(1:50 p.m. Thursday)
"Mr. Larabee, I believe we have no option, but assent to the demands," Standish urged.
Under a cloud of dread, the six remaining regulators gathered at the sheriff's office to discuss the note that had been left tacked above Padgett's stall, JD's horse, at the livery. Buck was frantic with worry, and paced restlessly while they talked. "Chris, we gotta go after 'im now. Vin can track him," Buck paused and turned to the tracker. "Can't ya?"
"Buck, JD was taken some time this morning. There's been a lot of traffic stirring up the tracks all morning. Hell, we'd be lucky iffen I even managed to find a clue 'afore Ezra hadda meet with Morris at the tryst point tomorra at four."
"That's strange, don't cha reckon? Meeting at four?" Wilmington swivelled around to access each of his fellow lawmen's reactions. "Ya'd reckon he'd want ta make the swap early, not late in the day."
"The man is deranged, Buck," Standish offered.
"So, yer just gonna let Ez go in an' exchange hisself fer JD?" Wilmington struggled to comprehend Larabee's thoughts, but a smirk formed under the moustache as he watched the man in black smile. Recognising the glint in his friend's eye, Buck forced a wry smile. "That's not all we're gonna do, right?"
"May I point out, that Morris is quite capable of performing his threats on JD and to any of you who are tempted to escort me." Standish expressed his concern for the young gunslinger. "It would be a fool's undertaking to deviate from the plan."
"Ain't got a plan yet, Ezra." Tanner lightly punched Standish in the shoulder, nearly toppling the gambler off the edge of the desk.
"Reckon JD could be hurt," Nathan voiced from the cot in the cell, which he'd claimed earlier when they'd sought the privacy of the jail.
"Then it is paramount that I comply with the demands," Ezra iterated.
Sanchez was leaning his tall frame against the bars of the cell that Nathan had claimed, "Son, we're here ta help ya. That's what friends do fer one another."
The gambler arched his eyebrows and stared obliquely at the older man.
Chris cleared his throat, drawing all eyes back to the front, "Ezra, you go in alone..." this comment brought a full verbal attack of four of the lawmen in the room. Larabee held up his hand and when silence once more filled the room, he continued. "As I said, Ezra goes in first, with Vin fifteen minutes behind him. The rest of us will be about half an hour behind Vin. That way, Morris thinks he's got what he wants, but in reality he's got all of us to deal with."
(3:10 a.m. Friday)
Sleep that night was slow to come, and although he'd imbibed far more than usual, this did not assist any in reaching his slumber. He'd refused the company of his fellow lawmen at his table last night, instead indulging in a solitary self-analysis in the bottom of a bottle. He intuitively knew that his five friends kept sending him surreptitious glances, but he stubbornly refused to acknowledge them. Past the time he usually retired for the night, Standish only departed the saloon when Inez threatened him with cleaning duties.
So, now here he was, twisting and turning in his bed unable to sleep. His mind was far too active for this time of night, and entirely too sentimental. Why he was even still in town, defied all logic and common sense. Surely the intelligent solution to the problem was for him just to leave town allowing the others to rescue JD from Morris when they discovered the gambler had cowardly left during the night? Did it really matter to him, what the other five men expected of him? Did they all blindly assume that the southern gambler would remain in Four Corners, knowing that his own life was soon to be in danger? Did they trust him enough, not to put a guard outside his door, in case the overwhelming uncertainty overtook his guilty conscience?
Unable to remain in the room any longer Standish quickly dressed and slipped out of his room. As he descended the back stairs he fully expected one of the seven to stop his departure. Taking up a position on the wooden bench on the boardwalk in front of the saloon, Standish was given an ideal view of the quiet street. Stretching out his legs, he crossed them at the ankles and slid his arms along the back of the seat. He rested his head back against the saloon wall and contemplated the options available to him.
Ezra remained there for almost an hour, and in all that time he'd yet to make a decision. Dropping his upper boot to the flooring, the gambler stepped off the step and onto the empty road. The fires that still burned to light the street, were flickering, but they were progressively running out of fuel. Standing in the middle of the street, his head bowed, he rubbed a thumb over his lower lip. Walking in small circles he paced in the early morn. A dog's barking made him stop for a moment, and he listened as the owner cried out the dog's name, then the sudden pained yelping that followed the abrupt command. Shaking his head in disgust, he muttered under his breath, "Some people ought not have pets."
Standish stood on the street a while longer, gazing up into the dark clear night - a perfect night to pick out the constellations. A half smile crept across his face, as he remembered sneaking out of his uncle's house and crossing a dammed creek in the middle of the night, to climb the hill in the upper pastures. He'd lie on his back and spend most of the night counting the white stars that shined down on him. Of course he was only seven at the time. Had his uncle and aunt found him out, he'd have gained a thrashing. But as they didn't, the small pleasure in escaping and thwarting their control over him, was paramount to the feeling of belonging that he was so close to attaining here in Four Corners.
On a whim, Ezra headed toward the church at the end of the street. A small glow still flickered in the window, not that he expected Josiah to still be awake, he knew the former preacher left candles burning throughout the night on the off chance someone needed to call. The gambler winced as the arched door squeaked on its hinges, and made a mental note to apprise Sanchez of this. Ezra slid into the church and along the back wall, taking a seat in the back row. Crossing his arms in front of him he rested them on the back of the pew in front and lowered his head between them. He sat unmoving for ten minutes and jumped visibly when a large hand dropped down onto his shoulder. "Mr. Sanchez..."
"Son, you want to talk?"
Standish ignored Josiah's question, "My apologies, I didn't intend on waking you." His head remained resting in his arms.
"Wasn't sleeping much any how," the older man admitted as he sat down in the pew next to the gambler. He draped his arm over southerner's shoulders and turned in his seat, glancing over his left shoulder. Josiah gave a brief wave to the shadow that hovered by the doorway, and turned his attention back to the gambler as the tracker slipped back into the darkness of the night. He didn't know whether Standish was aware of Vin's presence, but now Ezra was here in his church, it was up to Sanchez to help the southerner with whatever was troubling him.
"How do you know what is right?"
"You already know that, Ezra,"
Standish chuckled, "Well, my instincts tell me to leave."
"You won't leave," Sanchez confidently predicted.
Ezra rolled his head so he could see the older man, but didn't lift it off his arms. "How do you know that? Especially when I still, have yet to decide?"
"You would have left already, if that was what you were going to do." The gambler dropped his head back to its former position, and sighed audibly. "You oughta get some sleep," Josiah suggested as he stood.
"Yes. Do you mind if I stay here a little longer?"
Josiah shook his head. "Take all the time you need, son. I'm heading back to bed myself though." And with four large strides the older man was back in his room.
(Approaching 4 p.m. Friday)
Standish slowed his mount as he came closer to the designated meeting spot and craned his head around to seek out his shadow. The gambler scanned the way he'd travelled, but could not see any signs of Tanner following. Chewing his bottom lip betrayed his nervousness, he'd controlled it well in front of his friends, but out here, alone and intentionally going into a trap, Standish couldn't fool himself. How had it come to this? If his mother could only see him now. How on earth would he explain his rash behaviour to his mother, when he didn't understand it himself?
Turning his gaze to the collection of boulders that scattered the landscape, he nudged his horse in that direction. The hour of four was approaching, and the destination also grew steadily closer. Morris' note had demanded that Standish come alone to what was known as 'The Devil's Marbles', and once the gambler was there, then the crazed man would release JD. Ezra didn't really believe that Morris would carry out his end of the bargain, but for JD's sake he hoped that he would. The threat that accompanied the note involved carving up the boy and letting the wild animals eat his entrails if Standish even considered not showing. Ezra shuddered at the visual image that accompanied the thought.
Any wonder Wilmington was so worried and he wasn't happy to be so far behind either. Buck had tried to convince Chris that it should be him that followed immediately behind the southerner, but Larabee remained adamant that the sharpshooter was the better selection, for this job. Larabee didn't think he could trust Buck to remain the fifteen minutes behind Standish, thus blowing their advantage. Chris' idea being, that once Ezra entered Morris' camp that the gambler could detain them until Tanner arrived, and once he was there, Vin could shoot the insane man. Then they could take JD back to town.
Ezra pulled on the reins and peered in the dark tunnel that forged between two boulders. "Courage, Ezra courage," the gambler mumbled under his breath as he entered into the cold and unwelcoming ravine. The sudden change in temperature sent a shiver down his spine as he drifted into the shadows of the rocks, and the eerie silence permeated around him.
When the gambler came out of the tunnel it was into an open basin surrounded by massive red marbles. Dark shadows lined the walls, but the sun beat down harshly in this open area. Ezra was immediately aware of the young gunslinger that lay unmoving in the centre of the open floor. In that same instant the southerner felt the bullet that slammed into his shoulder. It burned a path through his shoulder and exited cleanly out the back. Ezra fell backwards from his mount and tumbled to the ground landing hard on the red baked dirt. He hadn't lost consciousness and lifted himself off the ground with his good arm, and searched the area where he'd last seen the kid. "JD?" he croaked.
"Glad ya could make it, Standish," Morris called out. The madman was holding the limp body of the boy up and held a jagged knife at his throat. "Get up!" Morris ordered.
Holding his wounded shoulder with his good arm, Ezra complied, never once taking his eyes off the limp form. "Is he dead?"
Morris' response was to laugh, pulling the sheriff closer to him; he dug the blade further into the tender neck. "Drop all yer weapons, including that hide out one." Standish didn't comply immediately, so Morris drew the blade across JD's neck drawing a thin line of blood. "DO IT!" he shouted loudly. Standish undid his buckle and let the gunbelt fall from his waist, then pulled the gun out of his shoulder holster and let it fall to the ground also, finally the derringer joined the others on the ground. "Now step away from 'em." When Ezra complied, Morris sheathed his knife and drew his own gun, aiming it at the gambler. Calling out over Standish's head, "Tanner? Come on out! Now! Or I'll kill 'im now."
"There's no one else here, I came alone," the gambler lied trying to convince Morris of the prevarication.
"Shut up, Standish!" Ignoring the gambler, Morris again called out, his voice echoed off the walls, "Tanner, get out here so I can see ya!" And to further entice the tracker to obey, Morris shot Ezra in the leg.
Ezra dropped to the ground and clutched at his bleeding thigh, this wound hurt more than the first one. He fumbled for his handkerchief to push into the wound to stop the flow of blood. His face contorted with pain and his vision swam as he fought off the waves of blackness that threatened to engulf him. It was no time to faint now.
Just as Morris predicted, Tanner emerged from his position when the gambler was shot. Vin still held his mare's leg by his side as he stepped into the open, hoping he'd have a chance to use it against the lunatic. "What cha want?" The sharpshooter queried.
"You drop that weapon! I'll shoot him again if I have ta." Morris indicated the gambler, but swung the gun back to the unconscious gunslinger in his grasp. Threatening one or both of them, would ultimately gain the tracker's obedience. Smiling, the madman showed the dull and gapped teeth that marred his mouth. He knew Tanner would comply. "Over with yer friend, and we'll be on our way shortly." He then dropped his burden to the ground.
Vin knelt down beside Ezra and looked down into the glazed eyes full of pain. It perturbed him that he'd not reacted quickly enough to prevent the southerner from being shot a second time. And worse still he'd given up his weapon. His lips straightened and his brow furrowed in concern, Tanner asked, "How's JD?"
"He doesn't appear...to be in the best of health...He wasn't moving...when I showed up." Standish hissed out through clenched teeth, groaning when Vin pressed down on the wound and followed this by wrapping his neck scarf around his thigh.
"Bullet's still in there." Vin tried to reassure the conman, and squeezed his uninjured shoulder. "The others'll be here soon. We'll get yer both out of this, I promise," Tanner declared in all seriousness.
Standish attempted to smile but it was weak at best. "It might already be too late for JD."
Morris stepped over the unconscious form of JD and kicked viscously at his unprotected ribs.
Flying to his feet and to the kid's defence, Tanner rushed Morris, knocking him away from JD. Morris was quick though regaining his feet and while Vin's attention was focused on the young gunslinger, Morris punched the tracker in the abdomen. Vin doubled over in pain. Drawing back his meaty fist, Morris slammed it into the side of Vin's head and he collapsed bonelessly to the ground, unable to defend JD anymore.
Standish watched in horror as Vin succumbed to the blow, all hope was now lost. A strangled plea fell from his lips when Morris plunged the large blade deep into the sheriff's prone body. Ezra gasped as the blade slid out covered in blood and dripping from the knife.
With a wicked gleam, the madman sheathed the knife. "That oughta hold up yer friends, don't cha reckon Standish?" The maniacal laughter rang out once more.
(4:45 p.m. Friday)
"Oh God!" Wilmington exclaimed as he spurred his horse faster into the opening. "Oh my God, what's he done?" He cried out in anguish, bolting off his horse and racing to the still form. Muttering to himself, "I knew this wasn't a good idea, I just knew it." Kneeling down beside JD, Wilmington continued his tirade, "Why didn't Chris listen to me?"
Jackson called out a warning to the ladies' man, "Don't touch him, Buck!" But already the large man had scooped up the smaller figure and cradled him to his large chest. Nathan knelt down by the pair and attempted to pry the younger man away from Buck's firm grasp. "Buck, I gotta check him out," the former slave pleaded in exasperation.
"He's gotta be all right," Wilmington murmured, reluctantly relinquishing control over to Jackson. "Damn them all to hell!" Buck cried out in anguish, feeling incredibly useless while watching Nathan tend the kid.
Who Buck was actually damning was not clear to Nathan, but he was certain Morris was included in the defamation. Ignoring Buck's blaspheming, the healer ripped open the bloody shirt to access the damage and found the sheriff's torso covered in numerous darkening bruises and two major knife wounds. Wadding up a temporary bandage he pressed it to the still-bleeding wound. "Here, Buck." Nathan guided Wilmington's hand and replaced it over the bandage. "Keep pressure on this," the healer ordered.
Both of the kid's eyes were swollen shut and the dark purples and blues of bruising marred his slackened face. Nathan discovered the knot at the base of JD's skull and massaged it to check that his skull was not fractured. Next the healer moved his shaking hands down the boy's limbs, finding a fractured left leg at the shin and on the same leg, the knee was dislocated. Gently probing the swollen limbs, he reached behind his back and pulled out a blade that was sheathed at his back. Nathan cut through the kid's pants leg and also the boot, exposing the pale foot. Noticing the foot was cool to touch and had a bluish tinge he felt for the pulse point just below the ankle, but frowned when he couldn't detect one.
"What's a matter, Nate?" Buck's worried eyes sought those of the healer's.
"Ain't nothin' I can't fix..." Nathan confidently assured Buck, but his calmness only heightened the womaniser's consternation.
"Tell me!" Wilmington growled.
"His leg's broke, and his knee's dislocated..."
"So what ain't ya saying, Nathan?" Buck scowled; knowing the healer was hiding some important details.
"Gonna haf ta set that dislocation, and his busted leg, 'cause his foot ain't getting any blood flowing to it at the moment. Gotta do it now, else he'll lose his foot!"
"Then dang it, Nathan, what's stoppin' ya?"
While Nathan tended the injured easterner, Larabee and Sanchez secured the area, and searched for their missing friends. Josiah discovered a darkened patch on the desert floor adjacent from JD's position. Crouching down he dipped his finger into the substance and rubbed it between his fingers, then brought it to his nose. Lowering his head the older man sighed heavily, thoughtfully he raised his gaze to see Larabee watching his movements. "It's blood." The man in black nodded then turned and walked away.
Chris climbed to the top of the marbles to get an overhead view of the surrounds, but found no signs of Vin or Ezra. He didn't really expect to, but he needed to check just in case. Chris hoped to God they were both unharmed, but now knew that at least one of them was injured. Surveying the unforthcoming scene below, he intuitively knew that Morris had planned it this way. Damn! He didn't figure on that. There was no way they could leave JD and continue after the outlaw and his friends, not until they'd got the kid safely back to town. By then it'd be too dark to resume the chase until morning, and by that time Morris would have a considerable lead over them. "Damn!" Larabee swore, "He's smarter than I gave him credit for!"
Josiah stepped behind Chris and scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt. "We'll get 'em back!" he reassured the gunslinger.
"Damn right we will!"
"We gonna keep after them?"
Chris shook his head. "It's almost dark, won't be able ta track 'em till mornin'. Don't reckon Buck'll leave JD just yet anyhow. We'll get the kid home, then head out at first light."
"You think that's wise?" Sanchez frowned.
"If he was gonna kill 'em, he'd a done it already. Reckon he's takin' 'em somewhere...or to someone." Chris stepped away from Sanchez and headed over to Buck and Nathan who hovered over the motionless figure. "How's he doing?"
Nathan raised his dark brown eyes to meet with the leader's concerned blue orbs, his hands were covered in JD's blood as he struggled to stem the flow from the deep slices on his abdomen. "We're gonna need a wagon. Ain't no way he can get on a horse. These cuts are deep and he's already lost a lot of blood."
Larabee nodded his understanding. He'd send Josiah back to town for a wagon. Buck wouldn't leave the kid's side, and Nathan was needed to tend the boy, that left Chris to protect them, should Morris still be around. "Josiah..."
"Already on my way, Chris," the former preacher called out as he flew to his horse and led the animal out of the ravine and toward town.
It was going to be a long night. The sun was yet to fall and the strength of its rays had hardly decreased, but by the time Josiah returned with the wagon, it would be dark. The ride from town took a little over an hour, so even if Sanchez pushed his horse all the way, coming back with a wagon would inevitably slow his return.
Dunne did not respond to any of Jackson's treatments. Nathan splinted the broken leg with a tree branch and set the dislocated knee. The left foot was a good colour now and not blue as it'd been when the healer removed JD's boot. The pulse to that limb was now strong also. He'd cleaned the wounds and bandaged them, and also wrapped a large bandage around the boy's ribs, although none were broken a few of them were cracked, and no doubt painful. JD's pupils were dilated indicating a concussion, but Jackson's major concern was that throughout everything, Dunne remained unresponsive. He was worried that JD wouldn't regain consciousness.
They'd huddled the boy beneath several blankets and set a fire close by, so JD didn't have to be moved unnecessarily.
Nathan stood to check on Dunne's wound again, when the rumble of a wagon echoed in the stillness of the night. The noise came closer, then stopped. It was a further five minutes before Josiah strode through the ravine, carrying a torch flaming above his head. "Got the wagon as close as I could, but we'll have to carry him out through the ravine." Warily, sweeping his gaze through the darkness, Sanchez sought the boy's figure. "How is he?" Josiah had hurried in his task, concern for the young sheriff's life resting in his procurement of a wagon, and how quickly they returned the boy to town. Now that he'd returned, the heaviness of responsibly lifted from his shoulders. Now it was up to Nathan and the young gunslinger himself.
Nathan answered, "He's not woken, but as far as I can tell, he ain't any worse. You want to help take him to the wagon?"
"I'll take him!" Buck announced, jumping to attention.
"Sure, Buck." The healer nodded in acknowledgment; he should have realised that Wilmington would want to take the kid.
Chris helped Nathan gather up the small camp, kicking out the fire before following Buck's hasty departure out the narrow tunnel. By the time they caught up, JD was settled in the wagon and covered beneath a pile of blankets. Josiah climbed back into the seat and pulled off the brake setting the wagon toward home. Nathan and Chris rode behind the wagon, with the man in black leading Buck's horse. Wilmington settled himself in the wagon with JD's head rested in his lap.
It was close to ten when the entourage returned to Four Corners, and all of them were tired, and defeated. No one wanted to contemplate the fate of the two missing lawmen. And though they had JD with them, his fate also seemed uncertain. It would be a long night for the four lawmen while they waited. It would be an even longer night for their two missing friends.