Chris jogged his face crying out in protest with every jarring movement. It hurt to move his tongue or touch the roof of his mouth. Blood ran freely from both nostrils and down the back of his throat forcing him to swallow. The force of spitting erupted an explosion of pain from his nose. He glared at the conman beside him. Standish jogged a discreet few inches behind as if trying to keep an eye for any hostile movement from the man in front of him. Larabee did not blame him because the moment the chance arose he would repay the gambler in kind for the nose. Chris labored for breath between blood tinged chapped lips. He would get even with Delany and his brood and the southerner who paced him.
Ezra followed Larabee's lead out pure fear. Fear of the hounds and men that tracked them but more so out of fear of Larabee himself. Standish had landed a solid blow. It was a reaction, he bounced off the ground his head bounced up. Ezra was not sorry for the results, but he did realize he stepped into a dangerous game. A game Chris knew well and normally won. Standish cursed himself for pushing the man over the edge. He was not remorseful or even feel a slight bit guilty, just worried. Chris would repay the debt in kind with a little interest. Standish did not want to think about the bodily damage that would befall him.
The two men headed for the river. The sky clouded up again. The brisk, cutting breeze had stopped. Snow was due to fall, even the southerner recognized the signs. Could things get any worse. Standish chuckled, most likely yes.
They stopped as they neared the river bed. Chris ran along the bank dragging the compliant southerner with him. Larabee was not in the mood for arguments. The winter sun had crested up to mid morning. The baying of the hounds sounded more distant. Maybe the dogs were not as good as Delany believed. Larabee kept searching the shallow water. The river flowed swiftly below it's bank at it's lowest winter levels. Still it would be knee or thigh deep at its deepest point. Had it been spring they would be facing a white water torrent that would probably be breaking its bank making crossing impossible. With the harbinger of forth coming snow Chris did not want to enter the icy water and he knew Ezra would balk. The southerner hated being cold. Larabee's decision suddenly cinched itself. They would cross.
He turned and headed down the bank toward the flowing water. Standish skittered to a stop. "You aren't serious?" The question was said in jest hoping this was some kind of joke.
"Only way to lose the dogs." The smiling sneer on Chris's face matched his pleased voice. The dread and discomfort and final resignation clearly evident on the gambler's bruised features. Ezra glanced up at the grey sky and the ineffectual sun. Today was going to get extremely cold and uncomfortable.
Larabee stepped boldly into the icy water. His calves cramped and knotted. He clenched his fist and caught his breath. This had better work. Together he and Ezra traversed the near frozen water. Standish clenched and worked his jaw every time he rolled his ankle on the moss covered rock. The swift current bubbled water up over their knees. The clothing absorbed it wicking water up pants legs soaking the men further. They limped, painfully, numb onto the opposite bank a hundred yards down shore. With short faltering steps they climbed the solid frozen clay embankment and started as slow agonizing jog paralleling the river.
They followed the river the rest of the day. Standish could not remember being so cold and uncomfortable. Every time the wind blew it felt as if it sliced right threw him. His legs ached his wet pants clung to him both stinging and itching the chaffing skin underneath. Blisters had begun to form and rub mercilessly against the wet stiffening leather boots. He trudged on dogging Larabee's heels not willing to give up, not willing to be the one to falter and fall behind. He would match Chris. Standish was determined to survive. His mother had not raised him to die frozen in some gawd forsaken desert wilderness.
His mother, he smiled cautiously to himself, she would come for Christmas. She had sent a telegram to inform him she was on her way. It was the first time in a life time mother and son would spend the holiday together. This Christmas he would not have to rely on the charity of others, or, ignore the sympathy of others. This year Maude would spend the day with her son. Ezra smiled again, picking up his pace. They would make Four Corners. This was the season for miracles and Ezra knew it to be true, hell Maude was coming to visit.
+ + + + + + +
The sun hit its zenith casting very little warmth over the area. It's glow masked by foreboding dark clouds. The two weary lawmen had been reduced to a walk. Their clothes had finally dried leaving the clothing stiff and unforgiving. "Mr. Larabee...," Ezra started quietly. The gunslinger ignored him.
Standish tried again, "Mr. Larabee we have to stop for a bit." His southern drawl took on an almost askance quality about it. The blond haired gunslinger turned and faced him the question clearly written on his swollen marred face. Ezra cringed inwardly that had to hurt.
"What?" Chris demanded softly because his head hurt so badly. Even his cheeks ached with excruciating persistence.
"A call of nature," Standish explained with a single raised eyebrow and a helpless expression.
Larabee stopped and waited. Ezra stood facing him and realized that Chris was not going to move, "Can't I have a little privacy please?" Larabee let out an exasperated sigh and turned slightly giving the southerner only the small amount of privacy the iron chain would allow. This struck Chris as a strange request especially from a man who played a game of poker in a busy dining hall in nothing but the suit the good Lord gave him and then parade through the bustling main street dressed only in a table cloth. The southerner had no shame, at least when it came to cards or cons. Now out here in the middle of nowhere he worried about such foolish things.
Larabee stood and waited being cognizant and uncomfortable of the proximity of his chained right hand. He would ring Delany's neck for this, Larabee thought. He tried not to listen as the southerner released the tension on his bladder. Chris could not help but chuckle, "Geez Ezra you been holding that since you were born?"
"It does not do one any good to leave the gaming tables early, if one does not have too," Ezra explained tight lipped. The indignity of it all. He did not mind his environment it was the proximity of his company that bothered him.
"Hell, you easily beat Buck's record," Larabee continued to chuckle causing his eyes to water. Standish blushed slightly. He did not want to know what record Buck held. Wilmington could keep his title. A few minutes later Chris asked, "You finally ready?"
"Yes, thank you," Standish replied.
Chris and he walked in silence for another twenty minutes before Larabee uttered an annoyed, "Ahh hell Ezra...."
It was Standish's turn to chuckle. He turned his back somewhat as Chris's body recognized the same call of nature.
Ezra quickly turned around in alarm when her heard Larabee groan and double over. Standish immediately saw the rust covered urine on the rocks and some that pooled on the ground. Ezra clenched his teeth in sympathy and asked, "You took a blow to the lower back?" The southerner watched as the sporadic bloody urine stream continued spastically.
Larabee merely nodded breathing harshly between tightly clenched teeth. The pain he felt now outweighed anything his nose tried to inflict. He did not see the gambler nod his head in understanding.
"You need to drink a lot of water, it'll help," Standish offered.
"What makes you so sure?" Chris shot out harshly biting back the pain.
Ezra softly mumbled averting his eyes, "I have found myself in that unfortunate position before." He would not push.
Eventually Larabee straightened up his left hand resting on the small of his back. With the pain still evident on his face he asked, "What an angry mark try and teach ya a lesson about cheatin' or something?"
"Or something," Ezra answered quietly again staring over to his right away from the river and Larabee. He was always to blame for his own pain and trouble Ezra knew that he just wished others were not so quick to point it out.
Larabee watched the younger man for a moment trying to discern the reason for the sudden quiet aloofness. Chris rubbed his belly absently the nausea slowly faded replaced by gnawing hunger. It would be dark in a few hours. The hunt would stall when the sunset giving the hunted a reprieve.
They did not hear the hounds for the rest of the short afternoon. Frequently they headed toward the river for water. Both men drank greedily at first. The cold liquid hurt teeth and chilled them but it felt good. The heavy water upset shrunken stomachs but even that discomfort melted away. Darkness began to settle across the land.
In silence they began to gather wood. At first Ezra was afraid Chris would not want a fire but they ran the risk of freezing and succumbing to the effects of hypothermia, that would not bode well for them. With great relief Standish gathered firewood with Chris shadowing him. Larabee hated to bend down, it hurt his back and his face but he would not be outdone by the southerner. In no time Chris had a small blaze going. The two men sat quietly in front of it leaning against an aged twisted sun-dried tree.
Eventually unable to keep eyes open Standish leaned back against a tree trunk and shut his eye. The right one was still grossly swollen. His quiet solitude was broken.
"How'd it happen?" Larabee's sudden question shocked both the gambler and himself.
Standish snapped his head upright making himself dizzy, "How did what happen?"
"Your back?" Chris asked. He did not mean to pry but he could not forget the haunted look in the unbruised green eye.
"Carelessly dropped a feed bag," Standish responded. He shut his eyes and leaned against the tree and paused thinking back to that day and the many more that preceded and followed it.
Chris gazed over his coated shoulder at the gambler and figured the simple explanation was all he would get. A man's past was his own and he would not pry. He was surprised when the southern drawl continued.
"I was nine. My uncle looked unkindly upon my short comings," Ezra paused remembering back to those days ,those ugly, ugly days. "took a crop handle to my back," Standish explained further revealing a piece of his past. Noone but his Uncle, old Sam and he knew about that incident and the others that followed, until now. Larabee had become privy to a piece of Standish that Ezra had hid for so long. The gambler smiled at the thought of the elderly slave. Old Sam was an ancient grizzled man that took to watching over the skinny white boy who squirreled away a nest in the old barn.
Larabee watched the southerner for a moment and had to ask, "Maude know?"
"No, of course not. There was no need besides she promised to come back and get me in a few weeks," Standish answered still not opening his eyes. His mother did not come back in a few weeks so after a few months a battered and frightened young boy ran away in search of his mother. A small smile creased his face. This year his mother would spend time with him and for once they would enjoy the holiday as a family. That was worth walking through frozen streams, worth the black and swollen eye. In a few days it would not make any difference what transpired today, his mother had decided on her own to join him.
Larabee gaze lingered on the smirking conman who sat beside him. "She did not come back in a few weeks did she?"
"Nope." Simple answer, no anger behind it not even regret as if he simply accepted his mother for who she was and that seemed enough.
Larabee turned his attention back to the fire his thoughts wandering back to the small boy who trusted his father blindly. Adam had the same blind faith in his father that Ezra offered to his mother. Would Adam withstand that kind of punish because his father asked the same of him? Larabee hoped not, Chris hoped his son would realize a father would never want harm to befall his child. How could Maude not know? How could a mother leave her son to pursue a career in gambling and swindling? How could a father leave his wife and son alone? How could a father allow his family to perish in a malicious fire? Chris sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose tenderly gauging the pain and discomfort. He wished he could turn back the clock scoop up Adam and Sarah and protect them from the people of the world. Protect them from the people he had become and those he had become associated with. He watched as the southerner slid down the trunk to lie flat on the ground. Maude had been granted trust and devotion for just being his mother. It was a strange and frightening bond. Chris never understood the relationship but he knew it existed between himself and Adam.
He had lost Adam. He never gave Adam the chance to grow up. His selfish intentions let his only son down. It tore at his heart. He would never get his son back, never know what kind of man he would grow too. Standish had that chance, Maude succeeded where Chris had failed. In her own whirlwind fashion the crazy conniving conwomen had succeeded where Chris had failed so miserably. Her son had grown to adulthood shadowing his mother's image. Sarah and Chris together could not protect their only child. They could not protect themselves from the forces of men and their natures. Adam had not survived. Larabee glared at the younger man who now snored softly in the flicker of fire light. Standish without protection, without the love of family, survived. Ezra faced a deceitful world and thrived. Larabee cursed the gambler.
Chris became lost in his musings his countenance darkening despite the wavering camp flame. Vin had survived alone with no parents no relatives and he too grew to be a respected and good friend. Buck, the son of a working girl, had beat the odds and he to survived in a world that did not care whether he lived or breathed. Nathan , of all the seven should have faltered and fallen at a young age yet he struggled and grew and despite the dangers that plagued him he survived. Why had not Adam? How could JD, young and green with an ailing mother make it when Larabee's own son perished. Adam had been brutally ripped from this world when two healthy loving parents tended him? What of Josiah? The son of a preacher, in his own right with no mother to speak of, a father more concerned for lost souls and living by unforgiving example. How could Josiah fight the regiments of such a rigid cold life to reach the questionable safety of adulthood?
Why was Larabee such a failure? He rubbed his forehead tiredly and dozed off.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra woke with a start as his left arm was rudely pulled, stretched and forced to bend at an awkward angle. He bolted up right pulling back on his arm. The shackles bit bruised, ripped flesh and he gasped. Chris's right arm was harshly pulled out from under his chin as Ezra reclaimed his own hand. Larabee rolled over onto his back murder in his eyes. The fire had been reduced to mere coals but heat still emanated from it.
"Ezra," Larabee warned in a harsh scratchy voice.
Standish stared at the gunslinger threw more dead wood on the fire and settled back down. Exhaustion and sleep soon claimed both men and they curled, bodies trying to trap body heat and fell heavily back to oblivion.
Larabee watched the gambler sleep. The damn man could sleep soundly anywhere. It had snowed some last night and Chris woke covered with a small dusting of the white stuff. The small fire had succeeded in staving off deadly hypothermia. Larabee warmed his one hand over the fire and hunched down further in his coat. The sunrise was still an hour off. The incessant baying of distant hounds rang out all night long. It was time to get going. He peered one more time at the southerner. Only the dark brown hair was visible from the top of his coat.
"Wake up Ezra." Chris nudged the gambler with his right hand careful not cause to much movement with the iron cuff. His own wrist was extremely sore. No response. Larabee was tired the melancholy from the night before still hung heavily on his shoulders. His patience quickly ran out.
"Ezra!" He roughly shoved the smaller man. That produced the desired results, almost. Standish's eye snapped open as he jumped to his feet. His right ankle crumbled firing protest at the sudden use. Ezra quickly lost his balance and tumbled into and over Larabee landing back on the frozen earth.
"Gawd damn it Ezra!" Larabee cursed as he took a knee to the side of the head and his right arm became hyper-extended.
Standish scrambled back upright but remained seated blinking his left eye owlishly trying gamely to wake up.
"What?! What!?" He asked his drawl taking on a panicked tone. He relaxed somewhat when he noticed Larabee staring at him with his normal look of annoyance.
Standish smiled lopsidedly, "Mr. Larabee?"
"We've gotta get moving," Chris said getting to his feet. He waited impatiently as the gambler struggled back to his feet. He stood still favoring his right ankle. It had stiffened in the boot the range of motion greatly reduced. They headed off following the river. The sun threatened to crest the horizon. The chase would begin in earnest.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra cursed himself every time his heart raced when he heard the dogs howling behind them. The dogs had not gained any ground on the fleeing men but their nonstop noise only forewarned of doom. Chris had them jogging again. Standish's foot hurt, his legs ached his back complained with vigor. He needed a feather bed for a good welcomed night's sleep. His stomach complained and groaned reminding him he had not eaten for in a while. Chris seemed to have slipped into a more foul mood. If that was even possible. The man rarely smiled as it was and when he did it usually manifested itself as a warning a danger to come.
The sun peeked out between winter clouds taunting warmth but never really offering it. Standish followed Larabee along the river without complaint. He was just to tired and Larabee appeared almost feral.
They broke their morning up between jogging and walking. Every time the dogs sounded in the background they would quicken their pace. It seemed the temperature had dropped even though sweat ran down their backs. They stopped to drink from the river trying to fill empty bellies and give the body some sort of energy. Every time they stopped muscles knotted and tightened making it more difficult getting going again. Thighs burned calves twisted into painful cramps and shoulders began to slump. They were slowly wearing down. Both men trudged on until noon.
Chris angled them back toward the river. Standish balked again.
"Ezra quit screwing around," Larabee shot out with impatience born of exhaustion and hunger. Fear of an impending death did not bother Chris. He had chased and courted death for five long years. Five years ago death crossed the threshold of his house and took his wife and son. Death stole a permanent part of him and he no longer feared the dark specter. Instead Larabee hunted it down, sought it out, danced precariously with it for the first few years until recently. In the last two years the six other men he worked with had formed a surrogate family of brothers. It was a fraternity of dependency and trust. Death was no longer welcomed. It was no longer sought after with the relish that he had pursued it earlier. Mary and Billy and the others had begun to change all that, they had begun to swing Larabee away from the dead back to the living.
It was almost Christmas. He hated this time of year. His chest seemed to go hollow with the coming of the holiday. A big empty space blossomed dragging the unwelcome pain of his loss back with striking ferocity. Last year had proven his first Christmas since the lost of Adam and Sarah that he actually enjoyed himself. Mary and Billy had begun to fill the void. The quiet but feisty widow and her energetic son had started to help him live again. In a few days Christmas would be here and he wanted to spend it in their company. Chris had not known how desperately he looked forward to their company , until now. He would not miss the opportunity to watch Billy open his presents or Mary's comforting company.
Larabee glared at Standish, "We're crossing." It was an order. No room for argument he did it on purpose. Chris was angry. Standish was an easy target.
"Like hell," Ezra responded hotly. He had been cold for nearly two days. Worse yet he had been wet and cold for half that amount of time. Everything on him ached, one eye would not work, his ankle had swollen to fill the confines of his boot and his left wrist ached mercilessly. He was not getting back in the water. Larabee could go to hell and back.
"Get your ass in the water," Larabee warned.
"I think not." Standish stood his ground.
Chris reached for the gambler. Ezra stepped back. "I am not subjugating myself to the water again."
"Yes you are." The tone was deadly. Standish had heard it before and most times people for whom it was aimed tended to die. Ezra did not want to be killed did not want to get caught. Heck his mother was coming for Christmas. Why this year after so many years? What did she want? Was something wrong? Maybe just maybe she wanted to be with her boy. Crossing the river and getting pneumonia was not going to get him any closer to Four Corners or any closer to his mother. He did not want to fight with Larabee, not again, it hurt to much physically and otherwise. His mother was coming to Four Corners for Christmas and he would fight anyone who stood between him and town but he would not cross that damn river again. No way.
"Mr. Larabee I want to be back in town as much as you," Ezra tried swaying the gunslinger, "mother is coming for Christmas we have not spent a Christmas together since I was younger than Mr. Billy Travis," Standish explained why not try the truth what could it hurt. The truth might even work. It was a new tactic. "But crossing the river is only going to make us cold and sap our strength."
Larabee glared at the cardsharp. Maude coming to town. He did not want to cross the river because there was a possibility that the lying, cheat that was his mother might make it to town. Larabee stared at the southerner as if he had two heads. Crossing the river would confuse the hounds and buy them time. More importantly Ezra actually believed his mother would keep her word and show up. The man was a fool. He would gamble their lives on the lie of a woman who left him to be beat by an uncle? Larabee was floored.
"You aren't serious?" The unbelieving tone was not hidden.
"Why yes I am," Ezra returned skeptically. What did Larabee doubt?
"You of all people actually believe your mother is going to show up for Christmas?" He could not conceive Standish to be so blind. He actually found it amusing in a twisted sort of way.
"Yes I do," Ezra returned still confused but realizing what Larabee was indicating.
Chris narrowed his eyes and stated softly and confidently, "She ain't coming." Larabee turned his back on the conman and headed for the river. Standish did not move.
"She's coming," he said it to convince not just Larabee but himself. Chris had finally said what Ezra feared all along in the back of his mind. She would not show and he would spend another holiday as an outsider discarded by his family for the lure of money. Chris was wrong. Maude had telegrammed him. Maude had made the arrangements she had wired him that she was about to depart. She was on her way.
"Ezra don't be an ass!" Larabee hissed out, "she ain't coming," Chris seethed stepping closer to the gambler. He knew he hit a nerve. For all the southerners ability with gambling and maintaining charades the uncertainty and pain that flashed across the bruised features was unmistakable. "Vin and Josiah are right you were raised by a wolf, weaned and caste off. Face it she won't show." The gunslinger stood within a few inches of the southerner, "She dumped you with relatives and never came back. You had to find her." He took Ezra's candid truths from last night and turned those simple bared facts into a barbed attack. Two could play the word game.
Vin? Josiah? They compared his mother to a wolf? Ezra had to shrug in resignation that was a more friendly comparison compared to the ones he had come up with at times. Standish cursed himself for revealing anything of himself to this man let alone anyone else. The truth got you nowhere. Standish swallowed his uncertainty and saw the reason behind Larabee's remarks. He returned the favor.
"I'm not forging the river Mr. Larabee," Standish bit back, " and my mother maybe likened to a wolf but you have no right to judge the parenting skills of another," Standish saw the flash of murder and knew he crossed the line. He could careless. He pressed his advantage to dangerous untread territory, "For all her short comings she succeeded where you failed miserably, I might add."
An inhuman growl emanated from Chris. He lunged into the southern man. Ezra thought he was ready for the attack thought he could handle the fury that would fall upon him. He realized with sudden clarity that he had been grossly mistaken. Larabee knocked him to the ground pounding his head repeatedly off the frozen earth. Standish quickly shifted position and tossed Larabee's unsettled weight off him. The gambler tried to scramble to his knees and create as much distance as he could from the madman that now attacked him. The iron shackles prevented his escape. With a murderous roar Chris landed on Standish's back forcing the younger man face first into the river. Larabee locked the struggling neck down by snaking his free left arm under Standish's left shoulder and then clasping his neck. Chris held on with no intentions of letting go.
Ezra began to panic. The cold water bit his skin like tiny knives stealing his breath. He could not breath, he could not dislodge the weight that had encumbered his shoulders and neck. He kicked out but struck nothing. His lungs began to burn, he twisted and fought desperation born out of pure unadulterated terror. Ezra Standish realized he was drowning. Figures the one time his mother was really going to show up for Christmas. The gambler would not quit he would fight until the end, until his lungs filled with water and muscles ceased working. Standish fought the primal urge to take a breath even though he was under water. The body wanted to needed to inhale. It needed air, just one breath, just inhale once.
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