Chris Larabee sat huddled in a corner of literally the most miserable hole he’d ever known, an underground cage located in the prison just outside the small town of Jericho. He’d been falsely accused, unlawfully sentenced and forcibly confined to the penal complex for no other reason than the local authority thought he could be ransomed, under the guise of bail, to his family. When that didn’t pan out, the warden, one Luther Crenshaw, decided his captive would be pressed into hard labor, but that decision was proving to be more difficult to put into practice than he’d anticipated. The prisoner was both defiant and belligerent and despite the warden’s attempts to curb his disobedience with confinement, starvation, humiliation and physical abuse, had remained a particularly sharp thorn in his side. That is until a new means of punishment, so far outside the standard rules of penal discipline to be deemed acceptable, had been introduced; one that was finally showing results.
Crenshaw looked down on his captive and smiled at the obvious misery that filled his prisoner’s world. “You won’t be so insolent next time, will you, 78? Then again you may not see a next time. There’s really not much reason to keep you around… except as entertainment.” He gazed at his surroundings. “God only knows there’s little enough of that around here.” Then he realized his taunting words were lost on the man below. He turned in frustration and sharply signaled for his men to drag up their newest, somewhat semi-conscious detainee.
The man hanging limply between two guards tried to look up as he was roughly hauled towards the edge of the underground pen. He squinted his eyes against the late afternoon sun but the glare proved too much; his head dropped without warning, sending sharp pains into his neck, and he stared at the ground instead.
“You honestly thought you could con me, didn’t you, ya damn fool. I hope he was worth it,” Crenshaw spat in disgust before calling to the inmate in the pit. “78! We have some company for you. Perhaps your ‘brother’ here will fare better than you have.” Laughing, he added, “But somehow I doubt it.” The cage top was raised and the warden jerked his hand towards the opening in the ground. “Throw him in. He can watch out for his ‘kin’ until the next time we execute the prisoner’s sentence.”
The guards reached down, took hold of the dazed man’s arms and legs, and unceremoniously tossed him into the darkness. There was a dull thud and the sound of air being knocked from unprepared lungs as the metal grating slammed shut over the cell. Then the henchmen turned to follow their taskmaster away, leaving the captives to suffer the misery of the ‘hole’; for some, an agonizing punishment, for others, an open grave.
Whispers, constant droning murmurs so persistent his loudest screams hadn’t been able to drown them out. They surrounded him, clung to him, bore their way into his brain. Why? Why wouldn’t they stop? All he wanted was to sleep. Just to find a corner of his world that wasn’t filthy and wet and so damned full of those incessant whispers.
Chris backed deeper into his corner and put his hands over his ears. Rocking slowly, he mumbled to himself, “Go away…I don’t wanna hear you. Just go away…” but there was no reprieve. The hushed voices actually seemed trapped inside his head. He alternately dug at his neck with aching fingers and pressed his temples with the heels of his hands, but no amount of digging or squeezing could force the sounds from his brain. In the end he surrendered and laid his cheek against folded hands on raised knees. He was exhausted and he was lost. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember where he was, how he had gotten here or how the hell he could get out. Out? Out to where? Where had he been going? Did he even have a place to go? It didn’t matter. All he knew was he couldn’t stay here, not with the cold and the dark and especially not with the whispers.
He blinked and then blinked again. That was when he caught a glimpse of movement out the corner of his eye. A blur so fast he couldn’t make out what he’d seen. Then for no reason, the voices hushed. That is all but one, and it didn’t come from his mind, it came from the darkness of the room instead; a male voice, young, soft-spoken and tinged with echo.
He forced himself to his feet and peered through the shadows without leaving his corner. The blur in front of him slowly coalesced and he found himself in the company of a boy with blond hair and brilliant blue eyes, a youth familiar to him but someone his mind couldn’t name. He pulled away from the wall of the pit. “I know you,” he said in a gravelly voice. “You can’t be here.”
The boy tilted his head and graced him with the sweetest of smiles. Chris knew in his heart what he was seeing was completely out of place in this hell, but he couldn’t resist, no matter how hard he tried, the affection in those bright blue eyes. He raised a hand to the youngster, hesitating only a moment before his dirty fingers came to rest on the smooth skin of his cheek. A smile played around the edges of Chris’ mouth and a familiar tug pulled at his heart. Then a name came to his mind and lips. “Adam.”
A joy like no other washed over him but was so short-lived it made him dizzy when the elation hardened in his gut and a shudder ran the length of his spine. A cold dread overcame him and a mind-numbing change began to take place. The blue eyes began to distort, transform and fade as they slowly melted into green. The face beneath his hand vanished in a haze only to be replaced by another. A face full of concern, coated with dirt and mottled with bruises; a face that held green eyes.
Reality slipped away. When he tried to move, his balance slipped as well. He swayed forward until hands gripped him under the arms, and shoulders leaned into his own. And somewhere in the distance a voice was calling his name. This time however, the sound wasn’t a whisper. The whispers had gone. At last, he sighed to himself, gone. The relief was so overwhelming he gave in to the welcome blackness and followed the whispers away.
Ezra was rudely brought back to consciousness by an abrupt meeting with a floor. The air was forced from his lungs, and the slamming of his torso and limbs to the ground blew away the cozy oblivion he’d known just moments before. Aw, hell, what have I gotten myself into this time, became his first complete thought. His second thought was interrupted when he raised his aching head and heard the sound of heavy breathing to his right. “Who’s there?” he asked, not really wanting to know.
There was no reply.
“Pardon my sudden entrance,” he said as he situated himself in an awkward sitting position. “I assure you it was not -ouch- intentional.” He waited for his eyes to adjust to the gradation of light in the pit. The few rays of sunshine filtering through overhead lit where he lay, but the remainder of the cell fell away into darkness. He rubbed the back of his head then scraped a hand across his brow. “In fact, I would be quite overjoyed to take my leave… providing someone was willing to offer a leg up.” He looked up and noticed the metal grating. “Damn.”
The breathing continued to come from the darkness but Ezra noticed it had taken on an irregular rhythm. Someone was indeed with him but whoever it was didn’t sound as if they could do him harm… at least not at the moment. He went from his backside to his knees, all the while keeping an eye on the dark corner. Gradually his eyes adjusted to the light and a person became visible; a man in tattered prison clothing as best he could make out.
“My pardon, are you able to speak?” he asked as he knelt on one knee.
Again there was no answer.
“Obviously not.” He looked around and observed the grubby walls and floor. The pit he’d been thrown into was empty, save himself and the heavy breather, and was somewhat cooler than up top. Actually it was near freezing and the dampness did nothing to help stave off the chill. He shivered and rubbed his arms, then leaning into a bent over position with one hand to his back, raised himself off the floor.
How had he ended up here? He remembered drinking with the deputy at the saloon in Jericho, and he recalled Sheriff Quince requesting he follow him to the prison. After that, he was escorted inside the prison fence and led directly to the warden’s office. Just as he was being introduced as Chris’ brother from Four Corners, someone else entered the room – a guard. There was a brief conversation between the guard and the warden then all eyes were on him. That was the last moment he could clearly bring to mind.
The asthmatic figure in the corner made a motion to stand and Ezra was snapped back to the here and now. He was about to back away but was pinned to the spot when he heard an all too familiar groan. How many times had he heard that sound before -- either as the result of injury or simply too much drink?
A hand came towards him and drifted into the dim light from above. It trembled as it neared his face and despite the fact it was coated in filth with fingernails rimmed in dried blood, he didn’t make a move.
“You can’t be here,” the figure said with a gasp.
Ezra startled at the voice. It was difficult to understand but it most definitely belonged to the missing lawman. Then when an arm and a shoulder came into the light, he was overjoyed at having found the Seven’s leader. He smiled broadly and drawled, “Mr. Larabee, you are truly a sight for…” but the grin fell away when Chris’ face floated into view. “Oh, dear Lord, what have they done?”
Dark bruises, ugly scrapes and deep cuts marred Chris’ features. His beard, though short, was caked in dirt and blood, and his face looked as if it had taken more than a few hits, so swollen in places it appeared contorted. But what really shook Ezra was the look in Chris’ eyes; they were haunted, tormented. The suffering in those eyes far exceeded anything the gambler had ever seen. Chris had always borne more than his share of demons but there was something different now, something very wrong.
The gunfighter moved forward, heaving heavy breaths and muttering mostly unintelligible gibberish, until a single word left his mouth as clear as the sky above… Adam. Before Ezra could react, a hand reached out and touched his face. Oh, this cannot be good, he thought. The lines around Chris’ eyes softened and his lips quivered into a nervous smile. Then in the next moment the peaceful face erupted into one of disbelief and fear.
Ezra felt his friend shudder just before his beaten body tilted forward. Prepared for the fall that had to come, he accepted Chris’ weight, lowered him carefully to the floor and dragged him into the corner as gently as he could. When the trembling increased, he positioned himself between the wall and the unconscious man, removed his jacket and pulled both Chris and the fine fabric to his chest. “You and I seem to share this affinity for trouble, Mr. Larabee,” he said softly.
Chris’ mumbling stopped and he began to moan.
Ezra wrapped his arms around Chris’ middle and pulled him closer; too tired to be embarrassed by the contact. Fumbling with his jacket, his hand brushed across a soggy bandage on the gunfighter’s side and Chris jerked in pain. There was little light remaining in the pit with which to see so moving around the lawman to check what was wrong was useless. Instead he settled Chris against him, pulled the loose bandage up and probed the area with his fingers. He detected the familiar feel of stitches. He also discovered moisture. Whether it was blood or infection, he wasn’t sure, but since there was little he could do about it, he recovered the injury and pulled his hand away.
It took quite a while but eventually Chris began to settle into the warmth the gambler’s body provided. Ezra’s backside and shoulders were truly beginning to ache, but every time he tried to move, he heard a deep groan of protest. “Well,” he gave in, “at least we’re staying warmer.”
A yawn filled his lungs with the moist air of the pit. “I’m not exactly sure what’s been happening to you, my friend, but rest assured I’ll do everything I can to get you out of here.” He drew Chris closer still and leaned his head against the wall. I will get you out, he vowed just before he joined his leader in fitful slumber.
Vin and Buck arrived in Jasper Creek with little enough trouble from their prisoner, Ben Reynolds. The young man they had turned over to the local sheriff was wanted for bank robbery and attempted murder, but Buck had a hard time believing the boy was capable of much more than playing hooky from school. Still, you never know what goes on in a man’s mind, he thought as he left the jailhouse. He spread his arms and stretched his muscles. “You know, he just don’t seem like a bad’un to me.”
Tanner stood beside the tall man on the sidewalk in silence.
“Vin? Ya hear me?”
Thoughtful eyes looked up. “What?”
“That kid in there. He just don’t seem like he coulda done what he’s been accused of.”
“Guess not,” Vin answered after a couple of seconds.
Buck put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You still ponderin’ on Chris?”
“Yeah. It just don’t feel right, him bein’ gone so long.”
“Look, like I told Mary back at the saloon, he’s a big boy. He just needed some space, that’s all. I bet he’s back home already. Besides, JD and Ezra are watchin’ things, and Nathan and Josiah should be back from the Indian village any time. If Chris ain’t back by the time we are, we’ll ride out and find him.”
“His being gone is different this time, Buck. I can’t hardly explain it.”
“I tell you what, we’re both so tired we can barely stand. Why don’t we take the horses down to the livery and then check into that hotel over yonder.” Buck pointed across the street. “I think a couple o’ nice soft beds would feel real good about now.” He could see the protest flash across Tanner’s face and threw a hand up to stop him. “Vin, we can’t do nothin’ tonight. It’s a long ways back to Four Corners and I don’t want you fallin’ outta your saddle. We’ll get some sleep and then head back in the mornin’.”
Vin didn’t answer.
“You know I’m right.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Probably just worrying over nothin’ anyway. Let’s get these horses bedded down,” he said as he reached for his mount’s reins.
Buck gathered his own horse and followed him down the street. He hated to admit it but something about Chris’ extended vacation didn’t sit well with him either.
Ezra jerked awake when something sharp struck his upper arm. He instinctively fumbled for his Derringer but there was no rigging to drop the sweet little weapon into his hand. He skittered to one side and shook his head to drive away the cobwebs blanketing his thoughts. “Wha-what? What is it? Who’s there?” He tried to focus but there was nothing around him but darkness.
Then a voice came to his ear in a menacing tone. “Prisoner! On your feet!”
There was a pause before it dawned on Ezra just exactly where he had been sleeping. Damn! It wasn’t a dream. He stood slowly and looked in the direction of the voice. “Who’s there?” he asked, trying to sound as formidable as the disembodied voice overhead.
“I, prisoner, am your Lord and Master.” The warden moved into sight at the edge of the hole. The grating had been raised and the vivid blue fall sky served as a splendid backdrop.
Ezra stood akimbo before he raised one hand to wipe at his face. Slowly, an image of Chris came to mind. Trying not to panic but failing miserably, he spun around, looking over each corner of the cell. No Chris. “Where is he?” he asked no one in particular. “Where is he?” He turned in the direction of the warden. “Where’s Chris Larabee?”
“Inmate 78 has been removed to other accommodations.”
“What accommodations? Where have you taken him, you overstuffed, pompous…” Ezra was cut short when something dropped into the pit beside him. He moved aside and stared at the pile of folded cloth at his feet.
“Those are your new clothes. You will put them on and you will do as I say. Your life outside this prison no longer exists. Who you were is of no importance. You are now Inmate 93 and you will behave according to the rules of this facility or you will end up like Inmate 78.”
The gambler picked up the pants with his thumb and forefinger and stared at them with disgust. “I do believe you have mistaken me for someone with no taste, Warden Crenshaw. This attire is criminal in more ways than one. I will not be wearing it so why don’t we just move along with this little interview.”
“Inmate 93, you will either change into those clothes on your own or I will send Briggs here in to do it for you.” A huge, sweaty ox of a man leaned in next to Crenshaw. “This will be the only choice you have for the duration. However, I do believe Briggs would be very grateful for the chance to help you out of those fancy duds of yours. If you know what I mean?”
Ezra shivered when he caught the eye of the repulsive Briggs and realized what the warden was implying. Just the thought of that animal touching him made him sick to his stomach so he slowly began to remove his waistcoat and shirt. The warden laughed out loud, and he and Briggs watched as Ezra eventually changed clothes. Such an invasion of privacy was disturbing to the gambler but he knew Chris had probably suffered much worse.
Once the warden had made his point, he ordered the guards to haul the newly attired man out of the hole.
Ezra grunted as he was roughly pulled up and deposited on the ground topside. “Your hospitality is somewhat lacking, warden,” he said as he tried to regain his feet. Before he knew what hit him, Ezra found himself back on the ground, his belly aching from a blow by the ham-fisted Briggs.
“You will not speak to me unless you are given permission to do so. Do I make myself clear?” Crenshaw bellowed.
Ezra caught his breath and started to speak, but thought better of it and nodded his head instead.
The warden looked back to the guard. “Good. Now Inmate 93 will be joining the work crew in the yard. See that he puts in a full day. I have another prisoner who requires a lesson in behavior.” That said, he dismissed Ezra and the guards from his thoughts and walked away.
Ezra was forced to stand still as his feet were fitted with chains, but it didn’t stop him trying to reason with the guard who locked the shackles in place. “This truly is a mistake. I haven’t done anything to warrant incarceration… at least, not recently.” The guard ignored him. Ezra looked up and tried talking to the man who held the gun on him. “I just came here to take Chris home. I can get the money the sheriff wants.”
The guard looked at him, puzzled, but didn’t appear to take much notice.
“At least tell me where Chris Larabee is!”
The kneeling guard stood and reached out to push Ezra in the direction of the rocks behind him.
“Tell me where Chris is! He’s ill! The man needs a doctor!” The push became a shove and Ezra had to comply before he found himself back on the ground. He finally turned around and for the first time noticed the men working in the yard. They all seemed to be laboring, quite unenthusiastically, in the art of brick making. He fell quiet when he realized where he was being directed and what he was expected to do. “Oh no… you have got to be joking…” he mumbled.
The insistent prodding in his back informed him that they were not.
The next two days were not good ones for Ezra. The gruel that had been passed off as food, the slab that had impersonated a bed, and the work that had been made apparent his only means of escaping a beating made for a very worn out and unhappy man. Add to that the matter of a repulsive guard named Briggs eyeing him every moment of the day with a look that had nothing to do with his job, and “unhappy” took on a whole new meaning. The gambler couldn’t comprehend what the guard found so fascinating about his person but it sent chills up his spine.
He shuffled his feet in time with the prisoner ahead of him as he lowered his eyes to examine his hands. His palms bled freely from blisters that had ruptured and given way to deeper, more painful slices in his flesh. The shovel he’d been forced to use for so long had won the battle this day. He tried not to stare at his numb fingers, but without his eyes to tell him they were still attached there was no other way to know. He pulled them closer to his chest and stifled a whimper.
His mind began to wander with thoughts of his favorite chair in his favorite corner of his now favorite saloon back in Four Corners. How he’d love to sit in that chair now and rest his aching back and legs. He was so weary, so tired of moving, but he continued to shuffle along. Then without warning, the train of men stopped and he ran awkwardly into the prisoner in front of him.
Exhausted, he lowered his focus to his hands again.
He wished desperately for something with which to wrap them.
“Inmate 93! This is your last warning!”
He considered the possibility of tearing off a bit of his shirt to bandage his shredded palms, but as he was about to reach for its hem he was struck from behind. The blow ignited an explosion of light and color in his brain, briefly sending him to the ground before he was roughly jerked up to teeter on wobbly knees.
“Inmate 93, do I have your attention now?”
“My wha…?” he stuttered, trying to swallow with a throat too dry to comply. His muscles contracted around the piece of him that had been struck and in seconds his belly followed suit, sending a wave of nausea from his gut to the back of his mouth. A large hand gripped the front of his shirt and possibly the worst breath he’d ever encountered blew into his face. The stench was overwhelming. “I’m going to be sick…” he mumbled when he could take in a breath of his own that wasn’t filled with the stinking air being blown his way.
“You do and you’re a dead man!” More foul air came at him.
“Oh, Lord…” was all he could say ahead of the vomit that shot from his belly to his lips. The guard who held him quickly turned loose when the contents of his stomach spewed into his face. Ezra dropped to the ground and continued throwing up until his body had nothing else to offer.
“Damn! You little piece of…”
“Briggs!” another voice shouted. “Leave him be. The warden wants you!”
Briggs? Was that who he’d thrown up all over? Good, he thought. Maybe now I won’t be so attractive to him. He smiled to himself before he tried to find out who had stopped him from being mutilated. He forced his eyes open and spotted Phillips. Thank the Lord for the man’s timing. He stared hard at the dark face, sure he’d spotted a twinge of sympathy, but had little time to consider the implications since he had to focus on keeping his balance when he was yanked painfully back onto his feet.
“Inmate 93, best you pay attention when you’re being called,” Phillips advised.
“Excellent counsel,” he wheezed and wiped at his mouth.
“The warden’s lockin’ you up special. Looks like you’ll be gettin’ to see that friend of yours after all.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know if that’d be a good thing or not.”
“Why is that?”
“Reckon you’ll be seein’ that for yourself. Come on,” Phillips said as he nudged Ezra toward a small stone structure just past the hole.
It took Ezra a little longer than he would have liked, but he finally came to stand outside the small building. He was about to inquire as to why he was being moved, although he had no complaints about leaving his previous nights’ accommodations, when he heard a thick, guttural cry come from within. He looked back at Phillips in surprise.
The guard gave a shrug. “He’s been at it for a while now. Don’t know his demons, but the man has spent his share of time with the devil.”
Ezra was stunned and somewhat frightened by the tortured cries emanating from the small shack. “I have to see him,” he said unconvincingly.
“That was the idea.” Phillips stood a little stiffer as another guard joined them. He nodded to the man and instructed, “Take them chains off his feet and put him in with the other prisoner; Warden’s orders.” The guard complied, sneering at Ezra as the gambler walked into the cell.
The next shout from Larabee was louder and more terrifying now there was no door between them. He considered turning around and begging to be let out, but before he could act the cell door slammed shut and he was left alone with the screaming gunfighter.
“Mr. Larabee?” he asked nervously, spotting Chris in the far corner of the tiny room which contained two filthy old cots which had obviously seen better days, a couple of blankets, a bucket that most certainly served as a privy, another bucket filled with water (he hoped), and a low-burning kerosene lamp. The only light, aside from the tiny flame in the lamp, entered the cell either from the cracks in the ceiling or by two tiny windows above his head. “Mr. Larabee, can you hear me?”
The blond head jerked at the sound of his voice. “G-go away.”
“Chris, it’s me.”
The gunfighter stiffened and flattened himself against the wall. “Get away from me. You can’t be here. Just go away.”
“I’m afraid I find myself unable to go anywhere.” Ezra moved a step closer to get a better look. The man he faced was breathing like a freight train and had the same far-away look in his eyes he’d had the night he found him in the hole. His cheeks and brow were covered with the wetness of perspiration and what appeared to be fresh blood, and his hair, normally kept swept away from his face, lay matted in clumps to his forehead. “Ahh no, Chris.”
The gunfighter’s gaze began to drift.
“No, no, look at me. Do you know where you are? Can you see me?” The wandering eyes returned to Ezra’s face but there was no recognition. “Chris, you’ve been missing for over two weeks. Mrs. Travis has been terribly worried. When we received the telegram from the prison requesting your bail money, she and I thought it best I assume the role of your brother in light of the fact the real ‘Vin Larabee’ was otherwise occupied.”
Chris looked intently at Ezra and appeared to be listening.
“A most clever ruse, requesting a brother you never had. It wasn’t difficult to see something was up so I came here in hope of setting you free. It looked as if I was making progress toward your release too but something went wrong… I’m not really sure what.” He watched Chris for a moment, and detecting a slight change in his demeanor became hopeful he was getting through.
The gunfighter’s head eased back to rest on the wall behind him. “You shouldn’t be here,” he complained.
“Neither of us should be in this hellish squalor. At the moment however, it appears we’re to remain the unwilling guests of the warden.”
“Why’d you follow me?”
“Mr. Larabee, following you was not my…”
“Go on home.”
“Go on home. You can’t be following me. You can’t be here.”
Ezra closed his eyes against the knowledge the Seven’s leader was still lost in a place he couldn’t reach.
“You go on home now! I mean it! You know what kind of trouble it means if you’re caught out here with me.”
“You need to listen to me,” Ezra pleaded.
Just as Chris took a step towards him, an argument about to leave his mouth, a small commotion could be heard outside the small cell. He squeezed himself back to the wall and listened. “It’s here,” he whispered.
Ezra looked over his shoulder to glance at the door. No one was there, so whatever the commotion was it probably had nothing to do with them.
Chris stared at the door across the room. “Don’t move… it’ll know we’re here.”
“It? What are you talking about?”
“Be quiet, it’ll hear us.”
“Talk to me, Chris, who will hear us?”
Bear? Oh, this is just going from bad to worse.
Another noise came from outside the building. Chris tore his eyes from the door and scanned the room as his hands pushed at the hair clinging to his face. “Think. Think. What do we do?” he asked himself as he rubbed at the cut over his eyebrow. “Shouldn’t move, we shouldn’t move.” Only a moment passed before Chris disobeyed his own mumbled orders and lowered his hands to tap the stone on either side of his body. A rhythm began and before long the anxious man was pounding his fists to the point of breaking bone.
“Chris, you’re going to hurt yourself,” Ezra said and stepped forward to stop him.
He caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and launched himself at the unsuspecting Southerner. Ezra didn’t move fast enough and was knocked backward as Chris punched and kicked at will.
“Chris! For God’s sake, stop!” Ezra raised his hands to try and deflect the blows, but the bleeding flesh on his palms forced him to use his forearms and elbows instead. The move was ineffectual and clumsy and left him at the gunfighter’s mercy.
Sadly, mercy was beyond the lawman’s ability to comprehend. He fought like a crazed animal and struck again and again. “Get away from him, leave him alone,” he cried. “You can’t have him!”
Ezra heard the pleas of his friend even as the blows rained down. Chris struck anywhere he could land a punch. Then out of nowhere, as if dragged away by unseen hands, he fell backwards against one of the cots. His hands still tried to strike but the energy the movement required drained away. He screamed in sorrow and the words he yelled sent a chill down his victim’s back. “ADAM! For the love of God… No!”
Ezra scooted away from Chris and rolled onto his knees. Adam, he thought, not Adam. Of all the terrors he could relive in this place, why that?
“I have to stop him… save Adam,’ he pleaded.
The gambler dared to lean forward, risking yet another assault, but Chris didn’t move; he didn’t even flinch. Wherever his mind was, Ezra was certain he’d been taken even further away from reality than before. Careful of his hands, the battered Southerner moved close enough to sit alongside his friend.
Chris didn’t seem interested in escaping his presence this time. Instead, he raised lost eyes and shaky hands until they both fell on Ezra’s chest. “No more, please… He’s just a boy…”
Mesmerized by the abrupt change in Chris’ behavior, Ezra trapped the clutching hands in his own. “Easy now, its all right, settle down.”
“I have to help him… Why’d he follow me out here? He had no business…” He stopped talking and tilted his head to listen.
“What is it?”
“He’s still here.” Chris tried to get up, using Ezra to pull against. “I’ll kill him. I swear it!” He was determined to gain his feet, but Ezra managed to pull him back to the floor.
“Chris, be still! There is no one here but us! No one!”
“The bear! Climb, Adam! Get away from him!” He struggled again to stand but had so little strength in reserve his attempt was useless. “Get away,” he pleaded with a throat so raw he eventually began to strangle and choke. A hitch in his breathing doubled him over and a look of horror filled his eyes. He pitched forward to land hard across the gambler’s legs.
Ezra scrambled to gather him up and roll him onto his back. “What’s happening?”
Chris’ head arced back over the crook of Ezra’s arm and a scream was torn from his throat that could have reached the depths of hell. “NO! Oh, God!”
“Chris!” Ezra screamed back.
“Tell me what’s wrong!”
“What hurts? Answer me!”
“I can’t get up! I have to get up! Help him! Adam!”
“Chris, stay down. Don’t move!”
“Oh, God, no! I put him down there! The bear— he didn’t die! Climb, Adam, get away!”
“Damn it, Chris, there is no bear. Do you hear me? There is no bear.”
The gunfighter wasn’t having any of it. “Kill him! Please…make him stop.”
“Look at me! There is no bear. You and I are alone here.”
“I’m sorry, Adam,” Chris whispered into Ezra’s face. “I should have tried.”
Ezra gathered the weakened man in his arms, and despite the pain in his own hands, held on as tremors gripped his body.
A breathless groan snaked its way up Chris’ chest and past his ashen lips. An instant later, the haggard breathing that had filled the room faded into nothingness, and a deathly stillness crawled over him until he lay completely limp. His head rolled to rest against the gambler’s chest and all that had been chaos, ended.
“Chris? What is it? What’s happening? Help!” Ezra called to anyone who would listen. He turned his head when he heard a sound come from behind. “Someone help him,” he repeated in earnest. The warden’s face peered down at him from a window in the door. Strange, he hadn’t noticed that opening when he came in. Regardless, he tried again. “He needs a doctor!”
“Pity!” Crenshaw replied.
“Get this man some help! Help him! Listen, you…” Ezra bit down on the name-calling, trying to give Chris every chance. “Consider this. If he should expire, warden, you will not be able to collect his bail.”
“Oh, we’re way past bail, lawman.”
The gambler winced only slightly but it was enough to provide his captor with tremendous satisfaction.
“That’s right. I know all about you and your fellow peacekeeper there. It really is a shame. You could have brought quite a price -- imagine bail for two brothers. Now I’ll have to find another use for you.” The warden laughed loudly and turned away from the window. Keep an eye on those two, Ezra heard before the window closed.
An overwhelming gloom filled the cell.
Ezra gazed down at the man in his arms and listened as Chris’ breathing became more irregular and more infrequent. “Don’t you do this!” The Southern accent thickened. “Do you hear me? Damn it, Chris!” He began to rock; unconsciously hoping the movement would somehow bring the gunfighter back.
© Jordan McKenzie 2001
Timeline: This is a rewrite of the episode INMATE 78.
The story makes the following episode changes: