To Better Days - Part 2
"God…what did I do?" He woke face down on the bed, back on the third floor again. His tried to raise his head, but thought better of the idea when it seemed his head would explode. He thought he was going to be sick, but he avoided it by moving very, very slowly. When he turned over, finally, he was startled to see Mitch and Ethan sitting in chairs next to the bed. Quiet, scowling, waiting. Mitch held a large glass of something in his hand, but Chris couldn’t see well enough at the moment to recognize the contents.
"Bet your head feels like about a hundred miles of wagon ruts. Serves you right. You asked me when I got to be Pa." Mitch’s tone of voice included not one bit of sympathy. If Chris hadn’t been concentrating so hard on not being sick, he would have realized just exactly how angry his older brother had become.
"Don’t you tell me ‘not now.’ I’ll tell you when I got to be Pa….when you decided to get even more stupid than you were as a kid. If you weren’t so beat up already, I’d…."
"You'd what? I told you before wasn't anybody gonna hurt me like that again."
"But they did…didn't they. And you opened the door for em to do it."
"For pity sakes, not now…."
"…I’m not wasting one minute of pity on you any more. Here…you drink this."
"What is it?"
"Make your head and stomach feel better. Just gulp it all down." Mitch put the glass in his right hand, forcefully closing his stiffened fingers around it.
"Only way to get it done."
He sniffed the contents tentatively. "What's in this? Ethan?"
Neither answered. They grabbed his arms, pinning him down. One pinched his nose, and the other forced the nasty contents down his throat. "You’ll maybe thank us later," Mitch released him.
Ethan stepped back too, "but to tell the truth, we really don’t care if you do or don't. This is a lesson that needs learning real quick."
Chris sat up quickly, fuming mad but gasping for breath, then he turned about as green as they had hoped he would. In less than two minutes, he was heaving into the bucket Mitch had remembered to place near the bed. The misery lasted nearly ten minutes. When it seemed he had cleared the first round, Ethan retreated to the corner of the room, leaving Mitch to deal with the fool.
"What was in that?"
"Two raw week-old eggs, rot-gut whiskey, and lots of rabbit droppings."
"You’re lying!" He heaved again… from what was in the glass or just from the thought of the recipe, he didn’t know. "Damn…"
"Old recipe for curing drunks. Went and got the droppings myself."
"I’m not a drunk!!"
"Could have fooled the hell out of me last night. From your own mouth, it ain't the first time you've been in that condition lately. Have you taken to drinking like that all the time?"
"How much do you drink?"
"Drank a bit at the camp….generally a beer or two when we got off work… nothing big."
"Last night sure weren’t no beer or two. You miss any work because of this kind of carousing? That how you lost your job?"
"NO! Leave me alone."
"Man who can’t hold a job because he can’t hold his drink….it’ll just be an embarrassment to us all, Chris. To you, to me, to Margie…if that girl finds out you’re doing this…"
"If I tell Martha," Ethan returned to challenge him again, "If I tell her, you can bet she’ll set you straight in about a minute. She hates a drunk worse than anything. She’s got some cures you don’t even want to think about."
"I AIN"T NO DRUNK!!!"
"And it’ll get you killed, almost got you killed this time. Of all the stupid things to let yourself dive into, a bottle has got to be the absolute worst thing you could do…..I swear…didn't you tell me getting drunk got you into all this mess to begin with? If getting beat like this didn't make you want to leave it alone, I don't know what's gonna do it."
"I ain’t no drunk. I’M TELLING YOU, I AIN’T NO DAMN DRUNK!"
"No more then. Not one touch for you for at least a month. Get yourself clear of it. "
"No problem. After last night, I don’t think I want any more for a long time anyway."
"You say not, at least now. We’ll just see." Mitch allowed just a small amount of pity for the suffering man. "You concentrate on drinking lots of water today…seems like it helps me when I’ve had a bit too much, and you’ve had a big bunch too much."
"Why don’t you two just leave this alone." Anything to make them leave him alone, he tried to change the subject, "When can I start training?"
"You think you’re ready? Yeah, you ought to be good and ready….why don’t we just start working on you about right now."
"Well, maybe in an hour." He tried to stand, but the room spun, so he sat back down quickly, then heaved a little more into the waiting bucket. "Maybe try it this afternoon?"
"Okay…you meet Ethan and me at the livery just after midday. And don’t expect us to be easy on you. If you’re stupid enough to put that much whiskey into you, we’ll sure make certain you get it all out of your system real quick. And remember, if you don’t eat, we won't help. I’ll send up a plate of eggs and bacon with … What’s wrong, kid? You look just a mite green again."
"You can move faster than that. If your head hurts because you've been out drinking like a fool, the other fellas’ just gonna take advantage of it. You just have to learn to work in spite of it."
"It's not my head…"
"Or your stomach? Raw eggs, rot-gut whiskey and rabbit droppings’ll do that to a drunk."
"Not my stomach either. And I ain’t…no…damn…drunk!" He wasn't exactly lying, but he wasn't telling the whole truth either. They just didn't need to know how bad it really was. All they needed to see was that he was on his feet and where he had said he would be. " My hand won't move right. I can't even button my shirt yet."
"Okay, then. If that's the problem, let's just start working those fingers and your wrist." Ethan walked to the far corner of the livery and picked up a stack of old horseshoes. Okay, we pitch, you catch."
The first incoming horseshoe just bounced off the young man's fingers, bending one of the bandaged ones backwards. "Awh….damn, that hurts."
"Poor little fool." No pity from either of them today. No pity from John Hill, who was sitting on a hay bale watching. At least he was taking him apart. The other two were taking turns.
"Sorry, kid maybe that is just a might heavy for the first try. Let's do this. You pitch, we catch." When the cramps in his fingers got bad enough to spread through his shoulders, they gave him a break. "Sit down over here….we'll work on speed and coordination. You remember how I helped you learn how to draw? Let's see how you do."
They worked hard. It seemed to Chris that the brutality he had suffered had caused more damage than he had ever faced before. They had to stop repeatedly because of the stiffness in his hands, wrists, shoulders, back…his whole body. No part of him would let him do what he was told to do. "You think this is going to ever be okay?"
"If you don’t quit being stupid, no. You're awful slow right now. It's just the first day, though. Don't get discouraged this soon. You're gonna have to work every day, work hard, but I'm hoping you'll do all right. We'll add to the routine little by little, just like we did when you came into Patomka that first winter."
"Can I ride yet?"
"Where you planning to ride?"
"Just ride…get used to the new ones."
"Not today. Sometime soon, maybe. We'll think about it. Not sure you can stay on a horse too long as weak as you are."
"I'll stay on…."
"Yeah, and your stomach ain't hurting at all neither."
"Don’t worry about it. When do we work again?" He was starting to pace. From long experience, Ethan knew the fact that he was pacing like a caged mountain lion meant he was thinking far too much for his own good.
"Tomorrow…same time…right here. If you so much as look like you've had a sip of anything beside water, I won't promise you what Mitch'll do."
"Let him try something…" His tone was for Ethan, his glare for his brother.
"You show that stubborn streak of yours, I just might just take you on for real…and you're not in any shape to fight me. I'd think you've had enough for now. Why don’t you go get some rest. And for once, try to be sensible."
"Well, sensible isn’t my long-suit, but I’ll make you a promise. I won’t get drunk, I won’t even drink, at least not tonight."
With that retort in his ears, he walked out on them all. "I need a bath and a smoke. Don’t think either of you have said no to that yet, or have you?"
"You two don’t lighten up on him, he’s gonna just take off." John decided it was time to add his two cents. "You’ve got him hurting again. He’s had enough. He ain’t no kid…or you two forgot that part?" He left them too, heading quickly on Chris’ heels.
Not so smart, it seemed. The next morning he was gone. Just after sunrise, Bess knocked on the door of the room Mitch and Ethan shared on the second floor.
"Did you know he was leaving this morning," she showed more than a casual concern for the malcontent.
"Exactly when did he leave?" Mitch was pulling on his pants, looking around for his boots. Ethan blinked sleepily as he stood in the doorway.
"I don’t know," Bess admitted. "I went to check on him. His black outfit, shooter, and rifle weren’t where he normally puts them. I checked with Hector. He said he was up way before dawn, ate a few biscuits with butter and honey, drank a little coffee. Then he gathered up two filled canteens and left.."
"That means he’s gone all right, that stupid fool…."
"What I was afraid he’d do, Mitch. He got riled up yesterday. John called it… he’s ready to fight something. Doubt if he even knows what. Hector see which direction he went?"
"He said he headed toward the livery."
They sought Holly. "Had he been drinking again? Did you see him before he left?"
"No, Ethan, he wasn’t drinking last night, not when I last saw him, anyway. He was just real quiet again. He was just sitting at his table, thinking about something. All I served him was water, and once he had a glass of milk. Said his stomach was still hurting because of something. He went upstairs pretty early. He seemed real tired. When I saw him this morning, he had his rifle, and he was wearing his six-shooter. Had a canteen and his duster."
"He have a bed roll?"
"No. Thought he had just decided to maybe ride out a little ways."
"He’s not up to it."
"He thinks he is. He’s trying to get back on his feet. John says he needs to do that real bad. If you and Mitch keep hounding him, holding him back, he’s gonna make a break for it. Today may have been the day he decided he was going to be his own boss again."
Details were scant at the livery. "He took that sorrel you brought him. Started to take that black, but changed his mind." The stable hand had seen him, too.
"Say anything? Ask for anything?"
"No, Mr. Larabee. Well, he just asked for directions."
"Texacanas…asked if I knew of a watering hole around there."
"You give him the directions?"
"Sure, everybody round here knows where that watering hole is."
"He look okay when he left?"
"He looked about as white as powder, but mighty determined. Said if you boys came looking, I was to keep my mouth shut."
"Why’d you tell us then?"
"Seen that look before. Youngster was all stirred up, and I’d hate to see him get hurt again."
Ethan led out their saddled mounts. "He’s got a head start…we best go after him."
"Yeah. And when I catch that brother of mine, I'm gonna teach him a lesson…"
"Mitch, you just can't go after him like that. You hurt him now, I don't think he'll ever get over it. I don’t think you forcing him to tell everything like that did him much good. He’s not a talker on the best day. Spilling his guts like that might have hurt him more than we realized. He’s trying to act like he’s just fine, but I think he’s still running from everything."
"Well, you want him protected from me, you best ride along. When we find him, we'll decide from the condition he's in just exactly what the punishment ought to be."
"You think he was drinking again?"
"Holly says no. I hope not. He gave us his word he wouldn’t be drinking last night. He’s always kept his word…hope all this hasn’t changed that about him."
They were wrong about him in one regard. He hadn’t ridden out in a riled up fit. He wasn’t looking for trouble. He had thought it through, and he thought he was ready to take care of a little business on his own. He hadn’t told them because…. well, because they would have said no. But he felt he had been sensible… just a two or three hour ride. He had taken one look at the black and decided on the sorrel, for now…that was sensible. Wasn’t it?
Now, as he rode, he was leaning slightly to the right – heaving the biscuits he had eaten. He wasn’t angry…but the scars and his side were indeed angry, but nothing was as angry as his stomach. Still, he was determined. It was time he faced it all, alone. Today, he needed to look for the horses…his horses… Charlie and Loco. He wanted them back. Yet, when he forced himself to acknowledge the truth, he was going back as much for himself as for the horses. The watering hole was where it had happened. He needed to know where they had taken him, where he had been when they hurt him enough to make him beg. He had thought that his father had been the only one who would ever do that to him, but he had been terribly wrong.
In spite of the nausea, which finally abated when his stomach was empty, he made good time. If he didn’t tarry too long, he could get back to Norrisville before mid-afternoon. Hopefully, he would be none the worse for his effort.
The watering hole had changed. It wasn’t nearly as dry as it had been. The recent rains had refilled it. He had expected the watering hole itself was the only thing he would find. However, as he topped the small rise overlooking the oasis, he was reintroduced to his own personal place of torment. The prison wagon stood where it had been. He approached it cautiously, his mouth suddenly dry, his senses reeling. As he dismounted and walked around the vehicle, he stopped when he saw splatters of what he felt was his own blood on one of the large wagon wheels. The stakes still stood upward from the dirt. Where they had heated the tree limbs, the ashes were matted from the rain into a glue-like sludge, but the acrid stench, as he stirred the mess, reminded him of all he had been through. The burns on his body, the cuts and bruises, all seemed to pulsate and throb as he viewed the remains of the fire.
The wagon had to be dealt with. For a while, he just walked away, going to sit under one of the trees, simply looking at it…remembering the heat and the pain. If he could have let himself, he would have ridden away. But that was too much like running, almost like begging again, for his mind to let him go. He finally rose and walked to the van. When he pushed the door open, the odor hit him like a living thing. It had been a long time since his blood had spilled here, since he had lost everything inside his body, but the smell had refused to die, just like his suffering body had refused to let go of the last precious bit of life.
After he pushed the heavy door fully open, he took a deep breath and climbed inside, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. He walked to the rear, and after a minute of just looking, he assumed his former place on the narrow rear bench. He reached down, examining the manacles on the floor. Then, he turned to look at the collar that had circled his neck, robbing him of air. He sat long enough to let the panic that gripped him pass. Then he stood up, reveling in the feeling of freedom that came to him and started for the door.
He was trapped by the door suddenly slammed shut, the hasp sliding home. Again, he was alone in the box. He felt the fear return. He banged on the door, willing it to open and set him free. He banged until there was no energy left, then sank to the floor, leaning against one of the walls. "Guess this is where I’m gonna die after all."
"Got yourself into another bit of trouble in there, have you?" He didn’t know how long he had been alone in the box…obviously not that long.
"Mitch, how’d you find me?" He quickly slid out the door to the ground, gladly accepting the canteen his brother offered.
"Just because you think you’re real clever don’t mean you’re that hard to figure. If it hadn’t been for Bess, we’d have been a good bit later finding you. Weak as you still are, could have been a little too late."
"Thank, God. Door slammed shut. I couldn’t get it open…thought I.."
"Didn’t think at all…just one damn stupid fool!!! Why didn’t you ask us? We’d have ridden with you."
"In a pig’s eye…when?…next year? You made it real clear you weren’t gonna help me in this."
"Not what we said. Said we wouldn’t help you hunt those men down to just kill them. Look for them…yeah…we’d do that. Probably wouldn’t have let you go today, but soon. You want something to eat?"
"Are you gonna start that again?"
"No…no…I’ll eat in a bit. Need water first." He sat down under the tree, drinking from the canteen and going silent as the other men watched him.
When he had finally eaten a bit of jerky and a piece of hard biscuit that Ethan provided, he seemed calm again and unconcerned. He even dozed for a time…but not for long. He woke as if he had been in mid-conversation for the entire time…"and I still haven’t found them."
"Found who? You come out here hunting?" The Patomka sheriff had always found his young friend’s thinking to be somewhat odd at best.
"Sure…what I’ve been saying…was looking for Charlie and Loco."
"You came out here, now, looking for horses?"
"Hunting the horses, and hell, boys, I just needed to get out of there for a while."
"Shoot. I was afraid you came out here tracking those men."
Ethan rose from his seat on a log under one of the trees and slipped away as the two brothers talked.
"I may be stupid, Mitch, but THAT stupid I’m not. Not ready for that at all…at least not yet. When I face any of those, I’ve got to be stronger…able to move. I can’t imagine taking a punch right now, even if my life depended on it."
"And it would. At least you’ve got sense about something. I think we ought to just head back for now. We can come back and look for the horses later."
"No! I came to find them. They’ve been loose too long. If I let you get me back to town, no telling when I’ll get myself free again."
"That’s the truth. Seems I remember having to tie you down a few years back when you got pigheaded about riding out somewhere."
His gaze went hard as he remembered Mitch shackling him to keep him from looking for Margie. It had almost driven him insane. I had made him physically ill. His retort was cold. "Don’t make a habit of doing that to me."
"I hear you, but, I swear, you pull a damn fool stunt like this again, I’ll do it. It’s a promise."
"You do that to me again, I ain’t gonna be held responsible for what I do to you."
"Then, look, let’s just not make it a test of wills. Talk with me when you get these ideas. We’ll work something out between us."
"I’ll talk to you if you’ll consider listening for once."
The rapidly deteriorating conversation was interrupted by Ethan’s return. "Chris." The man’s expression was serious. He spoke the younger man’s name, but his eyes held Mitch’s, preparing him for what might come. "You up to riding for a little while longer today?"
"Yeah. Think so. What’s up?"
"Found…I found Loco."
"Where?!!!" The hunter was up on his horse, ready to ride in an instant. His smile was genuine. "I figured he’d be close by. Water’s here, grass’ here. Bet nobody could get close to him. I’ll be lucky to get within a hundred feet as it is…"
"Yeah, Ethan….let’s go get…." He turned back to face his friend.
"He didn’t make it."
"What?" The smile was gone.
"He’s just over the rise…at least what’s left."
"Are you sure it’s him?" Mitch watched his brother’s face. All he saw was tight control on anger and sorrow. Chris gripped the reins of his new mount. "Show me."
Only a short distance away, he dismounted again to examine what was left of a friend who had carried him when he was sick and near frozen, helped him find water, been a constant companion. All that remained were tufts of the luxurious cream-colored mane and tail, and some of the bird-picked bones. They expected him to go crazy, but he stood there, absolutely still, deathly quiet.
"You keep in mind this was also the meanest horse you ever knew." He knew it was Mitch’s attempt to break through and comfort him.
The anger was what was held in check. The sorrow came as unchecked and unashamed tears slipped down the young man’s face. He would let tears fall for this easily enough.
"They left him hobbled, Mitch." He bent down and straightened with bits of the rope that had held the horse gripped in his fingers. "He tried to break these, but he found out he couldn’t run or fight back…not any more than I could. Looks like the coyotes got to him because he couldn’t fight back. I never hobbled him. With that temper of his, he wouldn’t take that." He suddenly remembered something that brought a good memory. "After the one time I ever left him hobbled, he tried to buck me off, and then he kicked me everytime I got within reach for two whole days. Once he quit that, he’d just try to bite the living daylights out of me. He never did stop trying to bite me. Guess he just wanted me to remember that he did have limits to what he’d put up with."
"Good horse." Ethan gripped his shoulder.
"Yeah. He killed a coyote that came into camp one time when I was getting pretty close to folding up, just a couple of nights before I came into Patomka. Didn’t have any shells anymore by then. If I had hobbled him that night, I’d have been dead a long time ago."
He turned abruptly, knowing there was nothing for him to do. As he mounted the sorrel, he mumbled low and hard, more to himself than to anyone else, "That’s just one more thing those sons-of-bitches are gonna pay for." He turned the horse, facing Ethan, "You see any other signs…anything that might lead us to Charlie?"
"No. With the rains lately, would be hard to track him."
"How you gonna do that."
"Look. Loco was the hard head…but he wasn’t an adventurer. Left alone, he’d give up and stay as long as he had food and water. Probably what got him killed. When they found him, he was tied too tight to fight….got trapped. Charlie, now…even hobbled he’d just wander on, little by little, following his nose. He was probably long gone by the time the coyotes came."
"All right, then….you think you can track him…which direction?"
"West. Anytime that horse went wandering, he always headed west. We’ll go back to the wagon, then head west from there. Where’s the next watering place?"
"Couple of hours on. Should have water if the rains passed through. You sure you’re up to doing this? You’ve gone through quite a bit today."
"I can manage. Did you bring anything else to eat?"
"You actually asking for food?" Mitch laughed. Maybe he was getting better.
"Do I ever ride off without something to eat in my saddlebag? Never can tell when there might be a little delay in plans…might run into a hothead who can’t see reason…and I’m not like you. I don’t like feeling my backbone with my stomach."
"Good…got enough for me?"
"Came looking for you didn’t we. Knowing you, I added enough. You may not eat regular like, but when you do get hungry, takes a side of beef to fill you up." He reached in his saddlebag and handed the young man the thick sack of provisions. "If’ we’re staying out here tonight, you’d best eat a good bit."
"I’ll eat, but we best ride while I do."
"Well, don’t hog it all."
They rode, letting their own mounts lead the way, hoping the horses would move in the same directions of the missing one. More tired than he cared to admit after the day of ordeal and emotional turmoil, and with the watering hole further along the trail than they anticipated, Chris was drooping in his saddle before they approached the next pool of water. The sorrel he rode whistled as it smelled the approaching drink, alerting the rider to the end of the journey.
The men dismounted under another group of trees, settling the horses quickly, and building a small fire. It took only a few minutes to finish more of the jerky and settle into their blankets for the night.
As he was accustomed to doing, he woke before dawn. In silence, he stirred the fire and ate another piece of jerky. Before the others woke up, he had caught the horses and prepared his own, brushing his hands over the rich reddish-brown coat. The horse was settling well to the touch of his hand. He thought again of Loco, lost to him because of three pieces of scum who didn’t deserve to live. He pushed that thought aside….later would have to do. He walked over then and nudged the boots of the sleepers…"Get up…let’s find him."
He hoped he knew his horse. Another three hours and they found him. When the sorrel he rode whistled, the sorrel he hunted stood still at the base of the small hill and made no response. From what Chris could see, the horse was thin but at least he was on his feet. Chris’ own whistle, which should have been familiar to Charlie, drew nothing more than a slightly raised head. "Don’t let anything spook him."
He rode wide of the horse. Coming around on his left, Chris noticed nothing of significance that might be wrong. He was hobbled, just as Loco had been, but he had managed to move. From a distance, he continued around the horse, moving slowly. When he could see the horse’s right, he stopped, quickly dismounted, and muttering reassurances, walked to the horse’s side. "Whoa, boy…whoa, boy….easy now. Been looking for you….Whoa." The horse blew and sniffed, testing the air, trying to catch the scent of the one who approached. His eyes were wide with panic and fear. He tried to turn to follow the man’s movements, but he stopped, with a groan that indicated great tiredness and maybe pain.
"Mitch!! Ethan!! Help me. He’s hurt!!!" As they approached, he cursed under his breath, trying to remain calm enough to keep from startling the animal. "Sons of bitches!"
"What is it?"
"They’ve beaten him, and burned him! They burned him!!"
The horse’s right side bore marks much like those on Chris’ own back and chest. From the horse’s shoulder down his front leg, then on his back leg as well, the burns were numerous and deep. "Carouthers! That s-o-b likes fire…loves to smell burning skin." The wounds had been untreated for a long time now…they were festered and infected. At Chris’ first touch, the horse screamed, trying to kick, to rear, to pull away. "Whoa, boy…whoa, son….I know. I know. Hurts like hell don’t it. Easy, son….Whoa, Charlie…let us help." As badly hurt as he had been, the horse had moved slowly west, ignoring the pain, trying to find something. Trying to find Chris? He certainly didn’t seem to recognize anyone now. The second touch produced more of the same….the flashing hooves came within inches of the young man’s face. The screams of the horse filled the air.
"Chris, don’t. Back away. He’s hurt too bad. You’ll get yourself hurt. Those legs are infected to the bone. Don’t you think he’s suffered enough?" There was a rifle in Ethan’s hands, held low, ready…
"NO!!!!" Chris threw himself between Ethan’s rifle and the horse.
"Easy, Chris." Mitch’s tone was similar to the one the younger man had used for his horse. "You know it’s for the best."
"NO!!! He’ll heal. He can heal. Give us a chance."
"We don’t have anything for him, Chris. He’s in pain." Ethan raised the rifle.
"NO!!! He’s my horse. He’s mine. He’ll heal. One of you can go into Texacanas and get what we need for him. I’ll stay here and start cleaning the wounds. I can settle him down. Give him a chance…I don’t think he even knows who I am right now, but he will."
"I don’t think he’ll ever be right. He’s been through too much…he’s just too hurt…he’s too hurt to come around again. Sorry, Chris, but it’s what needs to be done." He raised the rifle and aimed.
"NO!!! " Chris slapped the rifle aside, then stood perfectly still, head cocked toward Ethan. His eyes were showing all the anger that had built in him since the days of pain…he was ready to fight… at least with words… "You do this, you just leave. I don’t want to see you again. Charlie’s mine….my choice….not yours. I’m sure as hell glad John Hill didn’t think like you."
"What?" Ethan lowered the rifled just a bit.
"If John Hill had been like you, he would have probably just shot me too."
"That’s different…you’re a man…"
"Not so different….I was alive. Charlie’s alive. We both deserve a chance to get right again."
"This horse has suffered the whole time you’ve had to heal. You’re back…he’s not."
"You think so? You know that I’m back?" The words were low and hard, showing fully the anger and pain that still lurked deep inside him. "Live inside me, Ethan…live inside me just one day. You’ll find out how far from being all right I am. If Charlie could, I bet he’d kill that son-of-a-bitch for a song. I know I would….I still feel exactly the same. We both deserve a chance."
The work began that evening. First, Ethan was given the list of supplies for horses and humans. Chris and Mitch succeeded in getting ropes on the horse, though the fight wore on both their nerves and especially on Chris’ strength. He refused to give up. When the horse was captured, he attempted to remove the ropes from his legs, but backed away as the hooves became weapons again.
He hunkered down, making a pallet close to the horse, settling for whispered words to try to comfort the pain-crazed animal. He remembered how people had cared for him, gently but determindly talking, soothing him even before they began cleaning, salving and mending his frayed skin and nerves. He did the same for the horse.
Mitch simply watched the process, fetching what was needed as it was required. By the time Ethan returned late the next afternoon, Chris had succeeded in touching the horse again. He had also succeeded in leading him, screaming in pain, into the nearby stream. The salves provided the first bit of comfort and built the first measure of trust. When the man succeeded in bandaging the horse’s legs, he let himself rest for the first time.
As they both watched, Mitch and Ethan discussed whether the effort did more for the horse or for the man. Chris’ gentle treatment of the sorrel seemed to soothe his own anger and nerves. It took all his time and hard work, but by the end of the third day, Charlie became calmer, seeming to recognize the hands that ministered to him and the voice that whispered in his ears. He nickered, finally butting his head against the man’s chest, blowing his warm breath against his friend’s skin.
As he came out of the water on the fourth morning, leading Charlie back to grass, Chris looked straight at Ethan and Mitch, "He’ll make it, now. He’s still hurting, but he’s gonna heal. There are a couple of burns that are deep, but the bruises are going down. And he trusts us."
"Trusts you. I wouldn’t get within reach of his teeth for a long, long time. You getting him into the water like that has sure helped."
"Yeah. Water helped me, it does help, but I know it hurt him. I can promise you that. How long has it been since John found me?"
"Most of a month, I’d say. Margie and I read your telegram a little more than three weeks ago."
"Then it’s time I got serious. I need to come back as much as this horse does. After I work with him and salve those legs again, you fellas feel like getting some exercise?"
"Sure. You’re looking better…fresh air’s put some color in your face. I’ll let Mitch take you on first…he’ll take it real slow….he tends to have a little sympathy for you."
"Yeah. He’s a real tender heart." The men noticed the sarcasm. It was a part of the younger man’s spunk they had missed.
"How are the wrists and your side?"
"Better. Working all that salve into Charlie’s put a lot into me too. The side’s sore as hell, but it’ll hold."
"Well, put em up…let’s just see."
"Now?" He jumped back as his brother’s first light swat glanced off his shoulder.
"Yeah. Right now. Open hand though, no fists just yet."
"Thought I was to finish Charlie first!" He started to move, retreating a few steps, then began to swat at Mitch. He relaxed into the routine…grinning and laughing…moving felt good.
"I’ll just finish you off, then we’ll toss you and Charlie back in the drink."
"Think so?" The look in his eyes was suddenly the young Chris, devil-may-care, willing to work, ready to match any opponent…eager to be strong and able. He moved with traces of his former power, his moves promising an accelerated recovery now.
"All right! Good move." Ethan traded placed with Mitch. "Every day, boy, we work every single day. Just like the first time. You take off again without letting me or Mitch know, we’ll teach you a real hard lesson."
"Think so? Think I’ll let you? Well, I don’t." His punch suddenly contained a fist, and he connected lightly but solidly with Ethan’s jaw…the upper cut fooled the man again…just like it always did.
"Oh, ho…ready to play rough, eh?"
"Yeah. Come on tough guy."
"Okay, hothead." Even Ethan’s pulled punch sent him sprawling. "You ain’t strong enough to be a smart ass, yet. Give it a little time….you’ll get your strength back soon enough….you and that horse. You gonna just sit in the dirt, or you gonna work?"
They stayed in the open for a few more days, the horse and man responding to the time they spent in the air and sunshine, healing and training. But soon it was time to return to the real world. Chris rubbed salve into the horses scarred but rapidly healing legs, then quietly fastened a lead rope to the halter the horse still wore, even after all he had been through. The old sorrel nudged him, but balked when the first pressure was applied to the lead.
"Come on now, Charlie. Come on, boy. Time to get on with this. Time to get back to work. You just come with me. I’ll find you a nice stall, some good hay….let you get fat and sassy. You trust me don’t you?"
The horse blew an answer, putting one foot in front of the other, accepting the direction of the man. The man mounted the other. He still found it amazing that the two resembled each other so closely in looks and in temper.
"You ready?" The other two men waited patiently for the dawdlers to get ready to move.
"Yeah. Let’s take him slow for a while. If we’re going back by that Texacanas watering hole, we might want to go wide. If he feels about that place like I do, he’d rather be thirsty than go back there again. I’m not the least bit curious about what happened to that wagon anymore."
"Well, if you two feel that way about it, why don’t we just cut cross country from here. Get to Norrisville faster that way anyhow. No big watering holes, but we’ve got plenty in the canteens. You feel up to it?"
"Sure. How soon we get there?"
"Less than a day. We start now, we could be sleeping in a bed tonight."
"Sounds good. Think we can maybe get a bath before we turn in?"
"You’ve been playing in water for days. You still need a bath?"
"Hot bath with lots of soap. Maybe then I’ll smell a little different from Charlie. And when I’m presentable, how about a short visit to the first floor of Holly’s Social Club."
"You think that’s a good idea? Thought you promised no booze for a month."
"That was your idea, not mine. Anyway, I don’t plan on anything but a beer and a little music, maybe a taste of something besides jerky and beans for a change."
"Now that does sound like a good plan."
"I always make good plans…"
"Then how come you keep getting yourself all beat to hell? Can you please answer me that?"
He laughed…"Wish I could. I truly wish I could."
It was late….so late even many of the die-hard patrons had left Holly’s place, but he had had his bath and he was hungry. He walked down the stairs, happily and steadily under his own power, and with his two equally presentable friends entered the big common room. Bess was there. She had helped to scrub his back earlier. That was all he had allowed, but Mitch and Ethan didn’t need to know about even that part of his business. She smiled a greeting and took his offered arm as they walked to the bar.
"What is it you want tonight? Do you want to dance?" She asked him quietly, looking up at him with veiled eyes, trying to surpress a giggle that nevertheless managed to catch Mitch’s attention.
Chris couldn’t surpress his own laugh either. "I don’t dance, that’s for sure. I don’t know what I want tonight….we’ll just work that out as we go."
They stopped for a beer at the bar. True to his word, he had only one, then asked Hector what there was available to eat.
"Eggs, plenty of eggs, any way you like…"
"No eggs. I don’t think I’ll want eggs for a long, long time. How about a steak….can you find us some good ones."
"Sure. How you like it?"
"Make sure it’s good and dead, I’d rather not see blood, but don’t burn it." Everyone stopped for a second at the remark. "Okay, lighten up….it’s over. Let’s get back to life again. Hector, can you find any carrots to go with that steak? And have you ever heard of parsley? Can you make some potatoes with the skin left on em and sprinkle them with a little parsley?"
"Yeah.. I can do that."
"Well, make enough for four and bring it as fast as you can. We’ll be sitting at my table. Time that place got used for something beside self-pity. If you’ll join us, make enough for five. If Holly’s around or John, make enough for a crowd."
"I thank you for the invitation. I get off as soon as I cook for you. I’ll just take you up on that offer."
They settled at the corner table where he had spent time before, but the atmosphere was certainly lighter. Holly and John joined them. Hector was quick with the meal, and joined them himself, bringing two nice bottles of wine to the table. His replacement eyed the group with curiosity as he served what Hector had prepared. "Now this is a good change. I’m glad to see you’ve healed so well. Thought we might not find you after you took off like that."
"Sorry. Just needed to do something different. Thought the walls were gonna close in. I’ll let you know what’s going on next time I decide to leave."
"You find what you were looking for?"
"Yeah." He was almost quiet again, but he made himself smile and come back to life. "Found both the horses. Loco, the bay, was dead; but we found Charlie, my sorrel, pretty beat up, but alive. Brought him back today."
"He gonna mend?"
"Yeah. Don’t know that I can ever put him to work again. Have to see. He’s developed a pretty ornery attitude. I don’t blame him. Took us almost a week to just get him strong enough to walk here. Damn shame to see a good mount ruined."
"I’m sort of glad you were gone for a while." Bess smiled at him. He returned the smile with a question on his face.
"Why? Is it that hard to be around me? I know I was acting like a …like an…."
"The word is ‘ass,’ little brother, and I wholeheartedly agree. You certainly were acting like one of those."
"Shut up, Mitch…I’m trying to apologize." He sipped the wine slowly, enjoying its warmth and delicate taste, enjoying the company. He turned to Bess again. "What was it? Why were you glad I was gone."
"A man was asking about you a day or so ago."
The three partners went silent. Ethan spoke first, "You know who he was?"
"No, never saw him before. He wasn’t real tall….shorter than any of you….not near six feet, I don’t think. He was dirty, like he’d been riding a long time. Said he knew you, but I didn’t trust him."
"He give a name?"
"No. Didn’t seem to want to say anything about himself. He just asked if I’d seen a ‘boy’ named Chris or Larabee. Said he wanted to talk over some old business. I don’t know why, but I didn’t like him at all, told him you hadn’t been around here."
"What made you not like him."
"I guess it was that knife."
"Knife?" Chris asked it quietly, but his hand that held the wine glass shook ever so slightly.
"He kept fingering this little old knife. He’d run it over the palm of his hand, then run it back the other way, like he was sharpening it for something."
"Fisk. That must have been Fisk."
"The bear skinner?"
"The man skinner. God, I hoped I had seen the last of that one."
"Is this the man who cut you?" Bess was obviously scared. "He said he’d check back again later. Said he was gonna go look elsewhere, but if he didn’t find you. he’d be back."
"Chris, it’s time you left here."
"I’m not leaving, Mitch. I’m not running from that piece of …." He was determined, but he stood and began to pace like a caged mountain lion.
"You’re not ready, Chris. Better to retreat until you’ve got a real chance."
"I’ve got a chance. I’m not running from that son-of-a-bitch. Let him come."
"That’s anger and pride talking, it’s not sense."
"I don’t care, Mitch. I don’t care one damn bit. I said I wanted him dead, and I meant it. I’m not gonna run from a fight with him. He made me beg, but he ain’t gonna send me running. Anyway, he’s not here now, so there’s time for me to get ready. You boys get some rest. We’ll start again at daylight."
"What about you…you gonna get some rest yourself."
"I’ll rest when I’m tired. Right now, I’m not tired."
"Right now, you look like you’re near about crazy."
"That may be true. But crazy like a fox…it’s time to think….time to plan….time to remember."
"Don’t think too much. You tend to get into trouble that way, and try to get at least a little sleep."
But he pounded on their door before sunrise. One look told Ethan that the trouble maker hadn’t slept much, if at all. His eyes were bloodshot, the clothing he wore wrinkled, his hair drooping all in his face. "You stay up drinking all night?….I ought to…"
"Whoa. Not drinking….well, I did finish that last bottle of wine, but there was only a glass left. Just needed to be quiet, do some thinking by myself. You two ready to work? I’ll meet you at the livery."
"You eat anything this morning?" Mitch didn’t like the look of him.
"Uh…well….no. But I’ll get something later."
"Eat with us or work alone."
"Hell, Mitch. We ate large late last night, and I’m just not ready to take in more food."
"Then have some milk….eat an egg."
"I’ll have the milk, if it’ll get you off my back, but I’m not eating an egg for nothing after what you did to me. Will you just please quit trying to make me eat. I’m okay now. I’ll eat later when I’ve worked up an appetite. Even Ma never tried to fatten me up this much. Lord. When you eat yours, meet me at the livery."
He woke half the town. When the two others arrived he was out in back of the livery, holster level, pistol ready, taking target practice at every bottle, can, and tree limb he could find. His fingers were better, but his aim was wrong and his lack of speed made him curse.
"Ethan, I’ve got to practice. What if Fisk shows up?"
"He shows up right now, he better not be much good with a shooter. If he’s a gunslinger, you’re a dead man….just that simple. I said to stop because you’re going at this wrong."
"I know how to shoot. You taught me that a long time ago."
"Yeah, but you’re not the same man that I taught. You’ve changed. You’ve got to start all over again."
A sense of purpose settled into everything he did. He worked with Charlie, nobody else could get near the horse, but he worked on himself even more.
"Remember what I said awhile ago, you’re a different man now. The damage is going away, but you’ve got to start from scratch. Your draw will feel strange because you’re out of practice and all the cuts and burns on your back and chest have taught your arms to move just a little different. Scars on your wrist, broken fingers, same story. Just relax and learn. Your moves will come around as you get used to it again."
They fought in the livery. Bare knuckles, with and without knives or clubs or anything else close to hand, down and dirty. It was like old times. He grew stronger and more agile much quicker than Mitch or Ethan had anticipated. His problem was learning to ignore the soreness and pain from hits that landed harder than they intended. The blows to his side, both front and back, were the worst. He retreated whenever they got close, often walking into a planned trap. "Enough for today. We’ll try again tomorrow. You’ve got to stand up to it. Somebody will get you every time you try to pull away from it. I can see it coming in your eyes. Anybody who knows how to fight will see it….but you know that."
"I know it. It’s hurt so bad for so long, I can’t seem to get my nerve back to take it, Ethan. I keep thinking it’ll open up all over again. It’s the same when we’re working with the knives. Every time I see one come at me, I just want to run."
"It’s understandable, but how are we gonna get you past it? You’ve always been a good man in a fight, but there’s a man who loves knives looking for you right now."
"I don’t know. I’ve never been scared so much by anything like this before. When Pa beat me, I came back. When I ran into trouble in Wheatland or Patomka, I got over it quick enough."
"Those were hard times, but not slow, deliberate torture. It’s different. Every time I’ve seen somebody who’s been hurt like what you took, it takes a long time to get your strength back, but getting all your courage back is harder. Have the nightmares stopped?"
"Don’t have many any more."
"That’s good. Maybe you’re dealing with it. Now, we’ve started fighting. Wasn’t giving you a real mean beating the first thing they did to you?"
"Then maybe we should work on something else for a little while, then come back to this."
"No. I don’t want to be hiding from this."
"Just means your choosing your battle ground. You’re no coward, if that’s what you’re afraid of. You’ve just got to work all this out a little at a time."
"What do we try?"
"You’re still favoring that right hand and wrist. Why not go back to work on your rifle and six-shooter first thing tomorrow."
"How long do I avoid knives and fighting?"
"Just work it in little by little. You’ll get past this! Don’t be so hard on yourself."
"I keep pulling to the left."
"Try bringing your left hand in, balance your right on it when you draw."
"Won’t that slow me down?"
"Don’t know…try it. Try it lots. Get used to it. See what happens."
He drew, and he drew. Over and over. Little by little, the support of his left hand corrected the problem in his aim. But it didn’t work when he tried to hold his right wrist. He found balancing his arm with his left hand just above his right elbow did the trick. It fit naturally enough into his draw and the rhythm of his moves. His speed began to pick up when he made the discovery. The work strengthened his wrist enough to help make working the rifle easier as well.
"See, you’ve getting it back. Took something that was damaged and made it come back right. Nothing wrong with different, as long as it works. That’s the way it’ll be about everything. You’ve got this coming along real well. What do we work on now."
"You sure you’re ready?"
"I’m sure. Had a dream that I lost a knife fight two nights ago…died real mean and bloody. Had the same dream last night. I think somebody’s trying to tell me I need to get on with it, and do it fast."
"Okay. We start this afternoon."
He broke into a sweat the first time Ethan’s blade came out of the sheath again. The sunlight caught the gleaming metal. He circled, knowing the importance of every move. It wasn’t a death match, but it could be deadly, or at least very painful.
"Concentrate. Watch the blade, and watch the eyes. Always move. Let him come at you. Makes him work harder. Gives him more to worry about, you less. He a righty or a lefty."
He dodged the first strike, circling. "Righty. Wait. Wait. Give me a minute."
"No. Nobody else will. Just go for control and defense. Control your body, control the anger, defend yourself, let yourself feel where the next move will come from. You can do it….you always could. If you have to make the kill, you have to make the kill, but don’t let it be your intent." He struck at the boy again.
"If it’s Fisk…I’m not so sure." He dodged the blade. The match continued for most of the afternoon. They began again at sunrise. The movement of the match became more controlled and serious. There was no rest to be had. The afternoon continued much the same.
He dodged the blade again, but suddenly he saw a look of horror on Ethan’s face. A long, gleaming blade was buried deep in his mentor’s side. The man sank slowly to the ground, blood flowing rapidly into the dirt as he tried to dislodge the blade.
Chris whirled to face the attack. He circled instinctively, knife grasped in his hand. His mouth was dry; his sweat made the tool slippery in his fingers. "Somebody get Ethan a doctor. Fisk, you son-of-a-bitch." The anger rose in him until all he saw was the man who had scared him for life, had maybe killed his best friend, and the long shiny blade.
"You better make it your only intent, cause if you don’t do this right, I’ll take every inch of your skin off, one piece at a time, real slow. Won’t nobody be able to stop me. You’re mine."
"You think so." He wanted to sound sure of himself, but it didn’t come out that way. It came out scared, and that was trouble.
"I know so." The blade swept out quickly, slicing neatly through the sleeve of Chris’ shirt, leaving a thin trail of blood oozing down his arm, making the knife even more difficult to control.
He remembered the pain of a knife in Fisk’s hand. The threat of more torture brought it all back. The bloody arm brought back the nightmare. He didn’t want to die like this. He made himself breathe, forced himself to look the man in the eye, searched himself with all his heart for the will to fight. He glanced briefly to see Ethan being worked on by the doctor, pale but breathing. Mitch was standing close, horrified as he understood that his brother would fight for his life.
Chris tried to remember what Ethan had told him, shifting the knife first to his left, then back to his right hand, rapidly rubbing his palm on his pants. The knife lost some of its coating of blood and sweat, his grip became more controlled. Contrary to what Ethan said, he let the rage that was in him build….rage, not anger…controlled rage that made him concentrate on nothing but this man’s death. He breathed deep and even…and then he settled down to work. This one was going to die.
Fisk came in low, as much a master with a Bowie as he was with the skinning knife. He advanced hard, driving his target into the livery door. He slipped the knife past Chris’ guard, quickly catching him in his side…scoring his flesh again where the bullet had entered before. The sensation was a burning pain, making the man remember the recently won struggle to get all the cuts to heal. The will to win, to live, he had had what it took. He had made it. "Damn you! You’re not gonna do this to me again."
Chris’ own knife flashed up as the he pushed himself away from the door, taking Fisk by surprise, cutting him across the shoulder. Not a deep cut, but it got the man’s attention. It made him understand that this time he didn’t have a boy who was tied down and helpless. This time his target was free, he was well, and he wasn’t about to ask for quarter..not from him. Fisk became serious about his scheme.
Chris made him work for everything. The eyes were locked. Every time Fisk snatched his eyes away, he got a small nick for his effort. But he gave better than he got. Before long, both the combatants were bloody and breathing hard. Chris knew he had damaged his opponent a little, but his own injuries were costing him strength very quickly, precious strength that he didn’t have to spare. There had to be a way out, but he was getting tired. There wasn’t enough strength to go much longer. He had to finish it.
At the next big lunge, Fisk cut him again. Too tired to even twist out of the way, Chris felt the blade sink deep into his shoulder, sending another rivulet of blood down the front of his shirt. Chris stood in shock and pain, dropping his arms, breathing hard, his head hanging in fatigue, his eyes no longer staring at his opponent. Fisk sensed the moment and sent his knife forward, rushing in for the kill.
Chris twisted, turning at the last moment to slip the man’s knife past his own tired body. He grabbed Fisk’s wrist, breaking it with a vicious backward snap. As the torturer screamed, his blade fell into the dirt. Following the move, Chris threw the man onto the street, coming down on top of him, his own blade raised. Fisk’s eyes went wide. His look may have begged for mercy, but Chris would never hear the words. His own blade finished the work, buried to the hilt in the other man’s chest.
He was too tired to move, but he moved anyway. "Where’s Ethan?"
"He’s all right." Mitch helped him up, pressing a cloth to the newest injury. "There’s not enough stuff here to patch you up. Come on. I’ll take you to Doc’s."
"He is dead, isn’t he."
"Yeah, he’s dead."
"Son-of-a-bitch had it coming."
"Must have…you were the judge, jury, and executioner. You said you wanted him dead, and you got it done."
"He’d have killed me, Mitch."
"Yeah. But you killed him when there wasn’t no knife left in his hand. You could have stopped."
"Stopped? You wanted me to stop? Stop for what…to just keep watching my back for him to come after me again. Hell, Mitch, he started it, and he was trying to kill me. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have killed him if you had the chance. If he’d have done all this to you, you’d have just let him walk away?"
"You just answered a question I asked you a while back."
"And what question is that?"
"You’ve damn sure gone cold enough to be a killer."
"I can’t believe your leaving like this, Mitch. You acting like I’ve turned into somebody you’re ashamed of?" He stared at his brother incredulously as Doc Riter stitched his shoulder. He winced, but he made no protest. Stitches were becoming a common enough occurrence by now.
"Not ashamed of really. Just somebody who’s gonna die a real ugly death and probably before too long. I don’t want to contribute to it, and I don’t want to stick around to see it. I’d rather be able to remember you as the hell-raising kid you were."
"That I am….I’m not dead yet, and I don’t intend to be soon. That’s why I killed him. Man comes after me, from now on he better be sure he wants a fight. I’ll give him one, and I’ll win. I just want people to know I’ll win…that’ll help me stay alive. Trust me I don’t mean to die young. And I haven’t changed."
"Sure you have." Ethan held his side as the stitches pulled. "We all have, even Mitch, though he won’t admit it. Being around you always keeps things real interesting."
"Do you both really think I should have let that bastard live?"
"Glad to see you both agree."
"He didn’t have the knife. You didn’t have to kill him. He’d have gone to jail for a long time…it was attempted murder, and twice."
"Hell, Mitch. Don’t be stupid. If that son-of-a…if that man had got to his feet, you’re brother would have been dead or worse. He was about spent, loosing too much blood. Fisk wasn’t playing, and he would never have backed off. Besides, men break jail all the time. Then, Chris would just have looked over his shoulder for that one, too."
"Wonder just how many brothers or cousins that one has?" Chris tried to break the tension, but it didn’t help.
"Maybe he’s an only child, and an orphan to boot…" Ethan laughed just a little. The stitches pulled.
"Not my kind of luck. Probably another dozen with my name on their mind. Mitch, are you really going to go? I feel like I lost the damn fight. Like you wish I was dead. I need you here."
"No…you need Ethan. Look, I hate to abandon you, but I’ve just seen enough. Anyway, I need to go check on Margie. I need to see a life that’s sane. No telling what that shadow of yours is up to by now, but I grant it’s more normal than this."
"I can understand." He let the sadness go. He had to let it go. "Do something for me."
"If I can."
"Take Charlie with you. He’s settled down enough for you to get him home. Give him to Margie for me. Tell her she’s the only one I could think of who’d take him and talk him out of that bad temper he’s developed, see he has a good life."
"Yeah. He’s gonna limp on that right front for a long time…maybe forever. She’ll baby him for me, ride him if he gets strong enough. No telling how far I’ll wind up going."
"You gonna walk away from all this nonsense?"
"Not until I find Braddock and Carouthers. Finish with them. Any others that want a fight will have to find me."
"Well, just don’t get Ethan killed in the bargain. He’s maybe a father by now. Don’t make Martha a widow before that man gets to hold his child."
Chris spun to look at his friend. "You never said nothing. Why didn’t you tell me?"
"Do you think he would?" Mitch made him listen. "You had enough worries. But you’re on your feet now. You get trained fast, then you send him home, too. Alone’s not the worst thing you can be."
"Not the worst….but it’s damn sure close."
"Well, I’ll take my leave soon as Doc gets through with your two. Gonna go, might as well do it now."
"Won’t change your mind."
"Can’t. Time to go home."
"Wish I could go, too."
"No, I really don’t think you want to."
Alone at the bar while Ethan nursed his injured side in his room upstairs, Chris ordered a bottle of whiskey and a glass. Bess watched him from across the room. The promise he had made about no drinking was obviously forgotten. When she walked up to him, he gave her a half-hearted smile and toasted her with the first pour from the bottle.
"Don’t matter. Practicing being my own company." He poured another drink.
"He really leave?"
"Yeah. Went home. Can’t blame him. Way things are going, it’s going to get harder before it gets easier around here."
"You gonna stay in Norrisville?"
"For awhile. Seems Braddock and Carouthers may be lurking around here. Might as well let them come to me. Anyway, I need to see that Ethan gets well fast, and get him the hell out of here and on his way home too."
"You pushing him away? He said he was gonna stay until this was over."
"And he will. He’ll stay to the bitter end…his and mine. But I don’t want that. He and Martha saved my life more than once. I didn’t know she was pregnant, or I’d have never sent for him. They’ve wanted a family for a long time. Sure wouldn’t have tried to hold him here. If I get him killed….." He poured another drink for himself and one for her.
"Are you ready to handle things all on your own?"
"Don’t know whether I am or not, but I’ll just have to be. Won’t I?" He looked at her. She noticed the change in him. The sadness she had seen before went deeper. He took another drink.
"I’m so sorry. I wish he had stayed or you had left with him. Can’t you go home?"
"No. Got no home. I’ve been away for a long time now." Suddenly tears shone in his eyes, but he didn’t allow them to fall. "But I never thought of it as being totally by myself. I always knew there were people there….but not anymore. I don’t know that I can do it."
"You’re not alone…even if we let you go off on your own." Ethan was standing beside him. "Mitch hasn’t disowned you, you know. He’s just scared. He’s seen you get hurt too many times, and he knows you’re life’s not going to be an easy one. He couldn’t quite believe that you could kill a man like you did yesterday. He’s seen you fight, he knows you can shoot, and he’s heard us talk about how you got hurt before and what we did about it, but he couldn’t quite accept that you could deliberately decide to kill a man and feel justified in doing it. He doesn’t understand that it was something that had to be done. He’s always treated you like his kid brother, telling you what to do, how to behave. But you’re sure not a kid anymore. You’re a man, a very strong, very capable, and, when you have to be, a very dangerous man. He just needs to go off and let it sink in. The day you need him, he’ll be there. The day you need me, I will too."
"No…you can’t be….not anymore, Ethan. You’ve been like a father, a father I could trust. But you need to be a father to your own child now….I can’t, I won’t ask you to put your life on the line for me any more. We’re friends. You’re my best friend. The best gift I can give to Martha and to you is to quite expecting you to be my best friend….that just might get you killed. The best gift I can give you both is to walk out of your life."
"All that whiskey’s making you plain half-witted. Don’t get stupid on me. Let me worry about who I have as friends."
"No….because you won’t worry about it. I want you to do one more thing for me, and then I want you to get on your horse and head back to Patomka. Go home, hug Martha, and tell her I’ll keep in touch. I will do that, and I expect she will too…long as I don’t get you hurt anymore."
"What’s this you want me to do."
"Put me through the fire."
"Make me prove to you that I can survive. Put me back in the shape you had me in three years ago. I’ve got to be alone, but I don’t want to be afraid of being alone, and I’ve got to be sharper than ever. Can you do that for me?"
"I can do that."
"In a week?"
"If you stay sober."
"I’ll stay sober until you finish with me. Until you say I’m ready."
"Not much of a promise, if you ask me."
"It’ll have to do."
The days moved faster and faster, and Ethan made him move faster as well. They fought for hours, but they didn’t fight with knives. Ethan decided he was polished enough in that. When they walked the streets at night with John Hill, the two lawmen made him pay serious attention. There were men hidden everywhere, and he was expected to find them all and tell their plan of attack. They talked strategy, they talked law. "Look, I don’t want you going to jail because you’re ignorant. Anyway, you were a lawdog once before. You might need to earn your keep ever once in a while….Lord help the poor folks who take you on."
John drilled it home. "Know who’s in control. Get to know the locals. Know who’s got grudges, axes to grind. And know who’s in town before you settle in, know who comes and goes. You’ll live longer that way. You’ll do that won’t you?" On and on, they taught him everything they could remember and some they just made up.
They were great friends, even better teachers. He enjoyed the time they spent together, regretting that it would soon end. The town was quiet, until Thursday. "Do you boys smell something burning?"
"Just that stinking sheroot this boy’s smoking."
"I could swear there’s something burning. Let’s look around. It’s been so dry lately, whole town could go up. Ethan, take right. Chris, you go left past the livery. I’ll take high and low. Let off a round if you spot something. Keep your head."
He walked the street. Without the tutors beside him, he stayed quiet, concentrating…waiting for a sound or a smell. The place that was most important was the livery. It was situated in the heart of town. Filled with hay, built of wood, any spark could be a disaster. Everything on the floor was secure. He climbed the ladder to the loft…..nothing smoldering there either. The loading door in the side of the loft looked out over the town. He stopped to take a look, appreciating the stillness of the night, the sight of the town people moving calmly toward their homes for the evening, just like people did in Wheatland. He wished he could stay in a place like this. Maybe….one day….
The shot brought him back to business. It came from down the street, to the right… Ethan. He ran, dodging through people who came into the street. He could see a small spire of flames now climbing skyward from the rear of the General Merchandise. As he came closer, he could smell burning wood, mixed with a pungent smell of dried meat burning inside the hanging larder out back. He joined the people who began to form the bucket brigade, helping to battle the small flame that threatened to become a full-blown inferno. The fight to contain it was frantic. As he passed buckets forward, he became aware of a figure standing in the shadows to one side of the alley across the street. The man wasn’t helping. Maybe he was afraid to come any closer. But as the man leaned into the light, Chris could see that he was smiling….smiling as he watched the fire……Carouthers.
He kept the man in sight. His rage burned as hot as the blaze before him. Hotter than it had burned for Fisk, because this was the man who had ruined Charlie. Half walking/half running back up the street until he was out of sight of the alley below him, he quickly moved across the open area. He moved back through the shadows, closing in on the alleyway. When he stood next to the opening, pinning himself against the wall to escape detection, he planned his attack. He pulled his shooter from it’s holster, holding it at waist level, then spun into the alley. He met no resistance.
Carouthers froze, then screamed, when he saw the gun. He screamed even louder when he recognized who held it. "Don’t kill me. Help! Help! He’s gonna kill me." Above the excited shouts of the townspeople, he could be heard yelling in pure terror. It was John Hill who came to his assistance, his own gun pointed at Chris’ mid-section.
"What is this? Why you holding a gun on this man? Ease off on that trigger." With the fire extinguished, the people of Norrisville began to surround the men at the entrance of the alley. Whispers, then words, began to swirl from the crowd. "That’s the one that started the fire. Hope John let’s the boy kill him. Just shoot him, boy…let him have it."
"He ain’t been proved guilty. Don’t want no killings here, John. Bad for the town. Worse than a lynching."
"This is Carouthers. He’s the man who helped Braddock burn me. I’m sure he’s the one who burned Charlie too."
"Burned who? I didn’t burn nobody."
"You like fire, don’t you Carouthers. Like to smell stuff scorch. You had a real good time smelling my flesh singeing, didn’t you." Chris struck him with the butt of his shooter, knocking him to his knees with blood spilling down his face. "You started this fire, too, didn’t you, boy." He wrestled the man to his feet, then drew back again. A lone female voice screamed.
"Stop it….stop it now….I’m not gonna have this."
"You like fire, don’t you." His rage drove him to ignore John’s warning. He fingered the hammer of the shooter. "What made you start this one tonight? You gonna tell this man willingly or am I gonna have to help you remember?"
With Hill covering them both, he holstered his pistol. Then, he slowly and deliberately reached into his pocket and drew out the small, slender, bear skinner’s knife he had taken from Fisk’s dead body. "I learned just recently how to use this kind of knife real well. Learned how from a real expert. Course I had to kill the son-of-a-bitch to get this knife. I think it might be useful in getting at the truth. Don’t you agree, Mr. Carouthers."
When Carouthers recognized it, he began to cry. He begged before the blade was even opened. "Don’t cut me….don’t let him hurt me….Please, somebody. All right….all right….I started the fire. I started the fire. Braddock paid me to do it. He told that shopkeeper to pay him fifty dollars by today, or something bad would happen to his store. Man wouldn’t pay, so Braddock wanted me to set an example."
"And it was you that burned my horse, wasn’t it?" The look in Chris’ eyes was wild. He swept the blade across the palm of his hand, then turned it over and swept it back the other way, just like he was sharpening it for business.
"Please. Please. Have mercy. Keep him away from me. Yeah, I burned that horse. He kept trying to kick me. Braddock put me to keeping those nags when he worked on you. Every time you screamed those two went crazy. Ran that devil bay off. I figured what would break you would do that sorrel, too."
"You miserable son-of-a-bitch." The knife was coming toward the man’s throat. John Hill grabbed his wrist and spun him around. His staggering blow caught Chris solidly on the side of the head and put him on the ground, where Carouthers had been before.
"Stop it. You do this, you’ll hang, and I’ll be the one who has to tie the rope."
He shook his head to clear it. "Where’s Ethan. Did you hurt him, too?" He glared up at Carouthers.
"I’m okay, hothead. Get up out of the dirt and act like a respectable person. Even if he had killed me, he ain’t worth hanging for."
Rising from the ground, unwilling to let it go, Chris reached toward the arsonist again. "You tell me where Braddock is."
"Keep him away. Keep him away!!!"
"CHRIS!" Ethan held him.
"You’re right. He ain’t worth it. I ain’t gonna trade my life just for the pleasure of killing him, but I want to know where Justice Braddock is right now, and he’s gonna tell me." Jerking free of the restraint, he grabbed the man’s collar and backed him against the wall. He fingered the knife again, holding it before the man’s eyes. "I’m giving you to three, then I start cutting….….one………two…….."
The count hung at two. The blade of the knife touched his skin and left a small nick that oozed one bright red drop of blood. Carouthers didn’t want to risk what would happen on three. "He’s somewheres close by. Said he’d show up when the deed was done. Probably come by the store sometime tomorrow to collect. That’s how he usually works. Dear Lord, get him away from me!!"
Hill led him away to the jail. Ethan watched as his friend returned the knife to his pocket. He was deathly quiet, his eyes had yet to loose the demented look he had shown as he threatened the man with the blade. "Would you have really done that? Would you have really cut him?"
"Don’t know. Mighty tempting. Charlie would have voted yes."
"Damn. I don’t think I know you at all any more. What would have made you any different from Fisk if you’d have knifed him."
"Not much. But there was a reason…at least a reason to threaten him. You rather let Braddock torch the town? Maybe kill that storekeeper?"
"Ethan…I’ve dealt with scum like this too much now. I don’t think they deserve much human kindness. If they don’t have a conscience about hurting people, I’m not gonna have much reluctance in killing them."
"So you’re gonna be a vigilante? Hire out to hunt men down?"
"Like to think I’ll help protect people, maybe stop people like that from doing so much harm. Maybe if I start early enough, I can make it stop before people get hurt or die."
"Can you be sure the one you hire on with is the one who’s been hurt…what if they’re the one who’s doing the hurting, and you’re just a pawn."
"Guess I’ll have to be real careful, and make sure I get to know folks before I hire on."
"Just make sure you’re not the one who makes the first move. Not ever. You make the first move, you’re just kidding yourself. You’re just a gunslinger…a no-good, mad-dog killer."
"Want to have a drink with a mad-dog?"
"Don’t even try to pull fun out of this."
"Ethan…my life ain’t no fun at all."
They parted company with great sadness. "Will you let me know how Martha does, what the baby is? I’d like to know."
"Sure. You let me know where you’re at, I’ll keep you posted. Who knows…might just be the first of many."
Chris smiled with his most wicked grin…. "You stud. Just think…Martha Gates Collins, a mother at last."
"Shoot. She got in enough practice with you a few years back."
"But she didn’t have to change my diapers."
"Ah, but she did….don’t you remember? Boxed your ears, too."
Chris blushed bright red. The tips of his ears glowed. It was like old times, and Ethan smiled. "Look. I’ve done you your favor. You’re ready to take on just about anything. Now, you do me one in return."
"If I can."
"Calm down, and keep yourself away from too much of that bottle. Let yourself get over what happened to you. You can do it. If you never find Justice Braddock, so much the better. It ain’t gonna hurt you one bit if that man lives out his years without you getting even. He keeps doing what he’s doing, somebody’ll take care of him for you. You’re a good man at heart, Chris… just let yourself know it, and let other people see it. Don’t make them afraid to hear your name….it’s a good name….don’t drag it through the dirt."
"I’ll try. It’s all I can promise, Ethan…but I’ll try."
"And one more thing."
"You get any more serious, I’m gonna have to do something." Tears shone in the young man’s eyes.
"You’ve got a home. You’ve got your own place with Mitch…I know you know that. But, son, you’ve got a home with me and Martha too if there ever comes a time you want it or need it. I ain’t your Pa, but I am your friend. Wherever I am, you’ve always got a place." The big man wiped his own eyes, and they both laughed in embarrassment.
"Get on out of here, Ethan. Go home and hug Martha. You tell her we stood here bawling like two babies, she’s gonna get mad at us both. Git on with you, now….and watch your back!"
The young man stood alone for awhile, watching his last friend leave for what would probably be the last time. The loneliness settled around him like a coat he felt destined to wear forever. An older, sadder, more troubled man turned and headed for the saloon.
Bess had been insulted, but the man had paid for it. Chris dusted off his pants, picked up his hat, and came back to the bar. "Hector, whiskey."
"You didn’t have to do that. Why do you think you have to fight every drunk who says a word sideways to me?"
"Cause I’m the only ‘drunk’ who’s got a right to say anything like that to you." He was smart-mouthed and cocky….and it wasn’t something she liked.
"You think you’ve got a right, but you don’t."
"Ah, come on, little darlin’."
"Leave me alone. I want you to go upstairs and let it wear off. I won’t be coming to your room or your bed until you sober up."
"You wanting to get rid of me tonight? Just why would you want to go do that? You got a better offer? I thought we always had a good time in my bed." His speech was slightly slurred. He reached out and pulled her to him, grinning at her, taking a drink as he held her.
"Stop it. This is just what I mean. I want you upstairs because of the trouble you’re always getting into. Holly says she won’t let you stay much more if you don’t get sober and stop tearing up the place. Says you can go be a rogue at McQueeney’s. How many fights have you been in this month?"
"Enough. More than enough, but I won ‘em, didn’t I?"
"Most of them. You think it’s real cute…you’re having a real fine time. But, Chris, you’re making a mess that I don’t want to have to clean up. You beat up Marty Henderson last night. Do you even remember?"
"Marty? Marty Henderson? Nice kid…. Did we have a fight?"
"It wasn’t a fight….you just beat him up because he called you a ‘cowboy.’ What-in-the-hell made you hit him for something like that? He didn’t mean anything. He was just joking."
"Nobody….nobody….you hear me….nobody calls me that!!!" He went from cocky to angry in a flash. He swept the bottle of whiskey off the bar, throwing the glass into the frame of the mirror.
"Hi, John. You looking for me?" The temper reversed as quickly as it had come.
"How much have you had this time?"
"Just had a few. Ask Bess, she seems to be keeping tabs on me these days. Think she was my mother, but she’s not….she’s my……..woman." His brain somehow knew he had almost said ‘whore.’ Even drunk, he had embarrassed himself with that one. He had embarrassed her, too, and that was hard to do. Bess didn’t deserve it. She was practically the only one left who seemed to care.
"Chris….you’re my friend, but I’m sheriff here. You’re creating problems for us all. I’ve told you a bunch of times since Ethan left to straighten up, get a job, and quit acting like this, but you won’t listen. Well now you’re beating up kids for nothing."
"Ain’t no kid….he was asking for it. Shouldn’t have been in here pestering Bess anyway. And I’ve got a job."
"No, he wasn’t asking for it. He wasn’t pestering Bess. He was just delivering supplies for the Mercantile, and he just tried to make a joke with you. He may not be a kid…but he’s younger than you and not near able to outfight you. And you haven’t got any job I can see."
"Well….I just thought….Hell….I’m sorry….."
"Yeah, you’re sorry. You’re sorry as a man, and you’re getting sorrier fast as a drunk. I think it’s time I teach you a little lesson."
"Come on…come with me."
"You’re gonna spend a day or two in my jail….fighting, drunk in public, property damage…two days ought to help dry you out."
"Oh, no. You’re not gonna lock me in anything. Nobody’s gonna shackle me again." His memory went back to the van. "Come on John. I’ll go upstairs. I’m not drunk." He reached for the whiskey, finishing the dregs of the bottle he had started earlier.
"Maybe not yet….but real close. You were last night when you went after Marty, and you’re on your way there now. Come on. Don’t make it hard."
He thought he was a fighter, until he threw his first whiskey-soaked punch at John Hill. Hill put him over the bar, one arm choking off his air, the other bending his arm sharply behind his back.
"Hector, tear a strip off that towel and hand it here. Chris, you be still or I’ll put on the manacles. You don’t want that, now do you." He tied the long strip to his wrists, pulling them tightly to the back. "We’re going to walk real calm to the jail, then you’re gonna get in a cell, lay down, and go to sleep. You make noise or trouble, I’ll add a day to the sentence for every bit of trouble you give me."
"What did I do?" He woke the next morning in the cell with bloodshot eyes that seemed to explode inside his skull. His head ached, and his right hand was tightly bandaged again. It hurt like hell. John placed a mug of strong coffee in his left.
"Do you remember anything of last night?"
"Uh……I think I got in a fight."
"You get in a fight just about every night. What else?"
"Think I may have insulted Bess?" He held his head in his hands, trying to command his brain to think. "Was there a fight with you?"
"Two. One in the saloon, one in the street. You lost both. Those two fights got you four days in here."
"Four?!!! Remember you saying one or two?"
"That was before you woke up everybody on the way here, cursing and taking swings at Hadley’s mule. That’s how you busted your hand. Mule’s got a skull that’s tougher than your fist."
"Four days? Come on John, not four days. I’m gonna loose my job."
"You don’t have a job."
"I got a job. Starts today. Supposed to be at Kruger’s spread, breaking a string of horses."
"Well, I’ll let him know."
"He’s got to have them by Saturday. Come on, John. Let me go do the job, then I’ll come back and spend the four days here."
"Can you even get on a horse in the shape you’re in?"
"I can get on any horse alive, and I can always stay on a horse, drunk or sober. It’s the first chance at a real job I’ve had since Ethan left. You wouldn’t let me deputy for you."
"Can’t have a drunk walking tour."
"I’m not a drunk."
"Fooling yourself, Chris. You’re drinking way too much. Town people are talking. You’ve got them scared."
"Why?" He was truly amazed at that.
"They remember you going after Carouthers with that knife and gun when you were cold sober. They’re afraid you’ll kill somebody when you’re drunk. Sometimes you’re a fun-loving drunk; most times you’re just mad as hell at anything that moves. When you went after Marty the other night, you proved it was something you just might do."
He was quiet. "I didn’t mean to go after Marty."
"You didn’t even know you went after him. You were too drunk to know. You could have killed him, and you’d have never known."
"Okay. Then I’ll quit. I won’t drink anymore….I promise. Look, send me to Kruger’s. I don’t drink when I’m working. Not when I’m breaking horses. Four days there, no drink; back for four days here in jail. Eight days without a drink. You think that will do it?"
"No, but it’ll be a real good start. You’re gonna be surprised how hard it is. And Chris, you’re not even a soaked drunk yet. You’re gonna get there if you don’t look out. You ever see a man quit drinking when he’s gotten really soaked in it?"
"Not pretty. If you think coming back from that beating was bad, the nightmares from that were bad, just wait until you try to quit the whiskey from that point."
"I can quit."
"Yeah, you can do it. You just got to want to do it. Okay, I give you four days working. You don’t go work, I’ll bring you back. You don’t come back on time, I’ll come get you."
"You’ve got my word."
"That’s the only reason I’m giving you a chance. So far, you haven’t ever gone back of your word. You keep drinking hard enough and long enough, your word won’t mean a thing either."
"Well, unlock the cell, John, and put me inside."
"Thought I was gonna have to come looking."
"Told you I’d come back. I may not like being cooped up, but at least that cot in there won’t be bucking. Last one kept me just a might over time."
"You look like hell."
"I feel like hell. Kruger hired me to finish that bunch off. Got there, wasn’t even one of them green broke. Had to start from scratch with every last one. Told him he ought to fire those hands of his, dang bunch of lazy no-goods."
"How many you finish?"
"Finished a good dozen. Last one was a rounder. Worse sunfisher than even old Loco used to be. Hate a horse that’ll spin both ways and back again. Nearly tore my arms out of their sockets."
"You feeling okay? Any trouble while you were gone?"
"Nope. Told you I wasn’t that into the sauce. Promise you the first day was a day of headaches and misery though."
"You’re just lucky. You’ll learn a different lesson if you don’t lighten up on that stuff. Well, get on in there. Want anything before I lock the door?"
"How about some food."
"Hungry? Didn’t they feed you?"
"Wasn’t too hungry. All they tended to feed us was eggs and beans."
"Not hungry, huh. Wonder why? I thought you were real fond of hen fruit."
"Not near as much as I used to be. Reckon you’d trust me long enough to get a steak, some carrots if there are any? Be a real nice thing before you spoil my freedom?"
"Tell you what. I’ll walk over with you and have one myself."
"I’m wounded. Thought you trusted me."
"Oh, I trust you enough, but you’re bound to have enough pay in your pocket right now to buy your old friend a taste of beef. Just may lighten your sentence a might."
"Then come on. How much time off will a small steak buy me?"
"Bout an hour."
"Then I guess I’d better be putting out for a couple of days of Holly’s gut-busting specials."
"A generous man."
"Would three days of steaks make you feel kindly toward my having a bath and getting into some clean clothes? I smell like something dead."
"Three days of gut-busting steaks….a most generous man….and one I won’t mind being around. Come on….let’s go see if Holly’ll fix you up."
They played checkers. They played chess. They played poker, but the stakes were low. He needed to build his poke again. When he had sobered up, he had realized just how low his resources had gotten. No wonder Holly was planning on throwing him out on his ear, and Bess hadn’t wanted him around either. They were friends, but they were business women, too. What had Ethan said….never really trust em? Well, he could trust those two … with the truth, with his money, and even with his life.
He didn’t like being in the cell. When he was alone at night, with no moon shining through, he dreamed. He hadn’t dreamed about the prison wagon for a long time, now. Having the dreams back made being imprisoned a little like hell.
Walking late tour on the second night, John could hear his strangled mutterings half way down the block. He found him tossing and sweat soaked, "Wake up, Chris."
The cell door was open, a firm steady hand was on his shoulder. He wasn’t manacled, he could breath. He bolted upright.
"Easy. Thought those nightmares were gone."
"So did I. Guess tight walls are tight walls for me…even if I can see through them."
"Look. Give me your word you’ll stay put, I’ll leave it unlocked. Reckon that will help?"
"Should. Thanks, John."
"What was it about?"
"Braddock. Justice Braddock. I think he’s back."
"Okay….you can come out."
"Only the beginning of the fourth day, John. You going soft."
"No. Said the steaks would buy you some time off. Good steaks buy lots of good time." He handed the ex-jailbird his holster and rifle. "You got a job waiting?"
"Just exactly how would I have found a job locked up in here?"
"Want a job?"
"You know of one?"
"Just exactly why would I ask if you wanted work if I didn’t know of a job to be had?"
"What’s the job?"
"Work for me. Walk late tour."
"Thought the town people didn’t want me."
"I put in a word for you with the council. They said as long as you stay sober, and I mean S-O-B-E-R, you’ve got a job. You start drinking heavy again, I’m to fire you real quick."
"What’s the pay?"
"Fifty cents a day, room, and board."
"Not bad. Where’s the board?"
"Same as mine. Holly’s."
"Not bad. Not bad at all. When do I start?"
"Tonight. Get your gear ready, get some sleep. I’ll call you when it’s time."
He spent the day with Bess. She expected him to insist on spending it in bed. She was pleasantly surprised when he asked her, very nicely, to go on a picnic with him instead. He used some of his pay from breaking the horses to pay Hector for a basket of fried chicken and all the trimmings. He hired a little buggy from the livery, paying a tiny bit more for use of the matched team, and handed her up as if she were a fine lady. He even gave her a little bunch of flowers. He seemed pleased when that made her laugh. Then he drove them out right through the middle of town, smiling and tipping his hat at the ladies who watched with mouths open as ‘that scandalous two’ eased past.
"Just exactly why are you doing this?" She enjoyed the change in him immensely, but she was too used to him being a quiet man one minute and a hell-raiser the next. She remembered, too, the hurt she had felt in the label he had almost used for her.
"Wanted to say I’m sorry. Thought you’d enjoy a day off."
"Sorry? What on earth are you sorry for?"
"I think I hurt your feelings that night before John locked me up. Look, I was drunk. No excuse, just truth. You didn’t deserve me treating you like you didn’t count. You do count. You matter a lot to me, and I want to admit that what I did was wrong. I’m sorry."
"Chris Larabee! You just won’t do."
"What?! Now what did I do?"
"Oh, nothing." She left him to wonder at her remark, but it must have been done right. She put her hand through his arm and snuggled close to him. They enjoyed the fresh air and fine food. They talked and laughed and spent the day entirely by themselves, sweetly, gently, just as if they were a young couple courting. He let the time pass just so until it was time for him to go to work.
In the following weeks, he settled into a pattern that was pleasant enough for everyone. He walked tour until dawn. Then he met Bess, and sometimes Holly, sometimes John, for breakfast on the front porch of Holly’s club. He got a little sleep, and maybe a bit more than sleep if Bess was in the mood. Then came a nice hot bath, clean clothes and a shave, then cards or just sitting in the common room listening to the dandy man play the piano or playing chess or checkers with one of the regulars…a quick bite of dinner…then it was time to walk tour again. He was getting used to this town. The people seemed to have forgotten that he was ever a hell-raiser, and that suited him just fine.
He wouldn’t call himself exactly happy. He wasn’t really sure he knew what that meant. But he was content. That was good enough.
He discovered exactly what happy meant when he got the telegram from Ethan. The telegrapher handed it to him as he made his last pass on his way to breakfast, "Good news for you, Deputy. Have yourself a fine morning, now."
It read: "Son. Born 4:01 a.m. Long. Good lungs. Blonde. Name: Samuel Christopher Collins. Called Chris. Martha sends hug. Sam owes cigar. Both say be good. I say not possible for a Chris. Try hard anyway." His first namesake. Lord help that poor kid. He was still smiling and rereading the words when Bess joined him for breakfast.
"Do you want to go see them. It’s not that far away. John would give you time. I bet he would."
"Yeah, I’d like to go. John would probably say yes, but I won’t ask."
"Why? I know you’d love to see Ethan and his wife again, get to hold the baby."
"I’d like to, but I won’t."
"I don’t understand."
"Just because a Braddock hasn’t shown up yet doesn’t mean they won’t. Justice trailed me for a long time before he took me. I think I’m too smart to let him do that again, but I thought I was real smart back then, too. I just won’t take a chance of one of them trailing me to Patomka, maybe putting Martha and the baby in danger. I won’t travel to Wheatland either because I don’t want anything to happen to Mitch or Margie. Until my life settles into something a little less bothersome, I’d best just stay away from them all." He grew a little quiet for a few minutes, but then he pulled himself away from it. He gave her a wink, "Come on, little darling…want to help me celebrate the birth of my namesake?"
"Just how do you intend to celebrate?"
"First, go to the Mercantile and pick out something real special. Wrap it up and send it off on today’s stage. Then, I think maybe you and I should have us a real nice party."
"Chris Larabee!! You just won’t do."
"I’ll do plenty, little darling. You just watch me." He pulled her by the hand, smiling his best devil-may-care smile, the one she had grown to love. It was a busy morning.
Together, they picked out a soft blue blanket large enough to cover a crib and back again. She was amazed when he pulled a small carved rattle from his pocket. It was shaped like a horse with its mane and tail blowing in the wind. In two places, small beads had been carved so they would slide back and forth on tiny dowels painstakingly trimmed inside the wood. And too, there was a nice round hole in the middle, polished smooth, and meant to suit the baby’s hand. "Did you design this? Carve this?"
"Yeah." He blushed as he tucked the rattle into the blanket. "Knew time should be getting close. I was afraid I was gonna take too long. It took me two tries to get it right, but I wanted the baby to have something from me. Didn’t know he’d have my name, but maybe he’ll like this, too."
They made the stage just in time. Chris handed the package to the driver, "Curly, you put that in Ethan Collin’s hand, you hear. Don’t loose it. It’s for my namesake. Will you take care of it personally for me?"
"Sure, Chris. I’ll see to it."
"Owe you a beer next time you’re through." He smiled and tipped his hat as the man pulled away from the station.
"Okay. That’s done. Now, let’s go have our little party." He smiled as he took her hand again. At Holly’s, they climbed the stairs together, and spent the rest of that day in bed.
"Get up, Chris."
"Hector…shut up and get out of here…it’s not time yet." He turned back toward Bess, snuggling down for another touch of much-needed rest. It had been an interesting morning. "What time is it?"
"Near three. John says get a move on…bring everything."
He was suddenly awake, but the light around the rim of the window shade proved it wasn’t near time to be up. "Trouble?"
"Kruger’s lost his newest string of horses. One ranch hand got killed. Two more shot. One came in bleeding a few minutes ago. John’s getting ready to ride."
He finished pulling on his boots, pushing the hair from his eyes. "Can somebody get my horse? I’ll need the black, Hector. You see to that while I get just a bite and put my pack together?"
"Sure, if we can get a saddle on him without getting stomped. Get up, Bess! He needs his clothes."
"Rifle, cartridges. Holster, shooter, shells. Oil. Wrag. Canteens. Hat. Extra pants. Shirt. Coat. Bedroll. Smokes. Whiskey. Thanks, Hector, that looks like it’ll do, and thanks for the johnnycakes." He ate the pone and followed it quickly with milk as they finished preparations.
"Don’t forget this."
"What did I forget, John?"
"Provisions. Food? Jerky, beans, biscuits, coffee, salt….and you might want to leave that bottle here. I don’t think you’ll be needing it, do you?"
"One of us gets hurt, just might come in handy….you remember, don’t you."
"Medicinal, huh? Okay, then. Bring it along."
They walked out of Holly’s place and mounted the waiting horses. "How much a head start you figure they’ve got."
"About three hours now The hand said they’d just taken off when he came here."
"Where you reckon they’re headed?"
"Kansas maybe. Head toward St. Louis first, though. Might can put them on a boat down the river if they can get a quick sale. Kruger’s hand said they weren’t broke yet."
"Any idea who we’re chasing?"
"Not a clue. Twelve horses and three men shouldn’t leave too small a trail, though."
"Let’s ride then."
They trailed them through the night. John became the teacher as he showed his deputy the markings that indicated the path the horse thieves had taken from Kruger’s spread. They were lucky they had a moon to help light the path. The thieves weren’t so lucky.
"They’ve got to water em at least. Been pushing em hard since yesterday." The sun was coming up. They could see that they were covered in dust from the night of riding.
"We’ve got to rest ours too. Need water, and a little grain. You bring any?"
"Yeah, John. I might forget food for me, but not for him."
"Okay, lets climb down and give em a few minutes to blow. You eat something, too…."
"Eaf wha ?" He was stuffing a piece of the johnnycake into his mouth already. "Savid wan peece fr ooo."
"Thanks, I think."
He walked to the edge of the small rise, stretching his legs as he sipped water from the canteen. "Well, I’ll be. John? Don’t that look like a whole bunch of horses to you?"
In the small arroryo below, the horses stood quiet and still. They weren’t moving much, even inside the rope corral. A small campfire sent up a plume of smoke. "Must have worn themselves out. You ready. My horse can make it. Think you’re mount will hold up?"
"Yeah. He’s not even blowing hard yet. How do you want to do this?"
It might have been any kind of fight, the way they circled around. John made sure he stayed upwind of the stolen horses, so they wouldn’t sound a warning. When they got so close their own mounts might give them away, they dismounted and crept to the floor of the gully.
"There’s five…not three."
"How are we gonna take on all five."
"Not gonna take on all five. Gonna take on one….one at a time. You think you can slip into that line of mounts and take care of the saddles?"
"They’re all spread out. Time you get that done, I’ll be set up. You send off a couple of shots into the camp…wound one of those boys if you can. Only way out of here, in the direction they want to go, is up that little pass. We’ll have them between us. I’ll take the first one that heads that way. You jump in and get the next one who’ll hopefully be on the ground under a horse. By the time another one’s on his feet, I’ll be there to help. Look, we need to sort the leader out and keep him alive, so don’t go killing everything that moves. Fists if we can, guns if we have to."
"Fists. If you say so. What if one of them gets the drop?"
"We take them. We’ll just have to deal with it."
He didn’t argue with the plan. It took him long minutes to reach the horses, and several more to work through the cinches and ties. He hoped John was ready. He slipped his pistol from its holster. He could see the men milling around. One was well beyond the fire, two were dozing, one was pouring coffee. One was heading his way. "Easy choice." He fired off a first round, heard the man yell, and watched him grab his knee. He fired another round scattering the rest. "Shoot, missed."
He saw one run toward John’s position, but by then all the others were firing back. The injured one moved out of reach, too. Nobody moved toward the horses….they lay behind saddles and rocks, some shooting at nothing, others waiting for something to shoot at. He didn’t want to be the target, but something had to change. He was close to one horse that was wild-eyed and snorting already. He jumped up, swatted the beast on the rump and yelled to encourage it to move. A bullet zipped past his ear, striking a rock behind him. He dropped back down. The animal was more than cooperative. It ran straight for the fire. Four of the thieves broke cover. They were everywhere at once. One took a bullet from John to the shoulder, another took one and lay still. The one with the injured leg tried to make a stand, but that was his last mistake. Chris finished him where he stood.
The fourth broke free, heading for the still moving horse. Chris ran to intercept him, forgetting the fifth man beyond the fire. A bullet grazed his thigh, but he didn’t recognize any pain. He was jumping then to bring the man to the ground. Once he had him, he punched him. The man was determined to escape, changing the fight into a small battle.
Unknown to either man, the fifth man stepped from cover. Recognizing his partner’s assailant, he drew his pistol and advanced quickly to end the fight. He raised the gun, aiming for the man’s head. He saw movement from the corner of his eye, turned and fired instead at John Hill. The bullet struck the sheriff hard, sending him backward. Chris’ mind registered the gun’s report, and he finished his fight with a brutal blow to the fourth man’s face. He rolled, pulling his pistol again, but he was late. The bullet struck his temple, and he collapsed beside the fire.
He thought about sitting up, but decided against it. Beside the throbbing in his skull, he could hear voices. Since he didn’t know who they were, or how many were left, he thought it best to remain very still. Whoever was there wasn’t on his side. Opening his eyes a small slit, he found himself lying next to John. He thought his friend must be dead. The blood on his shirt was still wet, and there was a great deal of it. He heard boots on the hard ground near him, so he shut his eyes again and fervently hoped he was a convincing corpse.
"Well, Larabee." The sharp boot to his ribs made him gasp. "Well, well, well. So I do get to finish you after all. Ain’t fortune a real sweetheart. Got me two new co-workers this time, but you should appreciate the work they do before we’re through. They’re almost as good as Fisk and Carouthers."
Fear was rampant in his gut. What little moisture was left in his mouth tasted like metal. He forced it away, remembering that it was rage that had made him a victor over Fisk. He let the rage build until there was nothing else. That wasn’t hard to do at all, and he made himself stay calm, at least on the surface. He sat up, trying not to favor the ribs. He stared at his enemies, talking as if he had not a care in the world, even as they bound his wrists together. "Fisk? That supposed to scare me? If they’re just about as good as Fisk, they’re just about dead…that’s how good he is, or should I say was."
Braddock’s eyes opened a bit, registering the news.
"And Carouthers? Didn’t he come up just a little bit missing, boys? Piece of dirt got twenty years hard labor for what he tried to do for you. I wanted to kill him too, but the town folk got a little squeamish on me." He took the second kick with a laugh, infuriating his captors.
"Boys," Braddock turned to the men behind him, "take your time. Let’s see how long his bravado lasts. You can do anything to him you like, but just don’t kill him. That’s one treat I’m reserving for myself, in memory of Fisk and Carouthers. Just remember, you let him get loose, he’ll do you too."
The thieves approached him. He had worked the ropes since they bound him, keeping his wrists slightly apart, hoping to buy a little room to maneuver. He knew he would take a beating before he could work a hand free, but maybe it wouldn’t be too bad.
It was worse than bad. The blows were everywhere, but he made himself breath and take it. The couple of blows he tried to deliver only got him beaten by both the bastards at one time. He was glad John was spared this part… spared all that was going to come if he didn’t get serious about getting his hands free. As he fell the next time, he became aware of the still burning coals in the fire. He hated the idea of being burned again, but, shoot…couldn’t be much worse than this. He worked at circling so the next blow from either one would send him toward the fire. It took a while to get it right.
The rope wasn’t exactly quality stuff anyway. It wouldn’t have held a day old foal for long. All his pulling and twisting on it had made it start to pull apart. The short one hit him again in his stomach. That was followed quickly by the big one hauling him up and doing the same thing. He tasted blood from the last one, but he fell within reach of the flames. With all the courage he could find, he drove his bound hands into the heart of the fire. With a scream, he quickly pulled them back, noticing with grim satisfaction that the center of the rope, frayed from all the abuse he had given it, had started to burn. He backed away from his tormenters, wrestling with the cords, until the hemp finally broke apart.
He forgot his hands. He denied his ribs. He didn’t remember the limp. He didn’t think about size or how many there were. He simply let the rage run free. He felled the short one in two blows….one to the gut and an upper cut even Ethan Collins wouldn’t have stood up under. The kick as he finished him produced a most pleasing sound of quickly breaking ribs. The man screamed and was out of the fight.
The bully was tougher. His own ribs were cracked at least, so he had to avoid a big squeeze from the barbarian. He went for the man’s legs. He worked relentlessly, making the brute come at him time and again. The timing finally came right. With one sharp, well-placed kick, he caught the man in mid-stride. It was a blow, delivered perfectly to drive the kneecap all the way to the back. Mitch had taught him that one. As the bones splintered and the big one fell, he rendered a punishing kick to his head, leaving him dazed and defeated.
But where was Braddock. He spun to find the man, gun drawn, facing him from across the fire. The man’s back was to the sun, forcing Chris to squint to see his target. He knew he was spent. He spit the blood from his mouth, gasping for fresh air to fill his lungs. He tried to summon the rage again, but there wasn’t enough rage in the world to overcome the exhaustion in his body.
"It’s gonna be slow. Limb by limb….eye by eye…you ready to die?" Braddock pulled the trigger.
As Braddock’s first bullet tore through his already bleeding thigh, Chris dove to the side. He rolled, trying to reach his own gun lying next to John.
John? With eyes open, his friend suddenly raised from the ground, Chris’ gun shaking in his blood-covered hand. As the boy landed beside him, with one not-so-steady shot his friend took the life from Justice Braddock, and then he collapsed again.
"Here…drink this. Got to get that bullet out. Thought you were deader than a beaver hat." John just groaned. Chris stopped just a moment to look over his shoulder at the two men who lay roped and tied, still dazed, at the edge of the camp. He wanted to make certain they weren’t working the ropes. He couldn’t stand any surprises.
"Why the hell did you let me take all that?" His face looked as bad as it felt. His hands were slightly scorched, but his fingers would work. He spit more blood onto the ground.
John took a long pull on the bottle Chris held for him. "Knew you had to be close, and I’d only get one chance. Made a real convincing corpse. Didn’t I? You breath too deep to make a good corpse, boy. You gave your fool self away. You know anything at all about taking one of these things out?"
"No….but had them taken out plenty….ought to count for something. How bad is this?"
"Well…it’s just my shoulder. I just spread the blood around and made it look like it was my heart. Didn’t want him wasting another bullet on my account. But it is my shoulder, and I want it to work again, so you listen to me real good. You go straight in, find it, then scoop it out with that thin little blade of yours. Make sure you clean that thing in the fire and the whiskey before you go cutting, and don’t leave any of my dang shirt in there. Once it’s all out, you burn it with that pokey stick you made, pack it with something that’s at least marginally clean, and we’ll tie it off. We’ll use that shirt of yours you so conveniently brought along. Make sure that stick’s red hot."
"Damn, nothing. DO IT!! Red hot. Won’t take so long." His deputy was pale to begin with, but thinking about what he had to do made him pale as the bolder John lay propped against. "Look, burning’s gonna make it stop bleeding, maybe keep it from festering til Doc can have a look see. Don’t you realize that them waiting to burn you until after Fisk cut you probably saved your miserable skin?"
"Thought you saved my miserable skin."
"What are we gonna do with all these horses. You got any smart talk about that?"
"Horses are easy. That’s just a bunch without a lead. I’ll just put that black in with em for a while. By the time we get ready to go anywhere, he’ll have them paying attention. Keep a rope on him, they’ll come along quiet enough. You think you can make it for two days? Have to move em slow."
"I can take it if you do that shoulder right, but just why are we gonna move so slow?"
"Figure those boys’ll appreciate it, especially since they’ll be walking."
"They’ve got horses. Would speed things up a might."
"They get mounted, they’ll get their wind back. I want them tired and dragging. Less chance of me having to fight em that way."
"Understood. Well, get on with it, you little coward. You’re next after me. Got to burn that leg of yours, too. We stop bleeding, we can get Kruger his horses back and get these boys back to hang. You gonna take the other bodies back or plant them here?"
"Don’t care if the buzzards pick em myself." He stopped and looked over at the ripening corpses. Second thought, you reckon there’s a bounty on any of them big enough to be worth the pleasure of their company back?"
"Might be. Just might be. You turning bounty hunter?"
"No, but they’re here. Be a shame to loose the large after what Braddock’s cost me, and I’d rather not have to dig three holes just now…dang grounds too hard."
John took another drink. He was disappointed when Chris took a long one too. "Look, lay off. Don’t want you messing up in there cause you’re too drunk to see straight. And don’t forget, you’re next."
"I’m next? I don’t think so. One’s a scratch, other went through. It’ll heal."
"When you’re through healing, you gonna stay on, work for me a while?"
"Sounds like a plan. Need to just be still for a time, figure out where life’s heading. Thanks, John."
"Don’t thank me. Just stay S-O-B-E-R."
"You sure you want this done? Want me to do it, me being such a dang drunk and all?"
"Gotta be done. Yours gotta be done, too, and you got to do that, too."
"Then I need at least one more drink now, and one more when I do me. When you gonna learn I ain’t no drunk." He took another small taste. "Okay, here goes. What was it you said….just let it loose…ain’t nobody to hear but me and these horses."
"Yeah, something like that. You remember that much after all this time?"
"One of my more wakeful moments that night. You talking so dang much that night helped me get through a whole lot of pain."
"Well then. That’s just fine. You just keep on talking. At least there’s one good thing about it."
"Just what the heck is good about any of this?"
"There ain’t no damn crow."