The deputy of Jericho looked up from his perch on the front steps of the Sheriff’s Office and watched as five horsemen entered town. They crossed the stone bridge spanning the creek at the edge of town and came straight to where he sat slumped in his chair.
“Howdy,” the mustached man in front called. “We’re lookin’ for the sheriff.”
“Yeah?” he mumbled half-heartedly.
“Mind if we wait for him?”
“Would it do us any good if we did?”
“And why’s that?”
The stranger looked over his shoulder towards a man clad in buckskins. “Talkative, ain’t he?”
The second man simply shifted in his saddle.
Obviously irritated by the lack of conversation from either direction, the tall rider readdressed the deputy. “Can you tell me where the sheriff is?”
“When will he be back?”
“I reckon he’ll be back soon enough.”
“And in your book, just how long is ‘soon’?”
“Oh, not too awful long.”
The man looked ready to come out of his saddle but a large hand from the third rider stopped his dismount. “Brother Buck, I do believe you’re going about this all wrong,” he said before urging his horse closer to the office steps. “Now son, we’re trying to learn the whereabouts of a couple of men, brothers in fact, who’re known to have come through this little bit of heaven you call home.”
The deputy leaned back in his chair and craned his neck to look up at the deep-voiced stranger. “Uh, brothers you say?”
“Yes. One of the boys was being held in a prison near here. His name is Chris Larabee. The other, his brother Vin, came in lookin’ to post bail.”
“Ah, the Larabee brothers,” he replied nervously. “I heard about that one named Chris, the sheriff locked him up a while back.”
Wilmington spoke up. “What was he locked up for?”
Buck had just about reached the end of his rope, and made another move to get off his horse, but again Sanchez’ hand prevented him. “Josiah, quit doin’ that!” he protested, slapping a knee with his hat.
Josiah glared at him before he spoke to the man in the chair. “Well, I do believe my friend here asked you the reason Chris was locked up. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to keep anything from us, now would you?”
The deputy swallowed. “No, no. It’s just I don’t rightly know what that Chris feller got hisself thrown in prison for. I was away when he was arrested,” he lied.
“Alright,” Josiah said in an agreeable tone. “Were you away for a long time?”
“Uh, no, I wasn’t gone long. Sheriff needs me around here,” he answered with self-importance, hoping to appear stronger than he really felt.
“Good, then you were around when Vin Larabee came into town.”
“I-I was? I mean yes, I was.”
Josiah turned the interrogation back over to Buck who sported a grin suggesting trouble. He nudged his horse even with Josiah’s, watching the town’s second in command straighten and scoot his chair back. “You do know why Vin was here,” he stated, not leaving room for argument.
“Of course, like he said, it was to bail out his brother.”
“Then maybe we can move this along with you telling us where Vin is right now. He came into town, ready to pay Chris’ bail, and he went where?”
Worried eyes searched the ground. “He came to see the Sheriff.”
“And,” Josiah prompted.
“And they talked for a while.”
It was Josiah’s turn to lose his patience. “Son, if you don’t move this along, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to move on down the street. Waitin’ for you to give information could bore a man to death. And if I leave…” he hinted, patting Buck on the shoulder.
“Wait! No, ya see I’m just tryin’ to remember.”
“Okay then, maybe you could remember a little faster so me and my friends here can go find Vin and his brother. It’s been a long ride and it’s about to get dark. We’d like to get some rest before we head back.”
“Right. Well, you probably won’t find this Vin before dark.”
“Mister, you better make this good,” said the fourth man from his position behind Josiah.
The deputy jumped when the black man spoke, nearly falling from his chair. He hurried to explain. “It’s just that Vin Larabee met with the sheriff in his office and they did talk about bail for his brother, but then that was the last I seen of him. He and the sheriff rode out to the prison to fetch his kin. I figured he got his brother and went on home.”
Buck came off his mount so fast the nervous lawman never saw him coming. “You figured wrong! Those boys never made it home. Now you tell me again about how he met with the sheriff,” he growled at the same time pinning the man to the wall with a forearm across the throat.
“I told you! They did meet, right in there,” he said, pointing to the door behind him. “Vin paid the bail and the sheriff took him to get his brother! I swear!”
“Look, I don’t know what happened to the Larabee brothers once they left here! To be honest, I ain’t given ‘em much thought. It was just a man bailin’ out his kin, happens all the time!”
“Hey Buck,” called the last and youngest of the group. “Let him go.”
He didn’t back off.
The dark-haired youth climbed off his horse and stood by his angry friend. “Let him go. This ain’t helpin’ any.”
“He’s lyin’ through his teeth, JD.”
“We don’t know that. Maybe Vin did ride out to get Chris. It makes sense. Maybe something happened when they left the prison,” he tried to reason, more for Buck’s sake than the deputy’s.
Nathan tried to offer Dunne a hand. “Come on, Buck, turn ‘im loose. You been ridin’ the better part of five days now, you don’t hardly know if yer comin’ or goin’. Let’s just think on this some.”
“He’s right,” JD added. “Let’s just go get some rest. We’ll talk about what to do next.”
Wilmington felt the knots in his shoulders begin to burn and finally decided to take heed. He loosened his grip on the frightened deputy and patted him on the chest without thinking. “Yeah, I reckon you’re right. We can’t help Chris and Vin feelin’ like this.”
Without a word, the deputy slid along the wall until he was out of Buck’s reach. Josiah saw the retreat and shook his head before he called out to the rapidly disappearing lawman. “Please excuse my friend’s aggressive nature. He’s a good man, if a bit out of control.”
“N-no problem, a man’s liable to do all sorts of things when he’s worn out like that.”
“We’re all a bit tired. If you’ll excuse us, we’ll be lookin’ for a spot to bed down for the night,” the large man offered before he reined his horse away and headed down the street.
The deputy rushed inside the office, closed the door behind him and peeked out the window to watch the five men regroup and leave. “Damn, I wish Sheriff Quince would get himself on back here,” he complained nervously as his heart climbed down from his throat.
Sheriff Quince paced the warden’s office nervously. He’d left Crenshaw earlier to patrol the area, making sure it was secure for the planned escape of the Larabee brothers. When he returned, he was advised to eat and rest before the excitement began. He tried to comply but now that it was well after dark he found the waiting set his nerves on edge. “How much longer are we gonna sit here?” he asked the man relaxing on the settee across the room.
“Ah Quince, you act as if you’re the one who’s about to be hunted down,” the warden said with a laugh.
“I just want to have this over and done with. Those two boys are more trouble than they’re worth.” He jerked a thumb in the direction of the stone holding-cell.
“I have explained this to you. I want it to be close enough to morning so we have daylight when we bring their dead bodies back through the front gates. I want everyone to see what happens to those who cross me. I also want witnesses who see two escaped convicts brought back after they recklessly tried to resist my authority. Remember, we don’t really know they’re lawmen now do we.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He sat once again on the corner of the desk. “I’ll just be glad to get things back to normal. But next time we’ve got to be more careful about the saddle bums we pick up and bring in here.”
Crenshaw walked over and slapped him on the shoulder. “We’ll chalk this one up as a lesson learned. Now how about we send for Briggs.”
“I think he would be the perfect person to fetch our prisoners. He’s taken a shine to Inmate 93. I’m sure a little time with Briggs will encourage an escape attempt on his part. We’ll have those two brought here so you and I can insinuate a few atrocities of our own and then allow 78 to partake of our little gift.” The warden picked up the black drug case lying on his desk and caressed its lid with his fingers. “Once our intentions as to their health are made clear, we’ll return them to their cell and wait for them to discover a careless oversight regarding their confinement. They should be so desperate to survive they won’t recognize the setup.”
“What if they do?”
Crenshaw simply raised an eyebrow at the question.
“Alright, alright, they won’t.”
“Good. Now that that’s settled, I think it’s time to begin the game,” he replied with an eager voice. He took his seat behind the desk and watched the sheriff exit his office.
Quince pulled the door closed behind him and set off to find the repugnant guard. He hated being within ten feet of the man, but he was a necessary tool if the warden’s plan was going to work. He stepped off the small porch and headed towards the area he knew Briggs would be patrolling. He was so focused on what needed doing he didn’t notice the shadow silently retreating in his wake.
Ezra dozed. Having made certain his cellmate was resting comfortably he tried to grab another few minutes of rest. There was little else to do at this point. The powers-that-be seemed for all intents and purposes to have forgotten he and Chris were there. Perhaps that was the punishment—to keep them wondering what would happen next. Chris seemed to have overcome the dark episodes he’d endured earlier and whatever had caused his madness seemed to have left him in peace, at least for the moment. Now he slept, free of the fear that had so consumed him since Ezra’s arrival.
The weary gambler closed his eyes, deciding he would deal with whatever came his way when it came his way. All he wanted for the moment was to give in to his body’s need to remain still. Unfortunately, his surrender lasted a very short time as a noise in the distance vaguely caught his attention. He thought about checking to see what had caused it, but fatigue overwhelmed him. Just another minute, he thought.
Then the sound came again, closer. He lay perfectly still, cracked an eyelid and tried to get his bearings. He reached an arm out to touch the man who was supposed to be snoozing at his side then opened both his eyes and caught sight of a shadow hovering above. “Chris? What are you doing?” he asked tiredly.
The shadow didn’t speak.
“Are you feeling sick again?” He listened but no one answered. As he tried to rise, his hand slid further across Chris’ cot until it unexpectedly collided with a warm shoulder. He quickly realized the gunfighter was still curled up in his bed. “Who’s there?”
No voice gave reply, but a large hand came down to grab his upper arm. He was roughly pulled from the shabby mattress and drawn up to stand face to face with an enormous wall of flesh. Two beefy hands felt their way up his arms and shoulders until they settled in a loose grip around his neck. He gagged when he realized who had him – Briggs, and the man’s breath hadn’t improved one bit.
“Wha-what,” he wheezed, “do you want?” He had a good idea but that thought was too gruesome to hold on to for very long. “L-let go,” he said with as much strength as he could muster, his aching fingers tugging at the hands holding his head so close to the ugly beast.
The light was nil, save for the glow of the lantern. Still night, he fretted. No one will be up at this hour. Not that anyone would help him anyway. He pulled again at the meaty fingers threaded around his throat but Briggs wasn’t turning him loose.
“Be still,” the guard ordered as he moved one of his hands to the back of the Southerner’s head.
“Like hell,” Ezra gasped. “Let… go!” His struggles grew more in earnest with each passing moment. The prospect of what was about to happen was more than his heart could take. He would stop this or die trying. “I really…” he said, raising his right leg, “must insist!” Then he brought his foot down as hard as he could on Brigg’s left knee. It had the desired effect and Ezra twisted free as the huge man grabbed his injured leg.
Briggs fell in pain and watched his prisoner retreat to the far wall of the cell, standing ready for the next attack. “You ain’t gonna win, little man,” he threatened. “You shouldn’t fight me.”
Ezra stood fast, inches from the wall, ready to do just that.
“I been watchin’ you,” Briggs added.
He shuddered. He knew the man wasn’t lying on that point.
“They locked you away, but I still been watchin’.”
“In here?” he asked before he realized he was speaking out loud. “How on earth?” He watched Briggs smugly raise his eyes to the little window high above his head. “Oh, Lord.”
Briggs regained his feet. “You been carin’ for him real good,” he said as he motioned towards Chris’ back. “Like he’s somethin’ special.”
Ezra scowled at the insinuation. “We work together. He’s a friend.”
“Maybe he’s needin’ a new friend,” the guard replied as he moved closer to where Chris lay and reached down to roll the sleeping man onto his back.
The action brought Ezra away from the wall. “Leave him alone.”
“You don’t like me touchin’ ‘im, do you? Well, maybe you’ll be wantin’ to do somethin’ to stop me.” A filthy hand went to Chris’ chin to pull his face into the lantern’s meager light. A moment later that same hand was brought to rest on the gunfighter’s belly, near the knife wound.
Ezra knew Briggs was provoking him, but the sight of the animal touching his friend was more than he could stand. “Get away from him! He can’t hurt you.”
“No, but I can hurt him real good.”
Ezra stepped closer. This couldn’t be happening. How was he going to fight a man three times his size? He watched, horror-struck, as the fingers on Chris’ stomach began to move down his body. “You son-of-a-bitch!” he yelled as he launched himself at the repulsive thug.
Briggs fell awkwardly but righted himself just in time to jerk Ezra into his arms. With one quick motion, he had his victim pinned against the wall. “So, it’s gonna be you, is it? Good,” he breathed into the gambler’s face.
Ezra choked on the foul breath that once again caught him off guard. “No,” he wheezed. “This will not happen.”
“Oh, but it will. You ain’t gettin’ away. There ain’t no place to go.” Briggs pushed lewdly against the squirming man.
“NO, but there’s a place you can go, you piece o’ crap!” Ezra heard just before the man on top of him fell in a heap on the floor.
The gambler curled into himself and dropped to the ground as well. He could still feel… He shook off the thought as he fought for composure. It’s all right, he thought. Nothing happened. It didn’t happen.
“It didn’t happen,” he mumbled.
“Ezra? You okay?”
“Not again. It didn’t happen…again,” he stated strongly despite the fact he was visibly trembling.
“Again? Did he try before?”
“That asshole on the floor, did he try this before?”
Ezra bravely lifted his face to see the person gripping the back of his neck. “Chris?”
“Yeah, who’d you expect?”
“Uh, no one. You and I are the only ones here… the only ones.” Ezra’s voice and stare drifted. He saw Briggs lying beside him. “Well, almost the only ones.”
“Are you alright?”
“Fine, I’m fine,” he answered. “Just had the wind knocked out of me.”
Chris screwed his face up skeptically. “Ezra. Has he hurt you before?”
“Before? No. No he hasn’t. Well, aside from the fact he worked me like an animal in the yard.” He stood slowly and straightened. “The man has no respect for those less inclined to participate in hard labor.”
Chris stood as well, using the wall to lean on. He brought his arm up to wrap around his waist. “I heard that,” he said with a grimace.
The gambler caught the look. “You need to be resting.”
“Ezra,” Chris started.
“Don’t fight me on this. Mr. Jackson will have my worthless hide if I permit you to hurt yourself further before we return home.”
“Well, you may not have to worry about that much longer,” Larabee stated, nodding towards the other side of the room. “We may be going home sooner than we thought.”
Ezra blinked in disbelief when he saw what had caught Chris’ attention. The cell door was standing wide open. “How fortunate ‘that asshole’ is as stupid as he is grotesque,” he said snidely.
“Yeah. You ready to get outta here?”
“Well then, I think we should probably make our departure. By the way,” he began as he pulled one of Chris’ arms over his shoulder and helped him over the guard’s unconscious form.
“How was it you persuaded our guard to stop,” he hesitated, too shaken to name what it was Briggs had attempted, “you know.”
“Well, you know me, I believe in reasoning with a man.” Chris glanced down at his hand and fingered a chunk of stone from the cell wall.
Ezra grinned as he aimed his friend towards the exit. Taking a couple of seconds to peek outside, he pulled Chris into the shadows.
“Tell me again. Where are we?” the gunfighter asked in a low voice.
Ezra moved Chris closer to the building, against a row of crates lining the outside wall and pointed parallel to the prison’s fence. “About 30 feet in that direction, and about ten feet down, you’ll find our previous accommodations.”
“Yes. The fence runs alongside it and this building, about 20 feet to the outside. The warden’s office lies in that direction,” he whispered, directing the blond man’s attention to their immediate right.
“Why would they hold prisoners here, so near the fence?”
“Perhaps those kept here aren’t normally well enough for the proximity to be of concern. When I was brought here, you were in no condition to be contemplating escape. Seeing that I came in here looking for you, it was probably a good guess I wouldn’t be leaving without you. Then again, perhaps this was the only place they had to separate you from the other inmates. According to our Mr. Simmons, you were quite the irritant for the warden.”
“A pain in the ass, I hope,” Chris corrected. “We best be headin’ to the fence and away from the compound. Where are the guards?”
“Excellent question, however I’m not disappointed by their absence.”
“Something’s not right. I wonder…” Chris began to say when a sound caught his attention. “Someone’s coming.”
Ezra straightened and took a step away from the building. When he did, his foot collided with something in the shadows and sent it clattering to the ground. What toppled into the moonlight was nearly inconceivable --a rifle.
Chris stared blankly for a moment before the sound of running feet snapped him back to awareness. “It must belong to Briggs. Grab it and let’s get out of here.”
The gambler retrieved the weapon and they made their way towards the wire barricade. Just as they rounded the building, he glanced over his shoulder to see someone, Phillips he thought, run towards the door they had just exited. He could have sworn the dark face had looked in their direction, but since the man made no move to chase them he counted his blessings and ran. He brought Chris to a stop at the fence. “Can you make it?”
Larabee held a hand against his side and nodded.
“We can’t cut through this nor can we pull it down,” he pointed out as he gripped the wire.
“We have to get through it,” Chris panted, “try to find a weak spot.”
Ezra lowered the gunfighter to the ground and moved up the fence. Several feet down the line, he pulled against the wire and their supporting posts. Nothing. They were trapped.
The weakened lawman clambered to his feet and pointed past his shoulder. “There, when you pulled the wire… that post moved.”
“Don’t know… don’t care,” Chris replied as he dropped to one knee.
Ezra went to the next post and pushed until it gave way. “This cannot be just another bit of luck. It’s a trap,” he said as he turned to Chris, who was sinking further and further to the ground, “you know that.”
A flurry of activity could be heard behind them. Guards were shouting and circling the old shack.
“I ain’t going back into that cell. I can’t,” Chris said with conviction. “Whatever is going on, I’d rather take my chances on the outside of this place.”
Ezra moved to pick his friend off the ground. “You will get no argument from me. I too believe our odds would be better if we took our leave. Just hang on to me and run like hell.”
Larabee’s bearded face shined with renewed hope as he felt himself being hoisted from the dirt and propelled towards the newly created opening in the prison’s fence. Maybe, just maybe…
Buck, Vin, Josiah, JD and Nathan stopped at the Lullaby Inn after they left a somewhat flustered deputy near the town’s entrance. They once again tried to obtain information about their missing friends, but no one had much to say on the subject. The general consensus was that there were folks coming through town all the time bailing out loved ones and then moving on. The five men finally gave up asking and rented a couple of rooms for the night.
Dog-tired, they left the bar and went upstairs. Once out of sight, they all moved into one of the rooms and closed the door behind them. Buck went to the window and looked out. It was so late all the shop owners had closed their stores and everyone else had gone home. He sat on the windowsill and waited for Sanchez to ease himself into an oversized rocking chair. “Alright, Josiah, so what d’ya think? Did Chris and Ezra make it out of the prison or not?”
“Don’t rightly know. My gut tells me these folks are lyin’.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Vin, who sat on the bed, scratched at his chin. “Does it seem odd to ya’ll that there are so many people bailing out kinfolk?”
“You mean to the point everyone we asked acted like it was an everyday event?” Buck answered.
“There must be an awful lot of men runnin’ around out on bail right now,” the tracker added. “Appears the biggest job ‘round these parts is bookkeepin’ at the Sheriff’s Office.”
JD sat on the floor near the door. “All this bailing prisoners out, it’s a scam, aint’ it. You think that’s what Ezra figured out when he got the telegram about Chris?”
“Might o’ been, little brother,” Josiah said as he slowly started moving the rocker. “Ezra’s pretty clever. What we don’t know is what happened to him when he got here and if he ever made it to Chris.”
“I’m bettin’ they’re still at that prison,” Buck alleged.
“Me too,” Nathan added as he sat next to Vin. “But how’re we gonna find out for sure?”
“We could go back to the Sheriff’s Office,” Tanner suggested.
“What good would that do? That deputy ain’t tellin’ us nothin’.”
“He may not have to. We rattled him pretty good. He might rabbit to wherever the sheriff is.”
“Or he could lead us to where Chris and Ezra are,” JD finished.
Buck headed for the door. “Alright then, let’s sneak on outta here and track us a deputy.”
Each man knew their plan didn’t offer much chance of success, but at least they were doing something. Without another word, and without being seen, they left the Inn.
The five peacekeepers were surprised when they returned to the Sheriff’s Office to find the deputy hadn’t made a move. Buck grew more anxious as thoughts of Chris and Ezra filled his mind and he felt in his soul his friends were in terrible trouble. It was that certainty which drove him to act rather than think. A force to be reckoned with, he burst into the office before anyone could stop him.
“Damn it, Buck!” Vin shouted as he followed the tall man inside.
Wilmington’s dynamic entrance caught the deputy off guard and he found himself bent backwards over the desk with an angry, snarling face looming inches from his own. To say his heart was about to explode from panic was putting it mildly. “W-what? What’re you doin?” he whined.
“Well it looks to me like I’m about to break your neck,” Buck said so softly only the deputy could hear. “Those Larabee boys, they’re lawmen from Four Corners, but I think you already know that.”
“You know where they are, don’t ya!”
No reply came this time, probably because the man on the desk couldn’t draw a breath.
“I don’t hear you,” Buck yelled, blind to the fact the man couldn’t answer. It wasn’t until Josiah grabbed him by the shoulder and pointed to the man’s reddened face that he eased off a little.
Just this side of suffocating, the deputy sucked in as much air as he could with a large forearm pressed against his throat.
Buck was about to begin the questions again, but JD called his name. He turned his head and caught sight of the young man holding something for him to see.
“I found this in the cabinet here,” Dunne hollered as he revealed his discovery. “Reckon I’ve only ever seen one of these in my life. It has to be Ezra’s!”
Wilmington focused angry eyes on the shiny metal JD held in his hands. It was the rigging Ezra wore beneath his coat, the one that delivered the hidden Derringer from up his sleeve. He gripped the front of the deputy’s shirt, raised him up a few inches and slammed him down on the desktop. “That is Ezra’s! There’s no way he’d give that up unless it was taken off him by force!”
“Ezra? Who…” The dazed man tried to remember having heard that name during their conversation.
“Why you’d know him as Vin. Small feller, good looking, nice dresser, likes to post bail for his brothers.”
“Brothers? He has more?”
“He has six, you piece o’ shit, and you’re starin’ into the face of one who’ll kill anyone who hurts him!”
The deputy looked deep into the eyes of the deranged man holding him down. There was no doubt in his mind he’d die this night if he didn’t reveal the truth about his friends. “Alright, alright… just don’t hurt me,” he surrendered as he was yanked upright. It only took seconds for him to begin talking for all his life was worth.
Phillips ran to the building holding the warden’s newest prisoners. When he noticed a small glow coming from the side of the shack, he hurried around the corner and discovered the door standing open. Holding his rifle at the ready, he moved inside the door’s frame and looked around the lantern-lit cell. “78! 93!” he called despite clearly seeing the inmates were gone.
Halfway out he door, he was stopped by the sound of a throaty groan and spun around to see who had made the noise. He leaned over the foot of the first cot. “Briggs?” Then knelt beside the oversized guard. “Briggs, wake up!”
There was another groan and a pitiful “What?”
“Briggs,” Phillips called again, shaking the man by his shoulder. “What the hell happened? Where are the prisoners?”
“Back off,” he snorted as he tried to roll over and sit up. “That son-of-a-bitch hit me!”
“Yeah, well, the warden’s gonna do a whole lot worse when he finds out you let his two prize catches get away.”
“Where’d they go?”
“How the devil should I know? I was just about to turn in when I saw the light comin’ from this place. Found you dead to the world here.”
“Well, I ain’t gonna be the one ‘dead to the world’ when I get my hands on those two pieces of…”
“Quit yer jawin’! We gotta find those two and fast. The warden ain’t gonna take it too kindly when he finds out what you done,” Phillips said sharply. “By the way, what were you doin’ in here?”
“Ain’t nothin’ to you.”
“Then maybe you oughta just find ‘em on yer own. I’ll let you tell the warden what you were up to.”
“No, you gotta help me catch ‘em!”
Phillips rubbed at the nape of his neck. “Damn, you’re a sorry shit, ain’tcha. Come on.”
Together, the two guards left the prison shack.
“Wait up,” Briggs called, bending down beside the crates next to the building.
“What’re you lookin’ for?”
“My gun,” he answered nervously, “it ain’t here.”
“You dimwit! You went in unarmed and left your gun out here in plain sight?”
“No. I hid the gun behind the crates. There ain’t no way they coulda seen it.” He was now scurrying on all fours.
“Well, you couldn’t of hid it all that well, else it wouldn’t be missin’.”
“I’m tellin’ ya, there’s no way they coulda found it. It was hid!”
“Well, I doubt inmates tryin’ to escape would take the time to search for somethin’ they didn’t know was there,” Phillips said impatiently.
“Never mind. We need to be findin’ those two. Go get yourself another gun and meet me in the middle of the compound. I’ll get some of the other men and we’ll start trackin’ the prisoners.”
Briggs forced his unwieldy body off the ground and moved as quickly as he could towards the guard shed.
Phillips gripped his own rifle tighter and watched the man lumber away. “Lord, help us all.”
Ezra slowly eased Chris to the ground and settled him on trembling hands and knees. Suffering a moment of confusion, the gunfighter sagged to one side and looked up, shading his eyes. “Why are we stopping?” he asked.
“Just a breather,” the gambler gasped. “For the moment, I think we’ve outrun them.”
“No, but they aren’t within shouting distance so I intend to re-introduce my lungs to air.”
The blond nodded and looked around, continuing to protect his eyes from the daylight. When he spotted a rock nearby, he pulled himself towards it and leaned his aching body against its support. Ezra dropped himself onto a tree that had fallen across the rock and propped on the rifle he carried. He eyed his fellow fugitive without letting him know he was being watched. He honestly had no idea how the man had managed to move as well as he had. By all rights, he should have collapsed long ago. They had managed to avoid capture past sunrise, which was a feat in itself, but the fact they had overcome their own physical needs to simply cave-in was a miracle.
The pain in Chris’ upper leg hadn’t seemed to return despite the amount of torturous running he’d been forced to do, but he did favor the wound in his side. He also appeared to be painfully aware of the bruises covering his chest and back. Ezra actually winced when Chris turned and his shirt fell open. The dark splotches exposed reminded him his friend had suffered more than one beating at the hands of the warden.
He let his eyes travel to an unshaven face as Chris sat with his eyes closed. Odd, he hadn’t taken much notice of the amount of hair that had grown on the lean, dirt-caked face before. He scratched at his own chin and smiled when he realized he too required the use of soap and razor. Slowly the smile faded when he pulled back and took Chris’ entire person into consideration. The normally well-muscled physique looked thin and worn; he’d lost entirely too much weight. Good Lord, how long had it been? How long had they been held in that damp, rat-infested, filthy abyss of hell? Ezra decided he didn’t really want to know.
When Chris kept a hand over his face, he asked, “How are your eyes?”
“Still hurts some, getting better though. How ‘bout yours?”
“Nearly there. Of course, you were confined in the darkness much longer than I. It may take a while before you’ll be comfortable in the light.”
Several minutes later, the heavy breathing grew less from both men and Ezra decided to take charge. He leaned forward and caught Chris’ eye. “I think I should have a look around; try to find out just exactly where we’re heading.” The face below him, still somewhat confused, looked as if it was about to argue. He threw up his hand. “You stay here, rest. I am quite capable of handling a short reconnaissance.” Again it looked as if there was going to be a protest. “No. I said rest. I’ll return shortly.”
“Bossy son-of-a…” Chris mumbled, but for once did as he was told. He watched Ezra stretch the muscles in his back and move out into the trees. Aware the rock at his back was getting distinctly uncomfortable he determined it might be better to use it as a seat. Although his body was clearly against the idea, he found a small amount of strength to push himself off the ground. He nearly made it too, but in the end lost his balance and landed hard on his backside. Oh well, at least he was upright.
Deciding it was time to take stock, he lowered his eyes and stared at his feet. For all practical purposes they were bare. The prison shoes, if that’s what you could call them, were split and torn half off. The lightweight pants he wore were more dirt than fabric, and the shirt on his chest and back was just that-- on his chest and back; it had no sleeves or tail.
He tugged at the edges of the bandage covering his wound and pulled his fingers across the jagged trail of stitches — the injury was sore and very warm to the touch, no doubt infected. He’d have to have Nathan check ... He stopped in mid thought as his gaze continued over the rest of his aching body. There were many cuts and bruises from his standoff with the warden, but there were many more he couldn’t remember acquiring. How the devil did…? He tried to clear his head, to think back, but he honestly couldn’t remember much after his confrontation with Crenshaw.
Maybe Ezra can tell me what happened? Ezra. A spark of panic hit him as he tried to recall when the Southerner had been imprisoned with him. The harder he tried to remember the time before he was confined to that old shack, the thicker the fog around his mind became.
The troubled gunfighter was torn from his thoughts when his ears picked up the most horrific cry of pain he’d ever heard in his life. For an instant, he thought it was an animal crying out. Then the terrified agony of human vocal cords screamed once again. He jumped to his feet, swaying and stumbling. “Ezra!”
The shrill wailing came to his ears once more and he propelled himself in its direction.
“Ezra! Where are you?”
Running on legs that never should have been able to carry him, he followed the gambler’s path into the woods. Damn, what the hell’s going on? He thought as he battled the low branches thrashing his knees. What is it? What…Oh, God. Oh God, no…