Chris Larabee sat on his horse and slowly smoked the cheroot that was held between his thinly pressed lips. He looked into the distance and waited patiently while Vin Tanner, ex-bounty hunter and tracker, slowly made his way back to the group.
The seven were on the trail of a group of men who had ransacked a small holding about twelve miles outside the town of Four Corners. The wife, two young children and a young stable/farm-hand had been brutally killed, and the house and barn burnt to the ground while the husband and father, David Connors, had been in town collecting stores for the winter.
David Connors had returned to town with the wagon loaded with his dead family. Chris had been shocked and horrified, as had most of the citizens of Four Corners. Connors had left his family with the local blacksmith, who was currently dealing with funerals since Achilles Thompson had murdered the previous undertaker, and approached the sheriff's office, demanding to be a member of the posse that would go out after the killers. Chris had steadfastly refused to have the enraged man with them, stating firmly, whilst arguing with his own demons concerning the way that Connors' family had died, that he was too volatile to take along. The man had stepped right into Larabee's face and ranted that it was his right. Chris had stood his ground and refused, his quiet voice seeming louder because of his well-chosen words. He calmly advised Mr Connors to see to the burial of his family.
"You have no right to stop me from going after those bastards, Larabee... they killed my family." Tears began to stream down Connors' face. "Sally was four and Paul was two... they killed them... just babies... and they killed them...." The man stopped, unable to go on.
Chris looked at the men who stood about him: JD, eyes wide with shock at the events; Buck, frozen as memories of another murder of a wife and child filled his mind; Vin, a frown marring his handsome features as he tried to come to terms with the senseless killings; Ezra standing as still as stone, his face blank... whatever he was feeling about the deaths was well-hidden behind his gambler's facade.
"I'm sorry, Mr Connors... I truly am sorry for your loss - and believe me, I know how you feel." Chris paused as his memories and the torment of his own loss threatened to overwhelm him. "But... I don't feel that you... that you are...." He paused again, searching for the right words but determined that the grief-stricken man would remain behind. He was uncontrollable in his anguish, and that could cost the life of one or more of the posse... and Larabee was not about to let that happen. He took his responsibilities very seriously - he was their leader, and therefore accountable for the lives of these men.
"Maybe we could..." Buck began, moving forward, wanting to help the grieving man.
"NO," Chris cut him off, his voice hard, eyes frozen with anger that one of his friends would cross him in this. Larabee never removed his gaze from Connors. Chris's face was expressionless, and the bereaved man knew that this was the face the gunfighter wore to go into a battle, but still the man hoped. Several long, painful minutes passed.
Connors looked into the eyes of the man in front of him; seeing no faltering in the hard glare, he realised that he would not be welcome to ride with him. Spinning away, his body tense with rage and grief, he snarled, "Damn you... damn you, Larabee. You of all people should know what I'm going through...." Chris winced at those words, but only for a split second, then his face was frozen again as David continued, his voice pleading, "This is my right." Again he saw that his words had no effect. Finally, his shoulders drooping in defeat, the beaten man swallowed hard and finished, his tone final, "I'm holding you responsible, Larabee.... You bring in those bastards that murdered my family, 'cause if you don't... I'll curse you from the halls of hell until you join me there." He stopped, unable to put his emotions into word as they overwhelmed him. Tears freely flowing, he spun about and stormed off.
"Maybe we should take him with us," Buck Wilmington ventured in a quiet tone from just behind Chris. He felt uneasy about the turn of events, the tense field of crackling emotions that hung in the air and the final words that Connors had tossed out at his motionless friend.
The gunslinger tossed an angry look over his shoulder at his oldest friend before saying, his own voice low and bitter, "He needs time to bury his family, come to terms with his grief.... He'd be a loose cannon - an extremely dangerous loose cannon - when we find them.... I don't want any more people dead because of this, and certainly not one of us because he can't keep his gun in his holster." With that, Chris spun towards Nathan and Josiah, who were fast-approaching from the church down the street where they had been working; judging from their horrified expressions, word of the killings had just reached them.
Buck stood his ground and watched David Connors as he slowly stumbled back towards the blacksmith's premises - the last resting-place of his family before they were buried.
"Chris is right," Vin Tanner commented, moving up to stand beside the womanising cowboy. Tanner's loyalty to Larabee was unshakeable as he stated firmly, "He's too upset to be rational and would put all our lives at risk.... We'll bring them back, Buck, and then he can watch them hang."
Buck shot the ex-bounty hunter a dirty look before he turned his attention back to Chris, who was attempting to ignore the conversation going on behind him. Buck felt his lips tighten as he snarled, for some reason wanting to hurt Larabee for his seemingly unfeeling attitude towards Connors, "That man's got a powerful lot of hurt inside of him, Chris, and he needs to keep his mind on doing something instead of just sitting here waiting for us to return...." He paused for barely a second before he continued bitterly, watching for his words to hurt, "Out of all of us, Chris, you should know that. After all... you felt the same way when your wife and son were murdered, and no one tried to stop you from chasing your revenge." Chris's back straightened at the words, but he refused to acknowledge them. Wilmington bitterly shook his head again, and then stormed off towards the saloon.
"We just heard about Mrs Connors and the children," Nathan said as he reached the wooden step up from the street. Feeling the tension, he looked from Larabee to Tanner with concern before he finally turned back to Chris to ask, "Are we riding after the killers?"
Chris nodded once, his face unreadable, but the pain was clearly there for all to see and they knew that he was remembering his own family's murder. "We ride out as soon as we're ready... take provisions for at least five, six days...."
Within the hour the seven had been ready to ride. Even though it was getting late in the day Chris had decided to start out at once, giving them a good hour of light, in the hope of finding a trail to follow early the next morning. Vin sat on his horse beside Chris, giving silent support for his earlier decision in not allowing Connors to ride with them. Larabee had refused to acknowledge Buck's attempt at an apology when he joined the men, and so he had slipped to the back of the group, taking the sombre-looking JD with him. Nathan and Josiah tossed worried looks between the two men, knowing that something had happened between them to cause bad blood. Ezra sat on the other side of Larabee; he had learned from Buck what had happened in the street in front of the jail just a short while ago. Standish had to admit that he silently agreed with Larabee's reasoning - especially as he was one of the men whose lives would have depended on Connors keeping his gun in his holster - and his presence beside the darkly-dressed man stated this.
A loud yell and the sight of the blacksmith rushing towards the group halted them. "Connors... Connors is dead," he gasped, reaching out and grabbing the stirrup of Larabee's horse, the shock of what he had seen only now robbing his legs of their ability to hold him upright as the words tumbled out. "He's hanging... from the rafters... over his family's bodies."
Buck threw Chris a bitter glance, knowing that if Larabee had allowed Connors to ride with them he might still be alive... vengeance did have its uses in some instances... but the man in black said nothing, just absorbed this blow like he had so many others in his life. Straightening up further in his saddle, he swallowed hard at the wave of anger he felt coming from Wilmington, sitting at the back of the group.
"Mr Pierson is keeping an eye on the sheriff's office while we're gone," Larabee said coolly, his expression never changing from cold indifference as he pulled his horse about sharply, dislodging the blacksmith. "Get him to help you with Mr Connors. Bury the family... and the boy...." He paused, a frown marring his features as he added quietly, as if only just realising something, "Together... bury them together.... I'll... I'll pay you when I get back...." He stopped and visibly shook himself, before straightening again and snarling, "We've got to ride." With that he roughly urged his horse forward, breaking into a gallop. After a few seconds of stunned silence, the others followed their leader from the town of Four Corners.
That had been yesterday, and Chris had been growing more and more distanced from his friends as the town of Four Corners had fallen behind them. Buck had tried on several occasions to engage the darkly-dressed man in conversation, obviously sorry for his harsh words, but the gunslinger would have none of it, purposely breaking out in front when the womaniser attempted to talk to him. Chris had taken first watch the night before and none of them had argued with him. When Vin relieved him, he had chosen to sleep as far away from the campfire and the others as possible. No one knew the thoughts that kept him company, just that they were grim, as his face was now as set as the granite rocks they passed. The only flashes of life that came to his face were when news of the murderers in front of them came to light: a campfire discovered here, the sudden tracks of a lame horse - and later its body - earlier on that day. Now two of the killers were riding double, and it was slowing the group down... and now Chris Larabee was a driven man.
Vin looked up and noticed that Chris had ridden out to meet him. "They camped in the canyon earlier on... likely to give the animals a rest and to eat.... Fire was still warm, so they haven't been gone too long."
Chris looked back at the others, to where they had paused to rest and water their horses while Vin had ridden ahead. "All right..." he called out, "get mounted and let's move." They were ready to ride within minutes.
Vin fell into line beside his silent friend. "The camp was used overnight... I reckon there are about fifteen... maybe eighteen of them now. Not sure - some of the animals could have been carrying things."
"They met up with some others?" Chris questioned, throwing the tracker a hard look, his own face sharp with his concern.
"Yep, the camp was old - at least five days. They must have been waiting for the others to join them... but it looks like they rode out pretty quick once they met up."
Chris nodded, considering his options now that the group they hunted had become much larger. Sighing, he continued, "We'll have to take them all in and let the judge sort it out."
"That's a pretty big group for us to take in, Chris," Vin cautioned, giving Larabee a concerned glance before he added, "Looks like they had some spare horses, so they could start making good time now that they're not riding double." Vin threw a look over his shoulder at the other men; they were listening to the conversation but said nothing. "They know what they're doing... someone has cleaned up the site and dusted their tracks for quite a way past the camp."
Chris closed his eyes briefly, then he pushed his concerns aside and called out to the others, "Let's get moving... I want those bastards." With that, he roughly ploughed his boots into his horse's sides and it leapt ahead of the others, charging in the direction the killers of Marylou Connors and her children had taken, his personal devils ensuring that he would not rest until they were all caught.
The ambush, when it came, was sudden and deadly in its intent. The walls of the narrow canyon were reaching high above them when Vin suddenly pulled his horse to a stop and glanced about uneasily, as if sensing something. He had just opened his mouth to warn the others when a hail of deadly bullets started to hit the ground about them.
All seven men dived from their mounts, returning fire as they hit the ground. The volley of bullets continued from high above as they each scrambled for the protection of a boulder or the cliff edge.
Vin saw Chris stumble, then fall to the ground before he struggled to rise. He failed and fell flat again, his injured body refusing to support him; this time he attempted to crawl towards the cover of the rocks. "Chris!" Vin cried in anguish, as he fired off shots and sprinted towards his fallen comrade. He reached the injured man just as Buck skidded to a halt at his side. Between them, they dragged their fallen leader towards a group of rocks that were piled against the canyon's edge, both firing blindly at their attackers as they sought cover.
The gunslinger was unconscious by the time they reached shelter, and Buck frantically felt for a pulse as Vin continued to fire at the position where he estimated the shots were coming from. He surmised that there were only two, maybe three men hidden along the canyon rim shooting at them. Suddenly a cry of pain from above was followed by the sound of a body falling. It hit the canyon floor a couple of hundred feet further down, and was followed by some more rocks spilling as they were loosened by someone scrambling up the sloping rock face, then some horses could be heard galloping away. Finally silence ensued. It was deadly in its stillness, as the vibrations of the gunfire echoes died away. For several long seconds no one moved.
Nathan, having seen the rescue of Chris by Vin and Buck, knew that Larabee must be injured and he was desperate to reach them. After several tense minutes, the group's healer could stand it no longer and he rushed from his place of safety towards where he'd seen Buck and Vin drag Chris. Ezra and the others, seeing his intention, laid down some covering fire towards the rim of the canyon just in case, but there were no return shots. It seemed that whoever had been firing at them had now fled the scene.
Nathan piled in beside Buck and Vin, who lifted his gun high and moved his body slightly to allow him into the small space. "How badly is he hurt?" Nathan demanded from the man tending Chris.
Buck looked up, his face clouded with fear as he shook his head before stammering, "I... I don't know...." He gladly moved back to allow Nathan to get closer and have a look.
The healer winced when he saw that Buck had managed to rip Chris's shirt partly open to reveal a nasty looking wound in his right shoulder. Blood was welling freely past the bunched-up, torn cloth of Buck's neckerchief that he had utilised to press against the wound. Nathan felt a sickening wave of fear when he saw that it was filthy dirty, covered with dust and grit. "I need my bag from my horse," Nathan demanded, then cursed as Buck, heedless of his own safety, dived from the hiding place and raced towards the horse in question. He returned short seconds later, carrying Nathan's bag in which he kept his meagre medical supplies.
Nathan grabbed the holdall and snapped it open. Roughly pulling out the items he needed, he pressed a large, clean, well-padded square of cloth over the wound and pushed down hard, saying to Buck as he grabbed his hand and rested it firmly over the injury, "Keep your hand tightly on that...." He manoeuvred Chris up and forward and added, "And here... keep the pressure there." Larabee moved like a limp rag doll under their hands, his head slipping to one side, mouth slightly open, his face as pale as a ghost.
"I think they're gone," Vin stated, lowering his sawn-off Winchester and turning to look at his injured friend with concerned eyes. He swallowed hard and then glanced back, pulling his gun up when he heard a noise. He lowered it again when he saw that it was only the others, dashing from their hiding places and over to join their injured companion.
"I saw Chris go down," JD stated, his young voice filled with fear as he demanded, "How bad?"
"I'm... I'm... fine," gasped Chris, surprising the others as he managed to weakly lift his head and blink owlishly up at them. "Just patch... me up.... We have... to get after...."
"The hell you are..." Nathan snarled, angry at the other's words. Chris's tone was breathless, almost panting as he spoke, and already a sheen of sweat had broken out on his too-warm face. The healer frantically worked over the wound. "The bullet went clean through," he explained, hating the eerie silence that lay over the small group. No one seemed to breathe as he tended the handsome leader of their group. "But God alone knows what rubbish it pulled into the wound with it.... We need to get you back to town, Chris," he finished, motioning for Buck to help him hold Larabee up while he firmly wrapped a bandage about his injury, covering both entry and exit wounds and securing Chris's arm to his side.
"No," Chris gasped, gritting his teeth as beads of sweat broke out on his body in reaction to the pain he was enduring with the wrapping of his wound. "We... have to get on.... We might... lose the trail otherwise.... They know... they know we're... after them...."
"Damn it all, Chris," Buck snarled, his temper flaring as he witnessed his best friend's obvious agony. "You can't continue with this wound.... Nathan and JD can go back to town with you... we'll carry on...." He fell silent at the look his words earned him from his injured companion.
Chris let out a yell of pure agony, but it was from his effort of pushing himself out of the supporting hands as he grabbed the front of Buck's shirt and pulled the man off balance and into his face. "I am NOT going back to town... damn it... it's just a scratch..." he snarled, his face twisting with his rage. "They're fifteen, maybe more.... I'm going with you." It was a determined statement of fact, and very few men ever argued with Larabee when he used that tone of voice
"Chris..." Nathan warned, but then fell silent as the glare was turned on him in full force.
"Brother Buck is right, Chris," Josiah stated, his face firm in his belief and concern for his friend. He had faced his own devils in his time, and Larabee's rage and anger would be absorbed and dealt with as he managed any other pain that struck his large body. "You will not get very far with that injury and will, in fact, slow us down...." He paused, letting his words hang. They were undeniable. He was right; the whole group knew it and stood silently behind him. For the first time since the seven had formed they were standing against Larabee, and from their expressions it was obvious that it hurt them just as much as the gaping bullet wound that had torn into Chris's vulnerable flesh.
Chris fell back exhaustedly, gasping for breath and grimacing with pain. Slowly he gathered himself, glaring at each of his men in turn. He was both a formidable opponent and a wraith who lay bleeding before them as he firmly answered, his words spoken slowly, each chosen with care and because of that carrying more weight, "I'm going.... Now," he looked at each man in turn as he continued, "it can either be with you or without... I frankly don't give a damn, but I'm getting on my horse and I'm going after them." The words were final, his determination clearly showing in his expression.
"We got one of them," Vin suddenly said, his words slashing across the conversation and releasing the tension as surely as a skilled surgeon lancing a festering wound. Looking out towards the middle of the canyon, he continued, "The others will hightail it back to their compadres...." He tilted his head up to gauge the sunlight and estimate how much day they still had. "It might be best to give it a while before we follow them," he finished.
"How long?" Chris questioned, desperately trying to ignore the pain that tore through his body as Nathan continued to tend to him. The healer's hands were as gentle as ever, but still Larabee could feel his tightly reined anger as he worked on him.
"It's getting late," Vin stated, looking towards the shadow that was slowly creeping towards their position. "Reckon they would have moved on aways, maybe caught up with the others... if they waited for them... then they'll camp up tonight. Won't chance riding this rough terrain in the dark... too dangerous with a party their size." Larabee nodded, then surprising everyone, he roughly pushed Nathan away as the man finished tending his wound and attempted to struggle to his feet.
"What the hell...?" Buck snarled in anger, attempting to carefully push him back down. He was stronger than the injured man and had little trouble forcing Chris back into a prone position.
Larabee closed his eyes as the canyon walls started to spin sickeningly about him. "We have... to get... after... them now," he panted, not willing to let any time pass before he went after the men. He knew that what Vin said was true, but he also realised that the killers now knew that they were there, and that fact alone would hasten their departure from the area. "We have to... catch up... with... them... now."
Vin looked at his friend, seeing that Chris was gravely injured, but knowing that he would not rest until they had captured the men they were after. "Chris," he began, "if you come with us...." He paused to glare at the others as they each drew breath to voice their protest at his words. Pushing them aside, he continued, his own tone showing his determination at finishing what he had started as he repeated, "If you come with us... you're to do as Nathan tells you... exactly what he says - no more, no less." Chris opened his mouth to protest, then noted the look of resolve on the hunter's face. "If not," Vin continued, his tone mild but his intentions clear, "I'll personally hog-tie you to your horse, and you can be carried back to Four Corners by Nathan and JD like that."
Chris felt a small smile tug at his lips, but it died just as suddenly as another flare of agony ripped through him. He knew that if he wanted to continue with these men, then - just this once - it would have to be by their rules. He swallowed hard, fighting the dizziness that threatened to send him spiralling back into the darkness. Finally, and as if with great effort, he slowly nodded his head in agreement. The effort used up the last of his strength and he slumped into unconsciousness, content in the knowledge that Tanner had agreed he would still ride with them.
"Vin," Buck warned. "We can't..." he started to object, but the bounty hunter's steely glance froze the words on his lips. Wilmington had never faced the man who now stood before him - the intensity of the look on Tanner's countenance suddenly made it clear why he had been such a good tracker and bounty hunter: this man was a force to be reckoned with, but as he usually stood in Larabee's shadow and wore a gentle mantle, it was not always apparent. Today, with his friend lying injured at his feet and the group about to tumble into chaos, he had moved into the position of leader and dared any man to defy his authority. After several seconds of stunned silence, no one stepped forward to challenge him.
Nodding back out towards the canyon, Vin said calmly, "I'm going to check the body." So saying, he moved away from the huddle of men. Buck, shooting one last look at his injured friend and Nathan, who was now settling him back more comfortably, turned to follow.
As they approached the corpse, Vin turned towards Buck and noted that Ezra and Josiah had also followed them. Knowing that he owed them an explanation for his actions, he stopped a short distance from the body and began, "Chris is right; if we send him back with Nathan and JD we'll be cutting our strength down too much.... We're looking at twelve to eighteen men now..." he reminded them sharply, before he smiled slightly and added, "Besides, I'd much rather have Chris where I can see him than wonder what the hell he's up to out of our sight."
"I still don't like this," Buck insisted, looking back over his shoulder towards the injured man. "He should go back to town...."
Nathan, after checking his patient once more to make sure he was comfortable, moved over to join them and just caught the end of Wilmington's comment, so he answered, "As much as I hate to agree with Vin about this, he's right.... Chris won't rest, Buck, he'd be fretting the whole way back to town. Least this way he'll be co-operating with us, and I can't really do much more for him here than I could during the journey back to Four Corners."
"Will he be up to the travelling?" Vin asked Nathan, his concern obvious. While he had agreed that Chris could travel with them, he had been swayed by his knowledge that his friend would not rest if parted from the group... but if his medical condition was such that it would endanger his life even further, then he would insist that Nathan and JD remain behind in the canyon while the others went ahead.
Nathan looked up towards the heavens, unconsciously scanning the rim of the canyon for possible attack. He noted that, even while they were further out into the middle of the canyon, the bounty hunter had still brought them to a relatively covered spot. They were safe from further attacks here. "The bullet went right through," he began, his deep tone having a calming effect as he spoke, little realising the faith these men placed in his ability. "It didn't hit anything vital... but he has lost some blood." He wiped a hand over his face as he confessed, "I honestly don't think we can keep him here, not if he's hell bent on going after those men." Seeing the look this earned him, he shrugged and added grimly, "That bullet took a lot of clothing and dirt into the wound... I saw a lot of injuries like this during the war... he's gonna have a fever come morning...."
"Can he travel with us or not?" Buck snarled, throwing a worried glance over towards his injured friend. He never had liked the way Nathan sometimes pussy-footed about a person's injury... the tall, handsome ladies' man wanted straight answers and he wanted the honest truth, no matter how unpleasant it might be.
"It's not going to be a fun trip for him...." Nathan paused, then added in a tone filled with conviction, "But leaving him here - even with JD and myself - he won't rest... and the journey back to town will cause him just as much, if not more pain than taking him with us.... No... maybe in this case it might be better to have him with us.... If we don't, I think he will only find some way of following... and that just might kill him." He let his words hang, as each man present considered what he had said.
"Chris!" JD suddenly cried out, as he attempted to hold the other man back as carefully as he could. Larabee was weakly standing and staggering unsteadily towards his horse.
"Damn it," both Vin and Buck yelled at the same time, as they all rushed towards the wounded man. They managed to reach him just as his legs threatened to give way, and he was held supported between the two men.
"We've... wasted... enough time," Chris gasped, feebly trying to push the others away as he struggled to mount his horse.
Vin Tanner lost his temper. It was not a sight that the others could honestly say they had ever seen before. He pulled Chris roughly about until he faced him, totally ignoring the fact that he was hurting the other man and the hiss of pain that the gunslinger issued as he was grabbed by his injured shoulder. Tanner said, his voice low and determined, "I said you could come with us... ONLY if you did as Nathan said.... This," he pointed roughly towards the horse, "isn't doing as Nathan said." His eyes flashed, and Chris Larabee wilted under the glare, feeling his strength depart.
Closing his eyes, Larabee fought to stay conscious as he licked at his lips before croaking, his voice sounding as defeated as his battered body, "Every moment... we waste... here... is a... moment longer... that Marylou and her children's killers are free... and that... is a moment... longer to give... them... time to... escape.... I won't allow that." The words were simply said, and yet the men listening knew that Chris Larabee was not going to sit quietly on the sidelines so long as the men who killed that mother and her children were out there. He had never been able to avenge his own wife's and son's death, but David Connors' family would be avenged... of that the darkly-dressed man would make sure, even if it cost him his own life.
Vin suddenly realised that he held Chris in an agonisingly tight grasp and guiltily released his grip on his injured friend's arm, but he swiftly returned the support when Larabee staggered and began to wilt against him. "I know," he ventured, gently supporting his friend as he continued in a quiet tone, as if calming a wounded animal, "Chris, I know... I understand how you feel, and why you feel so strongly, but we really can't do anything just yet. It's getting dark now...." Vin stopped and glanced up at the rim of the canyon. "We need to get out of here and on to open ground... make our own camp for the night... and we'd best give them some time to get settled down. The area around here is too rough - they won't have gone far this afternoon, wanting to take on the mountains early in the morning to give them the whole day to clear them.... We can take them near dawn." He slowly turned and handed Larabee over to the waiting hands of his friends. It was a sign of how bad Chris must have been feeling by the fact that he did not protest this action, just accepted their support.
"I'll scout ahead..." he continued, unwilling to give up his burden but knowing that he must, "and see if I can find their camp." Tanner reluctantly released his grip on his friend and, with one last nod in Larabee's direction, he added with a false smile and a catch in his throat that almost prevented the others from hearing the gentle words, "See you later, Cowboy." As he moved beside Ezra, Vin advised, "Check the body... then bury it before you leave the canyon. Wait just outside and I'll join you there."
Chris smiled weakly and, rallying slightly, he called back a warning that passed his lips every time the tracker went out on patrol to protect the borders of Four Corners: "Hey, Cowboy.... Keep your head... down and remember... there's a price... on it, and you... promised... it was... mine." Then, as an afterthought, he looked towards Josiah and insisted, "Go with him... watch his back." The man in question nodded once, and soon the two men rode down the canyon and out of sight.
"Well I guess we'd better check out that body over there..." Nathan said, before he continued, "see if we can find anything to identify him, then we'd best bury him before the buzzards catch the smell."
The body was searched and then buried. It had revealed nothing but a dirty, torn wanted poster for a gang of killers, which was fairly old and had been issued in another state. Ezra gingerly handed it to Buck after he had finished reading it. Buck glanced at it before saying, "I reckon it's a good bet that that fella rode with the gang."
"It says here that a person called Gerard Harvey is the leader of the gang." Ezra was once again in possession of the poster and he read it out loud for the others. As he finished, he said, "I've never heard of a Gerard Harvey... nor his gang... but the crimes 'murder of small settlements and lone wagons, including women and children' appear to be very similar to those we are chasing now. But," he added, turning the piece of paper over in his hands again, "this poster is quite old, and very dog-eared."
"I heard... of a Captain... Gerard Harvey... during the war," Chris suddenly stated, causing the other men to once more gather about him. They had settled him as comfortably as they could on the canyon floor, with several of their blankets wrapped about him, and he had slipped into unconsciousness several minutes before the poster had been found. They had not even been aware that he was awake until he spoke. He continued, obviously fighting to recall the memory, "He was court-martialled right near the end of the war... for attacking a settlement... called... Pentonville... I think.... They killed the women and children... old folk.... He was hung," he added as an afterthought.
"Yeah... I remember that," Nathan suddenly spoke up as Chris's words ignited his own memory of the incident that Larabee spoke of. "It was a shanty town, just off the Appomattox River... more of a survivors' camp... people - women and children -fleeing the war from Petersburg, some slaves who were trying to escape to the North.... I guess by that time, the people of the South weren't too bothered about keeping their slaves on their plantations," he added bitterly, before continuing with the story. "Harvey was only a kid really, if I remember correctly. He kept insisting that it was a breeding place of Confederate spies, that he had proof, but it never was proven... not enough so that it justified what he did...." He stopped and swallowed hard as the memory of the burned-out wooden huts and tents came back to his mind. "He wiped them all out.... Women... children, black, white, it made no difference to him...." Seeing the look this earned him from the others, he added, "The field hospital I was with passed that way.... We tried to find survivors... only a few were still alive. One was a mother; she was still clutching her child's corpse as she wandered among the bodies of the others... she told me what happened.... I sat with her for days..."
"What happened?" Buck asked, unable to stop the question from tumbling from his lips. He found this crime particularly hard to cope with. Whilst he might be a scoundrel, he always bore the greatest respect for the opposite sex, and to harm a child was an act of abomination that he would never understand.
Nathan shot a glance over towards JD, who was listening with tears glistening in his eyes. Like Buck, he was totally at a loss to understand how any human being could hurt another... and especially one who was weaker and more vulnerable than you. Those were the ones you protected all the more. The healer considered lying, turning the truth so that it was not so harsh, but then he realised that the youngest member of their group deserved to be treated with the same respect as the others and that also meant facing the horrors of the world. "She died.... Once she'd told her story, she snuck out one night... I wasn't there... had been ordered to rest.... She somehow got a gun, and, well... I guess the horror of what she'd seen... lived through... was too much for her."
"Do you think it could be this Harvey gang that killed Mrs Connors and her children?" JD asked, unable to keep the tremor of emotion from his tone. He tried to picture his own mother's grief if she had lost him, and knew how he had felt at her loss. He knew that if he had witnessed her death in such a manner, he would have done his best to follow her... hell, he'd nearly done that anyway... and her passing had been blessedly gentle, once you accepted the fact that her illness was beyond hope. At least they had had a few months to share, before she had drifted into death during her sleep one night. Buck, as ever at his side, reached out and gently rested a hand of comfort on his shoulder. JD gratefully glanced up at him and smiled weakly. Their friendship grew stronger from the contact.
"I don't see how they could," Chris ventured, clenching his teeth against the pain that swelled. "Like I said... I heard... they had a big trial... and Harvey was hung.... But I know... they didn't capture... all the gang.... Well, they did... but there was a prison break.... I guess... the gang could have continued... after the war... just kept on using his name...." He blinked suddenly, as the world swayed sickeningly to one side and then slowly back. Nathan reached over and rested a hand on Chris's forehead, frowning at the building heat he found there.
"You should be resting..." Nathan fussed.
Chris shook their concerns away and stated firmly, although in a voice considerably weaker than it had been, "We need... to get out... of this canyon... like Vin said.... I can rest while we wait for... him and Josiah... to return."
Nathan and the others did not look happy, but they all realised that what Larabee said was true. So, with that in mind, the horses were fetched and Chris was carefully helped up onto his mount. Nathan suggested that someone ride with the injured man but Chris firmly refused the idea, insisting that he would inform them if he felt himself growing too weak to continue. Jackson, while not totally happy, knew that he would not win if he pushed the matter... and he noted with some relief that Buck had positioned himself opposite Nathan, on the other side of Chris, close enough to prevent the man from falling if he should pass out.
The journey was slow, hard and torturous for Chris, who could feel the throbbing from his wound flaring into agony as he rode, but he kept silent and struggled to push the pain to the back of his mind. He was only able to do this through the mental image of David Connors' body swinging over the corpses of his family. Chris knew that he, and he alone, had to bear the burden of that man's death, as surely as if he had tied the knot himself, and that he was wrong in denying Connors his chance at vengeance. It now wore heavily on his soul, and he was determined that he would bring the family's killers to their own hanging, if it was the last thing he ever did.
Larabee did not really know Connors or his wife, and had only seen the children a few times when they had been brought into town when supplies had to be collected, yet he could recall one occasion when young Sally had run into his long legs and he had looked down at the curly-haired blonde girl. Her eyes had grown incredibly large as they had travelled higher and higher up his body, until they met his steely gaze, which had softened even as she met his look. She had mouthed a large 'oh', before fleeing back into the mercantile store. Marylou Connors had witnessed the collision, and had smiled a sweet apology to Chris as he smiled gently at the child's actions. Then his smile had shattered as he recalled his own son, rushing to grasp his legs when he had returned to the cabin in the evenings. With a sharp dip of his hat, he had passed Mrs Connors and headed into the saloon, the 'notorious gunslinger and bad element' look firmly in place.
He started up with a gasp of shock. He was lying flat on his back, a small campfire just off to his left. The sun was fast disappearing into the distance, and long shadows now stretched across the open land. They were camped about a mile from the canyon and rocks, and he could not recall how he had ended up lying on the makeshift bed of blankets that rested beneath him, and this worried and frightened him slightly.
"Hey, partner," Buck said, smiling warmly from his position beside him. "Welcome back... you gave us all a fright when you tilted off your horse back there."
Chris swallowed, feeling dizzy and sick, and then coughed at the dryness of his throat. He let out a small groan as his shoulder was jarred by his actions, causing flickers of agony to flash across his chest.
"Here... take a sip of this," Nathan said, coming up on his other side, holding the canteen for Chris to drink from. He then turned back and fumbled in his bag, pulling out a delicate-looking needle and a small container of clear liquid.
"What's that?" Chris asked, eyeing the container suspiciously.
Nathan looked across the injured man to his friend, who sat frowning at his side. "It's just something to help you with the pain," he finally ventured.
"No," Chris stated firmly, shaking his head as realisation sunk in. "No morphine..." he declared, flatly refusing, knowing that he would need his senses about him in the upcoming battle.
Both of his friends looked at him, their frustration clearly showing, but he was not about to concede the matter. Finally Nathan put the needle and morphine away and again held the flask out for the other man to drink, which he did willingly.
"How long?" Larabee asked after he had drunk the warm but refreshing liquid, surprised at how weak his voice sounded.
"Since you collapsed off your horse? About three hours," Nathan supplied, bending down nearer to check the bandage wrapped tightly about the wound. "How do you feel?" he asked, resting a hand gently on Chris's forehead, testing for fever. He frowned when he felt the dry heat rising from his friend; he knew that it would only grow worse before it got better.
"Rough," Larabee offered, raising his head slightly to look about the empty camp. "Where are the others?" he asked with a growing fear, dreading that they might have gone on without Buck, Nathan and himself to confront the killers. His fear was irrational and out of proportion, but he was unable to prevent himself from gasping the question.
"Ezra and JD are keeping a lookout for Vin and Josiah," Buck said, moving even closer and re-securing the blanket about the other man before asking Nathan, his tone concerned as he looked from one man to the other, "How is he?"
The medic shook his head slightly; he didn't want to answer in front of Larabee, but the man was watching him intently so he offered honestly, "His fever is starting to build. By morning he'll be wishing he'd agreed to go back to Four Corners," he added, unable to hide his anger at his friend's unreasonableness in not returning to the town, where he could be treated properly.
"I'm laying right here," Chris snapped with some irritation. He could not bear it when people spoke about him as if he was not there, especially when those people were questioning his decision so openly.
Nathan had to smile at the tone, but he rested a hand on Larabee's shoulder and gently offered, "We know you are, Chris... but believe me, my friend, you gave us all a shock when you passed out." Again he smiled weakly and offered, "I don't think I've ever seen Ezra move as fast as he did, getting off his horse... damn near split his new jacket when he got it caught." The man smiled at the memory.
"I don't..." the injured man began, then coughed as his throat caught. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth at the agonies that swelled and threatened to pull him back into the abyss of darkness that was even now beckoning to him. He rode out the pain before he finished weakly, "I don't remember."
Buck threw Nathan a concerned, half-frightened look but said nothing. The darker man just nodded and said evenly, "I'm not surprised... you've lost a fair amount of blood." He twisted about and, re-wetting the cloth, he gently wiped it across Larabee's brow.
As much as the action annoyed Chris, because it emphasised his weakness, it also relieved him. His eyes felt gritty and his mouth dry; he knew from experience that he was suffering from the first stages of a fever, and he fought against the feeling of despair that began to tumble within him. He wanted to be there when the men who had cold-bloodedly murdered the Connors family and the orphan lad were taken. He backtracked, unable to deny that he was as guilty as the men who had killed Marylou and her children, for he had had a direct influence on the death of David Connors.
"What's keeping Vin and Josiah?" Chris suddenly asked, an uncontrollable fear biting into his gut at the thought that he might already have lost two of his friends. He again struggled to sit up and look about, but this time both Buck and Nathan were ready and able to hold him back with little difficulty.
"Chris," Nathan said, gently keeping a hand on the man's uninjured shoulder and making sure that he remained stationary. "Vin knows what he's doing, and Josiah is no fool either... they'll be back soon, but if you're serious about coming with us, then you're going to have to rest." Jackson felt the glare that Wilmington threw his way and knew that the other man didn't want his long-time friend anywhere near the killers. Yet Tanner had said that the injured man could accompany them, and both knew that Larabee would only find some way to follow them if he was able to. Nathan's only hope was that the fever would be enough to keep the other man down when the time came for them to move on.
Before Larabee could comment, a hoarse yell was issued from the edge of the camp and Ezra rushed back, along with JD, saying, "Vin's coming... with Josiah.... They're moving fast...." He stumbled to a stop when he saw that Chris was conscious.
"Help me up," Chris demanded, then seeing that they hesitated, he gritted his teeth and began to struggle against them. "I said help me up, damn it." Nathan considered refusing him for a moment, but then he saw the etched lines of determination and knew that this man would put himself into the earth before he would stop hunting the killers of Marylou Connors and her family. Deciding that it would be better to assist him and at least keep some medical control over the situation, he finally helped Chris stand on shaky legs. Buck glared at the darker man over Chris's head, but Nathan steadfastly refused to meet his look.
Vin pulled his horse up sharply and dismounted in one smooth motion. Josiah came in behind him and slipped from the saddle with his own ease. "They're camped about ten miles up the line," Tanner said, moving to stand over the fire, seeking its heat in the growing cold. "How you feeling, Cowboy?" he asked gently, looking at Chris, his expression softening with concern.
"I'm fine," Larabee lied, brushing his concerns aside roughly as he demanded, "How many?"
Vin looked questioningly towards Nathan, who shook his head slightly, the look in his eyes informing Tanner not to push the issue. Heaving a sigh of pent-up frustration, the tracker stated, "There were about eighteen in the camp, all heavily armed. They'd posted guards, but they were drinking whisky pretty heavily when we left. I reckon by the time we get there, the others will be pretty drunk and the guards won't be doing much guarding."
"If we ride now, we should get there by early morning," Chris said, his mind already racing ahead to the coming confrontation. The thought of action against the killers was giving him strength that he didn't know he possessed.
"How will we know who were the ones who shot Mrs Connors and her family?" JD asked, coming to stand by Buck. He was concerned by Chris's actions and not sure that he liked the feeling of tension that now walked beside the group. He had always believed that the seven men would eventually part as friends, but the tensions of the past few days - the bickering between Nathan and Buck, the angry looks of frustration that Vin was now tossing about - had led him to fear that they would be torn apart before the night was over.
"We won't," Larabee answered, "but if they're all part of the same gang, then it's a safe bet that the Connors weren't the first family they've butchered." Chris's tone was cold and his expression frozen... the only fire that burned was in his fever-bright eyes.
"Chris," Buck blurted, unable to maintain his silence any longer. "You can't go..."
"The hell I can't," Larabee snarled, twisting about with surprising energy and agility, considering his wound, to glare at the man who dared question him. "Connors made it my own, personal responsibility to bring those bastards in...." He paused, then added in a bitter tone, "Or don't you remember that?"
"Chris... Buck may be right..." Nathan ventured, his fear for his friend overriding his concern at Larabee's reaction to being questioned in such a manner. This earned him a glower that he bravely faced as he added, "Your fever's climbing and you won't be able to stay on your horse... hell, you've already...."
"I'll do whatever is necessary..." the injured man grated out, riding roughshod over Nathan's words as he fought against the swirling that had started about him. He had been standing too long and was now starting to feel the effects as the effort drained him, leaving him light-headed, but he was determined not to show weakness in front of these men.
Vin had watched the exchange with growing concern. He could tell that Chris was suffering the effects of the fever and knew that it would only be a matter of time before he succumbed to it totally, and - if not made to rest - maybe permanently. "You won't be much use if you can't sit a horse," he butted in calmly, almost with a detachment that was belied by his eyes. His quiet tone slipped into the conversation, and the words were like a shower of cold water crashing down over the injured man.
For some reason Chris had not expected the betrayal to come from that direction. He opened his mouth to protest, but snapped it shut again when he realised that the others were in agreement with Vin. He pulled away from Nathan, staggering slightly as he did so, but he quickly regained his footing and glared away the help that was offered. He felt his eyes narrow and his lips tighten as his heart constricted and turned cold. "You can do what you like, but I'm going... and that's final. I don't need your permission... for anything," he spat and, with that, he turned about and, with very deliberate steps, made his way over to the horses.
"Nathan?" Vin demanded, his tone clearly asking what they were to do now as he sought the other man's eyes. For the first time that he could remember, he was genuinely afraid for his friend. In the past, Chris had always acted with reason - even when chasing the killers of his wife and son, he had based it on a half-formed plan. This time... this time Larabee seemed driven by demons that no one but himself could see, and the look of desperation in the other's eyes caused Tanner's skin to crawl; he had seen it before on the faces of men who knew that they were about to die, but who were equally determined not to leave this existence alone, or with any jobs unfinished.
Nathan closed his eyes briefly, fighting back his frustration. Coming to a decision, he opened them again and answered firmly, "Any other man would have succumbed to fever and pain by now... but Chris... I don't know. Ordinarily I'd say that he'd not make it a mile... but I really don't know...." He raised a hand and rubbed at his tired face, before adding with a resigned shrug of his shoulders, "He's right...we can't stop him... not if he's determined - not without bloodshed." He finally admitted to the fear that had been ghosting them all. The men present all recognised the truth of his words, as Nathan continued, "So we'd best let him come, then bunk him down with JD to keep an eye on when he passes out.... All this arguing isn't doing any of us any good, and it's just getting him more riled - and he's using that anger to keep him going."
"Nathan... we can't just..." Buck started to angrily protest, but then fell silent as the darker man turned on him, his own face showing his building rage, which was clearly tinged with fear.
"Damn, Buck, you know the only way to keep him here is to fight him... and that will surely hurt one of us... so let it be; we'll ride close enough this time to stop him from falling." Nathan took a step backwards, as if distancing himself from his anger before he continued, his shoulders slightly bowed, his voice calmer, "I don't have the answers you want to hear... all right...? I'm sorry, but I don't...." He paused again before he began trying to explain, the words quietly spoken as the memories played once again across his mind, "During the war I saw men with their arms hanging off, legs shot to pieces, stomachs hanging out, rush back into battle.... I can't explain where he's getting his anger from... the strength to continue... as I couldn't back then. I do know that, at the present time, that anger's directed at those men in front of us...." He paused and looked slowly at each of the men who stood about him, their faces a reflection of his own grave concern and fear, as he continued, "God help us all if he should decide to direct it at us... because if he did... I don't honestly think that any one of us would survive." It was a sobering thought, and each man contemplated its implications.
JD felt real fear - the same fear that he had felt the night he had sat beside his mother and felt her slowly slip from his life, unable to do anything to keep her with him. He felt tears prick at his eyes and swallowed hard, tilting his head to look at the man who was causing such anguish amongst his friends. As he did so, he straightened and saw the man he admired more than any other stagger as he tried to lift his saddle up onto his horse one-handedly. Without thinking, JD rushed across and took the cumbersome saddle from Chris's faltering grasp and, without a word, began to get the horse ready to ride.
Not a sound passed between the two men, but as JD stepped back he realised that the other five had approached and were silently standing watching them in a half circle. As if caught in some tragic play of old that he had read about in Boston, nobody seemed capable of movement as they watched the young stable-trained boy finish saddling the horse. Finally stepping back, Dunne gave Larabee a fearful look and was surprised to receive a nod of gratitude from the injured man, just before he weakly grabbed at the horn of the saddle with his free hand and somehow threw himself into the seat. Chris tilted forward dangerously and the youngster reached up, ready to capture him if he should fall, but Larabee sucked in a deep, steadying breath, pushed back the agony that had now become a part of his body, and slowly straightened up. It was not until he was upright that he realised the other men had surrounded him, almost crowding him, as they moved forward to protect him from a fall should his energy fail.
"Let's ride," he snarled fiercely, before he jarred his boots into the horse's sides and it sprung to life, knocking the others roughly aside.
Nathan swore loudly as he rushed to his own mount; he should have expected this, but he had truly thought that Larabee would tumble from his mount before he got much further. As he slung his own saddle up onto his horse, he noticed with relief that Vin and Josiah were already after their fearless leader, their tired mounts charging into the night.
Tanner and Sanchez finally managed to catch up with Larabee; the man was riding like one possessed, and Vin had to wonder where he found the strength to hang onto his horse. He could see that Chris was struggling but was determined to remain on the horse, and his years of practice were paying off.
Larabee, seeing the other men come up on either side of him, slowly reined in his mount. He knew that he could not outrun them - that had never been his intention. He just wanted to show that he was still his own master and that he could still control his own destiny... even if it was to fall into the waiting arms of death. The decision, as always, would be his.
"That was a damn fool thing to do," Tanner snarled, roughly grabbing the other's reins to halt the panting horse.
"We're wasting time," Chris snapped back, his own eyes refusing to meet those of his friend. He swallowed hard, again fighting the swell of darkness that beckoned. He frowned, 'Why could he hear Sarah's voice calling to him?' Shaking that thought aside, he continued, his tone sounding far weaker than he would have liked, "Time we don't have...."
"Those men aren't going anywhere for a while, not from the way they were hitting the bottle..." Tanner snapped back, his own face twisting with his anger. "Damn, Chris, you can go and get yourself killed if you want..." he knew that his fury had hit home when he saw the other man stiffen at his words, but he ploughed on relentlessly, "but I'm not about to let you get the rest of us killed."
"I'm not trying..." Larabee began, his words spluttering with rage as he glared back at his friend.
"The hell you ain't," Tanner exploded, too angry for words to properly convey the emotions he felt. He tossed Chris's reins back at the man, who attempted to capture them with his good hand. They slapped against his face, but Larabee chose to ignore that as Vin continued, "We're going to wait for the others, and then we're going to work out a plan... you hear that, Chris...? A plan. We're not going to go in there with guns blazing... not all those men were involved in what happened at the Connors' homestead... only some...." Whatever else he might have been about to say stilled on his lips as the sound of horses caught his attention.
The other four men approached at a hard gallop, pulling their horses up sharply when they saw the stationary group. Even before the horses stopped, all could hear Buck's curses as he finished, "...the hell you do that for?" He pulled his horse up close to Chris and leant into the other man's face, hissing, his face contorting in his rage, "You do that again and I swear to the Almighty, Chris Larabee, you won't have to wait for those men to finish you... I'll do it myself, you damned bastard."
Breaths were held as they waited for the explosion, but it didn't come - instead Chris just nodded slowly and offered coldly, accepting the other's anger and allowing it to wash over him, "I guess I deserved that."
"Damn straight you did," Buck shot back, his tone full of indignation and some surprise at the ease with which Larabee had accepted his fault in the matter. "You seem to think you're the only one who wants those bastards caught..." he rushed on, his anger still paramount. "Well let me tell you, Mr Larabee... I knew those kids a damned sight better than you did.... I helped David Connors rebuild his corral last winter when it got knocked down in that storm; I sat down to supper and ate with those little kids; hell..." he reared back in his saddle and looked away from them as he added softly, his face as torn as the sound of his voice, which trembled as he continued, "I even played with them before they were put to bed." He turned back, his eyes flashing, "So don't think you're the only one who wants those men, 'cause you don't even get near to the front of the line."
Chris looked totally shell-shocked, his eyes wide as he realised what the other man was saying. He vaguely remembered that Buck had been going out to the Connors' farm, especially over the last winter when he was on the lookout for another horse after his own had been injured, yet Larabee never knew that a friendship had grown between the men. He knew that Wilmington had purchased his present horse from the man, yet.... "I... I didn't know..." he stammered, looking about as if opening his eyes for the first time since he had heard that David Connors had hung himself; as if awakening from a nightmare that was not leaving, now that his eyes were open. "I just... I just..." he stalled, unsure of what to say. Looking about him he saw their faces; their anger, frustration and a hint of concern, maybe... but these men were withdrawing from him. His actions over the last days had tested all the bonds that had been so hard to forge... what could he say...? What words could he possibly use that would bring these men back to his side? With a flash of insight that only happens when one is truly desperate, he realised that only the truth could heal the rent that he had ripped in the bonds of these men's friendship. Closing his eyes, he offered himself up weakly as he honestly said, "All I can see is the body of David Connors, hanging in the barn over the bodies of his wife and children.... All I can feel is that he had more courage than I can ever hope to possess..."
"Chris... I'm sorry..." Buck began, almost pleading for Larabee not to continue, already regretting his harsh words. Looking towards the others he saw matching expressions of horror and realisation on their faces, that Chris Larabee had suddenly turned out not to be invincible.
"No," Chris snarled, unwilling to be denied his guilty confession, which now seemed desperate to be brought out into the open, like a festering wound that had reached the point where it either had to be cleaned and healed, or left until the person died. "Don't you see...?" He looked at Wilmington with fever-bright eyes that bordered on frightening insanity. "He realised that he'd failed his family, Buck, and he knew what he had to do... he joined them.... I didn't." He stopped, his breath gasping, his body wanting to scream out his agony at the remembered loss of his own family. "I should have followed Sarah and Adam, but I was a coward... I can't alter that, but I can make damn sure that I find those bastards and put them in the earth... I owe that to David Connors, and by Christ I'll do it before you plant me to rest."
Murmurs of denial, shock and rage broke from the lips of the six men who sat listening in stunned silence, but Larabee brushed them aside, snarling, "Those murdering bastards are mine... and I'll kill any one of you who dares to deny me." He turned his rabid look on the men who sat about him, and he could see from their expressions that his words shocked them, shocked them to their very core, but they had to understand why it was so important to him. "I swear I will," he finished, swallowing hard, his voice now a mere whisper as the world tilted, darkened, and he plunged senselessly from his horse.
It was only the quick thinking and actions of both Buck and Vin that saved Chris a hard fall to the ground. Josiah and Ezra were quickly off their horses and supporting the unconscious form, gently lowering him to the ground where Nathan had squatted to get a better look at his patient.
"What the hell was that?" JD asked, his voice shaking, his innocence not really able to comprehend the words that his hero had tossed at them. "I mean... Chris doesn't really want to die... does he?" he finished in a small, frightened tone, as if afraid of what he would learn. He frantically looked towards each man, desperately seeking an answer. "He wouldn't really kill one of us, would he?"
Vin closed his eyes and refused to meet the looks that were tossed his way. He sighed when he heard Buck answer, his tone showing his own uncertainty, "I don't know, kid... I just don't know."
"Buck!" JD exclaimed, his tone rising with panic as he looked from his best friend to the injured man.
Vin, seeing the look of terror and panic that rode across the younger man's pale features, reached out and pulled JD around to face him. His own expression was determined as he harshly said, shaking the lad to emphasise his words, unaware that his grip was painfully tight and would leave bruises, "We're not going to let that happen, JD... not to him, and not to us.... He's got friends who.... We just won't let that happen."
"Indeed not," Ezra's voice insisted as he broke in unexpectedly, moving forward to gently disengage JD from Vin's hurtful grasp. "Now that we know the nature of the force that is driving Mr Larabee, we can ensure that he does not damage himself or us any further...." He paused as he tried to find the right words to allay the younger man's obvious fear and confusion. "His injuries have confused him slightly... that is all.... He has befuddled his own feelings of guilt over the deaths of his family to those of Mr Connors and his kin. The similarities of the deaths are too striking not to be a contributing factor to his unbalanced emotional state, but like Mr Tanner said, we are all here to ensure that he does not hurt himself..." he looked pointedly at the others, "or one of us further."
"Ezra is right, JD," Josiah spoke, his tone quiet but full of conviction as he continued, "Each man has a difficult, often dark path to walk and sometimes it's harder than others. It's at those times when a man needs the help of his friends, whether he knows it or not.... Don't you agree, Mr Wilmington?" Anyone who knew the preacher would realise that he was annoyed with the womaniser for his thoughtless words towards the youngster, and he wanted Buck to accept that JD would believe his words above those of the others. If Wilmington said they were doomed, then JD would start to say his last prayers and look for a shovel to dig his own grave; if Buck said they would survive anything, then the youngest member of their team would fight until his last breath believing that.
Buck, who had been only half-listening as he watched Nathan work on Chris's too-still form, looked up in some surprise before he mentally shook himself and forced a reassuring smile towards his young friend. "Josiah and the others are right, kid. Chris is an ornery old bastard who sometimes doesn't know what's in his best interests... that's why I have to spend so much time straightening him out...." He paused, looking back at his injured friend. "This thing with Connors and his family has just got Chris confused, like Ezra said. It's all gotten tied up with his own family's deaths... he just needs some time to sort things out...." Buck stood and approached JD, seeing, not for the first time, just how young he was. It was so easy to forget that. At times JD acted older than his actual years, when in reality he was only a young man who was still struggling with the loss of his only family member, and who desperately wanted to prove himself as a world-weary adult to his friends, whom he had accepted as his new family.
"Is he going to be all right?" JD asked, accepting Buck's reassuring squeeze of his shoulder before moving to stand over Nathan.
The dark man looked up at the worried faces of his friends, and gave them all a brief smile. "Yeah, I think so... his fever's definitely up... but at least he's not losing any more blood. I think rest is the best thing for him now." He could still see the uncertainty in JD's face, so he added in his best professional tone, "Don't take what he said to heart, kid, that was mainly the fever speaking.... Chris might want to kill Buck sometimes, but the rest of us are pretty safe... and we're here to see that he doesn't cause himself any further injury."
"Do you want us to set up a fire for you before we leave?" Vin asked, knowing that one of them had to be practical and noting that the surrounding area was not a good place to set a camp.
Nathan followed his glance and had to silently agree with his hesitation. "No... I think it might be best to keep him with us." His words shocked the group and he could tell from their expressions that they were not in agreement with him, so he held up his hand and offered firmly, "Who are you going to leave here with him? JD, me, Buck, Vin?" Seeing the way the other men didn't want to meet his look, he pulled a face and offered, "I think leaving him here, no matter who with, would not be doing him any favours.... Besides, I'm worried about his condition..." he began, but Buck roughly interrupted him.
"I don't think dragging him about the desert is going to improve his condition." The man took a step back and willed his anger back down.
"I was talking more about his mental condition... I think he really needs to be there when we confront this Harvey gang - maybe it will help him come to terms with what happened to Connors and his family...." Glancing back down at the unconscious man, he added under his breath, "If nothing else, he needs to realise that David taking his life was not his fault, nor his responsibility.... That man was carrying a whole saddle-load of grief and Chris's reasons for not taking him with us were sound." Seeing Buck about to open his mouth again, he hurried on, "Hell, his suicide gave us a clear indication as to his mental state. Take my word for it, as soon as we got a whiff of those men he would have been in there, guns blazing, and he might have taken half, if not all of us with him in his suicidal rage."
Silence gathered about the group for a few minutes until finally Vin nodded, as if coming to a decision and said, "If we're going to do this, let's get moving... those guys ain't going to wait forever for us...." He looked at the position of the moon and gauged the time: it would be dawn in a few hours. He estimated that they had covered at least half the distance to the gang's camp. "Nathan, you take charge of Chris... Josiah, you're the strongest, so you help him.... Buck, Ezra, JD, you're all with me... you two follow with us, but keep sheltered once we go in."
"How are we going to work this?" Buck asked, wiping at his face. He suddenly felt very old and used.
"I'll go in first and do a check... Ezra, you're real quiet-like, so you come with me.... We'll try to disarm the guards - shouldn't be a problem if they've finished that whiskey they were drinking - then we'll pick up as many weapons as we can. Once that's done, we'll go in and see what they have to say for themselves."
"Why, Mr Tanner," the gambler drawled with a forced grin, desperately wanting to lighten the tension, "are you saying that out of all the others I display the most grace and cat-like stealth?"
Vin, catching on to what Ezra was attempting to do, smiled back and said firmly, his own tone desert-dry, "No, Mr Standish... I'm just saying that you're the most sneaky."
"I think I should go in with you, Vin," Buck began, rising to slowly rest his hand on his gun, but a quiet, hesitant voice from the ground brought them all up short as Chris spoke, his voice barely a whisper, but clearly cutting across the breezeless land.
"No... Buck... you'll need to cover them.... Vin's idea is good... but he'll need you and the others to cover his back..."
"Hey, Chris," Nathan said, his tone a lot brighter than he actually felt. "Good to have you back with us.... How are you feeling?"
Larabee looked at the group surrounding him, noting their concerned faces and vaguely remembering a feeling of unease but not able to clearly remember their discussion before he had once again slipped into unconsciousness. He eventually offered honestly, "Like shit."
Nathan smiled and offered wickedly, "Well that's a relief, 'cause if you'd abused your body the way you have been and you felt good, I would have thought there was no justice."
Chris thought the words over, then asked weakly, "How did I...?" He looked about, as if confused by how he'd got where he was.
"What do you remember?" Nathan asked with growing concern.
Again Larabee frowned, struggling to pull up the flashes of memory that moved about his exhausted mind like quicksilver. He was unable to clearly latch onto any one, so he offered weakly, "The canyon... an ambush... then riding.... I think I must have passed out," he finished lamely, looking slightly sheepishly up at the others.
"You did pass out. You were pushing yourself too hard," Nathan agreed, "but that's all in the past now.... Vin has an idea on how to..."
Chris interrupted him, struggling to sit up as he spoke, "I heard him...." He looked over to the man in question, the bright moonlight allowing him to see each of them clearly. "It's a good plan...." he slumped back, exhausted, as he continued, his tone determined, "but I want to be there as well." He knew that he would have to have their agreement to this, as he now felt as weak as a day-old kitten and knew that his fever was building even as he spoke.
"All right, but the final decision will be agreed on once we reach the others' camp," Nathan stated firmly, willingly accepting the unexpected capitulation on the injured man's part. How long he would be willing to agree to their terms, Nathan did not know, but he was prepared to play the hand that had been dealt him.
To say that Larabee was shocked to discover they were going to allow him to continue with them would have been an understatement, but he closed his mouth and kept his own thoughts as the others willingly, but very carefully, helped him up and onto his horse. He didn't say a word as Nathan clambered on behind him. "You slipped off your horse before," was all the explanation he got as the healer's firm arms wrapped securely about Chris's body, holding him in place. The injured man didn't voice his opinion, but a short while into the journey he was glad that Nathan was there as he felt himself sliding into the arms of sleep, unable to keep his eyes open any longer.
Jackson climbing down from behind him jarred Larabee from his uneasy slumber. He saw Josiah move in to take his weight as he was gently and effortlessly lifted down from his horse. He helped as much as he could, but was unable to suppress the small whimper of pain that this action caused him. He bit down hard on his lip, as he knew that they must be near the killers' camp.
Vin clearly must have realised Chris's thoughts, because he crept up closer and whispered, "Just over the hill... down in a gully.... Perfect place to set up camp, but also a natural trench that makes it easy to keep them covered.... We've already disarmed the guards; they won't be any bother."
Chris didn't ask exactly how they had disarmed the guards, nor did he really care. He just wanted this to be over; he wanted the murderers to be brought to justice and hung; he wanted to be finished with this feeling of guilt that rode his back like a demented demon... then he could join Sarah.... He paused, a frown marring his handsome features as he tried to discover where that last thought had come from. Knowing that he didn't have time to consider it at the moment, he pushed it to one side and asked, "What are you going to do now?" He allowed Josiah to steady him as he stood on legs that felt too weak to support him. His injured arm was tightly bound to his chest and he was not able to move it, but at least it felt slightly better than the last time he'd been conscious.
"Ezra and I'll go into camp and see how many weapons we can lift before we rouse the gang." Vin turned away, but stopped when Chris rested a hand on his arm. It was the gentlest of touches, but it stopped the man as surely as a tug.
"How many men?" Chris asked, his mind now more active after his rest.
"About twelve... but they've been drinking - heavily from the looks of it - and the other guards were no trouble to take out," Vin offered with an evil smile that reflected the pleasure he'd taken from removing the threat of the guards. He shared a conspiratorial grin with Ezra, who had also felt the rush of adrenaline from their action.
Tanner paused and patiently waited until Larabee slowly nodded and said, "All right, but wait for us to get into position." As he spoke, he motioned for the others to draw nearer before he continued, "As Vin said, the camp is in a hollow... we should be able to get the drop on them from over there, and there." He pointed to the vantage points he was talking about. "Buck, JD... you take the far point, Nathan and I will take this side.... Josiah, I want you at ground level to support Vin and..." Chris paused and looked over towards Tanner, before asking, checking to see if his memory was correct, "I'm right in remembering that you're taking Ezra with you?"
Vin nodded, for some reason pleased with Chris for recalling the plan. "Yeah... like I said... he's sneaky." He smiled over at the gambler, who just threw a glance up to the heavens as if seeking guidance and help, but he was unable to hide the grin that split across his features.
"All right, let's get into position," Chris said, his humour gone as he remembered the reason why they were there. "Once you're set, I'll give the signal." He met each man's look and noted with a shiver of surprise that no one denied him the right to awaken the men in the camp when the time came. Even in his injured state, he was still their leader.
It took several minutes for Buck and JD to work their way quietly around to the other side of the camp, but that gave Josiah and Nathan enough time to assist Chris to his hiding place, and then allow the tall preacher man to get back into position to help Vin and Ezra if the need arose. The silence of the camp had not been disrupted and the men slept on, unaware of the trap that was being laid for them.
Vin and Ezra moved about the camp like ghosts, stooping to remove weapons where possible and marking to the others watching where the weapons were that they could not retrieve. The camp was still, apart from the snores and groans of men who had partaken of too much alcohol. It took nearly an hour of careful moving to gather nearly all the weapons that were available.
Vin motioned to Ezra, who nodded, before they retreated towards the edge of the camp, drawing their own guns in preparation as they did so. Everything was ready; now they were just waiting for Larabee to give the signal.
Dawn was just beginning to creep across the land when Chris raised his voice and called, "Hey... you in the camp...." Nothing stirred for several moments, so Chris tried again, but his voice faltered as he began coughing. He leant back and rocked slightly as the pain swelled.
"Chris," Nathan called, quickly moving towards the injured man, intent on checking Chris over.
Larabee waved him aside and called out instead, his voice rough and barely carrying to the camp, "Vin... take over...."
Tanner clearly heard though, and accepted the mantle of responsibility as he cried out, his tone clear, "Hey, you in the camp...." This time some of the men began to move, one reaching for the bottle that he had been cuddling, another for his weapon, but his hand came up empty. It was his cry of alarm that began to penetrate the others' sleep-befuddled minds as he frantically began to toss items aside, looking for his missing gun.
Before long, all of the men were wide-awake and looking about the camp in fear; two had their weapons out, and another made a move towards a rifle that was hidden under his saddlebags. Both Chris and Buck fired off a round that bit into the dirt near the reaching hand, which was swiftly snatched back.
Silence now ruled the camp again. Dawn's light was breaking across the land, and with every passing second it was easier to see the twelve men who now stood or crouched, awaiting their fate at the hands of the unknown men who held guns on them.
An elderly man slowly stood up, his hands raised. "Who the hell are you and what do you want?" From the way the other men in the camp looked at him, he was obviously their leader. While his countenance showed anger, his manner was carefully controlled - he wanted to know what was going on before he risked his men's lives.
"We're hired to look out for trouble in Four Corners... and we're here to pick up the men who joined your party yesterday."
"Well, you're a long way from Four Corners... and what the hell do you want my men for?" the man demanded, his manner now that of barely contained anger. He looked towards a couple of men, one of whom firmly held his gun - it was enough to tell the others watching that these were two of the men they were after. "And what happened to the men I posted as guards last night?" the leader asked, his eyes narrowing as he viewed the guns that were firmly being levelled at him and his men. He thought he was a good judge of men, and he knew that the two he could see were not the type to be crossed. They were strange companions, he conceded, but they had the look of usually getting what they wanted.
"Your people are safe," Vin stated, motioning back up the gully with his mare's leg, before he added with a slight smile of satisfaction, "just sporting a headache." Then the humour leeched from his features as he added, his voice deadly, "The men we want butchered a family just outside of town... a woman and her two children, along with a boy... a young ranch-hand," Vin finished, the words catching in his own throat as he spoke, the horror of it all still too fresh.
The effect his words had on the older man was astounding; he paled, all expression dropping from his face as he straightened and yelled out, "That's a damned lie... none of my men would do a thing like that." He was almost spluttering with rage, his face twisting as if he had been accused of the murders himself.
"Just point out the men who joined you yesterday," Vin moved further into the camp, being careful not to get in the way of the guns pointing towards the other men, "and the rest of you can go on your way." Holding his weapon firmly in his hands, he then motioned to the men before him. "You others, drop your weapons."
"I'm not going to give up my gun, Mr Harvey, just 'cause someone says they're the law," sneered the man in question, his face twisting with anger at being caught in such a helpless position. "You want it... you come and get it...." The threat was obvious, but no one was prepared for the reaction it evoked from the leader of the gang.
Without a backward glance at the weapon that Vin had trained on him, he moved purposefully across the camp and backhanded the man who had spoken, splitting his lip and causing blood to spurt as the man spilled backwards and landed in a heap on the floor. "You'll do as I damn well tell you, or I'll shoot you myself," snarled the one called Harvey, before he turned back to Vin. Giving him a cold, steady look, he stated, his voice firm, "But my man here has a point... how do we know that you ARE the law, and not just some hustlers trying it on?" It was obvious that this man was used to giving orders and having them obeyed.
Tanner looked at the man before him, then signalled towards the men hidden in the outcrops and hillside. The hollow was filled with bullets, which hit the ground a safe distance from the men now cowering in the middle of the camp. "If'n we wanted your stuff, then you'd be dead and no one the wiser," Vin stated, his eyes cold and his words leaving no one in any doubt that he could just as soon order these men dead as scared.
Harvey froze, then nodded slowly. Realising that he was in a no-win situation, he stated, "You've made your point...." He cast a glance back over towards his shaken men and ordered firmly, "Drop your weapons, boys...." Slowly the remaining guns carefully dropped to the hard ground and were left to lie there while Harvey continued, "We'll all head back to Four Corners and get this matter sorted. We could do with a stop in a town to pick up some supplies," he added bravely, struggling to wrestle some control back from the men holding guns on him and his men.
"There's no need for that..." Vin stated again, throwing a look over at the two men he strongly suspected. "Just point out the men who joined you yesterday - we know they met up with you, as we tracked them from the homestead.... If you let me inspect the horses, I can tell you who we want by the mounts they rode."
"Mister..." Harvey began, gaining back some confidence when it became obvious that the man doing the talking didn't want them all to go back to town - it had to mean that their force was the smaller. "Let's talk straight about this matter." He paused for effect before he continued, as smooth as a salesman pitching the old snake oil medicine that was so well-received in the west, "I don't know you and you sure as hell don't know me...." He raised an eyebrow and offered stiffly, "'Cause if you did, you wouldn't be holding that gun on me and accusing my men of butchering a family. But I will say this... if you want those men back in Four Corners, then you're taking the lot of us in.... Now, if that means that we have to sit tied to our horses for the next two days, then that's what we will do... 'cause I'm not allowing you to take any of my men anywhere without me - we always travel together... and we ain't got nothing to be afraid of in your town." The man drew himself up to his full height and glared at the tracker to defy him.
Vin looked into the eyes of the man who had spoken and knew that what he said was the truth; he had an ironclad faith in his men and was prepared to stand by them. It was just a shame that the men in question didn't deserve the loyalty he was showing them.
Suddenly Chris appeared by Vin's side; his gait was slightly unsteady, but Nathan was plastered to his side, prepared to give assistance if needed. "Agree to the terms," he mumbled, eyes firmly glued to the man before him. "This guy doesn't know what his men have done," Larabee added, his low tone full of disgust as he continued, "and he's acting as fair as he can, trying to protect his men out here in the open, with our guns pointing at him...."
"But Chris..." Vin began, his voice low enough not to be heard, "we can't take the risk of taking them all back.... They could jump us, or... well, hell Chris, I don't like it... there're just too many of them."
"I don't like it either, but he's agreed to have his men's hands tied.... We can't ask more than that," snapped back Larabee, who paused then added, leaning in towards his friend to emphasise his words, "and I like the alternative even less. If we leave them here and just take the men we suspect, we might not get the right ones... and the others will only follow us and try to get them back. This way we know where they are at all times.... We can control it."
"You can't seriously expect us to be tied to our horses for two days," Harvey suddenly protested, realising that his rash words were going to be taken seriously.
Chris stopped and openly glared at the man who stood before him, then he spoke, his words clear and carrying over the assembled group; his contempt obvious to all, and his look as demonic as if Lucifer himself had stepped amongst them. "You spouted off just now, saying that you were prepared to take your men back to Four Corners tied up... now you're backing out of your words."
Harvey glanced back at his men and saw that they were looking uncertain. While they did not want to travel back to the town with their hands tied, they knew that he was a man of his word. Seeing that the darkly-dressed man with the injury had him backed into a corner, he reluctantly agreed. "As I said, neither myself nor my men have anything to hide... and if we have to go tied, then we will." He shot another look at the guns firmly pointing at him and added dryly, "Not like we have much choice."
Vin still looked uneasy about having to take the full eighteen men back to Four Corners, even if their hands were tied. He slowly shook his head.
"We don't exactly have a choice," Larabee stated again, his tone low as he scanned the men who stood before him. He could tell from the way that they held themselves they were all ex-army, and from the respect they gave Harvey he was obviously their commander.
Harvey watched the two men converse before he interrupted, his anger apparent at being kept waiting, "What the hell do you want to do...? Either agree to my terms or let us all go," he snarled, his patience wearing thin. He had been drinking along with the rest of his men last night, and was sharing a hangover with them this morning.
"You'll just wait until we're ready, mister," snapped Chris, some of his old fire flaring in his eyes as he moved slightly forward, his face drawn and pale but his gun steady on the man before him.
The man in question backed down when he saw the anger in Larabee's eyes, then slowly they drifted down to rest on his strapped-up arm and bloody shirt. "What happened to you?" he demanded, his voice having lost some of its roughness, as if he knew the pain that Chris was suffering from his injury.
"Got ambushed yesterday... by some of your men," Chris added, looking to see what reaction this got from the men standing behind Harvey.
The leader of the men frowned before saying, "Where?"
"At the canyon... about thirty miles back..." Chris answered, before adding, "You're missing a man... buried him back at the canyon... but there were others who got away."
Harvey shot a look across at the man he had struck. "Chambers, here, went out with Baker and Holland to scout the area.... He said that Baker got attacked by a mountain lion...." He paused to look over at the man in question.
"I swear to you, Mr Harvey... it's the truth of what happened. I know nothing about ambushing these men...." The man who spoke up glanced nervously about; his words sounded false even to his own ears, but he had dealt the cards and now had to play the game. Straightening his back, he glared at the men who held guns on them.
Harvey considered his man's words carefully before he said, dismissing the argument before it could begin, "We're heading back towards that canyon.... When we get there, we can just dig up Baker and see if he has scratch marks or bullet holes in him." He acted as if his decision was final. Then, holding his hands out in front of him, wrists together in a gesture of surrender, he waited patiently until the men before him decided what they wanted to do with the group.
After several tense moments, Chris ordered Ezra and Nathan to gather up the rest of the weapons and secure the hands of the men before them. After seeing their leader's hands secured, Harvey's men meekly submitted to having their hands bound as well. Chambers was the only one who objected when it was his turn, but one withering glance from his leader stopped him cold.
After the dozen men in the camp were secured, the six who had been on guard were dragged back to sit with their companions. "What now?" Harvey asked, holding his bound hands up.
Chris looked at the man before him and, motioning to Buck, asked, "Have you got that flyer? The one we took off the dead guy." The other man looked slightly confused, then his memory cleared and he nodded. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the crumpled piece of paper and handed it over to Chris without a word. The wounded man shook out the folded paper with difficulty and read the words once more, before he held it out in front of Harvey.
The man paled almost to the point of passing out before he started to struggle with his bonds, snarling as he did so, "Damn you, this was just a trap... you're here about my son."
Chris looked confused, then turning the scrap of paper back towards himself, carefully read the dirty, worn words again before he asked, "Captain Gerard Harvey was your son?"
The man before him seemed to wilt in on himself as he slowly nodded his head in defeat, saying weakly, his words that of a broken man, "Gerard didn't do the things they accused him of..."
"If I remember correctly he was hung for it, and didn't put up much of an argument at his trial," Chris stated, his cold eyes running over the father who stood before him.
"Trial!" spat the older man, diving forward as if to attack the man who questioned him, but he was grabbed and firmly held by Buck. The man glanced down at the hand holding him, then slumped back as he continued, "The trial was a joke; they wanted a scapegoat, someone they could openly blame for the massacre, and they were determined that he was to hang. He was found guilty even before he stepped into that damn courtroom... and he... the young fool... he honestly thought that he was responsible for the crime, because it was committed by some men from his unit.... He...." Harvey looked back down at the floor, his emotions clearly showing as they swept across his face as he continued, "He was just a boy... only seventeen years old -sixteen when he joined up; lied about his age and the damned Union was so desperate for officers that they turned a blind eye. They knew, but they still took him because he was my son... it was good propaganda... and they put him in a field assignment.... A damned field assignment." He stumbled to a halt; it was obvious to all present that the man was in a lot of pain from the memory.
"Why didn't you tell them that he was only a boy?" Chris asked, feeling his own temper rise. He knew how this man felt, to have lost his son so senselessly. It bit at his soul to witness the man's obvious pain. "At the trial, why didn't you say something?"
Harvey looked at him, surprise written across his face. It was very rare nowadays that anyone was prepared to listen to his story; at the mere mention of his son's name, people would turn from him in horror, their eyes closed and their ears shut. Looking deep into the injured man's eyes, he saw only compassion. It was this knowledge that told him that the man before him would accept only the truth. With that in mind, he took a deep, steadying breath and shot a glance about at his own men who were standing silently about him. They had heard the story so many times, and yet they were loyal enough to have followed him all these years, so they stood and listened to it once again as he began, "I was in Washington when he signed up. By the time his mother's letter got through to me... explaining what had happened... it was all over. The massacre, the trial... his death.... The shock... the shock was too much for her.... She died two months after Gerard.... I arrived home just in time to bury her beside her son...."
"So what are you and your men doing out here... now?" Chris asked, waving his uninjured arm about to indicate the surrounding area.
The man in question looked at Larabee again, weighing once more the man's honest interest in his story. Finally he stated, seeing that he now held the interest of the group who had captured him and his men, "The men who actually committed the murders didn't stand trial.... They got away... committed more crimes - the ones that... the poster mentions - but they kept my son's name... for their gang.... Those bastards were not content with having killed him and his mother; they still continued to drag his... my family name through the mud.... But I vowed... I vowed to bring them in, every damned one of them."
"And now some of your men have committed the same crime over near Four Corners... killing Mrs Connors and her children," Chris spat, his anger suddenly boiling over. The man who stood before him had brought those killers to the Connors' doorstep; he was as responsible for their deaths as if he had fired the shots himself.
"So you say..." shot back Harvey, his chin jutting out at the other's words. "We only have your word for it."
Chris nodded slowly, his anger draining as suddenly as it had risen as he answered, "I know." His eyes flashed as he continued, wanting this man to understand that this was not just idle hearsay that he was tossing at his feet, "We tracked them... they are here and I have a pretty good idea who I'm looking for." As he spoke, he shot a look over towards Chambers and the man seated near him. The second man squirmed under his cold gaze but said nothing. Chambers just met his look head-on and smirked slightly, before turning his head away so that his eyes were hidden from Larabee, who suddenly felt enraged all over again.
His anger was diverted by Harvey, who said, his tone dry, "So far you've proven nothing to me, except that you're a bunch of sneaky bastards who got the drop on us."
Larabee smiled; it didn't reach his eyes. It caused Harvey to take a step backwards in shock; the man's eyes were of the devil himself as he stated firmly, his decision made, "When we get to the canyon we'll dig up your man's body, and then we'll see who's telling the truth." With that, he turned and began to stalk away.
Harvey was not used to people having the last word where he was concerned, nor was he used to feeling the fear that coursed through his veins. Not since the war had he felt such gut-wrenching fear at looking into an opponent's eyes, so, to cover it, he shouted after the retreating man, "If the men who committed that massacre at Pentonville were here, I would know about it... I've been hunting those bastards since the war, and I know their names like my own. Those that I haven't found know it's only a matter of time before I hang them, like I did those animals I've already caught."
Larabee stopped and, turning slowly, he tilted his head back and offered coldly, "If I was those men, I'd make damned sure you'd never find me... and to do that I'd need to be close enough to know where you were looking." He raised an eyebrow as he watched the shocked expression cross Harvey's face. It was a shallow victory that left a stale taste in Chris's mouth.
Suddenly Larabee felt the world tilt and reached out to grab for support. A strong arm instantly wrapped itself about his body and assisted him out of sight of their prisoners. Chris was panting hard and in a near swoon by the time Vin helped him to sit beside a small boulder, just out of sight of Harvey and his men. Nathan had followed Vin, to assist the bounty hunter with his burden.
Chris could hear Nathan nagging at him as if from a distance, as the man began to unwrap his injured shoulder, clucking like a livid mother hen, "When will you learn that you're not invincible... and when I say rest, I mean rest."
"Just do... what you have to... to get me back... up on my feet," he gasped, before he gulped from the canteen that was held to his lips. He glanced up and saw that Vin was holding the container. He smiled weakly and accepted the drink until he was finished, then feebly motioned for it to be removed.
"You need to rest...you're bleeding again," Nathan began, moving his hands carefully over the injury as he tried to gauge just how much damage Chris had done by his movements.
Chris roughly pushed his words aside, saying fiercely, "We don't have time for this.... Just patch me up so that I can get on my horse.... We can't afford to just wait here until you think that I'm fit enough to ride... Harvey won't stand for that, and his men sure as hell won't." The water had revived him somewhat, and he began to struggle to his feet.
"Chris," Nathan began. "Damn it! Stay still while I check this wound out...." He quickly saw that the bleeding was not that bad, in fact it had stopped even as he tended it and, after replacing the rough bandage, he hesitated. He could see the wisdom of Larabee's words; he knew that, with them having to guard eighteen men, they were not going to have much leeway to tend to an injured man. Slowly he reached into his bag and drew out his bottle of morphine. Nathan bit his bottom lip and looked from the bottle to Larabee. "I could give you some of this... it'll dull the pain and help the fever, allow you to ride.... I don't necessarily like giving you this, Chris, but like you said, you need to stay in the saddle and this'll at least keep you there without pain. But," he warned, his face deadly serious, "we need to be careful... it's very easy to become addicted."
Tanner leant over and gently reached a hand out to still Nathan's arm, getting a good look at the bottle he held in his grasp. "Is this really necessary?" he questioned, his own look fearful as he swallowed hard, remembering. He was surprised to note that, after all this time, the memory of his loss still hurt.
Jackson gently shook off the grip and confirmed, "I know this isn't the best solution, but I'm not so sure that we have an option.... It will help to control the pain... to keep him in the saddle." He turned his attention back to his patient, finishing, "But it's your decision, Chris."
The injured man looked from one friend to the other; he knew from the expression on Vin's face that he had some personal issues with the drug. He also knew that if he was going to get his men safely back to Four Corners then he had to be capable of travel, and at the present time he wouldn't be able to do that without the help of the drug. "I... er..." he began, not meeting the eyes of the other men, "I've had the drug before...." Seeing the looks this earned him, he felt compelled to explain; "I was injured... during the war... the pain was pretty bad. The hospitals were overflowing; the doctors came round and used it.... I took it for about two days before they got round to seeing to my injury...."
"Were you addicted to it?" Nathan asked, his tone filled with concern. If there were even a hint that Chris had been addicted to the drug in the past, then he would not use it now - the danger of becoming re-addicted was too real.
"No... at least I don't think so.... I mean, I needed it for a few days after they removed the bullet, but then the hospital ran out and... well, I guess everyone had a hard time.... There were quite a few who got ill from not taking it - they were pretty bad." He paused as he remembered the screams and cries of pain that had followed, then he swallowed hard and continued, "So I guess those were the ones who were addicted - but I just suffered the discomfort... from my injury.... It was painful... hurt like hell... but I survived. By the time supplies arrived, I'd passed the point of needing them."
"Chris," Nathan began, not wanting to force the issue with his friend, "you don't have to take the drug... we - me and you - can stay behind. You can rest up and then we can make our way back to town."
"No," Larabee said sharply. "We'll need every one of us just to get them back to town... we can't trust those men.... I think it's a good bet that Baker was one of the men from the homestead, and Chambers... maybe that guy he's sitting with... but we still don't know who else is involved, and I think we can guarantee that they'll not want to go back to Four Corners." He shook his head, feeling the weakness swell up again. Talking was tiring him, but he pushed his exhaustion aside as he continued, "I'll take the drug... but only in small amounts to keep the pain at bay...." He stopped and looked Nathan deep in his eyes, wanting the other man to see the trust that he was placing within his grasp as he said, "But if you feel I'm becoming dependent on it, then you stop giving it to me and toss whatever you've got out." He shuddered as he finished, "I saw what the addiction did to some of those men, and I don't want that to happen to me."
"All right Chris, you have my word," Nathan replied solemnly, before he carefully pulled out and unwrapped a delicate glass syringe and then filled it with the clear liquid. "Vin, can you pull up his sleeve and hold his arm above the elbow... no, just there.... Yes, that's right." Slowly both men watched as a vein began to appear, and then Nathan carefully inserted the needle and pushed the plunger home.
The liquid travelled like fire along Chris's veins and hit the centre of the pain; he felt himself grow limp with relief as the agony from his shoulder suddenly changed to a bearable level. He opened his eyes and smiled warmly at the two men who were gazing down at him with concern. "That's better," he sighed dreamily, knowing that he would now be able to travel with the pain at an acceptably dulled level.
After a few minutes he was helped to stand and then assisted into his saddle, where he sat wavering for a few seconds until he settled. "How long will it take to get back to Four Corners?" he finally asked, motioning to the waiting men.
"We're heading back to the canyon today. I think we'll need to camp there over night, dig up Baker's body..." Vin began, standing beside Chris's horse and looking up at him.
"What the hell's wrong with him?" Buck's loud voice demanded, interrupting Tanner as he came to stand beside his long-time friend, who smiled inanely down at him. The other four had managed to get all the prisoners up onto their horses and were now in a position to ride out.
"Nathan gave Chris some morphine to help with the pain," Vin tossed back over his shoulder, annoyed at the womaniser's rough tone.
Wilmington frowned, not too happy with the turn of events, as he replied nastily, "Oh well, at least he's going to be a happy little boy for a while." Vin turned to look at Wilmington in some surprise at the hostile tone that Buck had used.
"Buck, lay off... it was only a mild dose and I'm still in charge..." Chris suddenly barked out, belying the dreamy expression on his face. "So, let's get moving." With that, he clucked the horse forward, causing the others to scramble for their own mounts.
The trip to the canyon passed in relative ease for Larabee. He could feel the pain from his shoulder as a constant throb, but it was a distant memory that didn't seem able to intrude on him. As Nathan had promised, he was still able to keep a watchful eye on the prisoners who rode in front of him. Chris noted that only a few of the captives seemed to be ill at ease with their situation - the others seemed content to ride along behind their leader, Gerard Harvey Sr. 'They all act like well-trained soldiers,' he thought sourly.
At about midday they stopped for a meal, and the prisoners were released in relays to eat their food. They were making slow progress back to the canyon because of the size of the group and the fact that so many of them were travelling with their hands tied - even though they could use them to guide their horses, they'd still needed to be careful not to injure themselves over the rough ground. Chris made a point of approaching Vin and Buck and quietly suggesting that the men they suspected were not allowed to have their hands free at the same time. Vin smiled warmly and stated that he had already come to this decision, but he seemed glad that Larabee was aware enough to be concerned about it. Buck just shook his head and stated that Chris ought to be resting and not worrying about such things. Larabee wisely refrained from commenting, as he could see that Buck was spoiling for an argument and he really was not in the mood to grant him his wish. Wilmington was not impressed and stormed off.
Silence ruled for several moments before Vin offered, "He's been really worried about you."
Chris shot him a cold look, but didn't answer before he turned away and made his way back to his own food, which he just pushed about the plate until Nathan approached and insisted on checking his bandage. After he had carefully removed the wrapping he asked, "How does it feel?"
Chris gave him a watered-down smile and offered, "Not too bad, but then that's the magic of morphine."
Jackson shot him a hard look from his kneeling position before he said, "I'm not going to give you another shot until this evening, if that's all right with you?" He let his words hang, wanting to hear Larabee's reaction to them.
The man in question squinted at the darker member of the team, then smiled again, this time more genuinely, and offered mildly, "Whatever you say."
Nathan seemed satisfied with the answer because he added, "If the pain gets really bad, let me know... I just don't...." He felt his words trail off - how could he express his concern over giving Chris the drug in the first place? A hand resting on his arm caused him to glance at the man he was treating.
"Nathan... I won't have it any other way.... I know that you're not happy with this, but it's the only way for us to get these men back to Four Corners without endangering the others...."
"I know, Chris," Jackson agreed reluctantly, "but this is insidious stuff."
"I know that as well, Nathan, and between the two of us we'll see that it's not abused...." Chris paused, making sure that the other man fully understood what he was saying.
Nathan finally nodded, agreeing, "Okay." He smiled and offered, "Now, let's see about getting that bandage back on."
When the healer departed, Chris once more began to push his food about the tin plate. His shoulder had begun to hurt fiercely as the drug from that morning wore off, but he was loath to ask for more until Nathan felt happy about giving it to him. He had seen what morphine did to those who became addicted to it, and if he was honest the thought of becoming dependent upon the drug frightened the life out of him.
"How you feeling, Cowboy?" Vin asked gently, moving up to stand beside his friend.
"I've felt better," Chris answered honestly, smiling up at his friend.
Vin crouched down beside him before continuing, "You going to eat that or just play with it?" The bounty hunter motioned to the plate.
Chris looked down and sighed, he then removed the plate from his knees and let it drop to the ground. "Can't stand Buck's cooking.... Never could," he said dryly as he did so.
"I know what you mean," Vin offered with a smile, as he once again inspected the food on his own plate with a raised eyebrow before he offered, "But JD's eating it."
Chris smiled again, glancing over at the boy in question who was tucking into his second helping with relish. "That boy could eat anything, anytime and anywhere."
"Yeah, you got that right... the only time I really worry about that boy is when he's off his food."
"Me too," Larabee confided, then his face turned serious as he continued, "We need to keep an eye on Chambers and his friends when we come up on the canyon." He paused and looked over towards the prisoners who were resting quietly. "They'll have to make their move before we dig up Baker's body."
"I know," Vin agreed, squinting over towards Gerard Harvey. "He doesn't look like a very forgiving man." Both men had realised that not all the men Harvey said he had rounded up, as being in the murdering gang, had made it to a sheriff's office.
"The way he lost his son, can you blame him...?" Chris said, his own voice hushed with remembered pain.
"The war brought out a lot of bad in people, and sometimes the innocents just got caught up in it," Vin answered wisely.
"Seventeen is no age to die," Chris snapped, his anger at the war resurfacing again, its intensity surprising even him. "Not like that... at the end of a rope, for something he didn't even do."
Vin looked out across the camp and considered his friend's comment before he answered, his tone quiet, not wanting to upset Chris even further but feeling that the words needed to be said, "You only have his pappy's word that he was innocent.... That war produced a lot of animals, and not all of them lived in the forest."
"How can you say that?" demanded Larabee, showing Tanner an angry look. "The boy was only seventeen - not even old enough to lead them - and they should have known better."
"Look Chris, I'm not saying what's right or wrong, or who was to blame; all I'm saying is that seventeen is old enough to be man, and in war it's old enough to kill.... Hell, I doubt JD's much older than Harvey's son was, and how many men has he killed?"
Larabee seemed to wilt under the words, and he slumped down and offered in a guilty, bitter tone, "Too many... too damned many."
Tanner looked at Chris and suddenly felt ashamed for his words. What harm would it do for Larabee to hold on to his beliefs? After all, Gerard was only a father defending his hung son, trying to clear his boy's name after his death as he had never been able to do in the boy's brief life. Chris's own son had not lived long enough to see his father defend him, and now it looked as if the chances of even finding the man responsible for ordering the destruction of Larabee's homestead was even more unlikely. "I'm sorry, Chris," he began awkwardly, unused to finding himself in a position where he needed to apologise.
Larabee looked away, his jaw working with emotions as he offered tightly, "No problem, Cowboy, let's just get this damned thing over with." With that he struggled to his feet and moved carefully away from Tanner, his gait slow and slightly uneven as he headed towards his mount.
Tanner considered following him, but relaxed when he saw JD leap up to join his hero. The boy would see that Chris got on his horse and stayed out of harm's way.
"Sometimes I think I will never fully understand that man," Buck suddenly spoke from behind the tracker, who leapt up and spun about, his knife flashing into his hand. The taller man just looked at the weapon with a raised eyebrow.
Vin slowly replaced the knife in its sheath and squatted down again before he replied, "I don't think we ever really know anyone so well that we can truthfully say we understand them."
Buck nodded and, moving to sit beside the bounty hunter, he agreed with a smile, "Yeah, you could be right... but then it sure makes life interesting."
"We need to be on our guard between here and the canyon. If'n Chambers and the others are gonna make a move, Chris and I reckon it'll be before we dig Baker up."
"Trouble is, we don't really know how many of Harvey's men will side with them once they make their move." Buck shot a look over at the prisoners. "I'm not so sure I'd be that happy to travel all the way to Four Corners with my hands tied. They must have an awful lot of faith in Harvey."
Tanner followed Wilmington's look and nodded his own head in agreement. "They were soldiers during the war.... Reckon most of them followed him then, and now they follow him 'cause he feeds and pays them... and they don't have no one else to call family...." He stopped, as if realising that he was showing too many of his own inner feelings. Blushing slightly, he added, "But we don't have a choice about taking them back... until we find out who was responsible for the killings, I'd say our own hands are as tied as those men."
Seeing that everyone had been fed and that Chris was now on his horse, Tanner stood up and signalled the others. Soon everyone was slowly heading back towards the canyon and the uncertainty that lay before them, once the body of Baker was reached.
The nearer to the canyon they got, the worse Chris felt. His low-grade fever was still with him and would peak and fade, leaving him both dizzy and weak. He knew that he should call a halt and talk to Nathan about it, but every time the man approached and questioned him, Chris would force a smile to his frozen lips and state that he felt a lot better, and that the lingering effects of the morphine were still working.
Larabee glanced once more towards the sun, then looked towards the distant hills that were forever coming closer. He hoped that they would reach Baker's body before darkness settled on them, as the thought of going a night with the growing tension that now hung low about the group would surely send him insane.
"We should make the canyon in about an hour," Tanner suddenly said, walking his horse by Larabee's side. The injured man jerked up and winced with pain; he had not even heard the other man's approach. "Chris, are you all right?" Vin asked, swinging in to get a closer look and not liking what he saw. Larabee looked deathly pale and a sheen of sweat rested on his face and brow. "I'll call Nathan..." he began, starting to turn his horse about.
Chris prevented him by saying roughly, "No... I'm fine... let's just get this over with.... We need to finish this tonight...."
"We can stop if you need to rest," Vin offered, growing more concerned by the moment as he got his first real look at his friend since they had stopped for lunch several hours before.
"For God's sake, Tanner, stop acting like a worried woman; I've said I'm all right and I am, now get back up there and do your job."
"And my job would be what, exactly?" Vin asked with deceptive mildness; only his flashing eyes gave away just how angry he was at the other's words.
Chris shot him a look of pure frustration and snapped, "Not worrying about me like some Indian squaw."
"Sometimes you make it very hard for a man to like you, Chris Larabee," Tanner shot back as he roughly guided his horse around Chris's mount and headed back along the column.
Chris watched him go with a sinking feeling of dread spreading about his gut. Somehow he always managed to drive away his friends. He had been stupid to believe that this time would be any different.
"You know, Chris, there are times when I wonder why any of us stay with you," Buck suddenly spoke up from behind his long-time friend.
"Well I don't ask you to," spat back Larabee, hating the way he felt at that moment. He knew that his words had hurt Tanner and yet he had been unable to hold them back, even when he was certain that they would drive the younger man away.
"No..." Buck agreed sadly, "that you sure don't." He slowly pulled his horse out from besides Chris's, saying as he did so, "I guess that this is one of those mysteries of the world that Josiah's told us about."
Larabee turned towards him, opening his mouth to reply, but realised that he was now alone. Buck was riding forward towards the front of the column, passing Vin without a word. With a ripple of shock, Chris realised that he was, indeed, very much alone; the other six were in different sections of the column, with JD the nearest to Larabee, riding just behind a large bear of a man who Harvey had called Lomaus during lunch. With a start, Chris realised that they all had their backs turned towards him and he had never felt so alone, nor had he ever felt that he deserved it more. He did not deserve their respect, nor their friendship... especially after his actions of the last few days. Connors' death suddenly weighed very heavy on him, and he wondered if he would ever survive the guilt that he now felt crawling about his stomach. He was surprised to discover that the pain of that wound was far worse than the steady throb of his bullet wound.
As he slowly followed along at the rear of the group he let his memories drift and his self-pity began to grow, until finally he decided that - once this was over - he was leaving Four Corners; he had been doing nicely before he'd met up with them all. He pushed away the little voice that mentioned that he'd not really known how he'd been doing, as he'd spent most of his time hidden in a bottle of whisky. Well, he'd made it before, and he'd damned well do so again.
The escape attempt happened just after they had entered the narrow entrance to the canyon. And, while the seven had been expecting such an attempt, it still came as a surprise that the slow giant named Lomaus was the instigator. The stones under the horses' hooves were uneven and caused the animals to stagger as they timidly made their way further into the narrow passageway, the echoes of their passing causing the horses to react nervously. Harvey's horse stumbled, letting out a fearful whine of fear as it struggled to stay upright. It was just enough of a distraction to allow the large bear-like man to tumble from his horse, crashing into JD, whose horse was walking just off to the side, tumbling the youngster down with him. Lomaus dragged the boy up, shaking him like a rag doll as he did so.
The struggle was brief, as the huge man had somehow managed to free his hands, and the boy's size counted against him as he vainly tried to break free. Lomaus was a giant of a man, and he soon had JD hefted off his feet and in a stranglehold, one arm wrapped tightly about the boy's middle with the other snaked roughly about his narrow neck. JD was gasping for breath, whilst trying desperately to reach his gun and kicking his legs weakly in a vain attempt to escape the choking hold.
Ezra and Vin were the first to react. They leapt from their horses, roughly pushing them aside, and raised their guns to defend their young friend as they rushed towards Lomaus... but the canyon was too narrow at this point to allow them a good shot without endangering the struggling lad.
Lomaus had JD in a firm hold, and the boy cried out in agony as the man roughly twisted his head to one side, yelling as he did so, "No one take Lomaus back... he not do it... he not hurt anyone." The giant again belied his words by roughly shaking the boy he held. JD cried out again, then slumped in the tight embrace, his strength fading fast under the brutal attack, no longer able to fight either the man or his strong hold. Darkness flickered at the edges of his awareness as his oxygen was cut off.
By now the other regulators, including Chris, had reacted to the attack and were standing a short distance away from the man who threatened their youngest member. "Put him down," snarled the man in black, his blond hair sweeping forward to fall in his eyes, which were now clear of the drug he had taken earlier. His own face was etched with torment; the drawing of his weapon had not been without pain for him.
"Damn it, Lomaus," Gerard Harvey suddenly bellowed, having also left his horse to approach his man, his hands still tied in front of him as he spoke. "Drop the boy before you break his neck," he ordered, his face contorted with the knowledge that this man had disobeyed his direct order about returning to Four Corners.
The giant man just frowned at him and mumbled determinedly, like a scolded child who believed his opinion to be right and therefore his actions justified, "They want to hang Lomaus... he didn't hurt that man... that man fell on the knife." He turned pleading eyes towards the man he had followed faithfully since he had found himself in Harvey's unit during the war... followed, that is, until Chambers had slid up to him during their lunch break and told him that they were taking Lomaus back to be hung at Four Corners.
Harvey swallowed back another shout and, calming himself with an effort, he began once again to patiently explain what was happening to the oversized fool he'd treated like a child the many years that the bear of a man had ridden with him. "Lomaus, these men don't want you for that... we sorted that out back in Silver Town.... The sheriff there knew that the man attacked you... he knew that you were only defending yourself... but this," he motioned to the helpless boy in his strong grasp, "this is wrong.... This will get you in trouble...."
"What the hell is he talking about?" Chris demanded, indicating the tearful man who was still tightening his hold on JD, who was still feebly attempting to get the strong arm about his neck to loosen. Seeing this, Larabee snarled and threw a glance over towards Harvey, his expression demanding an answer to his question.
"Lomaus was attacked in Silver Town. It was self defence... but your taking him back to Four Corners has him scared...." He paused, then added in a quieter tone, "Lomaus is... like a child... he wouldn't... really... hurt your young friend."
"Well he's doing a damn fine impression of hurting him right now," Buck snarled, his expression telling anyone who witnessed it that he had never felt as helpless in his life as he was now, watching this giant of a man slowly twist the kid's head off. "Damn it Harvey, get him to release JD, otherwise I'm blowing his brains out." He relayed actions to words and lifted his gun to take aim. This manoeuvre only incited Lomaus more, as he yowled in terror and clutched the boy even closer about his middle with bruising force.
"Buck, don't..." Nathan cried, rushing forward, intent on stopping this stupidity before it went any further, but his forward motion was halted as a body landed on top of him.
He struck the ground hard, winded, feeling his gun snatched from his hands and hearing a rough voice yelling, "Lomaus... these men want to kill you... look at all the guns they have pointing at you." Chambers had used the distraction to his advantage, and now stood above the fallen Nathan with a gun held tightly in his hands. "Drop your guns," he directed towards the remaining five members of the posse. "Drop them, otherwise Lomaus will twist that boy's head clean off his shoulders." As if to match actions to words, the giant in question gave JD's body a twist but held tightly to his head. The boy cried out again, then slumped limply in the other's arms.
"Damn it..." Harvey began, but Chambers overruled him again, snarling out his own instructions.
"Drop your guns...." He again pointed towards the limp boy as he continued, his tone indicating that he was not messing about, "He'll rip that boy's head right off." He totally ignored the weapons that were now pointing at him.
Chris felt the others look over towards him with uncertainty. The passage was too narrow to allow for any rescue attempt, and JD now hung like a limp puppet with its strings cut. Lomaus, eyes huge, blinked at the men standing about him. His own fear was almost palatable, as his glance darted from one gun pointing at him to another. Slowly, knowing that he had no choice if he wanted the youngest member of his group to survive, Larabee let his arm fall and wearily dropped his gun to the canyon floor, where it landed with a dull thud.
One by one, his men followed suit, letting their weapons fall to the ground, their defeat obvious. Their one weakness had been discovered and used against them. Buck was the last to drop his weapon, his tortured expression tight and fixed only on the boy hanging limping in the giant's grasp. "Now let the boy go," Chris demanded, turning to look towards Chambers; he was the real danger in this situation, as Lomaus was clearly following his directions. Larabee now recalled, with a silent curse, that he had seen Chambers talking quietly to Lomaus during lunch, but had not even considered the conversation a problem, as he had known that the giant of a man had the mind of a child. He cursed himself as he realised that it was during that time that Chambers had sown the seeds of terror in the foolish man's mind.
Chambers looked about the men who surrounded him. He felt a rush of power: HE was in control, and it was in his hands that these men would live or die. "Lomaus," he said, looking at the large man before him, "don't - there isn't a need to hurt him any further.... Look, they've thrown their guns down... they're no longer pointing at you." He smiled broadly as the giant looked about, then down at the guns. A slow smile of relief slipped across Lomaus' face as he nodded foolishly and released his stranglehold on JD. Chambers smiled in reply and continued, "They're doing what we want... just hold him... tight... make sure he can't escape." Then he spoke again, this time to the men who were sitting on the horses behind him: "Springer, Holland." The men slipped down from their mounts, holding out their hands, which were still tied in front of them. They looked about the gathered group, Holland's eyes large with fear. "Come here, damn it," snapped Chambers at the two men. Springer smiled and advanced towards the man who had called him, pushing aside the men who stood in his way. He knew that he was safe from their attack as long as Lomaus held the unconscious boy in his grasp.
Carefully Holland edged between Buck and his horse, the taller man ignoring him, as his total attention was fixed firmly on the limp body of his friend still held in Lomaus' large grip. Holland danced nervously about Ezra and Vin, swallowing hard at the cold look the bounty hunter gave him. Once Springer and Holland were free, Springer scooped up a gun and held it on the men from Four Corners while Holland set about releasing a couple more of the men, who smiled broadly at Chambers, before quickly retrieving the fallen guns of the six men.
Harvey and the rest of his men, who remained tied, watched the entire scene with a mixture of horror, shock and confusion filling their features. Those at the front were twisted about on their horses and could see very little. The others were looking from their leader back to the men who now held guns on them all. They had followed Harvey since the war and rode with Chambers, Springer and the others for several years; they could not understand why some of their number now appeared to have turned against them. Gerard's battle to prove his son's innocence had fuelled their own feelings of not belonging, after they had returned home to find their families and fortunes changed forever by the bloody battles that had torn brothers from brothers' arms... yet the man they had come to depend on for leadership was now silent, as frozen in shock as they were.
Suddenly Harvey burst into life, his face quivering with rage and shock at the turn of events. "What the hell is going on?" he demanded, looking at the men who had followed him but were now holding guns on him. "I'm in command here," he spluttered, glaring at the giant man still holding JD. "You are to put that boy down, Lomaus. And you...." He started towards Chambers, his expression clearly enraged as he ranted, "I promised these men that we would..." but the man in question leapt forward to meet him, swinging his arm up and viciously slugging Harvey about the face with the barrel of his gun. The defenceless leader fell to the ground, stunned and groaning as he tried to hold his bleeding head with his bound hands.
"You're no god-damned leader, you're a stupid old fool," Chambers snarled down at the stunned man. "Just as brainless as your pathetic toy soldier of a son." The man suddenly turned his gun on Buck and Nathan, who had begun to edge towards the fallen JD. The boy had slipped limply from Lomaus' grip as he had obeyed his commander's words. "You take one more step and you're dead." He meant the words, and it stilled the moving men. "Springer, Holland..." he addressed the two men that he had freed; they were now standing, holding their weapons on the six regulators. "Tie these bastards up, and make sure it's tight," he said with some glee. He kept his gun trained on them while his men hurried to obey.
"Why don't we just kill them?" Springer asked, throwing an annoyed look over towards his leader. He could not see the sense of keeping them alive, and he was nervous of the steely, angry looks he was getting from the men he tied. He knew that they were dangerous, and keeping them alive was endangering his own life.
"'Cause I don't want them dead yet..." Chambers snarled back, glaring at the other man, who ducked his head and continued with his task as Henry Chambers continued, "I want to know exactly what they know about us, and how come they got on our trail so fast." As he spoke, he manoeuvred towards Chris and stopped in front of the slightly swaying man. "Well?" Chambers asked, moving his gun so that it rested just under the man's chin.
Larabee looked into the other man's eyes but said nothing. His disdain for the gun-wielding murderer clearly showed in his eyes as he slowly answered, his drawl even and the command in his tone undeniable, "Let Nathan check the kid out, then I'll tell you what you want to know."
Chambers looked over towards JD, who was now being dragged upright, his hands pulled roughly behind him and tied tightly by Holland. It was obvious to all that the boy was virtually unconscious, not even aware that he was being tied. Chambers, seeing this, moved slightly to one side and almost companionably leant an arm over Chris's shoulder, resting his weight and a large hand on the injured shoulder, causing Larabee to gasp and pale even further as his tormentor enquired almost pleasantly, "You care about this boy?"
Chris swallowed his sarcastic reply, as he didn't want his words to cause JD any further harm. He knew that whatever he said would cause the boy pain, so he answered honestly, "If he dies... then so will you."
Chambers suddenly leant away from Larabee, releasing the pressure from his arm. He checked that the others were now secured and held prisoner under the watchful eyes of Springer and Holland, then he slipped Nathan's stolen gun into his waistband and, moving behind Larabee, he roughly pulled Chris's arm free of the sling that it had been resting in and yanked both of his arms behind his back. Larabee bellowed out in shock and slipped to his knees, his body bowing forward under the weight of his agony. "Hand me some rope, so I can secure this bastard," Henry Chambers demanded of his men, who were swift to comply.
Larabee didn't make another sound as his hands were held tightly together and securely bound, but his teeth were clenched as he fought against the agony. He could feel blood seeping from his torn wound and gritted his teeth again as Chambers' rough movements caused him unimaginable pain. Finally his arms were secured and Henry raised his foot and kicked Chris firmly between his shoulder blades, causing the injured man to sprawl on the floor, landing close to JD's feet. Chambers swooped in and, getting real close to Larabee's pale features, he hissed in his ear, "You want that boy to live... you want them to live?" He pulled out his gun and pointed it in the direction of the other five men, who were standing in tense silence, their expressions informing Chambers of just what they wanted to do to him if their hands were free. "Then you will tell me what I want to know... otherwise...." He let his words hang.
Chris gasped, desperately sucking air into his lungs as the world spun and darkened about him. He knew that he could not afford to lose consciousness... not now. He bit his bottom lip and used that sharp pain to counteract the raging agony from his shoulder. It worked, and his world slowly came back into focus.
Chambers suddenly lost all patience and, moving over, he pulled JD over so that he was laying face upwards. Chris was relieved to note that the boy was breathing, sucking air into his oxygen-starved lungs now that the intense pressure had been removed. He was slowly fighting his way back to consciousness, gasping as pain from his ribs assailed his need to gasp air into his tortured lungs. Chambers pressed the cold barrel of the gun into the bridge of JD's nose, his intention clear. "Now!" Chambers demanded, finger tightening on the trigger even as he spoke.
"Connors..." Chris gasped, glaring at the man; he didn't want to give him any information, but he forced the words out to save the life of the young man he had come to regard as a friend. "It was David Connors' homestead you destroyed.... He... he rode into town... told us... what happened to his wife and children...." Larabee's glare informed the man holding JD that Chris just wanted to shoot him, or better yet tear out his throat with his bare hands.
Larabee's words stopped Chambers, a cold feeling of dread filtering up his spine. He moved back over to Chris and dragged him upright, ignoring the groan of pain that Larabee was unable to prevent spilling from his lips. "You're lying..." he snarled, once again getting into Larabee's personal space as he hissed, "we killed Connors.... I shot him... he was in the barn...."
Chris blinked at the man, confused by his words. They had not killed Connors; it had not been him who had died in the barn - the burned remains were that of the young ranch-hand they had taken on to work for them that summer; a young drifter who had needed the work.
As if coming to this conclusion himself, and knowing that Chris could not take much more of the punishing torture that Chambers was issuing, Vin Tanner spoke up, surprising the other men of his group. "It wasn't Connors you killed in the barn... just some drifter who was working for them.... Connors was on his way back to his ranch... saw the smoke... but you'd already gone by the time he got there.... He brought the bodies to town..."
"That's a lie..." snarled Chambers, dropping Chris, who slumped to the ground now that his support had been removed. Henry, meanwhile, was advancing on Vin, who met his stare evenly. The trapper had faced-down angry grizzlies before now, and he was not about to show his fear and concerns for his friends' lives to this bastard of a man. No... that was something he was going to keep close to his chest.
"I can assure you, sir, that Mr Tanner is speaking the truth," Ezra suddenly spoke up, his southern, cultured tones sounding strange in the midst of the violence. "David Connors brought both his wife, children, and that unfortunate young ranch hand into Four Corners...."
"If that's the case... why the hell isn't he here with you now?" Henry Chambers demanded, pointing around at the seven men, indicating clearly that Connors was not a part of their group.
"Unfortunately Mr Connors was too... er, distressed to accompany us.... He...." Ezra paused, a piece of the puzzle suddenly falling into place as he continued, almost without a hitch, his face still bland of expression, "He also needed to remain behind, as he insisted that he had to make a very important report to the army captain when he arrived in Four Corners.... Mr Connors was most insistent that the army be contacted in connection with his family's murder."
Chambers looked shocked, then angry, while his companions suddenly looked frightened. Chris blinked up at Ezra; he noted the confused expressions on the faces of his other men as the gambler continued, his voice growing with confidence when he noted the outlaws' reactions to his words. "Apparently he had some vital information concerning the Harvey gang..." Ezra explained to his friends and the others who were listening. "They are apparently still being sought by the army for the unauthorised raids that they instigated, especially whilst still wearing the uniform." Ezra paused for effect, then added, his eyes gleaming as he threw himself into his con-story, "I believe I am correct in saying that the gang have already had the sentence to hang passed on them for their heinous crimes."
Suddenly the building tension was broken by JD's return to consciousness. The lad groaned and attempted to roll over, but his body was unresponsive and his tied hands made it an impossible task. "Chris?" he mumbled, confused as to why he was laying on the ground, tied up, as he blinked up at the blue sky and canyon walls that he saw before him.
"Lay... still, JD," Chris gasped, his own tone rough as he fought back his own swelling pain. "Just lay still...." He was frightened that the lad's movements could cause him further injury. "You're going be all right."
"I wouldn't bet on it," snarled Chambers, just before Holland interrupted by saying, his tone fearful as he stuttered, "What are we gonna do...? You said killing Sergeant Connors would... would end this... this running.... You said... you said... he was the only... only one left alive who could recognise us...." The man was nearly in a state of blind panic.
"Shut up!" snarled Chambers, glaring at Holland, who subsided after throwing a sullen look towards his leader. "Connors is dead," Chambers insisted, waving his gun about as he continued, "They're just lying... trying to save their own damned necks." His tone did not hold the steady ring of certainty that it had before.
"I can assure you, sir, that I have no reason to lie... nor would I do so, as it would surely only cause further injury to our colleagues...." Then he added, twisting the knife slightly, using his persuasive tone to push the man just that little bit farther into believing him, "They know... in Four Corners... the whole sordid story - Connors made sure of that - and they know the direction we went in.... The army will follow us...." With lighting speed Chambers moved across the space towards the gambler and struck him forcibly across the face with his gun. Standish spun about under the weight of the attack and landed heavily against Vin, who tried his best to support his stunned friend.
"Holland's right, Chambers," Springer said, his tone firm, his fear less tangible but still showing in his eyes. "We can't leave here if Connors IS still alive, and we never did check that it actually was the sergeant in the barn."
"I wasn't going to go into a burning building to check that that double-crossing bastard was dead now, was I?" Chambers snarled, his frustration at the news that Connors was still alive biting into his bones. He had believed, for the first time since that fateful day when they had raided and attacked that refugee camp at Pentonville, that he was free to get on with his life... not to have the fear of being recognised as one of the men who had committed the crime, as being one of Harvey's gang members. "All right," he stated, before moving back to stand over Chris, his mind working out loud as he spoke. "One of us needs to ride into Four Corners and check out if Connors is still alive...." He glanced at the swaying Ezra as he commented, "I don't trust that he's telling the truth.... If he is and Connors is still alive, then we'll have to kill him." He turned his attention back to Springer, stating, "You go; I don't trust that spineless bastard to do the job right." He motioned towards Holland with his gun. The man in question opened his mouth to protest, then snapped it shut.
Springer looked decidedly uneasy at his leader's words. Chambers, seeing this, threw one of his hands up in the air in disgust and snarled, "All right, take Holland with you... but if he shows any of his yellow side, shoot him." He emphasised his words by glaring at the man in question. Holland quickly thought twice about any complaint he might have made.
"What about them?" Springer asked, waving his gun to cover the captured group of men.
"We keep them alive for now." Chambers saw Harley, one of his other men, about to protest and continued in a rough tone, "We might need them to get us out of here, if the army has been sent for."
"Like hostages?" Springer asked, smiling, obviously liking the idea.
"Yeah..." Chambers smiled back, showing his crooked teeth, "just like hostages... but," he continued, throwing Chris an evil glare, "I think they need to know that we mean business and that we don't need them all alive." Saying that, he spun about and shot one of Harvey's men from his horse. The man cried out in pain and arched up, before he tumbled lifelessly from his mount. "That bastard cheated me out of ten dollars at cards," Henry said conversationally to Chris, calmly explaining why he had chosen that particular man to die. Larabee ignored his gleeful words, as he was fighting to stay conscious. Chambers reached out and again kicked at Larabee's injury, his sole intention to cause pain. Larabee gave a gasping yelp of torment, before slumping to the ground unconscious. His men watched helplessly - all, that is, except JD, who was still semiconscious himself, and Ezra, who was slumped against Vin, a large bruise already forming across his handsome face.
Chris came back to awareness to discover that they had been moved further into the canyon. The walls now stretched high above them but the distance between them was much greater, allowing for the prisoners to be huddled on one side while their captors stood or sat on the other side. There was not much chance of their being able to subdue the men holding the guns.
"Chris... Chris... you awake?" Larabee tilted his head slightly to see Nathan sitting near him, his face creased with concern as he tried to gauge the amount of damage done to the injured man's shoulder.
"What..." Larabee began, then stopped as his throat tightened and he began to cough. The awkward angle of having his hands tied behind his back made this action agony, and he was unable to prevent a groan from escaping his lips.
"Just lie still... if you can," Nathan advised, keeping his voice down so as not to attract attention before he offered, "You're bleeding pretty heavily again."
"How... long?" he managed to gasp, blinking the sweat from his eyes, but unable to do anything about the hair which cascaded across his face.
"About three hours." This was from Vin, who was leaning against the rockface behind the sprawled Larabee.
Chris attempted to look over his shoulder at him, but again pain flared and he gave up, letting his head fall to rest on the dusty ground once more. He lay for a few seconds, gathering his strength before he asked, "JD?" as his memory of earlier started to return.
"He's doing all right... he's sleeping at the moment." This whisper was from Buck, who was off to his left; JD was lying across Wilmington's legs, head resting just above his knees. "He was awake earlier - got a pretty sore neck and back, but apart from that he seems to be all right...."
Chris again paused to evaluate the situation before he asked, "Ezra?" He could remember the gambler being struck by Chambers, and seeing him fall heavily against Vin.
"I fear that my impulsiveness is going to lead me into further pain," the handsome cardsharp drawled, his southern tones unable to hide the hint of hurting that echoed in his voice.
"It was a good idea, Ezra," Vin said, his voice just barely covering the distance to Chris. "Least we're still alive."
The gambler wearily looked about, instantly regretting it as his aching head protested the movement, before he answered dryly, "I fear that my 'good idea' has only extended our lives to suffer further agonies at Mr Chambers' hands."
"You did what you could, Ezra," Larabee gasped, his wits slowly starting to come back to him as he added dryly, "Without your quick thinking we could all be dead by now." Chris succeeded this time in his attempt to twist about to see Vin and the gambler. He squinted over at the men he was speaking to.
"At least I won't be able to run out on you this time," Standish replied bitterly, indicating his bound hands.
Larabee was surprised at the amount of self-hatred in the tone and wanted to alleviate the pain in the other's words, but before he could he was grabbed and roughly pulled over. He yelped in shocked surprise and pain, before coming face to face with Chambers' twisted features.
"What are you guys talking about?" the man demanded, shoving his gun up and under Chris's chin.
"Nothing," Nathan supplied, seeing that the barrel was so tightly pressed under the injured man's jaw that he was unable to answer. "I was just checking on him... his shoulder's bleeding pretty heavily," he finished weakly, not sure if it was a good idea to direct the murderer's attention to the injury.
Chambers reached out and yanked back Chris's coat to get a better look at the wound. He could see the fresh blood that had seeped from it and lay glistening on the very dirty bandage, which was now doing an inadequate job of sealing the wound. "That looks mighty sore," he commented, poking it savagely with his gun. Chris fought to keep his jaw clamped shut against the swelling cry of pain, and met the other man look for look. He hated this man, and he would be damned if he were going to show weakness before this killer. "If it hurts, you know that I have a failsafe way of making the pain go away," Chambers continued, smiling sweetly as he once again brought his gun up to rest under Chris's chin. "Works every time, you know," he sniggered to himself.
The injured man said nothing - he knew that there was nothing he could say. He felt the others of his group gather their breaths and could almost feel their fear for his safety. It amazed him how close they had grown to each other. It was almost as if he was outside his body and could see the expression of agony on each of their faces. "Go to hell," he finally replied, almost snarling the words. The gun was still pressing under his chin and making speech hard, but he still managed to spit the words out. Chambers was close enough that some spittle actually did hit his face.
Slowly he raised his other hand and wiped the droplet away, a smile creeping across his face as he spun away and began to search through the saddlebags that had been pulled from the horses. As he moved, he advised, "Don't you worry, boy, I've got something here that will take that pain right away... used it a lot during the war... saw what it did to those who liked it too much." As he spoke, he pulled out the syringe, shaking it roughly from its protective covering and then went looking for the morphine. Once that was resting in his hand, he carefully filled the small glass tube and, placing the medicine carefully back in its packaging, he moved back over to Larabee.
"I used to give this to a few of my friends during the war... well," he continued, looking at the clear liquid that now rested in the syringe, "they had to pay me for it... cost them a real pretty penny, too..." he sniggered as he squatted down and began to awkwardly push up the sleeve on Chris's uninjured arm, searching for and finding the vein that stood out on the tightly stretched arm. "By the time I've finished with you, you'll shoot your friends just to get a whiff of this stuff," he sniggered, enjoying the prospect of this man being caught in the clutches of the deadly drug. He had seen what men were prepared to do, just to get their fix, and he quite liked the idea of seeing this proud man crawling about in the dirt, begging for his next dose.
"You give that to him and you'll kill him," Nathan stated, his eyes growing large as he heard what the other man intended to do to his friend.
Chambers looked over at the darker men and smiled a smile of pure evil as he commented, showing his blackened teeth, "Well, I guess that means either way I win." With that he forced the sharp needle into the tender flesh of Chris's arm, totally overpowering the weakened man's struggles as he tried to fight the heavier man off. As soon as the drug hit Larabee's system, he slumped limply under Chambers' weight, his eyes taking on a glassy look as his mouth opened slightly, unable to prevent his mind from slipping into the waiting arms of Morpheus, from which the drug derived its name.
"When I get outta here," Buck's voice was frozen in its coldness, "I'm gonna take so long killing you, that it'll be a week before you realise you're dead."
Chambers shot a look over at the handsome man who had spoken, then down at the drugged unconscious man. He then barked out a shout of laughter and replied, "Man, if I wasn't getting so much pleasure from watching your reaction, I'd blow your brains out myself." With that, he stood and made his way back to the small campfire where Harley, Peterson and Lomaus sat.
"Nathan?" Vin asked, his voice holding just the edge of fear.
Jackson knew that the bounty hunter was asking if his friend was all right, and also was it possible to make Chris an addict on the small amount of drug that they had. "We have to get out of here..." he said, knowing that the sweet, addictive drug affected each person differently. Larabee might be able to hold out against the addiction, but then again, he could easily fall prey to it after only a couple of shots... and there was enough of the clear liquid left to allow that.
"Surely the morphine will help Chris?" JD asked innocently, having awoken during the first minutes of conversation and witnessed Chambers' actions. He had heard enough about the drug to know that it could be dangerous if taken too often, yet he had also heard that it could be very beneficial where some wounds were concerned.
"JD," Buck said, his tone almost too quiet for the others to hear. "In small, measured amounts it's a great medicine, but in amounts like Chambers gave to Chris, it's lethal and very addictive." His eyes got a faraway look as he finished, "I know." He swallowed away a greater pain than anyone had ever seen before as he continued, "I saw what that damn drug did to people during the war...." He stopped, unable to go on.
JD felt helplessness well up inside. If he had not allowed himself to be captured, then none of this would have happened. He twisted his head painfully to watch Larabee as he drifted along on the edges of a drug-induced euphoria. The pain that welled up within the youngster's chest was far greater than the agony he had suffered at the hands of Lomaus.
"I would suggest, gentlemen," Ezra suddenly spoke up, his own face pale, "that we make all haste to extricate ourselves from our present predicament then, as I do believe that as soon as Mr Springer and his companion return from Four Corners with the news of Mr Connors' demise, our own value to Chambers will drop dramatically."
"Huh?" Vin asked in some confusion, looking down at the man before him.
"Ezra's saying that we're in deep shit and we need to get out of it damn fast," Josiah replied.
Tanner shot Standish an annoyed look that slowly faded into certainty as he stated firmly, with a growing concern for his friends, "That's what I thought he said."
Time had lost all meaning for Chris. He lay in a drugged state, the morphine slowly slipping about his system. The agony of his wound was a now-distant memory as he smiled for the first time in many years at his beautiful wife Sarah, as they both watched their young son Adam play in front of their small cabin. Chris Larabee was happy.
"How is he?" Vin asked quietly, as he watched Nathan try to gauge Chris's condition without actually being able to reach him.
"He's out of it," the darker man finally said, his tone filled with worry, before he turned to throw a look over towards Chambers and the men who sat with him. They had been ignored ever since the killer had returned to the campfire, after giving Larabee his first dose of the drug. "We have to get out of here," Nathan continued, before he added slowly, emphasising his words, "I don't think Chris can take much more." He was very concerned about the heat he could feel radiating from the injured man. The rough treatment that Larabee had received had only served to aggravate the wound, which was still bleeding sluggishly through the torn bandages.
"I'm all for that," Buck said bitterly, glaring at the man responsible for Chris's present condition, before he turned his look back to the younger man who was slumped against him. JD had finally succumbed to a healing sleep... the earlier attack had taken a lot out of him, and Wilmington was glad that he was now resting.
"How's Ezra?" Nathan asked, looking over towards Vin, but the gambler answered for himself.
"I can assure you that I am fully recovered from the underhanded attack and that I feel fine, and I will be ready to assist you in any escape attempt that you wish to engage in."
"What the hell are you all talking about over there?" Chambers suddenly snarled, leaping up and stalking towards them.
"Just talking," Vin answered coldly, glaring at the man who was torturing his friend by trying to get him addicted to the drug.
Chambers drew his gun in the blink of an eye and pointed it steadily at the man who had spoken, resting his finger lightly on the trigger. There were several minutes of tense silence while Tanner and Chambers glared at each other, neither man prepared to release the lock of eyes.
Ezra saw that the finger was tightening on the trigger and spoke, saying the first words that entered his mind in a desperate attempt to save his friend's life, "You look like you could make use of some entertainment, to pass the time until your companions return from town." The words were so loud in the silence that Henry Chambers jumped at the sound and flicked his gun towards Ezra, who flinched before he pulled his gambling face into place and continued, his voice catching only slightly as he looked down the barrel of the gun, "You look like a gambling man to me?" He paused to see if the other man would answer. Not getting a reply, he swallowed hard again before he ploughed on, not for the first time gambling with his life that his silken words would save him from a bullet, "I fear that those you associate with are not able to stretch your obvious intelligence...." He paused again to see how his words were being received - realising that he was still breathing, he assumed that the killer was at least listening to him so he hurried on, "in the art of chance. Whilst I, on the other hand, have been known to play a passable game with lady luck."
Chambers looked steadily at the man he now had sighted along his gun and slowly considered his words. He could tell from the man's clothes that he was a gambler, and his fancy southern tone intrigued the killer... and, throwing a quick glance at his own companions, he had to admit that he was indeed bored and slightly frustrated. The conversation between his companions consisted of the events that had led them to this spot, as they rehashed the events at Pentonville. A smile reached his lips as he offered, "How about we make the game slightly more interesting?"
Ezra swallowed hard and shot a quick glance at his friends, who were watching with rapt attention. Vin's expression informed the gambler that the bounty hunter was very aware that his intervention had saved his life, but the others... their expressions informed him that they thought he had finally lost his mind. "What do you have in mind?" he finally asked.
Chambers thought for a few seconds, then glanced knowingly over towards Larabee, who was still dreaming in his drug-induced state. "If you win, he gets to sleep a little longer without another injection... maybe an hour.... If I win, he gets another dose... maybe a lethal dose?"
Standish knew a hooked fish when he saw one, so he boldly countered, "Make it four hours and we have a deal." He heard the gasp from his friends, but ignored them.
"Two," Chambers shot back.
"Three for each hand won, which I get to bank, and I'll guarantee you the game of your life," Ezra snapped back, his eyes flashing with an inner knowledge that this was one game he was determined to win. If nothing else, he planned to give the others time to come up with a plan to get them out of their present situation.
Henry Chambers laughed at the gambler's words before he answered, "Agreed." He followed this with a grin of pure evil. It was obvious to Ezra that Chambers had no intention of losing, as he looked back over his shoulder and called out, "Lomaus... get your fat butt over here and release this guy... we're going to have a game."
"A game?" Lomaus asked, stumbling over towards the group, a puzzled frown on his childish face.
"Now just do as I say," Chambers snapped, his good humour drying up as fast as a drop of moisture on a stone in the desert.
The giant turned large eyes on the smaller man and watched as Ezra carefully climbed to his feet, a bout of dizziness causing him to stumble against Vin, who held up his bound hands to steady him. "You be careful, Ezra," the bounty hunter mumbled in concern, as he helped the gambler straighten.
Standish swallowed hard at the obvious fear for his well-being that he saw in the other's expression and nodded, before he was roughly caught and dragged over towards the campfire by the giant. As he stumbled along, he held up his bound hands and stated, "If you would be so good as to untie me... I happen to have some cards in my pocket."
Chambers waved Lomaus away and, reaching over, he slipped a nasty-looking knife under the ropes binding Ezra's hands and yanked; the rope came loose and fell to the ground. The gambler let out a sigh of relief at having his arms released, and rubbed at his wrists before he reached into his pocket and gingerly pulled out the trusted cards he always carried.
Chambers, meanwhile, had settled himself down opposite Ezra and was impatiently waiting. He saw the other three men - Harley, Peterson and Morrell - ready themselves for the game and snarled at Harley, who was the one nearest to him, "You keep an eye on them." He pointed over towards the prisoners. The man opened his mouth to protest, but snapped it shut when Chambers slowly reached down towards his gun. Still grumbling under his breath, Harley went to do as he was asked, venting his anger by striking at Lomaus and ordering him to accompany him. The giant accepted the treatment and calmly followed the other man.
Peterson and Morrell shot each other silent glances before they, too, made themselves scarce. Chambers saw them head towards the edge of the canyon and smiled to himself; they might still be whining about the way their lives had turned out, but they knew that if they wanted to continue living they had to obey him.
The gambler rubbed at his sore wrists and wondered if he would have the dexterity to handle the cards proficiently after having his hands tied for so long. Chambers reached over and snatched up the cards that Standish had pulled from his coat pocket. He took his time as he carefully checked them over, before handing the pack back to the gambler, then he pulled out a large wad of money and laid it on the ground. Turning his eyes towards Ezra, he waited expectantly.
Ezra shot a look over towards his companions before he reached down and fumbled in his boot and pulled out his not so inconsiderable savings.
"You sure you want to lose all that money?" Chambers said with a toothy grin. Standish just met his look; he was aware that once the killers had finished them off, they would have checked their bodies for any cash they had.
Ezra shot a look back over towards Chris before he offered, shuffling the cards as he spoke, "I don't aim to lose... I plan to win enough hours for Mr Larabee."
"You think you're that good?" Henry asked contemptuously, a knowing smile filtering across his face. Ezra just met his gaze evenly. The gambler had played often enough to know that the rules they would be playing by would be those of Chambers' choosing... and the man had the look of someone who did not take losing well.
With a sigh, Standish began to deal the cards and hoped that Chambers would not cheat to such an extent that he would have to call him on it, as he was sure that the killer's answer to such a comment would be a bullet. Yet, he knew that if he stayed quiet, then Chris would undoubtedly not survive another dose of the deadly drug... and he would not want to live with the knowledge that it was his fault that Larabee had died.
Several hands later and Standish had just lost his first game. Chambers sat back and pulled the money from the pot over in front of him before he said, "You've won three games - that gives Larabee nine hours; I've just won six of those hours back."
"Six?" Ezra repeated in some surprise, looking up sharply to meet the cold look that still held a hint of contempt.
"Yes..." Chambers commented, before he added dryly, "Oh, didn't I mention that for each hand I win, you lose six hours?"
Standish bit back the retort that clawed at his lips and swallowed his angry words; losing his temper now would not help Chris or any of his friends. He had managed to win the three previous games, but Chambers had won the last... and this he had done by cheating, and cheating very badly, at that. Ezra had not been able to call him on it, but now that he knew his method, he planned to ensure that Chambers did not catch him out again.
If Standish were honest, Chambers was not a good poker player; he smiled when he had a good hand and frowned when the cards went against him. He tossed the cards down hard when he lost and growled menacingly. That was one of the reasons why Ezra had allowed him to cheat during the last hand: it had given the gambler a valuable insight into how the man cheated. That was before Ezra had known that Chambers would take six of his hard-won hours, instead of only the three that he was allowing Standish when he won. Ezra could not afford to lose any more hands.
"Are we playing, or are you going to sit there and dream for the rest of the day?" Chambers demanded, throwing some money back into the pot. He was feeling better now that he had won a hand. He noted that Peterson and Morrell had returned to watch the game, and he was determined to look good in front of his men.
Ezra shot a look over towards his friends and hoped that they were working on a plan to help them escape, because he now knew for certain that, whether he won or lost, Chambers was not going to allow them to live. As he began to deal the cards again, he noted that Harley and Lomaus had now joined them and were also intently watching the game.
Chambers also noticed this and he snarled, leaning across and grabbing up an empty tin cup. Throwing it at Harley and Lomaus, he demanded, "Get back over there and keep an eye on those six." Harley sidestepped the cup, and Lomaus just looked at it as it struck his leg and fell to the ground. Without a word, the two men did as ordered. Then, seeing Peterson and Morrell hovering on the edge of the game, Chambers sighed heavily and stated, "Hell, you two might as well join in... it might give me a chance to win back some of the money this bastard's stealing from me."
"I can assure you, Mr Chambers..." Ezra began, but swallowed hard and shut his mouth with a snap when he suddenly found himself looking down the business end of a gun.
"I didn't release you to talk," came the quiet words. The gambler swallowed again and slowly nodded his head, not saying a word. Instead, he shuffled the cards once more and began to deal, passing cards to the other two men who had scrambled to join the game.
After several quiet moments of playing, Chambers suddenly spoke up, saying, "Well, hell, gambler-man, I thought you fancy cardsharps would have some interesting stories to pass along?" Ezra opened his mouth, then snapped it shut again... after all, the man had just threatened him with a gun. Chambers, seeing this, offered with a smile that didn't reach his eyes, "Hell, I'll only kill you if the stories ain't interesting."
Standish threw another look over towards his friends and began to talk as he dealt the cards. He was unable to keep the quiver out of his voice and this, more than anything, seemed to placate the insane gleam in Chambers' eyes as he listened.
Gerard Harvey glanced about at the men who sat around him; they were silent as they watched the poker game in progress across the canyon from them. He could tell that his men were shocked, confused and - for the first time since they had started following him - afraid. Most of them had been with him through the war and would die for him, yet this was not how he had envisaged them dying. He felt anger slowly begin to boil. He had allowed his men to fall into this position; had sat by while one of his men was shot and murdered. He had to accept the responsibility for what had happened, and it left a sick feeling in his stomach.
Harvey glanced over towards the men from Four Corners who were also still tied. The man in black, who appeared to be their leader, was not faring well. He had seen the relish with which Chambers had administered the morphine, and knew that the man he had once called friend - had even trusted on occasion to lead his men - had the heart of the devil who would kill for his own pleasure. Chambers was pure evil through and through and, for the first time since the war, Gerard could see how a human being could cold-bloodedly murder the women and children of that refugee camp at Pentonville.
Gerard closed his eyes; his own head throbbed from the beating he had taken, but he knew that he had to force the pain away if he was to save his men. He had to think... form a plan. Time was running out; he knew that once those men returned from Four Corners, then Chambers would have no need to keep them alive - and the casual way that Henry murdered people told Harvey that they would soon follow suit.
"Sir..." Sean Patrick, Harvey's second in command, spoke; his tone was hushed as he leant nearer to his leader to converse. "They're planning on killing us, sir." His Irish lilt was not able to hide his fear.
Harvey swallowed and slowly agreed, his tone just as quiet. "I know... pass the word - has anyone managed to get their hands loose?"
A few minutes later the Chinese whisper came back: "Two, sir... they're fairly loose... but with them holding a gun on us... we don't stand much chance of jumping them." Patrick did not take his eyes off the men who were partaking in the poker game. He also spared a glance over at the six men who were positioned away from them, and Harley and Lomaus who stood nearby, but were turned towards the game. It was almost as if Chambers considered the seven newcomers the more dangerous, as he seemed to be ignoring Harvey and his men, treating them almost with contempt.
Gerard looked over towards the small campfire. Evening was drawing close and the daylight would soon be lost. "We'll wait until just before the sun goes down. Tell the men to keep trying to get free...we'll need as many hands as we can get."
"What about..." Patrick began, but fell silent under Harvey's glare; the man was still their commander, and it was not up to his second to question him. "Sorry sir," he mumbled, before he turned and began to pass the message on, all the while still carefully working at his own bonds.
Josiah had been watching the camp carefully and saw Harvey speaking to the man sitting next to him; he also saw the whispers that went about the group. Tilting his head towards Vin, he mumbled, his lips hardly moving, "I think that Harvey and his men are up to something."
"I know," Vin answered, not taking his eyes from Chris's still form. He kept his head down so that no one could see his lips move. "Reckon they'll wait until it's nearer to sunset... but we need to be ready to act when they do."
"I don't think Chris can take another dose of that morphine... not in his condition; he's lost too much blood," Nathan added, his voice barely containing his frustration.
"Let's hope Ezra manages to keep winning until after dark, then," Buck added, his body twisting slightly as he continued to work at getting his hands free. He could see that Vin, Nathan and Josiah were also trying to break free of their bonds. Ezra's hands were already free and he was in an ideal position to offer assistance, if they could only get loose.
"I'm free," JD suddenly piped up.
He smiled up at Buck, who glared at him before saying sharply, keeping his own tone just below a hiss, "Well, tell the whole camp about it then, boy."
JD looked slightly shamefaced, but then noted that the two men guarding them had not heard him, as they were intently watching the game. "Here, twist about some so that I can reach your hands," JD offered to Buck. The handsome womaniser was the nearest to the kid and, by moving slightly to sit up and leaning back against the rock, JD was just able to reach Wilmington's tied wrists with one hand. His actions attracted Harley's attention, but Wilmington just met his look and the other man quickly turned his attention back to the game, before he spoke quietly to Lomaus and headed over towards Harvey's group. Ezra had won another hand, and Chambers was starting to curse him openly.
"I think I shall be free in a minute also," Josiah commented, feeling the blood soaking into his shirt cuffs... he had rubbed his wrists raw, but the pain and the slight loss of blood were a small price to pay if it would save their lives.
The small grin of satisfaction that flickered across Vin's face informed all those who saw it that he was also free. Glancing up at the growing darkness, the former bounty hunter knew that they would have to act soon; the light was fading, and some of Harvey's men were starting to get nervous. Tanner was glad that Harley and Lomaus were the ones watching them - Chambers would have noticed something wrong straight away, but Ezra was doing a good job of keeping the man occupied... in fact, he was doing a fairly good job of keeping all the men's attention diverted to the game. Vin's only concern was the fact that Chambers had been growing more vocal with his abuse towards the gambler with each game he lost, and soon he would stop swearing and start shooting.
Over by the campfire, one of the other men playing poker suddenly spoke up, saying as he threw down his useless hand, "Damn, you sure got a fancy mouth on you." He was commenting on the fact that Ezra had just won another hand, while he had been regaling the men with a quick story about a poker game he had been a party to in St Louis.
"I can assure you gentlemen that I was totally innocent of that young lady's charges," Standish finished with a weak smile. He could see that his tales were keeping Chambers and the other two men as occupied as the game of poker.
"If you were so innocent," Chambers said, "how come they locked you up?" He was chewing on a cheroot and keeping a close eye on his cards, as well as the now hefty pot in the middle of the group.
Ezra dealt the cards out as requested and finished, "The young lady in question was the mayor's wife, not his daughter... an easy mistake to make when you consider that the old goat was actually ancient enough to be her grandfather." Standish paused while the men about him laughed; they were at their ease. It was a shame that the gambler was facing away from his friends, as he would have loved to have been able to watch them; he was certain that they had by now formed an escape plan, and would expect him to act with his larger freedom when they did. He sighed and checked his hand. It was not the best, but he knew that no one else at the rock-come-table had a better hand... he had seen to that himself.
Harvey watched Harley as he moved away from his group and back over to the six men from Four Corners. Gerard knew that the man was a fool; he would never have trusted the guarding of several prisoners to him like Chambers had.
"Can I have a drink?" he suddenly called out, drawing the attention of the gambling men from their cards. He was in luck, as Chambers was so caught up in his hand that he only spared a glance before motioning Lomaus to take a container of water over to his previous commander.
"Lomaus can no let you go..." the tall man said, as he unscrewed the cap of the canteen and gently held it up for Harvey to drink.
The man in question drank his fill before he said, his tone barely hiding his contempt, "You WERE a good man, Lomaus, once."
The giant frowned at the words and offered, with the smile of an innocent who wanted to be told he was a good boy, "Lomaus still a good man, General Harvey." He spoke with just a hint of eagerness in his tone, seeking confirmation.
Slowly Harvey shook his head. He kept his face sad, his expression filled with sorrow as he spoke, his tone so low that Lomaus had to strain to hear him. "No, Lomaus... you betrayed us.... Chambers is not a good man... he wants to hurt us... your friends... and you are letting him.... No, you are not a good man, not to us."
Lomaus' bottom lip trembled at the words and he refused to meet Harvey's look. He stood there squeezing and releasing his hold on the canteen as his anxiety grew at his general's words. Finally he said, "Lomaus no want to go to prison for killing that man... that man was bad to try to hurt Lomaus."
Harvey wanted to hit something, preferably Chambers, for sowing such fear in the man he knew had the mind of a child. "No one is going to send you to jail... no one -unless you allow Chambers to kill us. Then..." Gerard paused as he forced the words out, having to hurry as he noticed that Harley was now heading towards them, having taken an interest in the fact that Lomaus was talking to Harvey. "Then you will not only be put in jail, but you will be hung... 'cause you'd have killed us."
Vin, seeing that Harvey was whispering to Lomaus and knowing that the other man must have worked out a plan, watched the scene with growing interest, until he saw that Harley was heading over in their direction. He knew that he had to do something to pull the man's attention back to them, away from Harvey and his talk with Lomaus.
Without taking time to consider his actions, Vin snatched up a small rock and tossed it at Harley. As usual his aim was true, and it caught the man high on the shoulder, causing him to spin in surprise back towards the six apparently tied men. He saw nothing amiss, so slowly he turned back towards Lomaus, who was still talking to Harvey; he appeared to be leaning over nearer to Gerard as he listened to what he was saying.
When Harley again made a step towards the two men, another stone hit him - this time striking him hard against his back. He bit back a yelp of pain and again spun back to face the other men. Seeing them now watching him with some interest, he turned fully and made his way back towards them, intent on checking their bonds.
Harvey had witnessed Vin's actions and knew that they were aware he was trying something. He also knew that at least one of them was free of the ropes. He felt a smile tug at his lips and nodded once to Patrick, who had been waiting for just that sign from his commander.
When Harvey noted that Harley had reached the stone-throwing man, he lowered his voice further, which drew Lomaus even closer as he bent over, straining to hear what Gerard had to say. This action brought his gun within easy range of Patrick, who snatched the weapon up and was already aiming it towards the sitting poker players.
At exactly the same moment that Patrick moved, Harvey cried out, "To arms!" Vin and the others reacted to the battle cry, and Harley fell under the onslaught of Josiah and Buck, while Vin tackled the gun from the struggling man's hands.
Ezra, hearing the yell, leaped across the rock table and tackled Chambers as he began to stand, drawing his weapon as he did so. The sound of gunfire rang loud in the canyon, and the poker player to Standish's left was thrown back against the rock face as a bullet tore into his chest. He was dead before he reached the ground.
Another bullet hit the second gambler, who had been reaching for his gun. This one bit into his side and had him falling to the ground, crying out and clutching at the wound which now pumped blood over the cards that he had recently been holding.
Ezra and Chambers fought for possession of the knife that the killer had been able to reach, after his gun had been knocked from his grasp by the leaping gambler. They rolled across the ground, struggling for its possession. Ezra felt a sharp pain in his arm and gasped out loud, but he did not release his one-handed hold on Chambers' neck as he reached for the knife-wielding hand with his other.
Chambers gasped and frantically fought to keep possession of the knife but, knowing that he was losing the fight, he suddenly relaxed. This threw Ezra, who slumped down on the man, his leverage gone... which was exactly the reaction Henry Chambers wanted. He pulled the knife in towards his body and that of the man he was fighting, then thrust with all his might and felt the knife bite deep into the other man's chest.
Ezra felt the knife impact on his body and expected to feel the flaring agony of the wound, but when none came he reached over Chambers' head and snatched up a large, hand-sized stone he saw there. Rearing up, he brought it down on the killer's head with all the force he could manage. The impact was sickening, as the bones of Chambers' skull collapsed under the attack. Henry Chambers was dead before Ezra lifted the stone to strike again, but the gambler did not realise this and he struck again and again, until he felt hands tugging at his arms, forcibly pulling him away from the corpse. He struggled to break free, acting totally without reason, the stone still clutched tightly in his hands, which were covered with blood and brain tissue. He was not even aware when he passed out, slumping into the arms of Vin and Buck, who were fighting to keep him from further injuring himself.
Several hours passed which Ezra was not aware of, his mind still caught up in the fight for his life. He suddenly reared up, gasping for breath as panic once again overtook him. Nathan was by his side instantly, reaching out and pushing him gently back down. "Take it easy, Ezra... you're in shock... lost a fair amount of blood...."
"Lost blood.... In shock?" the confused man stammered, blinking as he looked about the camp. He realised that he must have been out of it for a while, as two bodies had been moved to one side of the canyon... Chambers was among them, the gambler noted with a shiver of reaction.
Chris was lying next to Ezra on several blankets, with a couple more covering him. He seemed to be resting quietly. Vin and Buck were with him, though they both looked over towards Standish, concern etched clearly on their faces. The gambler licked at his dry lips and asked nervously, "What happened?" He could remember leaping towards Chambers and tackling the man, but after that there just seemed to be a blank.
"You are one lucky son of a bitch, Ezra," Nathan said as he continued to check the knife wound in the gambler's arm. It was deep, but not serious - although the healer was concerned by the blood loss. Seeing the look this comment earned him, he twisted about and snatched up a new, unopened pack of cards as he continued, "These were in your breast pocket... Chambers' knife hit them when he punched the weapon into your chest.... If you'd used these cards instead of the other pack, you would have been dead by now."
"I don't..." Ezra began again, not really taking in what Nathan was saying to him. The edges of his vision were still hazy, and he was fighting off the dizziness that kept threatening to overtake him.
The other man, seeing this, reached out and gently patted Standish's other arm, saying, "Don't worry, we'll explain it all in the morning.... Here, drink this." Nathan held a warm cup to Ezra's lips and allowed him to take his time in drinking it. He smiled at the face that Standish pulled, and offered when the man had finished, "You just try to get some rest."
"I can assure you... that I am... not... tired," Ezra protested about a yawn. He could not understand why he suddenly felt so tired - it was as if the events of the day were finally catching up with him. He fought to keep his eyes open, but lost the battle and slipped unwillingly into slumber.
Nathan watched him for several minutes, making sure that his sleep was restful, before he stood up and made his way over to the injured man Vin had shot. He did what he could for the man, but he could tell that the wound was too serious and he doubted he would live the night. He reached into his medical bag and drew out the morphine, measuring out the correct dose and administering it. He noted that the bottle was nearly empty, but then realised that the man would be dead before he needed another injection against the pain.
"How's Ezra?" Vin asked, moving to stand beside the healer.
Nathan shot a look over towards the man in question before he answered, "The knife wound in his arm is fairly shallow, but it bled quite a bit.... He was lucky that the attack to his chest was deflected by the cards that he always carries."
"He went a little bit wild there... eh, Nathan?" Buck asked. Although he was smiling, it did not reach his eyes; he had been shocked by Ezra's actions during his fight with Chambers. Seeing Standish lose his control so completely had been a very sobering sight, and one that Wilmington decided he didn't want to see again.
Jackson shot another look over towards the sleeping gambler and offered, his tone also filled with his concern, "He'd been under tremendous pressure for most of the afternoon; our safety depended on his ability to play cards, and he was fighting for his life at the time.... Chambers wasn't the kind of man you give second chances to."
Buck frowned, saying, "I know that, but... well...." He looked confused for a moment before he offered, "It's just not the kind of reaction I expected from Ezra. I mean, I know he can fight and all... but this... this was just so... violent." He paused, not sure if he was really making sense, the sight of Ezra pounding at Chambers with the rock still fresh in his mind. The corpse's face had been totally unrecognisable by the time they had dragged Standish off.
Nathan frowned. Whilst he was also shocked at the ferocity of the attack, he could understand the motive behind it. "Chambers and his gang murdered women, children and anyone who got in their way.... Ezra knew the kind of man he was facing, and he knew that he had to kill him in any way he could.... Chambers was trying to kill Ezra, and he defended himself with the only weapon that he had at hand... and, well, there are times when it's better not to unleash the beast that fights when our survival is at stake, 'cause sometimes it's a hard animal to live with afterwards."
"You think Ezra might have a problem with what he did?" Vin asked, his slow tone coloured with his anxiety for his friend. Whilst he had been just as shocked as Buck by the attack, he too understood what motivated it and he could sympathise with the gambler. The man had done what was necessary to survive, and to ensure the survival of his friends. Yes, Vin could understand, and he personally would have no problem rationalising what had happened... but could the normally gentle gambler, who would rather use words than force to resolve a situation?
Again Nathan looked away, remembering his own distant struggle for survival, and those he had witnessed and heard about during the war. "I don't know.... During the war, some men found it awful hard to live with what they had to do to stay alive.... I can't say how this is going to affect Ezra, but I do know that whatever he faces, he won't be alone."
"You can bet on that," Vin said, his expression as solemn as the healer's as they watched the sleeping man.
Chris slowly fought his way back to consciousness. His mouth felt dry and his shoulder hurt. The pain was a radiating agony that stretched from his upper body right down to his toes. He could hear someone groaning, and even that caused pain to flare.
With a shock, he realised that the sound he could hear was being issued from his own throat. He tried to open his eyes, but they felt too heavy and refused to co-operate. He struggled for a few more moments before he let the dregs of the drugs that were still polluting his system drag him back into the waiting arms of sleep... that was so much easier than having to face the unknown, which he knew awaited him when he awoke.
"How is he?" Buck asked, moving over to sit beside Vin, who had taken the second shift of watching over their sleeping friends.
"He's starting to come to, but I don't think he'll be fully awake 'til morning." Tanner looked out over the area, noting the two of Harvey's men who had agreed to stand the second watch with JD and Josiah.
Harvey and his men had proven themselves innocent by their actions, but that did not mean that the two parties trusted each other, so it was agreed that a joint watch would be kept that night. Harvey had insisted that he and his men would ride into Four Corners the next day to see if Springer and Holland had actually gone to the town, or whether they had used the opportunity to escape. He also wanted to clear up the mess that had overtaken his band of men, and try to clear his name once again - this time of the murder of the Connors family.
Harvey still found it hard to believe that he had been sheltering the very men he had been seeking; the men who had caused his son's death were actually sitting at the same campfire as him and eating shared food. The man had looked totally disillusioned as he'd eaten the cold meal before sitting the first watch. He no longer sat with his shoulders straight with conviction; now they were slumped under the knowledge that he had been shielding the very men he sought to bring to justice. The fact that Chambers and his men were dead did little to ease the weight of guilt that now rested on him.
"I can't believe that this has turned out to be such a mess," Buck said, wiping a hand over his tired face. He had not been able to sleep and had spent the last two hours trying to sort out the past few days in his mind. Still he was not able to shake the image of Ezra killing Chambers.
"Ezra did what he had to do to save himself and us... you can't condemn a man for that," Vin suddenly spoke up, as if he had read Buck's mind.
The older man waved his words aside with a roughly hissed, "Don't you think I know that?"
Vin looked down at his sleeping friends, knowing that allowing Buck to brood on Ezra's actions would not do anyone any good, so he offered, "Chris is still going to blame himself for Connors' death." It was a statement of fact, and Buck treated it as such.
"I know, but the bottom line is that he was basically correct... Connors would have been a loose cannon.... Hell, we could all be dead, 'cause if he did recognise Chambers back at the canyon yesterday morning, all hell would have let loose and we could have ended up having a shooting match with Harvey and his men."
"We can't second guess this, Buck... but Chris is gonna have to fight his own shadows." Vin sighed and rubbed at his tired face, mimicking Buck's actions of before as he continued, "His argument will be that he made the decision... and no matter whether we think it was right or wrong, he's just gotta learn to live with it."
Wilmington shot Tanner a cold look as he said, "You don't know Chris - once he gets to letting guilt eat at him, he's like a dog with a bone and he just won't let it go.... I saw what Sarah's and Adam's deaths did to him, saw him climb into a bottle... until I honestly thought he was going to drown in the damn stuff and he turned as mean as a rattler with a nail through his tail."
Vin could tell that the memory of those events was very painful to Buck, so he offered, "Not this time...." He saw Buck look up at him and could see that he was questioning how they were going to help Chris fight his shadows and keep him from the bottle, if they were going to get involved. In answer to the unasked question, he offered, "Chris has to come to terms with what's happened; no one else can do that for him... but he's no longer alone, and the burden isn't just his to bear.... If he climbs into a whisky bottle, then he's going to find us there, waiting for him." He sighed again and offered with a slight smile, "And if he gets mean, well... he's going to see just how mean we can get right back."
Buck smiled sadly at that - in the time that he had known the bounty hunter, he had never seen him over-imbibe in drink, nor show a mean side to his nature. His 'live and let live' attitude was a mantle that he wore well, and it surpassed his years. Vin pulled a face and continued in dead earnest, "I don't plan on losing any of my friends, Buck... I have too few to allow for that to happen."
"I never planned on losing Chris into the bottle in the first place, but that man has an awful lot of demons to fight."
Vin looked away, feeling the hurt of Buck's remembered pain as if it were a physical blow. He swallowed hard before he offered, "You were hurting back then, too, Buck... you also suffered a loss that day.... You had your own guilt to fight, and it's not easy to take on another's pain when you're also suffering. You needed Chris's support as much as he needed yours."
Buck took a deep, steadying breath as he pushed his memories of Sarah and Adam back behind the wall he had built to contain the pain he always felt when he remembered their deaths. He would never forget, until the day he died, the morning they had rode up to the still-smouldering ranch.
Reaching out, Vin laid a gentle hand on Buck's arm - so gentle that the other man almost didn't feel it - as he said, "This time the pain ain't shared between one or two, but seven... and that makes the load a damned sight easier to carry, my friend."
Wilmington slowly nodded. He found that he could not hold out against the determination he heard in Tanner's voice and knew that, maybe this time - with all their help - they would come out of this situation whole.
Ezra felt the unforgiving ground beneath him and groaned. He hated sleeping on the hard land; it always gave him a backache and informed his weary body that he was on yet another foolhardy mission, courtesy of Chris Larabee or one of the other five men.
He groaned again as he felt his arm throbbing. It hurt. Slowly he opened his eyes and blinked up at the tall walls of the canyon that reached high above him. It was only a short time past dawn and there was little movement in the camp. He felt thirsty and wanted a drink desperately, yet he couldn't seem to gather the energy to rise and fetch it.
"Here... drink this...." He glanced up in some surprise at Nathan and eagerly accepted the canteen that was being held to his lips. He swallowed the lukewarm water eagerly, but grimaced as the water bottle was pulled away with a warning: "Not too fast... take it slowly... sip it."
"What happened?" the gambler finally gasped, blinking sleep from his eyes and pushing back the pain.
Nathan pressed his lips together and frowned before he asked, "Do you remember the Connors family being murdered?"
Ezra pulled a face and answered, his voice slightly exasperated, "Yes, of course I remember what happened to Marylou and her children.... We went after the men who did it; met up with a..." the gambler paused as he fought to remember the name of the man who led the gang they had captured. "Harvey..." he finally said, "Gerard Harvey?"
"Yes... Gerard Harvey. We were on our way back to Four Corners... but detoured to this canyon to dig up Baker's body.... Do you remember what happened yesterday?"
Ezra raised his uninjured arm and rubbed a hand at his temple, as if trying to recall the memory hurt. He frowned in pain as he offered, "One of the men... escaped... held JD...." The confusion cleared as he suddenly tried to sit up and look about, saying, his voice clearly showing his concern, "JD?"
Nathan reached out and gently pushed the injured man back, saying confidently, "JD's fine; he resting over there." He pointed across the camp, to the bundled-up figure that was snoring, the hat Buck hated carefully positioned beside him.
Ezra relaxed with a sigh, before he said, his memories now coming thick and fast, "Chris.... Chris was hurt... again... morphine?" he clarified, this time not rising as he scanned the sleeping camp; his last attempt had used up what little energy he had gained back. He saw Vin and Buck sitting by another still figure and knew that had to be their leader. "How bad?" he asked, his voice tinged with fear. He didn't want to even consider why the death of Chris Larabee worried him so.
Nathan reached out and firmly rested a hand on the gambler's shoulder as he answered, "Chris will be fine, Ezra." Standish shot the healer a hard look, since the man's tone sounded as if he was trying to convince himself of that and not stating a fact. Then Jackson finished, a true smile splitting his face, "Thanks to you."
"How bad?" Standish demanded again, pushing aside the healer's last words, his voice growing harder as he considered the devastating effects the drug could have on some men.
Jackson sighed and offered honestly, "The wound bled a lot from the abuse that Chambers gave it, but at least it's not infected.... He appears to be sleeping deeply -that's a side effect of the morphine... but he's showing no signs of the discomfort I'd normally expect from addiction." Nathan paused again before he added, "Like I said, Ezra, thanks to you Chambers never got around to giving him that second dose and, while the first one was pretty high and it did worry me for a bit, it doesn't seem to have had that bad an effect on him. In fact, it more than likely helped, as it stopped him trying to struggle his way free of the bonds."
"Chambers!" Ezra said, his voice hushed as that particular memory came flashing back in all its grisly colour. He swallowed back the bile that threatened and looked down at the hand that had held the rock, acting as if he expected to see it still covered in blood.
Nathan saw the utter horror that filtered across the gambler's handsome face. This was swiftly followed by a look of such self-hatred that it almost took his breath away at witnessing it. Reaching out, the healer gently rested a finger under the chin of the other man and forcibly tilted his head upwards, taking his gaze away from his clean hands. Holding the chin firmly until Ezra's glance met his, he said determinedly, "You did what you had to do to save us, and to stay alive."
"I was no better than an animal," spat Ezra, totally shocked at the memory.
"No," Nathan snapped angrily, then paused to push his anger away. This was not the way to deal with the gambler's self-hatred of his actions. Cold reason was the only way to resolve this particular issue. "You stopped an animal, Ezra... don't ever think that what you did wasn't necessary." With those words, he reached over and snatched up the deck of cards that had saved the gambler's life. "This was how close he came to killing you." He held out the deck for Ezra to see: the deep knife thrust could clearly been seen, cutting the deck almost in half. "You did what you had to," Nathan stated again.
Ezra reached out and gently ran his finger down the jagged cut, then slowly took the cards in his healthy hand. He rubbed his thumb over the pack of cards, as if memorising the cut and the depth. He swallowed hard, before turning pale eyes up to look at Nathan. "I didn't realise...." He looked back at the cards before he carefully reached over and, with some struggling and some help from Nathan, he finally managed to slip them into his saddlebag, which was lying beside him. "I... I think I'll keep these.... To... to remind me of just how lucky I really am."
"Ezra, you don't need a pack of cards to do that," Nathan said with a slight smile, pleased that his friend seemed to be accepting his temporary total loss of sanity so well. "You just have to look about and see your friends to realise that."
The gambler laughed. It was shaky at best, and Nathan could see how tired the man suddenly looked - he seemed even paler than he had a moment ago. Seeing this, Jackson offered, "Here... you get some more rest.... We won't be going anywhere until we know for sure that Chris is all right... and that might not be until later on today."
"What about Harvey and his men?" Ezra asked, settling comfortably back down on his makeshift bed, fighting the darkness that beckoned him.
"Harvey..." Nathan repeated, looking over to the small group in question. "They were pretty shaken up by what happened, but most of them have been with him since the war and are taking it pretty well.... He's a strong leader... but, well... Gerard was real upset to discover that the men he'd been hunting in connection with his son's death were actually part of his own gang, but apart from that he seems to have pulled himself together." Jackson paused before he added, "The general consensus seems to be that now Chambers is dead - and he was the ringleader - do they have anyone else to hunt?"
"Do they?" Ezra asked, his voice slurring as he fought against the sleep that was dragging at him.
"Harvey's keen to get after Springer and Holland... those were the men Chambers sent to Four Corners... but some of his men just want to pack it up and move on...." He tilted his head, seeing that Ezra had nearly lost the battle to stay awake, so he finished, his tone quieter, "But I guess we'll just have to see what happens when they all wake up." He stopped when he saw that Ezra had drifted into sleep.
Standing, Nathan slowly made his way over to where Vin and Buck were still sitting beside their fallen friend. "How's Ezra?" Vin asked, without taking his eyes from the sleeping form of Chris. He had seen the healer talking to the injured gambler and hadn't wanted to intrude, but he was unable to hide his concern.
"I think he's going to be all right...." Nathan crouched down and gently pulled back the blanket that covered the other injured man. He quickly inspected the bandage about the wound and was pleased to note that there was no sign of blood seeping through. "He was a bit shaken when he remembered what happened with Chambers, but he seemed to be coping... especially when I showed him that pack of cards."
"That Ezra surely is one lucky son of a bitch," Vin offered with a knowing smile.
"Yeah, and if that ain't proof not to gamble with him, then I don't know what is," Buck said, remembering all the money that he had lost to the gambler. Someone with luck like that was never going to lose... leastwise, Wilmington hoped not, as he had grown rather fond of the gambler.
"Hell, I've known... since the day... I met... the guy... not... to gamble... with him," came the weak voice of Chris, as he pried open his eyes and looked at his friends.
"Chris!" Vin said, unable to hide his relief at seeing his friend conscious. It had been a long night of worry for most of them, what with Ezra being injured and Chris still under the influence of the deadly drug.
Buck yelped out with joy and added, "Damn... I knew you'd show 'em."
"Show 'em!" Larabee snorted weakly. "Hell, I feel... as weak as a kitten and..." he coughed and grimaced, "dry?" he added hopefully, looking at each of his friends. If he was honest, he might feel weak but he also felt well-rested and quite capable, considering the injury he had sustained and the abuse he had suffered afterwards.
"Here you go, partner," Buck offered, pulling the cap off a canteen and carefully holding the lip to Chris's mouth. Vin leant forward and gently raised his friend's head slightly so that he could drink the warm liquid without straining his neck or shoulder muscles too much.
"Not too much," Nathan advised, slightly miffed that he was being gently pushed aside as the others rushed to help the injured man.
"How's JD and Ezra?" Larabee asked, brushing aside Nathan's concerns. He wanted to know about his men, and he could see that Ezra had been injured but could not remember how.
"Both are fine. JD was up, keeping the middle watch last night... he's sleeping now." As if to prove his words, the camp was filled with his snoring. "And Ezra...." Nathan paused, not sure how much to tell the injured man, but his hesitation only fuelled the other man's concern and, seeing the look, the healer decided to tell the truth. "He got cut up by Chambers - his arm - it's not too bad, but he lost some blood and... well, he did get a nasty crack on the head before that."
"I remember Chambers striking him... with his gun...." Chris frowned as he tried to remember the events that had led him to this spot. "But I can't..." his voice filtered out as he struggled to remember. Sighing, he pushed that concern aside. "How bad is it?" Chris finally asked, tilting his head down towards his shoulder.
Jackson pulled a face and offered, "Well, better than you have any right to be.... I mean, you did a pretty good job of abusing it before Chambers decided to add his bit of torment." Seeing the confused look his earned him, he reiterated, "Chambers gave you another dose of morphine... a fairly large dose... it kinda knocked you out."
"I... he said something about getting me addicted?" Chris asked, his voice shaking slightly at the thought.
Vin smiled and offered, "You can thank Ezra that you're not, Cowboy."
"Ezra?" Larabee asked, now looking totally confused.
"Yeah," Buck supplied. "He played poker with Chambers: if he won, you got a three-hour reprieve from the drug; if he lost, Chambers took back six hours."
Chris paled at this news and, shaking his head, he asked, "I take it Ezra was winning?"
"What do you think?" Vin said, smiling broadly. Larabee was sounding like his old self - weaker, but definitely Chris Larabee.
"I really think you should try to get some more rest, Chris," Nathan advised. He could see that Larabee was fighting against it, and smiled when he recalled that it had only been a few minutes ago that he had witnessed the same struggle with Ezra.
The gunslinger suddenly yawned and mumbled disgustedly, "Man, I feel so tired...."
Nathan reached out and rested his hand gently on Chris's forehead, checking for fever as he said, "Now, that's only natural after what you've been through... but rest really is the best medicine in this case. Just close your eyes... we're all fine and not going anywhere until you're fit enough to travel, so you just concentrate on that."
"I never realised just how bossy you really are, Nathan," Chris commented, before closing his eyes and falling into the waiting arms of sleep.
The next time Chris Larabee opened his eyes, it was well into the afternoon and the whole camp was awake. He tilted his head slightly and saw that Vin, Buck and the others were standing talking to Harvey and his men; it looked like a heated discussion was taking place.
"Mr Harvey wants to ride into Four Corners, after the two men that Chambers sent there," a voice supplied from off to Chris's other side. Turning to look towards the voice, Chris saw Ezra sitting comfortably by the small fire which was by now no more than smouldering ashes, his arm secured to his side by a tight bandage and a large sling.
"I'm not sure we can stop him," Larabee said, taking a good look at the man who had saved his life from a living hell. "How do you feel?" he finally asked, indicating the bandaged arm in the roughly-made sling.
"This?" Ezra laughed weakly, holding up his injured arm before grimacing in pain and adding with little conviction, "This is nothing... I've hurt myself worse when I've cut myself shaving."
Larabee was not prepared to brush aside what Standish had done for him, so he said, his voice serious, "I want to thank you for what you did...."
Ezra held up his good arm in mock horror, determined to prevent the gunslinger from going any further as he stated firmly, "I did only what I had to do... what you would have done if the roles had been reversed."
Chris smiled and said, "Well I hope you never have to depend on my poker skills to keep you alive, Ezra, otherwise you're in deep shit."
"Oh, come now, Mr Larabee," the gambler retorted, falling back onto familiar ground as he bantered, "you forget I have seen you play poker, and you can be quite formidable when you choose to be."
Chris smiled before he added, "Let's hope it never comes to that."
"Amen to that."
Before they could continue, Vin and Buck returned. Vin crouched down next to Chris and said, pleased at seeing the man awake again, "Harvey wants to ride on to Four Corners... he's not taking no for an answer." He shot the man in question a hard look, but held his own counsel as he waited for Larabee to comment.
"Can you really stop him?" Chris questioned, accepting the drink that Nathan offered as he sat down beside his patient.
Vin wiped a hand across his face as he considered their options. "I don't reckon we can," he answered honestly.
"Not without things turning ugly," Buck put in, glancing back at the milling men who were being watched closely by JD and Josiah.
"Then I say we should let them go," Chris said, his voice a lot firmer after drinking the water. "But," he added, carefully meeting the eyes of the men who sat and stood about him, "we should go with them."
"That's a definite no," Nathan said firmly. Seeing the look this earned him, he raised an eyebrow and snapped, the healer in him refusing to be intimidated by the gunslinger, "No.... You're staying right here until I say you can move... do you understand me?"
Chris would have liked to argue with the healer, but even he had to admit that he was not strong enough to sit up, let alone stay in the saddle for the long ride back to Four Corners.
"All right," he finally conceded, "but some of you will have to go back with them.... There's no way that I'm allowing those gun-happy cowboys into Four Corners without at least some of us there to keep a lid on them."
After several minutes of tense silence Vin said, "I agree..." before he pressed his lips together and said, "So who goes?"
Chris closed his eyes as he let his weariness wash over him, then firmly pushing this weakness aside, he said, his mantle of leadership firmly back in place, "You, Buck, Josiah and JD."
"I also can accompany them back. My scratch is not causing me any trouble, and I feel that I can..." Ezra put in, but stalled when he was confronted with Nathan's glare.
"You're not going anywhere, either."
"No buts.... You take the others back," Nathan spoke to Vin and Buck. "We'll follow in a few days...."
"Are you sure you'll be all right?" Buck asked, casting concerned glances between his friends. While he didn't like leaving Chris, Ezra and Nathan, he could see the sense in what Larabee said, and their priority now was the safety of Four Corners.
"Yeah... we'll be fine. Once you've sorted Harvey and his men out, you could always send JD back with a wagon...."
Vin nodded his head, tossing a look back over his shoulder towards Harvey and his men. "I reckon that's the best idea... they ain't gonna wait much longer, and if Springer and Holland are in Four Corners...." He let his words hang.
"I'm not so sure they would have gone to Four Corners," Buck said, his expression one of consideration.
"Why not?" Nathan asked, looking up at the man.
"They didn't strike me as the kind of men who'd risk their lives to go into a town where they might be recognised, and where the army might be waiting for them. No, I think they would have hightailed it out of here as soon as they got the opportunity."
"You could be right," Chris agreed, relaxing back on his makeshift bed. He was tired and uncomfortable but still felt a lot better than he had the previous day, so he was not about to complain.
Harvey moved over towards them, saying as he did so, "We've decided to head into town... waiting around here is only allowing Springer and Holland the chance to escape."
"You do what you've got to do, Mr Harvey," Chris said. Whilst he might be laying down and injured, his voice still carried its firm tone of command and informed Gerard Harvey that this man was still a force to be reckoned with. "But Vin, Buck, Josiah and JD are going to accompany you."
"I don't need no babysitters," snapped the general, glaring at the injured man. He partly held this man responsible for the situation that he and his men had found themselves in. He knew that his feelings were unfounded, but he needed to blame someone for the death of his man and the shambles his life had become, and Chris Larabee and his men appeared to be easy targets.
That notion was soon put to rest as Larabee retorted, his face granite as he spoke, "You also don't want the trouble we can bring down on your head if you push us too far." The glare in Chris's eyes wilted the fire in Harvey's expression. Larabee continued, "Four Corners is our responsibility, and no one... and that includes you... is going to ride in there looking for trouble, maybe shooting up the town and killing innocent people."
"My men follow my commands," snapped Harvey, unsettled by the fact that this injured man had command over the situation. Once again the events were being taken out of Gerard's hands and he didn't like it.
He lost his will to battle the men, however, when the taller man with the moustache said, his voice dripping ice just like his leader's, "Yeah, just like Chambers? Tell me, General Sir, how many innocent men did you hang on his say so?"
Whatever Harvey had been about to say died on his lips as the realisation of Buck's words hit home. He seemed to grow old and stooped before their very eyes, as he offered weakly in his defence, "I only did what I had to.... My son was innocent..."
"So were Connors' wife and kids, and that orphan lad they took in, but you brought their killers right to their doorstep," Vin said, his voice deceptively calm.
"There are always casualties in war," Harvey shot back, before he froze, hearing what he was saying for the first time in ages. He had let his rage blind him for so many years, that now - for the first time in over a decade - he was actually listening to what he was saying and the words shocked him to the core.
"Yeah, but we're not at war now, Harvey..." Chris snapped back, his eyes flashing at the total arrogance of the man who stood before him.
"I can't change the past," the broken man finally confessed before he added, his tone frozen with determination, "But I can hunt down Springer and Holland; they were in the gang that got my son hung.... Once they're captured, I'll stop... that I promise you... but not until then...." He spun about and began to walk away, his stride angry at his own defeat. Then he spun back, snarling, "Well, if you're riding with us you'd better be ready when we are."
"That man isn't going to stop until he's in the ground alongside his son," Nathan said, his tone quietly bitter as he remembered seeing many such men after the war - men whose families had been destroyed by the battles, who had nothing left to live for and no way to accept that what they had lost was gone, so they moved from one place to another, trying to quench the pain of their loneliness by fighting wars that no longer existed.
"If you have to, Vin, Buck... you put him in the ground.... Don't risk yourselves or anyone in Four Corners... that man just isn't worth it," Chris commanded, his voice a lot firmer than his condition suggested.
Vin looked over at the man Chris was referring to, noting the way he was shouting out orders and waving his arms about. He could see what Larabee was saying, so he nodded and agreed, "You've got it, Cowboy.... Don't worry... we can handle it, and we'll send JD back with a wagon." Tanner met Larabee's gaze and a look passed between them - it was the handing over of the authority which Chris carried; he trusted Vin totally to lead the others and to get them safely though the next few days.
Half an hour later, Chris, Nathan and Ezra watched as the others slowly moved along the canyon and out of sight. Larabee was not happy that they had split up, but he could fully understand the reasoning behind it: they had a duty to protect Four Corners, and they could not do that if they had to wait until Larabee was strong enough to ride.
As if sensing this, Nathan moved over and offered, "Give yourself another day, two at the most, Chris... then we'll follow them."
"It's hard to just lie here and watch them go," Larabee said, swallowing the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him.
"The day it becomes easy is the day you'd better give up leading us, Chris," Nathan said, smiling at the man he had long ago come to count as a friend.
"Hell, the day I give up leading you guys is the day they bury me," Chris shot back with a slight smile, then sobered as he realised that they had very nearly come to that yesterday. He glanced over at Ezra, and could see from his expression that he was thinking the same thing. "Damn it," he snorted, trying to turn their attention away from his words, "what does a guy have to do to get fed around here?"
"One rabbit stew coming up," Nathan said, also wanting to get his patients' thoughts off the previous day, as he was still concerned by Ezra's reactions - even now the gambler seemed to be denying the events. Besides that, the healer was pleased to see that Chris was going to attempt to eat. He knew that, while Larabee was putting on a brave face, he was still sporting a low-grade fever which was sapping his strength.
"Are you sure it's rabbit?" Ezra asked, looking into the pot perched precariously over the small fire. Vin had disappeared from camp a short while before he'd left with Harvey, returning carrying a couple of rabbits and something that the gambler thought looked suspiciously like a snake... a long snake.
Nathan, seeing the look on the gambler's face, answered, "Well, if I come across the rattle end of a snake, I'll be sure to let you know, Ezra."
"Mr Jackson, I fear that you have been seriously misled by those people who informed you that you have a sense of humour."
Chris slowly settled back and let the bickering of the other men wash over him. He never would have thought that he would gain comfort from Nathan and Ezra's clash of words.
By early afternoon of the second day, Nathan was nearing his wits' end. Ezra was fast recovering from his wound and blood loss, and Chris was nearer to death than he realised... at Jackson's hands no less. The shoulder wound and fever had kept Larabee quiet for most of the previous day as he had slept out the last of the morphine, but he had awoken early that morning clear of fever and eager to get back on his horse, ready to head after Vin and the others.
At first Nathan had counselled against it, as he knew that the gunslinger was still too weak to travel far. Yet, as the sun climbed high into the sky, he had grown more and more weary of Chris's moaning and whining. If the injured man attempted to rise one more time, then the healer was not going to be held accountable for the actions he took to prevent him from rising again.
Nathan shot a look over towards his two patients: Ezra, seeing Nathan's growing anger, had finally pulled out his pack of cards and the two men were now quietly playing. Chris was having problems holding his cards and Ezra was boldly taking advantage of this; even though his own arm was out of commission, he was still able to shuffle and deal the cards with the dexterity of one born to the profession. Normally Nathan would have felt obliged to point this out to Chris, but this time he just took grim satisfaction that Ezra was wiping him out, both financially and physically.
"Mr Larabee, we really do not need to continue if you are too tired," Ezra finally said, growing tired of winning too easily against the exhausted man. "You need to rest and gather your strength for the journey back to Four Corners," he advised, laying down his own hand and showing yet again a winning flush.
Chris blinked owlishly at the cards, then glared at the gambler before grumpily stating, "You should be glad that I'm unable to use my gun... that's the second time I've seen that king in the last few hands."
Ezra's expression paled as he shot Chris a startled look. He had not believed that Larabee was paying that much attention to the cards he had been dealing. "Well, you know what they say about lady luck and the hapless."
"Does it have anything to do with the saying about the cheated gunslinger and the totally in-shit gambler?" Chris asked, eyeing his pile of money that now sat in front of the other man.
Standish followed his look and, as if seeing the money for the first time, he offered quickly, "This?" He pointed to the small pile, as if just as shocked to see it sitting in front of him. "This.... I wasn't planning on keeping this.... Why, we are just having a friendly game," Ezra stated, emphasising the word 'friendly' as he counted out the money and passed Chris's share back to him.
Larabee watched Standish's actions, fighting to force back the smile that threatened to split across his lips. He knew that Ezra rarely kept the money he won from the other six members of the group. Usually he would allow the money to drift back and forth across the gambling table, so that the other six left with around the same amount as they had entered into the game... unless they had annoyed the gambler sometime during the day. Chris did smile as he recalled that others, outside of their group, who played with the sharp-witted gambler were not nearly so lucky.
A yawn caught Larabee unawares, and he was surprised at how heavy his eyelids had grown. Standish, seeing this, slowly withdrew and motioned towards Nathan, who approached.
Realising how pale Chris had become, he took charge, saying, "Now, Chris, that's it.... You're falling asleep sitting there." Nathan began to fuss about the injured man. Larabee tried feebly to brush him off, but the healer would have none of it and Chris soon found himself flat on his back and falling asleep, not sure how he had ended up that way.
That was the sight that met JD and Vin when they rode into the small camp several hours later. Tanner was kneeling beside his friend before his horse had come to a proper stop. "Nathan, how is he?" he demanded, looking up at the healer who had moved to stand beside him. Vin was concerned to see that Larabee was seemingly lying unconscious; he had expected to find his friend sitting up and chomping at the bit to return home.
"He is doing just fine, thank you," stated a sleepy Larabee, who had been woken by the sound of JD's and Vin's approach.
"The fever broke yesterday and he's starting to be a pain in the butt... that's usually a sure sign that he's feeling better," Nathan stated dryly, before moving over to help JD secure the wagon.
"Why are you here?" demanded Chris, realising that Vin had accompanied JD with the wagon. "What happened with Harvey? Who's watching the town?"
Vin smiled at the snappish tone that Larabee used; it truly meant that the other man was on the mend. "Harvey only stayed in town one night. Once he'd made sure that Springer and Holland hadn't been there, he and his men left yesterday to track them down.... Buck and Josiah are in town and everything's under control... 'cepting that they're worried about you and Ezra."
"Me?" the gambler squeaked in some surprise, glancing up sharply from the game of solitaire he had been playing.
"Yes, Ezra, you..." Vin agreed with a smile. "You were hurt as well, you know." He motioned to the bandaged arm.
"I... I know," stammered the other man, suddenly embarrassed. "But...." He stopped, not knowing what to say. In his life he had never really had anyone to care about him as much as these six men seemed to, except for his mother - and her affection had always come with a price tag. He swallowed the lump that suddenly formed in his throat and offered in a slightly choked voice, "I find myself unexpectedly touched by their display of concern."
"Why?" Chris asked, frowning. Whilst a loner himself, he found it strange that any sign of friendship towards the gambler always seemed to shock the other man. He had to wonder at what kind of childhood Mrs Standish had really given her only child, and how well Ezra had grown under that casually tossed affection. "You're one of us now, Ezra," the gunslinger stated firmly, as if that answered any questions or doubts that the gambler might have.
Ezra said nothing as he turned away, but both men saw the small smile that had begun to play about his lips as he made his escape and headed over to assist JD, who was removing the two horses from the wagon.
"Hey, Ezra." The younger man paused and smiled up at him. "How ya feeling?"
"Quite well, my young friend, quite well." With some surprise, Ezra realised that the words were the truth, as he looked down at his bandaged arm.
"How's your shoulder?" Vin asked Chris, as he sat watching Ezra talk to JD, but not hearing what they were saying.
"Fine?" Nathan queried, with a raised eyebrow.
Larabee smiled weakly and retorted, "Better, then... is better all right, Nathan?"
The healer smiled and offered, "Better is better, but still resting and taking it easy would be perfect."
"You know, for someone who doesn't believe in slavery, you sure are a slave driver when it comes to people doing what you want," Chris grumbled, his tone unfriendly. It was water off Nathan's back; he had dealt with a healing Larabee before, and knew that the man didn't use fire with his words.
"If you want to ride that wagon back to Four Corners tomorrow, you'd better start being nice to me," Nathan shot back, with an evil grin of his own.
Vin laughed; if Nathan was taking shots at Chris, then the gunslinger must be on the mend. Chris threw him a sour look and offered, "You wait 'til you're at his mercy and see if I laugh or not."
The tracker laughed again, then sobered suddenly as he had a flash of memory of just how ill Chris had been. He felt a shudder ripple down his body as he once again saw the morphine-filled needle bite into his friend's arm. He swallowed hard.
"Hey... hey, Vin...." He looked up into the concern-filled eyes of Nathan, who had reached out to grasp his arm at the expression of such loss that he had seen slip across the bounty hunter's face.
"Nothing... it's nothing," Vin offered, bravely pushing his fear aside and turning a false smile on his friend.
"Vin?" Chris questioned, his tone also full of concern.
"You were pretty bad there for a while, Cowboy," Tanner confessed about another swallow. "I guess it just caught up with me for a moment."
Nathan nodded wisely and offered, "And maybe the last few days are catching up with you and JD, too.... Did you have any rest when you got back to town?"
"Got some," Vin said, refusing to meet Nathan's sharp-eyed look. To tell the truth, he had spent a large part of the first night in Four Corners keeping a watch on Harvey and his men with the others, and the second night tossing and turning as he worried about Chris and Ezra. He now felt totally wiped out, almost dizzy with exhaustion.
"I bet," Nathan continued. "Well, you and JD can just both get a good night's sleep tonight and we can head back to town in the morning."
Vin shot Chris a glance. He had expected the other man to protest another night in the canyon, but all he saw was concern for himself and JD, and he knew that he'd lost the battle. Yet, somehow he really didn't mind losing this particular battle, as it meant that his friends were healing and soon they would all be together again. He had to smile at the warm feeling that gave him.
Three weeks had passed since Chris had returned to Four Corners in the back of the wagon that JD and Vin had taken out to the canyon. The journey had caused him to have a setback and his fever to return, his weakened body unable to fight against it. He had finally been released from Nathan's clutches just a few days ago. He now sat in the bright sunlight outside the saloon and took a deep, refreshing breath. While he had been out and about during his convalescence, it had always been with one of the other six men glued to his side and he was still getting used to being on his own.
He tilted his head and just took in the sights and sounds of the town as it quietly milled about its day. He could see Mrs Travis as she moved about the town with her latest batch of newspapers under her arm. She spied him and changed her direction to approach him.
"How are you feeling, Mr Larabee?" she asked politely, tilting her head and smiling down at him.
He smiled back at her and said, "I'm feeling much better." He knew that she had been to visit him several times during his first few days back in Four Corners, and had even sat with him on occasion when needed, but his fever had been raging and he had not been aware of her. Buck had made a point of informing Chris of her devotion. "I'm told that I owe you a word of thanks for tending me during my illness," he continued, uncomfortable with the knowledge, yet feeling that he had to acknowledge it.
She waved his words aside, blushing with embarrassment as she said, "Please Mr Larabee, it was nothing.... The others were busy with the mess that General Harvey and his men left, and I was only spelling Nathan once or twice to allow him to get some rest... it really was nothing."
"Nonetheless," Chris persisted, wanting to thank the woman, "it was very generous of you."
He could see that she was flustered by his words of thanks and was not surprised when she looked up the street, spied someone she needed to see and said, making her escape, "It really was a pleasure, Mr Larabee, and please think no more of it." Then she was gone, bustling after Mrs Potter.
"Quite a remarkable woman," Vin said, opening the saloon doors and stepping through, two glasses of beer in his hands.
Chris tossed a look over his shoulder and smiled at his friend. He had known that, even while they had left him alone, his friends had not actually left him. "How long?" he asked, knowing that the bounty hunter knew what he was referring to.
"Just a few minutes.... I saw you out here... thought you might want this." As he spoke, Vin leant forward and placed the cool beer in his friend's hands.
Chris smiled his appreciation and took a long draught of the brown liquid. He swallowed with relish before he said, "Thanks... I needed that." Again he turned his attention back to the street that lay before him. Silence fell between the two men, but it was an easy peace that neither man was willing to break, as Vin moved to sit in the chair by Chris. Finally Larabee asked, "How long before Buck, Ezra and Nathan get back?"
Tanner shot Chris a concerned look and carefully considered his answer. Larabee had taken the Connors family's deaths hard, especially David Connors' suicide, and this in turn had made each of the other six men very cautious when discussing it. In fact, it had been a taboo subject until the past week, when Judge Travis had requested their assistance in the capture of two men whom an ex-general, Harvey, said were responsible for the deaths of several people. The men's names were Springer and Holland.
It had been decided that Buck, Ezra and Nathan would travel to Littledeed and give an account concerning both their encounter with Harvey and the killing of Chambers. They had been gone for several days and were expected back within the next few. The four men who were left behind could not deny their concern for the group's gambler, who had not spoken of the killing of Chambers since their return to Four Corners, although he had seemed rather sullen and withdrawn, retreating to his room if the subject was even approached.
"Got a telegram this morning. Judge Travis finished with them and they're on their way back."
"Ezra?" Chris asked, tilting his head to look at his friend, unable to hide the real concern he knew was reflected there.
Vin glanced away, knowing that his eyes also showed his fears. Taking a deep breath, he offered, "Didn't say."
Larabee didn't comment, he just went back to sipping his beer, a thoughtful expression crossing his face as he sat watching the town. Nathan had told him about the gambler's reaction to Chambers and how he had killed him, and the healer had stated that he was concerned... and that, in turn, worried Chris... worried him greatly.
"How's the shoulder?" Tanner finally ventured.
"Fine, never felt better...." As if to prove his point, Chris moved his arm in a full circle. It caused a wince of pain, but he pushed that firmly away. He was now back in the saddle and had been out of town the last three mornings to practice his shooting, which he was fast getting back up to speed. On the way back into town that morning he had stopped at the small graveyard, spending quite a while just standing before the newly covered graves of Connors and his family.
Whatever thoughts had gone through Larabee's head, the bounty hunter who watched him with concern would never know. All Tanner could tell was that, during the period at the grave, Chris Larabee had come to some acceptance of the events that had led to Connors' death. Vin would not fool himself into thinking that Chris would ever forget the deaths of Connors and his family, nor would he ever truly release the guilt he felt belonged to him for David's death, yet Vin knew that the gunslinger had assigned the memory to a corner of his soul where he could live with it. While it might be not the ideal situation, if he were honest, it was probably the safest.
"It's starting to shape up to a fairly good day," Vin said, finishing his beer and standing. For the first time in nearly a month, Tanner actually felt like it really was a good day.
"Yep," Chris agreed, smiling up at him. Both men knew that the conversation they were having had nothing to do with the weather.
Buck, Ezra and Nathan returned to Four Corners late in the evening. The fires had been lit and were scattered about the main street. As they slowly made their way to the stable that stood at the other end of town, both Buck and Nathan threw their third companion worried glances. Since giving an accounting of events leading up to the death of Chambers, Ezra had been almost silent, speaking only when asked a direct question, and his smile, which would usually flash across his face, had been absent the last few days.
After they had finished with the horses, Ezra said, "If you gentlemen would excuse me...?"
He began to walk away, but Buck caught up with him, saying brightly, "Hey, Ezra how about a game of poker?"
The gambler tossed a look back over his shoulder, shaking his head as he countered, "No... I'm a bit tired... after the ride." Then he was gone, leaving two very concerned friends looking after him.
Dawn was a cold affair in Four Corners at that time of year. The sun feebly struggled to reach across the sky and beat back the bitter chill of the night.
Ezra stood silently before the newly covered graves of David Connors and his family. He had not been able to sleep again the night before, as the memories of his fight with Chambers had played again and again in his mind's eye. He could feel the rock as he grasped it in his hand and the way that Chambers' skull had shattered under the savage attack. Ezra felt like a monster... totally alien to his usual self. He was not a stranger to killing, in fact he had done so more than a few times in defence of his life. What made this killing so hard to bear was the fact that he had lost his humanity for several moments and had actually enjoyed the feel of the man dying under his blood-soaked hands. The southern gentlemen in him hated that loss of control.
"This has to be one of the loneliest places on God's earth." Chris Larabee's voice broke the silence of the morning, and caused Ezra to spin about in surprise.
"Mr Larabee!" he gasped, suddenly feeling foolish for being caught standing before the graves.
The other man took Ezra's acknowledgement as permission to approach and moved to stand beside the elegantly dressed gambler, saying as he did so, "It never gets any easier, Ezra... it never does... but at least we have the knowledge that Chambers and his gang will never hurt anyone else... ever again."
"How do you learn to live with it, Mr Larabee," Standish asked boldly, before he clarified, "the killings, the deaths.... How do you sleep at night?"
Chris tossed a sidelong glance at the man who stood beside him and saw that the gambler really meant the question. He desperately wanted to know the magic that would help him close his eyes at night. Slowly Larabee shook his head before saying, sorry that this was the only advice he could give, "As I said, Ezra, it doesn't get any easier. There isn't any special medicine that you can take... nor words that can be spoken to remove the pain, the memory... you just have to slowly come to terms with it."
"How...?" Ezra spat out, his face contorting with anger and distress. "How can I come to terms with the fact that I reacted no better than an animal?"
Chris closed his eyes; he knew exactly where his friend was coming from. He had awoken a few nights since David Connors' death, still seeing the swinging body in his mind's eye, even though he had never actually witnessed it... he had seen enough men die in that manner to know what had happened. It was not a pleasant way to die.
"Springer was spilling his guts, you know," Ezra said, changing the subject too quickly for Chris to fully comprehend until the gambler clarified, "He said that Connors had been a member of the gang... in the beginning.... He had been just as guilty as the rest of them for the slaughter at Pentonville, but he had run out on them six or seven years ago...."
Chris closed his eyes as he pushed back the emotions that threatened to shatter him. Poor Marylou had never really known the man that she had married, had never realised the past that was waiting to drag her husband down. Marylou and her children had paid the price for her husband's past sins. With sudden insight, Chris knew - in his gut, he just knew - that that was the knowledge David had not been able to live with. That was the reason he had taken his life.
Chris sighed bitterly. It didn't really help the guilt that he felt, but at least it helped him to understand it a little better. Now he turned fully to look at the gambler, seeing the pain etched on the handsome face. He was unable to stop himself from reaching out towards his friend's suffering, gripping his shoulder hard as he offered, "Chambers was the animal, Ezra... not you. You were the survivor... unfortunately, you had to stoop to his level to do that. That does not make you an animal, my friend, it just makes you human." Chris paused before he added, his tone so low that the gambler had to strain to hear it, "And you saved my life... and the others'.... No matter what you might feel about having to kill Chambers... I will always be grateful that you did."
Several minutes of silence followed; neither man spoke and the sun continued to rise, slowly pushing the coldness back and replacing it with a warmth that covered the two men who stood under its growing glare.
Finally Ezra looked about the small graveyard, then back at his friend and saw only true concern for himself shining out of Chris's eyes. He nodded once, as if coming to some decision, then slowly turned towards his friend and asked, "I trust I can count on your discretion concerning this matter, Mr Larabee?"
Chris found himself smiling with relief at the slightly teasing quality that had crept into the gambler's tone. Removing his hand from the other's shoulder, he offered, "Of course, Mr Standish."
"I fear my reputation as a gambler would never recover, nor my mother get over the shock if it should come out that I had... er, human qualities."
"Heaven forbid that I should be responsible for your reputation being tarnished... and, as for your mother going into shock..." he returned the smile the other man tossed at him and finished, "I don't think the world is really ready for Mrs Standish to suffer any kind of shock."
Ezra gave a bark of laughter at that thought, then hesitatingly rested a hand on Chris's shoulder as he asked, "Could I interest you in a finely cooked breakfast...? I understand from Mr Wilmington that Inez makes one of the best breakfasts around."
"You know, Ezra, I think that sounds like a fine idea."
With that, the two men turned from the graves of the Connors family and slowly made their way back to the town of Four Corners: the town that both men had sworn to protect, and the town where their other five friends sat waiting for their return.
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