Fire In The Night
Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven belong to MGM, CBS, Hallmark and all those other guys. This was written for fun. No infringements intended.
Rating: PG-13 for swearing and violence
Author's Notes: This is a sequel to Kelly Adams' wonderful story Fire Bug.
Trouble strikes a month after the events in Fire Bug and Chris and Ezra take on the trail of a few very dangerous men.
This was my very first Mag7 story. It was originally posted in June 1999, but has since been drastically revised in May 2003.
It was a dream. It had to be, because this had already happened. Hadn't it? Hadn't he already been through this?
He thought so, but maybe... maybe it wasn't over. Maybe it had never been over, and everything else had been a dream. Maybe he was still trapped... The uncertainty, coupled with the thick, bitter air left him defenseless against the fast, powerful blow to his stomach. The air exploded from his lungs in a sharp cough, and he fought the urge to vomit as he dropped heavily to his knees.
He closed his gritty eyes against a rush of dizziness, hoping it would pass. It didn't. Time stood still, or seemed to, while he focused on the orange light behind his eyelids and tried to regain some control of his body. His other senses became painfully aware of his environment. The sharp, dry straw poked through the fabric of his trousers, biting into the flesh of his right palm where it pressed into the ground for balance. Rhythmic waves of heat crashed against him, almost drowning him in their intensity. Sparks singed his hands, his face, his clothes. The terror-filled screams of horses cut through the roar of burning wood and straw. Dear God - his head snapped up - had his horse gotten out?
Stinging, smoky tears blinded him so that he couldn't see two feet in any direction, but Ezra forced his eyes to stay open.
More than a second or two couldn't have passed, because his assailant was still nearby. The man's features were fuzzy. The whole world seemed distorted. Ezra didn't see the young man jump through a nearby window; one minute he was there and the next he wasn't. Ezra was about to turn to see what had frightened the fire starter - had Wilmington or Tanner or one of the others come to lend a hand? But before he could turn or push himself to his feet, a brittle crack from above filtered through noise around him. He looked up, and despite the intense heat, he shivered at the blurry sight of a large wooden rafter beam, engulfed with flames, falling towards him. An eternity passed, and he watched it come closer and closer... He was trapped, had always been trapped... He didn't hear himself scream when the beam finally landed.
Ezra Standish awoke with a start, every muscle in his body rigid with remembered pain. He sat up and wildly scanned the room, finding remnants of the dream in the shadowy corners. His heart pounded in his throat, and his breath came in short, painful gasps, as if his lungs had actually been struggling to breathe smoke. Hastily tossing the tangled bedcovers aside, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed, rested his head in his trembling hands, and concentrated on taking several deep breaths. Not again, he thought, sucking in another unsteady gulp of air.
Disgusted with himself, Ezra stood up shakily and made his way over to the bureau. He always kept a pitcher of water there, and now he poured some into a matching porcelain basin. He cupped the cool water in his hands and splashed it onto his face, raking one damp hand through his light brown hair. The water streamed off his chin and down his neck unheeded as he leaned both arms on the bureau, and he closed his eyes.
Damnit, how long was this going to continue? He needed his sleep if he was going to function normally... He'd caught himself dozing off in his saddle on yesterday's rounds.
He rested his head on his forearms, but a faint noise penetrated the fog of his mind. A noise he knew he'd never forget. He spun around, reaching for a gun he didn't have and searching the ceiling for a burning rafter that never appeared. Of course not. He was alone, safe in his room. But that reality didn't slow his adrenaline-fueled heart.
A few slow, deep breaths later, he was able to shake his head scornfully at his behavior. You damn fool, he thought bitterly. From the corner of his eye, he caught his reflection in the mirror but quickly turned away. His gaze slid restlessly around the darkened room. Around the edges of the closed curtains, a faint yellow light filtered in from the lanterns in the street. A glance at his pocket watch, which he had left sitting on the bureau the night before, told him that dawn was less than an hour away.
Reluctantly, he faced the mirror, rubbing a hand over his tired eyes and scratchy stubble. He sighed. There would be no more sleep for now - there never was - so he pondered his options for a moment and decided to go down to the saloon. This had become his routine for the past few weeks. The saloon was deserted at this early hour, and he needed the quiet. Usually, by the time Inez arrived at dawn to start the breakfast fires, he had wrangled some kind of control over his nerves.
His friends believed that Ezra was coping well since the fire a month ago. He certainly had not informed them otherwise. There was nothing they could do anyway, and it was a discussion that Ezra Standish simply did not want to have. He'd only just gotten rid of their smothering concern.
Choosing a crisply ironed white shirt from his armoire, Ezra inadvertently caught a glimpse of the burns on his back in the mirror above the dresser. They had scarred enough that he no longer needed Nathan's healing poultice. There were times, though, when he twisted the wrong way, or otherwise pulled the sensitive skin, that the pain was enough to make him squint and bite his cheek. He couldn't sleep on his back, and he'd taken to leaving behind his tailored coats when he was in the saloon or the jail. The weight of the material was simply too uncomfortable, no two ways around it. But he was alive, right? That's what mattered, right? Lady Luck had smiled down on him. He almost chuckled.
Once he had tucked the tails of his shirt into the pinstriped trousers that he'd slept in, he shoved his feet into his boots, and strapped on his firearms. First the gunbelt, then the shoulder holster, then finally the derringer rig. He patted the Remington at his hip fondly - he never left his room without it.
In the dim, silent hallway, Ezra adjusted his waistcoat and made his way down the staircase, listening to the dull thuds his boots made on the carpet. Outside, the town was still asleep. Until the breakfast crowd arrived, he had the place to himself. Grabbing a full bottle of ten year-old malt whiskey and a glass from behind the bar, he headed for a table in the back where he could keep an eye on the main entrance. Sinking into a hard wooden chair, he placed his hat on the green felt table and stared at the bottle. Finally, he poured a drink, leaned back, set his feet on a neighboring chair, and stared into the glass.
Chris Larabee tipped his hat to Mrs. Clark, the grocer's wife, as they passed on the street, and continued on towards the saloon. Glancing up as he stepped onto the boardwalk, he noted the clouds off to the west. They were moving in fast.
'Bout time, he thought. The rain was long overdue, and its continued absence had the ranchers and farmers of the area biting their nails and watching the sky.
Chris pushed through the swinging doors and paused a few seconds, letting his eyes adjust to the dim interior. Only one lantern was lit, he noted. It cast a weak glow that didn't dispel the bulk of the shadows. Heading towards the bar, he heard a chair scrape against the floor. He spun tightly, one tense hand hovering over the butt of his Colt, and peered steadily through the darkness.
Ezra walked towards him, a half empty bottle in one hand and a cigar in the other, and Chris relaxed. "Ezra," Chris greeted with a barely noticeable nod. "What're you doin' here so early?" He watched as Ezra set the bottle on the bar and lit another lantern with the end of his cigar. The room became noticeably brighter.
"Merely enjoying the solitude of the early hour, Mr. Larabee," Ezra replied. He reached behind the countertop and pulled out a tin full of buttermilk biscuits. Back at his table, he looked up at Larabee, eyebrows raised in invitation. "Breakfast?" He shrugged carelessly. "Or, not. The lovely Miss Rocillos should be here any minute."
Chris silently pulled out a chair opposite Standish and selected a biscuit from the tin. It was a little stale, but not bad. He chewed and examined his breakfast companion. "How'd the game go last night?"
Ezra nodded. "It went well."
The gambler had circles under his eyes again, Chris noticed, but he kept his mouth shut. It wasn't his place to tell another man how to live, and if Ezra wanted to stay up 'til all hours of the night playing cards, then so be it. Long as he did his rounds and pulled his weight. Besides, he knew full well Ezra wouldn't appreciate any unsolicited comments.
"Ah, I see I already have some customers." Inez stood in the kitchen doorway and smiled indulgently at the two lawmen. She pulled the red knitted shawl from around her shoulders and set it on the bar. "Can I get you two some breakfast?" she asked as she walked over to them.
Ezra smiled charmingly. "I do believe I would sell my soul for some of your marvelous eggs."
"Why Senor Standish, I thought you would have sold that long ago," she joked back, smiling just as charmingly. She looked at Larabee. "Anything for you, Senor Chris?"
"Coffee?" Chris said, a hopeful look on his face.
"Coming right up." Inez whisked back into the kitchen, and Ezra's smile faded.
Chris watched as Ezra shuffled a worn deck of cards with both hands. The cards were lightly engraved with images of forests, horses, and deer. He wondered where Ezra had gotten them.
The sound of hoof beats pounded on the street outside. "Mr. Larabee! Larabee!" Chris glanced sharply at Ezra. The gambler shrugged, and Chris walked up to the swinging doors that faced the street. Inez appeared in the kitchen doorway again and looked on quietly.
The rider, a young man with curly black hair, reined his horse to a halt in front of the saloon. The dust in the street churned behind him. The rider spotted Larabee in the doorway and hopped down from his saddle, keeping hold of the reins in one hand. Chris recognized him as Rudy Payton, a cowpuncher at the Triple A ranch.
Chris stepped out onto the boardwalk. "What's wrong?" he asked Payton. The few people who were on the street stopped and stared, curious.
Payton explained quickly. "There's trouble at the Triple A. The boss and two others caught some men stealing some stock over on the west pasture. The sonsabitches shot up a storm. George Bailey's dead, and Jake Stone's bad off."
"Three of 'em." Payton craned his head to one side and spat into the dirt. "Bastards didn't get none of our herd, though. They took off east."
Chris stared into the distance while Payton nervously shifted his weight from foot to foot. He'd have to go after them. With Buck and JD off at Eagle Bend, Josiah and Nathan at the Seminole village, and Vin off on patrol, that left him and Ezra. Chris turned his attention back to Payton, fixing him with his ice blue gaze. "You ride out to the Seminole village and bring Nathan back. See if he can do anything for Stone. And before you go, have Mary Travis wire Buck and JD at Eagle Bend. Got it?"
Payton nodded and leapt back onto his gray gelding, and Chris swung open one of the saloon doors. Inez had disappeared into the kitchen again. Ezra still sat at his table, but he was leaning back in his chair, his hands resting in his lap. He had obviously heard the conversation, and now he looked inquiringly at Larabee.
"Get your horse, Ezra," Chris ordered. "We ride in five." He turned and left.
Ezra frowned. "Wonderful."
A few minutes later, they were ready to go. Inez had hurriedly put together some sandwiches, and the food was now tucked safely into their saddlebags. Larabee's black duster swirled around him as he hoisted himself into the saddle. Ezra tied his coat and bedroll into place, then did the same. They left Four Corners at a gallop, once again stirring the street into clouds of filmy dust.
Half an hour later, Chris and Ezra reached the southern border of Triple A property. An armed and wary ranch hand led them towards the main house where the foreman greeted them.
"The name's Danning," he said. The sleeves of his work shirt were rolled up, and a white bandage encircled his left forearm. He saw Larabee glance at it and said, "Yeah, they got me, too. But I winged one o' the bastards."
"Bad?" Larabee asked, shifting in the saddle.
Danning shook his head. "Nah. The shoulder, I think."
"Too bad," Ezra mused, and Larabee twitched a grin.
"We've sent for Nate Jackson," Chris informed. "How's Stone?"
A shadow crossed Danning's weathered face. "He's in a bad way. The women folk are doin' the best they can." He hooked an arm around a porch support post and withdrew a packet of tobacco from his shirt pocket. "Bailey was a good man," he added.
"We'll get 'em," Chris stated.
The foreman peered at him from beneath his hat brim. "You want help, there's half a dozen men here who'd be ready to ride in under a minute. Me included."
Larabee nodded. "Appreciate the offer, but I'd rather not have anybody else get hurt."
"We'll certainly let you know if we require your assistance," Ezra assured.
Danning didn't look happy. He spat over the porch railing, but finally he nodded.
Larabee gathered the reins in both hands and wheeled Job around. "Now, which way'd they go?" he asked Danning.
The sky grew increasingly ominous as Chris and Ezra rode on. The clouds were rolling in fast, heavy with moisture. The air was hot and humid.
They had started off east and had closely followed the winding tracks of the rustlers for an hour. Now, at a small, narrow stream, they lost the trail. Ezra sat on his horse, watching as Larabee crouched near the bank, peering upstream and down in the gray light.
"It is a shame Mr. Tanner was unavailable," Ezra drawled. His shirt was damp from humidity and sweat, and he grimaced as he peeled the cloth from his back. He schooled his expression before Larabee turned around again. "I'm sure with his knack for discerning tracks he'd know which way the culprits have gone."
Chris straightened up and swung back into the saddle. "Probably," he admitted. He clucked to his horse and headed west, following the stream. "This way."
Ezra tugged lightly on Chaucer's reins, and the attentive animal obediently changed its course.
Larabee scanned the ground and the streambed carefully as he rode. He wasn't positive this was the right direction; it was an educated guess. If the rustlers wanted to use the stream to hide their tracks, they could only go east or west. And there was nothing to the east but flat land with no cover. To the west and northwest was Devil's Ridge, a wide spread of lava rock. The lava was treacherous for man or beast to walk on, but even a loaded packhorse would leave barely a trace on that black rock. Furthermore, there were a number of unexplored caves hidden in the low cliffs.
Chris and Ezra traveled another three or four miles before they reached the boundary of Devil's Ridge. The rock was relatively flat in this area, but the going was slow. They strained their eyes searching the ground. Aside from a broken twig here and a scuffmark there, no clear tracks really existed. The twig was fresh, but the scuffmark was not.
Chris glared at the swollen sky, willing it to hold its burden a little bit longer. If the storm broke before they caught up to those rustlers, the rain would obliterate any meager clues that might exist. The bastards would be home free. And that just wasn't an option.
The first fat raindrop splattered on the back of Ezra's hand. He stared at it in distaste and wiped his hand dry on his pant leg.
A second drop fell, and a third. In a matter of seconds, it began to drizzle in earnest.
Larabee twisted around in his saddle to address Ezra, who trailed a few yards behind him. "The storm's just about here." He glanced around, then added, "We should be able to find shelter somewhere up ahead." The tense set of his shoulders belied his calm tone. Chris Larabee was pissed.
Ezra wasn't exactly thrilled himself. It was bad enough they had to track these cretins through the worst terrain in the territory. He didn't like it - hated it - but he'd do it. Now the weather was preventing even that. What an utter waste of time, he thought. We'll never catch up to them now.
He saw Larabee staring off into the distance, knew the gunslinger wanted to continue on. But it was too dangerous to attempt to cross the lava in the pouring rain. The slightest misstep could result in a lame horse or a dead rider, or vice versa.
The rain was coming down hard by the time they found an opening in the cliff side large enough for them, the horses, and possibly a fire. The cave was dark, the only light coming from the gray morning sky outside. A waterfall cascaded from the slight overhang over the entrance, soaking men and horses as they entered the cave.
Ezra led his horse in deeper into shadows until he could no longer see the ground beneath his feet. Chaucer whinnied softly. He didn't like the darkness. A gentle rub on his nose and a quiet murmur from his master calmed the horse. Ezra glanced over his shoulder and opened his mouth to make a glib remark about their bad fortune, when a sudden flare of light momentarily blinded him.
Surprised at the sudden visual overload, he took a step back. He bumped into Chaucer, who snorted and moved out of the way, and raised an arm to cover his eyes. But the brightness only increased. Lowering his arm, Ezra stared in shock at the cave around him.
Flames climbed higher and higher along the stone walls - popping, crackling, intense. How could stone burn? Shadows danced with light all along the floor, the ceiling.
Ezra stumbled backwards in alarm, again bumping into Chaucer, searching frantically for an escape route. Oh God. The cave entrance was blocked. He was trapped. Oh God. The flames crept closer, surrounding him, and he gagged as smoke filled his nose and mouth. "No," he whispered desperately, acrid tears filling his eyes. "This can't be real." He coughed. Larabee! he thought. Where's Larabee? "Chris!" he croaked out. No answer. Larabee was gone, too, he realized. He was alone. He was going to die. Seconds later, the wall of fire finally reached him, and the flames licked at his clothes. He screamed...
"Ezra!" The voice suddenly cut through the pounding of Ezra's pulse. And suddenly it was gone, all gone. No heat. No crackling flames. Just the thunder, the rain and his frantic heart. He shuddered, and a hand touched him on the shoulder.
Ezra snapped his eyes open and stared directly into Chris Larabee's shadowy face. He thought he saw concern in Larabee's eyes, but the lantern on the floor cast a weak light, and he couldn't be sure.
Ezra's gaze flickered around the cave and his face reddened in embarrassment
Larabee dropped his hand as Ezra drew back. "You okay?" he asked quietly. "What happened?"
Ezra shook his head and didn't look at Larabee. There was no way he could accurately explain what had just happened. And if he could... well... Larabee wouldn't understand. "Nothing, Mr. Larabee. The light was just a tad too bright." He snatched his rain slicker from the back of his saddle and headed for the entrance. "If you will excuse me for a moment, it's gettin' a little close in here..." He ducked out into the downpour and didn't look back.
He had no destination in mind. Wherever he could sit alone for a while, calm the nausea in his stomach and the shaking in his hands. He pulled on the rain slicker, but he was already soaked.
Stopping about a hundred yards from the cave, he came upon a scraggly bush wedged into a crack in the cliff. Pausing with his back to the rock, Ezra let himself slide down until he sat on the black lava. A slight overhang offered him some protection from the wind and the rain, but not much. He didn't care, just stared up at the steel gray clouds.
This had to stop. All of it. "I'm losing my mind," he chuckled, only because he refused to cry.
Chris stepped down from the saddle and glanced at their desolate surroundings one more time before following Ezra and Chaucer into the cave. It was a little crowded, and Chris grimaced. Damn the rain. It was the only thing keeping them from riding on. He peeled the wet fabric of his shirt away from his chest and sighed. Maybe once they got some light things would look better.
He stripped his horse of saddlebags and dug through one of the leather bags for the small travel lantern he always carried. Once he had the lantern, he fished around in his pockets for a dry match. Hunkering down on the balls of his feet, he noted absently that the wick was low. Have to make a new one when I get back to town. The ground was too damp to light the match, so he scraped the head quickly along the bottom of his boot heel. The match flared to life.
Chris wasn't overly surprised when he heard Standish stumble backwards. He grinned, but didn't turn around. "What, you find a snake, Ezra?" He chuckled and carefully set the match to the wick. Finally, he glanced up. When he saw Standish, he stood quickly. "What the hell?" Ezra leaned heavily against his horse, face pale, eyes shut, breathing hard.
In three short strides, Chris was next to him. "Ezra? What's wrong?" he asked, not a little unnerved. Ezra didn't answer, didn't seem to hear him, and Chris called his name again. "Ezra? Ezra!" No reaction. He placed a hand on Standish's right shoulder and shook him hard.
At the touch, Ezra's eyes snapped open. Relief pooled in Chris' veins, and he let go as Ezra moved away. Standish's eyes jumped around the cave, like he was searching for something. "You okay? What happened?" Chris asked, hoping for a reaction this time.
Ezra shook his head and again glanced around the cave. When he finally spoke, his voice was even but strained. "Nothing, Mr. Larabee. The light was just a tad too bright." He added something about needing some fresh air and in the next instant he was gone.
Chris stood still for a moment, still somewhat surprised. What the hell's gotten into him? He'd been fine the whole ride. Hadn't even complained all that much about things. Then... Damn! Chris mentally cursed himself as he put two and two together. The match. The fire.
"Aw hell," he muttered to himself. Taking a moment to secure the horses, he took a deep breath and ducked out into the rain.
It didn't take him long to find Ezra. The gambler was sitting with his back to the cliff, knees drawn close. His silver flask glinted dully in his hand. Chris approached quietly and sat down beside him. Ezra didn't acknowledge his presence.
A moment passed, and Chris wondered if he should say anything. He decided to start with something simple. "Somethin' you want to talk about?" He fixed his gaze on a scraggly tree ten yards away.
Standish raised his flask to his lips and took a long draught. After a minute he spoke. His voice was low, and Chris had to lean closer to hear him over the sounds of the storm. "There's nothin' to talk about, Mr. Larabee," he stated.
Larabee snorted impatiently. "Sure about that? Then why are you sittin' out here in the rain?" He paused. "Was it the match?" Silence. Irritated, Chris started to rise but stopped when Ezra finally spoke again.
"It inspired a rather... vivid... hallucination."
Chris sank back to the ground.
"It was... The cave was on fire... The entrance had disappeared. I couldn't breathe..." Ezra's voice trailed off.
Chris waited patiently. For a brief moment, he thought of Sarah and Adam and the fire that took them from his life. He shook the pain away and focused his attention on Standish. "Has it happened before?" he asked.
"Never during the day."
Ezra nodded. He took another swig from his flask, then offered it to Larabee. Chris accepted it, fingering the light engraving on the side while Ezra continued.
"It's basically the same one, with some minor variations," Ezra said. "I'm in the stable, on my knees. The smoke is so thick I can taste it. Suddenly, Hendricks disappears, and I hear a crack. I look up, and then I wake up." Ezra paused then continued quietly, "Sometimes, though, the dream goes further..." He didn't elaborate, just picked absently at his sleeve.
Chris studied him and suddenly realized that the circles he'd noted under Ezra's eyes that morning, and had assumed were the result of just another all-night card game, were from something else altogether.
Ignoring the heavy raindrops that stung his exposed skin, Chris turned his gaze to the horizon and chose his words carefully. He and Ezra hadn't started off on the right foot, and more than once Chris had been tempted to shoot the gambler. After the situation with the Indian village, hell, he'd started to regret ever asking Ezra to join him and the boys. Still, Chris admitted to himself, Ezra had proved he wasn't the bastard he appeared to be, and his quick draw and silver tongue had come in mighty handy a time or two. He even more grudgingly acknowledged that he considered Ezra a friend. Now his friend needed help, and Chris hoped he wouldn't shove his foot too far down his own throat trying to give him that help.
"You know," Chris began slowly, "me and Buck and the rest... Well... Sometimes it don't seem like it, but we do occasionally listen if somethin' needs sayin'." He paused, meeting Ezra's gaze. "What I'm tryin' to say is, you can talk to any of us if ya feel the need to. That's what we're there for." Well, it wasn't much in the way of inspirational speeches, but it was the closest Chris Larabee had ever come to one.
The words hung on the rain for a moment, then Ezra said softly, "Your offer is... appreciated."
"Okay then," Chris said, satisfied that his message had been heard. He slapped his knee and stood up. Reaching a hand down to Standish, he said, "You ready to go inside? Don't know about you, but I'm 'bout as happy right now as a drowned cat."
Ezra offered an amused smirk and accepted the hand up. Chris pulled him to his feet, clasping Ezra's forearm a second longer than necessary, and nodded at him once. Then they turned and headed back to the cave.
An hour and a half later, the storm was finally winding down. The rain, though still steady, had lessened dramatically, and the gunmetal gray clouds had lightened in color.
Chris had built a tiny scrap of a fire using some dry twigs and grasses he found in the far corner. He sat on his heels by the flames, trying to soak up some warmth while his socks and boots dried nearby.
He nudged the boiling pot of coffee away from the flames with a threadbare towel and filled up two tin mugs with the strong brew. Carrying them to the other side of the cave where Ezra sat a decidedly calculated distance away from the fire, Chris handed him a mug.
The gambler nodded his thanks and took a sip, then looked at the coffee thoughtfully. "I believe it needs a little something," he said. Smiling, he again took out his silver flask and poured a little brandy into his cup. Looking at Larabee, he held up the flask and shook it invitingly.
Chris shook his head. After a moment or two, he said, "The rain'll be stopping soon. We should head out."
"And how, pray tell, are we going to find any traces of our quarry?" Ezra asked.
"I got a hunch I know where they're goin'." Chris finished his coffee and dumped the dregs into the fire.
When no further information was forthcoming, Ezra got to his feet. "Well," he drawled, "are you planning on enlightening me anytime soon? Or will you force me to guess?"
"There's a canyon about fifteen miles south. The town there's been abandoned 'bout three years now. Sort of a hiding place for some. It's hard to find if you don't know where to look. If they're smart, they'll hole up there before making a break for the border." As Chris explained, he put away the few used dishes, then swung the saddlebag into place. He tightened the cinch on his saddle.
"Aburrido," Ezra said, similarly getting his horse ready for travel.
Chris stopped and looked over his shoulder at Standish. "How do you know about Aburrido?"
"I make it a habit to keep myself informed about such hidden dwellings of the morally decrepit." He saw Larabee's stare and shrugged a little self-consciously. "Let's just say I've occasionally had need of the anonymity such places provide."
Larabee held up a hand. "Never mind," he said, hiding a grin as he turned back to his horse. "I don't wanna know."
"Easy, now," Ezra murmured as he inched Chaucer closer to the drop-off. He and Chris peered down the steep slope at the abandoned ghost town. From their vantage point, they could clearly see the thick mire that was once the town's main street.
The air was damp and calm in that fresh, rain-scrubbed kind of way curiously unique to deserts. Nothing moved below, though the mud was churned up in places. "Someone's been here," Chris observed.
"And might still be."
"Think they'll put up a fight?" Chris asked, scratching his chin as if actually pondering the question.
Ezra sighed. "That, Mr. Larabee, seems to be the most common outcome." He shook his head despairingly.
"Just checkin'." Chris clucked to his horse and turned away from the ledge. "Let's go get 'em then." He followed as Standish, who was apparently more familiar with the area than Chris, Standish was more familiar with the terrain, walked his mount along the edge of the shrub-lined cliff. As they moved, the view below them rotated slightly, allowing them to see the front of the hotel and livery.
A few hundred yards later, they reached the trail that would take them down into the canyon. It was clogged with mud and slightly overgrown brush. Should have expected that, Ezra thought. No matter, we'll walk. He turned to Chris and said, "Seein' as how I have absolutely no desire to break my neck today, I suggest we dismount and lead the horses down."
Chris tilted his head and a ghost of a smile crinkled his eyes. "It would be somethin' to see... you takin' a dive into half a foot of mud..."
Ezra glared. "Yes, I'm sure that would amuse you greatly." If that happens, I'll be certain to take you down with me, he added silently.
Ezra held Chaucer's reins with a firm grip as they picked their way down the slope. The muck dragged at Ezra's boots, hindering his every step. The trail was narrow and steep. On one side was the cliff face of crumbling rock. On the other was a sloping drop of about fifty feet, studded with the odd boulder or creosote bush. If the fall alone didn't kill him, he'd almost certainly brain himself on one of those rocks... Ezra shuddered and looked away.
Twenty minutes later they reached the bottom of the incline. There, they tied the horses to the low branches of a mesquite tree and surveyed the area. No breeze touched the glistening canyon floor. Ezra and Chris cautiously made their way to the back of the nearest building, a one-story structure that had once been the general store.
They edged their way along the side of the building, trying to get a better view of the main street.
"I don't see anything. You?" Chris asked. His hat hung down his back and his duster was open, his Peacemaker easily accessible. He held his Winchester in one hand.
Ezra shook his head. Scanning the empty street, all he saw were the dilapidated fronts of the hotel, livery, and telegraph office. The sun slanted through the remaining streaks of clouds in the western sky, its golden light bouncing off filthy and broken windows. Something caught his eye - a quick flash. Ezra narrowed his gaze and whipped his head up. There! The upper floor of the livery. Through the window... something there. He shouted a warning and lunged to the side, pushing Larabee down with one hand and drawing his Remington with the other, just as the crack of a rifle punctured the damp air.
They slammed into the side of the general store and pressed their backs to the wall. "Well," Ezra said, "that answers our question." He snuck a peek around the corner and almost had his head shot off. Stifling a curse, he quickly sent off a short burst of return fire.
Levering a round into his rifle, Chris nodded at the livery. "You keep him distracted. I'll circle around and get the drop on him."
Ezra gave him a dubious look. "Perhaps you should reconsider. We don't know where his friends are...'
But Chris was already on the move. "Just keep him busy," he called as he disappeared around a corner. He circled around the back of the general store and made his way to the side of the stable, staying out of the line of fire as he did so. The steady bark of Ezra's gun let him know he was momentarily safe from the sniper's attention. Chris signaled Ezra, waited for a return nod, then quietly slipped through the back door.
During the dangerous five seconds his eyes took to adjust to the much dimmer interior, he stayed by the door and focused on his surroundings. The ten stalls were empty and looked like they had been for some time. Across the room, a lantern sitting on an old barrel cast a low orange glow. Slats of dusty sunlight striped the walls and floor from around warped planks. Finally, Chris moved to the ladder that led to the hayloft. He heard the gunman above him release another shot from his powerful rifle. Sounded like a Springfield.
Rung by rung, Chris Larabee climbed the ladder and deftly hoisted himself up onto the loft. His feet made the slightest whisper against the straw-covered floor, but the man kneeling at the window apparently didn't hear the sound as he ducked a succession of shots from Ezra's Remington. His back was to Larabee, and he seemed about to aim his rifle on the street below when his shoulders suddenly tensed and the gun began to turn away from the window.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Larabee said flatly, holding his Winchester gut-level.
Stiffly and slowly, the man stood and faced Larabee, his rifle slack in his fingers. He was slender, wiry, a face full of angles and shadows. Dark eyes peered out from beneath a flop of thick dark hair. "Who the hell are you?" he sneered.
Chris took a step forward, stirring dust into the beam of sunlight that poured through the broken window. "I'm the law. And I guess that makes you under arrest." He raised an eyebrow. "Drop the gun."
Instead of complying, the man surged with forward with a growl, swinging the barrel of his rifle up and hitting the back of Larabee's gun hand with a numbing force. Chris' Winchester clattered across the floor and disappeared over the edge of the loft. Ignoring his tingling hand, Chris quickly stepped to one side of the man's continued forward momentum. He ripped the Springfield from the man's grasp and rammed the butt of it into his midsection. The man started to sag forward from the impact, gaping in breathless stupor, and Chris drew the rifle back once again to butt the walnut stock into his jaw. But the gunman lunged at Chris again, murder in his eyes, and they grappled for the weapon. The struggle was too evenly matched, so Chris couldn't reach for his Colt. Instead, his fingers remained locked tightly around the rifle. He tried to elbow the man in the throat, but ended up absorbing a knee to the stomach. The blow sent him stumbling back a pace or two, and then they were both falling.
Larabee landed in a cloud of dust and hay, his head connecting sharply with the ground. The sound of breaking glass snapped his mind away from the pain and, sucking oxygen back into his momentarily non-functional lungs, he struggled to his feet.
Reaching for his Colt, Chris grasped empty air. It had fallen out when he'd hit the ground. Before he could find it, though, the gunman launched himself at Chris, knocking him to the ground yet again. You're gettin' too old fer this shit, Larabee, he thought sourly. He narrowly avoided having his eyes poked out and threw a hard punch to his attacker's face, but as he clawed at the fingers closing around his windpipe he smelled something that froze his mind for an entire second. Craning his neck as much as he could, gagging at the pressure on his throat, Chris discovered that the crashing noise he'd heard earlier was the single lantern being knocked over. The flames rapidly spread away from the shattered glass and kerosene-soaked dirt and consumed a couple of nearby bundles of dry alfalfa. As he watched, a tendril of fire crept up one wooden wall.
Tearing his eyes away from the fire, Chris stared into the gunman's red, grinning face. A surge of adrenaline overpowered the aches in his body and the black spots overtaking his vision. He coiled up both legs and released them with a fierce, spring-like power into the gunman's chest. The man tumbled backwards. Gulping air, Chris quickly rolled onto his side and scanned the floor. He spotted his six-shooter lying about ten feet away and dove for the weapon, arm outstretched. The gunman reached it first. Swinging the gun around, he aimed it at Larabee and fired.
Chris stumbled back, but gained his feet and started towards the gunman, ready to rush him. Two seconds later, the pain finally registered. Sonofa- From the corner of his eye, he saw his Winchester in a corner to his right. There was no way he could reach- His vision blackened momentarily. When it cleared, he was on the ground, his whole left arm and shoulder throbbing mercilessly. The livery was in flames around him. And the slim, dark haired man was standing over him with a cold smile. Chris Larabee's blue eyes narrowed dangerously as he gazed into the business end of his own revolver.
"Anytime, Mr. Larabee," Ezra announced as he dodged yet another bullet that came a little too close for comfort. He retaliated, hoping with each shot fired that he'd hear a rewarding scream of pain. He listened. Nothing. "Damn," he muttered.
He saw Larabee enter the livery and provided a distraction and a target by poking his head around the corner of the general store, sending off a few more shots towards the hidden gunman, then quickly ducking back again. A spray of splinters and paint chips was his reward as a high-powered bullet gouged a path in the wall next to him. He took aim at the livery window and fired, then waited for the answering shot. Ten seconds later, he was still waiting. Larabee must have interrupted the gunman, he realized.
He waited twenty more seconds, pressed against the general store, sincerely hoping the two apparently absent rustlers would not choose that moment to show up. Another five seconds and still there was no signal from Larabee. Ezra started to cross the street, then hesitated. Was his help really needed? Maybe, he decided. Maybe not. Either way he knew he was going in.
Ezra was almost to the building when he noticed the orange light peeking through a small, lower level window. He stopped in his tracks, his limbs suddenly refusing to cooperate. The smell of smoke drifted to him on the beginnings of a breeze, bringing with it memories best kept buried. His mouth became a desert, and a drop of cold sweat rolled down his back.
This can't be happening, his mind desperately tried to reason. He closed his eyes, but orange and yellow sparks swayed in the darkness behind his eyelids and he immediately opened them again. Damnit! Larabee was in there. Which meant he was going to have to go in there.
"This isn't fair!" he said to the dark sky above. He shook his head and licked dry lips, staring at the white smoke creeping through cracks and the broken second-story window. "I shouldn't have to make this decision! That just... just doesn't seem fair." Anger pushed at his chest, got caught in his throat. God or luck, he cursed them both for putting him in this situation. Ezra Standish was no hero. All that noble, self-sacrificing crap that seemed so popular simply did not conform to his long-ingrained habits of self-preservation.
But a traitorous little voice reminded him of the other five men who kept peace in their little backwater town. They were his friends. How could he face them if he knowingly let Chris Larabee die? How could he live with himself if he let that happen? Ezra straightened his shoulders and took a deep breath to gather control over his shredded thoughts and errant pulse. He knew the answer; he wouldn't be able to live with himself. He might not be a hero, but damned if he'd act like a coward.
His knees finally unlocked, but he'd only taken a step when a gunshot filled the twilight-soaked canyon. Damning himself with every step, he ran the remaining ten yards and burst through the main livery door, revolver in hand.
Inside, the temperature was already stifling. Everything was awash with smoke; the walls and hay had already been blackened and continued to burn. In the small common area in front of the rows of individual stalls, Larabee lay on the ground, half propped up on his right arm. Another man stood over him, a gun aimed directly between Larabee's eyes, a cocky set to his stance.
The flicker of anger in Ezra's core flared to life like the destructive flames around him, burning away the fear and trepidation he'd felt. "Hey!" he called above the crackling of the flames. "Blink and I'll send you straight to hell!"
Before Ezra even finished speaking, the wiry, dark-haired man threw himself to one side, twisting his torso to bring around what looked like Chris Larabee's Colt Peacemaker. Ezra anticipated the movement and adjusted his aim accordingly. His bullet hit the gunman in the chest with a soft thump, and he fell to the ground. Ezra tentatively approached and kicked the gun away from the gurgling man's limp fingers.
Dismissing the outlaw, Ezra knelt next to Larabee. He smiled reassuringly while he quickly scanned the injured gunslinger, noting the blood that darkened the left shoulder of Chris' black duster and stained his fingertips. "I see you've managed to get yourself shot," he said lightly, pulling a linen handkerchief from a pocket and pressing it against Larabee's shoulder.
Chris' eyes were open, glazed with pain. "'Bout... time," he managed to ground out.
"Ingrate," Ezra retorted. Momentarily abandoning the handkerchief idea, Ezra helped Chris to his feet, slinging the wounded man's good arm over his shoulder. He mumbled an apology at Larabee's pained groan. "Well, Chris," he coughed, blinking away the smoke in his eyes, "what do you say we get out of here?"
They were almost to the door when a faint noise, barely louder than the rush of heat around them or his own ragged breath, made Ezra turn around. The outlaw's hand was just closing on the gun Ezra had kicked away from him. Clutching Larabee with his left arm, Ezra activated the derringer rig attached to his right forearm with little more than a flick of his wrist. The little .41 sprang eagerly into his palm.
Standish fired twice, each bullet hitting its mark, but before the gunman slumped to the ground again, his finger jerked hard on the trigger. As the echoes faded, Ezra stared at the growing crimson stain on his chest. That's not good, he deduced numbly. He knew the numbness wouldn't last, though, so he gripped Larabee's arm tighter and staggered out the door, out of the oppressive heat and into the cool night air. Five yards from the building, he dumped Larabee in the mud and almost collapsed onto him. Bracing his hands above his knees, he tried to catch breath that wasn't there.
Oh God, he thought, biting his lip and tasting blood. He didn't even notice when he sank into the mud beside the unconscious Larabee. The burning in his chest was so intense, he thought he'd be ill.
And it looked like things were about to get worse. Of course, Ezra thought when he saw the two approaching horses. With his current luck, the remaining two rustlers would arrive at this exact moment. Your timin' is anything but impeccable, he thought and almost grinned. He wiped cold sweat from his forehead with the heel of one hand and tried to think clearly. His derringer and Remington were empty, but he still had his Colt.
Just as the first man yelled something to the second and jumped off his horse, Ezra yanked the weapon from its holster and fired at them. His vision was so blurry, though, and his hand trembling so much, that he wasn't even sure which man he'd been aiming at. He just chambered another shot, and then another, hearing only the roar of exploding powder.
After an impossibly long minute, one of the men went down and stayed down.
Ezra kept on firing at the remaining man, not realizing that the chamber was spent until the fourth or fifth empty click penetrated his foggy brain. The gun slipped from his grasp and his arm dropped heavily to his side. He slumped forward until the cool mud squelched comfortingly beneath him. It felt good against his cheek but did nothing to soothe the fire in his chest. The pain was too much. He'd tried, hadn't he? He'd saved Chris from a bullet between the eyes. Hell, he'd taken care of two out of three lowlife murderers.
You done good, Ezra, he imagined he heard Vin say.
He had done well. Even though it looked like it was all for nothing... No. Not for nothing, he amended. If Larabee survived, it wouldn't have been for nothing. He tried to look at Larabee, but couldn't muster the energy to turn his head. His weakness was frightening. Twilight was fading, but Ezra couldn't tell if the shadows gathering before his eyes were a result of the coming night or his own waning strength.
A strangled cough nearly sent him straight into those formless shadows, but before the darkness surrounded him, he could have sworn he heard the excited shout of a familiar voice. Could've sworn he heard his name called. Could've sworn he saw a familiar face appear in front of his. As he drifted away, he wasn't afraid anymore.
The evening sun spilled its light into the small room, casting a warm golden glow over everything. Larabee sat by the closed window, staring at the sunset and listening to the muted sounds of life from the street below. He was mesmerized by the sky as it slowly blended from orange to pink to purple to dark blue. When the sun finally sank below the horizon, he crossed to the dresser and lit a lantern, then sat down in a chair beside the bed. Its occupant didn't stir.
It had been four days. Four days since the storm, the chase, the shootout in the abandoned canyon. Chris didn't remember much of what happened. He knew Ezra had dragged him out of the burning building, but after that things were pretty hazy. He rubbed his left arm absently and adjusted the strap of the sling.
From what he'd been told during his two days of bed rest, Rudy Payton had rounded up Vin, Nathan, and Josiah and told them what had happened at the Triple A. By the time they'd ridden out after Chris and Ezra, the storm was on its way, and it wasn't long before the rain wiped their tracks clean. In the end, it was Vin who had guessed that they were headed for Aburrido. They'd been forced to leave their horses up on the ridge and climb down the same steep trail Chris and Ez had used. Thankfully, they had arrived in time to stop the remaining outlaw from killing the two lawmen.
Back in town, Chris' shoulder had been easily patched up. Ezra, on the other hand, had been far worse. Chris frowned at the sleeping Standish. The gambler almost didn't make it, but he was a fighter. That much Chris knew.
What he hadn't known was that Ezra possessed a surprisingly deep well of strength that most men only boasted about. Maybe Ezra didn't know he had it either, but he had faced his demons and charged into that burning building to save him. In Chris' book, that was worth something. He'd made up his mind to tell Ezra that just as soon as he woke up.
A hitch in breath brought Chris' eyes once again to the sleeping man, but Ezra's features remained slack. Thick white bandages peeked out from beneath the top edge of the quilt.
The room returned to silence, and Chris flipped idly through a book he'd found on Ezra's night table. Some time later, Chris was still reading, his feet propped up on the bed. Glancing up as he turned a page, he was surprised to see Ezra's eyes open and staring at the ceiling. His feet hit the floor. "Ezra?"
Standish groaned and rolled his head towards Chris' voice. After a few seconds, his hooded eyed focused on Larabee's face. He licked his lips and swallowed several times.
"You awake there, Ez?" Chris asked, leaning forward. Chris could see his eyes were glassy and bloodshot, but there was recognition in them.
"Larabee." The word was barely a whisper, raspy and dry. Chris helped him sip some water from a glass. "Thank you," Ezra said. This time his voice was a little stronger. He noticed the sling around Chris' arm. Motioning weakly with one hand, he said, "You...?"
Chris paused. "How'm I doing?" Ezra nodded. "I ain't dead, so I guess I'm doing all right." He paused. "If it wasn't for you bein' there, reckon I would be dead." He reached out a hand. "Thank you." Ezra's grip was weak, but Chris gave his hand a firm, heartfelt shake.
Ezra's eyes closed and he seemed to smile. "It appears... you're not an ingrate... after all."
Chris shook his head in confusion. "What's that, Ezra?"
But Ezra had drifted off again.
Chris leaned back in his chair again and studied his friend. "You're somethin' else, Ezra," he said. "Fact is, it's a real honor knowin' you." He stood and moved to the door, pausing with his hand on the knob. "Maybe someday I'll tell you... and maybe someday you'll figure it out."
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