Dusk, outside Santa Fe
Silas Edwards handed the reins of his horse to the young Spanish boy who stood outside the doorway of the strange house. He eyed the large mansion and got a shiver. He untied Tanner's body and slung it over his shoulder. He'd waited until they were well outside of town, before discarding the blanket. He slung the unconscious man over the saddle, bound and blindfolded. Tanner woke up midday, and Edwards stopped to let his horse drink. He pulled the prisoner down harshly and sat him against a rock. The moaning gave way to a long drink. Tanner was too sick to protest and the blindfold left him even more disoriented. He was tied up to the saddlehorn and stirrups, but by the time they arrived, the sick man was slumped over.
"This way, Senor." a Spanish man nodded, leading the way down a narrow stairwell. He squinted in the dark and waited until the guide lit a lamp. The dark, musty smell permeated the room and the icy fingers of the dungeon grabbed at him. A loud creak drew his gaze to a heavy door with a single slit. He moved forward, and ducked into the room, grinning as Tanner's head whacked solidly against the oak frame. The room was clean, but cold. He saw the single bed and winced at the glinting steel.
"That's gonna hurt..." he mused of the icy metallic surface. He dropped Tanner on the bed. The victim's legs hung over the side. He pulled him upright and took the hide coat off, while the guard untied the hands and feet. He left the prisoner go and grinned as the body bounced off the cold bed.
"Como mandé, Carlos..."
The sultry female voice caused him to turn. He studied the woman openly, eyeing the full breasts that spilled over the tight bodice of the black blouse. His greedy eyes lingered on the form fitting riding pants. The other man moved forward, pulling off Tanner's boots. He pulled the body on the bed and tied both hands and one leg to bedposts. This left the right leg on the floor. Grabbing a chain that was secured to the wall, he squatted down and attempted to apply a manacle to the exposed flesh of the ankle.
"Está a pequeño..."
"Nonsense," She hissed, moving across the room. She eyed the rusty metal clamp that appeared too small. "Make it fit..." She demanded and turned, "Mr. Edwards..."
"No problem." He grabbed the clamp and forced it bend, pinching the flesh under it painfully. The sharp cry and movement caused both of them to grin. He squeezed the manacle again and Tanner cried out again.
Ella heard the large bounty hunter laughing and smiled. He might come in handy. She snapped her fingers and the guard handed her a pillow. She placed it on the bed and sat on it.
"Water," She commanded, eyeing the two men standing behind her, "...leave us." At the click of the door, his head moved. She ran a hand up his lean leg and smiled as he squirmed. Her hand crossed over below his waistline and a soft grunt escaped his lips. Lingering for a moment, she watched the adam's apple bob and continued her journey. The muscles beneath his chest quivered under her touch and she felt his heart beating rapidly. Resting briefly on the sweating neck, she then traced his jawline and ran a finger over the parched lips. She chuckled at the quick jerk of his head, pulling back from her.
Vin felt the fingers dallying on his chest, toying with him. He shuddered and his heart began to pound frantically. His inner senses sounded loudly.
"What..." he croaked, swallowing. His dry throat protesting
She eased his head up and gave him a drink of water, then eased a chilled glass of wine against the parched lips. Like a deprived infant, he gulped greedily. Her deft fingers unbuttoned the shirt and slid inside the shirt. She caressed the tan skin underneath and saw his head turn.
Smiling evilly, she leaned over the handsome face and let her well-trained hands slide south, trailing past his waistline. The audible gasp and slight jerking motion from her victim widened her smile as her fingers danced across the strained fabric.
Vin struggled against the ropes that held him down. He smelled the dank air and felt the bond numbing cold invade him. A cellar...well below ground...perfume...expensive..not the kind Buck's women wear. His jaw clenched and he struggled in vain, as the well-versed hand became too familiar. His head was pounding and his stomach churning. He was angry that he couldn't remember what happened. Vague images of being on a horse...and an attack in the bed came to view. He tried to remain stoic, but his body surrendered to her massage. He cursed at his body's betrayal as he stirred beneath her hands.
His hissing increased and he struggled weakly against his bonds. Placing her hands on each side of his face, she bent over him. She studied the finely chiseled features and ran a finger along the strong jawline. She moved the other hand south. It slid up his taut thigh and she heard the intake of air.
"That's nothing to be ashamed of Vin." She oozed, "I can fix that...uh...discomfort..."
"Such language...you're a wild one..." She whispered, resting her lips against his ear and enjoying the grunting discomfort and head jerk.
Vin's heart was hammering and his aching head was swimming. He felt sick and the disorienting dizziness didn't help. His anger grew as his body responded to her diabolical touch. He fought every bold grope and shied away from her fingers. He stiffened when he felt her lean on him, her face near his and the ripe body pressed too close.
"Yer worse than a cheap whore..."
"Oh, I do love that Tanner temper..." She laughed into his ear and pulled back, pressing into him and watching the inner turmoil cross onto his face. "You're very handsome and quite a tempting morsel, but my husband's wrath is well known. If my Chris saw us like this...he just might kill you." She warned in a low, throaty voice and nibbled on his exposed neck.
"...yer Chris?" Vin hissed, clenching himself against the nipping teeth, "...yer crazy...he sooner sleep with a snake...course I reckon he done that at yer ranch." Vin gasped and hissed in pain as sharp nails raked down his neck and a sharp slap stung his face.
Satisfied, she pulled back and laughed, caressing his face. She pulled the blindfold off and watched him turn and shield his eyes from the harshness of light.
The light stabbed his long blinded eyes and he turned away, blinking and then tried to focus. He felt the woman's hand stroke his face and her fingers trace over his lips. He bit out, and managed to nip one, which earned him another harsh slap.
"You'll pay for that..."
His head turned at the familiar voice and his clouded vision cleared. The blurry face inches from his own gained a name. What the hell was going on? What was the she-devil's plan? Chris...his heart raced...she was using him to get Chris. His frantic eyes darted leaving the villianess's face. It was an old stone cellar and he was tied to a steel bed, with only a thin mattress beneath him. His right ankle throbbed, protesting at having been shoved into a small metal enclosure. He pulled the leg hard and growled, eyeing her with unbridled rage.
"This time I will kill you, Bitch." He hissed, spitting at her.
"Temper...temper..." She oozed, lifting her body and moving to straddle him. She ground into him and smiled at his weak protests. He jerked and strained, trying hard to ward off the inevitable. She smiled at the tanned chest splayed open before her. She lowered her lips and bared her teeth, and delighted in the sharp intake of air.
Vin took a deep breath and tried to shut himself down. He blocked her out...trying to dispell the
uncontrollable urges of his body. The nibbling teeth and grinding hips tried hard to break him. He resisted, even as her devilish eyes leered at him. She eased off him and stood, her hand toyed with the buttons his fly. "No..." He hissed, eyes rolling with a supreme effort to remain strong. Then she turned away and he left his breath go, relieved. She bent over him and he turned his face away from the white teeth than insulted him.
"Don't worry Mountain Man...your virtue is safe..." She paused and waited for the lean body to relax. "from me anyway. My heart belongs to my husband...God he's magnificent." She boasted, eyes glowing, "Of course, I can speak for your guards." She laughed at the brief flicker of fear in the large blue eyes and rubbed the inside of his lean thigh.
"Never..." He snarled, and winced as she pinched him hard.
"Ricardo will be down in a little while to bring you some food. He's been with me over ten years and is utterly faithful. Any efforts on your part to try to resist, will be met with severe punishment." She warned and saw the blue eyes fighting to stay awake. He was still groggy and sick from the strong chemical used to transport him. She'd made sure the water in the canteen as well as in the cup she offered, were laced with a narcotic to keep him out of action. "Goodnight, Sweet Prince..." She cooed, stroking his face. He didn't have the strength to withdraw this time and his stuperous eyes began to slide shut. She watched as his lips struggled to form a word, his confused eyes lost in time.
"Chris..." He whispered as his head lolled.
"Soon, Wild One, very soon..." She replied, thinking of her green-eyed stud. She turned the lamp out and exited.
Back in Four Corners
"What do you mean, you dismissed them?" Chris snarled, his eyes bearing down on Orrin Travis.
The Judge didn't flinch, he leaned back in his chair and took a pondering breath. He eyed the lean figure in black, whose face was a livid mask. He flicked a glance at the others gathered in the Saloon. Six pairs of eyes were trained on him, sending silent support through their irate leader.
"I know how you feel Chris..."
"The hell you do..." Larabee snapped.
"...it's been two weeks, Chris. I can't keep them on indefinitely, it's a large country, she could be anywhere.. She's smart and undoubtedly cooling her heels. By now she must know about her father and the two dead hired guns. If it's you she's hunting, she's gotta raise her head eventually." He argued, gaining a silent nod from Josiah and Buck.
"....and then we chop it off." J.D. agreed. "The Judge's right Chris. We'll get her...we just gotta be a little patient."
"Fuck that." Chris hissed, glaring at the Judge and stalking outside.
Buck eyed the swinging batwing doors and stood to follow. Nate placed a tentative hand on his arm and saw the dark blue eyes turn back.
"Might not be the best time, Buck. He ain't in an agreeable mood."
"He's worried about Vin." Buck stated, draining his beer and grabbing his hat.
"...and Buck's worried about Chris." Josiah added, watching him approach Chris from the doorway.
"Well, Gentlemen," The Judge rose and grabbed his hat. "It's getting late and I have an early stage to catch. I'll be in touch."
Chris eyed the departing arbitrator and snickered, shaking his head and stomping the back of his heel against the wall. He eyed the darkening sky and shivered, almost feeling her madness in the air. He still heard that threat...not letting anyone come between them...She was out there, lurking behind the shadows of midnight, waiting and smiling that evil grin. But where? As close as the next town or as far away as Mexico or St. Louis or New Orleans. He recalled the latter two as places she wanted them to see together. He sighed and heard the threat again. The uneasy feeling that started several days ago had only increased. His cool eyes raked the terrain, eyeing the horizon for a black horse with a scrappy Texan. The sinking feeling returned and he glanced at the stars blinking overhead.
"Where are you, Cowboy?" he whispered, trying to rid himself of the sinking premonition.
Chris turned slightly and tossed the cheroot he'd been smoking into the gutter. He pulled his hat lower, shielding his face from the torchlight of the street. He didn't reply right away, but didn't reject Buck's stance to his right. How many years had Wilmington taken that role? He'd ridden by his side through thick and thin for over a dozen years. Sometimes he'd could become downright livid at Buck, but he could never spurn him. They'd been through too much together. From bloodied battlefields back east, crossing the plains and settling in Eagle's bend for awhile. Buck's face the day the circuit judge pinned that star on his chest. Buck's booming laughter when Hank Conley blasted him with rocksalt. The shine of pride in the blue eyes when Chris took a bride and the tears that welled the first time he handed Adam to the rogue. Yes, he'd ridden through hell and back with Buck Wilmington, and he was as good a friend as you could have.
"...No..." he shook his head. "I got a bad feeling..."
Buck sighed and rubbed his neck. The words 'he'll be back' stuck in his throat. Deep down, he was worried too. Ella was a clever fox and until Vin Tanner was back, there was cause for concern. He, too, was surprised as the inactivity in town. They'd wired Red Fork about the dead men. The Pinkerton's in town remained for a few more days, but things were almost too calm.
"Which way we heading?" Buck asked, and saw the head rise. He met the cool gaze and read the face he knew all too well. "I know you're worried about him..."
"Promised Billy I'd take him fishing on Sunday, after church." Chris said, stepping into the street, eyeing the North Star. "We'll head out at first light on Monday."
"North?" Buck guessed, watching the trained eyes.
"Yeah...I figure he headed to high ground. The mountains most likely. Could be he stopped in one of them towns on the trail."
Buck nodded and watched as Chris took a few steps and melted into the darkness. Sometimes he wondered why the somber man felt so at home in the shadows. It wasn't always that way...and with the return of Vin Tanner, maybe the light would be restored again. He made his way back to the Saloon and joined Josiah and J.D. at a corner table
The simple act of breathing was painful. The stone walls mocked him, and the blue eyes lingered on them briefly. He knew it was impossible, but he swore the walls were closing in more each day. A day...days...weeks? How long had he been here? There was no natural light and he spent most of his time alone. Once day the guard came and left a plate of food. He ate out of necessity, but sparingly after the first meal. He was sure she was lacing the food with a drug. He'd been lethargic and listless for the hours, and unable to think coherently. That is when he met the two guards, the older one was almost sympathetic...almost. He brought Vin the lone blanket he had. The younger one was mean....and strong and heartless. They pulled him from the bed and shackled his hands to the cuffs that were suspended from the ceiling. His numbed brain wouldn't work and his legs were like rubber. They asked him questions about Senor Cavendish...Cavendish? He shook his head and was rewarded with a blow to the chest. With every sluggish response, another blow came. He couldn't remember the questions and didn't remember passing out.
It was the same pattern repeated over and over. He had no sense of time and with every passing hour, locked in a stone crypt, his depression grew. There would be no six friends worried about his absence and riding out for him. How could they? Hadn't it been his choice to leave? They didn't know where he was. His heart sank and he curled up in a ball on his side and tried to find some warmth. Every movement was painful, and bruises that lined his face and body screamed in protest.
Each round of questioning was highlighted by a different 'persuader'. That is what she called them, the small whips and other tools of the trade. Her face appeared before his clouded vision and his anger welled up. He closed his eyes against the cruel laughter and let out a soft cry of anger. He'd been a prisoner before...but never felt so alone. You can't miss what you don't have. Prior to squatting in Four Corners, he'd had no real home for years or friends...family. Josiah's booming voice scolded him, urging him to hold on to his faith, J.D.'s youthful enthusiasm gave him a little strength, Ezra's profound statements...he ached to hear a string of those ten dollar words, Buck's strong presense and Nate's passion for survival. Nate...for the first time he thought of the soulful healer and didn't flinch. He only felt compassion and yearning. He wanted to go home...he raised his aching head and coughed painfully, wiping his teary eyes. They no longer kept him tied up, they didn't have to. He was in too much pain to combat them and too cold. Lord, but it was cold. He felt an unbearable ache settle into his chest as the laughing faces of his friends disappeared.
"No...." He croaked, reaching a hand out to stop the fading image. They all left but one, the lean man in black who lingered in the corner, green eyes glowing. "Chris...I need ya...Chris..." He pleaded, jerking as the door opened.
"Time for our daily exchange of thoughts and ideas, Vin." She eyed the battered body and frowned at the defiant glint in the swollen eyes. He'd been stronger than she thought and resisted everything she'd thrown at him. The beatings didn't phase him and the disorientation of being cut off from daylight and human contact hadn't effected him as quickly as it should. He'd refused food yesterday and taken only small sips of water. She sat on the bed and raised an eyebrow as he moved weakly away. "You can't win...you might as well make it easy on yourself. You must learn to be more cooperative.
"Go t'Hell..." Vin rasped, raising a weak fist.
"You are stubborn...as stubborn as Chris I think." She got a rise out of the flicker of emotion in the blue eyes. "Very well...Ramon..." she snapped her fingers and watched his face was the large guard appeared. For days they tried to break him...but he'd defied them. She didn't think it would come to this.
Vin's eyes were dulled with pain and he closed them as her voice faded away. He took every blow for Chris...hoping that the longer he held out, the better chance Chris had of finding her. Billy said they killed the stranger...Vin knew he was dangerous...but couldn't remember why now. But it had something to do with her...and Red Fork. Did they know where she was? Where they looking for her? He felt the rough hands pull him onto his back. He threw a wayward fist and caught the young, burly guard in the throat. A fist slammed into his groin and his world was slammed full of color and pain. He didn't feel his shirtsleeve being ripped, or his arm being held out. He gasped in pain and heard her laughing.
"Senora..." He held out the black lacquer box and she took it carefully. She eyed the high polish finish and caressed the smooth exterior.
"I think you'll be very cooperative now...I think we'll be good friends..." She oozed, watching the fever -flushed face, marred by cuts and bruises, combat the effects of Ramon's fist. When his breathing slowed and the dazed eyes found hers again, she saw the defiance return. "Now we're ready..." She smiled. "Ramon..."
Vin eyes widened as the lid opened and a strange object appeared in her hand. He'd only seen them in some of Nathan's books. Nate called it a...a...syringe...for sending medicine into a person. He saw her stick the sharp end into a bottle and pull back the one end. He tried to roll away but found a beefy arm pressed into his throat, and a knee on his chest, pinning him to the bed. His eyes darted and his breath was labored. He growled and grunted, straining in vain.
"This comes all the way from the Orient...through the black market. I've got friends in San Francisco who were kind enough to supply me with some. It's quite experimental and I'm told nets favorable responses. "Unfortunately..." She warned, drinking in his sharp cry of pain as she injected the needle into his vein. "...the victim usually doesn't survive." She placed the syringe back in the box and nodded for Ramon to remove himself. She held the writhing body down by the shoulders until he stopped thrashing. She wiped the tears streaked face with one hand and smiled. "I'll miss our talks...you have such a way with words..." She chuckled, thinking of the long strings of curses that followed every question.
Vin felt a sharp pain, as the needle was jammed into his arm. The burning force exploded immediately, carrying upwards and into his chest. It hurt worse than anything he'd ever encountered. He screamed and then everything faded away.
"There...that's much better." she decided, eyeing the wide transfixed gaze on the supine body. She noted how dark his eyes had become and the irregular breathing. "Let's get started then...Can you hear me Vin?" She asked and saw the head dip once. "Good...I have some questions for you. You must be truthful. Do you understand?" Again the head dipped. "Where is Elliot Cavendish?"
"Don't know." the soft reply came.
"Do you know the Phantom?"
"Phantom?" he slurred, blinking once very slowly and licking his dry lips. "Oh..." he said amazed and his eyes widened a bit. "white hair...wanted poster...dangerous...gotta stop 'im..."
"You saw him? When?"
"Don't recall..." he furrowed his face, "...while back...in town...I seen 'im...I knew he's no good...I fired..."
"You shot him?" Her nails dug into neck, and left scarlet tracks.
"You hurt me..." His voice faded and he turned slightly.
"Did you shoot him!" She persisted, digging her nails into his sore arm.
"Missed...he got away." the dejected voice came back and the eyes filled up. "...my fault...Billy got shot...Oh God..."
"Billy Travis?" She nodded, putting that piece in the puzzle. She heard he'd been injured, but that the tracker had done it. "Where is the Phantom now?"
"Dead." the steadfast reply came.
"What?" She grabbed his chin and forced the unblinking eyes towards hers. "Did you kill him?"
"No...after they run me out of town...they went after 'im and shot him."
"Yeah...he killed a lot of people..." the transfixed response came.
"Shut up!" She screamed and slapped him hard.
"Ow..." He cringed, his breath becoming more labored.
"They lied..." She thought outloud, recalling her spies reports of her father's friend splitting the money with him. She's assumed he ran out on her again. He'd done it so often, she wasn't surprised when he didn't show up in Eagle's Bend for their meeting. Then word came from Red Fork that a stranger was bragging about the deal he'd struck with an old partner, Elliot Cavendish. She'd checked on this fellow Morgan and he checked out. But the spies she sent to Four Corners to pursue him had been killed and Morgan was gone. She swallowed her rage and thought on his words.
"Why did you leave Four Corners?" She asked, curious as to the reason behind his disappearance, as reported by her spies.
"...hurt..." he whispered, frowning. "...they's wrong..."
"Mary...and them others..." he rasped, coughing and gasping.
"Mary Travis ran you out of town?" She was shocked as this news and the sorrowful look and pain scored face confirmed the small nod. "Really...why?"
"...Billy got hurt...town's for decent folks..." he sighed painfully. "...they's shoutin' and throwin' rocks...I run away."
"Chris didn't help you?" She prodded.
"He's still mad..."
"Still mad at you?" She asked and saw the head nod. She also saw his hands beginning to twitch and the line of drool running down the slack jaw. Time was running out. His leg began to twitch and she pressed on. "Why?"
"...on accounta that whore..."
"A saloon girl?"
"No..." he chuckled. "Them's Bucklin's..."
"The bitch...Ella Gaines..." he slurred and was rewarded with a solid slap.
"Chris would never call me such a vile name. He loves me...we're married..."
"married?" he shook his head "to her?...never...gonna kill her...told me so...she's evil..."
"Ramon...tell Edwards to get to town and get the men. We're leaving."
"What about him?"
She eyed the twitching body, muscle spasms causing him to jerk violently. His eyes rolled back, the whites exposed and the guttural noises coming from his mouth were accented with foaming saliva.
"I don't think we'll have to worry about him." She walked towards the door. "According to what I've read about this precious serum." She clutched the black lacquer box to her chest. "If the victim doesn't die right away...the violent hallucinations usually end in death." She stopped and watched him roll onto the floor and cease moving. "Goodbye, Mr. Tanner."
The bounty hunter she'd hired to bring Tanner had gone to the river towns to buy some loyalty. She needed a dozen men and some attention getting supplies for her journey south. He'd returned an hour before, men on horses and wagon ready. She donned gaucho's, boots and a loose fitting shirt, her long hair in a braid down her back. The hat and short jacket completed her look. She lingered in the doorway, eyeing the grand staircase and lingering on the vision of Chris carrying her upstairs to that magnificent bed. She ignored the screams from the lower level of the house and narrowed her eyes at Ricardo.
"Don't go near him...he deserves to die like a mad dog. I'll be back in a few days with my husband. You see to it everything is ready." She ordered, "Oh, and Ricardo...take his body into town and collect that bounty. It will make a nice wedding gift for Mr. Larabee."
"Si Senora." The older man said and bowed.
"Let's ride." She proclaimed, eyeing the new dawn. "We'll camp in the hills north of town. We're gonna give those bible thumpers a Sunday they'll never forget." She laughed and rode in the lead.
"She's crazy..." one of the new hired guns noted to the man beside him.
"Who cares?" He retorted, jiggling the sack of silver on his belt. "She's rich..."
+ + + + + + +
They were coming again. Red with black stripes, scaly creatures with yellow eyes and long teeth. Hundreds of them slithered on the walls and floor all around him. The long black tongues ridiculed him, flicking out and striking him everywhere. He screamed and backed up on the bed, standing and kicking at them. He covered his ears, trying to stop the voices...the horrid names cut right through him. He'd never seen snakes like these...and kicked at them as they crawled up the mattress. His heart was racing and his eyes wild. The cold fear that gripped him was paralyzing his limbs. Some of the horrific beasts had human faces....Conlin, Bert Thomas, Mary and Addy Ford...hissing names at him, the painful leers snapping off their forked tongues.
"Nooooo!" he screamed, as his kicked as a large snake with his right foot, still secured by the chain. The pain ripped through him, toppling him over and sent him crashing to the ground. He sank in the bed of writhing, scaly beasts. He felt them crawling up his pant's legs and over his face, dozens of them. The cold, wet reptiles smothered him and he felt dozens of fangs sink into his tender flesh. "Chris...help me..." He reached out, seeing his best friend laughing at him from the corner of the room. He screamed was silenced as one of the beasts slithered into his mouth. He gagged and choked, as an agonizing pain exploded. The poison worked fast and overwhelmed him, sending him into blissful oblivion.
+ + + + + + +
"Read 'em and weep..." Buck exclaimed, laying down four queens and raking in the pile of silver.
"Hmmph...it would appear my recent setback has left my brain encumbered." Ezra complained.
"The ladies just love me, Ace," Buck chided, "...even the ones on paper."
Both turned at the sound of Chris Larabee's voice. Buck rose and walked over to the bar, eyeing the drawn features.
"Dead end?" He asked and saw the head nod.
"Wasn't a total loss," Chris sighed, "We caught poachers on Jake McKinney's property. J.D.'s locking them up."
"Sure sounded like her." Buck mused of the wire from a nearby town. The Judge had alerted most of the towns in the area to be on the alert. A wire came early that morning, stating the woman was in town. J.D., Chris and Josiah rode over, but it was just a new seamstress who resembled the missing temptress.
"I've taken the liberty of drawing routes skirting the river and mountains. There are several towns to cover in this radius." Ezra joined the pair at the bar and handed Chris the maps he'd drawn.
Chris studied the maps and nodded, "Nice work...we'll split in three teams and we can cover a dozen towns...meet by White Rock Canyon."
"Perhaps Mr. Tanner will be waiting with some of his world renown Bull Frog Stew..." Ezra imparted, gaining the slight grin from the somber leader.
"I'd sooner eat my boots." Buck winced, "Who the hell ever told him that mess was edible?"
"I think that distinction belongs to Mr. Dunne. Although as I recall, he was inebriated at the time."
"...and sick for two days after." Chris recalled of the two patients, who rode into town greener than their dinner.
"Come on, Old Man," Buck clapped the dark shirt, "Mrs. Perkins is cooking up fried catfish and hushpuppies...Ace is buying."
"I beg to differ..." Ezra sniffed, "You newfound wealth should cover the bill nicely."
"Now, Ezra, you know if it were up to me, I'd be more than happy to pick up the bill."
"But..." Chris muttered, narrowing his eyes and starting to grin.
"All my capital is tied up at the moment...picking up your tab and all." Buck nodded, "I'll get the next one."
"If I had a dime for all the times those words left your crooked lips, I'd have enough capital to build a casino." Ezra sighed, following the pair down the street.
Just outside Santa Fe
Cold. That was the overwhelming feeling that engulfed him. He was on his stomach on the stone floor of the cell. He wanted to open his eyes, but just didn't have the energy. He smelled the familiar acrid scent of vomit and moved away. He lifted his head and felt sick. A bout of coughs wracked his body, leaving his limbs trembling slightly. He opened and closed his eyes several times, trying to make the blurriness leave. He crawled several feet and rested, gasping painfully. He jerked his eyes open as an image of hundreds of snakes appeared.
"Ah...." He moaned, forcing his stiff limbs to work. His left arm throbbed and he cradled it against his chest. He eyed the room and felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. Something was wrong. He sighed and sat up, letting his back rest against the metal bed. The sharp icy claws caused him to gasp as the numbing cold his his back. He spotted the hole in the wall where the chain connected to his foot was revealed. He crawled over and tugged at it, liberated several small stones. The first sign of hope since he'd been imprisoned appeared. He grunted harshly, as the use of both arms sent pain through his injured arm. Why did his arm hurt so? He peeled the tattered sleeve up and screwed his face up. The soft underside, from the wrist to he elbow was discolored and angry. What the hell happened? Shaking off he amnesic feeling, he wrapped the chain double around his right hand and braced his good foot against the wall.
It took nearly an hour, a slow painstaking process, hampered by his weakened condition. The coughing fits and dizziness slowed him down even further. Finally, the link snapped and he fell back, spending several minutes collected much needed air. He took hold of the bed frame and stood. He kept all his weight on his left foot, the sight of the swollen discolored flesh around the rusted manacle on his right foot turned his stomach. His coat and gunbelt was missing, but his boots were in the corner. He hopped to the boots and sat on the chair nearby. The left boot slid on, but one glance told him the right one wouldn't fit. He had a knife in his saddlebags; he could slit the back of the boot open and slide his foot inside. He slid to the floor and examined the painful area around the ankle. The chain was old and with a little luck, the rusted links might pop. He spotted a fairly large piece of stone from the crumbled wall and pulled himself over. The third link from the manacle was the weak one, and with a little work, he'd be free of the six-foot chain. No sooner than he was free, when he heard movement outside. He hopped to the doorway, and took the discarded chain with him. Gritting his teeth, out of anger and pain, he wrapped the chain around each hand and waited.
Ramon crept along the underground corridor towards the cell. He'd heard his mistress speak of the bounty and had plans for that money. He'd waited all morning for the screaming to stop...the wicked hallucinations had finally ended. He peered in the slit window and frowned, not able to see beyond the overturned bed. Unlocking the door, he entered without a thought. The growl surprised him as much as the chain that wrapped around his neck. He grunted and lashed out, kicking the injured ankle.
The white-hot pain surged through his leg and it took all of Vin's strength to retain his hold. The struggle took both men to the floor and Vin gained the upper hand. He bared his teeth and the effort sent sweat cascading down his face. But the body slumped and after a few minutes for insurance, he released the body and had another coughing fit. He dizzily eyed the yellow discharge and frowned. After taking the brute's gun and his right boot, he left the body behind and made his way upstairs. The house was quiet and Vin found himself in the front hall. He made his way to the back of the house and spotted a tray of fruit and cheese. His weakened body, deprived of food, honed in and he hobbled to the table. He ate the cheese and ripped the crusty bread into chunks. A small stone crock contained butter and another some milk. He slathered the butter on, keeping one eye on the door. His meager meal done, he sliced the back of his boot and slid his iron-enclosed ankle inside. Gingerly, he set the foot down and hissed, seeing red steaks of pain. His labored breaths came in short pants as he painfully hobbled out the back door.
Ricardo was in the barn, tending to the stock. The older man never heard the silent figure creep up behind him, not until the hammer on the gun clicked in his ear.
"Where is she?" Vin demanded.
The older man didn't have to turn to know the hatred that burned in the blue eyes. He sighed shrugged.
"I do not know..."
"Wrong answer." Vin growled and slammed the gun into the man's cheek. The wiry guard dropped to his knees and Vin pressed the gun again. "Yer wastin' time...and m'patience is wearin' thin..." Vin warned, slamming the man's face into the barn post.
Ricardo's nose and lip gushed blood and he sputtered and nodded, "She goes to claim the gringo ..."
"Ya best spill all of it, or I'll slice the truth outta ya...and make it take awhile...now talk." Vin seethed, reading the darting dark eyes that hid something. As the words tumbled out, Vin's heart began to race. He swallowed hard as the madwoman's scheme painted a bloody picture. She had several hours head start, but he knew this area and all the hidden shortcuts and paths. After tying the man up, he made several painful trips to the kitchen and got food, whiskey, and filled two canteens. He surveyed the horses in the barn and quickly found what he was looking for. He then took a rifle and cartridges from the storeroom behind the barn and set out for Four Corners. He disregarded the agony that throbbed from every inch of his tender flesh and the fever that was racing through him. With an exalted cry, he rode hell bent on leather for home.
Sunday morning, dawn, north of Four Corners
Ella stood impatiently, waiting for the hired guns to finish readying themselves. Men were such fools, so easily led. A predatory smile graced her lips as she approached the male sheep gathered and ready to be led. They'd ridden in to Four Corners under the cover of darkness and made the preparations for her 'party'. The hamlet was in a deep sleep and never stirred as the strangers paid a call. Preparations completed, they now were ready to roll.
"You've had ample time to study the details of this plan. I will not tolerate mistakes...there will be no miscalculations or errors in judgement. Nobody touches Chris Larabee...if he is as much as scratched, I'll slit the throat of the one responsible. Do as you will with the rest...after the plan is carried out. Are there any questions..." She eyed the dozen pairs of eyes regarding her coolly. "Good...Let's ride."
+ + + + + + +
"Chris, hey Chris..."
The leader turned from his lean against the door of the sheriff's office as Billy Travis sailed by. He smiled and caught the flying bundle of boy, halting his wayward progress.
"How many times to I have to tell you to slow down? You tear your good suit and your Ma won't be too happy."
"Yes, Sir...sorry. You didn't forget did you?" His large blue eyes implored.
Chris tousled the fair hair and patted the boy's back. "Not a chance. Get going...you'll be late for church."
"Ain't you coming?"
"I'll be along...I don't have Sunday School..."
"Oh..." Billy shrugged, "Last week we learned about David and Goliath...I've been thinkin' on it some."
"Good story..." Chris recalled and saw the serious small face nodding. "...and..."
"That David fella reminds me of Vin an awful lot..." He looked up for support and felt both of Chris's hands on his shoulders.
"Me too, Billy. Go on...I'll see you later."
"Okay, see ya Chris..."
Chris watched the boy run up the boardwalk and tug at Mary's sleeve. The widow was waiting for Mrs. Potter to emerge from her house with her two children. They set off and Chris was left to his thoughts. The town was deserted, save Ezra. who was guarding a prisoner, and Buck who wasn't up yet. The rest were gathered in Church. He nodded to the Gambler-turned-guard and crossed the street, heading for his room. He'd pack the gear and be ready for Billy. Mary had invited him to supper and he'd accepted. As he turned the key to his room, his thoughts lingered on Sarah and Adam. Sarah would have liked Mary; they'd have been good friends. He enjoyed her company and was truly fond of Billy; he was a fine boy. Gathering the fishing poles and other gear, he headed for the livery. He dropped his cargo when he entered the livery, his green eyes widened in shock. There in the first stall, brushed down and eating was the black horse with the white blaze he'd been longing to see. He approached with a tentative step; almost afraid it wasn't real. The horse nickered and stomped his front foot, sensing a presense.
"Easy boy..." he soothed, stroking the horse's neck. "Where is he?" he wondered aloud, and strode quickly towards the street. He was passing the saloon, when he saw it. He shot through the batwing doors, his impatient eyes scouring the deserted room.
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