ON YOUR HORSES, BOYS

by Jordan McKenzie

 

Part 23

 

The hurt was so great in Chris’ belly he believed he’d been impaled. He tried to pitch himself sideways, to clamber towards his assailant as if he could scramble past, but a hand grabbed him by the throat and shoved him back.

 

“Stay down,” someone snarled.

 

His deadened fingers dug at the unbearable pain and for a moment he gave thought to surrendering himself to the growing blackness skirting his vision. Then his lungs began to burn, and the blackness grew and a panic like no other filled his heart. He desperately needed to breathe but the hand squeezing his larynx was literally choking him to death.

 

“You plannin’ on strangling him now?” He heard someone else ask.

 

The grip loosened. It didn’t let go, but it did allow him to draw a breath. He sucked greedily at the air and tried to regain his senses but his mind was as cut off from understanding as his lungs had been from air. He wanted to speak, to ask what was going on, but his mouth was too numb to form the words.

 

“No, strangling is too easy. I want him to really know what it means to cross the Nichols family.”


The Nichols? Chris recognized Peter’s voice and his heart pounded harder.

 

“Well, do whatever it is you’re gonna do and let’s go! Someone had to have heard him hollering.”

 

Little by little, the gunfighter’s brain began to sort itself out. One memory came then another and another in a downpour of events, but his drug sodden mind was slow to keep up. It took him a while to understand where he was and why, but what he couldn’t figure out, no matter how hard he tried, was how Peter had been able to lay hands on him. Then he remembered Ezra. He groped at the fingers around his throat and gasped Ezra’s name.

 

“If I were you, I wouldn’t waste the last few minutes of my life worrying over the likes of him.”

 

Chris’ eyes came open, revealing the one face he loathed more than any other.

 

“Standish was the catalyst in my brothers’ destruction and interfered in something that didn’t concern him. He’ll be coming with me.”

 

“N-no.” Chris tried to rise but his effort was rewarded with an increase of pressure around his neck. “Let him… go.”

 

“You don’t get to plead for his life.” Peter released the tightened throat, straightened and jabbed Chris again with the rifle butt.

 

Another cry filled the air. This time the gunfighter came off the cot and dropped to the floor.

 

“Damn it, Peter, are you tryin’ to get us caught? Let’s go!” Luke yelled.

 

Peter watched his victim coil at his feet. “Alright,” he replied, “pick up Standish and let’s head out.”

 

Luke went to the bed and pulled back the sheet. “Ma ain’t going to like this,” he complained as he gawked at the motionless body.

 

“Just do it!”

 

“He’s got no clothes on!”

 

Peter smirked when he imagined the naked gambler being thrown at his mother’s feet. “Don’t be stupid! Just wrap him up and get a move on!”

 

Luke waved his hands in the air. “Now you’re in a hurry!”

 

“Just shut up and do as I say,” Peter barked. He reached for the lantern on the bedside table as Ezra was again covered with the sheet, brutally yanked off the bed and tossed across Luke’s shoulder.

 

Larabee pushed himself onto his back when he heard Ezra cry out. The gambler was being taken away, and although Chris still suffered the debilitating effects of Nathan’s drugs he had enough presence of mind to know what horrors lay ahead for him if the Nichols escaped the clinic. “No…” he rasped, “leave him be.”

 

Peter crouched beside him, resting the light on the floor. “I told you, you don’t get to beg for his life. You and Standish will both pay the same price as Hank Connelly for killing my brothers.”

 

“You hurt him… again… you’re dead,” Chris said dangerously despite the grimace of pain on his face.

 

Nichols ignored him as he increased the flame in the lamp.

 

“Hear me… you son-of-a-bitch… you’re dead!”


“I hardly think you’re in a position to make threats.”

 

“I will kill you.” Chris tried to roll and push himself onto an elbow.

 

Peter rose and took a step back. “By all means you’re welcome to try. I want you to snap out of this fog you’re in. I want you conscious and fully aware of just how truly screwed you are. In fact, I’ll help you.” He drew a foot back and kicked the gunfighter hard in the ribs.

 

Chris gagged. He tried to protect himself by pulling his knees up and folding his arms around his middle but Nichols simply came at him from behind and booted him in the back. The blows weren’t strong enough to cause serious damage, but they were exactly enough to gain his attention. His eyes went wide with pain when he was pulled to his back and fisted again across the face.

 

“It’s all over for you but the dying,” Peter said. “Enjoy your trip to hell!” He retrieved the lantern from the floor and threw it against the wall.

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Buck’s placating tone did little to calm JD. When the young man pushed his hands aside for the second time, Vin interceded by placing his own hand on Dunne’s arm. “Settle down,” he said firmly, “we need to talk about what happened. Did you see or hear anything before the explosions?”

 

JD, obviously irritated and still visibly shaken, took a deep breath before he answered. “Not before the roof fell in. Afterwards I saw the oldest Nichols through the hole in the back wall. I could tell he had someone with him, but I couldn’t see who it was or hear what they were sayin’. I don’t think he could see me. If he did, he didn’t seem interested.” He stopped.

 

Josiah saw a look of uncertainty spread across his face. “What is it, son?”

 

“The Nichols, they blasted the front of the office first, then blew out the back wall. I thought for sure they were tryin’ a jail break.”

 

“It looks to me like they didn’t try very hard. They left their little brother behind,” Buck observed.

 

“That’s just it. They didn’t try at all.”

 

“After they went to all that trouble, they didn’t try to free him?”

 

“No, Buck, they just took off and left him behind.”

 

“That don’t make a lot o’ sense, does it.”

 

Vin raised himself from the floor and saw Dunne try to follow. “Take another minute to get your wind back, JD.”

 

“No, I’m good. We need to see about getting this place put back together. I still got a prisoner needs watchin’.”

 

Tanner glanced back at the unusually silent John Nichols. “JD,” he called softly, “how’d our boy take it when his brothers left him?”

 

“He seemed surprised, like he really expected them to stick around and dig him out.”

 

“Like they’ve probably always done in the past.”

 

“Yeah, I don’t think this was the first time he or one of his brother’s has been locked up. But you know, Vin, he’d be a lot harder to get outta here seein’ as he’s got two broke arms. Maybe they just didn’t want to hurt him pulling him out that hole in the wall.”

 

“That or they didn’t wanna be bothered.” Vin walked over to the cell and leaned on its bars. “You look like you’ve lost your best friend there, pard.”

 

John raised his face. “I ain’t worried.”

 

“You might oughta be. That prison wagon’ll be here soon and it looks for now like you’ll be headin’ back to Eagle Bend alone to face charges.”

 

“I ain’t going anywhere in a prison wagon. My brothers will be back for me.”

 

“Somehow I doubt it. It looks to me like they’ve decided to cut their losses where you’re concerned.”

 

“You’re wrong.”

 

“Am I? They missed their one an only shot at gettin’ you outta here. They should’ve taken it ‘cause I swear to you, they won’t get another.” John grew a brave face but Vin could see the doubt in his eyes. “You might wanna start thinkin’ how you can save your own skin and quit banking on your big brothers doin’ it for ya.”

 

Josiah joined Tanner. “He’s right, son. From the wire I got from Judge Travis I understand you boys stirred up quite the hornets’ nest in Eagle Bend. When the law there gets their hands on you, I doubt they’re gonna bother with a long trial and lengthy prison stay. I’d say they’re plannin’ on introducing you to a rope real soon.”

 

“Nobody’s hanging me,” Nichols replied.

 

“Three prominent citizens are dead,” Josiah said. “There are eye-witnesses who say your family is responsible. I’d say someone’s gonna hang.”

 

John shuffled around to face the wall.

 

“You were with your brothers when those men were killed, weren’t you?” Vin asked. “You didn’t try to stop them.”

 

“Nobody stops my brothers,” the youth mumbled.

 

“Maybe not then,” Josiah said, “but how about now?”

 

“What’re you saying?”

 

“I’m sayin’ you can turn your brothers in, make them pay for what they did. You bein’ so young, you might have a chance of makin’ the authorities believe you had no part in those killings.”

 

John’s back shuddered and his breathing hitched.

 

The preacher stepped closer to the cell, feeling encouraged by the boy’s display of emotion. “You have to speak up, son, and tell the truth. Tell the sheriff you didn’t kill those men.”

 

John turned around. “And what exactly makes you think I didn’t?” he asked with eyes so cold they could have frozen the heart of the most forgiving saint.

 

Josiah’s hopes sank when he realized what he’d believed to be sobs of regret were actually hiccups of laughter.

 

 

Part 24

 

Vin turned Josiah away from the cell and pulled him to the front of the office where Buck and JD were standing. “He’s as messed up as the rest of his family.”

 

“I’m afraid you’re right,” Sanchez admitted sadly.

 

“So why d’ya think they blew the jail without makin’ a play for junior back there?” asked Buck.

 

“I can’t figure them leavin’ one brother behind when they’ve been so hell bent on seekin’ revenge for the sake of another,” Vin said, eyeing John. “They’ve been real busy terrorizing the town since the shootout, but today they’ve picked up the pace. Something’s changed.”

 

“Sounds to me like they’re tryin’ to keep us busy so they can sneak outta their little hidey-hole and take off.”

 

“Without the brat?” asked Josiah.

 

“Nah, it don’t figure.”

 

Vin stared at John’s arrogant demeanor. “It does if they’re distracting us for another reason.” He spun and ran to the gun case.

 

“Chris and Ezra,” Buck said.

 

“Yeah, my guess is they’re headin’ to the clinic.” Vin was out the door in an instant.

 

Buck grabbed another gun for himself. “Josiah, stay with JD just in case they double back here.” Then he too was gone.

 

The preacher put out a hand to stop JD following. “You heard the man, son.”

 

“But…”

 

“No buts. They can handle things at the clinic. You and I need to see about organizing a few of the men outside to help patch that hole in the back. Besides, the law from Eagle Bend will be here soon. We need to make sure our prisoner is ready to travel.”

 

JD didn’t like it, but he knew Josiah was right.

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Vin rounded the corner to the clinic to see smoke billow out the door and windows. “Damn it! Hurry, Buck!” he shouted as he raced up the stairs. He darted inside to find Nathan on his knees, calling to an unconscious Chris while unsuccessfully trying to move him. Vin grabbed the healer around the shoulders and moved him aside so he could take a closer look. “What is it, Nate?”

 

Buck, guns drawn, ran into the room. “Vin, are they alright?” When he saw his friends huddled on the floor beside the bed he hurried to join them. “We need to get outta here.” He stopped cold when he saw Chris’ battered body sprawled on the floor. “Oh God, what happened?”

 

Nathan tried to crawl back to his patient. “The Nichols were here,” he replied.


Vin put an arm out to stop him when he saw blood coating his hands and shirt. “Easy Nate, are you alright?”

 

“I’m fine,” he stated simply, then looked at his fingers. “No, this ain’t mine, it’s Chris’.”

 

“What the hell did they do?” Buck asked, making no attempt to keep the anger from his voice.

 

Jackson rubbed the back of his aching head as he indicated the bloody rifle behind Buck. “My guess is they beat the hell outta him with that.”

 

The ladies man gawked at the gun. “Those sons-of-…”

 

Vin watched the blaze at the back of the room. “Come on, we need to get them outside.” He rose to check the bed. “Where’s Ezra?”

 

Buck looked around. “He ain’t here!”

 

“Nate, where is he?”

 

The healer stared at the bloody mess that was Chris’ face.

 

“Nate! Where is Ezra?” Vin asked louder.

 

Jackson didn’t look up. “He came to for a while but he was confused, kept blaming himself for Chris’ death.”

 

Buck circled the bed. “Chris ain’t dead!”

 

Obviously still dazed, the healer raised a hand to the twitching body in front of him. “I know… I know. But Ezra thinks he is. He wouldn’t listen to me. Then the Nichols broke in.”

 

Wilmington quickly checked the back room for signs of the gambler and returned with a fearful look on his face. He shook his head at Vin as the tracker tried to gather Nathan off the floor. “Get him outta here, Vin. I’ve got Chris.”

 

Tanner steered Nathan away from the growing flames as Buck went to his old friend’s side, hooked him under the arms and knees, and pulled him close. The motion elicited a groan from Chris just before his head fell back over Buck’s elbow. “Just stay with me, pard,” Wilmington pleaded and followed the smoke out the door.

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Whoa, whoa,” Vin heard someone say as he assisted Nathan down the stairs, then saw two horses and a wagon roll to a stop in front of the clinic. “Archie?”

 

“At your service, Mr. Tanner,” Sanders said as he tied the reins off and stepped down from the rig. He gestured for the two young men with him to start unloading their cargo.

 

Vin drew back when he saw lidded buckets of water passing from man to man. “Archie, how did you…”

 

“When I heard the explosions at the jail I figured there might be another fire to put out. There wasn’t one there but Mr. Sanchez said there might be trouble here at Mr. Jackson’s place so I thought I’d see if you boys needed a hand.” He hefted some of the buckets to the ground himself all the while keeping an eye on his helpers. “Hurry it up, you two, we need to save as much of this place as we can.”

 

Vin lowered Nathan to the boardwalk. “Archie, how is it you know so much about fire-fightin’?”


“Why I’m from Chicago, son,” he replied as if the statement alone was explanation enough.

 

“Chicago?”

 

“Yessir! Back in ’71, the biggest fire you ever laid eyes on burned our city. Nearly everyone who lived there became instant fire fighters.”

 

The tracker recalled the stories he’d heard about the tragedy and stood in awe of the other man’s experience. “Well, this town’s beholdin’ to ya.”

 

Sanders shrugged the praise aside and looked up. “Oh God in Heaven,” he said, appalled.

 

Vin raised his sights at Archie’s exclamation and saw Buck halfway down the stairs with Chris cradled against his chest.

 

“You men,” Archie snapped, “get the rest of that water unloaded!” The two youths quickly obliged as Sanders ran over to offer Buck a hand. “What the devil has been goin’ on up there? Is there anyone else to bring down?”

 

Buck shook his head. He wasn’t sure how or why Archie was there barking orders, but he was grateful for the help hauling Chris away from the fire. They moved to the boardwalk and eased him down beside Nathan.

 

“Alright, boys,” Archie shouted, “let’s put out that fire!”

 

“I’ll go with you,” Vin announced.

 

“You’ll do no such thing. Right now your priority is taking care of your friends,” Sanders said firmly. “Besides that, you’re near dead on your feet.”

 

“But…”

 

“Now listen to me. I’ve got help on the way. The fire at the Clarion should be out by now and the men there’ll be following any time. You just get your men outta harm’s way and let me handle things here. The sooner this fire’s out the sooner I’ll be able to go home to my missus.” He gave Vin a surprisingly wicked grin, slapped him on the back and grabbed a bucket of water. He was up the stairs without another word.

 

Vin returned his attention to the boardwalk when he heard Buck trying to coax Chris awake. “Come on, buddy,” he said encouragingly. “Let me know you’re still in there.” The gentle pleading was eventually rewarded with a cough, a sputter and curse. Buck gave thanks in silent prayer and moved nearer. “There ya go. That’s it.”

 

“Get off… off me, you son-of-a-bitch,” Larabee stammered and pushed away.

 

“Slow down, pard.”

 

Chris’ eyes nearly crossed when he opened his eyelids. “You’re a dead man, Nichols.”

 

“Snap out of it, Chris, it’s Buck.”

 

“Buck?” His eyes stilled and his old friend’s frightened face settled before him. “Buck.” He stopped wriggling and cursed again when he realized how awful he felt. “Where are we?”

 

“Outside the clinic.”

 

“Outside?” Chris raised his head to see the heavy smoke roiling overhead. “Ezra!” he said sharply and grabbed Buck’s arm.

 

“Hold on now, Ezra ain’t up there.”

 

“He…” The gunfighter struggled to think as several men ran past him and up the stairs to the clinic. He would have asked about them but was too busy trying to understand the disconcerting images in his mind. “I heard him, I heard Ezra yell.”

 

Buck touched the bloodied face. “Listen to me, Chris. Ezra wasn’t in the clinic when we found you.”

 

The devil’s face flashed before him. “Nichols,” he said anxiously. “That bastard took him!”

 

Vin knelt beside Buck. “Why would he do that? Why go to the trouble of carryin’ him off when he could just kill him where he lay?”

 

“He’s not done with him. He wants to torture him some more before he kills him,” Chris spat. “I can’t let that happen. I’ve got to stop him!”

 

“We will, Chris, I swear it,” Vin replied, holding the gunfighter down.

 

“Vin, if they get away with Ezra, we’re likely to find little pieces of him scattered all over town! I have to get on my feet and I have to find him!” He shoved away the hands on his thighs and shoulders and scooted away.

 

“You ain’t goin’ no where,” Buck cried when he realized Chris was working himself into a frenzy. The rage and fear of the man were palpable, which meant he would soon be out of control. “Damn it, would you just settle down!” He reached again to grab hold.

 

“Get your damned hands off me! I’m sick of this!” The gunfighter crawled backwards until he was leaning against the building. He climbed to his knees and with the aid of the wall managed to make it to his feet. “I will not have another man dead because of me.” Before he could turn to take a step, he slid down the wall and landed hard on the sidewalk.

 

“Stop,” Jackson said loudly before Vin and Buck had a chance to move.

 

“Nathan?” Buck called.

 

“Don’t. Just leave him,” the healer insisted, then gained his feet and went to Larabee’s side himself.

 

Chris looked at him warily but was too exhausted from his efforts to move. Dark hands touched him, gauged the temperature of his brow and then began checking the rest of his body. He looked away when they found the bloody hole in his side.

 

Nathan fingered the wound gently. Then spoke so softly only Chris could hear. “If somethin’ happens to Ezra now it won’t be on you,” he said, and waited for Chris to face him. “It’ll be on me.”

 

Pain filled eyes asked the question.

 

“You couldn’t have stopped Nichols no matter how hard you tried, not with what I gave you. As it was, you came ‘round a lot sooner than you should have. I ain’t never seen a man fight so hard to stay awake. But the truth is I made the decision to knock you out. I’m responsible for you not bein’ able to fight when they came after you.”

 

Some part of Chris agreed, but the look on Nathan’s face decided him against placing blame. “Not… on you,” he blew through clenched teeth.


“I ain’t stupid, Chris. I know what’s what. I was supposed to be watchin’ out for you and Ezra. I got distracted and now ya’ll are payin’ for it.” He took a clean handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it against the ragged wound before he tore a long piece from his own shirt and tied it around Chris’ waist. Laying a restraining hand on the gunfighter’s chest, he carefully pulled the fabric tight and waited for the cry he knew would come. It did. When Chris recovered, he told him, “They’ve really messed you up this time so move slow and breathe shallow ‘til I can get what I need to patch you up proper.”

 

“Nathan,” Larabee said once he could speak again, “you know what I have to do.”

 

“I know, Chris.”

 

“So help me.”

 

“I will, you have my word, but for the next few minutes I want you to rest easy and let us regroup.” Nathan waited for the lawman to concede.

 

Chris closed his eyes and tried to lie on his side just long enough to stop the overwhelming need to throw up. Buck came around to help him, shedding his coat and folding it into a makeshift pillow. When he placed it beneath the blond’s head, something fell from the pocket and hit the walk with a clatter. Chris attempted to open his eyes again without having them roll back into his head. It was difficult, but he managed to catch sight of something shiny resting just inches from his face. He reached a blood-stained hand across the decking until he could touch the glimmer and found his fingers curled instinctively around its shape as if they understood what it was even if his brain couldn’t. He drew it closer and stared, then blinked and stared again. Suddenly he knew what he was holding and forced himself upright. “Where,” he heaved in shock, “where did this come from?”

 

Buck saw Chris hold out his hand and unconsciously began patting his pockets. “Dang, I must’ve dropped it.”

 

“You had it? H-how?” the gunfighter asked as the world began to spin around him.

 

“I found it just before I heard the explosions at the jail.”

 

“Explosions? Buck, where the hell did you find this?” he groused, in no mood to pull every single detail from the man. “Tell me.”

 

“I found it at the clinic, in a package Vin brought over from the General Store.”

 

“A package?”

 

“Yeah, Mr. Hobson put together a bunch of medical supplies for Nathan and Vin brought the package to the clinic. I went to open it up and that fell out.”

 

Vin came around to see. “What is it?”

 

Chris raised his hand and smiled.

 

The tracker looked into bright, fevered eyes. “Is that Ezra’s?”

 

“Yes,” he replied and laughed.

 

Worried at the unexpected response, Buck moved even closer. “Chris, what is it? What’s so important about finding that little pea shooter?”

 

“Because, Buck,” Chris said, cradling the gambler’s Derringer against his chest, “this little pea shooter tells me where the Nichols are hiding. And I know exactly how to find Ezra.”

 


Part 25

 

Chris wiped a hand across his eyes when he felt the ground tilt beneath him. “Damn,” he muttered, grateful he was already off his feet. “Here, Chris,” he heard Nathan say just before the open mouth of a canteen touched his bottom lip. A canteen?

 

Nathan saw the query in his face and pointed to the wagon nearby. “Archie had some drinking water aboard,” he answered, taking the gun from his slack fingers and handing it over to Vin.

 

Chris reached to take it back but Buck took him by the wrist and pushed his arm down. “Alright, pard, take it easy.”

 

“No time,” he grunted.

 

“You ain’t told us yet how you know where the Nichols are,” Buck said calmly.

 

“His gun…”

 

“Yeah, Chris, we can see its Ezra’s gun. He probably dropped it when those boys cornered him. Somebody most likely found it after that and traded it for somethin’ at the General Store. Hobson’s always swappin’ stuff with folks. He recognized it, since he was the one who ordered those fancy grips for it and sent it to the clinic knowin’ we’d get it back to Ezra.”

 

“No, Buck,” Nathan corrected. “I seen the Nichols take that gun off him, he didn’t drop it.”

 

“Well then maybe someone found it at the hotel.”

 

“N-no,” Larabee said as determinedly as he could, considering his teeth were trying to chatter. He was beginning to feel cold. “I saw it…”

 

You saw it? Where?”

 

“The old lady… tried to shoot me with it… while I was cuttin’ Ezra down.” He paused for breath. “The last time I saw that thing… she was shovin’ it in her pocket.” He stopped again to swallow. “S-she had… Ezra’s gun.”

 

“So you think they’re hidin’ out at the General Store and Hobson smuggled us the gun to let us know,” Vin said putting the pieces together. “Makes sense.”

 

“But we’ve been in an out of the General Store several times the past couple o’ days. We ain’t seen hide nor hair of that family there.”

 

Vin saw Chris’ frustration. “Hold on, Buck, the Hobson’s have rooms over the store. It’d be real easy for folks to hide up there without bein’ seen.”

 

“Not to mention,” Nathan added, “they’d be able to see a large part of town from that angle.”

 

“Damn,” Buck exclaimed, “you mean they’ve been watchin’ our every move?”

 

Chris nudged Wilmington’s arm. “Probably still are, so move closer. I don’t want ‘em to see what’s goin’ on. Vin,” he called, “when you were at the store, did you see anything… wrong?”

 

“Wrong? No. Hobson was pretty much as he’s always been. Although now that I think about it, he was a little jumpy, he fell off his ladder when I walked in. He said he was just nervous about the Nichols shootin’ up the town.”


“Did you see his wife?”

 

“No, I asked about her. I think he said she was working in the back room.”

 

“Has anybody seen her since?”

 

Vin looked at the others and they all agreed they hadn’t.

 

“I’m bettin’ they’re holdin’ her upstairs so they can keep Hobson in line.” Chris felt a cough climb his chest but resisted the urge and lay as still as possible. “We gotta get over there before they start workin’ on Ezra again.”

 

“Hold on, Chris,” Vin replied, “we can’t just go rushin’ in and hope to get Ezra out in one piece.”

 

“Not to mention the Hobsons. We gotta be careful not to get them killed,” Buck added.

 

“We aren’t gonna rush in. The Nichols probably believe I’m dead, or near to it, so they might be rethinking their plans. That could buy us a little time to catch them, but it also gives them more time to hurt Ezra.  I want Vin to go in and check the store out. Try to talk to Hobson, see if he’ll give us any more clues as to what they’re up to.” Chris, quickly running out of steam, closed his eyes and laid back.

 

Buck watched worriedly. “How’re ya doin’, pard?”

 

“I’m… good.”

 

“Sure you are. You look like hell.”

 

“I’d say he looks worse than that,” Vin said. “He looks about dead, don’t he, Nathan?”

 

Jackson saw the tracker motion discreetly towards the General Store. He leaned over Chris, put an ear to his chest and pulled back with a look of sorrow on his face. “You’re right, as dead as a man can be.” He moved to the gunfighter’s head, put a hand to his brow and winked before he closed Chris’ fearful eyes.

 

Vin sidled nearer and whispered, “Just lie still, Chris, ‘til we can get you outta here. We have to make it look good.” He gently patted the motionless body before he turned to put an arm across Buck’s shoulder. “We need to move him outta sight. Carry him like you’re goin’ to the undertakers but don’t go in, circle back. Hank’s body is still there and I don’t want him to see it. Bring him to the jail; Nathan has a few supplies there so he can patch him up. I’ll go ahead and tell JD and Josiah what’s goin’ on.”

 

Buck hated to even pretend Chris was dead but knew it was the best way to keep him alive. He leaned down, gathered him once again in his arms, and hefted him off the sidewalk. The gunfighter sucked in a sharp breath and tensed before he finally went limp. “Hang on, buddy,” Wilmington mumbled, genuinely upset. “I’ll get ya some place safe… then we’re goin’ after Ezra.”

 

Vin helped Nathan get to his feet as Buck walked away with Chris. He caught a glimpse of Larabee’s face and wondered anxiously if Chris was faking death or if he’d passed out. He had a feeling it was the latter. “Take care of him, Nathan. He may not be dead now, but I got a feelin’ he’s gonna push it pretty close. Maybe you can come up with a way to keep him at the jail while Buck and I go after the Nichols.”

 

“I already tried keepin’ him off his feet,” Jackson said, “and it just made things worse.”

 

“Don’t go blamin’ yourself. I think even Chris realizes he forced you into that.”

 

“I reckon. I’ll see what I can do to slow him down some,” the healer said, sparing only a glance for his burning clinic.

 

“I’m sorry, Nate.”

 

“Me too,” he sighed. “But right now there’s no time to think on it. We need to figure a way of gettin’ Ezra back with us, once and for all.”

 

Vin gently turned Nathan towards the street. “Let’s go then.”

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Madeline Hobson sat on her bed and watched Mrs. Nichols stare out the window of the room she normally shared with her husband. “Oh, Joseph, where are you?” she wondered with concern. She hadn’t seen him since she’d passed him the small gun she sneaked away from the old woman and was worried he may have been caught with it. Mrs. Nichols hadn’t appeared to miss the weapon after claiming it belonged to Ezra Standish and that its one and only shot had been used in an attempt to kill his fellow lawman and friend, but it was hard to tell for sure. She was a conniving person, frighteningly deceptive by nature, and that made her more dangerous than her sons could ever hope to be, despite their clear disregard for life and penchant for evil doing. Still, she hadn’t heard anyone mention the gambler’s gun and prayed Joseph was keeping himself safe.

 

“Well now,” Mrs. Nichols said, obviously pleased by something happening in the street below, “isn’t that a sight to behold.”

 

“Ma’am?” Madeline asked timidly.

 

“It appears the devil will need to make room tonight.”

 

“What?”

 

“Your town’s guardian angels have failed to protect their leader and are removing his body from the street.”

 

“Mr. Larabee is dead?”

 

“Yes, and by all that’s Holy, not a moment too soon.”

 

“Oh no,” Madeline whispered softly, “that poor man.”

 

Mrs. Nichols stared out the window, savoring the sight of the lifeless form with its dangling limbs as it was carried slowly out of sight. “At last,” she said, “it is as it should be -- both men responsible for the deaths of my children are dead themselves.” She placed a hand over her heart and sighed.

 

“Ma!” her son Mark called from the hallway.

 

“Come in,” she answered the rapid knocking.

 

Shoving the door open, Mark hurried into the room with a whirl of excitement. “Ma, you have to come downstairs!”

 

“Why? Is something wrong? Has something happened to one of your brothers?”

 

“No, Ma, Peter has a surprise for you!”

 

She gestured towards the window. “I already know about Chris Larabee.”

 

“That ain’t it! Just go downstairs and you’ll see what I mean.”

 

“Alright, alright, Mark, calm yourself.” She walked to the door, curious as to what had him so wound up.

 

“What about her?” he asked about the woman still seated on the bed.

 

“Bring her along,” she answered with a wave of her hand and marched towards the stairs. She descended the narrow steps quickly, but was careful to enter the main shop only after she made sure the windows were covered and the closed sign was in place. Mark came trotting along behind her, pulling Madeline by the arm. “Well what is it I’m supposed to be seein’?”

 

“Here, Ma,” Peter called from the far side of the room. He sat on top of the main counter, leaning forward onto his hands so he could see the door to the back room. Joseph Hobson stood behind him, wringing his hands. “Okay, Luke, let’s show Ma what we found.”

 

The large brother entered carrying a bundle over his shoulder wrapped in what appeared to be a bed sheet. The old woman couldn’t figure what her sons were up to but waited patiently for them to reveal their surprise. “You’re very pleased with yourself, Peter,” she said, and watched a huge smile cross his face.

 

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered and jumped down from the counter. “Okay, Luke.”

 

Luke grinned at his mother and dropped the bundle from his shoulder to the floor. It landed hard and spilled awkwardly when it hit. Mrs. Nichols moved forward and moved the sheet with her foot. She smiled. “Well I have to say, you boys have done me proud.”

 

Madeline sought her husband’s face and wondered if he knew what was going on. When she finally found his eyes, she knew he did. Hesitating only a moment, she leaned around the old woman and took a look for herself… then she screamed at what she saw. It was the broken body of Ezra Standish.

 

 

Part 26

 

Madeline recovered quickly and dropped to the floor in front of Ezra, her hand seeking a way to offer comfort but faltering for fear of causing pain. “Mr. Standish,” she cried, “can you hear me?”

 

He laid on his stomach, a folded arm pressed against his head as the feminine pleas above crowded his already overburdened mind.

 

“Oh Lord, what can I do, how can I help you?” she begged.

 

The sound of her voice, although frightened and strained, resonated soothingly in his ears. It was new to him, different from the screeches of the woman before, and oddly able to gently prod aside his desire to disappear from the face of the planet. He slowly raised his head and used his free arm to hold himself inches from the hard wooden floor. “Wh..?” he mouthed.

 

“What did you say?”

 

“Where?”

 

“You’re at the general store. I’m Madeline Hobson, do you remember me?” She leaned closer until she was no more than a foot from his battered face.

 

He latched onto her concerned smile briefly before his eyes lowered and his head dipped slightly. “N-Nathan?”

 

It was apparent he didn’t recognize her. In fact, she wasn’t sure he recognized much of anything. “Mr. Jackson isn’t here right now but I can try to find him for you,” she replied, looking into the face of Peter Nichols and knowing that was the last thing she would be allowed to do. “Mr. Standish, Ezra, maybe I can help you. We could start by getting you off the floor.” She reached a hand to him but he pulled away, lost his balance and fell flat. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to...”

 

“Chris,” he called, trying to raise himself again but only succeeding in scraping his bruised cheek on the floor. There was so much pain he couldn’t think.

 

“Oh no,” she whispered and fell back to sit on her heals. His friend was dead. She knew from the conversations among the Nichols family he had gone to great lengths to protect Chris Larabee. How could she possibly tell him now his friend had been murdered? She heard him call the gunfighter’s name again and knew she couldn’t do it; she couldn’t take away the one hope he so obviously clung to. “It’s alright, Ezra. I’ll get Chris for you.”

 

Peter came forward with his hands clasped behind his back. He leaned over to speak into Madeline’s ear but made no effort to keep what he was saying a secret. “You do that, dear lady, and you may find your skirts singed by the fires of hell.”

 

“Please,” she begged softly.

 

“Please what? Please don’t tell the poor lost soul laying on the floor his reason for defying me is gone? I have news for you, Mrs. Hobson. No man defies me and gets away with it. The only reason he’s been alive as long as he has is because he’s served a purpose. Now that his life is no longer of use to us, I think we should fill him in on the facts and then put him out of his misery.”

 

“Of use to you?” Madeline nearly shouted. “He’s not just a thing you use up and throw away!”

 

Joseph saw a scowl of disapproval on Mrs. Nichols face and took a step forward. “Maddie, no!” he warned his wife of her tone.

 

“Joseph, we can’t let them hurt him. He’s so sick and weak. His mind is…”

 

“Silence,” the Nichols matriarch roared. “You, my good woman, will hold your tongue!”

 

“I will not! This man is broken; there is no reason to keep hurting him!”

 

Anger sparked through the old woman’s eyes and Joseph moved quickly to his wife’s side. He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to her feet. “That’s enough, Maddie.”

 

She gave him a hard look of her own but relented and closed her mouth.

 

Peter, excited by the escalating clash of wills, laughed when Joseph reined Madeline in, and his mother, with all her bluster, appeared to be at a loss for words. The loss however was short-lived as a disturbing calmness fell over her face like the black veil of his weeper. “Four of my sons are dead, another is locked away like an animal and the remaining three seem to find humor when I am disrespected.” She pinned each of her male children with an icy stare.

 

“No, Ma.” Peter quickly sobered. “I didn’t mean…”

 

“I have suffered this miserable town long enough.” The statement was delivered with such rancor every person in the room fell silent… silent except for the mumbled words coming from the bandaged body at her feet. She raised the hem of her dress and hooked Ezra with her foot. Indifferent to the pain she caused she shoved him onto his back and gave him a kick for good measure. “My son was wrong about you, gambler. You do have one last useful task to perform.” She looked him up and down, noting the sling and countless white strips of cloth holding him together. “Aye, but you’ll not be performing it looking as you do. You were a much more interesting sight back at the hotel.” She reached into the folds of her dress and removed the handkerchief she had stained with his blood. A frown pulled her lips into a hard line just as she toed him with her shoe. “Look at me!”


Ezra jerked at her shrieking voice and did as he was told… almost. His eyes were reluctant to open but he kept trying.

 

“Good,” she said smugly. “I want you to listen to what I have to say.” His eyes tried to roll back into his head. She kicked him again and forced him to focus on her scowling face. “I lost one child to Hank Connelly, may he burn in hell, but I’ve lost three more because of you and your ridiculous allegiance to Chris Larabee.”

 

“C-Chris?” His head came up.

 

She huffed an airy laugh. “I see I have your attention now.”

 

“I s-saw… Chris…”

 

“So did I,” she snarled.

 

He didn’t understand.

 

“I saw him dead in the street just outside.”

 

“No,” he whispered.

 

“Yes, I saw your colleagues carry his body away not ten minutes ago.”

 

Ezra knew in his heart Chris was dead. He’d seen him with his own eyes… somewhere. But to hear it from the lips of a woman who had lied to him so many times made him hope against hope the gunfighter was still alive. Uncertain what to do, he looked around the room until he found a face he could trust.

 

Madeline, her gray eyes now brimming with unshed tears, caught him staring and knew she couldn’t hide the truth. She bravely nodded her head but the look on his face was more than she could stand. She turned away and pressed her face to Joseph’s shoulder.

 

Ezra closed his eyes and rolled painfully onto his side. Mrs. Nichols waited for the loss to sink in before she moved to her eldest son.

 

Peter saw the glint in her eye and the bloodstained handkerchief fisted in her hand. “Ma, what are you thinking?”

 

“I’m thinking its time to take back what is ours and leave this place. We’re going to the livery.”

 

“But Ma,” Luke complained, “gettin’ our coach back won’t be easy. There’re likely men all over the livery now that the clinic is on fire. One’s right on top of the other.”

 

“I hardly think anyone’s botherin’ with the livery if they’re fighting a fire at the clinic. We need that coach to get your brother back.”

 

“She’s right,” Peter said, “if we’re gonna grab John away from that sheriff on the trail we’ll need Uncle Simon’s coach. It can take on any kind of wagon in any kind of terrain, but it’s gonna be a rough trip. Are you well enough to make it, Ma?”

 

“I’m as well as I need to be.”

 

“What about him?” he asked about the still body at his feet.

 

“Our broken man here will serve as a warning to anyone who’s foolish enough to try and follow. He’ll be the last message we leave this sorry excuse for a town.”


“I don’t know, Ma, I reckon he’s a little too healthy looking to leave a proper message.”

 

“Then I trust you’ll take care of him,” she said and turned away.

 

“Yes ma’am.” He circled Ezra’s body. “Hobson, get yourself over here and help me.”

 

“What?” Joseph asked, confused.

 

“I want you to cut these bandages off and haul him outside.”

 

“No,” Madeline cried. “Please, leave Mr. Standish alone. Leave us alone.”

 

Mrs. Nichols raised a hand to her hip. “I’m growing weary of you, Mrs. Hobson.”

 

“You can’t ask my husband to help you hurt another man. He’s done everything else you’ve asked. Please, leave him be.”

 

“Mark!”

 

“Yes, Ma?”

 

“Take Mrs. Hobson back upstairs.”

 

Madeline backed away. “No, I’m not leaving my husband.”

 

“Mark, take her upstairs, tie her down and gag her! I’ll not listen to another word from her mouth!”

 

“Yes ma’am.” He marched himself over, grabbed the middle-aged woman by the arm and dragged her away from the shopkeeper.

 

“Mrs. Nichols, I’m begging you,” Joseph cried, “please don’t hurt her.”

 

“That’s up to her, Mr. Hobson. If she behaves herself, she may just see tomorrow. Go Mark, and be quick about it.”

 

Hobson gave his wife a look of For-the-first-time-in-your-life-please-don’t-let-your-heart-rule-your-head. Please-keep-your-mouth-shut! Whether or not she got the message was uncertain; she was gone before she could say another word.

 

“Now then, Mr. Hobson, do as you’ve been told.”

 

Hearing the ugly rage brewing in her tone, Joseph unwillingly sank to his knees beside Ezra and rested a hand on the side of his head. He felt fever from the man’s body radiate towards him and heard painful wheezes rattle in his chest. “Mr. Standish,” he called softly.

 

The gambler raised his head at the sound but never opened his eyes. He groaned miserably, dropped again to the floor and mumbled over and over, “I’m sorry, Chris.”

 

Hobson pulled his hand away and turned a solemn look on his captors. “Please, don’t ask me to do this.”


“I’m not asking you, Hobson, I’m telling you,” Peter replied menacingly. “Cut those bandages off him now.”

 

“Mr. Nichols, I…”

 

“Either you do it, or I will,” Peter said as he pulled a small knife from inside his coat and handed it to the storekeeper.


Joseph knew he had no choice and took the weapon, nearly dropping it he was shaking so badly. He rolled Ezra to his back and carefully began removing the sling and bindings circling his upper body. When he was done, he rested the gambler’s arms cautiously at his sides and pulled the dirty sheet securely around his waist. He glanced back over his shoulder to find all three men and the old lady staring at the poor man as if he were the main course at Thanksgiving dinner. It was both repulsive and terrifying.

 

“Good enough, Hobson,” Peter announced, pleased. “Now let’s get to the livery.”

 

“I think I’ve changed my mind,” Mrs. Nichols said unexpectedly with a dangerous growl. “Luke, you and Mark go get the coach and bring it here. Peter and I will be seeing to Mr. Standish’s entertainment out back.”

 

“Out back?” asked Peter.

 

“Yes, I seem to recall a large wood box across the alley.” She noted the lack of daylight peaking around the front blinds. “Since nightfall is fast approaching, I think we’ll take advantage of the shadows and prepare Mr. Standish properly for his final service to us. Mr. Hobson, gather him off the floor and move to the back door. Luke, you and your brother meet us around back as well. The law will most likely come into town from the north. They’ll load John up and head out the same way before they head east. We’ll ride the alley behind the buildings and catch up to them on the trail.”

 

“Yes ma’am,” both boys answered at once and obediently left the store.

 

Mrs. Nichols turned her gaze on Ezra, who was now being held upright by no other means than Joseph’s breaking back and sheer determination to survive the night. “Now then, it’s time to finish this. Peter, see to it you have what you need. Mr. Hobson,” she waved a hand towards the door, “if you’ll be so kind as to lead the way.”

 

 

Part 27

 

Vin and Buck walked softly as they tried to get a look inside the front windows of the General Store. The blinds had been drawn but Vin could just make out the glow of a lantern somewhere near the back.

 

“Anything?” Buck whispered.

 

“There’s a light but I can’t see anyone movin’ round. Can’t hear nothin’ either.”

 

“Maybe they’re all upstairs.”

 

“Could be. The door’s locked so we’re gonna have ta force it. Be ready to shoot once it opens.”

 

Buck straightened as Vin raised his foot near the door handle and kicked. The door didn’t budge. He kicked again, harder, and the lock bolt tore through the wood encasing it. They were inside in seconds, guns at the ready, but were greeted by nothing more than lamplight and silence. They waited and listened.

 

“Well that’s strange. If they were upstairs surely they’d’ve heard us break in. Maybe Chris was wrong about the Nichols bein’ holed up here.”

 

“I don’t think so,” Vin replied as he moved to the rear of the store. “Let’s go upstairs and take a look around.”

 

Vin led, Buck followed. It took less than a minute to climb the steps leading to the private rooms of the Hobson family and when they reached the upper floor there was still no sign the Nichols had ever been there.

 

“Like I said,” Wilmington repeated, “Chris just made a mistake.”

 

“I don’t know, Buck, he was so sure about the old lady havin’ Ezra’s gun. I…”

 

Mmpphhff.

 

Vin turned his head. “Did you hear that?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Mmmmpppfff!

 

The two men moved down the hall and turned into a tiny alcove barely visible from where they had been standing. There they found a door. Buck slowly turned the knob and pushed his way inside. “Mrs. Hobson,” he said when he spotted the woman bound and gagged in the middle of what appeared to be a small study. Books lined the walls on either side of her and she was tied to a chair that obviously belonged to the simple wooden desk at her back. No one else was in the room so he holstered his gun, hurried to her side and knelt down to free her hands and feet. “There now,” he said as he pulled the gag away, “are you alright?’

 

“Yes, yes” she answered hoarsely, “I’m quite alright, thank you. I was beginning to think no one would find me.”

 

Vin kept watch at the door. “Well I guess we know now Chris was right.”

 

“Mrs. Hobson, did the Nichols do this to you?” asked Buck.

 

She rubbed her wrists. “Of course they did this to me! Those animals have been holding us prisoner here for days! Didn’t you get the gun my husband sneaked to you?” She looked over Buck’s shoulder. “Where is Joseph? Didn’t you find him? He was with those men!”

 

Buck flinched. “Slow down, ma’am, and talk to us. We just found Ezra’s Derringer late this afternoon.”

 

“You haven’t caught the Nichols yet, have you!” she shouted.

 

“No we haven’t, so we need you to settle down and tell us what happened here.”

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell. It’s just I’ve been so scared. That old lady and her boys are crazy! The things they’ve done. The things they made my Joseph do.”

 

Vin saw her shiver. “Your husband’s the one who’s been settin’ the fires around town, ain’t he?”

 

“Yes, Mr. Tanner, but he didn’t want to. He cares about the people in this town; he wouldn’t intentionally try to harm them.”

 

“We believe you, ma’am,” Buck interrupted, placing his hand on hers. “Vin’s been sayin’ all along the fires weren’t set by the Nichols because there wasn’t enough damage and no one was killed. Your husband made it look good and probably saved a lot of lives by settin’ those fires himself.”

 

Large tears filled her eyes. “But he didn’t set that last fire, the one that killed Mr. Larabee.”

 

Buck glanced at Vin and waited for him to nod his agreement before he spoke. “It’s alright, Mrs. Hobson, Chris ain’t dead.”

 

“But Mrs. Nichols said she saw you carry his body away.”

 

“We did, but he wasn’t dead. We just wanted her and boys to think he was.”

 

“He’s alive?”

 

“Yes. We’re hidin’ him at the jail right now so Nathan can patch him up. He’s hurt pretty bad, but he should be alright if we can get him to rest.”

 

“Oh no,” Madeline said.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Mr. Standish believes Mr. Larabee is dead.”

 

“You saw Ezra?”

 

“A little while ago. A couple of Mrs. Nichols boys brought Mr. Standish in and presented him to her as a gift.”

 

“A gift?” Vin moved into the room.

 

She tilted her head back to look at the tracker’s worried face. “It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. They treated him so poorly. He’d been so abused and was in so much pain I don’t think he understood half of what was going on around him.” She paused to wipe her eyes. “The only thing he did seem to understand was that your friend had died; the old woman made sure he knew that fact.”

 

“Aw hell,” Buck groused. “If Ezra thinks Chris is dead he may try somethin’ stupid.”

 

“Honestly, Mr. Wilmington, I don’t think he’ll be able to try much. He was in a bad way when they took him out of here. You boys have to go now.”

 

“Did they say where they were goin’?”

 

“They said something about the livery and getting their property back.”

 

“They’re after that blasted coach,” Buck said. “We’d best get ourselves over there and stop ‘em.”

 

“Please hurry,” Madeline added. “I heard them planning to do something terrible to Mr. Standish. They were talking about leaving him as a warning to anyone who tried to stop them.”

 

“Damn it, I’m gonna kill every single one of those bastards with my bear hands.” Buck cried before he realized he’d spoken. He suddenly looked at Madeline.

 

“No need to apologize to me,” she said. “I feel exactly the same way.”

 

He smiled then reached beneath his coat. “Do you know how to handle a gun, ma’am?”

 

“My father had no sons, Mr. Wilmington, but he had a daughter who was very eager to learn.”

 

He handed over his belly gun and watched her take it, check it for ammunition and slip it into the pocket of her apron.

 

“Now go,” she said, “and don’t come back until you’ve rescued my husband and Mr. Standish.”

 

Buck tipped his hat and followed Vin out of the room.

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7


Ezra felt hands gripping him painfully around his middle. He also felt motion as the person who owned the hands propelled him forward. Both the contact and the movement caused a churning in his stomach that threatened to strangle him as the burn scaled his throat. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t swallow, and most importantly he couldn’t stop whoever it was who had him. His body was out of his control and what was left of his mind was fast following suit.

 

He wanted desperately to be still, to just lie down and rest, to drift away from the hurt in his limbs and the anguish of his mind. Truth be known, he was ready to give up. He couldn’t remember the details of what had brought him to this point, but the pain in his heart was so overwhelming it didn’t really matter. He simply wanted it all to end, so he blindly turned to the person at his side and begged exactly that. “P-please… stop… jus’…lemme…go.”

 

The unfamiliar person carrying him replied as if out of breath. “You hang on, Mr. Standish. Don’t you give in to them. Don’t let them win.”

 

“Can’t.”

 

“You have to. You’re too good a man to die at their hands.” The heavy panting continued as the forward motion slowed to a stop. “I’m hopin’ your friends find us soon, so please try to be here when they come.”

 

Then the gambler remembered a single detail and felt his chest tighten. “Chris ‘s dead…”

 

“But you’re not. So please, try to hang on.”

 

That’s far enough! Ezra heard just before he was lowered forward over something rough and hard.

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Buck and Vin left the General Store as quietly as they’d entered and nearly jumped out of their skins when a figure ran towards them from the shadows.

 

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, it’s just me.”

 

“Nathan? What the devil are you doin’ here? You’re supposed to be tendin’ Chris,” Buck asked.

 

“Chris is out cold. He never came around after you picked ‘im up off the street so I did what I could and left Josiah and JD to watch him. I figured ya’ll could use some help.”

 

“That we can,” Vin said. “We found Mrs. Hobson tied up upstairs. She said the Nichols are headin’ towards the livery to get that buggy of theirs. Ezra’s with ‘em.”

 

“Not for much longer he ain’t,” Nathan replied angrily. “Let’s go.”

 

 

Part 28

 

Luke gathered a fist full of hay to wipe the blood from his pistol grips. “Looks like they only had two guards watchin’ the place.”

 

Mark holstered his weapon at the same time staring at the two unconscious men on the ground near the back entrance of the livery. He hadn’t hit his man hard enough to draw blood and wondered briefly about the man his brother had taken out. “He dead?” he asked.

 

“Don’t know,” Luke replied uninterested, “but he won’t be goin’ anywhere anytime soon.” He stepped over the sentry and moved towards the shadows in the far corner of the building. “Here,” he announced when he spotted the family coach.


Mark followed his brother. “Where d’ya reckon they hid the harnesses?”

 

“Not much tellin’ but they’re probably not far. Check the loft; I’ll dig through the tack room and the hay piles.” He raised his head to the sounds of men yelling and coughing. He could also hear boots running across wood boards nearby. When he noticed Mark had stopped to listen as well, he called out, “Be quick about it before someone decides to come in here.”

 

Mark hurried up the ladder to the loft and began moving bales of hay. Luke went to work searching the small room below. When he didn’t find anything, he exited in a huff. Then he heard his sibling’s voice.

 

“Hey, Luke,” he said, hanging over the garret, “I found ‘em!” He gave a toothy grin as he waved a bridle in the air.

 

“Good. Get everything down here,” he ordered. “I’ll fetch the horses.”

 

Mark dove back into the hay and gathered every piece of leather he could find.

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“I said ‘that’s far enough,’” Mrs. Nichols shouted, her temper obviously short. “Now be puttin’ him where I told you.”

 

Joseph hefted Ezra’s weight against his hip one last time before he lowered him forward across the wood box opposite the alleyway from the General Store. Bent at the waist, his knees sinking painfully into the ground, Ezra drew his right hand over the planked top of the box and curled it to his chest. Hobson heard him mumble incoherently and groan as he struggled to raise his head, then the shopkeeper turned to the woman at his back. “Please ma’am, he’s hurt so bad he doesn’t even know what’s goin’ on. Maybe you could just leave him here for his friends to find.”

 

“He has a job to do, Mr. Hobson, as do you.”

 

“Pardon?”

 

“I believe you heard me inside; he will be the means by which we teach your town’s protectors the consequences of their actions. You attack my family, Mr. Hobson, and you die.”

 

The threat wasn’t lost on him.

 

“Your job will be to make certain he doesn’t come off that box ‘til I say so. Do you understand?” she asked, reaching her hand toward Peter. Her son pulled the bloodstained whip from his coat and laid its baton across her pale fingers.

 

Joseph’s eyes grew large when he saw the weapon that had been used on Ezra on the hotel steps. He mustered as much bravery as he could and slowly placed himself between the kneeling gambler and the woman who intended to beat him again. “I’m begging you, please don’t do this.”

 

Mrs. Nichols frowned at the shopkeeper’s defiance but didn’t speak. Instead Peter raised his gun and pointed it toward Joseph’s chest. “Move, Hobson. Trust me when I say you don’t want to be standing there.”

 

The old lady pulled the leather tails of the whip through her fingers but Joseph stood his ground.

 

Peter moved around his mother and aimed his gun at Ezra’s head. “We can do this my way or yours. My way leaves him just this side of breathin’. Your way finishes him right away.”

 

He wasn’t sure what to do. How could he hold a man down while he was being thrashed? But if the gambler could hang on long enough for his friend’s to find him, he might actually survive. Who was he kidding? He knew the poor man would never make it through another beating. He remained where he stood.

 

“I should also mention,” Peter said with a sickening smile, “the stakes haven’t changed. If you don’t do exactly as you’re told, that feisty little wife of yours will die as well.”

 

That decided it. Joseph dropped his chin and stepped aside.

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Madeline paced her husband’s study. Well, ‘paced’ was a bit of an exaggeration since the room was so small, but she nearly wore a hole in the rug with her constant fidgeting. She was worried, for her husband, for Mr. Standish and for the whole town of Four Corners. After the nightmarish turmoil the Nichols Family had brought to their community, she wondered if it would ever be the same. The more she thought about it, the angrier she became. She plopped herself down in Joseph’s favorite chair with a sigh then jumped when something heavy fell into her lap. “Oh Maddie, you idiot,” she chided herself and reached into her apron to remove the gun Buck had given her. She stared at it long and hard before she said out loud, “Well, you can sit here like a doddering old lady or you can get yourself out there and help your husband.” The decision was made before she even completed her sentence. She gripped the large gun in her hands and elbowed her way out the door.

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

The scene in the alley was the most evil thing Joseph Hobson had ever witnessed. It was inconceivable that an old lady would even be able to hold such a vile thing as a whip much less use it to inflict pain and draw blood while her son stood by and watched. And her victim, a man who could do her no harm, had never really done her any harm, suffered so badly he could do little more than whimper. Joseph felt the gambler’s agony though his own hands. He could feel not only the tremors in Ezra’s muscles, but the slap of the whip every time it struck the man’s flesh. He forced himself to look closer at the Southerner. His face was reddened by both fever and exertion, his teeth were clenched, his jaw was set, his eyes were… Joseph looked away. The man’s eyes were blind with fright and brimming with tears. Please stop! He screamed in his head but the whipping never slowed. Joseph thought for sure the old lady would tire, but she showed no sign of weakening. In fact, she seemed determined to vent every moment of anger she’d ever known on the pitiful soul over the wood box.

 

He was drawn again to the face next to his when he realized the soft cries he had been listening to had stopped. “Mr. Standish,” he whispered, but the man he held was past hearing. There was something different about him, something much more frightening in his demeanor. His face, though still reddened beneath the many bruises, had gone slack. And his eyes, still open and blind, were now vacant, the wetness they had held dripping a tear at a time onto the slats of the crate. At first he thought the gambler had passed on, died in his grasp, but the quivering beneath his hands never ceased. He considered calling to him again, but knew wherever his mind had gone it was in a much better place than where his body lay. He cursed himself for his part in the man’s torture and did what he should have done in the beginning -- he let him go. “God forgive me,” he prayed softly and watched Ezra’s body slide to the ground.

 


M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Madeline was careful to check every room she passed in the hallway so no one could sneak up behind her. Her father had taught her well. What her father hadn’t taught her was how to stifle the terrible case of nerves which threatened to send her screaming into the street; that she had to learn all on her own. And she did. No one knew better than she this was no time to be squeamish. She had to find her husband and she had to be on hand to help him if he needed her.

 

She walked quickly down the hall; grateful for the bulky carpet she had convinced Joseph to bring along when they came out west. Its thick fibers efficiently absorbed the sound of her footfall as she made her way towards the stairs. Eventually however, the rug ran out and she became much more aware of her movement as she headed toward the darkness of the shop below. She took one step and listened, then took another step and did the same. She repeated the act a half dozen times until she came to the bottom of the staircase. There she heard a noise. She held her breath and waited for the noise to sound again. It didn’t disappoint her.

 

Raising her gun in front of her, she moved away from the safety of the steps and hid herself in a part of the store not lit by the lantern on the back counter. She put off breathing again until the noise became clearer. Finally she realized what she was hearing was a male voice groaning. Was it Joseph? Had he escaped and come back for her? “Who’s there?” she asked nervously. When a harsh cough replied she almost pulled the trigger.

 

“Mrs. Hob…” the cougher began.

 

“Who are you?” she demanded from the shadows.

 

“I’m sorry… ma’am…”

 

Madeline’s curiosity got the better of her when she thought she recognized the voice. She pulled away from her hiding place, and with her gun cocked and raised, neared the shadow of a man leaning heavily against the flour bin. When the shadow raised its head, a face came into the light. “Mr. Larabee?” She lowered the hammer on the gun and rushed to his side. “Mr. Larabee, what on earth are you doing here?”

 

Chris, clad only in black pants, an open shirt and a bandage around his middle, tried to answer without choking. “I’m lookin’ for Ez…” he managed to say before he was cut off by another cough.

 

“Mr. Standish isn’t here. The Nichols took him away a little while ago. Oh look at you; you’re in no shape to be going after those men. You can barely stand.” She tucked the gun in her apron, moved under his arm and wrapped an arm around his waist. “Come sit down.”

 

He allowed her to move him to a chair but grabbed her hand when she began to fuss. “T-there’s no time, Mrs. Hobson. I have to find Ezra before they kill him.”

 

She knelt down in front of him and pulled his shirt open. “Your friends have gone to do just that. Now let me see this wound.”

 

“I’m okay.”

 

“Not all that long ago I thought you were dead, so just humor me and let me have a look. I thought you were supposed to be in Mr. Jackson’s care at the jail.”

 

“I left.”

 

“I can see that. How did you get all the way here without anyone stopping you?”

 

He winced at her touch. “The sheriff from Eagle Bend came in.”

 

She looked up at him with a raised eyebrow. “So while everyone was distracted, you just walked away. That doesn’t speak well for your fellow lawmen, Mr. Larabee.”

 

“Our prisoner didn’t wanna go. He started puttin’ up a fight.”

 

“And you took advantage of the moment to sneak yourself over here.”

 

“I knew you and Mr. Hobson were in trouble… Ezra still is. I gotta go,” he said, shoving himself off the chair. He made it to his feet but staggered into the counter.

 

Madeline moved along with him. “I know you want to save your friend, but you’re not well enough to…”

 

“Don’t,” he said through his teeth. “I’m not listenin’.”

 

“That’s very apparent, Mr. Larabee, but what I was going to say is you’re not well enough to go after them alone.”

 

It was his turn to raise an eyebrow.

 

“I’m going with you.”

 

“No,” he said flatly, “I ain’t puttin’ a woman in danger. There’s no way I’m lettin’ you go after the Nichols.”

 

“Mr. Larabee, just where do you think I was heading when I came down those stairs? Joseph is my husband and I go where he goes.”

 

“Goin’ after bad guys and stirrin’ up a fight is not something a woman should be doin’.”

 

“It was a woman who started this whole thing!” she shouted, her chin held high and her hands on her hips.

 

“I said no, Mrs. Hobson. Just tell me if you know where they took Ezra.” He straightened and glared.

 

She opened her mouth to disagree but was interrupted by a sharp cry coming from the back of the store. “Joseph?” she mumbled before she stepped away from Chris. “Joseph,” she said again and made a run for the back door.

 

“No,” Chris ordered as he grabbed her around the waist, put a hand over her mouth and pulled her back to the counter. “Be quiet. If you don’t want to get your husband killed, don’t make a sound.”

 

Contrary to her nature, Madeline fell silent.

 




PARTS 1-6
/ PARTS 7-12 / PARTS 13-17 / PARTS 18-22 / PARTS 29-33 / PART 34

 

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Jordan McKenzie 2009