Chris slapped a tree limb from his view as he staggered into a small clearing. “Ezra!” he yelled as he shaded his eyes against the blinding light that swelled beyond the trees. “Where are you?” The brightness was so overwhelming he couldn’t see a thing, but the echo of the scream in his mind was so clear it set his panic ablaze. “Damn it, answer me!” He forced his eyes open and searched the area despite the pain shooting into his brain. Then as he was about to turn back into the woods, he heard a low, guttural cry come from the area ahead.
He turned quickly, too quickly for his weakened legs to keep up, and fell in a tangled heap. His face smacked the ground and had it not been for the thick grass in the clearing he might have knocked himself out. Spitting dirt from his mouth, he scrambled to all fours and listened as another cry shattered the silence. “Ezra!” he shouted in reply. He swore he could hear his friend sobbing, but what on earth could terrify the gambler so badly he would…
“Oh, shit!” he cursed when he twisted around and saw the grisly reason for the screams. Ezra, still trying to force another cry from his heaving chest, was dangling from an inch-thick wooden bolt jutting out a huge oak on the far side of the clearing. From what he could tell with the eight or so inches protruding high in the man’s left upper chest, the wooden shaft piercing him was a heavy spear of sorts; a spear that effectively harpooned him to the tree.
The Southerner’s teeth were clenched so tightly his cheeks had turned bone white. His right hand, trying to raise itself past his waist, flopped uselessly in the air as his left hand jerked in spasms at his hip. His feet, cycling backwards at the base of the tree, slipped beneath him and left him hanging by the very thing driven through his flesh.
Chris called his name again as he pushed himself up, but Ezra was so overwrought he wasn’t aware he had been found. The blond shuddered at the man’s anguish and watched as large tears fell from disbelieving eyes. Then he spurred himself forward and took him by the arms. “I’m here,” he announced, feeling the involuntary tremors of pain travel between them. “I’m right here.”
The man on the tree didn’t respond; instead he arced his neck back and bumped his head on the timber against his spine. His whole world had narrowed to a single inescapable thought -- Pain… Dear God, there is so much pain!
“Ezra, hold on,” Chris shouted, hoping to penetrate the cocoon of pain so tightly wrapped round his friend. He had to let him know he wasn’t alone. He had to make him understand he was going to survive. At first it appeared hopeless, then, almost imperceptibly, he heard a small voice whisper near his ear.
He pulled back to stare into eyes awash with pain. The wet green gaze revealed how near hysteria the gambler was and he knew had to act. With arms fatiguing at an alarming rate, he gathered him as close as he could and vowed to end this nightmare as quickly as possible.
Ezra sucked in a breath and pushed it out with a groan. He couldn’t do this; he couldn’t bear the torture any longer. There was more dizziness, nausea and pain than he’d ever known in his life and his knees were giving out, rapidly buckling beneath him. When he didn’t fall, he startled and vaguely understood Chris was beside him, struggling to hold him up. In some tiny corner of his mind, he wanted to know how the gunfighter had found him, how he had managed to reach him, but it was outside his ability to ask.
Then Chris faltered. The initial burst of energy that had carried him to the clearing had begun to wane as an unexpected ache filled his body. There was a sickening numbness crawling over his face, and a nauseating drunkenness in the center of his brain. His eyes fluttered closed and his forehead fell forward onto Ezra’s shoulder. He was losing the advantage of the rush, but still he muttered, “I’ll help you…I swear it.”
The gambler was about to surrender to the darkness when he felt an additional heaviness near his chest. His lungs, already overtaxed with the effort to breathe, now struggled with a second weight against him. He squeezed his eyes into focus at the feel of a fevered brow through his shirt. The weight was physically uncomfortable… the sight nearly broke him. Somehow he managed to wrestle enough presence of mind to understand his survival depended solely on a man who had been so badly abused his mind and body were near collapse. He had to get through to him and keep him awake or they would both die. “Chris, please… help… me.” He lifted his right hand just enough to slide it across the gunfighter’s forearm and weakly grasp the muscle in his upper arm.
The gentle pressure didn’t really serve to snap him back to the present, but the look on Ezra’s face gave Chris what he needed to snatch his thoughts from the blackness and return to the urgency of their situation. He stood straighter beneath Ezra’s weight and once again provided support. Shaking his head to clear it, he spoke with a courage born of desperation. “I’ll get you outta here.” Then he took a moment to look around. There was nothing, absolutely nothing to use as a cutting tool. That left only one way to get Ezra down and it wasn’t going to be easy or pleasant. But he had no choice. It was either do what had to be done or wait for the warden and his men to find them. Having made up his mind to act, he reached for the wooden bolt in the blood-gushing hole and grabbed a firm hold. He looked apologetically into the face near his then with a quick twist, snapped the shaft nearer the entrance wound.
Ezra gagged with the suddenness of the act, but still managed a scream before his head lolled and his body slumped.
Chris threw aside the bloody chunk of wood, took the gambler’s chin with his fingers and raised his face to his own. “Ezra?”
“I’m …here,” he wheezed.
“I have to get you off this tree.”
The gunfighter gently patted the bobbing head. “Listen to me, I have to warn you. I’m gonna have to hurt you again.”
The mixture of perspiration and tears on Ezra’s cheeks made it hard for Chris to hold his head up. “I’m gonna get you down,” he swore. When he saw the fear of what he was about to do pull a grimace across the soaked face, he quickly added, “I swear I’ll make it as fast as I can.”
He placed his trembling hands flat to Ezra’s sweat-soaked back, and worked his fingers close to where the spear exited his body and entered the tree. Mustering whatever grit he had remaining, he shifted his weight and promptly jerked the gambler forward. The spear passed through his body in one excruciating move and he came off the tree issuing a scream that nearly took his voice. His body convulsed in waves as his muscles seized in shock, but still Chris held on. “It’s alright,” he repeated loudly, not sure if he really meant it or if he were merely hoped saying it would make it so. “I won’t let go.”
Ezra never heard him, but little by little the fire in his brain began to recede and the crushing tear through his body found itself melting into a complete lack of sensation. The hurt had well and truly paralyzed him and the best he could hope for was that his fellow peacekeeper wouldn’t let him fall flat on his face.
He didn’t. Chris remained true to his word and held on until the battle against his chest diminished and Ezra dangled loosely in his arms. Feeling his own strength drain away, he used what little he had in reserve to drag the limp body into the shade behind the tree then dropped where he stood. “Ezra!” he called hoarsely when the Southerner didn’t move beneath his weight. “Come on.” He sat up and straddled the motionless hips with his knees as he grabbed either side of the slack face with his hands. “Damn it, look at me!”
A soft moan blew across unmoving lips.
When the gambler finally drifted towards awareness he was met with a phenomenal pain. He growled his disapproval and added a few colorful curses for good measure.
“That’s it, come on,” Chris encouraged as he pulled his own shirt over his head.
Once off, Chris tore the shirt half. One piece, he quickly wadded into a ball and forced against the hole in Ezra’s back. The other, he rolled similarly and pressed against the entrance wound. The injured man bucked against him. “I’m sorry,” the gunfighter said remorsefully, “but I gotta get this bleeding stopped.”
Ezra pushed air through gritted teeth and forced his eyelids open. He stared at the man sitting on top of him and tried to snatch back the irresistible panic icing nearly every fiber of his being. He couldn’t move and someone was on top of him, a position he swore long ago would be cause enough to kill. It wasn’t until he realized who was there he was able to slow the fear railroading through his heart. “Chris?”
“It’s me. I’m right here.”
“Can’t do that. I’ve gotta take care of this hole in your shoulder. You just hang on, alright?”
He didn’t know if he could, but tried to get through the next few moments as best he could.
Chris lifted the bloody shirt wadded against the shoulder wound, but couldn’t really tell if the bleeding was slowing down or not. There was a huge hole and very little to cover it with. “I’m gonna have to rip part of your shirt. Can you sit up and lean on me for a minute?”
The prone man paled at the prospect but knew he had little choice.
Chris pulled him up and held him with one hand as he tore his shirt with the other. When he had a good long strip, he used it to tie the two pieces of his own shirt in place. “I have got to get you out of here.”
Ezra felt for Chris’ arm. “Have to leave me…”
The blond looked down. “Like hell.”
“Only slow you down… They will… have heard me.”
“I ain’t leaving you. Get that outta your head. We go together.”
“You can’t… go back.”
“Neither can you, remember? There’s a fate worse than mine waiting for you back there. I won’t let the warden or Briggs have you. We go together or we die trying.”
“Bein ‘ a little pessimistic for a gambler, ain’t ya? They haven’t caught us yet.”
The Southerner’s response was a frown.
“We’ll give you a minute then try to get you up.”
He swallowed, inhaled and groaned as he unsuccessfully tried to rise.
“Don’t move just yet.”
“Can’t breathe… you’re on… my chest,” he replied in a raspy voice, pointing out the lawman’s position above him.
Chris raised himself to his knees. “Damn. I’m sorry.” And slid to one side to seat himself on the ground.
Ezra drew in as much air as he could and waged the battle to remain conscious. The gunfighter wearily kept watch and wondered just what the hell to do next.
Chris put his hands on the trunk of the tree to which Ezra had just been nailed. His mind had registered the necessity of regaining his feet despite his body’s unwillingness to cooperate. He gripped the tree and forced his arms and shoulders to pull. Then his legs joined the effort and he shakily stood upright. Deep-reaching breaths escaped his lungs and sparkling white spots floated before his eyes as he leaned his forehead against the wooden prop.
“Will you… listen to me now?” Standish asked from where he lay on the ground.
He didn’t answer. He didn’t dare. Answering would require too much of what he needed just to remain standing.
“You have… no choice.”
He didn’t turn around.
“Leave me,” Ezra swallowed between pants, “get away from here.” He watched the blond raise his chin and stare straight at the bark in front of him. “Are you… listening? They won’t be far behind.”
Finally, Chris broke his silence. “Ezra,” he said flatly.
The gambler rolled to his good shoulder and tried to push up. When he failed and collapsed again, he landed on something hard. He ignored it and tried again to reason with his friend. “Listen. You have to leave me… I’ll only slow you down. There is no sense… groan… both of us being caught.”
Chris pushed away from his support and took the three steps necessary to reach the Southerner’s side. “Self-sacrifice, Ezra? A little outside your professed personality, ain’t it?” he said sarcastically, hoping to distract his friend by provoking him.
“Simply the only reasonable option.”
“Ezra, you are not an option.”
The gambler’s eyes grew wider but he didn’t say another word.
“Now, I know morning isn’t your favorite time of day, but how about we get your lazy ass up and the two of us get out of here.”
“Stubborn fool,” he muttered as he hesitantly reached for the hand he was offered.
Grunting against the weight he pulled towards him, Chris managed to bring Ezra’s uninjured arm around his shoulder and drag him to his side.
“Which way?” Standish asked miserably.
“I see you’ve discovered one of the traps I use to ensure the integrity of my prison’s perimeter,” a booming voice said from the other side of the tree. “How about we call this the end of the line, boys.”
The two escapees looked up simultaneously to see the warden move in front of them on horseback, holding the remainder of the bloody bolt from the tree. Just past him were Sheriff Quince, one of the guards from the prison and a tall stranger, all of whom had dismounted their horses and were moving into position to surround them.
“I know I’ve had quite enough of this little chase,” Crenshaw added.
“Yeah well, I imagine any movement must cause you discomfort, you corpulent piece of… ” Ezra started but was cut off by a jab to the ribs with a rifle. The unexpected attack by the guard threw the two escapees off balance and sent them to the ground. Chris tried to break their fall, but couldn’t extricate himself from the smaller man.
“93, I am beginning to tire of you. Now just stay down and shut up before I change my plans for the two of you and take you back to Briggs!”
Ezra clamped his lips together and fought the urge to return a barrage of insults. The warden had his full attention now, despite the agony enveloping him.
Larabee brought himself to his knees. “What plans?”
“Well, since you have been so keen on resisting my authority, I have devised a way to give you what you want,” Crenshaw answered as he leaned on the horn of his saddle.
“And that would be?”
“Why, your freedom, 78, your freedom!”
Chris glared at the man as he once again struggled to his feet. “You’re just going to let us go.”
“Yes, I am. You and your partner will be allowed to leave and I will do nothing to stop you. I’ll even give you a little something to help you on your journey.”
Ezra again felt the uncomfortable presence of something underneath his back. When he realized he’d landed on the same ‘something’ that had poked him earlier, he endeavored to move himself onto softer ground.
Chris rubbed his neck. “You want to give me something.”
Ezra found the less irritating ground he sought and put a hand out to determine what exactly he’d been dropped onto. He reached across the small patch of dirt and leaves and eventually touched the miraculous object that had once again appeared out of nowhere. He muttered a prayer of thanks as his bloody fingers weakly curled around the rifle he’d been carrying when he was speared to the tree, the same gun that had mysteriously appeared as he and Chris were escaping the prison.
“Denton,” the warden called to the stranger of the group, “why don’t you show Inmate 78 what I have for him.”
The tall, gangly figure raised the black box he carried and opened it for viewing. Cushioned inside were a metal hypodermic and a small bottle filled with clear liquid. Chris stepped back when he realized what his enemy had in mind.
“Oh, you don’t like it. And after all the trouble I went to,” the warden crooned in mock disappointment. “You have been a pain in my ass since the day you arrived. I tried everything I knew to instill obedience in you, 78. Nothing worked until I had Mr. Denton here come up with some ‘medication’ for you. Peyote is a wonderful drug and it worked like a charm; I was able to control you even though you were out of your mind. You must carry a lot of nightmares with you for it to have worked so well. Regardless, I have something new for you to try. I’ve been assured this will make your sendoff very interesting.”
Chris watched the man, carefully interpreting what he was saying: missing moments, insane dreams, not remembering the past couple of days. It was all starting to make sense. He’d been drugged.
“Now I need more than control. I need you to die.”
The prison guard came up from behind, grabbed him by the arms and forced him to stand closer to Denton. “NO!” he cried as he bent over and fought to pull away.
Ezra, barely understanding what was happening, sat up and scrambled to grab the gun.
The gunfighter screamed again and unexpectedly went limp. Thinking he’d simply passed out, the warden’s henchman put all his efforts into keeping his captive upright. It was that distraction that gave Chris the opportunity to swing his fist and catch him in the side of the head. The guard turned loose and dropped him to the dirt.
He fell to one knee and was about to right himself when Quince appeared out of nowhere and tackled him back to the ground. The two men rolled until the sheriff came up with Chris’ back pinned to his own chest.
“You sons-of-bitches, let me go!”
“Denton,” Quince shouted. “Do it now!”
The tall stranger had been busy filling the hypodermic during the scuffle and was ready to inject the prisoner when called. He moved to where he lay and instructed the dazed guard to turn the man’s forearm and hold it still.
The sheriff, now able to turn loose of one arm, used his free hand to wrap around Chris’ throat.
“Don’t do this!” he yelled. “Don’t!”
Crenshaw laughed. “It’s over, 78! With enough of this stuff in you, you’ll not only manage to kill yourself, but take this friend here with you.”
“No, damn you!”
“Leave him!” Ezra shouted as he pulled the rifle to his side and clumsily pointed it at the man with the needle.
“Continue,” the warden ordered when Denton hesitated.
“You stick him with that thing and I promise you, you will die,” Ezra insisted, looking straight at the tall man.
“Do it, Inmate 93!” Crenshaw snarled.
“What?” Denton asked in horror.
“Go ahead, shoot him.”
Ezra positioned his hands to cock the rifle. He put every ounce of strength he had into making the gun ready to fire, but was shaking so badly from his injuries he just couldn’t make it happen.
“You can’t, can you? Sizeable hole there; lost a lot of blood. You’re helpless. Now just put down the gun and watch the show.” The warden nudged his horse closer. “I myself wouldn’t miss this for anything.”
The gambler’s face reddened with exertion, but there was no way he could fire the weapon. He looked into Denton’s eyes and pleaded, “Please, don’t.”
“Get on with it,” Quince hollered from his place beneath the squirming gunfighter.
Denton did as he was instructed and Ezra heard his friend scream. Again he attempted to rise.
The needle slid into Chris’ arm, hot and deep, and he could actually feel the drug burn its way into his flesh. Then the spike of the hypodermic moved and he imagined it ripping into muscle. He jerked away, hoping to dislodge it, but his attackers didn’t turn loose and the pain didn’t stop. No more, he thought. No more. His mind exploded and his fury peaked and he broke the hold they had on him. How he did it no one knew, but the look in his eyes told them he would fight. Hell, he would very likely kill.
“Chris!” Ezra called. He was now on his feet and about to toss the rifle, but the warden spurred his mount forward, brought his gun down on Larabee’s head and sent him to the ground without a word. Aware Crenshaw would come for him next, the Southerner straightened as best he could and raised his chin in defiance. The heat from the horse’s body washed over him and still he stood his ground.
“I’ll be sure to give Briggs your regards,” the warden said with a sneer as he raised a foot and shoved him back to the ground.
Ezra groaned but still managed to issue a warning for the man who towered above him. “Don’t believe for a moment this is over, you arrogant bastard.”
Crenshaw couldn’t hide the surprise on his face – the fool had nerve if not good sense. “Boys, maybe you should help 93 out. Go ahead and put a few marks on him.” He reined his horse towards the clearing. “I’m heading back.”
Denton, not a physical man, re-packed his drug kit, took to his saddle and followed the warden away.
Quince walked over and nudged Chris’ unconscious body with the toe of his boot. “Amazing how hard this cowboy’s head is. He’s taken quite a few hits there and it still ain’t caved in.”
The guard grinned and eyed the other escapee. “Ya reckon this one’s as tough? He’s such a fancy man.”
“Well now, I don’t know. I suppose we can find out,” he answered as he walked over, grabbed Ezra by the wrapping around his shoulder and jerked him up. The howl that resulted was drowned out only by the unexpected sound of rifle fire.
The noise startled Quince into dropping his prey, and he turned to see the guard beside him fall over gripping a bloody bullet hole just above the knee.
Ezra raised himself up for what felt like the umpteenth time and searched for who had made the shot – it was Phillips. The mustached black man stood larger than life, less than twenty feet away, holding his gun on the sheriff. “Again,” he muttered in appreciation, “thank the Lord for this man’s timing.”
“Warden, wait up!” cried Denton.
The larger of the two men pulled his animal to a stop and looked behind him. “What is it, Denton?”
“What was that shot back there?”
“Hard to say, could be Quince entertaining himself,” Crenshaw said as he reached for his canteen. “Relax, everything is under control.”
“The sheriff can handle it. Just let him do his job. I’m heading back to the prison to make sure everything is all right there. I still have a search to oversee, don’t I?”
The lean man looked confused at first but then remembered the warden’s plan.
“Denton, you need to disappear. I left your money back at the hotel in Jericho, get it and get lost. I don’t want to see you for a while.”
“Yeah, sure, I don’t want to be hanging around here anyway. I’ve got a bad feeling about all this.”
“Buck up, son. You’ve got to be tough to get what you want in life. Remember that,” Crenshaw said after he took a swig of water. “Now get on out of here.”
Denton turned his horse and headed towards Jericho. The warden continued towards the prison.
Phillips finished tying the hands and feet of his two newest prisoners; Quince and the prison guard had put up quite a fuss, but the final word came from the man holding the gun. He straightened and went to check on the unconscious inmate lying nearby.
Ezra watched in stunned surprise and didn’t utter a single sound until the dark man made a move towards Chris. “What are you doing?” he asked worriedly when Phillips put a hand underneath the unmoving body.
“Just checkin’ to see if his heart’s still beatin’. His color ain’t good and he’s breathin’ funny, but he does have a strong poundin’ in his chest. How ‘bout you, you gonna make it?”
“I think I just might. I’m grateful, sir, you arrived when you did. I do believe I was about to be subjected to tremendous abuse.”
“That’d be a good guess. Still might happen if someone else comes up on us. I ain’t real sure what’s been goin’ on back at the prison, but I do know stompin’ 78 near to death and leavin’ you to bleed out ain’t right. ‘Sides that, I hear you two might be lawmen.”
“And how exactly did you hear that?”
“Let’s just say the warden fancies himself a big man; likes to hear hisself talk. Me, I lean more towards listenin’,” the guard said as he looked around the area. “Someone else finds you and you’re gonna be dead men. We need to get you outta here before the others figure out where I am. I think there are some men lookin’ for ya who might be able to help, but only if you’re alive long enough for me to find ‘em and bring ‘em to ya.”
“Other men? Five other men?”
“Don’t rightly know. Just heard tell you two were bein’ asked about back in Jericho. You think someone’s come for ya?”
“I pray they have. There are five other lawmen from Four Corners who should have an idea where we are by now. Why don’t we just head back to town now?”
“Can’t do that. This place is crawling with the warden’s personal guard. We’d never make it and I can’t hold ‘em all off with one rifle. I would take you in myself and say I caught ya, but the warden would make sure you disappeared before your friends could get there.” Phillips looked up and saw the sheriff’s horse in the clearing. An idea formed in his mind. “You reckon you can sit a horse?”
The gambler regarded him curiously.
“If I can get you and your friend here on that horse, you reckon you could hold on for say a mile or two?”
Ezra nodded. “You get me on that horse and I can ride to hell and back if I have to.”
“I figured you might.” Phillips took the animal by the reins and led him to where the wounded men lay then bent over to help Ezra off the ground. “Come on, lean on me.”
The Southerner put his healthy arm around the guard’s shoulder as he was hefted behind the cantle of the saddle. He was sure he’d pass out but breathed through the dizziness and held on.
Ever watchful eyes noticed the effort it took to remain upright. “You alright?”
“Yes. Yes, I’ll be fine. Just wasn’t ready to take on great heights.” He swayed.
“You gonna be able to do this? I gotta put your buddy up there with ya.”
“Give him to me.”
Phillips rolled Chris onto his back, scooped him up and moved to lay him belly down across the saddle seat.
Ezra noted the position. “His side and chest, he’s hurt.”
“He ain’t feelin’ nothin’ right now. Best we just tie him down and get you two on your way.”
He agreed somewhere in the back of his mind and watched as the guard used rope to loosely tie Chris’ hands and feet to the saddle’s stirrups.
“This should keep him from sliding off. Can you hang on to the horn for a little while or should I tie you too?”
“No, I can hold on. Just tell me, where is it we’re supposed to be going?”
“If you follow the tree line for about a mile, you’ll see where it gets a little less shady. The trees die down and the rocks take over. There’s a trail headin’ west, take it for another mile and start lookin’ for a cave. It’s hidden pretty good in the rocks so you should be able to hide out there ‘til I find those other lawmen.”
“What will you do with them?” he asked pointing at the two men sitting on the ground.
“Those two? I’m gonna leave ‘em. They can just sit tight ‘til this is over. Me, I’m gonna make a lot of noise so the other guards’ll start tracking me. Maybe I can lead them away ‘til you get yourself hidden.” Phillips reached down, pulled out a knife and put it between the gambler’s hands. “You use this to cut him loose at the cave. I seen you can’t fire a gun, so maybe you can use it to protect yourself if you need to ‘til I get there.”
“Thank you,” Ezra replied with as much sincerity as he could muster.
“Let’s get you outta here. There’s water in that canteen, might be food in the saddlebag. Just watch around you and keep outta sight.” With that, Phillips led the horse to the clearing and sent the two injured men on their way.