At first Buck thought the bright things he saw were like those Marfa Lights he and Chris had drunkenly chased all one night out in West Texas. The roundish orbs had bobbed and eddied and grown. It seemed like they had been playing chase or tag with the two drunken drifters. The stories of ghosts and spirits had added an edge to the adventure, no doubt about it.
But these lights in the darkness quickly became recognizable as torches. They'd caught up. They'd found them. He and Chris slowed their mounts simultaneously and moved cautiously toward the scene. What he saw made him angry.
Ezra was on the back of that swaybacked mare he'd ridden out of town on. His hands were tied behind him and a noose, which was swung over the lower limb of a 60-year-old pecan tree, was around his neck. This particularly large tree was beside the bank. Part of it's roots were exposed in the water from years of erosion. Ezra would sway almost over the water when the horse came out from under him.
Miller and his men were heckling Buck's friend. The horse was gradually pulling away from the rowdy mob and it was slowly strangling the southerner.
A shiver of anger ran down Wilmington's spine. He started to ride into the clearing, but a firm hand on his upper arm held him in check. He turned, but the defiant protest died on his lips when he saw the shrewd, calculating way his partner was studying the scene. Neither one liked what they saw.
And then it was too late. Jason Miller was rearing back with a stick to slap Ezra's mount on the flank. Buck pulled the knife from his boot, held it up for Larabee to see, and in that moment, they both knew the plan.
Buck quickly handed his rifle and revolver to the other man who tucked the pistol in his belt and shouldered, one armed, this rifle instead of his own. The hand still on his arm tightened briefly for luck, for contact, for the good times, the old times. Buck nodded.
Larabee went first. Rifle and side arm drawn, he let them both cough as he spurred his black forward and hit the clearing. He had surprising accuracy. Two men fell, if not to fatal wounds, then to ones that would certainly stop them from firing back.
Buck was only a half a heartbeat behind him as his horse bolted forward with the kick-start. Larabee's unspoken responsibility was to supply cover fire. And the men were scattering from the rain of bullets as a second horse, a gray ghost, bounded at them from the fog.
Kyte Miller, tending the horses to avoid watching the lynching grabbed for as many reins as he could once he registered they were under attack. The horses shied, reared and bolted in reaction to the sudden movement and gunfire.
Miller's men drew their own weapons as they scrambled for cover. Automatically they aimed at the dark specter firing down on them. The black horse pirouetted and reared in response to his master's commands. Larabee rotated, looking for targets; changing from the rifle to his handgun. Finally this gun's hammer, too, fell on an empty chamber. He tossed it aside, drew the one from his waistband and continued the barrage.
Jason Miller put all his rage into the blow he landed on the flank of Ezra's horse. The animal screamed in terror and sprang forward.
Wilmington rammed his own mount into the swayback and was able to kick out and land a glancing blow on Miller's shoulder. As the vengeance hungry rancher fell to the ground, he was already drawing the sawed off shotgun he carried from it's modified holster.
As Ezra slid off the back of the horse, Buck flung himself from his saddle and wrapped one arm and both legs around his friend. The knife in his right hand sliced through the too taut rope and his forward momentum had both men sailing into the rapids.
Jason's feral roar was followed immediately by the blast of his 20 gauge. A split second before he hit the water, Buck felt the multiple pellets bite into the right side of his back and the back of his right arm. Instinctively he knew that the pellets that missed him would have found their mark in the space between his back and his arm. The body of the younger man in his arms would have stopped the rest of the shot.
The shotgun blast sent a ripple of fear through Larabee. He spun in the direction of the sound. That damned Miller let lose with the second barrel.
By that time Buck and Ezra were in the water and being washed down stream. Only an occasional glimpse of Ezra's white shirt gave him any idea of the progress his friends were making in the river.
Miller had taken cover behind a boulder. As much as Larabee wanted him dead, he had learned over the recent months that his first obligation must be to his friends. He didn't know if they were wounded or if they were, how badly. If Wilmington had taken the brunt of the blast, Ezra, with his hands tied behind him would be at the mercy of the raging waters.
With an angry shout that rivaled that of Jason Miller, the dark gunfighter took just enough time to ride into the band's horses and scatter most of them before he spurred the black down steam, maneuvering in, out and over trees, roots and boulders, trying to get a glimpse at his friends.
Buck's gray followed after the black as if it were her place in life. "C'mon, Ezra. Damn it, Buck, give me a sign," he whispered to himself and it was almost a prayer.
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Ezra didn't realize he had closed his eyes to the end until his expectations of sliding over the rump of the horse, maybe some quick pain and then nothing were confounded by a heavy weight hitting him from an angle. He knew the rope went taut; knew he left the horse. He felt a deep burning pain in his side. An adrenaline surge put time into slow motion so that he experienced a sense of free fall before he hit the water. Real time took over then and the surprise immediately turned to panic.
He was under water with no air left in his lungs. Between the noose restricting his airway and the weight that hit him forcing the air out from his chest, he needed to breathe. He couldn't help the panic that overtook him.
Hands tied uselessly behind his back, Ezra began to kick and struggle. There was really no sense of up or down in the wet depths and darkness. He could be fighting his way to the riverbed and certain death as easily as he could be kicking toward the surface.
It was a miracle to his way of thinking, when his face finally broke the surface. At the same time a voice in his left ear gasped between involuntarily taking in mouthfuls of water, "Don't ... fight me - Ezra - I got ... ya ... won't ... let go."
Buck. So the miracle had been the gift of friendship, more amazing and wondrous than he had first suspected when he had sensed simply that he was still alive. He remembered then to open his eyes.
Maybe all of ten seconds had passed in that lifetime between one breath and another. He became aware of a solid form underneath him and the secure weight of Wilmington's arm across his chest. And maybe, just maybe, that meant they weren't completely at the mercy of the white water rapids. There was some control. Very little, he realized as his head was submerged again. With sudden awareness, he knew this meant his friend was floundering beneath the current as well.
The back of Ezra's mind seemed to register shouts and gunfire, but he was focused on the roar of water around him and how surprisingly powerful it sounded. He was also aware that he could hear his own pulse in his ears because the noose around his neck still threatened his blood circulation and oxygen. "Can't ... breath ..," he was able to gasp out when he finally again broke the surface of the water. He prayed that his improved situation meant Buck's head was above the surface as well.
There was no verbal response, except a possible drowned out curse, but the arm across his chest worked its way to the noose and one at his back grabbed the length of rope that did it's best to tangle them in the debris around them and pull them back down. He felt the form beneath him disappear.
Both of Wilmington's hands had to abandon the rope and grab the gambler's shirt to haul him back into a safe hold. The power of the water would rip him from anything less than the two-handed death grip that was keeping him alive. "Best ... I ... can ..," the voice tried to speak. Ezra nodded. The noose was loosened some. He understood. It was enough.
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Only the initial shock of the icy snow-fed waters had registered on Wilmington. Then it was forgotten in the dire struggle to get both Ezra and himself where they could breathe and keep them there. Letting go had not been an option. He had been gratified when the smaller man stopped his struggles and trusted his word to keep him safe.
Buck knew trust was difficult for the younger man, and, too often, even in the security framed in the six men he rode with, that trust had been sorely tested. With his hands tied helplessly behind him and the noose a frightening reminder of how close he had come to death, he at last had responded to Buck's litany of reassurances and relaxed slightly.
Buck had also heard the shouts and gunfire and realized they were fading in the distance. His heart ached to know whether Larabee was safe. He hated to leave his old friend alone against such odds, it went against every instinct and reflex he had. When the notorious gunslinger got vengeance in his head, it would blind him to the danger in the numbers he was facing.
The erstwhile rascal had mentally shaken the thoughts from his mind. He had made his decision. Ezra was his responsibility. They were headed down stream at a frightening pace and head first.
A stair step-like series of rapids plunged the two underwater and pounded against his already wounded back. Standish had struggled to reach the surface, almost pulling himself away from Buck's grasp. Wilmington tightened his grip. When he had heard his friend's laborious voice rasp that he couldn't breathe, the taller man had cursed himself for every kind of fool. Thinking how terrifying the noose must be, he had maneuvered his grip to the rope as quickly as possible. Next he cursed the knife still in his hand. It was useless. He had little or no control over their backward plunge through the river, much less enough control to attempt to use the knife on the noose or the ropes that held his friend's hands.
Loosening the noose ever so slightly had almost cost him everything. When he had moved his hands from the body on top of him to the rope, the force of the water immediately separated him from the other man. He grabbed double handfuls of the once white shirt and felt it give and pull from the other man's waistband. A desperate surge finally got his hand across the chest and under an arm for some grip.
The river was much deeper now than when they'd fished here. The summer thaws up in the snow-covered mountains had seen to that. Only occasionally did a rock scrape his back, head or legs except for the rapids themselves. Unfortunately that also meant they were at the mercy of the current. It would be a painfully slow process to work their way to shore.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee could see his friends mostly as dark areas in the water. Occasionally a part of Standish's white shirt, now discolored by mud and what he feared was blood, would flash and reassure him he was looking in the right place. They were moving faster in the water than he could on horseback as the black had to navigate around the roots and other obstacles.
The gunfighter felt a panic unbidden and barely recognized after so many years. It crept up his spine when he realized it was all the pair could do to keep their heads above water. They would need help in a hurry. The exertion, not to mention the frigid temperatures of the water would sap even Buck Wilmington's stubborn determination. With a whispered cry of frustration, he jerked his horse away from the bank to the cleaner trail above. He hurried to get ahead of the other two men.
+ + + + + + +
Praying he'd given himself enough time and distance, Larabee finally turned Habenero back toward the water. He could hear vague shouts, carried as water carries sound, from the camp they'd recently disrupted, but they were too far away to make out the words. Good. Maybe that meant they had a little time.
Nothing had seemed more important to the man in black in recent times as getting in position to help his friends. Just as surely as he knew that at any moment Buck could slam into an outcrop and lose consciousness, or his strength could simply give out, he also knew they would both be safe, or neither. It wouldn't be an option to Buck to save himself at the expense of another. At the same time that Larabee damned his old friend for that irrational loyalty, that had saved his own life more than once, he also gave thanks for it because he suspected that it would keep that irritating gambler alive long enough for one Chris Larabee to make things right between the two of them.
This side of the river was much too steep for any hope of getting the others safely ashore. Habanero edged forward cautiously in response to the commands he received. Finally the horse took the vault into the snow-fed current. Wilmington's mare, without the encouragement of a rider, hesitated a bit longer, but in the end, followed after her companion.
Larabee was immediately soaked by the icy waters. Only the black's head and neck were above the water as he struggled toward the other side. Little more than the gunfighter's torso was above the water line and that had been given a good dousing from the splash as their combined weight displaced the water. Even now his shirt was absorbing the water and the moisture was creeping towards his shoulders. He was well aware of how the heat was already being leached from his body and that staying in this for even a short time could be life-threatening. He allowed the black to make its own way; to focus the swim on getting across the river and not using his strength to fight the current that carried them along. The result was that they came on shore further downstream from where they had begun, and several yards from where Larabee would have liked to try and effect his rescue. But the gelding's labored breathing was enough to assure the rider that the recent effort had in itself been enough exertion on the animal.
Larabee felt the black's feet finally gain solid footing on the far side of the river. The water was soon much calmer and when the horse sank several inches down into the fine, muddy silt, he understood why. The mossy, rotten, metallic smell told him the water that backed up here had become stagnant and sour behind a beaver dam-like pile of fallen trees and trash.
Both horses sank deep making their way up the riverbank. The noxious liquid quickly oozed in to fill the depressions. As soon as they made solid ground, the leader of the seven was grabbing the riata off his horse and forming the loop. He strained his eyes in the darkness for a sign of the two men still in the water. How much time had passed? It wasn't long before he recognized the shadowy forms being buffeted at the mercy of the current.
"Buck!" He had no idea if he could be heard over the torrential rush that swept them forward.
As the men got closer, their leader realized that they might finally be getting a break. The long night was over. The gray of pre-dawn showed him more than just the silhouettes of his friends. He prepared to toss the lasso when he noticed something else. Buck was constantly readjusting his hold on the smaller man now. He couldn't keep a grip. With the sudden insight of one who had only recently escaped the frigid environment, Chris knew without a doubt that Buck's fingers were going numb. He was loosing his battle with the cold.
Larabee threw off his duster and hat, secured the end of the rope to Habanero's saddle horn, looped the lariat under one arm and over the opposite shoulder. He dove back into the violent waters and veered his body toward the other two who were already past him.
Buck fought the current. Chris let it drive him forward. With every heartbeat Larabee dreaded the time there would be no more give and the rope would go no further. Using his entire body he ruddered himself toward the others. The next bout of rapids was in front of them. He knew the rope wouldn't reach to follow through that crevice. In one last superhuman effort, the gunfighter lunged forward, his body breaking the surf and skirting the top of the waves faster than the submerged bodies could travel.
With a cry of success, he grabbed the gambler's left leg just above the boot. He pulled the form toward him and walked himself, hand over hand, up toward the other man's thigh and waist. Larabee was very consciously relying on the fact that Wilmington wouldn't let go of his burden. Even if he didn't realize they were closer to rescue or didn't understand what was pulling the smaller man back from the rapids, he would hold on. All the shootist had to do was save Ezra and he would also be saving his oldest friend. Larabee thought things were working out when he finally reached Standish's belt and gained the first grip on his friend that wasn't precarious at best.
Suddenly the pull against Chris' arms lessened. He found himself face-to-face with Standish. The look of terror on the smaller man's face brought home the understanding that this was both of their worst nightmares. Buck's hold had finally betrayed him and he had lost the gambler. Larabee realized that the hold he had on the Southerner which he had expected to save both men, had not been enough.
"Nooo!" Chris Larabee demanded to any and all. Defying nature and gods alike to take either of these men from him, Larabee's right hand twisted in the denim of the long, lanky leg that tried to get past him.
The rope at last pulled taut. The horse would stand it's ground as if it were in a calf roping. They had participated in several such contests in what, at this moment, seemed like a past life.
The rope bit unmercifully into the fleshy part of Larabee's shoulder, half way between his arm and his neck. His wet hair had fallen irritatingly into his face and dripped water in his eyes. He was breathing between ripples that in turn forced water down his throat. His teeth were clenched with the exertion of holding onto the two men the river was trying to steal from him. With a supreme effort, he rotated his right arm downward and behind him. It was a slow process. The water fought for it's prize. "Damn you, Wilmington!" He screamed in frustration, but doubted the sound made it out of his throat. It was one force of nature against another. The river didn't stand a chance.
When Larabee's right arm was finally back to his own waist, it had pulled Buck so that Ezra's head was again in the vicinity of Wilmington's chest.
Until this moment, no words had been spoken. All effort had gone into the battle the three men waged, each as best he could, against the current. "Ezra," Chris gasped. "Can you ... grab Buck?"
The Southerner had already comprehended the situation and had been grasping for anything near a secure grip. He could feel the shirt billowing in the water within grasp of his still bound hands. That wouldn't be enough. But he could just barely feel the wide leather belt his friend wore. "Inch ... two ... Mr. Lar ..." Water cut of the words and the smaller man began to cough violently. Larabee strained to pull Buck closer in to them.
"No," Ezra gasped. "Belt." Larabee did the logistics immediately and realized the gambler was asking him to risk releasing Buck a couple of inches so he could grab a handhold on the belt. He was preparing to trust the younger man to make the catch when ... "Got ... got it." It was Buck. Chris had never heard such a sweet sound.
Ezra nodded reassurance in response to the hopeful look he saw in Chris's eyes. He could feel Buck's fingers wrapped around the back of his belt. Buck's hands were as uselessly numb as were his own, but shoving them between the belt and pants should hold for a time.
So near. So far. "Buck! The rope won't reach!"
"Ezra ..." Buck's voice was weak and tired. "Lean into Chris. Kick ... kick out ... left." Chris knew what they were trying. He prayed the two men had strength left to execute the maneuver and garnered his own strength to help as much as he could. He did his best to help them make the turn that would point their feet downstream and get their shoulders within the reach of the loop. He held Ezra's belt as long as he could until he had to readjust his grip and move it to the man's surprisingly well-muscled arm.
Once they were sideways to the river, the added mass of their bodies gave the current more to push against and made it harder to hold on. Larabee's icy fingers were paralyzed in the grip that would save his friends. He wouldn't let go. He pushed against Ezra's legs trying to complete the rotation as quickly as possible.
Ezra could feel the current was pulling Buck's hands from where he had shackled himself with Ezra's belt. Standish was afraid they would still lose Wilmington. The gambler could no longer speak, too exhausted to even form words. He couldn't warn Chris to help their friend. Then the hands were free and Buck was slipping away as rapidly as the water rushing by.
With a final surge of energy he didn't know he had but knew he had to find, the gambler wrapped his legs around the larger man's back. The youngest of the three slid a few inches as he wrestled the water for Wilmington and for a breath - that he couldn't take because he was underwater - he thought he had been torn from Larabee's grasp. But then he was above the water again, and so was Buck, and Chris' strong hands pulled both of them back to the safety of his firm hold.
When their bodies finally passed the midway point the force of the river itself had finally pushed the two men in the direction they were aiming for and suddenly Chris was resting his forehead against Buck's cheek. The maneuver was complete.
Larabee remembered that a quick, habitual anger had given him the strength to get to this point. He had raged silently at Buck for letting go of Standish when they had been so close; raged that he might lose his friend. But now that he felt the freezing skin of his friend's face and the hands that were fumbling ineffectively to help him with the lasso, the fury washed downstream with the other debris. As usual, these two had lasted as long as they had to to survive and keep each other alive.
Chris allowed himself the moment, the feel of his friend breathing, if harshly, under his arms, to regain his strength. Finally, knowing there was more to be done, Larabee transferred the rope around Buck's shoulders. "Ezra," Buck ordered. "Can't hold ..." And Larabee agreed. He lowered the rope until it was over Ezra's shoulders, which put it at Buck's waist.
"Buck ... gonna work back ... get horse ... pull ..."
He felt rather than saw the dark-haired gunman nod against his neck. "Careful ... Pard," Buck murmured, then the arm that had held him comfortingly around the neck and shoulders was gone. The slight body heat of Larabee's forehead was missed. He could feel the rope jiggle and jerk. It reminded him of the feel of a yellow cat on a trotline before you actually got to that hook. At least it told him that Chris was still there and was working his way back up the rope. Buck couldn't help himself - he held his breath between each jolt to the next. He was afraid he wouldn't feel one, which would mean that Chris had been swept away by a river already angry at losing the night's contest to the formidable gunfighter.
<To hell with it> Buck thought to himself. His hands still weren't working, his fingers wouldn't bend they were so cold. But he wrapped the rope around one arm at the elbow, pulled himself and Ezra up the rope as far as this trick allowed then wrapped his other elbow in the cord above the first one and moved further. He could only imagine how vulnerable Ezra must feel with his hands still tied behind him. He wished to hell he'd kept hold of that knife. He didn't even remember when the thing had fallen from his useless fingers. But soon, now that Chris was here, they'd get that rope off, and the noose. They'd get warm. <C'mon, Ezra> He thought to himself, still too weak to say it out loud, <let's get the hell out of here.>
+ + + + + + +
The river was damned cold for this time of year. The dense pecan, sycamore and oak trees were hiding the sun, though it had to be over the horizon by now. The heat would follow soon enough Larabee thought absently. He didn't have any trouble pulling himself up the rope. He was ready to get out of this damnable river. If this was the only way to do it, then he would get it done.
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Vin Tanner knew without a shadow of a doubt, that no matter what happened from this day forward, certain images had been seared into his memory. And they had been burned there by fear ... a dread he couldn't put into words.
They had left Four Corners when morning was still a promise. They had broken into the clearing not two hours later. Because he'd been studying the ground, the first thing that registered was how beaten down the grass was here. The stutter steps and pawing of several nervous horses had chewed up and rutted the moist ground. Trying to see where the tracks led had brought his eyes to two freshly dug graves above the high water line of the spring floods.
So this is where Chris and Buck caught up with the men who had accused Ezra of murder. His eyes scanned the area for more clues. They fell on Josiah. The tall preacher was off his horse and staring at the frayed remains of a rope hanging in a pecan tree at the edge of the water.
The man was probably not even aware that he rotated a hat through his fingers or that he was still staring at the tree. That was when the first uneasy feeling came to Tanner. It was like a child's game - "What is wrong with this picture?" -- until Vin realized what was wrong. Josiah was wearing his hat. The wide brimmed Stetson he worried at was Buck's.
Vin's eyes had darted around quicker, then, seeking more clues to what had happened here. He was off his horse for a closer look at the ground when he came up to JD. The boy was also on foot. That silly little gelding of his was nudging a shoulder for attention. He had spoiled the animal and so it wasn't used to being ignored so completely.
Their youngest had his back to the tracker. But even so Tanner could read the tension in the shoulders, the frozen stance. The boy wasn't moving. Was it a snake or some threat?
Cautiously the tracker edged past and followed the youngest's gaze. He was staring at the ground. The gun was partially buried in the muddy soil. A few blades of grass that had avoided being trampled by the horses tried to hide it. But when the wind rustled the branches and leaves of the trees, sunlight would sneak down and glint off the front sights. It was Chris's gun.
In the two quick steps it took to get past JD, it was no longer the tracker, but now the bounty hunter trying to read the signs. He picked up the gun and broke open the cylinder. Empty. For better or worse, he noticed from the periphery of his consciousness, that this broke the trance the handgun held over JD. He hadn't really meant to meet their youngest's eyes at this discovery, but he did. There was confusion there and a silent plea for an explanation of why Chris Larabee would leave his gun to the elements. That's what he thought the boy wanted him to answer. But there was so much more. Because, with what seemed a concerted effort, the young sheriff bent his elbow and, with a slightly shaking hand, brought the rifle up for Vin to see. It was Buck's rifle. He had found it nearby. And it was empty, too.
"There are only two graves," Nathan remarked as he and Josiah converged on the other men.
"So what? So only two of 'em are dead? Is that what you're sayin'?" Vin demanded.
JD staggered back a step like the words had been a physical blow. His eyes were wide when he looked back at the graves. "You think ..."
"If Buck and Chris had been too late to save Ezra ..." Josiah's voice was gentle.
"No," JD stated flatly as his eyes cut to the remnants of the rope in the tree. But then he wondered why he was questioning the older men's observations. "They hung Ezra?" He asked in a small voice.
"We don't know that," Vin spat out.
"Chris and Buck would both let vengeance take over their better judgement," Josiah continued. He was voicing his own fears; almost begging for Vin to tell him he'd misread the signs. "If one of them fell, the other would see to the burial of the two, no matter how bad he was hurt."
JD took a step backwards as if avoiding the words would make them go away. But he couldn't run. Vin hadn't said anything yet. He'd set the preacher straight.
But Vin remained silent. It was Nathan who spoke next. "And then he'd go out to kill as many of those ranch hands as he could before they gunned him down."
Nathan believed with all his heart that if these events had unfolded as Josiah feared, then Chris Larabee would have been the one left standing. Larabee would again bury loved ones he couldn't save. Now, or later, in Nathan's mind, Larabee would be one of the last two of the seven standing because fate had chosen to torture him that way. Nathan didn't know the whys of such things, but while some men could fall into money, some were accident prone and some could laugh and get away with stunts that would have most men thrown in jail, hurt and loss gravitated to others and defied them to keep going. Men like Chris Larabee ... and Nathan Jackson.
"You're scarin' the kid," Vin accused.
"Vin, two against eight? Nine?"
"Ezra said he'd never bet against Chris and Buck together. Throwing him in as a wild card? I'm gonna go find 'em."
+ + + + + + +
Vin hadn't looked back since he'd said those words and reined his horse downstream. The others followed silently. No one had looked back at the silent graves.
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