The following story is a work of fan fiction. It is not intended to infringe on any copyright or to make a profit. The Magnificent Seven belong to John Watson/Trilogy Entertainment, MGM, and probably others; only the story is my own. Please do not copy, post, or redistribute without permission from the author.
by the Desperado's Daughter
A DAY'S RIDE FROM FOUR CORNERS
"GET DOWN!!!!!!!" Chris Larabee yelled. He was furious. JD Dunne was on the other side of the road and had scampered up the rocky hillside. There were all kinds of places the kid could hide. Why the hell wasn't he? Did he think that the dusk made him any less a target?
Chris tried to cover him, although the horrific barrage of gunshots that were raining on them drove the gunfighter to seek cover himself. His side of the ravine was much rockier--a bluff, for all practical purposes. He had to be creative about finding cover, all the while worrying about the damn fool kid. Chris would ease out from behind a tree or rock and take a shot, then he'd dive to avoid being hit.
But JD . . . he looked like he didn't care whether or not he got hit. For a minute Chris thought maybe JD had frozen. He had seen that happen with greenhorn soldiers who got into battle and became paralyzed with fear. Yet, JD'd seen action like this before. It wasn't like him to let fear overtake him. Chris took a deep breath and started firing again.
For an instant, Chris got a better look at JD, and Chris realized that JD was being deliberate about what he was doing. From what he could tell, it seemed like the kid was trying to get a particular shot off. If only Chris could get to him--if only he could pull him down behind a rock or something . . .
It wasn't until the very end when Chris could see what was really going on--when Chris saw a truly magnificent act of sacrifice.
A bullet pinged on a rock just behind his ear and JD dropped to the ground. He knew he was on a suicide mission, but he couldn't just let those men shoot Chris in the back. He'd been watching as they worked their way down toward the overhang just above Chris. In another half a minute, one of them would have a clear shot.
Well, he couldn't let that happen.
He figured it was good luck that he and Chris had scrambled in different directions when the shooting started. Maybe one of them would make it.
He took another shot, but didn't have enough time to aim.
And they were closing in on Chris.
It was now or never.
Chris pulled up again and he saw the boy's silhouette against the dying red of the sunset. JD took two heroic shots before being hit.
A moment later, Chris felt the weight of a body toppling over on top of him and he saw another fall from somewhere above him down the rock face to the road.
He struggled to pull himself out from under the body that had landed on him. Then he looked desperately across the ravine. There was no sign of the kid.
JD had saved his life.
And Chris prayed that he hadn't gotten killed doing it.
Nathan Jackson grinned at the gambler. "I can't believe I'm gonna say this, Ezra." Nathan started to laugh. "But I like the way you think."
"Well, just . . . look at him!" Ezra said and they watched Buck across the street as the tall self-proclaimed "ladies' man" stood leaning against the post in front of the cafe. Clearly Buck had taken great pains with his appearance, and he made a play for every woman in town that wasn't accompanied by a gentleman.
"Tippin' his hat, kissing their hands, bowing like he thinks he's some kind of royalty." Ezra was mimicking his friend's behavior.
"Are you sure you ain't jealous?" Nathan asked, and that elicited a chuckle from the gambler, who sat back down again.
"Mr. Jackson, I assure you, I have no lack of companionship."
"You can't count me and the boys", Ezra," Nathan said, never cracking a smile. It took Ezra a moment to realize that Nathan was teasing him.
"Well, at any rate," Ezra said, "Let's try it and see what happens."
They didn't have to look to know that the heavy footsteps approaching were Josiah's. "Scoot over there, Ezra."
"I don't ‘scoot', Mr. Sanchez, but I will gladly move aside so you may sit with us."
Josiah addressed Nathan. "I never knew a man who could get through life without ever having to scoot." Before Ezra could protest, Josiah changed the subject. "You boys are up to something. I want to know what it is."
Miss Ally would talk to him. Buck smiled his most devilishly handsome smile. He knew it was devilishly handsome because he'd worked on it in the mirror and because Miss Viola had told him it was.
Miss Ally smiled back and fluttered her eyelashes at him.
"Why Miss Ally, I don't think I've ever seen you look more lovely than you do this evening." Buck took her hand in his and brushed his lips across the top of it.
"Ooh, Buck, your moustache tickles."
Buck was taken aback. "Well, that can be a good thing, don't you think?"
"As long as we don't kiss on the lips," Miss Ally said. "It'll itch me."
"It'll . . . itch you?" Buck laughed nervously. "Ma'am, it doesn't itch the other ladies."
Her expression suddenly turned stormy. "What other ladies?"
"Well . . . "
"You never said anything about ‘other ladies' when we had dinner last night . . ."
"Well . . ."
Miss Ally harrumphed and stormed off down the street.
Josiah and friends had been so absorbed in the goings on across the street that they hadn't heard Vin approach.
"Looks like Miss Ally is none too happy with Mr. Wilmington," Vin said.
"Mr. Tanner, I know you pride yourself on your ability to track a jackrabbit without ever giving yourself away, but do you have to approach us with the same stealth?"
Vin smiled. "Feeling a mite skittish tonight, Ezra?"
Ezra sighed, frustrated. "I do not get ‘skittish'. I just don't think a man should sneak around like he's about to ambush somebody."
"Sorry," Vin said. "You look like you're up to something."
Nathan grinned. With Vin's help, they could really pull this off. "Oh, we're ready to take Buck down a peg."
"Looks like Miss Ally already did," Vin commented. He looked at the long bench where his friends were sitting. "Hey, Ezra, scoot over a little, you mind?"
And Josiah laughed harder than he had in a long time.
As he made his way cautiously back toward the road, Chris' keen eye kept returning to where he had last seen JD.
God . . . let him be all right.
It had sounded like there were snipers everywhere. So where were they?
His question was answered when he saw a couple of men move toward where JD had been. Chris crouched and took aim . . . but then five or six other men gathered there too. He couldn't help JD if he gave away his location. He watched as a couple of men lifted the kid's body.
And the kid struggled. Thank God . . . at least he was alive.
His struggle was rewarded with a fist to the midsection. Chris seethed. How could they hit somebody who'd just been shot--and a kid at that? He could hear them yelling at JD, but he couldn't tell what they were saying. Why were they still hitting him?
JD was trying to fight back, but finally his head dropped and his body went totally limp. Chris hoped he was just unconscious. He wished he had Vin's glass so he could really see how badly hurt JD was.
And he wanted a good look at the guys that had hit him. He wanted to remember.
Chris had to figure out how to get JD away from there, but there were so many of them. He needed help.
And tomorrow, help would be on the way.
His moustache didn't itch nobody. At least he hadn't had any complaints--well, not til tonight, anyway. Buck reached up and touched the back of his hand with his moustache. Maybe it tickled a bit. Maybe to a lady's delicate lip. He practiced trying to kiss his hand in such a way as to keep the whiskers from scratching.
Suddenly, laughter erupted from across the street and Buck looked up. His "friends" were sitting on a bench, howling.
He felt the heat rush to his face.
"Oh, that's real nice," Buck yelled at them. He opened his arms expansively. "Have a good laugh at my expense. I'm glad I could bring you some entertainment this evening."
"Aw, Buck . . ." Vin was still laughing as he stood and started across the street. "You don't have to kiss your own hand. I'm sure some lady'll let you kiss her."
"Hell, I'll kiss you, Buck," Josiah hollered.
"Very funny, preacher," Buck said.
Vin patted the ladies' man on the shoulder. "I'm just glad Chris ain't here to see this."
Ezra Standish had arrived at Buck's other side. "In the South, a man can be put in jail for dating his own hand."
"OK, ha-ha," Buck said, slamming his hat in his hand. "We've all had a good laugh. All the funny's gone out of it now, so you boys just run on and find something better to do this evening."
"Hey Buck!" Nathan yelled from his seat beside Josiah. "Maybe you'll have better luck on this side of the street."
"I DON'T NEED LUCK!" Buck yelled back at him. "All the ladies in Four Corners find me very attractive, thank you very much!"
"BUCK WILMINGTON!" a female voice cried. Buck spun around to find himself face to face with Miss Ally again. He felt the sting of her hand slapping his face before he even had a chance to say anything.
"All the ladies??" Miss Ally said. "I thought it was just us. I thought you cared about me, Buck."
"Well, I do, darlin'" Buck stammered. "I just . . ."
The pretty girl blinked back tears. "I don't find you attractive at all anymore."
Buck found himself speechless, for once. He looked at his "friends" and walked away, head hanging.
Chris Larabee froze in place as he heard the unmistakable sound of a hammer at his ear. A pistol.
Chris let his own weapon fall and then raised his hands. Rough hands pushed him forward and he barely caught himself before falling. His captors were behind him, but he didn't try to turn around. He felt the unmistakable muzzle of a shotgun in the small of his back. His hands were pulled behind him and bound too tightly.
"Who are you?" he asked, but no one answered him.
"Move," a different voice said, prodding him forward. They were moving him toward the road. There wasn't enough light for him to see, but he could hear horses and other voices. There were a couple of lanterns down there, and Chris realized there was a wagon of some kind.
"Why were you shooting at me?" Chris asked, but he barely got the question out before suddenly, something--the butt of a rifle?--slammed into his back, driving him heavily to his knees.
"Shut the f*** up, Larabee."
God, his back . . . At least they hadn't hit his spine. Hurt like hell. Angry arms pulled him up.
"On your feet!"
He tried to stand up, but evidently not fast enough for them. A hand grabbed his hair and a man wearing a mask backhanded him. Chris felt the blood in his mouth. Someone jerked his head again and he felt hot breath against his ear. "I tell you to move, you move. You understand?"
Chris nodded. The stench of the breath nauseated him and he coughed. The hand pulling his hair released him roughly, then pushed him forward.
He staggered on, fighting the pain and trying to figure out if he recognized any of the voices he'd heard.
He'd have been able to concentrate too . . .
If he hadn't heard JD scream . . .
Nathan stood up and leaned against one of the posts. He watched Buck walk toward the saloon. "This ain't good," Nathan said, shaking his head. Ezra and Vin wandered back across the street.
"How do you like that?" Ezra said, chuckling. "Looks like Mr. Wilmington took himself down a peg. Our little prank would have paled next to that little exchange."
"I don't know, Ezra." Vin was watching Buck. "I think that really hurt him."
"Oh, surely you don't believe the illustrious Buck Wilmington would let one little rebuke get him down."
Josiah stood up. "You never know."
Vin raised an eyebrow. "Buck, he likes to flirt and all. And he enjoys a woman's company. Getting turned down would hurt his pride, but he'd shake it off." Vin took off his hat and looked at it. "Tonight was different, though. He knows he hurt a woman's feelings, and he'll carry that around a while."
"What are they doing to him?" Chris growled.
"What do you care, Larabee? You're a lawman, he's an outlaw."
A meaty hand shoved him forward and he landed on his knees again. This time Chris got back up quickly, anger driving his actions.
"He's no outlaw . . ."
"He shot two deputies--killed ‘em."
"They were about to ambush me!"
"Ain't how we see it," a new voice chuckled.
"Shut up down there." That voice must belong to one of their leaders.
They were close enough now to see the road clearly. Chris could tell that the wagon was a paddy wagon--a prison transport with no windows and with bars in the back. A f***ing cage.
As they drew closer, Chris could hear sounds . . . JD . . . JD trying to keep from crying out. Groaning instead. Chris wanted to make a threat . . . to tell these guys that he would tear them apart for what they were doing. But he didn't dare give them any reason to hurt the kid more. So he kept his mouth shut.
Once they reached the road, a big, broad man came up to Chris--a man vaguely familiar, but Chris couldn't place him.
"Larabee . . ."
"Do I know you?" Chris asked, fighting the ache in his back, not willing to let his captors see him cower.
"Oh, I don't think so." The man's voice was like thunder, his laughter a heavy, awkward sound. "But I know you . . ." Like lightning, his fist connected with Chris' jaw. " . . . Inmate 78."
Chris lay on the ground. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and squinted up at the man before him. He still didn't know him. He didn't remember him from the prison camp. What the hell was going on?
The toe of a boot caught him in the gut and drove any rational thought from him. All he knew for a few blinding moments was pain. He curled in on himself, protecting his abdomen from further assault. For the second time that evening, he smelled fetid breath. The hot whisper at his ear taunted him. "Trust me, the boy feels a lot worse than you do."
"What have you done to him?" Chris could hardly croak out the question.
No one answered him.
"Get up, Inmate 78."
Slowly , painfully, Chris started to pull himself up, but he couldn't balance with his hands tied behind him. Again he was hauled to unsteady feet.
The big man nodded toward the wagon and Chris was dragged to the black barred cage. The heavy door was opened and a shaft of moonlight flooded the inside. Chris could see JD lying on the floor, trembling, struggling to breathe.
"Bastards," Chris breathed
"What was that?" the big man yelled. "We can give him some more--you just keep talking."
At the man's signal, Chris was thrown into the back and the door was slammed heavily behind him.
Chris rolled heavily across the floor and into another person. The other body reacted by recoiling slightly then trembling.
"JD . . . it's Chris . . ."
A whimper first and a weak voice spoke."Help . . ."
"Where do you hurt, boy?"
A groan. A wheeze. Nothing.
"JD." Chris said again.
"Huh?" JD was trying hard to talk . . . maybe to keep from crying in front of Chris.
"Where are you hurt, JD?"
The wagon lurched forward and Chris felt like his body was coming apart. He hurt everywhere, but he set that aside when JD called for him.
"I'm right here, son." With his hands tied behind him, Chris was utterly helpless.
"You taking me . . . home?"
Chris' throat tightened. What the hell could he say? He'd never lied to the boy.
The wagon hit a pothole and Chris rolled back over his hands, the knotted rope digging into his bruised back. He groaned in spite of himself.
"Chris," JD whispered. "They hurt you." Chris could hear JD trying to move, but then falling back down again . . . with a thud.
A sob. A cough. "I'm sorry . . . I tried." JD was fading.
"You saved my life, JD," Chris said, as he struggled to crawl back through his arms, so at least they'd be in front of him. Maybe he could help the boy at least a little.
"You did, son." Chris bit back a groan. JD was worried enough about him. "They were gonna shoot me in the back. You saved my life."
JD's voice quivered as they continued on their rocky way. "I couldn't . . . let them."
Chris' hands were finally in front and he was able to reach up and touch the kid. First he found the boy's face. "You did good, JD."
Chris heard the lightest thread of a voice repeat . . . "I did good . . ."
Oh, the great gunslinger's eyes stung as he checked for injuries. "C'mon, son, stay with me, now."
A groan in answer, but the boy remained unconscious. "JD?" Chris asked, knowing he'd get no answer.
He took a deep breath." We're prisoners right now, but it won't be for long. Buck and the boys are coming for us."
There was no answer.
The f***ing wagon lurched again and Chris realized that the unconscious boy didn't roll across the wagon like Chris did. Chris, his hands still bound although in front of him now, reached JD to assess the boy's injuries. In the dark, Chris' hands found the boy's legs first. JD was lying on his side--his feet bound together. Chris checked the kid's legs for injuries and found a gunshot wound just below the knee. JD jerked awake--
"Easy son . . ."
"No--don't . . ." JD tried to pull away and Chris could finally tell how JD was attached to the wagon. There was a rope tied around the kid's waist and it was tied to a plank in the floor. Whenever JD moved, it got tighter, like a lasso or a choker collar or something.
"Don't fight me, son. I'm gonna take care of your leg, then I'll loosen that rope around your waist."
JD was listening. "Hard to . . . breathe . . ."
"I know. Try to stay still."
No sooner had he said it than the wagon hit another pot hole. This time, however, Chris was already holding the rope and he kept it from tightening. Chris braced himself so he wouldn't roll.
The wagon settled.
"You ok?" Chris asked, trying to keep the pain out of his own voice.
"Better . . . that time," JD said.
Chris felt the scratchy thick rope dig into his own hand and could only imagine how it felt against the boy's tender, bruised belly.
Chris felt the area--checking for . . . well, maybe he'd know when he felt it. He'd seen Nathan do it often enough.
Feel for heat, for tenderness, for swelling, for . . .
JD cried out in pain and tried to fight Chris--but when he did, the rope at his waist tightened unbearable.
"Help . . ." JD said, breathlessly.
But Chris felt powerless to offer any real relief.
"You gotta quit jerking like that, JD." Chris hated having to speak so harshly to the struggling boy. He cursed the ones who were doing this. And he wondered . . . first, if JD could survive the ride, and then, could he survive prison. Chris himself damn near hadn't and he knew strong men had been broken in the barbaric camps.
Chris started tearing the material of his old shirt so he could at least bandage the kid's leg. The job was awkward with his wrists bound together, but he still managed. JD had settled into a light unconsciousness. Maybe the boy could be spared some of the pain.
Once he had created a makeshiftbandage, Chris continued checking for more injuries, realizing how much he himself was hurting.
JD's torso was tender and, as Chris' hands traveled upward, he felt the unmistakeable stickiness of blood. Quickly, Chris searched for the wound . . .
And found it. JD started to scream, but Chris put his forearm over the boy's mouth.
"JD, I know you hurt son, but you can't scream. They'll come in here and no telling what they'll do." Chris pulled JD's shirt up and gave it to him to chew on when he felt like crying out. "If I had a bullet on me, you could bite that, but your shirt's the best we got right now."
The gunshot wound was high on the front of JD's chest, far to the side--a shot that would have killed the boy if it had hit his lung. Instead, it must have nicked a rib or caught muscle or something because it was almost under JD's arm. Chris found a matching wound on the other side. It had gone straight through.
JD's arms were pulled over his head--it had to be hurting his chest wound. Probably what the bastards intended.
Chris would kill ‘em. And if he died before he could, Buck would kill ‘em, or Vin would. Any of his men would.
JD was fighting so hard not to cry out.
"You're doing great, kid," Chris kept telling him. There didn't seem to be any major head wound and JD's arms were ok. Two of the kid's fingers were broken--Chris hoped it was from JD getting a good lick in when they were beating him.
Finally, satisfied he'd done all he could, Chris took JD's face in his hands and checked it ever so lightly. JD winced as Chris found the cuts and bruised--Chris winced when he felt the tears roll down JD's cheeks. The seasoned gunman got as close to the young man's ear as he could.
"You saved my life today, son."
JD started to answer.
"Don't try to talk. It's ok. That was the bravest thing I've ever seen a man do--ever."
A breath of a voice. "Really?"
Chris had to smile slightly. "Really. I'm proud of you, son. And I'm gonna get us out of this thing, JD, I swear it."
"Your word . . ." another lurch of the wagon. A groan. A muffled cry. "That's . . . good enough . . . for me . . . Mr. Larabee."
Buck sat alone in the saloon, nursing a whiskey and nursing his own wounded feelings. What could he do to make things right? He hadn't been "cheating" on Miss Ally because he hadn't actually been courting her. Still, he wouldn't hurt her for anything in the world.
One of the working girls sat beside him, and, once again, Buck appreciated being in the bosom of his real family -- the family he grew up with, not in the company of his so-called friends who thought of him as a fool. Oh, not in a gunfight, of course, he knew that, but maybe they thought he was "boorish" in his "regular" life.
Well, to hell with them and what they thought about him. At least JD looked up to him. Buck paused and laughed. JD got excited about a new frog gigger.
"What's on your mind, honey?"
Buck smiled sadly for a moment and he took her hand gently. "Nothing I have to worry on tonight, darlin'."
"You can tell me . . ." she said, her easy voice drifting, soothing him like his mama's voice used to. "Come upstairs . . . we'll talk . .. "
Buck was good to the working girls in town and they loved him . . . differently. He knew they had fun together, but when the chips were down, he could go to them and talk it out.
That's all he'd do tonight.
ARRIVING AT THE PRISON
Chris had either fallen asleep or passed out. It didn't much matter. Waking up to being thrown out of the wagon felt about the same either way, he figured.
He could hear JD struggling--still in the wagon. A moment later, he saw two big men push JD out of the back of the rolling cage, then pull him up short with that g**d*** "leash" around his waist. Chris could see it now. It was a lasso, for crying out loud and when it caught, it forced JD's air out. The boy started wheezing. His captors were laughing.
And Chris was burning.
Chris' instinct was to break somebody--but his better sense prevented it. If he reacted, then they would take it out on JD. And JD couldn't take much more.
"Take him." The man in charge indicated JD. They pulled him to his feet, but he couldn't put weight on his hurt leg. He fell hard.
And got kicked in the gut for it. The one who'd kicked him then hoisted the kid unceremoniously over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
JD had passed out, thank God.
But God only knew what awaited him once he reached the prison cell.
Something was not right. Call it a premonition but something wasn't right. Usually those feelings or messages came to Josiah in a dream, but not tonight. He'd tried to sleep. He read, had a drink, prayed, had another drink, but he still couldn't get rid of the uneasiness.
He figured it was about 3 o'clock in the morning when he gave up trying and went out for a walk. So it was probably a quarter after when the horses came loping into town.
He knew these horses as well as he knew his own.
Chris' and JD's horses were clearly spent from running full out for a good part of the night. They were skittish--saddled and rider-less--and Josiah's approach spooked them.
Josiah's heart pounded mercilessly, but he stopped and spoke in low, steady tones. Once they settled a bit, he took the initiative again. He took a tentative step toward them, and Chris' horse bolted.
JD's let Josiah take his reins, and he whinnied and blew as if to let Josiah know there was trouble.
Vin Tanner felt a whiskered muzzle nudging him urgently. The tracker rubbed his eyes and reached his hand up to stroke the horse, but it took him a moment to realize it was Chris'. Vin squinted then his eyes widened.
"Sweet Jesus . . . " he whispered, seeing the horse without seeing his friend.
JD had told him that you could tell one animal's "talk" from another, so when Buck heard the familiar whinny, he smiled. JD and Chris were back, and Buck sure could use JD's chatter. He got up from the wing-back chair that been dozing in and went over to Miss Lisbeth's bed. They'd fallen asleep in the middle of a sweet conversation, and she hadn't even taken off so much as a shoe. Tenderly, Buck pushed her auburn hair out back and kissed her forehead.
"You leaving?" the molasses voice asked him.
"JD and Chris are back. I'm gonna go check on things. Ain't like them to ride in the middle of the night."
Miss Lisbeth turned her head to see him better. "Are you gonna be all right?"
Buck pressed his lips over hers and kissed her deeply. Then he smiled, "I am now."
Vin led the horse to the livery and found Josiah unsaddling JD's horse.
"It's Vin," he announced, and he joined Josiah. "What do you think happened?"
"There's no blood. That's good. But that's the only thing good."
Vin started to say something, when he heard a voice outside.
"Hey boys," Buck thought he was greeting Chris and JD. "Why're you riding so late?"
Then Buck stopped short. "Where are they?"
Josiah's answer was succinct. "Dunno. The horses came in alone -- saddles and all."
Vin interrupted. "Take care of the horses. I'm gonna look around and see if there's any sign of them."
"I'll get Nathan and Ezra once we're done here," Josiah said.
Vin handed the reins to Buck then patted Buck's shoulder.
This was shaping into a nightmare.
"Heard you took out two lawmen."
"Heard you took out two lawmen. Good going, boy."
Chris Larabee would never say that. Why would Chris let this person say that? JD's brain was foggy. What was going on? Where was Chris? JD started to feel panic as he opened his eyes slightly. Where the hell was he?
It was dark, with one high window, and the tiny room smelled and JD was hurting and somebody was sitting too close to him. JD scooted away quickly, but his leg rebelled and he cried out.
Immediately, a meaty hand was clasped over his mouth and an arm encircled his waist and JD was utterly and completely terrified. His eyes opened wide and he wondered what was about to happen to him.
"You don't make a sound," a gravelly voice said, frighteningly close to his ear. "You don't scream. You don't cry. You don't holler for help. You don't make a noise. You understand?"
JD nodded quickly. The hand didn't move. The voice, that sounded like the devil himself, continued. "Young boy like you . . . if you holler, they wonder what's happening in here. But don't think they'll come in to rescue you, boy. They'll come in to . . . have some fun with you. Not all of ‘em mind you. But the ones what don't will look the other way. So I don't care if your f***ing leg falls off. You don't yell."
JD's thoughts were coming so fast that it took a minute for him to realize that the man was trying to help him. It made sense. The men that were shooting at him and Chris were the law. They'd beaten him up and thrown him in jail. It had been a set-up. So what this guy was saying was that the jailers were the enemies. Maybe they were the same people who had shot at them in the first place. Maybe this guy was innocent like he and Chris were.
"I said, do you understand?" The voice cut through JD thoughts and JD nodded again--slowly this time and slowly the man removed his hand.
"You yell," the man threatened, "and I'll knock you out myself."
JD didn't say anything. He was out of breath and trembling, but his eyes met the man's.
The man's eyes were hard and cold. There was nothing of Nathan's compassion or Buck's mirth or even Chris' heart. JD thought they looked like Chris' would look if Chris had never hooked up with their odd circle of friends.
Or if he'd never gotten out of that prison.
JD shuddered. What if they didn't get out? Would he and Chris turn cold like that?
The man that had issued the warning had moved away from JD. There must be some good in him. Otherwise, why would he have warned him.
"Are we the only ones in this . . ."JD searched for a word as he looked around. "This cell?"
"For now. Usually there's four in here."
"Where are the other . . ."
JD's eyes filled. "My friend?"
"No. These guys had been in here a while. They's hanged." The man pulled the last word out like he was telling a ghost story or something. Then he watched JD with amusement? . . . like he was expecting some kind of reaction from him--like he'd shocked him or something. But JD was so relieved that Chris wasn't among the ones that were hanged, he didn't feel scared by the word.
"That better scare you, boy. We all gonna wind up at the end of a rope or a knife. It's just a matter of when."
JD thought about it. But in the back of his mind, he remembered that Chris had promised to get them out of there. He held on to Chris' promise. JD would wait for him.
"Where's the kid?"
Nobody was telling Chris anything.
"Did you get him some medical attention?"
There was no answer except the hard slam of the cell door.
"Shit!!" He cried, and pounded his fists against the door.
"Won't do you no good," a grizzled old voice said. Chris turned around and glared. The cell was shadowed and Chris couldn't see the speaker.
"Who're you?" Chris asked.
"Your name, man."
"Ain't got no other name."
Chris moved away from the door and waited for his eyes to adjust to the poor light in the tiny room.
"How long you been here?" Chris asked.
"Don't know. A while."
Chris started to make out a large being on the floor, and as the light got stronger in the little slot near the ceiling that was pretending to be a window, he saw the man.
Chris felt his throat constrict. On the floor, cloaked in tattered clothes, sat a man whose legs had both been amputated just above the knee. Next to him was a crude little wooden platform with wheels, and Chris realized that that was how his cellmate got around.
"What are you in here for?" Chris asked, keeping the horror out of his voice.
"I'm an outlaw." The man said it with pride.
"Yeah? What law did you break?"
The man chuckled. "Didn't break no law--didn't have to." He motioned for Chris to come close. Painfully, Chris eased himself to the floor beside him.
"Usually an outlaw . . . broke the law," Chris said, gently. He wasn't making fun of the poor soul. Clearly, his cellmate wasn't right in his mind.
"Mr. Bright said I was one."
"Who's Mr. Bright?"
"He runs this prison."
Chris kept his voice low. "Why'd he put you in prison if you didn't do anything wrong?"
"You don't get it, do you?"
"I guess I don't."
"I was a nobody. Went to war. Fought like hell, but didn't do any good for anybody. Wasn't no hero. Bomb blew up in front of me the first time we saw action. That's how I lost my legs, you know. Couldn't remember anything from before the bomb."
Chris' jaw tightened. "Why do you think you're nobody?"
"Mr. Bright said so. And he said he'd take me, seeing as how I didn't have no family."
"He told you you had no family."
"And Mr. Bright told you you were an outlaw."
"He said I was. Said everyone would be scared of me." He squinted at Chris. "You scared of me?"
Chris swallowed hard. "Yeah, I am."
The man laughed--a big belly laugh. "You better be, mister. You better be."
RIDING OUT OF FOUR CORNERS
Ezra Standish hadn't had time to become the least bit dapper. When Josiah called him to ride, he'd thrown on the pants he'd had on the night before and grabbed a shirt he hadn't even had time to button and they were off just as dawn was breaking. He knew time was of the essence. Chris and JD had left two days ago, so if they were lying by the road somewhere, they could be dying. If they had been kidnapped, they could be a day's ride in any direction. This was not good.
It was odd. Ezra was not accustomed to feeling this weight on his chest simply because he was worried about other people. He'd felt it when he had a lot of money at stake and was holding a less-than-stellar hand. Now the lives of his friends were at stake and it made him sick at his stomach.
"This way," Vin Tanner called over his shoulder, and the four followed his lead. They were lucky, the tracker had told them when they left this morning. The tracks were very clear. It was just a godsend that there had been no rain.
Ezra watched with admiration, and perhaps a little envy, as Vin worked. Ezra would not likely tell anyone this, but he wanted to learn to track. No, he wouldn't tell, although he studied Vin at every opportunity. It didn't seem . . . proper . . . for Ezra to get down on the ground and study little changes in the terrain. Yet something in him wanted to dig for clues--to be lithe on approach like the native peoples were--like Vin was. He wanted to know how to live off the earth and to be able to track.
Of course, then his better sense would always over and he would study his manicured hands and be thankful for linen napkins and cologne and fine, tailored clothes.
But still . . .
The only way to tell that dawn was breaking was to judge by the shift in the color of the gray of the room. Chris had slept fitfully, waking from time to time when a voice cried out during the night. The first couple of times he'd heard it, he was certain it was JD, but then he realized there were different voices. Some would wail, some would scream, and one actually sang.
Chris looked over at his cellmate. The poor bastard had been there for years. He probably didn't have a family--not anymore anyway. If he ever had, they may have figured they couldn't take care of him. Chris had heard horror stories about veterans who had been "sent away" to hospitals when no one could take care of them. Some went to decent enough facilities.
But others . . .
They weren't in prison. They were in a f***ing asylum. And there was a madman in charge.
JD hurt. He woke up to an empty cell, sunlight flooding in the little high window. It had to be the middle of the day, he figured.
Where was Chris? JD's eyes filled, and he hated that. It wasn't the fear that bothered him so much. It wasn't even the pain. It was his powerlessness to do anything to help his friend . . . or himself, for that matter.
He made a quick check of his injuries. As his pain became more defined, he remembered being shot. He ached under his arm, but his leg . . . it was on fire.
He recognized the material crudely wrapped around his lower leg. It was the shirt Chris had been wearing yesterday. Now it was saturated with blood. JD vaguely remembered Chris taking care of him in the wagon. But Chris had been hurt, too. Hadn't he?
JD had never been squeamish at the sight of blood, but as he unwrapped the bandage, he could tell that his leg looked really bad. It nauseated him. He lay his head back against the wall. He needed help, but that wasn't likely to happen anytime soon.
He couldn't decide whether or not he wanted company. Company could help him, or they could hurt him. And he didn't think he could take any new hurts.
It didn't matter whether or not he wanted company, the door suddenly flew open and two of the men from the wagon appeared. He felt his heart race and, instinctively, he pushed away from them. They came into the little cell and closed the door behind them.
"What do you want?" JD wished he could keep the fear out of his voice, but he kept remembering the warning from his cellmate last night.
Neither man answered. They just grinned.
Then one pulled out a glistening blade.
The blindfold was tight over Chris' eyes, but it didn't bother him as much as the fresh rope around his still hurting wrists. Rough hands pushed him along.
"What's going on?"
"You don't need to know that." The pause was pure drama. "Inmate 78."
Chris still didn't know that voice. "You called me that last night. What did you do at the prison?"
"I was an inmate." The hands halted him a moment. "Stairs--we're going up."
"Where are you taking me?"
"You ask too damn many questions."
Chris thought about taking the opportunity to kick his captor down the stairs, but if he did, someone could retaliate against JD.
"Where's the kid?" Chris asked.
They had reached the top of the stairs and the sounds of the asylum were becoming fainter.
"You're a little too fond of him, wouldn't you say?"
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
Chris was shoved through a door and he realized he was outside--the heat of the sun on his face. He stumbled down a little step and onto a dirt road. There were voices, and suddenly the blindfold was removed. Chris squinted in the blazing sunlight. They were in a town--if it was big enough to even call it that.
"Where's the boy?" Chris' voice was harder now.
"Making friends," came the answer and Chris slammed his shoulder into the man, then put a foot in the man's chest.
"You better not be meaning what I think you are," he hissed.
The man on the ground pointed a gun at Chris' chest. "Let me up or you'll never be able to help him again."
Before Chris could let him up, two men approached him from either side and pulled him off. One of them wore a badge.
"Come on, mister," the sheriff said. Then he turned to the man on the ground. "You all right, Clif?"
Chris tossed the name around. Clif, from prison. It was in his brain somewhere, but he couldn't recall it yet.
Clif looked like he'd seen a ghost. "You weren't supposed to be back for another week," he said as he got up.
"Well, the sheriff at Eagle Bend had already taken care of everything, so I got to come home early." The sheriff led Chris to the jail. Clif followed, bewildered. "What's he done?" the sheriff asked, then a grin crossed his face, ". . . other than assaulting you?"
"Uh, he's . . . an escaped convict from over to Yuma Prison."
"Huh, well, I'll lock him up until we can get the judge here."
"Uh, thanks, but I can do it."
"Don't worry about it. I'm heading that way."
Chris decided that Clif looked like the cat that swallowed the canary. Maybe Chris could make some headway with the sheriff. It was worth a try. There was no telling what was happening to JD and he knew they didn't have much time.
Nathan finished his examination of the second corpse and stood up, wiping his hands on his pants. Both bodies were laid side by side at the bottom of a rocky slope. He shook his head.
"I think . . . these wounds are from a Colt," he said. Nathan turned sad eyes to Buck. "JD likely had to kill ‘em"
Buck's jaw tightened. "Then . . . Chris must be dead."
"How you figure?" Josiah asked.
"Because I know Chris, and he'd never let JD have to kill unless he couldn't himself."
Vin nodded in agreement. "JD must've been over on that ridge on the other side." There was no sign of anyone over there anymore. He started looking around the ground. The others watched him closely.
"Looks like Chris . . .went up this side . . . "he said finally.
Nathan followed his gaze. "Then, these two must've ambushed Chris."
"And JD picked them off," Buck finished for him. He blinked hard. "Damn."
Nathan looked back at Buck. "Why don't you wait down here. Josiah and I will check this side--Vin, you and Ezra go over to the other side. Check out that ridge."
Buck was almost shaking. "No, Nathan. If Chris is up there, I need go. You don't got to protect me."
Nathan nodded and squeezed his friend's neck and walked with Buck up his own personal Calvary.
IN THE JAIL
The sheriff couldn't help him if Chris couldn't talk to him without Clif, and Clif wasn't as stupid as he looked. The minute the sheriff stepped out of the jailhouse, Clif whispered to Chris, "You just remember. I got your boy."
Chris whispered back, "You just remember. You or any of your men touch that boy, I will f***ing kill you."
Screaming so hard it quit feeling like him screaming.
Shackles on his wrists. Shackled to a metal bar.
Shackles on his ankles.
And unbearable pain. Excruciating pain.
"What'd'ya got?" Buck asked as he met Vin and Ezra at the base of the slope.
"Blood. Pretty fresh," Vin said, then he added quickly. "Can't prove it's JD's, though."
"But . . ." Buck prompted.
"But I saw his footprints going up the side . . . "
"How do you know they're his?" Ezra asked.
Vin smiled sadly. "His boots have that worn place on the right foot. Remember Nathan, you kept bugging him to get new ones?"
"Well, there's no footprints coming down." Vin's answer was chilling.
Josiah tried, "Maybe Chris carried him down."
Nobody really believed that, but at least they hadn't found them dead.
The clank of shackles falling off wrists.
Unfamiliar arms lifting him--roughly.
ALONG THE ROAD
The afternoon ride was hard, and Josiah believed that Buck would have run the horses to death if Vin hadn't insisted they stop to at least water them. Buck was getting so agitated--too agitated. And yet, Buck would pull it together when he had to. He'd be cool-headed, smart and lethal if it came to that, but in the meantime, he'd drive his friends crazy.
They were all worried. Josiah went over to where Vin was studying the tracks ahead. The tracker was suffering--but he was doing his job. Josiah was ready to offer some kind of comfort when Vin spoke.
"This is too easy," Vin said, his brows knit, puzzled. "Either we're being set up, or these guys don't anticipate anybody following at all."
"What's your gut feeling?"
"I think they don't know what they're doing. If this were a set-up, they'd never be this obvious about it. I mean look at the tracks. They're too clear--too thorough. It's not like someone dropped a clue here or there."
Footsteps running up.
"Gentlemen, you've gotta see this . . . come on." He trotted on ahead and around a curve. Josiah and Vin followed and stopped short at the sight ahead of them.
Sunlight and warmth on his face urged him awake. Fear and intense pain urged him back to unconsciousness.
JD felt himself being carried indoors. He heard the clank of a jail cell door being unlocked and opened. Then he fell. Hard. Onto the floor of the cell.
And that's when JD heard it. Like the voice of hope. The voice of his friend.
Chris was here. Chris was alive. And Chris would take care of him now.
ALONG THE ROAD
Vin couldn't believe what he was seeing. Nathan and Buck were sitting in the dirt across from an old man wearing filthy clothes and waving a pistol that had to be fifty years old. It wasn't like he was threatening Nathan and Buck. The man was gesturing with it. Buck seemed to be looking for a chance to get the weapon away him.
Nathan's voice was infinitely gentle. "These guys are in my gang," he said, nodding to Vin as if to say "play along."
"What is your name again?"
The old man sitting on the ground started rocking back and forth. He grinned and laughed. "Jesse James. You heard of me?"
"Yeah. I heard of you," Nathan said, his eyes focused intently on the scarred face. Buck looked up at Vin--a desperation in his eyes.
Vin spoke up. "You boys just finish a job?"
"Not just a job . . . " he said, proudly.
"No? What then?" Vin squatted right in front of him.
The old man set his gun down, and put his hands on his knees. He never even noticed Buck slipping his hand over to pick it up. He just kept talking, though now it was like he was letting his new friends in on a big secret.
"We captured the Larabee gang."
Chris watched, horrified, as Clif dropped the semi-conscious boy on the floor. Clif just grinned at him and left the jail.
Chris leaned close to the bars and spoke to the huddled kid. JD was still shackled. He'd obviously been beaten and Chris couldn't tell what else might have happened.
"JD . . ." Chris said softly. "Hey . . ."
There was no response.
"JD" A little louder.
Someone in the cell next to the kid elbowed him in the chest. "Hey runt, he's talking to you."
JD wheezed and rolled onto his side, his arms clutched to his chest. He struggled to get a breath. His cellmate reached over to grab him again, but Larabee's voice stopped him.
"Touch him again, and I'll kill you."
"Hey, take it easy, man. I'm just tying to . . ."
"Just get the hell away from him . . ." Chris' voice brooked no argument.
"All right, all right. . ." The man moved away from JD, who was still wheezing.
Chris got as low and close as he could. "JD --try to relax, son."
JD didn't answer, but Chris could tell that he was trying.
"That's right. Breathe easy, JD."
Chris realized that the kid was also trying to edge closer. Chris kept encouraging him, and finally JD reached the bar. The young man grabbed it and with a heave, pulled his body against it.
"That's good, kid." Chris said, and he covered JD's trembling hand with his own. He reached between the bars and rested his other hand on the boy's back. JD shuddered at the touch, but Chris didn't move.
"It all right now, JD." Chris could feel the struggle JD was making to breathe. "Slower."
JD tried . . . and coughed. Chris patted his back. The cough became a half-sob, but JD stopped himself.
"Chris . . ." It was just a whisper.
"I'm here, son."
JD's voice quivered. "They hurt you?"
Chris' throat tightened. "No. But I know they hurt you." Chris got as close as he could to JD's ear. He still hadn't seen the boy's face. He lowered his voice. "What happened?"
"They worked . . ." He had to pause to breathe. "They . . . worked . . . me over. That's all . . ."
"That ain't all, JD." Chris took a fistful of the back of JD's shirt. "You've gotta tell me."
JD tried to pull away--to pull his hand off of the bar, but Chris gripped it firmly.
Chris spoke more firmly. "Prison's a hard place. But that place was worse."
JD looked up at Chris, questioning.
"It's an asylum, kid. There are lots of ways they can break a man in there. Now you gotta talk to me, son. You gotta let me help you."
JD finally looked at his friend. "You can't." This time it was JD reaching through the bars, grabbing Chris' shirt.
Oh God, kid . . .
Chris bit his lip to keep from saying what he was thinking. The kid's face was a mess. One eye was swollen almost shut, the other nearly as bad. He looked like he had after the Nichols boys had beaten him up. That time, he had been "the messenger." Chris suspected that JD was being used to bring an unspoken message this time as well.
And he was enraged.
JD coughed again, and Chris could see that there was a little blood in his mouth. Must be hurt on the inside.
JD tried to speak. "You can't . . . try . . . to help . . .me." Another cough. "They'll kill you. . . They're using . . . me . . . to get you . . ." JD had to stop to catch his breath. Chris released JD's shirt and reached up to put his hand on JD's neck--an awkward move when separated by iron bars. JD hung his head and tried to talk again. " . . . to make you mad enough . . . to make a move on them."
How could Chris keep his voice steady? He was mad enough to take somebody's head off. "What did they do, JD?"
JD's head dropped to his chest. "I told you."
"No you didn't." Chris spoke as gently as he could. Never known to mince words, this time he wasn't sure how to ask what he needed to ask. "Did anybody . . . try to . . . have his way. . . "
JD began to tremble, and he gasped. It wasn't a sob exactly. It was as though his breath caught in his throat. Chris squeezed JD's neck and waited to hear what he'd say. He hoped to God nothing had happened. If anyone had touched him, Chris would kill the b*s***d and never look back.
JD answered in a weak voice. "They started to. . . . There were . . a couple of them . . . but they were . . . just . . . scaring me." The kid huddled down.
Chris kept his voice very low. "What did happen?"
JD stared at the floor. "They . . . said that . . . you . . . wanted me to have. . . medical attention."
No . . . Chris could only imagine what was coming. "And . . . ?"
If possible, JD speech became even yet more halting. "They . . . chained . . . my wrists . . . over my . . . head." Tears spilled over and his voice quivered. "And they . . . shackled . . . my ankles and . . . they . . ." JD was trying hard not to cry in front of Chris. " . . . tore my . . . shirt and I thought . . ."
"I know . . . " Chris' own voice was husky now.
"But . . . instead . . . they . . . cut . . . the . . . bullet . . . out."
"Cut it out?"
"The knife . . . they kept cutting . . . my leg . . . I kept . . . screaming." JD finally turned his pitiful eyes to Chris. "They kept . . . digging, Chris. At first, I thought," JD's sob became a nearly hysterical chuckle, "they might . . . cut my leg off."
Chris wasn't expecting anything like this conversation.
"They finally . . . got the bullet." JD's gaze shifted back to the floor, and his voice became a whisper. "If I screamed, they'd hit me. I tried not to, but I couldn't help it. The whole time . . . they kept saying we'd have 'fun' . . . afterward."
How could grown men torture a kid just for the hell of it?
"God, Chris . . . I don't . . . think I could . . . live through that." JD's breathing became more shallow.
"You ain't gonna have to, JD," Chris said. "I swear that won't happen."
"You can't stop them."
"The hell I can't."
JD started rocking slightly. "Don't you get it," he said through clenched teeth. "That's what they want." A cough. "I shouldn't . . . have . . . told you." Another cough, then wheezing.
"How bad did they hurt you?" Chris moved his hand from JD's neck to his back again.
"Not as bad . . . as they could have," the boy answered. Then, coughing, "couple of . . .busted ribs . . . nothing else . . . is broken."
"Well," Chris said softly. "You've got a fever."
Chris waited as JD was wracked with a coughing spell. "You sound really sick."
"I feel . . . sick . . . Why didn't they just . . . kill me?"
Chris frowned. "Because you're the only bargaining chip right now. They don't have a way to manipulate me without using you."
JD spoke as softly as he could, fighting another cough. "They're sick b*s***ds, aren't they, Chris?"
"Yeah, they are, son." Chris felt his throat tighten again. "The worst kind."
"You don't think they'll . . . come after me . . ." JD whispered, " . . . like that again . . .do you?"
"I know they won't," Chris said, lying to the kid, and wishing to God he didn't have to. The trust in that boy's eyes cut Chris to the core, and the seasoned gunfighter let his own head drop to his chest, hiding the stinging in his own eyes. He would never let anyone get close again.
ALONG THE ROAD
"Jesse James" was dying. It wasn't until Nathan tried to help him up did everyone realize it. The poor old man thought that he'd taken Chris Larabee down. And maybe he had. At least maybe he had worked for the ones who had.
"I always wanted to meet that Chris Larabee," Buck said, as he and Nathan helped the wounded man back to the ground. "I wanted to meet Jesse James and Chris Larabee and now I've met one." Buck reached out and shook the old man's hand. "Too bad I'll never meet Larabee."
"Why not?" the old man asked. "He ain't dead or nothing."
Buck's sigh of relief spoke volumes to his friends. To the "outlaw", the tall moustached man was just starstruck. "Yeah, but no one can see him, I bet."
The old man motioned for Buck to come closer. "I know where he is." His smile showed teeth that had never been tended to and his breath made Buck a little bit ill, but the words were like a message from God.
"No you don't," Buck said.
"Yep -- you're not three miles from the prison where all the outlaws live."
Buck swallowed. Please let the old man be right. Don't let him be talking out of the lost part of his mind.
"It's under the ground." The man suddenly coughed hard and he coughed up blood. "Oh Lord . . . Jesse James is dying, boys."
Nathan held the old man up and wiped the blood from his chin.
The outlaw reached his hand out. "Gimme a stick." Josiah reached down and handed him one. He took the stick and drew in the loose dirt. "Right around this bluff . . ." he said. "Secret entrance. We only use it when we catch another outlaw."
Vin was sitting beside him. "And is there a regular entrance?"
"Not so's anyone but the ‘gubment' knows. It's at the edge of town."
"What town?" Vin asked softly, but the man frowned and turned to Buck. "I ain't so sure I like all your friends here knowing my secret."
Buck whispered. "Your secret's safe with them. They always thought you were the greatest outlaw who ever lived."
"Greater than Larabee?"
"Greater than any of them." Buck said.
The old man smiled again. "I am."
"What's the name of the town?" Buck asked.
"Scott's Ridge. It's a tiny little town. Nobody in the world knows that it's the greatest prison ever built."
"They won't know from us," Buck said.
The man coughed again. "Boys . . . you're eyewitnesses to the death of Jesse James."
Buck took the man's hand and held it until the man's next breath.
His last breath.
"No sir, Jesse James' legend will live on forever."
And Buck reached up and closed the unseeing eyes.
Clif was up to something. Chris knew that. His captor had come in and released JD's cellmate, then shut the cell door again. He left without a word. The deepening shadows of dusk reminded Chris that this whole nightmare had started at sunset the night before.
He glanced at the boy sleeping on the floor in the next cell. He'd seen JD face his fears before--never so gallantly as he had on the ridge. But JD's fear was now of an enemy Chris couldn't explain. Even though violence was always hard to understand, there was usually revenge or money or jealousy involved. But this--Chris had never understood how one man could torture another for the hell of it. And the threats they'd made . . .
How could he get the kid out before they broke his spirit?
The boy was talking in his sleep . . . begging to be left alone . . . asking about Chris . . . and eventually he began to writhe in pain.
"JD," Chris said.
Still sleeping, the kid answered. "Get outa here, Chris"
"It's ok, son."
JD hadn't moved from the spot right beside the bars. Chris reached through to rest his hand on the kid's neck. The kid was running fever--high from what he could tell. If they didn't get help soon, Chris wouldn't have to worry about JD's spirit.
JD would be dead.
It was too dark for them to find the secret passageway into the prison, so they decided Ezra should go look for the sheriff. The others fanned out through the town, looking for anyone or anything that would help them.
Vin and Buck headed to the saloon. Someone was bound to be able to tell them something.
Josiah went to find the local clergy. They'd seen a church as they rode into town, and Josiah figured that the little house next to it was the parish.
Ezra and Nathan went to check out the jail.
The saloon was dead. The barkeep was actually asleep behind the bar, a dime-store novel open on his chest. Buck felt a pang. JD had that particular one--had been reading for that matter.
There were two ancient men at a table in the back. They seemed to be playing a card game in slow motion. Neither looked up at Vin and Buck when they came in. It was strange. Vin was about to order a drink when a man burst in and slammed his open palm on the bar.
"Wake up, Irv!!" he said. "Give me a red eye--straight up."
Irv nearly fell out of his chair, and scurried to accommodate the patron. Buck noticed that the barkeep was almost scared.
"Sure thing, Clif," he said.
Clif turned accusing eyes on the two newcomers. "Who the hell are you?" he asked.
"What the hell does it matter?" Buck asked, evenly.
"We don't take real kindly to strangers."
Buck started to answer, but Vin touched his arm in restraint.
"We're looking for a couple of rooms for the night," Vin said.
Clif drank his drink in one long gulp, then slammed the glass back down on the bar. "You boys best move on down a couple of miles. There's a boarding house there." He addressed the bartender. "Irv, get these boys whatever they want on the house." He turned back to Vin and Buck. "Then you boys can head on out." He tipped his hat, but didn't smile, then he left.
Buck was about to follow when Vin pulled him aside.
"Did you see his arm?" Vin asked.
Why wouldn't Vin let him go? "No, but he may lead us right to ‘em. We gotta go."
"Not yet. He has a mark."
"Same as Chris' -- from prison."
Buck looked toward the door, as though he could see the man again. Vin continued. "We can't spook him any more than we have already. He's likely to move ‘em if we do. I'll follow him. You go get Josiah."
Buck thought about protesting, but he knew Vin was right.
Irv's hesitant voice drifted over. "Could I get you fellers a drink?"
"No thanks, Irv," Buck said. "We're gonna head on out."
The barkeep looked a little disappointed. Buck reached in his pocket and tossed a couple of coins on the bar. Irv smiled and waved after them.
Clif bolted down the street. Who the hell were those guys walking up the steps of the jail?
"Hey!!" he cried, and the men bolted in different directions. Clif drew his gun and fired at one. The other got away.
First, careful footsteps approached on the front stairs. Then Clif's voice yelled and whoever was trying to get in the jail retreated. .
"What's going on?" JD asked fearfully, as a shot was fired.
"I don't know," Chris answered. "But stay alert for me, ok?"
"OK." JD crossed his arms tightly. "Chris?"
Chris' voice was grim. "So am I, son. So am I."
Buck saw Josiah coming out of the church. The preacher was shaking his head, puzzled.
"Nobody's been in this church for years," Josiah reported. "Nobody lives in that house. I haven't seen anybody in this town. Have you?"
"Aw, shit," Buck said as he and Josiah drew their weapons and made their way toward the jail.
"EZRA??" Nathan cried, but there was no answer.
Suddenly, Vin was on Nathan's shoulder. "Go on, I got you covered," Vin said, and Nathan took off across the street to help his fallen friend.
Ezra lay on the ground, and Nathan dragged him out of harm's way.
The five who'd come to rescue their own realized that they weren't being fired upon.
"How bad, Nathan?" Vin called.
Ezra himself answered. "Not bad. Grazed me."
Buck motioned to everyone to make their ways to the jail, and carefully they did.
Until a sight stopped them cold and the man named Clif hollered at them, "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"Ezra?" JD asked, his voice trembling. "Oh, God they're here . . . and Ezra's down." JD was getting breathless.
"Get a hold of yourself, JD."
"No need for that," a voice said, and Clif appeared from the back of the jail. He held a gun on JD and he grabbed the keys to the cell. He opened the door to JD's cell and wrapped an arm around the kid. "I got a hold of him." Clif's laugh was sick.
"Don't . . ." JD said.
"Don't what?" Clif laughed again, and he hooked an arm under JD's legs. JD started to struggle, and Clif hit the kid in the jaw with the butt of his gun. Then he lifted the unconscious boy and started out.
Chris spoke, smiling ominously. "You are going to die tonight, you know that, don't you?"
Clif's eyes fluttered in a moment of uncertainty, but then he cocked an eyebrow. "You can say that while I literally hold his life in my hands? I don't think so, Larabee."
And Clif stepped out of the jail, JD in his arms. Hearing the click of revolvers at the ready, he hollered, "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
Buck was about to come out of this skin. Their boy was lying in the arms of a madman. He was hurt. His feet were shackled together, One leg had a makeshift bandage that was saturated with blood. Blood was even dripping from the wound. One arm hung down, making his chest wound visible, and his head hung back over his captor's arm, exposing his throat. How vulnerable he looked! How vulnerable he was! The kid's mouth was bleeding, and his hair was soaked with sweat.
"Drop your weapons, boys," Clif called. Buck stepped forward, holding his hands up , holding his gun by the butt. He let it drop and took another step.
"That's close enough," Clif warned.
"How do we know he's alive?" Buck said--his voice strange and faltering.
Clif let his hand grab JD's wounded leg and the kid screamed. His eyes shot open, then squeezed tightly closed.
"Oh, God . . . kid," Buck said.
JD was panting. "Buck . . ." he breathed, and he tried to look for Buck.
"Be still," Clif said, and he put lighter pressure on the wound. JD struggled to keep from reacting. But he still tried to communicate to his friend.
"Chris . . . jail . . ." JD said, and Clif was furious.
"Shut the f*** up!!!" Clif screamed and he realized he was slowly being surrounded. Suddenly Clif dropped JD's legs and he stood him up and pressed the gun into the side of the boy's throat. He started backing toward the jail, dragging the kid with him. Buck didn't dare take another step toward him, but he spoke.
"It's gonna be ok, kid," he said, and the dark head nodded. Then Buck addressed the man holding his friend. "You ain't leaving with that boy. We're leaving and we're taking him and Chris Larabee with us."
"I don't think so," Clif said and he backed up the stairs again.
And Chris Larabee shot his captor in the back.
"Think again," Chris said.
JD fell heavily down the two steps to the ground, and Clif fell on top of him, still holding him. Chris fell to his knees in the door way, and his head dropped to his chest.
It was over.
Josiah lifted the dying man off of the injured boy. He lay Clif on his stomach in the street. Buck and Nathan immediately tended to JD, while Vin, satisfied that Ezra was all right, ran up to see to Chris.
Buck rolled JD over and held his upper body in his lap. JD was shaking violently. He fought the hands that were trying to help him.
"Don't touch me . . . " he cried.
"It's ok, son. It's Buck and Nathan."
But JD didn't believe them.
"Chris!!" he screamed. "Help me . . ."
Buck's eyes stung. He was even more overwhelmed when Chris came over and sat on the ground in front of the kid.
Buck's eyes met his old friend's--and they knew how they felt without having to say it. Chris reached up and touched JD's face.
"JD . . ."
"Chris?" JD squinted up. "Did he hurt you?"
Chris shook his head. "No, son, and he can't hurt you anymore, either."
Buck realized that JD was trying to pull himself up. "Don't try to move," Buck said, but JD reached out for Chris with his good hand. Buck helped lift him up and the boy reached his weak arms around Chris Larabee's neck. It was the first time in years that Buck saw his old friend's eyes glistening with tears.
"You promised . . . you'd save us," JD said breathlessly. "I knew you would."
Buck watched Chris return the embrace --careful not to hurt the boy. And Buck saw JD relax. . . collapse . . in the legendary gunfighter's arms.
A DAY'S RIDE OUT OF FOUR CORNERS
Chris rode behind Vin. "That was the saddest thing I ever saw," Chris said. "That poor man was so proud of being an outlaw that he didn't even know he wasn't guilty of anything."
"People can be so bad to the insane people."
"Well, the first ones that were bad were the government officials--the ones that built that hellhole in the first place." Chris shook his head. "Clif Dewey was put in prison for the rest of his life because of the men that mysteriously died in the asylum under his watch."
"Why was he after you?"
"Because those guys at the prison were letting him go. They wanted a cut of the government money that was going to the asylum for the patients' upkeep. He was going to give them a kickback for setting him loose."
"Then you came along," Vin continued.
"Then I came along and they reviewed every case and realized that Dewey should be in prison for the rest of his life."
"How'd he get loose?" Vin asked.
Chris waited a moment, then responded as if the answer sickened him. "He ‘went insane'."
"Jesus . . . "
"People who'd been there forever had already been so scared of him that he took the place over again with relatively little effort. He killed the one that was running the place and he was back in business."
"What about the outlaw thing?"
"He convinced them that they were all dangerous outlaws and that they didn't have any family, and that being there was some kind of . . . honor."
"And they bought it," Vin said.
"Sad . . ."
"Yeah, but the fantasy may have helped them cope."
"They had to have something to make it in that horrible rat-infested place."
Vin was silent for a while. He glanced over at Ezra and saw that the gambler was holding up well. He was surprised when Ezra turned quickly and looked at him. Vin nodded in tribute to his newest friend.
He could tell Ezra understood his meaning. They'd get along fine. Maybe Vin would take him out tracking sometime.
JD slept on the ride home. Nathan had bandaged him up and he rode in front of Buck. They took it very slowly, and every now and then Buck would close his eyes and thank God that they'd found both of his friends.
And he thanked God for Jesse James.
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