desire to leave one trio of friends, but recognized the truth in Larabee’s words. The other trio needed him in order to survive. Nodding once, he climbed onto the bench seat and grabbed up the reins. As he coaxed the horses to move, he called over his shoulder, “watch your backs!”
The trio of peacekeepers walked into the middle of the street, facing the dark-garbed mob that moved toward them with a slow and deliberate stride. As one, the men pulled their sidearms and retrieving their rifles from the boots of their saddles, then stood shoulder to shoulder against the approaching threat.
Josiah began to pray, his deep voice soft and low, as he stood to one side of the man in black. Buck stood on the other side, taunts coming from the big man as he watched the mob coming their way. Between the two bigger men, Chris Larabee stood silently, glaring at the strange figures.
Nathan drove the horses as hard as he could, through the pouring rain. As they approached the edge of town, he felt a heaviness in the air, as if the town itself was trying to hold onto them. He shook his head as that thought crossed his mind. Chris’ strange behavior had to be affecting him, it was the only explanation.
The horses whinnied and neighed, growing more and more agitated with every step they took. They seemed to feel the restraining force as well, bucking and thrashing against it as if their lives depended on it. And the dark healer feared that perhaps they did.
After what seemed an eternity, the team and wagon barreled across the invisible demarcation of the town’s edge. Within a few yards the horses stumbled to a stop, their heads dropping almost to the ground and their sides heaving. Behind them, the big man slumped in the seat, trembling with exhaustion as he fought to overcome the ordeal of the escape from the bizarre town. Finally managing to lift his head, Jackson stared around him. His eyes grew wide, and his mouth opened in shock and surprise.
“What the hell?”
The battle was in full force. The three men fired into the advancing crowd rapidly, felling one after another of the mysterious figures. But, for every one they dropped, two more seemed to take their place. And as the number was joined, they drew closer to the peacekeepers.
And as they drew closer to the three men, they knew that it was less and less likely that they would survive the attack. The mob only grew larger, despite the deadly aim of the men. They wouldn’t stand down, though… wouldn’t run from the dark figures. They would fall before them if it meant their friends would be given a chance to survive.
Suddenly Chris felt a sense of calm flow through him and a wordless message was delivered with a certainty that went beyond understanding. “They’re all right. Nathan’s gotten them out of town. It’s all right.”
Josiah and Buck turned to the blond, Wilmington with a look of incredulousness and Sanchez with a look of acceptance. Then as one the men turned from the advancing threat. They leapt onto their horses and spurred them forward through the mud. Behind them, the dark robed figures sped their attack, shrill screams of rage filling the air. The sound could be heard even over the rolling thunder, and seemed to follow the retreating men down the sodden road.
The three men felt the growing force as they rode, the oppressive feeling of something dragging at them… pulling at them in an effort to keep them with the confines of the little town. The horses neighed and whinnied shrilly, dancing with fear as they fought the unearthly grasp of the town. Their headlong rush was slowed more and more until they struggled to keep their feet under them, stumbling along the muddied street with more and more difficulty. Just as it seemed that the vile force would win after all, the men broke through the unseen barrier.
And there was light.
And their friends.
Three exhausted men dropped from equally exhausted horses. They stumbled forward toward the wagon. Nathan stood leaning against the bed, a look of relief filling his handsome face. With a broad grin he said, “’Bout damn time y’all got here!”
They had traveled a few miles, moving slowly to save their animals. As soon as they were at a distance Larabee felt was safe, they stopped beneath a broad glade of thick leaved trees. Picketing the weary animals, they pulled Vin and Ezra from the bed of the wagon to settle them on the warm, thick carpet of grass. JD had begun to come around and managed to climb down with Buck’s help. The big ladies man settled the groggy young man beneath a tree, leaning him against the broad trunk.
JD looked around him, blinking owlishly at the other men. He seemed to be only partially aware of what was happening, fumbling as Wilmington handed him a canteen. The bigger man squatted down beside him, steadying the container for his friend as the young sheriff managed a few swallows of the lukewarm liquid.
Nearby, the others were busy with their wounded comrades. Neither man gave any signs of regaining consciousness, nor did they respond to the ministrations of their friends. Nathan and Josiah carefully unwound the bandages, cleaned the angry looking wounds, and re-bandaged them. Leaving the men to rest, they turned to making a camp. None of them would be in any shape to travel for a while. Sitting around the campfire a short time later they soaked in the warmth and the feeling, after what seemed a lifetime, of peace.
While Ezra and Vin continued sleeping, JD was strong enough to join the others. He sat looking pale and shaken, and had spoken only a word or two in response to something one of the others said. The others began to grow concerned that there was more wrong with their youngest member than they thought.
“Kid… JD?” Wilmington spoke softly, his words filled with concern. “What’s wrong?”
His brows knitting in a frown, the young man shook his head. “Don’t know… it’s just… I… I don’t know.”
“Y’ hurtin’ anywhere… feelin’ bad?” Nathan asked.
“No… it’s not that. I don’t hurt… it’s just… I feel… strange. I can’t explain it… can’t make it make sense… not even to myself.”
“Why don’t you try,” Josiah said gently.
“You’ll all think I’m crazy… maybe I am,” Dunne answered.
“No… we won’t.” The others turned to look at the speaker. Chris Larabee was staring at JD with an expression of compassion. “After the things we’ve seen… I’ve seen… nothing would be a surprise.”
JD looked at the blond for a full minute, his foggy mind refusing to wrap itself around the thought that, of all his friends, Larabee would be the one to accept the strange tale he was afraid to tell. But then he looked deeper, and realized that, on some level, Chris already knew.
“I don’t remember much of anything after… after I came out of the privy. I was looking for somewhere to get some breakfast, and… and I saw… I saw… her.”
“Miss Annie… Annie Cooper… the lady I – “
“We know who she is, son,” Josiah said compassionately.
“She told me that… that I was needed… that there was something important I was needed for. I went with her, even though I couldn’t believe it. I mean… she’s… she’s dead for God’s Sake!” He stopped, rubbing a trembling hand across his face. Calming enough to continue, he said, “I followed her, and we went to this… place. I can’t describe it. It was like there was fog all around it, and I could barely see it. We went inside… I… it gets fuzzy after that.”
Giving the younger man a few minutes, Chris finally said, “What else, JD?”
With a deep sigh, the young man said, “It was just bits and pieces after that for the most part. Except… except she stayed near me… talked to me… almost like she was protecting me.”
“What did she say?” Buck wasn’t certain he believed any of it, but he was having a difficult time believing anything that had happened over the last few days.
Looking at his friends with a tearful expression of amazement, he said, “She forgave me! I shot her… killed her… and she forgave me. I don’t understand! How could she… why would she do that?!?”
Dropping a big hand on the youngest peacekeeper’s shoulder, the former preacher said softly, “Perhaps because she knows you still haven’t forgiven yourself, John Dunne.”
Shaking his head, JD drew his knees up under his chin and wrapped his arms around his legs. He closed his eyes, but that couldn’t stop the hot tears from flowing. Haltingly, he said, “She told me she knew I hadn’t meant to… that I wouldn’t have hurt her intentionally. My God, I stole her life… took her away from her daughters… and she forgave me!”
The other men could only look at him, unable to offer him any words of support or encouragement, simply because they couldn’t find any words that would suffice. Finally they simply sat there, offering him their presence.
Chris broke the silence a while later. “I don’t know what the hell happened back there. But I do know that there were… forces… at work that we can’t begin to understand. All I can say son is believe it… whatever you remember, it was real.”
“But how! How can what happened… what you saw… what happened to Vin and Ezra… how can any of it be real?!” Wilmington’s patience was gone, his confusion and disbelief spilling over into anger.
“I don’t know,” Larabee’s voice expressed the monumental weariness that had leeched most of the strength from both body and soul. “I just know it was… is.”
“A man named Grellet once said, ‘I shall pass through this world but once. If therefore there be any kindness I can show or any good thing I can do, let me do it now; let me not deter it or neglect it’. Perhaps he was only partially right. Perhaps the urge to help extends beyond this life and into the next. Perhaps those who live virtuously continue to exist so after death.”
“It wasn’t just Mrs. Cooper there, there were others there, too,” Chris interjected. He looked at the others, his haunted gaze settling on his oldest friend. “Sarah was there… and Adam… even Hank. They were all part of… of… whatever it was.”
“What I believe it to be is a very ancient battle. Good versus evil,” Sanchez said.
“Religious mumbo-jumbo,” Wilmington groused, still unwilling to buy into the supernatural explanations being formed around the campfire.
Nathan spoke up for the first time in several moments. “My Daddy was there… an’ so was my Mama. I felt them… sure as I feel the sun on my face. I don’t pretend to understand it, it don’t make any sense at all. But I know what I felt.”
“I sensed my Mother in the light,” Josiah said, a hint of wonder in his voice. Then his voice took on a hard edge as he continued with, “and I sensed my Father in the darkness.”
Buck opened his mouth to protest, but closed it and dropped his gaze to the ground. Quietly he said, “My Ma was there, too.”
The sun was dipping behind the hills when they heard it. The sound of distant, violent thunder. Chris, Buck, Josiah and JD moved to the edge of the trees, leaving Nathan with Vin and Ezra. Looking toward the town they had escaped, they were shocked to see black clouds hovering over it, lightening flashing and flaring above the barely seen buildings.
As they stood there, the storm grew in intensity, until the air around them was filled with electricity, and the sound of thunder drowned out everything else. They watched as the unearthly violence reached a crescendo, a brilliant flash that blinded them all for a moment. As sight slowly returned, they stared at the vacant horizon. The town was gone.
They looked at one another, expressions of confusion, disbelief and shock mirrored on each face. Not even Josiah could find words to mark this occasion.
They stopped trying to figure out what had happened… they stopped talking about it all together. The glade of trees was quiet as each man sat huddled in his own thoughts. As darkness came, they settled into uneasy rest, but didn’t sleep.
Morning brought good news, as first Vin and then Ezra awoke. Both men were in pain, both physical and mental. Their memories of being in the hands of evil were fragmented, but they remembered enough to be more than a little disturbed.
Vin was especially quiet, blue eyes staring into the morning sky as if searching for something. He knew that Chris was beside him, watching over him, but didn’t acknowledge him for some time. Finally he said in a quiet voice, “thanks, cowboy. For savin’ my hide.”
Larabee nodded and took the offered hand in a familiar grasp.
They spent another day in the glade, allowing Vin and Ezra time to gather their strength before heading home. By late afternoon, both were able to sit up and take some food.
Time and again, Chris Larabee found himself drawn to the edge of the trees, searching the landscape for signs of the town he had watched disintegrate the day before. He couldn’t accept what had happened, his pragmatic nature telling him he was crazy.
“You’re not crazy, Chris.”
The blond turned to find Josiah Sanchez standing behind him. “Yeah? Well, it sure doesn’t feel that way.”
“None of us are too sure of that right now, “ the older man assured him. “What happened back there… well… it defies explanation.”
Nodding, Larabee returned to watching the land. Sensing that the other man was preparing to leave, he spoke up once more. “Why me?”
“Why me? Why could I see those… those men? If I could understand that… no, I don’t think even understanding that would make any of this easier.”
“Doubt that it would,” Sanchez agreed.
Turning to face the bigger man, Larabee said, “How can anything make this easier to deal with?”
Shaking his head, Josiah said, “Don’t think anything will. Some mysteries have no explanation.”
Huffing, the man in black said, “that’s comforting.”
“No, it’s not, and I don’t think any of us will find any comfort in this ‘little adventure’, my friend.” With that, the older man walked away, leaving Larabee to his thoughts.
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