JD’s heart was pounding hard when he arrived at the Indian Village, but he managed to push down his excitement long enough to explain what had happened when he saw Josiah and Nathan at the far end of the settlement.
“You have any idea what kinda shape those two are in?” Nathan asked.
“No, we only know the law in Jericho are askin’ for bail. They didn’t say anything about how Chris was. And Ezra, he ain’t been heard from at all,” he answered as he helped his friends ready their horses.
“Damn, those two could be in a mess o’ trouble by now.”
“The Good Lord’ll watch over ‘em until we can get to ‘em,” Josiah said as he finished cinching his saddle. “We’ve taken care of this flock, now how about we go see to our own.”
Crenshaw heard a knock on the door. “Come,” he called as he lowered the cup holding his third serving of coffee.
The sheriff swung the door open and sauntered inside.
“Where the devil have you been? I told that idiot deputy of yours I wanted you right away.”
“I didn’t run into the deputy until a little while ago. Looks like your appetite’s holding up well,” Quince said as he pointed to what was left of a huge breakfast on the desk.
“I was up late last night.”
“Oh, yeah?” he raised an eyebrow suggestively.
“Shut up, Quince! We’ve got a problem to discuss.”
“And what problem would that be?”
“Those two lawmen we have in lockup. You know there will be someone out there who’ll come looking for them.” The warden took another sip of coffee.
“So just kill ‘em. Dead men can’t talk. What’s the big deal?”
“Dead men can speak volumes if their demise is suspicious enough.”
“Quince, use your head. We have two lawmen in custody. We picked them up on bogus charges. Those who know them might think twice if the two of them were to show up here and just up and die.”
“So we say it was a big mistake. We got them here and didn’t learn they were innocent until after their demise.”
“And how do they die? Should we just shoot them down in the compound? No, I’ve been thinking about it. That son-of-a-bitch with the attitude has cost me some respect around here. The other prisoners are watching everything he does and even some of the guards are starting to favor him some.” It was obvious the wheels were turning behind Crenshaw’s squinty eyes. “Those two have to be dealt with. We need to use them to set an example around here, get our control back. Maybe the best way to do that is to make it look as if their deaths are out of our control.”
Quince sat on the corner of the desk. “What do you have in mind?”
“What if one of them was to go over the edge?”
“78, you mean. That one was a bit of a nutcase to begin with.” He thought back to his first encounter with Chris.
“Yes, and since we’ve determined the perfect punishment for his disobedience, he’s nearer the edge than ever.”
“Tell me, what was that stuff you gave him anyway?” He reached across the desk to pick up a cold piece of toast.
“Inmate 78 has been enjoying the effects of a delightful little treat known as peyote,” Crenshaw answered as he raised a knife to the hand that dared touch his food.
“Peyote? You mean that crap the Indians use? Damn, I didn’t know that stuff could tear a man up so. I thought it was used in spiritual rites and all, not to make a man see demons.”
“Given enough, it can make you see all sorts of things. It was just to our advantage the man had enough demons to begin with to keep it interesting.”
“So how are we going to handle him and his buddy?”
“Well, I thought we might let the poor souls go.”
“Let them go?”
“Yes. I’ve already arranged to have that hack, Inmate 21, sent over to see to their needs. We’ll let those unfortunate men have a day to rebuild their strength and then send them off with a dose of good will,” the warden nearly hummed as he held up a little black box.
“A dose of… ah, you mean 78 should get a little something to help him on his way. He’ll go crazy.”
“I see you grasp the implications. The drug inside this box is somewhat stronger than what he’s used to. He should last just long enough to get outside the prison before his mind breaks, then well, who knows what he’ll do. He’s liable to hurt himself and his brother.” He laughed.
“And if he doesn’t, we’ll help him along. Brilliant! If they do have someone out there looking for ‘em, it won’t matter. They escaped before we knew who they were and died as a result of their own carelessness.”
“Certainly. I mean all we can do is go after them and clean up the mess. The rest of the prisoners and the guards who aren’t in on our little operation will witness a genuine prison break. They’ll learn we do not stand by and let disobedience go unpunished,” he replied around his last bite of breakfast.
“Oh, that’s good.”
A smile peeked out from behind the napkin the large man used to wipe his mouth. “And so damned entertaining.”
Chris was confused, but at the moment he felt more restful than he had in a very long time. He didn’t care that he couldn’t understand what was happening to him; he simply wanted to let go and drift through the shadows and let the memories of the past wash over him. A craving in his heart pleaded with his brain to surrender and let whatever the fates had decided happen, but his brain, alerted by a noise at his back, had other ideas.
He turned around to find Adam, his blue eyes excited and hopeful as his lips broadened with a smile. How he loved that smile, with its all-encompassing optimism and its single missing tooth… But he remembered how many times he had tried to shoo the boy away for fear he would wind up in trouble, or worse, hurt. It had been for the boy’s own good he told himself despite how his heart yearned for him to stay, so he again reached out and gently forced an about face. “Go on home, Adam.”
“Why can’t I go with you?” came the expected reply.
“You don’t need to be following me where I’m going. You need to be headin’ home.” An ache formed in his chest the moment the words left his lips. An ache that spread into his limbs and crept into his skull. Adam hung his head in disappointment and did as he was told.
Chris realized too late it was a mistake. They needed to stay together… they had to stay together. He looked up, startled to see the small figure disappear into the shadows that reached down from the hillside ahead. He had to stop him. If he did nothing else in this world, he had to go after him and stop him. He began to run, forcing his legs to climb, feeling them burn with every step. The movement was somehow painful but he didn’t slow down until he reached the crest of the rise. Once there, he spun in tight circles and peered into the darkness; the boy was nowhere to be found. “Adam,” he cried. “Where are you?”
The shadows closed in around him and refused to give up their secrets.
… and he listened.
Suddenly so overwhelmed he was sure his next breath would never come, he crossed his hands over his chest and whispered, “Sarah?”
A soft giggle confirmed her presence. “Now who else might you be expecting?”
He glanced over his shoulder, but when he saw her standing there he immediately looked away. Damn it to hell, it had actually happened. He’d lost his mind.
“Chris Larabee, you look at me this instant.”
Well, insane or not, it sounded like her. He looked again, this time allowing his gaze to linger. “Sarah? How…?”
Her eyes sparkled as she reached for him.
What was he saying? Did it really matter how? He ran to her, gathered her in his arms and kissed her hard and deep. The feel of her, the smell of her, it was almost too much to bear. He pulled away just long enough to touch her chin before he again placed his mouth over hers and demanded another taste.
The kiss continued until she pushed him away to catch her breath. “What has you so excited?” she asked, placing her slender fingers on his cheek.
“The way you came running out here…”
He remembered. “ I saw him, Sarah. I saw Adam.”
She frowned. “Of course you did.”
“He followed me again.”
He felt her stiffen beneath his hands and it became his turn to frown. Something wasn’t right. “You don’t believe me,” he said and eyed her suspiciously until a commotion at the bottom of the hill drew his attention. When he turned back to his wife, she was gone.
“No.” He brushed a hand over his mouth and felt the lingering dampness of her kiss on his lips. This was all wrong. Sarah hadn’t been there then and she couldn’t have been with him now… His thoughts were a jumble of dream, reality and desire and he couldn’t for the life him understand what was going on.
He pushed nervous fingers through his hair in frustration and let his eyes wander to the bottom of the incline. There were several men milling around an open wagon, busying themselves with something in its bed. Too far away to make it out, he decided to physically separate himself from the illusion that had been his wife and leave the safety of the hilltop. He headed towards the group, slowly at first, then faster as he gained momentum. He was in a dead run when a shrill scream reached his ears. Pinpointing the source of the cry, he saw a young man being dragged against his will closer and closer to the cart. It was obvious by the persistent screams of terror it was the last place on earth he wanted to be, but the men who jerked him along seemed unsympathetic to his fear.
Forcing his legs to pump harder and harder, Chris ran until he felt a dull throbbing begin to grow in his hip. He ignored it for another ten yards, but the ache grew exponentially into a hurt he couldn’t endure. A groan caught in his throat and an explosion of pain sent him to the ground. His hands alternately grabbed for his leg and dug into the earth beneath him. What the hell? He hadn’t felt such a tear of agony since…
Another scream reached his ears.
He had to get up but his leg felt as if it had been ripped from its socket. Waves of heat and sickness washed over him and just as he was certain he’d pass out, powerful, biting hands reached down to pull him from the ground. For a moment he thought the men from the wagon had come to offer aid, but the rough handling made him doubt their goodwill. He watched the ground as it passed beneath his knees. The blur only made his nausea more intense, so he raised his chin and focused on the assembly ahead to save him the misery of throwing up. Despite barely keeping his head upright, he was able to determine the thing he had seen lying in the wagon was actually a person, and the poor soul who was being dragged in much the same fashion as he… had disappeared. That was impossible. There was no place for him to go.
The hands under his arms suddenly hoisted him high and tossed him violently into the wagon’s bed. He grunted in pain when he hit the hard boards and cursed. Damn! These had to be some of the coldest son-of-a-bitches he’d ever known. Before he could even unclench his teeth, he was disregarded and left on his own.
An overwhelming sense of I-don’t-want-to-be-here crawled inside his chest as he realized there was something familiar about the heavy cart and the men who’d forced him into it. There was a reason he’d been thrown here, one that some deep corner of his heart understood even if his mind was too terrified to recall. He struggled to raise himself, feeling more and more the damage in his hip and the hurt in his leg.
He brought a hand to his spinning head and brushed and arm against something beside him. Suddenly remembering the person he’d seen before, he skittered away until his back hit the sideboards. A vague memory flashed in his brain. “No,” he choked out. “I can’t.” He rubbed at his face with both hands, making every effort to scrub away what he knew lay ahead. He couldn’t do this, not again. How could anyone?
Denial however had never been his strong suit.
He reached out and took hold of the small body next to him. The instant his fingers touched the cool rigid flesh, he remembered. “Oh, God,” he whimpered as he pulled the slight weight across his legs. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”
Gathering the corpse against him, he gently rolled it over. A mass of torn pale flesh, which had once been a face, stared up at him with eyes so vividly blue the contrast was startling; blue and still and blinded by the cold stillness of death.
Chris’ mind was so captured by the ice in those eyes he felt his very soul collapse. It was his fault. He hadn’t been able to protect the one person he loved most in life and now the boy lay in his arms, a bloody heap of flesh and bone. Adam was dead and there was no way to fill the chasm of grief that had been his heart. The loss was his to suffer and the fates had obviously decided his bereavement would be without end.
Ezra was content. He was back in his own little backwater town, sitting at a table in the corner of his own little saloon and winning hundreds with his own little hands. Poker was such a civilized game. Ah yes, it was good to be home.
He slid a wrist across the table and picked up the glass he’d been sipping from during the game. He knew without a doubt this pot would be his, which drew a broad grin and a lazy salute with his drink. He was also aware of the fact the gentlemen at the table were growing deliciously impatient, so he drained the glass slowly and watched as the sweat began to bead on their faces.
“Mr. Standish, Mr. Edwards here has called your hand,” an irritated voice finally broke the silence Ezra had manipulated.
“I do believe you are correct, Mr. Mullinax.”
“Well, are we to see your cards or not? There is a substantial sum awaiting the outcome.”
“Indeed. Approximately five hundred dollars, if my calculations are correct.”
“Of course, Mr. Mullinax, of course.” Ezra smiled as he lowered his cards to the table. “But it never ceases to amaze me how hell-bent a man can be to lose his money. May I offer you a bit of advice, sir? Slow down. That way you will at least be able to say you enjoyed playing the game.”
Just as the cards he held so lovingly in his hands were about to be revealed, the unthinkable happened. The table he leaned on tipped to one side and fell away from his reach with a crash. With it went the perfect hand, the most extraordinary hand, and every hope he had for walking away with that beautiful pot of cash. He fell across its upturned edge and scrambled to regain his cards. “Noooo!”
“Noooo,” echoed in his ears.
He clamped his mouth shut and heard the cry again.
“Oh, thank heavens,” he muttered as he realized he’d been dreaming. “It would be too unkind to find such a thing actually happened while I was awake.”
“Chris?” He heard the wheeze of distressed lungs and reached out a hand to feel the cot his fellow prisoner should have been occupying. “Where are you?”
There was no answer but he had a pretty good idea what had happened. He sat up, turned to the floor behind him and picked up the lantern. Seeing it offered the only light in the room, he knew it was still night. The hours had passed since Simmons’ visit and still there had been no one to come for him. It was probably looking a gift horse in the mouth, but he really was becoming suspicious as to why the warden hadn’t made a move towards him or Chris.
A cough from the far side of the shabby bed hurried him to where his friend lay sprawled face down on the ground. When he lowered the lamp to see Chris’ face, he was both stunned by how badly he looked and relieved to see his eyes were now open. “Please tell me you’re in this position as the result of an escape attempt. You’re a bit old to be falling out of bed, aren’t you?” he inquired, masking his worry with humor.
Chris didn’t answer but he did, for an instant, turn his head at the sound of the Southern voice. Then his focus wandered and he began rubbing his leg.
“Perhaps you and I can find another way out; one that doesn’t require digging. I speak from experience when I say removing huge hunks of soil and rock from the earth is not the most pleasant of pastimes.” Ezra dropped a bandaged hand for the blond to see with the hope of regaining his attention.
Chris’ sluggish green eyes moved left and right before they locked onto the palm just inches from his face. The sight drew a grimace.
“Can you see me?”
He looked away as if he’d been caught doing something wrong.
“Chris, can you see my hand?” Ezra waited patiently for his friend to gather his thoughts.
Eventually, he dragged a hand from his hip and cautiously touched the fingers peaking out from the dirty bandages.
He froze, his fingers hanging in the air alongside Ezra’s.
The gambler gently pushed them down and set about scooting his cellmate around until he was settled more comfortably against the cot. Once that was done he dislodged some of the dirt from his face. “I was afraid of this.”
Once again, Larabee followed the sound of the voice and warily turned his head.
“You can’t see, can you? You’ve been in the dark too long.”
“Whe…?” Chris mouthed twice before he was actually able to make a sound.
“Take it slow.”
“Where…?” he insisted as a wave of nausea washed over him. He resisted the urge to be sick and mumbled, “Damn… that must’ve been a bad… bottle o’ rye.” There was a long pause for breath. “Oooohh, why the hell do I drink that rotgut?”
“I’ve often wondered that myself.”
Chris startled when he heard the drawl so near his ear. He couldn’t recall a specific set of events that would land him on the floor and hung-over, but he could place that voice. “Ezra?”
“Yes. Thank the Good Lord.”
He listened to the words intently and tried to absorb their meaning. “Why am I on the floor… and why are you praying?”
A laugh preceded a deep sigh. “You sir, are on the floor because you fell out of bed. I am giving thanks because it seems to have done you a tremendous amount of good.”
The lethargic green eyes came up. “Damn, Ezra, what happened to you?”
“You don’t remember?”
Chris shook his head.
“Do you remember a disgusting little place known as Jericho?”
“Jericho?” The confusion on his face slowly disappeared. “The prison!”
Ezra put a hand on his shoulder when he twisted to either side, trying to take in his surroundings. “I suggest you stay seated a little while longer.”
“I remember the prison, but … I was in the hole…”
“They moved us here a couple of days ago. It’s not exactly the sort of accommodations to which I’m accustomed but this place does seem much improved over the hole.”
“And what would you know about the hole?” he muttered, still trying to see the room around him.
“I too was a guest there. It was where I found you after the warden and his men found me.”
“Found? How did you get here?”
“Do you remember a telegram sent on your behalf to Four Corners?”
Chris rubbed his hands together, trying to ward off the chill creeping into his body. “Yeah, I remember. That asshole sheriff offered me a deal, said if I could get my family to post bail, my case would be reviewed. Piece of scum is extorting money from the families of travelers he and the warden snatch and throw in here.”
“Yes, well it was a very smart move on your part to have them send that message in care of the Clarion. Mrs. Travis brought the telegram to me the instant she received it. I do hope you’re not disappointed I assumed the role of your brother. I’m afraid the real ‘Vin Larabee’ was otherwise occupied when the request for bail arrived.”
“Disappointed? No, just a little confused as to why you’re in here with me, dressed like that and looking like you’ve been in the middle of a stampede. Where are the others?”
“I was the only one in town at the time your situation came to our attention. Mr. Tanner and Mr. Wilmington were called upon to escort a prisoner back to Jasper Creek. Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Jackson were needed at the Seminole village; a few of the people there were injured in a landslide requiring their assistance. Mr. Dunne was asked to investigate a situation regarding a suspected prowler at Mrs. Welles’ homestead. I remained to watch the town.”
“So the others don’t know about this place yet?”
“It’s quite possible Mrs. Travis has informed them by now. Mr. Tanner was bothered by your long absence even before he left town. I’m sure he and Mr. Wilmington wasted no time in depositing their prisoner with the sheriff in Jasper Creek. They’re most likely home by now.”
“They’ll find us.” Chris motioned to the gambler. “You still haven’t explained how you came to be in here with me, lookin’ like that.”
“Do not be so quick to cast stones, Mr. Larabee. You haven’t yet had the opportunity to see your own reflection.”
“As I said, I was the only one available to masquerade as your kin. I spotted the hidden message in the name and recognized the telegram as a con.”
“It was too vague as to the reason for your incarceration. Now I can see you being arrested for breaking up a saloon, or perhaps thrown in jail for beating up the odd ill-mannered cowboy, but I cannot believe you would do anything that would warrant lockup in a prison camp. I tried to imagine what you could have done that would put a five hundred dollar price tag on your freedom. Perhaps I overstate my relationship with you and the others, but I see none of you capable of anything that would justify such a fee.”
Ezra continued. “Anyway, since I was the only person who could offer assistance, I came to Jericho in the guise of your brother.”
“With that accent?”
“Certainly not. I assure you, sir, I am quite adept at many different dialects, a necessary skill in my line of work. Although your accent is rather uncomfortable to emulate it isn’t altogether difficult to mimic,” he answered, very nearly insulted.
“I don’t doubt you one bit. I’m grateful.”
“Well, perhaps you should rethink your gratitude. My plan didn’t work. I was found out by Sheriff Quince and thrown in here to keep you company. I’m not exactly sure how they found out, but I pray it wasn’t the fault of a bad performance on my part. I would hate to think that my current employment has had some ill-effect on my abilities to accomplish a desired end.”
“You mean your ability to con,” Chris clarified.
“Oh, now that it such a crude way to put it.”
Now both men were feeling the cold filtering its way into the small cell. The gunfighter wrapped his arms around himself in an attempt to keep warm and Ezra blew into his hands. “Shall we get you off the ground? Our cots are not the most comfortable of beds but they are slightly more restful than the floor.”
Chris looked over his shoulder and noticed there was indeed a cot at his back. “Why don’t I remember this place? How long have I been in here?”
“Long enough. Let’s not worry about the rest for now. You need to get some sleep. We both do.” Ezra felt a yawn coming on as he tried to shoulder his way under the gunfighter’s left arm. “How does your leg feel now?”
“My leg? It’s fine.”
“Your leg doesn’t hurt?”
“No. My side aches some.”
Ezra briefly wondered at the disappearance of Chris’ prior pain. Deciding not to pursue the matter, he got up, leaned over and pulled his friend off the floor. Taking most of Chris’ weight, he positioned him over the bunk and he eased him down. Once his feet were off the floor, Ezra covered him with the blanket and fell back onto his own cot.
Chris watched him lean back to pick something off the floor. When he fumbled and struggled to sit up, he asked, “What’re you doin’?”
“The prison doctor paid a visit earlier. He determined you were in need of nourishment and asked the warden to provide you with a small amount of broth. The guard, Phillips I believe was his name, brought it about an hour ago.”
“The doc was here? I don’t remember.”
“No doubt, you were unconscious during his examination. We have bread and water as well. Which would you prefer first?”
“That is not an option. You have to eat.”
Chris pulled his blanket closer to his chin. “I ain’t hungry.”
“I see you are under the impression you have a choice. It’s simply broth and water. It isn’t much to regain your strength, but it is better than nothing.”
“You playin’ nursemaid, Ezra?”
“Only if you are not willing to behave sensibly.”
Chris stared at the gambler long and hard; he looked more drained than he’d ever seen him. “I can’t.”
“I understand, but the fact remains you need to eat. I have no idea the last time you were even given food, much less ate. If we are to make an escape from this little paradise of ours, we need to get you on your feet. Am I making myself clear?”
It was true. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. The truth was he couldn’t remember much of anything after the warden tried to make him clean his boots. Reluctantly, he nodded and mumbled, “Water.”
Ezra fetched the ladle. He drank from it, timidly at first and then with more confidence as the lukewarm liquid filled his mouth and soothed his throat. He prayed it wouldn’t come back up when it reached his stomach. Suddenly exhausted from the effort it took to lean forward, he took another mouthful and leaned back on the cot. He let his eyes rest on Ezra.
“What happened to your hands?”
Ezra looked at his bandaged palms sadly. “I have always maintained that labor-intensive activities are unhealthy. It appears I have once again been proven correct.”
“Not bad enough to prevent me from leaving this place should the opportunity arise.”
Chris’ eyebrow went up.
“I’m alright,” he said reassuringly. “I should be asking how you feel.”
“I’m… fine, just a little messed up. I don’t remember you comin’ in and I don’t remember being moved in here. Wherever here is.”
“This small haven is little more than 30 feet from the hole. And I really don’t expect you to remember my entrance. To be quite honest, I don’t recall much about that myself. I was dropped rather haphazardly into that pit you were in after Crenshaw somehow learned of my deception.”
“You mean about bein’ my brother.”
“I thought my plan was working because I was playing the role extremely well. I had the Larabee attitude down pat.”
Chris smirked but kept his mouth shut.
“I made it known I had the money needed to pay your bail, and that I wanted nothing more than to obtain your release,” Ezra continued. “Sheriff Quince greeted me at the saloon and then escorted me to the prison. I couldn’t have been in the warden’s office more than half an hour when I found myself at the receiving end of a rather large stick. It actually felt more like a club, but the results were the same. I was quite unable to resist when the guards dropped me into that pit.” He reached for the broth and offered it to his friend, supporting Chris’ hand to ensure the precious liquid didn’t end up on the floor.
“You say they found you out after you got to the prison?”
“Damn. I think I know why. One of the prisoners, an ugly cuss who serves the slop around here, thought he knew me. I bet he knew us both.”
“Ah, yes. We have been known to travel in some very unsavory circles in our line of work.”
Chris surprised himself and finished the broth. He allowed Ezra to take the bowl from his shaking hand before he once again lay down. Lord, but he was tired.
“I think it is at this point in time when our Mr. Jackson would suggest you get some sleep. We can plan our departure when you’re feeling better.”
He wanted nothing more than to submit to his body’s desire to sleep, but he needed more answers. He needed to fill in the missing pieces. His head snapped up when his brain finally registered something Ezra said earlier. “What do you mean you made it clear you had the money?”
“You said you had the money.”
“The bail was five hundred dollars,” he added.
“Where on earth did you get that kind of money?”
It was Ezra’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “I believe you know good and well how I obtained that money. It is how I make a living.”
“The money for your saloon? You lost your money…” Chris was flabbergasted.
“I do still have hopes of reacquiring those funds.”
“You lost your money… I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. This little game isn’t over yet.”
The gunslinger caught sight of an extremely evil and knowing grin. “You’re right, Ezra,” he replied. “It ain’t over by a long shot.”