The desert again...
They made camp while the sun hung just above the tree tops. It had not cooled any. In fact the latent heat from the ground seemed only to intensify.
Josiah, Chris and Ezra were pushed and pulled to a spot against the bluff base. The black stone emanated heat like a cook stove.
The three men were roughly forced to sit down. They were covered in trail dust. Sweat had cut dark lined tributaries in their faces. Dirt clung in dark rings around their necks and wrists. Sweat highlighted the crowns of their hats.
"Well Mr. Sanchez...." Standish breathed out. His tongue felt dry and thickened. His face burned and lips felt hot. He hoped they would not blister. It was both a painful condition and unsightly. "Would you like to inform us as to who are charming guests are?"
Larabee almost told the gambler to keep his mouth shut. Josiah did not look up to fielding any questions. Chris held his tongue.
"No," Josiah kept his voice flat, resigned to his fate. He still stared at his bound hands. How could he tell these men that they trusted a monster?...That they held faith in man who killed for the joy of killing. How could he explain to others what he could not justify to himself.
"I think that is hardly fair," Standish continued, not the least put off by the curt answer, "seeing we are captives...."
"I said...Noooo," Sanchez bit out lunging across Larabee and grabbing the still talking southerner by the throat. Their faces inches apart both dark, reddish, brown from sun and dirt. The preacher applied pressure to his grip causing a slight gagging reaction from Standish.
"Josiah ease up," Chris spoke out tiredly not truly concerned. He had wanted to do the very same thing from time to time.
When the preacher had yet to relinquish his tight grip and Standish actually began to struggle for breath, Larabee changed his tone. He would not be ignored, "Josiah let'im go." Chris did not want to have to physically interfere if it was not necessary. His shoulder was just not up to it and he really did not have the strength nor the desire. Besides the world had taking to rocking and tilting at strange angles and he felt lightheaded.
Sanchez as if suddenly realizing what he was doing...quickly released his grip. Standish slumped back rubbing his throat with dusty hands. His anger clearly expressed in blood shot eyes.
"Sorry brother," Josiah whispered out truly repentant for striking out. It was an honest question that deserved answer.
Standish was about to respond when Larabee cut him off, "Shut up Ezra."
The threesomes attention was directed away from themselves when their horses were brought passed. The Black still tried to bite Chaucer who nimbly ducked just out of reach in the protective space next to the sorrel. The Sorrel tired of this game finally laid its ears back and lashed out at both geldings snaking its neck like a giant sea serpent with its teeth exposed.
"Gentlemen I wish you would keep you mounts from harassing my poor beast," Ezra sighed in indignation for his horse.
"Ezra, Shut up," Josiah and Chris replied in unison.
Silence fell over the three men. Each lost in their own thoughts. Heat shimmered off the ground in the distance. A slight breeze kicked up offering some respite. With the gradual cooling of the day the creatures of the desert stirred with life.
"Ezra's got a point," Larabee finally spoke up. He kept his voice soft. There was no pushing the preacher. The gambler merely raised his eyes brows in quiet shock.
Sanchez did not answer. Instead he focused on his hands. They drooped between upraised knees His torn and scraped elbows resting lazily on his bent legs.
The search for an answer mutely dismissed.
Standish did not bother biting back an unamused chuckle. Had the table been turned, Standish felt assured that Mr. Larabee would be trying to threaten answers out of him.
"Well Mr. Larabee it seems we are going to be camped here for the evening it would be best to tend your wound while there is adequate light." Standish made a tired move to crawl to his knees.
"I'll do it," Sanchez muttered out. It was the least he could do.
"Be my guest Mr. Sanchez," The gambler uttered sitting back down with a thud. It was a nuisance not having hands easily available to help maintain balance. Standish sat hunched over his knees resting his forehead on his bound wrists, to tired to sit up like proper gentleman.
Larabee watched him for a moment jealous of the free moveablilty in the Southerner's shoulders.
Josiah moved as a man who had given up. Chris wondered, who by their simple presence, had soundly defeated their friend.
"We're gonna need water," Josiah replied as he peered under Larabee's shirt being careful to avoid eye contact.
"Oh is that all," Standish returned. Of course they were going to need water...how about fresh bandages or maybe a knife for these ropes or maybe a miracle...
Josiah did not miss the sarcastic edge to the younger man's tone nor the irritation. Sanchez absorbed the verbal blows wincing with each strike.
"Ezra," Larabee warned. His head hurt, his shoulder burned incessantly. Nausea crested through him like rolling thunder. His shoulder felt stiff and swollen. It hurt to breath. He did not think he could muster the strength to keep rising tempers from flaring
Chris hoped Josiah ignored the southerner and not take offense to the younger man. Standish as was his habit when things left his control lashed out with biting sarcasm and mocking laughter. A bothersome defense but effective. The man was a master at irritation.
"Fine, you desire water..." Standish chuckled out with no humor. He shook his head in dismay. 'They think I can just acquire anything they desire.'
He turned his attention from the two men beside him to the men moving about the campfire.
"Excuse me, could one of you fine gentlemen," The words though eloquently spoken managed to make offense, "Perhaps allow my compatriots and I some water....to tend the wound." His words flowed gracefully from dry cracked lips. His teeth were rough and gritty feeling like the rest of him. A little water would go a long way.
The men setting up camp paused. They peered amongst themselves and then to their leader. He nodded once, under the brim of his sweat stained hat, and then turned his attention back to his gear.
Ezra cringed inwardly when Benjamin lumbered to his feet leaving the small cook fire he had been nursing. The other two men snickered. Their leader watched without raising his head. Only his stilled hands indicated he scrutinized his man.
Standish wondered if Benjamin had a neck or if his head actually just sat on those massive shoulders. His forearms alone were bigger than Standish's biceps. Though the man's trousers fit his length and waist, the thighs were tight under the material. The clear delineating lines of individual muscle were easily visible.
Benjamin held the canteen by the neck of its strap. "Ya want water Suthin' boy?"
"Well actually my associa...."
The dark man swung the canteen in a vicious lateral arc. Standish saw it coming and tried desperately to lean back out of its way throwing his bound hands up to block the blow.
The harsh slap of wood striking flesh and bone filled the area.
The gambler's head snapped around to his right. Blood and saliva spewed as molars dug into the soft tissue of his cheek. His shoulder and elbow slammed into the dirt. His left leg raised itself instinctively to offer some protection to the suddenly exposed side.
"Knock it off Benjamin," The leader hissed out half rising to his feet. The others laughed enjoying the spectacle. It was not time to act yet....He needed time to read Sanchez.... to find his weaknesses....Most likely Sanchez's riding partners but he wanted to be sure.
Benjamin gazed back at his boss, then the downed man and once again back to his leader. The giant man hesitated still clutching the water jug as a weapon. Fury trembled through taut flexed muscles as he wrestled with himself for control.
He visibly relaxed, a gapped tooth, genuine, smile creased his broad face.
"Here's yer water boy," with a curt laugh he dropped the canteen beside the gambler.
Chris fumed. He started to struggle to his knees but Josiah held him fast all the while shaking his head. This was not the time for retaliation.
Garrett Kerns had plans for them. Their captor was a shrewd man with a black soul.
Josiah shut his eyes in sorrow and fear.
Garret Kerns was a devil. Josiah knew it...because he had created Kerns.
Sanchez watched grimly as Standish fought to regain his equilibrium and bite back the pain. The gambler lay quietly on his side for a moment his hair mingling with the rocky sand of the desert floor. His black hat had rolled and came to a stop next to Larabee.
"Brother are you alright?" Sanchez asked softly trying to apologize without having to say the words. He did not want to seek forgiveness for these minor injustices. With rising dread he knew his friends would fall to greater abuses before this was over.
Standish did not reply but simply flipped the canteen over to the two men, without looking up.
+ + + + + + +
Vin sat outside the saloon sipping on a warm beer. The overhang offered some protection from the summer sun but heat still blasted the boardwalk. Inez had sighed when he had placed his request. The bar maid had wiped her brow with the back of her hand, white rag still clutched in her grip and sighed heavily. It was as if Tanner had asked her to pack an armful of fire wood up hill for miles.
Vin had to confess the mug of beer even felt unusually heavy. He had slipped outside and sat heavily in the rib backed chair trying to ignore the day. Maybe he would just skip out of town and go for a swim. Something was eating at him. He could not place it and laid blame for the unrest on the weather. It felt as if a storm was brewing. He kept checking the sky and testing the winds for any hint of change but found nothing. The unsettled feeling haunted him all last night and today. He growled at its persistence. The stagnant air offered nothing.
Sweat beaded his forehead and neck and hands.
Buck and JD were reining clear of him. Tanner did not blame them. He knew he had been somewhat of a bear lately. With the heat it felt as if the walls of the town were closing in on him, trying to smother him, suffocate the life from him. Oppressive....Ezra had used that word once when talking about Larabee and his orders. Standish had looked like someone caught under an anvil when he complained about Chris forcing him over to check out some trouble in Junction City. Standish had tried to squirm his way out of the duty but the gunslinger easily squelched the would be lengthy excuse by simply threatening to shoot him and draping him across his saddle for the journey. Ezra had then muttered he was oppressed. Nathan had nearly flipped out of his chair like a frog on a hot plate.
Josiah had intervened and dragged the southerner out the door and to the livery....It had been time to go.
Vin did not understand the term...but from Ezra's remark and Nathan's murderous reaction Tanner figured ....it meant something like today.
He wanted out...out of this heat....out of his responsibilities....he wanted freedom to choose his own way...today at least or until the heat let up. His promise to Chris and the others kept him in town. He was being forced to live within confinement.
The heat and all the people made him feel 'oppressed' and he did not like it....not even a little. It was as if it were building up to something big....maybe a massive thunderstorm.. At least the rain would bring some relief.
Tanner checked the Western sky....nothing.....and there was no breeze.
The long haired Texan gazed up when Nathan joined him in the adjacent chair. Tanner fought the urge to move his seat. His personal space seemed to magnify with the rising of the sun. The close proximity of the buildings, people and even friends was getting to much for the Tracker. He needed solitude.
"'Ey Vin.." Nathan began. Thank goodness there was no humidity out here, the healer mused. The added weight of draping moisture in the air made summer almost unbearable. FourCorners and the surrounding territories were spared such weather cruelty. This heat was not all that bad....not like on the plantations.....
Jackson shook his head buried the memories and focused on the bounty hunter. Vin should have been used to this heat...being from Texas an all. They say Texas is hot...hotter than Hades and with humidity too or so Jackson heard. He had never been to Texas...had no desire really. FourCorners was his home and he was satisfied.
Instead of a vocal answer Vin merely dipped his head. He did not relish conversation.
"Ya think Chris and Josiah will be back soon?" Jackson asked.
"Yup," Vin slid a sly glance at the healer and added, "bet they're bringin' Ezra back with'em too."
Nathan sighed, "Yep...I reck'in so."
Vin laughed quietly into his mug as he took a sip of stale beer.
Jackson hid his smile. Vin had been on edge lately. Something in the air most likely. The healer let the remark slide. He hoped Chris and Josiah brought Ezra back. As irritating as the man was Nathan found himself enjoying the Southerner's company.
+ + + + + + +
"Brother?" Josiah shook the sweat stiff shoulder again. The light pinstriping that decorated the fine shirt was smudged under the desert dust. The sun had finally set though darkness was still an hour or more off. No clouds laced the sky. It would be cold tonight.
Sanchez sat down next to the gambler and shook his shoulder again, "Come on brother time to get up." Josiah held the canteen in one hand and nudged his friend with the other. The rope bindings did not give much latitude and so the canteen thudded lightly against the curled man.
The preacher turned his head sideways and peered at the man a who rested a few yards away. Chris had finally fallen to sleep. It was not terribly difficult task. Between the blood loss and labors of their captivity it was no wonder that Larabee nodded off so easily.
The large preacher had cleaned and redressed the wound the best he could with what he had. Kerns had even had one of his men boil some water for the bandage. Josiah held his thanks...it did not bode well for either Larabee or Standish. Kerns was keeping them alive for a reason.
"Come on son, ya gotta wake up," Josiah pleaded quietly turning his attention back to Standish. There was a bottom full of water left in the canteen. Both Josiah and Chris had taken a few drinks. Standish had not moved since tossing the canteen over. That had been an hour ago.
Garret Kerns peered over his coffee watching Sanchez attempt to roust the gambler. He had never thought the preacher to hook up with the likes of a conman. The gunslinger yes, that fit perfectly.....but the gambler..no. There was a time when The Preacher shot such men on sight. Well, not quite...he normally gave them a chance to repent but most scoffed or tried to talk their way out of trouble. Gamblers and Priests...both lived and fed on others, sprouting their own brand of hypocrisy ,as Josiah had once remarked in a drunken rage. Kerns used to smile at the thought.... those Fools never knew they were going to eat a bullet no matter what they had said. Sanchez had a black rift in him that no amount of souls could fill.
There was a time Kerns had cringed under the other man's near insane rage. That had disappeared and had been replaced by callused indifference and finally humor. The levity had died in Kerns when Sanchez in a drunken haze murdered one to many times.
A slow smile melted across Garret's face. 'Son'. The word floated across the small space, no one hearing it except himself and the gambler. With coffee in hand the leader of the small band of kidnappers listened to the soft conversation taking place a few yards from him.
"I am not, never was, never have aspired to be your son," the southern drawl drifted upward weariness tugging at each syllable.
"Your right brother," Josiah attempted an apology. Not for the 'son' comment. It was simple word he used when talking to younger men. He held no stock by it..none. It was Standish who took offense to the benign word and gave it meaning in a context that was not suppose to carry any connotation of lineage.
Originally maybe, he had used it on the gambler to make him feel apart of the group. He had used it then to give the Southerner some tethers to latch onto as he struggled to find his place amongst the others. After a few trying months and the passage of a year the conman was no longer the odd man out. The simple pairings of friendships between JD and Buck; Chris and Vin; Nathan and Josiah had come to include Ezra. He floated amongst the six , the common sometimes chaffing bond between the others. The tow line was no longer needed to lure Standish into the small fraternity but the word had remained.
Standish bristled out of habit but without malice or anger. He was not Josiah's son. Sanchez was well aware of it as were the rest of them. There were times when Buck and the others would attempt to rile the gambler saying he should get used to idea of Josiah calling him son...should the preacher ever successfully court Maude. In the beginning such jokes and jibes might have offended the younger man but in the end it was one more link that ensared Ezra closer to the group.
The preacher took no offense to Standish's reflexive remark.
Instead Josiah wanted to seek some understanding and possibly forgiveness for the last few hours.
"Got some water left...think you should have some seein' how well you used your subtlety to get it for us," Sanchez remarked trying to make light of their predicament.
Standish struggled to sit up. Using both hands to push off the desert floor he eased himself into a sitting position.
Sanchez laid the canteen down and steadied the younger man. If the eyes were an indicator then the world was gyrating a bit to fast for the gambler.
"You doin' alright?" Josiah asked. He hesitantly let go of Ezra and reached for the canteen.
"Oh much better thank you," Standish whispered out trying not to move his lower jaw to much.
"Ya gut a hell of a knot on your cheek," Sanchez pointed out as he took the cork out of the canteen, "with a very respectable bruise."
"Really?" Ezra could not be sure if he should be impressed or irritated. His head hurt, pounded with irritating consistency. "What lovely shades of color now adorn my visage?"
Josiah smiled. One thing about the Southerner he held a grudge about as long as the desert held onto a puddle of water...that is if the grudge did not involve money. "Oh about the color of the sunset."
Both men turned their attention to the brilliant hues of pinks, purples and blues that spread like wild fire across the sky. For a moment Josiah found some peace in his day.
"That bad huh?" Standish reached for the canteen and quickly drained the contents. The tepid water felt good going down....almost as good as properly aged Brandy.
"Thank you," Ezra replied recapping the canteen.
"You doin' alright?" Sanchez's tone took a serious twist. He kept his gaze down cast focusing on the ground between them.
"Never better," a crooked smile hallmarked by one dimple eased some of Sanchez's fears. "And Mr. Larabee?" Standish asked cautiously rubbing his cheek testing the boundaries of tender flesh and swelling. It would not be beneficial in his other lines of work to be permanently marred.
"Chris is doin' ok...." Josiah paused letting his eyes fall to the dark clad man sleeping in the shade of the bluffs. His attention was pulled back to Standish, a forced smile twitched on his stubbled features, "we keep those wounds clean.....he should heal." If Kerns allows it...
Standish rubbed at his head again, "Without prying Mr. Sanchez....could you possibly enlighten me as to why that monstrosity over there known as Benjamin has taken such a dislike to my person?"
"Don't rightly know Ezra," Sanchez smiled rising to his feet, "just must be your winning personality." A low chuckle rolled quietly from the preacher as he returned to his spot next to Larabee. The gambler eased himself back down to the desert floor. He wondered if Nathan held that much hatred.
Kerns tossed his coffee out. Things were better than expected.
Garrett Kerns squatted next to the fire stirring the early morning coals. Flames lurched to life snatching at the small brittle fuel that had just been layered over them. Kerns watched his captives silently. Sanchez was already awake watching over his two 'friends'like a Gargoyle. Garrett chuckled to himself. The preacher would fail just like most meaningless tokens made to ward off evil spirits.
David McCall had morning watch. The cowhand turned drifter had relieved his cousin Peter just a few hours ago. Kerns did not care one way or another about the two cousins. They were good in a pinch. They had hooked up a few months earlier. Both out of work looking to earn some wages. They were as good with their fists as they were with their guns and level headed.
Benjamin and Garrett had ridden together for almost half a year. Kerns liked the giant ex-slave. He was a quiet man but had a violent streak that smoldered just under plain sight. Kerns had found it easier keeping Benjamin out of towns. The big man had short fused and tended to land in jail. He had come close to killing a few men with his bare hands.
Spotting Sanchez in Junction City was a fluke. A miracle. Kerns smirked at the thought. Miracles were non-existent in this day and age. People either made their own way or they crumbled in a pile bones and dust. Sanchez taught him that little lesson....right before the bastard killed the only thing that meant something to Kerns.
Garrett learned his most important lesson that night. Revenge kept a cold heart beating. Kerns finally had some understanding of the black agony that raged with in the preacher. For that lesson he would kill the preacher....right after he killed Sanchez's gunslinging friend and gambling 'son'.
Benjamin held a plate of beans out in front of his boss. Kerns blinked twice rapidly bringing himself back to the present.
The large man merely nodded.
Peter scooped his own beans. He and David had learned that Benjamin would only serve their boss. It only took the cousins one incident to respect the black man's strength and animosity toward anything indicating his servitude toward others.
McCall let his gaze fall on the three captives. The boss wanted the older man, that much was clear. For what he had not let anyone know at the moment. The Southerner and man in black were just sacrificial pawns in the game.
Peter shrugged his shoulders...as long as he got paid.
An hour after sunrise the gear was packed and horses saddled. Josiah sat leaning against the cool stones watching the flickering flames of the small cook fire. He knew Kerns was watching him. Josiah could do nothing about it. He would protect Chris and Ezra as long as he could. Hopefully those two would find away out and make their escape. With any luck they would leave him behind. Sanchez had prepared himself to face his demon.
His attention was pulled toward the dark gunslinger. Chris groaned and rolled onto his back. He brought his good hand up to his face and rubbed it tiredly. His face was stiff from dried sweat and made tough by the sun. He blinked again....his eyes burned with weariness. Nausea bubbled just behind his tonsils. His head pounded in bizarre synchrony with his injured shoulder.
"Welcome back Brother," Josiah said sliding closer to the gunslinger. "How ya feelin'?"
"Fine," Chris answered. The 'F' was lost in the scratchy dryness of his throat. Chris lay quietly for a moment trying to recall and align the brief flashes of memories from yesterday.
Larabee struggled to sit up. It was then he realized his hands were still tied.
Sanchez helped him up. The morning strings of color did not hold the same sharp brilliance as the previous dusk. With the slow lightening of the sky the temperatures began to climb.
"Thanks Josiah," Larabee fought to remain upright for few seconds. Chris found that if he sat 'Indian style' he could maintain his own balance.
"Ezra?" Chris asked in a low voice still fighting the rising tide of bile.
"Still sleepin'," Sanchez's gaze fell on the slightly curled form of the slumbering conman. Hard to believe he could cause so much trouble....well not really the preacher amended.
Larabee swung his chin slowly toward his shoulder following Josiah's gaze, "Best wake'im up before they do." Chris tested the ropes again. His shoulder had become stiff and sore. It felt as if the skin cracked and pulled with the slightest move.
Garrett witnessed the brief conversation.
"Let's get goin' boys....Benjamin why don't ya wake ya new friend over there," Kerns met the Preacher's gaze and tipped his hat a smile burned his features.
Chris made it to his knees, determination and a touch of panic urging him to his feet. Josiah pushed him back into the dirt, "Stay," he ordered. Larabee struggled upright cursing the preacher.
Josiah quickly crossed the short distance to the gambler, "Ezra!....Ezra git up!" Sanchez bellowed his deep voice bounding off the bluffs. He would not let another fall because of his sins.
Kerns laughed softly as he saddled his horse. It was good to see the Preacher panic. Gratifying to watch him struggle to save a life and know he would fail.
Benjamin reached the gambler the same time as Josiah. The giant man pushed the preacher to the side and reached for the gambler. Sanchez landed in the dirt, already climbing to his feet. A few yards behind him Chris swayed to an upright position.
Neither Benjamin nor Standish were prepared for each others reaction. The dark man roughly grabbed the conman's shirt collar intending to haul him to his feet.
Reflexes kicked in before eyes opened and senses turned on. Somewhere in the gambler's hazy consciousness he reacted. As booted feet lashed out, tied hands flew up knocking the offending grip loose and he was rolling away before eyelids peeled apart.
Benjamin let out a strangled howl as a boot heel connected solidly with the side of his knee forcing the joint to move in a manner it was not made to move. A second foot hammered the inside of his thigh forcing him to take a half step back.
Before he knew it his prey had created a few yards worth of distance and was struggling to its feet.
Benjamin made to lumber after the smaller wobbling man. Neither one noticed the increasing trouble in the ramutea line.
The Chestnut took to struggling at it's lead. Squatting low on its haunches dancing with its front feet rising off the ground, Chaucer fought the dictate to move out.
The Sorrel skittered out of its way content to let the gelding lash out. The sorrel swung into the Black forcing it to step into a pile of sharp, edged, volcanic rock. The gelding bared its teeth and lunged at the sorrel barreling into the offending animal sending it into the balking Chestnut. Chaucer reared bringing its front feet a few yards off the ground and bounded forward.....then to the side and back. Lines became tangled and riders began to panic.
Kerns' smile dipped from his face, "Benjamin enough of that, go help McCall with the horses!"
Benjamin paused having managed to grab the Southern man by the collar with one hand poised to strike.
"Now!" Kerns shouted.
Benjamin let the fist fall catching the gambler on the right cheek driving the smaller southerner to the ground. Standish dropped like a sack of potatoes.
Larabee and Sanchez waited a brief second. When the dark man left, they both converged on the listlessly moving gambler who gamely struggled to all fours with his head bowed.
When Sanchez touched his shoulder Standish tried to shy away, falling back onto his side. When he hit another object he struck out. Chris leaned back from the wildly swung twin fists. It pulled on his shoulder causing him to hiss in pain.
"Whoa, Whoa easy son, ya alright, its just me an' Chris," Sanchez soothed trying to pull the protective arms down from Ezra's face. For a brief moment there was a pause filled only by heavy pants.
"Yes,.......well.......that is a.....rude way to.....awaken someone," Standish croaked trying to regain some composure. With two sets of guiding hands he managed to sit up. His heart hammered in his chest wildly. The numbness in his cheek began to give away to tingling sensation. The thudding pain would follow quickly on its heels.
"Ya alright?" Josiah asked and then continued "Well you'll have matchin' bruises," Sanchez chuckled softly moving the conman's head left and right by the base of his jaw. The eyes were sluggish, then again it was morning...
Standish attempted to nail him with an annoyed glare but could not fathom which blurry figure to aim it at.
"On ya feet you three," Peter ordered as he led the three geldings passed. The black kept its ears pinned and head slightly turned toward the other two. The sorrel ignored him and paced quietly behind the Bay. Chaucer tossed his head, kicking out at anything that ventured to close to his feet. The lingering coffee pot suffered the consequences and was flung across the small breaking camp.
"Ezra yer damn horse is a nuisance," Larabee intoned quietly. Josiah stood between the two men keeping steadying hands on Chris. The blood loss had made him light headed. Ezra shuffled his feet backward and forward and left to right trying to maintain a fleeting sense of balance. Sanchez used his shoulder to keep the conman from falling backward.
"Yes well," Standish mumbled trying to find a footing on the apparently heaving earth, "he does prefer his morning repast before breaking trail."
+ + + + + + +
Vin had crawled out of the back of his wagon. The air was stagnant. Though the canvas sides had been rolled up, privacy be damned for a little breeze, the air still did not move.
With a curse Tanner abandoned the wooden wagon grabbing his mare's leg out of habit. He rubbed his forehead on his biceps wiping sweat off his brow onto the pushed up shirt sleeve. The morning sun had finally crested the horizon. A dull, weak, spread of color hallmarked the beginning of a new day.
The tracker swiped haphazardly at his stomach. The ill feeling that had bubbled quietly inside for the past day in the half gurgled with increasing persistence.
Weather be damned....something was wrong.
Buck sat in front of the saloon. The lack of wind made it impossible to stay in bed and for once the close proximity of another warm body was not very welcomed. Wilmington cursed the weather.
He rubbed at the back of his neck circling his head trying to rid himself of the unsettled feeling that had quietly draped itself over him the last few days. He sipped his morning beer forgoing his usual cup of coffee. The Lady's man pulled his shoulder blades together in an attempt to wiggle out of the crawling sensation that tingled his spine.
He furrowed his brow when he spotted Vin....The tracker felt it too.
Nathan found his way down from the clinic porch. His doctor bag packed with supplies waiting up at his door. Nothing more than a feeling...but he thought it best...something was not right about today...
Buck and Vin glanced at one another. The tracker dipped his head in greeting as he strode effortlessly across the deserted main street. Nathan met them in front of the saloon. The three men stared at each other. Though they greeted one another in their customary monosyllabic manner they danced heavily around the ill feeling that visibly found them all.
JD woke with a start. Despite the heat the young Bostonian usually slept well. Last night he tossed and turned. Something flickered at the edge of his consciousness like northern lights to someone just a little to south to see them. They were there....you just had to wait them out or move to meet them. Like shadows dancing just on the periphery of his vision...a dark omen shadowed him in his twilighted slumber. Dunne bolted up right in bed.
The young sheriff shot out of the boarding house, coat in hand, gunbelts laying across his forearm.
He spotted the three older men milling about in front of the saloon.
"Wonder what's gut JD in a huff?" Nathan asked trying to break the uncomfortable silence that threatened to drown the three men.
"Reckon' we'll find out in a bit," Vin remarked with no hint of the tired sarcasm that had once lanced his weary words.
Buck nodded appreciatively to Tanner. The tracker seemed to have lowered his upper lip and once again hid his predatory canines. It was unusual for Vin to get ruffled.
"'Ey kid where's the fire?" Buck joked though no trace of humor could be found amongst the words.
JD stood before the three of the six men he revered most in the world. Their opinions of him were what guided his every day actions. Their approval or disapproval ruled his every decision.
Without hesitation without trying to explain himself the young man simply blurted out, "Something wrong I got a bad feeling about Chris an' the others."
Vin, Buck and Nathan shared looks.
With a soft Texan drawl Vin quietly suggested, "Lets ride."
Chris tried to blink the sweat out of his eyes. The salt laden moisture stung and crusted his face. He wiped his face on his shirt sleeve feeling the grittiness scratch across his features. His shoulder cried out in protest issuing forth a weak dry groan from the gunslinger.
A chill ran through his body. He shivered tensing his back. Again his shoulder spoke in its relentless bounding monotone.
Sage brush and cheat grass ripped at pant legs and snarled feet. Larabee dragged one foot then the other. The rope pulled taught with increasing frequency. He became dimly away of moisture running down his chest, over, not between, his pectoral muscles. Most likely bleeding again. His head bobbed to his chest the effort to keep it lifted seemed to great.
His foot entangled itself in some sage grass. He tripped, legs to weak to move with any speed failed to recover from the break in stride.
Chris hit the hard packed desert floor. His arms to tired and shoulders to sore refused to throw themselves out front to break the fall. He landed with a boneless thud. Larabee feebly tried to get his legs under him. The horse he was tethered too continued to walk. The gunslinger made it to his knees made half a stride while on one knee attempting to swing the other leg to gain his feet. The rope pulled taught and once again he fell belly first into the ground.
Josiah heard the loss of breath....heard the mirthless chuckle from the rider behind him. The preacher turned his head and saw Larabee's trouble.
The afternoon sun baked mercilessly down on them. What little strength the three captives had evaporated with the sweat that slowly dwindled from dehydrating bodies.
With his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, lips clinging to dirt lined teeth Josiah put everything into his next move. He dug his heels into the earth and tugged sharply with his bound hands.
The stiff lariat rope having only been dallied once around the horn easily whistled free giving up slack. Kerns cursed his own complacency as he desperately grabbed for the disappearing rope. Sanchez was more monster than man and Kerns had dropped his guard. Foolish!
"I'll blow your fuckin' skull all over this desert you son of a bitch," Garrett held his revolver aimed at the preacher. Kerns knew the Preacher might actually force him to carry out his threat. There was no way he could simply hold the bigger man in place by the rope tether. Sanchez possessed the strength of a beast.
Josiah had the look of a crazed bull. "Then do it...." The maniacal glare that Kerns had remember so well flickered briefly in the preacher's blue eyes, " I'm prepared to meet my maker." His voice croaked and cracked. His thickened dry tongue refused to form the words the brain dictated. The meaning however, hung like ice on a gutter.
Ezra nearly plowed right into the dark bay. Benjamin swung around flinging a sweeping back hand trying to catch the Southerner unawares.
Standish managed to raise his head and step back tossing out a mocking smile. A dimple flashed for a brief moment.
Ezra blinked the sand and grit out of his eyes and noticed Larabee down. Kerns held a gun on Sanchez. What had he missed? No matter really. There honestly was not much he could do to prevent his associate from causing troubles. They seemed quite adapt for such escapades....more so than most people. He could, however, aid in the aftermath.
Without thinking, or maybe with newly awakened instincts the gambler stepped wide of Benjamin and attempted to make his way to his fallen friend.
Benjamin let the white man circumvent his horse. Then with a mightily pull he heaved on the rope tether yanking the tied arms fully around. Unbalanced Standish was unable to fully resist the tugging on the rope as the large man quickly reeled him within striking distance.
A foot lashed out catching the gambler in the mid section. Standish's eyes grew wide as air was violently forced from his lungs. He attempted to clutch his stomach as his back arched outward from the force of the blow. The gambler crashed to the ground beneath Benjamin's foot.
The ex-slave laughed heartily as the Southern brought his knees up to his stomach and gasped for an elusive breath.
"There a problem back there Benjamin?" Kerns asked holstering his weapon. He would not kill Sanchez now. Not yet. He was not ready. He would let Josiah tend his gunslinging friend. He would allow Josiah's friends to learn just what a murdering devil rode amongst them.
"Ain't no trouble back here..." Benjamin looked down at the curled man, "is there boy?" He tugged on the rope a few times for good measure.
Sanchez ignored Ezra. Standish could take care of himself for now. He had too. Kerns would not let Benjamin kill him just yet...Josiah hoped.
The preacher wearily plodded over to the blonde gunslinger and knelt beside him, "Brother?" Josiah carefully rolled him over. Heat emanated off Larabee yet the man seemed to shake with chills. Sanchez carefully checked the shoulder wound. Blood and dirt freely mingled with the once clean bandage. Larabee for his part fought to open his eyes but they remained half hooded and obstinate.
"Hold on Brother...." Sanchez patted Chris's good shoulder smiling briefly. Josiah pushed himself to his feet. He felt his face tingle slightly and his balance falter. The heat and lack of water was getting to him. They could not go on much longer in these conditions. Sanchez caught a quick glimpse of the southerner struggling to his hands and knees under Benjamin's boot.
Sanchez slowly rose to his feet. His growing anger quickly devoured the quiet resignation that had ruled him earlier. He would atone for his sins before his Deity...not another man attempting to play God.
"Kerns..." the simple word rolled like thunder. David McCall carefully moved his mount out from between the two men. The cousins exchanged glances. Peter brought up the rear ponying the three geldings. David unobtrusively created as much distance as he could without dragging the downed gunslinger. Sanchez held the eyes of man kindling a blind rage.
Josiah strode slowly up the length of the rope. The flexible nature of the tether not intended to keep the captive at bay...only from fleeing. As with some on the end of the lariat....fear attempted to strangle Garret's chest when his prey stalked him from the length of the rope.....much like a shark chewing its way up a fishing line.
For a brief moment Kerns worried over who was tethered to whom.
"Keep back Sanchez or I'll let Benny 'play' with his new toy," Kerns flashed his wild card on the table.
Garret let his eyes swivel to the gambler. The Southerner had made it to his feet but Benjamin was keeping him within striking distance. Kerns quietly hoped his giant friend realized that a trapped animal could still bite and fight.
Sanchez paused. His plan had been simple. Pull Kerns from his saddle and rip him apart bare handed. It would not have been exceedingly difficult. Josiah had done it before...numerous times. Men crumbled and broke much like furniture if bent properly.
Kerns fought the smile that twitched on his features. The other two men had some value to Sanchez. They would be more efficient at keeping him prisoner than the ropes.
"We'll rest here..." Garrett ordered. Peter and David McCall exchanged glances...something in the boss's voice did not settle right.
Josiah ignored it, thankful for the chance to tend Chris. Larabee could only hear the roar of his own pulse. Ezra heard the new directive and was thankful for a chance to sit down and get his wind. If there was a game to be played he wanted to be ready.
+ + + + + + +
JD's light bay pranced behind Buck's big grey. JD patted the flexed neck with reassurance and encouragement....Things were going to be fine....just fine... Most likely Chris and Ezra probably just got into it again and Josiah was having to dunk them in a water hole to cool them off. Sure that was it....Dunne wished Ezra would learn to just quietly go along with things...instead of complain and fight about stuff. It sure would make things easier on everybody.
Buck wiped at his brow again. There was really nothing wrong...just bored...humoring JD. Not like you could laugh at the kid and his gut feelings. Everything was going to be fine...if anything Chris had probably tied Ezra to the saddle and gagged him..but nothing else. Buck hunched his shoulders up rubbed the back of his head on his shirt...trying to appease the little hairs that stood up at the base of his neck. The Grey gelding flicked its head fighting for more rein sensing his rider's urgency to move faster.
With practiced ease Nathan's thin legged mount paced itself easily bringing up the rear. Jackson mentally ran through the supplies in his bag. If the southerner held true to form he would be irritating the socks off of Larabee right about now. Most likely why JD had such a bad feeling this morning. JD was learning the routine of the other men...their habits...there was no way Standish could go this long without provoking Larabee into some kind of violence. Poor Josiah. Damn man and his penance. Sweat slicked the horses coats muting the shine that radiated off well fed animals.
Vin led the way. Peso stretched his legs in ground eating strides with minimal effort. From the tension of his rider the Bounty Hunter's horse understood it would be on the trail for sometime. It could maintain this brisk walk for hours. Tanner hoped Chris had not shot Ezra...that would be hard to explain to Maude...even for Josiah. Tanner shook his head...Sanchez had to be kicking himself for going with those two.
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