When the warden neared the prison camp, he heard the sound of gunfire and men shouting. Wondering at the uproar, he moved his horse quietly towards the perimeter to get a better look. Five men brandishing guns were shooting at what was left of his contingent of guards. It was an unexpected battle to say the least and it appeared his side was losing badly.
He reined in his panic and planned his next move. He had to get to the safe in his office, sack up his money and get the devil away from this place before he was caught. Quince and the others would have to go it on their own. Plan made, he worked his way to the rear of the compound.
All hell had broken loose and Buck was right in his element. The authorities of the Jericho prison were holding two of his best friends captive on bogus charges and no one, but no one, would be allowed to get away with that. He and the others had tried to resist bloodshed, but the damn fool guards wouldn’t see reason. He raised his gun again and fired at a man aiming for JD’s back. JD fired at the man he was facing, never knowing the danger behind him. I’m gonna have to work with that boy, Wilmington thought as he moved deeper into the prison.
“Buck, where are they?” Vin shouted.
“Don’t know. I’ll check out these buildings.” He pointed to the prisoner’s barracks. “You check out the Warden’s Office!”
“Hey, over there!” Josiah yelled and motioned toward the far fence. They followed the preacher to a large pit in the ground with a metal grate top swung to one side.
“Are they down there?” the tracker asked when Sanchez leaned over the opening.
“Nah, nothin’ but rats.”
“Well, keep lookin’. They’ve gotta be here somewhere.”
Josiah ran to check out a small building nearby while Buck followed JD and Nathan towards the barracks. Vin headed towards the Warden’s Office. Just as he stepped on the porch, he caught a glimpse of someone inside leaning over an open safe. He cocked his rifle, pushed the door open and moved behind a heavyset man removing large bundles of money. “Hold it right there, mister,” he warned.
The man froze. “I’m the warden of this prison.”
“Yeah, you look like it, cleanin’ out that safe the way you are.”
“You don’t understand. There’s been a prison break. Two men escaped and I’m trying to hide these valuables before they’re stolen.”
“Un-hunh,” Tanner grunted.
“I ain’t interested. Me and my friends are lookin’ for two men of our own, Chris and Vin Larabee. They’re lawmen from Four Corners and I heard they landed in your prison. Wanna tell me where you’re hidin’ ‘em?”
“Larabee? Oh, you must mean 78 and 93, the new prisoners. They’re lawmen? I think you must be mistaken. They were brought in here by the sheriff.”
“I ain’t mistaken, and I ain’t in a real good mood right now. You might wanna save yourself a mess o’ trouble and just tell me where they are.”
“They’re not here.”
Vin aimed his gun. “You’re beginnin’ to piss me off. Now where are they?”
“No, no, honestly, they aren’t here. They’re the two who escaped last night and my men haven’t brought them back yet!”
“Yes. They’ve been nothin’ but trouble. They knocked out a guard, took his weapon and broke out during the night.”
“I don’t…” the tracker started to say when a guard came rushing through the doorway.
“Warden, we can’t hold ‘em off. What should we…?”
Vin cut him off with a fist to the face as a second guard ran onto the porch. He downed the man quickly, but the distraction had already allowed the warden to escape.
Ezra clung to consciousness despite his body’s extreme fatigue and dangerous loss of blood. He needed to look around but was so weary he was only able to glance from side to side. More by feel than sight, he realized he was heading in the right direction when his horse stumbled through loose rock beneath his hooves. The trees had disappeared and what lay ahead was a trail of packed earth, large boulders and uneven terrain. He held on tight, gave the animal his head and kept an eye out for the place he and Chris were to hide. A few hundred yards further he spotted a sizeable rise to his left supporting a huge outcrop of stone. Looks like a good place to hide a cave to me, he mused then urged his horse to climb.
The gunfighter, still lying belly-down on the saddle, groaned his disapproval and when a placating pat on the back failed to soothe him, moaned louder and began squirming against the leather seat.
“I know you’re in pain, my friend, but hold on just a little longer,” the Southerner mumbled calmly.
The request was ignored and Chris struggled harder against the ropes holding him to the horse.
Ezra tried not to lean across Chris’ back but it was getting harder and harder to hold on. Maybe he should have let Phillips tie him to the animal after all because his efforts to concentrate were becoming severely hampered by dizziness and he didn’t know how much longer he could resist the darkness lingering so close to his brain. It wouldn’t be long before he would have to cut his passenger loose, but the prospect was more than a little frightening. The lawman had an arm full of a drug he knew nothing about, and he had every idea the affect on him would be traumatic.
The horse continued to climb and he continued to hold on. Then, when they reached the top, he steadied himself behind the saddle, wiped at his eyes and anxiously scanned his surroundings. Sure enough, there in front of him was the small opening to the cave Phillips had promised. A smile pulled at his lips at the same time Chris twisted between his knees. It was clear by the man’s persistence he meant he was getting down and the more Ezra thought about, the more he knew the time had come to set him free.
He gripped the knife tighter, leaned to the right and began sawing at the rope tying the gunfighter’s feet to the stirrup. Sadly, lowering his head to accomplish the task was probably the most stupid thing he’d done in a while; well perhaps not the most stupid considering the events of the past few days, but pretty damn close. Lightheadedness dropped him onto his friend’s back when tiny explosions ignited in his brain. Chris’ response was to shoulder the sudden weight away, but it didn’t happen until the gambler recovered his equilibrium. “Easy, easy. I’m s-sorry, I didn’t mean…” Ezra stuttered around a gasp for air, then holding his deadened arm close to his stomach pulled the horse to a stop and slid off. The instant his feet touched the ground, a procession of pain traveled his legs, shoulders, and back and didn’t stop until every nerve in his body had been set on fire. In fact, the hurt went so deep he was sure he would pass out. A groan slipped past his lips as his numb fingers reached for the saddle. They missed and he slid down Chris’ leg to drop onto his knees.
The gunfighter growled something he couldn’t understand and yanked violently against his bonds.
“Chris, don’t, you’re going to tear yourself up,” Ezra warned weakly then crawled to the far side of the horse. When he lifted the knife to the bound hands he realized Chris’ efforts to extricate himself had literally sliced away long lengths of flesh from his wrists. His blood ran freely down his fingers and puddled inside the left stirrup. “Damn it, be still!” Standish yelled. “I don’t want to cut your hand off.”
The lawman didn’t stop.
Ezra knew there was nothing else to do but force the issue. He grabbed the blond head between his wrapped palms and pulled the reddened face to his own. “Chris, I know you’re confused, God only knows what you must be suffering, but please stop.” He took a deep breath and shouted, “Look at me!”
Whether he had frightened the man, or the drug in the gunfighter’s veins had momentarily caused his heart to jump, Ezra didn’t know, but the struggling lessened enough for two pair of green eyes to find each other.
He quickly used the knife and watched Chris slide from the saddle to the ground. He landed hard but appeared oblivious to any discomfort. Truthfully, he was oblivious to most everything. He lay stiffly on his side, flexing his hands and staring into space. Occasionally his feet would push against the ground, but his evident lack of coordination ultimately laid them to rest.
Ezra stared for several moments before he got on all fours, dragged himself back around the horse and knelt next to his semi-conscious friend. “Come on, we have to get moving,” he said. To his amazement, Chris actually tried to raise himself from the dirt.
Ezra gathered the horse’s reins and wrapped them around his forearm before he coaxed Chris off the ground and towards the mouth of the cave. He wasn’t sure who was supporting whom, but as long as they were making progress towards safety it didn’t really matter.
Step by step they stumbled until finally they reached the entrance to their hideaway. The size of the cave was surprising, offering a large enough area to house both themselves and the horse. He deposited the animal near the entrance, crossed to the back of the cave then lowered himself and Chris to the ground. At last, they could stop moving. It was just a matter of waiting now. He only prayed it would be his friends to find them and not the warden’s guards.
The men from Four Corners gathered near the main gate of the prison. They had managed to gain control of the facility, and to wire Fort Yuma for the army to come and sort out the details, but still there was no sign of Chris or Ezra. They were reasonably certain the deputy hadn’t lied about what had been going on in Jericho, but now it was beginning to look as if he might have omitted a few pertinent details.
Wilmington seethed with fury as he stomped around the gate. “Where are they?” he bellowed.
“Calm down, Buck,” Vin answered. “We’re gonna find ‘em.”
“How? When? They could be dead by now. They probably are dead!”
“Buck…” Vin started but was interrupted when a man on horseback came barreling towards them and he was sent stumbling backwards to avoid being trampled.
“Whoa there,” Josiah said as he reached out to help the stranger stop his animal. “What’s the hurry, mister?”
The black man on the horse looked around the prison and took notice of the dead on the ground and the men seated and bound near the lookout tower. “I’m looking for some lawmen. Two of the inmates told me the law from Four Corners would be lookin’ for ‘em.”
“That’d be us,” Josiah advised. “We’ve been searchin’ for a couple of our men who went missin’ about two weeks ago. One’s tall and blond; the other’s a little shorter with brown hair.”
“Sounds like them. The name’s Phillips. I’m a guard here, or was, it looks like. I been tryin’ to keep those two away from the warden.”
Buck stepped forward. “Where are they? Are they alright?”
“They’re alive, but they ain’t been alright since they come in here. The first man, Warden Crenshaw’s been mistreatin’ somethin’ awful. He’s hurt, up here.” Phillips pointed to his head. “The second man was holdin’ his own‘til he got caught up in one of the warden’s traps outside the prison.”
“Outside?” Vin asked. “They escaped?”
“Yeah, but it didn’t do ‘em much good. Crenshaw’s got men huntin’ ‘em down.”
“We’re wasting time. Do you know where they are right now?” Buck asked impatiently.
“I know where I sent ‘em. Whether they made it or not, I don’t know. I promised I’d try and find help.”
“Well, you found it. Now let’s go get those boys.”
The five men mounted their horses and rode after their only hope of finding Chris and Ezra.
Chris watched as the darkness around him began to move. He had no idea where he was or how he’d gotten there, but he found himself locked away in a cold dark place where shadows clung to his skin like leeches. It wasn’t the first time he’d been left to the darkness to battle the demons living there. No, there had been many occasions in his past when he’d been purposely caged, alone, to consider his own culpability for the things he’d done and for his uselessness as a human being. He knew what would come next and he wasn’t disappointed when large masses of blackness oozed from the walls of the ebony pit. He wanted to close his eyes and pretend they weren’t coming for him, but the fear of being taken by the blackness compelled him to watch.
He listened to the slithering sounds the inky lumps made as they melted into each other, gathering to create a single black beast with thick, powerful legs and long reaching arms. It was a hideous deformity there to exact payment from him for allowing those he cared about to die. He knew in his heart he deserved the punishment. From a very young age, he had been made aware what his ineptitude would cost, and at long last the demon had come to collect.
He watched nervously as the monster from the shadows grew a face, a face familiar to him but too frightening to recall. An old pain ached within him. What his mind couldn’t touch, his heart embraced with a sorrow so overpowering it threatened to squeeze the life from his chest. He twisted in the dirt, regained his feet and struggled to inhale. He needed just one more breath to say he was sorry, just one more gulp of air to beg for forgiveness. A tiny gasp made its way past his constricted throat but before he could utter the words, the blackness moved nearer.
It’ll be over soon, he thought as he readied himself for the oncoming agony of death. I won’t be the one left behind this time. His eyes drifted shut. For most of his life, he’d waited for this moment, the instant the pain would stop. For a little while he’d actually believed he could somehow survive the torment. He even vaguely remembered saying to someone the bravest thing to do was to keep on living, but his mind and his heart were so very tired, and he longed to be free of the burden that had been his life.
He lowered his head and waited, waited for the beast to destroy him.
Seconds grew into minutes.
The heaviness that pressed against him backed away and a new sensation drew his head up. The air grew thin and sweet. “Adam?” he whispered as he opened his eyes and saw the darkness take on the cool hues of gray and blue.
The swirling blue tempered the dull gray and Adam’s face glowed brightly before him.
Chris shook in disbelief. Had he been killed and not known it? How else could he be with Adam? How else could he visit the dead? He extended heavy arms to greet the boy but the child frowned and turned away. “Wait. Where are you going?”
Adam stopped and looked back over his shoulder.
“I know I let you down, but please, I want to be with you now. I can stay here with you,” he pleaded around the emotion gripping his throat.
The vivid eyes of the younger Larabee shined brightly.
“I love you… so much. I’m sorry I didn’t save you. I don’t know how it happened, how I let you die, but I swear I’d of changed places with you without a thought. Why? Why didn’t I save you?”
Adam shook his head with sorrow before he raised his right arm and rolled his palm upwards. He tugged the sleeve of his coat until it was gathered above his elbow then held it for Chris to see. Long, bloody claw marks scored the soft flesh from his wrist to the crook of his arm and black-purple bruises mottled his skin. Startled and confused, Chris eyed the torn flesh until he realized the boy couldn’t forgive him. No matter how much he willed it, nothing would ever change the fact Adam had died and it was every bit his fault. He couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t suffer the guilt any longer.
“Adam, please…” He took a step forward, determined to embrace the figure in front of him, but when his foot touched the ground he was yanked to the earth by a pain so vicious he cried. An old injury, long ago healed, reopened to rip through his leg and flare into his hip. It was a wound that had cost him his soul in the past and had now come forward to claim it.
He stole a glance back at Adam to see he had also fallen and now lay unmoving on the ground, a tattered bundle of shredded skin, muscle, ligament and bone. “Noooo,” Chris cried and crawled towards the motionless body. Before he could reach it however, the creature from the shadows returned to make a grab for him. It caught him with ease and swept him across the ground. Satisfied he was down to stay, the beast lumbered deliberately toward Adam’s body.
“NO!” The blond screamed again and threw himself bodily at his enemy.
The creature merely brushed him aside.
Chris pounded the ground in frustration and spun around to see the monster stand over the child’s remains. The sight was more than he could bear. He scrambled in the dirt, trying to find a rock or a stick or anything with which to fight. When he did, he fumbled with something hard, grasped whatever it was and pushed himself upward. Bringing his hands up to correct his balance, he discovered he had found a knife. As was the usual for him as of late, he had no recollection where the blade had come from, but it was a weapon and he would make good use of it. In fact, he gouged, dug and hacked with every intention of obliterating the creature from existence and didn’t stop until the monster stumbled away and, to his overwhelming relief, disappeared once again into the gloom.
He coughed and choked, wiped at his eyes and walked unsteadily towards Adam. Then he dropped to his knees and gathered the broken body in his arms. His mind rewound to a time before, when the savagery of a boy’s death was too much to accept. He babbled soothing reassurances and scavenged tattered cloth from the boy and himself, and worked tirelessly to bandage the countless wounds. When he had done all he could, he pulled the small body to his chest and encircled it with his arms and legs. If the black beast returned it would have to go through him to get to Adam.
He rocked, slow and steady, kissing the top of Adam’s head then resting his cheek there. “Please don’t take him,” his litany began. “I beg you, don’t take him... ”
Over and over Chris Larabee pleaded with the Almighty.
Ezra watched in horror as his friend staggered across the floor of the cave and began to literally slay his demons. The distraught gunslinger had managed to stumble upon the knife Phillips had given them and was now using it to tear into the ground nearby. Whatever it was Chris was fighting, it most certainly had died a brutal death. He had ranted, cursed and screamed for nearly twenty minutes and just as it seemed he was ready to collapse, he staggered back to Ezra’s side and began tending the gambler’s injuries.
Standish was pretty much covered in the blood seeping from the wound in his shoulder, so he could understand how Chris might have been confused as to what part of him was actually injured. But once the blood had been wiped away, it should have been obvious there was indeed only one wound. The gunfighter however, treated him as if he lay mutilated and no matter how hard he tried to convince him otherwise, reassured him he would be all right and promised nothing else would ever be allowed to hurt him again. Ezra tried to find comfort in that promise but grew doubtful when Chris tore one of his sleeves and wrapped his right forearm, wrist to elbow. “What are you doing? My arm wasn’t hurt,” he said calmly as he tried to stop the ministrations with his deadened left hand.
The lawman pushed the trembling fingers aside and continued to tightly bind the healthy arm.
Dread reared its ugly head again as Ezra realized Chris was undeniably trapped in a place of nightmares, induced by drugs and fueled with painful memories of the past. Still, he marveled at how gentle the gunfighter could be and watched in wonder at the care he took. But he was also acutely aware how the effort of seeing to his needs was draining him; to the point the man was visibly finding it difficult to coordinate his movements with his thoughts.
Ezra continued his observations as long as he could but couldn’t avoid drifting into an exhausted sleep.
Chris reached out and pulled him closer then gently wrapped himself around the unconscious body and settled into a rocking motion. The heartfelt pleadings of a man nearly destroyed by his own past echoed in the darkness and the solemn prayers spoken near a friend’s ear remained unheard except, perhaps, by the Good Lord above.
Ezra tried to remain awake but kept drifting in and out. He was about to nod off again when a pounding next to his ear and a nudge against his arm finally snapped the last vestiges of sleep from his brain. He moved to roll over but found he was wrapped in a smothering cocoon of heat, then the booming next to his ear was joined by a growl and he broke with the oppressive fatigue to jerk free. Everything was a blur initially but it didn’t take long for his situation to become clear. To his embarrassment he realized he had somehow fallen asleep against Chris’ chest. The noise was nothing other than the man’s heartbeat and the increase in its rhythm must have been an unconscious response to another nightmare.
Chris jumped; vaguely aware the weight atop his chest was gone, and scrambled to his feet. The sudden movement sent Ezra hard to the ground, slamming his shoulder into the rocky surface. He choked on his pain, preparing a protest in his mind, but was interrupted when the gunfighter reached down and hauled him to his feet. Before he knew what was happening, he was dragged from the cave and half carried up the outcrop of rock hanging overhead. “Wh-where are we going? Why’re… we moving?”
“Can’t stay here. There has to be a place we can go, a place he can’t get to,” was the mumbled reply.
“Who?” Ezra paled from the exertion of their upward climb.
“He blames me.” Chris stopped. “He should… I just don’t wanna go back down there. I know I did wrong, but I can’t stand it down there anymore.” He looked around, taking in sights that had nothing to do with where he actually stood.
Ezra blanched even more when he followed the arms fastened round him to the face hovering above. The afternoon sun glistened off the perspiration of Chris’ skin but its intense glow did little to warm his pale features. He was soaked with sweat but at the same time shivering as if chilled. When the gambler looked into his eyes, he knew he was in trouble – they were so dilated they were as black as night. The warden’s drug had taken a firm hold and there was absolutely nothing he could do to stop it. The man was driven and the adrenaline in his system had so supercharged his muscles he couldn’t have stopped himself moving if he tried. Ezra recalled seeing that same wild-eyed, out-of-reach look before in the eyes of men who had partaken in a variety of popular drugs, but it had never frightened him so much as now when those eyes belonged to a friend.
Chris fidgeted when they reached the summit of the outcrop, then nervously slapped and rubbed at his leg.
Ezra watched, alarmed to see the gunfighter’s leg was again causing him pain. He recalled him limping the entire distance between the cave and the peak and now he teetered severely off balance. “Chris, sit down,” he suggested just as his own legs gave way and he himself slid to the ground.
Chris hobbled anxiously back and forth across the width of the summit seemingly ignoring both his pain and Ezra’s. Bringing the back of his hand to his forehead, he pushed as if trying to break the hold of some unseen force. The conflict in his brain bled across his face until his eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched.
Ezra wanted to help but it was hopeless. There was nothing he had left in reserve and even the effort of sitting up had rapidly become too much to tolerate — with a shudder and a moan, he surrendered and toppled over.
Chris reached down, pulled him out of sight and into the shade of a large boulder. Eventually he sat himself and stared at the desert surrounding them. In his mind, he knew he would keep them safe. He would keep watch, he would protect, and he would do battle… with what, only he knew.
Phillips didn’t say much as he led the five peacekeepers to the rendezvous with their friends. He figured their energy would be better spent moving fast; it appeared they agreed. They rode hard and in a short time reached the cave he’d designated as a safe haven.
Buck dismounted first and entered the cave. Finding nothing, he came out of the darkness with a look of alarm on his face. “They ain’t here!”
“No, but they’ve been here,” Vin said from where he was squatting, inspecting the ground. “Look. Fresh tracks from the horse, and here…” He got up and moved a few feet to the left, “here’s some blood.”
“Those two are in no shape to have gone far,” informed Phillips. “They have to be around here somewhere.”
“Buck, over there, that’s gotta be their mount,” JD said excitedly as he pointed to a horse nosing around a thin patch of tall grass about fifty feet away.
“That’s him,” Phillips confirmed.
“Okay, then they’ve gotta be close by. Spread out and look for signs of ‘em,” Vin instructed.
Seeing the others go off in different directions on ground level, Buck climbed the rocky hill over the cave and tried to get a better view. He was about three quarters of the way up when he found what he was looking for. Only what he saw was not what he expected. Chris sat at the top of the rise, staring blankly into space, naked from the waist up, and from what Buck could see, covered in cuts, gouges, scrapes and bruises. His feet were in the same condition – bare, with torn flesh, and his wrists were caked with rings of dried blood. He looked as if he’d been stomped, but that wasn’t what sent the shiver up Buck’s spine; it was the empty, haunted look on his old friend’s face.
He took a few more steps towards the gunfighter. “Chris? Chris, it’s me, Buck.” He lowered himself to one knee a couple of feet away.
The battered blond didn’t look up as he approached nor did he try to flee; instead he wrapped his arms around his stomach and very slowly began to rock back and forth.
“Buddy, can you hear me? We’ve come to take ya home.”
Still Chris wouldn’t look at him.
Buck put both knees to the ground and sidestepped until he was directly in front of him. He examined the distressed face and frowned when he saw just how bad Chris looked. Beneath the dirt, blood and beard, he couldn’t look closer to death if he’d been laid out for a funeral. His face was ashen, thin and drawn, his lips were cracked and colorless, and his eyes, well, Buck couldn’t get over how the irises of his eyes had literally been swallowed up by the black pupils. The effect was a dark, unnerving vacancy. “It’s okay now,” he nearly whispered, “I’m gonna get you some help. I’ll be right back.” He walked to the edge of the rise and called down to the first person he saw. “Vin!”
Tanner looked up from his search.
“Get Nathan! I’ve found him! Somethin’s terrible wrong with him!”
Buck waited for Vin’s nod then looked back to see Chris was still rocking. Whatever he had been through, he was barely hanging on, so the ladies man quickly decided to prevent the others from rushing in and ran halfway down the hill to meet them. “Whoa, slow down. There’s somethin’ real strange about Chris. I don’t wanna go runnin’ up there and scare him.”
“What do you mean strange?” Nathan asked.
“Come on, see for yourself. Just move real slow.”
Nathan followed Buck up the slope then squatted in front of Chris, keeping his movements to a minimum. “My God, what did they do to him?”
Phillips heard and hung his head.
“I don’t know, but he ain’t seein’ us. I talked to him but he hasn’t said a word, just keeps movin’ like that.”
“Has he let you touch him?”
“He’s got so many cuts and bruises I was afraid to try.”
Nathan leaned forward, extended a hand and waved it in front of the gunfighter’s face. When he didn’t pull away, he rested a hand on his shoulder. Aside from the agitated rocking and the involuntary tremors, Chris didn’t move away. Encouraged, Jackson scooted closer, raised his arms and put his hands on either side of the blond head. Slowly, carefully, he ran his fingertips through Chris’ matted hair and along his scalp, feeling several welts and small ridges covered in crusty blood. “Damn,” he muttered.
“What is it?”
“He’s been hit so many times in the head I can’t count all the lumps,” he answered wiping at the blood caked around Chris’ nose and ears.
“Is that why he’s actin’ so strange?”
“Could be. He’s been beaten pretty bad. We need to get him back to town so I can really look him over.”
“What about Ezra?” JD called from a few feet away.
“He’s gotta be close by. I can’t see Chris leavin’ him no matter what condition he’s in,” replied Vin. “Let’s get back to lookin’.”
The men had just resumed their search when Buck noticed an odd shadow to his left. He left Chris and circled a huge rock to find Ezra huddled in a bloody, broken heap. “Oh, God,” he said softly and leaned over the body of the gambler to lay a hand to the side of his head. When Ezra didn’t move, he shifted him from his propped position against the boulder and lowered him to the ground. Terrified for an instant the gambler was already lost to them, he rested an ear against his motionless chest and listened. Seconds passed before the blessed thu-thump of Ezra’s heart sounded in his ear. Holding the smaller man with trembling hands, he rolled his face against his pallid skin and smothered the fear that wet his eyes. “You are one tough son-of-a…”
“Buck?” Vin’s voice called.
Wilmington wiped at his face and hollered, “I’m here, Vin! I’ve got him!”
Nathan looked up from where he sat with Chris. “Buck, can he be moved? Can you bring him here?”
“Yeah, I’ve got him. I’ll get him to ya.” The tall man carefully gathered Ezra in his arms and rounded the rock, a look of sadness pulling at his face. “He’s bad, Nate. He’s real bad,” he announced as he laid the gambler on the ground behind Chris.
Vin, who had snagged Nathan’s bag of medical supplies from his horse, hurried to the injured men, handed the healer his tools and knelt beside the unconscious Southerner.
The sun, shining brightly behind Chris, cast creeping shadows as the men grouped around Ezra’s body. The activity sent long, swiping fingers of dark and light on the ground in front of him, clinging to and groping everything in their path. His eyes registered the movement and warned his brain to act. Pain and rage gripped his throat and pounded in chest when it became clear what the shadows were after. Adam. They had come for Adam. “Get away!” he screamed and shot up off the ground, brandishing the knife he’d kept hidden.
Buck and Vin fell backwards as Nathan, JD, Josiah and Phillips scrambled away to avoid being cut.
“What’s he doing?” Buck cried.
“Looks like he’s protecting Ezra,” Nathan guessed. “He probably hid him behind that rock and was meanin’ to sit out here to keep watch.”
“Why’s he comin’ at us then? And where the hell did he get a knife?”
“He don’t know it’s us!”
Phillips answered Buck’s second question. “I gave the knife to the other one when I sent them out here. He,” he said as he pointed to Chris, “was out cold and tied to the horse. There had to be a way to cut him loose!”
“Well he’s out to cut a whole lot more.”
“Just give him some room,” Vin suggested.
Buck and the others stepped away from the unconscious gambler.
Chris moved to put himself between them and Ezra, waving the knife in his hand with every intention of using it. “I won’t let you take him,” he warned, his eyes unfocused and blinking.
Vin quickly sized up his friend and noticed he was looking just over their heads. “Chris, we’re tryin’ to help,” he said to get the man’s attention.
It didn’t work. Chris still seemed to concentrate on something above their heads.
“Vin, we gotta get to Ezra. He could be bleedin’ to death,” Nathan pleaded.
“It seems Chris has other plans. Just everybody settle down a minute. In fact, why don’t ya’ll just back off and move on down the hill. Buck, you stay with me, but get down close to the ground.”
No one knew what Tanner was up to, but they did as he asked. Buck watched as Vin started stepping along a ridge that rose slowly towards the peak of the outcrop. Chris seemed vaguely aware and followed the sharpshooter’s motion.
“Vin? What’re you up to. Why am I down here?” Wilmington asked quietly.
“You’re down there so he won’t see you. Like Nathan said, Chris ain’t seein’ us. He’s seein’ someone or something else. Look at his eyes, he’s lookin’ up, not at me. He’s just barely catchin’ my movement.” He took another couple of steps until he was standing on higher ground than Chris.
“Vin, he’s not liking what you’re doin’. You’re fixin’ to piss him off again.”
“Un-hunh, and when I do, you be ready. I’m goin’ to get him to follow me just a little bit more. He won’t see you comin’.”
“You sure? I mean a pissed-off Chris Larabee, holdin’ a knife; that ain’t good no matter what state he’s in.”
“You got a better idea?”
“Then shut up and get ready.”
Vin saw the gunfighter look for the second voice he heard and knew he was losing him. “Chris? Hey, it’s just you and me. Stay with me here, okay. Just stay with me.” He felt the tension build. Whatever tortures Chris had been subjected to in the past few weeks, he was about to reach the end of his rope. “Come on. You can do this now. Stay with me.”
In that instant, Ezra began to stir, moaning in protest to his body’s agony, but never quite coming to. That was the distraction they needed. Chris looked down and the two cowboys jumped him. Vin grabbed the arm with the knife and easily wrestled it away. Buck grabbed him from behind and wrapped his arms securely around his waist.
“No!” Chris yelled. “Get off! Get off me!”
He fought like a wildcat, but Buck and Vin were determined to hold on. The men watching from a distance ran back up the rise. Nathan and Phillips fell to the ground on either side of Ezra while Josiah went to assist the two men grappling with a now hysterical Chris.
Their leader had unbelievable strength and conviction and made it clear he didn’t want anyone near Ezra. He tried everything he could think of to free himself; kicking, jerking, biting and even spitting, but nothing could break the hold the three men had on him.
Vin glanced at Ezra. “Nate! He gonna be alright?”
“Don’t know. He’s got hisself a gapin’ hole in his shoulder, he’s lost a lot o’ blood and he’s runnin’ a fever. Looks like he’s got a few other wounds, but I’ll leave ‘em wrapped up until we get him back to town.”
“How we gonna do that?”
“I sent JD to get a wagon, shouldn’t take him too long to get back.”
Buck tried to pull Chris closer. “Nathan, I hate to point this out, but I don’t know if I can hold on to Chris until JD makes it back.” He grunted when Chris elbowed him.
“I can’t give him no drugs with his head as banged up as it is. I don’t know what it’d do to him.”
“Well, him buckin’ around like this ain’t gonna do his head no good either.”
Nathan conceded his point, but didn’t know how to resolve the problem.
“How about we let him sit with Ezra. You done all the doctorin’ you’re gonna do?” Vin inquired.
“Then let’s see how Chris acts if we let him be near Ezra.”
“I don’t know, Vin. Ezra’s not in real good shape.”
“Nate, he won’t hurt him. He’s been tryin’ to protect him. Give him a chance. We won’t let go of him, we’ll just let him sit close.”
The healer thought for a moment before he agreed.
Chris twisted and limped awkwardly as Buck, Vin and Josiah maneuvered him closer to where Ezra lay, still moaning. When it reached Larabee’s brain that he was finally within arms length of the person he had to protect, he let go and fell to the ground. Vin and Buck each held an arm but tried not to hinder him. All he appeared to want was to put himself between them and Ezra. They allowed it, but Nathan kept a close eye. Almost immediately, Chris’ temperament changed. He seemed concerned about nothing else in the world but the man he rested against.
“How’d you know, Vin?” Buck asked.
“Didn’t, just made sense. Chris’d take care of any one of us if we were in trouble. Just ‘cause he ain’t in his right mind, don’t mean he’d do any different now.”
Buck smiled. “I just hope he stays this way ‘til we get ‘em outta here.”
“Me too, Buck, me too.”