By Jordan McKenzie


Part 8



Wasting no time, Nathan stopped the horses at the back entrance of the Lullaby Inn, jumped from his seat and ran to the rear of the wagon. “Josiah, would you take Ezra up to our room?” he asked quietly, careful not to draw attention to their arrival.


“I’ve got him,” Josiah replied as he dismounted.


Ezra surfaced from the smothering depths of fever long enough to push at the large hands taking hold of him, but Josiah easily trapped his trembling fingers against his chest, lifted him bodily off the wagon and whispered near his ear, “Easy, son. You’re safe.”


“JD,” Nathan called. “I need ya to run over to the General Store and pick up some supplies. I’m gonna need things to clean these two up, and from the looks of it, they’ll be needin’ some new clothes. I should have enough medicine in what you brought from my clinic to treat their wounds and handle their pain, but I’ll need more bandages. Mr. Phillips, would you mind goin’ with him? I don’t know what to expect from the folks in this town.” The two men nodded in unison and took off down the street. “Buck, has Chris come to yet?”


Wilmington looked up from the gunfighter. “No, but he’s shakin’ enough to loosen his teeth,” he answered as he laid a hand on Chris’ chest, “and his breathin’ ain’t right.”


“Let’s get him inside. We need to get that fever down and clean him up. Vin, if you’ll help him, I’ll go and get started on Ezra.”


“Sure, Nate. Come on, Buck, you can slide him to me.” Vin moved to the tail of the wagon.


Buck knelt next to his injured friend. In an instant, Chris grabbed him by the jacket and yanked him forward. “Whoa there, pard. You’re all right. We’re just gonna get you off this thing.” Chris gripped the coat tighter and mumbled something against his shoulder. “Okay, tell you what, you and I are gonna get off this thing together. You just hang on to me.”


It took some doing but he and Vin managed to maneuver Chris off the wagon and inside the Inn. Josiah ushered them into the first of their rooms and led them to an empty bed alongside Ezra’s. Careful not to jostle Chris, the two bearers lowered him to the bed in a single motion. Vin stood once the man in the blanket hit the bed. Buck, however, was pulled to the mattress and forced to stay put until Josah reached in and released the gunslinger’s hold.


“Thanks,” Buck said. “He may look thin right now, but the man still weighs enough to put a crick in your neck.”

Josiah nodded and sat next to Ezra. The gambler was conscious, irritable and ready for a fight when Nathan removed what was left of his shirt. “I can wait,” he growled. “I would much prefer it if you would see to Chris. He’s in a bad way.”


“Now that’s the pot calling the kettle black,” Josiah stated, arching an eyebrow.


“If you are referring to my attire, I assure you I had little choice in the matter.”


“He ain’t talking about your clothes, Ezra,” Vin explained.


Nathan reached for Ezra’s twitching hands. “What the hell happened to you? You’re half covered in blood. Your skin’s bone-white with all that’s leaked outta ya, and still I can see more black ‘n blue than a man in a stampede oughtta show.” He put a hand to his patient’s frowning brow. “Not to mention you got yourself a helluva a fever, a hole in your shoulder near the size of my fist and I ain’t even looked underneath these other bandages yet. So settle down and be still. JD’ll be back in a minute and I want to get started cleanin’ you up.”


“But Chris…”


“Don’t you worry none about Chris.” Buck gathered a cloth and a bowl of water. “We’re gonna see to him right now.”


“I know. It’s just…”


“What?” Vin sat with Buck on Chris’ bed.


“I… I’ve never seen a man tortured the way he was. He’d been beaten and abused before I even arrived at the prison. Apparently, once they realized he could survive the whippings, they began working on his mind. He started remembering things… things that had happened to him before…” he stopped and hissed through his teeth when he felt the tacky bandages tug at the torn flesh of his shoulder.


“Sorry, Ezra,” Nathan apologized.


The gambler bit down on a groan and rested his head against the headboard before adding, “He was in such pain.” Just as he was about to continue, JD and Phillips walked through the door and quickly laid out the supplies they had gathered.


JD walked between the two beds. “How’re they doin’, Nathan?”


“We’ll know soon. You did good here. Do me one more favor though, run downstairs and get us some more water. I’m gonna need more than what’s in that basin there.”


“I’m on my way. Wanna help, Mr. Phillips?” JD asked halfway out the door.


The guard nodded, grateful for something to do.


Nathan glanced at Chris. “Buck, keep his head and chest washed down ‘til I can get some tea made for his fever. After that, we’ll get that dirt and blood off him and clean those cuts. Josiah, you wanna give me a hand with Ezra? I’ll clean out his shoulder after he’s had something for pain. Right now I need to work on those hands and his arm.”


“Nathan.” The gambler raised his head. “My arm.”


“I know, Ezra, I’m gonna take care of it for you.”


“No, you don’t understand. My arm is fine.”


“Don’t start that again. Just let me take a look and get it cleaned up. You’ve got more than enough infection workin’ on ya.”


“I told you, my arm is not hurt. Why won’t anyone listen? First Chris, now you.” The Southerner was getting very perturbed and jerked away when Nathan tugged at the bandages.


“If you don’t be still, I’ll have Josiah hold ya down,” the healer warned.


Ezra frowned at the threat. Fine. Have it your own way, he thought.


Nathan unwrapped the bindings around the extended forearm carefully. Once the tattered cloth had been removed, he turned the limb from side to side. “Ezra, your arm’s not hurt,” he announced.


“I think he was tryin’ to tell you that, Nathan,” Josiah said with a grin.


“Then why’s it bandaged?”


“Oh, are you asking me now?” The gambler felt terrible and he was letting it show.


“Ezra,” Josiah warned.


He blew a sigh and looked wearily at his twitching fingers. “Chris tended my arm while we were in the cave. For some reason he thought it was damaged. I tried to convince him otherwise, but he was adamant… He’s been adamant about quite a few things lately.”


As if responding to the accusation, the man huddled in the next bed began to mumble.


“Chris?” Buck asked softly. “You in there?”


The response was a pain-filled groan.


Ezra turned to get out of bed.


“You stay put,” Josiah said firmly. “Let Nathan check him out.”


Ezra glared but was so exhausted from the exertion he lay back down.


When Jackson moved to sit opposite Buck on Chris’ bed, the blond tried to roll onto his back. Nathan pulled the blanket off his shuddering body and went immediately to the wound in his side. Chris tried to push him away but Vin and Buck each took an arm and held them out across the mattress, the bloody bandages around his wrists standing out in sharp contrast to the clean white sheet.


Ezra watched his cellmate’s head roll on its pillow. “Must be dreaming… about the bear,” he wheezed.


Buck stared at the pallid gambler. “You mentioned back near the cave that Chris was rememberin’ a bear attack on Adam.”


“Yes, he’s been having… vivid memories… about the attack.”


Buck noticed the gambler’s thickening accent and heavy breaths. “I knew Adam his whole life; he was never attacked by a bear, neither was Chris.”


Ezra was rapidly succumbing to exhaustion. “All I know is what I saw; what Chris saw… He’s been having vivid recollections … of a bear attack… on both himself and Adam... He’s been reliving the smallest details.” He was so worn out by his effort to speak he was panting.


Nathan heard. “Be quiet now, Ezra. You need to be sleeping. Don’t worry about what Chris thought he was seein’. It could have been the drugs the warden used on him, or maybe the hits he’s taken to the head. Either one could make him see things.” He fingered the half-healed wound beneath his hands before moving to the gunfighter’s wrists.


Chris struggled against the hands restraining him and drew one leg up across the other.


“Nathan, take a look at his leg,” Ezra wheezed roughly. “Been giving him problems… I tried… to help, but… too dark where we were kept.”


“Damn it, that’s enough! Not another word. Josiah, if he opens his mouth again, shut it for him!”


The Southerner fell silent. Not because of the hollow threat, but because he couldn’t have forced another breath from his tortured chest if he wanted to.


Nathan heaved a sigh before he continued. “His leg. Yeah, I did see him hobblin’ on it before.” He stood, pulled the blanket completely off Chris’ body and pushed up the tattered legs of the prison pants.


Standish pulled against Josiah’s arm until he sat straighter. “His left leg, up high,” he gasped. “He seemed to favor it.”


Josiah turned a threatening glare and the smaller man meekly lay down again.


Nathan glared as well then motioned for Buck to help him. “Come on, let’s get these pants off him.”


Since there was very little of his prison clothes left, it took no more than a few seconds to strip Chris down. Nathan examined his upper left leg and was about to declare nothing wrong when he spotted something odd around the front of his pelvic bone. “What on earth?”


“What?” Vin tried to see what held Jackson’s attention. “You find somethin’?”


Everyone in the room watched as Nathan ran his fingers over the dirt-caked skin covering the gunslinger’s hipbone. “Hand me that wet cloth,” he requested, never taking his eyes off Chris. He took the rag and wiped away some of the dirt and blood that had gathered beneath the filthy pants. “Good Lord,” he muttered softly, cleaning the skin over the curve of his patient’s pelvis before moving around to his hip. “Help me turn him over.”


Vin and Buck both took hold and rolled him onto his stomach. Nathan rinsed the rag and set about cleaning more and more dirt away.


Vaguely aware of the pressure against his skin, Chris tried to crawl away, but six hands stopped his escape. “Off me,” he gagged. “Get him…off …”


Buck gently stroked his head. “It’s alright, Chris, you’re safe. What is it, Nathan? What d’ya see?”


The healer looked up. “Scars, a whole mess of old scars.”


“What d’ya mean scars? How can some old scars be hurtin’ him now?”


“They’re not just any scars, Buck,” Vin said in amazement. “Look at ‘em.”


Wilmington leaned in close and stared at what Nathan’s cleaning had revealed. From the front of Chris’ body, over the rise of bone, across his hip and about six inches down the back of his upper thigh were two distinctive sets of four parallel lines. The lines were equidistant and thick. They were also uniformly straight, from front to back at least then ended jaggedly and messily on the leg. “Oh, my God…” He dropped back onto the mattress.


“Tell us,” Josiah said as he leaned as far forward as he could and still keep Ezra from leaving the bed.


Buck put his hand once again on the back of Chris’ head. When he didn’t say anything, Vin answered for him. “Claw marks, Josiah. The scars are from bear claws.”


“Are you sure?”


“Yeah, I’ve seen ‘em before. Looks like Ezra was right, Chris wasn’t just dreamin’ – he was rememberin’.”


“But when? How?” Buck wondered, his tone full of sorrow and confusion.


“Not much tellin’,” Vin replied. “Judging by the scars, I’d say a bear caught him from behind and pulled him down. Looks like it caught him here,” he pointed to the front of the lawman’s body, “raked across him as he pulled him to the ground and kept hold of him by the leg. Chris must o’ tried to pull away. What I don’t know is how he got loose. Not much way to get free of a bear when it’s got you pinned like that.”


“Why didn’t he tell me?”


“A man sometimes buries the meaness done to him, Buck,” Josiah offered. “Hides it deep so it can’t hurt him.”


“Yeah, but damned if it don’t come back to haunt ya anyway,” Vin sighed as he looked down at the man stretched across the bed. Chris continued to toss and mumble, but he didn’t have the strength to evade the hands holding him.


Nathan heard footsteps outside the door and moved to help JD and Phillips bring in the water. JD handed him a steaming kettle and then raised another bucket to the small table next to the dresser.


Phillips put his load on the floor and turned to look at the men lying on the beds. Ezra appeared to be fighting sleep, his head bobbing up and down and his eyes losing focus. Chris was struggling as well, his hands resisting the blanket being tucked around his naked body despite the gooseflesh covering his limbs. The guard stepped closer to Nathan as he prepared herbal tea. “He looks done in,” he stated with a nod towards Ezra. “And he,” he added, motioning to where Chris lay, “looks like he’s gonna come outta his skin.”


“He’s right,” JD said. “They look real bad.”


Nathan met the young man’s soft brown eyes. “I won’t lie to ya, JD. I’m honestly surprised they made it this far, seeing what they been through.” He saw fear settle across JD’s face and added, “But they have made it this far and ain’t nobody givin’ up.”


The positive words appeared to renew the young man’s faith so Nathan went about his work. Once the herbs had steeped in the hot water, he handed a cup to Josiah and motioned towards Ezra. He was nearly unconscious again, but he was able to drink what was offered. When he didn’t complain about the taste, Nathan’s worry deepened.


Ezra weakly wiped at his mouth. It looked as if he was about to say something, but his lips simply couldn’t form the words. In less than a minute, his jaw went slack, his eyelids drifted shut and his hand slowly slid down his chest.


“Finally,” Nathan said. “He shoulda been out a long time ago. I don’t know what’s been keepin’ him goin’.”


“That ain’t hard to figure,” Phillips said. “He’s been frettin’ over his friend so long now I don’t reckon he can stop. He come a long way to free him — a lot further than most men would go for their own kin. Until he sees him on his feet and in his right mind, well, his job just ain’t done.”


Every man in the room was stunned. Phillips was right, of course. It was just surprising to hear a stranger speak of Ezra’s inner workings so well. It had taken months for most of them to understand how the conman thought, but here was someone who had learned his heart in a matter of days.


Vin found his voice first. “You’re a good judge of men, Mr. Phillips, but I suppose it’s time ol’ Ez takes a break and lets us see to gettin’ the job done.” The guard smiled at Vin before the sharpshooter turned to Jackson. “Nathan, you think they can make it?”


“It’s gonna be a long, hard road, but I mean to see ‘em through it.”


“Well there ain’t nothin’ else I can do here so I’m goin’ after the men who did this.”


JD stepped forward.  “I’m comin’ too. You’re gonna need help.”


Buck looked up at the young sheriff. “JD.”


“I’m goin’, Buck. You need to stay here with Chris. Josiah needs to stay as well. That just leaves me to back up Vin.”


Buck’s heart swelled with pride. He gave JD an almost imperceptible nod and said, “Just you be careful. I want you back here in one piece.”


Dunne offered a clumsy salute before a flicker of a smile spread across his face.


Phillips moved to the door. “You’re gonna be needin’ someone who knows their way around. Reckon that’d be me. Mind another gun?”


Vin waved their newest ally ahead of him. “Let’s ride.”


Nathan, Josiah and Buck settled in. They all knew it was going to be a long night.






Buck drew his long legs from where he had them propped on the foot of Chris’ bed. The chair he’d been sitting in for so long had finally gotten the better of his backside and it was past time to work out the kinks. He walked around the room and glanced out the window before he returned to stand between his two sleeping friends.


He thought about how hard Nathan had worked to clean and dress the numerous wounds on both Chris and Ezra. Ezra’s shoulder had been the biggest problem. Despite the herbs the healer had given him to make him sleep, the Southerner still fought against the attention paid to the large, messy wound. The pain of the rigorous cleansing and Nathan’s probing fingers was so intense it dragged Ezra just out of reach of unconsciousness. Buck had prayed and prayed the smaller man would pass out, but it never happened. Instead, he cried in agony the entire time it took to scrub and bandage the wound caused by the spear. It wasn’t until Nathan finished taking care of his hands that the gambler finally fell back exhausted, too tired and too hoarse to scream any longer. He never even knew it when his arm was bound to his chest and Josiah, who had been holding him throughout the torture, straightened his crumpled body and covered him with a blanket.


Buck had managed to bathe Chris in the time it took to tend Ezra. He’d cleaned out the smaller scratches and cuts covering his torso and legs, and double-checked the wrappings around his friend’s wrists when Nathan came to minister to the wound in the gunfighter’s belly. The ugly, half-healed slice had to be purged, cleaned and re-stitched. It was a horrible thing to watch but Chris never let on if he felt any pain. He was simply too far-gone. Between the drugs, the head injuries and the fever their leader was oblivious to most everything.


After the treatment of the knife wound, Chris was allowed to curl on his side again. He folded his hands across his chest, drew his knees up and burrowed deep into the bed’s covers. He continued to shiver but the violent tremors had left him. After another hour of twitching and jerking, he settled into a deep sleep and didn’t move again.


Nathan took the stillness around him as a good sign and decided the three men left standing should take turns watching over the injured. Buck, who initially felt he couldn’t sleep if he wanted to, offered to take the first shift while Josiah and Nathan went to the next room to get some rest. Now, three hours later, in a room eerily dark and quiet, Buck wished he had something to keep him awake. He stretched his back and leaned over Ezra, who hadn’t moved an inch since Josiah tucked him in. He rested a hand on his face – still warm, but the fever didn’t seem any higher than before. Staring at the slack face thoughtfully, he whispered, “Just in case no one’s said it, Ezra, you did good. You did real good.” He patted him on the chest and turned to check on Chris.


The moonlight entering the room through the window next to the gunfighter’s bed cast an unnatural glow on his face. The effect was startling; Chris was as pale as death and if it weren’t for the lines of pain etched into his features, he would have sworn …


He rubbed his friend’s back and felt the heat radiating through the blanket. “What’s been goin’ on with you, pard? Why didn’t you tell me about those scars, about the bear? You had to know I’d o’ helped ya. I guess what Josiah said makes sense -- about it bein’ too hard to talk about -- but it woulda been easier than totin’ it around with ya. Damn it, I wish I’d known.”


He let his hand slide to the back of Chris’ head. The heat on his neck was incredible, leaving no doubt his temperature had again begun to spike. Looking around the room for the bowl of water and rag he’d used earlier, Buck located the basin but found its contents filthy. He checked the extra buckets and found them equally dirty or empty. “Seems I need to go down and get some more water.” He gently squeezed an overheated shoulder. “You just stay asleep and I’ll be back in no time.”






Feeling as if he were suffocating, Chris pushed at the heavy blanket atop him. It was so hot he could barely breathe and he desperately wanted a cooler place to rest. He needed to get up, to get away, but he couldn’t leave. He knew he couldn’t. It’d been his fault, all of it. Everything that had happened was his fault alone -- the sorrow, the pain… the death. There was no one else to blame; he’d been told that over and over. Still, he wanted to be some place cool. He threw his legs over the side of the bed and forced himself up. He stood, swayed and immediately fell to the floor. Seconds later some part of his brain figured it out and he would have laughed hysterically if his body had been able; it was hot in hell and he’d just have to stay down and take his punishment.






Buck hurried back with the fresh water, and putting the bucket down on the dresser, went to fetch the basin. When he turned to face the two beds he noticed only one was occupied. Ezra was still where he’d left him but Chris was nowhere to be seen. His heart skipped a beat as he fumbled with the knob on the kerosene lamp, but once the flame lit the room he found his missing friend huddled naked in the corner. He hurried to Chris’ side and set the flickering light on the floor. Even in the low lamplight, he could see chill bumps on the gunfighter’s pale skin as he sat hunched over, facing the corner with his head buried in his arms. The heaving, rattling breaths he took shook his entire body. “Damn, buddy, you had me scared there for a minute. What’s going on?”


Chris’ brain registered the voice and its familiarity urged him to seek it out. He’d missed that voice, its gentleness and humor. In fact, his first complete thought was that he hadn’t heard it in a very long time. Risking a look up, he whispered, “Buck?”


“Yeah, pard, it’s me. What’re you doin’ here on the floor?”


“…gone…” Chris choked ahead of a cough.


“It’s okay, take it easy. Let me get you something to drink.” Buck fetched a cup of the water he’d brought up and held it to cracked, split lips. “Not too fast,” he advised but was forced to pull the cup away when his words fell on deaf ears. “That’s enough.”


Chris nervously reached a hand to touch the moisture on his lips and stared warily at Buck. The taller man smiled but got the distinct feeling the tearful eyes weren’t seeing him.


“He’s gone,” Larabee moaned.


Buck moved closer and tried to rest a hand on the bare shoulder but Chris flinched and tightened his arms around himself.


“He’s gone,” he repeated, softer this time.


“Who, buddy? Who’s gone?”




Buck shouldn’t have been surprised, remembering what Ezra had told him about Chris’ nightmares, but still it came to him like a slap in the face. “I know. Adam’s been gone a while now.”


“He shouldn’t’ve died like that.”


“No, he shouldn’t.”


“So much pain, so much fear.” Chris continued to stare, his eyes empty and his voice full of remorse.


Buck raised a hand to the fevered cheek. “Don’t go back there, okay? You’ve come way past that.”


“So much pain…”


Wilmington hung his head until he heard Nathan and Josiah enter the room.


“Does he know you, Buck?” Nathan asked.


“Seems to know it’s me, but he’s talkin’ about Adam. I ain’t seen him like this in a long time. Why’s he rememberin’ all this now?”


“He’s been through a lot. He’s confusin’ things.” Nathan knelt next to the ladies man and tried to rest a hand on the gunfighter’s knee. The first attempt was met with withdrawal; the second was timidly allowed. “Chris?”


Deaf to those around him, the blond continued, staring into nothingness. “I should’ve stopped him, he was just a boy. Why didn’t I make him stay away?”


“Stay away, Chris? Stay away from what?”


“From me.”


“He was your son. How could you make him stay away from you?”


“I should have made him. That bear… if I had tried, Adam wouldn’t be dead,” Chris replied in a more agitated voice.


When the word ‘bear’ was mentioned, Ezra began to stir, opening red-rimmed eyes to search the dimly lit room. He’d seen and heard his cellmate recreate the beast so vividly in his mind that he too responded to its imagined presence. Get up, his befuddled brain ordered. You have to get up. The effort to rise was monumental and in the end completely useless since a large hand easily prevented his body from obeying.


“Un-unh, brother, best you lie still,” Josiah’s deep voice cautioned.


“Chris is dreaming again,” he answered.


“Not dreamin’, Ezra, Chris is awake. He’s just not completely with us is all.”


“Where is he?”


Sanchez motioned to the corner next to the bed. Ezra rolled his head on the pillow and found Chris sitting on the floor with Buck and Nathan squatting in front of him. The overwhelming emotions playing across the battered face sent a shiver down his spine.


“He tracked us,” Chris wheezed. “The bear…”


Buck’s curiosity got the better of him. “Tell me about the bear. When were you attacked? Was it before we met up? Why didn’t you tell me you’d been mauled?”


Chris gazed at his anxious friend wildly as the stream of questions rolled over him.


“Slow down, Buck,” Nathan warned. “You’re pushin’ too hard. He can’t keep up just yet.”


“God, I’m sorry, Chris. I didn’t mean to scare ya. I just… I’m not doin’ this right.”


“I don’t think there is a right way to do this. We just need to get him to focus.”


Buck took a deep breath. “I need you to look at me, buddy. Okay? I wanna help, so I need you to tell me what’s got ya so upset.”


The gunfighter’s attention wavered for a moment before he actually looked Buck in the eyes. “I saw it happen. I saw the bear.”


“What bear?”


“H-he killed Adam.” He backed further into the corner and pushed himself up, climbing against the wall. He half stood, half leaned against its support.


“You’re just confused. Adam was never hurt by a bear.”


“It killed him… I didn’t, I didn’t stop him.”


Wilmington stood and reached to put both hands on his friend’s bare upper arms. “Listen to me, you’re just not thinking straight. But we’re gonna sort this out.”


“Help me, Buck. Don’t let him get to Adam.” Chris’ chest began heaving again.


Nathan scooted nearer. “Come on now, take it easy. Try not to remember right now.”


“No. Stop him. I can’t watch him die. I don’t want to see Adam die. Help him,” Chris cried as he slapped at Buck’s hands.


Ezra spoke up at the sound of the gunfighter’s desperate plea. “Be careful with him. I saw this at the prison. He truly believes in that bear.”


Buck moved even closer. “Chris, you gotta believe me. There is no bear. Adam was not hurt by a bear.”


Chris ducked away from him. “Oh God, please don’t let it happen. Not to Adam.”


“You’re wrong. Chris, a bear didn’t kill Adam,” Buck repeated emphatically.


“No! Not him!” He skirted the corner and made his way toward the door.


“Listen to me! A bear did not kill your son!”


“Not him! Not my son!” He edged closer to the doorway.


Ezra felt Chris’ terror and drew himself to the edge of his bed, which was no easy task with one arm secured to his chest. Josiah, understandably distracted, didn’t notice him swinging his legs over the side. The reckless attempt to rise nearly cost the gambler his consciousness but he held on. “Buck, wait,” he said. No one heard him.


Nathan followed Chris’ movements and saw that the door had been left slightly ajar. He panicked, thinking his patient would be able to make his way out, but then he caught a glimpse of Vin on the other side.


“Chris!” Buck shouted.


“Kill me, you son-of-a-bitch! Kill me, not Adam!” The distraught lawman made a move for the door but was roughly shoved back when it came swinging into his face. He fell against the wall but rebounded quickly and headed once again for the opening. Vin cut him off and threw his arms around his waist. Buck ran to help but was caught in the leg when Chris reared up and kicked out. He fell to his knee, gripping his thigh.


“Nathan, Josiah, do something!” Vin hollered when he realized he couldn’t hold on for long.


“I can’t drug him, Vin!” Nathan replied as he leaned over Wilmington.


“Well… think of… somethin’… quick,” Tanner grunted with every kick and jab the gunfighter made.


Sanchez looked around the room. “Is there anything we can use to tie him down?”


“Josiah, no!” a Southern voice objected. “Don’t do that to him!”


The preacher spun around when he realized Ezra had managed to get to his feet and was moving to get past him. “For the love of all that’s holy,” he fussed and easily manhandled the weak body back onto the mattress.


“Get away from me,” Ezra protested in earnest and tried to roll away.


Josiah grabbed him around his middle, pushed him flat on his back and slapped him gently on the cheek.


With a finger of warning pointed inches from his face, Ezra pleaded, “Don’t tie him down, Josiah… please.”


“Ain’t got a choice,” Nathan answered. “He’ll hurt himself.”


Sanchez felt the fear in Ezra’s eyes pull at his heart, but the situation in the room was becoming desperate.


“Josiah!” Vin cried. “On my saddle, there’s some rope. Downstairs. I haven’t stabled my horse yet. Hurry!”


Josiah gave the man below him another look of warning and left the room as Nathan moved to help Buck get to his feet.


“Nate,” Buck said, “maybe Ezra’s right. Tying him up after all he’s been through, it just don’t seem right.” He watched Vin use his own body to pin Chris to the wall.


Ezra watched the struggle and decided enough was enough. “Leave him alone,” he growled as he pushed himself off the bed. A second later, he was looking up from the floor.


“What the hell are you doin’?” Nathan hurried to the fallen man. “You ain’t got a lick o’ sense, do you?” He bent down and helped the gambler back onto the bed.


“Enough to know,” the Southerner grumbled as he sat down, “that this isn’t the way to treat a friend. He’s been in a hell you’ll never understand and from the looks of it he hasn’t cleared its boundaries yet.”


The healer was checking Ezra’s shoulder when Josiah hurried through the door carrying the rope. “Vin,” he called to get the sharpshooter’s attention.


Tanner looked back over his shoulder. Chris bucked violently when he felt the arms around him change their angle and forced his captor back into the corner. The sudden move nearly knocked the wind out of him, but Vin managed to keep hold. “Damn it, settle down! Don’t make us do this!” he shouted in his friend’s ear.


It looked for a moment as if nothing they did would calm the gunfighter down, but as quickly as the desire to escape came upon him, it left; he froze the moment he spotted Josiah. All eyes were on him but the only thing he seemed aware of was the length of rope held in the large man’s hand.


Buck watched the look on Chris’ face go from fury to terror in seconds. “Nathan? What happened?”


Jackson looked back and forth from the blond to Sanchez. “Josiah, put the rope down. Put it down real slow.”


Sanchez did as he was told.


Chris never moved his eyes from the rope. His entire body remained perfectly still until the thing was out of sight. And when it did disappear completely from view, he fell away from Vin, dropped like a stone and curled in a heap on the floor.


Nathan moved quickly.


“How is he?” Vin asked as he sank to the floor to place a protective arm across Chris’ body.




“He’s out?” Buck moved to help. “What the hell happened? Why’d he freeze up like that when he saw Josiah?”


“I don’t know. Could be the drugs goin’ through his system, messin’ with his mind. Could be he just exhausted hisself. We’re gonna have to watch him close and help him ride this out. Right now he needs rest more than anything.” The healer motioned for Josiah to return the unconscious man to his bed.


“I think that would be sound advice for us all,” Josiah said as he pulled the covers over Chris. “I’ll stay with him for a while, Buck. You go on and get some sleep.”


Buck started to argue but decided against it when he felt fatigue well up inside. Now was not the time to be stubborn. He started to leave the room when it occurred to him Tanner had come back. “Vin, where are JD and Phillips?”


“We went back to the prison to see how the army was comin’ along with the mess we left. JD and Phillips decided to round up Sheriff Quince and one of his men before they headed back. Seems Phillips was the only one who knew where they were.”


“This late?”


“There’s a full moon out. Besides, Phillips didn’t want to risk the sheriff disappearin’ on him.”


“Did you find the warden?” A weak voice asked from behind Josiah’s back. Sanchez turned to help Ezra settle himself more comfortably.


“No, ‘fraid not. He high-tailed it outta there. The army says they’ll look, but I don’t hold out much hope.”


Ezra glanced at the man in the next bed before revealing angry green eyes to the tracker. “Don’t look so sad, Mr. Tanner. I assure you we will catch that son-of-a-bitch. Come hell or high water, his ass is mine. There’s a debt needs repaying.”



PART 1 / PART 2 / PART 3 / PART 4 / PART 5 / PART 6 / PART 7 / PART 9 / PART 10 / PART 11




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